by Leigh Klein
Down the stretch they come, as tickets are being punched with the power conference tourneys this week.
It’s always a manic close to the regular season in college hoops and frankly, there is nothing in sports quite like it. Teams can state their case for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament with big wins, meaning that their conference tournament need only validate that they didn’t play themselves out.
So while the talking heads on television obsess over the decline at Syracuse and worry about the No. 1 seeds, there is a far more interesting battle shaping up for teams who can be in if they win this weekend. Keep the remote handy and the popcorn popping. It will be a telling weekend.
Syracuse peaked too soon?
Losers of four of their last six games, the Orange (27-4) are scuffling in a bad way. In the past three months, the Orangemen have eclipsed the 70-point mark just three times. That isn’t the type of number that makes one think ‘Final Four.’
Mid-Major Sleeper Alert: Georgia State, 24-7
Winners of 21 of their last 22 games, the Sun Belt favorites have two dynamic scorers. RJ Hunter is one of the nation’s best players and he can back that up down the stretch. His father is Ron Hunter, the head coach of the Panthers who led the IUPUI program from the NAIA ranks to the NCAA Tournament. The younger Hunter is a blossoming 6-5 star who is averaging nearly 19 points per game as a sophomore. His backcourt mate is Ryan Harrow, now at his third program and trying to live up to the high expectations that the once NC State and Kentucky guard had on his shoulders. The return to Georgia has treated him well, as Harrow is averaging 17 points per game and playing his best college ball yet. This duo could shock a high seed right out of the Dance.
SECURE (FOR NOW)
The Bears have won eight of their last nine, including an impressive double-digit victory over Iowa State. Eight victories against the top 50, including out-of-conference victories against Colorado, Dayton and Kentucky and Big 12 wins against the aforementioned Cyclones, Kansas State and a sweep of Oklahoma State should be enough of a resume. Saturday’s win in Manhattan against an equally desperate Kansas State was huge.
The Ducks have found the right time to gel and play their best basketball. Winners of their last eight, staring at the home finale against Arizona—momentum is on their side. While they only have three victories against the top 50, there are no damaging losses on the resume. This team dealt with suspensions and injuries and this strong close should be highly regarded by the committee.
Stumbling down the stretch is Jamie Dixon’s Panthers who have dropped six of their last 12 games. Last Saturday’s win against Clemson gave the Panthers a sweep against the Tigers and likely a lock for an at-large bid. But the Panthers still only possess one top-50 victory. They can make it, but will they go far?
The job that Tim Miles has done with the Cornhusker program is nothing short from amazing. A little talent never hurt either. Hello ‘College Basketball Nation’—meet Terran Petteway, a redshirt sophomore who has taken the Big Ten by storm. The Huskers have won 11 of their last 14 conference games after starting the conference slate 0-4. Only a narrow one-point defeat to conference champion Michigan is the lone blemish on the home record. Resume includes wins against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana (twice) and non-conference over Georgia and ASun favorite, Florida Gulf Coast. Four wins against the top 50. Sunday’s matchup against Wisconsin might have clinched their first birth NCAA Tournament birth since 1998.
The Volunteers have taken care of business down the stretch with four elimination-game victories, including a 72-45 blowout against fellow bubble hopeful Missouri in their SEC finale. It has become ever more likely that the Southeastern Conference will warrant a fourth NCAA Tournament entree. The Volunteers look better each week with a non-conference victory against ACC champion Virginia to go along with a split against Xavier, eight victories against the top 100 in all (three of them against the top 50). There is work that still must be done, but the Vols are in the driver’s seat.
CURRENTLY OUT (BUT ON THE RISE)
The Tigers have underwhelmed much of the season despite having one of the nation’s best backcourts. These ‘Cats seemingly have nine lives as they found a way to defeat Texas A&M twice after being all but counted out. They now have a real shot to make the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have eight top-100 wins—two of them are against the top 50. Non-conference victories include UCLA, West Virginia, NC State and Northwestern.
The Friars’ thrilling overtime victory against Marquette was one of the most dramatic games of the season. A run to the Big East Championship game is the ticket to earning an at-large bid. Bryce Cotton has had an All-Big East Conference season. Nine top-100 victories (two against the top 50) put the Friars firmly on the bubble.
The Bears seemed like a lock for the NCAA Tournament when they beat Arizona just a mere five weeks ago, with three losses in their last four outings, they have become no sure thing. Closing out conference play with a win against Colorado puts them right where they need to be entering the Pac-12 tourney. Coach Mike Montgomery’s squad has eight top-100 wins (four in the top 50) and is two wins away from having cemented their place in the at-large field.
Winners of four of their last six, Clemson is in position to propel themselves toward an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have a mere four victories vs the top 100, but could the tournament committee leave out a team with 10 ACC conference wins—especially in this new ACC that was projected to have up to eight qualifying teams at media day?