College Top 25 Recap: Crunch Time
Selection Sunday is less than a month away.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
Can you believe the regular season is almost over? It seemed like just yesterday Michigan State and North Carolina were tipping off on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson. Now, conference play is winding down and Selection Sunday is less than a month away. Get caught up on all the action that took place over the last week and prepare yourself for what promises to be an exciting end to the season.
1. Kentucky (25-1, 11-0)
For whatever reason, Coach Cal has always had trouble when traveling to Vanderbilt. Saturday night was no exception as the ‘Cats gutted out another victory on the road. After leading 36-23 at the half, Vandy stormed back to take a 2-point lead late in the game. But, Doron Lamb hit a three with three minutes to go and Kentucky held on for the win. For a team that had won it’s previous four conference games by an average of 20 points, Kentucky finally got a much needed challenge from the Commodores. Being that the Wildcats are so young, they will only benefit from a close game in a hostile environment as March nears. They now have a three game lead with five games to go. Kentucky plays Ole Miss this weekend and faces upset minded Mississippi State next week.
2. Syracuse (26-1, 13-1)
After taking care of UConn over the weekend, Syracuse traveled to Louisville to take on the Cardinals; a team they had lost to seven out of eight times since 2006. It was an ugly game offensively, but the Orange were able to overcome their poor shooting night with a tremendous defensive effort and escaped with a one-point victory thanks to a last second Peyton Siva turnover. While ‘Cuse is clearly one of the best teams in the nation and will be a favorite heading into the Tournament, their overall rebounding remains a glaring problem. Fab Melo may be one of the best defensive centers in the country but his rebounding numbers are staggeringly low at 5.5 per game. As a team, ‘Cuse averages 35.7 rebounds per game good enough for 115th in the nation. Against good rebounding teams like West Virginia and Georgetown, Syracuse has been out-rebounded 36-20 and 48-30 respectively. Boeheim has been able to compensate for this issue with high scoring but this problem may creep up on them when it matters most. Up next, Syracuse takes on Rutgers before hosting South Florida next Wednesday.
3. Missouri (24-2, 11-2)
Mizzou keeps rolling along and have now won six straight after last night’s dub over Oklahoma State, bringing their record at home to 15-0. The Big 12 Player of the Year race is now neck and neck between Marcus Denmon and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson. Both players are intricate pieces to their team’s current success and it really is a toss-up at this point. But, Denmon may have had a bigger impact on his team over the course of the year. Most pre-season rankings had Missouri barely cracking the Top 25; three months later they are sitting atop the toughest conference in basketball and Denmon has been lighting it up all year. Their matchup on February 25 may ultimately decide who wins both Conference POY and the regular-season Conference Championship; circle that date on your calendars.
4. Kansas (21-5, 11-2)
After dropping a tough one to Missouri earlier this month, the Jayhawks have reeled off three straight Big 12 wins. After dismantling Baylor, Kansas took care of business on Saturday against Oklahoma State then played a tough rivalry game on the road against a desperate Kansas State team. Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson get all the hype—and rightfully so, they are arguably the two best players in the Big 12 right now—but the unheralded Jeff Withey has been playing outstanding as of late. After being held scoreless against Missouri, Withey bounced back with a 25-point effort against Baylor, an 18-point, 20-rebound, 7-block game against Oklahoma St. and an 18-point, 11-rebound, 9-block outing against K State. Not bad for a guy who averaged 2.3 points and 1.8 boards coming in to the season. If Withey can keep this pace up, the Jayhawks will be serious contenders when the Big Dance starts.
5. Duke (21-4, 8-2)
After their heart stopping victory against Carolina last week, Duke felt no hangover and beat up on Maryland at home on Saturday. The Terps had no answer for the Plumlee Brothers who combined for 22 points and 32 rebounds—a trend that Coach K hopes will continue as Duke has been weak inside all year. Duke is now a half game behind in the ACC with six games to go (and one rematch with Carolina). They take on BC this weekend then play Florida State next week.
Ohio State may sit atop the Big Ten standings wise but it can be argued that they are not the best team in the conference. After barely beating Purdue, the Buckeyes were beat up physically by Michigan State, snapping their 39-game home win streak. Jared Sullinger had a tough game against Draymond Green who forced him into 10 turnovers. Ohio State did bounce back with a double-digit win over Minnesota. Ohio State has another tough game against Michigan on Saturday before traveling to Illinois on Tuesday.
7. Michigan State (20-5, 9-3)
Year in and year out, Tom Izzo has his team playing their best basketball at the right time. After losing to Illinois late in January (a game where they lost Draymond Green to a knee injury), the Spartans have reeled off three straight double-digit wins over Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. The Spartans are probably the best team in the Big Ten right now, but their schedule doesn’t get any easier. Up next they have Wisconsin then play an always-capable Purdue team.
8. North Carolina (21-4, 8-2)
As predicted, the Tar Heels blew out Virginia last weekend but had a tougher time than expected against Miami on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels found themselves trailing by eight in the second half thanks to an overall poor shooting night and were matched physically inside by Miami’s bigs. Carolina eventually put the clamps down and put forth arguably their best defensive effort of the season to make a comeback and eventually beat the ‘Canes by nine. Carolina’s current inconsistent play is a bit concerning but they have a chance to string together a few wins with matchups against Clemson and Virginia coming up.
9. Baylor (22-4, 9-4)
The Bears are one of the most talented teams in the country but I am a bit skeptical as to how far this team can truly go. With expectations so high in Waco, it would seem that anything short of a Final Four appearance would be a let down. The Bears only have four losses, but each of them have come to either Kansas or Missouri—the two teams they are looking up to in the standings. And it’s not like the games have been close either—last week both teams blew out the Bears. But, they did respond with a 15-point drubbing of an underrated Iowa State team and still have a chance to get a top seed in the Tournament if they can win the Big 12 Tournament. Scott Drew has to be happy with the play of Pierre Jackson. The junior transfer has been playing great lately and has been clutch for them during Big 12 play. Up next, Baylor has two tough games against Kansas State and Texas—no such thing as an easy night in the Big 12.
10. Georgetown (19-5, 9-4)
The Hoyas find themselves in fourth place in the top heavy Big East with five games to go. After losing in overtime to Syracuse, G’Town beat St. John’s by ten in a game that was much closer than the score would have you believe. The Hoyas are poised to win a few games in a row with matchups against Providence, Seton Hall and Villanova in their near future. Can they sneak into first place in the conference? Doubtful, but they can position themselves for a nice March run if they continue to play at a high level.
11. UNLV (22-5, 6-3)
UNLV got caught riding high after their San Diego State and lost an overtime shootout to TCU on Tuesday night. The Runnin’ Rebels gave up 102 points including 32 from Horned Frogs guard Hank Thorns. The Rebels were surprisingly beat on the boards, getting outrebounded 46-31—a usual strong point for UNLV, especially with Mike Moser in the frontcourt. With the loss, they are now in third place in the Mountain West at 6-3 making their upcoming game against conference leading New Mexico that much more important.
12. Marquette (21-5, 10-3)
The Golden Eagles have had a lot of time to get rested and ready for the last stretch of regular-season play. After beating DePaul on February 6, they didn’t play again until February 11—a victory over Cincinnati. Their next game isn’t until the February 18 when they take on UConn on the road. The lapse in games will either help or hurt this team; they may lose their rhythm or get their legs back for their last few Big East games. Regardless, Darius Johnson-Odom is a serious Big East POY contender—he is averaging 18.4 points and is one of the better guards in the country.