Ryan Kelly makes triumphant return, Gonzaga soars, more Fast Break
Can you hear it? The Big Dance music, I mean. The most glorious month of the year is upon us, and it's all the Fast Break can do to keep up. You might say that March blew in like a cyclone, which makes it a felicitous time to spend a few minutes with the head man at Iowa State. We've got a new No. 1 team on my AP ballot, an old name garnering freshman honors, a cool hand Luke flying high in Louisville, and a group of Tigers who have really changed their stripes. So if you want to go dancing, feel free to march to your own beat. But I'll warn you, the first song is a slow dance, with the soundtrack provided by
Player of the Week: Ryan Kelly, 6-foot-11 senior forward, Duke
There were a lot of good candidates this week. Creighton's Doug McDermott had 41 points in a win over Wichita State. Virginia's Joe Harris had 36 in a win over Duke. Tennessee's Jordan McRae had 27 against Florida and 35 against Georgia. Kansas' Elijah Johnson had 39 against Iowa State. I went with Kelly not just because of his performance, but also the circumstances surrounding it. He would have had a strong case just by scoring a career-high 36 points in a win over a top-five team in Miami. The fact that this was Kelly's first game back after missing seven weeks with an injury makes it all the more epic. Remember, Kelly missed all that time because he re-aggravated a broken foot. That is not an easy injury to come back from, because it is hard for a player to maintain his conditioning with a boot on his foot. Kelly's time-capsule performance did more than just help his team win a game and stay in position for a number one seed. It put the Blue Devils back on the very short list of teams to beat in the NCAA tournament. If he keeps playing at this level, Duke could very well cut down the nets on April 8.
Team of the Week: Gonzaga
Freshman of the Week: Ben McLemore, 6-5 guard, Kansas
I might as well rename this award in McLemore's honor. His performance against West Virginia on Saturday was truly historic -- which is saying a lot considering the school he plays for. By scoring 36 points (on 12-of-15 shooting), McLemore topped Danny Manning's school record for most points by a freshman. (Ironically, Manning scored his 35 points against an Oklahoma State team that included a senior guard named Bill Self.) It was a heartwarming achievement for Kansas fans considering that during his previous three games, McLemore had twice failed to reach double figures. (My goodness, what a slump!) Before that he had had only two single-figure scoring games all season. It's gravy for the Jayhawks when Elijah Johnson scores a lot of points, but this team is at its best when McLemore is at his best. On Saturday, McLemore was better than any freshman in the long history of this proud program. Well done, young fella.
Glue Guy of the Week: Luke Hancock, 6-6 junior forward, Louisville
Before the season started, Rick Pitino said that Hancock, a transfer from George Mason, would be the team's most important player. That has not quite come to pass, but it was certainly the case on Saturday in the Carrier Dome. The Cardinals were reeling because point guard Peyton Siva was having a terrible game. (He would finish with zero field goals on nine attempts. Siva would be a great player as long as he never has to play Syracuse.) So Hancock came off the bench to play 20 minutes, during which he went 4-for-5 from three-point range and made two huge threes in crunch time to lift Louisville to a 58-53 win. Hancock may have had a disappointing season from an offensive standpoint (he is shooting just 38.5 percent from the floor this season), but he is still the team's best leader off the court. And he has done a good job keeping his head down and giving his best effort whenever an opportunity comes up. He may not have the talent of a player like Russ Smith, but he doesn't have the erratic tendencies, either.
Under the Radar Player of the Week: Derrick Marks, 6-3 sophomore guard, Boise State
This is the second time this season that Marks has won this award, so I'd suggest you start paying attention to him. The Broncos needed to beat Colorado State at home on Saturday to keep their at-large hopes alive, and Marks made sure it happened by scoring 38 points on 13-for-18 shooting. He also shot 8-for-11 from the foul line, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out three assists. Though he's only a sophomore, Marks has a savvy and toughness that you would expect from someone who grew up in Chicago. It is no coincidence that he has had his two biggest games in the Broncos' two biggest wins of the season. Marks also scored 35 points in a win at Creighton on Nov. 28.
Best Win: Tennessee 64, Florida 58
I realize the Volunteers took a step back over the weekend by losing at Georgia, but this win was still a major step forward. It was their sixth consecutive win (a streak that also included a home win over Kentucky), and it put them squarely into the bubble conversation for the first time. They still have two games left in the regular season, a road game at Auburn and then a home date with Missouri. If Tennessee can win those two, it would finish the regular season with an 11-7 record in the SEC. Add on a decent win or two in the conference tournament, and they should be in good shape. You might think that's a stretch, but given the way Jordan McRae is shooting the ball these days, I don't think anything is out of the question for this group.
Worst Loss: Mississippi State 73, Ole Miss 67
This wasn't an upset on the level of Kansas-TCU (or even Michigan-Penn State), but given what was at stake, it was far more devastating. The Rebels have already been leaking oil, but this one might very well have sealed their fate as far as an at-large is concerned. Mississippi State had won just two games in the league all season. All those people who got such joy out of Marshall Henderson's, shall we say, wacky tendencies should look at his line from the box score: 4-for-19 from the floor, 3-for-18 from three. That's how you kill your team. Now the problem is that even if the Rebels win their two remaining games (vs. Alabama at home and at LSU), it won't help them all that much. I think they have to at least make the SEC tournament final if they're going to have a chance at an at-large bid.
Flavor of the Week: Towson
College basketball has never seen anything like it. By defeating Hofstra at home on Saturday, the Tigers finished the regular season with an 18-13 record. That represents the most significant one-year improvement in NCAA history. Last year, Towson started the season by losing its first 22 games, and it finished with a 1-31 record. Coach Pat Skerry deserves a great deal of credit for engineering this turnaround, but the best thing he did was bring in Jerrelle Benimon, a 6-8 junior transfer from Georgetown. Benimon averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds this season and should be the CAA's Player of the Year.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Mike Anderson takes his Razorbacks to his former school, but there is not much room for sentimentality in this one. Arkansas has some good home wins, but this is its last chance to beat a good team on the road. If the Razorbacks don't get it done here, they will have to win the SEC tournament to go dancing.
The one hole in Duke's resume is a lack of quality road wins. That could cost the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed if they don't take care of business in the Dean Dome. That won't be easy given the way the Tar Heels have been playing since Roy Williams went to his small-ball lineup.
The Orange are suffering from erratic guard play and a zone defense that is not as stifling as it was earlier in the season. The Hoyas love to play against that zone, as they proved by winning in the Carrier Dome last week.
This is the Wildcats' last stand in their quest for an at-large bid. Florida has proven to be beatable on the road, but the Gators should have more toughness now that Will Yeguete is back from injury.
I can't think of a better way for this wonderful Big Ten regular season to come to a close. If the Hoosiers win this one they will probably sew up a No. 1 seed.
A Few Minutes With ... Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg
This Week's AP Ballot
1. Gonzaga (6)
2. Indiana (1)
3. Duke (2)
4. Georgetown (7)
5. Miami (4)
6. Kansas (9)
7. Louisville (13)
8. Florida (11)
9. Michigan (5)
10. Michigan State (3)
11. Kansas State (12)
12. New Mexico (14)
13. Oklahoma State (16)
14. Syracuse (10)
15. Ohio State (17)
16. St. Louis (18)
17. Marquette (21)
18. California (25)
19. Wisconsin (15)
20. Illinois (20)
21. Louisiana Tech (23)
22. Memphis (19)
23. Oregon (NR)
24. VCU (NR)
25. North Carolina (NR)
Dropped out: Arizona (8), Akron (22), Butler (24)
Several weeks ago, I wrote in this space that regardless of what happened the rest of the season, I would not rank Gonzaga higher than sixth the remainder of the season.
Serves me right for committing the cardinal sin of the poll voter: Expressing certitude.
With all the teams ranked above Gonzaga losing last week, and with the Zags taking care of business with their tough road win at BYU, I clearly had to move them to the top of my ballot. But all the way to the top? That was a closer call. Clearly, the Zags have not played a conference schedule that is as tough as the ones the others have played. This is not just a matter of dropping a game or two. When you play in a league where you are getting truly tested every night, it doesn't just make you vulnerable against really good teams. The accretion of all those games can rob a team of its mental edge, which makes it more vulnerable against the bad ones, too. That's what happened to Michigan at Penn State last week. The Wolverines have been running on fumes the last few weeks. No disrespect, but I doubt that would have been true if they played in the West Coast Conference this season.
I also thought hard about ranking Duke No. 1. If the purpose of this exercise is to identify the nation's best team, then you could make a strong case for Duke right now. (Indiana, too.) The Blue Devils have not lost a game this season with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, and judging by his performance against Miami, you can tell that he makes a big difference. Still, Duke could have beaten Virginia last Thursday, and it couldn't get the job done. It's at least as hard to win at BYU as it is at Virginia.
In the end, this is a different job than selecting and seeding for the NCAA tournament. There is more leeway for subjectivity and symbolism. I went with Gonzaga for the simple reason that they deserve to be the No. 1 team in America. The Zags played a good nonconference schedule and held up well. They have won every game in their league, even though they get their opponents' best shot every night. And frankly, it is good for college basketball to have them at the top. It has never happened before, and it will give the spot a nice storyline heading into March Madness. So despite my hard-line prediction of a few weeks ago, I gave them the nod.
Elsewhere on my ballot, I don't know if I've had another instance where a team went from the top 10 to out of the rankings, but I felt justified in giving that treatment to Arizona. The Wildcats are simply not playing like a ranked team right now. Every time they have played a good team over the last three weeks, they have lost, most recently last week at USC and UCLA. They also lost at home to Cal and at Colorado (by 13) two weeks ago. In between those two mini-streaks, they won at Utah (by a skimpy four points), and at home over Washington and Washington State. That is not a top 25 profile.
It pained me to drop my Akron Zips out of the rankings after their loss at Buffalo, because I do think they could be one of the top 25 teams in America. It is unfair to hold this team to such a high standard that it has to stay undefeated in its league to be ranked, but I just felt there are not enough quality wins outside the league to warrant a ranking. I still stand by my assertion that the Zips will be a very tough out in the NCAA tournament if they get there.
As for the bottom of my ballot, in case you haven't noticed, North Carolina has been playing some really good basketball of late. The Tar Heels are alone in third place in the ACC, and they have a big game on Saturday at home against Duke. I thought about ranking Minnesota for my final spot based on the Gophers' win over Indiana, but I couldn't quite pull the trigger given that before that game, Minnesota had lost four out of five. Was that a fluke? We'll have a better idea after we watch the Gophers play winnable road games at Nebraska and Purdue. If they're really rank-worthy, they'll sweep those two.