Ohio State, Kentucky among former contenders looking for momentum
Each Monday, the Scouting Report has examined the most intriguing matchups of the week. But the postseason has arrived and many matchups are unknown. So this week, we're taking a look at teams that once appeared to be national contenders before falling off the pace – and whether conference tournament week gives them a chance to rediscover their winnings ways
Ohio State. When the AP poll was released on Jan. 6, the Buckeyes were unbeaten and No. 3 team in the land. But a four-game losing streak knocked Aaron Craft and Co. off-kilter and an uneven season followed. Two losses to Penn State ... but wins over ranked Wisconsin, Iowa and finally Michigan State on Sunday. Now comes a favorable Big Ten tournament draw. The Buckeyes should dispose of Purdue in the first round and then it's No. 4-seed Nebraska in the quarterfinals. The programs split two regular season meetings but it's a winnable game. “We’ve had a couple big wins but we haven’t bounced back from them like we should have,” Craft said after Sunday's victory. “Hopefully we can keep this momentum. Everyone goes back to starting at 0-0 and that’s probably the most exciting part.” It should be. Ohio State has a good shot at getting going again.
Baylor. The Bears were 12-1 and the No. 7 team in the country in that Jan. 6 poll, but eight losses in 10 games to start the Big 12 season threatened to submarine everything. The seven losses in eight games to end the Big 12 season were rousing, but the Bears beat just one ranked team and did not beat Kansas or Oklahoma. So Baylor enters the Big 12 tournament as the No. 7 seed and should secure a win over TCU. Facing the second-seeded Sooners in the quarterfinal means beating a team the Bears went 0-2 against during the regular season. But the late hot streak, combined with being in the half of the bracket with Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia offers a chance at redemption.
Pittsburgh. The Panthers started 16-1 and, despite losses to Syracuse and Duke, crept up to No. 18 in the polls with an 18-2 record as of Jan. 27. Lamar Patterson was at one point a frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year honors. Then came five losses in seven games, and a total of three overtimes needed to dispatch Miami and Virginia Tech in the wins. The No. 5 seed in the ACC tournament this week should only help so much. Getting Wake Forest or Notre Dame in the second round is doable, but a quarterfinal matchup against North Carolina in Greensboro Coliseum does not bode well for recovering early season juice.
Kentucky. This is going way back, but remember when the Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the country before anyone actually played a game? And they were still a top 15 team in the early parts of January. But at no point has John Calipari's young team – have you heard they're young? – demonstrated the capacity for consistent high-end play. It comes and goes in flashes, as evidenced by an early self-immolation at Florida, followed by a rally, followed by a late swoon into a 19-point loss on Saturday. Kentucky is capable of gaining momentum in a ho-hum SEC tournament field, especially given its draw: A potential quarterfinal matchup against LSU is tricky, as the teams split two regular-season matchups. But a semifinal against any of the possible opponents – Georgia, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt or Mississippi State – is manageable. The only question is whether anything short of beating Florida would improve the Wildcats' seeding enough to help them make noise in the field of 68. Oregon. The Ducks didn't lose a game until Jan. 5. But then they didn't win another game until Jan. 26, with five losses in between that subverted all the good vibes while revealing that the defense was as porous as Dana Altman feared it could be. But the regular season ended with a seven-game winning streak and only one opponent in that stretch scoring more than 80 points in regulation against Oregon. The Pac-12 tournament may allow the Ducks to continue where they left off this time. First, it's a very winnable game against in-state rival Oregon State (even if the teams split their meetings this season). Then it's UCLA in the quarterfinals and a possible high-wire act. The Ducks lost to the Bruins by two at home and then won in two overtimes against a depleted UCLA squad on the road. It's a close call waiting to happen, but Oregon has the draw to build some momentum again.