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San Diego St. and BYU on collision course, Vols' volatility and more

You can hear the thumping getting louder each day, like the sound of a ball pounding on the floor as the dribbler gets closer. Two teams from a non-power conference on a collision course to a big game with enormous implications -- in the conference, in the polls, and most importantly, in the NCAA tournament bracket.

San Diego State and BYU will meet Saturday in San Diego. It is the second time they're playing this season, but if the hoop gods are kind to us it won't be the last, because that would mean they will meet again in the final of the Mountain West Conference tournament. BYU won the first meeting in Provo behind 43 points from The Jimmer. That was the Aztecs' only loss this season, while the Cougars have lost twice -- to UCLA in Anaheim and New Mexico on the road. It's not unusual that a team from outside the Big Six makes a mad dash to the top end of the rankings, but to have two teams do it from the same conference is truly a special treat. With the big game now just three days away, it's only fitting to begin the mailbag with a few queries about the Treasured Two.

Why won't the pollsters believe that BYU and SDSU are for real? The top four teams all lose last week, one of them for the second time in three games, and yet all stay ahead of BYU and SDSU. Is fourth or fifth the ceiling for these teams? Will the winner of this Saturday's mammoth game in San Diego be able to crack the top three?-- Chris, Salt Lake City

Assuming that San Diego State and BYU don't get a lot of love in the polls this week, even though Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 ahead of them all lost, what more do they need to do in the eyes of voters to get some love? BYU, for example, has played 16 of 27 games away from Provo, and will end the regular season with a 14 (home)/17 (away/neutral) split. I doubt the teams ahead of them in the polls can boast that.-- Kendall Hulet, Provo, Utah

What do San Diego St. and BYU need to do to get a No. 1 seed?-- Shawn Hall, Las Vegas

Chris and Kendall have asked questions that are interesting but ultimately meaningless. Shawn's question is more significant, but the meaning is still vastly overstated. At the end of the day, the No. 1 seed is more of an honor than a tangible advantage. Yes, it gives a team a slightly better matchup in the first round, but from there the difference is marginal. And obviously the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds face each other in the regional final if they both advance that far, so who cares which is which?

Still, if you're San Diego State or BYU, the opportunity to garner that top seed will most likely not pass this way again. So I can understand why it would be so important. The answer, then, to Shawn's question is simple: Win the rest of their games. That is especially true of BYU, which lost those two games but still has seven top-50 wins over teams like Arizona, Utah State and UNLV (twice). San Diego State has a great shot at a 1 seed if it wins out because that would mean a) the Aztecs would likely have beaten BYU twice, and b) they will enter selection weekend as the only team in the country with just one loss. If that's the case, it will be all but impossible to keep them off the top line.

As I wrote in this week's Hoop Thoughts, the committee puts together the tournament based strictly on a team's performance. The polls, on the other hand, are a different matzoh ball. There are reams of data and several pages of principles and procedures provided to committee members, but not a word is given to people like myself to explain how we should vote in polls. All sorts of biases come into play, not just in terms of our opinions about teams but also what criteria we use. Based on this week's rankings, it's clear that many voters put a lot of weight on results from the previous week. On the other hand, I decided to base my vote more on overall body of work, which is why I went with Pittsburgh as my No. 1. Doesn't mean I'm right. It's just how I made my decision.

I would never make a hard and fast rule, but I can honestly say that unless the teams ranked ahead of them lose a couple more games, it's going to be hard for me to put San Diego State or BYU in my top five. Again, that's different than saying I wouldn't consider them for a No. 1 seed, but even with some power conferences (specifically the ACC) having down years, I do not believe those teams have played a comparable schedule. In terms of the poll, San Diego State is actually in a weaker position than BYU because its best wins outside the conference were over Saint Mary's at home and Gonzaga on the road.

Frankly, it's amazing to me that so much time is spent dissecting things that decide so little. Where a team is ranked in the polls, or whether it's a 1 seed or a 3, will not do much to determine whether it will ultimately play for a national championship. These questions do, however, make for great conversation in late February and early March. No matter who wins the big game on Saturday, that conversation is sure to kick into higher gear.

Now on to the rest of the 'Bag.

With the BracketBusters having concluded this weekend, who are some teams that you would not want to have to see come tournament time? The CAA looked really strong with their top three teams all winning, and I don't think I would want to see Old Dominion in the first or second round. What's your take?-- Blake, Norfolk, Va.

My take is I like Blake's starting point. The CAA this year has been highly impressive, nobody more so than George Mason. The Patriots have reeled off 13 consecutive wins, including a riveting six-point win at Northern Iowa during the BracketBusters weekend. (And by the way, a tip of the hat to my friends at ESPN for another great BracketBusters. You can say what you want about that place, but they do an incredible job promoting college basketball.) This George Mason team will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2006 squad that reached the Final Four, but this edition is much more perimeter-oriented than that one was. The Patriots are ranked 13th in the nation in percentage of points they get on three-pointers and they have five players who are making better than 40 percent from behind the arc. That's a great formula for success in the tournament, because even if a couple of those guys have cold shooting nights it's unlikely that all five will.

Elsewhere in mid-majordom, I've been pimping -- er, pumping up -- Utah State all season, so I'll direct your attention to the Aggies' comeback win at Saint Mary's, which was punctuated by Brady Jardine's emphatic dunk in the final minute. Elsewhere, when I look for mid-major sleepers I like to see NCAA tournament experience, which is why I would not want to face Butler. The Bulldogs sputtered for the first three months of the season, but now have found their stride with six straight wins. If they do make the NCAA tournament, that late surge plus the good vibrations from last year will make them a very tough out.

Time it takes Oliver Purnell to resurrect DePaul. Go.-- Ed, Chicago

Suffice to say, it will take a lot longer than it took Ed to write that question. I'd argue Purnell is already resurrecting DePaul. As I noted in this week's Hoop Thoughts, not only did the Blue Demons break their 24-game Big East losing streak with a win at Providence, but three of their last four losses have come by four points or less (including Saturday's two-point loss at home in overtime to Villanova). Both of the team's leading scorers are freshmen, and only one of the top six is a senior. Of course, given how bad they are, that may not be a good thing, but it should give Ed some hope that better days are ahead.

It's hard to glean a lot of optimism from Purnell's first recruiting class. Shane Larkin, a 5-foot-11 guard from Orlando, is the only high school senior ranked in the top 150 nationally by Rivals.com who has committed to DePaul. It is instructive, however, that Larkin hails from Florida, not Chicago. I just don't buy into the idea that just because you coach at DePaul you have to bring in kids from Chicago. On the contrary, often times it's better to bring in kids from outside the area because there are fewer distractions. Steve Lavin's top-rated class at St. John's is filled with kids from out west, not New York City. At any rate, to give Ed a specific answer, I think this program is so moribund that you can't fairly judge Purnell until he has been on the job for five full years. So settle in and enjoy the games, Ed. Check back with me in 2016.

After starting out like a house afire with dominating victories over the likes of Pittsburgh and Villanova, Tennessee has fallen into a struggle to stay postseason eligible that would make Sisyphus look like an amateur. Assuming that the Vols make the Big Dance, what will they have to do between now and March to get back to their early season form?-- Jack Lail, Knoxville, Tenn.

Actually, let me correct Jack on one thing. Tennessee did not start the season like a house afire. It started the season with an NCAA investigation and an exhibition loss to a Division II team. Yes, those wins over Pitt and Villanova were impressive, but if you look at Tennessee's entire season, those games look like anomalies. That has been especially true lately as Tennessee had dropped four out of five games heading into last night's game at Vanderbilt.

However, the Volunteers did get a huge road win in Nashville last night, and I love the way they did it. The Vols were down by 11 points with just under 13 minutes to play, but they came back through defense, toughness and foul shooting. It has taken some time, but Bruce Pearl has managed to re-create his team's identity around those elements. Consider that Tennessee got the big win despite scoring just 60 points. This team's point guard play is so bad that it has a very hard time scoring in the half court. The Vols have to rely on their defense to create transition opportunities, and they must continually attack the basket. That's a good sign for them moving forward.

Today's revelations in the NCAA's notice of allegations will yield some ugly headlines, but I don't expect it will affect the team's performance. If the Vols go in the tank (which is possible), it won't be because of that. This team has been dealing with the investigation all season, and for the most part they've stuck to business.

It's that time of year again when my Hokies start closing in on 10 ACC wins and 20 wins overall. Any ACC team except the Hokies is a lock for the tournament with that record. We were passed over last year as the third-place ACC team for the fourth- and fifth-place ACC teams. Once again we currently lack top 50 wins and our nonconference schedule wasn't the strongest, but we still have Duke to play. What will we need to do to make the tournament this year? Win the conference tournament? Beat Duke and we're in?-- Chris Willis, Washington, D.C.

First of all, I realize it's easier to believe that your team didn't make the tournament because of a nefarious bias, but the fact is that Virginia Tech did not earn an at-large bid the last three years. That's not to say that every team that gets a bid earned or deserved it, but if you've played your way onto the bubble, you forfeit the right to complain. Yes, Virginia Tech went 10-6 in the ACC regular season last year, but the Hokies also had just three top-50 wins and one of the worst nonconference schedules in the country. They also lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament to a bad Miami team. We have to remember that the imbalanced schedules make conference records deceiving. You'll recall that in 2008 when the Hokies went 9-7 in the ACC but only had to play the top three teams (Duke, North Carolina and Clemson) once each -- and they lost all three.

What will be their fate this year? Let's just say Saturday's home game against Duke is going to be huge. If the Hokies win that game, they're virtually assured of getting a bid. If they lose, they'll probably have to win their remaining two (home vs. Boston College, at Clemson) to have a chance at an at-large, provided they don't suffer another pratfall in the ACC tournament. Virginia Tech's only top-50 win came at home against Florida State. The Hokies' best road win was at No. 91 Maryland. Plus they got swept by Virginia. I'm sure the committee will take into account all the injuries this team has suffered, but the bottom line is, if they don't win some games, they ain't dancing.

With both Buckeye losses coming on the road against teams with veteran guard play, is this the blueprint to defeat them? Looking at the several mock tourney brackets out there, many have San Diego State, Villanova, and/or Notre Dame in the Buckeyes' projected region. All are upperclassmen-heavy teams with outstanding guard play. Thoughts?-- Brian Gault, Elyria, Ohio

If that's the blueprint to beat Ohio State, the Buckeyes are in pretty good shape because they don't have to play any true road games during the NCAA tournament. The fact that the teams Brian mentioned are in Ohio State's region in a few bracket projections does not mean they're likely to end up there. That said, I do think Brian touched on the word that will be a recurring theme during the tournament: upperclassmen. In a year when there is so much parity (and mediocrity), older is definitely better.

That is especially true against Ohio State, because the main thing required to beat this team is defensive discipline. Very few teams have players who can defend Jared Sullinger one-on-one, but it's dangerous to double team him because he's such a good passer and the Buckeyes have so many great three-point shooters. The only answer is to help on him only when it's absolutely necessary, and to do so in a way that still allows you to close out on the shooters. That takes a lot of teamwork and experience to pull off. And as Wisconsin and Purdue demonstrated, it helps to have a talented guard with a red-hot hand.

Finally, we'll end with a pair of questions about Syracuse.

Obviously Fab Melo has not lived up to expectations and his limited playing time is understood, but at this point isn't it more embarrassing to start him and play him two minutes per game? This cameo starting-spot routine can't help his confidence.-- John Roberts, San Diego (by way of Utica NY)

Curious what your take was on the Jim Boeheim press conference fiasco here last week and whether or not you think he is covered fairly by local and national media?-- Dominic Carone, Syracuse

First of all, let me say in full disclosure that I really like Jim Boeheim. I think he's a brilliant coach, and he tells hilarious stories over dinner. Nor do I have a problem with a coach or anyone else taking issue with my work. If I'm going to criticize them in public, then they have every right to do the same. I've been on the receiving end of a few Boeheim phone calls over the years, and while the conversations can be unpleasant, they never get personal.

That said, I thought Boeheim's mini diatribe against Syracuse Post Standard writer Donna Ditota was mystifying. After Syracuse lost to Louisville, she wrote that Boeheim had lost seven straight games to Rick Pitino. Boeheim claimed that amounted to a personal attack. Ditota, however, didn't write that Boeheim was a bad guy, or a bad coach, or a worse coach than Pitino. She simply published a statistic that was relevant to the game. Like I said, Boeheim certainly had the right to criticize her in public, but in my eyes he came off as petulant.

Two days later, Boeheim was a guest on my CBS College Sports show Courtside. After teasing Boeheim that he had become an Internet sensation second only to Justin Bieber, I asked why a Hall of Fame coach with an NCAA championship and 850 wins to his name still lets things like that bother him. Boeheim smiled wryly and said, "That's why I'm in the Hall of Fame." He then went on to praise Ditota's work and emphasized that she had written over a hundred articles in the past year, yet that was the only one to which he took exception.

Having said all that, I will now say something that could prompt one of those tetchy phone calls: I think Boeheim has absolutely destroyed Fab Melo's confidence. Maybe part of the kid's problem is that had so little confidence to begin with, but Boeheim has done him no favors by starting him almost every game, and then yanking him after a couple of minutes and leaving him on the bench. Against Rutgers last Saturday, Boeheim pulled Melo after just seconds -- four seconds! -- because the kid committed a silly foul. I can only imagine how mortified Melo must have felt as he trotted back to the bench. Boeheim later said his mistake wasn't pulling Melo out, it was putting him into the game in the first place. If that's the case, it's a mistake Boeheim has made too often this season.

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