We begin our weekly mailbag with an East Coast native who pledges fealty to a West Coast team.
The Nevada Wolf Pack deserve some serious props, right? They're on a 14-game winning streak AND they stopped Utah State's home winning streak at 33-- Joe Natiello, Westfield, N.J.
Joe is right: I haven't paid the Wolf Pack much attention, but when a team enters February with an undefeated league record, even biased East Coast writers can't help but take notice. So I definitely plan on watching this team more in the coming weeks.
Joe's query made me wonder what other undefeated teams deserve some serious props. Is it me, or is there an unusually high number of teams outside the power conferences who haven't lost a league game yet? I don't care what conference you're in. It is very, very hard to be perfect in early February.
Early March, of course, is a different story. If there are still a lot of perfect conference records at that point, then it is going to be a very exciting week leading into Selection Sunday. You know the drill: Bubble teams have to root for schools like Nevada to win their conference tournaments, because if they lose they get tossed into the at-large pool. I think we're long past the point of dismissing teams outside power conferences just because we haven't seen them play that much.
So, then: Who among the conference undefeateds poses the largest risk should they lose in their postseason tournaments? I've listed them in order of bubbliciousness. This group obviously does not include Kentucky, which is the only undefeated team in a power conference. I think it's pretty safe to say the Wildcats will still earn an at-large bid even if they don't win the SEC tournament.
Keep in mind that when I assess everyone's at-large chances, I am assuming they finish the regular season undefeated but lose in their conference tournaments.
Notable nonconference results: Beat Southern Miss (2 OT), beat Dayton, won at Memphis.
Most likely league loss: Feb. 15 at Southeast Missouri State. The Racers play the Redhawks at home Thursday night as well. Their overall perfect record will face its stiffest challenge on Feb. 18, when they play Saint Mary's at home as part of ESPN's BracketBusters series.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: Certain. It would require an epic collapse and an early exit from the OVC tourney for the Racers to be out of the at-large picture in six weeks. Even if they lose in the tourney, the only suspense will be where they're seeded.
Notable nonconference results: Lost at Denver, beat Weber State, lost to Baylor (neutral), beat Missouri State (neutral).
Most likely league loss: Feb. 9 at Gonzaga. The Gaels beat the Zags at home by 21 points three weeks ago. You think Gonzaga's gonna be out for some revenge?
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: Certain. This team has done more than enough to prove it belongs in the field. Beating BYU in Provo should erase any doubt.
Notable nonconference results: Won at Loyola Marymount, beat Florida State (neutral), beat UCF (neutral), lost at UConn, won at Boston College, beat Saint Joseph's, lost at Fordham.
Most likely league loss: Feb. 10 at Penn. The Quakers are the only other team in the conference without a loss. Given that the Crimson just embarrassed previously unbeaten Yale on the road by 30 points last weekend, however, they look ready to win on the road.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: N/A. Why do I say this? Because the Ivy does not have a postseason tournament. Therefore, if Harvard finishes the regular season perfect, it will earn the Ivy's automatic bid. If Harvard is in the hunt for an at-large, that means it finished in second place, and no Ivy team has ever gotten an at-large bid. Still, I include them on this list because if any team has the resume to pull that off, it's this one.
Notable nonconference results: Beat Xavier (neutral), won at Pitt, lost at Kansas, lost at North Carolina, lost at San Diego State, lost at Louisville, lost to Kansas State (neutral).
Most likely league loss: At Cal State Fullerton, March 3. The Titans are in third place in the Big West. Long Beach State beat them at home last week, but this would be the final game of the regular season. If the 49ers come in unbeaten, Titan Gym will be rocking.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: Better than 50-50. That road win at Pitt is not looking nearly as good now as it did back in November. That game was played before the Panthers lost junior guard Tray Woodall and went on their swoon. You see how much better Pitt is with Woodall in the lineup. On the other hand, when Long Beach State beat Xavier, the Musketeers were not at full strength because of suspensions stemming from their fight with Cincinnati.
Notable nonconference results: Lost at UNLV, lost to BYU, beat Washington (OT).
Most likely league loss: vs. New Mexico State, March 1. The Wolf Pack already won in Las Cruces last week, and their toughest remaining road game is at third-place Hawaii on Feb. 10. But New Mexico State is clearly the second-best team in the WAC, and given how much will be at stake in this game, Nevada is going to have to ward off some jitters in order to stay perfect.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: 50-50. A team that goes undefeated in the 11th-ranked conference in the RPI (right behind the WCC) is going to require a long look from the committee. If Nevada is left out, its season-opening loss at home to Missouri State by 22 points is going to loom large.
Notable nonconference results: Won at Loyola Marymount, won at UCLA, lost to Belmont in 2 OTs (neutral), lost at UAB, beat Belmont, beat Ole Miss, lost at Vanderbilt.
Most likely league loss: Feb. 4 at Denver. The Pioneers, who beat Saint Mary's at home on Nov. 23, are a borderline at-large candidate themselves. Since Denver and Middle Tennessee State play in different divisions and therefore meet only once, this will be by far the biggest game of the regular season in the Sun Belt.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: 50-50. The Blue Raiders have some decent nonleague wins, and in playing Vanderbilt to the wire on the road they passed the eye test. It may take a perfect regular season record and a trip to the conference tournament final to get it done, but if MTSU pulls that off, it will be very hard to deny this team a bid.
Notable nonconference results: Lost at West Virginia, lost to UT-San Antonio (neutral), beat Missouri State, lost at Oklahoma, lost at Gonzaga, won at Xavier.
Most likely league loss: At South Dakota State, Feb. 2. Thursday night begins the Golden Eagles's toughest stretch of the season. If they survive the second-place Jackrabbits, who won at Washington by 19 points in early December, they have to travel to third-place North Dakota State two days later.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: Less than 50-50. Oral Roberts is currently ranked 51st in the RPI, so if that holds up it will have a strong case to make. The problem is that win at Xavier came in the Musketeers' first game after the fight with Cincinnati, so their top three players couldn't suit up. From the selection committee's standpoint, that game might as well have never happened.
Notable nonconference results: Lost at Minnesota, lost at Vanderbilt, beat Princeton (neutral), lost at George Mason, beat Richmond, lost at Syracuse.
Most likely league loss: Feb. 23 at American. The Eagles are tied with Lehigh for second place in the conference, but Bucknell has already won at Lehigh on Jan. 18. Bucknell's other two remaining road games are against teams with sub-.500 records in the league.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: Zilch. The Patriot League has never received an NCAA at-large bid before and the Bison, despite their No. 72 ranking in the RPI, haven't done nearly enough to qualify. The good news is that Patriot League Tournament is played entirely at the home sites of higher-seeded teams. So if Bucknell does finish the regular season unbeaten, it will play all of its tournament games at home.
Notable nonconference results: Lost to Temple (OT), lost to Wagner, lost to James Madison, lost at UCLA, lost at Davidson, lost at Duke, lost to LaSalle.
Most likely league loss: Feb. 10 vs. Harvard. The Quakers also have to play at Yale Friday night and then play at Harvard on Feb. 25. Somehow I don't foresee a sweep.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: N/A. The same rule applies here as it does to Harvard. Unlike Harvard, Penn has zero chance of getting to the tournament if it doesn't win the Ivy regular season.
Notable nonconference results: Lost at Baylor, lost to Samford, lost at Texas, lost at Tulsa, lost at Utah State.
Most likely league loss: Feb. 22 at McNeese State. These teams play in separate divisions so this is their only meeting. Texas-Arlington won a big road game Wednesday night to UT-San Antonio, which now trails the Mavericks by one game in the west division.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: Zilch. A loss in the Southland tourney will end the Mavericks' season, but if they can win that tournament after a perfect regular season, they should be assured of not having to play in one of the opening-round first four games.
Notable nonconference results: Lost at Notre Dame, lost at DePaul, lost at North Carolina, lost to Cal Poly, lost at Florida.
Most likely league loss: Feb. 13 at Southern University. The Jaguars are in second place, trailing Mississippi Valley State by two games in the league standings. MVSU beat them by 21 points when they met on Jan. 16 in Itta Bena.
At-large prospects if they finish perfect: Less than zilch. I haven't looked it up, but I'm pretty sure no team that entered league play with a 1-11 nonconference record has ever been awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
On to the rest of the 'Bag ...
Pardon me for playing this card, but you never, ever mention Temple. Not sure if you even pay attention to their scores or watch them, but they finally have a healthy Michael Eric and are starting to hit their stride in a big way. How about some love?--Tony Cialino, Philadelphia
I'm happy to remedy this oversight. The Owls aren't just good, they're actually not bad to watch. They have a reputation for being a half-court team, but they're scoring more than 74 points per game and they're ranked 111th nationally in tempo. And Tony is correct about the impact of Michael Eric's return. The 6-foot-11 senior from Nigeria is a strong kid and a monster rebounder. He returned a week-and-a-half ago after missing six weeks with a knee injury. He's an important piece to this team, because the Owls depend heavily on their perimeter triumvirate of Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez to make three-pointers.
The largest question in play here is just what we should make of the Atlantic 10. This is one wacky league, and not in a good way. It looked like Dayton was ready to take command after beating Xavier to take sole possession of first place, but since then the Flyers have lost three straight, including two at home to lowly Rhode Island and Duquesne. Xavier is either not the same team it was before the fight with Cincinnati, or maybe it's just not as good as we thought it was in the first place. You know who's in first place right now? La Salle, that's who, with a 6-2 league record. But the Explorers are 17-6 overall.
I think the Atlantic 10 will send at least two teams to the NCAA tournament, and I think Temple will be one of them. But one thing we've learned about this league is to expect the unexpected. I promise, I'll be watching.
Would you please explain how Ryan Boatright is not declared ineligible in the face of an NCAA finding that he and his mother received $8,000 in impermissible benefits both before and after he enrolled at UConn? Or is this another one where Jim Calhoun again walks on water and UConn gets the white glove treatment?-- Robert, Baltimore
I'm pretty sure the folks at UConn don't feel like they're getting the white glove treatment.
A lot of people -- especially Kentucky fans -- are asking why Boatright can just serve a little time and pay back the money, while Enes Kanter was declared permanently ineligible. The answer is pretty simple: Boatright received money that the NCAA deemed to be impermissible, but he was not directly compensated by a professional organization for competing. That's a pretty bright line, and it's clear that Kanter crossed it.
Look, these cases are never as simple as they seem. One thing we know is that no matter what happens, the NCAA is going to get criticized. They were too lenient with Cam Newton, too harsh on Kanter, too erratic with Boatright. The real solution to all these problems is for people to stop cheating in the first place. Someone wake me when that happens.
Finally, I've been writing and commenting quite a bit about officiating lately. Here are a few questions on the subject:
Has the NCAA rules committee given any thought to making simulation of an elbow to the head a technical foul? While watching the Ohio State-Michigan game, with about 5:30 left in the first half, an Ohio State player simulated taking an elbow to the face and flopped like Ronaldo. That's a yellow card in soccer and should be the equivalent in basketball.-- John Schubert, Merriam, Kan.
I don't like this play any more than John does, but I think it would be going too far to insert a technical foul for flopping. The important thing is that the referees get the call right.
I actually saw a worse situation than this one in the Duke-Clemson game, when a Clemson player blatantly faked getting hit in the face with an elbow from Mason Plumlee. Replays clearly showed Plumlee never touched the kid, but when the refs went to the replay monitor, they still assessed him with a flagrant-one foul. The refs didn't just get it wrong in real time, they got it wrong after watching the replay. Pathetic.
I think it's time for influential college basketball writers to go on strike against officials' interjecting themselves into the game. Everybody will agree that taunting and malicious trash-talking don't have a place and need to be controlled. But this is a slippery slope, as every game can become an endless parade to the free throw line. The game can't be allowed to become about the zebras.-- Larry Wall
Larry is referring to my news story last week about the memo written by John Adams, the NCAA's national coordinator of officials. Adams has become increasingly -- and rightfully -- concerned about poor sportsmanship. He urged the refs to be more assertive in enforcing rules against players taunting and coaches leaving the sideline box.
As to Larry's point, I don't disagree that some referees excessively showboat when they make a call. They have a whistle and a book full of hand signals, and that should be enough. However, I think the biggest problem right now is the behavior of the coaches. Too many of them waste energy working the refs instead of coaching their teams. Besides being unpalatable to the eye, I think this has a negative effect on their teams. A coach who spends a lot of time complaining to the refs is communicating to his players that it doesn't matter how hard they play, they are not going to win because they're getting hosed by the zebras. In addition, if the coach is screaming and cursing, why wouldn't his players assume it's OK for them to do it as well?