Thursday February 11th, 2010

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I am not Luke Winn. Sorry you had to hear that. My esteemed colleague will be in Vancouver these next few weeks covering speedskaters and snowboarders and has graciously entrusted me with his Power Rankings.

I will not portend to be able to duplicate Luke's mastery of efficiency ratings or screen-shot illustrations. You're just going to have to cope without them the next few weeks. My more modest hope is to take the weekly pulse of the nation's top teams and, as Selection Sunday nears, start taking a more in-depth look at their tourney resumes.

I did use Luke's rankings from last week as a starting-off point, but I had a differing opinion on a couple of teams -- starting with No. 1.

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 2
I love Syracuse and Kentucky, too. I really do. But the Jayhawks are my unquestioned No. 1 right now because of their unmatched resume: Eight wins over RPI top 50 teams, including three road wins over top-30 foes (Kansas State, Temple and Texas). To put that in perspective, last year's national champion, North Carolina, had two such victories.

Kansas' most recent road rouser took place Monday at Texas, where the Jayhawks went on an astounding 22-0 first-half run en route to a 80-68 victory. Granted, it's pretty clear at this point that the sagging 'Horns are far from the powerhouse they seemed a month ago (they've lost five of seven after starting 17-0), but it's still fairly remarkable that Kansas managed to control the game so handily despite giving far from its finest performance. Stars Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich combined to shoot just 5-of-23 from the field (Marcus Morris and Xavier Henry stepped up to go 13-for-23), and the 'Horns actually outshot the Jayhawks in the second half but never got closer than an eight-point deficit.

Jayhawks coach Bill Self described the game as both "weird" and "muddy," adding, "It feels good to win a muddy game." Maybe so, but I'm sure the events folks at the Erwin Center will want to give the court a good cleaning.

Next three: 2/13 vs. Iowa State, 2/15 at Texas A&M, 2/20 vs. Colorado
 
2Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 1
Most Orange games these days follow a familiar script: Syracuse gets off to a slow start, allows its overmatched opponent to hang around for a while, then goes on a huge run to prevail. See: Jan. 25 against Georgetown (down 14-0, won 73-56), Jan. 30 against DePaul (down 33-15 before going on 16-0 and 16-2 runs) and Feb. 7 against Cincinnati (down 49-43 before ending on a 28-5 run).

On Wednesday against UConn, Syracuse flipped the script, building a 50-34 lead then allowing the Huskies to come back and tie it with 2:34 left before hanging on for a 72-67 win. Yet it wasn't all that different in that at no point did I actually believe the Orange might lose. (Huskies fans will undoubtedly argue that the officials helped assure that with a couple of strange last-minute calls.) Syracuse just has so many guys it can go to in crunch time. Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins may be the first to come to mind, but on Wednesday, some of the biggest plays down the stretch came from the less heralded Rick Jackson (a big offensive rebound) and Kris Joseph (four made free throws in the last 11 seconds).

Next three: 2/14 vs. Louisville, 2/18 at Georgetown, 2/23 at Providence
 
3Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 4
When he's not busy raising a bajillion dollars for Haiti or building 42-14 halftime leads, John Calipari likes to have a little fun with UK fans. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted a picture from a SLAM magazine photo shoot featuring himself and four of his star players. Horrified Wildcats fans immediately inundated him to point out a potentially disastrous error -- John Wall's jersey (from the school's new batch of Nike LeBron outfits) had his team's name spelled "KENTCUKY." Apparently Calipari was well aware of the error when he sent out the picture -- Wall changed jerseys once they noticed -- but you just know some poor schmo at Nike will be getting a talking-to.

(I know Luke will be proud that I've already devoted an entire section to a style-related item.)

Calipari can afford to be lighthearted when his team has become so dominant that even a respectable 65-55 home win over Alabama on Tuesday elicited a heavy round of nit-picking. Wall posted his first "career" (hah-hah) double-double (22 points, 10 rebounds) and DeMarcus Cousins posted his seventh straight (16 points, 13 rebounds), but, "John Wall in the first half had turnovers. He lost three balls or four that were turnovers that weren't even forced," said Calipari. "... We weren't throwing the ball to DeMarcus enough in the first half and I was going nuts, but that being said, we had eight wide-open threes. We had some one-footers. How do you miss that?" That we should all have it so tough.

Next three: 2/13 vs. Tennessee, 2/16 at Mississippi State, 2/20 at Vanderbilt
 
4Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 3
Since when can a team give up 100-plus points in a loss and still be considered to have a good week? Only when that high-scoring loss comes on a Saturday at top-10 foe Georgetown (amidst an epic snowstorm that forced the team's star player to get stuck riding a train with opposing fans), and you're able to rebound in time to play another road game against another top-10 foe (West Virginia) two nights later, shoot 57 percent and win.

On Saturday, the Hoyas practically blew the Wildcats out of the building, jumping to a 23-point first-half lead and ending 'Nova's 11-game winning streak. They played right into Luke's point from last week about the Wildcats' shaky interior defense -- Georgetown wound up attempting a staggering 50 free throws. But it's hard to argue with Villanova's defensive showing in Morgantown, where they held Mountaineers star Da'Sean Butler to 13 points on 2-of-13 shooting. Meanwhile, Scottie Reynolds -- who had averaged just nine points in three previous trips to Morgantown -- delivered a more typical Scottie Reynolds performance, scoring 19 second-half points.

I'm not quite ready to echo my colleague Seth Davis' bullish assessment of the Wildcats' national title prospects, but they certainly showed off some resiliency with that 48-hour turnaround.

Next three: 2/13 vs. Providence, 2/15 vs. Connecticut, 2/21 at Pittsburgh
 
5Purdue Boilermakers
Last Week: 7
Remember that three-game losing streak in January? Ancient history. The Boilers have now won six straight, highlighted most recently by consecutive road wins against rival Indiana and, more notably, conference leader Michigan State, to move back within a half-game of first place in the Big Ten. Purdue's most attractive attribute all along has been its veteran leadership, and Tuesday's 76-64 win in East Lansing was a prime testimonial. The talented trio of juniors E'Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel combined to produce the following stat line: 21-of-35 field goals and 12-of-13 free throws for 59 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists.

Because of that aforementioned three-game losing streak (to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern), Matt Painter's team seemed to fall off the national radar, but looking at their overall resume, there's a lot to like. The Boilers are 5-1 against RPI top 25 teams, 8-3 against the top 50 and 9-2 on the road. If the season ended today, there's little doubt they'd be a No. 2 seed. But more pertinently, they and Michigan State have arguably the most favorable remaining schedules among the four teams currently tied for first in the loss column in the Big Ten. They each have last-place Penn State among their three remaining road games, and while the Boilers could be in trouble if they suffer a season sweep against Ohio State (they visit Columbus next week), they have a chance to complete sweeps of both the Spartans and Illinois at home.

Next three: 2/13 vs. Iowa, 2/17 at Ohio State, 2/20 vs. Illinois
 
6Kansas State Wildcats
Last Week: 5
This is almost like a bye week for Frank Martin's team, which won 79-75 at Iowa State last Saturday and doesn't play again until Saturday's home date with 9-12 Colorado. In the meantime, senior guard Denis Clemente is picking up some much-deserved recognition, winning both the Big 12 and Oscar Robertson player of the week awards earlier this week after averaging 26.5 points and hitting 11-of-17 three-pointers in the Wildcats' wins at Nebraska and Iowa State.

Clemente sprung for 30 in the win in Ames, hitting consecutive treys during a 19-3 second-half run. According to the Kansas City Star, it came after the senior started feeling a bout of nostalgia. "I've only got seven games left in my college basketball career," he said. "That makes me sad. I'll just be thinking sometimes, I better put everything I got into this."

Don't get too sappy on us jet yet, Dennis. K-State fans are presumably anticipating quite a few more games being added on in March beyond the seven currently scheduled.

Next three: 2/13 vs. Colorado, 2/17 vs. Nebraska, 2/20 at Oklahoma
 
7Georgetown Hoyas
Last Week: 12
For whatever reason, I've found myself watching more Georgetown games over the past two weeks (including the Jan. 30 Duke game in person) than any other team, and one thing has stood out. For all the talk of the Hoyas being essentially a three-man team (stars Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman and Chris Wright), it seems to be they've been getting plenty quality contributions from the rest of the rotation -- most recently forward Julian Vaughn's career-high 19 points in Tuesday's win at Providence.

So I checked to see whether Vaughn and his cohorts have in fact upped their productivity over their recent, largely impressive four-game stretch (an 89-77 win over Duke, a 72-64 loss to USF, a 103-90 win over Villanova and a 79-70 win at Providence).

Sure enough:

Vaughn:
- Season: 24.0 minutes, 8.7 points.
- Since 1/30: 23.5 minutes, 11.3 points.

Guard Jason Clark:
- Season: 32.7 minutes, 10.9 points.
- Since 1/30: 32.8 minutes, 11.5 points.

Forward Hollis Thompson:
- Season: 19.7 minutes, 4.0 points.
- Since 1/30: 18.3 minutes, 6.0 points.

No, those aren't dramatic increases, but with three consistent scorers already, the Hoyas need only one of these three to step up on any given night to be successful.

Next three: 2/14 at Rutgers, 2/18 vs. Syracuse, 2/23 at Louisville
 
8West Virginia Mountaineers
Last Week: 9
Monday's Villanova loss didn't particularly change my opinion of the Mountaineers, who I've long viewed as a Final Four dark horse, though it did demonstrate just how much they depend on Butler. Just two days earlier, Butler's 33-point explosion sent the Mountaineers caroming from a 16-point deficit early in the second half at St. John's all the way to a 79-60 victory. "You can't expect Da' to get 30 points every game and carry us,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said.

Now, the Mountaineers turn their attention to what figures to be an extra-fiery edition of the Backyard Brawl on Friday night. Just nine days removed from the infamous "coin toss" during West Virginia's 70-51 win over Pittsburgh, the Panthers get a rematch on their own floor. Hopefully the notoriously rowdy Oakland Zoo will devise a safer way to seek retribution. One West Virginia columnist suggests the Mountaineers bring umbrellas just in case.

Next three: 2/12 at Pittsburgh, 2/17 at Providence, 2/20 vs. Seton Hall
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