Syracuse claims the top spot, while New Mexico vaults into the top five
After a week full of upsets, Syracuse ascended to the top while the second half of the top five became increasingly muddled. Enjoy these rankings, because come next Sunday only one set of numbers -- the ones they read on CBS -- will matter.
Last Week: 3
Syracuse Orange (28-2)I don't know about you, but I was pretty stunned to find out just how long it has been since the Orange have held the top spot in the regular-season polls. Syracuse -- with its Hall of Fame coach, his three national-title game appearances (including the 2003 championship) and lineage of stars (Louis Orr, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Carmelo Anthony, just to name a few) hasn't reached No. 1 during the regular season since January 1990. On Tuesday night against St. Johns, the Orange claimed their first outright Big East title since 1991.
The question is, might it be wise for Syracuse to lose once more before Selection Sunday? A look back at recent history shows that the team holding the No. 1 spot in the AP poll entering the Dance likely will NOT cut down the nets on April 5. It hasn't happened in the last eight years:
Year AP No. 1 Finish
Last Week: 1
Kansas Jayhawks (28-2)The word most commonly heard in the aftermath of Kansas' ugly 85-77, not-nearly-as-close-as-the-score-indicated loss at Oklahoma State last weekend was "buzzsaw," because that's exactly what the Jayhawks encountered. Kansas hadn't played a game like that all season. James Anderson and the Cowboys -- who shot a staggering 60.4 percent from the field -- played out of their minds. "I don't think that the thing is broke," Bill Self said of his team afterward, and it'd be hard to disagree.
Wednesday night, on an extremely emotional Senior Day in Lawrence, the Jayhawks affirmed their coach's assessment by shaking off a shoddy first half to run away from highly ranked rival K-State, 82-65. It was KU at its finest, with four players scoring in double-figures (Cole Aldrich wasn't even one of them) and the defense dominating the paint, rendering the Wildcats one-dimensional. Sherron Collins hit just 1-of-9 field goals in the first half but scored seven straight points during a ferocious second-half run to finish with 17.
As is Senior Day tradition, Collins addressed the Phog Allen Fieldhouse crowd afterward. He said the Jayhawks had accomplished one of their goals by winning an outright Big 12 title but have their sights set on another prize. "Hopefully," he said, "this ain't my last speech at the Fieldhouse."
Next up: 3/6 at Missouri, 3/11 vs. TBD (Big 12 tournament).
Last Week: 2
Kentucky Wildcats (28-2)John Calipari has spent much of the season nitpicking his young but terrifically talented team, trying to manage already way-out-of-whack expectations. However, following last Saturday's loss at Tennessee -- in which the Wildcats struggled from outside (again), fell behind by 19 points, rallied to tie the game 65-65, but eventually succumbed to their second defeat of the season -- Cal was accentuating the positive.
"What we found out is, we're not bad," Calipari stated. "We've got a chance. When you shoot 2-for-22 (on three-pointers) and it's 65-65, wow."
Not surprisingly, the one constant both in Kentucky's short-lived comeback last Saturday and Wednesday's 80-68 win at Georgia (which came into the game 12-3 at home) was John Wall, who seems almost to enjoy adversity. Against Tennessee, he drove to the basket for seven straight points to cut the lead from 17 to 10, finishing with 19 on the night. Against the Dawgs, he had one particularly monstrous slam, scored 24 points and could be seen most of the night smiling and chest-bumping teammates.
Think the guy will have a little bit of fun when it's win-or-go-home in a couple of weeks?
Next up: 3/7 vs. Florida, 3/12 vs. TBD (SEC tournament).
Last Week: 8
Ohio State Buckeyes (24--7)Their work is done -- for now. The Buckeyes clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title and wrapped up the No. 1 seed in next week's Big Ten tournament with a 73-57 rout of Illinois on Tuesday. Thad Matta isn't likely to win any national coach of the year honors for this year's squad, but it's probably time for a greater appreciation of what he's accomplished in his six seasons in Columbus.
He's won three Big Ten titles in the past five seasons. Columbus Dispatch columnist Bob Hunter put that achievement in perspective by noting that Michigan State -- the conference's flagship program in hoops -- has won one title in eight years. He took over in the wake of a recruiting scandal that cost predecessor Jim O'Brien his job and caused the program NCAA sanctions (including a postseason ban his first year) and still somehow convinced Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook to sign up. Yet he won his first title in 2006, a year before they arrived, then followed it up with another -- and a national title appearance -- with that loaded '07 team, after which those three immediately left. Two more one-and-dones followed. But here he is, three years later, with another league title team built around one superstar, four solid veterans and just one contributing reserve.
Ultimately, of course, teams are judged by how they fare in the postseason, and so far only that '07 team has made it out of the first weekend. Turner needs to lead this team on a deep tourney run to cement Matta's status as one of the nation's premier coaches.
Next up: 2/12 vs. TBD (Big Ten tournament).
Last Week: 10
New Mexico Lobos (28-3)The best game I've seen this season took place last Saturday, but unfortunately, most of the country (especially DirecTV subscribers, who don't get Versus) missed it. With a share of the Mountain West title on the line, New Mexico and BYU staged an up-tempo, back-and-forth thriller chock full of big-time plays. The Lobos caught a bit of a break when Cougars star Jimmer Fredette had to miss all but 59 seconds of the second half with a stomach problem but still deserve massive props for going on the road and ending BYU's 21-game home winning streak, 83-81, with a last-minute surge.
Chalk me up as a New Mexico believer. These guys can play with anyone. Star wingman Darington Hobson lived up to his billing, posting 20 points and 14 rebounds and, in the biggest play of the game, sprinting from the help side to block Noah Hartsock's potential game-tying put-in with one second left. Roman Martinez, the team's lone senior, drained several big shots down the stretch when BYU seemed to be continually on the brink of gaining separation. And point guard Dairese Gary was the most valuable player on the court, scoring 23 and dishing six assists against just one turnover (though his slew of missed free throws at the end kept New Mexico from putting it away sooner.)
The Lobos are looking like a fairly solid No. 3 seed, with the slight possibility of sliding up to No. 2 depending on other conference tourney results. If that happens, would New Mexico become a rare two seed that Vegas dubs a second-round underdog? I don't know, but if so, I'd gladly take that bet.
Next up: 3/11 vs. TBD (Mountain West tournament).
Last Week: 5
Duke Blue Devils (25-5)With the fall of Robbie Hummel-less Purdue, the fourth No. 1 seed was suddenly Duke's to lose -- until it lost to Maryland. Now it's anyone's best guess.
It's not like the Blue Devils were terrible against the Terps -- they actually did an admirable job fighting back from an early deficit and hitting big shots for much of the second half. The problem is, it continued a season-long theme for Coach K's team -- simply put, it hasn't been able to beat good teams on the road. They've played five RPI top-50 foes on the road and lost to four of them, beating only Clemson on Jan. 23. That's not the sign of an elite team.
But if Duke isn't deserving of No. 1, who is? The Devils entered Wednesday's game ranked No. 2 in the RPI and No. 1 on KenPom, and those numbers aren't likely to be greatly affected by losing a close game at Maryland. They still boast eight wins over top-50 teams -- more than Kentucky, same as Syracuse. It looks like the race for No. 1 may come down to whichever of the following teams -- Duke, Ohio State, Kansas State, Villanova and Purdue -- goes farthest in its conference tourney.
Next up: 3/6 vs. North Carolina, 3/12 vs. TBD (ACC tournament).
Last Week: 6
Kansas State Wildcats (23-5)The Wildcats likely needed to pull off the upset in Lawrence to have a real good chance at a No. 1 seed. A close loss would have garnered a new round of respect nationally. Unfortunately, the lopsided final score probably reinforced what a lot of skeptics around the country already believed: That K-State is overrated.
Just last weekend, however, the Wildcats took care of business against Missouri, improving its record to 7-3 (now 7-4) against top-50 foes. K-State destroyed a very good Xavier team, beat Baylor on the road and its worst loss was to a team ranked 54th (Ole Miss). K-Stat is 10-3 away from home.
The point is, it's probably unwise to sleep on Frank Martin's club, which had won seven straight prior to Wednesday night's rout, but as my colleague Seth Davis (who attended the game) observed, K-State can't rely on its big men for offense. They Wildcats will go as far in March as guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente can carry them. If that means the Elite Eight -- where the 'Cats haven't been since 1988 -- it will have been a very successful season.
Next up: 3/6 vs. Iowa State, 3/11 vs. TBD (Big 12 tournament).
Last Week: 4
Purdue Boilermakers (25-4)The Boilers' first game without Robbie Hummel pretty much embodied every Purdue fan's worst fears: The boys in black and gold could not score. Michigan State held them to a season-low 44 points last Sunday, with leading remaining scorers E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson hitting a combined 7-of-27 shots. So went Purdue's 10-game winning streak.
Then came a much-needed source of relief: A Senior Day visit from 9-20 rival Indiana. Offense wasn't a problem for the Boilers in their 74-55 win, highlighted by 21 points from Moore. Chris Kramer, who seems to be stepping up most prominently in Hummel's absence, sprang for a season-high 18 points while Johnson added 14. In that regard, it wasn't much different from Purdue games of the past: Three guys doing most of the scoring and everyone else filling their roles.
You don't want to put too much emphasis on either result -- the Michigan State game was their first without Hummel, and Indiana isn't a good litmus test (nor is Penn State this weekend). We'll just have to wait until next week's Big Ten tournament to get a better sense of where the new-look Boilers stand against other upper-level foes. In the meantime, this is admittedly arbitrary rankings spot.
Next up: 3/6 at Penn State, 3/12 vs. TBD (Big Ten tournament).
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