Thursday February 18th, 2010

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
9Wisconsin Badgers
Last Week: 11
So you're Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, and your team is already playing well, sits right in the thick of the crowded Big Ten title race and is defying a certain set of "experts" that predicted last fall your team wouldn't even reach the NCAA tournament. How could life get any better? By finding out earlier this week that leading scorer and rebounder Jon Leuer has been cleared to return for Thursday's date with Minnesota after missing the past nine games with a broken wrist.

It's not like the Badgers fell to pieces without their 6-foot-10 center, despite losing his 15.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. They were 13-3 before he went down, 6-3 without him. But there's no question Wisconsin has been missing an inside presence. Ryan's team ranks last in the Big Ten in free throws per game (13.5) and scored just six points in the paint in last week's loss to Illinois, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Ryan declined to say whether Leuer will immediately return to the starting lineup or whether he'll come off the bench. Even if he's not yet 100 percent, Wisconsin will benefit from having an injection of size after relying so heavily the past few weeks on 6-8 Keaton Nankivil as their lone contributor taller than 6-6.

Next three: 2/18 at Minnesota, 2/21 vs. Northwestern, 2/25 at Indiana.
10Michigan State Spartans
Last Week: 14
A pair of wins over the Big Ten's bottom feeders (Penn State and Indiana) allowed the Spartans to recover their groove following a three-game losing streak. More importantly, it allowed star guard Kalin Lucas to show his ankle sprain is behind him. The evidence:

2/13 at Penn State (W 64-54): 35 minutes, 24 points, 10-of-15 field goals, six assists, three steals and one turnover.

2/16 at Indiana (W 72-58): 31 minutes, 13 points, 6-of-11 field goals, four assists, two turnovers.

"Every time we thought we were going to cut it and start to make a little dent, get a little momentum, Kalin would come back with a big shot," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "There is no question he is a next-level player, an All-American, the whole deal.

Next three: 2/21 vs. Ohio State, 2/27 at Purdue, 3/2 vs. Penn State.
11Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 9
Give the Buckeyes credit for one thing: They came as close as you possibly can to taking a top-five team (Purdue) to overtime Wednesday despite falling behind by 15 points early in the second half and getting almost no offensive production outside of one player, star Evan Turner (29 points). In the closing seconds, Purdue's Chris Kramer blocked William Buford's driving lay-up and Jon Diebler missed an open three-pointer from the top of the key to seal the 60-57 loss.

On the surface, it was hardly a damning result, even if it did end the Buckeyes' nine-game Big Ten winning streak, but it did showcase this team's one glaring Achilles Heel: No depth. Thad Matta used just six -- yes, six -- players the entire game. Four starters -- Turner, Diebler, Buford and Dallas Lauderdale -- played all 40 minutes.

For a mid-February home game? Why not? But what happens when the Buckeyes try to play three games in three days at the Big Ten tourney or two games in three days in the NCAAs? You never know -- that Mark Titus season-ender could bite them in the butt.

Next three: 2/21 at Michigan State, 2/24 at Penn State, 2/27 vs. Michigan.
12New Mexico Lobos
Last Week: 12
My man Seth Davis gave a big shout out to Lobos star Darington Hobson in this week's Sports Illustrated, calling him "the best player you haven't heard of this season." Hobson made him look smart on Wednesday night against Wyoming, putting up 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in New Mexico's 83-61 rout.

Hobson and the Lobos had to fight a lot harder last weekend at Utah, pulling out a 68-65 overtime win. Hobson scored just eight points in that one, yet was one basket away from a triple-double, notching 11 assists and 10 rebounds.

A year ago this time, the Las Vegas native was toiling in obscurity at the College of Eastern Utah. Remarkably, he's putting up nearly the same exact numbers in the Mountain West conference (15.5 points, 8.8 rebounds) as he was in the Scenic West (real name) conference (15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds).

Next three: 2/20 vs. Air Force, 2/23 at Colorado State, 2/27 at BYU.
13Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last Week: 13
With the Zags firmly in control of the WCC, it's time to start looking ahead to the Bulldogs' likely NCAA seeding. Most current projections have Matt Bouldin and Co. looking at a No. 4 seed, same as last year's team, which went 25-5 in the regular season and 14-0 in conference play.

But take a closer look at the numbers and you'll find that this year's Zags don't have quite as sterling a resume as last year's squad, which went 6-3 against RPI top-50 foes, including neutral-court wins over No. 19 Oklahoma State and No. 25 Tennessee and a road win over the Vols. This year's team sports just three top-50 wins (vs. No. 16 Wisconsin, and a pair over No. 46 St. Mary's) and carries two notable blights -- a loss at No. 206 San Francisco and a 76-41 beatdown by Duke. Its last five regular-season foes are all ranked 206th or lower.

If the Zags win out, it would be hard for the committee to justify anything less than a No. 4 seed, but if they suffer even one setback, or if some of the other teams near their current seed line catch fire, a drop to the No. 5 or 6 spots isn't out of the question. Gonzaga doesn't have the same margin for error as a major-conference team.

Next three: 2/18 at Loyola Marymount, 2/20 at Pepperdine, 2/25 vs. Santa Clara.
14Georgetown Hoyas
Last Week: 7
There's bad losses -- and there's losing at Rutgers, a team that entered the contest with the Hoyas last Sunday sporting a 2-9 record in league play. Credit Fred Hill's team for gutting out both its 71-68 win over Georgetown and a subsequent 68-64 victory at DePaul in which the Scarlet Knights rallied from a 17-point deficit, but losing to Rutgers doesn't inspire confidence that the Hoyas -- who have looked so impressive at times, so lethargic at others -- could win four straight games in the NCAA tournament.

"I'm not taking anything away from Rutgers or any team that we lost to," guard Chris Wright said, "but in the games that we lost, we have mental lapses where we just don't make the stops we need to make."

If their season-long history holds true, the Hoyas will likely bring their A-game defense on Thursday night against Syracuse, but it will be interesting to see whether their offense flows against the Orange's pesky zone. In the teams' Jan. 25 game at the Carrier Dome, Georgetown scored just 56 points (its second-lowest total of the season) despite going on a 14-0 run within the first three minutes of the game.

Next three: 2/18 vs. Syracuse, 2/23 at Louisville, 2/27 vs. Notre Dame.
15Brigham Young Cougars
Last Week: 15
It was the Jimmer Fredette Show on Wednesday at Colorado State, as the Cougars' junior guard did what he does best: score. Fredette put up 36 points, tied for his second-most this season (behind his epic 49-point outburst against Arizona), draining 6-of-10 three-pointers in a 92-70 rout.

Hard to believe that one game earlier, BYU notched an even bigger blowout (91-48 over Air Force), despite just nine points from their 21.5-points-per-game star.

"That's the way he is," forward Noah Hartsock said. "One game he will pass up a shot to find the wide-open shooter, and the next game he will score in the 30s."

Next three: 2/20 at Wyoming, 2/24 vs. San Diego State, 2/27 vs. New Mexico.
16Vanderbilt Commodores
Last Week: 16
It's not a stretch to say that the Commodores' season may ultimately be defined over the next 48 hours. Trailing Kentucky by one game in the loss column in the SEC East, with an 8-2 league record, Vandy visits 17-7 Ole Miss on Thursday, followed by a Saturday night showdown at Memorial Gymnasium with John Wall and the Wildcats.

Thursday night's game in Oxford will be tricky, as the Rebels are smack dab on the NCAA tourney bubble and figure to play with a purpose. Vandy, a year removed from missing the NCAAs, is in position to duplicate its No. 4 seed from 2008 (when it got upset by Siena in the first round) with an outside shot of garnering its first three seed since 1993.

But it would hardly be surprising if Kevin Stallings' team gets caught looking ahead to Saturday, when the home crowd figures to be rocking for a visit from the No. 2 team in the country. Kentucky owns a staggering 132-43 all-time lead in the series, though the Commodores have won six of the past nine meetings dating back to 2006. But let's be honest, those weren't the finest set of Kentucky teams. This particular meeting will be huge.

Next three: 2/18 at Ole Miss, 2/20 vs. Kentucky, 2/25 vs. Georgia.

The rest: 17. Butler. 18. Tennessee. 19. Pittsburgh. 20. Texas A&M. 21. Virginia Tech. 22. Richmond. 23. Temple. 24. Northern Iowa. 25. Baylor. 26. Texas. 27. Illinois. 28. Xavier. 29. Siena. 30. UTEP. 31. San Diego State. 32. Cal.

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