You can hear it, see it, smell it, feel it. That month that dominates all others is approaching with all the subtlety of a Victor Oladipo alleyoop. The next time the Fast Break convenes, we will be in That Month. How glorious!
It is fitting, then, that this week we have covered all four corners of the nation, from a Big East beast to a hot-shooting star out West. We've got a young point guard from the South and a heartwarming story from the heartland. The Madness is nearly upon us, so there's only one thing to do: Sprint towards it! Lace 'em up and run the floor with me as we send February out with a bang.
Player of the Week (tie): Otto Porter, 6-foot-6 sophomore forward, Georgetown; Kendall Williams, 6-4 junior guard New Mexico
Both of these players deserved to get recognized, not just for their individual achievements but because of the circumstances in which they occurred -- in critical conference games on the road. There really is no logical explanation for what Williams did in the Lobos' win at Colorado State. His previous career high was 24 points, but he shattered that by scoring 46 -- on a Mountain West-record 10 made three-pointers -- to spur the Lobos to a 91-82 win. Those were the top two teams in the Mountain West standings, so Williams' heroics gave New Mexico a two-game lead for first place. Porter, meanwhile, injected himself into the national player of the year conversation by scoring a career-high 33 points to go along with eight rebounds and five steals. Porter's numbers are even more astounding when you consider Georgetown scored just 57 points in the win. Given that this was the last Big East regular season game that Georgetown will ever play in the Carrier Dome, Porter's performance was literally one for the ages.
Team of the Week: Saint Louis
It is not all that shocking that the Billikens are alone in first place in the Atlantic 10, but given the road they traveled to get here, it is amazing nonetheless. The team had to suffer the passing of its coach, Rick Majerus, early in the season, yet last week Saint Louis posted its two best wins, throttling VCU by 14 points at home and then edging Butler 65-61 in Hinkle Fieldhouse, to take command of this competitive conference. The Billikens were fashioned in Majerus' image -- their five starters are all averaging between nine and 12 points per game -- but give Majerus' interim replacement, Jim Crews, a lot of credit for holding everything together. Saint Louis has a solid inside-outside combination in point guard Kwamain Mitchell and power forward Dwayne Evans, but its ability to take care of the ball and play lockdown defense has fueled this climb to the top. If the Billikens can keep it rolling and win a few games in the NCAA tournament, all of America will be rooting for them.
Freshman of the Week: Marcus Paige, 6-foot point guard, North Carolina
Paige has had a difficult adjustment to playing college ball, but it's no coincidence that North Carolina is playing its way into the NCAA tournament just as Paige is starting to figure things out. He played his best game of the season on Saturday when he had 14 points, eight assists and zero turnovers in the Tar Heels' 76-65 win over N.C. State. He also had eight points and five assists (to two turnovers) in the Heels' win at Georgia Tech on Tuesday, which came on the heels of a 17-point, four-assist performance in a home win over Virginia on Feb. 16. The best thing that Paige has done during this three-game win streak is attack the basket. During his first eight games this season, Paige attempted a total of one free throw. One! Before the Virginia win, he had just one game where he attempted more than four free throws. In the three wins, however, he shot six, eight and five free throws, respectively, and made 18 out of 19. If Paige is going to keep playing this aggressively and efficiently, then North Carolina will definitely be playing in the NCAA tournament.
Glue Guy of the Week: D.J. Stephens, 6-5 senior forward, Memphis
Stephens is one of the most explosive athletes in the country, which is why despite his modest height he is leading the Tigers in rebounding with 6.8 per game. That gift, combined with his 36.4 percent clip from three-point range, would lead you to believe he is also a big-time scorer, but he is actually seventh on the team with just 7.3 points per game. That means Stephens sacrifices his scoring ability for the sake of the team, but if the team needs him to score, he can provide that jolt. That's what he did for the Tigers last week. Stephens scored a season-high 16 points (to go with seven rebounds and five blocks) in the Tigers' 16-point rout of Southern Miss, and he added 14 points, 10 rebounds and two steals in a seven-point win over Houston last Wednesday. The Tigers have now won 18 straight games, and even though Stephens does not get most of the headlines, people who watch this team on a regular basis know that Memphis would have a much harder time winning without him.
Under the Radar Player of the Week: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
Hardcore hoopheads like us have had Cannan on our radar for quite some time. After all, as a junior he led the Racers to a storybook 31-2 season, and last November he was named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press. It might seem like the Racers are having a more pedestrian season, but they are still 20-7, and Canaan is still one of the top combo guards in the country. He proved as much last week when he scored 35 points (10 for 11 from the foul line) in the Racers' double-overtime win at Morehead State. Then on Saturday, Canaan outplayed South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters in their much-anticipated Bracket Busters matchup, scoring 22 points and dishing out five assists in an 11-point win.
Best win: Saint Mary's 74, Creighton 66
I have been saying for years that I believe Randy Bennett does his teams a disservice by not putting together a tougher schedule in the nonconference. The Gaels have a high quantity of wins, but very few of high quality, and they whiffed on their chance to knock off juggernaut Gonzaga at home. Creighton has been stumbling of late, so Saint Mary's really could have put itself in a bind by losing. So give the Gaels credit for taking care of business behind 19 points (on five made three-pointers) by Matthew Dellavedova.
Worst loss: Oklahoma 90, Baylor 76
The Bears were already leaking oil coming into this one, having dropped five of their previous seven, and while there is no shame in losing at Oklahoma, the fact that Baylor was never in the game does not bode well for its chances to make the NCAA tournament. As usual, the problem for Baylor was on the defensive end. The Bears allowed the Sooners to shoot 45 percent from the floor, 50 percent from three-point range, and allowed them to attempt 45 free throws. The Bears have 11 total losses against just two top-50 RPI wins. They have to win at least three of their remaining four games to have a chance at an at-large bid. That would mean splitting with Kansas State and Kansas at home, and sweeping West Virginia and Texas on the road. Doable, but given the way they have been playing the last three weeks, that's not very realistic.
Flavor of the Week: Tennessee
Don't look now, but the Volunteers have won five straight and seven of their last nine to move two games over .500 in the SEC and put themselves back in the bubble picture. Tennessee also has a flair for the dramatic, winning at Texas A&M on Saturday in four overtimes behind point guard Trae Golden's career-high 32 points. We will find out whether this flavor of the week represents a quick sugar high or something of true substance on Tuesday night, when the Vols host Florida in Knoxville. If Cuonzo Martin's crew can pull off that upset, they will really get tongues flapping in Bracketland.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Memphis has won 18 games in a row, but it's still hard to evaluate the Tigers. Are they this good, or is Conference USA this bad? Xavier is not a great team, but it is also not easy to defeat at the Cintas Center. So this will be a good barometer for whether Memphis has the chops to play its way deep into the NCAA tournament.
This is the rematch we've all been waiting for, but it really won't decide much. Miami is still two games clear in the ACC standings, and there is a good chance these two will meet again in the ACC tournament for the chance to get a number one seed. What would really make this game interesting would be if Duke forward Ryan Kelly becomes available after missing two months with a foot injury.
Syracuse's prowess was called into question over the weekend when the Orange couldn't beat Georgetown at home. That makes this one even more of a must win. Somehow, Syracuse needs to figure out a way to get more scoring off its defense, because this is not a good jump shooting team.
UCLA tends to play up (or down) to the level of its competition. The Bruins need this one in a big way, not so much for their NCAA tourney hopes (they're pretty much a lock) but to rediscover their good vibrations for the home stretch.
This is the Atlantic 10's marquee game as both teams are spending their first year in the league. VCU plays with great energy at home, and Butler's guards generally do not like to be pressured.
A Few Minutes With ... UConn Coach Kevin Ollie
This Week's AP Ballot
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Indiana (1)
2. Duke (4)
3. Michigan State (3)
4. Miami (2)
5. Michigan (5)
6. Gonzaga (6)
7. Georgetown (11)
8. Arizona (9)
9. Kansas (16)
10. Syracuse (7)
11. Florida (8)
12. Kansas State (10)
13. Louisville (14)
14. New Mexico (15)
15. Wisconsin (17)
16. Oklahoma State (18)
17. Ohio State (22)
18. St. Louis (NR)
19. Memphis (NR)
20. Illinois (23)
21. Marquette (12)
22. Akron (24)
23. Louisiana Tech (25)
24. Butler (19)
25. California (NR)
Dropped out: Pittsburgh (13), N.C. State (20), Colorado State (21)
When I posted my ballot on Twitter Sunday night as I always do, the biggest reaction I got was about my decision to rank Michigan State at No. 3. How in the world could I decide not to drop the Spartans after they lost twice?
This is just the kind of formulaic groupthink that tickles me about the way people vote in polls and react to them. One of Michigan State's losses came at home against No. 1 Indiana. You can't penalize the Spartans for that. The other loss came on the road at an Ohio State team that I have ranked 17th. Why should I beholden to a simple "they lost twice" without looking at who the opponents were and where the games were played? And it was only a week ago that the Spartans embarrassed Michigan. Why should Michigan be ranked ahead just because the Wolverines beat Illinois at home in the only game they played last week?
You'll also note that I did not drop Miami too far for the loss at Wake Forest. Let me tell you, Wake Forest is not a bad team. They're no worse than Maryland, which beat Duke last weekend. The bottom line is, we are entering the last week in February, and Miami has just one loss in the ACC. The Canes will have to slide a little more for me to really drop them.
I've also written and said in various places that I will have a hard time ranking Gonzaga higher than No. 6. The Zags are in the midst of a terrific season, and they are certainly capable of reaching the Final Four. But not even the most ardent Gonzaga fans believe they would be undefeated if they were in the Big Ten. So we are left to ask: Are they better than Michigan? Are they better than Miami? Are they better than Michigan State? My answer right now is no, no and no.
St. Louis and Memphis are both on a roll and have played their way onto my ballot. I made room for them by finally dumping North Carolina State (without a doubt the most frustrating team to watch in the country), Pittsburgh (lost to Notre Dame at home), and Colorado State (lost at UNLV and at home to New Mexico). My two midmajor faves, Akron and Louisana Tech, continue to validate my faith by remaining unbeaten in their respective conferences. And I'll also bid a hearty welcome to California, not because I'm afraid Mike Montgomery is going to put me in the camel clutch if I don't, but because his Bears are on a major hot streak, having won seven of their last eight games, including a sweep over Oregon, a home win over UCLA and a road win at Arizona.
The teams tied for 26th this week were Wichita State, which has righted the ship with five straight wins; UConn, which has won four out of five including in overtime over Cincinnati; and UNLV, which has won four out of its last five to climb back into a tie with San Diego State for third place in the Mountain West.