December 30, 2013

Andrew Harrison had 18 points as the Wildcats knocked off archrival Louisville on Saturday.
Jeff Moreland/Icon SMI

Kentucky might have the greatest collection of talent in the country, but before last weekend that had yet to manifest itself in a big win. In their first 12 games, the Wildcats played three ranked teams, Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina. They lost all three of those games, each of which was played outside of Lexington.

Just when it looked like Kentucky was on its way to a statement win at home against archrival and defending national champion Louisville on Saturday, Julius Randle was forced out of the game with cramping in his legs. That's when John Calipari's youngsters showed why they might be the most dangerous team in college basketball this year.

Randle dominated the Cardinals in the first half, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting. With him rendered ineffective in the second half, the Wildcats went small, shut down Cardinals guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones and rode their own backcourt trio of James Young and Andrew and Aaron Harrison to their first needle-moving victory of the season. Randle was the one player to show up offensively for UK in the losses to Michigan State and Baylor. In the loss to UNC, it was Aaron Harrison who did his job while his teammates faltered. In all those games, the Wildcats simply didn't get enough production spread across the roster to beat a team with a similar level of talent. If the perimeter players -- who combined for 46 points on Saturday -- continue to click with a healthy Randle, however, the Wildcats won't be a 3-seed in the Bracket Watch much longer.

Meanwhile, the reigning champs may be in some trouble as they get ready for their one and only season in the new American Athletic Conference. Louisville is 11-2, but it just kicked junior forward Chane Behanan off the team for violating university policy, costing the Cards a key contributor to their Final Four teams of the past two seasons. The Cardinals have yet to beat a team in Ken Pomeroy's top 70 and have lost to the only two ranked teams they've played, North Carolina and Kentucky. As we saw on Saturday, Louisville has few reliable scoring options outside of Smith and Jones, who combined for 37 points but shot just 14-for-33 from the field. No other Cardinal was in double figures and the next highest scorer, Luke Hancock, had eight.

Louisville will get its feet wet in conference play this week with games at Central Florida and Rutgers but a showdown with Memphis looms on Jan. 9. If the Cards fail to develop a third scoring option, they could end up running behind Memphis and Connecticut in the AAC.

West Region

1. Arizona (13-0, Last week: West 1)

The top-ranked Wildcats wrapped up a perfect non-conference slate with a win over Northern Arizona last week. They kick off their Pac-12 schedule by hosting Washington State on Thursday and Washington on Saturday.

2. Baylor (10-1, LW: W2)

The Big 12 conference schedule starts this weekend, but the Bears won't get their first conference game until next week. That will be a big one, though, as they travel to No. 13 Iowa State on Jan. 7.

3. Duke (10-2, LW: W3)

If Andre Dawkins shoots the way he did against Eastern Michigan -- he made six of 10 attempts from behind the arc -- with consistency, the Blue Devils will have the best offense in the ACC.

4. Wichita State (13-0, LW: W4)

After posting just 15 rebounds in his first four games this month, Cleanthony Early has grabbed 10 in each of the Shockers' last two games, helping him to his first pair of double-doubles this season. Wichita State, ranked No. 8 in the latest AP poll, has an excellent chance to be the final unbeaten team in the country, but lackluster competition may prevent it from climbing much higher in the Bracket Watch.

East Region

1. Syracuse (12-0, LW: E1)

The Orange turned an 18-point, first-half deficit into a dominant 16-point victory over a then-undefeated Villanova team on Saturday. Syracuse enters ACC play as the clear favorite in its first season in the conference.

2. Wisconsin (13-0, LW: E2)

The Badgers open Big Ten play at Northwestern on Thursday before hosting No. 22 Iowa on Sunday. A win over the Hawkeyes would give them their second victory against a ranked team this season.

3. Florida (10-2, LW: E3)

Once again, the SEC is likely the worst power conference in the country. While that should help the Gators boost their win total, they won't get another chance for a signature win until they visit Kentucky on Feb. 15.

4. Kansas (8-3, LW: Midwest 4)

Hopefully the Jayhawks used their off-week to rest and recharge for the continuation of their brutal non-conference slate. Before starting Big 12 play next week, Kansas -- which has already played Duke, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Georgetown -- hosts MAC favorite Toledo and No. 21 San Diego State.

Midwest Region

1. Ohio State (13-0, LW: MW1)

Can the Buckeyes get consistent enough offense from LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. now that conference play has arrived? The answer to that question could determine whether they can claim at least a share of their fourth Big Ten title in five years.

2. Villanova (11-1, LW: MW2)

A loss at Syracuse isn't enough to knock the Wildcats off a 2-line this week but they'll need more balanced scoring from the perimeter. James Bell made 6-of-12 from behind the arc against the Orange, but Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono combined to shoot just 1-of-10 from the floor in the loss.

3. Kentucky (10-3, LW: On the cusp)

Beat a team like Louisville while looking like a team that earned the preseason No. 1 ranking? Yeah, that's enough to jump up to a 3-seed from the outside in a week. After a week off, the Wildcats will start SEC play with games against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.

4. Iowa State (11-0, LW: E4)

DeAndre Kane had his best game as a Cyclone on Christmas Day, scoring 23 points in a 70-66 win over Boise State. Iowa State starts conference play at Texas Tech on Saturday, but it will get a chance for a statement win against No. 9 Baylor on Jan. 7.

South Region

1. Michigan State (11-1, LW: S1)

Like the Buckeyes, the Spartans have two conference games that should serve as tune-ups before the two titans clash on Jan. 7. MSU visits Penn State on Tuesday and Indiana on Saturday.

2. Oklahoma State (11-1, LW: S2)

The Cowboys begin their Big 12 schedule at Kansas State on Saturday, but their first big game in the conference doesn't come until they travel to Lawrence to face Kansas in the middle of January.

3. Memphis (9-2, LW: MW3)

Don't read too much into Memphis changing brackets and matching up with Oklahoma State -- whom the Tigers have split a pair of games against already this season -- this week. With Louisville dropping out, the Tigers had to move to square up with NCAA bracketing rules. They start AAC play against South Florida on New Year's Eve.

4. Oregon (12-0, LW: S4)

Don't sleep on the Pac-12, which features six of Ken Pomeroy's top 50 teams. The Ducks, who rank 21st on, get one of those teams in No. 30 Colorado on Sunday.

On the cusp

North Carolina: The Tar Heels, who failed to impress in a win against Northern Kentucky last week, will be heavy favorites in their next three games before traveling to Syracuse on Jan. 11. Given how topsy-turvy their season has been, there's no predicting how those four games will turn out.

Colorado: The Buffaloes just can't crack into the upper portion of the Bracket Watch despite their only losses coming on neutral courts to Baylor and Oklahoma State. A win over No. 10 Oregon on Sunday would change that.

Louisville: The dismissal of Behanan will hurt at both ends of the floor. Though his numbers had dropped now that he was coming off the bench this year after starting for two seasons, he finishes his Louisville career with averages of 9.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, solid stats for a team that has gotten underwhelming production from its frontcourt this season.

Connecticut: Shabazz Napier had 15 points and dished out nine assists as UConn cruised to a win over Eastern Washington last week. The Huskies open AAC play with games at Houston and Southern Methodist this week.

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