By Andy Staples
February 28, 2010

Welcome back to college basketball, Mr. and Mrs. Casual Fan. Thanks to that tape-delayed fiasco in Vancouver, you're probably about two weeks later to the party than usual. That's OK. You picked the best possible day to come back to college hoops.

Saturday opened with No. 2 Kentucky falling at Tennessee. Then, No. 1 Kansas lost at Oklahoma State, making Saturday the first day since Jan. 21, 2006 that the top two fell. New Mexico and BYU played a thriller in Provo, confirming the schools' vise-like hold on the Mountain West (likely a two-bid league). Then, in front of the largest-ever on-campus crowd to watch a college basketball game, Syracuse clinched a share of the Big East regular-season title and laid claim to No. 1 in the new poll by blasting Villanova, 95-77.

While NBC showed the U.S. bobsled team winning a gold medal you already knew about, the Orange warmed the hearts of 34,616 in the Carrier Dome -- in real time on ESPN, no less -- with a performance so hot it probably melted the snow banks piled up throughout the city. Hopefully, you wrestled away the clicker and watched because the passion of the fans, combined with the quality of the Orange's play, to paint a scene more beautiful than a million sequins and triple-toe loops.

Most years, the average sports fan returns to college basketball with about seven weeks remaining in the season. In Winter Olympics years, the migration takes a little longer. So much has happened since November, but here's a quick refresher in case you were too busy watching football and curling these past three months toread the Twitter feed purportedly produced by Syracuse guard Andy Rautins' hair:

1. In spite of what happened Saturday, North Carolina isn't very good. If you haven't watched a minute of college basketball since the last time CBS played "One Shining Moment," you might have been shocked to learn the Tar Heels entered Saturday with just three ACC wins. As if they knew the wider sports world started watching again Saturday, the Heels shocked Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. That still won't help Carolina in an ACC that suffers from the same malady as its football counterpart -- a bunch of slightly above-average teams beating up on one another.

2. The Big East remains the nation's best conference. Syracuse rocked Villanova, but the Wildcats still have five wins against top-50 RPI opponents. Notre Dame bolstered its résumé Saturday with a win against tourney-bound Georgetown, and if the next two weeks go well, the Fighting Irish could be the eighth Big East team invited to The Dance.

3. The Big 12 is deep, too. Oklahoma State probably punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, and guard James Anderson earned some overdue national publicity by scoring 27 in the Cowboys' 85-77 win against the Jayhawks. Meanwhile, Texas A&M beat Texas in a clash of top-25 teams. The Longhorns' bad luck continued. Days after they lost guard Dogus Balbay to a torn ACL, guard J'Covan Brown was carted off the court on a stretcher after falling and hitting his head on the court. (He was released from the hospital after being diagnosed with a neck strain.) Meanwhile, Kansas State, which still could play its way into a No. 1 seed, beat Missouri by 10.

If any of this comes as news to you, don't feel bad. I'm right there with you. I love college hoops, but my primary beats at are college football and football recruiting. By the time I wrapped up most of the loose ends following National Signing Day, it was Valentine's Day and I hadn't covered a single slam dunk.

That issue has been rectified. On Tuesday, I sat courtside as Tennessee flopped at Florida. After the game, Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl didn't seem that upset. Just life on the road late in the season, he said. On Saturday, Pearl's Vols withstood a John Wall-led comeback to upset Kentucky. In case you're counting, that's two wins against potential No. 1 seeds for the Vols, who beat Kansas just days after Pearl booted the team's best player, Tyler Smith, following an arrest on gun and marijuana possession charges. "There's nobody else in the country who has done that," Pearl said. "Tennessee's done that."

When the conference tournaments wrap on selection Sunday, don't be shocked if both Tennessee victims, Kansas and Kentucky, wind up as No. 1 seeds. This isn't football, after all. The Jayhawks and Wildcats would have to suffer a few more out-of-character defeats to wear away the cachet they've banked since November.

Joining them should be Syracuse, which features beasts down low (Rick Jackson, Arinze Onuaku), shooters outside (Rautins, Wes Johnson) and a defensive scheme (the 2-3 matchup zone) that will make life difficult for tourney opponents with just one day between games to prepare.

On Saturday, the Orange used that inside muscle to dominate fellow top-10 resident Villanova. Syracuse forwards Jackson, Onuaku and Johnson combined to score 50 points and grab 27 rebounds. The Orange looked tough and versatile, and they didn't appear to tire despite going only seven deep.

So is Syracuse the nation's best team? Who knows? Fortunately, unlike the sport I usually cover, college basketball teams don't have to sit idly by and allow the polls to answer that question. In less than three weeks, Syracuse, Kentucky, Kansas, Tennessee and the rest will state their cases on the court at the NCAA Tournament. Five weeks from Monday, "One Shining Moment" will play again.

Don't feel bad about being fashionably late, casual fans. Just sit back and enjoy. The next five weeks are going to be a blast. The best part? You won't have to watch a single game on tape delay.

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