By Luke Winn
December 09, 2008

About that Final Four-site test run last night in Detroit: When the real thing happens, I assume North Carolina's challengers will be better prepared than Michigan State was. But does that mean UNC's semifinal and title-game foes will only lose by 15, instead of 35? (Records through December 4)

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
Got a different view than Luke?
1 North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Week: 1
A topic other than a Tar Heels rout: Might senior guard Danny Green, who's only in the starting lineup because senior Marcus Ginyard is hurt, be a better NBA draft prospect than Wayne Ellington? The general assumption was always that Green would get drafted next June, but only after Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington were off the board. Now there are scouts who think Green could, as one said to me last night, be a "Matt Barnes-type of player" who defends the perimeter, rebounds, and knocks down the occasional three -- a attractive package for a high-second or even late-first-round pick. There's concern that Ellington, despite his smooth scoring abilities in the NCAA, might not be able to get his shot off or defend at the NBA level, so don't be stunned if he's picked behind Green. Meanwhile, Lawson's decision to stick around for his junior year -- one that was forced upon him after he was arrested in the lead-up to the draft -- was a smart one. He's shooting 54.5 percent from three, has a 6.1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and looks like a lock for the Lottery.
Next three: 12/13 vs. Oral Roberts, 12/18 vs. Evansville, 12/20 at Valparaiso
2 Connecticut Huskies
Last Week: 2
Is the Huskies' seven-year streak of leading the nation in blocks in jeopardy? With just one real shot-swatter on the floor (Mr. Hasheem Thabeet), they're averaging a measly 6.3 swats per game, which ranks 14th in the nation. Perhaps the return of Stanley Robinson, the springy 6-9 forward who's eligible for the second semester, will propel UConn back into its normal range of 8-plus blocks. They'll still have to fend off Mississippi State, which is currently ranked No. 1 at 11.3 per game (the Bulldogs have Jarvis Varnado averaging an absurd 6.1 blocks per night, and sophomore Elgin Bailey and senior Brian Johnson swatting two each). And Ohio State, which plays at quite a slow pace, is going block-crazy on the tempo-free end: The Buckeyes are blocking a nation's best 25.2 percent of opponents' two-point attempts, which is amazing -- even Mississippi State only gets 23.2. Much of this can be attributed to 6-8 sophomore Dallas Lauderdale, who's averaging 4.5 blocks per game and has the wingspan of Bao Xishun. (If not for the rheumatism, Bao would have been a legendary shot-blocker.)
Next three: 12/4 at Buffalo, 12/15 vs. Stony Brook, 12/20 vs. Gonzaga in Seattle
3 Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 4
Thanks, Coach K, for making me feel like less of a fool for selecting Hasheem Thabeet ahead of Blake Griffin in our college "Dream Team" draft back in November. Following Duke's win at Purdue on Tuesday, K, in explaining the wide-open field beyond Carolina, said (to CBS Sports) that there were only four players in the country who could carry a team to greatness on their own: UNC's Tyler Hansbrough, Oklahoma's Griffin, Davidson's Steph Curry ... and UConn's Thabeet, whose lane presence (at 7-3) changes far more shots than he actually blocks. So what do the Blue Devils, who look like a legit Final Four contender, do to compete? They defend like mad on the perimeter (holding Purdue to 2-of-13 from three), and to borrow from a classic pregame speech by Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery, "They're f------ animals."
Next three: 12/6 at Michigan, 12/17 vs. UNC-Asheville, 12/20 vs. Xavier in East Rutherford, N.J.
4 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last Week: 11
On Monday in our In The Paint blog, we looked at the Old Zags vs. the New Zags, or how far Gonzaga has come defensively since the last year of the Adam Morrison Era. The difference was striking: When the Zags weren't playing much D, in November 2005, their average efficiency margin through their first five games was plus-6.6. That, like 2008, included two cupcakes and three early-season tournament games. In '08, the more defensively minded Zags' average efficiency margin was plus-31.6. They're leaving themselves far more room for error on bad offensive nights. Mark Few's boys check in at ninth nationally in raw defensive efficiency thus far, while the No. 1 team overall is Washington State. Move over, Madison: Spokane and Pullman are the nation's new defensive capitals.
Next three: 12/6 vs. Indiana in Indianapolis, 12/10 at Washington State, 12/14 vs. Arizona in Phoenix
5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last Week: 5
How far should a team drop when its only loss came when its star player had pneumonia -- against the nation's No. 1 team? Zero spots, I say. Irish forward Luke Harangody was diagnosed with pneumonia after the loss to North Carolina last Wednesday, and has been sidelined ever since. It's hard not to feel sympathy for someone who contracts the typically cold-weather illness in Hawaii -- they were at the Maui Invitational -- and then has to travel back into chillier climes. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey told the Chicago Tribune that a 'Gody return for the game against Boston University on Dec. 13 was likely, which means he could miss Saturday's showdown with Ohio State in Indianapolis. Surely the NCAA tournament selection committee wouldn't value a 'Gody-less loss there the same way ... but if Kyle McAlarney keeps making nine threes a game, the Irish will be just fine.
Next three: 12/6 vs. Ohio State in Indianapolis, 12/13 vs. Boston, 12/20 vs. Delaware State
6 Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Week: 6
Last week from Newark, we discussed Sam Young's pump-fake. Wazzu's Tony Bennett called it "world-class," and I like how Young said, "I tell guys, I've got the best pump fake in the business." As a 35.5 percent three-point shooter, he's just dangerous enough from beyond the arc to keep defenders honest (and therefore, flying by him). It's weird how these Panthers are almost statistically reminiscent of last season's Memphis squad, which shot 34.9 percent from long-distace (ranking 170th) and 61.4 percent from the free-throw line (ranking 329th) but was still very offensively efficient (ranking fourth overall). Pitt is slightly better in both cases, shooting 35.2 percent on threes (ranking 121st) and 66.7 from the stripe (ranking 207th), while sitting at No. 1 in the offensive efficiency rankings.
Next three: 12/6 vs. Vermont, 12/13 vs. Maryland-Baltimore County, 12/17 vs. Siena
7 Oklahoma Sooners
Last Week: 10
I used to think that the most interesting thing about superpower forward Blake Griffin was that he once autographed a rubber duck. Then the Lost Ogle brought the blogosphere a fine set of pictures of Griffin in drag, frolicking in a meadow in a pink halter-top. The photos appear to be from some sort of farcical production, perhaps from high school; instead of making John Amaechi jokes, commenters should be crediting Griffin for having the balls to be filmed in that getup. He looks vaguely like Debbie, the Angry Unpaid Hooker from Episode 1 of HBO's The Life and Times of Tim. (An excellent show, by the way. Kind of like a more awkward version of Dr. Katz.)
Next three: 12/4 vs. USC, 12/7 at Tulsa, 12/10 vs. Maine
8 Tennessee Volunteers
Last Week: 8
It's impressive how much news the Bruce Pearl family provides to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Early in November, the paper's Web site ran a Pearl-narrated photo tour of his new mansion, complete with shots of him reclining in his home theater ("I don't watch tape in here, because it's too comfortable," he says) and appearing to change a pool filter. The third photo in the series pictures his new girlfriend, Brandy Miller, opening the fridge; in the accompanying article, Pearl calls her the "love of his life." Then, on Nov. 25, the paper ran a story about Pearl's ex-wife, Kim Shrigley, opening a hair and nail salon in Knoxville, which is called ... Alimony's. And funded by cash from their divorce. In other news, the Vols beat Georgetown but lost to Gonzaga in the Old Spice Classic last week, looking like a top-10 team but not one worthy of the top five.
Next three: 12/13 at Temple, 12/16 vs. Marquette in Nashville, 12/20 vs. Belmont
9 Texas Longhorns
Last Week: 16
I thought Dexter Pittman might have a breakout year as a junior, now that he has slimmed down from a Grimace-type character into the shape of a decent power forward. His offensive rebounding productivity was off the charts last season; in limited minutes, he grabbed 21.5 percent of available offensive boards. (Blake Griffin only grabbed 13.7 percent as a freshman, for comparison.) Two factors have been working against Pittman, though: Not many minutes have been freed up in the 'Horns' frontcourt, since no one left, and his playing time has only jumped form 6.8 minutes per game to 10.0. He's also getting in all kinds of foul trouble, committing four in 12 minutes against Stetson, four in 15 minutes against Tulane, and four in five minutes (yes, five minutes) against Notre Dame. He's averaging a foul every 3.6 minutes he's on the floor this year, which is not gonna cut it in the Big 12.
Next three: 12/4 vs. UCLA, 12/9 vs. Villanova in New York, 12/13 vs. Texas State
10 Xavier Musketeers
Last Week: 13
There's a blog called "Xavier Thoughts," which I thought might be a decent resource for Musketeers nuggets. Turns out it's a blog run by a guy named Xavier, who's a registered nurse specializing in complex wound care. There are a lot of pictures of guns on the blog, probably because, as Xavier says in his bio, he "opposes gun control of any sort, and carries a weapon 24 hours a day." No basketball there. So I had to actually DVR the Musketeers' game against Auburn last night, which got a little closer than it should have. The big things there were 32 points from B.J. Raymond, some bad defense, and the fact that Xavier broke its grey jersey hex (according to CBS College Sports' announcers, who said it was the first time grey had been worn since a loss to Tennessee last season).
Next three: 12/10 vs. Ohio, 12/13 at Cincinnati, 12/20 vs. Duke in East Rutherford, N.J.
11 Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Last Week: NR
Sophomore Jeff Teague is off to a nice start for the Deacs, averaging 20.0 points and 5.0 assists playing the point while Ish Smith, who broke his foot in September, has been easing his way back into the rotation. As good as Wake has been thus far, it could really use Smith's point guard skills: He was the only regular on the roster last season who had more assists (141) than turnovers (84). Teague is committing too many turnovers to leave him as the permanent point, and as a team, the Deacons' assist-to-turnover ratio is 0.835-to-1, which ranks 220th in the country.
Next three: 12/6 vs. Bucknell, 12/14 vs. Wright State, 12/19 at Richmond
12 Davidson Wildcats
Last Week: 14
More on the Jimmy Patsos Watch: The Loyola (Md.) coach who patented the Stop Curry At All Costs D -- losing to Davidson by 30 as he double-teamed Steph at all times, holding him to zero points, then saying afterward, "I'm a history major. They're going to remember that we held him scoreless or we lost by 30?" -- wrote a letter to PTI's Wilbon & Kornheister, who had ripped Patsos for the stunt. Albany Times-Union writer Pete Iorizzo ran a copy of it in his blog this week, and it includes some great lines explaining the defensive strategy and praising Davidson's way of handling it. Like this one: "As an American I wish we had leaders like McKillop and Curry, who could have gotten the CIA and FBI to talk so we could have prevented the 9-11 tragedy, or saw that Fannie Mae was creating a mortgage crisis coming which could cripple a country. The Davidson basketball family united the way I wish Wall Street would have instead of letting so many Americans retirement be lost. I wish his staff could have advised the administration who got us into a war in Iraq which cost us countless lives, and disabilities, countless money and has gone on longer than WWII. I know these are extreme examples to show that the Davidson basketball family adjusted, made smart choices and unselfish choices for the good of the team."
Next three: 12/6 vs. N.C. State, 12/9 vs. West Virginia in Jimmy V Classic, 12/13 vs. Chattanooga
13 Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 15
I re-opened the Style Archive on Tuesday, regrettably without having seen the work of one Paul Harris, whose warmup afro before Monday's Colgate game made him appear to be walking around in a cartoon stormcloud. Thanks to reader Patrick Brennan for sending it in; Pat says the 'Cuse has been "underrepresented" in the Archive over the past two years. The impending inclusion of Mr. Harris should help address this injustice. It should be noted that Harris did not actually play with that hair; he put it into a ponytail because it was far too unwieldy for game action. "I was glad he tied it up a little bit," coach Jim Boeheim told the Post-Standard. "It was scaring me in the locker room."
Next three: 12/13 vs. Long Beach State, 12/15 vs. Cleveland State, 12/17 vs. Canisius
14 Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: NR
Dante Cunningham was a guy who was best known, at least on the Internet, for dunking on Kevin Durant two seasons ago in a game at the Wachovia Center. Cunningham was never much of an offensive force, though, averaging 8.7 and 10.4 points the past two years, respectively. As a senior, though, he's scoring 17.9 points per game and already has three double-doubles, making him the early front-runner for Big East Breakout Player of the Year (if such an award existed). Said teammate Dwayne Anderson, who also played with Cunningham in high school, "I'm more surprised, shocked and happy than anyone else because I've been watching him since he was a young'un. We've played together for a long time and I'm the one usually taking the shot and he's the guy getting the rebound and passing it back to me. Now he's the one rebounding and taking the shots. He's become a go-to guy."
Next three: 12/4 vs. Houston Baptist, 12/9 vs. Texas in New York, 12/11 vs. St. Joe's
15 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Last Week: NR
One of the subjects from our YouTube story in August, Kige Ramsey, is a Western Kentucky student who was in Nashville for the Hilltoppers' upset of Louisville on Sunday. He filed a breathless report for the mythical YouTube Sports network from a darkened hallway of the arena, saying, "I am so proud of Western Kentucky, I can hardly contain my excitement." Given that the game was only on Fox College Sports network, and was listed in my digital cable guide as Western Kentucky vs. Murray State instead of the third-ranked Cards, many folks only saw SportsCenter highlights and Ramsey -- making it like a lesser version of the Hidden Upset. (By the way, if you're questioning why WKU is in here despite having two losses, let the record note that the 'Toppers have beaten one NIT team, Southern Illinois, and two NCAA teams, Louisville and Georgia, in succession.)
Next three: 12/6 at Tulane, 12/13 at Evansville, 12/18 at South Alabama
16 Dayton Flyers
Last Week: NR
The Chris Wright Posterizes Maurice Acker dunk has spread like wildfire around the Web this week. Everyone's seen it by now. A lesser-known nugget about Mr. Wright was in the Dayton Daily News on Wednesday: He's taking tap-dancing classes at UD, and says that "it really helps with my flexibility and footwork." Wright further defended his dancing curriculum by saying, "Michael Jordan took ballet, too. People take ballet and tap as being feminine, but they don't know. Once you get into it, you understand it's a form of art. My teacher is 65 years old, and he can do a handstand for two minutes without getting dizzy."
Next three: 12/6 at Akron, 12/10 at Creighton, 12/13 vs. Coppin State

On the cusp: Louisville, UCLA, Marquette, Memphis (all four in upset purgatory ... and all four will probably be back in the big kids' section soon), Wisconsin, Georgetown, Purdue, Butler, Baylor, Arizona State, St. Mary's, Kansas, Michigan State and all the other teams you were considering sending e-mails about to point out our total lack of respect for the program.(If you still feel like sending e-mail, I'm here.)

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