As the Roundball Turns

As the college basketball regular-season rapidly approaches its conclusion, it's time to start looking ahead to what might lie ahead for Louisville come March. Who are the top teams? Most over-rated? Cinderella's? Here's our opinions.

Resurgence or Collapse?

Will No. 12 Louisville regroup from last week's disappointing performances against Memphis and South Florida or are those two games evidence of another late season collapse by the Cardinals?

That seems the most pressing question on the minds of Cardinal fans these days. So what's wrong with Louisville these days, many have wondered?

Perhaps nothing. Most college basketball teams these days – unless you're Illinois – lose some games as the conference season nears its heated conclusion. It happened to Louisville against Memphis. It's also happened to Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Syracuse and other Top 25 teams in recent days, too. And it's easy to figure out why these upsets happen all the time. The teams in conference know you're strengths, and by now, they also know you're weaknesses.

And keep in mind. Memphis is one of the hotter teams in Conference USA right now. The Tigers have won 5 of their past 6 games and freshman point guard Darius Washington's improved play is a major reason why Memphis will be a serious threat to win the league tournament title next month.

But back to the original question. It's hard to imagine this Louisville team, with two seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, will suffer the same fate as the 2002-03, and 2003-04 squads. For one, late season injuries were major factors in early round NCAA Tournament ousters the past two seasons. This bunch appears healthy heading down the stretch – save the normal bumps and bruises that typically occur this time of year – something Rick Pitino hasn't had the luxury of in quite some time.

However, the only way this team can shake free of the ghosts – or collapses of recent seasons past – is to prove it on the court. And they'll get their chance Thursday night against Marquette on the road. If these Cardinals find a way to beat the Eagles, with a healthy Travis Diener and Steve Novak, you can rest assured they'll finish the season strong.

If not? Well let's not think about that possibility right now --

Top Contenders

Who's the best team in college basketball?

North Carolina gets my vote. The Tar Heels have experienced talent all over the court. They can score inside and out, have plenty of quality depth and are battle tested. And any team that brings 6-9 Marvin Williams – arguably the nation's best freshman – off the bench will have to be reckoned with in March.

You've also got to like undefeated Illinois. Sure they're playing in the less than stellar Big Ten. But they've got one of the top backcourts in the country and they've met every challenge so far this season. Also, don't discount teams like Kansas, and their four seniors with Final Four experience, or Syracuse and likely Big East Player of the Year Hakeem Warrick. And Wake Forest, if they play consistently solid defense, has the talent necessary to be considered a favorite to end the season in Saint Louis.

Over-rated

Kentucky and Duke top this list. Sure the Wildcats sit atop the SEC – in a down year for the league. But they've got some major flaws that are sure to be exposed in March. For one, the team's top inside post presence, 6-6 Chuck Hayes, repeatedly struggles against bigger, more athletic forwards. They also can be prone to struggle with their outside shooting – see 26% three point shooting in loss to South Carolina. And while Rajon Rondo has enjoyed a fine freshman season, he's still a rookie. And that's not necessarily a winning formula in March.

As for Duke? Where's the depth to make a deep run in the tournament. They've got plenty of McDonald's All-Americans on the roster but can J.J Reddick possibly lead this team to a Final Four? We think not. How to beat Duke? Just ask Maryland. The Terps know how to get it done against the Blue Devils – they've already beaten them twice this season.

Cinderella's

Gonzaga, Pacific, and Charlotte.

The Zags haven't been the most consistent team this season but they did hand Washington, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State their first losses of the season. And they looked good last week against a solid Pepperdine club.

Pacific, you say? Consider this. They returned four starters from a team that knocked off Providence last season in NCAA first round. At 20-2, Pacific has quality wins over Fresno State, Nevada and Santa Clara, who beat North Carolina early this season.

And Louisville fans are plenty familiar with Bobby Lutz and the 49ers. Currently 17-4 and second behind the Cardinals in the C-USA standings, Charlotte has proven they can beat tough opponents like Indiana, Cincinnati, and UAB. They also took SEC West leader Alabama to overtime before falling 102-101 earlier this season. Behind forward Curtis Withers and sharp-shooter Brendan Plavich, the Niners have plenty of quality depth.

Five, maybe six from C-USA?

Louisville already has a spot reserved for the Big Dance. And Charlotte, Cincinnati, and DePaul also appear shoe-ins. That leaves three teams, UAB (16-7), Marquette (17-7) and Memphis (15-10) battling to become the fifth or perhaps sixth teams from the league to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. And with the league tournament in Memphis, the Tigers, especially considering the way they've been playing lately, could be a dangerous draw on its home court.

Of note, Louisville is a combined 4-1 against C-USA's NCAA Tournament contenders. But Louisville fans would be wise not to celebrate just yet. Not with road games remaining at Marquette, Memphis, and DePaul. And there's still a home date with Charlotte, too.


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