High Profile Programs Still Have Work To Do

Who would have projected, prior to the season, that we might have an NCAA Tournament field that doesn't include Arizona, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland and Syracuse? Well, that's a possibility, albeit a slim one. And one of those clubs has really dug itself into an NCAA Tournament at-large bid jam.

In November the basketball teams at Arizona, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland and Syracuse were consensus preseason Top 25 choices.

 

Come March 12, we could be scouring the brackets to project where some of those teams could be hooking up – in the National Invitation Tournament.

 

Yeah – hard to believe, eh?

 

With a little more than two weeks to go in the regular season, plus the conference tournaments, there is still more than enough time – except, in reality, for Louisville – to pump up the resumes for some of those 34 at-large bids that will be doled out for the NCAA Tournament.

 

Those who can't get that accomplished – and/or can't win their conference tournaments – will be welcomed by the open and loving arms of the new-look NIT (owned and operated by the NCAA).

 

Do you think the powers-that-be would like their chances of seeing a lot of humanity in Madison Square Garden seats with a semifinal field of, say, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland and Syracuse?

 

Here is a quick glance at what each of those five teams has to do in order to avoid becoming a part of that "Dream" NIT "Final Four" scenario – short of losing NIT games before getting to New York City, that is:

 

ARIZONA (15-10 overall and 8-6 Pac 10)
Remaining games:
at Stanford; vs. Arizona State, Washington State and Washington.

NCAA RPI (as of Feb. 13): 20.

WHY THEY ARE IN THIS PREDICIMENT: Many observers (including this one) overestimated the Wildcats' ability to compensate for the loss of two of the best players in the country last season (Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire). Lute Olson hasn't received nearly the same level of backcourt play that he's come to expect almost every season. The loss of sophomore Jawann McClellan (first to ineligibility then to a broken wrist) robbed the roster of what would have been the team's most dependable perimeter scorer.

HOW DIRE ARE THE STRAITS? Not as bad as the others on this list. A win at Stanford Sunday would remove all doubt – but the Cardinal is a team fighting for its at-large life and, some will tell you, should have beaten the Wildcats when the teams met in Tucson (when Arizona prevailed in overtime). With such a strong RPI (thanks, in large part, to the program's tough-as-usual non-conference slate), the Wildcats could lose Sunday but still get an at-large bid – minus any Pac 10 tourney heroics – with two wins in their final three games in Tucson.

NCAA or NIT? NCAA, stretching the Wildcats' streak to 22 in a row.

 

KENTUCKY (16-9 overall and 6-5 SEC)

Remaining games: at South Carolina; vs. Mississippi; at LSU and Tennessee; vs. Florida.

NCAA RPI (as of Feb. 13): 44.

WHY THEY ARE IN THIS PREDICIMENT: There just isn't as much "talent" in Lexington now as there used to be or is in the other "elite" programs (Duke, Connecticut and Kansas, to name three) or even within the SEC (Florida and LSU) at the present. There is only one player who interests the NBA (sophomore point guard Rajon Rondo) – and he is shooting 23 percent on 3's and 58 percent from the free-throw line.

HOW DIRE ARE THE STRAITS? It's nervous time in Big Blue Country. The team has just one victory (against West Virginia) over a team that will definitely be in the NCAA Tournament and that took place almost three months ago in Kansas City. But, barring a slipup against South Carolina or Mississippi, one victory in the final three games against better SEC teams (LSU, Tennessee and Florida) than they are – and no early exit in the SEC tourney – should have them breathing a lot easier in Lexington.

NCAA or NIT? There isn't going to be a potential Louisville showdown in Madison Square Garden – it will be the NCAA.

 

LOUISVILLE (16-8 overall and 4-7 Big East)

Remaining games: at Syracuse; vs. DePaul; at West Virginia; vs. Marquette; at Connecticut.

NCAA RPI (as of Feb. 13): 64.

WHY THEY ARE IN THIS PREDICIMENT: Heavy personnel losses – most notably, Francisco Garcia, Ellis Myles, Larry O'Bannon – weren't compensated for. Preseason injuries slowed the development of Juan Palacios and David Padgett, and an in-season ankle injury to Taquan Dean has limited his effectiveness. And Rick Pitino's freshman class wasn't nearly as ready for immediate and consistent contributions as many expected it would be.

HOW DIRE ARE THE STRAITS? They are extremely dire. There are no wins against teams that could be easily projected into the NCAA tourney field right now. And the non-conference schedule, overall, was weak. Even winning four of the final five regular season games – and that seems beyond the capabilities of this team – might not put the Cardinals squarely into at-large land.

NCAA or NIT? NYC, here they come.

 

MARYLAND (15-9 overall and 5-6 ACC)

Remaining games: vs. Georgia Tech; at Florida State and North Carolina; vs. Miami; at Virginia.

NCAA RPI (as of Feb. 13): 42.

WHY THEY ARE IN THIS PREDICIMENT: One of the team's two best scorers (Chris McCray) became ineligible at the semester break. There is no "true" point guard on the roster, leaving D.J. Strawberry to learn the position on the fly. Most of their recruits have turned into "good" but not "exceptional" (all-ACC caliber) players. The loss at Clemson at Tuesday night wasn't a crusher but, being the fifth defeat in six games, it was borderline so.

HOW DIRE ARE THE STRAITS? There have been some close calls (against Gonzaga and George Washington and, relatively speaking, Duke) but just one victory (over Boston College, on Dec. 11, at home) over an NCAA tourney-bound opponent. A loss at home to Georgia Tech Saturday would be a crusher in no uncertain terms.

NCAA or NIT? NIT, barring a turnaround of considerable magnitude.

 

SYRACUSE (17-8 overall and 5-6 Big East)

Remaining games: vs. Louisville and West Virginia; at Georgetown and DePaul; vs. Villanova.

NCAA RPI (as of Feb. 13): 28.

WHY THEY ARE IN THIS PREDICIMENT: With just one contributing senior, they are a year away from being, potentially, a very good team. And that senior, Gerry McNamara (.342 from the field, including .315 on 3's), hasn't been nearly the consistent perimeter scoring threat that has been needed this season. And the zone defense hasn't been nearly as difficult to solve for opponents as in seasons past: Syracuse has allowed 80 or more points six times in the past 10 games.

HOW DIRE ARE THE STRAITS? There are no victories against sure-fire NCAA teams but seven of the eight losses have come to teams that are definitely tournament-bound. And that keeps the RPI at a solid level right now. Three wins in the final five games (especially if two come against West Virginia, Georgetown or Villanova) should do the trick.

NCAA or NIT? NCAA, by the slimmest of margins, though – as in really slim margins.

 

BOUNCING AROUND THE COUNTRY:

*Memo to some in the media: Enough, already, of trying to shape the Mike Davis/Indiana situation into some level of Shakespearean tragedy. His past two Hoosiers' clubs missed the NCAA Tournament and he was told that, in order to return after this season, his team (apparently) had to get into the NCAA tourney this time around. It must have become apparent to him that the chances of getting into the tourney were becoming bleaker by the moment. Hence, Davis and his IU bosses discussed a contract buyout. And that was that.

 

Davis will resurface as the head coach at another Division I program and the Hoosiers will hire his replacement – which, everyone seems to be in agreement with, will be the current Iowa coach, and IU alum, Steve Alford.

 

And life will go on for all concerned.

 

*The news out of Stillwater Friday confirmed the worst fears of everyone who knows him or admires him from afar: Coach Eddie Sutton of Oklahoma State was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol on Feb. 10 after tests revealed his blood-alcohol level to be nearly three times the legal limit.

 

Wednesday Sutton announced he was taking a leave of absence from the program while seeking treatment for what he admitted was an "alcohol problem".

 

It's beyond sad to think that the on-the-court career of one of our generation's finest and most well respected basketball coaches may have come to an end with that as the backdrop.

 

*California, in dominating visiting Arizona from start to finish Thursday night in Berkeley, took

another step toward its first conference championship since 1960 when, coached by Pete Newell, the Golden Bears failed in their attempt for a second consecutive national title with a loss to Ohio State in the championship game.

 

Sophomores Leon Powe (30 points and 10 rebounds vs. the Wildcats) and DeVon Hardin make up the most imposing pair of post players in the West. But another significant reason why Coach Ben Braun's team is tied for the Pac 10 lead with UCLA is the much-improved play of junior point guard Ayinde Ubaka. He'll likely be an all-conference selection in a couple of weeks.

 

John R. Wooden Award Top 10 Ratings (statistics through games of Feb. 16)

1.  J.J. Redick (6-4, Sr., Duke)

He has scored fewer than 32 points only five times in 13 games during 2006. How about a jump-shooting contest between Redick and Chris Lofton of Tennessee in an NCAA Sweet 16 showdown?

Statistics: 28.9 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals per game (.508 FG%, .439 on 3's)

 

2. Adam Morrison (6-8, Jr., Gonzaga)

Quick, now . . . how likely is it that ABC would be televising Gonzaga's game at Loyola Marymount Saturday if Morrison wasn't in a Bulldogs' uniform? He has scored fewer than 30 points only four times in 11 games during 2006.

Statistics: 28.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals per game (.513 FG%, .445 on 3's)

 

3. Shelden Williams (6-8, Sr., Duke)

He has blocked at least three shots in 15 games, with an average of 5.5 over the past six contests. Check this out: He blocked 17 shots in the Blue Devils' two games with Maryland.

Statistics: 18.4 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 4.0 blocked shots per game (.587 FG%)

 

4. Rudy Gay (6-8, So., Connecticut)

He's really starting to play well, at least offensively. And he hasn't come close to fully tapping that enormous pool of potential he possesses.

Statistics: 16.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.9 steals per game (.463 FG%)

 

5. Nick Fazekas (6-11, Jr., Nevada)

It's become a two-player tussle for second-team All-America honors at center. LaMarcus Aldridge (Texas) is the competition.

Statistics: 21.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.6 blocks per game (.525 FG%)

 

6. Brandon Roy (6-5, Sr., Washington)

Mark the Feb. 26 date on your Games to Watch Calendar. That's when the two best players in the Pac 10 – Roy and Leon Powe of California – will be on the same playing surface in Seattle.

Statistics: 19.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.4 steals per game (.497 FG%, .406 on 3's)

 

7. Chris Lofton (6-2, So., Tennessee)

How is this for "feeling it" – 23 of 33 on shots behind the arc over the past three games?

Statistics: 17.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.1 steals per game (.494 FG%, .465 on 3's)

 

8. Mike Gansey (6-4, Sr., West Virginia)

He'll need one of his better games of the season Saturday in Morgantown if the Mountaineers are going to hand the most talented team in the country (AKA, "The University of Connecticut Huskies") a second loss this week.

Statistics: 17.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.2 steals per game (.572 FG%, .444 on 3's)

 

9. P.J. Tucker (6-5, Jr., Texas)

Teammate LaMarcus Aldridge made a strong move over the past two games (42 points and 24 rebounds) but Tucker played well enough to remain in the Top 10 at least another week.

Statistics: 16.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.9 steals per game (.539 FG%)

 

10. Randy Foye (6-3, Sr., Villanova)

The jump shots better start falling, consistently, soon or he could be replaced here – maybe by teammate and classmate Allan Ray.

Statistics:  20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals per game (.415 FG%, .373 on 3's)

 

Others:  LaMarcus  Aldridge (Texas), Greg Brunner (Iowa), Rodney Carney (Memphis), Aaron Gray (Pittsburgh), Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina), Darrel Mitchell (LSU), Leon Powe (California), Craig Smith (Boston College), Steven Smith (LaSalle) and Alando Tucker (Wisconsin).

 

Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame last April, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com


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