By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. NEW MEXICO DESERVES TO BE MENTIONED ALONG WITH GONZAGA FOR A NUMBER ONE SEED IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
I’ve written for weeks about how it was going to tough to evaluate teams like Gonzaga and Memphis in terms of their NCAA Tournament potential, mostly because both schools were going to go through long stretches without facing teams that would be playing in the field of 68. The Bulldogs may very well be the number one team in the nation when you’re reading this — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga did play an arduous non-conference schedule that featured games that they won against Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Kansas State. However, they’ve also went through a stretch where the only teams that they played since January 19th that are locks for the NCAA Tournament are Butler and Saint Mary’s. To me, this team is just benefiting from the parity that exists in the sport, and is a product of other teams in high-major conferences tumbling atop the rankings week after week. If there’s a squad that should be rewarded outside the power six conferences with a No. 1 seed, it’s New Mexico. We’ve heard all season long how this has been a breakout year for the Mountain West Conference, and the Lobos have won the league outright. The Mountain West will send four, and possibly five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Steve Alford’s team has tested themselves in a better league than Gonzaga, one that is far greater than the WCC in terms of overall depth. Just something to chew on as we’re 13 days from Selection Sunday — but hey, who’s counting?
2. LARRY DREW IS THE KEY TO UCLA
Did we think we’d be hearing that at the start of the season? The Bruins’ resurgence is due to many different reasons but Drew’s emergence as a competent floor general has been enormous. The transfer from North Carolina has been stellar running the show in Ben Howland’s new high-octane approach, and has an impressive 7.8 to 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. UCLA wouldn’t be in position to win the PAC-12 without their freshmen trio of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, and Jordan Adams — but Drew is the gas in this team’s engine. His turnaround around after a disappointing couple of seasons in Chapel Hill has been a terrific story. The Bruins are currently 22-7 overall and 12-4 in PAC-12 play.
3. MIAMI IS BUILT FOR ATLANTA
The Hurricanes were a bit of an unknown after they fell last weekend at Wake Forest, but their gritty performance in Saturday’s loss at Duke proves they have what it takes to go deep in the NCAA Tournament and make a run at the Final Four in Atlanta. Miami traded blows with Duke for 40 minutes on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and might have gotten a victory if Ryan Kelly didn’t explode for 36 points in his first game back from a foot injury. Jim Larranaga’s team has solidified sophomore point guard Shane Larkin as their go-to-guy, but they still need more out of Reggie Johnson moving forward. The burly big man has only reached double-figures twice in the 12 games he’s played since returning from a thumb injury.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. CINCINNATI-LOUISVILLE ON MONDAY NIGHT
Can the Bearcats get back on track against one of the elite teams in the Big East Conference? It all depends on Cashmere Wright. Cincinnati may have beaten UConn at home on Saturday but Wright continued to struggle, and only made two of fourteen shots against the Huskies. This game won’t be pretty, but Mick Cronin has proven over the past few years that he’s more than capable of having success against his former boss Rick Pitino. For the Bearcats to have a chance, they’re going to need Wright to be the player he was in November and December. That means he’s got to play like an All-Big East point guard — something he hasn’t come close to resembling the past few weeks. In Cincinnati’s past nine games, Wright is 14-of-71 from three-point range.
2. OHIO STATE AT INDIANA ON TUESDAY
We simply don’t know what to make of the Buckeyes. Ohio State has at times looked like a tough, hard nosed team that we could see finding a way into the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Others, they look like they could be bumped in their first game in the field of 68. Thad Matta’s team has won three tilts in a row, but it’s yet to be determined if they have what it takes to compete with a team like Indiana. The Hoosiers are still the most complete team in college basketball, and have been near flawless at home over the past month. It will take a remarkable effort from Ohio State to stay close in this game.
3. THE REMATCH BETWEEN VCU AND RICHMOND ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT
The Spiders shocked the Rams in the first meeting between these two teams this season when they rallied and upset their crosstown counterparts in overtime. Will history repeat itself? Not if VCU plays the way it did against Butler on Saturday. The Rams had 17 steals against the Bulldogs and forced 23 turnovers en route to an 84-52 win. Richmond is extremely well coached by Chris Mooney, and they’ll have to be at their best to sweep VCU. The big difference between this game and the first time these two teams played? The Siegel Center. The Rams’ home court advantage has got to be worth an extra six-to-eight points for VCU, who always seem to thrive when they play in what is arguably one of the more underrated venues in college basketball. Tip off is at 8 PM on Wednesday on CBS Sports Network.
THIS AND THAT:
- Boise State kept their at-large hopes alive on Saturday night with a huge win over Colorado State. The Broncos now boast victories over the Rams, UNLV, and Creighton and close the season with games against the Runnin Rebels and San Diego State. Don’t rule out the Mountain West from sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament.
- The more and more I watch this Bucknell team, the more and more they remind me of the Cornell team that went to the Sweet 16 in 2010. On the interior, Mike Muscala is a better version of Jeff Foote, the 7-footer who started for the Big Red at center three years ago. The Bison don’t have a star on the wing like Cornell had with Ryan Wittman, but Cameron Ayers and Bryson Johnson are both lethal outside shooters who each shoot better than 40% from three-point range. This team will be a nuisance to play in the NCAA Tournament — as long as they take care of business in the Patriot League.
- Derek Kellogg is quietly putting together another solid season at Umass. The Minutemen are 18-9 after Saturday’s win at Xavier, and close the season with a home game against Butler and a road tilt at Rhode Island. Umass would have to do serious work in the Atlantic 10 Tournament to have a chance of reaching the field of 68, but a second consecutive 20-win season looks to be within reach. The Minutemen won 25 games last season and reached the Final Four of the Postseason NIT.
- Oklahoma senior guard Sam Grooms should be a model for college athletes everywhere. Grooms saw his playing time decrease this season when the Sooners brought in three freshmen at his position, but has responded in a big way since Oklahoma lost first-year guard Buddy Hield to a foot injury a few weeks ago. In the Sooners last five games, Grooms is averaging 14.8 points and 5.0 assists per game.
- The NCAA Tournament would be even better if it featured Princeton senior Ian Hummer. The 6-7 power forward is an absolute ox in the paint (16.4 PPG 6.6 RPG), and epitomizes everything college basketball should be about. Hummer and the Tigers are now in first place in the Ivy League after Harvard dropped two games this past weekend. Princeton will earn a place in the field of 68 if they can win their final three games, which are all on the road.
- Temple continues to great get mileage out of Jake O’Brien. The stretch power forward has scored in double figures in five straight games for the Owls, and has really given Fran Dunphy a legitimate offensive option off the bench. The 6-9 O’Brien has extended the defense, and made 16 three-pointers in his last eight games. Temple has won five in a row (21-8 overall) and looks all but assured of a place in the NCAA Tournament.
- Marquette is now 14-2 this season in games where Junior Cadougan commits two turnovers or less. The stocky point guard isn’t the first player people notice when they watch the Golden Eagles, but he’s easily Buzz Williams’ most important piece. Cadougan has been Marquette’s key cog for three consecutive seasons, and is the main reason why Williams will to get to his fifth NCAA Tournament in five years as head coach of the Milwaukee school. Marquette is currently 21-7 overall.
- VCU’s Darius Theus is officially one of the more underrated floor generals in college basketball. The 6-3 point guard played a brilliant all-around game in the Rams’ decimation of Butler on Saturday, scoring eight points, dishing out nine assists, and recording five steals. Often overlooked defensively because of his relentless counterpart Briante Weber, Theus can no longer lay in the shadows if he continues to play like he did against the Bulldogs. “If our team is a snake, he’s the head,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said of Theus on Saturday. “If the game’s on the line and we have to put somebody on the other team’s star player, it’s not going to beBriante Weber. It’s going to be Darius Theus.” The Rams are currently 23-6 on the season.
- Cal has won seven consecutive games, and has one of the nation’s most underrated back courts in Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs. The Bears have also gotten a nice lift from junior power forward Richard Solomon, whose averaging 6.6 rebounds per game during the seven-game winning streak. Cal is 12-5 in PAC-12 play and 20-9 overall. The Bears will close conference play Wednesday at home against Stanford.
- Will home court advantage make a difference in the NEC Tournament for Robert Morris? We think so. Andy Toole’s squad has the top seed in the conference playoffs for the first time in three seasons, and possesses an excellent chance to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. The Colonials lost in the title game to eventual champion LIU in each of the past two seasons. Robert Morris opens the postseason on Wednesday in Moon Township against St. Francis NY.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: CINCINNATI AT LOUISVILLE
TUESDAY: OHIO STATE AT INDIANA, ARKANSAS AT MISSOURI, ILLINOIS AT IOWA
WEDNESDAY: GEORGETOWN AT VILLANOVA, OKLAHOMA STATE AT IOWA STATE, RICHMOND AT VCU, SAINT LOUIS AT XAVIER
THURSDAY: OREGON AT COLORADO, KENTUCKY AT GEORGIA, WISCONSIN AT MICHIGAN STATE
Should New Mexico get a No. 1 seed? Be heard in the comments!