AUDIO: March Madness Preview

Are you looking for some help filling out your March Madness brackets? Or, are you a college hoops fan looking for another perspective on the Tournament? If so, make sure you take 10 minutes to listen to my chat with Aaron Torres this afternoon.

During our chat we covered the following topics:

* Aaron talked about being at Madison Square Garden for the Syracuse-UConn game
* Aaron talks about what teams were unfairly left out of tournament field
* We both share our sleeper teams to watch for
* Aaron explains which players could step up and become household names this month
* We end things by talking about our predictions for the Final Four and National Champion

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A Game For The Ages

We all came for different reasons.

Some were workers at Madison Square Garden. Others fans of West Virginia and Pittsburgh who’s teams had played earlier in the night, just looking to get their money’s worth from a one session, two game ticket.

And others, like me, were fans of either UConn or Syracuse, two teams who’s distaste for each other runs as thick as a river of blood.

But no matter what the reason was for coming to Madison Square Garden Thursday night, everyone left with the same feeling: that they had seen one of the greatest games, regardless of sport, ever played.

Syracuse 127- UConn 117 in six overtimes.

You can break down all the numbers and percentages, but that six stands out. Only two games in the history of college basketball have equaled it in length, and only a 1981 Cincinnati-Bradley game surpassed it.

Six overtimes!

My girlfriend, who sat on the edge of her seat for all 3 hours and 46 minutes with me, asked in overtime number two if there was such a thing as “triple overtime?”

Yes, I replied.

“And quadruple overtime?”

They keep playing until one team has more points than the other when the final horn sounds I responded. “But I’ve never seen a game go more than three overtimes, so no need to worry,” I added.

Little did I know, over an hour later, and four overtimes after the original question, she’d be sprinting through the Garden to catch the final train to get her back to New Jersey for the night. The next was at 5 a.m., which I’m pretty sure is just about the time the game ended.

127-117. Six overtimes.

The final score, just like the words on this paper, do no justice to the game itself.

For starters, I’ve been to hundreds of live sporting events, and nothing even came close to the electricity that was inside The Garden Thursday night.

While virtually any other major sporting event is played on one team’s home field or court, this was a neutral site in the truest sense.

And because of each programs success coupled with proximity to New York City, every March, Madison Square Garden fills with Syracuse and UConn fans, regardless of how good each team is, or the opposition.

And when the two schools actually play each other- like they have in four of the last five years- it’s always a must-see event. No ticket in college basketball this side of Tobacco Road is harder to come by.

But even for Syracuse-UConn, this was extra special.

I was in the Garden in 2006 when Gerry McNamara brought the house down, forcing overtime against the No. 1 ranked Huskies, before ultimately sticking an Orange pitchfork in UConn and then, the entire Big East.

But that was an afternoon game, when many fans were still in work or at school.

This was a 9 p.m., prime-time stuff. And with a game before it, fans from both schools weren’t bleary-eyed from catching an early train, but in top form after taking in West Virginia’s upset of Pitt earlier.

Each time anyone hit a basket to start the game, it felt like the roof was about to blow off. The same at the beginning and end of each overtime.

And when the game finally did end, there was both cheering and relief from Syracuse nation, and likewise from UConn fans.

There are many things that I will carry with me from this game, well beyond what the final scoreboard read.

For starters, I had the perfect view for Eric Devendorf’s shot in the closing second (singular) of regulation, and I can say unequivocally that when it left his hand, I not only knew it was going in, but was positive it would count.

As the referees went to replay I actually shook hands with a Syracuse fan in front of me, who’d been quite gracious all night. He told me not worry, that UConn would be just fine in the NCAA Tournament, and that the loss was a blessing in disguise as the team would have plenty of time to rest up.

The man grabbed his coat and went on his way. I still don’t know what happened to that Syracuse fan, but understandably, he didn’t have the courage to show his face again in Section 338, which was almost entirely made up of the UConn contingent.

But well after he left, the referees continued to look at the replay, spending what seemed like an eternity dissecting the tape. All of a sudden, the shot that I thought was a certainty was anything but, and I realized that with every passing second the game may be headed to overtime.

And when the referee ran on the court, waiving his hands indicating the basket was no good, there was an emotion in the arena like I’d never felt before. The Garden erupted. UConn fans hugging people they’d met just hours earlier, as if they were long lost family members, Syracuse fans with their hands on head, staring into the distance in total disbelief.

We were going to overtime.

And like all of the first five overtimes, UConn jumped out to a quick lead.

To me, that was the most amazing stat of the night, that Syracuse never actually lead in any of the first five overtimes. Not for one second. In one of the extra periods – I honestly forget which, maybe the fourth, maybe the fifth – UConn had two separate leads of five points and couldn’t hold on. Syracuse kept fighting, and deserved to win this game.

Above all, what will stand out from this game more than anything, is the heart of every player on the court.

A friend who is a UConn fan texted me at the beginning of the second overtime, “We look so tired, there’s no way we pull this out.” The teams then proceeded to play five more overtimes!

For Syracuse, it was guard Jonny Flynn, playing 67 of the possible 70 minutes, relentlessly taking the ball to the basket, time and time again. And Paul Harris, one of the games best dunkers, who in overtime missed a dunk, when his legs just ran out of spring.

For UConn, there was Stanley Robinson. The 6’9 junior has been an enigma for his entire three years in Storrs, with fans, coaches and teammates alike not sure what they’ll get from him from game to game.

But of the eight players who fouled out by the end of the game, Robinson got the loudest cheers as he headed toward the bench (A standing ovation was out of the question, as everyone in the arena was on their feet from the first overtime on, like one big, exhausted student section).

If it wasn’t for Robinson’s 28 points and 14 rebounds, in a “measly,” 53 minutes of play, there would have been no overtimes, as the Orange would have won this one going away.

And A.J. Price, the Huskies fiery senior guard, who seemed to will his team, possession after possession, playing 61 minutes on a surgically repaired knee. Andy Rautins of Syracuse had the same knee surgery a year ago, played 49 minutes Thursday and hit as many big shots as anyone in this game.

There was UConn freshman Kemba Walker, too emotionally drained after the fifth overtime to pick himself up off the floor. It took two Huskies to help Walker – the smallest player on the court – up off the hardwood. Of course this was the same Walker (generously listed 6’1, 172 lbs.) who had a put back rebound that forced the original overtime.

Even guys who rarely see the court, played larger than expected roles. That tends to happen when eight guys foul out.

One of the most memorable plays, that was forgotten in the grand scheme of the game came from little used UConn freshman Scottie Haralson. Haralson, who hadn’t played a minute since the first half, re-entered the game in the fifth overtime, and hit a shot in the closing seconds of the period, that gave UConn what turned out to be its final lead of the game.

Flynn of course made two free throws to tie the game back up just a few seconds later, and force the final period.

Overall, the numbers are staggering, with 11 players overall playing more than a full 40 minute game. Six players recorded double-doubles. Walker (again the smallest player on the court) out rebounded all but one Syracuse player with 11.

There were clutch players who missed free throws (Devendorf and Price both could have iced the win for their respective clubs) and poor free throw shooters who kept their teams in the game with makes (Arinze Onuaku a 30 percent shooter made two in a row in the closing minutes of regulation to give Syracuse a brief lead).

In the end, I’m not sure what this game means in the “big picture,” for either of these teams.

But whether Louisville, Villanova or West Virginia wins this tournament, it will be a small footnote next to the game would never end, arguably the best in Big East Tournament history.

As I walked out of the arena, I took a quick snapshot of the scoreboard.

A man with a cute blonde on his arm rushed by me, almost certain to miss his train like everyone else in Madison Square Garden on the night.

But then he stopped, and with me he took a snapshot as well.

“This is definitely worth a picture,” he said to me, quickly taking the photo. “I’ve been to every Big East Tournament since I was six-years-old and haven’t seen anything like this.”

As he disappeared into the crowd, he added, “And we never will again either.”

Contender Report: Memphis

Coming into the 2008 NCAA Tournament, the Memphis Tigers were a solidly built, well-oiled machine, and one of the favorites to win it all in San Antonio.

Memphis did make it to the National Championship game, but fell at the hands of a gritty Kansas Jayhawks team in a thrilling overtime loss.

With Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey taking their considerable talents to the NBA, not much was expected of the 2009 version of the Tigers.

But no one told John Calipari. After losing three of their first nine games, the veteran coach inserted true freshman Tyreke Evans into the point guard position, and Memphis has rolled ever since, winning 22 straight games entering Championship Week.

The Tigers are college basketball’s hottest team, and return several players who played significant roles in the school’s Final Four run a year ago. But do they have enough to quiet the ghosts of 2008, and win it all this year?

Why They Will A National Championship:

Everyone wants to claim this group is in-experienced, but that simply is not true.

Seniors Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier lead this team, while juniors Doneal Mack and Shawn Taggart add experience off of last year’s Final Four squad.

Memphis’ strongest suit is its defense, which is literally second to none. The Tigers have the stingiest field goal percentage defense in the country, allowing opponents to shoot just under 37 percent from the field.

The strong defense starts down low with Dozier and Taggart, two athletic bigs that block and alter a ton of shots, protecting the rim from the opposition’s penetration.

Of course this allows for Memphis’ guards to take more chances on the perimeter, and force turnovers that lead to a ton of easy baskets (Evans leads the team with 2.1 steals per game).

But as good as the defense has been, this team didn’t go from “good,” to “elite,” until Evans made the switch to the point. Calipari was hesitant early to put the offense in the hands of the teams best scorer, but the dividends have paid off, as Memphis hasn’t lost a game since before Christmas.

Finally, one of last year’s biggest shortfalls – free throw shooting – has turned into this year’s biggest strength.

As a team, the Tigers shoot right under 70 percent, with their two best ball-handlers Evans (69 percent) and Anderson (75 percent), comfortable from the line.

Why They Won’t:

Taking out a February 7 beat down of Gonzaga, what is this teams best win?

Conference USA has never been a great barometer to measure this team by, but usually they challenge themselves much more stringently out of the league.

However, this year the Tigers can really only claim just a two point win at an average Tennessee team, as a sure fire victory over an NCAA Tournament opponent.

Also, as good as Evans has been at distributing the ball, this team still lacks a strong outside shooting presence. Of all of Memphis’ regular perimeter players, only sophomore Roburt Sallie is shooting over 40 percent.

Finally, as good as Evans is, a coach is always tentative with a freshman point guard, and rightfully so.

This team is clearly better with the ball in Evans’ hands, but come crunch time in a tight game, will he be the composed floor leader he’s been all year, or will the nerves kick in?

How Evans handles himself with the game on the line will say a lot about how far this team goes in March.

Final Analysis:

Regardless of the soft Conference USA affiliation, Calipari always has this team ready to play (I’d say going to the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2007, and the championship game in 2008 would qualify for that).

And few teams entering the tournament do so with more experience than these Tigers.

All of the upperclassmen on this team have done a lot of winning in their careers, and expect deep runs in March.

But with the light out of conference schedule, how battle-tested will this team be? Remember a year ago the Tigers played, and beat several top 25 teams in the early season. This year only the previously mentioned Tennessee win really stands out.

And what about Evans at the point?

Yes, he is one of college basketball’s best players, regardless of class. But there’s a reason teams with freshman point guards don’t traditionally do well in this tournament (yes, yes I know Derrick Rose was phenomenal in 2008, but Rose was also a once-in-a-generation talent).

The pressure is a lot for anyone to handle. Will Evans be ready?

Memphis is one of college basketball’s most talented teams, but also one of the biggest enigmas.

But in a year in which the field is as wide open as it is, why can’t the Tigers get back to the Final Four, and take care of some unfinished business from 2008?

Contender Report: Louisville

Despite all the talk about Pittsburgh and Connecticut, it was actually the Louisville Cardinals who were the 2009 Big East regular season champion.

Rick Pitino’s bunch is athletic and talented, and may be the deepest team of any of college basketball’s true contenders.

Louisville has won 17 of its last 19 games, and enters the Big East tournament looking to wrap up a No. 1 seed heading into the Big Dance.

But despite all the wins, there are some equally head-scratching losses.

Early season defeats to Western Kentucky and UNLV had Cardinal nation concerned, and an February loss by 30 points at Notre Dame got the attention of the entire college basketball world.

Louisville has been great of late, but were the early season losses just blips on the radar, or a sign of things to come?

Why They Will A National Championship:

For all the talk in the Big East about DeJuan Blair and Hasheem Thabeet, Louisville’s Terrence Williams is just as important to his team.

Williams, a senior, is listed as a forward, but at times he has essentially played all five positions on the court. He is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, while also leading the Cardinals in assists and steals. Most importantly, he is the emotional leader for this veteran team.

Louisville is also blessed with a ton of talent down low, led by future lottery pick Earl Clark. The junior from New Jersey has been phenomenal this season averaging close to 14 points and 9 rebounds a game.

Clark is joined in the frontcourt by a pair of ferocious freshmen, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings. Both have been inconsistent at times, but give Louisville big bodies, and a tough low post presence that can match-up with anyone.

On the perimeter the Cardinals have a trio of excellent three-point shooters. Despite not quite putting up the numbers they did a year ago, both Andre McGhee and Jerry Smith are deadly when left open from behind the arc, with Preston Knowles contributing both from behind the arc and in the lane.

Finally, who better to coach your team in March than Rick Pitino, who’s lead four teams to the NCAA and three to the Final Four, including Louisville in 2005. Pitino also won a National Championship at Kentucky in 1996.

Few, if any team in college basketball can boast the combination of experience, skill and coaching that Louisville does, which is why they’ll be a favorite come March.

Why They Won’t:

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: no team that has lost by 30 points in February (which Louisville did February 12 at Notre Dame) has ever gone on to win a National Championship. Period.

The Cardinals have been phenomenal since, but the loss certainly has to be a red flag for anyone putting their money on Louisville in March.

Also, for all their talented perimeter players, no one has proven themselves capable of running this offense besides Williams.

Junior Edgar Sosa has been enigmatic throughout his career at Louisville, at times looking the McDonalds All-American he was coming out of high school, at others like he doesn’t belong on the court at all.

If Williams does get into foul trouble, the ball will probably be in Sosa’s hands and he needs to step up and be effective for this team to continue to advance.

And finally, for all the talk about Clark’s talent, there have been times during games where he has completely disappeared this season.

While the junior has been more consistent of late, he does often struggle when matched up with a player of equal athleticism and skill that he does.

This team has loads of talent, but needs Clark to be the nightly double-double that he has been for virtually the entire second half of the year if they are to advance deep into March.

Final Analysis:

Because of the early season losses, the Cardinals do not get nearly the credit they deserve.

Remember, in a year in which the Big East was called arguably the toughest conference ever, it was Louisville which won it outright.

This team is probably the deepest of all of college basketball’s contenders, and could weather foul trouble or overall poor play from anyone other than Williams.

Louisville hasn’t played any of the Big East’s big boys in quite some time, so the Big East Tournament will be an excellent proving ground to show whether they can be taken seriously when the tournament starts in just under a week.

Contender Report: Pittsburgh

What started as Ben Howland’s, has officially become Jaime Dixon’s: the blue-collar, hard nosed, championship winning formula that has lead the Pittsburgh Panthers to seven Big East conference championship games in the past eight years.

But as successful as they’ve been in league play, Pitt is still searching for NCAA Tournament validation; no one on this team- player or coach- has ever advanced past the Sweet 16. This is Pitt’s best team in the Howland/Dixon era, but can they silence their March demons and make it to Detroit for the Final Four?

Why They Will Win A National Championship:

Pitt has the best combination of skill, experience and toughness (both mentally and physically) of any team in the nation.

While other names like Luke Harangody and Hasheem Thabeet dominated early season Big East discussion, it has been Pitt’s DeJuan Blair who’s been the most unstoppable low-post player in the league, as the sophomore has had 17 double-doubles this season.

Senior Sam Young – a 1st team All-Big East performer last year – leads the Panthers on the wing, averaging close to 19 points a game and Levance Fields, another senior, controls the ball on the perimeter.

Fields leads the Big East in assists at 7.6 per game and also has a knack for making big shots, as his only two field goals in 76-68 victory over No. 1 UConn on February 16 were three-point daggers that put the game away.

Why They Won’t:

Like any team with an absolutely dominant big man, Pitt finds itself in trouble on the rare occasions that Blair gets into foul trouble.

In the Panthers three losses, the big averaged just 11 points, and spent big minutes on the bench while in foul trouble.

Also, of all the contenders, Pittsburgh may have the shortest bench of any. Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown are Dixon’s only true contributors outside of the starting five, and neither is much of a scoring threat.

When March comes and Pitt finds itself with their backs against the wall, can these players really be counted on to play big minutes? And what if Dixon needs to go even further into his bench? Will guys like Ashton Gibbs- who’s shown flashes, but been inconsistent overall- be ready to go, after getting virtually no burn all season?

Final Analysis:

Pittsburgh is still probably the safest bet in college basketball, and will likely, along with North Carolina be the favorites going into the tournament.

There is no way to game-plan for Blair, and no way to stop him from getting his numbers when he’s on the court.

But foul trouble or injuries could plague this team, which brings steady, if not spectacular play off the bench.

The Panthers have the talent amongst their starting five, but will they have enough bodies to win six games in a row in the tournament?

(Author’s note: This article was originally published at www.aarontorres-sports.com)

Contender Report: Oklahoma

In just his third season in Norman, head coach Jeff Capel has taken the Oklahoma Sooners to the top of the Big XII standings and national rankings.

Oklahoma is led by everyone’s All-American Blake Griffin, a double-double machine as well as a slew of talented guards.

The Sooners are one of college basketball’s most talented teams, but will they be able to overcome their relative lack of experience, and make a deep run toward a championship?

Why They Will A National Championship:

Blake Griffin is college basketball’s most talented player, and a future NBA superstar.

The 6’11” sophomore leads the country with close to 14 rebounds a game, while also chipping in 22 points a night. And the scary thing is, he is just scratching the surface of his potential.

But with all the hype surrounding Griffin, not enough credit is given to Oklahoma’s three-headed monster at guard, Willie Warren, Tony Crocker and Austin Johnson.

The three compliment each other well, and one always seems to step up, even if the other two are struggling.

Griffin’s brother Taylor is a bruiser down low, and the Sooners bring athletic wing Juan Pattillo off the bench.

Sophomore guard Cade Davis is one of college basketball’s most deadly long range shooters.

Why They Won’t:

Anyone who watched the Sooners play their two recent games without Blake Griffin knows they are very beatable without the big man in the middle.

Not only does Griffin get his numbers every single night, but his presence often draws double teams, allowing his brother Taylor and Pattillo to get easy put-backs around the rim, while also freeing up Oklahoma’s guards for kick-out jumpers.

And as good as those guards are, only Warren can truly take his defender off the dribble and create his own offense; which is both a blessing and a curse. In Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas, Warren had a team high 23 points, but down the stretch was out of control, forcing shots and passes that weren’t there. These are the perils of having a freshman point guard.

As for Crocker, Johnson and Davis, they are all good guards, but lack the one-on-one breakdown ability that Warren has. All three rely on Griffin down low to provide the spacing on the perimeter they need to get their points.

Finally, while each of the other contenders is led by a coach with loads of experience, Capel has coached in just three NCAA Tournament games.

We always talk about a player’s familiarity in pressure situations, but what happens when their coach is just as green?

Final Analysis:

Because they don’t play in the Big East or ACC, Oklahoma never receives the credit they deserve as a truly elite team.

The Sooners have the best player (Griffin) and freshman (Warren) in college basketball, with seven guys on their roster that could play for anyone in the country.

But they are also one foul plagued afternoon or freak injury away from being in big trouble without Griffin.

His recent bouts with a concussion may be a blessing in disguise though, as the Sooners have shown college basketball fans and themselves that they are capable of competing with good teams even without their center. But to beat the big boys, Griffin will have to be healthy, and on the court.

With or without Griffin, the key to the Sooners stretch run may be Warren, one of the physical and aggressive guards in college basketball.

We know Griffin is going to get his numbers, but Oklahoma needs consistency from someone on the perimeter. Warren has shown great flashes, turnovers in pressure situations may become a problem.

Oklahoma has as much talent as anyone in college basketball, but also more questions than any contender as well.

(Author’s note: This article was originally published at www.aarontorres-sports.com)

Contender Report: Connecticut

After a few years outside of college basketball’s elite, Jim Calhoun has his UConn Huskies exactly where everyone expects them to be: discussed as one of the nation’s best teams.

UConn is currently tied atop the Big East, and amazingly has yet to lose a road game, despite playing the college basketball’s toughest conference.

But with the recent news that the Huskies have lost starting guard Jerome Dyson for the year, UConn will be short-handed heading into March. Is the injury enough to keep Calhoun and his team from winning their third National Championship in the last decade?

Why They Will In A National Championship:

UConn is blessed with the most experience of any contender, as they currently start three seniors and two juniors.

Amongst them is daunting 7’3″ center Hasheem Thabeet, college basketball’s biggest defensive difference maker since Patrick Ewing. His 4.4 blocks per game are good for second in the nation, but even more importantly are the number of shots that he alters, a statistic which is truly immeasurable.

Joining Thabeet in the frontcourt is senior Jeff Adrien, a nightly double-double, who also serves as the Huskies emotional leader and toughest player- a 6’6″ power forward who always seems to get the tough rebounds.

Two more seniors – A.J. Price and Dyson’s replacement Craig Austrie – start in the backcourt for the Huskies, with each able to get in the lane and also hit open jumpers.

Junior Gavin Edwards and freshman Kemba Walker are key contributors off the bench.

Why They Won’t:

Dyson was this team’s best perimeter scorer and shutdown defender, and there’s no doubt losing him for the remainder of the year changed the course of the entire college basketball season.

With the injury, the most pressure falls on Price’s shoulders. And while he may be UConn’s most talented player, Price is certainly not as explosive as a year ago, when he was an All-Big East performer, before undergoing season ending knee surgery himself. Price has shown flashes, including a 36 point performance against Marquette, but then followed it up with a pedestrian 12 points against Notre Dame. For UConn to win a National Championship this year, Price will have to play at or near is 2008 level every night.

Also, for as many games as this group has played together, none has ever won a Big East Tournament game, and only Adrien and Austrie have participated in more than one NCAA Tournament contest, as UConn was upset in the first round by San Diego a year ago.

This team is still on pace for a No. 1 seed, and may have been the favorites entering March before Dyson’s injury, but with his loss, do they have enough scoring to compliment their always stout defense?

Final Analysis:

UConn was making its case as the favorite in the tournament, but losing Dyson is crippling.

Luckily it happened in early February and not early March, so the Huskies have time to re-group and figure out how to play, and win, without their junior guard.

This team plays National Championship caliber defense, but is going to struggle to replace the 13 points a game Dyson averaged. Price and Austrie will need to have the month of their lives in March for the Huskies to be the last team standing.

(Author’s note: This article was originally published at www.aarontorres-sports.com)

College Basketball Power Rankings

Welcome to March, folks, truly the most wonderful time of year for college basketball fans. For the third time in three weeks, we welcome a new No. 1 to the Power Rankings and a fresh, but familiar face into the top 10.

1. Connecticut (27-2, 15-2): Jim Calhoun’s gritty gang did it again this week, winning one of the season’s best games at Marquette followed with a Senior Day victory at Gampel Pavilion. UConn has the full week off before traveling to Pitt, looking to seek revenge, and capture another Big East championship.

2. North Carolina (25-3, 11-3): North Carolina had a relatively easy week, playing in what amounted to be a glorified exhibition against Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels have Duke on Sunday but cannot look past a Wednesday visit to Virginia Tech, a place North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country in 2007.

3. Memphis (26-3, 14-0): The Tigers passed their last true Conference USA test Thursday night, winning at UAB, in a gritty, hard-fought game. With just two games left, there is little reason to believe Memphis won’t continue to improve upon their 20-game win streak.

4. Pittsburgh (26-3, 13-3): Providence College once again proved that there are no nights off in the Big East, as they blitzed Pittsburgh at home, likely costing the Panthers a share of the Big East Championship. Things don’t get any easier as Marquette and UConn visit the Oakland Zoo this week.

5. Louisville (23-5, 14-2): Louisville needed a big win on the national stage, and got it Sunday, knocking off Marquette at home. Everyone talks about Pittsburgh and UConn in this conference, but it might actually be Louisville who wins the Big East regular season title, if they win out and UConn loses in the Steel City on Sunday.

6. Oklahoma (26-3, 12-2): Oklahoma proved that without Blake Griffin they will struggle to compete with anyone, getting narrowly edged by Kansas in a game which was much closer than the final score indicated. Griffin came back this weekend, and the Sooners looked as good as ever, winning at Texas Tech.

7. Duke (24-5, 10-4): Don’t look now, but the Blue Devils got two tough victories this week, winning in front of hostile crowds at Maryland and Virginia Tech. Just like North Carolina, Duke cannot look past their mid-week game- against Florida State- in anticipation of their season ending trip to Chapel Hill.

8. Michigan State (23-5, 13-3): Another year, another Big 10 title in East Lansing, as Michigan State can do no worse than share a conference championship after beating Illinois over the weekend. Senior Day is Sunday at Michigan State, and revenge will be in the air as Purdue visits, just a few weeks after handing the Spartans an embarrassing 18 point loss.

9. Kansas (24-5, 13-1): The Baby Jays are the hottest team in college basketball, defeating Oklahoma on the road and making the border war with Missouri look like a Varsity-JV scrimmage. It’s hard to believe, but Bill Self may be doing a better overall coaching job this year, than in last year’s National Championship season.

10. Wake Forest (22-5, 9-5): At first glance a win at Virginia is nothing to get too excited about, until you realize that Wake Forest hadn’t won a road game since mid-January. If this team’s maturity actually catches up to their talent level, everyone in college basketball should start to worry.

11. LSU (25-4, 13-1): Two weeks ago LSU wasn’t in these Power Rankings and now they’re knocking on the door of top-10 status. No on had a better week than the boys from Baton Rouge, beating Florida at home, before winning a tight one against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

12. Marquette (23-6, 12-4): Yes the Golden Eagles lost twice this week, but they also proved that they can compete with anyone, even after the loss of Domenic James. Don’t be surprised if Marquette steals one against Pittsburgh Wednesday, as they almost beat Louisville on Sunday, and they won’t get another 3-19 shooting performance from Jerel McNeal any time soon.

13. Gonzaga (23-5, 14-0): The Zags wrapped up an undefeated regular season in the West Coast Conference, beating San Diego on the road. It may have taken a few months, and some bad losses, but this team is finally starting to play to its unlimited capabilities.

14. Villanova (23-6, 11-5): Losing to Georgetown hurts, but Villanova can still get a coveted double bye in the Big East tournament by winning out and Marquette losing one of its last two games. The Wildcats have some very nice wins (against Pittsburgh, and a sweep of Syracuse), but some bizarre losses too, including Saturday’s effort against the Hoyas.

15. Missouri (24-5, 11-3): Look, everyone loses a game or two this time of year, but a 25 point loss to rival Kansas in March is in-excusable. Things get no easier this week, as Missouri gets a fully healthy Oklahoma team Wednesday.

16. Washington (22-7, 13-4): The Pac-10 may be down, but Washington is not, sweeping the Arizona schools over this past weekend. Only a visit from rival Washington State is keeping the Huskies from winning the conference outright.

17. Xavier (23-5, 11-3): Another Atlantic-10 title is available for the taking, after the Musketeers went on the road, and won a tough game against St. Josephs. First though, Xavier must beat Dayton Thursday, just a few weeks after the Flyers beat them handily.

18. Florida State (22-7, 9-5): Beating Clemson for the second time in a month is a nice silver-lining for the Seminoles, which lost earlier in the week at Boston College. Florida State can play the ultimate role of spoiler on Wednesday, when they go to Duke on Senior Night.

19. Clemson (22-6, 8-6): Wait a second, why are we supposed to believe this Clemson team is any different than the soft, cower-in-the-face-of-danger team we’ve seen over the past few years? Two losses in winnable games this week says that this team- which craves respect so much- still isn’t ready to be taken seriously.

20. Butler (25-4, 15-3): Butler’s regular season is over, after wrapping up another Horizon League title. The Bulldogs should get into the NCAA’s even if they lose in their upcoming conference tournament, but coach Brad Stevens would probably sleep a lot better if Butler won it anyway.

New to the Power Rankings: Washington, Xavier

Dropping Out: Arizona State, Purdue

The Imperfections of College Basketball Makes It Perfect

March is upon us, the time of year when the basketball world flips on its axis and realigns to make the college ranks more noteworthy than the professionals. While the majority of fans greet this shift with eager anticipation, there is still a large portion of believers that are not energized at all. This group instead bemoans having to watch and discuss competitions that feature an inferior quality of play to the pro game.

What is lost on these people is the beauty in college basketball is its imperfection. Indeed, this is a case where imperfection is itself perfect.

It seems too obvious to mention, but plainly the NBA features the greatest basketball players in the world, playing against the highest level of competition, at the game’s zenith. The Association is the summit, where the best athletes display their ethereal skills.

Even a game between the dregs of the league (for example, a not-so-epic battle in mid-January between the Clippers and Grizzles) holds the potential to feature phenomenal displays of athleticism and skillful execution that can be seen from players nowhere else in the world.

On the contrary, college basketball is flawed in terms of quality control: the athleticism is not as awe-inducing, the efficiency is not as imposing, the performances not as polished or developed.

As a paying customer, it makes sense to favor the product that is more advanced. Where entertainment dollars are concerned, a hard-line analysis that values NBA players’ ability above any sort of inherent or unquantifiable benefits the college experience produces makes sense.

However, that sort of emotionless analysis ignores the truth that it is college’s faults and imperfection that make it so engrossing and so much more inspired (generally) than regular season profession matches.

Players have real limitations. Their games are riddled with weaknesses and shortcomings. Where NBA players are androids operating at impressive and remarkable levels of efficiency, college players tend to be more exciting, with a greater potential to excite and move fans, because those liabilities and mistakes mean no team is ever truly out of a game.

As players make mistakes and major lapses in judgment, the game around them can shift radically. That is the beauty of the NCAA tournament, that anything can happen and nothing is assured due to the heightened inconsistency lesser talent creates.

Professional players are burdened by their excellence: it makes them less human, more robotic and automated. Their dominance and skills seem preset and mechanized. There is a soullessness associated with watching Tim Duncan masterfully dissect defenses. While one cannot help but marvel at Kobe Bryant remarkable skill, his competence and effectiveness is at such a high level that it leaves no room for relating to it because it is so refined.

I consider myself one of the most fanatical NBA fans alive and though I nightly stand in awe, wowed by the sensation of viewing LeBron James’ excellence or Dwyane Wade’s basketball genius, I also find great worth in watching Tyler Hansborough’s tragically flawed game. I feel connected to the unpolished play of Hasheem Tabeet’s post play, or Steph Curry’s point guard abilities, or Gerald Henderson’s shooting touch.

The imperfections in their games combine with the pride they play with for their programs, and the passion on display from the fans, to create the atmosphere around the tournament. There is no detachment from the players, and fans are drawn in to the degree they are because unfinished players rouse our emotions better.

Sometimes we as fans look so hard for perfection that we forget that happiness exists in the imperfect.

It is more interesting and more relateable, as life around us is charged with failure and imbalance, and games that stir our consciousness of failure’s place in our own lives resonate better.

So in this tournament season, enjoy the missed free throws, the terrible outlet passes, the three-second violations. That are what makes us human, which is a beautiful realization to make.

Contender Report: North Carolina

Last March, I started a wildly popular series at Aaron Torres Sports, titled, “Why They Will/Why They Won’t,” a detailed breakdown of each of college basketball contenders, and the strengths that made them favorites to win the National Championship, and shortfalls that might keep them from winning it all.

The series is back by demand, as we start counting down the days, hours and minutes until the NCAA Tournament kicks off in mid-March. First up, the North Carolina Tar Heels:

There’s no doubt that in just six short years in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams has gotten North Carolina back into the elite of college basketball. But after winning a National Championship in 2005, and with a new cast of college All-Stars on campus, this group of Tar Heels has yet to get the hardware that their predecessors did.

North Carolina will be the favorites going into the tournament, but do they have what it takes to be the last team standing?

Why They Will: North Carolina is college basketball’s deepest and most talented team, and there’s no one else even close. All five starters average in double figures, with Ed Davis, Bobby Frasor and Larry Drew adding depth off the bench. And the rich continue to get richer, as the Tar Heels just welcomed back former McDonald’s All-American Tyler Zeller who hasn’t played since early in the year. To show you the talent on this team, power forward Tyler Hansbrough may end up as the ACC’s all-time scoring leader by the end of the season, and he’s not even this teams MVP (point guard Ty Lawson is averaging 16 points and 6.5 assists per game) or best professional prospect (Lawson and shooting guard Wayne Ellington project to be better pros). After struggling at the turn of the new year, North Carolina has won 10 in a row, and is peaking at just the right time. This team is well coached, and most importantly is hungry after losing in the Elite Eight in 2007, and in the Final Four to eventual champion Kansas last year.

Why They Won’t: For a team which plays mostly juniors and seniors, there still doesn’t seem to be the commitment to defense needed to win a National Championship. The Tar Heels currently give up 71 points per game, good for 256 out of 330 Division I teams. In their loss to Wake Forest earlier in the year they gave up 91, and even in three of their recent wins have given up at least 80. The Tar Heels can score with anyone, but when push comes to shove, and they need to make defensive stops, who’s going to make them? North Carolina is the quintessential team that when guns are blazing, and are playing at their absolute best, can only beat themselves.

Analysis: This is the best team in college basketball, and still the heavy favorite to win come tournament time. Hansbrough, Ellington, Lawson or Danny Green (a versatile 6’9 small forward who I consider one of the most underrated players in college basketball), can go for 30 any night, and the Tar Heels can score as quickly and efficiently as anyone. North Carolina is the only team that can weather foul trouble or an injury to any starter (a huge factor come March), and be able to bring in an above average replacement off the bench. But beware of the Ides of March, and the defensive lapses that come with the Tar Heels recent victories. All it will take is one hot team (like Kansas in the first half last year), to send North Carolina home again, without the National Championship this group covets so dearly.

Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media

College Basketball Power Rankings

While buzz words like “bracket busters,” and “bubble teams,” are all the talk in college basketball right now, several teams have already wrapped up NCAA Tournament bids and are now fighting for seeding. With only two weeks left in the regular season, many high profile games have yet to be played, as we get to set to turn the calendar to March.

1. Pittsburgh (25-2, 12-2): Can someone explain why DeJuan Blair isn’t being mentioned for Big East player of the year, as he went for 20 and 18 Saturday, just a game after dominating Hasheem Thabeet and Connecticut. The No. 1 ranking has been a bit unkind this year, but Pittsburgh should maintain it into next week, as they have two winnable games at Providence and Seton Hall coming up.

2. Connecticut (25-2, 13-2): UConn needed to beat South Florida Saturday, and they did, bouncing back from their loss earlier in the week to Pittsburgh. The schedule gets no easier with a trip to Marquette on Wednesday, followed by a desperate Notre Dame team at home Saturday.

3. Oklahoma (25-2, 11-2): Yes, the Sooners lost Saturday, but in the process proved to be more than just Blake Griffin, as they stayed close with Texas into the closing minutes. Willie Warren scored 27 in defeat, as he continues to make his case for national freshman of the year.

4. Memphis (24-3, 12-0): Last year’s national runners-up continue to roll, as they currently have college basketball’s longest winning streak at 18 games. A trip to UAB this Thursday should be Memphis’ last conference test of the season.

5. North Carolina (24-3, 10-3): This is supposed to be the part of the season when North Carolina pulled away from the rest of the field, not give up 45 percent shooting in a loss to Maryland. The Tar Heels are still the most talented team in college basketball, but need to stop reading their press clippings and start blowing inferior teams out of the gym.

6. Louisville (22-5, 10-4): Just ten days after getting embarrassed at Notre Dame, Louisville appears to be putting the pieces together, with three straight comfortable wins. If they get two more this week (at Georgetown, Marquette at home), we may have to start discussing them as a National Championship contender.

7. Marquette (23-4, 12-2): Marquette did what it was supposed to do, going 12-2 in the “easy part,” of their Big East. But with two weeks left in the season the stakes are higher, as the Golden Eagles finish with games against UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse- yikes!

8. Duke (22-5, 8-4): On Sunday night the Academy Awards were given out, but it was Duke who should have won “Best Performance,” as they dominated Wake Forest in a 101-91 win that honestly wasn’t that close. Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer combined for 65 points in the victory, the Blue Devils best of the season.

9. Michigan State (21-5, 11-3): It was an up and down week for the Spartans as they got completely outplayed against Purdue, but bounced back with a nice win against Wisconsin. MSU still has too many questions at this point, but if they win out (including a return visit from Purdue, March 8 ) the answers will come.

10. Missouri (23-4, 10-2): There’s never an easy road game in the Big XII and Missouri found that out Saturday, holding off last place Colorado in Boulder. It will be an interesting week in Columbia, as Missouri hosts a desperate Kansas State team before traveling to Kansas.

11. Villanova (22-5, 10-4): No one had a gutsier win this week than Villanova, which needed every second Sunday to hold off Syracuse on the road. The Wildcats are playing great basketball, but need some help to get a top four seed in the Big East tournament, and the bye into the quarterfinals that comes with it.

12. Wake Forest (20-5, 7-5): Wake Forest has had some head-scratching losses this season, but on Sunday they were simply outplayed from the opening tip by Duke. With two very winnable games on the schedule this week, we will find out how tough this young team is.

13. Clemson (22-4, 8-4): The Tigers did something this week that they never seem to do: win the games they’re supposed to, crushing Maryland and cruising by Georgia Tech. For a team which is known to take games off, they better not Wednesday, when they host a Virginia Tech team in desperate need of a win.

14. Arizona State (21-5, 10-4): Arizona State didn’t play all week until late Sunday night, and had to hold on until the final seconds against cross-state rival Arizona. The Sun Devils head to Washington this weekend to face a pair of teams (Washington and Washington State) which beat them earlier this season.

15. Gonzaga (21-5, 12-0): Apparently the Zags read these Power Rankings, as a week after I called out their too-close-for-comfort victories, they got two wins by an average of 36 points. It’s time to give credit where it’s due, as even the most optimistic Gonzaga fans wouldn’t have expected to be undefeated in the West Coast Conference with just a few games to go.

16. Kansas (22-5, 11-1): The Hatchling-Hawks (or are they the Baby-Jays? Either way I need a copyright lawyer) continue to cruise in Big XII play, and are playing their best basketball of the season. They’ll need their best performance yet when they travel to Oklahoma Monday night.

17. Florida State (21-6, 8-4): With all of the talk in the ACC on Tobacco Road, the Seminoles keep grinding out wins, and improving their NCAA Tournament seeding. The schedule gets no easier this week, as Florida State travels to Boston College, before hosting Clemson Saturday afternoon.

18. LSU (23-4, 11-1): We know the SEC is down, but its time to give credit to Bayou Bengals, as they’ve won 12 of their last 13 games. If they are to lose the rest of the way, it will likely come this week, with both Kentucky and Florida are on the schedule.

19. Purdue (21-6, 10-4): Purdue has been looking for a validating win all season, and got it over Michigan State last Tuesday. Although this team is rarely healthy (Robbie Hummel has been in and out of the line-up all season), they are as dangerous as anyone when they are.

20. Butler (23-4, 11-3): Few teams that have lost two of their last three games end up in the Power Rankings, but after a gutsy win at Davidson, the Bulldogs belong here. Butler only has two games left in the regular season, and should win both.

Dropping Out of the Rankings: Dayton, Illinois, UCLA

New to the Rankings: LSU, Purdue, Butler

(Author’s note: This article was originally published here at www.aarontorres-sports.com )

College Basketball Power Rankings

The college basketball season is officially coming down the homestretch and with it, a new no. 1 ranked team. Oklahoma gets their turn with the bulls eye on their chest, as they have two very tough games in the next week.

1. Oklahoma (25-1, 11-0): We’ve used about every adjective in the English language to describe Blake Griffin this season, but Saturday’s 40 point, 23 rebound performance was so transcendent there isn’t a word to describe it. The Sooners enter this week at no. 1, but have to go to Texas on Saturday and host Kansas Monday night. Let’s see how long they stay on top.

2. North Carolina (23-2, 9-2): Remember in early January when North Carolina lost two of three games and everyone wondered what was wrong with them? Well apparently not much, as they’ve quietly won nine in a row, and have a two game cushion in the ACC.

3. Pittsburgh (24-2, 11-2): Yes Pitt beat UConn, but more importantly DeJuan Blair established himself as the best big man in college basketball not named Blake Griffin. The Panthers have officially taken over as favorites in the Big East, and as a true National Championship contender.

4. Connecticut (24-2, 12-2): UConn showed more in their loss to Pittsburgh than most teams do in victory, as the Huskies hung tough, despite playing only their second game without Jerome Dyson. With South Florida at home Saturday, this veteran group should bounce back nicely.

5. Michigan State (20-4, 10-2): While the whole country is enamored with the Big East and ACC, Michigan State continues to stockpile victories and move up these rankings. The Spartans control their own destiny in the Big 10 race, with their first big test Tuesday night against Purdue.

6. Memphis (23-3, 10-0): Memphis is making its usual late season run through Conference USA, as the Tigers won their 52nd consecutive league game Saturday. With no true contenders in sight, this group should cruise into March without another loss.

7. Louisville (19-5, 10-2): Seriously, how many teams in college basketball can say they’ve won and lost a game by 30 points in the same week? While Louisville isn’t happy to be on that list, they handled business against DePaul on Sunday, only three days after getting embarrassed at Notre Dame.

8. Wake Forest (19-4, 6-4): Last week I called Wake Forest the “Jekyll and Hyde of college basketball,” and they again held form, losing a shocker at North Carolina State, before beating a good Florida State team at home. This week is a big one for the Demon Deacons as they have a chance to exact revenge on Georgia Tech, before traveling to Duke Sunday night.

9. Marquette (21-4, 10-2): The Golden Eagles got back to their winning ways this weekend, after previously dropping two in a row. Jerel McNeal (20+ points in the last nine games) must continue to be a superstar, as Marquette still has Louisville, Pittsburgh and UConn on the schedule.

10. Duke (20-5, 7-4): After losing three of their last four games, no team is nose diving faster than Duke. The Blue Devils can get back some of their national credibility with a win against Wake Forest Sunday night.

11. Missouri (22-4, 9-2): Missouri continues to do what good, veteran teams do, winning the games they’re supposed to, with victories over Kansas and Nebraska in the past week. The Tigers should have no problems in their only game this week: a trip to Big XII doormat Colorado.

12. Villanova (20-5, 8-4): The scariest thing that happened this Friday the 13th was Villanova’s embarrassing 21 point loss at West Virginia. With a visit from Rutgers Thursday, Villanova should get back on track before going to the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse Sunday.

13. Clemson (20-4): Just like Duke and Wake Forest, Clemson seems to be playing its worst basketball at the worst possible time, as the Tigers were shocked on the road by Virginia Saturday. This group has the talent to win every remaining game on their schedule, but need to stop taking nights off like they did against UVA.

14. Arizona State (20-5, 9-4): Not only did Arizona State sweep the Los Angeles schools this weekend, but more importantly, proved they could win without a huge game from James Harden. The sophomore averaged just 14 points in the two victories, but this experienced group stepped up, played great defense and found a way to win each game.

15. Gonzaga (19-5, 10-0): Gonzaga remained undefeated in conference play, but shouldn’t they have won by more than seven combined points when Saint Mary’s didn’t have Patty Mills and San Francisco was without four suspended players? The Bulldogs have as much talent as anyone in college basketball, but have yet to show the mental toughness to win a championship.

16. Dayton (23-3, 9-2): To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, which is exactly what the Flyers did, in their 71-58 victory over Atlantic 10 leader Xavier on Wednesday. The road doesn’t get any easier for Dayton, as they must travel to St. Louis and Rhode Island this coming week.

17. Kansas (20-5, 9-1): While the loss to Missouri stung, the Jayhawks rebounded nicely with a win at Kansas State Saturday (a place that last year’s National Champion lost). Kansas must win its coming games this week against Iowa State and Nebraska, before they travel to Oklahoma next Monday night.

18. Illinois (21-5, 9-4): It took a monumental comeback, but the Illini held on to win at Northwestern, behind 21 points from Demetri McCamey. Illinois has a huge test at Ohio State on Sunday, but can’t overlook Penn State earlier in the week.

19. UCLA (19-6, 8-4): The surprising thing shouldn’t be that UCLA got swept by the Arizona schools this weekend, but how, as a team which relies so heavily on defense gave up 50 percent shooting to each team. UCLA is another team which needs some credibility points, and they can do that by beating Pac 10 leader Washington on Thursday.

20. Florida State (19-6, 6-4): Florida State did what they were supposed to do, winning at Virginia, before losing at Wake Forest. This is an NCAA Tournament caliber team, but has a brutal remaining schedule, with Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College coming up.

New to the Power Rankings: Arizona State, Dayton, Illinois

Dropping Out: Xavier, Butler, Utah State

This article was originally posted here at www.aarontorres-sports.com

College Basketball Power Rankings

As we inch our way closer to March, the cream of college basketball is starting to rise, as others the pretenders slowly fade into the sunset. For the first time in a month, our No. 1 team- the Connecticut Huskies- held onto the top spot for a second straight week.

1. Connecticut (22-1, 10-1): Connecticut continues to win, and Hasheem Thabeet continues to be the reason why, as the junior had 17 points and 12 rebounds in a victory over Michigan. Syracuse – which hasn’t been very good on the road this year – comes to Gampel Pavilion Wednesday, but don’t sleep on the Orange, which are always a thorn in the Huskies side.

2. Oklahoma (23-1, 9-0): We all know Blake Griffin is the best player in college basketball, but he’s not winning alone, as Tony Crocker chipped in 24 points in a win over Colorado. If Crocker and his backcourt mates Austin Johnson and Willie Warren continue to play the way they have, this team is as likely as any to cut down the nets in March.

3. North Carolina (21-2, 7-2): While Duke and Wake Forest have stolen the headlines over the past month, North Carolina has quietly continued to win, in the process re-gaining the top spot in the ACC standings. Everyone knows the Heels can score, but can they play enough defense to win at Duke on Wednesday, and in the tournament come March?

4. Pittsburgh (21-2, 8-2): DeJuan Blair had 32 points and 14 rebounds Saturday against DePaul, as he continues to make his case for Big East player of the year. The Panthers host West Virginia in the “Backyard Brawl,” Monday night, a game sure to entertain, and with all its physical play, potentially put someone in the hospital.

5. Louisville (18-4, 9-1): Give Louisville credit for a finding a way to win Sunday after Samardo Samuels got injured and St. Johns held the Cardinals to just 19 first half points. This is a tough, savvy team, but must get healthier in the coming weeks.

6. Duke (20-3, 7-2): Boy oh boy, what do we make of these Blue Devils? They’ve looked so good all year, and then beaten by 27 at Clemson and needed overtime to get past Miami. A visit from UNC Wednesday couldn’t have come at a worse time.

7. Marquette (20-3, 9-1): The Golden Eagles loss to South Florida stings, but we knew they’d lose a game eventually. Now the question becomes, how does this senior-laden team respond, with a trip to Villanova Tuesday night?

8. UCLA (19-4, 8-2): As is pretty standard come mid-February, UCLA is picking up its game and running away from the rest of the Pac-10. Should the Bruins sweep their trip to Arizona this weekend, it’d be hard to dismiss them as a threat nationally.

9. Wake Forest (18-3, 5-3): Wake Forest continues to be the Jekyll and Hyde of college basketball, losing by 27 points at Miami before bouncing back with a convincing victory over Boston College. This team has as much talent as anyone in college basketball, but the question is if they’re mentally tough enough to handle being a top ranked team.

10. Clemson (19-3, 5-3): Right after Clemson’s 27 point beat down of Duke, I was ready to take every negative thing I’ve said about the Tigers and put it to rest for good. Then they lost to Florida State after having a huge lead for virtually the entire game, which begs the question: is this Clemson team really any different than those of years past after all?

11. Michigan State (19-4, 9-2): Everyone has been waiting all year for Michigan State to figure itself out, and they may finally have, beating Minnesota and Indiana by a combined 57 points in their last two games. For a team that desperately needs to get healthy, playing only one game this week – at Michigan – should help.

12. Villanova (19-4, 7-3): It’s never a bad thing when two players go for over 30 points in one week, as Scottie Reynolds tallied 31 at Providence, and Dante Cunningham did likewise against Syracuse. This team continues to climb the Big East leader board, and could do themselves a big favor by winning Tuesday night against Marquette.

13. Memphis (20-3, 8-0): There isn’t a hotter team in college basketball right now then the Tigers, who went to Spokane and beat Gonzaga by 18. The Tigers have won 14 in a row, and have been a completely different team with Tyreke Evans running the point.

14. Xavier (20-3, 8-1): Xavier wasn’t expected to go undefeated in the Atlantic 10, but honestly, who thought they’d lose to Duquesne? The Musketeers must rebound quickly, as they travel to Dayton Wednesday, a team which is 21-3, and has a win over Marquette on their resume.

15. Kansas (19-4, 8-2): Even the most optimistic of Jayhawks fans couldn’t have predicted this team would be undefeated in conference play halfway through their slate. But with trips to Missouri and Kansas State (where Kansas lost last year), how long will they remain undefeated?

16. Gonzaga (17-5, 8-0): There’s no nice way to put it: Gonzaga got outplayed in every facet of their game with Memphis Saturday night. The good news is that there isn’t anyone left on the Bulldogs schedule nearly the caliber of the team they just played, meaning an undefeated season in the West Coast Conference is possible.

17. Butler (21-2, 12-1): The Bulldogs rebounded nicely from their loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay, getting two road victories in the last week. Butler will never wow you on offense, but if they continue to hold opponents to 56.5 points per game (good for third in the country), they’re probably not going to lose much either.

18. Utah State (23-1, 11-0): Pop quiz, which college basketball team currently holds the nation’s longest winning streak? If you guessed Stew Morrill’s club, which has won 18 in row, you’d be correct.

19. Missouri (20-4, 7-2): DeMarre Carroll is the best player you’ve never heard of, as the senior went for 31 points in Saturday’s win over Iowa State, just a game after Missouri upset Texas. Whether or not the Tigers can stay in the Power Rankings will largely be determined by how they handle Kansas Monday night.

20. Florida State (18-5, 5-3): While major conference teams like Texas, Purdue and Syracuse continue to find ways to lose, the Seminoles quietly keep on winning. Their victory at Clemson Saturday was a statement, and they can get another one when they travel to Wake Forest this weekend.

New to the Power Rankings: Butler, Utah State, Missouri, Florida State

Dropping Out: Purdue, Texas, Syracuse, Minnesota

Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media

NBA Mock Draft – Feb. 8, 2009

As we all know, the months leading up to the NBA Draft can make for an overwhelming flurry of inside scoops, conspiracy theories and rumors from all around the internet; this year appears to be no different.

Fortunately, Hoops Addict has been keeping tabs on all the top college prospects and will be in attendance at NBA pre-draft workouts in Toronto and Washington to put it all in perspective. While there is a lot up in the air, this is our best attempt to get through all the speculation and give you some insight into who the top 30 prospects are.

Make sure you keep checking back for updated rankings over the next few months. Then, once the NBA Draft order is announced on May 19, we’ll start adapting these rankings to reflect specific team needs and what we’re hearing specific NBA teams will do.

1. Blake Griffin PF/C
19 years old; 6’10″; 239 lbs.
Oklahoma, Sophomore

2. James Harden SG
19 years old; 6’5″; 218 lbs.
Arizona State, Sophomore

3. Greg Monroe PF/C
18 years old; 6’10″; 226 lbs.
Georgetown, Freshman

4. Hasheem Thabeet C
21 years old; 7’3″; 260 lbs.
Connecticut, Junior

5. Ricky Rubio PG
18 years old, 6′ 4″ 180lbs.
DKV Joventut

6. Jordan Hill PF
21 years old; 6’10″; 235 lbs.
Arizona, Junior

7. Stephen Curry PG/SG
20 years old; 6’3″; 185 lbs.
Davidson, Junior

8. Jeff Teague PG/SG
20 years old; 6’2″; 180 lbs.
Wake Forest, Sophomore

9. Earl Clark SF/PF
21 years old; 6’9″; 200 lbs.
Louisville, Junior

10. Brandon Jennings PG
19 years old; 6’1″; 170 lbs.
Lottomatica Roma, International

11. Ty Lawson PG
21 years old; 6’0″; 195 lbs.
North Carolina, Junior

12. B.J. Mullens C
years old; 7’0″; 260 lbs.
Ohio State, Freshman

13. Jrue Holiday PG/SG
18 years old; 6’4″; 200 lbs.
UCLA, Freshman

14. Patrick Patterson PF
19 years old; 6’8″; 223 lbs.
Kentucky, Sophomore

15. DeJuan Blair PF/C
19 years old; 6’7″; 265 lbs.
Pittsburgh, Sophomore

16. Darren Collison PG
21 years old; 6’1″; 165 lbs.
UCLA, Senior

17. Gerald Henderson SG
21 years old; 6’5″; 215 lbs.
Duke, Junior

18. Chase Budinger SG/SF
21 years old; 6’7″; 190 lbs.
Arizona, Junior

19. Eric Maynor PG
21 years old; 6’2″; 165 lbs.
VCU, Senior

20. Kyle Singler SF/PF
20 years old; 6’9″; 210 lbs.
Duke, Sophomore

21. Jonny Flynn PG
19 years old; 6’0″; 172 lbs.
Syracuse, Sophomore

22. Tyler Hansbrough PF
23 years old; 6’9″; 230 lbs.
North Carolina, Senior

23. Sam Young SF/PF
23 years old; 6’6″; 210 lbs.
Pittsburgh, Senior

24. Jerome Jordan C
22 years old; 7’0″; 235 lbs.
Tulsa, Junior

25. Willie Warren SG
19 years old; 6’4″; 200 lbs.
Oklahoma, Freshman

26. DaJuan Summers SF/PF
20 years old; 6’8″; 241 lbs.
Georgetown, Junior

27. A.J. Price PG
22 years old; 6’2″; 190 lbs.
Connecticut, Senior

28. Andrew Ogilvy C
20 years old; 7’0″; 240 lbs.
Vanderbilt, Sophomore

29.Tyrese Rice PG/SG
21 years old; 6’0″; 183 lbs.
Boston College, Senior

30.Michael Washington PF
22 years old; 6’10″; 224 lbs.
Arkansas, Junior

Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media

College Basketball Power Rankings

With January over, we are officially in the home-stretch of the college basketball season. Teams continue to beat each other up in hopes of improving their NCAA Tournament position, or in some cases just securing a postseason berth all together. And for the fourth time in as many weeks, we have a new number one.

Jim Calhoun and the UConn Huskies, you’re on the clock:

1. Connecticut (21-1, 10-1): If there was any doubt that UConn deserved the no. 1 ranking, they erased it with a dominating win at Louisville Monday night. Hasheem Thabeet has turned himself into not only the best defensive player in college basketball, but an offensive force as well.

2. Oklahoma (21-1, 7-0): Lost in the shuffle of Blake Griffin’s nightly double-doubles is how good Oklahoma’s guard play has been. Willie Warren and Austin Johnson each went over 20 points last week as the Sooners got two rough road wins at Oklahoma State and Iowa State.

3. Duke (19-2, 6-1): The Blue Devils lost their no. 1 ranking at Wake Forest, but rebounded nicely with a decisive win against Virginia on Super Bowl Sunday. Gerald Henderson has been the difference in Duke’s recent resurgence, as the junior has had at least 17 points in each of his last seven games.

4. North Carolina (19-2, 5-2): The Tar Heels went 2-0 this past week, but needed a Ty Lawson buzzer-beater to win at Florida State. North Carolina is starting to regain its early season form, just in time for a trip to Duke next Wednesday.

5. Marquette (19-2, 8-0): In a conference which continues to cannibalize itself, Marquette keeps chalking up wins, beating Notre Dame and Georgetown this week. With trips to DePaul and South Florida – two of the Big East’s worst teams- the Golden Eagles should stay in the top five for quite some time.

6. Pittsburgh (20-2, 7-2): For all the talk about Luke Harangody in the Big East, DeJuan Blair has been just as good, as he dominated Notre Dame’s award winning power forward with 23 points and 22 rebounds in Pittsburgh’s victory over the Fighting Irish. However, the Panthers did lose to Villanova earlier in the week, proving if Blair is in foul trouble, this team suddenly becomes vulnerable.

7. Wake Forest (17-2, 4-2): It’s always going to be an adventure with a team as young as Wake Forest, as the Demon Deacons beat no. 1 Duke at home, only to lose at Georgia Tech just a few days later. A road trip to Miami this week will be no day at the beach, as the Hurricanes are good, and desperate for a win.

8. Louisville (17-4, 8-1): Louisville’s loss to UConn Monday may be more of an indication of how good the Huskies are than anything the Cardinals did wrong. That being said, the Cardinals can’t afford to let up, as they have back-to-back road games at St. John’s and Notre Dame in the coming week.

9. Purdue (17-4, 6-2): An old adage in basketball goes, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish,” and the Boilermakers have certainly taken that to heart, playing without a loss in close to a month. If Purdue can survive trips to Ohio State and Illinois this week, they may be in the drivers seat in the Big 10 race, especially with Michigan State struggling of late.

10. Clemson (18-2, 4-2): It took a herculean effort and a lot of heart (something Clemson has been lacking the last couple of years), but the Tigers overcame a 15 point deficit and beat Virginia Tech on the road. Clemson will once again have a chance to prove themselves to the college basketball establishment when they host Duke Wednesday night.

11. Xavier (19-2, 7-0): The Musketeers needed all 40 minutes to hold off UMass Saturday afternoon, winning by just two. Xavier has two tough games this week before taking a trip to Dayton; its toughest competition in the Atlantic 10 this season.

12. Michigan State (17-4, 7-2): The Breslin Center is no longer a house of horrors for visiting opponents, as Penn State won on Michigan State’s home court just a few weeks after Northwestern did the same. While Kalin Lucas has been superb for the Spartans, he needs more consistency from his teammates if this team wants to do any damage in March.

13. UCLA (17-4, 7-2): UCLA proved it is still the deepest team in the Pac-10, and maybe the favorite, after sweeping Stanford and Cal at home this weekend. The schedule gets no easier as both USC and Notre Dame come to Pauley Pavilion in the next few days.

14. Gonzaga (16-4, 7-0): Remember when Gonzaga lost three of four, and we all forgot about them? Well, after sweeping Saint Mary’s and San Diego over the weekend, the ‘Zags are back, and playing as well as anyone.

15. Villanova (17-4, 5-3): We’ve been waiting all year for Villanova to get a signature win, and they finally got it with a victory of Pittsburgh Wednesday night. The Wildcats can’t lose focus, as a trip to Providence doesn’t look like nearly the sure thing it did just a few weeks ago.

16. Memphis (18-3, 7-0): Memphis continues to win games, but the question is, how good is the Tigers competition? If this team wants to be taken seriously, a win at Gonzaga Saturday night would be a major step in the right direction.

17. Texas (15-5, 4-2): Damion James continues to improve (19 points and 12 rebounds Saturday afternoon), but his team continues to struggle, as the Longhorns fell at Kansas State in overtime. Texas’s troubles always seem to coincide with A.J. Abrams going cold, as the senior guard shot just 5-21 from the field in the loss.

18. Syracuse 17-5, 5-4): The Orange suffered their third loss in a row Wednesday night at Providence, as they simply couldn’t overcome the absence of three starters from their line-up. A team which was ranked so highly just a few weeks ago desperately needs to right the ship Wednesday night against West Virginia.

19. Minnesota (18-3, 6-3): Minnesota needed a win against Illinois and got it, holding their opponent to 29 percent shooting and 36 points in their strongest defensive effort of the season. The schedule gets no easier as the Golden Gophers play Michigan State Wednesday.

20. Kansas (18-4, 7-0): The champ is here! After struggling early in the season, the young Jayhawks have won 10 of their last 11 and are looking like Oklahoma’s biggest threat in the Big XII.

New to the Power Rankings: Gonzaga, Villanova, Memphis and Kansas

Dropping Out: Arizona State, Butler, Illinois, Saint Mary’s

Author’s note: this article was originally published here, at www.aarontorres-sports.com)

Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media