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College Hoops: Five Weeks and Counting

   by Larry Ness - 02/13/2009

"Selection Sunday" (March 15) will be only five weeks away with the completion of this weekend's play in college hoops. Bracket Buster Saturday is next weekend and the first of what will be 30 conference tournaments begin on March 3, when the Big South, Horizon League and the Ohio Valley Conference tip off their postseason events.

North Carolina was the nation's No. 1 team in the preseason and the Tar Heels remained atop both the AP and coaches' poll until they lost at home 85-78 to Boston College (as 23-point favorites) on January 4. Pitt claimed the No. 1 spot a day later, for the first time in school history. The Panthers held on to the top spot for two weeks but a 69-63 loss at Louisville on January 17 (a Saturday) saw a new No. 1 team come Monday. That school was Wake Forest, which rose to the top spot for the second time in school history.

Wake (21st in the preseason poll) was 16-0 and nation's lone unbeaten team at the time, when it claimed the nation's No. 1 ranking on January 19, but didn't last long. Two days later, the Demon Deacons lost 78-71 at home to Va Tech (as 13-point favorites). Duke claimed the No. 1 spot on January 26, for the first time since the final regular season poll of the 2005-06 season. It marked the 111th time the Dookies had claimed the nation's No. 1 ranking in the AP poll, 93 times under Coach K.

Duke joined North Carolina and Wake to become the third different ACC team to claim the AP's top spot this year, just the fourth time one league has done so in the same season. SEC schools Ala, Fla and Ky were all No. 1 during the 2002-03 season, Big 8 schools Kan, Mo, and Okla held the No. 1 ranking in the 1985-86 season and ACC schools Ga Tech, N Car and Duke were No. 1 during the 1985-86 season.

However, Duke lost its first game as the nation's top team, losing 70-68 at Wake Forest on January 28, the school it had just replaced at No. 1. U Conn became the fifth different school to claim this year's No. 1 spot in the AP poll on February 2. It marked the first time the Huskies had been No. 1 since March of 2006 but the 25th time it had held the No. 1 ranking since 1995, all under head coach Jim Calhoun.

The Huskies seem to like it at the top, as on the same day in which they took over as the nation's No. 1 team, they won 68-51 at Louisville. U Conn has followed that win with home victories over Michigan and No. 23 Syracuse. A win on Saturday at Seton Hall (14-9 / 5-6 in the Big East) would keep the Huskies at the top of the AP poll come Monday for a third straight week (27th all-time), something no school has done since North Carolina opened as the nation's No. 1 team and stayed there for the season's first seven weeks.

It may be a little too soon to talk about No. 1 seeds but one could make a pretty good argument right now, that the current top-four teams in the latest AP poll will be this year's No. 1 seeds come March 15. U Conn is 23-1 and ranked No. 1, Oklahoma is 24-1 at No. 2, North Carolina's impressive 101-87 in Durham on Wednesday night gives the Tar Heels a 22-2 mark and No. 4 Pitt checks in, like the Tar Heels, at 22-2 as well.

Nineteen of the current top-25 schools come from just four conferences, with the Big East claiming six spots, the ACC and Big 10 holding down five spots and the Big 12 owning three. The SEC is without a top-25 team for the second straight week, the first time that conference has not had a ranked team since March 7, 1989, when the AP was only ranking 20 teams. Speaking of the SEC, all 12 schools have made at least one appearance in the "Big Dance" over the last six years but bids could be scarce this year.

We will hear a lot about the RPI rankings in the next five weeks, so let me point out that No. 11 UCLA has an RPI of just 26 (prior to losing at ASU on Thursday), No 18 Arizona St has one of 34 (UCLA win will help), No. 19 Gonzaga's RPI is 31, No. 20 Purdue is at 33 and No. 21 Utah State is ranked 32nd by the RPI.

Schools not in the current AP top-25 but with top-25 RPI rankings are Utah (11), West Va (17), Washington (19), Tennessee (23), and Dayton (25). Looking for some 'sleepers' outside of the major or mid-major conferences in the RPI rankings? How about Siena (28) of the MAAC and Davidson (47) of the Southern Conference, although after last year, calling Davidson a 'sleeper' would be a misnomer.

Getting back to the majors and mid-majors, here's a list of 14 teams which failed to go 'dancing' last year but are likely participants in this year's tourney. In alphabetical order (followed by last year's record) they are Arizona St (21-13), Cincinnati (13-19), Creighton (22-11), Dayton (23-11), Florida (24-12), Florida St (19-15), Illinois (16-19), LSU (13-18), Minnesota (20-14), Missouri (16-16), Ohio St (24-13), Syracuse (21-14), Utah St (24-11) and Washington (16-17).

There are just two games this weekend (both on Saturday) featuring top-25 opponents. No. 7 Wake will host No. 25 Florida St, while No. 9 Michigan St travels to No. 20 Purdue. Utah State (24-1) owns the nation's longest active winning streak at 19 in a row and the Aggies will play at Boise St on Saturday. Note that Utah State, under head coach Stew Morrill, entered this season as one of just three Division I schools to have won at least 23 games in each of the last nine seasons.

The Aggies have already won 24 games this year (so make it 10 straight years), while the other schools in that exclusive club are Kansas (19-5) and North Carolina (22-2). Utah State has appeared in nine straight postseasons (five NCAA tourneys) and will obviously make it 10 straight postseasons this year, most likely adding a sixth NCCA trip.

Memphis, which lost in overtime in last year's national championship game to Kansas, has won 15 straight games entering this weekend. The Tigers will be at Southern Miss on Saturday, as they try to extend their C-USA winning streak which has reached 51 straight, including C-USA tourney games.

ATS update: Heading into Friday night's play, seven schools own ATS records of at least 70 percent. The list includes Princeton (9-1 or 90.0 percent), Weber St (14-5 or 73.2), The Citadel (13-5-1 or 72.2), Kansas (13-5 or 72.2), Auburn (12-5 or 70.6), Florida St (12-5-1 or 70.6) and Columbia (7-3 or 70.0).

Good luck...Larry

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