Kevin McNeill's weekly 5 Things column breaks down what's important in the world of college basketball.
This week, we learned that...
1) The SEC may be the worst major conference in almost a quarter century
There’s still plenty of time left in the regular season, but the SEC may be on the verge of the worst showing by a Big 6 conference since the Reagan Administration.
As of this writing, seven teams in the SEC have eight losses or more, and nine have at least seven losses. Of the six SEC teams with a winning conference record so far, only two have actually beaten a currently ranked team this season – Florida (who defeated Washington), and Tennessee (Marquette). While LSU, South Carolina and Florida all received votes in the latest Coaches poll, no SEC team has made an appearance in that poll since January 11th, when Tennessee was on its way out.
Over the last six seasons, no one major conference placed less than 13th (the Big 10, twice) in the final regular season polls. In fact, since the AP poll expanded to 25 teams in 1992, no major conference has failed to place at least one team in the final rankings. The last time a Big 6 conference was excluded occurred when the Pac-10 was shut out in the final polls of 1986.
It could happen again this season, although LSU and Florida seemingly have the best shot to prevent it. Florida plays at Kentucky on Tuesday, and then travels to LSU for a crucial game on the 24th.
2) Bill Self and John Calipari continue to reload
The two participants in last season’s national championship game lost a combined eight players to the 2008 NBA Draft, and all but two starters (both with Memphis) overall.
Memphis won their 14th game in a row Saturday, beating Gonzaga soundly in Spokane - their sixth road game in their last nine contests. Led by seniors Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson, not to mention superstar freshman Tyreke Evans, the Tigers are now deservedly ranked in the Top 10 in the country and are looking absolutely dominant.
In his first eight full seasons with Memphis, Coach Calipari has won 238 games versus just 68 losses. Over the past four seasons, including the current one, Calipari is a ridiculous 62-1 (including C-USA Tournament games) in the conference, and is currently riding a 50 game C-USA winning streak.
During that same time span, Memphis has won a total of 123 games so far. The NCAA record for most wins over a four year time period is currently held by Duke, who won 133 between 1998 and 2001. With eight games remaining in the regular season, not to mention the C-USA tournament and NCAA Tournament, Memphis will likely own that record this year.
Kansas, which sports two freshmen and two sophomores in its starting lineup, has won eight of their last nine, the one loss coming on a last-second shot by arch-rival Missouri in Columbia on Monday night. The Jayhawks are also back in the Top 25 for the first time since December.
In the last two full seasons, Coach Bill Self has won 70 games, and has an absurd .814 winning percentage since landing in Lawrence six years ago. He already has taken his team to the Elite Eight twice and of course won the national championship last year.
KU has a tough stretch remaining with road games against surprising Kansas State and Oklahoma on the schedule. But the fact that the Jayhawks are right in the thick of the Big 12 title race, a year after losing all five starters and three players from the bench, is truly remarkable.
3) Duquesne is in the midst of one of their best seasons ever
Duquesne, that other team from Pittsburgh, had one of its biggest wins in program history Saturday when they knocked off # 9 Xavier. The Dukes hadn't beaten a team ranked that high since 1974. They are now in fourth place in the A-10 and are off to their best conference start in nearly thirty years.
Their last two losses came on the road in overtime by a combined five points. As much as I hate playing the coulda-woulda-shoulda hypothetical card, had those games gone the other way, Duquesne would actually be sitting in first place right now. Unbelievable.
Under third year coach Ron Everhart, the Dukes posted their first winning season last year since 1994. With 15 wins already this year, just three more victories will give them their best season since 1981.
This is a Duquesne team that has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1977, and has advanced beyond the first round of the A-10 Tournament just once since 1996 – in 2004 when they upended UMass. Their last postseason tournament of any kind was the NIT in 1994.
Even more remarkable is that this turnaround comes just over two years since an on-campus shooting wounded five Duquesne basketball players, one of them critically. One of those five players was Aaron Jackson, who is now leading the Dukes in scoring and assists. Saturday he led all players in scoring with 21 points, earning him A-10 player of the week honors for the third time this season.
4) The Big East is thinning out
Well, so much for getting ten teams to the Big Dance.
The Big East Conference, which had seven teams ranked in the top 25 in the preseason, with Syracuse and West Virginia also receiving votes, has fallen on tough times recently.
Notre Dame has now lost seven in a row and need to run the table the rest of the regular season to reach 20 wins (unlikely, with road games against UConn, West Virginia and Providence coming up). Georgetown, a team that was ranked in the Top 10 in both polls as recently as January11th, has now lost six of their last seven, and eight of their last eleven. Syracuse has dropped five of their last seven with a trip to Connecticut next on the schedule. Arinze Onuaku’s knee injury has been devastating to the Orange, who have looked lost on the court without his inside presence and defense.
Providence looked like they were getting close to being a lock for a NCAA Tournament bid after defeating Cincinnati on the road, but then proceeded to lose five of their next eight, the most recent a 86-59 pasting at the hands of West Virginia. Speaking of the Mountaineers, they are 5-6 in their last eleven games, although every one of those losses came to ranked opponents and are still looking pretty good for a tournament berth.
Still, there could be as few as six teams from the Big East going to the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday should some teams be unable to turn it around over the home stretch, a remarkable turn of events from just a month ago.
5) UConn, Oklahoma and North Carolina are starting to separate themselves from the pack
There seems to be a bit more breathing room between the top three ranked teams in the country and everybody else.
Connecticut apparently has not been troubled by playing with the target on their back that comes with being # 1. Hasheem Thabeet has been nothing short of outstanding, and is one of four starters averaging double figures in scoring, and one of two (Jeff Adrien being the other) averaging a double-double. But Thabeet has been the key to the Huskies’ dominance. His presence in the paint and ability to completely alter shots, much less block them, is unmatched.
The Tar Heels, who began the season as the unanimous #1 team in the country, and who this writer at one point speculated could run the table - right before they laid an egg against Boston College - are now seemingly reasserting themselves as a #1 seed in March. They completely destroyed two very good teams in Miami and Clemson, and have won their last three games by an average of 16 points. The emergence of Wayne Ellington as one of the best players in the ACC is a big reason why.
Oklahoma has been living dangerously lately, needing second half comebacks in each of their last three games, but are also proving themselves to be one of the most unpredictable, and therefore dangerous, teams in the country.
While the Sooners can rely on Blake Griffin – the best player in the nation – night in and night out, they have seemingly had a different player step up to help the team to victory in every recent game.
Tony Crocker put up 24 points against Colorado on 7 of 12 shooting, more points than he posted his previous three games combined. Against Texas A&M, four Sooners scored in double figures, including Blake’s brother Taylor who hit the go-ahead basket with under a minute to play, only the second time he has posted over 10 points this season. Freshman Willie Warren exploded for 29 against Iowa State the game prior to that.
I’m not quite ready to guarantee that one of these three will be cutting down the nets in April. All three will probably post at least one more loss before the season ends (North Carolina has a matchup Wednesday against Duke, as pure a throw-out-the-records rivalry as there exists in sports today, and UConn still must face Pitt twice). But there’s no question they are the teams to beat.