Big Three Roll On

On Saturday, Vanderbilt and Washington State were removed from the ranks of the unbeaten; but college basketball’s Big Three, North Carolina, Kansas, and Memphis, continued to roll on with runaway victories, and threaten to make history.

Not since Indiana in 1976 has a squad run the table, including the NCAA tourney, without a loss. Since then, only two teams – Indiana State in 1979 with Larry Bird and the 1991 UNLV Running Rebels – have entered the NCAA tournament undefeated; and since UNLV’s run, only St. Joseph’s in 2004 has even completed its regular season without a loss. The Jamar Nelson-led Eagles succumbed in the second round of the Atlantic-10 tournament to Xavier.

But never in the fifty five year history of modern college basketball, dating unofficially from the institution of the 16-team NCAA title format in 1952, have two teams in the same year completed their regular seasons unblemished. In recent years, late season conference stumbles ruined the undefeated regular season runs of UMass (1995), Kansas (1997), Stanford (2004) and Illinois (2005), and almost a full conference schedule remains ahead for the Tarheels, Jayhawks and Tigers. But considering the overwhelming strength of the Big Three, and the diminished capacity of their traditional conference rivals, this could be the year that undefeated squads occupy the numbers one and two seeds, and possibly the third seed, in the Big Dance.

I will not address the likelihood of the Big Three progressing undefeated through their conference tournament, but looking down the road, it seems reasonable to suppose that two or more of them will trample all remaining regular season opponents.

First, let’s take a look at North Carolina. The Tarheels are loaded with talent and run eight deep. They may already have navigated their toughest spot, winning on a last-second three-pointer by Wayne Ellington at Clemson January 10th. The Tigers will be more compliant at their February 10th rematch at Carolina, and the rest of the ACC is at its weakest level in years. Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Boston College, Virginia Tech and North Carolina State, all traditional powers, are in the midst of down seasons. Neither of them is likely to make the NCAA tournament. Florida State, Virginia, and Miami are scrappy, but not giant-killers. That leaves Duke, which lacks a big-time scorer and talent sufficient to keep up with the Tarheels when they meet in the regular season finale at Duke March 8th.

Memphis has little to fear from the cushy Conference USA, but non-conference tilts with Gonzaga and Tennessee on Jan 26th and February 23rd, respectively, will be challenging. For all of their recent success under John Calipari, the Tigers have not made the Final Four since 1985, when they lost to eventual champion Villanova. This year’s squad, which handled Georgetown easily, has great athleticism and experience. Chris Douglas-Roberts (CDR) may be the best wing player in the country.

The Jayhawks have the toughest road to perfection, with road encounters at Texas, Missouri, and Texas A&M, which is likely to challenge Kansas for the conference title.
Kansas is balanced (five starters averaging between 10 and 13 ppg) and experienced (four returning starters, three seniors coming off the bench), but they may lack the offensive explosion necessary to sweep. Already, they’ve survived squeakers against unranked Arizona, USC, and Georgia Tech.

Vanderbilt has no such worries after its double-overtime loss at Kentucky. The Commodores have lived dangerously all season, having survived double digit deficits in the second half against Depaul and UMass. But when they fell behind by sixteen with less than ten minutes to go against Kentucky, it was cause for concern. Then, Shan Foster and Andrew Ogilvy took over. Foster is a 6’6″ four year starter who played second billing last season to the departed Derrick Byars. Ogilvy is a 7′ freshman from Australia who bears no resemblance to Luc Longley, and that’s meant as a compliment. Between them, Foster and Ogilvy average 40 pts a game. They’re the highest-scoring duo in the SEC.

Ogilvy pounded inside for two lay-ups. And Foster, whose high-arching offerings threaten the overhanging lights (as well as the bottom of the net), hit four consecutive three-pointers, including the last score in regulation. Alas, sloppy ball-handling and missed foul shots doomed Vandy’s effort. And there may be more bad news in store for the Commodores on Thursday when they play at Tennessee. Kentucky, despite its rough start, is much better than advertised, and should win more than half its games in the SEC.

At Pauley Pavilion, UCLA made short work of Washington State. Nine late three-pointers by the Cougars made the final score palatable, but the Bruins overpowered them. Washington State is extremely smart and methodical, but not worthy of its then number 4 national ranking.

UCLA, with a loss to Texas, does not harbor the Big Three’s hopes for regular season perfection. But with back to back Final Four appearances on its resume, a dominating freshman center (Kevin Love), and a suffocating defense, the Bruins would not be at all remiss in thinking that the third time was the charm.

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Five on the rise

Arizona (11-5) An injury to freshman sensation point guard Bayless and an uncertain coaching situation contributed to ‘Zona’s slow start. But Bayless is back, Buddinger is heating up, and the Wildcats should be nursing their customary slot in the top fifteen before long.

Gonzaga (13-4). I’m still waiting for the ‘Zags to break out. They’ve got too many good players not to.

Pittsburgh (15-2). When Fields and Cook went down, I wondered whether the Panthers could replace them. Those questions were answered last night against Georgetown. DeJuan Blair and Sam Young are special players.

Louisville (12-4). Padgett and Palacio have returned from injury and Derek (lack of) Caracter is playing under control. It should be clear sailing.

Ohio State (12-4)/Florida (15-2). We’ve grouped last year’s finalists under the same heading because they’re both getting an equal measure of disrespect from the pollsters. It’s true they’ve suffered huge turnover, but programs like these always regenerate. And they’re winning games.

Five in demise

Georgetown (13-2). Hoyas are beginning to feel the absence of Jeff Green. Who wouldn’t? And big Roy Hibbert may have plateaud, after three seasons of geometric improvement. Prepare for at least five Big East defeats.

USC (10-6) Trojans were beheaded by the departure of last year’s nucleus. Pruitt, Stewart, and Nick Young averaged 45 pts between them. With all the attention on OJ Mayo, Taj Gibson has been overlooked in the offense. Pac-10 is just too tough.

Syracuse (12-5). Boeheim was relying on injured Devendorf to stabilize freshman-loaded team. Without him, team is rudderless.

Michigan State (14-2) Recent 36-43 loss to Iowa is foreboding. Spartans have few scoring options.

Illinois (8-9). Do you get the feeling the Illini have not recruited one quality player since 2004?

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