Mike Miller

Jay Wright
AP

Big East back to nation’s best conference? Just might be

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CHICAGO — While the Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference dominate the AP Top 25 this week, there is something to said for the emerging depth of the Big East basketball. Villanova (No. 10) and Butler (No. 11) are the only Big East teams in the Top 25, but seven more schools from the conference received votes for the poll.

Providence was the only Big East school that got shut out, and it rolled to a 76-60 victory over Georgetown on Tuesday. The Hoyas had won six in a row, including an 89-79 win against Syracuse on Dec. 14 that impressed Orange coach Jim Boeheim so much he called it the best Georgetown team he had seen in years.

“I don’t think there’s a conference in the country from 1 to 10 that has the quality of teams that our league does,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said.

One night, it might be Myles Powell, with Seton Hall’s pair of 7-foot-2 centers patrolling the lane.

Or Villanova, with its championship pedigree and coach Jay Wright roaming the sideline.

Another tough Butler team. Xavier and its experience. The dynamic Markus Howard and Marquette. On and on it goes.

There are no off days in the Big East this year.

“You have to be on it every single night,” Xavier coach Travis Steele said.

Concerns about NCAA tourney seeding?

It’s so good there is some concern it might end up costing the Big East when the field for the NCAA Tournament is set.

“The challenge is that from the rest of the country’s perspective, if a team ends up being 9-9 or 10-8, does that hurt you because of the quality of the teams moving forward?” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said.

“The analytics and the metrics hopefully will state the fact that there are so many good teams and so many competitive teams. That will help us. That’s the theory. You just hope that it plays itself out.”

The first few days of Big East basketball play provided a quick glance at the difficult road to the conference championship.

Collin Gillespie made a couple of big plays to help Villanova hold off Xavier for a 68-62 win Monday night. The Wildcats opened a 17-point lead in the first half before the Musketeers rallied.

Seton Hall used a terrific performance from Powell to top DePaul 74-66 in its Big East opener, finishing the game with a 9-0 run. Powell scored 18 of his 27 points in the second half after missing the previous two games because of a concussion.

The Pirates were the preseason Big East favorites in a poll of the conference’s coaches. The Blue Demons were picked to finish last, but they got off to a 12-1 start.

“This is one of the best conferences in the country. … This battle that we’re about to go through, these next 17 games, I mean words can’t even describe it,” Powell said.

Seton Hall trailed DePaul for much of the game. Pirates coach Kevin Willard said the tense finish likely will be the norm this year in the Big East.

“I think the depth and the fact that the league has gotten older and more mature from last year — last year we were a younger league — I just think every night you’re going to go out there and it’s going to be a six-point game, five-point game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re home or on the road. It’s just going to be a battle.”

Health, as always, key to success

With so much depth in the league, staying healthy could be one of the biggest keys.

While Seton Hall got Powell back against DePaul, Sandro Mamukelashvili remains out with a broken right wrist. St. John’s guard Mustapha Heron has missed three straight games with a sprained right ankle. Georgetown guard Mac McClung missed the loss to the Friars with an eye injury. Butler guard Kamar Baldwin was bothered by a right ankle injury during the Bulldogs’ 60-58 victory over the Red Storm on Tuesday night.

Butler blew a 23-point lead against St. John’s before escaping with the win. Just another night in the Big East.

“We’ve got to eat right, sleep right, take care of our bodies,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “We’ve had to do a good job of practice planning so that we are fresh and we got full energy amongst the entire group because it’s going to be a battle every night.”

Kansas now the new No. 1 in the AP Poll

Devon Dotson
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It is Kansas’ turn at No. 1 in the Top 25 men’s college basketball poll, while another blueblood — North Carolina — is out for the first time in nearly six years.

The Jayhawks (9-1) moved up one spot to become the fifth team to top the poll in an already wild season. It is the first time the AP poll has had five different No. 1s before New Year’s Day; the record for an entire season is seven, set in 1982-83.

Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke and Louisville have been the other top-ranked teams so far in a year with no dominant team.

The Jayhawks, who received 47 of 65 first-place votes, haven’t lost since falling to Duke in the Champions Classic to open the season. That run has included winning the Maui Invitational and beating a then-ranked Colorado team, with all but the overtime win against Dayton for the Maui title coming by double-digit margins.

Kansas coach Bill Self said his team has “been pretty good and fairly consistent” since the Duke loss.

“I think we are getting better, but still, up until about January, rankings don’t really mean that much,” Self said last week of potentially rising to No. 1, “but it is worth a little bit more as we get toward conference play.”

North Carolina (6-4) had been ranked for 106 consecutive weeks dating to February 2014, including starting this year in the top 10 and peaking at No. 5 on Nov. 18.

The Tar Heels failed to crack 50 points in losses to both highly ranked Ohio State and Virginia, then lost Sunday to Wofford in Chapel Hill with star freshman point guard Cole Anthony and fellow starter Leaky Black out with injuries.

THE TOP TIER

Losses by four of last week’s top five teams led to a reshuffled top tier.

Gonzaga (11-1) jumped four spots to No. 2 and earned 15 first-place votes, followed by last week’s No. 1 Louisville falling to third after losing to Texas Tech. Duke rose three spots to fourth, followed by Ohio State falling two spots to No. 5 after a loss at Minnesota.

Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon, reigning national champion Virginia and Baylor round out the top 10.

 

Here is the full AP Poll:

1. Kansas (47 first-place votes)
2. Gonzaga (15)
3. Louisville (1)
4. Duke (2)
5. Ohio State
6. Kentucky
7. Maryland
8. Oregon
9. Virginia
10. Baylor
11. Memphis
12. Auburn
13. Dayton
14. Michigan
15. Michigan State
16. Arizona
17. Butler
18. Villanova
19. Florida State
20. San Diego State
21. Tennessee
22. Washington
23. Penn State
24. Texas Tech
25. West Virginia

Others receiving votes: North Carolina 41, Xavier 40, Wichita State 31, Purdue 30, Liberty 25, Marquette 23, Indiana 23, Virginia Commonwealth 21, Utah State 14, Saint Mary’s 13, Northern Iowa 12, Colorado 12, Texas 10, Florida 7, DePaul 6, Georgetown 3, Richmond 3, Virginia Tech 3, LSU 3, Stanford 3, Seton Hall 3, Oklahoma State 2, Duquesne 1, BYU 1, Arkansas 1

RISING

San Diego State (10-0) had the week’s biggest jump, rising five spots to No. 20. In all, 13 teams moved up from last week’s poll, most by one or two spots.

SLIDING

Michigan (8-3) had the biggest slide of the week, falling nine spots to No. 14 after losses to Illinois and in overtime to Oregon. The Wolverines were unranked to start the season but shot up to No. 4 after winning the Thanksgiving-week Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

Six teams slid in this week’s poll overall.

STATUS QUO

Ninth-ranked Virginia and No. 12 Auburn, which met in last year’s Final Four, were the only teams to remain at the same position.

LONG WAIT

Penn State checked in at No. 23 for the program’s first poll appearance in more than two decades.

The Nittany Lions (9-2) hadn’t appeared in the AP poll since being ranked 18th in March 1996. Before that season, Penn State was last ranked in December 1954.

WELCOME

Joining Penn State as the week’s new additions were No. 22 Washington, No. 24 Texas Tech and No. 25 West Virginia, though the Huskies and Red Raiders were both ranked previously this year.

FAREWELL FOR NOW

North Carolina (No. 17), Seton Hall (No. 22), Xavier (No. 23) and Colorado (No. 24) fell out after being ranked last week.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The Big Ten led the way with five ranked teams, including current No. 15 and preseason No. 1 Michigan State. The Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference each had four ranked teams, while the Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences each had three.

Louisville-Michigan classic gave NCAA tournament the game it needed

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Louisville’s 82-76 win against Michigan on Monday shot into one of March Madness’ legendary games thanks to the hot hands of Luke Hancock and Spike Albrecht, amazing dunks and incredible pace. Add it all up and it allowed the NCAA tournament to end on a note that will leave a memorable impression on fans’ minds — not a small thing when it comes to a tournament that didn’t have many memorable games until Monday.

At least, that’s what Dan Patrick says.

Kevin Ware cuts down the net with Louisville

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Kevin Ware was one of the Final Four’s main storylines all week. Turned out it that story had a happy ending.

Ware, the Louisville guard who suffered a compound fracture while attempting a block during the Cardinals’ regional final win against Duke, was with his teammates in Atlanta for their NCAA tournament title game against Michigan. In case Louisville won, the baskets would be lowered so Ware could take part in the tradition of the winning team cutting down the net.

This is what sheer joy looks like.

source:

Photo via @jose3030

“These are my brothers. They got the job done. I’m so proud of them, so proud of them,” Ware said afterward.  “It meant the world to me,” Ware said. “I don’t really have any other words to describe how I feel right now.”

This Sweet 16 (mostly) madder than any before

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This year’s NCAA tournament is madder than ever before. Mostly.

Florida Gulf Coast (15) and La Salle (13) made the 2013 event the first to have two teams seeded 13 or lower reach the Sweet 16, but that’s not all. Adding Oregon (12) and Wichita State (9) helped make this one of the least “chalky” Sweet 16. The average seed of the 16 remaining teams: 5.06.

That puts it on slightly ahead of 2010 and 2011 (when 11 seed VCU headlined the upset-maker and there were four double-digit seeds still around) when the average seed remaining was 5.0. It’s the fifth most surprising of the seeded era and the “wackiest” since 2000 (the year two 8 seeds reached the Final Four).

Until the year, No. 15 seeds were 6-112 in the tournament, while No. 13 seeds were 29-112. FGCU and La Salle defied some considerable odds to reach this point.

(View the fill bracket here.)

So, what’s that mean for your bracket?

Some nuggets:

  • Our NCAA tournament contest doesn’t feature any brackets with more than 14 teams still around. Only 24 brackets still have their entire Elite Eight. (But there is one canny bracket out there with FGCU winning it all. And two with La Salle cutting down the nets.
  • Only four out of 8.15 million entries in ESPN’s game predicted 15 of the 16 seeds, while 1.3 percent had La Salle in the Sweet 16. Just 0.95 percent had FGCU that far. There are no perfect brackets.
  • Just 966 total ESPN brackets predicted the West Region correctly (Ohio State, Arizona, Wichita State and La Salle).
  • Gonzaga’s loss Saturday marked just the fifth time since 1985 that the No. 1 team in the AP poll lost in the Round of 32 (last was Kansas in 2010).
  • Three regions had one double-digit seed advance to the Sweet 16. That’ll affect anyone’s bracket.

But it wasn’t all madness.

The Big Ten has four teams remaining. The Big East has three. That’s a familiar sight in March.

Close wins by Indiana and Kansas ensured this wouldn’t be the third weekend since 1985 that two 1 seeds lost during the first weekend.

The East Region was relatively sane as each of the top four seeds advanced.

Three of the 1, 2 and 3 seeds advanced, commonplace for each tournament.

So maybe the weekend wasn’t that crazy. After all, President Obama’s bracket – which featured relatively few upsets – has 11 of 16 teams remaining and still features six of its Elite Eight. He’s sitting in the 72nd percentile in ESPN’s game.

Perhaps that’s the lasting lesson – play it safe and your bracket won’t be in shambles come Monday. Mostly.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

10 tidbits to know: Bearcats boarding, Baron scoring and more

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Vin Parise is a former assistant college coach and the college basketball insider for NBC Sports. Look for his Top 10 Tidbits every week.

1. No. 3 Arizona improves to 11-0 — its best start in 25 years. Sean Miller’s team beat No. 17 San Diego State 68-67 to win the Diamond Head Classic. As beautiful as Honolulu is, I hope tournaments like this don’t start becoming the norm for the holidays. As it stands right now, most college basketball players and coaches miss Thanksgiving with their family because tournaments the last weekend of November are customary. Hopefully playing games on Christmas night does not move in that direction. Let’s leave that tradition for the National Basketball Association.

2. In typical Tom Izzo fashion, his Spartans are one of the best at keeping you to one shot. Michigan State being 3rd in the nation in defensive rebounding is a stat that should surprise no one.

3. Speaking of crashing the boards; offensive rebounding is a great way to manufacture points when the perimeter shooting gets cold. Nobody is doing that better than Cincinnati. The Bearcats lead the NCAA in offensive boards.

4. Still trying to figure out how 9-3 Virginia lost to Old Dominion right before the holidays. The win was literally ODU’s second highlight of the season. The Monarchs’ other win was against Morgan State on Nov. 10. Old Dominion is 2-10 overall and host Fairfield this Saturday.

5. Billy Baron playing in the MAAC has proved to be a nice fit. The Canisius guard, who followed father Jim to Buffalo, is averaging nearly 18 ppg. Baron averaged 13 ppg previously at Rhode Island. Jim Baron’s Canisius team is the surprise of the MAAC so far. The Golden Griffins are 8-3 and have beaten St. Bonaventure and Temple.

6. Speaking of the MAAC — teams need to stay away from fouling Iona this year. The Gaels are shooting 79.3 percent as a team from the free-throw line — good for 3rd in the country. When teams play Siena it’s the opposite. The Saints are shooting 57.9 percent from the line — 343rd nationally.

7. Rutgers (8-2) is 2-0 under associate head coach David Cox. Cox is filling in for Mike Rice, who was suspended without pay for 3 games due to violation of athletic department policy. Cox coaches this Friday against Rider — Rice is due back for the Big East opener next Wednesday vs Syracuse.

8. It’s not the passes that make Michael Carter-Williams from Syracuse the nation’s assist leader by far … it’s the timing of his passes. The delivery is often right on the time and his teammates are rarely taken out of rhythm.

9. How about those 49ers? Charlotte is 11-2 overall, with its two  losses being Miami and Florida State. This is Charlotte’s last season in the A-10 before they head for Conference USA.

10. We lost a great one in 2012 with the passing of Rick Majerus. Here’s one of his quotes to make us smile….Happy New Year!

On being courted by the University of Texas …

“This (Texas) is a great job and I think DeLoss would be a great guy to work for. But I’m real happy. I like my AD. I like my players. I like Utah. It’s like being a married guy, but Cindy Crawford comes over and asks you if you want to dance. It’s kind of enticing to grab on for a dance. Then after the dance is over, you go back to your wife.” [Austin American-Statesman, 12/12/1998]

Vin Parise is the College Basketball Insider for NBC Sports. You can catch him on NBC Sports Network’s SportsTalk – Mon-Fri. 6 p.m. ETFollow him on Twitter @VinParise.