By Marc Daley
If you remember last season (which shouldn't be too hard unless you woke up New Year's Day naked on your car roof with your keys in your, um, back door) Texas was ranked number one in mid-January and had won their first seventeen games. It looked like the Longhorns' collection of All-American bulls and thoroughbreds had paid off and they seemed primed to secure their fourth Final Four.
Then the wheels came off, starting with their first loss of the season to Kansas State. Eventually, they would lose three times to Baylor and split their series with Oklahoma, which had their worst season since 1981. They went out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Wake Forest.
Duke isn't likely to go careening off the cliff but there are some programs that have stumbled out of the gate in the past few weeks after a strong beginning. Their own dance tickets might get lost in the mail if they keep struggling.
- Minnesota. The Gophers had started 11-1 before they went into Big Ten play and dropped two straight road contests to Wisconsin and Michigan State. Tomorrow they could right the ship against Indiana in their first Big Ten home contest but then have to take on Ohio State and Purdue. A 1-4 start is a distinct possibility. The Big Ten is a strong conference and ten conference wins should get Tubby Smith's charges in the Dance but if they do start 1-4 they would have to go 9-4 the rest of the way. That "rest of the way" includes Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan twice and Northwestern twice.
- Tennessee. The Vols started 7-0 with wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh. Inexplicably they lost for the first time to an Oakland squad that is currently 8-8 and doesn't have Mark McGwire or Jose Canseco in the lineup. Since then, they have dropped three of their last five to the likes of College of Charleston and Charlotte. Their two wins have been by a combined seven points to Belmont and UT-Martin. UT-Martin has had one winning record in the past sixteen years. Bruce Pearl has to miss half the conference season for lying to the NCAAs. The good news is that the SEC is watered down yet again and this team has the talent to finish in the top three in the SEC East. The bad news is that if they don't the Vols will not only find themselves in NIT land but Pearl could find himself out of a job.
- West Virginia. The Mountaineers were within seven points of starting Big East play undefeated. Then they lost to St. John's (which seems rejuvenated under Steve Lavin) and Marquette (which is undergoing a transition phase). Tomorrow brings the Big East's version of a get-well card in DePaul but then Huggie Bear's charges tangle with Georgetown, Providence, Purdue and Louisville. A 2-5 start to Big East play is a real possibility. From there they would probably have to go 8-3 the rest of the way to feel secure about a dance ticket with games against Pittsburgh (twice), Syracuse, Notre Dame and UConn.
- Washington State. The Pac-10 has been worse than a lot of non-BCS conferences in the past year. They're a little better this year but still not strong enough to get four or five teams into the dance. Ken Bone had done a nice job turning the Cougars around but they since they beat Baylor they have dropped their last three games. Unlike the other conferences teams should try to win eleven conference games to feel reasonably confident about getting their tickets punched. In order for the Cougars to do that they have to go 11-5 the rest of the way in Pac-10 play.
With that setup in mind it's obvious that now is the time for teams to get it together. Some big matchups occur this week.
- UConn-Notre Dame (Tuesday, 7ET). Kemba Walker should still be a Player of the Year candidate but he needs help. In their overtime win over bottom-feeders South Florida Walker and no. 2 option Alex Oriakhi scored 39 of their 66 points while the rest of the team shot eight for 29 from the field. In their loss to Pittsburgh Walker scored nearly half of their 63 points while the rest of the team shot nine for 33. It seems that the nation has figured out how to slow the Huskies, which is to let Walker get his and concentrate on stopping the rest of the team. Jim Calhoun has to get consistency on the offensive end from Oriakhi (he's a rebounding beast) and have somebody step forward as a no. 3 option.
- Brigham Young-UNLV(Wednesday, 10 ET). The Mountain West has taken over as the best conference west of the Pecos. They should expect to get at least three teams in with a great shot at getting four in. UNLV could be that third or fourth team in and seem to have righted the ship since a mid-December loss to Cal-Santa Barbara, getting Frank Martin to cause a reporter to wet his pants following their win over Kansas State. Jimmer Fredette is a first-team All-America candidate again but has help from eight teammates who average at least ten minutes a game. Expect this one to go down to the wire.
- UCF-Houston(Saturday, 5ET). This is rarified air for the Golden Knights, who have never won a NCAA Tournament game. They start their Conference USA schedule with Marshall on Wednesday before this matchup with a program that was one of the kings of the early 1980s. It is essential that Marcus Jordan and Co. start the C-USA schedule strong. They can probably afford to split with Memphis and have a couple of other losses but they have to be careful they don't stumble to ensure a dance invite.
For the first time this season there are no new additions to the Top 25. Louisville and Minnesota took big drops but are still in the polls for now.
- Ohio State
- Kansas State
- San Diego State
- Michigan State
- Texas A&M
- Brigham Young
- Notre Dame