It’s almost March, which means it’s time to come together – or fall apart

Jack Blankenship

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Jack Blankenship Face (1) sold separately in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, after The Face intersected in a trendtastic moment with Jeremy Lin on Monday night in Madison Square Garden):

Momentum meter

Late February is a difficult time in hoopsworld. Teams have traveled a long road to get here, but the excitement of tournament basketball hasn’t arrived yet. Bodies are worn down, schoolwork is piling up, pressure is mounting. Refs are freaking out and ejecting fans who happen to be former great college players just because they can (Karl Hess deserved more than the reprimand he got from the ACC). Players are sick of coaches yelling the same things at them. Coaches are sick of having to yell at players for the same mistakes.

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With all that going on, here is the reality: Teams tend to be either coming together or falling apart right about now. Naturally, The Minutes has lists for both.

Who’s rolling?

Kentucky (2). It isn’t just that the Wildcats keep winning. It’s the way some potential weak links have solidified down the stretch. Point guard Marquis Teague is taking better care of the ball and launching fewer bad shots – he’s averaging 10.0 points, 8.7 assists and 3.0 turnovers in the past three games. Mercurial Terrence Jones has been more Good Terrence than Bad Terrence lately. Occasionally reticent Darius Miller is making key plays and timely shots, the way a senior should. Forward Kyle Wiltjer has developed enough to take away minutes from backup center Eloy Vargas, a trade John Calipari eagerly will make. Nobody is playing better than the Wildcats – and while that’s enough to get Ashley Judd (3) shaking her pompons, nobody will take more pressure into March, either. Kentucky fans are increasingly convinced that this is their year, and anything short of a title will not be embraced.

New Mexico (4). Twenty-five years after leading Indiana to its most recent national title, Steve Alford might have his best shot since then at March glory. His Lobos are 22-4 overall and 8-2 in the Mountain West, and own the inside track to the league title and No. 1 MWC tourney seed. They’ve won seven in a row, and the famous former shooter is getting his team to do it by stopping people: New Mexico is allowing an average of just 50.4 points in that seven-game streak. Alford doesn’t have much of an NCAA track record as a coach; he’s just 4-5, and half those victories came in 1999 at what was then Southwest Missouri State. This team should have the chance – and the seeding – to change that.

Murray State (5). An amazing number of people wanted to bail on the Racers when they lost their first game, on Feb. 9. But that wasn’t a sign that Murray was a fraud; it was a sign that Murray was buckling under the burden – and nationwide attention – from being the last undefeated team in the nation. Since that burden has been lifted from the Racers’ shoulders, they’ve won three consecutive games in commanding fashion. How commanding? They trailed for a total of 6 minutes and 52 seconds out of those 120 minutes. Most impressive was the game-long domination of Saint Mary’s on Saturday in an anticipated BracketBuster showdown. The computers still don’t love Murray (No. 35 RPI, 47th in Sagarin, 57th in Pomeroy), but the selection committee should.

[ Related: Murray State eliminates NCAA tournament doubt with dominating win ]

State of Michigan (6). Not just the Red Wings are on fire here. Michigan State surprisingly leads the Big Ten and is ranked sixth in the nation. Michigan is tied for second in America’s best conference and ranked 11th in the AP poll and 13th in the coaches’ poll. They’re a combined 9-1 in February, with the only loss self-inflicted (Spartans over Wolverines). Detroit, not Butler, is the hottest team in the Horizon League, riding a five-game winning streak. Even Eastern Michigan leads the West Division of the Mid-American Conference despite an 11-16 record. (The MAC West is kind of the AFC West of college basketball; everyone is bad.)

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim
(US Presswire)

Syracuse (7). The Orange had to white-knuckle it past West Virginia, Georgetown and Louisville in its seven-game winning streak, and even beating Rutgers wasn’t easy. But Syracuse has played a much tougher schedule in that time than fellow powerhouse Kentucky. (Average Pomeroy rating of Syracuse’s past seven opponents: 59th. Kentucky: 83rd.) With home games against USF and Louisville and a trip to collapsing Connecticut left, ‘Cuse could tote a 10-game winning streak into New York for the Big East tournament.

Mid-Majors in Attack Mode (8). Specifically, Wichita State, Iona, Belmont, Oral Roberts, Weber State, VCU, Drexel – and if they count as mid-majors, Temple and Saint Louis. They all are playing well, rolling up winning streaks, posing a threat to big-name teams from larger conferences in the NCAA tournament – if they get in. Outside of the Shockers, Owls and Billikens, nobody above is guaranteed at this point.

USF (9). Is this the worst 10-4 Big East team ever? The Minutes suspects it is, and has company. Ken Pomeroy ranks the Bulls 10th in the league and 69th in the nation. Jeff Sagarin says 10th and 76th. The RPI is the most generous, placing them ninth and 50th. USF has played what Pomeroy ranks as the easiest schedule in the 16-team league, getting Providence, Pittsburgh and Villanova – combined league record of 10-35 – twice. Reality finally arrives down the stretch, with Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia left. A 2-2 record against those four teams and a 12-6 mark would give Stan Heath an argument against Mike Brey and John Thompson III for league coach of the year, and give USF an argument for inclusion in the Big Dance.

[ Related: Big East: Regular-season race is for second place ]

The Border Warriors (10). That would be Kansas and Missouri, who in their last year as contentious conference brethren are owning the Big 12. The Jayhawks and Tigers are battling for all manner of spoils: the league title, conference coach of the year, a No. 1 NCAA seed and bragging rights into perpetuity. For this season, at least, Kansas-Missouri has supplanted Duke-North Carolina as the top conference rivalry in college basketball.

Who’s reeling?

Illinois (11). The closing act of the Bruce Weber era has gone from bad to sad. Weber all but issued an in-season post-mortem on his Illini coaching tenure last week, then followed it with a never-mind statement in vain hopes of calming the waters. His team responded by being crushed at league doormat Nebraska on Saturday, turning a 24-16 lead into a 52-28 deficit. That’s eight losses in the past nine games, and next up is Ohio State, which will be out for revenge after being upset in Champaign earlier this season. Ugly.

Connecticut (12). The Huskies were blessed Monday night to play a team in even worse shape than they are. They beat Villanova in overtime on a 30-foot jack by Shabazz Napier, who Saturday called out his teammates for basically quitting against Marquette. Napier called his fellow Huskies pillow-fighters, and it was hard not to agree after watching the defending national champions surrender meekly to Georgetown, Louisville, Syracuse and Marquette in recent weeks. UConn still could scrape around and get into the NCAAs, but it will be a close call. And there’s still no word on when coach Jim Calhoun will return from medical leave.

Alabama coach Anthony Grant
(Getty Images)

Everyone in the SEC (13) not named Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt. Until recently, the commonly held belief was that the league would get five NCAA bids. Good luck finding the two that will go along with the SEC’s big three. Alabama is the next logical choice, but the Crimson Tide are 6-6 in the SEC and dealing with ongoing personnel issues; forward Tony Mitchell is suspended for the rest of the season, and fellow suspendee JaMychal Green is back practicing but not yet cleared to play games. Mississippi State also is 6-6, riding a three-game losing streak to bad teams (Georgia, LSU and Auburn) and has lousy power rankings; if the Bulldogs don’t knock off Kentucky on Tuesday night, they’re all but done. Arkansas is inept on the road and now lost its home mojo, too, after Florida crushed the Razorbacks by 30 in Fayetteville. There will be a lot of desperate teams in New Orleans for the league tourney.

The Pac-12 (14). This is not breaking news, but the league has done nothing to change the belief that it is a disaster area. The latest evidence came Saturday, when UCLA (sixth place in the conference) lost to St. John’s (14th in the Big East). Even in a 68-team tournament, it’s hard to muster up reasons why the Pac-12 should be a multi-bid league, especially if California wins the league tournament. Arizona has the second-best body of work but is tied for fourth in the standings and has been swept by Washington, which was abysmal in non-conference play. There are no quality wins here, unless they came against each other – and that makes the quality of those wins suspect. One bid.

Ace recruiters who are suspect coaches (15). Two of them faced off Monday night: Baylor’s Scott Drew against Texas’ Rick Barnes. So much talent on both teams in recent years, so little to show for it. Barnes’ one Final Four came in 2003, and not even guys such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph have been able to get him back. Drew took the Bears to a regional final in 2010, but this season’s team has become a dysfunctional underachiever after a hot start. Throw in Rick Stansbury at Mississippi State, and they are the three coaches most likely to be accused of doing less with more. None seem capable of getting the most out of their players.

The state of Illinois (16). The Illini are in disarray (see above). Northwestern (6-8 in the Big Ten) still is searching for a signature victory. The last two teams in the Horizon League (Illinois-Chicago and Loyola-Chicago) and the Missouri Valley (Bradley and Southern Illinois) hail from the Land of Lincoln. Northern Illinois is last in the MAC. Eastern Illinois is tied for ninth in the Ohio Valley. Only Western Illinois (8-8 in the Summit) and Illinois State (8-8 in the Valley) have a .500 record in league play. Pathetic.

The bottom half of the ACC (17). A league that always prided itself on its depth is Kardashian shallow right now. Five of the 12 members rank in Sagarin’s second 100: Clemson (102nd), Maryland (136th), Georgia Tech (145th), Wake Forest (188th) and Boston College (232nd). There are only four solid NCAA teams (Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia) and two realistically on the bubble (Miami and North Carolina State). Everyone else is just bad.

[ Related: ACC: Three teams in position for the regular-season title ]

Western Kentucky (18). The historically competitive Hilltoppers might be settling for Sun Belt doormat status. This week, they announced that assistant coach Ray Harper, who has been the interim coach for 11 games after the firing of disastrous Ken McDonald in mid-season, has been given the job full-time. What compelling evidence led WKU to give Harper the job? His 4-7 record since taking over. That includes a sweep at the hands of Troy (8-17 overall, 3-11 in the Sun Belt). True, Harper had a great record as a Division II coach, but that has not translated to success when given his chance these past 11 games. Western Kentucky is a good job by Sun Belt standards and could have elicited some quality candidates if the school had opened it up after the season. WKU never gave itself the chance to see what was out there.

Who’s stuck in neutral?

Tobacco Road (19). Duke and North Carolina are not falling apart by any means, but neither is it clear that they’re coming together. Instead, they’re just kind of circling and waiting for a chance to crash the No. 1 seed party. One of them has ended up with a No. 1 every season since 2003, but someone is going to have to stumble to give them their shot this March. Right now, the No. 1 line is probably occupied by Kentucky, Syracuse and some combination of Missouri, Kansas and Michigan State. At this rate, you have to think that either the Tigers or Jayhawks will get a No. 1, and the champion of the Big Ten as well. That leaves the ACC’s best on the outside looking in.

Bubble drama

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody
(US Presswire)

The half-dozen most interesting teams sweating out life on the NCAA tourney bubble:

Northwestern (20). In one of the great exhibits of program underachievement, the Wildcats never have been to the NCAA tournament. Presently, they are considered right on the fault line despite a losing league record and not much meat on the non-conference bone. (If this were a 65-team field, Northwestern would be in a lot more trouble.) The Wildcats play host to Michigan on Tuesday night, but coach Bill Carmody doesn’t want any additional pressure piled on his players. Asked Monday whether it’s the biggest game in program history, Carmody said, “Oh, please. Come on.” Fact is, Northwestern probably won’t be definitively in or out until the Big Ten tournament is played.

Xavier (21). In mid-December, the Musketeers were undefeated and ranked eighth in the country. Now they are 17-9 overall and 8-4 in the Atlantic 10, and racked by inconsistency. The fallout from the Crosstown Punchout brawl with Cincinnati has rendered Xavier a different team – one whose place in the field of 68 is not yet assured. Reaching 20 wins overall and 10 in the A-10 probably will be enough, but nothing has been easy in the past two months.

North Carolina State (22). This is a program with some pedigree, as the two national championship trophies show. But the Wolfpack have not been to the Dance since 2006, and a large and loyal fan base is beyond sick of watching neighborhood rivals North Carolina and Duke hog all the glory. Can Mark Gottfried get State back into the mix in his first season? A Tuesday date with Carolina either will be a signature victory or a third consecutive loss against the league leaders. Yeah, it’s a big game.

[ Related: N.C. State legends ejected from game ]

VCU (23). You remember what the Rams did last season, squeaking into the field over the loud objections from Jay BilasLand, then reeling off five victories to reach a miraculous Final Four. Now nostalgia is in the air for VCU, which has lost just once – by a single point – since Jan. 8. At 23-6, the Rams have another chance at the Dance. A Saturday home game against George Mason is looming very large for Shaka Smart’s team.

Alabama (24). Coach Anthony Grant’s suspensions of multiple players for undisclosed rules violations had to be done, but losses ensued that have pushed the Tide onto the bubble. This is a big week, with a trip to Arkansas on Thursday and a home game against Mississippi State on Saturday. Win both and feel great. Split and feel OK. Lose both and feel awful. It’s that time of year.

Texas (25). The come-from-ahead home loss Monday to Baylor dropped the Longhorns below .500 in the Big 12 (7-8), which further jeopardizes their 13-season streak of NCAA appearances. Barnes’ strong scheduling might help nudge the ‘Horns into the field, but they can’t afford a bad loss in their next two games – at last-place Texas Tech and home against Oklahoma.

The dandy half-dozen

Six games you must watch this week if you want to keep up with league races, seeding scenarios and bubble battles:

Kentucky at Mississippi State (26), Tuesday. One of two remaining threats to the Wildcats’ undefeated run through the SEC – and that might be giving the staggering Bulldogs too much credit. But the last time Kentucky visited Starkville, in 2010, it was a wire job that the ‘Cats were lucky to escape. There was all manner of drama, starting with MSU students getting hold of center DeMarcus Cousins’ cell phone number and dialing him relentlessly. (And not to compliment him on his game.) Expect Humphrey Coliseum to be a nasty place Tuesday night.

Duke at Florida State (27), Thursday. It’s pretty simple for the Seminoles: Win this game and take a giant leap toward their first-ever ACC title. They would have a season sweep of the Blue Devils and already own a victory over North Carolina in their only meeting this season. Trips remain to Virginia and Miami and the ‘Noles have had some shaky moments recently, but the opportunity is at hand. Can they seize it?

Missouri at Kansas (28), Saturday. The Tigers have the chance to rip the Jayhawks’ seven-year Big 12 reign away from them – but Allen Fieldhouse never has been the kindest of places for Mizzou to visit. Especially when Kansas is coming off a bitter loss in Columbia. And when no future games are scheduled between the schools after this season. This will be one of the most intense atmospheres of the entire season, anywhere.

North Carolina at Virginia (29), Saturday. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers have lost three of their past five, leading The Minutes to suspect that they may be flattening out. This would be an excellent time to dispel that suspicion. Virginia is virtually assured of an NCAA bid, but a late tailspin could damage seeding.

George Mason at VCU (30), Saturday. If it’s as dramatic as the first one (see below), you don’t want to miss the rematch. And then you want to root for a rubber game between bubble teams in the CAA tourney.

Wisconsin at Ohio State (31), Saturday. Big Ten play has bloodied both teams, seriously jeopardizing the Buckeyes’ chances for a No. 1 NCAA seed. If they’re going to get back on the top seed line, they have to win this game and every other one in the regular season.

Shots of the year … so far

No game-ending play is as exciting as the buzzer-beating jump shot. Well, maybe the “Hail Mary” pass, but you only see that once or twice a season. In basketball, by contrast, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of last-second swishes to decide games. The pre-March Mr. Big Shot List:

Christian Watford (32), Indiana. The shot: 3-pointer to beat Kentucky, Dec. 10. The site: Assembly Hall. The situation: Down two in the final seconds, Verdell Jones III drove the ball into the Wildcats’ defense, then turned and shoveled it to Watford outside the arc. He rose and fired as two ‘Cats lunged at him, and it swished after the buzzer to set off the wildest court-storming of the season. The impact: It validated Indiana’s return to relevance, and it remains the only thing keeping Kentucky from being undefeated.

FSU's Michael Snaer reacts after hitting a winning 3-pointer against Virginia Tech.
(US Presswire)

Snaer Squared (33), Florida State. The first shot: 3-pointer to beat Duke, Jan. 21. The site: Cameron Indoor Stadium. The situation: In a tie game, FSU guard Luke Loucks rushed the ball upcourt, off a screen and into the clear as he crossed midcourt. He spied Michael Snaer on the right wing and hit Snaer for the shot, which he buried. The impact: Combined with the Seminoles’ blowout of North Carolina, it stamped FSU as a serious contender for the ACC title.

The second shot: 3-pointer to beat Virginia Tech, Feb. 16. The site: Donald L. Tucker Center. The situation: FSU’s wild scramble back from a big deficit left it down two with 10 seconds left. When the Hokies missed two free throws (see below), that gave the ‘Noles their last chance. Once again, Snaer was open on the right wing to catch and shoot … and make. The impact: Florida State maintains its tie for the ACC lead by the slimmest of margins.

Austin Rivers (34), Duke. The shot: 3-pointer to beat North Carolina, Feb. 8. The site: Dean Smith Center. The situation: A desperate Duke comeback was capped by Rivers’ almost-too-cool final shot, in which he dribbled the clock down so low that there would be no time for a putback by the Devils. Turns out they didn’t need any time, as Rivers’ rainbow over Tyler Zeller swished after the buzzer. The impact: Kept Duke in the ACC title race, and served as an all-time shiv to the ribs of their hated rival.

Sherrod Wright (35), George Mason. The shot: 3-pointer to beat VCU, Feb. 14. The site: Patriot Center. The situation: The second of two lightning-strike “3s” by Mason in the final five seconds was definitely the toughest. Vertrail Vaughns had made one the previous possession to cut a four-point deficit to one, and after VCU made one of two free throws, Wright charged upcourt and took a contested 3-pointer from at least 25 feet. It swished at the buzzer to ignite a court-storming. The impact: Could ultimately be the difference in both the CAA title race and NCAA at-large sweepstakes.

[ Related: Shabazz Napier bails out UConn at buzzer ]

Shabazz Napier (36), Connecticut. The shot: 3-pointer (heck, maybe 4) to beat Villanova, Feb. 20. The site: Wells Fargo Center. The situation: Tied in overtime, Napier dribbled into frontcourt and launched a premature, too-long 3 from about 30 feet with time on the clock. Naturally, it was money. That gave UConn the win and gave Napier some additional locker room capital after ripping his teammates’ effort Saturday.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Leonard Hamilton (37), for choosing wisely on an injury replacement to shoot free throws for Virginia Tech. With his Florida State team trailing the Hokies by two, the Seminoles fouled Jarrell Eddie with 10.2 seconds left. When Eddie cramped up and was unable to go to the line, Hamilton had his choice of subs off the Tech bench. He picked the luckless Robert Brown, a freshman who had not attempted a free throw since Jan. 25. Poor Brown missed both, giving FSU the chance to steal the win at the end. The Minutes feels for Brown but applauds Hamilton for using the rule to his advantage.

Coach who should take the bus to work

Matt Doherty (38), for overseeing three of the worst halves of basketball in recent history. First it was a 28-point effort by his SMU team at home against UAB in a 19-point loss last Wednesday. Then it was followed by a 14-point first half Saturday at home against Marshall. The Mustangs exploded for 54 points in the second half but still lost, dropping their record to 11-16 overall and a last-place 2-10 in Conference USA.

Buzzer beater

When hungry in the deceptively cool town of Jackson, Miss., The Minutes recommends a visit to Babalu (39) for tacos, tapas and margaritas. After 9 p.m. the tacos are $2, which means you will not leave hungry.

And when thirsty in Hattiesburg, Miss., the Minutes suggests you drop by the Mahogany Bar (40). It has an old-school cool you might not expect, with a drink selection to match. Try a Bayou Teche beer imported from Louisiana and thank The Minutes later.

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Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Feb 21, 2012