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Forde Minutes: Parity at the top foreshadows thrilling stretch run as teams vie for seeding

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where being ranked No. 1 is just an invitation to lose:

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Welcome Gridlings, to basketball season. We know that many of you have been away for several months, watching football and listening to poor Steve Tasker try to handle the biggest in-game plot twist in Super Bowl history (similar to giving a toddler the steering wheel on the highway at 65 mph). We understand that you’ve been largely ignoring college hoops until now. But as the clergy like to say to folks who only go to church at Christmas and Easter, we’re happy to have you and hope you may become more regular visitors.

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Tom Crean. (Credit: USA Today)

In an effort to ease your re-entry, The Minutes has compiled a primer on what you’ve missed. That will be followed by a preview of what’s to come the rest of this month. Then before you know it will be March, and you’ll be howling at every block-charge call, parroting RPI stats and acting like you’ve been here all along.

What you need to know about the season to date:

Nobody is great (1). There is no Kentucky 2012 in 2013. The Minutes estimates there are 12 teams that merit consideration as strong Final Four contenders: a lead group of Indiana, Michigan and Florida; a chase group of Duke, Kansas and Louisville; and a secondary six of Syracuse (pending eligibility issues), Ohio State, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Arizona and Miami.

All are subject to change, of course.

This lack of dominance should lead to an enjoyably chaotic final month of the regular season, then an enjoyable chaotic week of conference tournaments, then an enjoyably chaotic NCAA tournament.

“What it’s going to come down to, it will come down to styles,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who knows his way around the postseason pretty well. “Records are thrown out the window.”

[Also: Indiana moves back up to No. 1 after win over Michigan]

And likely our brackets along with those records. But that’s half the fun of it.

While there is no great team, there is a great conference. That’s the Big Ten (2).

As mentioned above, The Minutes puts two Big Ten teams in the top three and two more in the top 12 Final Four contenders. And that may be giving short shrift to Minnesota. The league was expected to be excellent and has lived up to the billing.

And it's about time. The Big Ten has not produced a men’s basketball national champion since 2000 (Michigan State) and has just two in the last 25 years (Michigan ’89 being the other). The league hasn’t just been a football underperformer of late, it’s spread to the hardwood as well.

Winners of the last 12 national titles, by conference: ACC five (Duke 2001, Maryland 2002, North Carolina 2005 and ’09, Duke 2010); Big East three (Syracuse 2003, Connecticut 2004 and ’11); SEC three (Florida 2006 and ’07, Kentucky 2012); Big 12 one (Kansas 2008).

Indiana’s Cody Zeller started the season as the consensus national Player of the Year but may not be the best player on his own team. Say hello to Victor Oladipo (3) and not just for the dunks and near-dunks.

[Also: Bracket Big Board: Oklahoma State rises up]

Zeller is still doing fine. But he’s got a sidekick who is kicking down the door to join him in the POY race.

Oladipo is making 68 percent of his two-point field goals and 51 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s a lockdown perimeter defender who has 14 steals in the last four games. He’s as good in transition as any wing player in the country (though it must be noted that Zeller is better in transition than any big man in the country). He belongs somewhere among the nation’s top three All-America teams, and the rest of the season will determine which one.

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Nerlens Noel. (Credit: USA Today)

Kentucky (4) and North Carolina (5) are in the tournament today – but not by much.

The defending national champion Wildcats got the resume-building victory they needed at Mississippi last week, and a late 3-pointer from one-time John Calipari doghouse resident Ryan Harrow may go down as the Cats’ season-turning shot. But the Ole Miss victory is it for the Wildcats in terms of RPI Top 50 victories, and if the Rebels hit the skids, they’ll slide out of that top 50 (they’re currently No. 43). Just about every league game has been a struggle for Kentucky, with four of eight being decided by five points or less, and three others in doubt into the final minutes. This team cannot afford bad losses.

Like Kentucky, the Tar Heels are clinging to one quality victory, over UNLV in December. They also flirted with a terrible home loss Saturday to Virginia Tech before rallying in the second half and winning in overtime. UNC has more remaining opportunities for big wins than Kentucky does, but also more losable games. Spindly freshman point guard Marcus Paige may have to continue to play a larger role if the Heels are going to win some key games in the next month.

Duke (6) is doing what Duke does, winning more games than most of us expected, without yet convincing anyone it can avoid another March meltdown.

The Blue Devils have had yet another accomplished regular season, racking up early victories over Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State. But with forward Ryan Kelly – out for six games and counting – some vulnerability has been exposed in a blowout loss to Miami and a loss at North Carolina State.

This looks like the 16th time in the last 17 years that Duke will get a top-three NCAA tourney seed – an incredible run of consistency. But there have been 11 flameouts in the Sweet 16 or earlier in that time, often in either shocking upsets or surprising blowouts. (Last year it was No. 15 seed Lehigh doing the honors.) Often, the Devils have looked tired, past their peak or simply not athletic enough come elimination time.

[Also: March predictions: Kentucky still staving off NIT stink]

Of course, it should be noted that there have been some high points since the mid-90s as well: Duke has won two national titles and been to four Final Fours. Kelly’s health may decide whether this team booms or busts in the Big Dance.

UCLA (7) is a hot mess. The Bruins have spawned six wild mood swings already this season: high expectations at the beginning; rampant doubt after a 5-3 start; renewed optimism during a 10-game winning streak; sudden renewed doubt after a home loss to Oregon; immediate bounce-back enthusiasm after a blowout win at Arizona; more doubt after consecutive losses to Arizona State and USC.

The Bruins’ most gifted players are young, which contributes to their inconsistency. And they are thin, after multiple player defections. But a team this talented shouldn’t have some of the losses this one has. UCLA could be one bad road weekend away from slipping onto the wrong side of the bubble, which would certainly seem to put coach Ben Howland on the wrong side of public opinion.

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Jim Larranaga. (Credit: AP)

Mississippi, Oregon and Marquette were January fads (8) with a home-stretch expiration date. The Rebels were 6-0 in the SEC before losing at home to Kentucky and being thrashed at Florida. The Ducks got to 7-0 in the Pac-12, then (without injured point guard Dominic Artis) were beaten twice in the Bay Area. The Golden Eagles led the Big East (for a day) before walking into a Louisville buzz saw Sunday. 

All three teams overachieved to be at the top of their respective leagues. Now comes the market correction and the reality check. All four figure to have multiple losses to come, but Oregon has the most user-friendly schedule (no more meetings with fellow Pac-12 title contenders Arizona and UCLA). Don’t expect to see any of the three cutting down nets as conference champs. 

As of this writing, Jim Larranaga (9) is the Coach of the Year. The second-year Miami coach has the Hurricanes No. 8 in the AP poll, tying the program’s highest-ever ranking. They are 17-3, have won eight straight road games and are undefeated at home.

Nobody saw any of that coming this year, even with the Canes at full strength. But they haven’t been at full strength. Point guard Durand Scott missed the first three games of the season and big man Reggie Johnson has missed nine games – the duo were considered Miami’s two best players coming into the season. In their absence, Larranaga got great contributions from a variety of veterans, plus star play from sophomore guard Shane Larkin.

Taking George Mason to the 2006 Final Four remains the crowning achievement of Larranaga’s career, but this season isn’t far behind – and it’s not over yet.

[Also: Pitt's home dominance over top 10 foes continues against Syracuse]

It has been a very good year for Six Degrees of Billy Donovan (10). Coaches who wear shirt and tie but not suit coats on the sidelines: Donovan and Michigan coach John Beilein are a combined 38-4. Coaches who are Providence graduates and whistle to get their players’ attention: Donovan and Larranaga are a combined 35-5. Coaches who played in the 1987 Final Four: Donovan and New Mexico’s Steve Alford are a combined 37-5. Coaches who have beaten Billy Donovan this season: Arizona’s Sean Miller and Kansas State’s Bruce Weber are a combined 36-6.

FEBRUARY FORECAST

By the end of the month, the following predictions will have become manifest truths:

The hot debate will be whether Gonzaga (11) deserves a No. 1 seed over a team from a big-six conference. The 'Zags are 21-2 and should have a school-record 30 or more wins and three or fewer losses on Selection Sunday. As teams are beaten in more competitive leagues, expect the Bulldogs to rise further in the rankings and spur discussion about their candidacy for the top line in the Selection Committee’s seeding structure. (For past precedent: see the Memphis debates on this same subject during John Calipari’s final few years there.)

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Peyton Siva and Rick Pitino. (Credit: USA Today)

Some believe this is Gonzaga’s best team and best shot at the Final Four that has eluded it. Mark Few has won a ton of games in Spokane over the years but never been awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Florida (12) will be trying to prove that it can be a great team from a bad league. This is another chance to reference Calipari teams, both at Memphis and the last couple of years at Kentucky. The SEC is awful this season, but the Gators are not. They’re doing what a quality team should do, destroying all overmatched opponents in their path: The Gators' average win margin in league play is a staggering 26.7 points. There may be some concern about a lack of close games and competitiveness heading into the postseason, but that didn’t slow down the Wildcats last year. Florida looks every bit legit.

Louisville (13) will have emerged from the scrum as the best of the Big East. Heading into Monday night, nine teams were within two games of first place in the loss column. Although four the Cardinals’ six remaining February games are on the road, expect to see them on a roll heading to Syracuse on March 2. Louisville is the best defensive team in the league and perhaps the nation; when its half-court offense is functioning even adequately (which is largely on the shoulders of point guard Peyton Siva, this is the team to beat in a very competitive league.

Seth Greenberg (14) will be the happiest man in college basketball, because he will no longer be living in Bubble Hell. Sitting in ESPN studios in Bristol is a lot less stressful than gnawing your insides the way Greenberg did the past four years as his Virginia Tech teams inevitably lost just enough games to miss the NCAA tournament.

[Also: In one month, Illinois goes from top 15 to NCAA tourney bubble]

Bill Carmody (15) will be the most miserable man in college basketball, because Northwestern still isn’t good enough to get into the NCAA tournament. Or even into the bubble conversation. In their 13th year under Carmody, the Wildcats are 13-10 and well on their way to continuing a 0-for-history NCAA bid streak.

Mark Gottfried (16) will be catching flak at North Carolina State. The Wolfpack began the year as the ACC favorite but currently are 5-4, thanks to an inability to win close games or win on the road. N.C. State has lost its last three road games, all against undistinguished opponents: Maryland, Wake Forest and Virginia. There are two more on the road this week (Duke on Thursday and Clemson on Saturday), plus a trip to Chapel Hill on Feb. 23. If point guard Lorenzo Brown remains sidelined for long with an injury, this will be a tough stretch.

Nerlens Noel (17) will be making a case to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Kentucky isn’t having a great season, but its freshman center is, and it’s gotten event better in the last month. Noel blocked 45 shots in one five-game stretch, then followed that up with a career-high 19 points and 14 rebounds at Texas A&M on Saturday. He’s also had 12 games with three or more steals this season. Noel will never be as good of an offensive player as Cody Zeller, but he may be every bit the defensive player that Anthony Davis was. And that’s a statement The Minutes could not have imagined making after last season.

Marcus Smart (18) will finally start feeling the national love. The Oklahoma State freshman guard has quietly had an excellent season. That cover was blown by a 25-point, nine-rebound, five-steal performance in Allen Fieldhouse in a huge upset of Kansas. Smart is no prototype guard – he only shoots 28 percent from 3-point range and at 6-4, 225, he’s built more like an undersized power forward. But he’s a winner who has helped make the Cowboys a dangerous team down the stretch.

Larry Eustachy (19) will be freshly appreciated for his coaching acumen. He made his return to the NCAA tournament last March after a 10-year absence, then relocated to Colorado State. Armed with a veteran team left behind by Tim Miles, Eustachy has the Rams 18-4 overall, 5-2 in the highly competitive Mountain West. This looks like a back-to-back NCAA tourney team, something they haven’t had in Ft. Collins since 1989-90.

FIVE GAMES YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS THIS MONTH

Truth be told, March 2 is the next really big day in college hoops. But there are still several must-watch games between now and then.

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Thad Matta. (Credit: AP)

Indiana at Ohio State (20), Feb. 10. Beyond the Big Ten race and national rankings and seeding implications, there is simple payback in play. Tom Crean hasn’t beaten Thad Matta in Columbus since coming to Indiana, and hasn’t come close. Average losing margin in four trips there: 21.8 points. This time the Hoosiers may actually be favored. Buckeyes already have taken down one Big Ten leader at home (Michigan last month) and will try to make it two.

Michigan at Michigan State (21), Feb. 12. This finishes off a brutal four-game stretch for the Wolverines: at Indiana, home against Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at the Spartans. They’re already 0-1 after the loss at Indiana. If they can go 2-2, that’s not bad. If they can beat their in-state rivals along the way, so much the better. (Keep an eye on the development of Michigan big man Mitch McGary. He’s coming off his best game of the season at Indiana and starting to play like the five-star recruit he is.)

[Also: Michigan to don eyesore uniforms for clash with Ohio State]

Kentucky at Florida (22), Feb. 12. In terms of talent, there is one SEC team that can match up with Florida. If the Wildcats complete what should be a compulsory week (home games against South Carolina and Auburn) we could have the Gators’ first serious league challenge. And speaking of payback: Florida has lost five straight to the Wildcats.

North Carolina at Duke (23), Feb. 13. Not a vintage matchup, thanks to the faulty Tar Heels, but this rivalry rarely disappoints. UNC's underdog status only enhances the opportunity for Heels and increases the pressure on Duke.

Georgetown at Syracuse (24), Feb. 23. The last scheduled visit to the Carrier Dome for the Hoyas, as the Big East’s signature rivalry winds down. Expect the Orange to put another massive crowd (30,000-plus) in the Dome for a goodbye game against the program the Thompson family built.

RUNNING THE CONFERENCE TABLE

Thirteen teams remain undefeated in league play, and 11 have a chance of finishing that way. History says most will lose at least once between now and conference tournament time – only two teams have gone undefeated in conference play in the last three years: Kentucky last year and Butler in 2010. The Minutes examines the prospects for the unbeaten 13 joining that select company:

Miami (25). League: ACC. Record: 8-0. League games remaining: 10. Chances of going 18-0: Zilch. The obvious roadblock is at Duke on March 2, but three other road games and a visit from North Carolina don't inspire confidence. It’s been a great run for the 'Canes, but there are more losses to come.

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Chris Crawford. (Credit: USA Today)

Montana (26). League: Big Sky. Record: 12-0. League games remaining: eight. Chances of going 20-0: Very slim. There is a five-game road swing upcoming featuring a trip to Weber State (and a non-league BracketBuster visit to Davidson). The Grizzlies only beat Weber by two at home, and had to go to overtime to beat Montana State. At least one of those two will win the rematch. 

Memphis (27). League: C-USA. Record: 7-0. League games remaining: nine. Chances of going 16-0: Unlikely. The Tigers absolutely have the best talent in the league and should win several of their remaining C-USA games handily. But they’re also squirrelly, and there are challenges remaining. Two games with Southern Mississippi and visits to UCF and UTEP offer legitimate threats to the unbeaten run.

Southern Miss (28). League: C-USA. Record: 7-0. League games remaining: nine. Chances of going 16-0: Probably not. The Golden Eagles are on a roll, but living dangerously on the road. Their last three away games have been won by a total of 11 points against underwhelming competition. That won’t carry the day at Memphis on Feb. 23. (Clearly, one of the two must lose when Memphis meets Southern Miss. And maybe both will.)

Harvard (29). League: Ivy. Record: 4-0. League games remaining: 10. Chances of going 14-0: Nah. With two games left against Princeton and two against Columbia, odds are strong that the Crimson takes at least one loss the rest of the way. Probably more than one.

[Also: Saint Mary's scores favorable draw in BracketBusters pairings]

Princeton (30). League: Ivy. Record: 3-0. League games remaining: 11. Chances of going 14-0: Not likely. The trip to Harvard on Feb. 16 is the biggest impediment. Get past that and a visit to Columbia six days later, and the Tigers could be 11-0 heading into three straight on the road to finish the season. (In an unrelated note, The Minutes feels for Princeton players who have not gotten any further West than Kent, Ohio, all season. They’ve spent the entire year cooped up in the Northeast.)

Akron (31). League: MAC. Record: 8-0. League games remaining: eight. Chances of going 16-0: Decent. Coming off a 14-point win over Ohio, the Zips are absolutely the class of the conference. A return trip to play the Bobcats in Athens on Feb. 27 will not be easy, but everyone else looks outmanned.

Norfolk State (32). League: MEAC. Record: 9-0. League games remaining: seven. Chances of going 16-0: Not bad. After getting by Morgan State on the road Monday night, things open up for the Spartans. Only two road games remain, at Hampton and Delaware State.

N.C. Central (33). League: MEAC. Record: 8-0. League games remaining: eight. Chances of going 16-0: Not bad. The MEAC has somehow made it possible to have two teams go undefeated in league play. Norfolk State and the Eagles do not play each other, for reasons that remain unclear to The Minutes even after calling the league office for an explanation. There are 13 teams in the league and they play 16 games. Norfolk and N.C. Central each play five league opponents twice – but don’t play each other at all. Given that reprieve, The Minutes believes N.C. Central will be favored in every remaining game.

Belmont (34). League: Ohio Valley. Record: 10-0. League games remaining: six. Chances of going 16-0: Not great. The Bruins have been stellar since switching leagues from the Atlantic Sun. But the next four games are on the road, starting with a trip to league kingpin Murray State. The Minutes senses a loss coming Thursday against the Racers.

Florida. League: SEC. Record: 8-0. League games remaining: 10. Chances of going 18-0: Decent. As noted above the Gators are far and away the best team in the conference. There are some dicey road games left: at Arkansas (a much better team in Fayetteville than elsewhere), at Missouri, at Tennessee, at Kentucky. If Florida is 17-0 and going for history in Rupp Arena on March 9, it will have earned it.

Gonzaga. League: West Coast. Record: 8-0. League games remaining: eight. Chances of going 16-0: Tough, but not impossible. There are two Thursdays looming between now and a perfect run: at Saint Mary’s on Feb. 14 and at BYU on Feb. 28. One of those games figures to be a loss.

Louisiana Tech (35). League: WAC. Record: 10-0. League games remaining: eight. Chances of going 18-0: Won’t happen. Michael White, the son of Duke athletic director Kevin White, has done a phenomenal job in his second season as a head coach. La. Tech is on an 11-game winning streak and should stretch it to 18 heading into the last week of the regular season. But the New Mexico State-Denver double in two days should result in at least one loss and maybe two.

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Doug McDermott. (Credit: USA Today)

MINUTES RANT OF THE WEEK

Just when The Minutes was afraid the bank shot was going to die with Tim Duncan, here comes Doug McDermott (36) to resurrect the lost art. According to Creighton’s media relations department, McDermott has gone glass on 87 of his 191 field goals. Last year he banked in more than half of his 307 field goals, according to the school.

McDermott also deserved mention in last week’s rant on using the opposite hand, too. He made 56 left-handed baskets last year and has 17 this season, when he is playing further from the basket more often.

[Also: Doug McDermott leads Creighton back to the top of the Valley]

Considering how much players want to score, it seems pretty simple: play like McDermott and get more buckets.

UNDER-THE-RADAR LOVE

This week’s player who needs more attention is Ohio guard D.J. Cooper (37), who has been part of a couple memorable NCAA tournament runs the past two years and is now finishing an accomplished career. According to Ohio media relations, Cooper is on pace to become the only player in Division I history to accumulate 2,000 points, 500 rebounds, 900 assists and 300 steals. He already ranks among the all-time Division I top 20 in assists and is a dozen steals away from cracking the top 25 in that category. This year, Cooper is shooting the highest percentages of his career from the floor.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Travis Ford (38), Oklahoma State. His Cowboys became the first team to beat Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse in two years. It also was Oklahoma State’s first true road victory in more than a year, breaking a streak of eight straight losses. The Pokes are on a three-game winning streak and have hugely enhanced their NCAA resume after missing the tourney the past two years.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Matt Painter (39), Purdue. In a word, yuck. Last Wednesday, the Boilermakers suffered the worst home loss in history, a 37-point beatdown from rival Indiana. They then followed that up with a 15-point loss at Northwestern. If they can’t beat Penn State Tuesday night, all hope is lost for 2013.

BUZZER BEATER

When thirsty in the effervescent college town of Bloomington, Ind., The Minutes recommends a stop by Nick’s English Hut (40). The quintessential campus bar is always booming when IU is playing, so grab a bucket of beer, check out the Hoosier memorabilia on the walls and thank The Minutes later.

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