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Ballot breakdown | Kentucky surging at right time

Mar. 11—Sign up for our daily Illini basketball newsletter here

Illinois beat writer Scott Richey is in his ninth season as an AP Top 25 voter. Here's how his ballot shook out this week:

1. Houston 1

2. Connecticut 2

3. Purdue 3

4. North Carolina 5

5. Tennessee 4

6. Creighton 9

7. Arizona 7

8. Marquette 8

9. Iowa State 6

10. Kentucky 20

11. Auburn 13

12. Duke 10

13. Baylor 11

14. Illinois 12

15. Utah State 18

16. Nevada 21

17. South Carolina 16

18. Alabama 14

19. Kansas 17

20. Washington State 15

21. Brigham Young 22

22. Gonzaga 23

23. Saint Mary's 24

24. Dayton 25

25. Texas Tech NR

Who's up

There's a lot to like about the way Kentucky finished the regular season. The Wildcats will enter the SEC tournament having won five straight games and seven of their last eight. None bigger than Saturday's regular season finale — an 85-81 win against SEC champs Tennessee. In Knoxville, Tenn., no less. Antonio Reeves remains Kentucky's scoring leader and is having a career year averaging 20.2 points as a 51/44/88 shooter, but it's the Wildcats' young guards who could be the difference makers in March. Freshman Reed Sheppard had 27 points in the win against the Vols, and fellow freshman Rob Dillingham is averaging nearly 17 points in his last 12 games. And both can go for 30 at the drop of a hat.

Who's down

There's an argument to be made that San Diego State is the best team in the Mountain West. The metrics would agree. The Aztecs are 20th in KenPom and 25th in Torvik with a defense that can smother opponents. San Diego State, by virtue of losing its final two regular season games at UNLV and home in overtime to Boise State, also finished fifth in the Mountain West Conference — three full games behind league champion Utah State. But don't be surprised to see the Aztecs make another NCAA tournament run. Last year's national runners-up have a likely All-American in Jaedon Ledee averaging 20.5 points and 8.2 rebounds and a strong (and old) supporting cast around him.

Who to watch

March could start to get mad as the final week of conference tournaments play out across the country. The first round of tournament winners are in, with Longwood the surprise — again — in the Big South, Stetson set for its first NCAA tournament appearance after winning the Atlantic Sun, Morehead State staying atop the Ohio Valley and Drake topping Indiana State in "Arch Madness" for the Missouri Valley's auto (and maybe only?) bid. Most ranked teams get a bit of a reprieve with strong regular season finishes yielding conference tournament byes later in the week. Early on? Five conference tournaments will be decided Tuesday, including what could be a Gonzaga-Saint Mary's rematch in the WCC.