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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

The Madness starts early in March

As the regular season winds down and conference tournaments begin, there's plenty to be decided before Selection Sunday on March 15.

March 04, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

It's finally here, March, which means looking forward to a Big Dance that doesn't involve Digger Phelps and California cheerleaders.

Conference tournaments are already rolling out balls in the Big South, Ohio Valley, Horizon, Atlantic Sun, Sun Belt (and others), with the big boys ready to belt it out next week in hazy, crazy cross-over dribble days leading to Selection/Snub Sunday (March 15).

A pre-tournament primer of musings, observations and mutterings:

The Four Tops -- Connecticut, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma -- are generally considered the No. 1 NCAA anchors de jour. This is important because the top-seeded schools last year -- North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA and Kansas -- comprised the Final Four.

This could also change. Connecticut is down a key player, point guard Jerome Dyson (knee injury); North Carolina isn't quite the behemoth it was cracked up to be; Pittsburgh has to overcome a Sweet 16 mental block; and the team from Norman is a Blake Griffin concussion recurrence from being the Oklahoma Ordinaries.

"You guys again?" Kansas and Memphis, schools that last year met in one of the great NCAA championship games, were expected to retreat into the hardwood woodwork after losing most of their star contributors. Yet Memphis, without Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts, is 26-3 and No. 5 in this week's Associated Press poll. Kansas, which had to replace its starting five, is 24-5, No. 9 in the AP and leading the Big 12.

It helps that Memphis plays in a Conference (USA) where you can win 55 straight league games without breathing too hard, and that Kansas got to play Oklahoma recently with a groggy Griffin still trying to recite the alphabet.

Blue Ribbon yearbook was so high on Notre Dame, which was No. 3 in its preseason poll, it considered publishing as "Green Ribbon." Many pundits had Notre Dame pegged as a Final Four team, but then came regular-season reality: Notre Dame's double-digit home loss to Villanova on Monday dropped the Irish to 7-10 in conference, 16-13 overall and needing to win the Big East tournament next week to make the NCAA tournament.

"If that's what it takes, I guess we'll do it," senior guard Ryan Ayers said after Monday's loss.

Another opinion: good luck in the NIT.

Washington State (16-13, 8-9) started too slow to warrant an NCAA at-large berth but can claim the Pacific 10 Conference's automatic bid by winning next week's tournament. After consecutive wins over UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and the way hotshot guard Taylor Rochestie is playing, anyone think that can't happen?

Let's stop the blathering about whether the Big East deserves nine schools in the tournament or the Atlantic Coast deserves eight. Here's how it is: If you deserve to get in, you get in. And if you don't, start recruiting.

"There's one auto qualifier from a conference," said Mike Slive, chairman of this year's 10-member selection committee. "After that, really the 299 teams are viewed independently . . . for the committee it's about teams, it's really not about conferences."

Believe it or not, people who have participated in the NCAA's mock selection process have walked away convinced this is true.

It's going to be an interesting few days for . . .

Arizona: The Wildcats seemed a lock to extend their streak of consecutive NCAA appearances to 25 -- until three straight losses knocked them to 18-11 overall and 8-8 in Pac-10 play. Arizona has marquee wins against Kansas and Gonzaga but might want to sweep Stanford and Cal this weekend to eliminate the drama.

Davidson: Everyone wants to see Stephen Curry, the nation's leading scorer, back in the NCAA tournament -- maybe to get a second chance to take that last shot against Kansas. Davidson seemed an at-large lock not long ago, but a 24-6 record combined with a No. 67 RPI and No. 165 strength of schedule probably means the Wildcats need to win the Southern Conference to gain NCAA entry.

St. Mary's: The Gaels enter the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas as one of the most under-microscope schools on the selection committee's Petri dish. The committee isn't in the charity bidness, and St. Mary's isn't the same team without star guard Patrick Mills, out of the lineup since Jan. 29 with a broken hand. Mills, though, is reportedly plotting a return. St. Mary's (24-5) was 18-1 with Mills and his performance will be the key to the Gaels getting a bid without winning the conference tournament.

Kentucky and Florida: They play at Gainesville on Saturday in a game pitting one of the most storied programs of all time (seven national titles) and a two-time champion this decade in what could be an at-large berth bake-off. Both schools are 8-6 in a watered down Southeastern Conference and own mediocre RPIs. Kentucky hasn't missed an NCAA tournament since 1991. Florida is hoping to avoid missing a second straight after winning consecutive titles in 2006 and '07.

Georgetown, 6-10 and holding down 11th place in the Big East, might get in the NCAA tournament. And if it does, it won't be because of any Big East bias. If Georgetown defeats St. John's and DePaul this week to climb to 8-10, the Hoyas might deserve a bid on merit.

That 15-12 record and No. 40 RPI notwithstanding, the Hoyas rank No. 1 in schedule strength and boast signature wins against Connecticut, Villanova, Maryland and Memphis.

If the Pac-10 tournament started today at Staples Center, once NCAA-hopeful USC would be seeded No. 7 and playing No. 10 Oregon in the play-in round.

Then again, if the Pac-10 tournament started today, the arena would be empty.

So keep playing . . .

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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