College football is finally in the rear-view mirror, so we can train our full attention – well, almost all of it, anyway – on college hoops.
Three unbeaten teams remain – top-ranked Syracuse, No. 4 Baylor and No. 15 Murray State. Which of them might go down first?
Logically, it’s somebody other than Murray State, which, playing in the Ohio Valley Conference, doesn’t get tested like the two others. But it might not be that simple. The Racers’ last two games in the OVC produced nine- and 12-point victories, so they may not be a slam-dunk to waltz through the league.
What’s next for the three:
Syracuse – ‘Cuse could stay perfect for a while. Starting with Saturday’s game against Providence, the Orange next play six straight games against unranked foes in a watered-down Big East before hosting Georgetown and Connecticut Feb. 8 and 11, respectively. But keep an eye on next Saturday’s game at Notre Dame, which seems to have found its stride after the early knee injury to key forward Tim Abromaitis.
Baylor – The Bears, who narrowly escaped Kansas State the other night, get all they can handle Monday night at Kansas. Randy Bennett, the St. Mary’s coach whom I spoke with Wednesday, said the Bears “might be the most talented team in the country.” St. Mary’s was within four of the Bears early in the second half before Baylor pulled away.
Murray State – Not a lot of Racers games make their way to West Coast TV, but here’s what I know about them. They can put the ball in the basket. They shoot .492, hit .757 of their free throws, and their leading scorer (18.7 ppg), six-foot guard Isaiah Canaan, nails 51 percent of his threes. The coach, Steve Prohm, is living a dream; he hasn’t lost a game as a head man yet. A 13-year assistant to Billy Kennedy, who went to Texas A&M last spring, Prohm has a team that’s No. 20 in the RPI rankings. Tough to say when Murray might go down. The next four teams in the OVC standings – Eastern Kentucky, SIU-Edwardsille, Tennessee Tech and Southeast Missouri – are a combined 34-29.
What’s Ahead Nationally
Some of the games worth tracking the next few days:
Thursday – Of course, there’s the Gonzaga-St. Mary’s matchup at Moraga. If it holds true that GU, SMC and Brigham Young are going to battle for the WCC title, then any breakthrough on the road might be pivotal. St. Mary’s has already thrashed BYU in the Gaels’ gym.
Saturday – UNLV at San Diego State. For the second straight year, the Mountain West is stealing some national thunder (recall the Jimmer phenomenon last year) as Vegas has stormed to a No. 12 ranking behind UCLA transfers Chace Stanback (14.8 ppg) and Mike Moser (14.2), while San Diego State hasn’t gone away despite losing most of its Sweet 16 club of a year ago. The Aztecs have lost only to Baylor and a very good Creighton club. But their dirty little secret is that since Dec. 22, their schedule consists of Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and Chicago State.
Sunday – Indiana at Ohio State (1:30 p.m. PDT). The game of the weekend for those not consumed by an NFL playoff game with the same starting time. Indiana is still viewed with some suspicion as a national power, partly because its big victories over Kentucky and Ohio State have come at home. Here’s a chance for the Hoosiers to earn their road chops. They shoot an astonishing .476 on threes and allow 32 percent. Show me another team with a 15-percent favorable disparity.
UCLA at USC, 6 p.m. PDT. First team to 50 wins.
Monday – Louisville at Marquette, 12:30 p.m. Yes, the game time is correct. They’re playing a Martin Luther King holiday matinee. Marquette, as usual, is vulnerable to streaky play, while Louisville has dropped three Big East games already.
Baylor at Kansas – Never been to Allen Fieldhouse, one of the citadels of college hoops. This would be a great night to do it.
Tuesday – Michigan State at Michigan. There’s more spotlight on this game than, gee, when? The Wolverines (13-3) swept MSU (14-2) last year, and I suspect that’s been brought up once or twice in the Spartan camp.
The progression of Xavier and Cincinnati after their celebrated Dec. 10 brawl could make for a psychological case study. The Bearcats (13-4) have won eight of nine since then, and although their immediate schedule after the fight was easy, they’ve also recently won at Pitt and Georgetown. Xavier (11-5) had a five-losses-in-six-games stretch, including a home loss to Gonzaga. But the Musketeers have won two in a row.
When Notre Dame upset Louisville on the road the other day, it was the fifth time in six meetings, and seventh in 11, that the game had gone overtime.
Has Pitt hit bottom? The Panthers (11-6) lost their fifth straight – most in the Jamie Dixon regime – to Rutgers Wednesday night, 62-39. The Panthers, who made four field goals in the first half, haven’t missed the NCAA tournament since 2002. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier wrote that Ashton Gibbs, the Big East preseason player of the year, “has been awful.”
Oldsters can appreciate the fact that Ryan Kelly’s 14-for-14 at the foul line for Duke against Georgia Tech still came up short of the Blue Devils’ school-record holder. Who? Why, Dick Groat, who hit 17 straight one night in 1950 – 10 years before he won the National League MVP award as a shortstop for the Pirates.
Scott Wood has hit 49 straight free throws for North Carolina State, second-best in ACC annals. But it’s a long way to the NCAA record of 85 by Darnell Archey of Butler (2001-03).
Speaking of NC State, as if the Pac-12 needed any more blows, it took another jab Wednesday night when State lost at home to an 8-8 Georgia Tech team. The Wolfpack (12-5) actually constitutes one of the Pac-12’s best non-league wins (by Stanford).
Rankings don’t mean much in hoops, but this is an intriguing historical note nonetheless: When Kentucky coach John Calipari got the Wildcats to the No. 1 ranking it meant that he became the second coach all-time to do it with three different schools (he also got Massachusetts and Memphis there). Frank McGuire, who piloted St. John’s and North and South Carolina to that spot, is the other. Bet Calipari would trade that distinction for a national title.
You could start a pretty good team with just Minnesota transfers. In the Pac-12, you have Devoe Joseph of Oregon and Justin Cobbs of California. Making even a bigger impact is Iowa State’s Royce White, a 6-8, 270-pound horse who recently had a triple-double. White had legal issues that prevented him from getting it done as a Gopher.
Suddenly, it’s all about Baylor. Since Nov. 1, the football team and the two basketball teams are a combined 34-0.
Saturday, Billy Gillispie, now coaching at Texas Tech, takes his team back to his old haunt at Texas A&M, his port of call before he left for an ill-fated run at Kentucky.
We’ll know soon how down Texas (12-4) is. The Longhorns have a seven-day wringer starting Saturday at No. 9 Missouri, continue on the road to No. 18 Kansas State Wednesday and return home to face No. 10 Kansas Jan. 21.