Wednesday, January 16, 2008

March to Madness Heating Up

As temperatures around the country grow colder, the world of college basketball is heating up. With college football season over, college basketball has taken over a good portion of the sports spotlight, as evidenced by the amount of college hoops shown on ESPN lately.  With at least two games a night all seven days this week and more to come, there is plenty of action for college hoops enthusiasts like myself.

This week has already seen great games, Georgetown falling to Pitt on the road in an intense Big East battle, Kansas establishing themselves as a team to beat with a blow out of Big 12 rival Oklahoma, Gonzaga showing they are still the top mid-major with a trouncing of Pepperdine, Creighton displaying the depth of the Missouri Valley Conference with a road win at Northern Iowa, and Michigan State running up a huge lead against Ohio State, only to have to fight to the end to pick up a big win. And there is plenty more to come.

We all know about the big teams, UNC, Kansas, UCLA, and Memphis, who are probably the top contenders to win it all in March. But, what about the teams that will make a surprising (to some) run deep into the tournament? 

Here are my five teams to watch heading into February (in no particular order):

1) Marquette: Tom Crean's Golden Eagles are a deep and experienced squad who will be battle-tested heading into tournament time following a difficult Big East schedule.  Ranked 10th in the country, they are led by junior guards Dominic James and Jerel McNeal and are 13-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play. Their only losses have come on the road to a tough West Virginia squad and earlier in the season against Duke, both games they had chances to win.

James and McNeal are extremely experienced for juniors, both having started all three years of their collegiate careers. James has started every game his career, while McNeal has only missed five games (last season due to injury). The one weakness of the Golden Eagles is height; 6'8" Dwight Burke and 6'6" Lazar Heyward start at the forward spots. Marquette defeated Notre Dame over the weekend but big man Luke Harangody scored 29 points and pulled down 14 boards for the Fighting Irish. The Golden Eagles will face another tough test going up against Louisville's big men, David Padgett and Derrick Caracter, on Thursday night, a game which can be seen on ESPN.

2) Dayton/The Atlantic Ten: The 14th ranked Flyers are 14-1 and grabbed the attention of the nation with a shocking dismantling of Pitt, 80-55 and also have big wins against Louisville and Rhode Island. Senior Brian Roberts provides the senior leadership needed to last throughout the season and his 20.1 points per game is 35th best in the nation. Roberts and the Flyers may not even be the best team in their conference, the Atlantic Ten, which has seen a remarkable resurgence this season with the aforementioned Rhode Island (15-2, 23rd) and Xavier (14-3, 20th) joining Dayton in the Top 25. St. Joseph's (9-4) and UMass (11-4) are also putting together impressive tournament resumes. The A-10 is as deep as ever and will be fun to watch heading into the heart of conference play. Key match-ups to look forward to in the coming weeks: Dayton at Xavier (1/24),  UMass at St. Joe's (1/23), Xavier at UMass (1/27), and Dayton at Rhode Island (1/30).

3) Drake: The unranked Bulldogs are 14-1 and are quietly running away with the ultra-competitive Missouri Valley Conference after jumping out to a 5-o start in conference play. Led by sophomore guard Josh Young, who averages just over 16 points per game and is a 45 percent three pointer shooter on the season, they have picked up key wins over Iowa and Iowa State out of conference and Indiana State, Wichita State and Southern Illinois in conference. Their only loss comes on the road at St. Mary's on Nov. 10. The Bulldogs still must go on the road against Creighton, Indiana State, Southern Illinois, and Northern Iowa, but look to be the favorite to win MVC.

4) Butler: The Bulldogs join their fellow 'Dogs as one of the few teams in the country with only one loss and are ranked 12th in the country with a 16-1 record and a 5-1 conference start.  They are on an eight game winning streak with their only loss coming at Wright State on Dec. 8. Butler beat Ohio State handedly (65-46), and also have wins over Michigan, Virginia Tech, Texas Tech, Indiana State, and Florida State. They have played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation and will be ready for anything come tournament time. Seniors A.J. Graves (14.6 p.p.g) and Mike Green (15.4) lead a senior-laden team that will look to make  deep run into the tourney.

5) Washington St.: Their loss at Pauley Pavilion against UCLA on Saturday not-withstanding, the Cougars (14-1) have been among the top teams in the nation all year long. With one loss now, the Cougs will fly more under the radar, especially on the East Coast, but will earn a high seed in the tournament with an impressive Pac-10 season. The Cougars should be nearly impossible to beat at home and will win a bunch of games on the road as well, led by seniors Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. The experience, depth and shooting ability will earn them a top-three finish in the Pac-10 this year, with UCLA, Stanford, and Oregon providing tough battles ahead.