It is hard to believe, but we have just one more week to go in the regular season. I realize it's never over 'till it's over, but it's close enough that we can size up the year-end awards for the six major conferences. Here, then, I my rundown of choices for player of the year, coach of the year, rookie of the year and most improved. Down the stretch we come.
POY: Brice Johnson, 6'9" senior forward, North Carolina. This was the most interesting of the POY races, but I give the edge to Johnson over Virginia senior guard Malcolm Brogdon and Duke sophomore guard Grayson Allen because Johnson has been dominant in more phases of the game. Johnson is eighth in the ACC in scoring (16.9 ppg), first in rebounding (10.4 rpg) and third in field-goal percentage (.616). I've heard some rumblings Brogdon should be the league's defensive player of the year, but Johnson actually averages more steals (1.2 per game to Brogdon's 0.9), and Johnson also gets 1.2 blocks a game.
COY: Tony Bennett, Virginia. Bennett is my leading contender for national coach of the year, not just for what he has done this season, but also for his success during the last three. The Cavaliers are in position for their third straight ACC regular season championship and could very well earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That's impressive considering Bennett lost both his best offensive player (Justin Anderson) and defensive player (Darion Atkins) from last year's squad.
ROY: Brandon Ingram, 6'9" forward, Duke. Not even close. Ingram may look skinny, but he is stronger than you think, and his multifaceted skills render him a matchup nightmare. He ranks seventh in the conference in points (17.0), 17th in three-point shooting (.406) and eighth in blocks (1.41) while pulling down 6.6 rebounds per game.
Most Improved: Grayson Allen, 6'5" sophomore guard, Duke. How easy it is to forget that before he blew up in the second half of Duke's NCAA championship win over Wisconsin and became an All-America-caliber guard, Allen was the eighth man in a seven-man rotation, which is why he averaged just nine minutes per game as a freshman. Allen came into this season with high expectations and has exceeded them by a longshot, averaging 20.9 points per game on 41.5% three-point shooting while adding 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
POY: Denzel Valentine, 6'5" senior guard, Michigan State. Valentine's versatility is the main reason why he is my front-runner for national POY ahead of Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield. Valentine missed four games due to knee surgery and took a couple of weeks to get back to prime condition, but he has returned to dominant form. In conference play, Valentine has led the Big Ten in scoring (20.5 ppg) and assists (7.4 apg) while ranking third in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.0-to-1), fourth in three-point percentage (49.5), eighth in rebounding (7.0) and 11th in minutes played (34.5).
COY: Fran McCaffery, Iowa. I realize the Hawkeyes have had a bad couple of weeks, and it is tempting to go with Tom Crean given all the flak he got at the start of the season. But McCaffrey's ability to build this program class by class to the point where it is in the upper echelon of this conference has been truly remarkable. His abilities are being severely tested right now, but even after losing four of its last five games, this team is tied for second place in the Big Ten. For a team that was unranked in the preseason, that is impressive.
ROY: Diamond Stone, 6'11" center, Maryland. It was between Stone and Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan, but I went with Stone because he is a better scorer (13.0 points per game on 56.4% shooting to Swanigan's 9.9 points on 44.4%), and because he did not have the luxury of playing with a 7-foot senior center like Swanigan did with A.J. Hammons. I've been especially impressed how Stone has carried the Terrapins as their two guards, senior Rasheed Sulaimon and sophomore Melo Trimble, have struggled shooting the ball during the last month.
Most Improved: Peter Jok, 6'6" junior guard, Iowa. Jok's drastic improvement in knocking down three-point shots is a big reason why the Hawkeyes surpassed preseason expectations, and it enabled Jok to take better advantage of his athleticism. During his first two seasons, Jok made a combined 37.0% of his three-point attempts, but this season he has made 41.4%, raising his scoring average to 16.3 points per game (up from 7.0 as a sophomore).
POY: Buddy Hield, 6'4" senior guard, Oklahoma. Tapping Hield for this honor was easy, but you could also make for Hield as the league's most improved player. He has improved from being a volume shooter to a volume maker. Hield's 25.4 points per game ranks second nationally, largely because he has gone from making 35.9% from three-point range as a junior to 48.1% this season. Hield has also made more clutch shots than any other player in the country. It has been a senior season for the ages.
COY: Bill Self, Kansas. As I explained in my national coach of the year column last week, most of the times this award goes to a coach whose team exceeded expectations, but in many respects it is harder to succeed when you're expected to. Self's ability to keep KU's conference championship streak alive despite trailing by two games as of four weeks ago is astounding. That is especially true considering a) this year's Big 12 was one of the best conferences in recent history and b) there is no surefire pro on the Jayhawks' roster.
ROY: Jawun Evans, 6-foot guard, Oklahoma State. As great as the Big 12 has been, it wasn't a good year for freshmen, which is why the award is going to a player who was lost for the season with a shoulder injury on Feb. 3. Still, Evans showed enough for us to recognize his promise, averaging 12.9 points (on 47.1% three-point shooting) to go along with 4.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals. It has been a rough season in Stillwater, but Evans should be back next season at full strength, ready to prove he is one of the Big 12's rising stars.
Most Improved: Jaysean Paige, 6'2" senior guard, West Virginia. We know that Paige is a shoo-in to win the national sixth man of the year award (if such a thing even exists). He is the Mountaineers' leading scorer, yet he has only started one game all season. Last season, he played just 13.3 minutes per game and averaged 5.6 points while making 40.5% of his shots. Now, Paige is averaging 22.0 minutes per game and averaging 14.3 points (his 16.5 scoring average in conference game ranks fourth in the Big 12) on 46.8% shooting. His willingness to come off the bench and give a boost to West Virginia's frenetic attack is all the more worthy of recognition.
POY: Kris Dunn, 6'4" junior guard, Providence. Villanova and Xavier have lorded over the Big East all season, but this is an individual award, not a team one. Dunn has been a little bit forgotten because he came out of the gate like gangbusters and settled down; but if you polled the league's coaches and gave them the choice of one player from the Big East to start a team with, I bet Dunn would be the winner. No player in the country excels at both ends of the floor like he does. Dunn ranks third in the country in steals (2.9 per game). He is also fifth in the conference in scoring (16.4 ppg), second in assists (6.3 apg) and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.72-to-1) while averaging 5.7 rebounds per game.
COY: Chris Mack, Xavier, and Jay Wright, Villanova (tie). O.K., I'm a wuss, but there is just no way to split this hair. Both these guys have won a lot of games, and not just because of their teams' talent (which is considerable), but also because of the cultures they have created. Consider that both these teams have a chance to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, yet neither has a player that is likely to be a first team All-America.
ROY: Henry Ellenson, 6'10" forward, Marquette. By my lights, Ellenson has been the third-best freshman in the country this season behind LSU's Ben Simmons and Duke's Ingram. He leads the Big East in rebounding (9.8 rpg) while ranking third in minutes (33.8), fourth in scoring (16.6 ppg) and fourth in blocks (1.6 bpg). He has even made 27 three-pointers this season.
Most Improved: Ben Bentil, 6'9" sophomore forward, Providence. Bentil would be my runner-up for conference POY, and if there were a national most improved award, he would be my choice. After a nondescript freshman season during which he averaged 21.5 minutes, 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds, Bentil has averaged a Big East-best 20.9 points per game to go along with 7.7 rebounds (fifth in the league).
POY: Tyler Ulis, 5'9" sophomore guard, Kentucky. This was the season of the little man in college hoops, and none stood taller than Ulis. We knew he was an able floor general (he leads the SEC in assists and ranks ninth nationally at 7.0 per game), but he has also demonstrated that he is a wily defender (1.5 steals, sixth-best in the conference) and a surprisingly gifted scorer (16.6 ppg, seventh in the SEC). But Ulis's ability to carry the Wildcats through adversity this season and still enter the final week atop the league standings is what earns him my nod. Ulis is not just about numbers. He's about number of wins.
COY: Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M. A case could certainly be made for John Calipari, but Kennedy deserves special recognition for finally bringing Texas A&M out of the doldrums and into the NCAA tournament. He has a roster of good players but no superstars, and the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
ROY: Ben Simmons, 6'10" forward, LSU. I realize the Tigers have underachieved this season, but it is ludicrous to blame that on Simmons. He is not just a great individual talent. He is also a team-first player, a versatile power forward and willing passer who has performed at an All-America-level from Game 1 despite precious little help from his teammates. His numbers speak for themselves: 19.6 points per game on 56.2% shooting, 11.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.9 steals. He has been the best freshman in the nation this season, bar none.
Most Improved: Retin Obasohan, 6'1" senior guard, Alabama. There were some really good candidates for this one—Tennessee senior guard Kevin Punter and Arkansas junior forward Moses Kingley come to mind—but I went with Obasohan because he has the Crimson Tide on the verge of a very surprising NCAA bid. Like Punter, Obasohan benefited from a coaching change, improving his scoring from 6.2 points per game as a junior to 17.3 this season. He also raised his averages in rebounding (2.9 to 4.1) and assists (0.8 to 2.7) while increasing his field goal percentage from 44.7 to 47.4. It's a shame he's a senior, because it would be fun to see how much Obasohan would improve with another year under Avery Johnson.
POY: Jakob Poeltl, 7-foot sophomore center, Utah. It was a close call between Poeltl and Oregon State guard Gary Payton II, but Poeltl has been a little more consistent, and his team is much better. Like Payton, Poeltl is a problem at both ends of the floor. He ranks second in the Pac 12 in scoring at 17.6 points per game. He also leads the league (and ranks sixth nationally) in field-goal percentage (.667) while ranking third in rebounds (9.0 per game) and seventh in blocks (1.5 bpg).
COY: Dana Altman, Oregon. I had Arizona's Sean Miller in my list of national coach of the year candidates last week and left Altman out, but I felt compelled to make the switch after Arizona lost twice last week, leaving Oregon in sole possession of first in the conference. That is especially impressive given that the guy who was supposed to play point guard for Oregon this season, Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis, only played two games because of a foot injury. Altman also did a masterful job integrating his junior college transfer, Chris Boucher, and developing him into one of the nation's best shot blockers.
ROY: Jaylen Brown, 6'7" forward, California. If Brown were playing on the East Coast, he would be a household name. He'll be known soon enough given the way he slashed and dashed his way through defenses. Brown is playing more on instincts than guile right now, but his speed and explosiveness enabled him to score 15.8 points per game (which ranks seventh in the Pac 12) and grab 5.7 rebounds per game.
Most Improved: Gabe York, 6'3" senior guard, Arizona. York's numbers have improved, albeit not as dramatically as some of the winners in other conferences. His scoring average increased from 9.2 to 14.3; his rebounding from 2.1 to 3.5; and his assists from 1.2 to 2.4. But what really impressed me about York was his expanded versatility and leadership ability for a program that has been devastated by NBA defections the last two seasons. Arizona is quite capable of being a second-weekend team in the NCAA tournament, which is a credit to York's guiding presence as well as his knack for hitting big shots.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• I am officially worried about Oklahoma. I've written in the past about the Sooners' two main weaknesses—namely, their inability to score in the post, and their difficulty winning games with their defense when their jump shots aren't falling. Now we can add a third concern: the tendency of the other players to over rely on Buddy Hield to provide heroics. Hield scored 23 points in the first half at Texas on Saturday; but as he started to wilt in the second half, his teammates weren't able to pick up the slack. Texas closed the game on a 22–0 run. Sorry, but national championship-caliber teams aren't usually victimized by a 22–0 run.
• Game results always seem so magnified this time of year, but two bubble wins that stood out to me on Saturday were VCU over George Washington and Butler over Georgetown. You know why? Because they were on the road, that's why. That is the great differentiator.
• Speaking of that Butler game, what in the world was Kelan Martin doing blocking a halfcourt shot at the end of overtime? Martin was fortunate he blocked it cleanly, especially after he had fouled a three-point shooter at the end of regulation, which allowed the Hoyas to put the game into overtime. Here's hoping Martin learned his lesson, because he is one talented player.
• Remember that when you're filling out your brackets, by the way. Every college basketball team is better at home than on the road, but if there is a dramatic difference for a highly ranked team then that's a major red flag for the tourney. Yes, I'm talking to you, Miami.
• Glad to see that the University of Wisconsin officially posted the head men's basketball coach's vacancy, as is required by state law. This sets up the inevitable coronation of Greg Gard as Bo Ryan's permanent successor. Remember, Gard was Ryan's assistant for a full six years (at two different schools) before he followed him to Madison (where he is in his 15th season). Gard has done an excellent job getting the Badgers back to the NCAA tournament, and I am sure it is only a matter of time before Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez does the right thing and gives him the permanent job.
• I was more bullish on UConn to start the season than most people, but I have to say the Huskies have been a disappointment, primarily because Sterling Gibbs has not played well since the start of conference play. When Gibbs was at Seton Hall, he was the best and oldest player on a mediocre, young team. So he had the ball in his hands and could shoot whenever he wanted. Now, however, Kevin Ollie has asked him to play point guard and run a team. Gibbs has never had to do that, and he doesn't really know how. It is obvious he has lost confidence in his outside shot, which is fatal. UConn had a chance to strengthen its tourney chances over the weekend, but it lost to Houston in Gampel Pavilion. That's not a good look.
• You know what people underestimate about the selection process? The eye test. The folks on the basketball committee watch a lot of games, and when the numbers don't help them pick one team or another, they almost always revert to what they saw.
• Which is why I really believe if Wichita State is even remotely close to getting in, they'll get in. Just watch 'em play and you'll know why.
• Here's Maryland's No. 1 problem: It has two guards, Rasheed Sulaimon and Melo Trimble, who need the ball in their hands to be effective. They can both create their own shot and make plays for their teammates, but they have a hard time making plays for each other. The Terps could still do some damage in the tournament, but for the most part they have looked like the classic example of a team with excellent pieces that just don't fit very well together.
• It was very telling that after Vanderbilt's 74–62 win over Kentucky on Saturday, coach Kevin Stallings said he finally felt like his guys had one common agenda instead of a bunch of different ones. Just goes to show we never really know what's going on inside a team's locker room. We'd like to think the players' No. 1 goal is to get to a Final Four, but that often pales in comparison to their dreams of playing in the NBA. And more often than not, those two goals are in conflict. Only the very best teams are able to make them work together.
• Looks like USC has come crashing down to Earth. That's what happens when a young team enters late February in a really tough league.
• Did you know that it has been 20 years since Kentucky has won back-to-back outright SEC regular season titles? That shocked me when I read it over the weekend.
• That Arizona-Utah game on Saturday—which the Utes won 70–64—was as entertaining and well-played as any game I've watched this season. I'm really impressed with what Larry Krystkowiak has done with his team. He is playing a lot more zone in order to keep Jakob Poeltl from having to guard ball screens, and he has the Utes' offense clicking even though the team doesn't have a classic pass-first point guard to run the show. The two things Krystkowiak has going for him are 1) he played 12 years in the NBA, so from a tactical standpoint he thinks the game much differently than most college coaches, and 2) he practices a lot of Bikram yoga. Namaste!
• It is quite obvious that Kansas sophomore guard Svi Mykhailiuk reads Hoop Thoughts. Last week, I suggested he was so ineffective that he might consider transferring. On Saturday, he came off the bench to score 17 points on 5 for 5 three-point shooting. Now it's time to fire up junior guard Wayne Selden. What in the world has happened to that guy? He was 1 for 8 from the floor (0 for 4 from three) in Saturday's 67–58 win over Texas Tech. My coaches in the Enemy Lines report suggested he does not use his strength and athleticism well and relies too much on outside shooting. Maybe it's time (actually long past time) for him to start driving more.
• You really have to lock in on the way Virginia plays defense. On every dribble, pass and shot, the Cavs make their opponents just a little bit uncomfortable. That wears on a team over the course of 40 minutes.
• Ben Simmons eats up all the oxygen at LSU, but another freshman, Antonio Blakeney, is really balling these days. Blakeney had 32 points (on 12 for 17 free throw shooting) in the Tigers' win over Florida on Saturday. That kid has a bright, bright future.
• Speaking of which, I loved the moment in that game when Florida's John Egbunu intentionally fouled LSU's Craig Victor away from the ball because he's a poor free throw shooter ... and was called for an intentional foul. This is one rule the NBA should borrow from college immediately.
• Why do I feel like I'm the only person who is pumping up Valparaiso? Remember, the Crusaders returned most of their players from the team that almost knocked off Maryland in the Round of 64 last season. And yet, not a peep. I'm either way off on this one or way ahead of the curve.
• Gotta admit, I'm pretty jacked about being on a two-hour-long Selection Show. I know you don't want us to string it out, but I promise we're gonna have some fun.
• Looks like Johnathan Motley has been drinking his green juice lately. Baylor's 6'9" sophomore forward exceeded the 22-point mark three times in his last four games and made 29 of 42 from the floor in that span. I love that he went 8 for 12 from the foul line in Saturday's win at TCU. This team isn't a great overall defensive team, but it is really, really strong around the rim.
• Dave Rice got fired by UNLV in early January, yet he was there on Saturday to celebrate Senior Night for his players. That's called class.
• I realize I'm a grammar nerd, but this is a pet peeve of mine. When people say a team's RPI is a certain number, what they are really talking about is that team's RPI rank. The RPI is a calculation over four decimal points, and then all the teams in the country are ranked 1 through 351 according to that number. In other words, Iowa's RPI is .6079, which ranks 22nd nationally ahead of Baylor (.6075) and right behind Texas A&M (.6089). So you wouldn't say "Iowa's RPI is 22," you'd say, "Iowa's RPI ranking is 22." Are we all on the same page now?
• Mississippi State is not going to make the NCAA tournament, but the Bulldogs have been playing some pretty good basketball lately, winning four of their last six games. And they're good wins, too: home against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, on the road at Alabama. They also lost by a single bucket at Texas A&M. What's most remarkable is that freshman guard Malik Newman, who was supposed to be the program's savior, has been a nonfactor during this stretch. I guess this Ben Howland kid can coach a little.
• Gotta say I'm real surprised at Dayton's recent slide. I realize Kendall Pollard, the team's third-leading scorer, just returned from a four-game injury absence, but it's troubling to see the Flyers lose three of their last four, including Saturday's loss at home to Rhode Island. Dayton's main problem right now is that it is not getting enough work done in the paint. I'm sure Archie Miller would like to see 6'11" freshman center Steve McElvene more involved in the offense, but he is too raw to have a consistent impact at this point in the season.
• Tubby Smith is about to take his fifth different school to the NCAA tournament. Just making sure you knew.
• You won't find a more beautiful moment than seeing Oakland senior forward Max Hooper running up the stairs to hug his father, Chip, who is suffering from cancer and watched Cooper's last college game from a hospital bed that was set up on the arena's concourse. Cooper is an interesting story because he has taken only three-point shots this season—not a single two-point shot. I highly recommend this story by Mark Snyder in the Detroit Free Press chronicling what happened.
• I'm sure it won't shock you to learn that I totally agree with Sean Miller's complaint about the lack of security to contain the court storm at Colorado last Wednesday. That was totally inexcusable on Colorado's part. The school had to know that if its team won the game, there would probably be a storm. Yet, there was no security in sight. You probably also saw that Kentucky coach John Calipari sent his players into the locker room in the waning seconds of the Wildcats' loss at Vanderbilt because he feared for their safety. Unfortunately, as Miller said, something really bad is going to have to happen before people in this sport get smart about it. Many schools have at least done a better job providing security for opposing coaches and players, but Colorado obviously did not.
• Illinois has had a really rough season, but freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands is gonna be a good one. In his last two games, against Minnesota and Indiana, Coleman-Lands has averaged 19.5 points while shooting 12 for 19 from the floor (10 for 15 from three). On the season he is averaging 10.3 points on 41.0% field-goal shooting. He's a wiry athlete (6'3", 180 pounds) who will get a lot better as he gets stronger, but he's already got moxie.
• Cal junior guard Jabari Bird's dramatic improvement over the last month is a classic case of a player, and therefore a team, getting better as a result of a short-term injury. In this case, the injury was suffered by the Bears' starting point guard, 6'5" senior Tyrone Wallace, beginning in the third week of January. Bird had been shooting the ball terribly for much of the season, but once Wallace went out for three weeks, Bird was forced to play more minutes and take more shots. As a result, his confidence has grown. During his last six games, Bird has averaged 15.7 points while making 57.6% of his three-point attempts. Wallace, meanwhile, came back on Feb. 11 and the two have managed to coexist. Wallace's return, plus Bird's improvement, plus the maturation of stud freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb have enabled Cal to get a lot better over the last few weeks. Watch out for these guys in the tournament.
• Finally, the college basketball world lost a true giant this week when Eddie Einhorn died at the age of 80. Einhorn was a law student at Northwestern in the 1950s when he got the idea to start producing radio broadcasts of college basketball games, and particularly the NCAA tournament. That led him to create his groundbreaking TVS television network, which was the driving force between the most important college basketball game ever played, between UCLA and Houston in the Houston Astrodome on January 20, 1968. Einhorn was a true visionary. He saw what March Madness could be before anyone even recognized the possibility. More recently, Einhorn went into business with his old law school classmate, Jerry Reinsdorf, and became team president of the Chicago White Sox. Beyond all of that, Eddie Einhorn was a lovely man, a true gentleman who enjoyed his life, his business and the friendships he made along the way. He will be sorely missed.
Five Games I'm Psyched to See This Week
Kansas at Texas, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Jayhawks have clinched a share of the Big 12 title, so this would be their chance to win it outright. I'm tempted to go with the home team like I always do, but Kansas is used to a pitched environment on the road, and this team has toughened and matured as the season has gone on. They'll be challenged, but they'll eke out the win.
Kansas 78, Texas 76
Kentucky at Florida, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Kentucky's main problem lately has been health. Just when senior forward Alex Poythress came back, junior forward Derek Willis went out. Florida is still limited offensively at times, but the Gators have shown the ability to rise to the occasion at home. (Exhibit A was their 17-point throttling of West Virginia on Jan. 30.) As is often the case with Kentucky's road opponent, this is Florida's Super Bowl.
Florida 75, Kentucky 70
Baylor at Oklahoma, Tuesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
The Sooners need to get back on the winning track in the worst way. They definitely have their deficiencies, but I'm guessing Professor Kruger has been busy in his lab, and by the time this tips off, he'll have found the right formula.
Oklahoma 79, Baylor 70
Indiana at Iowa, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
McCaffery still has smoke coming out of his ears following the Hawkeyes' disappointing loss at Ohio State on Sunday. This is a quick turnaround, but Iowa, like Oklahoma, really needs to reverse course. I spy a desperate home team.
Iowa 84, Indiana 77
Miami at Notre Dame, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
I don't know why Miami is such a different team on the road, considering the Hurricanes are such a veteran team. But that has been their personality this season, and besides being a great home team, Notre Dame is in dire need of a bounce-back win after being embarrassed at Florida State on Saturday. I'll follow the swinging pendulum.
Notre Dame 82, Miami 77
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kansas (2)
2. Michigan State (3)
3. Virginia (5)
4. Xavier (4)
5. Villanova (1)
6. North Carolina (8)
7. Miami (16)
8. Oklahoma (6)
9. West Virginia (14)
10. Indiana (17)
11. Oregon (13)
12. Utah (NR)
13. Louisville (11)
14. Arizona (10)
15. Duke (7)
16. Baylor (20)
17. Texas (21)
18. Purdue (22)
19. Wisconsin (23)
20. Maryland (12)
21. Iowa State (15)
22. Texas A&M (24)
23. Kentucky (18)
24. Seton Hall (NR)
25. Valparaiso (25)
Dropped out: Iowa (9), Notre Dame (19)
It may seem unduly harsh to drop Iowa from No. 9 all the way off my ballot, but that was a reaction not just to this week but also to the last two. The Hawkeyes have lost four of their last five games, and last week they lost to two unranked teams, including one at home. As you know, I do my rankings based on my recent performance, not overall résumé. Right now, Iowa is not a top 25 team. If the Hawkeyes can win two this week (they have Indiana at home and Michigan on the road), then I'll be happy to reconsider.
I was tempted to go with Michigan State at No. 1, since I have been saying that the Spartans are my pick to win the NCAA tournament. The problem is, even though the Spartans have won eight of their last nine, they have done most of their damage either at home or against the bottom of the league. The one difficult road game they played, they lost at Purdue in overtime. Kansas deserved the top spot based both on how the Jayhawks have been playing and what they have done over the course of the season. Either way, there is no question they would be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament if it started today. Which it doesn't, by the way.
Utah took the unusual step of going from unranked on my ballot to No. 12 by virtue of its win over Arizona. I probably should not have left the Utes out last week after they swept the L.A. schools on the road (take heed, because that is the closest I will ever come to admitting a mistake with my rankings), so consider this a market correction. The truth is that the Utes have been playing terrific basketball for the last six or seven weeks and have now won six in a row. I've been pooh-poohing the Pac 12 for much of the season, but this league is really growing on me. I see three or four teams that are capable of making it to the second weekend.
Other schools I considered ranking include Texas Tech, which lost at Kansas and plays at West Virginia on Wednesday; California, which dominated UCLA and USC at home and has won seven games in a row; Cincinnati, which has now won four of its last five games; Pittsburgh, which scored an impressive win over Duke to solidify its tournament résumé; Saint Joseph's, which is tied with VCU for first place in the Atlantic 10; Hawaii, which still holds a one-game lead over UC Irvine in the Big West and has lost four games all season; and—you guessed it—Little Rock, which has a three-game lead in the Sun Belt and is 26–3 overall. We are down to the last couple of poll ballots, but the rule remains the same: You have to win to get in.
See ya next week, Hoopheads.