Projecting the near future
Editor's Note: On Tuesday, we got you caught up on 10 of the biggest questions we pondered in the preseason. Today, we take a crack at 10 unanswered questions heading into March.
When Villanueva wants to be a dominant player, the Huskies have a shot to be an Elite Eight contender. When he doesn't, they could lose to just about anyone in the field.
Villanueva was strong down the stretch in the double-OT win at Providence Tuesday night. He scored 22 points and grabbed 10 boards, and scored seven straight points in the second overtime to send the Huskies toward the victory. But last Sunday against North Carolina, Villanueva scored two points in 27 minutes. Huh?
Check out this inconsistency: six points in a loss at Notre Dame, six in a win over Villanova, three in a win over St. John's, and then 21 and 10 boards in a win at Syracuse before the Carolina game.
If the Huskies want to make a run, especially with Rashad Anderson's status in doubt, Villanueva has to be a consistent scorer.
This is the Stanford category. We here at ESPN.com got all over the Cardinal a year ago as Stanford looked like it had the ingredients to make a title run. Not quite. Alabama ran all over Stanford in the second round and snuffed out the Cardinal early.
So, which team could be this year's early loser?
Fans who want to discount Boston College would love to see the Eagles fall out early in the tournament, but the Eagles shouldn't be considered a big-time name in this category. That spot could be reserved for Kentucky.
The Wildcats are still young in key spots and Tuesday night's loss at South Carolina exposed Kentucky's erratic offense. Kentucky shot 26 percent on 3s in the loss to South Carolina and had only nine assists on 18 field goals. The Wildcats had 19 turnovers and weren't crisp offensively.
Kentucky will get a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed in the field and could be ripe for an upset in the second round. The Wildcats are playing in an SEC that is simply not as good as the Big East or ACC at the top and that ultimately could end up hurting the 'Cats in the tourney.
The Zags are as talented offensively in the frontcourt as they have been since 1999. And the WCC is tougher, meaning the Zags are getting tested more before they get to the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga beat Washington, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State when all three were undefeated (you've had plenty of time to answer this question on the quiz from Tuesday), so we know the Zags can hang with some of the most talented teams in the country (save getting their clocks cleaned by Illinois like every other non-conference team).
The losses at Saint Mary's and San Francisco and the gut checks at Loyola Marymount and at home to Portland don't prove that they're weak. They show that the WCC is tougher, which is a good thing to get this squad ready for the Dance.
Adam Morrison can score as well as any small forward. Ronny Turiaf and J.P. Batista are tough to keep off the low block and Derek Raivio may be one of the most improved scoring guards in the country. If Erroll Knight ever gets going as a legit scorer, this team can get on a serious roll.
Yes, but it won't be in the regular season and it might not be in the NCAA Tournament. If the Illini are to lose, it likely will be in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
The Big Ten tournament will mean absolutely nothing for Illinois. Barring a major collapse in the next three weeks -- and we mean three or four losses -- the Illini are going to be the top seed in the Chicago region. The Illini will play in Indianapolis to start in the first two rounds and then move on to Chicago.
Illinois won't have anything to play for but the Big Ten tournament trophy and the chance to run the entire table. That's plenty, but no one would fault the Illini if they lost one game in Chicago during Championship Week. The teams they will be playing against will be hungrier, simply because they need to win to get to the NCAA Tournament or, in the case of Wisconsin and Michigan State, to get a decent seed.
This is not a guarantee, but it wouldn't be a surprise if this was where the first loss came for the Illini. It also wouldn't change the perception of many people that the Illini are the favorites to win the national title.
This was Xavier's category a year ago. The Musketeers were left for dead in January (10-9 on Jan. 31). They were a question for the NIT, let alone the NCAA, but Thad Matta and Sean Miller got this group believing in itself, the seniors led like they hadn't before in the season and the Musketeers earned a bid by going 9-1 in their last 10, beating Saint Joseph's in the A-10 tournament and winning the A-10 title.
Who fits that profile this season? Villanova. The Wildcats were 9-4 (2-3 Big East) after losing to Boston College on the road on Jan. 19. Villanova is now 15-6 overall (5-5) after a non-conference win over Bucknell Tuesday night.
Villanova crushed Kansas during this stretch and won at home against Notre Dame. The only stinker was a home loss by 15 to Syracuse. The Wildcats have the guard play -- Mike Nardi, Allan Ray, Randy Foye -- and the inside duo of Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser to make a deep run.
This is a tough call, but the schedule favors North Carolina.
Wake Forest got a tough one out of the way Tuesday by winning at Miami, but the Demon Deacons (22-3, 10-2) still must play at Duke Sunday night. They should beat Virginia and Georgia Tech at home but end the year with a dangerous road game at NC State -- a team that pushed Wake to the final few minutes before losing by 11 in Winston-Salem.
Meanwhile, North Carolina (20-3, 8-2) goes to NC State and Maryland, two teams it owned at home this season. Home games against Virginia and Clemson shouldn't be tough and the Heels get Duke at home in a revenge game to close the season.
If the two teams tie, Wake Forest would get the top seed in the ACC tournament by virtue of its win over the Tar Heels. What about Duke? The Blue Devils (18-3 overall) have three league losses and still must go to Georgia Tech and North Carolina, as well as Thursday's game at Virginia Tech. Duke also gets Wake Forest at home Sunday and Miami on March 3 -- easily the toughest final five games of the three leading contenders.
This could also end up being North Carolina.
The Tar Heels are clearly the most talented team in the country and arguably one of top four favorites to win the national title, along with Illinois, Kansas and Wake Forest. But if the Tar Heels were to lose another game in the regular season and then one in the ACC tournament, they likely would get squeezed into a No. 2 seed.
North Carolina was No. 9 in the RPI Wednesday with a 4-2 mark against the top 25 RPI. The non-conference schedule strength of 118 was the worst of the potential No. 1 candidates. The Heels look like a 1-seed but probably still need to do a little bit more work.
This much is true: No one would want to be the No. 1 seed with Carolina as a possible No. 2 in its bracket.
The Yellow Jackets haven't played up to their potential, but this is largely the same team that reached the final game a year ago. If the Yellow Jackets get into the field, and our guess is that they will, they could end up in the 8-9 game and be a daunting second-round opponent for a No. 1 seed.
Georgia Tech still has three of the most talented guards at their respective positions in Jarrett Jack, B.J. Elder and Will Bynum. This team hasn't played with the same defensive intensity it did a year ago but something tells us that once the NCAA Tournament starts, the experience will kick in from a year ago as will the hunger to prove the regular season was a bit of a mirage.
There are a few candidates here. Temple is one, since the Owls are just 11-10 overall, but 7-3 in the A-10. The Owls certainly have the talent to win the A-10 tournament. So, too, does Saint Joseph's, a bizarre 9-1 in the league but only 12-9 overall. If the Hawks reach the field, Phil Martelli would end doing a better coaching job than he did a year ago when they went undefeated in the regular season.
Don't entirely rule out an NC State run, either. The Wolfpack have shown lately that they still have something left despite being among the most disappointing teams in the country. State won at Georgia Tech, and already has won at Maryland. The Wolfpack are 14-10, 4-7 in the ACC. What happens if NC State beats Maryland and North Carolina at home to go to 6-7? What if the Pack beat Virginia Tech and Wake Forest at home to move to 8-7? It's not totally crazy. The Wolfpack finish with four of five at home, with the only road game being at Virginia.
Don't look now, but Iowa State is tied with Oklahoma in the win column for fourth place in the Big 12. Iowa State (14-8, 6-5) has won six in a row, after losing six straight. Iowa State goes to Kansas and Texas A&M, so this argument could be moot. The home games are against Nebraska and Missouri with the last road game at Colorado. But it's not over yet.
South Carolina lost at home to Auburn, but then turned around and beat Kentucky to move to 14-8, 6-5 in the SEC. What if South Carolina wins at Alabama on Saturday? The Gamecocks have more chances with a game against Florida at home, too. The other road games are at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, with the last home game against Ole Miss.
More than likely this will come from either the mid- or low-major pool. There are plenty of candidates here with Vermont, Old Dominion and Southern Illinois being the likely ones if there is such a snub.
The Catamounts have a lofty RPI because they played at Kansas and North Carolina. But Vermont still has to win at Nevada and Maine to erase any doubts. If the Catamounts do that and then lose in the America East title game (which could be at home in Patrick Gym), they could still get in as at-large team. But a loss to Nevada and, especially, one at Maine (they only won by one in Burlington) could silence their at-large chances.
ODU has a remarkable record at 22-3, 13-1 overall. But its schedule strength is 206. Smells like Utah State in '04. ODU plays three of its final four games on the road and winning the CAA tournament isn't a cinch, either, with this league being very balanced.
Southern Illinois already has six losses (20-6, 11-3 in the MVC) and finishes with three of its final five games on the road, including tough trips to Illinois State and Kent State in the Bracket Buster and a home game against co-MVC leader Wichita State. The Salukis have wins over UTEP, Vanderbilt, Wyoming and Saint Louis, but it might not matter if they falter down the stretch and don't win the MVC tourney.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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