Perennial powers of the ACC, the Duke Blue Devils (23-4, 11-2 ACC) seem to be peaking at just the right time. For the past several years, analysts have been harsh critics of the Blue Devils due to their severe lack of a post presence. They have been labeled as a team that relies too heavily on the three-point shot, and they cannot get easy baskets and offensive rebounds on a consistent basis. And for the most of this season that assessment seemed accurate of Duke’s game. This was evidenced by Georgetown’s 89-77 thrashing of the Blue Devils, a game in which Duke shot only 30 percent from three, and it could not find other effective ways to score.
Since that game, however, Duke has not lost, and it has found ways to win when they do not shoot particularly well. The recent emergence of 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek has helped. With him finally living up to his potential, the Blue Devils now have a scoring threat in the paint. His size combined with the consistent shooting of Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler provides Duke with an opportunity to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2004.
Kansas State (22-4, 9-3 Big Twelve) has finally emerged from the shadows of its cross-state rivals and is quietly putting together one of the greatest seasons in program history. The Wildcats’ 81-79 overtime loss to the Jayhawks was arguably the most exciting game played in college basketball this season, and it helped prove that Kansas State could play with anybody in the country. Since that game, the Wildcats have not lost and are now ranked sixth in the nation.
The outstanding guard play of junior Jacob Pullen and senior Denis Clemente lead this team. Pullen, the Wildcats most consistent player, averages 18.5 points and has reached double digits in every game this season. Clemente on the other hand, has a tendency to take some games off, but he can take over a game at any point in time. His recent outbursts of 30 points against Iowa State and 27 against Oklahoma have led the Wildcats to crucial road wins. With the play of these two guards, Kansas State very well might be playing basketball longer into the spring than Kansas.
The No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers (20-7, 10-5 Big Ten) are struggling with consistency. After starting the season 12-2 and notching wins against conference opponents Ohio State and Penn State, the Badgers are 8-5 since. It’s not horrible, but it’s not Final Four-caliber either.
Granted, three of those five losses have come on the road at the Big Ten’s current top-three: Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State. But tellingly, Wisconsin currently sits in fourth place behind those three, and right now, the Badgers most impressive road win is at unranked Michigan. The Wolverines are a mediocre 13-13 overall and 6-8 in the Big Ten.
To top it all off, Wisconsin has lost two of its last four, the first of which came on its home floor against Illinois – the team nipping at the heels of Wisconsin from fifth place in the conference.
In its final three games, Wisconsin must win out to give itself a chance at a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Badgers go to Indiana, host Iowa and finish the regular season at Illinois. The last of those games will be a last chance for the team to prove that it can actually win a game in a hostile environment.
Led by strong performances from sophomore Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, Butler brushed aside Siena on Saturday despite a rough beginning that saw them down by three at halftime. Since dropping four games early on, including a seven-point loss to the Hoyas, the Bulldogs (25-4, 17-0 Horizon) have ripped off a 17-game winning streak, and have emphatically responded to the doubts that their early season struggles generated. Despite the struggles of junior Matt Howard, who is averaging fewer than 12 points per game for the first time in his career, the consistently strong play of Hayward and Mack has been huge for the Bulldogs throughout the season.
The Bulldogs are currently ranked 15th in the AP poll with only one game remaining – at Valparaiso on Friday – in their regular season and their unblemished conference record makes it unlikely that they will lose to the likes of Wright State or Green Bay before selection Sunday rolls around.
This weekend was a wake-up call for Gonzaga (18-4, 10-2 WCC). After climbing to No. 13 in the AP rankings last week, Gonzaga fell back to the No. 18 spot with a loss to Loyola Marymount on the road. The Bulldogs rebounded with a conference win over Pepperdine. Senior guard Matt Bouldin leads Gonzaga in scoring, averaging 16.5 points per game, and the consistent contribution of freshman forward Elias Harris has been invaluable for the Bulldogs.
In first place with two regular season games left to play – against weak opponents – they are safely en route to their 11th straight WCC Conference title. However, it is in NCAA play that Bulldog fans are uneasy. Last season, Gonzaga posted a 25-5 overall regular-season record, dropping no conference games and tallying some impressive out-of-conference wins. The Bulldogs then won their first two NCAA tournament contests before falling to the top-seeded University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Despite its standing atop the WCC, whether Gonzaga can compete at the same level this season is debatable given its resounding loss to Duke (76-41) and its close wins over subpar conference opponents.
Currently ranked 10th in the AP poll, New Mexico is in first place in the Mountain West and boasts a 25-3 record overall. New Mexico fans found themselves on the edge of their seats Saturday when a game which was expected to be a thrashing against last-place Air Force turned into a nail-biter – and a barely eked-out, three-point Lobo victory.
Coming through in the clutch has been common for the Lobos this season, as they have earned six wins in games decided by four points or less. The Lobos have been led by a new face this season – 6-foot-7 junior forward Darington Hobson, a transfer from the College of Eastern Utah. Though Hobson’s play is not surprising – as CEU’s leader in scoring and rebounding, he guided the team to a 25-7 record last season – his quick transition at New Mexico has been impressive. He leads the team in assists, scoring and rebounding. On Feb. 27, New Mexico will fight for the MWC regular season championship when it faces off against second-place BYU, which trails the Lobos by just half a game.”