Chicago Sports Review - Peaking At The Right Time
BY Eli Kaberon
The calendar says that February is the shortest month of the year, as it ends two or three days before each of the other 11 months. But in college basketball, February is a long and winding road beating up teams on their march to March. Conference play is in full swing, injuries and suspensions are common and the unexpected upset is always right around the corner.
February is also the month where the elite teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack and transform into serious title contenders before tournament time. In fact, the last six national champions were a combined 33-11 during February in the seasons they ended up cutting down the nets, and seven of those losses came from the Florida squads of the past two years. Big wins are even bigger because they can provide momentum while a tough loss hurts more than usual for the opposite reason. Coaches and players have to be on their A-game from opening tap to the final buzzer, because one bad game in the year's second month can leave a team on the bubble during the third.
So which schools in February 2008 are stepping up their games in preparation of the greatest sporting event of the year-March Madness? Here are ten teams that are peaking right now, hoping to cement their place in the field of 65 and get themselves ready for a hopeful six-game win streak to end the season (teams listed in alphabetical order).
BYU---Outside of UCLA and Kansas, the Cougars of Brigham Young University might be the best team west of the Mississippi River. While there might be some argument of that in cities like Palo Alto and Austin, BYU has a very strong case. The leaders of the Mountain West Conference are 20-5 with wins over Louisville and UNLV, including a current eight game win-streak. BYU has three players averaging 13 or more points, led by center Trent Plaisted, who puts up 16 points and almost nine rebounds a game. An eight seed in last year's tournament, BYU fell to Xavier by two points in the opening round. Expect the Cougars to be seeded higher and travel deeper into March in 2008.
Connecticut---It's hard to say a school that has won two National Titles since 1999 is playing under the radar, but that's exactly what the Huskies have done this year. UConn has won ten consecutive games, is a half game out of first place in the loaded Big East conference and is doing this while dealing with the suspensions to two of their best players. Yet nobody seems to be talking about them. Guards Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins both sat out multiple games for a violation of team rules, but the Huskies just continue to win. Point guard A.J. Price has played like an All-American in 2008, averaging 15 points, six assists and four rebounds a game while leading the team in minutes played. Hasheem Thabeet, the team's 7'3" center, has also become a force, posting over ten points, seven rebounds and four blocks per contest.
Kansas---No surprise here, considering the Rock Chalk Jayhawks have been to 36 NCAA tournaments, fourth most in the history of the game. Coach Bill Self's team is 24-2 and has as much talent as any other squad in the land. Led by big men Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson as well as guards Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers, these Jayhawks have outstanding depth. Those four-as well as the four other KU players who average double-digit minutes a game-perfectly run Self's high-low offense, giving opponents so many different offensive looks that its almost impossible to prepare for. Kansas has a recent history of falling in March, but if any team can break that streak, it is this one.
Louisville---In the debut pre-season poll of the season, the Cardinals were ranked sixth in the country. Six weeks later and the 'Ville was nowhere to be found in the rankings. That's what happens when a team loses three games before mid-December and apparently loses their center, David Padgett, for the season after breaking his kneecap in mid-November (he has since returned). But somehow coach Rick Pitino got his team to turn it around. The Cards have now won nine of their last ten games, with the only defeat being a two-point loss at Connecticut. They are also sitting in first place in the Big East, since they have the same record as Georgetown but they beat the Hoyas on Feb. 9 (they meet again, in Washington D.C. on March 8). If a team can go from being great to poor back to being great all in one season, it is Louisville.
Memphis---Considering they are the only team in the land to not lose a game all season, it would be stating the obvious to mention that the Tigers are playing well at the moment. With the backcourt of junior shooting guard Chris Douglas-Roberts and freshman point Derrick Rose averaging over 30 points combined per game, it is almost impossible for opponents to contain Memphis' dribble-drive attack. And on defense, the Tigers play a ferocious man-to-man, giving their opponents almost no clear looks at the basket. The website kenpom.com, which computes various college basketball statistics, reports that Memphis has the number one defensive efficiency in the country with the score of 80.6. That means that UM gives up roughly 81 points for every 100 defensive possessions. (For comparison, the national average is 101.8 by Nichols State) Taking out the Tigers will be no easy task for any opponent come March.
Purdue---In 2007, when the Boilermakers had first-team All Big Ten forward Carl Landry, they still finished just a game over .500 in conference and advanced only to round two of the NCAA's. So this year, after Landry graduated, many guessed that Purdue would return to the Big Ten basement. But behind freshman guards E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel, the Boilers have risen to the top of the conference, holding a half-game lead over Indiana and Wisconsin. Hummel has been especially spectacular lately, scoring 24 points and pulling down 11 boards in the teams Feb. 12 upset of Michigan State after dropping 21 points three days earlier in another win, this time at Wisconsin. Purdue has the looks of a squad who goes unnoticed until they suddenly appear in the Elite Eight.
South Alabama---The Jaguars of South Alabama are in a tight race with Western Kentucky for first place in the Sun Belt Conference, with both schools entering their February 21 contest at 21-5. South Alabama has a run and gun offense, putting up over 78 points a game, the best in the conference. They are led by guard Demetric Bennett, a player who comes up big when it matters most. In the Jaguars' biggest win of the season-a Dec. 15 upset of Mississippi State-Bennett dropped 39 points, going 14 of 17 from the field and five of seven from the free-throw line. In two other games against big-conference teams, three-point losses to both Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, the guard scored an average of 27 points. Even if they don't win the Sun Belt, South Alabama still might be able to make it to the big dance with an at-large bid.
Tennessee---Wait a second, what in the name of Peerless Price is going on here? I thought Tennessee was a football school. Well, it was until coach Bruce Pearl moved to Knoxville. He brought a full-court press defense and a run-and-gun offense that has been almost impossible for SEC competition to defend. This years Vols squad is ranked second in the country with a record of 23-2, including wins over Xavier, Gonzaga and Ohio State. Their offense is one of the nation's best, scoring close to 81 points a game, led by All-American shooting guard Chris Lofton. This Saturday they have a matchup with Memphis, which will put the top two teams in the country on the same court for the first time all season. If they win that, you could see Tennessee as the number one overall team heading into March.
Texas---Just like nobody would have ever guessed that the Giants would win the Super Bowl after the retirement of Tiki Barber, there weren't many folks out there who predicted that the Longhorns would do better after Kevin Durant left for the NBA. Yet UT is ranked in the top ten, has won more than 20 games and posts the best trio of victories in the country, with wins over Tennessee (ranked #2 in the land), Kansas (#4) and UCLA (#6). Point guard D.J. Augustin is one of the best floor leaders in the country, leading Texas in scoring and assists as well as being second in steals. The 'Horns may not have the star power they possessed a year ago, but they might just have a better all around team.
Xavier---Last season, the Musketeers were oh-so close to pulling the first shocking upset of the NCAA Tournament. They had number one seed Ohio State on the ropes in the second round, and only a 35-foot three-pointer by Buckeye Ron Lewis pushed the game into overtime, with OSU eventually pulling out a 78-71 win. This year, expect Xavier to be playing deeper into March. Currently ranked tenth in the country, the X-Men have defeated Indiana and Kansas State in the non-conference and are 10-1 in the Atlantic Ten Conference. With incredible balance-six Musketeers average ten or more points a game but none scores more than 12.2-it is very difficult to contain their offense. And with suburb quickness, there are very few teams that match up with them on D.
Eli Kaberon is a 2005 graduate of Evanston Township High School and currently is attending Columbia College in the loop, majoring in print journalism. A life-long fan of the Cubs, Bears and Bulls, Eli also works as a seat vendor at Wrigley Field and has sold hot dogs to everyone ranging from Bears tight end Greg Olsen to Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. His blog, the Hot Dog Guy, can be seen at http://wrigleyvendor.blogspot.com.