Plenty left to prove for potential No. 1 seeds
by Randy Hill
Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
One of the most potentially fertile NCAA Tournament fields in recent years may need to experience a little premature madness before the top seeds can be planted.
Just determining a quartet of No. 1's could be quite a party.
The pre-conference installment of the current season was dominated by a bullying big three (North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas), with UCLA attempting to make it a foursome by rallying after a home loss to Texas. With less than two weeks remaining before we barge into Snubbing Sunday, the aforementioned schools have returned to prime top-seed-pouncing position.
But as any college hoop analyst worth his earpiece will remind you, there's a lot of basketball left to be played before any serious reaping can be considered. With that in mind, let's take a look at what the leading top-seed contenders must endure before provoking anguish from the schools that wind up with No. 1 seeds.
With the alphabet as our guide, we'll begin with Coach K's team:
Duke (26-3): The Blue Devils remained in the conversation for a top seed by overcoming North Carolina State in Raleigh and Virginia in Charlottesville, setting up a Saturday showdown with No. 1 UNC.
During the Wolfpack's uprising, it was revealed that Duke point guard Greg Paulus could not stay in front of N.C. State freshman Javier Gonzalez. The Blue Devils also were savaged in the paint and didn't seize control of the game until their spread the shooters, drive-and-kick offense began yielding three-pointers.
Paulus dug in defensively this week in a relatively easy win over Virginia and its jet-quick guard Sean Singletary. The Blue Devils — who prevailed by 21 points when the two teams met in Durham — handled the Cavaliers again as Paulus made Singletary miss 10 times and cough up five turnovers.
If Singletary has a quickness equal, it's North Carolina's Ty Lawson, who will be the challenge for Paulus when Duke entertains the Tar Heels on Saturday. Lawson returned last weekend after a high ankle sprain caused him to miss six games, including an 11-point loss to the Blue Devils at Chapel Hill.
In that game, Duke had six players score in double digits, while Tar Heels point guard temp Quentin Thomas committed six of his team's 20 turnovers.
A win over Carolina this week and another in the ACC Tournament would be a pretty swell way to clinch a No. 1 seed. Two showdowns with the Heels in as many weeks also may be a fine way to barely survive with a 2.
Kansas (27-3): When KU brings the pain as it did in last Saturday's revenge date with Kansas State, the Jayhawks are something to behold.
But absorbing three league losses with their level of talent and experience suggests that Bill Self's team still has focus issues on the road.
After crushing Jekyll-and-hide Texas Tech by 58 Monday, KU travels to College Station Saturday for its only regular-season meeting with rollercoaster Texas A&M.
The Jayhawks, who rank second nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, have it all. They also could have a shot at Texas in the Big 12 tournament, a potential conquest that would lock down a No. 1 seed.
Memphis (29-1): The dribble-drive-motion Tigers seem to be a team that simply can't wait to hear the opening notes of The Big Dance.
Their most recent trial by fire occurred in last Saturday's less-than-inspiring victory over Southern Mississippi.
The Tigers toyed with SMU in Dallas Wednesday, winning 72-55 in a game highlighted by ferocious jams from frontcourt enforcers Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey. The regular season ends with Round 2 against the UAB Blazers, who were defeated, 79-78, by Memphis in Birmingham.
The Tigers, whose only loss this season was issued by Tennessee at the FedEx Forum, are hoping for a better performance from freshman point guard Derrick Rose. In the first match with UAB, the precocious Rose missed 11 of 13 field-goal attempts.
The Tigers, still ranked No. 1 in the land for defensive efficiency, allowed the Blazers to make half of their shots.
Unfortunately, two more wins (if they meet in the league tournament) over UAB may not impress the selection committee; but entering the field with only one loss should.
North Carolina (28-2): To warm up for Saturday's trip to Duke, the Heels welcomed back Ty Lawson in a 90-77 home win over Florida State. Lawson scored 10 points but will need time to shift back into high gear.
A win over Duke and a league-tournament crown might have been needed if the Heels hadn't bounced back from a 34-point first half by Tyrese Rice and an 18-point deficit at Boston College.
While Lawson's ankle gets stronger and Tyler Hansbrough continues to work people over inside in title-team-requirement fashion, glue guy Danny Green and sniper Wayne Ellington provide the stuff No. 1 seeds are made of.
Tennessee (27-3): The Vols celebrated the school's first-ever No. 1 men's ranking with a loss at Vanderbilt and a near-loss against wounded Kentucky.
Before Coach Bruce Pearl can paint the country (or himself) orange, Tennessee had to dodge another bullet in a trip to Florida. The Vols smoked the two-time defending national champion Gators by 22 in Knoxville but had to sweat out a potential game-tying shot at the buzzer to complete a 16-point comeback. The regular season will end at home against South Carolina, which fell to Tennessee by 24 points on its home court earlier this season.
It will be interesting to see if Pearl's blitzkrieg style can be established over six games in a tournament. As he did with Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl will attempt to dictate tempo through the use of full-court, pressure defense.
Interestingly, the Vols are ranked just 28th in the nation among teams that promote a speedy pace. This has led to Tennessee registering as a surprising 25th in defensive efficiency.
Bruce may have to consider turning the vice a bit tighter.
UCLA (26-3): The Bruins are still clinging to top-seed hopes, thanks to Kevin Love's performance in a two-point victory over Arizona in Tucson.
The pre-Pac-10 tournament trials include Thursday's battle with the Lopez twins and Stanford and Saturday's tussle with inside-heavy Cal.
Love scored a (relatively) pedestrian 15 points in the Bruins' win at Palo Alto and had 19 when they knocked off the Bears in Berkeley.
With Love, Darren Collison and Josh Shipp checking in as UCLA constants, the X-factor seems to be sophomore combo guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, whose slashing capabilities and eye-popping athleticism have given the Bruins an added dimension, seems like a barometer for UCLA success.
In UCLA's three losses, Westbrook has shot a combined 10 of 27 from the field.
The bright side is that stellar defense from this kid is a given.