College basketball is ready for its close-up

With the Olympics officially coming to a close on Sunday night in Vancouver and the baseball regular season still more than a month away, college basketball finally takes center stage in the sports landscape. After an exciting weekend of action, less than two weeks remain before NCAA bids are handed out on Selection Sunday, and we’re inching ever so closer to Gus Johnson’s first exclamatory “Ha-ha” of the postseason.

Here’s a look at what you may have missed thus far, where teams currently stand and what you can expect for the rest of the 2009-10 season.

…If you happened to pick up the newspaper on Sunday morning and noticed that the top two teams in the nation — Kansas and Kentucky — lost on Saturday, be advised that it was an aberration for both. The Jayhawks and Wildcats, with no disrespect to Syracuse, are the two best teams in the nation and likely headed straight to Indianapolis for the Final Four.

With Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry, Marcus Morris and Cole Aldrich averaging double figures in scoring along with gritty play on the road throughout the year — the loss to Oklahoma State notwithstanding — the Jayhawks’ problem is that they just seem prone to playing down to the competition at times. Look for that to end as the Big 12 and NCAA tourney nears and for Collins to put the team on his shoulders as the Jayhawks make a deep run.

Meanwhile, Kentucky boasts only the nation’s best player in John Wall and a two-headed monster up front in DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson. Sure, John Calipari’s Wildcats couldn’t connect from long-distance in the loss to Tennessee on Saturday — but that shouldn’t be a problem for the Wildcats come March. But is their youth a concern? I don’t think it will be, but Patterson must continue to play at an All-American level.

Purdue is still a very good team, but Robbie Hummel’s season-ending injury kills any chance of the Boilermakers making a run at the Final Four. They simply won’t have enough scoring to get it done.

Syracuse is proving every preseason prognostication wrong each time the team takes the court. The Orange clinched a share of the Big East regular-season title with a thorough beating of Villanova before a record-setting crowd at the Carrier Dome, and one can argue that they’re the best overall team in the nation. Five players average double figures in scoring, and team depth hasn’t been the problem I thought it would be at the start of the year. Wesley Johnson would be a National Player of the Year in any year when Wall or Ohio State’s Evan Turner weren’t playing, and the Iowa State transfer has plenty of support from his teammates. Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku do the dirty work inside while Andy Rautins keeps delivering from the perimeter. Coach Jim Boeheim just continues to get it done in upstate New York, and the ‘Cuse will be a scary draw for anyone in the Dance.

…You won’t have to worry about Roy Williams cursing at Bonnie Bernstein during a postgame interview or hear him whine about a bad call in a game because North Carolina will not be dancing this March. The Tar Heels have just four victories in ACC play — especially shocking in that the league is filled with mediocrity this year. No one expected a repeat national title, but Chapel Hill has not seen good basketball this year. However, expect the Heels to reign supreme in the ACC sooner than later.

…Don’t sleep on Villanova. I’ll be the first to admit that coach Jay Wright has exceeded my expectations for the program, and his Wildcats are at it again this year despite the loss to the ‘Cuse on Saturday. ‘Nova has five wins against RPI top-50 opponents, and guards win in March. They just have to stay away from stupid off-the-court issues.

…Don’t sleep on Kansas State, either. I love Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, and coach Frank Martin has the team playing hard every night. I don’t think they’ll go too far in the tourney, but they have the ingredients to make things difficult for the opponent depending on the matchup.

UCLA isn’t going to make the tournament this year, so there’s really not much to discuss when it comes to the Bruins. However, their cheerleaders remain the best in the game.

…I love Kyle Singler, but Duke looks like a team that will struggle to get out of the second round. The Blue Devils have absolutely zero inside game.

…How good is New Mexico? Steve Alford’s Lobos are young — they have only one senior — but have played incredibly well in road contests. The team has wins over Cal, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, BYU (twice) and UNLV. Good chemistry can make magic in March.

Butler is Butler. Good basketball is good basketball. And this team has more than just Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard. Shelvin Mack and Willie Veasley also help pace the Bulldogs. A home-court advantage in the Final Four for the Bulldogs? Stranger things have happened.

…And finally, Temple is officially back. Coach Fran Dunphy has the Owls playing their best basketball of his tenure after back-to-back NCAA appearances the last two years. The city of Philadelphia is lucky to have two teams (‘Nova) to root for in March.

Follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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