A break from Eli bball, on to the nat’l scene

In about six weeks, the NCAA selection committee will announce the field of 65 teams that will compete in the NCAA Tournament. Don’t worry, I’m not going to mention the Yale men’s team here (yeah, right). At least, not until Penn and Princeton meet their doom in John J. Lee Amphitheater this weekend.

So before the Bulldogs begin their improbable run from an 0-2 start to an Ivy League title and an NCAA berth — which will undoubtedly fill all my columns up for months — it might be a good idea to discuss some of the competition the Bulldogs might face in March. So, here’s my midseason review of college basketball’s top teams, coaches, storylines and players so far.

Currently, Duke sits unanimously atop both the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ and AP polls. After a loss to Purdue in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout, Duke has won 13 consecutive games in impressive fashion, trailing for only 8:59 of the 520 minutes played since the Purdue loss.

The Blue Devils have been stellar because they have combined their strong perimeter play of the last several years with much better post play and stifling interior defense. J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing can bury opponents with 3-pointers, while Shelden Williams, Luol Deng (who can also knock down 3-pointers) and Shavlik Randolph have made Duke dominant in the post. With 7.4 blocks a game, the Blue Devils are shattering a school record (6.3 blocks per game), while their newfound control of the glass was apparent with 24 offensive rebounds against Maryland on Wednesday. As a senior point guard, Chris Duhon is having a great season and provides solid veteran experience.

Duke will have plenty of time to toughen up for March Madness with the ridiculous strength of the ACC schedule. One of the strongest conferences in years, the ACC features Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest — all in the top 25. At one point, all four were in the top 10 until they entered ACC play. Maryland and North Carolina State are both very competitive teams, and Florida State is on the verge of cracking the top 25 after stunning UNC and Wake.

Right behind Duke on the national stage is No. 2 Stanford, still unbeaten at 16-0. Stanford doesn’t have Duke’s star power but has the advantage of employing a 10-man rotation. Stanford has quality wins over Kansas, Arizona and Gonzaga, all without All-America candidate Josh Childress, who returned to the starting lineup just last week. Teams that learn how to win without a star player tend to do well in the NCAA Tournament. In recent memory, national champs Michigan State in 2000 and Duke in 2001 improved while dealing with the losses of Mateen Cleeves and Carlos Boozer respectively.

With Stanford’s great start, Mike Montgomery could have locked up coach-of-the-year honors. Potential competition may come from Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt for leading the Yellow Jackets to a surprising 15-3 start and a No. 16 national ranking.

I wouldn’t want to try to pick the Final Four right now. A lot will happen in the next month and a half, and it’s hard enough to make picks in mid-March. But, if I had to, Duke and Stanford would get penciled in.

Everyone seems to favor UConn, but I don’t. The Huskies have been exposed in recent losses to UNC and Providence. They’ve struggled with turnovers, weak defense, and the fact that they only really have three scoring options — Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Denham Brown — and you can hack Okafor at the end of the game because he only shoots 55 percent from the line. I would say UConn is still suffering from the home-opener scare against Yale or from the fact that Charlie Villanueva is one ugly dude.

As for those other two spots, I thought Louisville looked good until I just read the headline that Rick Pitino is taking an indefinite medical leave of absence. Hmmm … Mississippi State is 16-1 and flying under everyone’s radar. Pittsburgh, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin could end up in the mix. Florida, Arizona, Kentucky? Guaranteed that I have no more than one Final Four team here. No need to waste anymore time on this hopeless task.

And then there’s St. Joseph’s — 17-0 and probably no chance at all of reaching the Final Four, but still interesting for a couple of reasons. First, St. Joe’s has a legitimate shot to run the table and finish the regular season undefeated. With their soft Atlantic 10 schedule, games at Villanova, at Rhode Island, and a home game against Dayton should be the toughest games the Hawks play. Not too bad.

No team has gone undefeated since Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers did it in 1976. In 1991, UNLV finished a perfect regular season but lost to Duke in the Final Four. I would guess that the Hawks blow it by the A-10 tournament, but they still have a shot. If they do win out, I guarantee they bow out of the Big Dance no later than the Sweet Sixteen.

Another interesting angle on St. Joe’s is Jameer Nelson’s player-of-the-year hopes. The senior guard would probably overtake preseason favorite Emeka Okafor if the Hawks remain unbeaten in mid-March.

That’s it for the national picture. Hopefully, I’ll be writing about the Bulldogs next week.


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