(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)
By the time you read this article, college basketball’s Championship Week will be well underway as teams try to punch their tickets into the NCAA Tournament to be a part of March Madness. Several top teams have already assured themselves of positions in the tournament with strong regular seasons, but only one team, Cornell (20-5, 12-0), is officially in after winning its first Ivy League conference title since 1988.
While some teams need to win their conference tournaments to get into the NCAA Tournament, others are looking to gain some momentum heading into arguably the most exciting sporting event of the year. As the “Big Dance” eventually begins, don’t be surprised if some pressing issues determine certain teams’ fates in crunch time.
North Carolina (28-2, 13-2) recently returned to the top of the AP rankings, but the Tar Heels will need a healthy Ty Lawson (13.0 points, 5.6 assists) to have a chance to win the title. After Lawson injured his left ankle on Feb. 3rd against Florida State, UNC convincingly lost to Duke, though they have rattled off seven wins in a row since that loss. Lawson returned on March 1st against Boston College, and he has played about 20 minutes in consecutive games. With Tyler Hansbrough leading the way, North Carolina is still able to beat down weaker opponents without Lawson at 100 percent, but they will need his quickness and playmaking abilities to take down other top teams during close games.
After starting out 11-5, Connecticut (23-7, 12-5) won 10 straight games and started to gain some recognition in the tough Big East Conference. A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien lead the Huskies with 15 points per game each, but Hasheem Thabeet is the team’s most intimidating player. At seven foot three and 263 pounds, Thabeet has the ability to dominate the paint and force other teams to change their styles of play. Averaging 10.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and a whopping 4.4 blocks per game, Thabeet, a sophomore, will have to play strongly if the Huskies are to go far in the tournament.
Purdue certainly surprised many people in the Big Ten this year. The Boilermakers (23-7, 14-3) are led by one of the most productive freshmen in the country, Robbie Hummel. Hummel averages 11.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists, and he shoots over 50 percent from the floor. Third-year head coach Matt Painter has done an outstanding job and has his team playing well heading into the tournament.
When discussing freshmen, leaving out Michael Beasley’s name is tough to do. Beasley has dominated the Big 12 this year by averaging 26.9 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. Beasley probably won’t be returning to college next year as he more than likely will head to the NBA, but he still has the chance to lead Kansas State (19-10, 9-6) to a few wins in the NCAA Tournament. Beasley is having one of the best seasons ever for a freshman, and he may even turn out to be better than Kevin Durant, who last season became the first freshman to ever win the AP Player of the Year award. If Beasley plays like he has all season, Kansas State should be a tough matchup for anyone.
One of the most interesting teams this entire season has been Indiana. The recent dismissal of head coach Kelvin Sampson for violating NCAA regulations has placed a black cloud over the program, but the Hoosiers (25-5, 14-3) remain in second place in the Big Ten and are still ranked in the top 20. Led by freshman sensation Eric Gordon (21.3 points) and power forward D.J. White (17.0 points, 10.2 rebounds), Indiana will be sending a formidable team into the tournament. If the players and coaching staff can stay focused without Sampson running the show, the Hoosiers could definitely advance to the Sweet 16. If they can’t, they may just get bounced in the first or second round. Interim head coach Dan Dakich has his work cut out for him.
Other players to keep an eye on include Memphis’s Joey Dorsey, Derrick Rose, and Chris Douglas-Roberts, Tennessee’s Chris Lofton, Louisville’s David Padgett, Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody, UCLA’s Kevin Love and Darren Collison, Stanford’s Brook Lopez, Vanderbilt’s A.J. Ogilvy, Davidson’s Stephen Curry, VCU’s Eric Maynor, Butler’s A.J. Graves, Saint Mary’s Patrick Mills, Duke’s DeMarcus Nelson, and Texas’s D.J. Augustin.
Then again, someone else that no one thought would step up and have a big moment certainly will. That’s what makes March Madness so great.