As the regular-season winds down, there’s still no consensus on the top team – or even top player.
Voting the No. 1 team in the country was as difficult as it’s been in recent memory this week. You can make a legitimate case for any and all of the following: Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Kansas and Texas.
The Buckeyes lost their first game this past weekend against Wisconsin in Madison – where virtually no one wins. Badgers coach Bo Ryan has won more than 93 percent of his games at the Kohl Center since taking the job.
Pittsburgh has just two losses (both at home), six wins over Top 25 teams and just one league setback in the top conference in America.
Kansas has just one loss – in Lawrence to a Texas team that may be playing as well as anyone in the country over the past six weeks.
The National Player of the Year picture is just as difficult to figure.
The front-runners are Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger, senior guards Nolan Smith of Duke and Jimmer Fredette of BYU – and UConn junior Kemba Walker.
Walker has slowed down recently, while Smith has moved into the equation with his stellar play since Kyrie Irving went down with a toe injury. Sullinger is a double-double machine and plays on arguably the best team in the nation. While there’s no more prolific scorer in the college ranks than Fredette, I find it difficult to hand the award to someone lacking on the defensive end as much as The Jimmer.
So, anyway, I’m going with Pittsburgh and Sullinger – for now. But it wasn’t easy.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Pittsburgh – The Panthers didn’t just go out on the road and beat a pair of ranked teams, but Jamie Dixon’s team accomplished this feat without its leading scorer, Ashton Gibbs. First it was a victory in Morgantown against West Virginia, and then Pittsburgh held off Villanova in Philly. Now the Panthers are 23-2 overall and 11-1 in the best conference in the country.
STUD (PLAYER OF WEEK): Jordan Taylor – The guy who got snubbed from the Bob Cousy Award Top 10 was dominant in Wisconsin’s victory against previously unbeaten and top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday afternoon. Taylor came into the game averaging 17.7 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 41 percent from deep and also averaging nearly a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Taylor finished with 27 points, made 5 of 8 shots from beyond the arc and had seven assists and just one turnover.
MOST OVERLOOKED: North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes got out of the gates slow, but since Roy Williams has moved fellow frosh Kendall Marshall into the starting point guard spot, Barnes has averaged 17.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. The Tar Heels are 6-1 since Marshall replaced the since-departed Larry Drew II.
SHOWCASE PERFORMANCE: There were plenty of worthy candidates – Duke’s Nolan Smith against North Carolina, Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor in the win over Ohio State, Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins and St. John’s guard Dwight Hardy. However, I’m giving some love to Cleveland State senior Norris Cole – who went for 41 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and dished out nine assists in a victory over Youngstown State. Cole, who is just 6-feet-2 and 170 pounds, became the first player since Blake Griffin two years ago to put up at least 40 points and 20 boards in a game.
WEEK TO FORGET: Villanova – There’s not much shame in losing at home to Pittsburgh, but when it follows a loss at Rutgers, that’s when it qualified as a week the Wildcats don’t want to remember. That’s exactly what happened to Jay Wright’s club: It lost to Rutgers on a four-point play by Jonathan Mitchell in the final second and then couldn’t win at home against a Pittsburgh team missing its leading scorer, Ashton Gibbs.
DUD: Washington State losing at home to Stanford. The Cougars were, not too long ago, in decent position to make the NCAA tournament. However, Ken Bone’s team is slowly seeing its opportunity fade after losing at Oregon and at home against the Cardinal in its past four games. WSU is now 17-8 overall and 7-6 (fourth place) in the Pac-10.
CLUTCH SHOT OF THE WEEK: Rutgers’ Jonathan Mitchell, who has a national title ring from his days sitting on the bench at Florida, sank a 3-pointer while being fouled with 0.4 seconds left, then made the free throw to knock off Villanova.
WORST LOSS: Utah State doesn’t boast that big-time win, so Stew Morrill and the Aggies can ill-afford a slip-up down the stretch. However, that’s exactly what happened in a loss at Idaho early in the week. Now Morrill & Co. will need to finish strong – and that means a win against Saint Mary’s on Saturday may be necessary.
GAME YOU HAD TO SEE: Duke’s come-from-behind victory against North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils were a mess in the first half and trailed by 14 at the break, but Nolan Smith and Seth Curry spearheaded a terrific comeback in the second half as Duke pulled off the win over its Tobacco Road rival.
SHORTHANDED: Lucky for Kansas coach Bill Self that his Jayhawks have no shortage of competent bodies. Josh Selby has been out for the past three games with a stress reaction in his right foot and now Thomas Robinson is out for a couple weeks with a knee injury.
FEELING SORRY FOR: Florida State – A couple years ago, an injury to Toney Douglas cost Leonard Hamilton and the Seminoles a spot in the Big Dance. This year it could happen again after versatile forward Chris Singleton – the team’s top scorer and defender – suffered a fractured foot in the win against Virginia. The team is optimistic he’ll return before the end of the season, but that could wind up being too late.
WEEK’S TOP MATCHUPS
1. Kansas at Kansas State, Monday at 9 p.m. ET: It’s a rivalry game that we all figured would determine the Big 12 regular-season champion. Instead, it’ll likely determine whether K-State gets into the NCAA tournament and whether the Jayhawks keep an inside track to a No. 1 seed.
2. Michigan State at Ohio State, Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET: Like Kansas State, Michigan State has some work to do to secure a spot in the field of 68. A win against an Ohio State team that’s coming off its first loss of the season would be huge for Tom Izzo & Co.
3. Washington at Arizona, Saturday at 6 p.m. ET: If the Wildcats win this one, they’ll be in good shape to claim the Pac-10 regular-season title. Washington could use this to help secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.
4. Georgetown at UConn, Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET: Two teams heading in opposite directions. The Hoyas are one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning eight straight overall, while UConn has cooled off of late.
5. Wisconsin at Purdue, Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET: Can the Badgers follow up on their home win against Ohio State with a victory in West Lafayette? If they do, look for Bo Ryan’s team to gain a high seed in March.
6. Utah State at St. Mary’s, Saturday at 9 p.m. ET: Two of the best mid-majors in the country and two teams that could use a quality win. The winner should be a lock to breathe easy on Selection Sunday.