Stories to watch as March approaches

BY foxsports • February 10, 2011

Now that the Super Bowl is behind us and the Lombardi Trophy has been returned to a grateful Packer Nation, it’s time for everyone to turn their attention to college hoops.

March Madness is mere weeks away, and for those who haven’t been paying attention over the last three months, we’ll clue you in on what you need to know:

One toe away: Kyrie Irving’s big toe may determine the national title. That’s right, the Duke freshman – who was sensational over the first eight games of the season – may not return for the rest of the season. Irving injured his toe against Butler in early December and hasn’t played since. He recently had his cast removed, but his status as far as returning to the court is still uncertain. With Irving, the Blue Devils become the favorite to defend their national championship. Without him? They blend in with the rest of the top 10 teams.

The new team to beat: With Irving on the mend, it’s been Ohio State that has become the No. 1 team in the land. The Buckeyes have everything -- shooters (four guys make more than 40 percent of their 3-pointers), leadership (David Lighty and Jon Diebler), an inside presence (Jared Sullinger), a scoring wing (William Buford) and a solid point guard (Aaron Craft). Thad Matta’s team is unbeaten thus far, but has a tough upcoming stretch, starting with Saturday’s game at Wisconsin.

The National Player of Year is … : UConn’s Kemba Walker was the early clubhouse leader, but has fallen off over the last couple weeks. Now it’s Ohio State’s big frosh, Jared Sullinger, who has the advantage (due to his team’s success and his defense) over a pair of seniors: BYU’s Jimmer Fredette and Duke’s Nolan Smith.

The Marshall Plan: North Carolina, coming off an NIT appearance a year ago, didn’t look much better this season – even after adding three highly touted recruits. However, everything has changed after one of them, freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, was inserted into the starting lineup. Now Harrison Barnes, the first freshman to make the AP Preseason All-American team, is living up to the hype. The Tar Heels have moved back into the Top 25 and could be a player again come March.

Where Have You Gone, Mid-Majors?: Over the last few years, it’s been a lock that Gonzaga and Butler were shoo-ins for the NCAA tournament. Well, both may have to win their respective conference tournaments to go dancing this year. The ‘Zags are 15-9 overall and are tied for third in the West Coast Conference, while Butler is 16-9 and tied for fourth in the Horizon at 8-5 in league play.

West Coast woes: The Pac-10 still stinks, but this year the league will likely get at least three teams in the NCAA tourney field. Arizona, led by Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate Derrick Williams, is somehow in first place and both Washington and UCLA are in position to get bids, but the conference is still down after a pathetic showing a year ago.

The ACC lacks depth: The ACC isn’t much better than the Pac-10. In fact, this may be the worst the ACC has ever been. Duke without Irving is vulnerable, North Carolina has improved over the past few weeks, but the rest of the league is mediocre – and that’s being kind. Florida State is third with a 16-7 overall mark and a 6-3 ACC record, but the Seminoles aren’t a top-25 team.

The biggest disappointments: There’s been no shortage. As we’ve already mentioned, Gonzaga and Butler haven’t lived up to the expectations. However, their disappointments pale in comparison to Michigan State and Kansas State – a pair of top-five preseason teams that may not even make the NCAA tournament. Michigan State is below .500 in league play while Kansas State, tabbed to win the Big 12, sits in a four-way tie for fifth in the conference.

Is it too late to go back to 64 teams? This wasn’t the year to expand the NCAA field by a trio of at-large teams to 68. There are plenty of teams that will likely back their way into the NCAA tournament with unimpressive resumes. One of them could be Michigan State, which has a 13-10 overall record and is 5-6 in Big Ten play.

The Jimmer Show: If there’s anyone you need to see, it’s BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. He’s a senior, but really burst onto the national scene earlier this year when he put up 43 points in a win in Provo against then-unbeaten San Diego State. Fredette is fun to watch – he can score in just about every way imaginable. The question is whether he can pull a Stephen Curry and carry BYU deep into the NCAA tourney.

The lottery picks: There’s still no consensus among NBA scouts over who will be selected with the No 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft. Irving, despite playing just eight games, is in the mix – as is Sullinger and long and talented Baylor freshman Perry Jones. To say this is a weak draft would be a vast understatement.

Any Cinderellas? I’m not sure there will be a Butler this season, a mid-major that goes all the way to the Final Four. In fact, there are only three teams currently in the Top 25 that don’t come from one of the Big Six conferences. Remember George Mason, the program that went to the Final Four five years ago? The Patriots are 20-5 and in first place in the Colonial Athletic Association with a 12-2 mark.

The Big Beast: The Big East could legitimately hear 11 of its members names called on Selection Sunday. Right now, six of the top dozen teams in the AP poll hail from the conference, and eight of the Top 25 are from the Big East. Then you’ve got Cincinnati, Marquette and even St. John’s in the mix.

Want someone to cheer for? Kansas sophomore forward Thomas Robinson is your guy. Robinson lost both of his grandparents and then his mother within the span of a month. Even worse, Robinson had the news of his mother’s death delivered by his 7-year-old sister.

Surprise, Surprise: Both UConn and Notre Dame were expected to be fighting just to get into the tourney. But both will be fighting for high seeds in the next month. UConn, picked to finish 10th in the Big East in a preseason poll, rode Kemba Walker early while the Irish are led by a group of veterans – including Tyler Hansbrough’s brother, Ben.

The big hurt: Purdue would have had a chance to win the national title if Robbie Hummel didn’t go down with a torn ACL in his first practice in October. The Boilermakers still have JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore – two of the nation’s best players – but their season took a bad turn when Hummel tore up his knee for the second time in a year.

Remember Renardo Sidney? Well, you probably don’t need to worry about him. He was the highly touted prep kid that waited a year-and-a-half to play his first game at Mississippi State after being suspended by the NCAA. Well, he’s been suspended twice – for a fight on national TV with his teammate and an altercation with a walk-on in practice – and he’s just one reason why the Bulldogs have been a train wreck.

John Calipari’s One-and-Dones: The Kentucky coach won’t send five players to the first round of the NBA Draft as he did a year ago, but he could have a trio. Terrence Jones is a lottery pick while two other freshmen, guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, have a shot at going in the first round if they decide to leave Lexington after one season.

Texas Turnaround: The Longhorns were 17-0 a year ago and then went in the tank due to chemistry and leadership issues. Sophomores Jordan Hamilton and J’Covan Brown have matured, Dogus Balbay is leading and Canadian freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph have been terrific. Longhorns coach Rick Barnes has a group that could go to the Final Four.

The latest on Bruce Pearl: The Tennessee head coach has served his time – at least according to the SEC. The league hit Pearl with an eight-game league suspension after he was caught lying to the NCAA. Now the key will be whether the NCAA, which is currently in the midst of an investigation into Pearl and the Vols, will hit the Tennessee coach with any sanctions.

The Harvard crew: Harvard has a chance to win its first Ivy League title. The Crimson are 16-4 overall and 5-1 in Ivy League play, one game behind first-place Princeton (17-4, 5-0). Those teams will meet in Cambridge on March 5 in a game that could determine the league champion.

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