Five observations from the week that was:
1. The No. 1 spot remains as unstable as ever. If you haven’t gotten this memo by now, then I’m not sure you’ve been paying attention. So let’s reiterate: There is no such thing, at least right now, as “the best team in the country.” There are only the best teams. They are, in some order: Ohio State, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Texas, Duke, and maybe (depending on whether you buy the Cougars or not) BYU. The constant evolution of the No. 1 ranking this season is proof enough -- we’re about to have our fourth straight week with a different No. 1. Of course, that wasn’t our only elite intrigue this week: Texas fell at Colorado on Saturday and Pittsburgh fell in overtime at Louisville (more on this below).
I still think, if forced to pick, that Ohio State is the best team and most deserving of the No. 1 rank. The Buckeyes are tied for the fewest losses of any of the five, and those two losses (Wisconsin and Purdue are two top-10 teams with undefeated home records) are distinctly “better” than those nagging the Jayhawks, Blue Devils, Panthers, Longhorns and Cougars. Frankly, you can argue Ohio State never should have lost its ranking in the first place. But the Bucks have plenty of flaws -- depth and high pick-and-roll defense, among them -- and remain just as capable of losing on the road to inferior opponents as any other ostensible Final Four contender in the country.
Which brings us back to the original point: No team this season is clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the elite. Whether this means there are no great teams -- the favorite cliche of college hoops pundits everywhere -- or a handful of great teams presiding over a deeper and more consistent college hoops landscape is up for debate. What seems more certain is that this year’s national title won’t be the result of a barnstorming run by a team clearly better than its contemporaries. In the end, if any of these teams wins the national title, it will be thanks more to matchups and seeding than any obvious unstoppable dominance. Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
2. All Xavier does is win. The Musketeers haven’t gotten a ton of national acclaim this season, primarily because they looked barely mediocre for much of the nonconference season. Once A-10 play began, though, Xavier has resembled the program we’ve come to know over the past decade, the one with three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. Xavier has lost but one game in conference play, a weird, out-of-character performance at Charlotte. After Sunday’s win at Dayton, it is now 13-1 in the league and has proven for the third straight year that it’s never wise to doubt Xavier’s eventual tourney readiness no matter the level of turnover in the program. Thanks in large part to the brilliant guard play of Tu Holloway -- like Jordan Crawford, yet another Kelvin Sampson recruit that landed a few hundred miles east in Cincinnati – second-year coach Chris Mack has picked up right where his predecessors Thad Matta and Sean Miller left off. There’s no reason to doubt these Musketeers. Ever.
3. The Big East is more likely than ever to get 11 teams in the tournament. This started as a lark. It is now an eminent reality. How do you know the Big East has had a great season? On Feb. 20, eight teams -- as many as any conference has ever sent to the NCAA tournament, and yes that conference was the Big East -- were locks or near-locks in basically everyone’s bracket. The only stragglers remaining at the start of the week were West Virginia, Cincinnati and Marquette, three teams with variously strong bubble résumés, all of whom needed another win -- whether to hold serve or make a statement -- to ensure inclusion in the tourney field on March 13. All of them did so. West Virginia beat Notre Dame last Saturday. Cincinnati won three games in a row, including a win over Louisville and a road win at Georgetown. And Marquette went into Connecticut and escaped with a signature overtime victory in front of a stunned XL Center crowd. Barring something unexpected, all three will be dancing this season. As a result, the Big East will get 11 teams in the 2011 NCAA tournament. And deservedly so.
4. Virginia Tech still isn’t there yet. No one likes to be a party pooper -- I can only assume Hokies fans are still partying even as this post is being published, and why not? -- but it should be noted that Seth Greenberg’s team, which basked Saturday in proclamations that its 64-60 win over Duke was a bid-sealer, still has to finish the season strong if it wants to get in the NCAA tournament. Virginia Tech’s RPI is still a little shaky. Its only other top-50 win came over Florida State, which barely counts; the Seminoles have hovered in the mid-50s in the RPI for much of the season. The sweep at the hands of Virginia and the loss at Georgia Tech are definite black marks. Tech can’t afford to slip up down the stretch, especially since its past two games come against fellow ACC bubble teams Boston College (at home) and at Clemson.
In other words, yes, Tech’s win over Duke was huge, and it will likely see them through to the tournament. But the Hokies’ margin for error, even in its vastly diminished state, is still alive and well.
5. Note to cheerleaders everywhere: Double-check the clock before you rush the court. Fortunately, one Louisville cheerleader learned this lesson the hard way, so you don’t have to. Yes, this happened: The Cardinals, up three with seconds ticking off the clock in their 62-59 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, managed to avoid Pitt’s attempts at a foul in time for guard Kyle Kuric to seal the win with a last-second dunk. The dunk did two things. One: It put Louisville up by five points with less than one second remaining. And two: It caused one of Louisville’s male cheerleaders to leap onto the court, grab the ball and toss it into the air like Michael Jordan after an NBA title. The problem? There was still time left on the clock. The referees awarded Pittsburgh with two technical foul shots, which Ashton Gibbs promptly sank. That gave Pittsburgh 0.5 seconds to go the length of the court and chuck a 3, which Gibbs got after a perfect inbounds pass provided a relatively decent look inside the halfcourt line as time expired. The shot missed -- barely -- and the cheerleader (noticeably shaken on TV, the poor guy) survived unscathed. After the game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, “All good things have to come to an end, and the male cheerleader has come to an end [at Louisville].” He was joking. I think.