<
>

No No. 1's, but the best of the rest

Kansas earned its return to No. 1 overall after beating Kansas State. So Andy Katz looked at who should be No. 2 in the poll -- Syracuse, Villanova or Kentucky. Those teams are a clear step above the rest of college basketball's contenders. But just below those elite teams are a host of solid squads rounding into form for the stretch run of the college basketball season. Though none of these teams will expect Monday's No. 1 ranking, all of them will expect to make a deep tournament run. In the words of the deep-voiced guy that reads the intro on "Law And Order," these are their stories.

In no particular order:

No. 11 Georgetown (16-4, 6-3 Big East): Let's start with what's fresh, and Georgetown's 89-77 win over Duke Saturday is certainly that. That was, to use a well-worn cliché, a statement game: The Hoyas dominated a usually tough Duke defense, scoring 1.25 points per possession and shooting a certifiably insane 78.3 effective field goal percentage. Georgetown won't always do that, but they will play solid defense and grind opponents in the half court. With the combination of versatile big man Greg Monroe and lights-out, perimeter threat Austin Freeman consistently playing well, the Hoyas are poised to build on Saturday's big win.

No. 6 Texas (18-3, 4-2 Big 12): For anyone else, an inclusion in a list titled "best of the rest" is a compliment for a job well done. For Texas, it's the product of two weeks of disappointing play. The disappointment culminated with the Longhorns' 80-77 loss to Baylor in Austin Saturday. Baylor is a good team, but Texas is one of the most talented teams in the country; for a while, it seemed as though only Texas could derail Kansas' favored national title bid. Those days are over. The Longhorns still merit consideration as one of the top 10 teams in the country -- and they still have plenty of time to figure things out -- but they're no longer elite.

No. 5 Michigan State (19-3, 9-0 Big Ten): Michigan State is now 9-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in Tom Izzo's career. That says something. More important than the mark, though, is how Michigan State has gotten those wins: The Spartans have handled business at home -- beating a tough Wisconsin team by seven points in East Lansing -- and gutted out tough wins on the road. Of particular note are the Spartans' back-to-back one-point wins at Minnesota and Michigan this week. Both featured key last-second buckets by Kalin Lucas, who has gone from Izzo's doghouse -- Lucas was kicked out of a practice in early January -- to a clutch assassin capable of leading Izzo's team in every regard. This is what Tom Izzo teams do: Play a tough non-conference schedule, figure things out as they go along, and gel as a team in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. That same pattern is emerging this year. The one thing preventing them from being "elite?" Size. Michigan State will have a tough time dealing with dominant big men like, say, Texas' Dexter Pittman, and such a match up could doom their chances in the tourney. Still, there are few teams that will want to play the Spartans down the stretch, and even fewer who will want to meet them in an elimination game. Those teams are correct in their fear.

No. 9 West Virginia (17-3, 6-2 Big East): West Virginia has one questionable loss on its resumé, but the Mountaineers can be forgiven for dropping a two-point nail-biter at Notre Dame. Other than that, West Virginia's record is peerless. Which makes sense: West Virginia is loaded with talent, rebounds like crazy, and lives in constant fear of Bob Huggins' frightful style. (I get scared watching Huggins coach, and I'm usually sitting comfortably on my couch. Imagine being in the locker room with that guy. Yikes.) Forwards Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Da'Sean Butler all score in double figures and rebound at a high rate (especially at the offensive end, where West Virginia is the best in the country), and, if needed, Huggins' rotation can go seven or eight deep. WVU's Achilles heel is their inability to get to the free throw line. If a good team keeps the Mountaineers off the glass and prevents WVU from making shots, they won't be able to adapt. But first you'd have to find a team that can keep Ebanks and company off the glass. Good luck.

No. 8 Duke (17-4, 5-2 ACC): There was a time this season when Duke was considered every bit the title contender as Syracuse, Villanova, Kentucky and Kansas. Then Duke lost at Georgia Tech (understandable but not preferable), at N.C. State (borderline unforgiveable) and at Georgetown on Saturday, where the Devils yielded 89 points on 71 possessions, 48 of which came in the paint. Duke is a very good offensive team, statistically the most efficient in the country. They are not, apparently, an elite defensive team. They are far too vulnerable to more athletic teams, and the Devils' 1-4 road record speaks for itself. That is not the makeup of a team primed for the NCAA tournament; unfortunately, they don't play the Sweet Sixteen in Cameron Indoor Stadium. That said, Duke is still a quality team, and while the month of January may have been bad for the Devils, there's plenty of time to sort it all out.