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Monday, January 31, 2011
Brennan: Observations from the week

By Eamonn Brennan

Five observations from the week in college basketball:

1. Duke is no longer a lock for a No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils got run over at St. John’s on Sunday, and while you’d never bury a Duke team with this much talent -- in other words, yes, Duke can still win the national title, with or without Kyrie Irving -- it is fair to downgrade the Blue Devils at least a notch after their 93-78 loss in Madison Square Garden. What does “downgrade” mean? It means revising the notion that Duke does -- or will eventually -- deserve a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in March.

The evidence therein: Duke has at least two so-so losses on its resume (a road loss to Florida State being the other). It has very few, if any, “quality” wins. Instead, Duke’s best victories have come over Michigan State, Kansas State, Butler and Marquette, all teams that could theoretically miss the tournament. And it plays in an uncharacteristically “down” ACC, a conference that lacks another true contender and might have only one ranked team (the Blue Devils, naturally) by the time Monday’s poll is released. (Florida State lost 62-44 at Clemson Saturday. Guh.) Even if they win out the rest of the way -- which is unlikely, too -- a bad ACC means the Blue Devils won’t have many more chances to impress the selection committee going forward.

Throw in the large number of elite teams this season, and the fact those teams arguably have better resumes than Duke and will have more chances for big wins in February and March, and it seems fair to say the Blue Devils are no longer a lock for a No. 1 seed. In fact, they might be a long shot. This isn’t the biggest deal in the world -- the difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 can be pretty slim -- but it does mark a dramatic change from the days when college hoops pundits boldly wondered whether this Duke team could go undefeated.

2. The Big East is really, really good. (I think.) Is there a deeper, stronger, and more confusing conference than the Big East? For much of the season, it appeared Syracuse, Villanova, Connecticut and Pittsburgh were the league’s four clear favorites, followed by a slew of teams in that good-but-not-great middle ground. Now Syracuse has lost four in a row, Nova has dropped its last two, Connecticut fell to Louisville at home, and Pittsburgh lost to a pace-controlling Notre Dame team in the Oakland Zoo and almost dropped a game to Rutgers. Meanwhile, apparent bottom-feeders like Providence, Seton Hall and St. John’s are playing superior teams tough every time out, and middle-ground teams like Notre Dame, Louisville, Georgetown and Marquette appear good enough to beat anyone anywhere at any time.

What gives? Is the rest of the Big East better than we thought? Or is the league’s top half weaker than expected? For now, let’s say it’s a little bit of both. This league is undoubtedly deep, and the threats posed by the Louisvilles and Georgetowns of the world -- not to mention the Providences and Seton Halls -- make this the nightly buzz saw we’ve come to expect since it became the country’s first 16-team superconference years ago. But there are problems at the top, too. Syracuse is clearly struggling, while UConn and Villanova are vulnerable. We’ll see if Pitt’s overpowering offense will be enough to guide it through this morass of difficulty. In the meantime, the Panthers ought to have their heads on a swivel. “Any given night” is a phrase we use often in college hoops, but it’s especially relevant to the Big East this season. Whether that means this conference has a national title team in its ranks is almost beside the point. The depth is what’s really scary here. And, yes, a little bit confusing, too.

3. Speaking of the Big East: If we were to make a list of the five most thrilling teams in college hoops, the Big East would boast at least three of them. For whatever reason, Connecticut, Louisville and Georgetown have a knack for playing -- and oftentimes winning -- close games. UConn has thrived on the late heroics of Kemba Walker, while Louisville and Georgetown have been involved in the two or three most thrilling games we’ve seen this season. (Georgetown’s overtime win against Missouri on Nov. 30, Louisville’s come-from-behind win over Marquette on Jan. 15, Saturday’s double-OT Louisville-UConn game. You get the idea.) You might not be a fan of any of these teams, but you can’t go wrong clicking over when any of them are in the second half. More likely than not, you’ll see something exciting happen.

4. Weird things happen at the Pit. In case you needed more evidence of why New Mexico’s University Arena -- otherwise known as The Pit -- is such a strange and difficult place to play, I present the Lobos’ 86-77 win over BYU on Saturday. The Cougars were coming off a huge win over San Diego State, a game in which Jimmer Fredette not only solidified his national player of the year chances but made himself a sports celebrity known to hardcore fans and casual fans alike. Fredette had another classic performance at New Mexico -- he scored 32 points and added five rebounds, seven assists and three steals -- but it didn’t matter: UNM upset BYU despite Fredette’s brilliance. And if that wasn’t strange enough, seven rows of bleachers collapsed Saturday, because, according to a hilariously worded email from the school, they were “unable to withstand the enthusiasm of the fans.” Big win for the Lobos, tough break for the New Mexico facilities crew, and another strange day in one of the nation’s most unique college hoops arenas, where the fire alarm has gone off twice during games this season.

5. Michigan State might be a bubble team. How far have the Spartans fallen? After suspending veteran guard Korie Lucious for the season, Tom Izzo’s team lost to Michigan and barely survived in overtime to Indiana in back-to-back games in East Lansing. The Spartans had already plummeted from their lofty preseason perch, when they were ranked the No. 2 team in the nation after their injured-riddled run to the Final Four last April. But after their first home loss to the Wolverines in 14 years, MSU isn’t just “worse than expected.” The 13-8 Spartans are -- say it ain’t so! -- in danger of losing out on the NCAA tournament for the first time since Izzo’s second season at the school (1997). “Disappointing” doesn’t begin to describe this team.