- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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The weather folks, the ones who call sunny with a chance of clouds an actual prediction, like to debate whether the month of March will come in like a lamb or a lion.
The theory being that the month that starts cold and nasty will right itself and finish nicely.
OK, so weather logic doesn’t work in basketball.
In 1993, Rider played Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Broncs were the 16-seed, Kentucky the No. 1 seed. Rider star Darrick Suber was writing a diary for the local paper I worked for at the time and wrote that as he walked onto the court at Vanderbilt University, a Cat fan in her Southern drawl called down, "Here come the lambs."
And that’s the thing about being a basketball lamb in the month of March. Rarely do you find your roar. Instead you usually head to the slaughter (Rider lost 96-52).
But with just three days left in February, there are more than a few teams that are limping their way into March. And more than a few who are finding their voice.
Villanova Wildcats: With the 81-68 home loss to St. John’s, the Wildcats are now 21-8 overall and 9-7 in the Big East. The same team that started the season 17-1 and climbed to No. 7 in the polls has now slunk down the rankings and is 5-7 in its past 12 games. Worse, with road games at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, odds favor the Wildcats finishing with two more losses and a pedestrian 9-9 record in the conference.
That has more than a handful of folks in Philadelphia sensing some uncomfortable déjà vu. Last season, the Wildcats started with a 20-1 record and climbed all the way to No. 2 in the country. They ended up losing four of their last six in the regular season. They lost their first game of the Big East tournament, nearly lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Robert Morris and were then booted by Saint Mary’s in the second round.
Most concerning, somewhere along the way Corey Fisher has lost his shot and his confidence. He is 4-of-26 in his past two games, both losses.
Texas Longhorns: All things relative here following the free-for-all slide that characterized the Longhorns a season ago. Certainly two bad losses does not a disastrous season make, but Texas, once a solid No. 1 seed, certainly has knocked itself off of that line for now after sandwiching losses to Nebraska and Colorado around a pedestrian win against lowly Iowa State.
Worst of all is how the Longhorns -- a team praised for its defense -- lost to the Buffs by blowing a 22-point lead. Texas surrendered 58 second-half points to a team that had lost seven of its previous 10 games.
Arizona Wildcats: Like the Longhorns, the Wildcats aren’t bandaged and damaged heading into March, but this certainly was a lost weekend in SoCal.
The loss to USC was bad; the 71-49 mauling from UCLA was atrocious. Once in position to win the Pac-10 title outright, instead Arizona already has ceded at least a share to the Bruins.
On lamb alert: Connecticut Huskies: There were enough excuses to explain away their most recent loss -- NCAA punishments meted out, no head coach -- but the loss to Marquette on Thursday was merely the latest stumble for the once red-hot Huskies. Connecticut has dropped five of its past eight and on Sunday takes on the newest hot team in the Big East, Cincinnati.
With games at West Virginia and home against Notre Dame to finish, the once lionish Huskies could be baa-baaing into March.
St. John's Red Storm: Steve Lavin might want to have his white sneakers bronzed. The coach insists he’s wearing the casual shoes for comfort not superstition, but the Red Storm, who beat Villanova on Saturday, are 8-1 since Lavin and his staff donned the sneakers as part of Coaches vs. Cancer awareness.
The well-coiffed Lavin doesn’t strike as the type to wear his Easy Spirits, so we’re going with superstition.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a team more impressive than the Red Storm in the past month. Of those eight wins, four have come against top-25 opponents and three were on the road.
In a season of ‘first since,’ the Red Storm racked up two more when they upended struggling Villanova. It was the Storm’s first win against a top-15 team on the road since they beat Duke in 2000. The six victories against ranked opponents is the school’s most since the 1999-2000 season.
With winnable games at Seton Hall and home against South Florida, the Red Storm could literally storm into Madison Square Garden on an eight-game tear when the Big East tournament begins.
Dwight Hardy: When Lavin told me last week that he thought Hardy ought to win Big East Player of the Year, I admit I thought he was insane.
So now either I’m equally insane or he was right.
As Connecticut and Kemba Walker fade down the stretch, Hardy keeps coming. On the heels of his buzzer-beating, circus-shot winner against Pittsburgh, Hardy dumped 34 points on Villanova. Since the signature win against Duke, as St. John's has mounted its charge and built its case for a high seed, Hardy is averaging 25 points per game.
Without him, St. John’s is the same old St. John’s. An OK team in the middle of the Big East pack. With him, the Red Storm are looking to lock up a double-bye and surge into the tourney where they will have a decided home-court advantage.
That’s what players of the year do.
Kansas State Wildcats and Syracuse Orange: Two teams some had written off as dead are beginning to find their footing at the right time (Michigan State, with a win against Purdue on Sunday, can be tossed into this group, too).
The Wildcats, with an impressive win against Missouri on Saturday, have now won four games in a row. The same dysfunctional team that looked awful in January -- 3-5 for the month -- has become a bunch of scrappers. With Jacob Pullen benched by foul trouble, K-State, which would have fallen apart a month ago, instead put together a decisive 10-point win.
Meanwhile, the same discombobulated Orange that lost four in a row in January now have strung together four consecutive victories after topping undermanned Georgetown on Saturday. That streak includes wins against two ranked teams and against a scrapping West Virginia team.
Quietly, UCLA has won 12 of its past 14 and is in position to win the Pac-10 title.
Some other random observations from a busy Saturday afternoon on the sofa:
For anyone who thinks BYU is Jimmer Fredette and a bag of donuts, I give you this box score: four players in double-figures, 18 assists on 27 made baskets. Jimmer is the main attraction, but the Cougars’ supporting cast is pretty good, too.
Even in defeat, I was impressed with Georgetown. The Hoyas went toe-to-toe with Syracuse without point guard Chris Wright. That said, the box score tells you just how critical Wright is: Georgetown, a team that often has an assist on nearly every made basket, instead had 16 turnovers and just 10 assists.
Wondering if we could get a neutral-court game between Kentucky and Missouri. Both could be paralyzed into inaction for a good 10 minutes. Undefeated at Rupp Arena after a discarding of SEC-leading Florida, the Wildcats are 1-6 in SEC road games. Not to be outdone, the Tigers lost at Kansas State to match Kentucky’s road woes at 1-6 in Big 12 road games. Each has a home and away game remaining on its schedule.