College hoops scene full of surprises

Saturday is the most important day of the season for college basketball in the Bay State.

But it's not the teams you might think. Indeed, college basketball in Massachusetts is standing on its head.

The traditional powers (Boston College and UMass) are treading water. The preseason picks to make the NCAA tournament (Boston University and Holy Cross) stumbled badly out of the gate. And now, perennial also-rans Northeastern and Harvard are the hottest teams in town.

Which brings us back to Saturday. Both the Huskies (against Old Dominion) and the Crimson (against Cornell) face their stiffest conference competition of the season.

In a state with a rich tradition of great teams, there is now remarkable parity. Yet, at the same time, a state that has sent a team to 26 of the past 30 NCAA tournaments could easily be left out in the cold in March.

So, which team is currently the best in Massachusetts? Take a look at the Bay State College Basketball Power Rankings:

1. Harvard

W-L: 13-3 (2-0 in Ivy League)
InsideRPI: 63rd
Strength of Schedule: 250th

Harvard is atop the rankings, and the Princeton Review has nothing to do with it.

In 1946, Harvard became the third Massachusetts school to play in the NCAA tournament, following Springfield and Tufts. Sixty-four years later, the Crimson just might get back to the Big Dance. That's right: The Crimson have gone dancing only once.

Among Division I schools that have made an NCAA tournament appearance, Harvard has the longest drought of them all, eclipsing the next school (Dartmouth) by 13 years. In a conference that uses regular-season records to determine the bids, the Crimson have been above .500 in Ivy League play only once in the past 25 years.

Under the stewardship of Tommy Amaker and led by star Jeremy Lin, Harvard is quickly seeing its prospects turn around. At 13-3, the Crimson are a win shy of last season's total, and well on their way to the first 20-win season in school history. They've already broken a 52-year-old school record with 11 nonconference wins. Winners of six straight, Harvard is in the midst of its best stretch in 13 years.

Yet there are two glaring concerns for this team. Despite their record, the Crimson are terribly mistake-prone. They commit more turnovers than they force and average the 23rd most in the nation.

But the bigger problem is their strength of schedule, which ranks 250th in the nation, a number that will only get worse over the course of an Ivy League schedule. Yet, when faced with a challenge, Harvard has held tough against its only elite opponents (Connecticut and Georgetown), while beating Boston College for the second straight season. Ultimately, that win over BC is the main reason the Crimson top these rankings.

However, Harvard has a chance to make an even bigger statement on Saturday. In the end, the Crimson will need to get by an almost-ranked Cornell squad -- perhaps twice -- in order to go dancing.

2. Boston College

W-L: 12-9 (3-4 in ACC)
InsideRPI: 86th
Strength of Schedule: 22nd

What can we make of this Boston College team? In December, it lost to Maine -- for the first time since the 1924-25 season -- at home, where it also fell to Harvard. Yet, on Tuesday, the Eagles took down Clemson, the 21st-ranked team in the nation.

Indeed, it has been a season of highs and lows for Boston College. What would seem to be the biggest wins of the Eagles' season have lost some of their luster in light of the recent struggles of both Clemson and Miami. On the other hand, what seemed like terrible losses to Harvard and Maine could end having come at the hands of NCAA tournament teams. So the Eagles are left somewhere in the middle.

Yet the fact remains that the Eagles' win over Clemson is their lone win in six games against RPI top-50 teams. While the other Massachusetts teams have none, Harvard's win over William & Mary and Northeastern's sweep of VCU are almost as impressive from an RPI perspective.

The Eagles figured to struggle in the first season after losing Tyrese Rice, as any school would after the departure of a 2,000-point scorer. With wins in two of its past three games, Boston College has perhaps turned a corner. The team has shot 52.7 percent from the field in its past three games, powered by the inspired play of Reggie Jackson off the bench. The next five games -- starting Saturday against Florida State -- will define the Eagles' season.

3. Northeastern

W-L: 13-8 (8-2 in CAA)
InsideRPI: 68th
Strength of Schedule: 56th

Going into Wednesday, Northeastern was one of the hottest teams in the nation -- winners of 11 straight. The Huskies' win streak trailed only No. 10 BYU's streak of 15 straight. Tied atop the Colonial standings, Northeastern was hovering right around the top 50 in the RPI. No doubt, the Huskies would top this list.

Then, Wednesday's home loss to Drexel happened. Such is the fickle nature of power rankings.

The fact that Northeastern was even in the conversation is stunning in itself. Forget that the Huskies haven't made the NCAA tournament since 1991; it was the Huskies' start to this season that put them in a massive hole.

Northeastern opened the season needing to wake up early to face Siena as part of ESPN's Tip-Off marathon on Nov. 17. But the Huskies' alarm clocks did not go off until Christmas.

The Huskies started the season 2-7 before taking down SMU on Dec. 25, the first of their 11 straight wins. Wednesday's setback aside, Northeastern has its sights set on March, playing in a top-heavy conference that likely could receive multiple bids. However, the Huskies' toughest task lies ahead. They close out the regular season with five of their final seven conference games on the road.

Northeastern has the second-highest RPI of any eight-loss team. That is a testament to a rather fascinating nonconference schedule. Without having faced a ranked opponent and despite Providence's being its lone major-conference foe, Northeastern currently boasts the 13th-toughest nonconference schedule in the nation. Of the Huskies' 11 opponents outside of the CAA, at least four seem destined for the NCAA tournament, and only two currently have a losing record.

Matt Janning, who received Division I scholarship offers only from Northeastern and Montana State, is the team's leading scorer and a three-year captain. But given Northeastern's inexperienced bench, it will be his leadership more than his scoring that determines how far this team goes.

4. Boston University

W-L: 11-10 (6-3 in American East)
InsideRPI: 160th
Strength of Schedule: 188th

The Terriers may be fourth in these power rankings, but a good case could be made that they stand the best chance of actually making the NCAA tournament.

After a grueling 2008-09 campaign (nine overtimes) that ended in disappointment, the Terriers made a coaching change. After 15 seasons, Dennis Wolff, the dean of Division I coaches in the Commonwealth, was let go. In came Villanova assistant Patrick Chambers to turn the tide.

The Terriers were a unanimous pick to win the conference, largely due to the returns of Corey Lowe and John Holland, both All-Conference selections. But with a new coach and a tough nonconference slate, perhaps BU's slow start should not have been a surprise. The Terriers were just 5-8 going into a brutal stretch of seven road games among their next nine. Despite a heartbreaking loss to Maine on Wednesday, the Terriers go into Saturday looking to finish that stretch 7-2.

After Saturday, BU will play five of its last six conference games at home. Meanwhile, all three other conference contenders -- Maine, Vermont and Stony Brook -- close with tough road stretches. In other words, BU just might be the best-positioned 11-10 team that you can find.

The Terriers will need to take care of business at home to put themselves in a favorable position come March in Hartford. That all starts with Lowe and Holland. Lowe, who averages more turnovers (5.0) than any other player in the nation, is both one of the best and one of the most erratic players in the conference. Because he is on the court so much, Holland holds the strange distinction of having committed the most personal fouls among all Division I players who have yet to foul out of a game.

5. Massachusetts

W-L: 8-12 (2-4 in Atlantic 10)
InsideRPI: 195th
Strength of Schedule: 98th

With a resurgent Northeastern and a surprising Harvard, UMass finds itself hovering just above the state's basketball basement. Though a win over Memphis in the TD Garden provided an early highlight to the season, there had been little else to celebrate until Wednesday. The Minutemen snapped a five-game losing streak, defeating Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia for the second straight year.

Over the past three seasons combined, there are only six active players with more points than Ricky Harris, and only five players who have hit more threes. The senior is holding together a squad of freshmen and transfers, which was not built to succeed this season. In fact, according to kenpom.com, the Minutemen are the 309th most experienced team in the nation. However, the play of the newcomers, particularly Terrell Vinson and Freddie Riley, offers a ray of hope for future Atlantic 10 success.

6. Holy Cross

W-L: 5-16 (2-4 in Patriot League)
InsideRPI: 275th
Strength of Schedule: 165th

Last decade offered a renaissance for Holy Cross hoops. No, certainly not close to the Cousy, Palazzi and Heinsohn eras of the '40s and '50s. However, with four NCAA tournament bids in the 2000s, the Crusaders were again a presence in March. The past few years have not been so kind. Despite being picked to win the conference, Holy Cross, at 5-16, is likely to break the school record of 20 losses. The Crusaders have yet to beat a team with a winning record and are 0-12 against schools in the RPI top 200. Winners of two of their past three, the Crusaders are showing recent signs of life under first-year coach Sean Kearney. However, Holy Cross' upcoming schedule brings three straight games against the top three teams in the Patriot League.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.