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Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Making the leap as March approaches

By Jason King
ESPN.com

The best month of college basketball season -- March -- is always preceded by the worst. Seriously, if you're a hoops fan, February moves slower than Renardo Sidney.

And this year it's really bad.

If you haven't noticed, 2012 is a leap year, which means February has 29 days instead of 28. The pent-up frustration is almost unhealthy -- but it will also make us appreciate March that much more.

As much as I'm looking forward to next month, there are some college basketball programs that are even more anxious for March. Some are peaking at the right time and looking to maintain that momentum into the NCAA tournament. Others are fading fast and may just be looking to be put out of their misery.

In honor of leap year, here are 10 schools that made the greatest leap in February and, as a result, have a chance to do something special over the following four weeks. Also included are 10 others that took the biggest plunge during the regular season's most crucial month.

February leaps

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats entered the month with a few skeptics thanks to an SEC schedule that featured a heavy dose of January games against bottom-tier competition. But after beating talented Vanderbilt and Mississippi State teams on the road and waxing Florida at home, it's obvious that Kentucky is the nation's clear-cut No. 1.

Kentucky
February's winners begin with Kentucky, which established itself as the No. 1 team heading into March.

2. Marquette: The Golden Eagles have won 12 of their past 13 games and went 5-1 in February despite playing without injured forward Davante Gardner (knee). Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom could both be first-team All-Big East selections, and head coach Buzz Williams nearly incited a riot when he did his best Fred Astaire impression and danced on West Virginia's court. Maybe he was just practicing for March.

3. Wichita State: Mid-majors are crowned in March, but they're made in February. Led by point guard Joe Ragland and center Garrett Stutz, the Shockers went 8-0 during the month, with the average win coming by 15.8 points. The highlights: a 21-point victory against Creighton in Omaha and a 17-point road victory over the same Davidson squad that defeated Kansas.

4. Drexel: Bruiser Flint's squad has won 17 in a row, but the question still looms: Do the Dragons need to win the CAA tournament to assure themselves of an at-large bid? Drexel, which gets 13.5 points and 4.5 assists from Frantz Massenat, is 25-5 overall.

5. Kansas: For the eighth straight season, the Jayhawks have won at least a share of the Big 12 title. It's truly one of the more remarkable feats in college sports. Wooden Award candidate Thomas Robinson receives most of the credit, and rightfully so. But has any guard in the country had a better conference season than Tyshawn Taylor, who is averaging a team-high 18.4 points while shooting 50.4 percent from the field against Big 12 opponents?

6. Michigan State: Tuesday's loss at Indiana was the only defeat of the month for the Spartans, who beat ranked teams Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State (in Columbus). Michigan State may have squandered its chance at a No. 1 seed, but in Tom Izzo, the Spartans still tout one of the nation's best tournament coaches.

7. ACC duopoly: Remember when we said someone other than Duke or North Carolina may have a chance to win the league? Funny. The only loss between them in February came when the Blue Devils upset the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. Florida State and Virginia have been shooed away. Up until Duke's win at Wake Forest Tuesday night, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels had identical records (league and overall) and will play the nation's most-anticipated remaining regular-season game Saturday in Durham.

8. Notre Dame: In November and December the Fighting Irish didn't even look like a team capable of making the NIT. Now -- despite the loss of Tim Abromaitis -- Notre Dame is tied for third in the Big East standings with a 12-5 conference record. Mike Brey's squad went 6-2 in February.

9. Memphis: The Tigers opened the season as the country's ninth-ranked team, which was obviously too high. Still, this team has been far from a disappointment. Memphis clinched at least a share of the Conference USA title by defeating Central Florida on Tuesday and can win the league outright by beating Tulsa in the regular-season finale. Josh Pastner continues to mature as a head coach.

10. South Florida: Stan Heath's team has won five of its past six games and has held its past six opponents to 56 points or less. There aren't many head-turning wins on South Florida's résumé. Still, with an 11-5 Big East record, the Bulls have a good chance to make the NCAA tournament. Who would've guessed that a month ago?

February flops

1. Connecticut: It's going to be really sad if this team makes the NCAA tournament. The Huskies are not deserving. They've lost nine of their past 12 games and are guaranteed to finish with a losing record in the Big East. Connecticut misses Kemba Walker's leadership more than his points and assists.

Drummond
Is it possible the defending NCAA champions won't defend their crown. At the rate UConn is going, it's looking more and more likely.

2. Virginia: The Cavaliers went 3-4 in February -- and one of their wins was a two-point victory over downtrodden Virginia Tech. Tony Bennett is doing an excellent job of rebuilding Virginia's program and may be deserving of ACC Coach of the Year honors. Still, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Virginia has just one quality win this season, and that came back on Nov. 29 against Michigan.

3. Baylor: This is still a top-10-caliber team, but it's hard to view the Bears as serious Final Four contenders after their performances against Kansas and Missouri. The Jayhawks' two victories over Baylor came by an average of 16 points. Missouri throttled Baylor by 15 points Feb. 11 in Columbia, Mo.

4. Mississippi State: Other than Connecticut, there may not be a more underachieving team in America than the Bulldogs, who are now on the NCAA tournament bubble after dropping their past five games. A team with Arnett Moultrie, Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney should be competing for second or third place in the league behind Kentucky -- not fighting to finish .500 in conference play. Longtime head coach Rick Stansbury may be in trouble.

5. Creighton: When the Bluejays beat Illinois State on Feb. 1 it marked their 11th straight victory. But then Greg McDermott's squad dropped three straight games to Northern Iowa, Evansville and Wichita State (by 21 points). Their past three wins -- against Long Beach State, Evansville and Indiana State -- have come by a combined four points. Uh-oh.

6. Illinois: It's never a good thing when your coach is publicly questioning himself and your players are openly crying on the bench during games. But that's what's happened this month in Champaign, Ill., where the Illini have dropped six of their past seven games. Bruce Weber is likely on his way out.

7. West Virginia: It's tough not to feel sorry for Kevin Jones, who is having an All-American-caliber season but may not get to play in the NCAA tournament as a senior. The Mountaineers went 3-4 in February. With an 8-9 record in the Big East, West Virginia may need to beat South Florida on Saturday to earn a bid.

8. Florida: Tuesday's loss to Vanderbilt dropped the Gators to 5-4 in February, when they also fell to teams such as Georgia and Tennessee. A season-ending injury to standout forward Will Yeguete has made things even harder on a team that will enter the NCAA tournament on a downslide.

9. UNLV: The Runnin' Rebels, who defeated North Carolina back in November, may have ruined their chance to win the Mountain West Conference outright, thanks to a pair of ugly losses to Wyoming and TCU. UNLV, which also lost to New Mexico, is in a three-way tie for first place and can clinch at least a share of the conference crown by defeating Colorado State and Wyoming in its last two games.

10. Ohio State: Jared Sullinger & Co. lost as many games February (three) as they had all season. Two of the setbacks -- against Michigan State and Wisconsin -- were shocking because they occurred at home. The Buckeyes could still clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title by beating Northwestern and Michigan State on the road.

Sticking with the leap year theme, here are 10 leaps of faith (predictions) heading into the NCAA tournament and beyond.

1. Ohio State will regroup. There is too much talent and leadership among this group to write the Buckeyes off.
2. North Carolina will beat Duke and win the ACC title. If Miami and Florida State can win in Durham, the Tar Heels can, too.
3. Thomas Robinson will edge Anthony Davis for the Wooden Award. And rightfully so.
4. At least two schools from non-Big Six conferences will make the Elite Eight, and one of them will be Wichita State.
5. At least one No. 14 seed will win its first-round game. As of Tuesday, Joe Lunardi had the matchups as Baylor versus Nevada, Georgetown versus Belmont, Michigan versus Akron and Marquette versus Middle Tennessee State. Out of those matchups, Georgetown-Belmont catches my eye. The Hoyas have been bad in the NCAA tournament lately and, don't forget, the Bruins almost upset Duke in Durham at the beginning of the season.
6. The winner of Saturday's West Virginia-South Florida game will receive an NCAA tournament berth. The loser will not.
7. Butler will win the Horizon League tournament and be back in the Big Dance.
8. Syracuse will not make the Final Four.
9. Kentucky will not win the national championship.
10. North Carolina will.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.