Originally Published: March 4, 2013

The great wave of March momentum

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- On Sunday afternoon, Roy Williams noticed a difference in his team.

The Tar Heels were tough against the Seminoles. Florida State made an early run, but North Carolina weathered that blitz and crushed its ACC foes in a 79-58 victory.

After the game, Williams praised P.J. Hairston, who took multiple charges, and the rest of his roster for its collective physicality. It was a sign of the squad's growth, he said.

Roy Williams and Steve Robinson
Bob Donnan/US PresswireRoy Williams has encouraged his young Tar Heels, and now they're finally showing growth.

"I think we're getting more confident, and we should be," Williams said. "When you see your teammates take the charge … that gives you a little more enthusiasm to play, too. We didn't have those kinds of plays earlier in the year that we're having now, and I think that's really helping us, too."

North Carolina has won five in a row, a strong finish that has allowed the program to conclude 2012-13 with the coveted mojo most teams in the final weeks of the season prefer.

Momentum -- every team craves it as the postseason looms.

It was a hot topic in the region throughout the weekend.

Duke's players discussed the value of Ryan Kelly's presence, and what his return might mean for the Blue Devils' immediate future, after he led the Blue Devils to a win over Miami on Saturday.

"It's so big. We've kind of said all year, we want to be at our best come mid-March," Mason Plumlee said. "Obviously, we can't win the regular-season ACC [title outright], so now it's about us hitting our stride going into the tournament."

But the Hurricanes stressed the significance of recovering from the loss and regaining their swagger in the last days of the regular season.

"You want to be playing your best basketball at this time of year," Jim Larranaga said after the game.

In recent years, multiple teams have proved that ending the season on a run can help a program acquire the boost it needs to rally in the Big Dance.

Others, however, have reversed late-season misfortune and advanced.

Louisville had lost four of its past six regular-season games in 2011-12 before the Cardinals earned a Big East tourney title and eventually reached the Final Four. Connecticut had lost four of five entering the tournament in 2010-11, the season the Huskies earned their most recent national title.

Missouri had won the Big 12 tournament title and five consecutive games in 2011-12 before the Tigers lost to Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In the same year, Kentucky lost only one game between its Dec. 10, 2011, loss to Indiana and its national championship run in New Orleans.

There's no set formula. But most coaches obviously desire their team to be in rhythm to end a regular season rather than a lukewarm culmination.

Leon Rice
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesIf Leon Rice's Boise State Broncos get into the tournament, they could do damage.

Leon Rice believes his Boise State Broncos can use their current winning streak to propel them into the Mountain West tournament and possibly the NCAA tournament.

Rice's squad has competed with a ferocity that defines most teams sitting on the bubble. But the real key, Rice said, is the chemistry his program regained when players returned from injury. Three of Boise State's top five scorers have missed time this season. They're healthy now and jelling again, and the Broncos have won four in a row.

They can't catch first-place New Mexico, but they can launch themselves into the Mountain West tourney and March Madness if they can crack the field.

"The season is more like a mile," Rice said. "It always seems like that third lap of the mile is the hardest. Now we're on that fourth lap. The fourth lap is about guts and toughness and who can just lay it all out there."

For the bulk of the bubble teams, success toward the end of the season is an extension of their respective uncertainty.

The stakes are high. Without late momentum, they'll be excluded from the field.

That's essentially Boise State's situation. With a 44 RPI and 3-5 record against the top 50, there are no guarantees that the Broncos will seal a bid. But they're close, especially after a weekend win over Colorado State.

And if Rice's program earns that opportunity, he believes this late rally will help.

"We're going to go in as the hunter, we're going to go in as the underdog," he said. "It's a lot easier to be in that tournament as the underdog."

THE RUNDOWN

Finishes you should track in the coming weeks:

Duke Blue Devils: Ryan Kelly's 36-point explosion in Saturday's win over Miami solidified Duke's slot as the No. 1 team in America in my mind. He's clearly a difference-maker for a team that maintained its elite status without him. But check the fine print on that effort: He went 10-for-14, while the rest of the starters hit a more modest 15-for-33.

This is obviously a dangerous team that can win its last two ACC games and the conference tournament. But the Blue Devils will have to adjust to playing together when Kelly's numbers reach a more reasonable level. How will the team respond when he's not in beast mode?

Tennessee Volunteers: Even though Cuonzo Martin's program suffered a surprising road loss at Georgia on Saturday, the Vols have finished strong. They can beat Auburn and handle Mizzou in Knoxville in their final two games. They're ranked 49th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes compose one of the SEC's toughest inside-outside combinations.

The SEC is a very unpredictable league -- the past few weeks have proved as much. The Vols are capable of competing for the conference tourney title. The loss to the Bulldogs was a bad one, but Martin's program had won six in a row before that. The Vols have accrued momentum in the final weeks. If they get into the Big Dance, they could be a sleeper.

Miami Hurricanes: The Hurricanes played at Duke on the same night Kelly returned to the floor for the first time in nearly two months. The senior standout scored a career high. Cameron Indoor was on fire. And with seconds on the game clock, the Canes had a chance. The Hurricanes have not been as dominant in recent weeks as they had been in the first chunk of the ACC season, but they've lost only two ACC games.

And in Saturday's defeat, they could have tied the score in the final seconds. Miami is still 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, it should beat Georgia Tech and Clemson at home in its final regular-season conference games, and is winning the ACC tournament. One tough stretch doesn't nullify Jim Larranaga's accomplishments.

Kentucky Wildcats: It's possible the Wildcats will fulfill their potential in the coming weeks. Their ceiling changed, however, when Nerlens Noel suffered that knee injury a few weeks ago. They lost to Tennessee by 30 points in their first game without him, and then they won their next three home games, including a Feb. 23 victory over Missouri.

But in Saturday's road loss to Arkansas, the Wildcats demonstrated some of the mishaps that had hindered their progress earlier this season. They recorded 18 turnovers. They shot 3-for-14 from the 3-point line. I don't think it's fair to judge John Calipari's team off one outing, but it's also not wise to assume that the prior three-game winning streak means the Wildcats have figured things out.

UCLA Bruins: On Saturday, the Bruins defeated Arizona to earn a first-place tie with Oregon in the Pacific-12. They're both 12-4. Remember that UCLA squad that had the makings of a national title contender? Ben Howland had assembled the nation's No. 1 recruiting class last spring. With Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson & Co., the Bruins were set to dominate the conference and the college basketball world. And then they struggled. Folks began to doubt them.

But the Bruins have finished strong. Muhammad is averaging 18.3 PPG. Howland's program is leading the Pac-12 in scoring (72.0 PPG) and has improved on defense in recent weeks (69th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). The Bruins are competing at a high level right now. Who wants to face that squad during March Madness?

Minnesota Golden Gophers: Prior to their current two-game winning streak, one that includes a win against former No. 1 Indiana, the Gophers had lost eight of their previous 11 games. But they preserved their lofty RPI through that difficult period because they played some of the toughest teams in the country. The Gophers currently possess the No. 2 strength of schedule per the RPI. They've faced the best. They've defeated some of those elite foes. As the Big Ten and NCAA tourneys approach, however, it's still difficult to assess the program.

The Gophers showcased their potential when they defeated the Hoosiers in Minneapolis last week. They're obviously talented, but they've slipped multiple times and produced average efforts, too. The latter has made it easy to question the program. Which team will show up in Chicago and the Big Dance? The one that outplayed the Hoosiers or the squad that Iowa crushed a few weeks ago?

Colorado State Rams: Larry Eustachy's program sailed to the top of the standings in the Mountain West. The Rams were a contender for the title. And then late February/early March happened -- they've lost three of four games. Time to doubt the Rams? Well, this slide included losses to a hungry Boise State squad, a talented yet unpredictable UNLV team and New Mexico.

The Rams are still ranked seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency and second in offensive rebounding rate per Ken Pomeroy. But they're giving up 66.0 PPG in conference play, sixth in the league. That's certainly a concern. Colton Iverson (13.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG) & Co., however, can lead Eustachy's squad to a strong conclusion in 2012-13.

Memphis Tigers: Last week's road loss at Xavier shouldn't erase every gain Josh Pastner's program had achieved prior to that loss. The Tigers had won 18 consecutive games, but the loss did not help the Tigers defend themselves against questions about their legitimacy. Are they a skilled and athletic program that can compete with the best teams in the country? Or is this an overrated team that has blossomed in a so-so league (Conference USA)?

Well, Memphis is not the team that blew a double-digit lead against Louisville in mid-December. But it's not necessarily an elite squad, either. The Tigers don't have many (any?) convincing wins. They're 2-3 against the RPI's top 50. Even if they run through the C-USA tourney, the Tigers should be treated with caution as the NCAA tournament approaches.

Butler Bulldogs: The Bulldogs have participated in multiple thrillers this season. But they've been on the wrong end of a few of those exciting matchups. They suffered an 84-52 loss at VCU on Saturday. It was the third time they'd failed to register 60 points in Atlantic 10 play and their third loss in five games. Saint Louis and VCU (responsible for two of those defeats), however, are two of the best teams in America.

Butler's problem is that it could hit a roadblock as the postseason approaches if it doesn't end this slide. Pending matchups against UMass and Xavier are not guaranteed victories for the program, and the Atlantic 10 tourney will feature a strong field. Brad Stevens' crew needs to stop this decline as soon as possible.

Kansas State Wildcats: The Wildcats have been on a roll since enduring a 21-point loss at Kansas on Feb. 11. They've earned five consecutive wins to maintain a first-place tie with Kansas, although the Jayhawks swept the Wildcats during the regular season. But check the slate. That run includes wins over Texas, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Baylor (twice). Not exactly the Big 12's best.

It's a nice recovery for Bruce Weber's squad, but a season-ending matchup at Oklahoma State on March 9 will really help us gauge the Wildcats and their postseason potential in ways that this current winning streak -- they'll play TCU on Tuesday -- can't.

The Weekly Forecast

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

A quick look at the temperature of college basketball as we head into a new week:

Coaches

Crews
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonSaint Louis coach Jim Crews deserves praise for the job he's done in the wake of Rick Majerus' death.

Hot: The national coach of the year conversation should include Jim Crews and Steve Alford. Crews has led Saint Louis to the top of the Atlantic 10 three months after the death of former coach Rick Majerus. Alford's New Mexico squad is three games ahead of Colorado State and UNLV in the Mountain West.

Cold: Andy Kennedy's job status has been questioned in recent weeks. Ole Miss has lost six of its past 10 games. Saturday's loss at rival Mississippi State, a team that's literally competing with a half-dozen scholarship players, did not help his cause.

Big Ten

Hot: Ohio State has won four of five as it prepares for this week's matchup against Indiana in Bloomington.

Cold: Michigan State has lost three in a row. All three losses, however, came against nationally ranked teams (Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan). But the Spartans will end the year with a pair of home games (Wisconsin and Northwestern).

Follow-up performances

Hot: Kansas guard Elijah Johnson scored 39 points in Monday's overtime win against Iowa State. He recorded 12 points and 10 assists in Saturday's 91-65 victory over West Virginia and has made his past 10 free throws.

Cold: Virginia's Joe Harris recorded 36 points in Thursday's 73-68 victory over Duke. He went 4-for-11 from the field in a 53-52 loss at Boston College on Sunday.