Feb. 26, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

Last year, Clemson flew under the radar for most of the season until it parlayed a strong regular season finish and trip to the ACC Tournament championship game into a fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament. Then, in the tournament, an even hotter 12th-seeded Villanova team beat the Tigers and went on to the Sweet 16, only to lose to eventual national champion Kansas.

It’s all about peaking at the right time and here is a list of teams that are playing their best basketball of the season and could dramatically improve their seeding, like Clemson did last year, or be a bracket buster like Villanova was.

Arizona (18-9, 8-6 conference)
Prior to a two-point road loss to No. 14 Arizona State, Arizona had won seven in a row – including wins over Pac-10 leading Washington, UCLA and USC. Earlier in the year it had quality wins versus Kansas and Gonzaga.

The Wildcats sport an impressive trio of Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise. Hill, a 6-foot-10 forward, is one of the premier big men in the country and averages a double-double, while Budinger is a strong wing player averaging 17.8 points and 6.6 rebounds a night. Wise is their sparkplug at point guard and averages nearly 15 points and five assists a game.

Arizona still has crucial games remaining with Washington (20-7, 11-4) and Cal (20-7, 9-5) but led by Hill, Budinger and Wise, the Wildcats look as if they can compete with anyone in the Pac-10 – and the nation.

Arizona State (21-5, 10-4)
Arizona State is on this list largely as a result of its recent win over Arizona. Including that win, the Sun Devils have won five in a row and are a half game back of Washington for the Pac-10 lead.

Guard James Harden gets most of the publicity by averaging a Pac-10-leading 21.2 points to go along with 5.6 rebounds and 4.2 assist per game, but it is Arizona State’s defense that makes this team a contender. The Sun Devils are yielding only 58.9 points per game, good for second in the conference.

UCLA has been the Pac-10 team that has used defense to key deep tournament runs the last few years but the Sun Devils may be able to play that role this year.

LSU (24-4, 12-1)
The Tigers are an interesting team for this list since they are ranked No. 18 in the nation, so you wouldn’t think that they’d sneak up on anybody, but for what they have been accomplishing this season, they have been overlooked.

LSU has performed well all year and is playing as good now as any time of the season – winning eight in a row and 11 of 12. The Tigers are in commanding lead of the SEC West and the only knock on this team is their lack of quality opponents, both in the SEC and out of conference.

Despite that, they are led by the dynamic duo of Marcus Thornton, who averages 20.9 points and 5.4 rebounds and Tasmin Mitchell, who puts up 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds a night. The team is very tall and athletic, very reminiscent of the 2006 team that went to the Final Four, and it looks as if the Tigers will be a very tough out when tournament time comes around.

Purdue (21-6, 10-4)
Simply put, this is a different team with Robbie Hummel in the lineup. Hummel has battled some back problems and has missed five games this year, but Purdue has not lost in 2009 when he has played.

Overall, the Boilermakers have won 10 of their last 12, which includes a 1-2 record with Hummel on the sidelines. The 6-foot-8 forward is a team leader and averages 11.9 points and a team leading 6.9 rebounds.

Guard E’Twaun Moore and forwards JaJuan Johnson are also having outstanding seasons but Hummel appears to be the difference maker. And, with him seemingly healthy, the Boilermakers may be primed to make some noise the rest of the way.

Siena (22-6, 15-1)
Every year a few teams with impressive records from smaller conferences go into the NCAA Tournament and pull of an upset of a highly ranked team. Siena has that kind of potential this year.

The Saints have won 12 of their last 13 and, of their three losses since December, two of them came on the road to Kansas and Pittsburgh. The other loss was a two-point road setback to Rider (16-11, 10-6).

They have dominated the MAAC and have a three-game lead over Niagara (22-7, 12-4), a team that they beat by 17 points at the end of January. This team has put together a lot of wins and if they stay hot, they will not be a very desirable tournament matchup.

St. Mary’s (22-5, 8-4)
The Gaels sneak onto this list purely for their potential. Currently they are not a lock to even make the Tournament, but with the looming return of Patty Mills, the Gaels will be a force down the stretch.

With Mills in the lineup for the whole game, St. Mary’s is 18-1. Without him, The Gaels have gone 4-4. They’ve adjusted, however, and managed to win three in a row, including a win over Portland, second in the West Coast Conference.

Other players have been given the opportunity to play a bigger role and they are starting to respond. But when Mills and his team-leading 18.9 points and 3.7 assists likely return to the lineup for the WCC Tournament, they may be as dangerous as ever.

Utah (20-7, 11-2)
The Utes aren’t ranked in the top 25 yet but it might just be a matter of time. They have won seven in a row and nine of 10. During the year they have quality wins over the likes of LSU, Gonzaga and BYU.

Utah has a two-game lead in the Mountain West conference standings after finishing sixth in each of the last three seasons. The Utes have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2004-05, when they went to the Sweet 16.

Seven-foot-2 center Luke Nevill, who is averaging a team-leading 17.4 points and 8.5 rebounds, makes the Utes a tough team to matchup with, especially since they have five other players that score at least eight points a game.

West Virginia (19-8, 8-6)
It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle amongst all the heavyweights in the Big East and what’s happened to the Mountaineers. Their record might not blow you away but they have won three in a row and four of five - it’s only loss in that span was on the road to Pittsburgh.

Since Feb. 7, West Virginia has beaten No. 10 Villanova, Notre Dame and Providence, who upset No. 1 Pittsburgh Tuesday night. All of West Virginia’s eight losses have come to teams that at one time were ranked in the top 25. Da’Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff, both averaging over 16 points a night, have this team, which is also playing tremendous defense, positioned for a nice run the rest of the year.

Last season, the Mountaineers reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed and they have all of the tools to make a similar, and possibly deeper, run.

Villanova (23-5, 11-4)
Villanova is another team that is easy to overlook in the Big East – but it shouldn’t. The Wildcats have won nine of their last 10 in an unforgiving conference.

In this run they have wins over Pittsburgh, Marquette and two against Syracuse. Senior Dante Cunningham has evolved into a star averaging 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds a game and junior Scottie Reynolds is as good a side kick as there is, averaging over 15 points and nearly four assists per game.

The Wildcats were a Cinderella No. 12 seed last year that got to the Sweet Sixteen. This year, they should have a much better seed and will be a legitimate threat from the start.

Wisconsin (17-10, 8-7)
From Jan. 11 to Jan. 31, the Badgers lost six in a row, many in heartbreaking fashion. Since then they have gone 5-1 and their only loss came to Big Ten-leading Michigan State on the road.

In those five wins, the Badgers played typical Wisconsin defense, not allowing over 52 points in any of those games. Forward Marcus Landry and guard Trevon Hughes have led this team during their most recent streak.

The Badgers made it to the Sweet 16 last season and if they continue to play like they have in February, a similar run could be expected.