Here comes March. But first, here comes February. Call it the runway to the NCAA tournament. You know what February means. Right, bubble talk.
There are issues to deal with before the dancing can start. What follows is how February might answer some of them.
How long can Auburn stay No. 1 through the trials of the SEC?
We’ll start finding out the first night of the month. Usually, you need shoulder pads to get this much excitement for an Auburn-Alabama game, but it’ll be a festive occasion Tuesday night when the Tigers put their No. 1 ranking on the line against an opponent with a rare and varied body of work. The Tide has lost SEC games to 12th place Missouri and last place Georgia, but it has also beaten 75 percent of last April’s Final Four -- Gonzaga, Houston and Baylor -- who are a combined 53-4 against everyone not named Alabama. The Tide ebbs and flow like, well, the tide.
If Auburn gets past Alabama, there are road games at Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi State lurking. The Tigers catch one big scheduling break – no trip to Kentucky.
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What will be the most unique parting gift for Mike Krzyzewski in the Coach K Victory Tour through the ACC?
Well, it won’t be in Chapel Hill. He makes his last visit there on Feb. 5, and the North Carolina folks have already announced that, while they will certainly pay respectful homage, they ain’t about to hand someone from a Duke a present. Even a legend. For the record, Krzyzewski is 17-22 against the Tar Heels on their court.
Coach K might get something nice Feb. 26 at Syracuse, where he and fellow septuagenarian Jim Boeheim meet one last time – unless they bump into one another later in the ACC tournament. There’ll be two guys that day with a combined 2300 (or so) wins, and 152 years.
Could Gonzaga, whose last conference defeat came in the early days of the pandemic, actually lose a WCC game?
Check back Feb. 5. The last league team to beat Gonzaga was BYU in 2020. The Zags have reeled off 27 wins in a row over conference opponents since then. Matter of fact, the only loss in their past 41 WCC outings was at You-Know-U. Gonzaga will be there Feb. 5. The Zags have already thumped BYU 110-84 this season with a fusillade of 69.4 percent shooting, but that was in Spokane. BYU is huffing and puffing a bit with back-to-back losses, but the sight of Drew Timme might get the hearts pumping in Provo.
If the Cougars can’t do it, Gonzaga has a tricky two-step later in the month with visits to 17-5 San Francisco on Feb. 24 and 17-4 Saint Mary’s on Feb. 26.
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What to make of the Big Ten, where six teams are within 1.5 games of the top, and none of them are preseason favorite Michigan?
What a mess. Sunday was rather typical. Purdue blew a 20-point lead at home against Ohio State, then won on Jaden Ivey’s last-second 3-pointer. There could be plot twists nearly every other night in February because somebody near the top will almost always be playing somebody else near the top.
Illinois and Wisconsin share first place at the moment, but both face a brutal February road. The Illini have trips to Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan. Wisconsin must visit Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana over 14 days. Michigan State might have the most manageable February with most of its heavy lifting — Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue — at home.
Want to know a possible pest? Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are currently in seventh place but they can be especially dangerous at home; that’s where Purdue’s No. 1 ranking quickly expired and Michigan lost. Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin must all visit in February.
Meanwhile, 10-8 Michigan will need some marquee wins to flee the bubble, which may be the last place anyone expected the Wolverines to be when they were ranked No. 4 early in the season. They’ll have their chances. They get Purdue twice in six days early in the month, and later host Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. Home court will have to be good to them.
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Will the Big East get any easier to understand?
Probably not. There have been a lot of unusual doings in this league.
Providence was picked to finish seventh in the league but is now 18-2 after ending Marquette’s seven-game winning streak Sunday, its best record through 20 games in 45 years. The Friars start four graduate students and their top-nine players have an average age of 22.1. That experience has them 8-1 in the Big East for the first time in history.
They do a lot of it by committee. Providence leads the conference but has nobody in the top 10 in scoring. DePaul is in 10th place in the standings but has the Big East’s top scorer in Javon Freeman-Liberty. The Blue Demons might not be 1-9 in league play had he not just missed four games with a groin injury.
Villanova is in second place and challenging, which is customary. What is not customary is the Wildcats losing back-to-back games by 21 and 20 points, or scoring only 36 points, as they did against Baylor.
Next is Connecticut with four losses by a combined 14 points, and three overtime wins – including the world’s only victory over Auburn.
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Marquette was picked to finish ninth in the Big East, but upset Illinois early, lost four in a row in December, then won seven consecutive games. This is the work of new coach Shaka Smart and four starters who were at four different major programs last season.
Seton Hall was 9-1 before a COVID pause, and 3-6 since. The current ninth place team in the Big East earlier beat two top-10 opponents, Michigan and Texas. Now the Pirates need second leading scorer Brye Aiken back from injury. Creighton has lost four of six, but before that whipped Villanova by 20 points.
So the Big East can be dangerous, deep, and flighty. “There is nowhere you go in this league where basketball isn’t important,” Villanova coach Jay Wright. “Guys that pick these schools are picking them because they’re basketball schools, not because they went to a football game on a weekend and had a good time. They’re going there to play basketball and it makes this league really tough, top to bottom.”
Providence still has two games left with Villanova. Those might tell a lot.
Will the ACC continue to seem a little . . . weird?
Duke spent the last weekend in January as the only ACC team in the top-25. Unheard of. Things are so askew, a key game Wednesday is first place Miami hosting tied-for-second Notre Dame. The Irish were picked to finish eighth in the league, Miami was picked 12th. Wake Forest was voted to finish 13th in the conference and the Demon Deacons are only 1.5 games out of first. Meanwhile, the top six teams in the preseason poll behind Duke — Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Syracuse — have a combined ACC record of 31-31.
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Isn’t Kentucky starting to appear pretty large in the rearview mirror of the top teams?
Oh yeah. Nobody goes into Kansas and wins by 18 points without being a little scary. The Wildcats are 17-4 and just went 4-1 against teams that had a combined record of 64-13.
For a team that has not been ranked in the top-10 since mid-December, Kentucky has a strong presence among national statistical leaders: First in rebound margin, fifth in field goal percentage, Oscar Tshiebwe first in rebounds, Sahvir Wheeler third in assists. The Wildcats have one of the more productive three-point shooters in Kellan Grady, while Keion Brooks Jr. just went into Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse and put up 27 points — the fourth different Kentucky player to score at least 25 in a game this season. And this is not just 'Freshman-U' like so many past Wildcat bunches. All the above are veterans.
So what now for Kentucky? Trips to Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida among other things. No more Auburn, so the two may have to wait for the SEC tournament to meet again. But everyone hears when Kentucky makes noise. “If you play for 40 minutes, watch what happens,” John Calipari told his team before the Kansas game. The same might go for February.
Why should we be so interested in Boise State this February? Or Army? Or Seattle? Or UNC Wilmington?
Boise State’s 14-game winning streak is the longest in the nation this side of Auburn, thanks partly to a miracle worker named Marcus Shaver Jr. Over nine days in late January, he hit a three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left to beat Utah State, made another with 30 seconds to go to put the Broncos ahead to stay against San Diego State, and tied the game at the buzzer with another at Fresno State, so Boise State could win in overtime. All three were on the road.
The only recent victory he didn’t swing with a three-pointer was a 65-62 home win over Wyoming last Tuesday. That’s where the Broncos are headed for a rematch on Thursday.
Army shares the Patriot League lead with Navy. They’ve played three overtime games in their past four meetings, and get a chance to do it again Feb. 12. There is a reason to monitor Army’s chances to win the conference tournament. The Black Knights are one of only four original Division I schools never to play in the NCAA tournament. This could be their chance.
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It has been 64 years since Seattle somehow made its way to the national championship game to play Kentucky — Elgin Baylor had a lot to do with that — and it’s been 53 years since the school’s last appearance in the NCAA tournament. But the Redhawks are 17-4 and 8-0 in the WAC. Which makes this week so interesting with a trip to defending league champion Grand Canyon State Thursday and preseason favorite New Mexico State Saturday. They might one day party like it’s 1969.
UNC Wilmington was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association. But the Seahawks have learned the art of tight victories, starting 8-0 in the league by a total of 39 points. They’ve been busy. Monday will be their sixth game in 12 days, then come three consecutive road games in five days.
Will Feb. 5 be the best day of the regular season?
A definite possibility. Consider what will packed into one day. A Big 12 heavyweight bout between Baylor and Kansas. Krzyzewski’s last visit to North Carolina. Gonzaga’s WCC dominance tested at BYU. Arizona completing its most crucial Pac-12 home weekend, hosting USC only 48 hours after UCLA. Alabama trying to throw cold water on Kentucky. Villanova-Connecticut in the Big East. Big Ten co-leader Illinois in peril at Indiana, where the Hoosiers are 13-1 in their own Assembly Hall, Michigan trying to keep its fires lit at Purdue.
The games start to come with a sense of urgency in February. That’s because March is getting too close to ignore.