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Mike Lopresti | | February 14, 2022

10 college basketball questions as we enter the home stretch of the regular season

The top 10 title contenders, almost one month ahead of Selection Sunday

Only 27 shopping days until Selection Sunday, and storylines abound in college basketball. Here are 10 teams with compelling stretch run questions, one per conference:

Will the SEC’s Kentucky not only be a No. 1 seed, but start the national player of the year in the post?

Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe is a national player of the year candidate

Here’s a nearly unfathomable fact: In the 61 years of the Associated Press player of the year award, a Kentucky Wildcat has won it... once. Anthony Davis in 2012. In other words, Kentucky has as many POYs as La Salle, Princeton and Navy. Duke has had seven. But it might get hard to say no to Oscar Tshiebwe. “He doesn’t play great every night out but he impacts every game,” John Calipari said. “There may be a couple more players that are having more of an impact on games than him, but I’d have to see them.”

This is what he means: Tshiebwe has had 19 double-doubles and five games where he went for at least 20 points and 15 rebounds. No Wildcat has done that in 37 years. He has 12 consecutive games with 10-plus rebounds, something not seen at Kentucky since 1970 and the SEC in at least 25 seasons. His closing argument for the next three weeks might decide the vote.

Meanwhile, having lost one game since Jan. 4 — at Auburn — the  21-4 Wildcats are swiftly moving onto contention for the coveted title, Team Nobody Wants To Play. Will they roll to a No. 1 seed? Kentucky hasn’t been that since the unbeaten regular season of 2015. There are still road games at Tennessee, Arkansas (ask Auburn about that place) and Florida. And TyTy Washington Jr.’s leg injury is a sudden concern.

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Is the ACC’s North Carolina safely in the field?

The most discussed metric for the Tar Heels lately has been their 0-7 record in Quad 1 games. That’s one way to give the selection committee pause. But North Carolina has won six of its last seven games, which is a strong push into safety, with the NET ranking up to 37. Though the Tar Heels will want to stay away from their tendency to be like the little girl with the curl: When they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are rotten. North Carolina is 18-7 but included in the ledger is a habit of shellackings — 89-72 by Tennessee, 98-69 by Kentucky, 85-57 by Miami, 98-76 by Wake Forest and the well-chronicled 87-67 stampede in Chapel Hill by Duke. Here’s a team with a split personality; opponents are averaging 66 points in Tar Heel victories, and 89.7 in Tar Heel defeats.

“One of the many things I’m so proud of our guys is when we get knocked down, we always get back up,” coach Hubert Davis said. “We have identified our recipe for success and the first thing is to get at it on the defensive end.”

Let’s see how that works on March 5 when they will be the co-stars in Mike Krzyzewski’s last home game.

Is the Big Ten’s Rutgers as dangerous as it often looks?

The Scarlet Knights had to go overtime to beat Lehigh, lost at home to Lafayette and on the road to Massachusetts, were blown away at Illinois by 35 and at Penn State by 17. The road record at one point was 2-7. But they also beat then-No. 1 Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in the comforts of Piscataway. Their M.O. seemed clear: Shark at home, goldfish on the road. Hence, their current troublesome No. 81 spot on the NET rankings, which would be easy for the committee to dismiss.

But then Rutgers showed up at Wisconsin and upset the No. 14 Badgers 73-65. It was the first time in school history the Scarlet Knights defeated ranked opponents — Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin — in three consecutive games and it was their highest-ranked victim on the road in 14 seasons. Yeah, they do have teeth in dark uniforms, “The game is dependent upon us. It’s not dependent on the crowd,” said Ron Harper Jr. “We love our homecourt advantage, but we’re the dudes with the jerseys on. We’ve got to make plays.”

So now we’ll see how far 15-9 Rutgers can take this surge because a 15-day trial by fire is at hand. Home to Illinois, road games at Purdue and Michigan, home to Wisconsin, trip to Indiana. If the Scarlet Knights are still rolling after that, they could be doing handsprings off the bubble. Rutgers was in the NCAA Tournament last March for the first time in 30 years. One important tool has been the defense of Caleb McConnell, who had 14 steals in that three-step sprint over ranked teams, and held Wisconsin star Johnny Davis to 11 points.

Is Providence ready to close the deal in the Big East?

Fifty-four teams received at least one vote in the preseason Associated Press or coaches poll. The Friars weren't one of them. They were picked to finish seventh in the conference. But it has been a steady, relentless climb, and now their 11-1 Big East record tops the league and their 21-2 overall mark is their finest in 49 years.

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Witness the power of experience, with four of the five starters being graduate students. The average age of the top seven players is 23 years, or just slightly younger than the opening day roster of the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve needed the savvy to survive a number of close games against all qualities of opponents.

But now the time has to come to find out what this bunch of geezers can truly do in their conference. The road to Big East riches nearly always goes through Villanova, and Providence will see the Wildcats twice in the next two weeks. Also Xavier, Butler and Creighton.

This dramatic final dash will be helped if Jared Bynum stays afire. He’s come off the bench to average 25.3 points the past three games, hitting 60 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Is there life left for Iowa State in the Big 12?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — late December — the Cyclones were 12-0 and ranked No. 8. Then conference play began. Now they’re last in the Big 12 with a 3-9 league record and 16-9 overall with four consecutive defeats, and the tidings just keep getting worse. They blew a 15-point lead in the second half at home against Kansas State Saturday and lost in overtime.

That great start still carries some weight with the number crunchers. Iowa State is currently 43 in the NET rankings, 13 spots above Notre Dame, who shares the ACC lead. But the bleeding must be stopped ASAP if there is hope of recovery and an NCAA bid, starting at TCU Tuesday. There are home games with Oklahoma, West Virginia and Oklahoma State to try to plug some of the leaks, too. If not, this will be a memorable implosion from 12-0.

“They wanted to win more than we wanted to win. That’s something everyone in our program and on our team has to swallow and live with,” coach T.J. Otzelberger said after the Kansas State loss. "Our backs couldn’t be more against the wall."

What’s the deal with UCLA in the Pac-12?

Southern Cal took down UCLA this past week

When USC’s fans poured onto the floor to celebrate the Trojans’ 67-64 win over the Bruins — even without leading scorer Isaiah Mobley — it was UCLA’s third defeat in four games. Not a good look for a national championship contender. “The way we’re playing,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said, “I don’t know why anyone would storm the court for beating us.”

There have been shooting woes — under 40 percent in all three defeats — and the defense has leaked. It might largely be a product of four consecutive games on the road, but the Bruins will need to solidify the situation back in Pauley Pavilion for three games, lest their March seeding start to suffer. Then again, they were in the 2021 Final Four out of the First Four.

Is Memphis healed in the AAC?

In mid-January, the Tigers had lost three in a row to drop to 9-8, and Penny Hardaway was angrily demanding the media not ask him anymore “stupid bleeping questions.” Memphis and its troubled talent seemed like a lock for the Underachieving Team of the Year.

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Now the Tigers have reeled off five consecutive wins, the exclamation mark a 10-point victory Saturday at No. 6 Houston, where the Cougars had won 37 home games in a row. An AAC team can’t send a louder message than that. “This is for the people that stayed with us,” said Hardaway, who has been in constant tinkering mode. He sent out his 16th different starting lineup in 22 games at Houston.

Memphis has road peril ahead, especially at SMU. And there is a rematch at home with Houston. But if the Tigers keep trending upward, they could get back on the bubble, and beyond. That would make them a hazardous match-up for a higher seed in March.

Will fate repay VCU the break the Rams are owed?

The Atlantic 10 is laden with odd twists. Davidson was off to its best start since 1964 at 20-3, but then lost at Rhode Island, who had dropped six in a row and was 3-7 in the league. Dayton, with 11 actual or redshirt freshmen listed on the roster, owns defeats from UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay, but wins over Kansas, Miami and Virginia Tech. St. Bonaventure beat Clemson and Marquette early and rose to No 16 in the AP poll, but started A-10 play 4-4 and is now trying to play its way out of sixth place.

But a VCU final sprint would be its own kind of story. The 16-7 Rams have won at Davidson and Dayton, gone to overtime with Connecticut and played Baylor tough. If they can somehow pull off an NCAA bid via either A-10 spot or an at-large bid, it might give them a chance to finally forget the pain of March 2021. That’s when they were taken off the NCAA Tournament hours before their first-round game because of a rash of COVID positives. They were the only team in Indianapolis — the only invited team in the history of the NCAA Tournament — that never got the chance to play. But they might this year.

Is this Wyoming’s moment in the Mountain West?

Thirty-seven schools have won national championships and Wyoming is one of them, back in 1943. But the Cowboys haven’t seen the NCAA Tournament in seven years and have played in only two the past 33 seasons. Atop the Mountain West with a 21-3 overall record, maybe this is the year to return. The 10-1 league record is their best through 11 games since 1952.

The problem is Colorado State and Boise State are having big seasons, too, and lurk within a game of the lead. San Diego State is always a threat. The conference tournament should be a real brawl. But Wyoming will always stay top-ranked in one area; at roughly 7,200 feet it is the highest Division I school in the nation in elevation. At the moment, the Cowboys are a half-game and 4,500 feet above second-place Boise State.

Will Murray State give the Ohio Valley Conference a proper goodbye?

By proper, that could also mean perfect. Ja Morant’s old school has the nation’s best overall record at 24-2 and is 14-0 in the OVC. If the Racers can beat Belmont at home later this month, they could well run the table before heading off to the Missouri Valley Conference. They have lost once since Thanksgiving, and that was by 13 points at Auburn.

Murray State is one of four teams still unbeaten in league play, to go with Gonzaga in the WCC, South Dakota State in the Summit and Vermont in the America East. Means a lot now. But 28 days from now, everyone still around will be 0-0.

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