Kentucky vs. Syracuse is one of the more interesting "which team at the top is better" debates in recent years because the teams are such opposites. UK's otherworldly talent is always on full display, as the Wildcats have appeared as impressive against SEC bottom-feeders (of which there are many) and teams like Florida and Vandy. The Orange, meanwhile, have been winning ugly just as consistently in recent weeks. The zone is as stifling as any Jim Boeheim has had in recent memory, and the result is Syracuse's ability to beat Georgetown and Louisville in the same manner it beats Rutgers and Providence.
Here's hoping we get to see these two actually duke it out at some point, because the stark contrasts would make for a fascinating 40 minutes.
1. KENTUCKY (26-1, 12-0) (1)
LAST WEEK: Beat Ole Miss (77-62)
THIS WEEK: At Mississippi State (2/21); vs. Vanderbilt (2/25)
If you were looking for a reason to be interested in Tuesday night's game between the Wildcats and Mississippi State, I'm your pusher.
Bulldog head coach Rick Stansbury was speaking casually with reporters when the topic of Twany Beckham -- a guard who played two seasons at MSU before transferring to Kentucky, where he has played very sparingly -- was brought up. An AP reporter, not knowing that these comments by Stansbury are ordinarily not recorded, jotted down the following comments:
"I saw his stats the other day in SEC play. Did he make one or attempt one shot? He's seeing some pretty good basketball. He's getting a front-row ticket every night. Yes, sir."
The comments found their way onto Twitter shortly thereafter and predictably exploded (figuratively). Beckham himself later tweeted the following:
"that dude wanna coach where I'm playin at...not worried at all"
He has since deleted the tweet.
Aww lawd it's on in Starkville. On meaning, you know, State will probably give another lackluster effort and Kentucky will win comfortably.
2. SYRACUSE (27-1, 14-1) (2)
LAST WEEK: Beat Rutgers (74-64)
THIS WEEK: vs. South Florida (2/22); At Connecticut (2/25)
Syracuse has shown all season that it's able to win ugly against just about everybody because of the strength of their zone, but at Rutgers on Sunday the Orange proved they know how to finish an opponent playing over their heads. Locked in a two-point game with less than five minutes to play, a Syracuse player either made a field goal or was sent to the free-throw line on seven straight possessions. It was an impressive finish inside a building where Florida, Notre Dame and Connecticut had all previously tasted defeat.
3. MISSOURI (25-2, 12-2) (3)
LAST WEEK: Beat Oklahoma State (83-65); Beat Texas A&M (71-62)
THIS WEEK: vs. Kansas State (2/21); At Kansas (2/25)
It's the biggest week of the season for Frank Haith's consistently entertaining Mizzou squad. First, they'll look for revenge against a K-State squad that bullied them in the post for 40 minutes on their way to a 75-59 win in early January, then they head to Lawrence for a showdown with a Kansas squad that still thinks the Tigers stole one from them three Saturdays ago.
Win these two games and you can pretty much pencil Missouri in as a No. 1 seed.
4. KANSAS (22-5, 12-2) (4)
LAST WEEK: Beat Texas Tech (83-50)
THIS WEEK: At Texas A&M (2/22); vs. Missouri (2/25)
On paper, Kansas has a much easier final four games than the Missouri squad they're locked up with at the top of the Big 12 standings. While Mizzou still has to contend with K-State, Iowa State and the Jayhawks themselves, UM is the only team left on Kansas' schedule that has a league record of .500 or better. The Jayhawks certainly appear to be in good shape to capture an improbable eighth straight regular season conference championship.
5. NORTH CAROLINA (23-4, 10-2) (6)
LAST WEEK: Beat Miami (73-64); Beat Clemson (74-52)
THIS WEEK: At NC State (2/21); At Virginia (2/25)
The loss to Duke appears to have had more of an effect on Harrison Barnes than any other Tar Heel. The preseason All-American scored 47 total points in wins over Miami and Clemson, and was named the ACC's Player of the Week. He buried 6-of-13 three-point attempts and committed just three turnovers.
UNC can't afford any drop in focus or intensity with a pair of road games this week against teams in desperate need of a monster win for their respective resumes.
6. MICHIGAN STATE (22-5, 11-3) (8)
LAST WEEK: Beat Wisconsin (69-55); Beat Purdue (76-62)
THIS WEEK: At Minnesota (2/22); vs. Nebraska (2/25)
Tom Izzo and Draymond Green are four wins away from a Big Ten Championship and a likely sweep of the league's major postseason awards. It would be one of the more remarkable accomplishments of the 2011-12 season, and one made possible by the extreme similarities between the head coach and his star player.
7. DUKE (23-4, 10-2) (7)
LAST WEEK: Beat NC State (78-73); Beat Boston College (75-50)
THIS WEEK: At Florida State (2/23); vs. Virginia Tech (2/25)
Duke's 20-point comeback against NC State likely kept its ACC regular season championship hopes, but Mike Krzyzewski says he places more of a priority on winning the league's conference tournament.
"The regular season is still very important," he said, "but the tournament takes on a little bit different [feel] -- it's like the showcase event."
LAST WEEK: Beat Minnesota (78-68); Lost to Michigan (56-51)
THIS WEEK: vs. Illinois (2/21); vs. Wisconsin (2/26)
A week after shooting just 26 percent from the field in a loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes could muster just 51 points in an emotional loss at rival Michigan. The good news is they have three winnable games before finishing the regular season up on the road against the Spartans, who currently lead them by a game for the Big Ten's top spot.
9. GEORGETOWN (20-5, 10-4) (10)
LAST WEEK: Beat Providence (63-53)
THIS WEEK: At Seton Hall (2/21); vs. Villanova (2/25)
Georgetown is just the latest advertisement of team chemistry's ability to often supersede next-level talent in college basketball. The Hoyas were far more skilled a season ago but were never on the same page, finishing the season with a 21-11 record and another early NCAA Tournament flameout.
"It wasn't all roses last year,'' senior center Henry Sims said. "We've grown from that.
"This year we've just bought into the philosophy of playing hard, playing defense together,'' he said. "Being a team on the court, being able to pick each other up on the court, being able to talk to each other on the court. I think it's just a different mindset, a different environment, a different philosophy, that we've brought this year as opposed to the last few years.''
10. MARQUETTE (22-5, 11-3) (12)
LAST WEEK: Beat Connecticut (79-64)
THIS WEEK: vs. Rutgers (2/22); At West Virginia (2/24)
The Golden Eagles have won 10 of 11 and their last three by 13 points or more, but they'll finish up the regular season with a brutal stretch. After hosting slumping Rutgers on Wednesday night, Marquette will wrap things up at West Virginia, at Cincinnati, and then at home against No. 8 Georgetown.
11. BAYLOR (23-5, 10-5) (9)
LAST WEEK: Lost to Kansas State (57-56); Beat Texas (77-72)
THIS WEEK: vs. Oklahoma (2/25)
The valiant effort at Missouri may not have come to fruition, but I'm sticking by the rest of this.
BU's season from this point on is almost a foregone conclusion. They'll put up a valiant effort at Missouri because the Tigers will allow them to score enough to not let their focus wander; they'll beat most of the teams they should beat in the Big 12 but will drop another game or two to a Kansas State or an Iowa State; they'll earn a bye in the league tournament but will beaten by Kansas (again); they'll win at least a pair of games in the NCAA Tournament because of their talent, but will fall when a team with slightly less talent but infinitely more resolve puts them in a pressure situation.
12. FLORIDA (21-6, 9-3) (14)
LAST WEEK: Beat Alabama (61-52); Beat Arkansas (98-68)
THIS WEEK: vs. Auburn (2/21); At Georgia (2/25)
LAST WEEK: Beat Southeast Missouri State (75-66); Beat Saint Mary's (65-51)
THIS WEEK: At Tennessee State (2/23); At Tennessee Tech (2/25)
It was a big week for the Racers, who wrapped up their third straight OVC regular season title on Wednesday and then captured their signature win with a romp of Saint Mary's in the showcase game of ESPN's BracketBusters. Focus now becomes the name of the game once again for Murray State, which has to understand that any loss from this point on will drop it at least one line on the NCAA Tournament big board.
14. FLORIDA STATE (19-7, 10-2) (NR)
LAST WEEK: Beat Virginia Tech (48-47); Beat NC State (76-62)
THIS WEEK: vs. Duke (2/23); At Miami (2/26)
It's pretty much a crap-shoot after No. 12 in these rankings, which is why we're going with Florida State's potential at No. 14. The Seminoles are still inexplicably having their evenings when they can't get out of the 40s, but there isn't another team with a legitimate beef for this spot that can beat FSU when they're performing to the best of their ability. The 'Noles could easily be one-and-done in the big dance, but Leonard Hamilton's team is also just as capable of being an Elite Eight squad.
15. MICHIGAN (20-7, 10-4) (NR)
LAST WEEK: Beat Ohio State (56-51)
THIS WEEK: At Northwestern (2/21); vs. Purdue (2/25)
Michigan moved up six spots to No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25 this week, its highest national ranking since the 1996-97 squad sat at No. 8 in January of that season. It was the second straight week that the Wolverines moved up six spots in the poll.
16. NOTRE DAME (19-8, 11-3) (NR)
LAST WEEK: Beat Rutgers (71-53); Beat Villanova (74-70 OT)
THIS WEEK: vs. West Virginia (2/22); At St. John's (2/25)
I read Bill Connelly's in-depth piece and I still have no idea how Notre Dame is doing this. That ish Brey.
DROPPED OUT: UNLV (11), San Diego State (13), Saint Mary's (15).
ON THE CUSP: Wichita State, Louisville, New Mexico, Temple, Wisconsin, Indiana.