Now Is Time For Teams To Play Way Into March Madness

With exactly six weeks to go before the NCAA Tournament bids come out, there are a lot of unanswered questions facing teams around the country. The Atlantic 10 and Big East races are especially intense this year, with as many as six or seven teams from both conferences hoping to play when the games really count in March. This is the time of the regular season when the games mean so much. Take this week, for example: UMass plays Dayton, Temple and Xavier; Miami hosts Syracuse; and West Virginia plays at St. John’s. These games help shake out the powers from the pretenders.

The Atlantic 10 race is shaping up as a doozy. The conference is hoping that as many as six teams can make a case for bids come Selection Sunday. If the chips fall right, that could happen.

After Saturday’s games, UMass, George Washington, Xavier, URI and Temple all are crowing about their programs and think they are near locks for the tournament. Dayton, which has a huge game at UMass today , is a sixth team in the mix.

A closer look shows a few flaws in this scenario.

First, the elite of the league haven’t bumped heads against each other very much. URI, for example, still has to play GW, Temple, UMass, Dayton and Xavier. In fact, the Rams have an unbelievable stretch of games from Feb. 10-24. In order, Rhody plays at GW, hosts Temple, hits the road for games at UMass and Dayton and then hosts Xavier. If the Rams survive that stretch, they’ll be an NCAA tourney lock.

Right now, even with a 13-5 record, their credentials are shaky. While the Rams have pushed UConn, Stanford and Cincinnati very hard, their only win over an NCAA tourney contender came at Temple. Rhody certainly has plenty of chances to add to that resume, and it says here they’ll bounce back from the awful loss against Massachusetts and get in position for a solid seed. If not, Jim Harrick’s honeymoon in Kingston will be over.

The Rams aren’t alone. Xavier has a lot of heavy lifting to do. The Musketeers have lived off their preseason press clippings and underachieved so far this season. They caught a big break on Saturday when Temple star Pepe Sanchez couldn’t play due to an injury. Xavier squeezed out a much-needed big win. Xavier lost at Dayton last week and is 2-5 on the road. The Flyers also have an RPI in the lower 50s, thanks to a weak non-conference schedule.

Dayton will be the wild card in any talk of six bids for the A-10. The Flyers breezed through an easy non-conference schedule and then sprung major upsets over Xavier and Temple at home. But this is a team that lost to La Salle on the road, so how good can it be? The Flyers need to prove they can win outside of UD Arena to get any NCAA respect.

The Big East is much more clear-cut. The league still is bashed from pillar to post, but it has five stronger contenders than the Atlantic 10 or any other conference besides the ACC and SEC.

Connecticut, Syracuse and West Virginia are all but locks right now. The two with more work to do are Miami and St. John’s. The Hurricanes are nearly unbeatable at home and had a strong RPI of 27 at midweek. The blemish on their case is a lack of quality wins, except for an upset of UConn at the Miami Arena. Saturday’s loss at Villanova hurt, but the Canes close out the year with five of their last seven games at home.

St. John’s is in excellent shape as long as it averts a late-season swoon. Most importantly, the Red Storm are New York’s team, and the NCAA wants a New York team. They’ve beaten Illinois, Miami and UConn, but do end the season with trips to Syracuse and UConn.

Also, don’t count out a below-average Georgetown team. The Hoyas remain in the mix if only because of John Thompson, Washington, D.C., and their reputation.

The other thing to remember about the Big East is this could finally be the year an upstart wins the conference tournament. No team in the balanced league is a lock to dominate the Madison Square Garden party the way someone usually does. At least that’s what Pete Gillen, Steve Lappas and John MacLeod will be selling to their teams.

Of course, what I’d love to see is five or six teams from both the A-10 and Big East get into the tournament and show the country the leagues aren’t as bad as people say. The problem is overrated leagues like the Big 10 and Big 12 routinely get more respect than Eastern leagues. That means everyone had better take care of business themselves and not leave anything up to the selection committee.

A first for Utah

Here’s hoping Utah doesn’t get upset today at New Mexico. The Utes are having another dream season as the nation’s only unbeaten team.

New Mexico trails Utah by one game in the WAC’s Mountain Division. The game was rescheduled to today and moved from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque to accommodate a national television broadcast. The Utes never play on Sunday in Mormon country. This will be the first regular-season Sunday game the Utes have ever played.

“We’ll need some luck to come out of there with a win,” coach Rick Majerus said. “They’re probably one of the five toughest teams in the country at home.”

Speaking of Majerus, he and former PC and Clemson assistant Larry Shyatt got into a heated exchange at midcourt recently. Shyatt, now the head coach at Wyoming, was getting blown out in Salt Lake City and called Majerus and the referees to midcourt. He told the refs he thought the game was overly physical and the Cowboys weren’t getting any calls. Shyatt reportedly said he might have to send a player out on the court to knock a few Utah players around if the game’s style continued. That enraged Majerus and the two had to be separated. They have yet to kiss and make up.

Robertson coveted

One of the best sidelights of Harrick’s hiring at URI is the Rams will no doubt bump heads with PC for some good recruits. That rarely happened in the Al Skinner Era. Harrick has been quoted as saying: “I’m not giving up anything to Providence, Massachusetts or Connecticut.”

That’s where St. Andrew’s guard Tony Robertson comes in. Robertson, who hit seven threes and scored 37 points in a win last Friday over Providence Country Day, is getting ready to trim his list of college choices to 10 schools, and PC and URI will be included. He’s a major target of both, and it should make for a very interesting spring and summer.

Henson in forefront

Lou Henson, who ran into trouble with the NCAA at both Illinois and New Mexico State, says he wants to be the permanent coach at New Mexico State. He was named the interim coach at the start of the season.

“I enjoy it and I have the energy,” Henson said.

Henson, who turned 66 on Jan. 10, won’t be the only candidate for the job, but there’s no doubt he’s the front-runner.

“I’m thrilled that he made the decision to become a candidate,” athletic director Jim Paul said.

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