Tuesday, January 9, 2007

My AP basketball ballot for this week, with comments below:

1. North Carolina (14-1)

2. Florida (14-2)

3. UCLA (14-1)

4. Wisconsin (15-1)

5. Ohio State (13-2)

6. Kansas (13-2)

7. Arizona (12-2)

8. Texas A&M (13-2)

9. Pittsburgh (14-2)

10. Louisiana State (11-3)

11. Alabama (13-2)

12. Oklahoma State (15-1)

13. Tennessee (13-2)

14. Nevada (14-1)

15. Duke (13-2)

16. Air Force (15-1)

17. Butler (14-1)

18. Oregon (14-1)

19. Memphis (11-3)

20. Clemson (16-0)

21. Texas (11-3)

22. Northern Iowa (13-2)

23. West Virginia (13-1)

24. Washington (11-4)

25. Southern Illinois (12-3)

* This is the time of year when one game shouldn’t make nearly as much of a difference in placing a team — there’s a larger body of work to assess, and chances are a team isn’t that much better this week than seven days ago. That explains the relative lack of movement for Arizona (down one spot despite losing to Washington State) and Oregon (remained the same after splitting with Southern Cal and UCLA). Arizona, in particular, is an especially promising team, and is a serious threat to erase the memory of some recent lackluster teams in Tucson.

* After about No. 12, it really is difficult to discern who belongs where. Tennessee is a curious team; they might have the best shooter at a top-25-type school in Chris Lofton, and early losses to Butler and North Carolina can be shrugged off. Nevada is also an interesting case, though they would fall on this ballot if center Nick Fazekas is out for an extended period after injuring an ankle Monday night in a tight victory over Boise State. The reality is the Wolf Pack probably wouldn’t be a top-20 team without Fazekas, who remains a stealthy player of the year candidate because of his dominance to date.

* Along those lines, the suspension of point guard Kyle McAlarney is the reason Notre Dame fell out after a loss at Georgetown on Saturday. The Fighting Irish looked far different without the sophomore, and could take some lumps if his absence is much longer.

* Speaking of Georgetown, the Hoyas were the next-to-last team out of my poll. They were awfully impressive against Notre Dame, but Monday’s stumble against Villanova suggests there is still work to be done. However, if big men Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert can enjoy extended stretches of dominance as they did against Notre Dame on a regular basis, Georgetown will be just as frightening as it was expected to be in the preseason.

* Yep, there’s two Missouri Valley teams in the top 25. Northern Iowa leads the league and is playing just as efficiently as it did last year. The Panthers’ inside play is strong, and their more intimate new arena has made Cedar Falls an even more unpleasant place to visit. Meanwhile, any fan of quality defense should get a look at Southern Illinois. The Salukis have lost to three solid teams (Arkansas, Indiana and Northern Iowa) and will be a tough out come March.

* Where’s Maryland? At No. 26, though the Terrapins can play their way in on just about everyone’s ballot this week with games against Miami and Clemson. With wins in both games, Maryland would be 16-2 and rolling into an interesting stretch of four road trips in five games.

* Upon further review … Maybe Washington isn’t as good as expected. The Huskies don’t play great defense and are still trying to find their way. There’s still time to improve, but a case could be made that half the Pac-10 (UCLA, Arizona and Oregon for certain, and perhaps Southern California and Washington State) are playing better than U-Dub of late.

* The sheer number of possibilities that can be presented by good teams is one of the best things about college basketball. With 300-plus teams, odds are some unusual scheme can become a fixture at a reasonably high level for several years. Take West Virginia coach John Beilein’s 1-3-1 zone defense, which has helped the Mountaineers return to the top 25 even though erstwhile stars Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle are no longer in Morgantown.

* Who will win the Big 12? Probably Kansas. But don’t count out Texas, which has some very Kansas, circa 2006-like characteristics to it and just administered a bludgeoning at Colorado last weekend.

* Trite question of 2006: Who will be the next George Mason?; Early answer for 2007: Drexel, which is showing no signs of slowing after early victories over Villanova, Syracuse and Saint Joseph’s. There hasn’t been this much buzz about the Dragons since Malik Rose roamed the Philadelphia campus.

* Will Clemson go undefeated? No. Will the Tigers reach the NCAA tournament? Bet on it. Between James Mays being both academically eligible and strong on the inside, sophomore K.C. Rivers providing a strong boost off the bench and a strong defense, the Tigers will wind their way to 20-plus wins. What will be their downfall? Try a gruesome .625 free throw percentage, just a tick better than the .617 that cost Clemson several games last season.

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