MBB FEATURE: Marching toward Madness

Kyle Scudilla

As the final weeks of college basketball’s regular season wind down, numerous teams across the nation could take a lesson from Peyton Manning.

Go out and win the big one, and do it fast.

There are a number of teams who, according to many writers and analysts (and don’t think their words go unnoticed by the selection committee), lack a “signature win” to solidify their season profile.

In the last few weeks, some teams have cleared this hurdle, making their cases for the committee much more intriguing. In the Big East, Georgetown beat Marquette by 18 and Louisville upset Pitt on the road by 13, giving both teams big wins on which they can hang their hats. Fellow Big East squad West Virginia went out of the conference to earn a big-time win against UCLA. Thanks to Duke, a few ACC teams (most notably Maryland) also picked up needed wins against marquee opponents.

Meanwhile, Villanova has impressive computer numbers (with an RPI of 13 and a strength of schedule of 6), but it doesn’t have that one big win that sticks out to many. The two biggest games it has remaining are at home against Georgetown (whom it defeated earlier when the Hoyas were not as highly regarded as they are now) and on the road against Marquette. Purdue needs to climb above .500 in the Big Ten to have hopes for an at-large bid, and beating Indiana would be a big win for the Boilermakers. A number of SEC teams, namely Alabama and Arkansas, could use high-profile wins down the stretch to boost questionable tournament resumés. The Crimson Tide will have their chances down the stretch, facing Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee, but winning any of those games certainly won’t be easy. One thing these teams have in common is that if they don’t act fast, they may have to rely heavily on deep conference tournament runs at one of the most volatile times of the year to avoid NIT purgatory.

Here’s a detailed look at which teams are experiencing rising stocks in crunch time and which teams are looking at economic downturns in the season’s final weeks. When looking for stock advice, it’s always smart to turn to Jim Cramer, everyone’s favorite combination of Wall Street genius and off-the-wall entertainer:

Bullish Booyah (Buy Buy Buys!)

No. 6 Texas A&M (21-4, 9-2 Big 12): Is Texas A&M Cinderella in contender’s clothing? It’s sure looking that way, despite a recent last-second loss to Texas Tech. The Aggies, known throughout the years as a big-time football program with little to show on the hardwood, have taken the Big 12 by storm. Led by star point guard Acie Law IV, A&M has reeled off 14-of-16 wins, including a dramatic last-minute victory over Kansas. Law leads four players averaging double-figures to lead a squad that has a great mix of youth and experience. Even greater than their ability to score is the team’s defense, making the Aggies a well-rounded and dangerous team come March.

No. 16 Southern Illinois (22-5, 13-3 Missouri Valley): The Salukis get bonus points for having a unique mascot, but winning 10 of their last 11 games in the Missouri Valley Conference to seize first place is what has them turning heads. Southern Illinois has been known for playing lockdown defense the last couple of seasons, and this year is no exception, with opponents averaging just 57.1 points per game. Don’t be fooled by the Salukis’ status as a “mid-major,” either. The MVC has a better conference RPI than the Big 12 and could grab five bids in the tournament, led by fast-charging Southern Illinois.

No. 14 Georgetown (19-5, 9-2 Big East): The Hoyas are now where many predicted they would be at the beginning of the season: virtually even with Pitt at the top of the Big East. However, even a casual college basketball fan knows they didn’t take a conventional path to this point. After opening the season just 3-3 and losing two of its first three conference games, Georgetown dropped from the rankings and looked like a team built on hype. Now, the Hoyas have won eight games in a row, including back-to-back wins against Marquette and West Virginia, and look primed to grab a first-round bye in the Big East tournament.

The House of Pain (Sell Sell Sells!)

Duke (18-7, 5-6 ACC): Nothing brings a college basketball fan more joy than watching his or her favorite team win, but seeing Duke lose is almost as fun. Needless to say, after dropping four in a row and falling out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 200 weeks, the Dukies are making plenty of fans across the nation happy. The Blue Devils may not be out of the woods yet, with trips to Clemson and North Carolina remaining on their schedule, as well as home dates against two teams that already beat them this season, Georgia Tech and Maryland. If Duke drops a few more games down the stretch and fails to have a strong showing in the ACC Tournament, its tournament status could be ambiguous with a capital “A.”

Notre Dame (18-6, 6-5 Big East): This is one of the most dramatic cases of a Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde team going on in sports today. At home, the Irish are indestructable, winning all 15 games they’ve played, and earning their share of quality wins. On the road, it’s a different story, with Notre Dame owning a 2-6 record away from home, which has included disappointing losses to St. John’s, South Florida and DePaul. Hosting Marquette will be a big test for its undefeated home record and could help get them off the bubble. But how favorably will the committee look upon them given their atrocious road play this season?

Stanford (15-8, 7-5 Pac-10): In the first installment of this series, the Cardinal landed on the “hot” side of the playing field. Now, just two weeks later, Stanford has cooled off in a big way and could get run over by the snowball effect. After dropping three of their last four games, it still must face Oregon, Arizona at home and USC and UCLA on the road. Without a split of these four tough games, the team could find itself on the wrong side of the bubble headed into the Pac-10 tourney.