Let the January madness begin

Philip Consuegra

I don’t know if any else has noticed, but I can feel a bit of March Madness in the air already, and it isn’t even February. With the No. 1 ranking always shuffling, upsets occurring every which way and conference play about to reach its peak, there’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a college basketball fan. For me personally, the thrill of the season starts now – not in March.

Why is that, you ask? Because at this point in the season, top-ranked teams are battling to stay in the rankings and bubble teams start stepping up to get over the March Madness hump. Yes, February is just as exciting, providing key matchups that can make or break a team’s season. For teams in conferences like the ACC, Big XII or Big East, every game will be a dogfight. And I absolutely love it.

Top-ranked Duke has proven that it is the best team in the country, winning 11 straight since falling to Purdue in December. Duke doesn’t just beat teams, they blow them out. They make other teams look like high schoolers. But Duke still has to dive into its ACC schedule, which just happens to be the hardest conference in the country. With teams like North Carolina, Wake Forest and surprisingly, Georgia Tech, Duke will be in for some classic nail-biting action. Carolina, Tech and Wake will all be there in March, and will be ready to make noise. The problem the ACC has is that it’s too good. Its teams will beat one another both early and often. Oh, and don’t forget about that giant-killer in Maryland.

Stanford has really impressed me this season. No other undefeated team is more deserving of their ranking than Stanford. They won big at home against then-No. 1 Kansas and on the road against then-No. 3 Arizona.

Look for them to be ready down the stretch. It is possible that the Cardinal could run the table, since they only have one more ranked team that they’ve already beaten on the schedule, Arizona. By the way – they play them at home.

People have been coming up to me all week asking why St. Joseph’s isn’t a No. 1 candidate. For all of you fans who say that St. Joe’s should be ranked higher than third, take a look at the schedule. The one – and only – impressive victory for the Hawks this year came on the road against a struggling Xavier team who is in last place in the Atlantic 10. I’m sorry, but wins against Delaware and close calls against Old Dominion and Cal don’t do much for me. Call me crazy, but I think St. Joe’s would never compete in a conference like the ACC or Big East.

The season began with such a fuss over UConn. The Big East was touted as the best basketball conference in the country. That was before the season. To sum up, the conference has not lived up to its hype. UConn isn’t as deep as people thought and Notre Dame is definitely not the team they used to be.

Two teams that I’ve got my eye on are Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Both of these teams have been impressive. Pitt, at 18-1, with its only loss a two-point heartbreaker against UConn, has solidified itself as what I like to call “for real.” Syracuse has gone 13-1 since its first loss of the season. Yes, my friends, Jim Beoheim knows how to win without Carmelo, and so does his team. Look for both teams to impress in March. Remember: Syracuse is defending something.

Two teams in Conference USA are really bringing that conference’s value up. Cincinnati and Louisville have both beaten ranked teams, with Louisville downing Kentucky and Cincy topping Marquette and Dayton. These two teams could be deadly in the coming months. They also meet twice this season, in two donnybrooks between top teams.

The two K’s, Kentucky and Kansas, have both been No. 1. Unfortunately for them, No. 1 has become a curse, and both of them fell quickly.

Florida, as we all knew would happen, faltered at No. 1, losing their first game of the season. Both should win their respective conferences, but don’t count on them winning the Dance.

I’m excited about February. I can’t wait to see some great, competitive college basketball. As all the great coaches know, you have to win in February to make it to March. I’ll be in front of the TV… where will you be?