1. The POY debate
With a month to go until the NCAA tournament brackets are revealed, the national debate over who should be the 2010-11 college basketball player of the year is heating up. More players appear to be rising in the ranking of candidates, but the finalists remain the usual suspects -- Jimmer Fredette of Brigham Young, Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, and Kemba Walker of Connecticut. Right now, we are leaning toward the 6-foot-9 Sullinger, the Barkley-esque inside bruiser who has shown the maturity and basketball IQ of a guy whose father is a coach. He is smooth around the basket (56.8 percent from the field, 18.0-point average) and draws fouls by the bushel (average of more than seven free-throw attempts per game).
2. Kemba vs. the Jimmer
This argument has raged on for a couple of months now. Yes, Fredette is the nation's top scorer with more than 27 points a game, but if he played in the Big East, would he put up those kinds of statistics? Walker has carried the young Huskies all season but seems to have hit a wall of sorts. In his last 11 games, he is shooting just 34.6 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three-point range while dropping to No. 6 nationally in scoring. Actually, Walker has become an improved facilitator for his teammates, dishing out almost five assists per game during that time with an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3 to 1. What would his numbers be like in the Mountain West? The discussion continues ...
3. His own Hansbrough
Compared to his more accomplished brother Tyler, Ben Hansbrough has been a late bloomer. But eighth-ranked Notre Dame, which carries a six-game winning streak into this weekend, will take it. Hansbrough, a 6-3 senior who began his college career at Mississippi State before transferring, is averaging 19.8 points and 3.9 assists in Big East action while playing 37.7 minutes per game. Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said Hansbrough blossomed after assuming the role of team voice and leader last summer. "Carrying that over into 'What does my team need to do?'
I think that has given him the confidence to play at a high level," Brey said.
4. Watch those Johnnies
It's a good thing the entire NCAA Tournament isn't being played at New York's Madison Square Garden, or St. John's would be the likely national champion. With their win Thursday night over No. 10 Connecticut, the Red Storm (14-9) have defeated four top-13 teams at the Garden, including a 93-78 pasting of Duke. They are a solid 19th in the RPI, according to CollegeRPI.com, and have played the toughest schedule in the nation. But losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham are huge ink stains on their resume, and with four of their next six games on the road, needed wins will be difficult to come by.
5. It's still Duke
Given its resurgence in recent weeks, North Carolina was anxious to see how close it had come to Duke's level after arriving at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And although the Tar Heels threw a scare into the Blue Devils by going up by 14 at the half, they couldn't quite provide the knockout punch and lost, 79-73. Of course, it helps a team to have players such as Nolan Smith, who has made sure that Duke stays the course despite the loss of freshman sensation Kyrie Irving. Smith continued his rise into the Fredette-Walker performance stratosphere by scoring a career-high 34 points, 22 in the second half.
6. Boxing in
Because he was unhappy with his team's toughness in two road losses last week, Kentucky coach John Calipari had a heavy bag installed at the Wildcats' practice facility and ordered his players to put on boxing gloves. "We showed them how to box, how to jab," Calipari said. "I said, 'Look, you've got to be willing to fight. You've got to be willing to take their stuff. You can't let people take our stuff.' " The Wildcats responded with a win over Tennessee while getting a spirited 16-point outing from senior center Josh Harrellson, who worked out some anger over his recent poor play on the heavy bag.
7. Steel City showdown
It's a given that Xavier will be in the mix of contenders for the Atlantic Ten championship on an annual basis. But Duquesne? The Dukes, picked to finish eighth in the preseason, have come out of nowhere to become the unannounced guest in the foursome (counting Temple and Richmond) of candidates for the crown. At 16-6, its best start since 1980, Duquesne will not have the benefit of the home court since the game was moved a few blocks last off-season to the new Consol Energy Center. Still, the Dukes will bring their defense. They lead the nation in turnover margin (plus 7.4) and will be put to the test against the Musketeers (17-6), a team that is good at taking care of the basketball.
8. Expatriate of the Week
Anthony Raffa, a former Wildwood Catholic star, has played a key role in the success of Coastal Carolina (23-2), which carries a 21-game winning streak into the weekend. Raffa, a 6-1 sophomore who is in his first season with the Chanticleers after transferring from Albany, averages 9.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while spending nearly 21 minutes on the floor per game. He has played in all 25 games, 23 coming off the bench for the Big South leaders.
9. NIT spells Nittany Lions?
Well, it's been a good run for Penn State, which moved itself into the NCAA Tournament conversation after wins over ranked Big Ten teams Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin. But three consecutive defeats have dropped the Nittany Lions to 12-11 (5-7 conference), to No. 71 in the CollegeRPI.com listings, and well off the proverbial NCAA bubble. The Lions still have some tough games coming up -- at Wisconsin and at home against top-ranked Ohio State -- so they will have a say in how the Big Ten shakes out heading into the conference tournament.
10. Happy birthday trifecta
We don't know whether 'Nova Nation will be in the mood to celebrate given the way Rutgers closed against its team the other night, but this season marks the 25th anniversary of the three-point shot in college basketball. It wasn't a popular addition at a time when dominant centers were ruling the sport, but it certainly has changed the way the game is played, not to mention the way recruiting is conducted. Louisville coach Rick Pitino was one of the first coaches to embrace the long shot. "It's more exciting, much more exciting," Pitino told the Associated Press. "There's much more strategy to the game offensively and defensively because of the three-point shot."