By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. LOUISVILLE WILL BE MY PICK TO WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
I'm well aware of what Duke has accomplished with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, but there's just something about this group of Cardinals that makes me believe that Rick Pitino will wind up winning his second national championship. Aside from a five-overtime loss at Notre Dame on February 9th, Louisville hasn't lost a game since late January. Pitino told me this past week that the Cardinals' bench has really taken things up a notch, and that's a major reason why this team is starting to flourish. Another big reason for Louisville's surge? The health of Luke Hancock. The cerebral wing was slowed early by a lingering shoulder injury, but now Hancock has finally given the Cardinals the wing presence they need to stretch the defense. The transfer from George Mason has made 12 three-pointers in his last five games.
2. KENTUCKY WILL BE IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
What a difference 48 hours makes. On Thursday night, Kentuckylooked lethargic and completely out of energy in a loss at Georgia. Fast forward to Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena, and John Calipari's team looked like a squad that could win multiple games in the field of 68. The Wildcats' come back win over Florida was tangible proof of the team this group can be. This isn't a vintage Kentucky team in terms of overall talent --- but there's still more than enough capable players on this roster to beat quality opponents on a regular basis. Thanks to Saturday's victory over the Gators, this group assured the college basketball world that they'll get to prove their worth on the grandest stage in the sport — the NCAA Tournament.
3. KENNY KADJI HAS REPLACED REGGIE JOHNSON AS MIAMI'S GO-TO GUY
Shane Larkin may create the Hurricanes' offense, but Kadji is the focal point of this team's attack each time they are trying to score the ball. After Johnson was lost in late December with a thumb injury, Kadji stepped forward and became one of the better pick and pop big men in college basketball. Jim Larranaga regularly uses Kadji in high ball screen situations with Larkin, and the 6-11 fifth-year senior has already made 40 three-point shots on the season. Kadji has posted three straight double-doubles and is averaging 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. The Hurricanes won the ACC regular-season title, and still could challenge for a number one seed in the field of 68 if they win the ACC Tournament.
THREE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. THE BIG EAST
It's tough not be a little melancholy about the upcoming week at Madison Square Garden. The Big East has been the best conference in college basketball for as long we can remember, and this week will officially mark the end of one of the sport's great eras. After this season, the new Big East will begin with seven catholic schools plus Butler and Xavier, while other institutions like Pitt and Syracuse will depart for the ACC. Aside from all that, the basketball in New York between Wednesday and Saturday should be nothing short of fantastic. Louisville and Georgetown are both legitimate contenders for number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament, while a minimum of five other schools will be playing in the field of 68.
2. THE BIG TEN
This will be a mirror image of the Big Ten season --- a flat out bloodbath. The teams in this league have been beating up on each other all season, and compressing that all into a couple of days should make for some really physical basketball. The team with the most to gain during this event? Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished the regular season at 9-9 in conference play and could play their way into the field of 68 if they win two games this week in Chicago.
3. THE MOUNTAIN WEST
The breakout league may very well have the breakout conference tournament. New Mexico heads to Las Vegas as the favorite after winning the regular season title, but Colorado State will be a strong challenger after the Rams tallied 24 wins over the past four months. UNLV had been dominant at home all year long, but lost to lowly Fresno State on Saturday. In typical Sin City form, there's no guarantees in this event --- all bets are off! Check out the quarters all day on Wednesday on CBS Sports Network.
THIS AND THAT:
- Markel Starks' emergence as a secondary scorer next to Otto Porter has allowed Georgetown to absorb the loss of Greg Whittington. The junior point guard has made a major jump in his third year of college basketball and was a key cog in the Hoyas' 22-point win over Syracuse on Saturday. Starks scored 19 points, which included five three-pointers en route to Georgetown's 61-39 win.
- Think LIU's Jack Perri had an interesting first-year as a Division 1 head coach? Perri, who was the top assistant to current Duquesne coach Jim Ferry the past two seasons when the Blackbirds won back-to-back NEC titles, had about as tough of a first-season as a coach can have in college basketball. The year started with multiple players getting into a brawl on campus, then LIU's star big man Julian Boyd was lost for the year with an ACL injury. Still, Perri didn't panic, and rallied the Blackbirds to an impressive finish where they won six of their last eight regular season games. LIU is now currently 19-13 and will host Mount St. Mary's on Tuesday night for a chance to go to their third straight NCAA Tournament. Talk about an amazing story.
- Realignment chatter continues to focus on the Atlantic 10 targeting George Mason, possibly for as early as the 2013-14 season, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. With Butler and Xavier set to join the new Big East and Temple set to begin play in "America 12", George Mason gives the Atlantic 10 another strong basketball school in a solid market. The other school we're hearing that the league could target? Siena.
- The NCAA Tournament will benefit from the presence of Harvard freshman point guard Siyani Chambers. The speedy south paw might be the most electrifying player you've never heard of, and can single handedly change a game with his ability to get out in transition. The 6-foot Chambers averaged 12.5 points and 5.7 assists per game, while shooting an impressive 42.5% percent from three-point range. Harvard is returning to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in two years under Tommy Amaker.
- Colorado coach Tad Boyle said Andre Roberson may return for this week's PAC-12 Tournament after missing this past weekend's games with a viral illness, and should definitely be back for the NCAAs. Roberson is averaging 10.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. The Buffaloes are 20-10 overall.
- Dwayne Evans may very well be the best interior player in the Atlantic 10. The 6-5, 230 pound Evans is a monster for Saint Louis, and has tallied three double-doubles in his last four games. Evans had 17 rebounds in Saturday's win over La Salle, and plays with a nastiness that is unmatched. The Billikens are going to be a trendy pick in March, and Evans is a big reason why.
- I still can't believe what happened at Drexel this season. The Dragons came into this year with monumental expectations after last season's 29-win campaign, and even though this team dealt with injuries, I never thought they'd finish the year 13-18. Talk about a shocker.
- We feel for Robert Morris coach Andy Toole. The Colonials were the best team in the NEC all season long, but fell on Saturday at home to Mount St. Mary's in the conference semifinals. Robert Morris advanced to the NEC title game the past two seasons, only to lose both times to LIU.
- Watching Tennessee's late surge only makes us think of what the Vols would be like if they had Jeronne Maymon. Cuonzo Martin's team finished the SEC by winning eight of their final nine games, and now sit at 19-11 overall with an 11-7 mark in league play. If this team had an all-league power forward like Maymon, whose missed the entire year with a knee injury, there's no reason to think that Tennessee wouldn't be challenging for a top 16-20 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
- A big story line to watch this week? Bid stealers. Keep an eye on teams that have a chance to win automatic bids in conference tournaments that weren't originally slated to play in the field of 68. It's something that happens every year, and only makes life that much more stressful for teams living on the bubble.
Who's your early pick to win the national championship? Let Jon know in the comments...
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