John Clay

John Clay: No clear favorite yet in college basketball

Last Saturday in Lawrence, Kansas suffered a double whammy. Its 69-game home-court win streak went poof. So did its undefeated season. Texas 74, Jayhawks 63.

Monday night at the Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh suffered a similar home invasion. The Panthers lost for the first time in 21 home games. And for just the second time all season. Notre Dame 56, Pitt 51.

This season in college basketball, no team's perfect, even those with perfect records.

San Diego State is 20-0 and ranked fourth in the nation, but the doubters look askance at a Mountain West team that most of the country has never seen take a shot.

Ohio State was 20-0 heading into Tuesday night's home tilt with Purdue, but even the Buckeyes' spotless slate has not been enough to convince all Associated Press voters, two of whom cast first-place ballots elsewhere, one for Pitt and one for Duke.

Oh, yes, Duke. If only we knew when the Blue Devils' fab-freshman point guard Kyrie Irving might be returning from that mysterious toe injury, of if he's returning at all. Then we could return Mike Krzyzewski's team to its rightful spot as national-title favorite.

Instead, as we head into the final days of January, what we have in college basketball are a few legitimate contenders and many more questions.

Like how good is Kansas, really? Bill Self's team had two legitimate excuses for its home-court loss over the weekend. One was the Jayhawks' mental state considering the team had learned only hours before its loss to the Longhorns that the mother of sophomore Thomas Robinson had passed away. Thus Self's team played Saturday with an aching heart. And two, Texas is pretty good. Maybe the best team in the Big 12.

And how good is Pittsburgh? Before Monday, the Panthers appeared to be the best team in the nation's best league, the Big East. And yet Jamie Evans' club has a loss to seven-loss Tennessee, in the city of Pittsburgh, and now a home-floor loss to Notre Dame.

And yet, it's hard to overlook the devastating depth of Pitt's conference. In Monday's rankings, the Panthers were No. 2 in the AP poll. Connecticut clocked in at No. 5, Villanova at No. 8 and Syracuse at a tie for No. 9. Notre Dame was all the way back at No. 15.

Ohio State's company isn't much easier. Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings put the Big Ten just behind the Big East — 84.82 to 84.02. After Monday night's games, Sagarin had six of the Big Ten's 11 teams ranked in his top 32. (Minnesota was No. 32.)

But while the Buckeyes boast leadership in seniors Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale, their prime player remains freshman center Jared Sullinger. A fantastic freshman — Sullinger had 27 points and 16 rebounds in Saturday's win at Illinois — but a freshman, nonetheless.

So why not San Diego State? The Aztecs' schedule is ranked as the nation's 19th toughest by Sagarin, though the RPI puts it at No. 40. And Steve Fisher is an experienced coach, one who directed Michigan to a national title and two other national-title games.

And yet, if you go by the RPI, another Mountain West team is best. Brigham Young tops the latest RPI, the Cougars led by the scoring freak Jimmer Fredette. The senior from Glens Falls, N.Y., is averaging 26.6 points for a team whose only loss was to UCLA in Anaheim.

Could BYU be this year's Butler? Sure. What about San Diego State? Sure, again. After all, this time a year ago, Butler wasn't even ranked. West Virginia was No. 9. Michigan State was No. 5. Duke was No. 8.

An undefeated Kentucky was No. 1 this time last year. While John Calipari insisted Monday his team owns tremendous upside, it's a stretch to see Kentucky hanging another banner.

But there's plenty of time left to see plenty more developments. The most important will be what happens with Irving. If the Blue Devils can get their freshman point guard back and healthy, by season's end, they easily reclaim the spot they held at the beginning: No. 1.

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