Here are five observations I have as we head into a compelling week of games:
1. The Mountain West is underrated: UNLV’s road loss at Wyoming on Saturday spoke to the entire Mountain West’s potency. The Runnin' Rebels' setback capped a stretch that included Air Force pushing UNLV into overtime, San Diego State getting crushed at Colorado State, and the Aztecs barely escaping Boise State. Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket included four Mountain West squads, as many projected bids as the ACC. But where’s the national love for this exciting league that’s much deeper than it appears to be on the surface? Pay attention to this conference in February.
2. The Pac-12 race is actually exciting: Let’s ignore the fact this could still be a one-bid league and the overall conference has been bested by multiple mid-major conferences this season. The Pac-12’s title race is compelling right now. Washington beat Arizona on the road last weekend and then overcame a late double-digit deficit to beat UCLA on Thursday. The Wildcats overcame Cal’s early 22-9 lead in one of the better matchups of the week: a 78-74 road win for Arizona, which it followed up with a victory at Stanford. The Pac-12 might end up with the most captivating finish in the country simply because so many teams possess questionable NCAA tourney résumés.
3. This might be Thad Matta's year: The Buckeyes have a killer instinct right now that the bulk of the country lacks. I’m usually annoyed by the nonstop mean-mugging in college basketball, but Jared Sullinger's scowl speaks to his passion. He wore it all afternoon during Ohio State’s win at Wisconsin. And I think his team is playing with that fire right now. I don’t think this Bucks squad is as good as the Greg Oden team from 2007, but it might be more aggressive. OSU's intensity and swagger are so high. This could be the one for Matta.
4. Missouri and Kansas might play three more times this season: One more in the regular season. Maybe one more in the Big 12 tourney. And maybe even another in the late rounds of the NCAA tournament. I didn’t come away from Missouri’s come-from-behind victory over Kansas with many reasons to criticize either squad. Both teams embraced the moment and the amazing atmosphere. They both have star power. And they’re equally relentless. I don’t know where the NCAA selection committee will put the two teams once the field of 68 is announced, but it was obvious Saturday that they’re both Final Four good.
5. The SEC is about to get interesting: Florida can beat Kentucky on Tuesday. I’m not saying the Gators will, but the way they spread the floor and Brad Beal's emergence as a stud have changed my entire outlook on this group. They beat a good Vanderbilt squad Saturday and they’re really creating all sorts of matchup issues in the SEC. Can’t wait to see what happens when they play at Rupp.