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What we'll learn in the last month of the season

Men's College Basketball, Duke Blue Devils, Northwestern Wildcats, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Arizona Wildcats, UCLA Bruins, Oregon Ducks, Kentucky Wildcats, Baylor Bears, Indiana Hoosiers

Selection Sunday is only a month away, and on Saturday, the selection committee revealed which teams would have received the top 16 seeds if the season ended today. But much can change with those 16 teams and others between now and March 12.  

The following questions will receive answers in the coming weeks.

Which Duke team will enter the tournament?

The bandwagon is idling outside Cameron Indoor Stadium, waiting to see if anyone is ready to go for a ride with the Blue Devils. Five consecutive wins, including an impressive victory against North Carolina, have turned the once-prohibitive national title favorite into a trendy hot pick as the off-radar team that could win it all. So the bandwagon is definitely taking on passengers.

But are there any potholes in the way, or is this team really cured? That's what we'll figure out between now and Selection Sunday.

There's no doubt this Duke team more closely resembles the one we thought we'd see back in October. It's not so much the final score, but how the Blue Devils are playing, with a swagger and confidence that seemed to be missing all season. A team that seemed disjointed and disconnected had 15 assists on 30 made buckets against the Tar Heels. Freshman Jayson Tatum's final line best explained the newfound concept of team in this group: 17 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists.

Mostly healthy -- Amile Jefferson still isn't 100 percent -- the Blue Devils now go eight deep and are getting contributions from Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Frank Jackson, the three bench guys.

But the most critical change is the re-emergence of Grayson Allen. He is averaging 18.8 points in that win streak and says he has rediscovered the joy he'd lost amid the fallout from his third tripping incident. Allen was a legit Wooden Award front-runner before everything went off the tracks, and if he plays that way again, it changes everything for Duke.

In a weird way, too, the Blue Devils' roller-coaster ride may actually pay huge dividends. Luke Kennard has emerged as the best player in a Duke uniform, and now that Allen is finding his stride again, defenses are caught trying to figure out which scorer to concentrate on.

And this team, unlike so many at this time of year, is far from peaking. It is still trying to find its ceiling.

There is, though, a danger in being too much a prisoner of the moment. That win against North Carolina, as important as it was, came at home in front of a wound-up crew of Cameron Crazies. A more honest measure of where Duke stands will come in the next few weeks, when the Blue Devils go on the road to Virginia, Syracuse, Miami and, finally, North Carolina. Win the bulk of those and there will be standing room only on that bandwagon.  -- Dana O'Neil

Will Indiana save coach Tom Crean's job in the season's final month, or is this the end of the road?

The only pertinent question for Indiana and Tom Crean prior to Selection Sunday is one all troubled couples face: Is this the end?

Divorce is difficult and often expensive. You try to hold on to the highs and hope they represent the true spirit of the marriage until you eventually admit they're rare glimpses of hope masking the crippling problems you can't seem to solve.

And then, the two parties face a heavy realization: Maybe it's over.

That's the conclusion Indiana brass could reach at the end of an arduous 2016-17 season, which might not include an NCAA tournament invitation for the first time since 2014.

But the Indiana faithful offer as much grace as any program in America.

They wanted Bob Knight to return because the controversy surrounding his tenure didn't outweigh the joy they felt when he walked the sideline at Assembly Hall.

They withheld early judgment of Kelvin Sampson when he faced sanctions for repeated NCAA violations.

And they acknowledged the deficit and the challenges Crean inherited from Sampson's term in Bloomington. During the 2008-09 season, Indiana was 16th in the country in average attendance (14,331), even though the Hoosiers finished 6-25 (1-17 Big Ten).

Just a welcoming gesture to support the new coach? Nope. The following season the Hoosiers won just 10 games and added nearly 1,000 more fans per game.

Even if Indiana tumbles in the final stretch of Big Ten play, which includes four of its final six games on the road, the program's supporters may call for more grace. Injuries to James Blackmon Jr. and OG Anunoby impacted this team. And the Hoosiers rely on multiple underclassmen, so perhaps the team will blossom next season.

With just one top-100 player (Justin Smith) locked up for its 2017 class and multiple players likely on the move to the NBA, however, that isn't certain. Indiana would owe Crean $4 million if it fired him prior to July 1, 2017, and $1 million after that date.

Yes, if the Hoosiers reach the NCAA tournament in this difficult season, Crean might deserve another year.

But sometimes, two parties have to look at one another and admit their best years are behind them and separation makes sense for all involved.

The Hoosiers may choose to make a change now rather than just hope Indiana will progress under Crean next season.

Sometimes it's just over. By the end of this season, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass and Crean might have to recognize that is the reality of their working relationship. -- Myron Medcalf

Will Gonzaga prove it deserves the No. 1 overall seed?

On Friday, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi previewed Saturday's big reveal -- the selection committee's first-ever pre-Selection Sunday glimpse at the current top 16 seeds. In offering up his own choices for the exercise, Lunardi provided teams' current seeds and his thoughts on where those teams will end up by the end of the season.

To the surprise of absolutely no one,  undefeated Gonzaga was among Lunardi's four No. 1 seeds Friday. On Saturday, the committee agreed but slotted the Bulldogs at the last No. 1 selection. Before committee chair Mark Hollis & Co. could make their announcement, though, our wheels were already turning, thanks to Lunardi's thought-provoking Zags-related prediction:

"I expect the Bulldogs to run the table and enter the NCAA tournament at 33-0, good for their first-ever No. 1 overall seed."

After Saturday's 74-64 win  at Saint Mary's,  another question is even more pressing: Will Gonzaga deserve the top overall seed?

There are two ways to look at it.

The first revolves around the Bulldogs' résumé, in the classic RPI-oriented, committee-approved use of the term. There, the unbeaten  Zags don't quite have the numbers to match other top-seed hopefuls such as Villanova, Kansas, Baylor and North Carolina. Those teams all have top-five RPI numbers; Gonzaga's RPI rank has spent much of the season outside the top 10. The Zags' nonconference strength of schedule compares evenly enough with all of those teams save Baylor, but because the West Coast Conference is the West Coast Conference, and Gonzaga has to play RPI-drains like Pacific, Pepperdine and Portland, it will be hard for the numbers at the top of the Bulldogs' résumé to match the Tar Heels, Wildcats and Jayhawks come Selection Sunday -- even if they win out.

The other approach? A straightforward examination of Gonzaga's actual performance on the basketball court. There, it's simple. Gonzaga -- the only team ranked in the top five in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency as of Friday, which, while impressive, is even more so given that no other team even ranks in both top 10s -- looks every bit as good as KU or Nova or North Carolina, and maybe better. It's safe to call this the best Gonzaga team ever.

In 2013, the Zags' ascent to their first-ever No. 1 seed came with a heaping measure of Internet and talk radio scorn. When coach Mark Few's team promptly lost in the second round -- to insanely hot, Final Four-bound Wichita State, by the way -- the told-you-sos came hard and fast. With still-unbeaten Gonzaga now climbing even higher, a new version of the same old debate is about to commence.  -- Eamonn Brennan

Will John Calipari employ a "tweak," as he did in 2014, to get Kentucky ready for the tournament and perhaps a run to the Final Four?

Having lost three of its past six games, Kentucky is in need of a good tweak.

You remember "The Tweak" ... right?

The Wildcats were on a similar slide to close the 2013-14 regular season, losing three of their last four regular-season games.

Coach John Calipari said his ''tweak" before the NCAA tournament helped the Cats reach the title game as a No. 8 seed (they lost to UConn). He later revealed that the mystery tweak was simplifying the game for Andrew Harrison by having him focus more on distributing than scoring.

No question, these Cats have the talent to be make a deep tournament run this season, led by arguably the best backcourt in Calipari's tenure: Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox. But in the Cats' recent losses, they appeared to have regressed in several areas.

On his radio show last week, Calipari talked about the need for a reboot to get things right. And it looked as if the team received his message in building a 25-point lead in its win over LSU. That is, until the Wildcats allowed the Tigers to score 58 second-half points and pull to within six in the closing seconds.

Immediately after the game, Calipari told the ESPN broadcast audience that if the NCAA allowed it, he would have held the Cats over for practice that night. He vowed a three-hour session that may end with players puking, "and if anybody wants to quit they can quit, because this has got to stop at some point."

The Cats had practice the next day. Nobody has quit.

The change that needs to be made is a commitment to defense. The Cats have been more focused on trying to outscore teams than on trying to stop them. Holding Alabama to 58 points in the Wildcats' win Saturday was a good start.

UK ranks near the bottom of the SEC in field goal percentage defense and scoring defense.

"The best thing to happen to us is LSU. ... If we had won by 30, possibly we would have looked at it and said, OK, now we're right. We've got this right.' And by them coming back on us, it showed me ... this is not going to work this way," Calipari said.

Far more complex than a tweak could be, Calipari said the Cats' dedication to defense won't mean changes happen overnight, but he believes they will happen in time for the postseason, adding: "Thank goodness we've got a month to get this right."  -- C.L. Brown

Which Pac-12 team will reap the geographic benefits of this year's tournament?

This season, the race to be considered the best team in the Pac-12 is about more than a first-place finish in the standings or a conference tournament title.

The ultimate prize is staying in the West Region for the NCAA tournament -- which means a weekend in either San Jose or Salt Lake City and a Sweet 16 trip to Sacramento before hopefully heading to Phoenix for the Final Four.

If Oregon ends up atop the league, the Ducks would have less than a one-hour flight to both non-Phoenix locations. UCLA wouldn't have to leave the state until the Final Four. And Arizona would have flights less than two hours long to both places, and then a 90-minute drive from Tucson for the Final Four.

Only one of the three will be able to play in Sacramento, with the other two going to either Kansas City (Midwest), Memphis (South) or New York (East).

So which team will it be? The past week made things very interesting. First, Arizona went to Oregon and got blown out by the Ducks. Then coach Dana Altman's Oregon team traveled to UCLA and blew a 19-point lead to lose to the Bruins.

All three teams were among the selection committee's top-four seeds Saturday, and there's not a ton separating them.

Arizona beat UCLA (they play once more at Arizona on Feb. 25). UCLA and Oregon split their two games. Oregon beat Arizona in their only meeting (due to an unbalanced league schedule).

Neither Arizona nor Oregon accomplished much outside the Pac-12. Arizona's best win is a neutral-court victory over Michigan State, while Oregon handled Tennessee on a neutral floor. Although UCLA is behind both teams in the league standings, the Bruins have the best nonconference win by far: at Kentucky. The Bruins were considered a step or two behind Arizona and Oregon, résumé-wise, heading into Thursday, but the comeback win over Oregon got the Bruins back in the hunt.

UCLA's strength of schedule is considerably weaker than that of Arizona or Oregon, with a nonconference SOS in the high-200s. Meanwhile, Oregon has the two worst losses of the three teams: vs. Georgetown and at Colorado.

Then there are the wild cards: the return of Allonzo Trier for Arizona and the health of Dillon Brooks for Oregon. Two of the Wildcats' losses came without Trier, while Brooks missed Oregon's early-season loss at Baylor and played only 13 minutes in the loss to Georgetown.

How will this shake out? Since Arizona has the best résumé right now and still gets to host UCLA, while Oregon has three of its final five games on the road, expect the Wildcats to have a leg up heading into the Pac-12 tournament.

But it could come down to who gets hot at the tourney in Las Vegas. How fitting.  -- Jeff Borzello

Will Northwestern play its way into, or out of, the NCAA tournament?

Forget about Kentucky, Arizona and Villanova. These are the Wildcats that everybody will be talking about come Selection Sunday.

The Northwestern Wildcats, and whether they finally get in.

This program has a storied history, just not in the same way as the aforementioned Wildcats. It's the only school in a power conference that has yet to go dancing.

Coach Chris Collins' team has dropped two straight games and doesn't have a lot of juice to its résumé aside from wins against Wake Forest and Dayton. That said, have you checked the bubble lately? It isn't exactly strong.

This is the best story of this tournament, especially if Northwestern -- located just miles from downtown Chicago -- ends its NCAA tourney drought just months after the Cubs got rid of their curse.

Collins was without his leading scorer, junior guard  Scottie Lindsey, for the losses against Purdue and Illinois. Fellow starter Dererk Pardon didn't play in the Michigan State setback.

Northwestern is 18-6 (7-4 in the Big Ten), and while the NCAA tournament selection committee will maintain it doesn't "humanize" the process, its members are well-aware that an appearance by Northwestern would help the ratings game.

It would be the feel-good story of the tourney, and you can bet that alumni (such as ESPN's Michael Wilbon, Mike Greenberg and J.A. Adande) would do their part.

But will this team be worthy of an at-large bid? The losses are, for the most part, excusable. Butler, Notre Dame and Purdue are all lock at-large teams. Minnesota and Michigan State have a chance to be included in the field, and again, the loss to Illinois came without Lindsey, whose 15 points per game are critical to Northwestern's success.

Collins has the pedigree, and he has put this program in position in his fourth season since leaving his spot as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. A year ago, Vic Law went down for the season, which hampered the Wildcats. This season they have done it despite the loss of returning starter Aaron Falzon, who had to shut it down in December because of a knee injury.

This is the year for Northwestern. The overall landscape is hardly imposing, and the Big Ten is as mediocre as it has been in years. There are seven regular-season games remaining, four at home in Evanston, Illinois, and one should be an easy win over Rutgers. So even if the Wildcats split the other six, they would enter the Big Ten tourney with 22 wins and an 11-7 league mark.

That may not have been enough a few years ago, but this season it should finally end Chicago's "other" curse.  -- Jeff Goodman

Can Baylor lock up a No. 1 seed?

A top seed for Baylor would be momentous on at least two levels.

First, the Bears were not only unranked in the preseason but also received zero votes in the AP poll. Second, the program itself was in shambles when coach Scott Drew arrived in 2003, and indeed as recently as 2005-06 Baylor wasn't even allowed to play nonconference games.

Yet here are the Bears cruising toward a potential spot on the top line of the 2017 NCAA tournament bracket. Can Baylor close the deal?

The chances are very good that the Bears can get it done. Drew's team has already played (and lost) what on paper are the two toughest games the Big 12 can throw at you. Last month the Bears were blown off the floor at West Virginia, and a couple of weeks ago they dropped a much closer decision at Kansas.

That doesn't mean Baylor is a lock to run the table the rest of the way (far from it), but Johnathan Motley, Ishmail Wainright  & Co. don't need to do that to get a top seed. A four- or maybe even a five-loss finish in the Big 12 should be sufficient for a team with early-season wins over Oregon, Louisville, Xavier, VCU and Michigan State.

Of course, even if the unthinkable happens and Drew's men drop all the way "down" to a No. 2 seed, that would still be a remarkable achievement for a program with Baylor's past and a team that occasioned so little in the way of preseason expectations. Speaking of the past ...

In each of the past two NCAA tournaments, the Bears have been sent home in the round of 64 by lower-seeded mid-major opponents. In 2015, BU lost 57-56 to Georgia State, when R.J. Hunter hit the game winner. Last year, Baylor was eliminated by Yale 79-75.

Conversely, No. 1 seeds are 128-0 in the round of 64 since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Maybe we invest too much symbolic weight in the question of which four teams get the top seeds -- Villanova fared pretty well last year as a lowly No. 2 -- but in the Bears' case, you have to believe they'd appreciate the sound of "128-0."

A No. 1 seed would be a very big deal for the Bears, and they have an excellent shot at nailing it down.  -- John Gasaway

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