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King's Court: Feeling the heat

For Colorado coach Tad Boyle, the message heading into Thursday's game at Oregon is simple.

Don't look ahead.

Time and time again over the past few days, Boyle has advised the Buffaloes to stay off of the Internet. Don't listen to the analysts on "SportsCenter," he told them, and don't pay attention to the things people write on Facebook and Twitter.

"We just need to worry about winning our next game," Boyle says. "I don't want them looking at the big picture."

But how could the Buffaloes not?

Colorado, after all, is considered an NCAA tournament bubble squad, and for the next month, buzz about which schools will make the 68-team field -- and which ones will be snubbed -- will dominate the conversation in college basketball.

Bracketologists … Bubble Watches … in-or-out debates are on television each night. The topic may be entertaining for fans, but for the players and coaches fighting to secure one of those coveted final bids, the upcoming weeks will be defined by sleepless nights and stress.

For all the talk about March, February is the month that can make or break a season.

"Winning is relief, and losing is misery," former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "You're living practice to practice, game to game, time out to time out.

"Some days you can hardly breathe."

Greenberg knows the feeling all too well. Three times during his final five seasons as Virginia Tech coach, the Hokies failed to make the tournament despite finishing fourth or higher in the ACC. The most maddening omission came in 2010, when Greenberg's squad went 23-8 in the regular season but didn't receive a bid.

"People would get on me about how emotional I got about it," said Greenberg, now a college basketball analyst at ESPN. "But until you walk in those shoes … people just don't realize what it's like. It's not one month. It's years of building a program, or thinking you're doing things the right way.

"In an instant, it's over."

Indeed, the stress leading up to Selection Sunday can take a toll on the coaches and players of bubble teams. Every game, it seems, is magnified in February, every score scrutinized, every performance compared to that of other squads in a similar scenario.

Coaches attempt to insulate their players from the situation. But deep down they know that's not entirely possible.

"With social media, they have so much information at their fingertips," Boyle said. "They realize what's at stake. As a coach you want them to understand the importance of every game, but you don't want them to feel the pressure.

"Finding that balance is the hardest thing."

Perhaps no one is as accustomed to life on the NCAA tournament bubble as former Missouri State coach Barry Hinson. Each and every year, Hinson finds himself watching a game on television when a list of the highest-rated RPI teams to be left out of the bracket pops up on the screen.

Three of Hinson's teams are always in the top 10.

His 2006 Missouri State squad was No. 21 in the RPI and failed to earn an invite. No other team has ever been rated that high and not earned a berth. Hinson also had teams rated No. 34 and No. 36 in the RPI that didn't make it.

"I remember one year we beat a good team, but someone said we didn't win by enough," said Hinson, now in his first season at Southern Illinois. "I'm like, 'What? Now we've got different grades for a win?'

"You're under the daggum microscope in everything you do. You're talking about maybe 30 schools that are on the bubble. Of those 30, about 10 are mid-majors, and of those 10, maybe one of them has a shot. All of that stuff plays into your head because that's all anyone is talking about."

Hinson paused. "I"m telling you," he said. "There is no margin for error."

Coaches urge their players not to look too far down the line, but privately they can't help but do it themselves. Greenberg said there was always a member of his staff willing to take on the role of a number cruncher who would provide updates on RPI and how other bubble teams were faring in the quest for a berth.

Boyle said he studied his team's résumé at the end of the nonconference portion of Colorado's schedule and attempted to figure out how many Pac-12 victories -- and against whom -- his team would need to reach the NCAA tournament.

"You can drive yourself crazy doing that," Boyle said.

He said Tuesday that he feels good about the Buffaloes' chances if they "take care of business." But Boyle also remembers what happened in 2011, when Colorado posted a 21-13 regular-season record that included three wins over NCAA tournament team Kansas State and another against No. 5 Texas.

A CBS camera crew was at Boyle's home on Selection Sunday to capture the Buffaloes' reaction as the bracket was unveiled. "The thought never even entered my mind that we wouldn't get in," he said.

But that's exactly what happened. Colorado was snubbed.

The story is one that makes Hinson cringe. He, too, had the CBS crew in his basement on Selection Sunday in 2006, when Missouri State became the highest-ranked RPI team in history not to earn a bid.

"We didn't think we were in," Hinson said. "We knew we were in. We were fired up. They got to the last region, and the final two teams that came up were Oklahoma and Marquette. We were thinking, 'Well, maybe there's another region we didn't see.' But there wasn't.

"About 30 seconds passed, and no one said a word. Everyone just stared at the screen. It was probably the sickest feeling I've had in college athletics. If we would've had 'Texas' on the front of our jerseys instead of 'Missouri State,' we would've gone to the NCAA tournament. I'll stand by that until the day I die."

Hinson is in the midst of a rebuilding project at Southern Illinois. At 9-14 overall and 2-10 in the MVC, he knows there is little chance of the Salukis playing in the postseason. Still, as a basketball fan, he'll be watching closely as the next month unfolds, with schools fighting each night for one of those precious at-large berths.

The successful teams will have to be tough-minded on the court -- and off of it, too.

"They're going to be graded every night by every analyst," Hinson said. "People say, 'Oh, the selection committee doesn't listen to that stuff.' But that's not true. If the committee members are doing their homework and they're out there studying, they're going to hear everything. It's human nature.

"I feel for the kids on those teams. I feel for every one of them. It's a tremendous amount of pressure, and it's only going to get worse in the next few weeks."

REPORT CARD

A: Assembly Hall in Bloomington -- Other than The Pit at New Mexico and The Kennel at Gonzaga, I've been to just about every arena in the country known for raucous game-day environments. Indiana's Assembly Hall last Saturday was better than just about all of them. The only thing comparable is Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse. I definitely liked it better than Cameron Indoor Stadium, Rupp Arena and plenty of others. It wasn't so much the noise level but the consistent noise level that impressed me the most. Tom Crean told arena officials not to open the lines up to students until 3 p.m. for the 9 p.m. game, because he wanted them to rest during the day and preserve some energy. Smart move. "There's no question that this crowd was as exciting and as ecstatic as any I've ever been a part of here," Crean said. "And I've been a part of some unbelievable crowds here. They were there from start to finish."

B: Pittsburgh -- The Panthers are the most underrated team in the country. It took way too long for Jamie Dixon's squad to break into the top 25 rankings this week at No. 23. Pittsburgh has won six of its past seven games, with the only blemish coming in a 64-61 setback at Louisville. The unselfish Panthers rank sixth in the country in assists and are incredibly balanced offensively, with four players (Tray Woodall, Talib Zanna, J.J. Moore and Lamar Patterson) averaging between eight and 11 points. Pittsburgh's next two games (against Cincinnati and Marquette) are both on the road.

C: Mountain West Conference -- It may be time to temper our enthusiasm a bit in regard to the Mountain West Conference. It initially appeared that as many as six teams would make the NCAA tournament, but four is probably a more realistic number these days. Wyoming has taken a massive fall since losing Luke Martinez to a broken hand suffered in a bar fight. Boise State has lost four of its past six games. Even preseason league favorites UNLV and San Diego State have suffered recent setbacks that no one would've predicted. The Runnin' Rebels fell to Boise State and the Aztecs lost to Air Force. This is still a very good league -- but not quite as good as we initially thought.

D: Bill Self's rip job -- I've covered Self since he arrived at Kansas, and I can't ever remember him making public remarks as vicious as the ones he made about point guard Elijah Johnson following Saturday's home loss to Oklahoma State. Among them: "We don't have a point guard … It's sad. We needed something and we were definitely a better team with him over there sitting down next to us … Our ballhandling and our guard play has been terrible all year." Self let his emotions get the best of him. His team is 19-2 and on pace to win a ninth straight league title. Things could be a lot worse. Yes, Johnson struggled against a future lottery pick (OSU's Marcus Smart), but remember, he's playing out of position.

Kansas doesn't have any other options at point guard -- and that's not Johnson's fault. He's taking one for the team here, and his draft stock will probably suffer because of it. KU wouldn't have made it to the NCAA title game last season if not for Johnson's clutch performances in March. That may be why Self backtracked the following day. "He's my guy," Self said. "I'm going to ride him, and it doesn't make any difference what happens, statistically, as long as I know he's trying and cares."

F: "Bleed-out" uniforms: What were the folks at adidas thinking when they designed these monstrosities? Players from schools such as Michigan, Nebraska, Baylor and Wisconsin have all sported the new unis in recent weeks. The numbers are hard to make out and the names on the back are darn near impossible to read. Not that it's difficult to identify Wooden Award candidate Trey Burke or 7-foot center Isaiah Austin. But still, adidas, you can do better than that.

THIS WEEK'S POLL

Best post players in college basketball (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Jason King, Myron Medcalf and Dana O'Neil)

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana -- 46 (4)
2. Mason Plumlee, Duke -- 41 (1)
3. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga - 40
4. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky -- 32
5. Jeff Withey, Kansas -- 31
6. Anthony Bennett, UNLV -- 19
7. Laurence Bowers, Missouri -- 16
8. Mike Muscala, Bucknell -- 12
9. Patric Young, Florida -- 9
10. Isaiah Austin, Baylor -- 8

Also receiving votes: Jack Cooley, Notre Dame 4; Gorgui Dieng, Louisville 4; Kenny Kadji, Miami 3; Zeke Marshall, Akron 3; Alex Len, Maryland 2; Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota 2.

THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW

1. Freshmen such as Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA and Kaleb Tarczewski of Arizona received most of the attention back in the fall. But if the 2012-13 season ended today, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year would be Arizona State's Jahii Carson. Or at least it should be.

Heck, for that matter, tell me why Carson shouldn't be Pac-12 Player of the Year.

The point guard is averaging 18.3 points and 5.3 assists per game for a Sun Devils squad that has gone 17-5 and 6-3 after being picked to finish 11th in the league. Carson scored 32 points against Washington on Saturday and is averaging 22.4 points in his past five games.

"He's just quick -- so quick," Washington freshman Andrew Andrews said. "It was just a tough cover from a standpoint that he's so fast and shifty."

Much like Kansas freshman Ben McLemore, Carson no doubt benefited from sitting out the 2011-12 season after being deemed ineligible by the NCAA. He was allowed to practice with Arizona State, which has completely changed its style of play to cater to Carson's speed and quickness.

"We're not entirely surprised [by his early success]," Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek said Tuesday. "We obviously recruited him with very high expectations. We think it's a very good fit. It's a situation he's been able to capitalize on very well."

2. Even though it lost 76-74 in overtime at Michigan Tuesday, Ohio State should be encouraged by its performance.

During the first few months of the season there was concern about the Buckeyes' depth beyond point guard Aaron Craft and forward Deshaun Thomas. But now that hardly appears to be an issue.

Just look at all the players who stepped up Tuesday. Seventeen of Ohio State's final 22 points in regulation were scored by players other than Craft and Thomas. There was Lenzelle Smith Jr.'s 18-footer with 28 seconds remaining that forced a 72-72 tie and, eventually, overtime. Amir Williams blocked four shots, LaQuinton Ross scored 16 points and Sam Thompson had seven points and two swats.

"I can't tell you how much I respect how well Ohio State plays defense," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Craft is like no other I've ever seen. Now they've got some shot-blockers in there as well. I thought we had to earn almost every basket today."

Frustrated as they were by the loss, Ohio State's players were proud of their effort.

"We got better today," Craft said. "That's the bigger picture. It's great that our team cares and that people are in [the locker room] hurting right now. That's the way I think we need to have it.

"When we get on the plane, we're going to be all right. The sun is going to come up tomorrow. We've got to pick ourselves up. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. We can't take steps back. That'd be the worst thing we could do."

3. Iowa State appears poised for a strong second-half surge. The Cyclones have won three of their past four games -- all of which came against some of the Big 12's best teams. They beat Kansas State (by six points), Baylor (eight) and Oklahoma (19) in Ames, Iowa, and lost to Oklahoma State 78-76 in Stillwater, Okla.

Iowa State is 16-6 overall and 6-3 in the Big 12.

"I've really been pleased with the growth of our team," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg told ESPN.com after Monday's win over Oklahoma. "If you look at where we are right now, we're in a pretty good position. We lost to Kansas on a banked 3 and to Oklahoma State when things didn't go our way down the stretch. But we're playing really good basketball right now. I really like our guys' focus and effort."

Iowa State touts one of the top offensive attacks in college basketball. The Cyclones' 78.5 points per game ranks 12th in the nation. In Monday's win over Oklahoma, six players made 3-pointers in the first nine minutes.

Even more impressive is that Iowa State ranks 15th in the country in rebounding. Power forward Melvin Ejim -- who averages a Big 12-best 9.4 boards per contest -- is just 6-foot-6. And center Georges Niang is only 6-7.

"Melvin is a tenacious rebounder," Hoiberg said. "He goes after it every time. We want our 3, 4 and 5 guys crashing the offensive glass. Melvin is the one that does it every single possession.

"Georges is a strong rebounder. He doesn't have great lift, but he wedges guys out. He uses his body and does a good job of getting to the boards. [Small forward] Will Clyburn can get you eight a game too. That helps.

"We feel like if we can control the glass, we can beat anybody."

4. One of the hottest players in the country during the past month has been Memphis guard Joe Jackson. The junior is averaging 16.3 points in his past 10 games and is shooting 59.5 percent from the field during that span. On the season, Jackson has made 53.1 percent of his attempts from 3-point range.

"He's playing at an extremely high level," Tigers coach Josh Pastner said by phone Tuesday. "He's been extremely efficient. Remember now, he was the MVP of our conference tournament as a freshman and sophomore. That's rarefied air."

Jackson's efforts have helped Memphis win 12 straight games and 16 of its past 17 overall. Pastner's squad is currently tied with Southern Miss for first place in the Conference USA standings. The teams meet Saturday in Hattiesburg, Miss.

"We haven't hit our ceiling," Pastner said. "We've still got room for growth."

5. The race in the Missouri Valley Conference appears to be a two-team affair between Creighton and Wichita State. But it wouldn't surprise me if Illinois State made some noise during the next month, maybe even earning an automatic NCAA tournament berth by winning the league tournament in St. Louis.

The Redbirds were picked to finish third in the league but lost their first six conference games under new coach Dan Muller. They've since regrouped and won four of their past five, including big victories over Indiana State and Evansville. Forward Jackie Carmichael (17.9 points, 9.4 rebounds) is one of the top post players in the country.

Illinois State threw a scare into Louisville back in December before falling 69-66 at the KFC Yum! Center.

STARTING FIVE

Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.

Kansas' All-Bill Self team

Starters

PG: Sherron Collins -- School's fifth all-time leading scorer won 130 career games
SG: Mario Chalmers -- Current Miami Heat starter hit the shot that led to 2008 NCAA title
SF: Brandon Rush -- Only player to earn first-team All-Big 12 honor three straight years
PF: Thomas Robinson -- Went from reserve to first-team All-American in 2011-12
C: Cole Aldrich -- Shot-swatter was one of the country's most feared defensive players

Bench

SG: Keith Langford -- KU's seventh all-time leading scorer played his best in big games
SF: Marcus Morris -- First-team All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year in 2010-11
PF: Wayne Simien -- First-team All-American and Big 12 POY in 2004-05; jersey retired

RAPID FIRE

Still unbeaten in big six conference: Miami
Still winless in big six conference: Penn State and TCU
Underrated weekend game: Memphis at Southern Miss
Underrated player: Michael Lyons, Air Force
Odd tournament résumé: Virginia
Odd streak: Oregon's 10-game losing skid to Cal
Firing I didn't expect in the preseason: Blaine Taylor at Old Dominion
Wooden candidate I didn't expect in the preseason: Victor Oladipo at Indiana
Wild races you know about: Pac-12 and Atlantic 10
Wild races you don't know: Southland and Summit
Suddenly moving down to the bubble: Wichita State
Suddenly moving up to the bubble: Arkansas

PREDICTION TIME

Duke 74, versus North Carolina State 64: The Wolfpack may be the most talented team in the ACC, but it is also the most enigmatic. NC State beat Duke in Raleigh, N.C., back on Jan. 12 but has since lost four of its past six.

Colorado 66, at Oregon 60: The Buffs need some quality wins -- especially on the road -- to beef up their NCAA tournament résumé. A victory over the No. 19 Ducks is a great place to start. Oregon is 0-2 since losing starting guard Dominic Artis to a foot injury.

Kansas 60, at Oklahoma 49: The Jayhawks will be fired up after losing at home to Oklahoma State Saturday. The Sooners are looking to snap a two-game losing streak. KU won the previous meeting 67-54 in Lawrence, Kan.

Miami 76, versus North Carolina 64: The Hurricanes have already defeated North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. So it's only natural to believe they'll emerge victorious on their home court. Don't expect a win as lopsided as Miami's 27-point stomping of Duke, but it could still be convincing.

Louisville 73, at Notre Dame 69: The Joyce Center is normally one of the toughest places to win in college basketball, but the Fighting Irish have already dropped two Big East games there this season. Louisville can't afford any more losses to lesser teams if it hopes to win the league title.

Iowa State 70, at Kansas State 68: The Cyclones are 6-3 in the Big 12 but only 1-3 in league road games. ISU played well in two of those losses, however. It was on its way to a win at Kansas before Ben McLemore banked in a 3-pointer with 1 second remaining to force overtime. And Marcus Smart's layup with 3 seconds remaining lifted Oklahoma State to a 78-76 win over the Cyclones in Stillwater.

Pittsburgh 60, at Cincinnati 55: Pittsburgh is the hot team right now, so I'll go with the Panthers. But this game should definitely be close. Cincinnati's four losses this season have come by a combined 10 points. Three of those setbacks have come at home.

PIT STOPS

Sweet Water Tavern, Detroit: I'm a wing guy. Anyone who knows me will vouch for me on that one. Offer me the choice of a steak from Morton's or some buffalo-ized bird from The Peanut in Kansas City, and I'm going with the chicken every time. Each time I'm in a new area, I hop on Google and type in "Best Wings in (insert city)." That's how I found Sweet Water Tavern. After just one wing, SWT catapulted into third place on my national top 10 list for wing joints, trailing only The Peanut and Oscar's in Omaha, Neb. I like wings that have character, and that was certainly the case at Sweet Water, where the secret sauce has a slight vinegary tang to it but also a decent amount of heat. I also loved the way the wings were cooked -- just long enough to make the skin a bit crispy without drying out the meat underneath. There were 12 good-sized wings in my order and, seriously, those bad boys were so good that I never even touched the ramekin of blue cheese that came on the side.

Hinkle's Hamburgers, Bloomington, Ind.: My pregame meal before any Indiana game always takes place at Hinkle's, an old mom-and-pop kinda joint a few miles away from campus. The burgers aren't huge, probably triple the weight of a basic slider from White Castle. So most people wouldn't have a problem downing two of those suckers. What makes Hinkle's burgers unique is that the cook mixes onions into the meat as he's preparing the patty. Each meal is served steaming hot, with cheese dripping off the side of the bun by the time the food hits the table. I like mine with pickles and mustard -- and the crinkle-cut fries have an old-school feel, as well. "You're not driving, are ya?" the sweet little lady who runs Hinkle's once asked me as I stumbled out the door in a burger coma. "I can't believe you're going to make me clean these tables all by myself."