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 Wildcats Rising
Mike and Mike: Dick Vitale sizes up the NCAA contenders and picks Kentucky as one of his Final Four favorites.

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C-USA tourney promises intrigue


Championship Week figures to be something special. There's plenty at stake. Several teams are battling to get off the bubble and lock up invites to the Big Dance. Others are trying to improve their seeding.

The Conference USA tournament in Cincinnati should prove to be especially interesting. Can C-USA send six teams to the NCAA Tournament? Early on, there are intriguing potential matchups.

Rick Pitino
If Louisville beats East Carolina, coach Rick Pitino's Cardinals would face the host Bearcats in the quarterfinals! Talk about a super showdown -- these teams were in the top 10 in America when they met Jan. 21 (a 93-66 Louisville win). A month later, Cincinnati won 66-61.

DePaul is the top seed in the C-USA tourney, and DePaul coach Dave Leitao should receive consideration for national coach of the year. The Blue Demons have made the NCAAs just once in the past 11 seasons, though it looks like they're going this time. DePaul (19-8, 12-4 C-USA) could face a hungry Marquette team that just beat Louisville (if the Golden Eagles get past TCU in the opening round). Imagine that, a battle of the Dieners, Marquette's Travis Diener against his cousin, DePaul's Drake Diener.

Two teams on the bubble that should get invitations to the NCAA Tournament are Washington and Florida State.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar has done a great job with a team that opened the Pac-10 season 0-5. Washington closed the regular season 12-2 in its last 14 games, going 12-1 in Pac-10 play. The Huskies lost a nail-biter at NC State, the team that finished No. 2 in the ACC, the best league in the nation.

Washington really showed something by handing Stanford its first loss of the season Saturday. The Huskies also swept Arizona this season, and it's never easy to win at the McKale Center in Tucson.

As for Florida State, I can hear people saying that the Seminoles went 6-10 in the ACC. Florida State still won 18 games, including big victories over North Carolina, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Maryland.

Coach Leonard Hamilton's 'Noles played so many good teams close, losing to Pittsburgh by 7, NC State by 5, Virginia in overtime by 9, Wake Forest in overtime by 3, North Carolina by 7 and Duke twice, by 7 and 5.

Unbeaten Saint Joseph's is certainly a special team -- and trust me, the Atlantic 10 is a better conference than it's given credit for.

The A-10 is tougher than people believe. There's sensational coaching in the league, as well as tough road spots like Saint Joseph's, Temple, Xavier, Richmond, Rhode Island and Dayton.

Xavier and Richmond certainly could challenge for NCAA berths with strong showings in the A-10 tourney. Xavier could meet Saint Joe's in the A-10 quarters.

Think about how many close games North Carolina has lost this season! I told coach Roy Williams before the Duke game that his Tar Heels are about five possessions away from being a top-five team.

What has impressed me is that Williams' kids have brought into his system and are working harder on defense. It really showed in the first half at Duke on Saturday. In the end, the Tar Heels fell short, 70-65. But trust me, North Carolina has the potential to make it to the Final Four in San Antonio.

Williams has made the Final Four the past two years when he coached at Kansas. Can he make it three straight?

Isn't it amazing to see storied programs like Georgetown and UCLA struggling to get into their conference tournaments?

The Hoyas lost to Virginia Tech on Saturday afternoon and had to sweat it out, waiting to see what Miami did at home against West Virginia on Saturday night. The Hurricanes lost, leaving the Hoyas in a matchup against Boston College in the opening round of the Big East tournament.

UCLA lost to Oregon and had to wait to see what happened with Oregon State on Saturday night. The Beavers lost to USC, so coach Ben Howland's Bruins face red-hot Washington in the Pac-10 quarterfinals. UCLA swept the season series.

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