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Would you rather coast or be tested?

The closer Gregg Marshall got to March last year, the more he heard it -- that Wichita State, plowing through the nonconference and Missouri Valley seasons, needed to lose.

It would be good for the Shockers, that's what people argued, to get the goose egg-shaped bull's-eye off their backs as they headed into the three-week rigors of the NCAA tournament.

Marshall didn't get the rationale then; he doesn't get it now. Since when, he wondered, is losing good for you?

"I certainly enjoyed last year, I can tell you that,'' he said. "No one likes to get their nose bloodied, I can tell you that. Sometimes in life, it might help you to learn a lesson, understand that there are pitfalls out there, but no one likes it. If I had my choice, I'd take no bloody nose.''

This year could present an interesting case study in NCAA tournament prep. Two teams are currently undefeated overall; another (Gonzaga) is likely to skate through a protracted winning streak thanks to a lousy conference; another (Wisconsin) could be barely challenged. Elsewhere in the country -- like in the ACC, Big 12 and Big East -- no one is going to come out unscathed.

So who will be better served?

"I had one veteran coach tell me one time, that the less games you have to be stressed about the better you are in March,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. "Other coaches have told me, 'No, you're better if you're battle-tested.' So I don't really know which is the best.''

History doesn't offer an assist.

On the one hand, the Big East in 2011 put 10 teams into the tourney on the backbone of its well-respected league. Only two made it out of the first weekend, although one -- UConn -- won it all.

Then again, Gonzaga has been the class of the West Coast Conference for years and has yet to make it to the Final Four, let alone win a title.

In 2012, Kentucky lost just two games -- one on a buzzer-beater to Indiana -- and won a national championship. The next year, Louisville took its Big East lumps, including a three-game skid in January, and won a national championship.

And then there's the Wichita situation. Did the Shockers lose to Kentucky in the second round because they hadn't lost before? Or because Fred VanVleet's 3-pointer just missed?

So which is it: better to go into March like a lion or a lamb?

"I don't know, to be honest with you,'' said West Virginia's Bob Huggins. "Maybe it depends on how fragile the psyche of your team is.''

With that uncertainty in mind, then, let's look at the top contenders and figure out whether they are more likely to be lambs or lions, and what it might mean.

Kentucky
Lamb. Most troubling game, per Ken Pomeroy: at Georgia, 82 percent chance of winning. Kentucky has the best chance at perfection thanks to the unchallenging SEC, but will that make the Cats complacent? They looked that way against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, but have since won by an average 24.5 points per game. This team is built for one thing -- to win it all.

Virginia
Lion. Most troubling game, per KenPom: at North Carolina, 69 percent. The Cavaliers might be favored to win the rest of their games, but it won't be easy -- not with Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Syracuse left. Regardless, long-term effects shouldn't be heavy on a veteran team that actually likes games to be rock fights.

Gonzaga
Lamb. Most troubling game, per KenPom: at Saint Mary's, 78 percent. The Zags are an interesting conundrum. They're likely headed to yet another No. 1 seed, a gaudy record and a host of doubters. Why? Because two years ago, they were a No. 1 seed with a gaudy record and lost in the second round. Lamb or lion, Gonzaga will carry an awful lot of pressure with it into the tourney.

Wisconsin
Hybrid. Most troubling game, per KenPom: at Maryland, 59 percent. Without injured Traevon Jackson, everything is a little more difficult. The upside -- he should be back for the tourney. More, the Badgers aren't likely to overlook anyone after last year's stinging Final Four disappointment.

Arizona
Hybrid. Most troubling game, per KenPom: at Utah, 37 percent. The Cats are easily the class of the league, but their margin for error is smaller than it was a year ago.

Duke
Lion. Most troubling game, per KenPom: at Virginia, 10 percent. Unbalanced scheduling is the Blue Devils' enemy. They still have both Carolina and Syracuse twice, plus on the road at Virginia and Notre Dame. After Mercer from a year ago, hard to imagine the Devils will be relaxed.

North Carolina
Lion. Most troubling game, per KenPom: home against Virginia, 31 percent. North Carolina already is banged up, so the rugged schedule isn't necessarily a good thing.

Utah
Lion. Most troubling game, per KenPom: home against Arizona, 63 percent. The Utes could use the challenge. This whole expectation thing is new to Utah, so tough games and close games will only help.

Villanova
Hybrid. Most troubling game, per KenPom: 53 percent at Butler, Xavier. The Wildcats are in the same pickle as the Big 12. The Big East has a terrific RPI -- rated No. 2 overall -- but just how good is the league, really? How many Final Four-worthy teams are there outside of Villanova? The Cats are in danger of looking better on paper than they should.

The entire Big 12
Lion. As I wrote on Saturday, the perception versus reality of the Big 12 will be an interesting case study come March. Don't expect the league to be punished for beating up on one another. What will be interesting is to see how the league actually performs.

LAYUPS

1. Once again this week, the Associated Press ranked 25 teams. None of them were named Michigan, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida or UConn. The last time that didn't happen before this season?

March 10, 1997, according to our crackerjack Stats & Info folks.

Why does that matter? Because sports thrive on big names and college basketball right now is without some of its traditionally biggest. Those five schools count 28 Final Fours among them and at least one has appeared in five of the past six national semifinals.

This past weekend, four of the five (all but UConn, big winners over South Florida) lost.

"There are still interesting games going on, but when it doesn't include the sexier names that the casual fan might be attracted to, it adds to the confusion,'' said Greg Shaheen, who spent a decade essentially running the NCAA tournament. "It's really hard for people right now to get their bearings -- and that includes basketball junkies who watch the game closely.''

College basketball is wildly cyclical, especially with the NBA claiming more and more players early. Sustaining excellence on a revolving door ain't easy, and all five of these schools just happened to hit a downward spiral at the same time. Syracuse, UConn and Michigan lost six players early to the NBA last year, while Michigan State and Florida said goodbye to six seniors.

It happens, but the fact that it is happening simultaneously has landed a body blow to the game, taking even more air out of conference races, and by extension the game.

How much better would the league be perceived if the Wolverines and Spartans were close to normal? Instead, the circle-the-date game right now is between Wisconsin and Maryland -- and plenty of people still forget the Terps are even in the Big Ten.

Or the SEC? How much more compelling would Kentucky's chase for perfection be if it had its regular foil in Gainesville? Instead the Gators, losers to Ole Miss on Saturday, now have lost three in a row to fall to 10-9.

The American grabbed hold of UConn for its identity last season, riding all the way to the championship game. Now with a struggling Huskies team, the conference has no real presence in the national picture. Not a single American team has been ranked in the AP poll since the third week of the year.

And while the ACC is humming along thanks to a top-heavy conference, anchored by Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Louisville, let's be honest, games at the Carrier Dome tend to lend themselves to a big-time feel.

"With eight weeks to go, basically halfway through the season, it's really hard to get your bearings,'' Shaheen said. "It's not what we're used to.''

2. OK, so we've talked about what ails the game. How about what's gone surprisingly well? What players, teams and coaches are exceeding our expectations?

Melo Trimble. When Seth Allen joined the un-merry band of transfers leaving Maryland, wondering how the Terps would make do without their point guard was a legit question. Enter Trimble. The McDonald's All American not only has helped turn Maryland's fortunes around (Mark Turgeon was on a pretty fiery hot seat in the preseason), but he's earned himself spots on most national player of the year lists and virtually all freshman of the year lists.

Rakeem Christmas. Maybe this should be reworded to say meeting expectations. Syracuse fans have been waiting for Christmas to arrive for four years, and he finally has. The senior has nearly tripled his scoring production -- from 5.8 points per game a year ago to 18 this season, and also is pulling down 8.8 boards per game.

• Indiana coach Tom Crean has gone from the coach who ought to be fired to the potential coach of the year in the Big Ten. It's not just the turnaround from the off-court troubles early to a15-5 record, but the way he's adjusted his coaching style with a smaller lineup since losing Hanner Perea to injury. The catch: The Hoosiers haven't done much on the road yet -- evidenced by Sunday's loss to Ohio State.

Josh Smith. Plenty of folks (present company included) thought John Thompson III had lost his marbles when he brought in the UCLA reclamation project. Now the Georgetown big man has been a model of consistency. He's averaging 12.3 points and 6.4 boards (and had 18 and 15 against Marquette) to help the Hoyas find their Big East footing.

• Davidson. Adding Bob McKillop's squad to any league is a good thing, but certainly it would be fair to assume the Wildcats might have some growing pains jumping to the Atlantic 10. Instead they are 5-2 in the league, with an impressive 17-point win against Dayton last week.

FREE THROWS

• Northern Iowa hasn't beaten Wichita State since Feb. 2, 2013, but the Panthers may have their best chance Saturday. They are undefeated at home and rank sixth in the nation in scoring defense, compared to Wichita, ranked 17th.

• He won't necessarily earn many player of the year votes, but there are few people doing more for their team than Providence's Kris Dunn. He averages 14.5 points per game, 7.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and plays 33 minutes.

• Bruce Pearl returns to Knoxville on Saturday when Auburn plays at Tennessee. It was Pearl's NCAA indiscretions, of course, that led the Volunteers to hire Cuonzo Martin. That didn't go too well, and Martin bolted for Cal. Tennessee hired Donnie Tyndall, who himself is under NCAA investigation for transgressions at Southern Miss. So does that make Pearl the prodigal son or the man who started the mess?

• Player of the week honors to Charleston Southern's Saah Nimley. The senior dropped 37 on Gardner-Webb on Saturday (or what Golden State's Klay Thompson calls a quarter) and now has topped the 30-point mark in four consecutive games. In his first game of the year, Nimley was 1-of-11. He is 38-of-88 in the past four. Best of all -- his Twitter handle is @CantGuardNims. Who are we to argue?

AND ONE

Mike Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game on Sunday in New York. Perhaps you heard? Duke lover or hater, there is no arguing the merits of the accomplishment. It is about success, longevity and, maybe most of all, flexibility. The game isn't the same as when he started. Even more, neither are the players. Yet this generation has the same sort of respect for Coach K as his first batch of Cadets at West Point, as evidenced by his latest greatest player, Jahlil Okafor, who posted this after Duke beat St. John's: