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Cyclone warning!

Iowa St. is the hottest team heading into the tourney

Posted: Tuesday February 22, 2005 10:29AM; Updated: Tuesday February 22, 2005 11:12AM
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Curtis Stinson
After losing their first five conference games, the Cyclones have won seven straight in Big 12 play.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

We're now less than three weeks from Selection Sunday. You've got questions, I've got answers. Herewith the most pressing 10:

1. Who will be the hottest team heading into the tournament?

Gotta go with Iowa State here. The Cyclones lost their first five games in Big 12 play, including to bottom-feeders Missouri, Colorado and Kansas State. They followed that by reeling off seven-straight wins, including some over top-tier squads Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas. With four winnable games remaining, this team will probably be riding an 11-game win streak heading into the Big 12 Tournament. They also have two attributes that are tailor-made for NCAA tournament success. In Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock, they have two guards who can score and create for teammates (think Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd, who led Ohio State to a spot in the 1999 Final Four). They also play a 2-3 zone almost the entire game. As a Jim Boeheim-disciple, Iowa State coach Wayne Morgan knows how to ride that zone to success in March.

2. Which team, not currently being tossed about as a possible No. 1-seed, is the most likely No. 1-seed?

You might say Oklahoma State, but I've heard them mentioned enough to turn elsewhere. So how about Arizona? The Wildcats have just four losses, are ranked ninth this week and are also ninth in the RPI. If they win their final three games (which would mean they swept Washington) plus the Pac-10 tourney, they'll be in excellent position to get onto that top line if someone else should falter.

3. Which team outside the top 25 has the best chance to make the Final Four?

Notre Dame remains unranked even though I've been consistently putting the Irish on my AP ballot (I had 'em 18th this week), but I can't imagine any team would be happy facing Georgia Tech in the tournament. Yes, the Jackets needed a questionable call from the refs and two late free throws from B.J. Elder to edge Florida State on Saturday. But Tech led for virtually the entire game and is showing signs of getting stronger. Besides Syracuse, there won't be any other team in the field of 65 with four starters who played in an NCAA championship game. That's a major plus.

4. Which team currently out of the tournament has the best chance to play its way in?

Memphis, but it won't be easy. The Tigers are currently ahead of DePaul and Cincinnati (two NCAA locks) in the Conference USA standings, but because they have so many bad home losses they are ranked 111th in the RPI. The good news: Three of their remaining four games are at Charlotte, then at home against Louisville and Cincinnati. Memphis also hosts the Conference USA tournament. If they can somehow get four more wins, I think they'd be in.

5. Which team currently in the tournament is most likely to play its way out?

Georgetown is 8-5 in the Big East with good wins at Pitt and at Villanova, and home against Notre Dame. However, the Hoyas also lost to Oral Roberts and were handled by St. John's last weekend. If they lose their next two to Villanova and Connecticut, that would put them on a four-game losing streak, making their season finale at home against Providence essentially a play-in game.

6. Of all the mid-major powerhouses, which would pose the most interesting case if it loses in its conference tournament?

This one is real easy: Vermont. The Catamounts were ranked 15th in the RPI heading into their game at Nevada last Saturday. They lost that game and jumped to 14. Don't bother trying to figure that out, but keep in mind that according to RPI guru Jerry Palm, the highest-ranked team to be denied an at-large bid was Oklahoma in 1994, when the Sooners were 33rd. Vermont's RPI is inflated because the Catamounts played Kansas and North Carolina, and they have also benefited greatly from the off-season change to give added weight to road games. (Under the old formula, Vermont would be 32nd.) If Vermont lost in the America East tournament and got an at-large bid, it would be the first time that happened for a team from the America East conference. Sorry to say it, but I think that's highly unlikely.

7. Which mid-major team does a high seed really want to avoid?

Setting Gonzaga aside, my answer is clearly Southern Illinois. A mid-major is supposed to be at a disadvantage in experience, but the Salukis have earned three consecutive at-large bids to the tournament -- including in 2002, when they beat Texas Tech and Georgia to reach the Sweet Sixteen. That means they know how to win and won't be unfamiliar with the one-and-done crucible of March Madness. I hope you took my advice and checked out Salukis 6-foot-3 junior guard Darren Brooks, who leads the team in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals. He's an old-school gem.

8. Which team helped itself the most during the Bracket Buster games?

I'm tempted to answer Wisconsin-Milwaukee because the Panthers' win over Hawai'i came on the road, but Nevada's home win over Vermont did more to shore up its NCAA tourney hopes. The Wolf Pack got off to a rough start this season, getting blown out at Kansas before losing at Toledo and home to Pacific in early December. They have played much better since then but still needed a signature win. Besides improving their tournament resume, Nevada also got itself ranked in the AP's Top 25 for the first time ever. That's good buzz to be creating in late February.

9. What matters more, the RPI rankings or the poll rankings?

I've cited the RPI rankings often here because they are a fair barometer of how a team stands heading into the tournament, but the poll rankings are a much better indicator of how the top of the brackets will be seeded. There's no better example of that than Illinois, which is ranked fourth in the RPI but first in both polls and would be the No. 1-overall seed in the tournament if today were Selection Sunday. In fact, to really figure out who's in and who's out, the best place to look is the conference rankings. It's highly unusual that the selection committee would invite a team that's lower in its own league standings than another team the committee left home.

10. The Pac-10 is ranked second in the Conference RPI, and the Big East is third. Does that mean the Pac-10 will get more bids?

Of course not. As Palm puts, the conference RPI rankings are "basically useless." The Pac-10 is ranked so high because the bottom teams in that league still have pretty respectable RPI rankings. Just one Pac-10 team (Cal) is outside the top 110, while the Big East has four.