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Posted: Thursday March 4, 2010 1:56PM; Updated: Thursday March 4, 2010 3:34PM
Stewart Mandel

'Cuse claims the top spot; New Mexico vaults into the top five (cont.)

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
9Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 7
I've kept 'Nova this high primarily because of its strong body of work, but let's face it, the Wildcats have slipped since their schedule got tougher in February (4-4 since Feb. 6). They will need a strong showing in the Big East tournament next week to inspire confidence they remain a viable Final Four candidate.

While there's certainly no shame in losing at Syracuse -- particularly in front of a record regular-season crowd, as was the case last Saturday -- but the Orange badly outclassed them in nearly every area. Defense has been this team's sore spot all season, and the Orange thoroughly exploited it, scoring an insane 42 points in the paint in their 95-77 dismantling.

To their credit, the Wildcats recovered nicely in Tuesday's 77-73 win at Cincinnati. They denied the ball in the lane, forcing the Bearcats to take outside shots, of which they made just seven of 30. Even then, however, Villanova nearly blew a 16-point lead with six minutes left before Scottie Reynolds bailed them out with some late free throws. And Cincinnati isn't exactly a tournament-quality foe.

Next up: 3/6 vs. West Virginia, 3/11 vs. TBD (Big East tournament).
10West Virginia Mountaineers
Last Week: 13
It hasn't always been pretty, but the Mountaineers are sitting in fairly good shape heading into next week's Big East tournament following home wins over Cincinnati and Georgetown. Regardless of Saturday's outcome at Villanova, Bob Huggins' team is assured a top-four seed in the Big East tournament and its accompanying double-bye. (They won't play until Thursday's quarterfinals.) Win at least a game there and they could be looking at as high as a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs.

There was a point last Saturday when it looked like WVU might be heading in the opposite direction. Huggins' old team, Cincinnati, came into the Coliseum and built a 13-point lead. Top scorer Da'Sean Butler was held to a season-low eight points. But the Mountaineers pounded the glass in the second half and eventually pulled away from the cold-shooting Bearcats.

Monday night was far happier tale, as WVU delivered a Senior Day beatdown of depleted Georgetown (star Austin Freeman missed the game), going up as much as 25 before winning 81-68. Butler was more himself in that one, scoring 22 in his final home game. Charleston Gazette columnist Mitch Vingle wonders whether it was sophomore Devin Ebanks' last appearance there, as well.

Next up: 3/6 at Villanova, 3/11 vs. TBD (Big East tournament).
11Butler Bulldogs
Last Week: 11
As much as the Bulldogs have dominated the Horizon League during the regular season the past four years, they haven't always followed it with a title in the league tournament. Two of the past three years, someone has knocked off Butler and earned themselves an NCAA bid they otherwise might not have gotten. (Last year's winner, Cleveland State, went on to knock off Wake Forest in the NCAA first round.)

If any such thing happens this year, however, it would be considered a huge upset. Not only did Butler make it through the Horizon's 18-game league season unblemished, but the tourney format is such that the Bulldogs have a bye into the semifinals -- and will host both the semis and title game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Best of luck, Horizon League.

Of course, the fact that every possible factor is in place to prevent that conference from getting a second NCAA berth comes as great news to fans of other bubble teams around the country.

Next up: 3/6 vs. TBD (Horizon League tournament).
12Vanderbilt Commodores
Last Week: 15
Vandy is very quietly playing some of its best ball of the season. Beginning on Feb. 9, when they crushed Tennessee 90-71, the Commodores have won six of seven, their sole loss came on a last-second home heartbreaker against Kentucky. They followed up an 89-72 road dismantling of Arkansas with another road win on Tuesday, an impressive 64-60 takedown of Florida at the O-Dome. It marked their first season sweep of the Gators since 1997.

The overriding difference in that Florida game was three-point shooting -- Vandy hit half of its attempts (10-of-20, including 6-of-9 from John Jenkins), while Florida went just 2-for-13. If the 'Dores played defense like that every game, they'd be a surefire pick to go deep in the NCAAs, because hot-shooting opponents always create the biggest upset trap.

But just two games earlier, Vandy found itself in an unexpected shootout -- at home -- against Georgia (12-13 at the time). The 'Dores finally prevailed, 96-94, by hitting two huge shots in the last 33 seconds to force overtime. Offensively, there's a lot to like about A.J. Ogilvy and Co., and they can play with nearly anyone, but their inconsistent defense leaves them susceptible to upsets.

Next up: 3/6 vs. South Carolina, 3/12 vs. TBD (SEC tournament).
13Temple Owls
Last Week: 14
Temple has long been a nationally competitive program -- spare it the "mid-major" label -- but about once every 10 to 12 years the Owls field a truly special team. There was the Mark Macon-led 1988 team that won 30-plus games and earned a No. 1 NCAA seed, reaching the Elite Eight. There was the Pepe Sanchez-led 2000 team that earned a No. 2 seed but got upset in the second round. This year's squad isn't quite on the same level as those great John Chaney teams, but Fran Dunphy's fourth Temple squad is putting the finishing touches on its best regular season in more than a decade.

With last weekend's win over LaSalle, the kings of Philly earned just their seventh outright Big 5 title, going 4-0 against their crosstown foes. They followed that up with a road win Wednesday at St. Louis that assured the Owls a share of their first Atlantic 10 crown since that 2000 season and the No. 1 seed in next week's conference tourney.

With its patently pesky defense that ranks No. 6 in adjusted efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, Temple could certainly do some damage in the Dance. And with just two seniors in the rotation, here's guessing next year will produce the school's next nationally elite team.

Next up: 3/6 vs. George Washington, 3/12 vs. TBD (Atlantic 10 tournament).
14Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Week: 16
The Panthers will be heavy favorites in their last two regular-season games, both at home, against Providence and Rutgers. Should they win both, they'll finish 13-5 in the Big East and be guaranteed a double-bye at the Big East tournament -- possibly finishing as high as second. It would be a remarkable feat for Jamie Dixon, arguably his finest coaching job to date, one that will earn him potential national accolades. And the amazing part is, we haven't even gotten to his traditional favorite stomping ground.

Pittsburgh has performed very well in the Big East tournament dating to Ben Howland's tenure, reaching the final seven of the past nine years (with championships in 2003 and '08). Having said that, last year -- the league's first with a double-bye -- the Panthers lost their first game, to West Virginia, which had played the night before.

"You would think on paper it would be a good thing, but last year didn't turn out to be a good thing,'' Dixon said. "It's something the coaches have to talk about."

Next up: 3/4 vs. Providence, 3/6 vs. Rutgers, TBD (Big East tournament).
15Brigham Young Cougars
Last Week: 12
The Cougars' 83-81 loss to New Mexico last Saturday in the "biggest game in Mountain West history" was undeniably crushing, but it came with a silver lining: BYU fans found out they're going to be loaded at point guard the next couple of years.

BYU lost all-conference star Jimmer Fredette early in the second half yet had a chance to win right to the end because Michael Lloyd Jr., the team's third-string point guard (the second-stringer is hurt), came in and simply electrified the court. The sophomore, who came in averaging barely three points per game, lit up the Lobos for 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting.

Four nights later, Fredette was back in the fold for the Cougars, but coach Dave Rose wisely employed both guards at Utah. The result: Lloyd sprung for another 18 points and BYU cruised to a 71-51 win. Here's guessing we'll see more offensive sparks from Lloyd later this month.

Next up: 3/6 at TCU, 3/11 vs. TBD (Mountain West tournament).
16Tennessee Volunteers
Last Week: 22
When the brackets are announced next Sunday and the various talking heads take to the air to predict who they believe will win this year's national title, they really ought to seek out the opinion of one person in particular: Vols coach Bruce Pearl. He is the only coach in the country to have beaten two of the likely No. 1 seeds in this year's tourney, Kansas and Kentucky.

Tennessee's roller coaster of a season has seen its share of lows (a 77-55 December drubbing at USC; the January dismissal of star Tyler Smith and suspensions of three others following their Jan. 1 arrests for gun possession; blowout loss at Vanderbilt and Florida) and two incredible highs.

As CBS Sports' Gary Parrish wrote after last weekend's Kentucky win, Pearl is making a habit of churning out overachieving teams that annually deliver big-time victories. The only negative: He's yet to lead the Vols past the Sweet 16. It's hard to see that drought ending this year; Tennessee is too inconsistent. But they're a whole lot closer than anyone would have envisioned back when Smith got booted.

Next up: 3/6 at Mississippi State, 3/11 vs. TBD (SEC tournament).

The rest: 17. Michigan State. 18. Maryland. 19. Wisconsin. 20. Xavier. 21. Gonzaga. 22. Richmond. 23. Texas A&M. 24. Georgetown. 25. UTEP. 26. Baylor. 27. Marquette. 28. Northern Iowa. 29. Missouri. 30. Clemson. 31. Texas. 32. Oklahoma State.

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