Fo, Fo, Fo: In the shadow of scandal, here come Kansas, Duke and North Carolina as contenders (again)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fo, Fo, Fo is more than just a  nod to legend Moses Malone . It’s columnist Kyle Tucker’s weekly college basketball rundown: Four No. 1 seeds for the NCAA Tournament, four other dangerous teams and four games he can’t wait to watch. 

By the end of last week, the rapidly approaching postseason had taken a back seat to bombshell Yahoo Sports and ESPN reports that expanded the scope of a college basketball scandal ignited last summer by a years-long FBI investigation that seems to have touched every major program in the country in some way.

There will be plenty of time to wade through that mess, which isn’t going away anytime soon and seems certain to only get messier, but for now we’ll focus on the actual basketball. Without trying to guess which of these teams broke rules and might have to vacate any deep run they make next month, our current crop of contenders:

Fo No. 1 seeds

Virginia (26-2) — Since having their 15-game losing streak snapped by rival Virginia Tech (a one-point overtime loss), the Cavaliers have won at Miami, handled Georgia Tech at home and absolutely obliterated Pittsburgh on the road. The Panthers are terrible, yes, but holding them to just 7 first-half points and 37 total points was another suffocating display by the stingiest defense in the nation. And a helluva way to clinch a third outright ACC regular-season title in the last five years. Tony Bennett has turned the Cavaliers, who hadn’t won an outright league crown since 1981 before this recent run, into a power in the most prestigious conference in college hoops.

Villanova (25-4) — Jay Wright’s team is trending in the wrong direction as March approaches. After starting 22-1, the Wildcats have lost 3 of 6, including Saturday’s overtime loss at Creighton (which had lost 4 of 6). Nova still has the nation’s most efficient offense, but its defense, which ranks 150 th in Division I in points per game allowed, could be a problem. In their four losses this season, the Wildcats have allowed an average of 86.3 points. The body of work is good enough for a No. 1 seed, but is this team headed for an early upset in the NCAA Tournament?

Kansas (23-6) — The next time you think about writing off the Jayhawks in the Big 12 race (and I’m talking to myself here), just don’t. By rattling off consecutive wins over Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas Tech (on the road) — three of those are NCAA Tournament teams — Bill Self and Co. clinched at least a share of the league crown for the 14 th consecutive season. It’s one of the more absurd streaks in sports. And flawed though it might be, this Kansas team now has a dozen KenPom top-50 wins. Senior guard Devonte’ Graham is a star who could take the Jayhawks on a run next month.

Duke (24-5) — The Blue Devils lost 3 of 4 games, then lost freshman star Marvin Bagley III to an injury and … won four straight. Then he returned Saturday against Syracuse, scored 19 points on 9 field-goal attempts, and Duke steamrolled Syracuse for its fifth consecutive victory. Mike Krzyzewski’s team has been elite offensively all season, but the defense has seen a recent uptick: four straight opponents held to fewer than 60 points (just 44 for the Orange). One concern is that Grayson Allen, who had disappeared while Bagley thrived and reappeared in a big way while Bagley was out, went back into the shadows with just six points Saturday.

Fo mo’ dangerous teams

Michigan State (28-3) — Can we talk about how goofy it is that the Big Ten’s regular season is already over? Perhaps another time. But it is over and the Spartans, thanks to 12 consecutive wins to close the regular season, are league champions for the first time since 2012 and eighth time under Tom Izzo. Most impressive: MSU closed with 5 of 7 games on the road and won them all. In terms of a No. 1 seed (I’ve swapped Kansas for the Spartans this week), the conference being relatively week hurts. Michigan State has just six KenPom top-50 wins, half as many as the Jayhawks.

North Carolina (22-7) — Remember when the Tar Heels lost three in a row and we started to think the reigning national champions were in trouble? They’ve won six straight now, including home victories over Duke and Notre Dame and road wins at N.C. State, Louisville and Syracuse. Luke Maye is averaging 18 and 10 for the season and senior point guard Joel Berry II is hitting his stride lately: 19.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 turnovers the last five games. UNC has 10 KenPom top-50 wins, including non-conference victories against some of the SEC and Big Ten’s best: Arkansas, Michigan and Tennessee.

Xavier (25-4) — The Musketeers have lost just once since Jan. 10, to likely No. 1 seed Villanova, and they’ve piled up eight RPI top-50 wins, including Cincinnati, Butler, Baylor and a sweep of Creighton, which took out the Wildcats. His 1-for-10 outing last week against Georgetown notwithstanding, Trevon Bluiett is a star — 25-plus points 10 times this season — with a strong sidekick in fellow senior guard J.P. Macura, who has scored 20-plus five times. Xavier’s defense is an issue (ranked 70 th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency) but Chris Mack’s club offsets that with an offense that ranks eighth in scoring and 14 th in field-goal percentage.

Kentucky (20-9) — It’s been a slog for John Calipari, whose nine available scholarship players consist of seven freshmen and two sophomores. Ten days ago, UK was on a four-game losing streak and hearing NIT talk. But Calipari finally seems to have found five guys who will play hard and together, and now the Cats are clicking. They’ve won three straight by double digits over top-50 teams: Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri. They demolished the Razorbacks on the road in the second half and hammered the Tigers from start to finish Saturday. This is the youngest team in America and it has warts, but the current hot streak has reminded us it is also still one of the longest, most talented and athletic teams in the country. No one will want to face Kentucky in March.

Fo games to watch

No. 12 Texas Tech (22-7, 10-6 Big 12) at No. 20 West Virginia (21-8, 10-6 Big 12) on Monday, Feb. 26, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2. The Mountaineers have steadied themselves by winning 5 of 7 after losing 5 of 6. The Red Raiders saw their chance to win the Big 12 outright slip away with three straight losses, but that includes 2-point defeats at Baylor and against Kansas. Both Texas Tech and WVU could share the league crown if they win out and the Jayhawks lose their final two games (vs. Texas, at Oklahoma State).

No. 14 Auburn (24-5, 12-4 SEC) at Arkansas (20-9, 9-7 SEC) on Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m. ET on SEC Network. The Tigers started 21-2 and have since lost 3 of 6, including 2 of the last 3, and a trip to Fayetteville will not be easy. They have a one-game lead on Tennessee in the SEC standings with two to play. Without injured shot blocker Anfernee McLemore, can Auburn hold onto the league crown and No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament that once looked like locks?

No. 9 North Carolina (22-7, 11-5 SEC) at No. 5 Duke (24-5, 12-4 ACC) on Saturday, March 3, at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN. Both Tobacco Road rivals seem to be hitting their stride at the right time, and this game could tell us which one is ready to make the most noise in the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils are seeking revenge for a Feb. 8 loss in Chapel Hill, when the Tar Heels erased a 12-point first-half deficit.

Big Ten championship game on Sunday, March 4, at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS. Because the league wants to be weird, it’ll have a title game on the weekend most major conferences are wrapping up the regular season and then just … hang out for a week until Selection Sunday. The Big Ten’s top four seeds (in order) are Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Nebraska. A Spartans-Buckeyes final would be fun.

The post Fo, Fo, Fo: In the shadow of scandal, here come Kansas, Duke and North Carolina as contenders (again) appeared first on SEC Country.

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