Louisville looks like early sleeper in tourney


With conference play half concluded and just 30 shopping days to go before the real fun -- the NCAA tournament -- starts, it's high time to take an early glance at how the field is shaping up.

So far, on the men's side, North Carolina appears to be a lock for a No. 1 seed. Duke and Arkansas are prime contenders for top berths, but neither will have an easy time in their remaining conference games and tournaments, and could slip, but not below a No. 2 seed.

The fourth No. 1 seed could come from a field of four -- Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, for regional reasons only, and always underrated Louisville. The seventh-ranked Cardinals (18-2) are playing fabulously with what might be the nation's best starting lineup, and always seem to get better as the season progresses.

Tough non-conference games with Temple and UCLA remain, but if they get through those games and the Metro tournament unscathed, Louisville could go a long way.

Besides North Carolina and Duke, the Atlantic Coast Conference entries seem less certain. Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are in contention for two or three NCAA spots.

The Cavaliers, who seemed likely to get in weeks ago, are reeling off losses to Florida State and N.C. State, and may need a first-round ACC tournament win to cement their NCAA berth. Even so, their stay will be short without point guard Cory Alexander, whose knee injury is healing more slowly than expected.

The Big Ten could grab seven spots, with Michigan, Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois near certainties and Michigan State sitting on the fence. Unless either the Wolverines or the Hoosiers catch fire and put the league race away, the Big Ten probably won't get a No. 1 seed.

This would normally be a good spot to mention the Pac-10, but is anyone really looking forward to the inevitable tournament collapse of UCLA or Arizona? California probably won't repeat the Sweet 16 success of last year, but point guard Jason Kidd will be fun to watch.

The conference to watch come tourney time is the Great Midwest. As many as five teams -- St. Louis, Marquette, Alabama-Birmingham, Cincinnati and maybe DePaul -- could get NCAA bids, which is nothing to sneeze at considering the league only has seven teams and doesn't get an automatic bid.

By the way, don't hold your breath for any independent teams to get invited. The team with the best record among the six non-affiliated schools in Division I is Southern Utah (11-9).

Clock watching

Vanderbilt women's coach Jim Foster, one of the brighter minds in the game, has noticed that men's games that might have been closer last year have become blowouts, courtesy of the 35-second shot clock.

"I've seen a number of games this year with 30- or 40-point margins. With a 45-second clock, those games would have been lot closer," said Foster. "People assume when they see a 30- or 40-point game in women's basketball that that's the norm, but we've had the 30-second clock all the way through. There will be blowouts in the women's tournament, but I think the same things will happen in the men's tournament, especially with the 35-second clock."

Getting rid of the hang

One of the more underpublicized changes this season in men's basketball is that officials are asked to whistle players for hanging on rims following dunks, in an effort to reduce taunting.

A referee who spoke to The Sporting News last week said the NCAA has directed officials to call a technical on any player who brings his legs up, in a pull-up manner, during a dunk attempt.

Now, if they could just do something about the yelling and posing.

Fashion statement

Wednesday's Arkansas-Kentucky game seemed to be decided when the third-ranked Razorbacks picked up their defensive pressure to erase a 15-point first-half deficit and won convincingly, 90-82.

But there was something else afoot. It seems Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson had given Kentucky coach Rick Pitino a pair of his trademark cowboy boots, and Pitino wore them in deference to his guest.

Leading by six at halftime, Pitino discarded the boots for Gucci loafers, saying he was "sweating profusely. He [Richardson] must lose 7 pounds just from his feet alone."

Richardson may have lost weight, but he didn't lose the game.

Was it the shoes? "He took them [cowboy boots] off and his luck ran out," Richardson quipped yesterday. "He took them off and went to the Gucci loafers. Maybe the next time we meet, he'll keep them on."

Local women's matchup?

The Maryland women's team takes a four-game winning streak into tonight's game with Clemson, and that should make the folks at Mount St. Mary's, Loyola, Towson State and UMBC happy.

The Terps should be back in line to play host to a first-round NCAA tournament game, and if the Mountaineers, Greyhounds, Tigers or Retrievers get into the 64-team field, they would have a chance to make their tournament entrance closer to home at College Park.

Upset pick of the week

Florida's win over Mississippi State last week drops the UP record to 4-2, so to shake things up, the selection is shifted this week to the women's side.

Tennessee and Vanderbilt have staged two thrillers in the past two seasons and meet Sunday in Knoxville, in what might be the best regular-season women's game of the year. Look for the 12th-ranked Commodores to beat No. 2 Tennessee and take over the Southeastern Conference lead.

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