Pyramid: Top teams showing vulnerability in mid-February slumps

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

I'm not that concerned. On a recent podcast with Jay Bilas, I asked him if a lot of teams suffer a dog days of summer-type swoon in hoops, the way baseball players do. He said: absolutely. Eagerness for March combined with the grind of February play in the league and playing road games, can take a toll on most teams. Losses are to be expected, and we shouldn't overreact too much if a team loses two or even three straight games.

I've taken that to heart in this week's Pyramid rankings. We do still have a number of teams continuing to win, and they've been rewarded. But there haven't been serious demotions with some teams taking on confusing losses. It's league play, on the road, in the slog of the season. Here's how I've built this week's Pyramid.

Top Tier

1. Gonzaga (23-2)
Why it's here: I mean, seriously, let's just move on to more uncertain matters. There is no need to make a case.

Something -- a few things -- you should know: One, this is not yet the best start in Gonzaga history. That came in 2004, when the Zags went 28-2. Yowsa. Also, as of this day, Mark Few is the winningest coach in college basketball history. His 364-92 record (.7982 winning percentage) is now a smidge ahead of Roy Williams' 691-176 (.7970) mark.

Up next: Thursday at Saint Mary's; Saturday at San Francisco.

2. New Mexico (20-4)
Why it's here: Given the instability around the Pyramid with a lot of teams losing, I actually combined UNM's collective profile with the losses from teams below. I actually now think the Lobos will clearly, without question, get to the NCAA tournament as the Mountain West's best team.

Something you should know: Steve Alford has now coached this team to its best collective defensive performance since he got to UNM. The Lobos have an adjusted 87.4 defensive ranking in KenPom, good for 16th in the nation. The ranking and rate are the highest Alford's teams have achieved since he coached the stingiest defense in the nation with Iowa in 2004 (84.4), the year the Hawkeyes were upset in the first round by Northwestern State.

Up next: Wednesday at Fresno State; Saturday vs. Boise State.

Josh Pastner's Tigers aren't worldbeaters, but at least they're dodging bad Ls, which they couldn't do last year. (US Presswire)

3. Memphis (20-3)
Why it's here: Can't deny 14 straight wins. The Tigers are handling prosperity so much better in Josh Pastner's fourth year than they ever have prior to this. The Tigers don't have a great NCAA tournament resume, but they're mowing through C-USA and have borderline made themselves a lock for the tournament. Two more wins this week and a win at Xavier on Feb. 26 should just about do it.

Something you should know: Memphis has the longest road winning streak in the country at 10 games strong.

Up next: Wednesday vs. Central Florida; Saturday at Marshall.

A Cut Below

4. Creighton (20-5).
Why it's here: Unbelievably, Creighton is now tied atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings instead of leading them by at least two games. Jays, Wichita State and Indiana State are all 9-4. I didn't think it could ever get to this.

Something you should know: How reliable is Creighton's offense/how shocking was Illinois State winning at Creighton over the weekend? For 101 straight home games, when the Jays scored 71 or more points, they won the game. This time, 75-72 and another loss to the ledger.

Grant Gibbs and Creighton have taken a dip. (US Presswire)

Up next: Wednesday at Northern Iowa; Saturday at Evansville.

5. Colorado State (19-4).
Why it's here: CSU continues to ascend thanks to, well, winning, obviously, but a balanced attack, too. CSU's starters all score in double digits. Colton Iverson (14.0); Dorian Green (12.7); Wes Eikmeier (11.9); Greg Smith (10.7); and Pierce Hornung (10.1). I like a balanced offensive diet like this.

Something you should know: It's not only the best start overall for CSU, this 6-2 record in MWC play is unprecedented. It hasn't been 6-2 in conference since the days of the WAC in the late '90s.

Up next: Wednesday vs. San Diego State; Saturday at Air Force.

6. Wichita State (20-5).
Why it's here: The Shockers took on another vexing loss on Tuesday, dropping to Southern Illinois, but ultimately, I do still -- just barely -- think this is one of the six best teams of the collective. I'm waiting for the trend to turn back around. I'm thinking WSU is stuck in the February doldrums. Let's hope I'm not wrong.

Something you should know: Why I'm not killing Creighton and WSU: MVC teams, as of late last week, were below .275 on the road in league play. And even then, only these two teams were above .500. Last year, the MVC's 10 teams had a .366 win percentage on the road in league play. So it's a tough going in 2013.

Up next: Wednesday vs. Drake; Sunday at Illinois State.

7. UNLV (18-6).
Why it's here: Lost as Fresno State but beat New Mexico, giving the Lobos what I think will end up being the second of just four losses in league play, MWC tournament included. Vegas' offense has slipped but its defense has been steady despite the 5-4 start. You can't learn to play good defense at this point, but better offense can come. Perhaps it will. Perhaps that's why I can't let go of the dream of UNLV as a Sweet-16-or-better team.

Something you should know: I still think Vegas has the best player in the league in Anthony Bennett (a league-high 18.2 points/game) and premier point guard in Anthony Marshall (league-best 55.3 assist rate and six assists/game). Those numbers are hard to fight in the long run. More winning should be on the way.

Up next: Wednesday at Air Force; Saturday vs. San Diego State.

8. Louisiana Tech (21-3).
Why it's here: The Bulldogs keep rampaging through the WAC, winning games by 15 and 25 and 13 and 22. There have been a few close ones, but they've all been wins, and with so many of them not even being close, Michael White's team should officially be receiving a lot more love and credit for going 18-16 last season and hitting the throttle in 2013.

Something you should know: Win Thursday and it'll be 14 in a row, a new school record.

Up next: Thursday at Seattle; Saturday at Idaho.

9. San Diego State (18-5).
Why it's here: Beat Boise State and Fresno State at home. Good. Very good, even if the BSU win required a buzzer-beater. I'm staying put on the Aztecs because it's not only possible, but likely, it drops its next two games. Check the schedule below.

Something you should know: Jamaal Franklin, on a national scale, is kind of flying under the radar, considering he won the MWC POY last season. Franklin is top 10 in 10 major categories in the MWC. He's second in scoring, rebounding; third in steals; sixth in assists. SDSU Athletics claims he's the only player to lead his team in those four categories.

Up next: Wednesday at Colorado State; Saturday at UNLV.

10. Saint Mary's (21-4).
Why it's here: I explained a large portion of this to you late last week. The Thursday game looms so large, though. Borderline must-win.

Something you should know: From the piece ...

Dellavedova, averaging career-bests in points (16.3) and assists (6.5), is fronting the greatest offense that Bennett has had since arriving at Saint Mary's in 2001. It's probably the most dangerous O this program has ever had, really. Currently, the Gaels are pacing themselves to 1.18 points per possession, third-best in the country, and the most efficient offense that Bennett has coached. (Notice: his four best offensive years have come during Dellavedova's career.)

The Gaels average 77.7 points (top 20 in the country), and their 49.1 field goal percentage is ninth best. Dellavedova produces an assist on more than a third of SMC's possessions when he's in the game, and his 125.1 offensive rating paired with playing 90 percent of his team's minutes makes him among the elite players in college hoops for this reason: He reliably scores, rebounds and creates offense without fatigue taking over. Plenty of players play as much as he does, but so few remain as productive in spite of logging so many minutes.

Up next: Thursday vs. Gonzaga; Saturday at Loyola Marymount.

Base Blocks

11. Belmont (20-5).
Why it's here: I DVRed and watched the entirety of the 79-74 loss to Murray State. It was a good game, but never one I thought Belmont was going to win, at least not by halftime. It's only the first league loss, and I didn't want to overreact, but I had to step back and think. I'd take SMC and SDSU and La. Tech on a neutral court in Jacksonville tomorrow over Belmont.

Something you should know: How good is Byrd at/with Belmont? Program has done what so few true mid-majors have: win 20 games eight times in a 10-year span. That's incredibly impressive. It became official with the win over Austin Peay Saturday.

Up Next: Thursday at Tennessee State.

12. Bucknell (20-4).
Why it's here: Keeping strong in the Patriot, now 7-1 with a rematch against Lehigh -- which gave Bucknell its one league L -- in a week. Two games before that, and it's critical not to overlook 'em.

Something you should know: Will the good times keep rolling? Bucknell is 32-4 in its last 36 Patriot League games.

Up next: Wednesday vs. Colgate; Saturday at Lafayette.

Zips and Zeke Marshall are hottest in hoops. (US Presswire)

13. Akron (19-4).
Why it's here: No longer can I deny the team with the nation's longest winning streak -- 15 games -- to be snubbed from the Pyramid. This of course means the Zips will lose this week. Apologies in advance.

Something you should know: You'll recall Ohio repped the MAC in the NCAAs last year. But before that, and in 2009, it was Akron. It's tough to go back-to-back in the MAC and to the NCAAs. In fact, since the league split to two divisions, only Kent State's won the league in back-to-back years.

Up next: Wednesday at Eastern Michigan; Saturday vs. Bowling Green.

14. Boise State (16-7).
Why it's here: A 4-5 Mountain West team with the task of winning at New Mexico in five days. Not optimistic. And it just got a win over reeling/team-gone-Hyde Wyoming, so I'm just a bit wary in the grand scheme.

Something you should know: When the Broncos' duo of Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic go off, they're really dangerous. The duo is the highest scoring pair of players on one team in the Mountain West (33/game, combined).

Up next: Saturday at New Mexico.

15. Stephen F. Austin (20-2).
Why it's here: Perhaps unfairly, I've kept SFA in the 14/15 realm ever since it entered the Pyramid. A lot of that has to do with its league (Southland) being No. 25 in KenPom. The four games against non-D-I competition also play a factor; as far as the NCAA selection committee is concerned, the Lumberjacks are a 16-2 team, not a 20-2 one. Still good, but yeah, a discernible difference there.

Something you should know: The other factor lies in this: SFA's SOS on KenPom is at 342 -- out of 347 teams. So there's a lot of puff here. But with two road games upcoming, I vow this: If SFA is 22-2 by next Monday morning, I'll minimally move it up to No. 12.

Up next: Thursday at Nicholls State; Saturday at Southeastern Louisiana State.


Outside the Pyramid:

-- Southern Miss: a good team that probably has to win the C-USA tourney to reach the NCAAs now. Too bad. The Golden Eagles drop out after falling at Central Florida and losing at home to Memphis. Thoughts with everyone down there dealing with tornado scores and damages.

-- Update here, as I unintentionally omitted Middle Tennessee State from consideration, and the fans are all over me because of this. I love the Blue Raiders fanbase's passion. Unrivaled! We'll likely have some other MTSU love on the blog later this week.

-- Montana, at 18-4, is basically waiting on a loss from any of the five teams in the base. Grizzlies are 143 in KenPom. There area five road game ahead, and that's tough, but if they go 4-1, or 3-2 with a win at Davidson, then there's still a chance.

-- Air Force was trending hot, then dropped two straight, is now a 14-8 team with no Pyramid chances for the rest of this season. Yippee kai yay, Mr. Falcons.

-- Other candidates running out of time: Central Florida, Valpo, Ohio, Lehigh, Weber State, Murray State.

For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS Feed and college hoops newsletter. You can follow Matt Norlander on Twitter here: @MattNorlander.

 
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