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Good 'N Plenty: Cats-Heels iffy, but would be great First Four matchup

by | College Basketball Insider
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Kentucky vs. North Carolina in the First Four, Saint Louis will only improve, Iowa State could be in the Big 12 drivers seat and Memphis fans need to keep it in perspective. Here's this week's edition of Good 'N Plenty:

My dream doesn't appear much of a reality any longer. Kentucky vs. North Carolina. One year later in the First Four, not the Final Four.

For a while, there, it was realistic. It still may be the case for the Wildcats -- who remain squarely on the bubble with three regular-season contests and the SEC tourney left to prove themselves without Nerlens Noel. There was the 30-point drubbing in Knoxville, but that wasn't a fair assessment of this club without Noel. Since that game, the 'Cats have won three straight -- albeit against weak competition.

Still, it will come down to the last handful of games for John Calipari and whether his team will pack its bags for Dayton, the NIT or maybe even avoid the First Four altogether and breathe easy as it earns a spot into the field.

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North Carolina has also won three straight after making a chance in the lineup. For Roy Williams, it was inserting P.J. Hairston and going small. It has made all the difference and put the Tar Heels comfortably on the right side of the bubble -- for now. However, things can change quickly in college basketball in 2012-13 and the Heels still have three games remaining: in Chapel Hill against Florida State, at Maryland and on the road against Duke in the regular-season finale.

It's still not out of the realm, but the UNC-UK matchup in Dayton doesn't look overly promising. It would have been terrific, a way for people to actually pay attention to the First Four. Yes, I know VCU did the whole First Four to Final Four thing a couple years ago, but no one cared at the time. I was at a bar in Washington, D.C., that night -- and no one was watching the game. No one.

A North Carolina-Kentucky matchup would get plenty of eyeballs.

Here's hoping.

Billikens doing it without Kwamain

Here's the scary part of where Saint Louis sits right now: Kwamain Mitchell has yet to find his stride.

The 5-foot-10 senior guard was supposed to carry the Billikens, at least on the offensive end this season. He had averaged in double-figures in each of his first three seasons, torched Memphis for 22 in the first-round win over the Tigers a year ago and this was supposed to be the year he challenged for A-10 Player of the Year honors.

But Mitchell broke his left foot in the preseason and missed the first 11 games of the season. The Billikens, under the direction of interim coach Jim Crews -- who replaced the late Rick Majerus -- lost their second game of the season to Santa Clara at home. That effectively took them off everyone's radar as a team to fear. However, Saint Louis has won 10 straight in league play after a home loss to a Rhode Island team that has won just three league games all season.

Mitchell is only averaging 8.8 points per contest. He's only shooting 36 percent from the field and less than 30 percent from long distance. Those are all career-lows for the kid who was supposed to take charge on the offensive end this season.

Yet there sits Saint Louis in first place in the A-10 and ranked 18th in the country.

"The crazy thing is I'm not 100 percent back," Mitchell told me following the team's win against Saint Joe's last night.

He said his knee is close to full-strength, but he still isn't all the way back in terms of everything clicking on the court. But that doesn't matter to him watching the victories pile up.

"That's all I'm worried about right now," he said. "We're playing great and that's what matters. Our identity is as a team and playing together."

Actually, the Billikens national identity remains something that Majerus preached just about every day: Defense. Saint Louis is allowing just 57.9 points this season in 27 games.

Cyclone four plays out of Big 12 lead

Four plays separate Iowa State from being in first place in the Big 12.

 Jan. 9 -- Ben McLemore drills a 3-pointer with one second left in regulation to force overtime. Kansas hangs on for the win in Lawrence.

 Jan. 30 -- Another star freshman, Marcus Smart, sinks the winning shot with 3.1 seconds left in the game. This was nearly an upset in Stillwater over what is now a ranked team.

 Feb. 9 -- Texas frosh Ionnis Papetrou knocks down a trifecta in Austin with two ticks on the clock to send it to overtime. The Longhorns wind up winning, 89-86, in double-overtime.

 Feb. 25 -- Everyone saw the call with five seconds left in the game. It was a charge, but instead Elijah Johnson was given two free throws and made both to send the game into overtime -- where Kansas wound up knocking off the Cyclones in Ames.

So, now Fred Hoiberg's team sits on the bubble at 19-9 overall and in a tie for fifth place in the Big 12 at 9-6. He was obviously irate after the loss to Kansas, but said now the key becomes how his team responds from the latest close loss.

"We've been able to do it before," Hoiberg said. "Our guys have responded all year. I'm confident they'll do it again."

Hoiberg said he watched the tape of the game twice when he got home on Monday night and went to bed around 4 a.m. That meant he also had to watch one of his 9-year-old twins breaking down on television as the Jayhawks were en route to victory in overtime.

"It broke my heart," he said. "He's a passionate kid. It brought a tear to my eye. ... That's how I was as a kid back when my team lost. "

But this one was obviously more difficult to swallow than the others. It was the resume win necessary to make sure the Cyclones got on the right side of The Bubble. It also came courtesy of two blown calls -- one on the Johnson drive and another on what should have been Jeff Withey's fifth foul. Hoiberg said he received a phone call from Big 12 supervisor of officials Curtis Shaw on Tuesday, but did not want to go into details.

Nolan says it's a no-no to compare situations

No one would know better than Nolan Smith. Remember, he was the guy clearly affected the most when Kyrie Irving returned to the court for Duke in the NCAA tournament after missing three months. Smith was forced to slide over to the two-guard spot -- and the Blue Devils wound up getting crushed by Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Smith said there is no comparison between the situation two seasons ago and the one about to occur in Durham with Ryan Kelly.

Kelly practiced for the first time since re-injuring his foot back in January -- and could return to game action as soon as this weekend against Miami, although the more likely scenario has him coming back for Senior Night against Virginia Tech on Tuesday.

"I had the ball the whole year," Smith said. "It wasn't easy for me moving back off the ball for the tournament."

Smith said that Kelly will have an easy adjustment, and also said his presence will once again make it easier for Mason Plumlee in the post.

"The ball isn't in Ryan's hands all the time," Smith said. "It's just different for a four or a five-man. Ryan will come in and make shots. He doesn't run the offense."

Memphis: It could be much, much worse

I called Memphis out for its ability to get a "résumé win" so far this season. I've said that Tigers fans need to settle down about romping through C-USA, since that's almost the equivalent of playing minor league baseball.

But what I will say is that it would be far worse. Tigers Basketball could be completely irrelevant nationally. It was no easy task to follow John Calipari, and while Josh Pastner has fallen short in big games thus far in his young career, he's still kept this program relevant.

I have fun with the fact that C-USA isn't all that different than, say, the America East, but it's still difficult to win 18 consecutive games against 18 Division I basketball teams. Pastner was always known as a terrific, dogged recruiter from his days as an assistant at Arizona -- and he has managed to keep the talent level at an extremely high level in the Post-Calipari Era.

Memphis is 24-4 and 13-0 in league play. With three more victories, the team has a chance to run the table in the conference -- which is no easy task.

I feel bad for Pastner -- and not just because I've known him since he was a 17-year-old walk-on at Arizona, either. This was a brutal situation for anyone to follow Calipari, never mind a rookie head coach. The odds were stacked against him. He had been in Memphis for only a year, and had never really recruited the area while he was at Arizona. Pastner is only 35 years old, is in Year 4 of his tenure and his next victory will be the 100th of his career. Sure, the Tigers haven't won an NCAA tourney game yet under his leadership -- but it took Tom Crean four years just to get Indiana to the NCAA tourney after he took over the program in Bloomington.

Be thankful for what you have. N.C. State ran Herb Sendek out of town following five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and the Wolfpack didn't go dancing the next five seasons under Sidney Lowe. Memphis fans: Give Pastner time and be careful what you wish for.

DOUBLE DRIBBLES: At one point, it appeared a lock that Wyoming would get into the field of 68. However, then Luke Martinez was suspended for kicking an unconscious man in a bar fight. Larry Shyatt's team was 12-0 with Martinez in the lineup. The Cowboys are 6-10 without him and are 4-10 in Mountain West play. The team's best player, Leonard Washington, also missed the recent losses to UNLV and San Diego State. ... Kudos to Jim Engles, who took over at NJIT in 2008. He won only a single game in his first season and the program lost a D-I record 51 consecutive games, but has won 15 in each of the past two and has a chance to surpass that total this season. NJIT has 15 victories with two games remaining.

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