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Jones: College basketball brings many possibilities

ESPN college basketball guru Dick Vitale looks up and down and all across the college basketball landscape and finds at least eight teams that could win it all. Wait, make that 10. Know what? Let's call it an even dozen.

Maybe more.

"This is college basketball these days; good teams everywhere,'' Vitale said. "I'm not surprised anymore when anyone loses. Just look at it. There aren't any undefeated teams left, and we still have a long way to go.''

A ways to go, but March is just around the corner. As we come to the end of January, here's a look at the college basketball picture with a little help from Vitale.

What happened to USF?

Not only did last season's USF team spoil us a bit, but I'm starting to think it might have been a bit of a fluke. That's a bit painful to say because last season's run was such a pleasant surprise and so fun to watch.

This isn't meant to disparage what Stan Heath's team did a season ago. The Bulls did go 12-6 in the Big East. They did pull off upsets of ranked teams such as Seton Hall and Louisville. And they did win a pair of NCAA Tournament games and nearly won a third. Those are all facts.

But I also think the Big East wasn't really the Big East as we have come to know it. USF built a resume by beating teams that weren't as good as their reputations. For example, the Bulls beat Pitt twice. They beat Villanova twice. Both had down seasons. When USF beat Seton Hall, the Hall was ranked 24th in the country, but it didn't even make the NCAA Tournament.

The Bulls played hard. They played great defense. They could rebound, and they feared no one.

The hustle remains and so does the willingness to stand up against anyone. And I still believe in Heath.

But the Bulls can't shoot and they can't rebound, and that's an awful combination. That's why they are 1-7 in the Big East and have given us no reason to believe they'll even be an NIT team.

Who is the best team in the country?

Duke spent a chunk of the season at No. 1. After a down cycle, Indiana is back among the national powerhouses and has held the top spot. These days, Michigan is No. 1 for the first time since the Fab Four era of the early 1990s. Syracuse is pretty good and so is Florida.

But — and this is hard to believe considering its reputation — doesn't it seem like everyone is overlooking Kansas?

"I like Kansas, but scoring could be an issue,'' Vitale said.

The No. 2 Jayhawks are 19-1 and have won 17 in a row. What makes Kansas so impressive is it plays in a high-scoring conference yet has not allowed so much as 60 points in six of its seven conference games.

But Kansas is not on Vitale's early Final Four list of Michigan, Indiana, Louisville and Florida.

"I like Florida's depth, but their scoring needs to be a bit more consistent,'' Vitale said.

The Gators are not the only team on Vitale's list with concerns. Louisville just ended a three-game losing streak. And Indiana center Cody Zeller, a possible player of the year candidate, had back-to-back head-scratching games, scoring a combined 11 points against Penn State and Michigan State, before recording 19 points and 11 rebounds during Wednesday's win. Was he hurt? Tired? Or just hit a rough patch?

There is one other team to watch, according to Vitale, and that's Duke. But only if big man Ryan Kelly returns from a foot injury. The Blue Devils are only 3-2 since he has been out.

Which mid major team looks like Cinderella?

Actually, Butler makes such a habit of crashing the dance that calling it a mid anything seems ridiculous. Butler is ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll while another mighty mid major, Gonzaga, is ranked No. 7. But Butler won a thriller over the Zags two weeks ago with a bucket at the buzzer. So you would give Butler the edge there even though it just lost to La Salle. Don't be surprised if Brad Stevens' bunch makes a third Final Four run.

Other than Butler and Gonzaga, the only mid majors that could be a top-four seed as of now would be Wichita State and, maybe, Creighton. The Shockers beat Creighton last week but suffered a disappointing home loss to Indiana State on Tuesday.

Is Miami for real?

The Hurricanes landed on everyone's radar when they thrashed No. 1 Duke by 27 points and then blasted Florida State to remain the last undefeated team in ACC play.

"They're better than a lot of people think,'' Vitale said. "This is one of those No. 15 to 20 teams that could cause a lot of problems in the tournament.''

I'm not convinced the ACC has a whole lot after Miami, Duke, N.C. State and, maybe, Virginia. But winning the conference could give Miami a pretty good seed come tournament time.

Final thought

Vitale expects to see Michigan, Indiana, Louisville and Florida in the Final Four. Then again, he wouldn't be surprised if half of those teams didn't make it. Or all four. Maybe it will be Kansas, Butler, Miami and Duke. The next month might provide even more questions than the past three months.

"All I know,'' Vitale said, "is it's going to be awesome, baby.''

Tom Jones can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.

Jones: College basketball brings many possibilities 01/30/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 11:00pm]
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