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February 20, 2008

Many Wildcats worried about NCAA hopes

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
Feb. 13: Same story?
Feb. 7: Mixed legacy
Jan. 30: Beasley's hardware

There may never have been a time when so many Wildcats were nervous about making the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky and Arizona fans are used to worrying about how far their teams will go in the NCAA Tournament. But this season, they are concerned about just getting an invitation. Or at least they should be.

Arizona, which owns the nation's longest current streak of 23 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, is far from a lock as we approach the latter stages of the conference schedules. Kentucky is not even on the bubble.

We examine the postseason futures of both tradition-rich programs in this week's mailbag, and look at whether Ole Miss can still make the NCAA Tournament, how the new College Basketball Invitational (a 16-team postseason tournament) will compete with the NIT and whether USC's O.J. Mayo or Stanford's Brook Lopez will make a better pro.

Blue bubble

What does Kentucky have to do to make it to the NCAA Tournament?

Wayne from Lebanon, Ky.
One of three things must happen (and each is asking a lot): A. Win each of its remaining regular-season games except the road trip to Tennessee on March 2; or B. Win most of its remaining games and beat Tennessee in Knoxville; or C. Win the SEC Tournament.

Every team with at least a 10-6 record in SEC play has made the NCAA Tournament, and Kentucky appears to be on its way with a 8-3 mark in league play. But that's not going to be enough this season.

The Wildcats, who are 13-10 overall, rank 70th in the all-important RPI because of a terrible non-conference resume. They need to be around 50th in the RPI to get the attention of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Pulling off an upset at Tennessee (which is first in the RPI) would help. They also play Arkansas (30th), Mississippi (45th) and Florida (57th) at home and South Carolina (113th) on the road.

Worried Wildcats

Arizona has the longest active consecutive NCAA Tournament streak in the nation. How much is this streak in jeopardy?

Marc from Tucson, Ariz.

Barring some kind of disastrous run down the stretch, I think Arizona will be fine.

Normally, I wouldn't feel so confident about a team with a 6-6 record in league play, but the Wildcats are 17th in the RPI. Arizona also boasts the nation's toughest-rated schedule and plays in what many view as the nation's best conference.

Florida State got into the 1998 NCAA Tournament despite a 6-10 record in the ACC when that conference was considered the nation's best (the Seminoles even lost in the first round of the league tournament).

That doesn't necessarily mean Arizona can lose its next four games and still get an NCAA Tournament bid, but the Wildcats can afford a couple of more losses, thanks to their great non-conference resume.

Wondering about the Rebels

What has happened to my Ole Miss Rebels? I know the out-of-conference schedule was soft, but has any team started so well before collapsing like Andy Kennedy's boys? Does this skid mean an at-large bid is out of the question?

Geoff from Roswell, Ga.

Clemson's 17-0 start last season comes to mind, although, the Tigers did rebound somewhat by reaching the 2007 NIT championship game.

Ole Miss, which started 13-0 and rose to as high as No. 16 in the AP poll, now is 17-7 overall and 3-7 in SEC play. The Rebels' NCAA Tournament dreams aren't dead yet, thanks to a solid RPI (they are currently 45th) and a non-conference resume that, coincidentally, features a neutral-site win over Clemson.

The Rebels need to win at least four of their six remaining regular-season games, then will probably have to win twice more in the SEC Tournament. Remember, Arkansas was 7-9 in league play last season and snuck into the field of 65 after reaching the SEC title game.

But I would be surprised if Ole Miss duplicated that feat. The Rebels have lost the swagger that made them such a dangerous team in the first two months of the season. An even bigger concern is their defensive woes. Auburn shot 63 percent from the field and scored a season-high 90 points in a win over the Rebels on Saturday, after which Ole Miss senior forward Kenny Williams questioned the effort of his teammates.

Pac-10 pro prospects

If you were the New York Knicks' general manager and Stanford's Brook Lopez and USC's O.J. Mayo are both there when you draft, which one do you take and why?

Alan Phillips from Boca Raton, Fla.

After firing Isiah Thomas which has to be the first move I would send a little piece of paper to David Stern with Lopez's name on it.

Not many 7-footers have come along with his combination of skills and upside. Lopez has a nice shooting touch and a solid mid-range jumper, which should allow him to play power forward at the next level. Lopez also has improved dramatically from last season, which makes you wonder just how good he eventually could be.

Mayo doesn't appear to have improved much since his junior year of high school, leaving you to wonder if he's maximized his potential. A couple of years ago, I thought he would make a great NBA point guard, but he seems far too concerned with scoring.

Move over NIT?

Do you think the new postseason tournament forgot the name will surpass the NIT in prestige?

Bill from Charlotte

I doubt it, since most, if not all, teams that don't make the NCAA Tournament will accept invitations to the NIT over those from the College Basketball Invitational, which begins its inaugural 16-team tournament in March. That means the teams who play in the CBI weren't even good enough to get into the 32-team NIT.

But I do think the CBI's unique best-of-three championship series will land some national attention for the tournament. The higher-seeded team gets to host the first game, and the third if necessary, creating more of an NBA-style twist to the final.

Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. Click here to send him a question or comment for his Mailbag.



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