Hoop Nation No. 5: On the March to March…Madness, that is.

As the eternal excitement of gambling away your baby’s milk money in March Madness office pools draw near, our hoops man Logan Crosland is back to visit Hoop Nation once again. This week, Logan checks in on the Tar Heels’ upcoming run, Duke kicking butt at the most appropriate time, Gonzaga rolling right along, and the tight race in the Pac-12.

All teams rankings from the Feb. 20 NCAA AP Div. 1 Rankings.

Clutch Time for North Carolina: The No. 8 Tar Heels remains atop the ACC standings, though No. 10 Duke and No. 7 Louisville are nipping at their, well, heels. The Tar Heels have the chance to control their own destiny, as they are about enter one heck a gauntlet to end the regular season. They begin by hosting Louisville (2/22)*. They go on to face Pitt (2/25), No. 18 Virginia (2/27), and Duke (3/4). Pitt shouldn’t give them any trouble, but the Panthers have scored a few upsets over Syracuse and No. 19 Florida State, so anything can happen. After that, North Carolina is back home to play the reeling No. 18 Virginia Cavaliers. They were able to defeat Virginia (2/18) rather handily at home, and Virginia is slipping, so this game could be ugly.

*Ed. Note: This edition of Hoop Nation was written prior to North Carolina’s 74-63 victory over the Cardinals on Wednesday night.

Duke Surging When It Matters Most: Duke looked to be headed to a rather mediocre season, when the Blue Devils started off ACC play 3-4. Early injuries–including some down time from head coach Mike Krzyzewski– contributed in part to the poor play. Now finally with everyone healthy and Coach K back on the bench, they have reeled off seven consecutive victories and sit only one game back of rival North Carolina, one of Duke’s victims (86-78 on 2/9) during the win streak, in the ACC standings. It will be interesting to see how this Duke team finishes the season, as it is fully capable of winning out, but the ACC is an incredibly talented conference where anything can happen*.

*Ed. Note: The 2017 ACC is NOT mid-90s WWF, despite Mr. Crosland’s phrasing.

Kansas’ Big 12 Dominance Continues: In a sport that is ever-changing like college basketball, there is one thing that has stayed the same for the last 13 years: Kansas wins the Big 12 regular season championship*. This year it seemed that the No. 3 Jayhawks might be challenged by No. 9 Baylor and No. 12 West Virginia. This past week, both the Mountaineers (2/13) and the Bears (2/18) both had chances to take down the Jayhawks and creep closer in the standings, possibly endangering the streak, but Kansas was able to escape with two victories, giving them a three-game cushion and inching closer to Title No. 13.

Kansas fans were excited to see their team run its streak to 13 conference titles.

Ed. Note: The Jayhawks clinched a share of the Big 12 title on Wednesday with an 87-68 win over TCU. The streak, she carries on…

SEC Down to Two Teams: No. 13 Florida and No. 11 Kentucky came into the season as the two SEC teams touted as the teams that would be at the top of the conference come this time of year. The only thing different from then is that Kentucky was supposed to be the team sitting in first place. However, Florida has emerged since a January loss (66-68) to Vanderbilt. The Gators have won nine straight since then, with their only close game being against Mississippi State (2/18). During that span they have blown Kentucky (2/4) and South Carolina (2/21), while Kentucky has struggled to beat teams like Missouri and Georgia during that same stretch. These two teams meet up on Saturday in the de facto SEC championship game.

Gonzaga Remains Unbeaten: On February 11, No. 1 Gonzaga traveled to Moraga, California, for the second matchup of the season with conference rival St. Mary’s in what could prove to be the last game where anyone realistically had a chance of beating the Bulldogs. Gonzaga maintained it nine-point first half lead to take this game by a score 74-64. This all but guarantees Gonzaga an undefeated regular season, with only San Diego (2/23) and BYU (2/25) in their way. Assuming both they and St. Mary’s make the finals of the conference tournament, this is possibly the only chance of a loss for the Bulldogs before the NCAA Tournament.

Pac-12 Coming Down to the Wire: The Pac-12 Conference has been one of the more entertaining conferences to watch throughout this season. The race for the regular season title has come down to three teams: No. 4 Arizona, No. 5 UCLA, and No. 6 Oregon. The Wildcats are currently atop the conference, having only lost to the Ducks (2/4), but they probably have the hardest remaining schedule with USC (2/23) and UCLA (2/25) still left. Oregon sits in second with two losses, but it holds victories over UCLA (12/28) and Arizona (2/4). Oregon also recently fell to the Bruins in what was probably one of the best games of the year (2/9), the only reason UCLA is still in contention. The Bruins have three losses, needing to win all of their remaining games, and get some help elsewhere, to have a real shot at the conference crown. It should be a fun race to watch play out.

Rawle Alkins (1) and Kadeem Allen (5) hope to pull off a Pac-12 title win for the Wildcats.

Villanova Looks to Lock Up the Big East: The defending national champions, No. 5 Villanova, are only one win away from clinching the Big East for the fourth year in a row. The next team that stands in their way is one of the only teams to beat them in conference play so far, the Butler Bulldogs (2/22)*. Luckily for the Wildcats, this time they get the No. 22 Bulldogs at home. If they aren’t able to win that game, they still have games with Creighton (2/25) and Georgetown (3/4) to follow. I would be surprised if they lost any of these three games, so Villanova is basically just trying to not lose and keep themselves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

*Ed. Note: Butler topped Villanova 74-66.

Virginia Struggling to Score: Virginia has been known for being an incredibly elite defensive team throughout the Tony Bennett era*. This has allowed his teams of the past couple of years to not be elite offensive teams and still be contenders. This year the Cavaliers might not be so lucky. Over the past three games against Duke (2/15), North Carolina(2/18), and Miami (2/20), Virginia has only scored 144 points for an average of 48 points per game. The Cavaliers only have two players averaging more than ten points, which isn’t what you want to have in a competitive program. They will need to figure out how to execute on offense more effectively or they may exit the tournament very swiftly.

*Ed. Note: Not the 90-year-old crooner. Nope. Not him. Be cool if it was though, right?

Cincinnati Finally Falls in AAC Play: I talked last time about how No. 15 Cincinnati was the only team other than Gonzaga to have an undefeated record in its conference*. I also talked about how No. 17 SMU, though having already lost to the Bearcats, were the only team that could contend with them for the conference title. With the first loss to the Bearcats being their only conference loss, SMU got a chance to get that win back and tie for the American Athletic Conference lead (2/12). They were able to get a 60-51 win by outscoring Cincinnati by nine in the second half. With SMU atop the AAC at 14-1 and Cincy right behind at 13-1, this one’s going right down the last second.

*Ed. Note: Vermont ended up 15-0 in the America East Conference, so mea culpa there. Last editor’s note, I swear.

Northwestern Might Finally Just Do It: Anyone who is a college basketball fan knows how Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament in its entire program history. They have come incredibly close many years, but this might finally be the year. The Wildcats are 20-8 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten. They have signature wins over Dayton (12/17) and Big Ten co-leader Wisconsin (2/12). They do have two losses to in state rival Illinois (2/7, 2/21), but even those aren’t incredibly detrimental to their résumé. They will need to finish the regular season strong and probably make a little bit of a run in the conference tournament to guarantee themselves a slot in the Big Dance, something I fully believe they are capable of doing.

Center Dererk Pardon (5) has helped Northwestern to a 20-8 record this year.

Upcoming Games to Watch:

Arizona vs USC (2/23)

Florida vs Kentucky (2/25)

Creighton vs Villanova (2/25)

UCLA vs Arizona (2/25)

Syracuse vs Louisville (2/26)

North Carolina vs Virginia (2/27)

West Virginia vs Baylor (2/27)

Florida State vs Duke (2/28)

Notre Dame vs Louisville (3/4)

Duke vs North Carolina (3/4)

Conference Tournaments (2/27-3/12)