Hoops City
Hoops City

How North Carolina and Utah State will both continue to thrive without a safety net

How North Carolina and Utah State will both continue to thrive without a safety net

Tai Wesley
Tai Wesley and Utah State have little margin for error. They won't need any.
Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes and North Carolina no longer have a legit backup point guard. With Barnes, they might not need one.
News_Houston_Final Four_logo_revealed
Once the Super Bowl ends, it will be all about the Final Four in Houston. Courtesy of Houston Final Four 2011
Tai Wesley
Harrison Barnes
News_Houston_Final Four_logo_revealed

The eyes of the sports world may be focused on North Texas and Super Bowl XLV for a few more icy days, but not long after the last strand of confetti drops in Cowboys Stadium Sunday night, everyone will start turning to the next big thing: The 2011 Final Four in Houston.

Here is our weekly look at who's racing toward Reliant.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: GEORGETOWN

The Hoyas found themselves at 1-4 in Big East play after a loss to Pitt on Jan. 12. They’ve since rebounded with five straight wins heading into Saturday's game against Providence, putting themselves back in the hunt in the bunched-up league race. Senior Austin Freeman has been brilliant in the streak, averaging over 20 points a game.

Last Saturday, Georgetown went into a hostile environment in Philly and knocked off a hurting Villanova squad, with Freeman making several huge plays late to hold off a Wildcats' comeback.

If talented point guard Chris Wright ever finds his groove (and the season-high 24 points he put up against No. 15 Louisville on an off night for Freeman this week is a good start), this is a team that could go far in March.

RISING

NORTH CAROLINA

It’s fashionable to knock the Tar Heels after last year’s flameout, but they’ve been running roughshod over the competition of late. Freshman Harrison Barnes had a breakout game last weekend against North Carolina State with 25 points, and UNC has a frontline that is long and talented. Carolina is hanging right there with Duke (6-1 in conference compared to their archrival's 7-1), and after the Blue Devils recent rough outings, the ACC race no longer seems like a foregone conclusion.

It remains to be seen how junior point guard Larry Drew II's stunning decision to leave the program — right after putting up nine assists in only 19 minutes in a rout of Boston College — could shake the Heels though. Especially with a Duke game looming.

XAVIER

The Musketeers seem to hit their stride around this time every year, and, lo and behold, they’re 7-1 in the Atlantic 10, trailing only surprising Duquesne, which has won 11 straight games. Sure, Xavier was upset by Charlotte this week, but the Musketeers feature some rugged inside play. And the team's heart and soul — senior point guard Tu Holloway, who leads the conference in scoring — can take over any game.

Circle Feb. 13 at Duquesne: That’s the telling showdown.

REELING

SYRACUSE

This one hurts me as a ‘Cuse alum, but there’s no doubt that the bloom is off the rose after their stunning unbeaten start. Even after that gut-check win at UConn on Wednesday night.

Let’s face it:  Three of the four losses in the 19-4 Orangeman's bad streak carry no shame, but the blowout loss in the Dome to Seton Hall still creates big questions. Is the vaunted 2-3 zone suddenly fixed because of the performance in Hartford?

OKLAHOMA STATE

The Cowboys opened their Big 12 schedule with a nice win over Kansas State, a victory that put them at 13-2 and had them looking like not just a tourney team but possibly a Top 25 candidate. But the proverbial wheels have came rocketing off the wagon, as OSU had dropped five of seven, bottoming out with a blowout loss to Texas and an overtime defeat to mediocre Texas Tech.

Sure, the Cowboys held on to beat a travel-battered Missouri team (it took the Tigers 72 hours to get to the game) this week, but does that mean anything? 

UNDER THE RADAR: UTAH STATE

The Aggies only losses this year in 23 games so far have come on the road to Top 20 stalwarts Georgetown and BYU. They are absolutely dominating the Western Athletic Conference, winning their first 10 games en route to a four-game cushion in the standings. Led by power forward Tai Wesley, Utah State is a juggernaut in a conference that has struggled, meaning that it can’t afford any slip ups that might damage its at-large status.

But the way the Aggies are going, they won’t have to worry too much about that.

GAME OF THE WEEK: KENTUCKY at FLORIDA (8 p.m. Saturday night)

It’s one of the SEC’s top rivalries, and the stakes are high: After a road loss at Mississippi State, Kentucky has fallen into third place in the SEC East despite its No. 10 ranking, and Florida is holding onto first.

It’s also a classic matchup of youth versus experience. Kentucky is led by a dangerous trio of freshmen, while Florida relies heavily on experienced talent. And the star wattage on the sideline isn’t too shabby either, with the Wildcats’ John Calipari matching wits with the Gators’ Billy Donovan. This one has all the makings of a real conference donnybrook.