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January 29, 2007

New faces among list of nation's hottest teams

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Get the inside scoop on your favorite team:

Make some more room on the list of the nation's hottest teams.

Virginia deserves a spot after winning four consecutive ACC games. The Cavaliers pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in ACC history, rallying from a 61-45 deficit to edge Clemson 64-63. The Cavaliers also beat N.C. State 71-58 last week.

A strong case for the hottest team in the nation can also be made for Louisville, which has won 10 of its last 12 games. The Cardinals have won three in a row in the Big East. Louisville is coming off wins over Syracuse (76-71) and Connecticut (68-54).

USC also deserves consideration despite a 65-50 loss at Stanford on Thursday. The Trojans bounced back with a 76-73 win at California for their fifth victory in their last seven games.

We take an in-depth look at the Cavs, Cardinals and Trojans, check out some of the top individual performances and more in A Look Back.

All Eyes On ...
No. 25 USC (16-6, 6-3 Pac-10)
The Good: The Trojans remain alive in the Pac-10 title hunt. They are sitting in a tie for third place and are 1½ games behind first-place UCLA. A fourth league loss would have dropped them into a three-way tie for fifth, and back-to-back road losses would have been particularly damaging to their RPI. Coach Tim Floyd must be pleased with the balance his team displayed when knocking off the Bears. Guard Lodrick Stewart carried the Trojans in the first half, scoring 18 of his 21 points in the opening 20 minutes. Wing Nick Young scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half. With the score tied at 73, reserve guard Daniel Hackett stepped up and scored on a backdoor layup with 16 seconds remaining when a play designed for Young broke down.
The Bad: Defending the 3-point line doesn't look like a strength for the Trojans any more. Opponents were shooting just 29 percent from beyond the arc – the second lowest-percentage in the league – entering the Stanford game. But the Cardinal and the Bears combined to hit 14-of-34 (41percent) 3-pointers. The Bears consistently got open looks from the outside and could have easily shot a better percentage. Stanford center Brook Lopez also dominated the paint on both ends of the court, scoring 18 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking 12 shots.
The Ugly: The Trojans should have cruised to an easy win over the Bears. They held a 53-36 lead midway through the second half. Still, facing Lopez again may be a bigger concern. The 7-footer and the fast-improving Cardinal make a visit to Los Angeles on Feb. 22.
Louisville (15-6, 5-2 Big East)
The Good: The Cardinals have separated themselves from the middle of the pack in the Big East, climbing into a tie for third place. Beating Syracuse also gave them their first win over someone from the upper half of the standings. The emergence of small forward Terrence Williams and veteran big men Juan Palacios and David Padgett are big reasons for Louisville's recent success. The multi-talented Williams looks ready to give the Cards a go-to scorer, averaging 15.4 points over their last seven games. He scored 18 points against UConn and hit pivotal back-to-back 3-pointers in the final two minutes against Syracuse. Palacios, finally healthy, and Padgett have been playing like one of the league's top inside duos. Palacios finished with 16 points against UConn and scored all nine of his points against the Orange in the final nine minutes. Coach Rick Pitino said Padgett was the difference against the Huskies after he put together his second double-double (19 points and 11 boards). The Cards also grabbed as many rebounds (38) as Uconn - one of the nation's top rebounding teams - and took a 14-12 edge on the offensive glass.
The Bad: The Cards remain firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble despite their 5-2 record in league play. They are ranked No. 65 in the RPI, seventh among Big East teams. The main problems are a weak non-conference schedule and the lack of a quality road win. The Cards must pull off a couple of victories away from Freedom Hall before you can pencil them in the field of 65.
The Ugly: The Cards are entering a brutal six-game stretch, starting with road games at Cincinnati and Villanova on Wednesday and Sunday. They'll play host to Georgetown and South Florida after that, followed by road trips to Pittsburgh and Marquette.
Virginia (13-6, 5-2 ACC)
The Good: The Cavaliers are going to feel capable of overcoming just about any lead from here on out. Few teams can say they came back from 16 points down with eight and half minutes left. More importantly, the dramatic road triumph over the Tigers was worth a jump of 22 spots in the RPI - the Cavs moved from No. 73 to No. 51. Finding a way to win despite star Sean Singletary scoring just 11 points is another plus. Singletary's backcourt mate, J.R. Reynolds, is showing he can consistently handle the scoring load. Reynolds, who scored a team-high 18 points versus the Tigers, is averaging 26 points during the four-game winning streak.
The Bad: Protecting the ball remains a problem for UVa., which ranks 10th in the ACC in turnover margin. The Cavs combined to commit 31 turnovers against Clemson and N.C. State, while dishing out just 21 assists.
The Ugly: Scheduling Division-I independent Longwood in the middle of the ACC schedule for the second consecutive year could prove costly this time. The Cavs' non-conference RPI is No. 151 (second worst in the ACC) and facing Longwood, which ranks No. 308, will only push that number higher.
Also of note ...
  • Providence used tremendous balance to deliver a big blow to UConn's NCAA Tournament hopes. All five of the Frairs starters scored in double figures in their 84-72 win over the Huskies. UConn dropped to 2-5 in the Big East and No. 88 in the RPI.
  • Alabama's backcourt deserves the blame for the Tide's 63-57 loss to Arkansas. Guards Ronald Steele, Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley combined to score just four points.
  • Individual Spotlight
  • Oregon's Aaron Brooks and Washington State's Derrick Low each broke the 30-point barrier in the Ducks' 77-74 overtime win. Brooks, who was coming off a suspension for disciplinary reasons, poured in 31 points - matching his season high. Low made nine of 16 (56 percent) 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 37 points.
  • Nevada star Nick Fazekas put together perhaps his most complete game, scoring 24 points, pulling down 18 rebounds and adding four assists and three blocks in the Wolf Pack's 79-62 win over Utah State.
  • Alando Tucker broke the 20-point barrier for the 10th time this season and for the first time against a Big Ten opponent. The Wisconsin star went 11-of-14 (78 percent) from the field and poured in a game-high 27 points in the Badgers' 57-46 win at Iowa.
  • Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel put together one of the best halves of any player this season in the Spartans' 66-64 loss at Ohio State. Playing with a new-found swagger, the junior hit a series of tough jumpers and scored 24 of his 29 points in the second half.
  • No Tar Heel played better this past week than freshman point guard Tywon Lawson, who scored a career-high 18 points, dished out eight assists and made four steals in a 92-64 rout over Arizona. Lawson used his tremendous speed to beat a number of defenders down court for a handful of layups. He also added 14 points and five assists in their 88-60 thrashing of Wake Forest.
  • Rutgers' Adrian Hill nearly joined the 20-20 club in the Scarlet Knights' second Big East win. Hill set career-highs with 18 points and 19 rebounds, carrying the Knights to a 74-70 triumph over Seton Hall in overtime.
  • Purdue's David Teague more than doubled his 13-point scoring average, racking up a career-high 28 points in the Boilermakers' 64-47 win against Illinois. Teague also added nine rebounds.
  • Freshmen Spotlight
  • Texas' Kevin Durant bounced back from one of his worst games of the season in remarkable fashion. After being held to 12 points in a loss at Villanova last week, Durant scored 26 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a 62-61 win over Nebraska. Durant followed that performance with a 34-point, nine-rebound outing in an 84-79 win over Baylor.
  • Ohio State center Greg Oden continues to improve at a rapid rate. Oden hit 11-of-14 free throws (78 percent) and scored 19 points to help the Buckeyes hold on for a 66-64 win over Michigan State. The big man scored 17 points and grabbed 17 rebounds earlier in the week in a 59-50 win over Northwestern.
  • It took Stanford center Brook Lopez just 13 games to put together his first triple-double. Lopez, who was injured for the first five games, scored 18 points, corralled 11 rebounds and blocked 12 shots in a win over USC.
  • 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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