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February 24, 2013
Smarter After Saturday
Peaking at the Right Time

by John Gasaway


The most coveted and elusive quality sought by any college basketball time is peaking at the right time. You'll be hearing that phrase often, because, with March five days away, now is certainly "the right time." True, in 2010-11, Connecticut won a national championship despite stumbling late in the regular season, but we've already ascertained that the Huskies that season were the exception to the rule. For your standard team with high hopes, it turns out that winning in February is indeed a good thing.

Certainly teams like Indiana, Georgetown, and Gonzaga are peaking at the right time, and it's no coincidence that I've offered my thoughts on the Hoosiers, the Hoyas, and the Bulldogs just within the past few days. But Tom Crean, John Thompson III, and Mark Few don't have a monopoly on peaking by any means, so here are five more teams to add to the list. Consider them high achievers with good timing.

A lot of people were very quick to hop off the Cardinals' bandwagon when Rick Pitino's team lost three in a row in January. Then, when I sounded the all-clear and encouraged everyone to hop back on, Louisville promptly went out and lost again (though it did take 65 minutes for them to do so).

Now I'm back, yet again, to sell you on the merits of a team looking up at Georgetown in the Big East standings, and tied for second along with Syracuse and Marquette. Hear me out. With four games left to play in the conference season, the Cardinals have outscored their league opponents by 0.16 points per possession, tops in the Big East. Say, that number sounds familiar. Where have I heard it before? Oh, yes, last season Syracuse outscored the league by the same margin on their way to a 17-1 record and a No. 1 seed. That was one of the best teams the league has produced in the past four seasons, and everyone recognized that fact at the time. Well, this Louisville group is just as good even if very few people realize it.

Pitino's defense is just as strong as it was last season (in other words, amazingly tough), and the offense is vastly improved. In Big East play the Cardinals have rebounded 39 percent of their misses, the best such figure in the conference. (Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan have had a lot to do with that.) Louisville is currently projected as a No. 3 seed, but there's a fair chance they'll actually be the best team in their region come March.

Speaking of bandwagons and three-game losing streaks, the Jayhawks have reeled off four wins in a row since dropping consecutive games to Oklahoma State, TCU (yes, that really happened), and Oklahoma earlier this month. KU is now tied for first with Kansas State, as Bill Self's team attempts to win what would be an incredible ninth consecutive Big 12 regular-season title.

The Jayhawks face a tall task in their next game, taking on Iowa State in Ames where the Cyclones have won 22 in a row. But say this for KU, they'll enter that game with momentum. During this four-game win streak Kansas has made 51 percent of its twos, 14 percentage points better than what its last four opponents can claim. Ben McLemore might be the best pure scorer Self has ever had, and Jeff Withey is dominating the paint defensively yet again (while rather quietly assuming a larger role on offense). True, KU's offense currently ranks a not terribly impressive No. 5 in the league in Big 12 play, however this defense is superb and getting better, allowing just 0.82 points per possession over the last four games.

Before his Oregon team faced California last week, Dana Altman branded the Bears as "the hot team in the conference." Prophetic words. Cal beat the Ducks in Eugene 48-46, and Mike Montgomery's team is currently riding a five-game win streak.

In the Bears' case, peaking at the right time means putting themselves in contention for an at-large bid. My colleague Joe Lunardi pegs Cal as one of the last four teams in at the moment, and the Bears will play their last three regular-season games in Berkeley. Montgomery can claim the best interior defense in the conference, one that's limited league opponents to 43 percent shooting inside the arc. He can also boast about a pretty good featured scorer in the person of Allen Crabbe, who got this win streak started with a 31-point outburst (on just 15 shots) against Arizona. For a "down" league, putting no fewer than six teams into the NCAA tournament seems more than respectable, and the Pac-12 may yet pull that off. If so it will be because the Bears have done their part.

Saint Louis
This season's Atlantic 10 race was supposed to be all about the league's new arrivals, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth. As if to disprove that speculation emphatically, Saint Louis beat both teams in the span of just three days, posting a 76-62 win against the Rams at home and a 65-61 victory over the Bulldogs in Indianapolis. The Billikens haven't lost a game since President Obama's first term (January 19, to be precise), and Jim Crews' team has sole possession of first place in the A-10 at 10-2.

Saint Louis will finally crack the polls this week and deservedly so, but let's make sure we're praising this team accurately. I've seen the term "poor man's Wisconsin" attached to Crews' men, and it's true they rank No. 1 in the A-10 in defense (holding conference opponents to 0.92 points per trip) while also excelling at taking care of the ball (giving it away on just 16 percent of their possessions in-conference). But that's where the eerie Badger-Billiken parallels end. Bo Ryan's team has struggled on offense this season while playing at a slow tempo. Conversely SLU has been outstanding on offense while playing at the A-10's "normal" pace. Saint Louis will continue to be underestimated on offense simply because Crews' balanced rotation offers no "star" to latch onto and promote. But Cody Ellis, Jordair Jett, Dwayne Evans, and Mike McCall all do their bit, and as a team the Billikens hit their twos and get to the line. This is a very good team that will almost certainly be under-seeded next month.

As a final farewell to the league they've dominated for so long, the Tigers are, you guessed it, dominating Conference USA one last time. Next season Josh Pastner's team will make the jump to the Big East, and Memphis is definitely leaving on a high note. At 13-0 in C-USA action, there's a good chance the Tigers will run the table, though road games at UCF and UTEP do remain to be played.

Whether or not Memphis posts a perfect conference record, Joe Jackson, Adonis Thomas, and company project to be a tough out in the NCAA tournament. Dating back to the John Calipari years, good defense is just expected from this program and this season's Tigers certainly meet that test. What you may not realize unless you've been watching Pastner's men chew up Southern Miss, however, is that these guys are also the Creighton of C-USA, draining shots from both sides of the arc. And D.J. Stephens may be making the leap from statistical oddity to genuine star before our eyes. On paper the 6-5 senior's leading the nation in offensive efficiency as a never-shoot role player. But now he's starting to shoot, scoring 30 points over his last two games. Like his team, which hasn't lost since December 15, Stephens is definitely peaking at the right time.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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