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March 8, 2010

Monday with Mike: The not-so-Elite Eight

Let's take a break from all this talk about conference tournaments and bubble teams. Instead, let's focus on teams that haven't lived up to expectations this season.

We picked eight teams -- a not-so-Elite Eight, as it were. While it's true that seven of these teams can salvage their seasons with nice performances in their league tournaments (one's conference tourney already is over), there's really nothing we've seen that suggests these folks are going to get things on track any time soon.

Here are the eight, listed alphabetically.

Connecticut (17-14, Big East tournament to come): A step back from last season was expected -- after all, the Huskies made it to the Final Four -- but not one this large. Three key players returned in guards Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker and forward Stanley Robinson, but no one else stepped up consistently. The result was a tie for 11th in the Big East regular-season standings. With a chance to play their way into the NCAA field, the Huskies instead ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak (their third three-game losing streak of the season). The Huskies' inconsistency was maddening. How can a team that can beat West Virginia and win at Villanova lose to Providence and Michigan? Coach Jim Calhoun's medical leave during the middle of the season obviously was a distraction, but the Huskies had been up-and-down before he went on his leave.

Creighton (16-15, Missouri Valley tourney over): The Bluejays returned three starters from a team that made it to the second round of the NIT. With Dana Altman at the helm, they were expected to be Northern Iowa's main competition for the Missouri Valley title. Instead, Creighton finished fourth in the league and lost in the first round of the league tournament. In addition, the Bluejays' streak of 11 consecutive 20-win seasons is going to end. Creighton didn't really have any bad losses; they just had a lot of losses. Plus, the Bluejays didn't really beat anyone of note. They started league play 0-2 and never really recovered. The top returning scorer was junior guard P'Allen Stinnett, but he didn't play again this season after he was put on an indefinite suspension in late January.

Dayton (19-11, Atlantic 10 tournament to come): This was supposed to be a big season for the Flyers, who returned four starters and nine of the top 10 players off a team that won a first-round NCAA tournament game as a No. 11 seed. Instead, the Flyers look as if they are going to miss out on the NCAA tourney. The Flyers ended the regular season by losing four of five and six of eight to fall off the NCAA bubble. The Flyers are known for their defense, but their struggle to consistently produce offense hurt them this season. Plus, at times, their defense let them down. They also were mediocre away from home, which bodes ill in the A-10 tournament.

Michigan (13-16, Big Ten tournament to come): The Wolverines looked to have turned the corner last season, making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 and advancing to the second round. With four starters and most of the key reserves returning, the Wolverines were seen as a legit Big Ten contender this season. Alas, they never gained any traction this season and finished tied for seventh in the Big Ten at 7-11. Guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims have played relatively well, but none of the complementary players could be counted on from game to game. The Wolverines head into the conference tourney having lost four of five and six of nine. After a 2-1 start in league play, there wasn't much else to celebrate.

Minnesota (18-12, Big Ten tournament to come): The Golden Gophers were another Big Ten team coming off an NCAA appearance that was returning four starters and numerous key reserves. But a three-game losing streak followed a 4-0 start to the season, and Minnesota never seemed to regain its stride. Tubby Smith's teams are known for their defense, but the Golden Gophers had some startlingly bad defensive outings this season. They also were inconsistent offensively. While there were some impressive wins (Butler, Ohio State, Wisconsin), there were more bad losses (Indiana, Miami, Portland, getting swept by Michigan). There have been some signs that the Golden Gophers have enough to make a nice run in the conference tournament -- but losing by 28 at home to Michigan would tend to curb the enthusiasm about their chances.

North Carolina (16-15, ACC tournament to come): No one was predicting the Tar Heels would win a second consecutive national title. But no one was predicting them to go 5-11 in the ACC, either. UNC went 11-3 in the 2009 portion of the schedule, with the losses to Syracuse, Kentucky and Texas. Nothing embarrassing there, right? But then the calendar turned, and things went sour quickly. There was a loss to the College of Charleston on Jan. 4, followed by a 1-3 start in ACC play. That 1-3 turned into 2-7 rather quickly, and the season spiraled out of control. UNC finished 3-5 at home in the ACC. The guard play has been bad on both ends of the court. Big man Ed Davis was lost for the season in mid-February. A touted freshman class had to play too many minutes, and those guys just weren't ready to play consistent high-caliber basketball.

Tulsa (21-10, C-USA tournament to come): With lead dog Memphis looking as if it was going to have a down year, Conference USA was considered ripe for the taking this season. Tulsa, with four starters back from a 25-win team, was seen as a leading contender for the title. But the Golden Hurricane finished fifth in the league, thanks to a swoon that started in February. Tulsa was 9-1 in mid-December, including a rout of Oklahoma State. But the Golden Hurricane dropped back-to-back games to Nebraska and Nevada, which showed their vulnerability. That vulnerability really came to the fore in February, as Tulsa was 4-6 after January ended. Tulsa was swept by C-USA champ UTEP and by Memphis. The Golden Hurricane also lost their only meeting with UAB. What that means is that Tulsa beat up on the flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of the league but struggled against the league's better teams. Given that its two best players -- center Jerome Jordan and guard Ben Uzoh -- are seniors, Tulsa's window of opportunity may have closed.

Washington State (16-14, Pac-10 tournament to come): Despite coach Tony Bennett leaving to take over at Virginia and despite losing three starters, Washington State was seen as a trendy sleeper pick in the Pac-10. New coach Ken Bone had a solid reputation, there was a good group of sophomores and the league was projected to be down. Well, the league was down -- but Washington State still finished last in the conference. The Cougars started 6-0 but played no one. Then, in their first two games against legit foes, they lost a close one at Gonzaga and were blown out at Kansas State. Four more wins against bad teams followed. But when the Cougars lost the Pac-10 opener at home to Oregon, warning bells went off. Washington State did manage to get to 4-3 in league play before it all went south. The Cougars ended the regular season by losing nine of their last 11. Again, that's nine of 11 in the Pac-10, which didn't have a dominant team this season. The only good thing to take from this season is that the Cougars had just one senior, so perhaps next season will be a breakthrough of sorts.

'Paper beats rock'
Forget the NCAA tournament for a second and instead focus on an upcoming event in Acapulco -- the USA Rock Paper Scissors League College Championships.

And, yes, we're serious -- to the tune of $25,000 to the winner.

The event, sponsored by AMP energy drink, has 14 finalists (10 males, four females) and will be held March 14-17, during spring break for a lot of schools nationwide. (Hey, a chance to win $25,000, in Acapulco, during spring break? Man, if I were just -- ahem -- 25 years younger.)

Big 12 schools have four of the 14 finalists -- three males (from Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas) and a female (from Oklahoma State). The Big East (Rutgers female, Syracuse female) and Mountain West (Colorado State male, Wyoming female) are the other conferences represented by at least two finalists. There are single finalists from the ACC (Maryland male), Colonial (VCU male), Missouri Valley (Northern Iowa male), Pac-10 (Arizona State male) and SEC (Alabama male), and there also is a Division II school represented (a male from Cal State Chico). An aside: Back in the day, Chico had quite the reputation as a party school. If Chico has that same rep now well, a rock-paper-scissors champ might just erase it.

One final aside: The Big Ten is the only Big Six conference not to have a finalist. We'll let you write your own punch line for that one.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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