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Thank goodness college basketball has a maniac playoff

What if Saturday was the knife striking through the heart of North Carolina's national championship dreams?

What if it set up a reeling spiral of losses before conference play? To flip the script, what if John Henson's fadeaway had reached its apex just before Anthony Davis' well-timed block attempt? What if Davis' wingspan didn't reach to ungodly levels, sending Kentucky to a debilitating last-second defeat that triggered three straight setbacks?

In all of the above scenarios, the overarching question states, what if this was college football? Answer: thankfully, it's not.

Yes, LSU and Alabama are replaying their 9-6 epic in the BCS National Championship game, but LSU is still unbeaten and Alabama displayed such supreme dominance through the rest of its schedule that a narrow setback wasn't enough to derail its championship quest. Yet, the Crimson Tide still needed some help from Oklahoma State, which won its conference (Alabama didn't) and would have been playing for all of the marbles if not for a season-ending setback against middling Iowa State the day after a plane crash claimed the life of the school's head women's basketball coach, an assistant and others.

The Cowboys, stuck in the quicksand of shock, came out flat and failed to make the necessary plays to pull out the nailbiter. In college hoops, if Travis Ford's 'Pokes lost the night after such a tragic accident, they would have another three months to make things right (or worse) and make their case for a chance to play for the national title.

Likewise, Saturday's Kentucky-North Carolina game can still be a precursor to an April rematch even if (actually when) each team drops subsequent games. The Wildcats' 73-72 victory in Rupp showcased their interior strength (a 36-14 edge in the paint against Henson and Tyler Zeller is nothing to sneeze at), while springing promise to North Carolina's slumbering perimeter game (the Tar Heels made 11 treys).

More than anything, the outcome made clear that the Wildcats and Tar Heels are two teams chalk full of NBA-ready talent and are inches (i.e. a point) away from each other in overall quality at this juncture. A lot can happen between now and March to change that; and that's the point. If the two teams are still the nation's best, they will play for the national title on the first Monday night in April. If not, some other story will be written by a deserving foe that knocks out one or both of these heavyweights.

Either way, Saturday was just the beginning. In fact, any game between now and March is just part of an overall story not fully written until the end. While in college football, many times the end happens at the beginning, college basketball allows for growth.

There will still be a champion, but college basketball just provides a better avenue to determine the victor. As Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the win, "this is supposed to be March. Not now. I'm just exhausted."

He will have time to recover with the possibility these two teams could meet again.

5 QUICK THOUGHTS

1. This season's Butler may very well come out of the Missouri Valley Conference, which has two potential heavyweights at the top. Creighton is already getting the street cred and a well deserved Top-25 ranking with victories over Big Ten foes Iowa and Nebraska, as well as a very impressive two-point victory at San Diego State. The Bluejays can score the basketball, reaching the 80-point mark in five of their seven victories. Doug McDermott has had an All-American-like first month, averaging nearly 24 points per game, shooting an absurd 63 percent from the floor and making nearly 58 percent of his long-range shots. The Bluejays, however, are not the only show in town. Wichita State made a statement with its 89-70 waxing of UNLV on Sunday behind Joe Ragland's eight three-pointers (the Shockers made 12-of-23 overall). Wichita State already played Alabama tough for 30-plus-minutes and lost an overtime tilt to Temple, so this team can play, especially at home, where the Shockers are 4-0 and haven't won by less than 15 points. The first Creighton- Wichita State game is slated for New Year's Eve.

2. Baylor is long and athletic, but you knew that already. What you didn't know is these Bears are finishing games and playing more disciplined, both traits which were very apparent in a 69-41 drubbing of a Northwestern team that forces you to be patient and prudent. The Bears used a sizeable interior edge with Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III combining to score 28 points on 13- of-18 shooting. As Bears head coach Scott Drew said afterward, "I think they buy into (the) team (concept)."

3. Pittsburgh point guard Travon Woodall will miss roughly a month with a groin strain and an abdominal tear. His loss is significant for a team that already goes through spells of offensive ineptitude. Woodall was the triggerman for the Panthers, averaging 8.3 assists per game (second only to UNC's Kendall Marshall among power conference point guards) while also chipping in 14.1 points per contest. Pittsburgh narrowly escaped at Tennessee without him and will also have to navigate a neutral court game with Oklahoma State and the Big East opener at Notre Dame.

4. Tennessee women's head coach Pat Summitt and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski have been named 2011 Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, deserved honors for both. The two leaders have amassed nearly 2,000 victories, but more than anything, they have shaped the game's growth and put their stamps on thousands of young men and women. The accomplishments are too vast to mention here, but the apt title of "leaders and legends" sufficiently sums up each's impact on the sport.

5. From the best the game has to offer to its lowest denominator, Bernie Fine was justly fired at Syracuse in a wake of more incriminating evidence against him that perhaps supports the child molestation accusations. Fine will have his day in court, but public opinion has already been levied upon head coach Jim Boeheim, who has shifted from angry and defensive to apologetic and saddened as more details have emerged about the allegations of abuse. My thoughts are simple. This is NOT Penn State, there is no evidence at this point that underscores Boeheim's knowledge of any such acts or a subsequent cover up on his part, BUT his tactless, thoughtless responses (and I'm not just talking his first public foray, but his second, third, and fourth) are grounds for dismissal. And he knows it. That's how you explain the crawling into the corner we've seen over the last week, the complete 180 from defiance to defeat.

FINE 15

1. Kentucky (8-0): Remember last week's Fine 15, when I pinpointed Darius Miller as the glue that would keep the young Wildcats together for 40 minutes against the Tar Heels? His line: 12 points in 23 valuable minutes as freshman Marquis Teague struggled.

2. Ohio State (8-0): Mighty impressive victory over Duke with Aaron Craft turning in his best collegiate game. He and William Buford will be called upon to handle the heavy lifting as Jared Sullinger battles back spasms.

3. Syracuse (8-0): The zone has kept this crew grounded in the face of program turmoil. Just one opponent (Albany) has reached 70 points against Syracuse's length.

4. Baylor (7-0): Leading by as many as 32 points in Evanston is good enough to vault Baylor in the rankings. Once Quincy Miller is fully healthy, this may be the nation's best frontline.

5. Louisville (7-0): Injuries mount (four since the end of October), but the Cardinals keep winning. This isn't the nation's fifth-best team, but the overtime win over Vanderbilt again showcased a defensive effort that has been nothing short of superb to date.

6. North Carolina (6-2): I can't penalize the Tar Heels too much after a hard- fought win over Wisconsin and a narrow setback in Rupp. The biggest improvement from week to week was UNC's defensive effort, led by Dexter Strickland, who reminds Tar Heel fans more and more each day of Jackie Manual or Marcus Ginyard.

7. Duke (7-1): The Blue Devils' interior flaws were exposed in Columbus, but they also didn't do a typical Duke job getting out on wing shooters. The trip from Maui likely had something to do with that looked like collectively tired legs.

8. Connecticut (7-1): Andre Drummond is still settling into his own skin, but UConn's bench did work in a 13-point victory over Arkansas. Head coach Jim Calhoun would love to get consistent production from Ryan Boatright (who logged heavy, starter-like minutes) and Tyler Olander.

9. Xavier (9-0): Staring at defeat, Tu Holloway just doesn't bat an eye. He resurrected the Musketeers against Vanderbilt, completely taking over in overtime, then made several ice-water-through-his-veins free throws to complete a second-half rally against Purdue. The biggest positive, however, is the play of Mark Lyons, who scored 14 with six boards against Purdue and is turning into a sound second option.

10. Missouri (7-0): A trip to New York for a matchup with a not-overly strong Villanova team is on tap for Tuesday, so the Tigers just need to stay focused and avoid looking ahead to the border war with Illinois on December 22. The Illini are better than initially advertised in the early season.

11. Marquette (7-0): The testament of a well-coached team: shoot 38 percent from the floor, make 2-of-11 threes and still defeat a top-10 opponent. Marquette's defense swarmed to Jordan Taylor, holding him to 10 points, then stuck to the waistlines of Ben Brust and Jared Berggren, holding them to 17 points on 6-of-22 shooting, in the victory over Wisconsin.

12. Alabama (7-1): Lost one of those 50-50, grind-out affairs to Georgetown, but that doesn't change my perception of the Crimson Tide, who will be better in March than they are at the moment (which is still pretty good).

13. Pittsburgh (7-1): Ashton Gibbs still found his shots (21) without Woodall in the fold, but made only seven of them. The biggest detriment to Gibbs' scoring will be the amount of energy he expends getting the Panthers into their offense.

14. Mississippi State (8-1): The Bulldogs looked like typical underachievers after an uninspired effort against Eastern Kentucky and a loss to Akron, but since then, Dee Bost has led them to victories over Texas A&M, Arizona and West Virginia.

15. Wichita State (5-2): You don't want this position apparently; as the last two teams here (Long Beach State and Saint Louis) went on to lose shortly thereafter. The Shockers aren't the best team in their own conference at the moment (that's Creighton), but they did put together one of the best performances of the season in thoroughly drubbing UNLV.