Philadelphia, PA – Perhaps the AFC needs some new blood.
That was my prevailing thought after last night's highly entertaining Super Bowl, the New York Giants' second with Eli Manning under center in the last five seasons. Perhaps Peyton is Eli's brother, not vice versa.
The large takeaway was the playoff dominance of New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh over the last nine seasons. The trio has won five Super Bowls and been to four others. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning are a large reason why no other team has represented the AFC since Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Yet, what does that say about Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and others? Maybe the ACC is lacking a true contender to the dominance, or maybe this was the final stand and we have already seen the last of Indy's run as presently constructed, while Tom Brady (age 34) is entering the twilight of his career.
It is an interesting thought on the AFC power structure as the Giants celebrate once again. It is also the perfect segue to what happens next in sports. College basketball is primed to take over the nation's collective conscience with March's madness just over one month away.
It's time to catch up. From the End of the Bench is here to help with a six- pack look back at what you've missed while mesmerized by the NFL season.
1. Frank Haith is no longer hated in Columbia. First thought to be a controversial, bottom-of-the-barrel hire by Tigers fans, it has turned out to be a stroke of genius. Granted the former Miami coach inherited a pantry full of weapons, but he has coached to the players' strengths and given a four- guard attack complete decision-making power on the floor. Missouri stormed back again in the face of adversity Saturday night at Kansas, erasing an eight-point deficit in the final two-plus minutes to shock the Jayhawks. Missouri is not only one of the season's best stories; it is a legit national title contender.
2. Murray State still hasn't lost. The Racers are 23-0 thanks to the never- say-die attitude of guards Isaiah Cannon and Donte Poole. They beat some quality clubs back in November-December, downing Dayton, UAB and Memphis, and have weathered best shot after best shot during conference play. There are still two games left against Tennessee State, one against Tennessee Tech and a BracketBusters showdown with Saint Mary's, so the unblemished regular-season mark is far from a sure thing. No matter what, though, Murray State's place in March is locked up.
3. Speaking of mid-majors, ESPN's made-for-TV BracketBusters matchups were released last week, and you should be glued to the tube in an attempt to catch up on some great stories, and possible glass-slipper candidates. Northern Iowa, fresh off a 65-62 victory over Creighton this past weekend, travels to VCU on Friday, February 17. A win by either team doesn't solidify an at-large berth, but the loser is likely out of the conversation (Northern Iowa would still likely have to win the Missouri Valley's automatic bid). As mentioned above, Saint Mary's travels to Murray in a game more for tournament seeding and unbeaten intrigue than anything else. I can't wait to watch the Gaels' Matthew Dellavedova against Cannon and Rob Jones squaring off against the Racers' Ivan Aska in the paint. I'm also really looking forward to Long Beach State-Creighton. If you haven't seen the Bluejays' Doug McDermott, tune in. He is a scoring machine, national player of the year candidate and a guard who can carry a team on his back into March's second weekend. Long Beach State's Casper Ware is also no slouch. The 49ers have a solid mid-30s RPI and are unbeaten in the Big West, but a win here would solidify an at-large berth.
4. The Pac-12 is vying for a dubious distinction. A power conference has never sent just one team to the NCAA Tournament, but it's tough to find a worthy at- large team in the bunch. Stanford had the best non-league profile, but has vanished into thin air with four losses in five games. California has the moniker of a "good team," but the profile doesn't match the description. Washington has a league-leading 9-2 mark, but its best out-of-conference win is... Georgia State? The Huskies don't have a top-50 win and lost at home by 19 to South Dakota State. It will be interesting to watch if one team starts to separate itself in the league race. A 13-win conference slate could be enough for the Huskies, Bears or Arizona Wildcats if another team steals the conference tourney.
5. Notre Dame is BURNING hot. The Irish are back to running head coach Mike Brey's BURN offense, which in principle is exactly how it sounds. They take 20 to 25 seconds off the shot clock before starting their offensive end, limiting the number of overall possessions and controlling the tempo. Notre Dame is just a half-game out of second place in the Big East, which is a minor miracle considering sharpshooter Tim Abromaitis suffered a season-ending injury early in the season. The Irish have won four straight, including wins over Syracuse, Connecticut and a 17-point drubbing of previous second-place holder Marquette.
6. When assessing the national title contenders, one name stands above the rest: Ohio State. Yes, I'm well aware (and you should be to) of Kentucky's dominant defense, North Carolina's top scoring offense, Missouri's guards, Syracuse's depth (especially with Fab Melo back in the fold), but no team has the balance and adaptability of the Buckeyes. Ohio State played Wisconsin's game on Saturday in Madison and still came out on top. The reason is simple: the Buckeyes have Jared Sullinger. He scored 24 points with 10 rebounds and three steals while playing from tip to final buzzer. Ohio State can win a drag-out fight because of the first-team All-American and can hang in transition because of William Buford and Aaron Craft. Speaking of Craft, he is the front man on the stingiest per-possession defense in the country. Ohio State allows a ridiculous .77 points per trip. It also doesn't turn the ball over. It handles the backboards. It is comfortable playing fast, slow, on the road or at home. It is the nation's most complete team as of February 6th.
1. Ohio State (20-3): I was left so impressed by the Buckeyes' road win in Madison, that I vaulted them to the top position. The stats above illustrate a team with marginal holes at best, which is more than I can say for any other contender at the moment.
2. Kentucky (23-1): Kentucky can block (and alter) shots. It is receiving scoring (finally!) from Terrence Jones, but the Wildcats still can't score consistently from the perimeter, and I have the feeling that March will show the SEC to be a notch below the Big Ten this season.
3. Syracuse (23-1): Big rivalry week for the Orange with Georgetown and Connecticut. There is plenty of good news around both games. Melo is back in the fold, both games are at the Carrier Dome, and the Hoyas and Huskies haven't exactly been lighting up the scoreboard as of late.
4. North Carolina (20-3): Gutty. And that's not a word anyone could associate with the Tar Heels this season. Yet, in an eight-point hole on the road at desperate Maryland, the Tar Heels dug deep and hit the backboards. Harrison Barnes is still hobbling. His health will be a big deal with Duke on the docket this week.
5. Missouri (21-2): If that was the last Border War in Columbia, what a way for the Tigers to go out (and into the SEC). Marcus Denmon finally got back on track, draining three treys in the final 2:05 to push the Tigers to victory. He scored 29 points due in large part to a week of work. Haith said after the game, "Marcus worked his tail off all week."
6. Baylor (21-2): The Bears were perhaps looking ahead to Wednesday's game against Kansas, but they persevered and won in a difficult environment. Perry Jones III again came up big with 16 points and 11 rebounds in the 64-60 victory over Oklahoma State.
7. Kansas (18-5): The Jayhawks were done in by bad shot selection down the stretch, watching Missouri score the game's final 11 points. They need to put that loss in the rearview fast with a trip to Waco this week.
8. Michigan State (18-5): Draymond Green is one tough dude. He went from crutches to the catbird seat in a matter of days. Green watched the end of a loss to Illinois after spraining his left knee, but returned to lead the Spartans to a big 64-54 victory over Michigan. He scored 14 points to go along with 16 rebounds in the win.
9. Florida (19-4): The Gators are finally in eye's view of this column after two months of doubt. That is what a seven-game winning streak will do to a team; push it into the public eye and inside the top-10. The victory over Vanderbilt was perhaps its most impressive of the stretch, considering it shot just 38 percent from the floor. This team still chucks a lot of threes and relies on just one low-post presence, but Missouri already seems to be using that recipe to success.
10. Duke (19-4): It's easy to say Duke's overtime loss to Miami was the result of two factors: 1) looking ahead to North Carolina this week and 2) getting beat by quick, athletic guards -- aka, the typical Duke loss. The first may be true, but the second definitely isn't. The Blue Devils were physically manhandled by 6-foot-10, 300-pound center Reggie Johnson. The big man scored a career-high 27 points in Miami's first-ever victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
11. Murray State (23-0): Is this position is too high? Who else would you put here? More on the Racers-Gaels BracketBusters matchup. Saint Mary's hasn't lost since December 22 (to Baylor), and KenPom.com is giving it a 51 percent chance of winning on the road. It is even in every sense of the word.
12. Creighton (21-3): It's tough to penalize the Bluejays too much for losing on the road to a desperate Northern Iowa team. So we won't. However, words to the wise: the Bluejays need to start playing better defense. They rank 122nd nationally in defensive efficiency, which is being masked at the moment by McDermott and the sixth most efficient offense.
13. UNLV (21-4): At what point does UNLV's struggles away from Vegas become a huge red flag come tournament time. I love UNLV's roster, its inside-outside balance, its mixture of veterans and youth, but the Runnin' Rebels were waxed at Wichita State and Wisconsin and are lucky to be 2-2 away from home in conference play, needing overtime to beat both Boise State and Air Force.
14. Georgetown (18-4): The Hoyas are an under-the-radar 18-4, which includes five victories in the last six games. The last two wins have been all about defense, holding UConn and South Florida to 44 and 45 points respectively. It shouldn't be a surprise then that the Hoyas are sixth nationally in defensive efficiency.
15. Florida State (16-6): Welcome to the Fine 15, Seminoles! The defense has been head coach Leonard Hamilton's bellwether since he arrived in Tallahassee, but the Seminoles finally have some shooters on the perimeter. Florida State made 5-of-12 threes in a 58-55 weekend win versus Virginia, its seventh straight W.