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BC, GW, WEST VIRGINIA AMONG TRUE CONTENDERS

League play opens in several conferences around the country Sunday and gets into full swing next week. To this point, it's still hard to make much sense of some schools' bloated records and equally inflated standing in the Ratings Percentage Index.

Because computer rankings have taken on such huge meaning as we head toward March, we're going to examine some of them with what we'll call the "PC" Index. Which label do these schools deserve in their leagues: pretender or contender?

Boston College (10-0): Big East domos have to be squirming with the ACC-bound Eagles sitting in the top 10 of the RPIs. And the schedule hasn't been soft either as the Eagles have already beaten UCLA, Clemson and underrated Boston University. Their biggest win, however, came Wednesday night when they edged Kent State, 67-65, by overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit. Forward Craig Smith is one of the East's best big men and should get BC back to the NCAAs. Status: contender.

Notre Dame (8-2): Shame on coach Mike Brey. Even Syracuse and Pittsburgh don't play schedules this bad. The Irish have lost to the best two teams on their slate, Michigan and DePaul. Check out their wins: Harvard, Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, Charleston Southern, Army, Marist, Western Illinois, Samford and an Indiana team that had lost six straight until beating Ball State on Tuesday night. The RPI numbers don't lie. At 8-2, ND is No. 203 and in need of a lot of Big East wins. Status: pretender.

Texas A&M (10-0): This is all about new coach Billy Gillespie making a name for himself in his first year after coming from UTEP. Until beating Houston on Wednesday, the Aggies had played the nation's worst schedule. As in No. 330 out of 330. It included two non-Division I's and lowlights such as North Carolina A&T, Alabama A&M and Prairie View. A&M might fall Sunday at Penn State but will definitely pay the piper when it opens Big 12 play Wednesday at Kansas. Status: pretender.

George Washington (8-2): The Colonials have great wins over Maryland and Michigan State and easily appear to be the class of the Atlantic 10. They should be 10-2 when they come to Olean on Jan. 12 to meet St. Bonaventure. Status: contender.

West Virginia (9-0): Aside from a win at struggling LSU, coach John Beilein's crew had trampled lightweights until it beat GW, 71-65, at home Wednesday night. The Mountaineers are certainly going to be in the Top 25 if they win Sunday at North Carolina State. Even if they don't, they're probably going to be a top six team in the Big East, putting them squarely on the NCAA bubble. Status: contender.

Kent State (8-3): The Golden Flashes should be the University at Buffalo's top foe in the Mid-American Conference East and they are still in the top 20 of the RPIs even after Wednesday's heartbreaker at BC. But their best wins (Creighton, Florida State and surprising Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) probably won't look nearly as good come March. Status: contender, but moving toward pretender.

Hawaii (8-1): The Rainbows won their first eight, leaving the islands only once, before losing at the buzzer Wednesday night at Fresno State, 79-78. Hawaii's quality wins include Southern Illinois, St. Mary's, Oral Roberts (which was 8-0) and USC. The 'Bows play today at Nevada, which is 8-3 off its Sweet 16 season. Status: contender, at least until we see today's result.

Some contenders you may not have noticed: Oregon (8-1, losing only to Illinois); Virginia (8-1, losing only by two at Iowa State and hosting Wake Forest on Sunday), Western Kentucky (9-1, with a huge resume game coming Wednesday at Virginia), Wichita State (9-0 and hosting Manhattan on Monday).

More pretenders: Arkansas (11-1), Ohio State (11-2 and ineligible for postseason), Clemson (8-3), Georgetown (8-3), Kansas State (8-1), Oregon State (8-3).

Unbeatens to also-rans

Just last year, Stanford and Saint Joseph's battled to finish the regular season unbeaten. How long ago it seems.

Stanford lost, 60-51, at Washington State on Friday night, falling to 6-5. Saint Joseph's is a miserable 3-6 after Friday's loss at Ohio State. With Jameer Nelson and Delonte West gone to the NBA, the Hawks have lost by 40 at Kansas, by 26 at San Francisco and were upset at home Tuesday night by Bucknell, 69-62.

East Aurora product Dave Mallon, who has again been battling stress fractures in his foot, has only played in the last three games for Saint Joseph's. He's averaging 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds.

Around the rim

Game of the day: Georgia Tech at Kansas in a rematch of last year's St. Louis regional final (2:30 p.m., ESPN). . . . Fan and media pressure in Albany is building on Siena coach Rob Lanier as the Buffalo native's team is just 2-9 and now dealing with a spate of injuries. . . . Things are far from happy in Connecticut. The Husky men (8-1) were trailing by three points at halftime against Sacred Heart before responding to win Tuesday, 73-55. The women are 6-3 and look like they won't defend their title without the graduated Diana Taurasi.

Big 4 three-pointers
Pardon us while we douse the champagne corks celebrating St. Bonaventure's win over Alcorn State Wednesday night. Beating a SWAC team whose only victory was over NAIA Arkansas Baptist should not be viewed as any sort of breakthrough. Now let's see if the Bonnies can actually beat a real Division I team at some point this season.

Central Connecticut transfer Jon Popofski pumped some offense and badly needed energy into the Canisius attack when he became eligible last week. With Darnell Wilson and Chuck Harris in the midst of sophomore slumps, Popofski has been a lone bright spot in recent games.

Unless it gets on a major winning streak the next two months, it looks like an NCAA-or-bust season for Niagara. The Purple Eagles' chances of getting at least back to the National Invitation Tournament look slim because of an RPI that was ruined by their inexcusable loss at Loyola and a resume that lacks any quality nonconference wins.
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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