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Time for teams to make their case

It's crunch time in college basketball.

A few weeks from now, you'll know where your favorite team is heading -- if it's heading at all. You'll know its seeding. You can fill in that NCAA Tournament bracket, look down the line and see the hurdles on the Road to the Final Four.

And for the committee who will select those 65 teams, this is the most important time of year. December? Forget about it.

"There are 343 Division I institutions, of which 330 are eligible this year, of which 31 will be automatic qualifiers, so there are 299 teams eligible for at-large bids," said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, the chair of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee. "Using the number of automatics, the 34, as a numerator, and 299 as a denominator, that means about 11 percent of these teams eligible will be selected as at-large entries. That's 1 in 9."

For Slive, the importance of the last 12 games of the season "can vary from committee member to committee member." The committee will take into account, among other things, strength of schedule and conference, injuries to key players (such as North Carolina's Marcus Ginyard, Connecticut's Jerome Dyson) and how a team is finishing the season.

The finish is crucial.

Cincinnati (17-8) and Georgetown are prime examples. The Bearcats were shaky in December. They are 7-3 in their last 10. The Hoyas were once 12-3 and ranked No. 12 in the nation. They are now 13-9, losing six of their last seven.

Missouri (21-4) has played its way into position to receive a favorable NCAA seeding, possibly as high as No. 4. Syracuse (18-7) is playing its way out of one and could be looking at a very difficult first-round game. The Orange needs to finish strong and maybe win at least one game in the Big East Tournament to send a message to the committee.

That's the way it will be across the country over the next few weeks and the last 12 games set the tone.

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Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said this week that Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet is the best shot blocker he has ever seen in the Big East. That's a big compliment, considering the league has featured such intimidating players as Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, Seton Hall's Samuel Dalembert and UConn's Emeka Okafor over the years.

Thabeet is the league's career leader in blocked shots average (4.53), while Ewing blocked 247 shots in 62 Big East games from 1981-85. Depending on how far UConn goes into the Big East Tournament, Thabeet with 208 career blocks has a chance to catch Ewing.

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Speaking of Syracuse, fans of the Orange shouldn't punch tickets to the NIT just yet. Yes, Syracuse has won just two of its last seven and was pounded in its last two road games against Villanova and UConn, but the schedule softens up considerably.

The Orange (18-7, 6-6 Big East) hosts reeling Georgetown (13-9, 4-7) today and then Villanova (20-4, 8-3). It ends the season with St. John's (12-12, 3-9), Cincinnati (17-8, 7-5), Rutgers (10-14, 1-10) and Marquette (20-4, 9-2). Home wins over Villanova and Cincinnati would likely give the Orange 23 victories heading into the Big East Tournament, which would be more than enough for the NCAAs.

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Niagara is the only team in the country with two players ranked in the top seven in steals. Tyrone Lewis is fourth with 72 steals and Bilal Benn is tied for sixth with Robert Morris' Jeremy Chappell with 68.

The Purple Eagles are currently third in the nation in steals behind VMI and Missouri with an average of 10.6 a game.

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Looks like Greg Paulus is the starting point guard again for Duke. The Syracuse native has been the backup to Nolan Smith for most of the season but has started the last two games.

The move by coach Mike Krzyzewski is rather odd since it comes late in the season when most teams' rotations are already locked in. But Coach K figured Duke needed more stability at the position, especially after Smith suffered four turnovers and no assists in 23 minutes of a 27-point loss last week at Clemson.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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