The new year is finally upon us, and March Madness will be here faster than a Bryce Drew buzzer-beater. Surprises thus far? San Diego State, UCF and Cincinnati remain undefeated, with the Aztecs holding steady in the Top 10. Ohio State is looking better than ever even after losing Evan Turner to the NBA.
Same old song and dance? Duke hasn't lost a game in about 10 months, Kansas hasn't missed a beat despite losing its best two players to the League, and the Big East is looking as ferocious as ever. How will it all play out? Let's look at who's poised to make it happen for their squad, and who just might find their team tumbling out of the spotlight.
1. Cleveland Melvin, F, DePaul - Once committed to Connecticut, Melvin eventually chose DePaul as his landing spot, and coach Oliver Purnell is certainly glad that he did. After a slow start to the season, the freshman has scored in double-digits in each of his last seven games. Most recently, he had three straight contests of 23-plus points, which included games against Georgetown and Cincinnati. Melvin is shooting a studly 57.1 percent from the field this season. The 6-foot-8 forward has also averaged 5.7 boards the last seven games, further showing the maturation of his game. Already playing big minutes for the Blue Demons, expect Melvin's production to continue.
2. Dwight Hardy, G, St. John's - Hardy was instrumental in St. John's upset of Georgetown on Monday, setting up the winning bucket for the Johnnies while also scoring 20 points. Hardy was automatic at the free-throw line, hitting all 10 of his free-throws, with his season average sitting at a robust 91.8 percent. Hardy is averaging 16.6 points this season and is one of the best penetrators in the conference, getting most of his buckets on drives or short jumpers. His three-point shooting could use some work, but Hardy has been the main catalyst in St. Johns' recent surge -- the Johnnies are on a five-game winning streak and are 3-0 in the Big East.
3. Josh Harrellson, F, Kentucky - Playing big minutes for the first time in his career, Harrellson has delivered for the Wildcats, recording consecutive double-doubles and averaging 9.4 boards per contest for the season. His presence on the defensive end has also been felt, including blocking six shots against Penn on Monday. The only senior on the squad, Harrellson's veteran leadership could be a huge boost for the Wildcats come tourney time.
4. Khris Middleton, F, Texas A&M - Rather quietly, the Aggies have snuck into the Top 25, with Middleton leading A&M in scoring at 15.4 points per game. Middleton smoked Arkansas for 31 points on Dec. 18 and has scored in double-digits in every game but two this season. He's contributed in other ways too, though, managing 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest. The Aggies have yet to get into the meat of their schedule, but with Kansas State faltering, the Aggies could surprise in the Big 12 with Middleton at the helm.
5. Cade Davis, G, Oklahoma - Speaking of the Big 12, Oklahoma's Davis has taken his game to new heights as a senior, averaging 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per contest for the Sooners, all career highs. Davis is also shooting a career-high 43.0 percent from the floor, including 40.7 percent from three-point territory. Davis is not afraid to do the dirty work for the Sooners either, including posting his first double-double of the season against Maryland-Eastern Shore on Monday. Arguably the heart and soul of the Oklahoma squad, Davis plays more than 36 minutes per game and should have every chance to rack up the statistics this season.
6. Tony Mitchell, F, Alabama - The Tide likely won't do nearly as much damage on the basketball court this season as they've done of late on the gridiron, but Mitchell has shown excellent progress in just his second full season at Alabama. The 6-6 sophomore is averaging 14.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest. He has failed to score in double figures in just one game this season, while posting two double-doubles as well. An all-around dynamo, Mitchell is a stat-sheet stuffer who should continue to thrive for 'Bama.
1. Trevor Mbakwe, F, Minnesota
2. Wally Judge, F, Kansas State
3. Gary McGhee, C, Pittsburgh
4. Marshall Moses, F, Oklahoma State
5. D.J. Cooper, G, Ohio
1. Shelvin Mack, G, Butler - Mack was nowhere to be found in Butler's disastrous 76-52 loss to Milwaukee on Monday. The junior guard shot just 1-for-7 from the floor en route to three total points, while failing to record a single assist. The added defensive attention due to the departure of Gordon Hayward has not been kind to Mack, as he's shooting just 40.7 percent from the floor, including 34.2 percent from beyond the arc. He'll still get some numbers due to playing heavy minutes and constantly having the ball in his hands, but it's clear from Butler's 10-5 record that Mack is much better as a facilitator and a supporting cast member, rather than as one of the focal points of the offense.
2. Alex Oriakhi, F-C, Connecticut - Oriakhi has been a bit unpredictable for the Huskies. He started off the season with a burst, with three double-doubles in his first five games. However, he has failed to record double-digits in rebounds in each of his last seven contests. His scoring has also been erratic, including a goose egg in Tuesday's 73-70 loss to Notre Dame. Not surprisingly then, Connecticut has lost two of its last three games. Kemba Walker cannot do everything by himself, and Oriakhi is certainly not helping the cause at this juncture.
3. Christian Watford, F, Indiana - The Hoosiers have lost five games in a row, and Watford is shooting just 32.7 percent from the floor over that span, including the most recent, dreadful 2-for-13 performance against Minnesota. Watford feasted on inferior competition earlier in the season, but has struggled since the beginning of conference play. He has also been getting outworked on the glass, as his rebounds per game are actually down from his freshman campaign. With nothing but Big Ten games left on the schedule, Watford will have to refine his game to get back on the right track.
4. Kenny Boynton, G, Florida - Boynton's ascension to stardom hasn't gone exactly as planned for the Gators. His shooting has been the main culprit, as the 6-2 soph is hitting just 36.8 percent of his shots, including a putrid 27.6 percent from beyond the arc. He remains lightning-fast with the ability to get to the rack, but his lack of shooting prowess has caused a decrease in points per game from just a season ago. His assists have been steady, but once again in line with his freshman numbers. With a decrease in scoring and no increase in dishing, Boynton is still just a talent that has yet to be harnessed and unleashed on the rest of the college hoops scene.
5. Rotnei Clark, G, Arkansas - It's usually feast or famine with Clark, who has hoisted up at least four three-pointers in every game this year for the Razorbacks. That hasn't always meant success for the 6-0 sharpshooter, who is actually averaging five less minutes played per game from last season. As a result, his scoring has dipped slightly, though a decrease in shooting percentages across the board also may factor into the equation. Is Clark merely lacking confidence, or is the Arkansas coaching staff starting to get fed up with his streakiness? Certainly, this is a situation worth watching, as Clark can be dynamite when firing on all cylinders. With just 13 points combined in his last two games, now may not be the time, though.
6. William Buford, G, Ohio State - Call this one a hunch, because up until his last game against Iowa, Buford had performed admirably thus far this season, averaging 13.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game for the Buckeyes. However, against the Hawkeyes, the 6-5 junior guard was held to just seven points, while failing to pull down a single rebound. As Ohio State dives into conference play, the ball is going to find its way into Jared Sullinger's hands more often in the post. With Jon Diebler and David Lighty proving better perimeter shooters available for kick outs, Buford could be the odd man out and yield him fewer opportunities to get involved in the offense.