I’ve had a heartbreaking month of college hoops. I havent buckled down into religiously watching the whole nation, but I have watched, with anticipation and hope, every single minute of Indiana and Michigan basketball since their league seasons began, coincidentally, and perhaps in foreshadowed-bad-karma fashion, against each other on New Year’s Eve. They are my two favorite teams, close to my heart, after all.  Neverminding any backstory  required to explain how that bizarre dual fanship has formed over the years, rest assured this month has totally wrenched my gut and punched my dong. Both clubs have had tremendous moments, but they’ve been meted out by a bounty of near misses and snatching defeat from the arms of victory outcomes.

It hasnt been all bad. The Wolverines and Hoosiers are a combined 15-5 ATS since league play started. And, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I not only like to gamble on sports, but encourage betting on your teams games. So, there’s been some Maize and Blue and Cream and Crimson profit to start 2010. I didnt have either in their Saturday covers yesterday, but i went to the window nine times in favor of one of these teams during the last month and not once did it net a losing ticket. (FYI: Just about each pick was touted at the JCB, so dont miss whatever February bandwagons we Book)

Ok, so I cant bitch one bit. But it did prove revealing that I still have a true heart and that sports losses remain impactful on me in a heartfelt, idealistic fan level. I have been downright mopey in the aftermath of my teams going 3-6 straight up in “close games.” While they mastered the art of losing, but covering, with each time my spirits dimmed, drowning out the cash register rings. I could not go a  stretch a a few days without one of them team bringing me to the brink of celebration only to drop me and my fan brethern on our collective heads.

Indiana chokes away a 13-point halftime lead at home and losses to Illinois. Hours later I watch the Wolverines copy that in a loss at Crisler to Northwestern, a result I still havent been able to explain. Saturday, the Wolverines are nuetered by the sudden Manny Harris suspension. Sunday, the Hoosiers get blown out at home to Iowa, a loss that caused a lot of soul searching from folks regarding the reality of the rebuilding project. The Kailon Lucas show and DeSeans lip out proved an effective 1-2 punch that knocked me out of the college hoops world for a few days earlier this week. Just when I thought it was safe to step back in the ring, Indiana losses at the buzzer to Illinois yesterday after playing brilliant for 40 minutes. It was the most exciting and nerve racking three minutes of the Tom Crean era, but a stomach punch loss nevertheless.

The result? A February with a lot less stakes on the line where the teams postseasons hopes are concerned. A little more luck and IU could all but have an NIT bid in their grasp. That equals a  huge step forward after a 6-win, 1-17 Big 10 campaign a year ago. We’d be having daily posts at the JCB reminding everyone just how smart we were by predicting an IU 5-4 home record or better in Big 10 play. Instead, the Hoosiers are 2-2 in those games with a lot of hard ones ahead and a better than .500 record needed the rest of the way  just to finish .500 overall. The season will close out just like the second year of Michigan’s football rebuilding job did this past fall. Progress totally obscured and, in some minds, totally wiped out by a string of losses piling up to end the year.

As for Michigan, they are 1-5 overall, 0-4 in Big 10 play in games decided by 6 points or less. If they are two games better and break even in those games–and lets say the 2-game turnaround is in league games–this club is sitting at 13-8, 6-4. A good bet for 11 wins in league play, their best conference mark in wins in years. An impressive record in an a power league. A non conference slate that at least proves you tried not to duck people. Dont bomb out in the BTT, and they’re probably in. Instead, they’re just one game above overall and one game below in Big 10 play. A brutal spot to be in as February starts.

 They have two hopes. Embark on the program’s longest winning streak since the 13-game run in LaVell Blanchard’s senior season that helped unbury the season after an 0-7 start. Now, there were a couple cupcakes in that mix, but it also included wins over 6 Big 10 teams and Vanderbilt and UCLA. Something in the ballpark of 6 or 7 in a row could get them into some brackets by the last week of February. With the rout of Iowa yesterday–and sixth straight cover– it’s one down and an indefinite amount to go. The second option  is to win the Big 10 Tournament. Both are  decided longshots.

 Still, I dont think its unreasonable to claim Michigan will go 7-3 in their final 10 games. They wont go worse than 6-4. Doing that will equal last year’s league mark and put them in the NIT. I think thats pretty important for the team to keep playing, if for no other reason than for Darius Morris’ sake. The freshmen point guard looks to be the biggest key next season. If Michigan expects to compete for the postseason next season, Morris needs to step up his production. I think he can be a double digit scorer next year and improve his scoring from year 1 to year 2 the way fellow Big 10 guards Travon Hughes, Verdell Jones and Chris McCamey did from their freshmen to sophomore campaigns. Morris was basically the same sort of  prospect coming out of high school than all of them, so I dont discount it from repeating. I expect it.  And, he’s the best recruit the program has brought in since they inked Harris in 2007. He almost has to be The Man next year for this team. His length and speed will spearhead another good Beilein defensive unit next year. I could see him contending for league honors in steals and assists next season generating some easy offense for Michigan. But, he needs as many reps as possible this season. A 3-4 game run in the NIT with his role continuing to expand would be an ideal table setter for a better than most people expected season next year. Beilein is 13-6 SU, 14-5 ATS in NIT games, so there will also be some investment opportunities. The Wolverines have been one of the most profitable teams the last six weeks. I think it will keep up as I predict t least a 5-2 February. I’d like to keep winning on this team as long as possible and wont mind an NIT run if it also sets a good tone for 2010-11.

So, thats where I sit with my teams as February is about to begin. Anxiously awaiting the first NIT Projections of the year (due out here tomorrow) to see where Michigan sits and how far Indiana has to go to get there. Its not ideal. But at least I have more money in my pocket.

More depression comes from the knowledge that this is the first Sunday without football. Despite next week’s Super Bowl hullaballoo, we’re left with a weekly hole in our sporting calendar. It’s probably a good thing. There are better pursuits after all. College basketball, however, does provide some action on Sundays and, at times, will give us enough of a buzz the next six weeks so we dont go through complete cold turkey withdrawals with the sudden football void. Today is a perfect tonic. Eight big games–all on the TV dial somewhere–that all will have an impact on how the immediate Bubble will look when February begins tomorrow. There’s four weeks to go until its officially March, so lets hit each game today from the Bubble perspective with a pick or two at the end.

Minnesota at Ohio State, 1:00, CBS. Line, OSU -7

Credit the Gophers for getting off the mat after that stomach punch loss to Michigan State to notch a hard fought win over a hard charging Northwestern squad earlier in the week. Despite the win, however, the Gophers are likely entering February with dicey NCAA tournament hopes. The odds could change dramatically if they end January with a road win against the Buckeyes. The Gophers sit fifth from last out of the field with 13 of 46 brackets voting in their favor.  They could close the gap with a resume win here. Or they could continue to fade and be forced to rip off a legit winning streak before jumping back into the bracket again. With 10 games left to go, conventional wisdom within Gopher Nation thinks 6-4 is the least they need to do. Today has been marked as ‘dont count on it’ so you can see how a win could dramatically change the math in the Gophers favor, even if mock bracketologists dont notice immediately.

The Buckeyes are near locks at this point. A Bracket consensus 6-seed, they have a favorable enough slate in February where they can position themselves into something like 3-seed territory if they go on a deep run into the Big 10 tournament. OSU lost to the Gophers earlier in the month in the first game they tried reaclimating Evan Turner back into the lineup after a back injury had  knocked him out for a month. Two weeks ago, OSU beat Wisconsin avenging a loss they absored without Turner. You cant say they were full bore with him when they played in the Barn. I could see OSU repeating that job in the end. It will be interesting to see if the Gophers D, which has been vulnerable in Big 10 play, can shut down an OSU offense that at times bogs down and clunks around the court, despite weapons on paper that make you feel they should be a more explosive team. I have no idea if that sentence made any sense, but its my key to the game nevertheless.

There have also been some heated talking, pushing and shoving in a lot of the recent Buckeye-Gopher games. And with that kind of resentment in the air, whichever team keeps its composure  the most, might be the one in position to win in the end.

Florida at Tennessee, 1:00, CBS. Line, Vols -8

Thanks to this and that mircale buzzer beater, the mighty Florida Gators might finally be sitting pretty for the NCAA Tournament.  Hard to believe they havent made it since their back to back titles. Talk about a cold reminder of just how hard it is to make the Dance. Let that be a lesson to you who whine the college basketball season doesnt matter. The Gators are playing their best ball since those days. With a win over the Vols, they could pretty much put themselves in lock status, barring total collapse, with a whole month to go.  But, they’re still just an 11-seed in the Matrix with support from 36 of 46 mocks. They cant afford a losing streak, and a losing record over the final 11 games might put them on the wrong side of the bubble during league tournament week. They dont have much margin of error. They couldnt survive the rigors of the SEC last season. The bad news is the league is much tougher this winter. The good news is their barrier of entry into the field is lower as a result. Still, I wouldnt want to have less than double digit league wins in SEC play. The Gators wont get to that mark if they cant do better than break even from here on out. Meanwhile, we’re also awaiting to see how both these teams matchup with Kentucky. Each play the Cats twice down the stretch.  The Vols are a Matrix 4-seed today, but wins in games like this and taking down the Cats gives them a ceiling even higher than that. Gators/Vols has lost luster on the gridiron, but the hoop games in this rivalry have been spicy and contested. Today should be the same. I’m a believer in the Gators. Not sure if the Vols lose a second straight game in Knoxville, but this could end closer than the experts think and I wouldnt be shocked.

Pitt at USF, 1:00, ESPN FULL COURT. Line, Pitt -3

South Florida ends January with an interesting opportunity. After back to back narrow wins at Providence and at home over Seton Hall, the Bulls have a chance to end the month with a resume home win over Pitt. A win would move them to 4-5 in the Big East, but a good looking 14-7 record probably puts them smack dab in the middle of the bubble if they find a way to end with a .500 Big East record. February begins with a grueling three game road swing at Georgetown, Notre Dame and Marquette. If they somehow beat the Panthers today and grab one of those roadies (or, really, just go 2-2 in any combination), the Bulls might be sitting pretty. They have a favorable enough slate down the stretch to close 5-1 after the road trip. Even if they add a 4-2 to the aforementione 2-2, you’re looking at 19-11, 9-9.  They would be in contention for a bid heading into the Big East Sectional at the Garden under that scenario. First things first: beat a Panther team thats the winningest team in league play since 2001. Good luck.

Maryland at Clemson, 5:35, FSN. Line, Clemson -5

The most efficient offense in the ACC goes up against the most effecient defense in the ACC.

If the offense Maryland brings to the fight can outclass the Clemson D in this matchup of strength and strength, the the Terps will get a big road win and set themselves up as the frontrunner for the ACC regular season as February hits. Its ironic that the Terps are 40 minutes away from the midpoint driver’s seat in the ACC, but they are yet a unanimous selection among the BracketHeads.  They are a Matrix 10-seed, but seven folks still deem more evidence. I think thats silly. Had I been filling out mocks the whole way, the Terps would have been in my field at least two weeks ago. The Terps play Duke in 13 days and a couple more wins between now and then would make that game perhaps the biggest swing game in the ACC race of the season.

Of course, getting a win at Littlejohn Colliseum is easier said than done.The big key will be can Maryland’s experienced guards limit turnovers and keep their composure against the Tiger pressure.  But, the Terps have played well against big men this year, so I give them a better-than-puncher’s chance at containing Trevor Booker. Meanwhile the continued injury situation of guard Demontez Stitt hampers the Tigers. If the Tigers lose today, that’ds three in a row, including losses at home in two resume statement games. The program is known for skidding out-of-control losing streaks. Beginning February on a three-game slide would not be good news even if the Tigers sit as a 7-seed and unanimous selection in today’s Bracket Matrix. The play at Va Tech and home vs FSU to open February and close with four ACC tournament teams, three on the road. There could be a lot of losses out there if the play of the recent week signals the typical Clemson slide we have become accustomed to. They could have an uneasy March on the Bubble before its all said and done.

Virginia Tech at Miami, 1:00, ESPN FULL COURT. Line, Miami -3

Hard to believe there are teams in the ACC with 16-3 and 15-5 records that arent being given any tournament consideration as January ends. But, thats the position that Virginia Tech and  Miami find themselves in when they play each other this afternoon in Coral Gables. For the Canes, the apathy is easy to explain. They are 1-5 in ACC play and are in a fight to get out of the ACC cellar. They’re losing that fight, and would fall a full game behind 11th place NC State with a loss this today.

 Neglecting the 16-3 Hokies is harder to imagine. Despite only getting five bracket votes in the current Matrix, the Hokies dont have to go on any sort of run to eventually make the field. They just need to collect enough strategic wins from here on out. Every Hokie game in February will be a referenda towards their March Madness invitation. Tech Hoops says the team needs to just go 6-6 down the stretch. I tend to agree as doing so would likely net six resume wins. The Hokies have teetered on the brink on the field in each of the last two seasons, falling a win or two short each time. Asking a team thats 32-27 in ACC play the last three-plus seasons to break even over their final dozen games isnt that big of a hurdle. It’s manageable. They might as well take step one today. The Hokies are one of the better teams across the board in defensive categories and they will win the turnover battle a lot more times than they will lost it. But, they’re not as explosive on offense as I had hoped they could be. Missing AJ Vassalo has been huge, but I thought the Junior trio of Marcus Delaney, Jeff Allen and JT Thompson all could step up their games. Allen has not played as well this season as he did last year. If he can regain last year’s numbers during February, then the Hokies will end up with their third ACC winning record and second NCAA Tournament bid in four years. Honestly, I thought this program was annual 12th place material when they jumped to the ACC. I couldnt have been more wrong and tracking their ups and downs on the bubble the last four years has been one of the best things going in the game. Every Hokie game seems to come down to the wire as almost half of the games in the Seth Greenberg era have been decided in overtime or by less than five points. Annual winter dramatics out of the Hokies. Who says its just a football school?

Cal at Arizona, 3:35, FSN. Line, Cal -2

February begins with the Pac 10 nose diving fast to single bid territory. The likely suspects just 2-3 weeks ago for at large bids have broken down the back half of January. Arizona State lost critical home games to Arizona and Cal. Washington, despite it beatdown of Wassau yesterday, remains 4-5 in the Pac 10 and nobody with a losing Pac 10 record can be taken seriously as a bid contender right now. They’ve struggled so much  with their offense on the road that its hard to see the winning streak they”ll need to flip their league mark around.

That brings us to today’s contest between Cal and Arizona.  First place is on the line. Cal has a one game lead over the Cats. These teams would be tied with an Arizona win. They are the only two teams above .500 as we hit the halfway point of the Pac 10 regular season race.  A road win by Cal would give them a 2-game lead, seemingly insurmountable in this year’s Pac 10, and make them the only league team who can legitmately makes plans for the tournament as February begins.

 It’s telling of both the state of the Pac 10 and Arizona’s season, that the Cats are 40 minutes away from being in the lead for the Pac 10 title, but they are nowhere near anybody’s mock bracket.  Just 2 of 46 mocks have them in. A home win over Cal might get them more support during the next round of updates, but they would still need a stellar month of basketball during February to get into comfortable March position. But, it’s doable. With a win tomorrow and an upcoming split on the Washington swing, the Cats have five home games: Oregon, Oregone State, Arizona State, UCLA and USC. If they sweep those, and eventually drop the other two roadies on the Stanford/Cal swing, the Cats would be 18-12, 12-6 in Pac 10 play. If that doesnt get them in, one or two more wins in the Pac 10 Tournament certainly would. The Cats looked dead at the end of December, but with a win today they would end January with bullish, if not quiet, March hopes.

The things about the Pac 10 and its quest for a historically low count of bids is that its easy to follow. The league title race, and by proxy, the bid race is highlighted by a distinct top four teams: Cal, Arizona, USC and ASU. They are the four teams playing the best right now. All four pretty much have points per possession differentials of +.10 in conference play. All of the other sixare  sub zero. Say hello to the poorest upper class in Pac 10 history. But, for fans of bubble teams, whether your team is trying to be a second invitee from a mid major, or another team sliding in from a power league, the battle lines are clear. You want USC to be the best of this bunch, by virtue of their postseason ineligibility this season. You want Arizona State to be the worst as they still have twice as many wins as losses in their overall record. As long as they’re a .500 league team, though, being seven games above .500 wont do it for them on Selection Sunday. Cal looks good, so they can chug along really. Which leaves Arizona. They’re a .500 team if they lose today. But the door becomes ever more ajar for them if they win. It’s still January for another day, but bubble teams ought to be decked out in Cal Blue and Gold today.

Virginia at North Carolina, 7:50, FSN. Line, UNC -8.5

Its been trendy to boast that the Heels March Madness hopes are in jeopardy and that a Carolina blue bubble will burst the rest of the way. Ah, yeah. I’ll believe it, when I see it. There’s more than enough talent. They’ve been prevented from their best by key injuries. But, they are down to a Matrix 10 seed, making all possible #2 seeds quake at the thoughts of possibily having to get by the Heels so early in the tournament. Eight mocks have banished them. We’ll see if they were ahead of a legit curve or just being garishly trendy this week. If they lose at home to the Hoos, expect those naysayers to double when the next full round of mock updates take place.

A Cav win would big one of the biggest ACC wins of the season. The Cavs have been struggling since their early elevation to first place after their early ACC leg.  They’ve lost two straight to Wake and Va Tech, the latter a killer home loss in OT. Two weeks ago, the Cavs had enough votes to be in the Matrix field. But, a lot of that had to do with the bracketologist rule that many follow to automatically place the current first place team in the field. At 3-0, the Cavs once held that lead. The consecutive losses have withered all their support. One lone bracket places them in the field as January ends. Getting wins like the one on the table today, paves the way for the Cavs to get into the field with a little as a .500 record in league. And, they would be two games ahead of that pace as February begins.

Wichita State at Southern Illinois, 8:05, ESPNU. Line, WSU -1

The mid major event of the day impacting the future field takes place Sunday night in the Missouri Valley. The MVC had become a multi bid fixture for the first part of the decade. But, they’ve fallen from the berch back into one-bid land for the last several seasons. Wichita State had strong at large hopes when the month started. They spent some time in the Matrix Consensus field and never seemed too far awa,y flirting with the cut line in the final  among  the last eight out group the rest of the time. As the month ends, though, their love is at its lowest. Just five mocks have kept the Shockers in the field in the wake of recent road losses at Creighton and Drake. That’s just how thin your a- large margin of error is, even in a league as historically balanced as the MVC. The Shockers need to win today at always tough Carbondale over the Salukis to start a February roll through the league.  They would probably need to win 7 of 9 to close the season, including a road win at Northern Iowa and a victory in the TBD Bracket Buster game later in February, to have legit at large hopes heading into the MVC postseason. But, that charge needs to start tonight. Or else the MVC’s multi bid hops would be relegated to NIU winning the league by 3-4 games plus their own Bracket Buster game to be protected enough if Shenanigans ensue in the MVC Sectional and they go down.

Picks? Picks!

Of course, you dont think I would force you to plow through 4,000 words and not give you a few investment shots. C’mon man. I dont play folks like that. Besides, I have to play on the final day of whats been a nice month of basketball picking. The JCB is 17-8-2 ATS  this month picking college basketball games, adding to profit we collected during the football bowl season.  Let’s do it:

Virginia Tech +3 over Miami, 1 Unit…..I’ll always take the Hokies as an underdog. At 20-11 ATS in that role the last three-plus years, its been a more than profitable strategy. I’m kicking myself for sleeping on the job Thursday and missing their win and cover as +3 at UVA Thurday night. The Hokies are 5-1 SU and ATS over the Canes overall during that time. They win this one outright and spend February lurking in the ACC race. This is the one of the best defensive teams in the league going against the worst offense. I’ll take my chances with the defense during the close, closing sequences that mark every Hokie game.

Florida +8.5 over Tennessee, 1 Unit…….by all historical accounts, this is a silly play as Florida is 3-13 ATS in the last 16 head to heads against the Vols. But, the Gators were favored in a majority of those games. I think they are playing better than Vols the last couple of weeks. I dont see them getting blown out. I see them having a chance to even win. I’ll buck history here and wager a unit the Gators stick the the Vols from opening tip to final buzzer, keeping it closer than the experts think.

Maryland +5 over Clemson, 1 Unit……Clemson isnt at full strength. The Stitt kid is out. He’s their best ball handler and best outside shooter. For a team that overall does neither of those all that well, his absence bogs the offense down. The Terps backcourt of Vazquez and Hayes can withstand the Tiger pressure. They are playing better post defense this season than they did last year. I think they can contain Trevor Booker, especially if the Tiger forward is limited to the flu, as being reported this morning. I just dont trust the Tigers as chalk in football or basketball. If they were 100 percent, maybe. But, with the health issues, I think the Terps spring the upset. But, I’ll grab those points and put them in my back pocket just in case.

There you go. Three plays. If they all crap out I’ll lose a little less than half of my hoops winnings for the whole season. Who needs football on Sunday, anyway?