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As March nears, college hoops cream rises

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Who's in Lunardi's bracket? (2:09)

Joe Lundardi explains why he has Northwestern in the tournament and why Michigan State could be in trouble. (2:09)

Turns out we were wrong. Or more to the point, we were right but we were wrong to not just trust being right.

Unpredictable, hard to pin down -- that's how this college basketball season has looked since it began in November, confusing enough that we stopped trusting our initial instincts. The good teams were good, but each had a "yeah they're good but ..." tag that made it hard to go all-in.

But here we are, rounding the corner for the home stretch, and things look exactly as we thought they were going to look.

Consider the hottest teams in the country right now: Gonzaga, Villanova, Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon.

Now consider the preseason top 10:

  1. Duke

  2. Kentucky

  3. Kansas

  4. Villanova

  5. Oregon

  6. North Carolina

  7. Xavier

  8. Virginia

  9. Wisconsin

  10. Arizona

It's not perfect. There was no sign of Gonzaga -- the Zags opened the season ranked 14th -- and UCLA was six spots below the top 10. Xavier's inclusion in the top 10 was flat wrong, but who in October could predict the cruel rash of injuries to the Musketeers?

For the most part, things look now as we thought they might look in October. The cream, as they say, is rising, the "yeah buts" are being answered.

No team exemplifies that better than the one that was the prohibitive favorite in October. Duke received 58 of the first-place votes in the preseason poll ... and then all hell broke loose. Surgeries for Harry Giles and Mike Krzyzewski, game-restricting injuries to Jayson Tatum and virtually every contributing Blue Devil save Luke Kennard and Matt Jones, and of course, Grayson Allen's foot-jerk issue. When Duke lost to NC State, it was reasonable to question whether the Blue Devils would even get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, let alone win the thing.

Now with a healthy roster and head coach, and a less timid Allen, Duke takes a seven-game win streak to Syracuse on Wednesday. The Devils had to fight Saturday to beat Wake Forest, but that they found a way to win sold Krzyzewski more than a blowout would have.

"We're trying to teach them how hard it is to win," he said.

Kentucky is learning a similar lesson. The Wildcats haven't exactly looked intimidating, scraping by Georgia on Saturday, outlasting an Alabama team that couldn't hit a free throw and giving back almost all of its lead against woeful LSU. That's the glass-half-empty version. The glass-half-full view sees a young team that lost three of four turning around to win four in a row. John Calipari, who "tweaked" his 2014 team from an 8-seed to the national title game, has "rebooted" this squad. Same mystery -- he won't say exactly what he rebooted -- but so far, similar results.

Meantime, it's the same old, same old in the Big 12. At some point in each of the past 13 years people have asked the question, "Is this the year Kansas doesn't win the league?" Then the Jayhawks give them the basketball equivalent of a slap across the mouth. Seriously, this is becoming straight-up dog-bites-man news. There have been off-court issues, some not entirely settled yet (freshman Josh Jackson is being investigated in a vandalism case). There have been injuries (Udoka Azubuike is done for the season because of a wrist injury). There has even been a home loss, as likely as a snowstorm in Miami in July. Yet there is this: a three-game lead in the Big 12 with four to play.

With considerably less fanfare and attention, Villanova is building its own run of conference dominance. After manhandling Seton Hall on Saturday, the Wildcats claimed at least a share of their fourth consecutive Big East crown. No team in league history -- that's both old Big East and new -- has matched that string.

People have understandably questioned the defending national champion's depth all season. Freshman big man Omari Spellman was declared academically ineligible and Phil Booth appears headed for a redshirt season, done in by knee tendinitis. That leaves Jay Wright with only seven guys, a dangerously thin bench for the rigors of March. Except ... that's all the Wildcats have had at their disposal all season. They've won 26 games and lost only two.

One of Oregon's four losses came without Dillon Brooks and another just after the junior returned from a foot injury, but if the Ducks have proved anything this season it is that they are more than a one-man team. As good as Brooks has been, it's Oregon's ability to share the wealth that makes the Ducks so dangerous. Five players average double figures in scoring, and while all that offense is fun to watch -- Oregon scores 79 points per game -- the Ducks' defense is winning games. They give up only 64 points per game, which ranks 33rd in the country, making Oregon not just a good team but a balanced one.

If there is a team more equipped to win a national title than North Carolina, please come forward. The Tar Heels are talented, big, deep and versatile, armed with everything a team needs to win the whole thing. Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson and Nate Britt command the backcourt, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks hold down the frontcourt. But it's the play of Justin Jackson that changes everything. Long a frustrating enigma, Jackson's motor is finally matching his ability. He had 18 points in the first half in Saturday's 65-41 win over Virginia and is averaging 18.6 points and 4.7 boards for the Tar Heels.

But if North Carolina is the most stocked team, Arizona is the hottest. The Wildcats have lost but once in 20 games since Dec. 6 (when they decided to lose, of course, they decided to do it in style, going down by 27 to Oregon) and are on track to win their third Pac-12 title in four years. Sean Miller has long been dogged by the absence of a Final Four on his otherwise impressive resume. But with freshman Lauri Markkanen playing like a first-round draft pick, Miller might not have to wait much longer.

None of us, fortunately, will have to wait much longer to see how this all shakes out. There are two weeks left in the regular season before the steamroll through March begins.

But after so many months of intrigue and uncertainty, one thing does seem pretty secure -- we should have trusted our guts.

Cream, after all, rises.