So if the previous three days' posts have highlighted pretenders of various caliber (from the mid-majors to the high-majors to the more serious threats), today's post will actually look at the six teams that I believe have the best chance of cutting down the nets in New Orleans (in a vacuum). They are ranked in ascending order (least to most likely), just as the other groups of teams more or less have been. If you think I'm crazy (or maybe even if you think I'm particularly brilliant), feel free to comment with your own thoughts. Here we go...
Kansas - The Jayhawks, who have now won the Big 12 regular season title in every year of the league's existence under that name, were supposed to be rebuilding this year. They had lost a couple of seniors plus the Morris twins and their identical tattoos, and were going to have to rely on a backup forward with lots of potential who only played around fifteen minutes a game last year, and a point guard for whom "mercurial" is a strong, strong understatement. So what happened? Both of those players (Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, respectively) answered the bell in a big way. Taylor may still turn the ball over too often (3.5 tpg), but he can score (17.2 ppg on 49% shooting) and pass (4.9 assists), and can break virtually any college defender down off the dribble. He has stopped submitting the stinkers that were commonplace enough last year to land him in Bill Self's doghouse, and is capable of dropping 25 on any given night. As for Robinson, if his story (losing his grandparents and his mother in quick succession last season) doesn't arouse some emotions in you, then you're completely heartless and there's at least a 75% chance that you beat puppies. To put it quite simply, Robinson has turned into a BEAST, and the likely winner of several, if not all, national player of the year awards. He looks like a tight end that had a growth spurt to 6'10"; the dude is shredded. He averages a double-double (18 and 12) while shooting 53% from the floor and getting more than a block and a steal per game. And given that he and Taylor have been the only Jayhawks to average in double figures, Robinson sees lots of double teams inside. But the supporting cast has been great about stepping up when they've needed to. Some nights it's Elijah Johnson, some nights it's Travis Releford, and some nights it's seven-footer Jeff Withey, who both makes opponents pay for doubling T-Rob and also blocks more than three shots per game. All three of those players have the ability to morph into 20-point scorers, and are excellent complementary parts. As for their schedule, their five losses have come at the hands of Kentucky (fair), Duke (in Maui where the Devils never lose), Davidson (in Kansas City!), at Mizzou, and at Iowa State. Those losses have come by a collective 34 points, and only the margin against Kentucky (75-65 in their second game) was in double digits. So they may not get to play any tournament games at Allen Fieldhouse, where they are on an absolutely ridiculous 90-1 run. No matter; even in what was supposed to be a "down" year the Jayhawks are at least a threat to win it all.
Ohio State - I, for one, thought that the Buckeyes would be more dominant this season after they wiped the floor with Duke (85-63, and it wasn't remotely that close if you watched the game). I suppose it speaks to the overall depth of the Big Ten that not only did the Buckeyes not run roughshod over the league (13-5), but two of their losses came at home (both to good teams in Michigan State and Wisconsin). Still, they tied for first in what was probably the best conference in the country this year (six surefire tournament teams and only two relative weaklings in Penn State and Nebraska), and they have a pair of significant non-conference scalps in Duke and Florida. Ohio State has perhaps the best low-post scorer in the nation in 6'9", 265-pound Jared Sullinger, who averages almost a double-double (17 and 9) while shooting 53.5%, making 75% of his free throws, and even making 11 of 29 threes this year. There are precious few teams that can hope to guard him effectively with one man, and so the frequent double teams ensure plenty of scoring opportunities for William Buford and Deshaun Thomas, who both contribute 15 points per game. The thing that separates this year's version of the Buckeyes from last year's is the lack of a sniper like Jon Diebler. No one on the team shoots 40% from behind the arc, and only point guard Aaron Craft (18 of 47) has shot better than Sullinger, who for fairly obvious reasons should not and cannot be their primary outside weapon. So a team that collapses on Sullinger and clogs the lane for forays by Thomas and Buford can probably give themselves a shot to beat the Buckeyes. But that is harder to execute than it reads on paper, and Ohio State has the ability to make it equally hard for the other team to score, especially from behind the arc. They are a hard-nosed defensive team, and if they're forcing an opponent to trade two-point opportunities, not too many other teams are going to have someone as good at converting those as Sullinger. Question marks remain, but they are relatively small ones, and the Buckeyes are certainly capable of winning on Monday night.
Michigan State - Every year we hear about how Tom Izzo plans a ridiculously tough non-conference schedule so that his team is battle-tested against unfamiliar opponents come March, and it seems to work; every four-year Spartan in Izzo's tenure has played in at least one Final Four. This year the schedule may have been a little easier than normal; true, they opened with UNC on a carrier deck and Duke at the Garden (both of which they lost), but the only other major games were against Florida State and at Gonzaga (both of which they won). They lost one home conference game on a buzzer-beater by William Buford against Ohio State this past weekend, and their worst loss came at Illinois, a talented team that wound up self-destructing down the stretch. Whereas last year's team apparently had various chemistry issues, I'm sure that everyone knows that the Spartans are very capably led this year by the very charismatic Draymond Green, the Big Ten MVP. Green has already played in two Final Fours, and having suffered heartbreak against UNC in 2009 and Butler in 2010, is eager to end this season with a win. Standing 6'7" and 230 pounds, Green can play effectively anywhere on the floor, sometimes running the offense and demanding the ball in the post on the same possession. For a guy who doesn't care about stats, he posts a plethora of good numbers, averaging a double-double (16 and 10) with 3.5 assists, and even serving as Sparty's primary threat from long range (45-111 on the season). There is just about nothing he can't do on a basketball court. His best wingman this year is sophomore point guard Keith Appling, who can get to the rack with ease (11 ppg), but is not much of a shooter (24% on threes). Six other Spartans (big, and I mean BIG men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, plus guards Branden Dawson, Brandon Wood, Austin Thornton, and Travis Trice) serve as complementary parts, although Dawson is now out with a torn ACL. Two things that you can always count on from a Tom Izzo team are their defense (7th in efficiency) and rebounding (3rd). Because they are short on high-flying athletes, they rely on positioning to grab rebounds, and if you're boxed out by Nix, Payne, or Green, you're going to feel it. Since the Spartans always play their best basketball in March, and since Green is going to make sure that everyone is on board with the program, watch out for this team to make a deep run, and possibly take home Izzo's second championship trophy.
North Carolina - There is perhaps no fast-paced team better at forcing tempo and imposing its will on opponents as the Tar Heels. They are second in the nation at just over 82 points per game, and there are no secrets; they want to run you to death, and then run some more. There are two reasons why they do this so effectively. For starters, they get the ball up the floor so quickly even on made baskets that they are essentially always playing transition offense, which is difficult to stop. The second, and more important reason, is the quality of their point guard play. Kendall Marshall may be slow, not much of a scorer (7.6 ppg), and an indifferent shooter (31% from downtown), but he has tremendous court vision and the ability to drop fifty-foot passes on a dime. He's already set an ACC record this season with 299 assists (9.6 per game), and is the single most irreplaceable player in college basketball. Without him, the Tar Heels are just a run-of-the-mill good team. Carolina scores almost all of those 82 points per game inside the arc, and that is because the clear strength of this team is in the frontcourt, whose starting unit (7'0" Tyler Zeller, 6'11" John Henson, and 6'8" Harrison Barnes) and primary sub (6'9" James Michael McAdoo) may be the biggest in the country. Barnes, the leading scorer (17.4) and one of only two capable shooters from long range (40%), may actually be the least explosive athlete of the four, only grabbing five boards a game and often playing lackadaisical defense. Henson, with his 7'5" wingspan, is a human eclipse around the rim who alters countless shots (3.0 blocks) and snares rebounds that you don't think he can reach, notching a double-double (14 and 10). Zeller, a seven-footer who runs the floor like a guard, can score from anywhere inside eighteen feet, and can make his righty jump hook blindfolded from anywhere inside ten. The ACC MVP also makes his free throws (80%) and rebounds on both ends (9.3 to go with 16.3 points). Athletes Reggie Bullock and P. J. Hairston are the primary off-guards, now that Dexter Strickland is out for the season, and their role is to lock up the opponent's best perimeter players while cashing in offensively when they can (14.3 points between them). So this sounds like a well-oiled machine, right? Not quite. Roy Williams is often so wedded to his substitution patterns and insistence on spreading the wealth offensively that he rarely makes adjustments when things are falling apart at the seams. The two best examples, of course, are the 33-point humiliation that the Heels suffered in Tallahassee, and the Duke comeback in Chapel Hill. Ol' Roy has never demanded full effort on defense, typically relying on a shot-blocker or two in the paint, and one legitimate perimeter defender, and this will come back to bite Carolina when they face a team that is not afraid to run and can nail its jump shots (in addition to FSU and Duke, they lost to UNLV and Kentucky, and Kentucky was the only one of those teams that didn't knock down at least a dozen triples). While this is a very talented team, certainly one of the three most talented teams in the country and able to win it all, there is a nagging feeling that at some point they might not be able to stop the momentum of an opponent that ups the ante on defense while making their own shots against the Heels' often porous defense. As good as they are, I think that Carolina is a small step below the next two teams.
Kentucky - But wait, you say, how can Kentucky be a cut above UNC when they only beat the Tar Heels by one on a last-second blocked shot? The answer is that that game was back on December 3rd, and if it weren't for Christian Watford's buzzer-beating three, the Wildcats would be undefeated and rarely challenged, having won all but four of their SEC games by double digits. This may be John Calipari's best chance yet at winning a national title with his perennially young roster. Although perhaps not quite as talented as the 2010 team that boasted five first-round draft picks, this year's Kentucky team might be better prepared because three of their seven primary players (forward Terrence Jones and guards Doron Lamb and Darius Miller) are back from last year's Final Four run, providing needed experience to the usual group of precocious freshmen. The most precocious of those freshmen is clearly Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson's main competition for national player of the year honors and absolutely the most dominant defensive force in the college game. Davis, a former guard who had one of those late growth spurts to end up at 6'10", blocks 4.7 shots per game, and as Jay Bilas noted last week, essentially eliminates easy layups for the opponent. Despite his thin frame, he is an effective scorer and rebounder also, posting averages of 14.4 and 9.8 in those categories while serving as a constant threat for alley-oops and putback dunks and shooting 67% from the floor. Sharpshooter Lamb is one of four other Wildcats who score in double figures, averaging over 13 a game while shooting 48% from behind the arc. Jones is a talented lefty who can score inside (51%) and out (35%), but has an unfortunate tendency to drift during games, and occasionally disappear entirely. When he's dialed in, however, he's often the best player on the floor. Freshman wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has faded a bit down the stretch, but is a dangerous scorer who is best served going to the basket. And senior Darius Miller provides 10 a game off the bench while shooting 39% from behind the arc. The key to whether or not Kentucky wins a championship this year is point guard Marquis Teague, the younger brother of current Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff. Both because of his genes and because Calipari has built himself an assembly line of awesome freshman point guards (Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight), Teague (9.8 ppg and 4.7 apg) has been under rather intense scrutiny, and like many freshmen has had an up-and-down season. He does have nine games with four or more turnovers, but has grown into his role fairly well throughout the SEC portion of Kentucky's schedule, and while he may not be as much of a game-changer as his immediate predecessors, he is certainly capable of leading the Wildcats to a net-cutting ceremony in New Orleans (to be fair, they are 30-1). Calipari's teams will play tough man-to-man, and this group in particular knows that they can gamble and extend their defense further out on the floor, knowing that they have Davis behind them to erase mistakes. The Wildcats have size, athleticism, scoring punch, and confidence, and they match up well with almost any opponent. This very well could be the year that Calipari knocks the monkey off his back and remains no longer the best coach without a championship.
Syracuse - And so here we are. Welcome to the deepest team in the country! Syracuse has a rotation that can legitimately go ten deep, and seven different players have led the Orange in scoring this year, six of them multiple times. While only two players (wings Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters) actually average double figure points, they have six teammates who are capable of popping off for 20 on a given night. This kind of "scoring by committee" has worked out very well this season for the Orange, carrying them to a 31-1 record despite the distractions of the Bernie Fine accusations (and later firing) earlier this winter. Whenever someone has struggled, someone different has been able to pick up the slack, and that allows coach Jim Boeheim the freedom to, for example, keep his starting point guard (Scoop Jardine) glued to the bench for most of the second half in today's tight Big East quarterfinal matchup against UConn. This is a group of varied experience (those ten players are divided pretty evenly by class, with four sophomores and two of everything else) that has bought into Boeheim's message this year, highlighted by the examples of two of those sophomores. Brazilian center Fab Melo arrived amid much fanfare last year, but was ineffective throughout most of the season because he was overweight and out of shape. Now, with Rick Jackson gone, he has been the linchpin as the last line of Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense (3.1 blocks per game), and the Orange's only loss came at Notre Dame with Melo on the sidelines. Because of the style of defense that Syracuse plays, Melo might be as important defensively to his team as Kendall Marshall is offensively to UNC. The other key sophomore, Waiters, spent some time in Boeheim's doghouse last season and was informed that he had better be prepared to accept coming off the bench this year. And so he has; Waiters, probably the Orange's best talent and almost certainly the best sixth man in the country, has led the team in scoring more often than any other player (tied with Joseph), averaging 12 points a game from all over the floor, although he can be suspect from both the charity stripe (68.5%) and behind the arc (33%). The Orange do lack a true dead-eye shooter (34% as a team from deep with only one player north of 40% in limited attempts), although Joseph and junior guard Brandon Triche are certainly capable. But the absence of a sniper is not going to be Syracuse's Achilles heel in this tournament; rather, it will be their mediocre rebounding. In part because of their zone, the Orange are susceptible to giving up quantities of offensive rebounds, and rank 212th in the nation in rebounding rate. They do make up for some of this by grabbing 11 offensive boards a game of their own, but not a single Syracuse player, not even the 7'0", 255-pound Melo, grabs as many as six per game individually. Still, this is a deep and talented team with a different style of play that can survive off-nights from pretty much anyone on their roster because of how flexible Boeheim can be with his lineups, and they have an excellent chance at delivering their coach his second national championship this year.
Since we have run through pretenders and contenders of various types, tomorrow's post will be about something else entirely, perhaps related to conference tournaments (but then again, perhaps not).