It’s officially February, but there’s that March feeling in the air, especially after the events of the past week. Seven – count it, seven of the top ten teams lost. In a year when many expected the Duke’s and Kentucky’s of the world to be dominant, they’ve looked anything but.
Forget waiting for March. The Madness is already upon us.
With a little over a month left in the regular season, it’s time to start looking at who’s ready to make a serious run to Phoenix, and who is just not up to the task. Which teams are for real, and which teams are posing as pretenders?
Kansas: This is the best team in college basketball right now. They may have lost at West Virginia last week, but let’s face it, not many teams make it out of Morgantown with a W. Devonte Graham and Frank Mason are one of the best guard tandems in the country, and if you’re ever doubting the importance of good guard play, just take a look at the last five champions and the guards they had:
2016: Villanova had Jalen Brunson/Ryan Arcidiacono/Josh Hart.
2015 (shudder): Duke had Tyus Jones/Quinn Cook.
2014: Connecticut had Ryan Boatright/Shabazz Napier.
2013: Louisville had Russ Smith/Peyton Siva.
2012: Kentucky had Marquis Teague/Doron Lamb.
While they may lack the depth after the suspension of Carlton Bragg, the experience of Kansas, along with phenom Josh Jackson, gives them as good a shot as any to cut down the nets.
Villanova: Remember reading about the Villanova guards? Yeah, two of them are still there, and they’re still pretty darn good. Last year, people were hesitant to pick Villanova because of the weak Big East, seeing as they were only picked to win it all in 2.56% of brackets. This year, the Big East is a formidable conference, with Butler, Creighton, Xavier, and Marquette all providing the Wildcats competitive games. They went the distance last year, and there’s no reason to doubt that they can repeat as champs.
Arizona: The Wildcats are the best team in the Pac-12 right now, and that was with Allonzo Trier only playing three games. Three. Now that the sophomore from Seattle is back in the lineup, Arizona is a strong contender. They’ve been so close the past couple years, reaching the Final Four (the Badgers have had something to say about that), but the only roadblocks for the rest of the regular season are UCLA and Oregon, and even if they happen to drop those, they would still finish 30-4, absolutely worth of a No. 1 seed, and a smoother ride to Phoenix.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels have lost four games, yet they are sitting atop the ACC. And when you’re sitting atop the ACC, you’re one of the best teams in the country. They are seventh in total scoring, and first in rebounding in the country, which is a direct correlation to their big men. Seniors Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks are two of the best big men in the country, and when Theo Pinson returns, this team will have five veterans in the lineup, ready to contend.
The “Capable Of Making A Run” Group
Kentucky: Like Wisconsin, Kentucky has failed to beat the best teams its played, save the heroic effort against the Tar Heels. But if Frank Mason and Devonte Graham at Kansas are the best backcourt in the nation, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are not far behind. These freshmen are quick and dangerous, and lead the team in points. Adebayo is a solid big man, but they need more depth and the ability to close out big games. If they can do this, they’ll be on their way to a tourney run.
Gonzaga: “How could you not have the #1 team in the championship contenders category, this is unacceptable!?” Hang on. Gonzaga is a very good team. You can’t be a bad team and be 22-0. My only knock on the Bulldogs is their schedule–and it’s not a surprise. They play in the West Coast Conference, which is not known for being a perennial powerhouse. Nonetheless, if there was a year that the Zags were to overcome their recent tournament struggles, this would be the year. This team is balanced–they lead the NCAA in scoring margin at 23.8 points. They average 85.2, while only giving up 61.1. This could be the year of the Zags.
Wisconsin: I was hesitant to even put the Badgers in this group. They’ve lost to the three best teams they’ve played this year, and they played just about as terrible as a team could play against Rutgers, and still managed to come away with the win the other day. But they’re tied atop the Big Ten, and are only giving up 60.6 points per game, fifth in the nation. Wisconsin is in this group because they have what it takes to reach Phoenix, if it all comes together. Koenig, Hayes, Showalter and Brown have all been to two Final Fours–that’s plenty of experience. But the best player on this team is a 6’10” sophomore from Milan, Illinois. Ethan Happ is playing out of his mind right now, leading the team in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, and field goal %. Oh, and the big man is second in assists. If he works on his jump shot and free throws, he’ll be ready to lead this team to the promised land. But the free throws are killer – Wisconsin was just 2/9 from the line on Tuesday night.
UCLA: This is arguably the best team the Bruins have had since the Westbrook-Love days, and it all starts with phenom Lonzo Ball. With comparisons to Jason Kidd, Ball has lived up to the hype. Like Kidd, Ball knows how to facilitate, second in the NCAA in assists per game with 8.0 (when Maurice Watson of Creighton went down he was at 8.5 APG). The Bruins may not have the best defense in the land–actually, 282nd is horrible–but when you’re scoring 92.2 PPG, and you have four guys shooting over 40% from three, this team has a chance to be there in the end.
Work Left To Do
Virginia: What a heartbreaker in The Pavilion. After losing by the tip of a finger to Villanova, the Cavs are currently second in the killer ACC, and they’re doing it the way they always have–with defense. Virginia was so close to the Final Four last year, but inexplicably allowed Syracuse to climb back from down 15. Tony Bennett is a great coach, and with Perrantes leading this team, it’s no stretch to think this team can make a run, but they HAVE to start scoring, because if they run into a team scoring 90 a game, it may be too much for the Cavaliers to overcome.
West Virginia: Everyone knows the Mountaineers can force turnovers–they’re called “Press Virginia” for goodness sake. And while they’ve played well in the Big 12, especially against Baylor and Kansas, their three Big 12 losses have come to some not-so-great teams. Once they can show they’re ready to take on all competition and add a true playmaker, they’ll be ready to contend.
Creighton: Creighton is on this list by nature of some unfortunate luck. Without the nation’s assist leader for the rest of the year, the Bluejays have an uphill climb ahead of them. They’ve struggled of late, but understandably so, adjusting to life without their leader. But this team can still put points on the board, and get another shot to knock off Villanova at the end of the month.
The “Figure Out Your Freshman And You’ll Be Alright” Group
Duke: Word of advice for the Dukies: don’t let these freshmen go to waste. One of the best recruiting classes of all time, most of these young guns will be gone at the end of the year. This team was supposed to go 40-0. Evidently, that was not the case, as they now sit at 17-5 in the middle of the ACC pack. The upside is that Luke Kennard is running this team. In the midst of the Grayson Allen tripping fiascos, Kennard has held the team together, averaging over 20 points a game. If this team can play up to their potential, no one is stopping this team. But right now, that’s a BIG if.