By Adam Fleischer
Since our man H to the Izzo brought your attention back to the college scene about two weeks ago, conference play has further intensified and some things have come to light while there are still many other unknowns throughout the country. Let’s try to break some of this down.
What We Know: The top teams this season are very good
What We Don’t Know: Will anyone go undefeated? Which teams will continue riding high and which (if any) will fall off?
With losses over the last few days by some of the nation’s top teams—most notably UNC’s defeat at the hands of Maryland, O.J. Mayo and company handing UCLA its second loss (both this past Saturday), and Tennessee falling to Kentucky on Tuesday—some powerhouses are showing glimpses of vulnerability.
In the last month or so, there has been a good deal said and written about what the possibilities are of a team going undefeated this season. Well, obviously the Tar Heels are no longer in the conversation, but that still leaves Memphis and Kansas, each riding a perfect record almost three months into the season. As much as I like both of these squads, it’s going to be extremely tough for either to realize a perfect regular season, let alone anything beyond that. Memphis, knowing the lack of top tier in-conference competition, began making their case as the best team in the country by defeating talented teams like Georgetown and Arizona in late December before conference play began. Their next, and only, remaining test (sorry Gonzaga on January 26) will come against Bruce Pearl’s Vols at home on February 23. Despite the loss to Kentucky, Tennessee is definitely a team that could contend with Memphis and John Calipari’s style. Led by a senior backcourt of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, they play a similar up-tempo, high scoring style as the Tigers (the ninth and twelfth highest scoring teams per game in the country, respectively). Kansas will have their hands full as they finish out Big 12 play over the next month and a half.
The Jayhawks seem to be talented and experienced enough to keep playing this level of basketball, but it will certainly be tough for them to finish up undefeated while having to play the likes of Kansas State (twice), Texas and Texas A&M (both ranked and on the road), and Missouri (Kansas edged Mizzou by just six over the weekend). It’s going to be tough for either team but, for what it’s worth, I think Memphis has a pretty decent shot at entering postseason play still perfect.
What We Know: The Freshman class is pretty damn good
What We Don’t Know: What this will mean for the end of the season and tourney time
Even if you do your best to avoid college basketball, which I hope this blog will make you reconsider, one would be hard-pressed to find a serious sports fan that hasn’t heard about the talent and depth of this year’s freshmen. With apologies to those feeling oversaturated by the topic, I’ll briefly try to bring everyone up to speed.
If we’re trying to be succinct about it, let me just boil it down to these two points. If, somehow, we were able to pit this year’s Diaper Dandies (I know H to the Izzo touched on this last time, but Dickie V out of the booth—it’s just too good to be true, get well soon though!) against the best sophs, juniors, and seniors in the country, it would be a great game; I’m comfortable saying that that the young guys would even come out on top. Second, many top and second level teams are led by freshmen or have freshman as key contributors. Sticking with the most notable of these, we’ve got guys like Derrick Rose at Memphis, Kevin Love at UCLA, Mayo at USC, Michael Beasley of Kansas State, and Eric Gordon of Indiana—all of whom give their team a solid chance to win each time they step out onto the court.
“Chance” being the operative word. We have all seen how hard it is for a team being led by a freshman to win a national title, although it surely can happen and seems to become a less daunting task when considering the youth that comprises most teams nowadays—even with the NBA age limit. Nevertheless, there is always that question mark when dealing with young players and teams, especially come March, when the role that experience plays often becomes magnified. Even to this point, all teams with one or more key freshman (save Memphis) have shown the ability to topple seemingly superior teams while also falling to undeniably inferior foes. Thus, the issue becomes clichéd, but an issue nonetheless: will talent or experience reign supreme?
What We Know: This year’s tournament is shaping up to be an exciting one
What We Don’t Know: What’s the field going to look like?
No need to say, “Well, of course we don’t know which teams are going to make the tourney, it’s only January.” I’m well aware. Surprise conference tournament winners, hot or cold streaks to end the season, as well as injuries will all contribute to making the picture a little clearer. For now, though, things are a bit chaotic.
With respect to seeding at the top of each region, the losses of teams that I’ve already mentioned have thrown a bit of a wrench into things, although I’m not sure how much. The way that they are playing now, Memphis, Kansas, and UNC, even with the slip up, seem to be making very strong cases for number one seeds. Washington State, with only one loss, in addition to UCLA, are the cream of the crop out west, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that either team will earn the region’s top seed. If it doesn’t look like either of these teams is in the top five or so come season’s end, there’s a chance that the Committee would give neither the number one despite their location. Teams like Duke, Indiana, and Tennessee could all shake things up if they continue to win.
Many of the other 61 spots are still up for grabs just like those number one seeds. There are a relatively low number of teams that we can look at and already say, “they’re in.” Teams like Maryland and Kentucky will need to do more than simply banking on their aforementioned big victories because early season losses to teams like American and Gardner-Webb, respectively, just won’t cut it. Other typical March mainstays like BC, Syracuse, UConn, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, and Creighton all must bulk up their resumes in the coming weeks.
On the other side of things, the Atlantic 10 is making a strong case for putting four teams into the field. With Xavier leading the way behind wins over Indiana (the Hoosiers’ only loss) and Kansas State, as well as a respectable seven-point loss at the hands of Tennessee, Xavier looks to be for real. Dayton is also ranked in the top 25, while Rhode Island at 16-3 and UMass at 13-5 could round things out.
Scattered Thoughts and Stats to Close:
UNC is shooting 75.3% from the line, 16th in the country and tops among teams that are considered to be “contenders” by most. This could be a huge asset as the regular season comes to a close and beyond.
Indiana is not far behind the Tar Heels, shooting 74.9% from the stripe, good for 19th in the nation. This ability, in addition to Gordon’s knack for scoring and all around great play as well as senior leader D.J. White down low averaging a double-double, makes Kelvin Sampson’s team a real force.
Texas A&M freshman Center DeAndre Jordan, projected by nbadraft.net as the number three overall pick in this June’s draft is shooting 72.1% from the field.