As the second month and nonconference portion of the season winds down I’m unveiling my Sweet 16. These aren’t necessarily the teams that will be there in the second weekend of the tourney (as we know anything can happen in March), but the top teams as I see heading towards conference play.
- Kansas: This team has so much talent and can beat you in so many ways. The consistent argument that I will proclaim until they do is that they haven’t played anyone. While the other top teams have gone on the road and to neutral spots to play top competition, they’ve stayed at home or played weak teams away from home. That being said, they still have so much depth and have played unselfishly through the early part of the year that it makes it hard to put anyone in front of them (although I’m tempted). Oh, and don’t worry, the big non-conference road games are approaching in trips to Temple and Tennessee.
- Texas: The Horns have won their three biggest non-conference games and continue to show that they have enough talent to make a title run. Rick Barnes hasn’t faired great when expectations have been high, but they are currently running with it in stride. The Longhorns haven’t faced a murderers row either considering their games against UNC, Michigan St., and USC have all come in Texas. The Kansas game is still over a month away and can’t come soon enough.
- Syracuse: Now here is a team with some meat in its ranking! They have beat UNC and Florida on neutral courts in dominating fashion. They also boast a fantastic balance in scoring with six players averaging double digits. The biggest challenge for other teams will be to overcome the length of their 2-3 matchup zone (they have great size at all positions allowing them to really spread the floor). This could be the strongest team Jim Boeheim has ever had.
- Kentucky: The Wildcats have also done the job in the nonconference and have this guy name Wall leading them to an undefeated mark thus far. They have had a couple of games that probably were closer than they should have been (Stanford and Miami-OH), but they just keep rolling over anyone who comes calling. The win over UConn in MSG has probably been their biggest considering the adversity they faced in that game (specifically hanging in the game even though Wall was out for much of the first half). Also, if your John Callipari (or Ashley Judd) you’ve got to love that Patterson and Cousins are both nearly averaging double-doubles.
- Purdue: This has been the most complete and consistent team in the Big Ten so far and, considering MSU’s troubles, have got to be considered the favorites now. They have scoring ability at all three levels in Moore, Hummel, and Johnson, but haven’t found a consistent threat beyond those three. The New Years Day heavyweight clash with the next team on the list should be fantastic because the two teams are so similar.
- West Virginia: They’ve only played eight games so they are still somewhat of a mystery. Four players average more than 10 a game and Bobby Huggins has them playing some fierce defense. I’ll never understand how this school gets so many great players to go to Morgantown, but they do. The upcoming games at Purdue and home against Ole Miss (Wednesday, 6:30 c.t ESPN2) should give this team a much better sense of whether they are a Final Four contender or not. The Mountaineers maybe the ultimate matchup nightmare with their top three scorers standing 6-7, 6-8, and 6-9.
- Duke: Jon Scheyer has been incredible thus far in the year (if they’re wasn’t a consistent hate of Duke, which I must admit I too hold, out there you’d probably hear his name more as a potential POY candidate). The senior is averaging 18-4-6 through ten games and is averaging just one TO per game. This team isn’t flashy (has any Duke team ever been?), but like all of Coach K’s teams they play hard intelligent ball, fanatical D, and they can shoot from anywhere (over 40% as a team beyond the arc).
- Kansas St.: Some may think this is too high, but look at the body of work they have. Before Monday’s win over AR-PB, they rattled off four wins over potential tourney teams. The biggest credit in those wins was that two were on the road and every game was won by double digits. They have an absolute assassin in Jacob Pullen who averages 20 a game and shoots over 43% beyond the arc (including 6-9 at Alabama and 7-10 at UNLV). Other than the game at Texas, the January 30th game in Manhattan will be the biggest test for the #1 Jayhawks.
- Villanova: This team probably has the best backcourt in the country and that will be a big factor for them making another final four run (always fear a team that has a point guard who can score come March). The biggest thing making it not so sunny in Philadelphia is this teams’ lack of size. While Antonio Pena has been putting up good numbers it will be interesting to see how he does once conference play begins and he’ll have to take on the bigs of Syracuse, UConn, G-town, and WVU.
- North Carolina: I can’t totally trust this team in the top-10 with the amount that Larry Drew III turns the ball over (over 3 per game), but they have one of the most talented and deepest front lines in the country. They’ve beaten two of the Big 10’s best in Ohio St. (with Evan Turner) and Michigan St. but struggled against top teams Texas and Syracuse. They could still be the favorites to win the ACC and with the continuing experience Drew will gain don’t completely write them off.
- New Mexico: I gave Darington Hobson and the Lobos some love before their last three wins and Roman Martinez has given me something more to gush about. The Senior is averaging 17 and 6 through the twelve games and came up big at Texas A&M going for 22 and 7 including 4-7 behind the three point stripe. This team doesn’t turn the ball over (under ten a game), can score (avg. 82ppg, 40% 3pt), and have depth with 8 guys averaging over 15mpg. This team is no longer a sleeper for the final four, they’re a contender.
- UConn: This team played both Kentucky and Duke tough but lost in virtual home games to them in MSG. Again though, this team an excellent backcourt in which both players can score in bunches. I think Jerome Dyson could be a star at the next level if he cuts down his turnovers (nearly 4pg) because of his playmaking and scoring ability. He seems like a smart player who just has lapses in judgment, but that will have to change for this team to make a run. The other problem for the Huskies is the lack of depth they have. Their top four all average over 11ppg, but nobody else averages more than 5.
- Mississippi: The Rebels have flown under the radar as of late with the softness of their schedule. They do have the only win over Kansas St. (neutral court win in Puerto Rico semifinal) and don’t underestimate the O.T win over UTEP last week to build the resume. This squad is extremely deep in the backcourt, regularly using a 3-guard line-up. Like the other teams in the second half of these rankings they don’t have great balance, as they struggle to get consistent production in the paint.
- Michigan St.: Sparty finally makes the list although they are a lot lower than where many would place them. I like the experience factor with this team and they have the balance that is so coveted, but they simply haven’t played to a high enough standard in big games. Turnovers have been the biggest problem for this team with nearly 15 per game thus far, including season highs of 22 versus both Florida and Texas. They also struggle to shoot from the outside in big games (2-20 vs UNC, 2-10 vs Florida). This team has the experience to turn it around, but they’ll have to rely on the conference season to do so as they only have one quality win (Gonzaga) in the non-conference portion.
- Ohio St.: They can only move higher when Evan Turner returns from two broken vertebrate. This team has had a nice non-conference season sans the loss at Butler (which with Turner I don’t think they lose). The trouble for this team is that before the return of their Junior wingman (Jan 9th at Minnesota is the targeted date) they have travel to both Wisconsin and then to Michigan. The selection committee will take any loss without him into consideration so in the end their seed shouldn’t be affected terribly.
- Temple: The Owls can play some D and have a superb backcourt in Ryan Brooks and Juan Fernandez. They just got done handing Big East foes Villanova and Seton Hall their first losses of the season with the latter coming on the road. They could easily be undefeated if not for the one point loss at Georgetown and a loss to an improved St. John’s team in which they played easily their worst game of the year. They have an enormous home game versus #1 Kansas Jan. 2nd and the A-10 looks very strong this year with Charlotte, Rhode Island, and Dayton all playing really well, so this team has the potential to move up or down depending.
Waiting in the Wings:
Georgetown: A bad home loss to ODU keeps them out of the top 12 and off the list completely. They do however, have a trio of non-conference wins over Washington, Butler, and Temple.
Tennessee: They had an inexplicable performance in L.A versus USC which could be the worst loss in the Bruce Perl era. The Vols are a very athletic group though and could bounce back in conference play and the big home date versus the Jayhawks.
Clemson: If not for the self-destructive loss at home to Illinois the Tigers would’ve made the list, but they are still contenders in the wide-open ACC.
Washington: Quincy Pondexter is a man averaging 22 and 9, Isaiah Thomas plays a little out of control sometimes but is still averaging 19 a game, but this team needs a third player to step up to help pick up the scoring slack and make them a true threat.
UNLV: The Rebs have some wins over some power programs, unfortunately all three of those schools (Louisville, Pitt, and Arizona) are having down years.
The X-Man vs Wall Debate
The two’s numbers are very even and both men lead their highly ranked teams in scoring, but not everything is about numbers. Again, Kansas has yet to play a team that is as good as the teams that Kentucky has faced. In Kansas’ games versus potential tournament teams, Memphis and Cal, Henry’s scoring has been below his season average going for 11 and 12 respectively and had 15 against flop Michigan at home. Mr. Wall however, has had his biggest games in the wins over UConn going for 25, UNC going for 16 (just two below in avg.), and Stanford as he went for 23 in an overtime win on a neutral floor. In the UConn game, Wall completely took over in the second half and has consistently hit big shots (game winner versus Miami-OH) for the Cats. Henry has yet to take over a game against big time competition and I understand that Kansas has so many weapons that he probably doesn’t have to, but Wall has proven he can be the man. They are both phenomenal players and have the potential to be stars at the next level, but the explosiveness and take-over ability of Wall gives him the nod for now.