Monday, February 13, 2012

Figuring Out the 2011/2012 College Basketball Season

If the season ended now, Davis would be your Player of the Year.

This college basketball season has just felt different.  Sure there are the favorites, the could be contenders, the surprises, the disappointments and the right where we thought they'd be's.  Yet, with all of that seems normal, I feel more than ever that the tournament will be full of surprises, as even within the favorites there are major flaws that will be exploited in tournament play and rock the college basketball world.  As the unexpected becomes reality.  This is college basketball though, so the unexpected needs to be expected as there always seems to be a George Mason, VCU or Butler.  

So with all of that in mind today I'll go through the contenders, the could be contenders, the busts and the sleepers in my mind at this point in the season.  March is just around the corner kids, and now that boring old NFL is out of the way and Rivalry Week got your focus on college basketball, when you weren't wondering where Jeremy Lin came from, let's look at who you should be paying attention to as we approach tournament time.


Key: Team Name (Current Record, AP Ranking, ESPN/USA Today Ranking, RPI)

The Contenders

In this section you have the four teams I think are in the best spot to make a run for the title.  These teams are going to be very tough to beat and have less issues than all the rest, but do know that they all have issues and could easily be beat by any of the other teams listed.

Kentucky Wildcats (25-1, 1, 1, 2)

Kentucky's only loss came on a buzzer beater @ Indiana.  They are one, relatively lucky, three ball away from being undefeated.  So obviously they are the favorite right now in most people's mind.  They are uber-talented and have the most dominating force, at least defensively, in college basketball in freshman Anthony Davis.  If Stretch Armstrong was real, this is what he'd look like...if Stretch Armstrong had a uni-brow.  

Why they will win it all: 

Arguably they are the most talented team in college basketball this year.  Anthony Davis on the defensive end can pretty much eliminate an opposing team's inside game and then allow Kentucky's superior talent to go to work and win the rest of the game.  

Why they won't win it all: 

Problem with shot blocking big men, they get in foul trouble.  An early exit due to foul trouble for Davis, though he is good at blocking often without contact, can put Kentucky's defense in a bit of a bind.  I personally will believe Calipari can coach a team to the title when I see it.  The guy has had the most talented team in the country multiple times over the years and not sealed the deal.  Until he does it, he is still just a slick (aka...probably cheating) recruiter and not a great in game coach.

Syracuse Orange (25-1, 2, 2, 1)

Boeheim and Co. have kept their focus all year even while the Bernie Fine issue has been going on all around them.  Cuse is super talented and has all the pieces it needs to make a run.  Do I worry about them a bit?  Yes, the 2-3 zone always scares me for a long run in the tournament.  But if you made me pick one team right now to put money on, I would put it on Cuse.  Is that just because as I was hungover Saturday I watched them manhandle Connecticut?  Yes...

Why they will win it all:

What teams need to win National Titles, they have.  Good point guard in Scoop Jardine, good big man in Fab Melo, depth in a team that goes nearly 10 deep (rare for Boeheim squads) and they have vets with Jardine and Kris Joseph being leaders on the team and seniors.  Oh and Boeheim is a pretty good coach, he just passed Dean Smith in career wins.

Why they won't win it all:

Although they have crazy length which makes their 2-3 zone very tough to beat, as Notre Dame showed in the single loss for Cuse, it is beatable.  If you can shoot, have patience and a relatively skilled big man, you can break the 2-3 and since that is all they play, if you are having your day against the Cuse 2-3, you will just keep on having your day as Boeheim isn't one to change it up defensively.

Ohio State Buckeyes (21-4, 6, 6, 10)

Coming off a loss to Michigan State, in which Sullinger looked absolutely lost with 10 turnovers, you could think I would have maybe put the Buckeyes into the "Could be contenders..." section.  Yet, I saw this team run Duke out of the gym and make the Devils look like idiots most of the night back in November.  This team is a contender, but like all teams this year, has flaws that became evident in their loss to Michigan State over the weekend.

Why they will win it all:

When Deshaun Thomas, Sullinger and William Buford are all going and hitting shots it is pretty much game over.  They can beat anybody and have the athleticism, size and quickness to match up with everyone defensively.  Throw in Aaron Craft pretty much pissing off and making opposing point guards want to do anything in the world rather than try to handle the ball with Craft guarding them and you have a contender.

Why they won't win it all:

As a team they still don't shoot the three very well, which can congest things inside for Sullinger.  The 2-15 shooting as a team from the outside against Michigan State obviously didn't help clear things up for Sullinger, as we mentioned he struggled a bit with turnovers.  If Buford or Thomas aren't draining open threes, the game is going to be tough as they don't have many other shooters to lean on.

North Carolina Tar Heels (21-4, 8, 7, 7)

Ish...I hate UNC so much.  Little has made me as happy as Austin River's three to beat them last week after watching 38 minutes of UNC be super arrogant and cocky thinking they had the game won.  Even with that, as I said after that game, UNC was the better team and just lost their focus long enough for Duke to steal it, and with that they are a contender for the title.

Why they will win the title:

As I said in the Pre-Season, they have 4 future NBA 1st round picks on the team (Zeller, Henson, Barnes and McAdoo).  Then with those four they have a great point guard that gets everyone involved in Kendall Marshall.  If they can play their pace and keep their focus on defense they can be unbeatable.

Why they won't win the title:

Their three point shooting, just like Ohio State, leaves something to be desired.  Also I think the big thing that can stop UNC is end of game situations in close games, when they can't be "run n' gun" they actually have to run a half court set they can struggle to produce points.  We saw this in the Duke loss and it was their lack of execution while trying to melt the clock that allowed Rivers to drag Duke back.  Also they forget about Tyler Zeller too much and have 5 minute segments in games where they forget defense requires effort.


Could Be Contenders...

All four of these teams could make a run, but I think all have bigger negatives than the top four and in normal conditions when teams are playing their best wouldn't win the whole thing if they run into one of those four above.  As we all know though the favorites don't usually win it all in college ball, especially lately, so don't be surprised if one of these flawed teams are cutting down the nets come April.

Missouri Tigers (23-2, 3, 3, 5)

Mizzou is a fun team to watch, they shoot the ball great and like to run and play a hectic style.  They have amazing wins and if their losses were a bit more impressive they'd be in the group above.  Unfortunately those two losses (K-State and Oklahoma State) aren't great losses and make me worry about their viability making a run all the way through the tournament.

How they can prove they are contenders:

In the regular season they have only one game they can lose left, and that is @Kansas who is currently ranked  in the top five.  Sweep the rest and if they do indeed lose in Kansas, don't do it embarrassingly and I think they have made the argument that they are contenders.  For that to happen, the shooting and scoring of Marcus Denmon needs to make up for a lack of any inside game.

Duke Blue Devils (21-4, 5, 4, 3)

You knew I was going to throw them in.  You know I love Duke, and while I know they have flaws, they have the talent to make a run.  Austin Rivers is showing himself to be the go to guy, Mason Plumlee is improving (outside of the UNC game) and they have the shooting that can win any game for them from downtown.  Of course they have Coach K, which is an advantage over any other coach in the country they match up with.

How they can prove they are contenders:

Take care of business the rest of the way in the ACC.  Straight up, if they can beat Florida State on the road and take care of UNC again, only this time at home.  They will officially be serious contenders.  To do that they will need to improve their perimeter defense, which they did against Maryland on Saturday in a 73-55 win.

Kansas Jayhawks (20-5, 4, 5, 4)

Thomas Robinson is possibly the best player in the nation.  He has a complete game and just seems to be more driven than almost any other college player out there, probably due to his very hard luck story.  He is a kid you want to root for and outside of his game against Duke at the Maui Invite, I have been doing just that.

How they can prove they are contenders:

The big test will be against Missouri when they come into Allen Fieldhouse.  They lack a bit of talent behind Tyshawn Taylor and Robinson, which could be their doom come tournament time with foul trouble and the occasional off night by a star.

Florida Gators (19-6, 14, 12, 26)

Could be a surprise here and coming off their second loss of the year to a mediocre Tennessee team, they aren't playing their best right now.  Yet, I think Florida has the talent and it seems Donovan maybe getting his touch back some.  There have been some bad losses this year (Rutgers, Tennessee X2) but keeping it close with Ohio State and Syracuse prove they are near that "elite" level.

How they can prove they are contenders:

4 out of their last 6 games are on the road, outside of the trip to Vanderbilt they aren't really that tough and "should be" wins.  It comes down to the final game of the year against Kentucky on March 4, at home, that will prove if they are contenders.  Win proves it without a reasonable doubt, close loss probably proves it, get blown out again by Kentucky...then here they are right where they deserve to be.

Busts

Here are some teams that came into the year with some high expectations but have been lackluster.  Though none are out of the tournament or had their bubble burst yet, they aren't in good shape and are limping towards the finish line.  

Connecticut Huskies (15-9, NR, NR, 21)

So while UConn is in this list, I have them in the "Sleepers" as well.  They have been kind of forgotten by some and I think they have the talent to give anyone a very tough time.  Jim Calhoun is struggling with health issues again and his young team is struggling with his absence.

Is all hope lost?:

Nope, get Calhoun back (hopes to be back for final couple weeks of season), refocus, not lose too many more games (lost 6 of last 7) at the end of this Big East season and get into the tournament where everything becomes equal again and their talent could let them make a run.

Indiana Hoosiers (19-6, 18, 20, 16)

So while the Hoosiers didn't have monster expectations when the season kicked off, once they beat Kentucky with the buzzer beater their expectations exploded.  Since, they have lost 6 games, and some against inferior opponents (hello Minnesota, who then got false hope about their lost season because of the win), it looks like Indiana is back to their preseason expectations.

Is all hope lost?

Not yet, they do only have 6 losses and will likely make the tournament.  Once there, they have proven they can play with anybody with their wins against Kentucky and Ohio State.  You just have to wonder if they have enough in the tank to make a serious run.

Xavier Musketeers (16-9, NR, NR, 57)

Since their disgusting, thuggish display against Cincinnati on December 11, when they were ranked #8 in the country, they have been 8-9 and not themselves.  Can't say I am rooting for them after they showed little to no remorse for their ugly display that gave all of college basketball a bad name for a week or two.

Is all hope lost?

Close, another loss or two before the A-10 tournament and they will then need to win the tourney to make the NCAA's.  At this point they look like they have lost it and probably will get tripped up again, and I can't see them keeping it together all A-10 tournament to get the A-10 tourney title.

Vanderbilt Commadores (17-8, NR, NR, 29)

I had reservations preseason on putting a trendy pick in Vandy in the top 10, and so I put them at 15 and I have to admit I even thought that was too high.  Well turns out they have one impressive win and any other time they run into a quality opponent they lose.  Sure injuries have played a role, but this team isn't elite as many thought they might be in the preseason and I am one that isn't surprised.

Is all hope lost?

Very, very close.  They need to win either against Kentucky or Florida.  If they end up losing both they will only have their win against Marquette to hang their hat on and barring a crazy run through the SEC tourney, will be likely on the wrong side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.

Memphis Tigers (18-7, NR, NR, 19)

Yikes, talk about a team lacking quality wins and really disappointing everyone who thought they could be a title contender in the preseason.  Pastner's squad is struggling even with all their crazy talent.  It started right away this year at the Maui Invite and luckily they are in Conference USA still and haven't moved to the Big East yet or it'd already be over for them.

Is all hope lost?

No, they play in Conference USA and only need to take care of Southern Miss in the they Conf. USA tourney to make the tournament with an automatic bid, if still on the bubble.  If they make it, I still fear their talent and wouldn't want to see them on my side of the bracket.

Sleepers

Here are some teams that to me, could make a run in the tournament.  They've maybe not lived up to expectations, maybe exceeded expectations or maybe just doing their thing, but one thing they have in common is not many in the country expect to see them late in the NCAA Tournament...except me I guess.

Connecticut Huskies (15-9, NR, NR, 21)

Even though they have been disappointing, they were my pick to win it all at the beginning of the year.  While I don't believe that will happen now, I have to back up that pick in some way at this point in the year and I will do that by putting them here.  Jeremy Lamb has struggled a bit, but is a stud and could get it going in a tournament setting.  Also they have big man Andre Drummond who is top tier in terms of big man talent in the nation.

Butler Bulldogs (15-12, NR, NR, 114)

Back to back title game losses.  Brad Stevens.  Crappy conference tournament.  All of those things combine to make me think they can make a run in their conference tournament to put any bubble talk behind them and get the automatic bid and then they will turn into the last team any top seed wants to see early on in their region.

Florida State (17-7, 20, 21, 28)

They are playing well and while they have made a lot of noise and could even win the ACC regular season, they just aren't getting much national love.  They play great defense, have an inside/outside game with Snaer/James combo and have beaten North Carolina and Duke this season.  Don't be shocked if Florida State makes it to the Final Four.

Temple Owls (19-5, NR, NR, 18)

"OK so any team that beats Duke gets into the "Sleeper" category?"  No, but that is a good pre-requisite to show that you are a tough team.  Temple has leadership and while they lack size inside, they can play with anyone.  If you are in a tournament pool though, be wary prior to putting them too far in your bracket, as they have lost to some not so impressive teams and could really disappoint you.


So there you have it, a college basketball check up here in early February.  Hate it?  Love it?  Have an addition to any of the categories?  Comment away!



2 comments :

  1. Butler is too young to do it again this year, and the Horizon League is actually decent, seeing as they have had a team advance into the 2nd round of the NCAA tourney each of the last 5 years. CSU will come out of that conference. Connecticut has no offense and won't do anything even if they make the tourney. They are not a sleeper, they're dead. And, it's Xavier Musketeers, not Mountaineers.

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  2. Jackson,

    Thanks for the comment and the catch on the Xavier Mountain/Musket mishap. I am not counting out either UConn or Butler. I understand that the Horizon is better but Butler just beat Cleveland State @ Cleveland State. They can do it again in the conf. tourney. UConn maybe dead, I'll admit, but possibly a Calhoun comeback can spark a nice run to end the year, get them in, and then who knows. Really I include them since I picked them in my preseason write up and have to back it up...but maybe your right in this case that two wrongs don't make a right. We shall see...thanks again for the comment.

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