The Super Bowl is over. January has turned to February. You know what that means:
The best month of them all is almost here.
College basketball is about to heat up and keep America warm through another winter. So as the drumbeat towards March Madness gets ready to pound, allow me to familiarize you with the music that is coming your way. Here’s how the Big Dance is breaking down in the six major conferences:
The best: Miami. Duke may be higher-ranked, and it owns the better overall resume (with wins over Kentucky, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State), but the Hurricanes are playing better basketball right now. They also spanked Duke by 27 points in Coral Gables back on January 23rd. Besides having quality players (including sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, the son of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin), Miami is a veteran team. Five of its top players are seniors. That is a great attribute during a season when college basketball is devoid of a lot of NBA-level talent.
The bubble: It’s not just the fact that the Tar Heels don’t have many quality wins that’s so troubling. (They have just one win over a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI.) It’s the way they’re playing. The Heels are ranked 45th in the country in defensive efficiency and they are ranked 337th nationally in free throw rate (field goals attempted divided by free throws attempted). Translation: They’re soft. North Carolina will have a tough time getting to the tournament if it doesn’t get at least one win over league leaders Duke, Miami and N.C. State.
The sleeper: Virginia. Coach Tony Bennett’s style isn’t always pretty to watch, but it’s hard to play against. The Cavs had a very weak nonconference schedule, but they do have home wins over North Carolina and N.C. State as well as a road win at Wisconsin that looks better now than it did on November 28th. Virginia also lost some games without injured point guard Jontel Evans, who has since returned. That’s the kind of thing the selection committee will take into account.
The best: Kansas. The Jayhawks have been struggling in their half court offense, and they just lost at home for the first time in 33 games. Still, there is no question they are far and away the class of the conference. KU has arguably the most talented player in the country in freshman guard Ben McLemore, as well as the front-runner for national defensive player of the year in Jeff Withey. They main question right now is the play of point guard Elijah Johnson, who has been an unsteady replacement for the graduated Tyshawn Taylor.
The bubble: Baylor. Scott Drew’s Bears have some dynamic players such as senior point guard Pierre Jackson and 7-foot freshman forward Isaiah Austin. However, the Bears still fall prey to poor defensive effort and overall inconsistency. They got blitzed by 17 at Kansas, then beat a good Oklahoma State team at home by ten, then lost back-to-back games against Oklahoma (home) and Iowa State (road). They do have three top-50 wins, including one on the road over Kentucky, but it’s not hard to imagine them going on a losing skid that threatens to put them outside the bracket.
The sleeper: Kansas State. Oklahoma State is getting a lot of buzz right now (deservedly so) but the Wildcats have been the second-best team in the conference this season. After getting fired from Illinois, coach Bruce Weber has settled into Frank Martin’s old program, and he has the Wildcats playing solid if unspectacular basketball. They have a speedy point guard in Angel Rodriguez as well as one of the best scoring wings in the country in Rodney McGruder. They might not win the Big 12, but the Wildcats will be in the NCAA tournament, and they’ll be a tough out.
The best: Louisville. A lot of people jumped off the Louisville bandwagon when they dropped three straight games after climbing to the No. 1 ranking, but I’m not one of them. The Cardinals still have the most talent in the conference, especially considering Syracuse’s personnel issues. (The Orange have lost senior forward James Southerland to an eligibility issue and freshman center DaJuan Coleman to a knee injury.) Senior point guard Peyton Siva has had a bad few weeks shooting the ball, but he’s too good to be down for long. Remember, last year the Cardinals lost by 31 points at Providence in January, and they still ended up at the Final Four. I think this Pitino guy can coach a little.
The bubble: Villanova. The Wildcats don’t have a great overall resume. They even lost to by 18 points to Columbia (yes, Columbia) at home (yes, home). However, they also had one incredible week when they knocked off Syracuse and Louisville. Villanova reverted to form by losing its next two, so you can expect it to be touch and go the rest of the season. The key will be freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacano, a volume shooter who has a tendency to keep both teams in the game.
The sleeper: Pittsburgh. Jamie Dixon put together a very weak nonconference schedule, which did not prepare the Panthers well for Big East play. Pitt finally got a breakthrough win last weekend by beating Syracuse at home. This is not the most talented team you’ll find (7-foot freshman center Steven Adams, a New Zealand native, has not quite lived up to his preseason hype), but it is a tough and balanced group that will not beat itself. To wit, ten different Pitt players scored in the win over Syracuse.
The best: Indiana. The Hoosiers sputtered just a little bit after being the consensus preseason number one team heading into the season, but they are finding their groove at just the right time. They turned in their best defensive effort of the season in defeating Michigan last Saturday in Assembly Hall, which returned Indiana to the top of the rankings. For all of the carping about sophomore center Cody Zeller’s supposed lack of intensity, he has still been a sturdy and dependable interior anchor who is averaging 16 points and eight rebounds per game. And junior guard Victor Oladipo, a 6-5 jumping jack, has emerged as one of the breakout stars of the season.
The bubble: Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a lot of work to do to get into the NCAA tournament, but the good news is they will have some opportunities. That’s the advantage of belonging to by far the best conference in America. The two big chances come at home against Minnesota and Illinois, but it would really help the Hawkeyes’ prospects if they could steal a win at Wisconsin this week.
The sleeper: The league championship has been billed as a two-way battle between Indiana and Michigan, but Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans are locked in a three-way tie for second, and they gave the Hoosiers all they could handle in Assembly Hall on January 27th. One of the reasons Michigan State has been surging is the improvement of sophomore forward Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL during the Big Ten tournament last season. Dawson is just starting to regain his explosiveness, and as he becomes stronger, the Spartans will continue to improve. You may also recall that Izzo’s teams tend to play well in March.
The best: Arizona. The Wildcats have an awkward situation at point guard, a position being manned by Xavier transfer Mark Lyons. He came to Tucson to play that position, even though he had never played it fulltime before. Yet, Lyons gives this team great confidence and swagger, not to mention a strong player who can get to the rim most anytime he wants. Arizona has played a lot of close games and suffered a bad hiccup at home against UCLA, but by and large this has been the best team in the Pac 12. Though Lyons and his athletic backcourt mate, Nick Johnson, get most of the publicity on this team, the most valuable player is do-everything senior forward Solomon Hill, who is averaging 13.6 points (on 42 percent three-point shooting), 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.2 steals.
The bubble: Colorado. On the surface, the Buffaloes have an open-and-shut case for an at-large bid. They are ranked 25th in the RPI, and their nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 23rd nationally. The problem is, Colorado has really taken a pratfall in conference play, losing four of its first nine games, including last weekend at Utah, which came into the game with a 1-7 conference record. Colorado suffered a difficult loss on January 3rd at Arizona, when an apparent game winning three-pointer by Sabatino Chen was waved off by officials after they examined it on the replay monitor. That sent Colorado on a tailspin from which it has yet to recover. If it doesn’t soon, this team will find itself on the outside looking in.
The sleeper: Arizona State. Herb Sendek is known for his plodding, Princeton-style offense, but he has unleashed his Sun Devils to play up-tempo this season under their freshman dynamo, point guard Jahii Carson. A 5-11 native of Mesa, Arizona, Carson has put up great numbers this season, most notably when he put up 22 points in a win at home over Arizona on January 19th. If the Sun Devils can take care of business from here on out, they will probably end up in the NCAA tournament for the first time since James Harden took them there in 2009.
The best: Florida. The Gators’ talent is all that improved on last season (remember, they lost Bradley Beal after just one year), but it is vastly superior defensive team. Florida ranks first nationally in defensive efficiency, and it is third in the U.S. in defensive field goal percentage. That is largely due to the defensive upgrade at point guard, where 6-2, 176-pound junior Scott Wilbekin has taken over for the 5-9 Erving Walker. This is a very down year for the SEC, so Florida should sail through not just to a conference title but also a number one seed in the NCAA tournament.
The bubble: Kentucky. It’s hard to believe the defending champs could go into Selection Sunday on the bubble, but that is very much within the realm of possibility. Kentucky finally got a breakthrough win last week at Ole Miss, and the Wildcats followed that up by getting revenge on Texas A&M, which had beaten UK badly in Rupp Arena three weeks before. Still, that win over Ole Miss was the Wildcats’ only victory over a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, so they have to get some more quality wins to feel good about their chances. They have two shots at Florida, including the regular season finale in Rupp on March 4th. This team is even younger than the group that won the NCAA title last season, but the talent is there to pull off another decent run, led by 6-10 freshman center Nerlens Noel. The only question is whether the Wildcats can mature fast enough to reach their potential in time.
The sleeper: Alabama. Anthony Grant’s Crimson Tide has lost some really bad games at home to Mercer and Tulane, but also has some decent wins over Kentucky, Villanova and Tennessee. Alabama has some good scorers in the two Trevors (Releford and Lacey) but this team’s identity is built around its defense. Don’t be surprised if Alabama wins a couple of games you don’t expect it to win and sneaks into the NCAA tournament.