Well, we’re officially immersed in championship week, which is basically an excuse for conferences to sell sponsorships and give bubble teams epileptic seizures for 10 consecutive days. All in all, the week tells us less about the top-enders, the teams that have a shot to star in the lead-in to “One Shining Moment,” and more about those underachievers who may be getting hot enough at the right time to deliver an early-round upset once the Big Dance begins.
Since it’s frivolous to spend time separating the Purdues and Drexels and Kansas States of the world from each other, let’s step behind the line and tackle two big questions: 1) Who’s good enough to reach the Final Four? And 2) Who can actually win the whole thing on Monday night in the ATL as Jim Nantz pretends to be interested in 19-year-old hoopsters while secretly wondering when the next bus leaves for Augusta. I can see it now … “the under-eight timeout – a tradition unlike any other!” Of course, it’ll be a three-man booth for the Final Four this year, with Nantz and the tag team of Billy Packer’s lips and Mike Krzyzewski’s ass. But back to the topic at hand.
The NCAA Tournament comes down to one basic issue: what team can win six consecutive games? There are plenty of talented teams out there every year, but few have the cohesion necessary to put together six in a row. So with that, let’s start with the list of teams that are capable of getting out of their region under the right circumstances, and work our way up to the exclusive list of squads that can cut down the nets at the Georgia Dome. The next four teams will likely be seeded between four and six, but have what it takes to get to Atlanta.
Can weasel their way to the Final Four but stabbed too many backs along the way (and possibly pissed off Jeff Probst) to win it all:
Why they’re ATL-bound: Solid guard play wins you games in March, right? The Golden Eagles (or whatever they’re going by these days) have one of the nation’s best leading men in Dominic James, and Jerel McNeal was the Big East’s defensive player of the year. McNeal is nursing a thumb injury but is expected back by the Big Dance if not sooner. Most importantly, Marquette has one of the nation’s best coaches in Tom Crean, a guy who may not always have the more talented team, but more often than not will come away with a win.
Why they’re out like Neil Patrick Harris: Free-throw shooting. Marquette knocks ’em down at a whopping 66%, and you just know that’s gonna come back to get them at some point. James is even worse, than the team average, at around 64%. And while they have a great backcourt, they don’t get a lot out of their big guys. Ousmane Barro is their best big, and he’s not exactly Greg Oden. Oh, and Dwyane Wade left school in 2003.
Gettin’ outta town with a W: Texas Tech, @ Duke, @ Pitt, Pitt
How’d they choke that one away?: North Dakota State
Why they’re ATL-bound: They’re one of the hottest teams in the country, with seven wins in a row in the best conference in the country. D.J. Strawberry is finally turning into the stud people thought he could be as a freshman. They hit nearly 40% of their 3-point attempts, and while Strawberry leads them in scoring, they have five guys averaging double figures. And nobody plays 30 minutes a night outside of Strawberry, so they should be fresh. That Gary Williams guy can coach a bit, too – despite winning a National Championship in the last five years, this may be his best coaching job after a 1-4 start in the ACC.
Why they’re out like Melissa Ethridge: Turnovers. Maryland’s penchant for an up-tempo game isn’t always beneficial. The Terps give the ball away 16 times a game on average, tops (or bottoms) in the ACC. And while they’re battled-tested against ACC foes, their non-conference schedule left a bit to be desired.
Gettin’ outta town with a W: Duke, @ Duke, North Carolina, @ Illinois
How’d they choke that one away?: Miami
Why they’re ATL-bound: The Ducks have that Arizona-in-1997 look about them. Playing the role of Miles Simon, the underappreciated senior who leads the team in scoring, Aaron Brooks. The part of Mike Bibby will be played by 5-foot-6 freshman Tajuan Porter, who inexplicably leads the team in three-pointers and clutch shooting. Malik Hairston will be posing as Jason Terry, highly touted out of high school, struggling to find his way while contributing in his first three years, then (next year) breaking out to be a lottery pick. Beyond those striking similarities, they take care of the basketball and are in the top 10 in the country in free-throw percentage.
Why they’re out like T.R. Knight: Also, like those ’Cats from a decade ago, they’re not exactly the most consistent bunch out there. Started out the season 18-1, 6-1 in the Pac-10, then dropped five of six conference games at one point. And more importantly, no one of this junior- and senior-laden group has played in the tournament before, so how they react when they’re facing a hungry 11- or 12-seed in the first round is anyone’s guess. Played a horrendous non-conference slate outside of one big win, that being…
Gettin’ outta town with a W: @ Georgetown, UCLA, Wazzou, @ Wazzou
How’d they choke that one away?: @ Cal
Why they’re ATL-bound: They shoot the ball well and, believe it or not, shooting the ball well typically is key in March. Four regulars shoot 40% from downtown and two other bench guys that play sparingly can knock one down if called upon. The top five scorers are all good free throw shooters and Russell Carter has developed into a legit go-to presence in his senior season. Won six in a row before falling in a heartbreaker to Georgetown in the Big East semis, though they weren’t exactly playing the Showtime Lakers during the streak.
Why they’re out like Ellen DeGeneres: Didn’t play a particularly difficult Big East schedule, avoiding Pittsburgh altogether and getting throttled by Georgetown during their one regular season meeting. Mike Brey has had more talented teams than this group in the past decade and has historically underachieved in the tournament. Not really a marquee win to hang their hat on considering their best non-conference win came against a team that, while formidable now, was playing far from their best when it happened.
Gettin’ outta town with a W: @ Maryland, Villanova, @ Syracuse, Marquette
How’d they choke that one away?: @ South Florida
Now that we’ve got our Final Four sleepers out of the way, let’s look at the bigger picture. There are five, I repeat FIVE teams that have a chance to cut down the nets on April 2. No big surprises here, all these teams will be top 3 seeds when CBS busts out the brackets later today. Let’s briefly break down the big names that aren’t on this list.
Have lost a couple head-scratchers of late, particularly the game against Cal to open the Pac-10 Tournament. They rely too much on Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison and lack the size to bang inside if those two guards aren’t hitting from outside. Not a very good free-throw shooting team, ghastly if you take away Afflalo, Collison and Josh Shipp. And, here at Give and Go we believe history matters, and no team that has lost its first conference tournament game has gone on to win the national championship. Oregon is a much safer Pac-10 bet to get to the Peach State.
Brian Butch, their best big guy, and one who also has some range, is likely out for the season. Alando Tucker is a great player but hasn’t proven himself as a guy who will take on all comers when it counts. Plus you know coaches will be planning to throw everything short of the water boy at Tucker to deny him the ball. Kammron Taylor is a nice sidekick, but beyond him, who will score for the Badgers. Play a slow-down style reminiscent of the New Jersey Devils’ neutral-zone trap. In other words, if they get the lead, they’re in good shape. If they fall behind, well, spring practice for the gridiron gang starts soon.
Have won 14 of 15. Won the Big East regular season and tournament championships. Have the conference player of the year and a 7’2” center who seemingly gets better every time he gets on the floor. What’s not to like, right? Well, they tend to be careless with the ball on offense, as evidenced by their even assist/turnover ratio. But their kryptonite will be evident as soon as they run into a team that likes to, well, run. Georgetown has athletes, but they aren’t the quickest bunch you’ll find. If you run into a team with steady guard play that likes to penetrate, the Hoyas will be exposed faster than Tom Brady’s future in the birth control business.
Does anyone know what to expect from this team? They’ve essentially been the 15-year-old bully among a group of pre-teens for the past two months. Games against Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Arizona out of Conference USA that would normally look good look like nothing given the down years of those programs. They went to Spokane and beat Gonzaga in late February, but that was right after mushroom-gate was hanging over the Bulldogs’ program. A very young team that may find itself in over its heads once they get punched in the mouth. Then again, if they rallied and went to the Final Four, it wouldn’t be a complete stunner. An enigma that will likely get a two-seed, they have the talent to win some games but aren’t a serious national championship contender.
That leaves four teams (and one wildcard) to compete for the national title. In reverse order of their prospects for the next three weeks, they are:
Well, they’ve been here before, and that helps. Or does it? Spent the two weeks prior to the SEC Tournament sleep-walking before getting a jolt of life once they got to Atlanta. Good omen? Maybe, but their path through the conference tourney has been a walk in the park. They don’t have a real go-to player on offense, but depending on who’s hitting, that can be Al Horford, Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer or Taurean Green. They’re one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament from beyond the arc, and even if they’re not hitting, Joakim Noah and Horford are there to clean things up. They defend very well on the perimeter, and their big guys do as good a job showing and getting back into the paint as anyone. Will motivation be a factor? Quite frankly it shouldn’t. This is their chance to be the first repeat winners since Duke did it 14 years ago. They have as good of a chance as anyone on paper, but the difficulty of a repeat can’t be underestimated.
3) North Carolina
Possibly the most talented team in the tournament and easily the deepest, often playing 10 guys. That bench will likely grow shorter as the month wears on though, and their fate will be in the hands of Tyler Hansbrough and Brandon Wright. Look for Rayshawn Terry to step up when things get tight toward the end of a game. They have one of the best coaches in the business in Roy Williams and are as quick a team as you’ll find. Are not particularly deep in the frontcourt though, and if Hansbrough gets in foul trouble, they rely on a rail-thin Wright for most of their post play.
We put them here because we’re not sure if they belong at No. 5, No. 1, or off the list entirely. On this list because of one man: the growing legend that is Kevin Durant. He’s not only the best player in the country, he’s the best college basketball player since Tim Duncan. He can go inside, but is most comfortable in a mid-range game. Has ridiculous range for a man his size and will pull up for 27-footers knowing there’s nothing his defender can do. That being said, they’re not all Durant. D.J. Augustin is the closest thing the college game has seen to Jameer Nelson since, well, Nelson himself. A.J. Abrams is an assassin from beyond the arc. In fact, they feature four regulars who hit at least 40%. Their troubles could come from the sidelines. Rick Barnes often looks as if he has no clue how to get Durant the basketball in the best position to do damage, and Texas will often go multiple possessions down the stretch without letting Durant touch the ball. Obviously, that’s a problem, because without Durant doing his thing, that limits the effectiveness of Augustin and Abrams from three-point range. But they’ll have the best player on the court every time they play, and often, because of Augustin, they’ll have the two best.
2) Ohio State
Speaking of teams being here primarily because of one guy, here’s another: the Buckeyes and Greg Oden. Oden dominates game in a different fashion than Durant – on the defensive end. And, like Texas, they have other guys who can step up. Oden’s high school teammate Mike Conley Jr. has emerged as a great leader at the point guard position as a freshman. Daequan Cook is a remarkable athlete with range, and unlike the Longhorns, Ohio State has a group of upperclassmen who can play in Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler and Ivan Harris. They’re very fundamentally sound and they take care of the basketball. A lot will depend on Oden staying out of foul trouble. Their only three losses came against North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida, which is either impressive or a cause for alarm depending on your point of view. Can they hang with the super athletic teams?
A team full of stars, the brightest being Julian Wright, though he doesn’t get near the recognition that Oden, Durant, or even Brandon Wright get. Five guys average between 9.5 and 13.5 points per game. They defend, they’re athletic and they have shooters. Wright is a great passer and can expose a zone by getting in the middle and dishing inside or out. As is the case with four of our top five teams, they rely primarily on their freshmen and sophomores to get the job done. If there’s a chink in their armor, it could be free-throw shooting. They can also get moving too fast for their own good at times, which can lead to turnovers. Overall, though, they have to be considered the favorite as we wait for the brackets to be unveiled.
More to come as we break down the brackets…