During the next 10 days, we will hear all sorts of discussion about teams that may or may not make the NCAA tournament: the bubble teams. There are plenty of teams out there that will be sweating out a tourney bid as we ease closer and closer to Selection Sunday. Dissecting the squads that may or may not have done enough to secure a spot in the Big Dance is always intriguing and many times a confusing and frustrating proposition — but I’d argue, this season, that identifying bubble teams is not nearly as confusing as putting your finger on which teams are this year’s cream of the crop.
Usually by the first week of March a person can identify at least a handful of teams a cut above the rest or that have displayed a determination and/or resolve that most of the rest have not. In normal years, by now, as a fan of the college game, you could identify at least some 8-12 “elite” teams. By conference tournament time, most “experts” have a short list of teams which they feel strongly are the cream of the college crop — or teams they believe have a legitimate chance of walking away with the championship trophy a few weeks from now as national champion.
But as we’ve seen week after confounding week this season, the 2012-13 season in men’s college basketball has been anything but predictable. If anything, I’d consider the play of the “best” teams in the country this year to be consistently inconsistent.
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A person certainly could argue that the best team in the West, Gonzaga, has had the most consistent season. I like the Zags a great deal and that may very well be true, consistency-speaking, but I also would argue that had the Bulldogs played a full slate of Big East or Big Ten conference games that they would likely not own the gaudy 29-2 record they currently possess. But of course Mark Few’s Bulldogs do not play in one of the “power” leagues so we are left to guess at how good they really are. The Zags were beaten by an Illinois team that at the time was ranked No. 13 but at this point is on the bubble. But Gonzaga also went on the road in late December and beat a very good Oklahoma State team in one nation’s toughest buildings — Gallagher/Iba Arena in Stillwater. My gut tells me the Zags are for real, but their schedule absolutely leaves much to be desired.
Indiana has displayed flashes of brilliance, however the Hoosiers also have shown they are a vulnerable bunch. IU this season has had opportunity after opportunity to prove it is the country’s best team and just when you begin to believe Tom Crean’s crew is in fact the best team in the land, the Hoosiers lose to an unranked Illinois or Minnesota and then to Ohio State at home on senior night. I mean, we’re talking about a Hoosiers squad most prognosticators believe are hands-down a No. 1 seed. Yet, if IU goes in Ann Arbor on Saturday and plays with the same energy and effort we saw during Tuesday’s home loss to OSU, the Hoosiers will have lost three of its final four games headed into the incredibly tough Big Ten tournament. This is a very distinct possibility given the payback Michigan likely has on its mind for IU knocking off the then-No. 1 Wolverines at Assembly Hall a little more than a month ago. The way the Hoosiers have played since beating No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing two weeks ago does not inspire confidence.
Georgetown has been one of the surprise teams this season. Many people wrote off the Hoyas after losing one of their best players, starting forward Greg Whittingham, in early January for the remainder of the season. John Thompson III’s squad however, must not have received the memo. The Hoyas, prior to Wednesday’s loss on the road to a hungry Villanova team looking to find its way off the bubble, had won 11 games in a row and 13 of its past 14. Villanova is a capable basketball team, so there is little shame in being beaten by Jay Wright’s Wildcats, but as much as I like how Georgetown has performed in the face of adversity (Whittingham’s suspension) and how they’ve banded together recently, I believe all of this talk of the Hoyas being a No. 1 seed is a bit absurd. G’town relies so heavily on Otto Porter Jr. and the guy is logging incredible minutes. In the past four games, the Hoyas’ Mr. Everything has played an average of 42 minutes per contest — which includes the 49 he played in the two-overtime win against UConn a week ago. Combine OPJ’s weary legs with the fact the Hoyas’ second-leading scorer, Markel Starks, has played poorly — 22 assists and 29 turnovers in his past nine contests — and if G’town does manage to secure a No. 1 seed, the Hoyas could quite possibly be the most vulnerable top-seed in tournament history. Lookout No. 1 vs. No. 16. I’m just sayin’ …
Miami, Miami, Miami — where have you gone, Canes? Two weeks ago, Jim Larranaga’s squad had just squeaked by Florida State (15-14), Clemson (13-16) and Virginia (RPI of 139) in back-to-back-to-back contests by a combined 12 points. We said here at the time that it appeared the Hurricanes were living dangerously close to the edge. It turns out they were. Despite having just won its 14th game in a row after beating UVa. on Feb. 19, Miami appeared to be a team losing a bit of focus. Since beating the Wahoos, the Hurricanes have gone 1-3, suffering losses to ACC-doormat Wake Forest (12-17), Duke and a terrible loss at home to Georgia Tech. If the Canes are to rebound and actually make some noise in this NCAA tournament, they need to make a statement in the ACC tournament and find the mojo they had for much of this season.
Duke, Louisville and Michigan have all taken brief turns as the country’s No. 1 team, but much like IU, it just seemed as though none of them could stand prosperity for very long. Kansas, Michigan State, Florida, Miami and Syracuse have all teased us at times this season as well — only to respectively have significant letdowns throughout their conference schedules.
Even a team like Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin squad, which is normally a model of consistency, proved this past weekend that they are not above being badgered on occasion when the lowly Purdue Boilermakers (14-16 overall and 7-10 conference) went on the road and shocked the Badgers at home.
With 10 days remaining before the NCAA Selection Committee must make some awfully difficult decisions pertaining to which teams will get into the tournament and which will be ultimately snubbed, no decisions may be any tougher to make than which squads truly deserve those No. 1 through No. 4 seeds.
In a year which has been unpredictable at best it certainly appears as though this March could prove one of the maddest in college basketball history. Stay tuned — it looks like we’re in for a wild ride.