Favoring some more than others
Rex lays out the teams he has his eye on for Atlanta
Barring an upset by BYU or a complete shocker from Portland, Mark Few's Zags from Gonzaga will likely be ranked the No. 1 team in the land when the polls come out next Monday. With that said, who really should be the favorite to win the NCAA DI Men's Basketball Championship this year?
Let's touch on a few teams.
If Gonzaga is in fact able to sweep their two games this week then in the past seven weeks we will have had five different teams hold the No. 1 overall spot atop the polls. After having watched No. 1 Indiana lose to an inspired Minnesota squad on Monday I am officially dumbfounded. So let's touch on a few of these "top" teams and see if we can find the chalk.
All due respect goes to Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers as they did what they had to do in order to win a ballgame they desperately needed to win. The Gophers, after being ranked as high as No. 8 nationally in Week 10, had lost eight of its' previous eleven ballgames headed into Monday night's tilt with the top-ranked Hoosiers. Minnesota needed the win in order to make a statement to the selection committee as well as for their own morale. This was a team who had obviously been doubting themselves in recent weeks. So, well done Gophers.
|KEEP AN EYE ON THESE GUYS ...|
|Teams Rex Chapman has an eye on as potentials to hoist the national championship trophy in Atlanta.|
|Duke Blue Devils|
|Michigan State Spartans|
But where does this leave Indiana? Indiana has held the top-spot in the polls longer than any team in the country this season. The Hoosiers held No. 1 Weeks 1 through 6 and then regained the top spot in Week 14, where it has remained through the present (Week 17).
The more closely I watch Tom Crean's Hoosiers the more concerned I become about their ability to win away from home. Please don't misunderstand - I do really like this team and still feel they have as legitimate of a shot to win it all this season as any team in the country - but I honestly believe that the Hoosiers are a bit skeptical on the road. By skeptical, I mean after having watched this veteran ball club play 28 games thus far in 2012-2013 I have come to believe that Crean's guys much prefer playing at home to playing on the road. The Hoosiers "mojo" or "swagger" just doesn't appear the same when they lace 'em up outside of the friendly confines of Assembly Hall. With a road game still remaining on the schedule at fourth-ranked Michigan as well as the Big Ten tournament to be played at Chicago's United Center it will be interesting to see how the Hoosiers fare, to say the least.
Gonzaga evidenced by its' gaudy 27-2 overall and 10-0 WCC record would appear to be one of the ones this year, but the Zags face the same question most every year around this time - "Who have the Zags really played?" As much as Mark Few and company may not want to hear it this is a fair question. The Zags have played three ranked teams this season and are 1-2 in those contests. One of those losses came at home versus then 13th-ranked Illinois. The Illini rolled early on in the season but by Week 12 were out of the top 25 and haven't been seen since. The Zags also lost a non-conference game to Butler in mid-january, but beat a very tough Oklahoma State squad in one of the toughest road venues in the country - the Cowboys Gallagher-Iba Arena. So, I'm still a little lukewarm on the Gonzaga squad simply due to the overall quality of their opponents.
Duke is a tough team for me to completely figure out. While I love the inside-outside play of Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee the losses to Maryland, NC State and of course the blowout loss to Miami stick out like sore thumbs. The reason? All three of those losses came against teams with big, strong, physical front lines. Ryan Kelly can't return quickly enough for Mason Plumlee, Coach K and company.
Michigan, arguably the most talented team in the country, keeps plugging along for John Beilein and the Wolverine faithful. I personally really like Michigan and its chances this year and the reason for this is due to the Wolverines guard play, most notably point-guard Trey Burke - whom I feel right now is the college player of the year. But Michigan's inside play is definitely a concern. As promising as freshman Mitch McGeary is he is just not a real offensive threat night in and night out just yet. In Michigan's last seven games the guys in maize and blue only won three. A bit like Duke, three of those four losses have come against teams with strong front-lines (IU, MSU and Wisconsin). The Wolverines loss to Penn State last night on the road raises even more questions about whether this team is really built for a title-run.
Miami (Fla.) bounced back from a lackluster performance this past weekend losing to Wake Forest by throttling Virginia Tech on Wednesday. I'm anticipating a big road win at Cameron Indoor this weekend as the Hurricanes travel to Durham. I believe we'll find out a bit more about Jim Larranaga's bunch on Saturday - and a lot more about Duke. Regardless of the outcome of the battle on Saturday I really like this veteran Miami team.
We have a group of teams currently ranked No. 6 through No. 12, any one of which may possibly be standing alone on the stage at the Final Four when all is said and done holding the championship trophy. Kansas, Georgetown, Florida, Michigan State, Louisville, Arizona and Syracuse have all faced a fair share of adversity this season. Four of these seven teams have been able to go on the road this season and beat teams ranked in the top 20 at the time.
KU has quietly bounced back from a midseason slump of sorts and has won five consecutive - avenging a very rare home loss to Oklahoma State. KU went into Gallagher-Iba and beat the No. 15 Cowboys in double-overtime in a game the Jayhawks desperately needed to win. And despite the brutal officiating at Iowa State this past weekend KU prevailed in another hard fought overtime game on the road against a very tough ISU squad. I believe these two wins should serve as warnings to the rest of the country that KU has in fact located its previously misplaced "mojo." Jayhawks opponents beware.
What else can be said right now about the job John Thompson III has done with this Hoyas ball club? Unranked once again in the preseason, Georgetown is 22-4 and leading arguably the toughest conference in the country by a full game as we head into the last two weeks of the regular season. Behind the play of Otto Porter Jr., I cannot discount Georgetown against anyone at this point. The Hoyas appear as team-oriented as any squad in the country and may just be on a mission. I dig these Hoyas.
A week ago I was singing Michigan State's praises like no other. And despite dropping a home game to No. 1 IU and a road game to Ohio State I still believe the Spartans are for real. Izzo's squad however, needs to move beyond those two losses to top-20 ranked teams very quickly as Sparty's next two are against Michigan in Ann Arbor and Wisconsin at home. Point-guard Keith Appling had two very uncharacteristically poor outings versus IU and OSU. My money is on Appling to rebound in a big way against Trey Burke and company. He'll need to do so if MSU is going to do as Izzo's teams normally do - and play their best basketball of the year at tournament time.
Louisville, Florida and Arizona have been unable thus far to beat a highly ranked team on the road - which is something I personally always use as a measuring-stick. The 'Ville has been "right there" a few times, having lost nail-biters to Duke, Georgetown and then-No. 25 Notre Dame all by very narrow margins. My gut says Rick Pitino's guys are for real, but it also tells me that this Louisville squad has a tough time scoring late in ballgames, which is why an execution-stickler like Pitino tolerates the sometimes poor shot-selection of off-guard Russ Smith. Smith is really the only Cardinal player on the roster who can consistently get his own shot.
Both Florida and Arizona, I feel, are a cut below the teams currently ranked in the top 12. I love Florida's defense and how they've bounced back from being such a selfish team only one year ago. But with that said, Florida has really shown some chinks in the ol' armour of late losing to both Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee all on the road. The SEC is down and although Missouri can be a decent team at times they are wildly inconsistent and I feel an underachieving ballclub. Tennessee, while markedly improved in recent weeks I believe is still a squad on the outside looking in to the NCAA tournament. And I just can't buy Arizona being a legitimate contender to win the whole thing this year. Losses to the five Pac-12 teams the Wildcats have been beaten by are just too much for me to get past. Sean Miller's most recent loss to a bad USC team only further confuses the picture for Arizona faithful.
There are a handful of squads outside the top-12 I feel are not ranked high enough and I also believe have legitimate shots to make big runs to the Final Four. Those teams:
• New Mexico - Steve Alford's bunch is for real. Kendall Williams is a stud. The lobos have size, speed, shooting and are extremely tough.
• Oklahoma State - I've liked Travis Ford's team from the time they smoked then-No. 6 NC State in Week 2. With Marcus Smart and a roster full of guys who know their roles I like the Cowboys as much as any team in the country.
• Butler, VCU and St. Louis - Butler and VCU square-off on Saturday in Richmond in what should be a slug-fest. Both of these teams are capable squads. Neither of these two teams may ultimately even win the always tough A-10, as St. Louis has beaten Butler twice and VCU already this season. The Billikens may just be for real. This league is underrated year in and year out. Which is why no opponent is ever happy to see its name beside any team from the A-10 on Selection Sunday. Don't sleep on the A-10.
We have roughly a week and a half of regular-season play remaining before the conference tourneys begin. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. For basketball junkies, we're gettin' to the good part. Ya gotta love it.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman.