I firmly believe Kentucky and Syracuse are the most complete teams in the nation. Both are balanced inside and out. Both have a signature player that can step up and carry a team at a key moment. John Wall for UK and Wesley Johnson for the Orangemen. Yet both have more then enough weapons to win if the stars don’t have a big game—like the ‘Cuse did last night in taking apart Providence with Arinze Onaku and Kris Joseph taking up the slack for Johnson. And as Kentucky’s season has progressed, it’s arguable that DeMarcus Couisins, who hung 18 points and 13 rebounds on Ole Miss last night, is really the best player. The difference between these two teams is that Kentucky has more raw talent and Syracuse is a little steadier. We could be looking at a reprise of 1996, when the Orange and the Wildcats played for the national title.
Honorable mention in this category goes to Kansas. I’m warming up to the Jayhawks as the season wears on, after a preseason in which I considered them overrated and a December where they weren’t all that impressive. They’ve got the complete inside-outside balance and are well-coached. But I don’t see their ceiling being as high as the other two teams. It’s hard to see them being upset early in the tournament, but I don’t know they are ready to beat a succession of top teams.
It’s hard not to like Villanova and Michigan State. The Spartans lost last night in Madison, but it was their first Big Ten loss and as long as Kalin Lucas’ sprained ankle isn’t serious, should be just a bump in the road. But MSU doesn’t have the same kind of post scorer they had last year with Goran Suton. Villanova really needs inside help. Both teams are very good and well-coached, but they are a half-step outside the elite category.
Honorable mention here is West Virginia. They’ve got a talented and deep frontline and that can’t be underestimated. A Bob Huggins team will always be tough and hard-nosed. On the surface, they aren’t that far off, but I’d like to see them win some bigger games before elevating them any higher.
Purdue and Georgetown aren’t in contention for their conference championships, so that alone has to give us pause. But you look at the lineups these teams put on the floor and it’s very easy to see a big finish ahead. They both have something invaluable—a shotblocking presence in the middle, with JaJuan Johnson and Greg Monroe respectively. Both balance that off with quality play in the backcourt. If I had to pick a Final Four right now, I would pick these two to join Kentucky and Syracuse at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Florida and Cal aren’t going to be high seeds in the tournament and may well be gone by the end of the first weekend. But if you’re looking for a potential dark horse, these are two worth keeping an eye on. Both have good backcourts, especially Cal, who brings Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher to the table. Both have two solid forwards who can both score and rebound. Florida has a tournament-toughened coach in Billy Donovan. Neither one has played with real consistency, but every March sees someone put it together. These two are good candidates to do so.
Honorable mention here is Texas, although in this case, honorable mention means they should go higher. The Longhorns still have the tools to make a big run, but someone besides Damion James needs to be there each night. Dexter Pittman has to be a force in the post and Avery Bradley must be a steady hand on the wheel. Rick Barnes’ club showed depth in Monday’s win over Oklahoma State, getting 27 points from Jordan Hamilton and 10 rebounds from Gary Johnson off the bench. More of that can put Texas back on the front line.
GUTTED BRACKET CONTENDERS
This is the Duke category. What if we get a situation like 2006, when favorites fall left and right. The door would be opened for a team like ’06 Florida, that really wasn’t national championship-caliber, but was steady enough to win six in a row catching breaks in the draw. If you look at Duke, you’ve got a team that lacks the frontcourt dominance to win three or four in a row against real national contenders. But you’ve also got a team with a steady backcourt with the best coach in the nation at the helm. The Blue Devils are really the only team that truly falls into this category, although if Wisconsin gets forward Jon Leurer back and into rhythm, they could meet this criteria as well. I also have to include my Obsession of the Year in Baylor, where Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn in the backcourt, could couple with post man Ekpe Uoh to carry the Bears a long way if they get the right matchups.
We’ll see you tomorrow to recap Wednesday’s games. Duke’s the highlight tonight, as they host Georgia Tech in an effort to sort out the mess that is the ACC race. Pitt and West Virginia renew the Backyard Brawl in the Big East to lead up the action.