Syracuse—The overall depth and balance is the biggest strength. They have seven quality contributors spread throughout the lineup. The frontcourt is especially strong and reserve forward Kris Joseph would surely start anywhere else in the country. The Orange won’t be outmuscled by anyone in March. The backcourt, while good, can run a step behind and given the primacy of tempo control in tournament play, this is the most likely problem that will bite them. Andy Rautins needs to play well if Jim Boeheim is to win his second national title. And the flip side of depth is that the team can lack the one go-to player that’s needed in big games. Wesley Johnson at power forward is the top man, but he’s more first among equals than a real star. I don’t mean to imply the Orange have more problems than possibilities, so let’s bring it back to the beginning: They’re deep, they’re well-coached, they have no glaring weaknesses. That’s where all discussion of this team must begin.
Villanova—The backcourt can play with anybody and with Scottie Reynolds, they have a real go-to guy in the clutch. His unforgettable baseline-to-baseline drive to put his team in the Final Four last year is a permanent part of tournament history now and he’s been one of the best guards in the country this year. Inside is a real problem. Antonio Pena is the only post player and while good, he’s not a dominant star. And Reynolds’ backcourt mates, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Reggie Redding have a tendency to come and go.
West Virginia—The reverse of Villanova. They have enough frontcourt talent, but lack backcourt strength. Consistency with the stars has also been an issue. De’Sean Butler is the main man on campus and he’s had some spectacular games. But he’s also been a no-show too often, Monday night at UConn being only the latest example. He’s going to have show three straight times at Madison Square Garden or six straight times in the NCAAs if the Mountaineers are to find March glory. The positive side is that Bob Huggins’ team has more than Butler. Devin Ebanks is also capable of big things, and if they get everyone working in tandem, they can beat anybody in the nation.
Georgetown—Greg Monroe is one of the few pure shotblockers out there and his presence alters a game. He’s also solid on the offensive end. Combined with guard Austin Freeman, the Hoyas have all the pieces to make a big run. The problems are that Georgetown has not shown the consistency necessary to be a true national championship-type team. Monroe can disappear offensively, as can the supporting cast. But you always see one team that frustrated and teased its fans all year long, put it together in March. Georgetown certainly has all the material necessary to be that team in 2010.
Pitt—A terrific coaching job by Jamie Dixon to get his team in this discussion after the loss of his three top starters from last season. The Panthers seem to be gaining steam as they head into the postseason. Brad Wanamaker has been a solid scorer all year in the backcourt, and now Ashton Gibbs has stepped up to join him. The tournament run will be defined by the inside game—if Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee step up each game, the Panthers can make the Final Four. Either way, still a nice season on the Allegheny River.
Duke—The lone member of the ACC in this group, the Blue Devils are another team that has its pieces fitting together as we approach the NCAAs. The backcourt has always been one of the nation’s best, with Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer. They’ve been both consistent and explosive. Kyle Singler, a real inside-outside threat at forward is one of the top players in the country. It’s always been about finding some muscle inside, the weakness that’s cost Coach K in recent years. Brian Zoubek has started to rebound with consistency in February, and if that happens a fourth national title for his coach could be in the offing. If he doesn’t, a second-round exit could await.
Purdue—The Boilermakers are surging and have no discernible weaknesses. E’Twaun Moore runs the show at the point. JaJuan Johnson joins Monroe as one of the few game-changers inside at this level of play. Robbie Hummel is similar to Singler in his ability to score down low and step outside and hit from behind the arc. Purdue is well-coached with Matt Painter and hasn’t lost since January 9. They have been challenged at home by good teams in Wisconsin & Illinois. But that only means they are not a prohibitive favorite in this balanced year. There’s no reason not to like this team.
Ohio State—Another team who is playing its best basketball when it matters most. The Buckeyes struggled in December and early January through no fault of their own. Evan Turner, the best player in the Big Ten, was out with a broken back. Turner has recovered and so has Thad Matta’s club. Turner is a triple-threat player. Jon Diebler can hit the three-ball. Dallas Lauderdale can rebound the basketball. His consistency in doing so, along with guard William Buford will define how big March is in Columbus. Because the core is there and there’s no one better than Turner to give the ball to in a must-score spot.
Michigan State—One of the few teams on this list that’s fading rather than coming on, and if this column went up a week later, they might not make it. A lot of credit to Tom Izzo for keeping them up here this long, because this Spartan team isn’t as strong as its predecessors. Kalin Lucas is a very good point guard, both scoring and distributing, but his ankle injury that cost him two games, was the precursor of MSU’s troubles. Raymar Morgan hasn’t turned in the MVP-type performance many of us thought he could. We saw how vulnerable Sparty was once Lucas got hurt. He still needs help if Izzo is going to make his sixth Final Four.
Kentucky—This is a complete team. John Wall runs the show and Eric Bledsoe is a good running mate. DeMarcus Cousins is the force inside, with help from Patrick Patterson. John Calipari is a tournament-tested coach, having taken two programs to the Final Four. The only weakness on this team is lack of experience, as they start three freshman, including Wall & Cousins.
Vanderbilt—This consistently overachieving program has one of its better teams this year, perhaps the best since Will Perdue, a future Chicago Bull role player, led them up in the late 1980s. The backcourt combo of Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley is capable, although a poor showing against Kentucky last Saturday gives doubt to what they can do against true national powers. A.J. Oglivy has the same problem looming over him in the post. The Commodores have all the pieces to be balanced—but are the pieces good enough to really win big? So far, the answer is no.
Kansas—The Jayhawks join the Alabama football team as one the Notebook said was overrated at the start of the year. They may join the Crimson Tide as national champions at year’s end. This is another club with no weaknesses. Xavier Henry and Sherrod Collins are an explosive backcourt. Cole Aldrich anchors the middle for a team that wins the battle of the interior on a nightly basis. Bill Self is another tournament-toughened coach. He beat Calipari in the final game in 2008 when Calipari was at Memphis. Could a rematch be in the offing this year?
Kansas State—The Wildcats are yet another team that’s coming on strong. The backcourt is really turning into a standout unit, with Jacob Pullen and Denis Clement. The determining factor will be the play of Dominique Sutton at forward. If he scores and rebounds consistently, the ‘Cats have a chance to outpace their 1982 & 1988 teams, the only ones in modern history, to reach a regional final. But overall, it must be noted that the talent base here looks less impressive then that of at least 10-12 other teams on this list. It will take some breaks for K-State to get to Indianapolis.
The list rounds out with three mid-major teams: Gonzaga, BYU and New Mexico would all get top four seeds according to Lunardi. I don’t track the mid-majors on a regular basis, not for lack of respect, but for lack of time. So I don’t have a game-in, game-out sense of their season, like I do with the first 13 teams on the list. A review of their overall profiles, shows that New Mexico guard Darington Hobson is both a scorer and a board-crasher, the kind who makes himself known to the nation in March. BYU has another such player in 20ppg man Jimmer Fredette, but rebounding could be the Cougars’ demise. And since winning the Maui Classic, with Wisconsin being the most impressive win, Gonzaga has struggled in non-conference tests, notably against Duke & Illinois.
See you tomorrow to briefly recap the week and look at the big games for Saturday & Sunday.