As I write this article (on January 20, 2012), most of the teams in the country have 12 games left before the excitement of post-season conference tournament action takes us by storm. By the time most of you read this article, we will have just 48 days left until arguably one of the greatest days of the year…at least for a sports fan! Yes, that’s right, as of Monday, January 23rd, there are only 48 (a multiple of 12) more days until Selection Sunday, the day when the NCAA Men’s Tournament Brackets are finally unveiled. The day we get to see when and where our favorite teams will be playing in the opening rounds, how easy or difficult their road to the Final Four may be, and of course, how terrible of a job the committee did in selecting and seeding the teams. And as we enter our 12th week of the season, guess how many Preseason Top 25 teams have fallen into the land of the unranked? You got it, 12. This group of 12, with their preseason rank in parenthesis, is; Vanderbilt (7), Pittsburgh (10), Memphis (11), Xavier (14), Wisconsin (15), Arizona (16), UCLA (17), Alabama (19), Texas A&M (20), Cincinnati (21), Gonzaga (23), and California (24). Replacing these fallers is a group of risers, who have greatly outperformed expectations thus far in 2012. With their current ranking (as of Friday, January 20th) in parenthesis, these teams were all unranked to begin the season; Michigan State (9), Georgetown (10), Indiana (11), Murray State (12), UNLV (14), Virginia (15), San Diego State (16), Mississippi State (18), Creighton (19), Illinois (22), St Mary’s (24), and Kansas State (25).
So, while Vandy,Pittsburgh, and Memphis have fallen the furthest, it has been the Michigan State Spartans, Georgetown Hoyas, and a resurgence of Indiana Hoosier basketball (pictured celebrating their 73-72 victory over the No. 1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats, on December 10th) that have stolen the headlines in 2012. After opening the season with back to back losses to North Carolina and Duke, senior PF, Draymond Green led the Spartans to fifteen straight wins, before falling at Northwestern and Michigan last week. The winning streak included an 80-65 victory at home, versus Tom Crean and his Indiana Hoosiers. In his fourth year, after taking over the mess left behind by former head coach, Kelvin Sampson, Crean has put the Hoosiers back on the college basketball map, with a 15-4 record. Despite a recent slump of three straight losses, things look bright for the future of Indiana basketball, not only this season, but also heading into next year and beyond. With the eighth best 2012 recruiting class in the nation, Crean has signed three players from the ESPNU Top 100 and he already has a commitment for 2014 from Tre Lyles, a 6’7” 200 pound PF, one of the top sophomore high school players in the nation. Led by the junior/senior combo of F Hollis Thompson and G Jason Clark, head coach John Thompson III and Georgetown have heads turning in the Big East. Much like Crean and Indiana, not much was expected of this Hoyas group, but at 15-3, they currently sit in third place in the rugged Big East and seem poised to land a top five seed in the Big Dance. Although each game was won by no more than three points, the Hoyas already boast four wins over then Top 25 teams. In the next three weeks, Georgetown plays host to the Connecticut Huskies, and travels to the Carrier Dome to take on No. 1 Syracuse. Pay close attention to these two games, as they will give you an indication of what type of team the Hoyas can be, come March.
We’ve covered a few surprise teams, now how about those we expect to see as the top seeds in the tournament, on Selection Sunday. Straying from our “Power of Twelve” theme, we’ll take a quick look at the teams I feel will earn the top eight seeds in the Big Dance; the four No. 1 seeds and the four No. 2 seeds.
The No. 1 Seeds (records are reflected from time article was written)
Syracuse Orange (20-0): The Orange are my equivalent to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. In both cases I’ve denied their talents all year long and where has it gotten me? As we all know, the 49ers are one game away from the Super Bowl, with perhaps the best defense in the NFL and the Orange are an unthinkable 20-0, having won just five games by less than double digits. The No. 1 overall seed is Syracuse’s to lose and while I do think they’ll eventually lose that to Kentucky, I just don’t see them slipping to a No. 2 seed, because I don’t see any teams stepping up to grab it from them. Starting February 8th, it is caution ahead for the Orange, as five of their last seven games are against ranked teams; they get Georgetown once and UConn and Louisville twice each.
Kentucky Wildcats (18-1): Arguably the most talented team in the country, the Wildcats will get Florida’s best effort twice in the final month and must travel to Mississippi State. Other than those three games, there’s no reason to believe the Cats won’t run the table from here on out. Two games versus Vandy could be tricky, but the Commodores are great at underperforming, so Kentucky should sail in those matchups. Once the tournament starts, there may not be a more valuable player in the country than PF Anthony Davis. The freshman is coming into his own, shooting a shade under 66% on the season, while averaging 13.8pts, 10.4reb, and an astonishing 4.7blk. Last week vs. Arkansas, Davis went for 27pts, 14reb, and 7 blocks. Kentucky has six players who average 9.8pts or more, so they don’t have to rely on one or two guys like many teams do.
Kansas Jayhawks (15-3): A non-conference schedule that included Kentucky, Duke, and Ohio State is paying dividends for Bill Self and his Kansas Jayhawks. Winners of twelve of their last thirteen games, the Jayhawks are fresh off a win over No. 3 Baylor. A road rematch versus the Bears is sandwiched in between the Jayhawks two other big tests of the Big 12 season, a home and away versus the Missouri Tigers. Junior F Thomas Robinson (right) has finally become the player we all spent two seasons wondering if he was capable of becoming. Robinson is a double-double monster, recording one in all but five games. Senior G Tyshawn Taylor has also stepped up big time for Kansas; he’s scored 28 points in consecutive outings and averages 16.2pts and 5.2ast for the season.
Duke Blue Devils (16-2): I love both Missouri and Baylor, but thanks to their cupcake ACC schedule, with the exception of two games against the North Carolina Tar Heels, I feel Duke will once again grab a No. 1 seed in the tournament. Although they may not be the most talented Blue Devils team I’ve ever seen, it’s nearly impossible to try and convince me there’s a better coach in all of college basketball than Coach K. Two things that Duke has going for them this year that they hadn’t had much of in the past is a front court presence and depth. Eight players average at least thirteen minutes per game and of those eight, five score in double figures. Also, if you take away the Plumlee’s, who’ve taken zero threes, five of the six who have attempted twenty-five or more threes on the season, are shooting at a 40% clip or better. Duke, a team that has been short on depth for years and has always seemed to live and die by the three-pointer come tournament time, now has depth, a respectable front court game, and plenty of solid shooters. Once again, watch out for the Blue Devils in March.
The No. 2 Seeds
Missouri Tigers (17-1): Fourth in the nation in scoring at 83.1ppg and second in field goal percentage at 50.1%, it’s no secret the Tigers can flat out score the ball. Although they force a lot of turnovers, with a pressure, in your face defense, the Tigers play predominantly five guards and one forward, as their other two big men only average 10-15 minutes per game. This could haunt them in their four remaining games against Kansas and Baylor, who feature Thomas Robinson and a trio of Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy, and Quincy Miller, respectively. In these games, if Missouri cannot force the pace they prefer to play, they may struggle.
Baylor Bears (17-1): Speaking of Perry Jones III and the Bears, their seventeen game win streak to open the season was snapped last Monday at Kansas. This is a very dangerous team though, as head coach Scott Drew will go deeper than any other team in the nation, playing an eleven man rotation. My preseason sleeper pick to make the Final Four, the Bears have a little of everything; length, quickness, athleticism, shot-blocking, you name it, they’ve got it and it all starts with Jones III.
North Carolina Tar Heels (16-3): I’m still waiting to see that killer instinct from this group of Tar Heels. They’ve been ok through the first three months of the season, with wins on an Aircraft Carrier, against MichiganState, a gritty win versus Wisconsin, and a near win at then No. 1 Kentucky. However, the head-scratchers have you wondering how determined and focused this team really is. A ten point loss to UNLV is no longer as bad as it once seemed, but the 57-90 shellacking at the hands of Florida State is hard to just forget about. With Barnes, Zeller, and Henson, the Heels have perhaps the best trio in the nation. However, to get to the next level, Barnes (right) is the man who must finally realize his true potential and become an absolute stud.
Ohio State Buckeyes (16-3): I don’t particularly believe in the Buckeyes, but as long as Jared Sullinger is healthy, they are a team you must respect. They are essentially a three-man squad, four if you count PG Aaron Craft, who can be a playmaker. Sophomore F Deshaun Thomas has stepped in nicely to fill some of the scoring void left behind by Jon Diebler and David Lighty. However, nobody else has stepped in to pick up the other half of what was lost. Until that happens, I see this Buckeyes team as a top seed going into the tournament, but no more than a Sweet Sixteen team once they get there.