Selection Sunday is only eight days away! For all of the complaining that casual fans have about college basketball – too slow, not enough scoring, too many timeouts, etc – there’s no question that March Madness is one of the best times of the year for sports. So without further ado, let’s dig into the second to last power rankings before the tourney starts.
12. Iowa State
Iowa State just beat Oklahoma the other day, capping off the game with a 49-22 run. That’s right – the Cyclones were getting blown out at home, and then casually dropped 59 points on the 7th ranked defense in the country. I haven’t been buying Iowa State’s chances in the tournament all year. They have one of the highest powered offenses in the country, and Fred Hoiberg is one of the best coaches in America, but they don’t guard. For most of the season, their defense has hardly cracked the top 100. Last year, Duke and Michigan were two notable teams that had top 5 offenses and sub-100 offenses – Duke was knocked out in the first round and Michigan fell to Kentucky in the Elite 8. So, it’s not like porous defense always dooms you in the tournament, but it leaves you especially susceptible to a poor night shooting night. It’s hard to stay hot shooting the ball for six straight games in the tournament. Having said all that, I’m not sure if any other team outside the top 10 has as much upside as Iowa State. When they came back to beat Oklahoma the other night, they scored 59 points in the second half, but they also won with their defense, limiting Oklahoma to 22 points in the second half. If Iowa State plays defense, they have Final Four ability.
Utah would have been a very trendy pick to reach the Final Four if they beat Arizona last Saturday. As expected, it was a slug-it-out type of game with tough defense, played in the half court. What was most disconcerting though, was that Delon Wright didn’t get a chance to tie the game up at the end of regulation. Brandon Taylor was repeatedly taking the big shots for Utah at the end, and that’s a problem. Delon Wright is one of the best players in the country, and in the tournament, when the Utes are down one, Wright needs to be the guy making plays. There is a clear pecking order on that team, and it begins with Wright. The bigger issue for Utah is their ability to win away from home. Last night, Utah struggled to get by a horrendous Washington State team on the road. Washington State is not just bad – they lost to UC Santa Barbara by 28. Hell, THEY LOST TO IDAHO. And Utah, a team that lots of people are trying to say is a Final Four darkhorse, squeaked by, winning by eight, though the game was closer than that. Utah’s best road win this year is at BYU. Their record is padded because they’re nearly unbeatable at home, and in the tournament, you’re not playing homes.
10. Notre Dame
You pick Notre Dame to win because of Jerian Grant. Repeat, YOU PICK THE IRISH BECAUSE JERIAN GRANT IS THE MOST DYNAMIC GUARD IN THE COUNTRY. I’ve said it before: Notre Dame doesn’t play a lick of defense, and that’s why, not matter how much I want to see Jerian Grant play deep into the tournament, I won’t be picking them to win more than a game or two. But I can’t trash a team that is third in the country in offense, second in the country in turnover percentage, and first in the country in effective field goal percentage. With the right matchups, the Irish could make a run in the tournament. Like Iowa State, Notre Dame wins with its offense, not defense. The reason Notre Dame is this high is Jerian Grant.
9. Wichita State
What if this year’s Wichita team was better than last year’s? I mean, hypothetically speaking… that team was 35-0 and had Cleanthony Early. But this year’s team has plenty to make a Final Four run. Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton – that might be the best guard trio in the country. For some reason, it doesn’t seem like the Shockers are getting their due. Maybe it’s because they’re not undefeated this year; they’re a measly 28-3. Somehow, Wichita is flying under the radar this year. You can pretend the Shockers aren’t great because of the conference they play in, but they’re one of the last teams I’d want to see in the tournament.
Speaking of good teams that play in non-power conferences! Gonzaga lost to a good BYU team last Saturday, and that kind of stuff happens, but it was surprising to see the ‘Zags drop a game at home. They weren’t exposed necessarily. The past couple games, Gonzaga had been on the edge, either beating bad teams by unimpressive margins, or coming back in the last few minutes to beat average teams. People who assume this Gonzaga team is definitely going out in the first weekend either are morons or just haven’t seen Gonzaga play. Gonzaga is not a traditional mid-major. I know, I know… that’s what they say every year. But the ‘Zags are one of the biggest teams in the country. They’re one of the few teams with the height to give Kentucky an interesting matchup. And in the tournament, Gonzaga will be matchup nightmare, with a 6’10” deadeye in Kyle Wiltjer.
Kansas’ season is flashing right before our eyes. Cliff Alexander hasn’t played the past couple games because of an NCAA investigation and Perry Ellis injured his knee against West Virginia. Ellis is supposed to be back for the Big 12 tourney, but if there’s any way he misses time in the NCAA tournament, Kansas will have a hard time getting past the first weekend. The flip side is that, without the big men, Bill Self allows his guards to let it fly from deep. Kansas has the 39th best percentage from deep in the country, but for some reason, they’re 244th in threes attempted. I’m not crazy enough to think Kansas could be better playing small ball, but shooting threes might not be the worst thing for the Jayhawks.
Only off of what Virginia has accomplished so far, they should be ranked right behind Kentucky. However, with Justin Anderson now having undergone an appendectomy, UVA’s level of concern should be as high as it can get. UVA doesn’t beat itself, and for that reason, it’s hard to see UVA bowing out before the Sweet 16 – even without Anderson. Problem is, UVA is already an offensively challenged team. They have a very delicate balance to their rotation, and as with most teams – basically all teams, except Kentucky – you can’t just take away the best player and expect nothing to change. And if you want to make the argument that Malcolm Brogdon is the best player, then that’s fine, but at worst, Anderson is the second best player on the team. If Anderson doesn’t return, it’d be a real shame because UVA is one of the few teams that could really give Kentucky a run for its money.
The loss at Maryland was disconcerting for anyone who had already planned on slotting Wisconsin in his or her Final Four, regardless of the bracket. First off, the loss put a monkey wrench in the whole Wisconsin as a one seed idea. If Wisconsin wins out, they could still get to the top line, but they’d probably need help. The biggest worry is that the loss puts Wisconsin as the two seed in Kentucky’s region. Getting back to the Maryland game though, Wisconsin fans should officially be deathly afraid of facing a team with a pair of quick guards who get to the rim. Granted, most teams don’t have a combination like Melo Trimble and Dez Wells. Wisconsin misses Traevon Jackson’s perimeter defense, and this year is not a vintage Bo Ryan team on defense. Wisconsin still has a lot to hang its hat on though – they have the top offense in the country, two future first round picks, and the frontrunner for Player of the Year.
I guess Villanova is really good. Look at their roster and unless you’re a Villanova diehard, Big East junkie, or college basketball degenerate, you probably won’t recognize a single name. But Villanova is 28-2 and has breezed through a conference that is going to send six teams to the Big Dance. Villanova goes nine deep, and any of those guys is capable of scoring in double digits on any given night. Still, I prefer when there’s a clear pecking order on teams. I’d rather have a clear go-to-guy in the final minute, instead of the whole ‘we’ll just give it whoever’s hot that night’ game plan. In theory, that sounds well and good to just give it to whoever is playing well, but in real life, I’d rather have my Delon Wright, or Jerian Grant, or Frank Kaminsky, or Ron Baker, or whoever else. Darrun Hilliard is really good, but he is more of streak shooter.
In terms of talent, Duke is the closest match to Kentucky. No one has any idea how Okafor, the surefire top pick in this summer’s NBA draft, would do against all of Kentucky’s big men. Regardless, Okafor would be the toughest matchup Kentucky has faced all year. Quinn Cook is quietly having an All-ACC caliber season, alongside Tyus Jones, who will also be selected in the 1st round of the NBA draft, whenever he declares. Since kicking Rasheed Sulaimon off the team, Duke has been a different team – a much better team. Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow have both played considerably better in the post-Sulaimon era. Duke’s defense is pretty porous for a one seed, but it has one of the most unstoppable offenses in the country.
There’s a case to be made that Arizona shouldn’t even be in the top 5. They don’t have a ton of impressive wins – they beat Gonzaga at home and they swept Utah. Beyond that, they’ve beaten down on a bad Pac 12 conference. To their credit, they have absolutely dominated the conference. Their win at Utah last weekend was huge because until then, they had no true road wins against very good teams. Arizona hasn’t received as much attention as the other top teams. The ACC always gets attention because love Duke and Carolina, and this year UVA is amazing. Everyone knows about Wisconsin because they returned basically their whole team from the Final Four squad last year, and they have Kaminsky, who will probably be Player of the Year. And everyone claims the Big 12 is the best conference in the country. Yet, somehow Arizona is cruising along, without much recognition – I don’t know if it’s a sign of respect, or people don’t realize how good Arizona is. They are basically a running football team. They lock you down on defense, crash the boards on offense, and overwhelm you, by getting to the line. The one issue is that they don’t shoot almost any threes, and if they get behind in the tournament, much like UVA, they could be in trouble. I’m not worried about Arizona though. Until the Final Four, I wouldn’t anticipate a whole lot of games where they’re down.
Kentucky is really good and everyone knows that, so I’m not going to beat that down. But about that Georgia game… Yeah, Kentucky was down by nine late, and probably should have lost that game, but they didn’t. The road win was impressive – Georgia is going to be in the tournament, but Kentucky didn’t look overwhelming. It sort of looked like a second round game, where the 1 seed goes to the brink against the 8 seed, but pulls it out in the end. Which is fine, but people talk about Kentucky being the most dominant team ever. I’m not convinced this team is going to waltz through the tournament and go undefeated. They’re the clear and obvious favorite, but I couldn’t help but watch that Georgia game, and wonder what Kentucky would look like in the Big 12. And I know, I know – Kentucky thrashed Kansas by 32 back in November. The key words there being, in November. Georgia blew a lot of chances at the end of that game. They missed wide open shots, bricked free throws, and turned the ball over a lot to finish that game. Basically, I couldn’t stop thinking about how average the SEC was, even with it probably sending six teams to the tourney. If Kentucky was facing tough teams night in and night out, like so in the Big 12, there’s no way they’d be undefeated. I’m not saying the Cats aren’t the favorites. All I’m saying is they’re not nearly as bulletproof as people would like you to think.