Sunday, March 9, 2008

There's no clear No. 1 in college hoops


It was a good weekend for the probable No. 1 seeds.

Well, at least for the front-runners. Duke was considered a possible top seed entering its game against North Carolina, but it had an outside shot. Besides the Blue Devils, all the other highly ranked teams bolstered their chances of being the top dog of a region.

There were the top-ranked Tar Heels holding the Devils scoreless over almost the final six minutes to take the rivalry game and the ACC title. I'm no "bracketologist," but I'm pretty certain the Heels will be a No. 1 seed regardless of what goes down at the ACC Tournament.

There was No. 2 Memphis absolutely recking UAB's chance of gaining an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. No one cares anymore about the Tigers' loss to Tennessee two weeks ago. They're playing great basketball at the right time of the year.

Speaking of an obliteration, there was No. 4 Tennessee deciding it was sick of living on the edge. The Volunteers completely spanked hapless South Carolina Sunday, emphatically sending Chris Lofton out on a good note heading into the SEC Tournament.

There was no dominating finish to the regular season for No. 3 UCLA, which needed an improbable, controversial over-the-backboard floater by Josh Shipp to survive senior day against California Saturday. And two days earlier, the Bruins needed overtime to clinch the Pac 10 with a win over Stanford. Still, UCLA showed that it can win the close games.

Finally, there was No. 5 Kansas ending the season with a flourish after a pair of losses in a 13-day span that had everybody questioning its candidacy for an ultimate seed. Now, the Jayhawks are fighting for, more than likely, the third or fourth spot.

Five teams. All with momentum.

But all full of flaws.

Picking the tournament winner this season is going to be as difficult as ever. A lot of guesswork will be involved.

That wasn't the case a year ago. One of the reasons I rose from the dead to win a few office pools was that I knew Florida was the best team in the country. That didn't mean there was a chance the Gators wouldn't lose one of six games. What it did mean, however, was that when Florida played well, it was practically invincible. I rode the Gators, and they played to their potential.

This season, any of the above-mentioned teams could play a good game and get bounced from the tournament. They all have noticeable flaws, and they're all capable of losing even on a relatively rosy night.

Let me put my analyzing cap on:

No. 1 North Carolina — The Tar Heels survived at Duke Saturday night despite uncharacteristic performances by several of the Devils, who shot poorly the entire game. It's hard to find a Heel who had a bad game Saturday, yet they had to pull off the amazing defensive end-of-game feat to get the win. Wayne Ellington and Danny Green both hits their outside shots — not always a sure thing. It is clear that the Heels will need both shooters finding the basket as well as inspired defensive performances to make it through March.

No. 2 Memphis —
Free-throw shooting, free-throw shooting, free-throw shooting. Yes, I'll emphasize it. The Tigers' poor shooting from the stripe is a huge vice. It cost them in their only loss to the Vols, and it easily could punish them again in a close tournament game. Additionally, the Tigers have too many shooting slumps from the outside for their own good. When they're on, they're on. But when they're off, they're extremely vulnerable.

No. 3 UCLA — Anyone who saw the Bruins' survival week to close out the regular season knows they are far from a dominant conference champion. Any run to the championship game would be earned. Like the Tigers, they can go extremely cold from behind the perimeter — especially when Shipp doesn't feel like shooting. In fact, their offense appears downright pathetic at times. They stay in games thanks to their defense — and they've put together several comebacks this season — but come-from-behind wins in March are risky propositions.

No. 4 Tennessee — I know I'm getting repetitive here, but the Vols — like the above-mentioned teams — can go through periods where they throw up brick after brick. Without a consistent low-post threat, that can be a problem. Also, like the Heels, their defense is spotty, especially when their pressure is ineffective. And as I wrote about after their loss at Vandy, they don't have the smartest decision-makers — an underrated but key attribute needed for the Big Dance.

No. 5 Kansas —
I said back in January that the Jayhawks are the best team in college basketball, and I still think they are ... when everyone is one the same page. They have great balance offensively. Good ball-handlers. Good on-ball defenders. They make free throws. But their recent history is bothersome. They always hit a wall during the NCAA Tournament, with enough players not showing up for a game, that they lose. One has to question whether they have the mental makeup under Bill Self to finally make the Final Four. Plus, they lack a true leader who has that ultimate desire to take his team to San Antonio. UNC, for instance, has Tyler Hansbrough. I don't see that player on the Jayhawks roster.

The No. 1 seeds are still in the air. More than likely, four of the five mentioned teams will get the spots, but it's possible that a conference tournament title by Duke or Texas could get them a top seed.

Whatever happens in the next week, this much will be true come Selection Sunday:

Choosing upsets won't be the only difficult task when filling out your bracket. Choosing a winner — and a runner-up — will be even harder.


Sportsattitude said...

I think only eight teams can win six games...but I do agree which one you pick to do so is a real crap shoot. Sitting at the potential brackets, I feel like the early round games have a chance to have as few surprises as ever - really snooze jobs in a lot of cases. Yet, if form holds and the top seeds actually make it to the elite eight, all hell will break loose and you might see the finest final eight in recent memory.

Jake Lloyd said...

How about the final eight in 2005? With the Louisville-West Virginia barnburner, the Illinois comeback on Arizona, the up-and-down battle between Wisconsin and UNC, and finally the "toe on the line?" double OT thriller between Kentucky and MSU. The Final Four is always a letdown, but that Elite Eight weekend was one of the sport's greatest couple days ever.

Sportsattitude said...

Yes, Jake. That was one classic after another. I remember it all. You probably have the best Elite Eight in recent memory right there with that group. The tension in the arena while they replayed that "toe on the line" a million times and freeze framed it with close-ups, etc. was just crazy...and that was the last game of the weekend as I recall. Everyone had to take one big, deep breath after that. And you know what, it is a shame to admit the Final Four often is a letdown. By the way, I know you're busy but I hope you'll visit my site and check out the post about my "old school" March Memories - there's a lot of ACC stuff included within.

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