The current college basketball season seems to be one of the most wide open in many years. Tons of teams are still competing to find themselves on the right side of the bubble, a slew of teams have very realistic sweet sixteen dreams, but only a few should expect to find themselves playing on the last weekend of the season. Sure, favorites will get knocked off, a sleeper will emerge, but more than not David falls and Goliath prevails in the elite eight. Here are the teams that should expect to be playing in Detroit over the first weekend of April.
The preseason number one very well could have more talent than any team in the country. That talent includes one of the greatest college players in many years in Tyler Hansbrough. They trot out six players averaging double figures. Pretty much any player on their roster could start for almost any team in the nation, but that talent has not developed into the complete domination that was expected from the Tar Heels. But that could be a good thing. North Carolina seems to be slipping under the radar about as much as a top five team from tobacco road possibly can go undetected.
Roy Williams’ squad’s achilles heal appears to be defense. It seems like the Tar Heels simply try to run their opponents out of the building and quite frankly, they could very well ride that approach all the way to a national title. But if they run into a team that keeps pace with them in the scoring column and can manage the occasional stop will give Carolina a boatload of trouble. Forecast: No matter who they step on the court with, North Carolina will not be overmatched. If they lose, it will because they beat themselves or someone brings their “A” game and Carolina does not. Expect to see the Heels in Detroit, anything less will be a disappointment.
Perhaps the only team in the country who can match North Carolina in the talent department is Connecticut. The current number one team in the nation has a premiere big man, four players who can lead the team in scoring on any given night, and one of the top backcourts in the country. Obviously those ingredients make for a Final Four contender. The big man, Hasheem Thabeet impacts games as much as any player in the country, certainly more than any on the defensive end. Opponents have to completely alter their offensive game plan against the Huskies.
Jim Calhoun’s team is not without its weaknesses though. The Huskies lone loss came against Georgetown and they were taken into overtime by Gonzaga. The one thing those teams have in common is that they both have big men who can step away from the basket in Greg Monroe and Josh Heytvelt, thus forcing Thabeet to drift away from his comfort zone and open up the lane for the rest of the team. Both teams are also very long and athletic, making Connecticut work a little harder on defense. Forecast: Certainly Connecticut will hope to draw traditional post players allowing Thabeet to be his usual defensive force. The chalk will say that they should face North Carolina in the title game and I can’t argue with that right now. Expect to see the Huskies join Carolina in Detroit.
Blake Griffin seems to be on his way to the top of the NBA Draft averaging more than 22 points and 14 rebounds and will certainly be the best player on the court anytime the Sooners play. The sophomore has a complete game, especially in the post, but Griffin may not be the key to Oklahoma’s season. Freshman Willie Warren needs to continue to play well in order to keep defenses honest against Jeff Capel’s squad. They are certainly on track for a number one seed, and they will not have the pressure that North Carolina or Connecticut will feel, that’s reserved for the football team.
If they have one weekness, it is depth. Oklahoma does not have the bench of Carolina or Connecticut and that could hurt them in March. In their lone loss, Arkansas held their bench to three points. Another area of concern to focus on is free throw shooting, the team shoots 68% which is just fine, but Griffin is under 60% and teams will certainly prefer to put him in the line as opposed to letting him beat them around the basket during the tournament and Griffin better deliver if the Sooners want to reach Detroit. Forecast: The Sooners are not deep enough to survive a deep region. They look like an Elite Eight team that can reach the Final Four with the right breaks, but leaning on the side of caution, the round of eight seems much more likely.
The Rest of the Big East
Connecticut seems to be the class of the Big East, but teams like Pittsburgh, Louisville, Marquette, and now perhaps Villanova all seem to be formidable Final Four contenders. With the exception of Pittsburgh, the other three teams will struggle against bigger opponents who can pound the post for 40 minutes, especially Villanova and Marquette. Despite their shortcomings in the post, both teams do have great backcourts and will try to control the flow of the game for the start. Louisville’s run will rely heavily on Samardo Samuels, who must avoid foul trouble and regain his form from the middle of January, when he seemed to be going at the basket with purpose. Rick Pitino knows Earl Clark and Terrence Williams will give his team a chance each time out, making Louisville a Final Four contender.
Pittsburgh reached the number one spot earlier in the season, so obviously they are talented. They also do have a good post game with DeJuan Blair who is a complete brute, separating them from Louisville, Marquette, and Nova. The key to the run will be Sam Young who can’t have an off night in March. The Panthers simply do not have enough offensive firepower when Young is off. Forecast: Surprisingly, I do not think any of these teams will reach Detroit. Louisville is a solid Elite Eight team that will be a trendy pick to reach the Final Four, Marquette will not be able to be lights out through the whole tournament, and Villanova just does not have the depth upfront to get past the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight. Lastly, Pittsburgh has the best chance of this group and will finally advance past the Sweet Sixteen, but will not be able to put up enough points to reach the Final Four.
The Rest of the ACC
After North Carolina, the group that has a chance to make their way to Detroit is Clemson, Wake Forest, and of course Duke. After several disappointments in March, Coach K will look to right his recent tournament woes and reach the Final Four. However, Duke does not have the inside game or the athletes to make a big run. Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson will have to play the best basketball of their lives for Duke to reach Detroit. One other dilemma is the point guard position. Greg Paulus took back his spot, but is not good enough to guide a Final Four team. Clemson and Wake Forest however do have plenty of athletes.
Clemson is very athletic, but is inconsistent. Trevor Booker is a solid number one option, but not the star that can put a team on his back for four straight games. As a matter of fact, the Tigers are only 4-3 against potential tournament teams. Wake Forest on the other hand is 6-2 against potential tournament teams, with wins over Duke, Clemson, and North Carolina. Jeff Teague has emerged as an absolute star and has what it takes to shoulder the bulk of the load. If the inside game comes to play every night, Wake Forest will be a tough out. Forecast: To be honest, these three teams more than likely will not be apart of Final Four weekend. Wake Forest probably has the best chance, as they are the most complete of the three. Duke and Clemson seem like Sweet Sixteen teams, while Wake should be a safe bet for the Elite eight.
The Best of the Rest
There always seems to be an unexpected guest in the Final Four, and this year will probably be no different. Granted, there will not be a George Mason type team in Detroit, but at least one team that people are not talking about now will emerge. Teams like UCLA will be a factor, but they do not seem as strong as they have in years passed. Butler and Xavier are both top notch mid-major teams but simply do not have the size and athletes to win four straight against tournament teams. The three teams that I am watching to comprise the final two teams of the Final Four are Michigan State, Memphis, and Gonzaga.
Michigan State has several things working for them. First, Tom Izzo is one of the top coaches in the country. Second, Kalin Lucas runs the show about as well as any other point guard. Lastly, Raymar Morgan is possibly the best on-the-ball defender in the country. If the Spartans can control the pace and get into a defensive battle with Morgan locking down the opponent’s number one scoring option and things break just right, look for Michigan State basically playing home games in Detroit. Gonzaga and Memphis both are long and athletic, so they will not be overmatched by many opponents. Memphis has not lost since sliding Tyreke Evans over to the point, including an impressive win at Gonzaga. The Zags need to take advantage of their size and play to their strength of getting one on one situations for their taller players. Forecast: Do not be surprised to see Gonzaga and Michigan State in Detroit, while Memphis will be a tough out as well in March.