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February 28, 2006

SCS.comWith less than two weeks until Selection Sunday, everyone is talking about bubble teams and whether they are "in or out" as of today. Well, once the NCAA Tournament actually starts, those teams usually don't matter when discussing the Final Four. The first teams people begin talking about when mentioning Indianapolis are usually the top four squads in the country, likely to be the #1 seeds.

Most experts seem to think that the top seeds are pretty much set in stone currently. However, is there anything that can happen over the next week or so that would potentially change the seedings? More importantly, do the projected #1 seeds have what it takes to make the Final Four? After all, that's what matters when it comes down to it, right? Let's take a look at the teams likely to be the top seeds in their respective regions and break down their chances to (a) become a #1 seed, and (b) make the Final Four.

Atlanta Region: Duke

This was pretty much locked up once Duke blew out Texas back in December. It was then that people realized that no one in the ACC was really going to challenge the Blue Devils for the conference title, and that the Dukies were going to go through the season with only one or two losses. Some people believe that Duke would rather play in the Washington, D.C. region because it is closer to Durham than Atlanta, but I have a feeling that the Selection Committee will be shipping them south.

Duke's profile has been rock-solid for some time now. They have far and away the #1 RPI, the #2 SOS, the #1 non-conference RPI, a 13-1 road record, and a 15-1 record against teams ranked in the Top 50 of the RPI. To go with that, the Blue Devils have victories over Memphis, Indiana, Texas, Bucknell, North Carolina State, Boston College, and North Carolina. They only have one loss, that on the road at Georgetown. That looks like the profile of a #1 seed to me. There is absolutely no way that Duke does not get a top seed, or the #1 overall seed, for that matter.

The Blue Devils are going to be one of the favorites to reach Indianapolis and win the national championship. J.J. Redick is one of the top two players in the country (you didn't think I was going to give away my POTY choice, did you?), while Shelden Williams might be the best big man in the nation. With those two leading the way, Duke can beat any team in the country.

However, they do have weaknesses. They tend to keep inferior teams in the game; the Dukies have only two double-digit wins in their past eight games. Moreover, they are not an overly impressive defensive team. In fact, they are in the bottom half of D-1 in field-goal percentage defense. Additionally, the Blue Devils do not have a consistent third scorer. Redick and Williams average more points than the rest of the team combined, and no one else averages more than 8.4 points per game. If either one of the big two gets shut down, Duke struggles. Redick is shooting only 26% from the field in his last two games, and he could be tiring as he did last year. With all that said, however, Duke still has to be considered one of the favorites to reach the Final Four because of Redick, Williams, and Coach K.

Washington, D.C. Region: Connecticut

Connecticut has been considered one of the best teams in the country all season long, even when Marcus Williams was suspended for half the season, even when they got blown out at Marquette, and even when they struggled in the early part of January. However, once they started pulling it together and Williams began to mesh, the Huskies demonstrated that they indeed deserved a #1 seed. Some dropped them back to a #2 after they lost to Villanova, but they probably shouldn't have. UConn is a lock for a #1 seed right now, and I can't see it changing over the next two weeks.

UConn's profile has some extremely high points, but it also has some embarrassingly low points. They are #3 in the RPI and are 10-2 on the road, but the key number in their resume is 12-2. That is the Huskies' record against teams ranked in the Top 50 of the RPI. The twelve wins are the most of any team in the country, with the next best club having only eight. Other than that, though, the profile is less-than-impressive. Their non-conference SOS is 219, as a result of them playing seven straight sub-.500 opponents in late November and the entire month of December. Their overall SOS is in the 20's, and their non-conference RPI is 25. However, they own stellar wins over Gonzaga, Arizona, Arkansas, LSU, Indiana, Villanova, West Virginia, Pitt, and Georgetown. No matter what their SOS says, this team has a #1 seed's profile.

The Huskies are starting to become the "team to beat" in the NCAA Tournament. They are obviously the most talented team in the country and have the most NBA prospects on their roster. That doesn't win NCAA Championships, though. Marcus Williams is the best point guard in the country, while Rudy Gay can dominate a game if he stays focused. Hilton Armstrong is a shot-blocking machine down low, while Josh Boone has the potential to take over the paint. Rashad Anderson is the best sixth man in America, while Denham Brown has the ability to score, as well. They shouldn't lose, should they? Exactly.

This team can match up with any team in the country and can create mismatches all over the floor. However, they tend to lose focus and not play hard at times. The Huskies are the best rebounding and shot-blocking team around, while they also have a phenomenal defense and a very balanced offense. If Williams gets into foul trouble, the Huskies struggle, though. Craig Austrie is dependable, but he isn't the playmaker that Williams is. If they play to their potential, Connecticut should win the title. That's a big if, though.

Minneapolis Region: Villanova

In mid-January, people began discussing the fact that the Big East was not going to get two #1 seeds. They said that the conference was too good and that the teams would beat each other up. Well, Villanova has proven that theory wrong. The Wildcats have been one of the most consistent teams all season long and have had two winning streaks of at least 10 games. Their win over Connecticut at home two weeks ago pretty much locked up a #1 seed for them. At the time, they were teetering between the #1 and #2 seed lines, but that win cemented the bid. However, they are behind the Huskies overall, hence the reason they are being shipped to the Midwest.

Villanova has had a solid profile throughout the season and should have never even been considered to drop off the #1 seed line. They have the #2 RPI, #3 SOS, the #3 non-conference RPI, are 10-2 on the road, and have the second-best record in the country against both the Top 50 (8-3) and Top 100 (16-3). Moreover, they have only six wins against teams in the sub-100 range, which means that they played a scarce amount of low-quality teams. They don't have any bad losses, and own wins over Oklahoma, Bucknell, Marquette, Connecticut, and Georgetown. Their lack of top-notch wins is the only thing keeping them a fair distance from UConn right now.

The Wildcats have the potential to reach the Final Four based on their backcourt, but also have the ability to get knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen due to their mediocre post men. Randy Foye is one of the best players in the country, and is extremely difficult to matchup with. Allan Ray is an excellent scorer and has the ability to carry the Wildcats. Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi are the unsung heroes of the perimeter group, as Lowry is always around the ball and Nardi is efficient from beyond the arc. Will Sheridan is solid on the interior, but he is the only consistent post presence that 'Nova has, in terms of rebounding and defense. If he produces on the interior, Villanova has a shot to beat most teams. But if he and Jason Fraser don't provide enough post scoring, the Wildcats are extremely vulnerable to squads with a host of quality big men (cough cough, UConn).

Villanova plays harder than anyone in the country and creates more mismatches than most teams. The advantage they have is that they force you to matchup with them, not the other way around. In other words, they say "we are going to do what we've done all season, it's up to you to figure out a way to stop it." That works most of the time, but on the days when they aren't shooting well and their post men aren't producing, they will get knocked out. That doesn't happen often, though.

Oakland: Memphis

Memphis locked up a #1 seed when the Big East didn't ask them to join their new super-conference a few years ago. Once the Tigers demonstrated that they were one of the best teams in the country, it was obvious that Memphis wasn't going to lose more than once - if that much - within the conference. Combine that with a stellar non-conference season, and you get a team that should get a #1 seed in two weeks. They are probably the team that has the most to lose the rest of the season, though. One loss might open the door for a team like Texas to enter the #1-seed picture. For now, I think the Tigers are safe, though.

Why are the Tigers safe? Glad you asked. I'll tell you. They are #6 in the RPI and have an SOS of #46, but that is mainly because Conference USA has not helped them out one bit since January began. No one else in the conference has an RPI above 50, and that is not Memphis's fault. Therefore, look at their non-conference numbers. They went 14-2 with wins over Alabama, UCLA, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, and Tennessee. Combine that with a #2 non-conference RPI and a #3 non-conference SOS, not to mention an 11-1 record on the road, and you have a team that merits a #1 seed come Selection Sunday. Are there holes in their profile? Of course. But the positives outweigh the negatives, and that can only mean one thing: a top seed out west.

Back in late December and early January, Memphis was being touted as a potential Final Four team. Since then, however, some people have soured on them because they haven't really played anyone since Tennessee on January 18th. The naysayers feel that Memphis might have become too accustomed to playing weak opposition and that could cost them come March. If they don't forget how to play basketball, though, I can't see that happening. What I do see is a team that can beat anyone in the country. They are the most athletic and versatile team in America. They can shoot from the perimeter. They can score in transition. They force turnovers, block shots, and play excellent defense. In other words, they can do everything.

Rodney Carney is a freak in terms of athleticism and is one of the best players in the country. Darius Washington is a solid point guard who is a very good playmaker. Shawne Williams is an inside-outside player who is one of the top freshmen in the land. Antonio Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts provide scoring and defense on the wings. The only thing this team lacks is a dominant low-post player and experience. However, if Joey Dorsey is consistent on the glass and defensively, the Tigers will be fine. The experience cannot be created, but I have a feeling UM will be okay with John Calipari at the helm. Memphis will go as far as their athleticism and depth takes them, which could be pretty far. The Final Four? It's a definite possibility.

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