Today, I organize the teams in the Top 6 conferences (sorry SEC), plus conference leaders Florida, Gonzaga, Butler, and Creighton. Alright, I threw in a few more SEC teams just for fun. I couldn’t bear to leave out Kentucky. This is about tiers – the individual rankings are less important.
John Wooden Division
Betting against these teams would be foolish.
None –There are no dominant teams in college basketball this year.
Jim Calhoun Division
Yes, there are flaws. But the former Huskies coach often made those disappear in March. These teams can win it all as the UConn coach did on three occasions.
1. Michigan (8-3) – I know it sounds odd. Michigan is 1-2 in its last three games, and the Wolverines' win came in overtime. But watching the Wolverines against elite competition, I’ve only gained more trust for this team. If an opponent’s defense is bad, the Wolverines will kill them with cuts to the basket and brilliant passes for lay-ups. If an opponent clogs the lane, Nik Stauskas will kill them from three point range. If the opponent’s offense is sloppy with the ball, you will find Glenn Robinson running the court for easy dunks. But the true beauty of this team happens when the opponent’s defense is stout and there are no transition opportunities. That’s when Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke go to work. In a college basketball year devoid of NBA-level talent, Hardaway and Burke find a way to get their shots. Michigan’s defense remains a concern. But remember that Jordan Morgan has been out the last few games. Jon Horford isn’t quite at Morgan’s level. With Mitch McGary emerging as a more consistent player on both ends of the court, I’m starting to believe that Michigan’s defense will be good enough. As for the youth, I’ve already discussed that. Michigan’s team isn’t playing young. If Kentucky showed anything the last few years, it is that talent can make up for youth. There are no dominant teams this year. But John Beilein has often overachieved in the NCAA tournament. And if anyone can go on a run, Michigan feels like that team to me.
2. Miami FL (10-0) – When I ran the injury splits for Miami a few weeks ago, the numbers showed that Miami was the No. 1 team in the nation when its entire roster was available. I laughed and concluded that it was probably unsustainable. But after Miami crushed North Carolina this weekend, I’m starting to wonder if maybe the Hurricanes really are this good. What I cannot quite figure out is what happened to Miami last season. I thought for certain that Miami had a good offensive team last year and that Jim Larranaga would improve the defense enough to make Miami into a NCAA tournament team. But when Reggie Johnson continued to loaf, and the team looked disinterested in a home blowout NIT loss in March, I convinced myself that the ceiling for this group was low. Sure we saw some signs late last year that this team might be better. Shane Larkin emerged as a decent point-guard. And Kenny Kadji had an occasional explosive game. But this looked like a team destined for another inconsistent and maddening season. And yet something has changed. Despite additional injuries that might have disrupted the team’s continuity, and despite many of the same players as last year, Jim Larranaga has this group committed to playing elite defense.
3. Duke (8-2) – The one point win at Boston College was very head-scratching and very uncharacteristic for a Mike Krzyzewki team. But Ryan Kelly will be back before the tournament. And no one accomplished more when he was healthy than the Duke Blue Devils.
4. Indiana (9-2) – What bothers me about the Hoosiers is that fundamentally this is the same team as last year. They flipped Verdell Jones for Yogi Ferrell, but I am extremely disappointed that none of the other players has emerged as a strong 7th rotation player for the team. Maybe I was foolish to think that Maurice Creek might be healthy. Maybe I was foolish to think that one of the non-Ferrell freshmen might emerge as a strong post compliment to Zeller. But this is essentially the same six-man unit that lost in the Sweet Sixteen last year. With Victor Oladipo’s improvement, Indiana might still have enough talent to win a national title. But they have not met my preseason expectations.
5. Florida (9-1) – I’m not going to join the national dialogue that says Florida’s reliance on three-point shooting is a problem. My concern is simply the loss of Will Yeguete. Not only was Yeguete the best defensive rebounder on the team, in my eyes he was the key to the defensive improvement this year. Opposing teams could not match his strength and physicality in the paint. I think we will start to see how important Yeguete was when the Gators play Kentucky on Tuesday.
6. Syracuse (8-2) – Some people confused my commentary on James Southerland as saying the Orange were better off without him. On the contrary, I was simply trying to point out how other people stepped up while he was out. And Syracuse is going to appreciate Jerami Grant’s development later in the season.
7. Gonzaga (10-0) – Their defense isn’t quite as good as some other elite teams. And I would argue Gonzaga’s biggest strength (its front-court depth), is an over-rated strength come tournament time. But in a wide-open season like this one, you have to believe that Gonzaga is one of several teams that could legitimately win it all.
8. Louisville (7-4) – The most frustrating part of Louisville’s epic five OT loss to Notre Dame was that if Russ Smith had just made a few better decisions, Louisville might have won the game. With Good Russ Smith this team will always be capable of winning it all. With Bad Russ Smith, this team will always be capable of bowing out on the opening weekend.
Eddie Sutton Division
800 wins, zero NCAA titles. I have a ton of respect for these teams, but I don’t see a title in their future.
9. Michigan St. (9-2) – All the effort the team has spent on trying to develop Denzel Valentine as an alternative point-guard hasn’t really paid off. And thus the team needs Keith Appling to play out of his mind to win. Appling has been superhuman, but I cannot really see him doing it for six games in a row against quality competition. Tom Izzo’s teams usually over-achieve in the post-season, but this feels like a team that is over-achieving in the regular season.
10. Butler (7-2) – Butler’s record is a little bit of fool’s gold. Among true NCAA title contenders, New Mexico and Butler are far and away the “luckiest” at this point in the season. Butler has beaten Indiana by two points, Gonzaga by one point, and even needed some last second magic to hang on against George Washington on Saturday. Still, if ever a coach has convinced us that margin-of-victory isn’t everything, it is Brad Stevens. Through intense study of the film and the stats, his teams have consistently found a way to out-execute teams with more talent.
11. Ohio St. (7-4) – Ohio St.’s defense is good enough to go on a deep run. But you cannot have a one dimensional offense come NCAA tournament time. And teams will find a way to take DeShaun Thomas away. That should mean the end to Ohio St.’s season. But the reason I’m still including Ohio St. in this category is that I don’t feel like we’ve seen the best from some of Ohio St.’s complimentary players yet. Players like LaQuinton Ross have shown flashes of brilliance, but not quite put it together consistently. And with all the former top recruits like Amir Williams and Sam Thompson still on the team, I feel like we haven’t seen this team’s top gear yet.
12. Wisconsin (8-3) – I had Wisconsin in the next group until I saw Jared Berggren’s dunk (and one) that tied the game late against Michigan. That was one of the sickest and most important dunks of the year. Every time I write off Traevon Jackson for his horrible turnovers, he makes a key play down the stretch. And Ben Brust seems to have plenty of big shots in him too. For a team that doesn’t have a Keith Appling or Trey Burke level play-maker, they still make a lot of key plays in close games.
Gene Keady Division
Keady was dominant in the Big Ten, but no one suffered more puzzling NCAA tournament losses (or near losses) as a No. 1 seed than the former Purdue coach.
13. Kansas (8-3) – No one has suffered more because of Kentucky’s recent recruiting success than Kansas and North Carolina. While the Jayhawks and Tar Heels have historically been loaded with Top 10 recruits, these two elite programs are trying to get by with guys who just are not at that level. Because of Bill Self’s defense, Kansas will always be competitive. And I think they will still find a way to win the Big 12 even with the recent losing streak. But unfortunately for the Jayhawks, they don’t have a bench full of Ben McLemore-level talents anymore.
14. Arizona (8-3) – While they have plenty of elite talent, post-players usually take more time to develop. And Arizona’s bigs do not seem consistent enough for a deep run yet.
15. Pittsburgh (8-4) – Pittsburgh is the deepest team in the country. They legitimately go 10 deep and have incredible versatility. If teams use full-court pressure, Pittsburgh can play two true point-guards in Tray Woodall and James Robinson. If teams are strong in the middle, they have three legitimate low-post athletes in Steven Adams, Talib Zanna, and Dante Taylor. If you need a player to come off the bench and penetrate, they have Trey Zeigler. And Lamar Patterson does a little bit of everything. But depth is exactly my biggest concern with this team. Sure, their margin-of-victory numbers look great, and they’ve blown out lots of teams. But what is the best 5-man lineup for the Panthers? Do they have a clear core group of guys who you can count on in crunch time? I think Pittsburgh’s second unit is better than any second unit in the nation. But I am not convinced Pittsburgh’s first unit is capable of a deep tournament run.
16. Kansas St. (8-3) – People keep talking about what a great job Bruce Weber has done at Kansas St., but I’m not buying it. If Frank Martin had come back, this team would have been in the Top 25 too. In fact, Frank Martin had better margin-of-victory numbers with this same group of players last season than Bruce Weber has this season.
17. Oregon (8-3) – Starting in mid-January, it finally clicked in Dana Altman’s head that he should play Arsalan Kazemi more. And the transfer has rewarded him with the best defensive rebounding percentage in the nation. But with Dominic Artis still out, and EJ Singler struggling with turnovers this season now that he is the go-to-scorer, I need to see more before I get back on the Oregon bandwagon.
John Chaney Division
The former Temple coach usually wasn’t a favorite to win it all, but you had to respect his match-up zone and how hard his team’s competed in every tournament.
18. Oklahoma St. (7-3) – It is hard to believe with LeBryan Nash grabbing a paltry 11.6% of his team’s defensive rebounds that Oklahoma St.’s defense could be this good. In fact, given Travis Ford’s past lineup patterns that prefer perimeter oriented big players, I never really thought one of his teams could play elite defense. But Marcus Smart is almost single-handedly willing his team to play lock-down basketball. Smart is even picking up the slack with extra rebounding too.
19. UCLA (8-3) – This is such a weird season. UCLA hasn’t really done much the last two weeks, but almost by default they are back in a tie for first place in the Pac-12. But a team with Shabazz Muhammad is going to be a mighty attractive bracket pick in a month.
20. Colorado St. (6-2) –Colorado St. learned to succeed with an undersized team in 2011. But in 2012, with a true center in Colton Iverson, everything they learned in 2011 is paying even greater dividends. The undersized rebounders that they had in 2011 have made them the top defensive rebounding team in 2012.
21. San Diego St. (6-3) – Jamaal Franklin is a classic example of a leader finding a way to contribute even when his shot is not falling. His outside shot is completely off, but his rebounding, assists, and free throw rate are all better than last year, and thus he is still finding ways to dominate.
22. Marquette (8-3) – Buzz Williams has a reputation for getting the most out of his players every year, and squeezing out key victories, but a lot of that is simply avoiding freshmen mistakes. In his five years at Marquette, Buzz Williams has played only one freshman more than 20 minutes per game, and that was Todd Mayo last year.
Rick Barnes Division
I try to name these divisions after retired coaches, but the Rick Barnes analogy is too perfect. His teams always had a lot of talent, but were fatally flawed in the tournament.
23. Baylor (6-4) – Scott Drew’s recruiting puts Baylor in the preseason Top 25 year-after-year. And his recruits generally pan out. Of all the post prospects, Isaiah Austin is having a solid year. But just like every year, the Bears win total is disappointing.
24-26. New Mexico (7-2)/Georgetown (8-3)/Virginia (7-3) – All of these teams play fantastic defense, which means they can beat anyone. But their offenses often look horrible. If these teams run into a hot-shooting small conference team (you know the kind almost everyone faces in the first round), they will have a hard time keeping up.
27-29. Notre Dame (7-4)/NC State (6-5)/Creighton (9-4) – Despite my emotional reaction to Notre Dame and NC State’s weekend wins, I can’t change my evaluation of these teams. As brilliant as these teams are offensively, their defense just isn’t good enough to win multiple NCAA games. Louisville has a much deeper team than Notre Dame, so the longer Saturday’s 5OT game went, the more likely it seemed the Fighting Irish would lose. But then Garrick Sherman came in after spending all of regulation on the bench, and it turned out that having a fresh player was advantageous. His late baskets to extend the game were unbelievable. And NC State’s last second win over Clemson was equally amazing. Scott Wood used a CJ Leslie screen under the baseline to get free, but then doubled back to catch a kick-out from a penetrating Lorenzo Brown. Wood’s three won the game with 1 second left in regulation.
30. Arizona St. (7-4) Carrick Felix is substantially better than last year. And Jahii Carson is a tremendous freshman. But Arizona St. isn’t dominant on offense or defense. Don’t let their Pac-12 record fool you.
Gary Williams Division
Because Gary Williams played Duke and North Carolina every year, his team rarely looked great in the regular season. But his teams were plenty good in the tournament, including his National Championship in 2002. I like both of these teams for the Sweet Sixteen which probably means at least one upset.
31. Cincinnati (6-5) – Now that Titus Rubles has cooled off, Cincinnati is struggling mightily to find any sort of low post-scoring. I would ask why Justin Jackson is still starting since Mick Cronin has zero faith in him right now. But Cronin doesn’t really seem to have anyone else to turn to. And the recent struggles mean Cincinnati’s Big East record looks rather middling. But Cincinnati’s defense will keep them competitive with anyone, and Sean Kilpatrick is going to will Cincinnati to the Sweet Sixteen.
32. UNLV (5-4) – I still don’t understand how this team is 5-4 in the MWC. Anthony Bennett might be the top freshman in the country and there are top 100 recruits throughout the lineup. Perhaps I should note that Mike Moser is clearly not himself since returning from injury. Or I could point out that Anthony Marshall’s TO rate has increased from 17.6% in 2011 to 22.9% last season to 25.9% this season. But the win over conference leading New Mexico shows why I still believe in this team.
Karl Hobbs Division
Hobbs' George Washington team went 26-2 and 16-0 in the A10 in 2006, but it was a down year and his team only earn an 8-seed in the Big Dance.
33/34. Ole Miss (7-3) / Kentucky (8-2). The Rebels have one win against the RPI Top 50, and even lost non-conference games against Middle Tennessee and Indiana St. that would have boosted their profile. Ole Miss could finish 14-4 in the SEC and much like Washington last season, they might be headed to the NIT. Kentucky’s profile isn’t substantially better. And unlike past seasons when Kentucky crushed weak teams, the Wildcats only seem to be sneaking by this year. There are a lot of things to blame. Kyle Wiltjer is an offensive player who isn’t good on defense. Ryan Harrow is an improving but immature point-guard, not a typical Calipari Top 5 pick. And Archie Goodwin’s lack of an outside game is really limiting him offensively.
35. North Carolina (6-4) – In the preseason, I ranked the Tar Heels 26th in the nation and my Twitter audience thought I was nuts for leaving them out of the Top 25. But the fact is Roy Williams hasn’t been able to get efficient play out of his freshmen in any of the recent seasons. With Marcus Paige shooting 34% on his twos and 29% on his threes, it is hard to see how Williams could have been raving about him so much in the pre-conference schedule.
Dino Gaudio Division
Wake Forest couldn’t see the forest for the trees when they fired Gaudio in 2010. All of these teams may have disappointing elements, but there is quality there.
36/37. Illinois (4-7)/Minnesota (5-6) – Illinois senior Tyler Griffey has lost his starting job three times in his career, so to see him score the game-winner against Indiana was a special moment.
38-42. Oklahoma (7-4)/Iowa St. (6-4)/Stanford (6-5)/Colorado (6-5)/California (6-5) – These are all solid teams. But they aren’t all making the tournament.
43. Iowa (4-7) - Iowa lost by 4 to Wisconsin in OT, by 3 at Minnesota, by 3 at Purdue in OT, by 3 against Michigan St., and by 4 against Indiana. They don’t have the quality wins to be in the NCAA discussion, but this might be the sixth best team in the Big Ten.
44-46. Connecticut (6-4)/Villanova (6-5)/St. John’s (7-5) – Steve Lavin may not have St. John’s in the NCAA tournament yet, but he is a difference maker. The Red Storm had a defensive rating of 93.9 two years ago with Lavin on the sideline, 101.3 last year when he was out, and 93.0 again this year with Lavin back.
47. Maryland (5-6) – I rarely criticize a coaches lineup decisions because coaches are heavily invested in winning. I think a lot of what Mark Turgeon is doing is building for the future by giving massive minutes to his freshmen this year. But I don’t understand why Senior Logan Aronhalt isn’t playing more. He’s a great 3 point shooter, and when he is on the floor, that only makes it easier to feed Alex Len in the paint. Maryland has too many quality offensive pieces to be struggling to score like they are.
48-49. Boise St. (4-5) / USC (6-5) – USC clearly played too tough a non-conference schedule and with 13 losses, they may not be going anywhere in the post-season. But that is a shame because their margin-of-victory numbers suggest they should at least be in the NIT hunt.
Tim Welsh Division
Tim Welsh got caught in the NIT trap at Providence. His teams were often competitive, but he could never make the NCAA tournament, and eventually he was shown the door.
50. Washington (5-6) – Five of Washington’s remaining games are at home, so they do have that going for them.
51. Florida St. (5-5) - Florida St. hasn’t beaten an ACC team with a winning conference record.
52. Purdue (5-6) – Purdue hasn’t beaten a Big Ten team with a winning conference record.
53. West Virginia (5-5) – And West Virginia hasn’t beaten a Big 12 team with a winning conference record either.
Bob Huggins Division
This division is in honor of the 2000 season when Kenyon Martin’s injury derailed everything for Cincinnati.
54/55. Wyoming (2-7)/Texas (2-8) Luke Martinez’s exit has been devastating for Wyoming. Texas’ Myck Kabongo is finally eligible this week, but it is hard to imagine what kind of run Texas would have to go on in order to salvage their season.
Sidney Lowe Division
I remember watching NC State get blown out by North Carolina and listening to Dick Vitale tell the fans to be patient. “Hope is on the way! They’ve got a great recruiting class coming in! Things are going to get better! Hope is on the way!”
56. Providence (4-7) – If Ricardo Ledo becomes eligible and doesn’t jump for the draft, next year will be brighter than this year.
57. LSU (4-6) – 2013 recruits Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey should eventually get Johnny Jones the NCAA win this hard-working coach deserves.
58. Nebraska (3-8) – New head coach Tim Miles provides plenty of reason for optimism.
Keno Davis Division
59-65. Wake Forest (4-7) / Clemson (4-7) / Northwestern (4-7) / Boston College (2-8) / Georgia Tech (3-7) / Nevada (3-6) / Fresno St. (2-7) – Uggh.
66-68. DePaul (1-9) /South Florida (1-10) /Rutgers (3-8): I don’t normally get upset about bad teams. But the bottom of the Big East makes me extremely angry. Why is it that just about every season you can copy and paste the same names at the bottom of the standings? All three of these teams had some nice returning pieces. There is no excuse for these teams not to have shown at least some upward mobility this season.
Jerry Wainwright Division
69-74. Seton Hall (2-9) / Virginia Tech (2-8) / Texas Tech (2-8) / Oregon St. (2-9) / Washington St. (2-9) / Utah (2-9) / TCU (1-10) / Penn St. (0-11) – Hey, at least Oregon St.’s Craig Robinson got to attend this year’s inauguration.