If there’s one takeaway from the first two months of college basketball that should stand out above the rest, it’s that the sport is without a clear-cut favorite.
Indiana earned the fleeting distinction of “team to beat” over the offseason, even if it wasn’t so obvious. As the only team to challenge Kentucky last season—twice, in fact—and return its top five contributors, the Hoosiers won the title by default. Whether IU is defensively up to the task of validating the hype, however, remains unclear. The Hoosiers are undersized in the backcourt and susceptible to hot shooting teams with bigger backcourts (e.g. Georgetown).
As Indiana stumbled its way to a Legends Classic title and then fell to Butler one month later, Duke, busy tearing through a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule, became the next top dog du jour. With wins over Louisville, Ohio State, Minnesota, VCU, Temple and Kentucky, the Blue Devils boast the nation’s strongest résumé. But another cryptic foot injury to Ryan Kelly compounded by the health of Seth Curry, a Rasheed Sulaimon shooting swoon and lingering questions about depth has all of Durham on edge.
Louisville’s sudden offensive potency has resurrected title hopes in the Bluegrass State. The Cardinals already own college basketball’s best defense, but Russ Smith’s emergence as a scoring ace paired with Peyton Siva’s perimeter-shooting renaissance adds an offensive dynamic that last year’s Final Four team lacked. Still, Louisville is a dismal outside shooting team, what with Smith’s gunner mentality and Luke Hancock’s season-long shooting slump. If the Cards aren’t generating turnovers, as they do better than any team in America, college basketball’s newest No. 1 could be ripe for the picking.
Bill Self knows a thing or two about defense. His Jayhawks wield one of the best scoring defenses in the land. Kansas hasn’t skipped a beat from last year’s championship runner-up squad, turning one national player of the year candidate (Thomas Robinson) into another (Ben McLemore). Senior forward Travis Releford is having a memorable season in Lawrence masked only by McLemore’s mouth-watering play. A defensive ace who operates on the perimeter, Releford is astonishingly shooting better than 62-percent and 42-percent from downtown. Can his fellow senior running mate, Elijah Johnson, be counted upon to lead this team to New Orleans though? And will frosh reserve Perry Ellis improve at finishing around the rim? These two wild cards separate Kansas from staking a legitimate claim to college basketball’s best team.
Michigan’s lethal backcourt requires no preamble. Trey Burke is the best collegiate point guard on planet earth and Tim Hardaway Jr. is one of the nation’s premiere off-ball guards. Freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson are having breakout rookie campaigns, Stauskas for his deadeye 3-point shooting and Robinson for his all-around game. We know the Wolverines can score, and score efficiently. The Maize and Blue run the most efficient offense in the nation. But is there enough beef in the middle to protect the rim? So far the answer appears to be no.