A masterfully executed 2-3 zone has Syracuse back in the national title hunt just one year after losing its top four players from last year’s Elite Eight team. The length, size and ball-hawking instincts of Michael Carter-Williams at the top of the zone has bolstered Jim Boeheim’s defense and allowed the Orange to routinely play in transition, much like it did a season ago. James Southerland’s dubious suspension, however, has put a damper on optimism on the hill. Whereas the stalled development of freshman pivot DaJuan Coleman had been the primary area of concern for Boeheim’s bunch prior to the suspension, now the focal point of attention shifts to perimeter shooting. With Southerland out, SU is bereft of a reliable 3-point weapon.
Arizona has a veteran backcourt, multi-skilled wing players and high upside in the middle. The ceiling is unquestionably high in Tucson, but the likelihood of tapping that ceiling with an interior predicated upon freshmen is unlikely. Are we even sure the Cardiac Cats are the best team out West?
Gonzaga has momentarily silenced perennial questions about its toughness with tight road wins over Washington State, Oklahoma State and Santa Clara along with wins over Baylor, Kansas State and Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga will pit its diverse offense vis-à-vis any other in the country, especially if Gary Bell Jr. and Elias Harris rediscover their outside shot. But the Bulldogs’ defense has really slipped over the last month, as teams have found ways to expose the Zags (namely Kevin Pangos) on the perimeter. Opponents with quick backcourts and enough size inside to thwart Kelly Olynyk could be the death of this team.
Florida owns perhaps the best balance of any team in the nation, marrying an explosive offense that works inside and out with a staunch, game-changing defense that incorporates multiple looks. Don’t go gaga about these Gators yet, though. Florida has struggled to protect late leads and perform well in high leverage situations, a stain on Billy Donovan’s teams over the last couple years. Adding to the adversity, the injury bug has zipped through Gainesville, biting Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguette, Erik Murphy, Mike Rosario and now Casey Prather. Can the SEC’s best team stay healthy enough to get over the Elite Eight hump this time? The task is challenging enough at full strength.
Creighton, Butler and San Diego State headline a half-dozen or so mid-majors—discounting aforesaid Gonzaga—capable of making a Final Four. The heavy-hitting state schools—North Carolina State, Ohio State and Michigan State—have given reason not to overlook them, either. The Wolfpack were the first team to crack Duke over the weekend, one day before the Buckeyes wrestled down previously unbeaten Michigan and two months after Michigan State dealt Kansas its only loss at the Champions Classic.
And who can forget about Minnesota, armed with the most athletic and versatile backcourt in school history? Andre and Austin Hollins have revolutionized the hoops vibe in Minneapolis. Star teammate Rodney Williams is one of the best pro prospects in a league chock full of them. Trevor Mbakwe is getting closer to returning to form by the day, which doesn’t bode well for opponents who drew the Golden Gophers towards the end of the schedule.
Roughly a dozen or so teams are equally capable of cutting down the nets in April, and at least a dozen more can string together four wins over two weeks en route to Atlanta. All make compelling cases as a bona fide championship contender, but none merit the distinction of championship favorite.
Replace the numeric rankings in the Top 10 with the letter “C,” standing for “Contender,” instead and you’ll get a more accurate picture of today’s college basketball landscape. More than any other season since the turn of the century, the sport is wide open this year and without an agreeable favorite.
Five teams received first-place votes in the latest AP Poll. Let that be the media’s not-so-subtle way of showing the current college hoops field has us all stumped.
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