I played this little game last year when it was called "Who's the best team in country" and I would have been perfect from the final four down to the eventual winner had Chalmers not hit the game tying 3 vs. Memphis as time expired. But my final four was dead on with UCLA, Memphis, Kansas, and North Carolina all advancing. Granted it was much easier last year, considering all four number 1 seeds advanced, but I'm going to give it a try, and this time I've got a surprise team or two.
Adrien is UCONN's unsung hero.
After a dominating performance last night at Louisville, validating its new number 1 ranking, the UCONN Huskies are a no brainer choice to make the final four. The backcourt is now just as talented as the frontcourt with super steady Jerome Dyson and the emergence of a healthy AJ Price. These two make pressing impossible and their ability to penetrate and create for finishers like Thabeet and Adrien make UCONN dangerous in a tournament setting. Anytime you have a talented junior and senior in your backcourt you have to consider yourself lucky.
Inside, Hasheem Thabeet gets all the fanfare, and for good reason, as athletic 7-3 centers don't grow on trees. Thabeet brings a double-double game night in and night out, but he's a difference maker on the defensive end of the floor averaging 4 blocks per contest and countless altered or deterred shots in the paint. His presence vs. Louisville's penetrating athletes was the difference in last night's blowout win. Joining Thabeet is Jeff Adrien, a 6-7 senior who's been the Husky's go to guy the last two seasons. He's a terrific back to the basket offensive player and an equally accomplished offensive rebounder who thrives off of the attention Thabeet draws inside.
Rounding out the starting lineup is either Craig Austrie or Stanley Robinson depending on what Jim Calhoun needs for matchup purposes. Austrie is a decent shooting 6-3 senior guard who gives the Huskies options on the perimeter. Robinson is a 6-9 junior forward who provides more size on the frontline which comes in handy in the Big East. Kemba Walker comes off the bench as another accomplished perimeter scorer.
The only weakness this club has is shooting the basketball from distance as there isn't a bona fide 3 point gunslinger. This makes UCONN susceptible to the zone if the opposition has the size and athleticism to rebound out of it. I'm guessing two or three teams in the entire nation have that requisite. Carolina? Oklahoma? The only hope for opponents is to be able to pull Thabeet away from the bucket with a sharp shooting big man as Greg Monroe of Georgetown was able to do in UCONN's only loss. Otherwise, this team will be a tough out in the tourney.
As somewhat of a connoisseur of Duke basketball, I have been able to watch that program with a discerning eye over the years. I don't love them and I don't hate them, I'm just forced to follow them for a number of reasons ranging from familial to ESPN showing them every motherlovin' night. ESPN Gameplan has been a godsend in that respect. That said, this is quite frankly the best Duke team I've seen in the last 7 or 8 years. And I'm emphasizing the word TEAM. You'll have a hard time finding a team with 4 better offensive options than Singler, Henderson, Scheyer, and Smith anywhere in the country. All four have the ability to pass, shoot, and put it on the floor to create. And they are probably the most unselfish upper echelon basketball team I've seen all year. There aren't any egos on this ballclub.
In terms of defense, Duke might play the best perimeter help and recover team defense in the nation. Duke has the luxury of having a personnel group with similar size and athleticism from guards through forwards, so guarding opposing teams' perimeter players is made easier especially when the Devils get caught in a switch or rotation.
Off the bench, Paulus, McClure, Thomas, and Williams give the Devils great defensive depth to really run their pressure game and excel out of it without worrying about fatigue. Teams that will give them trouble are teams with multiple ballhandlers that take care of the basketball and teams with big talented, frontcourts. Teams like Wake Forest. Wake was able to penetrate against Duke while only turning the ball over 11 times.
Teague is an inside/outside nightmare.
More than likely the appearance of the Deacs on the list will be surprising to some if not most readers. I've added them because moreso than any other team in the nation, Wake is built for NCAA tournament play mainly because they have size, a forward that can score, and most importantly, elite guard play. Starting with the guards, point guard Ishmael Smith can get anywhere on the floor with his dribble and he's coming off the bench when the Demon Deacons choose to go big. Off guard LD Williams has size and can slide to be a third guard if need be. Williams is not a great shooter from beyond the arc, but he has a good midrange game and can finish at the rim. The bell cow, however, is all everything player of the year candidate Jeff Teague. The 6-2 sophomore shoots a ridiculous 55% from deep and has the super quickness/size combination that makes him a threat to get to the rack and finish.
In the frontcourt James Johnson is a 6-9 power forward with a nice midrange face up game off the bounce. He's got an NBA body and game to match. He's averaging 9 boards and a solid 2.3 assists so his game is wellrounded. At the other forward is 6-9 freshman manchild Al-Farouq Aminu. The freshman phenom is as good a big athlete as you'll find in college basketball and his skills are just now starting to catch up to his athleticism. Rounding out the frontcourt is 7-0 junior center Chas McFarland. He's averaging double digits as well, and gives the Deacons the ability to matchup with any big center or pivot man in the nation.
Four of the six players mentioned above average over 50% from the field, so you know they're getting great looks. It's also easy to see that Wake is balanced enough to go big, go three guard, and everywhere in between to match up defensively. Harvey Hale is a sharpshooter off the bench and he adds to this balance.
The weakness this club has is that Williams and Smith struggle shooting the basketball, so a sagging M2M could bother Wake. Duke was down double digits and couldn't keep the Deacs out of the paint until they went to a classic sagging M2M with 4 players playing with one foot in the paint while the other player guarded the basketball. But how many teams like Duke will Wake have to face in the tourney?
McNeal leads a potent 3 guard attack.
If the Wake pick surprised you then Marquette made you fall out of your chair. No Carolina? No Pitt? No Oklahoma? Nope. UNC is all Hansbrough all the time and that's not a good thing. Although Fields is nice, Pitt's guards aren't in the same class as the above mentioned teams and I think Blair is a bit overrated. Oklahoma probably has the best player in America, but after that I'm from Missouri on Warren or Johnson being second options that can carry a team. Plus their depth sucks as much as their university.
Marquette gets the nod because the Golden Eagle Warriors have the three best guards in college basketball especially when Dominic James isn't channeling AJ Abrams. Jerel McNeal is the best all around shooting guard in America and may be the best player in the country period. He averages a Moneyball-esque combination of a 47% from deep, 5 boards, 4 assists, and 1 block. The senior can get his own offense anytime he wants it and he's a tenacious defender. He's flanked by two NBA caliber guards Dominic James and Wesley Matthews. When James is using his ability to penetrate for good instead of evil, he makes everyone on the floor better. James has a stellar 5 to 1 assist to turnover ratio, and he does it mostly by creating help and recover situations. Sometimes he goes off the reservation looking for his own offense and that's when Buzz Williams must rein him in. The other guard, 6-5 guard/forward Wesley Matthews, is an "oh by the way" 19 ppg 5.6 rpg 2.6 ast type player. He's just happy to be here, and hopes he can help the ballclub. These 3 cats control tempo in every ballgame and will be hell on wheels during tournament time because of their chameleon like abilities to thrive in an up and down game or half court scrum.
The frontcourt starts with Lazar Hayward who plays much bigger than his 6-6 frame as his 9 boards will attest. He's an athletic finisher that can run the floor, but he's also capable of sneaking away from the bucket to hit the occasional 3, evidenced by his 31 makes on 84 attempts from deep. Senior 6-8 forward Dwight Burke gives Marquette some size at the other forward spot. Jimmy Butler is a 6-6 hybrid forward that gives Williams options off the bench.
Marquette shoots 73% from the foul line and 4 of the 5 starters shoot 75% or better. Dominic James shoots a woeful 48%, but that's mitigated at crunch time by the fact that McNeal and Matthews can handle the rock.
It's obvious that the Achilles heel for the Golden Politically Correct Warriors is size and size alone. Can they hold up when faced with a frontcourt like UCONN's or Pitt's? The good news on that front is they'll be able to find out how they match up with big teams when they face UCONN, Pitt, and Syracuse during a two week stretch at the end of February. And after that, it's doubtful they'll face a grossly superior frontcourt unless they get deep into the tournament.
Like, say, the final four?