Just before Texas gets into the meat of its nonconference schedule, let's talk about the top 5 or 6 teams, along with the Horns, that are vying for the number 1 spot on "Trips Right's Way Too Early, If You're Going to Crown Them Crown Them, National Championship Contending" list, or TRWTEIYGTCTCTNCC list for short.
These are the handful of contending teams that have a decent shot to cut down the nets at the end of the year, along with Duke. Yeah, because Duke doesn't have a chance in hell, and I'll tell you why shortly.
To further qualify my list, I admit to not having watched much of other would-be contenders and Top 10 teams like Purdue and West Virginia so don't flay me. I'll throw them in the mix at a place and time of my choosing. My Krav Maga instructor said I could, but of course he was talking about dealing with terrorists and not top 10 lists. I take liberties.
So to get the ball rolling let's start with...
1. Kansas Jayhawks They are, at this time anyway, the best college basketball team I've seen so far. And I'm not factoring in their ridiculous 36-0 run against the Fighting Steve McNairs or any of the other also-rans they've smoked in the last month or so.
Sure, they were taken to the wire by an undermanned Memphis squad, but they've impressed me because Coach Self has seemed to get "role buy-in" from the wealth of talent on his team, a bit sooner than some of the other big dog programs that seem to be sitting on the porch.
Again, I/we all knew they'd be ridiculously deep, just look at the fact that the Jayhawks play 9 guys regularly, have 5 guys averaging 2 assists or more per game, and have 4 guys averaging double digits. What's more impressive is the defined roles of their big 3. Xavier Henry is the wing du jour. He's an athlete that can shoot it, score it, rebound, and make plays for teammates. He's their go-to guy. Cole Aldrich is the inside presence every team needs but few possess. He'll pound you inside and make you account for the paint before thinking about defending the perimeter. He also rebounds and plays defense above the rim. And finally, Sherron Collins, he's the seasoned senior point guard that makes it all go.
Show me a team that has the holy trinity of point guard, wing, and post man at this talent level and I'll bump the Jayhawks from my top spot. The roles have been solidified and that makes Self's crew ahead of the creme de la creme at this point in the season.
What to worry about?
Well, picking nits, the 'Hawks haven't really played anyone outside of Memphis and they took Kansas to the wire on a neutral court. It's easy to have defined roles and look like world beaters when you're playing Hofstra and Alcorn State.
2. Texas Longhorns
Speaking of not playing anyone yet, the Horns still have plenty of question marks due to the competition they've faced thus far. With Michigan State and UNC on the horizon, we'll find out a lot about this team soon enough.
Well, to the naked eye Texas looks like crap for 30 game minutes and then you look up at the scoreboard and they've won by 20. Why? Because they physically beat you up for those 30 minutes and then coming down the stretch teams lose their legs, and by default, they can't rebound, they can't defend, and more importantly they start missing shots due to tired legs. Make no mistake about it, Texas is currently playing Izzo-ball, but the good news is it's Izzo-ball Mateen Cleaves and Mo Peterson to go to on offense. And, of course, those Spartan clubs didn't have a 6-10 290 pound dunking beast that shoots 82 percent from the field. So we got that going for us. Which is nice.
What to worry about?
Roles and talent maximization. Texas had its answer at point guard forced upon them when Ward went down and Balbay blew up. And the two or at least combo guard spot is J'Covan's to lose at this point. The problem for Texas is the other two young pups have yet to really bite. One of either Bradley or Hamilton needs to emerge before Texas can have a true identity. Sure we can send players in waves in an effort to wear down opponents, but against the UNC's and KU's of the world, these waves will be matched and that's when Texas will need to have a core group of players to go win ballgames. And if that core group involves Mason getting minutes equal to Bradley and Hamilton, Texas ain't maximizing talent.
3. UNC Tar Heels
Yes, I know, they lost to Syracuse, a team that lost a scrimmage to what amounts to Athletes in Action, but hear me out.
The Heels are young, and if you're going to beat them, you better beat them now. The 'Cuse game caught them at precisely the right time with precisely the right defense. A good zone team can zone the hell out of UNC until the Tar Heels find their rotation and chemistry. That night against Syracuse UNC didn't have a semblance of a rotation nor any chemistry When they find these components, look out. They're every bit as talented as teams like KU and Texas, and they may be deeper than both. When coach Williams finds his core group, look out.
What to Worry About?
Quite simply, a glut of frontcourt players. If you're UNC, you almost wish you could trade a couple of forwards for a shooting guard. I mean, who do you sit out of Davis, Thompson, and Zeller? There isn't a 3 man among this group, and we're not playing in the Big East circa 1985. You need a small forward that can shoot and handle to defeat zones and soft man pressure. When you play 3 bigs it also hurts floor spacing and by default guards like Drew and Ginyard. And I haven't even mentioned other elite post players like plastic man shot blocker John Henson and the Wear twins.
It's really going to be tough to get all of these great players minutes at two spots. Granted it's a good problem to have. If I'm Deputy Dog, my core group is Davis and Thompson at post, Ginyard at 3, Drew is obviously the point, and whoever is hotter between Will Graves and Dexter Strickland gets the other wing. Mix and match from there with your bigs.
That typed, The Heels aren't a final four team yet, but they will be.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Izzo rolls out another tough minded, physical bunch that will be hell on wheels come tournament time.
Well, they're deep and they actually have offensive fire power. The Spartans are pretty damn similar to Texas in terms of strengths and weaknesses. They can throw bodies at you and wear you down, but when faced with equal talent, they need to find their premium rotation to be at their best. But the depth is impressive and offensive talent is the best the Spartans have had in years.
What to Worry About?
Well, quite frankly Raymar Morgan. He kills this team when he's in ballgames especially when offense is run through him. Much like Damion James, Raymar Morgan needs to rebound, defend, and finish. If this issue isn't addressed, talented teams that can withstand State's physicality will beat the Spartans by taking advantage of MSU's offensive inefficiency. MSU is at its best with Roe, Summers, Green, Lucas, and Allen on the floor as much as possible.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
These cats definitely fit in the category of "if you're going to beat them you better beat them now". But right now they're young, dumb, and full of...err...bad shot selection. But man can they play. They'll get beat by a team like Vanderbilt and then turnaround and run a solid team like Duke right out of the gym. But that's today, February and March are another story.
What's Impressive? They have the most talented point guard in America and may have the most talented player in John Wall. The kid is electric. When Bradley won player of the year honors I gave the requisite golf clap and then posited on this web site that Wall was still the better player. I love Avery, but Wall has the unique ability to get to any spot on the floor with basketball or into vacant houses. He can blow by you in a phone booth TJ Ford style. And he can shoot... The basketball, not people.
What to Worry About?
Well, John Wall. He can do whatever he wants on the floor and generally does which is dangerous for a player that always has the ball in his hands, evidenced by his 4 turnover per game average. He also risks alienating UK's inside bell cow, senior Patrick Patterson, by not delivering the basketball enough to satisfy the star senior. It takes a special type of point guard to handle all the politics and moving parts involved with running a team as prestigious as UK's. To handicap the outcome, you must first know the quality of brain matter floating around in Wall's cabeza. If he can learn the nuances of the position, UK is final four material, if not, you may see the Cats get upset in tourney at the hands of a 15 seed.
And then there's the impostor.....
20. Duke Blue Devils
Yeah they're top five or six in the polls now, but this team will be lucky to stay in the top 25 the whole year. Why, well, because despite popular opinion, this is a transition year for Coach K in that he's going away from his pressure/perimeter oriented schemes on both ends, and trying to become more of a physical/interior slanted squad. Think Nebraska moving from the option to a pro style attack.
The problem is that they're still not physical inside and don't have the interior offensive presence to run a 4 out 1 in get it to the block and back out for J's style offense. Duke is still a penetrate and kick team personnel wise, but the bad news is they lack players that can really penetrate save maybe Dawkins. Essentially the Devils are 3 shooters, Sigler, and a JAG inside. They'll continue to struggle until Coach K gets some different personnel. Some kids with jets and a competent post player would be a start.
Look for the Dukies to struggle especially when a team has a matchup for Sigler.
As for Duke in the top 10....