Note: This article also appears at SouthernCollegeSports.com.
With a single look at the college basketball landscape this season, one thing is clear immediately: the parity is unbelievable. On any given night, there are probably about forty or fifty teams that can beat one another. And honestly, that really isn’t too much of an exaggeration. Just take a look at the RPI rankings for a few examples. USC, the #60 team in the RPI, has wins over Arizona (#3), Oregon (#12), and was one point from defeating UCLA (#1). Want to go a step further? Look at Utah, the #147th ranked team in the latest RPI. They beat #8 Air Force and #24 Washington State. In other words, this college basketball season has been one of the most unpredictable ones in recent memory.
Once we get into March, it will get even more unpredictable. A one-game series on a neutral court? Anything can happen. Moreover, with the parity this season, there are more teams with a legit shot at getting to the Final Four than ever before. No team is perfect and every team has weaknesses. But that’s what makes March Madness fun, right?
Here’s a look at the teams that I could foresee making a run to Atlanta in early April:
North Carolina: Arguably the most talented and deepest team in the country. Tyler Hansbrough is one of the best low-post scorers in America, and works very hard for his points and rebounds. Brandan Wright is a sure-fire lottery pick and creates mismatches up front with his athleticism. Reyshawn Terry is an underrated all-around player, while freshman guard Tywon Lawson helps to form an excellent backcourt. Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard are defensive stoppers, and Bobby Frasor and Quentin Thomas give a veteran hand in the backcourt. Alex Stepheson provides depth up front. Youth and inexperience might be the only two things that can stop the Tar Heels.
Pittsburgh: Despite their loss at home to Marquette, this team is loaded. Aaron Gray is a force in the paint and gets a double-double nearly every night. Levon Kendall is a versatile big man, while Tyrell Biggs and Sam Young are solid off the bench. Levance Fields has been an excellent point guard replacing Carl Krauser, while Mike Cook has provided the Panthers with the wing scorer they’ve been lacking in recent years. Ronald Ramon is a very steady combo guard, and Antonio Graves has blossomed in his senior year. However, their perimeter scoring is somewhat inconsistent and they lack interior rebounding and production outside of Gray.
Marquette: They say guards win in March, and if that’s the case, the Golden Eagles are in good shape. Dominic James is an explosive point guard who is not afraid of contact. Jerel McNeal is an excellent all-around player who is very good on the defensive end and can also score, while Wesley Matthews is a nice inside-outside option on the wing that can produce in a variety of ways. Up front, Ousmane Barro is improving with every game, and Lazar Hayward and Dan Fitzgerald are two more versatile forwards. Throw in gunner David Cubbillan off the bench, and this team could beat anyone on a given night. On the other hand, despite their outstanding backcourt, they aren’t a very good shooting team, and they turn the ball over way too often.
Ohio State: Although the Buckeyes have not really looked overly impressive up to this point, Thad Matta will have this team ready. Greg Oden is a potentially dominant big man once he gets healthy, and he could lead this team to the promised land. Wings Daequan Cook and Ron Lewis are prolific scorers that can fill it up in a hurry. Mike Conley is extremely quick at the point, and senior Jamar Butler provides a steady hand in the backcourt. Othello Hunter and Ivan Harris provide quality depth up front, and David Lighty is very athletic on the wing. If Oden doesn’t become dominant down low, though, Ohio State will not be dancing in Atlanta. They are simply not good enough without him.
Wisconsin: One of my picks since before the season started, the Badgers are playing outstanding basketball. Alando Tucker is the favorite right now for National Player of the Year, and is the type of player that can carry a team to the Final Four. Kammron Taylor has the ability to score points in a hurry in the backcourt, and center Brian Butch has shown flashes of his talent in the paint. Michael Flowers is the “glue guy” for the Badgers on the perimeter, while Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft are versatile sophomore forwards. Greg Stiemsma and Jason Chappell are solid role players up front. The Badgers do lack a consistent second option, though. Taylor and Butch have stepped up at various points this season, but they need to do it more often. Wisconsin also needs to improve their three-point shooting.
Texas A&M: The Aggies have won nine in a row, all by double-digits, and are absolutely annihilating any team in their path. So why isn’t A&M getting national recognition as a title contender? Your guess is as good as mine. Acie Law and Joseph Jones form an outstanding inside-outside duo, and both are improving even more as the season is progressing. Josh Carter is an excellent shooter, and Dominique Kirk is a lockdown defender on the wing. Antanas Kavaliauskas has stepped up this season as a consistent scorer in the paint. Donald Sloan and Marlon Pompey have provided very solid help off the bench, and A&M might be the best defensive team in the nation. The Aggies do lack a deep bench, and are sometimes inconsistent on the offensive end of the floor, though.
Kansas: This is a team that can beat anyone on a given night (like Florida) and lose to anyone on a given night (like at home to Oral Roberts). However, when you have talent like the Jayhawks do, one can never count you out. Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers might be the best defensive backcourt in the country, and freshman Sherron Collins is playing the best of anyone on the team right now. Brandon Rush is a potentially explosive scorer, but needs to become more aggressive. Julian Wright is one of the best all-around players in the Big 12, and Darrell Arthur is a definite pro prospect off the bench. Sasha Kaun is a solid scorer and rebounder down low, and Darnell Jackson can bang. This team sometimes lacks focus, though, and also does not have a go-to-guy down the stretch.
UCLA: The Bruins were #1 in the polls for much of the season, and are still the clear-cut #1 in the RPI. With the kind of defense they play, don’t count out a return trip to the title game. Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison form one of the best backcourts in the country. Afflalo is an outstanding two-way player who can light it up at one end and lock it down on the other, while Collison is a pest defensively and a good playmaker offensively. Throw in Josh Shipp, and the Bruins have an excellent perimeter. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a very good rebounder and a mismatch at times, and Lorenzo Mata is a good rebounder and defender down low. Alfred Aboya comes off the bench up front, and Russell Westbrook and Michael Roll provide quality depth in the backcourt. UCLA is not very explosive offensively, though, and they struggle against athletic wings.
Oregon: The one big surprise on this list, in terms of the preseason until now. The Ducks are finally playing to their talent level, and luckily for them, that talent level is extremely high. They are similar to Villanova of last season, in that they play with four perimeter players and a post player. Aaron Brooks is a legit candidate for National Player of the Year after a wildly inconsistent first three years of his career. Bryce Taylor and Chamberlain Oguchi are very good shooters on the wing, and 5-6 freshman Tajuan Porter has shown the ability to fill it up in a hurry. Malik Hairston might be the most talented player on the team, and post player Maarty Leunen averages a double-double every night out. However, the Ducks do lack NCAA Tournament experience, and could struggle against teams with dominant post players.
Arizona: It’s a known fact that defense wins championships, and teams that only excel on the offensive end won’t make it too far in March. If that’s the case, the Wildcats need to improve greatly between now and the NCAA Tournament if they want to make run. They have one of the best offenses I’ve ever seen, with five guys capable of scoring 25-plus on a given night. Mustafa Shakur might be playing the best of any point guard in the country, while forwards Chase Budinger and Marcus Williams are explosive point-producers and can create mismatches. Jawann McClellan is an athletic wing that can shoot. Ivan Radenovic is an inside-outside player who can be a matchup nightmare for most opponents. As we stated before, though, Arizona really struggles on the defensive end, and the Wildcats also have a severe lack of quality depth.
Florida: Any team that won the National Championship last year and returns all five starters is still a candidate to make a return trip in my book. It also helps that the Gators are 17-2 and the clear-cut favorite to win the SEC. Al Horford and Joakim Noah form one of the better post duos in the country. Horford is an underrated rebounder and shot-blocker who can also score, while Noah is explosive at both ends. Corey Brewer is very versatile, and might be the best defender around. Taurean Green is a very steady point guard who can fill it up, and Lee Humphrey is a great long-range shooter. Walter Hodge is a very quick guard off the bench, and Chris Richard and Marreese Speights provide great depth up front. However, it is always difficult for a team to win back-to-back titles, and the Gators don’t play to their potential all the time.
Don’t forget these teams either:
Duke: Don’t count out a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski. Josh McRoberts is an all-around talent up front, and DeMarcus Nelson can do a lot of things on the wing. The Blue Devils also play very good half-court defense. They do lack athleticism and consistent scoring, though.
Georgia Tech: Although the Yellow Jackets are young, they have a lot of talent, and have quality pieces at nearly every position. Tech has athletes and scorers up and down their roster, but they struggle to score in the halfcourt. They also need to improve their defense.
Indiana: The Hoosiers are improving with every game, and have looked outstanding lately. D.J. White is potentially dominant down low, and they have a deep perimeter group. Indiana is also very good defensively. Their three-point shooting and half-court offense are somewhat inconsistent.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys have been blown out by both Texas A&M and Kansas, but they have one of the best inside-outside combos in the country in JamesOn Curry and Mario Boggan. The Cowboys are also solid defensively. If they get healthy and improve their depth, look out.
Washington State: The Cougars might be the biggest surprise this season. They have a legit shot to get a very good seed in March, thanks to their outstanding defense and Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver in the backcourt. They don’t have a very explosive offense, however.
USC: The Trojans started off somewhat inconsistent in non-conference play, but have improved greatly with the return of Gabe Pruitt. USC has wings galore, and Taj Gibson down low. They do struggle to score at times, and they don’t have a true point guard on the roster.
Southern Illinois: They might be the best defensive team in the country outside of Texas A&M. Jamaal Tatum is a good scorer, and Matt Shaw is an inside-outside threat up front. They do have long droughts offensively at times, though, which will hurt them come March.
Alabama: They seemingly have all the pieces for a deep Tournament run, except consistency and the ability to win away from home. The key thing for the Crimson Tide is to get Ronald Steele healthy. If he is not 100% in the Tournament, they will be a prime upset pick early.
Nevada: The Wolf Pack is coming off of a loss to New Mexico State, but they are lurking out West. Nick Fazekas is one of the best players in the country, and Marcelus Kemp can really score. Moreover, they are experienced. They do struggle against athletic, up-tempo teams however.
Air Force: AFA loves to slow down the pace of the game, and they are extremely efficient shooting the ball. They also take care of the ball, which is crucial in March. The Falcons have struggled somewhat recently, though, as teams are able to adapt to their style of play. If their shots aren’t falling, they will be gone early.
Gonzaga: Despite the fact that they are really struggling lately, the Bulldogs are sleepers in March. They have a great inside-outside duo in Derek Raivio and Josh Heytvelt, and they have lots of depth all over the roster. However, they have struggled against more athletic teams and are inconsistent scoring the ball.
Texas: I’m just not going to count out a team led by Kevin Durant. I just can’t do it. He is nearly impossible to stop on the offensive end, and can definitely Carmelo Anthony the Longhorns deep into March. Throw in D.J. Augustin, the best freshman point guard in the country, and this team is tough. They are very young, though.
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