The 2012-2013 college basketball season has been nothing less than insanity, filled with countless upsets and surprises. The No. 1 team in the country has hardly been that, falling six times in all including a stretch of five consecutive weeks. In February alone, 12 top 10 teams have gone down and all of the losses have been to unranked teams on the road. According to STATS LLC, top 25 teams lost to unranked teams 36 times from Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 this season, which is the most in at least 17 years. If the regular season is any sign, March is setting up to be wild, if nothing else. To preview the great March Madness tournament, I’ve separated the field into contenders, pretenders and nationally underrated (as well as recognized) sleeper teams that could be primed for a deep run.
Indiana: Tom Crean’s team have had their share of bumps, but submit an impressive resume for the tournament, falling three times on the season but by a combined nine points. Indiana features two of the best players in the nation in freak athlete and National Player of the Year candidate in Victor Oladipo along with Cody Zeller. Via KenPom, Indiana rates as the nation’s No. 1 offense, in large part because of their ability to crash the offensive glass and make the outside shot as well as any other team. But they are by no means a one-dimensional unit, ranking No. 15 in defense and possess a huge weapon in Victor Oladipo, who is the nation’s best on-ball defender. In the grand scheme of things, Indiana has everything one would hope for in a Final Four contender.
Florida: The Gators boast the nation’s second best defense, but it was just a few games ago when Florida allowed a measly 0.803 points per possession, ranking them No. 1 in the past 10 seasons. There is no bad matchup for Florida, who can play man, zone and press extremely well against any opponent. Making Florida even tougher is their equally impressive offense, ranking No. 3 in the nation. Like Indiana, Florida has excellent outside shooters in Erik Murphy, Michael Frazier, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario. Patric Young provides the inside presence for the Gators and is not to be forgotten. As long as Florida can stay healthy, they are my favorite to take home the title in March.
Miami: The Hurricanes have taken the college basketball world by storm (pun intended) and finally suffered their first conference loss on the 23rd of February against Wake Forest. Miami’s stifling defense takes the headlines, but Cousy award finalist and conference Player of the Year candidate Shane Larkin’s leadership and improvement has Miami as a contender with their #2 RPI and 8th best SOS. Even if the offense is struggling, Miami’s defense allows them to stay in any game and the team’s experience allows them to capitalize on such situations. The Hurricanes are an extremely balanced unit that have several contributing players outside of Larkin in versatile big man Kenny Kadji and 300 pound center Reggie Johnson, creating matchup nightmares for opposing coaches.
Michigan St: Per usual, Tom Izzo’s Spartans are a threat to win it all again even after losing Draymond Green to the NBA ranks. Michigan State’s talented team starts with a great backcourt, featuring Keith Appling and Gary Harris while Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix provide the big, physical inside game. Michigan State ranks as a top 20 offense and top 20 defense via KenPom, #8 RPI, and have the 6th toughest schedule in the nation. Payne creates matchup problems because of his versatility as a big man while freshman guard Gary Harris has been the biggest addition to Izzo’s squad because, well, he can do just about everything on the court. This team is built for a deep run in March, which seems to be the norm for a Tom Izzo led team.
Louisville: The Cardinals have certainly had their ups-and-downs, earning the No. 1 rank before losing three consecutive games. Louisville somehow became a forgotten team following their losing streak, but now they are back in the thick of things. Louisville boasts the best defense in the nation and No. 22 in offense. The team’s core still consists of the same four as last year’s Final Four team in Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng. Dieng may be the team’s most important player this year as he’s taken his offensive to game another level, giving the team another look offensively instead of a Russ Smith shot. However, Louisville’s title hopes are on the shoulders of their talented, but inconsistent backcourt of Siva and Smith.
Syracuse: The Orange got a major boost to their title chances when senior forward James Southerland returned from his academic issues, giving the team a legitimate outside threat that was missing while he was gone. Syracuse has a top 15 offense and defense, a #11 RPI ranking, and a 45th ranked SOS according to KenPom. With the return of Southerland, Syracuse now has four players who can consistently score in double figures with senior guard Brandon Triche, dynamic playmaker Michael Carter-Williams and underrated forward C.J. Fair. Southerland’s issues give Syracuse fans flashbacks to Fab Melo being ruled ineligible to play in the tournament last year and without him, I’d consider the Orange a pretende. However, the offense is dynamic and free flowing with Southerland back and the length of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, I’ve pegged Syracuse as a contender.
Gonzaga: This Zags team has serious potential, but the knock on them is the weak competition they’ve played (69th ranked SOS) and defense (No. 24). This Gonzaga team is probably their best team since the Adam Morrison days; they have an elite frontcourt with Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, as well as a solid backcourt with Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. While Gonzaga’s defensive ranking doesn’t look too bad, it’s quite clear that end of the floor will be their undoing come tournament time. Throw in the team’s inability to stop dribble penetration, I have trouble believing they can make a deep run in March.
Duke: Duke’s chances in March depend a lot on the foot of Ryan Kelly because they are quite frankly a different team with him (and without him). If Kelly is unable to look like his old self, I don’t see Duke going too far. Mason Plumlee has the athleticism and skill set take over a game, but he’s dropped the ball in too many opportunities this year and been invisible at times. One source tells me the big man is still having nightmares of Alex Len, but I’ve been unable to get a second source on this. Duke’s rankings on the year, a top 5 offense and No. 22 defense are impressive, but their inability to control the boards whatsoever is a huge weakness and the inconsistency of their top contributors are concerning.
Michigan: The Wolverines have been highly praised this year and been a top 5 team in the polls for much of the season. Anyone who watches Michigan could easily fall in love because of their shooting and Trey Burke’s ability to make it all happen for them on offense. The Wolverines have four players who can put the team on their back in Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskus. While you can’t knock their offense, their defense is highly concerning and ranks No. 48 in the country. Michigan’s lack of size and reliance on the three ball has them tagged as a finesse team and despite their high ceiling, the defense is a major concern and makes me a skeptic.
Kansas: The Jayhawks rose all the way up to No. 2 at one point, only to lose three straight games for the first time in eight years. The Jayhawks have a great defense, ranking No. 7 in the nation thanks to their paint presence and length on the perimeter, but the offense will be their downfall come March. Elijah Johnson is a shooting guard turned point guard that attempts to run the offense, but is inefficient at doing so. The only true offensive threat Kansas features is freshman Ben McLemore, who is a lights out shooter. Unfortunately, McLemore struggles to create his own shot and is reliant on others to set him up. I have trouble seeing this Jayhawks team scoring against elite defensive units and as a result, I don’t foresee a deep run for Bill Self’s squad this year.
Arizona: The Wildcats started out the season extremely hot, but I’m not overly impressed with this unit on either end of the floor. Arizona’s been extremely vulnerable for the past month or so and while they have some solid players in Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson, they don’t have a true dominant player that can take over the game like the aforementioned contenders. More was expected from top freshman Kaleb Tarczewski, who has been more of a project than a star so far. While the expectations were extremely high for this Wildcats team after their 14-0 start, the realizations have started to set in and this team is simply not a championship contending team.
Butler: After back to back championship appearances, Butler has become a popular March pick to make an unexpected run. Soon enough, it became a popular pick after exciting wins over Indiana and Gonzaga earlier this year. Brad Stevens doesn’t have the great shooters this year he’s had in the past, ranking them as the No. 49 offense in the nation. One of their best players in big man Andrew Smith has dealt with multiple injuries this year that have caused him to miss some games. If his health is up in the air, Butler could be out of the dance early.
Colorado St: The Rams are a team to keep an eye on in this year’s tournament; they’re currently in the top 25, but not getting the respect they deserve. They have a top 10 offense, No. 13 RPI and are the best rebounding team in the country. Currently, Colorado State is rebounding more than 41% of their misses while protecting the defensive glass as well as anyone. This team has all the makings of a team ready to make a deep run in the tournament.
VCU: Shaka Smart’s club has become a popular sleeper pick after their Cinderella run in 2011 and this year’s team is similar in many ways. Smart’s team plays a pressure defense unlike any other team’s in the nation, making it extremely difficult for anyone to prepare for in a short time. VCU ranks No. 1 in turnover percentage, masking their lack of size in the paint.
Belmont: This Bruins team is one of the most effective offensive teams in the nation because they can shoot the ball, ranking No. 3 in effective field goal percentage. Belmont relies on filling up the basket whether it’s from three, mid-range or the charity stripe. And like VCU, the team relies on creating turnovers to mask their lack of size in the paint. This is an experienced club that could cause trouble for a multitude of teams in March.
Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders are my favorite sleeper team out of the bunch. They aren’t the greatest offensive team, but are able to score from range and boast one of the top defensive units in the nation. They are consistent in every defensive aspect and one of the best in creating turnovers. Middle Tennessee’s attack is balanced, too, relying on every contributor. If any mid-major team were to go on a deep run, I believe this Middle Tennessee team would be the one.