With all of the recent National Signing Day hype
whetting the taste buds of college football fans across the nation,
basketball took a brief backseat. But starting now through earliest of
April, college basketball will be on the main stage of sports fans
Unexplainable upsets, bubble teams clawing to
survive and around the clock media coverage of Coach K’s every thought
will dominate the headlines for the next two months. And outside of
late fall, isn’t March Madness the best month of the sports calendar?
Unlike football, basketball can consume fans for the
entire week. Instead of pre-game shows leading to just one day of
coverage, the Big Mondays and Throwdown Thursdays don superb match-ups
consistently. Three, maybe four quality games a night hold hardcore
fans hostage from their wives.
So now into the heart of February and the stretch
run of conference play, contenders have separated themselves from
preseason pretenders. Teams like Wake Forest have gone from a Final Four threat to a squad
destined for the ACC cellar. To the contrary, the University of Florida has answered critics with an unexpected
Even though the cream has risen to the top, the
crystal ball remains a bit hazy. For those who like to fill out their
brackets a little early, here’s four teams that you can pencil (not
pen) in for the Final Four.
(22-3, 10-1 Big 12)
Premier Point Guard: Daniel Gibson
Veteran Leader: P.J. Tucker
NBA Prospect: LaMarcus Aldridge
Role Player: Brad Buckman
Final Four lock:
The Longhorns were ranked the Preseason’s No. 3
team for a reason: sheer talent. But the Longhorns have yet to
capitalize on the hype and assume the top ranking. For that reason
alone, Texas remains Final Four worthy.
Consider the NBA talent compiled in Austin. The Longhorns tout a potential No. 1 pick in
LaMarcus Aldridge and point guard Daniel Gibson has made Austin natives forget about T.J. Ford. Add the
increased maturity level of former Enloe High School standout P.J. Tucker, and the team seems
destined for Final Four success.
Tucker (16.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Aldridge’s (16.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg)
statistics are eerily similar despite the five-inch differential
between the teammates. Eight Longhorns are averaging over 15 minutes a
game, including two seniors who were part of the 2003 team that
advanced to the Final Four.
The national media hasn’t recovered from the
Longhorns’ back-to-back home embarrassments during non-conference play.
A damaging 31-point loss to Duke on Dec. 10 coupled with a 17-point
hiccup to Tennessee severely dented the lore surrounding Rick
Excessive turnovers remain a problem for the
Longhorns, who commit 14.4 per game. Also, Tucker and Aldridge both
will have to veer from foul trouble. The junior and sophomore have been
whistled for four or more fouls in eight contests including two of the
team’s three losses respectively.
But the biggest knock on the Longhorns are the lack
of close games. The nation’s leader in scoring margin has only two
games within a margin of eight points. Fortunately for Texas fans, the Longhorns inched out both games.
Premier Point Guard: Darius Washington, Jr.
Veteran Leader: Rodney Carney
NBA Prospect: Shawne Williams
Role Player: Antonio Anderson
Final Four lock:
Memphis has won 12 consecutive games and 20 of their
last 21. The only defeats have been to soon-to-be No. 1 Duke and No. 6
Texas while wins over ranked teams like UCLA, Gonzaga and Tennessee shower the resume. Who can argue with results?
The Tigers are long, athletic and have yet to wilt to inferior teams
down the stretch. Despite being in a nationally weak conference, Memphis has beaten every conference opponent, for the
exception of one, by a double-digit margin.
The team few flaws offensively. John Calipari’s squad torches the nets
for 83.3 points per game, which ranks fifth nationally. Rodney Carney
(18.0 ppg) is arguably the most athletic player in the nation and a
lock for a 2006 Lottery Pick. Darius Washington, Jr., who suffered an
off-season of full of ridicule when he missed a foul shot that would
have secured an NCAA Tournament invite, has avoided a sophomore slump.
Calipari is a veteran coach with a 1996 Final Four trip. The ex-NBA
coach is an excellent recruiter, but at Memphis has had trouble keeping his talent in order.
But this year he appears to head a team with chemistry to back up the
Calipari revoked slated starter Jeremy Hunt from the
team during the preseason after the senior guard was found to be
involved in an altercation on Beale St. To combat the problem, backup
center Kareem Cooper pled guilty on Tuesday to possession of marijuana.
Cooper sat through a four-game suspension, but scored 13 points and
pulled down 13 rebounds in a Tuesday rout of Southern Miss.
Off the court problems aside, the Tigers need to
increase their defensive intensity, already relinquishing 68.6 points
per game. Also, free throw shooting remains suspect at a team-combined
68 percent. Calipari’s lack of depth at the point also means keeping
Washington, Jr. from developing foul trouble. The Tigers seemed to have
ironed out the 3-point shooting woes that hampered them throughout the
glaring weakness is youth and inexperience. Starting three freshmen, a
sophomore and a senior keeps experts skeptical about a deep tournament
run. Can Carney’s leadership provide enough to dodge an upset scare?
But again, who can argue with results?
Washington Huskies (18-5, 7-5 Pac 10)
Premier Point Guard: Ryan Appleby
Veteran Leader: Brandon Roy
NBA Prospect: Jon Brockman
Role Player: Bobby Jones, Jr.
Final Four lock:
Lorenzo Romar’s team still wishes that current N.Y.
Knick Nate Robinson had decided to stay in school for his senior
season. But last year’s surprise No. 1 seed still has enough talent to
get where Robinson couldn’t take them a season ago.
Despite the Huskies’ struggles in conference play, Washington still boasts one of the top scorers in the
country in senior guard Brandon Roy (19.2 ppg). However, Washington remains balanced using a 10-man rotation, all
of which average double-digit minutes. Washington is 12-0 when four or more players score in
double-digits this season.
The nation’s third ranked scoring team (83.4 ppg) gives slower teams
trouble because of their willingness to run. The Huskies like to expose
their opponents’ lack of depth by getting them into foul trouble.
The Huskies were ranked as high as No. 7 after
winning their first 10 games. After recently dropping three straight
road contests, they quickly bounced back with quality wins over USC and
UCLA. Consider that Washington has not lost to a ranked opponent this season.
They have beaten then-No. 6 Gonzaga and then- No. 11 and No. 13 UCLA
for a record of 3-0 against top-25 opponents. The
schedule is light down the stretch, which should provide some momentum.
With a string of confidence, the Huskies’ up-tempo style and depth
could easily take them to Indianapolis.
Like Memphis, the Huskies need to focus on improving on the
defensive end of the court. Romar’s club is giving up over 70 points
per contest. In the five losses, the Huskies have allowed an average of
79.6 points per game.
Washington has also been suspect on the road, going only
2-3 away from home. The Huskies’ first 12 games were inside the
friendly confines of Bank of America Arena. Because of the Northwest
location, having extensive travel time could cause jetlag should the
team advance deep in the tournament.
The most talented teams don’t always make it to the
Final Four. Washington is neither the most talented nor even the best
squad in their conference. However, a year removed from an Elite Eight
trip can’t rule the Huskies out. They do enough necessary tools and
players alike to bust some brackets. But did the Huskies lose too much?
Boston College Eagles (20-5, 7-4 ACC)
Premier Point Guard: Louis Hinnant
Veteran Leader: Craig Smith
Best NBA Prospect: Jared Dudley
Role Player: Sean Marshall
Final Four lock:
Boston College has endured through a rude awakening in their
first season in the ACC. But Al Skinner and company are probably
content in dodging the new-age Big East. But as rude as some ACC guests
have been, the Golden Eagles are building momentum.
Boston College are winners of four straight, including three
ACC games to advance a game behind second-place N.C. State. Despite the record, the Golden Eagles play to
the level their opponents, going 10-4 in single-digit margins.
Craig Smith (16.8 ppg) and Jared Dudley (16.7 ppg)
combine to give opponents’ frontcourt headaches. Both forwards stand at
6’7” and pound the glass, which often translates to zone defenses.
Patience is a virtue of an Al Skinner coached team. It may cause too
many close games, but it translates to plenty of assists and high
percentage shots. The Golden Eagles rank 10th and 18th
nationally in each category respectively. If the other starters find
the bucket like the two frontcourt stars, look out for the ACC rookies.
Unlike Washington, Boston College is only 1-4 against ranked opponents. Despite
playing Duke tough at home, the Golden Eagles have only beaten then-No.
25 UNC. Losses to Maryland, Michigan St. and Georgia Tech litter the schedule and have
kept the team from a marquee win.
Louis Hinnant, a sporadic point guard needs to stay
within Skinner’s system. Because the opponents figure in on both Smith
and Dudley, Hinnant and Tyrese Rice will be forced to drain perimeter
shots. Because Skinner prefers half-court games, free throws loom large
in late-game situations. The team shoots a combined 68 percent, while
superstars Smith and Dudley shoot 66 and 70 percent respectively.
The team is smart with the ball, but is it athletic
enough to run with higher-paced teams? The jury is still out, but a
couple of perimeter shots could quickly turn the Golden Eagles into
contenders. Will the shots fall all the way to Indianapolis?
Teams that will make the Elite Eight: