By Marc Daley
With apologies to Dennis Green I decided not to crown Duke as the national champs with several weeks to go in the college basketball season. Now there's even less reason to crown them as young turk Kyrie Irving is out indefinitely. People were still impressed with their recent blowout victories and ready to heed Mr. Green's outburst but let's take a look at some other contenders that look primed to deny a Devil deuce:
Ohio State. All Jared Sullinger did against a IUPUI team that almost gave Ron Hunter another chance at making television history by praising the heavens was put up forty points and carry the Buckeyes on his sizeable back. Wednesday features a matchup against Florida Gulf Coast, who I assume will be sending the Beach Boys (and possibly John Stamos) to the court. Saturday's opponent, South Carolina, should offer more resistance than a set of bongo drums and finely tuned vocal harmonies.
Kansas. The percentage of highly-touted freshmen being allowed to suit up for legendary programs is running at fifty percent as Josh Selby prepares to make his debut against Southern Cal on Saturday. Jayhawk Nation almost collectively choked in the middle of exhorting "Chalk" when Marcus Morris went down with an apparent knee injury in the blowout over Colorado State but he did return to the contest and should be good to go. Even though Ohio State is higher ranked at this point the addition of Selby puts the Jayhawks as the favorite to win the 2011 title.
Connecticut. Considering their struggles last season and adding the departures of some key personnel many pundits would have thought a successful outing for the Huskies would be a return to the Dance. At this rate, they will not only return but thrive. Kemba Walker is making a strong case for national player of the year and if there were an MVP award he would win it hands down. Several of their bigs are also responding, in particular Alex Oriakhi who is averaging a double-double. The race between Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Syracuse for Big East supremacy should be fun to watch.
Tennessee. I've always thought that since Bruce Pearl arrived in Knoxville the Vols had a great collection of talent that couldn't figure out how to play together. This season combined with their Elite Eight run last season has shown that they have meshed well. A nice collection of studs (Hopson, Harris) and role players (Pearl, McBee, Williams) usually makes a great formula for success. Expect them to be in the hunt to finally reach the Final Four for the first time in program history.
San Diego State. Butler came within an inch last year. Gonzaga seems like a threat to do it every year. So what makes the Aztecs a really good candidate to become the first non-BCS school to win the title since 1990? Not only do they have a balanced, deep lineup that features a probably lottery pick (Kawhi Leonard) but keep in mind that their coach has tasted championship glory and been to a total of three Final Fours. OK, they don't have a true point guard, which could be their undoing as they move up the food chain in March. At the very least, they will win their first NCAA tournament game. At best, they could assume the role that the boys from Indianapolis nearly did last year.
Finals week is a typical rite of passage among many college students who nearly go crazy from excessive amounts of caffeine and sleeplessness only to end up going crazy from adult beverage consumption and varying degrees of success with hooking up. Since this rite of passage is occurring on many campuses this week don't expect a lot of great action early on but if you can take a break from the mall there's some great matchups on the weekend:
Kansas State-Florida (Saturday, 3:30 ET) I nearly included Kansas State in my discussion of teams most likely to deny Duke a repeat, especially now that Frank Martin has decided to end the mind-game treatment with Curtis Kelly. However, they lost Wally Judge indefinitely and tend to play down to the level of their opponents, as evidenced by their recent struggles against Loyola-Chicago which did not Alfredrick Hughes or Carl Golston on the floor (see mid-1980s for these obscure references). Florida has underwhelmed at times as well, which is surprising considering they haven't played outside the state of Florida this season. The Gators should still be competitive in the SEC but if they stumble again in March that could make four straight seasons without a Dance win. Could Billy D's seat get hot down in Gainesville?
Cleveland State-West Virginia (Saturday, 2 ET) Cleveland State's record is certainly eye-popping at 12-0 but a look at their schedule reveals they've been feasting on the college basketball equivalent of the kid who picked his nose and used an inhaler to get out of gym class. This will be an interesting test against a Mountaineer squad that isn't likely to return to the Final Four but has been competitive with their only losses coming to Minnesota and at Miami.
Texas-North Carolina (Saturday, 4 ET) Had the Tar Heels not beaten Kentucky things would be VERY interesting on Tobacco Road. It would likely be a second straight season at missing the Dance from the same school that went to the Sweet 16 an amazing 18 years in a row at one point. Roy Williams is an alum but that didn't save Matt Doherty. Now that the Heels seem to be gelling (and so do the Longhorns) this game should be labeled "the Redemption Bowl".
Speaking of redemption I welcomed back Minnesota to the Top 25 this week. Tennessee and Syracuse moved in the Top 10 while Michigan State (who could be considered on the nation's more disappointing teams so far) fell from grace.
- Ohio State
- Kansas State
- Michigan State
- Brigham Young
- San Diego State
- Texas A&M
- Cleveland State