(Elite) Eight Tuesday Scribbles…Posted by zhayes9 on February 23rd, 2010
RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver permeating thoughts every week as the season progresses.
This week’s Scribbles column will take on a new twist- which eight teams I’d select to reach the four regional final games in late March. Now, I realize individual matchups within the bracket will determine the fate of these teams, but these are the eight clubs I feel like have an excellent chance of winning three games to reach the Elite 8 regardless of the teams that stand in their way. Some of these teams are the favorites, those expected to reach this level or their season will be labeled a colossal disappointment. The others are mild sleepers that certainly have the capabilities to make a serious run. Without further ado:
1. Kansas– One screaming commentator keeps telling me there’s not one clear favorite heading into March Madness this season. There’s no one team that stands above the rest akin to last year’s North Carolina entering the field as the favorite to hoist the championship trophy on that Monday night in April. This claim continues to baffle me for two reasons: 1) North Carolina was NOT the clear favorite to win the national championship last season. They entered the NCAA Tournament coming off a semifinal loss in the ACC Tournament to Florida State and were chosen as the #3 overall seed in the Dance behind Louisville and Pittsburgh. They were also dealing with question marks around Ty Lawson’s playing status. For a sample, I checked back to the NCAA Tournament pool I conducted last season and North Carolina was picked to win it all less than both Pitt (the most frequent) and Louisville. Even though the Heels featured the most pure talent, let’s put an end to this false claim. I also vehemently disagree that one team doesn’t stand alone this season ahead of the pack. To me, Kansas is the clear cut #1 favorite to win their second title in three years. Bill Self has the second most efficient offense and the third most efficient defense. He’s slowly but surely cut down his rotation and found a perfect balance. Most great teams start with a dominant point guard and center and Self has both of those covered. Even the enigma known as Tyshawn Taylor received a jolt from a surprising start by Self last Saturday and responded. I haven’t even mentioned the scorching hot Xavier Henry. The Jayhawks are an obvious Elite 8 team.
2. Kentucky– If any team can hold a candle to Kansas at this stage of the season, it’s Kentucky. The Wildcats have matched Kansas’ road triumphs in the Big 12 with impressive wins away from Lexington against Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. John Calipari has blended complicated personalities to perfection and found the ideal concoction to finally win a national title. I mentioned Kansas has a tremendous starting point with Collins and Aldrich; they’re actually topped by the inside-outside duo of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Wall has emerged from a mid-season turnover slump to play more like the December John Wall the entire college basketball world fell in love with. He’s absolutely deadly in transition and continues to make clutch plays down the stretch. Cousins will be the single most difficult player to guard in the entire NCAA Tournament, evident by his top-five rank in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He has guard skills in a 6’11 body and is the most effective rebounder in the nation. The real question is if Kentucky can play a halfcourt game against the likes of Purdue and West Virginia should they run into either team. The Wildcats are much more ordinary than spectacular when they play a game in the 60s and are forced to settle for outside jump shots. Still, this team has the goods and the talent to reach a regional final.
3. Purdue– I trust Purdue more than any other team to reach this plateau. Urgency and cohesiveness are two main reasons. For one, this will be the last hurrah for this Boilermaker unit that’s experienced so much success the last three seasons. Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant are both seniors and it’ll be their final chance to make a statement in March alongside JaJuan Johnson, Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore. There will also be urgency for Purdue to play in the Final Four in nearby Indianapolis similar to Michigan State playing with extra fire in hopes of reaching Detroit last year. I also love units that have played plenty of minutes together in the past and their ability to execute under two minutes. Johnson, Hummel, Moore, Kramer…these guys have worked and played together for countless hours and games and understand their tendencies to a tee. Another reason to like Purdue in March is their stellar halfcourt defense. The Boilermakers get into your face defensively and don’t give away an inch, and in March games seem to trend to more halfcourt-oriented than transition-oriented. The questions: Can this team put points on the board consistently? Will opposing guards exploit the porous defense of Moore? Will the extremely thin frontline poke its ugly head if Johnson gets into foul trouble?
4. Syracuse– The Orange winning in the Verizon Center last Thursday had me buying right back into Syracuse as a national title contender after a couple weeks of lackluster play. Georgetown trounced Duke and Villanova on back-to-back Saturday’s in that very building. Syracuse marched into the District and led by 22 points midway through the second half (we’ll conveniently ignore the final ten minutes). In some ways, Syracuse has a perfect team across the board. The only questions are legitimate, though, especially in March: 1) youth at the point and 2) free throw shooting. Other than that, Syracuse certainly has the team to reach a regional final. Wes Johnson’s hand injury should continue to heal enough where his jump shot will rebound and Andy Rautins has simply had a marvelous year shooting and passing the basketball. They have Earth, Wind and Fire in the paint with Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph (if I’m the first to coin that nickname for those three, I call copyright). I love how those three forwards compliment one another: Onuaku crashing the boards and using brute force to score, Jackson posting up and Joseph as the slasher that can be the most effective scoring in crunch time. They also boast a legendary coach that knows what it takes to win in March.
5. Villanova– I’m not overly concerned about Villanova even after their two-loss week and drop in the rankings. We all realized the Wildcats were blessed with a back-loaded schedule and they should expect some struggles in the Big East against such quality competition in a short period of time. I still like this team in March if they find a way to ratchet up their defense over a handful of games against potentially high-powered offenses. I’ll take Scottie Reynolds to run my team in March over any other point guard in the nation, including Wall and Collins (doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better player). We can knock their size all we want, but the bottom line is that both Antonio Pena and Taylor King rank in the top-150 in defensive rebounding percentage and Villanova as a team is 19th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. They can certainly hold their own on the glass against most teams. Jay Wright’s team will sink or swim with the backcourt of Reynolds and Corey Fisher, two elite guards that rank in the top-100 in offensive rating. They can penetrate, shoot from outside, get to the free throw line on a regular basis and always jump passing lanes to create fast breaks on defense.
6. Ohio State– The ceiling for Ohio State is probably a regional final, and that’s precisely where I predict the Buckeyes will end up. There are many reasons why I love Thad Matta’s team. One of them begins with Evan and ends with Turner (answer: Evan Turner). The man is an offensive machine, ranking in the top-30 in points per game, defensive rebounding percentage and assist rate. Jon Diebler and his 44% from three is a perfect compliment to Turner in slash-and-kick situations. They feature a legitimate shot-blocking presence in the paint with Dallas Lauderdale as long as he can stay out of foul trouble. William Buford and David Lighty have continued to improve as the season has progressed. I don’t feel depth is as important as some tout, but Ohio State has a staggering lack of bench production. Would Buckeye fans feel comfortable with P.J. Hill, Kyle Madsen or Jerime Simmons playing extended minutes if one of the starting five got into foul trouble? In fact, Ohio State ranks 342nd in bench minutes. On the back of Evan Turner and a capable supporting cast, Ohio State certainly has an Elite 8 ceiling, and I believe they’ll reach that goal.
7. BYU– I acknowledge the two primary arguments against BYU getting this far: 1) the Mountain West tends to under-perform in March and 2) the Cougars are much more ordinary away from Provo. How would I respond? The past is the past and the present is the present. This present BYU team has all the makings of one that could make a serious run and reach a regional final. The efficiency is off the charts: BYU ranks in the top-20 in offensive and defensive efficiency and their FG/FT/3pt percentages as a team are 49/78/42. They boast a legitimate game-changing guard that can take over a game single-handedly in Jimmer Fredette, a 22 PPG scorer at 47/90/49. It’s not just the Fredette show, though. They have three other double-digit scorers in Jackson Emery, Tyler Haws and one of the best sixth men in the country in Jonathan Tavernari. This team won at UTEP with Fredette sidelined due to mono. The Cougars want to make a statement this March after flaming out in the first round the previous two seasons. I suspect they will.
8. Vanderbilt– I jumped on Vandy’s bandwagon before the season began as my pick to do some damage the Maui Invitational and make an impact immediately. It didn’t quite work out that way; the Commodores flamed out early in Maui and never made a mark in non-conference play, losing to Illinois and Western Kentucky in mid-December. Since then they’ve taken off in SEC play and nearly knocked off Kentucky last Saturday if not for a woeful 2-for-20 performance from three. Vanderbilt doesn’t have a glaring weakness and are sneaky athletic. Jermaine Beal is a fine lead guard who can score and pass while A.J. Ogilvy gives head coach Kevin Stallings a legitimate low-post threat that gets to the free throw line constantly. Jeffery Taylor might be their best overall player and John Jenkins extends the defense as an outside shooting whiz. The Commodores have the complete unit to make a serious run and play in a regional final.