Top 25 Snapshot: 01.24.12

Posted by zhayes9 on January 24th, 2012

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Parity is the most overused expression in sports. Commissioners use it as a crutch to promote the competitive balance in their sport. When a small market teams upends their high-payroll counterparts to win a division championship, cries of parity rain from the masses. Any time there’s an abundance of teams still fighting for a playoff spot on the last week of the season, you’ll undoubtedly hear that parity has never been stronger.

As we geared up for another college basketball season last November, something strange happened: the word parity was nowhere to be found. We had just completed an off-season where a number of expected lottery picks – from North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes to Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Baylor’s Perry Jones III – eschewed NBA riches for a return to esteemed programs. Following a Final Four that featured Butler and VCU, this was supposed to be the season where order was restored, the cream rose to the top and we could identify a privileged class of elite teams at the top of the rankings. The 2008 season, where four #1 seeds reached the Final Four, acted as a good comparison.

That expected narrative has been flipped on its head. Instead of “great” teams emerging after a two-year hiatus, there’s as much turmoil as any season in recent memory. Winning on the road is seemingly unfeasible. There’s turnover atop the rankings every single week. So called mid-majors are standing toe-to-toe with storied programs, evident by a three-loss Kansas team that fell to Davidson suddenly looking like a top-five outfit. Unpredictability is alive and well.

There are countless times in sports where that clichéd phrase parity is thrown around wildly and irresponsibly. The 2011-12 college basketball season is not one of those times.

Calipari's Wildcats are back atop the rankings

1. Kentucky (19-1, 5-0)- Incredibly, they still have not dropped a game at home during the John Calipari era. Alabama played uncharacteristically well on the offensive end, punched Kentucky in the mouth and the young Wildcats responded. The true tests of this team’s mettle will be road visits to Vanderbilt (2/11), Mississippi State (2/21) and Florida (3/4). Kentucky ranks second in two-point field goal percentage and first in block percentage largely due to the presence of Anthony Davis inside, while freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist provides athleticism, scoring and toughness beyond his years. One concern has to be freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who has 17 assists and 16 turnovers during SEC play.

2. Syracuse (21-1, 8-1)- Dropping a road game in conference shouldn’t send the Orange faithful to the nearest ledge, but the way in which they fell to Notre Dame was concerning. The Irish followed the blueprint of controlling tempo, limiting live-ball turnovers and making timely threes, while I felt Syracuse became panicky and erratic in their offense way too quickly. The loss of Fab Melo for an undetermined amount of time deprives Syracuse of a crucial shot-blocking presence on the back  line of their zone. The Orange are still far and away the best team in the Big East, on track for a number one seed and Scoop Jardine played phenomenally against Cincinnati, but make them play a half-court game and Syracuse is far from invincible.

3. Missouri (18-1, 5-1)- The oft-repeated theme regarding Missouri was that a team with size, athleticism and length in the post would capitalize on the fact the Tigers only employ two players taller than 6 feet, 8 inches. While Kansas State exposed this flaw, Baylor’s switching defenses had no answer for the most efficient offense in America. Missouri shoots a ridiculous 57% from two and ranks fourth in turnover rate, largely due to the proficiency of point guard Phil Pressey and his pick-and-roll partner Ricardo Ratliffe, who is on pace to break the all-time field goal percentage record. Missouri will be favored in every game the rest of the season, placing them on a fast track for the #1 seed in the St. Louis region.

4. Ohio State (17-3, 5-2)- My heart still tells me Ohio State will be playing on the first Monday in April and, unlike Syracuse, the Big Ten will sufficiently test them for the NCAA Tournament grind. The Buckeyes may have the best point guard (Craft) and center (Sullinger) in the country, but the departures of David Lighty and Jon Diebler has negatively affected William Buford, whose offensive rating and shooting percentages have dipped from last season. Make Craft go left, attack Thomas/Sullinger defensively, dare them to shoot threes and Ohio State is vulnerable. Two recent wins by a combined 51 points against Indiana and Nebraska leads me to believe the Brandon Paul Show in Champaign was a wakeup call.

5. Kansas (17-3, 7-0)- Nothing this season has changed my mind that Bill Self is one of the top five coaches in America. Think about it: the Jayhawks have won seven straight Big 12 titles, lost three draft picks, two more key senior contributors, two freshmen to academics, has no bench and once again sits at the top of the rankings. A major reason has been the progression of enigmatic point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who has scored 95 points on 58 percent shooting in his last four games while turning the ball over just 11 times, including zero in 34 minutes at Texas. Buoyed by Taylor and national POY frontrunner Thomas Robinson, Kansas’ starting five can compete with anyone in the nation.

6. North Carolina (16-3, 3-1)- Store this factoid in mind for your bracket in March: no team has ever won it all after losing by 30 or more points during the season as the Heels did at Florida State last Saturday. They responded well in Blacksburg, but losing Dexter Strickland to a torn ACL is an extremely costly setback. Strickland is Roy Williams’ preferred perimeter stopper, a task which must now be delegated to inexperienced sophomore Reggie Bullock. Strickland served as an efficient glue guy who simply knew his role. Carolina is still Final Four talented, though. They’re a tremendous rebounding team that rarely turns the ball over and keeps you off the free throw line.

7. Baylor (17-2, 4-2)- The same flaws that derailed the Bears last season are starting to crop up again. Their pillow-soft defense was exposed this week by two elite teams and Baylor turns the ball over on 21.8 percent of their possessions. After watching Perry Jones pull another disappearing act against an undersized Missouri frontcourt he should dominate, it’s clear he’ll never be an alpha dog. The parts are still there for a March run – namely a playmaking point guard in Pierre Jackson (15 assists on Saturday), a deep and talented frontline and an emerging freshman wing in Quincy Miller – but establishing a defensive identity and putting it together in the halfcourt are lingering question marks.

8. Michigan State (16-4, 5-2)- Stats guru Ken Pomeroy has the Spartans as the fourth best team in the nation because of their incredible balance. Michigan State ranks in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They also rebound 39 percent of their misses and average more than 35 points per game in the paint, typical numbers for a Tom Izzo-coached team. Keith Appling has adjusted well to moving from the off-guard to the point, compiling a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio while doubling his scoring average. This is the second best Big Ten team, but I’m just not sure the Spartans have the ceiling of the seven teams already mentioned.

9. UNLV (18-3, 2-1)- The Rebels pass the resume test and eye test. Their three losses- at Wichita State, Wisconsin and San Diego State – all came in road environments where few teams leave unscathed. Dave Rice has impeccably meshed his preferred up-and-down style with the defensive toughness instilled by former coach Lon Kruger. UNLV boasts a matchup nightmare in double-double machine Mike Moser, a legit outside shooter in Chace Stanback and a multi-talented guard in Anthony Marshall averaging 12/5/5 with nearly two steals. Of any non-power conference team, UNLV has the best chance to reach the Final Four.

10. Duke (16-3, 4-1)- Here’s a stunning statistic: the Blue Devils rank last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense, largely due to opposing guards exploiting the feeble resistance of guards Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Austin Rivers on the perimeter. With Curry more of a natural 2-guard, Quinn Cook an untrained freshman and Tyler Thornton an offensive liability, options at the point are also minimal for Coach K. Duke will stay competitive feasting on a weak conference and because they’re phenomenal shooting both outside (41 percent) and inside (54 percent) the arc as a team, but there more chinks in the armor than any Duke team since the 2007 outfit that fell to VCU in the first round.

11. Florida State (13-6, 4-1)- This is still a sporadic offense that struggles with turnovers and consistent outside shooting. They’ll drop a couple head-scratchers the rest of the way. Still, they deserve tons of credit for embarrassing Carolina, containing Duke in Cameron and avoiding a trap game loss against Maryland sandwiched in between. FSU is playing their usual stalwart defense, but it’s their progression offensively that’s spurred this run. Whether Luke Loucks can continue his steady point guard play and Ian Miller provides a scoring punch as a combo guard will dictate future success.

12. Indiana (15-4, 3-4)- Indiana is starting to fall back to what most people expected before the season. Cody Zeller is the real deal, a surefire pro with a complete game on both ends. Their halfcourt offense would be much more efficient if Zeller received a post touch nearly every time down, especially when that 45 percent mark from three as a team heads south. They also need Christian Watford, who’s posted just 46 points in his last five games, to play Robin to Zeller’s Batman. The issue for Indiana going forward is turnovers and perimeter defense outside of Victor Oladipo.

13. West Virginia (15-5, 5-2)- The Mountaineers are doing Bob Huggins-type things: crashing the offensive glass, playing hard-nosed defense and protecting their home floor. Beating a confident Cincinnati bunch despite a no-show from Truck Bryant was impressive. Kevin Jones is a bona fide star one year later than expected. He’s now scored 22 or more points in five straight games and his season totals (20.7 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 55% FG, 75% FT) are All-America worthy (joining Doug McDermott, Thomas Robinson, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard on my first team, if you’re wondering).

14. Florida (15-4, 3-1)- The Gators rely on threes for 38.8 percent of their points, so they’re fortunate 40.7 percent of those attempts are finding the bottom of the net. Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and pick-and-pop specialist Erik Murphy are all shooting over 40 percent from deep, leading to the second-most efficient offense in the country. Let’s hope those numbers are sustainable because the Gators also rank eighth in the SEC in defensive efficiency. It would be prudent to feed athletic post man Patric Young (65 percent from two) once those threes begin to rim out.

15. Cincinnati (15-6, 5-3)- The Xavier brawl and subsequent suspensions served as a blessing-in-disguise for Mick Cronin. Without Yancy Gates, the Bearcats experimented with a four-guard lineup and haven’t looked back; in fact, they would have won their eighth straight Big East road game dating back to last season if the referees noticed Kevin Jones signaling for a timeout West Virginia didn’t have with two seconds left in a tie game. Their new crunch time five- with guards Dion Dixon, Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and Jaquon Parker joined by Gates – is a matchup nightmare for the opposition but also an issue on the defensive boards. Their #334 non-conference strength of schedule could really hurt seeding-wise come Selection Sunday.

16. Georgetown (16-3, 6-2)- Close home battles with Providence and now Rutgers give me pause.

17. Saint Mary’s (19-2, 8-0)- Matthew Dellavedova has played 35 or more minutes per game all three years in Moraga.

18. Creighton (18-2, 8-1)- Exacted revenge at Missouri State with Doug McDermott only scoring 15 points.

19. Virginia (15-2, 2-1)- Much like Florida State, deliberate, low-possession affairs will result in confounding losses.

20. Mississippi State (16-4, 3-2)- Bounced back nicely from Ole Miss setback with win at Vandy.

21. Marquette (16-4, 5-2)-  Might be favored in every game up until a February 18 visit to Storrs.

22. San Diego State (17-2, 3-0)- Losing four starters hasn’t set back this program one bit.

23. Michigan (15-5, 5-2)- Ninth in the nation in percentage of shots from three but make just 34 percent as a team.

24. Wichita State (17-3, 8-1)- According to efficiency numbers, Wichita is the ninth best team in the nation.

25. Vanderbilt (14-5, 4-1)- Appeared to have turned a corner defensively, then gave up 78 at home to Mississippi State.

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