Top 25 Snapshot: 02.29.12

Posted by zhayes9 on February 29th, 2012

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

As the calendar flips from February to March and the college basketball world rejoices at the prospect of another rapidly approaching NCAA Tournament, it’s time to take stock as to where the top teams around the country stand. When the long-awaited tournament does commence, the path to glory evolves into a narrative predicated on matchups rather than rankings, so allow this to serve as more of a final snapshot as the regular season winds to a conclusion. Who is peaking at the right time? Whose style of play translates best into the grind of March? What perceived flaws could derail a run deep into March? Let’s begin with the team most currently resembling a seemingly unflappable juggernaut:

The Spartans crack the top 5 in the latest rankings

1. Kentucky (28-1, 14-0)

Locating a potentially fatal weakness in a team one buzzer-beater away from an undefeated record isn’t an easy task. Freshman point guard Marquis Teague, much like his predecessors at the position under John Calipari, has improved substantially throughout the season, posting 52 assists compared to 21 turnovers in his last nine SEC games. Their athleticism will render even the best man-to-man defense ineffective and the combination of Doron Lamb and Darius Miller can make shots over any zone look. Kentucky also boasts arguably the best perimeter defender in the country in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – whom Calipari utilized to suffocate Dee Bost in the second half of their comeback win in Starkville – and the best post defender in National POY frontrunner Anthony Davis (4.8 blocks per game and countless other alterations and denials). If there’s one nitpick it’s the fact Kentucky rates #84 in the country in three-point defense and rarely forces turnovers defensively; if Teague reverts to his sloppy ways, Lamb/Miller have an off-shooting night against a zone and a team is able to make jump shots over their length, Kentucky could slip in a one-and-done scenario.

2. Syracuse (29-1, 16-1)

The Orange still only have one blemish on their resume – a blowout loss at Notre Dame without indispensable center Fab Melo – but they haven’t exactly been blowing away the opposition the last few weeks, edging West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville and Connecticut by three points or less and barely getting by both USF and Rutgers with late runs. There’s room for improvement, especially on the offensive boards where opponents are snagging 38.3 percent of available misses, one of the drawbacks of playing every possession in a zone defense where no specific man is assigned to keep off the glass. They compensate for plenty of those second-chance points with the best zone defense Jim Boeheim has employed in recent memory and a capacity to convert a Dion Waiters steal (tenth in steal percentage) or a Melo swat (fifth in block percentage) into a transition opportunity where the Orange excel. Their enviable depth also allows Boeheim to shuffle in and out as many as ten different players depending on opposing personnel, foul trouble, the flow of the game and Scoop Jardine’s focus level.

3. Kansas (25-5, 15-2)

Thomas Robinson deservedly receives most of the accolades, but Tyshawn Taylor’s been the best at his position in the Big 12 since conference play began. He’s a matchup nightmare for opposing point guards because of his size, strong frame, quick first step and blazing end-to-end speed. Taylor is also efficient shooting the basketball from both inside (51 percent) and outside (44 percent) the arc while correcting his career-long battle with turnovers, committing just six or more in a game just twice during Big 12 play. With Elijah Johnson taking on more of a distributing role, Travis Releford as a glue guy defender and zero guard depth on the roster, the much-maligned Taylor has had to shoulder a heavy load and is a gigantic reason why Kansas continued their incredible streak of eight consecutive conference titles. Robinson and Taylor will pack a punch, but their prospects in March may come down to whether Jeff Withey can provide a third scoring option and Connor Teahan hits outside shots off the bench. Withey injured his ankle and played just nine minutes against Missouri, a loss that won’t be absorbed so easily in the NCAA Tournament against a bigger frontline.

4. North Carolina (25-4, 12-2)

No team besides Kentucky boasts as much talent as the Tar Heels. Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes are all first-round picks and many scouts believe sixth man James McAdoo could evolve into an early selection after a few years of development in Chapel Hill. Henson possesses absurd length and shot-blocking ability while Barnes can create separation and create his own shot at will, but where this team’s bread is buttered offensively is a dump-down to Zeller in the post for his patented right shoulder hook. Where the Heels may stumble in the tournament is on a cold-shooting night or a physical slugfest where their big men get coaxed into foul trouble. Duke made 15 threes to Carolina’s one in their recent meeting and as a team the Heels hits on just 35 percent from long range (P.J. Hairston has been a big culprit, shooting under 30 percent on 109 attempts). Their bench is also wholly unreliable, especially since Reggie Bullock was pushed to the starting five to replace Dexter Strickland.

5. Michigan State (24-6, 13-4)

Draymond Green is a no-doubter first-team All-American for everything he provides on and off the floor. Jay Bilas dug up the stat that he has the second most 20-point, five-rebound, five-assist games of any collegiate since Tim Duncan, behind only Evan Turner. He’s about as sure a thing as there is in college hoops today. The issue is if Sparty can manufacture enough scoring outside of Green to win six consecutive games in March. The solution would be consistent output from Keith Appling, who has transitioned well to the role of full-time point guard (2.4 turnovers in 30.1 MPG) but whose outside shooting numbers have plummeted (41 percent to 28 percent from 3) with the move. State will compete in any game due to their tremendous rebounding and halfcourt defense, but point production is a lingering concern if Appling plays full-time distributor, Brandon Wood doesn’t make shots and Derrick Nix is mired in foul trouble.

6. Missouri (25-4, 12-4)

Lost in Kansas’ phenomenal 19-point comeback last Saturday was the clinic Missouri put on for the first 25 minutes of that game. The Tigers compensate for a lack of height – “power forward” Kim English is really a 6’6” 2-guard who shoots 45 percent from three – by perfecting a four-out, one-in motion offense, pushing in transition when the opportunity strikes and running pick-and-rolls with point guard whiz Phil Pressey and skilled forward Ricardo Ratliffe while spreading their plethora of three-point shooters around the perimeter. They’re a matchup nightmare because of the quickness of guards Pressey and Mike Dixon and the issues English presents for opposing four-men uncomfortable guarding outside the post. Missouri’s tournament hopes will largely come down to matchups, namely avoiding big, physical frontlines that crash the backboards with abandon. Kansas State is inferior talent-wise yet out-rebounded the Tigers by 20 and swept the season series.

7. Duke (26-4, 13-2)

Due to their collection of quality wins dating back to the non-conference – remember that Duke beat Kansas, Michigan State, Michigan, Washington, Colorado State, Davidson and Penn all before ACC play where they’ve upended North Carolina and Florida State on the road – a win Saturday night in the rematch with the Tar Heels could lock up a number one seed. Duke would enter the tournament as one of the more flawed top seeds in recent memory due to their shoddy perimeter defense, over-reliance on three-point shooting and a lack of reliable low-post scoring. Considering the alternative i.e. Kentucky, Syracuse or Kansas, an 8 or 9 seed should be thrilled if they see Duke pop up as a potential second round opponent. Still, they didn’t compile all of those remarkable victories by blind luck. Often erratic and indecisive early in the year, Austin Rivers has progressed tremendously and is one of the best players in the country operating off ball screens, Duke’s go-to play late in games. There’s also a fair chance a heavy dose of their threes find the bottom of the net as Rivers, Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly all shoot it at better than 38 percent from deep.

8. Ohio State (23-6, 11-5)

Jon Diebler was a much more substantial loss than many of us realized, especially to those in my camp that projected the Buckeyes for the national championship most of the season. Diebler was not only the all-time Big Ten leader in career threes, but he forced defenses to single Jared Sullinger when Thad Matta stationed Diebler on the same side of the floor. Starting with Adreian Payne and Michigan State, teams have frustrated Sullinger by forcing him out of ideal post position and bringing quick, aggressive doubles; as a result, the preseason All-American has scored 20+ points just once since February 7 and against the Spartans he committed ten turnovers. Will Buford’s shooting totals are down from his junior season and, given Aaron Craft’s role as more of a tenacious defender/distributor and DeShaun Thomas’ streakiness, perimeter scoring has been shoddy and unreliable. Yet this is still a team phenomenally coached with a stud post scorer, heady point guard and weapons on the wing. I’m not counting them out.

9. Marquette (24-5, 13-3)

Jae Crowder may have locked up Big East POY after his performance at West Virginia. Kevin Jones may be averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds, but his team losing seven of nine down the stretch to slip into precarious bubble territory will detract from his candidacy. When the two matched up Friday, Jones scored just 12 points on 5-14 shooting while Crowder notched 26 points on 9-17 shooting, but as is often the case, his impact went much further than a box score. On a night where Buzz Williams suspended three starters from a unit already down their two centers, Crowder played 40 minutes and carried the Golden Eagles to a dramatic 61-60 road win over a desperate team. The Georgia native doesn’t just contribute in the scoring column, but at 6’6” he can guard five positions, shoot it from deep and is the best help defender on the roster. A frenzied full-court press, the play of fellow senior Darius Johnson-Odom and brilliant team basketball has augmented this latest winning streak, but Williams needs Davante Gardner back in the lineup to aid the cause against bigger lineups in the NCAA’s.

10. Wichita State (26-4, 16-2)

There’s almost a nationwide consensus that the Shockers are the mid-major with the most legitimate shot at reaching New Orleans. They pass the eye test: a skilled seven-footer in Garrett Stutz manning the paint, a rugged JC transfer in Carl Hall to spell Stutz down low, MVC all-defensive team wings in Ben Smith and Toure Murry who can lock up opposing scorers and an efficient point in Joe Ragland who also drains 48 percent of his threes. They pass the efficiency test, ranking in the top-20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency while shooting a robust 54 percent from two and 37 percent from three. They’re also red hot heading into their conference tournament, winning 24 of their final 26 games after losing twice early to Alabama and Temple.

11. Georgetown (22-6, 12-5)

If the Hoyas make a deep March run, it will be on the heels of their superb team defense. Their athleticism and versatility comes in handy switching every screen and their outstanding perimeter resistance, buoyed by all-underrated team captain Jason Clark, holds opponents to just 28 percent from beyond the arc. Their intricate Princeton-style offense predicated on constant motion, cutting and screening will also wear down opponents on the defensive end. There’s not one spectacular player lining the roster, just a collection of rugged talent comfortable with their roles – Hollis Thompson as a three-point marksman, Henry Sims as a shot-blocker and distributor out of the high post, Otto Porter cleaning up on the glass and Clark as the glue who holds the entire fort together.  They’ll have to avoid prolonged scoring droughts to play into the tournament’s second weekend and beyond.

12. Baylor (25-5, 12-5)

The Bears are an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by a mystery, perfectly exemplified by the play of projected lottery pick and immense talent Perry Jones III. Jones is averaging a solid if unspectacular 13.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and shoots 50 percent from the floor, but in five losses to Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State he’s a total disappearing act, averaging 7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Scott Drew  stubbornly employs a 1-3-1 zone which morphs into a 2-3 and has more holes than Swiss cheese when Baylor is much more capable defensively in straight man-to-man where their superior athleticism and quickness isn’t wasted. Turnovers also continue to be a huge anchor. But once Baylor gets out of the Big 12 where they’re heavily scouted, they’ll pose matchup problems in the Tournament, especially late in games where Pierre Jackson is an assassin.

13. Wisconsin- Relative to expectations, Jordan Taylor has been mired in a shooting slump for the majority of the season. He’s still the power-conference point guard I’d most want leading my team down the stretch.

14. Indiana- Whether the Hoosiers can transfer some of that Bloomington magic to a neutral site is up in the air. Possibly March’s biggest X-factor is Victor Oladipo.

15. Michigan- John Beilein’s system is difficult to scheme and defend for unfamiliar opponents, but one wonders why 44.6 percent of Michigan’s shots are threes when they make 55 percent of their shots inside the arc.

16. UNLV- Much like Indiana, it’s hard to figure if a lack of success in true road games will transfer to a neutral court in the tournament. Matchup nightmares Mike Moser, Chace Stanback and Anthony Marshall still lead me to believe the Rebels are a legit Elite Eight threat.

17. Temple- Unlike past Fran Dunphy-coached squads, the Owls win with offense, led by the backcourt triumvirate of Khalif Wyatt, Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore.

18. Murray State- Turnovers and rebounding could present issues against a more athletic power conference team in March, but the shooting prowess of Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole give them a fighters’ chance against anyone.

19. Notre Dame- The Irish need a lead to impose the burn offense they’re embraced and perfected. This is simply not a team capable of overcoming a big lead.

Rest of the Top 25

20. Louisville

21. Vanderbilt

22. Florida

23. Florida State

24. Gonzaga

25. Iowa State

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