Otskey’s Observations: Episode XII, Contenders and Pretenders EditionPosted by Brian Otskey on February 12th, 2014
Each week throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from the previous week of college basketball.
It is now mid-February which means Selection Sunday is only about a month away. The dog days of the college basketball season are upon us and it is time to separate the contenders from the pretenders. This week, I will take a look at a handful of teams in the national championship conversation as the NCAA Tournament creeps closer and closer.
You will notice some big names absent from this list but that simply means I have not formed a defensible position either way on that particular team. Arizona is one such example as I would like to see the Wildcats play some more games without Brandon Ashley before I declare them a contender or a pretender.
Syracuse – CONTENDER. Jim Boeheim’s Orange remains undefeated heading into tonight’s difficult road test at Pittsburgh. While Syracuse will very likely lose at some point before the NCAA Tournament, whether it is tonight or in another game, this team has all the pieces to make a run at a national title. While the play of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney’s emergence as a reliable scorer grab most of the headlines, Syracuse a freak athlete in Jerami Grant and the rim protector in Rakeem Christmas that most championship teams have featured over the years. What makes Syracuse so dangerous is its ability to beat you in a variety of ways. The Orange rank No. 345 in average possessions per game, near the very bottom of Division I. They can wear you out in the half court but also pick their spots to run and score in transition. Syracuse has a terrific turnover margin, making live ball turnovers particularly lethal against this team. However, what makes the Orange so dangerous is Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. Other teams see occasional zones throughout the season but Syracuse’s zone is unique in its ability to extend beyond the three point line and apply incredible ball pressure. As we saw in last year’s NCAA Tournament, opponents were not prepared for what that zone brings to the table and it carried SU all the way to the Final Four. The tournament is all about match-ups and Syracuse has an inherent advantage because of how unfamiliar teams are with the way it plays defense.
Florida – PRETENDER. Florida’s gaudy record immediately jumps out when you talk about this team but a deeper inspection of its résumé reveals a lack of quality wins and an inability to overwhelm opponents with offense, two historical attributes of champions. Florida has a terrific home win over Kansas and a nice neutral court victory over Memphis but both of those came within one week of each other way back in December. Since then, the Gators’ best wins were either a home triumph over Missouri or a sweep of Tennessee, you be the judge. Neither of those teams is top 25 quality but to be fair to the Gators, they have yet to play Kentucky. That changes this Saturday night when Florida heads to Lexington for their toughest test to date. I like Florida’s defense a lot and Billy Donovan’s best teams have always been elite on that end of the floor. What concerns me is their ability to score and win close games against quality competition. The Gators lost close games at Wisconsin and Connecticut while also looking shaky in the closing minutes against Kansas. Who is the player they can count on to come up with a big bucket? Outside shooting is a major concern for this team. Michael Frazier is its only reliable deep threat and the Gators are only connecting on 32.7% of their three point attempts in SEC play. Another area of concern is free throw shooting (66.4%). In a close, pressure-packed tournament game, free throws may become a liability. Of Florida’s regular rotation players, only Frazier (84.8%) and Scottie Wilbekin (72.6%) shoot over 70 percent from the charity stripe.
Kansas – CONTENDER. While the incredibly young Jayhawks have six losses to date, this team has grown significantly over the last few months. Kansas can score the ball inside and protect the rim on the defensive end, a combination of interior strength that not many other teams can match. This is nowhere near the best Kansas teams of the past but with a lot of talent and perhaps the best pure coach in America, I am not going to count this team out given the lack of a dominant team this year. Kansas absolutely has issues with turnovers, something that can destroy this team’s chances in any given game. It is a liability but pretty much all of the contenders have a weak link or two. Kansas has played the strongest schedule in the country and what is most impressive about this group is its ability to persevere through tough times and earn victories. Even in a loss to Kansas State on Monday night, I was really impressed with the team’s play down the stretch in regulation. Kansas never quit and showed a determination to win combined with terrific tactical moves by Bill Self. This never say die attitude is such a valuable intangible and will serve the Jayhawks well in March.
Duke – PRETENDER. The Blue Devils have played better since starting the season 12-4 but I think the reason Duke is a pretender is quite simple, a weakness most observers have been harping on for quite some time. There is no rim protector on the roster and an extremely porous interior defense is a result of that. Teams have no fear when they go inside against the Blue Devils, especially when they have the personnel and talent to score in the paint. Duke is a highly talented team but it will eventually run into a bad match-up over the course of the tournament. Offensively, the Blue Devils rely way too much on the three point shot in order to sustain success for six games in March and April. While Duke is the nation’s most efficient offensive team, opposing defenses will be a lot better in the tournament and lock in stopping the three point shot. In the inevitable game where the shots do not fall and opposing guards and forwards get to the rim with little resistance, Duke will bow out of the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State – CONTENDER. This comes with the disclaimer that Michigan State must regain its full health before the NCAA Tournament begins. The Spartans have played 24 games this season and only two players on the entire roster (Denzel Valentine and Gavin Schilling) have appeared in every game. As it stands now, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson remain on the injured list. Appling is expected back by the end of February while Dawson is looking at approximately the same timeline, maybe shortly thereafter. Both players should be ready for the Big Ten Tournament and beyond, a development that would immediately push the Spartans towards the top of the list of contenders. Michigan State was my preseason pick to win it all and I am not deviating from that now. This team blends experienced players with younger talent as well as any in the country and has put together a 20-4 record despite all of the injuries. The return of Appling and Dawson are both critical for a number of reasons but it is Dawson’s return that may be able to carry the Spartans all the way. He will bring toughness on the boards and the ability to block shots, something all championship contenders need. Michigan State shoots the ball well and averages 78 points per game so scoring shouldn’t be a problem with a full roster. How good can Michigan State be? Consider this: in Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin, Gary Harris shot 3-for-20 from the floor; the Spartans got to the free throw line only nine times; MSU had only nine assists on 24 field goals and still lost a road game against a good team by only two measly points (h/t @zhayes9). With a warrior like Adreian Payne and a senior point guard in Appling, only injuries seem to standing in the way of Michigan State winning a national title.