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.