Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.
If I had to compile a midseason All-American team, the first four choices seem fairly obvious: Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette and Nolan Smith at the three guard spots and Jared Sullinger manning the frontcourt. The final selection is up for debate and valid arguments can be made for JaJuan Johnson, Jon Leuer, Terrence Jones and Derrick Williams. Due to his invaluable status relative to his team, Williams takes the cake. His importance to the success of the Wildcats is immeasurable and the idea that Arizona is barely an NIT team without his presence isn’t far fetched. Williams is compiling a monstrous season not only as far as basic statistics are concerned (19/7 on an incomprehensible 66/75/71 from the floor) but also in most advanced metrics you can dig up (24th in offensive rating, third in effective FG%, second in true shooting% and second in fouls drawn per 40 minutes). Walker spurted ahead of Sullinger to reclaim frontrunner status for National POY following his heroics late in Austin on Saturday, while Fredette is a must-see spectacle every time he takes the floor. His scoring display against the normally rugged UNLV halfcourt defense was a sight to behold and the 6’2 guard now only trails the aforementioned Walker atop the scoring charts in college basketball. Sullinger has exemplified why it’s preposterous for people to criticize freshmen inclusions on preseason All-American teams. In the one-and-done era where the premier high school talents are forced to play a season on the collegiate level, the last five or so years have shown freshmen are more than capable of making this type of dramatic impact. We just pegged the wrong rookie in early November. Finally, if it’s possible to play for Duke and be underrated, Nolan Smith fits the bill. His seamless transition to point guard in the absence of Kyrie Irving should be applauded. Striking that delicate balance between scoring and distributing is a challenging one. Prior to struggles against Maryland, Smith was playing the best basketball of any player in the nation.
It’s too early to make any broad, sweeping statements about which teams are definitely elite and separating themselves from the pack. Remember, at this point last season, Texas was the #1 team in the nation with North Carolina and Connecticut also setting up camp in the top 15. At the same time, Saturday’s action gave us a glimpse into that pecking order possibly starting to take shape. Four of the five remaining unbeaten teams- Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse– all survived hard-fought, competitive, high-intensity games over the weekend, while, with the exception of unblemished brethren San Diego State, the rest of the top 25 experienced quite the upheaval. One of the discernable traits of Final Four-caliber teams is the ability to win games despite not playing their best basketball, especially on the road. Nolan Smith shot just 5-18 from the floor, Duke as a team only made 6-21 from three and the Blue Devils still found a way to edge past ACC rival Maryland. The Buckeyes shot just 39% from the floor, blew a double digit second half lead and still managed to survive Minnesota. Kansas shot an ugly 36%, including 4-24 from behind the arc, yet outlasted upstart Michigan in a true road game. The same applied to Syracuse on Saturday in their low-scoring affair with Seton Hall. Elsewhere, ranked teams like Missouri, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Kansas State, Michigan State and UCF succumbed to losses, the majority coming on the road against conference competition. If the season ended today, it’s clear that undefeated Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse would be the four #1 seeds. If those squads can continue their habits of winning despite not playing their best basketball, we could see a hierarchy start to take shape. As for the rest of the rankings, be prepared for a jumbled mess for the next two months.
Speaking of Kansas, the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Big 12. The job Bill Self has done with that program cannot possibly be overstated. The depth he has been able to assemble is remarkable. How many teams can lose two lottery picks and their senior point guard and not miss a beat? Self has reached an enviable position in Lawrence: recognizable and historical program, energized fan base, top-flight recruiting and a winning expectation. The reason why Kansas has won the Big 12 every season since 2003-04, and the reason why they’re the prohibitive favorite once again this year, is their ability to play at any tempo, any pace and in any type of game in any environment. Missouri is widely considered a threat to KU in the conference this time around, but their stunning defeat at the hands of struggling Colorado is the perfect example of the contrast between Missouri, and other Big 12 programs to an extent, and rival Kansas. The Tigers are only successful against competitive challengers (North Alabama doesn’t qualify) when they force turnovers and turn the game into a chaotic marathon, and Missouri has historically struggled away from the friendly confines of their home arena. While Kansas enjoys home cooking as much as any program, they’ve shown a much greater propensity to win away from Allen Fieldhouse. They can win games in the 50’s or games in the 90’s. Their offensive and defensive efficiency are both equally top notch year in and year out under Self. Here’s a rule of thumb: until Kansas doesn’t win the Big 12, they should be picked in the preseason. Every single year.