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:
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.