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.

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Top 25 Snapshot: 01.24.12

Posted by zhayes9 on January 24th, 2012

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

Parity is the most overused expression in sports. Commissioners use it as a crutch to promote the competitive balance in their sport. When a small market teams upends their high-payroll counterparts to win a division championship, cries of parity rain from the masses. Any time there’s an abundance of teams still fighting for a playoff spot on the last week of the season, you’ll undoubtedly hear that parity has never been stronger.

As we geared up for another college basketball season last November, something strange happened: the word parity was nowhere to be found. We had just completed an off-season where a number of expected lottery picks – from North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes to Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Baylor’s Perry Jones III – eschewed NBA riches for a return to esteemed programs. Following a Final Four that featured Butler and VCU, this was supposed to be the season where order was restored, the cream rose to the top and we could identify a privileged class of elite teams at the top of the rankings. The 2008 season, where four #1 seeds reached the Final Four, acted as a good comparison.

That expected narrative has been flipped on its head. Instead of “great” teams emerging after a two-year hiatus, there’s as much turmoil as any season in recent memory. Winning on the road is seemingly unfeasible. There’s turnover atop the rankings every single week. So called mid-majors are standing toe-to-toe with storied programs, evident by a three-loss Kansas team that fell to Davidson suddenly looking like a top-five outfit. Unpredictability is alive and well.

There are countless times in sports where that clichéd phrase parity is thrown around wildly and irresponsibly. The 2011-12 college basketball season is not one of those times.

Calipari's Wildcats are back atop the rankings

1. Kentucky (19-1, 5-0)- Incredibly, they still have not dropped a game at home during the John Calipari era. Alabama played uncharacteristically well on the offensive end, punched Kentucky in the mouth and the young Wildcats responded. The true tests of this team’s mettle will be road visits to Vanderbilt (2/11), Mississippi State (2/21) and Florida (3/4). Kentucky ranks second in two-point field goal percentage and first in block percentage largely due to the presence of Anthony Davis inside, while freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist provides athleticism, scoring and toughness beyond his years. One concern has to be freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who has 17 assists and 16 turnovers during SEC play.

2. Syracuse (21-1, 8-1)- Dropping a road game in conference shouldn’t send the Orange faithful to the nearest ledge, but the way in which they fell to Notre Dame was concerning. The Irish followed the blueprint of controlling tempo, limiting live-ball turnovers and making timely threes, while I felt Syracuse became panicky and erratic in their offense way too quickly. The loss of Fab Melo for an undetermined amount of time deprives Syracuse of a crucial shot-blocking presence on the back  line of their zone. The Orange are still far and away the best team in the Big East, on track for a number one seed and Scoop Jardine played phenomenally against Cincinnati, but make them play a half-court game and Syracuse is far from invincible.

3. Missouri (18-1, 5-1)- The oft-repeated theme regarding Missouri was that a team with size, athleticism and length in the post would capitalize on the fact the Tigers only employ two players taller than 6 feet, 8 inches. While Kansas State exposed this flaw, Baylor’s switching defenses had no answer for the most efficient offense in America. Missouri shoots a ridiculous 57% from two and ranks fourth in turnover rate, largely due to the proficiency of point guard Phil Pressey and his pick-and-roll partner Ricardo Ratliffe, who is on pace to break the all-time field goal percentage record. Missouri will be favored in every game the rest of the season, placing them on a fast track for the #1 seed in the St. Louis region.

4. Ohio State (17-3, 5-2)- My heart still tells me Ohio State will be playing on the first Monday in April and, unlike Syracuse, the Big Ten will sufficiently test them for the NCAA Tournament grind. The Buckeyes may have the best point guard (Craft) and center (Sullinger) in the country, but the departures of David Lighty and Jon Diebler has negatively affected William Buford, whose offensive rating and shooting percentages have dipped from last season. Make Craft go left, attack Thomas/Sullinger defensively, dare them to shoot threes and Ohio State is vulnerable. Two recent wins by a combined 51 points against Indiana and Nebraska leads me to believe the Brandon Paul Show in Champaign was a wakeup call.

5. Kansas (17-3, 7-0)- Nothing this season has changed my mind that Bill Self is one of the top five coaches in America. Think about it: the Jayhawks have won seven straight Big 12 titles, lost three draft picks, two more key senior contributors, two freshmen to academics, has no bench and once again sits at the top of the rankings. A major reason has been the progression of enigmatic point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who has scored 95 points on 58 percent shooting in his last four games while turning the ball over just 11 times, including zero in 34 minutes at Texas. Buoyed by Taylor and national POY frontrunner Thomas Robinson, Kansas’ starting five can compete with anyone in the nation.

6. North Carolina (16-3, 3-1)- Store this factoid in mind for your bracket in March: no team has ever won it all after losing by 30 or more points during the season as the Heels did at Florida State last Saturday. They responded well in Blacksburg, but losing Dexter Strickland to a torn ACL is an extremely costly setback. Strickland is Roy Williams’ preferred perimeter stopper, a task which must now be delegated to inexperienced sophomore Reggie Bullock. Strickland served as an efficient glue guy who simply knew his role. Carolina is still Final Four talented, though. They’re a tremendous rebounding team that rarely turns the ball over and keeps you off the free throw line.

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