Over the last 10 days I have been lucky enough to see multiple national contenders in person, specifically Arizona, Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky. Of those four teams, Arizona impressed me the most. While T.J. McConnell certainly adds another dimension to Sean Miller’s offense as a true point guard (something they sorely missed last year), the most convincing part of the Wildcats’ performance against Duke was their defense. That is the kind of effort that will enable Arizona to get to the point where it is playing championship-level basketball. Arizona still needs to find a consistent shooter (Nick Johnson or Gabe York could be that guy), but I really like its potential. As for Duke, I am actually optimistic that it will turn its defensive problems around (the Michigan win was a great start in that regard), but I am not sure the Blue Devils can get to the level needed to win a national championship. I really liked what I saw out of Michigan State when I saw it play against Oklahoma. Keith Appling led the way for the Spartans and I just love the blend of talent and experience on this roster. Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine seemed primed to take another step forward while Tom Izzo has three All-America candidates in Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne leading the team in scoring. One area of concern for Michigan State is its offensive rebounding, which has been uncharacteristically poor in the early-going. It’s something to keep an eye on, but remember, Izzo’s teams always get better as the season goes along. This one shouldn’t be any different. Of the four teams, Kentucky has the most room for growth. What I saw from Willie Cauley-Stein on Sunday night against Providence was something that makes the Wildcats very scary going forward. UK has NBA length up front and the talent to dominate inside the arc on both ends of the floor. Kentucky’s defense is not at an elite level just yet but this game provided us with a glimpse of what it can be. Mid- to long-range jump shooting is not a strength of this team but as long as it controls the paint and limits turnovers, John Calipari will have even more options to turn to.
After taking the Battle 4 Atlantis title, Villanova rightly earned a spot in this week’s Top 25. The Wildcats have been the most impressive team in the Big East to date, a conference that has struggled as a whole out of the gate. While I did slot the Wildcats in my rankings at No. 19, I’m not ready to fully buy in just yet. I love this team’s toughness and chemistry from what I saw in Atlantis but there are some clear limitations that I have noticed, even in its wins. The turnover problems that plagued this team all of last season are still there, albeit not to the same degree. Turnovers absolutely kill offensive efficiency and Villanova simply cannot afford it on a continuing basis against better teams. Another red flag is their three-point shooting, currently at 31.4 percent. For a team that relies heavily on triples (44.7 percent of field goals attempted), that can lead to a lot of hit-or-miss games. The old saying of living and dying by the three certainly applies to Villanova, which was on the good side of that equation in Atlantis. I would like to see JayVaughn Pinkston become a better presence on the low blocks, something that would immediately open up Villanova’s offense and make it more versatile. Jay Wright’s squad is clearly a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s not like it lacks talent. The Wildcats have put themselves on the map but I need to see more of this team before I jump on board. A stern non-conference test at Syracuse (how weird is that to say regarding these old Big East rivals?) will give the Wildcats a great test. From the looks of it, it’ll be bombs away from three-point land.