One Month In: Where Are All the Great Teams?Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 9th, 2013
This week will see a new team take its turn at the top of the polls, but like their predecessors in the rankings’ top slot, the Arizona Wildcats will seize the reins just days after a performance in which they hardly resembled the best team in the country. The pesky Columbia Lions — also known as the team that nearly ended Michigan State’s reign atop the polls before it even began — may be significantly less talented than the UNLV outfit that gave Arizona fits at the McKale Center on Saturday afternoon, but that shouldn’t provide Sean Miller’s team a free pass on their underwhelming effort. The Runnin’ Rebels, disappointing as they have been, really aren’t that bad (temporarily forgetting the 21-point home loss to UCSB as I write that), and close losses do happen, but there is a presumption that the #1 team in the country will take care of business in a manner befitting an elite unit. Upcoming games against New Mexico State and Michigan will offer the Wildcats a quick chance to validate their lofty ranking, but even with a pair of victories this week, are we really ready to call Arizona truly elite? And if we aren’t ready to offer that declaration for the #1 team in the polls, might we be faced with a college basketball season devoid of a profoundly great unit?
To the point, Arizona’s ascent to the top spot in the polls has had as much to do with the failings of the five preseason teams ahead of them as it has the Wildcats’ own success. True, that preseason top-five grouping has been a bit cannibalistic (Kentucky fell to Michigan State; Duke dropped one to Kansas), but no member of the quintet has yet shown an ability to be consistently great. The new pieces have struggled to fit at Kentucky and Kansas — each team has two losses; while Louisville and Michigan State failed to do something that Belmont and UAB accomplished – beat North Carolina. And Duke, vanquished by the pollsters newest #1 team 10 days ago at the Garden, just picked up its first quality win of the season when the Blue Devils defeated Michigan last week at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It’s no secret that elite teams are becoming harder to find in college basketball. The game lacks both the continuity and star power it possessed in the 90s and prior, which makes recognizing an elite team nearly as difficult as building one. Many fans would argue with labeling last year’s title-winning Louisville squad “elite,” but it’s doubtful they’d object to attaching that title to the three other teams (besides the ’13 Cardinals) that finished in the top five for both offensive and defensive efficiency in any of the last 10 seasons: the runners-up in 2004 and 2005 (Duke and Illinois, respectively), and the 2008 champions (Kansas). Given the pedigree of that trio, it would seem plausible that last year’s champions deserve a bit more historical significance, no matter what their perception was at the time.
Back to the present – is any current squad capable of turning into one that we will remember well beyond 2014? The raw potential may be there for any of those top-six teams, but I’m guessing that a search for an identity will take a little too long for Duke, Kansas and Kentucky; I’m going to rule this trio out. Ditto Michigan State, who may count as a title contender deep into March, but a lack of top-end talent compared to some of the others makes me skeptical. Louisville has a real shot to replicate last year’s March success, and looky looky – they are in the top six in both overall efficiency categories again. Rick Pitino’s boys may be flying a bit under the radar right now, but I’ll buy the Cardinals as a contender to earn an “elite” tag that actually sticks. Time will tell for the untested Cards.
I also think Arizona can get there. Even Sean Miller knows that his team is a work in progress, but the pieces are in place to be great. T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson offer great balance – both in terms of production and leadership – to a young and intriguing front line. Aaron Gordon, unlike his precocious compatriots at Kentucky, Duke and elsewhere, isn’t being asked to carry the load from day one. The bounty of talent around him is allowing the freshman to naturally grow into a role – a far healthier operation than having an entire team remold itself around the new guy.
Arizona is quite good right now, and the fact that they may be even better come March is a scary proposition. In this chaotic season at the top of the polls, that may be enough to make this group of Wildcats both our newest and greatest hope at finding an elite team in 2013-14.