We have our NCAA Nos. 1
Who’s No. 1?
Well, we don’t know the ultimate answer to that question yet. But we do know who the four No. 1 seeds are for the NCAA tournament.
How dominant were the John Calipari’s Wildcats this season?
Well, they locked down the No. 1 overall seed despite a stunning loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Championship final … and there won’t be a bit of controversy over it.
Now, whether this team will more closely resemble Calipari’s first Kentucky team, which was upset in the Elite Eight despite being the consensus favorite to win it all, or the Wildcat squad that made it to last year’s Final Four before narrowly missing out on a spot in the title game remains to be seen.
What isn’t in doubt is that the Wildcats were the class of the regular season.
Why they'll get to New Orleans: This isn't the deepest team Calipari has ever had, but this might be the best starting five the Wildcats have ever put on the floor. They have more weapons and more ways to win than any other team in the country.
Why they'll flame out early: If games get physical, it is possible to get Davis and Jones in foul trouble. Once Calipari has to go to his bench, the ‘Cats go from being great to being very good. And very good teams get beat all the time.
Key to their title hopes: Freshman Marquis Teague has been up and down from day to day. Against LSU in the SEC tournament, Teague looked like a lost puppy, throwing timid passes and failing to run the half-court offense in a productive way. A day later against Florida, he looked like Isiah Thomas, scoring 15, grabbing three rebounds, getting five assists and commanding the floor the way John Wall and Brandon Knight did at Kentucky. If Teague plays with poise, confidence and conviction, the Wildcats look unstoppable. If the weight of the moment gets him, Kentucky could go home disappointed once again.
Distractions have been everywhere for Syracuse's basketball program this season, both on the court and off. Through it all, the Orange simply kept winning.
They won after assistant coach Bernie Fine was fired on Nov. 27 amid child molestation allegations following 36 seasons at Syracuse. He had been the longest tenured assistant at one Division I university.
They won two of three games when star center Fab Melo was ruled academically ineligible at midseason. The Orange relied even more on their vaunted 2-3 zone defense to suffocate opponents.
They won in early March, the same week a report surfaced that at least 10 former Syracuse players participated in games in the past 10 seasons despite failed drug tests.
In a season unlike any in coach Jim Boeheim's 36 years in charge, the Orange still find themselves in a familiar position: among the favorites to win a national championship.
The success of Syracuse (31-2) this season is based on the team's length defensively and supreme balance offensively. The only three players to have started all 33 games this season — Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine — each average fewer points per game this season than they did a year ago.
That kind of unselfishness and willingness to embrace Boeheim's team concept allowed Syracuse to set the school record for most consecutive victories to start a season at 20. The Orange broke the mark on Jan. 16 with a 71-63 victory against Pittsburgh.
Why they'll get to New Orleans: Syracuse doesn't have a so-called offensive superstar, but that makes the team even more dangerous, with one of the most balanced scoring units in the entire country. Six players average between 7.8 points and 13.8 points per game, making it hard for opponents to game plan on stopping any specific player.
Why they'll flame out early: Oddly enough, a team that thrives on its patented zone defense struggles offensively against zone defenses. The blueprint for beating the Orange was laid when Cincinnati toppled Syracuse in the Big East tournament with a zone of its own. Syracuse shoots 34.5 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 159th in the country.
Key to their title hopes: Feb Melo must be a force inside. The 7-foot center from Brazil averages just 7.8 points per game, but he doesn't necessarily have to score a ton because he can alter shots defensively on the back line of Syracuse's 2-3 zone. Melo led the Big East in blocks with 88 this season. The nation saw how susceptible the Orange are without Melo, when he missed three games because of academic issues at midseason. Syracuse went 2-1 during that span and didn't win a game by more than seven points.
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North Carolina entered the season as a prohibitive favorite to win the national championship, but early losses at UNLV and at Kentucky had the pundits wondering about the Tar Heels.
Then a 33-point loss at Florida State pushed most national folks off Carolina’s baby blue bandwagon even further, and a buzzer-beating loss at home to Duke in which UNC blew a 10-point lead with 2:09 left had the experts suggesting UNC was headed nowhere but more disappointment.
Carolina returned all five starters from a team that won the ACC regular season title with a 14-2 league mark and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 2011, but the chemistry wasn’t quite there early this season and well into January. The players’ skills changed, notably 6-foot-11 forward John Henson, who had stepped his game away from the basket more from the previous season.
But those losses and a season-ending injury to starting guard Dexter Strickland got the Tar Heels’ attention, and they have played exceptionally over the last month, and have secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Although Henson injured his left wrist Friday at the ACC Tournament, UNC may not need him until it reaches the Sweet 16. So he has time to heal.
Why they’ll get to New Orleans: This team was built to win a national championship. It has all of the components – talent, balance, size, experience, coaching – and it has developed a layer of toughness that is necessary to win it all.
Why they’ll flame out early: If Henson can’t play, Kendall Marshall gets in foul trouble and the Tar Heels don’t shoot well from the perimeter, they could go down in the second round to a team that hits perimeter shots.
Key to their title hopes: Kendall Marshall must avoid injury and foul trouble, as UNC really has no backup capable of handling a Final Four setting. In addition, if Henson gets healthy, Tyler Zeller keeps playing as he has, and Harrison Barnes finds his stroke, the Heels might be the team to beat.
Michigan State has gone from the nation's most underachieving team a year ago to one of the most overachieving teams this season.
The Spartans started last season with high hopes, ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls. They made the NCAA tournament but got knocked out in their first game to finish with a 19-15 record, nowhere to be found in the final top 25.
Coming into this season, Michigan State wasn't even ranked after losing Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, not to mention Delvon Roe, who decided to give up basketball a few weeks before practice started because of chronic knee problems.
No one dreamed that the Spartans would be in contention for a top seed come Selection Sunday. After a slow start to the season, the Spartans went on to win a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, then beat Ohio State to win the Big Ten tournament title.
Why they'll get to New Orleans: Izzo (35-13 in NCAA tournament games) has the blueprint for what it takes to win in March. They've played an extremely challenging schedule, won tough games on the road, play solid defense and Green is determined to complete his career with a national championship.
Why they'll flame out early: The loss of Dawson leaves Michigan State without its most athletic player. That's going to be a factor sooner or later. There just wasn't much room for error to begin with for this team.
Key to their title hopes: Keith Appling not only has to play a solid floor game, he needs to start making shots to give the team more scoring punch to go with Green's steady production. Appling shot 41.1 percent from three-point range last season. He's making 24.1 percent this season, including 6-for-42 (14.3 percent) in his last 17 games.