Memphis transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson are eligible just in time for Bill Self. That’s because the Jayhawks have to replace Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailluk, and Malik Newman. The Lawson twins will be joined by newcomers Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes and David McCormack. Junior Udoka Azubuike and senior Lagerald Vick will provide stability and extra production for what I believe to be the best team in the country.
2. Kansas St
A direct beneficiary of UMBC upsetting Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Kansas St was able to use that fortune to make a run to the elite 8. That run was made, for the most part, without senior forward Dean Wade. He’s back and will be joined by other key returners in fellow senior Barry Brown, junior Xavier Sneed and sophomore Cartier Diarra. This is clearly Bruce Weber’s best team since being in charge in Manhattan.
3. West Virginia
“Press Virginia” is now a system that people believe in, but that belief will be put to the test now that Jevon Carter is in the NBA. There is still plenty here including one of the best rim protectors in the country in junior forward Sagaba Konate. Returning with him in the frontcourt will be senior Esa Ahmad and junior Lamont West while junior James Bolden will attempt to replace Carter in the backcourt.
Head coach Jamie Dixon is showing why he was so successful at Pitt. He’s turned this program around in short order with the help junior guard Jaylen Fisher. Fisher’s health is the key to season as he’s already had two knee surgeries this calendar year. Sophomore forward Kouat Noi, senior guard Alex Robinson and freshmen R.J. Nembhard, Kaden Archie and Kendric Davis will need to pick up the slack if Fisher isn’t at full strength early.
5. Iowa St
The Cyclones return much of what was a very competitive, albeit last place team in the Big XII last season. One the best scorers in the conference senior guard Lindell Wigginton is back with his backcourt mate senior Nick Weiler-Babb. Sophomore Cameron Lard returns in the frontcourt and he’ll be joined by Virginia transfer Marial Shayok and freshman Talen Horton-Tucker. There’s is plenty here to get the Cyclones back to the tournament.
Head coach Shaka Smart isn’t on the hot seat, but he might be if he doesn’t get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament this season. The problem is he may not have the roster for that kind of a run. Sophomore Matt Coleman III and senior Kerwin Roach II return in the backcourt for the Longhorns. A top-10 recruiting class should be able to provide plenty depth for Texas. Watch out to see if Texas can replace Mo Bamba’s rim protection.
7. Texas Tech
Chris Beard is making a name as one of the best X and O’s coaches in the country and he’ll have to use all of that to get his Red Raiders back to the tournament. Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith are gone leaving sophomore guard Jarrett Culver to carry the torch from last year’s outstanding team. Transfers Tariq Owens and Matt Mooney will be looked to for help as well. Freshmen Khavon Moore and Kyler Edwards are solid pieces for the future.
This is one of the most intriguing teams in the league because there are so many unknowns. Transfers Mario Kegler and Makai Mason will be big pieces to their success while freshmen Matthew Mayer and Flo Thamba will have to be ready to hit the ground running. The league is probably just a little too difficult for the roster head coach Scott Drew has this season.
The Sooners are going to have a helluva Trae Young hangover. Young dominated the ball last season and didn’t have much to work with. That is a significant reason why Oklahoma faltered down the stretch. Senior guard Christian James and sophomore forward Brady Manek do return though. Grad transfer Aaron Calixte will be tasked with replacing Young.
10. Oklahoma St
The Cowboys almost made the tournament last season, but head coach Mike Boynton lost quite a bit from that team. He’s going to need transfers Mike Cunningham and Curtis Jones as well as freshman Isaac Likekele to make an instant impact. The Cowboys are in a rebuilding year, but Boynton has the program in good shape.
Not many teams around the country have been as pleasant a surprise as Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have gotten off to a great start this season led by seniors Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis.
The Irish have already gone to Orlando and won the Old Spice Classic taking out Georgia and Wisconsin on its way to the title. In addition to that, it has also dispatched of Georgetown, Connecticut and Pittsburgh in Big East play.
The reason why Notre Dame has been so successful however is because of shift in philosophy. Towards the end of last season coach Mike Brey, prompted by an injury to star forward Luke Harangody, changed his team’s style of play from fast-paced to a more methodical or “burn” offense. It’s an offense that the talent he has thrives on.
Hansbrough is surprisingly effective off the dribble along with being a great shooter while Abromaitis is a matchup nightmare with his size and ability to step outside and knock down jumpers. Throw in the supporting cast of Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott and Scott Martin and the Irish may realistically be a Final Four contender.
Stock Up: North Carolina. A few weeks ago coach Roy Williams went off on Tarheel fans. Well his team has been going off on Tarheel opponents. After a slow start, the Tarheels have managed to set themselves apart from every ACC team not named Duke. A blowout loss to Georgia Tech almost started a coup in Chapel Hill, but now it looks like this team can challenge for the ACC title.
Stock Down: Wichita St’s quality wins. Where are they? They’re nowhere to be found. Wichita St has played four games against opponents in the RPI top-100 and it’s 0-4 against them all. The Shockers are still living off of preseason expectations, but if they expect that to translate into a postseason berth, they’ll have to sweep Northern Iowa and Missouri St on the road.
Stock Up: Harvard. The Crimson is poised for its first ever NCAA tournament berth with a 4-0 start to Ivy League play. The Crimson may also be poised for an at-large berth as well. Harvard has already taken out Colorado and Boston College this season with its three losses coming to George Mason, Michigan and Connecticut. Traditionally Ivy League teams have been very competitive in March and it looks like this year will be no different.
Stock Down: Kansas St. If you declare that you’re not going to play in the NIT, then you better play like you don’t want to play in the NIT. Jacob Pullen has failed in that regard and the preseason top-5 ranked Wildcats are one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball. There’s no leadership on the floor and now players are defecting from the program. Manhattan is morphing back into the laughing stock of the Big XII.
This Week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: New Mexico, George Mason, Georgia, Richmond
Last Four Out: Colorado St, Wichita St, Virginia Tech, Penn St
Good for Games through 1/30
1.Ohio St16.McNeese St/Bethune-Cookman Cleveland
5.Syracuse12.Georgia/George Mason Tampa
6.Florida11.UCLA Washington, DC
7.West Virginia10.Michigan St Charlotte
1.Pittsburgh16.Long Beach St Cleveland
5.North Carolina12.Richmond/New Mexico Tucson
6.Washington11.St. John’s Denver
2.San Diego St15.Northern Colorado SOUTHWEST
1.Texas16.Long Island Tulsa
5.Minnesota12.Washington St Chicago
6.Xavier11.Northern Iowa Charlotte
7.Utah St10.Boston College Washington, DC
2.Connecticut15.Florida Atlantic SOUTHEAST
1.Kansas16.Austin Peay/Texas Southern Tulsa
6.Tennessee11.Virginia Commonwealth Denver
7.Arizona10.St. Mary’s Chicago
1. Syracuse Orange Location: Syracuse, N.Y. Record: 28-4 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Wesley Johnson (16 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Andy Rautins (11.7 ppg, 5 apg), Kris Joseph (11.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Arinze Onuaku (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Rick Jackson (10 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Scoop Jardine (8.8 ppg), Brandon Triche (8.1 ppg) Strength: Syracuse has outstanding balance. Across the board, the Orange can hurt you from anywhere on the floor. Wes Johnson is a match-up problem for anybody, Andy Rautins is deadly from deep and Rick Johnson and Arinze Onuaku are space eaters in the paint. The Orange can attack in the half court or in transition. They are just a nightmare to match-up with and that’s why they’re one of the best teams in the country. Weakness: Late in the season, some chinks in Syracuse’s armor. Both Louisville and Georgetown has exposed holes in the Orange’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense. Louisville shot 58.1 percent in the second half against Syracuse and Georgetown 57.9 percent for the whole game. If Syracuse doesn’t sure up the weaknesses in that zone, it may be the opening its foes is looking for to defeat it.
2. Kansas State Wildcats Location: Manhattan, Kan. Record: 26-7 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Jacob Pullen (18.9 ppg), Denis Clemente (16.2 ppg), Jamar Samuels (11.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Curtis Kelly (11.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Dominique Sutton (5.8 rpg) Strength: This is an explosive team when their big men play well The Wildcats play hard and they like to get out in transition. Led by the backcourt of Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, they can just absolutely pound teams into submission. Coach Frank Martin has molded this team in his personality and it will be interesting to see how they perform in the tournament. Weakness: This team can play out-of-control sometimes. They play so hard that it’s excused by Martin, but it can be frustrating to watch. Pullen and Clemente are known to take bad shots. Their big men have been known to commit questionable fouls. They need to play smart in this tournament to have success. They can get to the Final Four or they can lose in the first weekend.
3. Pittsburgh Panthers Location: Pittsburgh, Pa. Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Player: Ashton Gibbs (15.8 ppg), Brad Wanamaker (12.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Jermaine Dixon (10.7 ppg), Gilbert Brown (10.3 ppg), Gary McGhee (6.9 rpg), Nasir Robinson (5.6 rpg) Strength: The Panthers reflect the identity of their city and their coach. They’re tough. It’s like Groundhog’s Day with Pitt because every year they seem to have the same kind of team. They’re going to play great defense and crash the boards. They’re not going to be intimidated by anyone and there’s not many who can match the effort they’re going to give. Jamie Dixon has a formula and he doesn’t need to change it as long as it keeps working. Weakness: There’s a feeling that Dixon has gotten everything he can out of this team. The Panthers have greatly overachieved this season. That’s partly due to the brilliant coaching job Dixon has done and partly due to no one had a read on his players. Now teams have a book on his players and they know what the Panthers like to do. It’ll be interesting to see if that translate to an early exit for Pitt.
4. Vanderbilt Commodores Location: Nashville, Tenn. Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Jermaine Beal (14.7 ppg), A.J. Ogilvy (13.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Jeffery Taylor (13.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), John Jenkins (10.9 ppg), Andre Walker (5.5 rpg) Strength: Vanderbilt is a tough team to prepare for. They run a Princeton-style offense with great shooters and a solid post presence. A.J Ogilvy, the 6’11” Aussie, along with Jermaine Beal and John Jenkins were tailor-made for this offense. Beal and Jenkins really spread the defense with excellent outside shooting while Ogilvy does his work in the paint. They’re difficult to defend and will be an issue this March. Weakness: There’s not much depth for the Commodores. After the top six players in their rotation, the production drops sharply. This is a team that needs every starter to play well every night. If they get in foul trouble, or one of the starters has an off night, they could be cooked. Vanderbilt may need to get some else to step up un-expectantly if they expect to make a run at the tournament.
5. Butler Bulldogs Location: Indianapolis, Ind. Record: 28-4 Automatic Bid: Horizon League Champions Key Players: Gordon Hayward (15.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Shelvin Mack (13.9 ppg), Matt Howard (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, Willie Veasley (10.3 ppg) Strength: Most would equate Butler with three-point shooting and offense. However, Butler’s defense is the biggest reason why they’ve been so successful. The Bulldogs are holding opponents to just 60 points per game. In fact, in its BracketBuster game, Butler held Siena to just 53 points. This isn’t just because of tempo, this is because the Bulldogs allow their opponents to shoot just 41.4 percent from the floor. Weakness: Butler has no frontcourt depth. Matt Howard, the Bulldogs best post player, often finds himself in foul trouble and it puts them in a bind. Howard has got to stay out of foul trouble and play effective minutes for them to be successful. He’s good scorer and can rebound with the best of them, but it does the Bulldogs no good if he’s sitting beside Butler coach Brad Stevens on the bench.
6. Xavier Musketeers Location: Cincinnati, Ohio Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference Key Players: Jordan Crawford (19.7 ppg), Jason Love (11.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg), Terrell Holloway (11.8 ppg), Jamel McLean (8.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Mark Lyons (8.4 ppg) Strength: The Musketeers are one of the most explosive teams in the country. Led by sophomore swingman Jordan Crawford, the Musketeers are putting up 80 points per game. They have offensive diversity with good wing players, good guard play and solid post players. That means that they are balanced and can beat you in a variety of ways. Xavier seems to always have great scorers and this year is no different. Weakness: Xavier’s youth could come back to bite them. The Musketeers depend on three underclassmen for major production. Crawford, Terrell Holloway and Mark Lyons are all talented players, but they’re green when it comes to these situations. Shot selection has been an issue all year for them and chances are it’s not going to improve now. Xavier is going to need is young guys to grow up in a hurry if expects to make another deep run in the tournament.
7. BYU Cougars Location: Provo, Utah Record: 29-5 At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference Key Players: Jimmer Fredette (21.7 ppg), Jackson Emery (12.6 ppg), Tyler Haws (11.3 ppg) Jonathan Tavernari (10.3 ppg), Noah Hartsock (5.1 rpg) Strength: Any team with Jimmer Fredette is going to have a chance to win. Fredette is one of the most underrated scorers in the country. He’s a 44.8 three-point shooter and 89.6 percent from the free-throw line. He doesn’t waste opportunities and has been consistent all year. His explosive scoring has saved the Cougars numerous times and he’ll be tough for any team to guard in the NCAA tournament. Weakness: History is not on the Cougars side. They have to be reliving ghosts of NCAA tournaments past. BYU has lost nine consecutive NCAA tournament games. That staggering statistic is why this team gets so little respect. BYU is under more pressure than most people realize. Will that pressure bust pipes for the Cougars or will it create a diamond in the rough?
8. Gonzaga Bulldogs Location: Spokane, Wash. Record: 26-6 At-Large Bid: West Coast Conference Key Players: Matt Bouldin (15.8 ppg), Elias Harris (14.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Steven Gray (13.7 ppg), Robert Sacre (10 ppg, 5.2 rpg) Strength: Unlike previous editions of Gonzaga basketball, this team actually defends very well. The Bulldogs are No. 1 in the WCC in field goal percentage defense allowing their opponents to shoot just over 40 percent. They’re also getting close to seven steals per game which fuels their outstanding transition game. That defense is reason why Gonzaga is once again a threat to reach the second weekend. Weakness: The Bulldogs really lack backcourt depth. Outside of the Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson, there’s nothing there. The starters have to play the bulk of the minutes and that will be an issue in the tournament. All three of the aforementioned players are very talented, but they need relief. If they play someone who can run a lot of defenders at them, they may wear down and kill Gonzaga’s chances.
9. Florida State Seminoles Location: Tallahassee, Fla. Record: 22-9 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Solomon Alabi (11.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Chris Singleton (10.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Michael Snaer (8.9 ppg), Deividas Dulkys (8.6 ppg), Derwin Kitchen (8.3 ppg) Strength: There’s no doubt that Florida St is going as far as its low-post duo of Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton will take it. The two big men aren’t big-time scorers, but they do so many things that help the Seminoles win. They run the floor well, block shots and really crash the boards. Their size has given foes fits all year long and will may continue to be an advantage for the Seminole sin the tournament. Weakness: Not many teams in the ACC have the porous offensive numbers of the Seminoles. They’re in the bottom half of the conference in scoring offense, three-point field goal percentage, free-throw percentage and turnover margin. It’s what led their inconsistent play. Not being able to score consistently will put them at a major disadvantage. They have to show the ability for some offensive explosion to have a chance.
10. Florida Gators Location: Gainesville, Fla. Record: 21-12 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Kenny Boynton (13.6 ppg), Erving Walker (12.6 ppg), Chandler Parsons (12.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Alex Tyus (12 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Vernon Macklin (10.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg) Strength: The Gators have one of the best post games in all of college basketball. Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin each bring a different skill set, but are all very effective. Macklin has solid post moves. Tyus is a good rebounder and can scrap with the best of them. Parsons can step behind arc and shoot the three-pointer effectively. When they’re playing well, the Gators are awfully difficult to beat. Weakness: To play the type of style the Gators like to play, they don’t score the like they should. They are averaging over 70 points per game, but with the way they like to get up-and-down the floor, they should be able to light the scoreboard up. The biggest issue is the shot selection of Kenny Boynton. He only shoots 28.5 percent from downtown, but he’s taken 55 more three-pointers than the next closest teammate. It’s killing their shooting percentage and opportunities for good shots. He has to make better decisions for the Gators to be successful.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers Location: Minneapolis, Minn. Record: 21-13 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Lawrence Westbrook (12.6 ppg), Blake Hoffarber (10.1 ppg), Damian Johnson (10 ppg), Devoe Joseph (9.6 ppg), Ralph Sampson III (8.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg) Strength: This is a Tubby Smith-coached team so there’s no doubt that it’s going to defend. Tubby Smith is one of the best defensive coaches in the country and he once again has a team that has taken on his identity. The Golden Gophers are second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense holding teams to just 40.2 percent shooting. In addition to that, they lead the conference in blocked shots at 5.5 per game and steals at 8 per game. This is one team that believes in defense. Weakness: Minnesota is just too inconsistent offensively. This team has decent offensive numbers on the year, but when it goes bad, it really goes bad. In six of the Gophers 13 losses, they’ve scored 60 points or fewer. That’s not getting it done. They have a lot of talent, but they have to bring it on a night-in night-out basis. If not, they may see a repeat of the Big Ten championship game.
12. UTEP Miners Location: El Paso, Texas Record: 26-6 At-Large Bid: Conference USA Key Players: Randy Culpepper (18 ppg), Derrick Caracter (13.8 ppg, 8 rpg), Jeremy Williams (10.1 ppg), Arnett Moultrie (10.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Christian Polk (9.6 ppg), Julyan Stone (5.1 rpg, 5.4 apg) Strength: Not many teams have the one-two punch of Randy Culpepper and Derrick Caracter. Culpepper has shown the ability to explode offensively and Caracter, the Louisville transfer, has just been a monster down low. The two combine for almost 32 points per game. The Miners don’t even have to run plays for Caracter. He can just go get offensive rebounds. Having two guys you can rely on for consistent scoring gives UTEP a dimension that most teams would kill for. Weakness: Free-throw shooting has been an issue for UTEP the entire year. The Miners are 11th in the 12-team Conference USA at 67.2 percent. Their best shooter is Isaac Gordon and he rarely plays. Culpepper is the only guy they can really count on for production from the line as no other Miner, who sees significant minutes, shoots 70 percent from the line.
13. Murray State Racers Location: Murray, Ky. Record: 30-4 Automatic Bid: Ohio Valley Conference Champions Key Players: Ivan Aska (10.6 ppg), B.J. Jenkins (10.5 ppg), Danero Thomas (10.4 ppg), Tony Easley (10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg)), Isaiah Canaan (10.3 ppg), Isaac Miles (9.5 ppg) Strength: Murray St has a luxury that most teams around the country don’t have; offensive balance. The Racers have six players capable of beating you on any given night. It’s very difficult to prepare for a team that has so many options offensively. That’s why Murray was able to rack up 30 wins this season. This team is talented and is a real threat to make noise this March. Weakness: The Racers are really have a size deficiency. While Tony Easley and Ivan Aska have decent size in the frontcourt, there’s really no quality depth there. Compounding that issue is it’s three main perimeter players 6’0, 6’0, and 6’2 respectively. Teams with a lot of length will give the Racers fits in the tournament. They’ll have passing lanes disrupted and will face more contested shots than they have all year. Unfortunately for the Racers, there’s nothing they can do about it.
14. Oakland Golden Grizzlies Location: Rochester, Mich. Record: 26-8 Automatic Bid: Summit League Champions Key Players: Keith Benson (17 ppg, 10.5 rpg), Johnathon Jones (12.4 ppg, 6.4 apg) Derick Nelson (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Larry Wright (11.1 ppg), Will Hudson(5.1 rpg) Strength: The Grizzlies are the highest scoring team in the Summit League. That’s because they have so many guys who can put the ball in the hoop. They have four guys who score in double-figures led by the conference player of the year Keith Benson. They’re difficult to guard because of their offensive versatility and that makes them a very dangerous team. Weakness: As good as the Grizzlies are offensively, they’re the opposite on defense. They’re allowing opponents to score over 71 points per game on 45 percent shooting. That kind of defense doesn’t transfer well to the tournament. They’ve been able to get by but outscoring the competition in the Summit League. However, there will be no South Dakota St’s in the Big Dance. They’re going to have to guard better to win.
15. North Texas Mean Green Location: Denton, Texas Record: 24-8 Automatic Bid: Sun Belt Conference Champions Key Players: Josh White (14.9 ppg), Tristan Thompson (14.1 ppg), Eric Tramiel (13 ppg, 5.9 rpg), George Odufuwa (11.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg) Strength: With four players averaging in double figures, the Mean Green has excellent offensive balance. Josh White leads the quartet, but by no means does he ever have to carry the load by himself. They can score from the outside with White and Tristan Thompson or they can let Eric Tramiel and George Odufuwa score from the frontcourt. This is one of the most talented mid-major teams offensively. Weakness: North Texas is a turnover waiting to happen. The Mean Green have coughed the ball up 60 more times this season than its foes. Those turnovers have given its opponents extra possessions and its resulted in the Mean Green giving up over 69 points per game. This is something the Mean Green will definitely want to sure up if they expect to pull off an upset in the Big Dance.
16. Vermont Catamounts Location: Burlington, Vt. Record: 25-9 Automatic Bid: America East Conference Champions Key Players: Marquis Blakely (17.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg), Maurice Joseph (14.1 ppg), Evan Fjeld (10.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) Strength: The Catamounts are only going as far as their two senior leaders, Marquis Blakely and Maurice Joseph, are going to take them. The two stars are capable of putting up huge numbers and are the reason why the Catamounts are in the NCAA tournament. The two combined for 37 points in the conference championship game and will have to duplicate those numbers to be competitive in the tournament. Weakness: Vermont doesn’t have the depth that many teams in the NCAA tournament have. The Catamounts really only use a six-man rotation and not even the first man off of the bench can give them much offensive pop. It’s part of the reason why they’re only scoring a little over 70 points a game in a conference where, given the talent they have, should be able to score much more. If the Catamounts expect to make a run, they’re going to have to find a way to put more points on the board.