Published March 05, 2012
No matter what Kentucky and Syracuse accomplish in their respective conference tournaments, both are locked into the top line when the brackets are unveiled this Sunday (can you believe it's here already?). The Wildcats are the nation's top team, and regardless of the SEC's reputation this season, it is nearly impossible to run the table in your league, taking every team's best shot and winning, in Kentucky's case, eight conference road games.
Syracuse is deemed the nation's top club by the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and finished 17-1 in the Big East, the second hardest conference by RPI standards and a league vying for as many as 10 bids to the big dance.
Those two resumes stand far above the rest, yet there are several heavyweights vying for the other two top lines and the seeding and scheduling advantages that come with it. Below, From the End of the Bench assesses the contenders, the plusses and minuses of their arguments and what each needs to do this week to make its claim.
Kansas Jayhawks (26-5; RPI 6)
What's to like: Kansas claimed the regular-season Big 12 crown with eight straight wins to close the season, including victories over Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and the season-defining rally against Missouri. The Jayhawks' 10 Top-50 victories really set them apart from the rest of the competition. They put together a stable of impressive non-league wins, including victories over Ohio State, Georgetown, Long Beach State, and South Florida -- four possible tournament teams.
What's not to like: The home loss to Davidson sticks out like a sore thumb on the surface, yet the Wildcats are No. 66 in the RPI and are the odds-on favorite to collect another automatic invite out of the Southern Conference. The Jayhawks do lose the head-to-head battle with Duke, although that game came back in late November when both teams were not a finished product.
What's left to accomplish: A Big 12 Tournament title would surely lock the Jayhawks into the top line and perhaps a regional through St. Louis depending on the committee's decision to put Kentucky through the Gateway city or New Orleans. A trip to the final would look leave the Jayhawks in good position considering the double-digit Top-50 wins and no damaging losses.
North Carolina (27-4; RPI 4)
What's to like: The Tar Heels have the head-to-head advantage with Michigan State, but that game kicked off the season four months ago and took place on an aircraft carrier. North Carolina has six Top-50 wins, including two true road wins at Virginia and Duke. The non-conference schedule was arduous as always (Strength of Schedule 19), and North Carolina's worst loss came to Florida State (RPI 21). A regular-season ACC title doesn't hurt either.
What's not to like: That "worst loss" was an embarrassing one by 33 points in Tallahassee, and there are just three Top-20 wins (compared to five for the Jayhawks). The Tar Heels also played only 10 of 31 games against teams in the Top-50 compared to 14 for the Jayhawks.
What's left to accomplish: North Carolina and Kansas are in similar positions, yet coming home without a tournament title would leave the Tar Heels more vulnerable, especially if the loss in the ACC Tournament came to Duke. Roy Williams normally doesn't put as much stock on the postseason conference foray as others, but the Tar Heels need the tournament title to solidify their current top-line standing.
Michigan State (24-7; RPI 3)
What's to like: Tom Izzo followed his time-tested strategy of ambitious November scheduling that pays off by March. The Spartans played 15 games against the RPI Top-50, winning nine of them, including four true road wins (more than the two clubs mentioned above). Michigan State's non-conference victories include Gonzaga and Florida State and its worst loss came back in late January, a one-point setback to Illinois, which at the time was a Top-50 opponent only to fall into the abyss a month later.
What's not to like: The seven losses stick out like a sore thumb, so does the shared conference title with Ohio State and Michigan. The Spartans didn't do enough to separate themselves from the top of the conference, splitting with the Buckeyes and Wolverines. Michigan State also loses the head-to-head battle with North Carolina and Duke.
What's left to accomplish: Michigan State must win the conference tournament title to move onto the top line. The Spartans played a difficult schedule, but lost their chance to solidify a spot by blowing a second-half lead against the Buckeyes.
Duke (26-5; RPI 5)
What's to like: The Blue Devils have perhaps the best collection of upper-tier notches in the belt with victories over all three teams mentioned above. Duke downed both Michigan State in New York, Kansas in Maui and rallied by 10 points down late to win in Chapel Hill. The Blue Devils also won at Florida State, in Maui over Michigan, in New York against Washington and downed Mountain West at-large candidate Colorado State by 23 in Durham. Duke also sports the second toughest non-conference SOS and just one loss outside the RPI Top-50 (against RPI 51 Miami).
What's not to like: Duke seemed to win on every famous floor in the nation other than its own, dropping three games at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time since the 2004-05 season. The Blue Devils, unlike the three teams above, don't even have a joint conference crown to fall back on. Plus, the much-talked-about eye test doesn't do Duke any favors. The Blue Devils struggled to put away inferior teams and were thumped by North Carolina, trailing 48-24 at the half, in the season finale.
What's left to accomplish: Like Michigan State, the Blue Devils likely have to hoist the ACC Tournament trophy, and it would help if the victory in the final came over North Carolina, allowing Duke to state its season victory over the Tar Heels as another feather in the cap. The Blue Devils' overall profile fits the No. 1 criteria, but it's hard to imagine a spot on the top line without a regular-season or tournament title.
Others in the running
Missouri (27-4; RPI 16): The Tigers can claim a top seed by sweeping through Kansas City and knocking the Jayhawks off their perch along the way. Much like Duke, that would give the Tigers a season victory over the regular-season champion (2-1 over Kansas) and a tournament title to offset their inability to capture the regular-season crown.
Ohio State (25-6; RPI 8): Ohio State looked to be well on its way to the top seed before a February lull saw it drop three of seven contests before opening March with the win in East Lansing, giving it a share of the Big Ten title. If this team fulfills its potential and rolls through Indianapolis, they can perhaps sneak onto the top line with some help from those above it.
5 THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEK THAT WAS
1. Congratulations to Belmont, which saw itself in a tougher-than-expected duel with Florida Gulf Coast before claiming its fifth NCAA bid in seven years. The Bruins are KenPom.com's (and other efficiency nuts') best friend, finishing the season 25th nationally in overall efficiency, including the ninth most efficient offense. That possession-by-possession value nearly scored the Bruins a win in Cameron before falling 77-76. They also won at Sun Belt-champion Middle Tennessee and claimed a non-league win over Marshall. The Bruins will likely fall in that always dangerous 4-13 game and could give the right opponent (perhaps a team like Florida or Louisville) fits in the second round.
2. Indiana has come a long way back and returned to relevance this season, but to get to the next level in March it needs Christian Watford to return to his early-season form. The combo guard was the go-to scorer for the Hoosiers back in November and December, cementing Indiana's revival with the three-pointer that handed Kentucky its only loss of the season. The junior guard was riding through early February before hitting a wall that began in a victory over Northwestern in mid-February. Over the next six games, Watford made just 12- of-39 shots (3-of-11 from long range) and never scored more than 12 points. Yet, he seemed to regain his swagger and form in a season-ending win against Purdue, scoring 19 in an 85-74 victory -- his most points since January 5. Head coach Tom Crean needs him to be the reliable perimeter scorer to offset the pressure and double teams facing freshman forward Cody Zeller.
3. What to make of the Pac-12? Washington back-doored the regular-season title after California lost at Stanford, 75-70, on Sunday, but this came after the Huskies lost at UCLA on Saturday to finish the conference slate with a 14-4 mark. The conference has exactly one (yes, one, and yes I mean the entire conference) Top-50 win (Stanford over Colorado State). The Huskies are a dreadful 3-8 against the Top-100. Think about that. The Pac-12 regular-season champions are 3-8 against teams in the RPI Top-100. Arizona is 4-8 against the Top-100. Oregon, a team many analysts see as a dangerous one heading into the Pac-12 Tournament, is 3-7 against the Top-100. And so it goes. The conference tournament is wide open, but an educated observer can assume any team not named Washington or California would have to claim the automatic bid. Right?
4. When it kicks into second gear, North Carolina may be the nation's best team. Whether we see that effort minute-in and minute-out from the Tar Heels this March is one of the biggest questions facing any prognosticator. It seems the Tar Heels thrive in a disrespected role and played with a purposely controlled aggression and a big chip on their shoulder in the resounding 88-70 victory over Duke. Kendall Marshall averages just under seven points per game and is far more suited, and expected, to create tempo, work UNC into its offensive sets and put his NBA-ready teammates in the best positions to score. Yet, if he can muster just half of the 20 points he scored in Cameron, the Tar Heels offense may be practically unstoppable.
5. The NCAA Tournament selection committee's most difficult issue may not be which marginal bubble teams to include in the field, but rather where it should seed three dangerous mid-major teams: Wichita State, Murray State and Creighton. The Shockers may have been looking at protected top-four seed territory if they had won the Missouri Valley Tournament, but the semifinal loss to Illinois State leaves them in the five-or-six seed territory, a drop in seeding that could be the difference between Nevada and Mississippi State in the first round. Creighton should fall one seed line below the Shockers after dropping their most recent meeting by 21 points and taking home the Missouri Valley Tournament title without having to play Wichita State. Also in the committee's mind will be the Bluejays' mid-February flameout (three straight losses) and their resurgence down the stretch, seven straight victories to close the regular season. While the committee can pit the Shockers and Bluejays against one another, Murray State could be the biggest seeding quandary. The Racers are 30-1 for a reason, and despite a conference SOS of 292, they sit 20th in the RPI thanks in part to a solid non-conference slate and three Top-50 wins (two more than the entire Pac-12 conference). The victories over Southern Miss, Memphis and Saint Mary's leave the Racers with a profile that matches up against the Bluejays, but winning your conference (even if it's the Ohio Valley) should count for something. Anything higher than the fifth line would be a disappointment, and at a No.5 seed, the Racers would match up well in a potential third-round bout with offensively- challenged teams like Wisconsin or Florida State.
FINAL FINE 15 (and each team's MVP)
1. Kentucky (30-1): Can't be anyone but Anthony Davis, who may just be the national player of the year as well. Davis led the nation's top team in points (14.4 per game), rebounds (9.8) and had more blocks (146) than the rest of the team combined.
2. Syracuse (30-1): Syracuse's rock is senior point guard Scoop Jardine, who had a 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and swarmed opposing point guards at the top of the Orange's vaunted zone defense.
3. Kansas (26-5): A year ago, Thomas Robinson was well-known for the tragedy that came upon his family. This year, out of the Morris twins' collective shadow, Robinson is a finalist for national player of the year. He's a walking double-double (18.9 points, 11.9 rebounds per game) and has carried the Jayhawks on his broad shoulders.
4. North Carolina (27-4): No one has been more consistent than ACC player of the year favorite Tyler Zeller, but in keeping with From the End of the Bench's theme, Kendall Marshall is the straw that stirs the drink. Marshall's assist-to-turnover ratio is over 3-to-1, and his 9.6 assists per game rank second nationally.
5. Missouri (27-4): Marcus Denmon is nearly as important on the defensive end as he is as Mizzou's best triggerman. He's strong enough to shut down opposing guards, and he led the team with 18 points per game, finished second in rebounds and drained a team-best 91 three-pointers.
6. Duke (26-5): Austin Rivers' best trait may be his tenacity, as the guard gives the Blue Devils a swagger and toughness it otherwise is sorely lacking. It doesn't hurt that he led the team in points and took every big shot necessary.
7. Michigan State (24-7): All of the talk surrounds Davis and Robinson, but Draymond Green should be getting more publicity for player of the year honors. The forward does everything and is the vocal leader on the floor. Green's numbers are staggering, 16.2 points per game, 10.3 rebounds per contest, a team-best 45 three-pointers and 110 assists (second on the club to Keith Appling).
8. Ohio State (25-6): William Buford may be more important in terms of March success, but Jared Sullinger is the Buckeyes' best player. He creates mismatches and warrants a never-ending double team, giving his teammates cleaner looks at the rim. Sullinger came just short of a double-double average (16.9 points, 9.3 rebounds) despite missing some time.
9. Marquette (25-6): One of the tough calls goes to Jae Crowder for his versatility on the floor. He finished second on the team in scoring (17.6) to Darius Johnson-Odom, but shot a half-percentage-point better from the floor (51.2 percent) and pulled down 7.9 rebounds per game to go with a team-best 75 steals and 32 blocks (five behind Jamil Wilson).
10. Michigan (23-8): Trey Burke is part hot dog, part pit bull, and the combination provides the Wolverines with a cockiness and toughness that could pay dividends this March. Burke averaged a team-best 14.6 points per game, dished out 4.6 assists per contest and played even better under the national TV lights.
11. Murray State (30-1): Perhaps the easiest call, Isaiah Canaan logged over 1,000 minutes and never slowed down, scoring 19.2 points per game, dishing out a team-best 116 assists and pushing his teammates to greater heights. If you haven't heard Canaan's story yet, you will in a few weeks.
12. Baylor (25-6): The Bears were supposed to be a team with interior strength and perimeter weakness, but Perry Jackson came almost out of nowhere to lead the team in scoring (13.5) and assists (5.6) per game. Jackson's shooting ability (45.3) also helped free up shots for marksman Brady Heslip, who made a team-best 74 triples.
13. Georgetown (22-7): The Hoyas are a veteran outfit with Jason Clark leading the way. Clark not only lead the team in scoring, but his defense should warrant an all-defensive team selection. He was on the floor more than any player because head coach John Thompson III trusts him as a floor leader, able scorer and defensive specialist.
14. Wichita State (27-5): Any mid-major needs a dynamic floor leader for March success. Joe Ragland is exactly that, averaging 13.4 points and dishing out 3.4 assists per game. He can beat opposing points off the dribble, yet is more than capable of beating teams from the perimeter (making 50 percent of his 114 three-point attempts).
15. Wisconsin (23-8): Once again, head coach Bo Ryan snapped every last drop of talent out of the Badgers, but he did so behind floor general Jordan Taylor. The point guard's stats are down across the board from last season, but his scoring (14.6) is vital for a team that goes through dry spells and his ball-handling and playmaking are just as important for a team that scores off the pass rather than the dribble.