There are a lot of really good teams this year, but unlike last year there is not one that stands above the rest. North Carolina didn’t run the table last year as some foolishly predicted, but they were undoubtedly the best team from start to finish. Their closest NCAA Tournament game was 12 points.
This year, people thought Kansas was the clear-cut No. 1, but Kentucky’s resurgence has some people thinking otherwise. Below, you’ll see my rankings of the teams with the best shot to win the 2010 NCAA Tournament (along with the odds, courtesy of Superbook.com, for each team to do so). As you’ll see, at this point I believe there are only seven lucky teams that have a shot at hoisting the hardware in Indianapolis.
1. Kansas (odds: 7-4)
I don’t care if Kentucky has replaced Kansas as the “it” team of the moment (although that might change after the Wildcats were upset on Tuesday night), I still believe the Jayhawks are the best team in the country. Xavier Henry is undoubtedly the second best freshman in the nation, and the inside-outside combination of senior point guard Sherron Collins and junior center Cole Aldrich is second to none.
I stress the class standing of Kansas’ stars because that is what separates them from Kentucky. Experience is not something to dismiss come Tournament time. This is a Kansas team that has players who’ve been to two Final Fours and won a national title. Last year the Jayhawks won two tough games before falling to eventual runner-up Michigan State in a close game. My only concern is that KU’s younger players defer too much to Collins. Henry might have to assert himself a bit more offensively if this team wants to realize its full potential. Even so, if I were filling out my bracket today I’d write “Kansas” six times.
2. Kentucky (4-1)
Two syllables: John Wall. He is the player of the year frontrunner at this point in the season and clearly the most talented player in college basketball. But he is a freshman. So is teammate DeMarcus Cousins. And Eric Bledsoe. In fact, of the nine Wildcats averaging at least 10 minutes per game, four are freshman and two are sophomores. That leaves junior Patrick Patterson and senior Ramon Harris as the only upperclassmen who see the floor regularly.
But does age matter? Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a title as a freshman in 2003, but all the teams led by a freshman have come up short since. Kentucky handled the last few minutes of the loss to South Carolina pretty well in my opinion. Despite coming up short, they didn’t seem to panic or start pointing fingers. The real test will be how they respond after their first setback. With their next two games against ranked opponents (and upcoming trips to Vanderbilt and Tennessee), we’ll see what this very young Kentucky crew is made of. One thing is for sure: the Wildcats are going to be a tough out come March.
3. Purdue (25-1)
Just when you thought my picks were getting boring…
Please keep in mind that this ranking is based on the assumption that point guard Lewis Jackson will return from a foot injury that’s kept him out so far this season. If he decides to take a medical redshirt instead, Purdue is Elite 8, and maybe Final Four material, but I don’t think they can win it all. I don’t have any numbers in front of me but I imagine it’s hard to win the title without a true point guard.
If Jackson does return though, I think he is the final piece to the puzzle and the Boilermakers — much like fellow Big Ten school Michigan State last year — will play in the Final Four in their home state. Of course that is a very big “if” considering it is Jan. 28th and Jackson hasn’t played yet. The reports are optimistic though, or else I wouldn’t even consider ranking Purdue so high.
4. Villanova (12-1)
‘Nova reached the Final Four last year and the ‘Cats brought mostly everyone back this year. Dante Cunningham graduated, however, and I think he will be missed more than people realize. Sure Villanova is undefeated in the Big East, 18-1 overall, and ranked third in the country. But Cunningham was a huge part of this team, and he brought an element that I’m not sure Taylor King, or anyone else, can replace.
I think ‘Nova has a great shot at making the Final Four; guard play is so important in the Big Dance and ‘Nova’s backcourt is as good as any. But I don’t think this team has an inside presence that warrants them being higher on this list.
5. Michigan State (12-1)
The second Big Ten team on my list, I like the Spartans because of their ability to close out tight games (see their last two wins against Michigan and Minnesota), their experience (they’re led by upperclassmen who’ve been to multiple NCAA Tournaments, including the Final Four last year), and their balance (they can score in a variety of ways).
Michigan State has a go-to guy in reigning conference player of the year Kalin Lucas, as well as a mastermind in coach Tom Izzo. It was a surprise run last year, even though MSU was a two seed. This year, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Spartans are back in the Final Four.
6. Texas (12-1)
The Longhorns earned their first ever No. 1 ranking earlier this year, though it didn’t last long, as they promptly dropped two straight. But they righted the ship last night with a victory over Texas Tech. Texas beat Pittsburgh, North Carolina, and Michigan State, all by double digits, and two of those teams were ranked in the top-10 at the time.
Losing Varez Ward for the season hurt, but the key to this team will be the development of freshman star Avery Bradley. If he grows into a true superstar, he will be the perfect complement to Damion James. The ‘Horns have experience, and the key will be seeding. If they can win the Big 12 and earn a one seed, that will be huge.
7. Syracuse (4-1)
Given their odds, perhaps I should have the Orange higher on my list. ‘Cuse has some impressive wins, too, including a rout of California that I witnessed in person. Even so, I’m not 100% sold, though I’m not exactly sure why.
Syracuse has a great coach, a nice balance of upper and lowerclassmen, and a true star in Wesley Johnson. This team is also a classic case of “addition by subtraction,” as it was no secret to anyone watching ‘Cuse that Eric Devendorf was more trouble than he was worth. Two other starters — Paul Harris, who was overrated to begin with, and Jonny Flynn — were also apparently not all that coachable.
So there’s reason to believe the Orange may go deeper in this year’s Tournament than they have since the ’03 title I mentioned earlier. I like Syracuse; I just like the other teams a little bit more.
Notables and Notes
- I didn’t include Duke (15-1), Georgetown (25-1), or West Virginia (25-1), simply because I don’t see any of them winning it all. That goes triple for Duke. If you think the Blue Devils have the weapons to bring a title back to Durham, well, you probably thought they did last year, too.
- Defending champ North Carolina is now 40-1, because everyone is starting to realize what Roy Williams knew months ago: this Tar Heels squad is too young and inexperienced to have such lofty expectations.
- There’s great value with tenth-ranked BYU at 40-1. Yes, the Cougars did drop their first MWC game last night at New Mexico, but that’s nothing to be ashamed about. BYU (20-2 overall) is still an experienced Tournament team, with a bonafide star in Jimmer Fredette. The Cougs just hope they don’t have to face Texas A&M in the opening round, at the Aggies have ousted them the past two years.
- Ohio State (30-1) has an All-American so they’re worth a look, though it’s hard to imagine the third best team in a conference winning it all. Gonzaga and (somehow) Cal are the biggest favorites of any west coast teams at 60-1, which speaks to the decline of the teams out west. UCLA, for example, is 200-1, which is a joke because I don’t think they’ll even make the Tournament.
- Siena and Temple, both 100-1, have bracket buster potential, though it’s unlikely either of these programs will ever win it all.
Agree? Disagree? Feel your favorite school was snubbed? As always, let me know in the comments section.