Believe it or not, only six games remain on Duke’s regular season schedule. Six more games for the Blue Devils to solidify the team identity that has finally begun to take shape during the past week. Three weeks from now the regular season will be history. A month from now, the madness begins!
Although three teams have separated themselves from the pack, there remains no clear-cut favorite to take this year’s title in New Orleans. Some argue for Kentucky, while others favor Syracuse or Missouri. While it’s clear that these three have posted the strongest marks to date, each brings a set of question marks to the bracket. One thing is certain—the field this year is as wide open as ever.
The team that seems to best pass the ‘eye test’ thus far, Kentucky, has only one loss—at Indiana, on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, in December—and boasts the nation’s top freshman in Anthony Davis. Well-known nationwide for his unibrow, Davis has already broken Shaquille O’Neal’s record for blocks in a season by a freshman and averages nearly five per game. John Calipari’s customarily young squad possesses six players averaging 9.7 or more points in a balanced scoring attack.
The Orange is the other one-loss team in line for a top seed and has quietly plodded through its Big East schedule without a major hiccup. Despite a quality overtime win last week over Georgetown, Syracuse’s schedule to this point leaves something to be desired. A solid road win last night over Louisville helps solidify the case for the Orange, but Syracuse will have something to prove when the postseason arrives.
Out of the Big 12, head coach Frank Haith and Missouri are cruising toward a number one seed as well. Only two tough road losses, at Kansas State and Oklahoma State, mar the Tigers’ record, while they’ve beaten Baylor twice and held off Kansas at home. Missouri shoots the ball well, but the games get noticeably closer when the Tigers leave the friendly confines of Mizzou Arena.
So that leaves a lone one seed still up for grabs. Assuming no major meltdowns happen in the next four weeks, Kansas seems to have the inside track for that final spot. Despite having five losses on their record, the Jayhawks have a 4-3 record against the current top 10—including two losses at the very beginning of the season to Kentucky and Duke. A win over the Tigers at Allen Fieldhouse Feb. 25 could seal the deal for head coach Bill Self and Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson.
Should the Blue Devils—or, heaven forbid, North Carolina—run the table in the ACC, the conference champion could easily slide into that final top slot.
But once the tournament starts, the seeds might not matter anymore. The three teams in prime contention for the final number-one seed have all suffered what I deem an ‘Unforgivable Loss’ this season. Duke fans might remember losing to Miami at home in overtime—unforgivable! The Tar Heels lost on the road to Florida State, by 33 points—unforgivable! Then there’s Kansas. Remember celebrating Mike Krzyzewski’s record for Division I men’s basketball coaching victories after the Davidson game, when the Blue Devils got off to a slow start before going on a big second-half run to win by 13? Well, the Jayhawks didn’t go on a run against the Wildcats in Kansas City, and lost by six—unforgivable!
No single team exemplifies the up-and-down nature of this season more than the Seminoles, though. Leonard Hamilton’s squad has put together a mystifying mix of signature wins and Unforgivable Losses that has opponents wondering which Seminole squad they’re going to face. Florida State started the season 5-0, then had a three game losing streak featuring the likes of Harvard, Connecticut and Michigan State. Later, the Seminoles received an early lump of coal in the form of an 18-point loss to rival Florida. They lost to Princeton in triple overtime, and dropped a 20-point decision at Clemson to start the ACC season.
But then the tides changed in a big way. Florida State throttled North Carolina, then Snaer-ed Duke in Durham and registered double-digit wins over Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. But then the Seminoles lost to Boston College on the road—unforgivable!
Suffice it to say, all of the top teams this year are vulnerable in some form or another. On any given day, any of the teams presently in the top 10 could lose to anyone in a 68-team field. Already this season, seven of the top 10 teams have lost to another team in that group. Heck, even Illinois—who ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has penciled in as a 12-seed and trending down—has a 2-1 record against the current top 10. The Illini are only 5-7 in the Big Ten, but have beaten Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and only fell to Missouri by four on a neutral court.
Whether it’s trouble away from home, a low strength of schedule, or a team relying strongly on a group of freshmen, any of the nation’s top teams could lose at any moment. When March begins, don’t get too comfortable—you’ll be on the edge of your seat in no time.
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