February “Almost Madness”: Contenders and Pretenders

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February “Almost Madness”: Contenders and Pretenders

College Basketball is heating up with what I like to call “February (Almost) Madness”.  I think John Calipari alone is “mad” enough for all of us.  If he doesn’t win a title with recruits everything thinks he stole…he’ll never win one.

By the time March rolls around we’ll have conference tournaments galore and the inevitable rigmarole around the NCAA Tournament selection.

This is the perfect time to look at who the “Contenders” and “Pretenders” are going into Conference Tournaments. Some teams look great, but are weak at their core. Others look rough, but are diamonds under the surface.

I’m not going to bore you with reviewing teams like Arkansas-Pine Bluff—even though Derek Fisher went there—because we want to know about more recognizable teams.

Each team receives either a “Contender” or “Pretender” nod based on how they’ve looked so far and the overall strength of their Conference.

This is not to say that said teams can’t improve or falter, but right now everyone has a “look”. I’m just reflecting on their current “look”.

Teams in tough conferences can get beat-up quite easily before the Tournament ever starts. However, those same teams are “battle-tested” come “Tourney Time”.

If I left out your favorite team you’ve GOT TO LET ME KNOW! I’ll cover anybody as long you ask me to.  These just happen to be the teams on my mind right now.

Let’s do this.

Louisville

Rick Pitino’s bunch has played REALLY WELL over the past few years, but a look at their RPI says 48. This seems a little low for a team that’s lived at the top of the “basketball mountain” for so long.

Edgar Sosa, Samardo Samuels, and Jerry Smith are having a hard time repeating past glories in a very strong Big East.

I’d say that they are going to struggle the rest of the way through with UCONN (twice), St. Johns, Syracuse (twice), Georgetown, and Marquette left before the Big East Tournament.

Louisville’s name and Rick Pitino’s hair are keeping the Cardinals afloat, but right now they aren’t really ready for anything special.

Verdict: Pretender

Tennessee

Bruce Pearl’s crew has been WAY up and WAY down this season. They beat Kansas at home by 8 points and pushed the Jayhawks out of their #1 ranking. Then they decided that losing to Georgia and Vanderbilt was a good idea.

Some people would say that Vanderbilt is at least worthy of Tennessee, but I don’t buy it.

Perhaps it would be smart for the Vols to beat teams they’re supposed to beat after they upset elite programs.

Bruce Pearl would be wise to force his team to “think” harder before playing “inferior” opponents.  I can’t possibly say that Tennessee is “going places” when they can’t beat a pathetic Georgia team.

Verdict: Pretender

Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech’s prized recruit Derrick Favors is only going to spend one season at the Thriller Dome and he’s already given way to Gani Lawal.

Lawal is playing really well on both ends of the floor and GT is living without some of Favors’ hype.  Zach Peacock is a nice piece at forward, but for all the talk about repeating 2004’s magical run to the Championship Game we’re forgetting something.

This team doesn’t go 10-deep.

Lawal, Favors, and Peacock may be enough to make a statement in the ACC and get into the Tournament, but I’m not buying in completely (just yet).

They COULD beat Duke in Durham on the 4th and North Carolina at home on the 16th, but they still run the risk of faltering to “lesser” teams.

Verdict: Pretender

Kansas

Kansas hasn’t had a perfect season, but they are a very good team with very good players. I can see them easily getting into a #1 seed without much trouble.

The problem is that they barely beat Kansas St. the other day and that spells trouble. I know the Wildcats are coming “into their own”, but Kansas should have handled them.

Basically, all I want to see from Kansas is Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins running both ends of the floor all day everyday. If they do that…they’re hard to beat.

The second this team tries be “cute”, scares like K. State happen.  They just need to be smarter…that’s all.

Verdict: Contender for #1 Seed

Kentucky

John Calipari can clearly coach, but he’s got a lot of bad PR to deal with. Everyone on earth thinks he cheats more than a cowboy at cards.

Combine with that the fact that John Wall is “one and done” and you’ve got issues on your hands.

Kentucky is strong, but with a star that has his eyes on the NBA you can’t win a championship. They can do A LOT, but can they do it ALL?   That’s my question.

Verdict: Contender with wandering eyes

Syracuse

Every time Syracuse has a good team I get excited only to have my hopes dashed in the 1st Round of the tournament.

I remember when it was Melo, Gerry McNamara and Hakeem Warrick.  Cuse doesn’t have players like that now and that makes me nervous for a Tourney run.

They need a lot of things to go right for this “no-name” team to make a big push in March.

Verdict: Contending if some decides to be “the man”

Villanova

Here’s one of Syracuse’s problems. The Wildcats have a big “name” on their team and they are much better “tested” from last season than the Orange.

Scottie Reynolds makes things happen all by himself.  Because he has taken “the fore” in many Villanova games the Wildcats are 18-1. In draft terms: “He’s worth a few wins by himself”.

I don’t think Jay Wright ever thought that Nova could get back to the prominence he’s brought it to. He looks like Pat Riley on the sideline, and it looks like he’s running a Philly version of “Showtime”.

I know the reality of a superstar + a “Showtime” aura has got to be intimidating to most opponents. This alone makes the tournament easier because it doesn’t matter where they play.

They take the “Show” with them.

Verdict: Serious Contender for a Title

Duke

Duke is better than the Braves and Bills ever were, but they’ve still created this attitude that says, “They won’t make a run in the tournament”.  Why?

Duke won the last of their 3 championships in 2001, but as they continued to stock up on players that can “fit anywhere” college basketball changed.

College basketball became a game of big men and point guards. Greg Oden, Chris Paul and Deron Williams became the new show. Meanwhile the 12 power forwards Duke had on scholarship couldn’t compete.

I’m not saying that Coach K is a bad coach, but his “formula” quickly became outdated. Nowadays Duke at least carries some Guards and Jon Scheyer is making a BIG difference.

Scheyer isn’t Scottie Reynolds, but he’s more than the Blue Devils have had in quite a while.

Verdict: Contending, but only with some excellent Guard-play

West Virginia

Two words…Bob Huggins. Say what you want about him, but he is a master basketball coach. He went to West Virginia and reinvented their program.

Now they sit at 15-3 and #9 in the country. It almost seems like a disappointment that they have 3 losses, but they are a very solid team.

There’s only one problem. West Virginia has no one listed at Center and I don’t think that a bunch of Guards and Forwards will work for Bob Huggins. I know it’s not Duke, but I have 3 words and a number for you:

Nick Van Exel—0 rings.

Verdict: Contending, but not for long

The Rest Of The Pack

You may have noticed that I left out teams like Texas, Michigan State, Georgetown, Purdue, and North Carolina.  Let’s keep it real…some of these teams don’t require any discussion.  Others, I don’t trust.

It seems like the only thing Roy Williams is REALLY good at is this “squatting/screaming” thing.  I don’t buy him at all.

Roy Williams is an “o.k.” coach, but he NEEDS monster players to take him to the promised land.  From where I’m standing his “monster”–Tyler Hansbrough–graduated.  So, when he gets a new sets of “monsters” we’ll talk about North Carolina.

Rick Barnes looks like the nicest guy.  He’s a good coach, but I don’t think he’ll ever win a championship.  Texas is the lovable “winner/loser”.  They’re a big program that can’t win the big one.  Why would I think this will change?

Tom Izzo is ALWAYS a contender.  I’ve never doubted Tom Izzo for one second and I certainly won’t start now.  There’s nothing to say.  He could coach anybody in anything.  Tom is THAT good.

Purdue’s Matt Painter has the Boilermakers rolling like Gene Keady used to, and I like it.  The last time Purdue had a superstar it was the “Big Dog” and he was worthless to them.  Purdue makes their bones with “ham and eggers” and it’s working for them.  No analysis necessary.

Georgetown’s John Thompson has decided to be consistent.  He is showing that he can “make due” with any line-up of any size at any time.  Actually, it’s quite impressive.  I’d never count them out.

Right now I’m thinking we’ve got Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, and Syracuse as #1′s.  I know these are the Top 4 teams in the poll this week, but it makes sense.  Only once have we had all four #1′s make the Final Four and I wouldn’t pick these 4 for the Final Four.

It totally makes sense for these 4 to rise and for at least two of them to fall.  Right now I’m taking Syracuse and Kentucky to fall.  I guess we’ll see.

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