Friday, February 15, 2008

Questions to Consider – The “Top Ten” of College Basketball

How much do the polls actually mean? Nevermind the fact that it’s nearly impossible to predict between the writers, the coaches and whatever goes into the RPI (link). Plenty of “experts” put little to no actual stock in the top 25. This is only illuminated more in the current top 10.

If anything, it’s just for fun, bragging rights and promoting heavyweight or underdog matchups on the four-letter network.

In the very least, it serves as a gauge for the top talent in America. Right?

While questions of the bubble might not be on the forefront for these teams, it’s far from set in stone that their seasons will end in greatness.

Let’s take a look at this week’s top 10, via the writers (although we’re noticeably absent from voting), and check out one key question facing each team as the season turns to the key stretch of conference play, Bracketbusters and eventual conference tournaments.

Note: Records are accurate as of Rankings being released on Monday.

Do you consider Hibbert's Hoyas beast of the Big East?
Credit: Yahoo! Sports

1) Memphis [23-0]

: Securing all 72 first-place votes, they’re the top team in the country. However, there are two glaring weaknesses on this team – free throw percentage (326th out of 328 in all of Division I) & shooting a rather soft 34% from behind the arc – that may cause their downfall.

Question: Can the Tigers overcome their own ineptness at the free throw line during close games in the closing stages of March Madness?

2) Duke [21-1]

Analysis: Outside of a loss to Pitt at the Garden back in 2007, the Blue Devils are 9-0 in the ACC and own a win at the Lawson-less Dean Dome. Deep with perimeter talent and slashers galore, Duke has seamlessly overcome a consistent lack of a big body dominating in the paint.

Question: Despite outscoring their opponents at nearly 19 points a click, can Duke battle with the “bigs” of the nation’s elite come March Madness without a solid interior rebounding (133th nationally in rebounding margin) and shot-blocking presence.

3) Kansas [23-1]

Analysis: Despite defeats to the Kansas State Beasleys and the Texas Trifecta, the Jayhawks have been labeled “Bill Self-proof” by our editor (subject to change after their loss to Texas). Darrell Arthur’s return from injury combined with the emergence of Darnell Jackson has the Jayhawks as balanced as they’ve ever appeared.

Question: It’s simple: Can Bill Self guide a team to a Final Four and avoid the constant streak of disappointment and underachievement that has haunted his past?

4) Tennessee [21-2]

Analysis: Potentially under the radar in an underwhelming year for the SEC, the Vols appear likely to be the greatest threat – even on the road – to the undefeated Tigers of Memphis. Lofton’s numbers are a little down this season (40% FG, 39 % 3-point), yet the Vols seem more than confident in their coach and their 10-man rotation.

Question: His size and stature a constant concern, can Chris Lofton guide this Vols team with consistent sharpshooting and tireless effort?

5) North Carolina [22-2]

Analysis: Battling back against Clemson may say more about the Tigers than the Heels (perhaps except that Danny Green can drain clutch 3s AND dance). However, the Heels are doing their best to keep their heads above water while PG Ty Lawson recuperates. With a top-heavy ACC, it may be easier than previously expected.

Question: Lawson’s ankle will be fine. The real issue at hand is whether or not North Carolina can beat out the Dukies for the “East Regional” #1-seed? Why does that matter, you ask? Not leaving the state until the Final Four, in San Antonio, may be too much of an advantage for two of the state’s best.

6) UCLA [21-3]

Analysis: Though star PG Darren Collision missed 6 games, UCLA has lived off of a combination of stiff scoring defense (6th best in the nation), outrebounding their opponents on both sides of the ball (3rd overall in the nation) and limiting both turnovers and fouls.

Question: With the Pac-10 resurgent in recent weeks – especially within the state of California – will the Bruins benefit or be deterred by the Pac-10 tournament as they grapple for a potential position in the “West Regional”?

7) Stanford [20-3]

Analysis: Winners of seven-straight, the Cardinal have quietly entered the top 10 behind the stellar play of big man Brook Lopez (18/8/2) and a balanced rotation. With only two ranked opponents on their schedule, the Cardinal appear ready to secure one of the tournament’s top seeds.

Question: Clearly undeserving of an at-large bid last season, how will the visit to the woodshed delivered by Louisville affect the tournament aspirations of this year’s roster?

8) Georgetown [20-3]

Analysis: Arguably the nation’s top defensive unit (NCAA-best 35.% opponent’s FG%), JT3’s squad has made a recent living surviving in the Big East (UCONN, Syracuse, and Villanova Ws have been by three points or less) in low-scoring affairs. Taking care of the ball and executing on high-percentage possessions (they shoot a surprising 6th-best 49% from the field) is key for the Hoyas to continue winning.

Question: While it’s unfair to do, wouldn’t it be fun to imagine this team with Jeff Green returning alongside Big Roy for his senior season? Returning to reality, can the Hoyas supply enough offensive firepower, or at least enough playmaking, to keep up in games when their suffocating slow-down defensive pressure is not yielding results.

9) Butler [21-2]

Analysis: Finally, we get into the wheelhouse of the mid-majors. Sorry Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs are in the best of the “rest” conferences. At 21-2 and first place in the Horizon League, the Bulldogs can boast victories over Ohio State, Texas Tech and Florida State. With a should-be household name like AJ Graves and four other contributing seniors, this is a dangerous squad come March.

Question: February 23rd has the “Mother of all BracketBusters”. Fourteenth-ranked Drake, also the Bulldogs, (22-1 and in 1st place in the Missouri Valley) visits Butler in a game that may go a long way in determining the seeding and respect given to either team. Question is: Who needs the win more?

10) Michigan State [20-3]

Analysis: Surprisingly, it’s Purdue that currently sits atop the Big Ten standings. However, most debates begin with the Spartans at or right near the top of the conference. Head-scratching losses to Penn State and Iowa (they only scored 36 points the entire game) have many wondering just how legit and consistent these Spartans can be come tourney time.

Question: Simply put, how will the Spartans deal with a final eight-game stretch that includes four ranked opponents, two matchups with Eric Gordon and return engagements with aforementioned Iowa and Penn State?

So there we have it. The supposed “top 10” of the writers. A brief analysis thus far and a question to consider for the coming weeks.

While all ten of these teams appear iron-clad locks to secure high seeds during March Madness, it remains to be seen if a national champion or even a Final Four berth shall emerge from this selection.

Until next time...or top 10.

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