In a new series here on College Basketball Talk, every Thursday we’re going to have a discussion about some of the hot topics in college basketball. Today’s installment? National title contenders. Are Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State still on that list? Where do Arizona and Syracuse fall in the equation? What about Kansas and Oklahoma State?
Rob Dauster: With non-conference play more-or-less over with — with the obvious exception of tomorrow’s pair of primetime battles — I think it’s safe to say that we have a pretty good feel for just about every relevant team across the country. As such, that makes now a perfect time to reflect on some of our preseason predictions. Today, we’ll be taking a look at some of the national title contenders.
Entering the season, Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville were the consensus top three teams in the country. As of today, all three have at least one loss, while the likes of Arizona, Syracuse and Wisconsin have looked like the three best teams in the country to date. Where do you stand on title contenders today? Can Kentucky still win it all? IS Arizona truly the nation’s best team? How do you value the likes of Kansas or Florida?
Raphielle Johnson: I don’t think I’d rule out any of the three teams we had atop the polls to start the season, but there are concerns. With Louisville, the development of Mangok Mathiang will be a key even with the presence of Chane Behanan, Montrezl Harrell and Stephen Van Treese in the front court. To expect Mathiang to be “Gorgui Dieng 2.0” at this point in his career would be grossly unfair, but the Cardinals will need to get something from him. As for Michigan State, can they stay healthy? If you ask me, that may be the biggest issue for the Spartans, especially when looking at Gary Harris. As for Kentucky, who’s their leader? At some point John Calipari can’t be considered their best leader; excellent coach but at some point the guys on the floor need to grab the reins both in game action and just as importantly in the locker room. Of the three, UK has the biggest issue because having leadership questions for such a young team can be a troubling sign looking forward.
As for the best team in the country right now, considering talent and depth I’m taking Syracuse. And the backcourt tandem of Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney should only get better as the Orange take on ACC play.
Scott Phillips: I think to count out Michigan State, Kentucky, or Louisville at this juncture in the season would be silly because all three have shown positive signs going into conference play, even though none of them are the No. 1 team at the moment. Michigan State needs to get healthy, Kentucky needs to mature and Louisville needs their new pieces to mesh with their experienced parts from last season’s run. All three of them should be fine and all three are very realistic contenders if you look forward to March.
As for Arizona, Syracuse, and Wisconsin it is hard to ignore how well those teams have started the season. Arizona owns solid wins at Madison Square Garden over Duke and on the road at Michigan and their starting five has meshed far quicker than I imagined and Wisconsin is impressive because Bo Ryan has a team that can score over 100 and win or be held below 50 and win — the Badgers can play a lot of different styles this season.
As for Syracuse, wake me up when they leave the state of New York. The Orange deserve props for winning Maui, but it was a down year for the Invitational and the Orange won’t leave the state of New York — besides that Maui trip — until their January 7th ACC contest at Virginia Tech. They’ve had one true road game and it came at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s, which is hardly a true test of how good this team really is.
And you certainly can’t count out Kansas or Florida going forward either, especially with Joel Embiid’s rapid development and Florida getting healthy and likely adding Chris Walker. It should be a fun couple of months with conference play on the horizon.
Kevin Doyle: Everyone has touched on the top six or seven teams already, but I find it interesting there has been no mention of Oklahoma State. They do have the best guard in the country in Marcus Smart. In fact, perhaps they have the best back-court in the country with Smart and his counterpart in Markel Brown. It seems like the Cowboys are being overlooked. Maybe it’s because Travis Ford is their coach and they don’t have the brand name on the front of their jersey like a Louisville, Kentucky, or Michigan State has, but they are legit. Looking at their resume alone, Oklahoma State has wins over Memphis and Colorado, along with solid victories over Butler and Louisiana Tech.
Oklahoma State hasn’t played as tough a slate as Kansas, Wisconsin, or Florida, so I think we will learn a lot more about them during their stretch against Kansas State, Texas, and West Virginia to begin Big 12 play. The duo of Smart and Brown cannot be discounted, though.
RD: For my money, Arizona is the best team in the country right now and the most likely to win the national title. The Wildcats might just be the best defensive team in the country, but what makes them so dangerous is that they will never face a team where you say, ‘Man, Arizona just doesn’t matchup with them.’ When it comes to the tournament, matchups — the luck of the draw — matter so, so, so much. As the saying goes, style wins the fight, and the versatility of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon means that Sean Miller’s club will never be at a disadvantage. They can field a team that’s as big as Baylor and they can matchup with Duke when Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are at the four and the five.
Raph already covered Syracuse, who is legit this season even if Scott decides that we have to discount Syracuse beating a top 15 team in a gym halfway across the world and earning a win over St. John’s in the Garden.
But I’l tell you what: I think we may be sleeping on Kansas. You guys can laugh at me if you want, but I don’t think there is a front line in the country that is nearly as good as the combination of Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Perry Ellis and Tarik Black. The Jayhawks still need to find consistent back court play, especially out of Naadir Tharpe, but those big guys have the potential to be utterly terrifying in three months.
RJ: Here’s my issue with Arizona: when Kaleb Tarczewski’s healthy their bench has essentially consisted of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Is that enough to win a national title? I’m not sure, which means they really need a guy like Gabe York to step up and prove that he can hit a couple shots when in the game. And heaven forbid if someone were to go down with a significant injury. Really like that team and the talent at Sean Miller’s disposal, but the depth concerns me when looking forward to a possible national title run.
As for Kansas, Tharpe’s the key. Don’t care how good that front court is, if the man in charge of running the show struggles the entire team will feel the effects. Frank Mason’s been solid, but right now Tharpe’s the one who’s best equipped to run the show based upon his experience and talent level. Over the last three games he’s got 18 assists and eight turnovers, good but not good enough when considering the best teams in the Big 12 and nationally. And to Kevin’s point earlier, my biggest issue with Oklahoma State is rebounding. Colorado grabbed 18 offensive boards last Saturday, and while the Pokes still won the game that may not be the case against the Big 12’s best. If Michael Cobbins and Kamari Murphy can consistently hold their own on the boards the I have no problem putting them in the mix as they’re a Top 15 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
SP: I also believe that Arizona is the deserving No. 1 team and I love how they take good shots and share the ball. The Wildcats top five scorers are all shooting 50 percent from the field, which tells you that they’re not forcing things and have a good grasp on what they’re capable of on the offensive end. But will they be the No. 1 team at the end of the year? I’m still a bit skeptical for now and Raph brought up a great point about their depth.
But what about Kentucky? Here we had this preseason juggernaut with the “greatest recruiting class of all-time” and they’ve lost on neutral courts to Michigan State, Baylor and on the road to North Carolina and we’re already seemingly writing them off? Aren’t young teams supposed to stumble early in big games like that? I know it is concerning that they haven’t picked up a marquee win — or they don’t have a true leader — but Kentucky is still the most talented team in the country and they’ll have plenty of time to learn to play together running through a weak SEC.
Are we being too hard on Kentucky? And what of the other top-10 unbeatens we’ve neglected to mention: Ohio State, Villanova and Wichita State? Do those teams fall in line as contenders going forward as well?
RD: The other top 10 unbeatens are easy to diagnose: Ohio State is a contender on the nights where LaQuinton Ross is shooting the ball well. Wichita State is a contender on the nights Cleanthony Early plays like a first round pick. Villanova is a sneaky, matchup-based Final Four contender given how good their guards are and how well they can defend.
As far as Kentucky is concerned, I have a sinking feeling that this is an inherently-flawed basketball team. Their four best players all are scorers that need the ball in their hands to be effective. There aren’t enough role players on this roster. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the beauty of that 2012 team was that Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were role players at heart. Those two would dominate on a nightly basis without needing to touch the ball offensively. There isn’t anyone on this Kentucky team willing to do that.
And all that said, remember, this team has lost to Michigan State on a neutral floor, to Baylor in Dallas and at North Carolina. They could have won all three is they shot a little bit better from the free throw line, or a little bit better from three, or did a little bit better job on the defensive glass. Kentucky has, more or less, stunk this year, and look at where they are now.
If it ever does click, they are going to be scary.