Following NCAA tournament victories over Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, there’s an obvious question to ask about Kentucky: Are the Wildcats the favorite to cut down the nets in North Dallas?
For starters, the Kentucky team we’ve seen against the Shockers, Cardinals and Wolverines resembles - at least in part – the team we expected to see when preseason rankings were released last October . Most projections considered UK a Top 5 team and potential No. 1 seed. While the regular season had its share of bumps and bruises, few doubted the Wildcats’ ability. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by UK’s ultimate arrival at the Final Four.
But what ignited the charge?
Most notably, the improved play from guard Aaron Harrison. Look beyond the late-game heroics and you’ll find an impressive stat line. In the three games against Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, Harrison averaged 15 points a game and committed just five (5) total turnovers. Against Louisville and Michigan, he had only one turnover in each game.
While improved shooting (UK made 7 of 11 3-pointers against Michigan) has been important, Kentucky has done much of its damage on the backboards, out-rebounding its NCAA opponents 144-104 in four games. Those numbers pay huge dividends. Read more…
Fresh off a victory in East Lansing, the Michigan Wolverines continue to climb the seed list (s-curve). Entering action this week, the Wolverines own the top spot in the Big Ten and are building an impressive overall profile. Michigan has not lost since December 14 – a two-point setback to top-ranked Arizona in Ann Arbor. During their current surge, the Wolverines have won four conference road games – including trips through The Barn in Minnesota, the Kohl Center in Wisconsin, and the Izzone this past Saturday. The streak also included a victory over Iowa.
What about the Spartans? Michigan State remains a top-seed in today’s bracket. While much credit is due Michigan for leaving the Breslin Center with a victory, MSU played without two of its starters. They were also without significant contributors during a loss to North Carolina – the only two setbacks on the Spartans’ resume. Nothing else new on the top line. Arizona (West), Syracuse (East), and Kansas (South) remain entrenched in those spots. Florida and Wichita State are next in line.
Then there’s the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Which teams – beyond Florida and Kentucky – will make the 2014 NCAA Tournament? It’s been a somewhat recurrent question the past couple of years. Based on the s-curve used for today’s bracket … Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee are all close to or on the bubble – with the Razorbacks and Volunteers being members of the First Four. Just outside the bracket, we find Ole Miss and LSU. Will we see a repeat of last year when only three SEC teams heard their names on Selection Sunday? The answer depends on how well the above mentioned bubble teams play over the next month.
Next week, college hoops moves center stage. The Super Bowl will be over and the brackets will begin grabbing headlines.
For starters, we have Kentucky at North Carolina. Although the Tar Heels have lost to Belmont and UAB, they have also beaten Louisville and Michigan State. From a resume standpoint, the victories over the Cardinals and Spartans will resonate much longer than the loses to the Bruins and Blazers. That’s exactly why this is a bigger game for UK. Beating Boise State on Tuesday was notable, but a win in Chapel Hill would last much longer. Against its best competition, Kentucky has dropped close games to MSU and Baylor. No shame in that – especially for an inexperienced team. But the Wildcats’ non-conference resume will look different if they fail to capture a marquee victory. Saturday’s game with Carolina and a date with Louisville (Dec. 28) are the best remaining opportunities.
A quick peek at some other teams with resume-building opportunities:
Michigan (vs. Arizona) – The Wolverines edged Florida State in Puerto Rico, but a loss to Charlotte in the title game took a little luster off the trip. Adjusting to life without Trey Burke, Michigan also missed chances against Iowa State and Duke. Just in time, No. 1 Arizona arrives in Ann Arbor. A victory over the Wildcats would calm some nerves and put a nice stamp on the Wolverines profile.
Illinois (vs. Oregon) – With several new faces and a roster reliant on some freshman production, the Illini opted for somewhat moderate early season schedule. The result is a resume without an eye-catching victory. Illinois did post a road win at UNLV, but the Rebels have somewhat underachieved to this point. Beating a talented Oregon team in Portland would certainly make an impression. Read more…
Reigning NCAA champion Louisville opens as the top overall seed in the Midwest Region, which again goes through nearby Indianapolis. The Cardinals are followed by Michigan State (East), Kentucky (South), and Kansas (West) as favorites to reach AT&T Stadium in April. Close behind are Duke, Arizona, Syracuse, and Oklahoma State. Need more heavyweights? How about Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, and North Carolina as possible three-seeds?
Beyond conference realignment – and remembering that Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are now in the ACC, for example - the NCAA has changed a few of its bracketing principles for 2014. If you want to read them for yourself, visit www.ncaa.com. The most significant updates are an emphasis on maintaining a team’s true seed (from the seed list), and allowing teams from the same conference to potentially meet before a regional final if they played less than three times during the regular season. (Note: This could happen previously but only if more than eight teams from a conference were selected). There are a lot of variables, but the goal is to provide the Selection Committee with more options during the bracketing process. In year’s past, bracketing procedures often required moving several teams up or down a seed line to avoid such things as conference conflicts within the region. While this may still occur, it should be less frequently. What we can’t predict in the preseason is how many times conference foes will actually meet because conference tournament games are included.
With the arrival of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), there will also be one less at-large bid in 2014. We now have 32 automatic qualifiers and 36 at-large spots. In our preseason bracket the First Five out are Illinois, California, Providence, Massachusetts, and Xavier. Purdue, Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Missouri, Washington, and Florida State are next. A host of other potential at-large candidates were also evaluated. View the full s-curve for the preseason bracket.
Our opening First Four? BYU, Indiana State, San Diego State, and SMU (Southern Methodist).
Fortunately, the actual bracket will develop over the course over four and a half months. At this point, it’s guesswork. The journey will be tremendous. Think about the storylines we already have: Will John Calipari blend his vaunted recruits into a championship team? Can the Cardinals repeat? Will Tom Izzo return Michigan State to the Final Four? Who will be this year’s Wichita State, Butler, VCU, or George Mason? And the list goes on.
It’s almost time for tip-off. Grab a seat. It’s going to be quite a ride toward Selection Sunday.
Defending NCAA champion Louisville headlines our preseason Power 24 rankings. The Cardinals return a host of talent from last year’s title team, and a third straight trip to the Final Four is certainly within reach. Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Arizona are the other early favorites to contend for No. 1 seeds.
Great storylines await when the season tips-off on Friday, November 8. Will ultra-talented Kentucky emerge as a dominant team? Will Andrew Wiggins lead the Jayhawks to another title? Will Tom Izzo guide Michigan State back to the Final Four? Will we have another Final Four surprise? We can’t sleep on Marcus Smart and the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Throw in conference re-alignments, and we have a virtual re-make of the college hoops landscape.
The team in our preseason Power 24 that might surprise some: Iowa. Call it a hunch, but the Hawkeyes were playing like an NCAA team at the end of the last season. Some early stumbles and a poor non-conference schedule ultimately hurt their NCAA resume. Most of their talent returns. Iowa has the depth and talent to finish as a Top 4 team in the Big Ten. Will it happen? We’ll see.
The good news: All of this will be settled on the court. Preseason projections are fun. They prompt discussions. But none of us knows how the journey will develop. That’s the beauty of college basketball.
Several teams – including Florida, North Carolina and Oregon (announced late Tuesday this week) have suspension and/or injury issues. How those scenarios play out will impact each of those squads. It’s just too early to know.
Those just missing the preseason Power 24? Creighton, Notre Dame, New Mexico, Indiana, Baylor, Virginia, Saint Louis, and Harvard. You could make a case for any of those teams to be included. The season is almost here. Let’s enjoy the ride.