March Madness Preview: Top 10 Contenders

John McCloryAnalyst IMarch 3, 2008

With March around the corner, bubbles will soon burst and brackets will take shape. The ESPN/USA Today rankings are slightly disheveled heading into the Big Dance. Certain teams outside of the top 10 deserve a closer look and claim a serious chance at cutting down the nets in San Antonio.

Here are the teams that are likely to make a deep run based on factors such as overall talent, depth, conference/schedule, stats and coaching.

10.) Xavier.  Some reserve the instinct to put Georgetown, Connecticut, or Wisconsin at the 10 spot. But Hoya behemoth Roy Hibbert hasn't shown the killer instinct, the Huskies are young and about a year or two away from returning to top-form, and Wisconsin appeared stronger last season.

Xavier, on the other hand, is 25-4 overall and 13-1 in the Atlantic-10. Sure, the A-10 isn't the Pac-10 or ACC, but we live in a world where virtually unknown George Mason crashed the Final Four party two years ago so, the Musketeers sneaking in the back door doesn't qualify as far-fetched. They can play at any pace, they hit their free throws, and, as a result, late leads are in their control. Josh Duncan and Drew Lavender are an underrated duo and four of five starters score in double figures.

9.) Texas.  Coach Rick Barnes is proving to be one of the elite basketball minds of D1 basketball. He doesn't get enough due in the presence of household college hoops names, but his team spun off eight straight wins, including victories over Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State, before losing to Texas Tech on Saturday.

The Longhorns are without the ever-popular, dominant big man to carry the load in the paint, but they appear equipped on both ends of the hardwood. Point guard, D.J. Augustin, endured rough outings against Baylor and Kansas and his percentages are down from last year. Augustin proved to be a serious floor general alongside Kevin Durant in 2007, and with the help of guards A.J. Abrams and Damion James, should rediscover his stroke in time for March.

8.) Louisville.  From November to December this team appeared to be a potential Big East bust. Pitino and the gang lost what should've been gimme match-ups to BYU, Dayton, and Purdue.

Since their initial stumbling blocks, the Cards have taken the shape of a legit Final Four contender. They returned to healthy form, found their niche from beyond the arc, and boast one of the best college coaches in the biz.  Louisville recently captured another win versus a solid Notre Dame team and is catching fire heading into March (47% from three-point range versus ND).

Terrence Williams is one of the better all-around talents in D1 and could grow in popularity if the Cardinals can orchestrate a tourney run. Louisville can go eight to nine men deep without missing a beat.

7.) Tennessee.  Tennessee recorded an eye-opening win at formerly undefeated Memphis, but honestly, who didn't see a Tigers loss coming? More recently, they lost a battle at Vanderbilt after claiming the No. 1 spot.

The Volunteers faithful will argue that their team should be in the top three at the very least, but non-biased folk will point out the weaker SEC conference in 2008. Besides the top two (Tennessee and Vanderbilt), who else poses a serious threat? Mississippi St.? Nah, not likely.

After sharpshooters Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, the Vols free throw and three-point percentages drop off considerably. Lofton maintains an 84.8 free throw percentage and lands 38.9 percent of his three-point shots, while Smith shoots 76.7 percent and 36.9 percent, respectively. The next best you ask? Let's just say the numbers don't exceed the 70 percent mark or the 35 percent mark, with the exception of Tyler Smith who just sneaks by.

But, hey, at least Coach Bruce Pearl looks good in bright orange.

6.) Stanford.  Maybe the most intriguing of my top 10, Stanford is standing strong amongst a loaded Pac-10 conference— and by standing strong, I mean schlepping out their duo of unstoppable twin-tower power each game.

Seven-foot twin brothers Brook and Robin Lopez must be the talk of the town in Palo Alto and are laying claim to the interior. Brook has been the most dominant of the two, averaging numbers just short of a double-double (19.3 PPG and 7.8 RPG), but Robin has displayed his ability to score in a variety of ways as well.

What Stanford exhibits in the paint is vehemently overshadowed by their lack of explosiveness. The Cardinal need to increase their points per game in order to survive late in the tournament. On the plus side, the Cardinal do an adequate job of staying out of foul trouble and shoot an impressive 45.4 percent from field-goal range. Their success in division play (13-3) speaks volumes and every team needs a tough big man (or two).

5.) Duke.  Not a bad showing from a team that's collectively younger than Jamie Lynn Spears. Duke is 25-3 overall and 12-2 in the ACC.

Is there any doubt at this point in the season that Duke wouldn't tick if it weren't for Coach K? The man has a primarily young team playing like the Duke of the 1990s. They create and take smart shots (46.9 FG%) and if they're hitting the trey (38.7 3P%), watch out. Their free-throw abilities are solid, as long as DeMarcus Nelson and Taylor King aren't at the line. 

Sounds like a total package, right? Well, hold that thought. What will the Dukies’ plan of action be if they meet up with, say, UCLA or UNC in the Final Four? How do a bunch of guards contain guys like Kevin Love and Tyler Hansbrough (packaged with a healthy Ty Lawson, of course)? Before the Cameron Crazies throw out the names Brian Zoubek or Kyle Singler, keep in mind that Big Z hasn't exactly been the poster boy for health this year and isn't what scouts would call "mobile," and Singler is unlikely to play 100 percent shutdown defense when push comes to shove. Did I mention they struggle against speedy backcourts as well?

4.) Kansas.  To be or not to be? That has been the question for the last two years or so. This team shouts Final Four appearance and screams National Championship. Nobody's been more talented, athletically-gifted, and deep as the Jayhawks over the last two seasons. Yet, you'd never know it because the Hawks politely fold mid-tourney like an over-matched poker player. Once again, Kansas is loaded and, once again, they're a tempting pick in March.

Like every legit top 10 team, they have four out of five starters scoring in double figures and can go about eight men deep. They weathered a minor hiccup last week in a loss to Oklahoma State, but otherwise, appear prepared to make a run.

The only question is will it be a run to the National Championship or Elite 8? To me, the numbers aren't the primary issue, as much as coaching. I'm not saying Coach Bill Self is making the wrong decisions at the wrong times, but it's well-documented that a key ingredient to March Madness success is superior coaching. Self has a winning record with every school he's been affiliated with, but hasn't cracked the Elite 8.

3.) UNC.  At this point in the rankings, the top three are often interchangeable. I recognize that UNC could easily slip to the No. 1 or 2 spot on a game-to-game basis.

The Tar Heels do have a few glaring question marks, which places them at No. 3 for the time being. The Heels proved tough without star guard, Ty Lawson, especially during the last few games. The inevitable return of Lawson could propel them to San Antonio virtually untouched. Or, depending on Lawson's bum ankle, the Heels could fan out in the Sweet 16. Perhaps the absence of Lawson has been a blessing in disguise since its allowed Marcus Ginyard and Quentin Thomas to step up.

Known for its stiff competition, the ACC is in the process of a rebuilding year. Only two or three teams will be tagged with low to mid seeds (UNC, Duke and Clemson). How will the Heels fair with a rusty Lawson and inconsistent production from nearly everyone but Tyler Hansbrough? Coach Roy Williams has his team shooting an impressive percentage from the line (four guys hovering around the 85% mark) and Hansbrough could single-handedly will the team to victory down the stretch.

2.) Memphis.  Why haven't more coaches adopted the dribble drive motion offense? Considering the success of Memphis, who surprisingly shoots a pathetic 59.1% from the line, and the plethora of solid D1 guard play, isn't it safe to say the offensive scheme is worth considering at this point? How can the Tigers resemble Shaq at the free throw line and chuck up 34.4% from long distance and still remain a popular favorite to cut down the nets?

Well, what they lack in pure shooting ability, they make up for with stingy defense and grind-'em-out games. They certainly met their match in Tennessee a week ago and lost the all-important battle of the boards. That's the thing with this team: if they get beat on the glass and exposed on defense, what do they have left? The DDM offense is a nice asset, but can only do so much.

The bottom line is this team has to pray for a free throw and three-point miracle before March or they simply can't survive. Oh, and I won't even begin to delve into their cake-walk conference schedule, which is the primary reason for their 26-0 start.

1.) UCLA.  UCLA is my pre-season favorite to win it all and I can't bring myself to back down now. Put simply, the Bruins have all the aforementioned qualities needed for a National Championship appearance; They are talented, deep, proven in conference play, statistically driven, and their coach has been there before. The defensive-minded coach, Ben Howland, led the Bruins to the Final Four in 2007 and the Finals in 2006. Needless to say, his team knows the drill by now.

UCLA picked up where they left off in 2007 with an even stronger appearance in 2008. They returned key starters, Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Plus, they added top freshman, Kevin Love, to the mix and received a pleasant surprise in the emergence of Russell Westbrook.

Thus far, the only kink in the armor has been a lack of three-point shooting ability (34.0 percent as a team). But during the course of the tourney, teams who take smart shots tend to catch fire at the right times. The Bruins are certainly a team who has their offensive percentages in order. They shoot a staggering 48.5 percent from field goal range and 74.4% from the line. Only Kansas has a better efficiency margin than UCLA.  What does this mean? It means the Bruins are effective at both ends, make few mistakes, and execute better than any team in the stacked Pac-10. Heading into the Dance, their worst enemy may be themselves.