Over a dozen teams at some point this season laid claims to be a top seed in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. After about 100 days of competition, four squads have emerged as the top tier teams in the country. Barring collapses by any of the four teams, they'll be locks to become number one seeds in March.
UConn Still Among the Elite—Even Without Dyson
Losing your second leading scorer and best defender on the perimeter can easily lead to doom for the majority of teams in the country. But in Storrs, Connecticut, it is a different story. Jerome Dyson, who left Wednesday's game against Syracuse with a torn meniscus in his right knee, puts Jim Calhoun's team in a hole; albeit not a substantial one, but a hole none the less.
UConn has less than a week and only one game to prepare for life after Dyson before taking on another top tier team in Pittsburgh. In that game, Calhoun will get a chance to figure out how to use his top two reserve guards—Craig Austrie and freshman Kemba Walker—against extremely skilled and more experienced teams.
With a game against guard-laden Marquette, another date with Pittsburgh in the Steel City, and the conference tournament, UConn will have multiple chances because of the brutality of the Big East to develop a new way to win without Dyson.
The Huskies will excel against teams that decide to man up against UConn's extremely efficient offense. The remaining trio of A.J. Price, bruising forward Jeff Adrien, and giant Hasheem Thabeet make for a trio that creates the worst matchup problems.
To succeed without Dyson, Thabeet will need to be more assertive offensively. The 7'3'' center did just that against Seton Hall on Saturday, scoring 25 points, grabbing 20 rebounds, seven of which were off the offensive glass.
The one area where UConn can and probably will struggle will be against an active zone defense. Dyson's play making abilities allows UConn to dissect a zone pretty easily, but against Syracuse without him, the Huskies showed some major flaws.
Dyson's injury costs the Huskies an outside threat which makes it a little bit easier for teams to pack it in inside the arc. UConn tried running an offense that operated through the high post typically with Jeff Adrien or Stanley Robinson, but Syracuse collapsed the high post, sending two or three defenders at Adrien or Robinson.
This defensive strategy forced UConn into 20 turnovers and a 28.9 turnover rate, the Huskies' highest turnover rate of the season. Calhoun's club also had an offensive efficiency rate of 91.2 which means the Huskies scored .912 points per possession, also their lowest mark of the entire season.
North Carolina Poised to be the Best Team in the Country Again
Something extremely odd happened on January 11th, 2009 in the sphere of college basketball. The Tar Heels, picked to be the best team in the country by almost everyone, sat in last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Suddenly anything that could be conceived as a UNC weakness was being exposed and over-analyzed. With the pressure of the thought of an undefeated season out of the way, the Tar Heels could refocus and work out the kinks of a well-oiled basketball machine.
The Tar Heels have all the pieces in Chapel Hill to be the No. 1 team in the country—and be the top team convincingly. North Carolina has two things working for it that no other team in the country has: NBA ready talent and a style of play few teams can match.
Senior leaders Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green both have the skill sets and size to make an NBA roster next year. Both won't be extremely productive professional players, but will at some point find a comfortable spot on an NBA roster.
Juniors Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington almost bolted for the NBA after last season's disappointing end. It's hard to imagine that Lawson and Ellington will stay another season in the Tar Heel State. Both players have superior athleticism, can score the ball, and make intelligent decisions on the court.
Even freshman Ed Davis looks like an NBA career will be in his future. The studly freshman is usually the first man off of Roy Williams' bench. His defensive prowess and ability to hit the boards hard brings toughness and intensity that North Carolina can sometimes be lacking.
UNC can play soft and without urgency defensively because of the up-tempo style of play the Tar Heels employ. Only two mid-majors, Virginia Military Institute and Northwestern State, play at a faster pace than North Carolina.
Add in the fact that UNC is the second most efficient team in the country on the offensive end of the floor, and the result is a team that can score 100 points easier than many NBA teams.
Before a team reaches the first media timeout, the Heels routinely will drop 10 or 15 points on the opposition before they can make an adjustment. Fifty point first halves are nothing out of the ordinary.
Falling behind North Carolina is probably the worst thing a team can do when playing UNC. That may seem like a no-brainer, but with UNC's offensive efficiency and playmakers, the Tar Heels will continue to score points no matter how much a team clamps down defensively.
Deficits usually make a team play faster which will play into the hands of the Tar Heels even more. The more transition basketball point guard Ty Lawson gets to play, the more uncontested shots North Carolina will get.
To stop Tobacco Road's best, opponents must slow things down and run through its offense in its entirety. North Carolina can struggle defensively at times as the up-tempo style UNC dictates can also lead to a bevy of easy baskets. The Tar Heels also sometimes struggle in the halfcourt playing a full 35 seconds of defense.
Hansbrough, Ellington, and power forward Deon Thompson aren't the strongest defenders and UNC lacks that "glue guy" that most teams have. Without the injured Marcus Ginyard, the Tar Heels don't have a player who's on the court solely for his defense, a player who will hit the floor for every loose ball, or a player who can lock down any guard in the country.
Part Two featuring profiles of Pittsburgh and Oklahoma will be published in the near future.