March Madness 2014 is rapidly approaching, with conference tournaments set to begin next week and Selection Sunday less than two weeks away.
College basketball has exhibited strong egalitarianism at the top, a trend that has elicited both celebration and derision. Regardless of one's opinion, the parity throughout this season nearly ensures a chaotic tournament with more close contests and upsets than we would typically expect.
Thus, the definition of a "top contender" is a bit murkier than usual, and it would not be a surprise to see a Cinderella run or two. With that in mind, here are three teams many pinpoint as Final Four contenders who could see their tourney runs end within the first weekend.
The formerly unbeaten Orange are now reeling, having lost three of their past four contests. Those losses, combined with escapes over middling teams like Maryland and NC State, have let much of the air out of Syracuse's balloon. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has moved 'Cuse off the top line after their 19-point debacle against Virginia last night:
Indeed, the peripherals back up the eye test, portraying Syracuse as a second-tier team. KenPom.com has Syracuse rated as the 11th-best team in the country, with neither an offensive nor defensive efficiency in the top 15.
Moreover, the Orange have just the 34th-best scoring margin in the country, and as NBCSports.com's Scott Phillips opines, Syracuse might not be deep enough with injuries to forward Jerami Grant and a season-ending injury to center DaJuan Coleman:
While Syracuse’s rotation of seven-to-eight players has led them to the No. 4 ranking in the country and a 26-3 record, the Orange are lacking depth as we begin March and it could come to hurt them significantly in the NCAA Tournament.
Syracuse will turn to Michael Gbinije and Baye-Moussa Keita for spot minutes on the bench, but if Grant is hurt and unable to produce at his normal levels, Syracuse either needs consistently great efforts from its starters or they need guys like Gbinije and Keita to step up.
It is certainly not all bad news for the Orange, as Trevor Cooney showed signs of life with 12 points, his most since the 33-point outburst against Notre Dame on Feb. 3. Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair tailed off in the second half against the Cavaliers, but remain a dangerous tandem capable of carrying the team on offense.
But if Syracuse's supporting cast does not step up, especially offensively, the Orange may be vulnerable in the Round of 32. Syracuse could use a strong ACC tournament run to turn around a team that his flagging headed into March.
Memphis completed a season sweep over Louisville, a win that could bolster their seeding and earn them the label as a "darkhorse Final Four contender."
But while the Tigers possess the talent to forge a deep run, they remain among the most enigmatic teams in the country. KenPom.com has the Tigers as the 44th-best team in the country, though they do not stand out as possessing any particularly debilitating weaknesses. As SI.com's Martin Rickman notes, Memphis is a frustrating squad to try and diagnose:
Memphis, on the other hand, continues to be one of the more befuddling teams in college basketball. It does everything well but nothing great, has plenty of talent, and there are a few solid wins (and very few bad losses) on the schedule. But Josh Pastner never can be quite sure which version of the Tigers he’ll get from game to game – or even from half to half. That’s enough to make even the youthful Pastner go gray a bit earlier than he wants.
Apart from a loss to Houston, the Tigers also do not have any especially egregious losses. Nevertheless, Memphis is among the most inconsistent teams in the country, and their 76th-ranked second-half scoring margin is emblematic of a team that has struggled at times with closing out games.
Josh Pastner's side holds the ability to make a deep run, but without the stability one would expect from a true contender, Memphis is also prone to an early upset.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Perhaps more than any other team in the country, North Carolina defies prognostication. With excellent wins over Duke, Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, as well as equally confounding losses to UAB, Belmont, Miami and Wake Forest, the Tar Heels are a tough team to figure out.
Good UNC has shown up of late, with 11 straight wins. The breakout of sophomore guard Marcus Paige has largely facilitated that streak, as Paige has provided a mix of three-point shooting, passing and quick hands on defense to stabilize an inconsistent Tar Heels roster:
However, if Paige falters at all, the Tar Heels might not have the reinforcements to make up for him. James Michael McAdoo remains a highly variable game-to-game player, and with little in the way of three-point shooting or secondary ball-handling behind Paige, North Carolina's depth is less than one would desire from a championship contender.
Of course, the Tar Heels have shown the capability to make the previous paragraphs appear foolish, and a deep run should not surprise anyone. Nonetheless, given the Tar Heels' track record, an early exit would not be particularly shocking either.