Early Elite Eight: College Basketball's Top March Madness Contenders

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Early Elite Eight: College Basketball's Top March Madness Contenders
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We’ve got five or six games under our belts, and college basketball’s big dogs have played one or two formidable foes to give us a capable barometer.

Instead of doing a whose undefeated record is better than another's perfect slate, we’re going to do some March to March projections based on what we’ve seen out of teams thus far.

We’re also taking the liberty of giving you some reason to our rankings rhyme.

Without further ado, here are the greatest eight teams in the land—edition No. 1.

 

1. Duke

Yeah, they’re really good, even better than we thought possibly given Mason Plumlee’s offseason weight room work and the ongoing concoctions formulated in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s laboratory. The Devils blitzed a solid Kansas State squad, using their tremendous backcourt advantage to control tempo, forcing the Wildcats to play an uncomfortable up and down pace.

Plumlee acquitted himself nicely against KSU’s monster frontcourt, but the key to the game was Coach K’s moving Kyle Singler to the 4 alongside a high-powered three-guard look that would make Bobby Cremins’ triumvirate of Brian Oliver, Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson blush. With Singler drawing a KSU big away from the goal, driving lanes were abundant and points on penetration plentiful.

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Which brings us to the one chink in the armor the Devils may have. If you’re going to get the Devils, you had better pack a credible zone to dictate matchups, have steady guard play to control tempo and have a dominant frontcourt to steal possessions on the glass. How many teams have that?

 

2. Ohio State

If one team has the formula to beat the Devils, it’s the Buckeyes. They’re big and physical in the frontcourt. They’re also dynamic here—hybrid 4 Deshaun Thomas can tag Singler on the perimeter if the Bucks want to match up with Duke’s three guards. Thad Matta has also been known to roll out a pretty solid zone.

Then there’s the experienced backcourt of William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty. It would take all of those factors firing on all cylinders to allow bell-cow Jared Sullinger to be a difference maker against the Devils.

Against everyone else, the Buckeyes are a solid favorite.

 

3. Kansas

I know the AP and ESPN tell me I should have Pitt here, but if I parroted these guys, why would you ever read the M2M? I said this in the offseason, but Kansas is much more dynamic offensive team with the departure of Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins. Aldrich was a credible back to the basket guy but not so much so that he was worth all of the driving lanes he cut off by living on the block.

Give me the Morris twins who can play block to block, float to the perimeter and lift their defenders to a face-up game that allows drivers and cutters more room to do damage. The Jayhawks have plenty of those.

As for KU’s stable of guards, I think guys like Tyshawn Taylor and Josh Selby will be much more effective than one-trick pony Collins, who had to dominate the ball to be a factor. Selby and Taylor can play the combo guard spot but still have enough ability with the ball to create offense. It’s this dynamism in both the front and back courts that makes KU my solid No. 3.

 

4. Pitt

Speaking of a dynamic backcourt, the troika of Brad Wanamaker, Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall give the Panthers plenty of playmaking ability. These three average a combined 12 assists per contest to go along with great shot credibility to spread the floor and open up the paint. Gibbs is the go-to stud who can take over games as he did against Texas.

While Pitt has great size and depth in the frontcourt, they don’t have that post player who can command attention with his back to the basket, which would take some pressure off the Pitt guards.

 

5. UConn

Beat No. 2 Michigan State and then blitz a Top 10 Kentucky club on back-to-back nights as an unranked squad, and you get attention—rightfully so.

Kemba Walker is the early leader for POY for good reason. He’s in a Chris Jackson-type zone, except unlike the freshman phenom from LSU, Walker is making everyone else on this Husky squad better. Alex Oriakhi is the biggest beneficiary inside, shooting a ridiculous 62 percent from the field as a face-up 4.

What happens when Walker has an off night? Or perhaps that should read if he has an off night?

 

6. Michigan State

They’re my best one-loss team because they lost to the UConn Kemba Walkers in a heartbreaker. I love the dynamic Draymond Green as a hybrid 4 in the frontcourt, but the Spartans will only go as far as Kalin Lucas’ health takes them. We’ll see how healthy he is versus the best backcourt in America tomorrow night.

 

7. Kansas State

They have the type of frontcourt Bob Huggins had when he was bullying teams at Cincinnati. Those cats are flat nasty, but they can only do damage in a tempo that allows them to be a factor, and that’s where the Wildcats need to find some answers—in the backcourt.

Jacob Pullen at the 1 only makes Frank Martin’s bunch worse at two positions. They desperately need some production from a guy like Will Spradling or Martavious Irving to run the show so they can get Pullen off the ball, where as a point guard he’s only shooting 38 percent.

 

8. Kentucky

They may be No. 8 right now, but as soon as Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb get their feet wet, look out. As soon as that happens, they’ll have the type of balance to let Terrence Jones go to work and show why he’s one of the top two or three players in America.

With Knight playing out of control as UK’s lead guard, not only do you take the ball out of Jones’ hands, but the entire team starts to press for their offense as they realize they’re distributor is playing selfish basketball. That selfishness becomes contagious as players look for shots instead of teammates, knowing they won’t get the rock back.

Playing in the Dribble Drive Motion, you have to have players willing to penetrate, pass, rinse, repeat until you’ve broken down the defense for an easy look. Penetrate and jack doesn’t work as well. Plus, it takes Terrence Jones, a player that reminds us of Chris Bosh with a handle, out of the game.

 

So there’s your great eight for the week of November 30th. Check back next week as teams like Mizzou, Tennessee and Baylor pound on the door of our prestigious early season beauty pageant.

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From the FanTake blog: March To March

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