Believe it or not, we are actually about 1/4 of the way through the regular season. As we look back at the pre-season tournaments and look forward to conference play, college hoops has taken a little bit of a breather while final exams are going on. So what does that mean? WAY-TO-EARLY-IN-THE-SEASON FINAL FOUR PICKS!!
At this point last year, I'm willing to bet at least a third of the country would have been able to pick the Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, and UNC for the Final Four—it was them, and then everyone else. It is different this year, however, as only UNC has been able to separate themselves from the crowd. Without further ado, here are my Final Four picks. As always, if you like what you read here, check out my blog Ballin' is a Habit.
North Carolina: Surprised? Doubt it. Explanation? None needed.
Connecticut: A little bit of a homer on this pick, but I think UConn is the most talented team in the country without a color named after them. The Huskies looked so impressive in wins over Miami FL and Wisconsin in the Paradise Jam. And they still haven't played a game with Stanley Robinson, who will be back on the court for the second semester.
By now you should know what the Huskies are going to throw at you. Terrific man-to-man defense in the half court, a Calhoun-patented 2-2-1 press that is working as good as it ever as. Muscle and shot-blocking inside. Quick guards that love to penetrate and to get out and run the floor. Tenacious work on the offensive glass. But the x-factor for this team will be freshman Kemba Walker. He is one of the quickest guys in the country and a terror on the defense end, creating turnovers and turning them into easy points.
But he still makes some freshman mistakes—gambling too much for steals, forcing it on the offensive end, turning the ball over. If he learns to harness his athletic ability, he already has the mindset and the toughness needed to be an excellent player at this level.
There are two huge red flags with the Huskies, and both are legitimate concerns. For one, they have a tendency to play down to their opponents (a la against Buffalo and La Salle), which is more an issue of focus and intensity. That shouldn't be a problem once the tournament rolls around.
The other is that no one on this team besides Jeff Adrien (who was a freshman role player on the team that lost to George Mason in the Elite Eight) has ever won a post season game. No Big East wins, no NIT wins, and thanks to San Diego and AJ Price's ACL, no NCAA wins. Can you really put your faith in a group of guys with zero post-season success to all-of-a-sudden figure it out and make a Final Four run?
Gonzaga: I really like the 'Zags this year. They remind me of the Jayhawks from last season in that they have six guys that can go for 20 on any given night and can get you a bucket when you need it. There are two main reasons that I think the 'Zags put it all together this year—Jeremy Pargo and Josh Heytvelt.
Both are seniors that have had a bit up an up-and-down career. The knock on Pargo is that he has always been able to score and create, but that he turned the ball over too much and that he couldn't run a team. Well, he has changed that perception this year. Pargo has been fantastic. He has averaged 7.0 apg through the first five, while only turning the ball over eight times (a 4.5-1 ratio).
He also has picked his spots to be a scorer, as seen in the Tennessee game. He distributes the ball to his talented teammates, but when the 'Zags really need a bucket, he is still able to break down a defender and score. Heytvelt was a victim of immaturity and injuries while at Gonzaga. He is immensely talented, but just could not stay on the court. This year, he has taken over the role of leader.
He is the guy that will pull a teammate out of a scrap and calm him down (as seen at halftime of the Tennessee game) where he used to be the one getting into the tussles. Oh, and he is averaging 15 and seven. With those two, shooters like Micah Downs and Steven Gray, playmakers like Austin Daye and Matt Bouldin, and some toughness off the bench in Ira Brown and Demetri Goodson, I see the 'Zags finally making it to the Final Four.
Syracuse: There is just something about this team that I really like. Jonny Flynn might be the best point guard in the country not named Ty Lawson. Paul Harris is still the old do-it-all-Paul, but he now has a 15 footer that you have to defend. Arinze Onuaku is a horse inside.
Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins have been knocking down three's on the perimeter, which has spread the defense and opened up space in the paint, and Devendorf has provided another player that can create off the bounce for himself and teammates.
And guys like Kristoff Ongenaet, Rick Jackson, and Kris Joseph provide enough size, athleticism, hustle, and versatility that they can match-up with just about anyone. But the biggest change for the Orange is that they are no longer playing strictly a zone.
They will get out and defend you man-to-man, and Flynn has created a lot of turnovers and easy baskets that way. The 'Cuse have been a bit inconsistent defensively, which seems to be an issue of focus more than anything (again, doubt that will be a problem in the tournament), but the biggest issue is that they do not utilize Onuaku inside. I have faith that Boeheim will get those problems fixed by the end of the year.
Outside of UNC, I think that more than any year I can remember, this season is wide open. I legitimately think that there are 20-25 teams that can realistically hope to reach the Final Four. Here are the others I considered:
Pitt, Louisville, Oklahoma - Big inside, not enough perimeter shooting.
Texas - Really like this team and tough to leave off, but they just don't have that look yet.
Purdue, Duke, Notre Dame - Not enough inside.
Michigan State, UCLA - Will be in the conversation by the end of the year.
Wake Forest - I'm officially on the Jeff Teague bandwagon.
Arizona State - James Harden is really, really good. Too bad he's plays on the west coast.
Baylor - Big result that no one noticed: the uptempo Bears went into Wazzu and knocked off the Cougars 58-52, playing at the WSU pace and shooting 40%.
Tennessee - Not really a sleeper, but if this team gets rolling, watch out.