Teams that could falter come tournament time
Duke- They’ve been phenomenal so far this season and have already won three games against top five opponents, but I’ve noticed something very disturbing about this team- they have no bench. Their starting line-up displays the perfect blend of youth and experience and has proven they can beat anyone, but as the year goes on players get tired legs and can get figured out bit. Duke has recently been susceptible to the early knockout in the tournament, and it’s usually against smaller, hungrier schools. Mason Plumlee finally looks like the All-American he was recruited to be, so as long as he continues to play at this level Duke could make a run, but they’ll need more than six bench points if they want to remain a force going forward.
Creighton- They had a nice win against Wisconsin only to lose to Boise State the game after. Doug McDermott is the real deal, which allows them to compete against anyone, but their overall athleticism and play-making ability seems to be lacking. Creighton will surely fall from number 11 after last night’s loss, but they will still be overrated. I have no doubt Creighton will make the tournament, but once the tournament starts they will be exposed as a team that lacks quickness and explosive ability, something Antoine Young provided them with last year.
Kansas- Jeff Withey put together a monster game the other night featuring a career high 12 blocks, but Kansas lacks consistency. They’re currently 5-1 and ranked 10th in the AP poll, but their level of competition has been low, with the exception of their loss to Michigan State. Elijah Johnson is a terrific shooter and on-the-ball defender, but needs to show more leadership. Kansas, like Duke, has also been boom or bust in the tournament recently and if players such as Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore don’t improve, they’ll be headed for another early exit.
Michigan- Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in Nick Stauskas, Trey Burke, and Glen Robinson III, and with Tim Hardaway Jr. returning to form Michigan is playing some great basketball right now. Unfortunately, Michigan hasn’t had a lot of success in the tournament in recent years (highlighted by their first round loss to Ohio University last year). I’m just starting to get the vibe this is a team that’s peaking too soon. Teams will figure out how to defend Stauskas and make Hardaway settle for jumpers, which is something he’s not very efficient at. Michigan has all the talent and big-play ability to make a deep run in the tournament, but I’m still wary of them at this point.
Illinois- Maybe a coaching change is all they needed, but I doubt it. Their tournament win in Maui was impressive, especially their double-digit victory over a Butler team that had just beaten North Carolina. Brandon Paul is a superstar, and Joseph Bertrand is playing terrific, but Illinois has a serious lack of depth in the post. Teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State will be able to out muscle them. Maybe Illinois’ hot streak will turn into a special season, but I think they will run into some trouble against a physical, veteran opponent.
Teams that should improve come tournament time
North Carolina State- I ranked them number one entering the season, and that was clearly a reach. Richard Howell has struggled with foul trouble, C.J. Leslie has looked disinterested at times, and they just don’t seem to be playing together at all. Freshmen Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren have shown they can play at this level, but both of them need to get tougher on defense. Lorenzo Brown and Leslie need to take control of this offense and get them playing up to their immense potential. If they do that before the tournament starts N.C. State can still make a championship run.
UNLV- The loss to Oregon was a minor blip in the grand scheme of things. The more important development for them has been the play of freshman Anthony Bennett. Through five games he’s averaging 19.5 pts. and 7.5 reb. If he can continue playing at that level, and Mike Moser can regain his form from last year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the Final Four.
UCLA- They were overrated when the season began, and probably aren’t a Final Four team this season, but the addition of Shabazz Muhammad and loss of Joshua Smith will help. Smith never committed himself to losing weight and reaching his full potential. With him now gone, the remaining players can have a more positive attitude and play alongside Muhammad, their best player and now leader. Once Muhammad gets settled in and teams up with the Wear twins better, UCLA will be a force by the end of the season.
Michigan State- They can’t look any worse right? I appreciate the fact that they historically start slow and slowly get more comfortable as the season goes on, but at the end of the day you need to be able to score more than 65 points. Appling is quickly looking like one of the best point guards in college basketball, but he’s receiving little help at this point. Turnovers have killed them on offense and it’s not getting any better. Getting Travis Trice and Gary Harris back from injury will help, but their overall aggressiveness on the offensive end needs to amp up dramatically, and I think it will.
Baylor- Their two big wins against Lehigh and St. Johns shows why expectations are so high for this team, but their loss against Charleston showed how inconsistent they can be. Pierre Jackson and Isaiah Austin are the real deal and their inside/outside game could be lethal for other teams in tournament, but they need to cut-back on the turnovers and improve on defense. Once Brady Heslip returns he’ll provide them with a deadly shooter that can stretch the defense away from Austin.