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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Lack of Dominant Team Leaves March Madness Wide Open

Even the most fervent college basketball fans will acknowledge that this is a down year for the sport. Of course a fantastic tournament could change all that, but aside from the exploits of The Jimmer, the play of Kemba Walker, and the overall dominance of the Big East, there aren’t too many titillating storylines across the sport. In fact, when you check the college basketball rankings, you’ll see a lot of good teams at the top, but no team will stand out as a dominant one.

Teams that can make it as a top seed in March include Duke, Ohio State, Pitt, Kansas, Texas, and possibly either BYU or San Diego State. As good as those teams may be, none of them strike me as anything near some of the best teams in recent history, nor anything near some of the best teams each of those respective schools have had.

The defending champion Blue Devils are 26-3, and their once-daunting non-conference schedule no longer is as impressive as it previously appeared. Kansas St., Butler, and Michigan St. have all turned out to be much weaker than we thought, and Duke has lost three road games recently, two to conference opponents. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith pace the Blue Devils who lost emerging star Kyrie Irving early in the season, and their one vulnerability may be size inside. Still, this team has balance and experience, two factors that should help their chances in March.

Ohio State would be my pick to win it all at the moment, but even they’ve shown some weakness lately losing to tough Big Ten opponents Wisconsin and Purdue on the road. They’re 27-2, 14-2 in conference play, and one of the highest-ranked teams in college basketball standings. They have an elite big man in Jared Sullinger, and David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler add additional scoring options. And unlike last year’s team whose weakness was depth, this squad at least has a seven man rotation.

Pitt has lost four games — two by very thin margins in the Big East — and they have done well to go 13-3 in a difficult conference. They’ve seen leading scorer Ashton Gibbs miss games but they managed to win all three despite his absence. The weakness I’ve seen with Pitt is a lack of a dominant player. If you look back at championship teams in college hoops, they all generally have at least two, and usually three players who can make it to the NBA. I just don’t see that sort of star power with Pitt, and that makes them prone to an upset in my eyes.

Kansas has looked good, much like they did last season before Northern Iowa caught them in the tournament. They’re 27-2 with their first loss coming at home to Texas, and their latest loss in Manhattan to Kansas State — a makeup for the 24-point beatdown the Jayhawks administered to the Wildcats in the first meeting between the teams. They’ve played well on the road and went undefeated in non-conference games, though they had extremely close calls against UCLA and USC. Their biggest strengths are the size of the Morris twins, and their extreme depth. Six of their players average over 24 minutes and four more average over 12 per game. The depth helps when you get into tournaments and need to play two games in three days, and it also helps if you get into foul trouble. As a whole, they’re not a very good team from the free throw line, and though it doesn’t seem like much, ask 2008 Memphis how an inability to make free throws can hurt you in the tournament.

Texas has lost more games than the other college teams considered to be in the top tier this season, having gone 24-5. They lost to Pitt, USC, UConn, Nebraska, and Colorado — the latter two being in-conference. They have a star in Dominguez High product Jordan Hamilton, while Tristan Thompson, Gary Johnson, and Cory Joseph all provide excellent support with their scoring abilities. They have a weakness in that they don’t go bigger than 6’8″ most of the time, and that they usually shoot around 60% at the free throw line. Their lack of size was evident against a team like USC whose 6’10” 260 pound big man Nikola Vucevic went for 24 and 9 against them. They get to the stripe pretty often, but leave a lot of points on the board with their misses and that could haunt them in the tournament. Another issue is defense; in three of their losses, they allowed their opponents to shoot 47%, 49%, and 53%. Lapses like that make them vulnerable to upset in March.

Duke and Ohio State appear to be the most well-rounded, best bets to reach the Final Four, but the lack of truly dominant teams leave this tournament wide open. And you know what? That may make the tournament more entertaining for the fans.

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