Office pool sharks and hubris-laden college students, get ready. With just under one week to go in the regular season, the NCAA nears one of its signature events: the 64-team Division I tournament to determine college basketball’s national champion.
While the selection process for the men’s tournament has always been slightly controversial, this year there appear to be several favorites for the top seeds in each quarter of the bracket. Below are my predictions of the four teams I expect to be top seeds.
First is Kansas, the nation’s current top-ranked behemoth and leader of the Big 12 conference. This team has been playing unbelievably well all season; with their only losses coming at the hands of Oklahoma State and a headstrong Tennessee team, the Jayhawks look to claim a second title in three years (their last trophy was won via a come-from-behind victory over Memphis in the 2008 National Championship game).
This time, instead of Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush (both of whom now play in the NBA), the Jayhawks boast veteran leader Sherron Collins and freshman breakout Xavier Henry as their top offensive performers. Collins leads the team with 15.1 points per game, and Henry is complimenting his teammate nicely with 13.9 PPG. On the defensive end, junior Cole Aldrich has an outstanding average of 10.2 rebounds per game, more than half of which are defensive rebounds.
Both Aldrich and Collins were a part of the 2008 national championship team, and they look to add another NCAA trophy to their school’s collection. However, I view their close wins against Memphis, Kansas State and Cornell and their loss to Tennessee as warning signs of what could happen to this team if they become too complacent. The Jayhawks have had a relatively easy time with many of the teams on their schedule this year, and it will be interesting to see how they handle their second game against Kansas State on Wednesday.
If this team truly wants to make it back to the Final Four, they cannot afford to underestimate any team (the UConn Huskies learned this lesson the hard way, when they were amazingly upset by the George Mason Patriots in 2006).
The next team I believe will receive a number-one regional seed is the Kentucky Wildcats. This team has the player that everyone in the college basketball world has been talking about. His name is John Wall, and he is on fire this year. ESPN anchors and analysts, including Andy Katz, have been touting this outstanding freshman as one of the best players in the nation, and Katz believes Wall is Kentucky’s “game-changer.”
So far, this young star has been making a great case for his early exit from the college scene and entry as the number one pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Wall leads his team with 16.7 PPG, and he has excelled at the free throw line. With help from forwards DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, Wall looks ready to lead his team to a Final Four appearance.
With Kentucky’s only losses coming at the hands of South Carolina and pesky Tennessee, this team, like the Jayhawks, has been dominant all year. They also need to watch out for the occasional upset threat posed by several teams in the tournament, but I think that Kentucky’s roster is deeper than Kansas’s.
Although I strongly dislike Kentucky’s head coach John Calipari as a person, I credit his brilliant recruiting efforts this year and hope that he can actually lead what appears to be a deserving team to a national championship. Of course, I am not deciding on any picks until the tournament bracket is released, but the Wildcats are currently making a great case for one of my championship game slots.
The third number one seed will likely be the Syracuse Orange, a Big East team that has fought hard to be at the top of its conference this season. As far as schedule difficulty goes, I believe that this team has had the hardest schedule in college basketball. I say this only because the Orange play in what might be the most competitive basketball conference in the NCAA this year; the Big East has enjoyed stellar play this year from Villanova, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, among others.
Syracuse has defeated all of these teams, and they have a strong core of players to thank for this success.
The Orange are led by four outstanding forwards in Wesley Johnson, Kris Joseph, Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson. Johnson has been one of college basketball’s most complete players this year; he leads his team with 15.8 PPG and 8.7 rebounds per game. He’s also making half of his field goal shots, which is quite an accomplishment considering the heated conference in which he plays. It is still unclear whether or not Syracuse will claim the Big East title, but what is clear is that Coach Jim Boeheim’s Orange will certainly make a strong run for the Final Four this year.
The fourth and final top seed in the tournament is a tough one to predict. Now that Purdue has been dealt a crushing blow with the loss of star forward Robbie Hummel, I can see either Villanova or Duke getting the honor. Duke has not inspired me much with their play during the past few seasons. Even with the virtual absence of rival North Carolina this year (last place in the ACC is simply a shocking and unacceptable position for that franchise), I think the Blue Devils will receive a number two seeding in this year’s bracket. Yes, my bold prediction is that this year there will be two top-ranked teams from the Big East.
The Villanova Wildcats have seen outstanding play from leader Scottie Reynolds; his 19.0 PPG are simply amazing, and he’s also shooting an astounding 82.7 percent from the free throw line. Despite a tough loss to Syracuse this past Saturday, this team is capable of finishing the season with a strong record.
Will Reynolds and fellow guard Corey Fisher be able to lead the Wildcats to a possible showdown with rival Syracuse in the tournament? Will either Big East team make it to the Final Four?
These and many, many other questions will all be answered one short month from now. Best of luck to all of Conn’s bracketologists as you make your picks for this year’s tournament.