By Flint Wheeler
So here it goes. This is a unique year, because there is no clear-cut favorite to win the national championship. Some years, there is a dominant team that is a top-heavy choice to cut down the nets. Other years, you can point to four or five teams and say that only they have a chance to make it all the way.
That is simply not the case this year. Of the first 17 teams in the Associated Press poll, I believe only three of them cannot go all the way – Florida State, SMU (the Mustangs simply do not shoot well enough) and Butler (despite beating Villanova twice, this terrific team does not have enough size or talent to win six games).
You can make a plausible case for any of the remaining 14 teams to go all the way. I see very little talent difference between the first 12: Kansas, Villanova, UCLA, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon, Arizona, Louisville, Kentucky, WVU, Baylor and Florida. Purdue and Duke, ranked 16th and 17th, respectively, both have somewhat disappointing records, yet they still have talent and depth equal to the first 12, and, if they get hot, they can certainly make it to the Final Four.
All of these teams have had great wins against top-flight competition, but also have had some considerable losses. Consider our own Villanova Wildcats, who are ranked second and are the defending national champions. They play with a great level of consistency, but were upset by Marquette – not a particularly good Big East team – and, as mentioned, swept by Butler. I love coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats, but I just don’t think they have the depth or the size to win six games against top-flight competition.
Or take Kansas. Though the Jayhawks won the Big 12, the toughest league in the country right now, and often look unbeatable, they did lose at West Virginia and to Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse, and lost their season opener to a mediocre Indiana team.
The two teams that seem to have the most depth and talent are Kentucky and UNC, and many still believe they will meet in the championship game. But Kentucky has been beaten five times, and though three of those losses were to top-12 teams, they were also tripped up on the road by an average Tennessee team.
The Tar Heels have suffered five defeats, including two at the hands of second-tier ACC teams Georgia Tech and Miami. It should be noted, though, that UNC and Kentucky played the most memorable game of the season, with Kentucky winning, 103-100. It was breathtaking to watch.
The Pac-12 has three of the nation’s top seven teams. They are all talented, but also erratic. Arizona has lost only four games, but among those losses was a defeat by Butler and an 85-58 thumping by Oregon. UCLA, which has three losses, split its games against both Arizona and Oregon and lost to crosstown rival USC. The Ducks lost four times, but inexplicably lost to mediocre Georgetown and Colorado teams.
And last are the Gonzaga Bulldogs undefeated for most of the season, winners of 29 straight, with good wins over Florida, Iowa State, Arizona and two over top-25 ranked St. Mary’s. Unfortunately, the Zags’ streak recently came to an end when they blew a solid lead at home against BYU – a loss that has raised some doubts among skeptics that their superb record was a result of playing in the weak West Coast Conference.
Having gone through all of this, who do I think will emerge in the Final Four? Well, that is virtually impossible to tell not knowing the bracket. But if I had to pick on talent and consistency, I think Kansas, UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina will emerge in the Final Four. And I am picking UCLA to win it all.
PS: If you are looking for longshots in your bracket, I think dark-horse possibilities are Notre Dame, SMU, Butler, Maryland, Michigan, Wichita State and Iowa State. For wild-card selections, here are two I would keep in mind: Monmouth, the MAAC conference champion, which has solid wins over South Carolina and Princeton; or Illinois State, the co-champion of the Missouri Valley Conference, which has now won 19 out of its last 20.