About a month ago, I examined who I thought was the fourth-best team in the nation, under the premise that Kansas, Memphis and UCLA were clearly the top three teams. Not much has changed (at least in my opinion) since then. Despite multiple losses by Kansas and UCLA, those three teams are still the best in the country. The two teams I had competing for the four spot were Duke and North Carolina. Duke has proven their status with a slew of double-digit wins both home and away in ACC play. Carolina is in hoops purgatory at the moment, struggling without Ty Lawson. For the sake of argument--or more accurately, to avoid one--I'll table the discussion as to whether they're in the top five so we can move on with things.
History tells us we'll probably get two Final Four teams out of the top five, so the question becomes: who's #6? Not because it really matters to me from a ranking standpoint, but because that next tier of teams will provide the other two that will make a deep tournament run. With that I present three nominees, the first two of which are receiving nary a top ten vote in the latest AP poll.
Mr. Gasaway commented on Louisville on Monday, and I would be hard pressed to state their case any better. However, I wanted to relay a personal story involving the Cardinals. Back on the afternoon of January 19, I was merrily switching among a few games that my suite of backyard satellites was pulling in. Among them was Louisville at Seton Hall, and every time I checked in, Louisville was keeping a nice cushion between them and the Pirates. Eventually, I checked out, with the opinion that Louisville was the best team in the nation nobody was talking about. This occurred with about 11 minutes to go in the game and the Cards up 67-57.
I'm too embarrassed to admit how long it took for me to get the news that Seton Hall came back and won that game. I'm more embarrassed for myself that I missed one of the more unlikely stretches of basketball played this season. Over its next 14 possessions, Seton Hall would score on 13, totaling 31 points during that time. That's an amazing accomplishment in a competitive game of any sort, even against a suspect defense. The thing is that Louisville's defense, other than for those 14 possessions, has been outstanding, as it typically is under Rick Pitino. In fact, even including those 14 possessions, the Cardinal defense has still been the best in the Big East. Sure, they shoot a few too many threes for my taste, but if Terrence Williams continues to show restraint in that area and David Padgett remains healthy, there are few teams whose Final Four chances are better. Louisville probably won't win the Big East regular season title, but don't let that fool you. They're the best team in the conference.
The Wildcats, too, are led by a great defense, and the offense is catching up in a hurry. It's been since December 4 that they've been held below a point per possession. Only three times during that stretch have they failed to get 40% of the possible offensive boards, with their worst performance being a 30.8% rate against Oklahoma in an 84-82 win on January 12. They don't always shoot well, and they don't always take care of the ball, but they get plenty of second chances and that's a nice safety net.
Inevitably over the past four seasons, fans of a team that relies on freshmen will try to draw comparisons between their team and the '03 Syracuse team that got much of its offense from freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara en route to a national title. Kansas State is getting that buzz now, and the obvious similarity is that both were led by an ultra-high usage freshman. Extending the analogy, both teams had excellent regular seasons that were marred by a bad loss around the time the calendar flipped over to February which dropped their stock more than each deserved. In the case of the Orange it was a loss at Rutgers, and for the Wildcats, the loss at Missouri took away some of the buzz from the big win against Kansas. The biggest difference is that K-State controls its own destiny to win its conference. If the Wildcats do that, few will be surprised if they make a deep run in March.
The Cardinal provides us with an unusual sight--a team playing great defense that almost never creates steals. They beat Washington State in overtime without a single one. Overall, there are just 13 teams in the nation forcing fewer steals per possession. It's the Jim Calhoun model: stock your team with multiple seven-footers and make sure opponents are encouraged to approach the hoop as often as possible. There's no need to gamble on turnovers when you can force a shooter to dribble into a bad matchup. Because of this, six of its last seven opponents have been held below 42% shooting (eFG).
Stanford lost to Siena before Brook Lopez was available. Since then, they have lost to UCLA and Oregon. Their remaining seven regular season games are manageable, so it's not out of the question that they could get at least a share of the conference title. However, it's more likely that they drop another game or two. That combined with playing games late at night on non-traditional TV outlets will keep them from being a trendy pick in March. Don't be deceived though, Stanford has enough talent to get to the Final Four.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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