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December 11, 2008, 12:31 PM ET
A Clear Number 2 May Be Emerging….

by John Gasaway

You may have heard that North Carolina is pretty good this year. I in fact think UNC’s an “overwhelming favorite” to win the national championship.

Very well. Who else is out there? Which team figures to take the floor against the Heels in April at Ford Field?

It’s only December, I know. But I submit to you that this is one impressive start to a season:

  • Played five consecutive power-conference opponents, going 5-0.
  • None of the games were at home–four were neutral-site and one was a true road game.
  • Outscored the five opponents by 0.22 points per possession.
  • Held these same five opponents to 27 percent three-point shooting, 39 percent two-point shooting, and 0.85 points per trip. (To put these numbers in perspective, they’re analogous to what Memphis did last year to C-USA opponents.)

If anyone outside of Chapel Hill has put together a more impressive resume this year, I am yet to see it.

The team I’m describing here is, no surprise, Gonzaga, which has dispatched Oklahoma State, Maryland, Tennessee, Indiana, and, late last night, Washington State (in Pullman) with remarkably little angst or visible discomfort. Only the Volunteers came close to scoring a point per trip, thanks to a veritable orgy of offensive rebounds (27 to be precise) secured in the vacuum left by Austin Daye’s foul trouble. (Keep an eye on this. Daye has been foul-prone and the ‘Zags need him on the floor. Gonzaga is long, yes, but as it happens Daye is their only defensive rebounder.)

This kind of start to a season leads me to speculate that Mark Few’s team just might be the best that Division I can come up with this year in the way of a speed bump for Carolina. Fortunately, I may not have to resort to mere speculation much longer on this front….

First things first. The ‘Zags have to take care of business Sunday against Arizona on a pseudo-neutral floor in Phoenix. You may have temporarily lost sight of the Wildcats, assuming that with all their recent coaching soap opera they’ve lost a step. Maybe so. Then again they still have Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill in uniform. Not to mention 6-2 ‘Zona is precisely four points away from being undefeated this season. As absurd as it is to say of a Pac-10 team playing in front of a supportive crowd against a WCC foe: they should be able to at least hold their own.

Then if Gonzaga makes it past Arizona (and Texas Southern next Thursday), all could be in readiness for the showdown to determine the best team in the country not named “North Carolina.” I’m of course talking about the December 20 game between the Bulldogs and Connecticut at KeyArena in Seattle. For their part the Huskies will first have to take care of Stony Brook on Monday. (Hey, don’t sell the SUNY system short in match-ups against Big East competition. After all, Binghamton beat Rutgers.)

Yes, if fate cooperates, December 20 should bring us everything we need for a true Speed Bump Classic, one that will determine the presumptive number 2–at least until further events shine that light elsewhere. Circle the calendar. 

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