Title Favorites Tough to Find in Men’s Basketball
Indiana climbed its way to No. 1 this week, back where it started the season.
Fitting with the way this season has gone, the Hoosiers aren’t likely to be there long after losing on a buzzer beater to Illinois Thursday night.
So far in this season of parity, No. 1 is no fun. Get to the top — or even close to it — and chances are a letdown is coming.
Since Indiana and Duke dominated No. 1 the first 10 weeks of the season, it’s been a jumble at the top with five different teams up there the past five weeks, a streak that will almost certainly stretch to six.
So as the regular season winds down into its final month, who are the title contenders? Well, good question. At this point, any team in the Top 25 or even just out of it might have a chance.
Indiana. The Hoosiers are the current No. 1, so might as well start there. Indiana is tough, talented and has one of the best players in the country in big man Cody Zeller. The Hoosiers (20-3) are 8-2 in the rugged Big Ten, but have had some tough losses. They lost to Butler in December when a 5-foot-11 walk-on hit a floater in the closing seconds of overtime and couldn’t crack 60 points in a loss to unranked Wisconsin last month. Indiana had been on a roll beating then-No. 13 Michigan State and top-ranked Michigan last week, but took a big stumble by losing to the unranked Illini. The Hoosiers also face some tough games down the stretch, including two against No. 10 Ohio State both Michigan schools again.
Florida. The Gators are No. 2 this week, but also figure to fall a few spots after a looks-bad-on-the-resume loss to Arkansas on Tuesday. Florida has one of the nation’s most dynamic backcourts in Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Ervin Walker and a multidimensional front line anchored by powerful Patric Young. The Gators have dominated most games, but allowed Arizona to score seven points in the final 56 seconds in a one-point loss in December and struggled at both ends in a loss to Kansas State a week later. Florida got on a roll after that, winning 10 straight games, but had a huge letdown in the loss to the Razorbacks. Still, 18-2 and with a lineup like that, they figure to make a decent run in the NCAA tournament.
Michigan. The Wolverines might have the nation’s best starting backcourt in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., and have arguably been college basketball’s most consistent team. Michigan opened at the No. 5 in the preseason poll and have remained in the top-5, moving into the top spot the week of Jan. 28. The Wolverines only lasted a week at No. 1 thanks to a loss, but that was to Indiana, ranked No. 3 at the time. The Wolverines’ only other loss was on the road to Ohio State, which they avenged with an overtime win at home on Tuesday in one of the season’s best games. Still, the Big Ten is tough this season and Michigan still has to face Michigan State and Indiana, not to mention go through the grind of the conference tournament.
Duke: The Blue Devils have one of the nation’s best players in Mason Plumlee and a guard in Seth Curry who can score in bunches. The problem for Duke has been injuries and occasional lapses on defense. A foot injury by big man Ryan Kelly was a big loss. The multidimensional power forward has been out since injuring his right foot in early January and the Blue Devils struggled the first few games without him. One of those struggles came after Duke climbed to No. 1 again on Jan. 21, a 90-63 loss to unranked Miami that was the third-worst by a No. 1 team ever. Still, the Blue Devils (19-2) spent four weeks at No. 1 before Kelly got hurt and will be a formidable team when he returns.
Kansas: The talent and depth are there for a big run, but do the Jayhawks have enough focus to go deep in the NCAA tournament? The first part of the season was great for Kansas. Led by fabulous freshman Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks raced through the first two months of the season, their only loss a tight one to Michigan State. The past couple of weeks have been a struggle. After scraping past West Virginia on the road on Jan. 28, Kansas lost to Oklahoma State, their first at home to the Cowboys since 1989. It got worse — much, worse — on Wednesday night, when Kansas scored 13 points in the first half against TCU for its first losing streak since 2006. After the loss to the Horned Frogs, coach Bill Self called his team the worst Kansas had put on the floor since Dr. James Naismith invented the game, so the Jayhawks (19-3) have a lot of work to do, no matter how talented they are.
Arizona. Coach Sean Miller finally has his own players in place and the Wildcats are loaded after a second straight stellar recruiting class. Arizona has a good mix of youth and veterans, with a strong backcourt and multidimensional frontcourt. What the Wildcats need is consistency. Arizona managed to pull out some close wins early in the season — Florida and San Diego State were the big ones — before it caught up to them on the road against Oregon. The Wildcats then lost at home to UCLA, a team that went on to lose to Arizona State and USC their next two games. Arizona has struggled with turnovers and perimeter defense at times, but has the talent to go deep into March — if it can find more consistency.
JOHN MARSHALL,AP Basketball Writer
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.