We’re three weeks out from Selection Sunday and to continue tracking the current form of the nation’s best teams it’s time for TheSportsNotebook’s College Basketball Sweet 16 Report. It’s a look at the top 16 teams in the country, as based on the seed projections of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. We’ll look briefly at what each team has done over the past week and what they have ahead on the weekend. Our purpose is to target teams who peak at the right time or decline at the wrong time.
#1 SEEDS: Indiana, Miami, Gonzaga, Duke—I’m pretty close to having to eat crow on my season-long skepticism over Indiana. I did not expect the Hoosiers to come through with that big Tuesday night win at Michigan State. There are some little things that bother me—IU is more dependent than a lot of top teams on how they shoot from the outside, with Jordan Hulls knocking down 4-of-6 from three-point range to key the 72-68 win. But Indiana also played its best defensive game against a fellow contender, holding Sparty to 42 percent from the floor. The Hoosiers are in first place in the Big Ten, a 9-2 co-favorite to win the national championship and have earned the weekend off that the schedule accords.
Miami is the other 9-2 bet to cut down the nets in Atlanta, and the Hurricanes now have three straight ugly wins. Although perhaps calling last Sunday’s 45-43 win in Clemson “ugly” is an insult to ugly wins everywhere. A 54-50 escape over Virginia was more conventionally ugly. But as a Hurricane backer, I like this. It’s good to see Miami showing they can grind out wins in spots when they’re not at their best and I agree with ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl who said yesterday on Pardon The Interruption that if these players and this resume had the North Carolina or Duke brand draped across them, no one would question close victories.
Speaking of Duke, I have no idea how this team is still a projected 1-seed after losing to Maryland, allowing 60 percent shooting from the floor and being hammered on the glass, 38-17. While these are extreme numbers, the Blue Devils being soft on defense and the boards is not a new phenomena. Please take a look at this excellent report by Stat Intelligence blogger Jeff Fogle which illustrates starkly that Duke hasn’t looked Final Four-caliber since December. And even Duke’s bounceback win over Virginia Tech last night was on the road against a bad team and Seth Curry—whose father Dell was a Hokie star back in the 1980s—was the one who shot the lights out. There’s nothing to suggest a turnaround is imminent, although a home date with Boston College on Sunday probably means another win.
Gonzaga has moved up to the top line and after a tougher-than-expected win over San Francisco last weekend, the Zags hammered a competitive Santa Clara team 85-42. Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris are eating opposing frontlines alive. I don’t know how much to make of this since it’s against West Coast Conference competition, but Mark Few’s team is doing everything it can.
#2 SEEDS: Kansas, Michigan State, Michigan, Florida: Kansas got themselves back on track with a dominating defensive effort against Texas last weekend and then a double-overtime thriller at Oklahoma State this week. Jeff Withey is controlling the low post and the boards and that’s tough for most teams to match up with. It isn’t often we would call Kansas-TCU a revenge game, but Saturday’s meeting in Lawrence is the rematch of the TCU upset that sent Bill Self into a well-publicized tirade in the press conference afterward.
Michigan State let the Big Ten lead get away with the Indiana loss. The Spartans can reasonably point to bad outside shooting—Keith Appling was 0-for-4 on treys—but it’s tough to explain away a loss at home to anyone, at least if you’re thinking national title. Michigan State visits Ohio State on Sunday afternoon.
Michigan really needed the week off they’re completing. After losing three games to contenders on the road in tough fashion, the Wolverines shaky 79-71 home win over Penn State last weekend was even more alarming, particularly given the Nittany Lions significantly outrebounded UM. We’ll see if rest and refocus was the answer when Michigan hosts Illinois on Sunday.
Florida had a disappointing week, but no one can say they got cheated on their three-point shots. Between last weekend’s easy win at Auburn and Tuesday’s close loss at Missouri, the Gators chucked 63 treys. When you bury them against a bad team life is good. When you hit less than a third, as was the case against Missouri, and your frontcourt doesn’t produce, it’s not so good. This is not a formula that will win six straight games in March unless Florida gets about the biggest bracket breaks the NCAA Tournament has ever seen.
#3 SEEDS: Louisville, Syracuse, Arizona, New Mexico: Louisville played great defense in taking care of business at South Florida and now hosts Seton Hall. That’s the same Seton Hall that Syracuse took care of this week thanks to defense and an excellent job taking care of the ball on the offensive end.
Arizona looked so-so in wins over Utah and Washington, but still moved back into a tie for first in the Pac-12 when Oregon lost to Cal last night. As for New Mexico, I still don’t get the fascination, but if the Lobos beat Colorado State (currently projected as a #6 seed) in a big Mountain West game on Saturday, I’ll lighten up a little bit. A very little bit.
#4 SEEDS: Butler, Kansas State, Georgetown, Wisconsin: Buyer beware on Butler. The Bulldogs haven’t looked really good for a while and last Saturday’s win at Fordham was positively uninspiring. Fordham didn’t shoot well and mishandled several key possessions down the stretch and still almost pulled the upset. Butler has a big game with St. Louis about an hour after this article goes online on Friday, and the result there probably brings their seeding into line with my opinion of them (something I’m sure the Bulldog players and coaches are losing sleep over).
Kansas State forced 19 turnovers in blowing out Baylor last Saturday, then won by shooting 50 percent from the floor in a Monday win over West Virginia. Even more impressive was that their best player, Rodney McGruder, was not one of the hot shooters in the WVA win. K-State plays a terrible Texas team in Austin on Saturday.
Wisconsin posted a surprisingly easy win over Ohio State last Sunday in Madison, a game that flipped them and the Buckeyes between the 4-5 seed lines. There was nothing in the box score to jump out at you, just the reality that Wisconsin did everything better than Ohio State. Then on Wednesday, the Badgers continued to lock down defensively in a win over Northwestern. Bo Ryan’s team will be off this weekend in a rare spot where no Big Ten games will be played on Saturday.
Now we come to Georgetown. TheSportsNotebook featured the Hoyas last Sunday after an impressive win over Cincinnati. Now Georgetown is set for the biggest game of the weekend, a trip to Syracuse tomorrow afternoon (4 PM ET, CBS) with a share of first place in the Big East on the line—perhaps sole possession if Marquette loses to Villanova immediately after. Georgetown tuned up with an annihilation of DePaul. The one dark cloud is the knee injury to star player Otto Porter. He is expected to play in the Carrier Dome tomorrow, so we’ll assume for the time being that this cloud will pass. The results of the Hoyas-Orange battle will not only impact the Big East race, but what seed line these teams will be on at this time next week.