College Basketball Title Contenders You Can Believe In

Indiana has fallen from its #1 perch atop the national rankings after Saturday’s overtime loss to Butler. In an early look at the top contenders in the Big Ten, I opined that the Hoosiers were overrated, as were the other highly regarded teams in the league, including Michigan. While I obviously stand by that view with IU, and also with Michigan, it has occurred to me that I’m running what amounts to a negative campaign, simply critiquing the teams at the top while offering no constructive alternative of my own. Today we’ll address that imbalance with a few college basketball title contenders I’m sold on.

On balance, I don’t consider this is a great year in college basketball, even by the increasingly watered-down standards we see with the early entries to the NBA. But even in comparison to last year I don’t see anyone as good as Kentucky, nor as good as Final Four teams Ohio State and Kansas, nor a healthy North Carolina, who might have won it all had Kendall Marshall not broken his wrist. But somebody has to be #1, and to be favorites to reach the Georgia Dome in April for the Final Four. There are three teams I like quite a bit right now and that’s Duke, Arizona & Notre Dame. Here’s why…

Duke: The Blue Devils are a rarely  good bet in Las Vegas, as even when they’re good, the national popularity the team has means it’s tough to get decent odds on a futures wager, or a manageable point spread on a game-to-game basis. But if you want to throw gambling implications out the window, and just ask who has the basketball team, Duke was the correct choice to succeed Indiana as the #1 team in the nation.

From a short-term perspective, the Dookies have beaten Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and then thrashed a pretty decent Temple team, so I’m not sure who else deserves to be at the top of the polls. But the long-term perspective is more important and Duke is getting a big year from center Mason Plumlee, with 19 points/11 rebounds.

This has always been the hinge on which Duke’s ultimate success swings. We’ve always counted on Mike Kryzyzewski to produce good backcourts and efficient teams. Whether the Blue Devils have been able to live up to the hype has depended on whether they have a quality big man, particularly when it comes to rebounding. When Duke won the 2010 NCAA title, they had Brian Zoubek, who didn’t score, but consistently grabbed double-digit rebounds. With Plumlee, the scoring is icing on the cake. The 11 rebounds a game are what make Duke a dangerous team, and they’ve got their traditional strength around the perimeter.

If you ever wanted to bet Duke to win a title, do it now, while the odds are a reasonable 7-1. That number’s going to drop as the tournament gets closer.

Arizona: Sean Miller’s team got a big 65-64 win over Florida on Saturday night, but that’s not what excites me. In fact, you can argue that needing a miracle rally in the closing minute to win on your home floor argues against your standing as a national contender. If the NCAA Tournament started today, I’d probably agree with you, but I love what the Wildcats have on the perimeter, with Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons, and Solomon Hill is a tremendous player on the wing. That’s a combination of experience, athleticism and outside shooting that make Arizona a threat to beat anyone.

The Wildcats then have the upside in 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski. If the freshman develops as the season wears on, Arizona will be a team with no weaknesses, and their current 12-1 odds to win it all will look like a steal. To top it off, Sean Miller is a coach you can count on in big situations.

Notre Dame: I simply can’t understand why this team is slipping under the radar. At 9-1, they’re only ranked 22nd in the country and the difficulty of the Big East schedule is going to prevent them from rising high in the polls. This is going to be a team that probably moves into the NCAA Tournament as a #4 seed, maybe even a 5, but will be extremely tough to knockout.

The Irish have a well-balanced team, starting with a great backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. They both score and they both distribute, making Notre Dame a tough team to apply pressure too. ND is tough inside with Jack Cooley and Scott Martin both hitting the boards with a vengeance, and Cooley scoring 15 ppg.

It’s not a perfect team to be sure—Cooley’s the tallest player at 6’9”, so that could be a problem, in making the Irish too dependent on the perimeter game. But they have experience and quality at every position. And they are 60-1 to win the national championship. If I were at the Bellagio, be assured I’m not leaving without that ticket in my hand. Imagine the odds in August if you would have parlayed Notre Dame’s national championship numbers in both football and basketball. I do believe it can be a clean sweep in South Bend, something only Florida in 2006 has accomplished.

We’re a couple weeks out from the beginning of conference play, which to me is when college basketball gets serious. The first week in January—actually starting Monday, December 31, is when full league schedules start in the Big Ten, Pac-12 & Big East. Then on the weekend, ACC & Big 12 games pick up. As we move into the following week, the conference slates of the SEC, Mountain West and Atlantic 10 will kick off. So far, TheSportsNotebook has just looked at the contenders in each conference, but we’ll have an in-depth preview of all eight conferences before their league action begins.