As we move into February, the College Basketball continues to be as topsy-turvy as ever. Achieving the number one ranking seems to be a curse for which ever team takes up the mantle. The top spot has essentially been a revolving door since I last reviewed the Top 4 in early January.
Louisville took the #1 ranking for a week before going on a brief slide. Duke lost it, and then took it back briefly before getting their doors blown off by a fast rising Miami Hurricanes squad. Most recently Michigan held the honor for all of a week before losing at Indiana.
The Hoosiers, who were everyone’s preseason favorite and #1 ranked team, have now reclaimed the top spot…for now. A little over a month away from the actual madness, the current Top 4 has a Final Four-ish feel to it.
Indiana Hoosiers (20-2) – When I watch the Hoosiers play, I see no reason why this team should lose to anyone. They have a bona fide star in Cody Zeller. Victor Oladipo is making a push for Player of the Year. Christian Watford is one of those really good college level players; and Jordan Hulls is a marksman. Not to mention they have a star freshman at the point in Yogi Ferrell.
This team can push up and down the floor, or run an efficient half court offense. The roster is deep enough that if someone has a bad night, others can pick up the slack. There’s really no reason they should lose. Of course they’ll need to avoid mysterious performances like the one against Wisconsin a couple weeks ago. I’m not sure if that was disinterest or what.
Fortunately, there are few teams that have enough talented players to exploit the few weaknesses the Hoosiers have. Unfortunately, they may run into several of them during the remainder of the Big Ten schedule.
With road games against Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Michigan to end the season, it may be difficult for the Hoosiers to keep the #1 ranking through the end of the regular season. Regardless, this team is built for March. Indiana should be snagging a top seed come Selection Sunday.
Florida Gators (18-2) – The Gators have ripped off 10 straight games since stumbling to Kansas State just before Christmas. That said the SEC is pretty weak this season. If any team has the opportunity to win out, it’s the Gators. Because the SEC is down significantly, we may not know exactly how good Florida is until Tourney time.
The core of the team is essentially the same group that reached the Elite Eight last season. They are guard heavy with Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario doing a lot of the scoring. Erik Murphy is a versatile perimeter oriented big man. Patric Young is a man-child, but doesn’t have a ton of help in the paint. Will Yeguete pounds the glass alongside Young, but won’t provide much offense.
Florida doesn’t look very deep, and they don’t have a ton of physical size outside of Young. Those issues may or may not get exposed until late March. There are teams in the SEC that COULD beat them, but the Gators have been thumping everyone lately.
Perhaps the Missouri Tigers will be fired up for revenge at their place, or the length of the Kentucky Wildcats will bother the Gators. More than likely, this team will cruise into March with very few losses, and a chance at a top line in the bracket.
Michigan Wolverines (20-2) – The Wolverines were #2 last time I looked at the Top 4; and despite the loss to Indiana on Saturday, they should be entrenched atop the rankings. They’re still one of the more complete teams in College Basketball.
I was surprised they came out flat a few weeks ago at Ohio State. Despite that, they nearly pulled that one out. On Saturday, they looked a little out of sorts to start the game against the Hoosiers. Intense environments like that can only help this team as they prepare for the stretch run.
Michigan does have one really bad habit they need to break. While Trey Burke has become a star, there are times the rest of the guys tend to stand around watching him. There are too many talented offensive players on this team to let that happen. It bogs down the offense, and makes them easy to guard.
Previously I said that Nik Stauskas may be the X-factor. However, a different freshman has changed my mind. Mitch McGary is starting to become that. He’s extremely poised, makes good decisions, and does a lot of the dirty work. McGary may become a household name by the end of the season.
They still face a tough Big Ten slate, including two games with rival Michigan State, Ohio State at home, and another shot at IU to end the year. All of that is really fine tuning and preparation for March for this team.
Duke Blue Devils (19-2) – Just last month, Duke was the most reliable team in the Top 4, and a strong bet to make a run at the Final Four once again. Now I’m not so sure. I never thought someone as gawky as Ryan Kelly would be so important, but he really is.
The Blue Devils will take care of business on most nights without him during ACC play. The league certainly is not at its normal elite level. However, the 27 point thrashing they suffered at Miami served notice that this could be in danger if Kelly’s injury keeps him out longer than expected.
Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, and Quinn Cook are having really impressive seasons. Without Kelly, the supporting cast is going to have to become more consistent to relieve some of the pressure on those guys. Rasheed Sulaimon has some really great nights like he did against Maryland when he went for 25 points. But the freshman will have some clunkers like the 0-10, four point spot he put up in the loss to North Carolina State.
Duke will survive the ACC season reasonably unscathed, even at less than full strength. However, if Ryan Kelly is gone for longer than expected, or for the season, the Blue Devils are not a Top 4 team, let alone a Final Four team.
Before we know it, March will be upon us, conference tourneys and madness. The Top 4 will probably shift a few more times before then; but I think the candidates will stay about the same. There are about 10 legit teams that will rotate in and out of that group.
I suspect the Kansas Jayhawks will get a crack at the top spot in the next few weeks; and the Gonzaga Bulldogs may find themselves in the Top 4 when we take a look just before the madness starts in early March. Until then, enjoy the splendor that is College Basketball!