NCAA: The Spin - Contenders and Pretenders
Now that we are nearly a month into conference play, it's
easier to get a true measure of what teams are all about - and whether or not
they have what it takes to be one of 65 privileged teams come mid-March.
So in this edition of The Spin, I will target some teams that might be considered on the fringe of respectability, as far as an at-large NCAA Tournament bid is concerned. And I'll take my best guess and label these teams as contenders or pretenders.
If you haven't seen this bunch play yet, just think of all those disciplined and dangerous Princeton teams in the 1990s. Remember how much other teams hated to play them? It's no different with this Air Force team, coached by former Princeton assistant Joe Scott.
Scott has his Falcons on a school-record 12-game winning streak, and because Air Force has also shown they can win outside of Colorado Springs, I expect to see them finally win their first Mountain West Tournament game and then become the trendy 1st-round upset pick in office pools everywhere.
The return of Kelly Whitney has given this team a boost of confidence, and just in time for Big East play. Whitney also provides the Pirates with a stronger presence on the interior. Point guard Andre Barrett is enjoying a great senior season and John Allen has matured and become more consistent this season.
The Hall finished strong last season, but came up with an NIT bid. This year's edition is hungry for an invite and if they can avoid the letdowns they've experienced in years past, they won't be disappointed on Selection Sunday. How they fare in "winnable" Big East road games could determine whether their tournament bid has three letters or four.
It's not that the Tigers have given anyone a reason to believe they are NCAA-worthy, but they do have a couple of star players in Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson, even if they are having disappointing seasons. And the supporting cast isn't too shabby, either.
But if Missouri can take full advantage of a more beneficial schedule in early-to-mid February - and by take advantage, I mean don't lose any of those games - this team has a chance to regroup and make a run at a tournament bid. A strong showing in the Big 12 Tournament would certainly boost their credentials as well.
As much as I enjoy watching this team play, and as good as they look in home games, it's hard to believe I'm putting them on the pretender list.
But these team's Jeckyll and Hyde status from home to road games is quite disturbing. And unless coach Leonard Hamilton can get the rest of his team to complement Tim Pickett away from home, I think this team will come up just shy of a bid and be on many snub lists you see after the Field of 65 has been revealed.
Why? Because their remaining road games come against Duke, Maryland, NC State, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Do any of those sound like guaranteed wins to you? If they can get even two wins out of those six games, and continue to hold serve at home, then a dance ticket could be theirs with a respectable showing in the ACC Tourney. Lots to be determined here.
I'm not even sure that this team is on the fringe of anyone's NCAA Tournament invites list. The Musketeers haven't beaten anyone with great value (XU's best wins are at home versus Alabama and at Rhode Island), and like Florida State above, cannot seem to gain any measure of consistency on the road. The importance the selection committee places on winning away from home can't be expressed enough.
One factor working in Xavier's favor is that they have a chance to show their worthy with road games against Dayton and Richmond still to come, along with the huge rivalry game against Cincinnati. All other factors are working against the Musketeers.
Xavier is a reflection of its best player, Romain Sato, who is extremely talented, but does not possess a killer instinct. I believe that will cost them a trip to the Big Dance, if their lackluster record doesn't already disqualify them.
Any Pac-10 Team Not Named Stanford and Arizona
It's hard to imagine a major conference like the Pac-10 getting just two NCAA bids, but take a long look at all the conference's teams outside of the Cardinal and Wildcats. Then, tell me that any of them even deserve consideration at this juncture.
Oregon is way too moody, and hasn't beaten a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team yet. UCLA, despite a win over disappointing Michigan State and a 2-point loss to Kentucky, just doesn't impress me. The Bruins finish with a tough schedule over the season's final three weeks, which I can't see them overcoming. And California's difficulty with putting together back-to-back quality performances rules them out. The Golden Bears' only saving grace could be the fact that their toughest remaining opponents all have to come to Haas Pavilion, and should they be able to knock some of them off, they'll at least have a few quality wins on their resume.
More than likely, one of these teams will have to catch lightning in a bottle and reel off three straight wins at the Staples Center in March for the Pac-10 to avoid its first two-bid NCAA Tournament since 1988.
THIS WEEK'S TIDBIT
Saint Joseph's and Stanford are still unbeaten, but what does being the final remaining unbeaten mean in terms of success in the NCAA Tournament? Well, over the past five years, it certainly doesn't guarantee you much.
In the 1998-99 season, Connecticut was the final unbeaten and went on to win it all. But ever since the best the final unbeaten team has fared in the Dance was Stanford in 2001, when they reached the Elite Eight before bowing out to Maryland.
The other three final unbeatens (Syracuse in 2000 and Duke in 2002 & 2003) all lost in the Sweet 16.