Erving

College Basketball Primer Part II: The Non-Contending Contenders

Thomas-RobinsonIf you can remember all the way back to Monday (which, at least to me, feels like the Mesozoic era it was so long ago), you’ll remember that I released the first half of my College Basketball Primer that morning. With the NFL season officially over, it was time to embrace college hoops, and the primer was my way of catching you up on the teams and storylines you needed to know heading into the last few weeks of the season.

In that Part I on Monday, I went ahead and broke down this year’s National Championship contenders, with my intention to run Part II (a handful of teams that aren’t quite elite, but still worth looking out for) on Tuesday. Unfortunately, UConn had a breakdown of epic proportions on Monday night, meaning that this got pushed back to later in the week. However it all worked out for the best, as it gave me an extra few days to really feel out some of these teams, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and where they “fit” into the whole picture.

So with that said, let’s get to Part II of the College Basketball Primer. These are teams that aren’t quite in the National Championship picture right now, but that you should be keeping an eye out on, none the less.

Missouri:  

As I mentioned above, Monday’s Part I of the primer was about recognizing and appreciating the teams which I truly believed were National Championship contenders. Which went all well and good… at least until a few Missouri fans caught a whiff of the article. While I wouldn’t say Tigers fans “flooded my inbox with hate mail,” per se, what I would say is that umm, they weren’t too happy with their teams exclusion from the original list. To which I must say: Who knew Missouri had basketball fans?

Kidding, of course, and in all seriousness, I really do like Missouri. They’re one of the better stories in the sport, Frank Haith is having one of the better DeShawn Stevenson “Hey LeBron, tell me how my Dirk taste” seasons (and in the process, sticking it to every media member who crucified his hiring last April), and Mizzou games have basically turned into must-see TV basketball at this point. Saturday’s win over Kansas was simply everything that college basketball is supposed to be about.

Those are all the things Missouri is. One thing Missouri is not however, is a National Championship contender. Sorry Mizzou fans, it’s true.

Look, I’ve been watching college hoops my whole life, and more than anything, the one variable that every National Championship team shares above all is talent. Raw, unequivocal, elite, basketball talent. Go ahead and look at every team who has won a title in the past decade, and it’s hard to find one without three to four future bona-fide NBA players. UNC had four lottery picks in 2005, and four draftees in 2009. Florida had three lottery picks on their two title teams. Hell, even UConn had Kemba Walker (lottery pick) and Jeremy Lamb (future lottery pick) on their roster last year, and college basketball wasn’t nearly as tough overall then as it is now. Just about the only team you could argue didn’t have that type of NBA talent was Duke in 2010, and really, 2010 may have been college basketball’s worst season from a talent standpoint in the last decade. Actually, on second thought, I know it was.

As for Missouri this year? Well sure, they’re a veteran team. And yes, they have plenty of experience. You know what they also have? Maybe one guy who’ll play in the NBA (Ricardo Ratliffe). Maybe one. As for everyone else? They’re much more likely to end up on a German Bundesliga roster next year than an NBA one. I love you Michael Dixon and Marcus Denmon, but it might be time to go ahead and apply for that passport.

And in all honesty, the more I think about it, you know who Missouri actually reminds me of? They remind me of Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee teams from the last few years. Those teams were always well coached, always, entertaining, never beat themselves… and unfortunately, they almost always lost to a team that was simply more talented than them come tournament time. Nine times out of 10, talent wins out, and zero times in his coaching career did Pearl go to the Final Four. Those two things are not a coincidence.

Now, can Mizzou win a title? Of course, since hypothetically, anyone can. The Tigers could get a couple breaks in the draw, see another couple teams get upset (remember, UConn didn’t face a single No. 1 seed on their way to the title last year), and end up in New Orleans. Again, it could happen. Then again, Rick Pitino could also win the 2012 Husband of the Year. I’m just not expecting either.

Regardless, to all the Mizzou fans reading, enjoy this year. You’ve got a fun team, and a good coach, and the right combination of experience and talent to win a heck of a lot more games by the time it’s all said and done.

Like I said, just don’t be disappointed if your season doesn’t end with a title.

Kansas:

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m just gonna say it: My man-crush on Bill Self is reaching slightly uncomfortable proportions. For all his tournament woes (which are overrated, by the way), I’m not sure that day-in and day-out there is a better coach in the entire sport than Self, and unequivocally there isn’t a better talent developer than him either. After all, could anyone else have turned Brady Morningstar or Conner Teahan into a serviceable Big XII guard? (Hell, could anyone else have turned either into a serviceable lunchtime YMCA player?) Could anyone else have turned Robinson into an All-American? Maybe, the latter. But still, Self doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves.

As for this year’s team in specific, well, I didn’t think they were a title contender a week ago, and to be honest, I still don’t. I do however feel a lot better about them making a deep run tournament run than I did before the Baylor game about 48 hours ago.

Now obviously a win over Baylor (who as you know, I like) isn’t a be all, end all, for a program at Kansas, where 25-win seasons were commonplace even before Self showed up. At the same time, to go on the road, and play such a complete game, against a quality team, in a hostile arena ain’t easy either. And to do it off a devastating loss like the one they suffered on Saturday night is even more impressive.

Then there’s this: For as good as Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor have been this year, Kansas has always been one bad game from either one, from getting knocked off by just about anyone. When you rely so heavily on just two guys to account for so much of your offense like Kansas does, you’re simply going to lose games you shouldn’t, when one of them is at less than 100 percent, foul trouble, whatever.

Which is why Wednesday was so important. Whether it was for just one game or the rest of the season, the Jayhawks got a real, tangible contribution from a third scorer, when Jeff Withey put up 25 points against Baylor. Again, it’s impossible to say if that was a one-time flash in the pan, or the legitimate start to something special, but ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. What’s important at Kansas, what will make them that much more dangerous going forward, isn’t actually having a third scorer. It’s the threat of having a third scorer. It changes everything the other team does on defense, means you can’t double Thomas Robinson, and means you’ve got play everyone straight up. Which will obviously only make things easier for Robinson and Taylor better because of it

Ultimately, I doubt that Jeff Withey’s big game against Baylor made or broke the 2012 National Championship race. It did make it a heck of a lot more interesting though.

Georgetown:

Since I wrote my book on UConn’s National Championship run last year, one of the questions I get asked often when I’m doing radio and media appearances is “Who is this year’s UConn?” As in, who is the team that is off everyone’s radar, which could potentially make a National Championship run?

Frankly, I’m not sure there is one (the dynamics of college basketball are just too different this year), but what I will say is, that the team which most closely fits the criteria UConn set last year is probably Georgetown. Like UConn in 2011, the Hoyas lost a bunch of key players off last year’s team, and were expected to take a step back this year… only they’ve somehow emerged stronger. Like UConn, they were a Big East afterthought and now are the hot team no one wants to play. Like UConn, they seem to be a group that genuinely likes each other, genuinely plays as a team, and genuinely has a “sum is greater than the parts” feel to them. And like UConn, they’ve got a ton of heart; Wednesday’s game against Syracuse proved that beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now, like UConn, can they go on an epic six-game win streak to end the 2012 season? It doesn’t seem likely. But then again, weren’t we saying the same thing about UConn last year?

Michigan State:

Tell me where you’ve heard this before: “Michigan State is smart, tough as nails, not overly athletic, but definitely a team that no one will want to play come tournament time.”

Oh yeah, that’s right: You’ve heard that every February for the last 10 years.

Moving on…

Florida:

Speaking of “Different year, same story,” I present to you the 2012 Florida Gators… who are basically the 2011 Florida Gators, and the 2010 Florida Gators as well. Same uniforms, same mantra, same team with 5’9 point guards who like to jack up bad shots, throw passes out of bounds, and basically play the sport of basketball with the same IQ as one of those chimps that ride a unicycle at the circus. Which- as you might have guessed- is not exactly a compliment (if anything, it’s actually probably a bit insulting to the chimps).

Point being, I’m not expecting much from the Gators this postseason.

(On a different note, my friend and regular reader of this site Andrea (a Florida fan) and I have started a new Twitter hashtag called #ThatsSoErving. Basically the #ThatsSoErving hashtag is directly applied to Erving Walker, any time he does any Erving Walker-ish type things. You know, stuff like jacking up a 25-foot jumper for no particular reason, driving recklessly into three defenders, or throwing a “pass” into the third row of the stands. Essentially, all those things are “So Erving,” which is where the #ThatsSoErving hashtag came from.

I definitely recommend you get into the action next game. You’ll enjoy it more than you think.)

Marquette:

Simply put Marquette is one of the more intriguing teams in college hoops right now, and here’s why: Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any one thing they do really well, but at the same time, they’ve got guys that I inherently trust. It doesn’t matter the situation, you can go to war with Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder and Vander Blue. I’m not saying that they’ll win every game if they’re trailing going into the final minutes, but what I will say, is that they’ll absolutely go down fighting. Which is no small deal ( just ask any North Carolina fan on that one).

Also while we’re here, I must say, I really enjoy Buzz Williams. A lot. Besides that raspy voice that makes him sound like he smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, I feel like he’s kind of developed into a poor man’s John Calipari in my eyes; someone whose teams always get better over the course of the year, are always peaking right around March 1, and who you just don’t want to be matched up with come tournament time.

Creighton:

So yeah, about Creighton, umm… I’ve totally heard they’re good. But I’d be lying if I told you that I’d seen them play more than a few possessions this season.

Murray State:

Thursday night’s loss hurts, but they’re still a legitimate team, and their best player- Isaiah Canaan- is legitimately one of the better scoring guards in college basketball.

As a matter of fact, just do yourself a favor right now, write down Canaan’s name now and commit it to memory. Not only will it help you on later on down the road, but it’ll also make you look like a straight badass on Selection Sunday, when you’re helping out the females around your office fill out their NCAA Tournament brackets. Just trust me on this one. Ok?

Duke:

Alright, so I know you’ll never believe me, but even before Wednesday’s win against North Carolina, I actually liked Duke more than most (or maybe it’s just that I disliked Carolina way more than most people. Whatever). I’m still not sure if Duke is a National Championship contender or not, but I do believe they’re better than a lot of people realize.

Why? Well, I actually think because of the make-up of their team and think they’re tougher to match up against than most given them credit for. If anything, Duke doesn’t remind me of a traditional American basketball team, as much as one of those European/South American teams that goes to the Olympics every four years with only one or two NBA players, and somehow holds their own against the United States.

Think about it. Like those teams, Duke doesn’t have a traditional point guard per se, but instead of a bunch of guys who are more “complete guards” than anything else. Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are all kind of hybrids; guys who can all handle the ball, shoot, and pass (well, maybe not Rivers so much) equally well. Duke’s bigs aren’t traditional either, but instead longer and leaner and all of whom can step out and hit a 15-footer. And as much as I hate to say this (if only because he looks like one of those hobbits from the Lord of the Rings movies), Ryan Kelly has legitimately emerged as a matchup problem on the perimeter because of his size and shooting.

As for being a title contender or not, well I ask you: If a team can go on the road and win at Carolina, why can’t they be a title contender? At this point, who could you say that Duke definitively couldn’t beat? Maybe Kentucky, and then? Of course then again, if the standard is “how would they match up against Kentucky,” well, I’m afraid not many college basketball teams would stand much of a chance. Actually, same with a handful of teams in the NBA (Yeah, I’m look at you Charlotte Bobcats!).

Like I said, I like Duke more than most.

Which leads to my next question: How many days until Selection Sunday again?

(Love the article? Hate it? Disagree with something Aaron said? Let him know by commenting below, or e-mailing at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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And finally, Aaron has written his first book! It’s called The Unlikeliest Champion, it’s about the 2011 UConn Huskies National Championship team. It is available for order in Kindle or paperback at both www.uconnbook.com and Amazon.com. Get your order in today!)

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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