It’s been king of hill thus far in college basketball. Every time somebody establishes dominance at the top of the hill, a hungry team lurks in the shadows to pull off a major upset that sends ripples throughout the constantly changing standings.
Michigan, Indiana, Duke and Louisville have all had a stints as college basketball’s top dog, but who has a chance to really cut down the nets in April? Sometimes it’s not the best team: It’s the hottest team. In a season defined by parity, recent play and a balanced roster could be even more important.
Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals are poised for a deep run. After spending one week with the No. 1 rank, the public jumped off of the Cardinals bandwagon after dropping three straight in January. As reported by ESPN.com, the Cardinals are outscoring their opponent by 0.16 points per possession, which is good for tops in the Big East. It may not seem like much, but this is the same number last year’s No. 1 seed and 17-1 Syracuse Orangemen outpaced their opponents by — one of the best teams in recent memories.
Their defense is stout and Louisville may possess the best backcourt in the nation. They key to the Cardinals success will be contingent with the play of guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. Both notorious speedsters who can both take over a game — Smith averages a team-high 18.4 points per game and Siva averages 9.9 points per game and six assists — guard play is known to separate teams down the stretch. It’s the most complete team in the nation with one of the best coaches in college basketball. It’s hard for me not to picture Louisville in the final four come April.
I may be biased saying the Arizona Wildcats pose one of the best threats to call themselves champions at the end of the season because I have rooted for the team from Tuscon since I won a jersey on a Mountain Dew bottle cap in seventh grade, but hear me out. Arizona is led by the senior transfer from Xavier Mark Lyons, and senior forward Solomon Hill. Lyons — 15.3 ppg — is an explosive guard who score points in bunches, but he is not in the assist business — 2.0 apg.
Hill is the leader on this team, averaging 13.9 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game, but most importantly sets the pace on defense. Arizona is battle tested, winning close games against ranked opponents, such as Florida, Miami and San Diego State, and went to the final four, two years ago, under Sean Miller without quite as much talent. Combine the aforementioned factors with sophomore guard Nick Johnson — whose vertical is rumored to be 45 inches — and this team could march deep into the tourney.
Watch out for the Kansas Jayhawks. Similar to the Cardinals, everybody forgot about Bill Self’s team after they dropped three straight to the likes of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and their worst to TCU. Now the Jayhawks have quietly won four games in a row and may possess the best player in the nation: 20-year old freshman Ben McLemore.
Seven-foot center Jeff Withey is dominating the paint, leading to a superb .82 points per possession for the Jayhawks in the four-game winning streak. The superb play on the perimeter and interior could propel Bill Self’s squad in the tournament.
Other notable teams on fire right now is the Pac-12’s California Golden Bears. The Golden Bears have won five games in a row and will host their last three conference games at home. With junior guard Allen Crabbe developing into a star — 19.0 ppg and 5.8 rpg — the golden Bears could surprise a lot of people.
The last sleeper is the Memphis Tigers. Memphis is once again undefeated in Conference USA in their final year in the conference and play some of the best defense I’ve seen this year outside of the Florida Gators. The key to this team is D.J. Stephens, who has become a star in Memphis for his ability to do the little things and remarkable floor efficiency, shooting 69 percent on the season.