The madness of March comes early

Last year the Kentucky men’s basketball team went 38–2 during the regular season, won each of its NCAA tournament games by 12 points or more and brought home its first national title since 1998. No team had been as dominant in winning college basketball’s most coveted prize since 2007, when Florida went 35–5 en route to its second consecutive championship. But this year college basketball is devoid of a dominant team. The defending national champions were ranked No. 3 in preseason polls, but have found their inexperience difficult to overcome after all five of last year’s starters departed for the NBA. Now, despite being 8–2 in the weak SEC, UK now finds itself barely ranked at No. 25.

Indiana, the team ranked preseason No. 1, still holds that spot, but they have proven that they are far from invincible. After early losses to Butler in December and Wisconsin a month later, the Hoosiers seemed to have caught their stride, winning five straight games including a 81–73 win at home against then-No. 1 Michigan. But Indiana followed up that performance by blowing a double-digit second half lead to a mediocre Illinois team on the road on Thursday. If the Hoosiers seriously wants to contend for their first championship in 26 years, they need to be wary of the low-scoring games and tough, physical defenses that they faced against Illinois and are guaranteed to run into in the NCAA tournament.

Last week’s No. 2-ranked team was Florida. The Gators have not been to the Final Four since that 2007 championship team, but they are coming out of back-to-back seasons that finished in the Elite 8. Coach Billy Donovan has instilled his team with his traditional Pitino-inspired full-court press on defense and a balanced attack on offense and had convinced many, including myself, that Florida has what it takes to reach the Final Four again this season. However, last week the Gators were stunned, 80–69, by a middle-of-the-road Arkansas team, even though Florida came into the game with an average margin of victory of 26 points this season. For the Gators, one of two lessons could be learned: One, they simply were tired and had a bad night, or two, the team has serious flaws and their weaknesses are exposed when they face opponents that run the same style as them. Coach Donovan would be wise to save the tape from this game, as Florida has just eight games remaining in SEC play and probably will only be challenged one or two more times before the tournament begins.

The top five has been a perilous place to be ranked this season, and Michigan and Kansas continued the fateful trend over the weekend. The then-No. 3 Wolverines, fresh off of losing a game and their No. 1 ranking to Indiana, won only one game before falling again. On Saturday, Michigan lost to Wisconsin in overtime, 65–62. Coach John Beilein has a talented team, but lacks players with serious postseason experience. The Wolverines have not been to the Sweet Sixteen since 1994, and the loss to Wisconsin highlighted this hole in their game. Leading by three with seconds to play in regulation, Michigan decided to allow Wisconsin to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer instead of fouling the Badgers and forcing them to hit free throws and lose possession. These are the types of mistakes championship teams refuse to make. Hopefully, Michigan will learn from their mistakes in Madison and regroup for the end of Big 10 play.

Finally, all of this brings me to Kansas, last week’s No. 5 and the fourth top-five team to lose this past week. When I was a kid, I remember watching a 2001 tournament game between Arizona and a Bill Self-coached Illinois team. Watching that Illinois team play, I came to the conclusion that Self was a good coach, but one that could not inspire his teams to play at a championship level when they really needed it. Fast-forward to 2008 and Self, now coaching at Kansas, proved me wrong by leading his team to a national championship. Last year the Jayhawks coach nearly matched that effort, leading his team back to the NCAA final. But now some of Self’s old habits are coming back. The 2012 Jayhawks are in the midst of a three-game losing streak and have now slipped to No. 14 in the rankings. However, there is a silver lining — the last time Kansas lost three straight games to unranked opponents was 1988. That year Kansas won the NCAA title.

The past week in college basketball makes it is clear that there is no dominant team. This should make for one of the best tournaments in years as up to 15 teams can seriously challenge for the title. Including the teams already mentioned save Kentucky, perennial powers Duke, Michigan State, Arizona, Syracuse and Louisville all have the necessary pieces to win in March. Add the class of the midmajors, Gonzaga, Butler, Creighton and surprise ACC team Miami, into the mix, and March should be special once again.

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