Monday, January 11, 2010

25 Large: One Writer's College Basketball Ballot for Week 9

Over at Bleacher Report, where I can be found as a Featured Columnist for Purdue basketball, we rank our own Top 25 every week, just like most other sports media outlets. Some like to post their ballots in the comment section for accountability purposes.

Me, I might like to get kind of salty and verbose, so what better place to do so than in the comfort of my own blog? So, eight weeks in (and coming off Purdue's first loss of the season), here's the Top 25 ballot that I submitted to B/R.

1. Texas (15-0, 1-0 conference)
--I had gone ahead and pulled the trigger on elevating UT to #1 last week, because I was impressed that they had played North Carolina and Michigan State three days apart while Kansas was diddling around with paper tigers Michigan and Cal. Now that UT's one of only two unbeatens left, and still handling people with efficiency (see Colorado), everyone else will get on the train that I boarded last week.

2. Kentucky (16-0, 1-0)
--The other undefeated team, UK keeps looking like they're dancing on the edge. Georgia led them at halftime before the Cats rallied, but the concerning thing has to be that John Wall is starting to look mortal.

Wall's line from his first 13 games: 17.2 PPG, 7.5 APG, 2.4 SPG, 4 TPG, 52% FG, 82% FT, 43% 3-pt.
Wall's line from the Louisville and Georgia games: 34 points, 9 assists, 8 turnovers, 10-24 FG, 13-21 FT, 1-6 3-pt.

It's just a testament to how good the guy is that 34 points in two games is a sign of "mortality." Good thing for the Cats that the SEC doesn't look tremendously intimidating this season. If DeMarcus Cousins stops picking up the slack, though, a couple of speed bumps will pop up.

3. Syracuse (15-1, 2-1)
--Syracuse has seven players averaging over eight PPG. That's the kind of depth that a lot of other teams would be killing for right now. After they dropped their first of the season to Pitt last week, they rallied strong, beating Memphis and South Florida convincingly. This team lost almost 55% of their scoring from last season, but you'd never guess it from the way they've played against the likes of North Carolina and Florida. Even their win against Cornell looks a lot more impressive after the scare that the Big Red gave Kansas.

4. Villanova (14-1, 3-0)
--Speaking of dancing on the razor's edge, Villanova's got to be totally glad they're done with Marquette for the season. Not just once, but twice, Marquette's come down to the last possession with Nova, only to fall short. Villanova's not played quite as tough a schedule as Texas or Syracuse, but they get some good tests this week against Louisville and Georgetown. And I'm not inclined to bet against Scottie Reynolds when games get tight.

5. Kansas (14-1)
--As I alluded to earlier, Michigan and Cal looked like strong opponents when the schedule was first announced, but the season has raised more questions for those two teams than it's answered. Kansas did look impressive last week when they throttled Temple, but losing to a shorthanded Tennessee team, one who hasn't looked this focused all season, doesn't do a lot for them in the short term.

6. Purdue (14-1, 2-1)
--Purdue and Wisconsin are quite similar teams in that both can give any opponent fits on any given day. Wisconsin proved it against Duke, and Purdue proved it against West Virginia. Both teams also contradict what I call the "SportsCenter Syndrome." Mid-range jumpers and forcing five-second calls don't make for great highlight packages, so teams like Purdue and UW who don't have guys with sexy crossovers and posterizing dunks, are kind of marginalized.

I expected to hear some of the "yeah, we knew Purdue wasn't that good" talk surfacing once the game was over, and I'm sure it'll continue. But I'll put down cash money that Purdue AND Wisconsin go further in the tournament than Michigan State does. Purdue's lack of depth is starting to become quite apparent, so I'm no longer ready to even entertain the thought of a Final Four. Be great if it happened, but there will be no holding of breath.

7. Michigan State (13-3, 3-0)
--The above comments aren't to say that Sparty's sporting a bunch of scrubs. Far from it. But the talent level may be MSU's downfall in the end.

Every player who has legitimate NBA aspirations has to balance the needs of his team with his own desire to look good for the NBA scouts. Guys like Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers have had problems with that this season. Lucas has been benched for "lack of leadership," which is a disturbing quality in a point guard, and Summers is scuffling along at 42% field goal shooting while turning the ball over three times for every assist. I still fully expect Purdue to maintain and claim the Big Ten championship, and MSU will be right there in the thick of it at the end. But once I've got a bracket in my hand, I'm not sure I can even subscribe to Tom Izzo's mojo to get this team to the Elite Eight, let alone another Final Four.

8. Duke (13-2, 1-1)
--Duke has the nation's best three-headed monster in Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith, and Kyle Singler. They've even got a few very good complementary players. Their two losses are quality (Wisconsin and Georgia Tech), and they've totally trashed the likes of UConn and Gonzaga. So, why are they this low? Singler needs to get his shot right if they're going to make hay against the teams above. 2 for 13 against Tech (2-8 from long range) is not going to get them where they want to go in March.

9. Georgetown (12-2, 3-1)
--There were rumblings last week that said the Hoyas didn't deserve to be ranked as highly as they were. Meanwhile, while most of the Top 10 were fighting for their lives, and many failing, G'Town rallied like madmen from a 19-point deficit to beat UConn. Granted, they couldn't pull a Villanova escape the upset bug that Marquette seems to carry around like a bad case of jock itch, but the Hoyas do have wins over Temple, Butler, and Harvard (don't sleep on the Ivy League, they may score an at-large spot this season between Harvard and Cornell). The G'town-Nova game next Sunday will be one that everyone needs to check out to see who's going to throw serious weight around in the Big East.

10. Tennessee (12-2)
--The dismissal of Tyler Smith is probably the best thing that could have happened to the the short term. The problem that Michigan State has had, with guys trying to play more for the scouts than for their team, has occasionally seemed to plague UT, as well. With Smith getting drummed out of the program, their other star-caliber guys, and they have several, may have been shocked back into focus, making the Vols very dangerous...again, in the short term.

In the long term, though, Bruce Pearl will need one hell of a good reason to reinstate the other three suspended players after booting Smith. If those three don't get back, though, UT's depth will result in a serious fade down the stretch and make them very vulnerable to some hungry 10, 11, or 12 seed in the tournament.

11. Wisconsin (13-3, 3-1)
--It happens seemingly every year. Wisconsin gets treated as a fluke when they defeat one of the game's powers, then the Badgers sneak up on everyone and go at least one round farther in the tournament than anyone expects. It may happen again this year. Wisconsin got bailed out by their bench against Purdue. Purdue's bench has taken the last few games off. The big killer for the Badgers will be losing their leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Jon Leuer to a broken wrist.

12. North Carolina (12-4, 1-0)
--The loss to Charleston hurts bad. Roy Williams, though, has an eye toward toughening this team up, which is why he scheduled Texas AND Michigan State AND Syracuse AND Ohio State AND Kentucky AND decided to go to Charleston's building instead of arrogantly demanding that they come to the Dean Dome. Essentially, they've already played a tournament-worthy schedule. The fact that they could only beat the two Big Ten teams either says Carolina's not ready for a deep run in March or that the Big Ten isn't. Or maybe both.

13. West Virginia (12-2, 3-1)
--WVU is still hanging around the edges of the Top 10, but damned if I understand why. This is a team with no point guard, no center, and a bunch of guys out to get theirs. Leading scorer Da'Sean Butler went 4 FOR 20 against Notre Dame. Butler, Devin Ebanks, and Kevin Jones can all explode on anyone at any time, but who's going to take charge of the ball when the game's tight? I'll be a bit surprised if the Mountaineers are a top-five seed in the BIG EAST tournament, let alone the NCAA.

14. Gonzaga (12-3, 1-0)
--The Zags are surviving some close ones, with a two-point OT win against Cincinnati, a two-point OT win against Illinois, and now a three-point win over Portland, which was starting to get some Top 25 buzz of its own around Thanksgiving. They go to St. Mary's on Thursday, and it's there that we'll see how much serious comp the Bulldogs have for the West Coast title.

15. Kansas State (13-2, 0-1)
--Everyone slept on Missouri last season, and they reached the Elite Eight. People are doing it again this season, and on Saturday, that included Kansas State. The Cats have some decent wins to their name so far (Dayton, Washington State, Xavier, at UNLV, at Alabama), but nothing that stands out huge and says this team's a serious force. Texas A&M tomorrow would be a good starting point, but it'll really come down to next Monday against Texas.

16. BYU (16-1, 1-0)
--The one Cougar player that we hear much about is guard Jimmer Fredette, who's dropping 20.7 points per game on opponents' heads, including 49 against Arizona. Then he misses a cupcake game with a case of mono, struggles against UNLV (2-10, 7 pts.), and misses the game against UTEP. BYU wins all three. Even after submitting this ballot, I had to wonder if I was underrating the Coogs just a bit. Then the AP places them at #19. Go fig.

If Jonathan Tavernari, who was supposed to be the real go-to player on this team, ever gets his shot right, BYU could send a lot of brackets into the shredder this March. Tavernari's stepped up well while Fredette's been sick (17 and 7 per game in the last three), and could have done even more against UTEP if he hadn't fouled out.

17. Connecticut (11-4, 2-2)
--UConn's another one of those teams that seems to have talent to spare, but not much depth. Five players play 29 minutes per game or more, and that's a great way to get fried by March. Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson can carry the Huskies to a win in the NCAA's, but getting much farther than that just seems like it's going to take the devil's own luck. Rallies like the one Georgetown pulled on Saturday seem like the kind that are allowed by a tired team. And if they're already tired now...

18. Pittsburgh (13-2, 3-0)
--...then what's Pitt going to do to them Wednesday night? Pitt's come out roaring since being stung by Indiana on December 8. Six straight wins, including becoming the first team to stop Syracuse this season. The Panthers are the anti-UConn, giving nine players 16 minutes per game or more. Guard Gilbert Brown is back from an academic suspension (huh, some schools do make you go to class), and poured in 17 to help beat Cincinnati. I could have easily flipped these two.

19. Baylor (13-1, 1-0)
--Anyone beating Oklahoma by 31 is big news most seasons. For Baylor in the past five weeks, it's just another day at the office. The Bears have won their last six games by an average of almost 24 points per game, and they have a pretty effective three-headed monster of their own in guards LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter and big man Ekpe Udoh. They get Oklahoma State (which completely trashed Texas Tech on Saturday) this Saturday and then it's off to face Kansas next Wednesday. Those two games will prove a lot.

20. Georgia Tech (12-3, 1-1)
--There was quite a lot of hand-wringing over Tech's loss to Georgia last week, but Georgia coming out and putting the fear of God into Kentucky helped Tech immeasurably. Me, I'm still convinced that we're going to see a lot of Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors before this season's over, and I'm really not going to be surprised if we see Tech in the Sweet 16. The big concern is that, after dropping double figures in 11 of his first 12 games, Favors has only scored 21 combined in his last three. It's a little early for the freshman wall, isn't it?

21. Miami (FL) (15-1, 1-1)
--If not for one point against Boston College, the Canes would be undefeated right now. Not many notable victims on the list, except for Minnesota, but still. Surviving against Wake Forest was big for them, but Miami really need to stifle Virginia Tech on Wednesday for people to start taking them seriously.

22. Mississippi (12-3, 0-1)
--Ole Miss's guards, Chris Warren and Terrico White, have the ability to carry a team a round or two in March, but first, they have to survive the SEC. Mississippi State was supposed to be running the West, and they won the first round of what could easily be a season-long war.

23. Northern Iowa (14-1, 5-0)
--They're just winning. They're not sexy or flashy, they just win. The Panthers have already smacked down Creighton, Illinois State, and Southern Illinois, who were supposed to be their three closest contenders in the Missouri Valley this season. If they take down Wichita State next Tuesday, they could roll to the MVC regular-season title. Remember, this is the team that took Purdue as far as they could in last year's first round, and I doubt anyone wants to see them this season, either.

24. New Mexico (14-3, 0-2)
--The Lobos were getting a lot of love after a non-conference schedule that included wins over Creighton, Dayton, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech. So far in their Mountain West schedule, though, these wolves have been pretty toothless. A ten-point loss to San Diego State and a 12-pointer to UNLV have made it hard times in Albuquerque. The MWC can't rely on a whole lot of bids to the Big Dance, and with BYU looking like a strong bet to claim one, games like UNM-UNLV will probably decide who gets the next one.

25. Temple (13-3, 2-0)
--I think I've probably really underrated Temple, but I had a hard time looking past the 32-point thrashing they absorbed from Kansas. They've beaten Seton Hall, Villanova, and Virginia Tech, while taking Georgetown to the very limit, so as long as the Owls keep handling their Atlantic 10 business, I'll probably spend the next few weeks making up for this lowball.

And one small related note before I go...seriously, people make fun of the Big Ten for having 11 teams? Here are the Atlantic 10 standings. Tell me how many teams you see.

This was kinda fun. We'll do this again next week, ja?

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