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Friday, March 14, 2014

Four to Watch

Selection Sunday is just two days away. The annual ritual of 68 teams getting a chance to dance for the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship is upon us, once again. Many will try, most won’t come close.
Rather than waiting for the brackets to be released, the Daily Hat Trick is going to point out its four strongest contenders to win it all on the first Monday in April. Without knowing which teams will be in which brackets, it is probable that these teams will not all be in the Final Four. They are the teams, having watched them all season, that I think have the best chance to make it through to the end of the dance.

Only one team has been perfect, so far, this season, but Duke appears to be the best. They are the most consistent team in the field. They have one of the best coach, some argue the best, in the country in Hall of Fame Coach Mike Krzyzweski. Super Freshmen forwards Jabari Parker (19 PPG, 9 RPG) and Rodney Hood (17 PPG, 4 RPG), alone, are a difficult force for most of the top teams to overcome. This is not taking into account its seasoned senior leadership. Duke has the most right of any team (and fans) to have a “championship or bust” mentality entering the tournament. I expect Duke to have a #1 seed.

Rondey Hood can put it in the basket and take one for the team. One moment C.J. Fair's (Syracuse) sack is in his face and the next moment Duke puts the game away because of the called charge on Fair. 1

I expect people to disagree with me and I understand why. Syracuse went into a late season tailspin, losing 4 out of 5 after starting off 25-0. However, under the coaching of Jim Boeheim, the sharp execution of their vaunted 2-3 zone defense, and the overflow of talent on this team, it could be good that Syracuse look its lumps during the season as opposed to during the tournament. It is better for a team to know its most exploitable weaknesses now, when a team can still live to fight another day following a loss.

Boeheim will not go down quietly. 2

This team is #1 for a reason: they are that good. It is awfully hard to be beaten if an opponent can’t score. That is how the Gators, winners of 24 consecutive games, have dominated this season, including a perfect, 18-0, record in SEC competition. Head Coach Billy Donovan continues to show each year that he can put the right pieces in places with any roster he recruits and become an impenetrable source of frustration for opposing offenses. Scoring is not this team’s dominating characteristic, but they have proven, against quality opponents, that they are capable of scoring points in bunches when the need arrives to turn up the heat.      

Everything seems more fun in Florida. 3

The defending national champions are not bulletproof. However, they are experienced. They know how to win. Most important: they have Hall of Fame Head Coach Rick Pitino. This team demonstrated, last season, that it can win in the postseason in spite of unexpected hurdles like injuries and upstart opponents. Point guard Russ Smith (18 PPG, 5 APG) has been up-and-down like a carousel horse. He is the senior leader. He absolutely must be dialed in during the later rounds for the Cardinals to have chance to repeat as champions.

Rick Pitino, left, knows he has to help keep Russ Smith, right, focused.

The elephant in the room is the #2 Wichita State Shockers. A Final Four team from a year ago, the Shockers have gone 34-0 under Head Coach Gregg Marshall. They will be the first team since the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels to enter the Big Dance with a perfect record. However, their Missouri Valley schedule is child’s play compared to the teams they will face in the Sweet Sixteen round and later. Senior forward Cleanthony Early has proven to be versatile and battle tested. However, the 2014 Shockers are not. None of their games have been against teams that were ranked when they played, though the did beat Saint Louis, Alabama, and Tennessee earlier this year.

The #3 Villanova Wildcats, #4 Arizona Wildcats, and #6 Virginia Cavaliers have all shown flashes of championship potential. However, Villanova’s only quality win was over Kansas earlier this season. Arizona is without their big, scoring forward Brandon Ashley (12 PPG, 6 RPG), who broke his foot in a February loss at California. And Virginia, with the nation’s #1 defense, has no consistent offensive scoring threats in the post – none! N..O..N..E!

Finally there are the #10 Kansas Jayhawks. A week ago, I would have had this team in that aforementioned Four to Watch. But the back injury to forward (and possible first pick in the 2014 NBA Draft) Joel Embiid (11 PPG, 8 RPG, 3 BlkPG) is a gamebreaker for the Jayhawks in an already competitive field.

Cleanthony Early wants a second shot at the Final Four. 5
This is not the year to “go chalk” with your tournament brackets. You may have noticed the absence of #8 Michigan (last year’s runner up), #8 San Diego State (tied with Michigan in this week’s AP Poll), or #12 Wisconsin, which has shown flashes of championship ability under Coach Bo Ryan. That’s because my eye test tells me that they don’t have a chance to win the whole tournament in spite of having tournament-level talent and regular season success. You may disagree with my assessments, but trust your own. The margin between winning and losing at the top will be thin. This is the year to erase your chalk!

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