Unlike some years, there is no dominant team in college basketball this season. The best team so far has been Arizona, but most do not consider them above and beyond everyone else. There are teams that look much better than they are and some really good teams that have struggled thus far. Although early season tournaments are fun, they do not accurately depict how good a team will be. Lots of teams have seniors who have been there before which gives them an edge over a young team that is learning to play together, even if the younger team is more talented. I have watched a lot of basketball this year and I am going to try and separate the pretenders from the contenders and rank the contenders in order.
The Wildcats are the most complete team I have seen play this year. They have excellent guard play, tall and athletic forwards, and a couple giants around the rim with the ability to score. T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson have both done an excellent job manning the point while freshman Aaron Gordon is a monster defensively and especially on the boards. Rebounding is what separates Arizona from the pack, their ability to limit teams to one shot each possession and get tons of 2nd chance opportunities has been crucial to their success so far. Barring injury, Arizona is the best team right now and should still be the best in April.
Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis make up one of the best back courts in all of college basketball for the Orange. They force lots of turnovers each game and set the tempo for the whole team. C.J. Fair is a stud on both ends of the floor and is one of the best players in the ACC. Syracuse does lack a scoring center and abnormally has struggled defensively this season. They will turn you over but allow teams to shoot a high percentage, especially from three. If they want to make it to the Final Four, they will have to improve defensively.
3. Michigan State
Different year, same story. This team looks almost identical to last year’s elite 8 team but bring more experience and toughness to the court this season. Adreian Payne is one of the most versatile centers in the country with the ability to not only post you up, but can also hit from three. Sophomore Gary Harris is their best player and gets to the rim with ease. The key for this team will be the play of Keith Appling, who has a tendency to shrink in bigger games. If he is at his best come tournament time, Michigan State will be one of the heavy favorites to win it all.
This is not your typical Coach K Duke team. The two best players are underclassmen and the senior leaders on this team are role players. Duke is led by freshman sensation Jabari Parker, who some argue is the best player in the whole country. Transfer Rodney Hood can score in a variety of ways and is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Duke struggled early on this season defensively and rebounding, but Coach K seems to have figured it out and Duke has played very well of late. Duke’s national title hopes depend on Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. When Rasheed is at his best, he is Duke’s 3rd best overall player. So far this season he has struggled mightily and needs to get his head on straight. Quinn Cook has had bad moments this season but overall has improved drastically from last year. When he plays up to his potential, Duke has the best offense in the nation. As long as the defense continues to improve, Duke will be a force come April.
5. Florida Gators
Florida has not been healthy all season and has still played very well. Since guard Scottie Wilbekin came back from a suspension, Florida has looked like a much better team. Wilbekin brings leadership and toughness to a team that has lacked such in the past. Freshman Chris Walker, who some believe is the most gifted and strongest freshman in the class, has been practicing with the team and will return soon. Those two players along with Florida’s other outstanding talent should have them in the mix for a national title.
Coming into this season I thought the Cardinals would be better than they are. Although they have been injury prone to start the season, I expect Rick Pitino to figure it out. If he does, they have the talent to compete with anyone in the country. They are the only team to rank in the top 10 so far in offensive and defensive efficiency. I fully expect Louisville to compete for a second consecutive championship
7. Oklahoma State
When you think about Oklahoma State, you automatically think Marcus Smart. He surprised the college basketball world by coming back for his sophomore season and has yet to disappoint. He along with Markel Brown are the second best scoring duo in the nation behind Parker and Hood. What makes this team dangerous is their cohesiveness. They are a very close team that believes in each other, which is the type of team that you usually see in the Final Four.
Other contenders I considered ranking
Kentucky- very young and talented, will need to improve defensively but they have the studs to get to Dallas
Ohio State- great defensively, I question their ability to score with the elite teams
Wisconsin- they have looked very strong so far, I wonder if they have the athleticism and talent to compete
Kansas- Andrew Wiggins has been good, but not near what most thought and they lack the guard play and toughness to win a title
North Carolina- No P.J.=No chance
Gonzaga- outstanding guard play but they lack the size needed to compete
Iowa- good offensive team that lacks the defensive intensity it takes to win a championship