In exactly 2 months from today's date, all eyes will be on college basketball's biggest stage: The Final Four in Indianapolis, Indiana (one of the many homes where the sport became legendary). As the season continues to heat up, it's apparent that the road to a 2015 NCAA Men's National Championship is wide open with the obvious exception undefeated #1 Kentucky Wildcats (22-0).
Here is the 'Next to Best' of what remains and a complete breakdown of the best teams in order by losses received throughout the duration of the current season:
Tate's Take: Virginia. For obvious reasons. Not obvious enough for you? Let's start with the Cavs' strength of schedule. Besides competing in arguably the toughest conference in the country (ACC), where many college basketball diehards raised questions of how VA would compete after Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Louisville joined. Not to mention, the usual bluebloods of the conference (most notably Duke, North Carolina, and Maryland prior to moving to the Big Ten). A season ago, Tony Bennett's club not only answered those questions, but also raised eyebrows by winning the regular season and tournament conference crown. Meeting those same expectations a season later seemed possible yet doubtful. Since, Virginia began the season ranked 9th nationally and exceeded those same expectations by climbing the ladder all the way up to #2 until last week when they suffered their very 1st defeat of the season to #4 Duke on their home floor. In between time, Virginia pounded foes such as bracketbuster Harvard and Georgia Tech, holding them both to less than 30 total points in
their meeting. Following, @North Carolina, NC State, and streaking Davidson, @VCU & @Maryland all took double digit losses thanks to VA. Two additional wins on the road vs. Miami (FL) and Notre Dame helps make the case substantial. As for Gonzaga, season numbers look good thus far, currently checking in top 25 rankings in the top 3 (just ahead of VA, on the heels of UK) nationally after winning every single game with the exception of a 3-point OT loss @ Arizona. The Zags haven't loss in 2 months to date, but we've read this story before in recent years as we've witnessed protectors of 'The Kennel' beat up on less-talented WCC foes, look awesome doing it, claim a #1 seed in the West before an early tourney exit and disappoint yet again. Currently, GU rank in the top 10 in 3 national statistical categories.
The elephant in the room is ultimately, CAN THEY BE TRUSTED?
-Northern Iowa Panthers
Tate's Take: Wisconsin. How can you possibly count out the San Antonio Spurs of college basketball? Ok, maybe I took that a bit too far but the program known for recruiting the same type of talent, getting the best out of the talent and use of systematic funadmentals & basic basketball... nobody does it better than Wisky. Only problem is team leader and catalyst, Senior Guard Traevon Jackson his out for another couple weeks with an injury and filling the void is experienced Sophomore Bronson Koenig who has so far done a fantastic job filling the void by committee. Frank 'The Tank' Kaminski is a front-runner for the John Wooden Award and can stretch defenses with his long range shooting abilities. Nigel Hayes is a diamond in the rough that ANY collegiate head coach would love to have on his roster... think Kawhi Leonard's role entering the (ironic & coincidental) Spurs system. Hayes can score in bunches, rebound, and shows undeniable effort for second chance points, but most impressively may be his maturity level as only his second season as a student athlete. Wisky may not win in prettiest fashion, but when survive and advance is the name of the game, those 'pesky Badgers' have the formula of what it takes... and one of the most respected
yet underrated & underappreciated coaches from an X's & O's standpoint in the nation.
-Notre Dame Fighting Irish
-Duke Blue Devils
-Wichita State Shockers
Tate's Take: Duke. As much of the hype surrounding another Wooden Award candidate, Jahlil Okafor has began to simmer into the minds of the college basketball landscape, stock involving another Freshman is rising. Interestingly enough, that frosh is Tyus Jones. A dagger to many opposing teams in the same mold as another former Duke product Austin Rivers, has been giving the Devils the much needed boost as of late to overcome close games on the road such as St. John's and Virginia. The release of Rasheed Sulaimon has yet to have displayed much weakness but as Coach K's teams continue their winning ways, the target gets much bigger. That's where Justise Winslow (yes, another Freshman) will have to pick up where he left off before the new year and correct is less than stellar play lately. The underclassman is a deadly shooter and plays with an extreme amount of confidnce. Expect upcoming large performances down the stretch from Justice as he like Duke is a far too good of scorer to slump for an extensive period of time. Lastly, although Amile Jefferson may not be the straw that stirs the drink, an 8-point, 8-rebound average can be what makes and breaks a season in postseason play. Add shooting 64% from the field and Duke really has something
brewing on Tobacco Road in Durham.
-West Virginia Mountaineers
-Virginia Commonwealth Rams
-Southern Methodist Mustangs
Tate's Take: Utah. Maybe the best team in the country that nobody knows anything about. The Utes haven't had as good of start as the currently have since the days of the late Rick Majerus. Deleon Wright is the real deal. Remember the name! It's not often we hear of a guard shooting over 50% from the field so deep into the season. After averaging just over 14 points per game, make no mistake about it, Wright is the best all-around guard in the nation. Underestimating his defensive prowess can simply be the deal breaker that advances Utah. The future is fairly bright and will show more and more on a weekly basis as they sneak up on the Pac-12 and although there's assistance and experience in the backcourt with Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge, all of whom shoots 80% or better from the charity stripe. The key to success for UU is frontcourt experience. Solid play and 7'0 Austrian Freshman Jakob Poeltl has put Utah over the top for now, but weather or not it will be enough moving forward remains to be seen.
-Iowa State Cyclones
Tate's Take: SMU. This may surprise you especially considering the Mustangs lost their 5th game just last night at home to Cincy. Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has all the tools and abilities to take this experienced team to higher heights. If there's a such thing as 'good losses to have', SMU has 3 of them (@Gonzaga, @Indiana, Arkansas) with the exception of falling to the Bearcats in both meetings. A deep run in the field of 68 is certainly not out of reach behind the pint-sized leading scorer Nic Moore, Yanick Moreira, and a host of role cast players. Things didn't start out well for SMU to begin the season as they lost Markus Kennedy due to academics and by no surprise, in his return, it wouldn't be long before they'd lose another double-digit scorer in Keith Frazier
whom is out for the season (academics). The next 2 games won't be a breeze either as the Mustangs will travel to Houston and Tulsa before returning home for a date with the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies. Two more losses is a realistic approach and goal for the team but what will it take to get over the hump and make a deep run? Keep last year's NCAA tourney snub fresh in mind, run through the AAC conference, and play although relaxed, aggressive and smart. We'll see what they're made of down the stretch.
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