A clear cut best team in college basketball seems difficult to find this year. Two weeks ago, we were certain that it was Villanova, but after falling to Butler, the reins were handed over to Baylor, who quickly fell in their first game as the number one team to the press of West Virginia. This week, Villanova jumped Kansas to reclaim the number one spot in the AP rankings. The coaches disagree, ranking Kansas ahead of Villanova in their poll. We sit about two thirds of the way through the college basketball regular season without an apparent best team. This leaves the door open for good basketball teams who have flaws, but also have the potential to make a run in the NCAA tournament. Or, maybe, they return players who have been hurt for the beginning of the year, or any type of other interesting scenario. I will take a look at teams that could make a run for the title, even though they are currently ranked outside of the AP poll’s top ten. First up, Arizona.
Arizona Wildcats: Ranked 14th in this week’s AP poll, they could possibly climb into the top ten after their win over UCLA yesterday. However, for now they are still eligible for this article, as they are not ranked inside the top 10. In their first game with Allonzo Trier back, who posted a line of 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists, their defense controlled the game against one of the best offensive teams in the country. With size at the bigs, especially with the ability of potential lottery pick Lauri Markkanen, athleticism and explosiveness at the guards, and the coaching experience of Sean Miller, they are one of the bests teams in the country. Allonzo Trier adds a dimension to this team that they lacked, a wing player that can attack the basket, as well as spread the floor. Arizona can defend any team in the land, and showed that Allonzo Trier might be the missing piece in making this offense an elite one.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Ranked a spot behind Arizona in the AP poll at 15th, Mike Brey has once again created an offensive juggernaut that will scare any opponent in the tournament. Pomeroy has Notre Dame’s offense ranked 9th in their offensive efficiency ranking. It begins inside with Bonzie Colson, averaging over 15 PPG, and stretches out to three shotmakers, Steve Vasturia (44 3P%), V.J. Beachem (39.3 3P%), and Matt Farrell (42.9 3P%). With an in and out game as good as anyone else in the country, they have the recipe to beat teams who might be more talented, athletic or bigger. Another aspect of their offense that makes them so efficient is their free throw percentage. At 82.4% they rank as the best free throw shooting team in the nation, two whole percentage points above the second best team in the nation. Playing away from your home court, shooting free throws is extremely important, highlighted when attempting to hold onto a lead late in the game. If Notre Dame’s defense can keep up with their offense, a run to the title game will not be unrealistic.
Cincinnati Bearcats: Ranked 20th in the AP Poll, Cincinnati has just two losses, relying on their clamping defense to prevail in mostly low scoring games. Pomeroy has Cincinnati ranked 5th in their defensive efficiency rankings. However, this team does not just work hard on the defensive end, but prides itself on their toughness. While their work on the defensive end of the court does not always translate to the offensive end, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington make it work. Evans has struggled lately, but he is a natural attacker, while Washington has blossomed in Evans’ struggles. The duo is good enough on the offensive end to win some big games. It is important for Cincinnati to continue to have their defense translate into offense, through turnovers and run-outs, as they are not efficient in the half-court offense. However, matching up with the Cincinnati is unwanted for any team in the NCAA tournament, as they will outwork you, and make every shot a difficult one. Mick Cronin might have a team that can pull off some surprising victories in the tournament, and we will get to see their potential when they match up with ranked foe Xavier this week.
Marquette Golden Eagles: Marquette is an experienced team, with three seniors averaging double figure PPG, Jajuan Johnson (13 PPG), Luke Fischer (11.7 PPG), and Katin Reinhardt (11.1 PPG). However, it is their overall balance that is impressive, as they have seven players averaging over 9 PPG. Pomeroy has Marquette ranked as the 7th most offensively efficient team in the country, as they have not reached 80 points only 5 times this year. Yesterday’s win over Creighton provided Marquette with a glimpse of hope. Effectively, this team has won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to loose, but yesterday they flipped the tables. Their big upset win should only help them be propelled to atop the Big East, but a matchup with Villanova this week will show their true colors. Defensively, there are some questions surrounding this team that need to be answered, but their offense has them as an NCAA tournament threat. While our own BracketBluster had Marquette as one of his first 4 teams out of the NCAA tournament last weekend, they should enter the field following their big win this week. Last year, we saw Syracuse and Gonzaga meet in the Sweet Sixteen, 10 and 11 seeds respectively, and Maquette could find themselves in a similar position this year.
Utah Utes: In BracketBluster’s latest release of his ranking of every Division 1 team, Utah was ranked 82nd. Those rankings were released a day after Utah lost to UCLA by one point, but before Utah handily won both its match-ups this week against Washington State and Washington. While neither win is against a NCAA tournament hopeful, they are in addition to the sound start Utah has had in Pac-12 play. Their only two losses come in close battles to ranked opponents in Arizona and UCLA. Their most notable win in conference play is against USC, where Utah held a substantial lead throughout the entire game. Pomeroy ranks Utah 35th in overall efficiency rating, making them a respectable team. However, it was their performance against UCLA that proved that Utah is a dangerous opponent. While they might not fight the description of national title contender, they could be a dangerous lower seed. Their scoring is balanced, with five guys averaging double figures, and they have seven guys averaging more than 20 minutes of play. Some of this is due to the inconsistency of David Collette, who has now missed the last two games with concussion symptoms, but when he is on the court this team becomes better. The 6-8 junior forward is averaging 14.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, and 1.2 APG, and impressive line. Once he returns from injury, do not be surprised to see this team make a run inside the Pac-12 and potentially carry that momentum over into the NCAA tournament.