|Michigan State is making a run to the top
The University of Maryland’s colossal upset yesterday of #2 Duke, 83-81, once again served notice that anything is possible in this year of parity in college basketball. The Terrapins hung tough with the heavily-favored Blue Devils all night on the strength of their 7-foot center Alex Len. Len scored 19 points and grabbed 9 rebounds, out-muscling Duke’s big man, Mason Plumlee, who was held to just 4 points and 3 rebounds.
With parity at an all-time high – not just within the Top 25 – but throughout college basketball, which team can rise above the clutter, gain some momentum, and cut down the nets in early April? Could this be the year a true mid-major not only crashes the Final Four party but actually goes home with the prince wearing the slipper? Or will one of college’s blue bloods restore order and take command once the NCAA tournament starts next month? Here is a look at some teams that could make a run to the Georgia Dome this season.
The #1 team has had its share of ups-and-downs this season, including losses to in-state rival Butler and upsets against conference rivals Wisconsin and Illinois. Yet, Indiana has an impressive resume, with wins against six teams in the Top 50 RPI. Their win last week against then #1 Michigan was more impressive than the 81-73 final score would indicate. Indiana certainly has the talent to claim a national title. Cody Zeller is a POY candidate, averaging 16.6 points per game and 8.2 rebounds. With five players averaging in double figures, the Hoosiers have a deep core of scorers but none might more impact on games than volatile junior guard Victor Oladipo. Oladipo scored 26 points in a win against Ohio State and his play will be important in the NCAA tournament, when guard play often dominates. Indiana still has some tough games ahead. They place at Michigan State on Tuesday and finish their regular season with a rematch against the Wolverines at Ann Arbor. Right now, Indiana is positioned to earn the top seed overall but a few losses against tough competition could change all that. Right now, though, consider Indiana the front-runner.
Make no mistake, #5 Gonzaga has graduated from mid-major status and is now an elite program that can play on a national stage. The Bulldogs have had their share of high-profile wins, including victories over Illinois and Oklahoma State, and played one of the best games of the year against Butler, losing 64-63. Unlike other Gonzaga teams of the past, this squad relies on the inside game of Kelly Olynyk (18 points per game, 6.9 rebounds) and Elias Harris (14.5, 7.5). Guard Kevin Pangos (12 points per game) is their dead-eye shooter from outside. Gonzaga should avoid the upset bug that has infected other top teams and has an outside shot of earning a #1 seed in the west should one of the Florida teams falter.
The Gators have put together an impressive run of wins against top competition this season and briefly rose to near the top of the standings before faltering against Arkansas, 80-69, in early February. That loss could knock Florida out of a #1 seed in the tournament but, with an RPI of 4, they have a great chance of landing one of the coveted top seeds. The Gators, though, still have a full slate of difficult games ahead, including a rematch with the Razorbacks and a finale against Kentucky at Lexington. Florida doesn’t scare anyone on offense. Kenny Boynton is the team’s leading scorer with 13 points but they do have four legit scorers and can play defense with anyone in the country.
#8 Michigan State
Tom Izzo has a way of revving up his teams come March and the Spartans are certainly on a roll. Their 72-52 win over Michigan served notice to the rest of the Big Ten and college basketball that Michigan State is a team to watch – and fear - moving forward. Junior guard Keith Appling is the main playmaker on this team (14.1 points per game, 3.6 rebounds, 4 assists), but the Spartans can go eight deep on their bench and three big bangers on the inside – Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix – who can score and rebound. Michigan State has a huge match-up hosting #1 Indiana on Tuesday night and the outcome of that game could shed some light on which team from the Big Ten is really ready for the bright lights of the Georgia Dome. John Z.