Scrutinizing the Top Seeds
by Trevor Whenham - 03/12/2008
I was just staring at my March Madness bracket for the 100th time, looking at how the automatic bids that have been claimed will impact things, and which teams are stuck on an increasingly pessimistic bubble. The teams that will end up as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds obviously aren't in any danger of not making the tournament, or even of dropping down in seeds in most cases. Is it just me, though, or is this a particularly hard group of elite teams to get a feeling about? Any one of the likely top eight - UNC, UCLA, Memphis, Tennessee, Georgetown, Kansas, Texas and Duke - could win it all without shocking the world, but all of them have big questions that can raise concerns. Maybe I'm just a pessimist, but I'm not completely in love with any of these teams. Most years there is a team or two that I totally buy into. That's not a bad thing, of course - it lends itself to a great tournament. It doesn't make it any easier to handicap, though. Here, in a nutshell, are my biggest concerns with all eight teams:
North Carolina - I'm reasonably comfortable with saying that the Tar Heels are the best team in the country right now, but mainly because I don't know who else would fit. Still, I'm more than a little concerned that a team that went 20-8 ATS on the year is just 5-4 ATS in their last nine, and finished off the year covering just one of their last three. There are a few factors that likely contributed to this slide - the absence of Ty Lawson, and the increased public attention. They came through with a huge win over Duke, but beyond that they often didn't look as sharp or as focused as I would like them to be. Some of you will think I am just splitting hairs, because they did win the last eight of those games, but I don't totally buy into this team, and they will have to prove me wrong.
Tennessee - This one doesn't take a genius to figure out. After beating Memphis and gaining the No. 1 spot in the rankings for the first time they promptly came out with three consecutive bad games. They lost to Vanderbilt, squeaked by Kentucky when favored by 14.5, and needed a big comeback to get past Florida. Not exactly how I would have preferred to see Bruce Pearl's boys handle the increased pressure and scrutiny. They may have learned from the experience, but until they prove that I can be nothing but skeptical.
Memphis - With the Tigers it's hard to know what we have. Their conference proves little, and they lost to Tennessee in their last game against legitimate competition. On top of that, they only covered three of their last 11 games, so they aren't living up to the expectations of bettors. Those who have a bit more faith in the team will point to all the tournament teams they beat earlier in the year - Gonzaga, Georgetown, Arizona, USC, UConn, Oklahoma, even Austin Peay and Siena. That's an impressive list, but other than Gonzaga all of those games occurred in December or earlier. It's hard to give those wins more credit than the loss to Tennessee.
UCLA - When a team gets in the habit of doing just enough to win they can be in trouble when just enough isn't good enough anymore because the opponent is too good. Their last three - against Arizona, Stanford, and Cal, have all been tight, and they were trailing until late in all of them. It took a big comeback against Stanford to force overtime, and a controversial circus shot to give them the win against Cal. My hope is that they come out in the Pac-10 tournament and crush the life out of a team or two to show that they haven't forgotten how to win big.
Georgetown - Maybe it's because I like Louisville a heck of a lot more than the Hoyas, but I don't think that the Hoyas deserve as much credit for their win on Saturday as people are giving them. They won, but only by three, and Louisville had a ridiculously bad shooting game. The Cards were only 22 percent on threes and 56 percent from the free throw line. The Hoyas defense contributed to the problem, but Louisville is a bad shooting team that had a particularly bad day, and Georgetown didn't have an answer if they were even a little bit better. Not every team will shoot that badly in the tournament, and that could lead to troubles for the Hoyas.
Kansas - Before finishing off with three wins and three covers, the Jayhawks had a five-game stretch in which the lost twice and didn't cover at all. The loss to Texas was a bit surprising but reasonably acceptable, but the loss to Oklahoma State, a 16-14 team who were 11 point underdogs, is not a good thing at all. The loss to Kansas State a couple of games earlier was no better. When you combine those lapses in concentration with a team that hasn't been tested as much as some - only Arizona and USC were top competition, and the Wildcats took the heavily-favored Jayhawks to overtime - you have a team that has something to prove.
Texas - The Longhorns have played as well as any team in the country since the beginning of February. Except for that serious misstep against Texas Tech, that is. That was a concern, as was the fact that that was their first of three games they didn't cover after having previously covered six straight. Did they peak too soon?
Duke - I'll admit that I really hate Duke, so I can only be somewhat unbiased. Still, it's not hard to find the holes in this team. They looked outclassed down the stretch by North Carolina, and they have covered just twice in their last nine. Over that stretch they had bad back-to-back losses to Miami and Wake Forest. Add their inconsistency to the fact that their lines will be inflated throughout their run by a public that loves them and won't look past the No. 2 beside their name, and you have a team that will offer the furthest thing from value.