As NCAA basketball starts conference play, this is a good time to look at the top teams in the nation. They’ve played non-conference clubs primarily. Many, but not all, of those games were cupcakes as some of the best in some of the toughest conferences met weaker teams in weaker leagues. Now the battles begin to determine league dominance and national prominence. Each team has about 16 regular-season contests left to go. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the five top-ranked clubs in the nation.
#1 North Carolina (13-0): The Tar Heels have six players who are double-digit scorers. The frontcourt is dominant and includes Tyler Hansbrough (23.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG) and Deon Thompson (14.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG). Versatile swingman Danny Green (12.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.1 APG) is a major factor in this team’s success. They play their first ACC contest on January 4 versus Boston College. The Tar Heels have the depth, talent and experience to finish number one in the nation. They should certainly beat B.C.
#2 Connecticut (11- 1): Don’t expect Connecticut to hold onto this spot. They got the #2 ranking prior to their first loss, which was to Big East conference rival the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas are presently ranked 11th nationally. UConn is good but not good enough to be number 2. Guard A.J. Price (10.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.5 APG) is a solid playmaker, but thus far this season his assists are down. Senior forward Jeff Adrien (14.5 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.2 BPG) has four double-doubles in 2008- 2009. Against Georgetown, Connecticut’s rebounding and second-shot chances suffered. Center Hasheem Thabeet (13.9 PPG, 10.8 RPG), who is averaging a double-double, was also for the most part shut down by the Hoyas. UConn is a top-25 team but not a top-ten club.
#3 Pittsburgh (13- 0): The Pittsburgh Panthers, also members of the Big East, won their first conference game versus Rutgers 78- 72. Two forwards, senior Sam Young (19.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and sophomore DeJuan Blair (13.7 PPG, 12.1 RPG) have dominated the front, while senior point guard Levance Fields (10.4 PPG, 6.4 APG) runs a fine game. The Panthers are for real this season, but more depth would be helpful. If they stay healthy, they could finish somewhere in the top-ten nationally and in the top- three in the conference.
#4 Oklahoma (12-1): The Sooners were 12- 0 when the poll was taken and have since lost to the unranked Arkansas Razorbacks 96- 88. Sophomore Blake Griffin (22.8 PPG, 14.0 RPG) has been massive. He’s had 10 double-doubles in 13 games. The outside scoring game is the purview of freshman guard Willie Warren (16.5 PPG). This team has talent but it is young. They will probably be in the top-25 by the end of the year but a lack of depth and experience will see them losing some games this season that they might not next year. The Sooners play their first conference game on January 10 when they meet the Kansas State Wildcats. They should beat the Wildcats. Texas (1/12 and 2/21) and Texas A&M (1/17 and 2/04) are two clubs that will test Oklahoma.
#5 Duke (11- 1): The Blue Devils, like the Tar Heels, play in the high caliber ACC. Duke plays its first conference game on January 4 when they host Virginia Tech. They should win that contest. The team will be tested on January 17 when they meet non-conference opponent Georgetown. North Carolina, Wake Forest and Clemson will all be major in-conference challenges. Sophomore forward Kyle Singler (16.3 PPG, 7.8 APG, 3.4 APG) is an all-around talent who thus far has managed three double-doubles. Swingman Gerald Henderson (12.1 PPG) can score from inside and out. Duke is not a number one club, but it’s also not a number 15 team. They will be in the top dozen. The Georgetown game is a major meeting. In that one, I’m going with the Hoyas.
When the rubber hits the road, I think the Tar Heels and Panthers are the best of these five. The Huskies are near the top of the second tier nationally with Duke somewhere in the same general vicinity. Okalahoma will do okay, but they will most likely prove to be somewhere around #20 nationally.
Let the conference play begin! We’re taking the next step towards March Madness.