It’s January Madness, Baby!

Kyle Blum

For some people, NCAA Basketball only exists in March. After all, the season is long and one can’t really decide who to pick until the bracket is unveiled. However, it’s important to keep tabs on teams as they develop throughout the year. The best way to do that is to watch as many regular season games as possible, because just looking at the box scores won’t tell you how good a team actually is. The people that win pools are those that pick three-out-of-four Final Four teams and the National Champion, so here’s a look at the AP Poll’s top five teams right now.

1. Memphis: At number one in both the AP and the Coaches’ poll, it’s tough to bet against Memphis. Head coach John Calipari has developed a system that utilizes his players’ dynamic athleticism and individual talents. The team has no true center, and the only true guard is first-year Derrick Rose, who will keep Dickie V chanting “Diaper Dandy” all the way to the Final Four. The experience Memphis gained from consecutive Elite Eight berths could be the key to their title run. The only weakness for them is their schedule. The only three ranked teams Memphis currently has on its schedule are Arizona, Georgetown and Tennessee (all at home). Conference USA is soft and the Tigers won’t have the experience that a team from a major conference gets during conference play. This makes it difficult to tell just how good they actually are. Yet, Memphis’ talent alone will be enough to overpower most teams in college basketball. A guaranteed top-seed come tournament time, you can bet that Memphis will be there when the Final Four rolls around.

2. Kansas: In Bill Self’s four-year tenure as head coach, Kansas has been ousted from the tournament earlier than expected each year. The loss to Georgia Tech in 2004 came in the Elite Eight, and although Kansas was favored to win, Georgia Tech played well and stole a Final Four birth. The following two years, the Jayhawks destroyed thousands of brackets, first losing to Bucknell and then to Bradley the following year. Last year’s Elite Eight loss to UCLA was less shameful, but it was still a game that Kansas should have won. This season, the question is: are Kansas’ players so talented that even Bill Self can’t screw it up? As far as I’m concerned, Kansas has been the biggest disappointment in college basketball the last four years. The Jayhawks are stacked with veteran leadership, and they have explosive scorers in Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rus and Darrell Arthur, as well as a veteran point guard in Russell Robinson. A combination of skill and experience means that Kansas will be a favorite to go deep into this year’s tournament. Despite their skills I don’t see any reason to believe that Kansas will make the Final Four this year. Bill Self simply can’t seem to find a way to utilize his team’s talent to create a championship-caliber basketball team.

3. Tennessee: The Volunteers were ranked seventh in the country in the preseason and they’ve played well enough to merit this ranking. What’s remarkable about Tennessee’s early success is that they’ve done it despite the poor play of senior captain Chris Lofton. Lofton, usually a sniper from three-point land, is shooting a paltry 36% from downtown this season. Head Coach Bruce Pearl has his team playing at a dangerously fast pace, applying fullcourt pressure on defense and encouraging an up-tempo offense that exploits defenses in transition. The biggest concern with Tennessee is shot selection. The Volunteers are averaging over 27 three-point attempts per game despite only shooting 35% as a team from behind the arc. At times, Tennessee’s fast-paced offense works against them, allowing teams to get more possessions and mount comebacks more easily. The Volunteers’ explosiveness is both their greatest strength and weakness. Although they can play with anybody in the country, their volatility will likely be their undoing in March.

4. Duke. After a disappointing first-round exit in last year’s NCAA tournament, Duke star Josh McRoberts left the team early for the NBA following his sophomore season. Duke may have improved via the old adage of addition by subtraction, because this season has been a complete transformation for Duke basketball. The addition of first-years Taylor King and Kyle Singler has given Duke more depth than it has had in several years. Junior guard Greg Paulus is the unquestioned leader of the team, controlling the tempo and running Duke’s highly efficient offense. Also, the Blue Devils are shooting a staggering 49% from the field as a team. Coach K is the best coach in the game and his team is playing as well as anyone in the country. The Blue Devils are my pick to cut the nets down this April.

5. North Carolina. A number one seed in last year’s tournament, North Carolina boasts the best one-two combination in the country in Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson. Hansbrough is hard worker and is making a serious case for the Naismith Award by averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds so far this season. Head Coach Roy Williams knows how to get his players ready for the NCAA tournament, as displayed by his success at both North Carolina and Kansas. Coming out of the powerhouse ACC, the Tar Heels are guaranteed to be battle-tested when March rolls around. Look for North Carolina to make a run to the Final Four.