I can't remember a season with as much uncertainty in mid-January as we have in this one. A lot of it has to do with the lack of quality matchups in November and December. The consensus top four right now is Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina and Memphis. Among them, there are not a lot of quality victories to justify claims of eventual post-season dominance. In my opinion, Kansas and Memphis are the two best teams in the nation. Kansas, by virtue of a bushelful of lopsided victories which have showcased their depth and athleticism; Memphis mostly due to the fact that they just look really good and haven't been tested by anyone on their schedule, either. Even so, the victory that legitimized the Tigers' status was the home win against Georgetown. Don't get me wrong, it was a nice win, but like so many other teams, Georgetown may be a top ten team, and they may not. The Hoyas haven't exactly proven much themselves.
With all that said, I'm going to go ahead and declare Kansas and Memphis as the top two teams in the country in that order right now, for whatever that's worth to you. I'll pencil UCLA into the #3 spot for the moment. They're not perfect, but the Bruins are coming off an 81-74 whipping of Washington State last Saturday. Yes, whipping is the proper term here. For those that tuned out prematurely, here's what the Cougars did on seven consecutive garbage-time possessions.
01:34 GOOD! 3 PTR by Low, Derrick
01:19 GOOD! 3 PTR by Rochestie, Taylor
00:57 GOOD! 3 PTR by Low, Derrick
00:48 GOOD! 3 PTR by Low, Derrick
00:40 GOOD! 3 PTR by Rochestie, Taylor
00:26 GOOD! 3 PTR by Harmeling, Daven
00:13 GOOD! 3 PTR by Harmeling, Daven
That's 21 points in seven possessions, and fortunately for the Bruins, Wazzu was down by 15 before this barrage started. When the game was still on the line, Kevin Love dominated a bigger Aron Baynes and Darren Collison looked healthy. I don't think anybody seriously thought the Cougs were the fourth-best team in the country, as their AP rank indicated, but there's a reasonable argument that they're the Bruins' closest Pac-10 competition, and the game wasn't really close. There hasn't been much player-of-the year hype yet this season, but Love has done the most against the best competition. He scores, he gets to the line, he rebounds, he passes and he defends. Love's presence has allowed UCLA's offense, at least in terms of its starting five, to be able to play with anyone in the land, and that's saying a lot considering Ben Howland's reputation as being a defense-first coach.
So that leaves us with the juicy question of who's #4, which provides me with a great opportunity for the initial North Carolina/Duke comparison piece. At this point, the two teams have the best claims on this spot. Let's compare arguments.
The case for North Carolina: UNC is the obvious choice. I actually have to frame this as a case against the Tar Heels, because there's plenty of material floating around to support their case for #1 let alone this spot. I realize I'm probably the only person in America that doesn't believe the Heels are in the top three at this point. However, from what I gather, the argument for them being the best team in the country goes something like this: "They were really good last season, and it's basically the same team" and "They haven't lost yet."
As all of you should know by now, I find the latter argument unconvincing. I'm much more concerned about who you've beaten (and how) than how many you've beaten. The popular view is that last week's results cemented the Tar Heels claim to the top spot, but let's review what they accomplished. A week ago Sunday, they beat Clemson on an overtime buzzer-beater by Wayne Ellington. This result has been interpreted as a gritty win in a hostile environment. However, they basically proved themselves equal to Clemson. You might think it was a clutch shot by Wayne Ellington that gave the Heels the win, but what do you think Ellington's chance of making that shot were? While you're chewing on that, consider how often that Clemson's David Potter jumps a pass and fails to get a deflection out of it. OK, so maybe Ellington's chances are 100% and Potter's are zero, because Ty Lawson (who delivered the pass on the final shot) and Ellington are just clutch. Well, they must have been studying up on the Clutch Handbook in the offseason, because last season this team was 0-4 last season in games that went to OT or were decided by four points or less.
Their other win last week was a 31-point win at home against NC State, a game in which UNC led 43-13 at the half. This is a nice win, but it was probably against the worst team in the conference, and a team that, without Farnold Degand for the rest of the season, doesn't have a viable point guard.
Now the case for Duke: If you swapped the Duke results with UNC so far, would anyone notice the difference? Probably not, because what they've done on paper isn't very different. We could play the Ellington exercise above with Levance Fields' three-pointer that provided the Blue Devils with their only loss. Fields, by the way, has missed 70% of his 3-point attempts this season.
There's no question Duke is more imperfect than UNC. They're small, they don't rebound well, they're too dependent on three-pointers, and they're playing a style that is completely new to the program. They also lack big game experience, for whatever that's worth. However, on paper, this team seems to be hiding their weaknesses very well. Before dismissing them, one thing to consider is their youth. They're the 41st-youngest team in college basketball (at least in terms of college basketball experience, not by age). Of the teams mentioned here, Duke is likely to improve the most for the remainder of the season.
The argument against Duke also includes poll inertia. UNC is #1 in the polls because that's where they started and they haven't lost. Duke is somewhat farther down because they started the season farther down and lost once. Poll inertia is not necessarily a bad thing. Preseason polls are a great reality check on early expectations. Based on expectations, and what we know about last season, Carolina is probably the better team, despite the fact that both UNC's and Duke's on-court performance is similar to this point. The difference, however, is a lot smaller than most people thought when the season started.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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