As we move into February, Selection Sunday is less than six weeks away. Conference championship races are at, approaching or beyond the halfway point. Non-conference matchups are winding down, but there are still a few attention grabbers out there; I'll be calling Notre Dame at UCLA on Saturday with Kevin Harlan.
Much has already been seen, and there's still plenty to be determined, like regular season conference champions and postseason tournament champs. And while it's a bit too early to start crunching RPI numbers, here's my early take on some Final Four-caliber teams as I start to sneak a peek ahead to tournament time.
|UConn's Hasheem Thabeet is an intimidating presence on defense. (US Presswire)|
UConn's Hasheem Thabeet is an absolute monster intimidator and shot blocker when able to avoid foul trouble. His length and timing make him virtually impossible to shoot over. When you play the Huskies you better beat him down the floor or have a big guy who can make jumpers to take Thabeet away from the hoop. Otherwise, he gets in the heads of opponents who look for him instead of concentrating on the hoop.
Blake Griffin gives Oklahoma a highly skilled post presence and very well could be the national player of the year. He's effective either facing the basket or with his back to it. His handle allows him to lead the fast break at times, and he's a fierce and unflappable competitor
Pittsburgh has DeJuan Blair's wide body and relentless glass-eating as major weapons. His offensive rebounding is "buffet style" times three! That's seconds and thirds. He is a unique combination of agility, strength, terrific hands and width.
North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough merited mention on this list last season, but doesn't currently. He's still one of the outstanding big men in college basketball, but so far this season hasn't had the same type of game-changing presence as the others mentioned. His numbers are impressive, but I think his early-season leg injury has limited his practice time and conditioning. It will be interesting to watch his play the rest of the way.
Marquee big guys aren't the only reason I think UConn, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and North Carolina have Final Four potential. Here are some other reasons:
Which of Clark Kellogg's Final Four-caliber teams has the best shot of winning it all?
Total Votes: 8,133
Co-workers in the paint: All of the previously mentioned big guys have excellent teammates in the post: Thabeet has Jeff Adrien; Griffin has his brother, Taylor; Blair has Tyrell Biggs; and Hansbrough has Deon Thompson.
Potency on the perimeter: These teams have nice balance to complement their inside power. The wing players for Connecticut are Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson. For Oklahoma, it's Tony Crocker and Willie Warren. Pittsburgh offers Sam Young. North Carolina has Wayne Ellington and Danny Green.
Platinum point guards: A.J. Price (UConn), Austin Johnson (Oklahoma), Levance Fields (Pittsburgh) and Ty Lawson (North Carolina) are among the best in the country at their position.
Decent depth: This can sometimes be insignificant, considering the condition of the athletes and the number of breaks built into a game. But better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Connecticut probably has the most lethal group of reserves and Oklahoma the least. Pittsburgh's reserves are solid, and if fully healthy Carolina's bench could challenge UConn's for supremacy in this group.
Best of the rest
Louisville: The Cardinals possess two dynamic playmakers in Earl Clark and Terrence Williams, and have a developing post scorer in freshman Samardo Samuels. Defensively, the Cardinals can be very disruptive, but have struggled at times with decision making and shot selection on offense. The depth is good, so this team's success in March will be determined by its perimeter play improving and Clark being dominant and efficient.
Wake Forest: This team is talented, young and tournament green. However, the pieces are in place for a long tournament run. This team has size, speed, sufficient depth, playmakers at multiple positions and a couple of go-to guys in Jeff Teague and James Johnson, and the defense is markedly better than a year ago. But with mostly sophomores as the primary players, you wonder about Wake's ability to handle adversity -- from game to game now, and within games come tournament time. There is also the ever-present inner-circle chatter about future pro careers that could be distracting. Time will tell.
Another dozen: Clemson, Duke, Gonzaga, Marquette, Memphis, Michigan State, Syracuse, Texas, UCLA, Villanova, Washington, Xavier.
Upon further review
I want to revisit an incident that happened in the game I worked last week at Purdue.
Upon further review of the play itself and the interpretation of the elbow rule, I think Michigan's Manny Harris being ejected after an elbow (non-malicious, although high and hard) broke the nose of Purdue's Chris Kramer was an excessive penalty. A flagrant foul, yes. Ejection, no.