College basketball this season has been crazy since day one. Number one ranked teams have been falling faster than leaves in Autumn and it has led to some debate as to whether who the true number one team in the nation is. Unlike last year, where Kentucky went undefeated the whole season with 10 players who either are, or will play in the NBA, the number one spot has been up for grabs all season. With already four teams earning the number one spot in the AP Polls (North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas), it seems as though nobody even wants that number one spot. The topsy-turvy start to the NCAA basketball season has led to one question, who is the true number one team in the country?
There’s only one undefeated team in the NCAA, and they reside in Dallas, Texas. However, this squad is not deserving of the number one ranking in the NCAA. The SMU Mustangs are currently ranked 10th in the nation at 17-0, but they haven’t played a very strong schedule. Their most impressive win is a win over the Michigan Wolverines, who are talented, yet arguably the most inconsistent team in the nation. The Mustangs are a talented team, but are not postseason eligible due to NCAA violations. If SMU remains unbeaten, should the NCAA allow SMU to participate in postseason play? That will remain to be seen, but it sucks for seniors like Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy, who have meant so much to the program in their fours years, won’t be able to get a chance at a national title.
With SMU out of the way, it’s essentially a four team race to the top. Kansas, Oklahoma, Maryland and North Carolina. No disrespect to other contenders like Xavier, Michigan State, Villanova and Arizona, but these teams seem to be deeper, and have more impressive resumés to this point. It’s no surprise that these teams are true contenders, as they all had high expectations and each play in the best conferences in college basketball, with Oklahoma and Kansas playing in the BIG 12, UNC in the ACC and Maryland in the BIG 10.
The Kansas Jayhawks began the year ranked #4 in the AP rankings, #5 in the Coaches Poll, and #11 in my poll (shows how much I know). As I write this, Kansas is ranked number one and their record stands at 15-2. Their two losses have come against teams ranked in the top 25 polls, in Michigan State and West Virginia. The Jayhawks are an elite offensive team, ranking in the top 10 in points per game and in the top 20 in assists. Those numbers are fine, but do they have a championship pedigree? Kansas has one of its most veteran teams ever under head coach Bill Self, with upperclassmen Perry Ellis, Frank Mason and Wayne Selden leading the way. With those players all having NCAA Tournament experience and with young guns like Svi Mykhailiuk, Devonte’ Graham and Cheick Diallo providing quality minutes as role players, Kansas is talented from back to front. In recent years, Kansas has choked in the tournament, losing in the round of 32 the last three years. They have shown the ability to get to the tournament, which is standard for Kansas, but hasn’t shown the clutch ability to get it done down the stretch. The impact that being upset year after year can seriously mentally affect a team and the mental block in big games is what is holding Kansas back. If they can get over the hump and break through mentally, Kansas certainly looks like one of the favorites for the title, but they aren’t the best team in the country.
The Buddy Hield led Oklahoma Sooners are number two in country and have only lost one time… to the Kansas Jayhawks. The 15-1 Sooners probably have the best starting five in college basketball, but are quite shallow on the bench. Oklahoma loves to shoot the three ball, and rank first in the country in accuracy from deep, shooting 45% as a team. An elite offensive club, Oklahoma is fourth in nation in scoring, and also ranks in the top five in rebounding. Rebounding teams always seem to do well. Rebounding limits oppositions possessions and can give your squad extra ones. Having the best scorer in the country doesn’t hurt either, as Buddy Hield leads all major conference players in scoring at 26 per game. Another positive going for the Sooners is their leadership. Ryan Spangler, Hield, and Isaiah Cousins are all seniors and the biggest parts of this squad. With their leadership, Oklahoma is in every game, lean on them and can battle through adversity when it strikes. The Sooners aren’t a perfect team, however. As good as they are offensively, they are almost as bad defensively. They rank in the lower half of Division I in points allowed. As mentioned, they aren’t deep on the bench, so if a team can get the starters in foul trouble early, it could be a long game for Oklahoma. Like they always say, offense wins games, but defense wins championships, and defense is the main thing holding the Sooners back from being the best team in the country.
The Maryland Terrapins came into the season with arguably the highest expectations of all teams. The transfers and freshmen additions for Mark Turgeon were supposed to mean the world to Maryland, and so far, they have. Rasheed Suliamon and Robert Carter used to face off against the Terps when they were in the ACC, but now, they are integral parts of a championship formula. Maryland is now ranked number three in the nation and stand at 16-2, with losses to UNC and Michigan. The Terps are a balanced squad, being ranked in the top 75 in points per game, and in the top 30 in points allowed per game. Maryland uses a balanced offensive attack to keep opponents off-balance. Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble and freshman center Diamond Stone are tied for the team lead in points per game with 13.7 each and headline the inside-out attack for Maryland. Throw in the low post bully Robert Carter, three point marksman Rasheed Suliamon and do-it-all forward Jake Layman, the starting five for Maryland is scary good. Also, throw in the fact that Melo Trimble has ice in his veins in crunch time, the Terps have a go-to option down the stretch, which is always key in postseason play. However, the Terps aren’t too deep of a club. Jared Nickens and Damonte Dodd are the only reliable options off the bench, and neither of them are anything to write home about. While Maryland made the tournament last season, they only advanced to the round of 32. With little big game experience, Maryland may not be able to handle the spotlight like most big time programs would. With that inexperience, there is only one team deserving of the number one spot.
As much as I hate UNC, they have been the best team in the country this year and have the pedigree to go all the way. Currently ranked #5 in the country, UNC has two not-so-pretty losses on their record. While Texas and Northern Iowa certainly aren’t bad teams, they certainly aren’t elite. However, UNC does have a win over Maryland on their resumé. Easily the most veteran roster under Roy Williams, the Tarheels are head manned by seniors Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and junior Kennedy Meeks. The ‘Heels are also extremely deep, with nine players averaging over 10 minutes per game. Brice Johnson has been playing like a man possessed, recently going for a staggering 39 points and 23 rebounds against Florida State. Six players for the Tarheels score in double figures and that may make them the best offensive team in the country. North Carolina ranks third in scoring and sixth in assists, not too shabby. UNC also shows up in the top 40 in rebounding. The Tarheels have proven to be the best team in the country up to this point in the year. With the UNI loss coming without their senior leader Marcus Paige, UNC has only been toppled once when completely healthy. The loss came at Texas on a buzzer beater by Javan Felix. The Tarheels haven’t played a bad game yet. With their depth, star power, coaching pedigree and big game experience (advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to the runners-up Wisconsin Badgers), UNC has the formula to make serious championship run, and have to be considered as the favorites to win March Madness.
Each of these teams are in great shape halfway through the season. They’ve each lived up to expectations set by themselves, the media and fans alike. However, UNC reigns supreme due to the fact that they have no real weakness. A championship formula includes star power, skills, coaching ability, depth, and experience in big games. With UNC checking off all of those categories, there is no reason they shouldn’t be favored to win the National Title.
Photo via KeepingItHeel
Stats via ESPN