Poll Positions: Top Teams Hitting Their Stride

    
February 22nd, 2007

Heading into the home stretch of the regular season, talk of who has the best chance to win the national title has come to dominate the college basketball discussion. However, much of that discussion has been focused on simply who has the best talent, most experience, great coaching and senior leadership. One important factor often gets overlooked.

Let’s take a look at recent history.

Florida finished last season with a 33-6 record, winning their final 11 games of the regular season, and then going on to win the SEC Tournament Championship. They of course went on to win 5 of their 6 Tournament games in a romp, including the championship game.

North Carolina won the ACC regular-season title with a 14-2 conference record in 2005, winning 12 of their last 13 regular season games. Their only loss in that time was a thriller in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

In the previous season, the Uconn Huskies won their final 9 games of the season, and 14 of their last 15 games overall before going on to win the Big East tournament championship.

One year earlier, the then-politically incorrect Orangemen, rose from being unranked at the beginning of the season to posting a 13-3 record in the Big East, winning 10 of last 11 regular season games.

You get the idea. With few exceptions (such as Villanova in 1985), the school that ends up holding up the national championship trophy in early April is the school that has been playing their best basketball towards the end of the season. That is why the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee places so much emphasis on the final 10 games of the season. The teams that are the most dangerous are always the teams catching fire at just the right time.

So who are those schools today? Who seems to be just hitting their stride as the season comes to a close? If history is any guide, odds are that one of these teams will win the 2007 national championship.

Florida ( # 3 AP / Coaches) – Prior to their shocking loss to Vandy, the Gators had a put together a 17 game win streak, and 17 out of 18 ain’t bad. Their four remaining games are all against teams that have been struggling (Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU and South Carolina) meaning that winning out is a strong possibility.

Should that happen, even if the Gators do not repeat their SEC Tournament championship, they will enter the NCAA on an even more impressive hot streak than last year. And we all know what happened then.

Kansas ( #6 AP / Coaches) – KU has won 18 out of the last 20, and 8 of their last 9. But more importantly is how they have been winning. The Jayhawks have been simply crushing their opponents. Not counting the squeaker against Nebraska when they outscored the Huskers by 53 points, the Jayhawks have been winning their games by an average of almost 22 points. Two of their three remaining games are at home, and all are very winnable. A resurgent Longhorn squad will be their biggest obstacle.

Should they win out, Kansas can make a strong case for a #1 seed regardless of whether they win the Big 12 Tournament. No matter what, the odds of them making an early exit from the Tournament as they have the last two years, are growing increasingly slim.

Georgetown ( # 12 AP / Coaches) – The Hoyas have won 9 games in a row, three of the last four being against nationally ranked conference foes. All four of their remaining games are winnable, with contests against reeling Cincy and UConn, as well as Pitt at home. They also have a tough game against rival Syracuse where there should be a 30,000 + crowd at the Carrier Dome.

However even winning 3 of their remaining 4 would allow them to close the regular season winning 12 of their final 13 – more than enough to make them the most dangerous 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Ohio State ( # 2 AP / # 1 Coaches) The Buckeyes have reeled off 11 straight wins with just three to go, although one of those games is against top-ranked Wisconsin. However, the knock against them, as with the Badgers, is that the Big Ten as a whole has been far less competitive than the other major conferences – evidenced by the fact that no other Big 10 team outside the top two in the nation are ranked in the Top 25.

Still, pulling out a victory over All American Alando Tucker and Wisconsin on Feb. 25th, and taking care of business against Penn State and Michigan, would make their hot streak too impressive to overlook.

NOTE: UCLA does not meet this criteria entirely due to their recent loss on the road to West Virginia (a win which would have put the Bruins at 10-1 in their last 11 games). The Bruins were without Darren Collison, so the significance of this defeat is debatable. Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan State bumped them from the list as well.

Honorable Mentions: Memphis ( # 7 AP / Coaches), Nevada ( # 11 AP / # 10 Coaches), Southern Illinois ( # 13 AP / # 14 Coaches)

No one outside of the power 6 conferences has won a national title since UNLV did it 17 years ago. The reason in all likelihood is that while the so-called mid-majors have come a long way – most notably the Missouri Valley – they still do not have the same amount of quality, nationally-ranked opponents during conference play as the BCS conference teams do. So while some of these teams can be described as equally hot, or hotter, than the teams listed above based on their record, I hesitate to include them in the national title picture due to their inferior strength of schedule.

That being said, there have been some notable programs who made it to the final weekend, such as Marquette in 2003 (when they were in Conference USA) and, most famously, George Mason last season.

The Patriots won 9 of their last 10 regular season games (and 10 of 12 if you include their conference tournament). So the aforementioned criteria still applies. In addition, considering that there almost always seems to be a surprise participant in the Final Four – either a so-called mid-major or a high numbered seed – all three of these teams are on impressive winning streaks (particularly Memphis) and are worth keeping a close eye on come Tourney time.