One Month To Go: SI writers pick their Final Four, national champion, more
It seems hard to believe, but there is a little less than a month left in the regular season. By this time next month, many teams will be tipping off their conference tournaments. Then it's Selection Sunday, the First Four and the Big Dance. Sports Illustrated college basketball writers Seth Davis, Luke Winn, Brian Hamilton and Lindsay Schnell make their early predictions for what we've been waiting for all season, the NCAA tournament.
Final Four teams and a darkhorse
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DAVIS: Kentucky. The Wildcats could very well lose a regular season game, and maybe they won’t win the tournament. But if and when they lose, it won’t be because they haven't been tested. This team has shown that it can persevere in hostile road environments and during games when it is not at its best. If you give me Kentucky versus the field, I will take the field, but if I have to put my life savings on one team to win it all, this is the one.
WINN: Kentucky. The Wildcats' formula of best defense + major size/length advantage + most players with NBA futures + deep tournament experience makes them almost impossible to pick against. UK's offense is prone to lulls, but its defense is otherworldly enough to weather any scoring drought.
HAMILTON: Duke. I'm sticking with my preseason pick and going against all available logic and evidence. I concede this, Big Blue Nation. The best team in the country resides in Lexington and thus far has proven to be unbeatable. But it has appeared at least a little vulnerable. Duke isn't perfect, either, but it has several quality shooters, solid ball movement and poise to spare even if Jahlil Okafor isn't a factor. That's a good formula for beating anyone, possibly even the Wildcats.
SCHNELL: Kentucky. I know many of us wish there was more scoring in college hoops, but I’m a big believer that defense does win championships and because of that, I’ll take the Wildcats, who allow just 51 points per game. I’m continually impressed with Calipari’s ability to get five superstars to buy into the defensive end of the floor. Plus, if a game-winning shot is necessary, I like the Kentucky's chances with Aaron Harrison, who made three such shots in last year's tournament.
Not buying the hype on
DAVIS: Louisville. I love the Cardinals’ competitiveness, but I don’t love their inability to make jump shots and score in the halfcourt. I’m also concerned about their lack of bench production.
WINN: Louisville. I loved the Cards each of the previous two seasons, but this version has struggled mightily at three-point shooting and seems to lack the depth to contend for a title. They're one knockdown shooter and two reliable subs away from being great.
HAMILTON: The Big Ten. This league has sent teams to the Final Four in five of the past six years, but beyond Wisconsin there is not a lot to like this season. The Badgers, certainly, are cut from Final Four cloth. But one off night from freshman guard D'Angelo Russell and Ohio State is an endangered species. And Iowa? Michigan State? Illinois? Maryland? All seemed destined for toss-up tournament games, at best, in the Round of 64 or 32.
SCHNELL: Arizona. I like point guard T.J. McConnell’s game, but think about the teams that have beaten the Wildcats this season: UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State. None of them are loaded with talent, and I question Arizona's ability to win six straight tournament games without an off night. My guess is the Wildcats get caught looking ahead in an early round, and it bites them in the rear.
Midmajor to watch
DAVIS: Murray State. Steve Prohm has another terrific team. Much like the Isaiah Canaan-led 2012 squad that went 31-2, these Racers are spearheaded by Cameron Payne, an electric 6-foot-2 lefty who shoots, drives and finds teammates in a way that will remind you of Mike Conley. Murray State shares the ball, and as an older team it will have an advantage over its younger, power-conference opponents.
WINN: Eastern Washington. The Eagles are a deep cut -- more of a low-major, really -- but if they win the Big Sky Conference tournament, they'll be a problematic No. 15 or 16 seed. There are only three teams nationally that take more than 40 percent of their shots from long-range and make more than 40 percent of them: Iona, Denver and Eastern Washington -- and EWU has an electric scoring guard in Tyler Harvey, who leads the nation with 23.4 points per game.
HAMILTON: Northern Iowa. For these purposes, I don't count Gonzaga as a mid-major, given its as-usual high-major level of play. And I tried not to pick Northern Iowa. But it's Northern Iowa. The team poised to end Wichita State's Missouri Valley run has a top-40 offense and a top-20 defense, per kenpom.com, and it has a star in Seth Tuttle (15.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 61 percent shooting) to rely on.
SCHNELL: Iona. Want scoring? The Gaels can be your go-to team. Yes, defense is important, but being able to put points on the board -- something Iona has done well all year, averaging 82.5 per game -- is crucial in keeping up with high-octane teams from power leagues. Guard A.J. English (20.7 points, 5.6 rebounds) is the centerpiece, but don’t be surprised if guard Isaiah Williams (14.2 points), who is dealing with a foot injury should be healthy come tourney time, goes off.
Frank Kaminsky or Jahlil Okafor?
DAVIS: Why don’t you ask me who’s my favorite Olsen twin? These guys are close, but I would go with Okafor. Despite facing constant double teams, he is scoring at an incredibly efficient rate, and he is becoming a better passer. People knock his defense, but he also rarely gets into foul trouble, which is a huge plus.
WINN: Not only is Kaminsky the No. 1 scoring option for the nation's most efficient offense, he also has the the best defensive rebounding percentage in Big Ten play and serves as an adequate (read: better than Okafor) rim-protector. Frank The Tank is the clear frontrunner for the Wooden and Naismith Awards, and he'd have to go into a profound slump to lose them.
HAMILTON: If I'm assessing raw talent, it's Okafor, easily. But if I'm handing out a player of the year award, at the moment, it's Kaminsky. Okafor is mesmerizing in the post, but the differences in scoring and rebounding (18.0 and 9.1, respectively, for Okafor; 17.5 and 8.1 for Kaminsky) are negligible. Both are excellent passers. Kaminsky, meanwhile, can step out to stress a defense (24 three-pointers and 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc) and he's a better defender by a measurable margin (87.0 defensive rating to Okafor's 94.9). Two terrific players and there's no wrong answer.
SCHNELL: Of course I understand the hype surrounding Duke’s super freshman, but I’ll stick with the super senior. Kaminsky is fundamentally sound, poised and all-around hard to guard. His experience also gives him an advantage.
NCAA tournament breakout player
DAVIS: Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa. This is the biggest reason why the Panthers are my darkhorse to go to the Final Four. If they advance, Tuttle will be the reason why. He’s a 6-8 senior forward who leads the team in points, rebounds and assists. He knows how to win.
WINN: Tuttle. He's the do-it-all forward you haven't seen enough of yet, leading the 22-2 Panthers in points, rebounds and assists (!). Don't be surprised if the Missouri Valley gets two teams in the Sweet 16, and Tuttle -- after four seasons of anonymously efficient labor in Cedar Falls -- finally gets some national attention.
HAMILTON: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga. So much of the who's-who of college basketball has been well established. But I wonder if the casual fan is hip to what the 6-10 junior, a former Kentucky role player, is doing in the Pacific Northwest. Wiljter has the nation's eighth-best offensive rating (130.2) and his 5.0 Win Shares tie with teammate Kevin Pangos for 10th most in the nation. Shooting 44 percent from long range, he'll be a matchup nightmare for anyone. He's playing with a comfort and swagger that is dangerous in March.
SCHNELL: J.J. Avila, Colorado State. The Rams will likely be a double-digit seed, but don’t be surprised if they pull off a few upsets behind senior forward Avila, who leads the team in points, rebounds and steals.
A bold prediction
DAVIS: Gonzaga will fail to get past the Sweet 16 -- again. I don’t mind saying I am openly rooting for the Bulldogs to get to Indianapolis, but once again they are being ill-served by a conference that does not provide enough tests to prepare for the rigors of March. Even their annual nonconference February matchup with Memphis turned out to be a dud, as the Zags won by 18.
WINN: Butler makes the Elite Eight (or beyond). Maybe the old Butler magic is affecting my ability to properly evaluate this team, but the Bulldogs seem to have the right combination of strong defense -- this is Butler's best D since 2010 -- and heady veteran playmakers in forward Roosevelt Jones and guards Alex Barlow and Kellen Dunham to go on an NCAA tournament run.
HAMILTON: Some two or three seed goes down in the first round, and during the postgame television interview, the coach peels off a mask -- and it's Jim Boeheim! Approached by NCAA security folks toting their trash bags of non-sanctioned cups, Boeheim throws salt in their eyes and dashes off to a getaway car driven by Eric Devendorf. (If I must make a prediction, though, it's that a huge tournament game will be effectively decided by a terrible block-charge call. And either through tweaking the rule or the restricted arc, change will come in 2015-16 as a result.)
SCHNELL: No Pac-12 team advances past the Sweet 16. This might not be that bold given the lack of depth in the conference, but I’m not an Arizona believer and think Utah is a year away from a deep run. Add to that a wobbly Stanford squad, and I expect the conference of champions to be the conference of quick exits.