Seth Davis: Sleeper title contenders, Florida's unpredictability and more mail - Sports Illustrated

Sleeper title contenders, Florida's unpredictability and more mail

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Last month, Vegas resident Shane Hale asked me to predict which games the undefeateds would lose first. (Incidentally, of the 11 teams I listed, I nailed six of their first losses, including Duke's loss at Florida State. Maybe I should live in Vegas instead of Shane.) Now here comes another excellent and challenging question from a Sin City native:

You have repeatedly said there are no truly elite teams this season. With that being said, it seems like we could have a true darkhorse champion in April. Gimme one team outside of the current top 10 that could become a serious contender.-- Devin Ratliffe, Las Vegas

Devin is letting me off easy, so I decided to make it tougher on myself. I went back to last year's AP polls and looked up where Butler was ranked in Week 11. And guess what I found out: Butler was not even ranked!!! Not only that, but it was listed in seventh place among "others receiving votes." Which means that according to the geniuses (like myself) who vote in that poll, the team that came within a half-court heave of winning the title was only the 32nd-best team in the country heading into the third week of January.

So instead of looking just outside the top 10, I'm going to restrict myself to teams that are not ranked at all in this week's AP poll. Here then, in reverse order, are my top five "sleepers" to make it to this year's championship game. You'll notice this list has an SEC flavor to it. You'll also notice that Butler is not among this hallowed quintet. I think it's safe to say that this year's Butler will not be Butler.

5. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs tend to disappoint those of us who wait expectantly every year for that big March breakthrough, but maybe this is their year. If nothing else, their nonconference schedule has toughened them more than any other team on this list. Point guard Demetri Goodson will never be the scorer this team needs him to be, but if Elias Harris can be a more consistent third wheel to Steven Gray and Robert Sacre, then the Zags will be a tough out.

4. Temple: If the Owls didn't lose so badly at Duquesne last weekend, they would still be ranked. Their second-leading scorer, Juan Fernandez, was back in the lineup for that game after missing the previous two games with a knee injury and had eight points on 2-for-9 shooting. The Owls have good players, but the biggest reason I like them as a sleeper is their unconventional, plodding style. That can really test a team's patience if it isn't used to it.

3. Vanderbilt: I've had Vanderbilt on my ballot for several weeks, so you know I think pretty highly of them. The Commodores boast one of the best perimeter defenses in the SEC, and I think they've found a real gem inside in center Festus Ezeli. Their four losses this season came by a total of 17 points, and two ended in overtime.

2. Georgia: Tuesday night's loss to Tennessee aside, any team that has two projected first-round draft picks has a chance to play deep into the NCAA tournament. If one of those players, junior forward Trey Thompkins, hadn't suffered a high ankle sprain at the start of the season, then the Bulldogs might not have lost to Notre Dame and Temple and would have a much different ranking right now. (Thompkins played in those two games but was clearly not himself after missing the three previous outings.) Georgia has a chance to bounce back from Tuesday night with home games coming up against Mississippi State and Florida. Then they have the big one against Kentucky in Lexington on Jan. 29.

1. Tennessee: A fella could go broke betting on or against Tennessee at the Bellagio. Which is the real UT? The one that embarrassed Pitt and Villanova and rallied for wins within the last five days against Vandy and Georgia? Or the one that lost at home to Oakland, USC and the College of Charleston? As Forrest Gump would say, the answer is "both." Either way, do not sleep on this bunch. If nothing else, they will surprise you every time.

On now to the rest of your questions.

Can you explain further why Tony Mitchell could not play Division I if he doesn't earn some credits this year? Why is that different that sitting out, earning a GED, then playing next year at Mizzou, or some other place?-- Jim Bearden, Quincy, Ill.

According to NCAA rules, a student is only allowed to make up one core course that he did not complete by the time he finished high school -- and that must happen within one year of when his original high school class would have graduated. (In other words, four years after the start of his freshman season.) Barring some surprise revelation, Mitchell is simply too far behind to make up the courses that he missed. Missouri can always try to declare him learning disabled and try to get him eligible via a different route, but if the school had planned to do that I'm guessing that would have happened by now.

The bottom line here is, Tony Mitchell, who is a very talented basketball player, was ill-served by the adults in his life who advised him to transfer to a shady so-called prep school in Florida that was not properly accredited. Someone tried to tell the kid there was an easy way out, and he naively tried to take it. It looks like he is going to pay a heavy price for that mistake.

Is there any point guard in the NCAA who is more well-rounded and suited for the NBA than Illinois' Demetri McCamey? He is averaging over 15 points and seven assists per game against pretty stiff competition thus far, not to mention he has greatly improved his three-point shot. (Deron Williams averaged 12.5 and 6.8 in 2004-2005.) Will he end up being the next great NBA guard out of Illinois following in the footsteps of No. 8 for the Jazz?-- John Hayes, Erie, Ill.

At first, I thought John's comparison between McCamey and Williams was ludicrous. But a closer inspection of their numbers shows he's not so far off. Here is how McCamey's stats compare with Williams' junior season in Champaign, after which he became the third pick in the NBA draft:

The two numbers that stand out to me are the free-throw percentages and the three-point percentages. I would have never guessed Williams was that bad of a foul shooter during his final year of college.

The thing that makes these numbers hard to evaluate is that Williams played with a much better supporting cast. He was clearly capable of scoring more than 12.5 points per game, but that team didn't need him to. Then again, because McCamey's teammates aren't as good, he is drawing more consistent attention from defenses, yet his shooting percentages are off the charts. Plus, he is averaging slightly more assists than Williams did, which, in theory, should be harder to do if your teammates aren't as capable of finishing plays off your passes.

Still, statistics never tell the whole story. I doubt anyone would watch Williams play and then watch McCamey play and think that McCamey is as good as Williams was at this same stage. McCamey has done well to get himself into shape and improve his defense, but he is not the explosive athlete that Williams is. McCamey makes a lot of good plays, but very few of them make you smack your forehead the way Williams' did. Most draft experts seem to project McCamey as a late first- or early second-round selection, which to me seems about right. I doubt he'll ever be an All-Star, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him enjoy a long and lucrative NBA career. He has worked extremely hard, and he deserves it.

You wrote an article before the season in which you said that from what you had seen, Larry Drew II was the same player as last year or maybe even a little worse. I understand that early on his experience may have been preferable to starting a freshman, but at this point it seems like the team runs much better with Kendall Marshall on the floor. Is there a reason Drew continues to get the start and a 50/50 minutes split?-- Jimmy, Richmond, Va.

It is not fair to blame all of North Carolina's problems on Drew, but there is no question that the team runs much better with Marshall at the point. Neither player is adept at running a high-speed offense, and I give Roy Williams credit for slowing down the pace to suit his personnel. But looking at the numbers from UNC's first three ACC games, it's clear that Marshall was more productive than Drew, despite the latter starting every contest:

The good news is, Williams made the switch in the Tar Heels' fourth conference game, a 75-65 win over Clemson on Tuesday night. Marshall entered the starting lineup and logged five points, five assists and three turnovers, while Drew added eight points, four rebounds and four steals off the bench. I won't jump to the conclusion that this switch will immediately turn around North Carolina's season, but it's a start.

The not-so-mighty Florida Gators are very difficult to understand this season. Beating teams they maybe shouldn't have (at Tennessee, Kansas St., at Xavier) and losing to Jacksonville, UCF and South Carolina. The defense is very good, but is the offense just too predictable?-- Kristopher Karns , Oshkosh, Wis.

I don't think they're difficult to understand at all. They're just not very good. (You do know that consistency is a part of being good, right?) Simply put, Florida is not a good enough defensive team to make up for nights when it isn't shooting the ball well from the perimeter. The Gators are ranked 63rd nationally in defensive efficiency, and they're eighth in the SEC in steals, 10th in the SEC in field-goal percentage defense and 10th in blocks. You'd also have to say that Kenny Boynton is one of the bigger disappointments in college basketball. The 6-foot-2 sophomore came to Gainesville with enormous hype out of high school, yet he is only making 29.5 percent from three-point range. (He made 29.4 percent as a freshman.) Neither Boynton nor Erving Walker do a good job attacking the rim, but they're streaky shooters, so when they're on, Florida can be tough to beat. When they're not on, there's not much by way of Plan B.

I think your mention of Villanova deserves a more complete answer. While there is some truth that 'Nova's offense is what the Wildcats pride themselves on, this team is a much better team on defense than last year's squad. However, unlike the Final Four team a few years ago, I'm not sure this edition has that extra defensive gear that can get it all the way to Houston.-- Andy, Cherry Hill, N.J.

I agree that Villanova is a better defensive team than it was last year, and the numbers bear that out. The Wildcats are currently ranked 20th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Last year they were 62nd. I guess my problem with Villanova is that it still is not as good a defensive team as its ability would indicate. Do you know many more teams with as many quick, long and tough perimeter players? Yet Villanova is ranked ninth in the Big East in steals and eighth in blocks. I also believe that the Wildcats are too choosy about when they turn up the defensive heat. As I mentioned, their effort on the defensive end is too tied in to whether their shots are falling.

So yes, they're not bad, and they're better -- but they're not as good as they will need to be if they're going to compete for an NCAA championship.

How many total wins and Big 12 wins will it take Colorado to get into the NCAA tournament? I'm projecting seven teams getting in from the Big 12 unless the Big East takes 11. Then it would only be six.-- Wes, Denver

First of all, I am definitely not buying that the Big East will get 11 teams. It seems like we go through this every year in the Big East. In January it looks like everybody in the league will get in, and then invariably a team or two go on a huge losing streak and the number gets dwindled. Yes, there are three more at-large bids on the board this year, but this league has never gotten more than eight teams in. It is not getting every single spot added by expansion.

As for the Buffs, it did not help their cause by losing at Nebraska on Tuesday night, so they still have some work to do before we can start talking about them as an at-large. Colorado has a huge problem: Its nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 300th in the RPI. To me, that means the Buffaloes have to go at least 10-6 in the conference during the regular season and then acquit themselves well in the Big 12 tournament to have a legit chance.

The best news for Colorado is it only has one bad loss (at San Francisco), so as long as the Buffaloes can avoid stumbling again against the teams in the league ranked below 100 in the RPI (Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas Tech), they'll have a good shot. It would help if they could score another win over one of the top four teams in the conference, but I think the pivotal game for CU might be its game at home against Kansas State on Feb. 12. It's always nice to have a sweep over another potential bubble team in your league -- although K-State has some work to do before we can even consider it to be on the bubble.