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Friday, January 18, 2008

Top 3 teams deserve consideration for top spot

Top 3 teams deserve consideration for top spot
By Randy Hill, Fox Sports

Unlike their football-playing buddies, the powerhouses of college basketball have not allowed protocol to be blown to smithereens.

While we're still reeling from the anarchy that prevailed on the gridiron, the heavies of hoops continue to pull rank. Based on November speculation, the same four prematurely identified bullies currently occupy the top four spots in the current Associated Press poll.

Roy Williams' North Carolina Tar Heels check in at No. 1, followed by Memphis, Kansas and UCLA. Unless we use them to make a case regarding tempo, the Bruins — who have rallied since losing to Texas in Westwood — are removed from further discussion in this column, which seeks to make a case for why the other three teams have earned consideration as the nation's best team.

The three survivors continue to play along because each is undefeated.

It also should be noted that despite having an actual postseason tournament to settle such issues, college hoops fans aren't above a little crowing in regard to why their favorite team should be held in the highest esteem.

So, with this exposition on the table, let's take a look at the mightiest of the mighty — the nation's three remaining unbeaten squads.

Memphis Tigers (15-0)

A quick review of the numbers tells us Coach John Calipari's crew generates 82.7 points per game (20th nationally) while running its spread-'em-out, drive-and-kick offense.

A deeper look into this number reveals that — based on tempo — the Tigers are 34th in offensive efficiency. This is a bit surprising when we consider that jet-quick freshman point guard Derrick Rose was expected to upgrade the efficiency by speeding up the Memphis fastbreak for easier baskets.

Before turning overly critical of their offensive chops, it should be pointed out that the importance of statistical rankings can be overrated because not all teams play the same competition.

And while we won't credit Memphis for staring down a true gauntlet of foes (only three games on the road thus far), Calipari has attempted to overcome the upcoming Conference USA credibility issue by taking on the likes of UConn, USC, Georgetown, Arizona, Cincinnati and Oklahoma, with home games against Gonzaga and Tennessee still to come.

Like Carolina and Kansas, Memphis has feasted on its share of cupcakes. The Tigers also benefited by knocking off Arizona while freshman guard and leading scorer Jerryd Bayless was out with a bum knee.

However, some credit is due Calipari for having his team prepared to win when the Tigers' full-court pressure is unable to instigate a typically Memphis-paced game.

For example, facing the downshifted tempo and triangle-and-two defense applied by USC coach Tim Floyd, the Tigers managed to defeat the Trojans at Madison Square Garden while scoring a measly 62 points.

In their seven triumphs over non-cupcakes, the Tigers are averaging 75 points — not bad, but hardly what Calipari's system would prefer. So, while Memphis has allowed the speed of these games to be slowed down (the Tigers are only 27th on the season in game pace based on possessions per minute), they rank No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency.

They look even better when we use the eye test.

Rose, as indicated, has provided the athleticism upgrade at the trigger position. Junior wing man Chris Douglas-Roberts gives Memphis an experienced lead scoring option and junior Antonio Anderson is capable of big games.

Baseline starters Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier offer ferocious defense and uncommon finesse, respectively. Dorsey, who goes 6-foot-9 and a yoked 260 pounds, made 7-2 Roy Hibbert all but disappear in a victory over fifth-ranked Georgetown.

Like the other teams in this review, Memphis has a competent backup for almost every position on the floor.

The Tigers' success could depend on how Rose develops as a decision maker. The big-ticket recruit from Chicago has averaged five turnovers and four assists against their six toughest opponents.

Kansas Jayhawks (17-0)

The statistical mavens just love Bill Self's team. While ranking second in field-goal percentage (52.3) and 14th in points per game (83.8), the Jayhawks are a formidable fourth in offensive efficiency.

They're even more efficient on the opposite end of the floor (second nationally), with plenty of quick guards to apply pressure and a rotation of shot blockers to eliminate easy baskets.

But KU — which has four road victories — is not wowin' anybody with its non-league schedule. Of course, it's not the Jayhawks' fault if victories over USC and Arizona (with Bayless in the lineup) have been sabotaged by the inability of those foes to remain in the top 25.

They've also knocked off Georgia Tech and Boston College, two programs that have been much better in recent years than they are today.

Like Memphis, Kansas suits up a veteran No. 1 scoring option (junior Brandon Rush) and a coach with a recent history of early March Madness collapse.

The Jayhawks have three experienced, card-carrying point guards who can function on the floor at the same time, although you should be reminded that varsity letters are not required for March success. Syracuse, for example, won a championship with a pair of freshmen — Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara — leading the scoring and running the offense, respectively. The first of Florida's two title runs was led by a pack of very talented sophomores.

Anyway, this is by no means an indictment against experience (which also wins) or Kansas (which has the ingredients to remain a serious title threat). The Jayhawks have six players averaging between 7.9 and 13.4 points per game.

The Big 12 Conference also offers enough competition for Kansas to be battle-tested.

We'll just have to wait and see if the Jayhawks can finally handle being hunted in March.

North Carolina Tar Heels (17-0)

Critics of the Heels would prefer to see Carolina play better defense.

Well, Roy's boys are giving up 70 points per game, which doesn't seem too bad when we point out that Carolina is second in the nation in scoring at 92. Based on pace (the Heels are fifth in the nation in game speed), Carolina's defense — considered the weakest of our three heavyweights — is a reasonable 31st in efficiency.

If you play as fast as possible, expect to give up a few easy buckets.

And if you have road wins over solid-if-hardly-spectacular foes such as Clemson, Ohio State, BYU and Kentucky, the assorted cupcakes won't be enough to prevent the Heels from seizing the No. 1 ranking.

Despite an injury to key reserve guard Bobby Frasor, the Tar Heels have everything they need to cut down the nets.

Junior post Tyler Hansbrough does the dirty work and sets an example that convinces most of his teammates to play hard most of the time. Sophomore point guard Ty Lawson is one of the nation's fastest and most effective push men. Sophomore two guard Wayne Ellington is one of our best shooters.

Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard are role players with big-game capacities. Sophomores Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson — both California imports — have enough low-post heft to keep Hansbrough from having to battle alone inside.

But the injury to Frasor does decrease the depth on a team that, based on its high-tempo emphasis, has relied on it.

The key to tournament success could be the button-pushing of Williams, whose history of March flameout was salved by a national championship soon after his return to Chapel Hill.

Based on body of work, I'd follow AP and rank Carolina first, followed by Memphis and KU. Of course, aside from future seeding purposes, it really doesn't matter where these teams shake out in a subjective ranking.

Any one of the three featured squads could end up in the championship game — where there's a fine chance of losing to UCLA.

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