It’s my privilege to welcome you to the first installment of my Super Sweet 16; and no, University Avenue has not purchased the distribution rights to that horrible, mid-2000s MTV monument to greed and teenage delusion.
Though, it is worth noting, the intro of that atrocious show featured Louisville Cardinals fan Jennifer Lawrence.
This particularly Super Sweet 16 is a weekly catalog of the 16 teams around college basketball that yours truly deems tops. And what does my opinion mean?
Not much, admittedly.
Typically the intrigue of rankings comes from the top. But unless you’re a troll or homer, no one is going to rank any college basketball team other than Kentucky No. 1.
That leaves the suspense further down, starting with the Arizona-Duke debate. Really, it doesn’t matter much beyond Arizona fans’ blind hatred of Duke (run a Google image search for “Jason Gardner Jason Williams” to understand where that hatred stems), because both would be No. 1 seeds if the NCAA Tournament started today.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
No. 1 seed, Midwest Regional (Cleveland)
While I’m not drinking the royal blue Kool-Aid some are passing about Kentucky being an undefeated team come April — especially after losing Alex Poythress for the season — John Calipari does have the nation’s best team as of Dec. 15.
2. Duke Blue Devils
No. 1 seed, South Regional (Houston)
Who deserves to be No. 2 behind Kentucky: Duke or Arizona, Arizona or Duke? (Apologies, Louisville and Virginia faithful).
Duke has the best individual player in center Jahlil Okafor, a legitimate 5 with bona fied back-to-the-basket skills. Arizona has the deeper roster, showing that it can legitimately go 10 deep if need be.
However, Duke gets the nod by virtue of the better marquee win: at Wisconsin. Arizona beat a strong Gonzaga team at home in overtime and outlasted San Diego State on a neutral court.
3. Arizona Wildcats
No. 1 seed, West Regional (Los Angeles)
Two traits consistent of Sean Miller-coached Arizona teams have been evident this season: The Wildcats play outstanding team defense, and they’re prone to abysmal starts on the offensive end.
Arizona seems to be ironing out the latter — at least, it did so against a surprisingly terrible Michigan team on Saturday. An 80-53 win over the Wolverines sends the Wildcats into its final stretch of the nonconference, with games against Oakland, at UTEP and at UNLV. None of those are necessarily gimmes — particularly going into El Paso to face Tim Floyd’s Miners. Nevertheless, Arizona should open Pac-12 play undefeated against Arizona State on Jan. 4.
4. Louisville Cardinals
No. 1 seed, East Regional (Syracuse)
The countdown is on to Louisville’s Dec. 27 showdown with rival Kentucky. The Cardinals present arguably the stiffest challenge the Wildcats will face all season — at least, until March.
Montrezl Harrell is currently my national POTY (for those of you who care), and someone I have an irrational fondness for. He reminds me of Marcus Fizer in his Iowa State days, or perhaps a shorter Amare Stoudemire (pre-knee issues).
5. Virginia Cavaliers
No. 2 seed, East Regional
Perhaps you can fairly attribute this 2-seed ranking to a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. When Tony Bennett’s Wahoos face Cleveland State Thursday night, it will be their first time on the court in nearly two weeks.
Of course, when Virginia was last in action, it rolled up 74 points against VCU’s Havoc defense for a second straight impressive road win. The Cavaliers beat former ACC counterpart Maryland in College Park by double digits just two days prior.
Virginia seemingly has an offense to complement the stout defense typical of Bennett-coached teams, thanks largely to Justin Anderson and Anthony Gill shooting absurd averages of 57 and 66 percent from the floor. With some scoring life injected into the Wahoos, they are not a bunch anyone wants to see come March.
6. Wisconsin Badgers
No. 2 seed, West Regional
Wisconsin’s knack for destroying overmatched opponents means that you can take the Badgers reaching this year’s Sweet 16 to the bank. But will Bo Ryan get to two straight Final Fours?
Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker, the core of last year’s run, make for one of the best three-man units in the country. They also give Wisconsin more pure athleticism than any Badgers team of the Bo Ryan era.
7. Texas Longhorns
No. 2 seed, South Regional
Playing Texas this season looks a little bit like facing a wrestling-based MMA fighter. The Longhorns want to shoot their opponents’ legs, get them on the mat and keep them pinned for the duration of the match.
In other words: Texas is a defensive-minded squad unafraid of slogging through the mud. To wit, just one of the Longhorns’ first nine opponents reached 60 points. That was Kentucky, also the sole opponent to beat Texas. Offsetting a defensive style that would make Longhorns football coordinator Vance Bedford proud is a balanced offense, with six players averaging eight points per game or more.
Celebrated freshman big man Myles Turner is one of those youngsters you can’t help but hope sticks around in the college game for a couple of years, because he’s only just beginning to take baby steps toward reaching his high ceiling.
8. Villanova Wildcats
No. 2 seed, Midwest Regional
They don’t come much more balanced than Villanova, with five players averaging between 9.1 and 12.3 points per game.
Villanova’s defeat of Michigan Thanksgiving week began the systemic derailing of the Wolverines’ season. With Michigan dropping three since, the Wildcats’ marquee win in a 10-0 start is no longer so marquee. But hey, a date with NJIT later this month suddenly has more teeth to it.
Villanova put together an impressive-on-paper nonconference slate that loses luster with each passing week — case in point, the Wildcats face Syracuse on Saturday. That could hamper Nova’s case for a No. 1 seed come tournament time, assuming the Wildcats are in the hunt for such distinction. The overall strength of the Big East should help buoy Villanova, however.
9. Gonzaga Bulldogs
No. 3 seed, West Regional
Gonzaga’s sole blemish is a 63-60, overtime decision at Arizona in which the Zags controlled much of the way. I wouldn’t be shocked if that ends up being Gonzaga’s only loss this regular season, either.
Two of the more substantial tests come early into the West Coast Conference season, with Gonzaga going to BYU Dec. 27 and San Diego Dec. 29. The Toreros have historically given the Zags a handful at Jenny Craig Pavilion.
It’s weird to say just two years from Gonzaga receiving a No. 1 seed that this is the program’s best team in nine years, but that’s the case. The 2005-’06 Gonzaga team was the last I really thought Final Four potential — until this year, anyway.
10. Kansas Jayhawks
No. 3 seed, East Regional
Kansas has bounced back nicely from being thoroughly demolished against Kentucky. The Jayhawks actually have one of the more impressive resumes in the nation — at least, in terms of name recognition.
They beat Michigan State in the championship round of the Orlando Classic, rallied from a big deficit to knock off Florida a week later, trumped Georgetown and held off a Utah rally.
However, only Utah and Michigan State are ranked among that group. With three losses, Michigan State is just barely.
That’s not a slight on Kansas, but rather an explanation of why Bill Self’s bunch isn’t slated in two-seed territory. The Jayhawks will certainly get a boost should they win their 8,000th straight Big 12 championship, as this year’s Big 12 is absolutely loaded. From top to bottom, it’s the best conference in college basketball.
11. Utah Utes
No. 3 seed, South Regional
The best two-loss team in the country? I certainly believe so. Delon Wright is the most dynamic playmaker Utah’s had since Andre Miller in the late 1990s, while freshman big man Jakob Poeltl could develop into a Michael Doleac-type.
Moreover, I learned more about Utah in defeat Saturday playing Kansas in a virtual road game than I have about most teams in wins.
The Utes rallied from a huge, early deficit to put themselves in position to win. Knocking off the Jayhawks would certainly have been a nice pelt to go along with Utah’s defeat of Wichita State — particularly given UU played without Jordan Loveridge in both contests.
But in Utah’s impressive showings against Kansas and Wichita State, the Utes’ most glaring flaw was readily on display: They need to get better in end-of-game situations. Boneheaded decisions down the stretch last season effectively kept Utah out of the NCAA Tournament. This year, limiting mistakes in the final minutes could be the difference in Utah winning the Pac-12.
12. Iowa State Cyclones
No. 3 seed, Midwest Regional
This year’s squad could shape up to be the best in Fred Hoiberg’s impressive run as head coach of his alma mater, and the best Iowa State team since the 2000 Elite 8 run. The Cyclones pounded in-state rival Iowa on the road last week, scoring into the 90s for the fourth time this season. It also prompted this awesome tweet.
The experts picked Iowa by 6…but that's none of my concern. pic.twitter.com/iIE7rTvvgg
— Joe Summers (@joesummers) December 13, 2014
For those lamenting the lack of offense around college basketball, I suggest you watch this team. The Cyclones play a fun brand of uptempo basketball. And, if you don’t enjoy watching Georges Niang, I’m afraid I can’t be your friend.
13. Ohio State Buckeyes
No. 4 seed, East Regional
Ohio State is one of those teams that strikes me as opening weekend exit fodder, but also a potential Final Four team. That starts with the frenetic energy freshman D’Angelo Russell brings.
There’s a volatility to Russell’s game that makes him the quintessential player capable of going 1-of-15 from the field in a Round of 32 loss, or averaging 23 points per game in a hot streak.
Considering the offense runs largely through him — he has almost twice as many field goal attempts as the next most prolific Buckeyes shooter — Ohio State is very much riding on Russell.
14. Wichita State Shockers
No. 4 seed, South Regional
Prior to its overtime loss at Utah Dec. 3, Wichita State had not lost a nonconference game since dropping a 69-60 decision at Tennessee Dec. 13, 2012. And two years to the day of that defeat, the Shockers very nearly fell for a second time this season, trailing Detroit most of the way.
Wichita State rallied to win by nine, but are there cracks being exposed in the Shockers’ armor?
15. Washington Huskies
No. 4 seed, Midwest Regional
Don’t sleep on the Huskies’ 81-77 come-from-behind win Sunday over Eastern Washington. The Eagles already beat Indiana on the Hoosiers’ home court, and as NBC Sports’ Raphielle Johnson notes, could be NCAA Tournament-bound.
Have to give Eastern Washington some praise for their win at San Francisco. Big Sky favorites? Certainly have a case.
— Raphielle Johnson (@raphiellej) December 12, 2014
More importantly for Washington, it showed resolve that was glaringly lacking from many of Lorenzo Romar’s past teams.
Andrew Andrews, Mike Anderson and Nigel Williams-Goss are the most formidable backcourt trio Washington’s had since the outstanding Nate Robinson/Brandon Roy/Will Conroy triumvirate of the mid-2000s, while back-up big man Robert Upshaw is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. Upshaw’s presence in the lane is a defensive game-changer.
16. Oklahoma Sooners
No. 4 seed, West Regional
I struggled with No. 16 more than any of the other 15 spots on the Super Sweet 16. Maryland has an impressive win over Iowa State, but beyond that and a loss to Virginia, has played an embarrassing schedule.
San Diego State scheduled up, facing each of the Pac-12’s three best teams — but the Aztecs are just 1-2 in said contests. They’re also just one game removed from barely escaping Long Beach State.
By virtue of playing a tough schedule thus far, and facing Washington on Saturday and thereby guaranteeing a Super Sweet 16 showdown this weekend, I opted for Oklahoma in this spot.
More importantly, I love Oklahoma’s starting five. Buddy Hield leads one of the more talented starting strings in the country, averaging more than 16 points per game. Big man Ryan Spangler has a low-key Rodman quality to him, showing off a knack at both cleaning the glass and angering opponents.