Breaking down the No. 1 seeds
The day that Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins spurned the opportunity to leave Lawrence early for the NBA was also the day that the Kansas Jayhawks became the front-runners to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
A year ago, the Jayhawks were the pleasant surprise after losing nearly everyone of note besides Collins and Aldrich from the national title team.
They overachieved and went to the Sweet 16.
But this year, they had the targets on their back all season.
There was the preseason scuffle between members of the basketball and football teams that some figured could throw KU off its game. Then, starting guard Brady Morningstar was suspended for the first semester after being caught driving while intoxicated.
But that’s all in the distant past right now.
It’s Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk for a team that has met nearly every challenge this season.
Sure, there were slip-ups — like the loss in Knoxville to a decimated Tennessee team that had just six scholarship players. Then, the setback at an Oklahoma State team which is nearly a one-man show starring James Anderson.
But for the most part, this team has lived up to expectations.
They swept Kansas State in the regular season, won road contests at Texas A&M and Texas and also knocked off Baylor at home.
Collins and Aldrich haven’t put up eye-popping numbers, but they have sacrificed for the success of the team — a rarity in this day and age.
Collins is a senior who has a ring on his finger and gives the team a tough, fearless leader who yearns to take the big shot.
Aldrich, a junior, gives coach Bill Self a big man who can score in the post and change the complexion of the game on the defensive end with his ability to dominate on the glass and alter shots.
Then, the pieces fit around the duo.
Marcus Morris has made a dramatic improvement and gives the Jayhawks another scoring option up front, and freshman Xavier Henry, while inconsistent throughout the season, is capable of exploding for 20-plus points on any given night. Tyshawn Taylor has had a sub-par season, but he’s still a terrific fifth option to have on the floor.
Morningstar may not look the part, but he’s the team’s best perimeter defender and the offense is crisp when he steps on the court because of his ability to make quality decisions and make shots.
Kansas can shoot it from the perimeter. In fact, the Jayhawks shoot 41 percent from beyond the arc. They can get buckets in the paint from Aldrich and Morris. And they also defend.
Frankly, there just aren’t many holes with the boys from Lawrence, and that’s why they began the regular season and enter the Big Dance as the favorites.
Why they’ll get to Indianapolis: The Jayhawks are experienced and talented at the two most important positions — point guard and center. They also have good balance.
Why they’ll flame out early: I would be shocked if it happens, but the Jayhawks need to defend. They lost to Tennessee because of a poor defensive effort.
Key to their title hopes: Xavier Henry — It’s a safe bet that Collins and Aldrich will show up each and every game, but “X” is just that: the "X-factor." He opens up the court when he’s making shots from the perimeter but needs to do more than just that. He also needs to defend and put the ball on the floor and not settle for long jumpers.
It’s hard to believe that the culture in Kentucky has changed so quickly.
It basically happened the day John Calipari arrived in Lexington.
Shortly thereafter, Patrick Patterson decided he wanted to stay in college for another year. Then, Calipari lured much of the talent he was set to bring in at Memphis with him to Bluegrass country.
Enter John Wall, the No. 1 player in the nation.
Say hello to DeMarcus Cousins, the most talented — yet flammable — big man in the nation.
Welcome Eric Bledsoe, another talented freshman who flew under the radar but was believed to be the No. 2 point guard in the freshman class by many.
Just like that Kentucky was Kentucky again. The Wildcats went from an NIT team under former coach Billy Gillispie to a national championship contender in what seemed like a blink of an eye.
The Wildcats are unquestionably the most talented group in the entire country, but Calipari has done a masterful job blending the old with the new, managing egos and winning game after game while starting three freshmen.
Bledsoe, a natural point guard, has shifted over to the shooting guard spot. Patterson, who shared the spotlight with Jodie Meeks a year ago, has now fallen to the No. 3 spot on his own team.
The young Wildcats struggled early in the season. There was a tight game against Miami (Ohio), a near-loss to Pac-10 bottom-feeder Stanford back in November, another close one against a mediocre Georgia team and plenty more nail-biters.
But the Wildcats won just about all of them.
Wall quickly established himself as a money guy, the player you want with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.
Cousins, after a rocky start, turned into a double-double machine. He overpowered opponents with his brute strength and has done a much better job controlling his emotions.
Patterson has expanded his game as Calipari has allowed him to slide out to the perimeter and showcase his much-improved outside shot.
And Bledsoe, while playing in the shadows of the starry trio, has been nearly as valuable because of his quickness, ability to make shots and willingness to accept his role.
There is depth as well with shooter Darnell Dodson, the late-season emergence of DeAndre Liggins and talented freshman big man Daniel Orton coming off the bench to spell Cousins and/or Patterson.
Kentucky still proved it was vulnerable, especially in true road games. The Wildcats lost in late January at South Carolina, then dropped another one away from Rupp Arena a few weeks ago in Knoxville to Tennessee.
Why they’ll get to Indianapolis: Talent. These guys could have four of the top 20 picks in the June NBA Draft.
Why they’ll flame out early: If they can’t hit perimeter shots. The best way to beat Kentucky is with a zone defense or a sagging man-to-man because there aren’t many teams in the nation that can contain them straight up.
Key to their title hopes: DeMarcus Cousins — If the big man can stay focused and not lose his cool, the Wildcats will be tough to beat. His presence in the paint on both ends is invaluable because he gives the wings uncontested looks from the perimeter.
No one saw this coming.
Not even Jim Boeheim.
The Syracuse coach raved about Wesley Johnson all of last season as he watched the Iowa State transfer in practice, but there’s no way he had an inkling that his team, which lost three starters off last season’s team, would move to the No. 1 ranking during the season.
The Orange lost their heart, soul and point guard from last year’s group: No. 6 overall pick Jonny Flynn.
They also lost Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, who may not have been Boeheim’s all-time favorite players but were still productive starters.
There was legitimate concern entering the season as to who would be able to replace Flynn as the team’s floor leader.
It was a two-man battle between Scoop Jardine, who sat out all of last season because of injury, and freshman Brandon Triche, who some doubted was a natural for the position.
But the duo has been terrific. Triche has started games, but their playing time is almost identical.
Their combined numbers are impressive and nearly identical to Flynn’s from a year ago.
With the addition of Johnson, a sweet-shooting long wing who nearly averaged a double-double, and the two point guards, Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone has been terrific this season.
Teams are shooting 39 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc.
The ’Cuse set its rotation early in the season and hasn’t needed to tinker.
You’ve got Johnson and another big-time shooter, Andy Rautins, on the wings and a pair of strong and athletic big men — Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson — on the frontline.
Besides at the point guard spot, there’s plenty of experience.
The bench isn’t deep, but it hasn’t needed to be.
It’s basically Jardine, whose maturity has grown by leaps and bounds over the last year or so, and talented 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Kris Joseph, who could become a future star once Johnson departs for the NBA.
However, what has been a solid seven-man rotation virtually all year long could be tested with the recent quad injury suffered by Onuaku in the Big East tournament.
It’s still unclear whether Onuaku will be able to play and if so, how much he’ll be able to contribute.
Syracuse’s success — a 28-3 record and a Big East regular-season title — wasn’t based heavily on one player such is the case with Ohio State’s Evan Turner and Kentucky’s John Wall.
Which is why the Orange need everyone, including Onuaku.
Why they’ll get to Indianapolis: The Orange have a defensive system that is difficult to score against, especially for teams that aren’t used to facing Syracuse.
Why they’ll flame out early: Point-guard play. Triche and Jardine have been terrific this season, but can they do it in the postseason? Guard play wins championships, and these guys haven’t been tested in the postseason yet.
Key to their title hopes: The health of Onuaku. The senior big man suffered an injury in the Big East tournament and it’s still unclear how healthy he’ll be if he’s able to play in the Big Dance.
Duke wasn’t supposed to be a No. 1 seed.
At least not prior to the start of the season.
The Blue Devils saw Gerald Henderson Jr. leave early for the NBA, and starting guard Elliott Williams transferred back home to Memphis to be closer to his mother.
That left Duke with a gaping hole.
But Nolan Smith has stepped in and filled the scoring role, and backcourt mate Jon Scheyer has had a terrific season running the team.
The Blue Devils earned a share of the ACC regular-season title and also won the ACC tournament with Sunday’s win against Georgia Tech.
Duke finished the season 29-5 overall.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski has done a terrific job with a team that isn’t overpowering by any means.
Smith has been crucial because the Blue Devils were in dire need of a third scorer to go along with Scheyer and junior forward Kyle Singler.
He struggled when given an opportunity to play the point guard spot in the past, but the move to the shooting guard spot has allowed him to focus on being aggressive and scoring.
It’s worked as Smith has joined Scheyer in Singler in averaging more than 17 points per game.
Scheyer has made a near-seamless move to the point guard spot — one that began in the middle of last season. He’s one of the most versatile players in the country, and although he’s taken on a new role, his scoring hasn’t suffered much at all. He’s also had one of the most impressive assist-to-turnover ratios of anyone in the country this year.
Singler has battled through inconsistency at times this season, largely because of the transition moving primarily on the perimeter, but he’s started to find his shot down the stretch and become the dominant player that most expected entering the season.
It’s truly the Big Three and then a bunch of role guys.
There’s the three-headed monster in the middle with Miles Plumlee, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas.
Plumlee is long and athletic and has shown glimpses this season. The 7-foot Zoubek has made a drastic improvement and become, at times, a force in the middle — as shown by his 16-point, 17-rebound performance against Maryland last month. Thomas gives the Blue Devils another veteran and an athletic, live body who can rebound and defend.
Mason Plumlee, Miles’ younger brother, could become an “X” factor. He missed the first few weeks of the season with a broken wrist but could turn into a valuable role guy coming off the bench.
The backcourt depth remains a concern since it’s really Smith and Scheyer and not much else. Freshman Andre Dawkins can shoot the ball, but he receives limited time.
Duke hasn’t gotten past the Sweet 16 since 2004.
That could change this season.
Why they’ll get to Indianapolis: The Big Three — If Scheyer, Singler and Smith all produce, the Blue Devils can be dangerous. These guys can easily go for 60 points by themselves.
Why they’ll flame out early: Not enough support. Guys like the Plumlee brothers, Zoubek and Thomas have been inconsistent, and the Blue Devils are so reliant on their Big Three.
Key to their title hopes: Singler — Scheyer and Smith have been fairly consistent all season. If Singler can step up and be the force that many thought he’d be, the Blue Devils have a shot to go deep in the tourney.