It's a down year for college hoops. I hate saying it, but it's true. Someone needs to admit it. There aren't a lot of high-powered teams or elite players – and it's not all that easy to come up with a list of 10 teams that can snip the nets on April 4 in Houston. We have to include the obvious picks, but we also have attempted to find a few sleepers. – Jeff Goodman
If Isaiah Thomas plays like he did early in the Pac-10 slate, the Huskies might be as good as anyone. Lorenzo Romar will also need Matthew Bryan-Amaning to remain consistent with his production and intensity. Those are a pair of critical "ifs," but this is a team that has balance and depth. The Huskies have shooters, a guard in Venoy Overton who can shut down just about anyone and the addition of Aziz N'Diaye, who allows MBA to move over to power forward.
The Tigers have been up and down, but Mike Anderson's system is proven to be successful -- and the talent level in Columbia is higher than it was when Mizzou went to the Elite Eight a couple years ago. Marcus Denmon is having a terrific year, there is no shortage of guards and Ricardo Ratliffe gives the Tigers a guy who can get things done in the paint.
I still question the leadership of the Wildcats (although Jay Wright tells me Antonio Pena has become a terrific leader), but this may be Wright's most well-rounded group. He always has quality guards, and this year's no different with the Coreys – Fisher and Stokes – and Maalik Wayns. Mouph Yarou is a legitimate inside presence, but the key here remains the Coreys. When they show up, the Wildcats can hang with anyone. When they don't, Nova can lose to just about anyone (ex.: Providence).
7. North Carolina
Maybe I'm crazy, but the new-look, Larry Drew-less Tar Heels have a shot. Kendall Marshall is running things in Chapel Hill now, and that has resulted in Harrison Barnes looking like, well, Harrison Barnes. These guys may not be the toughest team in the land, but they are so long up front with Tyler Zeller and John Henson -- and if Reggie Bullock can make shots, who knows.
Even without Enes Kanter, the Wildcats have a shot. They have as much talent as just about anyone – and everything would have to go just right. Terrence Jones needs to become more consistent, Brandon Knight must make life easier for his teammates, Josh Harrellson has to stay out of foul trouble and Doron Lamb has to continue to make shots. A national title is unlikely, but not impossible when there's this much talent in the fold. The road issues that everyone talks about shouldn't bother a program whose fans travel as well as anyone.
This one all depends on Kyrie Irving and whether the freshman point guard is able to return from the toe injury that has had him on the shelf for the past couple of months. It doesn't look promising. With Irving, the defending champions become the co-favorite. Without him, it will be far more difficult to cut down the nets again. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler have done it before and are two of the nation's elite players, but the key will be whether the Blue Devils can hold their own on the front line – and that will fall on the shoulders of the Plumlee Brothers.
The Longhorns went into the tank last season, largely because of chemistry issues. Rick Barnes has changed his offense, but it's the defense that has been the biggest key in Austin. Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph are a pair of lock-down perimeter defenders, Jordan Hamilton and J'Covan Brown have matured. Highly touted Canadian freshmen Tristan Thompson and Joseph have blended in. These guys are road-tested, having won games at Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina (in Greensboro).
This might finally be the year that the Panthers get to the Final Four -- and maybe even win a couple in Houston. Pittsburgh has dropped a couple at home, but it's a team that knows how to grind out wins and there's no shortage of toughness. It starts with a veteran backcourt of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, but Jamie Dixon has plenty of weapons. The emergence of senior big man Gary McGhee will be critical in March.
It's a difficult team to figure, but Bill Self may have as much talent up and down his roster as anyone in the nation. They have the Morris twins, who are a matchup nightmare; veteran guards with Tyshawn Taylor, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed; and a talented freshman in Josh Selby. However, this team is still a work in progress after adding Selby back in mid-December. Leadership is a major question mark, but talent is not.
1. Ohio State
I picked them to win it all prior to the start of the season because I felt they were as complete of a team as there is in the country. They have experience (David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale), terrific chemistry, plenty of perimeter shooting (four guys who shoot better than 40 percent from deep), a low-post presence (Jared Sullinger), a scoring wing (William Buford) and a guy who can run a team (Aaron Craft). If they play their "A" game, no one beats them. Not even Duke.