Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Suite 25: Are the 'Canes No. 1?

It's been a special year for the Miami Hurricanes so far.

By Joe Parello 

Right about now you're going to begin seeing the talking heads everywhere talk about how this college basketball season is "so wide open" and there is "no true favorite."

It's an annual line adopted by analysts to manage your expectations of their picks and long-term prognostications because, here's the thing folks, the best team doesn't always win the NCAA tournament.

So, like last year, when everyone knew Kentucky was the best team, but always prefaced their pick with "but they're young, and this season is so wide open," you will see analysts jump on the Indiana bandwagon, sort of.

The Hoosiers are, in my estimation, the best and most complete team in college basketball. Does that mean they will win the tournament? No, because one off shooting night for the Hoosiers, combined with a hot shooting night from some plucky mid-major means Indiana could be home in before the Elite 8. It happens all the time.

All that being said, I am not afraid to make my picks, because I understand the totally unpredictable nature of the NCAA Tournament. If we wanted to pick the best team, we would take all conference champs, along with a few at larges, and hold best three out of five series until only one team remained.

But the tournament, and its lose one and you're done format is so much more intriguing.

So, without further ado, here are the Suite 25. A ranking that will not handicap a team's chances to win the national title, but rather tell you who the best teams in the country are.

1. Indiana (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten)

There have been some questions about Indiana's team defense, but when you're scoring over 83 points a game (2nd best in NCAA), those concerns are eased a bit. What makes Indiana so difficult to deal with is they can beat you in so many ways. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo get the headlines, and rightfully so, but Christian Watford has done a little bit of everything for the Hoosiers, and guards Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell and Jordan Hulls have provided the passing and outside shooting that Indiana needs to stretch the floor.

2. Miami (19-3, 10-0 ACC)

Yeah, the ACC is down, but that doesn't diminish what the Hurricanes have done this season in conference play. Before the ACC slate began, the 'Canes has a pair of terrible losses (Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana St.), but Miami hasn't dropped a game since the calendar turned to 2013. Among their impressive wins are routes of Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and Georgia Tech, along with gritty wins over NC State and Maryland.

3. Michigan State (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten)

Last night's thrashing of rival Michigan at the Breslin Center, while not unexpected, was still impressive. Keith Appling made a strong case to be considered the Big Ten's premier point guard, and freshman Gary Harris is a legit stud at shooting guard. Add in the physicality of Brandon Dawson and the coaching of Tom Izzo, and this team is going to be a nightmare to deal with come March.

4. Syracuse (20-3, 8-2 Big East)

I've never been a huge fan of Jim Boeheim. Despite the man's numerous achievements, I just can't bring myself to think that highly of a guy who's major "innovation" is a 2-3 zone. I am, however, a huge fan of Syracuse junior C.J. Fair, who is shooting a more-than-solid 43.3 percent from beyond the arc and grabbing over seven boards a game.

5. Florida (20-3, 10-1 SEC)

The Gators established themselves as the team to beat in the SEC with a convincing win over Kentucky,  but they will have to go the rest of the way without the services of junior Will Yeguete. The versatile forward was Florida's best interior defender and one of its best rebounders. Still, with senior playmakers like guard Kenny Boynton and center Erik Murphy, the Gators have the firepower for a deep tournament run.

6. Duke (21-2, 8-2 ACC)

Color me unimpressed with this Duke team. The Blue Devils have won five in a row, but all have come against unranked teams in a down ACC, and they haven't blown people out the way Miami has. A home matchup with rival North Carolina is on the docket this week, but Duke only plays one ranked team the rest of the way. That would be against a Miami squad that nearly beat them by 30 less than a month ago.

7. Michigan (21-4, 8-4 Big Ten)

The Wolverines still have one of the nation's best point guards in Trey Burke and a solid cast of young players around him. But, it usually takes a veteran team to win on the road in the Big Ten, and Michigan just doesn't have much talent in its junior and senior classes.

8. Butler (20-4, 7-2 Atlantic 10)

As everybody knows, the Bulldogs play their best basketball come tournament time, and Brad Stevens has his team right on schedule for their annual inexplicable run. This year's squad is down from an overall talent standpoint, but Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke has stepped in to shoulder the scoring load for the Bulldogs.

9. Gonzaga (23-2, 10-0 West Coast)

The Zags lost only once in 2013, and that one-point defeat at Butler is hardly a reason to doubt Gonzaga's legitimacy. Junior forward Kelly Olynyk is a skilled 7-footer that creates matchup problems for every team the Zags face. What makes things even tougher for opponents is that he's an excellent free throw shooter, hitting 80 percent from the line this season.

10. Kansas (19-5, 8-3 Big 12)

We've been waiting for Kansas to wake up after a disastrous start to February, and it seems they just did. Monday's 21-point thrashing of rival Kansas State showed us what the Jayhawks can be when they're at their best. Freshman Ben McLemore is scoring in bunches, and scoring efficiently, and senior Jeff Withey is protecting the basket on the other end. It's amazing this team lost three in a row to unranked foes.

11. Louisville (19-5, 7-4 Big East)

The Cardinals have looked both dominant and lost this season, and you hope this weekend's five overtime loss at Notre Dame doesn't linger. But, with the leadership and scoring savvy of junior Russ Smith, paired with the all around game of Chane Behanan, it's hard to see Rick Pitino's bunch staying down for too long.

12. Ohio State (17-6, 7-4 Big Ten)

It was a rough week for the Buckeyes, who let one slip away in Ann Arbor, then got blasted at home by Indiana. While the Buckeyes play great defense, they seem to rely a bit too heavily on star Deshaun Thomas. The junior forward averages nearly double Ohio State's second-leading scorer, and highly decorated point guard Aaron Craft is overrated on the offensive end. Still, I wouldn't want to play them come tournament time, just in case Thomas goes off for 35.

13. Arizona (20-3, 8-3 Pac-12)

The Wildcats are the class of the Pac-12, but that doesn't exactly say much this year. Still, Arizona's non-conference resume includes huge wins over Florida and Miami, along with nice wins over San Diego State and Clemson. Those should help outweigh last weekend's head-scratching loss to Cal.

14. Pittsburgh (20-5, 8-4 Big East)

After a terrible start to Big East play, the Panthers have rebounded and won seven of eight, including double-digit wins over Syracuse and at Louisville.

15. Georgetown (18-4, 8-3 Big East)

Despite athleticism to spare, the Hoyas still haven't found any offensive consistency this season. Not that it has hurt them much, as only three teams have scored 70 or more points on Georgetown this season. When they do need a bucket, sophomore Otto Porter has been able to score in the half court, and the versatile forward is also their leading rebounder.

16. Oklahoma State (17-5, 7-3 Big 12)

The Cowboys have recovered nicely from an end of the year slump to win six of their last seven. With four different players scoring in double figures, Oklahoma State can survive an off night from stars Markel Brown and Marcus Smart.

17. Wisconsin (17-7, 8-3 Big Ten)

You just have to wonder how Bo Ryan keeps turning out solid teams in Madison. By all accounts, the Badgers are in the lower half of the Big Ten in terms of overall talent, but they can grind with any team in the country long enough to make those few crucial plays at the end. Just ask Indiana and Michigan.

18. Kansas State (19-5, 8-3 Big 12)

The Wildcats, like Wisconsin, are one of those effort teams that win ugly. Unfortunately, their loss to Kansas Monday was one of the ugliest in the Big 12 this year. While you're never thrilled to face Kansas State, a great rebounding and passing team, they don't inspire much fear either.

19. Notre Dame (19-5, 7-4 Big East)

The Irish earned what may be the win of the year in five overtimes against Louisville. It was a great bounce back for Mike Brey's squad after a bland showing in the Carrier Dome. Now, after a home date with conference bottom dweller DePaul, the Irish pack their bags for tricky road trips to Providence and Pittsburgh.

20. Memphis (20-3, 9-0 C-USA)

The Tigers haven't lost since a December 15th home matchup with Louisville, but the schedule hasn't exactly been murderous. Conference USA is down this year, and non-conference wins over the likes of Harvard and Oral Roberts don't exactly inspire confidence. Still, the Tigers snagged a nice win over Tennessee in that span, and junior point guard Joe Jackson is playing out of his mind offensively.

21. Marquette (17-6, 8-3 Big East)

Marquette was unable to complete the season sweep of Georgetown, but the Golden Eagles still have plenty of time to prove themselves in conference play. With several good wins and close losses on the resume, opportunity still awaits Marquette at home against Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame.

22. New Mexico (20-4, 7-2 Mountain West)

The Lobos are really hard to get a feel for, as they've gotten blown out at San Diego State, but have impressive wins over Connecticut and Cincinnati on their resume. Their recent loss to UNLV shows that New Mexico won't run away with the Mountain West, but they still appear to be the class of the conference.

23. San Diego State (18-5, 6-3 Mountain West)

All that being said, San Diego State does have that blowout win over New Mexico, and will get another shot to knock off the Lobos and snag a conference regular season crown.

24. Virginia Commonwealth (19-5, 7-2 Atlantic 10)

There is little doubt that the Rams can score, and sophomore Treveon Graham has made the transition from role player to offensive leader seamlessly. But, Shaka Smart's squad has had real issues rebounding the ball and forcing turnovers recently, which has limited their explosive transition game.

25. Minnesota (17-7, 5-6 Big Ten)

Tubby Smith's Gophers have dropped two in a row, including a home loss to fellow Big Ten enigma Illinois. But, with a veteran coach and one of the nation's best and most experienced front lines, Minnesota will be a threat come tournament time.