Sizing up the remaining unbeatens

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
3:48
PM ET

The beauty of the college basketball regular season is that a team can lose a few games and still be in fine position for a national championship run.

But there is always an allure about those who enter their conference season unblemished to see how invincible they will be entering the New Year.

Prior to Thursday night's games, there were five remaining unbeaten teams and 19 one-loss teams, as well as two others (Florida, 8-2) and (Kentucky, 8-3) that cannot and should not be dismissed from any Final Four discussion. Both the Wildcats and Gators have played a much more difficult schedule than the majority of one-loss and undefeated teams.

There are a slew of one-loss teams that are more than capable of winning the national title such as Kansas (10-1), Louisville (11-1), Syracuse (10-1), Indiana (11-1), Creighton (11-1), UNLV (11-1), Missouri (10-1) and Gonzaga (11-1). And it's easy to make the argument that those teams, such as Kansas, Louisville, Syracuse and Indiana, are more likely to challenge for the national title than the five remaining undefeated teams.

But for the purposes of this argument, let's look at the remaining unbeatens as they stand today:

Duke (11-0)

Most impressive wins: Minnesota, VCU and Louisville in successive days in Atlantis; Kentucky in Atlanta; Ohio State at home and Temple in New Jersey.

Biggest question answered: Quinn Cook is a starting point guard and has been a stable presence.

National player of the year candidate: Mason Plumlee. Plumlee has been a double-double machine for the Blue Devils. He may be the most reliable player at his position in the country.

Difference-maker: When Seth Curry is making 3s, the Blue Devils are even harder to beat.

What to watch for: How will Duke handle true road games in the ACC? The three toughest games on the schedule would seem to be at NC State (Jan. 12), at Maryland (Feb. 16) and at North Carolina (March 9).

Final Four potential: Duke has to be considered a favorite to land in Atlanta. The team possesses experience at key positions, younger players who are becoming increasingly comfortable, there is size inside and now a growing confidence that it can win the championship.

Michigan (12-0)

Most impressive wins: Pitt in New York at the NIT Season Tip-Off and NC State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Biggest question answered: The Wolverines don't miss Stu Douglass and Zach Novak as much as was predicted. The youthful Wolverines have bought into John Beilein's defensive concepts.

National player of the year candidate: Trey Burke is an exceptional point guard. He gets the Wolverines up and running as efficiently as any point in the country. His play has allowed Tim Hardaway Jr., to flourish in his natural position.

Difference-maker: The continued development of the Michigan big men in Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary and Glen Robinson III as well as the stretch shooting of Nik Stauskas.

What to watch for: How does Michigan get through the Big Ten gauntlet? The Big Ten is the toughest conference this season, and Michigan will have to navigate trips to Ohio State (Jan. 13), Minnesota (Jan. 17), Illinois (Jan. 27), Indiana (Feb. 2), Wisconsin (Feb. 9) and Michigan State (Feb. 12). I would put that conference road schedule against any other contender in the country. It's not close. This is the toughest.

Final Four potential: Michigan has proved that it has the point guard play, the shooting, the power play inside and can defend well enough to get to Atlanta.

Arizona (12-0)

Most impressive wins: Florida in Tucson and San Diego State in the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

Biggest question answered: Mark Lyons has adjusted as well as any one-year transfer I can remember. He was handed a leadership role and has excelled, making a game-winning shot to beat Florida. He has proved to be a consistent presence for the Wildcats at the point.

National player of the year candidate: Lyons, Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson have all had their moments and will be in contention for Pac-12 player of the year. But none will get enough momentum for consideration for national player of the year.

Difference-maker: Johnson. He has been the ultimate glue guy, making key plays in a variety of ways, none bigger than blocking Chase Tapley's potential game-winning layup in the Diamond Head final.

What to watch for: Arizona is the favorite in the Pac-12 and enters the conference doing more than enough to raise the conference's profile. The road wins at Texas Tech and Clemson were games the Wildcats should have won and they did. The comeback win over Florida was a tremendous effort and confidence boost. Getting through the rugged Diamond Head proved they had the stamina. Now, Arizona has to rise to the challenge of being the team to beat in the Pac-12. It is more than doable based on the inconsistency of the rest of the conference.

Final Four potential: This squad has it. The key will be the continued development of the newcomers, notably Kaleb Tarczewski, who is getting featured more and more as he improves his activity on the court.

Cincinnati (12-0)

Most impressive wins: Oregon in Las Vegas; Xavier in a rivalry game and Alabama at home when the Tide were playing well.

Biggest question answered: The Bearcats are never going to be a dominant low-post scoring team. But when needed, the Bearcats have been able to finish around the basket. Titus Rubles, JaQuon Parker, Justin Jackson and Cheikh Mbodj can take care of business of scoring and defending the post when locked in to the task at hand. The Bearcats have bigs serviceable enough to get by in the Big East.

National player of the year candidate: Sean Kilpatrick will enter the Big East as a legit player of the year contender. He has the ability to score in bunches. He flourishes playing off Cashmere Wright, who has stabilized the point.

Difference-maker: Wright. Mick Cronin has the confidence to hand him the ball and let him make a play, as he did against Alabama. Wright is a senior and has asserted himself as much more of a leader on a team that desperately needed to be led.

What to watch for: The Bearcats take possessions off and sometimes go through the motions. That cannot happen in the Big East with a host of teams that could easily knock them from their perch. Cincinnati believes it is in the same category as Louisville and Syracuse and above Pitt, Georgetown and Notre Dame in the pecking order of Big East title contenders. Now the Bearcats have to prove it. The schedule didn't do them any favors since they go to Syracuse (Jan. 21) and Louisville (March 4) without a return game. Cincinnati will find out about itself early at Pitt (Dec. 31) and at home against Notre Dame (Jan. 7).

Final Four potential: The Bearcats have it, but I'd be surprised. The lack of a proven post player may cost them in trying to win four in the NCAA tournament. Their lack of focus at times could bite them in an early round.

Wyoming (12-0)

Most impressive wins: Colorado and at Illinois State.

Biggest question answered: Leonard Washington has been a leader for the Cowboys despite all his issues, including a suspension last year. The Cowboys weren't sure who they could rely on early on but Washington has done everything asked of him so far.

National player of the year candidate: Washington is a Mountain West Conference Player of the Year candidate, but he won't be in the conversation for the national honor.

Difference-maker: Larry Nance Jr. The sophomore has played up in the big games for Wyoming, scoring 14 against Colorado, 19 in the win over Illinois State and 21 in a win over rival Denver. The Cowboys' staple has been their defense, as you'd expect from a Larry Shyatt-coached team, but it's their surprisingly-balanced offense that has been a pleasant plus.

What to watch for: Wyoming may be in the most balanced league in the country. It has to deal with two games against UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico, Colorado State and Boise State, let alone playing Nevada and Air Force. There are zero easy games on this schedule. To expect Wyoming to get through this without getting beaten up is unrealistic.

Final Four potential: No shot. But the Cowboys are going to the postseason. Shyatt has already put the Cowboys in the NIT conversation, barring a complete collapse. An NCAA berth is hardly out of the question if they can hold serve at the Arena Auditorium.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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