John Clay: Five teams could challenge UK in NCAAs

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 14, 2012 

The SEC is sewn up. Entering Tuesday night's conference slate, the idle Cats enjoyed a three-game lead in the loss column with five to play. No way John Calipari's team gives that lead away.

Let's look ahead. If the NCAA Tournament began today, which five teams would present the strongest challenge to Kentucky earning its eighth national title?

Not Missouri. Too small. Not Duke. Not good enough on defense. Not Wisconsin. Not good enough on offense. Not Baylor. Too flaky.

My five: Syracuse, Ohio State, Kansas, Michigan State and (yes) North Carolina.

Let's break them down.

Syracuse: The Orange won the 2003 national basketball title with a freshman. This year, the Orange will try to win another with veterans. Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph are seniors. Brandon Triche and James Southerland are juniors.

Syracuse is not a scoring machine. Only Joseph (14.0) and Dion Waiters (12.2) average double figures. And the Cuse has actually been outrebounded for the season.

But Jim Boeheim's club's only loss came at Notre Dame when Fab Melo was serving academic suspension. It plays that funky zone defense. And Boeheim knows the way to the title.

Ohio State: As the overall No. 1 seed last season, the Buckeyes lost in the Sweet 16 to Kentucky. They have a score to settle.

William Buford, now a senior, plus sophomores Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft are back from that team. Those are the Buckeyes' big three, though the development of sophomore Deshaun Thomas (14.3 points per game) has added a fourth dimension.

Sullingers's health can be a problem. A back injury benched him for OSU's loss at Kansas. Thad Matta's team lost at Illinois and then suffered a damaging 58-48 home loss last Saturday to Michigan State, against which Sullinger turned it over 10 times.

On their game, the Buckeyes beat you on the defensive end with rebounds (plus-7 overall margin) and steals. Opponents are averaging 17 turnovers a game.

Kansas: Not many expected the Jayhawks to be hunting another national title, but Thomas Robinson is a National Player of the Year candidate, averaging 17.8 points and 12 rebounds per game.

Kansas boasts the required point guard in Tyshawn Taylor, who averages 16.9 points per game. The development of 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who's average is now up to 9.5 points per game, has been an added bonus. The Jayhawks also shoot 48.3 percent. (UK is at 48.7 percent.)

Kansas has one bad loss, Davidson in December, even though Sagarin's computer says it has played the second-toughest schedule in the nation. (UK is 69th.) That bodes well for March.

Michigan State: A typical Tom Izzo team — non-conference losses to North Carolina and Duke, early Big 10 struggles, now a 3-0 February, including that 10-point win at Ohio State.

State outrebounds opponents by 10.5 per game. It claims an impressive 40 percent of its offensive-rebound opportunities. It's holding opponents to 37.4 percent shooting — UK holds foes to 35.8 — and 28.9 from three-point distance.

In other words, a typical Izzo team. Those are often Final Four teams.

North Carolina: There is a strong case the Heels don't belong among this quintet. Roy Williams' team lost by 33 at Florida State and missed enough free throws late to lose to archrival Duke.

Missed free throws are an ongoing problem. North Carolina shoots just 65.9 percent from the line, easily the lowest of the six teams we're considering.

On the flip side, there's just so much talent here. Tyler Zeller is a huge reason why UNC outrebounds opponents by 11.8 per game and gets 41.4 of its offensive rebounds. (UK is at 39.1)

And there is always the thought that at some point, Harrison Barnes (17.5 points per game) will take his game to another level. For that alone, don't discount the Heels.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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