Scouting the 2009 NCAA Tournament: Top Teams

This is the fourth installment of a four-part series on scouting the 2009 NCAA Tournament.  Check out the intro, Part 1 (small conferences), Part 2 (mid-majors), and Part 3 (power conferences).

With just a few days left until Selection Sunday and many conference tournaments either underway or complete, I will attempt in this post to rank the top 16 teams in the tournament field.

I would have considered an attempt at my own “what the bracket should be” post, but I’ll be in Florida this weekend (and early next week), so I’m not sure I’ll be able to post more than just the “log5” breakdown of the tournament field (along with my own bracket) once it is actually set.

This, I suppose, would be my 1-4 seeds in each region, not knowing the outcome of the conference tournaments.  It probably will give away some of my bracket picks, but that’s okay.  I never win those competitions anyway.

#1 Seeds

#1 Memphis: I know Carolina’s #1 in the polls, and probably no team is scarier when they’re at full strength, but Ty Lawson’s possible injury troubles make them a lot less scary.  As for the Tigers, no team in the country plays better defense, with 80.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.  It’s not close, either: Louisville is second at 84.9.  Defense tends not to suffer slumps like an offense can, so I feel fairly confident here even though Memphis plays a weak Conference USA schedule.  Last year’s run should have ended any doubt that they can compete in the tournament.

#2 North Carolina: See above: if Lawson is healthy, the Tar Heels are virtually unstoppable, and that’s tough for a Duke fan to admit.  They also have some kid named Hansbrough, and I hear he’s pretty good.  Can’t wait to see for myself.

#3 Pittsburgh: DeJuan Blair is the country’s best rebounder and a tremendously efficient post scorer, even if he is a little short at 6’7″.  He’s got a terrific supporting cast, though, and the Panthers have deserved the high ranking they’ve had all year.

#4 Louisville: Like Memphis, Louisville plays great defense and is usually the most athletic team on the floor.  Like 2008 Memphis, they struggle at the free throw line: three starters under 70% and Terrence Williams at 56%.

I suppose there’s no one incredibly controversial in that group, except that I have Memphis as the best of the bunch.

#2 Seeds

#5 UConn: The Huskies are not as good a team without Jerome Dyson, but they’re still one of the best in the country.  Adrien and Price are capable of handling the increased pressure on offense.

#6 Gonzaga: Too high? Consider that they played only one close game in the WCC in non-St. Mary’s games and capped off their season by beating up on Patty Mills’ team.  Portland State is a bad loss, for sure, but wins over Washington State, Oklahoma State, and Tennessee (twice), are pretty good.

#7 Kansas: They’re a young team and prone to slip up, as the Texas Tech loss proved, but the Jayhawks still have a ton of talent and beat some legitimately good teams throughout the season.  It’s too bad for them that they can’t play all their tourney games at Allen Fieldhouse, where they were undefeated.

#8 Oklahoma: Too low? Perhaps, since the Sooners were dominant with a healthy Blake Griffin, but they were probably a little overrated even then.  Griffin appears to be back to full strength, but you never know.  They need to learn how to force a few turnovers and not give their opponents so many chances.

Lunardi includes Michigan State in his second group instead of the Zags, but otherwise we’re on the same page.

#3 Seeds

#9 Duke: What scares me about Duke is the way their defense has tailed off recently.  The injury to Nolan Smith is partly to blame, but there are definitely shots falling against the Blue Devils that weren’t falling earlier in the year.  Three weeks ago, I would have said that this is the Duke team that’s going to restore their elite tournament status, but I’m a slight bit worried today.  Good news: the defense is still pretty stout (just not Memphis-caliber) because they force a lot of turnovers.  They also have a balanced offense, not relying entirely on the trey as they have in the recent past.

#10 Michigan State: The Spartans have a seemingly endless supply of elite rebounders, ranking in the nation’s top five teams on both ends of the floor.  That’s the primary reason for both their offensive and defensive success.  Kalin Lucas really likes to take the ball to the basket, and even though he makes less than 40% of his two-point attempts, he makes up for it by nailing free throws.  Few teams can match up against both Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton, but Izzo likes to keep them rested and rotate other players into the game.  Playing in the Big 11 knocks them down a peg on the rankings.

#11 UCLA: Replacing Love, Mbah a Moute, and Westbrook really hurt the Bruins on defense, but there’s probably not a better shooting team in the country in 2009.  It’s hard to tell, since they’re just in the middle of the pack in pace, but these guys make the most of their shots, both inside (#7 in 2-point %) and out (#8 in 3-point %).  Only Denver ranked higher in effective field goal percentage, but they ran a Princeton offense and were both the slowest paced and worst rebounding team in D-I.

#12 Missouri: Unlike their Big 12 counterparts at Oklahoma, Missouri loves to force turnovers, and they do it with great man defense.  The Tigers also hit their shots, especially around the basket with a tough post duo of Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll.  I was ready to seed them even higher before they got blown out at Kansas and lost at Texas A&M.

Should I be including Wake and Villanova over these teams?  The national rankings say I should, but I remain unconvinced.

#4 Seeds

#13 Wake Forest: Wins over Carolina and Duke (and two over Clemson) prove that the Deacons can play with absolutely anyone.  They’re young, but they play good defense.  More importantly, Wake is quite tall (#1 in effective height), and it shows because they’re among the top teams in 2-point % and free throw attempts per shot, really helping to increase their offensive efficiency.  Expect a smaller team to have trouble getting off shots against them.

#14 Washington: The Huskies won a very good Pac-10 in the regular season, but they don’t play enough interior defense for me to really think of them as one of the top 12 or so teams.  They’ve won on the strength of great offensive rebounding and an ability to get to the free-throw line, but you get the feeling that they’re going to hit a wall at some point against a team with great post players.

#15 Clemson: Honestly, I see a pretty big drop after Washington, and I could have gone several different ways here.  The blowout win against Duke probably affects my opinion of the Tigers, who lost some conference games they probably shouldn’t have.  They force plenty of turnovers and make lots of threes, although they should convince Terrence Oglesby not to shoot the ball as often from inside the arc.

#16 Villanova: Had enough quality Big East wins to deserve consideration over lots of other teams at this spot.  Conference-mate West Virginia arguably played better this year (#9 in KenPom’s rankings), but ‘Nova actually won a few of their important games, including a home game against Pitt.  BYU, Arizona State, and Purdue were also considerations for this spot.

So, I left out Butler, Syracuse, LSU, West Virginia, UTC, and some other teams that may have deserved consideration, depending on your perspective.  Those are my picks, though.

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