The Road to the Final Four, Pt. I

As the air gets crisper, the weather gets gradually warmer, and the merry madness cheer grows more and more prominent, there is no more exciting time in college hoops than right now. With only a handful of games remaining before conference tournament time begins, we have already witnessed a myriad of upsets inside the top 5 and even 10, which leads to the question: Who are the top 5 teams in the country? For this time of year, being considered one of the top 5 contenders means much more than a place in the polls. It means legitimacy, toughness, and potential for getting to the Final Four. There is still a solid month of basketball to be played before the madness begins, but as the time draws near, those teams become more and more apparent to the viewing audience. Let’s look at those teams now.

5. Miami – The Hurricanes come in at number five as my wildcard. I think it would be safe to say that Miami was under the radar entering the season. Not a lot of people knew what they were made of or if they were just another reckless Miami team who played at an extremely fast pace and took the first open three available. This season they have been the biggest surprise by far. With wins over Duke (by 27), Michigan State, and (then 19) NC State, the Canes have played decent company. I wouldn’t put money on them making the Final Four, but I definitely foresee them making a deep run.

4. Kansas – The Jayhawks had won 18 games in a row this season before dropping three in a row. The three game lull was as shocking as it was uncharacteristic for a team that historically knows how to bounce back under Coach Bill Self. Their resume is relatively weak with wins over then #7Ohio State and #10 Kansas State twice. Kansas, in a lot of ways, reminds me of Michigan State in the way that they rebound and take good shots. On top of being defensive sound and have a strong post presence in Senior center Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks can play at a dynamic place.

3. Michigan State – The foundation of my top three could be attributed to superb head coach’s with Tom Izzo and his Spartans at number three. There are few other programs who are as consistent at going deep in the tournament as Michigan State. I am here to inform you that this season they will do it again. The Spartans are my second team coming out of the Big 10 and that tells us that they understand what it takes to finish games. This mindset is mandatory for any team who wants to win in that conference. The Spartans are long, experienced and they have guys like Keith Appling and Derrick Nix who have been there before.

2. Indiana – If I had to pinpoint one thing that has literally transformed Indiana Hoosier basketball in the last five years it would have to be recruiting. A large part of that is a contribution to head coach Tom Crean and the experience he brought with him from his time at Marquette. The Hoosiers have lost three times this season, all by five points or less. They took down then #1Michigan and have played surprisingly consistent in a conference as tough as the Big 10. Cody Zeller is an All-American who has shown that he is capable of being a go-to guy down the stretch. The NCAA tournament is always about matchups and when it comes down to succeeding when it matters most, matchups is what will be key for Indiana.

1. Duke – The Blue Devils are my number one contender in the NCAA tournament. Despite taking a two-point loss on the road against Maryland tonight, I truly believe that they hold the characteristics of a championship basketball team. Coach Krzyzewski is arguably the best college basketball coach of all-time and his experience alone is a force to be reckoned with. Besides that, they have an extremely disciplined group of players who know how to play with each other. Unlike past recent Duke teams who have been primarily jump-shooting teams, living or dying by the 3-pointer, this year’s team has an impressive balance. The Plumlee brothers have become a significant post presence, while Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly have become scoring machines. Also, keep in mind the Devils have beaten teams ranked two, three, and four, which have come all out of conference.