Throughout the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, I said many times (to some criticism) that there were no "great teams" in college basketball, and that the quality of play across the college basketball landscape was down.
Prior to this season, I fooled myself into believing that greatness would return to college basketball. I think I fooled myself because I wanted it so badly, and because star performers like Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III turned down a weak NBA draft, and because we had a really good crop of freshmen coming into the game. Channeling my inner Arthur Fonzarelli, I was wrrrrrrr ... I was wrrrrrroooo ... I was less than correct.
Take it league by league. While there are some terrific teams and outstanding players and prospects, the overall quality of play across college basketball is simply down. The Big East is not as strong as it has been. The Pac-12 is way down. The Big 12 is very good, but not as good as it has been. The ACC is down relative to past seasons. One could argue persuasively that the SEC is down from its normal level of play, as well.
What does all of this mean? It means that, if some of the top seeded teams are knocked out in or before the Sweet 16, the NCAA tournament can be a fun and wild roller-coaster ride. And some teams outside of the power conferences can take advantage. Among teams not residing in power conferences or the Atlantic 10, here are the prime suspects to be lethal in March (and perhaps April):
UNLV Rebels: The Rebels are the highest rated non-BCS team in the Bilas Index, which is the planet's most reliable measure of quality. UNLV has some good shooters in Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Kendall Wallace, and interchangeable defenders in Marshall, Bellfield and Justin Hawkins (the Rebels' best on-ball defender). UCLA transfer Mike Moser is an outstanding rebounder and a versatile scorer, but he has been keyed upon since his hot start. UNLV is capable of beating almost anyone, but the issue is high-level consistency. Can the Rebels play with the same intensity at the end of the season as they have thus far?
Gonzaga Bulldogs: Usually, teams saddled with the dreaded "mid-major" tag have really good guards, but get hurt in the post and on the glass. When George Mason went to the Final Four in 2006, it did so because of Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, not because of guards. Mark Few has some quality big men in Robert Sacre and Elias Harris, so Gonzaga can score and guard in the post, and will not get overwhelmed on the glass. The key for Gonzaga is consistent and high-level guard play. Kevin Pangos is just a freshman, but is one of the better scoring guards in the country. Gonzaga's defense has consistently improved, and the schedule has toughened this group up quite a bit. This is a quality basketball team.
Creighton Bluejays: Doug McDermott is one of the 10 best players in the country, without argument. He is not only putting up numbers, he is doing it in a mature fashion. His feel, footwork and poise are simply off the charts, and he is a great teammate who is easy to play with. Add in some size in Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique, an outstanding point guard in Antoine Young and a deceptive sharpshooter off the bench in Ethan Wragge, and you have a team that can compete with the big shots on a neutral floor. McDermott will put up numbers on anyone.
Murray State Racers: The Ohio Valley Conference has only one NCAA tournament-caliber team, but could be a two-bid league if Murray State loses in the conference tournament, because there is no question that the Racers are going to be in the bracket. With wins against Memphis, Dayton and Southern Miss, Murray State already has enough quality wins to make a 68-team field. In a way, it is almost too bad that Murray State will go into the NCAA tournament unbeaten or with only one loss. The OVC cannot and will not offer Murray State any real resistance, and if the Racers lose, it will be because they played less than their best. And if the Racers reach the NCAA tournament unbeaten they will play a team more likely to be fired up and ready to play them out of the gate. I have watched Murray State quite a bit and the Racers are very good. Isaiah Canaan is the real thing. He can get his own shot, stop on a dime and pull up, and he is both an outstanding shooter and a capable driver. More than half of Canaan's shots and field goals are 3s, yet he leads the team in free throw attempts and free throws made. And don't foul Murray State. The Racers hit 74 percent of their shots from the line as a team, with three starters at better than 81 percent. The only question is whether Murray State will get overwhelmed on the glass against a much bigger team.
Saint Mary's Gaels: The Gaels have an outstanding transition game, and have two terrific players in Aussie Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones, the transfer from San Diego. Saint Mary's ran Gonzaga out of the gym last week, and there are no weak links on this team. Dellavedova is a star, and nobody on this team makes errors of omission. The Gaels do not turn the ball over, they spread you out, they run opportunistically and they defend well enough to keep them in it to let their efficient offense win it. This is a solid team.
Harvard Crimson: The Crimson will win the Ivy League outright this year after tying for the league crown last season. Actually, all of the numbers that the selection committee has always held dear favored Harvard last season over teams like UAB, VCU, Clemson and USC. Harvard runs a very effective motion offense and has quality players at every position. As far as Ivy League clubs, this team may not be quite as good as Cornell was two years ago, but this is a team capable of winning one or two games in the tournament. Keith Wright is a terrific interior big and Kyle Casey is one of the more versatile players in the country. Harvard is balanced, unselfish and talented.
Wichita State Shockers: One of the things I like most about the Shockers is that they tend to play better and tougher on the road than they do at home. And as you probably know, NCAA tournament games are played away from home. This is a tough team that has experienced, quality players. Joe Ragland is in his second season, and leads the Shockers in scoring. Toure' Murry is the best defender, David Kyles the best athlete and Garrett Stutz the best post defender. This is an NCAA tournament team.
San Diego State Aztecs: Considering how good the Aztecs were last year, one might have assumed that this would have been a rebuilding year for Steve Fisher's team. Apparently, Chase Tapley, James Rahon and Jamaal Franklin never got the memo. The Aztecs don't make free throws at a high rate, which could bite them in the NCAA tournament, and they are not a great offensive team, but they guard you and force tough shots. With a healthy Xavier Thames running the point, San Diego State can beat people in March. However, this team is not as good as last year's Kawhi Leonard-led Aztec team.
New Mexico Lobos: The Lobos do most everything well. They are solid defensively and have a varied offensive attack, confusing teams with an array of speeds. Drew Gordon is a double-double guy in the post and is very consistent, but 6-foot-7 guard Tony Snell is Steve Alford's best player. The Lobos play with a chip on their shoulders, and are looking for respect. I like that. They can get that respect with wins over San Diego State and UNLV this week.
BYU Cougars: Now that the Cougars are in the West Coast Conference, they have to contend with Saint Mary's and Gonzaga (and, like the Zags, BYU was hammered at Saint Mary's earlier this year). BYU is not as explosive without Jimmer Fredette, but there are still quality weapons with Brandon Davies, Noah Hartsock and freshman Matt Carlino. BYU does not get to the free throw line as often as it would like, but the Cougars are solid in most every area. A key is staying healthy. Dave Rose has had some players banged up lately.
Marshall Thundering Herd: The Herd have two truly outstanding players in DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts. What sets this team apart is offensive rebounding. Marshall goes and gets the ball, which means extra possessions. Dennis Tinnon is one of the better offensive rebounders in the country. It will be interesting to see if Marshall gets legit respect from the NCAA selection committee. With wins over Cincinnati, Belmont and Iona, it should.
Belmont Bruins: This team is good, and has been there before. Just making the tournament will not be as big of a deal to this team. Belmont wants to win a game, and this team has a legitimate shot to pull it off. Rick Byrd is an outstanding coach who gets his teams to run, and to play efficiently on the offensive end while keeping opponents off balance on the defensive side of the floor. Belmont has lost six games, but five of those losses were on the road to good teams. The efficiency ratings for Belmont's regular players is very impressive. This team does not make mistakes; you have to beat them.
Iona Gaels: The Gaels can press, change defenses and run. Tim Cluess has a hoss in Mike Glover, who can post you, face up and drive or bring the ball up against pressure. Cluess also has three different guys who have hit seven or more 3s in a game during their college careers, led by Sean Armand, who hit 10 3s in a game this season. Scott Machado is perhaps the best all-around point guard in the country, and has undergone a remarkable improvement over the past year. Iona will be no fun to play because the Gaels can shoot it, and they are not afraid.
VCU Rams: The Rams are young, but they play really hard and can create problems with pace and pressure. This year's VCU team does not shoot the ball as well as last year's Final Four surprise, and there is no Jamie Skeen-type player who can stretch you and post, but there are capable players on this roster. Bradford Burgess is one of the five best players in the Colonial, and Briante Weber is a special on-ball defender. I would not be surprised to see VCU win the CAA tournament and give someone a headache in the NCAA tournament.