- Jay Bilas, College Basketball analyst
Several teams have signaled early on that they are legitimate contenders to reach the Final Four. Whether it is Duke, Indiana, Louisville, Kansas, Syracuse, Arizona or Gonzaga, there are teams that are properly valued as contenders and perhaps some that are overvalued as the same.
There are teams that are underrated, too. An underrated team isn't necessarily a Final Four team or a top-10 team, but it isn't valued by "the machine" as highly as perhaps it should be. Here are five teams that are underrated, under-the-radar, undervalued, overlooked, need some love, and have been getting "dissed," relatively speaking, along with Associated Press poll and ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI) rankings for each.
AP rank: Not ranked | BPI rank: 12
Bill Parcells once said that you are what your record says you are. VCU has lost three games, including a home game in which the Rams were limited to 51 points, but those were pretty solid losses to pretty good teams (Wichita State, Duke and Missouri). Now, if the Rams were to go through an entire season with limited wins against the top 100 and finished rated in the 70s of the RPI and recognized metrics, you and Parcells should have a problem with that. But I don't expect that to happen.
VCU is a good basketball team that can shoot it from four different positions and forces turnovers like crazy. It leads the nation in turnovers forced and turnover percentage (with Louisville and Syracuse, two zone teams, close behind in turnover and steals percentage), and in the past four games, VCU has forced 93 turnovers, including 34 forced against Fairleigh Dickinson. The Rams have some outstanding shooters, although streaky at times, in Troy Daniels (16 3-point field goals made in the past two games), Rob Brandenberg and Treveon Graham.
Another trip to the Final Four may be asking a bit much for any team that plays in the Atlantic 10 or CAA, but don't be shocked if VCU knocks at the door. What you talkin' 'bout, Bilas?!
AP rank: 21 | BPI rank: 22
The Irish are older than the Rolling Stones. Coach Mike Brey takes the opposite of the "one-and-done" approach, instead using redshirt seasons, taking transfers and bringing players along to be mature adults who know how to play. Brey has Jack Cooley, one of the most productive and efficient big men in the country, and an outstanding guard tandem in Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. Scott Martin does a bit of everything, and Garrick Sherman provides size and is another Big Ten transfer.
Notre Dame can handle, pass and shoot from almost every spot on the floor. It has a top-10-rated offense, limits fouling and free throws to opponents -- and none of its players get carded anymore. The Irish aren't great but are very good.
AP rank: NR | BPI rank: 15
Despite injuries, the Shockers are legit and legitimately tough. Gregg Marshall has a team that is together and tough enough to compete and win on the road, which is difficult to do. Wichita State guards you and makes every cut difficult. The Shockers take away open looks and limit you to one shot by hitting first and having all five guys get on the defensive glass.
Carl Hall is as tough as any other player in the nation, and he and Cleanthony Early are good offensive rebounders and defenders. Ron Baker, Demetric Williams and Malcolm Armstead (an Oregon transfer) can knock down the occasional 3, and only a few of the streaky five have to be on, because the Shockers' defense will take care of the rest. This may not be a great team, but it is a tough team and a darn good one that will be no fun to play in the postseason.
AP rank: 9 | BPI rank: 7
Tubby Smith had to listen to the naysayers question him all summer, when he has done a terrific job at Minnesota. Smith had to deal with injuries, a suspension or two and a lack of continuity late last season because of those two things. This season everyone is healthy, and the results are clear. The polls are even starting to catch up (No. 9 in the AP), but the Gophers' place on this list is a reflection of just how good they are and how (relatively) little recognition they're getting.
Minnesota has athletic guards, size along the front line and some older players that seem to "get it." Andre Hollins can knock down perimeter shots and get to the free throw line and ring the bell, and with Trevor Mbakwe and the super-athletic Rodney Williams, the Gophers lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage, pulling down nearly half their misses.
The only downside to Minnesota's chances is the high number of second shots the Gophers give up. If Minnesota can clean up the defensive glass, this is an outstanding defensive team that has the pieces to be really good in the Big Ten and beyond.
AP rank: NR | BPI rank: 27
It is hard to justify a team that I thought would be a Final Four contender from the first day as an underrated team, but Kentucky is just that. After losses to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville, the bandwagon is empty. Kentucky fell out of the polls, and predictions of an NIT appearance started to surface.
But look at it this way: If VCU or Butler had close losses to the same teams Kentucky lost to, we'd be singing the Rams' praises and talking about how dangerous this team could be in March. I feel the same way about the Wildcats. This team has obvious talent, and it is getting better, slowly and surely. With Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky has front-line power and explosiveness. And with Ryan Harrow being steadier and Archie Goodwin improving as a big-time scorer, the Wildcats have perimeter punch.
Kentucky already has a top-15 defense that can protect the rim, and the offense will come along in time. What that means is that this is a top-25 team right now, and by March, Kentucky will be ready to compete for a berth in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Jay Bilas gives his picks for the five most underrated teams in the nation as conference play begins.