Entering this season, Syracuse had lost three star-caliber players: Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris.
The Orange were not ranked in the top 25 and were predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Big East Conference. But on the cusp of the NCAA tournament, the Orange are one of the best teams in the country.
Junior Wesley Johnson has been terrific after transferring from Iowa State a year ago.
Johnson was expected to improve the Orange but no one anticipated an All-American type season, which he has thus far produced.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim only plays seven players, but those seven players are all capable of starting on any team in the nation.
Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku have established one of the best front lines in the nation and the point guard duo of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche make few mistakes and key the outstanding transition game for Syracuse. Kris Joseph has emerged as one of the most athletic and talented sixth-men in the country and brings star caliber talent of the bench.
The most important player for Syracuse is senior guard Andy Rautins. Before this year Rautins was known as simply an excellent three-point threat and nothing else. This year Rautins has continued his three-point shooting success but also developed skills that have made him an all-around player.
Syracuse can make the Final Four on the shoulders of five different players at any given time.
Vermont will play Syracuse in the first round on March 19.
Head coach John Calipari’s Wildcats have been one of the most impressive teams this season led by freshman point guard and Player of the Year candidate John Wall.
Wall puts up great numbers (16.8 ppg, 6.2 apg) but what he brings to the table is experience, defensive ability and athleticism. DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky’s center, is another freshman that has made an immediate impact. Cousins is already viewed as one of the best front line players in the country, averaging 16.2 ppg and 10.1 rpg.
If Cousins and Wall aren’t enough, junior forward Patrick Patterson and freshman guard Eric Bledsoe round out a nucleus of players that have some of the best pure talent in the country. The only question mark for Kentucky will be the lack of experience. The freshman trio of Cousins, Wall and Bledsoe will need to play like seniors.
Kansas is a dangerous team for a few reasons. Seniors Cole Aldrich and Sharron Collins are one of the top backcourt-frontcourt combos in the country and bring invaluable experience to a tournament where a team’s composure under pressure directly translates into victories.
Sophomores, forward Marcus Morris and guard Tyshawn Taylor, each fill their roles beautifully night in and night out and freshman Xavier Henry has already shown glimpses of NBA talent.
Think back to the last National Championship for Kansas, when Mario Chalmers made the unforgettable three-point shot to send Kansas into overtime against Memphis. Kansas eventually went on to beat Memphis in that overtime period and Chalmers was made immortal in college basketball lore. Collins has that type of big shot capability and can carry Kansas to another title.
The Dark Horses:
Tennessee VolunteersThe beginning of the season was marred by scandal, resulting in the dismissal of starters Cameron Tatum and Tyler Smith. Somehow Tennessee has been able to put together a very solid season behind freshman Scotty Hopson and senior Wayne Chism. Head coach Bruce Pearl coaches a tough bunch of players who have grinded out victories over Kentucky and Kansas this season (both of which were ranked number one at the time). It would not be a surprise if Tennessee lost in the first two rounds,but if they can make it to the Sweet Sixteen, this team has proven that they have the toughness to beat anyone. Butler BulldogsButler is a team that most people are not familiar with. Butler has won at least 20 games and reached postseason play 11 of the last 13 seasons, including appearances in eight NCAA Tournaments where the Bulldogs reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2003 and 2007. This season, Butler is led by star power-forward Gordon Hayward, who leads Butler in points, rebounds and blocked shots. Earlier in the season, Hayward led Butler over Ohio State, a top 10 team, with 24 points and eight rebounds. If he can reproduce those numbers against other top teams, Butler has a chance at something special.Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets What wins games in March Madness is great team defense and dominating interior post play. Georgia Tech has both of those, as they are third in the country in opponent’s field goal percentage (37.2 percent), and boast a front line combo of freshman Derrick Favors (11.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and junior Gani Lawal (13.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg). The Yellow Jackets have shown that they can beat the top teams in the nation with a victory over Duke earlier this season.
Duke Blue DevilsDuke is a team that seems to be a national title contender each year. But the Blue Devils have not gotten past the Sweet Sixteen in the last five seasons despite finishing the year in the top 10 in four of those five years. One of the reasons for this is that head coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of the greatest coaches of all time, composes his team into one not built for the grind of the NCAA tournament. In other words, Duke always has fantastic outside shooting, discipline and team defense but lacks athleticism and toughness.Since Duke relies so heavily on three-point shooting from the hands of Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, an off shooting night would spell disaster.Combine that concern with the fact that Duke has only one legitimate non-conference win (Gonzaga), and there are enough question marks to leave Duke out of your final four.
Siena Saints For some reason this team has recently been able to make noise in the NCAA tournament.Two years ago, Siena was a #13 seed in the tournament and was matched up against #4 seeded Vanderbilt but was able to pull off an amazing upset over the SEC power. The following season, Siena was a #9 seed matched up against heavily favored #8 seed Ohio State. But once again, Siena prevailed in a double overtime thriller keyed by Ronald Moore’s late three-pointer. This year Siena is poised to make more noise in the tournament led by Moore, Alex Franklin and Edwin Ubiles. No matter which team finds themselves in a first round matchup against Siena, the Saints should make them nervous.Siena has the confidence to beat any team in the country and in March Madness, confidence is a huge asset.
Players to watch:
John WallPoint GuardUniversity of KentuckyIt is already a foregone conclusion that Wall will be the first pick in the NBA draft next summer. Wall has the physique, instinct and athleticism that all NBA teams value out of the point guard position. He plays a lot like Derrick Rose, a player also coached by John Calipari. He has an extra gear which allows him to turn the corner or to explode by defenders in the open court. Going full speed, he is not only faster than anyone else on the court, but is able to control every aspect of his game while going at such a speed. Wall lives for these types of events where all eyes will be on him and should shine. If John Wall is not a household name now it will be after the NCAA tournament.Evan Turner Guard/ForwardOhio State UniversityTurner is less well-known than Wall but has just as much potential. Turner is a big combo guard with great versatility and a tremendous feel for the game. He is extremely smooth with the ball in his hands, and has the handles of a point guard with the terrific ability of getting to the basket. An invaluable trait is that Turner has supreme confidence with the ball in his hands and isn’t afraid of taking and making the big shot. His good upper-body strength allows him to absorb contact and make plays at the rim. He is the all-around player that teams rely on in the NCAA tournament. He could lead Ohio State to the Final Four.James AndersonShooting GuardOklahoma StatePerhaps the least well-known star in all of college basketball, Anderson is the most productive player of the three players mentioned averaging 22.6 ppg, which is fifth in all of Division 1. He has a textbook shot from outside and has shown the ability to score in many ways. He can finish on the break and does a good job of scoring around the basket. While he doesn’t have elite athleticism, it is at an NBA level and should allow him to be an effective pro. Oklahoma State has upset potential because of Anderson’s ability.