From the top of the bracket to the bottom of the bubble watch, we break down the final push for placement into the 68-team men’s March Madness tournament.
Tuesday’s hot topic revolving around the surprisingly accelerated growth of Joel Embiid and his simultaneous ascent in the eyes of scouts as a top prospect while Jabari Parker and Julius Randle attempt to rise from the mat and dust themselves off got me thinking about late bloomers. No, I;m not talking about cats that wake up at noon and watch DVR'd Good Morning America.
Late bloomers often go unheralded for one reason or another. Jeremy Lin, Morgan Freeman and uh… 2 Chainz. Yes, those three names just appeared in a sentence together linking their common experiences.
College hoops is rife with late bloomers as well. Florida’s Casey Prather is the epitome of a slow riser. For three years, he was a cheerleader on the pine. In his senior season, he’s emerged as a possible All-American on a top-10 ranked team.
After they handed No. 3-ranked Wisconsin their first loss on Wednesday night, the Hoosiers are beginning to resemble a classic sleeper in the Big Ten. Yogi Ferrell has piled more scoring oportunities onto his shoulders and center Noah Vonleh is handling the workload down low.
Out west, Mike Montgomery’s California Golden Bears have the firepower in a lineup led by Justin Cobbs, depth and opportunity to rise from the middle of the Pac-12. On January 9, Cal beat Oregon and with Colorado's Spencer Dinwiddie out for the season, they're in prime position to be considered the best team in in the conference not named Arizona.
The aforementioned Kansas Jayhawks are re-emerging as an elite unit at just the right time as Joel Embiid realizes his potential. Quiet as kept, Wiggins has been a bulldog for the Jayhawks. He just hasn’t been the best player in the nation. Embiid’s impact down low has the Jayhawks charging back into the Top-10.
Brace for some change. This is the time of the year when tournament sleepers pop a 5-Hour Energy, start rising and begin shining.
CLIMBING THE LADDER - Player of the Year Power Rankings
3. Julius Randle - His numbers have dipped from the astronomical double-double numbers he was posting with ease earlier in the season. In his first two games of the New Year he scored just 15 points, but grabbed 25 boards. However, in their loss to Arkansas, Randle became a defensive liability and was in foul trouble for the much of the second half and overtime.
2. Marcus Smart - Smart’s natural position is often up for debate. He conjures up images of Deron Williams at Illinois, but with the Illini and now with the Nets he’s thriving while sharing ball handling duties while sometimes playing off ball. He could be a combo guard or he might have some power forward in him. Smart's averaging 11 rebounds a game in his past three outings.
Last month, Oklahoma State center Michael Cobbins ruptured his left Achilles tendon. Now if he could improve his diminishing free throw percentage and abysmal 4 to 2.5 assist-turnover ratio, he’d be a much better point guard.
1. Doug McDermott - Peyton Manning may have put Omaha in the sport’s community's forefront last Sunday, but McDermott put it on the map. McDermott is putting up Peyton-esque numbers across the box score, except in the passing department where he’s averaging 1.8 assists per game. McDermott is scoring an efficient 25.2 points per game, shooting 49 percent from the field and chipping in an extra 7.7 boards. In a land where freshman are getting first, second and third billing, Creighton's senior quietly has Creighton battling Villanova for Big East supremacy.
GAME RECOGNIZE GAME
No. 9 Oklahoma State at No. 15 Kansas
Wiggins and Smart headline this early conference schedule dust-up with Big 12 regular season title implications. Smart and Wiggins are the headliners, but Embiid will reign free in the post against 6-7 Kamari Murphy. Three top five picks from the upcoming NBA Draft, not including Perry Ellis, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown is a collection of talent rarely assembled on a college hardwood these days.
No. 22 Pittsburgh at No. 2 Syracuse
As usual Pitt basketball has been hiding under the radar. Despite winning 16 of their first 17 games, the Panthers are ranked outside the top-20. A Saturday afternoon win over the Orange could vault the Panthers into the national consciousness. Pittsburgh is led by a slew of upperclassmen and Syracuse swingman C.J. Fair is a Player of the Year candidate, but on both sides of the ball freshman point guard Tyler Ennis has softened the crater left behind in Michael Carter-Williams’ absence.
No. 25 Oklahoma at No. 12 Baylor
Oklahoma’s up-tempo offensive attack and Baylor’s athleticism make for a riveting matchup between a pair of Big 12 dark horses. Oklahoma wasn’t expected to be ranked before the season, and they likely won’t after their loss on Wednesday to unranked Kansas State. The Big 12’s leading scorer Cameron Clark will have something to prove for Oklahoma after dropping a deuce—2 points, on the box score against the Wildcats.
IN THE BONUS
What goes up, must come down. On the opposite end of the college hoops momentum spectrum are the teams crashing from the atmosphere and burning out too soon. They’re young prodigies that start falling off or exhibiting troubling signs during what should be the prime of their careers or lives.
Duke and North Carolina are driving Hummer’s through the ACC desert, lost their way back on the main road to the NCAA Tournament and appear to be running out of gas. Duke’s hope for finding their road back into contender status relies on Jabari Parker clawing his way out of the quicksand. However, their undersized front court leaves them vulnerable to getting bullied in the paint.
North Carolina’s head is stuck so deep into the sand they may not want to pull it out until next season. The Big 12’s sliders may be Iowa State, which peaked last week before falling to Kansas and Oklahoma in a three-day span.
Oregon’s offense is a blur with talent at every position, but their shaky defense has completely fractured since they hit their conference schedule stride. Since their 13-0 start to the season, the Ducks has lost three in a row. Oregon’s not alone in its New Year’s misery.
Colorado’s been caught in an avalanche of injuries and crumbling expectations. Leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL on Friday. Their hot start could be going up in a cloud of some legal ganja smoke.