I have to sympathize with Roy Williams right now. I really do. In the past year, he and his program have largely stayed out of the academic scandals that plagued the football program and cost Athletic Director Dick Baddour one of the most prestigious college jobs in the country. If that wasn't enough, he lost four of his top scorers, Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall to the NBA. Perhaps more importantly, those four combined for most of the minutes on the team and 25 rebounds a game. Kendall Marshall alone averaged a ridiculous ten assists per game in 2011-2012. How do you replace that while maintaining the same level of play? The answer is simple: you don't. At least not in November and December. I don't care if you've got McDonald's All-Americans waiting in the wings.
So it's no surprise that this year's version of the Heels have underwhelmed when it's counted. They were largely dominated by Butler and Indiana. Williams has given minutes to a lot of players, trying to find the right combination for success. But in games that have truly mattered, they haven't been able to put it together. While they have three players shooting at a high percentage from deep on the season (Reggie Bullock, PJ Hairston, and Leslie McDonald), UNC has gone 8-30 from three vs Butler and Indiana. In those games they've also been badly outrebounded (-9 and -10, respectively) and had more turnovers than assists.
Is the sky falling in Chapel Hill? Of course not. This team has a ton of talent and will start to gel soon enough. Marcus Paige has already begun to pleasantly surprise as a more than competent ball-handler and secondary scorer in his freshman year. Once they work out the kinks, start communicating on the floor better, and play consistent high-level defense, they'll start beating good teams.
There's one problem with that, however. The selection committee places a huge emphasis on non-conference wins. And North Carolina is quickly running out of time to get anything of value out of the non-con schedule. They scheduled nicely. Made a trip to Maui, played at Indiana and perennial mid-major power Long Beach State. They also have an upcoming trip to Austin to play the Longhorns. But only a couple of those teams have turned out to be any good: Butler and the Hoosiers. They were crushed in those games. Texas lost to Chaminade (!) and has been unimpressive this year. Mississippi State looks plain awful and is probably headed for a 150+ RPI. Point being, even if they get hot after ACC play starts and go 11-5 or 12-4 (and I think they will), the mess they've gotten themselves into early will most assuredly hurt them come March.
Unless they beat UNLV at home on December 29th.
The Runnin Rebels are no joke this year. Even with Mike Moser injured, they were able to go into Berkeley and beat a good Cal team. As mentioned in my previous article on December 7th, the Mountain West is silly good this year, and The Rebels are going to rack up opportunities for top 50 RPI wins (and they'll get them). Which means that UNC is going to have one massive shot to impress the selection committee with their out of conference resume. I promise you, this game will make a huge difference in their seed ceiling. A win and they still have a nice shot at a 3 or 4 seed come March. A loss against the Rebs and they'll probably max out at a 6. Again, this is assuming they take over in ACC play as expected. If they don't, the UNLV game could be the difference between the 'Heels dancing in March and accepting an NIT bid. And for those who think it's impossible that a huge name like the Heels don't make the dance, one need only look back three years to 2009-2010. It doesn't matter what the name on the front of the jersey is, you need to prove yourself with wins both in and out of conference if you want to hear your name called on Selection Sunday.
Without a doubt, Illinois basketball (and athletics in general) was an unmitigated disaster in early 2012. After a 10-0 start, the Illini faltered once Big Ten play began. They lost 10 of their final 11 games, and by the end of the season it was clear that Bruce Weber had lost his team.
Fast forward to the summer, and Weber was long gone from Champaign. AD Mike Thomas had failed to lure his top target and former colleague, Shaka Smart, away from VCU. As The Illini finally settled on John Groce, skepticism quickly faded as he landed two high profile 2013 recruits. Could he really be the man to bring the program back to prominence? While the answer to that won't be determined for years, one thing is for sure: his team this year, comprised almost entirely of Weber holdovers, has bought in. So what is different from the team that started 10-0 last year? After all, they beat a ranked Gonzaga team last year as well and had the attention of the national media.
Let's not give back handed compliments here: the success of this team is much more than Brandon Paul's ability to score the rock. The loss of NBA talent Meyers Leonard left a huge whole down low, so to compensate, Groce has EVERYONE on this team crashing the boards. Even his guards. No one on the team is averaging more than five boards per game, but nearly everyone in the eight man rotation is averaging at least three. While most of those haven't been offensive rebounds, it's been sufficient to keep their opponents from getting a ton of second chance points. If you have excellent guard play and you can limit the other team to one shot per possession, you'll win a solid amount of games.
This leads to my second point. This team has multiple deadly three point shooters, and they haven't needed a lot in the way of offensive rebounds. Aside from Paul and DJ Richardson, 6-9 big man Tyler Griffey has been deadly at times from outside as well, hitting four threes against Butler and five against Georgia Tech. Having three key players shooting over 35 percent from beyond the arc means you'll have plenty of opportunities to penetrate and have open opportunities in the paint. Even though Griffey was cold from outside against the Zags, guards Tracey Abrams and Joseph Bertrand were able to pour in a lot of penetration points (not to mention Paul, who scored from everywhere on the court).
So is this team the real deal this time or will they again choke when Big Ten play starts? My money right now says this team is for real. For starters, the Illini's hot start last year came almost entirely at home, and this year they're winning on the road. I think VERY highly of Gonzaga, and the Groce's squad went into Spokane and domiated the talented Bulldogs in the second half. You can shrug your shoulders at their win in Hawaii against Butler, but Butler has racked up non-conference wins against Marquette, North Carolina and Northwestern thus far. Illinois won that game by 17, and it really wasn't even that close. Whatever happens in the huge match up against rival Missouri, the selection committee will be quite impressed at the Illini's ability to win at home, neutral and away in the non-conference.
What scares me about this team? The lack of assists (they're 222nd currently), assist/turnover ratio (1:1, yikes), and free throw shooting (71 percent). When Big Ten play starts, they aren't going to out muscle anyone, so they'll need to be able to distribute the ball efficiently when the three pointers aren't falling in order to win close games. They'll also need to up their free throw percentage to around 75 percent to compensate for a lack of putback points.
My prediction: If I had to seed them right now, it would be impossible to put Illinois any lower than a 3. I do think they'll have several off-nights in Big Ten play. But that's alright, because for every night they struggle from the field, they'll have just as many nights where they seemingly can't miss, and they'll win some big games because of it. I think they'll finish around 11-7 in conference play and 24-9 overall. That gives them several top 50 wins and easily puts them in the tournament as a 5 or 6 seed.
While it might be pointless to project a bracket before the New Year, November and December are extremely useful to determine where a team's and conferences ceilings are.
Typical/expected response: "ZOMG! CONFERENCES DON'T EARN BIDS, TEAMS DO! THAT'S JUST BASIC BRACKETOLOGY MAN!"
That is absolutely correct. But let's use a little Logic 101: If the conference you're playing in plays like garbage in the non-conference, then your team won't have much of an opportunity to get quality wins after December. So you better be damn close to perfect before Christmas AND you better not slip up more than once or twice in conference, or else you're destined for a double digit seed or (if you don't win an auto-bid) the NIT come March.
Let's use Boise State and the Mountain West as an example. In case you haven't heard, Derrick Marks is a baller and the Broncos have surprised some people. In a typical year, a huge win at Creighton and an admirable showing at Michigan State would be pretty impressive. Regardless of the conference or future schedule, one could argue that the Broncos would have a shot at an-large in March as long as they played nearly flawless basketball the rest of the way.
Bad news, the Broncos just lost to a bad Utah team. Congrats, you're screwed!
Except the Mountain West is really good this year. Perhaps even one of the top four conferences in the nation. Again, we know Mike Bobinski isn't sitting in an Indianapolis Penthouse saying to himself "The MWC totally rocks this year. They gets five bids!"
I'm quite aware that it doesn't work like that. But San Diego State and New Mexico are the real deal, maybe even top four seeds this year. UNLV has looked solid and will definitely be there in March. Wyoming is undefeated and got two quality non-con wins in the past week. So if you're the Broncos, it looks like you could get eight opportunities for signature wins in 2013 (The Mountain West rocks it old school and plays each team twice).
I know we're dealing with hypotheticals at this point in the season, but let's say that the Broncos go 3-5 in those games and 8-6 in the conference. That probably puts them at 4-6 vs RPI top 50 and around .500 vs RPI top 100 teams. If that happens, they're dancing. I'd bet my parent's Australian Shepperd on it. And he's a really cute ass dog.
"NO WAY! THAT RESUME WOULD NEVER GET A TEAM INTO THE DANCE!!!!"
Here's a team with a worse resume that got in the 2012 field.
And an even worse resume from 2011.
The bottom of the at-large pool is ugly since the field expanded to 68. And Boise State (or any other team from a solid conference) doesn't need to have a great resume come March. It just needs to be good enough.
And with that, here are my conferences and teams with high and low ceilings as of December 5th. My first bracket projection will come after a few more key games have been played:
High Ceilings Good teams with the potential for a high seed in March. These teams can also afford a few blemishes on their resume and still get an-at large:
Low Ceilings: Good teams that are destined for an 8 seed or higher in March. They also can not afford more than one bad loss.
*Note that there are some big name teams with high expectations missing from this list. It's because I don't know what to make of them. They may have the talent, but haven't proven anything on the court yet. I'm looking at you, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina and NC State.
Growing up outside of Richmond, Virginia in the heart of ACC Country, college hoops was set into the fabric of Rusty Tutton at an early age. A 2008 graduate of VCU, he lives in the Fan District of Richmond and works full-time in higher education.