One of these teams will win the title -- it won't be UNC
Posted: Wednesday January 16, 2008 1:11PM; Updated: Wednesday January 16, 2008 4:52PM
OK, deep breath.
North Carolina won't win the national championship.
At least that's what the 'Bag's saying in our ninth annual Magic Eight, the eight teams from which we guarantee the national champion will emerge.
Do we feel good about leaving Carolina out? Not at all. Actually, we're about to vomit on our keyboard right now. UNC is the nation's No. 1-ranked team. It's undefeated. It has tremendous depth, a balanced and relentless offensive attack, a Hall of Fame coach and a top contender for national Player of the Year (Tyler Hansbrough). What's more, the Tar Heels will probably have the chance to punch a Final Four ticket without leaving the state of North Carolina.
But the Magic Eight, which has successfully tabbed the eventual national champion in January every year since 2000 except one (2003: Syracuse), isn't about simply listing the eight best teams in the country. That would be lame and boring.
And so, during a season in which college hoops has been ruled by four teams -- UNC, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA -- the 'Bag decided to eliminate one of them here. While all four are terrific outfits with potent offenses and are easily capable of winning it all, one of these four is not quite like the others.
Carolina just doesn't defend as well as the other three.
Memphis is the nation's top defensive team, allowing 78.9 points per 100 possessions (according to kenpom.com's stats, which are adjusted for schedule strength). Kansas has the second-best defense (79.9), and UCLA is No. 7 (84.7) after a remarkable lockdown of Washington State last Saturday.
North Carolina, however, is No. 26 (88.9), a dangerously low number for a team that hopes to win a national title. And if we're going to let one indicator dictate which of the four to leave out, that'll be the one.
Longtime readers know how much time I've spent around Carolina and Roy Williams over the years, know how much respect I have for his accomplishments (I even wrote the guy's Hall of Fame induction program piece), and know that I'd be psyched to write a UNC championship story for Sports Illustrated in April. (Journalists don't care who wins, but we do appreciate teams that provide good reporting access, and Carolina is one of the best.)
So how about we do this for the Magic Eight guarantee: If UNC ends up winning the national title, I'll let Williams decide what sort of payback I have to make. Run 30 minutes of suicides in the Smith Center? Post a picture of myself wearing a Carolina-blue T-shirt with the slogan DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS? Endure a skin-tingling hour of Texas-Style Ping-Pong with Hansbrough? It's the coach's call.
Which teams did survive the cut and make this year's Magic Eight? Here they are (in alphabetical order):
We know the Hoyas are coming off a loss at Pittsburgh and faltered at Memphis, but Georgetown is still the class of the Big East, and its ability to execute in high-pressure tournament situations (thanks largely to point guard Jonathan Wallace) is tremendous. If Roy Hibbert can return to the form he showed at the end of last season and talented freshmen Austin Freeman and Chris Wright keep improving, I like the Hoyas' chances on neutral courts in the NCAAs.
The 'Bag has dinged Kelvin Sampson plenty this season for off-the-court stuff, but let's give him some credit for using the bountiful strengths of freshman guard Eric Gordon without relying on him too much. The Hoosiers are way more dangerous when the ball also goes to D.J. White early and often, a strategy that wasn't happening nearly as much at the start of the season.
The Jayhawks are just killing teams right now and should be on every college hoops fan's list of DVR musts. Bill Self has done a terrific job convincing NBA-level talent to buy into the team concept, even if it means sacrificing some stats. The result is a suffocating defense (especially on the perimeter), scary depth and the sort of explosive, but team-first attack, that just overwhelms opponents. When a player like Sherron Collins isn't even starting, you know there's something special brewing in Lawrence.
Every year we take a flier on an unranked team in the Magic Eight (not to be confused with the Dayton Flyers, who just missed the cut), and this year's pick is the Cardinals, who've run off three straight decent wins (at Kentucky, West Virginia, at Rutgers) and could snag a major scalp in Marquette at Freedom Hall on Thursday. There's a reason, after all, that the 'Ville was a preseason Top 10 pick, and now that David Padgett and Juan Palacios are back from injury they have a chance to show it.
The Tigers are blessed with skilled depth, even at the post position, and their frenetic pressure at both ends tends to crush the will of opponents. John Calipari put this team together knowing exactly which parts he wanted, and (aside from maybe a deadeye three-point shooter) he got them. My only real concern in the NCAAs will be how Memphis handles junk defenses, which Tim Floyd of USC used to confuse the Tigers earlier this season. I don't think even Bob Knight would play man-to-man against Memphis at this point.
No, Chris Lofton won't be national Player of the Year (or probably even an All-America), but that won't matter if the Volunteers keep winning. Bruce Pearl has found the right balance -- even if we don't count the sidelined Duke Crews, the Vols have a ridiculous 11 players averaging at least 10 minutes a game -- and UT's half-court defense has improved to the point that it can actually stop teams. J.P. Prince has been a welcome mid-season addition, and if Wayne Chism, Brian Williams and Ryan Childress can keep defending the post, I like the possibilities here.
Kevin Love's 27-point, 14-board tour de force against Wazzu should immediately put him in the discussion for Player of the Year, with extra degree-of-difficulty points for doing it against one of the nation's stingiest defenses. Russell Westbrook just became the nation's best sixth-man with his move out of the lineup (when was the last time a non-starter was an All-America candidate in college hoops?), but the real story here is UCLA's defense. The Bruins' first-half assault on Washington State was the single best half of D we've seen all season. We fear what the Bruins will do to USC in Pauley on Saturday after a week's rest.
After tough losses to Arizona State and Tennessee, Xavier has cranked it up again, blowing out Kansas State and Virginia to right the ship before diving into a tougher-than-expected Atlantic 10 schedule. The A-10 could get four (or even five) NCAA bids, which means its teams should be well-prepared for the NCAA tournament. I wavered between Xavier and Dayton in this slot but finally went with the Musketeers who have the slightest edge when it comes to postseason experience. Can't wait to see Xavier-Dayton on Jan. 24 at the Cintas Center.
Ladies and gentlemen, your ninth-annual Magic Eight. Feel free to discuss.