To put into perspective how wide open this year’s NCAA tournament is going to be, consider the following statistic for a moment.
The selection committee anointed Virginia, Villanova, Purdue and Xavier as No. 1 seeds on Sunday in its midseason bracket reveal. That quartet has combined to lose six games over the past eight days.
Virginia squandered a late lead in overtime against Virginia Tech last Saturday night. Villanova sandwiched losses to St. John’s and Providence around a victory over Butler. Purdue dropped three straight games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Only Xavier has escaped unscathed, and the Musketeers needed a favorable call in the final seconds to survive Creighton’s upset bid on Saturday.
Chaos at the top of the polls the past two weeks reflects the lack of a dominant team in college basketball this season. Top 10 teams have lost 62 games this season, the most losses through February 15 in the history of the AP poll.
No. 5 Cincinnati, No. 6 Purdue and No. 8 Ohio State all losing to unranked teams Thursday night serves as a reminder that there won’t be any 2009 North Carolinas or 2012 Kentuckys in this year’s NCAA tournament. This feels more like a year when a dozen teams have a shot to crash the Final Four and perhaps win a national title.
Whatever separation Villanova, Purdue and Virginia had achieved entering February has vanished over the past two weeks. The Cavaliers are still in strong position to earn the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed despite their recent loss, but the Boilermakers and Wildcats have fallen back to the pack while displaying some alarming tendencies.
Purdue’s issue, oddly enough, has been its offense. A Boilermakers team ranked third nationally in points per possession has struggled over its last three games as Big Ten teams have found a formula to slow them down.
Opponents have begun blanketing Purdue’s 3-point shooters and daring the Boilermakers to find other ways to score. The result has been a more stagnant attack predicated on Isaac Haas going 1-on-1 in the low post against a smaller defender or Carsen Edwards trying to create for himself or his teammates off the bounce.
Considering that Purdue struggles to defend ball screens and surrenders too many offensive rebounds, the Boilermakers need to be elite on offense in order to compensate. They were far from that Thursday night when they shot sub-40 percent from the field against a Wisconsin team that is enduring a rare off season and had not won a game at home in over a month.
Whereas Purdue’s recent problems stem from downward trend on offense, it’s Villanova’s defense that is sparking concern.
Villanova has suffered all season from not having an elite rim protector to alter shots in the paint or a frontline capable of consistently preventing second-chance opportunities. The Wildcats give up the highest percentage of offensive rebounds in league play of any Big East team, a product of 6-foot-9 Omari Spellman being the only truly effective rebounder they have.
Phil Booth’s absence due to a broken hand has also damaged Villanova’s perimeter defense as he was the Wildcats’ biggest ballhawk and one of their better on-ball defenders. Collin Gillespie has taken much of Booth’s playing time, and while the freshman is an excellent shooter and skilled passer, he is at this point also a defensive liability.
The result is a defense still top 50 nationally but not quite the same caliber as Jay Wright’s past few Villanova teams. St. John’s attacked the basket fearlessly and got to the foul line 24 times in its victory over the Wildcats. Providence wasn’t nearly as efficient from the field as the Johnnies, but the Friars got to the foul line 30 times, grabbed nearly one third of their misses and always managed to score a basket whenever Villanova was mounting a second-half surge.
Virginia still holds a three-game lead in the ACC thanks largely to its formidable defense, but there’s no mystery what the Cavaliers major flaw is. They simply don’t score as easily as other top teams do, relying mostly on structured sets to generate shots instead of attacking in transition or putting the ball in the hands of a player who can create off the dribble in late-clock situations.
With Virginia showing signs of mortality and Purdue and Villanova struggling, the battle for No. 1 seeds should be wide open over the next few weeks.
It’s only fitting in a year in college basketball with plenty of good teams but no great ones.
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