North Carolina is the Final Four contender people aren’t talking about enough
Connecticut flexed its muscles throughout the non-conference schedule and has shown its ability to adjust without Donovan Clingan. Purdue and dominant big man Zach Edey appear primed to potentially pull a Virginia, losing to a No. 16 seed one year and winning it all the following season.
Those two teams are probably the safest bets to reach the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz. Heres another not enough people are talking about: North Carolina.
The most disappointing team in the country last year, the first one to start the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll and not reach the tournament since the field was expanded to 64 in 1985, has shown the potential to be the final group standing.
While other contenders have struggled against lesser competition or dropped games nobody expected them to seven top-10 teams lost in the past week and the top 10 went 9-10, with nine of the losses coming to unranked teams Hubert Davis seventh-ranked TarHeels have been remarkably consistent. They are defending well, are balanced and have shown the maturity not to overlook anyone. In this six-game win streak, North Carolina is beating the opposition by an average of 21.1 points. It obliterated Syracuse by 36 on Saturday.
5Hubert Davis and the Tar Heels have emerged as a Final Four contender. APRJ Davis, a White Plains native who starred at Archbishop Stepinac, is one of the premier guards in the country, averaging 20.4 points, 3.3 assists and shooting a robust 41 percent from 3-point range. Armando Bacot is averaging a double-double for the third straight season. Transfers Harrison Ingram (Stanford) and Cormac Ryan (Notre Dame) have made instant impacts at both ends of the floor. Five-star freshman point guard Elliott Cadeau is coming on.
Defense, though, is the big difference between this years edition and last years disappointing version. The Tar Heels are ranked fifth in defensive efficiency, a major improvement after they were 46th a year ago. The opposition is shooting just 28.9 percent from 3-point range and 39.5 from the field overall. Those are both top-30 figures nationally. So is North Carolinas rebounding margin at plus-6.3.
5North Carolina forward Armando Bacot is averaging a double-double for the third consecutive season. Getty ImagesOffense was never going to be a problem with these Tar Heels, not after adding Ingram, Ryan and Cadeau to Davis and Bacot. They werent an elite defensive team early in the season, but have shown marked improvement of late.
Still, North Carolina has mostly flown under the radar, despite owning the second-most Quad 1 wins (five) in the country. Only Purdue, with six, has more. Maybe part of it is it dropped early-season games to top teams such as No. 4 UConn and No. 6 Kentucky. Last years team was so disappointing, expectations from the outside were lowered somewhat for the ACC power.
But its now the middle of January, and North Carolina has proven up to this point it is nothing like last years team. It just may be the opposite. Its certainly on a very different trajectory.
5RJ Davis has averaged 20.4 points per game this season for North Carolina. Getty Images## Missed the boat
Arkansas, USC and UCLA were all considered NCAA Tournament teams in the preseason. Arkansas and USC were ranked 14th and 21st in the AP poll, respectively. Now, these three are battling it out over who is having the countrys most disappointing season.
At this point, I would give the ignominious edge to Arkansas, simply because of how much success Eric Musselman has had in the transfer portal era remaking his teams on a yearly basis. Im not even ready yet to say with certainty he wont turn it around this winter, although it seems pretty unlikely it will happen with the Razorbacks sitting at 113 in the NET rankings and having lost three straight to fall to 9-7.
USC was supposed to have among the best backcourt duos in the country in Boogie Ellis and five-star freshman Isaiah Collier, but it has been a sieve on defense, ranked 86th in efficiency. Now Collier is out for at least the next month with a hand injury, and the only real fascination with the 8-9 Trojans is watching the development of Bronny James, LeBron James son. Then there is UCLA, sporting a 6-10 record and headed to its worst season since it won 11 games in 2003-04. The Bruins just lost by 46 points to Utah this week 46! Mick Cronin brought in a seven-man freshmen class, and has spent a large portion of the season complaining about his rosters deficiencies and the schools Name, Image & Likeness shortcomings.
Musselman, Cronin and USCs Andy Enfield have all had a ton of success at their respective schools, the three coaches each reaching the last three tournaments and the first two advancing to the second weekend in 2001, 2022 and 2023. All were integrating several new pieces into their rosters. And all three are suffering through trying years. Its a reminder that while the transfer portal era can lead to fast turnaround, it has also created a greater amount of variance. These three programs are prime examples of that.
5Eric Musselman and Arkansas have lost three straight games and sit at 9-7. AP## Game of the Week:
No. 22 Creighton at No. 4 Connecticut, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
The first quarter or so of the Big East season has been unpredictable. No. 11 Marquette and Creighton already have a combined five losses. Seton Hall is on top of the standings. UConn, however, has not been a surprise, continuing to win despite star center Donovan Clingan missing the last five games due to a foot injury. It has the opportunity to create even more separation between itself and one of its top challengers Wednesday night. The Bluejays have gotten going, winning four in a row including a gritty one-point victory over on-the-rise St. Johns on Saturday. Clingan has been making progress, and the Huskies sure could use him against Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner, the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
1: Purdue, Connecticut, Arizona, Kansas
2: Houston, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee
3: Kentucky, Baylor, Duke, Memphis
4: Marquette, Illinois, Clemson, Auburn
Are the Pirates this years Marquette? A team undervalued and overlooked by the Big East coaches in the preseason, only to win the league crown? Its not out of the question. Nobody in the conference is having a better season than do-it-all point guard Kadary Richmond, Seton Hall is tied with UConn atop the league standings and already owns wins over the Huskies and Golden Eagles, the two teams projected to be at the top of the Big East. Last year, Marquette was picked ninth and finished No. 1 in the conference. In October, Seton Hall was predicted ninth as well. History could repeat itself.
St. Johns transfer David Jones has drawn most of the headlines for 13th-ranked Memphis fast start, and deservedly so, as its leading scorer. Quinerly is just as important to the Tigers. Few point guards have played better. The Hackensack, N.J. native is averaging career-highs in assists (4.4), rebounds (3.1), steals (1.1) and free-throw percentage (85.3) while posting 13.6 points and shooting 44 percent from the field. His latest tour de force: 23 points, 11 assists, four steals and five made 3-pointers in a rout at Wichita State.
5Jahvon Quinerly has played a pivotal role in Memphis’ fast start this season. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con### Down
Rutgers was expected to struggle to make the NCAA Tournament this year after losing three starters, but the NIT was at least seen as very possible. The Scarlet Knights, however, dont look like a team deserving of the postseason. Cliff Omoruyi has regressed, averaging nearly three points fewer than he did a year ago, and nobody has emerged to fill the void left on the perimeter by the departures of Paul Mulcahy, Cam Spencer and Caleb McConnell. Now tied for the Big Ten cellar with Michigan, they are headed to their worst season since 2018-19. Dylan Harper and Ace Bailey, the five-star prospects headed to Piscataway, N.J. next year, cant arrive soon enough.
The Zags streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament bids is in jeopardy. With a NET ranking of 49, no Quad 1 wins and now a Quad 2 loss at Santa Clara, Gonzaga may need to win the WCC Tournament barring a long winning streak. It does have Quad 1 opportunities left at Saint Marys and San Francisco, but neither of those are needle-movers for a team with a mostly empty rsum. Feb. 10 at sixth-ranked Kentucky will be enormous for coach Mark Fews team and its at-large tournament hopes.
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