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The Dagger

Interpretive Dance: Sorry Syracuse, ‘Zona, cohesive Gators team to beat

The Dagger

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Cohesive and balanced, the Gators might be the team to beat. (USAT)

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s fake Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …

The glitz, glam, endless parties and Joe Namath's Diddy-inspired fur coat are packed away for the season. Seattle’s complete annihilation of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII was nothing short of vapid, a lopsided outcome that left viewers lusting for excitement.

But have no fear, unsatisfied sports fan. March Madness is right around the corner.

With the college basketball season about to enter its penultimate phase, clear separation between the haves and have-nots is finally starting to take shape.

Familiar characters currently populate projected top lines – Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan St., Arizona and Duke. Mid-major darlings Wichita St. and San Diego St. have also forced their way into the conversation. However, one team somewhat underpublicized on the national scene is bound to make the most noise come March, the Florida Gators.

The SEC frontrunner, unblemished in conference play winning by an average of 14.7 points per game, is once again blazing a trail toward a favorable draw. A rigorous non-conference schedule along with key triumphs over Kansas, Memphis, Florida St. and Tennessee have the Gators firmly entrenched in the No. 1 seed discussion.

Considering how it got there, Florida’s prominence is nothing short of remarkable.

Earlier this season, the timeless phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” applied to Billy Donovan’s club. Wrought with suspensions and injuries – Scottie Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith, Casey Prather and DeVon Walker each missed at least two games – the wounded Gators looked as though they would soon be turned into luggage. But blessed with depth and a resolute head coach, they proved resilient. Undermanned against Wisconsin and Connecticut, a pair of high-profiled schools that should attract a No. 7 or better seed in the NCAA tournament, they dropped both contests by seven combined points, their only losses on the season.

Florida doesn’t possess a young superstar like Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Tyler Ennis. Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier are the only underclassman logging better than 50 percent of minutes played. Prather, meanwhile, is the only Wooden Award finalist on roster. To some the lack of star power would signify weakness, but the opposite is true.

Florida is the consummate "team" an unselfish squad that really is the sum of all parts. Its calling card: creating offense through chaotic defense. Employing a mixture of man and zone schemes, it’s forced turnovers on 21.5 percent of opponent possessions, leading to many easy transition buckets. Overall, the Gators are one of two teams that ranks top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency and top 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency (Wichita St. the other).

Their headmen lead by example. Muscle man Patric Young, an intimidating rebounder and defender, is their brawn. Meanwhile, Prather, an efficient slasher and strong finisher, is their boom. Toss in reliable dime-dropper Wilbekin (20:11 AST:TO split last four), dead-eye shooter Frazier (42.8 3PT percent) and a head coach with two national titles, three Final Fours and three straight Elite Eight appearances on his resume, and you have a team perfectly built to roll to and through North Texas (site of the Final Four). Just ask Frazier. From the Tampa Tribune:

“Not a lot of teams have the opportunity to be great. We feel like our team has the pieces to achieve greatness.”

Many analysts will tell you there is not a single dominant team currently in college basketball. But now with electric freshman Chris Walker off and dunking, and most key components healthy, the loaded Gators will soon sway common perception.

Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …

MARKET MADNESS

Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:

DA BULLS (MOVING UP)

Wichita St. Shockers (REC: 24-0, RPI: 6, SOS: 81, Current Seed: 1)
Forget creationism versus evolution, over the past week the hottest debate around: Do the Shockers deserve a No. 1 seed? After upending Indiana State, its toughest remaining conference opponent, Wednesday in Terre Haute, the answer is a resounding YES. Wichita's resume is a near mirror image of Gonzaga's last year. It played a highly competitive non-conference slate knocking off the likes BYU, St. Louis and Tennessee. It also boasts a perfect record in league play with no worrisome threat left. A season ago, the Selection Committee rewarded the 'Zags with a top seed. Run the table and the Shockers will earn the same. Experienced, nails tough and extremely physical on both ends, it's no stretch to think 2013's Cinderella darling transforms into a bracket destroyer. Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred Van Fleet have each improved, a scary thought. Put it to bed, folks, the Shockers are a clear-cut frontrunner and a strong candidate to return to the Final Four.

Virginia Cavaliers (REC: 17-5, RPI: 19, SOS: 29, Current Seed: 4)
After rocking our game-viewing world, Duke and Syracuse may be manufacturing the most buzz in the ACC, but don't overlook the fast-rising Cavaliers. Quietly, Tony Bennett has his club, presently at 8-1, nipping at the heels of the Orange in the quest for ACC regular season bragging rights. Virginia isn't a team for thrill seekers. It plays at a methodical, slow pace, pressures the ball and often times scores ugly. Senior Joe Harris is its best player, but second-year standout Malcolm Brogdon, who hit the game-winning three at Pittsburgh last Sunday, has blossomed into an outstanding versatile player. Because the Cavs wipe the glass and are relentless on D (0.87 points per possession allowed), they are rarely blown out. In their four losses, all to quality opponents, only Tennessee thumped them by 11-plus points. With only two difficult matchups remaining (at Clemson and vs. Syracuse), their clash with the 'Cuse March 1 could determine who wears the ACC crown. Regardless if it finishes first or second, Virginia, which played a respectable non-conference slate and owns five RPI top-50 wins, should entice at worst a No. 4 seed.

BYU Cougars (REC: 15-9, RPI: 39, SOS: 20, Current Seed: NA)
The last time the Cougars were relevant nationally, Jimmer Fredette was splashing threes from Park City. His torrid shooting back in 2011 guided BYU to 32 wins and a Sweet 16 berth, its greatest season in school history. Flash forward to the present and the WCC's most recent addition could again tally a memorable finish. Dave Rose's bunch are indeed the Stormin' Mormons. They play at a blistering pace, attack the cup, draw fouls and pile up points. They've crossed the 80-point threshold 22 times this season. Junior Tyler Haws, a drive-heavy small forward who happens to also shoot 46.3 percent beyond the arc, can really fill it up. Over his past four contests, he's averaged a Fredette-esque 35.5 points per game. The Cougars' resume isn't without blemishes. Their losses to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Portland, which each rank 100-plus according to KenPom.com, mask top-shelf wins over Texas, Stanford and St. Mary's. With season-defining battles against the Gaels and Gonzaga remaining, BYU will have an opportunity to apply makeup to its early season black eyes and earn an at-large bid.

Also Flaming: Georgetown, Indiana, Delaware, West Virginia

DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)

Wisconsin Badgers (REC: 18-5, RPI: 12, SOS: 2, Current Seed: 5)
Tabbed a Final Four contender by yours truly just weeks ago, the Badgers have gone the way of accommodations in Sochi – downhill. Frigidity on offense is nothing new. Many Bo Ryan-coached teams over the years weren't exactly Pop-a-Shot champions. However, the dramatic decline in defensive effort is a cause for alarm. In their past seven games, a stretch in which they've dropped five of those contests, they've allowed a very uncharacteristic 1.086 points per possession. To put that into perspective, Wisky surrendered under 1.00 points per possession in 10 of their previous 16 games. Now is not the time to completely write it off. This is still one of the most talented groups Ryan has ever had. If Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker can again stretch defenses by sinking long-distance jumpers and the Badgers, collectively, improve in protecting the glass and challenging shots, they should be able to weather the storm. If not, a 7-10 seed is in their immediate future. Sunday's matchup with visiting Michigan St. has the pressure on.

Oklahoma St. Cowboys (REC: 16-6, RPI: 29, SOS: 22, Current Seed: 6)
Comment: The preseason favorite, bucked repeatedly by the competition, has failed miserably to live up to high expectations. Including Monday's triple-OT heart-stopper against Iowa St., Marcus Smart and friends have dropped three straight games. Now a game below .500 in arguably the best conference in America, analysts and casual fans are beginning to wonder just how far the Cowboys will fall. Le'Bryan Nash's 45 combined points against Baylor and Iowa St. was refreshing, but OSU's almost nonexistent post presence continues to severely handicap its overall performance. Frankly, it may never recover from the loss of Michael Cobbins, who ruptured his Achilles just before New Year's. Due to the lack of balance, the Cowboys have been repeatedly pounded inside, yielding rebounds and several high-percentage shots. As worrisome, Smart has habitually clanged threes. In Big 12 play, the star guard has converted an embarrassing 22 percent of his attempts from distance. Now down Stevie Clark, who was dismissed from the team earlier this week, and with a brutal schedule upcoming (at Texas Tech, at Texas, Oklahoma and at Baylor), it's no stretch to predict a precipitous decline for a team many believed was a national title contender only months ago.

Xavier Musketeers (REC: 15-7, RPI: 51, SOS: 41, Current Seed: 10)
Comment: The Musketeers, currently in the midst of a three-game slide, are firing blanks. Their once ironclad at-large standing is now in question. For Chris Mack, turnovers, dreadful three-point shooting (12 for their last 50) and poor defense (1.106 points per possession allowed in A-10 games) are responsible for his team's undoing. The recent suspension of freshmen forward Jalen Reynolds only added salt to exposed wounds. However, with quality wins against Tennessee and Cincinnati and five other RPI top-50 victories under its belt, it would take a catastrophic turn of events for Xavier to miss the NCAA Tournament. Still, Dee Davis and Myles Davis must rediscover their outside stroke and Matt Stainbrook has to continue to push people around down low for the Musketeers to cement their at-large standing. Saturday's home tilt against Providence certainly has them at a crossroads.

Also Laming: UMass, Providence, Florida St.

SOWING THE SEEDS

This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing.

1. Michigan at Iowa
Thought to be a legitimate Final Four contender just days ago, the Hawkeyes, who've dropped three of their past five, are losing bandwagon members. It's once unyielding defense has shriveled, surrendering 1.138 points per possession in those defeats. Long, athletic, highly active on the offensive glass and boasting one of the finest post players in the Big Ten (Gabriel Olaseni), Iowa still has the necessary tools to make a deep run. But if it wants to exact revenge on the Wolverines it must extend its defense. Nik Stauskas nailed four threes and dropped 26 points against the Hawkeyes in Ann Arbor Jan 22.

Prediction: Iowa 73 Michigan 70

2. Gonzaga at Memphis
Out-of-conference games this time of year are always a delectable appetizer before the main course. The 'Zags/Tigers tango will be no different. This year's Gonzaga team hasn't attracted much admiration. Few noteworthy non-conference wins and playing in an uneventful conference has left many wandering if the Bulldogs should net an at-large birth if they stumble in the WCC tournament. A W over Memphis would go a long way to convincing the undecided. They certainly possess the size and outside shooting to keep pace with the frenetic Tigers, especially with Gary Bell back in uniform. However, look for Joe Jackson and Shaq Goodwin to chop down trees Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski by driving the lane and drawing contact. Do that, and Memphis will walk away with its third RPI top-50 win of the year.

Prediction: Memphis 76 Gonzaga 71

3. Cincinnati at SMU
At 21-2 overall, perfect in the AAC and sporting a top-five defense, the Bearcats are a nasty team still flying a bit under the radar. A unremarkable No. 315 non-conference strength of schedule and scant RPI top-50 wins are to blame. Leaving Dallas with a W would bolster their profile. In their first battle, in Cincy, the Bearcats bested SMU 65-57 thanks in large part to Justin Jackson's 17. In the rematch, the 6-foot-8 forward will need to be equally good. Markus Kennedy is a beast down low. The paint patroller has reached double figures and grabbed at least seven boards in 13 straight. If SMU blazes the nets at Moody like it did last weekend against Memphis, the Bearcats will taste defeat for the first time since mid-December.

Prediction: SMU 61 Cincinnati 58

4. Michigan St. at Wisconsin
Down Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne the Spartans, at times, had the look of weakened warriors who left their spears on the kitchen table. Undercut by intrastate rival Michigan and Georgetown, they displayed uncharacteristically soft interior defense and were blasted on the boards. However, with the news of Payne's expected return, they could revert to their normal form. Impeccable timing. Wisconsin regained some confidence lost at Illinois Tuesday. Sam Dekker, who's struggled behind the arc, sank four threes and the Badgers collectively held the Illini to a respectable 1.02 points per possession. Payne is the x-factor, but expect Bucky to win the wrestling match.

Prediction: Wisconsin 64 Michigan St. 63

5. Oregon at Arizona St.
The Ducks, once ranked as high as No. 12, are barely quacking. Three games below .500 in the Pac-12 and facing an Arizona team Thursday fresh off its first loss, they've entered desperation mode. If they want to avoid an Elmer Fudd gunshot to the face, victory must be achieved in Tempe. That, however, appears doubtful. Oregon's mixture of inadequate rebounding and suspect perimeter defense plays to the strengths of ASU. Jahii Carson, Jermaine Marshall and Jonathan Gilling each shoot better than 42 percent from distance. Throw in seven-footer Jordan Bachynski's bruising interior play and it could be long flight back to Eugene.

Prediction: Arizona St. 80 Oregon 71

Last week record: 4-1
Overall record: 4-1

Other Notable Games: Texas at Kansas St., Missouri at Ole Miss, Providence at Xavier, Indiana at Minnesota, Baylor at Oklahoma, Washington at Colorado, VCU at St. Joe's

MID-MAJOR HALL OF FAME

What underrated player earned his bust?

Billy Baron, Canisius, G – Meet Baron Von Gunner, the Golden Griffins' senior star and one the of nation's most efficient scorers. The son of former Rhode Island head honcho and current Canisius coach Jim Baron and brother of ex-Rhode standout Jimmy Baron, younger Billy has traveled a winding road to stardom. Before finding his groove in Buffalo, he first committed to Virginia before transferring to URI to play for his dad, a very rocky time. Now reunited in Western New York, the father/son duo are thriving. Compared to Doug McDermott, the spotlight on the point guard is much dimmer, but, statistically speaking, he's every bit as productive. Baron has swished 20 or more points in 18 games, drilled 44.2 percent from three, 90.5 percent from the charity stripe, grabbed 4.8 boards per game and dished out 4.7 assists per game. In short, the kid can simply ball. He's the reason why Canisius, at 10-2, is all alone atop the Metro.

HIGH-MAJOR WALK OF SHAME

What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?

Earnest Ross, Missouri, G – When the kitchen gets too hot, Ross vacates the premises, immediately. Against meek competition, the guard has displayed an excellent all-around game. He's attacked the rim, crashed the glass and occasionally stretched defenses by raining threes. However, in his past two contests, against high-profiled Kentucky and Florida, he laid enough bricks to pave a yellow road back to Columbia. Over that forgettable stretch, the normally efficient shooter was 3-for-15, scoring 11 combined points. Jabari Brown has been the Tigers' backbone, but if Mizzou wants to lace up its dancing shoes for the sixth-straight year, complementary performers, like Ross, must tend to the stove versus top competition.

BRACKET RACKET

Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Ron Wellman.

@YahooNoise how far could Cincinnati move up in the rankings?

— iAmMe. (@matthewbeighle) February 4, 2014

A heaping bowl of Skyline Chili topped with sour cream, cheddar cheese and oyster crackers. That's how tasty the Bearcats appear on the surface. At 10-0 in AAC action, including critical road wins at Memphis and Louisville, Cincy owns a substantial lead over the second-place Cardinals. With crucial matchups against UConn (twice), SMU, Louisville and Memphis remaining, its road to the regular season title is filled with potential potholes. Still, if it wears a crown and doesn't exit early in the AAC tourney it should attract a lofty seed.

However, even under that circumstance, the Bearcats' resume isn't free of flaws. Their only missteps (at New Mexico and vs. Xavier) are far from bad losses. Additionally, they own a signature neutral-court victory over Pittsburgh. But outside of that, their non-conference slate lacked punch. Cincy's plethora of cupcake home matchups explains why its non-conference strength of schedule was the 315th "toughest" in college basketball. As Pitt, Oregon and Mississippi can attest, the Selection Committee is typically unkind to teams that aren't challenge pre-conference. Last year, the Panthers, Ducks and Rebels, despite 12 wins each in their respective leagues, attracted a No. 10 seed or worse. Why? Each sported a non-conference SOS of 320-plus.

It's highly unlikely Cincy garners a low seed with 14 or more conference wins. Again, Mick Cronin's kids have emerged unscathed in difficult road environments. With numerous opportunities down the homestretch to enhance their overall profile, they should be a No. 5 seed at worst. If they improbably run the table, they will undoubtedly state its case for a No. 1.

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