Back in November I previewed the 16 teams I thought could be "sweet" in March. And while I was limited to just 16, there were a number of teams I considered that didn't quite make the cut.
Now is not the time to change my initial list, but I would like to share my thoughts on the teams that almost made it, teams that continue to be on my personal "watch list."
I have categorized the teams missing from my Preseason Sweet 16 into three groups: Just Missed (Cincinnati, George Washington, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Memphis, North Carolina State and UCLA); Young and Dangerous (Alabama, Florida, Kansas, and Washington), and Low Profile/High Power (Akron, Old Dominion, Ohio, St. Joseph's, Winthrop and Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
In this column I'll look a little closer at the first four teams of my "Just Missed" list – the second four will be covered in my next column.
While the jury is still out on this team as conference play approaches in the "super-sized" Big East, impressive wins over Ohio and on the road against Vanderbilt are worth noting. On the downside, the Bearcats aren't very tall or deep, they're adjusting to an interim coach and home attendance has been lagging. On the upside, the defense is improving and they're finally starting to shoot the ball better.
In James White the Bearcats have a "stat sheet stuffer." The senior swingman is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 91 percent from the free-throw line. He also is averaging six rebounds, two steals and two assists per game while leading the team in minutes played.
Freshman Devan Downey also adds to the mix and packs a lot of game in his 5-foot-8 frame with 14 points per game and a team-high 23 steals. And if the talented but inconsistent Armein Kirkland can ever get going, the Bearcats will be competitive in league play.
Athletic, deep, hungry, quick, skilled and tenacious. What's not to like about the Colonials? Granted, the schedule has not been very challenging (excluding impressive wins over Maryland and a Boston University team that is better than its record), but that shouldn't take away from how this team has come together.
The Colonials have nine guys that play double-figure minutes and five that average between 10 and 16 points per game. They also play good pressure defense on the perimeter and have an excellent shot blocker in Pops Mensah-Bonsu. With experienced ball-handlers who can penetrate and hit the three, this is a team that could win the Atlantic 10 title and advance a round or two in the NCAA tournament.
An 11-0 start from a team that lost so many key ingredients over the summer is very impressive. I was confident Illinois would be better than anticipated, but I certainly didn't guess it would get off to such a strong start (the first six wins came over a 12-day stretch).
Like last year, the Illini are doing it with stifling defense and a balanced and efficient offense. Opponents are shooting a mere 40 percent from the field against them and just 28 percent from behind the arc.
Dee Brown leads the offense with 15 points per game and two other players are in double figures – James Augustine is averaging a double-double and freshman Jamar Smith has been potent off the bench from 3-point range. Brown and Augustine are the only seniors on the squad and seem to be providing quality leadership for a young team whose confidence is growing.
Last year's Big Ten freshman of the year D.J. White finally saw his first action of the season in the Hoosiers' December 19th win over Charlotte (eight points, five rebounds and two blocked shots in 17 minutes). If, and when, he fully recovers from a broken foot, Indiana will be a top 10 caliber team.
The combination of White and Marco Killingsworth gives Indiana what perhaps is the nation's best inside duo. Surrounding those two are five or six good-shooting, athletic players. Overall, head coach Mike Davis has a team that should challenge for the Big Ten title and have a nice run in March. The one concern I have is with ball-handling. In a couple of games against pressure D, the Hoosiers have been sloppy with the orange.