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.
I categorized these teams 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 my last column (Just Missed, vol. I, December 21, 2005), I highlighted the first four teams of my "Just Missed" list. In this column I will follow up with the other four.
The Terrapins have perhaps more upperclassman talent than any other team in the ACC. Eight of their top nine players are juniors and seniors. And while "senioritis" can be problematic, "urgentitis" could fuel a surprising run for Maryland.
The sense of urgency felt by seniors can be a galvanizing force as young men face the reality of "this being it" as far a college hoops goes. And despite no sure-fire NBA-caliber players amongst the group (not to mention the disappointment of last year lingering), this team still enjoys good chemistry.
I don't mean to disparage its talent. Led by the sweet-shooting Chris McCray, seven players average between nine and 17 points per game. Ekene Ibekwe is a rising star, Travis Garrison, James Gist and Nik Caner-Medley are all very capable scorers and rebounders, and Mike Jones provides energy and scoring off the bench.
In the backcourt, D.J. Strawberry provides athleticism as he adjusts to being a point guard. His comfort level running the team combined with Maryland's improvement on defense will determine how far the Terps go.
Just the opposite of Maryland, there's only one senior amongst Memphis' top nine, and a few players even look like guaranteed NBAers. And just like Maryland, this group is also getting along well.
The athleticism, depth, shooting and speed of the Tigers is what you first notice when watching them play. They are relentless in applying defensive and offensive pressure.
Averaging 87 points per game, the Tigers have four players scoring in double figures. They also outrebound teams by 10 and block seven shots per game while holding opponents to just 37 percent from the field.
Freshman Shawne Williams is leading the team in scoring and is an impressive talent. Barring injury he'll be a pro. Sophomores Darius Washington and Joey Dorsey, along with senior Rodney Carney, have the look of future NBA players as well.
For the Tigers to maximize their success this season, Washington must continue to grow as a leader and point guard, and the Tigers have to become a tighter interior defensive team – taking better care of the ball. This could be a very dangerous team come March with improvement in those areas.
In its recent win over Miami, the Wolfpack scored 81 points on 73 total shots. That's 1.11 points per shot. Anything over one is considered excellent – it's one way to chart a team's offensive efficiency (a statistical tidbit for you folks).
When N.C. State is rolling, excellence in efficiency is how they win. And when they run and gun, it's typically on their terms. This makes them fun to watch, but they can be maddening to play against because the Wolfpack always seem to control the game's pace.
The motion offense and tight, disciplined defense are effective because Herb Sendek and his staff do an excellent job at teaching the little things to their players, and the attention to detail is almost maniacal.
The Wolfpack also have very experienced and skilled players on the perimeter in Cameron Bennerman, Engin Atsur, Ilian Evtimov, Tony Bethel and Gavin Grant. Grant is a sophomore and Atsur is a junior. The others are seniors with Bethel and Evtimov being in their fifth year. The emergence of sophomore Cedric Simmons as the team's top rebounder and shot blocker has really helped anchor the defense, too.
The rotation is only about seven players, but despite a short bench and not being a very tall team, I think N.C. State is one of the toughest to play against and beat.
Senior Cedric Bozeman has been solid as a "valutility" player, playing multiple positions and making subtle but valuable contributions wherever he plays. And freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has been quite impressive as the team's leading rebounder with nine per game. Freshmen Darren Collison and Ryan Wright have also shown promise as newcomers.
The Bruins are still a work in progress in terms of consistent efficiency on offense, and they're still learning how to play defense with the savvy and toughness relished by their coach. However, their progress is evident, and a recent road win at Michigan should bolster their confidence.
The roster is deep, talented and young. Ben Howland and his staff have a lot of pieces to fit together, and the best of those pieces is sophomore Josh Shipp (who has yet to play a game due to hip surgery). If Shipp is able to return healthy, and seniors Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey play the way seniors are expected to play, the Bruins could be the deepest and most talented team in the Pac 10 – and might even take the conference title.