There are 65 spots open in the NCAA tournament, with two tiny conference champions playing a play-in game to decide who gets to be demolished by the No. 1 seed.
The season is in full swing, and the race for the No. 1 tournament seeds is wide open. Of course, theres still a long way to go. Conference tournaments usually play a big part in deciding who gets to face the 60th through 64th ranked teams in the dance. With about a month left in the regular season, its a good time to take a look at some of the favorites for these spots.
North Carolina and Duke played the first of what should be at least two more classics in the best rivalry in the game Thursday. The Tar Heels won, 85-83. Its possible these are the two best teams. Duke has the best starting five (and coach) in the country. Theyre lethal from three-point range, and have a number of special players.
Mike Dunleavy, a multi-talented forward, at 6-foot-7, can shoot the three and handle the ball. Jason Williams is lightning quick, shoots 47 percent from 3-point range, plays great defense, and knows how to get his teammates involved offensively. He may be the best player in the country, but hes got competition from teammate Shane Battier, a complete forward (maybe the best inside defender in the country) and Dukes unquestioned leader.
And, of course, theres North Carolinas Joseph Forte. He may be the best scorer to play at Carolina since Michael Jordan. Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter were flashier, but Forte knows how to put the ball in the basket as well as anybody.
He led the team in scoring as a freshman, the first frosh ever to lead the Heels in scoring. Hes averaging over 20 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field, and hits nearly 80 percent of his free throws. And he collected 16 rebounds in that big win over Duke.
While Fortes great, Carolinas biggest strength is the front court, where it has unmatchable size. Brendan Haywood is becoming a big time player. Hes a shot-blocking force. His defensive footwork is much better than its ever been. He still has trouble offensively at times but, at his size, hes devastating on the offensive boards.
Along with Kris Lang and Julius Peppers, the Heels have depth. They even have solid forward Jason Capel, who can do a little bit of everything. The backcourt is solid, with quarterback Ronald Curry at the point, and sharpshooter Max Owens, in addition to Forte.
Carolina has had great success under Matt Doherty, in his first season at his alma mater, but it could have been Roy Williams in Chapel Hill. Instead, Williams chose to stay in Kansas. He probably made the right decision. Six Jayhawks average double figures in points. Four average more than six rebounds per night.
Kenny Gregory is the teamss leading scorer, and along with Drew Gooden, provides Kansas with great perimeter athleticism. Nick Collison and Eric Chenowith are the teams big men. Collison is the better scorer; Chenowith, stronger on the boards. In the backcourt, Kansas isnt as deep, with Jeff Boschee and Kirk Hinrich logging most of the minutes. Luke Axtell was supposed to help out, but back problems may keep him out for some time.
The Big 10 has a couple of big time teams as well: Illinois and Michigan State. The Spartans, defending champ, have spectacular Jason Richardson, and steady senior guard Charlie Bell. Freshmen Zach Randolph and Marcus Taylor are playing big parts. Forward Andre Hutson is the teams leading rebounder and a fine inside scorer. Theyve played a very tough schedule. They have great, and experienced, depth. They play Illinois for the only time during the regular season this week in Champaign.
Illinois has also played a brutal schedule and withstood the rigors. Theyre another team that has great depth, especially up front, and theyre one of the better defensive teams in the nation. Guard Frank Williams is the teams leading scorer. Forwards Marcus Griffin Cory Bradford, one of the best outside shooters in the country, and hard-nosed Sergio McClain fill out a balanced, tough starting five. Robert Archibald, Sean Harrington and Lucas Johnson are the top players off the bench. Archibald is a great rebounder and scorer. Harrington can shoot the three. Johnson is a solid all-around player.
Of course, the one team weve yet to mention is Stanford. The Cardinal are ranked No. 1 at this writing. Theyre shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 40 from 3-point range. Shooting guard Casey Jacobsen leads the way, averaging over 17 points per game.
Jacobsen isnt the only great shooter on the roster. Ryan Mendez is the teams fourth option, but he has been a dangerous long-range threat. Point guard Michael McDonald is shooting over 50 percent, both from the field and the arc. Inside, Stanford has the Collins twins, Jarron and Jason.
Both average around 13 points per game, and are the squads top two rebounders. Coming off the bench, Curtis Borchardt, Justin Davis, Julius Barnes and Tony Giovacchini provide most of the minutes.
Stanford has a big win over Duke, but it hasnt played that many other heavyweights, outside of the Pac 10. They usually begin the season fast, then cool down as the tournament draws near. This year could certainly be different for the Cardinal. They may have the ability to go all the way.