Published Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:22 pm
BASKETBALL
Chatelain: College hoops are greatest on the Plains

Kansas-Creighton. Iowa-Wichita State. Wisconsin-Iowa State.

Most college basketball seasons, those would be intriguing early-round games in the NCAA tournament. Fun little matchups before the Big Dance gets serious. But 2014 is not most seasons. The best hoops in the country — bar none — is in the Midwest.

Look around. Study the landscape. Tobacco Road is rife with potholes. Bluegrass thoroughbreds Kentucky and Louisville have stumbled on the backstretch. The East and West Coasts lack depth.

Meanwhile on the plains, in seemingly every major college town from Stillwater to Madison, sold-out arenas produce elite basketball. Twelve of the top 30 teams in the country, according to the polls, are within 500 miles of Omaha. Twelve!

That kind of strength is unprecedented. Consider:

Of the old Big Eight schools, only Nebraska isn't ranked in the top 30.

Wisconsin, Iowa and Creighton have likely their best teams since the turn of the century.

Wichita State and Saint Louis are a combined 36-2. And the Billikens' only losses are to the unbeaten Shockers and 16-2 Wisconsin.

According to the RPI, seven of the top 15 in the country are within the same 500-mile radius, including No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Wisconsin. That doesn't include Big Ten powers Michigan State and Ohio State.

Doug McDermott is the favorite for national player of the year. Kansas has two of the nation's top freshmen, both surefire top-five picks in the NBA draft. Oklahoma State has a first-team All-American in Marcus Smart.

And those pairings above — Bluejays-Jayhawks, Hawkeyes-Shockers and Badgers-Cyclones? Those are realistic showdowns in the Sweet 16, maybe even the Elite Eight.

Harvest time in college basketball is still two months away. But all signs point toward a bumper crop.

* * *

THE REGION'S SPLENDID SEVEN

1. WICHITA STATE
Record: 19-0
RPI/Ken Pomeroy rankings (entering Saturday): 10/14
Best wins: at Saint Louis
How they do it: The Shockers aren't flashy, but they're excellent defensively and rarely turn it over. Cleanthony Early is a future pro and sophomore point guard Fred Van Vleet, after a strong NCAA tournament last year, has shined as a new starter, compiling 94 assists against 21 turnovers.
Who they are: Wichita's starting lineup counts players from New York, Illinois, Georgia, Ohio and -- of course -- Ron Baker from little Scott City, Kan. Early, a juco transfer, is the only senior.
Question for March: With Creighton gone and the Valley down, Wichita's schedule is soft. Will the Shockers be battle-tested?

2. IOWA
Record: 14-3
RPI/Ken Pomeroy rankings: 34/5
Best wins: Xavier (neutral), at Ohio State
How they do it: Depth. The Hawkeyes are one of the nation's deepest teams, rotating 10 or 11 guys per game. They play fast but efficiently. Their defense is solid. And senior Roy Devyn Marble gives them a go-to guy.
Who they are: Mostly homegrown. Fran McCaffery regularly plays five Iowans, excluding Mike Gesell from just across the river. Marble grew up in Michigan, but his dad is the Hawkeyes' all-time leading scorer.
Question for March: Have the Hawks conquered their late-game woes? They've had a hard time closing out ranked teams.

3. WISCONSIN
Record: 16-2
RPI/Ken Pomeroy rankings: 2/4
Best wins: Florida, Saint Louis (neutral), Iowa
How they do it: The Badgers are always great defensively. But this edition -- on top of playing elite defense -- is third nationally in offensive efficiency. Sophomore Sam Dekker is an emerging star.
Who they are: All five starters are from the Big Ten footprint, including two from Wisconsin and two from Illinois. Four are upperclassmen, and most didn't have a major impact as freshmen. Bo Ryan builds teams the old-fashioned way, and this might be his best.
Question for March: Wisconsin's slow tempo shrinks its margin for error. In the NCAA tournament, can the Badgers' offense afford a bad night?

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4. KANSAS
Record: 13-4
RPI/Ken Pomeroy rankings: 1/9
Best wins: Duke (neutral), at Oklahoma, at Iowa State
How they do it: Bill Self hasn't won nine straight Big 12 titles for nothing. He can manage talent, and KU has a bunch. The Jayhawks have held up well against the nation's toughest schedule, facing eight Top 25 teams. Their size and athleticism create easy buckets.
Who they are: One of the nation's youngest teams. Blue-chip freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid (whom Fred Hoiberg called the best player in the country) and Wayne Selden get the headlines, but sophomore Perry Ellis and junior Naadir Tharpe are important for offense. No team on this list has more potential.
Question for March: Are the KU guards good enough to facilitate and knock down quality shots?

5. IOWA STATE
Record: 14-3
RPI/Ken Pomeroy rankings: 9/16
Best wins: Michigan, Iowa, Baylor
How they do it: Versatility. Fred Hoiberg has a collection of skilled, experienced wing players. They're undersized, but all can exploit a matchup, scoring off the dribble or hitting from 3-point range. They play fast and avoid turnovers.
Who they are: East Coast kids. There are two from Canada, one from Massachusetts, one from New York and DeAndre Kane, the fifth-year point guard who transferred from Marshall after earning his degree, which made him eligible immediately. Kane is All-America caliber.
Question for March: The Kansas loss illustrated two concerns: What happens when jump shots don't fall? And can ISU keep a bigger opponent off the boards?

6. OKLAHOMA STATE
Record: 15-3
RPI/Ken Pomeroy rankings: 11/11
Best wins: Memphis, Colorado (neutral)
How they do it: Marcus Smart may be the best all-around player in the country. And the Cowboys are excellent at both ends. Four players average 12 points or more, including senior Markel Brown (16.6).
Who they are: Among Travis Ford's top six players are three Texans and two Louisianans. (Smart and point guard Phil Forte were high school teammates.) All played significant roles a year ago.
Question for March: The statistics are impressive, but does Smart have enough help -- especially inside -- for OSU to make a deep run?

7. CREIGHTON
Record: 15-3
RPI/Ken Pomeroy rankings: 14/6
Best wins: Xavier
How they do it: You mean besides Doug McDermott? College basketball's best offensive player creates opportunities for everyone else, but his supporting cast passes and shoots the ball beautifully, too. The underrated key, however, is CU's improved defense and rebounding, despite a small lineup.
Who they are: A veteran group, including four seniors who've all played big roles the past three seasons. The starters come from Dallas, Ottawa, Iowa and Minnesota. The coach's son is the star, but a sixth-year former transfer, Grant Gibbs, is the floor leader.
Question for March: Can the Jays' small frontcourt hold up against skilled, physical big men?

* * *

SEVEN MORE TO WATCH IN MARCH

Saint Louis: The top defensive team in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, led Wichita State by seven with 6:40 left. Its only other loss was to Wisconsin.

Oklahoma: The Sooners don't defend worth a lick. But they play one of the fastest tempos in the country and can score against anyone. They upset Baylor on Saturday.

Kansas State: The 'Cats have come a long way since losing to Northern Colorado on opening night. They've won 11 of 12, including upsets of Gonzaga and Oklahoma State.

Minnesota: After nearly upsetting Michigan State on the road, Richard Pitino got his first big win Thursday against Ohio State. The Gophers are 27th in the RPI.

Colorado: The Buffs were a top-15 team (with a win over Kansas) before Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL last week. Who knows how far they'll fall?

Missouri: A 10-0 start, featuring a win over UCLA, has turned a bit sour after losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt.

North Dakota State: A month ago, the Summit League favorite knocked off Notre Dame on the road. NDSU could be a tricky 14 or 15 seed in the NCAAs.

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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