By Steve Silverman
The countdown is on, and we are just a little bit more than a month away from Selection Sunday and the start of the NCAA tournament.
Here’s a look at the four best teams in the country right now, and unless they get hit hard by injuries, they seem likely to remain in those spots come tournament time.
Villanova Wildcats (22-2)
The Wildcats are loaded with talent and excellent leadership, both on the floor and the bench. Jalen Brunson (19.8 ppg, 54.4 shooting percentage) is a sensational player, who displays his efficiency and intelligence every time he steps on to the floor.
Mikal Bridges is the biggest complement to Brunson that the Wildcats have. He can score inside or outside and does not slack when it comes to defense. Throw in Donte DiVincenzo, and Villanova has a threesome that is going to compete from start to finish, and do it with some of the finest talent around.
Head coach Jay Wright has just the right touch with his team, and it’s not about being an old-school or new-school coach. It’s all about fostering an aura of productivity and taking care of business, and Wright’s players have bought in completely.
Some may want to panic after the Wildcats dropped a 79-75 decision to St. John’s Wednesday, but don’t overreact to this defeat. Villanova is not about to doubt itself after this loss.
Virginia Cavaliers (23-1)
Any team that goes up against the Cavaliers knows they are in for a battle against a physically strong and mentally tough team.
Virginia’s greatest asset is its remarkable defense. The Cavs rank first in scoring defense at 52.7 points per game allowed and points in the paint allowed at 21.2 per night.
Head coach Tony Bennett has long made defense his signature, just as it was for his father, former Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett. But there’s a lot more to this team. Kyle Guy is a clutch scorer, who is averaging 15.4 points per game, and Devon Hall is fairly close behind at 12.3 points per night.
Virginia has proved to be the class of the ACC, with a 12-0 record to this point, and they are unlikely to go into a slump.
Purdue Boilermakers (23-3)
Who knew that Matt Painter’s team would turn into some kind of juggernaut?
At the start of the season, Purdue looked solid and like they would be a tough out in the Big Ten. But nobody thought they would be the kind of team that would reel off 19 straight wins.
That win streak came to an end Wednesday at home against Ohio State, but we can’t get over this team’s unselfishness. The Boilers are scoring 83.2 points per game (25th in the country), and averaging 17.9 assists (ninth in the country).
They are winning by 19.0 points per game, an overwhelming margin of victory. Carsen Edwards is scoring a team-high 17.0 points per game, while Dakota Mathias is handing out 4.4 assists per night.
Michigan State (23-3)
The Spartans appear to be back in form again, as they have won seven in a row after losing two of three to Ohio State and Michigan.
Tom Izzo obviously has a lot to deal with outside of the basketball arena, given the controversies surrounding the sex abuse case of Larry Nasser that has impacted the university. And one can make the case that Izzo has not handled that situation well.
However, he has a wonderfully talented team that may be hitting its stride. Miles Bridges is a sensational player, averaging 17.7 points per game, while Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston are big-time contributors. Michigan State is connecting on 51.7 percent of its shots from the field and an impressive 41.5 percent of its three-point shots.
Saturday’s game at home against the Boilermakers is the Big Ten’s regular-season game of the year.
UNC’s Joel Berry disses NC State
North Carolina State played a sensational game in late January, when it went to Chapel Hill and beat North Carolina 95-91 in overtime.
Star guard Joel Berry of North Carolina may have put his foot in his mouth when assessing the Wolfpack, saying that North Carolina State was not a true rival of the Tar Heels.
“I don’t necessarily treat that as a rivalry,” said Berry of NC State. “When you talk about a rivalry, you always talk about Duke-North Carolina. That’s the biggest one. I love being a part of the Duke-Carolina rivalry, but NC State, I just don’t consider that being a rivalry — we just don’t like them. It’s not a rivalry like Duke and North Carolina.”
Berry may have been hyping up Thursday’s game against Duke, but the Tar Heels go to Raleigh Saturday. Look for the Wolfpack and their fans to have an extra special welcome for Berry.
Nobody likes to be diminished, and that includes North Carolina State.
Numbers, we have numbers
Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike of Kansas has made 150-of-199 FG attempts this season and is shooting an incredible 75.4 percent from the floor to lead the nation. Raasean Davis of North Carolina Central is connecting on an impressive 69.9 percent of his shots, while Michigan State’s Ward is No. 3 at 69.5 percent. … Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman of Michigan has a 5.27-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and that makes him the top-ranked player in the nation in that category. Jeff Dowtin of Rhode Island is second at 4.77-1, while Kent State’s Jalen Avery is third at 4.75-1. … North Carolina-Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok is averaging 13.3 boards per night, and that’s the top figure in the nation. Jemerrio Jones of New Mexico State and James Thompson IV of Eastern Michigan are tied for second at 12.0 rebounds per night.