Several Candidates for No. 2 Spot Behind Unbeaten Kentucky
AARON BEARD, AP Basketball Writer
There’s no argument about who is No. 1.
The second-best team in the nation behind Kentucky, however, is up for debate.
This week, Virginia is the No. 2 in the Top 25. But Gonzaga keeps winning out West. Duke is led by a freshman who is probably the nation’s best big man. Wisconsin has experienced talent. And Villanova, coming in at No. 6 this week, can be a tough matchup with its ability to shoot the 3-pointer.
It would have been an easier choice before Virginia lost guard Justin Anderson to a finger injury. As long as he’s out, the Cavaliers are in flux.
And that opens the door for Wisconsin.
The Badgers aren’t the most explosive team, but they can go on efficient runs that turn close games into blowouts. Beyond the obvious stats, they protect the ball (No. 21 nationally in turnover margin), rebound (No. 21 in rebounding margin) and avoid mistakes (third in assist-to-turnover margin).
If senior floor leader Traevon Jackson, who is out as he recovers from a January foot injury, can get all the way back, the tournament-tested Badgers have the look of a team to trust.
Here’s a closer look at the candidates in the race for No. 2 behind the undefeated Wildcats:
NO. 2 VIRGINIA
The Cavaliers (24-1) are miserable to play against. They control tempo and play defense that makes opponents work for everything. The reigning Atlantic Coast Conference champions also have experience and complete trust in coach Tony Bennett’s formula.
But losing Anderson for several weeks makes things tougher. He’s a physical guard averaging about 13 points and shooting an ACC-best 48 percent from 3-point range, and the Cavs won their first two games without him by a combined five points before Monday’s 61-49 win against Pittsburgh.
“They miss (Anderson), but they’ve still got a really, really good team that understands Tony’s system and they play very well together,” said Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, whose team lost 61-60 to the Cavaliers on Saturday.
NO. 3 GONZAGA
Gonzaga’s offense is humming. The Zags (26-1) entered the week shooting a national-best 52.7 percent and leading the country in points per 100 possessions (127.7) in a show of efficiency, according to STATS. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer gives the Zags an inside-outside scorer alongside a strong backcourt. And their only loss came at now-No. 7 Arizona in overtime.
“We’re as balanced as probably we’ve ever been up here,” coach Mark Few after last week’s win against Loyola Marymount.
But Gonzaga remains an annual mystery in one respect: Trying to measure its West Coast Conference dominance against power-conference teams. The Zags have played just two ranked opponents this year and haven’t survived the tournament’s opening weekend since 2009.
NO. 4 DUKE
Freshman big man Jahlil Okafor has been as good as advertised, averaging 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 67 percent. He’s also a solid passer against steady double teams to create openings for Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Wins at both Virginia and Wisconsin say plenty about this team’s upside.
“There’s not one key when you’re playing Duke,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “You’ve got to play a total game.”
But the Blue Devils (22-3) struggled defensively in losses to North Carolina State and Miami, particularly against dribble penetration. Kicking Rasheed Sulaimon off the team this month didn’t help on that front, either, leaving the Blue Devils vulnerable to foul trouble with only eight scholarship players — though all were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school.
NO. 5 WISCONSIN
Preseason All-American 7-footer Frank Kaminsky can score (17.3), rebound (8.3) and shoot from outside, while Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are strong frontcourt sidekicks on a veteran team coming off a Final Four run.
Wisconsin (23-2) is also one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, ranking second to Gonzaga in points per 100 possessions, according to STATS.
The Badgers miss Jackson running the show for them, though sophomore Bronson Koenig has filled in well. And the defense isn’t exactly of the lockdown variety.
“I’d still like to see more production from the eight guys that hit the floor,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “And that includes the starters, in some ways: rebounding, defense. So I’ll always find things.”
NO. 6 VILLANOVA
When Villanova (24-2) is playing well — as during its first-half domination of Georgetown — the Wildcats are a scary matchup with their ability to spread the floor. They also have tremendous balance with six guys averaging at least 9.2 points led by Darrun Hilliard, who hit a game-winner at Butler on Saturday.
But they rely heavily on the 3 (eight made per game), so what happens if the shot isn’t falling? And Villanova has had a recent history of late-season fades, last reaching the round of 16 in 2009.
“We’ve been good enough to win,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said after this month’s win against Marquette, “but I really think we’re a work in progress.”
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