I was listening to Colin Cowherd on the way to the airport in late December as he was discussing the impending hire of Jim Harbaugh as the next head coach of the Michigan Wolverines football program. December 29th, the black Monday in NFL coaching, saw firings of coaches and General Managers alike in Chicago, New York and Atlanta. Far from NFL powerhouses in the last 10 years, these stories didn’t deserve first take. Cowherd was much more interested in the rise of Michigan football in the coming years.
With the first college football playoff around the corner, Cowherd discussed college football’s premiere rivalry game: Ohio State and Michigan’s date in late November. He loves when the classic teams with decades of success reclaim their rightful spot as champions. Look at recent years in the world of professional and college sports. The Celtics and Lakers vied for the NBA Championship in 2008 and 2010. The Green Bay Packers are a miracle comeback away from another Super Bowl appearance. The Boston Red Sox laid claim to a third World Series title in 10 years in 2013. And Ohio State is once again National Champions of the College Football universe. Cowherd is happy.
Two classic teams sit atop the College Basketball AP and USA Today polls, both undefeated three months into the season. Kentucky, a national champion again in 2012 and runner-up last year, sits atop both polls with unanimous votes. Virginia was a staple in the early 1980s with the help of 3-time Naismith Player of the Year, Ralph Sampson. Thirty years later, the Cavaliers are defending ACC champions and looking for a longer run than a Sweet 16 birth in 2014. How will these teams stack up come March? Kentucky has faced three top-10 opponents so far this season, but has zero ranked teams left on the slate of the 12 conference games remaining. Of Virginia’s remaining 11 conference opponents, four are ranked in the top-15 including fourth-ranked Duke on Saturday. Forecasting how each team will do prior to conference tournaments has a lot to do with coaching and expectations.
Coach John Calipari is in the business of resurrecting programs. Currently in his fifth year at Kentucky and his third Division 1 head coaching stint, he has taken each of his schools to the Final 4. Coach Tony Bennett is in his second go-around, switching coasts to assemble UVA’s best team in over a decade. He’s in his fifth season as head coach and expectations have soared for the program with Bennett at the helm. Both relatively young men, each coaching style is different. Calipari’s resounding confidence comes from his ability to recruit the best in the nation every year and lead the “one-and-done” charge in college basketball these days. Bennett has focused on local recruitment along the Atlantic seaboard, expecting his players to build up to success – rather than expect it immediately.
How have the top-two teams at the end of January fared in the past three seasons? After 13 weeks in 2014, undefeated Arizona and Syracuse held the top two spots, only to see Arizona drop a game prior to the next poll. Arizona flourished to a spot in the Elite 8, while Syracuse lost to Dayton in the Round of 32. In 2013, Michigan and Kansas each dropped out of the top-two after losses in the first week of February. Michigan ended up beating Kansas in the Sweet 16, sparking a run to the championship game. In 2012, each with one loss, Kentucky and Syracuse held the top two spots to the end of the regular season, with Kentucky winning the national championship and Syracuse losing in the Elite 8. In the last ten years, 2008 was the only other year where both teams won or reached the national championship game (Kansas and Memphis).
Calipari seems to be the guy to consistently extend success from the regular season to the NCAA tournament. That kind of motivation and experience will only drive his team to further success this coming year – with fewer road blocks in conference than ever before. Yet, I’m not ready to pencil Kentucky into the Final 4 for the exact reason above. Sure, facing top-10 opponents early in the season gives each team confidence prior to conference play, but true tests come against ranked teams at the end of the season. Maybe Kentucky steamrolls to 30-0 and the media exclaims the possibility of a perfect season, the first in almost 40 years. I think a one or two-loss Virginia team is much more dangerous come tournament time because of the depth of the ACC this season. Although, I am looking forward to tuning in to Cowherd in March if Kentucky does make a run, to hear that all is right in the universe in sports.