Friday, April 13, 2012

Way Too Early College Basketball Preview

Even the Fresh Prince would be jealous of this!
The 2011-2012 college basketball season is now fully in our rearview mirror, and while I’d love to eternally cling to the memory of Kansas players fearfully hurling the ball 40 feet in the air to avoid being blocked by Anthony Davis’ uni-brow (though he somehow ended up blocking most of those anyways), even I must carve out enough room in my heart to look forward to next year.

Truth is, the realities of college basketball allow very little time for celebrating and reminiscing. One day, your team is covered with confetti and holding up a championship trophy. The next, you’re accepting the reality that you’ll never see them suit up for your team again, and you’re calling timeouts during your weekly pick-up game to check your phone for updates on whether the #1 recruit in the nation committed to your team. (Note: He did, and I was so pumped that I promptly went out and scored all seven of our team’s points in the next game.) On one hand, it’s a sad reality to see your team constantly broken apart, especially when you’ve become really attached to a particular group of players. On the other hand, the prospect of getting to know new players is fun, and the hope and excitement of a fresh start is something that is totally unique to college athletics.

And that, my friends, is precisely the point we are at right now. The draft deadline passed on Monday, sort of, and we have a nearly complete picture of who is going pro. And national signing day passed yesterday, giving us a nearly complete picture on what each team will be bringing in. Sadness at losing our favorite guys, but excitement at bringing in the next generation of “favorite guys.”

So, since we’ve mostly completed this particular cycle of player movement, and since we now have a pretty good idea of what the college basketball landscape will look like in 2012-2013, it’s finally time to unveil our Way Too Early College Basketball Preview. A couple things before we start:

- For now, I’m only doing a Top 10. I’d love to give you a legit reason for only doing 10, but I’d only be lying if I said it was anything other than pure laziness. To me, that seems legit enough.

- A lot can, and will, happen between now and the start of next season. Because the NCAA’s early entry deadline is a giant farce and is totally unenforceable, there will still he movement on the NBA Draft front. Also, there are still a few impact recruits out there (Anthony Bennett, Tony Parker, Devonte Pollard, Amile Jefferson, others), as well as one impact transfer that we know of (Alex Oriakhi). The decisions of these players, as well as the inevitable slew of transfers/academic problems/behavioral problems/injuries that annually undermine at least a few contenders, will dramatically alter the landscape in the coming months. So if my premature preview looks horrible by the start of the season…well, let’s be honest and just say that you probably already knew it would look horrible. Let’s get to it.

1. Louisville
  • Last Year: 30-10 (10-8, 7th); Lost in Final Four
  • Key Returnees: G Peyton Siva, G Russ Smith, F Chane Behanan, C Gorgui Dieng, F Rakeem Buckles, G/F Wayne Blackshear, Jared Swopshire, Kevin Ware
  • Key Losses: G Kyle Kuric, G Chris Smith
  • Recruiting: Unranked Class (PG Terry Rozier #12 PG/#74 Overall)
  • Outlook: You have no idea how much it pains me to put Loser-ville at #1, but there’s just no way around it since they’re bringing back a nearly intact Final Four team. Sure, they had their struggles last year, and finishing a measly 7th in their conference didn’t happen by accident. You know what else didn’t happen by accident? Their crazy run to a Big East tournament championship and the Final Four. With Dieng doing his best Anthony Davis impersonation, and a group of quick guards constantly harassing the ball, Louisville already plays championship level defense. And with Rakeem Buckles and Wayne Blackshear no longer dealing with injuries, the Cardinals have more than enough talent for Pitino to bring home a second championship.
  • Big Question: Where do the points come from? At the end of the day, no matter how good your defense is, you still have to put points on the board. By this point, we already know what Peyton Siva is, and Gorgui Dieng is far too limited on the offensive end to be anything more than a garbage collector. Russ Smith could be the go-to scorer, but I’m always dubious of high volume, low efficiency scorers like him. That leaves the two prize recruits of last year’s class, Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear. Behanan has some serious Draymond Green potential, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he emerged as Louisville’s go-to guy by the start of conference play. Blackshear, on the other hand, could be the real X-factor. He was severely limited by injury last year, but his Final Four showing, against Kentucky nonetheless, spoke volumes about his ability. With Behanan doing work down low, and Blackshear slashing and creating on the perimeter, offensive woes may soon be a thing of the past for Louisville.
2. Indiana
  • Last Year: 27-9 (11-7, 5th); Lost in Sweet Sixteen
  • Key Returnees: C Cody Zeller, F Christian Watford, G Victor Oladipo, G Jordan Hulls, F Will Sheehey, G Maurice Creek
  • Key Losses: G Verdell Jones III
  • Recruiting: #10 Class (PG Yogi Ferrell #3 PG/#24 Overall; SF Jeremy Hollowell #10 SF/#42 Overall; PF Hanner Perea #15 PF/#71; SG Ron Patterson #25 SG; C Peter Jurkin #26 C)
  • Outlook: Having Louisville and Indiana back-to-back at the top of my fictional preseason poll is a personal apocalypse (though softened by the knowledge that Kentucky FINISHED last season at the top), but again, what am I supposed to do? Louisville is really good, and the decisions of Zeller and Watford to return cemented Indiana as their equals. Zeller, in particular, should be primed for a monster season, as an extra year of strength and a bit of refinement in his post-up game should mark him as the best center in the nation. And if Victor Oladipo can improve his jump shot, he could easily make the leap from local legend to household hame. All in all, this team has every ingredient you’d want in a national champion, and with Tom Crean at the helm, I find it hard to envision them underachieving.
  • Big Question: Is Yogi Ferrell an instant impact guy? While IU certainly has a great recruiting class lined up, I’m dubious of their ability to contribute right away. After all, there’s a reason why neither Hollowell or Perea are rated in the top 40. Ferrell, though, seems to be in a different class, and it’s realistic to expect a big contribution from him in his freshman season. Goodness knows IU needs it, as they went through all of last year without a true PG on the roster. That issue didn’t always manifest itself, especially when they were on fire from three, but it reared its ugly head at some very inopportune times. On several occasions, there were long stretches of play in which Zeller would hardly ever see the ball, and that type of thing happens when there is no floor leader to take control of the game. Needless to say, IU lost most of those games. If Ferrell is as good as advertised, and is ready to take on big minutes and responsibilities, then those types of lapses should be far and few between, resulting in more IU wins.
3. Kentucky
  • Last Year: 38-2 (16-0, 1st); Won National Championship
  • Key Returnees: F Kyle Wiltjer, G/F Jon Hood, G Doron Lamb (just an opinion)
  • Key Losses: F Anthony Davis, F Terrence Jones, F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, G/F Darius Miller, G Marquis Teague
  • Recruiting: #1 Class (C Nerlens Noel #1 C/#1 Overall; SF Alex Poythress #3 SF/#13 Overall; SG Archie Goodwin #4 SG/#15 Overall; C Willie Cauley #11 C/#40 Overall; PG Ryan Harrow – Transfer from N.C. State)
  • Outlook: Another year, another crop of freshman studs. No matter how talented the freshman, it defies odds that any coach could continue winning in this fashion, yet Calipari has now done it three straight seasons, capping off that run with a national championship. After landing top recruit, Nerlens Noel, last night, a reputed Anthony Davis level defender, it certainly is possible. Alongside him are two McDonalds All-Americans in Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, an underrated seven footer in Willie Cauley, and Ryan Harrow, a transfer from N.C. State that was, at one time, one of the most highly rated PG’s coming out of high school.  And don’t forget, the Wildcats return Kyle Wiltjer, one of the sweetest shooting players in all of college basketball. Wiltjer simply wasn’t going to find much time last year behind Jones and Davis, but he looks poised for a breakout sophomore campaign.
  • Big Question: In all seriousness, the whole thing is a big giant question. A massively talented question, but a question nonetheless. Can Noel offset the loss of Davis? Are Goodwin and Poythress ready to carry the scoring load out of the gate? Can Wiltjer take the next step in his development? Does the team have enough depth? All of these are legit questions, and it will be interesting to see how Calipari answers them. He always seems to do so, but it’s still fair to wonder this early in the process. Since I’m a Kentucky fan, I feel it’s only fair that I offer my take on some of these questions. I am NOT concerned about scoring. I’ve watched Goodwin and Poythress several times, and I feel confident they will be every bit as impactful as guys like Brandon Knight and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were as freshman. Poythress, in particular, is a guy that I’m excited about. Even at #13 overall, I feel he is massively underrated, and I look for him to be a strong contender for National Freshman of the Year honors. He and Wiltjer are a somewhat unconventional frontcourt pairing, but I can definitely see them posing huge matchup nightmares. Finally, I think the current issue with backcourt depth will be solved thanks to a return by Doron Lamb. That’s right; I think he’s coming back. Next year’s draft is significantly weaker than this year’s, and he stands to gain at least 10 spots, even if he doesn’t improve one bit. With Lamb in tow, this team might not fall off too much from last year’s team.
4. North Carolina State
  • Last Year: 24-13 (9-7, 5th); Lost in Sweet Sixteen
  • Key Returnees: F C.J. Leslie, G Lorenzo Brown, G/F Scott Wood, F Richard Howell, F/C DeShawn Painter
  • Key Losses: G/F C.J. Williams
  • Recruiting: #9 Class (SG Rodney Purvis #5 SG/#20 Overall; SF T.J. Warren #8 SF/#29 Overall; PG Tyler Lewis #5 PG/#44 Overall)
  • Outlook: The Wolfpack had a schizophrenic year last season, losing 6 of 9 RIGHT BEFORE reeling off 6 of their last 8, including a run to the Sweet Sixteen. Injuries played a slight role in the struggles, but mostly it was a product of talented young players needing to grow up. They did, and in a big way. By the end of the season, you couldn’t name five stronger defensive teams. Assuming C.J. Leslie doesn’t make a tragically bad decision in regards to entering the draft, Mark Gottfried will return his five best players, including the conference’s strongest frontcourt. If that weren’t enough, he brings in a stud recruiting class that should shore up the team’s lack of punch in the backcourt and on the wing.
  • Big Question: Is Leslie in or out? C.J. Leslie is a nightmare cover for opponents, and he‘s undoubtedly the superstar of this team, leading them in scoring, steals, blocks, and FG%. Without him, N.C. State is still a good team, maybe even good enough to win the ACC. But there’s a pretty sizable difference between ‘good’ and ‘great.’ Good gets you to the Sweet Sixteen, great gets you to the Final Four and beyond, and without C.J. Leslie, the Wolfpack aren’t getting to the Final Four.
5. Michigan St.
  • Last Year: 29-8 (13-5, t-1st); Lost in Sweet Sixteen
  • Key Returnees: G Keith Appling, F Branden Dawson, C Derrick Nix, F/C Adreian Payne, G Travis Trice
  • Key Losses: F Draymond Green, G Brandon Wood, G Austin Thornton
  • Recruiting: #8 Class (SG Gary Harris #2 SG/#11 Overall; PF Kenny Kaminski #16 PF/#85 Overall; PF Matt Costello #17 PF/#86 Overall; SF Denzell Valentine #26 SF/#97 Overall)
  • Outlook: It seems absurd that a team losing one of the three most impactful players in the country would not skip a beat, but that seems to be the case in East Lansing. Yes, there will likely be an awkward post-Draymond adjustment period for the Spartans, in which everybody stands around and wonders who is going to shoot the ball, but I have no doubt that Michigan State will emerge as strong as ever. Both Appling and Dawson (assuming he’s fully recovered) should be capable of handling a greater offensive load, but they’re not the real reason I’m so high on this team. The real reason is Adreian Payne, who oozes talent like White Castle burgers ooze grease. Payne’s always been a bit of a project player, but this should be the year when the project comes to fruition. If so, he has the size and ability to be every bit as good as Cody Zeller or anyone else in the Big Ten. Watch out!
  • Big Question: Who hits perimeter shots? This was a big question for the Spartans last year, and their inability to answer it ended in their ultimate demise. Now, with their three best shooters graduating, the question rings as loud as ever. While some of the solution will have to come internally – likely from Travis Trice, Russell Byrd, or an improved Keith Appling (who got Rondo’d last year!) – a large part of it will likely be solved by incoming freshman Gary Harris. Harris isn’t necessarily going to set the world on fire from downtown, but he should be able to knock down a lot of the open looks that Michigan State typically missed last season. Overall, the guy is an absolute scoring machine, and that’s exactly what the Spartans need in the backcourt.
6. Florida
  • Last Year: 26-11 (10-6, t-2nd); Lost in Elite Eight
  • Key Returnees: G Kenny Boynton, F Erik Murphy, F/C Patric Young, G Mike Rosario, F Will Yeguette, G Scottie Wilbiken
  • Key Losses: G Bradley Beal, G Erving Walker
  • Recruiting: #25 Class (PG Braxton Ogbueze #7 PG/#50 Overall; SG Michael Frazier #22 SG; SG Dillon Graham #30 SG )
  • Outlook: I go through the same cycle with Florida every single year: overrate them in the preseason because of their talent, watch them stumble out of the gate and generally underachieve in the regular season, feel dumb for believing in them to begin with, publicly denounce them and declare how wrong I was, and watch them shortly thereafter make some nonsensical run deep into the tournament. It’s a vicious cycle that really strips me of all self-confidence at least a couple times a year. So, let’s start the cycle all over again, shall we? Despite the losses of Beal and Walker (addition by subtraction to that end), I love the makeup of their roster and I think they have the potential to make another tournament run. They have great balance, and will start up to four upperclassmen, making them one of the most experienced teams in the SEC. As a Kentucky fan, the guy I really fear is Patric Young. Young has always had the talent, but has just been too raw to properly utilize it. Quietly, he made huge strides last season, especially on the offensive end. Now in his junior season, Young could very well blow up, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but I am terrified of it.
  • Big Question: Who is Boynton’s running mate? Walker’s 14 year run as starting PG is finally over, and it seems all but assured that Beal is off to the NBA Draft. That leaves Boynton to shoulder the burden unless someone else steps up. That someone could be Mike Rosario. Rosario was a high profile transfer from Rutgers last season, but he never could find his groove and he wound up getting buried behind both Beal and Boynton. Make no mistake though; Rosario can definitely score, averaging over 16 PPG in each of his two seasons at Rutgers. With more opportunity and less looking over his shoulder, perhaps Rosario can regain that form in his senior year.
7. Ohio State
  • Last Year: 31-8 (13-5, t-1st); Lost in Final Four
  • Key Returnees: G Aaron Craft, F DeShaun Thomas, G Lenzelle Smith Jr., F Sam Thompson, F/C Amir Williams, G Shannon Scott, G/F LaQuinton Ross, F Evan Ravenel, G Jordan Sibert
  • Key Losses: F Jared Sullinger, G William Buford
  • Recruiting: Nobody…yet
  • Outlook: The Buckeyes are a tough team to peg heading into next year. Sullinger is a huge loss (literally and figuratively), and the team will have to undergo a complete identity change as a result. However, the cupboards are far from bare in Columbus. Craft, Thomas, and Smith were all key contributors last season, and the trio should be able to make the post-Sully transition fairly seamless. Thomas, in particular, bears watching. His improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 was massive, and with the opportunity to be the unquestioned “go-to guy,” he could find himself in the thick of the POY race.
  • Big Question: What will the Buckeyes get from their talented quartet of sophomores? Thompson, Williams, Scott, and Ross comprised one of the nation’s top recruiting classes last year, but they mostly failed to live up to their billing as freshman. Lack of opportunity was their biggest road block, but that’s no longer an issue. Playing time is out there to be had, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least a couple of them make a big leap. Amir Williams, in particular, is a guy Ohio State needs to step up. With Sully gone, there just isn’t a whole lot inside…and no, I’m not counting Evan Ravenel. Williams won’t score like Sullinger, but he can provide the type of long defensive anchor that Ohio State hasn’t had in quite some time.
8. Syracuse
  • Last Year: 34-3 (17-1, 1st); Lost in Elite Eight
  • Key Returnees: G Brandon Triche, F C.J. Fair, F James Southerland, C Rakeem Christmas, G Michael Carter-Williams, G Trevor Cooney
  • Key Losses: F Kris Joseph, G Scoop Jardine, C Fab Melo, G Dion Waiters
  • Recruiting: #15 Class (C DaJuan Coleman #6 C/#14 Overall; PF Jerami Grant #11 PF/#37 Overall)
  • Outlook: Other than Kentucky, perhaps no program in the country is getting hit harder by defections than Syracuse. Yet, here they are, reloaded and back in the top ten. In fact, some of the replacements might actually be better than their predecessors! C.J. Fair and James Southerland were extremely productive in limited roles, and the two of them should more than make up for the loss of Kris Joseph. Meanwhile, Michael Carter-Williams might very well be the nation’s best breakout sophomore, and I personally think he’s a major upgrade over the perpetually overrated Scoop Jardine. Finally, there’s Fab Melo, who is most certainly a fine defensive player, but whose impact is constantly overplayed due to the vaunted Syracuse zone. Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman most likely won’t block as many shots, but their games are much more well rounded. Also, I’d rather have two stud centers than one. Any day.
  • Big Question: Can they generate any offense off their bench? Dion Waiters’ ability to come off the bench and immediately score points was invaluable to Syracuse, and his defection is probably the hardest one to swallow. There simply aren’t many guys who can step on the floor and immediately be hot. Both Coleman and Grant should be able to give them some interior scoring off the bench, but that still doesn’t fill the Dion Waiters role. The solution might come in the form of Trevor Cooney. Cooney, a former top 50 recruit, redshirted last season in the face of a crowded backcourt situation. However, his reputation as a sharp shooter may prove him invaluable this season. If he falters, there really isn’t much behind him.
9. Baylor
  • Last Year: 30-8 (12-6, t-3rd); Lost in Elite Eight
  • Key Returnees: F Quincy Miller, G Pierre Jackson, G Brady Heslip, G A.J. Walton, F Cory Jefferson, F Deuce Bello,
  • Key Losses: F Perry Jones, F Quincy Acy, F Anthony Jones
  • Recruiting: #5 Class (C Isaiah Austin #2 C/#3 Overall; PF Ricardo Gathers #10 PF/#36 Overall; PG L.J. Rose #9 PG/#63 Overall; C Chad Rykhoek)
  • Outlook: On pure talent alone, the Bears are probably a top 5 team even after losing Perry Jones to the draft. But hasn’t that been the case for a few years now? And yet, they never seem to play up to it. Believe me, that fact has me nervous about ranking them so high, but it’s just hard to ignore such a deep, balanced roster. Thanks to the return of Quincy Miller, a veritable Perry Jones clone, and the additions of Isaiah Austin and Ricardo Gathers, Baylor could be even more potent in the low post than they were before. And if Pierre Jackson, Deuce Bello, and freshman L.J. Rose can consistently create off the dribble, Baylor might find themselves hanging a Final Four banner…and subsequently taking it down since we now know that Scott Drew cheats.
  • Big Question: Coaching. Coaching. Coaching. Baylor has not lacked for talent the past few seasons, but they never seem to play with the same type of discipline and cohesion that a Kentucky or Kansas does. Coincidentally, that’s probably why Kentucky and Kansas were playing for the national title, while Scott Drew was home making a few thousand impermissible phone calls to recruits. In a related story, Perry Jones and other big time recruits like Nolan Dennis never got a single bit better in their time at Baylor. So yeah, I have questions.
10. Michigan
  • Last Year: 24-10 (13-5, t-1st); Lost in First Round
  • Key Returnees: G Tim Hardaway Jr., G Trey Burke, F Jordan Morgan, F Jon Horford
  • Key Losses: G Zack Novak, F Evan Smotrycz, G/F Stu Douglass
  • Recruiting: #12 Class (SF Glenn Robinson #5 SF/#18 Overall; PF Mitch McGary #5 PF/#27 Overall; SF Nik Stauskas #21 SF/#76 Overall)
  • Outlook: I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Michigan wouldn’t be sniffing the top ten had Trey Burke stayed in the draft. He, not Tim Hardaway, was the game changing player for Michigan, and his return cements them as a legit contender in a very loaded Big Ten. Of course, bringing in two stud recruits doesn’t hurt either, especially when one is perhaps the best pure scorer coming out of high school. If you want to know what Glenn Robinson plays like, then you should probably just go watch some old tape of his dad, Glenn Robinson, because they are the exact same player. He won’t be fighting too hard for rebounds, and he certainly won’t be playing much defense, but he’ll be scoring. A lot. And for a team that relied far too much on the fickle jump shooting of Zack Novak, the upgrade to a creator like Robinson could potentially be transformative.
  • Big Question: Can they compete in the low post? We know how lethal they can be from the perimeter, but how well are Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, and Mitch McGary going to hold up down low? For their part, each is a highly talented player, fully capable of playing with just about anyone. But Morgan and Horford have struggled with injuries and inconsistency thus far, while the freshman, McGary, may or may not be prepared to be a starter at the Big Ten level. If they can’t finish significantly higher than their 311th national ranking in rebounding, while also kicking in a few more easy looks from down low, then there’s probably no way for Michigan to improve on last season’s results.


  1. Nice write up (I think you put more thought into this than Andy Katz does). FYI, I doubt that it would do much to change your rankings, but DeShawn Painter is transferring from NC State.

  2. Thanks for the nice words, and thanks for the info on Painter. I was not aware. As you said, it probably doesn't change the order, but I'd have to stare a lot harder at Michigan State. I thought Painter was a lot better than people gave him credit for, and it was huge for State that they didn't drop off much when Howell went to the bench. Still, it's not like Painter was Anthony Davis or anything.