Thursday, August 16, 2007

Summer Thoughts and Observations, Vol. 2

With the start of practice still two months away, college basketball is still not at the front of most people's minds. However, the summer has not been without college hoops action and discussion. Opinions and predictions for next season are starting to form and high school ball was all the talk in July. With that in mind, I have decided to continue the column I began last summer, entitled “Rants and Ramblings.” However, I used the same title for my NBA Draft reaction article last month, so I’m going to change the title to the one seen at the top of this post. Every couple of weeks until the season starts, I will comment about the ongoings in the college basketball world. This edition discusses many of the things I noticed while perusing the rosters of every BCS-conference team last week, from potential line-up and roster problems to general conference patterns.

The first edition focused mainly on the Big Ten and the Big East; this one will focus on the SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, and ACC.

- There’s going to be a lot of scrambling for second place in the SEC after Tennessee. The Volunteers are the clear-cut number one team in the conference, but it is wide-open after that. There are up to four teams with a legit case for being No. 2 in the league, namely Mississippi State, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Alabama. The Bulldogs have one of the best guards in the country in Jamont Gordon, as well as a go-to post player in Charles Rhodes. Arkansas is very deep and can throw a variety of line-ups on the floor. Gary Ervin needs to show he can be consistent at the point, though. Kentucky is loaded on the perimeter, with returnees Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, as well as newcomer Alex Legion. If freshman Patrick Patterson can dominate the post, the Wildcats could be tough. Alabama was extremely disappointing last season, but it returns a terrific quartet in point guard Ronald Steele, wings Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley, and big man Richard Hendrix. Don’t count out the two-time defending national champs, either. Florida has a terrific recruiting class and will be a tough out come February and March.

- Can either Auburn or Georgia make the leap in the SEC? Those are the two teams after the aforementioned group most likely to reach the postseason, but both could be either mediocre NIT teams or legitimate NCAA Tournament clubs. Auburn has plenty of experience and talent, both inside and outside, but the Tigers have not proven they are able to be a contender in the conference. Georgia was a bubble team at times last season, but faded slightly down the stretch. Takais Brown returns to anchor the inside, and Sundiata Gaines is a playmaker on the perimeter. The key could be Mike Mercer. He tore his ACL last season, and won’t be available for the start of the season. It will be interesting to see when he comes back and how effective he is.

- The Pac-10 is clearly the best conference in the country, with up to seven potentially Top-25 caliber teams. UCLA is a Final Four contender; Washington State will give them a run; Stanford and Oregon both are Sweet Sixteen-type teams; USC has plenty of talent, but they are relatively inexperienced; and Arizona and Washington are also in the running for the rankings. It should be a terrific race for conference tournament seeding this season.

- Don’t forget about California or Arizona State, either. While neither is looking like a Top 25 team for the upcoming season, they are both going to be extremely tough teams to play. The Golden Bears have one of the best frontcourt duos in the country in Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin. They also have Duke transfer Jamal Boykin and redshirt Jordan Wilkes up front. Arizona State will also be a potential surprise in the league. Jeff Pendergraph and Duke transfer Erik Boateng will anchor the inside, while Christian Polk and five-star recruit James Harden add plenty of firepower on the wings. They key for both teams will be point guard play, from Cal’s Jerome Randle and ASU’s Derek Glasser.

- Baylor is going to have a very underrated perimeter group. Curtis Jerrells is one of the best all-around guards in the conference and Aaron Bruce is a very good scorer. Henry Dugat also averaged double-figures in points, while the diminutive Demond Carter can also fill it up. Throw in big-time recruit Lacedarius Dunn and the Bears are absolutely stocked at the guards and on the wings. They are going to be difficult to match-up with, in terms of depth and talent in the backcourt.

- I think Kansas State could be primed for a disappointing season, despite the hype that they are receiving from various outlets. Sure, freshman Michael Beasley and redshirt freshman Bill Walker are phenomenal talents that can do plenty of things on the court and returnee David Hoskins is a very good forward, but I just think that the Wildcats have a lot of weaknesses. They essentially have two combo guards in Blake Young and Clent Stewart, the aforementioned forward trio, and undersized freshman forward Dominique Sutton. They likely won’t have consistent point guard play, nor will they have a player that will do the dirty work inside and defend the post. Furthermore, they have a first-year college head coach in Frank Martin. They will probably still make the NCAA Tournament based on talent alone, but this is a one-and-done team in March.

- Although Texas loses the best player in the country in Kevin Durant, the Longhorns will have more line-up options in 2007-2008. D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams form one of the best backcourts in the country, and fellow starters Damion James and Dameon Mason also return. This year, though, they will have a slew of quality big men to utilize in the post instead of throwing the 6-7 James down there. They can move James to small forward and go with two big men, namely freshman Clint Chapman or returnees Connor Atchley, Dexter Pittman, and Matt Hill. Mason can become a very good sixth man or stay in the starting line-up if James stays at the power forward position. Rick Barnes will have a deeper team this season, meaning he has more personnel to use in a variety of line-ups.

- Missouri has a chance to be a surprise in the Big 12 this season. Mike Anderson has had a year to implement his fast-paced, pressure defense, “40 Minutes of Hell” style, and will now have another athletic forward in the mix with Vanderbilt transfer DeMarre Carroll. He can score and rebound and will form a very good frontcourt trio with wing Marshall Brown and forward Matt Lawrence. Leyon Lyons is solid down low if Anderson wants to go big. Point guard Stefhon Hannah is one of the best guards in the Big 12, and Keon Lawrence can score. The Tigers are definitely going to be fun to watch.

- I know Al Skinner always gets the most out of his teams and it is a terrible idea to underestimate Boston College, but the Eagles have just one ACC-ready guard on the roster. That’s it—one. Tyrese Rice is one of the best guards in the country, but outside of him, the cupboard is almost bare in the backcourt. Biko Paris was not heavily recruited out of high school, but he will be thrown into the fire immediately. He is going to have to play well for BC to compete. The Eagles will have a solid frontcourt led by Shamari Spears, but it’s the backcourt that will be the key.

- I think Clemson could be a very tough team in the ACC if someone steps up at the point guard spot. Freshman Demontez Stitt will likely be the first option, as he is a pure point guard who can create havoc on the defensive end and score the ball as well. If he proves to be the answer, look out. Combine Stitt with scoring guards Cliff Hammonds and K.C. Rivers, and forwards James Mays and Trevor Booker, and the Tigers will have an athletic group capable of matching up with anyone.

- Despite the losses of Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young to the NBA Draft and Mario West to graduation, I think that Georgia Tech is vastly underrated heading into the season. Freshman point guard Maurice Miller should become a solid point guard, while transfer Matt Causey can also help replace Crittenton at the lead guard position. Lewis Clinch should come back after getting kicked off the team last season, and will combine with Anthony Morrow to form a very good scoring duo on the wing. That will help ease the loss of Young. The Yellow Jackets are going to be very deep, capable of throwing different options and line-ups on the court. Freshman Gani Lawal could be a player to watch in the frontcourt. He can do a variety of things and is very active. If he makes an immediate impact and Miller can step in at the point, Tech will likely improve on last season’s NCAA Tournament first-round exit.

- There is going to plenty of shuffling in the middle part of the ACC this season. After the top four of North Carolina, Duke, North Carolina State, and Clemson, there is room for a lot of moving and shaking in the standings. You have Georgia Tech, Virginia, Maryland, Boston College, and Florida State as the teams likely to finish 5-9. After that, Miami and Wake Forest also have the talent to make a move in the standings. It will be interesting to see if either of them can make the jump. I think Virginia Tech will finish last, and the aforementioned foursome will finish at the top, but spots 5-11 are entirely up for grabs, and likely won’t be sorted out until early March. It will be an exciting race to follow.

Part three of the Summer Thoughts and Observations series will cover some mid-major talk and the latest happenings in the college basketball world.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Summer Thoughts and Observations, Vol. 1

With the start of practice still over two months away, college basketball is still not at the front of most people's minds. However, the summer has not been without college hoops action and discussion. Opinions and predictions for next season are starting to form and high school ball was all the talk in July. With that in mind, I have decided to continue the column I began last summer, entitled “Rants and Ramblings.” However, I used the same title for my NBA Draft reaction article last month, so I’m going to change the title to the one seen at the top of this post. Every couple of weeks until the season starts, I will comment about the ongoings in the college basketball world. This edition discusses many of the things I noticed while perusing the rosters of every BCS-conference team last week, from potential line-up and roster problems to general conference patterns.

- The bottom part of the Big Ten is going to be awful. After the clear top five (MSU, Indiana, Wisconsin, OSU, Illinois) and Purdue, it does not look promising whatsoever for the conference. Michigan loses four starters and returns no one who averaged over 5.7 points per game; Penn State looks okay on paper, but they went 2-14 in the conference last season; Minnesota has a new coach in Tubby Smith and returns all but one starter—but they won nine games all of last season. As bad as that seems, the bottom two teams, Iowa and Northwestern, will be even worse—by far. When trying to figure out the line-ups for both teams, I couldn’t find a worthy starting five. That’s a microcosm of how bad the bottom of the Big Ten is.

- Even though Florida lost its top six players, including three top-ten draft picks, could Ohio State be in worse position than the Gators heading into next season? They return one starter (Jamar Butler) and three rotation players (David Lighty, Othello Hunter, and Matt Terwilliger). They also bring in a very good recruiting class, including five-star center Kosta Koufos. However, I don’t really see where the scoring is going to come from. Last year, Mike Conley could penetrate, Greg Oden could get points in the paint, Ron Lewis could create his own shot, and Ivan Harris hit timely threes. Even Daequan Cook could score. This year, I’m not seeing a lot offensively. Butler and Lighty aren’t creative offensive players, Hunter is not an offensive force, and Koufos is more of a European player who might have trouble in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. I think they’ll be fine, but I’m definitely worried about their offense.

- LSU could potentially have a very interesting line-up next season. If the Tigers go with their best five, 6-5 Garrett Temple would run the point, 6-6 Dameon Mason and 6-6 Terry Martin would man the wings, 6-7 Tasmin Mitchell would play one forward spot, and 6-10 freshman Anthony Randolph would round out the line-up. That’s basically four wings and a forward on the court. I’d love to see this group play together.

- Michigan State looks better and better every time I look at its roster. As long as Goran Suton contributes inside and Marquise Gray is solid at the other big spot, the Spartans have all the ingredients to make a deep run in March. Drew Neitzel leads a ridiculously deep perimeter group—this team could easily go four perimeter players and one big at times.

- While it might not be the best talent in the world, the depth that Illinois has is astounding. The Fighting Illini return three starters and six players who averaged at least 17.8 minutes per game last year. Then they also have a center who played in 26 games last year; a redshirt who was getting 15.3 minutes per game before taking a redshirt year; and two transfers, one who averaged 14.4 points per game at South Dakota State and one who was a key role player at Indiana State. Throw in four four-star recruits and another solid freshman power forward, and the Illini have fifteen players who could definitely see time this year. I want to see how it all sorts out.

- Cincinnati could have a fairly underrated frontcourt next season. The Bearcats return John Williamson and Marcus Sikes from last year, both starters who averaged 13.5 and 9.5 points per game, respectively. They add Texas transfer Mike Williams, who should make an immediate impact, as well as freshman Anthony McClain, one of the top center recruits in the country. If Cincy’s guards perform well, they could pick up some unexpected wins next winter.

- Staying on the Big East, Louisville-Georgetown is going to be the best “BCS” conference championship race in the country. There is no one else even close—nearly every conference has a clear No. 1 and a bunch of also-rans at No. 2 and No. 3. The Big Ten has Michigan State and Indiana at the top, which should make for a good race, but no other league comes within shouting distance. The ACC has North Carolina—and then a Duke team without any sort of post presence, or a North Carolina State team that won 5 ACC games last year. The Big 12 has Kansas leading the way, then a Texas A&M team sans All-American Acie Law and a Texas team sans Player of the Year Kevin Durant. UCLA leads the way in the Pac-10, and Washington State sitting behind them. Although WSU is going to be good, I don’t know if anyone can pick the Cougars to realistically give the Bruins a run at the title. The SEC might be the worst with this epidemic. Tennesee is a legit Final Four contender—and then there is a huge muddle of teams that have potential Sweet Sixteen aspirations. Of course this is just the preseason, and I can pretty much guarantee that at least four of the top six conferences (if the Southern Illinois-led MVC is in the top six, they count too) will have very good races to the top in early March.

- Notre Dame looks like a potential NCAA Tournament team again—if you just look at its starting five. With Kyle McAlarney returning from suspension, the Irish have a quick backcourt duo with him and Tory Jackson. Up front, Rob Kurz and Luke Harangody form a nice inside tandem that can do a variety of things. Zach Hillesland should emerge as a threat this season. However, the bench doesn’t look too impressive. Luke Zeller is a serviceable inside-outside option at center, but the rest of the reserves are either lightly-recruited freshmen or players who barely made the rotation last year. I still think the Irish are going to be a quality team, though.

- I really like Providence, and I think they could surprise some in the Big East and even make a run for an NCAA Tournament bid. Sure, they lost Herbert Hill, but they regain the services of Randall Hanke, who redshirted last season due to a personal problem. He was a very good center two years ago for the Friars, and I think he will be a fine replacement. Moreover, they still have do-it-all Geoff McDermott on the wing, and Sharaud Curry and Weyinmi Efejuku in the backcourt. Dwain Williams was solid when he was Curry's replacement for a few games, and Jonathan Kale provided some solid production up front. Don't forget about Jeff Xavier, the 6-1 transfer from Manhattan. He averaged 16.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game two years ago, and should be a very good player in the rotation for the Friars.

- Syracuse has the perimeter talent to make a return to the Big Dance, but they are not going to have any sort of inside presence whatsoever. Johnny Flynn is going to be one of the best freshmen in the country next season, and Eric Devendorf is a good scorer on the wing. Paul Harris is a very good defender and do-it-all type at forward, while fellow frontcourt performer Donte Greene could be the Big East Freshman of the Year. Throw in Andy Rautins and Josh Wright, and the perimeter is stacked. But the inside has problems. Jim Boheim brings in a variety of post players in the new recruiting class, but none are battle-tested and could struggle in the Big East. Freshman Rich Jackson and redshirt Arinze Onuaku might be the best options, which is not saying much.

- In my first Top 25 of the offseason, which came out the week of the title game, West Virginia was No. 20. However, since then, John Beilein left to take the job at Michigan and Bob Huggins stepped in to replace him. While Huggins is a great coach, I’m not sure the Mountaineers’ personnel meshes well with him. WVU has good talent right now in guards Darris Nichols and Da’Sean Butler and forwards Joe Alexander and Alex Ruoff, but it could have just been Beilein’s system that made them look impressive. I’m very interested how Huggins and the Beilein holdovers adapt to each other.

The second installment of my Summer Thoughts and Observations is coming early next week.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mid-Summer Top 25

This is going to be a wide-open college basketball season. There is no consensus #1, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, nor is there anything close to a consensus top three, four, or even eight. Although there is a group of ten or eleven teams that is atop most preseason rankings, it is completely wide-open after that. There are about 30 teams or so that could make a case to be ranked in the bottom half of the top twenty-five, and many of the squads look similar to each other on paper. That is what made ranking this year's Top 25 in late July so difficult to do. Remember, this is not my final preseason Top 25--that will be released in early November, during my enormous season preview.

1. Memphis
2. North Carolina
4. Kansas
5. Georgetown
6. Tennessee
7. Louisville
8. Michigan State
9. Washington State
10. Marquette
11. Indiana
12. Stanford
13. Duke
14. Arkansas
15. Texas A&M
16. Oregon
17. Texas
18. North Carolina State
19. USC
20. Mississippi State
21. Villanova
22. Davidson
23. Alabama
24. Kentucky
25. Gonzaga

Others considered:
- Pittsburgh
- Arizona
- Southern Illinois
- Washington
- Clemson
- Ohio State
- Butler
- Wisconsin
- Xavier
- Syracuse