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2011-2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Preview

November 7, 2011

PRESEASON TOP 25
*Numbers in parentheses are a cumulative ranking based on preseason rankings in various publications: the AP poll, the ESPN/Coaches Poll, Rivals.com, Athlon Sports, Lindy’s Magazine, and Sporting News.

1. North Carolina (1.17): This team is sickly talented this year. Harrison Barnes could be National Player Of The Year, Tyler Zeller is a likely All-American, and John Henson and James McAdoo are both projected to go in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft. And that’s just the frontcourt. The backcourt is loaded too. Kendall Marshall emerged as one of the top point guards in the nation after taking over for departed Larry Drew Jr. and there’s plenty of depth in the backcourt with Mickey D’s experience. This team is stacked enough and the ACC is down enough that the Tarheels have the possibility of going the distance at #1.

2. Kentucky (2.17): At this point, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that John Calipari has once again recruited the best freshman class in the nation. Impressively enough, this may be his best class and team yet. Not only did Calipari snare three of the top 10 recruits in the nation in Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but he also returns two future pros in guard Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones. Jones looked like a Player Of The Year candidate early on in his freshman year before his production tailed off as the season progressed. He would have been a lottery pick in last year’s draft, but comes back to UK after averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds a game as a freshman. Lamb averaged almost 13 points a game and shot a ridiculous 48.6% from 3-point land. UK has a couple other pieces that should make meaningful contributions, but it’s the underclassmen that will give them the best shot at cutting down the nets in March. Five of those players could go in the first 20 picks of the next NBA draft. This team probably has more talent than anyone in the nation and the only things that can hold them back is maturity and gelling together as a team.

3. Ohio State (2.83): Ohio State might have been the best team in the nation last year, and while the Buckeyes graduated three important senior leaders, OSU returns its most important players. The team’s nucleus is back: Jared Sullinger is another Player Of The Year candidate, William Buford is one of the best shooters in the nation, and Aaron Craft averaged nearly five assists a game coming off the bench. Sophomore Deshaun Thomas should have a breakthrough year after averaging 7.5 ppg and 3.5 rpg playing only 14 minutes a contest. The freshman class is pretty loaded too, ranking amongst the top 10 nationally and featuring two McDonald’s All-Americans (Shannon Scott & Amir Williams). Ohio State will surely enter the tournament with a #1 seed and, with Sullinger, have a strong enough frontcourt to challenge North Carolina for a title.

4. Connecticut (4.5): The surprise decision from Andre Drummond to pass up his last year of prep school and play for the Huskies this year changes things quite a bit. UCONN goes from a potential 2 or 3 seed to a likely #1. Drummond was one of the most highly regarded preps in next year’s class, but has enough talent to be considered top 3 in this class and has already been projected as the #1 overall pick in the next NBA draft. Drummond already plays like a dominant big man and could be a legitimate NBA center some day. Think Kemba Walker had that kind of upside? Sure, Walker had the most remarkable college basketball season most of us have ever witnessed last year and he’s gone, but the majority of that national title team were freshmen and those guys are all back with championship experience under their belt. Guard Jeremy Lamb had a solid freshman year that was mostly overlooked because of Walker’s dominance, but Lamb made a name for himself by averaging 16.2 ppg in the NCAA tournament and then led Team USA in scoring at the U19 World Championships. He’s gone from Kemba’s sidekick to preseason All-American. Alex Oriachi had a bit of an up and down sophomore year: but his ups were pretty tremendous: he had 15 or more rebounds 5 times; 4 or more blocks 7 times; and the Huskies lost only one game all season when he had at least ten rebounds. Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith both contributed significantly to a championship team as freshmen. This team is young and dominated by under classmen, but Drummond is a major addition to a nucleus that already has a championship under their belts. Think Big East champs and Final Four trip.

5. Syracuse (6): The Orange return the core of a team that had 27 wins and went 12-6 in a loaded Big East. The departure of Rick Jackson hurts, especially on the boards, but Syracuse has some talented bigs that are still developing. 7-footer Fab Melo was a serious disappointment as a freshman (2.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg), but was highly touted out of high school and still has NBA potential. If he turns out to be a total bust, freshman Rakeem Christmas, a McDonald’s All American, is next in line to take over. Senior Kris Joseph is a future NBA player and could have an All American type season. Scoop Jardine, Brandon Tiche, and freshman Micahel Carter-Williams give the Orange a loaded backcourt. This team has a serious amount of talent and could be a powerhouse if Melo or Christmas turn into dominant players.

6. Duke (5.5): I was tempted to rank Duke lower. After all, the Blue Devils don’t return a single player that averaged more than 9 points a game. Kyrie Irving bolted for the NBA and Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith both graduated. Those are significant losses, but Duke still has plenty of talent and arguably the best coach in college basketball. Austin Rivers joins the team as possibly the most hyped freshman in the nation; he’s a pure scorer with a supreme amount of confidence and could be the latest freshman to garner First Team All America honors. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rivers and junior Seth Curry combine to score more than 40 points a game. They might need to. The frontcourt now features three brothers from the Plumlee family, but none of them are big scorers. Someone is going to need to emerge as the third scoring option if this team is going to make a deep run in March and challenge UNC in the ACC.

7. Vanderbilt (7.17): The Commodores return all five starters from a team that won 23 games last season, went 9-7 in SEC play, lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and probably walked away from the season feeling disappointed. With so many experienced and talented veterans back, Vandy has the talent and depth to make a deep run in March. Seniors Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli and junior guard John Jenkins all probably have NBA futures.

8. Florida (8.5): The Gators have serious guard talent this year. Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker are already established SEC stars and this year they will be joined by Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario (who torched the Big East for 16+ ppg in his first two years) and highly touted freshman Bradley Beal, a likely lottery pick in the next NBA draft. Florida need some serious help in the frontcourt, however; Alex Tyus, Chandler Parsons, and Vernon Macklin all moved on, leaving sophomore Patric Young as the most experienced big man on the team and he put up some pretty weak numbers (3.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) in 17.8 minutes a game last year. Florida’s backcourt is obviously loaded, but if someone doesn’t step up in the frontcourt, it’s hard to imagine the Gators contending with teams that have productive big men.

9. Memphis (10.67): With a team dominated by talented, but untested freshmen, Memphis had to fight tooth and nail to get its way into the NCAA tournament last year, but then pushed Elite 8 bound Arizona to the buzzer in the first round. All those freshmen are back this season and have a year of experience and maturing under their belt. Memphis is loaded with talent and depth and should run through Conference USA relatively unscathed and could wind up a #2 seed by season’s end. Memphis’ version of the Fab 5 (Antonio Barton, Will Barton, Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, and Tarik Black) will be joined by top 10 recruit Adonis Thomas, a 6’6″ forward that should make Memphis a sound inside-out team. Memphis should cruise through conference play and contend for the Elite 8 this year and might have a chance at a national title if this group sticks together for the next two years.

10. Baylor (11.83): This pick is my biggest question mark in the top 10. The talent is there; Perry Jones and Quincy Acy are proven producers in the Big 12 and are joined this year by super frosh Quincy Miller. Last year, however, Baylor had both Jones and Acy, as well as LaceDarius Dunn, a senior guard that averaged almost 20 points a game, and were considered a top 15 team heading into the season. Yet that team still managed to finish with a losing record in conference play. Perhaps it’s Dunn’s departure that will mark the turnaround for the Bears, as his selfishness and poor shot selection is often cited as a reason for Baylor’s struggles. The success of this team largely rides on the shoulders of Pierre Jackson, a JuCo transfer that plays the point and was National Junior College Player Of The Year, and how effectively he can distribute the ball inside to Jones and Acy. Miller is an inside-out threat that can play the 3 and gives Baylor serious size in the frontcourt. Many consider Jones’ freshman year a disappointment and that’s scary considering he averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game; he clearly has All-American potential. With Kansas in the midst of rebuilding and no other strong contenders in the Big 12, Baylor should be heavy favorites to win the conference.

11. Pittsburgh (9.5): At first glance, Pitt seems depleted having lost 3 starters from last year’s team that dominated Big East play. At second glance, it would be unwise to doubt the Panthers considering their track record; head coach Jamie Dixon has won more games in his first eight seasons than any coach in history and is also the only current coach to score a win in each of the last six NCAA tournaments. Senior guard Ashton Gibbs is the heart and soul of the team. The sharp shooter averaged 16.8 points a game last year and shot nearly 50% from 3-point land. He will find himself on one of the postseason All-America teams. After Gibbs, Nasir Robinson is the second leading returning scoring at 9.4 points a game. No one else on the roster is a proven scorer, but Pitt has many interesting pieces, lots of depth, and quite a few players that could have breakout seasons. Freshman Khem Birch is Pitt’s most highly rated recruit in 25 years and should have an impact immediately. Pittsburgh always fields tough teams that get it done and this year’s roster should be no different.

12. Louisville (11.5): Louisville is one of the more interesting teams heading into the season. Last year, they continually overachieved throughout Big East play and then suffered the biggest first round upset in the NCAA tournament by losing to Morehead State. The Cardinals return a good amount of talent from that team, including leading scorer Kyle Kuric and point guard Peyton Siva, but no one is a proven superstar. Louisville already lost one of its star freshmen for the year (Wayne Blackshear), but Chane Behanan has received high praise from coach Rick Pinito who claims Behanan is “as good a freshman as I’ve coached since (Jamal) Mashburn.” Siva, Kuric, and Behanan are a solid nucleus and Louisville has some depth if the players can stay healthy (which has been a struggle recently), but I’m going on the record now and saying there’s no way this is an Elite 8 team this year.

13. Xavier (16.17): I have Xavier ranked higher than either of the polls or any publication I’ve read, but the Musketeers have arguably the most talented senior in the nation in Tu Holloway and play in the Atlantic 10, a conference where they’ve posted a 29-3 record over the past two seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went undefeated in league play this year and Holloway (19.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.4 apg last year) becomes a first team All-American. Xavier returns two other starters, Kenny Frease, a 7’0″ center that can score, rebound, and alter shots, and Mark Lyons, a junior guard that averaged 13.6 points a game last year. Xavier doesn’t have much proven depth, but with Holloway running the show and a favorable conference schedule, the Musketeers could find themselves as high as a #3 seed come March.

14. Michigan State (27): Looks like someone’s in the minority. Michigan State was picked to be a national title contender in the preseason last year by just about everyone and wound up being one of the most disappointing teams in college basketball instead, going 19-15 overall, 9-9 in conference play, and getting bounced by UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Not exactly the typical resume for a Tom Izzo coached team. But Izzo has a serious track record of success and enough talented players returning that a repeat of last season is probably unlikely. Draymond Green, a do-it-all senior will be the star of the team, but there will be plenty of opportunity for other players to emerge. Keith Appling was a highly rated recruit and shot 41% from 3-point land as a freshman. He will be relied upon more heavily to carry the scoring load with all the departed seniors. Brandon Wood is a senior transfer from Valparaiso that once dropped 30 points against North Carolina and averaged 16.7 points a game as a junior. Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Dwaun Anderson form an interesting freshman class that should contribute this year. Challenging for the Big 10 title is unlikely, but so are 15 losses. Look for a big bounce back season from MSU.

15. Alabama (20): Established SEC stars JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell, and Trevor Relaford are joined by a Top-15 recruiting class. The Tide are thin on proven depth, but didn’t lose much from a team that lost in the finals of the NIT last year. I’d be surprised if Alabama challenges Kentucky, Vanderbilt, or Florida in the SEC standings, but they won’t be getting snubbed from the NCAA tournament this year and have enough talent to make a run to the Sweet 16.

16. Wisconsin (17.5): It’s hard to see where the Badgers’ production will come outside of standout point guard Jordan Taylor, but Taylor is to this team what Jimmer Fredette was to BYU last year. The 6’1″ guard averaged 18.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.7 assists a game as a junior and will probably have to carry even more of the scoring load in the absence of Jon Leuer (18.3 ppg) and Keaton Nankivil (9.7 ppg). He will be up for the challenge though and is a common pick for preseason All-America honors. Taylor will have some help in the backcourt from sophomores Josh Gasser and Ben Brust, but the entire frontcourt is still a work in progress. This team beat a #1 ranked Ohio State last year and should finish in the top 3 or 4 of the Big 10, but the lack of frontcourt experience leaves some serious question marks heading into the season.

17. UCLA (20.67): The PAC-12 is wide open and I’m not entirely convinced that UCLA is the preseason favorite, but they have such a loaded frontcourt that I’m giving them the edge for now. Reeves Nelson is a proven star, Josh Smith is a rising one, and this year they are joined by 6’10” twins (and former North Carolina recruits) Travis and David Wear. Lazeric Jones is the only player in the backcourt with productive experience and UCLA has one of its rare recruiting classes that fails to crack the top 25 nationally. On paper, they look like the favorites for the inaugural PAC-12 title, but Arizona, Washington, and California could all vie for that same spot.

18. Kansas (15.17): This seems low for the Jayhawks, but they are as depleted as they’ve ever been. Not only did lottery picks Marcus and Markieff Morris move on to the NBA, but Kansas has already had two important freshmen (Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor) ruled ineligible for the entire season. That leaves Kansas with one returning starter, Tyshawn Taylor, who had a 9.3 ppg scoring average that leads all returning players. Junior Thomas Robinson is ready to explode this season after playing in the shadow of the Morris twins the past two seasons. In limited action, Robinson put up serious numbers as a sophomore, averaging 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds a game in 14.6 minutes. In a starring role this season, those numbers could easily double and put him in the All America conversation. Outside of Robinson and Taylor, the Jayhawks have a lot of question marks. Juniors Jeff Withey, Travis Releford, and Elijah Johnson will all have expanded roles this season and will need to take a big step forward in productivity; none of them averaged more than 3.7 points and 1.8 rebounds a game last year. With McLemore and Traylor sidelined, no one is really expected to emerge from this year’s recruiting class. They Jayhawks have some huge question marks, but the one constant for Kansas is coach Bill Self, a proven winner that has led his team to seven straight conference titles.

19. Washington (27.9): Yes, this is a homer pick, but at look at some of the other teams I could put here and I don’t see the potential that UW has. Isaiah Thomas’ ridiculous decision to enter the NBA draft hurts this team a ton, but even with his departure, the Huskies still have one of the most loaded backcourts in the nation. Terrence Ross is a rising star that showed he has the ability to take over games and become the team’s go to scorer. C.J. Wilcox also impressed as a freshman, shooting over 40% from 3-point land and scoring 15+ points on six occasions last year, including a 24-point second half outburst against UCLA. Abdul Gaddy is one of this team’s many X-factors. After a miserable freshman year, Gaddy was showing some breakout promise last year (8.5 ppg, 3.8 apg, 40.6 3FG%) before going down with a knee injury after 13 games. Those three are joined by highly touted point guard Tony Wroten, a top 25 recruit with ridiculous dishing skills and the ability to score. Where the Huskies struggle is in the frontcourt. Ross, who should be playing on the wing at 6’6″, will probably be their best power forward, leaving the team severely undersized. Aziz N’Diaye is a 7′ center that can alter shots, but plays erratically and gets in foul trouble, has no offensive game, and also possesses some of the worst hands I’ve ever seen. The man simply can’t hold on to a basketball. Any reasonable step forward from N’Diaye this year would all but ensure the Huskies a top 20 ranking. If someone in the freshman class can step up and become a dependable regular in the frontcourt, N’Diaye shows some improvement, Gaddy stays healthy and continues to develop, and the rest of the backcourt flourishes, this team should find itself contending for another PAC-12 title. Lots of questions, lots of potential.

20. Marquette (20.83): Marquette returns four players that started at least 12 games from a team that made a run to the Sweet 16 last year. Darius Johnson-Odom is the team’s best player, a 6’2″ man-child that averaged 15.8 points a game last season. Jae Crowder made a smooth transition from the JuCo ranks and posted 11.8 points a game, but could improve a bit on his 3-point shooting (35.9%). Vander Blue started 12 games as a freshman, but most disappointed, shooting 39.4% from the field, 60.8% from the free throw line, and 16% from long distance. Junior Cadougan should be in line to take over point guard duties after averaging 3.2 assists a game in 19.8 minutes last year. OJ Mayo’s brother Todd headlines a small freshman class. If they can get any help at all from their teammates, Johnson-Odom and Crowder are good enough to give this squad another shot at a Sweet 16 this year.

21. Michigan (18.17): Oh, what could have been. Had Darius Morris (15.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.7 apg) returned after a ridiculous freshman season, Michigan would have been one of the most exciting teams to watch this year. Even with his departure, I’ve seen the Wolverines ranked as high as #7 in the preseason (by Lindy’s magazine). Michigan returns four starters from a surprise team that made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament and had one of the most productive freshman classes last season. Tim Hardaway Jr. is an emerging superstar and will probably be a future lottery pick. He averaged 13.9 points and 3.8 rebounds a game as a freshman and should improve on those numbers drastically this year when he becomes the team’s first option on offense. Forwards Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan also put up respectable freshman numbers (15.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg between them). Stu Douglass and Zack Novak add depth and leadership in the backcourt and will stretch defenses with their ability to knock it down from long distance. The biggest question mark facing the Wolverines will be who replaces Morris at the point guard position. Freshman Trey Burke is a top-100 recruit and probably the favorite for the job. Michigan has enough rising talent and depth to repeat the success of last season.

22. Arizona (17.67): I feel like Arizona’s been one of the more overrated programs in the preseason. Their run to the Elite 8 last season seems to be clouding everyone’s judgment and those same people seem to be forgetting that Arizona was actually a surprise last year, even with one of the nation’s best players on their roster… and how important was Derrick Williams to the Wildcats’ success? Well, Williams is gone. So is second-leading scorer Lamont Jones. That leaves senior Kyle Fogg with the best returning scoring average at 8.1 points a game. Arizona is not without talent, however, as Fogg will be joined by returning regulars Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, and Jesse Perry. Out of that quartet, Parrom probably has the best chance to have a breakout season. The success of the Wildcats this season probably depends most on its freshman class, a group that is ranked in the top 10 nationally. Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson are both top 30 recruits that could start immediately and Angelo Choi should also make meaningful contributions. Arizona lost its star, but has a group of returning players that gained a lot of postseason experience last year and a studly freshman class. Arizona has been heading most of the preseason PAC-12 polls, but with no established leader on the team and a preseason loss to a Division II team, I’m saying: prove me wrong.

23. Temple (30.5): Temple isn’t getting much love in preseason rankings and it doesn’t make much sense. The Owls return four starters and only lost one key player from a team that went 14-2 in Atlantic 10 play and won a game in the NCAA tournament. Lavoy Allen is a big loss, but Temple is a well-rounded squad with four players returning that averaged at least 10 points a game last year. Team leader Juan Fernandez could bounce back after playing through a knee injury last year. His shooting percentages dipped considerably from his sophomore year. Even with Allen gone, Temple has a talented squad riddled with experienced upperclassmen and could challenge Xavier for the A10 crown once again and do some damage come March.

24. Texas A&M (23): A&M returns a solid group from a team that kind of surprised last year by posting 24 wins. Forward Khris Middleton developed into a future NBA player, doubling his scoring average and taking over games at times. The Aggies get some help in the backcourt from Washington transfer Elston Turner, a solid long range shooter, and freshman Jamal Branch, a top-50 recruit. Dash Harris returns at the point, but really struggled from the field last year, shooting an unforgivable 28.6% overall and 16.7% from 3-point land. With Middleton’s star rising and a good team around him, A&M shouldn’t see much of a drop off from last season, if any.

25. Gonzaga (21.4): Gonzaga has the potential to be much better than this ranking, but they enter the season with some serious challenges ahead of them. The Zags lose two starters, including leading scorer Steven Gray, from a team that got pounded by BYU in the NCAA tournament and struggled to get there in the first place. To make matters worse, BYU joins the WCC this year and will join Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara in the quest to knock Gonzaga off the conference pedestal. Elias Harris looked like an NBA lottery pick after his freshman year, but saw his production decrease across the board as a sophomore. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t bounce back to form this season and he’ll team with 7′ senior Robert Sacre to form a formidable frontcourt duo. The Bulldogs will need key contributions from incoming freshman Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos, both of whom could start immediately. Gonzaga suffered some questionable losses in conference play last year and this season should be even tougher. Still, they should be the class of the WCC and could rise up these rankings quickly if Harris becomes the player it looked like he would and one or two of the freshman make an impact.

BUBBLE:

California: Cal returns the best trio in the PAC-12 with Jorge Gutierrez, Harper Kemp, and Allen Crabbe, but don’t have the depth or potential of the conference teams ranked ahead of them.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats return five of their top seven players from a team that had no business making the NCAA tournament last year, let alone winning a game in it. Yancy Gates has star potential, but Cincinnati might have had the easiest non-conference schedule of any team to make the tournament last year. This is a team on the rise, but has yet to prove it can play consistently with the big dogs.

Missouri: If I snubbed anyone in my top 25 rankings, it’s gotta be Mizzou. The Tigers return a ridiculous amount of depth and plenty of scoring prowess. What Missouri lacks is defense and rebounding. The Tigers were the 10th highest scoring team in the nation last year and still managed to lose 11 games. New coach Frank Haith will probably try and slow down the team’s tempo down. With so much experience and talent back, if the Tigers can improve their weaknesses, this team could be a Sweet 16 threat.

Creighton: Creighton is poised for a monster season. If I had to pick a preseason Cinderella, I’d have to go with the Bluejays. Floor leader Antoine Young and his 13.1 points and 5 assists a game are back, as is Gregory Echenique, a junior that averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Most important, however, is sophomore Doug McDermott, a superstud that averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game and then went on to lead Team USA’s U-19 in scoring over the summer, a team that had many more highly touted players on its roster. The 6’7″ forward and son of coach Greg McDermott could garner All America attention as early as this season.

Florida State: The Seminoles lost their two most important players, but return six guys with starting experience and pedigree for playing ridiculously tough defense.

Purdue: If Robbie Hummel is healthy and at 100%, Purdue should make the NCAA tournament. If not, it will be a long year for the Boilermakers.

New Mexico: Senior Drew Gooden and sophomore Kendall Williams lead an experienced team that should contend with UNLV for the Mountain West title.

UNLV: Chace Stanbeck leads a Running Rebels that are preseason favorites in the MWC.

Mississippi State: Lots of interesting pieces here. Will Renardo Sidney finally put together a full season of domination?

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One comment

  1. You should send this piece to Chuck Stark. Do you grab some of your anayisis in toto from out side sources? An ubelievable great job. The new UW freshman can certainly dish, problem I saw in first game is can his teamates catch them. I think their forecourt is better than you said. No great players (yet) but a lot of good ones which will greatly enhance the Huskies ability to play a high tempo offense and defense with a deep bench of good athletes. Need to get a big guy in the middle and maybe a year away from a deep run in NCCA but will be their this year.



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