Simply put, I’m a college hoops junkie. That tends to happen when you grow in a state where the highest paid government employee is Jim Calhoun. So for me, getting the college hoops marathon this early in the season, is not only a gift, but a literal blessing from God. One that momentarily makes me forget that within a few weeks it’s going to be -400 degrees outside.
This year, I spent the college hoops marathon taking notes, and adding them to my vastly expanding database of useless information on these teams (Maybe it’ll finally pay off in March for once). I don’t have a great feel for every team, but Tuesday gave me an opportunity to get a much better feel on a lot of them. And before Thanksgiving, what more could a guy ask for?
Anyway, below are a dozen “big picture,” things I think about college hoops so far. Some are on teams we saw yesterday, and others from teams and players we saw over the weekend.
Nothing is set in stone, but Tuesday was a good primer for the next five months to come.
Here are 12 things I’m thinking…
1. I Think We’ll Have At Least Two Freshmen Make First Named First Team All-Americans: In my eyes, this is the biggest story of the season, and really speaks to the state of college basketball right now. There are probably seven or eight freshmen I’m more excited to watch this season than any upperclassmen (Well except for maybe North Carolina’s John Henson. If only so I can make bad, “Can someone get that man a cheeseburger,” jokes about him. Man is that guy skinny.)
Anyway, the freshman assault on college basketball is the perfect storm, really. This is the deepest and most talented class of high schoolers to hit college basketball maybe ever (I’d say the 2004 class was the best overall of my lifetime, but since Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Shaun Livingston, J.R. Smith and a few others never went to college, we’ll never know. The 2006 class was the most top-heavy with Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Brook Lopez and Mike Conley. Still, I’ll take this class over that one). And when you combine all that talent with the lack of depth in the other classes, it becomes clearer and clearer, that not only are freshman going to play big minutes this season, they’re going to contribute too. Just look at what Jared Sullinger did for Ohio State yesterday. He was the go-to guy, two games into the season on a team returning three starters. There are guys like that all over the country.
So who am I most excited to see play? All the same guys you are: Kyrie Irving at Duke; Harrison Barnes at North Carolina; Sullinger at Ohio State; Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight at Kentucky; Baylor’s Perry Jones; and Josh Selby at Kansas, if he ever gets eligible. Of that group, I’m thinking that Terrence Jones and Barnes have the best chance to be All-Americans, because not only can they put up stats, their team’s need them to. And based on what we saw from Sullinger yesterday, it’d be stupid not to throw him in the discussion as well.
2. I Think We’ll Realize That John Calipari Is A Much Better Coach Than We Give Him Credit For: Look, I understand why some people loathe Calipari. The guy owns the recruiting trail, and has a better rapport with the under 18 crowd than Miley Cyrus and Pixar combined. There’s a pretty good chance that if your school has chased a Top 10 recruit in the last few years, that Calipari has taken the kid from under your nose, which stings. Believe me, I know. I wanted Brandon Knight in UConn blue as much as anyone.
But whether you love or hate Calipari, the idea that because he hasn’t won a title, he’s still just an elite recruiter and not an elite coach, is not only preposterous, it’s one of the flat out dumbest things floating around in sports. You can’t just roll the ball out and get 30 wins every year, regardless of how well you recruit. If that were the case, Paul Hewitt would be rolling up National Championships at Georgia Tech. And last time I checked, the Yellow Jackets lost to some school called Kennesaw State Tuesday night. Anyone can get good players onto campus. What you do with them is another story.
But back to Calipari, because I think that this is the year where we see just how good of an X's and O's guy he really is. Sure, he’s still got talent, because honestly, what kind of Calipari team wouldn’t? But that talent is NOTHING like what he had last year, or even in his last few years at Memphis. With Enes Kanter out, the Wildcats are going to spend most of the season playing four guards, with Jones- a natural wing- at power forward. If Calipari can get Kentucky back to the Elite Eight with this team, not only will it be a hell of a coaching accomplishment, they might as well build a statue for the guy. This is not a typically talented Calipari team. Even if the front of the jersey does say "Kentucky," on it.
Still, I fully expect Cal to have this team right in the mix, in the SEC and beyond. It won’t be easy, especially with Florida and Georgia vastly improved, and Vanderbilt and Tennessee always pesky. But there’s no one can mold a team better from November to March than Cal. You don’t get to four straight Sweet 16’s by accident.
I expect this to be his best coaching job yet.
3. I Also Think We’re Going To Realize That Calipari’s Success At Memphis Can’t Be Contributed To Him Alone: Not as his successor and former assistant, Josh Pastner gets set for his second year as Calipari’s replacement.
To say that I like Pastner’s style would be an understatement. I love it. I’m a charter member of his fan club, and just got buttons with his picture printed up. By the end of the season I wouldn't even be surprised if there was a restraining order out, forbidding me to go within 500 feet of the Fed Ex Forum. I wish I was kidding. Either way, I’m expecting big things in Year 2 of the Pastner Era at Memphis, especially after he led a bunch of no names, castoffs and vagabonds to 24 wins a year ago. Honestly, I’m still not sure how he did it.
Yet even after that, the guy has been even more impressive these last few months. Maybe my favorite thing about the Pastner era at Memphis so far, is how he handled the recent Jelan Kendrick situation . For those of you who don’t know, Kendrick was an uber-recruit, and the jewel of Pastner’s first recruiting class. From all accounts the guy was a star in the making. Of course Kendrick also turned into a huge headache for everyone at Memphis, to the point that Pastner had no choice but to boot him from the team last week. It was a potential program changing move, but one that had to be made. And I just don’t know how many coaches- let alone a 33-year-old that's still getting carded buying beer- would have had the guts to make.
Either way, with the Kendrick situation behind them, Memphis has moved on. And they certainly didn’t look any worse for the wear in their game against Miami Monday night.
This is a young team. But not one that I’d be particularly eager to play.
4. I Think UConn Is Going To Be Better Than People Realize: Ok, so obviously this is a huge homer pick. Or is it? Because yes I went to UConn, and yes I love my Huskies more than most of my immediate family members. Ok, all my immediate family members. But at the same time, as last season’s grease-fire unfolded, I was quick to turn on them like a bitter ex-wife during a particularly nasty divorce case. And that’s one thing I’ll give myself credit for: I’m usually the first guy to figure out when my team doesn’t have the goods. I just don’t think this is one of those years.
Granted, this team is young. As a matter of fact, I’m convinced that at least three of UConn’s starters haven’t gone through puberty yet (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch them next week in Maui. You’ll understand). At the same time, there was something endearing about how eager to please all the young guys were in Friday night’s opener. They dove on the floor for loose balls. Crashed the boards. It was kind of like the first few months of dating a new girl, when she lets you watch sports, and says stuff like, “No seriously, go watch Monday Night Football with the boys. I would never want to take you away from your friends.” You know it’s too good to last, but you enjoy it while you can.
But back to UConn. Because as young as they are, they’ve already got better leadership than they had last year. Essentially, everyone falls in line behind Kemba Walker, which will be key to this team. Anyone who watched the Huskies last year knows that for all the talent they had, there was most definitely a leadership void. Nobody wanted to step on each other’s toes. Nobody wanted to be the bad guy. Nobody wanted to get in someone else's face when something went wrong.
This year that guy is Kemba Walker. And nobody is messing with him.
On the other hand…
5. I Don’t Think Syracuse Will Be Nearly As Good As I’d Expected Them To Be: And for the record, this isn't UConn bias. I actually had the Orange as my Big East favorites heading into the season.
But while I still like pieces of this team (Kris Joseph in particular), I am concerned with freshman center Fab Melo. Talk to most Syracuse fans before the season, and Melo was supposed to be some combination of Shaq in his prime offensively, Dwight Howard defensively, with a little bit of Godzilla mixed in for good measure. Melo was going to average 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks a game this year, and find a cure for global warming in his spare time.
Well watching him Sunday, I was a little, umm, underwhelmed.
Yes he’s big, which is never a bad thing. But at the same time, he wasn’t quick or athletic, and didn’t seem all that comfortable on the court. I know Melo is relatively new to the game of basketball, but you can still tell when someone has the requisite coordination and athleticism to where they could eventually turn into a half decent basketball player. Take Mophtaou Yarou at Villanova for example. Not great yet, but he has the tools to be at least half decent.
I’m not sure Melo even has those tools. Right now, he just looks like someone who’s going to spend the season clogging the lane like a gas station toilet, committing dumb fouls, and occasionally getting a few rebounds by default, since after all, he is seven feet tall. What he doesn’t look like is an instinctual basketball player. There are some guys who only end up playing the game because they grow so tall, that the basketball court seems like the most logical place to put them. Melo seems to be one of those guys. I didn’t see an ounce of basketball- or athletic- instinct in him when I watched Syracuse.
I’ve still got the Orange as one of the better teams in the Big East. Just no longer the favorites.
6. I Think That The Big XII Has A Lot Of Good Teams, But No Great Ones: And before you go killing me, and saying that this is all East Coast bias, remember Big XII fans, I was the one that spent all last winter saying that your conference was the best in college basketball last year. And it was then. Just not now.
With that said, I just see big-time holes on pretty much all teams in this league.
Let’s start with Kansas State. Do I like them? Absolutely. I love Jacob Pullen, and only wish I could grow a beard like his. But do I love them? Not if yesterday was any indication. I’m not sold on a single one of their big guys other than Jamar Samuels, and just don’t see where they’re going to get points if Pullen doesn’t put up 30 a game. They Wildcats are solid. But the No. 3 team in the country? Puh-leeze.
As for Kansas, we obviously won’t know much about them until they get Josh Selby eligible. But still. Am I supposed to believe that guys like Tyshawn Taylor and Marcus Morris are going to go from role-player to superstar overnight like everyone is projecting? Aren't we all discounting just how talented Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry actually were?
And Texas, ohhhhhhh Texas. How is this team any different from last year? They’ve still got a lot of guards who need the ball in their hands to be effective, and a couple of wings that need to put up points to be happy. Once the season gets going, how excited are J’Covan Brown, Dogus Balbay, Cory Joseph and Jai Lucas going to be to split minutes? Are there enough shots to keep Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson happy?
(By the way, when is someone going to explain to Rick Barnes that you can’t just give scholarships out to the best guys available, and that when you’re putting together a basketball team, you actually need players whose skills complement each other?
Watching Barnes put together a team would be like if I was cooking dinner for a lady friend, went to the store and bought the best steak, the finest cut of roast beef, a pound of Alaskan salmon and a Thanksgiving turkey, then tried to make one meal out of it. Of course all those things are excellent individually, but they don’t do a damn thing to complement each other. Yet that’s exactly how Rick Barnes has put together basketball teams the last couple seasons. And we wonder why they always get upset in the tournament?)
7. The One Team I Do Think Will Be Interesting This Year In The Big XII Will Be…: Nebraska! Just kidding Cornhuskers fans. Had you fooled, didn’t I? Anyway, the team that I actually like is Baylor.
Yes I know they have the same problem as Kansas State right now, in that, we’re not exactly sure what they’re going to get out of the point guard position. A.J. Walton didn’t look great yesterday, and no one knows how much freshman Stargell Love is ready to contribute (Still, I’m on the Stargell Love bandwagon. For one, I thought he looked like more of a natural point than Walton yesterday. And two, how can you not root for a guy named Stargell Love? Doesn’t he sound like part of a 60’s Doo-Opp band? You can’t tell me “Stargell Love’s Greatest Hits,” doesn’t sound like a record that your mom has somewhere in her attic. You just can’t)
Anyway, watching Baylor yesterday, this is the only Final Four caliber team in the Big XII. With all their long bodies, the 2-3 zone defense they play is so terrifying, I actually had nightmares about it last night. And the scary thing is, it’s only going to get better, especially as the new pieces (Perry Jones, J’mison Morgan) get more comfortable playing together. And oh, by the way, the Bears had an All-American sitting on their bench yesterday. How good are they going to be when LaceDarius Dunn gets going?
And really, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Quincy Acy. I can’t imagine any player in college basketball is more improved than he looks to be. He doesn't even look like the same person as last year. Yesterday, Acy was dunking in guys faces, hitting three’s, and playing with a Kevin Garnett, “What’d you just say to me, motha*****” edge, and you better believe that I loved every second of it. Mark my words, Acy will average a double-double this season.
And mark my words, this is by far the best team in the Big XII. I’m not saying that I encourage gambling. But at the same time, betting the Bears at +250 to win this conference seems like a steal (And if you do bet the Bears, or any other team, be sure to mention this website. You'll get a free t-shirt out of the deal).
8. I Think I’m Done Trying To Prognosticate Michigan State: As a matter of fact, I might not even watch them this year. Because for all the time that goes into watching them, all analysis that goes into thinking about them, their season is going to end just like every other one: In the Final Four. You know it. I know it. Tom Izzo knows it. Why even bother?!
9. I Think I Feel Terrible For Purdue: Look, I’m not the first, and certainly won’t be the last guy to send my regards to Purdue on the loss of forward Robbie Hummel for the season. You never want to see a guy go down with injury, especially a player who has done as much for his team and school as Hummel has. But he is out for the year, and Purdue has moved on. It’s time for us to do the same.
And honestly, I’m really not sure what to make of the Boilermakers. Yes they’re going to be really good. They made the Sweet 16 without Hummel last year, and return JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, Lewis Jackson and a bunch of other guys off that team.
At the same time, the one trademark of this team has always been about defense. They should be ok with Johnson manning the paint, but on the perimeter…|
Wait a second.
Here’s why I’m not sure about the Boilermakers. For all the talk about the injury to Hummel, I’m more concerned with the graduation of Chris Kramer. The guy was about a 36-time All-Big Ten Defensive selection, and arguably the best perimeter defender in the country last year.
Watching Kramer play, reminded me of the old guy in every pickup game who might be a step slower than everyone else, but knows all the tricks to get in people’s heads. You know the guy I’m talking about. The one that pulls on your shorts. The one that yanks your jersey. The one that gives you an elbow every time down the court, even when you’re not calling for the ball. Within a few possessions, you’re so busy thinking about strangling the guy, that you’re not even focused on basketball anymore. Well that was Kramer at Purdue last year. He guarded the Evan Turner’s and Kalin Lucas’, and with him gone, I’m just not sure who replaces that defense. I'm more worried with that, than Hummel’s offense.
10. I Think I’m More Concerned About Gonzaga Than I Thought I’d Be: I’ll be honest. I did a rough draft of this column on Tuesday, with an extensive section on why I thought Gonzaga was a Final Four team. But after watching them lose to San Diego State last night, I’m not nearly as sure.
No, the one loss didn’t sway me. San Diego State is a really good team. They’re going to be in the NCAA Tournament.
It wasn’t the Gonzaga loss, as much as how they looked in the game. Because coming into the year, we all knew that point guard play could be a big problem for this team. It didn’t really make them different from a million other teams (Ohio State, Kansas State and Baylor amongst them), but I was still curious to see how the Zags ran their offense on Tuesday. We all expected Demetri Goodson to be their point guard this season, yet early on, it was Steven Gray who was piling up the assists to go with his points.
And watching last night, that’s where I’m tripped up with Gonzaga.
Look, is it a Steven Gray thing? Absolutely not. The guy looks about 72,000 times better than he did last year, and if you’re in some sort of weird College Basketball Fantasy Draft and you picked up Gray, kudos to you. He’s a keeper.
The problem is, Gray isn’t a pass first point guard. He’s a scorer. That’s not his fault, nor should he be blamed for the Gonzaga loss Tuesday night. He put up 35 points. At the same time, while Gray is getting his numbers, everyone else looks lost, Elias Harris in specific. This was a guy that averaged 15 points a game last year, yet took only four shots in Tuesday night’s win. Gray and Harris combined to score 40 points last night, which should be a good thing. The problem is Gray scored 35 of them, and Harris just five. Gonzaga won’t beat good teams consistently with a disparity like that.
I still like this Gonzaga team, and still think that if the proper changes are made, they could end up in the Final Four. Just not as they’re currently constructed.
11. I Think People Are A Lot More Excited About North Carolina Than I Am: I already told you that of everyone in college basketball, I’m most excited to watch Harrison Barnes. I’m beyond fascinated with the kid. My fascination is fascinated.
But as much as I’m looking forward to Barnes, it’s the rest of the team I’m worried about. With the Wear twins gone, the Tar Heels are thin up front, literally and figuratively. As I said earlier, a strong wind might send John Henson flying into the next state over, an his frontcourt mate Tyler Zeller isn't actually the most sturdy fella. Zeller's the kind of guy that could break a finger tomorrow picking his nose.
And then there’s the guard play. Oh, the guard play. You can’t win a title without a great point guard, or at least someone who’s smart enough to not make mistakes with the ball. See: Scheyer, Jon.
The problem is, we’re now going on Year Three of the Larry Drew era, and much like Saw 3 and Weekend at Bernies 3 my stomach is starting to hurt just thinking about it. The guy averaged 3.2 turnovers a game last year, and the scariest thing is that he didn’t exactly get better as the season wore on. Drew had three or more turnovers in seven of his last 11 games. Not exactly giving you the warm and fuzzies, huh? If a point guard is going to make it, you usually have a pretty good idea by the middle of his sophomore year. And that’s when Drew seemed to be at his worst last season.
So while I’m looking forward to Barnes, the rest of the team concerns me.
12. I Think Anyone Who Doesn’t Have Duke Winning The Title Is An Idiot: Ok, maybe “an idiot,” is a little bit of strong language. Well, actually no. Idiot does sound about right.
Now I’m not saying that Duke is a sure-fire, can’t miss pick. Nobody is invincible. Even Zenyatta seemed unbeatable about two weeks ago, and now she’s going to the glue factory with a 19-1 record. Upsets do happen. The right team, on the right night, could get hot and beat Duke. Or some post player could go crazy on them, slap up a 30 and 15 and lead his team to the upset. I’m just not betting my hard earned money on that happening.
The thing about Duke, is that they're the only team in college basketball without holes. They hit their open jump shots, take care of the ball, get points in the paint, play great defense. You name it. The Blue Devils do it.
Individually, everyone’s talking about Kyle Singler as National Player of the Year, but really, I think Nolan Smith might be the smarter bet. Smith looks way better than he did a year ago, and it’s not like he was some schlub then. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving is just about as good as we thought he’d be, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins provide a spark off the bench, and Mason and Miles Plumlee look even better- and goofier- than they did a year ago. This team is scary good.
Again, I’m not saying the Blue Devils won’t lose in March. At the same time, it sure helps when the rest of the competition has a major flaw (inexperience, small frontline, guard play, depth), that Duke doesn’t.
It pains me to say this, but Duke looks like the team to beat, and right now, it’s not even close.
There's a lot of things I think right now. That much I know.
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