I know, I’m a little late with this one too, but the last couple weeks has been far too busy. As my readers know, I’m a college basketball fanatic. I particularly root for Michigan State and for Duke, but I just love the whole game of college basketball. It’s about as close to religious fervor as I get. So let’s make some predictions and talk about what this season will bring. First, the obvious: Florida is going to be very, very good. So is North Carolina. Those are the consensus top 2 teams in the country and for good reason.
Florida returns everyone from last year’s national championship team, which is rather astounding. At least 3 of their players – Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer – would have been first round picks, with Noah a sure top 3 pick, yet they all returned to school. Taurean Green had a shot at being a first round pick as well. In this day of leaving school as soon as someone waves money in front of you, that truly is remarkable. Does that mean they’ll win it again? Not necessarily.
Repeating, especially in the college game, is extraordinarily difficult. If you look at the NBA, it’s very common to see teams win 2 or 3 championships in a row. That’s because a 7 game series in the playoffs usually allows the better team to win. But in the NCAA tournament’s one and done format, it’s much, much harder to avoid the big upset. No team has repeated since Duke in 91 and 92. In 91, they were expected to lose to UNLV, which, like Florida, returned their entire championship team from the year before.
They ran the table and went in to the final four undefeated, where Duke, which had lost to them by more than 30 in the previous year’s championship game, knocked them off. Arkansas likewise returned virtually its entire 1993 championship team in 1994 but could not repeat. So while Florida is the favorite going in to the season, it’s certainly not a lock. It’s very difficult to maintain the hunger and focus necessary when you’ve already won the big one. But this team should be very, very good.
If any team has the firepower to match Florida on paper, it’s North Carolina. The Tar Heels are so deep and talented that they could probably field two top 20 teams if they split up. Last year’s phenomenal freshman class is joined by perhaps an even better class this year to yield a roster that is downright frightening for opposing coaches. Every position is loaded. Last year’s starting point guard, Bobby Frasor – who did a terrific job of leading a young team deep into the NCAA tournament – will likely find himself on the bench in favor of Ty Lawson, an incredibly quick freshman point who is simply too good to not play.
Wayne Ellington is another freshman who will be virtually impossible to keep on the bench. He’s a super smooth shooting guard with a pure shooting touch and the ability to create for himself in almost any situation. Marcus Ginyard and Denny Green, who play the same position, could start for virtually any team in the nation but will lose a lot of their playing time to Ellington. In the middle, Tyler Hansborough is a returning all-American who was the unanimous freshman of the year last year.
And this year he’s joined by a trio of freshman big men in Brendan Wright, Alex Stephenson and Deon Thompson. Wright is the best of that bunch and should start at the 4 for this team. Reyshawn Terry will split time between the 3 and 4. Think about this: a team that won nearly 30 games last year and played deep into the NCAA tournament, and lost only one player, may well start 3 freshman this year. That tells you just how good this freshman class is and how deep this team is. And they’ve got one of the best coaches in the game. If there’s a weakness, I can’t imagine what it is.
In fact, the freshman class may well be the story of the year in college basketball. This is the first year of the NBA’s ban on high school players entering the draft, which means several players who would otherwise have turned pro immediately will be playing at least one year of college basketball. That class is led by Greg Oden, maybe the best true center prospect in a couple decades. He would have been the #1 pick in the NBA draft after his junior year in high school – he’s that good.
Oden plays for Ohio State, but he’s out for the first few weeks of the season with an injury. When he returns, expect him to make an immediate impact, especially on defense. Ohio State returns almost everyone from last year as well and adds a tremendous recruiting class. They are on everyone’s top 5 list. They’d be a top ten team even without Oden; with him, they’re a threat to win a championship and the runaway favorite to win the Big Ten title.
Another freshman to keep an eye on is Chase Budinger at Arizona. The TV cameras are going to love this kid. He’s a 6’8 white kid with a pseudo-fro and a 40 inch vertical. He stepped right in to the starting lineup and is having a huge impact. In two games, he’s averaging 25 points and 6 boards, shooting 67% from the field and 88% from the free throw line. He can’t keep up that kind of shooting, but this kid is going to be a star, and fast.
Other hot freshman to watch will be Kevin Durant at Texas, Spencer Hawes at Washington, Darrell Arthur at Kansas, Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenden at Georgia Tech, Robin Lopez at Stanford, Paul Harris at Syracuse and Gerald Henderson at Duke. Which brings me to my Blue Devils…
Duke lost their two key leaders, JJ Redick and Shelden Williams, from last year’s team. They also nearly lost Josh McRoberts, who seriously flirted with going pro before deciding to return for his sophomore season. That’s very good news for Duke fans, as he will be an all-ACC player this year. This is an unusual Duke team, no seniors at all and only one junior, with everyone else being freshmen and sophomores. But it’s an interesting and versatile roster that will really test Coach K’s ability to adjust the team’s playing style to the players on the floor.
Greg Paulus started most of his freshman year at point guard and he should have a very good year for them. Unfortunately, he’s the only point guard they’ve got so they have to hope he can stay healthy (he missed the entire preseason with an injury and returned for the first game of the regular season). If he goes down, they really don’t have a good option. Jon Scheyer would likely take his place, but he’s a freshman and a natural shooting guard who hasn’t played the point. Paulus is literally the only point guard on the team.
Demarcus Nelson is the lone upperclassman on the team and he’s a player struggling to find a position. He’s 6’3, but he’s not a natural shooting guard. He was an explosive scorer in high school, the all time leading scorer in California history, but he doesn’t really have a position in the college game. He’s not afraid to go in and bang with the big guys, in fact he seems to prefer it (he’s also the #3 all time rebounder in California history), but that’s a lot easier to do at 6’3 in high school than it is in college. I can see his season going either way. He’s either going to have a breakout season for Duke and become a 16 point a game scorer, or he’s going to find himself on the bench as Gerald Henderson takes his minutes.
If Henderson doesn’t take minutes from Nelson, he’ll get them from someone else. He’s another one of those freshman who is simply too good not to play, and he can play the 2 or 3. He’s 6’5 and already has an NBA body. He’s a very smooth and powerful player who can do it inside or outside, and being raised by his father, who had a long NBA career, he has a tremendous understanding of the game. He’ll be starting for this team sooner rather than later.
The other freshman should also see significant playing time. The surprise of the season so far has been Brian Zoubek, the first 7 footer Duke has had in a long time. A lot of fans expected him to be a project, but he’s already playing significant minutes and producing in a big way. In his first three games he’s had 18, 0 and 17 points (the second game, he only played 8 minutes). Zoubek is a smooth big man with good footwork and soft hands. He’s going to be a very, very good player.
Lance Thomas is another freshman who will start much of the year for Duke. He’s a 6’8 power forward who plays a very fluid game. Jon Scheyer will also get significant playing time in the backcourt. He’s a pure shooter with a great feel for the game. Jamal Boykin, Martynas Pocius and David McClure round out the players who will see playing time for this team. It’s a deeper Duke team than in recent years, but without solid experienced leadership. They’re a top 20 team, but not a serious threat for the final four for the first time in a long time.
Michigan State, my other favorite, is in for a difficult year. They’re very young and they lost their top 3 players from last year. Drew Neitzel is now the unquestioned leader of the team, and he’s a good one, but there’s just no proven talent around him. Drew Naymick returns from a redshirt season and should replace Paul Davis in the lineup at center. He’s nowhere near as skilled as Davis was, but he’ll be a solid rebounder and position defender, a typical Izzo big man.
Goran Sutton and Marquise Gray should get a lot of playing time as well in the frontcourt. Gray is a great athlete with the potential to be a really, really good player. If he’s going to be that player, this is the year to show it. He should get a lot of plays run for him and a lot of chances to be the team’s leading scorer. So far, though, it seems that his minutes have been taken by Raymar Morgan, a really good looking freshman wing player. Gray seems to be in Izzo’s doghouse and that’s not a good place to be.
MSU has a fairly easy schedule this year and they’ve started out 4-0, including a big win over Texas at Madison Square Garden. But I think this team will struggle to win 20 games. If they go 8-8 in the Big Ten, they can get to 20 games and be in the tournament. They’ll play hard, defend hard and rebound hard, as Izzo teams always do, but this will definitely be a down year for the Spartans. Best case scenario is 20 wins, an NCAA tournament bid and a sweet 16 exit; worst case scenario is 16 or 17 wins and an NIT bid.
Other fun teams to watch this year include LSU, with Big Baby Glen Davis and Tack Minor, UCLA and Washington. Kansas is a team loaded with talent that everyone seems to think is a championship contender, but for some reason I’m just not sold on them. They’ve already lost to Oral Roberts this year in a big upset, the kind of upset Kansas always seems to have when they’re highly ranked. They’ve got tremendous talent, especially in the frontcourt. It remains to be seen if they can live up to that talent.
All in all, this should be a fun year. With the no high schoolers rule in the NBA, college basketball got an infusion of talent that should be fun to watch. There’s no way we would have had the chance to watch players like Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Paul Harris or Darrell Arthur two years ago. Even if they only play for one year, it should make for some exciting games along the way. Now if we can just find a way to shut up Dick Vitale, the season would be heaven.