It’s almost time for college basketball to start, which means it’s time for my annual college basketball preview. This should be a particularly fun season for me since my two favorite teams, Duke and Michigan State (not in that order) are ranked 1 and 2 (in that order) in pretty much every preseason poll. Duke is coming off their 4th national championship and MSU is coming off their 2nd consecutive final four appearance.
Despite losing three starters from their championship team last season, Duke is a favorite to repeat that achievement because they had well-prepared replacements waiting in the wings for those lost players. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler should be first team all-Americans for the Blue Devils and they are hardly the only talent on the court.
Duke is deeper in the backcourt this year than last, when they only had 3 guards on the entire roster. Freshman Kyrie Irving, the top-ranked point guard in his class, steps right into the starting lineup with Nolan Smith at the two. The Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, will start up front with Singler at the 3.
Seth Curry, little brother of Stephan Curry, should be the first player off the bench. He and Andre Dawkins provide depth and shooting off the bench. Freshman Josh Hairston and Ryan Kelly will have to develop behind the Plumlee brothers to provide them with depth in the frontcourt.
This will be a different team than last year’s Duke team. Irving is the genuine point guard that team did not have and he’s the most talented point guard in Durhman since Jay Williams won back to back national player of the year awards in 2001 and 2002. There is no staying in front of Irving, who should be the best point in the ACC immediately. There’s no question this team will contend for the national championship once again and they should easily win the ACC.
MSU is similarly loaded with talent. Kalin Lucas is coming back after offseason surgery on his achilles heal, but all accounts are that his recovery is on track and he’s been working hard in rehab. He should be ready for the start of the season. He’ll be paired in the backcourt with Durrell Summers, who had a breakout NCAA tournament last year and should be poised for great things.
Derrick Nix will start at center and he has dropped another 35 pounds during the offseason. Nix has a lot of skill, very soft hands and excellent footwork. Now that his conditioning is there, he should show dramatic improvement over his freshman year. Delvon Roe finally got his knee fixed over the summer and Izzo really thinks he’s going to break out big now that he’s finally healthy for the first time since getting to East Lansing.
Draymond Green, my favorite player on the team, steps into the starting lineup at the three. Green is the ultimate glue guy. He’s the leader of this team, not Lucas, and that’s a good thing. Lucas is too quiet and self-contained. Green is both the vocal and emotional leader and he’s the smartest player on the team. He just always seems to make the right play at the right time.
He’s also slimmed way down in the offseason — he and Nix had a contest to see who could lose the most weight — and that should help his stamina a great deal. I expect him to stuff the stat sheet — 15 points, 7 or 8 boards, 3 or 4 assists, a steal or two — and really become a force for this team.
There are solid backups at nearly every position as well. Korie Lucious did a great job at point guard after Lucas went down in the NCAA tournament and he’s joined by freshman Keith Appling in the second team backcourt. Garrick Sherman will be a reliable backup big man and Adreian Payne is a supremely talented big man who can play with his back to the basket or facing it. Russell Byrd will back up at the 3 and he’s considered the best pure outside shooter in his class.
In short, this team is loaded and ready to make a serious run at Izzo’s second national title, which will put him in rarified territory with Coach K, Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun, Billy Donovan — and no one else still coaching.
The Big Ten should be loaded this year. Purdue was considered a serious contender for the national title as well, but they once again lost Robbie Hummel for the season to a torn ACL. They’ll still be pretty good, but they can’t make the final four without Hummel. But the rest of the Big Ten is loaded as well.
Ohio State has another monster recruiting class to add to their returning talent. Illinois returns pretty much everyone. Wisconsin is always tough and Jon Leuer is ready to break out big for that team. Minnesota should be improved. Top to bottom, there isn’t a tougher conference in the country.
Other teams to watch nationally: Kansas State, which returns a great backcourt and a lot of depth. This is a legitimate final four team. So is Pittsburgh, which returns virtually everyone. Florida is ready to make a run after a few down years after their back to back titles. And I love Gonzaga. They had 8 freshman on that team last year and Elias Harris should be an all-American. That team has talent and depth at every position and there isn’t a team in the country they can’t beat.
Final four predictions: Duke, MSU, Gonzaga, Baylor.