Friday, November 14, 2014

TBI's College Basketball Opening Day Extravaganza: Top 25 Picks

I hate Christmas music, but the sentiment behind this song is valid for today. College basketball's opening day beats the living hell out of Christmas for me because 2 things:

1) There's a metric ton of hoops to watch;
2) No stressful shopping experiences.

As we prepare to tip the season off in some style (Texas Southern v. Eastern Washington = two potential conference champions opening the campaign), sit back and observe TBI's up-to-the-minute preseason top 25 and All-American picks after the jump.

25. Michigan State
*Not without some of this, though.
--Dude, it's Tom Izzo. He'll figure things out.* The Spartans' roster doesn't look as hot as it normally does, but there's still a solid core in place with Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and one of my personal favorites for a breakout year in the B1G, Denzel Valentine. Aside from Delon Wright of Utah (more on him later), there's not a man in college hoop I consider more likely to drop a trip-dub on somebody this season. I'm also expecting some sweet shooting from Bryn Forbes, but he did struggle in the few games Cleveland State had against tourney-caliber opposition last season. It's very possible that Izzo's rolling with Tum Tum Nairn and Trice as his starting backcourt by season's end.

24. Illinois
--I wrote the team preview over at BT Powerhouse, and Illinois has my vote for 4th in the Big Ten this season. Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby will add much-needed shooting, and once Jaylon Tate takes over at the point (you listening, Coach Groce?), the Illini bench mob of Starks, Cosby and Malcolm Hill will be one of the sweetest-shooting second units in the nation. Rayvonte Rice can still ball, and he doesn't have to be the whole offense this season. Nnanna Egwu got some massive love from Jay Bilas for his defensive skillz, too:

23. Arkansas
--The Hogs have enough athleticism to run with anyone, but so do several SEC teams. The problem in the SEC is that while we can't swing a dead cat around without hitting dudes who can run like the wind and jump out of the building, the only actual skilled players seem to flock to Lexington and Gainesville. I wrote here about the league's pervasive shooting woes, an issue that Arkansas didn't help much.

All that said, I've got Bobby Portis doing big boy things this season (perhaps All-American things? Stay tuned), Moses Kingsley growing up a bit as a sophomore, Ky Madden and Michael Qualls putting in All-SEC caliber work. Problem is that neither Jabril Durham or Anton Beard appears to have done enough to free Madden from primary ballhandler status. I expect someone to step up this season, or this ranking will look silly.
Keep yer head on straight, Winston.

22. San Diego State
--Defense, defense, defense. Those are the Aztecs' top three strengths yet again. Notice that offense is kind of a rumor around here. It was the same last year, despite the presence of do-it-all PG Xavier Thames. Without him, it's back to the drawing board in what could be Steve Fisher's final season. Freshmen Trey Kell and Kevin Zabo are keys to the backcourt operating at peak efficiency, and if they can't get it done, a lot will fall on the shoulders of junior wing Winston Shepard. Shepard was a guy who completely took college for granted two years ago, and if he can handle the extra workload, SDSU will be okay. Not great, perhaps, but okay.

21. Utah
--I listed the Utes as a potential "surprise" team over at B/R, and was immediately hit with "duh, so what? Everyone expects Utah to do well this year." Yes, that's true, and it made me realize that I didn't articulate the "surprise" very well. How about Final Four potential? Would that surprise you?

Delon Wright is simply the most versatile player in the game this season, and he's got great perimeter support from Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge. The post was a weak spot last season, but there's plenty of depth now with senior Dallin Bachynski, junior Jeremy Olsen, JUCO banger Chris Reyes, redshirt frosh Kyle Kuzma and true freshmen Brekkott Chapman and Jakob Poeltl. A team that lost seven Pac-12 games by four points or less should be able to manufacture some better luck this season.

20. UConn
NEWS FLASH: He gone now.
--I shouldn't even be this nice, considering the massive doses of shit I kept getting handed from UConn fans all offseason for not bowing down to the "champs," a team that was:

a) a No. 7 seed;
2) one bad bounce from getting bounced by St. Joe's; and
iii) led by several key contributors, most of whom are now gone.

YOU HAVE A DIFFERENT TEAM NOW, TROLLS. GET OVER YOURSELVES. (Ahem, moving on.) UConn still has plenty of talent and depth, just not a ton of experience. Ryan Boatright scares me, and not in a good way. Will he have too many games of "time to get mine and show these scouts I can dominate," or will he involve his teammates? Can Rodney Purvis shoot efficiently and make people fear him at the foul line? Will Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey become more solid offensive players? Is Daniel Hamilton the do-it-all dynamo he currently resembles? Can Sam Cassell Jr. run a team as effectively as his dad did for so many years? Lots of questions, and it should be totally obvy that I think some of the answers will be positive. Otherwise, UConn would be nowhere near this ballot. Now, get off my ass.

19. VCU
--VCU isn't anywhere close to that Gonzaga level of missed opportunities, but there's still plenty of disappointment going around. A loss to Stephen F. Austin wasn't entirely unexpected, and that's an ominous sign for the Rams. A-10 POY favorite Treveon Graham is still around, as is defensive boogeyman Briante Weber, who should break the NCAA career steals record sometime around Valentine's Day. Freshman Terry Larrier is the first truly touted recruit that Shaka Smart has landed, and he'll have to prove himself quickly. The Havoc defense demands quality depth, but there's not a lot of proven talent on the Rams' bench. Melvin Johnson can be an explosive perimeter shooter, but can he be as consistently dangerous as Troy Daniels or Rob Brandenberg? And will he have any help?

18. Michigan
--Centers? John Beilein don't need no stinkin' centers.

Thankfully, Donnal recovered from being "en fuego" here.
That's a bit of a misnomer, since Beilein has redshirt freshman Mark Donnal, who's perfectly capable of playing inside and out. If he eventually grows into the kind of force that Beilein was able to develop Kevin Pittsnogle into at West Virginia, he'll take Michigan to another Final Four soon. The backcourt, as ever, is strong at UM, with Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin all capable of earning All-B1G honors. Irvin has the same mandate that Nik Stauskas had after his freshman season: Prove that you can beat people off the dribble and not just spot up in the corner all night. Kam Chatman will battle for an All-Rookie nod as well. He went 9-6-4 against Wayne State, and if he's that kind of versatile against real basketball teams, he'll be more valuable than Glenn Robinson III ever was.

17. Colorado
--The Pac-12 as a whole is being undersold a bit nationally, as the top half is just about as good as anyone's. The bottom half is an albatross, but we're here to talk about good teams. Good teams like Colorado.

Buffaloes big man Josh Scott is one of the best in America that not many are talking about. It would not be a stretch to see him average 18 and 10 this year. Forwards Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon complete a front line that isn't nearly as hyped as that at, say, Texas, but it might be every bit as efficient as a group. Guards Askia Booker and Xavier Talton will allow rookie PG Dominique Collier to come along slowly. Coach Tad Boyle has depth, size and talent, and there's Sweet 16 potential if the Buffs find enough shooting.

More of this, less violating team rules, Chris.
16. Florida
--This is another coach pick. Billy Donovan is too good and has too much talent on his hands to see the Gators fall too terribly far. PG Kasey Hill, wing Dorian Finney-Smith and unconscious gunner Michael Frazier will carry the offense while rookies Devin Robinson and Chris Chiozza get their games up to college level and ex-Rutgers star Eli Carter gets his health all the way right. Robinson in particular struggled during exhibition play. I'm still a bit concerned about Chris Walker's ability to keep his head together all season, but veteran Jon Horford will play a calming role until Duke transfer Alex Murphy gets eligible. The loss of four-star SG Brandone Francis for academic reasons really hurts.

15. Ohio State
--The Buckeyes' games were as visually offensive last year as Kathy Bates' nude scene in About Schmidt. (Thankfully, I'll spare you photographic proof. You're welcome.) The Aaron Craft-led outfit didn't let anyone get buckets, but they themselves would have had trouble scoring in a whorehouse on Dollar Day. That should be rectified this season if some touted freshmen are ready to play big-boy Big Ten ball. D'Angelo Russell is my pick for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he had a great debut against Walsh, dropping 17-8-6. If his support system--classmate Keita Bates-Diop and redshirt Kam Williams, who both struggled mightily in the exhibition--gets it together, there's still more than enough defense to make beating OSU a miserable task.

14. Villanova
--The Cats are expected to cruise in the Big East, with nearly everyone back. Their biggest question swirls around their biggest player, but center Daniel Ochefu is at least playing like a man possessed in the preseason. He ripped 20 boards to go with 11 points in an exhibition win over Nyack. Guards Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono, along with power forward JayVaughn Pinkston, are rock solid and they'll get plenty of support from junior Dylan Ennis and freshmen Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges. If there's a quibble, it's that there's not much depth in the post behind Pinkston and Ochefu, but the rest of the BE--outside of Top 25 sleeper Providence--isn't exactly swarming with Goliaths either.
Shoots about as straight as the Longhorns.

13. Texas
--As alluded to earlier, the Texas front line is hyped, and justifiably so. Reserves Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert could probably start for 300 or so teams around Division I, but they're still sitting behind Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and now freshman Myles Turner. There's top-10 talent up front, but a team that couldn't shoot straight last year didn't do much to rectify the problem. In fact, the Horns' most consistent perimeter threat, Martez Walker, done got himself suspended and left school after a domestic violence complaint. If the shooters can hit, there's Final Four potential here. If not, the Horns will once again have to crush the offensive glass. Luckily for them, that shouldn't be hard with this many heads of gigantic cattle.

12. Oklahoma
--This is a provisional ranking, as the NCAA is still struggling to extract its head from its own ass and is allowing Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas' immediate-eligibility waiver decision to drag into the regular season. If Thomas can suit up, the Sooners will have one of the nation's (yes, NATION'S) most complete starting lineups. Guards Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins are all potential All-Big 12 performers, and forward Ryan Spangler is capable of a double-double every night. The bench is mostly young, but the top seven (add senior SWAT Team member D.J. Bennett and sophomore gunner Frank Booker to the above five) are as good as just about anyone's.

11. Iowa State
Vin Diesel's stunt double on the right? Just shave the head.
--Georges Niang's weight loss is the major story out of Ames this offseason, but of equal importance should be ISU's growing reach with actual high school talent. Rather than relying almost exclusively on transfers to keep the roster stocked (UNLV's Bryce DeJean-Jones may be the only significant D-I import this year), coach Fred Hoiberg got a couple of interesting freshmen into ISU this season. Point guard Clayton Custer might see important minutes alongside sophomore Monte Morris, while 7-foot Greek Giorgios Tsalmpouris will provide some rim protection until JUCO refugee Jameel McKay is eligible in time for Big 12 play. Of course, forward duo Niang and Dustin Hogue will pace the attack, with Morris and junior Naz Long relied on to make shots. There's still plenty on hand for The Mayor.

10. Louisville
--The Cards have All-American (SPOILER ALERT) Montrezl Harrell and a potentially superb--albeit undersized--backcourt in Chris Jones and Terry Rozier. Based on his occasionally dominant play in exhibition season, senior Wayne Blackshear is ready to prove he belongs on a top-10/potential Final Four team. The major concern is integrating a pile of talented freshmen who all have their individual warts. Shaqquan Aaron may not be cleared to play any time soon, considering how glacially slow the NCAA moves to let guys compete (they're Johnny on the spot when it comes to slamming the door on dudes, though). PG Quentin Snider will have to adapt to the unique pressure of playing a key bench role for his hometown team. Big man Chinanu Onuaku has impressed, and will be off the bench early in relief of Harrell or sophomore Mangok Mathiang. 7-foot Egyptian Anas Mahmoud has tremendous skills, he just needs the bulk to bang inside. If the Cards can get oriented to the ACC quickly, it'll be a great season. Three conferences in three seasons, however, is a lot of scouting.

9. Wichita State
But he should be the face of something. Boy-band lookin' SOB.
--The Shockers have a spectacular backcourt, led by potential All-Americans Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker (news flash: Baker's the better player, just not the face of the team), but the frontcourt has to snap into shape quickly before a tough pair of early games against New Mexico State and Memphis. Freshman Rashard Kelly may be the best complement to senior Darius Carter in the post, while 6'10" Estonian Rauno Nurger will test defenses with his shooting range. Expect VanVleet to maximize his impact by getting him the ball in all the right spots. If the Shockers can replace Cleanthony Early's rebounding--scoring shouldn't be a problem with Baker and Tekele Cotton getting more looks--there's every possibility WSU contends for another high ranking and strong tournament seed.

8. Gonzaga
--The Zags have got to put it together and make a tournament run sometime, and if this team can't do it, doubt has to creep in over whether Mark Few can produce such a season. Aside from iconic guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Gonzaga has sensational perimeter options in USC transfer Byron Wesley, ex-Kentucky stretch-4 Kyle Wiltjer, returning reserve Kyle Dranginis and freshman Josh Perkins. All these guys will need to produce while interior help is found for Polish behemoth Przemek Karnowski. Freshman Domantas Sabonis is a skilled post operator who should find several double-figure scoring games if referees don't allow him to be shoved around like a 210-pound rag doll. There's too much talent here to squander it in the round of 32.

7. Virginia
--Replacing Akil Mitchell's rebounding and defense won't be easy, and issues there could lead to UVa dropping into the 11-20 range at times during ACC play. The Cavs won't fall far, though, thanks to an efficient offense that may not miss Joe Harris as much as expected. Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes are probably the best elite backcourt that doesn't get hyped as an elite backcourt. Veterans like Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson must assert themselves on both ends, and if freshmen Isaiah Wilkins (the stopper), B.J. Stith (the sniper) and Jack Salt (the bruiser) all play their roles effectively off the bench, Virginia will threaten to defend its dual ACC titles.

6. Kansas
"Get away from the basket, or the ball gets it and we all go home."
--We're used to Kansas having point guard questions. Seems like that's been the case since the Adonis Jordan or Jacque Vaughn days. Still, whether it's Frank Mason or Devonte Graham running the show (I'm #TeamGraham, in case you're wondering), there are more than enough weapons--including a few supplemental ballhandlers--for the Jayhawks to cruise to consecutive Big 12 title No. 11. The key will be the defensive end, an area where KU was exposed late last season when Joel Embiid went down. Reserves Jamari Traylor and Hunter Mickelson will help with rim protection, but hyped rookie Cliff Alexander has to prove he can rebound and play defense without landing himself in foul trouble. He's not always going to be the strongest, burliest bull in the pen like he was in high school. Expect wings Wayne Selden and Kelly Oubre, along with power forward Perry Ellis, to contend for a spot on the Big 12 scoring leaderboard.

5. Wisconsin
Pictured: a large fuzzy Badger. And the mascot.
--When you have two All-Americans on your roster, you're generally going to be projected highly. That goes double when you have a coach whose system hums along regardless of the parts and return nearly all the talent from a Final Four team. Center Frank Kaminsky and wing Sam Dekker may be the two best players in the Big Ten this year, guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser usually don't beat their own team and sophomores Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig both showed flashes against dominant competition, Koenig doing so in the Final Four. If there's a real knock on the Badgers, it could be (COULD BE) backcourt depth. Forwards Duje Dukan, Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ could all be contributors up front, the guard situation is much murkier. Redshirt frosh Riley Dearring should help as a shooter and sophomore Zak Showalter will be an energy guy. Another Final Four is very, very possible.

4. North Carolina
--Provided UNC doesn't get imploded or wiped out by the wrath of a vengeful God--as Duke fans would undoubtedly love to see--in the wake of the scathing Wainstein Report, there's still plenty of talent on the court for Ol' Roy. Marcus Paige is certainly in the running for TBI's National Player of the Year honor, and it's possible that his distributing will be as much a story this year as his scoring. I'm expecting a great season from junior Brice Johnson as long as he's able to keep himself out of foul trouble. This is a dude who put up 21.2-12.4 per 40 over his first two years, for cryin' out loud. Center Kennedy Meeks is looking like a real athlete and not the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man this year. J.P. Tokoto is that guy who'll make your team's best scorer look like a YMCA scrub. Freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson will make the offense hum in transition, Pinson with the slashes to the hole and Jackson draining the trailer 3. If either Joel James or Desmond Hubert can provide capable relief for Meeks (improved cardio or not, he sure as hell can't play 40), the Heels have a recipe to get back to the Final Four. And then pray that no one here took any classes in African-American Studies.

3. Arizona
--Full disclosure/quasi-SPOILER ALERT: You'll notice Duke just ahead of Arizona in these rankings. However, I'm tabbing the Wildcats, not the Blue Devils, to reach the Final Four. Why? UA's defense will win out early in the year, but I'm mildly intrigued about Sean Miller's potential decision to redshirt JUCO Player of the Year Kadeem Allen. Perhaps it's to avoid any overlap with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the team's resident slashing wing, or maybe it's a major dose of good faith in junior sniper Gabe York. After all, the Cats have everything aside from shooting, and that's York's major. Miller compared Allen to ex-Maryland star Juan Dixon, who likewise redshirted during his career. Either way, if York and sophomore Elliott Pitts can supplement PG T.J. McConnell's shooting, the Cats will be tough to keep away from Indy this April.

2. Duke
"Biggest pair you've ever seen, dingleberry."
--Duke has a loaded lineup, matching Kentucky with nine former McDonald's All-Americans. Freshman Tyus Jones appears to have cemented the starting point guard role alongside center/classmate/good buddy/National POY favorite Jahlil Okafor, and if Jones is all he's cracked up to be, there's a good chance he makes every teammate that much more dangerous. Sophomore Matt Jones surprisingly cracked the starting five in the exhibitions, showing the shot that stayed behind in high school while still playing his usual rugged defense. Backup guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon were last season's starters, and could likewise start for all but about 10-15 teams in the country. Overshadowed freshman Grayson Allen will have his moments, too. If Duke gets good backup minutes from Marshall Plumlee at center and Amile Jefferson finishes establishing himself as the ACC's best pure rebounder, Duke will finally have some steak to go with its usual sizzle, and Mike Krzyzewski can get back to the Final Four again. Oh, and wing Justise Winslow is simply a versatile all-around beast. Did I miss anyone?

1. Kentucky
--Yada yada yada nine Burger Boys yada yada yada great skilled big men yada yada yada Tyler Ulis is lightning in a bottle yada yada yada Willie Cauley-Stein would swat his mama from the last turkey leg at Thanksgiving yada yada yada undefeated yada yada....

So let's all save the T-shirt printing costs, k?
Whoa, hold up. Okay, Kentucky has more talent than any team in the nation (and that probably includes the Philadelphia 76ers right now), but they're not going unbeaten. For that, God bless John Calipari. His non-conference schedule is a thing of beauty, with a great balance between cupcakes and potential NCAA tournament (and I mean DEEP NCAA tournament) opposition like North Carolina, Texas, Kansas and Louisville. There are a lot of games in short time early (the first six in 10 days), then some time to survey what worked before the real meaty games. Cal has a beautiful quandary on his hands trying to mix and match all these moving parts, and it will take time for him to get the recipe right.

Now, if you're asking me "Will UK go undefeated in the SEC?" I'll tell you absolutely. Barring a jacked crowd at the O-Dome or Bud Walton, no SEC team will have anything close to enough horses to run with this bunch. Complacency and selfishness will be the main enemies for UK, and this time (unlike two years ago) Cal has more than enough depth to staple any offender to the bench and keep him there until he learns respect.

Not going to the Final Four = failure. For that matter, no national title = failure. There's too much here for anyone not to vote this team on top, unless they're simply trying to be contrary and troll Big Blue Nation. While I'm always up for a good game of Troll the Trolls, any other conclusion to these rankings would be simply ludicrous. Do I expect UK to roll to the title? Not really, but right now, no one has any better case for No. 1.

No comments:

Post a Comment