Five Teams Nobody Can Quite Get a Handle On…Posted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2010
Zach Hayes is an RTC editor, contributor and bracketologist.
As the pre-Midnight Madness polls trickled out last Friday, it became glaringly obvious to us that consensus was more the exception than the rule. Aside from Duke at the top, teams like Butler and Kentucky somewhere in the middle and a precipitous decline for Purdue following Robbie Hummel re-tearing his ACL, agreement was about as prevalent as a British parliament session. Examining polls from a handful of websites that compiled a top 25 to prepare for the start of practice — ESPN’s Andy Katz, TSN’s Mike DeCourcy, CBS’ Gary Parrish, Fox’s Jeff Goodman and yours truly here at RTC — we found five teams with a noticeable amount of dissent attached to their name in the preseason. Let’s examine those schools and break down what they need to do to match optimistic projections and how they can avoid sinking to the depths of other predictions.
Team #1: Syracuse (Preseason Rankings: #7, #10, #13, #19, #20)
Overrated at #7 if: the Orange are unable to replace the leadership, chemistry and production provided by fifth year seniors Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku and fourth year junior Wes Johnson. At times last season, Syracuse was a well-oiled machine on both ends of the floor. Players embraced their roles offensively and Jim Boeheim had the perfect roster at his disposal to stymie opponents with his patented 2-3 zone. The jury’s still out on whether Kris Joseph will be able to step into Johnson’s shoes and replace that versatility on the wing. Scoop Jardine was that sparkplug off the bench last season — will he be able to channel that effort for 35 minutes per night rather than 21.3 MPG? As many accolades as Fab Melo and Dion Waiters achieved in the high school ranks, depending on freshmen can be risky business. Asking them to drop just three spots in the polls after losing that considerable amount of production seems unreasonable and unrealistic.
Underrated at #20 if: Remember last summer when Boeheim hyped up that transfer from Iowa State named Wes Johnson? He’s been doing the same with Fab Melo, telling SI.com’s Seth Davis that his seven-foot freshman will be “a strong contender for national rookie of the year.” Plus, let’s face it: storied, winning programs like Syracuse prefer to reload than rebuild. Last October, we were wondering how the Orange would replace Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris (in hindsight, that looks foolish, but it was true at the time). Why should we believe any differently this time around? NBA scouts have tabbed Joseph as a future lottery pick, Jardine and Brandon Triche shot well enough in 2009-10 to believe they can pick up Rautins’ slack, and Melo is an immediate upgrade offensively over Onuaku. In a conference that lost personnel across the board, Boeheim has a shot to put together back-to-back Big East title squads.
Team #2: Missouri (Preseason Rankings: #8, #12, #13, #16, #16)
Overrated at #8 if: Missouri’s returning talent isn’t that good in the first place. The Tigers return their top three scorers from a season ago, but it’s not as though Missouri lit the world on fire in 2009-10: they lost games to Oral Roberts, Oklahoma and Nebraska before garnering a #10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There’s also concern about the Tigers frontcourt — Laurence Bowers, Ricardo Ratcliffe, Justin Safford and Steve Moore -- regarding their ability to contain the behemoths that face them in the Big 12. Any team that takes care of the basketball, keeps the action in the halfcourt and boasts legitimate scoring big men can negate Mike Anderson’s chaotic full-court press and take the Tigers out of their comfort zone. The prized recruit of Anderson’s class, 6’8 power forward Tony Mitchell out of Texas, is dealing with eligibility concerns and hopes to join Missouri in time for the bulk of Big 12 play, but that proposition is in serious jeopardy.
Underrated at #16 if: people underestimate the ability of Anderson to get the most out of his team. He’s positively giddy about the prospects of this year’s roster. There’s scoring punch on the outside with Kim English and Marcus Denmon, a dynamic point guard duo with Mike Dixon and Paul Pressey and plenty of candidates to thrust themselves into stardom in the frontcourt, especially Ratcliffe, the ultra-talent top junior college recruit. The Tigers full-court press keeps them in any game against any opponent if they’re able to force turnovers and impose their will. Anderson has the speed, versatility and athleticism to pressure opponents into oblivion. English is a phenomenal scorer and potential all-conference performer. If he develops more of a well-rounded game and improves efficiency, Anderson also boasts a go-to scorer when the Tigers need a clutch bucket.
Team #3: North Carolina (Preseason Rankings: #6, #9, #12, #14, #14)
Overrated at #6 if: last year wasn’t a fluke. Okay, the top-notch recruiting class led by Harrison Barnes basically guarantees this won’t totally happen. They won’t finish 5-11 in the ACC and lose to Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Virginia on the Dean Dome hardwood. Barnes simply won’t let that happen. Still, the reasoning behind Carolina’s lofty rating is the assumed improvement of guys like John Henson, Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland. It’s entirely possible that simply won’t happen. Like Matt Millen draft picks, it could be that Roy Williams just whiffed. Aside from Barnes, a player who has established a near consensus that he’ll be great from the opening tip, what if Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock are more developmental projects than instant impact weapons? Tyler Zeller needs to dodge the injury bug for the first time in his Heels career as well. There’s plenty of caveats that can lead one to believe a #6 ranking is wishful thinking.
Underrated at #14 if: everything comes together. It’s not totally unprecedented that a switch is flipped from one summer to the next. The cleansing of Deon Thompson, the underachieving Ed Davis and the problematic Will Graves could prove addition by subtraction. The talent level is undeniable, and Williams has lucked out into nursing his team back into contention in a weak ACC with only a small number of teams we can label as NCAA near-locks. Barnes is immediately North Carolina’s best player, someone who could legitimately follow in the mold of Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose and John Wall as national player of the year candidates. How many programs can boast that prospect? Adding outside shooting in Bullock, heady point guard play with Marshall and the continued development of Henson should result in Carolina returning to prominence as a top ten team.
Team #4: Baylor (Preseason Rankings: #9, #9, #16, #16, #16)
Overrated at #9 if: the Bears miss Tweety Carter at the point. The senior floor general was incredibly important to Baylor’s quest in permanently erasing the Dave Bliss era from their fans’ minds. His top-100 offensive rating, assist rate and 2.4 assist to turnover ratio in leading the third most efficient offensive in the land last season were huge reasons for the Bears’ Elite Eight berth and emergence at the top of the Big 12. With Carter graduated, most are just assuming 6’1 sophomore guard A.J. Walton can at least competently fill in at the point. If Walton struggles, that sends off a ripple effect: LaceDarius Dunn won’t receive the rock at the perfect opportunity to launch his jumper, Quincy Acy will see fewer opportunities to score down low and the development of Perry Jones will be stunted. Point guard play is undoubtedly vital in college basketball for any program with lofty expectations.
Underrated at #16 if: LaceDarius Dunn plays a large bulk of the season. The #9 ranking is largely in part to an assumption that Dunn — who is currently part of a domestic assault investigation — is cleared to play this season for Scott Drew and the Bears. The victim in the case wants the charges dropped, Dunn has been re-instated to Baylor and my money’s on Drew having his leading scorer back in the fray for 2010-11. A prime candidate to lead the Big 12 in scoring, Dunn’s absence could single-handedly drop Baylor out of the top 25 altogether. He’s even more important than Robbie Hummel is for Purdue; at least Matt Painter still has two all-Big Ten caliber players to ease the pain. Once Dunn finds the floor, the 6’4 senior has a chance to average 20/5 and win conference player of the year. The much-hyped Perry Jones is one of the bigger wild cards in the country this season. Some scouts compare him to a young Lamar Odom or Rashard Lewis.
Team #5: Washington (Preseason Rankings: #7, #15, #17, #18, #23)
Overrated at #7 if: the Huskies can’t replace the production of Quincy Pondexter. Actually, they can’t replace the production of Quincy Pondexter. I’ll say it. He averaged 19.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, shot 53% from the floor, 83% from the line and ranked at the top of the Pac-10 in offensive rating. Matthew Bryan-Amaning has a chance to be a real solid player for U-Dub, but matching the production of Pondexter’s senior campaign is a near impossibility. Also, much like Missouri, was Washington really that good last season? I understand beating up on the pathetic Pac-10 will boost their ranking this season, but #7? For a team that lost to Oregon and USC at home and needed to win their conference tournament just to earn a spot in the field? And although Terrence Ross should help, their outside shooting woes are not going to be solved overnight.
Underrated at #23 if: Washington achieves a higher ranking by default. Listen, I’ve got nothing against Washington. Their backcourt — Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton, Abdul Gaddy and Terrence Ross -- is fairly loaded. But the Huskies play in the Pac-10, where Arizona is one year away, UCLA is still rebuilding and Oregon is a total mess. Some people even expect Washington State to jump from dead last to second this season. If Washington just wins the games they should win, they’ll build up quite the win total and march up the rankings while the SEC, Big East and Big Ten teams are beating up on each other.