Four Teams Up…Posted by rtmsf on November 1st, 2010
David Ely is an RTC contributor.
Every year teams come out of nowhere and burst into the top 25, while sports writers run to their keyboards to type the requisite “Where Did Team X Come From” story. I mean how many people saw Cornell coming last year? Who said last October that Butler would go on to lose the national championship game by just a couple of inches? Conversely, there are teams that look great on paper in the preseason but fail to live up to the hype once the season starts. Think North Carolina last season. Why did the Tar Heels begin the year in the top 10 again? Allow us to sort through the mess and pull out this year’s Cornells and North Carolinas for you. Missouri fans, get ready to be excited. West Virginia fans, start thinking of things to say in your hate mail.
Today we’ll take a look at four teams that will be up this season as compared to where they were in to 2009-10. Wednesday we’ll look at four teams that will be down.
#1) North Carolina
I know, I know, you’ve seen this script before. The Tar Heels enter the season ranked in the top 10. They don’t have many players on their roster that have accomplished anything in the college ranks, but they boast a highly touted incoming freshman class. Sound familiar? That was last year’s UNC squad, and we all know how disastrous the 2009-10 season was in Chapel Hill. So why the reason for optimism for Roy Williams & Co.? Two words: Harrison Barnes.
In Barnes the Tar Heels have the top freshman in the nation, and a guy many foresee as next year’s No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. The 6’8 forward gives UNC the kind of scorer last year’s offensively challenged squad lacked. He’ll instantly become the primary option in Williams’ offense, and his inside-outside game should have the Tar Heels back in the NCAA Tournament as a dark horse Final Four candidate. In addition to Barnes, the Tar Heels have a rookie point guard in Kendall Marshall who should provide the competition in practice to make Larry Drew II a better floor general, and at the very least should give UNC two capable ball handlers. The lone reason to be concerned is North Carolina’s lack of depth along the front line. UNC lost Deon Thompson (last year’s top scorer) to graduation, Ed Davis left for the NBA and David and Travis Wear transferred to UCLA during the offseason. If center Tyler Zeller suffers another injury this season, North Carolina might be in trouble, but the Tar Heels definitely won’t suffer another NIT season.
It didn’t take long for Baylor to lose its momentum from last season’s run to the Elite Eight. All it took to bring the Bears back to earth was LaceDarius Dunn’s arrest for aggravated assault and indefinite suspension from the team coupled with Ekpe Udoh’s decision to enter the NBA draft. And the team that gained the most from Baylor’s drama? Missouri. The Tigers are well equipped to jump into the Big 12 elite and it’s all because of head coach Mike Anderson. Anderson is 88-46 in his four seasons at Missouri and reached the Elite Eight in 2009. Last year the Tigers made it to the Round of 32, and Anderson’s squad is predicted to finish fifth in the Big 12 this year.
Personally, fifth seems a little too low. The Tigers’ brand of basketball (the “fastest 40 minutes in basketball”) that Anderson learned at Arkansas under Nolan Richardson is incredibly tough to prepare for and usually leaves the opposition bent over in exhaustion by halftime. And if that’s not enough, the rest of the Big 12 has to account for preseason Wooden All-America selection Kim English and five-star recruit Phil Pressey. If Anderson’s other five-star signee, Tony Mitchell, ever becomes eligible then the Tigers will have the frontcourt presence necessary to post Anderson’s best season in Columbia.
It took a great deal of luck (Chandler Parsons’ 75-foot buzzer beat against N.C. State, and another last second win over South Carolina) for the Gators to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007, but Florida is poised to make everyone forget about the fluky nature of last season. The Gators return all five starters and add freshman phenom Patric Young, which is why it’s no surprise Billy Donovan’s squad has been tabbed as the team to beat in the SEC East.
When it comes to the Gators this season, offense shouldn’t be an issue. All five starters averaged at least ten points a game last year with Kenny Boynton’s 14 PPG leading the way. That kind of balance across the roster makes it nearly impossible to completely shut down Florida’s attack for an entire game. If Boynton has an off shooting night, then point guard Erving Walker is there to pick him up. If Walker isn’t getting the job done, then there’s Chandler Parsons and so on and so on.
Key to the Gators’ success will be if their defense can be effective enough to let their offense win games. Florida finished #67 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings last year, and with everyone coming back one has to wonder how much the Gators can improve on that end of the floor. Donovan said during SEC Media Day that he feels this year’s squad is tougher and there’s been more physical confrontation throughout preseason practices than in the past. If the Gators play with an edge, then the defense should improve and the Florida just might be back as the class of the SEC.
The Huskies shocked everyone who spent all season ripping the Pac-10 when they stormed into the Sweet Sixteen last year as an #11 seed. This season Washington should be better and don’t be surprised if the Huskies run away with a Pac-10 that hasn’t really improved from last year’s dismal campaign. While Lorenzo Romar no longer has Quincy Pondexter around to call plays for, the Huskies bring back a solid core with plenty of upside. Isaiah Thomas made the preseason Wooden Award watch list after averaging 16.9 points a game last year. Thomas will get more opportunities to post big numbers without Pondexter around, and we should expect senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning to continue his trend of year-to-year improvement. It’s not crazy to think Bryan-Amaning can average about ten points and eight rebounds a game this season as the Huskies’ main frontcourt option.
The wildcard is without a doubt sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy. The highly touted prospect suffered through a disappointing rookie season and only averaged 3.9 points and 2.3 assists a game. But give the guy a break. He turned 18 halfway through last season, and he played like the kid he was against more mature competition. With a year under his belt, Gaddy should begin to show people why he was considered one of the best high school guards in the nation.
Three Others to Consider.
- Pittsburgh — Jamie Dixon has built the Panthers into one of the top programs in the Big East and in the nation. It’s no surprise here that Pittsburgh was picked to win its conference in the Big East’s preseason poll of coaches. With Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs leading the show, the Panthers should expect nothing less than its first modern-era trip to the Final Four.
- Illinois — Bruce Weber’s great freshmen class (led by small forward Jereme Richmond) is reason enough to be excited. The Fighting Illini have the talent to make it to the NCAA Tournament, but they also did last year. Will this year’s team flame out down the stretch again?
- Mississippi State — The Bulldogs felt they were snubbed from the NCAA Tournament last year after a 23-11 (9-7 in the SEC) regular season. This year Mississippi State gets Renardo Sidney after his nine-game suspension at the start of the season. That addition alone gives the Bulldogs the talent to make its bubble unpoppable.