One Man’s Opinion: Contenders After One MonthPosted by zhayes9 on December 6th, 2010
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
After engulfing myself in a nightly binge of college basketball over the first month of the season- taking in games from the Big Apple to the Little Apple and from Cancun to Maui- here is one man’s evaluation on some of the top teams in the country and where they stand heading into the final weeks of non-conference play:
Duke- It’s going to take a near perfect effort to beat Duke this season. Being able to lure Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler back to campus coinciding with a severe down year in the ACC was truly the perfect storm of circumstance. One chance a team may have to dethrone Duke is if they lure Mason Plumlee into two early fouls, keep them in the halfcourt and the Blue Devils become three-happy, but Duke does have five players who can catch fire from deep at any time. Kyrie Irving has surpassed any and all expectations during the first month of the season. His court awareness is reminiscent of a 10-year NBA veteran rather than an 18-year old college freshman. His use of the hesitation dribble, ability to split screens, explode to the basket and display innate court awareness has vaulted Irving to stardom. What makes Duke so lethal is that they have a plethora of options that can explode for 25 points on any given night, just as Plumlee did against Marquette or Singler against Oregon or Irving against Michigan State. There’s three potential lottery picks on this team, but selfishness is never an issue and they flow together seamlessly on the court. I have a hard time pointing out exactly where Duke slips up this season; after all, they don’t face a currently ranked team the rest of the slate.
Ohio State- Here’s the one team I feel would have a good shot at knocking off Duke on a neutral floor right now. They can come close to matching the Blue Devils at every position on the floor if William Buford runs the point. Jared Sullinger has been overrated a bit in the early going. Most of his production has come off easy dunks and layups and I haven’t seen an array of post moves quite yet, although I trust that they exist in his arsenal. It’s his fellow freshmen that should be receiving more attention. DeShaun Thomas is scoring 13 PPG in just over 17 MPG of play and shooting 56% from the floor. I’ve also been wildly impressed with the headiness and intelligence of Aaron Craft at the point. He’s compiled a near 2/1 assist/turnover ratio in the early going and has done a fantastic job finding shooters Diebler and Lighty off screens or Sullinger in low post position. David Lighty is this team’s MVP. He’s a lockdown defender and has really improved his outside jumper, while Buford may have the best mid-range game in the Big Ten. One should always anticipate Tom Izzo’s team to improve as the season wears on, but the Buckeyes have to be the odds-on favorite to win this conference as of now.
Pittsburgh- I know it’s horribly cliché when talking about Pittsburgh, but “tough” is the first word that comes to mind. Jamie Dixon’s teams are never outworked and currently lead all of college basketball is offensive rebounding percentage. Pitt seemingly has an assembly line of big men they can trot off the bench to give Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson and Talib Zanna breathers. Dixon loves to run Ashton Gibbs off screens for open looks and the junior sharpshooter is connecting better than ever, although he still lacks true point guard skills. Although the rotation will eventually be trimmed down, Dixon has the luxury of digging 10-deep into his bench that Big East rivals like Georgetown and Connecticut simply do not have. McGhee is the type of bruiser inside that every team would love to throw out there for 20 MPG. He gives Pitt’s offense extra shot opportunities and shuts down opposing big men inside. Pitt doesn’t necessarily have the star power of other Final Four contenders, but their toughness and execution as a unit may be enough to carry them to Houston.
Kansas- I think we all need to take a moment to applaud the job Bill Self has done in Lawrence. This program lost two lottery picks and an All-American and have taken maybe one step back. This is a credit to the tremendous depth Self has compiled at Kansas and his staff’s ability to develop players. When Josh Selby is eligible on December 18, this team becomes Final Four good. He could be lumped into the same category as Irving, Walker and McCamey come March. I’ve been wildly impressed with how well the Jayhawks know their roles. The Morris brothers complement each other with Marcus as the inside-outside scoring threat (18.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 65% FG, 9/15 from deep) and Markieff perfectly content with doing the dirty work on the boards and in the paint. In and out of Self’s doghouse during his tenure at Kansas, Tyshawn Taylor has done a quietly solid job filling in for Selby at the point distributing the basketball. A player who also flies under the radar is Brady Morningstar. Most just view him as a spot-up shooter, but he’s a valuable cog for Self ushering the fast break and setting up teammates for open looks.
Georgetown- As pointed out on this site during Saturday’s games, head coach John Thompson would be prudent to model his team after the national champions of a season ago. Duke’s backcourt trio of Scheyer, Smith and Singler carried the brunt of the scoring load while the Blue Devils big men focused on rebounding, screening and defending. With a trio to match in Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark, Georgetown may only need Julian Vaughn, Henry Sims, Nate Lubick and Hollis Thompson to embrace secondary roles to create a Final Four formula. All three studs in the backcourt are shooting over 43% from three and Wright has compiled 6.6 APG in the early going. Clark is an ace defender and Freeman has continued his shooting prowess from a year ago. What makes the Hoyas especially scary is that they can win at the slower pace that Thompson likely prefers (as they did in the win over Utah State) or in a game that reaches the 80s and 90s in scoring for both sides (Missouri). Originally I thought they’d be bullied around on the glass and in the paint, but I’m beginning to believe in the Hoyas as a Big East title contender.
Michigan State- I’ve learned from past years to not overreact to anything this team does before March, but I’m not sure they have the chops to be the last team standing in April. Turnovers are a recurring issue. As a team, the Spartans have more turnovers than assists on the young season. The roster has too many guys that disappear from games. Kalin Lucas will only improve as his Achilles gains strength, but he was badly outplayed by Kemba Walker against Connecticut and didn’t shine against Duke. It’s entirely possible he peaked as a sophomore. Durrell Summers also disappears frequently and it doesn’t appear Delvon Roe will ever become the impact player he was supposed to be out of high school. One player that any coach would love to have is Draymond Green. He’s the best box score stuffer in college basketball and constantly makes his teammates better on the floor.
Kansas State- I thought the Wildcats win out in Pullman was wildly undervalued. They gutted out a victory in front of a raucous home crowd in a game that Washington State played as if it were their Super Bowl. Jacob Pullen’s disappearing act against Duke was frightening. It’s almost as if Kyrie Irving punked him, outplaying the preseason All-American Pullen on both ends of the floor. He’s still a fabulous defender and Frank Martin trusts him to take big shots for the Wildcats. Once Curtis Kelly gets fully back into the flow of the offense, Pullen will have his sidekick back and Kansas State is awfully dangerous again. Rodney McGruder is one of the most underrated players in the Big 12. He put up solid totals as a little-used freshman but has really emerged as a sophomore with a 12/7 average and gives Martin another shooting option on the wing. I’m still waiting for Freddy Asprilla to show me why he was billed as an impact transfer. His 17 points against Emporia State doesn’t count.
Missouri- This is still an Elite 8-caliber team and Kim English will snap out of his early season funk. Ricardo Ratliffe is exactly the player that Mike Anderson needed. He relishes banging in the post and crashes the backboards with ferocity. Teams could exploit the Tigers down low last season because of their lack of bulk, but Ratliffe’s addition helps solve that problem. Marcus Denmon has been extremely impressive shooting the ball early and may end up proving their most reliable offensive weapon over English. The loss to Georgetown didn’t discourage me at all. They erased an 18-point deficit and it wasn’t by forcing turnover after turnover in their press. Missouri will be very dangerous come March, but you knew this already.
Connecticut- It’s the Kemba Walker show, but they have other pieces for the future. Alex Oriakhi was a force down low defending and crashing the boards during the three games in Maui. His offensive repertoire is slowly but surely developing. Shabazz Napier looks like a lockdown perimeter defender and Niels Giffey is a project that has the skills to be a four year contributor. Make no mistake about it, though, this team is all about Walker. As incredible as he’s been playing, a team so dependent on one player has a limited ceiling. No player worked harder over the summer than Walker and it has showed. His jump shot has vaulted from poor to somewhat respectable to a legitimate weapon and, just as important to head coach Jim Calhoun, his leadership abilities are shining bright.
Kentucky- North Carolina’s frontcourt duo of John Henson and Tyler Zeller exposed just how vulnerable the Wildcats are in the paint. If not for Terrence Jones reneging on his commitment to Washington, it would be an even worse situation for John Calipari. Josh Harrellson and Eloy Vargas are serviceable backups, but can’t be relied on to defend skilled players like Zeller or contribute anything offensively. Kentucky’s chances this season likely rely on their last-ditch effort to convince the NCAA that Enes Kanter deserves the same treatment as Cam Newton. Brandon Knight is still learning how to run an offense and it’ll be a slow process. The turnovers are an issue and Knight is much more comfortable as a pure scorer. I really like Calipari’s wings in DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller, especially because of Liggins’ skills on the defensive end. Knight and Jones receive all the publicity, but Doron Lamb showed how much he’s a capable scorer against Carolina and, unlike his fellow heralded newcomers, could be in Kentucky blue for three or four years.
Illinois-There are only a handful of guards playing better than Demetri McCamey. He can use his brute strength to take any defender to the hole, but the opposition has to sag slightly and respect an accurate outside jumper. McCamey is an extremely gifted passer that can also find his own shot, creating an unpredictability that makes him almost impossible to contain. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis won’t ever change. They like to roam around the perimeter and feature reliable mid-range games, but Illinois is extremely vulnerable if they play a team that has a scoring weapon down low. Tristan Thompson, Jordan Williams and John Henson have all had good performances against Illinois.
Tennessee- The Volunteers seem to thrive on controversy, don’t they? For all that Villanova does well, they foul at such a high frequency and Tennessee took advantage of that weakness. Melvin Goins won’t provide much scoring, but the job he did on Nova guards Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns defensively should not be overlooked. Tobias Harris is a freshman not receiving enough publicity. He’s a capable point-forward with a versatile game and can score in so many ways. The most encouraging sign early for Bruce Pearl has to be Scotty Hopson. Every quote from Hopson is centered on being more aggressive and focused every possession, a change of pace from previous seasons. Hopson realizes this is his team. Expect an all-SEC caliber season if he fully embraces this mindset.
Syracuse- It hasn’t been easy for Syracuse lately and their ranking is clearly inflated. I thought their offense lacked any type of flow against NC State. It was mostly Scoop Jardine or Kris Joseph going one-on-one against the Wolfpack defense and the Orange may have lost if NC State didn’t have awful possessions against the zone in the last three minutes. This team had almost telepathic chemistry last season and Wes Johnson was a vital cog in the 2-3 zone employed by Jim Boeheim. Fab Melo is also clearly a project rather than an instant impact player. The good sign for Syracuse is that they’re finding ways to win games when they’re simultaneously also finding themselves as a team. I’d expect them to get better and better as the season wears on.
Memphis- It’s going to be really interesting to see how this team does Tuesday against Kansas. I feel as though they could go either way this season. A couple of near losses to Miami, LSU and Arkansas State are slightly scary, as was the turmoil involved with Jelan Kendrick and some other players. We’ll see how the young Josh Pastner reacts if there’s continued personality issues. The frontline is suspect with Angel Garcia preferring to float around the perimeter and Will Coleman’s inability to produce consistently. Once Joe Jackson gains more experience and cuts down on the turnovers, he’ll be special. It would be smart if Pastner cut his rotation down a bit. This can be an issue for young teams when guys don’t know their roles and allotted minutes game in and game out.