College Basketball’s Contenders and PretendersPosted by zhayes9 on December 14th, 2010
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
As we approach finals week at most schools around the country, the top student-athletes will be taking a week away from the pressures of Division I basketball and instead focusing on textbooks, lecture notes and a handful of practices (or at least we can hope this is the case). As fans, this seems like an appropriate time to step back and evaluate the teams that have had successful debut months in this 2010-11 campaign and determine whether they’ll still be lurking atop the rankings a month from today. I’ll call this feature Contender or Pretender and point out five teams that will be in the hunt for the long haul and five squads playing over their heads in mid-December:
Tennessee- If the Volunteers played in the Big East, whom some are now anointing the top conference in the land with seven teams in the top 25 and five in the top 13, they’d be the hands down favorites after toppling both Villanova in New York City and then throttling previously undefeated Pittsburgh just miles from their campus in the Steel City. Will the Volunteers still be lingering in the top ten when their head coach goes on an eight-game sabbatical in January? Due to their commitment on the defensive end, the emergence of a star freshman in Tobias Harris and a former McDonalds All-American that’s finally harnessed his talent on a consistent basis in Scotty Hopson, it’s a growing possibility. Tennessee has many traits of not only a winning team, but one that’s not a fluke. The Volunteers top ten defensive efficiency stands out, as does their #13 rank in offensive rebounding percentage anchored by post presence Brian Williams. Bruce Pearl’s club also leads the nation in free throw rate with three players in the top 100- Hopson, Harris and underrated junior Cameron Tatum- in free throws drawn per 40 minutes. When jump shots are not falling, quality teams rebound their misses and win at the free throw line. Tennessee is doing both. Shooting hasn’t been an issue for Hopson, the former McDonald’s All-American and early leader in the SEC Player of the Year race. His 27 points on an ultra-efficient 10-13 FG was impressive enough, but it’s Hopson’s consistency (double digit scoring in all of the Vols first seven games) that has pushed Tennessee to unforeseen heights.
San Diego State- Tennessee’s first round opponent in last season’s NCAA Tournament has climbed, in just one short year, from a relative unknown to a dangerous sleeper to MWC Tournament champion to one of the top ten teams in the nation. The Aztecs are not a mid-major just taking advantage of a weak schedule and BCS opponents simultaneously falling to elite competition. They are not a flash in the pan that will fade out of the top 25 when conference play heats up. San Diego State resembles a high major in every single way, from athleticism to balance to coaching to swagger. Their tenth ranked offensive efficiency behind the efforts of a Kawhi Leonard-Billy White-Malcolm Thomas frontline show they can light up the scoreboard with the best. They take care of the basketball (16th in turnover%), block shots (fourth in block%), defend (26th in efficiency) and feature forwards that crash the glass with ferocity. They’ve also improved two glaring weaknesses of last season- three-point shooting and free throw shooting. D.J. Gay and James Rahon’s effort from the outside have propelled the Aztecs from 265th in the country in three-point percentage to 96th and their free throw shooting has gone from abysmal to mediocre. Most impressive may be the Aztecs six victories on true road or neutral floors thus far this season, including triumphs at Gonzaga, at California and home against St. Mary’s and Wichita State.
Minnesota- As the only RTC voter to rank Minnesota before the season, I’ll take some minor credit for jumping on the Gophers bandwagon prior to my esteemed colleagues. The Gophers did slip up at home against Virginia, but I’m going to grant them a reprieve because they were missing the key to their team- senior point guard Al Nolen. A defensive-minded distributor and an imperative cog to their offensive flow and rhythm, Tubby Smith needs Nolen back for Big Ten competition in the worst way. One reason the Gophers have overachieved and the main reason I see their ascension lasting is the emergence of Trevor Mbakwe as an athletic post threat. Mbakwe has been outstanding in the early going, ranking in the top-100 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, just outside the top 100 in efficient FG% and in the top-15 in both free throw rate and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. (although he could stand to make some more of those attempts). While Ralph Sampson is more of a plodding forward and Colton Iverson is best utilized when he doesn’t have to score consistently, Mbakwe is the most explosive and capable of 20/15 of the pack. The Gophers frontline is tall, deep and can score, evident by the team’s top-20 ranking in two-point FG%. With Blake Hoffarber’s continued efficiency, a potential first round pick in Rodney Williams and the eventual return of their heady point guard (yet another example of how the position is the most important in college basketball), the Gophers are top-20 material until the very end.
Georgetown– Anyone who’s ever discussed college basketball with me knows I can’t complete any conversation regarding the sport without mentioning Jason Clark. Chris Wright and Austin Freeman receive the majority of the national attention, and deservedly so the way those two have been performing, but it’s Clark’s efforts on both ends of the floor that truly impresses me. How many guards have a 6’7 wingspan, play lockdown defender on one end and shoot 48% from three at the other? While the backcourt trio is reason enough to believe in the Hoyas (don’t under-estimate the fact that all three shoot over 80% from the line), Julian Vaughn has quietly produced up front for John Thompson’s crew on the defensive end of the floor. As we learned from Duke last March, the formula for winning a national championship can equate to a powerful perimeter carrying the load and a frontline focused on rebounding, defending and setting screens for said backcourt. Vaughn’s top-20 ranking in both block and offensive rebounding percentage leads me to believe he could play the role of Brian Zoubek, while Wright, Freeman and Clark are more than capable of playing tremendous basketball over a three week span. Georgetown ranks fourth in the country in offensive efficiency, third in efficient FG%, top 12 in both two and three point percentage and already boast wins at Old Dominion, over NC State in Charleston, at Missouri (Kansas City) and home against Utah State with plenty of opportunities ahead in Big East play. Buy the Hoyas stock.
Vanderbilt– Could it be that Tennessee and Vanderbilt are battling for SEC East supremacy rather than Kentucky and Florida? Given my trust for Kevin Stallings and the positive signs I’ve seen from Vanderbilt in the early going, it could be the scenario we’re looking at come February. While the quality wins haven’t been numerous in the non-conference, the Commodores nearly knocked off Missouri in Columbia last Wednesday and anyone who watched that contest knows Vandy has the pieces to be a Sweet 16 squad. John Jenkins is just beginning to stroke the basketball with consistency from deep, Jeffery Taylor is a legitimate lockdown defender on the wing and Festus Ezeli is becoming a true rebounding/defensive post presence for Stallings. Junior Brad Tinsley has taken the point guard reigns from Jermaine Beal and has posted the 72nd best assist rate in the country including a triple-double in the first game as a full-time anchor of the Vandy offensive attack. The Commodores boast a home court advantage, a coach with a winning pedigree and balance across the board. While the lack of quality wins and two close defeats are sufficient reasons to keep Stallings’ team out of the rankings at this moment, I’d expect them to be a constant presence in the top-25 as we head into conference play.
Connecticut– The fact the Huskies are ranked fourth in the nation in the Coaches Poll and seventh in their own conference in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings tell me two things: 1) the Big East is, once again, really freaking good and 2) Connecticut may be dramatically overrated based on two wins in Maui over Michigan State and Kentucky. My assertion that the Huskies will struggle as we head into Big East play is mostly their over-reliance on Walker. If a team is going to over-rely on one player, Walker is the ideal candidate. But can a team really keep winning over the Big East’s three-month grind with Walker as their only true scoring threat? Won’t defenses double or triple team the frontrunner for National POY and force Roscoe Smith, Shabazz Napier, Alex Oriakhi and the rest of the Huskies beat them? There’s other facets to like about this club, notably Oriakhi’s emergence as a double-double threat to compliment his shot blocking skills in the paint and ability of Napier to defend scoring guards even as a freshman, but Connecticut cannot consistently remain a top-ten team if Walker has to score 30 points a night. I have a hard time envisioning Smith, Napier, Jeremy Lamb, Niels Giffey or Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel breaking out offensively in the coming weeks and months to aid Walker on the perimeter. Breathe easy, Connecticut fans, your team will still be considerably more competitive than originally projected. But their top-five ranking is somewhat laughable.
Louisville– This was supposed to be a bridge year for Rick Pitino and his Cardinals. Coming off a tumultuous offseason, a disappointing recruiting haul and the early departure of Samardo Samuels, Louisville fans were looking more towards 2011-12 to begin their climb back to the top of the college basketball landscape. Early home wins over Butler and UNLV have those red-clad Cards supporters hopeful that reloading, rather than rebuilding, is the route taken. Pitino has employed his hectic full-court press to force turnovers and help level the playing field in their two early home wins. Still, I’d like to see Louisville win once away from the KFC Yum Center before I anoint them an NCAA Tournament team. They have a semi-test at Western Kentucky on December 22 before their first true road Big East duel at Villanova on January 12. Until then, the jury’s out. They have an inexperienced and sometimes erratic sophomore point guard running the show, lack a scoring threat on the low block and boast no standout candidate for all-Big East honors on the roster. While Pitino’s style won’t allow them to fade dramatically, expecting the Cardinals to remain in the top-25 is a bit premature.
Florida– The Gators have displayed a lot of the same habits that plagued them a season ago when they barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament and lost a thriller to BYU in the opening round. The most notable: they shoot and miss a lot of three pointers. Chandler Parsons sits at a cool 29% from deep and Kenny Boynton, widely expected to make a dramatic freshman to sophomore jump, is 13 for 49 from downtown for a lackluster 27%. Despite a growing sample size that outside shooting is not Florida’s area of expertise (the team is shooting 32% from that area, 233rd in the nation), they stubbornly keep throwing up bricks from long range. This in turn makes it easier for opposing defenses to contain the Gators, especially when Ervcing Walker and Boynton pose no threat of penetrating and getting to the charity stripe. The most frustrating part is that Florida doesn’t have to play this way. Vernon Macklin has emerged as a reliable post presence, averaging 11/6 on 65% FG, but he’s only attempted 71 shots this season. Donovan was accurate following the UCF loss that “we have a bunch of guys on the floor that make nobody better.” Florida has plummeted behind Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the SEC East power rankings.
Baylor/Northwestern– It’s easy to be confused with Bill Carmody’s non-conference schedule. He knew that this was the season when Kevin Coble and Michael Thompson would be seniors and it would be the program’s best chance in decades to reach that elusive NCAA Tournament. Realizing this, he decides to load up his non-conference slate with Creighton and an ACC-Big Ten opponent he had to know was not going to be a premiere team? Not only won’t the Wildcats be challenged before heading into the rugged Big Ten slate, but their 134th ranked defensive efficiency is of tremendous concern. Baylor is in the same boat although they did pass one minor test (Arizona State at home) welcome Gonzaga to Texas this Saturday and will participate in the Diamond Head Classic with Butler, Florida State, Washington State and others in two weeks. The 2-3 zone with all of that length is lethal, and Perry Jones has shown glimpses of becoming a truly special player, yet I’m still waiting to see sophomore point guard A.J. Walton deal with elite competition. Also concerning is the fact Baylor has turned the ball over with more frequency than any other BCS conference team against a lackluster schedule. Anointing Northwestern and Baylor pretenders may be a bit harsh, but just realize their unblemished marks thus far are more inflated than deserved.
Kansas State- Other than utilizing a deep frontcourt to excel on the boards, Frank Martin’s offense has been less than stellar in the early going. The most glaring weakness is where games are won, especially in late contests come March: at the free throw line. Only Alabama State shoots a worse percentage at the charity stripe than Kansas State. Even sharpshooter Jacob Pullen only connects on 70% of his free throws. The big men are worse offenders: Curtis Kelly at 47%, Jamar Samuels at 63%, Wally Judge at 20%, Rodney McGruder at 57% (pathetic for a guard) and Freddy Asprilla at 31%. That is putridity at its finest. It also contributes heavily to the Wildcats lackluster 56th ranked offense according to KenPom. They aren’t shooting the ball well from inside the paint or outside the arc and fail to generate a high number of turnovers. The free throws alone, though, give me reason for concern and could potentially backfire in a big way down the stretch in a competitive Big 12. I’m still buying Kansas State as a Big 12 title contender, but it’s hard to believe they can realistically win the national title shooting this poorly from the line. They make Memphis circa 2008 look like Ray Allen.