Ten Offseason ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on June 1st, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
It was easy to get energized about Vanderbilt’s chances next season once the somewhat surprising news was announced that versatile swingman Jeffery Taylor would return for his senior campaign. Taylor joining forces with an experienced and talented guard tandem of John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley, along with efficient big man Festus Ezeli and quite a bit of depth, immediately gave folks in Nashville reason to believe they could contend with the powerhouse roster Kentucky assembled in the SEC. While those are four legitimate reasons for excitement – it’s awfully rare a team without a brand name like Duke, Carolina, Kentucky or UCLA returns their top four scorers (including three possible first round picks) from a top-15 efficient offense in the one-and-done era – I won’t be completely sold on Vanderbilt’s chances to usurp the Wildcats, or even fend off Florida, if their team defense doesn’t improve dramatically. The ‘Dores ranked a meager 88th in the nation in defensive efficiency last season, a mark good for tenth in the SEC, well behind the likes of both Kentucky and Florida. Their inadequacies on defense were a major reason why those of us tantalized by Vandy’s talent last season was so dumbfounded when they couldn’t quite put it all together on a sustained basis and why they ultimately dropped their final two games of the season to Florida and to #12 seed Richmond. The most confusing part: Vandy seemingly has the ancillary parts to be a strong defensive club. Taylor is regarded by NBA scouts as a premier stopper on the perimeter and Ezeli ranked 16th in block percentage in 2010-11.
The near-unanimous reaction following the NBA Draft declaration deadline was that Texas was the big loser. This isn’t necessarily false, but were we all that surprised Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson bolted for the pros, especially once it was known Thompson would be a lottery selection? Playing with a fellow Canadian in Myck Kabongo may seem enticing until millions of dollars are staring you in the face. Hamilton was never suited for a structured college game, either, and could really take off in the pros as a polished, explosive scorer capable of putting up points in bunches. The most shocking decision was that of Cory Joseph, who opted to leave school primarily on the basis of one workout just prior to the deadline, a decision that very few saw coming from an undersized point guard without mature floor instincts. Joseph likely saw the writing on the wall – that he’d be playing primarily as a two-guard opposite Kabongo and this move would devastate his draft stock even more – and ditched while he had a chance at the first round. Ben Howland must have been even more crushed than Rick Barnes, though. With Derrick Williams and Momo Jones out in Tucson, the opportunity was there to re-establish UCLA’s status as the premier Pac-10 representative after two tumultuous seasons. Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee are far from locks to have their name called in the first round, yet both made the abrupt decision to forgo their remaining eligibility and take their talents to the NBA. With Honeycutt and Lee joining forces with Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith, Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb and incoming two-guard Norman Powell in the fray, UCLA had a top-10 roster had the parts stayed together. It’s a shame, really.
If there’s one team universally ranked in post-deadline top 10 polls that could take longer than the others to fully gel, it could very well be Duke. The main reason is the question mark surrounding the point guard position and who steps in for Kyrie Irving. When Irving suffered his toe injury last December, Nolan Smith seamlessly slid over to the point with aplomb. Since it’s a near-universal opinion that point guard is the most indispensable and valuable position on the floor in the collegiate game, the fact there’s no clear cut predecessor has to worry the Duke faithful. All-world scorer extraordinaire Austin Rivers arrives on campus next fall and absolutely has the skills to score 18-20 PPG during his rookie campaign, but Rivers is much more comfortable operating off the ball as a two-guard and forcing him to pull double duty as a point guard could mitigate his tremendous strengths. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are in the same boat and throwing incoming freshman Quinn Cook, as talented as the former Oak Hill floor general may be, into such a demanding role surrounded by such a breadth of talent could prove overwhelming. Look for Tyler Thornton, who most envision as more of a dependable reserve than a three-year ACC starter, to receive the initial nod in what could prove to be an Achilles heel that Duke has to weather for the entire 2011-12 season.
We almost take Bill Self for granted. Sure, it’s low-hanging fruit to knock him for all the early flameouts in the NCAA Tournament to programs with a budget 1/30 of Kansas, but the fact that he’s won seven straight conference titles in the Big 12 is absurd. This coming season is shaping up to be a major threat to that streak of success. There’s no established talent like Wayne Simien or Brandon Rush or Mario Chalmers or Sherron Collins to lead the way, but instead an array of assumptions that players like Thomas Robinson, Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson will make the jump from role players to stardom because, well, that’s always what happens since Self replaced Roy Williams in Lawrence. Although Robinson’s skill set, frame, athleticism and production in somewhat limited minutes behind the Morris twins screams breakout candidate, Tyshawn Taylor has been erratic throughout his career at the point and the other parts are wildly unproven. And although Ben McLemore, Naadir Tharpe and possibly DeAndre Daniels will have an impact in their Kansas careers, it’s no secret Self never landed that game-changer in his 2011 class. Trumping all of these factors is the parity expected in the Big 12 next season. Even presumed contenders Texas A&M and Missouri are dealing with coaching swaps and Texas was depleted by early entries. Five to six losses could win that conference and Kansas doesn’t have to compete with Carolina and Kentucky. Until the champion has been dethroned, the Jayhawks have earned favorite status.
On paper, Baylor should win the Big 12. If conference titles were won based on the way fantasy leagues are won, Baylor is the champ. If pure talent level was the only determining factor, Baylor takes the crown in a landslide. Fortunately, sports do not work that way, especially in college. Just ask Scott Drew, who lost his starting point guard and floor leader Tweety Carter, and one year later his program missed the NCAA Tournament despite fielding the all-time Big 12 scoring leader and a top-5 NBA pick. It was painfully clear to anyone that watched Baylor on a regular basis that the backcourt was a black hole. Incumbent point guard A.J. Walton took the brunt of the blame (somewhat unfairly as his mediocre but not disastrous 1.4 A/TO ratio indicates) and never looked fully comfortable orchestrating the Baylor attack, notably failing to find LaceDarius Dunn in opportune scoring position or Perry Jones/Quincy Acy on the low block. Drew scoured the JC ranks for help at the point, luring College of Southern Idaho guard Pierre Jackson to Waco. Jackson finished second in his conference in assists and led the Golden Eagles at 4.6 per contest. For a team desperate to improve on a turnover percentage that ranked near the bottom of Division I, last year’s starting point guard at the College of Southern Idaho could be the ultimate key in Baylor winning a Big 12 title, more so than the likes of Jones or Acy. Jackson’s emergence as a superior option at that position, or even the incentive Jackson will provide Walton to up his floor game a few notches, makes the entire team a more formidable outfit.
John Calipari made a prescient move last week by luring former NC State guard and ballyhooed recruit Ryan Harrow to Lexington. Most college freshmen often go through significant shooting struggles during their debut seasons and Harrow was no exception, but his bursting speed and ability to create were evident on more than one occasion during his only season in Raleigh. A kid with the abundance of talent Harrow possesses is absolutely worth the risk. Only multiplying the incentive for Calipari is the utter lack of ultra-talented point guards in the 2012 graduating class. Even though big men are considered more of a rare commodity in today’s game, an era where even the most hulking athletes prefer to fantasize as guards rather than commit to the paint’s dirty work, the 2012 class is loaded with centers and power forwards. According to Scout.com, there is not one single point guard worthy of the five-star ranking that Harrow received during his senior year. In fact, the three highest ranked point guards are already committed — Braxton Ogbueze to Florida, Marcus Paige to North Carolina and Kevin Ferrell to Indiana. With Marquis Teague, next year’s heir to the Rose-Evans-Wall-Knight throne, a potential one-and-done, and no immediate savior in the recruiting ranks, Calipari’s decision to actively pursue Harrow could pay major dividends. By the same token, Harrow’s decision to attend Kentucky, a powerhouse program where publicity is available at every corner and the possibility of playing time realistic, could prove equally bright.
The early leader in the clubhouse for the poor program that may flirt with a winless mark in conference play is Boston College. It was bleak enough when Joe Trapani, Corey Raji, Biko Paris and Josh Southern were the only losses, but Reggie Jackson, likely acknowledging the vast wasteland that BC basketball would be for his final season, bolted early for the NBA. This leaves Danny Rubin as the leading returning scorer for the Eagles, who’s pretty much a one-dimensional jump shooter. The recruiting laziness and ineffectiveness of the previous coaching staff is starting to rear its ugly head. While fellow ACC programs are reloading after significant personnel losses, BC is facing a daunting rebuilding project due to a roster totally devoid of talented freshmen and sophomores. Steve Donahue is absolutely the right man for the job and will be an outstanding coach for the Eagles in the future, but he’ll need three to four years to assemble his type of players, build some structure and slowly push the BC program back to respectability.
Remember how excited we all were when the 2011 Maui Invitational field was released? Not only were “name” programs lining the field – Duke, UCLA, Kansas, Georgetown, Memphis, Michigan, Tennessee – but those teams had an early appearance of being quite formidable in 2011-12. Then Darius Morris bolted from Michigan early. In the wake of the Bruce Pearl mess, Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson followed. As mentioned before, Honeycutt and Lee stunned UCLA fans by leaving. The Morris twins were only slightly less surprising than Josh Selby’s early entry. Even with such defections, Maui should still be very exciting. Duke is a top-10 team. Memphis could get there. Michigan and UCLA are borderline top-25 squads. Kansas is a perennial powerhouse and could meet Duke for an intriguing final if the brackets work out that way. Still, next year’s Maui Invitational could have been historic had Morris, UCLA’s duo and Selby refined their games further in college.
Looking for which conference could potentially have the best race at the top? Look no further than the Atlantic 10 and a possible battle between Temple and Xavier. Tu Holloway averaged nearly 20 PPG as a junior and is the easy call for preseason A-10 POY. He’s flanked by Mark Lyons in an explosive backcourt with Kenny Frease and Jeff Robinson up front. Sharpshooter Brad Redford returns from an ACL tear and Monmouth transfer Travis Taylor can really score. Chris Mack also adds a slashing, athletic swingman in Dezmine Wells and redshirt freshman Justin Martin as a scoring option. Temple can easily counter Xavier’s strength in the backcourt with a healthy Juan Fernandez, scorer Ramone Moore and shutdown defender Khalif Wyatt. Scootie Randall bolsters the frontcourt, but the real question will be if post defensive presence Michael Eric can return at full strength following a broken patella. Both Xavier and Temple also feature outstanding coaches and continuity that very few non-BCS programs can match.
The best coaching hires of the offseason could very well have come at Northern Illinois and Towson. No, that’s not a typo. Northern Illinois tabbing longtime Tom Izzo assistant Mark Montgomery was a coup. He’ll quickly establish a tenacity and toughness to a program that has finished 23-56 in MAC play since 2006. Towson nabbed former Jamie Dixon assistant Pat Skerry, a rumored candidate for the Providence gig, to lead a moribund program considered one of the laughingstocks of Division I. Towson’s proximity to the recruiting hotbed of Baltimore, along with Skerry’s credentials as an experienced recruiter as an assistant at URI, Providence and Pitt, most recently delivering Khem Birch to the Steel City. The Tigers are opening a spanking new $68 million arena by 2013-14. Expect Skerry to have Towson competitive by that time.