Get to the Point: Season Preview Edition

Posted by zhayes9 on November 7th, 2011

Zach Hayes and Brian Otskey are both RTC contributors and will converse on various pressing issues around college basketball all season long. Follow them on Twitter at @zhayes9 and @botskey.

Zach: The interminable college basketball offseason is on the brink of conclusion. I don’t know about you Brian, but when 7 PM rolls around tonight and St. John’s tips off against William & Mary on ESPNU, my life will become exponentially better.

There’s potential powerhouse teams in Chapel Hill, Lexington, Storrs and Columbus. Numerous lottery picks opted for another year on campus over jumping ship to the pros early. There’s a breadth of developed, refined seniors lining rosters of expected contenders. Until resolved, the NBA lockout will shine a bright spotlight on the college game. The Big East is once again stacked at the top, while wide open races will render the Big 12 and Pac-12 intriguing all season long. Needless to say, this is shaping up to be quite the memorable season.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss North Carolina right off the bat. As soon as Harrison Barnes decided to spurn the NBA, expectations for Carolina vaulted to national championship or bust. Just nine months ago, the unranked Tar Heels lost at Georgia Tech by 20 to fall to 12-5 following a season that ended in the NIT. It’s been a remarkable turnaround in short order. Do you see any future pitfalls for this team? One has to be the lack of a backup point guard in case Kendall Marshall goes down. The other is outside shooting. Carolina made just 33% of their threes last season, but they have plenty of candidates to improve on that mark, from Barnes to a healthy Reggie Bullock to touted freshman P.J. Hairston. The third would be the one-and-done nature of the NCAA Tournament. Anything can happen in one 40-minute contest. Just ask Ohio State, a dominant team across the board a year ago that lost just two games at Purdue and Wisconsin during the regular season, but fell to a peaking Kentucky team in the Sweet Sixteen.

Carolina has to go into 2011-12 considered the best team in the nation, but I picked Kentucky to take home the title in my preseason Bracketology. I didn’t make the pick just because I like being contrarian and rebellious. I made the pick because I firmly believe that John Calipari finally has the ideal mix of experienced returnees and ultra-talented freshman to take the crown. Terrence Jones is bulked up, mature, focused and ready to be a Lamar Odom-type mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses. Doron Lamb shot 48% from three… as a freshman. I love the glue guy skill set that Darius Miller brings, even though the reigning SEC Tournament MVP can be so much more. I know what you’re thinking: freshman point guard. Gerry McNamara says hello. Marquis Teague is the real deal, blessed with a blazing first step and tremendous court vision. He’s also more of an ideal point guard for the dribble-drive motion offense that Calipari prefers than Brandon Knight, who was involved in much more high screening action to utilize his strong outside shot.

Terrence Jones' return is one reason Zach is bullish about Kentucky

Your thoughts on North Carolina and Kentucky? Can anyone seriously defend picking any other team in the nation to hoist the trophy in Indianapolis next April over these two?

Brian: You read my mind. Not only is Kentucky’s point guard a freshman, six of the eight players expected to see major minutes are freshmen or sophomores. You know I’m big on experience and to me that trumps talent in certain (not all) situations. I know many will disagree with that line of thinking. There are exceptions to every rule. Obviously this is a talented team and you’d be nuts not to put them in the preseason top three. However, don’t underestimate the loss of DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson. Liggins was clearly Calipari’s best defender while Harrellson did all the dirty work in the paint. Terrence Jones can’t do all the rebounding by himself so somebody has to contribute in that regard with Harrellson out of the picture. It may not be much of a problem with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer coming in but I think it’s unreasonable to expect freshmen, even as talented as this group is, to consistently put forth that effort. They’ll need some time to adjust to the speed of the college game. Kentucky will go far in the postseason but I will most likely not pick them to win it all. When the pressure cranks up, even the most talented freshmen will get nervous. That’s what I think will hold UK back in the end.

As for North Carolina, it all depends on Barnes. If he plays like he did at the end of last season, UNC is clearly the top choice to cut down the nets in April. If Barnes continues to shoot at a 42% clip it’ll be tougher for Carolina’s big men to get good looks. A strong perimeter shooter does wonders in opening up the floor and allowing guys like Tyler Zeller, James McAdoo and John Henson to go to work. If freshman P.J. Hairston lives up to the hype right away and can be Barnes’ sidekick, mark it down: UNC will win it all. Regarding injuries, I don’t like to spend much time thinking about that. If Kendall Marshall goes down, of course the Tar Heels would no longer be the favorite. Same thing with Teague at Kentucky or Aaron Craft at Ohio State. You can’t predict injuries so North Carolina’s lack of a quality backup really doesn’t worry me too much.

You can absolutely defend picking another team. In fact, I’m of the opinion that it’s naive to think only UNC or UK can win it all. This is college basketball where, as you said, anything can happen in a 40-minute single elimination setting. Not even the most ardent Connecticut fan was saying the Huskies could go all the way last season and look what happened. UNC would be my pick, but that’s certainly not set in stone.

What about the rest of the top ten and beyond? I’ve got a few teams in mind that shouldn’t be there, as well as some sleepers further down the rankings.

Zach: If there’s one team ranked in the top ten in both polls I view as overrated it’s Duke. Point guard is clearly the most important position at the collegiate level and Duke has two on their roster: sophomore Tyler Thornton, a defensive-minded pest suited for a reserve role in the ACC, and freshman Quinn Cook, the eventual heir apparent at the position but who is in no way prepared to claim full-time duties yet. Austin Rivers is suited to play shooting guard where he can focus on scoring in a variety of ways, so Duke is forced to transition Seth Curry over to point guard, just as his brother did for Davidson three seasons ago. They’ve had success converting natural off-guards to the point in recent years (see: Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith), but Curry is the most challenging experiment, especially because this is a relatively young team by Duke standards. Mason Plumlee needs to ball in certain spots to be effective in the post, evident by his drop-off in production after Kyrie Irving went down. The same applies for Andre Dawkins, whose much more effective in catch-and-shoot situations than creating for himself. Also, will Curry’s move to the point negate his scoring prowess? Even though Duke is used to reloading rather than rebuilding, losing the likes of Smith, Irving and Kyle Singler can’t be overlooked. There’s going to be a transition period here. Expect more than one “what’s wrong with Duke?” article before the pieces start to fit during ACC play.

The most underrated team in the country could very well be Cincinnati. The Bearcats return their top four players from a team that ranked #23 in overall efficiency. It’s head-scratching how a team like Baylor, who didn’t come close to an NCAA bid, or Arizona, who lost the single most efficient player in the nation and their point guard, could be ranked so far ahead. By all reports, Yancy Gates is as focused and comfortable as ever and ready to maximize his absurd talent. Sean Kilpatrick is a future star in the Big East and Cashmere Wright is both a capable distributor and lockdown defender at point guard. The Bearcats crash the backboards, get a ton of second shots and really clamp down defensively as a unit. They’re certainly capable of finishing in the top five of a loaded Big East and contending with the likes of Syracuse, Connecticut, Pitt and Louisville. Another team I could see making some major noise is Alabama, especially if their glaring outside shooting weakness is solved by two outstanding freshman gunners in Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph.I know you wrote two fantastic summaries of the most underrated (Wichita State) and overrated (Memphis) team in the nation already, but are there any others that fit either category in your mind?

Brian: I tend to agree with you on Duke but I get the feeling this team will be a solid top five to ten club by February. I’ve been high on Cincinnati since we did our Big East GTTP this summer so I can’t disagree with anything you said about the Bearcats. I expect Yancy Gates to be in the running for Big East POY. I’m also with you on Alabama and I think Michigan and California will surprise as well. As for some other teams with lofty rankings who may not deserve them, I’m looking at Connecticut, Florida, Baylor and Arizona in addition to Memphis. Vanderbilt seems to be the trendy overrated pick but I’m a believer. I think this is the year they turn the corner.

Can Lamb replace Kemba as UConn's #1 scoring option?

UConn will be a very good basketball team and may end up being a top five mainstay. But I’m not ready to put them there until I see how they play without Kemba Walker. Walker did almost everything for this otherwise average team in Big East play last season. Yes they add Drummond, Daniels and Boatright but this group remains very, very young. There is a major void to be filled here and I feel like most national prognosticators have glossed over that. Jeremy Lamb can certainly be the guy to plug that hole but he is no Kemba, at least not as a sophomore. Chemistry is so important in the college game and they may struggle to find the right mix. I’m not saying these players don’t like each other; I’m talking about how they work as a unit on the court. Who takes the big shot? How do they rotate defensively? Will some guys get upset and cause internal issues because of a lack of playing time? I believe chemistry is vastly underrated and is often the key to a national championship. Talent can only get you so far.

Florida has a ton of quality guards and not enough shots available. The Gators are also thin up front with only Patric Young being a major force. This imbalance on the court could result in lots of forced shots (that’s already been a pattern with Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton) and defenses extending on Florida because the opponent isn’t fearful of what the Gators bring inside. Young is this team’s X-factor. If he becomes a reliable force in the paint, Florida will have a terrific season. He’ll be serviceable at worst, but I’m not convinced he will be the dominant force they need in the paint.

Baylor may live up to the hype if Pierre Jackson is the real deal but they still need to get better defensively and play as a cohesive unit when they have the ball. I talked about chemistry with Connecticut and the 2010-11 Baylor Bears are Exhibit A of why chemistry matters. They could not communicate defensively despite having loads of height and length on their front line. As someone who appreciates good defense, I still have a bad taste in my mouth from that Big Monday game against Kansas where the Jayhawks absolutely shredded Baylor inside. Granted that was against the best front court in the country but Scott Drew’s team showed no fight and couldn’t stop KU if they had an extra man on the court. Jackson and Brady Heslip will help the back court dramatically but the Bears must be able to guard people in order to win the Big 12.

Arizona loses their two most important players and returns a collection of role players to go along with a highly-touted recruiting class. Will the new talent get along with the returning players trying to increase their roles? Arizona is talented but they’re a hybrid of Connecticut and Baylor. The Wildcats have a major void to fill, plus I have chemistry concerns as the new players clash with the establishment. Sean Miller’s team has great potential but I’d take it easy on them for the time being until we see how they perform.

As I look for an underrated team I keep coming back to Kansas and UCLA. Yes, the Jayhawks are underrated. Everyone seems to be doubting them by saying this isn’t a vintage Kansas year. Recent discipline problems certainly add credence to that belief but Thomas Robinson is a budding star and Bill Self just has a way of turning role players into major contributors. I expect that trend to continue in 2011-12. Regarding UCLA, I have a man-crush on their front court and I think their guard play is solid enough to get by. Zeke Jones and Tyler Lamb should improve while freshman Norman Powell adds depth to the guard corps.

Are there any teams you feel can make the leap from unranked to a household name? Usually a mid-major would be the most likely to do that but I’m sure there are a handful of major conference schools with that potential as well.

Zach: I have to take exception with your UConn outlook. I’m not sure chemistry will be an issue at all for this team. Napier was Walker’s understudy all last season and I think he takes a leadership role, while Alex Oriakhi is one of Jim Calhoun’s all-time favorite kids. Not only do I think defense won’t be an issue, but it’ll be a tremendous strength for the Huskies. Jeremy Lamb’s incredible wingspan, Drummond’s doing his best Emeka Okafor impression with Oriakhi’s help and Napier creating chaos around the perimeter are all assets. In fact, Pomeroy has the Huskies ranked #5 in the nation in defensive efficiency based on his projections. Lamb doesn’t have to be Kemba. He just has to be willing to take and make some big shots when the chips are down. Based on the last two months of the season, I firmly believe he’s more than capable. There may be a transition period early learning how to operate without Walker, but their schedule is fairly soft for a projected power. This could be a team that peaks in March. While your reservations are sensible, UConn is a clear #1 seed in my book.You mentioned two of the most intriguing teams in the country in Florida and Baylor. Both teams have a chance to be special or completely implode. Most believe dispensing shots in a crowded backcourt is Florida’s main issue, but that’s a good problem to have. I echo your concern with Patric Young. All of their hopes ride on Young to make a dramatic jump from a role-playing freshman to a double-digit scoring sophomore. That’s a major risk. If Young doesn’t improve, opposing SEC defenses will crowd the perimeter and force challenged, ill-advised threes from Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, which they’ve shown they’re not afraid to take. That’s a losing recipe for the Gators.The same applies for Baylor at the point guard spot. At least they have options, but one is the much-maligned A.J. Walton and the other is a junior college transfer, albeit the national player of the year in Jackson. As we saw last season, simply having length, athleticism and highlight-reel dunkers in your frontcourt isn’t enough to back into the NCAA Tournament by accident. Baylor needs quality guard play in the same way Florida needs some semblance of production up frontcourt.In March of 2010, Bill Self boasted a roster as deep as it was talented: Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry, Marcus Morris, Tyshawn Taylor, Markieff Morris, Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar, Elijah Johnson, Thomas Robinson, Travis Releford, Mario Little and Jeff Withey. Roughly 18 months later, Bill Self’s situation is a whole lot more tenuous. Due to early entries, suspensions and recruiting whiffs, the Jayhawks will only have five scholarship players available for this week’s exhibition. He’ll soon welcome his starting backcourt of Taylor and Johnson back, but this is still a fascinating era for Kansas basketball. They’re truly more vulnerable than they’ve ever been since Self arrived in Lawrence. Missing out on Kaleb Tarczewski was another big blow for the program. If there’s a season that their laudable streak of seven straight Big 12 titles will end it”s this year.

Can Self work his magic and lead KU to an 8th straight Big 12 title

My pick to unseat them is Texas A&M. Khris Middleton is a silky smooth wing with great size, David Loubeau gives them a presence in the paint, while freshman guard Jamal Branch is a capable replacement for B.J. Holmes alongside the experienced Dash Harris. Washington transfer Elston Turner and his three-point shooting capabilities is an X-factor. One concern is the loss of Billy Kennedy to a health issue. People may think that’s not a big deal, but losing your head coach for all of these crucial preseason practices can make a difference. The fact this is a veteran group may neutralize that.Normally a non-BCS conference team that finished last year unranked and lost their leading scorer should expect to rebuild. Gonzaga fits all of those requirements, but I actually expect them to improve from 2010-11. Whether it was injury or lack of focus, Elias Harris undeniably took a step back last season. He has a chance at redemption as a junior. Robert Sacre also returns as a 7-foot low post threat and is a major reason why the Zags finished 11th in the nation last year in two-point field goal defense. Sam Dower is a versatile breakout candidate that shot nearly 60% from inside the arc as a freshman. I also like their backcourt mix with David Stockton as the steady presence and Marquise Carter as more of a playmaker. They bring in two instant impact rookies in Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. Mark Few challenged his team again in the non-conference with Notre Dame, Illinois, Michigan State, Arizona, Butler and Xavier, plus the addition of BYU strengthens the WCC. At the very least, I expect a more consistent Gonzaga unit that spends the entire season around the polls.

I saw your preseason poll on Twitter. It seems you’re buying into Wisconsin. I know Jordan Taylor is back and Bo Ryan’s record speaks for itself, but after their All-American point guard it appears bleak. I have them finishing fifth in the Big Ten behind Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. I’m probably already an idiot for going against Kansas in the Big 12, but am I digging my own grave selling Wisconsin as well?

Brian: Even though Jordan Taylor isn’t a pass-first point guard, he still makes people better by drawing double teams, splitting the defense or setting up his teammates if need be. This season, I believe Mike Bruesewitz will be the biggest beneficiary of Taylor’s presence. Whether it’s Trevon Hughes, Brian Butch, Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil or even Jordan Taylor himself, Bo Ryan has an incredible track record of dramatic year-to-year improvements made by his players. Bruesewitz is next in line. Now a junior, he’ll be counted on to step up and be a top three scorer on this team along with Josh Gasser. Gasser had a terrific freshman season in Madison and could quickly become the next household Badger name. Ryan Evans is another guy who fits the profile of a player primed to make a big leap under Ryan’s tutelage. Add in freshmen big men Jarrod Uthoff and Frank Kaminsky and I’m confident that Wisconsin has enough to be a top 15 team. They’ll miss Leuer and Nankivil but the Badgers have Taylor to go to in big spots and a host of contributors to help him out should he need it. Under Bo Ryan, Wisconsin is one of the very few programs I have an unshakable faith in to turn role players into reliable starters. He recruits players to fit into his highly efficient system and the results speak for themselves. When you factor in the absurd advantage they have 16 or so times a year at the Kohl Center, it’s hard to see Wisconsin falling out of the Top 25. Any opposing team that gets off the bus and sets foot in that arena has little to no chance of getting out of there with a win. I don’t know how Bo Ryan does it but he’s never missed an NCAA Tournament in ten seasons with the Badgers. Rest assured he’ll work his magic again in 2011-12.

I share your opinion on Gonzaga. It seems every year I proclaim them to be overrated when others say they’re a contender to go deep in March (which usually works out well) but I’m not prepared to do that this season. I like the roster Mark Few has assembled and their non-conference schedule certainly ranks among the toughest they’ve faced since jumping on the national radar over ten seasons ago. I usually like teams with a strong front court and this one is no exception. I’m looking for a big year out of Harris, Dower and Sacre, especially with Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson out of the picture. That’s not to say Gray wasn’t a good player but I felt he tried to do too much for the Zags while Goodson proved to be disappointing at the point. That trio will now get plenty of opportunities to score and rebound. Perhaps the most important thing with Gonzaga is their point guard play. With Stockton and Pangos, along with Bell, the Bulldogs backcourt is stable and set for the next few years. That could make all the difference in the world for this team.

One team I feel isn’t getting enough publicity is Purdue. The Boilermakers obviously lose their big guns, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, but they return a (hopefully) healthy Robbie Hummel as well as solid point guard Lewis Jackson and sniper Ryne Smith. The key players on this team are all juniors and seniors providing a wealth of experience that could be worth a couple extra steps up the ladder in the Big Ten. Purdue was one of the best teams in the nation protecting the basketball last season. Combine that with Matt Painter’s annual commitment to defense and the Boilermakers will have plenty of opportunities to put the ball in the basket. This team is thin inside but two freshmen bigs, Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson, will push returnees Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius for playing time alongside Hummel. Purdue won’t be a national contender but it’s a team that could easily finish top three or four in the Big Ten. The Paint Crew will still have something to cheer about at Mackey Arena despite losing two outstanding players to graduation.Let’s take a look outside the top 25. Are there any teams out there you feel could surprise and be a consistent presence in the rankings once they manage to crack them?

Zach: It’s funny: I see in Purdue what you see in Wisconsin. I am one of the few people who have Purdue pegged for the top 25 precisely because I see their secondary players molding into dependable assets this season. I’ve seen Ryne Smith go bonkers from three. I’ve seen a healthy Lewis Jackson be a dynamic presence at the point. I’ve seen Kelsey Barlow lock up opposing guards with his length and defensive tenacity. I have faith in Robbie Hummel to come back with more passion and drive than before his devastating ACL tears just to prove to everyone he’s still a force. And I trust the hell out of Matt Painter to make all the pieces fit on both ends of the floor. With Wisconsin, it seems like everyone just assumes, including yourself, that guys will drastically improve when I haven’t seen nearly enough evidence to make that leap. Ryan Evans trying to shoot is almost painful to watch. Mike Bruesewitz posted four double-digit scoring games as a sophomore and now he’s a second scoring option for a Top 15 team? Whereas it was easier to identify Hughes or Leuer or Nankivil would develop into a stud during their underclassman seasons, I haven’t seen it with this group. They’ll defend. They’ll win on their home floor. But I see this more as a #8 or #9 seed at around 20-12 (10-8) than as a surefire ranked squad.As for an unranked team that could stick in the top 25, heck, let’s stay in the conference and look at Michigan State. You can tell by the way Tom Izzo is talking about this year’s squad that he really likes their makeup and I think Izzo thrives when he’s a bit of an underdog. State is a prime candidate to be this year’s beneficiary of addition by subtraction. Keith Appling is only 6’1″ but works his tail off on the defensive end and can really stroke it. Draymond Green is incredibly versatile and a really strong leader in Cleaves/Walton fashion. Brenden Dawson is a future impact wing that will play immediately because Izzo loves the way he crashes the boards. And transfer Brandon Wood may be their leading scorer. He would have been the preseason Horizon POY if he stayed at Valpo. Other teams I like: New Mexico behind Drew Gordon and Kendall Williams is my pick to win the MWC and flirt with the rankings. Temple has a four-man backcourt — Juan Fernandez, Scootie Randall, Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt — that can play with anyone. I’m especially intrigued with Creighton. It’s been a while since that proud program played deep into March. This is their best opportunity since the days of Nate Funk.Let’s turn our attention to players for a second. Your choice for National POY? Apologies for going chalk,but Jared Sullinger is the pick here. He’s trimmed down and added a face-up game to his already advanced post repertoire. I see a 20/10 average for a potential #1 seed which should be strong enough to take home the award.

Brian: Creighton must get better defensively in order to be a ranked team or simply to win the MVC. The Blue Jays allowed opponents to shoot just under 35% from the arc while giving up 70+ points 11 times at a fairly slow pace. They return their top three scorers, including star in the making Doug McDermott, but I’m not sure they have the quality depth or defense needed to sustain a run at the rankings. Wichita Stateis my pick in that league with Creighton as runner up.

POY is simple. It’s Sullinger for me too. He’s the best player on what should be a top five team all year, in addition to being the most dominant player on any team in college basketball. You could make an argument for Harrison Barnes, John Jenkins or Jordan Taylor but, at this point, I don’t see how it could be anyone but Sullinger.

What players do you see breaking out this year? My attention turns to two players in the state of Kansas, among others like Allen Crabbe and Jeremy Lamb. It seems Thomas Robinson is on everyone’s list, as well he should be. He was one of the most productive players in the country on a per minute basis playing behind the Morris brothers. Project Robinson’s 7.6 PPG and 6.4 RPG out over 30 MPG and you get 15.6/13.2. Not too shabby. Provided his hyper-extended knee isn’t serious, Robinson should be in the running for Big 12 POY honors. Over in Manhattan, Kansas State is now Rodney McGruder‘s team. With Jacob Pullen out of the way, more shots will open up for this career 41% shooter from deep. McGruder put up 22 points in a late season win at Texas but was a non-factor in the NCAA Tournament. With the onus now on himself and Jamar Samuels, I think McGruder will step up in a big way this year. If you want a real sleeper break out candidate, check out Mississippi sophomore Dundrecous Nelson. He averaged only 15 MPG with Chris Warren and Zach Graham getting the bulk of the shots on last year’s team. They’ve now moved on and it’ll be up to Nelson and Terrance Henry to lift the Rebels into the SEC’s middle tier. Nelson needs to shoot better overall (his height certainly doesn’t help) but he can fill it up from deep. Look for him to turn into a reliable double digit scorer for Andy Kennedy.

Zach: I really like your choices. Everyone is talking about Robinson but McGruder is an excellent pick. I already mentioned how Keith Appling could make the leap. Michael Snaer is like the Cameron Maybin of college basketball. He hasn’t been a bust, but his physical tools suggest he should be much more productive. A former McDonalds All-American, Snaer has averaged only 8.8 PPG during his first two seasons in Tallahassee. He’s capable of doubling that scoring average, which would be a huge boost for an FSU squad that needs more offensive production to complement their impenetrable defense. Peyton Siva is another candidate to become a household name. Erratic early in his career, he’s really matured as a player and become a reliable floor general for Rick Pitino. An all-Big East year wouldn’t shock me in the least bit. I’m also really interested to see if Brandon Paul or Meyers Leonard emerges as a star in Champaign. With McCamey, Davis and Tisdale all departed, there will certainly be ample opportunities to make an impact.

Will Peyton Siva be a household name by March?

Now that the season is finally here, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the best games in November. This is where identities start to form and resumes start to build. Most casual college hoops fans don’t embrace the sport until the New Year turns and conference play starts, but often times the crucial games that decide whether a team makes the NCAA Tournament or falls just short of a bid occurs during the first month. Just ask Colorado last year. Duke plays a rare non-conference true road game at Ohio State as the highlight of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. I can’t wait to see if the Plumlee brothers can handle Sullinger in the post. Florida and their loaded backcourt also travels to Columbus as part of the Marathon on the 15th. The Maui Invitational is absolutely loaded as well. Any particular game or individual matchup you have your eye on during November?

Brian: Michigan State will be tested against the Tobacco Road powers right away. They open the season with games against North Carolina in San Diego and Duke four days later in New York. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a tougher opening stretch given the opponents, travel and hype involved. At the Champions Classic, Coach K will likely be going for his record breaking 903d win (topping mentor Bob Knight) against the Spartans on November 15. At Madison Square Garden no less. What a whirlwind tour to open the season! You mentioned them as a team that could surprise and getting a win in one of these games would immediately validate the Spartans. Tom Izzo’s team continues its ACC tour with Florida State, a near-consensus pick to finish third in the conference, visiting the Breslin Center on the 30th. Going 2-1 against the top three ACC clubs would be a tremendous boon to Sparty’s season.Some other games that caught my eye include Xavier at Vanderbilt on the 28th, Missouri vs. Notre Dame (CBE Classic in Kansas City) on the 21st and Michigan at Virginia on the 29th. Xavier/Vandy will be a terrific matchup between two of the best guards in the game inTu Holloway and John Jenkins, plus it’s an early litmus test to see if Vanderbilt has improved its defense. It’s also a huge opportunity for the Musketeers to pick up an early quality road win. Missouri vs. Notre Dame is intriguing because the Tigers are adjusting to Frank Haith and are without Laurence Bowers inside. Ricardo Ratliffe should have a big game against a thin Irish front court but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mike Brey’s team pull an upset there. Playing at Virginia is a tough test for a Michigan team that needs to establish a point guard to succeed. I like the Wolverines this year but playing on the road against Tony Bennett’s defense will be tough. It’s also an opportunity for Virginia to put itself on the map heading into December. Basketball purists will love this game between two excellent system coaches.In the major tournaments, I’m looking forward to Memphis vs. Michigan and Kansas vs. Georgetown in Maui. A possible second round matchup of UCLA and Kansas is one to watch as Thomas Robinson gets his first true test against a team with a fully stocked front court. A possible Duke/Michigan second round match would give the Wolverines another crack at a Duke team they nearly beat in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Vanderbilt vs. Texas is another possibility in the championship of the Legends Classic on the 21st at a neutral site in New Jersey. Can Rick Barnes conjure up another defensive formula with a new group of players? If so, that could really limit Jenkins and Vandy. This may surprise you but the game that really intrigues me is Purdue vs. Iona at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on the 17th. Iona is a loaded mid-major and they’ll have Mike Glover going up against a thin Boilermakers front court. We both seem to like Purdue a lot but how Matt Painter comes up with a defensive plan to stop Glover, Scott Machado and MoMo Jones will be fascinating.

Another mid-major, Belmont, has two huge opportunities with road trips to Duke and Memphis to start their schedule. Could the Bruins possibly steal one of those? At Memphis is a possibility but knocking off Duke in Cameron is unlikely even with the talent Belmont possesses.

Zach: My calendars are marked, Brian. Only one thing left to do now: get this season started. Enjoy.

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