Early Impressions

Posted by zhayes9 on November 14th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

I’ve had a chance to watch both of St. John’s and Arizona’s preliminary Coaches vs. Cancer games, Duke tangle with upset-minded Belmont, and, of course, Michigan State face North Carolina in the Carrier Classic. With the obvious caveat that it is incredibly early in the season with so much yet to be determined, here are my initial thoughts on these teams:

Aside from Malik Stith, Lavin has his hands full with all newcomers

St. John’s: Losing three key members of a loaded recruiting class would be devastating for any program, but it will especially inhibit St. John’s due to their full-court pressure and aggressive matchup zone. Fatigue and a lack of depth could be a major issue once the Johnnies have to contain more athletic lineups than what William & Mary or Lehigh have to offer. God’s Gift Aschiuwa is powerful and efficient, but he’s also their only low-post scorer. He simply won’t be able to play 37.5 minutes per game throughout the entire season. Look for future opposition to mostly zone or play a sagging man-to-man against a roster that’s much more comfortable creating offense through penetration. Even if the young St. John’s guards impose their athleticism and get to the rim, help defenders shouldn’t be afraid to foul; players not named God’s Gift combined to shoot 28-53 from the charity stripe during the first two games, which could be a recurring issue for a freshman-dominated team. I like their individual pieces and future potential. Moe Harkless is a dynamic, face-up four, Naurideen Lindsey is a tough energizer and Aschiuwa is an absolute load to handle. I just worry playing seven-deep is going to catch up to a team that’s already woefully inexperienced.

Duke: I said this before the season and their season opener only re-affirmed my notion that Duke is going to experience some early growing pains before peaking late. The brightest spot was undoubtedly Mason Plumlee, who showed an array of post-up and face-up moves not in the repertoire last season. If Plumlee can combine all of the tools — a reliable mid-range jumper, dependable baby hook, solid post defense — with his gifted athleticism, he’ll impress NBA scouts and could prove Duke’s best post option in a long time. Duke has outstanding individual pieces, but it’s going to take a few months for the coaching staff to put the puzzle together with Seth Curry adjusting to the point, Austin Rivers often playing way too fast and Ryan Kelly looking rather ordinary (worth noting Kelly bounced back with 17 points vs. weaker Presbyterian). The other issue is Curry, Rivers and Andre Dawkins repeatedly get beat on dribble penetration; they’ll miss Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler’s sturdiness on that front. Twice on out-of-bounds underneath plays Dawkins did not stay between his man and the basket and it resulted in a Belmont layup. Fortunately, the trio giveth as much as they taketh away, evident by Dawkins canning a game-clinching three.

Mississippi State: Akron is a sneaky good, well-coached mid-major and Zeke Marshall is a particularly inopportune matchup for the State bigs as a poor man’s John Henson, but the loss exposed just how much they overly rely on Dee Bost. Akron doubled on nearly every ball screen and forced Bost to either surrender the basketball or force a challenged shot. Arnett Moultrie was a nice addition and is an absolutely outstanding rebounder, but he’s not someone you can consistently feed in the post and expect point production, while Renardo Sidney takes about 70% of possessions off and was benched down the stretch. I was impressed in spurts by freshman Rodney Hood as a sweet-stroking lefty that can score all over the floor. I’m confident by the second part of the season he’ll team with Bost to form a scary backcourt. It’s just that we’ve seen this movie before with Mississippi State. Once again, they faced adversity and didn’t respond, while Rick Stansbury was also woefully out-coached by Keith Dambrot. The Zips win 20 games every year and put on a help defense clinic Wednesday night. They’ll be heard from in the MAC.

Michigan State: I got the sense throughout the preseason that Tom Izzo really liked his squad. I got the same sense after the opener against Carolina that he was more pleased than disappointed. The reason: the Spartans got back to their bread and butter of rebounding and toughness, two traits mysteriously absent last season. They not only out-muscled the Heels frontline for a +11 rebound margin but held an explosive offensive attack to 67 points. When Brandon Wood isn’t being constantly shadowed by ace perimeter defender Dexter Strickland, Draymond Green isn’t greeted by John Henson’s ridiculous wingspan during every touch and State makes more than 2 of 20 from deep, things will get improve as long as the rebounding and defense is sustained. Green is a matchup nightmare as a versatile point forward. I also know from his Valpo days  that Wood can catch fire in an instant. Where the Spartans are unknown is in the post with Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne. It wouldn’t shock me if freshman Travis Trice eventually starts at the point with Keith Appling focusing on scoring at the 2 and Wood moving to the bench to provide an infusion of offense.

North Carolina: The Heels were punished far too often on the glass in the first half Friday, but any further criticism would be nitpicking. Their patented primary and secondary break never revved up its engine and they still won comfortably against a talented team. Even Kendall Marshall turned the ball over as many times as he assisted on buckets. John Henson has a chance to be a first team All-American as a Jarvis Varnado-type that completely dominates one end of the floor. Blocked shots don’t do him justice; he makes such an incalculable impact both discouraging guard penetration and simply altering floaters and attempted layups in the paint. With a confident Harrison Barnes, a healthy Reggie Bullock and the addition of P.J. Hairston, this team won’t shoot 32.8% from behind the arc again, either.

Arizona: Jordin Mayes is clearly Arizona’s best option at the point right now. Josiah Turner’s high school career didn’t prepare him enough to take the reins immediately. Mayes doesn’t commit dumb turnovers and Sean Miller loves running him off screens for open looks to extend the defense. The Wildcats freshman much more ready to immediately produce is Nick Johnson, who has the makings of a solid three/four year contributor during this program’s renaissance. He’s comfortable, poised, athletic and a decent standstill shooter. Kyle Fogg regressed last season, but after a summer of hard work he appears ready to lead the team in scoring. It may have been a mistake to rank Arizona in the preseason. They not only lost the most efficient player in America and their go-to guy late in games, but also replaced their starting point guard with a raw freshman. Growing pains are expected as role players adjust to being relied on for consistent production. Arizona turned the ball over 36 times in their first two games. This should surprise no one at this early date.

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