College Basketball’s Hits and Misses

Posted by zhayes9 on February 23rd, 2012

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

Crystal balls are in full supply every November. We pour through every known statistic to find that overlooked All-American candidate. We criticize the coaches for their preseason picks and condemn the AP poll for overrating Duke. National player of the year rankings are compiled and there’s an inevitable temptation to put some serious coin on that perfect Final Four sleeper at 25/1. It all seems so easy.

Of course, there’s a reason why we don’t all own private islands in the Caribbean. Some of our predictions compare to Nostradamus’ best work while others blow up in our faces. You can’t win them all. For every successful prediction, there’s one you’d like to forget. Here’s a brief rundown of what many considered conventional wisdom before the season and whether those statements turned fall under the category of hits or misses:

Zeller has been spectacular as a freshman

HIT: Cody Zeller is Indiana’s program-changer

The expectations heaped on the broad shoulders of the youngest Zeller were enough to overwhelm even the most talented freshman. His much-publicized pledge was immediately viewed as Tom Crean’s major recruiting breakthrough and a significant step toward Indiana reclaiming old glory. Zeller has exceeded even the most optimistic projections, leading Indiana to two marquee wins over Kentucky and Ohio State and a yearlong spot in the national rankings. The Washington, Ind., native is averaging 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and hitting 64 percent of his shots while providing Crean a post presence to counterbalance Indiana’s outside shooters. Zeller’s instant impact has Indiana one year ahead of schedule in their treacherous post-Kelvin Sampson rebuild and, with a star-studded class entering Bloomington for 2012-13, even more national acclaim is in store should Zeller return for a sophomore season.

MISS: Xavier is a final four sleeper

Immediately after Tu Holloway opted for a final year at Xavier over the NBA Draft, the Musketeers were labeled a top-25 shoe-in and popular Final Four pick. After all, Chris Mack’s first two seasons as head coach produced an extraordinary 29-3 conference record and most key contributors were returning for a program that has experienced their fair share of March success in recent years. The story of Xavier’s season hasn’t exactly stayed on course. The Musketeers are 9-9 since that ugly brawl with Cincinnati, Holloway apparently doesn’t enjoy basketball anymore, suspensions and inconsistency have plagued Frease and the once-popular Musketeers may be NIT-bound following their loss Tuesday at UMass.

HIT: Tom Izzo has a team more to his liking

After discarding malcontents from a roster that slipped from number two in the nation to 19-15 overall last season, many prognosticators examined Sparty’s new-look roster and jumped back on the bandwagon. That faith has been rewarded in spades. Draymond Green is a Cleaves-type leader and a surefire All-American. Equally coachable and talented underclassmen Keith Appling and Brendan Dawson are stars in the making. Derrick Nix is finally in shape and Adreian Payne outplayed Jared Sullinger during the team’s statement win over Ohio State. Izzo’s squad is clearly embracing his philosophy of rugged defense, well-executed set plays and an unwavering effort on the boards, ranking second in the nation in defensive efficiency and third in rebound margin. This is a confident team climbing the polls and zeroing in on a Big Ten title and number one seed.

MISS: Andre Drummond is the missing piece to another Connecticut Final Four run

I was covering a high school football game in late August when Andre Drummond stunned the college hoops world and shunned another year of prep school to walk on with the defending national champs. I’ll never forget re-doing my preseason top five on the spot: North Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut, Ohio State and Syracuse in order. Despite the departure of Kemba Walker, lottery picks Drummond and Jeremy Lamb paired with emerging talents Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier appeared sufficient enough to warrant a spot in the top five. What we neglected to remember was that Drummond was a raw, unseasoned, 18-year old center with no low post moves. It was a considerable step up to the Big East after simply overwhelming all opposition at the high school level. His lackluster 9.9 points per game, 32 percent free throw shooting and on-court chemistry issues with Oriakhi can attest to that. Drummond is still a future lottery pick and defensive menace, but his arrival hasn’t vaulted Connecticut to nearly the heights anticipated on that late summer day he opted to join the Huskies.

HIT: Growing pains are inevitable for freshmen-laden Texas

No program sustained a more forceful punch to the gut on the early entry front than Texas. Most suspected that Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton would at least flirt with the NBA Draft. Not only did both of those key cogs leave for first round riches, but Cory Joseph shockingly bolted Austin. Other than junior scorer extraordinaire J’Covan Brown and a handful of serviceable upperclassmen in the frontcourt, Texas was suddenly composed of almost entirely youth. In their Monday contest with Baylor, a contest crucial to the Horns fading NCAA Tournament hopes, six players in their nine-man rotation were freshmen. Their inexperience is evident in an inability to close games against seni0r-laden opposition. Texas has lost to Kansas, Missouri and Baylor at home by a combined nine points after leading in the second half in all three contests.

MISS: Jordan Taylor voted Preseason All-American

By all accounts Jordan Taylor has had a fine senior season. His near 3:1 assist to turnover ratio is music to Bo Ryan’s ears and there’s no shame in averaging 14.3 points per game for a low-possession team. Sustaining an impressive shooting percentage isn’t easy when double-teams constantly appear and late-clock threes have to be thrown up out of necessity. Still, ask even the most fervent Badger supporter and  they’ll admit Taylor hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty preseason hopes. His numbers are down across the board and there hasn’t been a marquee performance similar to dropping 39 at Indiana or scoring 21 second half vs. top-ranked Ohio State as a junior.

HIT: Anthony Davis is the most unique college player in years

The story went further than John Calipari simply nabbing another top-ranked high school prospect. Davis was a player who had to be seen to believed, a skinny 6’2” guard turned menacing center courted by the nation’s premiere programs, a unibrow-sporting shot-blocker extraordinaire with guard skills and a 7’4” wingspan to boot. Unlike Drummond, Davis isn’t a surefire lottery pick based solely on potential. The Chicago native averages almost 14 points per game on an efficient 65 percent from the floor, but his true impact comes on the other end where Davis swats five shots a game and alters countless others as a once-in-a-generation type defensive presence.

MISS: The Pac-12 will rebound to respectability

Expectations weren’t at the level of 2008 when UCLA, Stanford and Washington State grabbed protected seeds and USC, Oregon and Arizona joined them in the tournament field. But there was hope the conference would at least prove formidable relative to its fellow power six leagues. Instead, it’s been another season of punch lines and irrelevancy on the national stage. While Cal should lock up a bid if they can finish off a regular season title, the odds of this league only garnering two NCAA teams (likely less than the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and WCC, mind you) is all too real. Only Cal ranks in the top-50 in the RPI and seemingly every opportunity for a marquee win in November and December was squandered by the conference’s top teams.

HIT: Pay attention to Doug McDermott

Astute minds Luke Winn and Andy Glockner both pegged McDermott as their best under-the-radar player in SI’s preseason predictions article. Similar to Jimmer Fredette prior to his breakout senior season, there was considerable buzz among the sport’s diehard fans regarding a lightly recruited freshman who averaged nearly 15 points per game on 53 percent shooting playing for his pops in Omaha. McDermott has lived up to the hype with aplomb, developing into the most efficient offensive force in the country for an explosive Creighton team currently in the top-three in both two-point and three-point field goal percentage. McDermott deserves first team All-American consideration.

MISS: Texas A&M will compete for a Big 12 title

It all began with the unfortunate early stage Parkinson’s diagnosis for Billy Kennedy, forcing the newly hired coach to miss nearly all preseason practices. Then the injuries to leading scorer Khris Middleton and senior point guard Dash Harris destroyed any semblance of early-season cohesion. Even the addition of transfer scoring wing Elston Turner couldn’t alleviate a stagnant offense that ranks ninth in the conference in efficiency. Now the same Aggies team picked first in the preseason Big 12 coaches poll appears destined to miss postseason play altogether.

HIT: Bruce Weber’s seat is boiling

With a new athletic director in place and zero Sweet 16 appearances since 2005, Weber was viewed as a candidate to be replaced next season should the Illini completely tank. Following an unforgettable home victory over Ohio State that vaulted Illinois atop the league standings, it appeared not only would Weber’s job be safe, but his team would contend for top billing in a competitive Big Ten. Since that seminal win on January 10, Illinois is a staggering 1-9, the low point coming last Saturday during a 23-point drubbing against 12-14 Nebraska. It’s now considered a fait accompli that Weber’s time has expired in Champaign.

MISS: San Diego State is destined for a rebuilding year

For Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, losing four senior starters can be quickly overcome with a star-studded recruiting class or the promotion of talented bench players simply waiting their turn. For San Diego State, it’s supposed to equal a two or three year rebuild, a step back into mediocrity after a season in the spotlight. Steve Fisher and his players would have none of that. Chase Tapley is emerging as a top-flight long range shooter while Jamaal Franklin provides athleticism on the wing and Washington State transfer Xavier Thames has stepped in seamlessly at the point guard spot. Despite a recent rough patch, the Aztecs are still 21-6 (7-4) and a lock for the Big Dance.

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One Response to “College Basketball’s Hits and Misses”

  1. BOtskey says:

    It’s fun to look back and see how all these predictions panned out.

    I totally missed Michigan State. Thought they were a borderline top 25 team at best and didn’t even vote for them in the preseason top 25 here. Shows you what I know.

    The one I’m most proud of is going against conventional wisdom and saying that A&M was not a Big 12 contender. But that’s offset by Michigan State.

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