Analyzing Lindy’s and Sporting News’ Preseason Top 10 RankingsPosted by Chris Johnson on August 30th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
College football’s season kickoff Thursday night offered another small reminder that Division I’s basketball brethren aren’t too far away from getting things started themselves. People have begun analyzing and prognosticating how the upcoming season – expected to be one of college hoops’ best in the past decade – will shake out, which teams will win which leagues, who can compete for a national championship, which likely one-and-done freshmen will leave the most memorable imprints on the game. All of this stuff is fun and exciting and at the same time frustratingly titillating, and the rush of emotional anticipation will resonate even more acutely as we move closer to November. Two notable preseason rankings were unveiled this week, and while there will be many of the same rolled out over the next two months, the relative dearth of interesting college hoops news this week was just the invitation I needed to dissect the contents of a pair of speculative team orderings.
The two rankings come courtesy of Sporting News and Lindy’s. Nothing about either list was particularly surprising or puzzling, with the inexplicable exception of one certain defending national champion being excluded from one of the top 5s (more on this below). There isn’t too much to dig into here, but if it means discussing the best teams entering college basketball this season in a totally speculative context, I’m not going to say no. If there is a fun aspect to the college basketball offseason, it is this: criticizing other people’s rankings.
- Talking point No. 1, undoubtedly, is Louisville’s shocking No. 7 ranking on Lindy’s top 10 list. Not only are the Cardinals expected, in many corners, to compete for a national championship, they bring back the core of the team that won the national championship last season. What compelled the college hoops hive minds at Lindy’s to push the Cardinals down six spots from their championship perch, I can’t possibly begin to explain. Save for the loss of shot-blocking center Gorgui Dieng, Louisville is just as deep and talented as it was last season. Protecting the rim could be an issue, especially if 6’8″ forward Montrezl Harrell doesn’t morph into the formidable post defender Rick Pitino needs to make his high-pressure defense flourish, but the Cardinals should again rank among the nation’s top five or so defenses; return one of the most talented backcourts in the country, including Ken Pomeroy’s 2012-13 Player of the Year, Russ Smith; and have the added motivation of – and this almost sounds insane, considering where UL finished up last April – trying to dethrone Kentucky from its preseason national championship front-runner status. That rivalry is vicious and impassioned and highly entertaining in any season. Imagine what it will be like this year, with a reloaded Cardinals team and UK welcoming in the most highly rated recruiting class since the Fab Five. The Bluegrass rivalry tangent misses the point, sure, but whatever measure you wish to use to vet Louisville’s preseason merits, a No. 7 ranking seems drastically low. Maybe it was a typo (ed. note: European sevens sometimes look like US ones.)?
- On both lists of rankings, Michigan State was placed no lower than No. 2. This is an encouraging development. The Spartans are, by any objective measure, as viable a national title candidate as any team in the country. MSU got great news early this summer when sophomore guard Gary Harris and senior Adreian Payne spurned the NBA Draft and announced their respective returns to East Lansing. Harris battled injuries to both shoulders through much of his starring freshman campaign, and admitted this summer at the Kevin Durant Skill Academy he never truly played at full strength. After a successful rehabilitation this summer, Harris – a likely first-round pick, had he entered the draft – is ready to cement his reputation as the Big Ten’s premier guard. Payne added new elements to his offensive game last season, the most encouraging of which was an expansion of his shooting range, more consistent defense and an efficient harnessing of his superior athletic and skill-based potential not seen over his first two-and-a-half seasons of college hoops. This team belongs in the nation’s top two on personnel value alone. Having arguably the greatest single-game elimination NCAA Tournament format coach of the past decade driving the ship makes Sparty even more worthy of its ranking.
- Ranked No. 5 in Sporting News’ top 10, Arizona was excluded from Lindy’s list. This is slightly disconcerting, but far less egregious than Louisville’s seventh-place ranking. The Wildcats are the best team in the Pac-12, full-stop, and have a player drawing early comparisons to Blake Griffin set to enter the mix this season. That would be Aaron Gordon, and if you happened to catch or ready anything about the FIBA U-19 World Championships this summer, you probably already know how talented and freakishly athletic Gordon is. But in case you missed some or all of Team USA’s gold medal run, the most important piece of Internet documentation available is this dunk, and if you’re still not convinced after watching that, well, this Arizona team has a lot more than Gordon to feel good about. Start with Duquesne transfer point guard T.J. McConnell, the pass-first yin to the ball-dominating yang that was Mark Lyons last season. McConnell’s ability to find Gordon and others for open looks is probably his biggest benefit, but he also plays great perimeter defense, and offers the Wildcats assistance in the one offensive area they need to improve: three-point shooting. Guard Nick Johnson, the man responsible for the best Christmas present any college hoops fan could have hoped for last season, is also back, along with forwards Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Arizona is the class of the Pac-12, and if it dominates league play as expected, a one seed is well within reach.
- What’s college basketball writing in the summer of 2013 without a P.J. Hairston reference? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But Hairston isn’t the main reason I’m bringing up North Carolina. Instead, I hoped to discuss the four-ranking discrepancy between Lindy’s, which ranks UNC fifth, and Sporting News (ninth). First thing’s first: I’m not so sure I would have included North Carolina in the top 10 to begin with. Roy Williams’ team finished the season playing better than it began (thanks in large part to a key mid-season line-up tweak involving Hairston), and an admirably competitive round-of-32 defeat, along with a solid incoming recruiting class, explains the exalted preseason love. But even if Hairston does wind up playing a majority of games this season – the most likely outcome of a tumultuous summer, provided the NCAA doesn’t step in and impinge on his eligibility – the Tar Heels don’t look like the second, or even third, best team in their own league. Duke, ranked third and fourth, respectively, and Syracuse (eighth in SN; N/A on Lindy’s) – whose trademark 2-3 zone defense should bottle up even the ACC’s most prolific offensive outfits – both look better positioned to win the re-tooled ACC, and continue on to have more success in the NCAA Tournament. It’s easy to think North Carolina, given its recent success under Williams, will bounce back and compete for league titles every year. But a top-10 ranking feels more a product of program reputation and an inspiring short stretch to close the 2012-13 season than an accurate evaluation of the Tar Heels’ relative standing among the nation’s best teams. And ranking them above Louisville, like Lindy’s did, is something only the most ardent UNC fans could rationalize. This season’s group doesn’t come close to some of UNC’s best teams over the past decade. If this ranking reflects a national consensus, I see UNC as one of the best candidates for “flop team” of the year.
- Unlike Lindy’s, who released its top-10 by revealing its magazine cover, Sporting News published its top-10 online, with accompanying “Primary Concern” sections for each team from esteemed college hoops writer Mike DeCourcy. Both rankings placed Oklahoma State in the top-10 – Lindy’s at No. 9 and SN at No. 10. I don’t think I would have included the Cowboys at all, and DeCourcy’s “Primary Concern” for OSU encapsulates the most salient reason why. Besides athletic 6’8″ junior Michael Cobbins, the Cowboys have no reliable frontcourt presence to speak of, a fact made painfully clear during OSU’s 13-point loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament, when the Ducks grabbed 35 percent of their misses to OSU’s 17 and posted an 0.83 defensive rebounding percentage, up nearly 20 percent from the Cowboys’ 0.65 figure. Marcus Smart is the best player in the country at his position, and players like Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown make OSU tough to handle on the perimeter, but their lack of an inside presence leaves them vulnerable, particularly in the one-game freneticism of NCAA Tournament play – i.e., the inability to make significant schematic adjustments or miraculously summon rebounding and interior post scoring from a roster missing it. The Cowboys might hang around with Kansas near the top of the Big 12 for a while, but it says here that their perimeter-oriented formula will keep them from maintaining a stable top-10 foothold throughout the season.
- There are three Big Ten teams listed across both rankings. Lindy’s included all three – Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State – while Sporting News left Ohio State off its list. I don’t dispute SN’s choice; Ohio State will rely heavily on bust-to-Tournament-breakout LaQuinton Ross – who hasn’t yet discovered the essential glue needed to weld talent and consistency into a reliably productive offensive package – to replace its offensive fulcrum, DeShaun Thomas. The Buckeyes could struggle this season. Stingy defense alone, something OSU is almost guaranteed to evince on a nightly basis with Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott terrorizing opposing backcourts on the perimeter, won’t keep Ohio State in the top 10. But if the Buckeyes don’t belong, then perhaps the other non-MSU Big Ten team of interest, Michigan, likewise deserves to be bumped out. The Wolverines are fresh off a close loss to Louisville in the national championship game, which may make my above lament of the Cardinals’ seventh-place Lindy’s ranking feel a bit disingenuous. The difference is that Michigan, unlike UL, loses not only one important starter, but arguably the best player in college basketball from a year ago in Trey Burke, a point guard who wielded the creative influence and play-making capacity to drive everything Michigan did offensively last season. My relatively depreciated preseason estimation of Michigan runs against the early preseason consensus, and the editor of this site will vehemently disagree, but if two Big Ten teams belong in the top-10, they are Michigan State and Ohio State. For the record: My preference would have been to include all three, which Lindy’s does – along with putting Ohio State (sixth) above Michigan (10th), per my predilection. The Ohio State-Michigan debate doesn’t brush aside the unanimous view that the Big Ten, despite losing some of the top-to-bottom quality that made it so fun to watch last season, is going to be one of the most exciting conferences in the country.