Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
With the season tipping off on Monday, there’s a few questions rolling around the minds of college basketball fans regarding the upcoming season. Let’s tackle the ten most pressing questions, from Duke’s expected dominance to a battle at the top of the Big East and one special freshman:
It's prudent Johnson does even more with Hummel out
1. What’s Purdue’s season outlook without Robbie Hummel?
Purdue fans don’t need to read another rehash of Hummel tearing his ACL for the second time in eight months, so we’ll skip the gory details. With that setback in the past, the question now becomes: is Purdue still a legitimate contender to cut down the nets in Houston? The short answer is probably not. Hummel was the most important piece to the Boilermakers’ puzzle — a gritty, tough-minded, versatile scoring threat and can rebound and defend. The haunting memory of Purdue’s 11-point first half performance against Minnesota in the absence of Hummel is still fresh in some minds. The hoppers off the Boilermakers bandwagon have been countless, the injury considered so devastating that ESPN’s Andy Katz dropped Purdue from #2 to #23 in his Preseason Top 25.
Although the impact of Hummel’s injury shouldn’t be diminished, it is in no way a crushing blow to Purdue’s entire season and absolutely does not deserve a 21-spot decline in the preseason polls. Take a step back and remember that Matt Painter still has two all-Big Ten players on his roster even in a grueling year for the league- preseason All-American center JaJuan Johnson and scoring guard E’Twaun Moore. Those are building blocks the majority of major conference coaches would bend over backwards to have at their disposal. Point guard Lewis Jackson is finally 100% and ready to build on an encouraging freshman season before his foot injury. Kelsey Barlow is a multi-positional threat while secondary players D.J. Byrd and Ryne Smith have practiced for weeks knowing they’ll be thrust into a larger role. Most of all, it’s Matt Painter’s insistence on defending aggressively in the halfcourt keeps Purdue in any contest no matter the talent differential.
This isn’t Purdue unexpectedly thrown into limbo when Hummel tore his ACL last February. The Boilermakers enter the season knowing who must step up to prove the doubters wrong. Even in an unforgiving Big Ten, I expect Purdue to be a mainstay in the top 15 all season long.
2. Who is this year’s first round Cinderella?
If you picked Ohio over Georgetown in last year’s NCAA Tournament, congratulations. That’s a pick you brag about to your buddies for years. The majority of the tournament pool participators did not have such a keen eye for upsets, though. Searching for this year’s preseason candidate to shock the hoops world and knock off a major conference powerhouse as a #13 or #14 seed? Look no further than the Southern Conference and the Wofford Terriers.
Start with the fact they took Wisconsin down to the wire last March in their first NCAA Tournament appearance. Sure, the Badgers play a style that can produce closer outcomes against weaker opposition, but degrading that accomplishment is unfair. It’s the building block for what could be a special 2010-11 campaign with Noah Dahlman, Tim Johnson, Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs all back in the fold. Don’t overlook the urgency factor with ten seniors and juniors knowing this is the Terriers last chance to secure a NCAA Tournament victory.
Ranking #41 in the nation in defensive efficiency a season ago, head coach Mike Young has instilled a lockdown mentality on that end of the floor. Dahlman returning is also a huge deal. The best player in the SoCon, Dahlman is a double-double threat and extremely efficient scoring the basketball. He’ll be a handful for Wofford’s first round opponent and one of those names that won’t soon be forgotten around the college hoops landscape. Young challenged his team with a brutal schedule with road games at Minnesota, Clemson, Xavier, South Carolina and VCU in the non-conference, so we’ll see fairly quickly whether the Terriers can challenge stiff opposition this season.
3. How many games will Duke lose this season?
Couple Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith’s decisions to return for their senior years with a down year in talent around the ACC and the potential is there for a remarkable season in Durham. Although the ultimate goal will only be reached in March, the Blue Devils could run off a season similar to what Kansas and Kentucky did in 2009-10. The backcourt is the best in the nation with Smith, Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins all expected to see minutes (not to mention Singler’s guard-like skills), a group that should allow Coach K to run, run, run, run and run some more. Prepare yourself to see Duke total 100+ points on more than a few occasions this season.
Just how good can Duke really be? Do they have a chance to go undefeated? With a frontcourt that lost key cogs Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, it’s extremely unlikely. If one of the Plumlee brothers falls into foul trouble and Duke has to play the inexperienced Ryan Kelly or freshman Josh Hairston too many minutes, a forward-oriented squad may knock them off. I have two games circled as losses for Duke: at NC State and at Virginia Tech. If the Wolfpack could pull the upset last year with a cellar-dwelling team, they have a fighter’s chance to beat Duke again with Lorenzo Brown, Tracy Smith, Ryan Harrow and C.J. Leslie. The contest in Blacksburg should produce a raucous environment with the Hokies granted a golden chance for a signature win that has evaded Seth Greenberg the last couple seasons.
Other possibilities include the CBE Classic when Duke runs into Kansas State or Gonzaga in the final. Of course, the Blue Devils could fall to North Carolina in Chapel Hill on the season’s last Saturday, but I expect Duke to squeak by with a memorable win. It was immediately a possibility when Singler opted to return for one last hurrah that Duke would lose only two or three games all year long. Barring injury, I predict they’ll do just that.
4. Could the Pac-10 actually be worse?
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