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.
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.