Monday, October 29, 2012

Opening Night Preview, Part 1 of 2

Whether you realize it or not, the college basketball season is underway. Many teams have already played their first exhibition, and we're getting ready for the first regular season games on Friday, November 9th.

A lot of time has passed since the Final Four. Feeling a little rusty with your players and teams for the coming season? Have no fear. I've got you set with a two-part preview featuring 12 games to keep your eye on just on the first day. Part II will be posted tomorrow. And I'll continue to have another preview post each day this week.

Let's get this thing going (all times eastern):

#14 Michigan State vs UConn (5:30 PM, ESPN): The regular season technically gets underway at noon, when a few games will tip-off. But the slate that early is... a bit soft, to say the least. The most interesting early game is Houston vs Florida A&M, just because I think Houston is a long shot bubble team and would like to see what they look like in action, though I doubt Florida A&M is much of a test. If you're a college basketball fan, you're probably starting your season with this Michigan State/UConn game. Get on the couch and get ready for close to 8 straight hours of college basketball, starting with this one.

Michigan State played in the Carrier Classic last season, and this game will be almost as cool. It's going to be played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, played in front of close to 3000 enlisted soldiers.

Now as for the game itself? I don't think it's going to be particularly competitive. Michigan State is one of five really elite teams in the Big Ten, and Tom Izzo always has them ready to play early in the season. And UConn is in a major transition season without a permanent head coach, without a chance at the postseason, and without the depth of talent that Jim Calhoun had in his many years in charge. That said, UConn is still going to have a pretty darn good starting five, led by Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Napier is probably the biggest wildcard of the returners, with so much talent but so much inconsistency in the past. Also keep an eye on star recruit Omar Calhoun, a 6'5" shooting guard.

Michigan State returns a whole bunch of players you'll remember, of course, led by Keith Appling, who will be the team's primary ball handler. A player I think can step up and be one of the better bigs in the Big Ten this season is Branden Dawson, who was very active in the paint as a freshman off the bench last season. And Spartans fans will be keeping an eye on Gary Harris, a 6'4" freshman who has been getting a lot of offseason hype. Michigan State's depth, coaching advantage and toughness should lead to a relatively easy win, but there will be a lot of talent on the floor. College basketball fans are required to give a really good excuse to skip this one.

#4 Ohio State vs Marquette (7 PM, NBCSN) - Speaking of the Carrier Classic, it's back... on the NBC Sports Network. Well, actually there are three of them this year. Huh. Anyway, this should be a good, competitive game. Ohio State is probably slightly overrated at #4, but they're definitely a contender to win the Big Ten. As for Marquette, I was pretty surprised to see just how far off the Top 25 they were in the preseason Coaches Poll. I think they're definitely underrated. Yes, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom were their two best players last season, but they will also get Chris Otule and Davante Gardner back from injury and have two young perimeter players with a ton of potential in Vander Blue and Derrick Wilson. A key for Marquette with their style of play is always on the wings, and the development of Jamil Wilson and 2012 recruit Steve Taylor will play a large role in the amount of success they have this season.

Ohio State loses the most dominant big man in the Big Ten in Jared Sullinger, but otherwise their losses from last season are light. William Buford never developed into the player I thought he had the potential to be, and will be fairly easily replaced. The face of the team will probably be Aaron Craft, who appears to be heading down the same path as Draymond Green (two years of me talking about how great and underrated they are, followed by two years of the media hype growing to nauseating levels). I hope I'm wrong about that, though, because I really do enjoy watching Craft play.

One of the very underrated facets to Ohio State last season was that despite a very small rotation (Thad Matta basically only played six guys per game), they had a bunch of really good players on the bench. Guys like JD Weatherspoon, Amir Williams and Sam Thompson all have the potential to excel in extended minutes. Amir Williams, because of his size and the departure of Sullinger, will probably be the first of that trio to play a key role this coming season. Maybe the most interesting player to keep an eye on is LaQuinton Ross. The former high school prodigy had a humbling freshman season, dealing with eligibility issues and then barely getting on the court. If he can recover some of that potential he can be a big weapon for the Buckeyes.

Virginia at George Mason (7 PM) - This game will get lost in the shuffle, but it's a really interesting game for two intriguing potential NCAA Tournament teams. Virginia was a surprise success last season under Tony Bennett, and will be looking to continue moving forward. Bennett's calling card, like his father before him, is tough defense and a suffocating slow pace. Mike Scott was probably the most underrated superstar in the nation last season, and he graduates, but Virginia will be an excellent defensive team yet again. The question mark, with Scott gone, is offense. Jontel Evans and Joe Harris are the two key returners, but the real key to success will be Tony Bennett's massive recruiting class. I'm just curious to see which of those freshmen move into the starting rotation right away, and which will be projects.

George Mason loses star Ryan Pearson off of a team that brutally underperformed under new head coach Paul Hewitt. Hewitt will need a big turnaround this season or his seat will start to get warm. Hewitt has always been a coach with the reputation of a recruiter who doesn't really develop his guys and struggles to get them prepared for big games. The problem is, he's not even recruiting anymore. The additions this season include a mediocre transfer (Anali Okolji), a European (Marko Gujanici) and a lightly-regarded local high school recruit (Patrick Holloway). I have very low expectations for this George Mason team. But if some of their players made the leap over the offseason and Hewitt shocks us all with an improves Patriots team? A great start would be knocking off Virginia at home on opening night.

Miami (OH) at #6 NC State (7 PM, ESPN3) - I've made it clear many times that I'm not buying the preseason hype for NC State. That #6 ranking just seems absurd to me. Yes, it was huge that they got CJ Leslie back and they return almost everybody from last year's team... but last year's team also was NIT-bound until the ACC tournament and despite that great end to their season still reacted like this when they found out that they made the NCAA Tournament. In order for them to be even close to the sixth best team in the country their defense will need to get a lot better, and they are going to need more offensive consistency. Lorenzo Brown, in particular, needs to take the leap from decent ACC point guard to elite ACC point guard. Depth is also a concern, and they will be relying heavily on a highly-touted 2012 recruiting class. Look for shooting guard Rodney Purvis to be the most important of the new true freshman.

Other than seeing how NC State looks, there won't be a whole lot to this game. Miami-Ohio is moving into a new era as Charlie Coles retires after approximately 317 years as head coach (that might be an exaggeration). The new head coach? John Cooper, who most recently headed Tennessee State. I think NC State is overrated, but I don't think they're overrated enough to have any trouble here.

Bucknell at Purdue (7 PM, Big Ten Digital Network) - This is clearly a rebuilding season for Purdue. Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith are all gone from a team that only finished in 6th place in the Big Ten last season, and they don't have any real hot shot freshmen coming in. But those predicting a finish near the basement of the Big Ten do so at their own peril. Matt Painter teams are always tough to play, and his roster is very young but also has a lot of talent. A key to success might be Teron Johnson, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman two season ago, and will need to step in and replace Lewis Jackson. Jacob Lawson won't be expected to be the new Robbie Hummel, but expectations are high for the 2011 recruit. The 2012 recruiting class is deep, as well. Look for Ronnie Johnson to potentially start in the backcourt alongside Teron Johnson.

Bucknell is a team I'm curious to see as well. They narrowly won a very competitive Patriot League last season before falling to Lehigh in the Patriot League tournament. They acquitted themselves well in the NIT and will likely be locked in another very competitive battle with Lehigh again. Bucknell, should they earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, could be the type of scary Round of 64 opponent that Lehigh was last season. The game-within-the-game is what could be pretty epic Patriot League Player of the Year race (ever think you'd hear that sentence?) between Lehigh's CJ McCollum and Bucknell's Mike Muscala. It will be very interesting to see how Muscala handles Purdue's young front line.

Georgia State at #8 Duke (7 PM, ESPNU) - Georgia State was one of the most underrated teams in the nation last season, and if their strength of schedule didn't suck so badly they might have actually pulled themselves into shouting distance of the Tournament bubble. But four of their five starters last season were seniors. They're going to get creamed at Cameron Indoor. This game is about a Duke team that I picked as my preseason ACC champion. Andre Dawkins will be redshirting, but they bring back a ton of talent, led by Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. Look for point guard Quinn Cook to step in and potentially earn the starting point guard spot.

I'm also very curious to see just how much playing time Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jeferson, Coach K's two true freshmen, will get. Sulaimon was the slightly higher rated recruit (though both are blue chippers), and seems like less of a project (Jefferson needs to put on some weight if he's going to be a post scorer), but Duke is so stacked in the backcourt that it's hard to see Sulaimon earning more than around 15 minutes per game.

1 comment:

DMoore said...

On Duke:
Seth Curry is injured. His time on the court may be minimized because of it. Sulaimon may start as a result.

On NC State:
You're behind the curve on Lorenzo Brown. The only point guard better than him in the ACC last year was Kendall Marshall. Brown is the best player on State's team, and will contend for ACC POY.