Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Opening Night Preview, Part 2 of 2

This is the second in a series of posts previewing the opening week of the college basketball season. The opening day of the season is so packed with great games that I've split it up into two posts. For Part I please click here. This is Part II.

There are two types of games in the opening season that I'll be talking about. First, there are just going some great games - quality teams going against each other. Second, it will be the first chance to watch some teams and players that I'm very interested in seeing. It won't even matter if they're paying a cream puff - I still want to get that first chance see them play. Without further ado, let's get this going:

(all times eastern)

#9 Syracuse vs #20 San Diego State (8 PM, Fox Sports) - There are going to be three carrier games this year. Ohio State vs Marquette is the first to tip off, and this is the second. The third is Georgetown/Florida, which is discussed a bit lower in this post. That said, these games aren't necessary gold mines. This game suffered all sorts of financial problems and was at serious risk of being cancelled before some late work by both schools and Fox Sports to put the game on, although many of the other festivities that were intended to go along with the game have been cancelled.

Anyway, the rankings next to these two teams tell you all you need to know about tuning into this one. San Diego State is a team that I, and many in the statistical community, view as underrated, even at #20. They were overrated last season, but were young and return almost all of their top players, led by Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin. In fact, the only starter that they lose (Tim Shelton) can be immediately replaced by St. John's transfer Dwayne Polee. Steve Fisher's 2012 recruiting class is led by 6'8" Winston Shepard.

Syracuse, on the other hand, is a team that I think is a little overrated where they are. They just lost a ton of talent from last season: Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph. The two key returners are Brandon Triche and CJ Fair. To me, there are two huge question marks for this team. The first is whether players like Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita and Michael Carter-Williams, who played efficiently in short minutes last season, can play as well in extended minutes this season. The second is just where the Syracuse offense is going to come from. Triche is the only backcourt player that we know will be good. Michael Carter-Williams will probably be the starting shooting guard, but he wasn't much of a scorer in his freshman season. The only other backcourt option, as far as I can tell, is Trevor Cooney, a 2011 recruit who took a redshirt year. That's a pretty thin backcourt for a team that depended so much on transition offense last season.

#3 Kentucky vs Maryland (8:30 PM, ESPN) - This is part of the Barclays Center Classic, and will be the first chance (for me at least) to see what that new arena looks like. This is also the chance to see what is now a rite of fall - the brand new Kentucky roster with the brand new set of McDonald's All-Ameicans. This year's group? Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley. Also throw in transfer Ryan Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer, the one returner from last season. If anything Wiltjer is probably going to be the most underrated player on this team. He didn't play a ton of minutes last season, but he was awfully good (he's 6'9" and shot 43.2% on threes, 81.5% at the line). The face of the team (and the hair), however, will be Nerlens Noel. This will be the first chance to see him in action.

As for Maryland, this will be the first chance to see Year 2 of the Mark Turgeon era. Do-everything star Terrell Stoglin is gone to the NBA. A very underrated loss is Ashton Pankey, who had a superb freshman year but transferred to Manhattan. This will be a team with a ton of decent players, but I'm not sure there are any elite players. 7'1" Alex Len looked like a massive project last season. Pe'Shon Howard had a great start to his freshman season but has been pretty mediocre in the 1.5 seasons since. Evan Smotrycz? It wasn't like he starred at Michigan. Nick Faust is probably the returner with the most potential, but he struggled pretty badly as a true freshman.

The future of Maryland lies with a very strong 2012 recruiting class led by big man Shaquille Cleare and swing forward Jake Layman. Two years from now these guys might be the core of an ACC contender. But for the time being it's hard to see Maryland as anything more than a bubble team.

Georgetown vs #10 Florida (9 PM, NBC Sports Network) - This is the third and final of the carrier games, and it will be an interesting measuring stick game for both teams. Florida is a team that I think is underrated at #10. They are my preseason pick to win the SEC. Patric Young is poised to be one of the most dominant big men in the nation, and he's flanked by two tremendously underrated forwards: Will Yeguete and Erik Murphy. And while Bradley Beal and Erving Walker were two high profile losses, the reality is that the most efficient guard Florida had last season was Kenny Boynton. Mike Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin will give the Gators three proven quality guards. There isn't even going to be a lot of pressure on 2012 recruits like Braxton Ogbueze, who will only need to play complementary roles on this deep team.

Georgetown lost their three most important players from last season: Henry Sims, Hollis Thompson and Jason Clark. The best returner is Otto Porter, and he'll be flanked by Nate Lubick, who was very good as a freshman but seemed to plateau as a sophomore. D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a 6'3" shooting guard, is JTIII's top 2012 recruit. He and Markel Starks will probably be the starting backcourt, although their relative inexperience won't be a huge hurdle in an offense that doesn't really rely on guards to create offense. Henry Sims was basically a point-center last year, if there is such a thing. Nate Lubick is probably the front court player best fit to play that type of role this coming season, though he wasn't half the player Sims was last season. It will be curious to see just how JTIII figures this all out. If he can even keep this game close then I think that's a success for them.

Louisiana Tech at Texas A&M (9 PM, Fox Sports) - This game is part of the CBE Classic, which is one of those early season tournaments that fixes the bracket so that the four premier teams automatically make the semifinals. I find it lame, and it always ends up with a bunch of scrub match-ups as the early part of the "tournament". But while the other teams in the tournament are playing national powerhouses like Southeastern Missouri State and Utah Valley State, Texas A&M is at least playing a real team. Louisiana Tech finished in a tie for fifth in the WAC last season (and actually played in the WAC tournament title game). I picked Louisiana Tech to finish fourth in the WAC this season, so they're no pushover.

As for Texas A&M, I'm just curious to see if I'm underrating them. Last season got off to an okay start but went down the tubes late. They lost 9 of their final 10 Big 12 games, and then proceeded to lose Dash Harris, David Loubeau and Khris Middleton. To me, they're a pretty long shot at-large team. The core of the team this season, without question, will be Ray Turner and Elston Turner. Getting Kourtney Roberson back, if he's totally healthy, will help. But this coming season, I think, will be about a transition to the next era of Aggies players. Their 2012 recruiting class is solid, led by J'Mychal Reese and Alex Caruso. Unless they look really dominant here against Louisiana Tech, I'll be more curious about just getting a look at these young players to see if Billy Kennedy's program looks to be turning the corner.

Oral Roberts at UTEP (9 PM) - I didn't pick either of these teams to make the NCAA Tournament preseason, but they're both good teams and both are heading into an interesting season. In late March, it looked like Oral Roberts was on a predictable path - they were running away with the Summit League title with a senior-laden team, and had a hot young coach in Scott Sutton. They were destined to make the NCAA Tournament, end on a high note for the seniors and Scott Sutton, and Sutton would move up to a bigger school. But Western Illinois shocked them in the Summit League tournament, Sutton turned down the coaching offers and decided to stay for at least one more year, and now takes an Oral Roberts roster with a ton of turnover to a new conference - the Southland.

The media picked Oral Roberts preseason to win the Southland. They were picked very narrowly over Stephen F Austin. Back in April I picked Stephen F Austin, and for now I'm sticking my pick. But it obviously won't take a lot for me to be convinced to change my pick to Oral Roberts. A road upset of UTEP would be a great start. Look for the inside-outside combo of Warren Niles and Steven Roundtree to be the key for the Golden Eagles.

UTEP moves into Year 3 of the Tim Floyd era. Last year's team was pretty bad (7-9 in Conference USA and 14-16 overall), but was also very young. They lose Gabriel McCulley, but all but one of the other players in their rotation was a freshman or sophomore. The key to the team will be the twin towers inside of John Bohannon and Cedrik Lang. Also look for transfer Konner Tucker, who scored 12 points per game for Sam Houston State last year, to play a big role on the wings. For all the criticisms of Tim Floyd's coaching, nobody doubts that he can recruit and he has his third straight quality class, led by 6'6" Twymond Howard and 6'8" Chris Washburn. He also has a 7'1" recruit in Matt Willms, though he seems like more of a project.

Either way, there's no question that Floyd is recruiting a lot of height. The question is if they can start rebounding better (for a tall team, they were pretty brutal on the boards last year), and if Tucker can help turn around a backcourt that struggled on the offensive end. Most people, including me, think UTEP is still at least one more year away from seriously contending for an NCAA Tournament appearance. This game can help us see if they're ahead of schedule.

Indiana State at #13 UCLA (11 PM, Fox Sports) - I think we all know that the #13 next to UCLA is kind of a joke. It was maybe possible to argue that they were going to be the 13th best team with that stud recruiting class coming in (though when has UCLA not had a great recruiting class under Ben Howland?), but we still have no idea if Shabazz Muhammad or Kyle Anderson (the two top players in the class) will even be eligible to play. And Muhammad picked up an injury as well, so he won't play for a few weeks even if he does get his eligibility restored.

I think UCLA is in good shape in the front court no matter what, with the Wear twins and Tony Parker (and whatever they can get out of Josh Smith). The biggest question mark for me is at point guard, where they lost both Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson. It appears like they're putting all of their eggs in the Larry Drew III basket, which is a hopeful move at best after the debacle he had at North Carolina. Tyler Lamb, who wasn't even particularly good last season and certainly cannot play point guard, is out for a while after knee surgery. With Muhammad out, Norman Powell seems like the only other backcourt option besides Drew. Maybe true freshman Jordan Adams? At 220 pounds he seems a bit too big to play the backcourt. UCLA is at serious risk of being very slow and very predictable on both sides of the ball.

Indiana State isn't likely to pose much of a challenge. They lose four of the top six minute earners off a team that only finished 8-10 in the Missouri Valley last season. And they don't have the personnel to take advantage of UCLA's lack of backcourt talent and depth. But this game will give a chance for us to check out this UCLA roster as they get ready for their first big test: Georgetown on November 19th.

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