Saturday, November 03, 2012

Previewing Tuesday, November 13th

This is the sixth post in a series of previews of the opening week of the regular season. The other previews are:

November 9th, Part 1 of 2
November 9th, Part 2 of 2
November 10th
November 11th
November 12th

As this will be the fifth day of the regular season, basically everybody will have played at least one game by this date. We already will have had the chance to see all of the really interesting new teams and players in action. So at this point I'm not longer going to highlight games between elite teams and cupcakes. Every preview below is of a legitimately interesting game.

Also keep in mind that Tuesday, November 13th is the 24 hour ESPN college hoops marathon, which I love. There will be good action all day long. Let's talk about five of the most interesting games:

(all times eastern)

Harvard at UMass (10 AM, ESPN) - A few months ago it looked like Harvard was poised to repeat its success from last season and challenge for a Top 25 spot while cruising to another Ivy League title. They lost a couple of starters, including Keith Wright, but they returned Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, their two most important players. But that was before an academic scandal forced both Curry and Casey to withdraw from the team, and swung the Ivy League wide open. It's important to remember that it's been at least 15 years since the Ivy League was as good as it was last season. At this point, it's hard to say that Harvard is anything more than a slight favorite in the conference. In fact, the media picked Princeton as the favorite over Harvard, with Columbia in third. Harvard's top 2012 recruit is 6'8" Agunwa Okolie.

UMass has improved steadily the past four seasons, and actually won 25 games last season before falling to Stanford in the NIT semifinals. With only Sean Carter gone from last season's team, you have to expect the team to be even better this season. For now I have them narrowly in the NCAA Tournament, although I think they'll be around the bubble all season long. The UMass offense will once again revolve around 5'10" Chaz Williams. Their biggest problem last season was rebounding, and the graduating Sean Carter led the team in rebounds per game. That puts pressure on the development of rising-sophomores Maxie Esho and Cady Lalanne, who both rebounded well in limited minutes last season. Certainly a home loss to Harvard would be a terrible start to any at-large bid campaign.

Butler at Xavier (4 PM, ESPN) - Neither of these teams are ranked, but don't let that fool you. Butler is a team that I think should be ranked, and I expect them to make the NCAA Tournament. Xavier is a team I'm projecting out of the NCAA Tournament, but to be around the bubble all year long. The result of this game will matter for both teams all season.

You might be thinking at this point that, uh, didn't Butler join the Atlantic Ten? Are they playing a conference game on November 13th? The answers are yes, and no. This game counts as a non-conference game since it was planned before Butler switched conferences. These teams will meet again in conference action on March 9th. I have to say that even with all the conference realignment the past few years, I can't recall ever seeing this happen. I have seen it in college football once or twice, but not in basketball.

Xavier tends to play well at home, but Butler matches up very well with them. Xavier struggles on the boards, which is where Butler dominates. And Butler's biggest question mark is point guard play from Jackson Aldridge, while Xavier is not a team that plays aggressive perimeter defense. Last year they gave up a ton of threes and struggled to force turnovers. Butler's offense was terrible last year, but I expect it to be improved. And all of Xavier's top offensive weapons are gone - it's not like they have a Tu Holloway or Jordan Crawford anymore who can win the game by himself. But if Xavier can pull the upset then we'll have to seriously re-evaluate their at-large chances.

#7 Kansas vs #14 Michigan State (7 PM, ESPN) - This game is part of a double-header at the Georgia Dome (Duke vs Kentucky is the second game) that is technically called the "Champions Classic". Whatever. Either way, this game is a tremendous early season opportunity for Michigan State to put the Big Ten on notice, and to have a win on their resume that they can brag about for the next four months. For Kansas, my pick to win the Big 12, wins like this can help make the difference between a 1 seed and a 2 seed. It seems silly to split hairs like that this early in the season, but it does matter. Four months from now we are all going to remember the result of this game and bring it up when making each team's case for a 1 or 2 or 3 seed, or whatever they're competing for.

The most obvious match-up to watch in this game is Jeff Withey against the entire Michigan State front line. I expect Withey to be the best interior defender in the nation this season, but he will be going up against wave after wave of talented Michigan State big men. A second interesting pseudo match-up will be between all of the new freshmen. The legend of Gary Bell continues to grow in East Lansing before he ever plays a regular season game, while Kansas has a couple of blue chippers in Perry Ellis and Andrew White.

Vermont at UConn (7 PM, SNY) - UConn has some very talented players. There's no doubt about that. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are arguably going to be the best starting backcourt in the Big East, and Omar Calhoun is a stud 2012 recruit. But the bench is thin, they're going to be worse than a team that was pretty mediocre last season, they have no potential postseason to look forward to and have an interim coach who seems to have no job security. UConn could rally around the flag, so to speak, and play competitive this season (like Penn State is doing in college football this season). But they could also fall apart. And if they fall here to Vermont with the Paradise Jam coming up, this could be the start of the end of a very brief Kevin Ollie era.

After winning 14 of their final 15 games last season, and then winning an NCAA Tournament play-in game before losing a relatively competitive game to North Carolina, I thought Vermont was potentially going to be pretty darn good this season. The transfer out of Four McGlynn dampens those hopes a bit, though Vermont is still my pick to win the America East. Brian Voelkel is a really good all-around player while rising-junior Luke Apfeld is turning into an offensive force in the paint. It will be interesting to see how they handle a vastly athletically superior opponent. But Vermont has much more depth and has a much more stable coaching situation. A win in Storrs would not be the shocking upset that the media will make it out to be.

#3 Kentucky vs #8 Duke (9:30 PM, ESPN) - This is the second half of the double header at the Georgia Dome. I don't need to talk anybody into the importance of this game, so I'll just give some quick thoughts on both teams. With Seth Curry injured, I was not surprised to see Rasheed Sulaimon get a lot of action in their first exhibition game. I was more surprised by how much time Amile Jefferson got. It looks like he'll probably be the first front court player off the bench for Coach K's team. I'll be interested to see if Duke tries to push the pace in this game with a relatively unproven point guard in Quinn Cook. Duke's biggest advantage over Kentucky is depth, and you would think they would try to take advantage of this.

Rather than talk about Kentucky's blue chip recruiting class, I'm going to talk about Julius Mays, the grad student transfer from Wright State. What was interesting to me from Kentucky's exhibition on Thursday was that they went with a seven man rotation rather than a six man rotation (Ryan Harrow, Kyle Wiltjer and the four 2012 blue chip recruits). That seventh man was Mays. If Mays is indeed the guard that Calipari uses off the bench to spell Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin, it will be interesting to see how much he gets to play. Of course, it will also be fascinating to see how Nerlens Noel deals with the big, experienced Duke front line. He might struggle against a team like Duke in November, but this game will be a great learning experience for him and will help him play better when it really counts in the spring.

No comments: