Monday, April 25, 2011

CJ Leslie Returns To NC State

NC State has some good news to begin the Mark Gottfried era: CJ Leslie will return for his sophomore season. Leslie was a highly touted 2010 recruit with oodles of raw talent, but it was the right decision for him. While his skills are clear when you watch him, he's still raw and inefficient offensively. With all of the top players returning for another year of college basketball, Leslie could have been a pretty high draft pick, but he'll develop his offensive game much more being a star with NC State next year than he would if he was in the D-League or sat on an NBA bench. He's certainly not ready to play major minutes in the NBA yet.

When putting together my 2011-12 ACC preview I picked NC State to finish sixth, and I have them on the bubble as one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament. When doing that preview I assumed Leslie would return. Certainly my previews are not gospel, and even though I'm picking NC State to end up in the NIT, it wouldn't take a huge leap for them to get into the Field of 68. Particularly since Mark Gottfried, while not a great coach, is no downgrade from Sydney Lowe. But the loss of Leslie really would have greatly damaged any NCAA Tournament hopes. The return of Leslie should have NC State fans optimistic heading into the fall.

Penn State Loses Taran Buie, Gains Juwan Staten

This past week Penn State lost a good prospect and gained a really good player: Taran Buie is out, Juwan Staten is in. Buie wasn't a shock. He had been suspended from the team in 2010-11, and by the end of the year most people were doubting whether he'd ever play for them again. He was one of the most highly touted recruits Penn State had landed in recent years, and he'll be a tough loss. But if he was a behavior problem, and particularly given that he didn't really contribute in 2010-11, it can't be too bad for their immediate future.

Juwan Staten is a great signing for Penn State. He was a big time 2010 recruit for Dayton, and he had immediately lived up to that hype with 8.5 points and 5.4 assists per game as a true freshman. Penn State has a gigantic dearth of talent, and Staten will likely be the best player on the team when he shows up. He'll lead them for three years.

The problem for Penn State is that Staten will have to sit out a year, and with Buie gone this just makes me even more confident in my pick of Penn State finishing last in the Big Ten. The 2011-12 season will simply be an opportunity to rebuild for 2012-13, when Staten will be able to play.

For Dayton, the loss of Staten is killer for their future. I was only projecting a sixth place finish in the Atlantic Ten with Staten, so 2011-12 was going to be a rebuilding year for them anyway. But Staten was going to be the piece they could build around. Now it's going to be a complete rebuilding job with a brand new coach - a new team built from scratch. It could be several years before Dayton contends near the top of the A-10 again..

Miami Hires Jim Larranaga

I wanted to get my thoughts out on the Miami hiring of Jim Larranaga, which actually happened three days ago, before the weekend. I'm a little torn on this one, mainly because I struggled to understand why Larranaga wanted the job. Larranaga has really built up the George Mason program since their Final Four run, and he's put a deep team together ready for a run in 2011-12. They were the best team in the Colonial over the length of the 2010-11 season, and with four starters returning I picked them to win the CAA again, and to earn a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I picked Miami to finish fifth in the ACC, and to sneak into the NCAA Tournament with an 11 seed.

If Larranaga's goal was to work his way up the coaching ranks, this wouldn't be the right job. Miami has not been a job that has launched coaching careers, simply because it's difficult to win there. The basketball program doesn't get a lot of support relative to other ACC teams, and so they really have no shot of ever competing for a conference title. With no history of basketball success, it's just hard to convince top recruits to come there. But I don't think Larranaga is looking to work his way up the coaching rank. He's already 61 years old, and this will probably be his last head coaching job. I think Miami will simply be a more comfortable job - he will make more money, he'll have nicer equipment and more money to work with, more staff to do his work, etc. He should improve Miami, and more likely than not they will make the NCAA Tournament in 2012. Though I wouldn't expect any ACC title runs.

For George Mason, the good news is that the players are in place and the program will be an attractive location for young coaches. The bad news is that Larranaga doesn't have a clear protege as far as I can tell, and so most likely they're going to be hiring a coach from another program and hoping that he can keep the train on the tracks. Larranaga set this team up for a nice run in 2011-12, and they can't allow any of those players to leave.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tristan Thompson In The Draft; Barnes & Vandy Trio Out

Tristan Thompson of Texas is gone to the NBA Draft - This decision is a little surprising, but not a shocker. Thompson should go in the first round of the NBA Draft. This is a tough loss for Texas, though, because Thompson's shot blocking ability was the core of the defense that Pomeroy rated the second best in the entire nation in 2010-11. With Dogus Balbay (their best perimeter defender) graduating, that's going to put a lot more pressure on the Texas offense, which has always been inconsistent under Rick Barnes, particularly with the loss of Balbay. A lot of pressure will fall on 2011 recruit Myck Kabongo to immediately take over the point and run the offense. Texas fans will also keep an eye on Corey Joseph, who is exploring a possible leap to the NBA as well. I had picked Texas to win the Big 12 and to earn a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but that assumed that both Thompson and Joseph returned. The loss of Thompson greatly improves the chances of Kansas taking the conference, and helps put Texas A&M and even Baylor into the Big 12 title hunt.

Harrison Barnes will return for his sophomore season - A month ago if you told me you thought Barnes was coming back I'd have thought you were nuts. But over the past few weeks it's become increasingly clear that Barnes was coming back, and he's now made it official. I had already anticipated this in my 2011-12 ACC preview, where I projected UNC as the ACC champion, and the #1 overall team in 2011-12. Unless something radically changes in the next six months, I expect UNC to be an overwhelming #1 when the preseason polls come out. Duke will likely be the only ACC team with a real shot to compete with UNC.

John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli all return - This wasn't surprising news, but it's great news for Vanderbilt nonetheless. Taylor and Jenkins were the team's two best scorers in 2010-11, and Ezeli was the team's best interior defender and rebounder in addition to being a decent scorer himself. With no seniors in the team's regular rotation, every important player will be back from a team that earned a 5 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Projecting the return of all three players I picked Vanderbilt to finish third in the SEC East, with a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Despite picking them to finish third, I do think they'll be clearly improved, but I expect the top of the SEC East to be really good.

Both Kentucky and Florida are (in my opinion) going to be among the ten best teams in the nation next year. But if anybody can knock those two off it will be Vanderbilt. Certainly Vandy fans will be watching the NBA situations of Patric Young, and the three Kentucky players to explore their NBA options (Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and DeAndre Liggins). Of all of those players, Young is the most important to his team. Florida is going to have a ridiculously good backcourt next year, but will become very, very thin in the front court without Young.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Josh Selby, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Singleton and DeAngelo Casto Declare

There are four new NBA Draft entrants to discuss, and I'll go through them briefly one by one - they'll be brief because three of the four were expected to go:

Josh Selby of Kansas - This was expected, but it's still a bad decision. The fact that Selby only played 2/3 of a season isn't the problem, because Kyrie Irving played even less than that and I think he's ready for the NBA. The problem is that Selby just wasn't that good. He started fewer than half the games he played, and according to Pomeroy had the single worst offensive efficiency among the team's regulars. He had a 46.1 eFG% - the next lowest among regulars was a 52.0 by Mario Little. We've seen this before with players that were hyped out of high school, were not regular starters in one year of college, and then became top draft picks - Marvin Williams of North Carolina being a good example. Williams has turned into a decent pro, but hasn't come close to living up to his draft position or potential. Another year would have really helped Selby. In my 2011-12 Big 12 preview I had assumed Selby would be gone and picked Kansas to finish 2nd, and with a 3 seed in the BP68.

Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State - Again, this was expected. Leonard really has achieved all he can achieve at the college level, and San Diego State is a team that was going to have a drop-off next year regardless of Leonard's decision. It made sense for him to go now. In my previews I assumed Leonard was gone, and picked San Diego State to finish third in the Mountain West, and I have them sneaking into the NCAA Tournament with a 12 seed and in a First Four game.

Chris Singleton of Florida State - Once again, this was expected. Singleton is a tremendous defender and a decent offensive player. Particularly with the number of top players that have eschewed this year's draft, Singleton is basically a first round lock and could slide into the lottery. Florida State will have a great defense with or without Singleton, and the question is always on offense. Michael Snaer has the potential to be a good offensive player. They have a good 2011 recruiting class, and I know that Terry Whisnant in particular is getting a lot of hype as a nice scorer. So Florida State should still be good, and with the assumption that Singleton would go pro I still put FSU third in the ACC, and with an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

DeAngelo Casto of Washington State - This was a surprise, because Casto was not a star this past season and doesn't have clear NBA talent. He'll be somewhat under-sized as an NBA power forward, and he's not a good scorer, but he is a good defender and blocked a lot of shots, so he has a decent chance of getting drafted in the second round. In my 2011-12 Pac-12 preview I picked Washington State to finish third in the Pac-12, and gave them a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That preview assumed Klay Thompson would go pro and Casto would stay. If that reverses than they'll be even better, since Klay Thompson is obviously a true star and a better player than Casto. But I still think Thompson will go pro, and so the loss of DeAngelo Casto will drop them to the bubble.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

2011-12 Conference Previews

I'm finally getting around to the post I owe you guys with links to every single 2011-12 conference preview. All of the conference previews themselves were posted between March 26th and April 12th. The full BP68, with the 68 teams I think will be going Dancing next year, as well as dozens of other teams I think should be in the conversation, is here. The next BP68 will be posted during the final week of June. After that the next BP68 will be out in mid-October.

In the meanwhile, please come back throughout the summer for updates on NBA Draft decisions, transfers, signings, and anything else that I see as relevant to college basketball. We had a great season in 2010-11, and I know that I'm certainly looking forward to another great season in 2011-12.

Without further ado, my full 2011-12 previews:

America East
Atlantic Sun
Atlantic Ten
Big East
Big Sky
Big South
Big Ten
Big 12
Big West
Conference USA
Ivy League
Missouri Valley
Mountain West
Ohio Valley
Patriot League
Sun Belt

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Perry Jones To Return, Mike Anderson Retains Class, Derrick Williams To NBA

The blog now transitions into offseason mode. I will be posting about transfers, suspensions, draft decisions, coaching changes, et cetera. So be sure to come back all summer for important stories, and my take on how those stories affect the BP68. Let's get these started:

Perry Jones to return for sophomore season: The word "shocking" is used far too often in sports reporting, but I'm shocked by this. Perry Jones was one of the best players in the nation last season, and he's got the perfect NBA skill set. His stats as a true freshmen were underwhelming because he was stuck with LaceDarius Dunn hogging the ball, but NBA scouts could see past that, and he was nearly a lock to be a Top-5 pick in the NBA Draft. But whatever the reason, it's a great turn of events for Baylor. In my 2011-12 Big 12 preview, I put Baylor fourth with the assumption that Perry Jones will go pro. But I also pointed out that there is uncertainty with this program because of off-the-court issues (including the fact that Jones himself will have to sit out the first five games of next season). The NCAA is still investigating Baylor for a variety of issues, and if they bring the hammer down then all bets are off. But if all stays the same and Jones truly does come back, then I will move Baylor up from a 7 seed to something around a 4 seed (depending on what happens with other schools).

Mike Anderson retains the entire Arkansas recruiting class: I talked about this issue in my 2011-12 SEC preview. John Pelphrey, before he was fired, put together a really, really good 2011 recruiting class. Arkansas is bereft of talent, and any transfers that Mike Anderson brings in will have to sit out the 2011-12 season, so the only chance he had of putting a decent team on the court was going to be if he could retain that recruiting class. And reports are that he already has locked them all up. That's great news for Arkansas, and so I will keep them as my pick to finish in second place in the SEC West. That said, that still leaves them on the wrong side of the bubble, in my opinion. But it's a good start to the Mike Anderson tenure. His next task will presumably be to try to add some transfers, possibly from his old Missouri players. As good as the 2011 Arkansas recruiting class is, they were not recruited to fit Mike Anderson's system. It took him a few years at Missouri to get the right players on the floor to get Missouri deep into the NCAA Tournament, and I expect that the same will be true at Arkansas, a school with even less of a fan and financial backing than Missouri has.

Derrick Williams Going Pro: This story just broke. Derrick Williams will be going pro. Everybody assumed he would be going pro, as I did in my 2011-12 Pac-12 preview. But then again, everybody assumed Perry Jones was gone, too... so the official word still does mean something. I still think Arizona is the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2011-12, and I still have them pegged as a 2 seed right now.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Preseason BP68

Here it is, the first BP68 of the 2011-12 season. I'll give more of my thoughts in the coming days, but chew on this for now, and also be sure to check out all of my conference previews (for now you've got to get them from the archives on the middle-right side of the screen - I'll put up a single post linking to all of them in the next couple of days).

The next BP68 will be out within a week of the NBA Draft. The next one after that will come out just after Midnight Madness. And then after that will be the W-17 BP68, which will naturally be 17 weeks before Selection Sunday 2012. I will do more posting than that during the offseason, of course. Come back for updates on transfers and signings, and also my take on coaching changes, and the final NBA Draft in/out decisions.

But without further ado, here is the preseason BP68:


2. TEXAS (BIG 12)
2. Duke
2. Louisville

3. Florida
3. Pittsburgh
3. Kansas

4. UConn
4. Wisconsin
4. Vanderbilt

5. Michigan
5. Alabama
5. Texas A&M

6. Purdue
6. West Virginia

7. Marquette
7. Baylor
7. Michigan State

8. New Mexico
8. Florida State
8. Xavier

9. Washington State
9. Georgetown
9. Virginia Tech

10. Illinois
10. Oklahoma State
10. BYU
10. Cincinnati

11. Miami (Fl)
11. San Diego State
11. Villanova

12. Indiana
12. Saint Louis
12. Washington
12. Notre Dame
12. California

13. Missouri
13. South Carolina




Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
NC State, Virginia, Duquesne, Rutgers, Iowa, Northwestern, Kansas State, Drexel, VCU, Tulsa, UAB, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Stanford, Tennessee, Saint Mary's, Nevada, Utah State

Other teams with a decent shot to get onto the bubble:
Clemson, Maryland, George Washington, Seton Hall, St. John's, Minnesota, Nebraska, Old Dominion, Central Florida, Marshall, Cleveland State, Detroit, Indiana State, Colorado State, Colorado, Oregon, USC, Utah, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on:
Boston College, Georgia Tech, Dayton, South Florida, Iowa State, Oklahoma, James Madison, UTEP, Valparaiso, UW-Milwaukee, Princeton, Iona, Drake, Arizona State, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Charleston, San Francisco, Fresno State

2011-12 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

This was a very disappointing season for the ACC. With the stupid way that the media judges conferences, they typically just look at Duke and UNC, and if both are good then the conference is up, and if one or more are down then the conference is down. So last year the conference was underrated because North Carolina stunk so badly. But this year, the conference (as much as it was panned by the media) may still have been overrated. The third best team in the conference was a pure bubble team, and the conference also had a couple of really bad teams at the bottom (Wake Forest was a joke). But there are a bunch of new coaches and young teams, so the conference should pick up in quality in 2011-12.

I have to start the preview with Duke, since they were the best team in the conference, though they struggled in the NCAA Tournament - barely surviving Michigan in the Round of 32 and then losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16. They lose star Nolan Smith to graduation, as well as Kyle Singler. Kyrie Irving is going pro, though I expect him to be the only one to go. In the backcourt they return Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton, with Curry being the one best able to run the point. In the frontcourt they should have three Plumlees next year: Mason, Miles and Marshall (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 82). They also return Ryan Kelly, who improved dramatically between his freshman and sophomore years, and Josh Hairston. They also had three other big time recruits (besides Miles Plumlee): Austin Rivers (Scout: 1 SG, Rivals: 1), Quinn Cook (Scout: 5 PG, Rivals: 28) and Michael Gbinije (Scout: 5 SF, Rivals: 31). They are going to be absurdly deep in the frontcourt, but I worry about their backcourt depth. Coach K often benched the Plumlees against smaller teams or teams that pressed, knowing that he could rely on three backcourt players at the same time. Without Nolan Smith or Kyrie Irving, either Austin Rivers or Quinn Cook is going to need to step up and be a big time ACC player right away. Both have the pedigree, but true freshmen are always a question mark. Still, Duke looks really good and will compete for another ACC title.

North Carolina came on very strong late in the year, knocking off Duke to take the ACC regular season title, but falling to Duke in the ACC tournament tournament title and then falling in the Elite 8 to Kentucky. They only lose Justin Knox to graduation, but the real worry is the NBA Draft. So far, UNC has gotten remarkably good news. Tyler Zeller and John Henson already say they'll be back, and the indications right now are that Harrison Barnes will be back as well. If all three come back that immediately makes them a National Title contender. Those three will be joined in the frontcourt again by Reggie Bullock, and they will add James McAdoo (Scout: 3 PF, Rivals: 8) and Jackson Simmons. The backcourt will definitely be back, led by Kendall Marshall at the point and Dexter Strickland at shooting guard. Leslie McDonald and Justin Watts return off the bench, and they also add PJ Hairston (Scout: 6 SG, Rivals: 14). The team will be even more talented than they were this past season, and they'll go from being a thin team to a deep team with those recruits.

Florida State was probably the third best team in the conference, and they were only other ACC team to make it past the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament. Their strength, as it's been the past few years, has been an unbelievably long and athletic defense. When you watch them play you wonder how any team ever attempts shots within 15 feet against them without expecting it to be blocked. The problem is that they only had two good offensive players, and one graduates (Derwin Kitchen) and the other is likely going pro (Chris Singleton). Assuming both are gone, they will still have Okaro White, a good swing foward who was relatively efficient for a true freshman, and Bernard James, who is just a massive human being and can score efficiently if you can get him the ball close to the rim. Terrence Shannon and Jon Kreft are also frontcourt returners, but neither is good offensively. They also add Antawn Space (Scout: 17 SF, Rivals: 88). But if they're going to have a decent offense they need to get some from their guards. The most likely offensive creator there is Michael Snaer, though Deividas Dulkys is also decent. Other returners are Luke Loucks and Ian Miller, and they add Aaron Thomas (Scout: 18 SG, Rivals: 49) and Terry Whisnant (Rivals: 101). They're going to be ferocious defensively again, but unless they can find some decent amount of offense they will not improve as a team.

Clemson played well under first year coach Brad Brownell, using stifling defense to finish strong. They earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where they whooped UAB in the First Four before losing narrowly to West Virginia in the Round of 64. They lose Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant to graduation. Andre Young is a capable point guard and he'll be back, as will Tanner Smith and Cory Stanton. They also add Daniel Sapp and Devin Coleman from their 2011 recruiting class. The frontcourt is not as deep, where only Devin Booker returns from the starting rotation. Milton Jennings and Bryan Narcisse return from the bench, with Jennings being far better (he's actually the best returning rebounder). They do add Bernard Sullivan (Scout: 19 PF, Rivals: 70) and swing forward KJ McDaniels from their recruiting class. Brad Brownell has this program moving in the right direction, even if they might take a small step back in 2011-12.

Maryland was a very good team that just couldn't win games. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them better than a bunch of teams that earned at-large bids, but not only was Maryland not in the at-large discussion - they didn't even make the NIT. They will lose Dino Gregory, Cliff Tucker and Adrian Bowie from their starting rotation, and I think Jordan Williams (by far their best player) will go pro. That leaves them with only Sean Mosley from the starting lineup. They should still be alright, though, as Gary Williams had already brought in a lot of quality talent in his 2010 class to prepare for these losses. Pe'Shon Howard is going to step up and be that star guard that he looked like in that win over College of Charleston way back in November, as he, Sean Mosley and Terrell Stoglin will be the key backcourt returners. Mychal Parker and Haukur Palsson are two backcourt players that didn't earn many minutes as true freshmen, but could down the road (Parker in particular, who was a very highly rated 2010 recruit). They also add Nick Faust (Scout: 13 SG, Rivals: 42) and Sterling Gibbs (Scout: 29 PG). Things are dicier in the frontcourt, where James Padgett is the only returning regular. They also get back Ashton Pankey, a 2010 recruit who missed the 2010-11 season with an injury. Their only frontcourt recruit is Martin Breunig. Assuming Jordan Williams leaves, Maryland is going to be a very small team, with a very thin frontcourt.

Boston College and Virginia Tech were too senior-laden teams that ended up just short of the NCAA Tournament. Steve Donahue did a great job coaching Boston College, but his starting lineup had four seniors, and the fifth starter (Reggie Jackson) is expected to go pro. Every big victory they had all year came on the back of a terrific performance from Jackson, so losing him will really be killer. The three returning players that got any real playing time are all guards off the bench: Danny Rubin, Gabriel Moton and Dallas Elmore. To replace all of the bodies, Donahue has put together a big and deep recruiting class, but without stars. Ryan Anderson (Scout: 28 PF), center Kyle Caudill and shooting guard Lonnie Jackson are the three best. It's going to be a rebuilding year for Boston College. Virginia Tech was robbed of an NCAA Tournament bid, and you have to really feel for seniors Malcolm Delaney, Jeff Allen and Terrell Bell. Delaney in particular has been such a great ACC player for several years now that he really deserved to go Dancing. Shooting guard Erick Green and big Victor Davila are the two returning starters. Forwards Manny Atkins and Jarell Eddie will be back off the bench. But the key will be medical redshirts - the team actually had three of them: Dorenzo Hudson, Cadarian Raines and JT Thompson. All of them were big losses, though Hudson was probably the biggest. All will be important players next year if healthy. Allan Chaney also missed the year, though he missed it because of a heart ailment, so it's unclear if he'll be able to play basketball again. Seth Greenberg has also put together a deep recruiting class, with Dorian Finney-Smith (Scout: 7 SF, Rivals: 37), CJ Barksdale (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 95), Robert Brown (Scout: 21 SG, Rivals: 105) and Marquis Rankin (Scout: 19 PG). Assuming they can get all of their medical redshirts healthy again, Virginia Tech will be a bubble quality team. Though I don't know if their fan base can handle another year on the bubble.

In the end, here's how I see the ACC playing out:

1. North Carolina - Assuming Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller all come back, I don't know how you can bet against this team.
2. Duke - They have a good shot of being a Top Ten team again, depending on how their guards develop, and if at least one of the Plumlees can become a more efficient offensive player.
3. Florida State - It's hard to bet against that defense, particularly if they can get anything out of guards like Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys offensively.
4. Virginia Tech - It's easy to forget just how decimated this team was with injuries last season. So even with all of the graduations, they do get all of those injured players back.
5. Miami - They still don't have a head coach, so it's hard to project exactly where they'll end up, but they do return a really good backcourt of Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant, and Reggie Johnson is a load in the paint. They should have been better than they were this past season, and I think that a change at coach (they really can't do much worse than Frank Haith) can only help.
6. NC State - It's a sign of where NC State is now in the college basketball pecking order that with all of the money they were offering they could only get Mark Gottfried. But assuming he can hang onto CJ Leslie, this is a team that should be improved next year.
7. Virginia - Tony Bennett has this team going in the right direction, and they are still going to be very young. Once he really gets the players he wants in place, he will have this team contending at the top of the ACC.
8. Clemson - I won't drop this team further because of the way they play defense. Brad Brownell did a great coaching job in his first season at the helm of Clemson.
9. Maryland - It's going to be a rebuilding year for Gary Williams. He's got a lot of talented youth, but it's mostly untested.
10. Georgia Tech - Brian Gregory, the former Dayton coach, is the new Georgia Tech coach. The knock on Paul Hewitt was that he could recruit but couldn't coach. We'll see if Gregory can coach these kids before he has to start recruiting. It will really help if he can convince Iman Shumpert to skip the NBA Draft and come back, though I don't think he'll succeed.
11. Boston College - Steve Donahue did a really good job with this team, but unless Reggie Jackson comes back the cupboard is going to be completely bare. It will take at least two recruiting classes for Donahue to get his program in serious at-large contention again.
12. Wake Forest - I didn't like the Jeff Bzdelik hire when it happened, and he might already be on the hot seat after one season. The team was embarrassingly bad - the worst ACC team I've seen in many years. On the plus side, everybody is back from this past season, so just by inertia they should be at least a little improved.

2011-12 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

I've talked a lot about Big East hype in the media, so I don't want to hammer that again. I actually defended the Big East after their awful first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament. I thought all season long that the Big Ten was slightly better. There's no question that the top half of the Big East was better than the top half of the Big Ten, but there's also no question that the bottom of the Big Ten was far superior than the bottom half of the Big East. The single worst teams in the Big Ten was better than (in my opinion) four Big East teams. USF and DePaul were basically automatic wins. But I did feel like the Big Ten and Big East were close, and there was a long way back to the next best conference - the Big 12.

The story on the court in the Big East has to be UConn, a team that had one of the most remarkable National Championship runs of any team I can recall. They went 4-7 in their final 11 regular season games, but then won 11 straight games to take the Big East and National titles. Five of those 11 wins were by three points or less or in overtime, so there was a lot of luck, but it was still a remarkable turnaround that made Kemba Walker a legend. It does look like Kemba Walker is gone to the NBA, though. Charles Okwandu and Donnell Beverly graduate, too. I do think Alex Oriakhi will be back. The key to next year will probably be Shabazz Napier, who will attempt to be the new Kemba Walker. Napier has the same confidence and swagger than Walker has, but he was far less consistent. A year of seasoning will do him a lot of good, particularly since his improvement was clearly apparent even within the 2010-11 season. Jeremy Lamb will be back starting at shooting guard, but after that their backcourt will come from 2011 recruit Ryan Boatright (Scout: 15 PG, Rivals: 48). Assuming Oriakhi comes back, the UConn frontcourt will still be in very good shape, with Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel coming back from the rotation. They also return Michael Bradley (who redshirted in 2010-11) and Enosch Wolf. Assuming Oriakhi comes back, UConn will get Top Ten buzz coming into the year, but I don't buy it. To me they're a Top 25 team, but they're going to be overrated.

The best Big East team over the course of the season was Pittsburgh. They won the regular season title, but fell in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 because of Nasir Robinson's boneheaded foul. To graduation they lose Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee. Ashton Gibbs has also declared for the NBA Draft, although he hasn't hired an agent yet. At this point I'm going to guess that Gibbs will come back for his senior season. Nasir Robinson will be back from the starting lineup as well. I actually think Travon Woodall will take over the point for Brad Wanamaker so that Gibbs can stay at shooting guard, although he'll create a lot of offense, too. They won't return any other perimeter players that earned significant time this past season, but both Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright were relatively highly rated recruits from the 2010 class that redshirted the season and will be back with four years of eligibility left. They also add Durand Johnson (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 115) and John Johnson. The frontcourt will return zero starters other than Nasir Robinson, but plenty of regulars: Talib Zanna, Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson. JJ Moore is a good wing prospect, who was a big scorer in limited minutes (3.7 points in 8.0 minutes per game). The 2011 class has a few quality bigs: Khem Birch (Scout: 4 C), Jaylen Bond (Scout: 23 PF) and Malcolm Gilbert (Scout: 20 C). Jamie Dixon's Pitt Panthers will, like clockwork, contend for another Big East title next season.

Notre Dame finished second in the Big East regular season standings in 2010-11, but they started five seniors: Ben Hansbrough, Carleton Scott, Scott Martin, Tim Abromaitis and Tyrone Nash. Eric Atkins, who will start at the point next season, will be the only returner that averaged more than ten minutes per game this past season. Jack Cooley is a tough body in the paint that will be back, and Joey Brooks is another key frontcourt returner. Mike Broghammer and Thomas Knight are frontcourt prospects. In the backcourt, Erik Atkins is the only returner that played more than four minutes per game. Alex Dragicevich is the other returner that played in games. Jerian Grant was a highly rated 2010 recruit that redshirted. They also add Patrick Connaughton (Scout: 20 SF), who despite being listed as a small forward will probably play shooting guard at Notre Dame. This team will fall way off, obviously, but Mike Brey has done a good job of developing young talent and I expect them to at least be competitive.

Syracuse started the season 18-0, but they lost six of their next eight games and never truly recovered. But they lose only Rick Jackson to graduation, with nobody expected to go pro. The loss of Jackson will put pressure on Fab Melo to take that next step. The very highly touted recruit looked lost early in the 2010-11 season and basically stopped playing for a few weeks, but he came on strong late in the year and actually was a key player in their two Big East tournament games. The team has a lot of size with him, DaShonte Riley, Baye Moussa Keita and James Southerland, but one of them has to develop an offensive game. They also add Rakeem Christmas (Scout: 1 C, Rivals: 12). Kris Joseph and CJ Fair are both 6'7" and are good offensively, but both are wing players. The starting backcourt of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche will return, as will Dion Waiters, who did a good job backing up both guard positions as a true freshman. Jim Boeheim also adds Michael Carter-Williams (Scout: 8 SG, Rivals: 16) and Trevor Cooney (Scout: 17 SG). Assuming a natural progression for Fab Melo, Syracuse should be improved next season, and a legitimate Big East title contender.

Louisville also will be a Big East title contender next season. They should lose only Preston Knowles from their entire roster. They'll get Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles back from season-ending injuries, and have a very nice 2011 recruiting class coming in. Peyton Siva is rapidly becoming one of the best offensive creators (and clutch shot makers) in the Big East, and he'll be joined in the backcourt by Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric. Elisha Justice, Mike Marra and Russ Smith return from the bench. They also add Wayne Blackshear (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 32) and Ryan Taylor (Rivals: 103). In the frontcourt, Terrence Jennings is the returning starter, and key bench returners are Gorgui Deng, George Goode and Stephan Van Treese, along with the aforementioned Buckles and Swopshire. They also add Chane Behanen (Scout: 8 PF, Rivals: 23), Zach Price (Scout: 6 C, Rivals: 72) and Angel Nunez (Scout: 30 SF). Louisville is going to be absurdly deep next year, and Rick Pitino is coming off the best coaching job he's done in years (he would've been my vote for Big East Coach of the Year), so Louisville has to be an early season Big East and National Title contender.

St. John's was a team that got a lot of hype during the year because of Steve Lavin's time at ESPN. And to be fair, it was a lot of fun seeing St. John's playing well and beating elite teams again. But Lavin's coaching performance might have been the most overrated in the nation. Despite the hype, this team was only around 35-40th in the computers at the end of the season, and they were returning every single player from a team that was in the 70s or so in the computers last season. So you would have expected, even without the coaching change, for St. John's to be approximately where they were. Steve Lavin was my favorite ESPN college basketball analyst, but that doesn't mean I can't be honest about his coaching performance. But no team in the nation is going to experience more turnover than St. John's. Of the ten players that played meaningful minutes during the season, eight were seniors, including all five starters. And Steve Lavin is responding by bringing in a nine player recruiting class, all of whom are highly rated. He needed to have a big class, but I have to wonder how he can build a program around a 9 man rotation class. He must be assuming that some of those players will either redshirt or eventually transfer. The only real returners from this past year's team are point guard Malik Stith and swing forward Dwayne Polee. I won't name all nine 2011 recruits, but the best of them are D'Angelo Harrison (Scout: 14 SG, Rivals: 41), Jakarr Sampson (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 44), Maurice Harkless (Scout: 13 SF, Rivals: 45), Amir Garrett (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 51) and Sir'Dominic Pointer (Scout: 11 SF, Rivals: 81). The fact that none of the recruits are superfreshmen is both good and bad news. The good news is that none of them are likely to be one-and-done. The bad news is that you can't expect a lot from them as true freshmen. So I'll give Steve Lavin a year to figure out what he's got in these guys. It's unfair to expect him to get them right back to the NCAA Tournament in 2012.

West Virginia loses Casey Mitchell, John Flowers, Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman to graduation. Their only backcourt returner from the rotation will be Truck Bryant, who is a solid point guard. They're in better shape in the frontcourt where Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli, Dalton Pepper, Dan Jennings and Kevin Noreen all return. I'm particularly interested to see what Kilicli does, since he has a couple of post moves that are basically unguardable, and I couldn't understand why he didn't get more playing time in 2010-11. They also add Tommie McCune (Scout: 30 PF, Rivals: 100) and Keaton Miles (Scout: 29 SF, Rivals: 146). But the big need is at the guard position, where they'll be relying heavily on their 2011 recruiting class, led by Jabarie Hinds (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 127) and combo guard Gary Browne. Cincinnati loses Rashad Bishop, Ibrahima Thomas, Darnell Wilks and Larry Davis to graduation. They do return their starting backcourt of Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon, as well as Sean Kilpatrick, an explosive shooter and scorer. But the only bench backcourt returner is Jaquon Parker, who played only nine minutes per game. They also add Jeremiah Davis (Rivals: 123), Jermaine Sanders (Scout: 24 SF, Rivals: 134) and Ge'Lawyn Guyn. In the frontcourt, the key returner is Yancy Gates, who is supremely talented but has been inconsistent. When briefly benched late in the season it seemed to click something and he played his best ball late in the year - that will have to continue next year, with no other reliable bigs returning. Justin Jackson and Kelvin Gaines are the only returners, and both were true freshman (Gaines took a redshirt year). Their 2011 class has Shaquille Thomas (Scout: 21 SF, Rivals: 132) and Octavius Ellis.

Georgetown loses their backcourt of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, as well as big Julian Vaughn. Those three were the Big Three that led Georgetown all year long, and will be very tough to replace. Shooting guard Jason Clark returns from the starting lineup, but I think that their next star will be Hollis Thompson, a very athletic swing forward. I really like Nate Lubick, another big, and Henry Sims and Jerrelle Benimon are other key returners. Their top 2011 recruits are Tyler Adams (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 54) and Michael Hopkins (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 79). The backcourt is more of a worry, with Jason Clark the only regular returner. Vee Sanford is an efficient scorer, and Markel Starks will be back as well, but none of those three is a point guard. The 2011 recruiting class doesn't have a point guard either. The quasi-Princeton offense that John Thompson runs doesn't require a true point guard, but it can't hurt.

Villanova and Marquette were the two final NCAA Tournament teams from the Big East. Villanova loses the two Coreys (Stokes and Fisher), as well as Antonio Pena. Maalik Wayns is an excellent backcourt player, but Dominic Cheek is the only other backcourt returner, meaning that a program whose strength has been the backcourt as long as Jay Wright has been there will be depending heavily on 2011 recruits Tyrone Johnson (Scout: 12 PG, Rivals: 55), Achraf Yacoubou (Rivals: 122) and Darrun Hilliard. The frontcourt is still in pretty good shape. Antonio Pena was the best offensive paint player, but Maurice Sutton is pretty good as well, and Mouphtaou Yarou is the best rebounder on the team. Isaiah Armwood and James Bell also return. Marquette loses Dwight Buycks and Jimmy Butler to graduation, Butler probably being the best player on the team. They do return an explosive offensive backcourt of Junior Cadougan and Darius Johnson-Odom, with Vander Blue off the bench. They also add Derrick Wilson (Scout: 30 PG) and Todd Mayo. The Marquette frontcourt was the best it has been in several years, and with everybody back but Butler they should still be strong. Jae Crowder is a beast in the paint, Chris Otule and Davante Gardner came on late in the season, and Erik Williams also returns. Jamil Wilson, a transfer from Oregon, is also expected to make a big impact immediately.

Here's how I see the Big East finishing up:

1. Syracuse - I like the way the bigs were developing late in the year, and Syracuse has a very talented backcourt. And you know, particularly with the size they've got, that their zone is going to be impossible to score on in the paint. I'm not sure Syracuse is a true National Title contender, but I think they're a Top Ten team.
2. Louisville - I thought about putting Louisville ahead of Syracuse, because they're also going to be really good, and have a good shot at being in the Top Ten as well.
3. Pittsburgh - I can't knock Jamie Dixon's team any further back than this. They're always deep, they're always tough, and they also play efficient offense and sound defense.
4. UConn - I know that UConn is getting a lot of Top Ten hype, but that seems to be because some people are under the mistaken perception that UConn was the best team in the country in 2010-11. They weren't - they were at best a marginal Top Ten team that got hot and lucky at the right time. Now take away Kemba Walker and I've got to take them down even a little bit further. They're going to be a Top 25 team, but they're going to be way overrated by the media.
5. West Virginia - They lose a lot to graduation, but Bob Huggins is continually stocking this team with raw talent, and I also expect Deniz Kilicli to breakout. In my opinion they'll be a borderline Top 25 team.
6. Marquette - They're going to be very athletic and they can shoot the ball. But the development of players like Davonte Gardner and Chris Otule to go with Jae Crowder gives them some rebounding prowess that really balances the team.
7. Georgetown - Mentally this team really faded down the stretch. I think they'll be more balanced, and more true to the Princeton style of offense, next season.
8. Cincinnati - A lot is going to depend on Yancy Gates, and his ability to shoulder a lot of the load on a team with a thin frontcourt. Their backcourt should be improved from this past season.
9. Villanova - It will be interesting to see how Jay Wright coaches a team with so little backcourt depth. But it can only be good for the team if they don't settle for launching threes all game, which was something that doomed them over the past couple of years when they depended too heavily on their backcourt.
10. Rutgers - Mike Rice did a really good job with this team, and he's got a very good and very deep recruiting class coming in. This program is definitely moving in the right direction.
11. Notre Dame - I can't drop a Mike Brey team lower than this, even though their entire roster is being gutted by graduations.
12. Seton Hall - Jeremy Hazell has to be replaced, although obviously he missed plenty of time this past season with multiple injuries. Jordan Theodore is a good point guard, and the offense will run through Herb Pope.
13. St. John's - As I said, I'll give Steve Lavin a year's pass to figure out his young team. You can't expect recruits (other than a handful of superfreshmen nationally each year, of which St. John's didn't land one) to play a major role on your team. Lavin will need those true freshmen to get most of the minutes on his team - that's a bad formula in the short term.
14. South Florida - They don't lose much to graduation, but that's not saying a whole lot. I still don't understand what direction this program is going under Stan Heath.
15. Providence - Marshon Brooks can't be replaced, and I'm not very impressed with the hiring of Ed Cooley - I don't see why he's a better option than Keno Davis.
16. DePaul - Even though I'm putting DePaul last, I don't think they'll be quite as awful as they were in 2010-11. Oliver Purnell has improved the level of recruiting, though it's still worrisome that most of their recruits are coming from out of state. You can't win at DePaul if you can't crack the Chicago recruiting scene.

2011-12 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

We were once again inundated with Big East basketball propaganda. Like SEC football, it never matters how good Big East basketball is - the media will tell us they're the best anyway. I thought all season long that the Big Ten was better, although I didn't think the Big East's poor NCAA Tournament performance changes things much. What made the Big Ten unique in 2010-11 was that there were zero bad teams. The single worst team was in the Top 85 in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings. That means that there no easy games in the conference, particularly on the road. There was no DePaul or Texas Tech for everybody to beat up on. We could say the same thing about the ACC in 2009-10, though I don't think that ACC had the same quality at the top that the Big Ten did, with three teams rated in the Top Ten by Pomeroy. The last conference that I think was definitely better than the 2010-11 Big Ten Conference was the 2006-07 ACC conference that had zero bad teams, and six teams that earned a 6 seed or better. Duke actually finished 8-8 that year (that was the year they lost in the first round to VCU on "the Eric Maynor shot").

Any discussion of the Big Ten has to start with Ohio State, a team that had one of the most efficient offenses I've ever seen. To surround a guy like Jared Sullinger with four tremendous three-point shooters is basically the perfect college basketball offense. They lose Dallas Lauderdale, Jon Diebler and David Lighty to graduation. William Buford, Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas could all declare for the NBA Draft, but right now I actually think all three will return. Sullinger is the surprise, because I don't see why his NBA stock is going to get any higher. But assuming Sullinger is back, the loss of Dallas Lauderdale isn't a big deal. Diebler and Lighty are tougher losses. Diebler is one of the greatest outside shooters in recent memory, and Lighty is a good offensive players and also the team's premier defender. In addition to Sullinger and Thomas, Thad Matta will have LaQuinton Ross (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 53), Amir Williams (Scout: 2 C, Rivals: 73) and Trey McDonald (Scout: 15 C). In the backcourt, Aaron Craft will be the point guard and will presumably start with William Buford. Jordan Sibert and Lenzelle Smith are returners with potential, and Matta also adds Sam Thompson (Scout: 15 SF, Rivals: 46) and Shannon Scott (Scout: 7 PG, Rivals: 65). Assuming that Sullinger, Buford and Thomas really do return, Ohio State will be a National Title contender again.

Purdue has to move on without JaJuan Johnson and E'Twuan Moore, and the two main questions going forward will be Robbie Hummel and Kelsey Barlow. Hummel had his 2009-10 season ended early with an ACL injury, and then he had another ACL injury that cost him his entire 2010-11 season. Can he finally get healthy for a season? And as for Barlow, he was booted off the team at the end of the season, and it's unclear if he'll be allowed back. Of the returners that we know about, Purdue should still have a strong backcourt with Lewis Jackson (who's always been good defensively, but really developed offensively this past season), Ryne Smith, Terone Johnson and John Hart. DJ Byrd is more of a small forward, but he's also a returner from the starting rotation. Things are more uncertain in the frontcourt, particularly if Hummel can't stay healthy. They won't return a single player over 6'5" that played more than seven minutes per game in 2010-11. Patrick Bade, Sandy Marcius and Travis Carroll are all prospects, as are 2011 recruits Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson.

Wisconsin was the third team in the trio of elite teams that dominated the Big Ten in 2010-11. They lose Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz to graduation. Leuer and Nankivil were the team's two best bigs, so they'll be very difficult to lose. Jarmusz was the classic underrated Wisconsin player who played solid defense, never turned the ball over, never committed fouls and never made mistakes - but never had a Sportscenter highlight his entire career. The backcourt will return everybody, though, and should be really good. Jordan Taylor was probably the best pure point guard in the nation (an absurd 3.8 A/TO ratio) and Josh Gasser is a good shooting guard. Rob Wilson and Ben Brust are two other returning guards that didn't play much but have potential. They also bring in a couple of quality guards in their 2011 class: Traevon Jackson and George Marshall. In the frontcourt, they lose their three starters to graduation, but Jarred Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz are key returners. Berggren could be a real key because of his ability to score in the paint, something that Wisconsin bigs rarely did in 2010-11. Ryan Evans is another returner that could play big minutes, as is Evan Anderson, who redshirt the 2010-11 season and has four seasons of eligibility left. Bo Ryan's 2011 recruiting class has two more quality bigs in Jarrod Uthoff (Scout: 22 PF, Rivals: 150) and Frank Kaminsky (Scout: 21 C). Bo Ryan is entering his 11th season as head coach at Wisconsin, and in the previous ten they finished no lower than a tie for fourth in the Big Ten and made the Tournament each time. I don't see that changing in 2011-12.

While there was a way back to the rest of the conference in the standings (no team other than Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin finished better than 9-9), there certainly wasn't a big gap in talent back to Illinois, a team that was just painfully inconsistent and terrible in the clutch. From the starting lineup they lose Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis to graduation. Off the bench they lose Bill Cole to graduation and Jereme Richmond to the NBA Draft. So that means that the only regular rotation players to return will be Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, who are both basically shooting guards. They do return plenty of young players with talent that were simply buried on the bench behind players like McCamey and Tisdale. Crandall Head will likely get a lot of playing time next year at shooting guard, while Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey are going to be key frontcourt returners. The 2011 recruiting class is a deep one, feature Mychael Henry (Scout: 19 SF, Rivals: 36), Tracy Abrams (Scout: 14 PG, Rivals: 50), Mike Shaw (Scout: 16 PF, Rivals: 58) and Nnanna Egwu (Scout: 9 C, Rivals: 93). Paul and Richardson are the only certain starters for next year. One of either Henry or Abrams will likely start as well. The frontcourt is the bigger question mark, with Meyers Leonard probably the safest bet to start.

Michigan State was a very disappointing team - their defense absolutely fell apart midway through the season and never really recovered. Star Kalin Lucas graduates, as do Durrell Summers and Mike Kebler. The core next year will be the senior frontcourt duo of Draymond Green and Delvon Roe. Adriene Payne, Garrick Sherman and Derrick Nix will provide depth, as will Alex Gauna, Austin Thornton and Branden Dawson (Scout: 4 SF, Rivals: 13). They'll be as talented and deep in the frontcourt as any team in the conference. The question mark will be on the perimeter, because Korie Lucious was expected to be the heir to Kalin Lucas, but he left the program. Keith Appling played well as a true freshman, but their top returner otherwise is Russell Byrd, who redshirted 2010-11 and hasn't played a minute for Michigan State yet. Tom Izzo's 2011 class has some depth at the guard position, if no superstars (Dwaun Anderson, Brandon Kearney and Travis Trice). Michigan State will have less total talent than they had in 2010-11, but the 2010-11 team had Final Four talent that just under-performed. It's possible that a new season will bring a new attitude, particularly on defense.

Michigan was the up-and-coming team in the Big Ten in 2010-11. Their seven man rotation had three freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors. Everybody will be back. That said, Darius Morris (their star and best player) did throw his name in the NBA hat. For now I think he'll come back. Another year of seasoning could turn him into a lottery pick. Assuming he's back he'll presumably start in the backcourt with Tim Hardaway, Jr, with Zach Novak on the wing. Stu Douglas, another guard, started in 2010-11, but if I was John Beilein I'd bench him in favor of a forward like Evan Smotrycz. Matt Vogrich is another guard providing depth. In the frontcourt, Jordan Morgan played really well down the stretch and will start. The aforementioned Smotrycz will play a lot at the power forward position, and Jon Horford is another decent prospect. Their top 2011 recruits are Carlton Bundidge (Scout: 23 SG, Rivals: 104) and Trey Burke (Scout: 28 PG, Rivals: 136). Assuming Morris comes back, there's no question they'll be improved. I wouldn't put them in the Top Ten (like I know some will do) simply because of how thin their backcourt is, and because they can become over-dependent on hitting threes, but they'll certainly be a Top 25 team.

Penn State had a tremendous season that ended up with their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001. But this was a one year experience that won't be repeated. Talor Battle was one of the most valuable players in the nation and he'll graduate. They also lose three additional starters to graduation (Jeff Brooks, Andrew Jones and David Jackson). Tim Frazier, their starting point guard, returns. But after him they return only forward Billy Oliver from players that earned more than ten minutes per game. Taran Buie was a highly touted 2010 recruit, but he was suspended and missed almost the entire season, and it's now very unclear if he'll ever play for Penn State again. Northwestern was another team that had a disappointing season - again coming up short of their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Although they did reach an NIT for the third straight year - the first time they've ever achieved that feat in school history. Michael Thompson is a killer graduation loss because he was the heart and soul of the team, and their leader on the floor. But they do return every other key player, including shooting guard Drew Crawford and forward John Shurna, who is the goofiest looking player in the history of mankind that plays basketball as well as he does. A big key for the team will be the development of JerShon Cobb, and whether he'll be able to step in and be the poor man's Michael Thompson. In the frontcourt they return Luka Mirkovic, Alex Marcotullio and Davide Curletti. Their best and most important prospect is Tre Demps, who might be able to play the point if Cobb can't.

Here's how I see the Big Ten ending up:

1. Ohio State - It now looks like they won't have any NBA defections. Assuming that's the case, Ohio State will be in the discussion to be #1 in the country. They'll certainly be everybody's pick to win the Big Ten.
2. Wisconsin - After Ohio State, there are several teams that could be picked to finish second. I'm going with Wisconsin because they're the safest pick - you know they'll never lose at home, you know they'll be in contention at the top of the conference, etc. Having a starting center that actually has a post game (Jared Berggren) could really be beneficial for their offense, too.
3. Michigan - The Wolverines will drop a few spots if Darius Morris goes pro, but I don't think he will. Returning everybody from a team that looked like one of the 30 best teams in the nation down the stretch means that they'll be in everybody's Top 25, and could get some Top Ten buzz.
4. Purdue - If Robbie Hummel comes back and plays every game with the same ability he showed during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons then Purdue could finish in second place again. But are you really willing to bet on that? Their frontcourt gets very thin and inexperienced if he can't go.
5. Michigan State - I know that some people won't even pick Michigan State to make the NCAA Tournament, but I actually think they'll be better than they were in 2010-11. There was something in their team chemistry that wasn't right in 2010-11, but they've got oodles of talent and still have Tom Izzo.
6. Illinois - Like Michigan State this team underperformed the talent they had in 2010-11. I think it will be healthy for the team to have Demetri McCamey out of the locker room. They've got a lot of young talent, even with Jereme Richmond leaving for the NBA.
7. Indiana - The Hoosiers return everybody from last year's team other than Jeremiah Rivers, and Tom Crean finally has brought a big time recruit to Indiana in Cody Zeller (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 20). They'll definitely be better, but they're at best going to be a bubble team.
8. Northwestern - They'll still be able to shoot and return their entire frontcourt. If they can find a player to provide 75% of what Juice Thompson gave them (be it JerShon Cobb or Tre Demps) they'll be on the NCAA Tournament bubble again.
9. Iowa - Fran McCaffery did a really good job in his first year with this team, bringing in an uptempo, aggressive style that has the fans back and the team competitive for the first time in several years. They only lose one player to graduation, but it's star Jarryd Cole. Melsahn Besabe did have a great freshman year, and McCaffery is bringing in young players to build around, but they're at least a year away from actually making it back to the NCAA Tournament.
10. Nebraska - Nebraska has made a financial commitment to basketball to allow themselves to compete in the Big Ten, highlighted by a brand new arena that is set to open in 2013. They lose star Lance Jeter to graduation, but return the rest of their starting lineup. I don't see any way they finish in the top half of the conference, but they'll at least be competitive. It will be interesting to see how this program develops in the Big Ten.
11. Minnesota - Tubby Smith has brought in a lot of quality recruits to Minnesota, but his tenure has been a mess off the court. Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen graduate, but in addition they had Devoe Joseph and Colton Iverson leave the team just in the past few months. Trevor Mbakwe was arrested for approximately the 835th time recently, and he may or may not be back. Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are both considering the NBA Draft, even though I doubt either would be drafted. And this is basically how every season at Minnesota under Tubby has been - suspensions, arrests, transfers, etc. Tubby needs to stop trying to win next year's Big Ten title, and needs to settle his program down to build more steadily with higher quality characters.
12. Penn State - They'll be by far the least talented team in the Big Ten. Their only chance of escaping the Big Ten cellar will be a return of Taran Buie, and even then I'll still pick them preseason to finish last.

2011-12 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference

Yes, the Big 12 is going to have ten teams and the Big Ten is going to have 12. Nebraska and Colorado are gone from the Big 12. But that said, I don't think the Big 12 is done changing. With Texas now making so much more money than every other school in the conference, the competitive balance is messed up, and the uncertainty in the conference means that teams will jump if they get the right opportunity. Missouri basically begged the Big Ten to take them a year ago, and were only denied because the conference took Nebraska and didn't want to expand beyond a 12th team. So I would actually be surprised if the Big 12 doesn't either add or lose at least one team in the next five years.

On the court in the Big 12, the story this past season was Kansas, a team that might have been the most complete in the nation. All they really lacked, if anything, was an elite point guard (turnovers cost them in their loss to Kansas State and their Elite Eight loss to VCU - two of the three losses they suffered all season long). Mario Little, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed will graduate, and the Morris twins are both leaving early for the NBA Draft. I also think Josh Selby will eventually go pro as well, although he shouldn't - he was a little disappointing relative to hype in 2010-11 and could use a little seasoning. Thomas Robinson considered the NBA but said he'll be back, but he'll be the only big returning from their regular rotation. Jeff Withey, a 7-footer, could play a larger role next season. They also bring in Braden Anderson, a 6'8" recruit. The backcourt and wing positions are in much better shape with Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Royce Woolridge back, and Ben McLemore (Scout: 10 SG, Rivals: 17) and Naadir Tharpe (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 91) joining as 2011 recruits. But front court depth is a real problem for next season.

Texas won at Kansas and was 11-0 in Big 12 play at one point, but they lost three of their final five regular season games and eventually went down in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament to Arizona. Dogus Balbay, Gary Johnson, Jai Lucas and Matt Hill all graduate. Jordan Hamilton is likely going pro, but I think Corey Joseph and Tristan Thompson will both be back. Hamilton was the team's top scorer and will be a tough loss, but Dogus Balbay is a player I have continually said was very underrated. Texas teams under Rick Barnes have had a tendency to play a lot of one-on-one basketball, but when Balbay was on the floor there would actually be a coherence and calm to their offense. As good as Corey Joseph and J'Covan Brown are, a one-on-one exhibition by them is not going to be good for future success, particularly with players like Tristan Thompson, Alexis Wangmene and Jonathan Holmes (Scout: 14 PF, Rivals: 83) in the paint. In the backcourt, Rick Barnes adds three more blue chippers: Myck Kabongo (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 24), Sheldon McClellan (Scout: 12 SG, Rivals: 52) and Julien Lewis (Scout: 22 SG, Rivals: 96). Kabongo is going to be the key to next year's team, because every scouting report says that he's a pure point guard that can lead this team like Dogus Balbay did, but with a much higher talent ceiling.

Kansas State was, according to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the third best team in the conference in 2010-11. They lose only two players to graduation, but those two players (Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly) were by far their two best players. Pullen single-handedly carried this team for much of the past two years, and Kelly was the best post player the team had. Key backcourt returners will be Will Spradling, Rodney Magruder and Martavious Irving. Of those three I like Magruder best, because he can be explosive offensively. Spradling is steady with the ball, which is always good to have, but he's tentative and will not create a lot of offense. Angel Rodriguez, a 2011 recruit, could earn a bunch of time at the point. Jamar Samuels will be the key frontcourt returner, along with 7-footer Jordan Henriquez-Roberts and Shane Southwell. Nino Williams is a wing player with potential who was redshirted in 2010-11. Frank Martin's top 2011 recruits are both bigs: Thomas Gipson (Rivals: 142) and Adrian Diaz (Scout: 14 C, Rivals: 145).

Missouri is a team in flux with the loss of Mike Anderson and the fact that they got played by Matt Painter, who used them to force Purdue to give him a raise (I can't fathom why anybody at Missouri took Painter seriously considering that Missouri is a step down from Purdue, and Purdue is Painter's alma mater). Instead, they ended with Frank Haith, the former Miami (Fl) coach - a very uninspired hiring. Only Justin Safford graduates from the core of the 2010-11 Missouri team, but will there be an exodus of talent? There certainly could be, particularly since the players came to Missouri to play a very specific style of basketball, which Frank Haith has never used. If Haith can hold onto this team he will have plenty of talent to work with, particularly in the backcourt where the team returns Marcus Denmon, Michael Dixon, Phil Pressey and Matt Pressey. Wing returners would include Kim English and Laurence Bowers. Big returners would include Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore. Another returning big is Kadeem Green, a member of Mike Anderson's 2010 recruiting class who took a redshirt year. Only time will tell if Haith can keep his team in tact. Right now the most likely players to transfer are the Pressey brothers. Kim English and Laurence Bowers are both considering actually leaving for the NBA Draft, even though neither is likely to be a first round pick.

Texas A&M went 10-6 in the Big 12, but they were underwhelming, in my opinion, and went down quietly in their first NCAA Tournament game against Florida State. To graduation, they lose BJ Holmes and Nathan Walkup from their starting lineup, and Andrew Darko off their bench. A big concern is Khris Middleton, their top scorer, and whether he'll go into the NBA Draft. Right now I think he'll stay, but I wouldn't be shocked if he proves me wrong. If Middleton returns then he'll be part of a very good front line with David Loubeau, Naji Hibbert, Kourtney Roberson and Ray Turner. A good prospect is Daniel Alexander, who took a redshirt year and has four years of eligibility left. In the backcourt, Dash Harris is a capable point guard, but BJ Holmes will be very tough to replace. They do add Elston Turner, who scored 4.6 points per game and shot 37.5% behind the arc in 69 games at Washington. Mark Turgeon's 2011 recruiting class also focuses on the backcourt, with Jamal Branch (Scout: 9 PG, Rivals: 67) and Jordan Green (Rivals: 114).

Baylor was possibly the most disappointing team in the nation this past season. They oozed talent but were just dysfunctional, both on and off the court (Baylor is reportedly under NCAA investigation for several different possible violations). LaceDarius Dunn is the only graduation from the regular rotation, but I expect Perry Jones to go pro, and Quincy Acy might go as well. I do think Acy will stay for his final season, however. And Dunn was a wildly overrated player. It was painful watching him launch bad shot after bad shot, refusing to get the ball to Perry Jones, who is a better basketball player. The offense should be more balanced without Dunn. Even without Perry Jones the frontcourt will still be very long, athletic and talented. I believe Quincy Acy will be back, as will Anthony Jones and Fred Eillis. J'Mison Morgan, a transfer from UCLA, will play big minutes again, as will Corey Jefferson, who played in 2009-10 but redshirt 2010-11 because of how deep Baylor was at the 4 and 5 spots. They also add Quincy Miller (Scout: 2 PF, Rivals: 5). On the perimeter, AJ Walton is the returner from the starting lineup, while Stargell Love and Nolan Dennis are key bench returners. They also add Brady Heslip, a transfer from Boston College, and 2011 recruit Deuce Bello (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 43).

One last team to discuss briefly is Oklahoma, because I actually disagreed with the firing of Jeff Capel. His team was completely decimated by NBA defections and transfers, and he was working with absolutely zero talent in 2010-11. But he did a great job working with what he had and turned Oklahoma into a feisty team, particularly at home. Capel had put together good 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes, so there are some young players with talent. The team started three sophomores and a freshman, led by Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald. Cameron Clark was a very efficient freshman offensively. Calvin Newell and Tyler Neal are two other good prospects that were true freshmen in 2010-11, as is TJ Taylor, who redshirt the 2010-11 season and has four years of eligibility left. The first task for head coach Lon Kruger, who came over from UNLV, is to hold onto those young players. If he can keep the entire roster in tact they'll be a good team next year.

Here's how I see the Big 12 playing out:

1. Texas - Assuming Myck Kabongo is a more talented Dogus Balbay, and that Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph both come back, Texas will be a Final Four contender.
2. Kansas - They have major frontcourt depth problems, but their backcourt is going to be the best in the conference. I could see myself dropping Kansas to a 3, 4 or even 5 seed in the preseason BP68, but I'm still putting them second in the Big 12.
3. Texas A&M - If Khris Middleton comes back I could see them finishing as high as second in the conference. Figuring out another guard that can score efficiently to play alongside Dash Harris will be their biggest concern.
4. Baylor - I might regret putting them this high, but they have so much raw talent on the roster, and the LaceDarius Dunn graduation is almost addition by subtraction with the way he hogged the ball and didn't get anybody else involved. But if the off-the-court issues really explode during the offseason, I will have to drop them.
5. Oklahoma State - Marshall Moses, Matt Pilgrim and Nick Sidorakis graduate, but Keiton Page will be back (doesn't it feel like he's been around forever?) as will JP Olukemi, who's an explosive scorer. They return a slew of other key players, as well as Michael Cobbins, a 2010 recruit who redshirted. The 2011 recruiting class has a McDonald's All-American, LeBryan Nash (Scout: 2 SF, Rivals: 4).
6. Missouri - They're a hard team to project because if Frank Haith can keep the team in tact I can see them finishing as high as fourth place in the Big 12. But the team could potentially blow up completely until Haith can bring in players that fit his style.
7. Kansas State - I don't think Jacob Pullen will be a great NBA player because he doesn't have an NBA body, but he's one of the greatest college players of the past decade. Throw in the Curtis Kelly graduation and the fact that Frank Martin is being linked with the open Miami job and I don't see any way this team doesn't take a big step backward in 2011-12.
8. Oklahoma - The Sooners have some decent young talent and got a solid hire in Lon Kruger, but there's no way this team actually makes a run at an at-large bid until at least the 2012-13 season.
9. Iowa State - At the very least, Fred Hoiberg is bringing some talented players to Iowa State, including former Michigan State player Chris Allen, who will be eligible for the 2011-12 season. They're still a couple of years away from being really competitive, though.
10. Texas Tech - It made a lot of of sense to get rid of Pat Knight and to start over. Billy Gillispie is an upgrade. But he's working with absolutely nothing. He's going to need at least two recruiting classes to make this team competitive again.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Pac-12

Pacific-12 Conference

Yes, that's right, this is the Pac-12 now. It's easy to forget in the no-perspective world we live in, but it's not like the major conferences were carved in stone. After all the, Pac-10 was the Pac-8 until the late 1970s, and every other major conference (save the Big Ten and SEC) has seen major changes over the past two decades. That said, this particular expansion was done for football, and not for basketball. Both Utah and Colorado have more history of success in football than basketball, and the conference also really just wanted to get to 12 teams so that the NCAA would alow them to have a football title game (the same reason the Big Ten expanded to add a 12th team - and the Big Ten also added a program with more football success than basketball success). The good news for the Pac-12 is that Colorado has a really good new coach in Tad Boyle, and should at least be competitive. Utah is more of a question mark since they just fired their coach and hired Larry Krystkowiak, who did have success at Montana before taking the job to be assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Discussion of the conference has to begin with Arizona, since they were the best team in the conference and were a couple of wide open missed threes from making the Final Four. And this is a young team, losing only Jamelle Horne from their regular rotation, though I expect Derrick Williams to eventually declare for the NBA. Sean Miller is one of the best recruiters out there, so he's got more blue chip talent coming in to fill those roster spots. They return their starting backcourt of Lamont Jones and Kyle Fogg, and have one of the best players in the conference in Kevin Parrom. Kyryl Natyazhko, a rising-junior, is an underrated returner as well. For the most part Sean Miller has only been using him to defend against larger opponents, but he's actually an efficient scorer when given the chance, and has good shooting range for a player of his size. Daniel Bejerano didn't play much as a true freshman but should be a key guard off the bench next year. Their most important recruit is Josiah Turner (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 10), because they don't really have a true point guard. Nick Johnson, Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson are all rated among the Top 75 recruits in the nation by Rivals.

Washington might have been the most talented team in the conference, but they constantly struggled to maintain concentration and ended up a disappointing 11-7 in Pac-10 play before turning it on and winning the Pac-10 tournament and then nearly taking out North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32. But they lose Justin Holiday, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Venoy Overton to graduation, and Isaiah Thomas is expected to go pro. That is going to put the pressure on Abdul Gaddy, who was picked by many as the top point guard nationally in the 2009 class (ahead of John Wall) but struggled both with his play and with his health. If he can't handle the point then they will turn to their top 2011 recruit, Tony Wroten, Jr (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 30). Darnell Grant and Aziz N'Diaye will be back and probably will start at the 4 and 5 spots, and they have efficient scorers back in Terrence Ross and Scott Suggs (Suggs was a 45% three-point shooter). The knock on Washington, particularly from their fans, is that Lorenzo Romar can recruit like nobody else they can get to coach there, but he can't coach them well. Well, next year Arizona is actually going to have more talent. Can Lorenzo Romar out-coach Sean Miller?

UCLA was the third NCAA Tournament team from the Pac-10 in 2010-11. They are rapidly becoming North Carolina West, as they've picked up Larry Drew after picking up David and Travis Wear. The Wear twins will be eligible for the 2011-12 season, while obviously Drew will have to sit the season out. UCLA doesn't lose anybody to graduation, but the NBA Draft could do a lot of damage. Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Josh Smith are all looking at potentially going. Right now I think Honeycutt and Lee will go pro but Smith will come back. The core of the team this past season was the inside duo of Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, and honestly I think that a frontline of Nelson, Josh Smith, David Wear and Travis Wear will be an improvement. The two Wear twins can play on the perimeter if necessary, so they can be on the floor at the same time as Nelson and Honeycutt. Brendan Lane is a backup. In the backcourt, the biggest key is ball handling, since UCLA was last in the Pac-10 in offensive turnover rate in 2010-11. Lazeric Jones, their starting point guard, was a true freshman, so he should lower the turnovers with another year of experience. Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb are two other good scoring guards, and their top 2011 recruit is Norman Powell (Scout: 16 SG, Rivals: 59). They should be improved next season, but I'm not sure I'm ready to put them back in the Top 25. The 7 seed they got this year wasn't deserved, and they would need to improve a lot to get to the Top 25.

USC was the fourth and final NCAA Tournament team out of the Pac-10 in 2010-11. I was really bothered by their selection, though not for the reasons that were said commonly in the media. There's no question that down the stretch USC was playing well enough that the "eye test" said that they were one of the 37 best teams up for consideration to earn an at-large bid. What bothered me about that was that the Selection Committee has never picked teams that way. They've always cared most about body of work, and USC's body of work was by far the worst I can ever recall for an at-large team (see here for more on that). If all we're going to do is care about who the best teams are in March, why not just make the non-conference games unofficial scrimmages. How is it not held against USC that they lost to TCU, Bradley and Rider before Jio Fontan became eligible, not to mention a loss to Oregon State and a couple of losses to Oregon after that. But looking toward next year, the fact that USC was playing so well down the stretch does matter. From the starting lineup, though, Alex Stephenson, Donte Smith and Marcus Simmons graduate, and Nikola Vucevic is going pro. Vucevic is actually the toughest loss because he improved dramatically and was the best player on the team in 2010-11 (17.1 ppg, 53.9 eFG%, 10.3 rpg). They also lost Bryce Jones midyear to transfer. Jio Fontan will be back, as will Maurice Jones, but they will be the only returners that earned more than 11 minutes per game this past season. Garrett Jackson is the only other returner to play meaningful minutes at all. Curtis Washington, Byron Wesley and Alexis Moore are prospects. It's hard to see USC not taking a big step back.

I felt Colorado got robbed of an at-large bid in 2010-11. They finished 8-8 in the Big 12 with wins over Texas, Kansas State (three times) and Missouri. They ended up in the NIT, where they made it to Madison Square Garden and lost there by one to Alabama. Cory Higgins, Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde all graduate, and I think Alec Burks will eventually go pro. That leaves Andre Robinson and Austin Dufault as key frontcourt returners. They also get back Shane Harris-Tunks, who was pretty good in 2009-10 but missed the 2010-11 season with a torn ACL. In the backcourt, Nate Tomlinson is a pretty good returner, as is Shannon Sharpe, though neither is a point guard. Assuming Burks goes pro they'll need a new point guard. The 2011 class has two good ones (Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie) to choose from.

Washington State was a good team, but they went 2-6 in games against Pac-10 opponents where the margin of victory was five points or less or in overtime, and they weren't good enough to overcome that. Their big offseason worry, though, is Klay Thompson. Washington State had zero seniors on the roster, but Thompson is their two time first team All Pac-10 star (21.6 ppg, 52.5 eFG%, 5.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.6 spg). If Thompson goes then they'll need a point guard. Thompson wasn't a point guard, but they ran their offense through him. Davonte Lacey, a 2011 recruit, could take that spot. They'll also need more perimeter scoring spark, since Faisel Aden, Marcus Capers and Reggie Moore were the only reasonably efficient scorers, with Moore being the only returner that shot over 33% behind the arc. In the paint, they've got a really good player in DeAngelo Casto, and Brock Muton is good too.

California and Stanford are two very young teams. California loses only Markhuri Sanders-Frison to graduation. Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez will both be back, while Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin were both freshmen. Alex Rossi, a shooting guard, had to redshirt the 2010-11 season but should be a big contributor in 2011-12 as well. But so while their offense should be explosive offensively, they were very good offensively this past season, too. It was their awful defense that held them back, and will have to improve during the offseason. Stanford returns every single player from their rotation, led by Jarrett Mann, Jeremy Green and Josh Owens. They had five freshmen that earned 8 minutes per game or more, and have a really good recruit coming in next year in Chasson Randle (Scout: 13 PG, Rivals: 68).

One last team to discuss briefly is Oregon, as Dana Altman took over a really bare cupboard a year ago and has been using the wealth of the program to bring in some big time recruits. They lose Joevan Catron and Jay-R Stonebridge, but their best player (EJ Singler) still has two years of eligibility left. Malcolm Armstrong is a solid point guard as well. Their 2011 recruiting class is led by Jabari Brown (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 22), Brett Kingma (Rivals: 125), Bruce Barron (Scout: 22 PG) and Austin Kuemper (Scout: 16 C).

Here's how I see the first ever Pac-12 season playing out:

1. Arizona - Even assuming Derrick Williams goes pro, this is a young team that Sean Miller has been stocking with talent. They could be a dark horse Final Four contender.
2. UCLA - Assuming Josh Smith comes back, with Reeves Nelson and the Wear twins, this will be the best frontcourt in the conference.
3. Washington State - Even assuming Klay Thompson goes pro, Wazzu returns every other player from their rotation. And this team was unlucky this past season. If we were picking the "37 best" available teams for at-large bids (the logic the Selection Committee used on USC), Wazzu would have deserved one.
4. Washington - This is still going to be a talented team, but the past two seasons have had supremely talented Washington teams that barely even snuck into the NCAA Tournament. Can Lorenzo Romar get more out next year's team than he did this past year's team?
5. California - Replacing Markhuri Sanders-Frison in the paint will be important, but other than UCLA, none of the other top Pac-12 teams will have imposing front lines.
6. Stanford - Coach K's coaching tree has gotten a lot of criticism for failing to have success at major schools - Tommy Amaker and Jeff Capel, for example. But Johnny Dawkins is doing a good job at Stanford and has a rapidly improving team that could even go Dancing in 2012.
7. Oregon - With the amount of money Phil Knight is throwing into the Oregon program, and with a competent coach in Dana Altman, it's only a matter of time before Oregon gets back to the NCAA Tournament. I think they could be back as early as 2013.
8. Utah - The bottom of the Pac-10 struggled this past season, and I don't think that's going to change a lot next year. Utah was exceedingly mediocre in 2010-11, but the fact that they return all five starters should make them a borderline Top 100 team, which should earn them a finish around 8th place in the Pac-12.
9. USC - It's going to be a rebuilding year for Kevin O'Neill. Jio Fontan will only have one more year of eligibility, too.
10. Colorado - They'll jump up the standings if Alec Burks comes back, but I don't think he will. They had a very successful season, but every big win came on the back of either Burks or Cory Higgins, and Higgins will be gone next year as well.
11. Arizona State - This team lost nine straight Pac-10 games at one point this past season, and loses three of their four best players. They're in serious contention for last place.
12. Oregon State - If Craig Robinson isn't on the hot seat, he should be. In three seasons at Oregon State he hasn't finished better than 8-10, and they lose three more starters from this past year's team. He just hasn't been able to get the type of recruits that would allow him to seriously compete in this conference.