Sunday, November 06, 2011

Previewing Friday, November 11th, Part I

Friday, November 11th will be the first official day of the regular season. The only games prior will be the opening round of Coaches vs Cancer, and you can read my previews of those games here.

There are so many good games that are going to happen on Friday that I've actually got to separate it into two posts. Here is Part I:

#1 North Carolina vs Michigan State (7PM, ESPN): This is the "aircraft carrier game". Obviously the idea of playing a game on a carrier is really cool, though I wonder about the execution. We've seen in the NCAA Tournament that the quality of play has really suffered when games are taken out of basketball arenas and played in football domes... an aircraft carrier could be even worse, right? I hope not.

North Carolina is the preseason #1 team in the country, and they're my pick as well. Everybody other than Justin Knox is back from last year's team, including potential National Player of the Year Harrison Barnes. Everybody will have their eyes on Kendall Marshall, whose skill at the point was what caused North Carolina to really turn things on late last season. Roy Williams depends on quality point guard play in his system, and Marshall was just a massive upgrade from Larry Drew III. The two top 2011 recruits are James McAdoo, a combo forward, and shooting guard PJ Hairston.

Michigan State might have been the most disappointing team in the nation last season. They entered the season with Final Four hopes, and ended up barely making the NCAA Tournament. As I talked about in detail, their mid-season collapse was all about their normally stout defense absolutely falling apart. They played good defense early in the season, so it was not a personnel issue - it was some combination of chemistry and mental weakness. Will things improve this new season? I think so. Despite losing Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Delvon Roe, I still have them safely in the NCAA Tournament with an 8 seed.

Who's the key player for Michigan State this season? In my opinion it's not a returner or a recruit, but a transfer: Brandon Wood. Sparty, even with the loss of Delvon Roe, is going to be strong in the frontcourt with Draymond Green, Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne, Russell Byrd and star recruit Brandon Dawson, among others. But the backcourt? They've been so dependent on Kalin Lucas to create offense the past few years, and he will be gone. The only returner with any real experience is Keith Appling, who I like as a player, but who is certainly no Kalin Lucas. There are no other backcourt returners that played significant minutes last season, while 2011 recruits Brandon Kearney and Travis Trice are not expected to be immediate big time producers. But Brandon Wood? He was a star at Valparaiso last season, putting up 16.7 points and 3.1 assists per game with a 53.1 eFG%. He might end up being Michigan State's #1 scoring option this year. He's definitely the player to watch here.

Columbia at #4 UConn (7PM, ESPNU): UConn's National Title defense begins here. Obviously they're going to win this game, but it's our first chance to view a roster with massive turnover in a competitive environment. The most important returner is, in my opinion, Jeremy Lamb. I had thought that Kemba Walker's spot as team playmaker would be filled by Shabazz Napier, a player who reminds me so much of him in his energy and demeanor (though Napier can be dreadfully inconsistent at times), but over the summer I was really impressed with what Jeremy Lamb did at the U-19 World Championships. Lamb could be in contention for Big East Player of the Year, honestly. The third key returner for UConn is Alex Oriakhi, who was the team's best rebounder last season.

Jim Calhoun has three bluechip recruits coming in, led by Andre Drummond, who could end up being the best freshman in the nation. Along with Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, UConn is going to be a force in the paint. The other two bluechippers are slashing forward DeAndre Daniels and point guard Ryan Boatright. Unfortunately, the Huskies will not be playing a quality opponent until they head to the Bahamas the week of Thanksgiving, so games like this will be all we get for a few weeks. For Columbia, this game will be a learning experience. They're still fairly young, and are only in Year Two of the Kyle Smith era. They obviously will not be able to contend with Harvard atop the Ivy League, and I don't see them challenging Princeton or Penn for second or third place either, but things are looking up for that program.

Rhode Island at George Mason (7:30 PM): This is an intriguing game between two mid-major teams looking to get off to a good start. George Mason is moving into the post-Jim Larranaga era, and while they've clearly downgraded at head coach, Larranaga left the cupboards stocked with a really good team returning. I was going to put George Mason in the Top 25 preseason, and even with the offseason changes I've still got them as the favorites in the Colonial, and as a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

There are two big changes to George Mason's roster from last season, not including the graduation of star Cam Long. They lost Luke Hancock via transfer to Louisville. Meanwhile, they gained star recruit Erik Copes, who is the nephew of Roland Houston, who had originally signed him to come to George Washington. But when the Karl Hobbs era ended at GW, Houston jumped to Paul Hewitt's staff at George Mason, and took Copes with him.

Rhode Island had a really disappointing season last year, and they lose three starters to graduation, but Jim Baron has a slew of quality newcomers ready to suit up. That said, their two big transfers (Andre Malone and Billy Baron) will both have to wait until the spring semester to be eligible, and will not be playing in this game. Their two top recruits will likely be Jonathan Holton and Dominique McKoy. While I will expect George Mason to be pretty solid favorites for this game, I wouldn't be shocked to see Rhode Island come out with the win. They can take care of the ball, they always play solid defense under Jim Baron, and they have the athletic talent to stay with George Mason.

Towson at #13 Kansas (8PM, ESPN3): Kansas will win this game, of course. But this will be the first chance to see a Kansas roster that has undergone massive change, and which has all sorts of question marks. The Morris Twins, Josh Selby, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Mario Little are all gone. Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson are back, but were both suspended for the entire preseason for bad behavior (this isn't the first time for Taylor), bringing up questions about leadership on this team, even assuming both players are on the floor for the season opener.

Thomas Robinson will likely be expected to take a leadership role this season, and could be the team's best player. Jeff Withey, a 7-footer who was a fairly big time Arizona recruit in 2008 but who hasn't played much since transferring to Kansas, is likely going to be expected to play a much larger role. The top 2011 recruit appears to be Naadir Tharpe, who will likely begin the season as the starting point guard. The top of the Big 12 is absolutely wide open this year, and Kansas is a big reason why. They have tremendous talent, but are a huge question mark at this point. It will be very interesting to see how this new lineup looks in action.

As for Towson, they went 0-18 in Colonial Athletic Assocation play last season. In fact, I'm fairly certain that approximately 1% of college basketball fans even are aware that Towson is in the same conference as VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion. They're more likely to be improved this coming season than not, but they should still provide very light resistance to whatever lineup Bill Self goes with.

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