The Next Race
Previewing college’s Top 10 for ’09-10.
If any of you are like me, CBS’s “One Shining Moment” is typically about as bittersweet as it gets. Bitter because the college basketball season has concluded and begins its seven-month hibernation, and sweet due to the afterglow of another National Championship game. This year unfortunately ended with a rather mundane final game. Not to take anything away from UNC, but given last year’s overtime classic between Kansas and Memphis, the relatively easy contest for Tyler Hansbrough and Co. left a bit to be desired.
Still, don’t despair, because it’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Previewing the top teams for the next season is never an exact science, far from it. It’s impossible to predict how good incoming freshman will be and even harder sometimes to foresee which players will be departing early for the riches of the League. With all of that said, here is a look at the teams that should find their names near the top of the polls when the ‘09-10 campaign gets underway.
The Jayhawks exceeded expectations this year, winning the Big 12 regular season and advancing to the Sweet 16. They also appear to be in line to return more talent than any other team in the country next year.
It all starts with point guard Sherron Collins and big man Cole Aldrich, both who appear to be leaning toward returning to Lawrence for another year. Collins emerged as an All-American (third team) in his first year of being a go-to option offensively. After playing behind Mario Chalmers for two seasons, the Chicago-bred floor general became a scoring force who is just as adept at distributing the basketball. Aldrich probably has more to gain by leaving school early; in what is considered a weak draft, the sophomore center would be a likely lottery selection. With his return, the Kansas frontcourt will be extremely well stocked due to twins Marcus and Markieff Morris. Former New Jersey prep star Quintrell Thomas will also be a solid rotational player in his second year.
Underclassmen Tyshawn Taylor and Brady Morningstar are a pair of backcourt dynamos who should see their scoring numbers improve next season, particularly Taylor who showed a lot of promise as a rookie. Bill Self’s latest recruiting crop is already solid with five-star commits Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson, but winning the Xavier Henry sweepstakes would give the Jayhawks one of the top groups in the country. As it stands, the 6-8 Robinson will bring athleticism and a knack for rebounding the basketball, while the two-guard Johnson does an excellent job of creating shots off the dribble.
2. Michigan State
The state of Michigan, despite watching the Spartans fall on Monday night, can take solace in the fact that the kids in green will be one of the favorites to collect hardware in Indianapolis next year. Goran Suton and Travis Walton will be the only significant losses from this year’s national runner up, with the returning youngsters looking more than capable of filling the void.
Big Ten POY Kalin Lucas had a few inconsistent stretches during the regular season, but with another year under his belt will be a name popping up all over preseason All-American lists. The return of Raymar Morgan gives Tom Izzo a big, athletic, scoring forward who has shown flashes of being able to take over a game. The real key, though, will be Delvon Roe. As a freshman, Roe had a slow start and modest numbers due to the pair of knee surgeries he had in the last 18 months. With time to rest and recuperate in the off season though, the 6-8 Ohio native should return to the physical peak that made him one of the top recruits in the Midwest last year. Sophomore guards Durrell Summers and Chris Allen will be great running mates for Lucas in the backcourt and both are capable of being double-digit scorers next season.
The Spartans will have some young options to fill the hole in the middle left by the graduating Suton, as Tom Izzo has received verbals from a pair of four-star big men. Detroit’s Derrick Nix is a massive 6-9, 275-pound center with great hands and a very soft touch around the rim. Even with the rook taking some time to adjust to the college game, his frame will draw attention and create space in the middle. Ohio prospect Garrick Sherman is a bit taller and longer than Nix, but also is a good finisher around the rim. He’ll need to get stronger in his upper body in order to handle the rigors of the Big Ten though.
3. North Carolina
This one might be a bit of a reach given that Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green will all be in the NBA next year. If Wayne Ellington decides to come back for one more go around (and I have a hunch he might), Carolina will have enough returning firepower and incoming talent to make another deep run in March.
If there was any doubt as to whether or not Ellington is capable of being a top scoring option, this year’s NCAA Tournament should have silenced the critics. The Final Four’s MOP averaged nearly 20 ppg and absolutely torched the nets, going 8-10 from beyond the arc versus ‘Nova and Michigan State. Deon Thompson and Ed Davis will anchor things inside with Tyler Zeller rotating in as well. Thompson proved he could handle things inside early this season when Hansbrough was benched with an injury, while Davis if he continues to progress will be a sure fire top-five pick in 2010. Larry Drew II will get his shot to run the show at the point and despite the lack of experience he has, the talent surrounding him will take some of the pressure off the youngster. Most importantly though, Marcus Ginyard, the Heels top on ball defender and a senior leader will be back after redshirting this year.
UNC will once again have a loaded freshman class next season with four McDonald’s All-Americans arriving in Chapel Hill this fall. Power forward John Henson is the gem of this group, able to run the floor well, face up with the ball and will join Davis as a shot blocking menace. The Wear twins out of power Mater Dei High School can go inside and outside with their 6-9 frames and have advanced skill sets for their stage in development. The backcourt will get some help as well with the arrivals of Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland. The 6-3 Strickland is one of the top guards in his class, possessing a very smooth game and having proven to be a big time scorer at the prep level.
The Wildcats may have been a bit of a surprise in the Final Four this year, but no one should be shocked to see Philadelphia’s finest back there next season. Leading scorer and rebounder Dante Cunningham will be lost to graduation (after a fantastic senior year) and swingmen Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark are off to life after college as well. Everyone else is back though, which means a loaded backcourt and a chance to take home a Big East crown.
Scottie Reynolds will anchor a backcourt that includes slasher Corey Fischer and sharpshooting Corey Stokes. Reynolds will be one of the top returning scorers in the conference and though his shooting numbers took a dip toward the end of the regular season and the postseason, he will be a nightly threat to go off for a big game. Fischer and Stokes can expect to have the ball in their hands a lot as well. Fischer is another dribble drive threat that Jay Wright will have on the floor and he can serve as a point guard as well when Reynolds moves off the ball. Both will be looking to drive and kick to Stokes who at 6-5 will be able to elevate and shoot over a lot of defenders and always has the green light to do so after hitting a scintillating 41.6 percent of his three point attempts last season.
What really makes ‘Nova such an intriguing team for next season is the stellar recruiting class Wright was able to sign. All four players are ranked in the top 50 nationally, including St. Anthony product Dominic Cheek who netted 15 points in the McDonald’s All-American game and took home MVP honors at last Augusts Elite 24. He’ll need to get stronger before he can become a major scoring threat in the lane, but as a freshman, Cheek has the range to do some serious perimeter damage right away. Perhaps the most important signing though was that of Montrose Christian big man Mouphtauo Yarou, giving the Wildcats their first significant interior presence in several years. At 6-9, 235 pounds, Yarou will have the frame to bang in the Big East right away; his workhorse mentality on the glass will be a much welcome addition. High school teammate Isaiah Armwood will also be joining the ‘Nova frontcourt and Philadelphia point guard Maalik Wayns is the true point guard that Jay Wright was lacking last season.
It wasn’t a secret that UConn had pretty good depth last season and while it didn’t help them bring home a championship this season, it’ll keep them in the national spotlight next year. The key will be whether or not certain players will be able to step up and fill the holes left in the offense and on the glass by the departure of A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet.
Jerome Dyson will be looked upon to carry a bulk of the scoring load despite missing about a third of last season due to injury. The soon to be senior can hurt teams from the outside and getting to the basket, while also doing an excellent job on the class for a guard his size. Lightning quick freshman Kemba Walker will be the full-time point guard next year and showed that he is capable of handling the added responsibility (see 23 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in Elite Eight). The New York product will almost assuredly be one of the fastest players in the country with a basketball in his hands and is going to be a tough match up for any defender over the course of an entire game. The real X-factor is going to be super athletic forward Stanley Robinson. At 6-9 with a huge wingspan and an ever-impressive vertical, Robinson is a tough assignment for any defender given his versatility on the offensive end. If he regains his perimeter shooting ability that mysteriously abandoned him last season, he could be looking at an all-conference season.
The question marks will all be focused on the frontcourt next season. Thabeet and Adrien were the only teammates in the country last season to each average a double-double in points and rebounds. Jim Calhoun would be foolish to think that he can replace that in one season; he will have some solid replacements though. Freshman Gavin Edwards (6-9, 235) played well in limited minutes and proved he can step up when needed, recording a double-double in an early season win over Gonzaga after Thabeet got into foul trouble. Joining him inside right away will be McDonald’s All-American Alex Oriakhi, a rock solid center out of New Hampshire. The 6-8 big man is exceptionally tough, (ala Jeff Adrien) has a developing post game and should be an impact defender immediately. High school teammate Jamal Coombs-McDaniel will add another solid rotational body to the backcourt and Chicago guard Darius Smith should be able to spell Dyson for short periods.
Gerald Henderson hasn’t declared for the NBA Draft yet, but he will. Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism in Krzyzewskiville next season. After a fantastic sophomore season, Kyle Singler will be the top scoring option for the Blue Devils and as he continues to get stronger, he will become more effective as a scorer attacking the rim. Depending on who does and doesn’t come back in the ACC next season, Singler could be an early favorite to garner conference POY honors.
Jon Scheyer had a solid season; averaging a career high 14.9 ppg but seeing his shooting numbers take a slight dip with an increased number of shots. Expect his senior campaign to resemble his sophomore year, with fewer shots and a better percentage as freshman Elliot Williams will likely command more field goal attempts with increased playing time. The former high school All-American saw limited minutes early on until he was thrust into the starting lineup towards the end of the regular season. Williams didn’t disappoint, reaching double figure scoring in five games and taking home ACC Rookie of the Week honors once. He still has a ways to go in his development, but his above average athleticism will help make that process a smoother one. Nolan Smith proved to be a better fit at the point than Greg Paulus thanks to his ability to penetrate. His assist numbers were a bit low, but on a team that passes so well, that is almost always going to be the case.
What has been the biggest issue for Coach K for the last several years in Durham? Post play. While the Dukies aren’t getting any true post up threats next season, they will welcome in a pair of blue chip big men. Ryan Kelly has a very smooth perimeter shot and is super versatile for a player standing 6-10. Don’t expect him to be a major presence in the paint as the rook will have to hit the weights hard in order to become more of an inside threat. Joining him will be athletic (check out the McDonald’s dunk contest) forward Mason Plumlee. The North Carolina native is another versatile big man, standing 6-11 and showing tremendous comfort when facing the basket on the offensive end. His presence on the glass will be an important factor for Duke next season.
7. West Virginia
The Mountaineers had a solid year, but after losing senior Alex Ruoff they may surprise a lot of people when they actually do better next season. Bob Huggins has an excellent combination of upperclassmen star power combined with young talent returning to Morgantown next year for what could be a run a deep run into March.
Da’Sean Butler (6-7) returns as one of the top scorers and toughest match ups in the Big East next season. The versatile forward stepped up his overall scoring numbers and became a bigger threat from beyond the arc as well. His length has allowed him to not only become a strong rebounder for a wing player, but to create problems as a defender as well. The key to West Virginia’s success next season though will be the development of a trio of freshman. Super long and super athletic forward Devin Ebanks recorded nine double-doubles last season and led the team in rebounding, while giving fans a glimpse of the upside that will make him first round selection one day. Adding some muscle to his spindly 205-pound frame could make Ebanks an all-conference performer in his second year with the program.
Darryl Bryant and Kevin Jones, a pair of New York talents, also showed a lot of promise in the rookie seasons. Bryant will almost certainly be a double figure scorer next season and provides the team with another perimeter shooting threat. With the increased playing time he will see on the floor though he needs to do a better job of distributing the basketball and will have to become a more consistent offensive performer. Despite a strong start to the season, Bryant tailed off late in the conference schedule. Jones, a ball of energy wrapped in a 6-8 230 pound frame, showed loads of promise at the end of this season including a 19-point, 9-rebound showing against Louisville. He got a majority of his points by doing dirty work inside but his length and athleticism will make him a nice partner on the glass for Ebanks. Incoming big man Dan Jennings (6-9, 240) will provide some bulk inside that will help in a rugged Big East.
It was an underachieving year in Austin, but the Longhorns return enough talent (including a top flight recruiting class) that should have fans of the burnt orange cheering on their team to a postseason run. Leading scorer A.J. Abrams is gone but swingman Damion James looks primed for a huge senior season. The super long athlete just missed out on a second straight year of double-double averages, but improved on his scoring and shooting percentage. Perhaps the biggest testament to his development as a player was that he played his best basketball during the Big 12 schedule, recording nine double-doubles against conference foes alone. Massive big man Dexter Pittman’s return will ensure that few teams will be able to stop Texas from controlling the boards.
Gary Johnson and Justin Mason did an adequate job in the backcourt with Mason proving to be a solid distributor with the basketball. With a fair amount of youth joining him at the guard position next year, Rick Barnes will need the senior to be a steady hand once again. What really makes Texas an intriguing team to watch next season is the signing of two of the nation’s top backcourt prospects in Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton. Bradley is a super quick, super athletic guard with a phenomenal mid-range game for a player at his level and hops to boot. What is really going to make him an impact player right away though is his tremendous on ball defense and quick hands; opposing guards will not be happy to see the Findlay Prep product staring across at them come November. Hamilton, who sat out this season due to academic issues, will bring instant offense with his arrival. At 6-7 he will be a tough match up in the backcourt and he possesses a great offensive repertoire already. Throw in Texas native Shawn Williams, and this is a freshman class capable of helping give UT the added push they need in March.
The high expectations for the Boilermakers may have come a year too early, but it’s a safe bet the black and gold will make a stronger push to take home a Big Ten crown next season. Purdue returns its top four scorers including the stellar trio of E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel. Moore should emerge as an even bigger name in the conference this year, as he already is one of the better all-around players. His perimeter shooting numbers took a bit of a hit from his freshman year, but he continued to overachieve on the glass and distribute the ball well.
Hummel and Johnson could emerge as one of the best frontcourt duos in the country next year, as the combine versatility with athleticism to create a devastating combo. Johnson is certainly the most intriguing player on the roster, posting 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in just under 27 minutes per game. The 6-10 sophomore has excellent length and proved to be a defensive force thanks to his excellent anticipation and timing around the rim. It’s a safe bet NBA scouts will be making their way to see Johnson during the course of the year. Hummel lacks the kind of athleticism that Johnson brings, but he offers more toughness on the glass and versatility. The Indiana native was a consistent threat from the perimeter but played his best basketball in November and December. Purdue will absolutely need Hummel to extend that same kind of play through the new year. There aren’t a whole lot of expectations out of the freshman class next year, but forwards Jeff Robinson and D.J. Byrd will highlight the group.
The Huskies were back this season, and the loss of Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon won’t prevent them from rising to the top of the Pac-10 again next year. Freshman Isaiah Thomas emerged as one of the top players in his class after arriving on campus as an unheralded recruit. The pint-sized guard proved to be a big time scorer and will command plenty of attention from opposing defenses next season, which will free things up for fellow backcourt mate Quincy Pondexter. After two years of failing to live up to expectations, the 6-6 forward finally put things together to post career high numbers across the board as a junior. In Pondexter, Washington has an efficient scorer who hits the boards hard, but most importantly will provide senior leadership on what will be a young team.
English import Matthew Bryan-Amaning showed some promise in limited minutes as a sophomore, but the big man will need to really step up his play in order to help cope with the loss of Brockman inside. Bryan-Manning will get some help inside from junior college transfer Charles Garcia and incoming freshman Clarence Trent. Garcia a 6-10, long power forward from San Francisco will give the Huskies some additional size, while Trent will bring a shorter, but thicker frame to bang on the boards. The class of this incoming group though will be All-American Abdul Gaddy. The local product is one of the top point guards in the class of 2009, possessing excellent floor vision and passing abilities. He isn’t a tremendous scorer yet, but that should be just fine with the rest of his teammates who should benefit from Gaddy’s presence right away.
Next in Line: Gonzaga, UCLA, Butler, Oklahoma, Missouri