College Preseason Top 25: Nos. 15-11
A look at teams 15-11.
We’ve reached the top 15 in SLAM’s preseason rankings leading up to the start of the college basketball season. In this group of five the diversity in conferences represented is almost as vast as the style of hoops these squads trot out onto the floor. The success of teams 15 to 11 will come down to the steep learning curve of a slew of talented newcomers and the leadership of returning veterans. A couple of these teams likely don’t have what it takes to make a deep run into March, but certainly are built for regular season success. It’s five more teams down and the top ten is fast approaching.
15. Mississippi State
Things may not be looking particularly bright in Starkville for the upcoming football season but fans of the Bulldogs have plenty of reason to be anticipating basketball in the south. With a very strong recruiting class joining a roster that returns every vital part of last season’s SEC Champion, Mississippi State is primed for its best year on the hardwood since the ’03-04 squad that featured Lawrence Roberts and finished as the regular season conference champs with a 26-4 record.
For Rick Stansbury’s squad it all begins with the return of center Jarvis Varnado who was flirting with the idea of the NBA before deciding to come back for his senior season. The 6-9 shot blocking machine had already established himself as one of the elite defenders in the country by the end of his sophomore year, but last season the Tennessee native began to show off a blossoming offensive game as well, a fact that no doubt can land him in the first round of the 2010 draft. Varnado started to get more comfortable scoring with his back to the basket, though he still almost always turns to his left shoulder regardless of where he catches the ball. He does a great job of hitting the offensive glass and has improved his ability as a finisher off of pick and roll situations as well. The good news for the senior though is that he won’t have to carry the scoring load in the frontcourt this situation this season thanks to the addition of two talented youngsters. Renardo Sidney has yet to be completely cleared by the NCAA at this point, but if he is, MSU may feature the most athletic frontcourt in the SEC, besting even Kentucky. Sidney is a mountain of a player at 6-11 and 255 pounds, but is a surprisingly good athlete, capable of dominating right away as a freshman. What could make him such a great pairing with Varnado, is while the senior is still somewhat limited in his offensive abilities, Sidney can face up, beat defenders off the dribble, operate in the post and even step away for the mid-range jumper. Adding another piece to the interior presence for the Bulldogs will be Sudanese native John Riek, a 7-2 enigma who somewhat fell off the radar after being talked about as an NBA prospect two years ago. Riek is a defensive presence thanks to his freakish length which is reportedly in the ballpark of eight feet long, but there are many questions about his conditioning and concerns about his recovery from a knee injury suffered a couple of years back. If he reaches his potential though, we’re looking at a very solid post presence at the college level. Forwards Kodi Augustus, Romero Osby and Elgin Bailey are all big frames that can also rotate through and provide quality minutes off the bench as they did last year. Osby in particular can be a nice factor as he will step out on occasion and put up shots from the perimeter, making him a possible match up problem.
The backcourt will return more than its share of talented contributors starting with guard Barry Stewart and swingman Ravern Johnson. The 6-3 Stewart was a fairly consistent scorer during the season, particularly in the last month of the year where he hit the 20-point mark three times, including a 21-point showing against South Carolina in the SEC Tournament. He took the majority of his shots in spot up situations, connecting on a respectable 36.5 percent of three-point attempts, but was actually at his best in isolation situations where he can put the ball on the floor. Stewart proved to be an excellent shooter off the dribble, finishing a high percentage of these shots. Johnson looks like he could be the x-factor in the backcourt though after emerging as the team’s third leading scorer as a sophomore. The 6-7 wing is a very good perimeter shooter, hitting nearly 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, and he creates matchup issues with his size. Like Stewart, Johnson excels when he can isolate and put the ball on the floor and create on the move. His point totals may stagnate this season due to the influx of scoring big men, but Johnson is going to be a major offensive weapon. Dee Bost emerged as a very nice surprise during his freshman year, proving to be the top playmaker for the Bulldogs right off the bat. He isn’t going to light teams up on a regular basis, though he can go off from time to time, like the back-to-back 25 and 20-point games he hung on Arkansas and LSU in February. Bost will be the driving force of the offense though, able to penetrate and kick to open teammates without turning the ball over too many times. For a freshman guard in a major conference to have an assist-to-turnover ratio of greater than 1.5 when he sees over 30 minutes per game is nothing to laugh at. Junior Phil Turner is back as well, after proving to be a pretty good perimeter shooter and an above average rebounder for a guard last season, hauling in more than five boards per game. The backcourt gets a boost from incoming two-guard Shaunessy Smith as well, an All-State selection in Mississippi who is a big time scorer with an advanced offensive arsenal for a player his age.
The SEC will bounce back this season after suffering somewhat of a downswing in 2009; expect Mississippi State to play a major factor in that resurgence. With LSU having lost some major players from last season, particularly Marcus Thornton, it looks like a clear path for the Bulldogs to take home the SEC West this year.
I know what you’re thinking; Duke ranked this high, he’s out of his mind. They don’t have a true big man or a depth in the backcourt. John Scheyer whines too much and Coach K is more focused on running Team USA. This is the year the Blue Devils finally come crashing down to Earth. Before you make snap judgments though, at least hear me out, who knows, I might change your mind.
In the backcourt the loss of Gerald Henderson to the NBA absolutely hurts, as does the transfer of potential stud Elliot Williams. Still, there is enough talent returning on the perimeter to ensure that the Dukies can hang with anyone in the ACC (accept maybe Carolina) when it comes to offensive options on the wing. Everyone is quick to point out that the Blue Devils don’t have a true point guard in John Scheyer, but people seem to forget the fact that Nolan Smith spent a good amount of time running the offense when Greg Paulus was demoted to the bench. Is the junior going to blow anyone away with his ability to score and distribute the basketball? In all likelihood, no, but his job is going to be to run the offense and not turn the ball over, something he was able to do last season. Duke has enough quality passers and plays strong enough team basketball that they don’t need five or six assists from the point guard spot every night. Scheyer, as much grief as he receives for being a Duke cry baby on the floor, he is an intelligent scorer who knows how to get the most out of his abilities. The shooting numbers may not necessarily reflect it, but the senior is an above average scorer in nearly every offensive scenario and is flat out deadly when he can spot up. He isn’t a tremendous athlete but boy is he crafty, able to break defenders down with an advanced skill set and he knows how to get to the line, attempting nearly six free throws per game. If six games of 20+ against ACC opponents, including 30 against Wake Forest, don’t say that Scheyer is ready to emerge as an elite scorer this year, nothing will. Then there is Kyle Singler, by no means the best pro prospect in the conference, but certainly the most well rounded and developed. His scoring and rebounding numbers increased and he significantly improved as a perimeter shooter during his sophomore season. With Henderson gone and depending on how many touches the freshman get this season, it isn’t out of the question for the 6-9 combo forward to finish with averages in the ballpark of 20 and 10. Because he has the reputation of being a finesse player at his size, Singler often gets underrated by a lot of college hoops fanatics, but the kid is going to be an All-ACC performer again and could emerge as the best all-around player in the conference.
In the frontcourt, both Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas will return to give the Blue Devils experience inside. Neither has been, or will be a major contributor and by the end of the season, it is very likely that neither will be starting due to the incoming freshman class, but if nothing else they provide bodies to take up space and minutes off the bench. No one is going to mistake either for all-conference performers, but Thomas has the athleticism and Zoubek the size to crash the class and get garbage points inside. The real key for Duke’s frontcourt will rest with a pair of freshman who in all likelihood, will operate away from the paint more often than they will be crashing near the rim. Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans who can start being factors on the floor from day one, particularly Plumlee, who could be starting right away based on reports coming from summer workouts in Durham. The Christ School product is an excellent athlete for a player sporting a 6-11 frame. He can consistently take other big men off the dribble, operates on the perimeter regularly and has the range to knock down shots consistently from beyond the arc. Kelly is less of an athlete, but more of a shooting threat who will spot up on the outside and has the stroke to do a lot of damage to opposing defenses. Neither player is physically ready to bang in the post on a regular basis in the ACC, they will have to bulk up in the weight room. Still, with those two, plus Single, Duke will be able to trot out a trio of players who can create some favorable mismatches on the offensive end.
Duke is going to have an overwhelming number of doubters this season; people will be focusing on what the Blue Devils don’t have rather than what they do have. Coach K is one of the best coaches in college basketball, it’s hard to argue otherwise even if you don’t like the guy. What this team is built for is the regular season, much like previous Duke teams. The Dukies always manage to win in the ballpark of 25 games during the regular season and get a seed in the Tournament that maybe they don’t deserve, but hey, they’ve got the name. Will this team make a deep run into March? No, but they will have an overachieving regular season that lands them a national ranking.
With Gonzaga likely taking a step back this season given the tremendous amount of talent they loss, ladies and gentlemen, meet your mid-major powerhouse for the ’09-10 season. Butler certainly isn’t a stranger to the masses, having made the NCAA Tournament six times this decade, including a pair of trips to the Sweet 16. This year has the chance to be a special one for the Indiana based school though, as they return perhaps their most talented crop of players the school has seen in a very long time.
The Bulldogs won’t have a ton of size in their frontcourt, but they will have talent, mainly in the form of junior Matt Howard, a gritty power forward who has been a major player in his two years at the college level already. At 6-8 and packing 230 pounds, the in-state product has the strength and toughness to hang with elite big men, and has already proven to be up to the challenge in the past. Ohio State and Xavier both add double-doubles hung on them by Howard and LSU got 22 and 8 from the big man in the NCAA Tournament. It’s no surprise that nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts come either in the post or as a result of his hustle on the offensive glass, but what separates him is the high percentage of these shots the he is able to finish. This is a very skilled post man, able to turn to either shoulder and execute a variety of moves including the baby hook, drop step, up and under and a short turnaround jumper. Forwards Avery Jukes and Garrett Butcher didn’t see major minutes or put up big numbers, but any additional help they can provide in the paint will be a help against some of the bigger teams Butler will run into.
This team’s strength absolutely lies with its slew of talented perimeter players. For starters, there is swingman Gordon Hayward who as a freshman showed enough potential to already label him as one of the top pro prospects outside of the major conferences. At 6-8 and possessing an extremely polished all-around game, Hayward is a deadly three-point shooter, connecting on 45 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc last season. This is nothing to laugh at considering the youngster put up five attempts per game from this range. The Brownsburg native has the ability to spot up and light it up, or beat teams with a fantastic pull up jumper. Making things ever more impressive was the fact that Hayward ranked as one of the top players in true shooting percentage in the country. Boosting his reputation even more was a strong showing with the USA Junior National Team during this past summer in which he averaged ten points in just 20 minutes of playing time, good for third on the team. Backcourt mate Shelvin Mack made the cut for the USA team as well during the summer after a freshman year that provided equally as much intrigue as Haywards did. The well built 6-3 guard was a contributor in nearly every facet of the game last season, posting averages of 11 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and better than one steal per game. He was inconsistent offensively and isn’t the most efficient shooter at this point in his development, but he did have a handful of big games, including an 18 and 8 contest against LSU in March. He gets the majority of his touches in transition and in spot up situations, although he generally only attacks the rim in transition situations, something he still struggles with a bit. The trio of Willie Veasley, Zach Hahn and Ronald Noren all chipped in points last season – particularly Veasley who was the team’s fourth scoring option – but will need to step up their production a bit more this season. Hahn could be a real nice drive and kick option for Mack, after connecting on over 40 percent of his three-point attempts last season, taking nearly as many shots from beyond the arc as he did from the rest of the floor.
Butler’s record will certainly be aided by playing in the Horizon League, which while not a bad conference, certainly will struggle to keep up with the Bulldogs on a nightly basis though. Make no mistake about it, this team has the right combination of experience, star power and role players to finish fairly high in the national rankings come the end of the regular season and to make a serious run in March.
It’s been an up and down decade for the Golden Bears; a couple of top-three finishes in the Pac-10 and a few seasons in the basement that they’d rather forget about. This season will likely fall into that first category, with seemingly every important piece of the puzzle returning to Berkeley for another season of action. Cal has the most explosive backcourt duo in the conference, and one of the best in the country, returning in Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher and a very strong supporting cast that will give this team more than enough firepower to make a run at a conference championship.
Randle and Christopher combined to average over 32 ppg last season and very little should change for those two in 2010. The 5-10 Randle is a super fast, athletic scoring machine who can score in seemingly any situation. To begin with, he is one of the deadliest perimeter shooters in the country, connecting on over 46 percent of his three-point attempts last season; this one more than five attempts per game. The Windy City native gets the bulk of his shots in transition and pick and roll situations thanks to his excellent handles and quickness. When in the break he really gets out with the basketball and attacks the rim where he is a good finisher in traffic, whereas in spot up situations he converts to primarily a catch and shoot player. Just as an added bonus, Randle is almost as good of a playmaker as he is a scorer, dishing out five assists per game and posting nearly a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Christopher is an above average athlete with still developing skills as a two-guard, but will be one of the top perimeter players in the conference this season. He is a crafty player who can score in a variety of ways, relying on his ball fakes and mid-range game to get his points. Christopher isn’t a consistent perimeter threat , but he did improve his percentages from this spot on the floor, as well as his numbers at the free throw line. His scoring numbers took a dip with the emergence of Randle last year, but these two will play off of each other to once again be a nightmare for opposing defenses. As if that pair of guards wasn’t enough to make Cal a dangerous perimeter team, they also welcome back sharpshooting forward Theo Robertson, a 6-6 in-state product who improved nearly every facet of his game during his junior season. The small forward proved to be the perfect complement to Christopher and Randle, two players who can get to the basket, as Robertson gets over one-third of his shot attempts as a spot up player, connecting on a ridiculous 48.7 percent of his shot attempts from beyond the arc. What makes Robertson so tough is despite how good of a perimeter shooter he is, when in isolation situations he has proven to be a very good scorer when he puts the ball on floor, finishing a high percentage of his shots when he gets to the basket. Returning sophomore Jorge Gutierrez showed flashes of ability in a fair amount of playing time last year, particularly on the glass where he rebounds well for a perimeter player. Cal has plenty of firepower returning to the backcourt, but will have one newcomer to the rotation, incoming freshman Brandon Smith, a local point guard with a strong feel for the game.
The Bears have had a recent history of talented big men, producing Leon Powe and DeVon Hardin in recent years, and while they won’t have that caliber of frontcourt talent, there will be enough to get the job done on a guard-heavy team. Jamal Boykin will anchor the interior with his 6-8 frame, coming off a junior season in which he was fourth on the squad in scoring and tops in rebounding, the Los Angeles native will need another solid season. Boykin had some impressive games during the conference schedule, posting double-doubles against USC and Stanford, but is still a work in progress offensively. He runs the floor very well and does a decent job of scoring with his back to the basket, but gets the majority of his points on dump offs from teammates who attack the rim. Seven-footer Jordan Wilkes doesn’t have eye popping numbers, and he generally doesn’t see more than half of the game on the floor, but if his big body can take up space and rebound, that will be enough for him to be effective. Harper Kamp, a wide body from Arizona is in the same position where if he can hustle and produce in little flashes during his time on the floor, Cal will perform well enough inside. The Bears add two more frontcourt players in freshman Bak Bak, a 6-8 versatile power forward , and Markuri Sanders-Frison a stocky junior college transfer who will add more bulk down low.
Even though it was an early exit from the postseason for the Golden Bears last season, don’t expect that to be the case again this season. Cal will be able to go toe-to-toe with most teams in the country in terms of backcourt scoring and even though they don’t have a huge interior presence, they have the size and bodies to hold down the fort inside while the perimeter game handles the majority of the offense.
Villanova may be getting all of the preseason love to finish as top dog in the Big East this year, but sleeping on the Huskies would be a mistake. Sure, Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien are all gone, but UConn returns plenty of talent and welcomes in even more, with one of the top recruiting classes in the conference. Factor in a great coach in Jim Calhoun and it’ll be another strong season in Stoors.
As is the case year after year, Connecticut will be stacked in the frontcourt, with yet another formidable line of big men that will be a focal point defensively. Senior power forward Stanley Robinson is a freak athlete who should step into a starring role with the team this season after really coming on during the NCAA Tournament last year. His entire offensive game at this point is still built mainly around his size, length and explosiveness, as he needs to improve all facets of his skill set. Defensively he is an absolute stud though, able to completely change the game thanks to his leaping ability and timing. Just based on physical ability alone, there is no reason to think that Robinson can’t emerge as an all-conference performer in 2010. The arrival of two highly touted big men to the program will help ensure that Robinson isn’t left to handle the entire interior load alone. Ater Majok will suit up this season and with his 6-10 frame and great athleticism has the potential to be a game changer in college after contemplating the NBA. The Australian import is the definition of upside and will likely be the biggest wild card on the team this year. Also arriving next season will be McDonald’s All-American Alex Oriakhi, a 6-8 225-pound center out of New Hampshire. He is an absolute workhorse inside, hauling in rebounds at a high rate and overpowering defenders in the post. He’ll be an immediate impact on the defensive end as well thanks to his advanced understanding of the game and great instincts. These three rotating inside will once again put the Huskies atop the Big East when it comes to their frontcourt.
When things aren’t working inside – which frankly won’t be often – Connecticut will have plenty of speed and athleticism on the perimeter to ensure their offense runs like a well oiled machine. As a freshman playing second fiddle to Price, point guard Kemba Walker emerged as a dynamic playmaker with loads of potential. This year the offense will be his to run and it will absolutely be in good hands with the Bronx native distributing the basketball. Walker was an up and down scorer, not surprisingly getting the majority of his shots off in transition where he can rely on his tremendous open floor speed. When games get into a frantic pace it actually can benefit Walker, as was the case in UConn’s match up with Missouri in last year’s NCAA Tournament when the freshman went for 23 points. Jerome Dyson will be back after missing the latter part of the season due to injury, but is a great scoring option on the wing thanks to his ability to break defenders down off the dribble in isolation situations. The Maryland product is a good athlete, has smooth handles and knows how to finish around the basket when he gets into the lane. Improving his perimeter shooting would be a nice addition to his arsenal, but for now, he works just great in the Huskies offense. Donnell Beverly should see increased minutes in his sophomore season after barley touching the court last season, but will be fighting with a trio of incoming freshman who may eat up the available minutes. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, a 6-7 swingman who was high school teammates with Oriakhi, has fantastic athleticism and a deep understanding of how to play the game. Jim Calhoun will be able to line him up at multiple positions and his length will make him a nice asset on the perimeter defensively with his ability to anticipate and break up passes. Chicago bred Darius Smith will likely back up Walker at the point guard position and the fact that he knows how to attack the basket and finish certainly won’t hurt either. Mt. Zion Christian Academy product Jamaal Tice is a 6-5 shooting guard with real good athleticism who will be a rotational player in the backcourt as well.
It’ll be a young Husky team this season, but as we have seen in recent years, young doesn’t prevent reams from excelling during the regular season, but it can come back to hurt them in March. Either way, UConn has what it takes to battle for the top of the Big East again this season and haul in a good seed for the NCAA Tournament. Just don’t necessarily count on a Final Four run.