College Basketball Preview: The Contenders

[DISCLAIMER:  most of this was written before the preseason tournaments, so I apologize if some new developments were not addressed.  Oh, and one of these teams is written facetiously–see if you can figure out which one.]

I wrote a column last year, as a preview of the college basketball season, that picked out the teams that I thought had a chance to win the title when it was all said and done. The intro talked about all the questions that arise at the beginning of every college basketball season–so many, in fact, that it is almost a immaterial to even discuss most of them. Conferences rarely turn out as predicted; superstars emerge throughout the season; and, even Joe Lunardi does not know, at this point, even remotely what the field of 64 is going to look like. However, college basketball is unlike the other major sports in one interesting way–success is defined very differently across teams. For instance, in the NFL or MLB or the NBA, you can rationalize a “successful” year as one without winning a title, but not really. Every professional team in these sports defines success by winning championships–not NFC Championships or National League pennants, but World Championships. Not so, in college hoops. I was a student at UMBC last year, during their incredibly successful season, which ended in a blowout loss in the first round of the tournament. Davidson College had, by all accounts, a very successful year last year, even though they lost in the Elite Eight. On the other hand, North Carolina and UCLA, who both made it a round further than Davidson would not consider their seasons successful because they did not win the title. That is one of the many things that makes college hoops so incredibly interesting–there is a group of top-tier teams vying for the national title, and they just have to survive a minefield of “successful” teams from UMBC to Davidson to Villanova, on their way to earning the right to duke it out with other top-tier teams for the title. And, though the season always ends up flipped over and over again throughout the season, the eventual champion almost always comes from a group of teams that can relatively easily be identified before the season even starts. In fact, last year, all four of the final four teams were teams that I mentioned in my preseason column (not that that is difficult because they were all #1 seeds, but the point remains). So, here are the teams that I feel are capable of cutting down the nets this year, as the 2009 NCAA Champion:


It is not going out on a limb here to say that the preseason #1 will also be the postseason #1, especially when they were easily one of the best teams in the country last year and have everyone back of any import.

Yes, this team is completely loaded.  I am foreseeing a future Question of the Day comparing this team to the Florida championship team of two years ago.  Personally, I think that the starting five for Florida was slightly better than this UNC starting five, but this team, on the whole, is better.  They have Tyler Hansbrough, last year’s national player of the year who should break JJ Reddick’s all-time ACC scoring record, Ty Lawson, one of the two or three best point guards in the country, Wayne Ellington, a guy who could go for 30 any given night, Danny Green, a superstar in the making, and a plethora of supporting players, like rebounding machine Deon Thompson, talented freshmen Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller, and returning do-it-everything guard Bobby Frasor.  WOW!

-Coaching.  Roy Williams is a great coach, who demands a lot from his players.  He has been there with both Kansas and UNC, and will certainly not be outcoached very often.  He also seems to be the exact type of coach that is needed on a team with so much talent–he plays a run-and-gun style, which enables him to get a lot of guys into the rotation, and he communicates very well with his players, so they always know where they stand.  Though, I must say, if he doesn’t win in three tries with this nucleus, the old questions of “can he win the Big One” that were so prevalant in Kansas may resurface.

-Experience.  This whole team remembers the feelings of losing in devastating fashion to Georgetown in the Elite Eight two years ago and to Kansas in the Final Four last year.  That should give them the needed drive to stay hungry during a season in which tough games may not come all that often.

Question Marks:
It seems like the only team that can stop UNC is UNC.  The expectations are so high this year that there is a chance that they wilt under that pressure, especially come tournament time.  They have those guys that want it SO bad, which is usually a good thing, but can sometimes have the opposite effect, if the chips are down.

-Injuries?  Hansbrough has a stress fracture that could flare up at any time.  Danny Green has had injury problems and Ty Lawson missed 9 games last year.  Bobby Frasor was granted a medical redshirt last year, so that he could return for this, his senior year, but there are questions about how strong his knee really is.

-Randomness?  Not to be overly dramatic, but chances are that if this team doesn’t win the title in April, it will be because the NCAA tournament, like all sports, is just very unpredictable (remember the Super Bowl?).  They are that confident, that experienced, and most importantly, that talented.


I was one of the first on the Tennessee bandwagon last year, so let me be one of the first on the Oklahoma bandwagon this season.  This team is incredibly good, well-coached, and underrated.  If UNC slips up, it would not surprise me at all if the Sooners are cutting down the nets in April.

-The best player in the country. 
Oklahoma is led by senior, blue-collar big man Taylor Griffin.  Griffin is a strong rebounder and a great athlete for such a big body.  He plays hard on every play, and he has the ability to step out and even guard perimeter players, if he needs to do so.  Oh, and he also brings along something else to every game that is the most important aspect to OU’s success this year–a little brother named Blake who is, with all due respect to Tyler Hansbrough, the best player in the country.  Blake Griffin is an absolute beast.  Expect a 20-15 season from this 6’10” tower of athleticism.  He can guard anyone on the floor and scores and rebounds in bunches.  He can even lead the break, if needed.  He is so agile that you forget he is a low-post player, and whenever you have the best player on the court, you have a chance to win any night.

-Non-Griffins.  As good as the brothers are (mostly Blake), the Sooners are more than just a Griffin family showcase.  They have dead-eye shooters that, when hot, can force the defense into a losing decision of whether to play straight-up and let Griffin tear them up or double Griffin and leave these shooters open.  These shooters are led by junior shooting guard Tony Crocker (42.4% from behind the arc last year) and freshman shooting guard Willie Warren, who has been touted as the most coveted recruit that OU has ever signed (ranked as high as #5 overall player by one of the major recruiting services).  If you double Griffin, you better hope that both Crocker and Warren are off–not a good bet.  They also have a pure shooter, Cade Davis, coming off the bench who is not great at creating his own shot, but has to be covered or he will kill you from outside.

-Blake Griffin.  Did I mention they have Blake Griffin?

Question Marks:
-Point guard? 
The first question for OU has to be point guard play.  I, personally, believe that senior Austin Johnson is more than able to be a solid point guard for a championship team, but not everyone agrees with me.  Johnson is an excellent defender and had an assist-to-turnover rate higher than 2-to-1 last year.  He struggles shooting the ball at times, but can get hot.  I believe that, with the addition of Warren and the maturity of Crocker, that the backcourt will really allow Johnson to be what he ought to be–a playmaker and defensive stopper, who makes the occasional jumper when left open.  But, with as good as the other four starters are, it is clear that their point guard is just not quite at that level–and that’s a bad position to have a drop-off.

-Experience?  The have a young, but talented coach (Jeff Capel) leading this team, and arguably their two best players (Blake Griffin and Warren) are a soph and frosh, so when it comes to big points in big games, they will be leaning on young’ins.  However, I believe that the senior leadership of Taylor Griffin and Johnson, along with the experience of Crocker should be able to overcome this.

-Replacing Longar Longar?  Though he was really only known for his amazing name, Longar Longar was a pretty valuable piece to the Sooner puzzle last year.  They seem to have the talent to replace him in the lineup (Warren, in particular), but no one that gives the versatility and intangibles that Longar brought with him.


In a ridiculously tough Big East (maybe the best conference in recent memory), the Panthers may be the toughest.  They have a superstar in the making (Sam Young), a young beast down low (DeJuan Blair), a defensive stopper (Gilbert Brown), and a tough, experienced point guard (LaVance Fields)–not to mention the most underrated coach in the country, Jamie Dixon.

As you will find often in this column, coaching is one of the things that leads to a great season and, ultimately, a title.  Jamie Dixon is certainly one of the best.  This year, he may have the talent to match.

-Talent.  This talent starts with the diminuitive, fiesty point guard, LeVance Fields and usually ends with baskets by Sam Young or DeJuan Blair.  Blair had the best freshman season by a Panther ever, and Sam Young burst onto the scene last year, averaging more than 18 points per game last year.  Blue Ribbon College Basketball Preview even picked Young as a second-team all-American this year.  They also have defensive stopper Gilbert Brown to round out one of the best 1-4 rotations in the country.

Question Marks:
The Panthers have a talented incoming class, led by Austin Wallace, Ashton Gibbs, Nasir Robinson, and yet another New York point guard, Travon Woodall.  But, it is no certain whether or not any of them can really contribute big numbers this year.  This uncertainty leaves Pitt very vulnerable after their big 4.  Roman Catholic product, Brad Wanamaker may be the starting shooting guard, but he has to do more “shooting” and more “guarding” than he showed last year to really be effective for a championship team.

Size?  This is a question of vertical size, not horizontal size, as DeJuan Blair is a “big boy.”  But, Blair only stands at 6’7″ and is the tallest projected starter for the Panthers.  Young and Brown are 6’6″.  So, though rebounding is a strength for this team, they are still very small down low, which could hurt them on the defensive end, when they are giving up 3-6 inches at each big man’s spot night in and night out.


It is a real shame that the Notre Dame football team just cannot live up to the standards set by the basketball program, but hey, some schools just aren’t football schools.  With Luke Harangody and true “Irishman,” Kyle McAlarney, back, this team may challenge the beasts of the Big East, and I would not be surprised to see them actually win this conference.

These two are true superstars.  Harangody, the defending Big East player of the year, is the favorite to win the award again.  Kyle McAlarney is a straight-up shooter who gets open looks because of the attention paid to ‘Gody in the middle, but make no mistake, McAlarney would be a star regardless of who his teammates were.

-Experience.  The two stars aside, this starting lineup is also very experienced and relatively talented.  They are led by junior point guard Tory Jackson, who is a true pass-first point guard, who gets after it on the defensive end.  He has started most of his career and does not seem phased by big moments.  Then the starting lineup is rounded out by a pair of experienced seniors, Ryan Ayers (son of former Sixers head coach, Randy Ayers) and Zach Hillesland.  And, the first two guys off the bench, senior Luke Zeller (the older brother of UNC freshman, Tyler Zeller) and junior Jonathan Peoples, have been in the program for several years, though have seen limited action.

-Battle-tested.  The Big East is so good this year that it could be a real blessing for a team like Notre Dame, who may need to prove to the country, and themselves, that they have the talent to win the whole thing.  If they can get through the Big East and finish in the top 2 or 3, it should give them the confidence that they can beat anyone in the country.  However, they have to bring it every night or they could easily finish 6th or 7th in this stacked conference.

Question Marks:
After Zeller, Peoples, and sophomore forward Tyrone Nash (all three of whom have not played very much, themselves), there is very little on which the Irish can count.  This may really affect them in the brutal Big East tournament and, subsequently, in the NCAA tournament.

-Big game experience?  Though they have been extremely successful under former Delaware coach, Mike Brey, the Irish have not really made it very far in the Big Dance–only making it past the first weekend in 2003.  So, the question still remains just how this team will react to big games in late March and, possibly, April.


After a couple of years out of true national relevance, the vaunted Huskies program came back a little bit last year and should come all the way back this year, with everyone back from a 24-win season a year ago.

UConn has so much talent returning and coming in that a guy who has started 46 collegiate games (with UConn having a 37-9 record in them) is coming off the bench–and may not even be in the regular rotation.  That is the potential fate of solid point guard Craig Austrie, who started for UConn last year since everyone is back and they have added some incredible freshmen talent.  Superstar 6’7″ swingman Nate Miles (a freshman who is being compared to Rip Hamilton) will start from the get-go at SF, pushing Jerome Dyson to the two-guard and A.J. Price to the point.  Relegating Austrie to compete with yet another immensely talented freshman, Kemba Walker, for playing time in the backcourt off the bench.  The frontcourt is not too shabby either, as they have grueling bigs, Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien to defend and rebound. 

-Coaching.  Jim Calhoun just simply gets it done on the recruiting trail and on the sidelines.  It was weird to see UConn be out of relevance for a couple of years, but it is not weird at all to see them rebound nicely under, easily, one of the nation’s ten best coaches.

-A.J. Price.  Though UConn has talent at every position and has added a star in Nate Miles, this team is still A.J. Price’s team.  The 6’2″ senior averaged 14.5 points, 5.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game last year.  He is the motor that drives this team and they can go as far as he can take them–and I think that that may be all the way to the top.

Question Marks:
-A.J. Price? 
There is no question about Price’s game, but there is question about Price’s health.  The last time we saw Price, he was being carried off the court in a first round loss to San Diego in the NCAA tournament, with an injury that turned out to be a torn ACL.  With modern medicine, these injuries are not nearly as “questionable” as they were even 10 years ago, but there is still no certainty that Price will be the same explosive player, physically and/or mentally.  If that question is answered the way Huskie fans are wishing, the sky is the limit for UConn.

-Shooting?  It is strange for a team which gets a majority of their scoring from their backcourt to have a question mark around shooting, but that is just the nature of this UConn team.  Returnees Price, Dyson, and Austrie really struggled shooting the ball last year, so unless that changes the Huskies may have to rely on the newcomers if they are to have an outside threat.  And, the one thing you will always hear about Kemba Walker is the ole, “New York City Point Guard,” which does not instill a lot of confidence in his jump shot.  The one guy that could answer this question might be Miles, who shot over 45% from 3-point land in high school last year.

-Newcomers?  A lot of this UConn season will fall on the shoulders of Price, but the rest will probably fall on the new guys, particularly Miles and Walker.  Miles, who hails from Toledo, has had a very rough upbringing–five different high schools, NCAA eligibility problems, and family health issues have checkered the past of a supremely talented player.  If Calhoun can rein him in, this will be a special team.


The fourth straight Big East team mentioned as a title contender (and we strongly considered adding Marquette because of their super guards), Louisville is trying to harness all the talent and overcome all the issues that attempted to overshadow the talent in recent years.

-Terrence Williams. 
I have, admittedly, overrated Terrence Williams in the past (predicting him as Big East Player of the Year in last year’s preview), but maybe this is the year that he proves me right, albeit a little late.  He has all the skills to be a superstar, but he just needs to put it all together.

-Pitino.  The fiery Italian who has seen just about everything in his life as a basketball coach, Pitino knows just how to get the team playing their best ball at just the right time.

-Reloading.  Though this team has two seniors (Andre McGee and Williams) and two juniors (Jerry Smith and Earl Clark) in the starting lineup, the player to watch is 6’8″ freshman power forward, Samardo Samuels.  Samuels, who dominated his high school’s league in Newark, NJ, was picked by USA Today as the 2007-08 national high school player of the year, as well as a Parade and McDonald’s All-American.

Question Marks:
-Replacing the departed? 
The old adage, “addition by subtraction” may be overused, but it also may be true in Louisville this year.  The basketball ability of Derrick Caracter may have only been exceeded by his ability to waste said talent.  He was routinely overweight, out of shape, and in disciplinary trouble.  Well, Caracter is finally gone (probably) after declaring for the NBA draft, withdrawing, asking to return to Louisville, and being denied by Pitino.  Apparently, he is still in school and does have an outside shot at playing for the Cardinals this year, but it’s very unlikely.  Like Caracter the other two that left, David Padgett and Juan Palacios, will not be as missed as much as their talent ought to dictate, but for different reasons than Caracter.  These two were immensely talented ballplayers, but they simply could not stay healthy and, therefore, could not be counted upon.

-Free-throw shooting?  With the exception of Jerry Smith, this team struggles at the free-throw line, particularly Williams (57% last year).  This could really cost them down the stretch of games this year.

-Adveristy/inconsistency?  This team is incredibly inconsistent and the best example of this may be Edgar Sosa, whom Pitino describes as “extremely–and I don’t use extremely lightly–immature mentally…he’s the type of guy that wants to be a good dresser, but wears a plaid jacket, a striped shirt, and a polka-dot tie.  He has all the skills in the world but doesn’t know how to make himself look good.”


Three straight Final Fours?  Will there be a fourth?  Well, this year it is all going to come down to a couple guys that have been there for all three runs and a couple guys who have been there for none of them.

Darren Collison and Josh Shipp have been huge parts in all three consecutive Final Four appearances for the Bruins.  Alfred Aboya was at least there, with a great seat for all that success.  If UCLA is to make it to a 4th straight Final Four, these 3 seniors will have to carry the load to make it a clean sweep for them in college seasons played and Final Fours made–not quite a Waltonesque undefeated in college, but quite the accomplishment nonetheless.

-Freshmen.  Helping out the seniors will be freshmen–as there is not much in the in-between classes (save for serviceable junior big man, James Keefe).  Another absurdly good recruiting class (best in the nation) for Ben Howland has landed two immediate starters with fantastic first names to match their games, 6’3″ shooting guard Jrue Holliday and 6’10” center J’Mison Morgan.  Holliday is the real star and may be the best freshman in the country when it’s all said and done.  Holliday is a true hybrid guard, as he was listed as last year’s #1 shooting guard by and the #1 point guard by coming out of high school in North Hollywood, CA.  Holliday shined brightly in the McDonald’s All-American game with 14 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, and 3 assists against all of these other ballyhooed high school talents.  And, the freshman talent does not stop at Holliday and Morgan, as Howland also brought in Malcolm Lee (#5 rated shooting guard and #48 overall), Drew Gordon (#15 rated power forward and #42 overall), and Jerime Anderson (#3 rated point guard and #31 overall).  Though they are freshman, they are very, VERY good.

-Coaching.  And with Ben Howland, when you say “coaching,” you mean “defense.”  It amazes me every single year that Howland is able to recruit classes like the one described above when his sole focus on the floor is defense.  One might think that players of the caliber and skill sets of Holliday and Lee would be attracted to the run-and-gun styles of a Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, or Bruce Pearl and not to the intense, defensive style of Ben Howland.  Maybe it’s the “UCLA” on the jersey, but Howland continues to get talent without “selling out” to the fastbreak offense.  His teams rebound, defend, and therefore, win.

Question Marks:
-Replacing lottery picks? 
There is no doubt that UCLA has one of the most talented teams in the country–again–but it is not easy to just pick up and replace multiple NBA lottery picks.  Russell Westbrook was the #4 pick in the spring NBA draft; Kevin Love was picked with the very next selection; and, Luc-Richard M’bah a Moute was picked #37.  That is a lot of talent to replace.  The one saving grace is that Collison and Shipp are stars and, particularly Collison, do not tend to shy away from the spotlight.

-Size?  UCLA was small before Love arrived and now he’s gone again.  And with him went M’bah a Moute and “lunch pail” guy, Lorenzo Mata-Real.  And three of the 5 super-recruits are guards, so there is a lot of pressure on returnee Aboya and incomers Morgan and Gordon.  If they can handle the paint and allow the guards to dominate the way they are capable of, this is a phenomenal team.


You want to stump your college hoops friends?  See if they can name the 7 winningiest programs in college basketball history.  They will probably get five easy ones (UNC, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, and Kansas).  If they’re good, they might get St. John’s.  But very few will be able to give you the 7th–Temple.  Yes, only six programs in the history of college basketball have won more games than the Temple Owls.  But, they have fallen on hard times recently–until now.  The glimmer of hope that appeared last year has exploded, and this could be a big year for Temple.

The Atlantic-10’s leading scorer each of the last two years is back for his senior season on Broad Street.  And, this year, he has even more of the load to carry with the departure of do-it-all swingman, Mark Tyndale (who, after tryouts with several NBA teams, including the Cavaliers, is currently playing professionally in Australia).  But, if anyone can handle this load, it’s Christmas, who averaged almost 20 points and 6 rebounds a game last year, while finishing 3rd in the A-10 with 104 made three-pointers.  He also finished in the top 15 in the conference in steals and assists.  Oh, and aren’t you proud of me–I did a whole write-up on Lousiville without a “Caracter” joke, and now I am about to do a whole write-up on Temple without a “Christmas” joke?

-Allen and Brooks.  The help for Christmas is in the 6’9″ body of Lavoy Allen and 6’4″ swingman Ryan Brooks, who will replace Tyndale in the starting lineup.  Allen, in particular, is key to success this year.  But, as good as Allen looked at times during his freshman year, he also looked extremely lost at other times.  He will have to make that jump to a bonafied low-post threat in order to take the pressure off of the outside-shooting of Christmas and Brooks.

-Dunphy.  It’s hard to replace a legend.  It’s even harder to replace a legend that didn’t really leave many pieces on which to build.  John Chaney is one of the greatest basketball players, basketball coaches, and human beings to ever walk this earth, but his recruiting in 21st century was subpar, so when he stepped down, turning the reins over to Fran Dunphy, the former Penn coach had his work cut out for him.  Having never offered a basketball scholarship before, Dunphy took to big-time college basketball with the same vigor and intelligence that garnered him countless Ivy League titles and Coach of the Year honors.  Starting late in the game, Dunphy still managed to find a diamond in the rough (starting SF Ryan Brooks) with his very first recruiting class.  Since then, he has managed solid recruiting classes, with potentially a superstar in Allen, the Philadelphia Daily News High School Player of the Year in Andrew “Scootie” Randall, and two touted guards in Luis Guzman and Ramone Moore.  We will see how much it all gels for ‘Dunph this year.

Question Marks:
-Point guard? 
The biggest question mark for the Owls this year is going to be at the point.  With Christmas, Brooks, Allen, and 7’0″ Spaniard, Sergio Olmos, the Owls have 4/5 of an excellent starting lineup, with the one thing missing being the one position that can sink a ship like this one.  The options are Luis Guzman (a highly-touted recruit who has yet to show he can actually play at this level) and Semaj Inge (the “starter” last year in name only).  If one of these two guys can step up and even be an average A-10 point guard, then this team can go as far as they wish.  But, that is a relatively big “if.”

-Depth?  The depth of this team is also a big question because outside of the starting lineup, there is inexperience as far as the eye can see.  The backcourt is a question because of the tenuous situation at the point, but there also is a concern about the minutes Christmas plays, so the Owls will be looking for a backup at the 2, as well.  These minutes will go to one of a pair of 6’2″ inexperienced players, sophomore Martavis Kee (who only played in 5 games last year) or freshman T.J. DiLeo.  At the swingman, the Owls are excited about the raw talent that Dunphy brought in to spell Brooks (or maybe even compete with him for a starting spot), in 6’5″ Moore (who redshirted last year) and 6’6″ Randall (the Daily News Player of the Year last year).  And, then there is the big men–or the probable void where there should be big men.  If either Allen or Olmos are on the bench, the Owls will probably go with a small lineup because the backup bigs are 6’9″ sophomore Craig Williams and 6’10” Micheal Eric.  Both have a lot of learning to do, as both are adjusting to basketball in the A-10 and life in the United States, as Williams is from St. Croix and Eric is from Nigeria.

-Health?  This speaks as much to the aforementioned question of depth as it does to health because where the health is the more questioned is where the Owls can ill-afford to lose someone.  The rail-thin Olmos has been injury-riddled his whole career (including the beginning of the season this year) and if he goes down for any length of time, the Owls may be forced to start Allen at center and then pick a swingman (maybe Randall) to fill in at the power forward.  This is not a good scenario for the Owls.


Chris Lofton is gone, but not forgotten.  He, along with charismatic coach, Bruce Pearl, built this program with talent and character.  But, like every good era, it has come to an end and now it is time to see if the Vols can continue what Lofton built.

-Tyler Smith. 
Smith, who entered last year expecting to be a solid, athletic role player has come a long way in one year.  After a great first year at Tennessee, Smith is now the star of one of the nation’s best teams.  He actually had, in fact, become the go-to guy last year, but now it is clear to everyone that he is the one in Vol-land.  This team will go as far as he can take them. 

-Bruce Pearl.  One of the most charismatic coaches in the country, Pearl has also established himself as one of the best.  He is a true “players’ coach,” but he also demands respect.  Oh, and the guy can flat-out coach.

-J.P. Prince.  J.P. Prince emerged last year as a real versatile weapon for the Vols.  He played anywhere from the point (in the NCAA tournament) to power forward, depending on what Pearl needed from him.  And, he did all this having only become eligible for the second semester.  With a game similar to his cousin, Tayshaun, Prince should be a very important player for a very good team this year.

Question Marks:
-Replacing Lofton? 
Chris Lofton may go down as the player that saved Tennessee basketball and is probably the best player that has ever played for Tennessee men’s hoops.  He is most certainly the most courageous–having beaten cancer and kept it quiet for the entire season last year.  It is impossible to replace a guy like Lofton, so let us not even surmise how.  The real question is that is this team good enough to deal with not having him on the team.  We shall see.

-Newcomers?  The Vols have Smith, Prince, and Wayne Chism coming back–and that’s pretty much it.  Everyone else is new, after Lofton, JuJuan Smith, and Jordan Howell graduated and Pearl decided to ask Duke Crews and Ramar Smith to leave the team.  So, this year’s Tennessee team will have a lot to do with the newcomers and how they adapt to the system.  The starting backcourt will be Bobby Maze and Cameron Tatum–very capable and very talented–but the real depth and quality of this class will be shown by the bench, led by Scotty Hopson, Emmanuel Negedu, Daniel West, and Renaldo Wooldridge.

-J.P. Prince?  After having fizzled out at Arizona, Prince’s time has come here at Tennessee.  But there are still questions about Prince’s ability to be a superstar.  His talents have never been questioned, but his attitude, work ethic, and desire have.  It is time for J.P. Prince to step up.


If they only had a center and a point guard.  There is an incredible strength on this team at all the swingman positions, especially Kyle Singler, who is a true star, but the other two positions just do not measure up–for now.

Kyle Singler, Gerald Henderson (from Episcopal Academy), Jon Scheyer, and David McClure off the bench.  That nucleus of swingmen may be unmatched around the country, particularly Singler, who put on 20+ pounds in the offseason to bulk up for an improved inside presence.

-K.  Probably the best college basketball coach ever that isn’t named Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski is still on the sidelines at Duke.  He knows when to get in your face and when to treat you like a father.  He knows when to yell at his team and when to yell at the refs.  He knows when to push the offense and when to sub in the big guy at the end of the bench.  Yes, he always has a team of McDonald’s All-Americans, but he also always wins.

Question Marks:
-The other positions? 
As good as the swingmen are on this team, that may be as poor as the other positions are.  Though Greg Paulus (yes, he is STILL there) takes a lot of criticism, he is a decent shooter.  But, he struggles as a playmaker and really struggles as a defender.  Fortunately for the Dukies, Nolan Smith may emerge as an ACC-caliber point guard.  Then there is the center spot.  Last year, the Blue Devils got crushed on the boards and this year may be no different, as Brian Zoubek is their starting center.  In fact, DeMarcus Nelson was the leading rebounder on the team for most of last year, and he was a 6’4″ guard.  There may be a little help, though, in 6’10” freshman Miles Plumlee (with more help in brother, Mason Plumlee, coming along in 2009-10).

-Replacing Nelson?  DeMarcus Nelson had a phenomenal career at Duke, though you may not know it if you’re not a Cameron Crazy.  Nelson was the best perimeter defender in the ACC last year, as well as the Blue Devils leading scorer and, for most of the year, it’s leading rebounder, at 6’4″.  He was also the lone captain last year.  All of this points to a player that will be difficult to replace.  But, then again, he is a swingman–and we all know how many of those are on this roster.


The King of the Mid-Major spawned the success of Wichita St., UW-Milwaukee, St. Mary’s, Butler, Drake, etc., etc., etc., all the way to George Mason.  But, now the pioneers are back to the top.  The best mid-major team in the country is the ‘Zags and they may even be the best team, period.

-Talent, talent, talent. 
This is no longer a mid-major program that lucks out with a superstar recruit that “fell through the cracks” or “wanted a good education” or “wanted to stay close to home” leading a back of fundamentally-sound, but minimally talented sidekicks.  This year’s version of David will actually be well-armed with future NBA’ers when they get to meet the big conferences’ Goliaths this March.  The starting lineup rivals just about any starting five in the country, from any conference.  They are led by 6’2″ point guard Jeremy Pargo, who actually declared for the NBA draft this summer, only to change his mind and withdraw his name.  The younger brother of the New Orleans Hornets’ Jannero Pargo, Jeremy was the WCC Player of the Year last year and was even honored as an honorable mention All-American.  Pargo is joined in the backcourt by two guys who can light it up on any given night.  6’5″ junior Matt Bouldin can be whatever his team needs on any given night from a natural perimeter scorer to a playmaker to a back-to-the-basket presence.  Whereas, Steven Gray, a 6’4″ sophomore, basically does one thing and does it very, very well–shoot.  And then there is the frontcourt.  One of the most hyped freshmen around the country a year ago was Austin Daye, who lived up to the hype and showed why he was so highly-regarded, scoring in double-figures 19 times.  Daye, who stands at 6’10” tall, shot 58.6% (17-29) from three-point range in WCC conference games, to lead the league.  At center, the ‘Zags have another immensely talented, highly-regarded player, who has not yet lived up to the hype after three full seasons–6’11” Josh Heytvelt.  Heytvelt may have the biggest ceiling of any player on the team, including Pargo and Daye, and if he puts it all together this year–watch out.

-Confidence.  With all the touting, the experience, and the leadership provided by coach Mark Few (one of the best in the country), this team truly believes that they can beat anyone on any given day.  They no longer ever doubt their ability to make it to the tournament (as this should be their 11th consecutive trip), but this year their sights are set on the bigger prize–and they can probably do it.

-Conference.  This used to be The Gonzaga Conference, but not anymore.  And, this is a good thing for the ‘Zags as they try and get themselves battle-tested for the tournament.  Both St. Mary’s and San Diego made themselves nationally prominent teams last year (as they joined Gonzaga in the NCAA for WCC’s first-ever 3-bid season) and they are even better this year.  Games against these two and the always-tough Pepperdine, should give the ‘Zags a little battle-testing that they may not have had in years past.

Question Marks:
Gray, Heytvelt, and 6th man, Robert Sacre, have had injury problems in the past, and with a bit of a talent dropoff after the first 7-8 guys in the rotation, Gonzaga is going to need to be fully healthy to make a run at the title this year.

-Attitude?  This mainly speaks directly to Heytvelt, whose star-crossed career in Spokane is rather infamous.  He has basically wasted his sophomore and junior seasons between violations of team rules, injuries and lack of fitness.  But, apparently this year he is in great shape, both physically and mentally.  If this is true and continues, expect big things not only from Josh himself, but from his whole team.

-Conference?  Yes, the WCC is vastly improved.  Yes, St. Mary’s has one of the most electric players in the country (Patty Mills).  Yes, San Diego won a tournament game last year and they have a solid returning team (including Jim Jones’s–yes, that Jim Jones–grandson).  But, the bottom of this conference is still mid-major, so it is not exactly going to be an overall difficult schedule.  And, not it is a relatively easy schedule, but there is no real “automatic” bid anymore because of the St. Mary’s and the San Diegos in the conference (though, they are helped by the WCC conference tournament being moved away from USD’s home gym to a neutral floor).  So, what that does is it puts a lot of pressure on the games against San Diego and St. Mary’s to build Gonzaga’s case for a high seed.  Yes, they can win the title with a 6 or 7 seed, but it’s a lot easier with a 2 or 3–and they have the talent to get that seed, they just have to avoid bad losses and perform in the non-conference and against USD and Patty Mills.

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3 Responses to College Basketball Preview: The Contenders

  1. Doogan says:

    -You’re right about forgetting sometimes that Blake Griffin is a post-player. The way he moves, it just doesn’t seem like he can be 6’10”. Loved watching him the other day against USC. They were doubling him, tripling him, and he would still just spin baseline and score before they knew what happened. Either that, or make a great pass out of the double team. Such a man-crush on that guy right now.

    -I think UConn was really set back for a couple years by some off-court stuff with players. I remember Austrie was basically just brought in because they unexpectedly had like no guards on scholarship. But now he’s got tons of experience in the Big East, and they’ve brought in their normal talent, and they have him on the bench.

    -I could be wrong, but I just don’t think UCLA has it this year. I wasn’t real impressed against Texas the other night, but with all those freshman, you know they’ll be much better by March. Still though, you worry about their post-players, and I wonder how much Collison and Shipp are going to be worried about proving themselves to NBA scouts, and maybe hurting the team a little.

    -Love this Gonzaga team. Micah Downs has actually been starting for them, which just goes to show how much talent they have. Downs is a transfer from Kansas that can really shoot it.

    -Rough start for the Owls. Injury to Allen after the injury to Olmos has really hurt them it looks like. How bout this line for Semaj Inge against Penn St. last night: 19 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals. Looks like he’s staked his claim to the PG role.

  2. WaTers says:

    Cant this shit wait until after the superbowl

  3. "the" (Spanish Plural) says:

    A rather solid analysis, though more mention of Nova would have been a positive in my book. Once Scottie Reynolds stops studying Bible verses and starts shooting more jumpers in practice, this team will be unstoppable; or, at the every least, an Elite 8 caliber team (though, I will grant you that the Final Four/Final Two may be a stretch and therefore you had no reason to mention them). Anyway, not sure if you caught the Texas-Nova game Tuesday (which was nearly unwatchable), but Dick Vitale is a blithering idiot. If he mentioned Jay Wright’s good looks and suits one more time, I’d have started up the bus, called in a couple of my PTPers and personally driven up to NYC to kick his ass. Jay Wright is a tremendous coach who has instilled a toughness in Villanova that was missed for many, many years. Go Phils.

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