Longtime readers know that I am a huge college basketball fan. Have been since I was a little kid, when I watched Magic Johnson and MSU win the 1979 national championship over Larry Bird and Indiana State in what is still the highest rated college basketball game in history. Somewhere in a box I still have the scrapbook I kept that season. So most years, I do a preview of the upcoming season, which began Friday night. So for the 8 people on this blog who care about sports, here it is.
The preseason top 5 is pretty much a Who’s Who of college basketball: 1. Kentucky. 2. Michigan State. 3. Louisville. 4. Duke. 5. Kansas. And they all deserve to be there. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Kentucky: Remember that famous Fab Five class at Michigan in 1991 with Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Juwan Howard? It’s generally considered the greatest single recruiting class ever. Until now. The 2013 Kentucky freshman class goes 8 players deep, 6 of them ranked in the top 100 coming out of high school, including 5 in the top ten. Julius Randle was the #1 power forward in the class, James Young was the #1 shooting guard, Andrew Harrison the #1 point guard, his twin Aaron Harrison the #2 shooting guard and Dakari Johnson the #2 center. And Marcus Lee, the slouch of the class, he was only ranked the 25th best player in the country. That’s an entire starting give plus two great players off the bench. Add these players to two returning studs from last year, Alex Poythress and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and you’ve got a team of thoroughbreds that goes 9 or 10 players deep.
Here’s the one problem: They’re obviously very, very young. Two years ago, John Calipari took a similar team loaded with an amazing freshman class and won the national championship with them. But last year, with a similarly great recruiting class, Kentucky didn’t even make the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round of the NIT to a nobody. So it’s feast or famine with precociously talented young people. That being said, this is a better class than the last two and it’s pretty hard to imagine them not being a great team by tournament time.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo returns 4 out of 5 starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team. In fact, Derrick Nix was the only player they lost at all from last year’s team. The returning players include Gary Harris, the preseason Big Ten player of the year and all-American. This team is deep and talented at almost every position and they’ve got two seniors in the starting lineup, something few coaches ever get. There’s a reason why virtually everyone has MSU in the Final Four in their predictions.
But replacing Nix is not as easy as it sounds, even with all that returning depth. Nix commanded a double team in the post and changed the way other teams had to defend them. Matt Costello, Alex Gauna, Gavin Schilling or some combination of the three has to be able to rebound and play consistent defense at something at least vaguely resembling Nix’ production. They don’t need them to score much, they’ve got all the scoring they need from the other positions, but they need at least one of them to be consistent and solid.
The wild card on this team is Brendan Dawson, a spectacular athlete who had a great freshman year but blew his knee out at the end of it. Last year he was a shadow of his former self. If he can return to the form that made him a top 5 player in his class two years ago, this team will be nearly impossible to defend. In the first game, Dawson had 12 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists and Izzo had to have the smile surgically removed from his face.
Duke: Duke lost three seniors from last year’s team — Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. The first two were 6’11 and both were drafted in the first round. Curry was the best shooter in college last year, or very close to it. So why is Duke still ranked in the top three after losing all that talent? Two names: Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Parker was the #2 ranked player in this year’s freshman class and Duke beat out Michigan State to get him. Rodney Hood is a sophomore transfer from Mississippi State. And to say they’re pretty good is the understatement of the year.
Parker is a basketball Swiss army knife. At 6’8 and 235 pounds, he can play every position on the court and score from anywhere. In Duke’s opening game on Friday, he scored 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting. He hit 3 pointers from all over the court, posted up down low for silky post moves, made backdoor cuts for alley oops and took players off the dribble. He also passed brilliantly out of double teams, finding cutters and 3-point shooters for easy shots. His basketball IQ is off the charts. Andrew Wiggins of Kansas was the #1 ranked player in this class and he’s a similar talent, but if he’s better than Parker he is really, really, really good.
Hood had to sit out a year when he transferred, but he got to practice with the team all last year. Coach K said at many of those practices, he was the best player on the floor even with all that other talent. He is a silky smooth 6’7 wing player who can hit from long range, take you off the dribble or post up smaller players. His line in the opening game was almost identical to Parker’s: 22 points on 9-for-10 shooting. Hood plays the game effortlessly — he never seems to be moving at top speed, yet no one can catch up to him.
But that’s hardly the whole team. The backcourt is especially deep. Quinn Cook is one of the top point guards in the country, Rasheed Sulaimon is a terrific shooting guard, Tyler Thornton is an experienced backup at the point who plays great defense, Matt Jones is a freshman sharpshooter and Andre Dawkins, who was one of the team’s top scorers two years ago, is back with the team after taking last year off to be with his family after his sister’s death.
Duke’s one glaring weakness is size in the post. Amile Jefferson will be starting at center, but he’s really a 6’8 small/power forward. Josh Hairston is the team’s best post defender but he’s only 6’7 coming off the bench. The only real size they have is Marshall Plumlee (the third Plumlee brother to play at Duke, thus his nickname MP3), a 6’11 behemoth, but he barely got off the bench as a freshmen last year and no one really knows what he can do on the court.
Duke may have trouble defending and rebounding against big teams like Kentucky and Kansas, but they are going to run most teams right off the court. They’re going to play Coach K’s famous pressure defense on the perimeter, get a lot of turnovers, run a lot of fast breaks, shoot a lot of 3s and score a hell of a lot of points. And they’re going to be a whole lot of fun to watch.
Louisville: The defending national champions lost Payton Siva and Gorgui Dieng from last year’s starting five and probably don’t have great replacements for either one, but they’re still in everyone’s top 5 because of the players they return. That starts with Russ Smith, one of the toughest and smartest guards in the country. And Kevin Ware, who suffered that horrific broken leg in last year’s NCAA tournament, is now back with the team and will see more minutes as the season wears on.
They also return Montrezl Harrell, a 6’8 power forward who crashes the glass with abandon and should step right into the starting lineup and be very productive. Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear and Stephan Van Treese should all see their minutes and production increase as well. Freshman Anton Gill may well join Smith as a starter in the backcourt. But the real wild card on this team is Chane Behanan, who was suspended by Rick Pitino this fall for a number of violations of team rules. He’s just now started practicing with the team again, which means he’ll probably be back on the court soon. He’s a difference maker, an undersized power forward who is a beast on the glass and plays with tremendous energy.
Kansas: The Jayhawks lost pretty much their entire starting five from last year but still come back with a preseason top 5 team, mostly — but not entirely — due to Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has been called the best player to come out of high school since Lebron James (at least since Kevin Durant). He was originally ranked the #1 player in the class of 2014, but he reclassified as 2013 because he graduated from high school early and knocked Duke’s Jabari Parker down to #2 in this year’s class.
Wiggins and Parker are very similar players, both 6’8 but Wiggins is about 35 pounds lighter, so he’s more of a 3 than a 4. Like Parker, he can score from anywhere on the court at any time with post moves, outside shots, floaters in the lane, you name it. And he’s also an active and willing defender, which is pretty rare at his age. Everyone thinks he’s going to be the #1 pick in the NBA draft next year. But honestly, I think Parker is going to have a better year.
But Wiggins is not alone. Joining him in this freshman class is shooting guard Wayne Selden and center Joel Embiid, both of whom will start for this team along with returning big man Perry Ellis and point guard Naadir Tharpe. If Tharpe can be solid at the point and get the ball to the scorers efficiently, this team can make another Final Four. And they have to develop some depth behind those players to make a deep run.
There are other team worth watching. Michigan lost its backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr to the draft from last year’s runner up team but they return low post beast Mitch McGary (currently out with a back injury) and Glenn Robinson III, both of whom should be lottery picks when they come out. If they can replace Burke at the point from sophomore Spike Albrecht and/or freshman Derrick Walton Jr, they are a serious Final Four contender again. Syracuse is also deep and talented, as always, and Arizona returns a ton of talent from last year’s underachieving team.
Want a sleeper? Keep an eye on Harvard with Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Kyle Casey. They’ve got talent, experience and moxy to knock off one of the big boys and make a run.
I think there’s a fairly good size drop off between the top three teams above and the others. Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State are all loaded from top to bottom with talent, depth and (except Kentucky) experience. And they have three of the best coaches in the game (though it’s probably only a matter of time before Kentucky has to forfeit games and championships as Calipari has already had to do at both of his previous schools). College basketball is back and Ed is smiling.
And you know the best part? Four of those teams will be playing each other on Tuesday in Chicago: Duke vs Kansas (which means a matchup between Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, the top two players in the class who play the same position) and MSU vs Kentucky. That’s how you start a college basketball season.