Posted on 29 October 2011.
In Part 1 of my 4-part 2o11 college basketball preview, I exam four teams that have a great chance to play in New Orleans at the end of March.
This is my first post since my review of the 2011 National Championship game where Connecticut took down Butler in a boring finale to an otherwise thrilling NCAA Tournament. Upsets were plentiful, two mid-majors played their way to the Final Four, and the star power of King Kemba Walker led the Huskies to the national crown. Overall, the tournament was the most intense I have seen in the last decade.
Yet now is a new year – players like Walker have departed for the NBA (insert your best lockout joke here) and others like Harrison Barnes have returned to school to bring a national title to campus. Barnes and the Tar Heels appear to be the preseason favorites to win it all, garnering the top spot in all major preseason polls. And that’s where I begin my list:
North Carolina Tar Heels
Biggest Strength: Scoring
There is no denying this team can put up a lot of points. Whether it’s Barnes doing everything, Tyler Zeller on the block, or freshman P.J. Hairston shooting the 3-ball, there are so many ways this team can score the basketball. Don’t forget freshman Kendall Marshall, who came on strong towards the end of the season when he was inserted into the starting lineup. And freshman James McAdoo will provide depth at the 4-spot.
Biggest Weakness: 3-point Shooting/Defense
For a team full of superstars and NBA-caliber players, UNC really does not shoot the ball well from beyond the arc (or defend it, for that matter). Last season, they finished near the bottom of the ACC in 3-point shooting, and both Marshall and Barnes are susceptible to defensive lapses. Two players can provide help in those departments, though: Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock. Strickland is a lockdown defender who will undoubtedly be called on to defend the quickest and most talented opposing guards. Bullock, on the other hand, is returning from a knee injury and should provide the long range shooting that the Tar Heels need. Don’t be surprised if both of those players see big minutes down the stretch in close games, as they both add dimensions to the UNC game that is otherwise absent.
X-Factor: John Henson
Standing 6’10″, 210lbs, Henson is not the most intimidating defensive presence at first glance. But with a 7’4″ wingspan and freakish athleticism, the junior big man is the best shot blocker in the ACC. His interior defense and rebounding skills are undeniable, but in order for the Heels to truly dominate the country and win a national title, he will need to shed the “soft” label that has stuck with him for the last two years. On a team that lacks physical strength (Zeller is the only player who weighs more than 220lbs, while Duke has seven) Henson must become a force on the block at both ends of the floor. He showed flashes of greatness last season with a nifty hook and solid 15-foot corner jump shot, but he must be able to finish inside… and with authority. If he can do that, it will take pressure off Zeller, who is the only true center on the roster.
Overall: UNC is not a perfect team, and they shouldn’t be compared to past teams like Tyler Hansbrough’s 2009 squad. Instead, they should be seen as an athletic, deep team that will fight with Duke for the top spot in a weak ACC. I expect them to drop a few early games, but then roll through conference play and peak at the perfect time – the postseason.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Biggest Strength: Defense
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint an aspect of Ohio State’s defense that stands out (same goes for UNC’s offense) because of it’s overall strength and the stranglehold it puts on the opposition. Starting on the perimeter, Aaron Craft and William Buford are pesky defenders who give opposing guards fits. Craft is truly a defensive menace, and his ability to play hard-nosed defense for 40 minutes is a true rarity in modern day college basketball. Moving inside, Jared Sullinger is a super-physical post defender who will wear down other big men, and freshman Amir Williams is a terrific shot blocker and should compliment Sullinger well.
Biggest Weakness: Depth
Anybody that knows college basketball knows Sullinger, Craft, Buford, and Deshaun Thomas. But after that, the Buckeyes will need to rely on unproven freshmen and perennial bench players. Losing leaders such as Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale, and David Lighty will hurt a good deal – it’s impossible to replace three seniors who all carved out their niches and excelled in their roles. Freshmen Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, Trey McDonald, and Williams are all highly touted, but none of them come in with the abilities that last year’s freshmen had. All of them will get a shot to prove their worth, but the Big Ten is a physical and grinding conference that will require an adjustment period for finesse players such as Williams, Scott, and Thompson.
A consensus top-50 recruit, Sibert was lost in the Year of Jared Sullinger. It also didn’t help that he saw limited minutes because of the sharpshooting Diebler and Buford. But Sibert should get a great chance to make an impact this season, and he has the tools to do so. If Sibert can excel early on, a backcourt of Craft, Sibert, and Buford can be lethal and a true terror for the other 11 Big Ten teams.
Overall: Like the Tar Heels, Ohio State has the luxury of sitting atop a weak conference. They will be tested early with games against Florida and Duke, but it will be interesting to see how their untested freshmen perform towards the end of the conference season. Four of their final five conference games are against the top Big Ten squads, including the always-tough Wisconsin Badgers. If they can win most of those, they will have a lot of momentum going into the conference tournament.
Biggest Strength: Depth
Everybody talks about Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis as leading the Wildcats this season, but they seem to forget about the rest of the 9-man rotation that will be called upon to take this team back to the Final Four. Michael Gilchrist and Marquise Teague are top-10 recruits that will provide a huge scoring boost both beyond the arc and in transition. Darius Miller is a glue guy that has played a ton of minutes over the course of the last three seasons. And Eloy Vargas, Stacey Poole, Jon Hood, and Doron Lamb all had specific roles last season that were key to Kentucky’s tournament success. No other SEC team has the talent to compete with Kentucky – it is more of a question of if John Calipari can bring everybody together to play team defense and score the ball. And if history is any indication, that is a resounding “yes”.
Biggest Weakness: Toughness
All three former UK players that were drafted into the NBA last summer had an immense amount of toughness, both physically and mentally. Brandon Knight, DeAndre Liggins, and Josh Harrelson made UK a tough team, and that is now a question mark as the 2011-2012 season begins. Darius Miller and Doron Lamb will both be counted on to provide that toughness throughout the season; Miller is the seasoned veteran of the team, and Lamb was the one reliable player for Kentucky in their Final Four matchup with Connecticut. Terrence Jones, one of the most talented players in the nation, needs to expand his game and become a physical presence. His tendencies to float out to the perimeter and play the role of a guard was acceptable with Harrelson patrolling the paint last season, but Davis will need a strong counterpart to help in defending the post.
X-Factor: Doron Lamb
As mentioned before, Lamb had a great game against Connecticut in the Final Four last March. That flash of greatness must become the norm for the sophomore if he is going to hold off Teague for the starting shooting guard spot. While UK will not live and die with Lamb, the offense will run a lot more smoothly with him manning the 2-spot. He is the team’s greatest deep threat and, unlike Jones, appeared to understand and thrive in his role. If he and Miller can lead this team both on and off the court, the season will start much better than last season, when they struggled early.
Overall: If any one player falters or does not meet expectations, it won’t be a total loss for Kentucky because of the immense depth they possess. But with players like Lamb, Miller, and Vargas improving upon last season and freshmen Davis, Gilchrist, and Teague performing up to their top-10 abilities, UK will be a very, very difficult team to defeat. The SEC has some stellar and experienced teams, and they will all pose legitimate threats to the Wildcats. But if UK can gain momentum early and defeat teams like Florid and Vanderbilt, they will be in great shape for a lengthy postseason run.
Biggest Strength: Leadership
Upperclassmen Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, and Brandon Triche lead the Orange through another season filled with both expectations and questions. Expectations are high because of the sheer amount of talent on this Orange roster. Jardine proved to be one of the best point guards in the conference as he averaged nearly 6 assists per game. Joseph showed a versatile skill set, hitting 3-pointers and leading the team in rebounding. And while Triche had a sophomore slump from beyond the arc, he is expected to return to form his junior year. Expectations are also high for sophomore big men Fab Melo and Baye Mousse Keita, even though both had disappointing freshmen seasons. And don’t forget freshmen Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams. Christmas can play both post positions and anchor the center of the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense.
Biggest Weakness: Post Play
Christmas may see a lot of time at the center of the 2-3 zone out of necessity, however. Keita and Melo are huge question marks for this team, and their ability to score in the post is definitely a concern. Christmas may be the saving grace in this situation, but he does not have the size or shot blocking ability of the two sophomores. The 2-3 zone defense is only as good as the big man in the middle, and that remains the single biggest question mark for Jim Boeheim’s squad.
X-Factor: Fab Melo
He’s been the focal point of my entire Syracuse analysis, and he’s certainly the X-Factor, as well. Expectations were so high last season it seemed impossible for the former All-American to live up to the hype. Instead, he struggled mightily, and now he has legal problems on top of his poor freshman year performance. If Melo can put his past season behind him and start fresh, he can still become a cog in the middle for the Orange. But if he continues to struggle, look for the other young big men to get chances to shine. On a purely talent basis, Melo seems to have the most ability, but mentally, he is a step behind the rest of his teammates. The leadership of seniors Joseph and Jardine should help alleviate these problems, but that remains to be seen.
Overall: The amount of talent in Syracuse this year is not as great as you will find in places like Chapel Hill or Lexington, but the leadership and skill sets of those players returning pose fewer question marks than those other high-profile teams. If the largest question mark, Fab Melo, can become a strength, Syracuse will be one of the toughest outs in the postseason. The Big East is so stacked year-in and year-out that it is impossible to pick one team to dominate, but Syracuse has just as good a chance as any.