The Top Teams, Players As New Season Begins
College Basketball Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Despite whispers to the contrary, this season preview will not be entirely
about Kyle Singler.
It's tough to read more than four inches of virtual real estate these days
without the mention of Duke's 21st-century Christian Laettner. And with good
reason. Duke is the defending national champion and Singler is the best
returning player on the best returning team that also added a prolific
freshman point guard (Kyrie Irving) and a lights-out jump-shooter (Seth Curry)
to find the seams in the Blue Devils' dribble-drive-kick offense.
The Blue Devils also have the biggest home-court advantage in the sport (the
sweatbox that is Cameron Indoor Stadium), a returning two-guard that can also
run the point (Nolan Smith) and, oh by the way, perhaps the best coach to ever
grace the sidelines in Mike Krzyzewski, who just won his fourth national title
to go along with the 2008 Olympic gold medal and another gold medal at the
2010 FIBA World Championship.
It is pretty simple. Coach K can coach, and he has plenty of talent at his
disposal, including the swing-forward Singler, who has worked on a back-to-
the-basket game to compliment his ability to stroke jumpers from long distance
and take slower defenders off the dribble.
Duke is the best team, and it will be slotted as such below in our initial End
of the Bench Fine 15 rankings, but this season preview is more about the
uncertainty of college basketball's team hierarchy and individual talent
structure than the certainty of Duke's ultimate destiny (it SHOULD end, for
better or worse, in Houston).
When a freshman (North Carolina's Harrison Barnes), no matter how talented,
makes the preseason All-American team it calls into question the returning
crop of players and leaves the sport wide open for an even greater youth
movement or perhaps a breakout star or two who spent countless hours this
summer in the gym, away from prognosticators and ballot stuffers who vote off
numerical metrics and name recognition.
This season should be as exciting as any in recent memory. It should also
evolve slowly as new names and new teams push for their place at the main
table, the one populated by a group of Blue Devils on a repeat mission to
22 NAMES AND TEAMS TO WATCH FOR
The NCAA decided, through the careful consideration of many factors (cough,
cough... money), to expand the NCAA Tournament by three teams to 68 beginning
The definitive logistics are still being hammered out to determine who goes
where and when, but the subtle expansion has created an additional dynamic to
what is already the greatest three-plus-week spectacle in sports.
We have a long road to navigate until the bracket falls into shape. In this
space, we unveil our 22 names and teams to watch for as the college basketball
ACC: (1) Duke is clearly at the top of a conference with some
instability and youth below it. (2) North Carolina's success will NOT
necessarily be based on Barnes' quick adjustment to the college game, but
rather forward Tyler Zeller's health and fellow frontcourt mate John Henson's
consistent improvement first demonstrated in last season's postseason NIT. (3)
Virginia Tech is not only a conference spoiler, but a national wrecking ball
if it gets consistent outside shooting from the typically streaky Dorenzo
Hudson. We all know the Hokies' other star guard, Malcolm Delaney, is going to
get his 20 points per game, but Hudson's scoring and ball-handling will help
Delaney's conditioning and keep him fresh for what could be a long, prosperous
season in Blacksburg.
BIG TEN: (4) Michigan State's ability to make outside shots
will write its final narrative this season. This Spartans team has every
ingredient -- veteran guard play, stingy defense, solid frontcourt depth,
experienced coaching -- but it lacks consistent perimeter offense. Kalin Lucas
and Durrell Summers have the name recognition, but must be more consistent
away from the basket. Summers scored many of his points in the mid-range game
off the dribble last season, and avenues to the rim are tougher to find
against the speed of the ACC, Big East and SEC in tournament settings. Lucas,
the 2009 conference player of the year, has to prove he is healthy and can
step into his shots after a ruptured Achilles' tendon late last season. (5)
Illinois will get its first taste of the national spotlight at Madison Square
Garden in this week's 2K Sports Classic, but no matter the outcome, America
better remember the name and sweet shooting stroke of Demetri McCamey. The
Illini also return valuable big men Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis to keep
defenses honest against the perimeter game of McCamey and D.J. Richardson, who
made 39 percent of his three-pointers last season. Prognosticators talk about
Ohio State (plenty of youth) and Purdue (now minus Robbie Hummel), but From
The End of The Bench is squarely focusing on Illinois as the conference's
second-best team by season's end.
PAC-10: Mediocre at the top, the Pac-10 took a public
relations hit last season. (6) UCLA's ability to regain the early success head
coach Ben Howland enjoyed rests on the shoulders of Reeves Nelson and Malcolm
Lee, and a long road back to the top should get a little shorter with a solid
recruiting class and Howland's sound defensive scheme. While the Bruins will
be fighting for one of the final at-large positions, (7) Washington is the
best team with the best player, (8) Isaiah Thomas in what still is a
rebuilding year for the conference. Thomas resembles Allen Iverson in his days
at Georgetown with his inept ability to create his own shots despite his 5-
SEC: Gainesville is where the party is at this season, as (9)
Florida returns all five starters -- and all double-digit scorers at that.
Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker make the Gators offense go along with the
inside efficiency of Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus. One caveat to the
prediction of Florida's conference crown is that the Gators must shoot the
basketball better from long distance. Boynton frees up so many elbow and wing
shooters for clean looks thanks to dribble penetration but more have to find
the bottom of the net. Walker shot just 33.9 percent from long distance last
season and Florida finished 11th out of 12 SEC teams in three-point
percentage. If that number does not improve, look for defenses to pack it in
on Parsons and Tyus and take away Boynton's speed. (10) Kentucky's SEC East
chances took a major hit when the NCAA ruled Enes Kanter ineligible for
receiving improper benefits while playing club basketball in Turkey. Kanter's
"salary" of just over $33,000 may cost Kentucky much more than that in a
transition season after the departures of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
BIG EAST: From The End of The Bench is firmly on the (11)
Pittsburgh bandwagon. Substance over style is the basic tenet of head coach
Jamie Dixon's philosophy, but that simplicity at times overshadows the pure
talent Dixon has at his disposal. Watching the Panthers struggle in their
season opener over Rhode Island, illustrated several key attributes of a
championship-worth club. They didn't panic in the face of adversity; they
shared the basketball; and they have several comparable scoring options. Brad
Wanamaker has transformed himself into a viable high-scoring threat to go
along with the perimeter play of Ashton Gibbs. The Panthers have piled up 180
points in their two victories, a great sign despite the small sample size.
Pittsburgh's trump card has always been its defense, but if the offense can
ease some of the pressure off the opposite end of the floor, the Panthers can
become a more complete team capable of a late run in March. The fresh-faced
talent pool that we discussed earlier has a poster child in upstate New York.
(12) Syracuse is the second- best team in the conference by my estimation
despite losing Big East Player of the Year Wesley Johnson to the NBA. Kris
Joseph was a star-in-the-making last season, but just didn't get enough
touches with the talents of Johnson and also-departed Andy Rautins the focus
of head coach Jim Boeheim's offense. Forward Rick Jackson is a load to handle
in the paint and provides some space on the wing for Joseph and on the
perimeter for point guard Scoop Jardine, who helped Syracuse finish second in
the nation with better than 19 assists per game last season.
BIG 12: Jacob Pullen is a special player in what could turn
out to be a special year in (13) Kansas State basketball history. We all
remember Gus Johnson giving his vocal chords abuse late into the night during
last season's epic regional semifinal victory over Xavier as Pullen and his
teammate Denis Clemente hit big shot after big shot. It was a game for the
ages, and it illustrated the wherewithal of the Wildcats' two star guards.
Clemente is gone, but Pullen is a year older, a season wiser and the
unquestioned leader of a team that also sports rising big man Curtis Kelly,
who has the talent to be an all-conference performer himself this season. (14)
Baylor has less questions than (15) Kansas, putting it ahead of the Jayhawks
in my conference pecking order. LaceDarius Dunn is one of the five or 10 most
talented players in the country, but he is already serving a three-game
suspension for violating team rules due in part to a domestic incident with a
girlfriend last month, and he has already spent a good part of the preseason
away from the team because of the incident. Yet, Baylor still has fewer
questions, thanks in part to a long, athletic frontcourt led by Quincy Acy and
Anthony Jones. A.J. Walton and freshman Stargell Love will get plenty of game
experience and quality practice team in Dunn's absence. The Jayhawks are
young, have to replace three starters (Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry and Cole
Aldrich) and it is still up in the air when super freshman Josh Shelby will
finally see the court.
THIS SEASON'S BUTLER COULD BE...
(16) Butler, if you ask head coach Brad Stevens or any of the focused
returning Bulldogs. Gordon Hayward was the Bulldogs' blue chip talent,
athletically able to shut down bigger schools' NBA stars. He is gone, but
Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored will provide stability on the perimeter and
people forget Matt Howard was the league's player of the year two seasons ago.
Yet, From The End of The Bench's vote comes from the Ohio Valley Conference,
where (17) Murray State looks to take the next step after its first-round
victory in the tournament last season. In the second round, it met... Butler,
dropping a narrow two-point decision. This season, the Racers may in fact be
the better team come tournament time, returning Isaac Miles, B.J. Jenkins and
Isaiah Cannon from the team that knocked off Vanderbilt. The experience,
offensive balance and athletic ability match up well with big-school programs
in the tournament environment. After Selection Sunday, the Racers will be a
popular first-round upset selection.
FROM THE END OF THE BENCH'S PRESEASON ALL-AMERICANS
(18) Kyle Singler, Duke: We haven't mentioned him in a while.
Singler is a dual threat on a team loaded with guards to get him the ball in
scoring positions. His ability to develop a scoring game with his back to the
basket will determine his success at the next level, but on this one, there
are few as skilled.
(19) Jimmer Fredette, BYU: I mentioned in last week's column
that Fredette is a key cog in what I believe to be a Final Four-caliber team
out West. Fredette is old-school in his ability to use ball fakes, footwork
and off-ball screens to create scoring opportunities. When given an inch, the
shot is as good as in. His motion is smooth and his release is quick. His
passing skills are underrated and his leadership skills can't be talked about
enough from those who surround him. He is From The End of the Bench's
Preseason Player of the Year.
(20) Jacob Pullen, Kansas State: He is fast off his feet with
the ball and is probably the most skilled shooter in the country. He works
well within Frank Martin's motion set, cuts hard off stack screens and has an
eye for what the defense gives him. Pullen always gets his points but never
takes away from the team's offensive flow to stockpile them. That is the true
art of a great player.
(21) JaJuan Johnson, Purdue: If there is one player who MUST
pick up the scoring load left by Robbie Hummel's season-ending ACL injury it
is Johnson. Purdue will not find a shooting threat like Hummel on its roster,
so head coach Matt Painter will be smart to run a lot of two-man, pick-and-
roll, post- up offensive schemes with Johnson and guard E'Twaun Moore. Johnson
should be the benefactor. His style fits the Big Ten's makeup; he is more
athletic but just as strong as most of his opponents and his mid-range jump
shot gives him a distinct advantage in the scorebook.
(22) Brad Wanamaker Pittsburgh: This is not a misprint. I
loved Wannamaker's game last season, and am in awe of the improvements he has
made since. His face-up game is sharper, he is reacting more and thinking less
on the offensive end of the floor and has embraced his role as a leader. I put
Wannamaker down as a 17-point, 8-rebound a game player for the Big East's best
team. Those are All-American credentials.
FROM THE END OF THE BENCH'S FINE 15
1. Duke: Not much explanation needed. Singler, Smith and two
new toys for Coach K on the road to repeat.
2. Michigan State: Inside and outside depth makes Tom Izzo
happy he spurned LeBron-less Cleveland for the fortunes of East Lansing. Some
offensive consistency will make his crop Duke's top challenger.
3. Pittsburgh: It is not just Wannamaker and Gibbs. Jamie
Dixon's style plays to the strengths of all his players, and it is about time
a great guy and a great coach makes his first Final Four.
4. Kansas State: Again, falling back to favor what I know
rather than the trepidation of the unknown. I know Pullen is one of the top
players in the country, and he makes Kelly even better on the block.
5. Syracuse: If I didn't put Wannamaker on the preseason All-
American team, his spot would have been taken by Joseph. His skills and smarts
are a dangerous combination for opposing defenses. Syracuse will go as far as
Joseph and Jardine take them.
6. Illinois: I'm higher on the Illini than most, but McCamey
is a superior talent and Davis is an inside-outside piece essential to any
team with large aspirations.
7. Florida: All five starters are back. The question remains:
Can they put the ball in the basket enough to thrive?
8. Villanova: Not much buzz in the Philadelphia region about
Villanova as a whole, but an ESPN.com cover story and some preseason honors
handed to Corey Fisher are all giving a talented player his just due. If
Fisher is a quicker Scottie Reynolds then the Wildcats won't miss a beat.
9. North Carolina: From nine on down, questions abound. Will
Graves was kicked out, the Wear twins left on their own and a position of
depth for the disappointing Tar Heels a season ago (their frontcourt) is
lacking, which makes the health and production of Zeller and Henson so
10. Kansas: This position is lower than most other polls
because of the uncertainty surrounding Shelby. If he plays most of the year,
he is so good that the Jayhawks will soar up this poll.
11. BYU: The Cougars are all over the rankings--placed in the
teens by some and out of the rankings all together by others. I have them here
not just because I believe in Fredette and fellow guard Jackson Emery, but
because their schedule is set up to accumulate victories and put them in an
advantageous seeding position come March.
12. Baylor: I'm also higher on the Bears than others because
I have faith head coach Scott Drew will get through to Dunn and turn his
suspension from an ugly moment into a teaching one. If he can, Dunn will
explode and carry his teammates with him.
13. Purdue: The loss of Hummel slides the Boilermakers down
probably seven or eight spots, but the two-man show of Johnson and Moore is
enough FOR NOW. Other players need to develop before the New Year to consider
Purdue a viable conference contender and beyond.
14. Missouri: Four of its five starters are back and head
coach Mike Anderson brought in his best recruiting class to date. His fast-
paced style is unique and plays well when his players: 1) take care of the
basketball and 2) capitalize in transition. If this veteran group can do both,
the sky is the limit.
15. Murray State: Shocked you. I am not sure the Racers
belong here (YET), but I have no faith in Kentucky minus the suspended Kanter
and am not high on Butler and Gonzaga so I pegged in the Racers, who were shot
out of a (Isaiah) Cannon to this position. Make it last, Cinderella!
TWEET OF THE WEEK
"Final: Florida 77, UNC-Wilmington 60. Parsons had 16. Boynton finished 0-
for-6 on 3-point attempts." - @GaryParrishCBS
This tweet is significant in that it illustrates my main concern with the
Gators: putting the orange ball through the net.
NON-HOOPS THOUGHT OF THE WEEK
"The Office" is still running on NBC, but is it running strong? I didn't laugh
once during the last two episodes, a first in watching what has long been 30
minutes of comedy at its finest. Placing the last two seasons against many of
the re-runs on TBS just illustrates the massive difference in writing and
subtle interaction. Do all of you think the show is running out of time and
should go out with Michael Scott (Steve Carell has said he will leave when his
contract ends at the close of the season)?
Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out
Your Hoops Bracket." Click
HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on
an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State
Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the
Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.