Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It's Never Too Early To Start Thinking About Hoops....The Wigs' 2009-2010 Season Preview Part One

I know, I know--It's AUGUST. We are on the cusp of football season and I'M thinking about basketball? But I'm unashamed. Now that everyone's headed back to school and sports are back in session, I can't help but get fired up. So I decided to take a look at how things are shaping up as we head into another academic year.

Now bear in mind that I don't have the privilege of actually watching any of these guys play just yet, so my musings are limited to what it all looks like on paper. HOWEVER, rather than rank these teams #1 through whatever (because I think preseason rankings are worthless anyway), I've created my own categories. These aren't necessarily the 25 BEST teams (although I think some of those are included), but teams I think we will hear about throughout the year, teams that will be extremely competitive in both their conferences and the tournament, teams I enjoy watching and of course, teams at the top of the pack.

Category 1: Teams that were great last year and will be again
Lost: Pretty much no one.
Returning: Basically everyone, including guard Sherron Collins (Sr. G) and junior center Cole Aldrich. Bill Self will also get a little more inside presence from twins Markieff and Marcus Morris and Collins will get backcourt help from Tyshawn Taylor. Throw in role players like Brady Morningstar and Quintrell Thomas and it's no wonder most preseason polls are listing KU as the team to beat. There are also high expectations for newcomer Xavier Henry, a highly ranked shooting guard (#3 in the ESPNU 100) who originally committed to John Calipari at Memphis. Once the coaching carousel began to turn and Cal jetted off to Kentucky, Henry backed out and pledged his loyalty to Lawrence.
The Jayhawks finished last season with a loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and now that everyone is older, wiser, faster and stronger, this is definitely a group to be reckoned with. Collins shows strong leadership and experience to go along with his quickness and offensive production both in and outside the arc. He's also one of those guys you look at and think, "Didn't he graduate yet?!?! Or leave for the NBA?!?! Hasn't he been there for like, 6 years?" He's one of those rare 4 year players that is so good, opposing fans pray he takes a hike and each year he stays in school seems like 2. Aldrich, who is listed at 6'11 but seems closer to 7'2 by the way he plays, is a dangerous shot blocker and a real defensive threat to anyone who tries to get into the lane. Last season, teams were successful when Aldrich could be drawn away from the basket, but it remains to be seen whether or not that strategy will work this time around.
That said, at the very least Kansas should be able to defend their Big 12 title and make a deep run in March.

~MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (once you've recovered from the shock of me not listing them first, read on)
Lost: Center Goran Suton, guard (and defensive stud) Travis Walton
Returning: Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas, sophomore forward Delvon Roe, senior forward Raymar Morgan
The Spartans' road to Ford Field was well-documented last season and although the 15 point loss to North Carolina (*sigh* It still stings four months later...CURSE YOU TARHEELS!) wasn't QUITE the ending they had in mind, Tom Izzo and company should have every reason to believe they can climb the ladder one more time. Unfortunately, their road to the top won't be easy. MSU lost a LOT of firepower in Suton and Walton--Suton's rebounding and scoring ability (8.4 rpg and 10.4 ppg) and Walton's leadership and ability to shut down every opponent's best players with his defense will most definitely be missed. Kalin Lucas will need to step up and take over where Walton left off and continue to lead his team on the offensive end of the floor. More importantly, senior Raymar Morgan needs to stay healthy and stay relevant--If Morgan struggles with his consistency the way he did last year, the Spartans are going to be in some trouble. Sophomores Delvon Roe and Draymond Green had promising seasons last year and should be strong in the post to deliver much-needed scoring and rebounding on the inside. With the speed of Durrell Summers and the shooting touch of Chris Allen, Michigan State should have plenty of weapons to defend their Big Ten title against a field of much-improved conference opponents.

Lost: Reserve and role player Nemanja Calasan
Returning: Everyone else, including forward Robbie Hummel (aka the Bane of My Existence OR The Kid Who Always Seems to Have the Game of His Life Against Michigan State and Makes Them Look Like Chumps) and defensive specialist Chris Kramer.
Coach Matt Painter has his entire starting lineup heading back to West Lafayette this season, much to the chagrin of their Big Ten opponents. The Boilermakers ended last year with a Big Ten tournament championship and a Sweet 16 loss to Connecticut and are no doubt hungry for more. I'm a big believer in the idea that teams that have the advantage of playing together, getting a taste of success and falling just short of where they want to be are the most dangerous and Purdue is a perfect example. Hummel will need to stay healthy (he battled back spasms and a stress fracture last year), guard E'Twan Moore should be able to run the ball consistently, JaJuan Johnson will give some size down low. A full season of experience should make this group a top challenger for the Big Ten regular season title.

Lost: Forward Dante Cunningham
Returning: Guards Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher
After dismantling opponents on the way to the Final Four last year, Jay Wright and his crew surprised a lot of people with their dominance. Clearly, their rugged Big East schedule toughened them up for what was ahead, but this year it may not be so easy to sneak up on people. The Wildcats will have speed, great range and solid ball-handling from Reynolds and the Coreys. Their experience and leadership should come in handy when guiding the newest recruiting class, which includes 2 McDonald's All-Americans (Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns) and is considered to be among the tops in the nation. The real question mark comes in the form of big men (as most of them are freshmen), but if Antonio Pena can provide some offense and one of the youngens is willing to step up, Nova should be okay. The Big East lost a LOT of talent to both graduation and the NBA draft, so this group should have a leg up on their opponents.

Lost: Guard/Forward Gerald Henderson, guard Greg Paulus (who didn't have another year for basketball, but decided to use a 5th year of eligibility to fling footballs around at Syracuse...THAT should be interesting...)
Returning: Junior forward Kyle Singler, senior guard Jon Scheyer, junior guard Nolan Smith
After being bested (and overshadowed) by National Champion North Carolina, the ACC-runners up may not have to suffer the same fate this season. Although Coach K will definitely miss the presence of Gerald Henderson, Scheyer, Singler and Smith have plenty of experience and talent to shoulder that burden. The Blue Devils also have a little bit of size on their side, and frankly, the guys that head to Duke to play ball are USUALLY pretty good (please note the sarcasm in that sentence). They may have a bit to prove, but it's a pretty safe bet Duke with be competing with the best of the best.

One other general observation--If last year was the year of the Big Man (think Blake Griffin, Luke Harangody, DaJuan Blair, Hasheem Thabeet and Tyler Hansbrough), 2009-2010 just might be the guards' turn...

P.S. Props to anyone reading this before November. I salute your dedication. :)

Check back soon for Part Two!!!!!!!