Overall, I always maintain that the best teams are the ones with veteran talent combined with fresh, skilled underclassmen. That said, here's a few nuggets on who I expect to be tough this year...
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
I am HOPING they will be as good as expected, because that would mean they play for a national championship. Which, of course, would make me off-the-wall, over-the-top, head-to-toe happy--but it's a dangerous road to have such sky-high expectations. Too late.
There are a few HUGE question marks about this team that could hinder their process. And I'm sure they will lose a game or two early in the year that makes everyone question how good they will be and then in the middle of the Big Ten season they will lose a game they shouldn't lose and everyone will question them again. I don't care about that. It pretty much happens every year. What I DO care about is them being stronger, healthier and generally better in March than they are now.
It remains to be seen how well Kalin Lucas will respond after his Achilles surgery. Will he have the same agility and quickness? Izzo has mentioned Kalin's overall shot has improved which is fanstastic. If he gets back his old speed and quickness--watch out! But that's still an "if." There is no question he will be good--he has too much talent. The question is HOW good--and how his rehab over the summer will change his style of play. Additionally, it remains to be seen how all the new freshmen will contribute as well as how the team will adjust after losing Chris Allen. Allen came into his own toward the end of the year in terms of defense and 3 point shooting and I can't say his leaving wasn't a blow. Can Durrell Summers stay productive offensively ala the NCAA Tourney? Will Draymond Green continue to play a huge leadership role? Time will tell...
DUKE BLUE DEVILS
It pains me to say this, but as of now, this is the team to beat. They lost a lot of talent with the departure of Zoubek and Scheyer, but they also RETURN plenty and let's be real--this is DUKE. They aren't taking leftover recruits. Seth Curry finally gets to debut and with Kyle Singler back on the court, I think they'll be just fine.
Yes, Robbie Hummel went down (again! Poor kid!) but even still, I think Purdue can be a Sweet 16 team. E'twaun Moore is strong at the guard spot and JaJuan Johnson gives them plenty down low...so even just that inside-out combo is enough. Factor in fresh legs and the fact that Matt Painter always manages to get his teams to play hard no matter what and I'd say the Big Ten teams have plenty to worry about.
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
I know, this is very Big Ten heavy. But sorry...that's where some of the best teams are coming from! OSU has a few freshmen that are highly recruited, PLUS David Lighty is finally back. He provides quickness, skills and leadership to guide the likes of Craft and Sullinger while they get their feet wet. It kind of blows my mind that all these talented kids opt for OHIO STATE (which isn't traditionally a men's bball powerhouse--always good, but not up there with the UNCs or Dukes or Kentuckys of the world)...but for some reason they DO...and with that, Thad Matta is building a really consistent program. Strange but true.
Like I would leave them out. Please. They lost Wes Johnson, which is huge, but overall, they have some great guards coming back in Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine (which, as a sidenote, is my 2nd favorite basketball player name ever after Squeaky Johnson). Additionally, they have a kid named Mookie and a guy named Fab...great names, great coach, lots of talent--it's pretty much a win for everyone involved.
Other teams that will be good (mostly because they always are) that have a good mix of old/new: Villanova and Kansas. I was going to put Butler in here as well, but after last night's performance against Louisville, I'm not so sure. I know it's early and they will get a lot better, but I'm not sure they will meet the expectations everyone else set for them. If Matt Howard can't stay out of foul trouble, they are going to have a LOT of problems.
I'm still not sold on Kansas State. I know they will be good, but I somehow never manage to see enough of them to make a solid judgement. Better get on that one!
TEAMS THAT SHOULD BE GOOD...BUT HOW GOOD REMAINS TO BE SEEN:
Illinois, Florida, Pitt, Kentucky, Baylor, Missouri and Georgetown. They have the tools and look good on paper...
TEAMS THAT EVERYONE SAYS WILL BE GOOD BUT I WILL BELIEVE IT WHEN I SEE IT:
Wait for it...drumroll....NORTH CAROLINA, this means YOU.
Listen, I don't doubt for ONE SECOND that UNC will not be good. They're UNC. I think last year was a fluke and I don't expect that to be a trend...but going from the season they had to being ranked as a top 10 team without even playing a game? Nope, not buying it.
Could they be a top 10 team in a month or two or whatever? Sure! But that kind of brings to light my huge problem with preseason rankings. Teams like Duke, MSU, Butler, etc have EARNED that spot. Based on what they did and who is returning, it makes sense to place them high because we know, to a certain extent, what they can do. With UNC?! Not so much. I would also place Texas in that category...again, I have no doubts they will be good, but I'm not sold on their status as a top 25.
That's all for now! Happy B-balling!