Tuesday, January 5, 2010

3 Up, 3 Down, 3 Just About Right

As 2010 gets underway, let's take a look at which teams have surprised (for good or for bad) and which were rated just about right in the preseason.

3 Up:

1. Syracuse: The Orange came into this season unranked in the AP Poll and 25th in the ESPN/USA Today. I think we see now that they were vastly underrated. They're balanced, explosive, and well-coached, and have a slew of impressive victories over Cal, UNC, and Florida to their credit. Had the coaches and pollsters known how good Wesley Johnson was going to be, their preseason ranking would have been higher, but Syracuse has exceeded expectations in a big way this year, regardless of their recent home loss at the hands of Pittsburgh.

2. Kansas State: Frank Martin's squad was picked to finish 4th in the conference in the Big 12 Preseason Poll. While in all likelihood they'll only finish a slot higher than expected, nobody thought the Wildcats would get this good this fast. The boys from Manhattan (Manhappenin' as the locals call it) come out of their nonconference slate with a 13-1 record, with solid victories over Xavier, UNLV, Alabama, and Dayton, with their lone loss coming to a good Ole Miss team. Jacob Pullen is the undisputed leader of the team, and the guard is shooting absolutely lights out from beyond the arc. The experience of Denis Clemente has made for a strong back court, and the Wildcats have several able-bodied big men at their disposal. If they get consistent play from their front court, K-State could be a major factor come March.

3. Temple: I might have picked Wisconsin here, but in the interest of conference variety, I'll go with the Owls. Home massacre at the hands of Kansas aside, Temple has wildly exceeded their preseason expectations so far this season. Picked to finish 5th in the Atlantic 10, the Owls have solid non-conference victories over Siena, Virginia Tech, and Penn State to their credit, as well as a signature win over the 6th ranked Villanova Wildcats. Fran Dunphy's squad has been bolstered by the breakout play of guard Juan Fernandez, who forms a nice back court tandem with experienced senior Ryan Brooks. The blowout loss to the Jayhawks certainly exposed them, but I expect the Owls to be serious contenders in the A-10 and a trendy upset pick come tournament time.

Honorable Mention: USC, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh

3 Down:

1. Oklahoma: Picked to finish 3rd in the Big 12 this season, the Sooners have struggled out of the gate, finishing non-conference play with a pedestrian 9-5 record littered with losses to mediocre teams like VCU, San Diego, and Houston. OU needs better play from star guard Willie Warren, who has an assist to turnover ratio of just 1.13/1. He needs to do a better job of getting his teammates involved, and senior Tony Crocker needs to step up and shoulder a more significant leadership load as the conference slate unfolds. Gotta love the ironically named Tiny Gallon, though. Did anyone see him absolutely shatter a backboard against Gonzaga?

2. Michigan: John Beilein's Wolverines have not lived up to their substantial expectations for this season. They entered the 2009-2010 college basketball year ranked 15th in both polls, but instead have struggled to keep their heads above .500 for much of this early season. A home win over Ohio State on Sunday took them to 7-6 and evened their Big Ten record at 1-1, but Michigan has been a significant disappointment in all areas this year. Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims have been consistent producers on the offensive end, but the role players simply have not stepped up to the plate. Beilein's offense relies on good 3-point shooting, and Michigan simply doesn't have it. They'll need Zack Novak, Laval Lucas-Perry, and Stu Douglass to up their level of play to contend for a top 4 or 5 finish in the Big Ten.

3. UCLA: The Pac-10 is way down this year, and the Bruins are a major reason why. At 6-8, they're making 3 consecutive Final Four appearances under Ben Howland seem light years behind them. I don't think anyone expected the departure of Jrue Holiday to have such a huge impact, but few teams could rebound from the level and amount of NBA talent the Bruins have lost in the past 3 or 4 seasons. They're young and inexperienced, and it shows. While they appear to be showing signs of improvement, they have a long way to go to think about finishing in the top half of a weak Pacific 10 conference. They look balanced on paper with 5 players averaging in double figures, but live and in person it's a different story. Young guards Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson have struggled to run the offense and the experienced "leaders" of the team like Nikola Dragovic and Michael Roll haven't shown that they can help to right the ship.

Honorable Mention: California, Butler, South Carolina

3 Who Have Lived up to the Hype:

1. Kansas: If it looks like a rat, smells like a rat, then it probably is a rat. KU is a legitimate #1 team in college basketball, and to my eyes, they look they the best team in the country and the favorite to cut down the nets in March. They are balanced, experienced, and have a stellar freshman in Xavier Henry leading them in scoring, which has been an indicator of championship teams in the past (Carmel Anthony, Derrick Rose, etc). They can hurt you in so many ways, and with so many scoring options, can withstand the occasional bad game from Collins or Aldrich. The Jayhawks would be my pick to win the whole thing if the tourney started today, followed closely by....

2. Texas: Texas was picked 3rd in both polls before the start of the season, and have lived up to those expectations and more, giving college basketball fans the country over an intriguing 1-2 battle between teams in the same conference. Questions about their legitimacy abounded until they posted impressive victories over Michigan State and North Carolina in Cowboys Stadium. They have a legitimate go-to scorer in Damion James, a vastly improved big man in Dexter Pittman, and a stable of guards to run their offense. Once Florida transfer Jai Lucas learns that offense and begins to mesh with the Killer B's (J'Covan Brown, Avery Bradley, Dogus Balbay), Texas will be a major title contender in March.

3. Purdue: The Boilermakers join the Jayhawks and Longhorns as one of 4 remaining undefeated teams. I love this Boiler team. They are balanced, experienced, and play a brand of defense unlike what most teams are prepared for. They really get out and defend, pressure passing lanes, and force opponents out of their comfort zones. Chris Kramer is as efficient a point guard as you could ask for, and although he may be slightly overvalued, I like Robbie Hummel a lot. JaJuan Johnson has been a consistent force on the low block this season, and E'Twaun Moore has provided the same consistency from the shooting guard spot. Expect the Boilers to make a deep run in the tourney this year.

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