I think the last time I was this excited for the start of the college basketball season, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were suiting up as amateurs. In a related story, this year's freshman class is, as everyone knows, positively loaded with potential one-and-dones, with a whopping eleven of them currently rated among the top thirty draft prospects, including six of the top ten. There's a lot not to like about college basketball: the too-long shot clock that encourages coaches to have their teams play at a slow and ugly pace, the excruciatingly inconsistent officiating that contributes heavily towards endgames that take half an hour because of all the free throws, those horrendously ugly Zubaz uniforms that keep popping up (this from someone who actually likes a lot of Oregon football's sartorial choices), over-expanded conferences that make zero sense from a geographic standpoint (let us all observe a moment of silence for the Big East), and of course, to crown all, the stupefying intricacies of the Luddite NCAA organization itself. But the talent level this season is so high that it should override all of those things except, perhaps, that last one. Let's take a look at some of the more compelling players, teams, and stories.
Thank God that the NCAA did something intelligent for once in its existence and changed the rules so that defenders can no longer clutch, grab, and impede at will. As Jay Bilas astutely pointed out on ESPN.com, muggery as a means of defense had become an epidemic in recent seasons. Last year scoring was at its lowest level since the Eisenhower administration, and yet fouls were being called at their lowest rate ever (17.68 per team per game) despite having averaged 18 per team per game for a long time. Clearly, the rules against grabbing and holding were not being enforced. Now they will be, which means greater freedom of movement for the offense and of course more points scored (and also a more entertaining product). As both a coach and a fan, there is nothing so frustrating to me as coaches who slow the game down and ugly up every possession; basketball is a fast, exciting sport, and most people don't want to see a game that is the hardwood equivalent of three yards and a cloud of dust. I'm looking at you, Big Ten coaches. Now I might actually watch Big Ten games without wanting to pour Tabasco in my eyes (although I'm not sold on Wisconsin yet). In any case, the enforcement of this rule can really only be a good thing for the game, particularly in a year when so many (possible) transcendent talents are joining the college ranks, if only for one season.
The block/charge rule was also slightly altered so that a help defender can no longer slide in front of an offensive player who has begun the motion of going up with the ball (as opposed to already being in the air). While many people will celebrate the fact that stiff big men from Duke will not take as many charges, that was going to be the case anyway (see below for more details). I think (and hope) that the NCAA will continue to amend this rule, eventually adopting the NBA's five-foot circle rather than the current four-footer.
If you are a basketball fan, period, make sure to tune in for a few Wildcat games this season, because there's about a 25% chance that someone on this roster will be wearing your favorite NBA team's uniform in October 2014 (if that's more your thing). The aforementioned draft prospect rankings include not three, not four, but seven Kentucky freshmen and sophomores: Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, James Young, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, and Aaron Harrison. Excuse my language, but HOLY SHIT that's a lot of talent. By the way, that list doesn't include Marcus Lee, another freshman who was a McDonald's All-American this spring. Here's the lowdown:
Randle (6'9", 225): extremely athletic power forward with a man's body and the ability to score inside and out. Like an Evolutionary Terrence Jones, except right-handed.
Andrew Harrison (6'5". 210): giant point guard who can score and distribute equally well.
Young (6'7", 200): explosively athletic small forward who can score on anyone; Coach Calipari has been calling him the team's best player at this point.
Cauley-Stein (7'0", 220): speedy, agile big man who hasn't quite developed a feel for the game as of yet.
Poythress (6'7", 215): another bouncy wing who can defend anyone on the court but has consistency issues on offense.
Johnson (6'10", 250): a true post player with serious size; perhaps a poor man's Boogie Cousins.
Aaron Harrison (6'5", 210): Andrew's twin is a lights-out marksman with athletic ability and a tough defender.
Yikes. Calipari's biggest challenge will be getting all of these guys to buy in, especially without much in the way of senior leadership. The bet here is that Poythress and Johnson come off the bench, and that Lee and possibly freshman Derek Willis and/or senior Jarrod Polson will be the only other guys to see token minutes. Kentucky's biggest problem last year was the lack of a decent point guard, without which the dribble-drive offense can stagnate. Andrew Harrison immediately fixes that problem, and my best guess is that his brother runs the floor when he's on the bench, or perhaps Polson, who as an unassuming-looking white guy (6'2", 182) is going to be an enormous fan favorite in Lexington.
More frightening than the offensive potential for this team, even, is its defensive potential. The returning players learned first-hand about the importance of playing defense at Calipari's preferred suffocating level in their rather embarrassing loss at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Of the newbies, Young and the Harrisons all have great reputations as defenders, and Randle certainly has the ability. With this combination of size and athleticism, Kentucky can more or less dictate how games will go provided that everyone puts in the effort on that end. Check out their versatility with a couple of hypothetical lineups, one big and one small:
Big: Andrew Harrison, Young, Poythress, Cauley-Stein, Johnson (vs. an opponent with a back-to-the-basket type)
Small: both Harrisons, Young, Poythress, Randle/Lee (vs. a smaller team that will take its chances primarily from the perimeter)
There's really no drop-off there in terms of defensive prowess. Cauley-Stein is seven feet tall but can guard just about any stretch four or five in Division I. Poythress can handle undersized centers and three other positions. Young can guard three positions. The twins are big enough to match up with any guard. Lee provides rim protection in small lineups (he was also a volleyball star in high school). Johnson and Randle provide muscle...and on, and on, and on. You'll want to watch these guys. The marquee non-conference games to look out for are against Michigan State (Nov. 12), Baylor (Dec. 6), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), and the annual grudge match with Louisville (Dec. 28).
It's hard to believe that Kentucky was also a finalist for Wiggins, the best prospect in this deep freshman class, and the subject of a lot of Durant and Kobe comparisons. He is a big part of the reason that Kansas will start the season in the top five despite losing their entire starting lineup from a year ago. Wiggins is going to get buckets, but unlike Durant, don't expect him to drop 25-30 every night; Bill Self has other talented players on hand, and unlike Rick Barnes at Texas, he knows how to achieve proper balance and get the most out of every player. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Self is the best all-around coach in the country, and this is coming from an avowed Duke fan. Joining Wiggins in Lawrence are fellow outstanding freshmen Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid, who should both do a lot to take some of the other team's focus off of the quiet Canadian. The underrated story here is the addition of Tarik Black from Memphis, a senior who graduated and will be able to provide veteran leadership right away. He'll need to provide it quickly, because the Jayhawks face their first test on November 12th against Duke, and have a brutal three-game stretch shortly thereafter at Colorado (Dec. 7), Florida (Dec. 10), and New Mexico (Dec. 14) before coming home to face Georgetown (Dec. 21) right after finals. I'd say that 2-2 or better in that stretch qualifies as a win.
The new-look Big East
I'm very happy that the basketball-focused schools in the Big East were able to keep the name, even if Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, and others are gone. This should be a fun league. Although none of the teams left are national title contenders, only DePaul stinks, so the quality of league play should be high. Assuming it is, and that there are a lot of close games, be sure to tune in to the league's new A-list broadcasting team, Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery. I have said for years that it would be awesome to pair the most exciting play-by-play guy with the most exciting color man, and voila! Now we'll get to experience it for a full year at least. The Big East also boasts some excellent coaches; JTIII's Georgetown teams are a nightmare matchup for anyone, and Buzz Williams does more with less than any coach in America at Marquette. The league also features perhaps the country's best college basketball player in Creighton's Doug McDermott, an incredibly polished scorer who has an outside chance at becoming the eighth player in Division I history to score three thousand points in his career. McDermott has 2116 now and has scored over 800 each of the past two seasons, so it's within reach, but the Bluejays probably need to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in order for it to happen. Regardless, now that Creighton will be on national television on something resembling a regular basis, make sure to watch the baby-faced assassin, who has the skill set to post shooting percentages of 50/60/90, which would be an even rarer achievement than getting the 884 points necessary for 3000 in his career.
Arizona is back, ladies and gentlemen! Lute Olson let the program go a little off the rails in his last couple years in the desert; by "off the rails," I mean that the Wildcats fell back to the pack from the nation's elite. Olson still won 20 games in each of his last two seasons on the bench. Arizona then cycled through the non-noteworthy Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell before making a brilliant hire of Xavier's Sean Miller, who entering his fifth season has returned the luster to the program, luring five-star recruits to the best western basketball program not named UCLA. He's got his best recruit yet this year in McDonald's All-American MVP Aaron Gordon, a forward from San Francisco's Archbishop Mitty High School who will be posterizing many victims in the Pac-12 this year before he goes off to become a lottery pick. Gordon is a little skinny for an NBA four at 6'9", 225, but he is going to get a chance to prove himself on the wing this season thanks to Arizona's abundance of riches up front, with sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell should be able to keep everyone involved and happy from the point, and as a result Arizona could make some serious Final Four noise this year. The only major non-league games that you'll be able to watch on basic cable are against UNLV (Dec. 7) and at Michigan (Dec. 14).
The ACC Newcomers
Part of me is sad to see Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame join the ACC this year both because of how the Big East has been wrecked and because there's not really any history between these schools and most of the veteran conference members (except for the fact that Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey is a former Duke assistant). But part of me is also excited, because the quality of league play should increase considerably (and even more so next year when Louisville joins). Barring the Big East, no major conference was built as much on basketball as the ACC, but the overall quality of the league has eroded since it expanded to include Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College. All three of those schools have had their moments in the basketball sun since joining the ACC (Miami won the league last year), but none are traditional basketball powers. The addition of Syracuse (and eventually Louisville) emphatically changes that dynamic, and both Pitt (11 NCAA appearances over the past 12 years) and Notre Dame (8 of 12) don't exactly hurt the overall quality. In fact, thanks to this expansion, the ACC will open the season with five ranked teams (Duke, Syracuse, UNC, Notre Dame, and Virginia), plus Pitt in the "also receiving votes" category. That looks a lot better than just having three teams ranked.
As to those teams, I fully expect that the conference title chase will be something of a two-horse race between Duke and Syracuse. UNC has plenty of talent, but they also have a lot of drama going on (take a bow, P.J. Hairston!) and a coach who is, shall we say, not at his best in close games against teams with comparable or better players. And Duke and Syracuse both have comparable (or better) players. Let's start with the Orange. Mr. Cantankerous, Jim Boeheim, lost three double-figure scorers from last year's Elite Eight outfit, but returns a top candidate for ACC Player of the Year in forward C.J. Fair (6'8", 215), a smooth lefty with athletic ability and an outside shot. Five other major contributors are back, most notably sophomore forward Jerami Grant (6'8", 210), and Boeheim adds to that the sixth-ranked recruiting class in the country, not to mention sophomore forward Michael Gbinije (6'7", 200), a transfer from...Duke. Leaving the Big East has even encouraged Boeheim to schedule fewer Little Sisters of the Poor outfits early in the season, as the Orange have dates with Minnesota (Nov. 25 as part of the Maui Invitational), Indiana (Dec. 3), at Saint John's (Dec. 15), and Villanova (Dec. 28).
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, will have one of their smallest teams in recent memory. They have not yet exhausted their supply of Flying Plumlees, but redshirt sophomore Marshall has trouble staying on the floor due to balky feet and is unlikely to get major minutes. Instead, Coach K will start a frontcourt of three rather similarly-sized players: sophomore Amile Jefferson (6'9", 210) will be the nominal center thanks to his work on the glass, sophomore Rodney Hood (a 6'8", 215-pound transfer from Mississippi State) will be the small forward, and freshman Jabari Parker (6'8". 235) will be manning the do-it-all power forward spot, the former province of Shane Battier, Kyle Singler, and the former Blue Devil to whom Parker is most often compared, Grant Hill. After a year in which Andrew Wiggins jumped a grade and Parker dealt with an injury, a lot of people have a hard time remembering that Parker was originally the class standout, with the Sports Illustrated cover, four consecutive Illinois state championships, and everything else. The usual flotilla of shooting guards will round out the rotation along with senior scrappers Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton, this year's likely focal points for the more rabid Duke haters out there. Big games for Duke include the aforementioned Kansas tilt (Nov. 12), Michigan (Dec. 3), and UCLA (Dec. 19).
Last but not least, there is the matter of the defending national champions, Slick Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals. Despite losing Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng to graduation and the NBA, the Cards are still a top-ten team, with several key returners and some new talent to join them. Chief among them is Russ-diculous Smith (6'0", 165), a guy who can play tenacious defense, score forty points,...and occasionally make a couple of dumb mistakes at pivotal moments. Luke Hancock (6'6", 200) is back to shoot threes, Wayne Blackshear (6'5", 230) and Montrezl Harrell (6'8", 235) provide energy and athleticism, and Kevin Ware (6'2", 175) has recovered from the horrific broken leg he suffered in the Elite Eight. Forward Chane Behanan (6'6", 250) is currently suspended indefinitely, but whenever he returns he should round out a talented and tough nucleus that adds freshmen guards Terry Rozier (6'1", 170), and Anton Gill (6'4", 180), along with forward Akoy Agau (6'8", 235). Pitino's players will, as usual, create havoc with their press and tough defense, and now that they no longer have to run the gauntlet of the Big East they should be even fresher in March this time around. Sadly, their only non-league game of consequence is their December 28 trip down to Rupp Arena for one of college basketball's best blood feuds.
Wherever your basketball allegiance lies, there should be some excellent ball being played in the college ranks this season, so make sure to catch at least some of it, even if your only motivation is a scouting report on the next crop of NBA stars. But this season should be fun