by Gus Elvin
Alright people now that my early preseason top 25 is out, I’ve decided to start a new series of articles that will help set the table for the 2012-2013 season. This series entitled “Guru’s Top Ten”, for the most part will be list format, as I will provide a list of 10 teams, players, coaches, or anything else related to college basketball leading up to next season. For example, this list could be anything from 10 mid majors to watch, to 10 breakout players, etc. For the 1st installment, I thought I’d take a look at some teams outside of my preseason top 25 that could make some noise next season. I know college basketball is out of season so it’s not something you readers want every day, but this once a week/every other week series is a way to stay in the loop with the happenings of college basketball, without being overburdened. Like I said for our first edition of “Guru’s Top Ten” we will take a look at “10 Teams Outside of the Top 25 to Watch”. This list is not in any particular order but just a list of 10 teams that are going a bit under the radar, who could be major players next season. Here is “Guru’s Top Ten Teams Outside of the Top 25 to Watch”.
Tennessee- The Volunteers overachieved in my opinion in their first year under Cuonzo Martin, as the Vols were able to overcome
the distraction/sanctions of the Bruce Pearl era and win 19 games and 10 games in SEC play. The result was a 4th place finish in the SEC, not bad when you consider most writers/analysts(myself included) picked them to finish 9th or 10th in the preseason. This season the Volunteers have higher aspirations and a group in place that could make good on those aspirations led by Jerome Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. This frontcourt duo of Maymon(12.7ppg, 8.1rpg) and Stokes(9.6ppg, 7.4rpg), should be formidable again this season for the Volunteers, as Maymom is now completely healthy , while Stokes will be starting his first full season in Knoxville. Stokes who was a top 25 recruit for the 2012 season before reclassifying and joining the Vols for the last 17 games a season ago, is a player Cuonzo Martin can build around and a guy who is fully capable of averaging upwards of 15 points and 9 rebounds this season. While Tennessee’s frontcourt will get most of the attention and provide most of the scoring, the key to the Vols’ success this season will be their guard play. Tennessee will need Trae Golden (13.6ppg, 4.5apg) to continue to progress as the starting point guard and also will lean on Jordan McRae and Skyler McBee for backcourt scoring. Golden who made a massive jump a season ago from 3ppg to 13.6ppg, will have the keys to this Tennessee basketball team once again as the junior figures to play the lion share of the minutes at the point. Tennessee is far from a polished product as they have very little depth and are still relatively young, but with a frontcourt tandem of Maymon and Stokes and a dynamic and improving guard in Golden, the Volunteers have a talented nucleus entering 2012-2013. Tennessee also adds in recruiting as mid-level recruits Armani Moore and Derek Reese are both projected to crack the rotation as are 2011 recruits Josh Richardson and Quinton Chievous. The Volunteers will have their work cut out for them in what figures to be a fairly strong SEC but look for Jarnell Stokes to have a huge season, as the former top recruit was an instant double-double threat last season as just an 18 year old.
New Mexico- The Mountain West last season was once again a 4 bid league but this year with New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State all being ranked in some preseason top 25 polls, is this the year the MWC reaches new heights? While UNLV and SDSU look to be top 25 teams entering the season, the Lobos are going largely unnoticed despite the fact that they return 5 of the top 7 scorers from a team that won 28 games. The reason aspirations are being subdued is one of the those losses is Drew Gordon, the All-MWC center who led the Lobos in scoring and rebounding with averages of 13.4points and 10.9 rebounds. Gordon will be missed but New Mexico has almost everyone else back led by Kendall Williams, who will try and guide Steve Alford’s club to their 3rd NCAA Tournament in the past 4 seasons. Williams(12.1ppg, 4.3apg), the Lobos point guard is on every shortlist for the Bob Cousy Award next season as the junior should emerge as New Mexico’s on court leader now that Drew Gordon has graduated. New Mexico also brings back sharpshooter Tony Snell(10.5ppg, 38%-3pt), as well as scoring guards Jamal Fenton and Demetrious Walker and Aussie point guard Hugh Greenwood. In other words the Lobos are loaded in the backcourt and if they can get some production from their frontcourt of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow the sky truly is the limit for this team. Kirk who missed all of last season with a back injury is a former consensus top 100 recruit who if healthy should help soften the blow of Gordon’s departure. UNM also bolsters their frontcourt in recruiting as the Lobos bring in a long shot blocker in Obij Aget, and a pair of power forwards out of Texas in Nick Banyard and Devon Williams. New Mexico has the talent in place to be very good in both the Mountain West and nationally, as Kendall Williams is one of the best returning point guards in the nation and the Lobos also return a plethora of outside shooters led by Snell, Fenton and Walker. Frontcourt play will be key for the Lobos, but with the talented Alex Kirk healthy and a frontcourt driven recruiting class, New Mexico to me is a team to watch.
Arkansas-I have already mentioned Tennessee in the SEC, but my top team to watch in the SEC is Arkansas, as the Razorbacks bring back their top 4 scorers and have a year of experience in Mike Anderson’s frantic “Fastest 40 Minutes” system. The biggest reason the ‘Hogs are one of my teams to watch is the return of B.J. Young. Young, who flirted with the NBA Draft is back for his sophomore season and will look to build on a debut campaign in which he averaged a team high 15.3 points per game, while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range. Young will team up with fellow sophomore Ky Madden to give the Razorbacks one of the most explosive young backcourts in the nation. Madden who struggled last season, after a prolific high school career, figures to be much improved as a sophomore. At 6-5, Madden is an explosive athlete who can get to the rim at will but still needs to add consistency to his perimeter jump shot. In the frontcourt the Razorbacks bring back everyone as Marshawn Powell is healthy after playing in just 2 games a season ago due to an ACL injury, Devonta Abram is back for his sophomore season, and Hunter Mickelson has added muscle and has a year of experience under his belt at center. Powell who averaged 14.9ppg as a freshman in 09-10, will be the offensive leader up front as the redshirt junior is expected to be completely healthy and is one of the few veterans on this roster. Mickelson is a guy to watch for me as the 7 footer showed he could block shots and impact games on the defensive end as a freshman but will need to continue to develop his body and offensive game in an SEC that will feature Nerlens Noel, Johnny O’Bryant and Patric Young. Also back are guards Rickey Scott(9.1ppg) and Mardracus Wade(10.8ppg) as well as Oklahoma State transfer Fred Gulley. Gulley a former top recruit could be a key player for Arkansas, as the Razorbacks lack a true point guard and need someone to emerge as a facilitator and pass first guard with the transfer of leading assist man Julysses Nobles. With B.J. Young, Ky Madden and Marshawn Powell all back and developing young front court players like Devonta Abron and Hunter Mickelson, the Razorbacks are my sleeper pick in the SEC. B.J. Young is a bona fide #1 option, and I expect Madden and Mickleson to progress, so look for Arkansas to jump back into the NCAA Tournament under Mike Anderson. Mike Anderson is a proven commodity and with a year under his belt at his “old home” look for the ‘Hogs to make an impact largely due to that heralded 2011 recruiting class by John Pelfrey of Young, Abron, Madden and Mickelson. If Arkansas can find a point guard, the rest of the pieces are in place for the Razorbacks to have a resurgence, as Arkansas’ projected starting 5 of B.J. Young, Mardracus Wade, Ky Madden, Marshawn Powell and Hunter Mickelson looks rather solid on paper.
Massachusetts- UMass has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998 but next season the Minutemen figure to challenge that streak, as they return their top 5 scorers led by diminutive point guard Chaz Williams. The 5-9 Williams was an instant hit in Amherst, Massachusetts as he averaged 16.9 points and 6.2 assists in his first season after transferring from Hofstra. Williams led the Minutemen to both the semis of the A-10 Tournament and the NIT, but next season UMass has their eyes on bigger things, namely the NCAA Tournament. Williams figures to lead that charge but he is not alone as the Minutemen also bring back forwards Raphael Putney (10.1ppg, 5.9rpg) and Terrell Vinson(9.9ppg, 5.1rpg), as well as guards Jesse Morgan and Javorn Farrell. Derek Kellogg who was on the hot seat even midway through last season appears to have this program on the upswing and with Williams and co back, there is no reason this team shouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament a year from now. UMass loses only Sean Carter from last year’s NIT Final Four team, and next season expect players like Javorn Farrell and Max Esho to make significant strides. The Minutemen last season ranked 23rd in the nation in scoring at 76.8ppg, and with a free flowing offense and almost everyone returning expect Massachusetts to put up similar numbers in 2012-13. While UMass should be a very strong offensive team again next season with Williams, Putney, and Morgan back, defense will be an important factor to UMass’s success as the Minutemen will need to bear down on the defensive end of the floor. UMass will need to greatly improve defensively, as Massachusetts’ opponents averaged over 72ppg a season ago, a total which ranked in the bottom 75 in college basetball(283rd). With Williams and a frontcourt of the long and athletic Raphael Putney and former bluechip recruit Terrell Vinson, the Minutemen should be one of the favorites to win the Atlantic 10 conference along with Xavier and Temple. Chaz Williams is one of the more underappreciated stars in college basketball and after a great NIT run look for Williams to put himself and the Minutemen as a whole back on the map next season. Massachusetts is a team not too many people are talking about but with an explosive offensive unit and everyone back led by fiery leader Chaz Williams, UMass will surprise and may end up being the best team in the Atlantic 10.
Oklahoma State-The Cowboys in all honesty endured a tumultuous season a year ago, as OK State finished just 15-18 and also dealt with transfers(Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell), injuries(Le’Bryan Nash and J.P. Olukemi), legal issues(Darrell Williams) and lastly but most importantly the tragic plane crash in which 2 Oklahoma State women’s basketball coaches died. Everyone in Stillwater is glad last season is behind them and this year the ‘Pokes will look to bounce back on the hardwood with a talented nucleus of returnees and the arrival of blue chip prospect Marcus Smart. Gone is the school’s 6th all-time leading scorer Keiton Page, but almost everyone else returns led by rising sophomore Le’Bryan Nash (13.3ppg, 5rpg) and senior to be J.P. Olukemi (11.1ppg in 2010-11). Nash a consensus top 10 recruit a year ago is the biggest returnee, as the 6’7 forward will look to build on an up and down freshman season, after wisely turning down the NBA Draft. With Page gone, Nash figures to be more assertive and play a larger role as a sophomore, as the talented forward has the talent to be a 1st team All-Big 12 player. Olukemi who is back from an ACL injury which shortened his junior season to 13 games, also should help as the senior gives OK State an attacking off guard and a veteran presence to replace Page. Also back for the Cowboys are a trio of talented guards as human highlight reel Markel Brown (10.5ppg) is back, as is redshirt sophomore Brian Williams and dynamic sophomore point guard Cezar Guerrero. This trio will be an important group for the ‘Pokes as they all figure to play an increased role with the graduation of Keiton Page and the transfers of Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell. Guerrero is a player to keep an eye on as the flashy point guard had his moments as a freshman but will need to be much more consistent and disciplined during his 2nd season on campus. Look for Guerrero to blossom this season as he will be well coached, under head Travis Ford who was a prolific point guard for Kentucky back in the early 90’s. As solid as the returning cast is for the Cowboys, the most important player to Travis Ford’s program may be incoming freshman Marcus Smart. Smart a McDonald’s All-American is a physically imposing guard at 6-3, 200lbs who can play both point guard and shooting guard. The freshman figures to see some time at the point with Guerrero and will instantly give the Cowboys a strong penetrating guard who can control the game as a driving scorer or facilitator. Smart still has room to grow as a perimeter shooter but his strength, vision and competitiveness are already off the charts. Expect Smart to be a game changer as a freshman as his body and raw abilities are already elite for a college guard. Travis Ford has a good one in Smart, and I expect Smart to be one of the more productive freshman in all the land next season, as Smart has an NBA body and is a mismatch physically from the point guard position. Oklahoma State also brings in a long range freshman shooter in Phil Forte who at 5-10 will immediately attract Keiton Page comparisons, and also add Kamari Taylor, an athletic forward with major upside. Oklahoma State has a number of talented players back in the backcourt and if Le’Bryan Nash can emerge as the player many thought he would be as a freshman, the Cowboys should have a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament after a 2 year absence. In the frontcourt Oklahoma State also returns Michael Cobbins and shot blocker Phillip Jurick(1.7bpg) to pair alongside Nash, although Nash will be tasked with most of the scoring from the post. I may be a little optimistic but I think all the pieces are in place for the Cowboys to be very good next season in the new look Big 12, as I anticipate a huge season from Le’Bryan Nash and Marcus Smart to be as good as advertised. One major statistic the Cowboys will need to improve on next season is 3-point shooting as the Cowboys shot just 33 percent from downtown, while averaging 20 attempts per game. OK State has a lot of good penetrators but will need these players to improve from the perimeter as Oklahoma State loses the school’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made Keiton Page, a 37 percent career 3-point shooter. Travis Ford’s club will be much better this season as a very young but very talented group has people excited about college basketball season in Stillwater.
Butler- Last season unlike many experts I didn’t fall into the Butler trap as I projected a rebuilding year for Brad Steven and his Bulldogs. Butler finished a mediocre 22-15 on the season but this season I am back on the Butler bandwagon, as I see the Bulldogs having a big year due to a tremendous returning core and newcomers Rotnei Clarke (Arkansas) and Kellen Dunham. Butler brings back everyone from last season’s team except for do everything guard Ronald Nored (7.8ppg, 4.2rpg, 5.2apg, 1.8spg), who was the emotional leader for Brad Stevens and the team’s glue and de facto point guard. The biggest returnees for Butler are in the frontcourt as Andrew Smith(10.9ppg, 5.2rpg) and Khyle Marshall(9.8pp, 4.3rpg) return to give Butler what figures to be the elite frontcourt in the Horizon league. Marshall and Smith are both carryovers from Butler’s Final Four teams and will be expected of even more this season with Smith entering his senior season and Marshall entering his junior campaign. Marshall a former top recruit is an explosive talent who has huge upside and should become a household name this season not just in the Horizon League but nationally. Also back in the frontcourt are Roosevelt Jones and Kameron Woods who both impressed as freshmen, with Jones coming on late in the season averaging 8 points and 6 as a true freshman. In the backcourt Crishawn Hopkins is back after a breakout sophomore season in which he averaged 9.1 points and 1.5 assists, as is senior Chase Stigall (5.2pp). Another key returnee for Butler is sophomore point guard Jackson Aldridge (3.7ppg, 1apg) who struggled in his first season at Butler. The Australian was a huge get for Brad Stevens in recruiting before last season and with a year of adaptation and coaching expect Aldridge to make major strides as a sophomore and become Butler’s #1 facilitator. With Stigall, Alridge and Hopkins all back, Butler already figures to have a solid backcourt but add in Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and ESPNU Top 100 recruit Kellen Dunham, and it’s easy to see why I am so high on the Bulldogs. Clarke who sat out last season because of transfer rules was one of the nation’s top shooters during his first 3 seasons at Arkansas, and is a 42 percent career 3-point shooter. Clarke who in his junior season at Arkansas averaged 15.2 points and shot a lights out 44 percent from 3-point range, should instantly give Butler an established scorer in the backcourt to go along with a potent frontcourt of Smith and Marshall. The other newcomer figures to make an immediate impact as well, as freshman Kellen Dunham is a late riser as a prospect who has surfaced in the latest ESPNU Top 100 rankings. Dunham is best known for his shooting stroke, as the Indiana high school prospect is one of the better shooters in the class and is deadly coming off of screens. Dunham also has solid size, as at 6-5 he can get his shot off over most defenders, and is also underrated as a driver where he has greatly improved over the last year. Clarke and Dunham give Butler 2 marksmen shooters something Brad Stevens will welcome with open arms. Stevens will be especially pleased with these additions after the season Butler had shooting the basketball last year, as his Bulldogs shot just 28 percent which ranked them 341st in college basketball, or in layman’s terms the 5th worst percentage in all of college basketball. Butler figures to be back in the news next season in college basketball, as a frontcourt of Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall and a backcourt of Crishawn Hopkins, Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham should have the Bulldogs hovering around the Top 25 plateau.
Gonzaga- Another Bulldog team to watch, Gonzaga looks to reascend to the top of the WCC after surrendering the WCC regular season title for the first time in 12 years. That task won’t be easy as BYU and Saint Mary’s figure to be strong once again but the Zags are my pick in the WCC with Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell all returning. The biggest name here is Harris, as the senior flirted with the NBA for the 3rd consecutive offseason before deciding it was best for him to return for his senior season. The senior from Germany made the right move as now Harris (13.1ppg, 8.5rpg), will have 1 more season to try and rekindle the form that he displayed as a freshman when he averaged 14.9ppg and 7.1rpg. It is not that Harris has played poorly the last few years or even that his form has decreased, as Harris’ dip in production is more of a product of opponents keying on him and his own lack of aggressiveness. As a senior with frontcourt mate Robert Sacre having graduated, it will be up to Harris to become more assertive and look for his own shot something he has not done as much the past 2 seasons. If Harris plays to his potential and becomes a little more selfish he could be a dark horse All-American candidate next season. Elias Harris is as relentless a rebounder as there is in college basketball and with the ability to score in the paint or from the perimeter, Harris will turn a lot of heads next season as a senior. Like I mentioned the biggest loss is Sacre, as Gonzaga loses both its’ 3rd leading scorer and unquestioned emotional and spiritual leader. The player likely to step in for Sacre is Sam Dower (8.3ppg, 3.7rpg) who will likely move from forward to center. In addition to Dower, Gonzaga recently inked a commitment from Przemec Karnowski, a polish 7-footer who was garnering looks from Duke and California among others. Karnowski is an experienced player for the Polish junior national team, and averaged 13.2ppg and 6.2rpg for Poland at last summer’s FIBA U-19 World Championships. According to sources, Karnowski is not as raw as one would think as he has a solid command both offensively and defensively and could make Mark Few’s starting lineup by day 1. While Harris will lead the Zags frontcourt, their backcourt is also in good hands as sophomores Kevin Pangos (13.6ppg, 3.4apg) and Gary Bell Jr.(10.4ppg) are both back and look to build on outstanding freshman seasons. Both freshmen were tremendous in their 1st year in Spokane, but in all honesty both seemingly have just scratched the surface in terms of potential as Bell and Pangos are huge talents that should only get better with experience. Gonzaga also returns reserve David Stockton who came on late last season, as well as French wing Guy Landry Edi who showed flashes last season notching double figures 5 times after joining the team in mid-December. The final player on this team to watch is Kelly Olynyk who redshirted last season but in the past has been a valuable player for the ‘Zags. Olynyk gives the team some added size at 7-feet but is more of a perimeter oriented player. While Olynyk’s career stats at Gonzaga are unimpressive, he has starred for team Canada in the past and if he can bring that success to the college game, he could have a breakout season. Gonzaga will be one of the better teams out west next season as a deadly backcourt of Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos, and a future NBA player in forward Elias Harris give me optimism that the Zags will crack the top 25 by early December next season. As a final note while Harris, Pangos and Bell will likely be the Bulldogs best 3 players, don’t discount Gonzaga’s frontcourt lightly, as Sam Dower has the ability and versatility to have a breakout year as does Kelly Olynyk. The major question with Gonzaga is who will replace Robert Sacre’s presence on the offensive and defensive end, and my money is on Sam Dower and the freshman Przemec Karnowski, who if as good as advertised could be a very quiet but very important signing for Mark Few. The WCC is a league on the rise and with Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, the West Coast Conference could be a 3 bid league once again.
Miami- While most of the talk surrounding the ACC next season centers around NC State, North Carolina and Duke, a team that could surprise some people is the Miami Hurricanes. The ‘Canes lose only point guard Malcolm Grant(11.3ppg) and role player DeQuan Jones from a team that came on strong during the 2nd half of the season and came up just short of an NCAA Tournament bid. Even without Grant, Miami should have a very strong backcourt as both Durand Scott (12.9ppg, 5.4rpg. 3.1apg) and Shane Larkin return, as do reserves Rion Brown and Trey McKinney-Jones. Scott, a senior from New York City will be counted on for not only scoring and playmaking next season, but also leadership and grit. His starting backcourt mate figures to be Larkin, who had a very strong freshman season (7.4ppg, 2.5apg) despite not being considered an elite recruit coming in. Larkin, the son of Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, is making a name for himself at Miami and as a sophomore look for Larkin to add to his freshman year totals and become even more of an offensive factor. The other key veteran returnee for Miami is center Reggie Johnson, who hopes his senior season goes a lot more smoothly than his junior one did. Johnson was expected to have a monster year a season ago, before suffering a crippling knee injury in the preseason that kept him out until mid-December. This injury limited Johnson’s effectiveness over the 2nd half of the season and also had a negative effect on Johnson’s conditioning which was already an issue for the 290lb center. Look for Johnson to be a much improved player this season as he promises to be in better shape and look more like the dominant player he was at times during his sophomore year. Johnson in the frontcourt will be joined by Kenny Kadji, a former Florida Gator who broke out last season in his 1st year in Coral Gables with averages of 11.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Kadji will be a key player this year for Jim Larranaga, as at 6-11 he has the rare ability to both shoot from the perimeter (42%) and bang inside. If Johnson can rediscover his sophomore year form and Kadji can repeat his totals from his junior season, the Hurricanes should have one of the best frontcourts in the ACC and a frontcourt duo that can play with anyone in the country. In terms of depth Miami brings back both Rion Brown and Trey McKinney Jones in the backcourt, 2 guys who can shoot the ball from the perimeter (39% and 37% respectively), combining for 81 3-pointers a season ago. Like Larkin, look for Brown to become a major factor this season for Miami as the junior has great length at 6-6 and can beat you going to the basket or from downtown. The final piece to the puzzle for Jim Larranaga’s club is incoming freshman Melvin Johnson, an ESPNU Top 100 recruit who figures to see playing time from day 1. Johnson like so many of these Miami guards has tremendous shooting range and will give Miami another weapon coming off the bench behind Durand Scott and Shane Larkin. Miami shoots a lot of 3-pointers (714 to be exact) and will live and die by the 3 again next season. That being said with good outside shooters like Larkin, Brown, Kadji and McKinney-Jones, the Hurricanes will live a lot more often than they’ll die and should finish 4th or 5th in the ACC. A starting 5 of Scott, Larkin, Brown, Kadji and Johnson sounds very intriguing to me and if Miami can avoid injuries and make threes then Miami could be a scary team out of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Kansas State- The Wildcats continued their recent run as a program as they won 22 games and reached the NCAA Tournament for the 3rd consecutive season and 4th time in 5 years. The bad news is that if Kansas State wants to continue that streak it will have to do so under a new head coach as Frank Martin left Kansas State for South Carolina because of personal differences. Bruce Weber is the man tasked with replacing the controversial but successful Martin, as Weber arrives in Manhattan after a tumultuous last season at Illinois. The good news for Weber is that he walks into a very good situation as Kansas State loses just 1 player (Jamar Samuels) from a team coming off a 22 win season and a 1st round tournament win. That group is led by returning star Rodney McGruder (15.4ppg, 5.3rpg). McGruder who was a secondary scoring option during his 1st two season had a breakout season a year ago, as the junior averaged over 15 points per game and at times singlehandedly carried Kansas State offensively. McGruder briefly thought about turning professional this spring but in the end decided to return for his senior season and because of that Kansas State figures to float around the top 25 all season. McGruder will be joined in the backcourt by point guard Will Spradling (9.5ppg, 3apg), a solid player who doesn’t wow you but is a proven winner and a solid fundamental floor general. The 3rd returning guard is sophomore Angel Rodriguez who had an up and down season under Frank Martin but came on strong down the stretch. Rodriguez is a talented guard who I feel was limited by Martin and his strict style, but this season under a calmer and less intimidating coach in Weber look for Rodriguez to play a lot looser display some of that flair he was known for in high school. In the frontcourt K-State will have to replace Samuels, their 2nd leading scorer (10ppg) and leading rebounder (6.6rpg) but with Thomas Gipson, Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz all back K-State should continue to be one of the best rebounding clubs in America. Gipson was a pleasant surprise last season for the Wildcats as the sophomore averaged 7 points and 4.7 rebounds as a freshman despite not being a widely recruited player. Gipson is a very similar player to Samuels and should slip right in as the starter at the power forward position next to center Jordan Henriquez. Henriquez is the guy who I expect to make a big jump this year as the elite shot blocker(2.4bpg) has come a long way offensively and has developed a mid -range jump shot that makes him a legitimate weapon in the pick and pop game. Kansas State also brings back most of their core role players as Shane Southwell, Martavious Irving and Jeremy Jones should all play important minutes in Bruce Weber’s rotation. Kansas State is not a pretty team to watch but under Martin, the Wildcats patented defense, rebounding and toughness as their trademarks. It will be interesting to see how Bruce Weber fits in at Kansas State and how the players will respond to their new coach and new style. Kansas should still be physical and gritty and with a scorer like McGruder and a huge frontline the Wildcats will be a factor in the Big 12 next season. Kansas State has the talent and personnel to be a top 25 team next season but it remains to be seen whether Bruce Weber can get the same intensity and as much out of this group as Martin did during his tenure.
Pittsburgh-The Panthers suffered by far their worst season under Jamie Dixon as Pitt finished the season with 17 losses and missed the tournament for the first time in Jamie Dixon’s 9 seasons as head coach. In what proved to be a very difficult and challenging season for Pitt basketball fans, the Panthers were able to salvage some hardware as Pitt went on to quietly win the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament, beating Washington State in game 3 of a 3 game series for the title. Although the College Basketball Invitational is the 3rd tier postseason tournament, for a young team winning the title was not meaningless as young players like Lamar Patterson, John Johnson and Talib Zanna all gained meaningful experience and confidence. Jamie Dixon hopes that late season run translates into a big season next year as the Panthers bring back a solid nucleus led by Travon Woodal, Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore. Gone is Ashton Gibbs (14.6ppg), who graduated after an illustrious career in which he winded up the schools 8th all-time leading scorer. Also gone is solid role player Nasir Robinson, who averaged 11 ppg as a senior for the Panthers, while also serving as the team’s emotional leader. While Gibbs and even Robinson to a lesser degree, will be tough to replace the Panthers have a lot to be optimistic about entering 2012-13 as they return 10 of 13 players and also bring in 2 ESPNU Top 100 recruits led by New Zealand center Steven Adams. The biggest returnees for Pitt appear to be senior point guard Travon Woodall and junior wing Lamar Patterson. Woodall a 5th year senior had a breakout season as a junior, as after 2+ years as a backup, he became the starting point guard and acquitted himself well averaging 11.7 point and 6.1 assists. The problem for Woodall was that he missed 11 games due to injury, including the critical December stretch in which the Panthers’ season became unhinged as Pitt lost 8 straight. Woodall this season will assume the role of team leader with Ashton Gibbs’ graduation, and I believe the Pitt program is in good hands. Woodall is just the latest in a series of tough New York City kids to take the reins at point guards for Pitt joining Carl Krauser and Levance Fields, 2 guards who achieved a lot of success at the college ranks. Patterson also had a bit of an individual coming out party as a sophomore as the wing averaged 9 points and 5 rebounds and also shot 41 percent from downtown. I expect Patterson to continue this upward progression as a junior, as the 6-5 sharpshooter has all the raw ability to become this team’s leading scorer next season. Pitt also brings back a lot of talent in the frontcourt as Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor headline a talented and deep group up front. Taylor who is an incredible athlete and raw prospect has 1 last chance to impress scouts and fulfill on his promise. Zana on the other hand is a Nigerian import who really came on toward the end of last season, averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds in 6 CBI games. Also factoring in the frontcourt will be sophomore center Malcolm Gilbert, a former top recruit and J.J. Moore, who many people experts believe is the make or break player for this team. Moore who has a reputation as a tremendous athlete is a guy Jamie Dixon hopes will take that next step in his development, as Moore has all the tools to be a dynamic scorer from the small forward position. The last 2 returnees to watch are a pair of sophomores to be in John Johnson and Cameron Wright. Johnson (4.2ppg, 1.2apg) is one guy I am following very closely this season as the guard has shown a pure stroke from beyond the 3-point line (38.5%) and also seemed very poised and in control for a freshman point guard. Johnson is a player I expect to have a nice season as a sophomore as his 3-point shooting ability should be a real weapon for this Panther team. The final ingredients to Pitt’s basketball program next season are new additions as New Zealander Steve Adams and point guard James Robinson give Jamie Dixon two immediate impact players and top 20 recruiting class. Adams a top 10 recruit nationally has a lot of skill for a big man, as he is a fluid athlete for a 7-footer, has nice touch as a shooter and was also a dominant shot blocker at the high school ranks. The 7-foot Kiwi will ease the loss of transfer Khem Birch (UNLV) and should play major minutes early on despite the fact that he still needs to get stronger and gain more polish. Robinson also figures to be in Jamie Dixon’s rotation next season as he has been called by some the best pure point guard in this year’s incoming freshman class and comes from basketball power DeMatha Catholic. Pittsburgh has a lot of question marks following a disappointing 22-17 season and the graduation of one of the program’s best players ever in Ashton Gibbs, but with a lot of former heralded recruits and a tough senior leader in Tray Woodall look for a bounce back year for the Panthers. Pitt will need players like Lamar Patterson, J.J. Moore and John Johnson to take that next step in their development but all 3 have the talent to do so and on a young roster all 3 will get every opportunity to fulfill on that promise. Steve Adams is a huge addition to this clubs already solid frontcourt and with Lamar Patterson, Travon Woodall and John Johnson in the backcourt Pitt is a sleeper team for me in the Big East. Pitt will get back to their winning ways under Jamie Dixon this season as this young but very talented group will make the trip to the Peterson Events Center one of the hardest in college basketball again this season.
Ten More to Watch: Colorado, Cincinnati, Saint Mary’s(CA), Murray State, Florida State, Drexel, BYU, Davidson, Saint Louis, Providence