Monday, December 29, 2008

BIAH Season Update: Top 25

1. UNC (12-0): The Tar Heels have come down to earth a little bit in their last few games, but I still think they might be the best team I have ever seen play. They have won all 12 of their games by double digits.

2. UConn (11-0): After UNC, there really is not all that much of a difference between #2 and #10, and #10 and #30. UConn looks to be the best of the bunch. They have a tough front line with Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, and a great back court led by AJ Price and Jerome Dyson. The guy that could make the difference for this team is Stanley Robinson, who rejoined the team two weeks ago. He adds an element to their perimeter that not many teams in the country have. He is 6'9" and a great athlete. He can rebound and block shots (which is sure to help UConn inside, where they have not been as dominant as expected) but he can also get out and guard any position 1-3. And he has range beyond the three-point line. He makes UConn that much bigger along their front line, but allows them to play much smaller when needed (by putting him at the four).

3. Pitt (12-0): The Panthers are still largely untested, but if you look at some of their wins, they are more impressive than you think. They won the Legends Classic in New Jersey by beating Texas Tech (a run-and-gun team that scored 167 points in a game this year) and Washington State (a grind-it-out team that sometimes does not reach 167 points in three games) on back-to-back nights. They also beat a good Siena team and own a win at Florida State. I really like the decision to put Sam Young on the perimeter. Not only is he the team's best perimeter shooter, he is a good enough defender that he can guard most perimeter players. More importantly it helps Pitt get bigger on their front line (Tyrell Biggs and DeJuam Blair are both about 6'7"). The x-factor for this team is going to be Jermaine Dixon. Already considered one of the best perimeter defenders, if he can turn into a legitimate scoring threat, it takes that much more pressure off Young, Blair and Levance Fields. Pitt is not going to blow a lot of teams out this year, mainly because their offense is not that good (Jamie Dixon has Pitt getting out on the break more than ever because of their struggles in the half court). They are going to try and score around 65 and bank on the fact that their defense will hold you under 60.

4. Oklahoma (12-0): If you put the Griffin brothers on the floor with the Jonas brothers, you have a top 25 team. Combined, they are averaging 33.6 ppg and 21.5 rpg. The question has been can Oklahoma get enough out of their perimeter guys that it forces teams to go 1-on-1 against Blake in the post. Thus far, the results have been mixed. Willie Warren has been inconsistent (20 vs. Davidson, 6 vs. UAB, 22 vs. Purdue, 5 vs. USC). A side note on Warren - it has been widely reported that he is trying to defer to Blake Griffin and the other upper-classmen. If Oklahoma wants to be a Final Four team, they need Warren to be a bit more selfish when it comes to attacking the rim and scoring. Tony Crocker, expected to be the team's best shooter, is down to 31% on 3's from 42% as a sophomore. Cade Davis is shooting 9-34 from deep his last seven games. Austin Johnson is the only guy playing above expectations - 7.8 ppg, 4.4 apg (3:1 a-t/o), 1.8 spg, 46% from the floor (31% 3's). That said, Oklahoma is 12-0 with some really good wins. If Crocker and Davis can play up to their potential and Warren can become more consistent, then Oklahoma can legitimately be considered a national title contender.

5. Wake Forest(11-0): I knew Wake was going to be good this year, but they are better than I ever thought they could be. I love Jeff Teague. He is the best guard in the ACC not named Lawson. Their front line is arguably the best in the ACC. James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu are both incredibly athletic and versatile, but they also have a couple of talented 7-footers in Chas McFarland and Tony Woods. I really like Johnson's game. He can post up smaller defenders, but he will take a bigger defender away from the basket and hit a jumper or put it on the floor and go by them. The key to this team is going to be the guys that join Teague in the back court - Harvey Hale and LD Williams. While their games are polar opposites (Hale is a sharp-shooter while LD Williams is an athlete and a defense/hustle guy), they both provide an element that Wake is lacking on their perimeter otherwise. In my opinion, Wake has surpassed Duke as the second best team in the ACC.

6. Texas (10-2): I am really high on this Texas team right now. Everyone knows about AJ Abrams. He may have the quickest release in the country, and if he gets a clean look with his feet set, he is literally automatic. He has also developed into a guy that can score off the bounce, and although he isn't going to take it all the way to the rim, he will tear drop you to death. Their front line is as big and deep as anyone in the country. Damion James and Connor Atchley have both played well, but the big surprises have been the lesser known guys. Dexter Pittman is going to be a beast once he gets into shape (right now, he is averaging 8.6 ppg and 4.0 rpg in 12 mpg, which adds up to 28 and 13 per 40 minutes). Gary Johnson could start for just about any other team in the country. Clint Chapman has not put up the numbers, but in his limited minutes he has been really active. But the biggest reason I like Texas so much is Justin Mason. He guards the best player on the other team (and does a heckuva job - he might be the best perimeter defender in the Big XII) and is their glue guy, but he is also running the point this year. He is a much improved offensive player. You have to respect his jumper, but he is athletic enough to get into the lane just about whenever he wants (be it to score or to pass). They just lost a tough one to Michigan State, but (as you will see), I am pretty high on the Spartans as well.

7. Duke (10-1): More than anyone in the country, Duke is the team that I am having trouble pinpointing. Yes, they have a lot of talent. Yes, they have some (very) impressive wins over Purdue and Xavier. But I just cannot help but feel like this is the exact same team as last year (which, for the most part, it is). Basically, Duke is a group of role players, albeit very good ones. Like I've been saying all year, I think they need either Jon Scheyer or Gerald Henderson to step up and be a go-to scorer (Singler, as talented as he is, is not a guy that you can rely on to create his own shot). Scheyer has been in the last four games, averaging 18 in that span. He has the ability to create from the perimeter, either to score or to pass. The question with him has always been that he is too good of a teammate at times, opting to fit into the offense instead of becoming a big-time scorer. One thing Duke is doing very well this year is pressuring the ball defensively. They get out and guard you man-to-man (a lot of times in the full-court), forcing you to start your offense a long way from the basket.

8. Michigan State (9-2): Goran Suton and Delvon Roe seem to finally be close to 100%, which means that Michigan State is getting close to 100% as a team. Getting Suton back is especially important to MSU. He is a tough guy that will go out and set some screens and get some offensive rebounds. He has a knack for getting open, either rolling/cutting to the basket or by finding a soft spot in the zone. Once he gets the ball within about seven feet he is such a good finisher. In return, it gives the Spartan guards another option when they penetrate. Right now, the biggest thing is going to be getting Raymar Morgan to play more consistently. He has five games of 20+, five games in single digits, and just one game where he scored in between 10-19 points. But the Spartans proved how good they can be when they beat Texas in a road game neutral site game in Houston where Morgan took just three shots. Once this team gets into a rhythm, they are going to be scary.

9. Syracuse (12-1): The Eric Devendorf fiasco is finally over as he will be reinstated before the Seton Hall game, so now the Orange can get back to business. In terms of talent, Syracuse looks to be one of the best in the country, especially if Rick Jackson continues his emergence as a second option inside. The question with the Orange is focus. Too many times this season they have started out a game slow, only to come from way back to win. It burned them against Cleveland State. I'm going to give the Orange the benefit of the doubt, hoping that conference season will help them focus better at the start of games. But if you can't get fired up playing Kansas in Kansas City or Memphis at Memphis (both on national TV), then how are you going to get motivated when you play Seton Hall at home?

10. Gonzaga (8-3): Wait, wait, wait. Am I really going to put an 8-3 team from the WCC into my top 10? Yes, I am. Losing to Arizona on the road and UConn at home in OT (when three of your starters foul out) are not necessarily bad losses. Losing to Portland State two days after the UConn loss and two days before Christmas is inexcusable, but still understandable. I see a similar issue with this team that I do with Duke. Who is their go-to guy? It needs to be Jeremy Pargo, but is he going to be up to the task? He disappeared down the stretch against UConn when they really needed someone to step up and get them a big hoop. But, like I said, this Gonzaga team just has too much size, versatility, talent, and balance to actually be this bad.

11. Notre Dame (9-2): I haven't been all that impressed with Notre Dame, but they have a pretty impressive resume. They hold a win over Texas in the Maui Invitational, and their only two losses are to UNC and Ohio State, neither of which could really be considered "bad" losses. The biggest issue for the Irish right now is that they need to get Kyle McAlarney and Luke Harangody back on the same page. In the three games the big fella missed due to pneumonia, K-Mac was 26-48 from deep and averaged 32.7 ppg. In the last four, he is just 10-27 from deep and averaging 11 ppg.

12. UCLA (10-2): This Bruins team is still very young, but they look like they are probably the class of the Pac-10. Jrue Holiday has been as good as advertised, but the rest of this freshman class has been a bit underwhelming. The Bruins still need someone to step up in the post to go along side Alfred Aboya, but neither J'Mison Morgan or Drew Gordan has been up to the task this season. The Bruins got a boost when Josh Shipp returned from his thumb injury, but him missing two games may have actually benefited UCLA. In his absence, Micheal Roll found his shooting stroke, averaging 20.5 ppg and shooting 9-12 from distance.

13. Baylor (9-1): A bit of a bold statement putting the Bears this high, especially since they have been somewhat inconsistent thus far. But they do own a win over Arizona State and their only loss is to Wake. If possible, the Baylor back court has been better than expected. They are all averaging at least 10.9 ppg, led by Curtis Jerrells at 17.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, and 6.3 apg. The one thing that needs to happen is Kevin Rogers must start to play better. He is currently averaging just 10.7 ppg and 7.1 rpg, his lowest totals since he was a freshman. The Big XII's top teams have great interior play, and in order for Baylor to be considered in that group (with a #13 ranking, I am putting them in that conversation), Rogers must be tougher inside.

14. Arizona State (9-1): By now you should know about James Harden. He has been as good as anyone in the country this season averaging 23.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, and 4.2 apg. Jeff Pendergraph is still his same old self, averaging 12.6 ppg and 7.4 rpg. But one of the biggest reasons that the Sun Devils will be challenging UCLA for the Pac-10 crown is the play of Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks. Abbott has been a solid #3 scoring option again this season, although his shooting numbers are a bit down. Kuksiks, on the other hand, has picked up right where he left off last season. He averaged 10 ppg over the last nine games for the Sun Devils, and this season he is averaging 10.7 ppg while shooting 50% (32-64) from deep. If Abbott and Kuksiks continue to be threats from the wing, it will open up much more space for Pendergraph and Harden to work.

15. Georgetown (9-1): I'm still not sure what to make of this Georgetown team. Their only win of significance is against Memphis (a win that is looking less and less impressive). I think I am finally able to accept that Greg Monroe is not going to be a superstar just yet. What he is going to be right now is a solid player that will fit into the Georgetown system, provide match-up problems on the offensive end, and can make plays defensively. I have been impressed, however, with the play of point guard Chris Wright, who is showing everybody why he was a Mickey D's all-american in high school. We will know who Georgetown is after their next seven games: @ UConn, Pitt, @ Notre Dame, Providence, Syracuse, @ Duke, West Virginia.

16. Purdue (9-2): I think people over hyped Purdue in the pre-season. As good as these guys are, they still basically rely on the play of three sophomores - Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson. They are an excellent defensive team, holding their opponents to 56 ppg and 35% shooting. A big boost for the Boilermakers has been the play of big man Nemanja Calasan. Johnson is good inside, but his slender frame keeps him from really being able to bang on the block. Calasan, who stands 6'9" and 250 lb, gives Purdue some muscle on the interior. Right now, the most important thing for Purdue is to get Keaton Grant to start playing at the same level he did last season. His scoring (11.2 ppg to 7.8 ppg) and shooting (44% from deep to 31% from deep) are both way down this year.

17. Ohio State (9-1): Getting blown out by West Virginia at home did not look good, but I still think the Buckeyes are the third best team in the Big Ten. BJ Mullens has been a bit of a flop thus far, but Thad Matta should be ecstatic with the play of Evan Turner. Turner had a fairly promising freshman campaign, but has come on strong as a sophomore, averaging a team high 16.2 ppg to go along with 7.2 rpg. He is a slasher, and at 6'7", he is long and athletic, which makes him some what of a match-up nightmare. Ohio State will miss David Lighty, who is out for about another month with a broken foot. The biggest thing they need to do is come out focused. In the loss to the Mountaineers, they had no energy and could never seem to get into a rhythm on either side of the ball.

18. Louisville (9-2): I really want to move Louisville up this list after their win over UAB, but I am still not convinced they are more than just an average team right now. Here is the thing with Louisville. They have a great front court with Samardo Samuels, Earl Clark, and Terrence Williams. The issue is their back court. Can they knock down shots? Jerry Smith and Preston Knowles, both shooting well over 40% from deep, have been of late. The key to this team is what kind of three's are they going to be taking, because 11 games into the season it is obvious they are going to rely heavily on the three-ball. If they are taking open looks off of a kick out, be it from penetration, a post touch, or an offensive rebound, they are going to knock down a good percentage. They struggle when they force three's early in a possession, off the dribble, or after just swinging the ball around the perimeter.

19. West Virginia (10-2): I have been saying this for a while, but the Mountaineers are one of the more underrated teams in the country right now. Yes, they are going to be missing Joe Mazzulla for a while with his shoulder injury, but Truck Bryant has filled in very handily, averaging 11.3 ppg. WVU is very long and very athletic, at times fielding a team where Da'Sean Butler (6'6"), Alex Ruoff (6'6"), and Devin Ebanks (6'9") are all playing on the perimeter. That length and athleticism allows Huggy Bear's squad to do two things very well - defend and hit the offensive glass. They are not the best shooting team in the world, but when they can get easy baskets in transition and off of o-boards, they are a really dangerous team.

20. Minnesota (12-0): I am still not really sure what to make of this Minnesota team. Are they for real? A convincing win over Louisville on a neutral court says that they are. The Gophers have been successful because of their balance. They have eight guys that average between 5.8 ppg and 13 ppg, 11 guys averaging double digits in minutes played, and had eight different guys start. The are solid defensively and play together on the offensive end (assists on more than two-thirds of their field goals). We get to see who they really are this week and they host both Michigan State and Ohio State.

21. Clemson (12-0): For the last four seasons, Clemson has come storming out of the gates to win at least their first ten games. So seeing Clemson sitting at 12-0 is not a surprise. But is this Tiger team going to fall off come ACC play? The loss of Cliff Hammonds has been nullified thanks to the play of Demontez Stitt. KC Rivers is scoring in bunches, Trevor Booker has been a double double machine, and the Tigers are still pressing you all over the court. With Virginia Tech and Miami fading, I think the Tigers will be in a battle with Florida State for that fourth spot in the ACC.

22. Tennessee (8-2): Tennessee is the best team in the SEC this year, but the SEC is way down. I just see the Vols as way too inconsistent. They have beaten Marquette, but were blown out by Temple and struggled to hold off an under manned Belmont team. I know Bruce Pearl is trying to run his system, but at some point you need to realize that your team is what it is. They have a lot of fantastic athletes that should be trying to get to the rim and finish instead of settling for tough three's. The two x-factors on this team are Wayne Chism and Bobby Maze. Maze is the only point guard on the roster that is eligible, and the Vols need him to be a creator. Wayne Chism can be very good when he wants to be (see his 26 and 11 against Marquette), but he also has a tendency to disappear on the offensive end.

23. Michigan (9-2): By now, you should know about John Beilein's system, and how it has been so effective for Michigan. You should also know about Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Both have been playing factastic basketball for the Woverines this year, averaging a combined 36.2 ppg. The guy that is going to make the difference for this team is Laval Lucas-Perry, a 6'3" scorer that is going to be so effective playing in Beilein's system because he can shoot it.

24. Florida State (12-2): I really like this Seminoles team, who already have wins over Cal, Cincinnati, and Florida. They have a ton of long, athletic big guys that they can run at you. The best of the bunch is probably freshman Chris Singleton, who has been a bit inconsistent but is averaging 10 ppg. They still have Toney Douglas, who is one of the best scorers in the ACC. But the biggest reason I see Florida State making a run to the tourney is that Derwin Kitchen is now eligible. By no means do I think Kitchen ends up being an all-ACC guy, but he provides some much needed back court relief for Douglas because he is able to penetrate and create on his own.

25. Butler (10-1): The Bulldogs lost so much to graduation (namely AJ Graves and Mike Green), everyone kind of expected them to blend in with the rest of the Horizon League this year. But Brad Stevens has taken this team, which starts three freshman and a sophomore, and pushed back into the national picture after a three-point road loss to Ohio State and a road win over Xavier. Matt Howard is the Bulldogs leading scorer and rebounder at 13.4 ppg and 7.5 rpg, but two freshman (Gordan Hayward and Shelvin Mack) have really stepped up and been impressive.

Notable Absences: Memphis, Xavier, Villanova, Marquette

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