Friday, May 13, 2011

A Way-Too-Early College Basketball Top 25

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America
This is the first part of a two-part series, stay tuned for teams ranked 1-12.

It's probably still too early to be coming out with a Top 25 for next season, but since we now know which guys will be going to the NBA and which will be staying in school, at least the picture has become much clearer.  Before the May 8th deadline passed, trying to assemble a Top 25 was like going to a restaurant you had only walked by a few times and attempting to order without looking at the menu.

You probably wouldn't look like a complete idiot if you said something generic like "I'll have the burger" in much the same way you might look like you knew what you were talking about if you put teams like Duke, Ohio State, or North Carolina in the top 10.    

But there were plenty of other teams, like Texas or Vanderbilt for instance, whose fate hung in the balance to such a degree that even trying to rank them would have been an exercise in futility and basically a waste of time.

Coming out with a Top 25 in the middle of May, before all recruits have made their intentions clear, is still a tricky undertaking but at least we can project potential starting fives for most teams.  Which is good enough for the guys here at Send It In Jerome and most others who are obsessed with college basketball.

So here's our take on the Top 25 teams for the 2011-12 season. 

We decided to split up the writing duties for the purposes of this article and all team write ups done by Charlie will be marked with a CS and all team write ups done by Kerry will be marked with a KJ. 

25. Temple 

Top Returning Players: Ramone Moore, Juan Fernandez, Khalif Wyatt, Scootie Randall

Top Players Lost: Lavoy Allen

Impact Recruits: Will Cummings

Last season, the Owls dressed three guys taller than six and a half feet; two of them graduated and the remaining one shot below 50% from the free throw line during the twenty minutes per game that he played before prematurely ending his season with a fractured patella. In theory, they’ll be adding three big guys who red-shirted this past season, but it’s difficult to rely on or even project production from someone who hasn’t played in nearly two years. With nothing more than a point guard worth noting in the incoming class, it appears as though Temple will be relying heavily upon the run n’ gun offense.

That being the case, the Owls are fortunate to be returning their four most prolific three point shooters from last season. With the exception of Fernandez, who struggled through injuries in January, each of the four hit better than 36% of the 100+ three pointers they attempted last season. With Fernandez, Moore, and Randall leading the way in their collective senior season, they have the make-up of a poor man’s version of another Philadelphia-based team from yesteryear: the 2005-06 Villanova Wildcats led by Allen Ray, Randy Foye, and Kyle Lowry.

It should go without saying that living and dying by the three can be pretty risky and rarely results in deep tournament runs, but Temple should remain a staple atop the A-10 standings along with Xavier for a fifth consecutive season.  - KJ

24. Kansas

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
Top Players Returning: Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson

Top Players Lost: Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar, Mario Little, Josh Selby

Impact Recruits: Ben McLemore, Naadir Tharpe, Braeden Anderson

It's uncharted waters for a perennial power like Kansas to be ranked this far down the Top 25, but when you lose six of your top eight scorers and only return a handful of guys who made much of an impact last season, it doesn't seem that crazy.  The Morris twins are bolting early for the NBA as is Josh Selby after he completed just one disappointing season at KU.   In addition, solid supporting players like Tyrel Reed, Mario Little, and Brady Morningstar have exhausted their eligibility which leaves Bill Self with a lot of holes to plug up between now and November.

The good news for Self is that Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor decided to stick around for another season and both players should star for the Jayhawks in 2011-12.  Robinson might have been a lottery pick if he entered the 2011 draft but he should instead be an absolute menace in the paint and could easily lead the nation in rebounding now that he's getting an opportunity to play 30-plus minutes per game.  It's been somewhat of a rocky career for Taylor at Kansas, but he certainly seemed to mature last season and he should be given every opportunity to showcase his playmaking and scoring abilities as a senior.

The incoming freshmen class isn't up to the usual standards of Kansas either, but Ben McLemore could be something very special for the Jayhawks on the wing and Naadir Tharpe is a great leader at the point guard position.

Because so many new players will be asked to play much bigger roles than they did last season, Kansas is going to be somewhat of a mystery in the early going, but you really can't count the Jayhawks out.  -CS

23. Florida State

Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America
Top Players Returning: Okaro White, Michael Snaer, Bernard James, Xavier Gibson, Ian Miller, Deividas Dulkys

Top Players Lost: Chris Singleton, Derwin Kitchen

Impact Recruits: Antwan Space, Aaron Thomas, Terry Whisnant

Florida State did very well for themselves last season as they parlayed their patented tough defense into a nice run in the NCAA Tournament falling just one basket short of reaching the Elite Eight.  The losses of Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen certainly hurt, but the Seminoles return a host of guys from last year's team who played some of their best ball of the season when Singleton was limited and recovering from a broken foot.

Next season's Florida State team will have plenty of size and defense which are a winning combination in almost any sport.  Okaro White, Jon Kreft, Terrance Shannon, Xavier Gibson, and Bernard James are all 6'8'' or taller and will make this team incredibly tough around the basket.  White and James both had their share of breakout performances for the Seminoles last season and should only be better and more productive next season.

The backcourt will be led by Michael Snaer whose size, athleticism, and defense make him a player to keep an eye on in 2011-12.  Snaer won't have to do it all by himself however, and the likes of Ian Miller and Deividas Dulkys should provide an additional scoring punch from the perimeter.

Leonard Hamilton also brought in another nice recruiting class to Florida State which should make this team even deeper and more dangerous.  -CS

22. Baylor

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Perry Jones, Qunicy Acy, Anthony Jones, Stargell Love, J'mison Morgan, A.J. Walton

Top Players Lost: LaceDarius Dunn

Impact Recruits: Quincy Miller, Deuce Bello

Baylor had a very disappointing 18-13 campaign last season which failed to live up to the immense expectations which came along with the return of LaceDarius Dunn and the signing of stud recruit Perry Jones. 

The expectations might be tempered just a bit in 2011-12 but there is plenty of talent on this Baylor roster.  The conversation obviously starts with Jones who is a freak athlete for a 6'11'' player and possesses a very versatile offensive game.  Most thought Jones would do more with his physical gifts and skill set than he did last season but with the departure of Dunn, this is essentially his team and he should be the focal point of the offense.

Quincy Acy is an extremely tough and athletic forward who can be counted on to do the dirty work around the basket and he usually delivers at least one highlight reel slam per game.  Players like Anthony Jones and J'minson Morgan combine with Acy and Perry Jones to make this Baylor team terrifyingly long and intimidating in the front court. 

With the departure of Dunn, the biggest question for this team will be if they're able to get enough production from their guards.  Stargell Love and A.J. Walton both struggled at times last season and will need to play more consistently if the Bears are going to remain in the top 25 this coming year. 

You really have to like the incoming class of recruits that Scott Drew is bringing into the fold, especially Qunicy Miller who is a matchup nightmare at 6'9'' and looks to be a major NBA prospect.  Losing an explosive scorer like Dunn would appear to be a big blow to this Baylor team on paper, but it's certainly possible that the chemistry is better this season and the offense flows more smoothly without the 6'4'' guard demanding the ball on pretty much every possession.   -CS

21. Gonzaga 

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Robert Sacre, Elias Harris, David Stockton

Top Players Lost: Steven Gray

Impact Recruits: Gary Bell Jr.

Kind of hard to argue that the incoming shooting guard that ESPN has ranked 18th will be able to make up for the loss of Steven Gray, but this is Mark Few’s team we’re talking about. Last year’s 11-3 conference record matches their worst of the past decade; they always find a way to win the conference.

And don’t forget about Baby Stockton. I had to drift pretty far down their PPG from last season to find the offspring of the greatest assist man I can remember playing the game of basketball, but he really started coming into his own at the end of his freshman campaign, averaging 6.1 points, 3.3 assists, and 22.6 minutes in his final 14 regular season games.

There’s little doubt that Stockton will be given the reins to start the season, and there’s also little doubt that he’ll be able to regularly get the ball to big guys like Sacre, Harris, Kelly Olynyk, or Sam Dower.

With Saint Mary’s losing their top scorer as well (and frankly never looking that impressive last season anyway), the Zags should have little resistance on their way to a 12th consecutive WCC title.  -KJ

20. Wisconsin

Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Jordan Taylor, Josh Gasser, Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans

Top Players Lost: Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil, Tim Jarmusz

Impact Recruits: Jarrod Uthoff, Frank Kaminsky

Wisconsin can be an easy team to overlook on the vast college basketball landscape but it's not happening in this way-too-early Top 25.  Losing a player of Jon Leuer's caliber is going to be tough to replace and the departures of Nankivil and Jarmusz along with him are essentially like pouring salt in Bo Ryan's wounds.

On the bright side, Wisconsin returns their stud do-everything guard, Jordan Taylor, who should have the ability to keep them in contention with nearly any team in the nation next season.  Whether he's bombing from long range, taking it strong to the basket, or dishing to teammates, Taylor is an extremely dangerous player who somehow never turns the ball over despite having it in his hands all the time.

Neither of their stat lines from last season jump off the page, but both Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz are very skilled players who do the little things that win ball games.  Both guys should be ready for much bigger roles next season and will no doubt feed off the energy and brilliance that a guy like Taylor radiates.

The biggest question for the Badgers will be whether or not they're able to hold their own around the basket after losing the 6'10'' Leuer and 6'8'' Nankivil.  Evan Anderson and Jared Berggren have the requisite size, but both players have done relatively little for Wisconsin at this point in their careers.  Incoming recruits Jarrod Uthoff and Frank Kaminsky might be Bo Ryan's best options to help in the paint but relying on freshman can be tricky, even if Kaminsky's limited scouting report does make him sound like a Jon Leuer clone.

Wisconsin could certainly be returning more pieces next season but this team always finds a way to be competitive and with Jordan Taylor leading the way, 2011-12 doesn't figure to be much different.  -CS


19. Michigan 

Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Tim Hardaway Jr., Zack Novak, Jordan Morgan

Top Players Lost: Darius Morris

Impact Recruits: Carlton Brundidge, Trey Burke

Before they went on a 28-15 run to close out a two point loss to Duke in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, I distinctly remember the announcers effectively declaring the game finished by beginning to talk about how spirited Michigan’s effort was and how scary they would be next season, seeing as how they didn’t have a single senior on their team. With that returning group, they really could have put Michigan back on the map as a hoops powerhouse.

Turns out Darius Morris had other plans.

Obviously, we still think Michigan will be a good team, as they return a solid nucleus of guys and add a pair of top 100 recruits to their arsenal, but it’s a shame that Morris bolted to likely become a late first round draft pick into a league that might not even play a game next year.

Hardaway and Novak should be able to pick up a chunk of the scoring slack left behind by Morris’ departure, but aside from adding a couple of big-bodied red-shirted freshmen, the Wolverines have done nothing to address the ‘iron deficiency’ that caused them to wrap up last season in 300th place in the nation in terms of rebounds. Granted, the slow pace of Big Ten basketball doesn’t allot as many rebounding opportunities as many other schools receive, but no one on the team gathered as many as six boards per game.

A couple of really solid scoring threats should put them ahead of 80% of the other schools in the Big Ten, and should even keep them ranked in the coaches’ poll for the majority of the season, but without much of an inside presence, the Wolv Pack has a ways to go before they’re even nipping at the heels of a team like the Buckeyes.  -KJ

18. Texas A&M 

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Khris Middleton, David Loubeau, Dash Harris

Top Players Lost: BJ Holmes, Nathan Walkup, Mark Turgeon (coach)

Impact Recruits: Jamal Branch, Jordan Green

The Aggies never quite seemed to put it all together last season. In retrospect, their “big wins” weren’t all that great, so despite finishing third in the Big 12, they were a fairly average team. As soon as it looked they were rounding into shape, they would put together a losing streak that undid all the momentum they were able to build, and then as soon as it looked like they were going to drop off the radar, they’d bounce back with a few more wins.

And now a team that struggled to find its identity in 2010-11 will be forced to do the same in 2011-12 after losing its top rebounder, its top assist man, and its head coach.

The good news is that they’ll be returning the Middleton and Loubeau tandem of forwards that led the team in scoring last season and they have the luxury of adding a real talent at point guard in the form of Jamal Branch (if he stands by his commitment to the Aggies now that Turgeon took the coaching vacancy at Maryland). Without having seen the kid play, it’s impossible to make comparisons to project his impact, but speaking in generalities with freshmen point guards, Kendall Marshall made one hell of an impact once he was given the reins last year, and the word on the street is that Branch is one of those true pass-first kind of point guards. The best place for a kid like that to be is on a team with a pair of big men that already know how to score.

The other good news for the Aggies is the expected drop off at the top of the Big 12 standings. Kansas and Texas each lose six of their top eight scorers from last season to some combination of graduation and early departure, which should really open the door for typically overlooked teams like A&M to rise to the top of the Big 12 standings, which historically results in a good number of votes in those weekly rankings. I doubt they’ll display Final Four kind of talent, but neither did Butler or VCU for the entirety of last season, and one way or the other somebody has to win the Big 12 title. Why not the Aggies?  -KJ

17. Arizona

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Lamont Jones, Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, Jesse Perry, Jordin Mayes, Brendon Lavender

Top Players Lost: Derrick Williams, Jamelle Horn

Impact Recruits: Josiah Turner, Nick Johnson, Angelo Chol, Sidiki Johnson

Losing Derrick Williams is without a doubt a major blow to an Arizona team which made a run to the Elite Eight last season and managed to keep Sean Miller from defecting to Maryland.  There aren't many players in college basketball who can do what Williams did for the Wildcats last season and it would be foolish to think that any one player could replace the amazing production he gave this team.

But when you start to look at all of the guys that Arizona brings back, this team certainly shouldn't experience a complete drop off from last season.  A backcourt which features the likes of Lamont Jones, Kyle Fogg, Jordin Mayes, and Brendon Lavender is nothing to scoff at, and all of these guys will come back a year older and more experienced after their run through the NCAA Tournament last season.  Jones in particular should be ready to step up and become the leader of this team, and although his production has been inconsistent up to this point in his career, you can't doubt his ability as both a player and a leader.

Other returnees like Kevin Parrom, Jesse Perry, and Solomon Hill had their moments in the NCAA Tournament and the flashes they showed against teams like Memphis, Texas, Duke, and Connecticut should happen with more regularity next season.  The Wildcats will also be welcoming a stellar recruiting class which is headlined by five-star guards Josiah Turner and the ridiculously athletic Nick Johnson, both of whom figure to make an immediate impact for this Arizona team and keep them right at the top of the Pac-10.  -CS

Since this article was published it's been announced that Lamont Jones will be transferring from Arizona to be closer to home.  Considering this news the Wildcats might be better served a little further down our Top 25 but they still have a lot of great returning players and a very nice group of incoming recruits.  

16. Xavier 

Photo Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, Kenny Frease

Top Players Lost: Jamel McLean, Dante Jackson, Andrew Taylor

Impact Recruits: Dezmine Wells, Jalen Reynolds, Darwin Davis

Without question, the Musketeers will miss the 65.5 minutes, 18.5 points, and 11.5 rebounds per game that they got out of McLean and Jackson, but the return of their top scorers, including A-10 player of the year, Tu Holloway, might help soften that blow.

If Bo knew football, then Tu knows basketball. The six foot soon-to-be senior out of Hempstead, New York led the nation in free throws made last year. Yeah. He even made more than old-whats-his-name from BYU. Maybe he wasn’t as singularly important to his team as a guy like Fredette or Kemba Walker, but Xavier certainly seemed to struggle if Holloway wasn’t hitting his shots; case in point, the 11 point loss in the first round of the tournament where Holloway turned the ball over five times and only hit one of his eight shots from the field.

Maybe that poor ending to the season contributed to his decision to return for his senior year, but I assure you the Musketeer fans are not complaining. If Wells and Reynolds are able to make any sort of immediate positive impact at the forward positions to go along with big man Kenny Frease and the guard play of Holloway and Lyons, Xavier should easily be the second best mid-major team in the nation (if we can really call the A-10 a mid-major), and might even crack the top ten in the rankings before all is said and done.  -KJ

15. Marquette

Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Chris Otule, Davante Gardner, Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan

Top Players Lost: Jimmy Butler, Dwight Buycks

Impact Recruits: Juan Anderson

Marquette might not have a roster that's loaded with McDonald's All-Americans, but Buzz Williams always has this team ready to out-hustle and outwork their opponents.  Thanks in part to their scrappy attitude, Marquette made a surprising run in last season's NCAA Tournament before simply running into a better North Carolina team in the Sweet 16. 

Jimmy Butler's great all-around game and Dwight Buycks playmaking ability will be gone next season, but there is plenty of talent coming back to Marquette.  Darius Johnson-Odom is a scary player on the perimeter and in transition who should be a tough defensive assignment all season long.  Jae Crowder had a very nice season after transferring from Howard Community College and should continue to feature an inside-out offensive game that frustrates opponents.

The real key for this team will be how much of a leap players like Chris Otule, Davante Gardner, and Vander Blue can make next season.  It's no secret that the Golden Eagles lacked size last season but both Otule and Gardner showed flashes of being the physical post presence that Marquette sorely needed.  Blue was a top rated recruit who struggled as a freshman, but he definitely has the talent and should be given a chance to shine as a sophomore.  -CS

14. Florida

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Erik Murphy, Mike Rosario (transfer)

Top Players Lost: Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, Vernon Macklin

Impact Recruits: Bradley Beal

The departures of Parsons, Tyus, and Macklin are huge losses for the Florida Gators frontcourt but this team should have one of the deepest and best backcourts in the country next season.  Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, and Scottie Wilbekin are all coming back to Florida and they will be joined on the perimeter by Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario and five-star recruit Bradley Beal.

This combination of talented guards gives Billy Donovan plenty of options and next season's version of the Florida Gators could mirror what Jay Wright has done at Villanova over the past few years (much like Temple's guard heavy lineup).  Walker and Boynton didn't always make the best decisions with the ball last season and often times it seemed that they should have been feeding it to their talented interior players more than they did.  But both guys will be another year older next season and it's hard to doubt their ability to hit tough shots, penetrate, and generally wreak havoc on opposing backcourts thanks to their quickness and intensity.

When you add a proven Big East performer like Rosario and an elite recruit like Beal to the mix, it's safe to say that pretty much everyone is going to have their hands full with Florida's guards in 2011-12. 

Boasting a plethora of talent at guard, the biggest question for Florida becomes whether or not they can get production from guys like Patric Young and Erik Murphy under the basket.  Neither Young nor Murphy got to play very much last season because they were buried behind Tyus, Macklin, and to a degree Parsons, all of whom were vital to the success that the Gators experienced last season.  At the same time, Young has an NBA-ready body and great athleticism which should help him move into the starting lineup and potentially dominate on the glass and defensively.  Murphy played sparingly last season but he gave Florida solid minutes when he did get in the game and at 6'10'' he's got the size to help this team around the basket.  -CS

13. Louisville

Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Peyton Siva, Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith, Rakeem Buckles, Gorgui Dieng, Jared Swopshire

Top Players Lost: Preston Knowles, Terrence Jennings

Impact Recruits: Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan, Zach Price

Despite the fact that Rick Pitino is losing his leading scorer and most consistent post player from last season, Louisville will be a scary team in 2011-12.  Like they did last year, the Cardinals should yet again be one of those teams that plays better than the sum of their parts and it also doesn't hurt to have a dynamic point guard like Peyton Siva leading the way or a Hall Of Fame coach on the sidelines.

Siva should once again be nearly impossible to stop from penetrating, where he utilizes his incredibly strong and athletic frame to either finish at the rim or dish to open shooters on the perimeter.  Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, who both shot over 40 percent from three last season, will both be back for Louisville and should continue to benefit from Siva's creativity.

The surprising loss of Terrence Jennings definitely stings a bit, but the return of Rakeem Buckles and Jared Swopshire from injury coupled with the continued development of the 6'10'' shot-blocking machine that is Gorgui Dieng should have Louisville in solid shape around the basket.

In addition to all of the players this team brings back, Rick Pitino also netted a nice recruiting haul which includes two McDonald's All-Americans in Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan.  Both of whom will bring a toughness and athleticism to the program which should allow them to contribute to Louisville almost immediately.  -CS

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