Monday, June 13, 2011

A Way-Too-Early College Basketball Top 25

This is the second of a two-part series.  Click here for teams 25-13

It might still be too early to come 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 be an exercise in futility and basically a waste of time. Coming out with a Top 25 in the middle of June 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 our edition of the Top 25 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.

12. Alabama 

Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell, Trevor Releford

Top Players Lost: Charvez Davis, Senario Hillman, Chris Hines

Impact Recruits: Levi Randolph, Nick Jacobs, Trevor Lacey

An Alabama team that wasn't expected to be much of a factor in the SEC last season surprised quite a few people by posting a 25-12 record (even if they were playing in the JV section of the conference) while also making it all the way to the NIT Championship game before losing to Wichita State.

In just two seasons, Anthony Grant has established himself as one of the brightest young coaches in the nation and he is a big reason why expectations are so high for the Crimson Tide in 2011-12'. Another reason why Alabama is expected to take a big step forward next season is because both JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell will be returning to the team.

Green and Mitchell will combine to make one of the best duo's in all of college basketball next season and both players possess the rare ability to impact a game in many ways while also being able to completely take over and lead their team to victory if necessary. Both players have continued to improve throughout their time at Alabama and with Green entering his senior season and Mitchell about to be a junior, the Crimson Tide will have the luxury of being led by two veteran star players.

Travis Releford, who played very well at the point in his freshman season, should continue to get Green and Mitchell some easy looks while also helping the dynamic duo carry some of the scoring load.

It will be tough to lose the solid contributions that Davis, Hillman, and Hines brought to the table, but the incoming class of recruits could make this team even better. Levi Randolph and Trevor Lacey were two of the top shooting guard prospects in the 2011 class and both players should add some valuable perimeter shooting to a team that didn't hit the three very well last season.

Overall, Alabama will be an exciting team to watch in 2011-12' and while they might not be quite on par with Kentucky or Vanderbilt, it's hard to count out a team that has experienced star players and a great coach. -CS

11. Pittsburgh

Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Ashton Gibbs, Travon Woodall, Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna

Top Players Lost: Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee,

Impact Recruits: Khem Birch, Malcolm Gilbert, Durand Johnson

Pittsburgh dodged a huge bullet when Ashton Gibbs decided to come back to school for his senior season rather than enter the NBA Draft. In Gibbs, the Panthers have one of the deadliest shooters in the country who will be the unquestioned leader of Jamie Dixon's offense next season. The 6'2'' guard hit nearly 50 percent of his long range shots last season and his return will help soften the blow of losing three terrific seniors to graduation.

One of the things that made Pittsburgh so tough last season was the fact that they had starter caliber players in Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor coming off the bench. Both of them are capable of playing much bigger roles next season and whether it's Taylor's size or Woodall's playmaking ability, each guy should be able to pick up the slack in the absence of players like Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee. Nasir Robinson is an undersized player, but his toughness around the basket and experience will be invaluable to Jamie Dixon's squad (as long as he doesn't continue to foul guys who are 92 feet away from the basket with time winding down in a tie game).

On the recruiting front, Khem Birch is an elite post prospect who grades out as one of the top post prospects in the 2011 class.  It will be difficult to replace what Gary McGhee did for this team last season in terms of being an intimidating force around the basket, but Birch is about as athletic as they come and his shot blocking will be a major asset for this team.

The Panthers will be without three great players and leaders when the 2011-12 season gets underway, but with Gibbs returning and a cast of very good supporting pieces, there's no reason to think that this team won't be right in the thick of the Big East race once again.  -CS 

10. Missouri 

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Marcus Denmon, Laurence Bowers, Ricardo Ratliffe, Michael Dixon, Kim English, Phil Pressey

Top Players Lost: Justin Safford

Impact Recruits: N/A

Few teams are returning more talent than the Missouri Tigers will be bringing back for the 2010-11' season, but the question becomes: how fast can this team adjust from Mike Anderson to new head coach Frank Haith?

Anderson did some amazing things for Missouri basketball over the last five years and his departure to Arkansas will certainly leave a void with his former team.

Haith's signing wasn't exactly celebrated in Columbia but he does have experience coaching in a major college basketball conference (He coached at Miami for seven seasons and was an assistant at Texas before that) so he should at least feel comfortable in the Big 12. He's established a reputation as a recruiter (never a bad thing) and has already said that he will be installing his own system instead of trying to run Anderson's "40 minutes of hell", which was great when it worked, and resembled a full court train wreck when things didn't go right.

But enough about the coaches, let's talk about the players. Mizzou brings back everyone besides Justin Safford, which includes five guys who scored at least 10 points per game last season. The numbers might be inflated because this team pushed the ball at all times and fired up shots in a manner that would make Mike D'Antoni jealous, but the talent is there.

Laurence Bowers and Marcus Denmon seriously considered the NBA before coming back to school and both players are poised to have very productive senior seasons. Despite the fact that Anderson liked to shift the lineups around in order to keep his players fresh, he couldn't keep Denmon out of the game for very long and his 30 minutes per game last season was five more than any other player on the roster. The 6'3'' shooting guard also led the team in points per game while shooting a scorching 44 percent from behind the arc, which certainly makes him one of the deadliest returning perimeter players in the nation.

Michael Dixon, Kim English, and Phil Pressey are all dangerous perimeter options as well and all three players can hit the three, distribute the ball, and play active defense. Ricardo Ratliffe had himself a very nice season after transferring from community college and as one of the team's only inside threats should be ready to build off of what he did last season.

Missouri is deep, talented, and experienced, they will simply need to start playing the game differently than they have for the last few seasons. A tactic which will no doubt involve some growing pains, but might actually work out better for them in the long run anyway.  -CS

9. Cincinnati 

Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Yancy Gates, Dion Dixon, Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright

Top Players Lost: Rashad Bishop, Ibrahima Thomas

Impact Recruits: Shaquille Thomas, Jermaine Sanders

It can be easy to overlook the Bearcats in the always impressive Big East, but Mick Cronin has this program on the rise and next season just might be Cincy's year to breakout. Since enduring an 11-19 campaign in Cronin's first year as Cincinnati's head coach, the team has improved in every season since, culminating with a 26-9 record in 2010-11' which included a trip to the third round of the tournament.

Even more impressive than their overall record or solid play in the NCAA Tournament, was the fact that Cincinnati played some of its best ball of the season down the stretch, which included a win over Louisville, two wins over Georgetown, and easily dispatching of Missouri in the second round of the tournament before ultimately falling to the eventual National Champion, UConn Huskies.

There's little doubt that Cincinnati is trending upward and the fact that the Bearcats return their four top scorers from last season makes them a team that everyone in the Big East should watch out for.

Yancy Gates has had his ups and downs, but the wide bodied 6'9'' rising senior became much more consistent towards the end of last season and will be a load to handle around the basket for anyone that has the unfortunate task of trying to slow him down. The perimeter trio of Dion Dixon, Sean Kilpatrick, and Cashmere Wright should be a perfect compliment to what Gates will give this team around the basket, as all three players shot at least 35 percent from behind the arc last season.

The size of Ibrahima Thomas and the defense of Rashad Bishop will certainly be missed next season but the Bearcats are bringing in a solid group of incoming freshmen led by small forward, Shaquielle Thomas, who should be able to help replace what the team lost to graduation. Cincinnati hasn't been relevant on the national scene since Bob Huggins was cursing out referees on the sidelines, but with Gates and Dixon approaching their senior seasons and with a more than capable supporting cast at their disposal, the Bearcats figure to be a staple in the Top 25 all season long and a team that should contend in the Big East.  -CS

8. Memphis 

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Will Barton, Antonio Barton, Joe Jackson

Top Players Lost: Will Coleman

Impact Recruits: Adonis Thomas

Compared to the dominant force we’ve become accustomed to seeing during the C-USA regular season, the 2010-11 Memphis Tigers looked like a bunch of kitty cats. However, if we’ve learned anything during the one and done era, it’s that there is usually marked improvement in teams who bring back the vast majority of their scoring production from one season to the next (see, San Diego State and St. John’s last season).

And we’re talking about a Memphis team that had already been showing noticeable improvement by the end of last season. Early in the season, they needed overtime to win home games over Arkansas State and Austin Peay; games that I seem to recall Vegas believing they should have won by 20+ points each. They struggled mightily in true road games throughout the year, but the Memphis team we saw in December was not a squad that looked capable of winning the C-USA conference tournament and hanging with Arizona from start to finish in March, yet that’s exactly what ended up happening, and one would be foolish to assume they won’t show further improvement considering how much they are returning.

While he may have been one of their only post players, Will Coleman was the 7th highest scorer on the team last year, and he’s the only guy that the Tigers aren’t bringing back. So Memphis will be returning its top 6 guys from last season, and Josh Pastner also has the luxury of adding McDonald’s All-American Adonis Thomas to an already “good enough to win its conference” caliber group of guys.

They don’t (yet) have household names like Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey, or CDR, but if Shelvin Mack can lead Butler to back to back national championship appearances, don’t be surprised if Will Barton and company can put together 35+ wins on the way to a date with the Louisiana Superdome in April.  -KJ

7. Duke 
Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Mason Plumlee, Mike Krzyzewski

Top Players Lost: Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Kyrie Irving

Impact Recruits: Austin Rivers, Marshall Plumlee, Quinn Cook

It’s not often that Duke loses the vast majority of its scoring from one season to the next. The only such season in recent memory occurred in 2006-07 after losing JJ Redick and Sheldon Williams; a season in which the Dukies struggled mightily to find their identity before suffering a first round loss in the NCAA tournament to the VCU Rams led by Eric Maynor. 

With the departure of Smith, Singler, and some Irving kid we barely even knew, the Cameron Crazies are hoping history won’t repeat itself.

Despite all they’ve lost, there’s a lot to like about the boys from Durham, especially Krzyzewski returning for a 32nd season at the helm. If it weren’t for Coach K, this year’s Blue Devils might not even crack the top 20 in the pre-season polls, but because of what he’s been able to do year in and year out, it’s safe to assume they’ll be ranked no lower than 7th when the season begins.

As far as the actual players are concerned, Duke brings back a pair of baby faced three point assassins and a pair of big men named Plumlee; and they’ll also be adding a third member to each of those groups. Austin Rivers is widely regarded as the best incoming shooting guard in the nation, and for years we’ve been hearing that Marshall is the best of the three Plumlee brothers, which, if true, would make him the most formidable inside presence that Duke has had since the aforementioned Sheldon Williams.

One of my biggest concerns going into the season will be their ability to share the ball and/or have a guy take the reins, a la JJ Redick, Jon Scheyer, or Nolan Smith. Seth Curry began to emerge as a potential go-to guy at times last season, but even if he becomes the “alpha male” of the group, having three shooting guards on the floor isn’t necessarily a great thing.

However, the alternative is increased minutes for guys like Tyler Thornton and Ryan Kelly, so they had better find a way to coexist. Last season, Dawkins had a tendency to either disappear for long stretches of time or jack up a three every time he touched the ball. Along with the other two thirds of the shooting guard trio, Duke will likely need Dawkins to play 30+ minutes a game, so he’ll need to shy away from those old tendencies to become a more reliable source of production. If he can do that, and if the incoming freshmen are even 75% of what everyone seems to think they will be, then Duke should be able to play a pretty solid second fiddle in the ACC.  -KJ

6. Connecticut

Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, Shabazz Napier, Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey

Top Players Lost: Kemba Walker, Charles Okwandu, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (dismissed from team)

Impact Recruits: Ryan Boatright

Kemba Walker is gone, but that doesn't mean Jim Calhoun's cupboard is completely bare. The big three might reside in Miami, but I'd like to think that the combination of Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, and Shabazz Napier is the Big East's version of a devastating basketball trio.

Everyone witnessed the maturation of Lamb during UConn's impressive championship run, and he figures to have a sparkling sophomore campaign, but people shouldn't forget about Oriakhi or Napier either. Standing 6'9'', Oriakhi has continued to improve during his time with Connecticut and his combination of length and athleticism make him a force to be reckoned with around the basket. Napier didn't get to showcase his complete set of talents as a freshman, but he's got supreme quickness, is a great defender, and is more than capable of breaking down a defense to create his own shot.

All three players will have plenty of room to spread their wings next season without Walker and the addition of Ryan Boatright should give Jim Calhoun another potent and effective scoring option. Rounding out the roster are solid role players like Roscoe Smith, Tyler Olander, and Niels Giffey who can contribute and help this team win those hard fought Big East games.  -CS

5. Vanderbilt

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley, Steve Tchiengang, Lance Goulbourne

Top Players Lost: None

Impact Recruits: Dai-Jon Parker, Kedren Johnson

For the last two seasons, Vanderbilt has had plenty of talent on their roster but simply underachieved when it mattered the most. Their first round NCAA Tournament losses at the hands of Murray State and Richmond the last two years are perfect examples of the Commodores inability to capitalize on their potential.

Because they return everyone of value next season, there's going to be plenty of expectations and pressure on Kevin Stallings squad to finally make some noise in the tournament and play like a team which has three NBA-caliber players on its roster. Jeff Taylor might be the most athletic player in the country and he has all of the physical tools to dominate the collegiate game on both sides of the floor. Taylor's partner in crime on the wing, John Jenkins, had a breakout sophomore season in which he established himself as one of the premier long distance shooting threats in the nation while getting more comfortable in other aspects of the game.

At 6'11'' and 255 pounds, Festus Ezeli might be the most unstoppable player on this team next season and his potential as an extremely efficient low post scorer coupled with his tenacious shot blocking will no doubt have him shooting up draft boards all season long.

In addition to their three stars, Vandy also features solid returning players like Brad Tinsley, Steve Lance Goulbourne, and Steve Tchiengang all of whom are capable of supporting Taylor, Jenkins, and Ezeli in their own way.

The fact that Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins, and Festus Ezeli will all be returning to school next season was a huge victory for this program and gives Vandy plenty of firepower at the top of their lineup. Their return to school should allow the Commodores to hold their own against anyone in the nation but this team has a long way to go in terms of proving that they can consistently play at a high level.  -CS 

4. Kentucky

Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Eloy Vargas

Top Players Lost: Brandon Knight, Josh Harrellson, Enes Kanter, DeAndre Liggins

Impact Recruits: Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Kyle Wiltjer

It's never a dull moment when Jon Calipari or the University of Kentucky is involved. The Wildcats are once again losing some very good players, most notably Brandon Knight, but the surprising return of a few key pieces coupled with yet another monster recruiting class has Kentucky looking like one of the strongest teams in college basketball.

Because of how well Knight played down the stretch, it might be easy to forget just how dominant Terrence Jones was for the first few months of his freshman season. The 6'8'' do-everything forward didn't help matters by fading during the NCAA Tournament, but having Jones' versatile and aggressive style of play will be a huge luxury for Kentucky next season. Whether he's spotting up from the outside, putting the ball on the floor, playing closer to the basket, or crashing the boards, Jones has the ability to dominate in many different ways, and there are few players in the nation who can impact a game the way he does.

In addition to Jones, the Wildcats also return their two best perimeter shooters in Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, who both hit well over 40 percent of their three pointers last season.

Any conversation about next season's Kentucky squad certainly would not be complete without discussing their incoming freshman. Calipari's work on the recruiting trail was true to form and he delivered the number one class in the nation which consists of four immensely talented prospects. Three of Kentucky's four signees are ranked in ESPN's top 10 and all four are ranked in the top 20.

You could spend a lot of time praising the new players who will be joining this team and while Anthony Davis is the number one ranked recruit in the class (according to ESPN) and Michael Gilchrist is as athletic and competitive as they come, point guard Marquis Teague could elevate Kentucky to another level. Teague will be filling one of the Wildcats most primary needs when he takes over the point guard spot which was vacated by Knight, and his incredible first step makes him nearly impossible to prevent from penetrating.

There's no doubt that Kentucky is losing a lot, but they're also returning a lot more than they did last season and their incoming recruiting class is second to none. As usual, this team will have to deal with the growing pains that come along with depending on young players but speaking strictly from a talent standpoint, Kentucky will be one of the most dangerous teams in the nation in 2011-12.  -CS 

3. Syracuse 

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair

Top Players Lost: Rick Jackson

Impact Recruits: Rakeem Christmas, Michael Carter-Williams

Last season, the Syracuse Orange jumped out to an extremely impressive 18-0 start only to see things fall apart down the stretch. Their 9-8 record in the last 17 games was certainly a disappointing way to end a year that started with so much promise, but with Jim Boeheim at the helm and their suffocating 2-3 zone ready to attack, Syracuse doesn't figure to stay down for long.

Rick Jackson will be missed next season, but Syracuse has the luxury of returning every other player of relevance from last year's team. The trio of Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, and Brandon Triche is primed to take another step forward and will provide the Orange with plenty of veteran leadership. All three players will be offensive threats in both the half court and transition while also being able to spread the ball around to the rest of their teammates.

While those three figure to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Orange, both C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters were solid contributors as freshmen and definitely seemed to earn Jim Boeheim's trust as the season wore on. Judging by what they did last year, both players should be ready to take on bigger roles as sophomores and could really make a difference for the Orange next season.

On the other hand, fellow freshman Fab Melo never got going last season and if his 2.3 points and 1.9 rebounds per game weren't egregious enough, he's currently involved in a bizarre domestic violence case which has the potential to end his career at Syracuse before it ever really got started.

With Melo's status in doubt and with Syracuse facing the tough task of replacing Jackson, post play may very well be the key to success for this team next season. Joseph and Fair are both big and athletic enough to help out on the boards and 6'10'' rising sophomore, Baye Moussa Keita, showed some promise as a shot blocker who can intimidate in the paint.

The arrival of prized recruit Rakeem Christmas, who is the number one rated center in the 2011 freshman class, will be a huge boost to a team which is currently short on big men. By all accounts, Christmas is a fierce defender whose shot blocking can change games and the 6'9'' Philadelphia native looks poised to step in and help immediately.

Syracuse will boast an experienced guard heavy team next year that should be able to score with anyone in the nation and as long as they can get enough production out of their interior players, this team will be an extremely tough out come March.  -CS

2. Ohio State

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America
Top Returning Players: Jared Sullinger, William Buford, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas

Top Players Lost: Jon Diebler, David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale

Impact Recruits: Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross

The return of Jared Sullinger and William Buford cemented Ohio State's position as one of the premier teams in the nation despite the fact that they lost quite a bit to graduation. Sullinger's 6'9'' 280 pound frame made him nearly unguardable as a freshman and this bulk will once again allow him to dominate the post and the glass. Buford's touch from long range (44 percent from three as a sophomore) and ability to hit tough shots makes him the perfect complement to Sullinger's play inside and the two should form one of the most formidable tandems in college basketball next season.

Despite the fact that he came off the bench, Aaron Craft played great as a freshman and he will bring a steady hand to the Buckeyes offense and play tenacious defense on the other side of the floor. Deshaun Thomas will be an interesting player to watch next season as the southpaw has a very versatile offensive game and should likely be the third scoring option behind Sullinger and Buford after playing a relatively minor role as a freshman.

One of the biggest problems with last years team was the relative lack of production the Buckeyes got from their post players who didn't have the name "Sullinger" on the backs of their jerseys. This can be in part attributed to the fact that Ohio State often played mostly guards or swingmen, but the signing of 6'10'' Amir Williams, a McDonald's All-American from Michigan, should give the Buckeyes a little more balance down low. Williams is an athletic big man who can run the floor and finish at the rim, which seems like the perfect compliment to Sullinger's strength and below the rim style of play.

It will be virtually impossible for Ohio State to replace David Lighty's multi-dimensional production and they will surely miss Jon Diebler's ridiculous 50 percent three point success rate, but with Sullinger back for another season being surrounded by a very good supporting cast, there's absolutely no reason why this team can't be a serious contender.  -CS 

1. UNC

Top Returning Players: Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock

Top Players Lost: Justin Knox

Impact Recruits: James McAdoo, P.J. Hariston

When you return as much talent as North Carolina does next season, the expectations are going to be sky high. On the heels of the shocking news that Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, and John Henson were all staying put, North Carolina became an instant favorite to win the National Championship, and with good reason. The Tar Heels return all five starters from a team that reached the Elite Eight last year and boast three lottery caliber superstars in Barnes, Zeller, and Henson.

North Carolina will be insanely tough around the basket where the size and skill of Zeller and Henson will create matchup problems for pretty much any team they're going to face. After struggling through the first few months of his freshman season, Harrison Barnes came on strong in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments where he showcased the ability to take over a game like few players at the collegiate level can.

Kendall Marshall has the court vision and playmaking skills that will allow all of the talented options on this North Carolina roster to get the ball and when you add two more extremely talented players like McAdoo and Hairston to and already loaded roster, the Tar Heels are also going to be one of the deepest teams in the country.

This North Carolina roster is as talented, deep, and dangerous as any squad out there and they have a great mix of experience and chemistry which should serve them very well next season.   -CS

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