At the Watercooler: A new season
As the college basketball season prepares to tip off in full, Myron Medcalf and Eamonn Brennan are back At the Watercooler to discuss Kentucky, Indiana, NC State, players to build a program around and more.
Myron Medcalf: All-American ballots. Preseason polls. The first Watercooler of the 2012-13 season. Eamonn, we're back! College basketball is back. We made it through the summer, and now we're ready for Madness. How does it feel?
Eamonn Brennan: It feels a little like the first few days of college itself, Myron. The excitement, that feeling in your gut walking around campus -- that's where I am right now.
I might be thinking irrationally, or in a basketball-drought-induced stupor, but that's how happy I am to get college basketball (actual basketball, not just the theoretical discussion of it) back in my day-to-day existence. It's time.
MM: It is time. So let's not waste any as we delve into the themes that folks are talking about a week before the start of the 2012-13 season. I don't know how to rank Kentucky right now. Maybe I'm alone. I know the Wildcats are top-10 good, but I feel like too many people are assuming that the 2012 class automatically replaces the 2011 title team. That's not fair for a variety of reasons. We saw that team in New Orleans. Anthony Davis was special -- historic numbers, and that's not an exaggeration. MKG was a gem too. Plus, they were surrounded by veterans like Terrence Jones. Darius Miller was the old man (glue guy) who kept it all together. I know Cal has the talent, but I don't know if this group will come together the way last season's team did. Are the Wildcats receiving too much hype?
EB: I'm not sure people think Kentucky is going to replace its insane core from last season, but the Wildcats are still being ranked inside the top three, and even No. 1 by some. Let's be clear, people should not be thinking that! That would be wrong, very wrong. Davis was a generational talent; MKG was a very rare unselfish defender/killer/team leader and mature beyond his years. I don't care how good UK's class was this year; it's not 2011-12, not even close.
I hope the reason people are ranking Kentucky that highly is because the current squad demands it. This seems like a reasonable argument. It also seems safe to assume that Calipari's team will play really, really good defense (because it always does), will get better throughout the season (because it always does) and will go deep in the NCAA tournament (because, since he's been at Kentucky, it always does). Mix those fair assumptions with the wide-open nature of the 2012-13 landscape and you get a recipe for UK in the top three.
It's not about last season so much as a variety of other factors. But yeah, if people are assuming these freshman are as good as last season's, um, no.
MM: Well, there is some consensus. Indiana is going to be very good. We all agree on that, I think. The Hoosiers have it all. If Indiana were a luxury car, it would be a Maybach with spinning platinum rims in a 2 Chainz video. Cody Zeller is the best player in the country. Not many No. 2 guys played better than Christian Watford down the stretch last season. Victor Oladipo is a ferocious defender and improving offensive player. Jordan Hulls can shoot and run the offense. Will Sheehey helps. Yogi Ferrell will be a star. Definite Final Four team, right? But first, let's see how the Hoosiers handle the Big Ten and life on the road in the Big Ten. This is the deepest and best league in America. What will Indiana need to do to get through it and win the Big Ten title?
EB: I'm afraid there is no such thing as a definite Final Four team, at least not this season. I like Indiana plenty, but it has some warts. Defense, for one. The Hoosiers have to get that mid-60s defense up into the 20s or so, because their offense is going to be one of the three or four best in the country (heck, maybe the best). It's also fair to worry about post depth. Forward Derek Elston is injured. Freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin are still waiting for word on their eligibility. Zeller may be the only true big man on the team for a while. As good as he is, he can't do it all on his own.
Also, that is the first time I have ever pictured Cody Zeller in front of a Maybach. Thank you.
But yeah, Indiana is going to be very good. We can bank on that. The same is true of Louisville. The early computer projections have the Cardinals downgraded a bit from where most poll voters see them -- in the top two or three -- but I agree with the humans. Louisville's defense will be just as good, if not better, than last season's, when it was the best in the country. And when you play defense like that, your offense doesn't have to be all that good, though it might improve too. Plus, I hear that Rick Pitino guy can coach a little bit.
MM: First, good call on Indiana. Nothing definite right now. It's the first Watercooler. The season is here. I get overzealous sometimes. And I hope this chat encourages Zeller to purchase a Maybach with his first NBA check. Great investment, Rick Ross says.
On Louisville, can the Cardinals score enough? I know they'll clamp down defensively, but they won and lost close games in 2011-12. And they were victors in matchups that certainly could have gone the other way. In those tight games, with Kyle Kuric gone, will they have the offense to get a bucket when they need one?
EB: That's an excellent question, and I don't know the answer. Russ Smith seems to be pretty good at making his best plays in big moments. I like Kevin Ware and Wayne Blackshear as emerging guards, and I like the year I think (I think) Chane Behanan is going to have in the low post. But if Smith and Peyton Siva still dominate the ball on offense (they will) and don't play more efficiently and shoot better, the Cardinals will definitely have games that knock them off everybody's radar for a while.
They'll be there at the end of the season, but they could have a few 90-59 Providence repeats along the way.
MM: True. As long as they get those lopsided losses out of their system early, the Cardinals should be fine. Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville -- I think you know what you're getting from all three. We don't know everything, but we know enough to say that they're elite.
Ask college basketball fans/reporters/coaches about Kansas and Michigan, however, and you'll get a multitude of responses. First, Michigan. I'm high on the Wolverines. I know the 3-point shooting is a concern with the losses of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. But Trey Burke will be even better this year. Glenn Robinson and Tim Hardaway Jr. on the wing comprise a tough duo. They're bigger inside with Mitch McGary. They'll make a run in March and challenge Indiana for the Big Ten title. What's wrong with my theory?
EB: First of all, I don't necessarily disagree. The thing is, I just don't know. I haven't seen McGary and Robinson play college hoops; I haven't seen them jell with Michigan's guards; I haven't seen John Beilein figure out a lineup that just lost its three most accurate outside shooters/floor-spacers and replaced them with more conventional (and more talented) size and athleticism on the wing and low block. I think most AP poll voters (not you) put the Wolverines so high because they saw Burke returning and a good recruiting class and, voila, top five team. But Michigan's story is a bit more complicated than that.
I could go either way. The Wolverines will be good, but it's a wait-and-see proposition for me, much more so than that preseason ranking intimates.
MM: I'm with you. I waver on the Wolverines. It's not locked in 100 percent, but top five is the ceiling. But things could go wrong based on the unknowns you mentioned. Can't ignore the sense of urgency Beilein has to have as he tries to identify his shooters (Does he have any?). No guarantees on McGary and Robinson. Just possibilities. And Burke-Hardaway didn't work well early. It took time. What happens with two other potential impact players who hope to create shots too? Plenty of question marks.
I don't have many question marks with Kansas. Every week, it seems, I find more reasons to think that Bill Self has another contender. Jeff Withey returns. Ben McLemore could be a star. Elijah Johnson was a star in March when it mattered. Have the Jayhawks been overlooked within the top 10?
EB: And don't forget Perry Ellis, who has looked really good in the preseason.
I think we've finally reached a point of collective intelligence on the Jayhawks. We can all look at them and say they're not the most talented team in the country, or the deepest, but Self is so good at what he does you can pencil them in to win the Big 12 regular-season title and be a No. 2 seed at worst by the time the tournament rolls around. The Jayhawks don't do down seasons. They reload and take care of business. I'm expecting as much this season, and I think that's the consensus. Their run of success is impossible to overlook.
A lot of teams in that high single-digits/10-20 area could be really good this season. Memphis intrigues me. If Duke ratchets up the perimeter defense (and Coach K's entire career suggests his team will), the Blue Devils will be much better. Syracuse, Florida and North Carolina are really talented. So is Arizona. We all know UCLA's story. And so on.
The biggest question mark in the top 10 is NC State. Was last year's tournament run the real deal? Or was it the product of a hot run at the right time after what was -- let's remember -- an otherwise mediocre season that needed a late push just to get in the NCAA tournament?
I know the Wolfpack have a new piece in Rodney Purvis, but I tend to lean more toward the sample size argument. The drama of the NCAA tournament can have an outsized effect on our perceptions. But I'd be just as happy to see NC State prove me wrong.
MM: The Wolfpack found its swagger in the tourney, but I also think North Carolina State became the team it could have been throughout the season. Mark Gottfried needed time to jell with his roster and implement his system. When I covered North Carolina State in the Columbus regional, the Wolfpack talked about their late-season chemistry. Once they found it, they were really good. So it's possible for NC State to justify its preseason rankings, win the ACC and make a run. I just don't know if we saw the real C.J. Leslie in March. He's just one of those guys who is filled with potential but doesn't always play up to it. We'll see how he competes this season.
So Eamonn, let's pretend you're a coach and you have the power to pick any player in the country to build your team around. We've been talking about impact players on ESPN.com with our unveiling of Fran's top 25. Who is No. 1 on your list?
EB: You have to take Zeller, right? He has flaws -- needs to become a better defensive player, less foul-prone and stronger on the block. He's not an athletic freak. But 7-foot big men who run the floor, have great hands and serve as the centerpiece of your team are really rare at the college level these days. Put Zeller in the middle and build with wing players around him and you have a very good offensive team (see: Indiana).
Who would you take?
MM: Hard to argue Zeller. But I'm going with Doug McDermott. He's so versatile. He is one of the game's best shooters. With his 6-8 frame, he crashes the boards. He's not flawless either. He just has to be tougher and really improve his defense. He has to improve off the dribble. But the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses. Is there a player on the list who hasn't received enough love nationally?
EB: Fair choice. McDermott has to lead his team on the defensive end this season too, but I think he is hands down the most complete offensive player in the country.
The best news of all is that we get to see these dudes (and many more) suit up soon. It's like a week away. I have been dancing around my house, and I think my neighbors are starting to become concerned.
MM: I understand. I've been trying to get my Saturday morning pickup basketball squad to play a 1-3-1 zone. Not working. But the season will be here soon. Can't wait, man. We'll have plenty to discuss this season. Talk to you soon.
EB: Until then, Myron.