Saturday, October 27, 2007

Final NCAA 2008 Projections: 1-10

Ah, done! My thanks to Ken Pomeroy and Kyle Whelliston for their stat-crunching and compilation, and also to John Gasaway for his valuable observations and inspiration.

1.UCLA (Pac 10)

What to like: Coach Ben Howland has created a wicked defense, almost all of the players from last season's title contender return, and he has a great recruiting class to mix in.
Weaknesses: Replacing Aaron Afflalo, who shot 37.5% on threes and still hit 101 free-throws will be tough. Howland has to make the offense a little more efficient and balanced in order to win it all, but I think he will.
Who to watch: Michael Roll. Although everybody's crowing about Michael Westbrook's athleticism and Josh Shipp shifting back to the 2-spot, I think Roll's the best fit to replace Afflalo, and I think Howland will be smart enough to recognize that by the end of the season as well. Shipp is just not a guard, he doesn't have the mobility. Westbrook has a huge upside and his numbers should jump, but I think Roll's got the outside shooting, low-turnovers, and defensive rebounding that's going to blend well with the starting five. Super-freshman Kevin Love and Westbrook are going to have pundits raving about UCLA's bench, but the championship will depend on improved shooting from the Bruins. Any of the top five teams are a justifiable choice to go all the way, but I think the smart money's on UCLA.

2. Memphis (Conference USA)

What to like: Coach Calipari returns almost everybody from an incredible attacking team, and adds one the nation's top freshman, and Iowa State transfer 6-10 Shawn Taggart. They could have the pieces to go all the way.
Weaknesses: This team has very few weaknesses, but they could rebound better defensively, and they don't hit their free-throws. Low assists in a high-octane offense points to an individualistic offense, but it works.
Who to watch: Chris Douglas-Roberts deserve more media play. He's got the most complete game on the wing that you'll probably find in the nation. I'm not so hot on Joey Dorsey, but having Taggart on hand when Dorsey gets in foul trouble should help a lot. Robert Dozier has considerable talent, and will get his chances to shine this season. Reserve Doneal Mack might elbow his way into the starting five due to his stellar shooting. Watch the assists and turnovers as Derrick Rose replaces Jeremy Hunt. Will Rose create a more beautiful game in Memphis, or will his inexperience cost them a chance at the championship?

3. North Carolina (ACC)

What to like: The Tarheels were the best squad in the ACC by a long shot. Roy Williams is a fine coach and returns a good nucleus from a team great defense, and great offense.
Weaknesses: They didn't shoot from the arc very well, and that'll continue as they lost their best shooter, Reyshawn Terry. I think that without Brandan Wright, it'll be their inability to stop teams in the paint that'll undo them.
Who to watch: As the best team in ACC, UNC is going to get highlights, the headlines, and Tyler Hansbrough has an inside track to Player of the Year. And they will be good, and have a very good shot at the Final Four. But there's two reasons I think they don't win it all, and the first is that they don't have the shooters to spread the defense, and good teams will just pack it in against them. The second is that when Brandan Wright was out with foul trouble, the interior defense looked pretty weak. Sure, Hansbrough rebounds and the bench guys will step up, but there's no shot-blockers here.

4. Georgetown (Big East)

What to like: The Hoyas made a monster of team-stat machine look weak down the stretch when they thumped UNC in the Elite 8. Jeff Green will be missed, but everyone else returns to mount another title challenge.
Weaknesses: Georgetown turned the ball over way too much for a deliberately-paced team, and they were surprisingly bad at defensive rebounds, which probably won't get better without Green.
Who to watch: Who takes the place of Jeff Green up front? Roy Hibbert will dominate inside again, but Green's ability to handle the ball, run the offense, and create shots for himself and others will be hard to replicate. Both 6-8 DaJuan Summers and 6-9 Patrick Ewing Jr. can rebound, shoot, and pass, but Ewing shoots better from the three and turns the ball over a lot less. 6-9 Vernon Macklin has gotten a lot of hype, but so far hasn't shown that he'll earn more than role-player minutes. The backcourt returns intact, and picks up depth in hyped recruits Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. Freeman may start if Coach Thompson needs more speed and ball-handling.

5. Tennessee (SEC)

What to like: Five returning starters add an instant sixth in Iowa transfer Tyler Smith. Bruce Pearl may be the least-popular coach in Division-I, but there's no denying his success.
Weaknesses: Defensive rebounding was a concern, and despite his size, Tyler Smith won't help. Pearl has to hope that a year of experience for his two big men will provide better interior defense.
Who to watch: Chris Lofton is a legitimate candidate for national player of the year on a team that can wrest the championship from any team ahead of them. The perimeter trio of Ramar Smith, JaJuan Smith, and Lofton will have to make room for Tyler Smith, although the transfer will probably see time at the 4-spot as well. Newcomers 6-6 Arizona transfer JP Prince and 6-5 frosh Cameron Tatum will carve out some minutes for themselves also, but the season probably hangs on the defensive improvement of sophomores 6-9 Wayne Chism and 6-7 Duke Crews. Crews has been suspended, but I'd guess he's back before long. I like this team a lot, but they have to make stops.

6. Louisville (Big East)

What to like: Rick Pitino has Louisville poised for one its best seasons of the last 20 years. This was a rather slow Pitino club, but that did seem to enable to cut down on turnovers.
Weaknesses: The Cardinals gave up a lot of free-throws, and the rebounding was sorta mediocre. Having Derrick Caracter for the whole season should help address any rebounding weaknesses, however.
Who to watch: Jerry Smith should get solid minutes now that steady hand Brandon Jenkins has moved on, and Smith can flat-out shoot it. With the right opportunities, he could pass Terrence Williams and Edgar Sosa as the leading scorer. 6-8 guards Earl Clark and George Goode can both play four different spots, and could really add some teeth to any of Pitino presses.

7. Indiana (Big Ten)

What to like: A tough team returns elite center DJ White and adds arguably the nation's top recruiting class. Kelvin Sampson has the Hoosiers rising back to national prominence, if he can just stay off the phone.
Weaknesses: Chemistry. Will all the new talent coalesce into a team? Also, the defense wasn't that great last season... passable, but not championship caliber. Turnovers will bear watching with all of the new faces.
Who to watch: Eric Gordon ought to be amazing, but how Armon Bassett and Jamarcus Ellis run the attack will determine the season, I think. Also, watch to see if the Sampson-phone drama starts to distract focus as the season rolls on. Otherwise, last-year's part-time starters Lance Stemler and Mike White might be shifted to the bench, with the Gordon and Ellis on the wing and Juco DeAndre Thomas maybe joining DJ White in the post.

8. Michigan State (Big Ten)

What to like: Tom Izzo just has a history of winning, and this veteran squad picked up exactly what it needed in the freshmen recruiting class: backcourt depth, speed, and instant offense off the bench.
Weaknesses: Offense. The turnovers last season were amazing in volume and as a spectacle, and in general the offense ran like a pick-up truck without an engine. I saw way too many 17-foot jump-shots by big men.
Who to watch: Drew Neitzel's the hero, but point guard Travis Walton is the question. Walton handled the point okay, but he seemed more like a guy who wrecks the other team's point than an offensive leader. Goran Suton often gave up minutes to Drew Naymick, but while both were solid enough at the high post, Izzo has to find a target in the paint besides small forward Raymar Morgan. Marquise Gray hasn't been able to give MSU what they need, but maybe redshirt freshman 7-0 Tom Herzog could surprise. The backcourt frosh trio of Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Chris Allen may not start, but they should all help take the pressure off Neitzel.

9. Kansas (Big XII)

What to like: The per-possession production and defense was amazing. I really thought that this would be the team that could bump off Florida. Bill Self has built a winner here.
Weaknesses: When does Brandon Rush return and will he be completely recovered in time for the Big Dance? Does losing Julian Wright to the NBA gut the defense?
Who to watch: Darrell Arthur. If Kansas gets to the Final Four, it'll be on his back. Arthur wasn't as good on the defensive boards as Wright, but in everything else he was pretty comparable if not better. This'll be Arthur's last season at Lawrence. The guard crew is also pretty great (Robinson, Chalmers, and Collins) but unless Rodrick Stewart shows a lot of improvement, there's nobody who can guard opposing 3-spot forwards. Note to opposing Big 12 coaches- send your 3-man to the offensive glass when you play Kansas.

10. Butler (Horizon)

What to like: Four starters return from the a program that's becoming the Mid-Major standard-bearer. New coach Brad Stevens just has to let the vets run the show while blending the newcomers.
Weaknesses: The loss of Brandon Crone's unique combo of rugged inside play and outside shooting will be missed. With him and Brian Ligon gone, the new bigs must replace the production while
Who to watch: Transfer 6-8 Avery Jukes, Juco 6-9 Jermaine Raffington, and frosh 6-7 Matt Howard should step in provide exactly what Butler needs: better rebounding. Fifth-year senior Julian Betko should help give this veteran club some stability, but the stars are in the backcourt with AJ Graves and Mike Green. 6-7 Swingman Pete Campbell had an amazing shooting touch last season, but 6-7 Drew Streicher provides a little more all-around production. Reserve guard Willie Veasley looks ready for more minutes, and I think we'll see that freshman Matt Howard is one of the most under-rated freshman in the country.


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