College Basketball Previews: Sizing Up The Top 16

The college basketball season starts Friday, and TheSportsNotebook will tip the season off here today by running down the top 16 teams, as ranked in the preseason AP poll. Prior to Friday’s games we’ll take a look at an overview of the notable marquee games and storylines to watch for between and now and the New Year, when conference play begins. Here’s a concise summary of the AP’s projected Sweet 16…

1)Indiana—Cody Zeller, the 7’0” center named on virtually every preseason All-American ballot is the key reason for this ranking. Indiana has a versatile power forward in Christian Watford, who can hit the three-point shot and an athletic two-guard in Victor Oladipo. What IU is going to need is for Jordan Hulls to show he can be nationally elite point guard and for someone to step as a pure shooter to loosen up defense. Indiana is a good team, and at least in the early going might deserve this ranking. But I have a hard time seeing where they get a ceiling as the best team in the nation at season’s end.

2)Louisville—Peyton Siva is back as the quarterback of last year’s Final Four team, and Gorgui Deng is the big center, with Chase Behanan being a consistent small forward. The X-factor is freshman power forward Montrezl Harrell, who needs to be an immediate All-Big East kind of talent if Rick Pitino’s team is to fulfill these lofty expectations.

3)Kentucky—Who knows what to think at this point. John Calipari loaded up on another elite recruiting class to replace the freshmen who won the national title a year ago. Noel Nerlens at center is the best of the group, but it’s hard to imagine a second straight group of freshmen clicking at the level of last year’s team.

4)Ohio State—Thad Matta said goodbye to Jared Sullinger and underrated wing player William Buford. The Buckeye coach has a good backcourt combo of Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith and a solid power forward in DeShaun Thomas. But the latter tends to be more of a perimeter power forward and Ohio State needs to get the post filled effectively.

5)Michigan—The Big Ten might be terrible in football this year, but the AP is awfully confident about their basketball ability, putting a third team in the top five. I really don’t see this one at all. The backcourt, of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway is pretty good, but nothing spectacular. It all hinges on two freshman forwards, Glen Robinson III and Mitch McCrary. If they come through, this ranking could hold. But it’s a lot to assume in November.

6)N.C. State—Two solid veteran forwards, Scott Wood and C.J. Leslie, anchor this lineup and Richard Howell is a steady post presence. Lorenzo Brown is a solid at the point guard spot. This team has almost everything and if high school All-American Rodney Purvis can fill the two-guard, the Pack will have a great team.

7)Kansas—Another year, another solid Kansas team. The backcourt of Elijah Johnson, the senior leader on the point and Travis Releford shooting the trey, with Jeff Withey controlling the interior. Give Bill Self time to work new players into the other spots and book another Big 12 title and high NCAA seed.

8)Duke—The Dookies have the widest range of possible outcomes of the top teams. The starting lineup has a good core four, with Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee down low, Seth Curry at two-guard and a top freshman forward in Alex Murphy. If they had Austin Rivers back at the point, they’d be my preseason #1. But Duke’s rivals in Chapel Hill have found out how an otherwise good team can get stuck in the mud without a point guard. We’ll see if Coach K can get this position figured out. Either way, #8 is a difference-splitting number. If the point guard spot comes through, vault them to the head of the list. If it doesn’t come through, they won’t be top 16 material.

9)Syracuse—This ranking looks a little high to me, with only wingmen Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair to build on. A lot’s riding on the ability of freshman center Duane Coleman to replace Fab Melo.

10)Florida—Billy Donovan was on the brink of the Final Four before a late meltdown against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament and he’s got a shot at getting back with this year’s group. Kenny Boynton is a veteran point guard who can produce and the Gators have quality big men in Erik Murphy and Patric Young. Can dynamic sharpshooting freshman Dillon Graham fill a role in the lineup and open up defenses? If he can, Florida beats out Kentucky in the SEC.

11)North Carolina—Kendall Williams left early for the NBA after pulling the previously point-guard starved Tar Heels back from the abyss. Roy Williams has a serious rebuilding project on his hands, with only swingmen Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland to build on, and both need to make their own improvements.

12)Arizona—Mark Lyons transferred in from Xavier to run the offense and he’ll instantly help the man who originally recruited him, Wildcat coach Sean Miller who got his start back at the Jesuit school in Cincinnati. Lyons has an improving sophomore two-guard in Nick Johnson to run with and two intriguing freshman who are projected to start, in center Kaleb Tarczewskia and forward Brandon Ashley. I guess I still have a hard time seeing this team as a #3-caliber seed. Maybe Pac-12 champs though.

13)UCLA—Larry Drew was the point guard who caused North Carolina to stay stuck in the mud before Williams replaced him. Drew transferred to Westwood where he looks for redemption playing for Ben Howland. Also looking for redemption is center Josh Smith, who’s got a high ceiling, but is inconsistent. Whether UCLA earns this kind of ranking is dependent not only these two, but freshman scorer Shabazz Muhammad.

14)Michigan State—Keith Appling is the veteran quarterback running the offense. Beyond that, we’re just assuming Tom Izzo will produce a good team. As with North Carolina and Syracuse, it’s not a bad assumption, but let’ s at least understand we’re taking Sparty on faith in putting them this high.

15)Missouri—If Michigan State, North Carolina and Syracuse require faith, how much more does Mizzou require? They lost everyone from the team that won 30 games a year ago. I have no idea what to think or why coach Frank Haith gets this much credit. Not that he didn’t do a good job last year, but is his reputation really so sterling that we can’t make a preseason Top 16 without him? Because that’s what this ranking implies.

16)Creighton—The Bluejays have arguably the nation’s best player in Doug McDermott and between that and the general consistent nature of the program, I can see them making it to #16.

It probably came across in my comments that I don’t find any of these teams overly impressive, at least by Final Four or in some cases, Sweet 16 standards. But that’s the world of college basketball we’re in right now, with personnel turnover seeming to be more rapid each year. November and December are critical building months and by Friday we’ll take a look at some of the key checkpoints of these early weeks to watch.