Knee deep into a season is no time to invest in the complexities of NCAA basketball. For starters your odds go down from the first tip; a few wins for high-powered programs like UNC or Kentucky will instantly drop the odds of them winning the whole thing from 10:1 to five and three and by the time March rolls around they’ll have 25 to 30 wins and look like sure locks for a National Championship.
Over the course of a season there will be many broken ankles and many more broken presses and broken dreams if we’re going to get sentimental about it. But at the start of a season, before the first whistle blows there are many possibilities and a whole host of different outcomes. Now is the time to start emotionally investing our stock in the county’s best and brightest and we start with…
Growth Stocks (Good Programs That Got Better)
The kids will be alright in the Bluegrass state. The first wave of the Calipari youth movement are all grown up; they're winning SEC tournaments, knocking off big dogs like the Buckeyes and Tar Heels and they’re making Final Four appearances. As if that was not enough, they’ll be getting some help this year from the nation’s top recruiting class, with freshmen point guard Marquis Teague, power forward Anthony Davis and the 6-7, 5-Tool small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist joining the ranks. It is a good mix of youth and experience in Kentucky and it makes the Wildcats a worthwhile investment given John Calipari’s track record of shaping NBA-caliber point guards (John Wall, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Knight to name a few) into bona fide stars. Too talented to not go far.
UNC Tar Heels
They say the biggest statistical leap for college players is between their freshman and sophomore years, so the sky is the limit for Harrison Barnes’ 5.8 RPG, .344 3P% and 15.7 PPG. He hung 40 on Clemson in the ACC Tournament, setting a freshman record and he’ll be rejoined by a familiar cast of characters with John Henson, James McAdoo and Tyler Zeller all returning for another year in North Carolina. All four have first-round NBA draft potential and with Kendall Marshall holding down the backcourt the Roy Williams’ led Tar Heels are a pre-season favorite to win it all.
Value Stocks (Good Programs That Are Still Good Despite Changes)
Ohio State Buckeyes
Here’s a fun fact: Jarod Sullinger averaged a double-double last season, throwing up 17.2 PPG and 10.2 RPG. He was easily the most dominant, fun-to-watch player in March and the trio of him, William Buford (14.4 PPG, 44.2 FG%) and Aaron Craft are hands-down the smartest, most uncontainable full-court combination in college. They’ll be joined by a handful of rookie playmakers that while not as deep as UNC or packed with as much raw talent as Kentucky, will give the Buckeyes a chance to run with the top schools after the Big Ten banner is hung.
Right next to Sullinger on the fun-to-watch list was Kemba Walker who averaged an unbelievable 23.4 PPG in his final year with the Huskies and a .430 FG%. He’s gone on to the greener pastures of the NBA but UConn has quietly been building a deeper team. They won’t be able to replace Walker’s lost points but they’ll be able to beat you in other ways. Ever heard of Andre Drummond? He’s a 6-10 monster who might not only be the most valuable center in the NCAA but the most valuable player, projected as No.1 overall in whatever NBA draft he decides to go in. As a freshman, Jeremy Lamb showed he has the skills to be more than an everyday player and the Huskies welcome back the rest of the National Championship supporting cast. UConn will have some tough competition if they are looking to repeat in 2012 but the talent is there if they manage get over the Kemba hangover.
Duke Blue Devils
A lot of people sold high on Duke with the departure of Kyle Singler, Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith, but Coach K pulled in what looks to be the best recruiting class outside Kentucky with all five freshmen appearing somewhere on ESPN’s top 50 list. Leading the pack is the highly-touted Austin Rivers who will join upperclassmen Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry to make up one of if not the best backcourt in college. Upfront it will be a family affair with the third and final Plumlee brother, Marshall joining Mason and Miles and the newly recruited Michael Gbinije, an athletic winger with a big shot. This is a Duke team not to be undersold; the talented mix of upperclassmen and rookies will make for an even-keeled attack most teams will simply not be able to keep up with.
Being a force in the Big East is no easy feat, unless you have a trio like Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. All three are returning with a chip on their shoulder after being knocked out of last year’s tournament by an undervalued Marquette squad. Each spent time last season developing a strong perimeter game to back young gun Fab Melo and the wildcard freshmen Rakeem Christmas in the paint. Syracuse’s success is dependent on more than a few things going right but if they do, this is a deep team that can attack the hoop in many ways; opposing teams will find it difficult to keep pace with their matchups.
Buy Low (The Dark Horses)
College hoops was unkind to a player many thought was a legitimate one-and-done in Perry Jones. While his 13.9/7.2/1.2 slash line is on the high end for rookie campaigns, it fell short of expectations and Jones opted out of the NBA draft. Which is good news for the Bears who will have him back for a sophomore season. He’ll join five other returning players including forward Quincy Acy who put up numbers similar to Jones’ in 2011 (12.4 PPG and 7.6 RPG). Furthering the cause up front, Baylor added the No.3 ranked power forward in Quincy Miller and the three of them should have no problem creating mismatches up court. Defense might be a concern heading into the 2012 season, but their offensive output should more than make up for it.
Tu Words: Hollo-way. When you consider that his totals have risen exponentially since he started, his senior year slash line figures to read something like 23.5/7.8/6.5. And all that productivity comes while running a full court offense from the guard position. He’s an all-around exceptional player and leader looking to carry his team through the Atlantic and back into the limelight of the Big Dance. He’ll have big man Kenny Freese and guard Mark Lyons returning to the rotation and Xavier added some depth (and height) upfront with freshmen Justin Martin and Travis Taylor. Barring injury, they’ll will be playing in March and if Holloway has anything to say about, late into March.
Sell High (Programs That Were Good But Will Not Be This Year)
The 10-point trouncing of Kansas by an 11-seeded VCU signaled the end of a program that had dominated the NCAA rankings for close to four years. That’s a lifetime on the college circuit and despite what will likely be breakout years for Thomas Robinson (8.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG) and Tyshawn Taylor (9.1 PPG, 4.5 APG), the Jayhawks simply do not have the recruiting class to contend to 2011.
Fair warning: there are enough people still buying into the Gators’ hype, but we are not among them. While their solid back court of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker remains intact, the departure of Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin leaves a huge hole up front to be filled with by an average Patrick Young and a less than elite recruiting class. Florida did manage to snag guard Mike Rosario from Rutgers in the offseason, giving the Gators the opportunity to play a legitimate four-guard set, but they are going to get beat almost every time in the post, putting pressure on every field goal just to keep pace in the competitive SEC.