Making a few New Year's revisions to my preseason presumptions
Freshman big man Cody Zeller is the centerpiece of Indiana's recent resurgence
Preseason No. 1 UNC now shares the stage with Ohio St., Syracuse and Kentucky
Highly-touted freshman guards haven't been as consistent as expected this season
A college basketball season is rarely what we expect it to be. Preseason consensuses can seem comical by January. Our SI preview issue from November 2010 had Duke and Michigan State 1-2, but instead, '10-11 was the Year of Kemba and Jimmer, and Butler and VCU, and no one really saw it coming. This November's SI preview had North Carolina on its national cover, back when the Tar Heels were considered a no-doubt No. 1. There was no Missouri in our top 10, or Indiana or Georgetown in our top 20 (or anyone else's), but those teams now look like high NCAA tournament seeds. In just two months, the landscape has shifted in unexpected ways, justifying New Year revisions to our October presumptions. This Season Reset confronts the new realities of 2011-12.
Preseason Presumption No. 1: That Indiana was still a year -- or two years -- away from being "back."
Reality: The Hoosiers have pretty much arrived.
On a visit to Bloomington in the fall of 2008, just before Tom Crean's first season as coach was to begin, I had the occasion of hearing one of his pitches to prospective student season-ticket holders. He had inherited next-to-nothing, roster-wise -- the fact that the Hoosiers had just one player and 28 points returning was repeated ad nauseam in the media -- and so all he could sell was the intrigue of the unknown. It was better than acknowledging that IU would occupy the Big Ten basement. The short-term, Crean said then, was about "being part of something that nobody has any idea what to expect, most importantly the head coach, who's with [the team] every day, doesn't have any idea what to expect."
The Hoosiers finished 6-25 that year, 10-21 the next, and 12-20 last year, and it seemed as if they'd have to wait until Crean's loaded 2012 recruiting class arrived to truly turn the corner. But IU is off to a 13-1 start and is ranked No. 12 in the latest Associated Press poll. With 6-foot-11 freshman Cody Zeller, Crean's first five-star recruit, anchoring the middle, the team has knocked off No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State at Assembly Hall. "We lost half of our student ticket-holders after that first year," Crean said, "but we don't have that problem now." If he has any problem, it's that the expectations of IU's sold-out crowds have skyrocketed over the past month. They stormed the court after the UK upset, but stayed put after beating the Buckeyes on New Year's Eve. They're getting accustomed to such magic.
Zeller is the centerpiece of the turnaround. He's the most complete big man in the freshman Class of 2011, and the most efficient player in the Hoosiers' rotation, averaging 14.2 points per game on 64.3 percent shooting, for an offensive rating of 128.7. IU's offense has opened up around him, as the team is shooting 44.7 percent on threes, up from 34.6 percent last season. Part of it is Zeller drawing in defenses, but Crean also says that his two main marksmen -- juniors Christian Watford (50.0 percent, including the game-winner against UK) and Jordan Hulls (54.4 percent, including a wrong-handed make against Howard) -- dedicated themselves to becoming better shooters in the offseason, and the team has a better understanding of how to intelligently move the ball. Miraculously, they've improved from the 11th most efficient offense in the Big Ten last season, to No. 1 in '11-12.
North Carolina's staff regarded Zeller's older brother Tyler as the Tar Heels' most sound defender last season, and it seems that defensive acumen runs in the family. Crean said that Cody Zeller leads IU in deflections, which is the coach's preferred method of measuring defensive effort. Zeller is also the only player taller than 6-9 whose steal percentage (3.9) appears on kenpom.com's top 100 list. "I've been really surprised at how active Cody is," Crean said. "He has quick feet, quick hands, and a quick mind."
Off-guard Victor Oladipo leads the team in steal percentage (4.0) and narrowly trails Zeller in deflections; he and 6-6 sixth man Will Sheehey, who Crean believes is IU's most versatile defender, are big reasons why they rank No. 22 nationally in defensive efficiency. (Sheehey has missed the past two games with a lower-leg injury and his availability is regarded as "day-to-day.") Not since his last season at Marquette, in '07-08, has Crean had a defensive team this sound, creating a high rate of turnovers and limiting opponents from the three-point line. That year, the crew of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, Wes Matthews and Lazar Hayward -- the later two of whom are currently in the NBA -- started 13-2, but went 12-8 the rest of the season, and lost in the second round of the NCAAs as a No. 6 seed.
These Hoosiers are statistically even better, as they foul less on D and shoot better from long-range, but Crean is having a tough time savoring the renaissance. "We've been through so much, and I've always said that when we started winning, I'd enjoy the wins a lot more," he said. "But a lot of times we don't leave the building after [those wins] until we've started working on the next game. I'm happy for the fans, the school, the players, but I need to stay locked in; otherwise, we could slip. When I was young [at Marquette], I didn't know how to stay as locked in as I am now."
There will be opportunities for slippage: Indiana lost its first Big Ten away game, at Michigan State, by 15, and plenty more harsh road trips await. The league's talented and more-experienced big men will try to push Zeller around. Watford and Hulls are unlikely to keep hitting more than 50 percent of their threes. The fact that the Hoosiers are ranked No. 12 in the AP poll, on Jan. 2 -- and are arguably still underrated -- is nothing short of miraculous, and Crean is the early front-runner for national coach of the year. But he is wary of appreciating it, because he knows that first-half wonders, if they don't remain vigilant, are vulnerable to second-half fades.
Preseason Presumption No. 2: That North Carolina was on a tier above every other team.
Reality: The elite tier of title contenders consists of four teams: Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina and Syracuse. And probably in that order, even though the Orange are No. 1 in the polls, and the only one of the four that's undefeated.
The fact that Kentucky is on par with these teams -- beating the Tar Heels narrowly in Lexington on Dec. 3, and with one, respectable loss to IU -- despite having so much growth potential should make the Wildcats a slight favorite. Freshmen forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis, both All-America candidates, have carried the team while fellow frosh Marquis Teague is still figuring out how to be an effective point guard, and the guy who was expected to be their best player in the preseason, Terrence Jones, has been either injured or shell-shocked. Jones should wake up. Teague should get better. Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist have yet to hit their peaks. Once everyone gets in sync, UK could start to pull away from the pack.
Preseason Presumption No. 3: Elite freshman guards would make a huge impact.
Reality: Not so much, yet. Duke's Austin Rivers and Florida's Brad Beal, the best two scoring guards, have had their moments, and could end up playing big roles in the title race, but they haven't been consistently great yet. Teague isn't on the same page yet with UK coach John Calipari, and may never reach the Wall-Knight level of leadership or production as a freshman. Josiah Turner, the No. 2 point guard in the class, has been in and out of the doghouse at Arizona, and doesn't start for the Wildcats. Jahii Carson, who was expected to start at the point for Arizona State, has yet to get eligible. Jabari Brown, whom Oregon hoped would become a big-time scorer, left the program in November and transferred to Missouri.
The two biggest-impact freshman point guards weren't even top-100 recruits. Kevin Pangos, who had loads of experience starring for Canadian national teams but was largely ignored by scouting services due to passing on AAU events, has been huge for Gonzaga, averaging 14.8 points with a 128.1 offensive rating (nearly the same as Zeller's!) and a 2.0 assist-turnover ratio. At Michigan, three-star Trey Burke has stepped in in Darius Morris' old spot and thrived, averaging 14.0 points with a 111.4 ORating and a 1.9 assist-turnover ratio. In the Wolverines' win over Minnesota on New Year's Day, Burke scored a career-high 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
Preseason Presumption No. 4: The Big East had a top tier of Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and Louisville, and then dropped off after that.
Reality: Syracuse is by itself at the top, in large part due to the sophomore breakouts of center Fab Melo and sixth-man Dion Waiters. UConn is a top-20 team that has yet to fully click post-Kemba Walker, although if it does, it has the pieces to get back to the Final Four. Georgetown and Marquette could very well overtake the Huskies and finish 2-3 in the league. Louisville is mildly flawed due to lack of a quality offense, and Pitt is deeply flawed due to lack of anything resembling a defense. It's hard to see either of those teams doing much in the NCAA tournament. West Virginia and Seton Hall are sleepers who should pull off a number of home upsets, but the Big East's middle is as soft as it's been in a few years, and the Big Ten, at this point, looks like the nation's strongest conference.
Preseason Presumption No. 5: The Player of the Year race is between Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes (with Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor a close No. 3).
Reality: Sullinger has to be a top-three candidate on anyone's list, but Barnes has yet to take flight and mimic his late-freshman-season brilliance, and Taylor is a bit off the hyper-efficient pace he was on as a junior. A few very serious newcomers have emerged, among them Kansas' Thomas Robinson (who just went for 31 and 20 against North Dakota), Creighton's Doug McDermott (the country's best high-usage, high-efficiency player), Seton Hall's Herb Pope (the leader of the breakout-senior big man movement), Missouri's Marcus Denmon (the lead gunner on the most entertaining, efficient offense), and Kentucky's Davis, if people properly value his defensive dominance. Will it be one of that crew, or will an even better candidate emerge? Recall that last season's Jimmermania didn't get real until mid-January. Does someone have the power to swoop in, and force us to change the subject?