The Student Section is ramping up for the start of college basketball season with its “top-26-because-25-simply-was-not-enough” preview. Steve Fetch has covered teams 26-22 and, earlier this week, 16-13. Meanwhile, I covered teams 21-17. We are now hitting the point of the preview where all of the teams listed have a legitimate shot at a Final Four berth in Indianapolis. In fact, we are starting with one of the big-time contenders in the Big 12.
12. Iowa State Cyclones / 2013-14 Record: 28-8 (11-7) / Postseason: Sweet 16
Last Season Tweetcap: Iowa State rode a huge wave of momentum into the NCAA Tournament, but had its dreams dashed with the (Georges) Niang injury.
Key Number: 3. Iowa State has had the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year three years running. That could very easily move to four with transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones.
Fred Hoiberg has a great thing going in Ames. Iowa State is one of the best teams to watch as a college basketball fan because the Cyclones are just so much fun. If you love offense, this is your team. It seems to not matter how much the Cyclones have lost from year to year; Hoiberg has something new up his sleeve for the next season. This one should be another quality selection.
The Cyclones boast a starting lineup with three returning starters, highlighted by Georges Niang, who sadly went down with an injury during the Cyclones’ opening round win in the NCAA tournament. While they were able to advance to the Sweet 16, they clearly missed him in a tough loss to the eventual champion Connecticut Huskies. Niang is 6-8 but isn’t a banger, averaging only 4 rebounds per game. Yet, he’s an excellent stretch big who can hit from deep and take you inside. He figures to play a bigger role in the offense this season.
Also returning is the second leading rebounder in the Big 12 a year ago, Dustin Houge. He very much took a backseat to Niang, as well as DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim, but Houge should be featured in the offense. Houge hit 65 percent of his twos and 34 percent from three. He’s a defensive rebounding monster who claimed 20 percent of all available defensive rebounds last season.
Monte Morris is back as the point guard. All Morris did as a freshman was set the NCAA record for assist-turnover ratio at 4.79:1. Morris may need to take a step up with his offensive game this season. He shot well with a 43 % / 85 % / 40.6 % slash line last season, but he didn’t use a lot of possessions.
Naz Long also returns. He hit a lot of big shots for the team last year, especially from 3. Long should see more time as a starter or at least a game finisher.
The Cyclones have a history of adding transfers, and they landed another big one this past offseason in Bryce Dejean-Jones. He was UNLV’s leading scorer with 13.6 points per game a season ago. Dejean-Jones had a decent slash line hampered by a very low 64-percent clip at the foul line. He’s yet another player who passes the ball very well and can make plays.
Abdel Nader started at Northern Illinois before he transferred to Iowa State. He’s expected to play a big role. Junior college transfers Kourtlin Jackson, a guard, and Jameel McKay, a forward not eligible until after the fall semester, should be key cogs off the bench. Freshman guard Clayton Custer could play a role off the bench as the backup point guard.
One thing people have learned is you shouldn’t bet against the Mayor. We certainly aren’t going to.
11. Villanova Wildcats / 2013-14 Record: 29-5 (16-2) / Postseason: NCAA 3rd Round
Season Tweetcap: Villanova shocked Kansas in the Bahamas, then dominated the Big East as the Wildcats became conference champions.
Key Number: 265. That’s the number of starts for JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard, and Ryan Arcidiacono during their Wildcat careers.
The Villanova Wildcats were damn good last season, even though they probably shouldn’t have been a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament… but this isn’t the place for that discussion. The Wildcats return pretty much everyone from that team this season. Second leading scorer Darrun Hilliard (14.3 points) and third leading scorer JayVaughn Pinkston (14.1 points) are back. Hilliard was a three-point sharpshooter at 41.4 %. Pinkston hit 55 % on twos and 74 % from the line. That’s a big one-two punch that should be aided by Ryan Arcidiacono. Arci took a step back on offense his sophomore season by cutting his usage from nearly 21 % to 17.4 %. He also cut his turnover rate by over 8 percent, which was pretty huge.
The Wildcats have their big three, but they are accented by other cogs from last year’s machine. Daniel Ochefu was in the top 85 in block percentage in the nation as a freshman, as well as a tremendous rebounder. Josh Hart put in nearly 8 points a game off the bench with 4 rebounds. An improvement in his so-so three-point shooting could push him over double digits. So could his presumed minutes as a starter in place of James Bell. Dylan Ennis, Tyler’s older brother, was a do it all guard off the bench and should have that role again. Kris Jenkins was a key three-point shooter in his role. Freshmen Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges could give the Big East favorites some added contributions, especially some energy at the end of the bench to rest the frontline players in the middle of the long season.
In conference play last season, Villanova was flummoxed only by Creighton, and then by Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament. With a lot of their key cogs — starters and bench alike — back for this season, the Wildcats should be the hands-down favorites in the league.
10. North Carolina Tar Heels / 2013-’14 Record: 24-10 (13-5) / Postseason: NCAA 3rd Round
Season Tweetcap: Carolina turned its season around with a 12-game winning streak, but dropped 3 of 4 to close the season.
Key Number: 62.6. That was UNC’s free throw percentage last season. It ranked 343 of 351 on Ken Pom.
Potential player of the year: check. Potential freshman of the year: check. Potential national title contender: that remains to be seen. The North Carolina Tar Heels were a very difficult team to figure out a season ago. They had a decent offense, but one that was mainly Marcus Paige being awesome. Paige was indeed awesome — to the tune of 17.5 points, 4.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. He also had an amazing slash line of 44 / 87.7 / 38.9. Paige proved that he could do it all. To be honest, a lot of the time he had to. He was pretty much the only Tar Heel threat from distance.
That should change due to the injection of freshman Justin Jackson. One of the top recruits in the nation, Jackson has done nothing but turn heads at UNC. Jackson was a star at the McDonald’s All-American Game and has been a star in every Carolina exhibition and scrimmage. His shooting touch should be a major boost, especially since the only other shooter on the team last season was Leslie McDonald, who hit only 31 percent and also has run out of eligibility. Nate Britt ran the point with very modest numbers. Any improvement out of him with those two gunners should result in a huge year for this backcourt.
The UNC frontcourt is also pretty loaded. James Michael McAdoo has moved on, but juniors Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto are back, as well as a trimmed-down Kennedy Meeks, who was an incredible rebounder. His 15.6-percent rate on the offensive glass was 10th in the country, and his 24.9-percent rate on the defensive backboard was 37th. Meeks had great touch around the basket. With more time due to his losing roughly 40 pounds, he could be a big-time big man in the ACC.
No one on the Heels put up as many shots as Brice Johnson. He got a lot of action on putbacks because of his great offensive rebounding ability. Johnson was the lone UNC big who was remotely tolerable (62 percent) at the foul line a season ago. Johnson also has some shot blocking ability as well.
Tokoto was a highlight reel a year ago. He hopes to improve on his dismal outside shot (8 of 36 last season) and free throw shooting (49 of 98). When the reader doesn’t need to do the math for those percentages, that’s very bad shooting. Tokoto, as well as Britt and Paige, are ball hawks.
The Carolina freshmen have some expectations. Justin Jackson was mentioned earlier as a potential star. Joel Berry could push Britt at the point. He was a three-time Florida Mr. Basketball, the first one in history. He was also a hamburger All-American, as was Theo Pinson. While Pinson could be in a bit of a log jam with some of the wings, he’s got a ton of talent and will probably shine, at least early in the season. Isaiah Hicks was a McDonald’s All-American two years ago, but he’s basically a new player after a wash last season.
Stillman White, whom some of you may remember replacing Kendall Marshall after Marshall’s injury in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, returns to the team after a Mormon mission. I don’t know if he’s actually going to play, but I read that, thought it was interesting, and passed it on. Teamwork makes the dream work.
The Heels should compete for an ACC title. They do have questions on offense — when you rely on freshmen, you have questions — but they should be a top team when March rolls around.
9. Wichita State Shockers / 2013-’14: 35-1 (18-0) / Postseason: NCAA 3rd Round
Season Tweetcap: The Cinderella story of a dominant Shocker team was dashed by probably the best 8 seed of all time.
Key Number: 31. The regular season win streak Wichita brings into this season.
The story of Wichita State basketball could be so much different if the Shockers hadn’t played teams from the state of Kentucky in the tournament the last two years. Maybe they grind out a championship game berth in 2013. Maybe they pound the other third round matchups in their quest for back to back Final Fours. We will never know, because they couldn’t hold a 12-point lead against Louisville and Fred VanVleet’s game-winning three fell short against Kentucky. We do know this: Wichita State is a program that is among the national elite for the second season running. The Shockers have a huge loss with Cleanthony Early moving on to the NBA. Wichita State also loses a couple of rotation cogs.
What the Shockers do have returning is preseason All-American candidate Fred VanVleet, who has established himself as one of the best point guards in the nation. He’s incredibly efficient offensively, 14th in the country in offensive rating, with a 48.4 / 83 / 41.8 slash line. Add that to his skills as a steady ballhandler who is one of the best assist men in the nation (assist-turnover ratio of 4-1), and you have yourself a star. Oh, and his defense is also amazing with nearly two steals a game. He’s not even the only All-American candidate from his backcourt.
Ron Baker had an excellent season a year ago to go with his excellent hair. Baker averaged 13.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.4 steals. He had an assist-turnover rate of nearly 2. Baker hit nearly 85 % from the foul line. This may not be the backcourt you think of as the best in the nation, but it’s right up there.
Tekele Cotton is also back for the Shocker backcourt. He was the MVC Defensive Player of the Year. Cotton canned 37 % of his threes last season. His 69-percent shooting rate from the foul line could use some work. However, when you have a one-two like VanVleet and Baker, having a defensive stopper as your third guard isn’t a bad thing.
The front line has some questions. Darius Carter hit 64.8 % from the floor last season, but he was largely a rotation player. He’s going to have to take a bigger role with Early gone. Rashard Kelly is a freshman that is expected to start. JUCO forward Tevin Glass could grab that job, though. Glass averaged 12 and 6 last season. Another JUCO is Bush Wamukota, who put up 6 and 7. It looks like he won’t add much offense. Centers Shaq Morris and Rauno Nurger represent a redshirt and true freshman combination. There’s not a lot of experience up front, although there are the pieces to mix and match, which is precisely what Gregg Marshall did with the five spot last season.
I fully believe in Wichita State this season. The schedule gets challenging from the get-go with 2014 tournament teams New Mexico State, Memphis, Tulsa, Utah, and Saint Louis right off the bat. Any team with a first team All-American point guard and a 2nd-4th team shooting guard is one to be reckoned with. The Shockers have proven they can go toe to toe with anyone. They have proven they can win. The only thing left to prove is if they can run through this regular season perfect again.