Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My AP preseason Top 25 ballot, All-America team

Happy to be an Associated Press Top 25 voter again this season. Our preseason Top 25 and five-man All-American team is due by Friday. The first AP Top 25 will be released on Oct. 31, with the All-America team moving on Nov. 3.

Here's what I'll be submitting:

1.       Wisconsin
2.       Kentucky
3.       Arizona
4.       Duke
5.       Kansas
6.       North Carolina
7.       Louisville
8.       Texas
9.       Wichita State
10.   Iowa State
11.   Villanova
12.   UConn
13.   Florida
14.   Gonzaga
15.   Virginia
16.   SMU
17.   San Diego State
18.   Michigan State
19.   Virginia Commonwealth
20.   Michigan
21.   Harvard
22.   Ohio State
23.   Stanford
24.   Syracuse
25.  Memphis

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
Georges Niang, Iowa State
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State

I’ve never particularly liked the Wisconsin men’s basketball team. Just hasn’t been very aesthetically pleasing over the years, a bit too … boring, we’ll say. Yeah, boring.

But the Badgers won me over last season, led by big Frank Kaminsky and dynamic Sam Dekker (who’s anything but boring). Now, pretty much everyone’s back from last year’s Final Four team that fell a few points short of a date with UConn in the national championship game. That’s why I’m picking them as my preseason No. 1.

It seems most people are going with Kentucky, the team that beat the Badgers in last year’s Final Four, after all. The Wildcats have a record nine McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster, including key players from last year’s runners-up like the Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew) as well as Willie Cauley-Stein (whose injury for the national championship game undoubtedly helped UConn).

But Kentucky also loses key players like Julius Randle and James Young. They’ve got great freshmen coming in, led by Karl Towns, but so often we’ve seen teams with great newcomers have trouble jelling and, ultimately, disappointing. 

I'll side with teams like Wisconsin -- veteran, experienced teams who truly love being in college and value their entire collegiate experience -- over teams stacked with talent but, too often, have too many guys with one eye on the next level and perhaps aren't buying into the whole team concept.

Sure, every now and then there’s a team like 2012 Kentucky, which rolled to a national title behind freshmen and sophomores, led by Anthony Davis. But look no further than 2014 Kentucky. Remember, some pundits were predicting an undefeated season for a team led largely by freshmen? The Wildcats wound up disappointing through much of the season and were a No. 8 seed for the NCAA tournament. Kentucky started to come together at just the right time, of course (John Calipari deserves a lot of credit there) and wound up in the national title game … where it fell to UConn.

Ah yes, UConn. What to do with the Huskies? It’s funny to look at the preseason coaches’ poll and see four of the teams UConn beat in last year’s NCAA tournament (Kentucky, Florida, Villanova and Iowa State) all ranked ahead of the Huskies. But it’s somewhat understandable.

The graduation of Shabazz Napier is huge. Yes, Ryan Boatright is a terrific player who really matured last season – particularly in the postseason – as a true point guard, a leader and a defensive whiz. Yes, Amida Brimah should be one of the best shot-blockers in the nation. Yes, Rodney Purvis, Daniel Hamilton and Sam Cassell, Jr. are outstanding additions. Yes, Terrence Samuel boasts championship pedigree, and if Omar Calhoun can turn things around … watch out!

But it’s hard to quantify just how much Shabazz meant to this program that past couple of seasons. There were so many games in which his late heroics saved the Huskies from defeat. Never mind the obvious ones like Florida and Indiana last season; don’t forget South Florida on the road, where Napier delivered an inspirational halftime speech (after the Huskies had played their worst half of the season and trailed by six), then scored 11 of UConn’s final 14 points in a 61-56 win. Or how about against Quinnipiac in the 2012 Paradise Jam, when he scored 23 of his 29 points in the game’s final 3 ½ minutes of regulation and two overtimes? Those are just two of too many other examples to list.

I like UConn this season. There’s a lot of talent, but I see it taking a while for it all to jell together. It’s going to take a couple of months for guys like Hamilton, Purvis and Cassell, Jr. to learn how to play together, share the ball and do what’s best for the team. I don’t worry about Boatright – I think he knows he’s got to prove to NBA scouts that he’s a distributor and that he can make his teammates better. He’ll do that. But there are a lot of shots to go around, and it’ll be interesting to see how everybody co-exists. It’ll also be interesting to see if UConn still has some long-distance threats now that Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey are gone. Early returns are that Cassell may just be that guy.

So, I like the Huskies more than some (for instance, Lindy’s magazine has them ranked No. 36. Even though I did the UConn and AAC season previews for this edition, I’ll take no blame for that low ranking. Wasn’t me). However, it wouldn’t shock me at all if SMU beats out UConn for the AAC championship. If Emmanuel Mudiay had stayed at SMU rather than zipped off to China, that might be a no-brainer. Even without Mudiay, however, the Mustangs return just about everyone from last year’s 27-10, NIT runners-up, including all-AAC picks Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy, former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier and talented Xavier transfer Justin Martin. And, let’s not forget, SMU beat UConn last season both times they met. This Larry Brown guy can coach a little bit.

In fact, I was prepared to rank SMU even higher and pick it to win the AAC until reports the other day that Kennedy may be sidelined for at least the early part of the season due to academic issues. If Kennedy misses part (or all) of the season, it’s a big blow to the Mustangs.

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