Throughout the year we will be taking an occasional peek inside the occasional team in the AP Top 25. To start things out, however, we’ll examine every team in the rankings with the acuity of a junior college student hopped up on Red Bull.
1. North Carolina – A Roy Williams team with a ton of NBA talent and a conference in retrograde? We’ve found our ACC Champion. Now all we need to find is the Mid-Major that beats them in the Sweet 16.
2. UCLA – Minka Kelly. The Hold Steady. Rum and Coke. There’s very little not to like about these things, and very little not to like about the Bruins. The boys from Westwood have a nice mix of the old (Darren Collison) and the new (Kevin Love), they have bigs, they have littles, they have wings, they are well-coached, they play great defense, they are battle-tested. In fact, if you want to crown them, go ahead and crown their asses. Still we can’t shake the lingering feeling that what they lack is a true go-to scorer, the guy to get the ball to when you want to make Adam Morrison cry. Josh Shipp was supposed to be that guy, but after two years on the court and one in the training room he hasn’t yet developed into the kind of cold-blooded shooter/scorer he was recruited to be. But in our day, youngsters, the Cal Bears had this kid who didn’t look like much, a decent shooter but a little heavy and not too quick. Well that kid developed into the Bears go-to scorer HIS Junior year, and in his Senior year he led the Pac-10 in scoring. That man was Joe Shipp, who is probably still rubbing off Amit Tamir screens for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
3. Memphi$ – The Tigers are just relieved they don’t have an Atlantic Sun team on their early season schedule.
4. Kansas– Admit it, you hate Kevin Smith. Oh sure, you give him a chance every time another retarded movie of his is released, hoping for something remotely as entertaining as “Clerks”, but the truth is that even as the cast of every succeeding movie seems to hold promise (“More Jay and Silent Bob!”, “Randal is back!”), it unfailingly results in yet greater disappointment than the piece of crap that preceded it. Even before Criterion Collection made the curious decision to release “Chasing Amy”, apparently to have someone at alumni parties to hang out with Michael Bay, it was time to give up on Kevin Smith, right about the same time it was time to give up on the idea of Kansas as National Champions. We’ve all crapped away enough movie tickets to feel confident saying that “Clerks” ain’t gonna happen again, and frankly there have been enough brackets befouled by Kansas being good but not good enough in the Tourney. Maybe one of these days we’ll be wrong, because this is clearly another ridiculously loaded Jayhawk squad that can run with anyone, but at this point it’s not worth the time to find out. We’ll wait for the DVD.
6. Louisville – …that this is the Big East squad you want your money on in March.
7. Tennessee – At first this ranking may seem excessively high, but think about. They’ve got the best coach in the business in Pat Summit, they’ve got Candace Parker, who has more athleticism individually than any combined frontcourt in the Missouri Valley Conference and they have one of college basketball’s best incoming Freshman classes (including Sacramento native Vicki Baugh) so while it may seem improbable, it’s certainly not impossible to think the Tennessee Lady Vols are the 7th best team in basketball, male or female.
Wait…the ranking is this high for the Tennessee men‘s basketball team? Really? Fuck…We’ll get back to you…
8. Indiana – What’s mystifying about Kelvin Sampson is that despite the frequency and fervency with which he’s violated NCAA recruitment regulations, he’s never coached a particularly talented team. Nothing against his players from Washington State and Oklahoma, but realistically how many rules do you need to break to sign Eduardo Najera and Hollis Price? But practice makes perfect and all of Sampson’s three way phone calls, late night text messages and Facebook pokes have finally paid off as he landed, or more appropriately stole, the star of the Big 10 Recruiting class, Eric Gordon. For all the understandable hype surrounding Derrick Rose, Gordon may prove to be the better of the two, at least collegiately. Watching his development, however briefly, will be interesting. More interesting will be how Sampson handles the limelight that comes with coaching the Hoosiers. His previous indiscretions were forgiven at least in part because he was at Football schools where Basketball was effectively Lacrosse like. Yes the Indiana football team is bowl eligible for the first time in ages, but this is still a basketball school in a basketball state, and a Big Ten Championship and trip to the Final Four (both real possibilities this year with Gordon and D.J. White) will be meaningless if they’re rescinded in 5 years and the Bob Knight hangover continues.
9. Washington State – It is fitting that a team from the Pacific Northwest would play a brand of basketball that, stylistically, is the hoops equivalent of Raymond Carver’s prose. In a conference of Pynchons and Wolfes, where soundbites and celebrity can overwhelm substance, Washington State plays with the clarity of a declarative sentence. Those who want to dismiss last season as an aberration do so at your own risk. Now all we need is a Carver type title for this year’s Cougar season (What We Talk About When We Talk About Brackets is a tad too obvious.)
10. Marquette – Is Tom Crean The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan? Stuffing his roster with small guards from the Midwest so he can recreate, however half-assed, those halcyon Final Four days when his team was carried by another small guard from the Midwest? If Earl Boykins (who is still without an NBA contract at the moment) hasn’t signed with a team by January, he may want to try for Spring Enrollment at Marquette, they could use a Power Forward. We kid, but the reality is the Golden Eagles salvation is their damnation. They can penetrate, shoot and steal with the best of them, but they can’t rebound in one of basketball’s best rebounding conferences. Small ball is great in theory, but the smallest of small ball, in execution, could prove to be a different story.
11. Oregon – Isn’t it amazing how swiftly a team’s culture can shift? Wasn’t it only a few years ago that Gonzaga and Oregon were synonymous with shaggy headed shooters with floppy socks and hometowns like Coeur d’Alene? Now Gonzaga is occupying the first and second spots on Sportscenter’s Top 10 list thanks to dunks and two of the best players on the current Oregon roster hail from Detroit. Success breeds access and thanks to their thrilling, and entirely unexpected, run to the Pac 10 Championship and Elite 8 last year it’s conceivable Ernie Kent could, and should, continue fielding a mini-Motown in Eugene. And thanks to the perpetual presence of Phil Knight, there’s no need to be wary of the world’s Ed Martins.
12. Michigan State – It seems a tad unfair for the Spartans to get knocked down for an exhibtion loss, but imagine if it was to Athletes in Action.
13. Duke – This is not a great Blue Devils team. It may not even be a good one. In fact, in a typical ACC season we may have seen Coach K suddenly and mysteriously stricken again with the season-ending injury that happened to coincide with his worst assemblage of talent in post-Grant Hill 1994, a gambit since co-opted and crafted into science by Pat Riley. But this is not a typical ACC season, it appears the weakest in years, and it is not a typical Duke team. It is possible that by maximizing the strengths they do have and going small the Devils may surprise, at least as much as Duke can surprise. Coach K also seems to have translated four years of JJ Redick’s teeth into recruitment gold in West Coast white trash meccas, plucking impact freshmen Kyle Singler and Taylor King from Medford, Oregon and Huntington Beach, respectively. Most likely though is that while they roll out a lineup lacking in sure-fire NBA talent, and as long as Coach K has to worry about Team USA and the Olympics, Duke will continue to lose to the Virginia Commonwealths of the world.
14. Gonzaga – See under “Oregon” above. Dan Dickau fans, however, can take heart in the fact that Gonzaga still has Matt Bouldin…
15. Texas A&M – If Mark Turgeon can simply stay the course with this A&M team he will do wonders to rehabilitate the Coach Fran fractured confidence of Aggie fans. If Turgeon can actually exceed expectations with DeAndre Jordan and Co. he could end up the frontrunner for the school’s football job. In either case it remains in his best interest to avoid starting a website like CoachTurg.com in the hope of bilking boosters of their cash in exchange for program secrets. In part because said practice has gotten Franchione into considerable trouble and in part because, as this is still Texas, basketball secrets would, generously, fetch a $15 Luby’s Gift Certificate.
16. Texas – It is a testament to the strength of the program Rick Barnes has built in Austin that Texas Basketball has become the college hoops equivalent of Texas Football. Highly touted recruiting classes and high expectations, however, have invariably and consistently led to championship disappointments. Rick Barnes may be the Big 12’s Tubby Smith, which would be a bigger deal if he were coaching any place other than Texas, and which could still prove to be a bigger deal if teams with the talent of LaMarcus Aldridge and D.J. Augustin can’t get out of the first few rounds. Fortunately for Barnes, as Mack Brown can attest, it takes only one standout season, with one superlative star, to stem the tide of negativity. Unfortunately for Barnes that season, and that star, were both last year.
17. Arizona – Chase Budinger very well may turn out to be the all-around stud he was advertised as, but frankly his Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honor was built more on the program’s reputation than anything else. Budinger showed flashes of brilliance but far too often was content drifting, much more so than fellow frosh Tajuan Porter, sparkplug of an Oregon Elite Eight team, or Cal’s Ryan Anderson, a true big wing who shouldered the load in the post after DeVon Hardin went down early. There’s enough of Lute Olsen’s usual talent to compete even in the nation’s toughest conference, but much depends on Budinger’s desire to be either the next Sean Elliott or the next Jud Buechler.
18. Arkansas – Fans of Chris Kaman, Chris Andersen, and other big, scary white guys need to know the name Steven Hill. He is 7 feet tall. He is a shot-blocking force. He is from Branson, Missouri, where he was no doubt weaned on nothing but Andy Williams, Yakov Smirnoff, and the Oak Ridge Boys. He looks like what would happen if Bill Walton’s family tree didn’t branch. Look for Hill in the NBA in a couple of years, where there’s always room for an offensively-challenged 7 footer who can block shots, and where they really don’t care how many people you have stored in your basement.
19. Pittsburgh – There’s seldom a tougher team in the country than Pitt, but this year they will be leaning almost exclusively on their backcourt for the first time since before Charles Smith and Jerome Lane were listening to The Bronski Beat (We take that back. Jerome Lane never would have listened to The Bronski Beat.) Our guess is that the Panthers won’t have to worry about losing again in the Sweet Sixteen, but that’s not meant as a compliment.
20. Stanford– In his fourth year on the Farm, Trent Johnson seems as close to returning the Cardinal to Mike Montgomery era prominence as ever. This is a savvy team at all positions, and as long as there are at least a few classes in the Fall Semester schedule that Brook Lopez can get through without breaking a sweat, Stanford will finish with a much better record than most people expect. Unfortunately, this also likely means the usual March upset at the hands of a team with an athletic backcourt and low admission standards.
21. North Carolina State – It must be nice to be a College Basketball fan in North Carolina, a place where even a University comparable to Sacramento State has a hoops team ranked in the Top 25.
22. Kansas State – If it looks like Cincinnatti, sounds like Cincinnatti, acts like Cincinnati and plays like Cincinnati it must be…Kansas State? Bob Huggins may have spent only a year in Manhattan, but that was more than enough time for him to turn these Wildcats into a facsimile of his previously great Bearcat teams. Rugged rebounding and low-post scoring? Check. Aggressive defense? Check. Explosive athleticism? Check. Attitude problems to match that athleticism? Check. The role of Kenyon Martin this year is being played by Michael Beasley, who, without hyperbole, is probably the best Freshman in all of college basketball. Proof? In his first outing for Kansas State he broke the Big 12’s single game rebounding record. Beasley looks a little like a cast member from the Wire and his play is twice as intimidating. He will be coached by first timer Frank Martin, who appears up to the task…
Martin is already a fairly notorious figure in some basketball circles, thanks to recruitment violations at a Miami area high school and a handful of unsolved mid-80’s Manhattan murders…
In a wide open Big 12 Kansas State has as good a shot as anyone, and consequently their current ranking is lower than it should be. An oversight that Beasley’s continued rebounding should fix. What remains to be seen, however, is whether these Wildcats will exhibit another hallmark of Huggins’ teams, an early tournament flameout.
23. Southern Illinois – Put the Salukis, Creighton, Bradley, Witchita State, and Northern Iowa in a bag, pull one out and you’ve basically got the same hard-nosed, scare-the-bejesus-out-of-the-big-boys team. Sorry dad (alumnus, Creighton Prep) and the rest of you in the country’s belly button, but I just can’t profess to know a whole hell of a lot about these teams at this point of the season. Check back in January.
24. Villanova – This feels more like a placeholder for a Big East team rather than for Villanova specifically. The underrated Scottie Reynolds can carry the Wildcats, it just remains to be seen how far. Syracuse, with Paul Harris, Jonny Flynn, Donte Greene, and the dude who looks like every white kid on the Northbound 40 in East Oakland, appears to have the most talented, if not the most combustible, of the remaining Big East squads. But remember the good ol’ days when “Lost” didn’t suck, the Nano was all the rage, and UConn was good? With Jerome Dyson, Jeff Adrien, and the gratuitously voweled Hasheem Thabeet, those days could be coming again.
25. Butler – The underdog Bulldogs are dangerous, a heady veteran squad with clearly defined roles. Rade makes things go at the point, Flatch and Strap take care of business in the paint, while Buddy is the defensive stopper every good team needs in crunch time. But Butler will continue to struggle even against the likes of Oolitic until Jimmy Chitwood finally decides to lace them up.