Keys to the Season for Top NCAA Basketball Teams
Michigan State – Last season was Michigan State’s 11th trip to at least the Sweet Sixteen under Tom Izzo and with the return of some key personnel from last year’s team, they are primed to make a title run again. The return of Gary Harris for his sophomore season and Adreian Payne for his senior were vital if the Spartans expect to advance far. Harris is capable of scoring from the perimeter and on penetration, and he uses his strong body well to create space. Payne is very skilled for his size, but he has had issues staying focused and putting all the pieces together. The key for this group may be the play of point guard Keith Appling who has shown flashes of the distributor he could be, but would still rather look to score first. If Appling can defer more to Harris and Payne, it may make his job much easier.
Louisville – Losing the starting point guard and center from a National Championship team would be tough for almost any one, but Rick Pitino has himself a team that will be right back in the NCAA Championship hunt this season. With Peyton Siva now in the NBA, this is fully Russ Smith’s team, and like him or hate him, he produces on both ends of the floor. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by JUCO Player of the Year Chris Jones, who uses his speed well to create scoring opportunities and force turnovers. The backcourt also has depth with freshman Terry Rozier and the returning Kevin Ware. The frontcourt has two of the toughest forwards in the country in Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell, and both are capable of scoring and defending in the paint. The key for Louisville is adjusting to not having a true big man to rely on, especially having someone to replace Gorgui Dieng as a rim protector. It will likely be a backcourt-dominant team again, but the frontcourt will need to produce consistently.
Kentucky – Last season was nothing short of a disaster for the defending champion Wildcats. There was talent, though not as great as many anticipated, a crucial season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel, and a lack of chemistry and cohesion among the team, most evident in their season-ending NIT 1st Round loss to Robert Morris. Noel and Archie Goodwin moved on to the NBA, and perimeter threat Kyle Wiltjer transferred, but John Calipari did what he does best – put together a recruiting class which arguably topped all of his others. Led by high school All-Americans Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle, the Kentucky freshmen all provide a potential impact at every spot on the floor. The key, as has been for all of Kentucky’s freshman-dominated teams, is going to be team chemistry, and the impact of the returning players. In this case, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein will need to simultaneously put last season behind them, embrace their new teammates (even if they end up sacrificing minutes), and continue to improve. Even at its worst, I won’t expect an implosion like last season, but no matter how talented, the team needs time to come together and find an identity.
Kansas – Kansas lost all 5 starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team, but there is a chance that this team may be even better than that group. It starts with last year’s #1 high school player and potential #1 NBA Draft pick, Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins will bring a special blend of athleticism and talent to Lawrence, along with some lofty expectations. Wiggins is not the only freshman to watch here, as Kansas’ class was widely considered #2 to the Kentucky class discussed above. Center Joel Emblid is long and athletic, and while raw on the offensive end, he should be able to help replace the rim-protecting ability of Jeff Withey. Wayne Selden has the body to attack the rim from the perimeter, and Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene will provide some depth to the backcourt. The key to the Jayhawks’ season may rest with the returning players, especially Perry Ellis, who impressed many with his play this summer. Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, and Memphis transfer Tarik Black will all need to contribute in the frontcourt, especially in Big 12 play.
Check back for Part 2 tomorrow.