Philadelphia, PA – Maybe it was something in the water.
College basketball, for the first time in what seems like eons, has a familiar face this season. The marketing buzz word "fresh" has been reserved for Lexington, Kentucky, while outside Calipari Country most ardent followers will see names and games they remember when the ball tips for real in the upcoming weeks.
Maturity, perspective and the quest for national titles and individual legacies overcame the power and persuasion of the almighty dollar. At least for one season. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Harrison Barnes is back at North Carolina. And his upperclassmen friends Tyler Zeller and John Henson join him. Terrence Jones is back as the elder statesmen to lead Kentucky's revolving door of youth. Jared Sullinger is again anchoring the middle of Ohio State's attack. Vanderbilt seemingly returns its entire team. So does Memphis. Florida's entire backcourt is back. And on it goes.
Cutting down the nets last season may have led any of the above stars to forgo another try and start cashing checks, but instead most got a strong taste of success and had their fingertips on the trophy before UConn's Kemba Walker tore it away. It is then fitting that Walker is gone, but Connecticut does return Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier.
The motto of this season is, "Experience counts." That won't discount Kentucky or Duke from the national title chase, but no matter how the Wildcats' freshmen triumvirate or the Blue Devils' Austin Rivers handle the pressure, neither team has a chance of cutting down the nets without strong seasons from its veterans (Jones and Darius Miller for Kentucky; the Plumlee brothers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins for Duke).
With that experience card in hand, From The End of the Bench unveils its first Fine 15 of the season and pinpoints the veteran hands that will play a large factor in each team's success.
1. North Carolina: For all the talk surrounding Barnes and the bigs, the two most invaluable returnees are point guard Kendall Marshall and two-guard Dexter Strickland. Marshall must stay healthy without a viable replacement behind him. His backup point guard? A little-discussed freshman, Stilman White. Strickland is Roy Williams' national title team-worthy prototype two- guard in the vein of Jackie Manual or Marcus Ginyard. He doesn't need to worry about scoring; there is more than enough talent for that. Instead, he locks down the opposition's best perimeter player. He's good at it, a large part of the reason the Tar Heels finished sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. His defense also leads to turnovers, contested outside shots and is a trigger to Williams' vaunted fast-break attack. He's the only wing player capable of filling this role, at least initially, with Leslie McDonald likely down for the season after an offseason ACL injury.
2. Kentucky: The team construction highlights the double-edge sword of Coach Cal's strengths. He is a feverish, bordering on maniac, recruiter with just enough tenacity, hoops IQ and New York salesman to persuade the nation's best to sign on the dotted line year after year. It just so happens those same recruits are normally one-year wonders, and so the process begins again. Anthony Davis, Mike Gilchrist and Marquis Teague will all be valuable contributors by some time in early 2012, but without Josh Harrellson, the pressure is on Jones to own the inside through a November/December schedule that includes Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville.
3. Ohio State: Aaron Craft is the model of efficiency. He orchestrated the nation's most efficient offense last season, and was the first line of the nation's fifth-most efficient defense. It doesn't hurt having a physical specimen like Sullinger clogging the middle either. Ohio State will look very similar to last season, the only difference being William Buford is the lone defense-stretching shooter on the block. I say that like it's a bad thing. Buford made 44 percent of his long-distance shots last season.
4. Vanderbilt: I'm all in. In recent memory, I've never seen such an experienced, talented group of returnees so dismissed and maligned. That should fuel the fire. Festus Ezeli's six-game suspension hurts, especially with just two definite W's in the lot (Bucknell and Monmouth). The most important player during those six games isn't veterans John Jenkins or Jeffrey Taylor, bur rather redshirt freshman Josh Henderson, who says he models his game after former North Carolina All-American Tyler Hansbrough. A little Psycho T is exactly what this "country club" group needs.
5. Connecticut: Lamb's length, athleticism and raw skill were never in question, though at times last season, his wherewithal, court sense and hoops aptitude definitely were. He made sloppy, careless errors and was constantly caught out of position. Then the switch flipped, his game contained both polish and swagger, and he transformed into the point guard that allowed Walker to both rest and play more effectively off the ball. His responsibilities will increase this season as the only dynamic returning perimeter scorer. But he doesn't have to do it alone, as the Huskies are loaded on the interior with returnees Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith joining heralded 6-foot-11 freshman Andre Drummond.
6. Syracuse: Rick Jackson is the lone missing piece from last season's 27-win team. So, welcome to the pressure cooker C.J. Fair and Fab Melo. Fair logged heavy minutes during the Big East schedule last season, and had eye-openers (16 points, nine boards at Pittsburgh) followed by eye-closers (one point, one rebound five days later versus Villanova). He worked on filling out his 6- foot-7, 200-pound frame in the offseason to better withstand the conference's physical play. While Fair worked on his body, Melo had to work on his mind. Head coach Jim Boeheim, for all his Hall of Fame-worthy traits, inexplicably kept trotting Melo out as a starter only to pull him several minutes later and use him sparingly throughout the rest of game. The 7-footer was thought to be a can't-miss product out of high school, but struggled with the speed and strength of opposing big men. Reports indicate he is in better shape and has a better understanding of his role in Boeheim's zone defense.
7. Memphis: The Tigers took longer than expected to gel last season, due in part to a rash of injuries and inconsistency. However, they seemed to grow as a group late in the season, won the Conference USA Tournament and nearly beat Arizona in the NCAA Tournament's second round. Head coach Josh Pastner's top eight players are back, including Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, Antonio Barton and Joe Jackson. This veteran group as a whole needs to cut down on an alarming turnover rate (a turnover on 21.9% of possessions) that ranked 269th in the country last season.
8. Pittsburgh: The one player getting far too little attention for bypassing the NBA is Panthers guard Ashton Gibbs. Only the game's best shooters can make 49 percent of their three-point baskets when attempting 208 of them (as he did last season). He will gain more ball-handling responsibility with Brad Wanamaker gone, but his main job will still be to extend defenses, opening up the block for Nasir Robinson and driving lanes for Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor, who better start playing up the expectations of being the program's first McDonald's All-American recruit.
9. Duke: I'm more down on Duke than most, and it has nothing to do with how fast Rivers gets acclimated to the college game. He's going to be special, he's going to score (a lot) and his penetration will be a benefit to deadly wing shooters Curry and Dawkins. Yet, Duke's ultimate success rests on the broad shoulders of Mason and Miles Plumlee, who looked like rapidly-improved world beaters last November before fading back into obscurity by the mid-point of the ACC season. Miles had three double-digit games through January 19th, then just one the rest of the season while throwing in three straight goose eggs against Temple, Virginia Tech and Clemson. Mason had a monster 25-point, 12-rebound showing against Marquette in November, scored 10 the next night against Kansas State and posted a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double up against Michigan State's experienced frontline. After that, his inconsistency was his only consistent trait. He mixed in a 16-point, 12-rebound game versus North Carolina State with two points against St. John's. He scored just two points in 47 minutes over two regular-season games against North Carolina and totaled only 12 points in Duke's quick NCAA Tournament exit. Maybe, just maybe having a third Plumlee on the team (youngest brother Marshall) will help.
10. Baylor: Perry Jones joined the line of surprising returnees, and he, alongside Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones, will make up a long, intimidating front line. The expectations are through the roof, and head coach Scott Drew fed the fire by saying, "I definitely feel it's the deepest team we've had." The Bears' big people will come in waves with the addition of freshman Quincy Miller to the mix.
11. Florida: Is having too much of one thing a good thing? Florida is deep and experienced... on the perimeter. The Gators return guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, then added Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, a player with tools in the same box as the rest. Rosario is a better shooter, but he scores more efficiently with the ball in his hands, which is an issue since the ball is normally in the hands of Walker... or Boynton. The veteran duo does need to improve their outside shooting, however, as both fired over 200 three-pointers without great success (Walker made 38.5 percent and Boynton 33 percent).
12. Louisville: Backcourts win games, especially ones with the experience of Kyle Kuric and Peyton Siva. Kuric is the shooter (45 percent from long distance last season) and Siva the penetrator and creator (9.9 points per game and a team-best 182 assists), but both need to develop all-around games to make up for the loss of Preston Knowles. Kuric needs to attack the rim and shoot more freebies (he's a 76 percent foul shooter), while Siva needs to make defenses respect his three-point shooting ability (27 percent last season) so they don't play off and make penetration more difficult.
13. Cincinnati: Experience is also wearing a Bearcats jersey, as head coach Mick Cronin returns his top four scorers. I'm looking to see familiar faces with better offensive approaches and shot selection. The Bearcats will be a better team if Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick take better long-range shots and make more of them. Neither player is going to be Jon Diebler or JJ Redick, but if both hover around 39 or 40 percent, it will give Yancy Gates more room to navigate in the lane.
14. Kansas: Questions abound. Can Thomas Robinson handle double-teams in the paint? Can Tyshawn Taylor stay off social media long enough to live up to his high school hype? There are no clear answers at the moment. Robinson is a back-to-the-basket guy who succeeded in single coverage thanks to the attention drawn by the Morris twins last season. He and Taylor will be in charge of leading a relatively unknown group into an arduous early-season schedule that includes Kentucky, Ohio State and a loaded Maui Invitational.
15. Xavier: The loss of Kenny Frease to a suspension would have hurt, but he was reinstated on Sunday. Still, this ranking is based almost solely off Tu Holloway's ability to take over games. He gets to the rim at ease (think: former Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas) and has a streaky long-range game (think former Virginia Tech standout Malcolm Delaney). He will be virtually unguardable if he spent the summer improving his 34.5 percent three-point percentage.
5 NOTES TO KNOW
1. Recruiting rule changes are on the way. In rough form, the rule changes would alter the visitation process and recruiting calendar for high school juniors following January 1 of their junior season. College coaches will seek the ability to host juniors on official visits after that date. Also, coaches are seeking evaluation opportunities during April at spring AAU and travel team events. Other possible rule changes include schools paying for two parents/guardians to accompany prospects on official visits (right now schools can just pay for the recruits); and coaches having the ability to contact recruits following June 15 of their sophomore season without any restrictions. These changes will need to pass a vote of the NCAA Leadership Council, which meets on October 27.
2. Sad news to hear about former Valparaiso head coach Homer Drew and his wife's battle with cancer. Homer Drew already underwent surgery to remove his prostate and his wife discovered she had stage three bladder cancer during an exam prompted by the cancer discovery in her husband. From the End of the Bench's thoughts and prayers are with the Drew family.
3. Former Arizona guard Momo Jones has been cleared to play for Iona this season, as the NCAA granted him a hardship waiver. Jones left the Wildcats last May, saying he wanted to move closer to his ailing grandmother in Harlem, New York. Jones averaged 9.7 points for Arizona last season, and his addition makes Iona an intriguing mid-major to watch.
4. USC has found new fertile recruiting territory: Winston Salem, North Carolina. J.T. Terrell, a sophomore guard who averaged 11.1 points per game last season for Wake Forest announced his decision to transfer to USC. He will join his former Demon Deacon teammate Ari Stewart in southern California.
5. The first evidence of new head coach Pat Chambers turning the Nittany Lions into his team came with the indefinite suspension of guard Jermaine Marshall for a violation of team rules. Well, that, and donning a jersey, full pads and eye black for a Nittany Lion home football game.