Blood, Sweat and Heels: UNC starts with championship pressure
Philadelphia, PA – Kendall Marshall is the most important player in college basketball this season.
Glowing reviews and preseason accolades have been heaped on Harrison Barnes and North Carolina's two bigs, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, but the Tar Heels' national championship aspirations lie on the speed, savvy and smarts of Marshall, the man responsible for feeding the aforementioned three in prime scoring positions.
It's a fact (trust me, look it up) that the success of Roy Williams' transition-dictated offense is predicated on a pure point guard, one who sprints to the outlet area and pushes the ball for the game's best finishers filling the lanes. The Tar Heels spend hours preaching spacing and recruit athletes who happen to be basketball players instead of vice versa.
When Williams' Heels have a great point guard (i.e. Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson) they compete for and win national championships. When they lack a true identity, are forced into half-court sets and are stuck scoring in the 60s, the root of the problem is easy to see.
Remember Larry Drew?
Marshall doesn't have the speed with the ball like Lawson or the ability to lead the break, stop on a dime and drain a three like Felton, but the crafty southpaw's eyes are always up and he passes (the actual act and the art of finding the most appropriate lane) better than any player in the country.
The 2011-12 Tar Heels have a bevy of scoring options, which include freshmen P.J. Hairston and James McAdoo and quick-trigger Reggie Bullock off the bench. Marshall doesn't need to score. He just needs to put his talent in the best position to succeed. In that way, he is college basketball's ultimate manager, the guy in charge of morale, direction and ultimate success.
Now imagine having that much responsibility without a capable employee waiting in the wings in an emergency. Marshall's backup is Stilman White, who hopes to remain the most unrecognizable player during warm-ups. The little-recruited White plans to stay in Chapel Hill for one season before heading out on his two-year Mormon mission.
The drop off is precipitous. The difference is stark. The finish line is far different without a healthy Marshall at the helm. With him leading the way, however, this team is national championship or bust.
There is that much pressure. But there is also so much talent and experience that cutting down the nets isn't the goal, it's the expectation. With that standard set, From The End of the Bench stares into the crystal ball for preseason All-Americans, teams to watch and the first in-season Fine 15.
Preseason All-American Team
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: Footwork defines a once-in-a-decade big man. Sullinger's footwork makes him look like a ballerina on the block, navigating his way over, under and around typical double teams. His offensive skills feature a six-to-eight-foot face-up game and a back-to-the-basket set that rises above all others. His 19-point, nine-rebound line in the season-opening rout of Wright State will be the norm in a season of lofty expectations.
Terrence Jones, Kentucky: Jones is the elder statesman on a team of juveniles; and his responsibilities extend to vocalizing the 40-minute expectations that freshmen sometimes don't meet in an extended setting. The 6-foot-9 forward must play through the whistle and lead by example, both keys he didn't follow through with at times during his own season of learning. You can't ignore his skill set, however, thanks to a deft mid-range shooting touch and ability to finish around the rim. He may not improve on his 15.7-point, 8.8-rebound stat line from last season due to the scoring options around him, but his maturity and leadership will be the difference in Kentucky's success.
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina: He shouldn't suffer the same fate brought upon him by his inclusion on this list as a freshman last season. Barnes blossomed as the season progressed; he grew into his own skin and his confidence level rose accordingly. He has the mid-range game, along with the size and strength on the drive, to make guarding him virtually impossible. He averaged 15.7 points per game last season, and those totals will only rise with another year in Williams' fast-paced offense.
Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut: Many national writers, present company included, fretted over UConn's one-man show last season, lamenting the minutes Kemba Walker was amassing at the midway point of the Big East season. With Walker laboring through a lull, Lamb stepped up, asserting himself on both ends on the floor with his length. The 6-foot-5 guard is a match-up nightmare and his shooting range expanded as the season wore on. The Huskies are his team. His exuberant confidence (some would call it cockiness), will rub off on a raw, but talented supporting cast led by hyped recruit Andre Drummond.
Tu Holloway, Xavier: Nation, let me introduce you to this year's Jimmer Fredette, the mid-major guard with an abundance of game searching for national notoriety. He reached the fringe of national interest during the NCAA Tournament last season, but with the Musketeers' preseason ranking, all bystanders will be forced to pay attention. Holloway is an above-average outside shooter and a ruthless attacker of the rim, where he either finishes strong or draws a whistle. Not bad for an 87 percent foul shooter last season.
5 Teams to Watch
Vanderbilt: They have the players, but do they have the pieces? The backs of their trading cards are filled with all-league numbers, but when pieced together, something seems to be missing. ESPN analyst Hubert Davis labeled the Commodores "country club" and three straight March flameouts did little but support his point. Then came a case-and-point example of the conundrum that is Vanderbilt basketball, an uninspired effort in a loss to the more physical Cleveland State Vikings. Vanderbilt didn't put the ball in the basket (just 35% percent) then did little to impede the Vikings, who made half of their 54 attempts. "We want to leave a legacy," guard John Jenkins said before the season, and for that to happen the Commodores need to play endline-to-endline, 40-minute affairs night in and night out. Festus Ezeli, who is suspended for the first six games after taking improper benefits, returns for the December 2nd clash with Louisville.
Belmont: After a loss that opened so many eyes, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd took the words right out of my mouth. "We can be a top-25 team -- sure." The Bruins followed the 77-76 setback at Duke with another loss to Memphis, but the two lumps will keep the Atlantic Sun kings hungry for another shot at Goliath in say, oh, March. We won't see Belmont against comparable competition until then, and by that point Byrd's club will again be a favorite of KenPom.com and other statistical metrics. The Bruins have five players with similar skill sets, and each logs heavy minutes while averaging in double figures. The key to a March success (not surprise) will be the Bruins' efficiency; the oddity of their swing offense and the havoc in can create for opposing defenses.
Kansas: We can't be in Kansas because the Jayhawks aren't the favorites anymore. They were in name only in preseason conference media polls, but after seeing the Jayhawks' Tuesday night loss to Kentucky, they aren't on the same level as John Calipari's kids. It's a rebuilding year in Lawrence, but that doesn't mean it has to be a lost one. They can't match Baylor's size and quickness or Texas and Texas A&M's shooting and experience, but Bill Self will find out a bunch about his guys on their voyage to Maui that starts with a game against Georgetown. Seniors Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson will need to jump feet first into the spotlight from their secondary roles a season ago. The big barometer may be the way Elijah Johnson runs the offense, and so far the returns have been promising with 12 assists to one turnover.
Virginia Commonwealth: Is coach Smart ready to Shaka the world again? If the season opener was any indication, these Rams are a work in progress. Bradford Burgess is the only main contributor back from last season's Final Four team. He's the only senior on a team with six freshmen, and it showed in a narrow 63-57 escape over St. Francis-PA. Others need to step up, and Troy Daniels (22 points) and Juvonte Reddic (19 points) answered the bell on a night Burgess missed all 12 of his shots. That can't happen in Colonial Athletic Association play if the Rams are to be competitive.
Memphis: Memphis has seemed to get the "raw and unproven" moniker out of its system. The Tigers finished strong last season, winning the Conference USA Tournament and pushing eventual Elite Eight rep Arizona to the brink in the second round. Josh Pastner's crew is very balanced and lethal from long range, as Belmont found out to the tune of 7-of-14 in the Tigers' opener. Wesley Witherspoon has the look of an improved well-rounded player to complement Joe Jackson and Will Barton. If the Tigers buy in on defense with the same intensity, C-USA doesn't have a prayer. They held the Bruins to 6-of-20 from long range and forced 18 turnovers.
Fine 15... and a look ahead:
1. North Carolina (2-0): A pair of middling mid-majors and a South Carolina team that has already lost to Elon are on the schedule before the ACC-Big Ten Challenge presents the Tar Heels with the task of slowing down Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor.
2. Kentucky (2-0): The Hall of Fame Tip-off tournament shouldn't be an issue with Penn State and either South Florida or Old Dominion on the docket. First true test since the Garden comes with December 3rd showdown against Tar Heels in Rupp.
3. Ohio State (2-0): Jackson State, North Florida, Virginia Military and Valparaiso all can't match up with Jared Sullinger, who won't get his first battle in the post until a date with the Plumlees and Duke in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
4. Connecticut (2-0): UConn doesn't play a true road game until its December 28th Big East opener at South Florida. Until then, the Huskies host nearly every small school in the upper Northeast corridor and pack their bags for the Bahamas, where dates with Florida State or dangerous mid-major foe Harvard (whom they also play in Storrs on December 8th) could loom.
5. Syracuse (3-0): As per head coach Jim Boeheim's usual travel plans, the Orange leave New York just once before 2012, but the schedule still has possible pitfalls. The final four of the NIT Season Tipoff includes a semifinal date with Virginia Tech and a final against either Stanford or Oklahoma State. A Big East-SEC Challenge clash with top-10 foe Florida and a dangerous mid-December trip to North Carolina State also loom.
6. Memphis (1-0): The Tigers load up on quality before league play to make up for an RPI nosedive once Conference USA games begin. A date with Michigan next Monday in Maui begins a well-respected tourney loaded with pitfalls.
7. Duke (3-0): Now that 903 is out of the way, Duke can concentrate on a loaded Maui Invitational that includes the aforementioned Tigers and Wolverines along with Kansas, Georgetown and Tennessee.
8. Louisville (2-0): The Cardinals travel north to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a dangerous game at Butler on Saturday, and the November 28th game against Long Beach State is now much more interesting.
9. Baylor (3-0): Only two highlight-worthy games include an odd December 4th trip to Northwestern and a venture to BYU nearly two weeks later. The late December game with West Virginia in Las Vegas has lost some luster due to the Mountaineers' early stumble.
10. Xavier (2-0): We will find out how good the Musketeers are with a stretch of games from late November through mid-December that includes major conference players Georgia and Purdue, Top-25 fixtures Vanderbilt and Cincinnati, and a trap game at Butler sandwiched between the home dates with the Boilermakers and Bearcats.
11. Wisconsin (2-0): Taylor vs. Marshall on November 30th at the Dean Dome. I'd give away all of my Christmas presents to see that in person.
12. Arizona (3-0): The post-Derrick Williams era has started with three wins as expected. The competition amps up starting with the 2K Sports Classic in the Garden and a December 7th trip to Florida.
13. Michigan (2-0): The Wolverines have played lockdown defense to date, holding their two opponents to 33 and 49 points, respectively. The competition rises significantly in Maui.
14. Alabama (2-0): The Tide are off to San Juan, where Maryland awaits first and bouts with Colorado, Purdue and Temple are also possible. Alabama starts December with a Big East-SEC Challenge showdown with Georgetown followed by a trap game at Dayton.
15. Long Beach State (2-0): Casper Ware and the 49ers aren't the 15th-best team in the country, but as typical this early in the season, the final spot is reserved for an eye-opener. Long Beach State definitely opened the nation's eyes by halting Pittsburgh's 58-game non-conference home winning streak. Visits to San Diego State and Louisville later this month will prove whether the victory was more substance or shock.