Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Champions Classic -The Best Night Of The Non-Conference Season

The best single night of the non-conference season is the Champions Classic tonight in Chicago. (nationofblue.com)

In the first week of the college basketball season, when ranked programs are supposed to hone their skills against weaker opponents, the big boys are coming out to do battle tonight in Chicago. Four of the most storied programs in college basketball will be under the same roof for a double header that will be the center of the college basketball world.

This is the final leg of the three-year, round-robin-style Champions Classic. No. 1 vs. No. 2 and No. 4 vs. No. 5. Kentucky vs. Michigan State and Duke vs. Kansas. These are matchups perfect for March but four months early. Freshmen phenoms will battle. Hall of Fame coaches will try to outwit their counterpart. Passionate fan bases will get into heated Twitter fights about how the other team is a bunch of cheaters.

These coaches and programs need to be commended for agreeing to this tournament. It seems like an easy sell; go play in the United Center or Madison Square Garden in prime time against one of the best teams in the country. But doing so the second week of the season when even John Calipari thinks his team of McDonalds All-Americans isn't very good yet is a lot to ask.

Yet no one will look in March at a Kentucky or Michigan State loss tonight as a reason either should fall in the bracket seeding. A win for either side doesn't guarantee anything, but it's a marker to evaluate and boost a team's confidence. And after playing this level of competition, Miami of Ohio is going to seem like a walk in the park. You want your team to get better? Play the best.

One of the best decisions of the college basketball season thus far was to extend the classic for another three years, traveling to Indianapolis in 2014, Chicago in 2015 and New York City in 2016. The Maui Invitational and Preseason NIT are great early-season tournaments, but there is no greater one night of hoops in November than the Champions Classic. You know what you will get every year. Great players, great coaches and a ton of hype.

In the first year of the event, Kansas faced Kentucky. Those two teams later met up in the national championship game. Enjoy the games tonight and hope and we may be lucky enough to see part two of these matchups in March.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Friday Roundtable: The 2013-14 Final Four

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among a group of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

Poorly fitting polos and too-short ties are what the Big 12 is all about until March. (Danny Medly/USA Today Sports)

This week's question:The college basketball season kicks off today. Who will make it to the Final Four in March?

Andrew Wiggins already set his goals of winning a national championship and going No. 1 in the NBA draft directly afterward. The truly imposing thing is, although the freshman forward is getting the lion's share of Kansas' attention, he has the supporting cast to accomplish the former. Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid are getting some secondary shine after offseason and exhibition workouts, but this Jayhawks team is still stacked with players the like of Perry Ellis and freshman Conner Frankamp, a combo guard with deep range and a reliable shooting form who is lost in the media hype surrounding a KU team that should make the Final Four.

Kentucky? As stacked as ever. The Wildcats are young, of course, and after a year off, head coach John Calipari has what is arguably his best recruiting class in recent years. Expect a deep NCAA Tournament run capped with - if nothing else - a Final Four appearance.

This next name isn't as much of a shoo-in as Kansas or Kentucky, and isn't exactly an underdog, but it still feels like a bit of an out-on-a-limb guess: Louisville. The defending national champions lost Peyton Siva (whom I championed during the draft) and interior presence Gorgui Dieng to the NBA, but head coach Rick Pitino's squad still sports lightning bolt Russ Smith as a lead guard with backcourt mates Chris Jones and Kevin Ware balancing his occasionally out-of-control play, which shouldn't be completely erased even with an expected step forward in maturity. At 6'10", freshman Mangok Mathiang is the tallest body on the Cardinals' roster, which will allow Pitino to utilize the same sets in which the 6'11" Dieng stood out last season. There's some ground to make up without Siva's ability to pick pockets, but Louisville's pressure defense will still create turnovers and quick points for the Cardinals in the newly branded American Athletic Conference and on the way to a follow-up trip to the Final Four.

The last spot is a toss-up, for me, and even though strong cases can be made for multiple teams, I'll call it for Oklahoma State. I don't believe the Cowboys can win it all in the Big 12, much less the nation, with Travis Ford coaching. The return of Marcus Smart, one of the nation's premier point guards, for a sophomore season in which he'll be surrounded by supreme athleticism from the likes of Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown is just enticing enough for me to be sold on the Pokes willing their way into a rather unexpected run through the NCAA Tournament and topping out just short of the title game.

I actually don't think it would be out of the question for the four participants in Tuesday's Champions' Classic to all be in the Final Four. That would be Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas, who are all in the top five in the preseason poll. We would be lucky if that was the case because there are countless great matchups there from four prestigious programs. Seeing as it is called March Madness and all four of these teams could be No. 1 seeds, rarely does it work out like this. However, this year feels top-heavy and I don't know how many Cinderellas, or even 3-4 seeds, will be able to crack the Final Four. A team like VCU or Marquette has a chance, but it's too early to make a pick on them now.

That's why my Final Four, which at this point we are basically basing on potential, is going to be Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona. A Tom Izzo player always gets to a Final Four and this is the year that happens again. Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are experienced and lead an extremely talented team. For the other three teams, it's so hard to tell how freshmen will react (see Kentucky last year) but there is so much talent that can't be overlooked. Kentucky is overflowing with McDonalds All-Americans, led by No. 2 recruit Julius Randle. Arizona has the freakishly athletic Aaron Gordon and junior guard Nick Johnson could be huge for the Wildcats this season. Finally, my Kansas pick is more than just Andrew Wiggins. Wayne Selden is a probable one-and-done, the 7-footer Joel Embiid could have the highest ceiling of them all, and quiet forward Perry Ellis could still lead this team in scoring.

It's so hard to predict this early in the year, as so much could change, but just by looking at potential, these four seem to have as good a shot as anyone.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

ACC Preview: The New-Look ACC Is Stacked

The long wait will soon be over when the first full slate of NCAA basketball games of the 2013-14 season will tip-off on Nov. 8. Some of our favorite players have moved on the ranks of professional athletes, new recruits have been polishing their games in gyms with recognizable logos on the court, and schools have switched conference allegiances. Through a series of conference previews, the BDD crew will do its best to prepare you for the next 4.5 months of collegiate hoops.

Duke freshman Jabari Parker is a big reason why the Blue Devils are a favorite to win the ACC. (bigstory.ap.com)

Favorite: Duke
Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt are entering their first season in the ACC, but it is still Duke who is projected to be at the top of the standings. The Blue Devils received 50 first-place votes from ACC media in the preseason poll in large part thanks to freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood. Duke lost Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, but Quinn Cook will take over at point guard and the Blue Devils have the talent to find themselves in first in the ACC at the end of the season. Go ahead and circle the regular-season finale between UNC and Duke in Durham to possibly decide the conference.

Dark Horse: Virginia
Virginia is ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP poll, yet with the star power of the teams mentioned above, it is quite possible Virginia gets overlooked. Still, the ACC writers have the Cavaliers finishing fourth in the conference, and with four returning starters (most notably the top to scorers from last season, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell), Virginia could improve on a 23-12 record from a year ago. Virginia gets two key games at home at the end of the season against Notre Dame and Syracuse before ending the year at Maryland. This team seems poised to pull and upset or two at the expense of the conference elite.

Player of the Year: Jabari Parker, Duke
The ACC media picked Syracuse's C.J. Fair, who last year led a very talented team in scoring with 14.5 points per game and added seven rebounds per game. Fair very well may be the best player in the ACC this year, but it's tough to pick against another freshman phenom in Jabari Parker. Remember, Parker was on the cover of Sports Illustrated being called the next LeBron before Andrew Wiggins. Obviously any comparison between LeBron James and a player who has yet to record a minute in college is absurd. Still, it would be no surprise if the 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward burst onto the scene and dominated the ACC this year.  

Coach of the Year: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
The natural instinct, after looking at who our favorite, player and newcomer of the years are, would be to select Mike Krzyzewski as coach of the year. Then we came across an interesting stat. Coach K has not won ACC Coach of the Year since 2000. That's not a knock on Krzyzewski. He's one of the greatest coaches of all time. Instead, it seems like the media like picking coaches such as Jim Larranaga of Miami and Leonard Hamilton of Florida State who have brought up surprising teams to the top of the conference. That's why if Boeheim can have Syracuse in competition for the ACC crown in the Cuse's first year in the conference, he seems like a strong pick for coach of the year. Also keep an eye on Tony Bennett from Virginia if the Cavaliers make one of those Florida State-like runs in conference play.

Newcomer of the Year:Jabari Parker, Duke
It seems like with many of our previews, the picks for conference player of the year are also newcomers. That's a credit to how strong this freshman class is, and tells you a bit about the culture of college basketball in the one-and-done era. Parker will be dangerous from all over the court and finds a way to score. His teammate, and Mississippi State transfer, Rodney Hood should also make a big impact on the Blue Devils this season and could be in the hunt for this award at the end of the year.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

SEC Preview: Can Kentucky Live Up To The Hype?

The long wait will soon be over when the first full slate of NCAA basketball games of the 2013-14 season will tip-off on Nov. 8. Some of our favorite players have moved on the ranks of professional athletes, new recruits have been polishing their games in gyms with recognizable logos on the court, and schools have switched conference allegiances. Through a series of conference previews, the BDD crew will do its best to prepare you for the next 4.5 months of collegiate hoops.

It could be all smiles for Julius Randle (30) and Kentucky as the Wildcats enter the season as the No. 1 team in the country. (kentucky.com)

Favorite: Kentucky
Before playing a game that matters, Kentucky is not only the favorite to win the SEC, but is also the No. 1 team in the country. The Wildcats will have something to prove after last year's experiment ended in a hugely disappointing loss in the NIT to Robert Morris. Like any Kentucky team under John Calipari, the Wildcats will be young, but very talented. This might be the most talented class Cal has assembled. Kentucky brought in five players ranked in the top 11 in Rivals 150 (Julius Randle, No. 2, Andrew Harrison, No. 5, Aaron Harrison, No. 7, Dakari Johnson, No. 9, and James Young, No. 11). Add in returners Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress and this UK team is stacked. The question will be if these young players can mesh together and mature quickly, and if there are enough shots to go around. Still, inexperienced or not, this Kentucky team should be skilled enough to avoid a scenario like last season.

Dark Horse Team To Watch: Alabama
Alabama is coming off a 23-13 season in which it found itself in a three-way tie for second place in the SEC with Ole Miss and Kentucky. Alabama was picked sixth by the media, but Anthony Grant's squad could make a run similar to last season. The big loss for the Crimson Tide is Trevor Lacy, who transferred to North Carolina State after finishing second on the team in scoring (11.7 ppg) last season. Still, Alabama returns another Trevor in senior Trevor Releford, the point guard who led the team with 15.4 ppg last season and was voted Preseason First-Team All-SEC by the media this year. Add in Rodney Cooper and freshman big man Jimmie Taylor, who was No. 69 on the Rivals 150, and the Crimson Tide could compete in the top half of the conference.

Player of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle was the No.2 player in the 2013 recruiting class, only behind Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. The left-handed, 6-9 forward is dangerous from every part of the floor and figures to be a very high pick in next year's draft. There will be a lot of bright spots on this Kentucky team, but Randle should shine the brightest. He will have some big stages to practice on before conference play as Kentucky plays No. 2 Michigan State, No. 25 Baylor, No. 12 North Carolina and No. 3 Louisville all before the new year.

Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky
It's difficult to pick anyone else when the leader of Big Blue Nation has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. The pressure will be on Cal because of Kentucky's disappointment from a year ago, but that might actually help his chances of winning this award this season. If Cal can get his team to play like the national champion from two years ago and not the NIT team from last year, and win the league, the award will probably be his.

Newcomer of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle clearly has the biggest upside of any player in the SEC this year. Randle is a tough matchup with his ability to drive to the basket and post up. The only reason Randle is not either SEC Newcomer of the Year or SEC Player of the Year is because of all the talent around him getting their shots as well. Florida also has a pair of freshmen, Chris Walker (6-10" center, No. 6 Rivals recruit) and Kasey Hill (6-1" guard, No. 10 Rivals recruit), that could make a run at this award.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Friday Roundtable: Biggest NBA Jumps and Falls

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among a group of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving abuses Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd. (via NBA Offseason)

This week's question: Which NBA team will make the biggest rise or fall in 2013-14?

Chris S.:
Here's a wild prediction for you: the Cavs will make the 2nd round of the playoffs...by beating the Nets in the first round.

Cleveland has an MVP candidate in Kyrie Irving, but it's the improvement from Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters that will help them get to the next step. Jarrett Jack is an excellent fit as a crunch-time combo guard, and there are a lot of talented bigs (Andrew Bynum, Andy Varejao, Anthony Bennett, Thompson and Tyler Zeller) to give Mike Brown more flexibility through the long regular season.

The Nets may be the best team money of curious origins can buy, but I don't think they'll be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. There are the very highest of expectations for this group, which will need to gel a talented, yet uninspiring core of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson with...the Celtics' old core of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Jason Terry was thrown in as a parting gift, because headbands are the new black. I'm not optimistic for this team's chances of finding an identity and learning how to play together under head coach Lawrence Frank - sorry, I meant Jason Kidd. Unless Deron Williams transforms from coach killer into a leader who can win over both cliques AND find enough shots to keep everyone happy, this could be a very emo season in Brooklyn. Too many cantankerous cooks in the kitchen.

The Detroit Pistons don't come with a reputation this season, not that anyone remembers away -- the team had maintenance work-done over the summer.

Though Jose Calderon's ability to play, composed, at the point and shooting guard positions will be missed, however; Chauncey Billups returns Detroit with the same aura that earned him Finals MVP after leading the Pistons to an NBA Championship in 2004. His lack of ability is compensated by leadership, his production beyond mentoring will come from behind the arc, he's a 39 percent lifetime shooter from three-point range. Billups was 4 of 5 from 'distance' in the season opener against the Wizards, he had 16 points in 31 minutes. 

The Pistons added a turbo with Brandon Jennings, reputation aside -- he's talented. Essentially swapping a third-year player for the man responsible for giving Earth the phrase "Bucks in Six" isn't a raw deal. Knight averaged one turnover more per 48 minutes last season, while Jennings ranked 16th in assists per game at the end of the year. Buckle up because he's the guy behind the wheel. Josh Smith who may attempt to navigate without control all season, but his game works at high speeds much like the rest of the Pistons. Playing aside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the addition of "J-Smoove" completes a frontcourt that will look to score in transition -- a lot. 

With a new coach (Maurice Cheeks), new faces and newly-found optimistic expectations --the Pistons in the postseason would be the biggest jump, I believe, a team may make this season.

Numerically, the Cleveland Cavaliers will make the biggest jump of any team in the NBA. Point guard and dribbling savant Kyrie Irving was sporadically injured and the front court production was largely ravaged by the loss of Anderson Varejao after the veteran big man began the season on a tear, leading to the Cavs finishing last season with a lowly 24-58 record — third worst in the league. That won't be the case in 2013-14, particularly if some of the health issues ebb. A revamped roster has Varejao backed up by Andrew Bynum, who was considered by some to be the NBA's best center just two years; one of Golden State's bench spark plugs from last season, Jarrett Jack, and Matthew Dellavedova, an undrafted rookie playmaker out of St. Mary's, offer depth behind Irving; and Earl Clark is starting at small forward after showing flashes of previously unquantified talent with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012. First-rounder Anthony Bennett should be able to provide bench scoring and, with Irving set to officially ascend to superstar status as back court sidekick Dion Waiters and power forward Tristan Thompson continue to develop, the Cavs can legitimately be projected into the playoffs as high up as the sixth seed. Need proof? Cleveland's already beaten a team considered to be a top-five talent in the Eastern Conference in the Brooklyn Nets squad that made one of the splashiest roster rearrangements over the summer.

The "biggest fall" team is tougher to predict, but the Denver Nuggets seem ripe to drop down the standings. A No. 3 seed in the Western Conference in the previous playoffs, there are numerous departures that stand starkly in contrast to an "addition by subtraction" argument. George Karl may not have a championship on his head coaching resume, but his frenetic offensive system was the perfect fit for speedy point guard Ty Lawson, with his upside being perpetually realized. The abilities of young, athletic players such as JaVale McGee and Kennth Faried could also be maximized in such a system. New head coach Brian Shaw worked in an historically rich culture with the Lakers, but the transition will be abrupt. Factor in the loss of one of the league's premier defenders and a top 10 or 15 overall asset in Andre Iguodala, then the rehabbing of small forward Danilo Gallinari ruling the Italian out until at least December, and the Nuggets could be in store for a long season.

I'm also of the mindset that Cleveland will make a huge jump this season, but seeing as we've covered the Cavs well in this piece, I like the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. I know, this is a risky pick seeing as some accident will happen throughout the course of the season to injure at least three players. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will break a rib giving a chest bump. That's just the way it's been. I think, and hope for their sake, this year will be different. If Love's 31-point, 17-rebound performance in the season opener is any indication, a massive season is in store for him. Rubio will continue to make plays and keep the offense moving, Corey Brewer can knock down shots and J.J. Barea and Alex Shved are more than capable of preventing a letup with Rubio is on the bench. The addition of Kevin Martin is also looking like a offseason move that will pay off. Martin didn't have a great shooting night against the Magic (23 points on 6-19 shooting), but found a way to get to the line (9-9) and is another weapon on the wing to give Love more space inside.

It's been a building process in Minnesota. It was just four and three years ago that Minnesota won 15 and 17 games respectively. The Timberwolves were 20 games under .500 last season, but the 31 wins shows improvement. This could be the season all the pieces come together and Minnesota finds itself closer to that .500 record.

After toying with mediocrity for years (and at times being downright dreadful) I’ve got the Milwaukee Bucks taking a big step forward. Yes, the Bucks made the playoffs last season, but this was not a team ready to make a postseason run. However, I think Milwaukee is primed and ready to do just that. I love what they’ve done, shaking up the personnel. I’ve been a huge O.J. Mayo fan since he entered the league, and I think the Bucks are the perfect team for him. Mayo’s best years have come as a starter, averaging 18.5, 17.5, and 15.3 points per game in his seasons as a starter. Coming off the bench, Mayo has only averaged 11.3 and 12.6 points per game. Mayo is still only 25 years old, and has his best years in front of him. Going back to a team where he is not only a starter, but one of, if not the, primary scoring option will only help both Mayo and the Bucks reach greatness. 

The addition of Caron Butler is another I think the Bucks did well to make. While Butler’s production has been on a gradual decline the past couple of seasons, what he will bring to Milwaukee is some much needed leadership. The Bucks are a young squad (only three players on the roster are over 30) and having a quality, veteran presence the younger players can look up to is an invaluable piece to have. If the Bucks young front court of Ekpe Udoh, John Henson, and Larry Sanders can continue to develop and take strides forward, and point guard Brandon Knight can begin to realize his potential, Milwaukee is going to be a handful for the rest of the league.

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