With so much poor shooting in the NBA these days, the opening of the college basketball season is a welcome sight for many hoop fans. Early-season tournaments are already going on so let’s take a look at my college basketball Top 20.
This week I’ll examine 11-20, and next week my Top Ten.
#20 ST. JOSEPH’S: Stellar point guard Jameer Nelson (19.7 ppg, 4.7 apg) returns after toying with the idea of entering the NBA Draft. He teams with Delonte West (17.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) to comprise one of the best backcourts in the country. Nelson can score, pass and loves the up-tempo game. The Hawks also can lean on forward Pat Carroll and 6-11 center Dwayne Jones to play defense and work the boards. Head coach Phil Martelli has a nice mix of vets and kids. Nelson has enough talent and drive to push the Hawks to the top of the A-10 and deep nto the NCAA tournament.
#19 MARQUETTE: Dwayne Wade is gone to the NBA, but head coach Tom Crean is building a formidable program in Milwaukee. They might not make the Final Four again, but the Golden Eagles have plenty of weapons. Point guard Travis Diener and freshman Dameon Mason anchor a terrific backcourt. The frontcourt is solid with sophomore Steve Novak and senior Scott Merritt. Novak is one of the country’s best behind the arc, while Merritt is a hidden gem. The Golden Eagles have good depth and could again make more noise in the NCAA tourney.
#18 OKLAHOMA: Kelvin Sampson lost some key players so expect a bit of a dropoff. This is a young, talented team led by sophomores Kevin Bookout and guard De’Angelo Alexander. Bookout is a good rebounder while Alexander got valuable time as a freshman on Oklahoma’s 27-7 team (15-1 at home last year). Center Jabahri Brown is a key, and an exciting player to watch will be 5-7 freshmen Andrew Lavender. The Sooners may be rebuilding, but they’ve won 26 or more games in each of the last four seasons.
#17 WAKE FOREST: This will be an interesting team in the talented ACC. The Demon Deacons lost Josh Howard to the NBA, but still have a strong frontcourt. The top returning scorer is sophomore guard Justin Gray (12.7 ppg). This young team was an impressive 7-4 SU/ATS on the road last year. The Deacons have plenty of beef in the paint with junior forward Vytas Danelius (12.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg), junior forward Jamaal Levy (7.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and sophomore center Eric Williams. North Carolina and Duke will get the national attention, but Skip Prosser’s squad remains a force.
#16 TEXAS: Playmaker T.J. Ford is gone, but the Longhorns have depth. Rick Barnes has a senior trio of center James Thomas and guards Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey. Point guard is the biggest question mark. Thomas is one of the toughest rebounders in the Big XII. Mouton was Texas’ best scorer down the stretch and is primed for a big year. Ivey is one of the conference’s toughest defenders. The Longhorns were 7-4 SU/ATS on the road last season.
#15 WISCONSIN: The defending Big 10 regular season champs have great balance. Guard Devin Harris (12.7 ppg) can hit the three and makes good decisions. Forward Mike Wilkinson (10.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) has good range and versatility for a big man. Harris is a patient player, essential with Wisconsin’s grind-it-out offense. Defensively, Wisconsin allowed 60 points per game last season and outscored foes by 13 ppg at home (73-60 average). The Badgers were 15-2 SU/13-4 ATS at home.
#14 UTAH: The future is bright in Salt Lake City. Rick Majerus’ team (25-8 last year) is big, deep and has an interesting newcomer in Andrew Bogut. The 6-foot-9 Australian power forward joins 6-10 senior Tim Frost (12.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 26 blocks) up front, though Frost (sore back) missed the first few games of the season. The backcourt is also strong with junior shooting guard Nick Jacobson (13.3 ppg) and sophomore point guard Tim Drisdom. Majerus knows the value of defense, evidenced by the Utes yielding 61 points per game last season (just 59.8 ppg at home).
#13 PITT: The Panthers lost innovative coach Ben Howland, who took his strangling defensive schemes to UCLA. New coach Jamie Dixon wasn’t left empty-handed, though the Panthers lost senior leadership in Brandin Knight, Donatas Zavackas and Ontario Lett. Big East tourney MVP Julius Page (12.2 ppg) returns with fellow senior guard Jaron Brown (10.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg). Super sub Chevon Troutman (11.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) joins the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see if Pitt can approach its strong road play from last year (9-4 SU, 7-5 ATS).
#12 GONZAGA: The Zags were the class of the West Coast Conference last year and will be again. This team has it all, with a strong backcourt of 6-4 senior Blake Stepp (20 ppg, 5.8 apg) and a terrific frontcourt of 6-8, 250-pound senior Cory Violette (11.5 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-9, 230-pound junior Ronny Turiaf (15 points, 6.0 boards per game). Coach Mark Few loves to run-and-gun, averaging 75.5 ppg, but the Zags have the big boys up front if opponents want to play physical. Gonzaga was 12-3 away from Spokane last year.
#11 ILLINOIS: Head coach Bill Self went to Kansas, but new coach Bruce Weber has a solid core of talent that will be near the top of the Big Ten. Sophomore Dee Brown (12 ppg) is very quick and leads the break. The Illini were a stellar 15-1 SU at home (9-7 ATS) and outscored opponents by a 75-60 average. Forward Roger Powell and big James Augustine are young and need to step up their games now that Brian Cook has graduated. The Fighting Illini need to improve on the road (5-6 SU, 4-6 ATS). Illinois was 20-3 SU as a favorite, but 0-4 as a dog.