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Click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.
10. Ohio State
Kicking off my Top 10 is (the? this? that? which?) Ohio State University!
I must admit, this feels a little high for Buckeyes. If you look back at their game log from a season ago, you’ll notice some head scratchers--I forgot that they lost to Rutgers, squeaked by a bad Indiana team in a 55-52 snoozer, and got blown out by NORTHWESTERN in late March. All I really remembered was them beating a good Iowa State team in the first round of the Big Dance.
Despite an up and down 2019, several factors point to the Buckeyes materializing into a monstrous unit this year. Their roster composition looks nearly identical to Louisville's (i.e. a conference Player of the Year contender, some fantastic role players, and a top 15 recruiting class). And considering that I've seen the Cards as high as number 2 in some polls, I'm sticking by my belief in Ohio State.
We’ll break down those three factors, starting with Big Ten Player of the Year hopeful Kaleb Wesson. Head coach Chris Holtmann runs his offense through the junior center; Wesson broke out last season, averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists, and earning an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. As a 6’9” 270 pound big man, you might expect him to just bash opponents down low with his density and strength. However, his game exudes both precision and gracefulness. He finesses his defender with fleet footwork in the post, and he displays touch in both his hook shot and his three point jumper (26 makes at a near 35% clip last season). Moreover, his gorgeous passing out of the post opens up the offense for his teammates.
Wesson means everything to his team. For proof, he served a three game suspension last season for a violation of team rules--and Ohio State went 0-3 during that stretch (including that eyesore at Northwestern). But with old mistakes in the past, I project him as an All-American this year.
Regarding their role players, 6’6” senior wing Andre Wesson (Kaleb’s brother), 6'1" redshirt-junior guard CJ Walker, and 6’3” sophomore guard Luther Muhammad will provide valuable minutes on both ends of the floor. Though he lacks the star-power of his brother, Andre can play and defend either forward spot, and he can knock down open threes. Walker, a Florida State transfer, functioned as a steady hand who occasionally erupted for big scoring outputs during his sophomore year in Tallahassee--a 17 point game versus Florida and and an 18 point game against UNC highlight his resume. Early reports suggest he will open the season as the starting point guard.
But out of this group, I think Muhammad has the best chance to evolve into something more than a "glue guy." His rangy frame and superb lateral mobility made him a distinguished defender, even as a freshman. With active hands, he picks pockets when he's on-ball and prowls the passing lanes when he's off-ball (notched a career-high seven steals versus Michigan State). I believe he can elevate Ohio State to a top 10 defense nationally (ranked 8th in adjusted defensive efficiency in KenPom’s preseason poll). On offense, he has a silky three-point shot, and he comfortably creates for himself with a crafty crossover. But he does need to improve from close range--he only shot 37% on two-point attempts last year.
Lastly, Holtmann brings in the 14th-ranked class in the nation, per 247Sports. A trio of four-stars highlight the class in 6'1" point guard DJ Carton (34th in 247Sports' recruiting composite), 6'6" forward EJ Liddell (44th), and 6'9" forward Alonzo Gaffney (50th). Carton intrigues me the most, as he could feasibly usurp the starting role from Walker. He profiles as a defensive bulldog with serious bounce for a guy his height.
On paper, Chris Holtmann has one of the ten best rosters in the country on his hands. As one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the game, I trust him to turn the hypothetical into the high-level. Which makes me ask...could Ohio State make the Final Four in two sports this year?
9. Texas Tech
My dad is the least-Texan Texan I have ever met. He grew up in Dallas, but is not a Cowboys fan; he cares neither for brisket or for Texas chili; and he would never own a gun or cowboy boots. But he has educated me on the history of college sports in the Lone Star State. His father taught law at SMU, so he grew up a huge fan of the Mustangs and a huge hater of the big boys—the University of Texas and Texas A&M. However, he tells me he had a soft spot for Texas Tech, as they always bore the pseudo-endearing but really more demeaning “underdog” label.
But after years of watching the “older brothers” make splashy coaching hires and land highly-touted recruits, Texas Tech now plays the role of the Don. Vito Corleone famously said “revenge is a dish best served cold”--and now the state of Texas (and the rest of Big 12) stands at the mercy of Chris Beard’s revenge tour. Let's look at his roster.
In the spirit of the Corleone family, junior guard Davide Moretti assassinates his foes with his limitless range. He shot an absurd 45.9% from beyond the arc last season.
He pulls threes off the catch. He pulls threes off the dribble. He pulls threes in transition. It doesn't matter how well you contest a shot--he will still mercilessly snatch your soul.
Poor Alex Robinson (#25 for TCU) can do nothing other than throw his hands up in exasperation.
After leading the Big 12 in offensive rating during conference games last season, the Italian import will up his usage in Beard's motion offense. More than just a three-point specialist, Morretti commands attention in the mid-range and on the dribble-drive, which frees up cutters in the lane. He excels at pinpointing passes to the open man, creating easy layups.
Sophomore guard Kyler Edwards and freshman guard Jahmi'us Ramsey will partner with Moretti on the perimeter. Edwards projects to significantly increase his minutes from 17.8 per game a season ago. Already an excellent defender, he will hope to sustain his 44.9% three-point shooting while also increasing his efficiency from inside the arc. After witnessing what Beard has done with guards in their sophomore seasons (see: Culver, Jarrett), I'm willing to bet on Edwards' progression.
Ramsey is probably the non-UNC player I'm most excited to watch. He's a 6'4" combo guard who looks like he actually takes weightlifting seriously. A supreme athlete with impressive body control, the freshman from Duncanville, TX, flourishes when he attacks the basket. His jumper looks smooth and he has all the tools to be an on-ball menace defensively. Between losing Culver and grad-transfer Matt Mooney, the Red Raiders must replace a lot of scoring on the perimeter--his skillset plus his opportunity makes Ramsey my leading Coby White Candidate (go back and read part 3 if you don't know what that is). The Morretti-Ramsey backcourt pairing brims with the potential to be among the most powerful in the country.
On the other side of the ball, Texas Tech is the new Virginia--with Beard in charge, their defense will rank top 5 nationally, regardless of the pieces. In his three seasons in Lubbock, the Red Raiders have placed 56th, 4th, and 1st in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Much of their success results from discipline in defensive rotations. On baseline drives, the help defender perfectly times when to aid the on-ball defender. It's like Tech's players have a sixth-sense/Spidey-sense/tracking mechanism that enables them to know exactly where the opposing ballhander will go.
In Beard's scheme, the Red Raiders also switch on every screen; and again, this requires discipline. The players preemptively sniff out screens, and by simply communicating (plus, you know, athleticism), the defense stifles the other team's plays before they unfold. Lastly, Texas Tech forces the opposition off of the three-point line, eliminating the long ball threat. Their challengers only converted 29.7% of their three-point attempts last season, the 12th lowest percentage in the country.
Beard does face a difficult task in replacing big man Tariq Owens, who led the nation in defensive box plus/minus and was second in the nation in defensive efficiency last year. An intimidating, shot-demolisher cannot currently be found on Texas Tech's roster--on paper, at least. Stephen F. Austin transfer TJ Holyfield posted the best defensive rating in the Southland Conference during his last healthy season (2017-18); but we'll see how he does moving up to the Big 12. His partner in the frontcourt, Virginia Tech transfer Chris Clarke poses mismatches offensively with his three-point shooting, yet at 6'6", he may struggle defending the interior against more stout and/or portly big men.
Losing so much from last season, Texas Tech will inevitably experience some hiccups. However, if we did a fantasy dynasty draft of all the college coaches (to the folks who don't engage in fantasy sports: imagine you're starting a program and you'll be running this program for 10+ years), Beard would go #1 overall. As I've said a million times in these rankings, coaches matter.
Here's a cross-sports reference that will resonate with all of my readers from North Carolina: remember in January 2009 when Carolina Panthers' QB Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions in a playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals? I vividly recall watching that game, but I forgot about this little factoid: somehow, he still got a five-year contract that offseason. Anyway, after his catastrophe in the Queen City, he was never the same quarterback again. One game into the following season, the coaching staff benched him in favor of Josh McCown (there will always be a team somewhere that employs a McCown brother as a backup quarterback), and the organization released him at the season's end.
Delhomme's debacle in 2009 looked a lot like Louisville's lethargy a decade later. Yes, the Cardinals surprised the nation last season, starting out 17-7, and rising as high as 16th in the AP Poll and 13th in KenPom's rankings. But on February 12th, everything changed. The #2-ranked Duke Blue Devils ventured into the Yum! Center, and at first, Louisville ran them out of the gym. They controlled Duke like they had Coach K tied to marionette strings. A seven point lead became a 15 point lead which ballooned into a 23 point lead with just nine minutes to play. Then, their moxie, their swagger, and most notably, their on-court competence blew up into smithereens. Turnover. Brick. Turnover. Brick. Turnover. Brick. Duke rallied and came back, notching a two-point win.
Including that loss, Chris Mack and his squad went 3-7 over their last ten games. The slide culminated in a beatdown at the hands of an inferior Minnesota team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
So now, washed clean of last year's bad juju, can the Cards rebound?
Most pundits have pegged Louisville as a top 10 team, some even top 5. As I noted in my Ohio State blurb, they boast a conference player of the year candidate (junior Jordan Nwora), solid role players on the wing (redshirt-senior Dwayne Sutton) and in the post (junior Malik Williams, and redshirt-senior Steven Enoch), and the nation's 12th ranked recruiting class.
But here's why I'm a little lower on the Cardinals than consensus: first, Louisville has a handful of questions at the point guard position. After losing Christen Cunningham to graduation, Mack secured a commitment from St. Joe's transfer Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble to run his offense. Theoretically, Fresh is an upgrade over Cunningham; he confidently fires off the dribble and gets to the cup with a variety of crossovers and hesitation moves. However, his shooting numbers are not efficient (38% from the field, 32% from three for his career), and his durability raises some serious concerns. He missed ten games last season, all but one game his junior year, and nine games as sophomore. I'm wary of trusting injury-prone smaller guards, and he's listed at just 6'0". If he misses any time, freshman David Johnson (ranked 82nd in 247Sports' recruiting composite) will fill in as a starter...the only problem is, a nagging shoulder ailment plagued him all offseason.
In addition to uncertainty around their lead guard, there's also a slight chance that Louisville is closer to the team that cratered down the stretch than the emerging ACC juggernaut some anticipate. They return six players from last year's roster, but this does not always ensure significant progress--especially when the returnees are juniors, seniors, and redshirt-seniors.
But all that might be a little nitpicky. Because Jordan Nwora is 100% Nworth all the hype. The media voted him as preseason ACC Player of the Year based on his phenomenal junior season. Mack manly uses him as a small-ball "4," where he torments more flat-footed forwards with his strength, agility, and long-range shot. He will once again take on the bulk of the scoring duties while also stymying opposing wings on defense.
Lastly, McDonald's All-American Samuell Williamson could blossom into the perfect Nwingman for Nwora (there's two silent "n" jokes for you). The late Phife Dawg once rapped "Cuz I got the crazy game, and yo, I'm smooth like butter / Butter, like butter, baby / Butter like butter, baby," and I believe these lyrics also adequately describe Williamson's crazy game. The freshman out of Texas (ranked 16th in 247Sports' recruiting composite) uses his high release to shoot over defenders both from midrange and from distance. With the Cards converting a pedestrian 34.2% of their three-point attempts a season ago, Williamson's shotmaking should immediately improve their offense.
Louisville has the coaching, talent, and experience to shed the timidity that submarined them last year. Can they instead match the ferocity of the other Cardinals that stomped out the remaining embers of Jake Delhomme's career?
In each of the last three seasons, the Zags have legitimately been good enough to win the title. They finished second in KenPom's rankings in 2019, tenth in 2018, and first in 2017 (hehe); yet all the algorithms and analytics in the world can't materialize into a championship banner. But I think two possibilities can be ascertained from this three-year stretch: either their championship window has closed for the time being or they are a year-in year-out power who deserves respect and the benefit of the doubt.
If you couldn't tell by my ranking, I lean towards the latter. Even after losing six of the top nine guys in their rotation, I trust Mark Few to reconfigure this roster. Whether he features freshmen, transfers or some combination of both, he knows how to develop players into first-round draft picks and All-Americans.
Gonzaga overflows with options in the frontcourt for their head coach to mold. The depth and versatility of their big men provide an advantage that few teams can match. Sophomore Filip Petrusev and senior Killian Tillie move into starting roles, and will mollify any fears of replacing Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. Both will run the floor in Gonzaga's uptempo offense, and both can make a play as a trailer on the fast break.
Last season, Petrusev impressed while coming off the bench. A decent shooter with the athleticism to attack closeouts, he should shine as a primary contributor.
Tillie, on the other hand, launches threes with one of the purest shooting strokes you'll ever see from a big man (47% from deep for his career). His skillset adds a new edge to Few's ball screen-laden offense. With Tillie posted in the corner, his defender must stick to him instead of helping contain the dribble-drive opportunity that a ball screen creates. The defense's dilemma yields either an easy lay-up for Gonzaga's ballhandler or an open three for the French forward. But the 6'10" senior isn't one-dimensional; he plays above the rim, can score in the low post, and also offers some rim protection.
Three four-star recruits will fill out the front line. Drew Timme (43rd in 247Sports' recruiting composite), Pavel Zakharov (60th), and Oumar Ballo (78th) all stand at 6'10" and could all carve out some sort of role this season. Timme possesses the most decorated pedigree (and he holds back his luscious locks with a headband...that's grade-A accessory usage); however, I think Zakharov will actually earn more minutes. His stature, as of now, kind of resembles a Q-tip, but I think he offers immediate value as a rim-runner who can catch lobs in transition.
In the backcourt, some uncertainties obscure the Zags' outlook. Through the transfer wire, Few took care of the off-guard position. The stat-sheet-stuffing Admon Gilder will play his last season in Spokane, after spending three years prior in College Station at Texas A&M. He averaged 13 points, 3.3 assists, and 4 rebounds over his last two seasons for the Aggies. With the ability to both post up and shoot off of screens, Gilder brings a scoring boost to the perimeter. He also helped lead A&M to a Sweet 16 appearance in 2018, so his experience should aid the younger team.
But a big question remains: who will take over the lead guard role from the graduated Josh Perkins? Another transfer, Ryan Woolridge treks out west from North Texas. The former All-Conference USA teamer will compete for the starting role with three-star freshman Brock Ravet (a local kid whose name sounds like a type of lettuce) and sophomore Joel Ayayi (who didn't see many minutes last year). While this must be a little bit unsettling for Gonzaga fans, I trust the infrastructure in place for one to emerge.
As a whole, my thoughts on Duke haven't changed much since I wrote this little piece back in June. Can they defend? Can they hit threes? Those two questions have nagged at Duke in every season following their 2015 National Championship. Judging by their nail-biting exhibition game against Division-II Northwest Missouri State, these doubts may have already resurfaced!
Okay, I'm not that much of a troll. I mean, I have the Blue Devils ranked 6th in the country, after all. And it (as usual) starts with their third-ranked recruiting class. The piece de resistance of the group, forward/center Vernon Carey, will likely lead the team in scoring. He cashes in on a variety of post moves and dunks, and he even showed the ability to take a rebound coast-to-coast on the AAU circuit. As we saw with Jahlil Okafor and Marvin Bagley, Coach K can still operate with a more traditional post player, and I think Carey will have a similar impact to those two on offense. Fellow top ten recruit Matthew Hurt will start next to Carey, and he profiles as a stretch "4." But at only 6'8" with a lean frame and limited athleticism, I could see him getting bullied a bit by the more brutish forwards in the ACC.
On the wing, Krzyzewski can sort through a few different options to find the ones best-suited to meet his team's needs. Again, it comes back to hitting threes and getting stops. Here's a little overview of the candidates to start at the "2" and the "3":
1. Wendell Moore, 6'5" freshman - can defend but can't shoot
2. Alex O'Connell, 6'6" junior - can shoot but can't defend
3. Cassius Stanley, 6'5" freshman - a wildly explosive athlete that can't shoot (yet)
4. Joey Baker, 6'7" sophomore - ???
Early reports indicate Moore and O'Connell have gained the most trust from the coaching staff. But every Duke Reddit thread and Twitter page that I've perused pleads for Stanley to get the nod over O'Connell. It's easy to see why--he enthralls with dunks that defy gravity. In his highlights, he flashed the chops to run Duke's transition offense in a similar way that RJ Barrett did last season. However, on the EYBL circuit (per the information that I could find), he only made 21% of his three-point attempts. And I can't quite get past the fact that his mixtape looks very similar to JP Tokoto's--the frustrating wing with a near-identical build to Stanley, who played on the opposite end of Tobacco Road.
Every member of this quartet earned four-star status coming out of high school (with Moore, Stanley, and Baker all ranked in the nation's top 40), so all possess some sort of upside—Moore and Stanley, in particular, have NBA potential. Watch for Coach K to mix and match lineups early in the non-con before settling on his seven man rotation by January.
Of course, much of hype surrounding Duke’s 2019-20 season stems from the presence of sophomore point guard Tre Jones. Even the most casual college basketball fan probably knows about his defense. Often pressuring opposing guards the length of the floor, Jones magnetically sticks to his man, matching his steps with the deftness of a dancer. Even as an average athlete, he rarely gets beat because of his discipline and will. Though he’s less heralded on offense, he will have to up his scoring output if the Blue Devils want to contend in the ACC. I don’t believe in his three-point shot—I think his percentage could rise to 30-33%, but that’s about it. However, he’s strong on the dribble-drive, and I expect him to improve his finishing at the rim. He will also look to replicate his averages of 5.3 assists and just 1.5 turnovers—though the passing numbers could dip without Zion Williamson and Barrett sprinting down the court in front of him.
But perhaps the biggest factor that will sway Duke’s success is Krzyzewski’s coaching. Ky McKeon of Three Man Weave had this to say about his job last season:
Let me be clear: Coach K is one of the best coaches of all time in any sport. Having said that, it’s obvious his X’s and O’s game isn’t what it used to be. Whether this is due to old age, egos of high-level recruits, or simply not having the time to properly develop guys in just a few short months, K’s offensive strategy has gone from actually running offense to “roll the balls out and play." Last year’s squad was K’s fastest since 2008, which made sense given the ridiculous talent of Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Those two scorched opposing teams on the run, and when Duke didn’t score on the first shot it often secured the rebound and stuffed the ball down the hoop. This season’s team will have a whole new look from a personnel perspective, but this style likely isn’t changing, especially since K failed to address 2018-19’s shooting issues.
I largely echo these same sentiments. It’s very weird for me to see this lack of coaching from K; when I was in school, he frequently taunted and tortured Tar Heel defenses by coaching ball movement like this:
I swear I saw a Duke player make some variation of that corner shot upwards of 300 times across every UNC duke game from 2011-2015.
Though this recruiting class comes to Durham with that prestigious top-5 marking, they lack the star power of some of the previous groups—Krzyzyewski must do more than "roll the ball" out if he wants to even match last season’s success.