With the college basketball season upon us, it is time to finally start making some actual predictions, aka the things that cause college basketball fans everywhere to call writers morons. Michael Rogner will be handling some prediction stuff as well, but I wanted to get on record with my final four picks and my All-Americans.
Final Four - Florida, Michigan State, Louisville, Connecticut
When picking my Final Four, I tend to look at teams with some combination of good point guards, a go to scorer, and good outside shooting. Defense is important, but offense wins in March. It’s probably weird, therefore, that I don’t have KenPom’s preseason #1 offense (Kentucky) in the Final Four, but I am not sold on the Harrison twins yet.
As for my actual picks, Michigan State is led by a Senior point guard and I expect a huge year out of Adreian Payne, to the point where I might be able to spell his name without looking it up by the end of the year. He can score inside, outside, and from the free throw line, and he’s also the best rebounder and shot blocker on the team. The Spartans need to take care of the ball a bit better than they did last year, but that, along with a bit of bench depth, is really the only thing standing between them and a national championship.
Connecticut might have the best backcourt in the country with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Napier is maybe the most underrated point guard in the country, to the point where it would be pretty tough to argue against him as a first teamer. UConn’s biggest problem is a lack of size. They ranked inside the top 100 in effective height last year, but they have a small front line, with 6’9” Tyler Olander being their biggest post player. As expected, they struggled rebounding last year, finishing 319th in defensive rebounding percentage. Hopefully 6’8” Freshman Kentan Facey can help.
Louisville will attempt to be the first team to defend their title since 2007 Florida, and be the first team to make three straight Final Fours since the 06-08 UCLA squads. They have probably the best player in the country in Russ Smith, but we’ll have to see if he can adjust to playing point guard. Once Chane Behanan comes back the Cardinals will have an extra body inside, and I know everyone is expecting big things from Montrezl Harrell. The biggest question I have is how these new rules will impact Louisville. There’s no doubt they benefitted more than anyone else by being able to harass ball handlers and grab and hand check and everything else that won’t be allowed this year. If they get around it - or if referees revert to calling games the old way in March - Louisville could very well be headed back to their third straight final four, and look to equal 2007 Florida in terms of defending their title.
National Champion - Florida
Ironically, I think the team that will stop Louisville from matching those Gators teams are the Gators themselves. I was high on Florida all of last year, and I am probably the highest on them this year. Though they lost some good talent (most notably, for me anyways, 6’10” matchup nightmare Erik Murphy) the Gators return and add a lot of talent. Scottie Wilbekin made huge strides as a passer and shooter last year, and (I’m sensing a theme) is a Senior point guard who will be able to provide leadership and poise in big games. Patric Young’s shooting percentages went down a bit last year, but he’s still a dependable inside scorer who should be able to get position against anyone in the country. If he could only make his free throws. Transfer Dorian Finney-Smith comes in with a lot of hype as well, and Freshman Kasey Hill might be the best recruit no one is talking about, to say nothing of athletic freak Chris Walker. With all of this talent, Florida might end up with the best defense in the country and if they find an outside shooter or two I don’t see a team better than the Gators.
Sleeper Final Four: St. Louis, Boston College, Iowa State, Harvard
I don’t think any of those teams actually will make the Final Four, but I defined sleeper as any team ranked outside the top 30 in KenPom’s preseason rankings. Of this group, watch for BC’s Olivier Hanlan to light things up, and Harvard’s Kyle Casey is back after missing a year due to Harvard’s cheating scandal. I still think St. Louis is the favorite in the Atlantic 10 and, per usual, Iowa State has a good collection of perimeter talent under Fred Hoiberg.
First Team All Americans
PG: Shabazz Napier, UConn
I went back and forth between Napier and Arizona State’s Jahii Carson, but settled on Napier for a few reasons. First, he turns it over less (generally, a turnover is more costly than an assist is helpful) so even though Carson had a better assist rate, Napier gets the nod there. Secondly, Napier was a better shooter overall, and from the free throw line, which I felt negated Carson’s edge as a two point shooter. Carson does take more shots than Napier, which would naturally drive his percentage down, so the fact that he shot 51% from two is pretty impressive. Carson also drew more fouls than Napier, but the difference in turnover rate and Napier’s overall superior shooting gives him the edge to me. If someone wants to argue Carson as the better player, though, I won’t put up much of an argument.
SG: Russ Smith, Louisville (Preseason POY)
Smith is going to play point guard this year for the Cardinals, but I’ll put him here since he’ll mostly be a combo guard anyways (probably). Much ink has been spilled on Smith, so I’ll be brief: he draws a ton of fouls, scores from the line efficiently, and both takes and makes a lot of twos. In addition to that he might be the best perimeter defender in the country.
F: Doug McDermott, Creighton
The other candidate for best offensive player in basketball, McDermott can do it all. He had the 7th best true shooting percentage in the country despite taking the 12th most shots, and did it inside (72% at the rim) from medium range (39% on two point jumpers) and from outside (49% from three, stats at hoop-math.com). McDermott was a good defensive rebounder as well, and had a decent assist rate (12%), especially from a guy asked to shoot so much. His defense is a question mark, but as an offensive player there’s no one better.
F: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle will probably end up the Freshman of the year because Calipari will end up putting him in position to maximize his talents to showcase himself for the NBA. He’s big and strong and the list of guys who will be able to guard him down low is small. If he doesn’t float on the perimeter too much he could end up your postseason national player of the year.
F: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
In my first draft, I actually didn’t have Wiggins on the first team. I don’t think he’s going to score enough for people to get wowed at the things he can do, and Bill Self isn't the type of coach to prioritize showcasing guys for the NBA ahead of winning, and all of the talent in the world doesn’t really mean much if he’s not going to have the stats to back it up. But Wiggins can control a game without scoring, and I’ve always said that defense matters just as much as offense and he has the ability to be the best perimeter defender in the country. If he can be that, plus do a little bit of everything offensively, he’ll belong on the list.
PG: Jahii Carson, Arizona State
I suppose I’ll tackle the Marcus Smart question head on, using everyone’s favorite tool, the spreadsheet:
The order, as you can imagine, is Napier, Carson, and then Smart. Smart is by far the worst shooter of the three, has the fewest assists, and turns it over the most. He’s the best rebounder and defender of the group, but at some point the inability to shoot the ball (yet still taking that many shots) hurts the team more than it helps it.
I can hear people already saying how Smart is a great NBA prospect and you have to look beyond the stats and blah blah blah and maybe that’s true. But this isn’t a team of NBA prospects, it’s a college basketball All American team. And if Smart impacted winning so much and changed the culture and all of these other impossible to back up platitudes that national writers throw out there, then Oklahoma State would have won the Big 12. They sure wouldn’t have lost to Kansas in Double OT at their place, and they wouldn’t have lost in the Big 12 tournament semis. They also wouldn’t have lost their first round NCAA tournament game as the better seed. And, until the rules of basketball are changed, the only way to score is to put the ball through the hoop, and if Smart does that a lot worse than two other guys, while also having worse assist and turnover numbers, then those other guys are going on the All-American teams.
SG: Gary Harris, Michigan State
Harris was bothered with a shoulder injury last year, but he is a really good outside shooter (41% from three) and is one of the better perimeter defenders in the country. His defense isn't talked about much, and he might be a little one dimensional on offense, but now that he's fully healthy I think he'll be able to score inside better, while still being a very good outside shooter and perimeter defender.
F: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
The Aaron Gordon hype train is getting perhaps a bit out of control, thanks to the Blake Griffin comparisons, but he certainly has the potential to be a special player. I think he’ll have the ability to play inside and outside, and he’s certainly athletic enough to be a plus defender. He will also be a guy the opposition will need to keep an eye on every time down the floor.
F: Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Payne can score inside (58% from two) and outside (38% from three on 42 attempts) and at the line (85%). Payne is also a really good rebounder (24% defensive rebounding percentage) and was the Spartans’ best shot blocker. His critics harp on him to be more consistent but, now a Senior, I think he’ll see that he can lead Michigan State to a national title and get past that.
F: Cory Jefferson, Baylor
Maybe my most off the wall pick, Jefferson could be the most underrated player in the country. He shot 62% from two last year, was a really good rebounder and shot blocker, and pretty much never turned the ball over. Sounds like a great go to scorer. He shot over 70% from the line last year, so you can go to him late in games as well. His main issue will be playing with a new point guard, as Pierre Jackson graduated. If he figures out the chemistry there, Jefferson could be in for a monster year