College Basketball Team Previews: The Royal Blues — Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Duke, and North Carolina

All this week, we’ll be running college basketball team previews for the 20 (or so) Most Interesting Teams. Today we present the Royal Blues, and then we’ll work our way up to the Big Guns.

Is it strange to anyone else that the five most legendary teams in college basketball all wear blue? When you look at the four winningest programs in history, it’s blue all the way — Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke. Turn to national titles, and UCLA emerges as the fifth major power. (Yes, Indiana, you would be the sixth. And yes, you’re red, but you can’t be mad; you’re the best team in the country this season, and the national title favorite.) This year, the Royal Blues are ranked from third to 13th, and since the NCAA landscape resembles 2009-10, when the absence of truly dominant teams opened up the race, they all have at least a hint of a title shot. We begin with last year’s champs.

Kentucky: New Ammo, Same Gun

Kentucky

The Gist: It would be a big blow for most teams to lose all five starters and the best sixth man in the country, but for John Calipari, it’s all part of the plan. His recruiting prowess has become so exceptional that he’s able to reach down like some kind of basketball Zeus and pluck a crop of exceptional high school stars every year. They’re the kind of players who almost always opt for the NBA after one year, and until 2012, many Kentucky haters comforted themselves with the tenuous theory that the strategy could produce talented teams, but never a national champion. That comfort blanket burned emphatically last April, and now Calipari is back with the no. 3 team in the country, featuring four new freshman phenoms, a sophomore sharpshooter, and a transfer point guard.

Strengths: Experience. Just kidding. But seriously, N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow is something of an anomaly in Calipari’s system. After a rough freshman season in Raleigh two years ago, Harrow campaigned for coach Sidney Lowe to keep his job in what turned out to be a political miscalculation. When Lowe was replaced by Mark Gottfried, and fellow point guard Lorenzo Brown started to look like extremely tough competition, Harrow could see which way the wind was blowing. He left town and spent last season as a redshirt with Calipari and Kentucky, competing against Marquis Teague in practice and preparing to lead Kentucky for the foreseeable future.

Joining Harrow will be three freshmen who make up this year’s second-best recruiting class. The jewel of the group is 6-foot-10 center Nerlens Noel, who was only recently declared eligible by the NCAA after some questions about his recruitment. Despite the fact that Noel was the top prospect in his high school class, some Kentucky fans are taking pains to remind us that he won’t be the next Anthony Davis. Still, he’ll block a ton of shots, score some easy baskets, and disrupt opposing offenses with his size. Calipari has two incredibly athletic, intelligent freshmen in shooting guard Archie Goodwin (the no. 15 recruit, per ESPN) and power forward Alex Poythress (no. 13). Kyle Wiltjer, the 6-foot-10 sophomore who shot 43 percent from 3 last year, will likely start at “small” forward. Calipari’s bench will be stronger than expected due to the addition of guard Julius Mays, another former N.C. Stater, who is using his year of grad school eligibility after averaging 14.1 points per game at Wright State two years ago. Rounding out the rotation is freshman Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer and a standout wide receiver in high school, as well as a top-40 recruit in his class.

Weaknesses: There aren’t many here. With talent to spare, it’s possible that Calipari can approach last year’s exalted level, when his team ran the second-most efficient offense in the country. The defense won’t be quite as tough without Anthony Davis patrolling the middle, but don’t expect much of a drop-off, especially in the weak SEC.

Relevant Les Misérables Quote: If you missed yesterday’s post, we’re giving each team a quote from the greatest musical of all time in honor of the film version coming out in December. This one’s for Calipari:

“Welcome, Monsieur / Sit yourself down / And meet the best / Innkeeper in town. As for the rest / All of ‘em crooks / Rooking their guests / And cooking the books. Seldom do you see / Honest men like me / A gent of good intent / Who’s content to be … Master of the house!” (YouTube)

I’m not saying Calipari is full-on Thénardier, but even the biggest Kentucky homer can’t deny that delightful hint of seedy charm underlying the accolades.

Confident, Insightful Projection: Florida and Missouri will be Kentucky’s only competition in the SEC, and I don’t see either coming through the conference unscathed. Beyond that, so much depends on the success of the style that Calipari chooses, team chemistry, and avoiding injuries. But the one thing you can’t ignore is that Cal keeps getting better at Kentucky. He made the Elite Eight during the John Wall year, Final Four after that, and then won the national championship. Do you really want to bet against this guy making it to Atlanta?

Kansas: The Reserve Units

The Gist: Kansas lost a huge amount of offensive production with the departure of Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson. But Bill Self is the master of taking a so-called rebuilding year and completely outperforming expectations. Don’t forget, last year’s squad was ranked 13th in both preseason polls, and they went all the way to the title game. So don’t be fooled by the no. 7 ranking this year; Self will have them playing great basketball come the Madness. The question is, can two four-star freshmen join last year’s role players and fill the scoring void — maybe “canyon” is the better word — left by Big 12 first-teamers Taylor and Robinson?

Strengths: Defense. Trivia: When was the last time a Bill Self–coached Kansas team had an adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) outside the top 10? Answer: 2005. More trivia: When was the last time they were outside the top 20? Answer: I don’t know, but it was before 2003, which is as far back as Ken Pomeroy’s numbers go. That’s an incredible run, and it shows no signs of stopping now. The Jayhawks held opponents to the second-lowest 2-point field goal percentage last year, which is no surprise with players like Robinson and 7-footer Jeff Withey (Big 12 All-Defensive Team last year) patrolling the interior. Withey is back, and he’s joined inside by 6-foot-8 Kansas high school phenom Perry Ellis, who Blue Ribbon Yearbook calls “the biggest in-state star since Wayne Simien in 2001.” On the perimeter, Travis Releford may be one of the best outside defenders in the conference, and the only question marks will come at the smaller guard positions.

Weaknesses: Offense! Elijah Johnson is not a true point guard, and he doesn’t get to the line. Releford hasn’t lived up to scoring expectations throughout his career. Jeff Withey isn’t strong enough and doesn’t have rhythm in his bones — if you trained a tall robot to make a series of predictable post moves, you would name that robot Withey. Ellis has an unreliable jump shot, and fellow four-star freshman Rio Adams might be the only guy in the starting five who can penetrate. There are a ton of question marks here, and Self will have to live up to his impressive reputation to get the offense clicking. For one thing, expect Kansas to play a lot slower than last season; defense can, and probably will, be a helpful crutch for this year’s Jayhawks.

Relevant Les Misérables Quote:

“I am reaching, but I fall / And the night is closing in / And I stare into the void / To the whirlpool of my sin. I’ll escape now from the world / From the world of Jean Valjean / Jean Valjean is nothing now / Another story must begin!” (YouTube)

Like Valjean when he’s pardoned by the priest, Kansas must forget their past and embrace a new identity.

Confident, Insightful Projection: “If you had to start a college program from scratch, who would you pick as your coach?” Most college basketball fans have probably heard and considered that question before, and my answer is Bill Self. With Missouri gone from the Big 12 and Frank Martin down at South Carolina, it’s hard to imagine anyone (OK, mayyyybeeee Baylor) ending the Jayhawks’ string of eight straight conference titles. The Big 12 is a foregone conclusion. It would be tempting to look at Kansas’s offensive problems and relegate them to a second-round or Sweet 16 exit, but if you think I’m betting against Self in a wide-open year, then you, sir or madam, are misinformed. Elite 8 at worst.

Duke: Oh-Nine-Ten Dreamers

Seth

The Gist: Hey, look, it’s a team with three prominent upperclassmen starters competing in a year with no prohibitive title favorite. Sound familiar? It does to Duke fans, who are eager to see echoes of the 2009-10 championship team in this year’s squad. Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee, and Seth Curry are back as senior leaders, and if Blue Devil Nation squints hard enough, they look almost like The Three S-Keteers (or, if you prefer, “Earth, Wind, and Scheyer”). I’ll be the first to admit that I have trouble seeing clearly when it comes to Duke basketball, having graduated from the school in ’05 and nurtured a … complicated relationship with the school ever since. But being as objective as possible, I don’t see this team having the strength, skill, or willpower necessary to compete for a title, even in a wide-open year.

Strengths: Would it be too glib to say “we’ll see” and leave it at that? Probably, so let me elaborate. Please take a deep breath. Mason Plumlee could be one of the best centers in the country. He could also continue to perform unevenly, with transcendent games followed closely by total stinkers, like he’s done for his entire career. Seth Curry could be a great shooter and an important senior leader. He could also show the petty jealousy and dramatic predilections that emerged as early as the Blue/White scrimmage last year, and, to be fair, may have had a lot to do with Austin Rivers. (But guess what? Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon may challenge Curry for the starting shooting guard spot. Yikes.) Sulaimon, the no. 12 recruit in the country, may emerge as an immediate contributor, and Duke might get a small boost from fellow freshman Amile Jefferson, Pennsylvania’s player of the year and a McDonald’s All-American. But Sulaimon could need a year to adjust, and Jefferson may be too weak to thrive with the big bodies of the ACC right away. Sophomore point guard Quinn Cook could replicate the flashes of brilliance he showed last season and turn into a steady, electrifying presence for the Devils. Or he could stay inconsistent and force Duke to play Tyler Thornton, who, aside from one mind-boggling hero turn on what will forever be known as Thorns-giving, doesn’t belong in a D-I starting five. Alex Murphy, the sophomore power forward who was a last-minute redshirt last year after suffering an early concussion, may be ready to give the Devils another inside/outside scoring option from the wing. But then again …

And on and on. The only sure thing is Ryan Kelly, the White Raven himself, who averaged 12 points for the Devils last year and whose absence in the infamous Lehigh upset was disastrous. His offseason focus has been adding weight and strength to improve his post game, and he’s a reliable, calming influence for a team in flux.

Weaknesses: See “strengths.” And one more thing: Duke’s success in the ACC will hinge on team defense, which was 70th in the country by efficiency last year. It was the first time a Coach K team had been outside the top 20 since at least 2003, and they fell way out. Sulaimon has the potential to become a much-needed perimeter stopper, which is another reason to believe that Curry’s starting role may be in trouble. (And if that happens, I don’t even want to think about what it means for team chemistry.) Otherwise, the profile is similar to last season. The question is, how much will a year of experience improve the defense?

Relevant Les Misérables Quote:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by / When hope was high / And life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die / I dreamed that God would be forgiving … But the tigers come at night / With their voices soft as thunder / As they tear your hope apart / And they turn your dream to shame.” (YouTube)

Replace “Tigers” with “Wolfpack” or “Tar Heels.” Did anyone contact Coach K about playing Fantine for this film? Huge oversight if not.

Confident, Insightful Projection: This profile took a negative turn, since I’m a bad and cynical person, but the season doesn’t have to be negative for Duke. As we saw with the Kansas win from last season, Coach K is a master at getting his teams ready to compete immediately. Expect the Devils to beat the young Caliparians when they play in Atlanta on November 13. The flip side of that is while Duke reaches a peak level early and maintains it throughout the season (in a good year), other teams start to find their form and surpass them in February and March. I have serious trouble imagining that the Blue Devils can compete with teams like FSU and N.C. State later in the year. Unlucky for the them, they have both teams on the road. Duke is ranked no. 8, second to the Wolfpack in the ACC, but I’m expecting something along the lines of a third- or fourth-place finish, a semifinal loss in the conference tournament, and a Sweet 16 berth at best.

North Carolina: After the Flood

UNC

The Gist: Like it or not, 2012 goes down as one of the biggest “what might have been” seasons in Carolina history. Late injuries to John Henson and Kendall Marshall turned the Heels from co–national title favorites (with Kentucky) to a team that stood around and watched Harrison Barnes miss jumpers in an Elite Eight loss to Kansas. In the aftermath, they lost Henson, Marshall, Barnes, and Tyler Zeller to the NBA, and, worst of all, they lost backup point guard Stilman White to a Mormon mission. OK, maybe that’s not worst of all. But there will be four new starters in Chapel Hill, and though I’d stop short of calling 2012-13 a rebuilding year, coach Roy Williams is going to have an interesting task on his hands trying to forge a contender in the wake of last season’s disappointment.

Strengths: Defense. That may sound strange, considering Carolina lost one of the greatest defensive players in college basketball history (but only second-best in the country) when John Henson declared for the draft, but there are some very solid Tar Heels waiting to fill his shoes. It starts on the perimeter, where Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland — the best lockdown guys in the ACC outside of FSU’s Michael Snaer — give Carolina the stingiest backcourt defense in the conference. James Michael McAdoo, who terrified everyone in Chapel Hill when he considered bolting for the NBA after his freshman season, proved himself as a strong presence when he filled in during the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Conference coaches picked him as a preseason first-teamer, and his reputation as a defender is a big part of that calculation. And at a tank-like 260 pounds, 6-foot-10 incoming freshman Joel James is touted for his defense, while his offensive game lacks polish. The Heels had the 11th-most efficient defense last year, and I can’t see that number slipping much lower than 15 in 2012-13.

Weaknesses: Scoring, maybe. McAdoo will lead the offense, and he’s already shown a deft touch in the post, but beyond that things begin to look shaky. Nobody expects James to provide a second frontcourt scoring option. Freshman Marcus Paige, the top point guard in his class, will lead the offense, but he may still be recovering from a foot injury when the season begins. If he’s healthy, he should fit in nicely to Carolina’s uptempo style, and may — I stress may — even be a small upgrade over Kendall Marshall, especially by the time conference play begins. Bullock and P.J. Hairston have great shooting potential, but neither one has shown much offensive ability in their careers so far, which leaves Strickland as the only guard who can penetrate. Unfortunately, he can’t shoot. Don’t be surprised to see incoming freshman J.P. Tokoto, who can drive and defend, get significant minutes at power forward.

Relevant Les Misérables Quote:

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken / There’s a pain goes on and on / Empty chairs at empty tables / Now my friends are dead and gone. Here they talked of revolution / Here it was they lit the flame / Here they sang about tomorrow / And tomorrow never came.” (YouTube)

McAdoo is the Marius of college basketball this year, wondering how he can possibly continue when the superlative men he once knew left without ever winning a title.

Confident, Insightful Prediction: Everyone was happy when Williams came back from his cancer scare unscathed, and I happen to believe his team is slightly underrated at no. 12. I can almost guarantee that their stalwart perimeter defenders will produce two regular-season wins over Duke. They’ll have a lot of trouble with other strong defensive teams like Florida State, and N.C. State’s dismal spell against their rival (losers in 18 of the last 19) should end in Raleigh on January 26. But if UNC’s defense is as strong as I believe it will be, they’ll have a shot at winning the ACC and advancing deep into the tournament. Put me on the spot, and I’ll say they finish second in conference, make the ACC tourney finals, and lose a close game in the Elite Eight.

UCLA: Rebirthing Pains

Adria

The Gist: With the top incoming freshman class in the country, Ben Howland and the UCLA program may finally begin to heal after being thrashed about by Sports Illustrated last February. Everyone knows about Shabazz Muhammad, the freshman swingman out of Las Vegas who CBS picked as a first-team All-American and seems to be able to dunk the basketball with some consistency. He’ll join the Wear twins, transfer point guard Larry Drew II, and fellow recruits Kyle Anderson (projected starter), Tony Parker (powerful center), and Jordan Adams (great shooter) on a UCLA team that will not lack size or athleticism. In fact, there’s so much skill and potential on this team that it will be one of the more spectacular flameouts in recent memory if (when?) they fall apart.

Strengths: Talent. Up and down the lineup, at every skill set including defense. Enough said.

Weaknesses: Everything else. Let’s go down the list. First, we don’t even know if Muhammad or Anderson will be eligible to play. In Muhammad’s case, he may have received financial “benefits” from a high school assistant and a financial planner, while Anderson maybe got too close to an agent. Bad news. Then there’s Larry Drew II, who seems — and here I take pains to avoid sounding too harsh — problematic. He started out at UNC, then quit mid-season, like a baby, when he couldn’t deal with competition from Kendall Marshall. You absolutely have to read the paragraph in that story about Larry Drew’s mom, and check out the irate message-board comments she left and her Twitter rant a year later in which she compared her son’s ordeal to the Penn State scandal. Drew seemed to show a little humility and regret about the way he transferred in a recent interview, but I’ll wait to see how he deals with adversity when the season actually starts before I believe in the transformation. And as the Blue Ribbon preview pointed out, Howland seemed almost uninterested in the SI article. You have to question whether he can juggle the overwhelming egos on this team, and that will be the lone obstacle to UCLA dominating the Pac-12.

Relevant Les Misérables Quote:

“On my own, pretending he’s beside me / All alone, I walk with him till morning. Without him, I feel his arms around me / And when I lose my way, I close my eyes and he has found me … Without him the world around me changes / The trees are bare and everywhere, the streets are full of strangers.” (YouTube)

Needless to say, that’s Ben Howland as Éponine, singing about Shabazz. Weird.

Confident, Insightful Projection: Do you believe in the UCLA rebirth? If so, the Bruins could be the best West Coast team in America. If not, we’re in for a remarkable implosion. Personally, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Muhammad and Anderson will be declared eligible sometime in the next two weeks. If that happens, UCLA will win a Pac-12 regular-season championship over Arizona and Washington. But even though the rotten eggs like Reeves Nelson are gone, I’m not sure we can say the same about the stench. A second-round NCAA loss awaits the Bruins, and at least one episode of melodrama.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Shane Ryan, UCLA

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere