College Basketball Team Previews: The Title Snipers — Michigan, Syracuse, Arizona, Florida

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All this week (and next!), we’ll be running college basketball team previews for the 20 (or so) Most Interesting Teams. Today we tackle the Title Snipers.

Why are snipers so terrifying and exciting? Whenever I think of those dashing sociopaths, with their fancy rifles and thin smiles, I think of Enemy at the Gates and Saving Private Ryan. In both films, there was no shortage of gruesome death involving knives and guns and grenades and eye-gouging. But if I had to choose between those fates or death from afar, I’d take the gut-wrenching, up-close-and-personal variety every time. At least you’d have a few seconds to come to terms with your demise, right? I prefer a little bit of begging and panic before I go, thanks. Might as well make death more like the rest of my life. With a sniper, you’re just out strolling around one day and BAM, it’s over. “Hey guys, I’m heading to fill up the ole canteen. Anybody want anything? Water? Kool-Aid? I’m not sure if we have any Kool-Aid left, actuall—*ETERNAL SILENCE*

You don’t even hear the gun shot. And snipers in movies are always creepy, like Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates or the silent German guy in Saving Private Ryan. [Or Barry Pepper in Saving Private Ryan — Sniper ed.] I don’t know if they started out weird, or if it’s a job hazard of being a dealer of death. Either way, I bet they don’t get many Christmas cards.

THAT BEING SAID, the four teams profiled below are the snipers of the college basketball battlefield in 2012-13. They’re not as close to the target — a national title — as the Indianas and Kentuckys and Louisvilles, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t equipped to get off a lucky shot. They’re exciting, they’re terrifying, and they’re a real threat. And look, I’m not saying anyone below is a creepy sadist like all those movie snipers, buuuuuuut … Jim Boeheim is involved. I’ll let you make your own judgments.

Michigan: Pray for Trey

The Gist: Remember how I raved about FSU’s Michael Snaer on Tuesday? That’s because he definitely gets a spot on my “Preseason All-Favorites” team. But if you’re asking me to pick an All-Favorites MVP — and I think you are — that man is sophomore point guard Trey Burke. At 6-foot-1, Burke was just the 84th-ranked prospect in his high school class. From there, he beat out Cody Zeller for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award (the one given by the media, anyway) and made second-team all-conference. He was the engine that propelled Michigan to a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship for the first time since 1986. He had so many tools in his arsenal: He could shoot (34.8 percent from 3), pull up, drive, dish, protect the ball, and defend. Even in Michigan’s slow-down offense, which I believe neutered some of his natural playmaking ability, he shone as one of the most exciting players in the country. I have a lot of great Burke memories from ’11-12, but the way he put the entire team on his shoulders in the home win over Michigan State inspired one of the great lines of the year from Mike Tirico (“Nothing going on … except talent!) and inspired me to throw together a sloppy highlight video. It’s a weirdly perfect display of everything the spectacular freshman can do:

OK, end of gushing. END. Michigan gained a couple of very talented freshman recruits to join Burke and backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr., and should be very strong defensively, but there are some glaring weaknesses on the offensive end.

Strengths: John Beilein is a coach who loves to play controlled, efficient basketball, which is another way to say slowwww. Aside from his first season, he’s been in the bottom 20 percent of the tempo rankings every year at Michigan. Even though a fan like myself would love to see Burke in the open court more often, running and being spectacular, I can’t deny that he’s an ideal stall-ball player, able to create in tight spaces and with the shot clock running down. If that fails, he can always stick a pull-up 3. Tim Hardaway Jr., his backcourt mate, is an exceptionally strong guard who will crash the boards hard and come up with his share of offensive boards. Then there are the new guys — small forward Glenn Robinson (no. 18 recruit in the country) and power forward Mitch McGary (no. 27). Both present a similar profile at their respective positions: aggressive, powerful glass attackers and potentially great defenders. If Jordan Morgan can stay out of foul trouble, and Jon Horford (Al Horford’s brother) can stay healthy, that adds two more big, brawling interior players. In terms of defense and rebounding, this club has an embarrassment of riches.

Weaknesses: Aside from Burke, they can’t shoot. Though he was effective inside, Hardaway’s abysmal 28.3 percent mark from 3 hurt the team last year. He was much better as a freshman, but if he can’t return to his old form, things look really rough for Michigan. Robinson’s jump shot is weak, McGary has trouble being productive outside the paint, Morgan can barely even score in the paint, and Horford is a defensive specialist and a hustle guy. So in a grueling Big Ten, where interior buckets will be hard to come by, is there a second scoring option for the Wolverines? Or is it all Burke, all the time?

Relevant Les Misérables Quote: In honor of the film version of the greatest story ever told coming out in December, we’re giving each team their own appropriate lyric. I will not apologize for this.

“One day to a new beginning / Raise the flag of freedom high! / Every man will be a king / Every man will be a king! There’s a new world for the winning / There’s a new world to be won / Do you hear the people sing?” (YouTube)

The student sections in “One Day More” are some of the most stirring parts of Les Mis, and their enthusiasm before the battle is infectious. With Michigan ranked at no. 5, enthusiasm around the program is as high as it’s been in at least 20 years. But the reality, at least this year, might be more than they bargained for.

Confident, Insightful Projection: Michigan dodged a bullet when Trey Burke decided to stay in school, but they lost a key component when Evan Smotrycz and his 43.5 percent 3-point shooting rate, opted to transfer. They’ll win a lot of grind-it-out games (I vote them the preseason “Most Boring Exciting Team”), but it’s very easy to imagine a repeat of the disastrous 65-60 loss to Ohio in the first round. In the end, you have to think no. 5 is way too high for a preseason ranking, even if the freshmen live up to their hype. Verdict: third place in the Big Ten, second-round exit.

Syracuse: The Outpatient Year

The Gist: If anyone rivaled North Carolina for disappointment in 2011-12, it was Syracuse, who had to endure the Bernie Fine scandal and Fab Melo’s academic misadventures as they vied for a national title. Like the Heels, they fell in the Elite Eight. Without Melo, and with all kinds of distractions, a title-worthy team was derailed. Now Melo’s gone, and so are Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters. That leaves Cuse with an eccentric point guard, a lot of size to fill the Boeheim zone, and a stable of players who faded toward the end of last season. The coaches’ poll has them at no. 9, but they may have a tough time remaining among the elite.

Strengths: Size, speed, athleticism. Boeheim recruits his forwards and centers to function within Syracuse’s zone defense, and he has a nice crop for this year. C.J. Fair (6-foot-8), Rakeem Christmas (6-foot-9), and freshman DaJuan Coleman (6-foot-9) are the projected starters, and super-sub James Southerland (6-foot-8) is ready to step in when necessary. I watched Coleman win state championships his freshman through junior seasons at Jamesville-DeWitt High School in New York, and he’s well suited to playing center at Syracuse. The one concern is that he’s a bit pudgy, and had to put in some effort to get under 300 pounds.

If he can haul himself up and down the floor, he’ll be a rebound machine. At guard, Brandon Triche enters his senior season after a junior campaign in which he lost a lot of minutes to Waiters and Jardine. With them gone, he’ll play combo guard, shifting between the 1 and 2, and he’ll need to score. Then there’s sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams. He’s fun, he’s electric, and a lot of people think he’ll be unreliable and turnover-prone. Searching for footage of passes on highlight videos is like searching for a rose in the desert, but you can see flashes in reels like this one …

… and this one …

He didn’t get to play much last season, but Syracuse will be desperate for ballhandling and scoring, so the starter’s job is his to lose.

Weaknesses: “Pretty strong on defense, questionable on offense” is starting to become a familiar refrain in these previews. I think when we talk about a “down year” across the board, that’s what we mean; so many teams have to answer the question about where the points will come from, and Cuse is no different. C.J. Fair and Brandon Triche will be the two main options, but they both struggled at the end of the Big East schedule. Carter-Williams can hit the pull-up 3 and penetrate, but we don’t know if he’s a steady hand yet. Coleman’s game still needs refinement, and Christmas just isn’t a natural scorer. Southerland is a one-trick pony as a 3-point shooter, and even his percentage declined from 37 to 33.6 last season.

Relevant Les Misérables Quote: “I had a dream my life would be / So different from this hell I’m living / So different now from what it seemed / Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.” (YouTube)

I feel like such a hack reusing “I Dreamed a Dream” already, but the truth is Boeheim deserves it a lot more than Coach K did yesterday. Last year was the death of a dream, and now he’s like Fantine, cynical and weary. OK, fine, Boeheim was always cynical. But maybe more so now?

Confident, Insightful Projection: Trying to predict how a Jim Boeheim team will jell, or even analyzing their tournament chances based on the regular season, is like reading sheep entrails to predict your future spouse. Which is to say, not reliable. No successful coach has been so unpredictable year-to-year, and it wouldn’t shock me if Syracuse lost in the first round or won the national title. But like every year, they’ll be fun. I’ll give them second place in the Big East since Boeheim can’t beat Pitino (and man, they really hate each other), and an Elite Eight appearance.

Arizona: Rising From the Ashes

The Gist: The great Sean Miller is now in his fourth season with the Wildcats, and he’s armed with the third-ranked freshman class in the country. Last year’s post–Derrick Williams campaign was not a good one, resulting in a first-round NIT loss, but with three talented underclassmen projected as starters and a transfer point guard with immediate eligibility, the Cats are ready to turn a new leaf and retake their rightful spot as the co-kings of the Pac-12.

Strengths: Last year’s Arizona team lacked size, but with a trio of top 15 freshman big men arriving — Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, and Grant Jerrett — their size could overwhelm the rest of the conference. And unlike a lot of other schools who have recruited size, Arizona has found three who actually have offensive skill sets that go beyond dunking. Tarczewski has a lovely post game. Watching him is like seeing every dream Duke fans have had about Mason Plumlee projected onto a computer screen. Jerrett is an excellent mid-range shooter, and Ashley was a top-three power forward in his class precisely because he has a guard’s handle and fluidity in the body of a big man.

If these three can make the difficult defensive transition from high school to college, they’ll be an absolute nightmare to handle.

Miller caught a great break when Mark Lyons transferred over from Xavier and was eligible to play immediately as a redshirt senior. He averaged 15 points per game for the Musketeers last season, and shot nearly 40 percent from 3. Nick Johnson is a highlight reel at the 2 spot, and senior Solomon Hill, a workhorse who turned into a scoring threat last year when he improved his conditioning, will start at small forward.

Weaknesses: It’s almost a relief to see a team like Arizona, with five players who can actually score. The question is, can they come together in time to make a national impact this season, and can their defense keep them in games on their inevitable off nights?

Releveant Les Misérables Quote: “Will you join in our crusade? / Who will be strong and stand with me? / Somewhere beyond the barricade / Is there a world you long to see? / Then join in the fight / That will give you the right to be free!” (YouTube)

In a year when the godawful trends toward lower scoring and stall-ball offenses are sure to continue (personified by the sneer of basketball’s devil, Bo Ryan), Arizona’s plethora of scoring options and (hopefully) uptempo style will represent something like freedom from tyranny.

Confident, Insightful Projection: It all depends on the freshmen, and Arizona fans wouldn’t have it any other way after last year. Top two in the Pac-12 is a foregone conclusion, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that UCLA implodes enough to make room for the Cats at the top. I’ll also give them the nod in one of the best games of the December slate, when they take on Florida at home. After that? They’ll break into the top 10 (the Cats are no. 11 in the preseason), but I’m forecasting a Sweet 16 exit. Next year is the year.

Florida: Chuck-and-Run

Kenny

The Gist: In the realm of heartbreaking losses, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything from last year that topped Florida’s collapse against Louisville in the Elite Eight. Leading 65-54 with just over eight minutes left, Billy Donovan and company fell off the edge of a cliff and lost by four. The year before, the Gators fell in an overtime classic to Butler, also in the Elite Eight. Both gut-punch losses, but the overarching narrative is that Donovan has been flirting with the Final Four for the past two seasons. However, he’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate that success in 2012-13.

Strengths: Every year, there’s at least one guy in college basketball that seems like he’s been playing for way longer than four years. You see his name on the screen, and you think, “How old is this guy? 40?” Let’s call it the Methusaleh Effect, because you swear nobody could possibly be around that long. Robbie Hummel held down the position for the past 13 years, but now that he’s gone, my two nominees are Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Florida’s Kenny Boynton. I’m 29, but I swear I these guys were playing when I was 10.

In Boynton’s case, I’m glad he’s still around. In fact, I love Boynton, because Boynton loves to shoot. And he keeps getting better at it too, shooting 40.7 percent from 3 last year in 270 (!) attempts. He’ll mostly play shooting guard while Scottie Wilbekin (steady, great shooter) and freshman Braxton Ogbueze fight for the starting point guard job. What will be really interesting to see is how Boynton shares the ball with Mike Rosario, the 6-foot-3 senior who scored 1,000 points in two seasons at Rutgers before transferring to Florida, and playing hurt most of last year. Add power forward Erik Murphy into the mix, a guy who likes shooting jumpers more than he likes getting physical inside, and Florida has no shortage of scoring options.

Weaknesses: It’s a bit of an odd and mismatched group, and the real weakness comes down low for Florida. Murphy tends to drift away from the basket, and 6-foot-9 center Patric Young’s conditioning limited his minutes last year. With nobody above 6-foot-7 expected to contribute from the bench, size could be a real problem for the Gators, and the fear is that they’ll get bullied in the interior. Young will have to carry a very heavy load. That, plus their full cast of chuckers, will make their December 15 game against Arizona’s frontcourt triumvirate a fascinating watch.

Relevant Les Misérables Quote: “Dare you talk to me of crime / And the price you had to pay? / Every man is born in sin / Every man must choose his way. / You know nothing of Javert / I was born inside a jail / I was born with scum like you / I am from the gutter too!” (YouTube)

This is the part in “Confrontation” that you can’t really hear because Valjean is singing over Javert. I include it mostly in the hope that Rosario and Boynton have their own confrontation during which they stare daggers at each other and take turns bombing 3s as the rest of us sit back and enjoy the show. And let’s be honest, Rosario is definitely Javert in that dynamic. “You know nothing of Rosario! I was a 1,000-point scorer, too!”

Confident, Insightful Projection: It doesn’t take a genius to guess that Florida will lose to Kentucky and compete with Missouri and Mississippi State for second in the SEC. But without guys like Bradley Beal and Erving Walker gone — the former was the third pick in the draft, and the latter graduated as Florida’s all-time assists leader — I’m not seeing the Final Four potential. Sweet 16 all the way for the Gators, but not without some fireworks.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Florida, Michigan, Syracuse

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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