Tuesday, November 01, 2011

NCAA Basketball Viewing Guide for the NBA Draft Fan

It's a sad day for NBA fans, as this should be the opening day of the 2011-12 NBA season. Instead, we stare into the abyss, and a nation of NBA fans must turn its lonely eyes to college basketball. Fortunately, our consolation prize is that it's an exceptional year for NBA draftniks to follow NCAA hoops.

First, several key players returned to school, creating a pool of 10-12 high-quality draft prospects (though I'm still a bit skeptical about just how high the ceiling of the top players is - I see some potential All-Stars rather than potential superstars as of now).

But what's particularly streamlined for draft fans this season is that so many top prospects are consolidated on so few teams. In looking at a consensus of prospect rankings combining ESPN.com's Chad Ford and DraftExpress's Jonathan Givony, 16 of the Top 20 prospects can be found in just six programs.

Here's a breakdown of those Big 6 schools and their prospects - these are the main teams we'll be focused on this season (rankings by Ford/Givony in parens):

North Carolina (4): Harrison Barnes (2/3), James McAdoo (5/8), John Henson (14/13), Tyler Zeller (20/18)
Kentucky (4): Anthony Davis (1/1), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (10/9), Terrence Jones (12/15), Marcus Teague (14/24)
Connecticut (2): Andre Drummond (3/2), Jeremy Lamb (17/17)
Baylor (2): Perry Jones (6/5), Quincy Miller (8/7)
Florida (2): Bradley Beal (4/11), Patric Young (13/10)
Duke (2): Austin Rivers (11/12), Mason Plumlee (19/19)

Additionally, here are the four other teams/players to round out the Top 20 prospects:

Ohio State (1): Jared Sullinger (7/4)
Kansas (1): Thomas Robinson (9/6)
Texas (1): Myck Kabongo (16/16)
Memphis (1): Adonis Thomas (18/14)

These are the ten teams we focused on in building our viewer's guide, though I must say that I gave Memphis pretty low priority after watching Thomas play so terribly in shooting just 3-24 from the floor in the three main postseason high-school all-star games (McDonald's All-American Game, Nike Hoop Summit, Jordan Brand Classic).

[Please note that I have written scouting reports on several top players in the high school classes of 2010 (sophomores) and 2011 (freshmen) after watching them in person at the Nike Hoop Summit, and on television on various other occasions.]

To this list, I'm adding the following teams for further consideration:

Vanderbilt: The Commodores have players ranked 21 (Festus Ezeli), 26 (Jeff Turner) and 37 (John Jenkins) by Givony.

Washington/Arizona/UCLA: A little Pac-10 representation to round things out, with a few schools who have a handful of talented prospects who fell short of the top 20.

While Washington's Tony Wroten is currently ranked just 27 (Ford)/53 (Givony), I believe this is a reflection of his mercurial nature. Maybe I'm a Seattle homer, but I believe he has more talent than higher-rated PGs like Teague and Kabongo, and will shoot ahead of them into the lottery if he keeps his head on straight. The Huskies also have a solid prospect on the wing in Terrence Ross (ranked 23/35).

Ford has said Arizona freshman Josiah Turner (ranked 26/25) "may be the most explosive point guard in the country when it comes to creating his own shot off the dribble." Meanwhile, UCLA sophomore Joshua Smith (ranked 24/22) is a skilled big man whom Givony has tabbed at no. 5 a year out in his 2013 Mock Draft.

Syracuse/Pittsburgh/Villanova: Connecticut big man Andre Drummond, a candidate for the no. 1 pick, needs some competition, given UConn's thin non-conference schedule. More on his opposition in the guide below.

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OK, with all that preamble behind us, here we go, with your 2011-12 NCAA Basketball Viewing Guide for the NBA Draft Fan, featuring 25ish games to focus on for maximum prospect impact over the course of the college hoops season, in chronological order:

Nov. 15: Kentucky vs. Kansas (at New York), ESPN
A nice early look at Big Blue's annual crop of blue-chip recruits, this year headed by expected lottery picks Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist.

Nov. 15: Florida at Ohio State, ESPN2
Three potential lottery picks in Jared Sullinger, Bradley Beal and Patric Young. Sullinger and Young square off inside, while Beal matches up with Buckeye senior William Buford, a possible second-rounder.

Nov. 22/23: Maui Invitational (Tentative: Duke-Memphis/Kansas-UCLA), ESPN
Of course, the two prospective semifinal matchups are dependent upon those teams winning their quarterfinal games, but any combination of those four teams in the semis or the tournament final should yield a matchup with multiple first-round prospects.

Nov. 29: Duke at Ohio State, ESPN
If you want to see Jared Sullinger in meaningful matchups prior to March Madness, catch him early, for the Big Ten is once again a wasteland for top basketball prospects. No other Big Ten player cracks the Top 40 in either Ford's or Givony's list, continuing a pathetic trend for the conference. The conference's only Top 20 picks since 2008 are Evan Turner and Eric Gordon; Gordon is only non-Buckeye to crack the Top 20 since 2005. Several individual schools and mid-major conferences have a better record than the Big Ten in recent years. Like we said, catch Sullinger early, or you might as well wait until March Madness.

DEC. 3: NORTH CAROLINA AT KENTUCKY, CBS
If this were 1996, we'd have the font blinking and in a different color for this one. Clear the decks for Dec. 3 because this is without question the Game of the Year - a must-see matchup even if the NBA season opens on this day. It's almost hard to comprehend how many prospects will be on the floor in this meeting of the preseason no. 1 and no. 2 teams. Anthony Davis and Harrison Barnes are both strongly in the running for the no. 1 pick, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and James McAdoo both having a longshot chance as well.

Of course, you have the eight total Top 20 guys listed up on top, including six guys tabbed as 2012 lottery picks by Ford. Consider that Carolina also has Kendall Marshall (34/36), who could easily play his way into the first round, plus freshman P.J. Hairston and sophomore Reggie Bullock, both pegged for the 2013 first round by Givony, and even Dexter Strickland cracks the top 100 in Givony's rankings (90). Meanwhile, in addition to its four potential 2012 lottery picks, Kentucky also has Doron Lamb (43/64) and another McDonald's All-American in freshman Kyle Wiltjer. This game could really include as many as 10-12 first-round picks - and maybe eight lottery picks - down the road if everything breaks right. Don't miss it.

Dec. 7: Arizona at Florida, ESPN2
A pair of explosive freshmen backcourt players in Beal and Turner.

Dec. 10: Ohio State at Kansas, ESPN
A good matchup of power forwards in Sullinger and Thomas Robinson of Kansas.

Dec. 10: Washington vs. Duke (at New York), CBS
Good matchup on the perimeter, as Wroten, Ross and Abdul Gaddy test their skills against the likes of Rivers, Seth Curry and Quinn Cook.

Dec. 21: Texas at North Carolina, ESPN2
Surprisingly, I had trouble finding many relevant games for Carolina. Other than two vs. Duke, Kentucky and this, nada. No other ACC teams are in the preseason Top 25s, and N.C. State's C.J. Leslie (31/31) is the conference's only Top 50 prospect outside of UNC/Duke.

Jan. 16: Baylor at Kansas, ESPN
Jan. 28: Texas at Baylor, CBS
Baylor has two prospects with as much upside as anyone in Jones and Miller. Should be a fun team to watch if they can even come close to putting it all together.

Jan. 28: Washington at Arizona, ESPN
Matchup of freshmen backcourt burners in Wroten and Turner. The rematch in Seattle is on Feb. 18 on FSN.

Feb. 7: Florida at Kentucky, ESPN
Conceivably as many as six 2012 lottery picks in this one.

Feb. 8: Kansas at Baylor, ESPN
Feb. 8: Duke at North Carolina, ESPN
Not a bad Wednesday night doubleheader. If you get off to a slow start on the season, don't fret, you have a chance to see literally half the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft in these three games on Feb. 7 and 8.

Feb. 11: Connecticut at Syracuse, ESPN
Finally, an appearance by Andre Drummond, a possible no. 1 overall pick. UConn's non-conference schedule is paper-thin, and it's tough to even find a Big East opponent that's relevant for scouting purposes until here. But the Orange are ranked no. 5 in the preseason, and have a pair of former McDonald's All-American bigs to throw at Drummond in freshman Rakeem Christmas (64/UR) and sophomore Fab Melo (93/UR), who was a disappointment as a frosh.

Feb. 11: Kentucky at Vanderbilt, ESPN
ESPN College GameDay comes to Nashville for this one.

Feb. 20: Connecticut at Villanova, ESPN
Feb. 20: Baylor at Texas, ESPN
Tasty Big Monday double-dip. Drummond faces Nova big Mouphtaou Yarou (37/28), while speedy Texas PG Kabongo goes up-and-down with Baylor in what should be an entertaining one.

Feb. 25: Vanderbilt at Kentucky, CBS
Rematch at Rupp; Vandy is ranked no. 7 in preseason polls, while Kentucky is no. 2.

Feb. 25: Syracuse at Connecticut, ESPN
Rematch at Gampel with ESPN College GameDay in Storrs.

Mar. 3: Pittsburgh at Connecticut, ESPN
These UConn games have been a little bit of a reach, but we had to get Drummond some exposure, as a possible no. 1 pick. In this one, he goes up against Canadian frosh Khem Birch, rated 54 by Ford, and placed at 19 in the 2013 draft by Givony. For what it's worth, I thought Birch looked pretty impressive as a bouncy presence in the McDonald's and Jordan Brand games (averaged 15 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.5 blocks in the two games).

Mar. 3: North Carolina at Duke, ESPN
The best rivalry in the sport goes back to Cameron, chock full of prospects.

Mar. 4: Kentucky at Florida, CBS
One last rematch filled with potential lottery picks before Championship Week and March Madness get under way.

Good lord, I hope we get some NBA action well before here, but if not, there you go, your makeshift Plan B basketball schedule is set. Fill it in with some Euroleague and some Spanish ACB online, and hopefully we've at least created a tourniquet for your lockout-induced wounds.

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