With the season almost here, our thoughts naturally turn to that bastion of college basketball — the University of … Georgia?
Speaking of which, will the Bulldogs be as good as some people seem to think?
Florida coach Billy Donovan suggests Georgia could be the conference’s best team. The Bulldogs’ Trey Thompkins, already projected as an NBA lottery pick, was voted the SEC’s preseason player of the year. And here we pause to wonder: Is all this too much too soon?
Reality check: The Bulldogs were 14-17 last season. They finished last in the SEC East. They were 0-11 on the road. For all the good work done in Mark Fox’s first season — beating Illinois, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida — Georgia operated without an ounce of pressure. Fox’s second band of Hounds is expected to reach the NCAA tournament. That’s at least 16 ounces of pressure.
For Georgia, the cheery news is that the players don’t seem overwhelmed and the coach, who graced NCAA tournaments while coaching Nevada, won’t be. And the Bulldogs, with Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson and touted freshman Marcus Thornton, stand to be much deeper than they were a year ago. (Although the high ankle sprain suffered by Thompkins could complicate matters.)
With the status of both Kentucky signee Enes Kanter and Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl in flux, the SEC East is unsettled. It’s not inconceivable that a team as gifted as Georgia could surge to the top of the division, but that’s a lot to ask of a team unaccustomed to being noticed.
Speaking of Bruce Pearl, does he still have a job?
It’s complicated. His contract has technically been voided, but Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton has made it clear that Pearl, who has admitted lying to NCAA investigators, is still the Vols’ coach. (The school and the coach are negotiating a new deal for less money.) But almost nobody seems to think Pearl will last much longer. Nor should he.
Speaking of coaches and jobs, what’s up with Paul Hewitt?
Georgia Tech reached the NCAA tournament last season but left the distinct impression it accomplished maybe half what it could have. Hewitt was approached by St. John’s in April but wound up staying at Tech, where he has the world’s greatest contract. He’ll be without his three best big men from last season, but he still has resources.
The Jackets will be deep on the perimeter, and we saw with the now-departed Derrick Favors that Hewitt’s strength isn’t in teaching his men to get the ball inside. Duke has proved you can have a fair measure of success by spreading the court and letting your guards work. If Tech can manage that, it can have a decent season. Picked to finish ninth in the 12-team ACC, the Jackets should wind up sixth or seventh.
Speaking of Duke: Will the Blue Devils repeat as NCAA champ?
They’ve done it before under Mike Krzyzewski, but that was in 1992 with a team that featured Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley. These Devils aren’t nearly so imposing. They’ll be very good, but they’ll miss Jon Scheyer’s distribution and guile. (Although the freshman point guard Kyrie Irving is a major talent.)
Duke deserves to be preseason No. 1, but the guess here is that somebody else — Michigan State, Pittsburgh or Ohio State — will take the title come April 4 in Houston. Lest we forget, Duke was a missed Gordon Hayward 40-footer from entering this season as the reigning runner-up.
Speaking of Butler, who’s apt to be the new raging mid-major?
Even without Hayward, who left early for the NBA, Butler will again be strong. So will Gonzaga, which was the Butler of the ’90s. And a mid-major to watch is based in nearby Spartanburg, S.C. The Wofford Terriers return four starters off a team that beat Georgia in Athens, won the Southern Conference tournament and finished 26-9. Don’t be surprised if/when Wofford wins on the road at Minnesota or Clemson within the next 10 days.
Speaking of leaving early for the NBA, who’ll be the next John Wall?
The Kentucky one-and-done was the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. NBAdraft.net projects seven freshmen among the top 10 selections in its 2011 mock draft. One is Kanter, the Turk who hasn’t yet been cleared by the NCAA to play for Kentucky. Another is Brandon Knight, who signed with the Wildcats after Wall announced he was leaving. Another is Irving of Duke. Another is Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, who’s the reason the Buckeyes might be improved even after losing player of the year Evan Turner.
But the best freshman stands to be Harrison Barnes of North Carolina. He’s a small forward who has been likened to Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce, Grant Hill and Tom Gola. (Just kidding about Gola. Not kidding about the other four.) Barnes is why North Carolina, which somehow lost 17 games — including three to Tech — and missed the NCAA tournament last season, is again a Top 10 team.