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Looking at some top teams

 


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/ Jan.8, 2005

The InsideHoops.com preseason rankings had Wake Forest, Kansas, Georgia Tech and Illinois as our Final Four favorites. Two months into the season gives us a slight adjustment to both the order and the lineup; Illinois, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Kansas are the new favorites to meet in St. Louis. (Check back again in March for my “real” picks. I’m just practicing for now.)

Unlike dominant teams in recent years such as UConn in 2004, Maryland in 2002 and Duke in 2001, none of these teams entered this season at such a level. The Illini and Tar Heels have seemingly ascended to that level as the season has progressed thus far, but everyone had major question marks. Let's take a look at how they've addressed those in the season's first half:

1. Illinois

The question: Inside play. There was no doubting the Illini guards, and Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head have even exceeded expectations. But with Roger Powell playing power forward at 6'6", and questions about James Augustine's aggressiveness plus a lack of beef on the bench, even those preseason pundits rating Illinois at No. 1 or No. 2 made note of the frontcourt's weaknesses. UNC's Sean May, Providence's Ryan Gomes, Missouri’s Arthur Johnson, Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson, Ohio State’s Terrance Dials, and Duke’s Shelden Williams all had monster games against them last year.

The answer: Powell has expanded his game, emerging as a major scoring threat in the post and off the dribble. He has improved defensively to the point where he has often guarded the opponent's top big man, regardless of height. Augustine has produced at the same rate as last season, and still needs to bring more aggressiveness more often. 7'2" Nick Smith and 6'11" Jack Ingram don't produce much statistically, but while Smith has struggled, Ingram has brought physicality and an outside shooting touch off the bench.

6'8" combo forward Brian Randle, expected to be a defensive stopper, broke his hand in November and may not return this year. To date, he has not been missed but may be against an athletic four like UNC’s Juwad Williams who can score from the perimeter.

More important than what the Illini bigs have done is what opposing bigs have done. Namely, very little. Gonzaga’s Ronny Turiaf, Georgetown’s Brandon Bowman, Cincinnati’s Eric Hicks/Jason Maxiell combo, and Ohio State’s Terrance Dials are all standout big men that have been shut down by Illinois in blowout losses. Only Wake’s Eric Williams and Missouri’s Linas Kleiza have been able to generate offense.

Problem solved? For the most part. But behind Kleiza’s 25 points, Mizzou has been the only team to give Illinois a game this year. Someone will have to get a similarly outstanding effort from a big man and harass the Illini with tough perimeter defense to beat them, as Mizzou did in the second half of the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis.

2. North Carolina

The question: Consistency, chemistry and attitude. We all knew about the potentially overwhelming talent level in Chapel Hill. Raymond Felton is one of the nation’s best playmakers, Rashad McCants can score like none other, Sean May is a horse inside and Jawad Williams is a superb inside- out threat.

But as a team, this group had left something to be desired thus far. Despite having everyone return, they were yet to fully gel as a unit and yet to give a consistent defensive effort. McCants, the most talented player in the country, also had been one of the biggest headcases.

The answer: Though they lost a 77-66 shocker to Santa Clara without Felton to open the year, the Heels have rebounded to appear as dominant as a team with such talent should be. Everyone appears to have bought in to Roy Williams’ breakneck speed system built on unselfishness. McCants is scoring nearly four less points per game this season, and doesn’t appear to care.

By buying in to the concept of team, the talents of everyone have been maximized. The nation’s best playmaker on the break, Felton has an embarrassment of riches to find in transition. McCants has become even more efficient than ever before. Jawad Williams is leading the team in scoring, hitting an absurd 65% of his shots. Sean May has run the floor better than ever. 6’9” freshman phenom Marvin Williams brings superb rebounding and elite athleticism off the bench, and shows the makings of a yet another dominant scorer.

Problem solved? I’m going to go out on a limb with an emphatic “yes.” The prospect of a brutal ACC schedule means McCants could bring the Heels down with another pouting session, but it says here that he has matured beyond that. And so has his team. UNC has found the maturity and killer instinct it has lacked in recent years.

3. Wake Forest

The question: Defense, defense, and more defense. Unlike Illinois, there was no questioning any part of Wake’s roster. Their backcourt is almost as good as the Illini’s and their frontcourt appeared much bigger, deeper, and more talented entering the year. Unlike with UNC, there wasn’t much questioning of Wake’s heart, led by pint-sized warriors Chris Paul and Justin Gray. But having given up 80 points per game in 2003-2004, Insidehoops.com’s preseason No. 1 desperately needed to get more defensive stops to win it all.

The answer: If you saw the Deacons at Illinois, you’re probably asking yourself, “What answer?” The Illini racked up 91 points, and could have easily scored over 100 if they hadn’t built a 32-point lead with 5:00 to play. But after passing their No. 1 ranking to the Illini, Wake has quietly improved while flying under the radar.

Though his numbers aren’t anywhere near what they were at two years ago, Vytas Danelius- out for much of last year- being on the court has allowed Wake to use 6’9” pogo stick Jamaal Levy at small forward, giving Wake a longer, more athletic look on defense. Guard Taron Downey, wing Trent Strickland and 6’9” banger Chris Ellis- used sparingly in 2003-2004- give the Deacons a tough bench. Also of help has been Eric Williams cutting down on fouls. In the same amount of playing time, Williams is averaging nearly one less foul a game.

Wake gave up 80 points per game and 45% field goal shooting last year. Through 13 games, those numbers are down to 72 points per game and 42% shooting this year.

Problem solved? Not yet. Though Wake has looked more aggressive and willing to scrap in the last month, especially in putting Virginia away on the road to open ACC play, Illinois and Texas are the only top-notch scoring units Wake has faced thus far, and they gave up an average of 89.5 points to them. Let’s see what they do against a conference schedule full of powerhouse offenses. If they survive the ACC with five or less losses and give up 75 ppg or less, they’ll be in great shape come March.

4. Kansas

The question: Though they lean on the excellent, experienced senior trio of Aaron Miles, Keith Langford and Wayne Simien, the Jayhawks saw Jeff Graves graduate and David Padgett transfer to Louisville. This left them freshmen and a walk-on as their only sort of depth.

The answer: Though undefeated, Kansas has struggled to find their groove. So far they’ve trailed in the second half, at home, to Vermont, Pacific, South Carolina and Texas A&M. With so many unproven players surrounding the senior trio, however, perhaps those early-season dogfights- and their relatively soft preseason schedule- will bode well in the long run. Russell Robinson has been an offensive spark off the bench behind Miles and Langford. Alex Galindo has come along nicely, knocking down the game-winner against A&M.

However, Wayne Simien’s broken thumb, which may keep him out until February, has put the glaring spotlight on the trio of freshman bigs: Darnell Jackson, C.J. Giles, and Sasha Kaun, and they have not embraced it thus far; the three are averaging 8 points and 8 boards so far. Combined. Walk-on forward Christian Moody has done a solid job on the boards, averaging 5.2 in 22 minutes, and does dirty work, but produces little else.

Problem solved? The jury is out. The absence of Simien will not sink them, but it would certainly be nice for them if one of the freshman bigs would have stepped up. However, Simien is good enough that they can might be able to get by with minimal statistical contributions. But he needs to be nothing less than superb when he returns for this team to reach their potential, or even to hold off Oklahoma State in the Big XII.







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