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North Carolina, Kentucky top 2011-12 preseason power rankings

Eight months have passed since I wrote the final Power Rankings of the 2010-11 regular season, with the wrong team at No. 1, and right team at No. 21. (UConn's Big East tournament run hadn't even happened yet, so forgive me.) As a fan of unpredictability, I would be overjoyed if the next champ emerged from outside this top 16, but I fear that my preseason No. 1 has wire-to-wire potential. Alexander Julian's argyle tends to be en vogue on a 3-4 year cycle, and like 2005 and 2009, 2012 should be the Year of Carolina.

NCAA Basketball Preseason Power Rankings
1North Carolina Tar Heels
Roy Williams on sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, who led the ACC in assists last season, with 2.5 for every turnover: "He's really a big-time quarterback. ... He thinks pass first, second and third and then, 'Oh, I guess I'll shoot it.'"

Just how pass-first is Marshall in the context of other elite teams' point guards? Borrowing a concept I saw on Euro-hoops blog In-The-Game.org this summer, I plotted the floor generals from every Power Rankings team on a grid with their possession-usage rate (the higher it is, the more scoring-minded they are) as the X-axis and their assist-to-field-goal-attempt ratio (the higher it is, the more passing-minded they are) as the Y-axis. Marshall was the only point guard who had more assists than field-goal attempts, with a 1.27-to-1 ratio.

 
2Kentucky Wildcats
Freshman forward Anthony Davis is essentially Marcus Camby with a unibrow* and a head start. "I'll be honest with you," coach John Calipari said last month. "Anthony is probably a little ahead [of Camby at the same age], but Anthony [who's 6-foot-10] is not as tall. Physically, ahead. Skills shooting the ball, ahead."People remember Camby, but not exactly what he did in his first two years at UMass; he won national Player of the Year honors in his third. So we could have an appropriate level of expectations, I calculated Camby's tempo-free stats from '93-94 and '94-95:

Season       %Mins   %Shots     PPWS    OReb%    DReb%   Block%
93-94 (Fr.) 45.2 24.4 1.03 10.8 18.5 14.3
94-95 (Soph.) 49.6 28.2 1.15 10.4 16.5 13.6

Camby was a killer shot-blocker right away, and a good rebounder, but he wasn't the best, young big man that Calipari has ever coached. That would be DeMarcus Cousins, from '09-10:

Season       %Mins   %Shots     PPWS    OReb%    DReb%   Block%
09-10 (Fr.) 58.2 28.5 1.16 19.6 25.1 7.5

Cousins logged more minutes than Camby did, and was more productive on offense and on the glass, although Camby blocked about twice as many shots. Bottom line: I'd take Cousins' freshman year ahead of Camby's, every time. (*The unibrow is a permissible topic because Kentucky fans made the shirts and the Facebook page. Had an outsider done it first, he would have been vilified.)
 
3Ohio State Buckeyes
Jared Sullinger wanted to publicize his weight loss. He tweeted a shirtless photo of his slimmer self in September (and had the courtesy to keep his pants on, unlike Greg Oden). The reasonable assumption is that Sullinger will be better-conditioned at 265 pounds rather than 280, but he still managed to log plenty of minutes as a freshman.

Possession Poundage is a stat I invented -- I really hope this will catch on -- to identify the sport's 260-plus-pound ironmen. It multiplies an estimated number of possessions played per game by a player's weight, then divides by 100. The top 10 from 2010-11 is as follows:

Rk.        Player, Team           Weight    Poss/G    PossLBs/100
1. Jordan Williams, Maryland 260 58.2 151.3
2. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State 280 51.6 144.3
3. Josh Harrellson, Kentucky 275 47.0 129.1
4. Markhuri Sanders-Frison, Cal 275 46.7 128.5
5. Brian Qvale, Montana 260 49.3 128.1
6. Reggie Johnson, Miami 295 42.5 125.5
7. Kenny Frease, Xavier 265 46.9 124.3
8. Will Donahue, Cal Poly 265 46.9 124.2
9. Matt Stainbrook, W. Michigan 290 40.5 117.5
10. Renardo Sidney, Miss. State 270 42.7 115.3

 
4Duke Blue Devils
Freshman guard Austin Rivers, the subject of our Postcard from Duke, had a frustrating process selecting his college jersey number. Here's how he settled on zero: "Twenty-five was taken. That's my number. It's retired, [Art] Heyman has it. So from then I said, 'Let's go down the list.' Thirty-one is my dad's college number, but that's retired. Battier. Eleven was my number on the U.S. [18-and-under] team, and Hurley has that retired. I was like, 'What's left? Well, I know no one has zero, and this is a fresh start so I want zero.'"

Rivers then got wrapped in a minor nickname controversy on Twitter, over whether he proposed that people call him "Subzero" or -- as he asserts -- was just repeating a friend's suggestion. Teammates mocked him for it when he arrived on campus, but it somehow caught on among fans. Says Rivers: "After Countdown to Craziness, I was trying to get to one of the upperclassmen's cars, and fans were mobbing us. They were like, 'Sub! Sub! Sub'" And I said, 'What? Please don't call me that, just call me Austin.'"
 
5Syracuse Orange
In Seth Davis' Orange Postcard, he wrote: "Syracuse is going to beat a lot of teams and it is capable of getting to a Final Four, but right now its most talented players are the younger guys, and that's usually not a championship formula."

One of the youngsters Davis referenced is Dion Waiters, whose role I'm very curious about coming into his second season. Waiters was a candidate for my "Sophomore Breakout Formula" column, because his statistical profile was a perfect fit: In 16.3 minutes per game as a freshman, he took 24.4 percent of the Orange's shots -- the highest usage rate of anyone on the team -- with a quality offensive rating of 107.6.

Waiters didn't make the cut, though, because it's tough to imagine a lot more shots becoming available. Whereas at fellow Big East contender UConn, there's a huge gap created by the departure of Kemba Walker (who took 32.9 percent of shots), Syracuse's three-biggest possession-users from its starting lineup, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph, are all back. The involvement rates of fellow sophomores C.J. Fair and Fab Melo are bound to go up, too. Waiters might just be the Orange's best volume scorer, but it would be a radical move to rearrange the offensive pecking order of a veteran team to accommodate him. It could happen, but the odds seem to be against it.
 
6UConn Huskies
Coach Jim Calhoun lamented this week that his team doesn't have an "offensive leader," which is understandable given the loss of Kemba Walker. His replacement at the point, sophomore Shabazz Napier, was said to "not [be] playing very well, either emotionally or otherwise." Napier was a defensive asset last season but didn't have much opportunity to develop as a distributor. The focal point is likely to be sophomore Jeremy Lamb, who took over the offense of the U.S. 19-and-under team this summer in Latvia, using 27.5 percent of its possessions. The only issues were his lack of efficiency in doing so (he averaged 0.97 points per weighted shot attempt) and his generally reserved personality. Even if he scores 20 points per game, the Huskies' vocal leadership will need to come from somewhere else.

To put Lamb's summer into context, here's a full breakdown of the American players' usage rates (from In-The-Game.org and efficiency (PPWS, calculated by me) from the FIBA U19 Worlds:

Player, School               Min/G       Usage%    PPWS
Jeremy Lamb, UConn 27.7 27.5 0.97
Joe Jackson, Memphis 23.7 25.7 1.04
Khyle Marshall, Butler 13.2 20.9 0.98
Tim Hardaway, Jr., Michigan 20.2 20.2 0.99
Keith Appling, Michigan St. 10.2 20.2 0.99
Anthony Brown, Stanford 11.2 19.9 0.88
Patric Young, Florida 19.0 18.1 1.32
Meyers Leonard, Illinois 16.3 16.5 1.30
Doug McDermott, Creighton 26.4 16.3 1.15
 
7Louisville Cardinals
Best thing from Louisville's 74-55 win over Pikeville in its first exhibition game: Sophomore big man Gorgui Dieng, who the Cardinals are relying on heavily to anchor the post position, had 14 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks. He has the potential to be better for the Cards at the five than Terrence Jennings was last season. Worst thing: Louisville only went to the free-throw line 23 times while taking 68 field-goal attempts, for a FTA/FGA rate of 33.8. One game is a small sample, but it follows a trend that hurt Louisville's offense in 2010-11, when it ranked 324th nationally in FTA/FGA rate at 29.9. (That, combined with the fact that the Cardinals shot just 66.3 percent from the stripe, ranking 264th nationally, led to them being a middle-of-the-pack offensive team in the Big East.) As long as Louisville's defense remains stout, it doesn't have to become a scoring monster to contend for the league title -- but it would help if its players attacked the rim with the same level of aggressiveness that they display while pressuring opposing ballhandlers.
 
8Pittsburgh Panthers
On the Pass-First/Shoot-First grid in the North Carolina section, I included the two players Pitt calls point guards, senior Ashton Gibbs and junior Tray Woodall. Gibbs has talked about wanting to play some pure point this season, but he had the lowest assist-to-field-goal-attempt ratio (0.24) of any guard on that grid. Brad Wanamaker (0.59 A/FGA ratio) and Woodall (0.64) were the Panthers' playmakers last season, and Gibbs was incredibly efficient working off the ball. He wants to showcase an expanded set of guard skills for the NBA, after declaring and then pulling out of the 2011 Draft, but a realist would have to classify Gibbs as the country's best shooter who occasionally records an assist. It may not be the title he wants, but it's not such a bad thing to be.
 
9Vanderbilt Commodores
One of the best preseason stories of 2011 comes from Basketball Prospectus' Corey Schmidt, who created a "Clutch Gauge" to judge players' efficiency and usage rate in crunch-time situations. Among the teams Schmidt studied were the Commodores, and junior All-America candidate John Jenkins was revealed to be excellent -- and a near-equal to North Carolina's Harrison Barnes in crunch-time usage and efficiency. Where Vandy differed from some of the other teams studied was that it had no effective second option. Carolina had Tyler Zeller on the same efficiency plane as Barnes, albeit at a lower usage rate; likewise, Ohio State had Jon Diebler and Aaron Craft on a similar plan as Jared Sullinger, its go-to-guy in the clutch. So, on the to-do list for a Commodores breakthrough season, add "find another late-game scorer" just below "shore up the defense." Ideally, you'd like the option of feeding the ball to senior center Festus Ezeli in the post -- he was the only other Vandy starter over one point per weighted shot -- but his usage rate in clutch hovered around 15 percent.
 
10Florida Gators
The two most surprising things I came across in Florida news clips: That 6-3, 207-pound shooting guard Bradley Beal's 16-year-old, twin brothers are 320-pound offensive linemen ... and that on a team loaded with shoot-first guards (see where point guard Erving Walker falls on the grid at the top of this article), sophomore forward Patric Young is getting the most shots in practice.

Between the departed Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons, Florida lost 21.3 two-point attempts per game, so it's natural that coach Billy Donovan would be looking for new sources of interior offense. Young seems hard-wired for low usage, though: Last season he only used 11.1 percent of the Gators' possessions while he was on the floor, and on the U.S. 19-and-under team this summer, he only used 18.1 percent, despite being the primary low-post presence. His highlight reel from Latvia was stunning, but there wasn't much shot-creation aside from the dunks. When real games begin, I'll be curious to see how much of Florida's offense actually runs through the post.
 
11Cincinnati Bearcats
Like it or not, the preseason Associated Press poll remains college basketball's most prominent setter-of-expectations. And the voters' expectations of the Bearcats seem far too low. At 23, they're one of the most underrated teams in the poll. This is a team that finished 23rd in kenpom.com's efficiency rankings last season, returns its top four possession-users, including its best rebounder (Yancy Gates), best steal-creator (Cashmere Wright) and a breakout sophomore (Sean Kilpatrick). Yet ... it ranks well behind:

* A team that had the least-efficient offense in the eighth-best league in America (Memphis, which is ranked 11th).

* A team that lost the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft and its point guard, who accounted for 50 percent of possession usage when they were on the floor together (Arizona, 16th).

* A team that ranked 53rd in kenpom, lost its coach and its two most efficient offensive players (Texas A&M, 20th).

What Cincinnati does -- throw up plenty of bricks, scrap for points on the offensive glass, and play intense defense -- may not be pretty, but it's a formula that works. Just ask fans at Kansas State and West Virginia.

 
12Kansas Jayhawks
DraftExpress' Top Prospects lists for every conference are vital season-preview reading, and Jayhawks power forward Thomas Robinson checks in at No. 2 in the Big 12, just behind Baylor's Perry Jones. Robinson's per-minute scoring and rebounding numbers have been phenomenal off the bench for his first two seasons in Lawrence, and DX projects him as the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft, going one spot after Jones.

Can any readers name another player who entered an upperclassman (junior or senior) season not having been a part of his team's starting lineup ... and still was projected to be a Lottery Pick in the next NBA Draft?

If so, Tweet the answer to @lukewinn. I couldn't come up with another name. In an era of impatience for basketball prospects, Robinson is a strange phenomenon. He started out as a sleeper recruit, then bided his time behind Cole Aldrich and the Morris Twins, and now he could get drafted higher than all three of them.
 
13Baylor Bears
In his Postcard from Waco, Seth Davis called juco-transfer point guard Pierre Jackson the Bears' X-Factor, because they desperately need someone more sure-handed to run the point after 2010-11's turnover bonanza. They gave the ball away on 23.4 percent of possessions last season, ranking 322nd in the nation and last in the Big 12. Compare Baylor's point guards against the primary floor generals from the conference's NCAA tournament teams, and you start to get the picture:

Point guard, Team               Min%       Usage%    TO%   A/T 
A.J. Walton, Baylor 79.5 18.9 32.1 1.4
Stargell Love, Baylor 23.1 18.5 38.1 1.0
Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas 64.1 21.2 26.7 1.7
Dogus Balbay, Texas 46.7 13.7 23.8 2.1
Jacob Pullen, Kansas St. 74.4 29.7 18.2 1.2
Dash Harris, Texas A&M 67.7 16.0 29.0 1.5
Michael Dixon, Missouri 52.0 24.2 18.3 1.9
 
14Xavier Musketeers
Tu Holloway, who's very much in the "shoot-first" zone of that point-guard graphic, claims he's going to be pass-first this season, telling CBSsports.com's Jeff Goodman, "It won't be me leading this team in scoring most games." If Holloway really is looking to create more, it won't be a bad thing. In Xavier's pick-and-roll heavy offense, Holloway's efficiency passing out of those situations (1.262 PPP, according to Synergy) was well ahead of his scoring efficiency (0.954 PPP) last season. Of players in Synergy's database who had more than 60 pick-and-roll pass possessions, Holloway ranked 10th in derived offense:

Rk.	Player, Team			%PassP&R  PPP
1 Antoine Young, Creighton 41.2 1.427
2 Brad Wanamaker, Pittsburgh 36.3 1.377
3 Diante Garrett, Iowa State 42.9 1.348
4 Lamont Jones, Arizona 40.4 1.342
5 Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame 42.9 1.319
6 Malcolm Armstead, Oregon 48.9 1.319
7 Mickey McConnell, Saint Mary's 43.1 1.303
8 Nafis Ricks, Missouri State 53.8 1.302
9 Bryce Cartwright, Iowa 53.9 1.293
10 Terrell Holloway, Xavier 32.1 1.262
 
15Wisconsin Badgers
My top five in the preseason Player of the Year race:
1. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
2. Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
3. Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
4. Terrence Jones, Kentucky
5. Tu Holloway, Xavier

Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor is the country's best point guard until proven otherwise, but he has some strange splits in his Synergy profile:

* No other point guard comes close to him in efficiency on high pick-and-rolls (set at the top of the key or beyond). Nearly 60 percent of his P&R situations fall into this category, and he averages 1.40 points per possession. But on the occasions he runs a left-side P&R (20.7 percent of the time), his efficiency drops all the way down to 0.71 PPP; and when he runs a right-side P&R (20.0 percent of the time), it's even worse, at 0.59 PPP.

* He seems to prefer to be guarded (as opposed to wide open) in catch-and-shoot situations. Of his 73 C&S jumpers, 34 were classified as "guarded," and he created 1.50 PPP on those shots. Somehow, on the 39 that were "unguarded," he created just 0.67 PPP. That's right: Taylor is less than half as efficient when left wide open than he is when hounded. (Are any coaches willing to just not guard Taylor off the ball? I'm not actually advocating it ... but it would be a fascinating experiment for some team that's bound to lose by 20-plus points anyways.)

 
16Alabama Crimson Tide
This should be the year that Anthony Grant wins his second career NCAA tournament game as a head coach. The first came with VCU in 2007, when the Rams upset sixth-seeded Duke in the first round. Grant's current Crimson Tide squad couldn't be more different than his '07 VCU team, though. Those Rams were offensively driven, ranking 28th in offensive efficiency (while being led by future pro Eric Maynor) and 131st in defense. Last season, Alabama ranked 115th in offense and seventh in defense. That profile was good enough to get the Tide to the NIT finals, but their offense should take the next step as point guard Trevor Releford enters his second season, and they add freshmen Trevor Lacey (a five-star shooting guard) and Levi Randolph (a four-star shooting guard) to the backcourt.
 

The Next 24: 17. UCLA, 18. Memphis, 19. Arizona, 20. Florida State, 21. Belmont, 22. Michigan, 23. Purdue, 24. UNLV, 25. Gonzaga, 26. Temple, 27. Missouri, 28. Wichita State, 29. Marquette, 30. Texas A&M, 31. West Virginia, 32. Michigan State, 33. New Mexico, 34. Villanova, 35. Cal, 36. Texas, 37. Notre Dame, 38. Creighton, 39. Butler, 40. Washington

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