Reflecting on Rajon Rondo’s Time in Boston

Last night, the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell to the Dallas Mavericks for a pair of draft picks, Brendan Wright, Jae Crowder, and Jameer Nelson.

But let’s pause and go back a few years.

It was April 2009. The NBA postseason was in full swing and the second seed Boston Celtics were struggling against the up-and-coming seventh seed Chicago Bulls.

The defending champion Celtics had been dominant in the regular season, at one point winning 19 straight games, but they entered the playoffs without their defensive rock, Kevin Garnett, who was lost for the season when he injured his knee in February.

Ra-gone Rondo: the enigmatic point guard is headed to Dallas.

Ra-gone Rondo: the enigmatic point guard is headed to Dallas.

The Bulls, led by dynamo rookie Derrick Rose, were showing a lot of spunk. Celtics stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were doing their best to keep the C’s afloat, each averaging 23 points per game over the series. But it was the play of Rajon Rondo that put Boston over the top in a seven game series that spawned seven overtime periods.

At that moment, Rajon Rondo looked like the Celtics’ future. He was dominant, filling up every category in the stat sheet. In Game 1 he poured in 29 points. In Game 2 he put up 19 points, 16 assists, and 11 boards. In Game 4 he notched another triple double and scored 25 along the way. He finished Game 6 with 19 assists.

The media was billing the Rondo-Rose matchup as a battle between the NBA’s top two point guards of the future. Rondo, who a year previous had been little more than a fourth leg on the Celtics’ championship team, seemed to be blossoming into a bona fide star.

Celtics fans were dreaming big for Rondo. But he never reached the elite level we saw in him that series. At least not for an entire season.

Which is not to say there haven’t been glimpses. Or even prolonged stretches of tremendous play from the lightning quick point man. But Rondo, now 28, has never fully realized the potential once seen in him.

The glimpses have usually come in nationally televised games. Often in the postseason. If there’s been a consistent criticism of Rajon over the years, outside of the fact that he can’t shoot the dadgum ball, it’s that he’s always had a propensity for turning it on with a national audience watching–and off the rest of the time.

Among the highlights that came post-’09: a tremendous series against Cleveland in 2010 in the Conference Finals, as the Celtics blasted their way past LeBron and into the NBA Finals; a 20 assist performance in Game 3 of the Celtics’ four game sweep of the Knicks the next year, as his passing wizardry helped lead to a 38 point performance for Paul Pierce and a 32 point outing for Ray Allen; an unbelievable series in the Conference Finals in 2012 against a LeBron-led Heat team during which Rondo was unquestionably the Celtics’ best player and looking the part of the league’s best point guard; and more jaw dropping dimes than could be accounted for in any blog post.

Rondo has had to share the spotlight for most of his time in Boston with future Hall of Famers. Since the departures of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett before last season, that has changed. And the results have been ugly. Rondo stumbled his way through an injury-filled season last year and was lifeless when he did see the floor. This year has been worse. No starting point guard in the Association has scored less, and Rondo rarely looks even interested in trying to score. He defers. He searches for assists. Post-Pierce Rondo has been largely devoid of fun.

So what is Rondo’s legacy in Boston?

I’m certainly not the one to answer that question. I’ve never been Rondo’s biggest fan. His tendency to hold the ball deep into the shot clock has always driven me bananas. In fact, when Rondo missed much of the 2012-13 campaign (and playoffs) due to injury, I thought the Celtics became a more cohesive offensive unit. (When a post-prime Paul Pierce proved unable to carry the C’s past New York in the playoffs’ opening round, I questioned this assertion.)

Nonetheless, it is indisputable that Rondo was an irreplaceable cog in some great Celtics teams. He grew up faster than expected on the way to the ’08 title. Then he kept getting better. Eventually, he became the best and most exciting Celtics’ player, eclipsing an aging Pierce.

At this point, the happy Rondo days are merely memories. There’s little doubt that he wore out his welcome in Boston in the eyes of many. It feels like the Celtics have been trying to trade him since the dawn of the dinosaurs. And, as my brother noted to me last night, his departure draws easy parallels to that of Manny Ramirez. Perhaps a more apt comparison, though, would be Nomar Garciappara.

Rondo facilitated the Celtics' '08 title and nearly helped lead them to another in '10.

Rondo facilitated the Celtics’ 2008 title and nearly helped lead them to another in 2010.

Like Nomar, Boston got really excited about Rondo. Like Nomar, Rondo had some fantastic moments. Like Nomar, he could be beyond frustrating to watch (cue memories of Nomar whiffing on first pitch balls in the dirt). And, Like Nomar (circa ’04), Rondo’s not the player he once was. Maybe he’ll rekindle the magic in Dallas.

As with Nomar, not many Bostonians are devastated to see Rondo go.

The trade will allow the Celtics to continue building for the future. And I assure you, there will be some outstanding players in next year’s draft.

Ultimately, Rondo will be remembered for what he brought to Boston. He helped bring a title. He brought a swashbuckling (some might say careless) style to the defensive end. There were the passes too. Oh, the passes. Beautiful passes that seemed impossible. Passes he wrapped around defenders while he floated in the air, locating an open target 25 feet away.

And then the other passes. The kickouts to Courtney Lee for a three when Rondo had an uncontested layup right in front of him. The sloppy, lazy passes that he lofted into the second row. Rondo, after all, turned the ball over 1,488 times in a Celtics uniform.

Rajon Rondo delivered excitement, energy, and wins to Boston Celtics fans. And an awful lot of headaches.

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UConn-Duke Live Blog

Tonight, second ranked Duke will face the defending national champion UConn Huskies in a big time early season battle between two of the top college hoops programs in the nation. The game is set for an 8:00 PM ET start time and will be airing on ESPN. Join us here for a live blog and get ready for a classic college basketball battle. Joining in the live blog will be Grant Newman, a Duke freshman and one of our favorite guests here at CST. Click the link below to join!

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We Talkin’ About Napkins?

It’s been almost five years since Allen Iverson last played in an NBA game. And, here at College Sports Town, we miss the prodigiously talented combo guard.

AI gave us so much. He put up video game numbers, dished out absurd dimes, took the 2000-2001 76ers to the NBA Finals more or less by himself, and, more than any other player (including that wannabe Kobe) defined an era of NBA basketball. From the late ’90s to the late ’00s, Allen Iverson was to basketball what Derek Jeter was to baseball. But the Answer’s greatest gift to us might be the best press conference rant in sports history.

The Burger’s Priest, an Ontario burger joint just did a spoof of Iverson’s rant, and it’s amazing. Enjoy:

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Picking the 2014 ACC-Big Ten Challenge

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge started last night with a couple of less-than-marquee games: Nebraska knocked off Florida State and Rutgers took down Clemson. Tonight, the real fun starts. Here are my picks for the remaining games in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Tuesday Night Games: 

Indiana 75, Pitt 73: Indiana can’t stop anybody, but the Hoosiers have shot the ball at a 51% clip to jump out to a 5-1 start to the season. Pitt hasn’t been great this year but is coming off a strong win over K-State. This looks like a toss up on paper–I’ll take IU at home.

Minnesota 74, Wake Forest 63: It may take a little while for Danny Manning to turn around the Demon Deacon program. Minnesota should handle Wake in Winston-Salem.

Syracuse 58, Michigan 50: Michigan is playing great ball so far this year. Still, Boeheim has had Beilein’s number in recent years. I have to take the Orange, even on the road.

Miami 67, Illinois 64: This is going to be a fun one. Two really good, well coached teams battling it out in front of what should be an electric atmosphere in Coral Gables.

Purdue 75, NC State 74: NC State’s looked sneaky good so far, and the Wolfpack are a pretty complete team. But Purdue owns the ACC-Big Ten challenge and the Boilermakers are at home. I’ll take Purdue. Reluctantly.

Louisville 73, Ohio State 66: Another tremendous matchup. This is the first true test of the year for Ohio State. And hoo boy, it’s a test!

Wednesday Night Games:

Michigan State 79, Notre Dame 76: This is a tough road test for Sparty. Notre Dame’s got game–they’re shooting 58% through seven contests. Michigan State will need to control the glass to pull this one out.

Penn State 70, Virginia Tech 62: Virginia Tech’s better than they’ve been the past couple years. They’re still far from good.

North Carolina 89, Iowa 76: Plenty of offense here. Not as much defense. The Tar Heels should roll at the Dean Dome.

Tony Bennett's defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Tony Bennett’s defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Virginia 55, Maryland 48: This one will be more defense-oriented. UVA is coming off a 45-26 win, so there’s that. The Terps just busted into the top 25 and they should have the Xfinity Center rocking. I’ll take the Cavs; I hate picking against Tony Bennett.

Georgia Tech 65, Northwestern 57: Northwestern’s 5-1 but they’re still searching for offensive answers. Georgia Tech should have the chops to win this one on the road.

Duke 74, Wisconsin 68: Final Four preview? Could well be. Both teams are filthy. Wiscy’s got home court. Duke’s got Jahlil.

 

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Nine Thoughts Through Nine Days of College Hoops

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday…well nine o’clock-ish, PST. And we’re more than a week into college basketball season. Unsurprisingly, I have things to say about what I’ve seen. Here are nine thoughts on the young season.

Jahlil!

Jahlil!

1. Jahlil Okafor is absolutely the real deal. The Duke freshman came in with tons of hype and is living up to it early. The Blue Devils are 5-0 and have already logged wins over Michigan State and Stanford. Against MSU, Okafor scored 17 and shot 8-10 from the field. The near-seven-footer is mad skilled. Even when he misses, it looks good.

2. The Big East looks poised for a great season. Creighton is adjusting well to post-Doug McDermott life; they’re 3-0 and upset Oklahoma. Providence has looked sharp and sits at 4-0. They beat FSU 80-54 today. Villanova and Georgetown look good too. And only one of the conference’s ten teams has lost thus far (Marquette).

3. The national media might have overrated Nebraska. The 21st ranked Cornhuskers fell at Rhode Island today. It’s only one loss, but I continue to question any team coached by a guy who tweets during games. (I’m mostly kidding–Tim Miles is a good coach–but Nebraska’s ranking is probably steep.)

4. Gonzaga’s filthy. The 4-0 Bulldogs dominated SMU on November 17th and then beat St. Joe’s 94-42 on the 19th. The Hawks aren’t as good as they’ve been in past years, but still! Gonzaga had a 48-10 halftime lead!

5. San Diego State’s defense: still outstanding. The Aztecs held Utah to 49 points in a win on Tuesday and are giving up 45 points per game through three contests. Sure makes it less important that they’re shooting 36% from the field.

Bill Self

Bill Self’s Jayhawks had a rough go against Kentucky.

6. Colorado scored 90 points in their second game of the season (a blowout win over Auburn) and 33 points in their third game of the season (a blowout loss to Wyoming). Against Wyoming, they managed just nine second half points. Weird shit.

7. Kansas’ number five pre-season ranking might have been presumptuous. My ranking of them (tenth) in College Sports Town’s preview might have been, too. The youthful Jayhawks, who lost Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins to the NBA Draft, looked plenty green in a 72-40 loss to Kentucky earlier this week.

8. As for Kentucky, they might be OK.

9. Virginia Tech athletics had a rough day today. Their basketball team lost to Appalachian State. Their football team was involved in this.

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Ruminations on the Retirement of Alfonso Soriano

Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement this week.

Alfonso Soriano's career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Alfonso Soriano’s career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Looking back at Soriano’s career, it certainly had its contradictions. Soriano was famously overpaid and overrated, and yet somehow also underrated for much of his career. His longevity and (relative) consistency is striking–from 2002 to 2013 he hit at least 20 home runs every year. Sure, there were major ups and (often injury-induced) downs. During his time with the Cubs from 2007 to 2013, Soriano was often a lightening rod due to his huge contract and struggles to get on base. Yet, he still had plenty of good times in Chicago: enough to produce 181 home runs and a cumulative .812 OPS in 889 games.

Soriano will go down as a Yankee first, though, not a Cub. Sori broke onto the scene as one of the league’s best young players in the early 2000s, thrilling Bronx crowds with his combination of blazing speed and prodigious power. He nearly hit the 40 home run-40 stolen base mark in those early New York years…twice (’02 &’03)! He eventually joined the 40-40 club during his one year with the Washington Nationals in ’06, blasting 46 homers and pilfering 41 bases.

Soriano made it back to New York in 2013, and finished off his best late-career season by knocking out 17 home runs in 58 games after a mid-season trade from the Cubs.

In some strange way, Sori still feels like a product of the steroid era, even though he was always built like a stick and never tested positive for any PEDs. Yet, Soriano’s ‘cleanness’ is essential to his legacy. He’s the only 40-40 member who’s not linked to roids. His 412 home runs are not impugned by the shadow of roids. In the era of PEDs, Soriano was a pro’s pro. A star with a tree trunk for a bat and legendary swagger who (as far as we know) wasn’t sticking needles in his body.

And, even as Soriano became one of those guys who you felt like you’d been watching forever, watching the fleet-footed infielder-turned-outfielder always felt like rediscovering one of the game’s gems–his retirement feels both overdue and, simultaneously, abrupt and unexpected.

Alfonso Soriano now exits quietly, the polar opposite of the way his venerable Yankee teammate–Derek Jeter–went out. Much like Jeter, though, Soriano was a unique, often times polarizing player. And, like Jeter, Sori represented the type of eye-catching talent that seems to become rarer and rarer in today’s MLB.

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2014-2015 College Basketball Preview

November 14th. That’s the date that is circled on the calendars of college basketball fans all around the country. 157 college basketball games will be played on November 14th to bring in the new college basketball year. Soon all the things that make college basketball the best sport in the world–the dunks, the pull up threes, the packed student sections, the fiery coaches, and Bill Raftery yelling incomprehensible nuggets (Dick Vitale too!)–will return. Get pumped.

To prepare for it all, I’ve thrown together College Sports Town’s second annual college hoops preview. Give it a skim, check out where I’ve got your favorite team ranked, and, as always, tell me where I’m right (and wrong) in the comments section. Enjoy!

1. Duke: Exit Jabari, Enter Jahlil 

Jahlil Okafor was named an AP preseason All-American.

Jahlil Okafor was named an AP preseason All-American.

Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor may not be as good as Jabari Parker, who played one year in Cameron Indoor before splitting for the NBA. Parker was a nearly unstoppable offensive force for Duke last year, scoring with ease from all over the court. But Okafor will still have a massive impact in his first–and likely only–year at Duke. The Blue Devils had a typically strong season last year, winning 26 games, but in the end they finished with more losses than they’ve had in a season since ‘07, none more disappointing than their defeat against Mercer in the first second round of the NCAA Tourney.

Duke was unusually small (for Duke) and struggled early defensively, giving up 94 points in a loss to Kansas in their second game of the season and 90 a couple weeks later to…Vermont. Coach K’s teams are rarely deficient on that side of the ball, and they did improve over the course of the winter, but the team’s inability to guard consistently reared its head more often than anybody in Durham would have liked. The Blue Devils allowed Mercer to shoot 55% in their Tournament loss.

The expectation is that Duke will get back to playing Duke-level D this year, and Okafor is a great place to start. The seven footer should be an anchor for a team that added another stud in point guard Tyus Jones, also a McDonald’s All-American.  The two diaper dandies will join a nucleus of vets that includes senior guard Quinn Cook and junior wing Rasheed Sulaimon, a tremendous scorer in his own right who should step into the spotlight after the departure of Parker. This Duke team looks bigger and better than the ’13 outfit. A fifth national title for Coach K could be in sight.

Predicted Win Range: 31-37

Rasheed Sulaimon and the Blue Devils have the goods to win it all.

Rasheed Sulaimon and the Blue Devils have the goods to win it all.

2. Arizona: Pac-12 could have a rough season. ‘Zona won’t, though

The Pac-12’s basketball product has gone somewhat stale in recent years and the conference could be headed for an awful winter. The good news is that Arizona is still in the league, and the Wildcats are looking like strong contenders to win it all in ’15. There are surely concerns about where the scoring will come from after the departure of Nick Johnson, but ‘Zona should find a way to score. Plus, there’s the fact that Arizona might be the best defensive team in the nation. Slasher Brandon Ashley will lead the charge at both ends, and the talent-rich Wildcats should win 30 games for the second straight year.

Predicted Win Range: 30-35

There's not much doubt that Sean Miller's Wildcats will be the class of Pac-12.

There’s not much doubt that Sean Miller’s Wildcats will be the class of Pac-12.

3. Kentucky: Wildcats will be big and physical

It took a while for Kentucky to coalesce last year, but when John Calipari’s talented and much-hyped squad figured it out, the results were impressive. UK rode some clutch shots, tough defensive stops, and a little bit of luck through the NCAA Tournament’s toughest region (they beat Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan along the way). In the Final Four, they bested Wiscy 74-73 in a thriller. Then they lost to an unbelievable UConn team in the title game. And then, as usual, everybody headed to the draft. Except not…Julius Randle and James Young hit the draft, but the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein all elected to return. Then, Cal predictably brought in some outstanding freshmen, pulling in big name big guys Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. This all leaves ‘Tucky with a decent mix of diaper dandies and experience going into this season. That mix, in addition to bodacious talent, has plenty of folks calling for a Big Blue title.

Predicted Win Range: 26-35

The Harrison twins are back, baby.

Andrew and Aaron Harrison are back, baby.

4 . Wisconsin: Always-good Wiscy was great last year. They should be great again this winter

After more than a decade’s worth of NCAA Tourney visits and several deep runs, coach Bo Ryan finally took Wisconsin to the Final Four last year. The Badgers, who have historically won with smothering defense and smart, opportunistic offense under Ryan, opened things up offensively last year. This winter, the good times should keep on rollin’ in Madison. Star 7-footer Frank Kaminsky is back, gritty guard Traveon Jackson is too, and Bo Ryan has to be thinking about another Final four.

Predicted Win Range: 26-33

Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers are legit.

Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers are outstanding.

5. Villanova: Nas would be proud of ‘Nova, which should have their best team since ‘09

With just about everybody back from last year’s team, which went 29-5, there’s reason for the rest of the Big East to be afraid of Villanova. The Wildcats did lose James Bell, one of their leaders and a dude with in-the-gym range, to graduation. But their other four starters are back and all are good. Junior Ryan Arcidiacono will run the point for the Cats, and he’s the guy who can make all the shots. These Wildcats also have size; forwards JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu will anchor ‘Nova in the paint. Jay Wright’s Wildcat team is not loaded with future lottery picks, but its mix of experience and balance makes the Catholic school from outside of Philadelphia a strong title contender. Who knows, maybe they’ll even inspire another rap lyric.

Ryan Arcidiacono will have Villanova grooving past opponents all winter.

Ryan Arcidiacono will have Villanova grooving past opponents all winter.

Predicted Win Range: 29-33

6. Wichita State: I’m just sitting here resisting the urge to make another dumb Shocker pun

At least for the moment, it appears Wichita State is the nation’s top mid-major. The Shockers won 35 straight games last year before falling to Kentucky in the Round of 32 in March. This fall, the Shockers will be without the best player from that team–the uber talented Cleanthony Early–but a bunch of excellent players are returning to Wichita. Ron Baker’s back. Star point guard Fred VanVleet is too. And guard Tekele Cotton will continue to be a defensive force on the perimeter. Greg Marshall’s program is rolling. It should be another good winter for the Shockers.

Predicted Win Range: 30-36

Senior Tekele Cotton gettin' up.

Senior Tekele Cotton gettin’ up.

7. Virginia: This Tony Bennett team should have the body and soul to compete for an ACC ‘ship

Who doesn’t love a little Tony Bennett? I’m talking about the esteemed singer from Astoria, Queens, of course. As for the basketball coach, he’s pretty darn good too. After four years of steady improvement under Bennett, the Cavaliers broke through last year, winning 30 games and the ACC title. They bowed out (relatively early) in the Big Dance though–falling by two to Sparty in the Sweet 16–so this year could still be a step forward for UVA. The Cavs are a defense-first team, and they’ll be led on that end by guard Justin Anderson. Meanwhile, speedy slasher Malcolm Brogdon will lead what should be a strong Virgina offensive attack. Bennett’s got a good thing going in Charlottesville.

Predicted Win Range: 27-33

erm...um...

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8. Florida: Gator basketball brand has never been stronger

It’ll be a different look from Bill Donovan’s Gators this winter. They lost four of five starters in the offseason and will have to rekindle the same type of chemistry they had last winter, when they went 36-3 and 18-0 in SEC play. The good news is that Coach Donovan is a master of just that type of alchemy. What’s more, the Gators still have loads of talent, and the one starter who’s back (Michael Frazier II) is a baller. Florida has made it to at least the Elite Eight each of the last four years. No reason not to aim for five.

Predicted Win Range: 28-33

Billy Donovan's Gators are title contenders.

Billy Donovan’s Gators are title contenders.

9. Louisville: Cards enter the ACC ready to make a splash

When Louisville pounded eventual national champion UConn 81-48 on March 8th last winter, it looked like Louisville had a helluva great shot to repeat as national champs. But it didn’t come to fruition; the Cards lost a back and forth game to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals might have come up short, but they should be right in the thick of things again this March. The Cardinals lost Russ Smith to graduation in the spring, and Smith was the face of the program for the past couple years–a blazing comet at both ends of the court who personified coach Rick Pitino’s aggressive style. He’ll be sorely missed. Dynamite big Montrezl Harrell is back though, and Louisville has the size across their frontline to bully their new ACC brethren. Their backcourt won’t be too shabby either: Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear are both very capable dudes.

Predicted Win Range: 26-32

Montrezl Harrell and Louisville are ready to take the ACC by storm.

Montrezl Harrell and Louisville are ready to take the ACC by storm.

10. Kansas: Wiggins, Embiid–gone. That’s fine, Bill Self’s cupboard is far from bare

This Kansas team obviously won’t have the same type of topflight NBA talent that last year’s did. So be it, the 2008 Kansas team that won a national title didn’t have two top three NBA Draft picks either. This year, stalwarts Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis will be joined by another group of nasty freshmen. The results will be excellent, and Kansas fans will forget about Wiggins and Embiid in no time.

Predicted Win Range: 26-32

Time for Wayne Selden to breakout?

Time for Wayne Selden to breakout?

11. North Carolina: This will be the Marcus Paige show

Let’s be honest: the Tar Heels have underachieved the past couple years and the program is in a bit of a rut. Roy Williams has looked totally confounded by his teams at times. He’s been unable to turn talent-rich squads into legitimate title contenders and has fielded questions about his program’s academic integrity. Of course, this is still UNC, and the Heels have managed a more than respectable 49 wins the past two winters. This year, the hope in Chapel Hill is that they’ll really get their mojo back. UNC had very little success from 3 last year, but freshman Justin Jackson, a wiry and gifted wing, figures to help in that area. At the same time, Marcus Paige, a sensational junior point guard, should have a fabulous year. There are still question marks around the Dean Dome, but there’s also reason to think UNC is ready to return to the top 10.

Predicted Win Range: 26-30

Roy Williams' program enters the year with questions about academic fraud still lingering around the program.

Roy Williams’ program enters the year with questions about academic fraud still lingering around the program.

12. Gonzaga: Beat goes on for Gonzaga

The hot shooting Bulldogs sniped their way to 29 wins last year. They continue to dominate the underrated WCC, and will again be the class of the conference this year. Steady, sharp shooting point man Kevin Pangos will continue to lead the charge for the Zags with the super efficient Gary Bell Jr. serving as his sidekick in the backcourt. Gonzaga will have to deal with the loss of forward Sam Dower Jr., but talented transfer Kyle Wiltjer, last seen on that ill-fated 2012-13 Kentucky team, will fill ably in his place. Another transfer–guard Byron Wesley–was a star at USC and will be one in Spokane also. Should be another great year for the Zags.

Predicted Win Range: 27-32

Kevin Pangos leads a Gonzaga that scores prolifically.

Kevin Pangos leads a Gonzaga team that will score prolifically.

13. Syracuse: They probably won’t start the year 25-0, but the hope is that this year’s Orange squad will finish stronger

The expression “the names change, but the game remains the same,” fits Jim Boeheim’s program to a tee. Boeheim’s 2-3 defense is pure gold and Syracuse seems to get even better defensively each year. They lost a lot of good dudes to graduation and the NBA before last year, but ‘Cuse still had a fantastic season. The only thing: it ended on a real sour note: six losses in their final nine games. This year’s team won’t repeat that finish. The Orange are replacing big names like Tyler Ennis and CJ Fair this time around, but a tough squad remains. Trevor Cooney can shoot the air out of the ball, gritty forward Rakeem Christmas is back for another round (how has he not graduated yet!?!??!), and big things are expected of freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph. That 2-3 zone is back too.

Predicted Win Range: 25-30

Can this just be Syracuse's logo?

Syracuse=jim boeheim=2-3 zone. Or something.

14.  Texas: Arrival of Turner will bolster Longhorns 

There’s a great deal of excitement around the Texas basketball program at the moment. The Longhorns are returning a lot of guys from a squad that won 24 games last year and brought in arguably the best frosh in the nation, a wildly athletic seven footer named Myles Turner. He’ll join quality returnees like senior forward Jonathan Holmes and double double machine Cameron Ridley. Texas is experienced, deep, and talented. All good things. They’ll win plenty.

Predicted Win Range: 26-31

People are excited to see Myles Turner in a Longhorn uniform.

People are excited to see Myles Turner in a Longhorn uniform.

15. Ohio State: Thad Matta’s Buckeyes have won 25+ games each of the last five years

This Ohio State team isn’t all that experienced where it counts. The departures of stars LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft leave the Buckeyes with major holes. Losing Lenzell Smith Jr. to graduation doesn’t help things either. But expectations should still be extremely high in Columbus, where coach Thad Matta has brought in dynamite freshmen D’Angelo Russell. Russell is expected to be a star off the bat. Other new arrivals include forward Anthony Lee, a transfer from Temple, who will add some power to an OSU front court that was uncharacteristically ineffective last year. Ohio State will have a new look this winter, but we can trust Matta to make it all work. The Buckeyes boast a 77% winning percentage in ten years under Thad.

Predicted Win Range: 25-30

Thad Matta is only 47. Weird right?

Thad Matta is only 47. Weird, right?

16. San Diego State: Athletic Aztecs will be outstanding again

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher will turn 70 this March, right before the Sweet 16. I guess you could say, by measure of this ranking, that I think he’ll have a little extra to celebrate about when he turns 70. The Aztecs, who made it to the Sweet 16 last year (but no further), are coming off an incredibly impressive 31 win season. In repeating the effort, they will have to overcome the departure of leading scorer Xavier Thames, which is a bit of a concern for a squad that struggled to score with Thames. But the bread and butter of Fisher’s program is defense, and the Aztecs will undoubtedly be tremendous in that area. A breakout year from junior Winston Shepard, who was solid but inconsistent as a sophomore, could be key.

Predicted Win Range: 26-32

Winston Shepard might need to take a starring role for SDSU.

Winston Shepard might need to take a starring role for SDSU.

17. SMU: This year they’ll aim to leave no doubt on Selection Sunday

Last year when SMU was shockingly left off the NCAA Tournament bracket, I thought to myself ‘Larry Brown’s getting too old for this shit.’ Fortunately for Mustangs fans, the coach doesn’t feel the same way. The 74 year old basketball mastermind took a team that won just 13 games the year before he arrived (2012) to the cusp of the Tourney last March. And there’s really no question that the team deserved to get in; SMU was 23-9 and ranked 25th in the polls on Selection Sunday, having already logged wins over Memphis, Cincinnati, and the eventual champion Huskies (twice). Brown’s Mustangs should be even better this year, led by tiny (5-9) point guard Nic Moore and power forward Markus Kennedy. Justin Martin, a swingman who transferred from Xavier, should also be an impact player. SMU hasn’t gone dancing since ‘93. They’re a good bet to end the drought this year.

Predicted Win Range: 25-31

Nic Moore is a baller.

Nic Moore is a baller.

18. VCU: And they’ll have Havoc, Havoc, Havoc ’til someone takes their Shaka away 

Shaka Smart’s VCU program keeps rolling. The 37 year old coach’s team went 26-9 last year, although they failed to make any magic happen in March (losing off the bat to Stephen F. Austin). By recent VCU standards, it was a pretty quiet season, albeit one that included wins over Virginia and St. Louis. Smart seems to have his name thrown around every time a major program is hiring, but Smart has stuck around Richmond. This winter, his team will aim to make a little more March noise than they did in ’13-14. VCU brings back veteran leadership (Treveon Graham, Briante Weber) and is athletic across the board. The Rams will be the class of the oft-underrated A-10.

Predicted Win Range: 24-30

Shaka Smart and VCU keep on winning.

Shaka Smart and VCU keep on winning.

19. Michigan State: Sparty loses tons, but Izzo will figure it out

Michigan State lost loads of offensive talent this offseason (Garry Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling–all gone). As such, coach Tim Izzo might lean on his defense more this winter than last. But there are still offensive weapons remaining, most notably forward Branden Dawson. The Spartans might start slow, but they should have things figured out by March. That’s the Izzo way, after all.

Predicted Win Range: 21-27

Branden Dawson's got ups!

Expect a big year from Branden Dawson.

20. Harvard: Harvard’s building toward a deep NCAA run

Harvard has won games in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments. In 2013, the Crimson raced by New Mexico in the Round of 64 before getting waxed by Arizona in the next round. Last March, the Crimson took down five seed Cincinnati–a good five seed at that–and looked like they might be headed to the Sweet 16 before mighty Michigan State went into high gear down the stretch of a thrilling game. The Crimson are building upward. Could this be the year they break into the Sweet 16? They certainly have elite athleticism across the board. But for Harvard to take the next step forward, they’ll need to find a jump shooting option to replace the excellent Laurent Rivard. Even with Rivard, Harvard struggled at times from the perimeter last year. The expectation in Cambridge is that Corbin Miller will fill the void, but improvement in the shooting of Wesley Saunders, already Harvard’s best two-way player, might put Harvard over the top.

Predicted Win Range: 25-31

Wesley Saunders will lead a talented Harvard team.

Wesley Saunders will lead a talented Harvard team.

21. Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg’s program is trending upwards

There were some rumors swirling around Fred Hoiberg drawing interest from the NBA this offseason, but the outstanding 41 year old coach is still in Ames. He’s got a pretty good team this year too; Georges Niang will lead a team that also features excellent players like Dustin Hogue and transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones. Plus they have a 7-foot-1 freshman named Georgios Tsalmpouris. Long legs. Long name.

Predicted Win Range: 20-26

Fred Hoiberg pointing at something.

Freddie’s a great coach.

22. Georgetown: Led by star Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas look to bounce back

As good as Georgetown has been under John Thompson III, they’ve not made it past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament since 2007. Last year, they missed the Tournament altogether, as the losses of Otto Porter to the NBA Draft and Greg Whittington to injury proved costly. Expect it to be bounce back city in our nation’s capital this year. Junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera will be the star of the show for the Hoyas–the Big East preseason POY is coming off a monster sophomore season and can score from all over. JT3’s team is big–with center Joshua Smith (who missed much of last year for academic reasons) leading the front court. The Hoyas also added a strong freshman class. The sun’s about to come up over the Georgetown’s gothic campus.

Predicted Win Range: 22-27

D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Georgetown should be in for a fun season.

D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Georgetown should be in for a fun season.

23. UConn: Boatright will keep things going right 

The Huskies are rebuilding in a sense after the title; Shabazz Napier is gone along with DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey. Nonetheless, UConn fans shouldn’t tear up yet. Freshmen Daniel Hamilton is expected to come in and make a big impact. More important than that, though, is the return of Ryan Boatright, one the nation’s best two-way guards. And, with Kevin Ollie still at the helm, UConn still should be a tight ship. Just don’t bank on them to repeat as national champs.

Predicted Win Range: 21-27

Ryan Boatright and the defending champs might take a step back, but don't expect it to be huge.

Boat ain’t wrong.

24. Michigan: Baby Wolverines will be a tough out in the Big Ten 

As good an X’s and O’s coach John Beilein is, the amount of talent that the coach has brought to Ann Arbor should not be understated. This winter, Michigan might experience some growing pains. The Wolverines are young across the board. Juniors Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht will fill key leadership roles. LeVert likely will be the squad’s best player. Meanwhile sophomore guard Zak Irvin may be poised for a breakout year. The play of the new class of freshmen will also be critical. If Beilein can get them to play together, Michigan still could be really good, really fast.

Predicted Win Range: 19-24

This is a sweet pic of Chris LeVert.

Chris LeVert will star for the Wolverines.

25. Providence: Big East title not a fluke

It might not seem a likely year to call for Providence to breakout. After all, the Friars lost star Bryce Cotton to graduation, and few players meant more to their team than the electrifying guard did to PC last year. Cotton played just about 40 minutes per game and scored 22 per night. And he’s not the only guy who the Friars will have to replace; stud forward Kadeem Batts graduated and wing Josh Fortune transferred. Providence wasn’t a deep team last year (they featured a six man rotation), so the losses are somewhat daunting. Even with all that in mind, there is plenty of reason to think the Friars are ready to breakout. To a large degree, they already have. PC is fresh off a 23 win season that culminated in a Big East Championship. But this year they should be even better. Under coach Ed Cooley, PC won 15 games in ’11-12, 19 in ’12-13, and of course 23 last winter. Cooley has enhanced the overall talent level in the program. This year, he’ll have to lean on a fantastic freshman class (7-2 center Paschal Chukwu, wing Jalen Lindsey, and forward Ben Bentil are all high profile guys) and senior forward LaDontae Henton (a do-it-all two-way demon who plays bigger than he is). Last year’s surprise run to the Big East title was only the beginning for Cooley at PC. This year, the Friars will build on it.

Predicted Win Range: 21-26

Cooley and the Gang took home some hardware in MSG last March.

Cooley & the Gang took home some hardware in MSG last March.

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