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November 10, 2011
The NBA Perspective
2011-12 NCAA Preview

by Kevin Pelton

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For NBA fans missing their favorite sport, NCAA basketball cannot serve as a replacement. The games are simply too different, which is why many hard-liners watch only one brand of hoops or the other. What NCAA hoops can do is fill some of that void, especially for those of us who prefer the NBA game but find that college basketball has its own, unique charms. If you're part of that group, this preview is for you. As with last year's NCAA tournament preview for NBA fans, we'll try to catch you up and put some of the key players and teams in familiar terms.

ACC

Most NBA Team: North Carolina
I have a theory that a disproportionate number of fans who prefer the NBA support the Tar Heels as their college team of choice, at least besides their alma maters or local teams. The obvious reason is that Michael Jordan fans wanted to cheer for their hero's college. Beyond that, Carolina has always played an NBA-friendly style with players whose games have translated to the next level. This year will be no exception. North Carolina could have four players selected in the first round of next year's draft, including freshman reserve James Michael McAdoo (playing the Marvin Williams role behind a deep, talented frontcourt).

Team to Watch: Miami
While an NCAA investigation looms, for now new head coach Jim Larranaga (who led George Mason to the 2006 Final Four) inherits one of the conference's most talented teams outside of Tobacco Road. Powerful space cleaner Reggie Johnson is like Eddy Curry if Curry could rebound. The 'Canes can score, though they are unlikely to play at a fast pace.

Team to Avoid: Florida State
I have all the respect in the world for Leonard Hamilton's defensive scheme. The Seminoles play their hearts out on defense and give up nothing easy. It's an admirable style, and a successful one even in the absence of an efficient offense. It's just not very fun to watch.

Five Guys to Watch

Harrison Barnes, North Carolina - Barnes unexpectedly returned for a second season, making the Tar Heels favorites to win the championship. His task will be to show he can contribute as a rebounder and a playmaker in addition to scoring efficiently.

John Henson, North Carolina - One of the top defensive players in the nation, Henson can swallow up opposing forwards with his enormous wingspan.

C.J. Leslie, North Carolina State - "Frustrating" was the obligatory adjective attached to Leslie's first season for the Wolfpack. He has NBA talent, yet drifts in and out of games. Leslie also has to improve his perimeter skills, as he probably won't be able to play in the frontcourt as a pro.

Kendall Marshall, North Carolina - Marshall is a poor shooter. He's not exceptionally quick. And yet he's still one of the nation's best point guards because of his craftiness and ability to find teammates. Consider Marshall a little like a left-handed Mark Jackson.

Austin Rivers, Duke - Doc's kid is one of the top freshmen in the country. A high-scoring two-guard, Rivers doesn't play like a coach's son, or a Blue Devil. How he fits into a team concept will be intriguing to watch.

How to Sound Like a Long-Time NCAA Fan

"This North Carolina team reminds me a lot of the 2004-05 group. And we know how that season ended, right?"

BIG 12

Most NBA Team: Kansas
Bill Self might not quite play as fast as predecessor Roy Williams, but the Jayhawks were one of two top-10 teams who ranked in the NCAA's top 100 in pace. (Duke was the other, which is not necessarily typical for Coach K.) Though Kansas is a little low on NBA talent this season, with the notable exception of Thomas Robinson, the Jayhawks will play an entertaining, balanced style.

Team to Watch: Baylor
The Bears boast two of the country's most intriguing pro prospects in sophomore Perry Jones and freshman Quincy Miller. Jones is all athletic potential, sort of like Anthony Randolph had he stayed for a second year in college. Miller, who is coming off a torn ACL during his senior year of high school, is slightly more polished but with plenty of upside in his own right. If they put it together, Baylor could win the conference.

Team to Avoid: Texas A&M
The Aggies might not stand out in the Big Ten. In the wide-open Big 12, however, Texas A&M looks like a Mike Fratello team. The Aggies averaged three fewer possessions per game than anyone else in the conference. That's unlikely to change with Billy Kennedy replacing Mark Turgeon on the sidelines. Still, there is plenty to recommend Texas A&M, most notably star forward Khris Middleton.

Five Guys to Watch

Marcus Denmon, Missouri - Denmon was the nation's single most sure-handed player last season, turning the ball over on just 8.3 percent of his plays. Most of the time, Denmon preferred to shoot it before he could turn it over, a strategy that worked very well given he also made 54 percent of his twos and 45 percent of his threes.

Myck Kabongo, Texas - After Canadians Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph both turned into first-round picks, Rick Barnes goes back north of the border to replace Joseph with Kabongo, a scoring-minded point guard. If Kabongo shows he can capably run a team, he too might be one-and-done.

Khris Middleton, Texas A&M - A mini-Kevin Durant, Middleton has the ability to score from beyond the arc and create off the dribble. With his wingspan and high release, he can get off a shot whenever he wants.

LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State - Nash might have the most NBA-friendly name of any collegian. He's got the game to match, and an NBA body. Nash could be one-and-done. He also won the dunk contest at last year's McDonald's All-America Game.

Thomas Robinson, Kansas - After spending last season in the shadow of the Morris twins, Robinson is the man in Lawrence this season. He's an excellent rebounder and shot blocker who is developing as a go-to presence on offense. If you read the story of how Robinson dealt with the deaths of three close family members last season and it doesn't get a little dusty, you're a stronger person than I.

How to Sound Like a Long-Time NCAA Fan

"I know the conference is more wide open than ever. Still, I'm going with the Jayhawks until someone beats them."

BIG EAST

Most NBA Team: Connecticut
The defending champs play a stout man-to-man defense that would fit in alongside those run by the likes of Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy, while Jim Calhoun turns his talented charges loose at the other end of the floor. In freshman Andre Drummond, the Huskies have an NBA-ready big man anchoring them at both ends of the floor, while Jeremy Lamb will spend the season coming off screens, not unlike former UConn star Ray Allen.

Team to Watch: Louisville
While Rick Pitino might not quite have the same blue-chippers to work with as at Kentucky, he's built a consistent Big East power using his typically entertaining style of pressure defense and three-happy offense. The current Cardinals squad features a four-guard attack, frequently putting three sharpshooters next to lighting-quick point guard Peyton Siva. Siva leads the Louisville press and is a highlight--or a turnover--waiting to happen at the other end of the floor.

Team to Avoid: Georgetown
In general, John Thompson III's Princeton offense is perfectly entertaining, but this year's Hoya squad is short on experienced talent, especially in the backcourt. That could mean some ugly basketball, played at a relatively slow pace.

Five Guys to Watch

Jae Crowder, Marquette - Overshadowed by teammates Jimmy Butler (now departed for the NBA) and Darius Johnson-Odom, Crowder was merely the Golden Eagles' best rebounder, shot blocker, two-point shooter and tied with Vander Blue in steal rate. He holds his own against much bigger opponents for undersized Marquette.

Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh - Gibbs is the classic NCAA shooting guard. At 6-2, he's too small to be an NBA prospect. In the college game, Gibbs can fill it up, particularly from beyond the arc. He knocked down more than three triples a game at a 49.0 percent clip.

Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut - Considered just the second-best wing named Lamb in last year's freshman class (after Kentucky's Doron), Lamb firmly established himself as a prospect with his key role in the Huskies' NCAA tournament run. Now he becomes UConn's go-to guy on the perimeter.

Fab Melo, Syracuse - Voted the NCAA player whose name sounds the most like a Carmelo Anthony rap alias, Melo is considered an NBA prospect despite averaging just 9.9 minutes per game as a freshman. Clearly, the Brazilian is very raw. He showed promise as a shot blocker, but must improve as a defensive rebounder and shooter, having made just nine free throws in 25 attempts.

Cleveland Melvin, DePaul - Remember when the Blue Demons used to send some of Chicago's best talent to the NBA? Even more recently than stars like Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, DePaul produced Steven Hunter, Paul McPherson and Quentin Richardson just last decade and Wilson Chandler more recently than that. Of late, the Blue Demons have been mired in the Big East's cellar. Melvin, last year's Big East Rookie of the Year, might be good enough to help them climb out of the very bottom of the conference.

How to Sound Like a Long-Time NCAA Fan

"Yeah, the conference might be falling apart, but for now the Big East is as good as ever. I'm still not sure which was more impressive--UConn winning the Big East or the NCAA tournament."

BIG TEN

Most NBA Team: Michigan State
Admittedly, it was tempting to write no one, as the snail-paced Big Ten is the least NBA of the major conferences. We'll go instead with the Spartans, who traditionally boast a frontcourt that could hold its own in the paint against NBA opposition. Draymond Green may not be an NBA prospect, but because of his versatility--he's both one of the nation's best rebounders and arguably Michigan State's top playmaker--he'd fit right in as a stretch four.

Team to Watch: Ohio State
Come for Jared Sullinger. Stay for terrific role players William Buford and Aaron Craft, plus an inside-out attack that will remind you of the Orlando Magic. Don't sleep on Deshaun Thomas, a talented sophomore who played well in limited opportunities last season.

Team to Avoid: Nebraska
While the Big Ten's expansion aimed to add the Cornhuskers' football team, not its perennially overshadowed basketball squad, Nebraska does fit right better stylistically in its new conference. Thanks to center Jorge Brian Diaz and a solid defense, the Cornhuskers will steal some conference wins at home by finals like 57-48 and 59-58.

Five Guys to Watch

Tim Hardaway, Jr., Michigan - Coming off a strong freshman season, the son of the long-time NBA point guard will be the Wolverines' go-to player now that Darius Morris is in the NBA.

Robbie Hummel, Purdue - After tearing his ACL on the eve of last season, Hummel is back for his 35th year on campus. He's a polished scorer and playmaker who does a little bit of everything.

Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota - An athletic, undersized power forward somewhat in the Paul Millsap mold.

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State - NBA scouts will be watching to see whether a slimmed-down Sullinger will be more active at the defensive end of the floor and more versatile offensively, important skills when he goes against bigger defenders at the next level.

Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin - One of the nation's most sure-handed players, Taylor expertly leads the Badgers' efficient attack. That he's a lights-out three-point shooter is a useful bonus.

How to Sound Like a Long-Time NCAA Fan

"If Ohio State can win at the Kohl Center in Madison, this might just be the year the Buckeyes go undefeated in conference play."

PAC-12

Most NBA Team: UCLA
After having to resort to a zone defense (gasp!) in 2009-10, Ben Howland had his Bruins playing their typically tight man-to-man defense last season. The key was one of the nation's best frontcourts, which is even deeper with the addition of the Wear twins as transfers this year. Reeves Nelson is reminiscent of Pac-10 predecessor Jon Brockman, while center Joshua Smith is a Reggie Johnson-style force in the middle--when he can stay on the court.

Team to Watch: Washington
Lorenzo Romar generally prefers to push the basketball and play pressure defense on the perimeter. The Huskies may open things up even more than usual this season with an undersized team that is deep on the perimeter. Washington lost Isaiah Thomas to the NBA, but adds flashy guard Tony Wroten to a young core.

Team to Avoid: USC
Even in the best of times, Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill prefers to grind out victories. He will have little alternative this season with an undermanned team that features just two returning players with any experience. USC has some talent, including intriguing 7-foot JC transfer Dewayne Dedmon. The Trojans are simply completely lacking in terms of depth.

Five Guys to Watch

Jared Cunningham, Oregon State - A long athlete who is one of the nation's top dunkers, Cunningham sits at the top of the Beavers' 1-3-1 zone defense and uses his wingspan to rack up steals. At the other end, defenders have a tough time staying in front of Cunningham, who made 166 free throws last year.

Jorge Gutierrez, California - The best player on the Pac-12's best team, Gutierrez figures to battle Nelson for conference Player of the Year honors. Having started his college career as a defensive specialist, Gutierrez has developed into an equally valuable player at both ends.

Dwight Powell, Stanford - After the top four teams, the Pac-12 is wide open, giving the Cardinal a chance to return to the upper division. If Stanford does so, Powell will be a key reason why. A raw Canadian big man, Powell has the size and the athleticism to be a first-round pick.

Terrence Ross, Washington - A high school teammate of Kentucky's Terrence Jones, this Terrence is a star in his own right. He's a pure scorer who is frequently compared to J.R. Smith because of his ability to score in a variety of manners.

E.J. Singler, Oregon - Kyle Singler's little brother might just have been more valuable to his team last season. Though not as big as Kyle, E.J. successfully battles in the paint on defense, is a fine rebounder, and stretches the floor with his three-point range.

How to Sound Like a Long-Time NCAA Fan

"Pac-10, Pac-12, Pac-whatever. They're still not getting more than four teams in the NCAA tournament."

SEC

Most NBA Team: Kentucky
Do you really need this explained?

OK, if you haven't been paying any attention at all to the NCAA, or to NBA point guards, John Calipari recruits the nation's best talent to Lexington, molds these freshmen into a surprisingly cohesive defensive unit and battles more experienced foes. This year, the formula is slightly different because one of those top recruits (Terrence Jones) decided to stick around for a second season. Jones and newcomer Anthony Davis make up the best frontcourt this side of Chapel Hill.

Team to Watch: Vanderbilt
NBA scouts will be flocking to that hotbed of college hoops, Nashville, Tenn. Guard John Jenkins, forward Jeffery Taylor and center Festus Ezeli are all first-round prospects. The Commodores had the nation's 13th-best offense a year ago. To advance deep into the NCAA tournament, Vanderbilt will need to improve a middling defense.

Team to Avoid: Georgia
The slow-paced Bulldogs were still worth watching last season because of NBA prospects Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. With those two players in the NBA--both were taken in the second round by the L.A. Clippers--Georgia won't offer much entertainment.

Five Guys to Watch

Bradley Beal, Florida - Even after losing the SEC Player of the Year (Chandler Parsons), Florida has as much talent as anyone in the conference outside of Lexington. To their fine backcourt of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, the Gators add Beal, a prototypical shooting guard who could be a lottery pick next June.

Anthony Davis, Kentucky - There may never have been a player quite like Davis before. A guard until late in his high school career, Davis went through a sudden growth spurt that turned him into a center with arms that seemingly stretch from one sideline to the other. He has the confidence of JaVale McGee in the body of Rasheed Wallace with the skills of Lamar Odom. On Monday, in an exhibition game, he grabbed a rebound, dribbled to half court and threw an alley-oop lob. Needless to say, he's your new favorite player.

Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt - Ezeli will miss much, if not all of the non-conference schedule because of the combination of spraining his right MCL and PCL plus a six-game suspension for accepting impermissible benefits. It's terrifying to think how bad the Commodores' defense might be without its 6-11 anchor. Ezeli is one of the nation's best shot blockers, but skilled on offense compared to most players of his ilk.

Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt - With apologies to Miles Simon, expect Taylor to battle Jonas Jerebko for the honor of greatest Swedish player in NBA history. Taylor started his career as strictly an interior scorer and has been working to become more versatile in anticipation of playing on the wing in the pros. He made just 10 three-pointers in his first two seasons before improving to 39 as a junior.

Marquis Teague, Kentucky - The younger brother of Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague might be the next in the line of Calipari's point guards to become lottery picks after just one season. Teague comes to Kentucky with less hype than his predecessors, but he can score and distribute the basketball and Calipari's system has certainly proven friendly to point guards.

How to Sound Like a Long-Time NCAA Fan

"Circle Dec. 3 on your calendar. That's when Kentucky and North Carolina play a possible preview of the title game in Lexington."

EVERYONE ELSE

Most NBA Team: Gonzaga
Besides having prototypical size and playing conventional offenses and defenses, the Zags are NBA-like in their reliance on international talent. Gonzaga boasts six foreign players, including stars Elias Harris and Robert Sacre. Consider Mark Few the Gregg Popovich of the NCAA. Still, the most important player on the roster is from down the street. David Stockton, son of John, will be called upon to solidify the point guard position this season after taking a larger role as 2010-11 went on.

Team to Watch: Memphis
A year after adding one of the nation's top recruiting classes and giving Arizona a good run in the NCAA tournament, the Tigers look poised to leap forward this season. Even if the numbers are a bit more sanguine on Memphis than pollsters, this is still a top-25 team and far and away the best in Conference USA. Josh Pastner has built his own program in the shadow of predecessor John Calipari while continuing to play an exciting style that recruits enjoy.

Team to Avoid: Butler
Sorry, Brad Stevens. We're big fans, of course, but the Bulldogs are often better to read about than they are to watch. Of the top mid-majors in the country, Butler comes closest to the stereotype of a less talented team slowing the game down to its preferred pace. It works because the Bulldogs also play some of the nation's most tenacious defense.

Five Guys to Watch

Drew Gordon, New Mexico - A big-time recruit at UCLA, Gordon could never find consistent playing time and transferred midway through his sophomore year. He was one of the nation's top rebounders in his first season for the Lobos and has the talent to become more efficient in his go-to role on offense.

Tu Holloway, Xavier - The undersized Holloway is such a force he has played his way onto NBA radars. He plays nearly every minute for the Musketeers, always has the ball in his hands and lives in the lane, collapsing defenses to either draw the foul (he made 235 free throws last year) or drop a dime to a teammate.

Orlando Johnson, UC Santa Barbara - A high-scoring shooting guard, Johnson took more than a third of his team's shots last season yet still managed a True Shooting Percentage near 60 percent. The sweet-shooting Johnson drained 40 percent of his triples and has ideal size for a pro. He'll be tested against a tough non-conference slate that includes Cal, UNLV and Washington.

Arsalan Kazemi, Rice - "The drainin' Iranian" (trademark pending) is seeking to join Hamed Haddadi as the lone players from his homeland in the NBA. Kazemi is an incredible rebounder for his size who must improve as an outside shooter to play small forward as a pro.

Ray McCallum, Jr., Detroit - McCallum would be playing on a bigger stage if not for the fact that his father and namesake coaches the Titans. As a freshman point guard, McCallum was one of the best players in the Horizon League. If he can improve his efficiency as a sophomore, he'll make waves nationally and put himself in position to jump to the NBA.

How to Sound Like a Long-Time NCAA Fan

"Between Temple and Xavier, and players like Tu Holloway and Andrew Nicholson, you better believe I'm keeping an eye on the Atlantic-10 this season."

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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