2012-13 preseason Top 25


Top 25 Countdown: No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers


Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 27-9, 11-7 Big Ten (5th); Lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16

Head Coach: Tom Crean

Key Losses: Verdell Jones III, Matt Roth

Newcomers: Yogi Ferrell, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Jeremy Hollowell, Peter Jurkin

Projected Lineup:

G: Jordy Hulls, Sr.
G: Victor Oladipo, Jr.
F: Will Sheehey, Sr.
F: Christian Watford, Sr.
C: Cody Zeller, So.
Bench: Maurice Creek, Jr.; Derek Elston, Sr.; Remy Abell, Sr.; Yogi Ferrell, Fr.; Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Fr.; Jeremy Hollowell, Fr.; Peter Jurkin, Fr.

Outlook: Indiana’s back. It’s official. And it’s a long way from being a secret. After winning their first 12 games of the 2011-2012 season — including a memorable, last-second victory over Kentucky — the Hoosiers cruised to 27 wins, a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten and a trip to the Sweet 16.

Much of that success can be attributed to last year’s freshmen class, which was headlined by none other than Preseason Player of the Year Cody Zeller. Zeller’s impact on this team and this program cannot be understated. Let’s forget, for a second, that he averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds. Let’s forget the 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks he added. Let’s ignore the 62.3% he shot from the field and the 75.5% he hit from the charity stripe. All that is known. He was a monster last year and is expected to be a Monstar this season.

But what hasn’t been discussed as much is something that I propose we start calling ‘the Zeller effect’. As a sophomore, Christian Watford shot 38.1% from three; as a junior he knocked them down at a 43.7% clip. As a sophomore, Jordy Hulls was a 41.4% three-point shooter; as a junior, he shot 49.3%. Will Sheehey went from 30.4% to 38.3%; Matt Roth went from 37.5% to 54.5%; Derek Elston went from 17.6% to 55.2%. Indiana, as a team, shot 34.6% on just over 17 threes per game in 2010-2011. In 2011-2012, the Hoosiers took just under 15 threes per game and hit them at a 43.1% clip.

It’s obvious that having Zeller would reduce Indiana’s need to rely on threes, especially tough threes at the end of a clock, but what those numbers tell you is that the attention Zeller gets on the block means that the Hoosiers that cannot be left open from beyond the arc are being left open. Zeller may have had just 45 assists last season, but his presence makes everyone else on Indiana that much better.

With essentially everyone from last season returning — Roth and Verdell Jones III are the only players Indiana loses — and a loaded recruiting class coming in this year, the offensive end of the floor should be the least of Tom Crean’s concerns.

Defensively, however, it is a different story. The biggest concern I have about the Hoosiers is that when their best offensive team is on the floor it could end up looking very different than their best defensive team. Hulls struggles to defend at the point guard spot, but he’s a lights-out shooter and the most efficient playmaker on Indiana’s team. Freshman Yogi Ferrell is a better defender, although some of that difference could be mitigated if Ferrell comes along offensively thoughout the year. Oladipo is a shut-down defender, but he only hit 20.8% from deep last year. Maurice Creek, who missed last season after suffering his third major injury and undergoing his third major surgery, has always been able to score, but can his body handle the rigors of the Big Ten? Christian Watford’s ability to shoot gives Zeller space in the paint, but he’s a far-cry from what you would consider a good front court defender.

Indiana is going to score a lot of points this season, but whether or not their defense improves will determine just how good this team ends up being.

The good news for Crean is that he’ll have no shortage of lineup options, as Indiana could feasibly go 13 deep if that was at all possible. I haven’t even mentioned guards Remy Abell and Austin Etherington or big men Jeremy Hollowell, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Derek Elston or Peter Jurkin yet. Jurkin and Perea have some issues with the NCAA they need worked out still, but all six of those players could end up playing vital roles for the Hoosiers this season.

Predictions?: Naming the Hoosiers the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason means that we believe they are the most likely team to win the national title, but it doesn’t mean Indiana is anywhere near a lock. As much as any season in recent memory, this year is completely wide open. The Hoosiers may be the favorite, but if they can’t fix some of their problems on the defensive end of the floor, they could end up getting picked off in the NCAA tournament by a team that gets hot on the right night.

The other problem that Crean is going to have to deal with is managing egos. There are only going to be so many shots and minutes to go around, which means that someone is going to end up sitting on the bench more than expected and someone else is going to spend a lot of time setting screens or throwing entry passes. Can Crean keep everyone happy even when the rotation tightens in February? What happens if, for example, Ferrell beats out Hulls for the starting point guard spot in the middle of the season?

Crean will have his work cut out for him, but dealing with too much talent is a much better situation than where he was two years ago.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 2 Louisville Cardinals

Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino directs his team against the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half of their men's NCAA Final Four semi-final college basketball game in New Orleans
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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 30-10, 10-8 Big East (7th); Lost in the Final Four to Kentucky

Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Key Losses: Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith, Jared Swopshire, Mike Marra, Rakeem Buckles

Newcomers: Montrezl Harrell, Mangok Mathiang

Projected Lineup:

G: Peyton Siva, Sr.
G: Wayne Blackshear, So.
F: Luke Hancock, Jr.
F: Chane Behanan, So.
C: Gorgui Dieng, Jr.
Bench: Montrezl Harrell, Fr; Russ Smith, Jr.; Kevin Ware, So.; Zach Price, So.

Outlook: The future is bright for the Louisville Cardinals. They are coming off of a trip to the Final Four, they have a loaded recruiting class coming in next season, their head coach just inked a deal to keep him in town until 2022 and, most importantly, the Cardinals are ranked higher than in-state rival Kentucky.

Louisville is a legitimate national title threat this season, and it all starts with their defense, where the Cardinals were the best team in the country last season, according to efficiency guru Kenpom. Using different variations of a 2-3 zone and a 2-2-1 zone press, the Cardinals were able to use the perfect combination of ball pressure on the perimeter and shot-blocking around the rim to make running offense a nightmare for opposing teams. They forced turnovers, they blocked shots and they didn’t allow open shots. In fact, there is ample opportunity for the Cardinal’s defense to improve, as they were ranked 230th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage.

With so many key pieces returning this season, it’s difficult to imagine Louisville having anything but an elite defense again this year.

The question marks lie on the offensive end of the floor.

Louisville was not a good offensive team last year. There were times, prior to the run they made in the month of March, that the Cardinals were downright bad on that end of the floor. They turned the ball over, they forced too many bad shots, and they couldn’t hit anything from beyond the arc. What’s worse is that the team that was 103rd in offensive efficiency a season ago loses the only two players on their roster — Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith — who were consistently efficient players on the offensive end of the floor. That’s worrisome.

What needs to be noted here is that there is room for interpretation within the numbers. Take Peyton Siva, for example. He entered last season with quite a bit of expectation, but he struggled mightily early in the year. But his play down the stretch — particularly in the month of March — was the biggest reason Louisville won the Big East tournament and made the Final Four. When Siva’s at his best, Pitino is able to run him off of high-ball screens and simply allow Siva’s talent to take over. If that Peyton Siva shows up this year, Louisville will be fine.

The other difference at the end of the season for Louisville was Wayne Blackshear. A highly-regarded freshman last season, Blackshear spent much of the year battling shoulder problems. He only played in 15 games, but while his numbers were limited (7.0 minutes and 2.5 points), he did show some flashes of serious potential. He’s a bigger wing and a guy that can score and, more importantly, shoot from the perimeter. His presence will provide more consistency for the Cardinals.

Joining those two on the perimeter will Luke Hancock, a versatile, 6-foot-5 wing that is eligible this season after transferring in from George Mason. Hancock can score, but what makes him special is his ability to be a playmaker on the wing, which should help take some of the pressure off of Siva. The exciting Russ Smith will also see plenty of action. Smith is a gunner through and through, to the point where, at times, his shooting and penchant for turning the ball over is almost a detriment. But he’s also good enough that when he gets going, he can drop 30. Sophomore point guard Kevin Ware will likely back Siva up.

Gorgui Dieng is the star of the Louisville front court. A 6-foot-11 athlete, Dieng is one of the best defensive centers in the country, and he’ll only get better as his offensive repertoire expands. He’ll be joined by two strong and explosive power forwards in Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell. Harrell will likely begin the year in the starting lineup as Behanan deals with some suspension issues, but both are threats to post a double-double on any given night. Expect Zach Price and Stephen Van Treese to see time as well.

Predictions?: Last year was a weird year for the Cardinals. They had a bunch of players taking on new and expanded roles, and it took them a few months to really embrace those roles and learn how to thrive in them. The question this season is whether or not those same players are going to feel pressure when asked to go from the hunters to the hunted. Louisville is going to have a target on their back every time they step foot on the floor. How will this team react? Because anything less than a Big East title and a return trip to the Final Four is going to be considered a disappoint in a town that’s overshadowed by their bigger, blue neighbors.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats

John Calipari

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 38-2, 16-0 SEC (1st); Won the National Title

Head Coach: John Calipari

Key Losses: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, Doron Lamb

Newcomers: Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays

Projected Lineup:

G: Ryan Harrow, So.
G: Archie Goodwin, Fr.
F: Alex Poythress, Fr.
F: Kyle Wiltjer, So.
C: Nerlens Noel, Fr.
Bench: Willie Cauley-Stein, Fr.; Julius Mays, Sr.; Twany Beckham, Sr.; Jon Hood, Jr.

Outlook: As is the norm for this Kentucky program, there aren’t going to be many familiar faces on the Wildcat roster heading into the 2012-2013 season. Gone is just about everyone significant from last year’s team, with all six of Kentucky’s key players getting drafted in 2012.

What that means is, once again, Coach Cal is going to have to build his team from the bottom up, and he’s going to have to do it quickly — in just nine days, he’ll be kicking off the season with a trip to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to take on Maryland, heading to Atlanta just four days later to take on Duke. The learning curve for this group is is non-existent.

There’s no question about the talent level and NBA potential on this crop of ‘Cats. Nerlens Noel isn’t the second coming of Anthony Davis simply because he doesn’t have the same advanced perimeter skills that Davis did, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noel is a dominant interior force on the defensive end of the floor. He may even be a better shot-blocker than Davis was, and surely his ability on the offensive end will develop as the season progresses.

What’s scary is that, thus far in the preseason, the excitement for this group seems to be more about Willie Cauley-Stein than Noel. Cauley-Stein is seven-feet tall and was a wide receiver in high school, which should give you a bit of an idea of his athleticism. He’s very raw, maybe even more so than Noel, but with those two taking the floor at the same time, opponents may not be able to get a shot off within 10 feet of the rim.

Joining them up front will be Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. Poythress is a guy that may have the most potential for success this season, as he seems to be one of the more polished freshmen in the class. He’s a 6-foot-7, athletic combo-forward that has really put on muscle-mass since arriving on campus. He could have the same kind of impact as Terrence Jones did as a freshman, minus the attitude issues. Wiltjer could be the x-factor for this group. He’s by far the best perimeter shooter on the roster, and the fact that he’s a 6-foot-9 forward makes him a tough matchup. The question mark with him is simply how he well he’s going to be able to defend and rebound.

In the back court, Ryan Harrow takes over the point guard role. A transfer from NC State, Harrow spent last season redshirting and practicing every day against Marquis Teague. He’s not the same kind of talent as Coach Cal’s last five point guard recruits, however, and it will be interesting to see just how successful he ends up being in the role. Archie Goodwin will likely be the best perimeter scoring threat. He’s a hyper-athletic, 6-foot-5 slasher that understands how to get to the rim and score. Kentucky may end up needing him to be a guy that averages about 15 points given some of their other question marks offensively. Julius Mays, Twany Beckham and Jon Hood are the other guys that could end up seeing time in the back court.

The biggest question mark I have with this Kentucky group is simple: How well does this roster fit together? Cauley-Stein and Noel are, essentially, the same player — big, tall, athletic shot-blockers that can’t do much offensively besides dunk the ball. But Kentucky’s best lineup is probably going to be with both of them on the floor together because I’m not completely sold on Wiltjer being a good fit for Cal’s system. This is a group that is going to have to thrive on athleticism and defense, especially early in the season, and those are the two biggest weaknesses for Wiltjer.

The problem with leaving Wiltjer off the floor is that he’s really the only guy that is the kind of shooter that cannot be left open; Kentucky has no one to play the role that Deandre Liggins and Darius Miller have the past three seasons. Poythress seems like a better fit at the four than at the three, but he needs to play the three because Kentucky isn’t very deep in the back court. That means that either Cauley-Stein or Wiltjer is going to have to play major minutes unless one of Beckham, Mays or Hood can prove that can be a defensive stopper and three-point marksman.

Predictions?: There’s plenty of talent here, and if there is anything in Calipari’s coaching repertoire that rivals his ability to recruit, it’s his ability to convince elite talents to buy into playing a specific role for the betterment of the team. I don’t doubt that he’ll find a way to get his best five players on the floor at the same time; one of the most interesting subplots to the college basketball season as a whole will be to watch what he does to make that happen. I don’t think that Kentucky is as safe of a bet to win the SEC as a lot of people are giving them credit for simply because I believe Missouri is being severely underrated. That said, as long as Kentucky as this much talent on their roster and Coach Cal making their decisions, they have to be considered a top three team and a national title contender.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 4 Syracuse Orange

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 34-3, 17-1 Big East (1st); Lost in the Elite 8 to Ohio State

Head Coach: Jim Boeheim

Key Losses: Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, Fab Melo

Newcomers: Jerami Grant, DaJuan Coleman

Projected Lineup:

G: Brandon Triche, Sr.
G: Michael Carter-Williams, So.
F: James Southerland, Sr.
F: CJ Fair, Jr.
C: Rakeem Christmas, So.
Bench: Jerami Grant, Fr.; DaJuan Coleman, Fr.; Baye Keita, So.; Trevor Cooney, Fr.

Outlook: Jim Boeheim has done a lot of impressive things during his long and illustrious coaching career, but there may be no achievement greater than what he was able to accomplish last season. In a year plagued by scandal — The Dion Waiter transfer saga; the Bernie Fine scandal; Fab Melo’s eligibility, and legal, issues; a report of failed drug tests that were covered up. — the Orange were still able to finish the regulars season at 30-1 and make the Elite 8. And if Melo, the anchor of their 2-3 zone last season, had done his homework, who knows what could have ended up happening. The Orange lost just one game when he was in the lineup.

Melo is gone this season, as are three of Syracuse’s top four scorers from last season. But the Orange return quite a bit of a talent and a team that should be perfectly suited to playing Boeheim’s 2-3 zone.

The key to this season is going to be the development of Michael Carter-Williams. A top 25 recruit coming out of high school, MCW was buried on the bench for much of last season as Scoop Jardine, Waiters and Triche made up the perimeter rotation. As a sophomore, MCW will be asked to slide into the starting role, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be able to thrive. From his size, to his handle, to his passing ability, MCW has been compared to Jason Kidd, and while that’s a tough comparison to live up to, it’s not that far off. He’ll make everyone on the team better because they’ll get open shots. With the combination of shooters on the perimeter and athletes around the rim that Syracuse has on the roster this season, it’s not crazy to think MCW could averaged 15 points and five assists this year.

While his back court mate is quite inexperienced, even for a sophomore, Brandon Triche is arguably as experienced as any player in the country, having started every game for the Orange for the past three years. He’s also the epitome of a team-player, sacrificing his minutes last season to allow Waiters more playing time without making a peep. He’s a combo-guard that defends, rebounds and (usually) is a knockdown three point shooter.

But most importantly, like MCW (who’s 6-foot-6), Triche is a bigger guard. He stands 6-foot-4, which means that, when teaming with MCW at the top of the Syracuse 2-3 zone, he’ll help create all kinds of problems for Syracuse opponents.

Expect redshirt freshman sharpshooter Trevor Cooney to be the third guard in this equation.

In the front court, Syracuse has a multitude of weapons and different looks that can be used. The most familiar roster for Big East fans should be CJ Fair, an uber-athletic, 6-foot-8 combo-forward who has had his fair share of poster-worthy dunks during his college career. Fair has also had some impressive performances in his two seasons with the Orange, but he’s struggled to find consistent minutes on the floor. He’ll get them this season, and should thrive.

James Southerland is the guy I expect to eventually start at the four. Like Fair, he’s athletic and, at 6-foot-8, lanky enough to cause serious problems in the 2-3 zone. Southerland is also a very good three-point shooter, meaning he’ll be able to help create space in the paint. Freshman Jerami Grant, another athletic, 6-foot-8 forward, should see minutes as well.

The biggest question mark for the Orange will be at the center spot, where Rakeem Christmas, a sophomore, and DaJuan Coleman, a freshman, will likely split minutes. Christmas and Coleman are both 6-foot-9, but where Christmas is long and a shotblocker, Coleman is much bigger, checking in around 280 pounds.What Boeheim has done the past two seasons with elite center recruits — Melo and Christmas — is to put them in the starting lineup but yank them just a few minutes into the game, going with a smaller lineup. It will be interesting to see if he does that with Coleman this season.

Whatever the case, if he decides to use them on the floor together, it may end up hurting the Orange defensively; neither is ideal to play the wing in the 2-3 zone. Individually, Christmas is the better defender while Coleman is better offensively and on the glass. Another lanky center, sophomore Baye Keita, will also see minutes up front.

Predictions?: I still think Louisville is the best team in the Big East, but Syracuse isn’t really all that far behind. Like the Cardinals, I think the Orange are going to be much better on the defensive end of the floor than on the offensive end. But the bottom line is this: all the players taking over bigger roles for this Syracuse team were highly-touted recruits, and a few of them — MCW, Christmas, even throwing Coleman in there — were ranked in the top 25 nationally. Boeheim has done a great job recruiting in recent years, and this is the season it will pay off for him.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 5 Missouri Tigers

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 30-4, 14-4 Big 12 (2nd); Lost in the Opening Round to Norfolk State

Head Coach: Frank Haith

Key Losses: Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Steve Moore

Newcomers: Alex Oriakhi, Jabari Brown*, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, Dominique Bull, Negus Webster-Chan, Stefan Jankovic, Ryan Rosburg

Projected Lineup:

G: Phil Pressey, Jr.
G: Michael Dixon, Sr.
F: Jabari Brown, So.
F: Laurence Bowers, Sr.
C: Alex Oriakhi, Sr.
Bench: Keion Bell, Sr.; Earnest Ross, Sr.; Negus Webster-Chan, Fr.; Dominique Bull, Fr.

Outlook: Missouri is going to be a very different team this season. Playing without Laurence Bowers last season, the Tigers were forced to go small. They surrounded Phil Pressey, arguably the nation’s premiere with a trio of knock-down shooters — Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Mike Dixon — capable of going for 25 on a given night. They were lucky because English, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, was tough enough to defend and rebound in the paint, giving them a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor that they were able to consistently exploit.

The problem, however, was that while the Tigers thrived offensively — the were the most efficient offensive team in the country a year ago, they simply survived on the defensive end. They struggled to force their opponents into tough shots, they weren’t great on the glass and they didn’t have a shot blocker to protect the rim.

This year’s team should be much improved on the defensive end of the floor. It starts with Pressey and Dixon, when he gets back from his suspension, who are both terrific on-ball defenders that can get out and pressure, man-to-man, in the half-court. Transfers Jabari Brown, who will get eligible in December, and Keion Bell are both big, extremely athletic wings while Earnest Ross is versatile enough to guard either forward position.

But the real difference makers defensively are Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi. Bowers, before he tore his ACL, was considered by many to be the best player on last year’s Missouri team. He certainly was considered the best defender, as he’s an athletic and lanky, 6-foot-8 power forward that can defend any position on the floor. He’s a defensive playmaker as well, the kind of guy that can block shots around the rim and jump a passing lane. Oriakhi is the tie that binds for this group. While he struggled last year with UConn, Oriakhi was an overwhelming dominant interior presence during UConn’s run to the 2011 national title. He can block shots, he rebounds the ball on both ends of the floor, and he’s a better scorer in the post than he gets credit for. Don’t be surprised to see him average 12 points, 10 boards and 2.5 blocks this season.

While Missouri may flourish defensively this year, they will undoubtedly be taking a step back on the offensive end. That’s what happens when three of the most efficient scorers in the country graduate. But Missouri isn’t exactly without weapons this year. Dixon may end up averaging 16 or 17 points this year. Brown was a top 30 recruit known for his ability to score on the wing, while Bell averaged nearly 20 per game while at Pepperdine. Ross, Bowers and Oriakhi are all players that can get double-figures on given night.

But perhaps more importantly, there’s Pressey. As we mentioned, Flip is one of the best creators in the country, and there are few point guards that are as adept at making their teammates better as him. It’s pretty easy for Oriakhi to score, for example, when the ball is dropped off to him in front of the rim. The other point that needs to be made is that while neither Ross nor Bowers are the kind of shooter than English was, both are skilled and perimeter-oriented enough to play the same role — as a stretch-four, so to speak — offensively.

In other words, while the people playing to positions are different this season, the Tigers will be running essentially the same attack. With a new-and-improved defense and Pressey running the show, there’s legitimacy to the argument that Missouri can contend for the SEC title.

Predictions?: The key for the Tigers are going to be how all of the transfers come together. Only three players projected to be in the Tiger rotation have played for Missouri before, and one of those three — Bowers — sat out the only season that Haith has been in Columbia with a knee injury. Those are a lot of new faces to try and turn into a cohesive unit, but that’s precisely what Haith did last year with the Tigers. He took a team that was admittedly coming apart at the seams and turned them into a group that won 30 games and the Big 12 tournament. My money is on the Tigers repeating that success

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks

Elijah Johnson
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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 32-7, 16-2 Big 12 (1st); Lost to Kentucky in the National Title game

Head Coach: Bill Self

Key Losses: Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Connor Teahan

Newcomers: Ben McLemore, Perry Ellis, Rio Adams, Andrew White, Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, Zach Peters

Projected Lineup:

G: Elijah Johnson, Sr.
G: Ben McLemore, Fr.
F: Travis Releford, Sr.
F: Perry Ellis, Fr.
C: Jeff Withey, Sr.
Bench: Naadir Tharpe, So.; Kevin Young, Sr.; Justin Wesley, Jr.; Rio Adams, Fr.; Andrew White, Fr.; Jamari Traylor, Fr.

Outlook: Bill Self always has teams that can defend. According to Kenpom’s database, in his nine seasons at Kansas, the Jayhawks have never been worse than 18th when it comes to defensive efficiency. That was in 2005. They haven’t been out of the top ten since then, finishing as the most efficient defensive teams in 2007 and 2008, the year they won the national title.

This season, defense isn’t simply going to be one aspect of the game for Kansas; it’s going to be their lifeline. The Jayhawks weren’t exactly on offensive juggernaut last season, and that team was a two-man show with Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor accounting for more than 57% of the possessions when they were on the floor. With both Robinson and Taylor gone, the Jayhawks are going to have to answer some questions on that end of the floor.

But before I jump ahead, the defense. It starts with Jeff Withey, who was the nation’s most dominant shot blocker last season. He’s a legitimate seven-footer with a wingspan that’s long for his height and a terrific sense of timing and avoiding drawing fouls. He’s the human eraser around the rim, which is great news for Bill Self’s perimeter players. There’s nothing more comforting for a guard pressuring defensively than knowing that, if he gets beat, his man won’t be scoring at the rim. And with a trio of big, athletic guards — Elijah Johnson, Ben McLemore and Travis Releford go 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, 6-f00t-5 — on the floor to provide that defensive pressure, scoring on Kansas is going to be a nightmare.

That’s good news for the Jayhawks, as they may end up having some issues on the offensive end of the floor. Withey, for all of his defensive ability, is not really a threat on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a great offensive rebounder and he can finish off a dump-down or an alley-oop, but that’s about it. You’re not going to throw the ball to him in the post and clear out. Freshman Perry Ellis may eventually be that guy, but that could take some time. Ellis may not even start at the beginning of the season, as the Jayhawks have a plethora of big bodies at their disposal — Kevin Young, Justin Wesley, Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, Zach Peters. Ellis is easily the most talented of the bunch.

On the perimeter, the ball is likely going to start out in Elijah Johnson’s hands. Johnson has been enigmatic throughout his career, even more so than Tyshawn Taylor was in his first two seasons, but he had a very strong finish to the 2012 NCAA tournament. He averaged 15.1 points over the final eight games and was instrumental in getting the Jayhawks to the title game. He’ll be taking over more of a leadership role this season while sliding over to play the point guard spot. It will be an adjustment, but one that many expected Johnson to thrive in this season.

Travis Releford has always been a reliable role player, providing veteran leadership and a defensive presence. It would be nice if he could up that three point percentage this season, but what he brings this group doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score. Keep an eye on Naadir Tharpe as well. Tharpe was a highly-regarded recruit last year that didn’t see a ton of minutes behind Taylor. He’ll spell Johnson.

But the x-factor for this team is going to end up being Ben McLemore. McLemore is 6-foot-5 and, as Self put it, “he can run, he can jump and he can shoot, and that’s a pretty good combination for a wing.” But can he be a primary scoring option? Is he a guy that can go out and get 15 points every night? Is he a guy that can be isolated on the wing and create a shot for himself? Because that’s what this team is missing. As much veteran leadership as there is on the roster, they don’t have a true go-to guy.

McLemore is the player that most believe will fill that role.

Predictions?: It’s not exactly a leap of faith to predict that the Jayhawks will win the Big 12 title. They’ve won eight in a row already. But given the weird makeup of their roster — seniors playing roles, a pair of freshmen being relied on to carry the burden offensively — this might end up being one of Self’s toughest coaching jobs. I think he’ll be able to handle it, especially if Kansas ends up being as good defensively as many expect them to be. They’ll win the Big 12 again and should make a lot of noise in March.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.