With basketball about to kick off full steam this weekend for most programs (high five), my good friend and yours, Raphielle Johnson let me grill him on what's what this season. We talk about Cincinnati, Xavier, Iona, non-BCS All America teams, games to watch, and a little football. He's seen 'em come, watched 'em go, watched 'em rise, witnessed it and watched them blow. Because he is the watcher. I don't know how he does it, but he sees every basketball game that ever happens. He is an assistant editor for the great CollegeHoops.Net. Follow him on twitter right here. He's one of my favorite person to converse with on twitter. He conducted a great roundtable with a lot of notable college hoop voices. Simply put, he's the man. Let's get to the questions.
BB: What are an outsiders thoughts on UC?
Raphielle Johnson: I really like this team. They finished last season well, especially Yancy Gates, and outside of the generally-accepted top four (SU/UConn/Pitt/UL) I think the Bearcats can do some damage. Sean Kilpatrick is the one played I'd watch in terms of being a true breakout performer. He'll have more chances to score, and he's got the skills to take full advantage of it.
Do you think UC could do some damage come March?
Yes, and here's where Cashmere Wright comes into play. Guards are of great value in March, especially floor generals who can control the action and get their team the shots they want to take as opposed to what the opponent is dictating. Wright should have an even more mature game, and he won't lack for weapons to get the ball to. The Big East will test them, and given the non-conference schedule I could see UC being a bit under seeded for their talent come Selection Sunday. That could set them up nicely.
Who stands out to you in the Big East?
Within the top four above I'd go with Connecticut and Syracuse, but give a slight edge right now to Syracuse because of their depth. At all five positions the Orange look like they'll be able to go two-deep, and they've got leadership (Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph) and young talent (C.J. Fair, Dion Waiters, Rakeem Christmas, etc.). Fab Melo's probably the one player on their roster that intrigues me. Watching him in the two exhibitions he looks better physically, and while it's tough to gauge skill given the competition he's gotten better.
UConn's going to be very tough to deal with inside with Oriakhi, Drummond and Olander, and on the wings having Jeremy Lamb and DeAndre Daniels is big as well. But who helps out Shabazz Napier when he needs a breather, especially if Ryan Boatright is out an extended period of time due to this NCAA inquiry? That will be something to watch.
Is there a key player that could swing the BE in one teams favor?
Scoop Jardine. As Scoop goes, so go the Orange. It's been true ever since he took over at the point once Jonny Flynn left. When he's aggressive and making smart decisions the Orange are tough to beat. The same goes to for Brandon Triche to a lesser extent; he has to learn how to move on to the next play. Just because you miss a couple shots doesn't mean "stop shooting". Keep working.
Outside of UNC, Kentucky and other projected top 5 teams, who do looks like they could break the top seed line?
Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt could be in there, but I'll take the Commodores in a leap of faith. Festus Ezeli is out the first six games due to an NCAA suspension but they're deep in the froutcourt, and in Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins they've got two possible NBA first-rounders. I know they've made a habit of losing to 12 and 13-seeds in the Big Dance, but this could be the year that the luck for Kevin Stallings' program turns around.
Looking deeper nationally, what team off the radar, like an Arizona last year, can raise some eyebrows?
I'll take Washington here. The Huskies are very good on the perimeter, with Abdul Gaddy back from his torn ACL and C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross are two good scorers on the wings. Eventually Scott Suggs will return from his injury, and freshmen Hikeem Stewart and Tony Wroten will also figure prominently in the rotation. Lorenzo Romar's a good coach and they've got some guys inside who can do the dirty work on the glass.
What smaller conference teams stick out to you?
Belmont, Harvard…and if you want to include the MAAC in that I'll say Iona. I think all three are capable of doing some damage with the right bracket should they get to the tournament. Belmont was supposed to be a threat this year…and they went 30-5 last season. Bad thing for them is that they got the worst possible matchup. Harvard has just about everyone back from last year's team that lost the Ivy playoff to Princeton, and Iona is absolutely loaded. If you ask me for what title race I'm watching, it's Fairfield and Iona in the MAAC.
Could you give a small conference all American team?
G C.J. McCollum (Lehigh)
G Tu Holloway (Xavier)
F Drew Gordon (New Mexico)
F Mike Glover (Iona)
F Keith Wright (Harvard)
What are the 5 can't miss games of the year?
1. North Carolina/Kentucky (December 3rd) Duh.
2. Duke/Ohio State (November 29th) Interested to see how Mason Plumlee does against Jared Sullinger.
3. Cincinnati/Xavier (December 10th) One rivalry game that I make sure to never miss. Tu Holloway is a serious player.
4. Connecticut/Syracuse (February 11th) There's going to be a lot on the line in this one, and who knows how many more times they'll play?
5. Fairfield/Iona (February 24th) Took this meeting since it's the second of the season, and the regular season champ could be decided here.
What do you think about the other Cincinnati team, Xavier?
Huge fan of what Chris Mack has done with the program, but the Musketeers have gotten it done regardless of who's in charge over the years. Tu Holloway is one of the best point guards in the country; I'm taking either he or Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor when picking a team. Mark Lyons is another good option, and I like newcomers Dezmine Wells and Travis Taylor (got to watch him while he was at Monmouth). But the key ultimately could be Kenny Frease. If he's playing to his potential the Musketeers are an even tougher team to beat.
Switching over to football for a minute, do you think the Bearcats have what it takes to win this thing?
I do, and the main reason is turnover margin. They couldn't get anything done in this department last season, hence the poor record, but now they're a plus-15 I believe. The offense hasn't put up the numbers they did early in the season (albeit it against an easier slate), but I think Collaros, Pead and the rest of the guys can do enough to win the Big East.
What's been the most surprising, in a good way, thing in the league?
I'll stick with the "Keg of Nails" and go with the turnaround of a young Louisville team. Teddy Bridgewater has made sound decisions at quarterback, and while the run game is a work in progress guys have begun to step up. Add in a very good defense and we can see why the Cardinals are 3-1 in league play.
On the other side, the most disappointing?
Realignment. No other way around it. And now, while the league is looking at candidates there's talk of the BCS removing AQ conferences. Interesting, after the more powerful leagues get who they want all of a sudden people have a conscience? I find this to be laughable, but back to the Big East in this. Throughout the years there have been chances for the leadership to strengthen the conference football-wise and they didn't. There wasn't enough "forward thinking" and as a result they find themselves in scramble mode. Not to mention the fact that MSG in March won't ever be the same again.
Thanks a thousand times to Raphielle Johnson. He's the man. I asked him probably too many questions, and he took time out of his season prep to knock them all down. He's a nice guy, along with being a great writer. Be sure to follow him on twitter. Thanks to Raph one last time.