I entered the college basketball season with fairly high hopes and our team so far has not disapppointed me. There's a lot to like, in particular, the shooting, the depth, and the defense. I think Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler can become big time players, and even our fifth, sixth, and seventh best players are huge offensive weapons. I absolutely love the depth on this team as we can go ten deep. Significant injuires, which almost always must be dealt with mid-season, should not affect this team too much. If Paulus goes down, we don't lose much (if anything) with Nolan Smith. If Gerald or DeMarcus goes down, we don't lose much with Scheyer. The only real injury possibility that worries me is Singler as he is probably irreplaceable. With so much depth, I am disappointed that Coach K has not committed to going ten deep (like he did earlier in the season) and play everyone between 15-25 minutes. I think with our second team so talented (in effect, not losing that much offensively), we should be applying full court pressure and really wear down teams that only use seven or eight players. Coach K has a tendency to fall in love with a seven man rotation and give it huge minutes. I think with this team, that is a mistake.
Our non-conference play so far has been pretty strong. In addition to the cupcakes we usually play early, we have quality wins over New Mexico St., Illinois, Marquette, Davidson, Wisconsin, and Albany (all were NCAA qualifying teams last year). I thought Pitt would be not only a huge test for us, but would reveal a lot in terms of how good we are or can be this year. Overall, I would say our first half play was good (though probably it was more that Pitt's offense was just horrible) and that the second half exposed our weaknesses and in the end, we could not secure the win. I'm not overly upset as Pitt is a very, very good team and I'd rather have a loss early than go 15-0 and foster some unrealistic expectations for a team that is very good but not quite in the top tier.
The biggest shortcomings of this team are: size/rebounding, poor free throw shooting, and the tendencies of both DeMarcus and Gerald to play too much 1-on-1 down the stretch in close games and to hoist up some very low % shots. Granted they were both able to make a few, including Gerald's fadeaway turnaround jumper from the corner at the end of regulation (I think Eric Lim would agree with me that that shot was very Kobe-esque) or DeMarcus' reverse lay-up in OT that fouled out Blair. But honestly, were those good shots? How often do they fall? I'm thinking maybe 30-40%. Definitely not the type of shot I want deciding the game. Down the stretch and in OT, it seemed like both Gerald and DeMarcus were playing a bit too much like individuals, a tendency that we had seen glimpses of in earlier games. Don't get me wrong, I like the ball in their hands, and I absolutely love it when they slash and penetrate to get easy dunks or lay-ups. But when they penetrate and there is nothing there, I would rather they not force a low % shot. Usually when they penetrate, they draw a double team and someone should be open. If they kick it back out and we're able to move the ball around quickly to find an open perimeter shooter, I would much rather have Scheyer or Paulus or Singler squaring up for a wide open three. But overall, I think our inablitiy to keep Pitt off the offensive glass and our continuing struggles from the charity stripe cost us the game. Pitt out-rebounded us by 15 and we continue to shoot just over 50% from the line. Scheyer uncharacteristically missed one late, Singler missed one late in OT, and DeMarcus missed his usual handful from the line. If any one of those drops, we escape with a win. Rebounding, there's not a whole lot we can do to compensate for our lack of size. Against a big Wisconsin team, the size differential didn't really matter because we were shootingg so well. And I imagine that the size differential really wouldn't have mattered against Pitt if we had shot better in the second half. But in close ACC games or in the post-season against better teams, our lack of size and poor free-throw shooting may ultimately cost us.
Despite the loss at Pitt, I really like our team. They are fun to watch, they put up points, and they are team players (with the occasional tendencies of DeMarcus and Gerald to go solo). I love that Singler can finish the Albany game with only eight points but be happy on the bench at the end of the game, joking around and congratulating Scheyer on his performance. I love that Taylor King can not play at all against Marquette but be our most vocal cheerleader from the bench. I love how we have so many offensive weapons and that we also play tough D and usually keep opponents to a pretty low FG shooting %. My only wishes are that Coach K go deeper on the bench, that Taylor King loses some weight and plays better defense so he can be on the floor more (is it just me, or is that kid built like a middle linebacker and not an off-guard?), and that Brian Zoubek would develop more as a low-post presence. I think he is reasonably skilled for a 7 footer and I think developing him would be a huge asset for the stretch run and for his final two years. I also wish Coach K would focus more on recruiting big, physical post players. I would love to have Pitt's DeJuan Blair starting for us instead of Lance Thomas. We lost Patrick Patterson, a similar type player to Kentucky at the end of recruiting season in May and we already lost prized high school senior Greg Monroe, a 6-10 monster to Georgetown. We were finalists for both those guys but weren't able to close the deal. I can't really complain about recruiting as I think Coach K is the best in the biz in that dept, but I think we stockpile too many Hendersons, Scheyers, Nelsons, Kings, and Smiths who all play essentially the same position, and don't do enough to recruit the obviously more scarce skilled big men.
Anywayz, should be an exciting season. I think about 28 wins and an elite eight type of year is reasonable. And hopefully one (or more) sweet, sweet victory against Tyler Hansbrough and Carolina. I say we retire Henderson's number if he can bloody Tyler's nose one more time. Just kidding! Happy holidays everyone.