Individual Matchups We Can't Wait to See in 2014-15 College Basketball Season
College basketball is not like the movies where the sequel invariably pales in comparison to the original.
Thanks to the lessons that players learn from film, the rematch of any great game has the potential to be even better. The same goes for any great individual battle that takes place as a subplot to those games.
North Carolina defeated both Kentucky and Louisville last season, thanks to Marcus Paige outdueling the Harrison twins and Montrezl Harrell struggling against the Heels' green, but plentiful, crew of big men. Both games get a sequel this season, and with them Harrell and the Harrisons get a chance to redeem themselves.
These are just a pair of the great individual matchups we have to look forward to as the college basketball season draws near. There are a couple of other sequels in the offing, but many of these are potential blockbusters that we may never see again.
So start forming a line to the left, because tickets are going fast. And make sure your popcorn is ready.
Rick Pitino, Louisville vs. Richard Pitino, Minnesota (Nov. 14)
Hey, we didn't say all these individual matchups had to be player vs. player.
The 2014 Armed Forces Classic in Puerto Rico won't be the first time that Rick Pitino has squared off against son Richard, but it will be the first time that Richard actually has the kind of players who can hang with Louisville's thoroughbreds. Minnesota is in a much better place than even a fairly solid Florida International team was when Louisville blew it out in 2012.
The Gophers are coming off an NIT championship, and four of the five starters in the championship game will still be suiting up this season. Seniors Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason give UM an experienced nucleus that's prepared for one last run at that other tournament—the one everyone pays attention to.
Louisville is replacing a leader even more decorated than Minnesota's departed Austin Hollins. Russ Smith went from a 2-star recruit on Scout.com to a first-team All-American and NBA draft pick. He'll be replaced by the duo of Chris Jones (5'10") and Terry Rozier (6'1"), who are both undersized against most backcourts but match up perfectly against Minnesota.
Richard's Gophers are likely to seek a slower pace than his father's Cardinals, seeking to minimize the number of attempts that forward Montrezl Harrell gets to run over junior Joey King. The ability of King, Walker and Eliason to slow Harrell down will be key, as the Cards don't have much else in the way of interior scoring.
Minnesota can take this game, as even Bleacher Report's own Kerry Miller has gone on record predicting. It's a lengthy trip to Puerto Rico, but at least the Gophers will know the roles that each man needs to fill. The Cardinals will still be feeling their way when they touch down.
Cliff Alexander, Kansas vs. Branden Dawson, Michigan State (possible Nov. 30)
The Orlando Classic (formerly known as the Old Spice Classic) features a couple of prominent programs breaking in new coaches, an Atlantic 10 also-ran seeking a breakthrough moment and a once-proud Georgia Tech program now just hoping to scare somebody. Oh, and Rider. Can't forget Rider.
If all goes to chalk, however, the OC final will pit one of the nation's most talented senior forwards against arguably the class of 2014's most physically gifted big man.
Michigan State must get through Rider and the winner of Marquette vs. Georgia Tech and Kansas must defeat Rhode Island and either Santa Clara or Tennessee to set up the Orlando dream final. If it's Spartans vs. Jayhawks, it's also senior Branden Dawson vs. freshman Cliff Alexander.
Dawson finally gets to take control of the MSU team the way we thought he could back when Draymond Green departed. Injuries have held him back personally, including a self-inflicted broken hand that cost him the entire month of February this past season.
Dawson's strength and quickness are likely to make him a dominant force in the Big Ten this year, but Alexander can match, if not exceed, them.
Alexander was once enamored of the prospect of playing for Tom Izzo, but an abrupt about-face prompted some intriguing comments from the Spartans coach about recruiting Chicagoland players, as documented by Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal.
Expect both of these players to come out fiery if this game does take place. Experience and youth will both be itching to prove themselves against each other.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin vs. Jahlil Okafor, Duke (Dec. 3)
Jahlil Okafor was already a much bigger star than Frank Kaminsky before he even started his senior year of high school. Writers like this guy were breaking down Okafor's game back when Kaminsky was merely considered a project who liked the perimeter a lot more than the low post.
Now, both these men will be on countless preseason All-American ballots and will be matched against each other as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
As I discussed here, Kaminsky's perimeter skills make him exactly the kind of opponent that Okafor doesn't like. Okafor is not the kind of athlete who can stop a skilled ball-handler, and he's only a minor shot-blocking threat in the post—never mind having to close on a long-armed 7-footer popping off a jumper.
Duke must press Okafor's bulk advantage on the opposite end, seeking to get Kaminsky in foul trouble. The next tallest Wisconsin player is forward Sam Dekker, who has grown to 6'9" this offseason, according to DraftExpress. Dekker is a solid player, but he's no threat to contain Okafor in the paint.
Delon Wright, Utah vs. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State (Dec. 3)
Power-conference elitists are itching for Wichita State to go away after a year of hype over the Shockers' Final Four and undefeated 2013-14 regular season. The casual fan isn't aware of Utah because it didn't reach the NCAA tournament last year. Their meeting is in Salt Lake City, which ensures that this game won't get the publicity it deserves.
Still, fans of good point guard play have to make this a must-watch bout, if only to check out two potential All-Americans: Fred VanVleet of Wichita State and Utah playmaker Delon Wright.
Wright was one of the nation's most effective all-around players in 2013-14, finishing in the Pac-12's top 10 in scoring, assists, steals and blocks en route to a first-team all-conference selection—ahead of players like Arizona floor general T.J. McConnell and Oregon scoring machine Joseph Young.
VanVleet isn't likely to help Wright's steal numbers much, as his final three-turnover game of last season came on February 1. Even if the Shockers star isn't handing the ball over, he may have serious problems getting his shot against his lengthy 6'5" counterpart.
How WSU coach Gregg Marshall goes about freeing his point guard from Wright's probing defense will determine whether the Missouri Valley advocates or the big-conference snobs come out of this game happy.
Myles Turner, Texas vs. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky (Dec. 5)
Two of the most heralded big men in the 2014 class will draw as much attention for what they do 18 feet away from the basket than what they do right under it. When their teams throw down at Rupp Arena for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Texas freshman Myles Turner and Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns will be ready to prove themselves against a peer.
The best true center that either will have faced by December may be Providence freshman Paschal Chukwu, whose team will be the last to face Kentucky before Texas comes to town. Even then, it's unlikely that the free-roaming Towns will play a lot of minutes against the more traditional post man.
Turner and Towns are both noted not only for their shooting skills but also solid perimeter face-up games that will have fans and NBA scouts clamoring for multiple iso-ball staredowns between the two. If it weren't for the fact that both teams are stacked with future professional talent, we could all be forgiven for wishing that the court could clear, so the two players could compare freakish skill sets one-on-one.
No matter what else happens, rest assured that both big rookies will be used extensively to neutralize the other as their teams try for four-out spacing. Otherwise, neither of these two enormous—and enormously deep—teams will be able to get much penetration against the other.
Treveon Graham, VCU vs. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia (Dec. 6)
Last season, Treveon Graham's 22 points led VCU to a 59-56 win over Virginia. At that point, the Cavaliers were just fighting for top-25 respect, and the Rams were pushing for the top 10. Meanwhile, Malcolm Brogdon was still just a supporting piece who was working his way back from injury.
Fast forward to the 2014-15 campaign, and Brogdon is coming off an All-ACC first-team selection after leading UVA to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The combo guard will welcome the opportunity for revenge against a VCU team that held him to only two points in the first 23 minutes of last season's matchup.
The 6'5" Brogdon will once again have his hands full with the 6'6" Graham, a two-time All-Atlantic 10 selection. Graham relishes a physical matchup where he can force an opponent to the basket. If he can prove he's developed his three-point shot, it should surprise no one if he leads all scorers again in this year's in-state battle.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina vs. Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Kentucky (Dec. 13)
The guards were the story in last season's North Carolina vs. Kentucky tussle. UK freshmen James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison combined for 53 points but still fell to the white-hot second half that UNC sophomore Marcus Paige authored.
Paige, who had already torched Louisville for 32 points three weeks prior, put home 21 of his 23 in the second half, keeping UNC in front late with some cold-blooded foul shooting.
While this year's UNC vs. UK battle at Rupp Arena has a lot more big bodies capable of being big factors, Paige's rematch with the Harrison twins should be the primary focus. Paige is still at a serious physical disadvantage, but he'll bring more help this year.
With freshman shooter Justin Jackson to receive kickouts and more experience for bigs Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, Paige should have plenty of options when he gets swarmed while attacking the basket. If UK's bigs don't collapse on Paige, he can score in bulk on floaters and mid-range pull-ups.
For their part, the Harrisons also come in more experienced and confident after last March's stirring postseason run. With plenty of post help behind them, they should be aggressive in attacking Paige, trusting the big men to clean up if UNC's star gets past them.
Ryan Boatright, UConn vs. Chasson Randle, Stanford (Jan. 17)
In 2011, Chasson Randle of Rock Island High School and Ryan Boatright of East Aurora shared the Illinois Mr. Basketball award in the only tie in the award's 33-year history.
Three years later, the two will throw down as the senior stars of their teams once again when Boatright's national champion UConn Huskies head west to visit Randle's Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto, California.
The game is actually a rematch of last season's Stanford victory at the XL Center in Hartford, but Boatright was still a sidekick to Husky icon Shabazz Napier at that point. This year is Boatright's opportunity to prove that he can lead a team to glory too.
Randle has been a leader for the Cardinal since the moment he stepped on campus. His 22 points paced Stanford to last year's win in Hartford, and he was key to a huge 14-2 rally that erased a 13-point UConn lead. Eight of those 14 points came off Randle's hand. Similar heroics may be needed this year as Stanford adjusts to life without star post duo Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis.
For Boatright's part, he could only manage seven points on 3-of-11 shooting. Without Napier or DeAndre Daniels on hand to carry the load, similar struggles for Boatright could lead to an ugly loss for the Huskies.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville vs. Brice Johnson, North Carolina (TBD)
The only thing keeping North Carolina's Brice Johnson from an All-ACC selection this season is his own ability to play defense without landing in foul trouble. Even after adjusting for UNC's quick pace, DraftExpress shows Johnson averaging 20 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 40 minutes.
Forget All-ACC—those are Naismith-caliber numbers. Pay no attention to the 5.4 fouls.
By the time Johnson and the Tar Heels pull into Louisville to face expected All-American big man Montrezl Harrell, we should have a good handle on Johnson's defensive improvement. Still, the first couple of months are merely the coursework. A battle with Harrell—this time as an ACC rival—will be a difficult final exam.
Johnson is listed at 210 pounds, while the chiseled Harrell is shown at 235. Harrell has four inches on Johnson in wingspan—7'3" vs. 6'11", according to each man's respective DraftExpress page. Harrell finished second in the American at 8.4 rebounds per game last season, posting multiple dominant double-doubles against solid big men like Shaq Goodwin of Memphis and Markus Kennedy of SMU.
If there is a silver lining for the Heels, it's that they kept Harrell contained in last season's win at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. While Harrell pulled 10 boards, he could only manage five points to go with his five fouls.
Expect sophomore center Kennedy Meeks to see his share of time on Harrell, but the Cardinal star's improving face-up game is something that Meeks is ill-equipped to contain. Johnson will get some help, but Harrell should largely be his responsibility. NBA scouts will be grading harshly on this exam.
Stanley Johnson, Arizona vs. Joseph Young, Oregon (TBD)
The Pac-12 schedule isn't fully composed yet, but one of the league's most interesting players promises to be Oregon guard Joseph Young. He finished second in the conference at 18.9 points per game, and that was with talented supporting pieces like Mike Moser, Jason Calliste and Johnathan Loyd surrounding him.
This year, reserve forward Elgin Cook is the only returning rotation player aside from Young. It's not unreasonable to expect Young to throw up 22-25 points per night if the Ducks are going to stay afloat.
That brings us to reigning Pac-12 kingpins Arizona and its newest freshman sensation, Californian Stanley Johnson. The muscular Johnson is built like a linebacker, but he has a versatile combo guard's game that extends to both ends of the court. Justifiably proud of his defense, Johnson will frequently draw the toughest assignment an opponent has to offer, and against Oregon, that means Young.
Physically, it's no contest. The 6'2", 180-pound Young gives up a lot to the 6'7", 235-pound Johnson. Oregon's offense, however, should be completely predicated on getting Young the most open looks he can find, so Johnson will have no shortage of screens and ball fakes to work through as he seeks to stay in front of the mightiest Duck.
It should register as a seismic upset if Oregon knocks off Arizona at any point this season, but the result of the game will almost be secondary. The Young vs. Johnson battle should be entertaining, even if Oregon does end up getting plucked.
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