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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Early Observations

We've played about four weeks of college basketball thus far and the world is already abuzz about how incredible these freshmen are, that Kentucky's already a disappointment, and that maybe the Big Ten is the best conference again this year. The new rules are being enforced causing several teams to struggle while other have found a way to exploit them.  It's still early but here are a few of my observations as the first holiday tournaments get going.

Five Surprising Teams

  1. UMass - I had no expectations for the Minutemen entering the season and
    Who can stop this guy?
    I considered them an NIT team at best.  They've only played two home games out of six (the other four were on neutral courts) yet have an unblemished record.  Their wins have come over BC, LSU, Youngstown State, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Clemson.  The last two got my attention. Color me impressed.
  2. Pittsburgh - Pitt's best win thus far is a 21 point shellacking over Stanford on a neutral site.  And that's my point; this team is 6-0 and their closest win was 19 points. Things are looking good.
  3. Dayton - They lost to Baylor by one last night but are 5-1 on the season with an impressive win over Gonzaga on Monday.  I thought they might be the second best team in the A-10 prior to the season and now I feel more confident in that pick.  They have a few more challenging games on the docket before the regular season begins. Keep this team in mind in March.
  4. Nebraska - They're just 4-2 so far with losses to Dayton and UAB.  Still, the style of play has been effective and they're forcing opponents to shoot tough shots while defending the rim better than maybe anyone else. Offensively they're not turning the ball over and are hitting 37% of their threes. I'm not sure this can last but the team is better than I expected.
  5. Wichita State - Everyone should know the Shockers by now. I'm not surprised they're MVC favorites but I am surprised at how well they're playing. This team lost three seniors from last year and I'm not aware of any impact freshmen on the roster.  Last night's thirteen point win over BYU was a statement win.  They've also got dates with St. Louis, Tennessee, and Alabama that warrant our attention. Gregg Marshall is one heck of a coach.
Five Disappointing Teams
  1. Georgetown - What. the. #%&*?  Georgetown was many people's pick to win the new Big East. So far they're not inspiring anyone. A loss to Oregon is not a big deal, but Northeastern?  Sure, they beat VCU but are we sure VCU is as good as the pollsters say?  This team fouls too much and until they fix that they'll find themselves letting teams they should be putting away hanging around for far too long.
  2. Kansas State - Okay Illinois fans, maybe you were right.  Year two in the Bruce Weber era is not off to a good start and I'm dubious this ship is going to be righted.  Their best win is over Oral Roberts and have lost to No. Colorado, Charlotte, and Georgetown.  Let's see what happens on December 5th when they face Ole Miss. That might make or break their season.
  3. North Carolina State - How do you lose to North Carolina Central at home? This team also lost by double digits to Cincinnati and doesn't have a quality win so far.  They get Northwestern at home in the Big10/ACC Challenge.  Since we already know Northwestern's a bottom tier Big Ten team, seeing how they fare in that game should be a good measuring stick. 
  4. Virginia Tech - Lost at home to South Carolina Upstate, lost on a neutral site to Michigan State by 19, and lost in a pseudo-road game to Seton Hall.  The defense just hasn't been up to snuff and makes me think the ACC's bottom half is going to drag the entire conference RPI down.
  5. Marquette - How do you only score 35 at home? Granted, Ohio State is a tough defense but 35 at home? Inexcusable.  Losing at Arizona State by two is a tough luck loss and not one to dwell on. This team is talented but that home loss still has me shaking my head.
The five best players so far are...
  1. Jabari Parker - Duke: Parker has been incredible. He's hit over 60% of his threes, is getting to the line, and he's doing this in about 30 minutes a game.  Some say he reminds them of Grant Hill - I'm inclined to think he's more like Antoine Walker - but right now he looks like the first overall pick in the NBA draft.
  2. Marcus Smart - Oklahoma State: Did we all see what he did against Memphis last week? Who can guard him in college? He's 6'4" and built sort of like LeBron.  He's quick enough to get by his man into the lane and he's improved his jump shot enough to where he doesn't have to drive on most plays. This is why he's averaging 21 points a game so far.
  3. Doug McDermott - Creighton: Mr. Efficiency himself. Dougie fresh is hitting 79% on his freebies, 57% on his twos, and 50% of his threes.  The man may never be a great professional player but he reminds me so much of Wally Szczerbiak in that he can literally hit any shot.
  4. Jahii Carson - Arizona State: Carson is 5'10" yet most of his shots are layups.  He's so quick that he can get by anybody.  The sophomore is also hitting 56% of his three pointers and is averaging over 5 assists a game.  He even put up 40 points against UNLV. Wowzah.
  5. Tim Frazier - Penn State: Is it possible Frazier's a better shooter than he was pre-injury? The early returns have me thinking yes.  His per game averages thus far are 16 points, 7 assists, plus four rebounds and two steals.  He's really really good.
And finally, the best five teams to date are:
  1. Oklahoma State - Marcus Smart is really good and he's got some good wingmen. 
  2. Michigan State - I really like this team and think they're the class of the Big Ten but I'm not sure how much better they can get.
  3. Arizona - They haven't played anyone significant yet but I'm impressed with what I've seen.  Don't forget about their super freshman Aaron Gordon either.
  4. Kansas - The win over Duke was impressive but I don't think this team's hit their groove yet. It's going to be quite a battle for the top in the Big 12.
  5. Pitt - I've already talked about these guys.  The new ACC is going to be interesting to say the least.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

2013-2014 Men's Big Ten Basketball Preview

Now that I've previewed all twelve teams it's prediction time.  Below I've listed my best guess at the conference standings as well as the awards. In April we can all
Gary Harris & Adreian Payne may be the two
best players in the entire BIG conference.
look back and see how wrong I am.


Michigan St. 14 4
Wisconsin 13 5
Ohio St. 12 6
Michigan 12 6
Purdue 11 7
Iowa 10 6
Indiana 9 9
Illinois 7 11
Penn St. 6 12
Minnesota 5 13
Northwestern 4 14
Nebraska 4 14

All Big Ten First Team
G Aaron Craft - Ohio State
G Gary Harris - Michigan State
G Nik Stauskas - Michigan
F Adreian Payne - Michigan State
F Sam Dekker - Wisconsin

All Big Ten Second Team
G Tim Frazier - Penn State
G Josh Gasser - Wisconsin
G Andre Hollins - Minnesota
F Glenn Robinson III - Michigan
C AJ Hammons - Purdue

Big Ten Freshmen Team
G Derrick Walton, Jr. - Michigan
G Tai Webster - Nebraska
F Zak Irvine - Michigan
F Kendall Stephens - Purdue
C Noah Vonleh - Indiana

BIG Tournament Champ: Michigan State
Defensive player of the Year: Aaron Craft
Big Ten Player of the Year: Adreian Payne

Saturday, November 16, 2013

2013-14 Men's Big Ten Basketball Preview: P & W

Today we preview the last three teams in the Big Ten.  There might be a couple of surprises so read on!

Penn State Nittany Lions
Head Coach: Patrick Chambers
Last Season: 10-21 (2-16), last in Big Ten
Graduated: G Nick Colella
Transfered: F Jermaine Marshall, F Jon Graham
Left Early: F Sasa Borovnjak
New Faces: Graham Woodward, Geno Thorpe, John Johnson (transfer)
2013 recap: There was some optimism in State College entering the season and things were looking good after a mild upset victory over Providence in November.  Unfortunately in the following game star point guard Tim Frazier suffered an achilles injury causing him to miss the rest of the season.  Without their star player, the Penn State team fell into complete disarray and began the BIG season 0-14 before finally getting a victory against Michigan.  When the season ended the second best player on the team, Jermaine Marshall, elected to transfer potentially setting back some
May people have forgotten Tim Frazier is
one of the 10 best players in the conference.
progress the team made during the year.
The Starters:

Pos Players Height Wt Year
PG Tim Frazier 6'1" 170 Sr.
G DJ Newbill 6'4" 205 Jr
F Brandon Taylor 6'7" 235 So.
F Donovon Jack 6'9" 210 So.
F Ross Travis 6'6" 225 Jr.

Point guard Tim Frazier can do it all.  He's one of the best passers in the nation, knows how to get to the rim, and as a result he gets to the line.  It's not uncommon for him to also lead the team in rebounding. If he's back to form Penn State will be blessed with possibly the league's best player.  DJ Newbill was forced to grow up quite a bit in Frazier's absence.  He became more assertive shooting and learned how to facilitate the offense at the same time.  Look for him to combine with Frazier to give the Nittany Lions one of the conference's best backcourts.  Brandon Taylor is a solid rebounder but more of a role player on offense which works out perfectly for a team whose guards will take the majority of the shots.  If Taylor can establish himself as a decent low post player to compliment his mid-range jumper he could find himself more involved as the season goes along.  Donovan Jack is the "big man" on this team.  Like Taylor, he showed potential as a freshman last year and looks to be an important component for this team's success.  He'll be forced to guard the other big men in the conference and while that may seem daunting he appears to be a solid defensive player.  Ross Travis is the energetic glue guy every team needs. Last season he averaged 7 points and 7 rebounds and coach Chambers has even said he's capable of guarding all five positions.
The Bench:

G Allen Roberts 6'3" 214 Sr.
F Alan Wisniewski 6'9" 230 Sr.
G Graham Woodward 6'0" 170 Fr.
G Geno Thorpe 6'3" 180 Fr.
F Julian Moore 6'10" 215 Fr.
G John Johnson 6'3" 185 Jr.
F Payton Banks 6'6" 220 Fr.

The bench will likely be pretty short at least until John Johnson is eligible to participate in January.  Guard Allen Roberts is a transfer from Miami (OH) who's experience should enable him to be a quality backup immediately.  In MAC play he proved adept at drawing fouls and was a decent defender.  Geno Thorpe and Graham Woodward are two freshmen who will also get minutes.  Though not ranked in the Rivals top 150, the team seems excited to have them in their midst nonetheless.  Alan Wisniewski will be counted on to provide quality minutes when one of the starting forwards sits.  Freshmen Julian Moore and Payton Banks aren't expected to contribute much but the team could desperately use something out of them.
2014 Outlook: With Tim Frazier back, Penn State is definitely improved from how they finished last season.  The loss of Jermaine Marshall hurts as well as having two potential impact players unavailable to the team due to transfer rules.  The non conference schedule is manageable and should give the team opportunity to sort out a rotation early. Only getting Michigan and Wisconsin once each helps their chances and as a result I expect a bit of a surprise season from the Nittany Lions.
Projection: 9th in Big Ten, NIT invite

Friday, November 15, 2013

2013-14 Mens' Basketball Big Ten Preview: N & O

This is the third set of team previews for the Big Ten.  Today I'm breaking down N & O.  It's not pretty.

Nebraska Cornhuskers
Head Coach: Tim Miles
Last Season: 15-18 (5-13), tenth in Big Ten
Graduated: G Dylan Talley, C Brandon Ubel, F Andre Almeida
Transfered: None
Left Early: None
New Faces: Tai Webster, Nathan Hawkins, Nick Fuller
2013 recap: Nebraska entered the season with no expectations and they didn't disappoint.  In fact they may actually have brought a tad bit of excitement to some disillusioned fans.  Predicted to finish dead last in the conference, they fought and clawed their way to a tenth place finish.  They even upset Purdue in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Three starters graduated leaving the roster at its youngest since making the switch from the Big 12.
The Starters:

Pos Players Height Wt Year
PG Tai Webster 6'4" 194  Fr.
G Ray Gallegos 6'2" 182  Sr.
G Shavon Shields 6'7" 219  So.
F Leslee Smith 6'8" 255 Jr.
C Walter Pitchford 6'10" 234 So.

Freshman Tai Webster is the top freshman on the team this season.  He's a recruit from New Zealand and reports say that he's extremely talented on offense. He'll be looked upon to lead the team from the get-go with guard Ray Gallegos suspended.  Gallegos really improved
Gallegos will need to be on the court not
in court to help Nebraska this season.
his numbers as a junior specifically by increasing his scoring by ten points per game.  He's the team's number one option on offense, at least until Webster establishes himself.  Shavon Shields is listed as a guard but is more of an extremely poor man's Toni Kukoc (that is barely a compliment).  If he makes the leap Nebraska may have something here. Leslee Smith is the type of guy you'd like to come off the bench but Nebraska's not quite there yet. He offers good length and can play out of the high post.  Walter Pitchford is a work in progress at the center position. He's a transfer from Florida so he has some talent. He'll need to develop quickly to help the Cornhuskers stay competitive.
The Bench:

F Terran Petteway 6'6" 209 So.
C Kyle Kurowski 6'11" 214 Jr.
G Nathan Hawkins 6'5" 198 Fr.
G Deverell Biggs 6'0" 175 Jr.
G Benny Parker 5'9" 166 So.
G David Rivers 6'7" 198 Jr.
F Nick Fuller 6'6" 199 Fr.

Forward Terran Petteway is my pick for the team's breakout player. Last season as a freshman he was virtually invisible. Now, with a year of experience he should get an opportunity to prove himself. Center Kyle Kurowski will get minutes backing up Pitchford but don't expect him to make much of an impact in the box score.  That's just not his game.  Guards Nathan Hawkins, Benny Parker, Deverell Biggs, and David Rivers will be fighting for playing time amongst themselves.  I'm not sure who the best option is here but expect the winner of this competition to have a prominent role in coach Miles' rotation.  Freshman Nick Fuller may redshirt this season but his size and length are something that have Husker fans intrigued.
2014 Outlook: The two transfers and three freshman recruits are a nice way to get Tim Miles on the right track. These players bring an improved athleticism and overall skill that the previous regime lacked. Plus now Nebraska has a state of the art facility in which to play their games. There will be excitement early but most of it won't be about the team. If things go right they can finish as high as 8th in the conference, I'm just not willing to bet on it.
Projection: 12th in Big Ten

Saturday, November 9, 2013

2013-14 Men's Big Ten Basketball Preview: The 3 M's

I'm continuing with the preseason preview for each of the Big Ten schools.  Today's post covers the three schools beginning with the letter M.

Michigan Wolverines
Head Coach: John Beilein
Last Season: 31-8 (12-6), tied for 4th in Big Ten, lost in NCAA championship game to Louisville
Graduated: None
Transfered: None
Left Early: PG Trey Burke, G Tim Hardaway, Jr.
New Faces: Zak Irvine (#24), Derrick Walton (#37), Mark Donnal, Sean Lonergran, Andrew Dakich
2013 recap: Michigan ripped off sixteen straight wins to start the season before falling at Ohio State in January.  They hit a bit of a rough patch in the middle of the conference season but still finished tied for fourth in the conference. A loss at the hands of Wisconsin in the third round of the Big Ten tournament had many wondering if the Wolverines already peaked. Worry not as Trey Burke
Nik Stauskas might be the best three
point shooter in the country this season.
and Co. rounded into form and marched all the way to the NCAA Tournament Championship game by beating Kansas, Florida, and Syracuse to get there.  Louisville proved to be too much, however, and UM had to settle for second place.  During the summer both starting guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. were selected in the first round of the NBA draft which proves how talented these individuals were but also left behind some very big shoes to fill for 2013-14.
The Starters:

Pos Player Height Wt Year
PG Derrick Walton 6'1" 185 Fr.
G Nik Stauskas 6'6" 205 So.
F Glenn Robinson III 6'6" 220 So.
F Jordan Morgan 6'8" 250 Sr.
C Mitch McGary 6'10" 255 So.

Freshman Derrick Walton looks like the odds on favorite to start at point guard this season. His decision making will be tested but reports are he's a talent that's way too good to keep on the bench. It looks like he has a well rounded skill set and should be able to fill up the stat sheet each game.  Nike Stauskas was perhaps the least talked about freshman on the team last season but the one that impressed me the most. He's an excellent shooter who cannot be left open at any time (44% from 3 last year). His ability to take care of the ball and make the right pass ensure he'll have an increased role on offense this season too. Plus, he's tall and long making him a great fit for Beilein's 1-3-1 zone ensuring that he'll be on the floor plenty this season.  The team is counting on Glenn Robinson III to step up and become an elite playmaker. There's no questioning he has the potential and with up to four freshmen in the rotation the team would like him to step up his game.  Last year he was an effective player but was playing third or fourth fiddle to the now NBA guys and Mitch McGrary.  He hit 32% of his threes but only 67% from the line.  His mid-range game is impressive but sometimes he lacks the killer instinct to beat his man with a dribble drive. Forward Jordan Morgan is not one to hog the ball.  His most important contributions come on defense where he excels at holding his ground and keeping his man in front of him.  If he's able to cut down on his turnovers and improve his foul shooting this Michigan offense could be nearly unstoppable.  Mitch McGrary could miss the first few games of the season with an injury.  The timetable for his return is uncertain but I remember hearing earlier that his goal was to be back for conference play.
The Bench:

F Jon Horford 6'10" 250 Jr.
G Caris LeVert 6'6" 185 So.
F Zak Irvin 6'6" 200 Fr.
G Spike Albrecht 5'11" 175 So.
F Max Biefeldt 6'7" 245 So.
G Andrew Dakich 6'2" 185 Fr.
F Sean Lonergan 6'5" 195 Fr.

Forward Jon Horford may be starting while McGrary is out. He's a solid rebounder and his size enables him to be effective in the block by getting layups and freebies from the charity stripe. He can struggle with turnovers.  Reports out of camp and the early preseason games say LeVert's game has improved by leaps and bounds.  Look for him to get plenty of minutes off the bench.  Zak Irvin is a shooter. He and LeVert could compliment each other quite well with LeVert using his penetration ability to free up Irvin for open shots.  Albrecht is a decent backup point guard who is still working on cutting turnovers.  Max Biefeldt may be counted on for more minutes if the starting bigs get into foul trouble. He has trouble defending the rim and often finds himself out jumped by the man he's guarding.  Freshmen Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan will likely see only a few minutes while this looks like a red-shirt year for freshman Mark Donnal.
2014 Outlook: This is another young team with only two upper classmen.  There are some challenging games on the schedule early including Duke, Arizona, and Iowa State.  These games should give a good indication of how ready this team is to compete in the Big Ten. I think they'll be one of the better shooting teams and their defensive scheme often gives teams fits.  Ultimately, McGrary's health will play a big part in how far this team can go in March.  I think an upper have finish in the conference is a lock.
Projection: 3rd in Big Ten, qualify for NCAA Tournament

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

2013-14 Men's Basketball Big Ten Preview - The Three I's

I started to write all twelve teams at once but felt the overall quality was lacking. Instead I'll break my preview up into groups of three in an attempt to give a better preview for each team.  Today we'll start with the three schools who begin with the letter I.

Illinois Fighting Illini
Head Coach: John Groce
Last Season: 23-13 (8-10), lost in second round of NCAA Tournament to Miami
Graduated: G Brandon Paul, G DJ Richardson, F Tyler Griffey, G Sam McLaurin
Transfered: F Myke Henry
Left Early: None
New Faces: G Kendrick Nunn (#60), F Malcolm Hill (#62), F Austin Colbert (#97), G Rayvonte Rice (transfer), F Jon Eckey (transfer), G Jaylon Tate, C Maverick Morgan
2013 recap: Illinois was coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in school history last year causing coach Bruce Weber to lose his job. Enter John Groce from Ohio University. Taking the same squad (minus Meyers Leonard) Weber left behind, Groce was able to steer his team into the NCAA tournament and almost into the Sweet 16.  The Illini started off hot, winning their first twelve games
Abrams is the unquestioned leader for U of I.
Let's see if the many freshmen can follow.
before falling to Missouri.  Though they finished the conference slate with a losing record they were able to acquire big wins over Ohio State and Indiana. This enabled the Fighting Illini to earn a #7 seed. A win over Colorado matched them up with #2 Miami and they took them to the wire before falling by four. It was a bittersweet end for the seniors on the team - no they didn't reach a Final Four but after 2012's debacle they were able to return to the NCAA's and win a game.
The Starters:

Player Height Wt Year
PG Tracy Abrams 6'2" 190 Jr.
G Kendrick Nunn 6'3" 180 Fr.
G Joseph Bertrand 6'6" 200 Sr.
F Jon Ekey 6'7" 225 Sr.
C Nnanna Egwu 6'11" 235 Jr.

Gone is Brandon Paul who posted one of the highest usage rates in the country and second highest in the Big Ten.  Gone is three year starter DJ Richardson and two year starter Tyler Griffey.  Returning is Tracy Abrams who is the unquestioned man at the point.  Last season he struggled as a three point shooter (27%) and his turnovers were a little high.  He'll need to improve in both facets this season if the Illini are going to present any kind of challenge for the Big Ten crown.  With Groce's offense relying heavily on guard play, freshman guard Kendrick Nunn looks to seize a starting spot as a combo guard. A product out of Simeon High School in Chicago, Nunn excels at beating his man off the dribble but his three point shot may be shaky at first which could doom the Illini's attempt to space the floor. Guard Joseph Bertrand also seems to have locked down a starting job.  Last season he led the team in free throw percentage (77%) but he only attempted 44 of them.  He'll need to get to the line more this season and take fewer three point attempts to help improve the efficiency of the offense.  Defensively, Bertrand is underrated. His long arms allow him to reach into passing lanes and poke the ball away.  Jon Eckey seems to have secured the power forward spot with ease. While not physically imposing, Eckey is known for his shot-blocking ability.  He prefers to face the basket as his post-up game is virtually non-existent.  Look for the Illini to rely on him to hit several mid-range jumpers a game in an attempt to clear the lane for their quick guards.  Nnanna Egwu continues to improve but now the Illini are going to need him more than ever.  With an influx of talented centers in the conference Egwu will be tested on a nightly basis.  Hopefully for Illini fans he'll be able to improve on his 6.5 points per game and 5 rebounds per game averages from last season.
The Bench:
G Rayvonte Rice 6'4" 235 Jr.
G Mike LaTulip 6'1" 170 So.
G Malcolm Hill 6'6" 210 Fr.
C Maverick Morgan 6'10" 250 Fr.
G Jaylon Tate 6'3" 160 Fr.
F Austin Colbert 6'9" 210 Fr.
F Darius Paul 6'8" 220 So.

The bench is filled with freshmen who will fight and claw their way in to some form of a pecking order during the non-conference season.  I really don't have much information to add on these players except that Rice and Hill will be leaned on heavily for minutes.  If either or both of these two shows to be a capable three point shooter and solid defender they will find themselves getting a boatload of minutes.  Maverick Morgan has plenty of size and seems to have established himself as Egwu's backup.  Getting exposure in the Big Ten as a freshman can do wonders for his development down the road.  Forwards Darius Paul and Austin Colbert will also find themselves on the floor a lot early on as they look to provide depth.
2014 Outlook: This is a young team that may struggle mightily out of the gate as Groce figures out which players work best together. There don't appear to be any players that will be able to consistently hit three pointers which may cause floor spacing to be an issue.  Groce's teams typically aren't ones to crack down on defense either so offensive efficiency will make or break them on most nights.  There is a lot of talent on hand and the team will improve as the season goes along and may even score a couple of upsets along the way.  It seems unlikely that this team will be able to finish with a winning record in conference play which puts them squarely in the NIT.
Projection: 8th in Big Ten, NIT bid