For the rest of the week, we’ll be picking the players, coaches and teams most likely to do some big things, or, well, bad things for the upcoming season. We’ll start today with four individuals poised for big seasons.
Most Likely to Win National Player of the Year:
Cody Zeller: Easy answer, right? He’s being heralded as the best player in the nation on the best team in the nation. As someone who grew up in southern Indiana watching and reading about all three Zeller brothers, I’m pretty excited to see what Cody is capable of this year. Simply put, he can do it all. With freshman year averages of 15.6 points per game, 6.6 rebounds and a 62 percent field goal percentage, Zeller helped bring an IU team back from the dead into one of the top 10 teams in the nation. He also averaged over a steal and a block each time out. The Hoosiers have a really deep team this year, but I still anticipate Zeller getting more touches this year. Last season he only had 11 games with more than 10 field goal attempts. This is Zeller’s award to lose, as expectations are as high as they’ve been in over 20 years in Bloomington. Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan are the two guys that could challenge Zeller the most.
Most Likely to Lead the Nation in Scoring:
Doug McDermott: One of the guys that could possibly give Zeller a run for his money for PoY, McDermott can flat out score. Averaging 22.9 points per game last year for Creighton, good for third in the nation, McDermott did so shooting a staggering 60 percent from the field. Plenty of people shoot 60 percent, but very few of them are also deadly 3-point shooters. The Creighton sharpshooter connected on 49 percent of his three’s last season, making 1.5 a game. Word is he’s improved his shot off the dribble, so the Missouri Valley better be on the lookout now more than ever.
Brady Heslip: With apologies to Indiana’s Jordan Hulls and Butler’s Rotnei Clarke, I just can’t get Heslip’s performance from last year’s NCAA Tournament for Baylor out of my head. In a second-round game against Colorado, he made nine threes and scored 27 points. For the year he made 100 of them. All this kid does is shoot three’s, but why fault him when he makes 44 percent of them? He made 2.6 three’s per contest, and only 0.6 two-point field goals. Something tells me the folks down in Waco don’t mind, though.
Most Likely to Lead the Nation in Rebounding:
Andre Roberson: Fifth in the nation in rebounding last year, I think this Colorado big man has the tools to finish out on top for 2012-13. Last season he averaged 11.1 rebounds per game, grabbing down double figure boards 26 times. He helped Colorado upset UNLV in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, hauling down 16 rebounds to go with 12 points.
Images: Google Images/SI.com
Much like the Missouri Valley Conference, Conference-USA has one dominant team, and several others looking up hoping and praying they will get an NCAA Tournament berth.
C-USA Preseason Rankings:
1. Memphis. The Tigers have all of the tools to not only easily win the conference, but to also make a deep tournament run for the first time in Josh Pastner’s reign. Memphis lost their best perimeter scorer in Will Barton, but an Adonis Thomas-led frontcourt will be the backbone of this team. The best news for the Tigers this year? They’ve got Shaq! Shaq Goodwin that is, a 6’8″ big man who was rated the 31st best recruit by ESPN. Replacing the scoring of Barton will be Joe Jackson, who averaged 11 a game last season. Chris Crawford will also be a key wing player for the Tigers. An easy schedule will benefit Memphis, at least until postseason play — Memphis plays only one team, Louisville, currently ranked in the top-25 in the nation.
2. Marshall. You’re going to want to learn DeAndre Kane’s name this year. After a stellar sophomore season for the Thundering Herd where he did a little bit of everything, including leading the team with 16.5 ppg., Kane is back for his junior year to lead Marshall. Joining him for Marshall will be Dennis Tinnon, who averaged a double-double last year (10 ppg., 10 rpg.). Marshall struggled in conference last year, going 9-7, this coming after beating Cincinnati in out-of-conference play and having a close game with Syracuse. The Thundering Herd have one of the toughest schedules in the nation this year, playing Kentucky, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Villanova.
3. Central Florida. The Golden Knights return three of their top four leading scorers, led by Keith Clanton who has averaged at least 14 the last two seasons. Isaiah Sykes will join in on the offense with Clanton. I like Sykes to be a big breakout candidate as he averaged 12 points and six rebounds last year, after not doing much at all his freshman year. He will need to pick up the offense with Marcus Jordan deciding not to return to UCF. If Sykes improves on his three-point field goal percentage (29 percent), he could very well be the team’s leading scorer this year. Unfortunately, UCF is barred from postseason play due to recruiting violations, so even an improvement off their 20-win season last year won’t take them dancing.
4. Tulane. No really, Tulane. Plagued by injuries last year, this team finished dead last in the conference, but I have reason to believe they belong in the top-five. Ricky Tarrant is fresh off of a 15 ppg. season last year, and he will be joined by Kendall Timmons, who only played half of the year last season after tearing his Achilles. Timmons is the long-distance threat Tulane needs (48 percent 3P%). With Jordan Callahan and Josh Davis returning, the Green Wave return almost all of their scoring, and will also likely get back Tomas Bruha, one of their big frontcourt weapons. An NCAA Tournament berth may be a stretch, but don’t be shocked if they make the NIT.
5. UTEP. There’s about five teams I could put here, and with expectations so high for the Miners I’m giving them the nod. UTEP returns five of their top seven scorers and four of their top five rebounders. If that wasn’t enough, they got high school All-American Twymond Howard, as well as fellow freshman Chris Washburn. I really like what UTEP is doing, and if all the pieces click, this could easily be a top-three team in the conference. Leading scorers John Bohannon and Julian Washburn both return for UTEP.
Preseason C-USA First Team
Adonis Thomas- Simply put, this man is a beast. At 6’7″ and 242 points, Thomas averaged just 8.8 points per game last season, but that was in his freshman season where he was only getting 24 minutes a game. Look for improvement in every category this year, and for his minutes to get over 30 a game. He needs to become a better rebounder, as he averaged just 3.2 a game last year. But this physical specimen has all of the tools to be a top contributor for the Tigers.
DeAndre Kane- This guy can do it all, probably because he has to. Averaging 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists is good enough to get on this list. He had very similar numbers his freshman year, which makes me believe if he still has room to grow. His field goal, 3-point and free throw percentages were all down from his freshman year, but if those go up he could be a guy that challenges for Player of the Year in the conference.
Keith Clanton- For a while it looked as if Clanton was on his way out, as the NCAA gave UCF heavy recruiting sanctions. Thank God he’s not, because there is no way the Golden Knights would contend for an NCAA Tournament berth without him. The double-double machine averaged 14.5 and 8 last year, and he can also hit from deep (1.2 three’s a game). A guy that can shoot in the post and from outside, as well as being a solid rebounder is a tough guy to guard.
Rick Tarrant- This sophomore guard will be the reason behind Tulane’s surge to the top half of the conference. Averaging 15 points, with 3 assists and 3 rebounds last year, Tarrant had a freshman season as good as anyone last year. He poured in 24 points and seven rebounds when Tulane beat Georgia Tech last year.
Dennis Tinnon- As a junior college transfer for his junior year, Tinnon averaged a double-double for the Thundering Herd. He, along with Kane will be counted on to keep Marshall in the hunt this season. He had 12 double-doubles last season, including an 18 and 11 performance in Marshall’s NIT loss to Middle Tennessee State.
Coach of the Year:
Ed Conroy- Tulane is going to surprise some people, let me tell you. Conroy is now in his third year at Tulane, and we all know the third year is when team’s make that big jump. They may not be the fourth best team in the conference like I’m predicting, but I guarantee they will be in the top half of the conference.
Player of the Year:
Keith Clanton- You know you’re good when you turn down the chance to play for University of Kentucky. Clanton could have jumped ship and went to Lexington this summer, but he decided to stay with UCF despite no chance at postseason play this year. UCF lost several key members of their team last year, so Clanton will be counted on even more this year. He led the team in points and rebounds a year ago.
All of a sudden the Atlantic-10 Conference looks like a power conference. The arrivals of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler will bring a new sense of life into the conference for the 2012-13 season.
1. St. Louis:
A surprise team last year, most of last year’s Billikens will return, except of course head coach Rick Majerus, who is taking the season off for health reasons. Kwamain Mitchell should be one of the top scorers in the league, averaging 12.4 points a game in his junior season. Dwayne Evans, who averaged over seven points and seven rebounds a game last year, helping lead a defense that only gave up 57.6 points per game — eighth in the nation. Jared Drew, a talented freshman out of Indianapolis, will likely man that frontcourt with Evans. Expectations will be high with this St. Louis team, and they have the talent to be a top-15 team in the nation.
After back-to-back trips to the NCAA Championship game, Butler didn’t get an NCAA Tournament nod OR an NIT invite in 2011-12, forcing the Bulldogs to settle for the CBI. Butler should be improved this year, only losing point guard Ronald Nored off of last year’s team. Andrew Smith, who apparently is never going to graduate, is back for his senior year, and will anchor the inside after his 2011-12 year with 10.7 ppg and 5.7 rebounds per game. But the best player on this team could be Rotnei Clarke, an Arkansas transfer who was second-team All-SEC his junior year. He will be eligible this year, so look for him to lead the Bulldogs in scoring. Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones will also be key players for Butler.
And here is the other newcomer, rounding out the top-three in their first year in the A-10. This is a very deep team, with no one star. They lost Bradford Burgess from last year’s team (13.5 ppg., 5.1 rpg.) but they will have his younger brother Jordan Burgess likely stepping up and making big contributions for his freshman season. A backcourt led by Darius Theus and Briante Weber will likely be the strength of this team, as thy helped force 17.9 turnovers a game last season — good for third in the nation. Their leading returning scorer is Juvonte Reddic (10.4 ppg.)
If the Owls do anything for the 2012-13 season, it will be because of Khalif Wyatt, who returns for his senior season after averaging 17 points a game last year. He appears to be a lock for First-Team A-10, as well as a potential All-American candidate. But Temple lost three of their starters from last year’s team that won the A-10, meaning this season they may be closer to the bubble, if not off the bubble. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee will be two players the Owls will count on with the graduations of three of their key players, including Ramone Moore.
Even with losing Tu Hollowy, Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons, it’s hard to keep the Musketeers out of the top-five. The Musketeers will also have to cope with the expulsion of leading returning scorer Dezmine Wells. Helping to ease the graduations of Holloway and Frease will be freshman Semaj Christian and Towson transfer Isaiah Philmore. Xavier has made the NCAA Tournament every year since 2005, and this year will likely be the toughest year they have had to return.
6. St. Josephs
9. St. Bonaventure
10. La Salle
13. George Washington
14. Rhode Island
Khalif Wyatt: One of the best scorers in the conference, this two-guard averaged 17 points a game last year. He scored 22 points and had 5 steals when Temple was able to upset No. 3 Duke this year. The Owls simply need to give Wyatt the ball and let him do the rest. He had 12 games last year with less than 10 shot attempts, and that won’t be acceptable this year.
Rotnei Clarke: The Arkansas transfer could be the go-to-guy in the Butler offense his first year for the Bulldogs. He could already be the best shooter in the conference, averaging over 42 percent from behind the 3-point line and making nearly three 3-pointers a game in his three years at Arkansas. He averaged 15 points a game his last two years as a Razorback, and it would be a surprise to see him not duplicate that in a weaker conference this year.
Kwamain Mitchell: With leading scorer Brian Conklin graduated from St. Louis, Mitchell will need to step up his scoring from last year (12.4 ppg.). He’s the best player on the best team in the conference, so you’d think he belongs on this list. Not only is he a solid scorer, but his 126 assists led the team last year.
Chaz Williams: If UMass contends for an NCAA or NIT berth, it will be because of Williams. Probably the best point guard in the conference last year, Williams averaged 16 points and six assists. The Minutemen haven’t made the Big Dance since 2997, and Williams will need to up those numbers for them to have a chance.
Chris Gaston: He may play for one of the worst teams in the conference in Fordham, but you can’t ignore this double-double machine. Last year he averaged 17 points and 9.9 rebounds, but he may need to get his team some more wins to get on this list at the end of the season.
Coach of the Year: Jim Crews
Crews, who takes over for Rick Majerus this year, is no stranger to head coaching responsibilities. He is the former head coach of Evansville and Air Force, and has NCAA Tournament appearances under his belt. This year he has the task of replacing a coaching icon, who brought St Louis to the top of the conference. They should stay at the top of the A-10 this year, and if they do it should be Crews who takes home the hardware.
Player of the Year: Khalif Wyatt
There isn’t a standout, runaway favorite to win this award, so I’m going with Wyatt. Temple has the makes of a bubble team, and Wyatt will do everything he can to push the Owls to the Big Dance. He may have to take over games at times, but he is certainly capable.
Even though Kentucky ended up winning the National Championship last year, it was Vanderbilt who took home the SEC title. Can UK recover from five players leaving for the NBA Draft, or will another team pull off another major upset in the SEC?
1- Kentucky. Nerlens Noel will lead another star-packed Kentucky recruiting class, that was ranked No. 2 in the nation. Scouts say Noel is every bit the shot blocker Anthony Davis was, though his offensive game still needs some work. Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin will both get big minutes in their freshman years as well. Of John Calipari’s five recruits from the 2011 class, only Kyle Wiltjer elected to stay for a sophomore season. He averaged five points a game and will be the only contributor back from that National Championship team. NC State transfer Ryan Harrow will be Calipari’s most experienced point guard he has had in years. It’s hard not to pick Kentucky to win the conference with the way Calipari is able to rebuild teams quickly.
2- Missouri. With Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, Missouri will have one of the best starting backcourts in the country. The two combined for nearly 24 points and 10 assists a year ago. The Tigers had trouble with frontcourt depth last season, but 2010 starter Laurence Bowers (10.2 points, 5.7 rebounds per game in 2009-10) is back from a torn ACL, and they will also have UCONN transfer Alex Oriakhi, who has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience. They lost three players who averaged over 13 points a game, but with who they have coming back this is still a strong team.
3- Florida. The Gators are without two of the main backcourt members, including Bradley Beal who was the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft, but the cupboards are hardly bare. Shooting guard Kenny Boynton, who averaged nearly 16 points a game last year, will be counted on even more this year. Erik Murphy and Patric Young, who both averaged over 10 points and 4.5 rebounds a game last year return as well. This team will have a lot of depth and experience, including that of Mike Rosario and Brandon Ogbueze.
4- Tennessee. If the Volunteers can repeat what they did in their half season with freshman Jarnell Stokes, then this team will for sure be a top-five SEC team and borderline top-25 team in the nation. After Stokes was inserted into the starting lineup last year, Tennessee went 10-3. He provides a big physical presence that the Volunteers will need to rely on. He isn’t their only quality big man, as Jeronne Maymom (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) will be a good counter for Stokes. Trae Golden is one of the SEC’s best point guards as well, leading the team in scoring at 13.6 a game. It’s NCAA Tournament or bust for Tennessee, as they return over 80 percent of the scoring and rebounding.
5- Arkansas. A 3-9 stretch to end last year ended squashed any chance of the Razorbacks making the Big Dance, but this year should be a different story. Arkansas got a huge break when BJ Young decided to not turn pro and stay in college another year. He led the SEC freshmen in scoring a year ago, shooting 50 percent from the field. Marshawn Powell tore knee ligaments after just two games last year — two breakout games, suggesting he is in for a big year this year. Mardracus Wade, Rickey Scott and freshmen JaCorey Williams and DeQuavious Wagner give this team a lot of depth.
9- Ole Miss
11- Texas A&M
12- Mississippi State
14- South Carolina
Jarnell Stokes- In just half of a year last season, Stokes was a monster in the post, and a full summer with the team will pay huge dividends going into his sophomore season. He only averaged 9.6 points a game, but that’s in limited playing time. Look for that to increase upward of 15 a game, as he has a full summer of workouts. He helped Team USA to a gold medal at the U18 FIBA Americas during the offseason, averaging 15 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.
Nerlens Noel- It’s hard not to compare him to Anthony Davis, especially when there have been plenty of people that said his defensive game rivals Davis’. If that’s the case, pencil Noel in for an SEC first-team selection. He may not be totally polished on offense, but in a Calipari offense the offense will definitely be there for him to average at least 10 points a game. He doesn’t have to be Anthony Davis, just Nerlens Noel, and by the looks of it — that kid can play.
BJ Young- As a freshman last season, this guard was fourth in the whole conference in field goal percentage. You just don’t see that in freshmen, especially guards. Fayetville must be excited to get Young back for another season, one that is filled with high expectations for the Arkansas squad. He averaged 15 points a game last season, and with even just a little bit of improvement I’d be shocked if he didn’t leave for the NBA after this season.
Phil Pressey- Though he averaged just 1.3 points a game, Pressey did pretty much everything else last season. He was tops in the Big 12 in assists (6.4) and steals (2.1). His field goal percentage went from 38 percent in his freshman year to 43 percent last year, but he will still need to improve on that. Pressey was the lone Tiger who showed up for their first round NCAA Tournament game with Norfolk State, scoring 20 points with eight assists. Expectations are high with this Missouri team, and a lot of their success will depend on Pressey’s play.
Kenny Boynton- With apologies to Alex Poythress, Patric Young and Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Florida’s Young gets the nod for the fifth spot on this list because of his ability to take over games with his scoring. The SEC’s leading returning scorer, Boynton has averaged at least 14 points a game in all three years at Florida. Last season he had 13 games of at least 20 points. The biggest improvement Boynton made was in his field goal percentage, which jumped from 38 percent to 44 percent.
Most Underrated Team- Alabama
The Crimson Tide had a two-man monster in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell a year ago, but with both of them graduated Alabama will need a new identity. Look no further than Devonta Pollard, who may be the best freshman in the conference aside from UK’s. Pollard has tremendous athleticism and will fit in right away with Alabama. Returning for the Crimson Tide is Trevor Releford, who last year averaged 12 points a game on 48 percent shooting. There are no seniors this year, so if they finish in the middle of the pack this year, look for them to be in the top-5 in 2013-14.
Most Overrated Team- Vanderbilt
With all of the pieces they graduated, it’s hard to imagine the Commodores enjoying much success this year. Jeff Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli are all graduated, leaving a big hole on the Vanderbilt squad that won the SEC Tournament last year. Not many are picking the Commodores to do much of anything this year, but fans may look at this time as a top-half SEC team just by habit. But with their top six players graduated, that simply will not be the case.
This one was a toss up for me, but if Tennessee repeats what they did when they had Stokes in the starting lineup last year, then it should be their sophomore big man who takes home this award. Word in Knoxville is that Stokes has looked even more polished. He made his presence known in just his third game last year, pulling down 12 rebounds and scoring 16 points in an upset win over UCONN. I envision Stokes being a double-double machine this year. He is now used to Cuonzo Martin’s system and knows what to expect out of the team, including that of Trae Golden who will feed Stokes the ball early and often.
Coach of the Year- Cuonzo Martin
Not many people expected Tennessee to be good this soon after Bruce Pearl’s exit. But Martin has put the Volunteers in a position to contend for the No. 2 team in the conference behind Kentucky. With several players on his team recruited from Pearl’s team, Martin was able to keep the team focused enough to contend for the NCAA Tournament, and they will be better this year with most of their players returning. The biggest thing Martin has done was grab the aforementioned Stokes as a part of his first recruiting class.
Sleeper Impact Player- Marshawn Powell
Powell began the 2011-12 season as good as anyone, scoring at least 19 points with five rebounds in each of his first two games. His season was short lived, as he tore knee ligaments after in just the first week of the season. He’s back for an Arkansas team that has high expectations. Powell is a guy who averaged 14.9 points and then 10.8 points in his first two years at Arkanas, and the Razorbacks will need him to be a double-digit scorer again in what they think will be a big year for their team.
Photos: SEC Conference/Google Images
Miss us? Well we’re back. This week we’ll be previewing the six major conferences, beginning with the Big Ten.
1- Indiana. Not only will they be the team to beat in the Big Ten, but they will likely begin the season ranked No. 1 in the country. The Hoosiers bring back most of their team, including some talented newcomers, that went 27-9 in a breakout year last season. Cody Zeller, perhaps the favorite to win the Naismith Award, is back to man the middle, with Indiana also returning three more players that averaged at least 10 points per game (Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo). This is as deep as any team in the nation, as Indiana will have Yogi Ferrell compete for the starting point guard position with Hulls. In what will likely be a 10 or 11-man rotation, the Hoosiers will likely get back Maurice Creek, who has had his share of injuries three years removed from leading Indiana in scoring. This may be Indiana’s best chance at getting back to the Final Four, and anything less would be considered a disappointment.
2- Michigan. I’m a firm believer that the Wolverines have the best backcourt in the country in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Those two led Michigan to a 24-10 record a year ago, both scoring over 14 points a game. With Burke opting to come back for his sophomore year, expectations will be high in Ann Arbor. The frontcourt is a different story, as they had several graduate, but Mitch McGary will likely start down low and I think he will be one of the best freshmen in the conference. Burke and Hardaway, Jr. will lead the way, but for the Wolverines to make a run this season they will need guys like McGary and Glenn Robinson III to not play like freshmen.
3-Ohio State. The Buckeyes come into the 2012-13 season with maybe more question marks than anyone. Graduating Jared Sullinger will certainly hurt, but they also lost another solid starter in Willam Buford. But if Deshaun Thomas does what he did in last year’s NCAA Tournament, then there may not be much of a reason to worry. Thomas scored at least 14 points in four of Ohio State’s five tourney games, including 31 in their opening-round win over Loyola. He will get the ball often from Aaron Craft, who may be the best floor-general in the country. For the Buckeyes youngsters, including Shannon Scott and Amir Williams, it will be trial-by-fire because Thad Matta will need them to contribute right away.
4-Michigan State. The Spartans return most of their team, except of course Draymond Green, who was an All-American last year in his senior season. Replacing a player of Green’s caliber is tough, but Tom Izzo will look to Keith Appling to step up his production for his junior year, as he is the leading returning scorer at 11.4 a game. Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix all averaged at least seven a game, but Nix is coming off a rocky summer as he was involved in a drug arrest. Michigan State has one of the deepest teams in the country, along with Indiana, and will also look from solid production from freshman Gary Harris. Losing Green won’t be the end of the world for a Wolverine team as deep as any they’ve recently had.
5- Wisconsin. Even without Jordan Taylor, the Badgers will still contend for a top-five spot in the Big Ten thanks to Ryan Evans, a swingman who averaged 11 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds a year ago. Jared Berggren (10.5 ppg., 4.9 rpg) will also be back, but Sam Dekker is who they’re really excited about in Madison. The talented freshman will likely make an instant impact, as he was rated the No. 17 recruit in the nation by ESPN.
Cody Zeller - The 7-foot big man did a little bit of everything last year, averaging over 15 points and six rebounds, while also getting one steal and one block per game. That was in his freshman year, and we can expect a big improvement for Zeller’s sophomore year. It has been said for five years that Cody is the most talented of the Zeller brothers, and with his older brothers graduated, the spotlight is on Cody to prove he’s not only the best Zeller, but the best player in the nation.
Trevor Mbakwe- Now in his sixth, yup sixth, year at Minnesota, this selection all depends on Mbakwe’s health. After already missing two years due to injury, he only played ten games last year, averaging a near double-double with 14 points and 9.1 rebounds. Last year it was his ACL, but he appears like he will be ready to go by the start of the season. If he’s fully healthy, a spot on the first-team Big Ten seems like a lock.
Aaron Craft- Is there a better point guard in the nation? You could argue Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, but he is also counted on as the Racers’ go-to scorer.Pierre Jackson and Shabazz Napier are two more popular names, but I’m not sure if anyone brings what Craft brings. He’s not known for his scoring (8.8 ppg.) but with 4.6 assists to only 2.2 turnovers a game, Craft does a good job of managing the game. What he’s best known for is his ability to be a shut-down defender, averaging 2.5 steals a game a year ago. Thad Matta may count on more offense this season from Craft, but his defense will still be there.
Trey Burke- Perhaps the most talented freshman guard in the nation last year, Burke decided to come back for his sophomore year. He helped fuel a Michigan turnaround with nearly 15 points and five assists a game, and as a sophomore he will look to lead the Wolverines deep into the NCAA Tournament. He has a ton of weapons around him, and if he matures and improves on his decision maker, Burke could challenge Craft as the best point guard in the conference.
Deshaun Thomas- You can count on Thomas to provide the scoring that is lost for Ohio State after Jarred Sullinger’s departure. He scored 16 points a game a year ago with Sullinger, and for the incredibly athletic forward, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he upped that to the low-20s. Ohio State will need that out of Thomas, as they will be a very inexperienced team besides him and Craft.
Most Undervalued Team
Iowa- With 18 wins a year ago, I wouldn’t be surprised for the Hawkeyes to make a big splash this season. This will be a young team, likely starting two freshman, a sophomore and two juniors, and they lost their leading scorer in Matt Gatens, but the youngsters will carry them. The good thing for those young players is an easy schedule to begin the year. It would be tough for the Hawkeyes to go undefeated in their non-conference slate, but all of their games appear to be winnable. Iowa has a solid backcourt in Josh Oglesby and Roy Marble, and the frontcourt will be led by freshman center Adam Woodbury, a top-40 recruit, along with Aaron White. Iowa usually isn’t a team mentioned with the best of the Big Ten, but this team has all the talent to be in the top half of the conference and grab an NCAA Tournament berth.
Most Overrated Team
Northwestern- I don’t see Northwestern repeating their surprising year from last year when they went 19-14. 20-point per game John Shurma is gone, and starting two-guard JerShon Cobb has been suspended for the season for a violation of team policy. Drew Crawford will carry the scoring load, but I’m not sure if they have much behind him. They have two transfers manning their frontcourt in Jared Swopshire and Nikola Cerina, two guys who never did much impressing at their previous schools. David Sobolewski will be one quality big man for the Wildcats, but I just don’t think they have enough pieces to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Even last year they didn’t impress me, only beating one ranked team all season. With losing their go-to guy, the 2012-13 season won’t be as pretty for Northwestern.
Sleeper Impact Player
Maurice Creek- The Indiana junior could be a huge x-factor this year for the Hoosiers. Three years ago when IU was the laughingstock of the Big Ten, Creek averaged 16 points a game in his freshman season. He got hurt just before Big Ten play began, and was out the rest of the season. He wasn’t his normal self for his sophomore season, clearly not at 100 percent. He only played half of that year, and none the past season. Creek appears to be healthy now, and no one expects him to average 16 points a game, but he still be a big weapon off the bench for the Hoosiers. If he stays healthy, Creek is a guy who provide 10 points a game in a reserve role. IU is a deep team, and to have a guy like Creek as your 7th or 8th man on the bench, they will be in good shape.
Michigan’s John Beilein, like Indiana’s Tom Crean, helped turnaround a dismal Michigan basketball program. But the thing with the Wolverines, no one quite expected it. They should be one of the top teams in the conference this year because a load of depth. They have stars in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., but also quality freshmen that will make this a special team. Michigan won their first Big Ten title since 1986 last season, and though they may not win it this year, they will be right in the thick of the race.
Photos courtesy of Fox59.com and whenlarrymetmagic.com
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament gave us a lot of surprises, but will the Final Four teams be a surprise? We will find out by Sunday, but first let me preview the four match-ups I’m most excited for.
No. 7 Florida vs. No. 3 Marquette: These two teams are probably the best two teams nobody has been talking about during the tournament. I didn’t have either of these squads getting this far, but they have really impressed thus far. Jae Crowder put up 25 points and 16 rebounds one game and 17 points and 13 rebounds the next for Marquette — he has officially reached beast mode status. Florida hasn’t played the same type of competition as Marquette has, as they have blown out Virginia and Norfolk State, but in the NCAA Tournament you have to respect any blowout win. I think Crowder will be too much for the Gators though, and the Golden Eagles make the Elite Eight.
No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 1 Michigan State: This is perhaps the best coaching battle of the round, as we have Rick Pitno and Tom Izzo going up against each other. The two have combined for 11 Final Four appearances, and I think the winner of this game will be able to beat the Florida-Marquette winner. Both teams have peaked at the right time, but I think the Cardinals still have too many question marks. If Gorgui Dieng gets into foul trouble again or if Peyton Siva is inconsistent with his shot again, then the Spartans should win this one easily.
No. 4 Indiana vs. No. 1 Kentucky: The rematch everyone has been waiting for will be here Friday night. Kentucky has cruised through their first two rounds, backed off of strong performances from Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague. Last time the Hoosiers were able to beat the Wildcats, they were able to get Anthony Davis in quick foul trouble, and Jones was basically nonexistent. Don’t expect that to happen again. Jones and Teague will be the wild-cards for UK — if they are playing to their full potential I’m not sure if anyone in the country can beat them.
No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 1 Syracuse: This is the one I’m most excited for. I love match-ups with teams of contrasting styles, and that’s exactly what this is. The Orangemen are as fun and exciting as a team as there is to watch in college basketball, and the Badgers simply aren’t, but their defense can stifle opponents. I agree with my counterpart, David Harten, in thinking that the Wisconsin style of play will throw Syracuse off too much, giving them the upset.
Don’t look now, but the Tennessee Volunteers are creeping up the ranks as a possible bubble team for the NCAA Tournament.
Winners of eight of their last nine games, Tennessee found a way to grab the No. 2 seed for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, despite five teams lower than them having better overall records.
With a strong finish to the regular season, including wins at Florida and at home over Vanderbilt — two locks for the tournament — the Volunteers have surprised a lot of people under first-year coach Cuzono Martin.
Nobody expected this for the Vols — many thought they would dwell in the cellar of the SEC. After early season losses to Austin Peay, Charleston and Oakland, that prediction seemed likely.
But something changed, all it took was a 69-44 blowout victory to national title perennial favorite Kentucky to put a spark into this team, as they have just lost once since that game at the end of January. Sweeping the season series with the Gators and beating the Commodores shockingly gave them the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed in the SEC.
This year’s Vols don’t necessarily have the star power they have had in the past, with Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris both leaving early after last season’s drama involving Bruce Pearl. But they have had a couple guys come out of nowehere to provide big lifts. Trae Golden, a guy who averaged all of three points a game last year, is currently leading Tennessee in scoring with 13.4 per game. He posted 17 points in each of the most recent Florida and Vanderbilt games.
Jeronne Maymon, in his second season at Tennessee after transferring from Marquette, has seen his minutes increase from just 9.1 last year to 27.8 this year. He has been the main post-presence for the Vols, averaging 12.6 and 7.8 a game. He picked it up when it counted too, scoring at least 12 points in every SEC game.
Perhaps the best player of the three is Jarnell Stokes, who came to Tennesee in January after graduating high school early. In his first start, he posted 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in an upset win over UConn. He’s scored in double figures six times this season, and is still just two months removed from his 18th birthday. Stokes has perhaps been the wild card on this team, as they have lost just three times since his first start nearly two months ago. He has quickly become one of the best freshman in the conference this side of Lexington.
What Martin has done this year in his first year at Tennessee coach is pretty remarkable, considering they lost 70 percent of their scoring from last year. They have had unknowns step up big, and that takes a special kind of coach to make that happen.
Those bad early season losses won’t go away, however, and that’s what will hurt Tennessee the most when it comes time to determine if they are good enough to be in the NCAA Tournament. But with those big conference wins, as well as the non-conference win over Connecticut, things are looking good in Knoxville.
They aren’t in yet, but a win or two in the SEC Tournament this weekend will surely help their cause. They’ve got Ole Miss on Friday, a team they beat 73-60 last month. If they win that one they will likely play Vanderbilt, who they beat just last weekend. They are on the outside looking in at the moment, but that can change this weekend. And don’t be surprised if they keep on with their surprises.
The bubble teams can rejoice. Creighton and Murray State were both able to win the conference tournaments, albeit in close fashion, thus giving them automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament.
The best part about that for the bubble teams is that those two squads were going to be locks anyway. If Illinois State were to win the Missouri Valley or Tennessee State win the Ohio Valley, it would have taken a bid away from a team like Miami or Texas.
Illinois State and Tennessee State sure made the bubble teams worry though. After upsetting No. 14 Wichita State the previous day, the Redbirds were in good position to knock off Creighton in the MVC championship. Nic Moore drove coast-to-coast for a layup with 6.5 seconds left to force overtime with the Bluejays. Creighton’s Antoine Young took over in the extra period, however, scoring eight of his 14 points in overtime to preserve the victory for the favorite.
As for Tennessee State, they had already defeated Murray once this year — the only loss of the year for the Racers. They almost did it again, up seven points with just over five minutes left. Murray was somehow able to come back and get the automatic bid. Jewaun Long drove the baseline to scored the winning layup with 4.4 seconds left to win it for Murray.
So what does this mean for the rest of the country? The MVC was going to get two bids regardless of the conference tournament, Wichita and Creighton. Likewise for the OVC, where Murray is a lock. This gives the bubble teams a much better chance at making the Big Dance.
Both Creighton and Murray State are threats to make a run in the tournament and possibly pull off an upset. They both feature stars (Isaiah Canaan for Murray and Doug McDermott for Creighton), they are both deadly from deep and they both rebound well — all of which are key in making a March run.
North Carolina-Ashville and Belmont were the top other squads that punched in their automatic bids over the weekend. Ashville will likely be a 15/16 seed, possibly playing one of the first round games. Belmont could possibly be a sleeper to make a run, having not lost since Jan. 21. In their season-opener they lost to Duke by just one point, 77-76. Depending on who they play, their opposition should be on alert next week.
On that note — next week — that feels good to say. This is going to be a fun week for all of us in Championship Week, but the real fun begins next week.
Since last week it is safe to say that Kansas State, Purdue, Iowa State and Mississippi State are virtual locks to make it into the NCAA Tournament. With just one regular-season game left for most of the power conference teams, who is close to making themselves a lock for the tournament?
Northwestern: They missed their chance, two of them in fact. In the past eight days the Wildcats have dropped two gut-wrenching games to some top Big Ten competition. First came a 67-55 overtime loss to Michigan State last Tuesday, and then tonight they lost a 75-73 heartbreaker to Ohio State. Just one of those losses may have been Northwestern over the top. To make it even worse, both of those games were at home, and the committee won’t give them many excuses for those games. There is still some hope left, however. Their regular-season finale is at Iowa, and that is obviously a must-win. Then they need to win a couple games in the Big Ten tournament, with hopefully one of them being against one of the five ranked Big Ten teams. This is a team everyone wants in the tournament, but at just 7-10 in conference right now, they are about out of chances. Feb. 29 status: Out
Miami: The Hurricanes got lucky. Their starting center Reggie Johnson only had to miss one game after NCAA violations. This puts Miami in a good position. They beat Florida State on Sunday, but a loss to NC State did them no favors. Miami now needs to beat Boston College this weekend, and then not get upset in the ACC Tournament. One upset and they are out. That’s how much Miami is on the bubble right now. Feb. 29 status: In
Connecticut: I definitely can’t figure out the Huskies. At this point I would say their resume doesn’t warrant an at-large bid. After that buzzer-beater win at Villanova, I thought the Huskies had a shot at turning things around. They lost a close one against Syracuse, and came back from that with a loss at Providence. No really, Providence. They have now lost nine out of 12 games, and the committee certainly won’t like that. They play a Pitt team this weekend that is playing better ball than them at the moment. A couple wins in the Big East tournament will be a must, but they don’t have a Kemba Walker to save them this year. Feb. 29 status: Out
Texas: Simply put, the Longhorns are hanging on by a thread. They continue to beat the teams they should beat (Texas Tech and Oklahoma most recently). A win at Kansas this weekend will make them a lock, but that will be a tough one. Assuming they lose that one, they will be 19-9 with a similar situation as Miami — right on the edge. There will be no room for error in the Big 12 tournament. A loss early on and there bubble will be burst. Feb. 29 status: In
South Florida: Their win over Louisville tonight may have put them over the top. Now they need to just not lose early on in the Big East tournament. But even with a first or second round loss, it will be hard for the committee to not give the fifth place team in the Big East an at-large bid. They have played arguably the easiest schedule in conference, but with wins over tourney teams Cinci and Louisville within the past three days, they seem to be in good shape. Feb. 29 Status: In
Colorado and Oregon: These two teams play each other tomorrow in what may be the biggest Pac-12 game of the year. Both teams look to be out at the moment, so whichever team loses will likely not have a shot at the NCAA’s. The winner may just be able to position itself as one of the last teams in to make it. The Pac-12 should get four times in the tournament — California, Arizona and Washington all seem like good bets to make it. No chance this conference gets five teams in, so that’s why the Colorado-Oregon game tomorrow is a must-win on both sides.
Xavier: The Musketeers have not played up to potential all year, going just 9-6 in the Atlantic-10. Non-conference wins against Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinatti are all solid, but they are 0-3 against the top two teams in the conference (Temple and Saint Louis). They have swapped between wins and losses there last 8 games, but those non-conference wins still hold. As long as they don’t lose early in the conference tournament they should be in a position to grab one of the last at-larges. Feb. 29 Status: In
St Joseph’s: I’m not sure if both the Hawks and Musketeers can both make it in. St. Joes had a big win vs. Temple over the weekend, but still will need a little help to get in. Their biggest non-conference win of the year game against Creighton. They lost their only game of the year to Xavier, and a 9-7 conference record won’t go well with the committee. If they run into Xavier in the A-10 tournament, that could be a win-and-you’re-in game. Feb. 29 Status: Out
Miami’s hopes of making it to the NCAA Tournament were already iffy, but it will likely get even more difficult for them.
In case you didn’t see it over the weekend, the Hurricanes’ starting center Reggie Johnson has been declared ineligible after an investigation revealed some of his family members took travel benefits that came for the Miami coaching staff.
There is a good chance Johnson will be out for the remander of the year, and if so, it will be a big blow for the Hurricanes. Johnson is fourth on the team in scoring at 10.6 a game and is first in rebounds with 6.9 per contest.
In a conference with the North Carolina’s duo of Jon Henson and Tyler Zeller, as well as Duke’s combo of the Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly, Miami will miss Johnson’s size when the ACC-tournament begins next week.
Miami will move F-C Kenny Kadji to the center position. Kadji is second on the team in both points and rebounds, averaging 13 and 5.7 a game. The Hurricanes don’t have much depth with their big, and with Miami already having a guard-heavy roster, they are now faced with literally no one to anchor the middle with Kadji.
Raphaeal Akpejiori started on Sunday in their game against Florida State, but was not much of a factor, totaling four rebounds and zero points in just seven minutes of action. He has only scored more than five points on two occasions this year, never going above seven.
Miami will play 6-foot-8 guard-forward DeQuan Jones a little more, but I’m not sure if he is the answer. There really isn’t an answer. Miami will just have to rely more on their guards and hope for solid play with no foul-trouble from Kadji.
They were still able to beat Florida State on Sunday, moving them to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s ‘Last Four In’ in today’s Bracketology, but Miami still needs some wins to feel more comfortable come Selection Sunday. A big game at North Carolina State on Wednesday could bring the victorious team near a lock-status .
Miami will close the season with a very winnable game against Boston College. If they lose that NC State game, one and maybe two wins in the ACC Tournament will be a must for the Hurricanes. The season isn’t totally lost for the Hurricanes. It may just make them play even harder, or who knows, an unsung hero may emerge to carry them to the Big Dance.