Previewing the Big Ten

8 Oct

Despite being one of the most consistent conferences in the country over the last decade the Big Ten has been in a prolonged National title drought.  Despite having two teams reach the Final Four, Wisconsin and Michigan State and the Badgers reaching the title game, the conference has been without a title for 15 years.

This season another team will take aim at ending that drought.  Maryland seems to be the consensus favorite to win the conference and be the team with the best title chances.  The Terrapins won’t be without contenders in the Big Ten.  The other Final Four team from last year Michigan State and Tom Crean’s Indiana Hoosiers should be the other top contenders.  Teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan should be solid again but are likely to take a step back while Purdue is looking to take a step into the upper echelon of the conference.

Despite losing the likes of Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz and Richaud Pack to graduation from a team that won 28 games last season they do return big man Jake Layman and sophomore guard Melo Trimble.  Joining Mark Turgeon’s squad is Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter and five-star recruit center Diamond Stone.

March always seems to be Tom Izzo time no matter what kind of talent he has on the roster.  This season Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello, and Tum Tum Nairn return and are joined by a transfer Erron Harris from West Virginia and 6-10 freshman Deyonta Davis should add to the frontcourt options to go along with Costello.

It has been a few years since Indiana has been atop the Big Ten that could change this year.   The team’s top four scorers return led by Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon, Jr.  With the shot clock being reduced to 30 seconds Tom Crean has said he would like the team to play even more upbeat which is saying something for a team that averaged over 77 points per game.  Thomas Bryant is an athletic big man who comes to Bloomington getting rave reviews for his athleticism and work ethic.

Wisconsin is like Michigan State.  Bo Ryan always seems to be in the mix no matter his roster.  The Badgers lost a ton off of its National runner-up team.  Gone are Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson but back are Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig lead a roster that has seven freshmen on it including top recruit guard Brevin Pritzl.

Like Wisconsin, Ohio State lost a lot including lottery pick D’Angelo Russell, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson.  Marc Loving returns as the team’s lone junior but Thad Matta brings in five 4-star recruits including a trio of guards;  6-4 Austin Grandstaff, 6-5 Jaquan Lyle and 5-9 A.J. Harris joining them are 6-7 Mickey Mitchell and 6-10 Daniel Giddens.

After struggling through mediocrity last season the Michigan Wolverines are hoping a healthy Caris LaVert can help them rebound.  Both LaVert and Derrick Walton, Jr. suffered season-ending injuries in January.  The injuries allowed the likes of Aubrey Dawkins, Zak Irvin and Ricky Doyle to develop as players.  Even though the Wolverines haven’t added much outside of center Moritz Wagner if LaVert and Walton are healthy Michigan should be much improved.

If there is a sleeper in the conference it is the Purdue Boilermakers.  Matt Painter’s squad lost Jon Octeus to graduation but seniors A.J. Hammons and Raphael Davis return along with sophomore Vince Edwards from a team that won 21 games and finished third in the conference.  Senior transfer Johnny Hill makes Purdue his third team in his college career after transferring from Texas-Arlington and highly-touted forward Caleb Swanigan should help replace Octeus and then some.

It might be Maryland’s turn at a National title but the conference should again be strong at the top perhaps with some different faces.  The question is, is this the year the drought ends?

Early Season Tournaments Provide Insight

8 Oct

During the first couple of months of the season tournaments give us a look at teams against competition we may not otherwise see before post-season play.  Here is a look at some of this year’s early-season tournaments other than the marquee Champions Classic which will again feature Kentucky facing Duke and Kansas battling Michigan State to finish off the Tip-Off Marathon.

The Advocare Invitational takes place Nov. 26-27, 29 and features Wichita State who could be poised for another deep run in March with the back court of Ron Baker and All-American candidate Fred Vanvleet.  The duo no longer has Tekele Cotton riding shotgun with them but they do welcome a couple of transfers, Anton Grady from Cleveland State should provide an inside presence for Gregg Marshall’s squad and Conner Frankamp who comes over from Kansas.  Also in the field are Dayton, Xavier, Notre Dame who have top 25 potential, Iowa, Monmouth and a couple of teams with intriguing coaches USC (Andy Enfield) and Alabama (Avery Johnson).

The Directv Wooden Legacy takes place at the same time.  This one features a match up everyone hopes to see; Michigan State vs. Arizona, Tom Izzo vs. Sean Miller, two top-level programs hoping for deep NCAA Tournament runs.  Both teams have exceptional talent, Michigan State with senior big man Matt Costello and guard Denzel Valentine, the duo is joined by West Virginia transfer Eron Harris.  At Arizona their senior duo is center Kaleb Tarczewski and guard Gabe York.  They are also joined by a transfer as Ryan Anderson leaves Boston College to head out west.  There are other teams hoping to spoil the party, namely Providence with guard Kris Dunn and Boise State with their senior sharpshooter Anthony Drmic.  Then there is Evansville who won 24 games a season ago and their secret weapon guard D.J. Balentine.

The Diamond Head Classic on Dec. 22-23,25 features a clear cut favorite in Oklahoma with Buddy Hield and three other starters returning from a squad that reached the Sweet 16 for Lon Kruger.  Aside from the Sooners, the tournament also features a Northern Iowa team that earned a 5 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament and what should be the most fun on-the-court head to head with BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth facing off with Harvard’s Siyani Chambers in the first round.

The Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 8 has an undercard of West Virginia playing Virginia and Maryland taking on UConn in the night cap.  It is hard to call a game with Virginia the undercard as the Cavaliers could be national title contenders with their stifling defense and back court of Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes and senior big man Mike Tobey, but with a pre-season #1 team in Maryland and the other two years removed from a national title of its own in UConn, Virginia’s game with in-state rival West Virginia will be the warm up.  Maryland’s sophomore guard Melo Trimble is one of the best players in the country and should be a Player of the Year Candidate.  The veteran presence on the team is senior swingman Jake Layman who is a 6-9 big man who stretches the floor and rebounds.  Head Coach Mark Turgeon also landed on of the best recruits in the country when 7-1 Diamond Stone committed to Maryland.  Also joining this group is Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon.  As for UConn Ryan Boatright is gone but in steps top recruit Jalen Adams sophomore Daniel Hamilton should continue to improve.  NC State transfer Rodney Purvis needs to improve off a disappointing first season in Storrs.  Amidah Brimah returns as the nation’s best shot blocker and Sterling Gibbs a playmaking transfer from Seton Hall should help the Huskies score the ball.

The reason to watch the Legends Classic Nov. 23-24 is easy, LSU.  The expectations for the Tigers are as high as they have been in a long time and that is because of the recruiting class.  Johnny Jones landed three top 40 recruits headed by #1 Ben Simmons who is a 6-9 do everything forward.  He is joined by fellow freshmen standouts Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson.  Marquette has its own freshman building block to boast about when coach Steve Wojciechowski landed top 5 recruit power forward Henry Ellenson.  LSU will see a familiar foe as Cat Barber and N.C. State are also in this tournament.  It was Barber’s 17 points that helped erase a 16-point halftime deficit eliminating LSU from the NCAA Tournament.

The Battle 4 Atlantis has possibly taken over as the must-watch early-season tourney.  This year’s field includes UConn and former Big East foe Syracuse, Michigan and Texas A&M both of whom are looking to climb into the upper tier of their respective conferences, Texas and Charlotte both made high profile coaching changes; Charlotte hiring former NBA star Mark Price and Texas luring Shaka Smart away from VCU and last there is Gonzaga who is long past the mid-major moniker and now simply retools like a lot of the major programs across the country.  The storylines in this tournament are aplenty besides the ones mentioned above, how about Washington who saw the transfer flood gates open this offseason and its best player Nigel Williams-Goss who is now sitting out the season but will see his former teammates as he is now enrolled at Gonzaga.  This is one of those tournaments where it doesn’t matter when you watch, there will be something worth watching.

The Maui Invitational Nov. 23-25 will feature the likes of Kansas, Indiana, UCLA, UNLV, St. John’s, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest joining host Chaminade.  Kansas leads this field with seniors Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden being joined guards Frank Mason III and Sviatoislav Mykhailiuk  and freshman Cheick Diallo.  Yogi Farrell’s Indiana Hoosiers are looking play more up tempo this season with their top five scorers from last season’s team that averaged over 77 points a game returning.  UCLA lost some firepower off its Sweet 16 team from a year ago but senior Tony Parker returns hoping build upon that success with a much younger roster.   Dave Rice’s tenure at UNLV has been up and down; the Rebels have won games but have had no success in the NCAA Tournament when they have reached it .  During the regular season one thing that has plagued Rice’s squads has been the inability to win marquee games to help solidify their March resume.  This tournament can provide them a chance to do so.  The addition of 7-foot freshman and St. John’s transfer Chris Obekpa should help.  Speaking of St. John’s they have a new coach in former Red Storm legend Chris Mullin who will be on display in Maui.

The College Game Might Look Different

7 Oct

Basketball purists find joy in watching teams like Virginia play stifling defense or Princeton run methodical half-court sets.  Some however felt as though the college game was getting too bogged down over the past few seasons, so the NCAA has implemented a few rule changes for the 2015-16 season designed to increase scoring and speed up the overall pace of play.

The three most significant rule changes are; the shot clock being reduced from 35 seconds to 30, the restricted area underneath each basket being extended out from three feet to four feet and the number of time outs teams will have at their disposal in the second half has been reduced by one, to three.

Scoring in the college game has been on a downward trajectory of the past few seasons and the NCAA has taken steps to try and change that.  Reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 will add a minimum of 14.5 possessions to each game, theoretically giving teams more opportunities to score points.

Aslo recently a big point of emphasis and contention has been the block/charge call officials have to make.  This call is the most difficult and perhaps the most judgmental one a referee has to make.  To help alleviate some of that pressure the NCAA adopted the NBA’s rule of a restricted arc under each basket.  In order to draw a charge call the defender must establish position completely outside the arc.  Last year saw a reduction in the number of collisions underneath the basket so the NCAA has decided to extend the arc out another foot to four feet from the basket, they hope resulting in even less collisions.

Even the most hardened college hoops fan gets annoyed with the number of stoppages that take place late in games from either unnecessary fouling or timeout after timeout being called. To that end, the number of timeouts a team is given will now be four instead of five and the most they are allowed to carry over into the second half of a game is three.

One more change that has been adopted involves the 10-second call when a team is trying to get the ball over half court.  In the past if there was a stoppage from a timeout or the ball going out of bounds the 10-second count would reset.   Beginning this year teams will have 10 seconds to get the ball over half court whether there is a stoppage or not.

What kind of consequence this has on the game remains to be seen but it’s clear the NCAA feels the game needs to be sped up and is trying to take steps to make sure that happens.

SEC Full of Intriguing Coaches

5 Oct

When anyone says SEC coaches obviously the name that first comes to mind, as it should is John Calipari and the pseudo-NBA teams he is fielding at Kentucky.  However, with the four additions to the conference’s coaching ranks this summer the SEC may boast the strongest group of head coaches of any conference in the country.

Behind Calipari the league still has veterans Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt who has over 300 wins during his 16-year tenure in Nashville, Andy Kennedy who has seven trips to either the NIT or NCAA Tournament in nine seasons at Ole Miss and Mark Fox at Georgia, who is the league’s 4th longest tenured coach.

Over the past three years the league has added Frank Martin at South Carolina, Mike Anderson at Arkansas, Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M and Johnny Jones at LSU.  This quartet has amassed just two trips the NCAA Tournament with LSU making the big dance last season.

Speaking of the goings on in Baton Rouge, expectations continue to rise for Jones and his Tigers after the tournament berth last season and the addition of two top 15 recruits in shooting guard Antonio Blakeney and the top overall recruit in power forward Ben Simmons.

Last season Bruce Pearl made a well-publicized return to the conference taking the helm at Auburn.  The Tigers didn’t improve on the win total but the enthusiasm about Auburn basketball was palpable and grew to a crescendo as they made a run to the conference semifinals before falling to Kentucky.

Missouri also hired a new coach last season.  Former assistant Kim Anderson returned to Columbia as head man.  After 12 years as the head coach at division II Central Missouri that saw him have three 30-win seasons, make seven trips to the NCAA Tournament including three to the Final Four and a National Championship in 2014.  Anderson has some rebuilding to do at Missouri after winning just nine games last season.

This summer Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State and Tennessee all hired new faces to head their programs.

In Tuscaloosa Anthony Grant was let go after six seasons.  In walks Avery Johnson who had previously coached the Brooklyn Nets and led the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA Finals.  Johnson inherits a team that won 19 games but must replace their top three scorers and navigate a roster that has nine freshmen and sophomores and just two seniors.

At Florida the long awaited presumed inevitability happened, Billy Donovan made the jump to the NBA leaving to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Gators lured one of the country’s hottest coaching commodities to Gainesville, Michael White of Louisiana Tech.   Gone are Michael Frazier III, Jon Horford, Eli Carter and Chris Walker.   White spent four seasons at Louisiana Tech with 83 wins over the final three and three straight trips to the NIT.

Mississippi State was able to bring Ben Howland to town after two years away from the game.  Howland most recently spent 10 seasons at UCLA with seven trips to the NCAA Tournament and three consecutive trips to the Final Four from 2006-08.  It remains to be seen whether he can have the same effect in Starkville that Pearl has had at Auburn in changing the culture of the basketball perception.

After a tumultuous season on and off the court at Tennessee the Volunteers moved on after one season with Donnie Tyndall when his transgressions while at Southern Mississippi caught up with him.  Replacing him will be Rick Barnes who was let go after 17 years at Texas.  Barnes made the NCAA Tournament in 16 of those 17 seasons, what did him in was not making it past the second weekend in 12 of those years.  Barnes inherits a roster that returns seven of its top eight scorers, but the one that needs to be replaced is 16-point scorer Josh Richardson.

Calipari may get the ink on the page and all the media interviews but a look at the other coaches in the league reveals the storylines on the sidelines are just as intriguing as the ones between the lines.

There is Another Contender in the Valley

15 Jan

Since the turn of the century talk about the Missouri Valley Conference has centered on Creighton and Wichita State.  The talk has been with good reason as the two teams have combined for half of the regular season championships, eight conference tournament titles and 12 NCAA Tournament berths, including two trips to the Sweet 16 and a Final Four appearance from Wichita State.

With Creighton now moved on to the Big East Wichita State was seen as the team to beat in the Valley, and last year they were.  The Shockers were 35-0 and a #1 seed in the tournament before they fell to Kentucky 78-76 ending their dream season.

Coming into this season Wichita State was once again thought to be the favorite in the conference, a look at the standings shows a familiar foe lurking just a game back of the undefeated Shockers and with the same 15-2 record, the Northern Iowa Panthers.

The Panthers may not have the accolades of Creighton and Wichita State with two regular season and three conference tournament titles, they do have five NCAA Tournament appearances, a memorable trip to the Sweet 16 in 2010 (we all remember Ali Farokhmanesh, UNLV and Kansa sure do) and eight 20+ win seasons in the last 11 years.  This run started ironically enough in 2003-04 with the man who now coaches Creighton, Gregg McDermott who led them to 21 wins and led them to their first NCAA Tournament since 1990.

When McDermott left in 2006, Ben Jacobson has led them the rest of the way and again has the team poised for another 20 wins and a run at the Big Dance.

The team sits at 15-2 (4-1 in the MVC) with wins over Stephen F. Austin, Virginia Tech, Northwestern and Iowa.  The two losses were both on the road at VCU in double overtime and to Evansville by three to open conference play.

How are the Panthers able to do it year after year?  This year especially, with two words: balance and defense.  Three of their top four scorers are seniors; Seth Tuttle, Nate Buss and Deon Mitchell combine for 28.2 points per game but Tuttle is the only member of the team in double figures at 14.7 a game.  The balance comes in with seven of their nine rotation players averaging nearly 20 minutes per game and all nine getting over 15.  Every one of those nine players contributes offensively with at least 4.6 points per game; it may not sound like a lot but for a team that only averages 66 per game that is balance and depth.  They also rarely turn the ball over, committing just 11 per contest.

Where the Panthers really excel is on the defensive end of the floor allowing just over 55 points per game which puts the 9th in the country in that category.  They also hold their opponents to just 37.9% shooting from the field, while offensively they shoot it at 48.5%.  Those two stats alone will keep the Panthers in many ballgames.

With conference play upon them here is where the Panthers will get tested.  They welcome the conference’s other undefeated team, Indiana State to town on the 21st before a battle with Wichita State 10 days later and a rematch with Indiana State on February 3rd.  In what could shape up to be a very important game the season finale for Northern Iowa is a road trip to Wichita on February 28th.

With Creighton gone and Wichita State not making a run at an undefeated season it is time for people to notice that the Missouri Valley is more than just those two teams.  The Northern Iowa Panthers will make people take notice when the calendar turns to March, if not before.

Why the Coaching Tree at Duke is Filled with Former Players

8 Jan

When a coach leaves the game, any game, his legacy isn’t carried on by the number of wins or titles it is carried on by the others he taught along the way.  That is why we so often look at the coaching tree of a long-tenured coach to see how far his influence reaches.

He has the most victories of any division 1 college basketball coach.  He has four national titles and has been the head coach of Team USA for 10 international competitions, coming away with five gold medals, two of which are Olympic gold.  But for men like Mike Kryzewski it is not about records or medals it is about the lives he gets to mold every year.

Coach K has been molding lives as a head coach since 1975 when he was named the head man at Army and since 1980 he has been doing the same at Duke.  Kryzewski has had many former players and assistants go on to coach their own programs.  He currently has five former players coaching Division one programs, they are:

Steve Wojciechowski-Marquette

Chris Collins- Northwestern

Bobby Hurley- Buffalo

Johnny Dawkins –Stanford

Tommy Amaker- Harvard

What is it about legendary coaches besides success on the court that allows them to be remembered as such when they finally leave the game?  What do coaches who become branches of a coaching tree take with them when they lead their own program?  Is it style of play? Coaching or recruiting philosophies?   Amaker spent 15 years learning from Coach K as a player and then as a member of his staff and has now had three successful head coaching stints since leaving the Duke sideline.

He spent four years at Seton Hall upon leaving Duke where he led the Pirates to three NITs and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2000.  He then took the head coaching job at Michigan where he amassed three NIT berths including two title game appearances and one championship in six seasons.  He was let go in 2007 and less than a month later was hired as the head coach at Harvard.  Now in his 8th season with the Crimson, Amaker has five post-season berths, four Ivy League titles, and three NCAA Tournament berths with wins over New Mexico and Cincinnati the last two seasons.  The team finds itself at 9-3 currently and once again favorites to take home the Ivy League crown.

Through his time at Duke Amaker says whether you are a player or a coach, “you learn many things and many lessons.  They’re equally as valuable on both sides.”

Amaker became the youngest head coach in the history of the Big East Conference at 31 when he took the helm at Seton Hall.  One might think that the man he had spent over a decade with would impart some deep words of wisdom.  Amaker recalls that was far from the case. “It was very simple and I utilize this with many other situations.  He told me to be myself, and I always remember that because I was looking for something more.  It was an amazing piece of advice because it showed me how much he had confidence in me.  I knew what he meant and that gave me an incredible amount of confidence.”

In terms of running a program watching Coach K for so long Amaker says, “The way he has always developed his programs and his teams, having a sense of accountability and responsibility and those things can go a long way, That’s in the classroom, that’s what your job is on the court.  We try to emulate that, the standards that were always set.  I do think that is a guiding force that he set for us from day 1 in how you want to build a program, run a program and coach your team.”

With now five former players running Division 1 programs, why is it that Duke sees so many former players becoming first members of the Blue Devil staff and eventually head coaches?  “We’ve been lucky, I think all of us (former players now coaches) would say we’ve been lucky to be afforded that opportunity.  It’s not like he has a shortage of people who would like to work for him.  We’ve been lucky to have gotten our start with him”

Amaker says he tries to keep tabs on the other former players that are now coaching but it is hard.  “You’re engulfed with your team and your program and all that comes with that.”

He says even from a distance you see the Duke influence in their programs, “in how they are winning.”

Here is a look at how the other four former Blue Devil players are faring as head coaches.

Wojciechowski is in his first season at Marquette and although the Golden Eagles were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East they did finish their non-conference schedule with an 8-4 record with three of the four losses coming to ranked opponents.

Both Hurley and Collins are in their second seasons at Buffalo and Northwestern respectively.

In his first season with Buffalo Hurley led the team to 19 victories after winning just 14 the year prior.  The Bulls fell to Eastern Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American tournament last season and this season have gotten off to 9-3 start entering conference play.  Two of the losses coming from teams Hurley saw plenty of as a player, Wisconsin and Kentucky.

As college basketball fans we have all heard the plight of Northwestern, being the only school from a power conference to never make the NCAA Tournament.  With the hire of Chris Collins last season many wondered if he was the guy to finally get that monkey off their back in Evanston.  He may be but it will not be on overnight success story for the Wildcats.  Last season they finished 14-19 and were picked 14th in the pre-season poll this year, just above conference newcomer Rutgers.    We shall see what the future holds for Collins and his crew this year as they currently sit at 10-5 (1-1 in the Big Ten).

Much like Amaker, Johnny Dawkins spent 10 years on the bench next to Kryzewski before becoming a head coach.  Dawkins has spent the last seven years as the head man for the Stanford Cardinal.  In his first season the team made the CBI semifinals, in 2011 he won 26 games, was left out of the NCAA Tournament and went on to win the NIT.  Before last season there were some murmurs that Dawkins could be on the hot seat if the team didn’t perform well.  He answered his critics with a 23-13 season and an NCAA Tournament berth as a 10-seed where they upset New Mexico and #2 Kansas on their way to the Sweet 16.  This year the Cardinal were picked to finish 5th in the Pac-12 and are 10-3, one of those losses coming at the hands of his mentor and Duke.  They began conference play with a home sweep of Washington State and Washington before heading out on a three-game road trip to UCLA, USC and Cal.

Amaker says of his fellow Duke coaching colleagues, “you’re excited for them, proud of them, but we all recognize that it all funnels back to the man and that’s the way it should be.”

That is why the coaching tree of the game’s winningest coach will flourish once he is gone, the branches always remember how they started and were given the strongest root structure possible.

Whenever Mike Kryzewski hangs up his clipboard he will have the most wins of any coach in the history of the game, but more importantly his influence will be seen all throughout college basketball because of the young men he nurtured and decided to follow in his footsteps.

Here is the audio to the interview with Tommy Amaker

Game 18: #1 Kentucky 72 #5 Kansas 40

18 Nov

The nightcap of the Champion’s Classic turned out to be the ultimate mismatch of top 5 teams as top-ranked Kentucky dominated Kansas in every facet of the game winning 72-40.

Kentucky held Kansas to 19.6% shooting from the field,had as many blocked shots, 11 as Kansas had field goals and held the Jayhawks to just 12 2nd half points.

With coach John Calipari employing a platoon system of two 5-man units to ensure his loaded roster gets enough minutes only Andrew Harrison (11) and Dakari Johnson (10) were the only two of the 12 Wildcats to dent the score sheet to reach double figures.

The Jayhawks who will be a good team when all is said and done were completely overmatched in this one.  A lot of their shooting woes stemmed from Kentucky’s length at the rim but Wayne Selden was the team’s leading scorer with nine on 4-12 shooting.  Freshman Cliff Alexander was the other lone bright spot for Kansas with eight points and eight rebounds.

Kansas is ranked #5 in the country for a reason, they are a good basketball team.  But after trailing #1 Kentucky 35-17, they ended the first half on an 11-3 run just to close to within 10 at 38-28 despite shooting just 24% from the field.  After watching the Kentucky freshmen dominate most of the half especially on the interior, Kansas’ newcomers Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Cliff Alexander scored the Jayhawks final eight points of the half.


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