2013-14 Conference Previews: Big Ten
John Groce’s first season as the head coach of the Illini, after a successful stint at Ohio, went as well as could have been expected. The season started with a win at the Maui Invitational and ended in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. Groce will need to replace some ey players, including 2/3 of the backcourt in Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson. Point guard Tracy Abrams is back for his junior season. Abrams was a solid defender last year for the Illini, but he will need to become a more consistent, and selective, shooter. Junior center Nnanna Egwu continues to improve in the middle and is slowly developing into a reliable rim protector. Expect him to also show some more improvement in the post on offense this season. Wing Joseph Bertrand was a very efficient scorer coming off the bench last season, but he may turn out to be the Illini’s go-to guy this year. Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice was one of the Missouri Valley’s top scorers his two seasons there and should provide the same with his new team. Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey is undersized for the 4, but he is a solid rebounder and good 3-point threat.
What to Watch For – Besides Rice and Ekey, Groce has more newcomers with one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Guard Kendrick Nunn could start from Day 1 and he gives the Illini a scoring threat in the mid- and long-range game, as well as being able to handle point guard duties if needed. Malcolm Hill is an athletic wing who can get to the basket and Austin Colbert is a skilled and athletic post player who needs to add some strength. Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate round out the class and give the Illini depth and a foundation to build on in coming years.
It’s Tom Crean’s 6th season at the helm of the Hoosiers and he has them right where they should be- consistent winners and a nationally relevant team. The top 4 scorers from last year’s team are gone, including two Top 4 NBA Draft picks in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, but Crean has enough not talent to make some noise again come March. Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell had some growing pains last year which were eased by the team around him, but with so many young players, he will need to step up and take control this season. It would also help if he could consistently knock down jumpers to open up the floor. Senior forward Will Sheehey was very good off the bench last year, providing energy and scoring, but he will need to show that he can bring consistent scoring production in longer minutes. Arizona State transfer Evan Gordon will bring some much-needed perimeter shooting. Sophomores Hanner Mosquera-Parea and Jeremy Hollowell provide athleticism and depth, but neither has shown that they can be consistent contributors on offense yet.
What to Watch For – Like Illinois above, Indiana is welcoming in their own class of freshmen, some who could make a big impact immediately. Noah Vonleh is still developing as a player, but what he has shown already is impressive. He has a great understanding of the game and can score on the perimeter or in the post. Luke Fischer is athletic big man who runs the floor well and is developing a versatile offensive game, though he needs to get stronger to defend in the post at the college level. Wings Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson are both potentially explosive scorers who need to become better defenders to get consistent playing time. A solid class, and all should be in the rotation come February and March.
Fran McCaffrey has continued to improve the Hawkeyes since taking over 4 seasons ago, with last season ending in an NIT Championship game loss. This year, McCaffrey has all his starters returning and enough talent to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Guard Roy Devyn Marble has a tremendous NIT, averaging almost 25 points per game until the being stopped in the title game. With more confidence heading into this year, hopefully Marble shows the same aggressiveness in looking to attack the basket. He is joined in the backcourt by sophomore Mike Gesell, a strong perimeter defender who does a good job protecting the ball on offense. Both Marble and Gesell should hopefully improve their consistency from the perimeter. Junior Aaron White is a strong scorer in the lane and a good player to run the offense through. White also has a great ability to draw fouls, using solid shot fakes around the rim to get defenders in the air. He is not a very good defender or perimeter shooter, but time with the US A Basketball this summer will hopefully pay dividends. Senior Melshan Besabe is active on both ends of the floor and can be counted on to do the little things teams need to win. Sophomore center Adam Woodbury needs to develop more strength to handle the post in the Big 10, but he is skilled and should be improved on both ends of the floor this year.
What to Watch For – Bench production was a problem last year for the Hawkeyes, and it will be important for some players to step up. Wisconsin transfer Jared Uthoff was the best high school player in Iowa in 2011 and hasn’t played since. If he shakes off any rust quickly, he could be one of Iowa’s top scorers. Center Gabriel Olaseni has shown some ability to be a quality rim-protector in limited minutes and should give McCaffrey an option if Woodbury has some problems on defense. Freshman Peter Jok, sophomore Anthony Clemmons, and junior Josh Oglesby should round out the rotation, but they need to be productive in their minutes.
John Beilein’s Wolverines put together a fantastic season leading up to the NCAA Final, where they lost a close game to Louisville. Many of the key pieces are back, though two important ones are gone in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Still, expect the Wolverines to be in the chase for the Big 10 title, and if things go right, a candidate for another deep March run. Sophomores Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and Nik Stauskas are back and with the experience of last year, should be an even improved core. Robinson is strong and skilled, able to score from the perimeter or take it strong to the basket. McGary is great post player for Beilein’s system. He can play in the high or low post, can hit the offensive boards, and can pass. Stauskas is one of the best 3-point shooters in the country, though his life was made easier with Burke’s ability to get into the defense. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford don’t contribute much on the offensive side, but they provide muscle and interior defense for a team that lacks many big men.
What to Watch For – Replacing Burke and, to a lesser extent, Hardaway won’t be easy, but Beilein has some young players who will need to learn on the job quickly to enhance the remaining core. Point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. is a playmaker in the vein of Burke, though he needs to show the confidence in his team that Burke had. We can’t forget Spike Albrecht, who was little-used behind Burke, before having a big NCAA Championship game. Even if relegated to a back-up role again, he will have Beilein’s confidence in him. Zak Irvin is a good perimeter shooter and can get to the rim, though it will be interesting to see how he plays as a 3rd or 4th option on offense.
5 of the last 6 seasons, Tom Izzo’s squad has won at least 27 games, and he has the team to at least match that number again. All the key players are back from last year’s team except for Derrick Nix in the middle. Sophomore Gary Harris was the Big 10 Freshman of the Year and put up good numbers while dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. Healthy, Harris could be one of the top scorers in the Big 10 and gives them a versatile offensive threat. Point guard Keith Appling is developing into a more well-rounded scorer, but he can still be a little too careless with his decisions. If he settles into more of a distributor role, the whole team should benefit. Junior Branden Dawson recovered well from an ACL injury his freshman year, and hopefully the energy and aggressiveness he showed pre-injury will be back. Senior Adreian Payne played more on the perimeter with Nix in the post, but he can use his length and athleticism well around the basket, and can pop out to the perimeter to give a different look. Junior Travis Trice, sophomore Denzel Valentine and freshman Alvin Ellis add depth to the backcourt and potential scoring off the bench.
What to Watch For – Nix’s toughness will be missed in the middle, and while Payne can play around the basket, he always seemed more comfortable on the perimeter. If Izzo wants to put Payne in that position, he needs an answer in the middle. Sophomore Matt Costello and junior Alex Guana are both capable of playing physical defense and can replace Nix there, but neither is a proven offensive threat. Freshman Gavin Schilling is more of an offensive threat with his athleticism and ability to make plays off the offensive boards, but is still a capable defender. He could get more minutes as the season wears on and he learns to handle college defenders.
Making the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament wasn’t enough to save Tubby Smith’s job, so in comes Richard Pitino to try and take Minnesota basketball up a notch. With some key losses in personnel, Pitino’s first season may be a bit rough, but he does have some veterans to lean on. Returning in the backcourt are Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, no relation. Andre emerged as the Gophers’ top scoring threat, scoring 41 against Memphis early in the season, and averaging over 26 points per games in the Gophers’ two NCAA Tournament games against UCLA and Florida. Andre is a confident deep-ball threat, but also has the speed to get into the lane and create for himself or others. Austin needs to be more consistent from the perimeter, but he has the size and strength to get to the basket, as well as being a strong perimeter defender. They are joined by Florida International transfer Malik Smith, who followed Pitino to Minnesota after 1 year with FIU. Smith will give the Gophers a strong 3-point threat, allowing Andre Hollins to focus more on distributing the ball. Redshirt freshman Charles Buggs is a long and athletic 4 who can score around the basket, or face up and knock down the mid-range jumper.
What to Watch For – The loss of Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe brings with it a significant chunk of the Gophers’ rebounding ability on both ends of the floor. Buggs should help, but more will be needed out of the center position. Elliott Eliason is a skilled big man, capable of blocking shots and rebounding, though he needs some of Mbakwe’s toughness. Junior Maurice Walker is more athletic, but hasn’t shown much in limited minutes yet. Oto Osenieks is strong at the 4, and has the ability to defend bigger players and rebound on both ends of the floor. Together, this trio will need to try and at least match what Mbawke and Williams brought on defense and the boards. If not, Big 10 teams may feast inside on the Gophers.