The NBADraftBlog.com early preview of the November NCAA tournaments continues with one that has become a favorite of mine since its inception in 2007 – The Puerto Rico Tip-Off. This year promises to be the best tournament yet with a stacked field, including 2010 Final Four Team West Virginia, North Carolina and its trio of top freshmen, Tubby Smith and his revitalized Minnesota team, continually improving programs in Vanderbilt and Nebraska, and three of the best Mid-Major programs in the country in Davidson, Hofstra and Western Kentucky. Nothing thrills college basketball fans more than early-season upsets, and this tournament has the potential for a couple of those.
Make sure to also check out the pre-previews of the Maui Invitational, the O’Reilly CBE Classic, and the 76 Classic, and make sure to check back over the next few days for the rest of the tournaments. Now let’s take a look at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off…..
Puerto Rico Tip-Off Pre-Preview
Coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in recent UNC history, the Tar Heels look to rebound behind John Henson and a group of elite freshmen. Henson, who has good size and a large wingspan, but serious strength issues, showed nice improvement after Ed Davis went down with an injury last season. He is a good offensive rebounder, but he needs to work on getting position in the post, and his footwork could use some polishing. Defensively, he is an excellent shot blocker with great timing, but again, how much his strength improves will go a long way to how effective a defender he will be in the post. He will team with seven-footer Tyler Zeller, a much more polished big man, who has good touch around the rim, as well as the ability to step out and hit a 10-foot jumper. He needs to improve his defensive positioning in the post, as well as on rebounds. Added to these big men are freshmen Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock, and Kendall Marshall, as well as Alabama transfer Justin Knox. Barnes, a small forward who many have touted as the potential #1 pick in the 2011 draft, is a phenomenal talent, having the ability to score inside and out, gets to the rim with ease, and handles the ball like a guard. Defensively, he will need to make a more consistent effort and will need to show that he can guard quicker wing players at the NCAA level. Bullock is a shooting guard with great size, can play and defend the 3 if necessary and is fundamentally sound. He had great range on his jumper, plays well in transition and is a solid rebounder. He is another player though who will need to be more consistent with his defensive effort and will need to adjust to a quicker and more physical game. Marshall has a good chance of unseating Larry Drew II as the team’s starting point guard by the time conference play comes around. Until then, look at him to focus on learning the offense while sitting next to the coaches, and providing a spark off the bench when he gets a shot. He is a great passer, though he needs to improve his perimeter jumper to stop the defense from sagging off on him.
A Final Four trip last season was just the beginning of Bob Huggins’ rebuilding of the Mountaineers basketball program. Team leader Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks are gone, but point guards Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant are back. Both bring different skills to the court, and Huggins has found ways to get them on the court together. Mazzulla is the more natural point guard, while Bryant is at his best when going to the basket. Both of them need to improve their perimeter shooting, but both are also strong defenders and extremely tough – prototypical Huggins players. Kevin Jones was very impressive last season, battling strong in the lane and being a force on the offensive boards. On top of that, he has great range on his jumper, though his shot selection needs improvement. Defensively, he is a bit heavy-footed, but he does a good job using his body to defend the post. Freshman Kevin Noreen is very similar to how I described John Henson above, though Noreen is a much more-skilled offensively than Henson. He does need to add strength to be effective in the Big East. Freshmen David Nyarsuk and Noah Cottrill both have the potential to be top-level players, but will most likely need another year before they contribute.
Tubby Smith’s revitalization of the Golden Gophers hit a road bump with the arrest of Trevor Mbakwe, but word came down today that the charges against him were dropped and he had been reinstated to the team. There has been no indication from Smith whether he will be welcome back to the team or not, but if he does play, Minnesota will be a much better team. Mbakwe is very strong and athletic, goes hard to the basket and knows how to finish. Complimenting him on the perimeter is Blake Hoffarber, one of the best three-point shooters in the country. Hoffarber should be much more effective with a solid presence in the middle. He is also a decent defender, giving a strong effort, but not always capable of staying with his man. He tries to compensate by anticipating where his man is going, though that doesn’t always work out. Look for him to spend some time running the offense and helping push the ball in transition.
AJ Ogilvie and Jermaine Beal are gone from last year’s NCAA tournament team, but Coach Kevin Stallings has plenty of talent to keep the Commodores on the winning track. Jeff Taylor will have his chance to shine. A small forward with the ability to hit from mid-range and take the ball strong to the hoop, Taylor has added the necessary muscle this off-season to allow him to muscle his way to the basket when needed. Defensively, he needs to work on his on-ball defense as he tends to leave his man too much room to operate on the perimeter. Three-point bomber John Jenkins will need to adjust to a starting role this season and more focused attention from opposing defenses. I hope to see him become more versatile on offense by going to the basket more and getting to the line. Freshman Rod Odom has the ability to provide a post presence with good footwork, a solid body and good touch around the rim.
The Pride have a sense of excitement under popular new coach Mo Cassara. Shooting guard Charles Jenkins is one of the top scorers in the country. His strength is taking players off the dribble and using his strong body to draw contact and finish. His perimeter shooting has improved, though he still needs to become more consistent, especially squaring to the basket while keeping his quick release. Defensively, he is a good on-ball defender, but has a tendency to roam off the ball. He doesn’t gamble as much as he used to, but he still gets caught out of position too often.
Coach Doc Sadler may have his best team to date this season, though it is not as much about individual efforts as it is about playing within the system. Point guard Brandon Richardson runs the offense and is the leading returning scorer. I expect him to step up as the team leader this season and show that he is a capable of keeping the offense moving, while scoring when needed. He does a good job penetrating the defense, though he tends to force shots rather than hitting the open man. That needs to improve for the rest of team to get the looks they need. Center Christopher Neimann returns from injury and he is a massive space-eater. While not very quick, he has good footwork and nice touch around the rim. How Richardson delivers him the ball in the post will be the key to his season.
Davidson has been able to transition nicely from the Stephen Curry era with the help of two sophomores, JP Kuhlman and Jake Cohen. Both players thrived in the structured offense and found themselves with the ball in the right place with great looks. Look for more of the same from them, solid fundamental basketball while putting the team first.
The loss of AJ Slaughter and Jeremy Evans will be tough for the Hilltoppers to over come this year, though they do have some young players who may make an impact down the road. Steffphon Pettigrew will be the go-to guy this season, though I don’t expect his production to improve much without Evans and Slaughter around.
This wraps up the look at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Make sure to check back all season at NBADraftBlog.com for all your player profiles and scouting reports. You can follow me on Twitter at @nbadraftblog or you can always email me at ed @ nbadraftblog.com.