The NBA Draft Blog conference previews continue with the second part of the Big 10. If you haven’t checked out Part I – find it here. We are looking at some major teams here in Part II – including Final Four contenders Purdue and Ohio State, and some of the Big 10’s best players in JaJuan Johnson, Jon Leuer, Talor Battle, and William Buford.
The Good: Tubby Smith’s plans for the Golden Gophers hit a road bump with the arrest of Trevor Mbakwe, but he has since been reinstated to the 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. Point guard Devoe Joseph is serviceable at the point, showing good ballhandling skills and the ability to get to the basket, though he needs to limit his turnovers and work a little harder on his perimeter defense. The backcourt should receive a boost though from the return of Al Nolen, who was having a good season running the offense until declared academically ineligible in January. Junior center Ralph Sampson III showed nice improvement last season, but still has a way to go to become one of the better big men in the Big 10. Big-bodied freshman Maurice Walker should be able to contribute immediately on the boards, though his conditioning will be a question mark.
The Not-So-Good: The main deficiency you will notice about this Minnesota team is that they are just not that athletic, though Mbawke will help that a bit. The key for Minnesota to win relies on them controlling the tempo and not getting caught up in full-court sprintfests. This also makes the offense reliant on hitting their perimeter shots, so if the jumpers aren’t falling, the Gophers aren’t winning.
The Question Mark: After all of the negative publicity, is Mbakwe as good as advertised? It’s been a long time since anyone has seen Mbakwe play in an actual game, though he was dominant at the junior college level. Assuming he sakes the rust off quickly, Mbakwe will be a major player in the Big 10.
What Will March Bring?: Unfortunately, the surprising run to the NCAA tournament will not be repeated this season. The experience of Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson will be missed and the improvement of the Big 10 as a whole will send Minnesota back down towards the bottom of the conference.
The Good: While the news that Kevin Coble would not return for his senior year was a shock, Coach Bill Carmody still has plenty of talent and could make a legitimate run at a NCAA Tournament bid this season. In Coble’s absence last season, John Shurna stepped up and became on of the best players in the Big 10. A lanky forward, Shurna is reminiscent of Gordon Hayward as he is much tougher than he looks, with the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, or to operate in the post when necessary. Shurna is joined by fellow returning starters Drew Crawford and Michael Thompson heading up the backcourt for the Wildcats. Thompson is quick and does a good job taking advantage of the open space created by Carmody’s offense to get to the rim, or to roam around the perimeter and hit threes. Crawford is at his best in the mid-range game, doing a great job finding openings in the defense to get his shot. Big man Luka Mirkovic showed a lot of improvement last season, especially going strong to the basket and becoming a legitimate perimeter threat.
The Not-So-Good: Size is an issue, with Mirkovic being the only legitimate big man on the team, and even he is not completely at home playing in the post. Shurna, a natural small forward, was actually the team’s leading rebounder, which is never a good sign. Also, the bench is not that deep, so it is important for the starters to stay out of foul trouble.
The Question Mark: For the first time in many years, people are expecting good things out of Northwestern basketball. How will the team handle the expectations? It helps that it is an experienced team with a coach who stresses disciplined play. If Shurna can replicate last year’s breakout season, and there is no reason to think that he won’t, the team should be able to follow.
What Will March Bring?: 20 wins is a strong possibility again this season, and it would be a great story if the Wildcats got their NCAA invite. I’m saying yes, this is the year we get to see Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament, with Shurna a strong possibility for Big 10 Player of the Year.
The Good: National Player of the Year Evan Turner may be gone, but Coach Thad Matta has again brought in a phenomenal freshman class to help ease his departure and giving Buckeyes fans dreams of another Final Four appearance. If that wasn’t enough, Matta returns 4 out of 5 starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team. The backcourt of William Buford and Jon Diebler will pick up where they left off last season – Buford attacking the basket or nailing mid-range jumpers, Diebler camping out behind the 3 point line and making teams who try to stop the slashers pay. Returning in the frontcourt are David Lighty and huge center Dallas Lauderdale. Lighty, the best defender out of the returning Buckeyes and is capable of guarding multiple positions. Lauderdale is a big presence in the middle, and excels as a help defender in the lane. On offense, he doesn’t get many chances, but makes the most of them. The best of the incoming freshman are forward Jared Sullinger and wing Deshaun Thomas. Sullinger is an excellent post player, with great footwork, toughness and the ability to finish. Thomas has a strong body and has the ability to score from the perimeter or the post.
The Not-So-Good: The lack of size (Lauderdale is only 6’8 and Sullinger 6’9) could hurt them on the defensive end against skilled posts. Also, besides Lighty, the perimeter defense is spotty, especially closing against shooters. The team lacks a true point guard other than freshman Aaron Craft, and there is no one as skilled as Evan Turner to handle the duties like last season.
The Question Mark: Can Buford become the go-to guy that Turner was last season? Last season, any time a game was on the line, you knew Turner would have the ball and would be allowed to create either a hot for himself or his teammate. At this point I’m not convinced that Buford is a skilled enough ballhandler to be charged with creating those big shots.
What Will March Bring?: NCAA Tournament bid is assured, but I’m not entirely convinced that the lack of a true center and a go-to player will get them any further than last season’s Sweet Sixteen berth. Sullinger is a candidate to leave after one year and be a lottery pick next June. Buford is most likely a late first-round-early second-round pick, while Lighty, Diebler and Lauderdale will all have a chance to catch on with NBA teams.
The Good: Point guard Talor Battle is back for his senior year, and Penn State will need him to play even better than he has for Penn State to improve on last year’s 11 win season. Battle did everything for the Nittany Lions last season, including being the leading rebounder at 6 feet tall. Last year’s frontcourt starters are all back as well, including DJ Jackson and Jeff Brooks, two strong players who were effective at times around the basket. Battle should receive some help on the perimeter from freshman shooting guard Taran Buie, a legit scorer who finds ways to get to rim and excels in transition. Defensively, Penn State is very good at being physical and forcing a slow pace
The Not-So-Good: Besides Battle and Buie, they are not just that talented, though players such as Jackson and Brooks do play their heart out every night. Obviously, rebounding is a major issue when your six foot point guard is the leading rebounder, though the frontcourt players do a good job putting a body on people. Scoring is also a major issue, with only one player, Battle, accounting for about 1/3 of the scoring load.
The Question Mark: Can Buie become the second scorer the team needs to allow Battle a little more freedom to create as a point guard? If Buie can come in and score, Battle has the quickness to draw defenses to him and get his teammates good looks. Unfortunately, until now Battle has had to do the scoring on his own.
What Will March Bring?: I would like to see Battle go out on a high note, but I can’t see any other team bringing up the rear of the Big 10 this season. 13 wins may be a bit generous. If Battle can show more of his point guard abilities this season, I think he becomes an instant NBA prospect, though most likely a mid-second round pick at best.
The Good: The Big 3 from last season are back for the senior years, and with them in place, Coach Matt Painter will have a great shot at not only winning the Big 10, but reaching this year’s Final Four. JaJuan Johnson had a shot at being a first round pick last year, but instead spent the summer playing with the US Select Team and turning himself into a dangerous scorer and defender. While he still could stand to bulk up a bit, Johnson showed he was capable of being a legitimate post scorer, while also being athletic enough to get out in transition. E’Twaun Moore does a good job running the offense, but he is even better as a scorer. Moore can create his own shot, can get into the lane and is strong enough to finish. He is also a great pressure defender, who does a good job forcing opposing guards into bad spots. Robbie Hummel is a strong forward, capable of scoring in the post or from outside, is a strong rebounder and has excellent court vision. Hummel may have been the team’s best player last year until his ended in late February with a torn ACL. Kelsey Barlow has great size, is capable of playing either guard position, and does a great job getting into the lane.
The Not-So-Good: The bench is unproven, especially in the frontcourt. The backcourt has some depth, with Lewis Jackson, DJ Byrd and Ryne Smith all back from last season. Coach Painter will need to rely on redshirt freshman Sandi Marcius and freshman Travis Carroll to help in the post. As a team, Purdue will also need to become more consistent from the 3 point line, having only shot 31% last season. Moore should be able to get better looks if he plays more off-guard this season.
The Question Mark: How will Hummel come back from his knee injury? All signs are indicating that Hummel will return at 100%, but there is always that nagging feeling with knee injuries that something is missing. Hummel is one of the few frontcourt players and they will need him to be able to handle the strain of playing down low.
What Will March Bring?: 3 senior stars will give Purdue a better shot than most to be a Final Four team, and if I was picking today, they would be one of my picks. Matt Painter has brought a great work ethic to the program and his players respond well to him. Johnson will almost certainly be a late lottery to mid first round pick, with Hummel and Moore most likely early to mid-second rounders.
The Good: Jon Leuer is back for his senior year and should be counted on to score more this year with the graduation of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. Leuer has the ability to play in the post, or to face up and knock down the mid-range jumper. He is also an underrated defender and showed the ability to block shots last year. Jordan Taylor will run the point this season, and should show the spark he exhibited the second half of last year. A true point guard, he is excellent at keeping the offense moving and is a lockdown defender. Keaton Nakivil made great progress last season and should be able to do a great job drawing larger defenders out to the perimeter with his shooting ability. Freshman Evan Anderson and Ben Brust should be able to contribute immediately with tough play and scoring ability.
The Not-So-Good: Perimeter shooting is suspect with the loss of Hughes and Bohannon, and the best remaining shooters are big men. Hughes also spurred the defense last year and it will be up to Taylor to show the same ability to be disruptive on the perimeter.
The Question Mark: Will the Badgers be able to get production off their bench this season? Last year, 5 players accounted for over 90% of the offense. With two of those players gone, it will be time for someone to step up into a scoring role.
What Will March Bring?: Coach Bo Ryan has the makings of a NCAA team, though I don’t think there is enough talent to be more than a middle of the road Big 10 team, and no more than a 1st or 2nd round appearance. The loss of Hughes and Bohannon will dramatically alter the offense. Leuer has the makings of a late first round draft pick.
That wraps up the Big 10, and make sure to check back tomorrow and Friday for my look at the Big 12. As always, leave your comments, feel free to contact me, and follow NBA Draft Blog on Twitter – @NBADraftBlog