RTC 2009-10 Impact Players: Upper Midwest RegionPosted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2009
Ed. Note: the previous posts in this series (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Atlantic South, Deep South, Mid-South and Lower Midwest) are located here.
It’s time for the seventh installment of our RTC 2009-10 Impact Players series, the group of very cold, very northern states that we’re calling the Upper Midwest. Each week we’ll pick a geographic area of the country and break down the five players who we feel will have the most impact on their teams (and by the transitive property, college basketball) this season. Our criteria is once again subjective – there are so many good players in every region of the country that it’s difficult to narrow them down to only five in each – but we feel at the end of this exercise that we’ll have discussed nearly every player of major impact in the nation. Just to be fair and to make this not too high-major-centric, we’re also going to pick a mid-major impact player in each region as our sixth man. We welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments where we left players off. The only request is that you provide an argument – why will your choice be more influential this season than those we chose?
Upper Midwest Region (MI, WI, MN, SD, ND)
- Manny Harris – G, Jr – Michigan. The mastermind behind the turnaround of Michigan’s basketball program may be John Beilein and his 1-3-1 zone defense, but the catalyst has to be Beilein’s explosive 6’5 scoring guard/forward, Manny Harris. The lone bright spot in a 10-22 campaign in 2007-08 was the freshman Harris and his 16.1 PPG, strong enough to garner All-Big Ten Second team honors. Much like Beilein’s other reclamation projects, the Wolverines, and Harris, improved drastically in their second season under the former West Virginia head man. While his scoring average didn’t even jump a full point, it was Harris’ all-around production and on-court leadership that propelled Michigan to a 13-3 start, respectable Big Ten record and second-round NCAA tournament appearance, their first in 11 seasons. 6.8 RPG for a 6’5 guard is an accomplishment that cannot be overstated, a mark that tied forward DeShawn Sims for the team lead. Harris led Michigan in assists by a wide margin at 4.4 APG, upped his FG% from 38% to 42% and played nearly 33 MPG to lead the Wolverines. Harris has also become a much more efficient playmaker for Beilein, increasing his assist and scoring rates (even while attempting and making over 20% of Michigan’s shots) while his turnovers have dipped. One area where Harris must improve is outside shooting, which jumped from 32% to 33% behind the arc a year ago. With Harris’ tremendous penetration ability and explosiveness to the rim, making opposing defenses respect his outside shot will only enhance an already lethal game. The All-Big Ten first teamer is the straw that stirs the Michigan drink, having started 67 games in a row for Beilein. Should he improve his defense, Harris’ draft stock will shoot up in a season that could be full of accolades, and, for the first time since the Steve Fisher era of the 90s, a legitimate chance to lead Michigan deep into March.
- Lazar Hayward – F, Sr – Marquette. Lazar Hayward’s role on this year’s Marquette squad should not be understated. Three guards and team leaders through the Tom Crean and Buzz Williams eras – Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews – saw their illustrious college careers end in the second round last March, leaving the program in the hands of Williams’ outstanding recruiting efforts off the court and Hayward’s all-around play on the court. The 6’6 multi-dimensional forward is now the face of a proud basketball school that may take a step back this season with the losses of those three guards that starred for four full seasons in Milwaukee. But it’s unlikely that Hayward will take a step back. Often overshadowed and underappreciated, Lazar averaged 16.3 PPG and 8.6 RPG as a junior last season while shooting 36% from three and 82% from the line, offering another outside threat to go along with McNeal and Matthews. In fact, Hayward finished in the top ten in a historic Big East in scoring, rebounding and free throw percentage last year. He even refined his game on an international stage over the summer, averaging 9.3 PPG and 5.6 RPG on the bronze medal-winning USA team at the World University Games. Hayward is now the face of the Marquette program for his senior season. While the Golden Eagles could struggle, Hayward must step into the departed guards’ shoes as team leader for the junior college and freshman influx headed to the Bradley Center in 2009-10, not only to facilitate success this season, but also for the future.
- Kalin Lucas – G, Jr – Michigan St. Toughness. Leadership. Quickness. Headiness. Speed. These are some of the words that you often hear when Kalin Lucas, the reigning Big Ten POY and de facto engine that makes Tom Izzo’s team go, is mentioned. Last season he was the stat sheet stuffer on a team full of them, leading the team in points per game (14.7), minutes (31.9), assists (4.6), A/TO (2.1:1) and guts. This is why it was Lucas who was chosen by the Big Ten media and coaches as the consensus POY over higher scorers such as Evan Turner (Ohio State), Manny Harris (Michigan) and Talor Battle (Penn State). After all, in a very strong year for the conference, MSU ran away with the league title by four games (15-3), and it was Lucas who kept the team efficiently purring along as seemingly everyone else on the team fought through injuries and inconsistency. The only real weakness that Lucas has in his game is that he’s not a strong finisher – even though he shoots the ball very well from the line (80% in his career) and three (38%), his overall FG% is only 40%, which represents a relatively low two-point mark (42%) However, with a reported additional ten pounds added to his already solid frame in 2009-10, Lucas should be better able to absorb the contact he suffers in the paint as one of the best penetrators in the country (drawing 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes of play), and finish more plays within in the three-point circle. Still, MSU regularly goes to Lucas with the game on the line, and more often than not he delivers. The most obvious example occurred in the closing minute of the regional semifinal against Kansas in last year’s NCAA Tournament. With the scored deadlocked at 60-all, Lucas spun into the lane past KU’s Sherron Collins and dropped a floater while getting fouled, giving his Spartans a three-point lead. He then hit the final four foul shots of the game to seal it for Michigan State. Two games later against UConn, he had one of his best games of the season, torching the Huskies for 21/5 assts and thoroughly outplaying his more-hyped counterpart, AJ Price (whom Lucas helped harass into a 5-20 shooting night). UNC’s Ty Lawson got the best of him in the national championship game, but Lucas has made a practice of outperforming players who are considered “better” than him throughout his career. Moving into the 2009-10 season, it’ll be tough to find many situations where the player they call “Too Easy” isn’t the best guard on the floor.
- Raymar Morgan – F, Sr – Michigan St. Someone much more eloquent than us wrote that a kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop people from all the talking. What that author didn’t say was that it could also drop a 6’8, 230-lb forward who is strong as an ox in his tracks. Because that’s what happened last season to Raymar Morgan, who was at the midpoint of a stellar junior campaign when he was afflicted with the commonly called “kissing disease,” mononucleosis, mixed in with a little walking pneumonia to boot. After the Penn State game on January 14, 2009, the Spartans were 14-2 and Morgan was the team leader in points and rebounds per game (15/7) while playing 27 minutes per contest. His diagnosis of mono/pneumonia after that game, however, put a real strain on his production, as he endured eight straight games of single-figure points and rebounds in limited playing time. For the rest of the season, Morgan averaged a mere 6/4 in 19 minutes per game, often looking like a shell of the player who had dominated Oklahoma State (29/5) and Northwestern (22/13) earlier in the season. The good news is that throughout last season, whether healthy or ill, Morgan seemed to have overcome his (mostly) younger propensity toward pouting that had irritated Tom Izzo and Spartan fans for two years. He continued to hustle throughout, even when it was clear that he was not feeling well, and his per-minute efficiency stats never fell off very much (esp. rebounding). It’s no surprise that Spartan fans are giddy at the thought of having a healthy and productive Morgan back in the lineup this year, as we all know that even with him playing at half-speed, MSU was still able to make a run to the title game against North Carolina. Young players Durrell Summers and Draymond Green benefited from playing some of his minutes last year, and that’ll make MSU even more deep on the wing as Big 10 coaches must wonder how Tom Izzo has stockpiled so much talent in East Lansing. This could be the long-awaited year where Morgan makes the leap to verifiable star, and if so, the Big Ten and the rest of college basketball will enviously watch another march to the Final Four from the men in green and white.
- DeShawn Sims – F, Sr – Michigan It’s difficult to think anything about DeShawn Sims without also considering his teammate, the excellent and aforementioned Manny Harris, not only because those two gentlemen are the Chosen Ones in terms of helping the Michigan program take that next step in returning to true basketball prominence, but also because of a gesture by Harris at the end of last season that has to have coach John Beilein grinnng like the Enzyte guy; at the post-season basketball banquet, Harris was named the team’s MVP, but then openly and voluntarily shared the award with Sims. Pretty much takes care of any questions about team leadership or chemistry, since that’s the kind of thing that younger players see and immediately feed off. And as we all know, you can have all the talent in the world, but without team chemistry you’re nothing. Sims couldn’t have been too far behind in the balloting, anyway, averaging 15.5 PPG and 6.9 RPG while shooting 50.6% from the field, and, also of note, as a man who has no fear battling anyone in the paint, only fouled out of three games in the always physical Big Ten while contributing five double-doubles. He played below his averages in UM’s two NCAA Tournament games last year against Clemson and Oklahoma (9/3 and 14/6, respectively), and you know he’s itching to get back to The Dance and show what he can really do. As such good friends and such a formidable one-two punch, it just makes sense that both he and Harris find themselves together on the Preseason Wooden Award Finalists’ list. DeShawn Sims is the primary down-low, game-changing player on what’s probably the best Michigan squad since the Fab Five days, but most importantly, he and Harris realize that Michigan Basketball doesn’t just aspire to “prominence.” They want to be the catalyst that puts Michigan Basketball back among the elites, where it belongs.
- Keith Benson (MM) – C, Jr – Oakland You thought Keith Benson was a solid player last year? Yeah, you’ve probably seen his stat line: 14.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.4 BPG (23rd nationally), and a preposterous 62.2 FG% (39th nationally). Nice, right? That’ll get anyone’s attention. Now, consider this…Benson was one of a mere 14 post players invited to the Amar’e Stoudemire Skills Academy over the summer. This doesn’t exactly sound like a charm school, since Benson spent the summer elevating his skills alongside the likes of NCAA Player Of The Year favorite Cole Aldrich from Kansas, Greg Monroe from Georgetown, Larry Sanders from VCU, and ten other big boys that constitute a veritable rogues gallery of the painted area for the college game. Sure, scoring is easier when you’ve got the nation’s leading dime-dropper in Johnathon Jones (we just had to mention his 8.1 APG here) feeding you, but when you shoot over 62% from the field and you block 2.4 shots a game, you’ve got your own skill set, to say the least. Because those skills primarily involve playing the “true center” position, the NBA scouts have certainly taken notice; even though he’s just a junior, Benson is currently ranked 30th (the final 1st round pick) on NBADraft.net’s 2010 mock draft. Benson will be neck-and-neck with teammate Jones for POY honors in the Summit League, making Oakland the decided favorite for that conference and a lock for the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2005.
Honorable Mention. Jason Bohannon, Wisconsin. Brandon Bowdry, Eastern Michigan. Tony Boyle, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Garrett Callahan, South Dakota State. Troy Cotton, Wisconsin-Green Bay. James Eayrs, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Trevon Hughes, Wisconsin. Damian Johnson, Minnesota. Johnathan Jones, Oakland. David Kool, Western Michigan. Clint Sargent, South Dakota State. Durrell Summers, Michigan State. Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota.