With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Horizon League correspondent, Jimmy Lemke.
End of an Era – Homer Drew may have done his best work in the Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League), but that doesn’t bar the Horizon League community from recognizing the tremendous stature of the now-retired Valparaiso coach. He’s done it before – briefly retiring earlier in the decade to pave the way for son Scott Drew and promptly retaking the reins after Scott took the very difficult job at Baylor – but this time you could tell it was final. His ability to recruit overseas is second to none, and we will always remember the feel-good story of his1998 team. Speaking of that year, the coach to now replace him? None other than his other son, all-time Crusader great Bryce Drew.
Dickie V. Rules In Motor City – The Detroit Titans made a big splash this summer by deciding to name their court for former Titans coach and renowned broadcaster, Dick Vitale. While he spent only four years as head of the Titans before taking over as coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, Dickie V’s exploits on behalf of college basketball are immeasurable. Dick Vitale IS college basketball, regardless of how you feel about him. As a longtime follower of the Milwaukee program, I see the court naming as a disappointment for Perry Watson, who coached the Titans for a considerably longer stretch and was very successful in that time, but there’s no doubting the decision from the future point of view. This season, St. John’s will play at Detroit on ESPN following a ceremony celebrating the honor, and I’d be willing to bet the Titans are banking on any Dick Vitale anniversaries falling on Detroit’s home schedule with a visit from ESPN.
Big Names Depart – Brandon Wood took a highly-publicized transfer to Michigan State and will be able to play immediately because he finished his degree at Valparaiso where his graduate program isn’t offered. Shelvin Mack declared for the draft and stayed put, going early in the second round to the Washington Wizards. But the biggest move in the conference is from the graduating senior class. Nearly every big team lost multiple big time competitors. Butler, of course, lost Mack, but they also lost Zach Hahn, Shawn Vanzant and, most importantly, Matt Howard. Milwaukee loses Anthony Hill and streaky-but-dangerous shooter Tone Boyle. Wright State, already on the downturn, lost Cooper Land, Troy Tabler, Vaughn Duggins and N’Gai Evans. Cleveland State waved a heartfelt goodbye to perhaps the most talented of them all, Norris Cole, now with the Miami Heat. Put simply, eight of the ten 2010-11 all-Horizon League team members have exited the conference, with only two remaining: Ray McCallum, Jr. and Eli Holman, both of Detroit.
Brad Stevens Led The Bulldogs To Another Title Game Appearance, But He Faces Life Without Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack in the 2011-12 Season.
Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the Horizon League Correspondent for RTC. With the conference tournament set to tip tonight, get a leg up on all things Horizon in this week’s recap and postseason preview.
To be perfectly honest, the Horizon League Tournament is stacked to allow the top two seeds the ability to get into the tournament, and it’s hard to argue with the success – each of the co-champions has won in the NCAA Tournament since the current format began. The funny thing is, hot teams really should be able to win the thing, and this year is no different. Except the hottest teams, Milwaukee (nine conference wins in a row) and Butler (seven) are the two best programs running into the Horizon League Tournament. The way those teams played, against the top teams all the way down to the bottom of the conference, was good enough to warrant the double-bye.
Butler’s side of the bracket features some really tough teams. Cleveland State is a co-champion, the first such team to have to go four games to win it. Wright State split with Butler, and both Green Bay and UIC played Butler tough during the conference season.
The Milwaukee side of the invitational features Youngstown State, who very nearly beat everyone ahead of them at the Beeghly Center; Loyola, who actually won in the U.S. Cellular Arena against the hosts; Valparaiso, who had the #1 seed until eight days ago; and Detroit, who has all the talent in the world and fought their way into the #5 seed on the last day of the regular season.
Butler will have to play Cleveland State or someone else on their side of the bracket just to get to the conference championship, but make no mistake, they’ve got someone that they’re looking forward to playing. Fast forward to the 4:35 mark.
Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League.
A Look Back
The big picture of the Horizon League got further muddled when Valparaiso, who owned first place not one week ago, lost two successive games in Wisconsin (sandwiched around an excellent Bracketbusters victory over Missouri State) and dropped back to the pack. Cleveland State is in first for the time being after defeating Wright State last week. Their loss at Old Dominion all but ensured the Vikings need to win the conference tournament to make their way into the Big Dance, but it’s not over yet. The big winners were Milwaukee and Butler, who moved up to second place (five losses) with Valpo’s loss at Green Bay on Monday night. Both have hopes of hosting the Horizon League Tournament next weekend, but only two schools – Cleveland State and Milwaukee – are in control of their own destiny.
1. Cleveland State (21-6, 12-4) – Gary Waters and his program missed a great opportunity to get the marquee victory they needed to get into the Dance. Like Utah State, their resume needed a big Bracketbuster victory to set them up for an at-large berth. Unlike USU, they didn’t deliver, and now are faced with winning the conference title to go dancing. Fortunately for Cleveland State, all they need to do is win. Two home victories over Milwaukee and Green Bay mean Cleveland State is the sole regular season champion, and the Horizon League Tournament goes through Cleveland. Lose, however, and the Vikings are almost guaranteed to drop out of the top two spots (and the double-bye that comes with them) due to being swept by Butler.
2. Milwaukee (16-12, 11-5) – I’ve spent the whole season putting the Panthers lower on the Power Rankings because I didn’t want to be accused of homerism, but the fact is Milwaukee deserves to be in this spot. Beating Valparaiso at home was huge, avenging yet another early season loss and putting the Panthers’ goal of winning a conference championship directly in sight. CSU and Milwaukee are the only teams that control their own destiny, with either team winning out being crowned conference champs. However, the Panthers would share the regular season crown with any combination of Cleveland State, Butler and Valparaiso. Should Milwaukee win out, they have the trump card, a sweep over Butler that no other team has. The loss on the road in the Bracketbuster is deceiving; Milwaukee held out their defensive stopper, Ryan Allen, after he took a hard fall on Wednesday. He will be tasked with guarding NorrisCole, who still riding a season-long high after his national coming-out party against Youngstown State when he went off for 41 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and three steals.
3. Butler (19-9, 12-5) – The Dawgs most likely will dispatch Loyola on Senior Night, and let me just say that nobody deserves to be applauded more than Matt Howard. Talk about a career, this guy has put everything he has into starting at power forward for the Butler Bulldogs since his freshman year, and I’d be astonished if his last regular-season home game was a loss. Loyola has recent history of winning at Hinkle, but look for Butler to enter the Horizon League Tournament with yet another 20-win season. To win the conference and host the tournament, Butler needs the winner of Thursday’s Cleveland State-Milwaukee game to lose on Saturday. It’s a tall order, expecting the 7th place team to win on the road or the 9th place team to win at home, but both have done it this season – Green Bay won at Valpo and Butler fell on the sword at Youngstown State.
4. Valparaiso (18-9, 11-5) – You wanna talk about bad luck, look no further than Valpo. Heading into Milwaukee, Valpo sat at three losses and owned a tiebreaker with Cleveland State. Just six days later, they’re on the wrong end of tie-breakers with all three teams. At Milwaukee, the Crusaders missed two bunny layups in the final seconds, although they got help with the Panthers missing several free throws in the closing minutes. At Green Bay, Howard Little grabbed a rebound that would have all but sealed a victory for Valpo, but he fell to the ground and traveled, giving the ball back to Green Bay for the winning basket. Valpo will likely start the conference tournament at the ARC in the first round. The good news? They only have one home conference loss.
5. Wright State (16-2, 10-7) – The Raiders were still in it a couple weeks ago, but lost games to the contenders and find themselves out of the running. Wright State is still a very dangerous team, and has beaten almost everybody in the conference despite absences from Troy Tabler and Cooper Land. Vaughn Duggins and N’GaiEvans, when it comes down to it, are still one of the best backcourt tandems in the H-League. Depending on where they finish, the Raiders will play Green Bay or Loyola in the first round of the tournament, teams they should be able to beat.
6. Detroit (14-15, 9-8) – Remember the beginning of the season, when the national pundits kept putting Detroit in first or second place? Why was that? Of course, the answer is Ray McCallumJr. Guys like Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale and Seth Davis couldn’t fathom how a top-20 recruit would go into the Horizon League and lose enough to finish out of the top two, especially when he’s got a 6’10 monster transfer from Indiana in the block. The truth is, none of those guys really know how good the Horizon League is. Detroit isn’t a bad team; they have a very talented starting five and will be a tough out in the Horizon League Tournament. Their problem is lack of bench depth and questionable coaching. How can Ray McCallum Sr. not want the ball in Eli Holman’s hands every time down the floor?
7. Green Bay (12-16, 7-9) – The victory over Valpo on Monday was their biggest of the season, on Senior Night no less. Brian Wardle has an outside chance at the six seed, but will likely open the conference tournament on the road at Detroit. He is looking at a tough year in 2011-12 without Bryquis Perine, Rahmon Fletcher and Greg LeSage, but Monday night showed that he’s got an excellent building block in seven-footer Alec Brown.
8. Loyola (15-13, 6-10) – It looks like this could be the swan song for Jim Whitesell. For the fourth season in a row, Jim Whitesell’s weak non-conference scheduling has led to the team being unprepared for the conference season. The Loyola Ramblers haven’t been above the eight seed in the conference tournament since 2006-07, and they have a large renovation to the basketball arena taking place after the season. This could be a situation like Missouri State, when new digs meant a new coach in Cuonzo Martin. Unlike the Bears, however, the Ramblers haven’t come truly close the tournament in a long time. Gone after the season are seniors Andy Polka, Terrance Hill and Geoff McCammon. The Ramblers have good pieces in Ben Averkamp, Denzel Brito and (potentially) JohnGac, but they won’t have the firepower to compete in 2011-12 and after that season will lose almost everybody else of consequence.
9. Youngstown State (7-18, 2-14) – It sure looked like Youngstown State was going to make me eat some crow there for a bit. The day my RTC post condemning the YSU program as unworthy of the Horizon League was released, they up and defeated Butler. Nearly taking out Valpo a couple days later would have been big for a program that hasn’t had a whole lot to root for. It’s likely the final go-round for Jerry Slocum, whose wild success in lower-division NCAA did not translate to the D-I Penguins. But the problem isn’t Slocum as much as it is the inherent problems the department has. Unless some money is taken from football and injected into the basketball program’s budget, the Penguins will be relegated to the bottom of the barrel for the time being. And even then it likely won’t be enough.
10. UIC (6-22, 2-15) – Unlike Youngstown State, UIC has the structure to be competitive in the Horizon League. This season was a lost year the second April 2010 came around and JimmyCollins was still coach. The season was further doomed for every month Collins remained, staying long enough to make things especially tough on incoming coach HowardMoore. The truncated recruiting timetable left the Flames with a couple good players remaining from Collins’ team and bunch of residents of the Island of Misfit Toys. UIC will be better in 2011-12, but it will be a few years before Howard Moore gets them up to speed. It seems funny that two of the conference’s best non-conference victories, over Illinois and Rhode Island, came from the Flames.
A Look Ahead
The season is almost over, with only one weekend remaining. Games on Thursday and Saturday will determine the championship and seeding for the Horizon League Tournament, and while no seeds are official, we do know this:
The top four seeds – Cleveland State, Butler, Milwaukee and Valparaiso – are untouchable. A fifth, Wright State, has guaranteed at least a home game in the conference tournament. Detroit has an outside chance of losing their home game to Green Bay, but all signs point to Green Bay at Detroit next Tuesday. Loyola is the safest team in their seed, with only a 0.6% chance they land in the seven seed. Youngstown State and UIC will fill out the final two spots, and YSU will likely be the nine seed.
The final thing we know is this: the winner of Thursday’s game between Milwaukee and Cleveland State all but locks up a conference championship going into the final game of the regular season. Both teams would need to sweep; each team going 1-1 and Butler beating Loyola would make Butler the conference champion. That scenario, however, is unlikely as Cleveland State hosts Green Bay and Milwaukee visits Youngstown State. A game this big deserves the viewership, and as long as you’re reading this, you can see it: HorizonLeague.org, Thursday, 7 p.m. Eastern.
2.24.11 – Milwaukee at Cleveland State, 7 p.m., Time Warner Sports 32/HLN
2.25.11 – Detroit at Wright State, 7 p.m., HLN
2.26.11 – Milwaukee at Youngstown State, 1 p.m., HLN
2.26.11 – Green Bay at Cleveland State, 2 p.m., HLN
2.26.11 – Loyola at Butler, 2 p.m., HLN
Video of the Week – With such a huge game on the Horizon for Thursday, we’ll take a look back to December, when Cleveland State went to Milwaukee and laid a drubbing on the Panthers:
Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League.
A Look Back
It was a sobering week for Horizon League schools as the conference went 8-9 over the week and plummeted from seventh in the conference RPI to twelfth. Upset bids against high majors were either blowouts or close, but at the end of the day, they all ended in losses. Cleveland State owned the week’s most impressive victory yet again with a 12-point road victory at Sam Houston State, but perhaps the biggest news was the emergence of Ray McCallum, Jr. Across the country, pundits have picked the highly-touted recruit to come in and dominate the conference, but McCallum took a little bit of time to get up to the speed he’s accustomed to. Ray Jr. lit up Eastern Michigan with 31 points to average 25.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 2.5 assists per game in the week’s two games.
Video of the Week
When you’re rolling, you’re rolling, and Gary Waters of Cleveland State gives some insight as to how the Vikings stay perfect following his team’s victory at Sam Houston State:
Cleveland State (12-0, 2-0) – The Vikings continued to roll. Gary Waters‘ undefeated crew pummeled non-D-I West Virginia Tech before taking down Sam Houston State, their sixth victory in the RPI Top 100. Their reward? A matchup with 7-2 West Virginia (not Tech) in Morgantown Saturday for what figures to be their biggest test yet.
Butler (5-4, 1-0) – Brad Stevens‘ Dawgs missed out on sweeping the home-and-home with Xavier with a close loss in Cincinnati early last week. They took out their frustrations on a poor Mississippi Valley State team. HadV they lost to Loyola in the conference opener, they would be much lower on this list.
Loyola (8-3, 0-2) – It’s hard to argue that a loss improves your standing, but that’s what we’ll do. The Ramblers’ narrow loss to Kansas State (which was much closer than the eight-point difference) and blitz of SIU-Edwardsville puts them on somewhat of a roll after getting swept by the Indiana schools at home in the opening week.
Valparaiso (6-4, 2-0) – If it weren’t for the lack of signature victories this week, Valpo’s loss to Toledo would have sunk them. This is a team that has played well thus far this season, and while a top three finish isn’t out of the question, dropping a home game to Purdue by 18 didn’t help their cause. Toledo might win five games this season in conference play.
Detroit (6-5, 1-0) – The emergence of Ray McCallum Jr. couldn’t have come at a better time for the Titans; Western Michigan confounded their second Horizon League team by defeating Detroit, and they were reeling heading into the game against Eastern Michigan. Luckily, the coach’s son took care of business.
Milwaukee (5-6, 1-1) – The loss at Wisconsin is something of an annual ritual for the Panthers. Indeed, even Bruce Pearl’s Sweet 16 Panthers lost in Madison by more than 20. But the Panthers gathered themselves and notched arguably the second-best victory of the week at red hot South Dakota State. Keep shooting like they did Saturday and Milwaukee will be moving up.
Wright State (5-5, 0-1) – Beating Air Force by 15 at the Nutter Center was definitely a feather in the cap of rookie coach Billy Donlon. A 13-point home win over D-II Tusculum wasn’t a blowout, but winning is winning and the Raiders, apart from Cleveland State, were the only team to finish the week unscathed.
Green Bay (4-7, 1-1) – It was encouraging to see archrival Milwaukee get blown out at Wisconsin and then lose a respectable 14-point game just a few days later, but the Phoenix are now riding a three-game losing streak and have only won one road game. The Phoenix don’t play again until Monday.
UIC (4-6, 0-1) – The Flames entered the week with just three victories against D-I teams, and two of them at the hands of lowly Toledo. Senior Paul Carter looked good in a loss to Illinois State on Saturday, but he didn’t have much help, scoring 16 of UIC’s 43 points.
Youngstown State (5-4, 0-2) – The good feelings of the early season have all but evaporated in Youngstown. After taking their customary sweep in Wisconsin to open the conference, the Penguins were demolished by Robert Morris, 90-60. A victory over Malone College on Monday wasn’t much consolation since Malone is still a few years away from fully reclassifying to D-II.
A Look Ahead
The week is filled with opportunities for the conference to get some notable victories. Big East doormat DePaul hosts Milwaukee,Youngstown State visits NC State, and Stanford heads to Hinkle to take on Butler in three very winnable games for the Horizon League. Cleveland State will be out to avenge a two-point home loss last season to the West Virginia Mountaineers, except this game is in Morgantown. Illinois visits UIC, but the game will be played at the United Center in Chicago instead of at the Flames’ home, the UIC Pavilion. In what may be the most interesting match-up of mid-majors, Detroit and Central Michigan square off in the battle of friends and highly-touted recruits Ray McCallum Jr. and Trey Zeigler.
12/14 – Milwaukee at DePaul, 9 p.m. (ESPN Full Court)
12/18 – Stanford at Butler, 2 p.m. (CBS)
12/18 – Detroit at Central Michigan, ESPNU
12/16 – Youngstown State at NC State, 7 p.m.
12/18 – Cleveland State at West Virginia, 2 p.m. (ESPN360.com, ESPN Full Court)
12/18 – UIC vs. Illinois at United Center, 2 p.m. (BTN)
Wow it sure does feel great to have college basketball in our lives. After a summer of baseball (boring) and a fall of the NFL (violent) and college football (unsatisfying) it’s nice to have the sport that brings everything to the table on a nightly basis. You want drama? Utah State-BYU offered plenty Wednesday night for your viewing pleasure (assuming you had the Mountain Sports Network, of course). Nine lead changes, seven ties … is it March yet? You want big time matchups? There was #4 Ohio State at #9 Florida, and #22 Virginia Tech at #3 Kansas State. While both games turned out to be laughers, you still had to plan your day around those two showdowns.
Hard to Not Get Excited About This One
It was a fantastic time to be a college basketball fan, and a top-notch way to kick off the first full-throttle week of competition in style. ESPN deserves major props for its 24 Hours of Hoops Marathon. College basketball used to begin with a whimper — not really emerging into the mainstream consciousness until February. ESPN’s over-the-top (but in a good way) hoops celebration is a great way to let the nation know tis the season of buzzer beaters and court rushings. And now it’s my job to help you make sense of it all. Every week I’m going to do my best to sift through all the box scores, highlights and reports to let you know what’s important and what’s not. The season might just be a little more than week old but there still are things you can glean from the past seven days, and judgments most definitely can be made.
What We Learned Last Week
The fine folks in Knoxville, Tennessee, just can’t seem to catch a break. First there was the Lane Kiffin fiasco, leading to a forgettable first year under new coach Derek Dooley. Fans might have thought they were going to get a break once basketball season tipped off, rightfully so considering last year’s trip to the Elite Eight, but then Bruce Pearl had to go and ruin everything with the news of recruiting violations. The drama in Tennessee now has shifted to the court where the Vols are a team in disarray. They lost a home exhibition game to Indianapolis by 15 points and had unimpressive wins over Belmont (85-76) and Missouri State (60-56). Who should be the favorite when the Vols play VCU at the Preseason NIT on Nov. 24? Your guess is as good as mine.
Move over Butler, there’s a new mid-major darling that’s poised to captivate the nation. I’m talking about San Diego State, which won at #11 Gonzaga 79-76 on Tuesday night. The Aztecs had never been ranked in the AP poll before this season, but they have all the ingredients to be a poll mainstay in 2011. San Diego State has experience with five seniors on its roster and has size with four players 6’8 or taller. The schedule shapes up nicely for the Aztecs (they don’t play another ranked team until Mountain West Conference play), and it’s not out of the question to think that SDSU could be one of the last undefeated teams standing.
Ohio State looks really good, but it comes with an asterisk. The Buckeyes went down to Florida and put a thumping on a Gators squad many believe to be an SEC title candidate. Ohio State shot an unworldly 63% (39-62) for the game and had a team assist to turnover ration of 22:8. They Buckeyes also had four players with at least 14 points (David Lighty and Jared Sullinger both had a game-high of 26). Those aren’t the kind of offensive numbers you expect to see this early in the season. But was this more about Ohio State’s offense or Florida’s suspect defense? Florida was known as a soft team last year, and the Gators did nothing to disprove that notion against the Buckeyes.
Is trouble on the horizon for Memphis? Few would be surprised if that turns out to be the case as there are already signs of a potential meltdown for Josh Pastner & Co. RTC’s Andrew Murawa pointed out the Tigers’ oftentimes poor body language during the second half against Miami — a game the Tigers won. It makes me uneasy to see a team, albeit a young team, show that kind of immaturity this early in the season in the middle of a tightly contested game, at home no less. Maybe this was just the players’ way of voice their displeasure with the removal of Jelan Kendrick. But ether way, I would not want to be Pastner right now.
Louisville’s new arena might be the new crown jewel of the hoops world, but the name ruins everything. The KFC Yum! Center is just a ridiculous combination of the corporate world encroaching upon college athletics and food that makes me want to throw up. Now when ever I watch the Cardinals at home, I won’t be focused on Rick Pitino’s vaunted full-court press, I’ll be thinking about the KFC Double Down. I can see it now … whenever Louisville scores 100 points, free Double Downs for everyone!
Pour This Man A Scotch
Better make it a to-go cup as who knows how much longer Paul Hewitt will be at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets lost 80-63 at Kennesaw State on Nov. 15, and it now looks like it isn’t a matter of if Hewitt will get fired, it’s a matter of when. Just look at this opening nugget from Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Mark Bradley from a blog post following the loss “If Paul Hewitt isn’t the worst basketball coach in the country, it’s only because ours is a mighty big country.” Yikes. Not that anyone would argue differently. Georgia Tech is expected by most of the hoops world to finish near the bottom of the ACC for the second time in three seasons. The loss at Kennesaw State confirms everyone’s worst fears about the Yellow Jackets. Right now the only saving grace for Hewitt is the nice $7 million buyout check he’ll get whenever he gets the axe. But until then, drink up Paul. You’re going to have to in order make it through this season.
Welcome to Frosh Watch! With college basketball becoming more and more an underclassman’s game it’s imperative that we keep tabs on just who is living up to his potential and who is struggling to adjust to the college game. Is Harrison Barnes really the answer to all of UNC’s problems? Does Kyrie Irving make Duke even better? Will Kentucky’s EnesKanter ever get to play? What about Tony Mitchell over at Missouri? Those questions — and many more — will all be answered eventually. But that’s a job for another week. First we need to introduce you to some of the rookies we’re most excited about this year. What we’re going to do is look at some of the impact rookies in each of the six BCS conferences, and then give you four freshmen from the non-BCS conferences. During the seasson we’ll re-visit some of the players on this list (and some not) as part of our weekly wrap.
DISCLAIMER: This is just a taste of the 2010-11 freshmen class — not a finite list. Don’t worry if one of your team’s top signees didn’t make the cut (i.e., Kanter and Mitchell), as he’ll have every opportunity to earn recognition down the road. Consider this first group a hoops aperitif. Just something that teases your college basketball appetite before games start and preseason hype takes a backseat to on-court reality.
Harrison Barnes, forward, North Carolina — Barnes became the first freshman to ever earn AP first team preseason All-America honors when he received 17 votes on Nov. 1. Expect the future lottery pick to lead UNC in points, ‘wow’ plays, and fan hearts won as the Tar Heels storm back into the national picture after a one-year hiatus.
Kyrie Irving, guard, Duke — Irving is the most heralded backcourt recruit to come to Durham since Jason Williams, and we all know how that turned out for Coach K. With Irving running the attack, the Blue Devils won’t miss Jon Scheyer.
C.J. Leslie, forward, NC State — If SidneyLowe saves his job this year, it will be because Leslie lived up to the hype. Leslie’s ability to slash into the lane should make the Wolfpack a more well-rounded offensive team, in addition to freeing up space down low for big man Tracy Smith.
SU Fans Hope Melo Smiles Like This All Season Long (Post-Standard/D. Nett)
Fab Melo, center, Syracuse — Melo’s name should be enough to get him on this list (it really is fantastic), but the 7’0, 244-pound monster also is the preseason Big East Freshman of the Year. Paired with Rick Jackson, Melo gives the Orange one of the most tantalizing frontcourts in the nation.
Vander Blue, guard, Marquette — Blue somewhat flew under the radar during his high school career, but all that changed after his stint on Team USA this summer in the FIBA Americas U18 Championships. Blue scored 13 points to help USA win the gold medal, and now he’ll be expected to be an instant impact scorer for the Golden Eagles.
Roscoe Smith, forward, Connecticut — There are few things to be excited about if you’re a UConn fan. Smith is one of the bright spots in what was a miserable offseason for the Huskies. Smith hasn’t played a game yet, but coach Jim Calhoun already has declared him to be the second best power forward on the team.
For the second October in a row, we’re bringing you our RTC Impact Players series. The braintrust has gone back and forth on this and we’ve finally settled on a group of sixty players throughout ten geographic regions of the country (five starters plus a sixth man) to represent the who and where of players you should be watching this season. Seriously, if you haven’t seen every one of these players ball at least once by the end of February, then you need to figure out a way to get a better television package. As always in a subjective analysis such as this, some of our decisions were difficult; many others were quite easy. What we can say without reservation is that there is great talent in every corner of this nation of ours, and we’ll do our best to excavate it over the next five weeks in this series that will publish on Mondays and Thursdays. Each time, we’ll also provide a list of some of the near-misses as well as the players we considered in each region, but as always, we welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments.
Kalin Lucas – Sr, G – Michigan State. Few elite players and certainly no other senior elite players will enter this season as more of an unknown quantity than Kalin Lucas. Coming off a solid junior season where he averaged 14.8 points and 4.0 assists per game, Lucas and the Spartans were poised for yet another run at the Final Four before a torn Achilles tendon in the second round against Maryland supposedly ended those hopes along with the possibility that Lucas might declare for the 2010 NBA Draft, already lacking in depth at the point guard position. We all know what happened instead (MSU rallied to yet another Final Four even without their starting point guard). All indications point to Lucas having recovered from the untimely injury to near 100%, but we can’t help but wonder if his explosiveness, which already was a concern for NBA teams, might be compromised. Lucas is certainly fast enough when he gets going in the open court, but his first step has never been at the level of the other elite point guards he has been compared to and a potential reluctance to push off that torn left Achilles tendon may hinder that more. Despite the questions, Tom Izzo is certainly happy to have Lucas and his all-around skills and intangibles back in East Lansing—there are very few All-American point guards in BCS conferences that stick around for their senior season—and if Michigan State is going to make a push to yet another Final Four it will be Lucas who will again be the driving force. Having lost the enigmatic but explosive Raymar Morgan and equally enigmatic but troublesome Chris Allen, Izzo will expect Lucas to carry an increased offensive load while still distributing the ball to wings Durrell Summers and Draymond Green along with the talented Delvon Roe, who has yet to fulfill the promise he showed coming out of high school. If Lucas is able to meet those expectations, he could have a senior season much like one of his Spartan predecessors (Mateen Cleaves) that results in the Spartans cutting down the nets in Houston next April.
Lucas Returns For a Last Final Four Shot
Blake Hoffarber – Sr, G – Minnesota. Here’s the thing about Blake Hoffarber: he’s probably not the best player on this Minnesota team, maybe not even the third or fourth best player, but he is absolutely critical to their success, perhaps the most important player on the team in that regard. Guys like Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph, Ralph Sampson, III, and Colton Iverson, are all probably more talented and more complete players than Hoffarber, but last year’s Golden Gopher results tell the tale of a team that succeeded when Hoffarber succeeded and failed when he failed. In the 15 games in which Hoffarber scored ten or more points last season, Minnesota went 13-2; in the remaining 20 games when he scored less than ten, they were 8-12. The lesson is simple: Hoffarber needs to score for this team to be successful. And given that Hoffarber’s offensive game is almost entirely predicated on hitting spot-up threes, maybe the true impact player here should be Joseph or Nolen, getting Hoffarber good looks on drive-and-dish. Or maybe it should be Sampson and Iverson for sucking in defenders in the post or kicking out offensive rebounds that eventually find their way into Hoffarber’s hands. But the point remains, Hoffarber needs to get and hit threes for the Gophers to be successful. His offensive numbers tell the story well, as last season Hoffarber was the most efficient offensive player in the nation, but only used 14% of all Gopher possessions when he was in the game. He scored a total of 351 points last season, 255 of which came from behind the arc (at an impressive 46% clip, leading to an effective field goal percentage of 67.3%, good for fourth in the nation). Of the remaining 96 points, 28 came from the line, meaning he scored just 34 hoops inside the arc, less than one point per game. Basically, Hoffarber is the very essence of a pure shooter – you really don’t need to worry about him going around anybody and the only open looks he’ll create for teammates is when he draws defenders to him at the line and rotates the ball around the arc. Sure, he contributes a handful of rebounds a game and rarely turns the ball over, he passes pretty well and is a decent if unspectacular defender, but when it comes right down to it, he’s “just a shooter” – one of the best in the nation upon whom the Golden Gophers’ chances depend, but in the end, still “just a shooter.”
NBA Draft: The Horizon League doesn’t always pop up on the NBA’s radar, but Gordon Hayward shot up the draft boards last season and ended up being drafted ninth overall by the Utah Jazz. Haywardof course led Butler to the NCAA Tournament title game before going pro.
Coaching Changes: It took until the middle of July, but the UIC Flames officially announced the retirement of long-time head coach and all-time wins leader Jimmy Collins. The move is effective August 31 and the coaching search is already on. The Flames are conducting a nationwide hunt for someone who can bring them out of basement of the Horizon League.
Keeping It In The Family: Ray McCallum, Jr. is considered one of the top players in the 2010 freshman class. The fact that he chose the Detroit Titans stunned no one. McCallum is going to play for his father, and will help make Detroit one of the favorites in the Horizon League.
Brownout: The other big head coaching change in the league was the departure of Brad Brownell from Wright State. Brownell had finished 12-6 in conference each of the past three seasons with the Raiders. He took over at Clemson for the departed Oliver Purnell in a classic game of coaching musical chairs. Brownell’s replacement, Billy Donlon, will be expected to maintain the high level of play the program has reached recently and maybe even make an NCAA Tournament. Donlon was the team’s associate head coach under Brownell, so there is a lot of continuity in the program.
Going Young: When head coach Todd Kowalczyk left Green Bay for a bigger payday at Toledo, not many people expected the Phoenix to hire one of the youngest coaches in all of Division I basketball. Green Bay made the intriguing decided to stay in house and hire Brian Wardle. Wardle had been an assistant with the Phoenix before the hire.