Friday, November 02, 2012

Previewing Monday, November 12th

This is the fifth post in a series of previews of the opening week of the regular season. My previews for November 9th are here and here. November 10th is here and November 11th is here. Below is my preview for Monday, November 12th.

(all times eastern)

Rhode Island at Virginia Tech (7 PM, ESPN3) - This is the second game for each of these teams, but their first against a quality opponent. Both teams are transitioning into new eras. Virginia Tech got rid of the eternally snake-bitten Seth Greenberg and handed the reins to James Johnson, who was an assistant for a while under Greenberg and has never been a head coach anywhere. I have always felt like Greenberg is an underrated coach. If the NCAA Tournament had 70 teams in it instead of 65/68, Greenberg would be the highly successful coach getting Virginia Tech to the Tournament most years. Instead, he was always the guy doing every sports radio/tv show the day after Selection Sunday complaining about how his team should have gotten in ahead of the 2nd place team out of the Colonial.

While Johnsonn's ability as a head coach is unknown, his roster actually won't be changed very much. Virginia Tech lost Dorenzo Hudson and Victor Davila to graduation, and Dorian Finney-Smith left the school after Greenberg did. Shoot-first "point guard" Erick Green will be the focus of the offense next season, and a lot of their success is going to depend on the development of rising-sophomores Robert Brown and CJ Barksdale. The only newcomer of note is 6'7" small forward Marshall Wood.

Rhode Island is moving on from the Jim Baron era to Dan Hurley, who is making a rapid ascent through the coaching ranks after two very successful seasons at Wagner. Baron is a good coach, but things really did fall apart in that final season. They finished 7-24 last season, including 4-12 in the Atlantic Ten. They don't lose a whole lot to graduation (their biggest loss is Jim Baron's son Billy, via transfer), but there's no question that Hurley is trying to rapidly turn over the roster. He already signed three transfers (Gilvydas Biruta from Rutgers, DeShon Minnis from Texas Tech and Jarelle Reischel from Rice). Those three will have to redshirt this season, but will be ready to go in 2013-14. Hurley also brought in a big 2012 recruiting class, led by a really nice recruit in 6'10" Jordan Hare. They aren't going to finish in the top four or five in a very good Atlantic Ten this season, but if they are remotely competitive then they should be significantly improved next season.

North Dakota State at #1 Indiana (8 PM,  Big Ten Network) - Indiana's opening game is November 9th against Bryant, a cream puff. North Dakota State will be a much stiffer test. North Dakota State has been so good the past few years under Saul Phillips that last year's "down"/rebuilding year consisted of going 17-12 and finishing 9-9 in a really good Summit League. And now they return almost everybody from their rotation and are primed to contend for the Summit crown (South Dakota State is my pick, but there's no question that NDSU is one of their top two or three challengers).

North Dakota State is led by a superb trio: shooting guard Mike Felt, swing forward Taylor Braun and post player Marshall Bjorklund. Bjorklund, in particular, was dominant last season (67.1 eFG%, 3.3 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes played, and a 44.7% FT Rate). The biggest question mark is point guard, where Lawrence Alexander needs to be more efficient than he played as a freshman. That said, their biggest problem last year was defense, and they will be severely tested by what should be a superb Indiana offense.

We all know why Indiana is ranked #1 - their offense is going to be really good. Cody Zeller might be the best interior scorer in the nation, and Jordan Hulls leads an array of quality perimeter scorers. Maurice Creek also returns. Creek looked like a rising superstar as a freshman, but it's impossible to know if he'll be the same after all of those injuries. I'll be very interested to see how he looks. The Hoosiers have a recruiting class filled of blue chippers also, led by point guard Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell has a higher ceiling than Hulls, of course, but Tom Crean would be smart to stick with Hulls, who is a really crafty scorer and creator with tons of experience.

The concern for Indiana, of course, is defense. Oladipo is an elite defender but everybody else is a question mark. Indiana was only the 7th best Big Ten defense last season, according to Pomeroy. They're going to score a ton against North Dakota State defense. I want to see them defend.

Toledo at Minnesota (8 PM) - This year might be the end of the road for the Tubby Smith era in Minnesota.  They continue to be plagued by off-the-court issues, including Tubby's own son (and Minnesota assistant coach), who is suspended after a DWI. Trevor Mbakwe's latest run-in with the law coach have landed him in jail for multiple years, but he was given a break by the judge and is able to come back whenever his suspension ends. And the Big Ten looks certain to be the toughest conference in the nation this season, and it's hard to see the Gophers possibly finishing higher than sixth. And if they get off to slow start? The media buzz about Tubby being fired will start to consume everything.

The Gophers don't lose much - Ralph Sampson III is the only real loss. Mbakwe missed almost all of last season, so he'll be an addition if he is able to get on the court. Rodney Williams is the top returner from last season. The player with the biggest upside is Andre Hollins, who was very explosive but also inconsistent last season as a freshman. Tubby's 2012 recruiting class is led by shooting guard Wally Ellenson, who is yet another athletically explosive player. This Gophers team would probably dominate a Big Ten dunk contest, but it remains to be seen if that will translate into a .500 record (or better) in the Big Ten. That said, Ellenson got hurt this week and will miss at least a month, so expect Minnesota's lineup for this game to be very similar to last year's lineup.

Toledo, meanwhile, is a team that is way better than most people realize. Tod Kowalczyk is in his third season after a successful job at Wisconsin-Green Bay. He had to rebuild the team from scratch and they finished 1-15 in the MAC in his first season, followed by 7-9 last season. And now they return absolutely everybody and are primed to make a serious run at the MAC title. And yes, Ohio is going to be very good and could run away with the MAC, but it's not inconceivable that the MAC could be in play for a second NCAA Tournament bid.

Rian Pearson is Toledo's go-to scorer. A player with a very high ceiling is 5'10" point guard Julius Brown (6.2 assists per 40 minutes as a true freshman). Matt Smith is undersized as a 6'7" big man, but he was really good on both ends of the floor last season. This Toledo team will be no pushover for Minnesota.

IUPUI at #5 Michigan (9 PM, ESPNU) - Michigan opens their season against some school called Slippery Rock. That sounds the name of a fake school. Either way, this will be their first game against a real team, even if it's a very mediocre IUPUI team that I don't expert to contend in the Summit. But this is a great chance to watch a Michigan team getting an awful lot of hype, which I understand but also think is a bit much. They return Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr, and also a pair of true blue chip freshman in swing forward Glenn Robinson, Jr and big man Mitch McGary. Big man Jordan Morgan is the other key returner.

The losses Michigan suffered were Zack Novak and Stu Douglas (who both seemed like 9th year seniors by the end), as well as Evan Smotrycz to transfer. And this is where I disagree with the Michigan hype. Yes, guys like Robinson and McGary are way more talented than Novak, Douglas or Smotrycz. But those three players were really good the past couple of seasons and were really nice fits for John Beilein's system. Beilein's success has always been with teams filled with spot-up outside shooters. Novak and Smotrycz were both assassins behind the arc. With them gone, the best returning three-point shooter is Trey Burke and his 34.8% rate last season. And if Burke is launching threes instead of attacking the basket, that's not a good sign.

Are the same driving lanes for Burke and Hardaway going to be open when opponents no longer have to respect Michigan's perimeter shooters? When the lane is being clogged by all of these post players? And Michigan's offense wasn't even particularly great last season. So Michigan will be good, and it's hard to see them not finishing in the Top 25. But I think that #5 is overrating the Wolverines. I'll be curious to see how their offense flows against a weak IUPUI defense.

West Virginia at #21 Gonzaga (11:59 PM, ESPN) - This game is the start of ESPN's awesome 24 hour hoops marathon. The games tend to get a bit soft at around 4 or 6 in the morning, but that's when you're supposed to sleep. This is definitely a very good game to tip things off. Gonzaga is going to be awfully good (I think they're a bit underrated at #21). They were a pretty good team last season, and basically only lose Robert Sacre. Elias Harris is probably the face of the team and Sam Dower is a really nice post player, but Gonzaga's ceiling will be set by guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who were superb as freshmen last season. And you can do a lot worse in a backup point guard than David Stockton, who is not explosive but is very steady with the ball.

That all said, the one concern for Gonzaga is that so much of their success last season was derived from the twin towers of Sacre and Dower. With Sacre gone, there is no new true big to player when Dower is out of the game. Gonzaga will have to depend on front court players like Ryan Spangler and Guy Landry Edi who are more like 6'7" or 6'8" but have the potential to play well in the paint in extended minutes.

The question for West Virginia is whether this will be a rebuilding or reloading season. Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones are gone, meaning the end of a very successful era. Deniz Kilicli is a good scorer in flashes, and La Salle transfer Aaric Murray is another proven big. The question mark is the backcourt, and the development of Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne, who played big minutes as freshmen last season. One thing I really liked about Browne is his attitude toward the end of big games. He is a guy who obviously has the mentality to be a star in the Big East - the question is if he'll be able to play well enough to back up that attitude. There's no doubt that this young, talented Gonzaga backcourt will be a heck of an early season test.


Chris said...

Rhode Island fans are very much looking fwd to this season. Although we would differ in your opinion about Baron being a good coach. Great man, average coach.

Along with losing Billy Baron, the loss of Jonathan Holton who left the school because of some off the court issues leaves Rhody venurable down low. They will miss his 10rpg in conference play. ON the other hand, they will not miss his awful shot selection from behing the arc.

Jeff said...

Yeah, I didn't try to say that Baron was a great coach. I just felt he was underrated and was surprised when he was fired because I didn't think Rhode Island was likely to hire a better one in his place. But I was impressed that they were able to land the Hurleys, so it might work out in the end.