College Preseason Top 25: Nos. 20-16
A look at teams 20-16.
As SLAM continues its countdown of the top 25 teams in the country entering the 2009-10 season, we examine a mid-major darling and a trio of reemerging Big Ten squads. While some of these teams look like solid locks to remain in the national rankings thanks to the return of already solid rosters, others will have to hope that their younger players continue to develop as expected in order to take on greater roles in the upcoming year. So without further adieu here’s five more to debate as the countdown to number one marches on.
Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. Fool us three times? Not going to happen. The Saints return seven of their top eight scorers from a team that has won an NCAA Tournament game in each of the last two seasons. This time, we’re on to Siena and they will be getting some preseason love as a top-20 team and a heavy favorite to run through the MAAC once again.
In the backcourt, Fran McCaffery’s squad loses Kenny Hasbrouck, but returns plenty of talent to ensure that his loss won’t be felt to heavily. Swingman Edwin Ubiles led the team in scoring at just under 16 per last season and finished third in rebounds. The 6-6 New York native excelled in transition last season, thanks to his quickness and solid handles, making him a well above average finisher when he can attack the rim in the open floor. Ubiles was also a fantastic scorer off the pick-and-roll where he was able to utilize his very strong mid-range game, knocking down plenty of open opportunities that he was able to create by reading the defense. The senior is definitely a big time scoring threat and not just against his mid-major brethren; just ask Ohio State and Louisville who got games of 20 and 24 points from Ubiles during the NCAA Tournament. The man responsible for setting up the mid-range extraordinaire and the rest of the Siena offense is back as well. Point guard Ronald Moore ranked ninth in the country last season in total assists, pumping out dimes at a ratio of 6.3 per game. While most will look at the now departed Hasbrouck and returning Ubiles as the offensive weapons that have made Siena a mid-major darling, Moore is without a doubt the man behind the wheel running the show. Not surprisingly, the pint sized floor general is at his best when he can get out and run in transition; while he may lack the ability to attack the basket and finish consistently, he does an excellent job of drawing and kicking to open teammates. What makes Moore such a valuable asset, isn’t the fact that he is able to draw additional defenders when he puts the ball on the floor, it is that he rarely turns the ball over when distributing to other members of his squad (see 2.91 assist-to-turnover ratio). Reigning MAAC sixth man of the year Clarence Jackson will continue to be an offensive spark plug, although will likely find himself doing it in a starting role this season. The 6-3 New Jersey native averaged a modest 8.3 ppg but did it in less than 15 mintues of playing time. He proved more than capable of putting up big numbers when his minutes increased too, just ask Manhattan and Saint Joseph’s who were on the receiving ends of a pair of 20-plus point showings. The backcourt will get one more additional boost from the arrival of Philadelphia combo guard Denzel Yard, a 5-11 scoring machine.
A strong, yet undersized front court will bring back its top pieces in the fall with the return of Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter. At just 6-5, Franklin doesn’t seem like the kind of player who would be an impact presence inside, but the 225-pound senior plays much bigger than his listed frame. The Pennsylvania native is a smart player who knows who to use his body to create space and can take bigger post players off the bounce with a pretty good first step. More than just a “mid-major big man,” Franklin can hang with the elite frontcourts in the nation, including Louisville who outlasted a 19-point, 7-rebound showing from the forward. While Franklin is often on the wrong end of mismatches, running mate Rossiter is often the one creating matchup problems on the offensive end. The 6-9 power forward has a polished post game and can stretch defenders out with a nicely developing mid-range game. While the regular season was a rollercoaster of inconsistency for the Staten Island product, the final month of the season saw Rossiter record four double-doubles in seven games, including a 16-point, 15-rebound showing in the first round win over Ohio State. The Saints will add more size come the fall with the arrival of another New York big man, forward Oderah Anosike, who at 6-8 will be an inside and outside threat.
Life won’t be easy for Siena this season as teams aren’t likely to let the MAAC power sneak up on them anymore, but the Saints have the talent and experience coming back to ensure that they still rack up the wins again in 09-10.
Not since the days of the Fab Five has Ann Arbor been gripped with this level of hoops fever. The Wolverines finished at .500 in the Big Ten for the first time in two years and won its first NCAA Tournament game in over a decade. Oh yea, they also return their entire roster save for a pair of little used seniors. Year three of the John Beilein regime should absolutely prove to be the best so far as Michigan has a shot to land somewhere in the top three in the conference next season.
Guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims may be the best returning duo in the conference, after each earned All-Big Ten honors at the end of last season. Harris was the only Big Ten player to finish in the top ten in the conference in scoring, rebounding and assists after a sophomore campaign that saw him emerge not only as one of the best players in the conference, but as a big time pro prospect. The junior is an excellent athlete who really excels when he can attack the basket off the dribble either in transition or in isolation situations on the wing. The biggest knock against him right now is his need to develop a left hand. He rebounds the ball very well for a guard thanks to his size and length, hauling in nearly two offensive rebounds per game last season and finishing a good number of those for put backs. Sims emerged as a second-team All-Big Ten performer as a junior after two underwhelming seasons. The 6-8 power forward posted very strong averages of 15.4 points and 6.8 rebounds, all while showing an offensive arsenal that is quite versatile for a player naturally inclined to play inside. Sims can knock down the mid-range jumper and even step out beyond the arc on occasion thanks to a pretty smooth shooting stroke for a big man. The in-state product has a good post up game thanks to his soft hands and can face up against slower front court defenders and take them to the basket. This stellar duo averaged over 30 ppg together last season and will once again be a headache for opponents.
The Wolverines return a plethora of youngsters to the backcourt to join Harris. A trio of sophomores, Zack Novak, Laval Lucas-Perry and Stu Douglass. These role players will be a major key to the continued success of Michigan. All three put up a handful of double digit scoring performances during the Big Ten schedule and with Novak and Lucas-Perry being solid perimeter shooters; they will need to take advantage of the attention defenses will pay to their star studded teammates. Even with so many guards returning to the roster, it’s no surprise that Beilein is bringing in two more backcourt players in his 2009 recruiting class, given the coaches history for perimeter play. Combo guard Matt Vogrich is a quick athlete who is a good slasher but has an excellent stroke from beyond the arc as well that will make him a nice kick option for his teammates. Los Angeles point guard Darius Morris has great size for the position at 6-3 and is a very good penetrator with the ball in his hands.
While this team will certainly feature a very guard oriented offense, there will be some young bodies inside to help Sims in the frontcourt. After taking a medical redshirt during his freshman season due to surgery on his hip, seven-footer Ben Cronin will make a return to the court after appearing in just two games last season. While he still has a very long way to go, with 265 pounds packed onto his frame, he will be a big body that can eat up space. Incoming freshman Jordan Morgan and Blake McLimans will get some early minutes as well, particularly McLimans who is a 6-10 forward with range out to the perimeter, the type of big man that Beilein absolutely loves. Morgan is built much like Sims, standing at a very solid 6-8 and 240 pounds, he will bring some added toughness and a rebounding presence to the Wolverines rotation.
The Big Ten will once again feature more than a handful of 20-win teams next season, but Michigan will likely finish near the top of the standings and with some breaks here and there could finish as high as second in the conference.
Following last year’s act in Norman isn’t going to be easy. The Sooners won 30 games – third most in program history – and made an appearance in the Elite Eight. Making things even more difficult will be the departure of the Griffin brothers to the NBA (you may have heard of Blake) and senior guard Anthony Johnson who graduated. Still, there is reason to be optimistic in Oklahoma thanks to the return of a pair of standouts from last season’s squad and a top flight recruiting class that features several players who will make an instant impact in the Big 12.
The OU backcourt will be brimming with energetic young talent, beginning with sophomore Willie Warren who would have been a first round selection had he opted for the NBA Draft. The scary thing about the 6-4 guards game is that he tends to excel as a scorer in nearly every offensive scenario, proving to be most effective in transition and isolation situations where he can take advantage of his tremendous athleticism and excellent first step. Warren, though not a deadly three-point shooter, shot a very respectable 37-percent and showed he can light it up from time to time beyond the arc, like the 7-for-11 performance he dropped on Arkansas. Tony Crocker will be back for his senior year and will need to become a more consistent scorer this season in order to help fill the void left by the three departed contributors from last year. The 6-6 two-guard played his best basketball during the month of December before seeing his production take a dip in the new year. He did however show some impressive flashes late in the season, including a 28-point explosion against Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen. The Sooners will get some added firepower to join their two veterans with the arrival of All-American Tommy Mason-Griffin and sharpshooter Steven Pledger. Mason-Griffin is an excellent point guard, possessing a solid build, great court vision and strong handles that will make him a perfect running mate for Warren when those two are on the court together. Pledger will help to stretch defenses given his 6-6 frame and extensive range that reaches well beyond the three-point line.
All of the questions in Oklahoma will center around the frontcourt, where the loss of Blake Griffin will certainly be a tough one to fill immediately, but head coach Jeff Capel signed a pair of capable replacements. Arguably the most intriguing recruit in the Big 12 this season, Keith Gallon will be the player expected to step into the role that was held by the number one overall pick in the NBA Draft this past June. The Oak Hill product is a tantalizing combination of size and skill, standing 6-9 and weighing 290 pounds, but having the quickness and range to operate on the perimeter when faced with slower big men. While it might be a lot to ask of the freshman to post the kind of numbers that Griffin did last season (22.7 ppg and 14.4 rpg) he certainly has the potential to emerge as an top flight player in the conference in his first season. Joining him inside will be another wide body in Brewster Academy’s Andrew Fitzgerald, a 6-8 240-pound power forward with a fantastic post up game. He isn’t a stellar athlete, but in situations where Gallon can help pull a defender to the outside, that should give Fitzgerald the room to operate in an isolated post up situation.
Sooner fans shouldn’t necessarily be banking on another 30-win season in 2010, but the loss of Blake Griffin doesn’t spell a rebuilding season either. Capel and co. have reloaded and will once again be one of the better teams in the Big 12 and will find themselves competing in March again.
Tubby Smith has done wonders in Minnesota, turning the team into a relevant program again on the national scene. In just two seasons at the helm Smith has guided the Golden Gophers to a pair of 20-win seasons and their first NCAA Tournament in three years last season. He has also helped to reestablish the school as a recruiting power in its own state, helping to add more firepower to a team that already returns all but one player from last season.
Senior guard Lawrence Westbrook will be back to anchor the backcourt after leading the team in scoring last season with 12.6 ppg. Despite standing just 6-feet tall, he possesses the quickness and athleticism to be a consistent scoring threat last year, particularly during the early part of the Big Ten schedule. The Chandler, Arizona native is at his best when he can get out and run in transition as well as breaking defenders down and shooting off the dribble. With a young team returning next season, Westbrook will once again be looked to lead the Gophers on and off the court. Top playmaker Al Nolen will be expected to facilitate the offense once again as a pass first point guard; no one is expecting him to put up big scoring numbers (reached double-figures just seven times in 33 games). The undersized junior is at his best when he can isolate defenders, beat them off the dribble into the lane and then kick to open teammates. Taking a look at the numbers, a very high percentage of Nolen’s drive and kick attempts are converted, hence the 2.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio last season. Gunner Blake Hoffarber saw his shooting numbers plummet last season, but if he can return to the type of form he showed during his freshman year (42.7 percent from beyond the arc) Minnesota will have a weapon that help stretch defenses and allow things to open up in the middle for their bigs. Of course the player that Gopher fans will have their eye on is incoming freshman Rodney Williams, one of the highest touted newcomers to the conference this season. At 6-6 and possessing explosive athleticism and finishing ability, the New Hope product has the potential to emerge as a stud in his first season at the college level.
Damian Johnson will be the top returning forward to the frontcourt next season, though he isn’t even close to being the player with the most upside. The 6-7 Louisiana native spent a good amount of his time spotting up on the perimeter last season, though was at his most effective running the floor in transition and posting up inside. Only a small percentage of his touches came on the block, but despite this and his slight frame, the senior does an outstanding job of finishing regardless of what side he turns to. Towering sophomores Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson showed a lot of promise in short bursts during their introduction to the Big Ten, particularly Sampson who had a few double-digit showings during the conference schedule. Tubby Smith signed undersized power forward Royce White as well, a 6-7 athlete with a tremendous motor. He shows some developing versatility and a promising jumper, but for the time being will be a player who gets a lot of his buckets around the rim due to his hustle.
With five seniors on the team next season who suffered through a tumultuous 9-22 season as freshman, the Gophers will have the type of leaders who have dealt with losing and will be eager to ensure they don’t experience that again. The team will still be young, but expect a third straight season with 20-plus wins from Tubby and co.
16. Ohio State
What does 22 wins + returning your top four scorers equal? A top-20 ranking for Thad Matta’s Buckeyes. Sure, former blue chip recruit B.J. Mullens has departed for the NBA, but let’s be honest, the 7-footer really wasn’t a major factor in Ohio State’s success last season, especially down the stretch where he was extremely inconsistent. What OSU does return though is a nucleus of four extremely gifted players that will make their backcourt the most versatile and arguably to most dominant in the conference.
For starters, there is swingman Evan Turner; if you think there is a better all-around player in the Big Ten at this point, you’re wrong (no offense Kalin Lucas). All the Chicago native did during his sophomore campaign was post averages of 17.3 points, 7.1 rebound, 4 assists, 1.8 steals shoot better than 50-percent from the floor and connect on 44-percent of his three-point attempts. Do I need to continue? Turner is at his best when he can put the ball on the floor – something he does essentially every time he is isolated – and while he is an excellent finish around the rim given his size and athleticism, he shows nice touch on his pull up jumper as well. This is the season that the junior will emerge as a potential first-team All-American candidate. Turner’s top running mate in the backcourt last season was Big Ten Freshman of the Year William Buford. The local product is a tough match up for any defender given his 6-5 frame and stellar athleticism. The Buckeyes liked to run him off of screens quite often last season and he excelled in these situations as he doesn’t need much space to burn a defender to the basket. He also showed a pretty good stroke from beyond the arc given the high volume of shots he attempted from this range in his first season. Speaking of range, shooting guard Jon Diebler is back for his third year of action having emerged as a lights out option from deep for the Buckeyes last season. The Ohio high school hoops legend attempted nearly as many three-point field goals as he did two-pointers and hit a scintillating 41.6-percent from beyond the arc. Given his propensity for draining anything and everything once he steps across half court, it should come as no surprise that over half of the shots attempted by Diebler last season were either in spot up situations or coming off of screens. The Buckeyes will gladly welcome swingman David Lighty back to their rotation as well after the junior missed all but seven games last season due to a broken foot. Prior to the injury the 6-5 Cleveland native was doing a little bit of everything, scoring, rebounding a high rate for a perimeter player and playing excellent defense at the other end of the floor. Lighty first showed promise a few years ago, getting spot time during the Greg Oden days, but now will have the chance to really step into his own and be a major contributor if he is fully healed.
The frontcourt will be a bit thin this season with the departure of Mullens, but having perimeter players like Turner and Lighty will certainly help on the glass. The Buckeyes will need a big season out of junior Dallas Lauderdale, a 6-8 255-pound power forward who posted modest numbers in a fair amount of playing time this season. Lauderdale has shown promise in spurts, but will have to accelerate his development at a high rate in order to hang with some of the more talented frontcourt players in the Big Ten. OSU fans will also get their first real look at Nikola Kecman who missed the early part of the season due to an NCAA ruling about his time spent playing with a pro team in Serbia and then suffering a season-ending knee injury after just one game. The 6-8 forward can shoot from the outside a bit and will provide another strong frame to help on the glass. Little used center Kyle Madsen may see increased minutes next season as well with the Buckeyes looking like it could be frontcourt my committee. Don’t expect a ton of production out of the OSU bigs, especially on a team with so many talented perimeter players, but if the frontcourt can rebound and play defense, all will be well for Thad Matta’s squad.