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Game Preview: Gophers vs. American 11/9/12

American University Eagles at Minnesota Golden Gophers
Friday, November 9, 2012 | 7pm CT | TV/Online: Gopher All Access (Online)

Head coach Jeff Jones begins his 13th year at American with his squad picked to finish third in the top-heavy Patriot League behind familiar names Bucknell and Lehigh.

American lost its top two scorers (Charles Hinkle 18.4 ppg & Troy Brewer 11.9 ppg) to graduation and returning guard Blake Jolivette (23.7 mpg, 7.3 ppg) is out after suffering an ACL injury this summer. Combined, these three players accounted for 56% of last year’s points.

Still, there are a few experienced players ready to lead the Eagles this season.

Below you’ll find a PLAYERS TO WATCH section highlighting specific Eagles and THE TEAM section that covers the four factors. For additional information on Gopher and Big Ten basketball, go to LateNightHoops.com.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Point guard #2 Danny Munoz (31.8 mpg, 8.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.2 apg) had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and made 43.9% of his 3-point tries, although he doesn’t shoot much (36/82 3FG). As good as some of those statistics may sound, it’s important to consider that he’s a low usage point guard and struggled with his 2-point shooting (35.7%).

Overall, Munoz is not game changer but he’s very important to the team as a senior and far and away American’s best option at the point. In a game like this, the Gophers have to be mindful that Munoz may want to try and set the tone for the season by showing he’s going to step up offensively more often.

#34 Tony Wroblicky (18.4 mpg, 6.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) is a 6’10” junior who was excellent rebounding and blocking shots last year. He should see many more minutes this season if he’s able to stay out of foul trouble, but that’s a big if. Minnesota will want to test Wroblicky’s defense early on, as a cutting Rodney Williams or slashing Joe Coleman would be hard for the big lefthander to resist slapping.

#32 Stephen Lumpkins, whose father Larry played 30+ years ago at Northwestern, returns to college basketball after spending a year playing rookie ball for the Kansas City Royals organization. Lumpkins is a 6’8” lefty who can pitch into the low-90s, but he’s had far more success on the basketball court than on the mound.

As a junior in 2010-11, Lumpkins averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game. We anticipate he’ll jump right back into old form despite the year on the diamond.

Neither of the big men shoots from distance, but they will look to get the high-low game working. While Wroblicky doesn’t always look confident when trying to score, Lumpkins is a legit scoring threat and who can take contact.

After the three players discussed above, things get a lot less impressive. However, a few others to mention:

  • Rutgers transfer #4 Austin Carroll is a 6’4” combo guard who will likely play significant minutes off the ball, but also spell Munoz at the point for several minutes as well. It will be a Brewster Academy reunion, something that happens quite often in college basketball, as Carroll and Minnesota’s Maurice Walker were teammates there. Like Walker, Carroll has played sparingly thus far in college because of injuries, but is now ready to go.
  • Freshman guard #14 Jesse Reed has good size at 6’5” and is a guy to watch on the perimeter.
  • Texas product #1 Kyle Kager looks like he will be a decent scorer for the Eagles at some point, but he’s probably a year away. Still, he’s a long, 6’8” kid who can score inside and out and could cause mismatches.

THE TEAM

In 2011-12 the Eagles took an average amount of 3-point attempts, but were extremely accurate. This season’s team should be a bit more focused on interior scoring with the loss of their top shooters and the available 1-2 punch of Lumpkins and Wroblicky.

Shooting
The Eagles will need to shoot the ball very well if they are to compete. Last year they were 17-0 when their offensive efficiency was 100 or better and 3-12 when it was under 100. They won’t be at 100 without a solid effective field goal percentage.

The trick for American this year will be shooting a much higher 2FG% than the 44.0% achieved a year ago, because they won’t shoot from long range as often and they will not be as accurate. The Eagles shot 39.4% behind the arc (and an amazing 45.2% in conference games) a year ago.

While improvement upon their poor 2FG% from a year ago appears an easily achievable goal for the season, scoring buckets inside will not be a breeze against the Minnesota defense. If the Lumpkins-Wroblicky combination doesn’t produce a high field goal percentage, the Eagles will stay grounded and unable to compete.

Defensively, American may give Gopher fans a look at what their team can do against a zone defense. If Minnesota struggles getting the ball inside early, they may need to call upon the Juice Man Julian Welch to come off the bench and give them a third player who can squeeze the trigger from deep.

Turnovers
It’s often discussed as a point of emphasis, but the Gophers haven’t been able to show much improvement in taking care of the ball. With so many returning players we’d have to believe there will be improvement this season, but how much?

American generally takes things slow and neither coughs up the ball a lot nor generates many turnovers. Minnesota often commits unforced turnovers and we could see the Eagles winning the turnover battle, albeit by a small margin.

Rebounding
This could get interesting. Tubby Smith plans to start Elliot Eliason and Rodney Williams with three guards. Eliason against Wroblicky should be a good battle, but add in Lumpkins against Williams and the advantage may go to American. That said, Minnesota has Trevor Mbakwe and Maurice Walker on the bench.

The battle of the boards should be entertaining and could go either way. The Gophers would love to make a statement that they are not going to be out-muscled on the boards by anyone this year, but this is an interesting challenge to start off the schedule and it will be tough for them to dominate the Eagles from start to finish.

Free Throw Rate
People love to talk about free throw percentages, but what really matters is getting to the line. If Minnesota does so early and often Friday night, it’s probably in large part due to Tony Wroblicky getting into foul trouble, which would .

The Gophers put opponents on the charity stripe too often in 2011-12 and Eliason was often a culprit. With Mbakwe and Walker on the bench, foul trouble for Eliason individually isn’t a big concern, but giving the other team free throw attempts is.

Summary
The Gophers should win comfortably, but American could keep it close early on.

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2012-13 Player Previews: Minnesota Golden Gophers

This article is available in PDF format. Bookmarks are included to facilitate navigation: CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: 2012-13 Player Previews: Minnesota Gophers

High-level player previews and season expectation for each scholarship student-athlete on Minnesota’s 2012-13 roster are included below. Players are listed in one of three sections: Point Guards, Bigs or Wings.

This year’s team has enough experience and skill to produce Tubby Smith’s best year since he’s been in the Twin Cities. However, whereas most have described the team as having great depth, we believe there are currently 8 players that belong in the regular rotation.

At the end of this article, we offer our preferred lineups (although we fully expect the Minnesota coaching staff to use the bench far more).

POINT GUARDS

Andre Hollins

6’1”, 200 | Sophomore
21.1 mpg, 8.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg

Dre is the team’s best go-to scorer as he’s able to score in various ways. He gets nice elevation on his jump shot and is accurate out to well past the 3-point arc. In addition, Hollins can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. We expect he’ll finish stronger and more consistently as a sophomore.

Last year, Dre made just 40.5% of his 2-point attempts (team average was 50.6%) and that must improve. Another area for improvement is reducing turnovers (26% turnover rate). Hollins had just 0.85 assists for each turnover.

As he’s entering his second year at Minnesota, Dre’s profile including last season’s numbers point to an impressive sophomore year. The obvious growth in confidence that Hollins exhibited late last season will carry over well.

Expectations: 11-14 ppg; improved A/T ratio; eFG% increase of 2.5%+; under-90% FT%.

Julian Welch
6’3”, 195 | Senior
24.7 mpg, 9.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.9 apg

Welch is an excellent spot up shooter and can hit from mid-range off the dribble. He fought through injuries last year and was still one of the biggest contributors to the team. The Gophers can’t afford to have him sitting on the bench too often. We believe he should play the role of backup point guard, but also get time alongside Dre Hollins as shooting guard. Very important player and  underrated by most.

Expectations: 8-12 ppg; lower 3FG% due to high comparison (43.8%); lower TO Rate by 3-5%.

Maverick Ahanmisi
6’2”, 192 | Junior
13.3 mpg, 2.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 1.6 apg

Despite some limitations, Ahanmisi does play with a lot of heart. We’d have him as a fill in option should Andre Hollins or Julian Welch go down, but suspect that Tubby Smith will play him for 10 minutes or so in most games.

In seven career starts against Big Ten teams, Ahanmisi doesn’t have a win and has gone just 9/40 (22.5%) from the field. His turnover rate improved as a sophomore, but it’s still far too high and although he can knock down an open triple, he finished the year below 30% in each of his first two seasons.

He does provide Minnesota with an experienced point guard option should they run into injury problems.

Expectations: 2-4 ppg

BIGS

Trevor Mbakwe
6’8″, 245 | Senior
28.7 mpg, 14.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg

Mbakwe is coming off an ACL injury and it could be awhile before he’s feeling completely comfortable on the floor, but even at 80% he’s be better than most guys at 100%. Absolutely ferocious on the boards, we expect he’ll again be one of the best rebounders in the conference.

Thanks to his long wingspan and athleticism, Trevor can handle playing center for Minnesota, but with Elliot Eliason and Mo Walker also available he may find most of his time at power forward. We’d like to see what Mbakwe and Rodney Williams can do along with three guards on floor, but a question coming into the season is how often Tubby Smith will utilize such a lineup.

Regardless of where he plays, Mbakwe should be on the court as much as he’s able to be. He’s a game changer and leader on the floor.

Expectations:  11-14 ppg, 9-11 rpg

Elliot Eliason
6’11”, 260 | Sophomore
15.1 mpg, 2.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg

He’ll never be known for being graceful, but Eliason’s size is enough to get him minutes. He put together superb rebounding numbers last year and this fall looks much stronger and even a bit taller. When Eliason and Mbakwe are in the lineup together, the Gophers should be able to keep the number of second chances for the opposition lower than last season.

Two areas where Elliot must improve are turnovers and fouling. We believe these will still be issues for him in 2012-13, but less so than last year.

Expectations: 4-5 ppg, 5-7 rpg

Maurice Walker
6’10”, 289 | Sophomore
Redshirted in 2011-12

Big Mo’s freshman year ended in December 2010 due to a PCL injury. He’s ready for action this year and provides a different look at center than Eliason. Walker is an immense presence who can bang down low and secure rebounds despite a lack of lift.

His touch is very good for someone his size and he could turn into a nice scoring option for Minnesota. If Mo can stay healthy and get his conditioning up, he’s a difference maker. Really nice potential and could be excellent on the offensive glass, but probably a year away.

Expectations: Anywhere from 4-8 ppg and he should produce a couple of standout games.

Andre Ingram
6’7″, 213 | Senior
8.8 mpg, 1.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg

Ingram transferred in from Butler Community College (Kan.) before last season and provided some solid minutes off the bench late in the year. He’s got a history of injuries that may continue to nag, but is a strong and tough interior player with good athletic ability.

He’ll be called upon to help off the bench and provides another option should one of the other bigs go down. His job will be to defend, rebound and take care of the ball when it’s in his hands.

Expectations: 2 ppg

WINGS

Oto Osenieks
6’8”, 205 | Sophomore
11.1 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg

Oto was needed inside last year and will probably be called upon to play a couple of different roles this season. He was brought into the program as a perimeter threat, but was stuck inside much of last year. He gave a good effort on defense, but ideally we’d have him playing out on the wing on both sides of the court.

Osenieks turned the ball over a lot last year and shot just 11/41 (26.8%) from 3-point range and 16/34 (47.1%) from the line. We attribute these poor numbers largely to inexperience and nerves. While he’s still not looking consistently comfortable on the floor this fall, he’s a very good shooter.

With the lack of proven 3-point shooters this Gopher team has, getting Osenieks some experience and opportunities to build his confidence before the Big Ten season begins could help down the stretch. Oto needs to be confident in his shot and good things will happen.

While we see him as a reserve player at this point in time, he’ll probably get a fair amount of floor time to prove himself from Tubby Smith. Osenieks is capable of having a game where he knocks down 4 or 5 3-point shots and keys a victory for Minnesota.

Expectations: Anywhere from 3 to 7 ppg; dramatic increases to his 3FG and FT percentages.

Rodney Williams
6’7”, 200 | Senior
31.9 mpg, 12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg

Williams took a big leap forward as a junior, but he can’t let up. He needs to consistently produce and fully embrace a simple fact: he’s an incredible basketball player.

When he’s in a groove and playing with confidence, Rodney is a special player. Sure, he has his faults: his perimeter shooting is not strong and free throws are a source of frustration. However, his size and athleticism is such that he can be a star without taking 3-point shots and making only 60% of his free throws.

Potentially playing with both Mbakwe and one of the two big centers in the lineup also on the court, the coaching staff needs to find ways to keep Rodney involved in the offense.

As a junior, Williams played more minutes than he did during his freshman and sophomore years combined. While his handles aren’t great, we believe as a senior he’ll be able to create off the dribble a bit more and is capable of putting together an all-conference season if he can keep the fire going strong all year.

Expectations: 11 to 15 ppg and more recognition of his defensive play. The national folks know Rodney can dunk with the best of them, but this year he should further prove his value on defense. We project his offensive efficiency to go slightly down, but his overall Value Add to increase.

Austin Hollins
6’4”, 185 | Junior
28.4 mpg, 9.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg

Austin was terrific overall last year, but must be consistent. On defense he uses his length well and on offense he shot the ball with high accuracy, including 51/138 (37.0%) on 3-point attempts. Hollins and Julian Welch were easily the most valuable players on last year’s team after Rodney Williams.

Austin’s usage rate was under 18% and in another year as a senior he’ll need to increase that figure based on how the roster currently projects. This year as a junior, usage of 17-19% is fine as long as he is knocking down the deep ball at a percentage as good as, or better than, last year’s.

We’d like to see better consistency and a little more aggressiveness from Austin this year. He’s not the flashiest player, but he can make teams pay if they don’t respect his athleticism.

Expectations: 10 to 12 ppg; team leader in 3-pointers made

Joe Coleman
6’4”, 200 | Sophomore
18.8 mpg, 5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg

Joe is an aggressive attacker that can find his way to the rim and draws a lot of contact. Coleman was a strong kid coming into the program a year ago, but is even bigger this year. He’s fearless when taking the ball inside and that’s exactly what the Gophers need him to do.

His perimeter shooting is not good and this season it’s not needed. He’ll want to continue developing his outside shot, but in games this season Minnesota needs Coleman to concentrate where he excels – attacking the basket.

If he capitalizes on offensive opportunities when they’re there, but doesn’t push things when they’re not, this can be a very nice year for the sophomore.

Expectations: 7 to 9 ppg; Top 15 in conference free throw rate

Charles Buggs
6’8”, 198 | Freshman

Buggs may find himself playing inside more often than out, but offensively he’s a face up guy with good range. He’s ridiculously long and quite athletic; an intriguing prospect.

We think it will take some time for Charles to catch up defensively at this level, but if the Gophers need him to play, his length may help mitigate him being out of position.

Buggs looks like a versatile 3/4 that can run well, score and defend multiple positions. Give him a little time, though.

Expectations: 3 to 5 ppg

Wally Ellenson
6’4”, 200 | Freshman

Ellenson possesses amazing leaping abilities and a strong work ethic. While he can impress with his dunks, Ellenson can also heat up from the outside with a nice shooting stroke.

Wally suffered a broken hand in practice and is likely out until sometime in December. It’s possible the Gophers would look to keep him out of action for the entire season in order to preserve a year of eligibility, but if they need minutes off the bench from a tough energy guy who can shoot, he’ll be ready to go.

Expectations: Dependent on recovery and rehabilitation from injury.

Late Night Hoops’ Preferred Lineups:

LINEUP 1 LINEUP 2
Andre Hollins Andre Hollins
Julian Welch or Joe Coleman Austin Hollins
Austin Hollins Rodney Williams
Rodney Williams Trevor Mbakwe
Trevor Mbakwe Elliot Eliason or Mo Walker
SUBS: Julian Welch or Joe Coleman, Elliot Eliason and Mo Walker SUBS: Julian Welch, Joe Coleman and Elliot Eliason or Mo Walker

In lineup 1, Welch provides a third 3-point threat and another ball handler, whereas Joe Coleman provides an attacking guard.

In lineup 2, the benefits of Eliason vs. Walker need to be compared relative to the opposition.

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2012-13 Preview: #1 Ohio State (#4/#4)

Ohio State is our pick to win the Big Ten in 2012-13. We tried to find reasons to doubt their defense, but kept coming back to the conclusion that it’ll be one of the best in the nation.

Thad Matta’s offense has the potential to be very good. Losing an All-American like Jared Sullinger would be a significant loss for any team and although he had somewhat of a down year, William Buford’s graduation also stings. However, we see plenty of scoring options that should develop as the year progresses.

According to ValueAddBasketball.com, Deshaun Thomas added more value to the Buckeye offense than Sullinger did last season and the 6’7” Thomas is back for his junior year. Granted, he may face even more defensive attention this season, but he’s a potent threat.

Even if Ohio State’s offense is down slightly from a year ago, we believe they have a strong enough defense to win the conference.

Glass Half Full

Top 1-2 Combo

Juniors Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft provide Ohio State with one of the nation’s best returning pairs of players. While Thomas excels on offense, Craft is one of the better defenders in America.

At 6’7”, Deshaun Thomas is a versatile scoring machine. As a sophomore, he averaged 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31.4 minutes per game. He’s a very high-volume shooter (approximately 27%), but maintains an impressive efficiency and high field goal percentage.

Thomas made approximately 60% of his 2-point field goals and converted 50 3-pointers on his way to a 34.5% performance from behind the arc, which does leave some room for improvement. He doesn’t get to the line a lot, but when you shoot and grab offensive rebounds as well as he does it’s forgiven.

If Thomas can draw more contact by taking ball inside and improves his long distance shooting, he might be an even greater offensive contributor than Cody Zeller at Indiana.

Aaron Craft is the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year and easily the top thief in the conference. Even when not securing a steal, the point guard is frustrating the opposition’s offense like very few defenders can.

At the same time, Craft’s offense (8.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) is often overlooked. He’s been very efficient and shot well (55.0% eFG), although his tendency has been to defer. We believe he’s more than capable of scoring the ball efficiently at a higher usage and as a junior still has room to reduce his turnover percentage.

With regard to team offense in the Big Ten last year, the two areas of lag for the Buckeyes were shooting – specifically 3-point attempts and percentage – and turnovers. Aaron Craft can help with improvement in both of those areas.

Age; talented sophomores

Ohio State had just one senior a year ago and their only junior averaged 10.2 minutes per game. This year, their leaders are experienced juniors and there are a number of sophomores that could make big jumps in their level of contribution to the team.

In addition to Thomas and Craft, junior Lenzelle Smith (25.4 mpg, 6.8 ppg, 37.8% 3FG) returns after starting all 39 games in 2011-12.

Talented sophomores include a number of top-50 RSCI ranked kids from the 2011 class. Big Amir Williams (#50) appeared sparingly in 29 games as a freshman, but he’s a 6’11”, 250 pound center who is an elite shot blocker and will prove himself as a top rebounding talent.

Shannon Scott (#32), a 6’1” combo guard, averaged 10.6 mpg (1.2 ppg). He struggled offensively in his first year, but this former McDonald’s All American is a great defender and should look far more comfortable in 2012-13.

Chicago switchable Sam Thompson (#46) is a long 6’7” high flyer capable of defending multiple positions. Although he averaged just 2.1 points in 10.6 mpg, he showed fans he’s capable of highlight reel plays and has a bright future. The Buckeyes would love for Thompson to show significant progression on offense this year.

LaQuinton Ross (#44) became eligible in December and appeared in only nine games (3.9 mpg, 2.0 ppg).  At 6’8”, 200 pounds he’s a strong, versatile forward that can score from anywhere on the court. Ross has tremendous potential.

Glass Half Empty

Loss of Sullinger and Buford

Combined, Sullinger and Buford averaged 32 points per game or 43% of Ohio State’s total points.

Sullinger was a special college basketball player and can’t be replaced. As great of an offensive player he was, the sophomore was also a force on defense and the glass. Ohio State’s offense attack will look more perimeter-oriented without Sully inside and the Buckeyes need guys to step forward offensively this season. While he’ll also be missed on the other side of the ball, the team’s defense should not be down much if at all in 2012-13.

We believe in the value of senior leadership, but also recognize Buford’s last season as a Buckeye was not his best. His offensive efficiency and usage declined from the previous two seasons and his effective field goal percentage of 48.3% was down significantly from 53.2% as a junior.

While Buford alone accounted for almost 30% of his team’s 3-point attempts last year, his accuracy fell to a career-low 35.8%. That’s not a bad percentage, but others can step up in his absence.

Other Comments 

  • 2013 Recruiting: Forward Marc Loving (#56 RSCI) and guard Kameron Williams (#73) have committed to Ohio State and the program is pursuing several other impressive seniors. Both Loving (10.9 ppg in EYBL) and Williams (22.2 ppg in EYBL) are scorers, although Loving should be able to improve other areas of his game more so than Williams. Kameron is an unbelievably good scorer who converted 47.9% of his 3-point attempts in EYBL play this year. There are valid concerns about his size (6’3”, but a thin frame) and defensive capabilities, but he is special when it comes to shooting the ball. 

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
“Ohio State may lose a few more games than last year, but they are the clear favorite to win the conference again this season. While Thad Matta’s team loses a few very important pieces from last year’s impressive squad, several highly talented players are ready to run through the doors that the departures have opened.”

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2012-13 Preview: #2 Michigan State Spartans (#14/#14)

Draymond Green led the Spartans to a Big Ten co-championship last season, but is now a rookie with the Golden State Warriors. The do-it-all forward averaged 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. He’s simply irreplaceable.

Nonetheless, Michigan State returns a number of talented players and welcomes an impressive freshmen class. There is a fair amount of risk that this year’s team falls short of expectations and we think both the team’s offensive and defensive efficiency may be slightly down this year, but Tom Izzo’s track record is too strong to bet against.

Glass Half Full

“McDonald’s is my spot” 

Michigan State went six years without bringing in a McDonald’s All-American, but Tom Izzo has now done so in each of the past three recruiting classes.

Keith Appling (2010 McDonald’s All-American, 30.8 mpg, 11.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.9 apg) took a nice step forward last season and should be able to build his game up by reducing turnovers and finding his 3-point stroke again (25.0% 3FG last year, 41.1% as a freshman). The 6’1” point guard is very good at taking the ball to the rack, which earned him frequent visits to the free throw line. Becoming a consistent deep ball threat would be especially helpful to this year’s squad which loses its top three 3-point shooters (3FGs made) from a year ago.

Prior to arriving in East Lansing, Branden Dawson (2011 McDonald’s All-American, 20.6 mpg, 8.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) looked like a future NBA player to us. At 6’6”, 230, he’s long, strong and athletic, all of which help make him an impressive rebounder and a defender who can stop multiple positions.

Dawson had ACL surgery in March, but his rehabilitation efforts have been tremendous and he has looked great this fall. His perimeter offensive game isn’t yet as good as it will become, but other than that it’s hard to find flaws in Dawson’s game.  He’s an absolute pleasure to watch with or without the ball.

The top man in the 2012 recruiting class is McDonald’s All-American Gary Harris. At 6’4”, 205, he’s got good size out on the wing and is able to score at all three levels. On defense, Harris really gets after it and uses his length to create havoc. The true freshman is an absolutely legit talent and will make an immediate impact.

Experienced big men

The issue we see with 6’10”, 240 pound Adreian Payne and 6’9”, 270 pound Derrick Nix is that we’re not sure how often they can get their minutes together. Certain match ups will likely dictate that they’re not on the court together, but if they gel it’s a combination that can be scary good.

Payne, with his 7’1” wingspan, is an exceptional shot blocker and very good rebounder inside. Not a primary offense weapon last year, but he did convert 56.7% of his 2-point attempts and was used in about 20% of the team’s possessions while on the floor. Payne can face up and score away from the bucket.

Derrick Nix (18.9 mpg, 8.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) is the only Spartan senior and is in far better shape than he was as a freshman. Although more fit, Nix is a still tough, wide body that can go toe to toe physically with anyone in the Big Ten. His soft hands and nice footwork combined with his size will continue to cause problems under the basket for opponents.

Glass Half Empty

Leadership 

This team needs to find its own identity post-Draymond Green. We believe it will, but there could be some bumps along the road. As you might expect, Michigan State’s nonconference schedule is challenging and may actually help this team answer some questions very early on. With Izzo leading the way, things should work out just fine, but Green meant a tremendous amount to this basketball program.

3-point shooting and 3-point defense

The Spartans aren’t usually heavy on 3-point shooting, but a solid team 36.2% 3-point field goal percentage helped last year.

Three of their top shooters – Draymond Green, Brandon Wood and Austin Thorton – were seniors and combined for 130/329 or 39.5% 3FG shooting. The rest of the team went 70/226 for 31.0%.

That said, Keith Appling (25.0% 3FG) can be better this year and other long-distance threats like sophomore Travis Trice (30/74 for 40.5%) and 6’7” redshirt sophomore Russell Byrd (9/33 for 27.3%) can help.

Michigan State’s opponents last year shot only 29.9% 3FG overall and a stunning 27.5% 3FG in regular season conference games. We believe that MSU’s Big Ten 3FG percentage defense will rise at least 2.0%.

Other Comments 

  • In addition to Gary Harris (#16 RSCI), this year’s incoming class includes 6’9” big Matt Costello (#86), 6’8” forward Kenny Kaminsky (#98) and 6’5” guard Denzel Valentine (#88). A shoulder injury will keep Kaminsky out of the lineup for much, if not all, of the season.
  • 2013 Recruiting: Michigan State, who loses only Derrick Nix to graduation after this year, has no commitments but is in the mix for prized prospect Jabari Parker. 

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
“(Picked #2) True freshman Branden Dawson is an exceptional talent and likely will start on the wing…Dawson must make strides in parts of his game to become an elite player, but if he can be steady with the ball, play good defense and do what he does on the glass, he’ll be very good this year. In future years, he will be great.”

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2012-13 Preview: #3 Indiana Hoosiers (#1/#1)

The Hoosiers should have an excellent season, but we cannot rationalize them as being the best in the country.

Indiana has tremendous talent and undeniable depth, but now it gets down to coaching. Tom Crean is a great PR man, but are there concerns with the X’s and O’s? Having tons of talent is better than having no talent, but optimally balancing this group of players throughout the year could prove to be quite a challenge.

The newcomers are terrific and Late Night Hoops has watched them in person many times. Point guard Yogi Ferrell is strong, clever and incredibly agile in the lane. Power forward Hanner Perea is an impressive physical specimen that will shock people who haven’t seen him up close with his strength, athleticism and aggressiveness near the rim. Wing Jeremy Hollowell’s combination of skill and size is good enough that if he can consistently work hard, he’s a next level guy. The future is bright, but they are all freshmen.

Indiana’s schedule lends itself to high expectations continuing for much of the year. After a weak non-conference portion, the season heads into conference play where Indiana’s four most difficult road games are all on the back half of the conference calendar.

Indiana will lose road games during the last month of the regular season, pushing them away from the top spot in the polls at year end. In the tournament, their defense makes it highly unlikely that they’ll be able to put together a championship run.

The difference in our projections for the top three Big Ten teams is small. Indiana will be entertaining to watch and they can certainly contend for the Big Ten title. However, concerns with defense, playing away from home and balancing of playing time are too much for us to consider them contenders for a national championship.

Glass Half Full

It’s Indiana

There’s been an amazing amount of praise heaped on the Hoosiers and most of it is fair. Cody Zeller is absolutely superb and the Indiana roster is filled with players who could start at many schools. Their fans are top notch in the support department and they’ll have a very good season.

The glass half full views of Indiana have been celebrated by followers of college basketball throughout the past few months. We’ll instead concentrate on some reasons why we differ with others in our view of Indiana.

Glass Half Empty

How good were they last year?

Indiana’s 27-9 record in 2011-12 looks good, but their non-conference schedule included a lot of awful competition. More than half of the Hoosiers’ 27 wins were 15+ point blowouts.  While the Kentucky game at Assembly Hall stands out, Indiana didn’t play many games that went down to the wire.  More than half of their losses were by double-digits.

Indiana finished conference play in 5th place last season and compiled a road record of 3-6, with none of those wins coming against foes that finished ahead of them.  The Hoosiers still must play on the road.

Matt Roth nailed 5 of 6 3-point field goals during a 22 point performance in a victory at Penn State, a win that broke Indiana’s 16-game Big Ten road losing streak.  Indiana was 2-6 in other conference road games, losing four by double digits and dropping a close one at lowly Nebraska.

Defense

Defense will hold Indiana back. Remember, Indiana’s 2011-12 was not nearly as bad as the few years prior.  Although there wasn’t anything particularly good about their team defense, it wasn’t awful and improved markedly last year.

The Hoosiers lowered their defensive free throw rate significantly last year, but won’t realize such a drop again this year.  A place they can improve significantly is forcing turnovers, but at what cost?

Are a talented group of freshmen the answer to a better defense? We don’t believe so. Perhaps having veteran wings Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey start games to set the defensive tone would be wise, but it appears likely that Coach Crean will have Yogi Ferrell and senior Jordan Hulls in the backcourt together a lot.

Ferrell is smart, strong and overall a great player. Nonetheless, he’s also a small freshman who played 2-3 zone in high school. Pairing him with Hulls will scare the opposition’s defense, but delight their offense.

Balancing talent

Indiana has tremendous talent and undeniable depth, but now it gets down to coaching. Tom Crean is a great PR man, but are there concerns with the X’s and O’s? Having tons of talent is better than having no talent, but optimally balancing this group of players throughout the year could prove to be quite a challenge.

Roth and Tom Pritchard were ultra-low usage guys that played with great offensive efficiency in their combined 24+ minutes per Big Ten game last year.  Now that Roth was effectively cut from the program and Pritchard is out of eligibility, how well will Tom Crean mix in guys with more regular usage tendencies?

Cody Zeller

Cody Zeller is absolutely legit, but he has a difficult comparable to deal with after a great freshman year.  As a sophomore he’ll showcase an expanded game and be even more fun to watch. However, we project his offensive rating will decline a bit. His total value to the team should improve some, but he won’t provide nearly the same incremental boost as last season.

Giving Indiana some hope, Cody Zeller still needs to prove he can dominate consistently away from home and he could help them to a better road showing this year. In Big Ten play, he was a far better performer at Assembly Hall:

Points FG% FT Rate
Home 19.8 71.1% 70%
Away 11.6 51.4% 54%

Three-point shooting

The 3-pointer wasn’t used a lot, but it did provide a big boost to the team’s overall shooting because of their incredible accuracy from deep. We do not project the Hoosiers shooting as well from distance in 2012-13.

  • The team shot 43.1% 3FG (41.4% conf; 44.9% nonconf).
  • Jordan Hulls won’t match his 49.3% 3FG (42.1% conf; 57.1% nonconf)
  • Considerable downside risk for Christian Watford’s 43.7% 3FG
  • Matt Roth’s 54.5% 3FG (59.2% in Big Ten) won’t come close to being duplicated by anyone. Ex-Roth, Indiana’s 41.4% 3FG in conference drops to 37.4%.

Trips to the charity stripe

Indiana’s free throw rate (“FTR”) in the Big Ten was the best seen in the conference over the past 5 years. Much like the Indiana defense focused on reducing their own fouling of the opposition last year, others teams will do the same this year when defending the Hoosiers’ attack. The Hoosiers were 0-5 in conference games when they had a FTR of less than 32.7%.

Schedule sets up for difficult end

Their schedule lends itself to high expectations continuing for much of the year. After a weak non-conference portion, the season heads into conference play where Indiana’s four most difficult road games are all on the back half of the conference calendar.

Indiana will lose road games during the last month of the regular season, pushing them away from the top spot in the polls at year end. In the tournament, their defense makes it highly unlikely that they’ll be able to put together a six-game run.

Other Comments

  • Issues around Hanner Perea’s eligibility continue to exist and it’s not certain what his status will be this season (updated 11/6/2012: NCAA: Perea and Peter Jurkin are suspended for the first 9 games of the season).
  • Ron Patterson, a freshman guard who left the program in August and enrolled at Brewster Academy (NH), has committed to Syrcause’s 2013 class.
  • 2013 Recruiting: 6’7” Troy Williams (#34 RSCI; VA), 6’10” Luke Fischer (WI), 6’4” Stanford Robinson (#55; VA), 6’5” Colin Hartman (IN) and 6’6” Devin Davis (IN) have all committed. 

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
“Team Trajectory: Undoubtedly up. The questions are how high and how fast. They have the talent to win some games right now, and in 2012 they expect to add a stellar group to the program…”

“(Re: Indiana not requesting a medical hardship waiver for Matt Roth in 2010) Based on the circumstances here, there would be exactly zero reasons to wait.”

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2012-13 Preview: #4 Wisconsin Badgers (#23/#21)

No matter how boring and plain they may appear, it’s difficult to slot Wisconsin lower than fourth place at the beginning of a Big Ten season with Bo Ryan as coach. His teams in Madison finish fourth or better every year.

We wouldn’t be shocked to see them fall past the fourth place spot this year with the recent ACL tear in Josh Gasser’s knee, but there are enough veterans available to Coach Ryan to keep them at No. 4 in our preseason projections.

The Badgers have several players with a good amount of experience, but will need help from new faces. Although they are ranked in both the AP and Coaches Poll (#23 and #21, respectively), this is a team whose leading returning scorer is their least efficient offensive player and worst shooter. In addition, the point guard position is again a question mark after Gasser’s injury.

Glass Half Full

Returning minutes

Senior Jared Berggren (27.8 mpg, 10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 37.2% 3FG) is a legitimate inside/outside threat. At 6’10”, 235, he’s big enough to bang down low but has a sweet stroke from downtown. Berggren was an adequate rebounder, but has room to improve. Defensively he’s able to disrupt shots and is the Big Ten’s second best returning shot blocker.

Ben Brust may need to handle point at times, but if he has improved his ability to score off the dribble that might not be a bad thing. The junior came off the bench last year and averaged 7.3 points in 21.3 minutes per game, excelling from behind the arc where he went 58/149 for 38.9%. If he sits out on the wing, defenders will be there and his production will be somewhat limited. If he can be just a bit more aggressive and have some success opening up his offensive game, Brust becomes a bigger threat with the ball.

Mike Bruesewitz is a 6’6” effort guy who struggled with his shot last year as a junior. After an effective field goal percentage of 55.4% as a sophomore, he shot just 46.4% last year. He can absolutely be better this year. Brusewitz, a very good offensive rebounder for his size, is still healing from a nasty cut (which required surgery) suffered in practice, but should be back sometime in November and shouldn’t be slowed down.

Guard Ryan Evans stepped up for the Badgers a year ago to average 11 points and more than 30 minutes per game. The 6’6” wing uses his athleticism to pull in defensive boards and block shots, but does take far too many 2-point jump shots.

No returning player logged more minutes than Josh Gasser (34.1 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 45.2% 3FG), but the junior guard, who was expected to slide over to point guard to replace Jordan Taylor this season, tore his ACL in late October and is expected to miss the entire season.

Sam Dekker

Bo Ryan isn’t afraid to redshirt players, even McDonald’s All-Americans, but Sam Dekker should get a chance to prove himself as a true freshman. At #19 in the RSCI, Dekker’s reputation grew substantially over the past two years. He’s a 6’7” wing with good athleticism who can score in a variety of ways. He’s going to be a great player – maybe even as a true freshman. At a minimum, he’s a unique weapon and good all-around player that can help Wisconsin this season.

The system

Wisconsin has plugged different players into its system and had things work out well. It’s a very slow offense, but it works. Last year the Badgers were efficient with the ball, but left something to be desired with their relatively weak 2-point shooting. The achievable improvement they could see in their 2FG% could greatly offset the impact of star point guard Jordan Taylor’s graduation.

On defense they’ll be strong as usual, but should be concerned about their 3-point field goal defense, which likely will be worse than a year ago when they kept their opponents under 30% from deep.

Others ready to step up 

Whether it’s sophomore big men Frank Kaminsky (6’11”, 230) and Evan Anderson (6’10”, 255), junior wings Duje Dukan (6’8”, 210) and Zach Bohannon  (6’6”, 210) or even 6’2” freshman guard Zak Showalter, it’s reasonable to think the Wisconsin coaching staff will make at least one inexperienced guy who isn’t being talked about much a contributor to this year’s team.

Bo Ryan generally doesn’t use his bench much and this group of guys does not need to be on the floor to ensure a successful season. However, one or two stepping up seems likely. 

Glass Half Empty

Point guard

Jordan Taylor graduated. Josh Gasser is out with an ACL injury. It’s a valid concern, but at the same time we think there are enough options for Wisconsin to compete with the best in the Big Ten. Redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson (5.4 mpg in 17 games) provide options for the future, but junior Ben Brust could also handle some of the duties.

Other Comments

  • 2013 Recruiting: La Crosse, Wis. product Bronson Koenig highlights a nice group of commits for the Badgers. The 6’2” point guard can score and pass and may very well turn out to be the next stud lead guard in Madison. Riley Dearring is a 6’5” wing from Hopkins HS (Minn.) who gives Wisconsin a long, athletic player type that isn’t generally associated with their program. Keeping with the theme of long players, 6’7” power forward Vitto Brown and 6’2” combo guard Jordan Hill have also given their verbal pledge to Wisconsin. 

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
(Projected #4 in B1G) The world of basketball continues to bestow praise on guard Jordan Taylor and rightfully so. His 2010-11 season was not only good, it can almost be called legendary. However, his senior year will not be as statistically prolific and Wisconsin will greatly miss Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil.”

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2012-13 Preview: #5 Michigan Wolverines (#5/#5)

Michigan shared the regular season conference title with Ohio State and Michigan State last year, but they were clearly the third best of the group.

Many have Michigan pegged as one of the best teams in the nation, but we see numerous issues with the lofty expectations that some have.

At a minimum, the fact that this doesn’t look like recent Beilein teams should raise questions. Other issues are debatable, but by the second week of February we believe it’ll be evident that Michigan’s No. 5 in the nation preseason rankings was far too high.

Glass Half Full

Trey Burke is a sophomore

Burke (36.1 mpg, 14.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.6 apg) was great as a freshman and exceeded expectations. While it’s not unreasonable to expect progression as a sophomore, we believe most projections of Burke in 2012-13 are too generous. Nonetheless, a guy who is always on the floor and involved in around 27% of his team’s possessions is nice to have.

Approximately 60% of his shot attempts were inside the three-point stripe and with what is likely to be a different look on offense for Michigan this year, it’ll be interesting to see how his game evolves in year two. Burke was able to convert 49.0% of his 2-point attempts and 34.8% of his tries from behind the arc, both respectable but with room for improvement.

He’s a fearless guy on the court, but needs to make smart decisions as this team figures out their identity, including who is going to be on the court. More than 44% of Michigan’s field goal attempts came from 3-point range in 2011-12, but based on this year’s roster that figure is likely to be significantly lower.

Tim Hardaway

The focus for most is on Burke, but of the returning Michigan players Hardaway probably has the widest range of reasonable performance projections for this season. He averaged 34.2 minutes and 14.6 points last year, but his shooting was down from his freshman year.  Specifically, it was his 3-point shooting that was poor. As a freshman, he hit 36.7% 3FG but that figure dropped to 28.3% as a sophomore.

Hardaway should have a better year from long range and it’s vital that he does.

Jordan Morgan

There’s nothing exciting about Morgan, but other than turning the ball too often, he does his job well. He’s a big man at 6’8”, 250 pounds and uses wide base to do a very good job on the offensive and defensive boards. The offense doesn’t go through him, but when he’s called upon to clean something up, Morgan is efficient (62.3% career FG ).

The excitement over freshman Mitch McGary is understandable. So is the possibility of improvement from other bigs like Blake McLimans and Jon Horford (who we still think can be a nice player for the Wolverines if healthy).

However, Morgan has already been a solid Value Add role player for Michigan and if his minutes are reduced, there’s no promise the next man will do much better. 

Freshmen

Glenn Robinson III (#23 RSCI), Mitch McGary (#26) and Nik Staukas (#78) must produce for the Wolverines to be as good as so many think they’ll be. As they are true freshman and we’re not sold on the idea of any one of the three being year one efficient studs, their performance and early development will be of great interest.

Robinson is an athletic wing (6’6”, 210) that can attack the basket. That’s a nice thing for Michigan to add, but it’s new. Under Beilein, is he going to be able to consistently hit jumpers this year?

McGary is versatile for his size (6’10”, 250) and should be great on the boards. However, his offensive game is limited and the idea of regularly working the ball into the low post to score isn’t typically what you think of when it comes to Michigan basketball.

Nik Stauskas is a 6’6” shooter originally from Canada and looks like more of a typical fit for the Wolverines than the more popular Robinson and McGary. Perhaps Stauskas can replace some of what Evan Smotrycz would have provided as a big shooter, but we would feel much better about an experienced junior instead of a true freshman.

Glass Half Empty

Michigan lost a lot from 2011-12

Zack Novak and Stu Douglass graduated, while Evan Smotrycz transferred.  One of several reasons we believe there is such a difference between how we view Michigan compared to how others do is that the production and value of these three was far more significant than some recognize.

Zack Novak

Novak (33.7 mpg, 9.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 40.9% 3FG) was underappreciated by some. Sure, you’ll hear a lot of praise for his intangibles – “he’s a hard worker, tough kid, leader, etc.” – but even with a possession usage under 15% his offensive Value Add was the best of all Michigan players in 2011-12. Having graduated, Novak’s leadership and production will be greatly missed.

Evan Smotrycz

As a sophomore, the 6’9” shooter was one of the Big Ten’s best defensive rebounders and shot an effective field goal percentage of 58.9%, including 43.5% 3FG. In 21.1 mpg, he averaged 7.7 points and 4.9 rpg.

It’s fair to point out that he struggled in Big Ten play (20.0 mpg, 5.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg and an eFG% of just 47.6%), but Smotrycz had his moments and may have been ready for a big jump in production this year had he not left the program. Minnesota fans will remember his game-tying 3- pointer (his only 3 points of the game) to put the Big Ten tournament contest into overtime.

Stu Douglass

Douglass wasn’t super exciting to watch on the court, but he was a solid, efficient player on offense and a very strong defender. In addition, Stu came through with some improbable game-winning shots during his career and was another good team guy.

Describe Michigan’s style of play

That’s a tough one. In the past, you knew what to expect out of Michigan. Not so this year. We think Beilein may be experimenting with different lineups through the end of the calendar year end and while he may come up with something that works beautifully, it’s not an ideal approach.

The three players just discussed above (Novak, Smotrycz, Douglass) combined for 140/361 3FG (38.8%), while the rest of the team went 136/427 3FG (31.9%). In addition to Burke and Hardaway, Matt Vogrich (16/53 for 30.2%) is a returner that frequently fires from 3-point range, but Michigan’s style of play will almost certainly look noticeably different in 2012-13.

We see Michigan as a third place team from last year that must change its offensive blueprint and is counting on youth and high-usage experience to come together. That doesn’t provide much comfort when projecting their 2012-13 season.

Other Comments

  • Phase II of the renovation project for Crisler Center (formerly known as Crisler Arena) is wrapping up after about 10 months, even though completion for the $52 million project was expected to take almost double the time. While the majority of the work is done, there are still some ongoing work that should be finished by the end of the December. Nonetheless, the pictures and reports from those who have toured the building are spectacular.
  • The William Davidson Player Development Center, a 57,000 square foot basketball facility for both the men’s and women’s programs, was opened next to Crisler Center last year. 
  • 2013 Recruiting: Although Burke and Hardaway are not seniors, there’s a chance they leave school for potential professional opportunities next year. Fortunately for Beilein, he’s set to bring in another impressive class.  Six-foot point guard Derrick Walton, 6’6” wing Zak Irvin and 6’8” big man Mark Donnal have all committed.  The current RSCI rankings (#45, #29, #97) illustrate the fact that they are respected nationally, but Irvin especially looks like a player and had his 3-point shot rolling when we last saw him in Las Vegas in late July. 

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
(Projected #3 in B1G) Senior Zack Novak is the type of hard-nosed kid that opposing fans tend to dislike. He’s not going to wow you with athleticism, size or skill, but with his effort he produces, no matter if he’s called on to play on the perimeter or mix things up inside. Although just 6’4″, Novak was strong on the defensive boards a year ago (17.4 DR%). His two-point shooting was bad (27/71 for 38.0%), but his three-point shooting (65/169 for 38.5%) and care for the ball (10.5 TO rate) made him a very valuable weapon on offense. Played 34.9 mpg and averaged 8.9 ppg to go along with 5.8 rpg in 2010-11. His minutes may go down a bit this year because of team depth, but that could benefit his go-all-out style of play. Novak is a capable leader on and off the court.”

“Things are looking good for Michigan and they should be able to stay in the upper half of the Big Ten for the foreseeable future. Novak and Douglass are seniors and Hardaway could bolt after this season, but they’ve got good talent throughout the freshmen and sophomores on their roster and their 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes are strong. The ever-improving Glenn Robinson (son of Big Dog) will arrive a year from now and 2013 kids Zak Irvin and point guard Derrick Walton have each given their pledge.”

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2012-13 Preview: #6 Minnesota Golden Gophers

Tubby Smith enters his sixth year as Minnesota’s head coach looking for a third appearance and first victory in the NCAA tournament. In each of the past two seasons, the Gophers have gone 6-12 in the Big Ten, but believe they have the experience and personnel to earn an invite this season.

Minnesota returns most of the team, including Trevor Mbakwe who is back after an ACL injury last November. The pieces to win are there, but it will be up to Coach Smith and his staff to optimally assemble them for the desired result.

Glass Half Full

Top players can compete with anyone

Trevor Mbakwe (14.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg in 7 games) is coming back after ACL surgery, but is now ready to get back on the court. His aggressiveness and athleticism are keys to his game, but a player like Mbakwe will likely toss off the rust quickly and be close to top form early on in the season.  The 6’8”, 245 pound sixth year senior is an elite rebounder who blocks shots, draws fouls and finishes close to the basket.

Without Mbakwe a year ago, the Gophers used a team effort to do quite well on the offensive boards, but he’ll be a big help in keeping the opposition from getting second chances.

Rodney Williams (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is an electrifying performer who came on last year as a junior. Williams shot an impressive 59.0% effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and maintained a strong offensive rating while posting a career high usage of more than 19%.

Defensively Williams uses his length and athleticism to block shots and create steals. His confidence appears to be at an all-time high and that does not bode well for Minnesota’s opponents.

Junior wing Austin Hollins (9.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg) uses his long arms to get into passing lanes and defend. On offense, he’s not a high usage guy (just under 18% last season), but when involved he’s very efficient. Austin converted 53.4% of his 2-point attempts and 37.0% of his 3-pointers last year.

A little more consistency would go a long way for Hollins and he is a guy that’s capable of reaching 40% from behind the arc. He’ll be asked to do more as a senior in 2013-14, but this season if he contributes great defense and a consistent 3-point shot, he’ll be giving Minnesota just what they need.

Julian Welch (9.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.9 apg, 43.8% 3FG) is often overlooked, but the junior college transfer came in last year and performed very well despite some injuries. Now a senior, Welch might find it difficult to match his accurate shooting from last year, but if he can slightly improve his production from a year ago or even match it, he’ll be an important part of this team.

Sophomore Andre Hollins (8.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg) projects to have a very good career. He struggled at times last year with turnovers and 2-point shooting, but proved he can make things happen with the ball in his hand. The Gophers are a team that will have different players leading the scoring from game to game, but Dre may be the most likely to post several 20-plus point games.

Other contributors 

Minnesota has two big redshirt sophomore centers in Elliot Eliason (6’11”, 260) and Maurice Walker (6’10”, 290) ready to get physical when needed.

Eliason (2.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) only averaged 15.1 mpg, but he blocked shots and rebounded at very good rates while on the floor. Of returning Big Ten players who were on the floor for at least a third of their team’s minutes, Elliot Eliason was quietly the best defensive rebounder of them all in 2011-12. He’s not very graceful and needs to cut down on turnovers and silly fouls, but he’s a large young man who makes a difference inside.

Big Mo Walker hasn’t played since a December 2010 PCL injury and subsequent surgery, but is ready to go. With his size and history of injuries, you worry about his conditioning and ability to stay healthy, but if he’s able to consistently give minutes he adds not only a space eater on the blocks, but with his surprisingly soft hands his ability to pass and score are good.

Sophomore guard Joe Coleman isn’t much of a shooter, but he is aggressive going to the rim and is excellent at drawing contact in the paint.

Another option for Tubby Smith is Oto Osenieks, a 6’8” forward who was brought in as a shooter but was forced to play inside last year due to team injuries. The redshirt sophomore went just 11/41 (26.8%) from 3-point range last year, but with a little room he’s an excellent shooter.

Freshmen Wally Ellenson (6’4”, 200) and Charles Buggs (6’8”, 200) both should get some chances to audition their skills during parts of the nonconference schedule. Ellenson has jump-out-of-the-gym athletic abilities, can get hot from long range and won’t be outworked, but did break his hand in late October and could be unavailable well into December. Buggs is a face up four man at this point and needs to gain strength, but he’s very long which will should help him defend. Both young men are athletic and able to score, but they’ll need to prove themselves defensively in order to earn any meaningful minutes. 

Turnovers on offense

The Gophers should be able to reduce their turnovers in 2012-13. Last season’s turnover rate was nearly 23% and in conference they gave up the rock more often than any other team.  Both Dre Hollins and Julian Welch were new to the program and had often played at shooting guard before arriving in the Twin Cities, but in addition to the point guards, the turnover bug bit most of the team. With a veteran squad, Minnesota must be better. 

Defense

Minnesota should be able to improve in three defensive areas (although perhaps not the most important area – field goal defense).

Having a number of long, athletic defenders, being mediocre at turning the opponent over isn’t good enough.  Look for the Gophers to create more defensively in 2012-13.

With Trevor Mbakwe back, this team should not repeat last year’s defensive rebounding performance that put them all the way down in tenth place in the conference. 

Finally, the Gophers put the other team on the line far too often a year ago. Minnesota shot almost four fewer free throws per conference game than their opponent. Another year of experience for many of their players and Mbakwe drawing all sorts of attention inside should result in net improvement here. 

Glass Half Empty

Fallacy of depth

Having healthy bodies available is not the same thing as having great depth. We believe there are two optimal lineups (depending on the opponent) for Minnesota this year and also believe that Minnesota’s best players can add significantly more value than the rest of the roster.

However, Tubby Smith has used a relatively large bench in the past and frequently has subbed in three to five players at the same time within the first 10 minutes of games. The difference between winning and losing a game in the Big Ten and against competitive nonconference opponents is not large and lineup choices can greatly influence outcomes.

There are a lot of kids who can play and help the Gophers this year, but there is a core of seven or eight players that should get the great majority of minutes. Based on history, Tubby’s game plan may not agree.

Health of interior options

Things get physical in the Big Ten, but as long as the Gophers have a healthy Trevor Mbakwe, Mo Walker and Elliot Eliason, they are in great shape. That said, Mbakwe and Walker will be back on the court this fall for the first time since having major knee surgery. In addition, Walker has dealt with other injuries and his conditioning remains a concern due to his size.

If any one of these three is unable to play, it takes away a lot from this team. Andre Ingram is a tough inside guy, but doesn’t have the size or skill of the others. Other options to help defend against post players include Oto Osenieks and freshman Charles Buggs, but they both lack the strength and size to defend some of the bigs that Minnesota will face. 

NBA Dreams vs. Season Goals

Both Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams have aspirations to play in the NBA. The seniors also have things they’d like to prove in order to better their chances of getting a shot at that level. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff balances out what might be better for the pro prospects of its star seniors and what might benefit this year’s Gopher basketball team.

Most important for Mbakwe is to simply show that he’s still a monster inside that can score, rebound and defend. He may want to show off a mid-range jump shot, but that may not be a bad thing to occasionally display. If he’s playing with aggressiveness and explosiveness, it’s going to help both the team and his draft stock.

Rodney Williams is more the concern here. Last year Rodney excelled when working with a lot of space inside. Williams took more than half of his shots at the rim and was incredibly efficient in doing so. The majority of these shots were created with the help of assists and many were made possible because he was playing with three guards and a center.

If Minnesota has Walker or Eliason out on the court with Mbakwe and Williams, it’ll require more creativity on the coaching staff’s part to get Williams the ball where and when he needs it.

Meanwhile, Rodney has just one more year to prove that he can improve his ball handling and perimeter shooting. While we believe he can show improvement, having Williams trying to create his own shot or knock down 3-pointers is not the most efficient route for him or Minnesota’s offense.

Above all, Rodney needs to show what a great defender he can be as that’s what most likely to get him a chance at the next level. In addition, the confidence, aggressiveness and leadership he showed late last season must carry over and be consistent throughout the year. These things will not only benefit Minnesota this season, but also Rodney’s future. 

Field goal defense in Big Ten

In recent years Minnesota has been one of the better shot blocking teams in America and they should be good again this year. However, they will miss Ralph Sampson. With Mbakwe and Sampson unable to play much of last year, the team’s block % fell and one result was a rise in their opponents’ 2-point field goal percentage. We don’t see a big issue here in 2012-13, but a nice improvement doesn’t look likely either.

Last season other teams liked the idea of attacking the paint more than in the past because of the personnel out on the floor. As a result, there was a drop in the frequency of 3-point attempts taken by opponents. In addition, the Gophers benefited from a relatively weak long distance shooting performance by Big Ten foes.

For several reasons, we believe the lower 3FG% by conference opponents last year was partly due to chance and in 2012-13 we project it to rise. Combined with the possibility of more attempts coming from behind the arc, the Gophers have a big challenge if they are to reduce their overall field goal percentage defense in the Big Ten.

Other Comments

  • 2013 Recruiting: The Gophers have added two Chicagoland kids that have played together on both high school and AAU teams. Alex Foster, a 6’8” forward, and 6’4” wing Alvin Ellis are quality recruits and good fits for the Minnesota program. 

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
Obviously the Gophers would like to be a team that competes for a top four or better finish in the Big Ten each year, but this looks like a program that will be sitting in the middle of the pack over the next few years. A goal should be to make the NCAA tournament each March, but it won’t be an easy task any time soon, especially with the likely emergence of Iowa and Indiana back to respectability in the near future.”

“10th place seems lot more likely to me than 5th place does for this team. Minnesota looks like a team on the outside looking in with regards to the NCAA tournament, but if a few things go right they could sneak up in the Big Ten standings.”

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