What We Learned From the Champions Classic

photo via Chicago Tribune

Last night had a lot of hype to it. It was the highest ranking for all four teams competing in the Champions Classic. All four teams were ranked in the top five in the preseason poll. While all four teams are far from mid-season form, it’s easy to see the potential they all have. Let’s take a look at one thing we learned from each team last night.

Grayson Allen is Duke’s Unquestioned Leader

Marvin Bagley received a lot of attention after Duke’s first two games. It was well warranted when you looked at the freshman’s numbers, but Tuesday night it was all Grayson Allen. Allen erupted for 37 points, shooting 7-11 from three point land. He is now 17-26 from three in the first three games of the year. Don’t expect Allen to shoot that well all season long, but do expect him to have maybe the best shooting numbers of his Duke career. The reason? Trevon Duval. Even Allen acknowledged after the game that many of his looks came off Duval’s creation. With a true point guard alongside him, Allen will get the clutch looks all year long

Depth Won’t Save Michigan State from Turnovers

Michigan State struggled last season to take care of the ball. Cassius Winston was just a green freshman and Tum Tum Nairn wasn’t good enough to keep his job over Winston. This year, Michigan State has a lot of things going in their favor, but the turnover battle can keep them from making a deep run in March. Winston did have 11 assists, but turned the ball over 5 times. Bridges had 5 turnovers as well, and freshman Jaren Jackson had 4. Compare that to Duke’s point guard, Trevon Duval, who only had 3 turnovers and 10 assists. Michigan State won’t cut down the nets if they turn the ball over 17 times a game.

Billy Preston Needs to Get On the Court

Kansas has a strong back court with Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and LeGerald Vick. Up front they are not so strong. To Bill Self’s credit he has adjusted to a four guard line up very well, but Kansas still needs some support down low. Udoka Azubuike looks to be the main man at center, but Mitch Lightfoot doesn’t look ready for major minutes. Freshman Billy Preston was expected to be in that front court rotation, but has missed the first two games for two separate incidents. That left Kansas with just seven scholarship players last night. Preston needs to figure out his off the court issues, because he team needs him on the court if they want to go deep into March.

Kevin Knox will be Kentucky’s Go To Guy

Kentucky has a very talented group of freshman, and I do think Hamidou Diallo will be a big contributor for the Wildcats this year. But I think Kevin Knox will emerge as the player John Calipari goes to when he needs a bucket. You saw it last night on various occasions, and you heard Dickie V scream “Give it to Knox!” numerous times. He was the only Kentucky player to hit a three, scored from all areas of the floor and had his name called late, though his floated rimmed out. Expect his number to be called more as the season progresses.

It’s very early in the season. All four coaches will tell you they have a lot to work on, and are far from a finished product. Then again, I think they would say that at anytime of the year. Regardless of the results, all fours teams showed why they were the favorites to win their respective conferences. Hang on, college basketball has just begun.

Big Ten Basketball: 2017-18 Season Preview

The Big Ten Conference saw 7 teams receive bids to the NCAA Tournament last season. While getting half your conference into the the Tournament is good, they only saw 3 teams make it to the second weekend, and none of them made it to the Elite Eight. This year is expected to be different. Michigan State is predicted by many to be a Final Four team, and a few others could make a run as well. Let’s look at some of the Preseason nods as voted on by Big Ten coaches.

Projected Finishes

  1. Michigan State – An NCAA tournament season last for what was a very young team, Michigan State had lofty expectations before Bridges announced he would come back. His return and the arrival of talented freshman Jaren Jackson make Tom Izzo’s club the no-brainer favorite in the conference.
  2. Purdue – Despite losing Caleb Swanigan, the Boilermakers do return a lot of production from last year’s team. Vincent Edwards will be one of the better guards in the conference and Isaac Haas’s improvement will correlate with how Purdue fairs this year.
  3. Minnesota – I think Minnesota has a chance to finish right behind Michigan State in the conference this year. The Golden Gophers return their top four leading scorers, including Preseason First Teamer, Nate Mason. Richard Pitino also brings in talented freshman Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris to add additional fire power to a team that was a 5 seed in last year’s tournament.
  4. Northwestern – It was a historical year for Northwestern last season. This season won’t be a Cinderella story for NU, as the conference is well aware of Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsay. Two strong senior seasons from these two could have Northwestern dancing again in March.
  5. Maryland – The Terps have a trio of sophomores that will create a lot of buzz this year. Anthony Cowan will be the primary ball handler, Justin Jackson will lead the team in points and rebounds, and Kevin Huerter will lead them in three pointers made. Any sort of contributions elsewhere and I think the Terps can finish higher than 5.
  6. Michigan – What was a balanced team last season will now not be, as Michigan loses three key pieces. Moe Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will be the one-two punch for John Beilein. I also like freshman Eli Brooks’s game a lot. There’s just not enough after that to compete with the top
  7. Wisconsin – Same story as Michigan. Koening and Hayes are big losses for the Badgers. Ethan Happ is a preseason All-American, but who knows how he will fair without the support he had last season.
  8. Iowa – Iowa has a talented group of sophomores themselves this year. The Hawkeyes will look to Jordan Cook, Jordan Bohannon and Cordell Pemsl to shoulder more of a load with Peter Jok having graduated. The key for Iowa will be their ability to win on the road.
  9. Indiana – The Hoosiers lost a heap of talent and their head coach to a team that did not meet expectations last year. It will be a tough transition year for Archie Miller. Josh Newkirk and Juwan Morgan will get a bulk of the shots. I look for Curtis Jones to have a breakout year after showing glimpses last season.
  10. Penn State – I think Penn State is trending in the right direction, despite being picked by the conference to finish 10. They return their top 3 leading scorers, as well as 5 of their top 6. Tony Carr could end up being one of the best guards in the Big Ten this year. A strong year from him could have them up a couple spots higher.
  11. Ohio State – Jae’Sean Tate returns, who led the team in scoring last season, but not much production returns outside him. A change at the helm also impacted who OSU brought in this year. Rebuilding year to say the least.
  12. Illinois – The Illini struggled last year and lost a strong recruiting class when they fired John Groce. Some Illini fans wanted Groce to stick around and see how he did with the talent he was able to recruit. Brad Underwood does have ESPN Top 100 Da’Monte Williams and Mark Smith, ranked 78 by 247Sports, to start his foundation, so that’s promising.
  13. Nebraska – Isaac Copeland’s transfer appeal was positive news for the Cornhuskers. Unfortunately, they may not have much positive news passed this. Glynn Watson could be the team’s leading scorer, or at least be second depending on how well Copeland adjusts.
  14. Rutgers – It’s been a tough stretch for Rutgers basketball lately. Slowly but surely, Steve Pikiell is changing the program and bringing in recruits that will help change this program. Corey Sanders returns as the team’s leading scorer, and is a good center piece to have for a team that is littered with freshman and sophomores.

Preseason Awards

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon might be a dark horse to win Coach of the Year, but I think Maryland has the most upside in the conference this season

Player of the Year (Voted) – Miles Bridges (Michigan State)

No surprise here. Bridges is NBA talent and a physical freak of nature. He was Freshman of the Year a second-team All Big Ten member last season. Bridges’s stat line last year was 16 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists a game last year. With Michigan State expected to be much better, a stat line similar to that would be enough to take home POY honors this year.

Coach of the Year (Prediction) – Mark Turgeon (Maryland)

I think Izzo is the easy guess based on the team he is being given. I think Turgeon wins the award similar to how Richard Pitino won it last season. Maryland was voted in the top half of the conference, but there is potential to jump up a spot or two with the team he has. I think Justin Jackson will be a monster this year and Anthony Cowan will look a lot better with Melo Trimble gone. Coaching without huge expectations could allow Maryland to play freely and win a couple games they weren’t expected to.

All Big Ten Teams

First Team (Voted On)

Miles Bridges – Michigan State*

Bryant McIntosh – Northwestern*

Ethan Happ – Wisconsin*

Nate Mason – Minnesota

Moritz Wagner – Michigan

Vincent Edwards – Purdue

Justin Jackson – Maryland

Nick Ward – Michigan State

Amir Coffey – Minnesota

Scottie Lindsay – Northwestern

*unanimous selection

Potential Player Of The Year Candidates

College basketball is less than a month away. Excitement is beginning to grow as practice intensifies and opening season tip-off tournaments are on the horizon. With that, let’s look at five guys who could be talked about as National Player of the Year Candidates.

Miles Bridges – Michigan State

Bridges is considered the favorite by many to win NPOY after a somewhat surprising return for his sophomore season. Bridges put up a complete stat line last year for the Spartans. He averaged 16 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.5 blocks a game during his freshman campaign. That is crazy. With the arrival of Jaren Jackson, and a more experienced Michigan State team, Bridges might not have the same stat line this year, but he will undoubtedly be the straw that stirs the drink for Tom Izzo.

Jalen Brunson – Villanova

Brunson is my favorite to win National Player of the Year now that he is the focal point of Villanova’s offense. Brunson’s game expanded last year despite being overshadowed by Josh Hart. However, Brunson still led the team in scoring multiple times last season. He seemed to shine brightest against the top competition in the Big East, scoring 20+ points in games versus Butler (twice), Seton Hall and Creighton. Expect more scoring output from Brunson this season, and a better assist/turnover ratio in his junior year.

Michael Porter Jr – Missouri

Porter is an interesting candidate because he is sure to put up the numbers and is also an expected top two draft pick in next year’s draft. The question mark will be Missouri’s record. Players in years past like Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz did not receive as much attention due to their team’s performance. Missouri’s record will better indicate if Porter is closer to Anthony Davis/Kevin Durant or Simmons/Fultz.

Allonzo Trier – Arizona

Trier should be a NPOY candidate with a full junior season under his belt. He was limited to just 18 games due to a suspension in the beginning of the season. Trier showed his best self when Sean Miller inserted him back into the starting line up, averaging just shy of 19 points per game in Arizona’s last 10 regular season games. DeAndre Ayton will receive a lot of publicity as a future lottery pick, but expect Trier to be the centerpiece of the Wildcat’s success.

Devonte’ Graham – Kansas

Kansas has a history of seeing seniors take giant leaps in production. Perry Ellis did it, so did Frank Mason. Expect Devonte’ Graham to be the next in line. Graham averaged 13 points and 4 assists per game last season playing a “third wheel” to Mason and Josh Jackson. Though his percentage was down, Graham was good for over 2.5 three-pointers a contest last year for KU. With Mason and Jackson gone, I expect Graham’s numbers to blow up as the senior leader of Bill Self’s squad.

Honorable Mentions:

Marvin Bagley/Grayson Allen – Each player should have strong seasons for Duke, but they will both take production away from each other in terms of NPOY recognition

Joel Berry – A lot of pieces depart from UNC’s National Championship team. Berry is the key returner who will be enemy number one on every opposing team’s scouting report.

Angel Delgado – Delgado is good for a double-double every time he’s on the court. The Pirates should have a strong year thanks to a great senior nucleus, and Delgado should lead the country in double-doubles. 

Avoiding the Sophomore Slump This Season

The sophomore season is an interesting year for players in college basketball. For some freshman, it’s a year to build on what may have been a underwhelming first year. For others, it’s an attempt to avoid a sophomore slump, after breaking onto the scene and dazzling from the very start. The seven players below had very different freshman campaigns, but they all have one thing in common. They must avoid the hyperbole sophomore slump in order to help their respective team win this year.

Payton Pritchard – Oregon

Payton Pritchard is one of the few returning players from the Duck’s Final Four team last season. Playing a limited scoring role last season due to the heavy back court depth, Pritchard finished eighth in assists in the Pac 12 with 3.6 assists a game. Pritchard will take on more of a scoring role this season, but will likely not be Oregon’s go-to scorer. That role will go to incoming freshman Troy Brown. With Brown taking a bulk of the scoring, Pritchard will be in charge of facilitating the offense and being the Duck’s number two scorer. After spending the summer playing on the U19 FIBA World Cup team, I expect Pritchard to be a leader for the Ducks in his second year.

VJ King – Louisville

Everyone knows about the coaching change at Louisville, which will affect the team this season. Also a factor is the suspension of incoming freshman Brian Bowen. Bowen was a heralded recruit, expecting to take over a bulk of the scoring left by Donovan Mitchell. Now with Bowen’s status for the season uncertain, a hole is left on the wing. Enter VJ King. King is expected by many to be the team’s breakout player this year. Starting in seven games, he led the team in free throw and three-point percentage, but his attempts were low. Louisville is notorious for having good front court depth, but often lacks the ability to spread teams out from deep. Incoming freshman Jordan Nwora was brought in to help, but if King can lead the Cards in these shooting categories again, while putting up more volume, he will fill a big hole for Louisville this season.

 

Temple Gibbs – Notre Dame

Gibbs served a modest role last season, rotating in with upperclassmen Matt Farrell, Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem. With Farrell the only one in that group set to return, expect Mike Brey to demand a lot more out of Gibbs this season.  Notre Dame has a reputation of guard development. Matt Farrell and Demetrius Jackson are two of the more recent examples of players who improved vastly year over year at ND. Gibbs looks next in line to follow this lineage. With 27 points per game needing to be accounted for between Beachem and Vasturia, the Irish will need Gibbs to step up and handle a portion of that.

Miles Bridges – Michigan State

This seems like an obvious one seeing as Brides was an assumed one-and-done player. Not many counted on him sticking around, as he was expected to be a lottery pick in this past draft. The freshman wing showed an unmatched athleticism last season, and has a body that is ready for the NBA. After deciding to come back for a sophomore campaign, Bridges’ presence has catapulted Sparty to a Preseason Top 5 team. Last year Michigan State was young and inexperienced; this year they are mature and, talented and deep. Bridges is the key to a Final Four run for Tom Izzo’s club this year.

Andrew Jones – Texas

There was a lot to be excited about in Austin thanks to the recruiting class Shaka Smart brought in. That excitement elevated when Andrew Jones withdrew his name from the NBA Draft. Jones was the Longhorn’s second leading scorer last year, not including Tevin Mack who was suspended after 15 games. He led the team in 3-point percentage and will be a leader on a team that will rely heavily on the contribution of their newly arrived freshman. I expect Jones to raise his scoring efficiency this year and be the center point of the Longhorn’s offense. If not, Texas will fail to see the Big Dance yet again.

Robert Williams – Texas A&M

Williams was another player who some thought would jump to the NBA after one year due to this great play as a freshman. The Louisiana native took home SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as Second Team All-SEC. Williams averaged just shy of 12 points per game last year and led the Aggies with 8 rebounds per contest. His efficiency and defensive prowess will make for a good career at the next level, when the time comes. Williams owns any paint he’s in. His near 2.5 blocks per game to go along with those 8 rebounds prove that. He will need to build on his 55% shooting and continue to be efficient on offense for Texas A&M to succeed. With a non conference schedule that includes West Virgina, USC and Arizona, Williams needs to be big for the Aggies this year.

Amir Coffey – Minnesota

Minnesota enjoyed one of its best seasons in recent years despite a first round NCAA Tournament upset in which many viewed them as the underdog. The Gophers bring back a lot of last year’s team, including senior Nate Mason. While Mason was the team’s leading scorer, Amir Coffey will be a key piece to a second straight tournament appearance. Coffey was the perfect “complimentary” piece next to Mason last year. He finished second on the team in scoring, assists and steals per game. He led the team in scoring on several occasions last season. With Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan all losing big pieces to last year’ teams, there is a chance for Minnesota to finish in the top three of the conference. Coffey will need to repeat, if not increase that production for Minnesota to finish near the top of the Big ten.

Honorable Mentions:

Bruce Brown (Miami) – Brown will be a stud at Miami this season. With the return of Ja’Quan Newton and a (hopefully) healthy Lonnie Walker, he will not be leaned on as heavily as the guys above.

Maceij Bender (WVU) – Bender only played 6 minutes a game last season, but will play a huge role for West Virginia while Esa Ahmad sits the first half of the season due to suspension. 

Ty Jerome (Virginia) – London Perrantes finally graduated (really, he did). Tony Bennett will give the keys to Jerome now to drive the Cavaliers through an always rigorous ACC schedule. 

Rawle Alkins (Arizona) – Alkins will miss the beginning of the season due to a foot injury. His injection into the line up mid year could catapult the Wildcats at the right time, and Sean Miller might finally get into a Final Four. 

Jeff Dowtin (Rhode Island) – Dowtin came on strong down the stretch for coach Danny Hurley and Rhode Island. I expect him to be an even better distributor than he was last year, and Rhode Island to dance again in March. 

Teams and Players to Watch in the BIG Ten

big ten

The Big Ten showed up in a big way last year. Even while perennial powerhouse Michigan State struggled, the Big 10 was one of the most solid conferences through and through. This year should be more of the same as we preview some of the best teams and some of the best players you should watch this season.

Talented Teams

michigan state, big ten

Michigan State

The Spartans had an uncharacteristically average season last year, finishing 10-8 in conference play, placing them directly in the middle of the pack at 7th place. Much of MSU’s struggles can be chalked up to inexperience. The Spartans were loaded with underclassmen last year and even a coach like Tom Izzo cannot be expected to do much with such a green roster. However, since Izzo is one of the best to ever do it, one year of growth for his young squad will be all they need. Look for the Spartans to be back on top of the Big 10 this year.

Minnesota

While a first round exit in the NCAA tournament was not what Minnesota was hoping for, the Golden Gophers will return a bunch of key players that carried them to the postseason. Minnesota is returning 4 of their 5 starters. Nate Mason, last year’s leading scorer and floor general, will return for his senior season Look for the Golden Gophers to be one of the most complete teams in the country, as they will exhibit strong guard play paired with 2 veteran big men.

Purdue

The Boilermakers may have lost Caleb Swanigan to the NBA Draft, but almost everyone else from last year is back. Like last year, Purdue’s success will largely come from their dominant inside presence. Issac Hass’ 7-2 frame will be more than enough for Purdue to continue their recent trend of winning by dominating the paint and boards on both ends of the floor.

 

Teams on the Downswing

maryland, big ten

Maryland

The Terrapins had a very underwhelming season last year. Expectations were high and they did not quite meet them. They managed to finish 3rd in the Big 10 but did not necessarily impress en route to doing so. They also got bounced in the first round of the Big Dance by Xavier. Justin Jackson will return, but I doubt this will be enough to cover up for the loss of Melo Trimble, who was the face or Maryland basketball for the past couple of years. Besides Jackson, the only player returning who averages double-digit points per game is Anthony Cowan. So unless some like Kevin Huerter or Jared Nickens can help carry the load, expect a very pedestrian showing from Maryland this year.

Wisconsin

The Badgers are coming off of an incredibly hot ending to the season, in which they went all the way to the Big 10 Championship and kept the momentum going, knocking out the #1 overall seed Villanova. However, like Maryland, the Badgers are also losing two key players in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. Ethan Happ is the only returning starter from last year’s squad, as Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown are also gone. With so many question marks and such a high level of competition, I wouldn’t count on the Badgers to be much of a force this year.

Ohio State

The departure of Thad Matta signals a culture shock for the Buckeyes. After a couple of mediocre seasons, change at the top was needed and now Chris Holtmann is leading the charge with 10 toes in. Ohio State returns leading scorer Jae-Sean Tate, but there is a major drop off after that. It could be a tough year in Columbus, but hey, it’s always darkest before the dawn right?

 

Big 10 Player of the Year Candidates

miles bridges, big ten, michigan state

Miles Bridges

You can’t talk about talent in the Big 10 without talking about Miles Bridges. Many are shocked to him return to school after averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds after his freshman year at Michigan State. Bridges is the ideal wing player, as he shoots well inside and beyond the arc. He shot an incredible 55% from inside the arc last year thanks to his pure stroke and magnificent finishing abilities. Pair that with a 39% percentage from deep and add in a year of development under Tom Izzo, the results could be insane. Not only will Bridges be one of the best players in the conference, he will be one of the best players in the nation.

Nate Mason

The senior floor general is coming off a solid 2016-2017 campaign where he averaged 15 points and 5 assists per game. Mason is crafty with the ball and has above average awareness and vision, as he turned the ball over under 2 times per game as well. Mason will also have a strong supporting cast around him, including Amir Coffey, who many think will have a breakout year. Mason is an experienced and proven leader surrounded by a familiar, and talented, team so there is no reason he cannot improve upon his stellar performance from last year.

Moe Wagner

The stretch 4 should have a huge year for the Wolverines, especially with the departure of Derrick Walton. Wagner will be the go-to man for Michigan this year so expect his production to sky-rocket. Wagner perfectly fits the trend we are seeing from contemporary European big men. He is tall, long and can score from inside and out. Many believe that Wagner made the right decision in leaving the NBA Draft, as he will now have another year to prove his worth. He averaged 12 points and 4 rebounds last year, but look for him to pump those numbers up and perform similar to another European of recent memory, Lauri Markkanen.