College basketball season kicked off last Friday with a national opening day which led into a great opening weekend for hoops.
Also starting this week is the flurry of early-season tournaments, from Maui to Puerto Rico. Some stick to a true tournament format, while others have pre-set final fours, and I will be providing quick primers on what to expect and players to keep an eye on. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off kicks off this morning and features some of the best young talent in college basketball, as well as some sleeper seniors to keep an eye on.
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Who to watch
Keith Dambrot’s squad should be near the top of the MAC again this year, and a large part of that will be due to their man in the middle, 7-footer Zeke Marshall. Marshall is one of the top shot-blockers in the country and his offensive game has continued to develop over the last few years. If the Akron perimeter players can draw defenders out, Marshall should have a big ending to his college career. Junior point guard Alex Abreu is a good shooter and quality distributor. He does a good job pressuring the ball, but he needs to continue to work on positioning and moving his feet. A pair of freshman wings, Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams should provide some versatility on both ends of the floor.
It’s taken some time, but Derek Kellogg has finally gotten UMass back to being competitive on a national level. Last season culminated in a trip to the NIT semifinals, and there are now NCAA expectations with most of the key components back from that team. Chaz Williams has little size, but a ton of speed and he uses that well to push the ball in transition or to get into the heart of the defense. He has good vision, and can make some spectacular passes, but he needs to work on keeping control once he gets by his man and into the lane. Juniors Jesse Morgan and Raphiael Putney both run the court well and get great scoring opportunities in transition. The defense is very active and does a good job forcing turnovers in the half-court offense.
The heart and soul of Eddie Biedenbach’s team moved on with the graduation of JP Primm and Matt Dickey, the duo who led the Bulldogs to two consecutive NCAA appearances. Two other seniors who logged significant playing time, Quinard Jackson and Chris Stephenson, also moved on, so there will be plenty of opportunities for players to step up. Jeremy Atkinson is a strong-bodied guard who can shoot from the perimeter or use his strength to force his way to the basket. DJ Cunningham has returned from a knee injury which forced him to miss last season and he instantly gives the Bulldogs a threat in the middle on both ends of the floor. Freshman Will Weeks is a skilled undersized 4 who finds ways to score around the basket. Trent Meyer has provided valuable minutes off the bench his first 2 years and will now look to step into the role of distributor and keeping the offense moving.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
Mark Gottfried exceeded expectations in his first season in Raleigh, and the expectations have become that much higher heading into the new season. Juniors Lorenzo Brown and CJ Leslie lead the way for the Wolfpack. Brown is the key to the Wolfpack’s offense – running it, breaking down the defense, and scoring if needed. He does a good job hitting his teammates in position to score and has done a better job protecting the ball and making good decisions. Leslie is a freak athlete who does a good job finishing around the basket and hitting the offensive glass. Senior Richard Howell provides a big body who can clear space in the lane and defend the 4 or 5 position. Junior Scott Wood is a sharp-shooting wing who uses his size to get looks on the perimeter. A trio of highly regarded freshmen – Rodney Purvis, Tyler Lewis, and TJ Warren – provides depth and versatile scoring and defensive options.
Travis Ford has assembled a nice group of young talent as he tries to lead the Cowboys back to the upper parts of the Big 12 standings. Sophomore Le’Bryan Nash didn’t have the huge freshman season that many projected, but he still showed enough to assure everyone that he is a big time prospect. Athletic and smooth, Nash can be almost unstoppable when he gets a step on his defender. He has range on his jumper as well, but he still needs to work on shot selection. Freshman guard Marcus Smart is one of the top freshmen in the country, being both very skilled and having a great basketball IQ. The Cowboys will rely on him to both score and run the offense. Fellow freshman Phil Forte is a quality long-range shooter, and senior Jean-Paul Olukemi is solid defender and rebounder for his size. Junior Markel Brown provides more scoring in the backcourt, and is a very good defender on the perimeter.
Head coach Pat Chambers is still working on putting together the kind of team he wants, but for now, he will rely on point guard Tim Frazier to carry the load for the Nittany Lions. Frazier does almost everything well – he can score, distribute, he plays tough defense and rebounds well for his size. Sophomore guard DJ Newbill provides a solid scoring option, using his strong body to get to the rim and draw contact. Sophomore Ross Travis and junior Jermaine Marshall are good role players and provide a little bit of everything out on the court for Chambers.
This write-up should have had a lot of focus on freshmen Ricky Ledo and Kris Dunn, but Ledo is ineligible and Dunn is injured, so the focus would have been on veteran point guard Vincent Council, one of the best distributors in the country. However, Council is also injured, so the focus for Ed Cooley’s Friars will be on sophomore LeDontae Henton. Henton is very athletic, runs the floor well, and can finish in a variety a ways. He is also a very good defender and rebounder for his size, but he will need to watch his shot selection when he is the focus of the offense. Bryce Cotton is a perimeter sharpshooter, with great range and a quick release. Kadeem Batts has great length and can finish well around the basket. Providence likes to push the tempo and its players play a lot of minutes, so it will be interesting to see how the shorthanded squad fares with their adjustments.
Cuonzo Martin’s Tennessee squad is one of everyone’s favorites to be near the top of the SEC this season, and it all starts with the play of point guard Trae Golden. Golden does a great job getting into the lane and drawing the defense, and he finds open teammates around the basket or on the perimeter. He is also a solid defender who can pressure the ball and force the offense into turnovers. Jarnell Stokes is a true power forward, using his wide body to create space and using a soft touch to finish around the basket. He is a very good rebounder on both ends, and he can use his body well to defend much bigger players. Skyler McBee not only has the best facial hair in college basketball, but he has also become one of the most reliable gunners from the perimeter. Sophomore Josh Richardson and junior Jordan McRae provide depth on both ends of the floor. Jeronne Maymon is currently hurt, but when he returns, he is another big body to pair with Stokes around the basket.