Big Ten conference tournament preview

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It isn’t exactly going out on a limb to say that the Big Ten is the strongest conference in the country this season.

What’s more debatable, however, is trying to figure out who, exactly, is the best team in the conference.

Heading into the season, the answer was simple: Ohio State. Not only were they returning the popular pick for National Player of the Year in Jared Sullinger, but they had a pair of all-conference guards in Aaron Craft and William Buford to offer as sidekicks. But as the season has worn on, its become clear that the Buckeyes are lacking some consistency to their supporting cast.

Midway through the season, Michigan State hopped up on into the favorite’s chair. They have gotten back to playing Tim Izzo basketball — defending, rebounding, out-muscling — and made a run to get into a commanding position at the top of the league. But after losing two straight games to close out the regular season and seeing star freshman Branden Dawson go down with a torn acl, all of a sudden Sparty looks beatable.

I like Michigan, but they don’t have the same amount of talent as the rest of the teams at the top of the league. And as good as Trey Burke has been, he’s a freshman going through his first-ever March Madness. Indiana has looked equal parts awesome and mediocre at different points in the season. Purdue doesn’t defend this season. Illinois has collapsed. Wisconsin has been very beatable.

What’s it all mean?

Well, this weekend in Indianapolis should be a lot of fun.

The Bracket

Where: Indianapolis

When: March 8th-March 11th

Final: March 11th, 3:30 p.m. CBS

Favorite: Ohio State

I’m going to pick the Buckeyes here for a couple of different reasons. First of all, their stars have been through the postseason before. They may have a young roster age-wise, but this group has experienced success in this setting. Second of all, having a defensive presence like Aaron Craft to hound ball-handlers all weekend is a good thing. Thirdly, I think that William Buford and Deshaun Thomas are going to have a big tournament. And, finally, Jared Sullinger. He’s one of the most dominant low-post presences in the country.

And if they lose?: Michigan State

I would have had the Spartans as the favorite, but I think the injury to Dawson is going to be costly. They still have Draymond Green, arguably the most versatile player in the country. There is size up front and capable players in the back court. But what Dawson brought to table no one else can. He’s a big, athletic small forward that crashes the glass and scores hustle points. He’s a matchup nightmare for most teams and he certainly played a large role in why the Spartans turned this season around.

Other contenders?: This is where I’ll talk about Michigan. We all know about Burke already, but Michigan is more than just a one man show, especially when Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing the way he did in the last game of the regular season. Throw in the fact that everyone is a good-to-very good three-point threat, and the Wolverines can hang with anyone.

Sleeper: Indiana

It is kind of hard to label anyone that has done what IU did this season a sleeper. That said, I think that the issues Indiana has defensively could end up biting them.

Deeper sleepers: Illinois has the talent, but talent only gets you so far. I find myself having a tough time putting any kind of faith into Wisconsin. And I think that Purdue is going to end up being overmatched inside. So I’ll take Northwestern, but mainly because I want to see John Shurna make the NCAA Tournament.

Studs:

John Shurna, Northwester: Shurna can flat out score the ball. He’s a perfect fit on the perimeter for what Bill Carmody wants to run.

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: Trust me, there is a reason he routinely sees double- and triple-teams.

Draymond Green, Michigan State: Tim Duncan is the last high-major player to average 15 ppg, 10 rpg and 3 apg.

Trey Burke, Michigan: I wonder if Thad Matta is regretting looking past the Columbus.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: The freshman has been Indiana’s most important player.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Report: Texas’ Jones to test NBA possibility

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Both of Texas’ McDonald’s All-Americans from its 2016 class will test the NBA waters.

Andrew Jones will declare for the draft, but will not hire an agent, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-4 guard joins Jarrett Allen, the Longhorns’ star center, in utilizing the rule change that became available to players last year in which they can declare, workout for teams, attend the NBA combine and still return to school.

Jones averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman. He shot 42.5 percent from the field overall and 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Allen seems the likelier candidate to remain in the draft as a potential lottery pick, but Jones came to Austin with similar one-and-done possibilities given his status as one of the class’ top recruits.

Texas, of course, is hoping both return, not just because they’re both big talents, but because incoming and highly-touted recruit Matt Coleman fills the major hole in last year’s lineup – point guard. If the three of them can share the floor together, Year 3 of the Shaka Smart era will be much more interesting.

Morrow announces transfer from Nebraska

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Nebraska was once again hit with a surprising and damaging transfer.

Ed Morrow, Jr., who led the Huskers in rebounding last year, announced his intention to transfer, the school announced Wednesday.

“I support Ed in his decision to transfer schools and wish him well,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said in a statement. “We appreciate his hard work over the last two years. Although I am disappointed, we will continue to recruit young men who are committed to our mission of building Nebraska Basketball with a culture of success in all areas…life, school and winning basketball at its highest level.”

The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s departure is a major hit to the Huskers, who are coming off a 12-19 year in which Miles’ job security was called into question. It almost assuredly will be again this year as Nebraska hasn’t been able to build on its 2014 NCAA tournament appearance, instead putting together three-straight losing seasons.

Morrow’s decision is surprising not only given he’d been a productive member of the team – averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but because he was born in Nebraska before attending high school in Chicago and both his parents were Nebraska student-athletes his father winning a national title on the football team in 1994 and his mother an all-Big Eight performer on the basketball team.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, coaches, the fans and the University of Nebraska athletics department for giving me the opportunity to play Division I basketball,” Morrow said in a statement. “It is hard to leave home, and Nebraska is my home. I was born and raised here, it is my parents’ alma mater, and I have a lot of friends here. But sometimes you have to venture out to pursue dreams and aspirations in a career. This is a sacrifice I have to make to better myself.”

Morrow’s transfer comes a year after Andrew White surprised Nebraska with his decision to graduate and transfer to Syracuse, which no doubt impacted the Huskers’ poor 2016-17 record.

Miles was on the hot seat at the end of last season and will assuredly begin this season there as well. A roster hit like Morrow won’t do much to help him improve the situation. Nebraska does, however, have three starters returning while Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland is eligible, as is Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer, Jr.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.