Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin and Iowa are better than you think

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Big Ten is absolutely loaded this year.

They have the best team in the country in Indiana who has the best player in the country in Cody Zeller. Three more top 15 teams reside in the conference, and that’s not including Wisconsin, who, as usual, is underrated heading into the season.

Even Minnesota and Iowa are good enough that they should be in contention for the NCAA tournament this season. The basketball may not be played incredibly fast, but rest assured it will be played at a very high level all season long.

Five Things to Know

1. Everyone’s back: Well, almost everyone that was allowed to be is. Jared Sullinger (correctly) left for the NBA after posting a second straight all-american season. Meyers Leonard joined him and got scooped up in the lottery. But that’s it. Only two players from the conference left for the NBA with eligibility remaining. The rest — Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Deshaun Thomas, Trevor Mbakwe, etc. — are back for another season at the collegiate level.

2. Trevor Mbakwe’s troubles: While we’re on the topic of Mbakwe, his continued to pile up the legal issues over the summer. After being granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA, Mbakwe managed to get a DUI this summer, which violated his probation in Florida from an assault back in 2009. The story is convoluted, but the bottom-line is this: Mbawke only got probation in the case, and according to Minnesota, he won’t miss anymore time with the team.

3. Iowa’s actually good this year: The Hawkeyes are a group that you need to keep an eye on this season. They lose scorer Matt Gatens, but with a young, talented core returning — headlined by juniors Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Besabe and sophomore Aaron White — and a loaded freshmen class that includes top 100 recruits Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury, Fran McCaffery has a team that could legitimately make a run at the NCAA tournament.

4. The Big Ten’s slow: It’s a running joke in college hoops that Big Ten basketball games are ugly, grind-it-out slugfests that are won with elbow grease, physicality and sheer determination. Ok, that’s a bit of a stretch, but the conference really does play some plodding basketball. Only three Big Ten teams — Ohio State, Indiana and Iowa — were ranked in the top 200 in tempo last season. Four teams — Northwestern, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin (who was dead last) — were ranked below 290.

5a. JerShon Cobb won’t be playing this year: According to Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody, the issue is academics. It’s a big blow for the Wildcats, who are looking to replace John Shurna’s scoring. Cobb was one of the guys that was going to be counted on to fill that void.

5b. But Mike Bruesewitz will: And given how nasty the gash he suffered on his leg sounds, that’s impressive.

Impact Newcomers

1. Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Michigan’s three high-profile recruits are going to be the guys that are the difference-makers for the Wolverines this season. We all already know how good Trey Burke is, and Tim Hardaway Jr. should be improved as he slides over to his more natural shooting guard spot. But if John Beilein can find a way to make this talented trio fit into his offensive system, the Wolverines go from really good to elite.

2. Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury, Iowa: What Iowa has returning this season are wings, shooters and power forwards. Some of them are pretty good, too. What are they missing? A point guard and a center, and that’s precisely what Fran McCaffery landed with Gesell, the point guard, and Woodbury, the center. If these guys live up to the hype as freshmen, the Hawkeyes could be looking at a trip to the NCAA tournament.

3. Gary Harris, Michigan State: The Spartans are going to look a little bit like the Michigan State teams of old this season. They’ll be big and strong and physical, thriving on their defense and ability to hit the glass. But what those Michigan State teams of old all had was a scorer on the wing that could get a bucket if things got bogged down offensively. Harris has a chance to be that guy.

4. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: Dekker is the kind of talent that rarely makes his way to Madison, WI. A versatile, 6-foot-7 small forward, Dekker will see major minutes as a freshman for the Badgers, something that rarely happens in Bo Ryan’s program. His size, shooting ability, all-around skill-set and ability to be a matchup nightmare will make Dekker a perfect fit for the swing offense.

5. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: I put Yogi on this list because I think that he’ll end up getting some big minutes for Indiana this season because of his ability to defend. I love Jordy Hulls, but I think I might be able to beat him off the dribble. Not so with Ferrell. Indiana’s biggest concern this season will be their ability to get stops. A back court of Ferrell and Victor Oladipo is a good place to start improving at that end.

Breakout Players

1. Terone Johnson, Jr., Purdue: Over the last eight games in 2012, Johnson averaged 15.1 points, 4.3 boards and 2.9 assists. That included a 22 point performance in a win at Michigan and 21 points, five assists and four boards in a win over St. Mary’s in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. With Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson gone, Purdue is going to need someone to step up.

2. Lenzelle Smith, Jr., and LaQuinton Ross, So., Ohio State: You know about Aaron Craft. You know about Deshaun Thomas. You know that the Buckeye’s post players aren’t going to be much more than tall. What Ohio State doesn’t have yet is a proven scoring threat on the wing. Smith showed flashes last season, but was very inconsistent. Ross, at one point in his early high school career, was the No. 1 recruit in the country.

3. Andre Hollins, So., Minnesota: Hollins is not a natural point guard, but he was forced into the role as a freshman last season. It took him a while to adjust to the position, but he managed to average 16.8 points and 2.8 assists in the final nine games, leading the Gophers to the NIT title game.

4. Brandon Paul, Sr., Illinois: Paul’s got plenty of talent. (Remember this?) New head coach John Groce needs someone to build an offense around. Paul needs a fresh start. Could this be a match made in heaven?

5. Aaron White, So., Iowa: It’s tough to call White a breakout candidate given the fact that Iowa’s front court will be a bit crowded next year. I don’t expect his numbers to be much improved from the 11.1 points and 5.7 boards he averaged last season. I do, however, expect that he’ll end up being a much more well-known name, especially in Big Ten college towns.

Player of the Year: Cody Zeller, So., Indiana

Zeller is going to end up being the National Preseason Player of the Year by the majority of the publications that make such declarations, including us, so it only makes sense that he’s the Big Ten’s Preseason Player of the Year. Zeller is a pleasure to watch on the offensive end of the floor. He’s got great hands, he’s got a variety of low-post moves and he’s a true back-to-the-basket player. My favorite part of his game? How hard he runs the floor in transition. He’ll get a couple of easy buckets every game simply by beating every down the court. As his defense improves, he’ll only get better.

All-Conference Team

G: Trey Burke, So., Michigan
G: Aaron Craft, Jr., Ohio State
F: Deshaun Thomas, Jr., Ohio State
F: Trevor Mbakwe, Sr., Minnesota
C: Cody Zeller, So., Indiana*

Coach under pressure: Tubby Smith, Minnesota

Smith has put together some promising rosters in his time in Minnesota, but it’s been a while since he’s had a team live up to those expectations. For example, remember 2010-2011? The Gophers jumped out to an 11-1 record and a top 15 rankings before ending with losses in 10 of their last 11 games and spending March without any postseason. He’s had players with legal issues and he’s had players transfer mid-season, which can be tolerated when the wins come. But when you’ve made two NCAA tournaments — and lost in the first round both times — it’s a different story. This month, Minnesota has had all kinds of negative publicity, from the issues involving Trevor Mbakwe to the DUI that Tubby’s son Saul, an assistant on the Minnesota staff, got. Smith has a team that can make some noise in the NCAA tournament this season. If they don’t, will those legal issues and losses have piled too high?

Predicted Finish

1. Indiana: They’re the No. 1 team in the country. Defensive issues aside, this team returns basically everyone and adds another loaded recruiting class. Easy pick.

2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes and the Wolverines are a coin-flip, but I’m taking the Buckeyes. I love Aaron Craft’s experience, I think Deshaun Thomas is ready to be a star, and this appears to be the season where Thad Matta’s obsessive stockpiling of talent pays off.

3. Michigan: I think the Wolverines have the second-most talent in the conference, but I have concerns about the roster makeup. I go in-depth about them here.

4. Wisconsin: I’m starting to think that I underrated Wisconsin when I did my top 25. The Badgers get four starters back, and a junior that’s started 66 games to replace Jordan Taylor and adds a stud in Sam Dekker.

5. Michigan State: I had Michigan State ranked 12th nationally, which should give you an idea of how strong this league is. I think their lack of offensive power will be an issue.

6. Iowa: I’m taking a risk putting Iowa this high, but, as I’ve said numerous times already, I’m riding with the Hawkeyes.

7. Minnesota: There always seems to be a Gopher in legal turmoil, but with basically everyone returning from last season and a healthy Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers are very good. That said, I need to see proof they can handle distraction and succeed on the court.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers will be without Robbie Hummel this season, but they’ll have a chance to be competitive if Terone Johnson and the rest of that perimeter attack can have a big year.

9. Illinois: The Illini have a lot of talent on their roster and start a bunch of upperclassmen. Will this group buy-in to what new head coach John Groce is selling? If everything comes together, this is a team that could sneak into the tournament. Who’s the point guard?

10. Northwestern: Drew Crawford is as good as anyone in the league, but losing JerShon Cobb is really going to hurt, especially if Jared Swopshire isn’t back to his old form.

11. Penn State: Tim Frazier is awesome. It’s a shame that he’ll spend his career toiling away in Happy Valley.

12. Nebraska: I love Tim Miles, but it is going to be a couple of years, at least, before he’s having fun in Lincoln.

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

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.