Conference Catchup: Michigan, Indiana headline a loaded Big Ten

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Big Ten Conference Catchup:

Favorites: Michigan and Indiana

At this point, it’s almost impossible to delineate between the Hoosiers and the Wolverines. They are unquestionably two of the top five teams in the country — alongside Duke, Louisville and Kansas (sorry, Syracuse and Arizona) — but, for the same reason that it’s tough to pick a title favorite out of that group, it’s tough to make a choice between the Hoosiers and the Wolverines. Both teams do things well. Both teams do some things poorly. Both teams have an all-american anchoring a roster full of talented role players, but neither team has the kind of talent that sets them apart from the rest of the pack.

Gun to my head, I’m picking Michigan to win the conference. Trey Burke has been that good, they have the kind of athleticism and versatility that is perfect in John Beilein’s system, and I think Indiana’s been bolstered by a weak non-conference resume. Then again, the Hoosiers are actually defending this season and have the nation’s best low-post scorer. Bottom-line: the season finale will be played between these two teams — March 10th at Michigan — and could end up being the best game of the year.

Contenders: I have a tough time seeing anyone other than Michigan or Indiana winning the league, but that’s not because of a lack of quality teams. Ohio State and Michigan State are probably going to end up being the Big Ten’s two biggest challengers, but based on the way that Illinois and Minnesota have played this season, it is impossible to count either team out.

Biggest Surprise: Brandon Paul, Illinois

We expected that Minnesota would be competitive this season, and while I doubt that anyone actually thought they could be a top 15 team at the turn of the year, their success is much less of a surprise than that of Illinois. The Illini look like they have fully bought into what John Groce is selling. A number of their wins have been less-than-impressive, but at the end of the day, a win is a win. Paul, however, has been a revelation. After spending three years as a guy with worlds of potential that was unable to put all the pieces together, Paul is playing like an all-american. He’s become deadly in the pick-and-roll and a much more consistent shooter. The problem? He’s so important to this team than they can struggle when he’s not playing well.

Biggest Disappointment: Purdue

We knew there was going to be a gap between the tournament hopefuls and the rest of the Big Ten, but I don’t think that anyone predicted that the Boilermakers would essentially be written off as a tournament team before December came to a close. Matt Painter’s club has dealt with some injury issues this season and their back court hasn’t progressed like many had expected.

Player of the Year: Trey Burke, Michigan

I’m going with Burke in what is probably the tightest player of the year race in the country. There’s no shortage of talent in the Big Ten this season, but Burke has been the best because of his ability to score and create based on what his team needs at the time. He gets his talented teammates involved early and turns into an assassin down the stretch. His numbers — 17.8 points, 7.4 assists, 1.9 turnovers, 53.6/75.7/38.3 shooting splits — aren’t to shabby either.

Best Freshman: Nik Stauskas, Michigan

No one really talked about Stauskas coming into the season, but he’s absolutely been the best freshman in the Big Ten. The kid simply doesn’t miss when he gets his feet set (he’s shooting 39-69, or 56.5%, from three) but he’s also capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim, defending and rebounding for a player his size. He’s Zak Novak, only more talented, bigger, and a much better athlete.

Three Predictions

  • The Big Ten gets eight bids to the big dance. I’m not one to bet against Wisconsin. No one should be. Iowa is a young team that is only going to get better. And given how many good teams there are in the league and how many chances both the Badgers and the Hawkeyes are going to have to notch quality (marquee?) wins, I think their resume ends up being strong enough.
  • Shannon Scott becomes Ohio State’s best playmaker by the end of the year. I love Aaron Craft as much as anyone, but Scott is more dynamic and more talented. On a team that needs offensive support for Deshaun Thomas, Scott is a valuable option.
  • Tom Izzo’s team struggles in March. Branden Dawson hasn’t made a jump this season. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have been inconsistent. I’m not convinced Keith Appling and Gary Harris will be able to carry this team offensively. Will Izzo’s Magic March touch wear off again this season?

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Indiana*
2. Michigan*
3. Michigan State*
4. Ohio State*
5. Minnesota*
6. Illinois*
7. Wisconsin*
8. Iowa
9. Purdue
10. Northwestern
11. Nebraska
12. Penn State

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Quinnipiac set to hire Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy as new head coach

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Quinnipiac will introduce Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy as the team’s new head coach on Tuesday, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Dunleavy has helped the Wildcats to a national championship and multiple Big East championships as the team’s associate head coach. A former walk-on for Villanova who transitioned into a director of operations and later an assistant coach, Dunleavy is the son of Tulane head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. Baker’s brother, Mike Dunleavy Jr., is still playing in the NBA as well.

The 34-year-old Dunleavy has experience with a championship program at Villanova so it will be interesting to see what he can do running his own program for the first time. Quinnipiac hired Dunleavy to replace Tom Moore, who was fired after 10 years with the program.

The Bobcats went to an NIT and made a few other postseason appearances under Moore but the program has never been to the NCAA tournament since making the transition to Division I in the late ’90s.

Report: Duquesne hires Akron’s Keith Dambrot as new head coach

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Duquesne has hired Akron head coach Keith Dambrot to the same position, according to a report from ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman.

The 58-year-old Dambrot has been head coach at Akron since 2004 as he’s helped the program to three NCAA tournament appearances.

The former high school coach of LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Dambrot won two Ohio state championships with James before becoming an assistant coach at Akron in 2001. Dambrot eventually took over the head job over from Dan Hipsher.

Dambrot is reportedly getting a seven-year deal from Duquesne so the Dukes are making a major investment in him to turn around the basketball program.

Duke’s Christian Laettner shouts out North Carolina’s Luke Maye on Twitter after winning jumper over Kentucky

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Duke and North Carolina don’t have much in common.

But the historic college basketball rivals now have the distinction of earning late Elite Eight wins over Kentucky that involved a No. 32 making the winning shot.

Blue Devil legend Christian Laettner is famous for his 1992 buzzer-beater over Kentucky in the Elite Eight and he made sure to give some love to North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye after his own Elite Eight shot knocked out the Wildcats.

Rice’s Marcus Evans becomes one of top available transfers

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Rice sophomore guard Marcus Evans will transfer and play his final two seasons elsewhere, he announced on Monday.

The 6-foot-2 Evans has been a major scorer the last two seasons for the Owls as he averaged 19.0 points per game this season after putting up 21.4 points per game as a freshman.

With Rice head coach Mike Rhoades taking the VCU opening and the program struggling to consistently win, Evans seeking to play elsewhere should not come as much of a surprise.

Evans will have to sit out a transfer season before having two more years of eligibility but he should be one of the best options available this offseason. A proven scorer who has become more well-rounded this season, Evans could be a high-quality addition to any program this offseason.

A native of Chesapeake, Virginia, it will be interesting to see if Evans decides to play closer to home.

NBA Draft Stock Watch: Who has helped themselves in the NCAA Tournament?

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The term ‘prisoner of the moment’ is never more fitting than when weighing just how valuable an NCAA Tournament star turn is for a kid’s potential success as an NBA player.

We see it every year. Big tournament performances during deep runs in the dance is a great way to inflate draft stock while disappointing exits are an easy way to hurt it, even if it goes against the season-long data that is telling us something about a player. 

Who are the players that helped themselves the most this March? And who may have put a damper on their chances of hearing their name called early on draft night?

STOCK UP

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has played his way into the discussion as a potential first round pick by leading South Carolina to the Final Four. He has the physical tools to be an excellent defender in the NBA, and he certainly has the toughness and physicality, but it’s his shot-making that is the game-changer for him. He shot 39.4 percent from three on the season and is hitting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc in the tournament, and while the knuckle-ball action on his jumper is concerning, at some point it’s fair to wonder whether or not his less-than-ideal form is less important than the fact that it goes in. Thornwell, who was the SEC Player of the Year this season, will be an interesting 3-and-D candidate come draft night, and the spotlight on him from averaging 25.7 points while leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four will only help.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox solidified his standing as a potential top five during the tournament. The red flags are still there — Can he make threes in the NBA? — but at the end of the day, the NBA Draft is about whether or not you want one guy or the other guy. This is a draft that is absolutely loaded at the point guard spot, and for the second time this season, Fox outplayed a guy that many have slotted above him, Lonzo Ball. In the Sweet 16, he put up 39 points, the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, as Kentucky skated by UCLA more easily than most of us expected. Ball should probably still be considered the better, but when you’re sitting in that room making those decisions, it’s not going to be easy to bypass the guy that bested him twice.

Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell, a senior, has been one of the best defensive players in the country all season long, and never was that more apparent than when he went for 11 points, 13 boards, eight blocks and four assists against Kansas in the Elite 8. He totally changed that game, making Landen Lucas look like an eighth grader without any confidence and forcing the Jayhawks to miss a number of shots in the lane simply because they were aware that Bell could be lurking. He was probably worth a second round pick already, but that game very likely ensured that he will here his name called at some point on draft night.

Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: Dorsey is a shot-maker. That’s what he brings to the table offensively. He can score. He’s gone for at least 20 points in all seven tournament games — Pac-12 and NCAA — that Oregon had played this year, and he hit innumerable big shots in the process, including a game-winner against Rhode Island in the second round and a pair of absolute daggers against Kansas. Undersized scorers come a dime-a-dozen at that level, but Dorsey ensured that he will get a shot this spring.

D.J. Wilson, Michigan: Wilson has been one of the most intriguing prospects in college basketball this season given his size, athleticism and skill-set, and the attention that Michigan got as the darling of the conference tournaments and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament certainly didn’t hurt. I’m not convinced he’s in a position to be a first round pick, but I am certain that, if he opts to declare for the draft and sign with an agent, there will be a team willing to bet on the meteoric rise he had this year continuing.

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STOCK DOWN

Lonzo Ball, UCLA: With all the hype surrounding the Ball family heading into his showdown with De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky in the Sweet 16, you would’ve expected Lonzo, who has been terrific this season, to shine on the biggest stage. But that’s not how it went. He was completely overshadowed by Fox, who went for a career-high 39 points when they went head-to-head, bowing out of the tournament with nothing but a Sweet 16 to show for it. There’s a risk in making over-arching judgements on a player based off of one or two games when a season’s worth of data is telling you something else, but it is fair to note that Ball was outplayed in both of his matchups with another potential top five pick at his position.

Josh Jackson, Kansas: We’ve seen all season long what Josh Jackson can do on a basketball court, and one bad game where he got into foul trouble in the first four minutes is not going to change the way that scouts view his ability on the court. The concern with Jackson has nothing to do with basketball. It’s the off-the-court stuff, and it’s his temper. The biggest red flag surrounding him right now is an incident at a bar where he did more than $1,000 worth of damage to a person’s car. He got a few technical fouls this season. Against Oregon, he got into it with Duck players. Whether that affected his play, only Jackson will know, but it’s not all that hard to connect those dots. It’s easier to teach a 19-year old that cares too much to tone it down — the maturity that comes with getting older certainly helps — than it is to get a guy with no heart to be intense and tough, but that’s something NBA teams are going to have to consider when they decide whether to take Jackson in the top three of a draft this loaded.

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Justin Patton, Creighton: Patton is incredibly talented and loaded with promise, but after seeing the dip in his production once Mo Watson went out with a torn ACL — 14.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on a 74 percent shooting vs. 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds on 61 percent shooting post Watson — is concerning. Throw in that he was totally underwhelming against an undersized front line of Rhode Island in a first round loss, and there will be questions asked about whether or not he is a guy that is worth a first round pick.

Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard, by all accounts, had a terrific season. He’s a skilled scorer that can get his buckets in a number of different ways. He’s a lights-out shooter with an advanced array of moves to create space to get his shot off and a knack for scoring around the rim with both hands. But the concerns with him is whether or not he will be able to do so against guys that are as athletic and strong as NBA wings are. Picking a second round matchup with a South Carolina team loaded with those kind of defenders to have his worst game of the season wasn’t exactly ideal timing.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart does everything well, and he certainly proved throughout the season that he had improved on the things that he needed to improve — shooting, playmaking, ability off the dribble. But the concern with Hart is whether or not he’s going to be able to get his own shot when the guys he plays against are bigger, quicker, more athletic and just as tough as he is, and the way Villanova bowed out of the tournament — with Hart being unable to create a shot or draw a foul on a drive to the rim — is a perfect summation of the concerns NBA teams have about him.