Cody Zeller

The NCAA tournament’s best big men

1 Comment

Yesterday, our Eric Angevine highlighted the nation’s most prominent back court studs. But you’re not going to win the NCAA tournament without big uglies in the paint anchoring the front court. Here are the best of the bigs that you need to know:

(CLICK HERE: To browse through the rest of our 2013 NCAA Tournament Previews)

Anthony Bennett, UNLV: There aren’t many players in the country more exciting than Anthony Bennett. The 6-foot-7 combo-forward can soar, using his physical frame to throw down some of the most impressive dunks that we’ve seen this season. Oh, and he has also been known to hit three or four threes in a row, and if that’s not enough, he has good enough handle to cross you over and get to the rim. It’s a matter of effort and consistency with Bennett, which is why he’s such a scary talent. What happens if he puts it all together for three weeks?

Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks, Davidson: I have Davidson knocking off Marquette in the opening round of the tournament, and the biggest reason is the combination of Cohen and Brooks up front. Both are versatile scorers up that can score with their back to the basket or facing up, which will create matchup problems for Buzz Williams’ team.

Gorgui Dieng, Louisville: Dieng’s presence around the rim is one of the biggest reasons that Louisville’s defense is so tough. The Cardinal guards would be out pressuring on the perimeter whether or not Dieng was camped out under the rim, but it sure makes it easier to gamble for a steal when you know that getting beat only means someone has to finish over Dieng.

Colton Iverson, Colorado State: The reason the Rams are as good as they are this season? Rebounding. They’re the best in the country when it comes to hitting the glass, and Iverson is the anchor, averaging a double-double. He can also score in the paint, which should make him tough for teams to matchup with.

Alex Kirk, New Mexico: Kirk is the x-factor for the Lobos. He can score with his back to the basket and step out and hit a three. His emergence on the offensive end of the floor is one of the reasons that New Mexico went from being atrocious on that end of the floor to respectable. He’s also legitimately seven-feet tall, which gives the Lobos an anchor to matchup with the biggest of the big men.

CJ Leslie, NC State: Leslie is the x-factor for NC State. He’s by far their most talented player, but he’s also the most enigmatic member of the Wolfpack. He hasn’t even been the best post player this year, as that title falls to Richard Howell. NC State has the talent to make the Sweet 16, but they are going to need a pair of great games out of Leslie.

Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota: Mbakwe has the ability to dominate the paint when he wants to, and he’ll have the opportunity to do just that against a UCLA team that is allergic to rebounding. When Minnesota upset Indiana last month, it was Mbakwe that set the tone from the tip. He’ll have to do the same this month for the Gophers to turnaround their fortunes.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: The nation’s most versatile and efficient scorer. He moves without the ball, he can hit threes, he can score in the post, he can beat you off the dribble, he is as good as anyone in the country at holding position in the paint. Good luck, Cincinnati.

Muke Muscala, Bucknell: Muscala’s a throw-back big man, a 6-foot-11 center that can score with his back to the basket by going over either shoulder. He’ll be matched up with Butler’s Andrew Smith in the opening round of the tournament, so he’ll have his work cut out for him.

source:  Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, Gonzaga: The best front court in the country. Olynyk is brutally efficient offensively while Harris has redefined himself since a terrific freshman season, becoming a role-player, defender and leader. Oh, and how can you argue against the hair?

Mason Plumlee, Duke: Plumlee should be thanking Ryan Kelly’s foot for getting healthy by tournament time. Without Kelly on the floor, the Duke center will now have a chance to go one-on-one on the block on every touch. If he gets doubled, he simply will need to find one of Duke’s four knock-down shooters that has been left open.

Otto Porter, Georgetown: What makes Porter so dangerous is that there are so many things that he’s able to do with the ball. He can drive and get to the rim. He can pull-up and hit an NBA-range three. He’s a very good passer. He can score in the post. You want the ball in his hands because you know he’s not only going to take advantage of what the defense is giving him, but he’s going to make the right decision with the ball.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: Thomas is one of the toughest players to matchup with in this tournament. He plays the four for the Buckeyes, and he’s even been playing the five-spot of late as Thad Matta is experimenting with a smaller lineup. That’s dangerous before Thomas is such a good scorer. He can hit threes, he can face-up from 15 feet, he can get all the way to the rim.

Jeff Withey, Kansas: Withey can dominate a game on the defensive end of the floor. He’s that good of a shotblocker, and with the number of big, athletic wings that Kansas has on the perimeter, it makes the Jayhawks a very good defensive team.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: Zeller is simply the best low-post scorer in the country. Indiana has made more of an effort to pound the ball inside to him late in the season, which is a good thing for the Hoosiers. The more touches that Zeller gets, the better chance Indiana is going to have of winning the national title. He needs to be their go-to guy.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Nova leads Inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic field

Jalen Brunson
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Leave a comment

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) NCAA champion Villanova will play Notre Dame and Pittsburgh faces Penn State in the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic at Prudential Center on Dec. 10.

The matchups were announced Wednesday. The event will partner with the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, which helps support the education of children of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Villanova-Notre Dame game will be part of a doubleheader on CBS with the Army-Navy football game.

Looking Forward: Just how good will Duke be, and when will the 40-0 chatter start?

AP Photo
AP Photo
Leave a comment

As we take a look at ahead at the 2016-17 season, we’re also going to take a deeper dive into what we think will end up being some of the biggest storylines next season.

Today, we’re talking Duke and the potential for a 40-0 season.

There’s a strong argument to make that, in the years since Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski fully embraced the one-and-done era, his 2016-17 roster will be the strongest that he has coached.

Stronger, I’d argue, than the 2015 team that produced the three first round picks, including Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick, and Justise Winslow, who went 10th. The kicker? Neither of those two were the stars of the 2015 Final Four. That title belongs to Tyus Jones, who was selected 25th in 2015, and Grayson Allen, a probable first-round pick who returns to school this season as a reigning second-team all-american.

Think about this for a second.

Allen was one of the ten-best players in college basketball last season. He’s a guy who could have snuck into the first round had he opted to enter his name into the NBA Draft, but is coming back to school for his junior year after averaging 21.5 points and 3.5 assists as a sophomore.

And there’s a very real chance that he could end up being the fourth option offensively for the Blue Devils next season. That’s what happens when a program brings in the likes of Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Frank Jackson, to say nothing of the potential that they also land Marques Bolden*. Those are two of the top three, three of the top ten and, if they land Bolden, four of the top 16 players in a class many believe to be as strong and as deep as any we’ve seen in the recruiting rankings era.

*(Bolden has yet to announce where he will be playing his college ball. His list is down to Duke and Kentucky, but there is no timetable yet for when a decision is going to get made.)

Throw in the return of Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, and what you have is a roster that is talented, deep and balanced, enough so that Duke will likely end up being the consensus No. 1 team in the country come November despite the fact that the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova and Oregon are going to be very, very good as well.

If it were Kentucky fielding a roster like this, the 40-0 chatter would’ve started before the Wildcats were bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament. When will that discussion pop up, and is there really a chance that this group can pull it off?

Well, the answer to both of those questions is slightly more complicated than simply comparing old Kentucky rosters to what this Duke roster is projected to be.

Duke’s Grayson Allen, center, handles the ball as Long Beach State’s Nick Faust, left, and Long Beach State’s Noah Blackwell (3) defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. Duke won 103-81. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
Grayson Allen (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

For starters, the ACC is a much tougher conference than the SEC. Even with the unbalanced schedules, it’s almost impossible for Kentucky to play as tough of a conference slate as Duke will play on an annual basis. The ACC is coming off of a year where six teams reached the Sweet 16 and next season, the league may be even better; the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25 features four ACC teams in the top ten, five in the top 15 and seven in the top 25. That doesn’t include Miami, Pitt or N.C. State, who adds one of the best point guards in the country in Dennis Smith Jr.

     RELATED: What does the ACC have in store for the 2016-17 season?

It also ignores just how difficult it is for anyone to make it through league play unscathed. The last time any team posted an undefeated ACC regular season was back in 1999, when a Duke team led by Trajan Langdon and Elton Brand — a team many consider to be among the best college basketball teams of all-time — finished league play 18-0 and entered the NCAA tournament with just a single loss on their record. In fact, the last time that an ACC team finished league play with just one loss was Maryland’s title-winning team in 2002.

That’s not all.

All of that happened at a time when Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Miami and Pitt were playing in the Big East or Conference USA and when Virginia was an ACC cellar-dweller, not a perennial top ten program.

And Kentucky?

Well, they’ve run through their SEC schedule with an undefeated record twice in the last five years, not to mention that Florida went 18-0 in SEC play back in 2014. It’s not all that surprising when you think about it like this: the team that finished 9th in the ACC this season reached the Final Four, while two of the three teams that tied for third in the SEC were left out of the NCAA tournament.

     RELATED: The 2016-17 Preseason Top 25

The other thing that you have to consider here is that this Duke team doesn’t exactly have a flawless roster construction.

The biggest concern to me is the point guard spot. Jackson is a terrific player. He’s going to have a major impact at the college level, he could end up being a one-and-done guy and he’ll likely have more than a few highlight plays throughout the season. But he’s also a prototype of the new breed of point guard: An athletic scorer that gets put into a lead guard role because he can handle the ball and no one at the lower levels of basketball can stop him. Tyus Jones, he is not, and that’s where the loss of Derryck Thornton has the potential to hurt this Duke team. Jackson also happens to be the only point guard currently on the roster, so instead of allowing Thornton to play 15-20 minutes on the ball, Jackson is going to have to embrace being a full-time point guard on a team with four or five guys that can take over a game.

How he embraces that role will be particularly relevant, because the other issue with Duke’s roster is that their top four perimeter players — Jackson, Tatum, Allen and Kennard — are all scorers at heart. They’re at their best with the ball in their hands, making a play for themselves. They’re not known for being the kind of players that make their teammates better. That doesn’t mean they can’t — Allen did, after all, average 3.5 assists — it just means that their best skill is scoring the ball.

East forward Jayson Tatum, from Chaminade in St. Louis dunks against the West team during the McDonald's All-American boys basketball game, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in Chicago. The West won 114-107. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Jayson Tatum (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

The biggest concern here may be with Tatum. He’s got the tools to be a tremendous player — he’s a smooth, 6-foot-8 small forward with an advanced handle, a soft touch and sneaky athleticism — but he’s also a guy whose biggest strength is his mid-range pull-up game. Does he have the strength and explosiveness to get to and finish at the rim? Will he get more comfortable shooting college threes? How will be operate in a system where the number of times that he’ll be allowed to go one-on-one is limited?

Last season, Coach K’s offense was built around putting Allen, Brandon Ingram and Kennard into isolations because no one could stop those guys. Funneling the ball to two or three players worked when the other two spots on the floor were taken Marshall Plumlee and Matt Jones. It was like watching the Oklahoma City Thunder play. They don’t need a “pure” point guard when they have two players that are unstoppable.

But this season?

When Duke’s loaded with first round-caliber talent?

It will be interesting to see how Coach K molds all of those pieces together, but fit is not the only concern for this group.

     RELATED: Eight programs on the rise | And seven on the decline

Giles shredded his knee prior to his sophomore year in high school — torn ACL, torn MCL, torn meniscus — and while he was seemingly back to full health by his junior season, he tore the ACL in his other knee at the start of his senior year. He had two surgically repaired knees before he even enrolled in a summer school class at Duke. How healthy will he be, and how long will it take for him to return to the player that was at one point considered the consensus top prospect in the class?

And if Giles isn’t healthy or Duke opts to put a cap on the minutes that he plays, and if they don’t land Bolden, will there be a post presence to take the pressure off of their perimeter attack?

So no, this Duke team isn’t going to be perfect.

But then again, who is?

Every high schooler in the country has to make an adjustment in college, when they’re playing with and against a higher level of competition. And every coach in the country will tell you they’d rather find a way to get talented players to embrace their role than try to coach up kids that aren’t good enough.

Duke is going to be the best team on the floor every time they step on the court this season. They’re not always going to be the favorite — road games in league play can do funky things to betting lines — but they are always going to have the most talent.

Will that lead to an undefeated season?

I seriously doubt it. But hey, if Leicester City can with the Premier League, anything can happen.

Just, please, don’t bet your mortgage on it happening.

Duke, Cincinnati lead Hall of Fame Tip-Off

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gestures during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Florida State in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
(AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
1 Comment

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) Duke and Cincinnati, 2016 NCAA Tournament teams, highlight the eight-team field for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.

The participants for the Nov. 19-20 event were announced Wednesday.

Also in the field are Rhode Island, Penn State, Grand Canyon, Albany, Marist and Brown.

The teams, split into two four-team brackets, will play two doubleheaders at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Duke, Cincinnati, Penn State and Rhode Island will meet in the Naismith Bracket, while the others will play in the Springfield Bracket.

The teams will play two early round games at campus sites from Nov. 11 through Nov. 16.

Brandone Francis-Ramirez transferring out of Florida

Florida State center Jean Marc Christ Koumadje (21) fouls Florida guard Brandone Francis-Ramirez (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, in Gainesville, Fla. (Matt Stamey, The Gainesville Sun via AP)
(Matt Stamey, The Gainesville Sun via AP)
Leave a comment

Brandone Francis-Ramirez is transferring out of the Florida program, the school announced on Wednesday.

A former top 40 recruit, Francis-Ramirez had his two seasons in Gainesville ruined by an academic issues and a loss of confidence. He was academically ineligible in 2014-15, practicing with the team during the second semester. He was granted a redshirt for the year, but he struggled to find any kind of a rhythm this past season. There was a two-month stretch in the middle of the year where he shot 6-for-58 from the floor and 2-for-31 from three.

On the season, he shot 20.2 percent from the floor and 16.9 percent from three.

“I want it to work out for him,” Gators coach Mike White said in a release. “We really appreciate what Brandone did here and wish him the best.”

One of Villanova’s title game stars undergoes knee surgery

Phil Booth, Jack McVeigh
(AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
Leave a comment

The forgotten star of the national title game underwent an arthroscopic on his left knee on Wednesday.

Phil Booth, who scored a season-high 20 points in the 2016 National Title game, will be a junior next season and one of the guys called upon to help replace Ryan Arcidiacono, who graduated. He should be ready to go by the middle of the summer; according to a statement put out by the program, Booth will need 6-to-8 weeks to heal.

“Phil is as mentally tough a young man as we have had at Villanova,” head coach Jay Wright said in the release. “He continually impresses our coaching staff with his outstanding attitude. Phil will attack this recovery challenge with great determination, as he does everything in life.”

Booth averaged 7.0 points and 2.2 assists this past season.