2013-14 season preview

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell transitions into a leader at Louisville

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

It’s been a whirlwind year-and-a-half for Louisville sophomore Montrezl Harrell, and Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino has noticed plenty of changes in his 6-foot-8 forward since he stepped on Louisville’s campus last year.

“He wouldn’t talk last year,” Pitino joked to NBC Sports. “You thought he was just a shy kid from rural North Carolina, and now we can’t get him to shut up.”

Hailing from the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina — with a population of just over 13,000 — Harrell has quickly made a name for himself in the college basketball world after his breakout performance during Louisville’s championship run. He followed that up with a strong showing at the FIBA U-19 World Championships in Prague this summer with USA Basketball.

But up until this season, Montrezl (pronounced mon-TREZ, the “L” is silent) did most his talking through the powerful way he played the game of basketball.

At 6-foot-8, 235 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Harrell’s raw power was often on display in the form of thundering dunks and his play above the rim. Harrell once had 18 dunks in one 51-point high school game and also broke a backboard during practice his senior year of high school, but throughout many of those efforts he remained quiet. That didn’t change through much of last season, as he became one of the Cardinals key players off the bench.

“Montrezl is an easy transition (for us this season) because his personality has changed. He was a shy, introverted person and he’s taken on much more of a leadership role,” Pitino said. “He’s a kid from a rural part of North Carolina, he grew up in a very small town. So now he comes into a city and he has a great ending to his season and I think he’s taken it upon himself to show more leadership.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s American Athletic Conference Preview)

Montrezl is now more of a vocal leader as a sophomore, and will earn much more playing time this season after averaging 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16 minutes as a freshman. But the transition from quiet country boy to NCAA Champion and potential NBA lottery pick took quite a few steps.

Harrell was originally committed to Virginia Tech and signed a letter of intent in the fall of 2011 when Seth Greenberg was coaching the Hokies. After Greenberg was replaced by former assistant James Johnson, Harrell wanted a fresh start and the Hokies allowed him out of his Letter of Intent in May of 2012.

Spending the year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, Harrell was a consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school, but fell more in the 70-90 range as many recruiting analysts didn’t expect him to be a major initial contributor.

But with a lack of big men available in the spring before the 2012-13 season, Harrell picked up scholarship offers from Alabama, Cincinnati, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina before deciding on Louisville. Harrell’s relationship with Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts, the former head coach at Hargrave that placed Montrezl at the school without ever coaching him there, paid off for the Cardinals.

“We were lucky because Coach Keatts placed him at Hargrave, so we were lucky there,” Pitino said of Harrell’s recruitment. “But he was very shy; he was painfully shy. But he grew out of that in a hurry.”

Growing comfortable at Louisville became easier for Harrell when basketball became apart of the equation. Although quiet in the past, Montrezl always had a tremendous motor on the court and he quickly identified with how hard his teammates worked and focused on getting better.

“It was just the kind of team that they had,” Harrell said of his decision to attend Louisville. “I look around at these guys and they all really want to work and really get better. So looking at that and looking at myself and how I’m willing to do whatever role that Coach can think of, that’s kind of the overall feel for things. The way that Coach has a passion for the game, that’s something that really helped me out as a player.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

As the 2012-13 season progressed, Pitino noticed Harrell’s rapid improvement. By the end of the season, Harrell had a 20-point, seven-rebound performance in the Big East Tournament Championship win over Syracuse and also got minutes off the bench throughout the NCAA Tournament including a key role in wins over Colorado State and in the Final Four over Wichita State.

This season, Harrell has more expectations placed on him thanks to his postseason run and his efforts with USA Basketball this summer.

“He just grew with each week — he just kept getting better and better,” Pitino said. “And now he’s added the mid-range game, the jump shot to his game. He was very mechanical when he first came to us and he was basically a runner and a dunker. And now he’s added very good footwork to his game, he added a 16-foot jump shot to his game. He’s physically mature. He’s just added a lot to his game and gotten better week-after-week.”

The play at the end of last season got people’s attention, but Harrell’s play this summer during the U-19 World Championships in Prague has college basketball buzzing. On a loaded USA Basketball squad, Harrell started every game and averaged 10.6 points and 3.7 rebounds on 57 percent shooting to help lead the squad to the Gold Medal.

NBA people are also beginning to take notice as some have tabbed Montrezl as a potential lottery pick. Still, Harrell is only focused on the task of repeating as National Champions and this season he’ll play a much bigger role for the Cardinals in that quest for another title.

When NBA decision makers eventually go over Harrell’s pros and cons, his game may still be developing, but they’ll be able to check “winner” under the positives column.

“I’m just looking to work hard and maintain my intensity and take it to another level,” Harrell said. “Just trying to get better in every aspect of the game and just trying to do little things to make my game that much better and help my team win.”

Oakland’s Travis Bader shoots for J.J. Redick’s NCAA career three-point record

Greg Kampe, Travis Bader
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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Travis Bader isn’t a household name, but pretty soon the Oakland senior shooting guard’s accomplishments will be heard across the country as he closes in on J.J. Redick’s career three-point field goal record this season.

The 6-foot-5 redshirt senior from Okemos, Michigan has been knocking down three-pointers at an alarming rate since his freshman season and after knocking in 139 in his junior season, he sits 101 three-pointers short of Redick’s NCAA career record.

While Redick was a highly-recognized sniper at Duke — one of America’s most visible programs — Bader has quietly knocked down three-pointers and expanded his offensive game under Greg Kampe’s rapid run-and-gun offensive approach at Oakland.

The Golden Grizzlies move to the Horizon League in 2013-14 after 15 seasons in the Summit League, but Bader has garnered so much respect among people in the Horizon that he was voted preseason First-Team All-League after averaging 22.1 points per game last season.

Kampe’s offense at Oakland — where he has been head coach since 1984 with a record of 506-366 in DI and DII — is perfect for Bader because they prefer quick and frequent three-pointers early in the shot clock. Bader himself averaged 10.9 three-point attempts a game last season.

“Coming in as a freshman I don’t think anybody ever thought that I would be where I am today,” Bader said. “So that just means I just put in a lot of hard work during my years in Oakland and I’m going to keep putting up shots and trying to be in the gym more than anyone else.”

CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Horizon League Conference Preview

For Bader to be in position to potentially break Redick’s record, he had to play and succeed early. But that wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the case early in Bader’s college career.

“Nobody really believed in me and that started in high school,” Bader said. “I wasn’t big enough or strong enough, wasn’t quick enough or athletic enough. I’ve just always kind of had that fire burning inside of me just to prove people wrong.”

Oakland was the only Division I program to offer Bader and after a redshirt year in 2009-10, Bader was expected to be a potential role player for the Golden Grizzlies. But after a violation of team rules from some teammates, Bader got an instant chance during the first game of his freshman year.

“Even when I got to Oakland, they knew I was a good player but they didn’t know how much playing time I’d see,” Bader said. “My freshman year a situation happened where a couple of guys were late to the bus and I actually started at West Virginia our first game and just took advantage of the opportunity.”

Bader was 3-for-8 from beyond the arc in the West Virginia game and has been a fixture in Oakland’s rotation since. As a freshman, Bader averaged 10.5 points per game before upping it to 15.9 a game as a sophomore before his breakout junior campaign.

But for as nice as Redick’s record would look on Bader’s resume as he closes out his collegiate career this season, he’s only focused on team success and returning to the NCAA Tournament as a new member of the Horizon League.

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

“People talk about the three-point record but making the NCAA Tournament would mean the world to me more than an individual record,” Bader said. “That first year I got to play, and to lose by four to Texas, I’ll tell everyone I know that that’s the best moment of my career here at Oakland. Playing in the NCAA Tournament is great and I try to stress to all the guys on the team the significance it had to me and how much it means to be in the NCAA Tournament. They’re trying to do whatever they can to make it back there.”

Kampe and Bader hope to lead a surprise Golden Grizzlies surge to the top of their new league, but the big question surrounding Oakland is how its high-octane offense will fare in a typically grind-it-out Horizon League? But Oakland’s focus will be running their offense and how the rest of the league adapts.

Greg Kampe joked during Horizon League media day in Chicago that he couldn’t name, “10 players in the league right now,” but the only thing that likely matters to Kampe and Oakland is that everyone in the conference can name Travis Bader when they step on the floor this season. And they’ll have to stop Bader and Oakland from scoring.

“I know it’s a great league, very competitive with good defense,” Bader said. “I don’t know as much as everyone else and I’m kind of the same as Kampe right now. I saw a couple of games on TV last year and just from playing against them in the past, I know a bit.”

Horizon favorite Wright State’s ‘surprising’ ’12-’13 season was no surprise to the Raiders

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Wright State was picked to finish last in the Horizon League before the 2012-13 season and nobody expected them to be 23-13 and within four minutes of playing in the NCAA Tournament as they were last March.

Except for maybe Raiders head coach Billy Donlon.

The 36-year-old Donlon — known for his quick wit and one-liners — knew Wright State would compete last season, and although he didn’t outwardly predict that the Raiders would hold a six-point lead at Valparaiso during the Horizon League Conference Tournament Championship game, he fully believed it was possible heading into last season.

“Name me a program in the Horizon League that’s won more than Wright State over the last seven years?” Donlon said at Horizon League Media Day in Chicago this fall. “We had one bad year; other people choose to pick us last. I didn’t choose to pick us last. The standard of our program didn’t go down because we had one bad season.”

The Raiders “surprise” season ended in heartbreak, however. Wright State led 50-44 with 5:35 to play in the championship game last season before losing to Valparaiso 62-54.

That was without senior and returning leading scorer Cole Darling, a 6-foot-8 forward who missed the final 11 games of the 2012-13 season with a shoulder injury.

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Horizon League Conference Preview)

Wright State was one of only five teams in the country to not start a senior while being the 11th youngest team in the country. They return 9 of their top 10 and add a valuable transfer in Butler junior guard Chrishawn Hopkins.

But while the Raiders return basically the same team from a year ago, Donlon has moved past the game last season.

“The 11th time I was watching the last five minutes on the bus ride home from Valpo, Scott Woods — he and I have worked together for seven years, he’s one of my assistants — he tapped me on the shoulder and he said, ‘Billy, it ain’t gonna change. Shut the computer off.’ And I did and I haven’t watched it since,” Donlon said.

Darling is focused on coming back and leading the team to the tournament. A first-team preseason all-Horizon selection after garnering second-team honors last season, Darling rehabbed and is ready for this season.

“It was rough, a lot of hours in the training room and everything,” Darling, who averaged 11.3 points and 4.6 rebounds before getting hurt, said. “At first, I healed up pretty quick and wanted to get out of the sling and start moving around. The hardest thing was the anticipation of not moving around in the sling for six weeks. After that, it was just range of motion.”

Players like Darling are the reason that last season the Raiders were one of the biggest surprises in college basketball. The mentality in the program never changed for Darling or the players despite preseason expectations.

“We win at Wright State,” Darling said. “That’s what we do. We have to get in that mindset of a 20-win season and everything that they’ve had in previous years. We have to get back to the tournament.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

Darling said that this year’s group is already off to a great start in practice and he likes the way they play.

“We’re definitely a lot more athletic this season. Everybody can change positions and play different spots and score the ball, so we’ve had a lot of spacing and a lot of equal scoring opportunities,” Darling said. “Also with our depth now, our pace of play doesn’t have to necessarily slow down when we change guys in and out. Which will help us out defensively and offensively.”

Dealing with injuries like Darling’s and also Matt Vest and AJ Packer has been difficult but something Wright State has dealt with thanks to their depth.

“Matt Vest is 50/50 on whether he’ll play or redshirt. AJ Packer had surgery on his foot and he’s doing better,” Donlon said.

“I’ve learned a lot about human anatomy the last eight months.”

Donlon believes that Wright State has always been one of the league’s top teams — with a target on its back — so last season and this season will both be competitive.

“Is there a target on our back? I don’t know, we started 5-1 to start the league. So the rest of the games — I would imagine — after starting 5-1 there was a heck of a target on our back,” Donlon said. “The target has been on our back since Brad Brownell was the coach and that won’t change.”

Season Preview 2013-14: The other impact freshmen

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Eric Mika (left) and Rysheed Jordan (AP photos)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

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

Each season, a number of freshmen make an impact on college basketball. The term “one-and-done” is used as a term by basketball fans regularly now. This year’s freshmen group is no exception and while potential superstars like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker sit at the top, those guys and other All-Americans are almost expected to make an immediate impact now. So this year, we made a list of 10 non-McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-Americans that will make an impact in college basketball this season.

1. Derrick Walton, Jr., Michigan: The point guard is college-ready and will need to get up-to-speed quickly if Michigan is to match last year’s Championship Game run. It’ll be impossible to replace the departed Trey Burke, but Walton could fill-in admirably as the pieces around him continue to grow.

2. Eric Mika, BYU: The in-state prospect should make an instant impact in the post, where can score using multiple moves with good touch and also rebounds his area at 6-foot-9. With the loss of Branden Davis, Mika will need to be productive right away for BYU to compete in the WCC and for a NCAA bid.

(MORE: Click here to read see our Top 15 incoming freshmen)

3. Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s: The Big East’s preseason Rookie of the Year will get big minutes at guard and Steve Lavin needs him to make plays immediately. A backcourt of Rysheed Jordan and D’Angelo Harrison could be dangerous.

4. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: The two-guard is Frank Martin’s highest-rated recruit at South Carolina and the 6-foot-5 athlete should play early.

5. Austin Nichols, Memphis: Hometown forward is skilled enough to space the floor for their dangerous guards and can rebound his area a bit as well.

6. Wes Clark, Missouri: The Tigers need to replace the loss of Phil Pressey and have the Detroit-based Clark to do so. Clark has won a state title and the late-blooming true point guard could run the offense right away.

7. Ike Iroegbu, Washington State: With the loss of JuCo Danny Lawhorn before he ever played a game, the Cougars have Iroegbu as a true point guard and he could see plenty of early minutes.

8. Matt Thomas, Iowa State: The 6-foot-3 shooting guard from Wisconsin can fill it up from the perimeter and was probably the top outside shooter in the 2013 class.

9. Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul: The son of DePaul assistant Billy Garrett was an Illinois state and city championship point guard at Morgan Park and could play on-the-ball immediately.

10. Zach LaVine, UCLA: Combo guard can really play and could do damage behind Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams.

FIVE MID-MAJOR NAMES TO KNOW

  • 1. Zena Edosomwan, Harvard
  • 2. Martez Harrison, UMKC
  • 3. Alec Peters, Valparaiso
  • 4. Jon Severe, Fordham
  • 5. Scoochie Smith, Dayton

How Taylor Braun developed into a winner at North Dakota State

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Taylor Braun nearly didn’t play Division I basketball.

The 6-foot-7 North Dakota State redshirt senior forward — and NBCSports.com’s pick for Summit League preseason Player of the Year — was days away from giving up his dream before NDSU head coach Saul Phillips came calling.

“He was three days away from committing to a Division II school in Oregon when we offered him,” Phillips recalled to NBCSports.com. “He was going on a visit and he was going to commit. And we came along and he just didn’t have a whole lot of other options in terms of Division I.”

Phillips acknowledges that the Dakotas aren’t exactly known as a hotbed of hoops talent but the Bison made a NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009 thanks to the play of redshirt senior guard Ben Woodside and a group of other seniors and players the program had taken a chance on and developed.

Now, with Braun leading a group of six seniors with all five starters returning, the Bison are the preseason favorite in the Summit League after losing in last season’s conference tournament championship game to South Dakota State. The long-term growth and development of Braun and those seniors — much like the previous tournament team at North Dakota State — is the main reason why.

“Fargo, North Dakota, isn’t the first place on your mind when you think, ‘Where am I going to go to play Division I basketball?’, Phillips said. “We’ve got to find kids that have something to prove, we have to find kids that have room to grow and we’ve been able to do that with Taylor probably being the poster boy for that progression.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Summit League Conference Preview)

The growth of Braun, from Division II player to a viable Summit League Player of the Year candidate, began with hard work and long summers in Fargo. A model of consistency, Braun has averaged 15.4 points per game in each of the last two seasons to go along with 5.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game last season.

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“At 6-foot-7, he’s very good off-the-dribble, he shoots it well, he’s an explosive finisher around the rim; he can hurt you in so many different ways. And the biggest thing is that as a kid he plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s a tough-nosed kid and really sets the tone for the rest of our team in terms of his attitude,” Phillips said of Braun.

A first-team all-Summit selection as a sophomore and second team choice as a junior, Braun can shoot it from anywhere on floor, hitting 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from the three-point line as a junior; both numbers were slightly down from his tremendous sophomore campaign. Braun also broke his foot in January and missed 10 games and didn’t play as efficiently during his junior season.

Despite winning 24 games, and making the CBI, the Bison are still working towards a NCAA Tournament berth with this core group and the team stayed in Fargo for much of the summer working towards that goal. The time spent on campus helped an already tight-knit Bison team — which Braun described as “family-like” multiple times — grow even closer.

“One thing that’s good about here — and I guess a bad thing too, in some cases — is there’s not a lot to do here,” Braun said of the summer in Fargo. “Being up here, our main focus is to get in the gym, get better, get stronger and work to our goals. We’ve gone through this whole experience together. We stayed here all summer. We’re from all over the country and while the other kids on campus went home, we just had each other to hang out with and entertain ourselves. We definitely built some really strong bonds.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

Phillips and Braun both know he’ll be the focal point of an offense that includes senior big man Marshall Bjorkland — who shot a remarkable 67 percent from the field last year, second best in the country — and junior point guard Lawrence Alexander, who has started every game since he’s been on campus and acts as Phillips’ coach on the floor.

“It’s hard to believe he’s only a junior because (Lawrence) and I can finish each other’s sentences now,” Phillips said of his floor general.

Braun also worked on having the ball in his hands this summer with Ben Woodside, who — much like Braun — had minimal D-I interest, using a redshirt year and four seasons at North Dakota State to turn himself into a well-rounded college basketball player and dynamic scorer. Woodside ended his career with a 37-point performance in a NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas and is the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,315 points.

The 5-foot-11 Woodside also won Summit League Player of the Year honors his senior season and has had a successful European pro career.

“It’s hard to push yourself sometimes. But working with him, he can go out there and kick your butt, so you have to make sure you go in prepared and focused and he doesn’t allow you to be complacent or get lazy or anything like that,” Braun said of working with Woodside. “He’s done a really good job of pushing me beyond my comfort zone, which really benefits me.”

The NCAA Tournament is the focus for an experienced Bison team after two consecutive seasons tasting the postseason in the CBI. In Braun’s last go, he’d like to go out on top as conference champions with a NCAA Tournament berth to add to his already impressive college basketball career resume.

“I think we have very high expectations coming into the year,” Braun said. “I think with last year and making it to the championship game and coming up short and returning everybody I think the goal is to get there again and win it this year.”

2013-14 Summit League Preview: North Dakota State looks to make a run to the tournament

Taylor Braun (AP photo)
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Taylor Braun (left) and Chris Udofia (AP photos)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

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

The seemingly always underrated Summit League saw four teams play in the postseason in ’12-13, along with conference tournament champion South Dakota State producing a NBA Draft second round pick in senior guard Nate Wolters.

The Jackrabbits (NCAA), their conference tournament finals opponent North Dakota State (CBI), Western Illinois (CBI)  and Oakland (CIT) all saw postseason play and while the Grizzlies have departed for the Horizon League — and Wolters for the Milwaukee Bucks — they are replaced by defending WAC regular-season champion and new Summit League title threat Denver.

The Pioneers (22-10, 16-2) won an NIT game last season over Ohio and return a former all-WAC performer in senior 6-foot-6 forward Chris Udofia. The stat-sheet stuffing forward is an instant Player of the Year threat in the league but Udofia and the Pioneers will have to unseat conference preseason favorite North Dakota State and Taylor Braun.

The 6-foot-7 senior Braun leads the Bison (24-10, 12-4)  as a versatile forward with range and he heads an experienced group that includes six seniors and five returning starters.

North Dakota State and Denver are the top two threats but South Dakota State looms at third place as a real contender as well. The Jackrabbits are coming off of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and return three experienced starters leading with senior forward Jordan Dykstra.

Western Illinois, IPFW and Nebraska Omaha come in as the next three teams that could each surprise if inexperienced pieces play well and South Dakota and IUPUI round out the eight-team conference that also loses UMKC to the WAC.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Denver (WAC)
Out: Oakland (Horizon), UMKC (WAC)

PRESEASON SUMMIT LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Taylor Braun, North Dakota State

The efficient, do-it-all, 6-foot-7 forward returns for his senior season and fills up the stat sheet in nearly every category while shooting the ball at a high level. A model of consistency, Braun put up nearly identical statistics during his sophomore and junior seasons while averaging 30 minutes a game.

FOUR MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Chris Udofia, Denver: All-WAC performer is a stat-sheet stuffer coming off of offseason hip surgery.
  • Jordan Dykstra, South Dakota State: Experienced senior forward takes over for the Jackrabbits following departure of Nate Wolters.
  • Marshall Bjorklund, North Dakota State: Senior All-Summit forward was second in nation in field goal percentage last season, shooting an astounding 67 percent.
  • Justin Simmons, Nebraska Omaha: League’s returning leading scorer (16.7 ppg) can fill it up from the outside (40 percent from three).

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW@summithoops

PREDICTED FINISH

1. North Dakota State
2. Denver
3. South Dakota State
4. Western Illinois
5. IPFW
6. Nebraska Omaha
7. South Dakota
8. IUPUI