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.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.

Four-star wing Romeo Weems commits to DePaul

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DePaul landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2019 Tuesday afternoon, as four-star small forward Romeo Weems announced that he will be a Blue Demon. Weems, who attends New Haven HS in New Haven, Michigan, picked DePaul over Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon and is considered by most major scouting services to be a Top 50 prospect in the 2019 graduating class.

The 6-foot-6 Weems plays his grassroots basketball for The Family on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this spring. Weems also has experience playing for USA Basketball, as he was part of the Under-16 team that won the FIBA Americas U16 title last year. Weems will also be part of the training camp from which the Under-17 team will be selected next month in preparation for this summer’s FIBA Under-17 World Championships.

DePaul managing to land a commitment from a prospect of Weems’ caliber, a versatile wing who can defend multiple positions while also being productive offensively, could be the shot in the arm that Dave Leitao’s program so desperately needs if they’re to improve their standing within the Big East.

Since making the move from Conference USA in 2005, DePaul has finished above .500 in a season just once (20-14 in 2006-07) with that also being the only time in which the Blue Demons finished above .500 in Big East play (9-7). Since Leitao, who led DePaul to its most recent NCAA tournament in 2005, returned for his second stint at the school the Blue Demons have gone 29-65.

Getting out of Allstate Arena and moving to the new Wintrust Arena ahead of last season was an important move for the DePaul program, but it’s been clear that the rebuild won’t be a “quick fix.” Bringing in a talent of Weems’ caliber should help DePaul moving forward, with the key now being to recruit well enough to ensure that the talented wing has ample help when he arrives on campus next year.

Among the players currently on the roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019 are guards Devin Gage and Justin Roberts and wing Darious Hall, who will sit out the 2018-19 season after transferring to DePaul from Arkansas. Hall appeared in 35 games for the Razorbacks this past season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game.