2013-2014 Big Ten Preview: The power resides in Michigan

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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 the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Big Ten is once again loaded this season, with Michigan State entering the season as NBCSports.com’s Preseason No. 1 team in the country. The Spartans caught a break in the offseason, as both Gary Harris and Adreian Payne opted to return to school for another season. The same can be said for Michigan, who lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. but brought back Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III.

All told, the Big Ten should produce at least six NCAA tournament bids with as many as eight or nine teams — depending on how you view Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota — with the potential to play their way into the dance. But what makes this conference tough is that there won’t be an easy out this year. Northwestern returns Drew Crawford and brings in new head coach Chris Collins. Nebraska has steadily improved under Tim Miles, brings back some talent and has a nice recruiting class. Tim Frazier’s return means the Nittany Lions have one of the best back courts in the conference.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. There’s something wrong with Mitch McGary’s back: We just don’t happen to know what it is. McGary has been sitting out of practices and has spent Michigan’s two exhibition games suited up in a shirt and tie. The Wolverines haven’t let anyone know what the issue is, but McGary has said that he’ll be back for the Duke game on Dec. 3rd at the latest. Having the big fella slowed is an issue: he’s never been a guy that is in great shape, and sitting out preseason practices sure won’t help that. And as much as I like Jordan Morgan, he’s just not the same presence inside.

2. Ohio State needs LaQuinton Ross to step up: Ross is a trendy pick to be a breakout player this season for two reasons: everyone saw him go off in the NCAA tournament, when he averaged 17.7 points in the Buckeye’s last three games and hit a game-winner against Arizona. More importantly, with Deshaun Thomas gone, there will be plenty of shots and scoring opportunities available for Ohio State. Thad Matta lacks a true go-to threat offensively. Ross needs to be that guy.

3. Keith Appling is the key to Michigan State’s season: The Spartans are finally healthy this season, with Gary Harris, Branden Dawson and Travis Trice all back to 100%. Adreian Payne is back in the fold and ready to take on a bigger roll. The key for the Spartans, however, is going to be Appling’s ability to run the point. Can he be a leader and a playmaker offensively? He’s had the job for two years now, and he’s yet to fully adjust to being a point guard.

4. Iowa is the team to watch in the Big Ten: The Hawkeyes head into this season as one of the most intriguing teams in the country. They have a nice blend of veteran leadership and talented youngsters with a season of college hoops under their belt. Jarrod Uthoff is finally eligible to play this season as well, meaning that Iowa can go 10 or 11 deep is need be. They have size, they have guard play, they can score. I don’t think it’s crazy to say they can finish top four in the conference.

5. Yogi Ferrell is the most important player in the conference: With the amount of talent that Indiana loses off of last season’s roster, it’s impressive that the Hoosiers are able to enter this season as a top 25 team. There’s potential here, but there are a lot of question marks as well. Does Tom Crean use a bigger or smaller lineup? Two guards? Two posts? How good is Noah Vonleh? Who joins him up front? Does Jeremy Hollowell take the leap this season? The only thing we know for sure is that Yogi Ferrell is their starting PG, and that he can really play. The Hoosiers need him to be a go-to scorer and a leader this year.

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Gary Harris, Michigan State

We’ve heard it all offseason: last year’s Gary Harris wasn’t the real Gary Harris. He was forced to pigeon-hole himself as a jumpshooter because of a bum shoulder that made it really painful for him to try and drive through contact. And while Harris can shoot it, he’s a much more well-rounded player than he showed last season. Expect him to be an all-american candidate by season’s end.

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THE REST OF THE ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Aaron Craft, Ohio State: He’s a winner, a leader and a lockdown defender. Not much else needs to be said.
  • Mitch McGary, Michigan: McGary is a double-double machine and a potential all-american if his back cooperates.
  • Glenn Robinson III, Michigan: A freak athlete, it will be interesting to see if GR3 can become a more well-rounded offensive weapon as a sophomore.
  • Adreian Payne, Michigan: Payne is getting a lot of hype for a guy that averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 boards as a junior, but if he lives up to his potential, he’s a top five big man nationally.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
  • Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
  • Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
  • Tim Frazier, Penn State
  • LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State

BREAKOUT STAR: Sam Dekker, Wisconsin

The Big Ten is home to a number of breakout candidates — A.J. Hammons, LaQuinton Ross, Glenn Robinson III — but I’ll go with Sam Dekker. Dekker is a very, very talented wing forward. He’s 6-foot-7 and athletic with range beyond the college three-point line. He’ll be taking on a go-to role in Wisconsin’s offensive this season as well, meaning that there will be plenty of opportunities for him to put up his numbers.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Matt Painter, Purdue

There really isn’t any coach in this league under too much pressure, but I’ll go with Painter for a couple reasons: 1) He coaches basketball-centric Indiana, where the rival Hoosiers are riding high; 2) He’s coming off of a season where he finished under .500; and 3) Painter has some talent on his roster that doesn’t seem to want to buy-in. He’s not at risk of losing his job, but another down year and that seat might start to feel a little warm.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Big Ten ended up being the nation’s deepest conference.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Michigan vs. Michigan State.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 12, Michigan State vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic in Chicago)
  • Dec. 3, Michigan at Duke
  • Dec. 4, North Carolina at Michigan State
  • Dec. 7, Marquette at Wisconsin
  • Dec. 14, Arizona at Michigan

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Michigan State: The Spartans are going to be excellent, but I am having a tough time putting trust in Keith Appling and Adreian Payne to break the mold they’ve set for themselves the past three seasons.
2. Michigan: Replacing Trey Burke won’t be easy, but if McGary’s back injury plagues him throughout the year, the Wolverines are in some trouble.
3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes are going to be a nightmare on the defensive end with Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson. But can they score?
4. Wisconsin: Bo Ryan always finishes top four in the Big Ten, so I’ll slot the Badgers top four. Front court depth is an issue, but Frank Kaminsky should have a big season.
5. Indiana: The Hoosiers have the talent. The question is whether or not it will actually come together. They are young and inexperienced, especially up front.
6. Iowa: This is the year for the Hawkeyes. They are deep, they are talented and they are balanced. Can the sophomores — Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury, Jarrod Uthoff — make the jump?
7. Purdue: A.J. Hammons is big and talented enough to be an all-american before his career his done, I truly believe that. But does he want to be? He’s already been suspended this year.
8. Illinois: John Groce loaded up on transfers and freshmen this season, meaning that the Illini will have talent on their roster, but it may take a few games for them to truly get into sync. There is a ton of guard talent.
9. Minnesota: Andre Hollins is one of the nation’s best kept secrets, and with Richard Pitino bringing in some back court talent to join him, the Gophers are going to be a dangerous, pressing team. Not sure if they’re tourney ready yet, though.
10. Penn State: Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill form a back court many across the country will be envious of. It’s a shame Jermaine Marshall transferred.
11. Northwestern: Drew Crawford is healthy this season. Chris Collins is now coaching the Wildcats. They still have a lot of work to do, however.
12. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers actually shouldn’t be terrible. This league is just tough. Is “The Best Last Place Power Conference Team” a compliment?

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.