Previously: Gardening Lessons (The Story), Preview Podcast, Preseason All-Big Ten Teams, Point Guards, Wings Part 1 (LeVert, Irvin), Wings Part 2 (Chatman, Wilson, Dawkins, MAAR), Bigs (Donnal, Doyle, Bielfeldt)
Rankings via the 247 Composite
The Big Ten doesn’t have any elite one-and-done candidates coming in this year; there aren’t any surefire lottery picks among these freshmen. Still, the collective 2014 recruiting class is very deep: seven players in the top 50, 12 in the top 100, 24 in the top 200. Certain teams—particularly Ohio State, Maryland, Indiana, and yes, Michigan—will need immediate impacts from their incoming freshmen, and several transfers (which will be covered after the freshmen) will be counted on for immediate production. Talent in college basketball oscillates dramatically from year to year, as talented players often defect for the NBA at the first available opportunity, small rosters experience a high percentage of yearly turnover, and incoming freshmen are often ready to contribute meaningful minutes. The Big Ten lost a lot of top-notch talent this offseason, but there likely will be some stars in this crop of newcomers.
It’s easy for Thad Matta to get lost in the shuffle amongst the collection of stellar coaches in the Big Ten, but he’s simply phenomenal (even notwithstanding last year’s backslide): few coaches have a comparable coaching tree—the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens, Arizona’s Sean Miller, and Illinois’s John Groce headline—few can recruit as well as Matta does on a consistent basis, and few coach defense as well as he does. With the departures of Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith, and LaQuinton Ross, Matta needed to win some major recruiting battles and unsurprisingly, he finished with the best class in the conference. Because of the influx of promising blue-chip talent (and incoming Temple transfer, Anthony Lee) and the existing nucleus of solid defensive players—Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams all fit nicely into Matta’s tenacious man-to-man scheme—Ohio State is projected by many to finish second in the conference behind Wisconsin. It’s a hard-to-predict team with a high floor and a low ceiling, but they do look pretty great on paper.
D’Angelo Russell is the most well-regarded incoming recruit in the league and he should start next to Scott right away in the backcourt. Like Ross and Deshaun Thomas before him, Russell will likely be tasked with being Ohio State’s primary offensive weapon. Between his excellent shooting ability, all-around scoring potential, and his frame and athleticism, Russell is a prototypical two-guard. He doesn’t have elite, NBA-ready physical tools, but OSU could do a lot worse than turning to Russell in hopes of resuscitating a staid offense that finished 128th nationally last season.
Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate (both former Michigan targets) sort of overlap, but they play with distinctly different styles. KBD and Tate are combo forwards; either can probably play the three or the four—KBD is a skilled and very long stretch-four who can slide to the three; Tate is too small to play the four right now, but his maximum upside probably comes as a ferocious rebounder and inside-out scorer as an undersized four. KBD’s best known for his scoring, Tate’s best known for his rebounding ability, though both can certainly defend. How the Buckeyes sort out the minutes on the wing will be quite interesting: Sam Thompson and Mark Loving deserve major minutes, but KBD and Tate might be too talented to leave on the bench. Dave Bell probably won’t contribute this year with the logjam of players ahead of him.
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Anthony Lee was a good addition for Ohio State: Big Ten players who had statistically comparable seasons to his final year at Temple were almost all fairly decent rotation guys at the worst. He’ll probably play center for the Buckeyes and he’ll compete with Amir Williams for minutes. In any case, the platoon of Lee / Williams is significantly better than Williams and Trey McDonald. Lee may provide more scoring punch than Williams has so far in his career, but Lee isn’t outstanding in that regard—he takes almost three quarters of his shots at the rim and only finishes at around 50% there (per Nylon Calculus).
[After THE JUMP: Maryland, transfers, and such.]
In its first year in the Big Ten, Maryland will be featuring many new faces—a stellar five-man recruiting class stems the bleeding after five Terrapins (including solid point guard, Seth Allen) fled the program during the offseason. The linked piece from Testudo Times offers an excellent review of what the loss of each transfer means for Maryland, but in short: the Terrapins will rely on a lot of freshmen to fill in the gaps after about half of the team’s minutes are gone because of transfer. No other team in the conference has this type of comprehensive roster overhaul and while Maryland does return a key piece—star guard Dez Wells—only three rotation players return (along with Wells, Jake Layman and former Wolverine Evan Smotrycz are back).
The Terrapins could turn to any of these new faces:
- Guard – Melo Trimble: He’s worked on becoming a point guard in the wake of Allen’s transfer, and the combo guard should slide in next to Dez Wells to form a good scoring backcourt. Since Wells can play with the ball in his hands, it might look like two guards who simply trade the responsibility of running the offense. Freshmen point guards do typically have a steep learning curve, but Trimble is an excellent prospect who could be a solid conference player for a couple of years.
- Guard – Dion Wiley: He’s more of a true shooting guard than Trimble is, though both are well-regarded shooters. Wiley has considerable upside, but he may not be ready for an immediate role as anything much more demanding than just being a shooter off the bench.
- Wing – Jared Nickens: Like Wiley, Nickens may get slapped with the “shooter” label and rightfully so: he’s the type of 2 / 3 hybrid that may just specialize as a corner three guy who spaces the floor for others. Nickens may not be physically ready to play in the Big Ten, so he might not push Layman and Smotrycz for minutes on the wing once conference play begins. Smotrycz will be out for a while with an injury though, so Nickens could see the floor.
- Forward – Michal Cekovsky: Sophomore Damonte Dodd will probably replace Shaquille Cleare (now at Texas) at the five, but Cekovsky will likely see minutes there. He fits the stereotype of European big men: Cekovsky is very skilled, has a deft shooting stroke, is more comfortable on the perimeter than the block, and doesn’t have the requisite size and strength—at least, not yet—to hold up physically against more burly centers. Still, he’s an intriguing prospect with high upside.
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North Carolina A&T was the 339th-best team in the country last year (out of 351) in the nation’s second-worst conference, so all of the names that Pack’s profile draws out of the database should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. He adds backcourt depth behind Wells and is best when attacking the basket.
The Hoosiers experienced a stark regression last season in the wake of the departures of Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls, and Christian Watford; after winning the Big Ten in 2012, they finished tied for 8th in 2013 and an offense which had been the third-best in the nation two years ago fell to 127th nationally last year. Two problems stood out in particular: aside from Yogi Ferrell, Indiana did not have much outside shooting (Ferrell hit 40% of his 220 attempts from three, while the rest of the team made just 30% of their 292 attempts) and they turned the ball over far too much to be successful. Indiana was especially young last season, but again experience a fair amount of roster turnover—one-and-done Noah Vonleh fulfilled his obligation of one year of purgatory, Jeremy Hollowell defected to Georgia State, and Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon exhausted their eligibility.
Even with a roster in flux, Tom Crean did well to address his biggest needs. James Blackmon—much like D’Angelo Russell—isn’t a top-tier five star destined for NBA stardom, but he does project to be a difference-maker and potentially elite college shooting guard from day one. His shooting ability immediately eases two of Indiana’s biggest issues: his presence upgrades the Hoosiers’ spacing and both his ability to score and his ability to play both the one and the two might let him assume some distributive responsibilities. Blackmon was a huge coup for Indiana, as there isn’t a better player to fit the exact need that Indiana has (though making the jump back into Big Ten relevance will surely take more than one player).
Robert Johnson also fills that same need: like Blackmon, he’s an undersized two guard—though, critically, he does get the “combo guard” label because he can run an offense well enough to play the point, not just because he’s too short to be a true shooting guard—and he’s able to make shots from all over the floor. Last season, Crean never seemed to discover a workable rotation with sensible personnel groupings and, like most coaches, he’ll take time to discover minute allocations and whatnot during the non-conference schedule, but playing Ferrell – Blackmon – Johnson could be a potentially terrifying offensive combination (though it would certainly concede points on the other end).
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Like Zack Novak (who shows up thrice in the top ten most statistically similar players), Nick Zeisloft was an undersized four for Illinois State who specialized in three-point shooting—he took 86% of his shot attempts from behind the arc and should pretty much replicate that role as a rotation wing for the Hoosiers. It was a decent enough under-the-radar graduate transfer addition for Indiana, as Crean adds another shooter.
Kam Chatman (3), D.J. Wilson (15), Ricky Doyle (25), Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Aubrey Dawkins, Austin Hatch
Ace covered the freshmen and their possible / prospective roles well in these two pieces (Wings Part 2, Bigs) linked at the top. They’re excellent guides by which these newcomers can be contextualized. Needless to say—with no proven options at the four and five—these freshmen (and redshirt freshman Mark Donnal) will be quite important.
Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn (Michigan State) plays similarly to recently graduated Spartan Keith Appling: he’s short, lightning-quick, and struggles with his jump shot. He should challenge Travis Trice for minutes… Nate Mason (Minnesota) falls behind Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu on the depth chart, but he should be the third guard and replicate much of the shooting and playmaking ability of the other two … Shep Garner (Penn State) would be the best recruit to spend four years at Penn State since Tim Frazier, if he sticks around. Theoretically, he could augment D.J. Newbill’s ability as a lead guard by playing some at the one … Bryant McIntosh (Northwestern) should start right away; like Vic Law, McIntosh is a higher caliber of prospect than Northwestern customarily lands. It’s easy to see him getting about 30 minutes a game at either guard spot if he can handle it … Dakota Mathias (Purdue) is a shooter and aside from he and Kendall Stephens, Purdue is short on players who can stretch the floor and hit outside shots. With A.J. Hammons as the prospective go-to guy on offense, Purdue will need to clear space for him to operate; Mathias helps in that regard … Mike Williams (Rutgers) shoots the ball extremely well, but is designated as a combo guard because of his lack of size, not because of his ability to run an offense … Johnnie Vassar (Northwestern) could also see significant minutes early in his career in Evanston—Vassar is a smaller guard who specializes in driving into the lane with his excellent agility. JUCO transfer Trey Dickerson (Iowa) will play this season; Dickerson could push Mike Gesell out of the starting point guard job with his pick-and-roll prowess and general ability to catalyze offense for himself and for others.
Leron Black (Illinois) will likely push for minutes at the three and / or four spot for the Illini; he’s a tremendous athlete with quickness and leaping ability—Black should provide rebounding, defense, and transition play at the very least … Vic Law (Northwestern), a top-100 recruit, is the best high school player Northwestern’s landed in years. Even though he’s more of a long-term prospect, he’ll play and make a defensive impact right away with his energy and defensive ability … Vincent Edwards (Purdue) fits roughly the same mold as Black and Law: all three are a bit raw, but will be hard to keep off of the floor because of their ability to impact the game on the defensive end and on the glass … Javon Bess (Michigan State), despite an injury that will keep him out for a while, might be the best sleeper in this class between his defensive ability and unusually excellent rebounding from the guard spot—a good fit for what Michigan State likes to do … Marvin Clark (Michigan State) is a 3 / 4 tweener who can shoot the ball well; a little more quickness and he’s a big three, a little more strength and he’s a solid stretch-four. JUCO transfer Carlos Morris (Minnesota) seems destined to fill the graduated Austin Hollins’s minutes on the wing—Deandre Mathieu was an excellent JUCO pickup for last season and the Gophers are similarly high on Morris, who can handle the ball very well on the wing.
Isaac Haas (Purdue) is a massive center that doesn’t carry the typical lack of coordination that most kids his size are burdened with. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to see that much of him, as A.J. Hammons has the center spot locked down … D.J. Foreman (Rutgers) isn’t quite tall enough to play the five, but he’ll be best suited as a traditional four who can rebound and block shots … Dave Bell (Ohio State) is a project who will likely redshirt with Ohio State’s frontcourt depth … Jacob Hammond (Nebraska) decommitted from Oklahoma and eventually wound up choosing Nebraska—with Leslee Smith’s injury, he might see some time at the five spot, but this long and bouncy center could use a year to get bulkier … Michael Finke (Illinois) might find minutes sparse (because of Nnanna Egwu, Malcom Hill, and Leron Black) and it isn’t clear if he’ll eventually be a stretch-five, but he’s tall, very skilled, and runs the floor quite well for a big … Josh Martin (Minnesota) is quite raw, but he’s a terrific athlete who can run in transition and score on the break.
It’s important to note that these transfers each played in weaker conferences than the Big Ten, so the players listed below are not projections of what level they’ll perform at during the season, but a style guide to contextualize their abilities with previous, more well-known players.
All four of these transfers should make meaningful contributions right away for their respective teams. Illinois desperately needed outside shooting and they filled that need well with Cosby and Starks, who each shot 40% from behind the arc in their last college seasons. With Tracy Abrams’s injury, Starks—more of a tiny scoring guard—and Cosby—a perimeter-oriented combo guard—could either start for the Illini at the one. Bryn Forbes also adds shooting for Michigan State; the Spartans lose Gary Harris and could simply slot in Forbes (though Alvin Ellis will compete for playing time there). Jon Octeus attempted to transfer from Colorado State to UCLA, but was denied admission and wound up at Purdue. He’s a guard who can do a little bit of everything (though he probably can’t run an offense full-time) and he’ll mitigate the loss of both Johnson brothers.