Villanova Basketball: 5 Things That Should Worry Wildcat Fans in 2014-15

There are just a few more months left until the college basketball season kicks off, which means it is time to begin to take a look at how certain teams will line up and what their flaws will be. 

The Villanova Wildcats turned in a successful 2013-14 campaign, but they fell apart in the postseason with an early exit in the Big East Tournament and just one win in the NCAA tournament. 

With most of his squad back from last season, head coach Jay Wright should be able to lead the Wildcats back into the NCAA tournament, but just like every team, there are concerns entering the season for Villanova.

Continue reading on for the five biggest things fans should be worried about during the 2014-15 season.

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Ohio State Basketball: What You Need to Know About 2014-15 “Super Tuesday” Games

The Ohio State basketball team may have disappointed last year, but one luxury of being a marquee program is the national exposure that comes every season.

The 2014-15 campaign will be no different for the Buckeyes. ESPN will feature Big Ten and SEC doubleheaders throughout the year on Super Tuesday, and head coach Thad Matta’s bunch is scheduled for two of those contests.

The full schedule can be found on ESPN MediaZone, but we are particularly interested in the games featuring Ohio State. With that in mind, let’s preview those showdowns.

 

Ohio State at Minnesota, Jan. 6, 9 p.m. ET

Ohio State split its two contests against Minnesota last year, with the home team winning both times.

The Buckeyes’ victory over the Golden Gophers in Columbus may have been their most memorable one of the season because they overcame a double-digit deficit by winning the second half 46-18.

Minnesota turned it on down the stretch, though, and enters the 2014-15 season with plenty of momentum.

Richard Pitino’s bunch won the National Invitation Tournament by knocking off High Point, Saint Mary’s, Southern Miss, Florida State and SMU, and it returns most of the primary contributors from that squad. Anything short of a spot in the NCAA tournament this time around would be a major disappointment.

Andre Hollins is the leader, and he is looking to improve on what was a shaky finish last year. He averaged 16.2 points a night in his first 19 games but suffered a severe ankle sprain against Wisconsin and literally limped to the finish.

Assistant coach Dan McHale discussed Hollins’ season with Amelia Rayno of the Star Tribune:

I don’t think people realized, I don’t think we really realized — because he’s such such a good kid — how much the injury affected him. I think it was evident a little bit with his game in the second part of the year, after the Wisconsin game. But he’s the type of kid that puts the team first, guts it out.

The Golden Gophers will need more of that leadership, but Hollins won’t be alone.

DeAndre Mathieu returns after averaging 12 points and 4.2 assists a night last year behind 51 percent shooting from the field and 48.9 percent shooting from three-point range.

Mathieu’s quickness on defense helps him stay in front of ball-handlers and dart into passing lanes, which is why he averaged 1.6 steals per game last season. His perimeter defense could pose a problem for freshman D’Angelo Russell if the young Buckeye isn’t completely settled in as a ball-handler by January.

Down low, Minnesota is counting on a jump from Maurice Walker. Walker is 6’10”, shot 56.5 percent from the field a year ago and has double-double potential.

Ohio State can certainly relate to Minnesota when it comes to counting on players to fulfill their potential, especially this season. Freshmen Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate will all be marquee members of Matta’s team, but the battle to watch in this matchup takes place in the backcourt.

Hollins and Mathieu will test Ohio State on both ends of the floor. Shannon Scott will be tasked with containing Hollins, while the young Russell will have to keep his turnovers in check against the pesky Mathieu.

Fortunately for Scott and Russell, they will have some help on the wing and down low with Bates-Diop, Tate, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, Marc Loving and Anthony Lee.

All that talent will be enough to overcome Minnesota and its guards on the road, but the Golden Gophers will be a serious threat to the young Buckeyes.

Prediction: Ohio State 76, Minnesota 71

 

Michigan at Ohio State, Jan. 13, 7 p.m. ET

A matchup between Ohio State and Michigan in Candy Land would make waves in Columbus and Ann Arbor, so a prime-time showdown on the hardwood is sure to turn heads.

Matta has dominated the Wolverines throughout his career, but Michigan won both contests last year. Revenge will certainly be on the mind of the Scarlet and Gray when their hated rivals come to town, and it will be a very different Michigan team they encounter.

Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary will all be in the NBA this year, which means head coach John Beilein will count on junior Caris LeVert for leadership and offensive production.

LeVert started his career as a defensive specialist but averaged 12.9 points and 4.3 rebounds a night last year behind 40.8 percent shooting from behind the three-point line.

He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts and has Michigan fans anticipating another monumental leap forward this season.

Brendan F. Quinn and Nick Baumgardner of MLive Media Group passed along some encouraging news on that front:

LeVert isn’t the only player Ohio State fans have to worry about.

Derrick Walton Jr. averaged 7.9 points per game and shot 41 percent from three-point range as a freshman, torching the Buckeyes for 13 points and 10 rebounds in the matchup in Columbus. Zak Irvin was an elite recruit when he arrived on campus and averaged 6.7 points per contest behind 42.5 percent shooting from long range.

With Stauskas and Robinson III out the door, both Walton and Irvin will have more responsibility and freedom on both ends of the floor. That should result in plenty of three-pointers, well-placed passes and defensive pressure.

Don’t overlook freshman Kameron Chatman either. At 6’7”, he is the perfect combination of athleticism, speed and size, and will play a number of different positions for the Wolverines.

With McGary and Jordan Morgan gone, Michigan will be very reliant on the backcourt this year. The Buckeyes’ best chance will be to unleash the defensive pressure they used so effectively in 2013-14, with Scott, Thompson and Russell leading the way.

As long as Ohio State can contain the guards and small forwards, the combination of Williams, Lee, Bates-Diop and Tate will be too much to handle on the boards for the Wolverines.

Having this game in Columbus will also help. 

Prediction: Ohio State 73, Michigan 69

 

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NIU unveils black-and-white basketball court

It isn’t totally hideous.

      
 

 

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Kentucky Basketball: Under-the-Radar Threats to Wildcats in 2014-15 SEC Season

Kentucky basketball is the clear favorite in next year’s SEC, but conference play always has a few surprises lurking. How ready the Wildcats are to stay focused against some of their less-heralded foes could make all the difference in their quest to match the unbeaten record Florida posted as last year’s league champion.

Here’s a look at some of the teams and players that could surprise the ‘Cats if they have a big game at the right (or wrong, from UK’s perspective) time:

 

LSU Tigers

If Anthony Hickey hadn’t transferred to Oklahoma State, or if Johnny O’Bryant III hadn‘t jumped early to the NBA, the Tigers would have had a case for cracking the preseason Top 25. Their sophomore frontcourt pairing of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey is one of the country’s more impressive offense/defense combos.

Even without experience (or much talent) on the perimeter, LSU has enough size to keep from being overrun by towering Kentucky. That’s thanks in part to the addition of 6’11”, 270-pound freshman Elbert Robinson, who should be a respectable substitute for O’Bryant at center. If Mickey—who had five blocks against the Wildcats in Baton Rouge last year—gets some help in the scoring column, Kentucky could be in for its second straight road loss to Johnny Jones’ team.

 

Antoine Mason, Auburn

The SEC’s most impressive transfer addition didn’t join one of the league’s power programs but rather opted to head up new coach Bruce Pearl’s rebuilding effort at Auburn. It’s a project that will be a lot easier (at least for the immediate future) with Niagara transfer Antoine Mason leading the offense.

The nation’s top returning scorer at 25.6 points per game, Mason—with the 2015 NBA draft in his sights—is looking to prove himself against top-level competition. At 6’3”, he relies primarily on beating opponents off the dribble, so he’ll be a particularly rigorous test of what John Calipari hopes is a much-improved perimeter defense.

 

Alabama Crimson Tide

With just one NCAA tournament win in the last decade, a once-dangerous ‘Bama program has fallen on tough times. However, Anthony Grant’s team always plays stout defense, and next year’s offense isn’t looking quite as toothless as some recent Tide squads.

Grant’s freshman class may not be up to Coach Cal’s standards, but all of Justin Coleman, Riley Norris and Devin Mitchell show promise as scorers. Coleman, meanwhile, will also be the best distributor the Tide have seen at point guard since Mikhail Torrance graduated in 2010. He and his classmates should be able to provide a welcome boost even in the absence of one-man show Trevor Releford (who didn‘t make much of an impact against Kentucky anyway).

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James Harden: I’m the best basketball player alive

Harden had no hesitation in his answer about the best basketball player alive.

      
 

 

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NCAA basketball countdown: No. 57 New Mexico State

USA TODAY Sports breaks down the projected NCAA tournament field of 68.

      
 

 

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College basketball countdown No. 57: New Mexico State

USA TODAY Sports breaks down the projected NCAA tournament field of 68.

      
 

 

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UNC Basketball: What We Learned from Tar Heels’ 2014 Bahamas Exhibition Trip

North Carolina’s weekend trip to the Bahamas featured sightseeing, ice bucket challenges and water slides. Oh, and a pair of basketball games, which provided two very different results.

The Tar Heels split their two exhibition games, losing 84-83 to the Providence Storm on Friday before rolling past the Bahamas All-Stars 109-52 on Saturday.

The short road trip came just before UNC’s fall semester began, and the goal of the journey was more to work on bonding and team chemistry and results. Even still, it’s likely coach Roy Williams wasn’t particularly pleased to see his team blow an eight-point lead with three minutes left and then see Providence’s Ernest Saunders hit a three-pointer with 18 seconds left for the game-winner.

“We made lots of mistakes, went 3-for-25 from three and missed free throws,” Williams told GoHeels.com. Carolina made just eight of 20 foul shots, with Theo Pinson missing both attempts with 32 seconds and the Heels up by two.

There were no such shortcomings against the Bahamas All-Stars, as UNC shot 61 percent and never looked back after taking a 32-12 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The overall results were meaningless, but not so the individual performances some of Carolina’s newcomers and younger players put up. One of the biggest stars of the weekend was sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks, who had 19 points against the Bahamas All-Stars after scoring 13 against Providence. For the two games, he made 14 of 23 shots and was UNC’s most impressive player according to Inside Carolina’s Greg Barnes.

“Now that he’s returned to his natural position at the 4, along with a year of college ball experience at his disposal, Hicks appears set to provide significant contributions for a UNC squad expected to be ranked top-10 nationally in the preseason polls,” Barnes wrote.

The 6’8″, 220-pound Hicks was used sparingly during the 2013-14 season as a freshman, averaging just 1.2 points and 1.0 rebounds in 7.3 minutes per game. He appeared in all but one contest, but he never played more than 17 minutes or scored more than seven points in a single game as he spent most of his time at the 3.

Hicks still has a battle for playing time with Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and even Desmond Hubert in the frontcourt, but with Carolina so loaded on the wing thanks to the arrival of Pinson and Justin Jackson, he can contribute more from his natural position. Hicks benefited from an ankle injury to Johnson, who only played seven minutes in each game in the Bahamas, but his play showed he can be a valuable sub if another forward gets hurt or gets into foul trouble.

Outside of the games, the trip did wonders for team-building. The school posted photos of the Tar Heels taking on the “Leap of Faith” water slide at the Atlantis Resort on its website, while Williams and his staff used the tropical setting as a backdrop for their participation in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Now that summer break is over, and school is resuming, Carolina will have limited basketball activity until early October when preseason practice begins. Action begins in earnest on Oct. 3 with the annual “Late Night with Roy” event.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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James Harden Says He’s the Best Basketball Player Alive

Houston Rockets star guard James Harden thinks really highly of himself, so his comments shouldn’t shock anyone.  The confident shooting guard told ESPN’s Scoop Jackson that he’s the best basketball player alive.

ESPN.com’s Scoop Jackson sat down with Harden recently and asked him who the best basketball player alive is, Harden didn’t hesitate to offer up his (obviously biased) opinion.
“Myself,” he said.
“You made that sound like it was an easy answer,” Jackson then said to him.
“It is,” Harden replied. “Myself.”

Harden went on to say that he’s “still trying to catch guys like LeBron, KD, and Kobe” and also admitted that “until I get rings, I can’t say anything” regarding his skills on the court. 

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Michigan State Basketball: Who Will Be Spartans’ MVP in 2014-15?

Taking ownership, both individually and as a team, will be the key for Michigan State in 2014-15.

In order for the Spartans to thrive, they must come together and toe the company line for coach Tom Izzo, whose system will likely be the deciding factor this season—not the amount of pure talent at his disposal. He lost a lot of that when Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Gary Harris moved on to the next phase of their careers and lives.

Of course, Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice and Matt Costello will be important and assist in keeping the ship afloat; one of them will likely be the team’s MVP.

But who has the best chance? Will Izzo be led by another upperclassmen? Or will a point guard command the way to March? Or maybe it’ll be a do-all junior? The Spartans are months away from hitting the court, but it’s never too early to take a shot or two with a few educated guesses in the MVP game.

 

Senior Points

Experience goes a long way, and when that experience comes from the point man, great things usually happen for the Spartans, who have been known for steady four-year generals since the days of coach Jud Heathcote.

Eric Snow, Magic Johnson, Scott Skiles, Mateen Cleaves, Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas have all carried the load, and now it’s time for the next guy in line to do something.

Now, there’s no need to take two or adjust your lens because, yes, Travis Trice is—as crazy as it may sound—going to be thrown into that category for two reasons: He’s a senior, and he’s the likely starting point guard.

For obvious reasons, comparing Trice to the aforementioned needs a qualifier: Athletically, he’s not at the same level as the past guys—but he’s more than made up for that with effort and dedication. On top of that, he’s a great example of what a student-athlete should be. He’s never mentioned for the wrong reasons, his intentions are never in question and he’s never been the source of a problem.

He’s pretty much been the ideal teammate.

At 6’0” (sure he is) and 170 pounds, Izzo’s Charlie Hustle could absolutely be the Spartans’ most valuable asset this year—and he could do that by simply playing his trademark defense and taking care of the ball. As a junior, he posted career-high averages of 2.3 assists and nearly a steal per game; he’s also cut turnovers by nearly 20 percent since his freshman year.

He gets better each season (when healthy).

He probably won’t pull a Cleaves or a Neitzel, or a Lucas or a Snow, but he’ll pull a Trice—and that’s all Izzo can ask for. The Spartans should take comfort in knowing that the ball will be in the hands of a mature, hard-working, program-first player.

There’s a lot of value in Trice. Michigan State will find that out next year—without him. But it’ll probably get his best in 2014-15.

 

Dawson’s Streak

Dawson is 6’6” and 225 pounds of dunk. However, he needs to add some shooting to that equation. Repeating the same thing as last year, “Dawson will be a complete, MVP-type if he can develop a jumper.”

According to the buzz last summer, he did that. But according to his performance as a junior, he didn’t.

Easily one of the game’s most athletic, Dawson can be a 15-and-10 guy by showing up on game day. When kicked into gear, he can score whenever he chooses. Four years ago, Dawson was supposed to be a two-and-done. He once thought about transferring but stuck around to learn from Izzo and develop his game to NBA standards.

He’s playing for his career this season. Finishing strong should boost his draft stock, and it’ll also help when evaluating his legacy in East Lansing. He’s a potential Big Ten Player of the Year candidate—that much is clear. Properly motivated, however, he could rise to national levels of attention.

 

Denzel’s Destiny?

Denzel Valentine’s overall awareness and skill set have been compared to that of Draymond Green, the Spartans’ former multitasker who set the bar for multitaskers in the Izzo era. At 6’5” and about 225 pounds, Valentine does nearly everything well.

He’s a great passer and plays above-average defense. He has exceptional range and the ability to score in spurts. If not for his lukewarm 67 percent career average from the line and incredibly on-and-off three-point shooting, he’d be a steady star.

Up until now, he’s been an occasional star. Due to the fact that he can play and score from three positions—four if he’s stretching it—he’s set to have a breakout season and set the tone for a storied senior romp in 2015-16.

 

Outside Picks

Matt Costello could emerge as a go-to for Izzo. The 6’9”, 240-pound forward has the physical tools to dominate the competition. However, he’s been incredibly streaky and needs to settle in before becoming a top-tier team MVP candidate.

If he clears waivers, Bryn Forbes could help change the complexion of the offense. The 6’3,” 175-pound shooting prodigy would give the Spartans another multi-tooled scoring option. He can shoot from anywhere, drive, hit free throws and pass. But his status is up in the air. 

Tum-Tum Nairn, the next-gen kid in town, could surprise a few people as well. The 5’10”, 165-pounder is, in fact, an Izzo point guard, which is a great thing for the program. He could pull a Cleaves or Neitzel by helping lead Michigan State to the Final Four—in 2015-16, though. As for this year, look for him to get comfortable with the collegiate pace and learn from Trice.

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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