With Steve Ballmer in Place, Clips Need Doc Rivers to Focus on Job He Does Best

Now that the dour cloud that was Donald Sterling has been lifted from the Los Angeles Clippers and replaced with Steve Ballmer, the comparative equivalent of stadium lights, there’s one element still missing to assure the 17th banner raised in the Staples Center belongs to them:   

A bona fide general manager.   

That’s not a knock on Doc Rivers, the resident coach, president of basketball operations and unofficial crisis counselor. Rivers distinguished himself holding the franchise together for several months while the league extricated The Donald. He has been, overall, a godsend for the franchise in a multitude of ways.

It’s a knock on the notion that a team can win it all with one man both coaching a team and constructing it, now more than ever. Look no further than Rivers needing to forfeit a first-round pick to move swingman Jared Dudley to Milwaukee, the same Dudley that was acquired just a year ago along with swingman J.J. Redick for the hefty price of highly-prized point guard Eric Bledsoe. Moving Dudley became necessary because Rivers also handed Matt Barnes–yet another swingman–the first multi-year contract of his career last summer, assuring someone would be unhappy.

For whatever reason, Rivers has received a full pass on moves that have made the Clippers marginally better yet significantly more expensive. You don’t have to make more than a call or two to find someone in the league who, as one GM said, views Rivers’ moves with Dudley as a “head scratcher.”

“If [former Minnesota GM] David Kahn made those deals, they’d have been burning crosses on his lawn,” said another NBA executive.

Several GMs said they would’ve put the brakes on all that for the sake of the long-term health of the team. One said he might have even traded Jamal Crawford in order to force Rivers to play first-round pick Reggie Bullock, who was a year-long afterthought (43 appearances, 395 minutes). In a sense, Rivers has spent two first-round picks to assure a few more victories last season, victories that still weren’t enough to get out of the second round.

“He’s always going to be a coach first,” said the executive of Rivers, “and a coach is always going to be making micro decisions. It’s all about the next five minutes.”

That thinking never has been more costly than it is now. The consensus among the league’s leading decision makers is that under the league’s increasingly constrictive salary-cap rules, the trick to chasing a title is maintaining as much flexibility as possible. There’s nothing wrong with going for broke in a particular year as long as the option to scale back down is on the immediate horizon.

That’s not where the Clippers are. They paid the luxury tax last year and they will do so again this season. Do that three out of four years and the amount of tax paid increases to at least $2.50 per every $1 over the threshold starting in the 2015-16 season.

There isn’t a tax that billionaire Ballmer can’t afford, but that isn’t the point. The penalty for being a taxpayer goes beyond a lighter wallet. It also erases the ways in which a team can land that one last piece that puts it over the top. Gone is the bi-annual exception or the ability to do sign-and-trade deals. Even the mid-level exception is reduced. So while Ballmer’s, uh, manic enthusiasm should be a welcome change from the gloom of Sterling’s Scrooge-like visage, it takes considerably more than Up With People! inspiration and throwing around bales of cash to build a champion.

“Having an unlimited budget isn’t necessarily healthy,” said one rival GM, “and it still doesn’t make it easy.”

A quick glance at the top NBA payrolls going into the season is proof that the Larry O’Brien trophy is made of, not by, gold. The six most expensive rosters belong, in order, to the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Clippers, New Orleans Hornets, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers.

And while the Clippers have a relatively young core in Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, they’re going to need flexibility to restock their wings. Redick is in the second year of a four-year deal, but Barnes and Crawford could be up after this season. Whatever space their departures might provide undoubtedly will be used to tie up Jordan, a pending free agent whose $11 million salary is sure to jump. Rivers already had to spend yet more money this summer in an attempt to upgrade at back-up point guard (Jordan Farmar replacing Darren Collison) and back-up big man (Spencer Hawes replacing Ryan Hollins). Despite having the biggest payroll in the Western Conference, there’s no reason to believe they are capable of getting past the defending champion Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder or even the Golden State Warriors should they have a healthy Andrew Bogut.

Don’t blame the mismanaged roster and salaries on the influence or distraction of Sterling, either. He actually showed uncharacteristic largesse in his last few years to allow Rivers to make those moves and the discovery of his insulting view of African-Americans didn’t come until springtime.

If Ballmer has any reservations about Rivers’ personnel acumen, though, giving him an extension worth a reported $10 million a year on the heels of the Dudley deal is an odd way to show it. As of now, Rivers has placed Dave Wohl and Kevin Eastman, confidants from his days in Boston, alongside incumbent Gary Sacks to compose his front-office brain trust. Neither, however, has any experience in building rosters and it’s hard to imagine either of them having the wherewithal to tell Rivers he can’t do something.

Then again, perhaps in Ballmer World $10 million is simply the going rate for a coach who has worked the magic Rivers has with Paul, Griffin and Jordan. Despite the fact that sources say he was handpicked by Paul to succeed Vinny Del Negro, Rivers convinced Paul to give up the ball and allow more of the offense to run through Griffin, much to the team’s collective benefit. Jordan, meanwhile, evolved from a headache to a defensive backbone with Rivers’ encouragement.

“He’s coaching the hell out of their best players,” the GM said. “Doc has changed the mindset of that team. They’re playing for the right things. His greatest contribution has been creating an accountability to a style of play. You don’t see them pointing fingers.”

Perhaps Ballmer will take a more hands-on approach with roster decisions the way the Dallas Mavericks‘ Mark Cuban and other owners have in more recent times. He certainly shares their hoops passion: he apparently didn’t miss one of his son’s high school or AAU games and he considers himself a roundball junkie.

How that manifests itself with the Clippers, now that he’s abandoned his responsibilities with Microsoft, is what most interests other GMs and executives. For all of Sterling’s faults, he left the spotlight for his players and coach. Paul came to L.A. to stand in it and enjoy all the commercials and other accompanying opportunities; Griffin chose to stay in L.A. for the same reason.

“I don’t know that that group there wants the attention on the owner,” one GM said. “They have built something. They took center stage.”

That’s also where an independent GM and second voice of reason would help, since it’s hard to imagine Rivers coaching the team, making executive decisions and serving as a buffer between Ballmer and the players.

“It’ll be positive, no matter what,” said a Western Conference GM of Ballmer’s presence, “or at least it won’t be worse than with Sterling.”

But just how positive? How much better?  It’s hard not to look at how the battle for supremacy in New York has played out so far. The Nets’ Mikhail Prokhorov has tried to buy his way to a championship, and while it moved him past the Knicks last season, the Nets are not anywhere close to winning it all. Similarly, the Clippers should remain the toast of Hollywood over the Lakers this season, but Ballmer’s rallying cry was “I love Larry!” as in O’Brien, not “I love L.A.!”

If opposing GMs and executives are correct, it doesn’t matter that the Wheel of Fortune studio is a stone’s throw from Clippers’ headquarters—Ballmer can’t buy those last three letters. He’s going to have to think his way to getting L-A-R-R-Y. Or hire someone who can.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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EJ: The Lakers need to their dismantle roster

Eddie Johnson explains what moves the Lakers need to make with contention not looking likely.

      
 

 

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How Much Do Chicago Bulls Need from Pau Gasol Next Season?

Between both frontcourt positions, the Chicago Bulls have 96 minutes per game to distribute between Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol in their 2014-15 campaign.

How many of those minutes will go to Gasol?

The 34-year-old Spaniard, and two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, is undoubtedly one of the top post presences of his generation. But whether he should clock major minutes in his twilight stint with Chicago is a dubious question. More likely, he’ll become an invaluable role player, redefining himself in a fashion reminiscent of Ray Allen with the Miami Heat.

Like Allen, Gasol left his storied NBA franchise on questionable terms. Under-appreciated as part of the reign of Kobe Bryant, and misused through multiple coaching changes, Gasol’s got something to prove with the Bulls. “Instinct told me to pick Chicago,” he told the press at his introductory conference. He’s got more basketball life to live.

But his new mission shouldn’t involve the workload of a cornerstone. Gasol’s new job, if optimized, will make him into a kind of perfect basketball poison. Because he’s troubled by injuries—he missed 55 games combined over the past two years—and also plays with two elite defenders in Gibson and Noah, Gasol should be employed strategically. 

Twenty to 25 minutes per game should be enough time for Gasol to make his imprint, giving the Bulls another look with his dexterity in the lane and passing vision from the high post. Gasol can duplicate a lot of what Noah did as “point center” last year. Gasol and Noah, Bulls fans hope, can also converge as twin passing threats and find each other and cutting teammates at the rim.

They’ll have the chance to develop such chemistry, as Gasol is likely to start. Head coach Tom Thibodeau tends to give starting jobs on a basis of seniority whenever there’s a gray area. Gibson is arguably a better player at this point of his and Gasol’s respective careers. Gibson clocked a staggering 26.5 player efficiency rating in an increased role against the Washington Wizards in the postseason. He’s a remarkable player and is squarely in his prime.

But Thibodeau showed he’s respectful to tenure by starting Carlos Boozer over Gibson throughout 2013-14, during which Gibson was a vastly superior player. And Thibodeau may also be wise to mix and match his bigs so as to have one defensive-minded big next to a score-first man for most of the game.

In other words: Expect to see Gasol, a questionable defender as he ages, next to Gibson or Noah, while rarely sharing the floor with Mirotic. Thibodeau’s obsessive zeal for protecting the rim makes the Gasol-Mirotic combination a dim possibility. 

The Bulls need the extra punch Gasol brings on offense, but they’ll also be expecting a lot from him off the court. His experience and renowned, team-first attitude were big parts of Gasol’s appeal to Chicago. He enters a long-running cultural effort by the team—the Bulls are only interested in players eager to accept Thibodeau’s intense principles and tireless eye for X’s and O’s detail.

By bringing Gasol on board, the Bulls gain a personality who knows how to weather the harshest challenges of the NBA calendar and someone who’s happy to share his know-how with the rest of the roster. Mirotic learning under Gasol also bodes well for the Bulls’ future.

A fellow Spanish speaker, Mirotic will face rough lessons and a steep learning curve in his first year playing in the United States. A mobile, skilled power forward, Mirotic also falls in a similar category of player as Gasol. He stands to learn a lot as his understudy.

The Bulls got themselves a winner in Pau Gasol. He isn’t the same all-world player he was in his prime, but he’s still a singular character in the league. If Chicago manages his role just right, he could turn out to be their best acquisition in years. 

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EJ: Lakers need to dismantle roster

Eddie Johnson explains what moves the Lakers need to make with contention not looking likely.

      
 

 

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Beck/Bucher: Do the Bulls Need Derrick Rose to Change His Game to Win a Title?

Derrick Rose will make his return to the Chicago Bulls this year with high hopes of capturing an NBA title.

Does Rose need to adjust his style of play for the Bulls to go all the way?

Howard Beck and Ric Bucher debate what the young point guard needs to do in the video above. 

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What the Los Angeles Clippers Need from Chris Paul Next Season

Arguably the top point guard in the entire league, Chris Paul has helped transform the Los Angeles Clippers into one of the league’s elite teams. While Paul has been nothing short of awesome, Doc Rivers needs a more unique version of the elite point guard. Especially if the Clippers are to reach the franchise’s first conference finals.

Make no mistake, Paul’s talents are a major reason for the Clippers’ turnaround over the past three seasons. However, the postseason results have been disappointing. Paul needs to refine his game and adjust his tendency to dominate the ball.

Last season Doc Rivers proved to Paul that increasing the tempo and limiting his control over the ball improved the team. Mainly, because Blake Griffin was ready to help Paul carry the load offensively.

Paul’s talents are remarkable, but even the most talented players need help getting to the top. The fire that burns within Paul’s competitive soul help make him a fearless leader, but talent, chemistry and a little bit of luck are what win titles. The talent is now available but one last thing is missing; a change in philosophy.

 

Paul’s Past

Despite Paul’s immense talents he has never led his team past the second round of the playoffs. Widely regarded as one of the 10 best players in the league for years, his playoff results are underwhelming. Some of that blame can be placed on his supporting cast, but the common denominator is Paul.

According to basketball-reference.com, Paul’s playoff averages of 20.6 points, 9.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 steals are extraordinary. Unfortunately, the underlying theme behind those statistics revolve around his penchant for dominating the ball.

Again, his ball dominance ties in with his lack of a superior supporting cast. The main problem has always been the lack of another high-usage scorer.

The chart above tells all. David West was Paul’s highest usage sidekick until arriving in Los Angeles. West has never been mistaken for someone that can create his own shot, let alone set up his teammates for baskets.

Those not listed include 46 games of Marcus Thornton, Jarrett Jack, Jannero Pargo, Peja Stojakovic again. The picture is pretty clear, Paul needed help.

Even after joining the Clippers in 2011, not much changed. Paul finally had someone who could create offense and score 20 points per game, but needed to be fed the ball in certain areas on the floor to score. That mean a ball dominant Paul had to take control of the offense, especially in the playoffs.

Much like with the New Orleans Hornets, defenses were able to key on Paul, taking away his passing lanes and forcing the 6’0” point guard to win games nearly single-handedly. Yet again, Paul has been unable to advance out of the second round. For all of Paul’s talents, it would be nearly impossible for him to win multiple playoff series each season on his own.

 

A New Paul

The arrival of Doc Rivers provided instantaneous legitimacy for the franchise. Rivers is passionate, sensible and brutally honest. Chris Paul found this out immediately, according to Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears.

As professional athletes, you always want someone to push you and motivate you, Paul said. The first meeting I had with Doc, he pretty much told me I wasn’t anything. He told me I hadn’t done anything in this league, and he was right. You don’t always want somebody that’s going to tell you what you want to hear.

Reflecting on this quote brings clarification to the entire 2013-14 Clippers season. Rivers needed to breakdown the undesirable habits and attitudes of the players on his new roster. He needed to mold their talents into a new system that took pressure off Paul, gave Blake Griffin more offensive responsibility, kept the floor spread and featured DeAndre Jordan as the defensive anchor.

Paul seemed hesitant early, as Rivers preached tempo, speed and sharing the ball. It was not until Paul missed a month of action with a separated shoulder, that he fully appreciated what Rivers was preaching. Largely, because he was able to see the offense excel without him.

According to NBA.com, from January 4 until Paul’s return on February 9, the Clippers were second in the league in scoring and had a plus-8.1 scoring differential. Rivers’ system was dynamic and lethal, because the team was playing fast and spreading the floor around Griffin.

Every game Paul missed, the league’s best point guard had a front-row seat to Rivers’ explosive offense despite his presence on the floor. The more the team pushed tempo and shared the ball, the more difficult the offense was to defend.

Paul now completely understood his role in the offense and the transition upon his return was seamless, mentioned ESPN’s J.A. Adande.

He still has the ball in his hand a lot, Rivers said. We want him to have the ball; he’s the best player in the league with it. But we also feel like it’s harder to guard him when he gives it up and comes back, and then they can’t load up.

So how do the Clippers improve upon last season? It starts with Paul. The lessons he learned during his first season with Rivers are vital to the success the team seeks this season.

Griffin has proven that he can carry the load along with Paul. No longer will there be a need for Paul to create every shot after pounding the ball into the floor for 15 seconds, waiting for someone to come free for an assist.

The offense can flow through Griffin, forcing the defense to shift to Paul coming of rubs and screens. Griffin’s much-improved jumper now gives Paul one of the best pick-and-roll/pop partners in the league.

Most important of all, Paul has a leader on the sidelines. Someone to hold everyone else accountable so he can focus on playing basketball. Someone for the team’s heart and soul to believe in. A man that Paul respects.

Finally, Paul needs to do a little less, so everyone else can do a bit more. A more balanced offense and a commitment to defense will be the key to this season. His old tendencies are sure to re-emerge, but it is time for Paul to trust the others around him and stick to Rivers’ system.

The talent and structure Paul needs is now firmly in place. He just needs to take advantage of it.

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5 NBA Players That Need a Trade to Fulfill Complete Potential

The NBA is a dream come true for the players who work hard enough to make it, but plenty still find themselves one trade away from being in the right situation.

For the five in this slideshow, reaching their full potential may be just around the corner, but getting there will be next to impossible with the teams they currently represent.

Whether it’s a logjam at the player’s position, an issue with management or just the need for a fresh start, there’s a reason to believe each one would be better off individually somewhere else.

They’re in order by age, and each has qualified for the list by being involved in some kind of trade rumor during the last year.

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Duke Basketball: What You Need to Know About Blue Devils’ 2015 Big Monday Games

Let’s not kid ourselves, national exposure for the Duke basketball program is not exactly a rare occurrence. 

That’s why it should come as no surprise that Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils will be featured multiple times during ESPN’s Big Monday series of double headers during the 2014-15 season. Starting Jan. 5, ESPN will televise a game from the ACC followed by a game from the Big 12 on Monday evenings.

Duke and its crop of game-changing freshmen will battle Pittsburgh and Florida State in those two contests. Let’s take a look at what the team will be up against.

 

Pittsburgh at Duke, Jan. 19, 7 p.m. ET

The Blue Devils played Pittsburgh once last year and won in decisive fashion on the road.

However, the Panthers will look dramatically different this season after losing their two leading scorers and rebounders. That means freshmen Jamel Artis, Michael Young and Josh Newkirk will have to assume more responsibilities as sophomores. They were all solid role players a year ago, but Pittsburgh needs more than their combined 15.5 points a game to reach the NCAA tournament.

Newkirk and James Robinson will assume the point guard duties. Newkirk can blow by past people off the dribble and create open looks for his teammates, and Robinson is an effective distributor.

Still, Lamar Patterson was the primary ball-handler a year ago, so this will be new territory for both Robinson and Newkirk.

Elsewhere, transfer Sheldon Jeter will finally have the opportunity to contribute for Pittsburgh. The former Vanderbilt player tried to transfer to the Panthers before but was blocked by Commodores head coach Kevin Stallings. The stretch forward has arrived though and commented on the move, via John Perrotto of The Beaver County Times (subscription required):

I couldn’t be more excited. I already have a relationship with a lot of players at Pitt, and I’m looking forward to joining the team.

This took a little bit longer to happen than I wanted it to but I’m happy with the way it turned out. Vanderbilt had their reasons, whatever they were, but I’ve had a lot of people help me.

Duke will certainly be the favorite in this matchup, especially at home. The Panthers are breaking in a lot of raw talent, but the group of players that Coach K has accumulated will be too much for Pittsburgh early in the conference schedule.

Jahlil Okafor should have his way down low against the guard-heavy Panthers now that Talib Zanna is no longer around. Look for a double-double from the prized freshman as the Cameron Crazies make life particularly difficult for the young Panthers. 

Prediction: Duke 81, Pittsburgh 65

 

Duke at Florida State, Feb. 9, 7 p.m. ET

Duke destroyed Florida State 78-56 in Durham in their only meeting last year.

That Seminoles squad featured Okaro White down low and Ian Miller on the outside, but both of them are gone now. However, don’t write off Florida State just yet.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes was Florida State’s top recruit for the 2013-14 campaign, but he was ruled academically ineligible last year. The dynamic shooting guard will lace it up this season as a leading piece for the Seminoles thanks to his ability to hit the long-range shot, attack the rim off the bounce and spearhead the perimeter defense with his lateral quickness and fast hands. 

Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports is certainly impressed by Rathan-Mayes, who is a former high school teammate of Andrew Wiggins:

Florida State also brings in transfer Dayshawn Watkins, a speedy point guard who is best in transition. His ball-handling skills and ability to find teammates in the open floor will immediately boost the Seminoles attack.

The Watkins and Rathan-Mayes combination will be a test for freshman Tyus Jones, although it helps that this game doesn’t take place until February. Ideally, the multitalented Jones will be completely comfortable running Duke’s offense this late in the season.

Florida State also brings plenty of size to the table.

Kiel Turpin, Michael Ojo and Boris Bojanovsky all check in at least 7’ tall and will help the Seminoles control the boards and paint throughout the year. Duke was plagued by a lack of interior defense and rebounding a year ago, but Okafor and Amile Jefferson should change that this season.

Even if the Blue Devils advance to the Final Four this year, there will be few opponents, if any, that feature as much size as Florida State. There will certainly be some interested NBA scouts watching Okafor’s performance in this one.

While Florida State should be better this year with a combination of effective guards and size, Duke is still the more talented team. We are talking about a squad that has national title aspirations and elite 4- and 5-star athletes all over the floor. 

The freshmen will be seasoned by February and will take care of business in Tallahassee.

Prediction: Duke 75, Florida State 67

 

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20 Players You Need to Know Before the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

The 2014-15 college basketball season tips off in less than three months, which means it’s about time to bone up on the need-to-know names and faces of the hoops year ahead.

If you’re planning on paying attention to the college basketball regular season for the first time in your life, keeping tabs on these 20 players will help you sound like a certified fan in no time.

Alternatively, if you’re already a diehard fan who doesn’t believe in offseasons, feel free to use this list in your weekly debate over the preseason All-Americans.

Either way, these are the names who should be frequent fliers in the national headlines throughout the course of the 2014-15 season.

 

The following players are listed alphabetically by last name.

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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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