Last week, ESPN unveiled the bracket of the 2012 EA Sports Maui Invitational, setting the table for three exciting days of November hoops. The Texas Longhorns will open play in Lahaina against host Chaminade before moving on to tackle Illinois or Southern Cal. LRT took an early look at those three teams in part one of our tournament preview.
Today, we look at the other half of the bracket, which includes two teams from last year’s Sweet 16, a program that reached the national title game in both 2010 and 2011, and one team that will be starting from scratch. In late July, there’s no way to know exactly who Texas will face on the last day of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, but we do know it will be one of the teams below.
After back-to-back appearances in the national championship game, 2011-12 was a complete rebuilding year for Brad Stevens and Butler. Senior Ronald Nored was one of just three seniors, forcing the Bulldogs to rely on young, unproven talent to eat up a lot of the minutes.
The team was as stingy on defense as you would expect for a Stevens-coached squad, but a painfully inept offense made for a very bumpy ride. The Bulldogs were the fifth-worst three-point shooting team in all of D-I hoops, knocking down just 27.2% of their long-range attempts. With opponents able to sag off the perimeter, inside scoring was also difficult for Butler. For much of the season, it seemed like the best offense for the Bulldogs was just crashing the glass, where they reclaimed 35% of their misses.
This season, immediate help on the perimeter comes in the form of Rotnei Clarke, the former Arkansas sharpshooter who transferred when Mike Anderson arrived in Fayetteville. In his three years as a Razorback, Clarke hit 42% of his threes and averaged just over one foul per 40 minutes. For a defensive-minded basketball team with perimeter issues, Clarke is a godsend.
Incoming freshman Kellen Dunham will also bring relief in the backcourt. A four-star recruit from Indiana, the 6’5″ guard is a long-range gunner with a reputation for constantly working to get free off the ball. His presence will hopefully open up the floor a bit for a Butler team that really struggled to find open looks last season.
The one Bulldog who could create his own looks was Chrishawn Hopkins. Now a junior, Hopkins can consistently put the ball on the floor and get points. Although he’s just 6’1″, he’s a very athletic guard who can light it up in a hurry and he seems primed for a breakout season.
If the Bulldogs want to keep everyone in their familiar positions from last season, the growth of Australian Jackson Aldridge is key. A lightning-quick point guard, Aldridge played only about 14 minutes per game in relief of Nored last season. If he can make the typical leap from freshman to sophomore year, it will allow Hopkins to play more off the ball and focus on scoring.
In the frontcourt, the Bulldogs could still be a bit undersized at times. Although center Andrew Smith is 6’11″, Butler’s best lineup in 2011-12 had 6’4″ Roosevelt Jones and 6’6″ Khyle Marshall at the three and the four. Jones is very strong for his size, and rebounds exceptionally well from his position on the wing. Marshall also outrebounded many taller opponents, thanks in large part to exceptional hops. He’s thrown down more than a few highlight-reel alley-oops, and is bound to provide even more in the future.
Off the bench, 6’9″ forwards Kameron Woods and Erik Fromm played significant minutes in 2011-12 and earned a combined 16 starts. Fromm proved to be a solid offensive rebounder, but often looked awkward and stiff in post-up situations. If either big man has developed into a serviceable power forward over the summer, Butler will be able to match up better against more traditional lineups.
The Bulldogs will open island play in the EA Sports Maui Invitational against a talented Marquette squad looking to replace some very big contributors. Fresh off the school’s second-place finish in the deep Big East, Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles must quickly figure out how to replace the scoring, rebounding, and leadership of Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom.
While losing two AP All-Americans is certainly a major blow, the Golden Eagles will still have the experienced backcourt of Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan. The latter is a seasoned point guard who averaged 5.4 assists per game and posted an impressive assist rate of 32.4%. Blue is an off-guard with a very quick first step, who consistently uses it to get to the rim despite not being a three-point threat.
Both of the starting guards are excellent at feeding the post, which will be huge with the return of Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner. The pair of rising juniors combined to average 16.6 points and 9.4 boards last season, with Gardner typically coming off of the bench. Wilson proved to be a relentless shot blocker, adding another tough interior defender to a squad that will also have 6’11″ Texan Chris Otule inside. With a wingspan of 7’5″, Otule blocked 55 shots as a sophomore in 2010-11, the most for a Golden Eagle in 14 years. An ACL injury limited him to just eight games last year, but he will assuredly be back in top form for his senior campaign.
Marquette could also welcome back guard Todd Mayo, younger brother of NBA player O.J. Mayo. He hasn’t been taking part in any of the team’s summer activities, and Coach Williams confirmed to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in late June that Mayo was serving an indefinite suspension.
Very quick and crafty, Mayo would sometimes get himself into trouble last season by playing a bit out of control. He posted more turnovers than assists on the year, but was showing steady improvement throughout the season. If he can work his way back from this latest off-the-court setback, Mayo should be able to take on a bigger role as a sophomore.
The Golden Eagles also added Arizona State star Trent Lockett, who transferred to Marquette to be closer to his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. Lockett graduated from ASU in three years and will be immediately available for Marquette, giving Coach Williams an incredibly talented senior wing to add to an already very solid backcourt. With the Sun Devils, Lockett often had to do everything, even having to pick up point guard duties when Keala King was dismissed in the middle of the season. On a much deeper Marquette squad, Lockett won’t be the focus of opposing defenses, and he should have a very impressive senior year.
The Golden Eagles will also bring in a two-man freshman class, highlighted by four-star prospect Steve Taylor. The 6’7″ small forward won three state titles in high school and possesses both a strong perimeter game and good rebounding skills. While much less heralded, Jamal Ferguson is a 6’4″ slashing wing with a lot of length. On a Marquette team that uses defense to fuel offense, that length on the perimeter should lead to some quality minutes off the bench.
Most new coaches inherit rebuilding projects when they sign on the dotted line. Mississippi State’s Rick Ray hardly even inherited anything.
Gone from last year’s Bulldog squad are point guard Dee Bost, big man Arnett Moultrie, and the oft-maligned and often-fed Renardo Sidney. Reserve point guard DeVille Smith and athletic wingman Rodney Hood both also hit the road, in search of greener pastures at other schools. Smith landed at Southwest CC in Mississippi, while Hood will sit out a year before playing for Duke.
With the mass exodus, that leaves just two players who saw meaningful minutes in the 2011-12 season: junior guard Jalen Steele and senior center Wendell Lewis. The pair combined to average 44.7 minutes, 12.5 points, and 5.8 boards and saw the court in all 33 of Mississippi State’s games.
As a result, there’s an immediate infusion of new blood in Starkville. The Bulldogs have five incoming freshmen, highlighted by 6’4″ shooting guard Fred Thomas, a Mississippi product. Coach Ray also welcomes a pair of juco transfers in forward Colin Borchert and point guard Trivante Bloodman, both of whom will be called on to make a quick impact.
Unfortunately, the first class of the Rick Ray era is off to a very rough start. Freshman shooting guard Craig Sword was arrested last Sunday for having a BB gun in his dorm room, which is a misdemeanor. Coach Ray has said that punishment will be handled in-house, before the start of the season.
While Sword won’t miss any playing time, freshman point guard Jacoby Davis is expected to miss the entire 2012-13 campaign after tearing his ACL in an individual workout last Monday. The loss of Davis puts even more pressure on Bloodman, and further depletes a young backcourt filled with questions.
It’s going to be a long first season for Coach Ray and the Bulldog faithful. With North Carolina up first for Mississippi State, the Maui Invitational will likely be a rude welcome to college hoops for this very young team.
Although the Tar Heels lost Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall, and Tyler Zeller to the NBA, don’t think that hard times are ahead in Chapel Hill. Instead, Roy Williams has reloaded with a consensus top-five recruiting class and welcomes back future NBA star James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald. You’ll have to forgive the rest of the ACC if they aren’t feeling any sympathy for fans of the powder blue.
McAdoo flirted with the idea of going pro after his freshman season, but the stout 6’9″ sophomore decided to build off of his success in the NCAA tournament and return to another elite North Carolina team in 2012-13. McAdoo is a strong, stout guy who is fearless on the glass, yet still has handles and agility that seem unfair for someone his size. There were times that he seemed to be tentative on last year’s team, but with the Big Four now off to the NBA, his role is clearly defined. If he plays up to potential, McAdoo could be a household name before conference play even tips off.
Like McAdoo, Hairston is another talented player who came off the bench last season. While he could have been a starter at most schools, the 6’6″ wing waited his turn and should be a star in his sophomore campaign. He made an early impact for UNC by knocking down 8-of-16 from behind the arc in the two-game Las Vegas Invitational. His shot was very streaky throughout the season, however, and he finished with just a 27% mark from long range. If he can get more consistent results as a sophomore, the Heels will be tough to defend.
Shooting guard Bullock has already found that consistency on his three-point looks, knocking down 38.2% of his attempts last year. He stepped up following Strickland’s ACL tear in January, and was a huge reason why the Tar Heels didn’t miss a beat.
If Strickland is back to full strength, opponents will once again be hounded by his hard-nosed, lockdown defense on the perimeter. Even though he averaged just over 24 minutes per game, Strickland led the team in steals per game and was typically assigned to shut down the opponent’s best perimeter player.
Strickland isn’t the only Tar Heel guard to be returning from injury in 2012-13, as McDonald will also be ready to play after missing all of last season to rehab from knee surgery. With McDonald bringing yet another three-point threat to the table, the Heels will force opponents to extend the defense, hopefully opening things up for a less-experienced frontcourt.
With so many returning guards and wings, the only real concern in the UNC backcourt is at the point. Marshall was a rare talent, one whose court vision and smart passes made the Tar Heel offense click even on those nights that their jump shots weren’t falling. Strickland has also played the one in the past for Carolina, but incoming freshman Marcus Paige is the top-ranked point guard in the 2012 class. There are always growing pains for freshmen, but having a talented cast surrounding Paige — not to mention an upperclassman mentor in Strickland — should ease the transition. He’s spent the summer rehabbing from a stress fracture, but should be fully healed and ready to go before Midnight Madness.
The much bigger questions loom in the frontcourt, where Carolina will have to get immediate results from some highly-ranked freshmen. Brice Johnson and Joel James are both four-star prospects who should see some major minutes alongside McAdoo. James has already made headlines on Tobacco Road by dropping more than 50 pounds over the last 18 months, molding himself into a 260-pound monster described by Coach Williams as “a big rascal who’s gotten less big.” In Carolina’s transition attack, he’ll be required to run the floor, a skill that made Zeller so deadly for the Heels. With enough conditioning, he could make headlines as a freshman.
Although it’s still far too early to tell how the eight Maui teams will look by November, Carolina looks to be the favorite. If Texas can take care of business on its half of the bracket, the Longhorns and Tar Heels could tangle for EA Sports Maui Invitational title just a few weeks before their scheduled meeting at the Erwin Center.