2K Sports Classic Preview
It is no secret that when the tournament committee put together the 2009 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, they envisioned a Duke vs. UCLA final. Still, both Duke and UCLA have one more challenge before ESPN gets what they ultimately hoped for.
That is not always as easy to come by as it looks. For instance, in 1999, a dream match-up of #1 Connecticut and #10 Duke was on the horizon in the same tournament. But, the Huskies fell to Iowa and Duke lost to Stanford in overtime. In the end, everyone got their match-up…it was just three hours earlier and ESPN had to scramble to get it on national television.
Can Michigan and/or Southern Illinois pull the same shocker and ruin ESPN’s plans?
Duke vs. Southern Illinois @ 7:00 on ESPN
Southern Illinois (2-0)
The Salukis finished the 2007-08 season at 18-15, and lost in the second round of the NIT to Arizona State. They failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
This year SIU is picked to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference, behind only Creighton, despite the fact that they return only two starters. Head Coach Chris Lowery must find a way to replace 64-percent of the scoring and 60-percent of the rebounding that is no longer in uniform.
The key to this year’s success will be the three senior guards. Bryan Mullins, Wesley Clemmons and Tony Boyle are the only players left who participated on the 2007 team that reached the Sweet 16. Mullins will lead the way. As a junior, Mullins was selected as MVC Defensive Player of the Year and led the league with 2.13 steals-per-game. He wasn’t too bad on the other end of the court either, as he averaged nearly five assists-per-game and shot 41-percent from beyond the arc. Mullins is on pace to become the Salukis’ all-time leader in steals and assists.
Look for sophomore Carlton Fay and freshman Kevin Dillard to be productive as well. Fay, who stands at 6’8”, provides much needed size for the Salukis underneath. He was selected as the 2K Classic Carbondale Regional MVP as he averaged 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in their two wins. When Dillard signed with SIU it marked the first time that the program had signed a Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois. In his first two games as a Saluki he averaged 11.5 points per game and nearly 30 minutes.
Coming off of two straight seasons where the Blue Devils haven’t reached the Sweet 16, Coach Krzyzewski and his squad look to rebound. Last season they lost three of the last five games. They squeaked one out in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Belmont to avoid back-to-back first round losses and then ultimately fell to West Virginia in the second round.
Sophomore Kyle Singler returns to Durham, North Carolina with renewed energy. He had a spectacular freshman season but wore down towards the end of the year because he was forced to guard guys much bigger than he, due to Duke’s lack of size underneath. This season Krzyzewski hopes the addition of freshman big man Miles Plumlee will alleviate the need for Singler to get battered and bruised underneath.
Singler is a versatile power forward who has the ability to score from inside and outside. Last season he averaged 13.3 points-per-game, which was good for second on the team, and he connected on 51 three-pointers. Look for big seasons from juniors Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer as well. Henderson is a freakish athlete with the ability to get to the rim while Scheyer is a great shooter from the outside and has an uncanny knack and drawing contact and getting to the line.
Starting at the point this year for the Blue Devils will be Nolan Smith and not Greg Paulus. Smith is much quicker than Paulus and a better defender. But, don’t worry Paulus-haters, he will see plenty of action in the backcourt and give you plenty of opportunities to boo him.
Michigan vs. UCLA @ 9:30 on ESPN
John Beilein’s first season in Ann Arbor was one to forget as the Wolverines finished with a dismal 10-22 record. Michigan adds four freshmen to a team that still must grow accustomed to Beilein’s system. They only return one senior who averaged more than 14 minutes last season.
One of the bright spots last year was the play of Manny Harris. Harris scored 516 points last season, becoming only the fourth player in Michigan history to do so in his freshmen campaign. In addition to leading his team in scoring, he also led them in steals, was second in assists and third in rebounds. A member of the preseason All-Big 10 team, Harris is special athletic and is as dangerous a wing as there is in the country. As a sophomore he will be looked up on to lead the squad. He got off to a good start as he was named MVP of the Ann Arbor Regional, averaging 28 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5 assists.
As is the case with all of Beilein’s teams, everyone has the green light to shoot the three ball. Deshawn Sims, a 6’8” junior, is Michigan’s second-best scoring threat. He is dangerous from beyond the arc but is beginning to develop some moves underneath. In his first two games this year he nearly averaged a double-double (14.5 points, 9.5 rebounds).
Michigan will rely on their “gimmick” 1-3-1 defense and their ability to knock down shots from deep to keep them in games.
The Bruins are coming off of back-to-back-to-back Final Four appearances and have the talent to get back again. For some teams it would be tough to replace three guys (Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) leaving early for the NBA. UCLA just reloads with the best recruiting class in the nation.
Head Coach Ben Howland’s 2008 class includes five five-star recruits. Jrue Holiday, the 2008 Gatorade Player of the Year, headlines the freshman class and he is joined by Jerime Anderson, Drew Gordon, J’Mison Morgan and Malcolm Lee. Holiday can defend, use either hand, shoot it, is athletic and is surprisingly very strong. Anderson is known for his court vision and Lee for his ability to shoot the ball from deep. Morgan and his 6’10” frame will fill Love’s shoes underneath.
Seniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp will anchor this squad and try to make a trip to the final four in each of their four seasons. As a sophomore Collison was named to the All-Pac 10 team and was a 2nd Team All-American. However, last season he saw his assist numbers drop dramatically as Westbrook got more and more time at the point. In his senior season, look for Collison to once again be one of the best point guards in the nation. Shipp does a little bit of everything for the Bruins. Last season he led the team in minutes with 32.5 per game and averaged 12.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals.
When you combine UCLA’s youngsters with the veterans it is quite obvious that they are very strong beyond the perimeter. With their talent and tenacity on defense it will be extremely tough to keep the Bruins out of the final four once again.
Of the two semi-finals, the Salukis have a much better chance at pulling of the shocker. But, I wouldn’t bet against Duke or UCLA. I don’t see anyone beating UCLA in this thing. Their guard play is just too good and their defense will keep them in games even if they struggle offensively. Duke would make for an impressive early-season scalp for the predicted Pac-10 Champions.