Catching up with three NCAA hopefuls

September, 26, 2008

Catching up with Ohio State, Wake Forest and Nevada, three teams that should be intriguing to watch early on in the season:

Ohio State: For the third straight season, Ohio State coach Thad Matta has an incoming freshman center that has the preseason hype of potentially being a first-round pick in the NBA draft and could be one-and-done.

Greg Oden came through two years ago, and after weathering an injured wrist, he led the Buckeyes to the national title game and eventually becam the No. 1 pick.

Kosta Koufos had plenty of hype last season after performing well on the international stage for Greece the previous summer. Koufos couldn't dominate like Oden, though, and didn't have the same surrounding cast. Koufos had a decent season for the Buckeyes but still left for the NBA draft, too, landing at No. 23 in the first round to Utah.

Now it's B.J. Mullen's turn. The 7-foot freshman from Columbus started school this week and is being coached by Matta about remaining grounded as much as possible.

"He's a great listener," Matta said. "He wants to do the right thing and do it the right way."

Oden was a presence. He blocked shots. He could finish with authority. He was a game-changer. Koufos was more of a typical skilled big man who would prefer to face the basket. What about Mullens?

"He's completely different than Kosta skill-wise," Matta said. "B.J. is going to be the guy that takes great pride in being down low. I've been pleasantly surprised that he can step out and shoot the basketball but he's more of a contact-type of guy where as Kosta was more face-up."

Matta said it's "mind-boggling" that he has had three straight centers that could be one-and-done and top picks. Mullens is actually the tallest of the three, Matta said, and weight-wise he's closer to Oden at what the coach said should be a 7-1, 270-pound check-in when the season starts.

The competition over the next month for the Buckeyes, though, will be at the point, after three years of quality play from Jamar Butler (2006 and '08) and Mike Conley Jr. (2007). Matta said freshman Anthony Crater and JC transfer Jeremie Simmons, as well as returnee P.J. Hill, will be the primary competitors for the position. Matta called Crater more of a distributor, Simmons a shooter and Hill a bit of both but more of a defender.

Meanwhile, Matta is still battling his own issues. A year ago he had surgery to correct neck pain and back pain and the result was numbing in his right foot. He said he still has a "drop foot" and he hopes the nerves will regenerate themselves. Matta said he wears a brace on his right foot that allows him to drive and walk.

But Matta's rehab isn't slowing him down. And the Buckeyes should fully expect to be in the Big Ten chase behind Michigan State, Purdue and likely Wisconsin. Missing out on the NCAAs after going to the title game was tough to stomach. The Buckeyes, as usual, will play a very good schedule that will put themselves in a position for a bid, with an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game against upstart Miami on the road, versus one of the Big East favorites Notre Dame in Indianapolis and hosting West Virginia and a rebuilding but always-pesky Butler team, all before Big Ten play starts.

Wake Forest: Dino Gaudio said that he fully expects 6-foot junior guard Ishmael Smith to be ready for Nov. 1 after having a pin placed in his left foot for a broken bone. He had the surgery last Monday. Smith was the fourth-leading scorer on the Demon Deacons last season with 8.6 points a game.

Meanwhile, Gaudio said the highly-touted freshmen trio of Tony Woods, Ty Walker and Al-Farouq Aminu are all competing well in individual workouts. Gaudio, entering his second season as head coach after replacing the late Skip Prosser, said the trio is still understanding the pace of practice, workouts and how hard they'll need to work this season. Gaudio has paired each one of them up with an older player in workouts as a sort of preseason mentor program.

Gaudio is also working on the Demon Deacons' defensive approach. He said he put in Dick Bennett's pack defensive system last year and anticipated it would take a second season for the players to fully grasp the nuances of the defense.

"We were right about even in rebound differential last season and we expect the young guys to boost our rebounding as well as score the ball for us," Gaudio said. "Our defense on the backboard should improve with our personnel. I'm cautiously optimistic about this group. I think we could be really good."

Wake Forest returns nearly its entire team intact and then added the best frontcourt recruiting class in the country. The Demon Deacons should be a top five ACC team all season long, a possible NCAA team and a team that should find itself in the rankings throughout most of the year. Wake's coming out party should likely arrive during the Anaheim Classic, when the Demon Deacons could be headed for a showdown with a fellow top 25 team in Baylor or Arizona State unless Saint Mary's, UTEP or Providence steals the headlines.

• Nevada: If JaVale McGee had decided to return to Nevada and not entered the NBA draft the Wolf Pack could be a lock for the top 25. Nevada added one of the higher profile scoring wings in 6-9 forward Luke Babbitt and the eligibility of 6-6, former Indiana wing Joey Shaw. The guard play, according to coach Mark Fox, is expected to be the Wolf Pack's strength with the return of Brandon Fields (12.4 ppg) and Armon Johnson (11.5 ppg). But McGee left. So, there is a whole in the middle.

"The plan was to put great shooting around [McGee]," Fox said. "He didn't come back but we still got the shooting."

The Wolf Pack knew they were losing senior Marcelus Kemp, the leading scorer last season ahead of McGee. Fox said the 2-4 start last season was because of an inexperienced backcourt. Now the experience will be in the backcourt with a sophomore in Johnson and a junior in Fields.

But the hype surrounds Babbitt, the local stud from Reno. Fox said Babbitt doesn't want the hype and is trying to stay humble. "He fits in great with the guys, he's one of them but we're trying to protect him because of the expectations." Fox said Babbitt has taken a liking to the strength and conditioning program and has changed his body over the past few weeks. Fox won't put a production expectation on Babbitt but he expects his ability to make 3s and score on the block ensures that he will produce for the Wolf Pack. Fox said he was asked if Babbitt can put up Michael Beasley-like numbers of 24 points and 12 boards, but "that's not a fair comparison. Hopefully he will impact us but we can't expect too much."

Fox anticipated McGee would stay for his junior season. That's why, in part, Fox put together a stellar schedule. Nevada may not get enough help from the WAC to push it toward a possible at-large bid, so Fox scheduled to put Nevada in position. Nevada plays at San Diego (a possible top three WCC team), hosts UNLV (a MWC favorite) in the annual in-state game, hosts the always-favored in the Missouri Valley Southern Illinois, goes to Cal in what should be a good road test -- even if the Bears are more NIT-worthy -- and a monster game on New Year's Eve against top-ranked North Carolina in Reno.

Credit Roy Williams for scheduling Nevada for the second time. He originally did it when David Padgett committed to Kansas. Padgett was from Reno and set up a series with Nevada to give him a return game. Williams left for North Carolina and Padgett stayed to play for Bill Self for a season before leaving for Louisville.

"I was sitting with coach Williams last summer [in 2007] at an event at Houston and told him how we were having such a hard time getting games," Fox said. "He said 'Yeah, we'll play you. You have to do two for one, but we'll do it.' That was a great deal. Teams like North Carolina don't have to go on the road."

Nevada went to North Carolina last season and will return again to Chapel Hill in 2009.

"We don't have a neutral-site place in town for teams to come here and play," said Fox, which is what Gonzaga has in Spokane with the Spokane Arena. Gonzaga is hosting Memphis there this season since the Tigers wouldn't go to the Kennel on campus.

"This schedule gives us a chance," Fox said. "Is our league a two-bid league? I'm not sure but this gives us a chance if we play well. Carolina returns everybody. If McGee comes back and [Tyler] Hansbrough goes out then it works out great. But the exact opposite happened. This will be a great challenge for us."


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