While most are opening presents under the tree this time of year, there are quite a few NCAA coaches that will receive their biggest gifts on the court. Over the past week or so, a steady stream of previously injured, ineligible, or academically challenged players have returned to the court. This season of basketball giving will continue well into January, and will make a major impact on the college hoops landscape. The following is a list of the top fifteen most important mid-season additions.
1. Randolph Morris, C, Kentucky (eligibility issues) Many have speculated that since Randolph Morris went undrafted last June and has sat out such a long stretch of basketball, his return isnt that big of a deal. I would adamantly disagree with that. Kentucky has been looking for a scoring option in the paint and had really struggled to find the right mix on the offensive end. This team looked like it had given up in the blowout loss to Indiana, and proceeded to destroy Louisville the very next weekend.
The difference? Perhaps just knowing that help was on the way. Morris might not be the lottery pick he thought he was, but dont be fooled into thinking he cant be a season-changing factor for the Wildcats.
2. DJ White, PF, Indiana (injury) White returned last week for Indianas matchup with Charlotte, and his presence paid immediate dividends for Mike Davis. The month-long layoff left White quite winded early in his 17-minute stint, but that didnt stop him from making an impact on the game. He plays physical post defense, both when battling his man for position and as a shot blocking presence. Against Charlotte, he also showed a very nice face-up jumper. Indiana looked good with Marco Killingsworth patrolling the lane. Add White to that mix, and the Hoosiers become downright scary, scary enough to give the Tom Izzos and Bruce Webers of the Big Ten plenty of sleepless nights.
3. Sean Williams, C, Boston College (legal issues) How does a guy who averaged 4 points and 3 rebounds a season ago make an appearance so high on this list? Just wait and see. Williams is one of the most explosive big men in the country, and was primed for a breakout season before his arrest and subsequent banishment from campus last spring. The moment he steps on the court in an ACC game, he is the conferences biggest shot blocking presence besides Shelden Williams. Furthermore, Al Skinner is in desperate need of another explosive, physical presence. Craig Smith and Jared Dudley are good, but struggle against that premier level of athlete. Williams makes things easier for the entire team on the defensive end. Skinner will bring Williams along slowly (2 points, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks in 12 minutes in his first game back), as Smith and Dudley can handle the paint adequately, but eventually we will see all three of them on the court at the same time. At that point, Sean Williams could be the difference between a high NCAA seed and a middle of the pack finish for the Eagles.
4. Jawann McClellan, SG, Arizona (academics) McClellans story is a disappointing one for the Arizona faithful, as the talented sophomore should have been well into a breakout season by now. Instead, academic struggles have left him on the sideline for the immediate future. McClellan could have been back in uniform already, but again didnt take care of business over the fall semester and now must pass a January class to become eligible. McClellan brings a complete offensive presence to Arizonas roster, something that Lute Olson has been desperate for so far this season. With a player like McClellan on the roster, Olson can shorten the leash on the trigger-happy guards he currently employs. At a bare minimum, Jawann McClellan will now miss a chunk of Pac-10 action, but there is no doubt that his return could turn around Arizonas shaky-looking season.
5. Marcus Williams, PG, Connecticut (legal issues) Whatever your opinion on Laptopgate and the appropriateness of the punishments handed down, Marcus Williams will be back on the court very soon. That can only mean good things for Husky basketball, even though Jim Calhoun already has this bunch playing like a final four team.
The Connecticut offense is somewhat unbalanced in terms of post scoring, and Williams presence will open things up for Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, and company. While Rob Garrison and Craig Austrie havent lost any games, they arent comfortable floor generals yet. Marcus Williams return makes everybody on the roster better, and given how well Connecticut is already playing, the Huskies adding a high caliber point guard just doesnt seem fair to everybody else.
6. Josh Shipp, SG, UCLA (injury) The Bruins have acquitted themselves quite nicely thus far, with quality wins coming against Nevada and at Michigan. Nonetheless, we have yet to see the Bruins at full strength. Arron Afflalo has done a great job picking up the scoring slack at the wing, though the return of Josh Shipp from a shoulder injury could mean big things for UCLA. Shipp actually put in a better freshman season than his more highly regarded classmate, and brings a very effective all-around game to the table. He is an impressive wing defender, hits the open jumper, and doesnt need a lot of shots to make an impact on the game. With the way Shipp plays, he wont need a lot of time to fit back in with the team. Once Josh Shipp is healthy and up to speed, UCLA looks like a legitimate Pac-10 title contender.
7. Julius Ashby, C, Colorado (academics) The Buffaloes have largely beaten up on patsies thus far, but have the talent, experience, and depth to be a middle of the pack factor in the Big Twelve. This is largely because of the return of talented big man Julius Ashby, who missed the first semester because of academic difficulties. Last season Ashby made an immediate, double-double type of impact as a junior college transfer, but a midseason injury set him back a bit. Nonetheless, the explosive big man averaged nearly 17 points and 7 rebounds per game in two Big 12 Tournament contests to end the season. Colorado has plenty of depth in the post, but nobody that really sticks out of the pack. Ashby could be that player, and along with Richard Roby, could lead the Buffaloes to the type of season that would save Coach Ricardo Pattons job.
8. Erroll Knight, SF, Gonzaga (injuries) The defending WCC Defensive Player of the Years senior season has gotten off to a rough start. First there was a foot injury, and then a nasty infection contracted while in Hawaii for the Maui Classic. Knight has returned to the court, but Mark Few is bringing him along very slowly. In three games, Knight has played a total of just 9 minutes and has yet to take a shot. Nonetheless, if the Bulldogs are serious about a final four run, Knight will have to be playing a major role. Knight, with his physicality and athleticism, is the perfect complement to Adam Morrisons finesse scoring exploits. The Zags have struggled with a lack of athleticism on the perimeter, and Knight could be the answer to those problems. He certainly will be needed on Tuesday when Gonzaga takes on Memphis. It isnt clear how large a role Erroll Knight will eventually recapture this season, but rest assured that Gonzagas chances of postseason success will drop dramatically if he cant get back to full strength.
9. Tack Minor, PG, LSU (academics) Minor hasnt exactly proven himself as a viable floor general over his first two seasons at LSU, but he has to be a better option than what John Brady is currently putting out there. Minor is explosive off the dribble and if properly reigned in, could make a major difference in balancing out the Tiger offense. He has already played in three games after missing the first semester with academic issues, but hasnt regained his starting role yet. If Tack Minor does makes his way back as a prominent player, it probably means he is making better decisions and getting LSUs bigs involved. That could be a season-changing development for John Brady and the Tigers.
10. Patrick OBryant, C, Bradley (eligibility issues) Bradley appeared capable of making a jump up the standings in the ever-competitive Missouri Valley, but that was before sophomore 7-footer Patrick OBryant was suspended for an issue with a summer job he was paid for but may or may not have attended. A player of OBryants size and ability is somewhat of a rarity in the MVC, and his impressive freshman production had NBA scouts looking his direction by the end of the season. OBryant and senior Marcellus Sommerville might comprise the most talented duo in the conference, and Bradley has beaten DePaul and Western Kentucky without their big man. With the return of Patrick OBryant, Bradley has a legitimate chance to go dancing this March.
11. Bryan Hopkins, G, SMU (academics) One of the top scorers in the WAC over the past two seasons, Hopkins missed the first semester due to academics. He is an explosive lead guard, and will join Dez Willingham and Derrick Roberts to give the Mustangs one of the more potent perimeter attacks in the new Conference USA. Hopkins impact has been nothing short of immediate, as he has averaged 19 points in his first two games of the season. SMU will have to find a bit more of an inside presence, but the middle of the pack is wide open in the C-USA. The Hopkins-led Mustangs certainly have a chance to make some noise.
12. Marcus White, PF, Purdue (transfer) No, the addition of Marcus White isnt going to turn around Purdues season. Playing in a very competitive Big Ten, the Boilermakers were essentially finished the day that touted point guard recruit Tarrance Crump was suspended for the season. Nonetheless, White should make a major difference in Purdues ability to put up a fight in the paint. He saw the writing on the wall at Connecticut after a series of injuries and the arrival of several big-name recruits, but still proved he could be a very effective rebounding specialist. On a team like Purdue it wouldnt be surprising to see Marcus White develop into one of the top rebounders in the conference. The loss of star power forward Carl Landry make his addition that much more important.
13. Mohamed Abukar, PF, San Diego State (transfer) The Aztecs are underachieving yet again, and things could get really ugly after a recent knee injury to standout forward Marcus Slaughter. Perimeter-oriented big man Mohamed Abukar is eligible for the Fall semester after transferring in from Florida last January. It isnt clear how much of an instant impact Abukar will have, though he will be needed while Slaughter is in street clothes. Abukar isnt much of an inside presence, but can knock down the outside shot and has the talent to become a standout in the Mountain West. If Mohamed Abukar isnt capable of providing help right away, San Diego State could be in really bad shape by the time Slaughter returns.
14. Regis Koundjia, SF, George Washington (transfer) If this list was based on long-term impact, Regis Koundjia would have to be ranked much higher than this. He was a top 30 recruit coming out of high school, and is a 68 high flier that is sure to have his moments on Sports Center over the next two seasons.
Karl Hobbs is hyping him as a special player, but he might not look like one right away. The fact of the matter is that George Washington is really clicking at the moment, and were probably capable of making a deep tourney run without the services of Koundjia. Look for Koundjia to play more of a supporting role this season before emerging as a standout next year, along with Maureece Rice and Clemson transfer Cheyenne Moore.
15. Larry Turner, C, Tennessee State (transfer) Former Oklahoma big man Larry Turner was a household name and legitimate NBA prospect as recently as a year ago. At 611, very few players have his natural tools. However, Turner developed a reputation as a malcontent and an academic risk. After two ho-hum seasons with the Sooners, Turner decided to transfer to Tennessee State. He instantly becomes one of the top players in the Ohio Valley Conference and now has one more chance to develop into a star. The 2-4 Tigers will certainly feature him as much as possible, and Larry Turners name will start popping up in draft circles very quickly if he starts to produce on the court.
SG Rick Billings, Oakland (Ohio State transfer)
SF Shane Clark, Villanova (Ineligible at Maryland)
C Hasan Fofana, Loyola-Maryland (transfer from Maryland)
PF Darnell Jackson, Kansas (NCAA suspension)
PF Mike Jensen, Washington (injury)
PF Brent Pettway, Michigan (Academics)
SF Wendell White, UNLV (Academics)
PF Emmanuel Willis, Auburn (transfer from USC)
This season has already featured some outstanding non-conference matchups, but tomorrow nights Gonzaga-Memphis tilt might just be the most highly anticipated game of the season. Not only is this a battle of two top-ten teams, but also the chance to watch two of the seasons biggest stories in the same game. Furthermore, Memphis and Gonzaga play very contrasting styles. It will be Memphis all-out sprint mentality against the craft and skill of Gonzaga players like Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio, and JP Batista.
The stats bloggers have been out in full force against the Zags this season, and guru Ken Pomeroy has already made some strong predictions about this one. The chants of Gonzaga, overrated! appeared foolish after the Maui Classic but have looked much more sensible in recent weeks, as Gonzaga has struggled to defeat the likes of Oklahoma State, Eastern Washington, Virginia, and Saint Louis.
So could this turn out to be another Duke vs Texas? That is a legitimate possibility at this point. To put it simply, Memphis might be able to simply run Gonzaga out of the gym. The Zags like to outscore people, but cant get into an offensive shootout against the likes of Memphis. However, there are several points to consider that dont exactly show up on the stat sheet:
1) Gonzaga has a tendency to play down to its competition. As poorly as the team has played in recent weeks, nobody would have expected Gonzaga to stick with Washington had they known that Derek Raivio would go down early in the first half. 43 Adam Morrison points later, the rivalry game was an instant classic.
2) Injuries are an issue. Raivio and Erroll Knight are nearing full strength after missing large chunks of the season with injuries. Memphis will be without big man Kareem Cooper, and if point guards Darius Washington and Andre Allen play, they will be severely hobbled.
3) Memphis athleticism is going to be a major factor. You might be thinking about Rodney Carney (or any of the others in John Caliparis litter of athletic wings) matching up against the slow-footed Adam Morrison, but I think Morrison will be fine there. He humiliates more athletic, highly regarded defenders on a regular basis (see Bobby Jones, Marcus Dove), and his physical style of play will probably bother Carney. However, Memphis also has a dramatic advantage around the basket. JP Batista struggles against top-level athletes, and Memphis has been out-rebounding their opponents by nearly 10 caroms per contest. The Zags have been a very average rebounding team this season, and Memphis is going to get quite a few more high percentage shots in the paint. It goes without saying, but the Tigers are going to win the fast break battle as well. Can Gonzaga overcome their decided disadvantage in terms of easy buckets?
4) Teams have figured out a way to defend Gonzaga. Saint Louis used a triangle and two very effectively against Morrison and JP Batista, and Memphis will likely employ a similar strategy. The other players on the court must make Memphis pay for not defending them, and this hasnt happened during Gonzagas recent run of poor play. Knight and Raivio will be crucial here. Raivio was deadly from beyond the arc during Gonzagas early season hot streak, and will have to get his shot back on track. Knight might be the one Zag capable of keeping up with Memphis in a foot race. If Mark Few is forced to players like Jeremy Pargo, Nate Doudney, and Larry Gurganious for large stretches, Gonzaga is probably in trouble.
5) Experience could be a factor. For as talented as they are, the Tigers remain young and inexperienced. The youngsters acquitted themselves nicely in a Preseason NIT Championship showdown against Duke, but most Memphis players havent been in this type of situation many times. Without experienced floor general Darius Washington, the Tigers didnt know how control the tempo in last weeks game against Louisiana Tech. Memphis continued to push the ball in situations where they should have been protecting their lead. Gonzaga is the type of team that will jump back in if you dont close the door all the way, and will have a decided advantage if the outcome is still in doubt as the game winds down.
In the end, Memphis has to be considered the favorite. Gonzaga will try to slow down the tempo and keep the Tigers from getting out into the open court. Expect a competitive game from start to finish, as Mark Few will have a few tricks up his sleeve to overcome his teams lack of athleticism. However, it will probably take a big shooting night from Raivio and another legendary performance from Morrison for the Gonzaga to steal this one on the road.