Previewing UNC-Gonzaga; James and McNeal Thoughts

Previewing UNC-Gonzaga; James and McNeal Thoughts
Nov 22, 2006, 02:24 am

The odds are against tomorrow night’s Preseason NIT semifinal matchup between North Carolina and Gonzaga ending up as the best basketball game of the season. However, it might just be the most fun to watch for as long as it stays competitive. Both teams love to run, and both teams are unselfish, versatile, smart, skilled, and athletic. Just to make it a true Christmas in November for basketball lovers everywhere, both teams are loaded with intriguing newcomers and elite prospects.

Gonzaga Scouting Report – Mark Few’s bunch hasn’t faced a real test thus far, but don’t expect the ‘Zags to slip much even with Adam Morrison and JP Batista headed for greener pastures. With a banner recruiting class and several very impressive underclassmen ready to take on larger roles, this could be Few’s most talented team yet.

Gonzaga doesn’t have a clearly defined starting five, with eight players averaging between 19 and 32 mpg in the four games thus far. Few rotates four lead guards in the backcourt. Senior Derek Raivio and soph Jeremy Pargo generally split the point guard duties, while junior Pierre-Marie Altidor-Cespedes is probably the best pure athlete in the backcourt and super-frosh Matt Bouldin will likely be the best player on the team by the end of the year. Swingman David Pendergraft is a feisty, blue-collar type who can play three positions. Redshirt soph Josh Heytvelt currently leads the team in scoring at 17.5 ppg, and is likely an emerging star. Heytvelt shoots the ball very well all the way out past the 3-point line, and is an excellent finisher around the basket. Senior 4-man Sean Mallon is another glue guy, while freakishly built JC transfer Abdullahi Kuso has shown quite a bit of potential in early action.

The loaded bench has been depleted a bit due to injuries a bit, with promising sophomore wing Larry Gurganious and touted freshman big man Theo Davis currently sidelined. Hyped transfers David Burgess (BYU) and Micah Downs (Kansas) were both expected to get minutes when they became eligible in January, but both could end up redshirting this year due to injuries.

Gonzaga likes to push the tempo, but this is one of the few cases where the ‘Zags could get overwhelmed in a fast-paced game. North Carolina has a decided athletic advantage at nearly every position and also has a luxury of being able to go 13-deep. Gonzaga will have to shoot early and often, but face a double-edged sword situation when the outside shots stop falling. UNC is going to be able to turn those misses into easy transition baskets, and Few’s guards will have to stay focused on keeping UNC’s runners in front of them at all times. If Gonzaga can somehow keep the Tar Heels out of the open court, they might have a chance. Everybody Roy Williams puts on the floor can create his own shot, and one can bet the young Heels will take more than a few hasty ones like they did against Winthrop in the first half.

North Carolina Scouting Report – The Tar Heels are back, featuring a lineup even more talent-laden than the one Roy Williams used to bring home the crown in 2005. Last week’s first-half struggles against Winthrop showed that there is still plenty of work to be done in terms of meshing as a team and teaching the youngsters how to win, but even at their worst the Heels are scary good.

As many as five Tar Heels could work their way into the first round next spring, and it all starts with consensus pre-season All-American Tyler Hansbrough. Upperclassman Reyshawn Terry has developed nicely in the past two years, and has a lot of athletic upside at the SF position. But the most talented players are the newcomers. Wayne Ellington is a smooth wing capable of creating his shot from anywhere, and while Tywon Lawson has looked like a freshman at times thus far, the Raymond Felton comparisons are going to hold. Helping Hansbrough out in the paint is the wispy Brandan Wright, an endlessly long face up 4-man in the mold of Chris Bosh. The list of roleplayers is extensive and formidable. Super-sophs Bobby Frasor, Danny Green, and Marcus Ginyard could start almost anywhere else. PG Quentin Thomas and shooting specialist Wes Miller are minutes-worthy as well. Williams will look to highly regarded Cali freshmen Alex Stepheson and Deon Thompson for depth in the post.

With the decided athletic advantage, Roy Williams should be able to control the tempo in this game. Lawson will be pushing the ball at every opportunity, and has a decided physical advantage over any potential Gonzaga defender. If the ‘Zags manage to get the fast break attack slowed down, UNC will likely look to get the ball inside to Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright. The Gonzaga defenders are overmatched here, with Heytvelt and Kuso both somewhat foul-prone and Mallon likely to be overmatched athletically. The feisty Pendergraph could see some time attempting to slow down Hansbrough, and could be one of the few players in the country with the motor to have a bit of success at it. He would be at a severe size disadvantage, however, which would lead to plenty of weakside help from Heytvelt or Kuso. This in turn leaves Brandan Wright alone to assault the rim at will. Bigger, more physical perimeter players such as Ellington, Ginyard, and Terry could have some success against smaller Gonzaga defenders. Whoever Derek Raivio is guarding will automatically have a mismatch to exploit.

Feature Matchup: Josh Heytvelt vs UNC frontcourt

Never has Heytvelt’s interior presence been more important. While the soph has put up big offensive numbers, he remains inconsistent as an interior defender and rebounder. He as a tendency to make mental mistakes on defensive rotations and pick up silly fouls, and must absolutely avoid this against Hansbrough, who has made a reputation out of sending big men to the bench early. Offensively Heytvelt is more comfortable in a finesse role, operating in the mid-post or facing the basket from ten feet on out. He might be able to drag Hansbrough away from the basket, but Wright’s quick feet and long arms are going to be a real factor here. Few could end up letting Mallon, Kuso, and Pendergraph take their lumps against Hansbrough, and saving Heytvelt for the offensive end by having him check Wright.

Feature Prospects:

Wayne Ellington, UNC – In a finesse-oriented, fast-paced game is the perfect setting for the Philly phenom to really blow up. He will have a size advantage on just about anybody guarding him, not to mention athletically. And this isn’t a kid that needs either to score in bunches, with his absurd perimeter jumper and silky smooth array of midrange shot creating/slashing tools. Gonzaga just doesn’t have the horses to challenge him physically or pay him extra attention once he does heat up, so expect a big game if he can get the looks.

Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga – If you watched Gonzaga-Baylor the other night, the one thing you definitely learned is that Rick Majerus thinks Bouldin plays like Deron Williams and is a great passer. Although I found Majerus’ need to tell the audience this every time Bouldin touched the ball quite comical, he is absolutely correct on his assessment of the floppy-haired freshman’s game. Bouldin is your prototype Gonzaga guard, creative with the ball in his hands, an incredible shooter, more athletic than he looks, and capable of playing multiple positions. He’s going to score a ton of points over the next 3-4 years, and it would be shocking not to see him in the NBA someday. Oh yeah – he’s a great passer.

Check back in after the game for my full recap and scouting notes.

Marquette Takes Down Duke: The Rise of a new Villanova?

No, probably not this year.

Villanova went with two point gaurds, two combos, and a power forward. Marquette runs a point, a combo, two wings, and a true center. Crean’s bunch isn’t as talented or experienced anyways.

Nonetheless, one couldn’t help but think of the way Villanova systematically broke down and suffocated a bloated Conncecticut lineup last February when watching tonight’s CBE Classic Championship Game between Duke and the Golden Eagles.

Where Villanova’s true strength was its explosive threesome of Lowry, Foye and Ray, Marquette has a chance to do special things because of sophomore duo Dominic James and Jerel McNeal. The two completely dominated the Duke backcourt tonight, with James setting the tone early by relentlessly pushing the tempo and finishing the Blue Devils off with two beautiful jumpers in the closing moments, and McNeal aggressively making his presence felt literally everywhere on the court.

James may remind many of Lowry physically and athletically, though he is a much more talented offensive player and Lowry was special at the other end of the court. Where Lowry’s jumper was flat and defenses were able to play off of him, DeMarcus Nelson learned first hand what a mistake that is with James, who gets a ridiculous amount elevation on his J when he isn’t careening toward the basket for a hanging lay-in or throwing down a reverse dunk. James has a tendency to hang onto the ball a bit much at times, but generally does a good job of creating good looks for his teammates. Tonight, Marquette wouldn’t have been within 30 of Duke if not for James’ constant explosive presence.

Where James is Crean’s end-all when it comes to offense, fellow soph Jerel McNeal means just as much on the defensive end. With an attackers mentality similar to that of old Al Skinner enforcer Ryan Sidney, McNeal completely locked up whoever he was guarding, rebounded and altered shots like a big man, was a constant disruptive presence as an anticipator (6 steals on the night), slashed to the basket relentlessly on the offensive end, and displayed the ability to handle and pass in the open court. He blocked shots of 6’11 Josh McRoberts and 7’1 Brian Zoubek in one on one situations near the basket, but was called for fouls on both – probably because the official never even considered that a 6’2 guard could get a clean block in those situations.

In one sequence, he flashed off his man with lightning quickness to wrestle the ball out of Greg Paulus’ hands. After shoving the former elite football prospect to the ground, he controlled the ball and made a beautiful pass to a streaking teammate in the open court. When his teammate missed the bunny, McNeal managed to grab the rebound in between a pair of Duke players and put it back in for the basket.

This was James’ signature breakout performance, and the fully elevated 3-point dagger over Nelson is a moment that will go down as one of the season’s best. He was already on mock draft boards as a mid-first rounder, but expect the hype to really kick in now that he’s taken down the Blue Devils. James’ size limits his upside, but the soph is going to be a First Team All-American, and likely lead the Golden Eagles on a deep run in March. The one snag in this rise to lottery status could be the nagging health injuries he has faced in his year-plus at Marquette. They haven’t caused any loss of explosiveness yet (understatement of the century), but being injury prone doesn’t bode well for a 5’10 player so reliant on athleticism.

McNeal’s NBA future is substantially murkier, even if he is just as important for Tom Crean this season. He’s already got a “Ron Artest of the Big East” thing going for him, but there are a few critical flaws to his game. For as good as he looks off the dribble in the halfcourt and a passer in the open court, McNeal is a turnover waiting to happen. He forces the issue at times, and gets sloppy as a ballhandler. Furthermore, McNeal has no touch from the outside and isn’t much better as a finisher of his forays into the lane. Few have a better feel for how to create off the bounce, but this ability is seriously marginalized by the tendency to haphazardly chuck shots at the rim. If he develops an outside shot and can better toe the line between aggression and flat out forcing things that aren’t there, McNeal has some sort of future in the NBA. If not, at least we’ll get to watch the guy in college for the next two years…

Neither James nor McNeal offer a consistent outside shooting presence, so wings Dan Fitzgerald, Wes Matthews, and Lazar Hayward must make outside shots to give the lead guards good space to create. Fitzgerald in particular looked good tonight. He has the role “facilitator wing” down to a T, and hit a couple of big outside shots as well. Crean has little to work with in terms of true post options, so steadily improving big man Ousmanne Barro must work hard to stay out of foul trouble. Barro won’t be asked to score much with his back to the basket, but did a good a job of catching and finishing several flashy looks from James tonight.

Recent articles

Twitter @DraftExpress

DraftExpress Shop