Yes, I am calling it now. We will win the whole damn thing next year. I am sure our friends to the south will dismiss me as a crackpot, but they had better get out their Robbie Hummel voodoo dolls just to make sure. I see next year as a perfect storm, and it cannot start soon enough. We have depth, talent, and experience at nearly every position on the floor. We can theoretically go 11 deep in our rotation, though it will be hard to balance those minutes. While everyone else in the country either loses key players to graduation or the draft, we gain another talented class that may not be ranked highly, but it perfectly compliments the pieces we have returning.
Let's look at some of the reasons to be excited, starting with the schedule.
2010-11 schedule - We don't know much officially, but this much we do know. We know that Michigan and Northwestern will be the only teams we don't play twice in Big Ten play. In that, we get a bonus. An improved Northwestern squad with a healthy Kevin Coble comes to Mackey Arena for their only game instead of us going to Evanston for what has been a poor matchup of late. We have to go to Ann Arbor, but with Manny Harris allegedly off to the NBA and DeShawn Sims graduating, the Wolverines have essentially nothing. They will be battling Iowa and Indiana for last place in the Big Ten. It is good that the only road game without a return home game is against one of the conference's weakest teams.
As far as the non-conference schedule goes, it should allow for plenty of heft to build a case for a #1 seed. If we go undefeated against the non-conference again I see no reason why we won't be ranked #1 in the country going into Big Ten play. We have two sure road games, one at Valparaiso and one at current Final Four participant West Virginia. Both will be tough. Heading to Morgantown will be interesting because we don't know who is jumping to the NBA from a possible National Championship team. Heading to Valpo is always dangerous because you're going to be facing an extremely jacked up crowd. We should still handle it easily though. We know Alabama is coming to Mackey Arena. We also know we're likely going to be sent on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge since we have had two straight home games. My guess is that we're headed to Cameron Indoor Stadium for the biggest test this team has faced yet.
I have heard our preseason tournament is the Chicago Invitational, but I can find no evidence to support this, nor do I have any idea about who we would play. We also likely will have the Wooden Tradition once again in Indianapolis, so that is another chance at a "name" opponent. My guess is that we will be the favored team in the Chicago Invitational with a Tennessee-like challenge in the final, a lot like the Paradise Jam this past season. I would not be surprised to see us play someone like Butler in the Wooden Tradition. As for the remaining home non-conference games, we simply have too many other challenging games set up to expect anything more than the usual slate of cupcakes. Honestly, we don't need anyone else, either. Between at West Virginia, Alabama, a road ACC game, and four medium to difficult neutral court games there is more than enough strength in the non-conference schedule to build a number 1 seed case. If I were to pick some medium to challenging home non-conference games I could see us facing Ohio, Akron, Illinois State, or even Missouri State if we want to invite Cuonzo Martin home.
The Backcourt - Lewis Jackson should be healthy and available for an entire year after he has a second surgery to fix that broken screw. It will be nice to have him for an entire season, as we all got a taste of what life was like with him and Robbie. Think of that Minnesota game before Robbie got hurt. We looked amazing before that injury. E'Twaun Moore will obviously be starting, but the third guard spot will be interesting. Depending upon how talent develops and matchups I could see the three spot being very fluid. If we want to go three guards I think this will be Kelsey Barlow's job to lose. He could lose it too to incoming freshmen Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson.
We could use this spot to go big too. If we want, we might go with a lineup of Travis Carroll at center, JaJuan Johnson at power forward, and Robbie Hummel roving around as a 3 causing all kinds of defensive mismatches. Isn't that fun to think about?
The biggest question we face is who will replace Kramer's defensive intensity? I can see D.J. Byrd stepping into this role, as he played fantastic basketball in the NCAA Tournament. Honestly, I like Barlow as a defender and rebounder more than I do as an offensive player. LewJack can defend like a mad bastard too. All we need is someone to be a catalyst defensively and it will spread like wildfire through our entire defense.
We still have a number of guards that can see minutes too. I see Ryne Smith continuing and improving his role as a 3-point specialist off the bench. I think he'll replace Keaton Grant in that regard, although Grant was a very underrated defender. John Hart will have to step up and find a role if he is going to earn back some minutes. Unfortunately for Hart, it looks like the Illinois game might have been more of a fluke than anything. I could also see Bubba Day possibly emerging in a Bobby Buckets type of role, but who knows. I like Dru Anthrop for that role too.
We will have plenty of depth though. E'Twaun now has a pair of pure scorers that can spell him with Anthony and Terone Johnson. A healthy LewJack is critical. Barlow can back him up. We can use Smith and Byrd as shooters with Byrd becoming the new leader in toughness. What is not to like?
The Frontcourt - The moment the buzzer sounded in the loss to Duke our lack of depth in the frontcourt went away. Of course we have JJ and Patrick Bade returning. Bade has been a point of contention, but he has improved greatly from the second half of the Robbie game. Give him another year in the weight room and in practice and he will be much more likely to contribute. Even now, I could see his confidence building in both tournaments to end the year. Then you have Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius.
Both are interesting cases. I saw Carroll once in person this year and I liked what I saw. It was the best game to see him too. Other than his semi-state game against 3A State Champion Washington and Cody Zeller (Danville's only other loss) Carroll did not face many big men. For most of his season he was easily the best player in the post. When I saw him against North Central he finally had a team that could challenge him, and he held his own quite well. One of those players challenging him was Terone Johnson. They had a hell of a battle against each other. North Central is one of the most talented teams in the state with an incredibly deep lineup, but Carroll more than held his own. He has better post moves than JJ and I cannot wait until our strength and condition coach gets ahold of him He can easily lose about 15-20 pounds of baby fat and replace it with solid muscle. He already has 20-25 pounds on JJ in size.
Then you have Marcius. We know his physical stats, but very few people have seen him play. He is such a mystery at this point. For all we know he could be the second coming of Mat ten Dam. I hope not though. I can see Marcius playing a role much like Bade as a run, rebound, and defend guy while Bade and Carroll become more offensive threats.
Our last two front court contributors are Hummel and the incoming Donnie Hale. There has been much talked about the scholarship situation in dealing with Hale. We don't have enough, so he might head to prep school. I hope we can find a way to get him here because he could benefit greatly from a year of being Hummel's understudy. They are similar players and I would love to have Robbie around to teach him a thing or two.
As for Robbie, he is a senior. It is time for him to finally contribute as a role player, at least according to basketball expert Terry Hutchens.
Coaching - We all know Painter has done an excellent job, but this is the first time he has true depth at every position. The players that are newcomers will also be entering at positions where we have the greatest experience, so they have older guys to learn from. Honestly, Painter biggest challenge is balancing out the minutes. Fortunately, we have so much depth that we can save JJ, Robbie, and E'Twaun for long stretch and they will all be fresh to dominate at crunch time.
It is no secret that JJ, Robbie, and E'Twaun will be the three headed monster. We're a damn fine team with only those three guys and they lost just three times while all playing together this season. What Painter needs to do each game is get a consistent 4th scoring option out of everyone else and make sure that the other players on the floor are at least threats to score or do something. We don't need any more of Ryne Smith and D.J. Byrd pump-faking without doing much.
Fortunately, the most exciting thing is that everybody is capable of having that one big night to compliment the big three. That is the beauty of having so much depth. Other teams have to guess as to who else will step up. One night it might be LewJack scoring 12 points in transition. Another night Ryne Smith might hit four threes. A third night D.J. Byrd might get 14 on a couple of threes and some putbacks. One night Terone Johnson might go off like Hart at Illinois. One night Marcius or Carroll might battle inside for 10-12 points. How do you prepare to stop a team with three guys that are going to give about 16 points each regardless of what you do, plus they have as many as eight teammates (Carroll, Hart, Byrd, Smith, A. Johnson, T. Johnson, Marcius, LewJack) that are capable of putting up 10-12 as well? You can't!
It is unfortunate that we are putting this season to bed a week early. I think that against a Final Four field of West Virginia, Michigan State, and Butler we were capable of winning even without Robbie. We'll have him next year, however, with a lot more. I don't think you can dicount hte value of this being a true team. Yes, we have a lot of guys with talent, but we don't have the "elite" talent that eeveryone says you need to have in order to win a championship. What we do have is a team where every single piece seems to fit together prefectly, thus making it great than the sum of its parts.
You cannot overstate the value of experience, either. Heading into next year's tournament you're likely going to have JJ, Robbie, and E'Twaun north of 100 wins in their four years. They will have also played against the following teams in this year's sweet 16 over the course of those careers: West Virginia, Michigan State, Duke, Baylor, Ohio State, Tennessee, Northern Iowa, Xavier, and Washington. They have experience against the very best, so they will fear no one. That is why we are winning the whole damn thing.