Power Ranking Deshaun Thomas and the Big Ten Power Forwards

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2012

Power Ranking Deshaun Thomas and the Big Ten Power Forwards

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    The Big Ten's most compelling stories are concentrated around players likely to fill their teams' power forward roles.

    One league contender has lost its top two scoring options but will see a new primary option step forward from the 4 spot.

    Another star player rebounds from an injury and needs to reintegrate into a team that defined new roles and caught fire late in the season.

    Yet another got strong play from an unheralded freshman who hopes to face down any sophomore jinx in 2012-13.

    The hardcore fans can guess the identity of each team and player, but for the rest of you, read on for clarification.

12. Travis Carroll, Purdue

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    There's a football cliche that says, "The most popular guy in town is the backup quarterback." Of course, that's not relevant to our discussion of basketball, so let's paraphrase it a bit. We'll make it, "The most popular guy on campus is the freshman big man."

    Purdue fans are clamoring for incoming freshmen Jay Simpson and A.J. Hammons to become immediate starters because of the persistent invisibility of incumbents Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius.

    Carroll is a hard worker with some ability on the glass, ranking in the conference's top 20 in offensive rebounding percentage. He was also in the top 15 in block percentage.

    Despite all that, he still could not lay a definitive claim to a starting position in coach Matt Painter's lineup. Carroll started 19 of Purdue's 35 games, playing only 17 minutes a night despite the absence of any legitimate post options outside of himself and Marcius.

    Carroll only played a total of 36 minutes in the Boilers' final three games, including a meager four against St. Mary's in the NCAA tournament. Either he shows marked improvement, or he loses this starting position to a rookie.

11. Mike Bruesewitz, Wisconsin

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    Mike Bruesewitz is the poster boy for effort players everywhere. Unfortunately, that effort is not consistently productive.

    Bruesewitz burst onto the scene in 2010-11 with highly respectable offensive efficiency numbers, and also averaged almost nine points and seven rebounds in three NCAA tournament games.

    In his junior season, Bruiser's effective FG percentage and true shooting percentage both dove by nine points, falling below 50 percent. The loss of scoring big men Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil thrust Bruesewitz into the starting lineup, and he didn't always seem comfortable as an inside scoring option.

    Half of Bruesewitz's career shots have come from beyond the arc, making it all the more impressive that he was one of the Big Ten's top 10 offensive rebounders last season. At some point, though, coach Bo Ryan will need to rein in that shot selection, as the Bruiser is only a 29-percent career shooter from deep.

    Bruesewitz can play a solid all-around game, as evidenced by his 20 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and three steals in three 2012 NCAA tournament games. With the loss of Jordan Taylor, though, all the Badgers will need to be more efficient if Wisconsin is to continue its string of top-four Big Ten finishes.

10. Jared Swopshire, Northwestern

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    Jared Swopshire left a Final Four team for one that has never seen a minute of NCAA tournament action. While he wasn't a major piece on the court for Louisville last season, he receives a large dose of credit for the Cardinals not melting in the midst of an inconsistent 2011-12 season.

    With Northwestern, Swopshire is a potentially big factor on the glass. His sophomore season at Louisville (2009-10) saw him finish 12th in the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage while averaging 6.1 rebounds per game overall. That figure would have easily led the 2011-12 Wildcats.

    His downfall is that he's never been any kind of efficient shooter. His 39.1 percent from the field in 2011-12 represents a career high. He shot 32 percent from deep as a sophomore but tumbled to 20 percent last season. His free-throw percentage also fell 15 percent after missing 2010-11 with a lingering groin injury.

    At 6'8" and 200 pounds, Swopshire doesn't have a power forward's build. It's highly possible that he could either start at the 3 with TCU transfer Nikola Cerina in the post, or even come off the bench.

    Either way, Swopshire has the kind of winning experience that most current Wildcats lack, so he'll play extensive time somewhere.

9. Jonathan Graham, Penn State

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    Former Penn State coach Ed DeChellis touted Jonathan Graham as a player with "all-conference type" potential when he recruited Graham to play in State College.

    After spending a redshirt season bulking up, Graham's freshman season was a bit of a mixed bag.

    Graham established himself as a low-post defensive threat, ranking fourth in the Big Ten with a block percentage of 6.1. On the opposite end, he placed 11th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage. His raw counting numbers (3.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG) don't leap off the page, but they're reasonable for his 17 minutes of action.

    On the downside, Graham displayed an unfortunate tendency to shuffle his feet on his low post moves, committing 29 turnovers. That total equaled his combined steals and blocks. Also, his 45 percent from the floor and 39 percent from the foul line require a lot of work to improve.

    Late in the season, Graham had a three-game spurt totaling 29 points and 19 rebounds, so the potential is there when the opportunity arrives. On Penn State's guard-oriented roster, Graham could become the primary low-post threat. That position that could prove fruitful if he works on his footwork and shot.

8. Sam McLaurin, Illinois

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    While new Illinois coach John Groce had difficulty in keeping Bruce Weber's recruits committed to come to Champaign, he was able to snare a Division I transfer with some serious potential.

    Sam McLaurin's decision to come to Illinois was announced with an obscene turn of phrase on Twitter. That decision gives the Illini a solid low-post scorer and rebounder that they would have lacked following Meyers Leonard's departure to the NBA.

    At Coastal Carolina, McLaurin spent three years in the Big South's top five in blocked shots and two years among the top 10 rebounders. Last season, he led the league in field-goal percentage.

    McLaurin left CCU as its all-time leader in blocked shots and seventh in career rebounds. He recorded 13 points and 16 rebounds in a win over LSU last November, showing that he has no fear of power-conference opponents.

    The one puzzling figure about McLaurin's 2011-12 season is his dwindling free-throw totals. He shot 98 free throws as a redshirt sophomore in 2010-11, amounting to 68.5 percent of his field-goal tries. Those amounts dropped to 69 attempts last season, a free-throw rate (not to be confused with free-throw percentage) of only 32.8 percent.

    Of course, the free-throw percentage isn't so hot, either. McLaurin is a career 54-percent shooter from the line, so perhaps fewer attempts is just what the doctor ordered. Good luck, though, getting off shots in the paint against Big Ten competition without taking contact.

7. Brandon Ubel, Nebraska

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    Brandon Ubel stands 6'10" and weighs 240 pounds, but he had problems last season filling in at center. With injuries to Jorge Brian Diaz and Andre Almeida, Ubel was the only real post option for Nebraska.

    After an up-and-down non-conference schedule that saw him score in double digits five times and four points or less five other times, Ubel wasn't a presence until midway through Big Ten play.

    Over Nebraska's final 12 games, however, Ubel recorded six or more rebounds seven times. He was the only offensive threat in a 62-34 blowout loss to Michigan State, scoring 13 points. He followed that up with a 17-point, seven-rebound effort against Iowa.

    For the season, Ubel ranked 14th in the conference at 5.3 rebounds per game, especially cleaning up on the offensive end. His offensive rebounding percentage was 11.5, fourth best in the Big Ten.

    Ubel is an 80-percent shooter from the foul line for his career, also shooting over 50 percent from the floor each of the past two seasons. If he's allowed to shoot more than four times per game, Ubel could be a highly efficient offensive player for a rebuilding Husker team.

6. Adreian Payne, Michigan State

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    The biggest obstacle between Michigan State's Adreian Payne and All-Big Ten honors may well be his own body. Struggling with a congenital condition that limits his lung capacity, Payne often struggled to play lengthy stretches last season.

    In only 18 minutes per game, though, Payne produced seven points, four rebounds and a block, with a true shooting percentage of 60.1. That percentage would have ranked in the Big Ten's top 10 had Payne played enough time.

    Payne scored in double figures against elite competition like North Carolina and Ohio State, so the potential is there to do the same every night. With the loss of Draymond Green, Sparty's inside scoring will come from a committee including Payne, Derrick Nix and a pair of freshmen.

    Unlike many bigs, Payne is a respectable free throw shooter, making almost 70 percent of his tries last season. He's worked in the offseason to improve his high-post game, seeking to adapt to the 4 spot alongside Nix.

    If Payne's conditioning can improve to a point that overcomes his reduced wind, he could easily become one of the Big Ten's most effective big men.

5. Jordan Morgan, Michigan

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    At 6'8", Michigan's Jordan Morgan was usually the shortest post player on the court last season. Much like Brandon Ubel, injuries left him as his team's only reliable option down low.

    This season, the arrival of freshman Mitch McGary and the return of Jon Horford give Morgan substantial support, and it's for that reason that his numbers may not make great improvements. Still, his energy and ferocity make him a great example for the rest of the retooled Wolverine frontcourt.

    Morgan's rebounding efficiency on both ends ranked in the Big Ten's top 12, and he shot nearly 62 percent from the floor for the second straight season. That shooting percentage is helped by the fact that most of his points come off layups and dunks. More scoring variety would greatly benefit his game and Michigan's offense.

    Morgan can produce against strong opposition, as he proved with 12 points and nine rebounds against Indiana's Cody Zeller in January. He can also slow down opposing scorers, making Jared Sullinger's life difficult in a late-season win over Ohio State.

    Fouls have been Morgan's bugaboo, both his own and those of others. He improved his defense well enough to cut his four-foul games from 16 as a freshman to six as a sophomore. Now, his free-throw shooting needs to improve from his 53-percent career average.

4. Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota

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    Trevor Mbakwe has a sense of humor about being a 24-year-old college basketball player. From his Twitter timeline, we've learned that he's running out of classes to take and professors think he's on staff, among other nuggets of self-deprecating wisdom.

    In his sixth year of eligibility, old man Mbakwe has to come back from a torn ACL that derailed an extremely productive start to last season.

    He averaged 14 points, nine rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.1 steals in his brief campaign. His 60.5 percent from the floor was also a career best, but not by much.

    Mbakwe's last full season saw double-double averages in points and rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game and 58-percent shooting. Anything close to those figures will make Mbakwe the nation's most impressive comeback story.

    This ranking is strictly cautionary, in case Mbakwe isn't quite the same player he was before the injury. The good news for Minnesota's program is that nearly all of Mbakwe's teammates return following a year in which they gained tremendous experience having to compete without him.

    Even if Mbakwe's stats don't return to their previous glory, the Gophers should still be in the hunt for an NCAA tournament spot at season's end. Mbakwe will play a major role, whether it's racking double-doubles or helping his teammates sleep with his great bedtime stories.

3. Christian Watford, Indiana

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    You've seen The Shot, of course. Christian Watford created a moment so iconic that a program used to hanging national championship banners reduced itself to enshrining a Sweet 16 season. It happens when relevance has been a long time gone.

    Now, Indiana appears loaded for further improvement, and Watford will be a major factor. The 6'9, 225-pound senior has started all but one of his games in a Hoosier uniform.

    Watford has been one of the Big Ten's top 10 rebounders twice in his three seasons and was 10th in scoring as a sophomore. His three-point shot has made steady improvement, peaking at 43.7 percent last season. Unfortunately, he managed only about 40 percent from inside the arc, and his 43.0 FT rate was the lowest of his career.

    Shooting stroke is a night-in, night-out proposition for Watford. He had a whopping 12 games last season in which he shot 30 percent or worse, including an embarrassing 0-for-13 stretch in consecutive games against noted defensive powerhouses Iowa and North Carolina Central.

    The biggest weakness in his game has come on the defensive end, but by the end of last season, coach Tom Crean was deploying Watford to smother the likes of Tim Frazier and Trey Burke. Continued improvement in his defensive effort could see Watford earn something more than last season's honorable mention All-Big Ten selection.

2. Aaron White, Iowa

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    Shortly before Christmas, Iowa fans still weren't sure what they had in freshman forward Aaron White. In his debut, he'd racked 19 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes, but that was against Chicago State.

    His scoring average bottomed out at 7.4 after a December 9 loss to Iowa State. Even worse, he was shooting a shaky 36.6 percent at the time.

    From there? Just 12.6 PPG on 55.3 percent shooting. White racked up 16 double-figure scoring games, including three double-doubles. He truly exploded in the NIT, totaling 47 points and 19 rebounds in the Hawkeyes' two games.

    Coming into this season, White is obsessive about getting into better shape, with an eye toward a whole season of 30-plus-minute games. Last season, his first such game came in February.

    Such improvements should also make White an even more potent rebounder. His 5.7 per game ranked eighth in the Big Ten. His offensive and defensive rebounding percentages both placed in the league's top 12, as well.

    Award season was kind to White, seeing him named a Kyle Macy Freshman All-American, a member of the Big Ten's All-Freshman team and honorable mention All-Big Ten. If he makes all the improvements he wants to make, White could add several more awards to his mantle while pulling Iowa back to the NCAA tournament.

1. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

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    Jared Sullinger was a justifiable All-American selection for Ohio State the past two seasons. On the offensive end, at least, Deshaun Thomas may have been even better than Sullinger in 2011-12.

    Thomas's shooting numbers, from raw field goal percentage to true shooting percentage, were all nearly equal to Sullinger's, if not better. Therefore, Thomas's 468 shot attempts, second on the team and 40th in America, were mostly justifiable.

    Thomas averaged 19.6 PPG in the NCAA tournament to Sullinger's 17, including crushing Cincinnati for 26 in the Sweet 16. After that, though, Thomas struggled to 9-of-28 shooting against Syracuse and Kansas.

    Occasionally guilty of falling in love with his three-point shot, Thomas still has the size to hold his own in the post and on the glass. His 2.6 offensive rebounds per game ranked him second in the Big Ten last season.

    With no Sullinger or William Buford around to take shots away, Thomas should be expected to lead the Big Ten in scoring this season. If he continues to make improvements in overall offensive playmaking and focuses more consistently on defense, look for him to be on the short list for Big Ten player of the year.