NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 32, Sunday games)--Stock Up
NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 32, Sunday games)--Stock Down/Neutral
NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 32, Saturday games)--Stock Up
NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 32, Saturday)--Down/Neutral
NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 64, Friday games)--Stock Up
NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 64, Friday games)--Stock Down/Neutral
NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 64, Thursday games)--Stock Up
NCAA Tournament: Stock Watch (round of 64, Thursday games)--Stock Down/Neutral
Mike Conley Jr., 6-1, Freshman, Point Guard, Ohio State
17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 turnover, 2 steals, 4-10 FG, 9-14 FT
Conley was even better than his excellent stat-line would indicate, showing a tremendous amount of poise in running his team with the type of maturity that wont soon be forgotten by the many NBA executives that were in attendance. But it wasnt just a flash in the pan, one-hit type wonder performancehes actually been doing this all season long, including in the round of 32 last week. This time, though, he pulled it off on the biggest stage hes ever played in so far, elevating his game to a new level that speaks volumes about the type of player he could become down the road.
Judging by the way the game started, we really had no chance of knowing it would turn out this way. Conley picked up his 2nd foul just eight and a half minutes in, with his team already down by 14 points and his life-time teammate Greg Oden facing similar issues. Thad Matta didnt hesitate to throw his sensational freshman point guard back on the floor after just four minutes on the bench, though, knowing that Tennessee was close to delivering a knockout punch that his team would have been unable to recover from.
Conley came back into the game with a real sense of urgency to turn things around, but would not look out of control in the least bit in spite of the circumstances. He played near mistake-free basketball for the next 27 minutes, controlling the game at his own pace and doing a wonderful job of getting all of his teammates involved.
He showed outstanding court vision slicing up the defense at finding the open man, using a wide array of shakes and hesitation moves that allowed him to get inside the paint going either left or right almost whenever he pleased. His decision making was almost impeccable on top of that, dishing out to the open man spotting up on the wing when the situation called for it, or finishing plays himself with a floater or kiss high off the glass with either hand when that solution made more sense. In the absence of Oden for most of the game, Tennessees defense slid up to put better pressure on the perimeter to help stop Conleys drives. Conley punished them by dishing out two gorgeous alleyoop lobsone to Othella Hunter and one to Ron Lewisboth perfectly timed to give his team the extra spark they needed to make their final push. Early in the game when Tennessee tried to press, he threw a fantastic full-court outlet pass to a streaking Ron Lewis for an easy dunk.
It was only fitting that it would again be Conley the one who ended up sealing the game for Ohio State, running down the game-clock masterfully from 38 seconds to 6.5 seconds with the game tied, getting to the basket with the greatest of ease, and earning a trip to the free throw line for his 13th and 14th attempts. He only knocked down one of two, but that was enough to give his team the victory and send them to the Elite Eight.
Any doubts that Conley would be considered one of the top 2 or 3 point guards in the 2007 draft if he decided to throw his name in the mix ended as time expired and Ohio State advanced to the next round. He was quoted just a few days ago saying that he will be back in Columbus next year, but almost everyone we spoke to this week in the basketball industry claims to be hearing otherwise. If he keeps playing this way, he most likely wont have a choice in the matter.
Brandon Rush, 66 ½, Sophomore, SG/SF, Kansas
Vs. Southern Illinois: 12 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists,4 turnovers, 6-6 FG, 0-1 FT
Offensively, there was little more that you could have asked for out of Rush given the circumstances. He did not force a single shot, showed improved decision making skills, and constantly penetrated the heart of the defense every time he had the ball. It would have been nice to see this sense of urgency more during the course of the season, given his ability to do seemingly whatever he pleased when he put his mind to it. Youd think that some kind of tactical change must have been put in place as of late, given the fact that Rush has only taken 21 shots in three games and did not attempt even a single three pointer versus Southern Illinois, despite the fact that he shot 42% from beyond the arc on the season.
This season has seen a vast improvement in Rushs ability to put the ball on the floor, consistently hit the midrange jumper, and find the open man as the year has progressed. He is averaging 4 assists per game in the NCAA tourney, with the large majority coming directly off drive and dish plays. He had a marvelous alley-oop to freshman big Darrell Arthur in the second half, while exhibiting his super soft touch throughout the entire game on a few silky smooth midrange jumpers, including a particularly clutch one late in the game.
It was awfully pleasing to see Rush finally utilize his immense physical abilities on the defensive end and exert near-maximum effort when out on the court. It is clear to absolutely any basketball observer that he can be a lockdown defender whenever he chooses, given his excellent quickness, size (66 ½) and length (610 ¼ wingspan). He constantly gave whomever he was guarding fits, always staying in front of them and contesting every single pass that they threw with his massive wingspan. Scouts and fans alike have been able to see the incredible potential that Brandon has as a defender, which he will hopefully continue to fulfill as the dance goes on.
Throughout Kansas narrow defeat of the Salukis, the main weakness that we saw with Rush was his still shaky ball-handling skills, exemplified by a huge turnover late in the game. Luckily for the Jayhawks however, Bryan Mullins was not able to make his breakaway layup, nor was Randall Falkner able to convert the subsequent offensive rebound, or we could very well be filling out Southern Illinois in the Elite Eight of our brackets at the moment. He still dribbles the ball a bit high and carelessly, allowing smaller defenders to get in there and poke the ball out with a simple swipe. The majority of his 4 turnovers were a direct result of his subpar ball-handling skills, which have been criticized since his days as a star on the prep level.
Rushs age (he will be 22 in July) may turn out to be a leading factor in his early exit from KU to the NBA this spring. His strong tournament play individually, in combination with the Jayhawks success might just give him enough confidence to keep his name in the draft this season for good. While he is currently projected by most as a mid to late first rounder, Rush could certainly see himself shoot up the draft boards all the way into the late lottery given this drafts lack of a marquee wing player, if he is able to continue his outstanding postseason play and lead Kansas to the Final Four.
Ron Lewis, 65, Senior, SG/SF, Ohio State
Vs. Tennessee: 25 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 9-17 FG, 3-9 3PT, 4-4 FT
In terms of pure scoring ability, there have been very few who have proven to be more consistent throughout the NCAA tourney, posting games of 27 and 25 points respectively in wins over Xavier and Tennessee. He has also proven to be a big-time player late in games, making huge shots with his team trailing, even if he had been cold throughout the entire game. The Columbus natives desire to take and make big shots as the game goes on is an enviable trait that so many players on the collegiate level would love to have. He even stepped it up on the defensive end late in the game, blocking an inside shot that Ivan Harris committed a foul on, despite the inadequacies that hes shown on the defensive end throughout the entire season.
Lewis was absolutely unstoppable for the Buckeyes as the game went on and his squad ran their 3 man weave, allowing each guard who touched the ball to isolate their respective man when the opportunity presented itself. Despite his questionable ball handling skills, he was able to use his superb athleticism to blow by defenders and get to the rim throughout the game. Lewis was noticeably better when star center Greg Oden was on the floor, as he didnt have to create as much for himself off of the dribble, being able to feed off of the attention that the 7-footer received each time he touched the ball on the low blocks. With Oden on the court, he was able to spot up in open areas and torch defenders on his way to the basket with his explosive first step, as they often came at him with out of control close outs.
If Lewis does find his way into the NBA, it will be as a complementary scoring punch off of the bench, so playing with a possible top draft pick will prove beneficial for him in terms of the style of play he will have to adjust to in the NBA.
While the Buckeye senior was able to score on absolutely anyone who guarded him this evening, his two biggest faults were put on center stage yet again. First, he was absolutely torched defensively against the Volunteers, especially in half one. He just seems to lose focus constantly and completely lacks any defensive fundamentals whatsoever, despite his immense physical attributes. Second, his shaky ball-handling skills were showcased when Mike Conley Jr. left the game with foul trouble and he was forced to handle the ball a bit more then he would have liked to. Lewis is not the type of guy who is going to beat you with remarkable ball-handling skills, preferring to utilize his outstanding athleticism to get straight to the rim despite his marginal dribbling ability. Defense and ball-handling are the two major areas that Ron will surely look to improve upon before his showings at the pre-draft camps this summer.
In terms of helping their draft stock, there have been very few who have helped themselves more than Lewis has throughout the NCAA tournament. He has consistently shown the ability to score on anyone in the nation, in the most opportune moments too. Only Mike Conley Jr. has been anywhere near as crucial to the Buckeyes success late in the game as Ron Lewis has, and he has now proven himself to be one of the more clutch players that the college game has to offer. It is still up in the air whether that will be enough to get him drafted, but with a strong conclusion to the NCAA tournament and good pre-draft workouts, it is certainly not out of the question for Ron to hear his name called on draft night.
Chris Lofton, 6-2, Junior, Shooting Guard, Tennessee
24 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 turnovers, 9-18 FG, 6-13 3P
Lofton started off this game in his typical fashion, knocking down two deep 3-pointers that forced Thad Matta to immediately adjust his defense to account for him. The first was a one-dribble pull-up with a hand in his face, while the second came in catch and shoot fashion after utilizing a screen, squaring his shoulders and releasing the ball simultaneously in the blink of an eye. Lofton reminded us numerous times throughout this tournament (and his career of that matter) that hes just as good of a shooter at the college level as J.J. Redick was at Duke. But unlike the 6-4 lottery pick, his production doesnt fall off once he reaches the month of March.
Lofton went a bit quiet for the rest of the halfpartially due to the traps and double-teams he drew--not scoring for the next 15 minutes until he converted another 3-pointer with two minutes to go in the first, only to follow that up with a nice finish in transition and another layup off an offensive rebound. It was a fairly quiet 13 points, but everything he did (besides the offensive rebound) looked similar to the type of role he could end up playing in the NBA.
In the second half, Lofton continued to draw considerable attention from Ohio States defense, and for a short span seemed to get a bit frustrated throwing up tough shots that looked to be a bit early in the offense. You can only really say that when hes momentarily not in his groove, though, since he regularly converts deep 25 foot 3-point attempts with multiple hands in his face, and makes it look quite easy. Even when he misses these bombs, he still looks pretty good shooting them, and you end up being surprised if he misses more than two in a row.
He got back on track over the last 8 minutes of the game, never losing confidence in himself and taking on his fair share of responsibility when Tennessees offense got quite stagnant in the midst of another terrific Ohio State run. He even created nicely for himself off the dribble in the half-court on one occasion, taking advantage of being overplayed by getting into the lane and finishing smoothly high off the glass. His last basket and shot attempt of the night came with around 2 minutes left in the game, unsurprisingly a 3-pointer from about 24 feet out. From that point on, Tennessee was unable to get him a good look, particularly on the last play of the game, which meant that his team is out of the tournament with plenty to look forward to next year.
Lofton is expected to test the waters this spring, and in our estimation, could be the type of player a good playoff team drafting late in the first round or early in the second falls in love with.
Jamaal Tatum, 6'2, PG/SG, senior, Southern Illinois
19 points, 7-19 FG, 1-8 3P, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 turnovers, 2 steals
Tatum didnt get off to a great start in this one, scoring just two points in the first half and generally only looking for his offense with the shot clock winding down and the ball far from the basket. Tatum would slowly pick up steam throughout the second half, though, first heating up from the outside and then finding success taking the ball to the basket as the game wore on. The defense was nothing we havent seen from Tatum or SIU as a team, and Kansas ball-handlers were clearly rattled by the near-inexplicable amount of pressure the Salukis could exert in the backcourt. Kansas committed 19 turnovers on the game, and Tatum was a big part of this even in transition he found ways to make plays, stopping the ball before an easy shot could be created or coming up with a steal on an initial pass that could have led to a run situation for the Jayhawks.
Tatum isnt a standout athlete at this level of competition, but has decent height and makes up for any sort of lack in physical gifs with his intensity and physicality. This was by far the best season of his career, and he should have earned himself an invite to Portsmouth with his scintillating tourney play. Tatum might be somewhat of a long shot to stick at the next level, as he is more of a perfect fit for the style that SIU plays and certainly not a true point guard. But there are other teams out there looking to play the same way, and there will always be a well-paying job for a competitor like Jamal Tatum.