College basketball coaches are normally a dyspeptic bunch. Even in the best of times, they see potential for the worst.
There is, however, one time of year when these guys tend to be strangely sunny -- and that's the summer. July is recruiting season in college basketball. As every college head coach and assistant crisscrossed the country last month to watch grassroots tournaments, they allowed themselves to dream about the prospects they were about to land while imagining good things about the season ahead.
I spent last month crisscrossing the country, too, although I didn't go to nearly as many events as the coaches did. Besides giving me the chance to gander at the top high school players in the country, attending these events allowed me to take their temperatures as to where their programs are headed for the 2013-14 season.
I found plenty of warmth, and even a little heat, in those discussions. Thus, I am happy to take my loyal Hoop Thinkers to summer school and share what a few of them said. This will be the first of three installments; the other two will come next week. So lean back in your lounge chair, pick up a fruity beverage, and soak in the sunny outlooks.
Fran McCaffery, Iowa
It has been a long time since Iowa basketball generated much excitement. The Hawkeyes have not made the NCAA tournament since 2006, and they haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 2001. Now, as they return the top five scorers (and nine of the top 10) from a team that went 9-9 in the Big Ten and lost in the NIT championship game to Baylor, fans and pundits alike are expecting the Hawkeyes to rise and fire. Don't think their head coach doesn't know.
"Very aware of it," McCaffrey said when I asked about the burgeoning buzz while we were both attending the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C. "I'm excited about it, and I hope our players feel the same way."
Even though the Hawkeyes will still be relatively young, they will be plenty experienced. Three freshmen were in the starting lineup for most of last season. But the biggest reason for optimism is the forward tandem of Roy Devyn Marble, a 6-foot-6 senior, and Aaron White, a 6-8 junior.
Marble is the son of Roy Marble, who is Iowa's alltime leading scorer. Devyn is not a great outside shooter (he converted just 32.7 percent from behind the arc), but he is an efficient slasher who averaged 21.5 points in the NIT. He is so versatile that last year McCaffrey played Marble major minutes at point guard. McCaffrey told me he was miffed that Marble was not invited to any of the big skills academies on this year's summer circuit. "He's not as well thought of as I think he should be," McCaffrey said. "I think he's a pro. If he plays like a pro, we'll be really good."
White, meanwhile, evolved last season from what McCaffrey describes as a "garbage guy" into a quintessential stretch four. After a summer competing for Team USA at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia, White should be ready to make another step forward.
The biggest problem Iowa had last season was outside shooting. The Hawkeyes ranked 11th in the Big Ten in three-point percentage (30.5) and were eighth in threes made per game (5.4). "That's what kept us out of the [NCAA] tournament," McCaffrey said. He said he hopes that deficiency will be remedied by the arrival of two newcomers: Jarrod Uthoff, a 6-8 transfer from Wisconsin, and Peter Jok, a 6-5 wing from Des Moines who can play a little point guard if necessary.
If those two newcomers pan out, and if the team can stay healthy, then McCaffrey will have a bevy of options. "The thing that makes us different than most teams is we are legitimately 11 deep," he told me. McCaffrey can start sorting out those options during a trip to London the team will take in August. Teams are allowed to practice 10 times in advance of foreign trips, so the head start will come in handy.
It's worth noting that this is McCaffrey's fourth season in Iowa City. Rebuilding projects usually take about four years. He pointed out that in the previous three seasons, the Hawkeyes won 11, 18 and 25 games. "So they're probably expecting another seven-win improvement," he said with a laugh. "We'll see what we can do."
And we'll all be watching.
Craig Neal, New Mexico
After nine years as Steve Alford's top assistant (three at Iowa and six at New Mexico), Neal, who still goes by the nickname "Noodles," will make the big shift to the head chair for the first time next season. I spotted Neal striking the head coach's summer pose: He was standing in the hallway at the Peach Jam, a cell phone jammed between his ear and shoulder. "It's different, but Steve prepared me for it," Neal said of his first recruiting cycle as the head coach. "Steve's notoriety is a little bit higher than mine."
It doesn't matter that Neal isn't as famous as his predecessor. What matters is that his roster is loaded. The only notable loss from last year's 29-6 team is Tony Snell, the 6-7 forward who left after his junior year and was selected 20th in the NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. The Lobos will return their four other starters, beginning with 6-4 senior Kendall Williams, who was named Mountain West Player of the Year last season. ("Ahead of the first pick in the draft," Neal added, in reference to UNLV's Anthony Bennett.) That means that Neal, like McCaffrey, is going to enter the season coaching a team that is facing high expectations. Given the way the Lobos bowed out of the NCAA tournament with an embarrassing first-round loss to Harvard, that might not be such a good thing.
"If you want to be an elite program, you have to handle that, and I don't think our kids handled that very well [last year]," Neal said. "They've got to learn from that."
Other returning starters include 6-3 junior guard Hugh Greenwood and 6-9 senior forward Cameron Bairstow, who is a first-rate glue guy. But the player I think is going to have a huge season for the Lobos is Alex Kirk, the 7-foot, 245-pound junior center who drastically improved his offensive versatility as a sophomore while averaging 12.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Kirk was not well-known coming into last season because he had spent the prior year sitting out while recovering from back surgery, but NBA scouts sure know who he is. Kirk played for the U.S. at the World University Games, but he was ranked last in minutes played for a team that finished ninth. So we'll have to wait and see whether Kirk lives up to Neal's admittedly biased claim that he is the best center in the country. "He has been working on his mobility a lot, but as far as basketball skills go, he's as good as there is," Neal said. "He can shoot it, he can pass it, he has a left-hand hook, a right-hand hook. He is working on changing ends of the floor better."
It is rare these days for a team to be this talented and experienced. Even Neal's newcomers are old. He said the fifth starting spot will probably go to one of his junior college transfers, Deshawn Delaney, a 6-5 guard from Vincennes University, and Arthur Edwards, a 6-7 forward who transferred in as a sophomore from Northwest Florida State College and therefore has three years of eligibility remaining. That doesn't leave much playing time for the freshmen, but there is one first-year guy to watch out for: Cullen Neal, the head coach's son. A 6-5 guard who originally committed to Saint Mary's, Cullen asked to be released from his letter of intent when his father was named New Mexico's head coach. Coach Neal told me that Cullen will "have a chance to play," but family ties will only take him so far. "Sometimes you've got to play dad, and sometimes you've got to play coach," Neal told me. "There's a lot at stake here."
Frank Haith, Missouri
At first blush, it appears Missouri took a big hit in losing four starters from last year's 23-11 team. That amounts to about two-thirds of all points and rebounds. Still, the talent dropoff won't be all that significant. The main difference will be in the makeup of the squad. The Tigers will be a much more perimeter-oriented team, which will force Haith to play smallball the way he did two seasons ago.
The good news is, Missouri will return far more experience than it did a year ago, when point guard Phil Pressey was the only player on the roster who had played the year before. Haith will be able to put three players with extensive experience into his starting lineup: 6-5 junior guard Jabari Brown, 6-5 senior guard Earnest Ross, and 6-9 senior Tony Criswell. Jordan Clarkson, a 6-5 combo guard who transferred from Tulsa, will be a junior and a likely starter as well. Haith described him as "really, really good -- really good."
Said Haith, "Anytime you have good guards, you have a chance."
Still, for all his foibles (especially in crunch time), Pressey will not be easy to replace at point guard. Haith will have to rely a little too heavily on one of his freshman point guards -- Wes Clark, a 6-foot native of Detroit, and 6-1 Shane Rector, who initially committed to Rutgers but was released after the school fired Mike Rice.
The center position is also dicey. Haith added a highly-regarded junior college transfer in 6-11 junior Keanau Post, but he told me that the key to Missouri's season could be Stefan Jankovic, the 6-11 sophomore who averaged just under eight minutes per game as a freshman. Jankovic was stuck behind veteran bigs Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers last season, but now that those two are gone, Jankovic will be pressed into action whether he's ready or not. "He's got unbelievable potential," Haith said. "He's big, he can shoot it. I'm hoping he's that guy who really improves and makes a difference for us."
The other question hovering over the program is the status of Haith himself. He appeared this summer before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in connection with the investigation of Miami, his former employer. Haith would not comment on the case, but from the start he has conveyed his strong-held belief he will be exonerated. That case should be wrapped up by the start of college hoops season. I'm sure Haith will be glad to have that finally in his rear view mirror. When you're driving Mizzou basketball, it's best to keep your eyes on the road.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Michigan State lost just one player -- 6-9 center Derrick Nix -- from a team that went 27-9 and earned a No. 3 seed to the NCAA tournament. That alone is reason enough to make the case the Spartans should be ranked No. 1 heading into next season. But the case is even stronger when you consider that three of their top returning players were badly hobbled by injuries for most of the season. With those three returned to full strength, Izzo told me that "we have a chance to really be a lot better." That's a scary thought.
The return-to-health list begins with 6-4 sophomore guard Gary Harris. He suffered a nasty shoulder sprain in November, which never fully healed. He also dislocated his other shoulder during the Big Ten season, and although it did not cause him to miss any games, the shoulder tended to pop in and out of its socket, which affected Harris' performances in games. Exhibit A was the Sweet 16 loss to Duke, when Harris shot 2-for-11 from the floor and, in Izzo's words, "didn't guard anybody. That's not him."
When the season was over, Harris was re-examined by doctors, who determined that his shoulder could heal without surgery. Izzo said that Harris has gone through his rehab with his usual aggressiveness. If Harris stays healthy, he should be the best two guard in the country.
Branden Dawson also appears to be back to his old self. The 6-6 junior swingman tore his ACL during the Big Ten tournament as a freshman. Dawson recovered quickly enough to suit up for the Spartans from Day 1, but he never regained the explosiveness that always defined his game. "He was trying his hardest, but if you saw him it didn't look like he was playing hard," Izzo said. "There were four or five games when he had lobs on breakaway dunks, and he was laying 'em up. I'd turn to my coaches and they were shaking their heads." Izzo told me Dawson's body fat is down to five percent, and he has finally started to look like the player Izzo recruited.
Finally, Izzo told me he has high hopes for 6-foot junior guard Travis Trice, who was plagued by a variety of ailments last year, beginning with a brain virus which sapped his energy all last summer and caused him to lose 25 pounds. During the season Trice suffered two concussions which caused him to miss nine games, and even when he returned to the lineup, he had very little impact. If Trice is healthy and effective, he can play extended minutes at point guard, which would allow 6-1 senior Keith Appling to move off the ball. As much as I like Appling, I have always had my doubts as to whether Michigan State can win a national championship with him as its fulltime point guard. Appling is a natural two guard, and he has never looked totally comfortable running the team. He has a knack for playing well for 38 minutes and then making bad decisions down the stretch. When I expressed this reservation to Izzo, he kinda sorta conceded my point. But he also stood by his man. "Our point guard has to become a better point guard," he said. "I think he will. We've spent time this spring and summer just looking at tape and working on making better choices."
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism in East Lansing is the surprising return of 6-10 senior center Adreian Payne, who came very close to leaving East Lansing for the NBA after making a rapid improvement over the second half of the season. "I thought he was going to go. I even wrote the press release announcing it," Izzo told me. "I thought basketball wise he was ready, but maturity wise he wasn't. His high school coach told him the same thing. He has been working his tail off, and he has really improved. He just keeps getting better." Payne played for the U.S. at the World University Games, but he averaged just 5.1 points and ranked 10th on the team in minutes played. So he still has some improving to do.
The fly in the ointment here is the freshman class. It was not a stellar year for Izzo on the recruiting front. He missed out on his prime target, Jabari Parker, and the two freshmen he signed are not of all-conference caliber, although Izzo did say that based on summer workouts, 6-9 freshman center Gavin Schilling is "going to be better than I thought." Still, if everyone stays healthy (which is always a big "if"), it should be the same old story at Michigan State in 2014. Perhaps the only change will be the lack of a quirky game set up by Mark Hollis, a.k.a. the "Mad Genius" AD who came up with the idea to have the Spartans play North Carolina on an aircraft carrier two years ago and UConn in a military hangar in Germany last season. Hollis tried to set up a doubleheader in Spokane to honor former coach Jud Heathcote, but he couldn't bring all the parties together. When I asked Izzo if he would be open to adding a wacky game to the schedule between now and the start of the season, he smiled. "I don't care," he said. "You know me. I'll play anywhere."
Tommy Amaker, Harvard
I ran into Amaker at a low-key event in Redondo Beach, Calif. He had a small leather bag with him. Turns out he had just landed at the airport, driven to Redondo to see a prospect (or more accurately, to have the prospect see him), and then he was going to head back to the airport to catch a redeye back to the east coast. It's a glamorous life, isn't it?
I wanted to catch up with Amaker because he will be coaching one of the most talented and intriguing teams in the country next season. Last March, Harvard knocked off third-seeded New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was the school's first postseason victory. Not only are the Crimson returning all but one player from that rotation, they are also adding its two most talented and experienced players: 6-1 junior guard Brandyn Curry and 6-7 junior forward Kyle Casey, who had to withdraw from school for one year because of their connection to an academic cheating scandal that involved more than 100 Harvard undergrads.
There's more. Amaker is also bringing in 6-8 freshman forward Zena Edosomwan, who is arguably the most highly-regarded recruit in the history of the Ivy League. Edosomwan turned down offers from several Pac-12 schools, including USC and UCLA, plus Texas and many other high-majors, to go to Harvard. All of which begs an obvious question: Does this have the potential to be the best team in Harvard history? (Which, given Harvard's basketball history, is not saying a whole lot.) "I would think so. That's fair," Amaker replied. "It could certainly be our most talented team."
Much depends on how well Curry and Casey blend in. Chemistry is a delicate thing. Amaker said that he has stayed in consistent contact with the two players during their time away from school, but he has yet to see them play because they can't enroll until September. Still, this being the summer, he was optimistic about their ability to return to the fold without disrupting what was working. "They've been successful in our system, so it's not like we have to overhaul anything," Amaker said. "I just want to get them back into the routine of being college students again. That's just as important as anything else."
Curry's return could be a little complicated because of how well 6-foot point guard Siyani Chambers played in his absence as a freshman. Curry is more of a scorer than Chambers, but both guys are most effective when the have the ball in their hands. Talent-wise, they will compare favorably with any backcourt tandem in the country. Amaker is not going to worry about positions. "I'm very comfortable with the thought of playing them together," he said. "They're good players, they're unselfish and they want to win."
Indeed, there's an embarrassment of riches all over this roster. Besides returning starters Chambers, 6-5 senior Laurent Rivard and 6-5 junior Weslye Saunders, the team will also welcome back its top two bench players, including sixth man Steve Moundou-Missi, who was honorable mention All-Ivy. Amaker listed his team's main strengths as the two B's -- bench and balance -- but mostly the Crimson's season will depend on whether the players can embrace their roles and tune out the voices proclaiming their greatness. In other words, they have to be smart enough not to mess up a good thing. Which shouldn't be a problem. They did get into Harvard, right?