Hoop Thoughts: Ten burning questions as the season begins
Hello again, Hoopheads. I missed you.
Now are you ready to sizzle?
Or course you are. Since Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie clipped the last strand of the nets in Texas last April, you have patiently waited for our beloved sport to resume. You have mowed your lawn, pretended to like baseball, tracked summer recruiting on your smart phone and generally been forced to attend to less important pursuits (kids, job, mortgage, etc.). Finally, at long last, the 2014-15 college basketball is ready to tip off Friday night at 6 p.m. EST, when Presbyterian plays at Duke on ESPNU.
Thank God it’s almost Friday.
As we get underway, you are no doubt wondering which people and storylines will be most worth following over the next five months. Your passion for this sport runs at a high temperature, so naturally your questions do, too. Fear not. Your resident Hoophead has returned to set the table. It is time to feast on my 10 burning questions regarding the brand new season.
Get ’em while they’re hot.
1. Will Kentucky go undefeated?
I must say, I’m a mite befuddled. This time last year, there was a lot of chatter about whether Kentucky could be the first team to run the table since Indiana did it in 1976. There is not nearly as much talk this time around, and yet these Wildcats are much more likely to pull off the feat. That’s because along with ridiculous talent – especially in the frontcourt, which is the deepest I have seen in my two-plus decades covering the sport – this team has the veteran leadership that last year’s Kiddie Cats lacked.
It might seem odd to hear me float this notion, since I have long argued that an undefeated season will never happen again. There’s too much parity, there are too many games, the kids are too young, the pressure would be too great, blah blah blah. On the other hand, Wichita State entered the NCAA tournament undefeated last season, and if the Shockers had managed to squeak by Kentucky in the Round of 32, who knows what would have happened?
We also have to factor in the chronic weakness of SEC basketball. Florida went undefeated in the league last year while being led by four seniors who all went undrafted by the NBA. The Gators are not as good this year, and there is no other bona fide challenger to Kentucky’s supremacy. So at the very least, you’d have to say the Wildcats have a pretty good shot at finishing perfect in league play.
The big question is whether they can get to January with a bagel in the loss column. Kentucky has another challenging nonconference slate, but it only has to play one true road game, at Louisville on Dec. 27. All the other toughies are either at Rupp Arena (Providence, Texas, North Carolina) or on a neutral court (Kansas in Indianapolis, UCLA in Chicago). It won’t be easy to travel that gauntlet without stumbling, but if the Wildcats are still undefeated when January begins, look out. We could have a run at history on our hands.
2. Who is this year’s Doug McDermott?
The correct answer is probably no one. Jimmers, Stephs and Dougies don’t exactly grow on trees. However, college basketball almost always produces at least one off-the-beaten-path player who captures the public’s imagination. It is one of the great things that sets this sport apart from all others.
Any list of candidates must include Tyler Haws, the 6-foot-5 senior guard at BYU who needs to average about 19 points per game to break Jimmer Fredette’s alltime scoring mark at the school. Considering Haws ranked sixth nationally last season at 23.4 ppg and has already been projected by my man Luke Winn and his cohort Dan Hanner to be the nation’s leading scorer this season, that is a very doable feat.
Utah guard Delon Wright also comes to mind. Utah isn’t technically a midmajor, but it hasn’t exactly looked like a powerhouse since joining the Pac-12 for the 2011-12 season. I also love Keifer Sykes, the diminutive dynamo at Wisconsin-Green Bay, as well as Evansville guard D.J. Balentine, a 6-2 junior who can look positively Jimmerific when his hand gets hot.
But if I had to choose just one, I’d go with R.J. Hunter, a lithe, 6-6 junior at Georgia State who has both the frame and the game to be an impact player. Hunter could have played at a high-major school, but he chose the Panthers so he could play for his father, Ron. He averaged 18 points per game last season on 40 percent three-point shooting, and he looked like a stud on the summer circuit. I expect Hunter to have a huge season and be a first-round NBA draft pick next June. Hopefully, he’ll find time to squeeze in a few magical March moments in between.
3. How bad will it get at Indiana?
It has been a rough couple of weeks for Tom Crean. On Nov. 1, his sophomore forward, Devin Davis, suffered a serious brain injury when he was struck by a car driven by another player, freshman forward Emmitt Holt. It was later revealed that Holt, who is underage, had been drinking, although his blood-alcohol content was well below the legal limit. A few days later, news leaked that two other IU players, Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams, would be suspended the first two regular season games for failing drug tests. This comes just a few months after Robinson and two other starters were cited for alcohol-related offenses. So if you’re keeping score – and I know you are – that’s five out of 13 scholarship players who have run afoul of the law this year.
Even though Indiana athletic director Fred Glass gave Crean an unambiguous public vote of confidence, speculation has run rampant that Crean will soon be out of a job. And yet, if you add up all those offenses, it still does not equal all the screwups that Jameis Winston has committed by himself. So how come I don’t hear anyone calling for Jimbo Fisher to lose his job?
The answer is obvious: Florida State’s football team is winning big, and Indiana’s basketball team isn’t. Crean’s Cody Zeller-Victor Oladipo crew went to back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2012 and '13, but the Hoosiers did not make the postseason last year, and then they lost freshman forward Noah Vonleh to the NBA. This year's good-but-not-great IU freshman class includes two top-50 recruits, and Crean has not procured a single verbal commitment from a senior currently ranked by Rivals.com in the top 100, though it is still early on that front.
In the short term, I don’t believe Crean is in any real jeopardy. Just two years ago, the school signed him to a contract extension that doesn’t end until 2020. If Indiana were to fire Crean after this season, it would have to pay him a buyout $12 million. A year from now, that drops to $7.5 million, which is still a hefty number. And while I certainly do not condone the behavior of his players, I also have a hard time buying the argument that a college coach should get the axe because his players drank alcohol when he wasn’t around.
Still, these narratives have a way of gathering their own momentum. Crean knows better than anyone what he needs to do to forestall it. As the saying goes, winning is the best deodorant. Until things get better on the court, the smell wafting around this program is going to be unpleasant.
4. Which ACC storyline will prevail?
The ACC has been working toward this season for many years. It is without question the best conference in the country, and the only one among the power five where basketball still reigns. With Louisville officially on board and Virginia surging under Tony Bennett, the ACC has four teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP’s preseason poll, a fifth (Syracuse) in the top 25, and three others (Pittsburgh, N.C. State and Notre Dame) in “others receiving votes.”
On the other hand, two of those marquee programs, North Carolina and Syracuse, are facing major headaches away from the court. The Wainstein Report, which detailed a systematic, 18-year scheme that helped keep athletes academically eligible at North Carolina, was even more devastating than folks in Chapel Hill had feared. The NCAA is not going to adopt the findings at whole cloth the way it did with Penn State and the Freeh report, so you can expect the investigation to proceed at its normal, deliberate pace. It will be a while before we find out where this is headed, but it does not look like it’s going to end well for North Carolina.
Syracuse, meanwhile, is also facing NCAA charges of academic irregularities, among other possible violations. That put Jim Boeheim in the awkward position of having to attend the ACC’s basketball media day just a few days before he was scheduled to testify in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions. At first, Boeheim refused to meet with print reporters, but then he was forced to sit for an extended, uncomfortable exchange. The next step is for the Committee of Infractions to issue a public report, which should come in the next month or two. Then Syracuse can decide whether to accept those findings or fight them. If the school choose the latter option, that will draw things out even further.
In other words, these two stories have the potential to hover over the entire basketball season. If bad news continues to drip-drip-drip, then it will surely detract from the games. That’s not an ideal position for a proud league heading into its most important season in a long time.
5. Who is this year’s DeAndre Kane?
As we all know, transferring is the new recruiting, and personally, I have no problem with that. Sure, some of these kids are falling prey to our remote-control-instant-gratification society, but there are also plenty who are taking advantage of the new landscape to find better situations. Isn't that the American Way?
It has long been common for players who were over-recruited by high majors to transfer to schools at a lower level, but the big change in the last few years has been the uptick in players moving from midmajors to power conferences. That’s what Kane did last season at Iowa State after transferring from Marshall. He ended up being voted to the Big 12’s all-conference team. Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, who came from Duquesne, nearly took the Wildcats to the Final Four last season. He is back to have another go.
Who will enjoy a similar upward mobility this season? I expect that 5-11 senior Keith Shamburger (Hawaii to Missouri), 6-1 senior Ian Chiles (IUPUI to Tennessee), 6-7 senior Stanton Kidd (N.C. Central to Colorado State), 6-4 junior Keith Hornsby (UNC Asheville to LSU) and 6-3 junior Bryn Forbes (Cleveland State to Michigan State) will all have impact at their new stops. But the kid who will outshine them all is Justin Edwards, a 6-4 junior guard who went from Maine to Kansas State. Two years ago, Edwards led the America East conference in scoring at 16.7 points per game. He boasts a 42-inch vertical leap, and though he did not shoot a great three-point percentage, his range extends past the NBA’s line. I especially like that Edwards is an undergraduate transfer, so he has already been in the program for a year adjusting to the competition and working on his body. (He added nearly 20 pounds of muscle during his year off.) Finally, Edwards is entering a terrific situation. Kansas State is good enough to provide him with a big stage, but bad enough that it really needs him to get buckets. I expect Edwards to do plenty of that.
6. Is this finally Gonzaga’s year?
Every other year, it seems someone is ready to proclaim that this is Mark Few’s best team. That’s because it’s easy to forget just how many really good teams Few has had at Gonzaga. Remember, it was only two years ago that the Zags went undefeated in conference play, rose to No. 1 in the country and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This current edition is probably the deepest team Few has had – the Bulldogs are legitimately two-deep at every position, and senior point guard Kevin Pangos is finally healthy again – but we’re going to have to wait until March before we try to put it in historical context.
The more salient question, then, is whether it will be Few's luckiest team. Yes, the weakness of the West Coast Conference is not the best way to prepare for the rigors of the NCAA tournament, and it has allowed Gonzaga to earn higher seeds than it would have gotten had it played in a power conference. But as far as I can tell, bad luck is the main thing that has kept Gonzaga out of the Final Four while the likes of George Mason (2006), Butler (2011), VCU (2011) and Wichita State (2013) crossed that magical threshold. The bottom line is, this program is too good to be held down for much longer. I’ve been wrong before (about once a decade), but I’ve got a feeling this is the year that Gonzaga’s luck will finally turn.
7. Will Kansas’ Big 12 run finally end?
In an era of unprecedented roster turnover caused by NBA defections and rampant transferring, Bill Self has somehow managed to win or share 10 consecutive conference championships. Go ahead, I dare you: Find me a better team streak in all of sports right now.
Or let me ask another question: How many college basketball programs could lose two of the top three picks in the NBA draft, yet still open the following season ranked No. 5 in the country?
Somehow, Self always manages to restock his cupboard. Kansas returns some veteran pillars in guards Frank Mason and Wayne Selden, as well as 6-8 junior forward Perry Ellis, who is poised for an All-America season. Self also brought in yet another stellar recruiting class headlined by 6-8 power forward Cliff Alexander. But the Jayhawks are going to have to fend off a bevy of challengers inside the Big 12 to keep their streak alive. Kansas State and West Virginia have two of the top scoring guards in the league in Marcus Foster and Juwan Staten, respectively; Oklahoma has a potent, high-scoring perimeter trio; and Fred Hoiberg is ready to work his Mayoral Magic again at Iowa State, where UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones joins slimmed-down junior forward Georges Niang to spearhead a high-scoring, fast-paced attack.
However, KU’s biggest threat – literally – is Texas. Not only does Rick Barnes have a deep and talented roster, but he also has the best front line in college hoops this side of Lexington. Barnes has toyed with the idea of a four-big lineup featuring 6-11 freshman Myles Turner, 6-9 junior Cameron Ridley, 6-8 senior Jonathan Holmes and 6-9 junior Connor Lammert. Imagine those guys playing a 2-3 zone. That is significant because this is also going to be one of the shortest teams that Self has had at Kansas. None of Self’s top nine players is taller than 6-8. So Texas is strong where Kansas is weak. I don’t know if that will be enough to dethrone the Jayhawks, but it’s not a bad place to start.
8. Will offense be less offensive?
When it comes to lackluster scoring in college basketball, change is not happening fast enough. But at least it’s happening.
Last season represented the first time in a long while that the NCAA tried to open up the game to produce more points. That led to some unsightly foul fests as players, coaches and refs adjusted to the new rules, but the adjustments had their desired effect. According to KPI Sports, teams scored an average 3.13 more points per game last season than in 2012-13. About 60 percent of that increase was attributable to the additional free throws. Teams also played 0.95 more possessions per game, and their points per possession increased by 3.2 percent. These are not exactly earth-shattering numbers, but they do represent a few light tremors.
The good news is that we are moving toward even more offensive-minded changes. The ACC and Atlantic 10 are experimenting with a 30-second shot clock during exhibition games, and there is widespread support for shortening the clock permanently in the near future. The bad news is that, even though this was supposed to be an “off year” for rules changes, the rules committee still backtracked on the adjustments made last year to the block/charge call, a play that remains a pox upon college basketball’s house. Last year, a secondary defender had to be set by the time the driver began his upward motion, but now the rule will revert to requiring the defender to be set by the time the driver leaves the floor. What was most disturbing was the logic behind the change. The committee didn’t think it was a bad rule. It just believed it was too difficult for officials to call correctly.
Hopefully, that is a minor speed bump on a path to a more open, entertaining game. While I’d like to see more scoring, part of me actually hopes that we backtrack this season. Maybe that will force the game’s stakeholders to put a little more pedal to the metal. Remember, Hoopheads, the game is called basketball. We need more baskets.
9. Which new face in a new place will be most worth watching?
It was a relatively quiet coaching carousel this past offseason. None of the glamorous programs had vacancies, so fewer dominos fell. Thus, when we ask this question, it's best to set our sights on the long term.
Needless to say, Bruce Pearl is going to draw a lot of eyeballs at Auburn. He has the SEC’s top returning scorer in K.T. Harrell but not much else, so the Tigers are a longshot to make the NCAA tournament. If nothing else, Pearl is going to give us a good show on Jan. 31, when he takes his team to play at Tennessee. He has already promised that he’s going to cry and kiss the court.
Another coach with a recently expired show-cause penalty, Kelvin Sampson, assumes the helm at Houston. Since being forced out at Indiana in 2008, Sampson has worked as an assistant coach in the NBA, spending the last three seasons with the Houston Rockets. His hiring did not generate a whole lot of buzz, good or bad, which is probably just how he likes it.
Tennessee, meanwhile, also had a vacancy because the criminally underappreciated Cuonzo Martin bolted for Cal. UT plucked Donnie Tyndall from Southern Miss, but now the NCAA is investigating the possibility that Tyndall committed violations at his former job. So there’s no shortage of drama there. I loved Oregon State’s hiring of Wayne Tinkle from Montana, and I’m going to be tracking two really smart former assistants who landed their first head coaching gigs: Mike Rhoades, who left VCU for Rice, and Steve Wojciechowski, who left Duke for Marquette.
By my lights, however, the guy most worth watching is the one who preceded Wojciechowski at Marquette. Frankly, I never bought into Buzz Williams’ logic that he left Marquette because Virginia Tech is a better job. Marquette is arguably the best job in the Big East, and Virginia Tech is one of the worst in the ACC. Still, there is no doubt that Williams is a terrific coach, and he is a force of nature. It will take him a few years to get his type of players – diamonds in the rough, tough-minded jucos – and mold them to fit his distinct personality. When that happens, we’ll know whether he made the right move.
10. Who will make my All-Glue team?
Really, this should be the No. 1 question, right? The SI All-Glue team is celebrating its 15th anniversary this season. At this point, it's not an award, it’s a movement. Everywhere you look, people are honoring the efforts of blue-collar players who set screens, dive on the floor, make the extra pass and clean up the offensive glass. For too long, these guys have been underappreciated and overlooked, but America is finally awash in respect. You might say the idea has, well, stuck.
I typically wait until the end of the regular season to choose an All-Glue team, but this year, for the first time, I selected a preseason team, which will be featured in this month’s issue of SI Kids magazine. It included: Tekele Cotton, 6-2 senior guard, Wichita State; Briante Weber, 6-2 senior guard, VCU; Josh Gasser, 6-3 senior guard, Wisconsin; Amile Jefferson, 6-9 junior forward, Duke; Alex Poythress, 6-8 junior forward, Kentucky; and J.J. O’Brien, 6-7 senior forward, San Diego State.
Of course, being chosen in the preseason does not guarantee inclusion at the end of the regular season, but you don’t have to explain that to these guys. The essence of Gluedom is knowing that you never take anything for granted. When your motor runs that hot, every question is a burning question.