COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Last week I was on hand at the U.S. Olympic Training Center to watch USA Basketball assemble the teams that will compete next month at the World University Games and the FIBA Under 19 World Championships. Last Friday, I weighed in with notes and observations on the three dozen college players who took part in the trials. Today, I've emptied my notebook from my visits with several college coaches who were also in attendance.
Not only did the trials draw 17 coaches who were either leading the teams or helping out on the court or selecting the teams, but also a handful of other coaches also flew in to watch their players in action. I couldn't get to everyone in just two days, but I did get a chance to take the pulse of the programs at Washington, Clemson, Oklahoma State, Gonzaga, Miami, Missouri and Wisconsin.
• Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who was part of the five-man committee that selected the two squads, tried to sell me on the idea of Cal as the preseason favorite to win the Pac-10. I wasn't buying it. Yes, Romar's Huskies lost two valuable seniors in shooting guard Justin Dentmon and rebounding machine Jon Brockman, but they return two of the most exciting young players in sophomore guards Venoy Overton and Isaiah Thomas. More important, they are bringing in one of the five best freshmen in the country in Abdul Gaddy, a 6-foot-3 point guard from Tacoma, Wash., who backed out of his commitment to Arizona after Lute Olson retired.
It is fitting that Gaddy originally opted for Arizona, because his game reminds me a lot Mike Bibby's. "He's as pure a point guard as we've had," Romar said. "He really understands how to run a team, but if things aren't going well he has the ability to score, too."
Romar also told me that Gaddy is still 17 years old and won't turn 18 until early 2010. That means he can't enter the NBA draft after his freshman year because he will not have satisfied the league's 19-year-old age minimum. Just the fact that Romar saw fit to mention that should let you know how good the kid is.
As for the question of how Gaddy and Thomas will co-exist in the same backcourt, Romar reminded me that he has had that situation before with Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy. I've always thought utilizing two or even three scoring point guards was a great way to play. Remember the Illinois perimeter trio of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head that lost to North Carolina in the 2005 NCAA championship game? Or the Bibby-Miles Simon tandem that won a title at Arizona in 1997? The Gaddy-Thomas combination should be especially effective at Washington because Romar likes to play at such a fast pace. I can't wait to see them in action.
As for the frontcourt, Washington has some decent returning talent in Darnell Gant, Justin Holiday, Quincy Pondexter and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, but Romar sounded excited about a newcomer I had not previously heard of: Tyreese Breshers, a 6-7, 255-pound power forward who redshirted as a freshman last season because of a broken shin bone. Romar said that Breshers is extremely quick and mobile for his size, even comparing him to former Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair.
"We have some really good pieces, and we have some depth," Romar said. "If we understand the commitment required, we could be really good."
• Clemson coach Oliver Purnell came to the Wednesday sessions to watch Trevor Booker, his 6-7 senior forward who last season became the first player since Tim Duncan to lead the ACC in blocks and rebounds. Purnell made a good argument that Booker should be ACC Preseason Player of the Year, but I'm guessing that honor will probably go to Duke's Kyle Singler.
The larger concern for Purnell is how he will replace the scoring he lost with the departures of K.C. Rivers, who graduated, and junior guard Terrence Oglesby, who decided to pursue a professional career in Europe. Oglesby's decision was so surprising, even Purnell didn't know about it until the day before it was made public. "I asked him, how did he come to that conclusion? What was the process?" Purnell said. "I was not involved in any way. That was the only disappointing thing about it."
Purnell said that while perimeter scoring is a question, he expects the Tigers to be a much better defensive team -- a not-so-veiled reference Oglesby's deficiencies in that department. Among the newcomers, Purnell is most excited about Milton Jennings, a 6-9 forward from Summerville, S.C., who was a McDonald's All-American, the first Clemson recruit to earn that designation in 18 years. Purnell also picked up another quality recruit over the weekend when Noel Johnson, a 6-7 forward from Georgia who was released from his letter-of-intent to USC in the wake of Tim Floyd's resignation, committed to Clemson.
• Speaking of USC, I'd say the school did as well as could be expected by hiring Kevin O'Neill to replace Floyd. It's not easy to hire a quality coach in June, much less at a school where an NCAA investigation looms and where the pool of talent has been so depleted. O'Neill has extensive experience both in the NBA and in college, and though he didn't exactly flourish during previous stints at Arizona, Tennessee, Marquette, Northwestern and Tennessee, his teams always play smart and tough, especially on the defensive end. O'Neill is a little rough around the edges, but he's a likeable guy who's free of pretense.
The biggest question will be whether O'Neill can recruit the high-caliber talent he'll need to get the Trojans to compete for a Pac 10 title -- and do it without running afoul of NCAA rules, which isn't easy to do these days given the way the amateur circuit is run by AAU coaches and their NBA agent benefactors.
The USC administration and its fans will have to be patient. O'Neill's rebuilding job is going to be as challenging as the one Tom Crean is undertaking at Indiana. Then again, at least Crean is at a school with a huge, loyal following as well as a stellar basketball tradition. O'Neill has neither of those advantages. He has as good a chance as anybody to bring USC basketball back to respectability, but make no mistake, he's got a long, long road ahead.
• Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford was on hand to support James Anderson, his 6-6 junior swingman who was selected to play for the World University Games team. When I mentioned that Anderson looked bigger and stronger than I expected, Ford replied, "He's gotten a little too big. He's lived in the weight room and really filled out, but James loses so much weight when we condition and run during the season, we figured it was better for him to get big now."
The Cowboys will still play Ford's up-tempo style next season, but that will be harder to implement without Byron Eaton, a four-year starter at point guard who struggled perennially with his weight but enjoyed a breakout season last year as a senior. Ford said the competition for that position will likely come down to three freshmen: Ray Penn, Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell. Keiton Page, a 5-10 sophomore, will also have a chance to run the point if, said Ford, "he can prove he can run the team out there." That's a lot of inexperience at the most important position on the floor.
Oklahoma State will have more size and depth than last season, but the Cowboys will also be younger. Based on what I saw of Anderson in Colorado Springs, I'd say he has a good chance to have an All-Big 12 caliber season. The question is whether that will be enough to carry the Pokes back to the NCAA tournament.
• Gonzaga lost four of its top five scorers from last year's team that went 28-6 and fell to North Carolina in the Sweet 16: seniors Jeremy Pargo, Micah Downs and Josh Heytvelt, as well as 6-11 sophomore Austin Daye, who declared for the NBA draft. But Mark Few's program has been a consistent winner, and once again he has a bunch of players ready to step in. While 6-5 senior Matt Bouldin has proven he can be effective in all areas, much of the Zags' prospects will hinge on whether 6-5 junior guard Steven Gray is ready to have a breakout season.
Gray tantalizes NBA scouts with his size, his athleticism, and most importantly his butter-smooth shooting stroke. (He's a career 39.6 percent shooter from three.) The only thing Gray lacks is a superstar's confidence to go with his prodigious gifts. "We've been after Steve forever to hunt his shot more," said Few, who served as a court coach during the USA trials. "It's just not in his personality. I tell him, you've got a great stroke. Be aggressive."
The good news for Gonzaga is that junior center Robert Sacre, who missed most of the season last year after breaking the same bone in his foot twice, appears to be healthy. Unlike Heytvelt and Daye, who have centers' bodies but fancied themselves as two-guards, Sacre loves physical contact and working down low. Few also said sophomore Demetri Goodson's speed with the ball was comparable to Ty Lawson's (you'll recall Goodson's end-to-end dash which gave the Zags their dramatic win over Western Kentucky in the second round of the NCAAs). Few added that the newcomer most likely to contribute right away is Sam Dower, a 6-5, left-handed forward from Minneapolis.
• Speaking of Daye, although many NBA mock draft boards have Daye as a borderline lottery pick, I think he made a terrible mistake by staying in the draft. His apparent position in the draft is just more evidence that NBA general managers put way too much stock in predraft workouts. Daye might be graceful and extremely skilled for his size, but put him in a game -- especially a big game against a good team in clutch time -- and he's invisible. He has very little mental toughness, and I fear that will doom him once he enters the league.
One NBA scout I talked to in Colorado Springs pointed out that during one six-game span last season, Daye failed to get a single offensive rebound. "That's hard to do when you're almost 7-feet," the scout said. "That's why I think we should get rid of these stupid [predraft] workouts. They're totally meaningless compared to what these guys do in games."
• Losing seniors is a part of college basketball, but it's going to be especially hard for Miami coach Frank Haith to replace combo guard Jack McClinton, who averaged 19 points per game and accounted for nearly a quarter of the Hurricanes' shot attempts. Then again, the Hurricanes failed to reach the NCAA tournament partly because they were so dependent on McClinton. "We'll have a more balanced team," said Haith, who was also a court coach at the trials. "We had to really choreograph everything we did last year. I think we can run more motion and have three or four guys average double figures."
That might sound like wishful thinking, but Haith has some young players who have the potential to be big-time players. The first is 6-6 sophomore DeQuan Jones, a ridiculous athlete who played just 11 minutes per game last season. Point guard Malcolm Grant was a coveted recruit at Villanova, but he decided to transfer because the Wildcats are saturated with guards. Grant sat out last year and will assume the lead guard duties from McClinton.
Finally, Haith beat out UConn's Jim Calhoun in a hard-fought recruiting battle for Durand Scott, a 6-4 combo guard from New York City's Rice High. "He's a lot like [Virginia's] Sylvan Landesburg. They were both the player of the year in New York and they're all-around guards," Haith said. "Durand isn't a great shooter, but he makes shots. He might be the best defender in the country. He's really committed to being a great defender, which you don't see often with high school kids."
• Missouri returns its starting backcourt of J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor to the team that made a run to the Elite Eight last season. But the most important returnee is coach Mike Anderson. A native of Alabama who played and coached under Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, Anderson was heavily courted by Alabama and Georgia last season but instead opted to sign a contract extension to remain at Missouri. Give credit to Mizzou athletic director Mike Alden for convincing Anderson that the school was ready to make a deep commitment to both him and the program.
"I think we're on the threshold of really taking off," said Anderson, who was working as a court coach for the World University Games team. "I had some decisions to make and I left some things (read: money) on the table, but the administration was great to me and my staff. At the end of the day, I felt comfortable with my decision."
Unfortunately, among those who didn't return to Columbia were the Tigers' top two scorers, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. Mizzou will be a young team again -- nine of Anderson's players will be freshmen and sophomores -- but many of those youngsters got quality minutes last season. Anderson isn't sure which of his newcomers will have the biggest impact -- though he told me to watch out for Michael Dixon, a 6-1 freshman from Kansas City who "will give us another gear in terms of quickness" -- but he recognizes that in the wake of last season's strong finish, the Tigers won't be able to sneak up on opponents anymore.
"We're going to be the hunted now. That will be a challenge," he said. "We had a lot of young guys get quality minutes last year. Now they have an opportunity to step to the forefront."
• It's rare that any player enters Bo Ryan's program at Wisconsin as a household name, but it seems that every season somebody leaves as one. So while Ryan has to replace leading scorer Marcus Landry and ubër Glue Guy Joe Krabbenhoft, both of whom graduated, it's a sure bet someone will emerge from the nameless masses to carry the Badgers back into the postseason.
To be sure, that won't be easy to do because the Big Ten is going to be deeper, older and much more competitive than it was last year, when it sent seven teams into the NCAA tournament. Besides his incoming freshmen, Ryan will also be able to use two other freshmen who redshirted last year -- Jared Berggren, a 6-10 forward with a nice shooting touch, and Ryan Evans, an athletic 6-6 swingman from Arizona. But Ryan is also expecting big things from senior forwards Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer, who played mostly complementary roles last season. "I really think those two guys are going to burst onto the scene," Ryan said.
As for his role in coaching the World University Games for USA Basketball, Ryan told me that he is teaching the team a zone defense, even though he said he has never played a single possession of zone in his coaching career. "I was advised that if you're playing in these international games, and the other team scores on three or four straight possessions, sometimes you've got to go zone just to switch things up," Ryan said. "Pete Gillen once told me that the idea is to play chess while the other guy is playing checkers. So that's what I'm trying to do."