Time to get busy, Hoopheads.
Midnight Madnesshas arrived, and I know you are brimming with optimism. Your favorite team is undefeated. You're convinced that every returning vet will be vastly improved from last year, and every newcomer will be that impact player you've been waiting for. Midnight Madness, of course, means the start of practice and yeah, we're talking about practice. We are college basketball fans, after all. We still believe in a place called Hoop.
Coaches, however, are a more realistic lot. They know there is much work to be done. Even the best teams begin each season with nagging questions. Thus, as your resident Hoop Thinker, I am here to provide my annual public service of identifying the most pressing questions facing 20 programs as the new season gets underway.
Arizona has made 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances. When you think about it, that is one of the great achievements in sports. That streak is in serious jeopardy due to the tumult this program has undergone since
Assuming the Wildcats don't have a bid locked up by the middle of February, you can expect the streak to be a mighty weight on this young team's shoulders. The players will be mentally and physically exhausted as is, and they will be asked about the streak every day. Miller will do his best to give his one-day-and-one-game-at-a-time spiel, but that's easier said than done. It will be hard enough for this team to make the tournament without having to play for a quarter-century's worth of history.
It's not uncommon for mid-major teams to creep to the top of the rankings, but most of the time they are unable to sustain that kind of success over time. Gonzaga has been the lone exception over the last 15 years, but now Butler is getting ready to match, and possibly surpass, what Gonzaga has done.
Last year at this time, Butler was beginning practice after losing four starters from a team that had won 30 games and took Tennessee to the wire in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Yet, the Bulldogs still went 26-6 and earned their eighth NCAA bid in 13 years. Now, the Bulldogs return four starters, only one of whom is a senior.
How good is Butler?
A tough preseason schedule that includes the 76 Classic should help determine if they're that good.
For the last eight years, UConn has led the nation in blocks. But now that
Which is not to say UConn can't be a top-three team in the Big East. In senior
This is going to be unlike any Duke team we've seen in a while, maybe ever. The Blue Devils have been forced to play Phoenix Suns-style Smallball the last few years, but now they boast as big and as deep a frontline as any that
Problem is, if you don't count Singler there are only three guards in the program. That means this team is one twisted ankle away from having no guards available to come off the bench. Even so, you can expect Duke to continue to be among the nation's top-scoring teams, especially if 6-11 freshman center
Defensively, however, this group is simply not equipped to apply the type of fulltime, end-to-end ball pressure that has been the staple of Krzyzewski's best teams. Coach K has even openly talked about playing some zone. (Isn't zone a four-letter word in Durham?)
Last season, the Blue Devils were ranked 11th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (43.4 percent) and ninth in three-point defense (33.8 percent) but they still managed to win 30 games and reach the Sweet 16 because they forced 8.2 steals per game. Thanks to their offense, the Blue Devils don't have to be a great defensive team to get further than that, but they do have to be a very good one.
Even the most ardent Georgetown fans would have to concede the Hoyas were the most underachieving team in college basketball last season. Their 12-3 start included wins over UConn and Memphis, yet they fell apart after that and ended up in the NIT. Several coaches around the Big East have told me they believed the Hoyas had chemistry problems between the young players, point guard
Well, Sapp has graduated and Summers left a year early for the NBA draft. (He was picked 35th by Detroit, about 25 spots lower than Monroe would have gone.) So now we get to find out the truth. Was it a lack of chemistry that derailed the Hoyas? Or simply a lack of talent?
I'm betting it's the former.
If your team is making news in September, it's usually not the good kind. It's hard to tell which of the Jayhawks's embarrassments was worse: the fact that they thought it was smart to take on the football team in a fight, or that that
Think this was just a bad summer? Keep in mind that 6-9 sophomore center
Even before the fight, I had already been wondering whether this team would have problems with the Henry brothers.
Talent-wise, there is no question this is the best team in the nation.
Normally, it would be a huge concern for a team to start three freshmen. When those freshmen are
The larger issue for Kentucky is going to be the newness of it all -- new players, new culture, new coach and most of all, new system. And I'm just not sure these guys are going to be all that comfortable with Calipari's Dribble-Drive Motion. The DDM might look frenetic and form-free, but it is actually a very intricate offense that is predicated on -- you guessed it -- dribble drives. Wall and Bledsoe can beat anyone in the country off the dribble, and they will be absolutely devastating in the open floor. (You all know how much I love teams that play two point guards.)
But Cousins already spends too much time on the perimeter, and the most important veteran,
In time, I'm sure Calipari will figure out the necessary tweaks in the DDM to best exploit his team's talents. Kentucky's success will depend on how quickly he -- and his players -- can figure it all out.
It would be a little too obvious to raise the question of how this team will respond to
I believe Sosa's ability to become a dependable, true point guard is the more pressing question. A 6-2 senior from New York City, Sosa has been in and out of Pitino's doghouse the last three years. His deficiencies running the offense were masked last season by the brilliance of point forward
With Williams gone to the NBA, Sosa needs to show he can take care of the ball, set up his teammates and lead this team. The word out of Louisville is that Sosa had a terrific offseason, and Pitino believes he has convinced the kid that his only ticket to professional success is by becoming a floor general. This team is loaded at every other position, but Sosa is the only true point guard on the roster. It's critical that he master the subtleties of the position.
When February rolled around last year, Maryland was 3-5 in the ACC, had a loss to Morgan State and appeared destined to miss out on the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. Then
The Terps season didn't start looking up until an overtime victory over North Carolina in February, which helped them to get back to the tournament (they reached the second round). Williams told me that he believes the controversy inspired his guys. "Part of the criticism was about my recruiting," Williams said. "Well, they were the ones I recruited."
If the Terps can continue playing with that same sense of purpose, they should be a formidable team.
There's a lot of talent here, but not enough that they can coast back to the tournament. They've got to keep playing like they're under siege.
In some programs, it's tough but not impossible for a freshman to have a major impact.
The Wolverines were 10-22 in Beilein's first season in Ann Arbor, but they improved to 21-14 last year and snapped the school's 11-year NCAA tournament drought. With four starters returning from that squad, there's every reason to believe Michigan, which gave Oklahoma a scare in the second round losing, can play its way to the tourney's second weekend.
The chances of that happening will increase dramatically if Morris can play his way into the starting lineup. Learning Beilein's offense is hard enough without having to run the point, but Morris has the physical skills to pull it off. And his size, strength and quickness will help the Wolverines overcome the defensive deficiencies (last season they were ninth in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense). If Morris can play the point, that will enable 6-3 sophomore
If Morris can figure all this out quickly, this will be Michigan's best team since the days of the Fab Five.
We'll soon find out if Green was prescient or a little delusional. North Carolina might have returned many of the same crew from the team that lost to Kansas, but they were a much different team because each of their key players improved significantly in the off-season. If Michigan State is going to win the title, their main guys will have to do the same. Junior point guard
This question is obvious. The answer is not. Nobody in Starkville seems to have any inkling whether the NCAA will declare
For all the attention on Sidney and his potential frontcourtmates, 6-9 senior
One of the problems Mississippi State had last season was a lack of offensive balance. During 16 conference games, it shot 427 threes, the most of any team in the SEC and 54 more than second-place Florida. Sidney's presence would go a long way toward restoring that balance. The Bulldogs need to have him if they are going to be great.
Losing four starters is a small price to pay for winning the national championship. Even so, nobody expects the Tar Heels to drop off the precipice. They are absolutely loaded, albeit inexperienced, in the frontcourt, where returnees
There is, however, one glaring weakness on this roster, and it's a doozy: There is only one point guard. And that player, 6-1 sophomore
A 6-5 junior power forward,
The good news is that Ohio State is full of talented wing players, led by 6-7 junior swingman
Now, Matta hopes to get back to the man-to-man that has been a staple of so many of his teams, but he needs a strong, experienced, athletic (if undersized) power forward to make it all work. Lighty should be that that guy, if he is fully recovered from his injury.
The fact that I've selected this as Purdue's most nagging question is a great sign, for two reasons. First, it means their starting five and perimeter reserves are solid. Second, and most important, it means that
Still, though the 6-10 Johnson was much-improved last season (13.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, up from 5.4 and 3.1 as a freshman), he is still unpolished on offense and is a rail-thin 215 pounds. Foul trouble and lack of strength remain issues. Last year's backup,
I'm normally skeptical about transfers, but in the case of
After averaging 12.7 points per game as a sophomore, Johnson left Iowa State because he wanted to play in more of an up-tempo offense. It also didn't help that the Cyclones coaching staff tried to force him to play through pain, even though an MRI later revealed he had a stress fracture. At any rate,
If Johnson really is that good, then Syracuse has a good chance to return to the NCAA tournament despite losing
It better be real good, because if opposing coaches are smart, Texas will not see a single possession of man-to-man defense this season. Why would they? Texas was ranked last in the Big 12 (and 233rd nationally) in three-point shooting last season, and the team's only long-range threat,
Seems to me you play a zone to do one of three things: Take away the dribble-drive, sag in on the big men and force the other team to beat you from behind the three-point line. The Longhorns should get lots of practice playing against the zone this season. Their effectiveness (or lack thereof) will determine whether they are a great team or just a good one.
UCLA is supposedly on the short list of programs that never rebuild, they just reload. Well, guess what: UCLA is rebuilding. The question is, how long will it take? Remember, this is the place where
The first few weeks will be especially tough as 6-8 senior forward
With a roster that includes nine freshmen and sophomores, Howland knows he has his work cut out for him this season. But he is also unquestionably one of the best coaches in the country. Whether he can reload while rebuilding remains to be seen.
It's unusual that a team can go to the Final Four, lose two-and-a-half starters and return the following season with more talent. But that's what Villanova has managed to do, and it's a major testament to
Now, however, the Cats have to recapture the intangibles that propelled them to Detroit. Yes, 6-9 freshman center
The good news is that in senior point guard
A lithe 6-9 swingman, Ebanks arrived in Morgantown last season as a freshman amid much hype. He had a solid year but was plagued by typical freshman inconsistency. His main weakness was his three-point shooting. He made just five threes all season and shot a ghastly 12.5 percent.
It paid off when Ebanks scored 20 and 22 points, respectively, against Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the Big East tournament. Ebanks has worked hard over the summer to add 15 pounds to his slight frame and shoot hundreds of shots.
Ebanks is too skilled and athletic to rely primarily on the three-point shot, but if can take -- and make -- enough threes this season, that will make him that much harder to guard. And it will make West Virginia, which also has