LAS VEGAS -- "Heck, we were 33-2 going into that game," Bill Self was saying. The Kansas coach and I were sitting in the bleachers of Rancho High School last Thursday afternoon, watching a delightfully taut game between two of the top grassroots program in the country who were competing in the Adidas Super 64 tournament: the Compton Magic, which features the top center in the Class of 2012, 7-foot Isaiah Austin, and the J-Smoove Celtics. Self was among several dozen coaches who were attending the game during the annual July evaluation period, but like his colleagues in the bleachers, Self was far from engrossed in the action.
For the most part, all the college coaches working the summer circuit know whom they want to recruit by now. Their presence is a way for them to advertise their interest to the players. Generally speaking, they come less to see and more to be seen.
I was there mostly to see the coaches. Sure, I like to get a gander at the top high school prospects on the rise, but mostly I enjoy attending events like the Super 64 primarily because it gives me a chance to catch up with the fellas in the stands and take their temperature on the state of their teams heading into next season. Self had been explaining to me that his team at Kansas could be as good at the end of next season as last year's team was. Only, we all know how last year ended for the Jayhawks -- with a historic second-round loss to Northern Iowa. So when Self said the words "that game," I didn't have to ask what he meant. I only asked if he had ever watched it since it ended. "Nah," he said. "It's not gonna help me much."
Chatting with head coaches in the casual atmosphere of a high school gym sure helped me get ready for the 2011-12 season. Which means, Hoop Thinkers, it helped me help you. What follows is a quick-hit summary of my visits with 11 head coaches during my three-day stay in Vegas last week. Wednesday, I will have the second installment of my Vegas report, which will offer a view through the eyes of an NBA scout of the college players who were in town to scrimmage against the NBA players competing to play for Team USA at the World Championships later this summer. Part two will also include my thoughts on a few of the notable high school players I watched.
It's a lot to chew on, but hey, it's summertime. Allow me to fill your belly until you're ready to feast on Midnight Madness.
First up, the head coaches:
The Jayhawks lost Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry from that 33-3 team, but Self said his upcoming unit "might be the most athletic team we've had." Tyshawn Taylor, a 6-foot-3 junior, will move into a more primary role, and redshirt sophomore forward Travis Releford will add speed on the wing after redshirting last season. But the guy who will make that engine go is freshman point guard Josh Selby, who Self told me should start from day one.
Up front, Self expects 6-8 junior forward Marcus Morris to be one of the best players in the country and said that his twin brother Markieff is the team's X-factor.
"I don't know if we'll be as good at the beginning of the year as we were last year," he said, "but if things fall right we could be as good late."
The first contest is more than three months away, but Calipari is already deftly playing the expectations game. "Everybody is trying to say we'll be better than a year ago," he told me. "I'm like, are you out of your mind?"
He has a point. The Wildcats might have comparable (though still inferior) talent than they had last season, but as young as they were, they'll be that much younger in '10-11. Calipari is once again bringing in the nation's top recruiting class, but while UK returns four experienced guys in Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrelson and Jon Hood, they will not offer the strength or stability that Patrick Patterson did last season as a junior.
At least three of Calipari's incoming freshmen will have a great chance to start: 6-3 point guard Brandon Knight, 6-9 forward Terrence Jones and 6-9 Turkish center Enes Kanter. The NCAA has not yet officially cleared Kanter to play, but Calipari told me he is not concerned. As for speculation that Kanter might be better than DeMarcus Cousins as a freshman, Calipari shot me a skeptical look and said, "He better be real good if he's gonna be better than Cousins."
Even as Kentucky was rolling up victories (many of which were close) last season, Calipari cautioned people that the team's lack of experience, especially in postseason play, was still a major concern. That proved to be the case in the Wildcats' loss to West Virginia in the regional final. "You hope you can have some experience to go with the young guys," he said. "It's the Sweet 16 game, the Elite Eight game that you worry about. They had never gone through that anxiety, and for the first time all year, we just didn't have it [against West Virginia]."
Still, don't expect Calipari to alter his recruiting philosophy anytime soon. He scoffed at my suggestion that he should look to recruit a few players who won't be one-and-done but can still contribute during a four-year career. "If you recruit guys who you know are going to be there for four years, you'll probably be in the NIT, and that's not a good thing at Kentucky," he said. "You recruit the best players you can, and if someone is going to take them in the first round, I tell them to go."
The Longhorns had a very disappointing fall from grace last season after garnering the No. 1 ranking, but Barnes was quick to remind me that they had suffered injuries to their two experienced point guards, Dogus Balbay, who tore an ACL in February, and Varez Ward, who ruptured a quadriceps tendon last November. Barnes told me that Ward was scheduled to meet with a doctor early this week, and both players should be cleared to play soon. "We lost two great leaders," he said. "That hurt us more than anything."
It will also hurt that Texas lost Avery Bradley, Damion James and Dexter Pittman from last year's team. That means Barnes will need to get much production from his two freshman studs, 6-9 swingman Tristan Thompson and 6-3 point guard Cory Joseph. "They'll have as good a chance to start as anybody," he said.
Barnes also said he's hopeful that two of last year's freshmen, swingman Jordan Hamilton and point guard J'Covan Brown, will make a big leap this season. The refrain will be pretty familiar in Austin: long on talent, light on experience. "It's wide open," Barnes said. "I don't think there's a lock on any position. We have a lot of pieces, and now it's up to all of us."
It's a remarkable thing to say about a program in the West Coast Conference, but the Zags don't rebuild anymore, they just reload. Aside from Matt Bouldin, they will return every major contributor from last year's 27-7 team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, and they will boast arguably the strongest and deepest front line Few has had in his 13 years as head coach.
That frontcourt will again have an international flavor. Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre will both play for Canada this summer at the World Championships, and 6-8 sophomore Elias Harris will suit up for his native Germany. Few was concerned that playing in international competition might hinder his guys' physical development because they can't build up their bodies the way most college players do in the summertime, but there is an obvious upside to playing against older professionals in a high-pressure environment. Thanks largely to the bird dog work of his assistant Tommy Lloyd, Few has really thrived in recruiting international players and has every intention on continuing that practice.
"We're just trying to get the best players out there, whether they're from California and Oregon or Germany and France," he told me. "Plus the recruiting process is a lot simpler over there. Usually there's a player and his parents and that's it. It's not as convoluted as it is over here."
Few also has high hopes for 6-10 forward Sam Dower, a lefty from Minneapolis who redshirted last season. "He could have helped us last year, but it was just a numbers thing," Few said. Another newcomer and foreign player, 6-4 French native Marquise Carter, a junior college transfer, will be featured in the backcourt alongside 5-11 junior Demetri Goodson. And keep an eye out for redshirt freshman David Stockton -- yes, the son of that patron saint of Gonzaga basketball, John Stockton -- to further bolster the Bulldogs' perimeter. This team will need all hands on deck in the early going because Few has once again assembled a brutal nonconference schedule that includes Illinois, Xavier, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Wake Forest and a spot in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, where the field will also include Kansas State, Duke and Marquette.
The Huskies bade farewell to the most valuable player from the team that won the Pac-10 conference tournament, Quincy Pondexter, as well as Elston Turner, who transferred after averaging 15 minutes per game. Everyone else returns, and Romar expects contributions from a couple of talented newcomers, 6-6 freshman swingman Terrence Ross and Aziz N'Diaye, a 7-foot sophomore transfer from College of Southern Idaho. When I asked Romar if N'Diaye was going to get a lot of minutes, he replied, "Oh yeah, he'll play. He's a legit 7-foot, 250 [pounds]. He's not a prospect."
Though Romar said his team will be "as big as we've ever been," the strength will once again come from the perimeter, where Washington is flush with talent. Junior guard Isaiah Thomas, last year's second-leading scorer, returns alongside 6-3 sophomore Abdul Gaddy, who played for Team USA's Under 18 team this summer. Romar will have the luxury of deploying three seniors (5-11 guard Venoy Overton, 6-6 swingman Justin Holladay and 6-9 forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning) as well as glue guy Darnell Gant, sharp shooter Scott Suggs and redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox. The Pac-10 will be improved overall from last season (it could hardly be worse), but with regular season champ Cal having lost its core players, the Huskies will be clearly the team to beat.
"We probably will have the most experienced team since '06 when we had Brandon Roy," Romar said. "The main concern will be chemistry. Everybody has to accept the roles so we can find the right combination."
The best news for Indiana fans is that Maurice Creek, who missed all but 12 games as a freshman because of a fractured knee, just got cleared to practice last week. "He was the leading freshman scorer in the country when he got hurt," Crean reminded me. "I'm sure there will be some rust there, but our trainers and strength coach have done a great job with him. They push him hard, and he has responded well."
The Hoosiers did not lose anyone of significance from last season. Given that the team went 4-14 in the Big Ten, that may not be such a great thing. But assuming the returning players progress as they should, it's reasonable to expect that Indiana will be better across the board. Crean sounded especially excited about the addition of Guy Mare Michel, a 7-1 center from Martinique who transferred from North Idaho junior college. Mare Michel signed with Indiana shortly after Crean hired former Wyoming coach Steve McClain as his assistant. "I haven't seen him much, but our players are really impressed with him," Crean said. "He needs to get cut and more defined, but he's 275 pounds and is just naturally strong. He's really going to help us with our rebounding."
Greenberg has a talented, experienced team coming back to Blacksburg, so he's not bothering to talk down its chances. "We have maturity, we have depth, we have a cause. We have everything you need to be successful," he said. "There are a lot of teams who have a chance to be really good, and we are going to be one of those teams."
The main reason, of course, is 6-3 senior guard Malcolm Delaney, a two-time first team all-ACC selection. Greenberg was none too pleased (justifiably so) that Delaney was not among the 20 college players invited to practice with the Team USA guys, but he told me that Delaney injured his ankle at Deron Williams' camp earlier this month and probably wouldn't have been able to play anyway.
The Hokies will likely be able to start four seniors and a junior next season, but since they're lacking in frontcourt depth, it is imperative that Allan Chaney, a 6-9, 245-pound forward who transferred from Florida, gets healthy. Chaney collapsed during a workout in late April and was later diagnosed as having a heart ailment caused by a virus. He will get an MRI later this summer, but at this point there is no way to know for sure when -- or whether -- he will be available.
Greenberg also told me he has upgraded his team's schedule, which will include Purdue (though that game was assigned in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge), Mississippi State, Kansas State, Penn State, a road date at St. Bonaventure plus a spot in the Anaheim Classic, which also includes Oklahoma State, Stanford, UNLV and DePaul. When I asked Greenberg if he scheduled those games in response to his team's being snubbed from the NCAA tournament last season, he virtually growled and said, "Don't get me started."
"We're a senior team," he said. "I met with our guys and I told them I wanted to play this schedule. I wanted to challenge them. I think we'll be ready for it."
The Crimson Tide are still going to be in rebuilding mode next season, but Grant believes they will improve on their fourth-place finish in the SEC West, if only because the players will be more familiar with him in his second season in Tuscaloosa. "We'll be as good as the improvement of our returning guys," he said. "They should understand the system and our expectations and figure out where they need to get better."
One player who leaps to mind is 6-9 junior forward JaMychal Green, who has been rather nondescript after arriving at Alabama amidst considerable hype coming out of high school. Grant heard good things about the way Green played at Amar'e Stoudemire's camp a few weeks ago, but he is looking for more consistency this season. "With JaMychal, the biggest thing I want to see is maturity that comes with being a veteran," Grant said. "He needs to learn to deal with situations that come up, whether it's practice, the game, off-the-court stuff. I want him to understand that what he does impacts everything else around him."
Grant also said he is hopeful that sophomore guard Andrew Steele, another highly regarded high school prospect, will get a year of eligibility back after missing most of last season with a broken bone in his ankle. Not only will the Tide have to manage losing senior starters Mikhail Torrance and Anthony Brock, they will also be without 6-9 power forward Justin Knox, who finished his undergraduate degree and was thus able to transfer to North Carolina and be eligible to play right away. Knox said he wanted to go to a place where he can get lots of minutes and touches, and he very much wanted to end up at UAB. But Alabama would not release Knox to UAB, so now he'll have to come off the bench at North Carolina, which was in need of a big body after the Wear twins transferred to UCLA last spring.
Ah, the optimism of summer. Johnson's Tigers went 11-20 in his second year in Baton Rouge and they have since lost their two top players -- Tasmin Mitchell, who graduated, and 6-1 guard Bo Spencer, who had to leave for academic reasons. Yet Johnson insisted "we're fine, believe me." In the next breath, he counseled patience. "I'm not going to find some juco guys who might help us win two more games and then leave after two years. I believe in years three, four and five if you are trying to build something."
LSU was beset by injuries last season, so Johnson is hopeful that players like 6-4 sophomore Aaron Dotson, who missed his entire senior year of high school as well as seven games last season with tendonitis, will be fully healthy. He will also need quality production from his highly regarded freshman class, most notably Matt Derenbecker, a 6-6 small forward who was the best high school player in Louisiana last year. Johnson will probably have to turn his offense over to another of those freshmen, 5-11 point guard Andre Stringer from Jackson, Miss., and thinks he'll get a big boost from Malcolm White, a 6-9 junior forward who sat out last season after transferring from Ole Miss.
Johnson could not comment on high school players who have not signed yet, but I can report that he has received a notable verbal commitment from 6-3 guard John Isaac of Pickering High School in Leesville, La. So while I would likewise counsel LSU fans to remain patient, it does appear that Johnson is slowly but surely building this program into a winner. At least, that's how it appeared during the always-hopeful days of July.
I'll say this for Boeheim. If he thinks his players are good, he'll say it. If he thinks his players are not good, he'll say it (though usually not for attribution). Two years ago, I spoke with Boeheim at a USA Basketball event, and he told me that he had a transfer from Iowa State named Wesley Johnson who was going to be a lottery pick. I had never heard of the kid, but I know who he is now.
So when Boeheim says that his incoming 7-foot freshman center, the wonderfully named Fab Melo, will be "a strong contender for national rookie of the year," you should pay attention. Not that this is a surprise. Boeheim said Melo has lost 30 pounds over the last year, and unlike many big men coming out of high school, he is ready to have an impact right away. "He's a good passer and shooter, but he's also seven feet tall and he can block shots and rebound," Boeheim said. "The good thing for him is that we have four veteran guys who will be out there with him. He's not going out there with guys who don't know how to play."
Alas, there are no Wesley Johnsons among the four returning starters -- Scoop Jardine, Rick Jackson, Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche -- but if Melo and the other freshmen are as good as Boeheim hopes, then Syracuse could very well compete for a Big East title again. Besides Melo, 6-3 Dion Waiters will have a good chance to either start or play starter's minutes. "The key will be the four incoming freshmen. How good can they be?" Boeheim said. "That's why I like my team. I think they're going to be real good."
This is one coach I spoke with whom I didn't pepper with questions about his team. I was more curious as to why Drew, who will turn 66 in September and is about to begin his 42nd year in coaching, is still spending his summer chasing high school kids around the country. "I really don't enjoy this aspect of the job, to be honest," Drew told me. "You're away from home, you watch so many games, you've done it for 40 years. I tell [my son and assistant coach] Bryce, 'Just get me to the parents.' "
Still, it is always inspirational, not to mention great fun, to spend time visiting with Homer Drew. He is funny and pleasant and exudes such a genuine joie de vivre. Despite his distaste for recruiting (and he's hardly alone among his peers in that regard), he still loves his work and has no plans to retire soon. "I'm still a kid at heart. I enjoy the teaching part of it," he said. "One nice thing about it is, young people keep you young."
My advice to all Hoop Thinkers is to take some time if you get a chance to chat with Homer Drew about everything and nothing. And if you ever spot him in a Las Vegas casino, shake his hand right before you play craps. Trust me on that one.