Burn baby, burn.
I've often lamented the poor manner in which college basketball muffs the start of its season. Instead of staging a dramatic, wall-to-wall "opening day," we get a slow trickle of games out of the gate.
But when it comes to the start of practice, nobody does it better. That's right. I'm talking about ...
So as diehards like us gear up for Midnight Madness, your resident Hoop Thinker is on hand to stoke your fire with 10 burning questions I'm looking forward to answering as the season gets under way. The games are still a few weeks away, but right now I am all ablaze with anticipation. Herewith, The Hot Ten:
We all remember where the Blue Devils ended up last April. Less memorable is the fact that for most of the season they flew under the radar (by their standards, anyway). Before Feb. 22, Duke spent just one week ranked in the top five of the AP poll. On Selection Sunday, the consensus was that Duke was the weakest of the four No. 1 seeds. By the time the Blue Devils reached the Final Four, the efforts to revive the old "We hate Duke" theme seemed half-hearted. The team peaked too late to feel the hate.
Not this time around. The Blue Devils will likely be close to a consensus preseason No. 1 team, but lest we forget, they did lose three senior starters off last year's championship squad. True, they're adding superfrosh point guard
It's unusual that two of the top three teams in the country begin the season with their best players recovering from major, season-ending injuries. Michigan State and Purdue are set to wage a scintillating battle for Big Ten supremacy this season, but in order to win the league and advance to the Final Four, they need big years from Lucas and Hummel, respectively.
Lucas ruptured his Achilles tendon in the Spartans' NCAA tournament second-round win over Maryland, and Hummel missed the tourney altogether after tearing the ACL in his right knee on Feb. 24. During reconstructive surgery on March 8, doctors used part of the patella tendon in Hummel's left knee to repair the torn ACL in his right, so he actually has
Lucas has been basically unrestricted in his preseason workouts with his teammates, and though he still needs to work his way through the recovery process he should be available to play in the Spartans' first game. Hummel was just cleared to practice this month, so it's not as certain that he'll be ready for the start of the season, but the odds favor it. Given that these are two of the most serious injuries a basketball player can sustain, there are no guarantees these guys will get back to where they were anytime soon. Equally certain is that neither Michigan State nor Purdue can win a Big Ten title, much less a national championship, without Lucas and Hummel at their best.
I don't do preseason coaches-on-the-hot-seat lists anymore, so this is not about job security. But while there will be some notable guys who will be under duress because their teams are lousy (
The main candidate who comes to mind here is Illinois coach
Another coach who needs a big year is Virginia Tech's
Then there's Memphis coach
When I called
Now that Stevens appears to be establishing the same type of mid-major continuity that Few has created in Spokane, it's fair to wonder when the Zags are going to pull off a similar breakthrough and get to the Final Four. Lots of high-major coaches have gone through the knocking-at-the-door-but-haven't-broken-through crucible, and while some never get there (
Gonzaga fits that bill. Though they lost do-everything guard
Friday doesn't just mean Midnight Madness at UConn. It is also the day when the school must appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. Last week, the school publicly released its formal answer to the NCAA's allegations, but most experts (myself included) believe the NCAA will go further than UConn's self-imposed penalty of one scholarship reduction each of the next two years.
This burning question will hang over the first half of the Huskies' season, since we won't know the answer for several months. (Nor is there a definitive date that we'll find out.) But the implications go beyond the dimensions of the penalties. The reality is,
In other words, if the NCAA further shackles Calhoun's ability to recruit, it could set this program back so far that it might not recover for a long, long while. So stay tuned.
Calhoun is one of a handful of coaches who have lorded over the nation's most glamorous conference. Over the last several years he has been joined at the top by another man who is already in the Hall of Fame (
But the coach who I believe will finally begin to be recognized as a top-tier talent is Pittsburgh's
Now, with four starters back, Pittsburgh will make a strong run at a Big East title and a No. 1 seed. If that happens, I expect more casual fans to recognize that Dixon is among the best in the business.
I'm not talking about the teams that get seeded 13th or 14th in the NCAA tournament and then splash onto the scene with a surprising win or two. I'm talking about the guys who grab our respect from the get-go and win enough games to get an 8-10 seed. Think Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's of '09-10.
I'll set aside a pair of usual suspects, Butler and Gonzaga, as well as BYU, which has an All-America-caliber guard in
My other mid-major gem is Wichita State. You may recall that in his previous gig, Shockers coach
The ramifications of this answer will extend well beyond the prodigious confines of the Big Blue Nation. Yes, the 6-9 Turkish native would be the best center in college basketball if he suits up, but if the NCAA deems him ineligible on the basis of the money received from his professional club in Turkey, it could discourage coaches from trying to recruit elite foreign players in the future.
This is ironic, since Kanter was supposed to be the first high-caliber player who was going to be liberated by the NCAA's recently-implemented rule easing the way for overseas players to play American college basketball. In the past, the main problem with players making the jump is the lack of a high school system in Europe similar to what we have here in the States. That means that if the top European prospects want to learn how to play, they have to join professional clubs, which deemed them a pro in the eyes of the NCAA. The rule put in place last spring allows youngsters to play with pros as long as they don't get compensated above "actual and necessary expenses."
Kanter's status is on hold while the NCAA and Kentucky try to figure out whether his compensation went above this threshold. Clearly, the man who runs his club back home is doing all he can to thwart Kanter's efforts, and he may have the goods to do just that. At the end of the day, I'm hoping Kanter will wear a Kentucky jersey this season, because if he doesn't, other coaches might decide it's not worth the hassle to try recruit foreign players. That would be a shame, because the game really benefits from the international flavor.
The short answer is, not really. It will probably
Beyond that, things will be pretty ugly -- again. Cal lost the core of last year's regular-season champs; Arizona, Arizona State and Washington State are just OK; Oregon State and Stanford are causing ripples in recruiting but are still at least a year away from seeing the benefits on the court; USC is still reeling from sanctions levied in the
The first answer will be revealed in about five months, but I can tell you the second -- very loudly. One of the arguments in favor of expanding the NCAA tournament was the notion that there were sooooo many teams worthy of inclusion that it was a travesty to leave them out. This belied the basic truth that no matter how many teams are allowed in, some teams are going to be left out. And they will understandably want to make their case that they got the shaft.
There was so much attention given to the desire to save coaches' jobs by expanding the tournament that few considered the probability that expansion will make life even harder for those coaches whose teams were left out.