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10 burning questions as Midnight Madness rings in hoops season

If you can't wait for college basketball season to start, then you'll be happy to know that college basketball can't wait, either. When the clock strikes midnight Friday for the start of practice, it will actually be 5:00. That's right, the NCAA has the power to actually change the time.

For many decades, teams were allowed to begin practicing on Oct. 15. Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell was the first to come up with the idea of holding a public workout at the first possible moment, thereby begetting the idea of Midnight Madness. Like most great ideas, that one got copied so often that people forgot who first came up with it. Also like most great ideas, the NCAA felt a need to stop it. Imagine -- college students staying up so late on a school night! How dare we deprive them of the chance to study quietly in the library and tuck themselves in by 9 o'clock?

The NCAA's fix was to permit schools to start practicing at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Oct. 15. That's fine with me. As far as I'm concerned -- as far as we're concerned -- the new season can't begin soon enough.

And so, to herald the start of a brand new season, and having answered the existential question of why Midnight Madness happens at 5 o'clock, your resident Hoop Thinker has arrived to delve into the most pressing unanswerables facing this wonderful sport heading into the new season. Herewith, my 10 burning questions. Let's get ready to sizzle.

1. Is N.C. State ready for its closeup?

Since this marks the 30-year anniversary of Jim Valvano's miraculous dash to the 1983 NCAA championship, I figured this would be an appropriate place to start. The three decades that have passed since then have not been kind to Wolfpack fans. Not only has N.C. State not been back to the Final Four, it has only reached the Sweet Sixteen three times in the last 25 years. Meanwhile, those evil twins down Interstate 40, Duke and North Carolina, have reigned supreme not just over Tobacco Road but all of college basketball.

So you can understand why so many Wolfpack fans are salivating at the prospect of unseating Duke and North Carolina atop the ACC standings -- for a season, anyway. N.C. State is the hot pick to win the league this season, and for good reason. Though it was the very last team revealed on the CBS Selection Show last March, N.C. State beat San Diego State and Georgetown to reach the Sweet Sixteen, where it nearly knocked off Kansas before losing by three. When the team's best player, 6-foot-9 forward C.J. Leslie, announced he would forego the NBA draft to return for his junior season, it set off a wave of excitement. Leslie is one of four returning starters, and the team is also adding one of the most dynamic freshmen in the country in 6-4 Raleigh native Rodney Purvis.

However, a word of warning: Much of this anticipation is predicated on the assumption that Duke and Carolina will have down seasons. The problem is that even though both teams lost significant players (especially North Carolina), they won't be that far down. That makes you wonder whether expectations have already gotten ahead of reality. So it will be up to Mark Gottfried, N.C. State's second-year coach, to make sure his guys tune out the noise. "Last year, we were picked ninth [in the ACC] and we really didn't pay attention to it," he said. "This year, we're gonna be picked higher, and we shouldn't pay attention to that, either. Our guys should enjoy the excitement but not get caught up and drink the Kool Aid."

Ah, but that Kool Aid is refreshing. And Wolfpack fans are mighty thirsty after their long, hot walk through the desert.

2. How will we know if Kevin Ollie deserves the UConn job?

In many respects, Ollie, who signed a one-year contract after Jim Calhoun retired, is in an impossible position. All he has to do is take a team that lost three starters from a squad that bowed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament, take it through the rugged Big East with no postseason to play for, and make waves on the recruiting trail during a time of year where there is precious little happening on that front. And all with just two years of coaching experience, and none as a head coach. Easy, right?

So where should we -- or more specifically, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel -- set the bar? Should it be a certain number of wins? Or number of road wins? Should Ollie have to lock up a key commitment from a player who will bolt if Ollie doesn't get the job? Ollie's X's and O's acumen will be closely scrutinzed, but to me, that is the least important part of coaching. It would be more instructive to see whether his players get better as the season goes on, because that will be a reflection of how well he teaches.

In the end, the answer boils town to something simple: Let's see if Ollie's kids play hard for him. I mean really hard. Since UConn cannot compete in the postseason, including the Big East tournament, the only thing these kids will have to play for is 1) their own pride, and 2) their desire to see Ollie get the permanent job. If we get to the end of February and the Huskies are still diving on the floor, cheering for each other and playing their hearts out on defense, then Ollie will have earned his shot. If Ollie's players quit on him, it will make it easier for Manuel to do the same.

3. Which newly hired coach is entering the best situation?

In the past, conventional wisdom held that it was better to take over a program that is down and therefore has nowhere to go but up. I have come to believe that the opposite is true. A coach is much better off going to a school where the coach was hired away because he won instead of fired because he lost. Fans and media just won't wait for him to turn things around.

So who fits the bill? After a relatively quiet coaching carousel last spring, the first name that comes to mind is Bruce Weber, who inherited a quality roster at Kansas State after Frank Martin bolted for South Carolina. There are lots of good mid-major choices as well. When Tim Jankovich left Illinois State to join Larry Brown's staff at SMU, he also left behind a stocked roster for Dan Muller, the former Redbird who was an assistant Vanderbilt. (Muller will coach one of the nation's true hidden gems in 6-9 senior forward Jackie Carmichael.) John Groce left Ohio to coach Illinois, but his successor, former TCU coach Jim Christian, will coach all five of the starters from the Bobcats' Sweet Sixteen squad. And even though Danny Hurley was only at Wagner for two seasons, he established a winning foundation, which will benefit his former assistant-turned-successor, Bashir Mason.

My choice, however, is Larry Eustachy, who will take over at Colorado State following Tim Miles's decision to accept the Nebraska job. The Rams return four starters from the team that earned an at-large bid by finishing fourth in the Mountain West Conference, and they're adding Colt Iverson, a 6-10, 280-pound senior transfer from Minnesota. Though the team suffered a tough blow earlier this month when it lost senior guard Jesse Carr to a torn ACL, that loss will be mitigated by the arrival of Daniel Bejarano, a transfer from Arizona. Moreover, San Diego State will move to the Big West next season, which will make it easier for the Rams to compete in the Mountain West. Timing is critical to a coach's ability to succeed in a new situation, and in this case Eustachy's timing was perfect. And make no mistake: The man can coach.

4. Who is the best player you've never heard of?

The pool of candidates for this answer is especially large this season. Unlike a year ago, college basketball will not be blessed with a bevy of high-profile players who turned down the draft. (And based on where those returnees got drafted, we probably won't be blessed again for a long time.) As a result, many of the better players in America are relatively unknowns.

Arkansas guard B.J. Young is a prime example. As a 6-3 freshman, Young was pressed into leading man duties after the Razorbacks' best player, Marshawn Powell, suffered a season-ending knee injury after two games. Young led the Razorbacks and was ranked sixth in the SEC in scoring (15.3). I already mentioned Illinois State forward Jackie Carmichael, but you'll also start hearing more about Maryland center Alex Len, a 7-1 sophomore from the Ukraine who never quite caught up after being suspended for the first ten games last season for violating amateur guidelines. Some other names to put on your radar include Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wisconsin-Green Bay center Alec Brown, and Tennessee State forward Robert Covington.

But since I can only pick one, I am going to go with Colorado junior Andre Roberson. Though he is only a 6-foot-7 forward, Roberson led the Pac 12 last season in rebounds (11.1, also third nationally) and blocks (1.9) while leading the Buffaloes to the Pac 12 tournament title and a win over UNLV in the NCAAs. Many of Roberson's 11.6 points per game came in transition, but he did make 19 threes, so that shows he has potential to become a perimeter scorer. Roberson's a bit of a late bloomer, but he's a prototypical NBA three man, and I believe he will prove as much this season. Just remember where you heard about him first.

5. Who will be the nation's most intriguing freshman?

Notice I didn't say "best." You probably know about the usual suspects like UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, Baylor's Isaiah Austin and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. By "intriguing," I'm referring to guys who can play but who also, by virtue of their circumstances, can become make-or-break players in their first year.

One freshman who leaps to mind is Yogi Ferrell, the diminutive point guard from Indianapolis who has the chance to lead his hometown Hoosiers to the national championship -- if he's ready to meet the moment. Sam Dekker is the most offensively gifted freshman Bo Ryan has ever recruited to Wisconsin. I'll also be interested to see how Oak Hill Academy grad D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera fits into Georgetown's backcourt.

For intrigue, however, it's hard to beat Pittsburgh's Steven Adams. A seven-foot center from New Zealand, Adams is extremely skilled and agile for a player his size. He even outplayed Noel when their high school teams faced off last season. Aside from DaJuan Blair, Jamie Dixon has never recruited a player this heralded, and Adams is joining the program at the perfect time. The Panthers had a disappointing 2011-12 -- it was the first time in Dixon's nine years that they failed to make the NCAA tournament -- but that was partly because early on point guard Tray Woodall sustained a leg injury that dogged him all season. Woodall is now at full strength, and the team is adding another prized freshman, 6-3 guard James Robinson, as well as Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler. Adams will give Pitt a unique presence in the post. If he's fun to watch, the Panthers will be as well.

6. Will the refs call fewer charges?

That seems to be what most fans and commentators want. It's also what John Adams, the NCAA's supervisor of officials, said he wanted last March during the NCAA tourmanent. Since then, however, Adams has spent many hours evaluating every block/charge call that was whistled during the tourney. What Adams found surprised even him. "There were more blocking fouls called incorrectly than player control fouls called incorrectly," he said. "We're actually penalizing defenders more than we should."

The block/charge is the toughest play for a referee to call, so the NCAA rules committee made it a point of emphasis during their summer meetings. During the clinics Adams holds for officials across the country, he has been giving a 45-minute presenatation dedicated solely to this play. The result will probably be more charges called this season, not less. Yes, that will probably lead to more complaints from courtside commentators and fans, but those complaints are often rooted in misperceptions about the definition of a charge. "We're trying to get people to understand that that the mere fact that a defensive players is moving at the point of contact doesn't mean it's a blocking foul," Adams said. "Once a defender has established legal guarding position, the only thing he can't do is move up and into the guy he's guarding. He's allowed to move away and give ground. The dribbler is a hundred percent responsible for avoiding the defender, not the other way around."

Fans might complain if charges are called more frequently, but most coaches won't. When Adams spoke at Billy Donovan's clinic over the summer, he asked more than fifty Division I coaches in attendance how many of them wanted to see more charges called. Not a single hand went up. I have a theory as to why that is: Most of the elite athletes wind up at about two dozen schools, so the rest of the teams have to rely on position defense to make up for the disadvantage. The NBA might be taking extraordinary steps to eliminate flops, but college basketball appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

7. Will freshman forwards Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson be eligible at UCLA?

This is a tough one to answer, because the people who really know what's going on ain't talking. However, it's not overstating things to say that UCLA's season hangs in the balance of how the NCAA answers this question.

Muhammad and Anderson are widely considered to be two of the top five recruits, but the NCAA has yet to declare them eligible because it is investigating whether either player (or both) accepted illicit benefits while they were in high school. This is not by itself all that alarming; given the recruiting climate these days, the NCAA is all but certain to heavily scrutinze the top prospects. Right now Muhammad and Anderson are in a literal holding pattern. The NCAA gives players in their situation a 45-day grace period to participate in team activities while their cases are being investigated, so both Muhammad and Anderson will be on the floor when UCLA begins practice later this evening.

Based on what I'm hearing, we should know the answer to this question by the time the Bruins open their season against Indiana State on Nov. 9. I also think it's unlikely that either one of these guys will lose the entire season, either because of a one-year suspension or a declaration of permanent ineligibility. The more likely scenario is that they will either be given the green light by the first game, or they will miss a fixed number of games depending on the dollar amount they are found to have accepted. It is not ideal for a coach to begin his season facing this kind of uncertainty, but right now Ben Howland has no choice.

8. Is the Atlantic 10 the best conference in the country?

The question does not sound so ludicrous if you insert the word basketball before "conference" -- in which case the answer is a resounding yes. While the BCS leagues have been shifting their deck chairs in hopes of landing the biggest football payday, the Atlantic 10 has quietly upgraded its lineup as a basketball-centric conference. The league is losing Temple to the Big East and Charlotte to Conference USA, but those changes won't happen until next season. In the meantime, Butler and VCU, which have a combined three Final Four appearances the last three years, will begin playing right away.

That sets the stage for one of the most interesting conference races you will find anywhere. Six of the Atlantic 10's 16 schools garnered first place votes in the media's preseason poll. Saint Joseph's barely edged out Saint Louis for the top spot, which is a compelling narrative because the Billikens are without ailing head coach Rick Majerus the entire season. The Atlantic 10 has the potential to send as many as six teams to the NCAA tournament. If that's the case, there will be at least one so-called power conference with fewer representatives.

Even after Temple and Charlotte leave, the Atlantic 10 has set itself up well for the future. The other high-end mid-majors (Mountain West, Horizon and CAA) have all been diminished by realignment. I know the Atlantic 10 doesn't like to think of itself as a midmajor conference, but in today's climate, if you're not a football league, then that's what you are. The difference is that the Atlantic 10 has embraced its identity instead of trying to expand its way out of it. It has been a necessary but smart strategy.

9. Is this the year when Michigan finally overtakes Michigan State?

This dynamic is similar to the one that will play out on Tobacco Road. It has now been 20 years since the Fab Five era closed with a second straight appearance in the NCAA championship game. In the years since, Wolverines fans have suffered the same sad fate with respect to Michigan State that N.C. State fans have suffered with respect to Duke and North Carolina. The numbers are damning: Since 1996, Michigan has never finished ahead of Michigan State in the final Big Ten standings (though they were tied six times, including last year.) During the last 18 NCAA tournaments, Michigan has advanced further than Michigan State just twice, in 1996 and 2011. (They both lost in the first round in 1995.) During that same span, Michigan State has twice as many Final Fours (six) as Michigan has NCAA tourney wins (three). Heading into last season, Michigan State had been ranked ahead of Michigan in the AP's Top 25 for 264 consecutive polls, dating back to the 1997-98 season.

Michigan did enter last season ranked ahead of their rivals in the preseason AP poll, but it took all of six weeks for Michigan State to overtake them for good. Now, every preseason publication that I have seen has Michigan ranked ahead of Michigan State, and this time the Wolverines might stay there for good. The Spartans lost the Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green from the team that lost to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen, while the Wolverines return three starters, including sophomore point guard Trey Burke, from the team that finished in a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten but was upset by Ohio in the second round. Most recruitniks also give Michigan's freshman class a slight edge over Michigan State's. The Wolverines made the bigger splash when they signed 6-10 center Mitch McGary, aka White Thunder, but the Spartans filled an important need at scoring guard when they inked 6-4 Indiana native Gary Harris.

The bad news for Michigan is that while Tom Izzo doesn't have a superstar of Green's caliber on his roster, he does have a bunch of solid pieces in place, especially if sophomore forward Branden Dawson rebounds from the ACL injury he suffered during the Big Ten tournament. Much like Duke and North Carolina, Michigan State is an elite program that will only fall so far. Still, if Michigan is finally going to rise above its rival, it might not get an opportunity this good for a while.

10. Speaking of Michigan State, what will the Mad Scientist think of next?

I am referring, of course, to Mark Hollis, Michigan State's forward-thinking, out-of-the-box marketing whiz of an athletic director. Hollis was the creative force behind the 2003 "Basket Bowl," which drew more than 78,000 fans to Ford Field to watch the Spartans play Kentucky, as well as last year's Carrier Classic, which was the most memorable event of the season. While other schools have smartly copied the idea of playing on a military base (there will be three games played aboard aircraft carriers this season, and Duke will begin practicing Friday at Fort Bragg), Hollis did everyone one better (again) by setting up a season opener between Michigan State and UConn at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Nov. 9.

The Sports Business Daily named Hollis its athletic director of the year, but more importantly, the NCAA appointed him to the mens basketball committee. That means Hollis will be bringing his wacky ideas to the NCAA tournament. I can't wait to see what he comes up with.

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