Cronin, Self look toward season ahead, more Hoop Thoughts

Friday August 16th, 2013

Head coach Mick Cronin has said this year's crop of incoming players could be his best recruiting class at Cincinnati.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

I know you can feel summer slipping away, my fellow Hoopheads, but please don't be sad. There are still five weeks remaining to bask in the sunny-side-up optimism that shines down during the off-season. In that spirit, I am herewith presenting my third and final installment of my visits with head coaches on the recruiting trail last month. As was the case with parts one and two, these men had lots of reasons to believe things will get better for their programs, although this time I also encountered a cold but healthy dose of realism about what next winter will bring.

Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

Cronin stands just 5-foot-7, so he has always looked up to his players. Next season, however, he will have to crane his neck even harder because he will be coaching one of his tallest teams ever. Cronin told me that no player on Cincinnati's roster will be shorter than 6-2. "It's the Boeheim theory," he said as we watched a game at the Fab 48 tournament at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. "It's good for your defense. We want to be bigger than you at every position."

The Bearcats won 22 games last season and fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But even though they lost quality seniors in guards Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker, as well as center Cheikh Mbodj, Cronin has high hopes for next season. Not only are six of his top nine scorers returning, but he is also adding what he called "my best recruiting class at Cincinnati."

Headlining the group of young guns will be Jermaine Lawrence, a versatile 6-9 forward from Queens, N.Y. "He's a Lamar Odom type," Cronin said. "He'll have an immediate impact." The rest of the class includes three really good guards who Cronin hopes will make life a little easier for Sean Kilpatrick, his 6-4 senior guard. Kilpatrick had an active summer highlighted by his participation with Team USA at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia, as well at the college workouts at the Adidas Nations camp in southern California, but he still has much to improve upon. Kilpatrick averaged a team-best 17.0 points last season, but he made just 30.7 percent of his threes, down from 37.6 percent as a sophomore.

"I want him to be more of a scorer and less of a shooter," Cronin said. "He has to be more selective in using his ability to attack the rim."

When I asked which of his players might take an unanticipated leap forward, Cronin gave me David Nyarsuk, a 7-1 senior center from South Sudan. Nyarsuk averaged barely 11 minutes per game last season, largely because he joined the program in late August after transferring from Mountain State University, an NAIA school. Cronin told me that Nyarsuk has gained "29 pounds as of yesterday" and predicted he would be a "much bigger factor" next season.

Elsewhere, Cronin predicted that this will be "potentially the best defensive team I've ever had because of our size and athleticism." That would be welcome news considering Cincinnati was one of the most unappealing offensive teams in the country last season. They were ranked 112th nationally in offensive efficiency and 246th in tempo. Cronin swore that it was never his intention to slow the pace. "That's what everybody did to us," he said. "People looked at our team and said, 'Don't let 'em run.' The problem was that we didn't create the turnovers we needed on defense to play our style."

Roster shifts aside, the Bearcats are facing a truly seismic change as they prepare to play their first season in the newly formed American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati and UConn were the two schools that suffered the most during the musical chairs of conference realignment of the last few years. Now those schools will form the pillars of the new league. "I'm used to it. My whole career was in Conference USA," Cronin said with a shrug. "The only thing that matters for us is TV exposure, and we'll still have plenty of that. For me, it's not as big a factor as it is for our football program."

When I asked Cronin if other coaches were using this against him in recruiting, he laughed. "Coaches will use anything," he said. "Recruiting is desperation at its finest." With that, he hustled out of the gym to go check out another prospect.

Bill Self, Kansas

Normally, when a program loses its entire starting five, it is supposed to downshift into rebuildling mode. But this is no normal program. The 2013-14 Kansas Jayhawks will be even more talented than the version that won its ninth straight Big 12 championship last season and reached the Sweet Sixteen. "We'll have a more athletic and deep team, but we won't know how to play like last year," Self told me. "They'll probably test my patience, but I think I'm going to enjoy coaching them because I can't get over how hard they work. We may not be very good early, but by conference play hopefully we'll be hard to deal with."

It goes without saying that KU's prospects of winning a national championship will hinge largely on whether freshman forward Andrew Wiggins will live up to his prodigious hype. More on him in a bit. But what has been lost amidst the Wiggins chatter is the quality of the program's other newcomers. That includes 6-9 senior forward Tarik Black, a burly, 262-pound graduate transfer from Memphis whom Self told me has "been our best big guy so far." Joel Embiid, a 6-11 center from Cameroon, is an even better long-term prospect, and Self said that 6-5 freshman guard Wayne Selden is as ready to play high-level college hoops as any high schooler he has ever recruited. "He's a man already," Self said, "and he loves guarding Wiggins in practice. He's really making Andrew better."

On the flip side, 6-8 sophomore forward Perry Ellis and 5-11 junior point guard Nadir Tharpe will be the only Jayhawks with significant game experience. Not surprisingly, Self said Ellis is headed for a breakout season. Ellis is following the typical pattern of a talented but unseasoned freshman who rides the pine for a year behind veterans, but who makes the most of his opportunity to play as a sophomore. "He's the most improved player on the team," Self said. "He's really being aggressive with his scoring. That's what he does. He gets baskets."

As for Wiggins, Self agreed with me that the LeBron comparisons are ludicrous. "He weights 200 pounds. He's not LeBron," he said. Still, Self didn't exactly sound like he was trying to tamp down the hype. "Andrew will be the best athlete I've ever been around," Self said. "He's a 6-8 guard. His stroke has gotten better. The biggest thing with me and him is making sure he's plugged into every possession. When he was in high school, he could really turn it on but he hasn't been able to do it for an entire game. That's what worries me a little bit."

As if this program isn't already suffering from an embarrassment of riches, Self told me he has a real hidden gem in Frank Mason, a 6-foot freshman point guard from Petersburg, Va. Mason originally signed with Towson out of high school, but when he didn't qualify academically he ended up in prep school. KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend happened to see Mason play on the recruiting circuit and locked him up before anyone else noticed he could play. Self told me that he believes Mason can push Tharpe for playing time at the point. And this being Self, he's not going to hold back a player just because he's young. In this program, the best players will play. "It's going to take [Mason] some time to figure out how to run the team, but he's without question a guy who will impact practice intensity more than anyone. He's a pit bull," Self said. "Basically, we were lucky to get him."

Isn't it funny how when it comes to stockpiling talent, Self always seems to have the most luck?

Mark Turgeon, Maryland

Turgeon embodies the difficulties of being a college basketball coach in the 21st century. Just as he was beginning to establish a little momentum in a brand new job, the NBA stopped him in his tracks. The Terrapins won 25 games last season and reached the NIT semifinals thanks largely to the presence of 7-1 sophomore Alex Len, but Len is now a member of the Phoenix Suns, which means Maryland is going to take a big step back next season. "I think everybody is viewing it that way," Turgeon conceded. "We'll be totally different defensively. We were 11th in the country in field goal defense because of Alex. He was that good. So we're going to have to score more to win."

Besides Len, Maryland also lost seniors James Padgett, a 6-8 forward, and Logan Aronhalt, a 6-3 guard, as well as 6-3 junior point guard Pe'Shon Howard, who transferred to USC. The program will have only nine scholarship players, none of whom are seniors. Last year's leading scorer, 6-5 junior guard Dez Wells, is back, and while Turgeon is only bringing in two freshmen, he will have a significant addition in Evan Smotrycz, a 6-9 redshirt sophomore who transferred from Michigan.

Smotrycz had a promising first year in Ann Arbor, averaging 7.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 21.1 minutes, but he left after John Beilein recruited Mitch McGary. According to Turgeon, Smotrycz will be a much improved player thanks to the time he put in during his redshirt season. "He got his body right and really worked hard to become a better athlete," Turgeon said. "He's kind of like a point forward for us. He can shoot it, he can drive it, he can pass it. He's going to have a breakout year -- because he has to."

Howard's departure means that Turgeon must force feed playing time to freshman point guard Roddy Peters, although 6-1 sophomore Seth Allen is capable of running the offense as well. Turgeon also told me that 6-8 sophomore swingman Jake Layman should be the team's most improved player.

The good news for Maryland is that Turgeon has landed a terrific prospect in Dion Wiley, a 6-4 combo guard from Oxon Hill, Md., who is a rising high school senior. Wiley is a strong, heady combo guard who reminds me of Marcus Smart. As we sat and watched Wiley carve up the defense at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas hosted by Chris Paul, Turgeon turned to his assistant, Bino Ranson, and said, "Maryland should always have great guards."

I also spoke with Turgeon about how emotional he was on the bench for much of last season. Even though I love his passion, I criticized Turgeon on several occasions for this because I believe that if a coach isn't keeping his cool on the sideline, his players won't keep their cool on the court. Turgeon acknowledged that it was unusual for him. "At Texas A&M I wasn't like that," he said. "I don't think I'll be like that next year. It was just a hard team to coach. We were young, and when you move [to a new job], you have to prove yourself all over again."

If nothing else, Turgeon's sideline comportment showed just how badly he wants to win at Maryland. He knows he could be in for some rough patches next year, but he sounded like a man who was prepared to weather the storm. "I feel like I'm settling in," he said. "It's a great job. Terrific area, great facilities, the people care. I really love it. We've just got to get over the hump."

John Groce, Illinois

Lots of coaches can claim to be in rebuilding mode, but very few will face the task that Groce will face next season. The Illini lost five seniors (including one walk-on), and four other players transferred. As a result, Groce will be welcoming nine new players to his program. "I have yet to talk to any coach who has brought nine in at one time," he told me. "I'd say we'll be picked in the bottom third [of the Big Ten]. If we do a good job and give those guys some experience, we'll have the whole team back, but I'm still very competitive. We've got to find a way to figure it out."

That will be a lot easier if Ahmad Starks is eligible. The 5-9 senior point guard is a Chicago native who transferred from Oregon State. He has applied to the NCAA for a hardship waiver because his grandmother is ill. (Don't get me started on these waivers, by the way. If someone has a sick relative, isn't he better off not playing so he can better tend to that person?) If he is eligible, Starks will almost certainly be the Illini's starting point guard. He would likely be joined by three other experienced players on the roster -- 6-2 junior guard Tracy Abrams, 6-6 senior guard Joseph Bertrand and 6-11 junior center Nnanna Egwu.

Groce has high hopes for two transfers who will be able to play this season: 6-4 junior guard Rayvonte Rice, who sat out last season after transferring from Drake, and 6-7 forward Jon Ekey, who came from Illinois State and will be eligible as a fifth year senior. "He has a chance to play a lot for us, based on what I've seen this summer," Groce said.

Groce has two more transfers who are sitting out this season -- Aaron Cosby, a 6-3 sophomore from Seton Hall, and Darius Paul, a 6-8 forward and the younger brother of last year's leading scorer, Brandon Paul. Darius transferred from Western Michigan, where he was the MAC's freshman of the year. With those guys joining a talented returning cast, it's easy to envision Illinois being competitive again in two years. But Groce is too competitive, and Illinois fans are too demanding, to start making any concessions during the summer. "The older guys will have to be good on a consistent basis, because the freshmen are going to be up and down," Groce said. "Ten of our 13 guys haven't played a minute last year in an Illinois uniform. So it's gonna be fun. We'll see if we can piece it together."

Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

I happened to be swinging through Norman a couple of weeks ago, so I got a chance to watch the Sooners practice in advance of their trip to Belgium and France. The idea behind these foreign tours was to give student-athletes a chance to enjoy cultural experiences, but most coaches these days book quick trips in order to get the 10 practices that come with those trips. So it was refreshing to hear that not only did Kruger build an itinerary for his players that included plenty of time for sightseeing in places like Normandy, he also brought in an expert to explain the history behind what they were going to see. "The culture part is really important," Kruger told me after the workout. "Most kids today don't know a lot about all the sacrifices that were made for them a long time ago. So I want these guys to get that perspective."

Of course, Kruger was also happy for the chance to practice, because his team needs the work. The Sooners lost the top three scorers -- including 6-8 forward Romero Osby, who was drafted in the second round by the Orlando Magic -- from the squad that went 20-12 last season and lost its first game in the NCAA tournament to San Diego State. That means Sooner fans, to the extent they care about basketball, will have to lower their expectations heading into next season. "We'll be young. From a leadership standpoint, we need someone to emerge," Kruger said. "Romero provided so much of that last year."

That begins with the sophomore backcourt of Buddy Hield and Je'lon Hornbeak, who logged plenty of minutes as freshmen. Another sophomore, Isaiah Cousins a 6-3 combo guard from Mount Vernon, N.Y., started about half the team's games as well. Cousins played some point guard as a freshman, but he is more comfortable off the ball.

The Sooners will benefit from the addition of two newcomers. The first is redshirt sophomore Ryan Spangler, a 6-8 stretch four who sat out last season after transferring from Gonzaga. Spangler was an Oklahoma state player of the year in high school, but he only averaged 2.5 points per game at Gonzaga, so he came home for the chance to play a larger role. He's not exactly the second coming of Blake Griffin, but based on what I saw during practice, he looked pretty skilled for his size, and Kruger told me that he is already showing potential to be the leader he is looking for.

The second newcomer to watch is 6-foot point guard Jordan Woodard. Normally, it's not easy for a freshman to step into that all-important position, but since Woodard is the only true point guard on this roster, he will be given every opportunity (and then some) to earn that spot. Kruger certainly sounded like the kid was up for it. "He's a competitor. He has played high-level basketball his whole life," Kruger said. "He wants that responsibility."

As a result of this roster turnover, Oklahoma will be a smaller, quicker, younger unit than it was last season. Kruger will adjust his strategy accordingly. "We'll try to create a little more offense from our defense, extend and press a little more," he said. "We need to get Jordan out on the break."

Though it will be difficult for Oklahoma to get back to the NCAA tournament, Kruger did not come off as a man feeling the heat. There were several dozen visitors in the gym watching practice on the day that I was there, but that is hardly unusual. Not only does Kruger, unlike most coaches, have an open door policy for visitors, last season he actually live streamed his practices over the Internet. It's easy to dismiss that as a gimmick for a guy coaching at a football school, but Kruger told me he has always had this policy. "I'd do that no matter where I was coaching," he told me. "It's really good for families. There's nothing better than watching you kids play. And I want the media there because it gives them a better understanding of what's going on. We don't have a lot of secrets."

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