From Cal's starting five to Kentucky's go-to scorer, here are five questions as college basketball practices open across the country on Friday.
In 2013, the NCAA allowed basketball teams to begin practicing on the first weekend of October, rather than waiting for the traditional date of the nearest weekend to Oct. 15. Although this has come at the cost of a unified date for Midnight Madness, it has also helped teams to be better prepared to play competitive basketball come November. Each team in the country has questions it is trying to answer as camps begin, and we’ve highlighted five of the most intriguing ones below.
1. How quickly can Steve Prohm install his system at Iowa State?
Not only has Prohm never been a high-major head coach, he also doesn’t have major-conference experience as an assistant. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t the right man to replace Fred Hoiberg in Ames. Prohm proved he had a keen eye as a recruiter at Murray State, where he produced two NBA caliber guards in Isaiah Canaan (pick No. 34 in the 2013 NBA draft) and Cameron Payne (No. 14 in '15). He won 78.2% of his games in four seasons with the Racers, and he did it in different styles. His 2013 NCAA tournament-bound team featured kenpom.com’s No. 15 defense and No. 91 offense; his 2015 Racers, meanwhile, had the 13th-best offense in the country with a barely top-200 defense (No. 174).
Under Hoiberg, who left to coach the Bulls, the Cyclones were typically average on defense but excellent offensively. How will Prohm’s teams take shape? Fortunately for him, he has a more-than-capable roster, led by versatile senior and Wooden Award hopeful Georges Niang. You can book the Cyclones for the NCAA tournament, but Prohm (and apparently, the athletic administration) will need to make sure they don’t check out early. That mission begins on Friday.
2. Can Cal’s freshmen mesh right away?
Cuonzo Martin managed to reel in the most surprising recruiting class of 2015, picking up two of Rivals.com's top-10 players in small forward Jaylen Brown (No. 3) and power forward Ivan Rabb (No. 7). Add them to a roster with senior point guard Tyrone Wallace and talented juniors in Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird, and the Bears suddenly have a roster capable of challenging for the Pac-12 championship. The problem for Martin will be sorting out exactly where everyone plays, but he had a chance to work on that during the team’s tour of Australia this summer.
In their first two games, the Golden Bears lined up Wallace at the point and Mathews in the backcourt with him, with Brown at the three, Raab at the four and 7’1” sophomore Kingsley Okoroh at center. In their final two games, they switched Bird in for Mathews, but brought Mathews off the bench to play significant minutes. They seem to have the flexibility to play small ball or go big, which could be a benefit if everyone has bought into sharing minutes—or a problem if they haven’t.
After leading the Blue Devils to the national championship with an MOP performance at the Final Four, freshman point guard Tyus Jones left for the NBA draft, forcing Duke to scramble to find his replacement at point guard. Initial ideas included rotating responsibilities between incoming freshman Luke Kennard, rising sophomore Grayson Allen and rising junior Matt Jones. Instead, Duke dipped back into the recruiting market again and convinced high school junior Derryck Thornton to reclassify to 2015 and inherit the starting spot right away.
Thornton is viewed as a more aggressive point guard than Jones. He averaged 17 points, 6.2 assists and 2.3 steals per game last season at Findlay (Nev.) Prep, according to MaxPreps.com. At 6’2” and 160 pounds, a big mission for the summer has been adding muscle to prepare for ACC opponents instead of high schoolers. If he proves ready from Day 1, Duke will have one of the most talented rosters in the country. The Blue Devils will be young again, but that shouldn't be a problem for Mike Krzyzewski, who just won his fifth national title while starting three freshmen.
4. Who will be Kentucky’s go-to player?
When last we saw the Wildcats, they were trudging off the floor in Indianapolis after a Final Four loss to Wisconsin that brought a shocking end to their previously undefeated season. Those ‘Cats, however, won’t be walking back on the floor at Rupp Arena, or any other college court this fall. Seven Kentucky players—junior center Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomore guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, sophomore center Dakari Johnson and freshmen Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns—left early for the NBA, leaving behind a roster full of players who will have to adapt to new roles, along with (of course) John Calipari’s usual collection of incoming talent.
Last year, Calipari boasted often of his players’ willingness to put the team first, sacrificing minutes and shot attempts for a run at not just a national championship but the sport’s first perfect season in almost 40 years. The result was that only three players scored in double figures, led by Aaron Harrison’s 11.3 points per game. This year, however, the leading returning scorer is Tyler Ulis, a 5’9” point sophomore point guard, at 5.6 points per game. Next on that list is senior wing Alex Poythress, who averaged just 5.5 points in eight games before tearing his left ACL and missing the rest of the season.
Once again, then, it would seem the freshmen will have to play the starring role. Skal Labissiere, a seven-footer from Haiti, has drawn early (and likely unfair) comparisons to Anthony Davis, who carried Kentucky to the 2012 national title, and should anchor the middle. The backcourt is getting help, too: Isaiah Briscoe is a McDonald’s All-American from Newark who should help Ulis run the point while hunting his shot far more often than his new sidekick, who took 4.5 shot attempts a season ago, and freshmen Charles Matthews and Jamal Murray and juco transfer Mychal Mulder (the latter two of whom are from Canada) give the 'Cats a few more fresh options to explore.
The Wildcats' chances of reaching the Final Four for the fifth time in six years will depend largely on whether one or more of those newcomers evolves into a reliable scorer.
In a word: everything. Of all the players across the country who are returning from injury, none may be as important to his team's success as the Wolverines' do-it-all senior swingman. When LeVert broke his left foot in a loss to Northwestern last January, Michigan’s season was similarly shattered. With LeVert on the sideline, the Wolverines went just 5-9 the rest of the way to finish at 16-16. Two years after playing for the national championship, John Beilein’s team stayed home from the NCAA tournament.
Now a senior, LeVert is back, and so is Michigan. Despite playing just 18 games a year ago, LeVert led the team in scoring and rebounding per game while finishing second in assists and steals. Before practice opened this fall, Beilein announced that LeVert is fully recovered, though there will always be some trepidation about the status of his left foot, for which LeVert also endured a stress fracture that required surgery in May 2014.
Nevertheless, he is an early contender for All-America and Big Ten player of the year honors for a team that lost only one player, 6’7” forward Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana after three seasons in Ann Arbor in which he made only three starts and averaged 9.1 minutes per game.
Of course, those are the same players who struggled so mightily without their most talented teammate, but as long as LeVert’s foot stays healthy, the Wolverines should march back into the Big Dance.