Midnight Madnesshas arrived, and I know you are brimming with optimism. Your favorite team is undefeated. You're convinced that every returning vet will be vastly improved from last year, and every newcomer will be that impact player you've been waiting for. Midnight Madness, of course, means the start of practice and yeah, we're talking about practice. We are college basketball fans, after all. We still believe in a place called Hoop.
Coaches, however, are a more realistic lot. They know there is much work to be done. Even the best teams begin each season with nagging questions. Thus, as your resident Hoop Thinker, I am here to provide my annual public service of identifying the most pressing questions facing 20 programs as the new season gets underway.
(For more Hoop Thoughts, click here for Seth Davis' new blog)
Arizona has made 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances. When you think about it, that is one of the great achievements in sports. That streak is in serious jeopardy due to the tumult this program has undergone since Lute Olson's sudden retirement, but it is not dead yet. Last spring's coaching search resulted in a slam-dunk hire in Sean Miller, who immediately proved his worth by luring five top-100 recruits to Tucson. Add in point guard Nic Wise's decision to forego the NBA draft and Arizona has a chance -- a chance -- to make the tournament for the 26th straight year.
Assuming the Wildcats don't have a bid locked up by the middle of February, you can expect the streak to be a mighty weight on this young team's shoulders. The players will be mentally and physically exhausted as is, and they will be asked about the streak every day. Miller will do his best to give his one-day-and-one-game-at-a-time spiel, but that's easier said than done. It will be hard enough for this team to make the tournament without having to play for a quarter-century's worth of history.
It's not uncommon for mid-major teams to creep to the top of the rankings, but most of the time they are unable to sustain that kind of success over time. Gonzaga has been the lone exception over the last 15 years, but now Butler is getting ready to match, and possibly surpass, what Gonzaga has done.
Last year at this time, Butler was beginning practice after losing four starters from a team that had won 30 games and took Tennessee to the wire in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Yet, the Bulldogs still went 26-6 and earned their eighth NCAA bid in 13 years. Now, the Bulldogs return four starters, only one of whom is a senior.
How good is Butler? Matt Howard, a 6-8 junior forward, was last year's Horizon League Player of the Year, and he might only be the second-best player on this team. That's because 6-8 sophomore Gordon Hayward returns after excelling for Team USA at the 19-and-under championships last summer. Hayward is a prodigious scorer who last season sank seven threes in a game on two occasions (including against Ohio State). The other players who started last season as freshmen, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored, will also benefit from having a year under their belts.
A tough preseason schedule that includes the 76 Classic should help determine if they're that good.
For the last eight years, UConn has led the nation in blocks. But now that Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien are gone, that streak will almost certainly end. In their place, Jim Calhoun will likely start Gavin Edwards, a serviceable but unspectacular 6-9 senior, and 6-9 freshman Alex Oriakhi, an undersized center with lots of potential. That this team will probably not make the Final Four.
Which is not to say UConn can't be a top-three team in the Big East. In senior Jerome Dyson and sophomore Kemba Walker, the Huskies have as good a backcourt tandem as you'll find anywhere, and 6-9 junior forward Stanley Robinson should be much improved after offseason surgery to repair a deviated septum that had inhibited his breathing since he broke his nose seven years ago. Ater Majok, a 6-9 freshman from Sudan by way of Australia, should also provide a boost after he becomes eligible in December. The Huskies might be longer and quicker than they were last season, but their defensive prowess will be limited to the perimeter. I'm not saying they can't win that way. It's just going to be a little harder.
This is going to be unlike any Duke team we've seen in a while, maybe ever. The Blue Devils have been forced to play Phoenix Suns-style Smallball the last few years, but now they boast as big and as deep a frontline as any that Coach K has had. Their perimeter is also among the biggest in the country: 6-8 Kyle Singler, 6-5 Jon Scheyer and 6-4 Nolan Smith, plus 6-4 freshman Andre Dawkins coming off the bench.
Problem is, if you don't count Singler there are only three guards in the program. That means this team is one twisted ankle away from having no guards available to come off the bench. Even so, you can expect Duke to continue to be among the nation's top-scoring teams, especially if 6-11 freshman center Mason Plumlee is as good as advertised.
Defensively, however, this group is simply not equipped to apply the type of fulltime, end-to-end ball pressure that has been the staple of Krzyzewski's best teams. Coach K has even openly talked about playing some zone. (Isn't zone a four-letter word in Durham?)
Last season, the Blue Devils were ranked 11th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (43.4 percent) and ninth in three-point defense (33.8 percent) but they still managed to win 30 games and reach the Sweet 16 because they forced 8.2 steals per game. Thanks to their offense, the Blue Devils don't have to be a great defensive team to get further than that, but they do have to be a very good one.
Even the most ardent Georgetown fans would have to concede the Hoyas were the most underachieving team in college basketball last season. Their 12-3 start included wins over UConn and Memphis, yet they fell apart after that and ended up in the NIT. Several coaches around the Big East have told me they believed the Hoyas had chemistry problems between the young players, point guard Chris Wright and center Greg Monroe, and the upperclassmen, guard Jessie Sapp and forward DaJuan Summers.
Well, Sapp has graduated and Summers left a year early for the NBA draft. (He was picked 35th by Detroit, about 25 spots lower than Monroe would have gone.) So now we get to find out the truth. Was it a lack of chemistry that derailed the Hoyas? Or simply a lack of talent?
I'm betting it's the former.
If your team is making news in September, it's usually not the good kind. It's hard to tell which of the Jayhawks's embarrassments was worse: the fact that they thought it was smart to take on the football team in a fight, or that that Tyshawn Taylor bragged about the rumble on his Facebook page. Or maybe it was the fact that even in the wake of that debacle (which involved the whole team, not just one or two bad apples), Brady Morningstar, a 6-3 junior guard who is supposed to provide upperclassman leadership, was arrested on suspicion of DWI.
Think this was just a bad summer? Keep in mind that 6-9 sophomore center Markieff Morris, one of the many promising young talents on this team, was arrested last summer for allegedly firing a BB gun from his dorm window. (Morris pled not guilty but later accepted a reduced charge and agreed to perform 20 hours of community service.) Piled on top of all these incidents, Sherron Collins' ongoing battles with his weight look like more like part of a pattern than a minor distraction.
Even before the fight, I had already been wondering whether this team would have problems with the Henry brothers. Xavier Henry, a 6-6 freshman, is a monster talent and a very intelligent kid. But instead of spending his summer working out with his new teammates in Lawrence, he stayed home in Oklahoma, where his father, Carl, was quoted as saying that not only was Xavier going to be one-and-done, but that Xavier's older brother, C.J., who has yet to play a minute of college basketball, was a better player than Collins, arguably the best point guard in America. Are the Henry brothers showing up with the right attitude? And how are they going to be accepted by their teammates?
Talent-wise, there is no question this is the best team in the nation.It will be up to these players to decide if they want to be remembered as a team that fulfilled its glorious promise, or one that squandered it.
Normally, it would be a huge concern for a team to start three freshmen. When those freshmen are John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins, the only concerned people will be opponents. Nor am I that worried that the team's esprit de corps will be undermined by ego-driven agendas. Few coaches are better than John Calipari when it comes to selling the idea that a rising tide will lift all boats.
The larger issue for Kentucky is going to be the newness of it all -- new players, new culture, new coach and most of all, new system. And I'm just not sure these guys are going to be all that comfortable with Calipari's Dribble-Drive Motion. The DDM might look frenetic and form-free, but it is actually a very intricate offense that is predicated on -- you guessed it -- dribble drives. Wall and Bledsoe can beat anyone in the country off the dribble, and they will be absolutely devastating in the open floor. (You all know how much I love teams that play two point guards.)
But Cousins already spends too much time on the perimeter, and the most important veteran, Patrick Patterson, has been a pure back-to-the-basket post man in the past. Ditto for 6-10 freshman center Daniel Orton, who will be the first or second player off the bench. The Kentucky coaches believe Patterson will show this season that he can hit outside jumpers, but is that really the best way to utilize one of the nation's most rugged inside players?
In time, I'm sure Calipari will figure out the necessary tweaks in the DDM to best exploit his team's talents. Kentucky's success will depend on how quickly he -- and his players -- can figure it all out.
It would be a little too obvious to raise the question of how this team will respond to Rick Pitino's offseason soap opera, or what will be the ramifications of the recent arrests of two starters, senior guard Jerry Smith and sophomore forward Terrence Jennings. Those incidents were unsettling to say the least, but I don't believe they will have any bearing on how the Cardinals perform on the court this season -- that is, if no other off-court issues arise. (And right now that's looking like a pretty big if.)
I believe Sosa's ability to become a dependable, true point guard is the more pressing question. A 6-2 senior from New York City, Sosa has been in and out of Pitino's doghouse the last three years. His deficiencies running the offense were masked last season by the brilliance of point forward Terrence Williams.
With Williams gone to the NBA, Sosa needs to show he can take care of the ball, set up his teammates and lead this team. The word out of Louisville is that Sosa had a terrific offseason, and Pitino believes he has convinced the kid that his only ticket to professional success is by becoming a floor general. This team is loaded at every other position, but Sosa is the only true point guard on the roster. It's critical that he master the subtleties of the position.
When February rolled around last year, Maryland was 3-5 in the ACC, had a loss to Morgan State and appeared destined to miss out on the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. Then Gary Williams got in a public tiff with his athletic director and faced a barrage of stories about whether his poor recruiting should put his job in jeopardy.
The Terps season didn't start looking up until an overtime victory over North Carolina in February, which helped them to get back to the tournament (they reached the second round). Williams told me that he believes the controversy inspired his guys. "Part of the criticism was about my recruiting," Williams said. "Well, they were the ones I recruited."
If the Terps can continue playing with that same sense of purpose, they should be a formidable team. Greivis Vazquez, the dynamic 6-6 Venezuelan who led the team in points, rebounds and assists, withdrew from the NBA draft. He's one four of five starters to return, and Williams shored up the team's main weakness by signing two freshmen big men (Jordan Williams and James Padgett) who are ready to contribute right away.
There's a lot of talent here, but not enough that they can coast back to the tournament. They've got to keep playing like they're under siege.
In some programs, it's tough but not impossible for a freshman to have a major impact. John Beilein, however, is the mastermind behind perhaps the most intricate offensive system this side of offense, and his 1-3-1 defense is also difficult to master. That's why when he gets to a new school, his teams usually don't fare well at first but then improve dramatically.
The Wolverines were 10-22 in Beilein's first season in Ann Arbor, but they improved to 21-14 last year and snapped the school's 11-year NCAA tournament drought. With four starters returning from that squad, there's every reason to believe Michigan, which gave Oklahoma a scare in the second round losing, can play its way to the tourney's second weekend.
The chances of that happening will increase dramatically if Morris can play his way into the starting lineup. Learning Beilein's offense is hard enough without having to run the point, but Morris has the physical skills to pull it off. And his size, strength and quickness will help the Wolverines overcome the defensive deficiencies (last season they were ninth in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense). If Morris can play the point, that will enable 6-3 sophomore Laval Lucas-Perry to move to his natural position of shooting guard. And it will generate more open looks for junior swingman Manny Harris, one of the most natural scorers in the country (16.9 ppg).
If Morris can figure all this out quickly, this will be Michigan's best team since the days of the Fab Five.
Coach Tom Izzo hadn't even had a chance to address his beleaguered troops after they were blitzed by North Carolina in the NCAA championship game when Green, then a 6-6 freshman, asked if he could say something. When Izzo said yes, Green reminded the Spartans that those same Tar Heels had been embarrassed the previous year at the Final Four by Kansas, yet they all came back improved and determined to make amends. Next year, Green said, it will be our turn.
We'll soon find out if Green was prescient or a little delusional. North Carolina might have returned many of the same crew from the team that lost to Kansas, but they were a much different team because each of their key players improved significantly in the off-season. If Michigan State is going to win the title, their main guys will have to do the same. Junior point guard Kalin Lucas will have to be a better leader, wings Chris Allen and Durell Summers will have to be more consistent, and forwards Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe will have to play harder and stay healthy. If all those things happen, the Spartans have an excellent chance to be this year's North Carolina. If not, they'll just be last year's Michigan State.
This question is obvious. The answer is not. Nobody in Starkville seems to have any inkling whether the NCAA will declare Renardo Sidney, a 6-10 swingman, eligible, or even when that decision will be handed down. (The NCAA is trying to determine whether Sidney or members of his family received improper benefits while living in southern California.) Without Sidney, Mississippi State still has enough talent to win the SEC West and make the NCAA tournament. With him, they are a legit Final Four sleeper.
For all the attention on Sidney and his potential frontcourtmates, 6-9 senior Jarvis Varnardo and 7-foot freshman John Riek, the Bulldogs are also well-stocked on the perimeter. The best of guards is Dee Bost, a 6-2 sophomore point guard who showed promise as a freshman but needs to improve his shooting. And keep your eye on Ravern Johnson, a spindly 6-7 swingman who shoots threes and jumps out of the gym.
One of the problems Mississippi State had last season was a lack of offensive balance. During 16 conference games, it shot 427 threes, the most of any team in the SEC and 54 more than second-place Florida. Sidney's presence would go a long way toward restoring that balance. The Bulldogs need to have him if they are going to be great.
Losing four starters is a small price to pay for winning the national championship. Even so, nobody expects the Tar Heels to drop off the precipice. They are absolutely loaded, albeit inexperienced, in the frontcourt, where returnees Ed Davis and Deon Thompson will be joined by freshmen studs John Henson and the Wear Twins (David and Travis), in addition to freakishly talented Tyler Zeller, a 7-foot sophomore who played a minimal role last season after returning from a wrist injury in February. North Carolina also has some pretty good shooters, but at this point the Tar Heels' best offense might be to have their guards hoist up errant shots and let the long, spring-legged forwards kill opponents on the offensive glass.
There is, however, one glaring weakness on this roster, and it's a doozy: There is only one point guard. And that player, 6-1 sophomore Larry Drew, does not exactly look like the second coming of Ty Lawson. He was not all that heralded coming out of high school (Rivals ranked him 77th in the Class of '08), and though it's understandable that his minutes would be limited as a freshman playing behind Lawson, when he was in the game, Drew looked unsteady. (He had 23 turnovers to 19 assists in conference games.) North Carolina's point guard situation will be better next year with the arrival of Kendall Marshall, a 6-3 stud from Virginia, and if Williams can keep the rest of the roster reasonably intact, the Tar Heels could be a preseason No. 1. But the folks in Chapel Hill don't like to wait 'til next year. The Tar Heels's hopes of playing for another title this year rest largely in Drew's unproven hands.
A 6-5 junior power forward, David Lighty was the Buckeyes' most experienced player coming into last season, and he got off to a great start before breaking his foot after the seventh game. After taking a medical redshirt, Lighty returns to a team that has a little more overall experience but is suspect at the two most important positions, point guard and center. If Ohio State is going to be a factor in March, it will need Lighty to be a force at both ends.
The good news is that Ohio State is full of talented wing players, led by 6-7 junior swingman Evan Turner, who will play more minutes at the point after leading the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals. The team has so many wings that 6-5 sophomore William Buford, who may well end up being the best pro on this team, could come off the bench. Thad Matta had to spend so much time teaching his kids how to play offense last season that he played a lot of zone defense.
Now, Matta hopes to get back to the man-to-man that has been a staple of so many of his teams, but he needs a strong, experienced, athletic (if undersized) power forward to make it all work. Lighty should be that that guy, if he is fully recovered from his injury.
The fact that I've selected this as Purdue's most nagging question is a great sign, for two reasons. First, it means their starting five and perimeter reserves are solid. Second, and most important, it means that Robbie Hummel's health is no longer a major concern. Hummel missed five games last season with a fractured vertebrae that never quite healed. But after a summer competing for USA Basketball at the World University Games, Hummel is now pain-free and is no longer wearing a brace. If he stays healthy, he could be the best all-around player in college basketball.
Still, though the 6-10 Johnson was much-improved last season (13.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, up from 5.4 and 3.1 as a freshman), he is still unpolished on offense and is a rail-thin 215 pounds. Foul trouble and lack of strength remain issues. Last year's backup, Nemanja Calasan, added some perimeter shooting, but he is gone and neither of the freshmen who are candidates to spell Johnson, Patrick Bade and Sandi Marcius, provide that dimension. If those two newbies can combine to give the Boilermakers 15-20 quality minutes per game in the frontcourt, then this otherwise experienced squad has the chops to win the Big Ten and go far in March.
I'm normally skeptical about transfers, but in the case of Wesley Johnson, a 6-7 junior who came from Iowa State, I'm willing to withhold my skepticism for the time being, because all the reports out of Syracuse indicate the kid can really, really play.
After averaging 12.7 points per game as a sophomore, Johnson left Iowa State because he wanted to play in more of an up-tempo offense. It also didn't help that the Cyclones coaching staff tried to force him to play through pain, even though an MRI later revealed he had a stress fracture. At any rate, Jim Boeheim is not one to either over -- or under-hype his players. So when he says Johnson looks like Shawn Merion with a better jump shot and could be a lottery pick next year, you have to take notice.
If Johnson really is that good, then Syracuse has a good chance to return to the NCAA tournament despite losing Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf, who accounted for 45.1 points per game. If Johnson isn't that good, then this is going to be a long season for the Orange.
It better be real good, because if opposing coaches are smart, Texas will not see a single possession of man-to-man defense this season. Why would they? Texas was ranked last in the Big 12 (and 233rd nationally) in three-point shooting last season, and the team's only long-range threat, A.J. Abrams, has graduated. Rick Barnes is bringing in a trio of scary-good guards (freshmen Avery Bradley and J'Covan Brown plus Florida transfer Jai Lucas) who can beat any defender off the dribble but aren't good outside shooters. Moreover, the Longhorns boast maybe the most muscular front line in the country in Dexter Pittman (who has slimmed down to 298 pounds), Gary Johnson and Damion James.
Seems to me you play a zone to do one of three things: Take away the dribble-drive, sag in on the big men and force the other team to beat you from behind the three-point line. The Longhorns should get lots of practice playing against the zone this season. Their effectiveness (or lack thereof) will determine whether they are a great team or just a good one.
UCLA is supposedly on the short list of programs that never rebuild, they just reload. Well, guess what: UCLA is rebuilding. The question is, how long will it take? Remember, this is the place where Steve Lavin got fired because he only made the Sweet 16 every year. Ben Howland did an outstanding job taking this team to three straight Final Fours from 2005-07, but his current edition, which must replace four starters from a team that lost in the second round, does not appear ready to live up to that recent past.
The first few weeks will be especially tough as 6-8 senior forward James Keefe recovers from a shoulder injury. After that, the Bruins' hopes rest primarily on whether sophomore guards Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee can emerge as a top-tier tandem. Anderson is a pure point guard, but he had a hard time getting on the court last season because of the presence of Darren Collison. Lee is a big-time scorer who got off to a great start before injuring his ankle in early January, and he never quite got back in the flow. The frontcourt anchor will be another inexperienced sophomore with much potential, Drew Gordon.
With a roster that includes nine freshmen and sophomores, Howland knows he has his work cut out for him this season. But he is also unquestionably one of the best coaches in the country. Whether he can reload while rebuilding remains to be seen.
It's unusual that a team can go to the Final Four, lose two-and-a-half starters and return the following season with more talent. But that's what Villanova has managed to do, and it's a major testament to Jay Wright's ability to position this program for long-term success.
Now, however, the Cats have to recapture the intangibles that propelled them to Detroit. Yes, 6-9 freshman center Mouphtau Yarou probably had more talent as a high school sophomore than Dante Cunningham had last season as a college senior, but Cunningham used sheer will and determination to turn himself into a highly effective college player. This team might be able to replace Cunningham's 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but it will have a harder time replacing his leadership. The same goes for the other seniors who graduated, forwards Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark, who along with Cunningham comprised the winningest class in school history.
The good news is that in senior point guard Scottie Reynolds, who withdrew from the NBA draft three months after sinking the game-winning layup against Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight, Villanova has a great leader. This team will also need a lot more consistency (read: mental toughness) from 6-5 junior guard Corey Stokes. If Yarou, 6-8 junior forward Antonio Pena and 6-6 Duke transfer Taylor King can bring a toughness inside to match their talent, then I expect Villanova to win the Big East and be a heavy favorite to reach Indianapolis.
A lithe 6-9 swingman, Ebanks arrived in Morgantown last season as a freshman amid much hype. He had a solid year but was plagued by typical freshman inconsistency. His main weakness was his three-point shooting. He made just five threes all season and shot a ghastly 12.5 percent. Bob Huggins never told Ebanks to stop shooting threes, but things were so bad that Ebanks decided himself to eliminate that part of his game and focus on being a good rebounder and midrange scorer.
It paid off when Ebanks scored 20 and 22 points, respectively, against Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the Big East tournament. Ebanks has worked hard over the summer to add 15 pounds to his slight frame and shoot hundreds of shots.
Ebanks is too skilled and athletic to rely primarily on the three-point shot, but if can take -- and make -- enough threes this season, that will make him that much harder to guard. And it will make West Virginia, which also has Da'Sean Butler and added 6-4 junior Casey Mitchell, that much harder to beat.