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 ... practice.
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 Kyrie Irving and transfer Seth Curry, but it's a whole different matzo ball to enter the season with sky-high expectations. Mike Krzyzewski has been here before, but his players haven't. It remains to be seen how well these youngsters can fly while wearing such a heavy crown.
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 two surgically altered knees to deal with heading into practice.
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 (Paul Hewitt and John Beilein come to mind), the real pressure is always faced by guys who have been through a down cycle and now have the horses to pull them out of it. That's when you really don't want to underachieve.
The main candidate who comes to mind here is Illinois coach Bruce Weber, whose team has missed the NCAA tournament two of the last three years. Now the Illini have a strong senior nucleus of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale, plus a strong crop of youngsters led by sophomore guard D.J. Richardson. They should be playing for a high seed, not a bid -- and Weber knows it.
Another coach who needs a big year is Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, who has been to just one NCAA tournament during his seven years in Blacksburg. Greenberg's Hokies return all five starters from the group that missed out on an at-large bid by a whisker, including an All-America-caliber guard in 6-foot-3 senior Malcolm Delaney. If we can see beads of sweat on Greenberg's pate on Selection Sunday, that will not be a good sign.
Then there's Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who will need his top-five recruiting class to put some distance between himself and the prodigious specter of John Calipari. Pastner is off to a nice start, but his honeymoon is just about over.
When I called Mark Few last month to ask what advice he would give to Butler's Brad Stevens, he replied good-naturedly: "He just coached in the national championship game. I should be asking him for advice."
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 (Norm Stewart and Gene Keady, to name a couple), the ones who do usually reach the Final Four in a season when they're least expected.
Gonzaga fits that bill. Though they lost do-everything guard Matt Bouldin to graduation, Few has lost better players in the past without missing a step. He still has one of the best forwards in the country in 6-8 German native Elias Harris, as well as a fine backcourt duo in 5-11 junior Demetri Goodson and 6-5 senior Steven Gray. All the Zags need are the right matchups in the tournament and a little bit of luck, and they'll take their rightful turn on the big stage. Suffice to say, Few hopes it will happen sooner rather than later.
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, Jim Calhoun is 68 years old. He has been beset by health problems in recent years, and last year his team's season ended in the second round of the NIT. He has an acrimonious relationship with his athletic director, and there is no obvious person to succeed him as head coach. And he has not yet received a single verbal commitment from any player ranked in the top 150 in Rivals.com's rankings of the Class of 2011.
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 (Jim Boeheim) and one who has a good chance to get there (Rick Pitino). But with those three in the twilight of their careers, and with Calhoun and Pitino headed for difficult seasons, this season raises the potential that a younger crop of coaches will take the reins for good.
Villanova's Jay Wright (age 48) and Georgetown's John Thompson III (44) have already led their schools to Final Fours this decade, and Buzz Williams (38) will have Marquette in great position for an NCAA bid this season.
But the coach who I believe will finally begin to be recognized as a top-tier talent is Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, who is 44. Did you realize that last year Dixon tied the NCAA coaching record for most wins in his first seven years? That his .696 career win percentage is the highest in Big East history? Last year, his Panthers were supposed to take a step back after losing four starters from the team that came within a Scottie Reynolds layup of making the Final Four. All Dixon did was lead them to 25 wins and a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
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 Jimmer Fredette. (Jimmer is a verb, you know.) That leaves two prime candidates. The first is San Diego State, which is my pick to win the Mountain West over the BYU Jimmers. The Aztecs came within a bucket of knocking off Tennessee in the first round last season (which would have made anyone who picked that upset during the CBS Selection Show look like a genius), and their five returning starters includes a guy you have to check out: 6-7 sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard.
My other mid-major gem is Wichita State. You may recall that in his previous gig, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall made Winthrop a perennial mid-major darling, taking the Eagles to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years. Now in his fourth year at Wichita State, Marshall is poised to do the same for the Shockers, who return four starters from the team that was the runner-up to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley last season.
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 seem like the conference has improved because unlike last season, when the Pac-10 spent most of the year without having a single team in the top 25, it will have a marquee team in Washington. In addition, the Pac-10's marquee program, UCLA, should be much better. That will add to the perception that the conference is improved over last season.
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 O.J. Mayo mess; and the bottom has completely fallen out at Oregon under first-year coach Dana Altman. Conferences are ultimately judged on how many teams they send to the NCAA tournament. Last year the Pac-10 sent just two. It might get three this season, but I'd be surprised if it went beyond that.
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. They expanded the field and he still couldn't get there??!! Fire the bum! This is why I'm thankful the NCAA didn't expand the field to 96 teams and left the field at 68. It should be hard to get into the tournament. That's what makes it so much fun.