NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Being the devout Hoophead that you are, you are no doubt aware that we are currently halfway through the annual July evaluation period, when college coaches crisscross the country attending grassroots tournaments. The summer circuit has become so watered down that it is hard to find a well-run event that is laden with top-flight prospects. Nike's Peach Jam, which takes place over four days at the Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., is arguably the best event of the month.
I spent a couple of days at the Peach Jam last week, and while I enjoy the chance to eyeball the top high school prospects (especially Jabari Parker, whom I profiled on Monday), I especially enjoy the chance to visit with the college coaches in attendance. Besides the chance to trade gossip, these visits allow me to get up to speed on what is happening in their programs.
Here, then, are updates on nine of the top programs in the country based on conversations I had with their head coaches at the Peach Jam. I'll have some more updates after I check out the action at the numerous tournaments that are being held in Las Vegas next week. Hey, it's a living.
You've heard of Gonzaga and Butler, right? Well, get ready to hear a lot about the next Cinderella, the Belmont Bruins. Last season, Rick Byrd's squad rolled through the Atlantic Sun Conference with a 19-1 record (30-5 overall) before bowing out to Wisconsin in the first round. Byrd did it with an 11-man rotation, and all but two of those players will return -- including three all-conference performers in centers Mike Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders and point guard Ian Clark.
The team will also add Spencer Turner, a freshman sharpshooter from Bloomington, Ind., whom Byrd says brings "that Indiana mentality and culture about him that I like." It's hard to imagine that this team could be better than last year's, but Byrd believes it is possible. "The hardest thing for us will be to recreate the drive we had," he told me. "We played with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder because we were picked to finish third in the league. We know that won't be the case this season, so we have to find our own edge."
Byrd is a graduate of Tennessee (he was a walk-on guard back in the Bernie-and-Ernie days) and the school interviewed him about its coaching vacancy before hiring Cuonzo Martin from Missouri State. Byrd has gotten some sniffs from so-called elite programs over the years, but if his alma mater had offered him it would have been tough to say no. You never say never in this business, but Byrd told me he is currently in discussions with his bosses about signing a new contract that will essentially lock him up at Belmont for life. "I'm almost past that part of my life," he says. "I'm 58 now. If I were hiring a guy to start a program, my first choice wouldn't be a 58-year-old."
Unlike last summer and next summer, Mike Krzyzewski is not coaching a U.S. national team right now. You might think that means he's ready to kick back and relax once he's through with the July evaluation period, but you'd be wrong. Coach K has already put his Blue Devils through two practices to prepare for their international tour through Dubai and China. They will practice eight more times before they leave next month. "This team needs the time together. We need some things to emerge," he told me. "We'll be young but we're talented."
They'll also have yet another Plumlee on the roster -- as in 6-foot-11 freshman center Marshall Plumlee, the younger brother of Miles and Mason. Krzyzewski is also counting on significant improvement from his three other juniors, guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins plus 6-11 forward Ryan Kelly. But suffice to say, all eyes will be on 6-4 wing Austin Rivers, the top-rated freshman in the country. Rivers, who is the son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is not lacking for swagger, but Coach K told me the early practices served as a reminder that there is no such thing as a seamless transition from high school basketball.
"Austin has to learn the whole game, not just the scoring part of it," Coach K said. "Scoring hasn't been a problem for him, but he has never done it against this level of competition. For any freshman there's going to be a period of adjustment."
The bad news is Illini lost four seniors off last year's team, as well as freshman swingman Jereme Richmond. That's also the good news. Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole may have won a lot of games, but they were about as soft as Big Ten senior starters can get. And Richmond's lack of judgment was reflected in his foolish decision to enter the NBA draft, where he went unselected. This program is clearly better off without him.
Next year's team will be less experienced but just as talented. The nucleus will consist of junior guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul plus sophomore center Meyers Leonard. "I told those three they'll have to be the most improved players in the league," Illini coach Bruce Weber told me. "If they do that we have a chance to be pretty good."
Leonard, for one, should benefit from his experience competing for the U.S. at the Under 19 World Championships in Latvia earlier this month. Weber was a member of the committee that selected the team, and he liked what he saw of his big man during the trials. "I think people thought he was invited to the trials just because I'm on the committee, but he was one of the top five guys there," Weber said. "The last three games of the tournament I got a lot of texts from [NBA] GMs. He can run, he can catch. He has a lot of talent."
Weber will also benefit from an influx of seven new players, six of whom are freshmen. Weber will need a couple of those greenhorns to contribute right away. The best prospect is probably 6-10 center Nnanna Egwu, but Weber also hopes to get immediate help from 6-7 power forward Mike Shaw and 6-1 point guard Tracy Abrams. With so many young players to integrate into the program, Weber is excited for the chance to take the squad on a foreign tour of Italy in August, not least because it will allow him to conduct 10 practices. "It's a godsend," he said. "We couldn't have timed it better."
This time last year, Rick Pitino was wondering how he was going to put a full team together. Now he's entering a season with 17 players -- four of whom aren't on scholarship (including Mark Jackson's son). Pitino will also be welcoming Luke Hancock, a skilled transfer from George Mason who will become eligible for the 2012-13 season.
The Cardinals are stable at the point thanks to the return of point guard Peyton Siva. They will also have two of the top freshmen in the country in Chane Behanan, a muscular 6-6 forward from Bowling Green, Ky., and 6-5 Chicago native Wayne Blackshear. Last year's team needed to overachieve to be good, but this year the Cardinals are more flush with talent. "We had a fun team last year," Pitino said. "If we can match last year's attitude we'll be really good."
One of the questions Pitino will have to answer early in the season is whether to redshirt Rakeem Buckles, the 6-8 rebounding machine who tore his ACL toward the end of the season. Pitino told me Buckles is doing workouts, but he won't start playing fullcourt until late September. Part of the redshirt calculation will depend on the progress of Gorgui Dieng, a 6-10 center from Senegal who played limited minutes his freshman year but could be headed for a breakout sophomore season. "Unlike a lot of African kids who come over here, Gorgui is very gifted offensively," Pitino said.
Ironically, the biggest source of instability at Louisville has been on Pitino's coaching staff. He lost his three assistants from last season, but that was mitigated by the fact that one of his new hires is his son, Richard, who used to work for Pitino but spent the last two years on Billy Donovan's staff at Florida. There were rumblings that Richard might get the Boston University job when it came open this summer, but his dad squashed that immediately. "I made all the new assists sign a contract that had a $75,000 buyout," Pitino said. "Richard told me that his mom would pay it off for him."
Tigers coach Josh Pastner reminded me (again) that his squad was "the third-youngest team in the country last year." This season the Tigers will be older -- but not by much. Yes, the three freshmen guards who started last year (guards Joe Jackson, Will Barton and Antonio Barton) will be sophomores, but one of the two graduating seniors will likely be replaced by another freshman, 6-6 swingman Adonis Thomas. Thomas is yet another Memphis native who decided to stay home, and while Pastner insisted he "will have to earn his spot," it would be a surprise if Thomas were not a starter.
A key to the Tigers' success will be the maturation of Jackson at the point. He had a typically inconsistent freshman season during which he was burdened with the expectations of being a local icon, but Jackson did end on a positive note by being named MVP of the Conference USA tournament. His development should be helped by his participation with USA Basketball at the Under 19 World Championships in Latvia earlier this month. Jackson's results were mixed: He was the team's second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg) but he shot just 31 percent from three-point range and had nearly as many turnovers (30) as assists (37). But Pastner believes the chance to play against top competition in a structured environment is exactly what Jackson needs.
The Tigers' front line will be bolstered in mid-December when Ferrakohn Hall, a 6-8 transfer from Seton Hall, becomes eligible. And going by the results of the Peach Jam, it's also safe to say Pastner will continue recruiting at an elite level. The entrants from Memphis reached the championship games of both the 17-and-under and the 16-and-under tournaments. They make excellent barbecue in Memphis, and the local flavor is always good.
Tom Izzo wouldn't come out and say it, but if you read between the lines it's not hard to discern that there's a part of him that thinks losing Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers will amount to addition by subtraction. That is not an indictment on the character of those two youngsters -- and nobody would claim they lacked talent -- but the chemistry on last year's team was clearly lacking. A fresh turnover of leadership may be just what Dr. Sparty ordered.
Those seniors are going to be replaced by a stellar freshman class headlined by Branden Dawson, a 6-6 bull who will help the Spartans reclaim the rebounding and toughness they have lacked the last couple of seasons. Izzo got another fortuitous addition in May when Brandon Wood, a 6-2 all-conference senior shooting guard from Valparaiso, transferred to Michigan State. Wood, who lit up Izzo's team for 24 points two years ago, will be able to play right away because he is a graduating senior with a year of eligibility remaining. "He can really score," Izzo said. "We need that."
Izzo also told me that 6-9 junior center Derrick Nix is looking trim, and that 6-10 sophomore Adreian Payne is healthier than he has been in a long time. Payne missed nearly a year of weightlifting because of a shoulder injury, but he has been bulking up nicely and I expect he will have a breakout season. Alas, Izzo once again had a mixed report for oft-injured senior forward Delvon Roe. Izzo said Roe was having the "best summer of his life" until three weeks ago, when he sprained an ankle "real bad." Roe hasn't played since and will be out another two weeks.
Stop me if you've heard this before. The Buckeyes are going to be really talented but really young. Thad Matta's 11 freshmen and sophomores will be headlined, of course, by sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, but Matta will also be welcoming a five-man freshman class. None of those freshmen are ranked in the top 40 of Rivals.com's senior class rankings, but at least three will push for major minutes, most notably LaQuinton Ross, a 6-8 jumping jack from New Jersey. Matta also told me that he expects 6-3 guard Jordan Siebert to make a big leap from his freshman to his sophomore year. "The light went on with him," Matta said. "He has had great spring workouts and his body has really changed."
The body that everybody will be monitoring is Sullinger's. Matta told me that Sullinger has not dropped a ton of weight but that he has "really toned up. He has done a lot with his lateral quickness and is really trying to find tune his body." You can also expect Sullinger to step out a little more next season and take perimeter jump shots. That will not only make Sullinger that much harder to guard, but it will also open up the paint for 6-11 freshman center Amir Williams.
Lon Kruger is wearing a slightly different shade of red this summer after taking the OU job following a seven-year stint at UNLV. I told Kruger that I was surprised he said yes to the offer. He had already coached the so-called big-time schools like Florida and Illinois (not to mention the Atlanta Hawks), and he seemed quite content living in Las Vegas. "I was surprised, too," he said with a smile. "I thought I would be in Vegas for life. But this was a chance to get back to my roots in the Big 12 and the Midwest, so I took it."
Kruger is an alum of Kansas State, where he was also head coach from 1986-90 before leaving for Gainesville. His new program is now several steps behind his alma mater's, so Kruger has his work cut out for him. He spent time working out his current players this spring, and while he was pleased with their attitude, he also said "we just don't have any size."
The Sooners' best frontcourt player will be Andrew Fitzgerald, a 6-8 sophomore who averaged 13 points and five rebounds last season. The team will also benefit from the addition of Romero Osby, a 6-8 forward who sat out last year after transferring from Mississippi State, plus two junior college transfers, 6-1 point guard Sam Grooms and 6-10 center Casey Arent. If Kruger is forced to play small, he'll have to tweak his system to suit his personnel. "We're going to need to get up and down and press attack all the time," Kruger said. "You have to rebound to do that so we'll put an emphasis on rebounding and loose ball -- all the effort stuff."
Jamie Dixon will bring in arguably the most heralded recruit in his 11 years at Pitt -- Khem Birch, a 6-8 shot-blocker from Canada and a McDonald's All-American. That will bolster an already-loaded frontcourt that includes another former McDonald's All-American in 6-9 junior Dante Taylor, as well as promising 6-9 sophomore Talib Zanna, who missed the final seven games last season with a broken thumb.
The biggest question will be at point guard, where Dixon will have to find a suitable replacement for the graduated Brad Wannamaker. Travon Woodall, a 5-11 junior, has come off the bench at that position in the past, and senior Ashton Gibbs has also spent time there, but there is no clear incumbent for the position. "Last year we had things in place. We knew where we stood," Dixon said. "This year some things have to play out."
For all his regular-season success at Pitt, Dixon has still not had that breakthrough run to the Final Four. The Panthers' second-round loss to Butler might be the most memorable since it ended with that odd foul-and-free-throw sequence. A lot of coaches decline to watch video of such wrenching losses, but Dixon told me he did watch that game to learn what went wrong. "You learn by watching wins and losses," he said. Dixon also said that game no more painful than any of the other postseason losses his team has suffered. "The more you win, the bigger the loss," Dixon told me. "We'll never be happy just to make the tournament. I wouldn't want to have it any other way."