Answering 20 questions facing nation's top teams
Posted: Thursday October 11, 2007 10:20AM; Updated: Friday October 12, 2007 3:18PM
OK, so Midnight Madness doesn't happen at midnight anymore. And it doesn't always go down on Oct. 15. A few years ago, the NCAA decided the midnight sessions were too onerous for college students, who would otherwise be tucked into their beds at that time of night or working on extra-credit term papers for chemistry class. So the NCAA changed the start of practice to a more reasonable hour the Friday before the 15th.
Still, the beginning of college basketball practice carries the same pitched excitement, along with the boundless optimism teams naturally feel when they have yet to lose a game. That's where your resident skeptic comes in. While the start of a new season brings much hope, it also brings nagging questions to which each team must find answers.
Thus, as a primer for the new season, I have provided below my annual list of the 20 questions major programs face as practice gets underway. Keep in mind this is not my (or SI's) top 20 teams (hence, the list is in alphabetical order). That list is for later. In the meantime, enjoy the madness Friday evening, kids, and remember to thank the NCAA for your good night's sleep!
Arizona: Will Coach O fix the D at UofA?
Normally, when you say Coach O in Tucson, you're talking about Lute Olson. In this case, it refers Kevin O'Neill, the former Marquette, Northwestern and Toronto Raptors coach who was hired by Olson in the offseason to serve as a de facto defensive coordinator. The Wildcats were seventh in the nation in offensive efficiency last season but were ranked 72nd in defensive efficiency.
That lack of D led to losses like the one in the first round to Purdue, which had far less talent than Arizona but was a bruising Big Ten program. Last spring, Olson jettisoned his longtime top assistant Jim Rosborough, who many had thought would be Olson's successor, to give O'Neill a two-year, $750,000 contract to fix the problem. O'Neill isn't just a good defensive tactician. He's ornery, acerbic and blunt (but in a good way). So far, the players are said to be responding well to his 5 a.m. workouts, but it ain't easy changing a team's DNA.
Connecticut: Will the Price be all right?
Combo guard A.J. Price took a lot of heat last season. The job of leading an inexperienced team in the Big East would be tough for any guard, much less one who missed two full years of competitive basketball. (He missed the first after undergoing emergency brain surgery, the second for his role in Laptopgate.) So we'll give Price a pass for last season, but now there are no more excuses.
He needs to vastly improve his outside shooting (38 percent from the floor, 27 percent from three), but even more, he needs to demonstrate he has the stamina and judgment to be a sparkplug for this team on both ends of the floor. He also needs to learn to do a better job listening to what coach Jim Calhoun says while looking past the way he says it. If Price does that, it will allow Jerome Dyson to spend more time on the wing where he belongs, while point guard Doug Wiggins can give an energizing lift off the bench instead of being shoehorned into the starting lineup.
Duke: Where's the beef?
Mock Josh McRoberts all you want for prematurely turning pro after his sophomore season (he was drafted in the second round by Portland). But he ended the season ranked second in the ACC in both rebounding and blocks. Duke has an excellent four-man freshman class, but none of the signees is a post player. What does that leave the Blue Devils with up front? Sophomore forwards Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, who combined for 12 blocks last season. Zoubek also missed valuable development time this summer while recovering from a foot injury.
Coach K will have no choice but to play small and fast this season, which should mean improving on last season's paltry 70.4 points per game, Duke's lowest average in 25 years. But at some point, the Blue Devils are going to encounter a cold-shooting night (especially on the road). It will be hard to overcome that without strong bodies to throw into the fray.
Georgetown: Will Jonathan Wallace finally be able to play off the ball?
Given how important Wallace, a 6-1 senior, has become to this program, it's hard to believe coach John Thompson III initially recruited him to walk on at Georgetown. Wallace kept right on walking and became the best guard of Thompson's tenure at Georgetown, as evidenced by his clutch three-pointer with 31.9 seconds remaining in regulation that sent the Hoyas' Elite Eight game against North Carolina into overtime.
Wallace has done an admirable job imitating a point guard, but that's only because Thompson has yet to find a lead guard good enough to allow Wallace to move to his more natural position of shooting guard. What's more, Thompson was forced to play 6-3 junior Jessie Sapp at the two-spot, where he made 29.6 percent from three-point range.
Perhaps the best candidate to move into this position is 6-1 freshman Chris Wright, but he is more of a scoring point than a setup guy and he also is expected to miss the early part of the season after breaking his foot in a pickup game. Last year, Georgetown relied on Jeff Green's passing ability to make up for a lack of a true point guard. Now that Green is with the Seattle SuperSonics, a conventional point guard becomes that much more essential for Georgetown.