Biggest offseason winners, losers
In the months leading up to college basketball's first preseason poll, it's nice to have some suspense over No. 1. Last season there was the Memphis camp and the Kansas camp, the UCLA camp and the North Carolina camp, and the voters in each one had reasonable arguments. It made for healthy debate -- the kind of debate that is bound to be entirely absent from this summer and fall, because 2008-09 is shaping up to be the Season of Consensus. There is only one choice for the early throne, and that is the Tar Heels.
A press release sent from UNC, just 18 minutes before Monday's deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA draft, created this situation. In it was the announcement that all three of the Tar Heels' wavering backcourt talents -- Tywon Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green -- were heading back to school, where they'll join Wooden Award winner Tyler Hansbrough as part of a juggernaut. Choosing the top slot in our annual breakdown of the Offseason's Five Biggest Winners and Losers, consequently, became easy.
(The rest of the clubs, like UNC, have been slotted here based on events that occurred after their '07-08 seasons ended, from draft decisions, to late recruiting signings, to the coaching carousel, to the uncovering of potential NCAA violations. A team's overall '08 recruiting class, most of which was signed to letters of intent last year, is not part of the evaluation process. Also, teams are not penalized for the draft declarations of underclassmen who were widely expected to jump to the NBA.)
THE FIVE BIGGEST WINNERS
1. NORTH CAROLINA
After falling flat on their faces in the Final Four, the Tar Heels chalked up major victories: Despite being a likely first-round pick, Hansbrough opted to not even test the NBA draft waters and return for a fourth year. The Lawson-Ellington-Green trio attended the pre-draft camp in Orlando, then put the Tar Heel Nation through some serious drama -- their posturing about staying in the draft for good, their claims of mistreatment by UNC fans, and then Lawson's ill-timed drinking and driving violation in Chapel Hill -- before announcing just before Monday's deadline that they were all going back to school. Really, how can this team not win a national title?
The lone negative of Carolina's offseason was the departure of sophomore forward Alex Stepheson, who is transferring. But with Hansbrough and Deon Thompson on the low blocks for another year, Stepheson wasn't going to crack the starting lineup -- and incoming five-star forwards Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis can handle the 14.5 minutes of newly freed-up playing time. This team's depth will be unreal; if Green remains a sixth man, it's possible the Heels will have multiple future pros on their bench. Kansas had that situation last year, with Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich in reserve ... and we know how the Jayhawks' season turned out.
Viewed independently, the "losses" side of Jim Calhoun's offseason balance sheet is not pretty. Has another school ever encouraged one former five-star recruit (Curtis Kelly) and one former four-star recruit (Doug Wiggins) to transfer, plus had another former five-star prospect (Stanley Robinson) on the brink of academic ineligibility -- and still managed to look like a national-title contender?
Amazingly, the clearing-out of Calhoun's Doghouse Denizens has been more than canceled out by some positive developments, the foremost being the return of 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet. As a sophomore last season, the Tanzanian giant was the top defensive game-changer in college basketball (147 blocks), and he passed on becoming a late-first round pick in the 2008 draft with eyes on jumping into the top 10 in '09. On the health front, senior guard A.J. Price's rehabilitation following an NCAA tournament knee injury is reportedly ahead of schedule; on the recruiting front, late four-star signee Ater Majok, a 6-10 Sudanese power forward, can take over some of Robinson's minutes; and on the eligibility front, fellow Class of 2008 recruit Nate Miles was given the green light by the NCAA clearinghouse last week. Miles, a 6-7 forward, has been compared to Richard Hamilton, which might be a bit of a stretch, but he is a quality wing scorer who doesn't need much seasoning. On a team that had few creators other than Price in '07-08, that's a huge addition.
Rick Pitino got into the Blight Removal business in the offseason, announcing that the prospect of academically ineligible forward Derrick Caracter returning to the Cardinals was a "dead issue." The Cards will only be better off without the one-time five-star prospect, who turned out to be a near-constant source of distractions for an otherwise strong team. Caracter is still taking classes at the 'Ville and talking about a return, but that seems like an unlikely outcome.
On the topic of players the Cards did keep: Getting versatile forward Earl Clark, who would've been a late-first round pick, to stay out of the draft was a coup for Pitino, especially after Clark initially told members of the media he planned to make the jump to the NBA. Junior small forward Terrence Williams, another future pro, didn't even test the waters, either. That means Louisville could have three potential top-20 picks -- Clark, Williams and incoming freshman Samardo Samuels -- in its frontcourt.
It was a bizarro offseason in the Bruins' backcourt. The man who was supposed to take over the point next season, Russell Westbrook, went from college backup to NBA lottery pick over the course of his sophomore season, and bolted for the league. The man who was supposed to turn pro after this season, Darren Collison, was shown up in the Final Four by Memphis' Derrick Rose and then decided to come back to Westwood for redemption. Collison will be everybody's preseason first-team All-American at point guard, and is exactly the kind of heady veteran who can help shepherd in UCLA's next wave of guards -- incoming freshmen Jrue Holiday, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee. This situation has to be classified as a positive.
Losing All-American Kevin Love, who will be taken even higher than Westbrook in the lottery, was a foregone conclusion; the development that truly hurt, though, was that forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute opted not to return to make a run at a fourth straight Final Four. The second-round-pick would have been the Bruins' best frontcourt defender. Meanwhile, in a recruiting development that was almost unfair -- given that the Bruins already had what was considered the nation's No. 1 class for 2008 -- they snagged the last five-star center on the board in J'Mison Morgan, a former LSU commitment who had backed out on the Tigers in May.
The departures of freshman point guard Derrick Rose and junior swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts were expected, and they don't count against the Tigers' record in this Winners/Losers game -- especially when one-and-done scorer Tyreke Evans and sleeper wing Wesley Witherspoon can help fill those two spots in the Dribble-Drive Motion. Memphis made the biggest late recruiting push of any team in the nation, and virtually assured themselves of yet another Conference USA title.
The Tigers' gains went beyond prospect-hunting: The fact that their four most important role players -- Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, Shawn Taggart and Willie Kemp -- didn't make any ill-advised leaps into the professional world counts in their favor. As does the fact that coach John Calipari signed a contract extension through 2012-13, and filled his staff openings with two of the game's best young assistants, Josh Pastner (from Arizona) and Orlando Antigua (from Pittsburgh). The lone hit was the loss of backup guard Doneal Mack, who announced his intentions to transfer last week. That leaves the Tigers with few capable three-point shooters -- but that was the knock on them last year, too, when they lost just two games and won 38.
Other Winners: Arizona (for keeping Chase Budinger ... but not for losing all three of its assistant coaches), Oklahoma (for keeping Blake Griffin), Providence (for hiring Keno Davis), Notre Dame (for landing transfers Scott Martin and Ben Hansbrough for '09-10), Tennessee (for landing shooting-guard recruit Scotty Hopson), Davidson (for keeping Stephen Curry), Arizona State (for keeping James Harden), Pitt (for keeping Sam Young), UAB (for keeping Robert Vaden) and Gonzaga (for keeping Jeremy Pargo).