Twenty questions as Midnight Madness opens the hoops season
Midnight Madness marks the official opening of the college basketball season
Duke's Greg Paulus may come off the bench this season behind Nolan Smith
Memphis can't replace Derrick Rose, but will still be a force with Tyreke Evans
Happy Midnight Madness, Hoopheads! No other sport in America gives its fans the thrilling opportunity to watch their favorite teams go through layup lines. The start of practice is so much fun if only because teams are so flush with optimism and possibilities. That is, until a curmudgeon like me shows up, spouting skepticism, spewing doubts and spying deficiencies. I admit it: I am a buzz-kill.
The fact is, even the best teams have nagging questions they need to answer as practice gets underway. Therefore, I am once again performing my annual Hoop Thoughts community service by identifying the primary questions facing 20 of the most prominent programs in America. Keep in mind this is not my (or SI's) official top 20. Those rankings are still to come in our season preview issue. (And frankly, you should go stand by your mailbox until it shows up.) Get back to me on April 6 in Detroit to see how well these teams answered my 20 Questions. Herewith:
Arizona State: Can Jeff Pendergraph stay on the floor?
Optimism is soaring this season in Tempe thanks to the decision of 6-foot-5 sophomore guard James Harden to forego the NBA draft and return to school. But the other half of the Sun Devils' inside-outside duo is pretty good, too. Pendergraph, a 6-foot-9 senior, is a sturdy, skilled post man who averaged 12.4 points and 6.4 boards last season. The problem is, he also averaged just 26.3 minutes. That's because he tends to play with too much emotion, which often leads to foul trouble. (He fouled out five times.)
Last year, Arizona State, which barely missed out on an NCAA tournament bid after finishing tied for fifth in the Pac-10, was one of the sleeper hits of the season. It's not sleeping anymore, which means its opponents will be a lot more geared up to play them. To meet that challenge, you need a legitimate post option, and unless 6-10 junior center Eric Boateng has undergone a dramatic transformation in the offseason, Pendergraph is the only inside threat Arizona State has. If he can keep producing good numbers without getting into foul trouble, the Sun Devils can challenge UCLA for supremacy in the west.
Connecticut: Who's going to play for this team?
It's unusual for a team that is ranked in the top five of every national preseason poll to have so many roster questions on the first day of practice. Stanley Robinson, the dynamic 6-9 forward from Birmingham, Ala., is not currently enrolled in school. Ater Majok, a 6-10 freshman with terrific perimeter skills, is still home in his native Australia waiting for a green light from the NCAA's clearinghouse. And Nate Miles, the 6-7 freshman swingman whom Jim Calhoun has been raving about, is awaiting a ruling on his appeal after being expelled from school earlier this month for violating a court restraining order. All three could suit up for the Huskies in the second semester. Or maybe none of them will. Right now, we just don't know.
None of those guys is at the heart of why UConn is considered a favorite to win a national championship, but the Huskies need depth beyond their core nucleus of A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet and Jerome Dyson. The good news is the member of the limbo trio the team needs most, Robinson, is also the one most likely to be in uniform come January. He's the kind of player who can make the difference between a Sweet 16 and a Final Four.
Duke: Will Greg Paulus come off the bench -- and be happy about it?
It's not often a three-year starter who's had a pretty solid career finds himself overtaken at his position in his senior year. But as good as Paulus has been -- and for much of the last two years, he has been Duke's best player -- 6-2 sophomore Nolan Smith might be even better. Smith, who averaged 5.9 points last season in a reserve role, is much more capable of getting his own shot than Paulus is. More important, he is a far superior on-the-ball defender. The Blue Devils' potent fast break begins with ball pressure, and there's just no question Smith does a better job applying it than Paulus.
Of course, Smith has to prove himself worthy of being promoted, but should that happen, it will put Paulus in an awkward situation. This season presents Paulus' last chance to prove he can play in the NBA. He has been the star quarterback (in football and basketball) all his life, so if Coach K decides starting Smith is what's best for this team, it will surely hurt Paulus' pride. If he can deal with it like a man, he can still have a great senior year -- and Duke will be a better team.
Georgetown: Just how good is Chris Wright?
When I mentioned to Hoyas coach John Thompson III over the summer that I thought Wright was one of the best players nobody knew about, he replied, "Don't tell 'em." Sorry, coach, the secret's about to get out. The 6-1 sophomore point guard missed 18 games last season with a foot injury, but he looked very impressive when he returned for the final five games of the season. Now, with Jonathan Wallace having graduated, Wright, who was a McDonald's All-America in high school, has a great chance to be the Hoyas' starting point guard.
So how good is he? Well, we know he's good enough to spook Jeremiah Rivers, last year's backup, into transferring to Indiana. Wright might also be better than Wallace, who, after all, began his college career as a walk-on. Georgetown fans are no doubt concerned about replacing 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, but if Wright can remain healthy and effective, I think you'll see a Hoyas team that is quicker and better than it was a year ago.
Kansas: Who are these guys?
Fielding a roster full of unknowns is a small price to pay for winning a national championship, but that is what Kansas will have to do this year. The Jayhawks have only two players back who logged significant playing time last season, and one of them, 6-11 sophomore Cole Aldrich, only played 8.3 minutes per game. That means Bill Self has to replace 83 percent of the points and rebounds from last year, and 80 percent of that team's assists. Therefore, you can expect this team to stumble out of the gate like it did in 2005-06, when the Jayhawks began the season 3-4. But considering that team ended up 25-8 and in the NCAA tournament, Jayhawks fans can afford to be patient.
The good news is, Self has brought in a lot of new players who are good enough to make an impact right away. The best of the bunch is juco transfer Mario Little, a big guard (6-5) whose athleticism will fit nicely into Self's up-tempo system. At least one, if not both of the freshman Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, will start up front. Another juco transfer, Tyrone Appleton, is a prolific scorer who should nicely complement junior point guard Sherron Collins. All good possibilities, but until we actually see these guys in action, we won't really know what Kansas has and how good it can be.