Watch out for Washington, O'Neill has a long road ahead, more notes
Deep, talented Washington will be the Pac-10 favorite next season
It's going to be a long road ahead for new USC coach Kevin O'Neill
Gonzaga's Austin Daye is making a mistake by staying in NBA draft
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Last week I was on hand at the U.S. Olympic Training Center to watch USA Basketball assemble the teams that will compete next month at the World University Games and the FIBA Under 19 World Championships. Last Friday, I weighed in with notes and observations on the three dozen college players who took part in the trials. Today, I've emptied my notebook from my visits with several college coaches who were also in attendance.
Not only did the trials draw 17 coaches who were either leading the teams or helping out on the court or selecting the teams, but also a handful of other coaches also flew in to watch their players in action. I couldn't get to everyone in just two days, but I did get a chance to take the pulse of the programs at Washington, Clemson, Oklahoma State, Gonzaga, Miami, Missouri and Wisconsin.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who was part of the five-man committee that selected the two squads, tried to sell me on the idea of Cal as the preseason favorite to win the Pac-10. I wasn't buying it. Yes, Romar's Huskies lost two valuable seniors in shooting guard Justin Dentmon and rebounding machine Jon Brockman, but they return two of the most exciting young players in sophomore guards Venoy Overton and Isaiah Thomas. More important, they are bringing in one of the five best freshmen in the country in Abdul Gaddy, a 6-foot-3 point guard from Tacoma, Wash., who backed out of his commitment to Arizona after Lute Olson retired.
It is fitting that Gaddy originally opted for Arizona, because his game reminds me a lot Mike Bibby's. "He's as pure a point guard as we've had," Romar said. "He really understands how to run a team, but if things aren't going well he has the ability to score, too."
Romar also told me that Gaddy is still 17 years old and won't turn 18 until early 2010. That means he can't enter the NBA draft after his freshman year because he will not have satisfied the league's 19-year-old age minimum. Just the fact that Romar saw fit to mention that should let you know how good the kid is.
As for the question of how Gaddy and Thomas will co-exist in the same backcourt, Romar reminded me that he has had that situation before with Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy. I've always thought utilizing two or even three scoring point guards was a great way to play. Remember the Illinois perimeter trio of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head that lost to North Carolina in the 2005 NCAA championship game? Or the Bibby-Miles Simon tandem that won a title at Arizona in 1997? The Gaddy-Thomas combination should be especially effective at Washington because Romar likes to play at such a fast pace. I can't wait to see them in action.
As for the frontcourt, Washington has some decent returning talent in Darnell Gant, Justin Holiday, Quincy Pondexter and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, but Romar sounded excited about a newcomer I had not previously heard of: Tyreese Breshers, a 6-7, 255-pound power forward who redshirted as a freshman last season because of a broken shin bone. Romar said that Breshers is extremely quick and mobile for his size, even comparing him to former Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair.
"We have some really good pieces, and we have some depth," Romar said. "If we understand the commitment required, we could be really good."
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell came to the Wednesday sessions to watch Trevor Booker, his 6-7 senior forward who last season became the first player since Tim Duncan to lead the ACC in blocks and rebounds. Purnell made a good argument that Booker should be ACC Preseason Player of the Year, but I'm guessing that honor will probably go to Duke's Kyle Singler.
The larger concern for Purnell is how he will replace the scoring he lost with the departures of K.C. Rivers, who graduated, and junior guard Terrence Oglesby, who decided to pursue a professional career in Europe. Oglesby's decision was so surprising, even Purnell didn't know about it until the day before it was made public. "I asked him, how did he come to that conclusion? What was the process?" Purnell said. "I was not involved in any way. That was the only disappointing thing about it."
Purnell said that while perimeter scoring is a question, he expects the Tigers to be a much better defensive team -- a not-so-veiled reference Oglesby's deficiencies in that department. Among the newcomers, Purnell is most excited about Milton Jennings, a 6-9 forward from Summerville, S.C., who was a McDonald's All-American, the first Clemson recruit to earn that designation in 18 years. Purnell also picked up another quality recruit over the weekend when Noel Johnson, a 6-7 forward from Georgia who was released from his letter-of-intent to USC in the wake of Tim Floyd's resignation, committed to Clemson.
Speaking of USC, I'd say the school did as well as could be expected by hiring Kevin O'Neill to replace Floyd. It's not easy to hire a quality coach in June, much less at a school where an NCAA investigation looms and where the pool of talent has been so depleted. O'Neill has extensive experience both in the NBA and in college, and though he didn't exactly flourish during previous stints at Arizona, Tennessee, Marquette, Northwestern and Tennessee, his teams always play smart and tough, especially on the defensive end. O'Neill is a little rough around the edges, but he's a likeable guy who's free of pretense.
The biggest question will be whether O'Neill can recruit the high-caliber talent he'll need to get the Trojans to compete for a Pac 10 title -- and do it without running afoul of NCAA rules, which isn't easy to do these days given the way the amateur circuit is run by AAU coaches and their NBA agent benefactors.
The USC administration and its fans will have to be patient. O'Neill's rebuilding job is going to be as challenging as the one Tom Crean is undertaking at Indiana. Then again, at least Crean is at a school with a huge, loyal following as well as a stellar basketball tradition. O'Neill has neither of those advantages. He has as good a chance as anybody to bring USC basketball back to respectability, but make no mistake, he's got a long, long road ahead.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford was on hand to support James Anderson, his 6-6 junior swingman who was selected to play for the World University Games team. When I mentioned that Anderson looked bigger and stronger than I expected, Ford replied, "He's gotten a little too big. He's lived in the weight room and really filled out, but James loses so much weight when we condition and run during the season, we figured it was better for him to get big now."
The Cowboys will still play Ford's up-tempo style next season, but that will be harder to implement without Byron Eaton, a four-year starter at point guard who struggled perennially with his weight but enjoyed a breakout season last year as a senior. Ford said the competition for that position will likely come down to three freshmen: Ray Penn, Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell. Keiton Page, a 5-10 sophomore, will also have a chance to run the point if, said Ford, "he can prove he can run the team out there." That's a lot of inexperience at the most important position on the floor.
Oklahoma State will have more size and depth than last season, but the Cowboys will also be younger. Based on what I saw of Anderson in Colorado Springs, I'd say he has a good chance to have an All-Big 12 caliber season. The question is whether that will be enough to carry the Pokes back to the NCAA tournament.
More College Basketball
College Basketball Truth & Rumors