Twenty questions (cont.)
Kansas: Are these guys a bunch of knuckleheads?
If your team is making news in September, it's usually not the good kind. It's hard to tell which of the Jayhawks's embarrassments was worse: the fact that they thought it was smart to take on the football team in a fight, or that that Tyshawn Taylor bragged about the rumble on his Facebook page. Or maybe it was the fact that even in the wake of that debacle (which involved the whole team, not just one or two bad apples), Brady Morningstar, a 6-3 junior guard who is supposed to provide upperclassman leadership, was arrested on suspicion of DWI.
Think this was just a bad summer? Keep in mind that 6-9 sophomore center Markieff Morris, one of the many promising young talents on this team, was arrested last summer for allegedly firing a BB gun from his dorm window. (Morris pled not guilty but later accepted a reduced charge and agreed to perform 20 hours of community service.) Piled on top of all these incidents, Sherron Collins' ongoing battles with his weight look like more like part of a pattern than a minor distraction.
Even before the fight, I had already been wondering whether this team would have problems with the Henry brothers. Xavier Henry, a 6-6 freshman, is a monster talent and a very intelligent kid. But instead of spending his summer working out with his new teammates in Lawrence, he stayed home in Oklahoma, where his father, Carl, was quoted as saying that not only was Xavier going to be one-and-done, but that Xavier's older brother, C.J., who has yet to play a minute of college basketball, was a better player than Collins, arguably the best point guard in America. Are the Henry brothers showing up with the right attitude? And how are they going to be accepted by their teammates?
Talent-wise, there is no question this is the best team in the nation. It will be up to these players to decide if they want to be remembered as a team that fulfilled its glorious promise, or one that squandered it.
Kentucky: Is the Dribble Drive Motion the best system for the Wildcats' personnel?
Normally, it would be a huge concern for a team to start three freshmen. When those freshmen are John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins, the only concerned people will be opponents. Nor am I that worried that the team's esprit de corps will be undermined by ego-driven agendas. Few coaches are better than John Calipari when it comes to selling the idea that a rising tide will lift all boats.
The larger issue for Kentucky is going to be the newness of it all -- new players, new culture, new coach and most of all, new system. And I'm just not sure these guys are going to be all that comfortable with Calipari's Dribble-Drive Motion. The DDM might look frenetic and form-free, but it is actually a very intricate offense that is predicated on -- you guessed it -- dribble drives. Wall and Bledsoe can beat anyone in the country off the dribble, and they will be absolutely devastating in the open floor. (You all know how much I love teams that play two point guards.)
But Cousins already spends too much time on the perimeter, and the most important veteran, Patrick Patterson, has been a pure back-to-the-basket post man in the past. Ditto for 6-10 freshman center Daniel Orton, who will be the first or second player off the bench. The Kentucky coaches believe Patterson will show this season that he can hit outside jumpers, but is that really the best way to utilize one of the nation's most rugged inside players?
In time, I'm sure Calipari will figure out the necessary tweaks in the DDM to best exploit his team's talents. Kentucky's success will depend on how quickly he -- and his players -- can figure it all out.
Louisville: Does Edgar Sosa get the point?
It would be a little too obvious to raise the question of how this team will respond to Rick Pitino's offseason soap opera, or what will be the ramifications of the recent arrests of two starters, senior guard Jerry Smith and sophomore forward Terrence Jennings. Those incidents were unsettling to say the least, but I don't believe they will have any bearing on how the Cardinals perform on the court this season -- that is, if no other off-court issues arise. (And right now that's looking like a pretty big if.)
I believe Sosa's ability to become a dependable, true point guard is the more pressing question. A 6-2 senior from New York City, Sosa has been in and out of Pitino's doghouse the last three years. His deficiencies running the offense were masked last season by the brilliance of point forward Terrence Williams.
With Williams gone to the NBA, Sosa needs to show he can take care of the ball, set up his teammates and lead this team. The word out of Louisville is that Sosa had a terrific offseason, and Pitino believes he has convinced the kid that his only ticket to professional success is by becoming a floor general. This team is loaded at every other position, but Sosa is the only true point guard on the roster. It's critical that he master the subtleties of the position.
Maryland: Can the Terps stay mad?
When February rolled around last year, Maryland was 3-5 in the ACC, had a loss to Morgan State and appeared destined to miss out on the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. Then Gary Williams got in a public tiff with his athletic director and faced a barrage of stories about whether his poor recruiting should put his job in jeopardy.
The Terps season didn't start looking up until an overtime victory over North Carolina in February, which helped them to get back to the tournament (they reached the second round). Williams told me that he believes the controversy inspired his guys. "Part of the criticism was about my recruiting," Williams said. "Well, they were the ones I recruited."
If the Terps can continue playing with that same sense of purpose, they should be a formidable team. Greivis Vazquez, the dynamic 6-6 Venezuelan who led the team in points, rebounds and assists, withdrew from the NBA draft. He's one four of five starters to return, and Williams shored up the team's main weakness by signing two freshmen big men (Jordan Williams and James Padgett) who are ready to contribute right away.
There's a lot of talent here, but not enough that they can coast back to the tournament. They've got to keep playing like they're under siege.
Michigan: How quickly will Darius Morris pick up John Beilein's system?
In some programs, it's tough but not impossible for a freshman to have a major impact. John Beilein, however, is the mastermind behind perhaps the most intricate offensive system this side of offense, and his 1-3-1 defense is also difficult to master. That's why when he gets to a new school, his teams usually don't fare well at first but then improve dramatically.
The Wolverines were 10-22 in Beilein's first season in Ann Arbor, but they improved to 21-14 last year and snapped the school's 11-year NCAA tournament drought. With four starters returning from that squad, there's every reason to believe Michigan, which gave Oklahoma a scare in the second round losing, can play its way to the tourney's second weekend.
The chances of that happening will increase dramatically if Morris can play his way into the starting lineup. Learning Beilein's offense is hard enough without having to run the point, but Morris has the physical skills to pull it off. And his size, strength and quickness will help the Wolverines overcome the defensive deficiencies (last season they were ninth in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense). If Morris can play the point, that will enable 6-3 sophomore Laval Lucas-Perry to move to his natural position of shooting guard. And it will generate more open looks for junior swingman Manny Harris, one of the most natural scorers in the country (16.9 ppg).
If Morris can figure all this out quickly, this will be Michigan's best team since the days of the Fab Five.
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