Twenty questions (cont.)
Syracuse: Is Wesley Johnson really that good?
I'm normally skeptical about transfers, but in the case of Wesley Johnson, a 6-7 junior who came from Iowa State, I'm willing to withhold my skepticism for the time being, because all the reports out of Syracuse indicate the kid can really, really play.
After averaging 12.7 points per game as a sophomore, Johnson left Iowa State because he wanted to play in more of an up-tempo offense. It also didn't help that the Cyclones coaching staff tried to force him to play through pain, even though an MRI later revealed he had a stress fracture. At any rate, Jim Boeheim is not one to either over -- or under-hype his players. So when he says Johnson looks like Shawn Merion with a better jump shot and could be a lottery pick next year, you have to take notice.
If Johnson really is that good, then Syracuse has a good chance to return to the NCAA tournament despite losing Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf, who accounted for 45.1 points per game. If Johnson isn't that good, then this is going to be a long season for the Orange.
Texas: How good is the Longhorns' zone offense?
It better be real good, because if opposing coaches are smart, Texas will not see a single possession of man-to-man defense this season. Why would they? Texas was ranked last in the Big 12 (and 233rd nationally) in three-point shooting last season, and the team's only long-range threat, A.J. Abrams, has graduated. Rick Barnes is bringing in a trio of scary-good guards (freshmen Avery Bradley and J'Covan Brown plus Florida transfer Jai Lucas) who can beat any defender off the dribble but aren't good outside shooters. Moreover, the Longhorns boast maybe the most muscular front line in the country in Dexter Pittman (who has slimmed down to 298 pounds), Gary Johnson and Damion James.
Seems to me you play a zone to do one of three things: Take away the dribble-drive, sag in on the big men and force the other team to beat you from behind the three-point line. The Longhorns should get lots of practice playing against the zone this season. Their effectiveness (or lack thereof) will determine whether they are a great team or just a good one.
UCLA: Is Bruintown ready for a rebuilding year?
UCLA is supposedly on the short list of programs that never rebuild, they just reload. Well, guess what: UCLA is rebuilding. The question is, how long will it take? Remember, this is the place where Steve Lavin got fired because he only made the Sweet 16 every year. Ben Howland did an outstanding job taking this team to three straight Final Fours from 2005-07, but his current edition, which must replace four starters from a team that lost in the second round, does not appear ready to live up to that recent past.
The first few weeks will be especially tough as 6-8 senior forward James Keefe recovers from a shoulder injury. After that, the Bruins' hopes rest primarily on whether sophomore guards Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee can emerge as a top-tier tandem. Anderson is a pure point guard, but he had a hard time getting on the court last season because of the presence of Darren Collison. Lee is a big-time scorer who got off to a great start before injuring his ankle in early January, and he never quite got back in the flow. The frontcourt anchor will be another inexperienced sophomore with much potential, Drew Gordon.
With a roster that includes nine freshmen and sophomores, Howland knows he has his work cut out for him this season. But he is also unquestionably one of the best coaches in the country. Whether he can reload while rebuilding remains to be seen.
Villanova: Do the Cats have enough toughness to return to the Final Four?
It's unusual that a team can go to the Final Four, lose two-and-a-half starters and return the following season with more talent. But that's what Villanova has managed to do, and it's a major testament to Jay Wright's ability to position this program for long-term success.
Now, however, the Cats have to recapture the intangibles that propelled them to Detroit. Yes, 6-9 freshman center Mouphtau Yarou probably had more talent as a high school sophomore than Dante Cunningham had last season as a college senior, but Cunningham used sheer will and determination to turn himself into a highly effective college player. This team might be able to replace Cunningham's 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but it will have a harder time replacing his leadership. The same goes for the other seniors who graduated, forwards Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark, who along with Cunningham comprised the winningest class in school history.
The good news is that in senior point guard Scottie Reynolds, who withdrew from the NBA draft three months after sinking the game-winning layup against Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight, Villanova has a great leader. This team will also need a lot more consistency (read: mental toughness) from 6-5 junior guard Corey Stokes. If Yarou, 6-8 junior forward Antonio Pena and 6-6 Duke transfer Taylor King can bring a toughness inside to match their talent, then I expect Villanova to win the Big East and be a heavy favorite to reach Indianapolis.
West Virginia: Will Devin Ebanks be a three-point threat?
A lithe 6-9 swingman, Ebanks arrived in Morgantown last season as a freshman amid much hype. He had a solid year but was plagued by typical freshman inconsistency. His main weakness was his three-point shooting. He made just five threes all season and shot a ghastly 12.5 percent. Bob Huggins never told Ebanks to stop shooting threes, but things were so bad that Ebanks decided himself to eliminate that part of his game and focus on being a good rebounder and midrange scorer.
It paid off when Ebanks scored 20 and 22 points, respectively, against Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the Big East tournament. Ebanks has worked hard over the summer to add 15 pounds to his slight frame and shoot hundreds of shots.
Ebanks is too skilled and athletic to rely primarily on the three-point shot, but if can take -- and make -- enough threes this season, that will make him that much harder to guard. And it will make West Virginia, which also has Da'Sean Butler and added 6-4 junior Casey Mitchell, that much harder to beat.
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