Attention hoopheads: 20 pressing questions as madness tips off
As midnight madness begins, we tackle the important topics in game
Will Arizona's streak continue; what's up at Kansas? Can Calipari work magic?
Get all the information you need on your favorite teams heading into the season
Time to get busy, Hoopheads.
Midnight Madnesshas arrived, and I know you are brimming with optimism. Your favorite team is undefeated. You're convinced that every returning vet will be vastly improved from last year, and every newcomer will be that impact player you've been waiting for. Midnight Madness, of course, means the start of practice and yeah, we're talking about practice. We are college basketball fans, after all. We still believe in a place called Hoop.
Coaches, however, are a more realistic lot. They know there is much work to be done. Even the best teams begin each season with nagging questions. Thus, as your resident Hoop Thinker, I am here to provide my annual public service of identifying the most pressing questions facing 20 programs as the new season gets underway.
Arizona: Can the Wildcats handle the pressure of The Streak?
Arizona has made 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances. When you think about it, that is one of the great achievements in sports. That streak is in serious jeopardy due to the tumult this program has undergone since Lute Olson's sudden retirement, but it is not dead yet. Last spring's coaching search resulted in a slam-dunk hire in Sean Miller, who immediately proved his worth by luring five top-100 recruits to Tucson. Add in point guard Nic Wise's decision to forego the NBA draft and Arizona has a chance -- a chance -- to make the tournament for the 26th straight year.
Assuming the Wildcats don't have a bid locked up by the middle of February, you can expect the streak to be a mighty weight on this young team's shoulders. The players will be mentally and physically exhausted as is, and they will be asked about the streak every day. Miller will do his best to give his one-day-and-one-game-at-a-time spiel, but that's easier said than done. It will be hard enough for this team to make the tournament without having to play for a quarter-century's worth of history.
Butler: Is Butler the new Gonzaga?
It's not uncommon for mid-major teams to creep to the top of the rankings, but most of the time they are unable to sustain that kind of success over time. Gonzaga has been the lone exception over the last 15 years, but now Butler is getting ready to match, and possibly surpass, what Gonzaga has done.
Last year at this time, Butler was beginning practice after losing four starters from a team that had won 30 games and took Tennessee to the wire in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Yet, the Bulldogs still went 26-6 and earned their eighth NCAA bid in 13 years. Now, the Bulldogs return four starters, only one of whom is a senior.
How good is Butler? Matt Howard, a 6-8 junior forward, was last year's Horizon League Player of the Year, and he might only be the second-best player on this team. That's because 6-8 sophomore Gordon Hayward returns after excelling for Team USA at the 19-and-under championships last summer. Hayward is a prodigious scorer who last season sank seven threes in a game on two occasions (including against Ohio State). The other players who started last season as freshmen, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored, will also benefit from having a year under their belts.
A tough preseason schedule that includes the 76 Classic should help determine if they're that good.
Connecticut: Is the block party over?
For the last eight years, UConn has led the nation in blocks. But now that Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien are gone, that streak will almost certainly end. In their place, Jim Calhoun will likely start Gavin Edwards, a serviceable but unspectacular 6-9 senior, and 6-9 freshman Alex Oriakhi, an undersized center with lots of potential. That this team will probably not make the Final Four.
Which is not to say UConn can't be a top-three team in the Big East. In senior Jerome Dyson and sophomore Kemba Walker, the Huskies have as good a backcourt tandem as you'll find anywhere, and 6-9 junior forward Stanley Robinson should be much improved after offseason surgery to repair a deviated septum that had inhibited his breathing since he broke his nose seven years ago. Ater Majok, a 6-9 freshman from Sudan by way of Australia, should also provide a boost after he becomes eligible in December. The Huskies might be longer and quicker than they were last season, but their defensive prowess will be limited to the perimeter. I'm not saying they can't win that way. It's just going to be a little harder.
Duke: Does "Duke" still begin with D?
This is going to be unlike any Duke team we've seen in a while, maybe ever. The Blue Devils have been forced to play Phoenix Suns-style Smallball the last few years, but now they boast as big and as deep a frontline as any that Coach K has had. Their perimeter is also among the biggest in the country: 6-8 Kyle Singler, 6-5 Jon Scheyer and 6-4 Nolan Smith, plus 6-4 freshman Andre Dawkins coming off the bench.
Problem is, if you don't count Singler there are only three guards in the program. That means this team is one twisted ankle away from having no guards available to come off the bench. Even so, you can expect Duke to continue to be among the nation's top-scoring teams, especially if 6-11 freshman center Mason Plumlee is as good as advertised.
Defensively, however, this group is simply not equipped to apply the type of fulltime, end-to-end ball pressure that has been the staple of Krzyzewski's best teams. Coach K has even openly talked about playing some zone. (Isn't zone a four-letter word in Durham?)
Last season, the Blue Devils were ranked 11th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (43.4 percent) and ninth in three-point defense (33.8 percent) but they still managed to win 30 games and reach the Sweet 16 because they forced 8.2 steals per game. Thanks to their offense, the Blue Devils don't have to be a great defensive team to get further than that, but they do have to be a very good one.
Georgetown: Will the Hoyas benefit from addition by subtraction?
Even the most ardent Georgetown fans would have to concede the Hoyas were the most underachieving team in college basketball last season. Their 12-3 start included wins over UConn and Memphis, yet they fell apart after that and ended up in the NIT. Several coaches around the Big East have told me they believed the Hoyas had chemistry problems between the young players, point guard Chris Wright and center Greg Monroe, and the upperclassmen, guard Jessie Sapp and forward DaJuan Summers.
Well, Sapp has graduated and Summers left a year early for the NBA draft. (He was picked 35th by Detroit, about 25 spots lower than Monroe would have gone.) So now we get to find out the truth. Was it a lack of chemistry that derailed the Hoyas? Or simply a lack of talent?
I'm betting it's the former.
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