Self, Calipari, Boeheim, Barnes and others scout next season (cont.)
The best news for Indiana fans is that Maurice Creek, who missed all but 12 games as a freshman because of a fractured knee, just got cleared to practice last week. "He was the leading freshman scorer in the country when he got hurt," Crean reminded me. "I'm sure there will be some rust there, but our trainers and strength coach have done a great job with him. They push him hard, and he has responded well."
The Hoosiers did not lose anyone of significance from last season. Given that the team went 4-14 in the Big Ten, that may not be such a great thing. But assuming the returning players progress as they should, it's reasonable to expect that Indiana will be better across the board. Crean sounded especially excited about the addition of Guy Mare Michel, a 7-1 center from Martinique who transferred from North Idaho junior college. Mare Michel signed with Indiana shortly after Crean hired former Wyoming coach Steve McClain as his assistant. "I haven't seen him much, but our players are really impressed with him," Crean said. "He needs to get cut and more defined, but he's 275 pounds and is just naturally strong. He's really going to help us with our rebounding."
Greenberg has a talented, experienced team coming back to Blacksburg, so he's not bothering to talk down its chances. "We have maturity, we have depth, we have a cause. We have everything you need to be successful," he said. "There are a lot of teams who have a chance to be really good, and we are going to be one of those teams."
The main reason, of course, is 6-3 senior guard Malcolm Delaney, a two-time first team all-ACC selection. Greenberg was none too pleased (justifiably so) that Delaney was not among the 20 college players invited to practice with the Team USA guys, but he told me that Delaney injured his ankle at Deron Williams' camp earlier this month and probably wouldn't have been able to play anyway.
The Hokies will likely be able to start four seniors and a junior next season, but since they're lacking in frontcourt depth, it is imperative that Allan Chaney, a 6-9, 245-pound forward who transferred from Florida, gets healthy. Chaney collapsed during a workout in late April and was later diagnosed as having a heart ailment caused by a virus. He will get an MRI later this summer, but at this point there is no way to know for sure when -- or whether -- he will be available.
Greenberg also told me he has upgraded his team's schedule, which will include Purdue (though that game was assigned in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge), Mississippi State, Kansas State, Penn State, a road date at St. Bonaventure plus a spot in the Anaheim Classic, which also includes Oklahoma State, Stanford, UNLV and DePaul. When I asked Greenberg if he scheduled those games in response to his team's being snubbed from the NCAA tournament last season, he virtually growled and said, "Don't get me started."
"We're a senior team," he said. "I met with our guys and I told them I wanted to play this schedule. I wanted to challenge them. I think we'll be ready for it."
The Crimson Tide are still going to be in rebuilding mode next season, but Grant believes they will improve on their fourth-place finish in the SEC West, if only because the players will be more familiar with him in his second season in Tuscaloosa. "We'll be as good as the improvement of our returning guys," he said. "They should understand the system and our expectations and figure out where they need to get better."
One player who leaps to mind is 6-9 junior forward JaMychal Green, who has been rather nondescript after arriving at Alabama amidst considerable hype coming out of high school. Grant heard good things about the way Green played at Amar'e Stoudemire's camp a few weeks ago, but he is looking for more consistency this season. "With JaMychal, the biggest thing I want to see is maturity that comes with being a veteran," Grant said. "He needs to learn to deal with situations that come up, whether it's practice, the game, off-the-court stuff. I want him to understand that what he does impacts everything else around him."
Grant also said he is hopeful that sophomore guard Andrew Steele, another highly regarded high school prospect, will get a year of eligibility back after missing most of last season with a broken bone in his ankle. Not only will the Tide have to manage losing senior starters Mikhail Torrance and Anthony Brock, they will also be without 6-9 power forward Justin Knox, who finished his undergraduate degree and was thus able to transfer to North Carolina and be eligible to play right away. Knox said he wanted to go to a place where he can get lots of minutes and touches, and he very much wanted to end up at UAB. But Alabama would not release Knox to UAB, so now he'll have to come off the bench at North Carolina, which was in need of a big body after the Wear twins transferred to UCLA last spring.
Ah, the optimism of summer. Johnson's Tigers went 11-20 in his second year in Baton Rouge and they have since lost their two top players -- Tasmin Mitchell, who graduated, and 6-1 guard Bo Spencer, who had to leave for academic reasons. Yet Johnson insisted "we're fine, believe me." In the next breath, he counseled patience. "I'm not going to find some juco guys who might help us win two more games and then leave after two years. I believe in years three, four and five if you are trying to build something."
LSU was beset by injuries last season, so Johnson is hopeful that players like 6-4 sophomore Aaron Dotson, who missed his entire senior year of high school as well as seven games last season with tendonitis, will be fully healthy. He will also need quality production from his highly regarded freshman class, most notably Matt Derenbecker, a 6-6 small forward who was the best high school player in Louisiana last year. Johnson will probably have to turn his offense over to another of those freshmen, 5-11 point guard Andre Stringer from Jackson, Miss., and thinks he'll get a big boost from Malcolm White, a 6-9 junior forward who sat out last season after transferring from Ole Miss.
Johnson could not comment on high school players who have not signed yet, but I can report that he has received a notable verbal commitment from 6-3 guard John Isaac of Pickering High School in Leesville, La. So while I would likewise counsel LSU fans to remain patient, it does appear that Johnson is slowly but surely building this program into a winner. At least, that's how it appeared during the always-hopeful days of July.
I'll say this for Boeheim. If he thinks his players are good, he'll say it. If he thinks his players are not good, he'll say it (though usually not for attribution). Two years ago, I spoke with Boeheim at a USA Basketball event, and he told me that he had a transfer from Iowa State named Wesley Johnson who was going to be a lottery pick. I had never heard of the kid, but I know who he is now.
So when Boeheim says that his incoming 7-foot freshman center, the wonderfully named Fab Melo, will be "a strong contender for national rookie of the year," you should pay attention. Not that this is a surprise. Boeheim said Melo has lost 30 pounds over the last year, and unlike many big men coming out of high school, he is ready to have an impact right away. "He's a good passer and shooter, but he's also seven feet tall and he can block shots and rebound," Boeheim said. "The good thing for him is that we have four veteran guys who will be out there with him. He's not going out there with guys who don't know how to play."
Alas, there are no Wesley Johnsons among the four returning starters -- Scoop Jardine, Rick Jackson, Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche -- but if Melo and the other freshmen are as good as Boeheim hopes, then Syracuse could very well compete for a Big East title again. Besides Melo, 6-3 Dion Waiters will have a good chance to either start or play starter's minutes. "The key will be the four incoming freshmen. How good can they be?" Boeheim said. "That's why I like my team. I think they're going to be real good."
This is one coach I spoke with whom I didn't pepper with questions about his team. I was more curious as to why Drew, who will turn 66 in September and is about to begin his 42nd year in coaching, is still spending his summer chasing high school kids around the country. "I really don't enjoy this aspect of the job, to be honest," Drew told me. "You're away from home, you watch so many games, you've done it for 40 years. I tell [my son and assistant coach] Bryce, 'Just get me to the parents.' "
Still, it is always inspirational, not to mention great fun, to spend time visiting with Homer Drew. He is funny and pleasant and exudes such a genuine joie de vivre. Despite his distaste for recruiting (and he's hardly alone among his peers in that regard), he still loves his work and has no plans to retire soon. "I'm still a kid at heart. I enjoy the teaching part of it," he said. "One nice thing about it is, young people keep you young."
My advice to all Hoop Thinkers is to take some time if you get a chance to chat with Homer Drew about everything and nothing. And if you ever spot him in a Las Vegas casino, shake his hand right before you play craps. Trust me on that one.
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