Self, Calipari, Boeheim, Barnes and other coaches scout next season
I visited with 11 premier coaches during my summer-circuit trip to Las Vegas
Self thinks KU could be as good at the end of next season as the '09-10 Jayhawks
Calipari: "If you recruit [four-year players], you'll probably be in the NIT"
LAS VEGAS -- "Heck, we were 33-2 going into that game," Bill Self was saying. The Kansas coach and I were sitting in the bleachers of Rancho High School last Thursday afternoon, watching a delightfully taut game between two of the top grassroots program in the country who were competing in the Adidas Super 64 tournament: the Compton Magic, which features the top center in the Class of 2012, 7-foot Isaiah Austin, and the J-Smoove Celtics. Self was among several dozen coaches who were attending the game during the annual July evaluation period, but like his colleagues in the bleachers, Self was far from engrossed in the action.
For the most part, all the college coaches working the summer circuit know whom they want to recruit by now. Their presence is a way for them to advertise their interest to the players. Generally speaking, they come less to see and more to be seen.
I was there mostly to see the coaches. Sure, I like to get a gander at the top high school prospects on the rise, but mostly I enjoy attending events like the Super 64 primarily because it gives me a chance to catch up with the fellas in the stands and take their temperature on the state of their teams heading into next season. Self had been explaining to me that his team at Kansas could be as good at the end of next season as last year's team was. Only, we all know how last year ended for the Jayhawks -- with a historic second-round loss to Northern Iowa. So when Self said the words "that game," I didn't have to ask what he meant. I only asked if he had ever watched it since it ended. "Nah," he said. "It's not gonna help me much."
Chatting with head coaches in the casual atmosphere of a high school gym sure helped me get ready for the 2011-12 season. Which means, Hoop Thinkers, it helped me help you. What follows is a quick-hit summary of my visits with 11 head coaches during my three-day stay in Vegas last week. Wednesday, I will have the second installment of my Vegas report, which will offer a view through the eyes of an NBA scout of the college players who were in town to scrimmage against the NBA players competing to play for Team USA at the World Championships later this summer. Part two will also include my thoughts on a few of the notable high school players I watched.
It's a lot to chew on, but hey, it's summertime. Allow me to fill your belly until you're ready to feast on Midnight Madness.
First up, the head coaches:
The Jayhawks lost Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry from that 33-3 team, but Self said his upcoming unit "might be the most athletic team we've had." Tyshawn Taylor, a 6-foot-3 junior, will move into a more primary role, and redshirt sophomore forward Travis Releford will add speed on the wing after redshirting last season. But the guy who will make that engine go is freshman point guard Josh Selby, who Self told me should start from day one.
Up front, Self expects 6-8 junior forward Marcus Morris to be one of the best players in the country and said that his twin brother Markieff is the team's X-factor.
"I don't know if we'll be as good at the beginning of the year as we were last year," he said, "but if things fall right we could be as good late."
The first contest is more than three months away, but Calipari is already deftly playing the expectations game. "Everybody is trying to say we'll be better than a year ago," he told me. "I'm like, are you out of your mind?"
He has a point. The Wildcats might have comparable (though still inferior) talent than they had last season, but as young as they were, they'll be that much younger in '10-11. Calipari is once again bringing in the nation's top recruiting class, but while UK returns four experienced guys in Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrelson and Jon Hood, they will not offer the strength or stability that Patrick Patterson did last season as a junior.
At least three of Calipari's incoming freshmen will have a great chance to start: 6-3 point guard Brandon Knight, 6-9 forward Terrence Jones and 6-9 Turkish center Enes Kanter. The NCAA has not yet officially cleared Kanter to play, but Calipari told me he is not concerned. As for speculation that Kanter might be better than DeMarcus Cousins as a freshman, Calipari shot me a skeptical look and said, "He better be real good if he's gonna be better than Cousins."
Even as Kentucky was rolling up victories (many of which were close) last season, Calipari cautioned people that the team's lack of experience, especially in postseason play, was still a major concern. That proved to be the case in the Wildcats' loss to West Virginia in the regional final. "You hope you can have some experience to go with the young guys," he said. "It's the Sweet 16 game, the Elite Eight game that you worry about. They had never gone through that anxiety, and for the first time all year, we just didn't have it [against West Virginia]."
Still, don't expect Calipari to alter his recruiting philosophy anytime soon. He scoffed at my suggestion that he should look to recruit a few players who won't be one-and-done but can still contribute during a four-year career. "If you recruit guys who you know are going to be there for four years, you'll probably be in the NIT, and that's not a good thing at Kentucky," he said. "You recruit the best players you can, and if someone is going to take them in the first round, I tell them to go."
The Longhorns had a very disappointing fall from grace last season after garnering the No. 1 ranking, but Barnes was quick to remind me that they had suffered injuries to their two experienced point guards, Dogus Balbay, who tore an ACL in February, and Varez Ward, who ruptured a quadriceps tendon last November. Barnes told me that Ward was scheduled to meet with a doctor early this week, and both players should be cleared to play soon. "We lost two great leaders," he said. "That hurt us more than anything."
It will also hurt that Texas lost Avery Bradley, Damion James and Dexter Pittman from last year's team. That means Barnes will need to get much production from his two freshman studs, 6-9 swingman Tristan Thompson and 6-3 point guard Cory Joseph. "They'll have as good a chance to start as anybody," he said.
Barnes also said he's hopeful that two of last year's freshmen, swingman Jordan Hamilton and point guard J'Covan Brown, will make a big leap this season. The refrain will be pretty familiar in Austin: long on talent, light on experience. "It's wide open," Barnes said. "I don't think there's a lock on any position. We have a lot of pieces, and now it's up to all of us."
It's a remarkable thing to say about a program in the West Coast Conference, but the Zags don't rebuild anymore, they just reload. Aside from Matt Bouldin, they will return every major contributor from last year's 27-7 team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, and they will boast arguably the strongest and deepest front line Few has had in his 13 years as head coach.
That frontcourt will again have an international flavor. Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre will both play for Canada this summer at the World Championships, and 6-8 sophomore Elias Harris will suit up for his native Germany. Few was concerned that playing in international competition might hinder his guys' physical development because they can't build up their bodies the way most college players do in the summertime, but there is an obvious upside to playing against older professionals in a high-pressure environment. Thanks largely to the bird dog work of his assistant Tommy Lloyd, Few has really thrived in recruiting international players and has every intention on continuing that practice.
"We're just trying to get the best players out there, whether they're from California and Oregon or Germany and France," he told me. "Plus the recruiting process is a lot simpler over there. Usually there's a player and his parents and that's it. It's not as convoluted as it is over here."
Few also has high hopes for 6-10 forward Sam Dower, a lefty from Minneapolis who redshirted last season. "He could have helped us last year, but it was just a numbers thing," Few said. Another newcomer and foreign player, 6-4 French native Marquise Carter, a junior college transfer, will be featured in the backcourt alongside 5-11 junior Demetri Goodson. And keep an eye out for redshirt freshman David Stockton -- yes, the son of that patron saint of Gonzaga basketball, John Stockton -- to further bolster the Bulldogs' perimeter. This team will need all hands on deck in the early going because Few has once again assembled a brutal nonconference schedule that includes Illinois, Xavier, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Wake Forest and a spot in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, where the field will also include Kansas State, Duke and Marquette.
The Huskies bade farewell to the most valuable player from the team that won the Pac-10 conference tournament, Quincy Pondexter, as well as Elston Turner, who transferred after averaging 15 minutes per game. Everyone else returns, and Romar expects contributions from a couple of talented newcomers, 6-6 freshman swingman Terrence Ross and Aziz N'Diaye, a 7-foot sophomore transfer from College of Southern Idaho. When I asked Romar if N'Diaye was going to get a lot of minutes, he replied, "Oh yeah, he'll play. He's a legit 7-foot, 250 [pounds]. He's not a prospect."
Though Romar said his team will be "as big as we've ever been," the strength will once again come from the perimeter, where Washington is flush with talent. Junior guard Isaiah Thomas, last year's second-leading scorer, returns alongside 6-3 sophomore Abdul Gaddy, who played for Team USA's Under 18 team this summer. Romar will have the luxury of deploying three seniors (5-11 guard Venoy Overton, 6-6 swingman Justin Holladay and 6-9 forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning) as well as glue guy Darnell Gant, sharp shooter Scott Suggs and redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox. The Pac-10 will be improved overall from last season (it could hardly be worse), but with regular season champ Cal having lost its core players, the Huskies will be clearly the team to beat.
"We probably will have the most experienced team since '06 when we had Brandon Roy," Romar said. "The main concern will be chemistry. Everybody has to accept the roles so we can find the right combination."