Coaches size up their 2011-12 teams (cont.)
Tigers coach Josh Pastner reminded me (again) that his squad was "the third-youngest team in the country last year." This season the Tigers will be older -- but not by much. Yes, the three freshmen guards who started last year (guards Joe Jackson, Will Barton and Antonio Barton) will be sophomores, but one of the two graduating seniors will likely be replaced by another freshman, 6-6 swingman Adonis Thomas. Thomas is yet another Memphis native who decided to stay home, and while Pastner insisted he "will have to earn his spot," it would be a surprise if Thomas were not a starter.
A key to the Tigers' success will be the maturation of Jackson at the point. He had a typically inconsistent freshman season during which he was burdened with the expectations of being a local icon, but Jackson did end on a positive note by being named MVP of the Conference USA tournament. His development should be helped by his participation with USA Basketball at the Under 19 World Championships in Latvia earlier this month. Jackson's results were mixed: He was the team's second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg) but he shot just 31 percent from three-point range and had nearly as many turnovers (30) as assists (37). But Pastner believes the chance to play against top competition in a structured environment is exactly what Jackson needs.
The Tigers' front line will be bolstered in mid-December when Ferrakohn Hall, a 6-8 transfer from Seton Hall, becomes eligible. And going by the results of the Peach Jam, it's also safe to say Pastner will continue recruiting at an elite level. The entrants from Memphis reached the championship games of both the 17-and-under and the 16-and-under tournaments. They make excellent barbecue in Memphis, and the local flavor is always good.
Tom Izzo wouldn't come out and say it, but if you read between the lines it's not hard to discern that there's a part of him that thinks losing Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers will amount to addition by subtraction. That is not an indictment on the character of those two youngsters -- and nobody would claim they lacked talent -- but the chemistry on last year's team was clearly lacking. A fresh turnover of leadership may be just what Dr. Sparty ordered.
Those seniors are going to be replaced by a stellar freshman class headlined by Branden Dawson, a 6-6 bull who will help the Spartans reclaim the rebounding and toughness they have lacked the last couple of seasons. Izzo got another fortuitous addition in May when Brandon Wood, a 6-2 all-conference senior shooting guard from Valparaiso, transferred to Michigan State. Wood, who lit up Izzo's team for 24 points two years ago, will be able to play right away because he is a graduating senior with a year of eligibility remaining. "He can really score," Izzo said. "We need that."
Izzo also told me that 6-9 junior center Derrick Nix is looking trim, and that 6-10 sophomore Adreian Payne is healthier than he has been in a long time. Payne missed nearly a year of weightlifting because of a shoulder injury, but he has been bulking up nicely and I expect he will have a breakout season. Alas, Izzo once again had a mixed report for oft-injured senior forward Delvon Roe. Izzo said Roe was having the "best summer of his life" until three weeks ago, when he sprained an ankle "real bad." Roe hasn't played since and will be out another two weeks.
Stop me if you've heard this before. The Buckeyes are going to be really talented but really young. Thad Matta's 11 freshmen and sophomores will be headlined, of course, by sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, but Matta will also be welcoming a five-man freshman class. None of those freshmen are ranked in the top 40 of Rivals.com's senior class rankings, but at least three will push for major minutes, most notably LaQuinton Ross, a 6-8 jumping jack from New Jersey. Matta also told me that he expects 6-3 guard Jordan Siebert to make a big leap from his freshman to his sophomore year. "The light went on with him," Matta said. "He has had great spring workouts and his body has really changed."
The body that everybody will be monitoring is Sullinger's. Matta told me that Sullinger has not dropped a ton of weight but that he has "really toned up. He has done a lot with his lateral quickness and is really trying to find tune his body." You can also expect Sullinger to step out a little more next season and take perimeter jump shots. That will not only make Sullinger that much harder to guard, but it will also open up the paint for 6-11 freshman center Amir Williams.
Lon Kruger is wearing a slightly different shade of red this summer after taking the OU job following a seven-year stint at UNLV. I told Kruger that I was surprised he said yes to the offer. He had already coached the so-called big-time schools like Florida and Illinois (not to mention the Atlanta Hawks), and he seemed quite content living in Las Vegas. "I was surprised, too," he said with a smile. "I thought I would be in Vegas for life. But this was a chance to get back to my roots in the Big 12 and the Midwest, so I took it."
Kruger is an alum of Kansas State, where he was also head coach from 1986-90 before leaving for Gainesville. His new program is now several steps behind his alma mater's, so Kruger has his work cut out for him. He spent time working out his current players this spring, and while he was pleased with their attitude, he also said "we just don't have any size."
The Sooners' best frontcourt player will be Andrew Fitzgerald, a 6-8 sophomore who averaged 13 points and five rebounds last season. The team will also benefit from the addition of Romero Osby, a 6-8 forward who sat out last year after transferring from Mississippi State, plus two junior college transfers, 6-1 point guard Sam Grooms and 6-10 center Casey Arent. If Kruger is forced to play small, he'll have to tweak his system to suit his personnel. "We're going to need to get up and down and press attack all the time," Kruger said. "You have to rebound to do that so we'll put an emphasis on rebounding and loose ball -- all the effort stuff."
Jamie Dixon will bring in arguably the most heralded recruit in his 11 years at Pitt -- Khem Birch, a 6-8 shot-blocker from Canada and a McDonald's All-American. That will bolster an already-loaded frontcourt that includes another former McDonald's All-American in 6-9 junior Dante Taylor, as well as promising 6-9 sophomore Talib Zanna, who missed the final seven games last season with a broken thumb.
The biggest question will be at point guard, where Dixon will have to find a suitable replacement for the graduated Brad Wannamaker. Travon Woodall, a 5-11 junior, has come off the bench at that position in the past, and senior Ashton Gibbs has also spent time there, but there is no clear incumbent for the position. "Last year we had things in place. We knew where we stood," Dixon said. "This year some things have to play out."
For all his regular-season success at Pitt, Dixon has still not had that breakthrough run to the Final Four. The Panthers' second-round loss to Butler might be the most memorable since it ended with that odd foul-and-free-throw sequence. A lot of coaches decline to watch video of such wrenching losses, but Dixon told me he did watch that game to learn what went wrong. "You learn by watching wins and losses," he said. Dixon also said that game no more painful than any of the other postseason losses his team has suffered. "The more you win, the bigger the loss," Dixon told me. "We'll never be happy just to make the tournament. I wouldn't want to have it any other way."