Catching up with nine coaches and sizing up their 2011-12 teams
Belmont, a 30-5 NCAA tourney team last season, could be even better in 2011-12
Coach Mike Krzyzewski says his Duke Blue Devils will be young but talented
Jared Sullinger will lead a Ohio St. team featuring 11 freshmen and sophomores
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Being the devout Hoophead that you are, you are no doubt aware that we are currently halfway through the annual July evaluation period, when college coaches crisscross the country attending grassroots tournaments. The summer circuit has become so watered down that it is hard to find a well-run event that is laden with top-flight prospects. Nike's Peach Jam, which takes place over four days at the Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., is arguably the best event of the month.
I spent a couple of days at the Peach Jam last week, and while I enjoy the chance to eyeball the top high school prospects (especially Jabari Parker, whom I profiled on Monday), I especially enjoy the chance to visit with the college coaches in attendance. Besides the chance to trade gossip, these visits allow me to get up to speed on what is happening in their programs.
Here, then, are updates on nine of the top programs in the country based on conversations I had with their head coaches at the Peach Jam. I'll have some more updates after I check out the action at the numerous tournaments that are being held in Las Vegas next week. Hey, it's a living.
You've heard of Gonzaga and Butler, right? Well, get ready to hear a lot about the next Cinderella, the Belmont Bruins. Last season, Rick Byrd's squad rolled through the Atlantic Sun Conference with a 19-1 record (30-5 overall) before bowing out to Wisconsin in the first round. Byrd did it with an 11-man rotation, and all but two of those players will return -- including three all-conference performers in centers Mike Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders and point guard Ian Clark.
The team will also add Spencer Turner, a freshman sharpshooter from Bloomington, Ind., whom Byrd says brings "that Indiana mentality and culture about him that I like." It's hard to imagine that this team could be better than last year's, but Byrd believes it is possible. "The hardest thing for us will be to recreate the drive we had," he told me. "We played with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder because we were picked to finish third in the league. We know that won't be the case this season, so we have to find our own edge."
Byrd is a graduate of Tennessee (he was a walk-on guard back in the Bernie-and-Ernie days) and the school interviewed him about its coaching vacancy before hiring Cuonzo Martin from Missouri State. Byrd has gotten some sniffs from so-called elite programs over the years, but if his alma mater had offered him it would have been tough to say no. You never say never in this business, but Byrd told me he is currently in discussions with his bosses about signing a new contract that will essentially lock him up at Belmont for life. "I'm almost past that part of my life," he says. "I'm 58 now. If I were hiring a guy to start a program, my first choice wouldn't be a 58-year-old."
Unlike last summer and next summer, Mike Krzyzewski is not coaching a U.S. national team right now. You might think that means he's ready to kick back and relax once he's through with the July evaluation period, but you'd be wrong. Coach K has already put his Blue Devils through two practices to prepare for their international tour through Dubai and China. They will practice eight more times before they leave next month. "This team needs the time together. We need some things to emerge," he told me. "We'll be young but we're talented."
They'll also have yet another Plumlee on the roster -- as in 6-foot-11 freshman center Marshall Plumlee, the younger brother of Miles and Mason. Krzyzewski is also counting on significant improvement from his three other juniors, guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins plus 6-11 forward Ryan Kelly. But suffice to say, all eyes will be on 6-4 wing Austin Rivers, the top-rated freshman in the country. Rivers, who is the son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is not lacking for swagger, but Coach K told me the early practices served as a reminder that there is no such thing as a seamless transition from high school basketball.
"Austin has to learn the whole game, not just the scoring part of it," Coach K said. "Scoring hasn't been a problem for him, but he has never done it against this level of competition. For any freshman there's going to be a period of adjustment."
The bad news is Illini lost four seniors off last year's team, as well as freshman swingman Jereme Richmond. That's also the good news. Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole may have won a lot of games, but they were about as soft as Big Ten senior starters can get. And Richmond's lack of judgment was reflected in his foolish decision to enter the NBA draft, where he went unselected. This program is clearly better off without him.
Next year's team will be less experienced but just as talented. The nucleus will consist of junior guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul plus sophomore center Meyers Leonard. "I told those three they'll have to be the most improved players in the league," Illini coach Bruce Weber told me. "If they do that we have a chance to be pretty good."
Leonard, for one, should benefit from his experience competing for the U.S. at the Under 19 World Championships in Latvia earlier this month. Weber was a member of the committee that selected the team, and he liked what he saw of his big man during the trials. "I think people thought he was invited to the trials just because I'm on the committee, but he was one of the top five guys there," Weber said. "The last three games of the tournament I got a lot of texts from [NBA] GMs. He can run, he can catch. He has a lot of talent."
Weber will also benefit from an influx of seven new players, six of whom are freshmen. Weber will need a couple of those greenhorns to contribute right away. The best prospect is probably 6-10 center Nnanna Egwu, but Weber also hopes to get immediate help from 6-7 power forward Mike Shaw and 6-1 point guard Tracy Abrams. With so many young players to integrate into the program, Weber is excited for the chance to take the squad on a foreign tour of Italy in August, not least because it will allow him to conduct 10 practices. "It's a godsend," he said. "We couldn't have timed it better."
This time last year, Rick Pitino was wondering how he was going to put a full team together. Now he's entering a season with 17 players -- four of whom aren't on scholarship (including Mark Jackson's son). Pitino will also be welcoming Luke Hancock, a skilled transfer from George Mason who will become eligible for the 2012-13 season.
The Cardinals are stable at the point thanks to the return of point guard Peyton Siva. They will also have two of the top freshmen in the country in Chane Behanan, a muscular 6-6 forward from Bowling Green, Ky., and 6-5 Chicago native Wayne Blackshear. Last year's team needed to overachieve to be good, but this year the Cardinals are more flush with talent. "We had a fun team last year," Pitino said. "If we can match last year's attitude we'll be really good."
One of the questions Pitino will have to answer early in the season is whether to redshirt Rakeem Buckles, the 6-8 rebounding machine who tore his ACL toward the end of the season. Pitino told me Buckles is doing workouts, but he won't start playing fullcourt until late September. Part of the redshirt calculation will depend on the progress of Gorgui Dieng, a 6-10 center from Senegal who played limited minutes his freshman year but could be headed for a breakout sophomore season. "Unlike a lot of African kids who come over here, Gorgui is very gifted offensively," Pitino said.
Ironically, the biggest source of instability at Louisville has been on Pitino's coaching staff. He lost his three assistants from last season, but that was mitigated by the fact that one of his new hires is his son, Richard, who used to work for Pitino but spent the last two years on Billy Donovan's staff at Florida. There were rumblings that Richard might get the Boston University job when it came open this summer, but his dad squashed that immediately. "I made all the new assists sign a contract that had a $75,000 buyout," Pitino said. "Richard told me that his mom would pay it off for him."