10 burning questions heading into 2011-12 college hoops season
Expect college hoops to win some converts if the NBA lockout continues this winter
This year's cinderella story? The Belmont Bruins could become 2011-12's VCU
No college player has more raw talent than UConn freshman Andre Drummond
Zen Hoop Thought: If someone realizes how immature he is, does that not make him uncommonly mature?
If you think the answer is yes, then you are going to love the 2011-12 college basketball season. We are conditioned to expect every underclassmen to leap at the chance to be an NBA first-round draft pick, yet last spring a surprising number of uncommonly mature young men decided to return to school. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones III all turned down the chance to be top-five picks. A host of other potential first-rounders came back as well, most notably UConn guard Jeremy Lamb, Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, North Carolina forwards Tyler Zeller and John Henson, Xavier guard Tu Holloway and Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins. That means we're headed for an uncommonly exciting season -- and we haven't even reached the start of practice.
That start arrives Friday night with the unfurling of the colorful, national spectacle known as Midnight Madness. College basketball still does not have an appropriate opening day for games, but it sure begins practice better than anyone. So as the Madness gets underway, your resident Hoop Thinker is once again on hand to present the 10 most burning questions I'm eager to see answered this season.
So step right up and feel the heat. Uncommon maturity not required.
How is the average diehard NBA fan going to spend this winter if the lockout doesn't end? Spend more time with his wife and kids? Take piano lessons? Read? Volunteer?
Please. He's gonna watch basketball and there will only be one place for him to turn. So the question is not whether college hoops will benefit, but by how much, and in what ways. Will we see a bump in TV ratings? Will attendance figures climb? Will there be more media coverage due to the vacuum left on the evening news and in the local newspaper? (Note to kids: Ask your parents what a newspaper is.) Maybe the benefit will manifest itself in that hard-to-measure but eminently critical category of buzz.
I love the NBA, but it is serendipitous that the work stoppage is occurring at a time when college hoops is flush with marquee players. So I expect this sport to win a lot of converts this winter, and I hope they'll stick around long after the lockout has ended.
It was truly incredible that in the very first expanded NCAA tournament in 26 years, Shaka Smart's VCU Rams made it all the way from the First Four to the Final Four. Could it possibly happen again this season?
It's doubtful, of course, but there's no shortage of candidates. For starters, I've got my eye on two teams from the Missouri Valley. Creighton boasts arguably the best player in all of midmajordom, 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Doug McDermott, whose father, Greg, is the Bluejays' coach. McDermott is not quite Jimmerific, but he's a heady, versatile scorer who shined over the summer for USA Basketball at the Under-19 world championships. Meanwhile, Gregg Marshall's Wichita State Shockers lost several starters from the group that won the NIT, but he has been stockpiling talent for years and his program is bound to break through sometime soon.
Elsewhere, Harvard brings its entire roster back from the team that came within a fallaway buzzer beater of reaching its first NCAA tournament in 65 years, and Detroit has an excellent chance to unseat Butler in the Horizon League thanks to the presence of 6-1 sophomore guard Ray McCallum, Jr. But the hands-down, set-your-DVR mid-major to watch this season is Belmont. Rick Byrd's Bruins play an exciting, up-tempo style that last year saw 11 players average at least 10 minutes per game. Belmont won 30 times and prevailed in the Atlantic Sun championship game by 41 points before bowing out to Wisconsin in the NCAA first round. That experience will be a boon for the nine players among those 11 who are back this season.
Belmont won't be easy to find on the tube, so be sure to give them a gander on Nov. 11. That's when the Bruins open the season at Duke. We won't have to wait long to see whether this team has the chops to pull a VCU next March.
I'm not sure the average college basketball fan -- or even the diehard fan -- is totally aware of the record Jamie Dixon has assembled. Over the last decade he has coached Pitt to eight straight NCAA tournaments, earned two No. 1 seeds, won three Big East titles and accrued the highest win percentage (.708) in league games of any coach in Big East history.
Yet, as Dixon is no doubt tired of hearing, his program has still never made it to the Final Four, and it is finding ever more creative ways to keep from getting there. In 2009, the Panthers reached the Elite Eight for the first time, only to lose on a last-second mad dash by Villanova guard Scotty Reynolds. When last year's tournament ended in the second round with that bizarre foul fest against Butler, it marked the third consecutive season that Pitt lost a game in the tournament by three points or fewer. You've heard of Team Heartbreak? This is Team Snakebite.
Is this the year Pitt finally is the biter instead of the bite-ee? Well ... why not? The Panthers are a much more likely candidate to win an NCAA title than UConn appeared to be entering last season. We usually think of the Panthers as a bunch of underrecruited overachievers, but this season the team will be anchored inside by two former McDonald's All Americans in 6-9 junior Dante Taylor and 6-9 freshman Khem Birch, who is arguably the best player Dixon has ever recruited. Throw in a veteran backcourt led by Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall and Pitt looks like a Final Four team -- again. All they need is a little more snake oil.
Or to rephrase: Who is Kentucky's best player? John Calipari has brought in his usual stellar haul in 6-10 forward Anthony Davis, 6-6 forward Michael Gilchrist and 6-2 point guard Marquis Teague. (The fact that Calipari swiped Teague from right under Rick Pitino's nose was a nice little bonus.) Those three could split the balloting when it comes time to vote for national freshman of the year, but that award pales next to the opportunity to win a national championship.
Freshman watching is always fun in college hoops, but this season features a particularly watchable crop. Uber-scorer Austin Rivers will step into the starting backcourt at Duke with the greenest of green lights. Point guard Josiah Turner (Arizona), shooting guard Bradley Beal (Florida), power forward Cody Zeller (Indiana), small forward Quincy Miller (Baylor) and power forward LeBryan Nash (Oklahoma State) will all have similar opportunities to make an immediate impact.
The smart money is on Rivers or Davis, but nobody ever accused me of being overly smart. So I'm going with the late addition at UConn, 6-11 center Andre Drummond. He isn't as offensively polished as the other top candidates, but he has the power and athleticism to dominate on the defensive end. He's also a good passer with a high basketball IQ, which means he could improve quickly. Yes, it helps to be old in college basketball -- especially during the tournament -- but talent still trumps experience. And no player in America has more pure talent than Andre Drummond.
Remember that embarrassing fight that occurred two years ago between members of the Kansas football and basketball teams? You might not have heard about it if Taylor, a 6-3 guard, hadn't revealed on his Facebook page that he had dislocated a finger in the skirmish. Four months later, Taylor again took to Facebook to voice frustration over reduced playing time and suggested he might transfer. His decision-making on the court hasn't been much better, which helps explain why Kansas has exited the last two NCAA tournaments earlier than it should have.
Taylor is back for his senior season, and I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he has learned his lesson. But it's only a matter of time before another player does something foolish from behind his laptop. College students have always said and done stupid things (present company included), but in the past those transgressions were committed in private. Now all the world is a computer screen, so it's not a question of whether someone else will write something regrettable. It's only a matter of who and when.
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Rising Stars: Doug McDermott, Creighton Bluejays