10 burning questions as Midnight Madness rings in hoops season
N.C. State could dominate, but don't expect Duke and UNC to not put up a fight
Colorado State's Larry Eustachy should find himself in the best coaching situation
Best player you've never heard of? Give that honor to Colorado's Andre Roberson
If you can't wait for college basketball season to start, then you'll be happy to know that college basketball can't wait, either. When the clock strikes midnight Friday for the start of practice, it will actually be 5:00. That's right, the NCAA has the power to actually change the time.
For many decades, teams were allowed to begin practicing on Oct. 15. Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell was the first to come up with the idea of holding a public workout at the first possible moment, thereby begetting the idea of Midnight Madness. Like most great ideas, that one got copied so often that people forgot who first came up with it. Also like most great ideas, the NCAA felt a need to stop it. Imagine -- college students staying up so late on a school night! How dare we deprive them of the chance to study quietly in the library and tuck themselves in by 9 o'clock?
The NCAA's fix was to permit schools to start practicing at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Oct. 15. That's fine with me. As far as I'm concerned -- as far as we're concerned -- the new season can't begin soon enough.
And so, to herald the start of a brand new season, and having answered the existential question of why Midnight Madness happens at 5 o'clock, your resident Hoop Thinker has arrived to delve into the most pressing unanswerables facing this wonderful sport heading into the new season. Herewith, my 10 burning questions. Let's get ready to sizzle.
1. Is N.C. State ready for its closeup?
Since this marks the 30-year anniversary of Jim Valvano's miraculous dash to the 1983 NCAA championship, I figured this would be an appropriate place to start. The three decades that have passed since then have not been kind to Wolfpack fans. Not only has N.C. State not been back to the Final Four, it has only reached the Sweet Sixteen three times in the last 25 years. Meanwhile, those evil twins down Interstate 40, Duke and North Carolina, have reigned supreme not just over Tobacco Road but all of college basketball.
So you can understand why so many Wolfpack fans are salivating at the prospect of unseating Duke and North Carolina atop the ACC standings -- for a season, anyway. N.C. State is the hot pick to win the league this season, and for good reason. Though it was the very last team revealed on the CBS Selection Show last March, N.C. State beat San Diego State and Georgetown to reach the Sweet Sixteen, where it nearly knocked off Kansas before losing by three. When the team's best player, 6-foot-9 forward C.J. Leslie, announced he would forego the NBA draft to return for his junior season, it set off a wave of excitement. Leslie is one of four returning starters, and the team is also adding one of the most dynamic freshmen in the country in 6-4 Raleigh native Rodney Purvis.
However, a word of warning: Much of this anticipation is predicated on the assumption that Duke and Carolina will have down seasons. The problem is that even though both teams lost significant players (especially North Carolina), they won't be that far down. That makes you wonder whether expectations have already gotten ahead of reality. So it will be up to Mark Gottfried, N.C. State's second-year coach, to make sure his guys tune out the noise. "Last year, we were picked ninth [in the ACC] and we really didn't pay attention to it," he said. "This year, we're gonna be picked higher, and we shouldn't pay attention to that, either. Our guys should enjoy the excitement but not get caught up and drink the Kool Aid."
Ah, but that Kool Aid is refreshing. And Wolfpack fans are mighty thirsty after their long, hot walk through the desert.
2. How will we know if Kevin Ollie deserves the UConn job?
In many respects, Ollie, who signed a one-year contract after Jim Calhoun retired, is in an impossible position. All he has to do is take a team that lost three starters from a squad that bowed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament, take it through the rugged Big East with no postseason to play for, and make waves on the recruiting trail during a time of year where there is precious little happening on that front. And all with just two years of coaching experience, and none as a head coach. Easy, right?
So where should we -- or more specifically, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel -- set the bar? Should it be a certain number of wins? Or number of road wins? Should Ollie have to lock up a key commitment from a player who will bolt if Ollie doesn't get the job? Ollie's X's and O's acumen will be closely scrutinzed, but to me, that is the least important part of coaching. It would be more instructive to see whether his players get better as the season goes on, because that will be a reflection of how well he teaches.
In the end, the answer boils town to something simple: Let's see if Ollie's kids play hard for him. I mean really hard. Since UConn cannot compete in the postseason, including the Big East tournament, the only thing these kids will have to play for is 1) their own pride, and 2) their desire to see Ollie get the permanent job. If we get to the end of February and the Huskies are still diving on the floor, cheering for each other and playing their hearts out on defense, then Ollie will have earned his shot. If Ollie's players quit on him, it will make it easier for Manuel to do the same.
3. Which newly hired coach is entering the best situation?
In the past, conventional wisdom held that it was better to take over a program that is down and therefore has nowhere to go but up. I have come to believe that the opposite is true. A coach is much better off going to a school where the coach was hired away because he won instead of fired because he lost. Fans and media just won't wait for him to turn things around.
So who fits the bill? After a relatively quiet coaching carousel last spring, the first name that comes to mind is Bruce Weber, who inherited a quality roster at Kansas State after Frank Martin bolted for South Carolina. There are lots of good mid-major choices as well. When Tim Jankovich left Illinois State to join Larry Brown's staff at SMU, he also left behind a stocked roster for Dan Muller, the former Redbird who was an assistant Vanderbilt. (Muller will coach one of the nation's true hidden gems in 6-9 senior forward Jackie Carmichael.) John Groce left Ohio to coach Illinois, but his successor, former TCU coach Jim Christian, will coach all five of the starters from the Bobcats' Sweet Sixteen squad. And even though Danny Hurley was only at Wagner for two seasons, he established a winning foundation, which will benefit his former assistant-turned-successor, Bashir Mason.
My choice, however, is Larry Eustachy, who will take over at Colorado State following Tim Miles's decision to accept the Nebraska job. The Rams return four starters from the team that earned an at-large bid by finishing fourth in the Mountain West Conference, and they're adding Colt Iverson, a 6-10, 280-pound senior transfer from Minnesota. Though the team suffered a tough blow earlier this month when it lost senior guard Jesse Carr to a torn ACL, that loss will be mitigated by the arrival of Daniel Bejarano, a transfer from Arizona. Moreover, San Diego State will move to the Big West next season, which will make it easier for the Rams to compete in the Mountain West. Timing is critical to a coach's ability to succeed in a new situation, and in this case Eustachy's timing was perfect. And make no mistake: The man can coach.
4. Who is the best player you've never heard of?
The pool of candidates for this answer is especially large this season. Unlike a year ago, college basketball will not be blessed with a bevy of high-profile players who turned down the draft. (And based on where those returnees got drafted, we probably won't be blessed again for a long time.) As a result, many of the better players in America are relatively unknowns.
Arkansas guard B.J. Young is a prime example. As a 6-3 freshman, Young was pressed into leading man duties after the Razorbacks' best player, Marshawn Powell, suffered a season-ending knee injury after two games. Young led the Razorbacks and was ranked sixth in the SEC in scoring (15.3). I already mentioned Illinois State forward Jackie Carmichael, but you'll also start hearing more about Maryland center Alex Len, a 7-1 sophomore from the Ukraine who never quite caught up after being suspended for the first ten games last season for violating amateur guidelines. Some other names to put on your radar include Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wisconsin-Green Bay center Alec Brown, and Tennessee State forward Robert Covington.
But since I can only pick one, I am going to go with Colorado junior Andre Roberson. Though he is only a 6-foot-7 forward, Roberson led the Pac 12 last season in rebounds (11.1, also third nationally) and blocks (1.9) while leading the Buffaloes to the Pac 12 tournament title and a win over UNLV in the NCAAs. Many of Roberson's 11.6 points per game came in transition, but he did make 19 threes, so that shows he has potential to become a perimeter scorer. Roberson's a bit of a late bloomer, but he's a prototypical NBA three man, and I believe he will prove as much this season. Just remember where you heard about him first.