Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
9/23/2007 10:00:00 PM
Building Up The Q
HAMDEN, Conn. -- It happens like clockwork, at noon and 3:30 p.m. every day on York Hill. A dynamite blast sounds, the gym shakes, and action on the court ceases for a couple of beats. It is the noise -- and feeling -- of progress at Quinnipiac, which jumped to Division I in basketball eight years ago but gives off the impression of a program starting anew.
They are making further enhancements to the TD Banknorth Sports Center, a $52 million basketball-and-hockey facility -- with separate, adjoining arenas for each sport -- that opened in January. The "luxury box" level, a corner overhang for VIPs, is being refined, but the hoops team has use of the floor for its workouts during the process. The university has begun construction on a new student center, dorms and parking garage nearby, hence the daily vibrations from the TNT. Coach Tom Moore and his players have gotten used to that by now; if anything, he says, "it means you don't always need your cup of coffee in the afternoon."
On March 29, Moore was lured away from UConn, where he spent 13 years as an assistant and for the last two was JimCalhoun's associate head coach, to revive a Bobcats team that has yet to come close to an NCAA tournament bid. Hamden being only 57 miles from Storrs, and 50 miles from his home in Tolland, Moore didn't have to uproot his family -- he has three daughters aged 5, 8 and 10 -- to take his first D-I head-coaching job. He said he was amenable to a smaller-conference gig, in the absence of say, a more high-profile opportunity in the Atlantic 10, as long he'd be taking over the best spot in the league. "And I think," Moore said of Quinnipiac, "that this place has the potential to be the best job in the Northeast Conference."
Whether Moore has the personnel to thrive in Year One remains to be seen. The Bobcats lost four of their top six players from 2006-07, when they finished 14-15 and third in the NEC. They'll be relying heavily on last year's leading scorer, fifth-year senior swingman DeMario Anderson (15.7 ppg), and are hoping that a minor knee injury he suffered in a recent workout won't balloon into a bigger problem. Moore finds himself channeling Calhoun the most in his dealings with Anderson, saying, "DeMario's a veteran and he's the star, so I try to communicate with him on a different level -- the same way I saw coach Calhoun do it with guys like Caron[Butler], Ray [Allen] and Richard [Hamilton],"
Quinnipiac's biggest offseason recruiting score was landing the Baker Boys, Washington D.C.-area brothers Jeremy and Evann, who could end up being the Bobcats' starting backcourt this winter. Moore had initially only targeted Jeremy, the older of the two and a point guard at Garden City Community College in Kansas. At the time, Evann, who averaged 22 points for Maine Central Institute last season, had already signed with Mark Turgeon at Wichita State. But when Turgeon left for Texas A&M, Baker was released from his letter of intent, and in July he opted to join Jeremy as part of Moore's first recruiting class. Evann's decision to come to Hamden, rather than shop for another mid-major or high-major offer, did not make national news -- but for Quinnipiac, it was a meaningful early return on its investment in basketball.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Among the fliers in the main hall at Yale Law School was an advertisement for a lecture, in room 128, by "The Most Influential Man in Basketball." There was a small photo on the sheet, of a man standing next to a high-school age LeBron James, smiling, wearing a gray sweater. That would be Sonny Vaccaro, who recently left summer basketball behind to go on the speaking circuit. And there he was, inside room 128 at the No. 1-ranked law school in the country on Friday afternoon, telling students, "I need you guys."
Vaccaro was at the center of the summer basketball scene for so long that he's been called "the Godfather of Grassroots", having worked for the Holy Trinity of footwear -- first Nike, then Adidas, then Reebok -- over a 30-year stretch that began in 1977. "Grassroots" is the term shoe companies use for their sponsorship of AAU teams, summer camps and summer tournaments.
In the minds of the marketers, it's an accurate definition -- it's how they get the brand directly on the high-profile kids' feet -- but hoops fundamentalists find it highly euphemistic, as they believe the sneaker wars have taken a negative toll on the development of American basketball talent. Partly as a result of this heat, Vaccaro hung up his tracksuit this spring, leaving two years on a contract with Reebok and shutting down the famed ABCD Camp that he'd run since 1984. The summer circuit was reorganized in what some viewed as attempt to push Vaccaro out of the picture.
But rather than fading away into retirement, Vaccaro has undertaken a new grassroots movement: He's urging law students to take action on his two most "pressing" causes, which are challenging the NBA's mandate that American players must be one year removed from high school to enter the draft, and eliminating the NCAA's infinite ownership of rights to the images of players when they were student-athletes. Vaccaro's East Coast speaking tour includes stops at Harvard (Sept. 19), Yale (Sept. 21) and Maryland (Sept. 26), because, he says, a student at an institution the ilk of where he attended -- Youngstown State -- "isn't going to have access to the world" like the Ivy Leaguers will.
"Everything I ever did was to promote the individual," Vaccaro said as explanation for a career in which he pioneered the signing of college coaches and athletic departments to shoe deals, and inked Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant to their first major footwear deals. The assemblage of approximately 40 included Yale Law Students, Yale athletic director Tom Beckett, the school's basketball team and coach James Jones.
Vaccaro's speech, which lasted nearly two hours, ranged from comedy (of the ease of signing former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian to his initial Nike contract: "Tark would take money from a dead man") to intense discussion of ethical issues (in response to a student's question of whether his signing of Anna Kournikova to Adidas at the age of 12 was premature: "TOO YOUNG? WHAT THE HELL IS TOO YOUNG? WHAT ABOUT CHILD ACTORS?").
Even when ranting against the NCAA and NBA, though, Vaccaro is still a storyteller at heart, with generation-jumping tales that span from finding George Gervin on an ABA scouting trip to Detroit's 3 Mile in the '70s, to discovering a young Kobe Bryant before the Italian-raised phenom had played meaningful basketball in the U.S. Vaccaro says his life is "a story that's been unreal," a statement that's backed up by the fact Sopranos star James Gandolfini was willing to play the Godfather in the upcoming biopic entitled ABCD Camp.
Perhaps Vaccaro's most memorable line referred to the beginning of his relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight, in '77. Before there were Air Jordans, or Mars Blackmon, or UNLV and Georgetown and nearly ever other major program signed to Nike contracts, there was a meeting between a 37-year-old organizer of a Pittsburgh-area high school All-Star game and the CEO of a running-shoe company folks on the East Coast pronounced "Nickie." Knight brought Vaccaro to Oregon on a $137 plane ticket, and asked him, "How do we get involved in basketball?"
Aaron Brooks drives for a layup in January at Oregon's famed Mac Court.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Philly's tiny Palestra no longer meets the NCAA's seating-capacity requirements to host tournament games ... but who cares about ticket sales?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Cash registers are ringing out the elegy music for basketball landmarks. Mostly, I blame the old gyms' architects: How could they have failed to foresee, 80 years in advance, that an arena would no longer be suitable if it didn't generate revenue through luxury boxes for corporations and law firms?
Three weeks ago, the University of Oregon's athletic ATM -- aka Nike founder and dedicated booster Phil Knight -- announced he was donating $100 million to the school, mainly for the construction of a state-of-the-art hoops arena. The Ducks already had one of the nation's top home-court advantages in 80-year-old Mac Court, but the college-sports arms race necessitated they upgrade.
Forty-seven-year-old Cole Field House suffered a similar fate at Maryland in 2002; it was replaced by the $125 million Comcast Center. It was at Cole that Texas Western -- with its all-African-American starting five -- changed the game by winning the 1966 national title, but the field house's floor has since been covered with green turf and repurposed as an indoor soccer field.
In Kansas City, the glass-walled Sprint Center will open in October and inherit the CBE Classic, a Thanksgiving-week tournament that had been the last prominent college hoops event at Municipal Auditorium. The Aud' may look like a art-deco mausoleum, but it has hosted more tournament games (83) and Final Fours (nine) than any other building. And while the University of Missouri at Kansas City's team still calls it home, Summit League games are a far cry from the NCAA tournament.
As the Big Dance's most venerable venue is further marginalized, the dance itself is only growing in scale. In 2006-07, two of the four Regional sites, at St. Louis and San Antonio, were held in football domes, their hangar-like ambiance muted only by large curtains on one side of the floor. The Final Four was in the Atlanta Falcons' Georgia Dome. Next year's NCAA tournament will have three of its four regionals on football fields, and the next three Final Fours will be held at the homes of the Alamo Bowl, the Detroit Lions and the Houston Texans. The popularity of the event -- both from fans and media -- demands an arena with massive capacity, but the setting hardly reflects the spirit of the sport.
Given the money CBS pays to televise March Madness -- $6 billion over 11 years, or $545 million per year -- the NCAA just might be able to consider holding at least one Sacrificial Tournament: Sacrifice logistical conveniences, arena-size concerns and ticket revenue for the sake of playing the season's most meaningful games at its most storied venues, and the Road to the Final Four becomes the Magical History Tour. A big dance needs 13 venues (eight first-and-second round, four regional, one Final Four) in four regions; my proposal is all mapped out below:
First/Second Round Sites:
The Spectrum, Philadelphia: It's now called the Wachovia Spectrum, but this tournament has a no-corporate-naming-rights rule, so the lovable old arena reverts to the name it had in 1992, when Christian Laettner, Duke and Kentucky staged perhaps the greatest NCAA tourney game of all-time on its floor. Indiana fans also have a special attachment to the Spectrum: it's where Bob Knight won his first two national titles.
Madison Square Garden, New York: It's currently the host of the best college hoops in November and December (the Jimmy V Classic, the NIT Season Tip-Off), as well as early March (the Big East Tournament), but there hasn't been an NCAA tournament game in Manhattan since 1961. At its old location on 50th Street and 8th Avenue, the Garden was the site of six straight Final Fours during the World War II era, and was long considered the nation's biggest showcase for college basketball.
Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kan.: In addition to being the college game's most beautiful "big" home venue, its namesake, Dr. Forrest C. "Phog" Allen, gets partial credit for the idea of the NCAA tournament. And his mentor, James Naismith, both founded the KU program and invented the game of basketball. It's a shame a tourney game hasn't been played in the Phog since 1979.
Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater, Okla.: Some call Oklahoma State's home the best arena in all of college hoops. I'm going to dock it authenticity points because its exterior has been completely overhauled -- it needed to expand to 13,000-plus seats and add luxury boxes! -- but it's still in the top five. The "Madison Square Garden of the Plains" has only hosted five tourney games ever, and none since 1958.
Regional Final Site:
Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis: I went to the home of Hoosiers for the Southern Illinois-Butler BracketBusters game last season and fell in love with it. I'd put the Final Four here if not for the fact Hinkle has limited NCAA-tourney history, hosting just one East Regional, in 1940. Milan High-Muncie Central remains its greatest game.
Hinkle Fieldhouse, before a Butler-Southern Illinois game in February.
First/Second Round Sites
Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.: A couple of tourney rules: Teams can't play at their home venues, but their students will be allotted a sizable block of tickets right next to the floor. So while Cameron won't be the same without the Crazies, this could be a fine opportunity for say, the Izzone to do some repetitive hopping. Strange that only one tourney game ever -- in 1954 -- has been played on Duke's campus.
Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.: Rupp is one of the few arenas that the current NCAA tournament has right; in '07, it hosted an early-round pod that included now-Kentucky coach BillyGillispie's Texas A&M squad. The relevant history here -- in addition to UK's seven national-title banners in the rafters -- is that Rupp was the scene of Villanova's miraculous title run in 1985. If the building weren't attached to a shopping mall, I'd consider it for the Regional Finals.
Regional Final Site
Freedom Hall, Louisville, Ky.: It's not the most aesthetically pleasing arena, but consider its history: In 1958, the Hall was the site of AdolphRupp's last national championship at Kentucky, and in '67, it was the site of the first title in UCLA's run of seven straight, with Lew Alcindor making his NCAA tournament debut. In '69 Alcindor's Bruins won again in Louisville, with the future Kareem scoring 37 points in the finale. That was the last of Freedom Hall's six Final Fours.
First/Second Round Sites
MacArthur Court, Eugene, Ore.: The soon-to-be replaced "Pit" reaches higher decibel levels than any other gym on the West Coast, and will go down as one of the NCAA's greatest venues. The first NCAA-tourney champs, Oregon's "Tall Firs," called Mac Court home in 1939. The lone surviving member of that team, John Dick, appeared in a Tourney Blog post on the eve of the '06 title game, discussing the site of the '39 Final Four. That was Northwestern's first version of Patten Gym ... which was soon torn down to make way for the campus' Technical Institute. Sad.
Cow Palace, Daly City, Calif.: This livestock barn just outside of San Francisco has hosted more famous concerts -- particularly by the Grateful Dead -- than it has college basketball games, but it still has an important place in the sport's history. Bill Russell's back-to-back national championship teams from the University of San Francisco played their big home games at the Palace in 1955 and '56, and in '60, it hosted the Final Four where Ohio State Buckeyes John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Bob Knight won their lone title as players.
Regional Final Site
Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Seattle: There is a "Bank of America" attached to the front of Hec Ed's name that would have to be erased for this tournament. That issue aside, the Washington Huskies' home has hosted a few classic NCAA moments, including Rupp's second title at Kentucky (in 1949) and Phog Allen's only title at Kansas (in 1952).
Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City: For the 10th time -- and the first since 1964, when a coach named John Wooden won his first title at UCLA -- the Final Four would converge on 13th and Wyandotte Streets in K.C. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Municipal Auditorium established itself as the original mecca of college hoops, but the Bruins' first championship was also the building's last NCAA tournament game.
For fans to be able to pour in through the Aud's marble-floored and chandelier-ceilinged lobby, rather than trudge up ramps of a football stadium, would be special. Only 10,000 people, rather than 40,000, would fit inside. But would it really pose a financial problem? With that kind of scarcity, non-student seats could be sold for the same price as a skybox.
The exterior of Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, in 2006.
Reynolds Coliseum, Raleigh, N.C.: This art-deco relic, a glaring omission from the initial roster, is the blog commenters' write-in vote. I'm open to moving the play-in game from Dayton to Tobacco Road -- and there's no better place for it than Reynolds, which the Wolfpack's men's team abandoned in 2000 for the more posh RBC Center. It's considered by some to be the birthplace of big-time ACC basketball, hosting the first 13 conference tournaments. Forty-one NCAA-tourney games have been played there, but none since the East Regional in 1982. N.C. State plays one "heritage" game there each year ... but this on-campus jewel warrants more action.
After an impressive 2005 season that ended in a national-tile game, coach Bruce Weber has watched his program -- and luck -- spiral down.
Fans outside the die-hard basketball contingents of Illinois and Kentucky may have missed an innocuous headline from late last week: Tracy Webster, the Illini's third assistant, opted to depart for an identical position on BillyGillispie's staff at Kentucky. It was the sort of low-level carousel move that tends to get coaching job applicants more excited than reporters.
The ripple effects of the move lent it importance. To make room for Webster on his staff, Gillispie had to give Alvin Brooks, one of his assistants who followed from Texas A&M, what essentially amounted to a demotion to director of basketball operations. Two days later it was clear why Webster had so much clout: Darius Miller, a four-star small forward from the Class of 2008 who had been recruited by Illinois, Louisville, Kentucky and Texas, committed to the Wildcats. Webster had been his primary recruiter for the Illini, and Miller's father told the The (Louisville) Courier-Journal that "it really helped " when UK added the former Wisconsin guard as an assistant.
In Lexington, it was rightfully received as yet another sign of the empire Gillispie is building posthaste, having already inked a quartet four- and five-star recruits since Tubby Smith left for Minnesota in April. In Champaign it was lamented that an Illinois assistant had finally inked a big-time recruit for the Class of 2008 ... except it was for another team. The Illini still have zero '08 signees for their two open scholarships.
Webster is far from a big name in the industry, although he was regarded as the best recruiter on a star-crossed Illinois staff. Weber is now scrambling to find a replacement, with former player Jerrence Howard -- Gillispie's initial director of basketball ops at Kentucky -- rumored to be a lead candidate. The move itself won't be devastating for Illinois if Howard can make inroads into the recently unfriendly territory of the Chicago Public League, but the scales in that "swap" -- seeing that UK got Webster and two players he recruited, Miller and five-star point guard DeAndre Liggins of Chicago, and gave up someone with no coaching experience -- would be extremely unbalanced.
Then there's the issue of Webster's motive: Was he merely helping his career prospects by getting on the Gillispie bandwagon before UK returns to juggernaut status ... or was he also shrewdly jumping off the Illinois ship before it sinks?
As much as Weber still gets results on the floor -- he is one of the game's top defensive coaches, and has 80 wins over the past three seasons -- cracks are developing in his program's foundation. The momentum he was expected to gain from 2005's magical 32-1 season has never materialized.
Consider the fortunes of the three other teams that joined Weber's Illini in the '05 Final Four: National champ North Carolina lost nearly its entire team, including four first-rounders, yet rebounded to finish a surprise second in the ACC in '06, win the league in '07 and come within a botched overtime of the Final Four. The Tar Heels, now completely replenished with five-star talent, are a strong candidate to begin the '07-08 season ranked No. 1.
Louisville suffered through an abysmal follow-up season, missing the NCAA tournament in '06, but rode its next wave of young stars -- Edgar Sosa, Terrence Williams, Derrick Caracter, et al. -- to a second-round trip in '07, and will start this season in the everyone's top 10.
Michigan State has finished lower than the Illini in the Big Ten each of the past two seasons, but enters '07-08 as a fringe top-10 team after surrounding senior star Drew Neitzel with a trio of elite freshmen.
It took North Carolina one year, Louisville two years, and Michigan State three, but they all reloaded to a point where they're contending for conference titles and the Final Fours once again. Instead of reloading, Illinois stagnated -- and it now faces the prospect of entering an '07-08 season in which it's unlikely to contend in the Big Ten.
How did this happen? What began as a juicy war between Weber and Illinois-turned-Kansas coach Bill Self over recruits -- Chicagoans Julian Wright and Sherron Collins, and Kansas City's Brandon Rush -- turned into an all-out raid. Everyone started pillaging prospects from the Land of Lincoln. Duke. Memphis. Kentucky. Even Oregon. And Illinois wasn't able to return the favor by raiding other states, either. Take a look at the list of the Illini's primary four- and five-star targets since that Final Four, and where they ended up (** indicates an in-state recruit):
2008 DeAndre Liggins: Kentucky ** Darius Miller: Kentucky Matthew Humphrey: Oregon ** Michael Dunigan: Oregon **
Weber should have strong selling points. Illinois has a rabid fan base with one of the nation's top home-court atmospheres, and most importantly, all three guards from that '05 team are in the NBA. Deron Williams has emerged as one of the league's most exciting young stars. Wouldn't it follow, then, that a versatile point guard such as Collins would be better off developing in that atmosphere than coming off the bench at KU? Or that an NBA-bound talent such as Rose would be better suited in a program that produced Williams and Dee Brown than one that churned out Darius Washington? Somehow -- perhaps as a result of negative recruiting from the incident in which Brown's initial NBA bid didn't receive Weber's full support, or unwillingness to play ball in the AAU underworld -- Weber has been unable to parlay his resume as a handler of pro talent into players who could fill the shoes of Williams, Brown and Luther Head.
The most devastating blow was the loss of the one mega-recruit Weber did land, Indianapolis two-guard Eric Gordon, a future lottery pick. Gordon was to be the recruit that stopped the bleeding from the losses of Wright, Rush, Collins and Scheyer. Yet last October, in one of the most controversial recruiting-war developments of the decade, Gordon de-committed from the Illini and signed with new Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson -- who, the record should note, does not have a single guard in the NBA.
The Gordon devastation was the beginning of an ugly chain of events. A few weeks later, in November, Rose opted to sign with Memphis, making Illinois 0-for-2 on five-star guards. In February, the Illini's best shooter, two-guard Jamar Smith, crashed his car into a tree while drunk, then left the scene while seriously injured teammate Brian Carlwell, the team's top 2006 recruit, was still in the car. Smith plead to an aggravated DUI charge, still a felony, and spent time in jail this summer. In August, he was controversially allowed to remain on the team -- the school newspaper called the decision "disgraceful" -- but will redshirt next season.
The problems didn't end with Smith. Quinton Watkins, one of Weber's two four-star backcourt recruits in '07, was ruled academically ineligible in August and must attend prep school before he can re-enroll in a college, which won't necessarily be Illinois. And on the team's Labor Day-weekend exhibition trip to Canada -- held at the same time Gordon was averaging 27.7 points for Indiana on a trip to the Bahamas -- the U of I managed to lose to a school named Concordia, and need overtime to beat both McGill and Carleton, all of which are a far cry from any of the Big Ten teams on their schedule.
Amid all this there are, actually, some reasons for optimism in Champaign. Four-star guard Demetri McCamey is the first big-time backcourt addition to the team since Brown's graduation. If McCamey can quickly get a handle on the Illini offense -- and they need him to, given how thin their backcourt is -- and become one of the league's top freshmen, they could surprise a few teams in the Big Ten. Also, last weekend for the football team's win over Western Illinois, Weber had a number of key recruits on campus -- and former stars Brown and Head there to play pickup with them. Homegrown class of 2009 prospects Diamond Taylor and Joseph Bertrand were in Champaign, as was a crop of 2010 players that included the younger brothers of Head and McCamey, and elite shooting guard Anthony Johnson. Not present -- but already verbally committed to Illinois -- among the 2010 group was Jereme Richmond, a five-star shooting guard ... who was initially recruited by Webster. All are homegrown, and they represent the state's next big wave of talent.
Weber has the coaching acumen to get a group like that back to the Final Four. Give him talent, and he succeeds. Getting the talent has been the problem. Things may sound promising for 2010, but that's three years away. Plenty of time for the vultures to swoop back in.
Why should we care about exhibitions in Canada? 'Nova's two Coreys -- prize recruits Corey Fisher, a five-star point guard, and Corey Stokes, a five-star small forward -- were suiting up for the first time.
Two things we learned (From conversing with coach Jay Wright):
1. Villanova isn't going back to its four-guard attack, but it'll be boasting two of the Big East's best floor generals in the same starting five. The addition of Fisher gives the Wildcats some interesting options in the backcourt after a season in which Scottie Reynolds was forced to carry an extremely heavy burden. Wright tinkered with lineups in Canada, trying some configurations with Fisher as the primary ballhandler, some with Reynolds at the point, and others with Reynolds, Fisher and fellow frosh Malcom Grant all sharing the ballhandling duties. Said Wright, "Last year, especially at the end, when Mike Nardi was hurt a lot, Scottie had to play the point and score for us, so he never got any easy shots. Never. Everything was a battle. I know he enjoyed playing [in Canada] with Corey [Fisher] taking some of the load."
Fisher, according to Wright, appeared to be equally effective coming off of screens to get open looks at the two guard spot, and developed a good rapport with Reynolds despite having not played together extensively before the trip. "They don't seem to care either way [what their positions are]," Wright said of the duo. "That's how we like our guards to play; we just want them to be guards. They can both handle, both shoot, both make plays, both bring the ball up. It could be really beneficial for us."
2. The Wildcats finished seventh in the Big East in three-point percentage last season, at 35.2, but that figure should get better in '07-08. Reynolds, as was alluded above, should get better looks playing off the ball. As Wright recalled from the trip, "There were times when Corey Fisher would get into the lane, break down the D, and then with one quick pass find Scottie for an open 3. I laughed about it [with Scottie]. He said, 'It's nice to get some easy shots.'"
Reynolds knocked down an absurd 13 of 16 treys on the Canadian tour, but he wasn't the only red-hot shooter for the Wildcats. Stokes showed no signs of being gun-shy, hitting 13 of 27 trifectas. Having the freshman at the three spot gives 'Nova another deadly -- and taller -- perimeter shooting option.
Postcard Material: Other than a visit to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the Wildcats didn't have much time for sightseeing, given their basketball-packed schedule. After you've been to Brazil for the summer, as Wright and Reynolds were as part of the U.S. Pan American Games team, Canada can't be all that exciting.
Why should we care about exhibitions in British Columbia?Blake Griffin, the McDonald's All-American (and brother of current Sooner forward, Tyler) who should be the next big Sooner star, made his debut.
Three things we learned (from conversing with coach Jeff Capel): 1. Blake Griffin is going to be a horse in the Big 12, where the Sooners desperately needed someone to battle with the likes of Darrell Arthur, Joseph Jones and Michael Beasley. The 6-10 Griffin started the Sooners' first three games in Canada and had double-doubles in each, finishing the trip averaging 18.8 points and 9.0 rebounds while playing just 19.8 minutes per contest. Capel said Griffin scored in nearly every way -- back to the basket, transition, offensive rebounds, tip dunks -- other than jump shots. "Blake has a mixture of size, strength and athleticism that you don't find much anymore, especially at such a young age," said Capel. "But we don't need him to be a savior. We have other good players here ... we just need him to come in and be who he is."
2. Even if Griffin isn't a "savior," his presence may warrant changes in OU's offense. "I've always been a four-out, one-in coach, especially with our motion," said Capel. "But I've never had two legit big guys like Blake and [Longar] Longar. The strength of our team now is in the post." Look for the Sooners to try to develop Griffin's low-post game, which he strayed from in high school and AAU because he'd get swarmed with double-teams. Matched up one-on-one against a less-athletic post player, Griffin can do damage close to the basket.
3. The Sooners appear to have found another quality guard from the juco ranks.Omar Leary -- a juco All-America who signed with OU two weeks after its starting point guard from '06-07, Bobby Maze, was dismissed -- ran the show in Canada. Returning backup Austin Johnson sat out the trip with an injury, leaving Leary to start all but one game and average 7.3 points and 3.0 assists, while shooting 43.8 percent on threes. Capel said the starting PG race is wide open heading into the season. Leary, a left-hander with quality scoring skills, has a shot to win it if he can add more game-management skills to his repertoire.
Postcard Material: The Sooners took a side trip to the EA Sports office in Vancouver, where they were given a tour and granted a sneak peak at the new NBA Live and March Madness video games. Capel said the last game he remembers being on was Coach K College Basketball for Sega Genesis in '95, when he was a up-and-coming star at Duke. "It came out right after my freshman year, and we played that and Tecmo Bowl all the time," he said. "I was pretty good on that game, too. EA did me up right."
(I had Coach K for Sega, too, and can vouch for the skills of a young, pixelated Capel ... although no one could hold a candle to UVA's Curtis Staples, the sharpshooter with whom I'd regularly top 50 points a game.)
Why should we care about Exhibitions in the Caribbean? Two huge additions were making their debuts: Five-star freshman two guard Eric Gordon, the program's prize recruit; and the '07 junior-college player of the year, Jamarcus Ellis, who transferred from a 33-3 Chipola juco team to the Hoosiers.
Three things we learned (from conversing with coach Kelvin Sampson):
1. All the attention will be on Gordon -- given that he's a potential one-and-done star -- but Ellis could turn into an important glue guy. The competition IU faced in the Bahamas wasn't exactly stiff, but Ellis did some amazing stat-sheet stuffing, averaging 7.3 points, 9.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 steals per game. The big lefty played point for Chipola, despite being 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, but Sampson said Ellis could be the Hoosier's starting wing (small forward) in November. "He might not be great at anything, but he's pretty good at a lot of things," Sampson said of Ellis. "On the trip he led us in rebounds, steals and assists. That shows you what kind of player he is."
2. Gordon is ready to be a 20-points-per-game scorer right out of the gate. Hailed as a great three-point shooter, Gordon only connected on 2-of-12 treys ... yet still averaged 27.7 points per game and shot 57.6 percent. "I don't remember him taking a bad shot [on the trip]," said Sampson. "He can score off the drive, has a good in-between game, scores in transition and can get to the free throw line. He plays at a very, very high level."
I asked Sampson what he was planning to do to feature Gordon in the offense this season, and he gave an answer similar to what Rick Barnes would say about Kevin Durant in '06-07: "I'm not sure if we need to. Eric's a pretty confident young man. He's a scorer and scorers tend to be open."
3. Armon Bassett could be poised for a big sophomore season. Sampson said the point guard was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip. That's a big deal, given that a glaring difference between the Hoosiers and title contenders such as UCLA (Darren Collison) or North Carolina (Tywon Lawson) is an elite point guard. "If you're going to be a high-level team, you have to be really good at the point of attack," said Sampson. "Quannas White, when we went to the Final Four and Elite Eight in back-to-back years at Oklahoma, was so solid you almost took him for granted. You might not notice guys like him, but they're like a great catcher catching a no-hitter, encouraging the pitcher, keeping him on track." Postcard Material: Gordon's mother, Denise, was born in the Bahamas, and the trip's destination was chosen with the freshman phenom's family in mind. Sampson said there were about 100 IU fans who made the trip down to follow the team -- and then 30-40 more of Gordon's relatives in the crowd. It should be noted that Gordon's original college choice, Illinois, also took a Labor Day trip ... to Canada.
Drew Neitzel returns to Michigan State for his senior season after a summer of international play at the Pan Am games.
Mark Cowan/Icon SMI
For the latest edition of the Blog Q&A series, I chatted with Michigan State point guard Drew Neitzel, who returns to lead the Spartans after averaging 18.1 points and 4.3 assists as a junior in 2006-07. This summer, Neitzel was one of 12 college stars to be named to the U.S. Pan American Games team, which finished fifth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conversation below is an edited compilation of two interviews: the first was conducted in person at the Pam Am trials in July, and the second was by phone last week.
Luke Winn: You've been around the Big Ten for a pretty long time now, since 2004. What's the toughest road place to play in the league?
Drew Neitzel: It's a tough conference to play on the road. Every place is unique, and sometimes it depends on what kind of a year a team is having. Illinois is tough. Indiana might be No. 1, though. It's not just their student section; it's their whole fan base. They love basketball. The arena [Assembly Hall] is huge. It's like a theater -- it goes up really high on both sides, and the sound seems to echo in there. It feels like the fans are right on top of you, and they get pretty loud.
LW: What's been the most memorable harassment you've received from a Big Ten student section?
DN: It usually happens at the free-throw line. Kids will start chanting "Marshall Mathers" or "Slim Shady," for Eminem. Last year, when Britney shaved her head, and we played at Wisconsin, they were calling me Britney Spears.
LW: How long has the shaved head been your style?
DN: It's been like that since I can remember. Since elementary school. I grew it out for a month and a half at the end of [the '06-07] season, but I had to cut it. It was thick and nasty. It got to the point where a lot of people didn't recognize me.
LW: I assume you'd prefer to avoid Britney comparisons, but what about Eminem? Are you a fan?
DN: That's fine. He's one of my favorite rappers; he's on my pre-game list on my iPod, with Young Jeezy and Nas. I don't really want to be like Eminem, but it doesn't bother me at all. My teammates get more laughs out of that stuff than I do. After games they'll be making fun of me on the bus.
LW: What about basketball players that you admire? Do you have a favorite lefty shooter?
DN: As far as lefties, I don't know. Right now I like to watch Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich. They're probably my two favorite players. Arenas, because he can hit shots from anywhere, plus create off the dribble and score in a lot of different ways. Hinrich, I like the way he plays the point, sort of similar to the way I do. He's a point guard but he looks to score a lot as well as get his teammates involved.
LW: I guess you shouldn't be limited to lefties; aside from shooting you're known as somewhat of an ambidextrous player. How did that come about?
DN: My dad [Craig] worked with me since I was little -- probably starting at 8 or 9 -- and it gradually happened. On the court, we'd do different kinds of ballhandling drills, especially two-ball dribbling. [Neitzel was the two-ball national champ at age 12]. Off the court, I'd do things like eating or brushing my teeth with both hands. I've always worked both hands equally.
LW: Are there any players you've tried to emulate from watching YouTube clips?
DN: That site is pretty cool; I go on and look up a lot of different guys. Pistol Pete highlight tapes. Jason Williams highlight tapes. I think there's about four of his that I have saved. There are a couple of highlight videos our fans at Michigan State made, too.
LW: We weren't able to see any of the action from [the Pan-Am games in] Brazil this summer. How was that experience for you? And how did the team handle the shock of losing its first two games, to Uruguay and Panama, and finishing fifth?
DN: I took a lot of good things from it. It was my first experience with the international game, and to get to hang out with some of the other top college guys around the country was a lot of fun. When I watched the Olympic team [the U.S. senior men's squad] play in Las Vegas, I saw lot of the same guys we played against down in Brazil.
Losing early on was hard; we didn't get a whole lot of practice time before we played our first game, and we struggled with two close losses. We improved throughout the whole tourney, though, and by the end, we ended up beating a team -- Panama -- that we lost to earlier in the tournament. That showed our progress.
LW: Which players did you end up living with in Rio?
DN: We lived in suites of six in an Olympic Village-type place. My actual roommate was Maarty Leunen [of Oregon], and there were four other guys in the two other bedrooms: Roy Hibbert [of Georgetown] and Shan Foster [of Vanderbilt] were in one, and Scottie Reynolds [of Villanova] and James Gist [of Maryland] were in the other. It was a pretty tight living situation.
LW: What will you remember most about Brazil, off the court?
DN: We played five games in five days, so it was tough to do much; we got to see the city and some of the sights once we were done playing. The thing that surprised me most was the security. Everywhere you went there were armed security guards, or armed military people. You couldn't go anywhere without showing your ID. When you entered and exited the village, they'd search the bus. I think they said there were 5,000 athletes and 25,000 security and military people.
LW: On the Michigan State front, you're welcoming in two new, four-star guards [freshmen Chris Allen and Kalin Lucas] to a backcourt that was extremely thin last year. How much will that help, especially having a second point guard in Lucas?
DN: It's going to be really nice to have some depth this year. As a player, you always want to play 40 minutes a game and never come off the court. But a couple of minutes here and a couple there really make a difference for me as far as my body. I think I'll be more effective [with Lucas spelling him]. Having more options on the wing, too, is going to open up the floor. Teams won't be able to double me as much.
LW: Is this going to be a breakout year for [sophomore forward] Raymar Morgan? He showed flashes of being a future star last year, and you desperately need another quality scorer.
DN: Raymar had a great season as a freshman, even if he was injured for a lot of the year. This summer he went to Serbia with the Under-19 [World Championship] team and played well. He's improved his jump shot a lot. I can remember a year ago, before he even started school, he'd come up and shoot and he couldn't hit anything. Now you can't leave him open, because he'll knock it down. That's going to be a big step in his game, because people are going to have to pressure up on him, and then he can go by them on the dribble.
LW: I've heard you have an interest in coaching when your playing days are over ...
DN: I would like to get into coaching. I want to do something with basketball. That's my love, my passion. Hopefully it would be for a college team; I could work my way up to that level.
LW: Should we expect to see you back on the Michigan State bench down the road?
DN: I don't know. A couple of [Spartans] assistants said maybe I could work for them if they got a head-coaching job. It'd be interesting. But I'm not trying to get into coaching yet. I want to keep playing until my legs fall off, and then I'll think about that.