Searching for Answers in Preseason Practice

College basketball practices have just begun, and questions abound for many of the national championship contenders. The sooner those teams' coaches get answers to some of those issues, the sooner we will have a notion of who should be at the center of the 2005-06 title talk.

Practice just started on Friday and there is still the better part of three weeks to go before the Nov. 8 Coaches vs. Cancer Classic-opening games at Syracuse.

 

And there are a lot of questions that need to be answered leading into the season openers before we might have a clearer idea at what kind of seasons the teams from some of the elite programs in the country are going to have.

 

Here are some of those questions that come most quickly to mind. And, as you probably surmised, the program's respective coaches – and those who follow their teams – could be searching for those answers well into the season:

 

1. Who will ultimately be Duke's primary playmaker? The Blue Devils will have one of the most explosive and efficient offenses in the country with a roster that will include a couple of probable first team All-Americas (Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick), three other returning players who averaged from 18.9 to 21.7 minutes per game and a five-player class of newcomers that includes the most gifted freshman in the country (Josh McRoberts).

 

So, who will serve as the "point guard" for Hall of Fame member and soon-to-be U.S. Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski? Every coach should be saddled with such a "dilemma". Senior Sean Dockery actually shared some of those duties with Daniel Ewing (now of the L.A. Clippers) last season, starting 22 times and averaging about 27 minutes per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5-to-1.0) was decent as a junior. Greg Paulus was the best "true" point guard on the high school all-star circuit last spring and is likely to push Dockery for minutes – and a starting job – all season. Don't be surprised to see them in games at the same time often.

 

2. What is going to be the eventual makeup of the Connecticut backcourt? Wide-spread speculation has Marcus Williams being reinstated to the Huskies in time for Big East Conference play but the official pronouncement of the basketball futures of Williams and fellow guard A.J. Price is still pending.

 

In the meanwhile, the onus is on freshmen Rob Garrison and/or Craig Austrie to assimilate the force-fed lessons on playing point guard on the major college level that they are receiving from Jim Calhoun and his staff. Even without Williams (a much better scorer than his 9.6 points per game average of last season would indicate), there will be more than enough potential point production on the floor for the Huskies. But can Garrison and/or Austrie, at least until Williams returns – if that proves the case – be sound with the basketball and make sure it's in the proper hands, in the right spots on the floor, often enough to keep Calhoun's offense humming relatively smoothly?

 

3. How does Lute Olson replace the two most integral pieces of his team from a year ago? The departure of the most clutch jump shooter in the country last season (Salim Stoudamire) seemed to open the door for Jawann McClellan to slide into his spot in the lineup. But the sophomore from Houston is academically ineligible for the first semester. Sophomores Daniel Dillon and Jesus Verdugo, as well as freshman Marcus Williams, have impressed during fall workouts and each is an option. The more likely player to snatch that starting job, though, is 6-4 senior Chris Rodgers, a much underrated scorer who hasn't had to score much during his first three seasons in Tucson.

 

Junior Kirk Walters, who averaged about 10 minutes per game as Lute Olson's primary post reserve last season, is expected to step in for lottery selection (New York) Channing Frye. He's not a future lottery pick and his productivity isn't going to approach Frye's. But he'll be much more effective than anyone not coaching in the Pacific 10 Conference assumes.

 

4. How affective will Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser be for Villanova after off-season knee surgeries? Wildcats' coach Jay Wright may not have the nation's best backcourt but, with the foursome of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry, a strong case can be made that he has the deepest collection of very good guards on any single college roster this season.

 

But you don't win Big East Conference championships or get to Final Fours with 6-foot-3 and under league lineups. Will Sheridan (5.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season) is an under-appreciated post presence but the Wildcats will need Fraser and Sumpter to be active, productive and (at least, relatively) pain free to make a serious march in March to Indianapolis.

 

5. Can Quentin Thomas make Tar Heels fans "forget" Raymond Felton? I'm kidding, of course. Thomas isn't going to make anyone lose sight of how important Felton was in North Carolina's run to a national title last season, nor is he likely to make many believe that he's a sure thing to beat out Tywon Lawson for the starting playmaking job a year from now.

 

Thomas averaged only six minutes per game backing up Felton last season and finished with one more turnover than assist (48 to 47). But no coach in the sport evaluates talent better than Roy Williams. So the perspective here is that if the Tar Heels, despite losing their top seven players from last season, don't return to the NCAA tournament in March, it's not going to be because of something less than solid play out of Thomas.

 

6. When will the NCAA reinstate Randolph Morris to "he can play" status for the University of Kentucky? Morris averaged "only" 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a freshman and, after declaring for the NBA draft, went unselected – a couple of factors leading many to latch onto the notion the 2004 McDonald's All-America came into Lexington with more than just a little unwarranted hype.

 

Maybe so. But let's do a roll call to see how many Division I head coaches would love to have Morris in their lineups this season. When (or, maybe we should say "if") he is eventually reinstated, Morris is capable of evolving into one of the best centers in college basketball – and an NBA player, even if it takes two or three years longer than he assumed it would.

 

And, certainly, the Wildcats will be a better team if he's on the floor for them.

 

BOUNCING AROUND THE COUNTRY:

*Ohio State (from Greg Oden) and Washington (from Spencer Hawes) have the commitments from the two best prospects in the high school Class of 2006.

 

But there is just as little doubt from my perspective that North Carolina is on the verge of corralling the best class of newcomers for the 2006-07 season, after getting a commitment from 6-10 Brandan Wright (Brentwood, Tenn., Academy) Sunday.

 

He's the sixth player to commit to the Tar Heels from the Class of 2006, joining two other players, 6-4 Wayne Ellington (Merion, Pa., Episcopal Academy) and 5-11 Tywon Lawson (Mouth of Wilson, Va., Oak Hill Academy), who are lock McDonald's All-America selections. Also in the fold are two of the Top 10 senior prospects out west in Southern California residents Deon Thompson (6-8, Torrance) and Alex Stepheson (6-9, North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake). And, for good measure, a Top 100-caliber prospect in 6-6 William Graves (Greensboro, N.C., Dudley), also plans to sign with Coach Roy Williams. Amazing.

 

With the current UNC freshman class factored into the equation, we might as well slap the Tar Heels on a short list of teams likely to play in the 2007 Final Four.

 

*Nearly – but not quite – as stunning as Wright's decision to commit to North Carolina (many thought that Duke, Kentucky and Vanderbilt were all more likely to land him), was the Monday news that Chicago Crane Tech point guard Sherron Collins had committed to Kansas, just a day after wrapping up his visit to Lawrence. Collins made his decision, canceling visits to his two other finalists (Illinois and Iowa) in the process.

 

And he made his choice knowing that a 2005 McDonald's All-America, Mario Chalmers, is probably going to be manning the point guard role this season for Bill Self's Jayhawks.

 

I don't have to check the message boards to know how much heat Illinois coach Bruce Weber is drawing from some of his program's followers who, naturally, thought Collins would be a real nifty replacement for Dee Brown a year from now.

 

*After further consideration (and input from Marquette followers), I should have included Marquette's group of freshmen as one that is close to being one of the 10 most influential classes in the country this season. Watch out for point guard Dominic James. He should challenge for Big East Freshman of the Year.

 

An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com


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