Takeaways from Start of Fall Practice for NCAA Basketball's Top Contenders
Thanks to a new NCAA basketball rule, fall practice has opened earlier than ever, giving fans their first chance to see their new-look teams in action. Even the nation’s best programs can use a little extra practice time as they blend new players and new starters in with their returning talent.
The Memphis Tigers are loaded with high-level returnees (including senior floor leader Joe Jackson), and Michael Dixon, Jr. arrives from Missouri to add even more scoring punch to the backcourt. Dixon has looked impressive in practice so far, but he’s not the only newcomer turning heads.
Read on to see who else has gotten off to a fast start as the Tigers—and the rest of the top 20 programs from our last batch of preseason rankings—gear up for the 2013-14 season.
20. Saint Louis
No news is good news in St. Louis, where a lack of injuries or other chaos has made for a calm start to the practice schedule.
With Jim Crews in his second year of running the team (albeit the first as official head coach), the veteran roster arrived already knowing what he wants from them this season.
Between Crews and a senior-laden team—the upperclass star power includes Dwayne Evans at PF and new starting PG Jordair Jett—there’s leadership to burn for the Billikens.
Now, the coaching staff just has to find a way to get some offense out of new starter Rob Loe and the rest of a quiet supporting cast.
19. Oklahoma State
Considering that four-fifths of the starting lineup is back for Oklahoma State, it’s little wonder that the early spotlight is on that fifth slot.
The projected replacement for graduated center Philip Jurick is one of the Big 12’s top JUCO additions, 6’10” Gary Gaskins.
The former Brevard Community College standout is a shot-blocking specialist who will pair nicely with the similarly defensive-minded (but smaller) Michael Cobbins in the post.
Gaskins isn’t the most polished offensive contributor, but with his length, fans can expect plenty of Marcus Smart alley-oops to find him this season.
18. Wichita State
The biggest impression in Wichita State’s early practices has been made by one of the few players who wasn’t able to contribute to last year’s Final Four run.
Kadeem Coleby, who sat out the 2012-13 season after transferring from Louisiana-Lafayette, has shown terrific mobility to go along with his 6’9”, 251-lb frame.
Coleby’s ascension couldn’t come at a better time, as Wichita State has to replace starting center Carl Hall and backup Ehimen Orukpe this season.
The newcomer should have no trouble topping the 9.5 points and 4.9 rebounds a game he averaged as a junior with the Ragin’ Cajuns.
17. New Mexico
New Mexico has the two most dangerous individual players in the Mountain West—PG Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk—and owns four league titles from the past five seasons. Another conference crown is overwhelmingly likely in Albuquerque.
It also isn’t enough.
The focus for new coach Craig Neal to start the year has been to acknowledge that this team needs to win some NCAA Tournament games before it can be considered a success.
If he wants to turn that accountability into victories, he’d better get started on maximizing the production of all the other guys on the roster not named Williams or Kirk—a group that plays fine defense but doesn't score much.
The Tigers return a loaded backcourt, featuring three senior stars, so an obvious question as practice began was whether there would be room for Missouri transfer Michael Dixon, Jr.
According to Jason Smith of The Memphis Commercial Appeal, Dixon’s incorporation into the perimeter corps is going smoothly, thanks in part to his own unselfish attitude.
Dixon isn’t the only transfer who’s turning heads in Memphis, either. Former George Washington forward David Pellom has also looked sharp, giving coach Josh Pastner a safety net if freshman Austin Nichols isn’t ready for prime time right away.
15. Virginia Commonwealth
The biggest question mark coming into the season for Shaka Smart and the Rams was how to compensate for Darius Theus’ graduation.
In addition to being a brilliant defensive point guard, the heady Theus was a much-needed steadying influence on VCU’s inconsistent half-court offense.
Although Briante Weber is still expected to take over the starting job in Theus’ absence, Smart now has a backup plan in place if his defensive whiz isn’t quite ready to run the offense.
According to Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports, senior Rob Brandenberg, a career wing, has looked comfortable handling the PG duties in practice. He will certainly see some minutes in that role over the course of the season.
It’s hard to learn much about Indiana’s real capabilities from the team’s early practices because so many players are limited by injury.
Most of the wounded are expected back by the time the season begins in earnest, but in the meantime, sophomore Jeremy Hollowell has been taking advantage of the extra opportunities to show what he can do.
Hollowell, expected to be one of the Hoosiers’ top defenders this season, has also shouldered a good chunk of the scoring load in practice thus far, according to Alex Bozich of InsidetheHall.com.
He’s not the best decision-maker at this stage, but the sophomore forward does look primed to take over a healthy share of the point production vacated by Indiana’s four departed starters.
Last year's Zags center, Kelly Olynyk, was a dominant offensive force but an iffy defensive contributor. His replacement, Przemek Karnowski, is looking increasingly like the polar opposite of the perimeter-oriented Canadian.
According to Jim Meehan of The Spokesman-Review, Karnowski is working hard to add muscle to his 7’1” frame before the season starts, and his shot-blocking instincts have shown promise in practice.
Considering that Gonzaga’s entire 2012-13 roster managed just 96 blocks—or 10 fewer than Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel—adding a low-post intimidator to their mix would be a welcome change for the Bulldogs.
12. North Carolina
Even as P.J. Hairston finally gets to put aside his nightmarish offseason and get back on the floor, much of the concern at Tar Heels practice is how to win without him.
North Carolina’s leading scorer will be suspended a still-unknown number of games, and Roy Williams needs to sort out who will provide perimeter scoring in that time.
One obvious option, Leslie McDonald, has never exactly been a favorite with his head coach, and he’ll need to continue his strong early showing if he hopes to earn a starting job.
The same can be said of slick-shooting Brice Johnson inside, where the slender sophomore needs both bulk and defensive productivity to win a crowded position battle with Kennedy Meeks, Joel James and others.
Buzz Williams brought in a terrific recruiting class to re-stock his perimeter corps this season. However, the focus for the Golden Eagles early on has been expanding the roles of their few returnees in the backcourt.
Todd Mayo—the brother of NBA guard O.J., who is now also in Milwaukee with the Bucks—and Derrick Wilson were little-used reserves last season, but now, they will be expected to step into the holes left by Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan.
Williams hasn’t entirely ignored his impressive freshmen, though, telling Genaro C. Armas of The Merced Sun-Star that guard JaJuan Johnson has already shown outstanding potential.
The compliment couldn't have been lost on Mayo, who's slated to start in front of the Tennessee native and who scored just 5.3 points per game off the bench last year.
Despite the lack of a true low-post presence among them, Duke’s three most talented forwards—sophomore Amile Jefferson, freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood—appear set as the Blue Devils’ starting frontcourt.
Interestingly, the same certainty doesn’t apply to the guards.
Mike Krzyzewski told Bret Strelow and Stephen Schramm of The Fayetteville Observer that incumbent PG Quinn Cook was only a probable starter in the early stages of practice, and he didn’t even mention returning SG Rasheed Sulaimon in that context.
The latter point may emphasize how close the competition is between Sulaimon (a physical sophomore but not a three-point sniper) and senior Andre Dawkins, who is back from a redshirt year and ready to provide plenty of perimeter offense.
One of the most prominent effects of the earlier start to practices has been that they have made offseason injuries look more worrisome than they might otherwise be.
Few players have felt the extra scrutiny more than Michigan’s Mitch McGary, who is resting his balky lower back rather than diving into the early scrums with his team.
According to Jeff Goodman of ESPN, McGary feels that he could play right away if the team needed him, but coach John Beilein has no incentive to hurry him along with the season still almost a month away.
When the opener against UMass-Lowell arrives, don’t be surprised if the Wolverines’ big man is back at his usual starting center position, regardless of how much or how little he’s practiced.
Florida’s fast start in 2012-13 was one of the biggest stories of the early season. As practice begins, the Gators are surrounded by reminders of how tough that feat will be to match.
Returnee Will Yeguete and Rutgers transfer Eli Carter are both sidelined with injuries that could easily linger into the regular season.
Meanwhile, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is practicing but could well miss game time as a result of his offseason suspension, and sensational freshman Chris Walker is already out until January with academic troubles.
Nobody wants to deal with injuries, but if they have to come, Syracuse’s have chosen a relatively favorable time and place.
The Orange’s deep frontcourt is a little less deep in the early going because of minor injuries to sophomore Jerami Grant (finger) and freshman Tyler Roberson (hamstring).
Neither player is expected to miss any of the regular season, but even if they did, it would have little impact on the loaded Orange.
With C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman all among Jim Boeheim’s returning forwards, Syracuse has little to worry about if the bench is short a man or two early on.
Optimism abounds in Lawrence, where a hyper-athletic crop of incoming freshmen (plus Memphis transfer Tarik Black) is helping to weather the loss of all five starters.
For all the Jayhawks’ prodigious size and talent, though, they can temper their early expectations just by looking up in the rankings at the Kentucky Wildcats.
Like last year’s disastrous UK team, the 2013-14 edition of KU has a severe lack of experience and questions about the point guard position (in spite of an encouraging start by freshman Frank Mason).
The Jayhawks are almost guaranteed to avoid collapsing as the Wildcats did, but it’s tough for Bill Self to ignore that “almost” when he sees the rough edges on a very young team at the very beginning of its practice schedule.
The good news for Arizona is that Aaron Gordon is living up to the hype generated by his MVP showing at the McDonald’s All-America game, both with his dunking prowess and his versatility.
Of course, that makes it all the more imperative that coach Sean Miller has confidence in the young power forward’s ability to play out of position at small forward, which is where a starting job is available for him.
Also, another concern is Arizona’s ability to get reliable scoring from outside that formidable frontcourt.
Nick Johnson is the only returnee with more than 16 three-pointers made, and, according to Bruce Pascoe of The Arizona Daily Star, new PG T.J. McConnell is still reluctant to shoot, despite his dazzling accuracy from deep (.432 in his last year at Duquesne).
4. Ohio State
Ohio State already had one of the toughest defenses in the NCAA last year, and now, the Buckeyes are hoping to turn more of that defense into offense.
An increased emphasis on forcing turnovers and scoring transition baskets is great news for ringleader Aaron Craft and a long-armed collection of wing players.
The shift in defensive emphasis will also help hide Ohio State’s lack of size, with 6’11” Amir Williams and 6’8” Trey McDonald being the only real post presences on the roster.
Both of those big men are understandably focusing on strength and conditioning as they look to play mobile defense (erasing any mistakes from the more aggressive guards) and keep up with a fast-breaking offense.
3. Michigan State
Adreian Payne, the most athletic big man in the nation, has one starting spot locked down for the Spartans. Which new starter will join him down low, though, is far less certain at this early stage.
Sophomore Matt Costello looks to be the frontrunner to replace the graduated Derrick Nix, though little-used junior Alex Gauna (250 lbs.) has about a 10-lb. edge on his younger counterpart.
Also in the running, somewhat surprisingly, is freshman Gavin Schilling, a high-energy type who has more mobility than either of the vets.
Andrew Harrison is the best natural point guard Kentucky has had since John Wall left for the NBA, and it’s showing in practice.
As reported by Jerry Tipton of The Lexington Herald-Leader, John Calipari said that this year’s Wildcats team is running his beloved dribble-drive offense better than any squad he’s had since Derrick Rose took the Memphis Tigers to the 2008 title game.
The other vital cog in that offense will be Julius Randle, the team's likely leading scorer and another of Calipari’s sextet of McDonald’s All-America freshmen.
As good a low-post scorer as Randle is, Calipari expects him to be even better as he learns to invite contact inside and get himself to the free-throw line.
Rick Pitino may want his team to forget last year’s national title and focus on the season to come, but reminders of the Cardinals’ Final Four run are plentiful (and not just because three starters from that team return).
Most notable among those reminders is Kevin Ware, who became a rallying point for the team when a gruesome broken leg ended his season in the Elite Eight.
Amazingly, Ware has already been cleared to practice, and he will be ready to play for Louisville’s season opener against the College of Charleston.
Another memorable name from last March is Final Four MOP Luke Hancock, who’s had leg issues of his own but is reportedly close to 100 percent as he bounces back from an injured ankle.