Players so accustomed to success, bringing a proud program back from the (gasp!) NIT to the cusp of the Final Four, before falling agonizingly short. All three gathering their emotions for the inevitable question that, in the rawest of settings, doesn’t always illicit the most practical answer.
“Will you return to school?” Even after they spoke with the correctness of a campaigning politician and with so many thoughts racing through their minds, no Tar Heel, from head coach Roy Williams on down, expected all three to return to Chapel Hill when the dust settled.
And yet here they are with the stinging Elite Eight loss to Kentucky as motivation, the Tar Heels atop From The End of the Bench’s Summer Fine 15.
Little surprise there. Yet, the real guessing comes after the Tar Heels and their opponent in Newark, as early draft entries and a deep pool of incoming freshmen leave a bevy of teams vying for the wide-open lines after the two blue bloods.
SUMMER FINE 15
1. North Carolina: Some thought Zeller needed more time in the weight room. Others offered Henson had work to do facing the basketball. No one had anything for Barnes to work on, which makes the trio’s complete return a surprise to the nation and a salivating prospect for Tar Heel nation. By year’s end, Barnes was one of the nation’s top players and a surefire top-3 NBA pick, but his return speaks to the head on his shoulders and his desire for team greatness.
Overshadowed is the man in charge of distributing the wealth, Kendall Marshall, who took over the point guard duties from Larry Drew last season and ran with the opportunity. A loaded roster added even more depth with freshmen James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, leaving Williams in prime position to win his third championship since 2005, which would tie him with last season’s winner, UConn’s Jim Calhoun, and behind just Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski on the active title list.
2. Kentucky: The loss of Brandon Knight was to be expected, and the departed DeAndre Liggins was the team’s glue and father figure on the court, but Terrence Jones returns with a year of seasoning and Darius Miller can fill Liggins’ void. Add in a typical John Calipari recruiting class (Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague) and the Wildcats should be Final Four- worthy again.
3. Ohio State: Basketball is best played inside-out. The Buckeyes will employ perhaps the best big-small combo in the country with forward Jared Sullinger and point guard Aaron Craft. Versatile sharpshooter William Buford also returns, and dogged worker Thad Matta brought another wealth of talent (All- Americans Shannon Scott and Amir Williams) to Columbus.
4. Connecticut: If you read my post-title-game piece on UConn’s collective growth, this ranking should not surprise you even without tournament MVP Kemba Walker. Jeremy Lamb grew from a disinterested, disengaged freshman to a flourishing star by season’s end. Shabazz Napier has all of the tools to be a great floor leader, and watching tape of Butler’s ugly shooting exhibition in the title game makes me appreciate even more the effect Alex Oriakhi can have on the defensive end.
5. Syracuse: The Orange were not bitten by the early-entry bug, as multi- faceted guard Kris Joseph decided to stay put. He is not only an important offensive cog, but his long arms and lateral quickness are essential to Jim Boeheim’s zone defense. An experienced backcourt is a big-plus during the learning curve months of November and December, so Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche should put the Orange ahead of the game. Don’t forget the yearly flock of talent heading to northern New York, as center Rakeem Christmas and shooting guard Michael Carter-Williams should provide depth and a scoring punch.
6. Vanderbilt: It won’t take a long look at the press guide to recognize the Commodores this season, as the core of Jeffrey Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli all return. The question is not the talent on hand, but the mental hurdle of postseason success that must be handled head-on come March.
7. Arizona: Yes, Derrick Williams is gone, but the complementary pieces have the opportunity and talent to be stars. Lamont Jones and Kyle Fogg can stretch defenses, and Solomon Hill’s explosiveness will be tough to handle on the interior. Most importantly, head coach Sean Miller turned down Maryland, staying in Tucson and avoiding another transitional period.
8. Wisconsin: Putting Jordan Taylor’s natural gifts and head coach Bo Ryan’s track record together will spell trouble for the Big Ten on most nights. Wisconsin’s ceiling rests in its supplemental pieces; I’m looking at you, Mike Bruesewitz.
9. Duke: I’m not on the Duke bandwagon, at least not yet. I’ve watched tape of Austin Rivers, and his much-hyped game is as advertised, but the Blue Devils lost a lot of pieces to the NBA (Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Kyrie Irving) so growing pains are to be expected. Especially true since Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry, two shooters more comfortable off the ball, will be asked to take more aggressive roles in the offense. Keeping the Plumlees (freshman Marshall will join returning brothers Mason and Miles) straight will be a broadcasting nightmare.
10. Memphis: The Tigers took on head coach Josh Pastner’s youthful energy late last season, playing with more confidence and aggressiveness than at times during Conference USA play. Practically the entire team returns, led by Will Barton and Wesley Witherspoon, and star recruit Adonis Thomas will give the already deep squad even more options.
11. Alabama: The Crimson Tide learned the hard way last season, putting together a borderline laughable out-of-conference schedule and paying for it on Selection Sunday despite 12 conference wins. This year’s outfit shouldn’t have to sweat the process out with the 1-2 punch of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell leading a team that will make it difficult for opponents to reach the rim due to an abundance of length and athleticism.
12. Baylor: Perry Jones III’s decision to return to Baylor, and serve the last four games of a five-game penalty to boot, ranked right up with Harrison Barnes as the “I’m staying!” shocker of the early-entry period. He and Quincy Acy will lead a young outfit composed by promising newcomers Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello.
13. Pittsburgh: I’m glad Ashton Gibbs came to his senses, returning to lead a core group of Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor and Travon Woodall. The bulk of the scoring will fall on Gibbs’ shoulders, which should be no different than last season when Jamie Dixon’s Panthers relied on defense and offensive rebounding.
14. Xavier: Stars win games, especially in mid-major conferences. Tu Holloway’s decision to return to school not only makes the Musketeers the hands-down favorite in the Atlantic 10, but a player on the national scene as well. Head coach Chris Mack also stayed put, rebuffing overtures from North Carolina State and Tennessee.
15. Louisville: The loss of Terrence Jennings (one of the more head-stratching moves of the early-entry period) hurts, but Kyle Kuric and a host of newcomers will fit into Rick Pitino’s fast-paced style. Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan are legitimate prospects who will get a chance to make instant contributions.
WELCOME TO THE BIG TEN, NEBRASKA
Nebraska has officially joined the revamped Big Ten Conference, becoming the 12th member and the first since Penn State joined back in 1990. The move has been well discussed in football circles, but nary a word has been said in terms of the move’s effect on Doc Sadler’s hoops program.
Jorge Brian Diaz, a 6-foot-11 center from Puerto Rico, will be the team’s leading returning scorer at 10.5 points per game, and the recruiting class is led by Arkansas’ David Rivers, who despite his slender build, is seen as a capable scorer around contact with solid ballhandling and playmaking skills.
Coming off a foundational 19-win season and an NIT berth, the Cornhuskers will rely on defense and a slow-paced philosophy that keeps games in the low-to- mid 60s. The biggest change, illustrated by ESPN’s Dana O’Neil last week, will be Doc Sadler’s recruiting philosophy moving forward in a new conference and how America’s heartland plays into his focus in the nation’s most physically-imposing conference.
Former UNLV star Armen Gilliam died last Tuesday while playing a pickup basketball game in Pittsburgh. He was 47.
The 6-foot-9 forward was well known for his professional longevity, but his collegiate success was even more impressive, leading the Runnin’ Rebels to a 37-2 record and the Final Four in 1987.
Gilliam’s No. 35 was retired by the school in 2007, and he was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame a year later. He was a second-team All- American during the Final Four season when UNLV finished with a perfect 18-0 conference record.
UNLV’s success, led by Gilliam, spearheaded its rise to national significance and helped land star recruits Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson.
“He was one of the greatest Rebels ever and one of the best players we have ever had,” said former head coach Jerry Tarkanian. “In my ratings, I had Larry Johnson No. 1 and Armon No. 2. He was such a great person. Everybody loved him and he loved everybody. He was such a gentle person and such a caring guy. I think the world of him and am just really shocked.”
Gilliam is seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,855 points and was selected the 1987 Big West Conference Player of the Year.
Former athletic director Brad Rothermel summed up the feelings of the UNLV family by wading through the stats and offering perspective behind Gilliam’s sudden passing.
“He was one of those student athletes that never caused a problem,” Rothermel said. “We will really miss him.”
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