What I Am Learning
I am a student of the game of basketball. Each season, I've got to begin my studies all over again. I've already had the chance to see Texas, Kentucky, Seton Hall and Kansas, and while it's still very, very early, here are a few things I've learned:
This is Rick Barnes' deepest team -- and, possibly, his best.
This is the deepest and most athletic team Barnes has had at Texas. In fact, he has more possible combinations to play than a Rubik's Cube. And while every coach would salivate over this much talent, there are pitfalls. Barnes will have to figure out how to keep so many good players happy, what his best lineups will be and how to create a style of play that will incorporate this team's strength in numbers.
A year ago, the Longhorns were scrambling for perimeter help. Now, with high school All-Americans Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton, Florida transfer Jai Lucas and former Texas high school star J'Covan Brown on board, there is an embarrassment of riches in Austin.
While the attention has rightly shined most on Bradley, an outstanding defender and midrange scorer, the best NBA prospect on the roster might be the 6-foot-7 Hamilton, who is a Paul Pierce clone. Hamilton can shoot from long distance and has the slashing ability to get into the lane at will. Once he shakes off the rust of missing his last high school season after being denied a fifth year of eligibility, he could be Barnes' go-to scorer.
Brown, a high school scorer, has all the tools to be a quality point guard in the Big 12, and Barnes will nurture him early. It wouldn't surprise me if by conference play the job is his.
Lucas, a combo guard in a point guard's body, shot the lights on the day I watched practice. He's a gym rat in the same mold of his brother, John, and his father.
Up front, Damion James has played his best basketball at Texas as a power forward and it's likely that's where he'll see most of his minutes. It's also likely he will crush the Longhorns' all-time rebounding record before he's done wearing burnt orange.
The suddenly svelte Dexter Pittman is down to 285 pounds and, if he can stay on the floor more than 20 minutes a game, he will be a force in a league whose only other dominant center is KU's Cole Aldrich.
According to kenpom.com, Texas averaged 66 offensive possessions a game, putting them right smack in the middle of Division I. That should change dramatically this season.
Texas has always been excellent defensively under Barnes, but because of his team's size, depth and quickness, the Longhorns could be terrific on that end of the floor. A defensive possession that turns into a rebound, a fast break and a high-percentage shot will take the pressure off the Horns in their half-court offense.
The Jayhawks have two of the country's best six players.
Now that the off-court distractions are behind them, Bill Self and his Jayhawks can finally concentrate on living up to their lofty preseason expectations. I got to watch them play Friday night at Late Night in the Phog and at Saturday's first real team practice, and I was not disappointed.
First of all, here's the given: Self welcomes back two great college players in 6-11 center Cole Aldrich and 5-11 point guard Sherron Collins at, arguably, the two most important positions on the court. Both have been a huge part of Kansas' success, and it's clear that their leadership will be as important as their talent. After talking with both players, I sensed that they returned to make some Jayhawks history because no KU player has ever won two NCAA titles.
There were some surprises for me at practice. Both Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, have improved and each could see some time at small forward because they are shooting the long ball very well. Coupled with Aldrich, the 6-foot-8 bookends will give Kansas its accustomed physical presence.
Self has added an Energizer bunny in a 6-8 freshman with a Wayne Simien-like body, Thomas Robinson. Self has always had a soft spot in his heart for players with toughness like Robinson's, and he insures that there's enough beef -- no pun intended -- to deal with the Longhorns up front.
The biggest mystery that I haven't resolved is whether top recruit Xavier Henry can become the third scoring option on this team. The 6-foot-6 incoming freshman has obviously gotten himself into excellent condition and looks more explosive than I remember him being in high school. He will be called on to shoot the ball with consistency and take the pressure off both Collins and Aldrich. Henry's got a great opportunity to step in for the suspended Brady Morningstar, but I am not sold on him being a one-and-done guy.
The other question I have is if sophomore Tyshawn Taylor, his high school team's fourth-leading scorer but KU's third leading scorer last season, can accept being a glue guy like Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers were early in their careers. Taylor and Henry may both be thinking NBA, but few are better at dealing with these type of issues than Self.
Coach Cal Will Work His Magic Immediately
I coupled a speaking engagement at the Kentucky high school basketball coaches clinic a couple of weeks ago with a late-September Wildcats practice. Like KU's practice Saturday, it was a "recruiting practice." (That's a mostly offensive-oriented practice with a minimum of yelling, designed for a recruits' visit. All coaches do this.)
First of all, the marriage between John Calipari and Kentucky fans is perfect. His enthusiasm for all things Wildcat basketball has been embraced by the wildest fans in college basketball. They love Coach Cal, and in turn, he has given them their swagger back.
Here is my take on Calipari's first team: His top four or five players may be better than the top four or five at Texas or Kansas, but the Wildcats are not as deep as either team. Are they worthy of a top-five ranking? Absolutely.
John Wall is as good as advertised. He's Derrick Rose with hang time. In fact, he had a left-handed dunk over 6-11 fellow freshman DeMarcus Cousins that would have been shown for weeks on end if it were televised. Remember that, while Calipari gave Rose the keys to the car early in his freshman year, it wasn't until the NCAA tournament that Rose became Tony Stewart.
Wall will have his ups and downs but he is in a great system, the Dribble Drive Motion, and playing for the perfect coach for his game. Tony Delk, the former Kentucky star, told me that Wall is a great listener, a hard worker and humble. That tells me that he'll improve as much between the ears as anywhere else.
Cousins blew me away with his athleticism and skill level for a guy his size. He's got a good touch, handles the ball well and is an excellent passer. The major impediment to his game has always been a lackadaisical attitude at times. If he matures under Cal, he's a top-five NBA draft pick and a prototype power forward. If not, he goes in the top 15, loses some money and will have to answer them same questions at the next level.
Patrick Patterson, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, should also flourish under Calipari. The dribble penetration of Wall and fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe will be good for three or four dunks a game, and Cal vows to allow Patterson to play on the perimeter some and run the floor. The best thing for the 6-foot-9 junior is that the system will keep defenders from being draped all over him.
Bledsoe is a great testament to Calipari's recruiting ability because the point guard from Alabama was a top-25 recruit who signed knowing that Wall would likely be joining him in Lexington. They will play a lot together and Bledsoe, who's built like a free safety, will take some pressure off of Wall.
Among the Billy Gillispie holdovers, the guy who impressed me was 6-foot-6 sophomore Darius Miller. While I am not convinced that Cal would have recruited the former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, he should be a key role player for the Wildcats as a fifth starter. Though not overly athletic and skilled for the dribble drive, he plays with a high IQ and could turn into a player like Antonio Anderson, a jack of all trades.
The Pirates will be a nuisance in the Big East.
While Texas, Kansas and Kentucky are all slated for the preseason top five, the Pirates would be ecstatic with a top-five finish in the Big East. It's precisely why I enjoyed their practice so much last week.
There's always a vibe that's given off when you walk into a gym. I can usually watch any 10 minutes of a team's practice and sense what that team is all about. When I walked into Seton Hall's practice facility, I got a good feeling about the team.
There's more talent and depth at the Hall than in a long time. And while coach Bobby Gonzalez has a Father Flanagan aspect to his recruiting with a cast of highly touted, but not-without-issues transfers and overlooked high school recruits, he's got enough good players who fit into his frenetic style.
Junior Jeremy Hazell, the Big East's second-leading returning scorer, is one of four returning starters, along with fellow junior Robert Mitchell and seniors Eugene Harvey and John Garcia. Hazell averaged 22.7 points on a 17-win team last season and the big question is can he be happy averaging 17 points on a 22-win team this season? My hunch is that he can be.
The well-traveled and enigmatic Herb Pope is now eligible after transferring from New Mexico State. At 6-foot-8, he's got the talent and athleticism to play with any frontline player in the league. But his question marks have always been about off-the-court behavior. If his mind is right, he's a factor for the Pirates.
Missouri transfer and Newark, N.J., native Keon Lawrence is now eligible, as well. He'll give Gonzo more scoring firepower and should fit in defensively, as the Pirates' system is similar to the Mizzou system he played in as a freshman.
The biggest surprise for me was the play of sophomore Jordan Theodore. The 6-foot point guard played on the same summer league team as UConn's Kemba Walker and WVU's Truck Bryant. He is a jet and sees the floor extremely well. In addition, Theodore is an outstanding on-ball defender. Even if he has to wait one more year, after Harvey graduates, for the center stage, he has a chance to be a star for the Pirates.
Fran Fraschilla is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at franfraschilla.