Final checkups as season gets under way

November, 10, 2008
I'll be checking in with teams from my top 25 and beyond over the next five days before the official start of the season Friday.

No. 5 UCLA (real rankings -- AP No. 4; ESPN/USA Today No. 4): Five points as the season nears, according to head coach Ben Howland:

1. Howland said the Bruins have more things to figure out than they have figured out. That's called "trying to lower the hype."

2. The starting lineup is set, with freshman Jrue Holiday joining senior Darren Collison and Josh Shipp on the perimeter and senior Alfred Aboya with junior James Keefe inside.

3. Howland said the Bruins will have more depth than he has had at UCLA, and that means he plans on playing more players than he normally would, with the bench rotation still to be determined.

4. The player that is drawing the most interest in consideration of where he will fit in and against whom is freshman center J'Mison Morgan, whom, at 6-foot-10, Howland is calling his only true center.

5. Collison will handle the ball more than Holiday. Howland said Holiday will be asked to score more. Fellow freshmen Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson will log minutes off the bench. UCLA opens its season Wednesday against Prairie View A&M in the first round of the 2K Sports Classic, which benefits Coaches vs. Cancer.

No. 6 Pitt (real rankings -- AP No. 5; ESPN/USA Today No. 6): Five points as the season nears, according to head coach Jamie Dixon:

1. Junior Jermaine Dixon will be the starting shooting guard. He had seven assists and five steals in an exhibition win Sunday. Yet he feeds the post well and will be starting alongside Levance Fields, when Fields (who is still nursing a foot injury) is ready to play the point again.

2. Freshman Ashton Gibbs played the point in Fields' absence and had seven assists and one turnover. He will play the position throughout the year and has given the Panthers another ballhandler to rely on.

3. Not having Fields and sophomore Gilbert Brown (out with a stress fracture in his left foot) has left the Panthers wondering when the team will be complete. Until then, Dixon and his staff are trying to coach with two teams in mind -- one with them and one without.

4. Dixon has been impressed with the freshmen's learning curve. The teaching continues, but the newcomers' ability to pick up what the Panthers want to do has eased a lot of the concerns here lately.

5. The Panthers are getting good news on senior forward Tyrell Biggs. He made all five of his field goals in the exhibition win over La Roche on Sunday. He hasn't been discussed as much as Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and of course Fields. But if Biggs can be a factor that certainly helps.

Pitt opens the season Friday against Fairleigh Dickinson.

No.14 Arizona State (real ranking -- No. 15 AP; No. 15 ESPN/USA Today). Five points as the season nears, according to head coach Herb Sendek:

1. For the most part the starting lineup is set, with sophomore guard James Harden on the wing, a combination of sophomore Jamelle McMillan and junior Derek Glasser at the point, sophomore guard Ty Abbott on the wing and senior Jeff Pendergraph and sophomore Rihards Kuksiks inside.

2. Sendek is looking at a bench rotation that would involve junior guard Jerren Shipp, junior center Eric Boateng and likely freshman forward Taylor Rohde.

3. Sendek is still trying to sift through minutes and possible redshirts.

4. Rebounding will be a major issue. It was a problem a year ago and it's not going away.

5. Managing the point minutes is a work in progress, too.

After holding two scrimmages on consecutive Saturdays, one at New Mexico and one hosting UNLV, the Sun Devils open the season against Mississippi Valley State on Friday.

No. 25 Baylor (not ranked in either poll in the real rankings). Five points as the season nears, according to head coach Scott Drew:

1. The rotation is set. Drew is pleased that he has the order of who will be in the game at what times. Expect to see these guards on the floor plenty: sophomore LaceDarius Dunn, senior Henry Dugat, junior Tweety Carter and senior Curtis Jerrells. The rotation inside: senior Kevin Rogers, senior Mamadou Diene, freshman Quincy Acy, freshman Anthony Jones and freshman Fred Ellis.

2. Shot selection is still a constant concern. That has to improve.

3. Blocking out has also been a problem in practice.

4. The Bears have the thrust of their system in place but are still behind in putting in a lot of their zone offense and defense.

5. Freshman Quincy Acy has been impressive. His highlight reel of dunks should be good fodder for many a television network this season. Drew said he's definitely going to help the Bears answer interior-scoring issues.

Baylor opens the season Saturday against Paul Quinn College.

Checking in outside my top 25

On Wisconsin: Five points as the season nears, according to head coach Bo Ryan:

1. The freshmen are better than projected and will log significant minutes. Freshman guard Jordan Taylor is proving to be tough physically and mentally.

2. Post defense must improve after the loss of Brian Butch.

3. Finding that defensive perimeter stopper still hasn't been done.

4. Rebounding is still a major concern.

5. Sophomore forwards Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer have improved tremendously from a year ago and will score and have an impact for the Badgers.

Wisconsin opens up Sunday against Long Beach State.

• Bradley got a rude start to the season, losing a home exhibition 84-79 to Wisconsin-Platteville. Platteville has historically been one of the better Division III schools. Platteville plays on "Bo Ryan Court," which honors the coach who led the Pioneers to four Division III national titles during his 15-year tenure, prior to his move to Madison.

• All the hype at West Virginia was about the arrival of one-time Indiana commit Devin Ebanks. But hold onto that hype and wait a while. Ebanks was just 1-of-7 in an exhibition win over Mountain State (he did have six boards and three blocks). Nope, the story in Morgantown now and maybe in the future may be Da'Sean Butler, who scored 38 points and grabbed 11 boards. Butler took 21 shots (making 11) and was 12-of-19 from the line.

• Auburn is expected to have a bit of an upswing this season. That might be the case if the stats from the win over Morehouse College over the weekend are any indication. Junior Tay Waller scored 27 points in only 21 minutes. He was 7-of-12 on 3s and 10-of-16 from the field overall, and he didn't play the final 12:18 of the game. Meanwhile, the more heralded player for the Tigers, Korvotney Barber, scored only four points in 19 minutes. The Tigers look at Waller, a JC transfer, as the type of shooter they have been lacking for years, maybe since the days of Wesley Person. The Tigers were without their highly touted freshman Frankie Sullivan due to a high ankle sprain.

• Oklahoma sophomore forward Blake Griffin finished his two exhibitions a perfect 16-for-16 from the field. With North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough out with a stress reaction in his right shin, the window is open for Griffin to make an early-season impression in the marathon race for player of the year.

• Creighton proves once again that it is one of the most-followed programs with its loyal fan base. The Bluejays beat Central Missouri in an exhibition game Sunday in front of 15,038 fans in Omaha. Just think about that for a minute. There are plenty of high-major programs that would beg for numbers like that in the regular season, let alone for a Sunday exhibition in early November.

• If Oregon is going to compete in the upper echelon of the Pac-10 this season, the Ducks need freshman Michael Dunigan to produce. He did in an exhibition win over Southern Oregon, with a game-high 18 points.

• Just a quick reminder that the season begins Monday night on ESPNU with a doubleheader of Georgia Southern versus Houston and Presbyterian versus Duke in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer




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