Midnight Madness is here and college basketball is back. A few of our writers from around the country answer five big questions as practice gets underway:
1. As college hoops returns, what storyline are you most intrigued by?
Eamonn Brennan: I'm most intrigued to see how good Connecticut looks. The season is long and it's dumb to make too many judgments based on practice reports and Midnight Madness dispatches, but the buzz around the Huskies seems to be growing by the day. Objectively, this team is deeper and more experienced than last season's national title winner. But is it really more talented? More importantly, is this team more talented than North Carolina and Kentucky, the two favorites at the top of the preseason rankings? Tonight will bring us our first peek, scant though it may be, at those answers.
Andy Katz: I'm intrigued to see how Florida's Billy Donovan manages the minutes with his squad. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are the obvious choices to stay on the court, but how will Donovan fit Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario into the rotation? How will he use Bradley Beal? Patric Young is the anchor inside, but could Donovan go with four smaller players and Young? Florida could end up winning the SEC, and how the Gators handle the preseason may go a long way toward that goal.
Dana O'Neil: This has become an annual question since John Calipari took over at Kentucky, but every season it seems to get even more intriguing: Can the coach yet again create a national monster out of a more-or-less recreated roster? This could be the Wildcats' best blend of old and new, with terrific returners in Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller to match up to that stellar recruiting class. But it's not like Lamb and Jones are wily veterans. They're sophomores. So can the game's best coaching mixmaster concoct another winner?
2. There have been a rash of injuries lately. Which one stands out the most to you?
Brennan: In terms of heartbreak, it has to be Michigan State's Delvon Roe, who finally had to call it quits after one too many injuries. The Spartans have certainly learned how to play without him, though, so in terms of the most impactful injury, the ACL tear that ended Missouri forward Laurence Bowers's season takes the cake. With Bowers, Missouri had two viable post presences on a perimeter-dominant team systemically curated by former coach Mike Anderson's run-and-gun style. Bowers' injury robs Mizzou of half of that expected presence. It also costs the Tigers -- not a good defensive team in recent seasons -- their best defensive player (perhaps the best in the Big 12). An already challenging offseason got worse when Bowers got injured, and the Tigers, once seen as Big 12 title contenders, are unquestionably worse without him.
Katz: At one point it looked like USC had a real shot to be a pest in the Pac-12. But now it's hard to figure out where to put the Trojans. The season-ending knee injury to point guard Jio Fontan, suffered on a summer trip to Brazil, was a crushing blow. Fontan was SC's top player and his absence certainly sets the rebuilding program back. Then, just this week, the highly hyped JUCO big man, DeWayne Dedmon, broke his right hand. He should return early in the season for the Trojans, but it's hardly want this already-fragile team needed.
O'Neil: To me the most devastating injury, for both its effect on the individual and the team, is the Achilles tendon tear suffered by Indiana's Maurice Creek. For Creek himself, it's just cruel. After a terrific freshman season, he's suffered setback after setback, with two knee problems precluding this one. And for IU, it's an equally difficult blow. This is the year that things are supposed to come back together for the Hoosiers and Tom Crean, with a solid recruiting class and a nucleus of returners. But Creek was a huge factor in those plans, so we'll see what kind of effect this has in Bloomington.
3. We finally get our first real look at the hyped freshmen. Who is someone you're really looking forward to seeing?
Brennan: There are plenty to choose from, but I'm particularly interested in the impact of Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The New Jersey native has all the physical tools: He's a hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 small forward -- the top small forward (and No. 4 overall player) in the class of 2011 -- who can score, defend, rebound and distribute. He's an NBA talent today. But Kidd-Gilchrist's competitive drive is his X-factor, the trait that caused so many scouts to fall head over heels in love. Determination can be the difference between a talented player and a truly special one. Let's see which glove fits Kidd-Gilchrist best.
Katz: I've seen Andre Drummond in a pickup game at Connecticut and he's going to be special. But I'm most intrigued to see how Marquis Teague handles the point for Kentucky. Between Memphis and UK, this is the fifth straight season John Calipari has a new point guard. He's clearly the fifth-most hyped of the five (behind Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight), but his role will be just as crucial to the Wildcats' success.
O'Neil: Growing up as the son of Doc Rivers can't be easy, so I have to think if anyone is ready for the pressure cooker of Duke basketball it's Austin Rivers. Still, I'm anxious to see how Rivers does in the spotlight and more, how Duke does with another freshman guard steering the ship. Hopefully, for Rivers' sake, his time at the wheel is longer than Kyrie Irving's.
4. What coaches are feeling the heat as the season gets underway?
Brennan: Illinois coach Bruce Weber has to be feeling some heat. Last season was a massive disappointment marred in particular by the lack of leadership from Weber's three seniors (Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis). Top recruit Jereme Richmond never reached his potential and left the school in a cloud of acrimony. In 2011-12, Weber has a younger, retooled team built on the strength of three straight solid recruiting classes. This shouldn't be a down year. But if it is, the already-restless Illini fans will grow ever more so.
Katz: TCU coach Jim Christian has to be feeling some pressure. The Horned Frogs are entering the Big 12 in 2012 and are coming off a 1-15 season in the Mountain West. TCU made the move for football, but it would sure seem like an easy fix to start fresh in the Big 12 if Christian's team doesn't show improvement. The fourth-year coach was under the impression that he was moving to the Big East and probably shifted his recruiting in that direction. Now the focus is back in Texas. But how much longer will he have?
O'Neil: Trent Johnson is almost his own worst enemy. In his first season at LSU, he led the Tigers to a 26-7 record and the SEC title. Ever since, it's been diminishing returns, with back-to-back 11-20 finishes. And those results are all the more glaring when held up next to the ridiculous success of football coach Les Miles. There are reasons, of course. Johnson had the youngest team in the SEC last season and building a basketball program in the shadow of that football team isn't easy. At least now all of that youth from a year ago should equate to experience, which means there is reason to hope for LSU.
5. Do you miss the true Midnight Madness or are you OK with the more TV/family-friendly start times?
Brennan: I don't mind the trend toward earlier start times; there's nothing wrong with giving more people better access to the glorious goofiness that is Midnight Madness. But I do think something is lost in the shift. There's a special, indefinable quality one feels watching his or her college hoops team at midnight on a Friday. You might call it solidarity. I don't know. All I know is Midnight Madness at 8 p.m. doesn't really feel like Midnight Madness, and that feeling is borne of more than mere nomenclature.
Katz: Midnight Madness has run its course. Only a select few schools use it as a recruiting tool. If you polled most coaches, you'd find that they'd just as well start practice at 5 p.m. Friday and get going with the season. The dunk contest and rag-tag pickup games aren't a true indicator of what to expect for fans or those watching on television. Personally, I'd like to see the scrimmages televised between a number of these schools. The NCAA has put the gag order on speaking about or showing these games. Why? Seems unnecessary.
O'Neil: As a mom, I'm sure I'm supposed to say the family-friendly start times are better -- but frankly, I liked the midnight version. Along with the hoopla and energy the Cinderella start provided (who could ever forget the Cincinnati kid winning free tuition with a half-court shot in 1994?), the midnight tip gave the season a legitimate countdown. You knew college basketball was back when the clock hit 12 on the East Coast. Instead, now you have a sort of anticlimactic fizzle, with the season opening haphazardly across the country.