|Friday, April 18
Who stuck around keeps UConn early '04 favorite
By Andy Katz
The NBA released its official early-entry list of underclassmen in the 2003 NBA draft. Who wasn't among the college, high school and international players listed Friday is just another reason why Connecticut could be the biggest winner in 2004.
"You could say we were the big winner," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "We've got a possible candidate for the national player of the year award and one of the best guards in the country ... and neither kid thought about it."
But Okafor and Gordon could have easily followed the lead of fellow Texas sophomore T.J. Ford.
Okafor would have been a top-seven pick had he declared for the draft. He would have battled Ford, Chris Bosh (Georgia Tech) and Chris Kaman (Central Michigan) for one of the coveted spots from four to seven behind LeBron James, Darko Milicic and Carmelo Anthony in the lottery.
NBA scouts consider Okafor the best defensive big man in college. He also grades out higher when compared to international prospects. His offensive game is still developing, but good enough to tantalize scouts to take him in the top seven (see: 21 points and 17 boards in the Sweet 16 loss to Texas).
Gordon's stock, meanwhile, rose late in the season. He is considered a decent first-round talent because of his ability to make three-pointers and hit mid-range jumpers. If the wrong person got in his ear, Gordon could have listened and jumped at the chance to be drafted.
Instead, Okafor and Gordon spent their free time in late April and May working out together in preparation for the Pan American Trials in two weeks in Colorado Springs. And, when they had a moment, they went by Calhoun's office where he worked on them tirelessly about the benefits of staying at Connecticut.
Prior to last season, the Huskies lost Caron Butler after his sophomore season, but that was in large part because Butler led the Huskies to the Elite Eight. Connecticut has had a trend of keeping its NBA talent at least through their junior years (see Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin).
"I had no anxiety about it," Calhoun said. "Emeka had a three-year plan coming in to graduate, and he's right there. He wasn't thinking about the lottery. Caron promised me two years, and it could have been three. We told 'Mek that he would be a millionaire this year, but he would be one next year, too.
"Ben started hearing about going out of Mount Vernon (his hometown in New York)," Calhoun added. "But he didn't think about it. Emeka is a perfectionist, and he knows he could rebound and block shots in (NBA) games. But he's not there offensively, yet. Ben's workouts are getting better and better. But we don't have a great sense of relief right now because we have been so proactive."
If the Huskies had lost Okafor and Gordon, then they would have been gutted. Instead, the two stars join veteran point guard Taliek Brown and rising sophomores Denham Brown, Rashad Anderson, Marcus White and Hilton Armstrong. The first two are scoring wings, the latter two developing low-post scorers and defenders. The Huskies could challenge for the national title with little or no help from their newcomers -- guard Marcus Williams and forward Josh Boone.
"If we had Caron last season, we probably would have won the whole thing," Calhoun said. "We proved we could beat Syracuse (twice). We were really good. Ben got his sea legs under him, and Emeka was terrific. We missed a great player taking over a game."
The Huskies should have one again next season with Okafor.
As for this year's Final Four teams Texas, Marquette and Syracuse, well, they will not. At least it appears that way after each lost their leaders early. But is the trio as down as it seems after losing players early to the NBA draft?
It's a question still to be answered by players who played supporting roles this past season.
Ford ran the Longhorns, but the rest of the starting lineup returns. And that could mean they have a shot to challenge for the Big 12 title again.
James Thomas, Brandon Mouton, Brian Boddicker, Brad Buckman, Royal Ivey and Sydmill Harris are all strong enough, offensive enough and defensively-minded enough to push and prod the Longhorns back to the top of the Big 12. The key will be if Kenton Paulino, and newcomer Edgar Moreno, can replace Ford at the point. Ivey will have to be more of a lead guard and Mouton and Thomas have to be the vocal team leaders.
"T.J. dominated the ball most of the time, but we'll just play in a different way," Texas associate head coach Frank Haith said. "Royal Ivey could be a better defender. Kenton Paulino is a better shooter and Moreno could be a more physical guard. We'll be more of a pass-ahead offensive team as opposed to T.J. monopolizing the ball. Don't get me wrong, it's a very big loss. But we still could be very, very good."
Marquette isn't going to replace Dwyane Wade. They won't find a better scorer, or perhaps, a more consistent leader (although they're hoping incoming freshman Dameon Mason comes close). But the program isn't going downhill.
Tom Crean has a young team that could make a run at an NCAA berth in February. Marquette will have eight sophomores and freshmen on the roster, not to mention five newcomers. The biggest role change could be for Travis Diener. He was a sensational complement to Wade. But he'll have to be his own man next season, and that could be harder with defenses directing their approach toward him.
"We'll be move versatile and could go with smaller lineups if we want," Crean said. "If you lose guys like Wade and (Robert) Jackson, then it's going to have an effect."
The Orangemen lose their only senior (Kueth Duany) and big-time player (Anthony) off their national championship team. The coaches aren't fretting, though.
The expectation from the staff is Gerry McNamara, Billy Edelin and Josh Pace can score just as well next season, and the frontcourt of Hakim Warrick, Chad Forth and Jeremy McNeil will be able to absorb Anthony's loss. The Orangemen will actually be more experienced next season with McNamara and Edelin as sophomores, Warrick, Forth and Pace as juniors, and McNeil as the senior. Syracuse could use incoming freshmen Terrence Roberts, Demetris Nichols and Louis McCroskey as reserves without having to lean on them like they did last season's fresh faces.
Syracuse knew it could lose Anthony, just like Marquette and Texas expected that Wade and Ford, respectively, could bolt. Each were prepared to take the hit with early departures. But after reaching the Final Four, expectations may make the 2003-04 season much more difficult.
Plenty of other teams are feeling the effects of the this year's early departures. Here is a breakdown of what has and could still happen until the June 19 deadline for underclassmen who haven't signed with an agent to withdraw their names.
Notre Dame: The Irish can withstand losing point guard Chris Thomas if he stays in the draft, but they won't have the end-to-end point guard who can break down defenses. Chris Quinn can get the Irish into their offense, but he's not going to draw as good a defender as Thomas did the last two seasons. Losing Matt Carroll and Danny Miller hurts, too, but that was expected.
Georgia Tech: Paul Hewitt said he didn't expect to lose Bosh after one season. But that changed when Bosh became a top-five pick. The Yellow Jackets won't have a defensive stopper along the back line or a dominant offensive finisher. Losing Ed Nelson (transferring to Connecticut) didn't help, either. Hewitt said this team would be more experienced with rising sophomore Jarrett Jack at the point and scoring rising junior wings B.J. Elder and Isma'il Muhammad. But this team won't be as good as it would have been with Bosh and Nelson.
Mississippi State: Rick Stansbury knew he could lose Mario Austin last season. But Austin did tell him he was returning, only to change his mind for like the 10th time. The Bulldogs don't have as dedicated and powerful a forward returning or incoming like Austin. If they lose signee Travis Outlaw to the draft, then they won't have an athlete on the wing. But they won't be saying goodbye to a skilled player. The Bulldogs can take losing Outlaw before they ever knew him more than Austin. Mississippi State will still be a top-three SEC West team, but it will be more challenging, especially if incoming freshman Jackie Butler doesn't get eligible. Stansbury's hope is that Ontario Harper develops into a scorer, incoming freshman Gary Ervin is a true point, and Timmy Bowers becomes an offensive star on the wing.
Arizona: The Wildcats are worried that Ndudi Ebi will stay in the draft and not come to Tucson. If that's the case, then Arizona will still be fine, albeit missing another forward they were counting on for depth. Arizona already had to deal with the departure of seniors Jason Gardner, Luke Walton and Ricky Anderson. But they do have the return of guards Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams, Chris Rodgers and wing Andre Iguodala. Channing Frye is one of the best forwards returning in the country, and Isaiah Fox isn't too shabby as a backup. Chris Dunn was one of the best redshirt forwards last season (he could have started or been a sixth man for the bottom teams in the Pac-10), and incoming freshman guard Mustafa Shakur should step in as the starting point. Is this a Final Four team? It wouldn't appear so, yet. But it's a Pac-10 title contender, right away.
Texas Tech: The Red Raiders weren't expecting Andre Emmett to bolt after last season. If he stays in the draft, then look for the Red Raiders to slide down in the Big 12. Baylor could be the recipient of their downturn and move up in the league. The Red Raiders didn't pick up an impact scorer in recruiting, but do have the parts to make Bob Knight's offense work again next season. But they lack the go-to scorer without Emmett that made them click so well in games against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
Minnesota: The Gophers won't get Rick Rickert back after he decided to sign with an agent. That means count out the Gophers for the Big Ten title next season. But Minnesota should still be competitive, although they won't have the go-to presence. Dan Monson has some pieces to make this team a threat next season, but they need to find a leader and a player that will force defenses to pay attention to with an extra defender. Mo Hargrow and Michael Bauer are candidates and the hope is that redshirts Adam Boone (of North Carolina) and Aliou Kane can have an impact.
Alabama: If Maurice Williams stays in the draft, the Tide will take a serious hit at the point and beyond. Williams emerged as the leader of last season's team. Gone are Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker inside, as well as Terrance Meade on the perimeter. Kennedy Winston would have to become the leader, but from small forward, with Antoine Pettway handling it from the perimeter. Williams can help mold a young team, especially inside. If he's gone the Tide will be a team in transition, looking for a floor leader.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.