Friday, May 6, 2011
Ten teams sweating out Sunday's deadline
By Eamonn Brennan
This weekend, a crop of future NBA players -- if not future NBA stars, necessarily -- will convene in northern New Jersey, where they will visit the Nets practice facility for the NBA draft combine. Anyone who has ever had to endure open, competitive "tryouts" has some small understanding of the anxiety this combine will induce: the awkward glances, the fake hustle, the worry that one scout or another is seeing you, exposing you, and robbing you of your dream in the process. That goes for debate team tryouts. Imagine having an NBA future on the line.
In the next few days, every player currently testing the waters without an agent will have to come to that all-important decision. Many of those players turned down an invitation from the NBA draft combine. Some of them are huddling up at home, spending time with family, friends and teammates, and mulling over the biggest and most important decision of their young lives. It must be equal parts exciting and excruciating.
College basketball fans can relate. Coaches can, too. The deadline is here. By late Sunday night, a wide range of teams will discover their star underclassman's decision and what it means for their squad's immediate future. Excruciating? Oh yeah. Exciting? That all depends.
In that vein, here's a quick list of 10 teams with the most riding on this weekend's decisions. Let the perspiration begin!
1. Texas (Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph): Texas' fate can swing in one of two directions. If Thompson returns, the Longhorns will be one of the most talented teams in the country next season. If Thompson stays in the draft -- and this appears to be the likely outcome, given his status as a likely top-10 pick -- then Texas, which has already waved farewell to leading scorer Jordan Hamilton, will be without its best frontcourt player and any experienced replacements waiting in the wings. The loss of Joseph would be another blow, and something UT fans wouldn't have expected until recently. The difference between a so-so bridge year and a run at the Final Four is what's at stake here.
2. Kentucky (Terrence Jones, DeAndre Liggins): On Friday morning, guard Brandon Knight took absolutely no one by surprise in announcing he would stay in the NBA draft, where he is likely to be a lottery pick and the third guard drafted behind Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker. That decision won't hurt the Wildcats much, not with incoming star Marquis Teague set to take over for John Calipari. But the decisions of forwards Terrence Jones (a possible lottery selection who tweeted that he was "50-50" late last night) and DeAndre Liggins (a valuable defender who would need to impress scouts if he wants to somehow jump into the first round) could have a huge impact on Kentucky's ability to contend for a national title next season. With both in the fold, Calipari could start an all-star lineup incorporating Jones with a No. 1-ranked recruiting class. Liggins, meanwhile, might be the best defender and glue-guy role player in the country. Without both, the Cats will still be supremely talented, but they'll lack for depth and experience, two key components in the season's long slog toward the Final Four in April.
3. Xavier (Tu Holloway): Few players were as important to their teams in 2011 as the guard formerly known as Terrell Holloway. Last season Tu logged the sixth-highest minutes percentage of any player in the country, and he led the Musketeers in scoring, assists, steals and free throw attempts. (Holloway shot 270 free throws in 2011. The next highest tally on his team: 152.) Xavier has a unique programmatic way of replacing talented players each and every year, and it would be a mistake to ever count these guys out. But there's no getting around the possible effects of losing such a crucial, do-everything scoring guard.
4. Tennessee (Tobias Harris, Scotty Hopson): It count as something of a miracle that Cuonzo Martin's first Volunteers team has a chance of retaining its two most talented players in the wake of the Bruce Pearl scandal, but that's the tantalizing possibility awaiting Vols fans this weekend. It still seems unlikely that either will remain in Knoxville, but if Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson both decide to return, the Volunteers are a top-25 team. Without either -- but especially Harris, the more talented and promising of the two -- Martin will find himself beginning the long, arduous post-Pearl era in the midst of an immediate rebuild.
5. Butler (Shelvin Mack): Butler's second-straight Final Four surprise was highlighted by the ruthlessly effective guard play of Shelvin Mack. (Until the national title game, at least.) No surprise, then, that Mack would seek to turn that profile -- not to mention his impressive play for the USA Select Team last summer -- into a first-round NBA draft slot. If Mack lands that spot, he might very well leave, and Butler coach Brad Stevens will find himself losing not only his best post player and de facto team leader (senior Matt Howard), but also his team's best perimeter scoring option. With Mack gone, it's hard to imagine Butler recapturing any of the school's recent March magic.
6. Pittsburgh (Ashton Gibbs): It's also hard to imagine Ashton Gibbs staying in this draft. Everyone, including NBA scouts, seems to agree that the promising Pitt junior is a tremendous college player who doesn't yet have the tools his size and athleticism (or lack thereof, if we're being honest) require to succeed on the next level. But if Gibbs does go through with his, he'll rob the Panthers of their leading scorer and primary offensive option. That loss wouldn't be completely devastating. Jamie Dixon's system has never been built around individual scoring and the coach has his best recruiting class ever arriving this fall. But Gibbs's absence could be the difference between another title-run season and a merely good one.
7. West Virginia (Kevin Jones): Kevin Jones' junior year was supposed to be a star turn. The versatile, rebound-prone forward never quite got there. Could his senior season be the year? After his team's season-ending loss to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, Jones said that he needed to "spread his game out" and "make sure [he was] prepared" for the next level. If he decides to work on those aspects of his game as a college senior, Jones could use his combination of outside range and interior strength to dominate Big East opponents. West Virginia, which will need to replace the productivity of three of last season's senior starters, would eagerly welcome Jones' return.
8. Boston College (Reggie Jackson): What's at stake in Jackson's decision? Much like Jackson's projected draft position, the answer depends on who you ask. No matter how you look at it, he would be returning to a rebuilding situation; he would be the only starter leftover from Steve Donahue's solid first season at the school. But if Jackson does return, and Donahue can incorporate transfer Matt Humphrey and incoming freshman forward Ryan Anderson quickly, the Eagles might have enough talent to hang around in a new-look ACC. One thing's for sure: If Jackson keeps his name in the draft, BC won't win many games without him.
9. Missouri (Kim English, Laurence Bowers): Question the hiring of Frank Haith all you want. (Don't worry. We have.) Just know this: If Haith can convince Kim English and Laurence Bowers it's in their best interests to return to Columbia for another season -- an easy argument to make, given both players' statuses as fringe second-round picks at best -- the new Missouri coach will have all five starters back on a team that could legitimately challenge Kansas and Texas (both of whom have their own draft-related attrition to account for) for the 2012 Big 12 title.
10. Washington State (Klay Thompson): Wazzu is already losing forward DeAngelo Casto. That's a survivable loss. Waving farewell to Thompson would be far more difficult. He seems likely to stay in the draft this weekend, as he's a probable first-round pick with room to further impress scouts in the weeks to come. But Cougars fans will be crossing their fingers in hopes of a surprise. Without him, Washington State is set to take another step back after an inconsistent, NIT-worthy 2011.