College Basketball Nation: Five Questions

Five Questions: UNLV's Dave Rice

October, 5, 2012
In his first season as head coach, UNLV’s Dave Rice led the Runnin’ Rebels to the NCAA tournament in March. But they fell short of postseason expectations when they lost to Colorado in the second round.

The program, however, has added a nationally ranked recruiting class to help potential All-American forward Mike Moser (14.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg). Freshman Anthony Bennett and Pitt transfer Khem Birch give UNLV one of the toughest frontcourts in the country. But it's missing former point guard Oscar Bellfield.

Still, the bar is quite high for Rice’s second season. He recently talked with about the 2012-13 campaign and his personal goals for the program.

You’ve added a lot of depth this offseason? How will you balance your rotation this season?

Dave Rice: The first answer is all of that will be earned through competition and practice. I think the second answer is that we talked throughout the recruiting process about the potential of redshirting. When you take a look at 13 scholarship guys, Khem Birch can’t play until December the 17th with the fact that he transferred midyear. Roscoe Smith transferred from UConn but we submitted a waiver on his behalf and that waiver was denied. So we’re down to 11 to start the season. And we’re going to redshirt one or two more guys as well. Haven’t made the decision as to who those guys will be. But there are some freshmen that we’ve talked to about the potential of doing that and they’re open to that possibility. Overall, we’re excited about our depth. The competition in practice will be terrific.

[+] EnlargeMike Moser
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIUNLV coach Dave Rice will surely be counting on star forward Mike Moser to put up big numbers again this upcoming season.
How does Mike Moser enhance this team on and off the floor?

DR: Mike’s got so many positive qualities that helps this team win. The first is that he’s a very talented player. He’s got a fantastic skill in terms of his ability to rebound the basketball. But then you throw in his leadership quality, the fact that’s he’s well respected and liked by his teammates. And then, he possesses a tremendous work ethic. He’s a guy who deserves all the good things that have happened for him and all the good things that will continue to happen for him as well. … He’s worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen in the offseason. He knew that there were a few things that he needed to work on. He’s addressed some of those things.

There are questions at point guard with Bellfield gone. What’s the correlation between this team’s ability to fill that void and reach its potential?

DR: We all, particularly in college basketball, rely so heavily on guard play. We’re excited about the group we have. Anthony Marshall is a three-year starter. He was an all-conference player. He will be one of our captains. We’re excited about having him. And certainly, Justin Hawkins brings great experience. And then we added three new guys that we think will all contribute in a big way in terms of perimeter minutes (Katin Reinhardt, Daquan Cook and Bryce Dejean-Jones). They’re guys that work hard, and certainly, they’ll take their lead from our two seniors in the backcourt, Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins who will provide great leadership.

Has the Mountain West proven itself on a national level based on its success in recent years?

DR: I certainly think we feel that way. Three years ago, there were four teams in the NCAAs. Two years ago, there’s three. And last year, eight teams in the league and four teams make the NCAA tournament. So, those of us who’ve been in the league, we know how good the league is. And I think that we can start to get that national recognition. We all recognize that we need to have more postseason success. That’s the next step. We obviously need to all qualify for the postseason, that’s the first step. But the next step after that to truly make our mark as a league nationally is to have success in the postseason. We certainly feel like we have the teams in place that can do that. It will be a very competitive league.

Your program will continue to play that up-and-down style. But there were some defensive lapses last year. How do you plan to address that this year?

DR: There’s no doubt that the biggest improvement we want to make this year on our basketball team is at the defensive end. Again, we inherited a group that was very defensive-oriented. Had done a terrific job under Coach [Lon] Kruger on the defensive end. It was very important, I thought, in our first year in terms of grounding our program to be the Runnin’ Rebels. It was important for guys to understand pace of play. There were times last year that we didn’t defend or defensive rebound as well as we needed to. So that will be the emphasis going into practice next week. It will be on the defensive end and defensive rebounding because we truly believe with the depth we have, with the players we have, we need to create more offense out of our defense. So, we are never going to sacrifice defensive possessions to run up and down the floor. If we’re going to be as good as we feel like we have the potential to be -- and potential is a dangerous word -- we’ve got to defend more consistently and rebound the ball better than we did last year. We can’t just assume Mike Moser’s going to get them all.

Five Questions: UW's Jared Berggren

October, 4, 2012
Indiana might just debut as the top team in the nation. Everyone is talking about the resurgence at Michigan. Over in East Lansing, plenty figure that this team, even without Draymond Green, has the mark of something special. Aaron Craft gives hope for more good things at Ohio State.

Yep, there’s a lot to talk about in the Big Ten.

And of course, no one is really talking about Wisconsin.

That’s usually the way it goes for Bo Ryan’s squad, whose staid style rarely raises eyebrows. At least not until March.

[+] EnlargeJared Berggren
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireWisconsin is looking to senior big man Jared Berggren to be a leader this upcoming season. "It's my time," he said.
If the Badgers are going to continue to follow their plan this year, they’ll need some new faces to shine. Jordan Taylor is gone, taking with him both his 14.8 points per game and his leadership.

Jared Berggren can’t physically fill Taylor’s shoes. The fifth-year senior is a 6-foot-10 big man, not a 6-1 guard, but he might just be able to plug the other gaps. Berggren, a role player the year before, made gigantic strides last season, averaging 10.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game by season’s end.

Equally important, he realizes it’s his turn to lead.

“It’s my time,” he said. “We’ve been a senior-led group most years, so I think it’s up to me to take on that role.” caught up with Berggren before practice gets underway next week in Madison.

So the first question you have to ask any Wisconsin player: How goes running The Hill?

Jared Berggren: I think we’ve done it maybe seven times now. It’s never a great thing for a big guy. Usually the guards fly up. They can fight gravity a little bit easier. I’ve done OK with it, but I’m sick of seeing that thing after my fifth year here. It never gets easy but coach loves it.

Your league has had a pretty good run on talented big men. Do you enjoy that challenge and how do you prevent it from overwhelming you?

JB: Since I’ve been playing there have been some very good big guys -- Meyers Leonard, Cody Zeller, Jared Sullinger. It’s something I look forward to. There’s always a lot of hype about it and we all know how important it is that I do my best to neutralize them in that situation.

It can be a lot of attention and pressure at times, but I try to remind myself that it’s a team game. I have great trust in my teammates. Some of these guys you’re not going to handle one-on-one, so it comes down to great team defense.

Speaking of the Big Ten, it’s loaded this year. Where do the Badgers stack up?

JB: We always see ourselves fighting for the top spot. A lot of teams are getting a lot of publicity right now -- Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State. I think a lot of times we get overlooked and I’m fine with that. I don’t care what people are saying. We keep the same expectations year in and year out. It doesn’t matter who graduates. It doesn’t matter who we recruit.

Why do you think Wisconsin gets overlooked?

JB: I don’t know. I guess we don’t play the most flashy style of ball. Some people call it boring, methodical. You can call it what you want, but we get it done. We don’t have the McDonald’s All-Americans coming in. That doesn’t matter to us. We get a group to play our style of ball -- disciplined, solid team basketball.

How hard is it to play for a coach like Bo Ryan?

JB: He’s definitely a tough coach. He expects a lot out of everyone and he’s not going to let anyone get away with anything less. It doesn’t matter if you’re an All-American or a freshman walk-on, you’re expected to hold a high standard.

I think that’s definitely a good thing, even if it does get hard sometimes in the middle of the season. The season is long and it gets grinding at times, but he also brings out the best in people.

You learn how to handle things as you get older. You learn you can’t take it personally. If you make a mistake, he’s going to let you know and he always says, 'Have I ever lied to you?’ He hasn’t. Not once. He’s not going to blow smoke up your rear end. He’s going to tell it like it is and it’s up to you to take it the right way. I personally wouldn’t want it any other way.

Five Questions: KU's Elijah Johnson

October, 3, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top-five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

In the two months that followed his breakout performance in last season’s NCAA tournament, Kansas guard Elijah Johnson hardly touched a basketball.

Johnson wasn’t suffering from burnout. He was injured.

“I had knee surgery just to get some things cleaned up,” Johnson said. “Even though I couldn’t do anything physically, I spent a lot time helping the young guys adapt. But now I’m back and I’m rollin’.”

[+] EnlargeElijah Johnson
Harry E. Walker/MCT via Getty ImagesElijah Johnson will be expected to play a larger role for the Jayhawks this season.
That’s good news for the Jayhawks, who will lean heavily on the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Johnson during their quest for a ninth straight Big 12 title and a second consecutive Final Four.

Arguably no Jayhawk will carry as much responsibility as Johnson. Along with being a team leader, the senior will move into the starting point guard spot vacated by the graduation of Tyshawn Taylor. Johnson started at shooting guard last season and was the KU’s third-leading scorer with 10.2 points per contest. He averaged 15.1 points in the last eight games of the season.

Johnson spoke with after a weightlifting session Tuesday.

As a senior and team leader, what’s the main message you want to get across to the newcomers?

Elijah Johnson: Be coachable. Don’t think you know everything. You’re here to play ball but you’re also here to learn. That’s what separates us from other schools and other programs.

You finished last season on such a high note. What did that do for your confidence heading into this season, and do you think opponents will be keying on you more?

EJ: I don’t feed into that too much. I always knew I could play to the level that I played at. It was just about waiting until my turn came around. It was just about being ready and staying ready and being humble about the situation. That was my approach to it. Anything I did didn’t catch me too off-guard. I just wanted to have an open mind and do what I knew I could do for my team.

I think teams probably will [key on me more]. But at the same time, my role has changed. People can be deceived by thinking they know what card is going to be played. Right now I’m not even focusing on myself, because I know that’s going to come around. I’m waiting for Coach [Bill] Self to talk to me more about that. I’m just going to be coachable and do whatever he tells me to do.

What do you anticipate your role being, and do you feel any additional pressure to perform because of a lack of depth in the backcourt?

EJ: I feel like I’ve got to control the tempo out there, whether I’m playing point guard, 2-guard, 3-guard or power forward. I just feel like I’ve got to be the person that most understands the shifts and movements and pace of the game so I can control my team the way it needs to be controlled. It really doesn’t put any pressure on me. Coach has the pieces that he needs. I know he’s going to put it together. It’s just about doing what you’re supposed to do, and that falls back into the category of being coachable.

There’s been a lot of offseason buzz about two of your newcomers, wing Ben McLemore and forward Perry Ellis. What’s your take on those two players as the season approaches?

EJ: Ben is quick. He’s going to do anything he has to do. With him, it’s not all about scoring. He likes doing the [little things], and it really helps his overall game. Perry ... I don’t want to say he’s confused right now, but he’s being welcomed to college. As soon as he gets used to that, I think we’ll get a big, big chunk out of him from a performance standpoint. He’ll be able to go from being a regular player to an outstanding one over a period of time.

You guys have this amazing streak of eight straight Big 12 titles. How much do you talk about that, and how much additional pressure do you feel to win a ninth?

EJ: Nothing is going to hang over our head. We’ve just got to play. Not doing what we’re supposed to is the only thing that could hang over our heads at this point. We just need to listen to what Coach has to say. He’s been doing it for years and our team has continued to do it. Hopefully this year won’t be any different.

Five Questions: Kentucky's John Calipari

October, 2, 2012
John Calipari has barely slowed down since New Orleans.

Winning a national title usually means there is a slew of requests and even more responsibilities from the school. There are awards to collect, speeches to give and recruits to chase after.

Every coach who wins a national title goes through this process.

But Calipari didn’t want to dial back his intensity one bit. In fact, he’s upped it.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Bob Donnan/US PresswireJohn Calipari expects to do things differently in practice this season.
“I’ve added a load of about 10 percent since we won,’’ said Calipari. “My pace is hectic now, and it’s in overdrive. I don’t want to be complacent."

Calipari said he isn’t afraid to say no to the requests. And he’s attempting to create more balance, as he did Sunday. That’s when the Wildcats went through a team workout in the morning, and then he and his wife, Ellen, went and hit golf balls at a driving range.

“What I’m trying to do is spend even more time with the players,’’ said Calipari. “I’m working harder than I have the last 10 years in recruiting, in preparation. I want to be at all the practices and see all the things going on. I don’t want to be seen as complacent. Our whole staff is going harder this season.

“I spent more time calling, texting kids on the road. I’m traveling and spending more time with the current players.’’

He has to because this is by far his most unique Kentucky team. His previous UK squads will go down as some of the most successful in a three-year period, outside of the teams that made three straight Final Four trips from 1996-98 and won two national championships.

In Calipari’s first three seasons, Kentucky reached three Elite Eights and two Final Fours and won a national title.

But less than two weeks before the first day of official practice, Kentucky has more question marks than Calipari’s previous three teams.

“We’re not trying to defend anything," Calipari said. "The trophy is in the case. That’s done. We’re not trying to repeat. Kyle Wiltjer played 11 minutes a game last season. Did you know of the 72 BCS schools, we’re the only school that doesn’t return a player who made a single start?”

Indeed, Wiltjer is just about it in terms of experience in a Big Blue uniform. The point guard duties will be handed over to NC State transfer Ryan Harrow. The Wildcats will lean on another transfer in Wright State wing Julius Mays.

They are expecting freshman center Nerlens Noel to be eligible, despite questions that arose over the summer. Noel has been practicing with the team and has had individual workouts.

Calipari is considering going with a much bigger lineup with the 6-foot-10 Noel, 6-9 Wiltjer and 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein. That might be because they lack the breakdown point guard in Harrow. His previous point guards -- John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague -- could push the tempo and create on their own effectively.

Going big might prove more productive for this team, but it’s also a slower pace. Calipari said he hasn’t found a leader yet, but it will develop organically.

He said he will alter the way the team practices in October and early November because of a lack of experience and opening games against Maryland (Brooklyn) and Duke (Atlanta).

“We’ll do things differently with our practices for the first time in 10 years,’’ said Calipari. “This team is so young that we need to do things differently. Our first two games are Maryland and Duke so we have to put the basics in to be successful.’’

As practice gets set to start next week, here are our five questions for Calipari:

1. How much will you play the bigs together?

I’m not sure if I will play Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley together. I’m not sure whether I’ll play Willie and Nerlens together or how much. I will play Nerlens and Kyle Wiltjer together to be 6-10, 7-foot. You can play a heck of a big zone, and the second thing with Kyle Wiltjer is that he can make 3s and really pass. You’d have two bigs so you can play a big zone.

2. A year ago, Anthony Davis wasn’t sure how he would contribute when practice started. How will Noel contribute?

We’re still developing Nerlens Noel’s game. It’s still being defined. Comparing him to Anthony isn’t fair. He’s a once-in-a-century player. Just like it’s not fair to compare any other player’s motor to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He was a once-in-a 10-year guy. Archie Goodwin has that kind of fight and desire, but to compare him or Alex Poythress with Michael isn’t fair.

3. Which transfers are most ready to contribute?

Both Ryan and Julius surprised me. They’re really steady and can knock down open shots. [Mays] has really taken to the dribble-drive and playing through bumps and making tough layups and jumpers and attacking. Ryan had his best day [Sunday], and he understands how to attack the rim and play with his teammates.

4. What’s the most challenging part of having a new point guard every year?

It’s a hard position to play for us because you have to set the tone on offense and defense. If you’re following Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans [Rose and Evans played for Calipari at Memphis], John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague, it’s a tough road.

5. Every year, you push a player who no one is talking about. Last year it was Doron Lamb. Who is it this year?

No one knows Willie Cauley, but because of me they’re starting to look at him. People talk about Kyle Wiltjer, and he could be that guy, too.

5 Questions: Memphis' Adonis Thomas

October, 1, 2012
Memphis forward Adonis Thomas (8.8 ppg) entered last season amid high expectations. The 6-foot-6, five-star talent was ranked ninth among Recruiting Nation’s Top 100 prospects for 2011.

And the rapid start to his freshman year backed those projections. He recorded double figures in six of his first 16 games with the Tigers. Then he suffered an ankle injury in January that required surgery. Thomas returned in time for March Madness but played limited minutes.

The sophomore recently discussed the injury, his role on the 2012-13 team and last season’s lessons with

[+] EnlargeAdonis Thomas
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireMemphis is surely looking forward to having Adonis Thomas healthy again this upcoming season.
You returned in time to play a few games toward the end of last season after suffering that ankle injury. But you didn’t appear to be 100 percent. What’s the status of the ankle right now as you prepare for this season?

Adonis Thomas: As far as my ankle, it’s 100 percent. My doctor said that it can’t be re-injured. Last year, I only played half of a freshman season. So coming into this season, it’s almost like I’m trying to finish the rest of my freshman season and not even being a sophomore with my injury in January.

How difficult was that experience, considering how well you were playing at that point?

AT: It was real tough. Me and my coach and the staff, we discussed it. They felt like I was coming so far, coming to play and making a big contribution to this team right when we were supposed to start conference play. It was heartbreaking because … I’m a real competitor. I wanted to contribute to this team. Coaches expected big things from me in the season and I just hurt myself in practice. But I learned a lot just from watching. Basically, just where to position myself on the floor, how to be more alert as far as what’s [happening] on the court. It’s a lot of things. How to get to open spots on the court. There were a lot of open spots on the court that guys couldn’t see that I saw.

This team lost Will Barton, who led the program in minutes (35.3), points (18.0) and rebounds (8.0) per game, along with a few other contributors. How will you help this team fill that void?

AT: Will was a great player. He contributed a lot. He did a great job. We even had guys like Wesley Witherspoon (7.2 ppg). [Charles] Carmouche transferred. Those guys did a great job on the team. But we’ve got great players on the team. They’re looking for me to do great things on the court but even if things don’t happen that way, I always can count on the rest of my teammates because the growth of the teammates on this team, as far as contributions, will be real great. We’ve got recruits that have come in and the contributions are going to be even more because these guys are more mature. A lot of these guys, half the team, [are] probably juniors this season, and we have a couple seniors. But it’s going to be a lot more contributions everywhere on the court.

This team led St. Louis in the second half of that NCAA tournament loss in March and then collapsed. What lessons did this group take away from that moment?

AT: It was all about staying poised. With a tournament like the NCAA tournament, things are going to get out of hand. Things are going to go back and forth. Every team is great so you have to stay poised. Everybody has to stay under control. Everybody has to stay together. That’s one of the things we worked on this team over the summer, [which is] going to be great for this team. Everybody is more poised this season. And everybody looks to be more of a leader. If everybody continues to listen to one another, everything will be under control.

You played a variety of roles prior to your injury in January. Has Coach Josh Pastner offered any insight as to how he’ll use you this season?

AT: It’s more balancing my game. I’m sure Coach [will] have some plays where my matchup is going to be smaller, where he’s going to post me a lot in the game until they make a decision about what they need to do. Or [there’s] going to be times where I’m strictly on the wing and being able to attack more and make the outside shot.

Five questions: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski

September, 27, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top-five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

How do you erase an NCAA tournament-opening loss to Lehigh?

Go win gold.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had quite a summer again, winning his second gold medal in as many tries as the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team.

Since he returned from London, Krzyzewski has been on the go again. He has been on the road recruiting, stopped in Springfield for the Hall of Fame induction for contributor Phil Knight of Nike, and ensured he was present at workouts for an intriguing Duke team which isn’t the talk of the Triangle in North Carolina, yet certainly could be by season’s end.

[+] EnlargeDuke's Mike Krzyzewski
Bob Donnan/US PRESSWIREDuke coach Mike Krzyzewski has high expectations for guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton.
Hovering over the program the past month has been the NCAA case centering on Lance Thomas, a starter on Duke's 2010 national champion squad. Thomas and a Manhattan jeweler settled a lawsuit stemming from Thomas owing a debt of $67,000 for a bill he incurred in 2009 after he plunked down an initial $30,000 (for the $97,000 bill).

Krzyzewski has declined to comment on the matter, referring questions to the school, which has made it clear it is working with the NCAA to investigate how Thomas was able to come up with the $30,000. But the case might be a dead end since neither Thomas nor the jeweler has to talk to the NCAA.

But that case has nada to do with this season's team. To find out more about the 2012-13 Blue Devils, we caught up with Krzyzewski on Wednesday for our Five Questions series.

What do point guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton have to do to perform up to Duke standards at the point?

MK: They have to be leaders on the court. They have to know everything that the team is doing. They have to be in incredible shape. They have to be able to knock down open shots and hit free throws and understand who is in the game and how to use them, and to defend the ball. They should be an extension of the coaching staff on the court. We believe that they can do it.

They could play together. Obviously, Tyler was the best perimeter defender last year and didn’t just defend the ball, but off the ball. It would be better if one would win the job, but the guy who is playing the best will play, and the other guy will be a fresh guy at the point position [off the bench].

So far, what have you learned about your three seniors -- Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee?

MK: I think our seniors are our three best players. They’ve worked hard and prepared. They’re experienced and they’ve won. They’ve been in tough situations, and I think they’re ready to have terrific years. All three kids can score the ball. It gives you a diversified look on offense. Seth is an outstanding shooter and so is Ryan, and Mason has elevated his game and prepared himself.

Why do you think your Duke teams traditionally do well in the nonconference?

MK: We have an expectation year to year, and we believe that we will be successful and prepare that way. Our kids have worked hard and always have worked hard. Our teams are unselfish, and even though we play a very difficult schedule, our upper class sets the tone.

We play mostly man-to-man defense, so we’re not changing a lot of stuff from year-to-year defensively. We might from the point of pickup or some physical tendencies, but we’re not changing our offense around. We do try to personalize the offense for some key players, and we’ll do that again this year with these kids.

What was the most rewarding part of the journey toward the gold medal?

MK: Just the relationship that you build with all those guys. It was such a close group, and you could see it. We led the Olympics in assists, and our passing was beautiful. You could tell it by their celebrations and how they handled the victories, how close they were together. I love that. I love the type of relationships.

I think for 2016 I’m going to stay involved, but they’re probably ready for somebody else anyway.

What does it mean for North Carolina and the ACC to have all three schools in the Triangle -- Duke, UNC and NC State -- projected to compete for the ACC title? (I know Florida State would have something to say, too.)

MK: It’s great for basketball. There’s no region like ours that have three schools like this. North Carolina and us have won national championships in the last decade. There’s no other region in the country that has that. It’s the triangle, but it’s not just for business, but for basketball. It’s the most unique area in the country for basketball.

5 Questions: Creighton's Doug McDermott

September, 27, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top-five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

Creighton star Doug McDermott has always taken a simple approach to avoiding the spotlight that hovers over him and his Bluejays teammates.

“I just ignore it,” McDermott said. “I pretend like it’s not even there.”

That may have worked the past two years.

But it may not be as easy for McDermott in 2012-13.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziCreighton's Doug McDermott averaged 23.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game last season.
No college player will enter the upcoming season with as much buzz as the 6-foot-8 junior forward. McDermott’s 23.2 points per game ranked third in the nation and earned him All-American honors as a sophomore, and the accolades could easily enhance this season.

Less than three weeks before the start of official practice, McDermott has already been projected as the national player of the year by some publications. As a team, Creighton will likely be ranked among the top 15 or 20 squads in the country.

McDermott -- whose father, Greg, is the Creighton head coach -- spoke with on Monday.

What did you do this summer in preparation for the 2012-13 season?

I went to Indianapolis for three weeks to work with guys like Robbie Hummel and Darius Miller and Marquis Teague to improve my ball-handling. That’s an area I really need to improve. Then I went to the LeBron camp and the Amare camp in Chicago. At the Amare camp, I was an undersized 4, so I shot a lot of 3s. There were more centers there than I thought there would be. At the LeBron camp, I was able to play more of a 3 so I could go against wings like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mike Moser. I went head-to-head with a lot of guys like that. It was a good experience for me. Then, with the new rules, we were allowed to do more stuff as a team at Creighton. So it was good to spend time with everyone here.

What about this year’s team makes you think Creighton could have just as good a season as it did last year -- if not better?

We’ve got so many guys returning. We lost [point guard] Antoine Young. He was a big part of what we did. But I’ve got confidence our new guy, Austin Chatman, will be very good for us. He’s really unselfish. Then we’ve got guys like [center] Gregory Echenique. He’s done a really good job of getting his body right. He was around 290 or 300 when he got here and now he’s down to about 265. He’s taken a lot of pride in it. He played for the Venezuelan national team this summer and helped them try to qualify for the Olympics. He was really motivated for that. It’s just carried over. He played really well in the summer and has gotten even better since school started. Guys like Grant Gibbs and Josh Jones are back, too. They’re looking really good.

What do you think is the main thing Creighton needs to improve on as a team? Something this team needs to do to take things a step further?

It’s obviously defense. That’s our main concern. We felt like we could score with anyone last year. That’s certainly something we don’t want to back down from. We still feel like we’re going to be a really good offensive team. But defense is what we’ve been working on the most. We know we’ve got to get better if we want to get past the North Carolinas of the world. A lot of people are going to be coming after us this year. For us, it’s all got to start on the defensive end.

The first thing people mention when describing your game is your fundamentals. Why are you so strong in that area?

A lot of people think my fundamentals are good just because I’m a coach's kid. But it’s not like a lot of it comes from that. It’s just about me approaching every workout as a game situation. It’s about trying to be at certain spots at the right time. I can see certain spots and certain angles that put me in a good position to score. I’m not the strongest guy so I have to make up for it in different ways.

You received a lot of national attention last season, and it appears even more of it will be coming your way in 2012-13. What are the keys to handling that type of spotlight?

There is a lot of attention around our team and around myself. I try not to look at stuff like that. I just try to get better every single day and everything will take care of itself. Playing at Ames High with Harrison Barnes, I got used to it at an early age. We were playing on ESPN and going into hostile environments. I just got good at blocking that stuff out and focusing on the task at hand.

Five Questions: Syracuse's Brandon Triche

September, 26, 2012
Brandon TricheMichael Ivins/US PresswireSyracuse's Brandon Triche is ready for his turn to shine in the spotlight.
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

Scoop Jardine wasn’t born in a Syracuse uniform.

It just seemed that way.

The point guard for the Orange spent five years on campus, becoming, along with sidekick Kris Joseph, both the face and the personality of the Syracuse program. Feisty and tough, proud but not arrogant.

The partners in success are gone now, along with Dion Waiters and Fab Melo, turning the keys of this upstate New York Cadillac over to Brandon Triche.

His soft-spoken personality is completely different from his predecessors, but his game is not. Triche has started every game of his career, topping the 1,000-point mark during last year’s NCAA tournament run. He has proven to be both a reliable scorer and a smart floor general.

But he has been able to do all of that from the anonymous comfort of a supporting role.

Now the Orange belong to him.

Syracuse has lost plenty -- Melo and Waiters, as well as Jardine and Joseph -- but return more than enough to keep the insatiable fan base expecting plenty again.

How well Triche adjusts will go a long way in determining how smoothly the transition goes for Syracuse in this, the Orange’s last year in the Big East. caught up with the senior to see how his time in the spotlight was going.

Is it strange to look around and not see Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph on the court with you?

Brandon Triche: Yeah, it’s a lot different, obviously. All the years I’ve been here, I’ve had them, but in some ways it’s more fun for me. I get to be one of the team leaders. I finally get my turn.

Speaking of leadership, are you ready to fill that role and what kind of leader will you be?

BT: I’m definitely ready. Scoop and Kris prepped me to be in this position. I learned a lot from those guys and in high school, I was pretty much the go-to guy my whole time so it’s not like it’s new. I’m more of a leader by action, not so much verbal. I’m working on being more verbal. What I’ve found out is the guys on this team are willing to listen. That’s half the battle, having guys who trust you. You have to have that inner circle behind you or it doesn’t work and I have that here.

This is the last year for Syracuse in the Big East. Is there talk about going out of the conference with a bang?

BT: Definitely. I mean, we all want to end our career with a bang, so it’s not just leaving the Big East, but winning in general. The last couple of years we had teams capable of winning it all, so nothing’s changed. We have the same goals. But, yeah, winning the Big East would be special. It’s always special.

Has it hit you yet that this is your last year at Syracuse?

BT: It did at the beginning of the season. Mostly it’s when I look around campus and everybody looks so young. I’m so old. That’s what hits me the most. I’m really a senior. I’ve learned a lot. I wish I knew then that this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. There are a lot of times you don’t get everything you deserve or want, but you’ve got to keep working.

Speaking of Syracuse, you’re from Jamesville, right around the corner. This could be the last year in your hometown as well. Are you ready to leave the nest?

BT: Definitely, I’m ready. Syracuse is a cool city to live in when you’re about 40 or 50 years old. As far as the lifestyle and activities, it’s a little bit boring when you’re my age. I’m ready for something maybe a little more fast paced. And a little warmer.
Christian Watford Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesIndiana senior Christian Watford (2) knows he needs to improve on his rebounding if he is to take his game to the NBA.
Editor’s note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi’s top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team, and we’ll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

Indiana finished the 2009-10 season with a 10-21 record. The Hoosiers won just four Big Ten games that year, senior Christian Watford’s first at the collegiate level.

But the program and the 6-foot-9 forward have blossomed. The Hoosiers will enter this season as a top-three squad in most preseason rankings. They have the tools -- a strong frontcourt tandem of Watford and Cody Zeller, talented veterans and a nationally ranked recruiting class -- to make a run at the national title.

Watford has been pivotal (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 43.7 percent shooting from the 3-point line last season) in the program’s resurgence. The senior recently talked to about the NBA, this season and his personal goals for 2012-13.

After a strong finish last season, you considered the NBA. What made you return?

Watford: I just felt like I wasn’t done yet. We weren’t done as a team. I felt like we can only get better. We can only be on the upside of things. Coming in here, we weren’t like that, and I kind of wanted to bring the program all the way back. It was difficult. As a kid, you always want the chance to go play in the NBA. A chance to fulfill your real dream is always tough to turn down, but patience is a virtue. I just wanted to wait it out.

How did Indiana stay focused during those tough years?

Watford: It’s been a constant grind since I got here. For a minute, things didn’t seem like they were getting better, but in all actuality, they were. We worked hard every day. We spilled our guts, and we’ve done a lot to get to this point, and now we’re here. You just want to keep getting better. That was the main thing. Coach [Tom] Crean did a great job with that. We never got discouraged. We started to see results. Once you start to see results, it refocuses you. It was hard, but we had to do it in order to get better.

There’s a lot of Final Four/national title talk surrounding the program right now. How has the team handled those expectations and the pressure that usually comes with them?

Watford: It’s no pressure. I feel like we’ve been through a lot. So we know what pressure is. We’re not really concentrating on that. We’re just focusing on getting better day by day. We hear the rankings, but it doesn’t really mean anything to us until April when it’s Final Four time.

How will you blend the strong freshman class with the core that returns?

Watford: We lead them. When I first got here, we didn’t have anybody like that to lead and to talk to and mentor these guys. That’s what we’re here for now. They come right in, and they’ve got the same goals as us.

Crean said your rebounding has to improve if you’re going to get to the next level. Do you agree?

Watford: That’s got to be my biggest improvement besides points. I’ve shown people I can score the basketball and shoot the basketball. I’ve just got to get my rebounds up and show some more toughness.

Five Questions: Florida's Kenny Boynton

September, 24, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

Brad Beal’s pit stop at Florida lasted less than a year before the guard decided to enter the NBA draft, where he was the third overall selection last summer. Erving Walker is gone too, after three seasons of manning the point in Gainesville.

[+] EnlargeKenny Boynton
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKenny Boynton led the Gators in scoring last season -- averaging 15.9 points per game.
Still, anyone who believes Florida’s backcourt will take a dip because of the departures needs to consult with Kenny Boynton.

“Actually, I think we’ll be just as good as last year,” Boynton said. “We’ve still got a lot of guys who can play.”

None better than Boynton.

After averaging a team-high 15.9 points for UF’s Elite Eight squad as a junior, Boynton is hopeful his senior season is his best. The shooting guard chatted with last week about the upcoming season, as well as the Gators’ new-look backcourt.

What encourages you the most about this season’s squad?

Kenny Boynton: The best thing I can say about this team, compared to previous teams, is that we’re 16 deep. One through 16, we can all play, we all work hard. Whenever I come into the gym late at night to shoot or whatever, there’s always someone else in there. We have a huge upside if we can jell and put everything together.

How will the backcourt be different?

KB: The styles will be similar. Right now, I’m not sure who the starters will be. Mike Rosario is a great scorer. He didn’t see a lot of minutes last year, so he’s hungry. Scottie Wilbekin has been looking really good, and Braxton [Obgueze], the freshman, is working really, really hard. I like him. He’s got a big upside. Overall I think we’ll play the same kind of style, which is getting up and down the court.

As a senior, what are you doing differently?

KB: Being more vocal. I’m talking a lot more than I did in the previous years, when I kinda took a back seat to some guys. I’m definitely telling guys where to go and what to do. And offensively, I’m just focused on making better plays and making better decisions instead of taking tough shots. I need to make sure I’m making the right play.

Who is the toughest player to go against in the SEC, and who is the toughest team?

KB: The toughest guy to guard, off the top of my head, is probably B.J. Young at Arkansas. Actually, I better go with two guys, because Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at Georgia is a tough matchup, too. As far as a tough team, Tennessee returns just about everyone from last year, and they were coming on really strong there at the end. They’re going to be really hard to beat.

What’s the best thing about playing for Billy Donovan?

KB: He pushes you. Even when you don’t think you have anything left, he finds different ways to push you. I also like that he stays positive. Overall, he instills a mindset in us that we’re going to have to work hard for everything we do in life.

Five Questions: Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos

September, 21, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider stories, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

Gonzaga was the darling of the Dance in 1999.

The Zags have been a model of consistency ever since, but have been unable to get back to the Elite Eight -- let alone the ultimate breakthrough: the Final Four.

Could that change in 2013? Gonzaga has its core returning, an experienced group of guards, tough matchups inside and a potential difference-maker in the middle.

[+] EnlargeKevin Pangos
Richard Mackson/US PresswireKevin Pangos averaged 13.6 points and 3.4 assists per game as a freshman for the Zags.
Robert Sacre is the biggest loss from last season, but the return of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton on the perimeter as well as a frontline of Elias Harris, Sam Dower and 7-foot-1 Polish center Przemek Karnowski make the Zags a major threat in the West and nationally.

“We’re trying to make it as far as we can in the tournament,’’ Pangos said. “We want to make a statement and bring Gonzaga where it has never been before.’’

To do that, Pangos will have to be even more of a star than he was as a freshman last season, when he ranged from scoring 33 against Washington State in his second career game to going 3-of-18 in the WCC final loss against Saint Mary’s.

We posed five quick questions to Pangos as he preps for the season:

Gonzaga's long streak of WCC titles ended last season. Why should this season be different than the last?

Kevin Pangos: The players coming back know what they’re doing. And it’s looking good so far.

What did you discover about yourself in trying out for the Canadian national team this past summer?

KP: That I can play with some of the best players. I played against Cory Joseph and other NBA guys. Steve Nash was there. Canadian basketball is going to be special. No one wants to be average anymore. We’re all pushing for everyone to make the future special. We’re deeper. It’s not just 10 or 12 guys. There are 30 challenging to make this team look good.

How often have you seen John Stockton around the program?

KP: I’ve spoken to him a bunch. He’s around here a lot.

How do you spell Przemek Karnowski and what kind of impact will he have?

KP: P-r-z-e-m-e-k. The way you say it is ‘Shemeck.’ K-a-r-n-o-w-s-k-i. I think he’ll be a great impact. We lost Sacre, but he’ll be a big-time presence and physical and [will provide] vocal leadership. He’ll fit that spot nicely. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s already doing well. It will be good to bring such a big body down low with a soft touch.

With a German, Polish and multiple Canadian and American nationals, what is this team’s identity?

KP: Our identity is a Gonzaga team that still wants to win. It doesn’t matter where we’re from or what language we speak. We will come together as a unit.

Five Questions: Tim Hardaway Jr.

September, 20, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider stories, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

For Tim Hardaway Jr., the scenario is becoming routine. Every single day on the Michigan campus -- whether he’s eating lunch with a teammate, sitting in class or walking to practice -- someone stops him to talk about Wolverines basketball.

“We could be out and about, and a group of fans will just walk up to us,” Hardaway said. “They’ll wish us luck and say, ‘Oh, we’re so excited for the season.’”

The buzz in Ann Arbor is certainly understandable.

One season after claiming a share of the Big Ten title, the Wolverines are expected to contend to reach the Final Four thanks to a mix of talented returnees, such as Hardaway and Trey Burke and highly touted newcomers Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III.

“There’s a lot of hype,” Hardaway said, “but I think we’re doing a good job of just making sure that everyone settles down. The season hasn’t even started yet. We’re all just preparing to play anyone in the country. Everyone is excited about the season. Everyone is trying to make it seem like we’re back. But we have a long way to go."

Hardaway, who averaged 14.6 points as a sophomore last season, spoke with earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeTim Hardaway Jr., John Beilein
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireTim Hardaway Jr. said Michigan coach John Beilein, left, puts great trust in his guards.
What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve seen from your teammates thus far?

Tim Hardaway Jr.: Just the mindset of everyone coming in, with everyone having the same intensity and passion about playing Michigan basketball. Everyone sees that and we’re all trying to fulfill our dreams and get back to where we were last year and win a Big Ten championship.

Who will be the “surprise player” on this year’s squad?

TH: Everyone has been making a lot of improvement. Jon Horford is coming off an injury and has been playing really well in the summer. Matt Vogrich has been shooting the ball really well. Blake McLimans is getting better. Jordan Morgan -- just everyone in general. Everyone has added little pieces to their game to make them more successful and help the team out any way they can.

Even though you had a great season overall, you went into a major shooting slump and made just 35 percent of your shots in February. How were you able to snap out of it and finish so strong?

TH: It was a team effort. We had a lot of guys coming into the locker room with me and having conversations about what I needed to work on. During the Nebraska game, Zack Novak talked to me at halftime before we walked onto the court. He said, "Hey, you can help the team out in different ways than scoring." Once I heard that, I think I just snapped out of it from then on. That’s what helped me out the most.

What did you do in the offseason to better prepare yourself for your junior year?

TH: I feel like I’ll be playing a lot more at my normal position [combo guard] instead of being at the 3-spot. We lost two of our main guards, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, from last year. So I’m working on my ball-handling, guarding the point guard and guarding the shooting guard. I’m just trying to have fun and play Michigan basketball. Wherever Coach Beilein wants me to play, I’ll play. I’m not a picky guy. I just want to be out there on the floor and have fun and help my team in whatever way I can.

What’s the best part about part about playing for John Beilein, and what goals has this team set for itself?

TH: [Beilein] is an excellent coach. He lets us play. He lets the quarterback, the point guard, call out the plays. He has the utmost confidence in his guards to make the right decisions out there.

As far as goals, the first thing is to get better every day. We’ve been saying that since the first day of the fall semester. We’re not focused on national championships or Big Ten championships. We’ll worry about those later in the season. Right now we just want to do everything we can to get better as a team, build our chemistry up with these new freshmen and get better every single day.

Five Questions: Ohio State's Thad Matta

September, 19, 2012
Thad Matta's program nearly capped the 2011-12 season with an appearance in the national title game. But late struggles against Kansas shortened Ohio State’s Final Four experience.

It was one of the few stumbles for a Buckeyes team that earned a slice of the Big Ten regular-season title a few weeks before its Final Four run.

It’s a new day, however, for Matta’s squad. Jared Sullinger, arguably the best post player in America for the past two seasons, is in the NBA now. William Buford, one of the most productive players in the program’s history, is gone, too. Two reserves (Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon) transferred in the offseason.

But Matta still returns a crew that should crack the top 15 once preseason rankings are announced. recently caught up with Matta to discuss his expectations and concerns for the 2012-13 campaign.

How will you move forward without Jared Sullinger?

[+] EnlargeThad Matta
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDespite some high-profile personnel losses, coach Thad Matta has two leaders he can lean on in Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas.
Thad Matta: We’ve had some great players leave this program. ... The thing I always tell the guys is, "We don’t need you to be Jared Sullinger. We need you to be who you are. We need you to be very effective with what you’re capable of doing." That’s always been the approach. Do we maybe change a little bit the way we’re playing? Yeah, we probably will. But I think one of the biggest fallacies a young man can have is "Hey, I’m going to get his points or I’m going to get his rebounds. I got it." It just never works that way.

How will point guard Aaron Craft’s return ease the transition?

TM: It’s a tremendous advantage for us, having Aaron back. Two years into the program, he’s won 65 games, he’s won two Big Ten championships in his time here. ... From his freshman year, he played a certain role, last year he played a certain role and I think the beauty is guys are looking to him to even expand his role a little bit more. The way he competes. The way he plays the game, you want a guy like Aaron Craft leading your basketball team. So I think the players have the utmost respect for him and everything he does. So it kind of makes it an easy follow.

Where does Deshaun Thomas need to improve most as the team’s new leader?

TM: He has to rebound. He has to do a better job of rebounding the basketball. And I know he can do that because he’s a tremendous offensive rebounder. Now, we’ve got to get him to where he’s rebounding on the defensive end as well. ... I’ve seen him now for two years and the commitment he’s making to the defensive end has been tremendous. I think his rebounding will be a nice touch to his game.

What are your expectations for Amir Williams?

TM: I think Amir had what may not have appeared to have been a significant role on this team last year, but in our eyes, he did. We saw a lot of growth with him. He played some valuable minutes in high-level games for us. In essence, what we need Amir to do is obviously be a great rebounder and have a great presence on the defensive end. He can really, really block shots and then offensively, scoring around the basket. He’s shown us that he can step out and knock down a 12- to 15-foot jump shot. We need him to be a complete player at the low post position.

What concerns do you have about competing without a full roster with transfers, departures and a one-man recruiting class in 2012 (Amedeo Della Valle)?

TM: We’ve got 11 guys on scholarship. I like what we have. We’ve only got one freshman in [Della Valle]. He’s actually probably been a little bit better than we thought he’d be, being the only freshman. I think the depth is something, hopefully, we’ve got a lot of, from what I’ve seen of the guys in regard to this summer as well as since the fall. We had our first team workout Sunday. Guys have gotten better and that’s very exciting for us. Now, as we keep moving forward, we’ve got to put the pieces of the puzzle together. But I do expect us to have some depth.

Five Questions: Louisville's Chane Behanan

September, 18, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top-five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

It is hard to sneak up on people when Rick Pitino is your coach. The only man to take three different schools to the Final Four, the Louisville boss is not exactly an unknown quantity in the college basketball profession.

[+] EnlargeChane Behanan
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesChane Behanan and the Cardinals look to repeat their surprising run to the Final Four.
Yet his Cards did, in fact, surprise college basketball last season, turning an injury-plagued season into a Final Four run.

Now it’s back to reality. Louisville will be in every preseason top 5, perhaps anchoring down the top spot in more than a few polls. Why? Because guys such as Chane Behanan are back.

Behanan found his groove in the NCAA tournament, averaging 13.2 points and 8 rebounds in the Cardinals’ stretch run.

It’s Behanan’s predicted jump, coupled with a roster littered with returnees, that has Louisville on everyone’s radar. recently caught up with Behanan to see if he and the Cards have the same expectations as everyone else. (And he was such a good quote, that we happily waived the five-question standard.)

Are you worried about a Final Four hangover?

Chane Behanan: I’m sure I had one a little bit, but Coach talked to me. He talked to all of us and reminded us we really didn’t accomplish anything. You play to win a championship, not to just get to the Final Four. I know for me personally, I have to get back to that sort of hungry state I was in last year.

Is it easier to be hungry when the team that won the championship is just down the road in Lexington?

Behanan: That definitely helps [laughs]. They got one. We need one. And everyone here in Louisville reminds us of that. Every time I go out, the first thing someone will say to me is, "We need a championship this year." The expectations for us are very high, but we have very high expectations for ourselves. The team we have this year, it’s the kind of team that can do it. We just have to stay healthy and stay humble.

Many players make a dramatic jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons. How can you improve this year?

Behanan: Well, for one thing, Coach P has talked to me about improving my defense. In high school, I didn’t really push to play defense, so I wasn’t the best at it. When I got to college, it was different. Everyone was on the same level in terms of their abilities, their basketball IQ, so you got to play defense. That was a big struggle for me at first. Coach P kept telling me that I had to step up, that’s how we would win games.

I was sort of just learning it as I went though. Now I have more confidence. I already have my mind set on buckling down and playing defense.

Coach Pitino recently compared you to Charles Barkley. Are you flattered?

Behanan: Yeah, definitely. He’s probably one of the best rebounders of all time. He was undersized. I am, too. That’s a good comparison, a very good comparison.

Charles also likes to speak his mind. You got in a little hot water for some of your predictions last year. Do you have to temper that part of your inner Barkley?

Behanan: It depends on what the topic is. I’m the kind of guy, I’m going to speak my mind, but I think now I know you have to understand the situation better. I said a lot of wrong things at the wrong times last year. It’s about knowing what to say, what not to say and when to say it.

You guys got better as the season improved last year -- and everyone got healthy. Do you sense a different attitude from your teammates from that? A different air of confidence?

Behanan: I can’t judge that right now. I think we are, but it’s only summer. I think we have to get two or three weeks into the season to really know for sure. If we take the defense that we played in the tournament into the start of the season, I’ll know.

I think we know we all have to be on the same page. Otherwise it will be a ridiculous season, but it’s hard to know right now. Some people still aren’t 100 percent. We’re not in that Pitino shape.

What’s Pitino shape?

Behanan: That’s the best shape you’ll ever be in in your life.

Five Questions: NC State's Lorenzo Brown

September, 17, 2012
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan is offering Three Big Things about each team and we're having Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

North Carolina State made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 in March, creating a frenzy in the Triangle and a real buzz that the Wolfpack may finally be able to rejoin their two blue blood rivals in a chase for the ACC title.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Brown
Tony Dejak/AP PhotoLorenzo Brown and NC State will be facing high expectations this upcoming season.
But for the Pack to be a serious player, they must have Lorenzo Brown as the capable lead guard. He is the most irreplaceable player on NC State’s roster. And that’s why his knee surgery to start the summer was cause for concern.

Coach Mark Gottfried was understandably cautious with him during the practices that led up to the team's trip to Spain, but Brown did play on the trip -- dishing out six assists in the final game as the Wolfpack wrapped up a 4-0 vacation.

Here are five quick questions for Brown, less than a month before official practice begins and with NC State still waiting for the NCAA to resolve the eligibility situation of elite freshman Rodney Purvis:

What’s it like to not know what’s happening with Purvis?

Lorenzo Brown: It’s frustrating to me. Rodney and I are very close, the closest player to me on the team. It’s hard to go through something like that. I went through it myself. I know it’s tough.

How is your knee?

LB: It’s back to 100 percent. Now I’m just trying to get back into shape.

What has to happen for NC State to make a similar, or even better, run in the NCAA tournament?

LB: We have to have the mindset that we came in with last year. We’ve got the missing pieces to make it to the championship or the Final Four.

What’s the buzz like on campus?

LB: This is as excited as everyone has been about us playing since I’ve been here.

What's the biggest difference with your team under coaches Sidney Lowe and Mark Gottfried?

LB: It was just leadership. We didn’t have it my freshman year. Last year we had good leaders, the type of guys that showed us the ropes. For us to be a good team we need the seniors that want to win games and defend.