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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Draft Devastates Big-Time Programs

Monday, June 26, 2006

Draft Devastates Big-Time Programs
By Alan Rubenstein, Sports-Central.org

(I take exception to Mr. Rubenstein's comment that John Calipari stayed in Memphis thinking Shawne Williams and Darius Washington would be Tigers next year. Calipari obviously counseled both men to go pro if they so desired and believed they were ready. Cal knew this before N.C. State's AD Lee Fowler started calling from Raleigh. Calipari stayed in Memphis for many other reasons - some pro-Memphis and some anti-N.C. State, ed.)

As soon as the last strands of net are cut down and college basketball crowns its national champion, speculation about the next season begins. Dick Vitale anoints his top five on championship night and those who follow the game begin to prognosticate who the top teams will be by the time Midnight Madness convenes in October.

Two dates on the spring calendar that are crucial in college basketball are when players can enter their name into the NBA draft and the date that players who have not signed with an agent can withdraw their name from the draft. Players were required to submit their names to the NBA to enter into the draft by April 29 and players who did not sign with an agent were required to withdraw by June 18.

With the NBA age limit instituted this year, the draft is widely considered weak. No prep stars entering means more open slots for underclassman. Some of the players entering the draft went from no-names or bench-warmers in 2005 to potential lottery picks in 2006. The impact of the early entries staying in the draft and those who chose to return to school will have a big impact on the outcome of the 2007 season. Big-name schools can have their season made or broken by the decisions of 19-21-year-old men.

Programs that would have been Final Four contenders in 2007 can be rendered question marks by early losses to the draft. UConn, Texas, and Memphis took significant hits. All three programs would have been Final Four favorites entering next season before losing multiple players as early entrants. Villanova and LSU have talented rosters returning, but each took a hit in a significant area.

Two years after losing Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor a year early and a year after Charlie Villanueva ended his college career with two years left, Jim Calhoun took UConn within a game of the Final Four this season. Bigger things were expected from the Huskies. They never seemed to find their rhythm in the NCAA tournament. The loss to George Mason will go down as one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. Already losing four seniors, UConn also had to absorb the losses of point guard Marcus Williams, forward Rudy Gay, and center Josh Boone to the Association with a year of college eligibility left.

Williams exit gives AJ Price his chance to make up for lost time. The rising sophomore missed his freshman season as a medical redshirt and then was suspended last season. Sophomore guard Craig Austrie did a good job while Williams was suspended for the first 11 games last year. Rising sophomore forward Jeff Adrien also will be counted on to add experience and leadership. With a very young team and a lack of depth, UConn could potentially slip to a bubble team.

Texas might have lost more than anyone in college basketball. Gay and Williams were both expected to leave UConn at the end of this season. Rick Barnes reasonably should have expected LaMarcus Aldridge to bolt at the end of this year. The departures of PJ Tucker and Daniel Gibson were unexpected and potentially devastating blows. Rising sophomore AJ Abrams will take over the point and incoming freshman Kevin Durant is a top-five national recruit.
Reserve forward Mike Williams, who would have been one of Texas' key players next season, decided to move on to Cincinnati. Williams was unhappy with his playing time during his first two seasons in Austin. The move was a curious one as Williams will have to sit out next season as a Bearcat. He would have been a starter and one of Rick Barnes' most important starters in 2007.

Abrams and Durant will form an extremely young nucleus next year. Center Connor Atchley and freshman forward Damion James should become major contributors. James had originally committed to Oklahoma, but was released from his letter of intent when former Sooner boss Kelvin Sampson moved on to Indiana. The maturation process of Abrams, Durant, and James should mirror the success of the 2007 Texas Longhorns.

Like Texas and UConn, Memphis fell one game shy of a Final Four trip. John Calipari's decision to remain in Memphis instead of taking over at North Carolina State seemed to be related to the high expectations in Graceland next season. With young stars Darius Washington and Shawne Williams, the Tigers appeared to be set for at least 2007. When that dynamic duo declared for the NBA draft, Memphis fell from a top-five team to out of the top 25. Senior Rodney Carney is also expected to be a first-round draft pick. Rising junior Joey Dorsey and rising sophomores Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson will be counted on by Calipari to raise their games a level for the Tigers to maintain their status as a program with a national profile.

This time last year, Tyrus Thomas was unknown outside of Baton Rouge. Coming off of a medical redshirt season, Thomas needed to focus on getting better to become a contributor for John Brady. After a Final Four trip, the lanky forward has parlayed himself into a lottery pick. Thomas played only one year for Brady after his redshirt season. He developed into a major star and with Glen Davis, was the primary reason the Bayou Bengals advanced to Indianapolis.

Brady was extremely fortunate to lose only Thomas. Davis is an emerging college basketball superstar and media darling. Garrett Temple, Tack Minor, and Tasmin Mitchell give LSU three other players who contributed significant minutes during their Final Four run. Add in rising sophomore Magnum Rolle and Marquette transfer Dameon Mason and LSU will still be one of the favorites in the SEC in 2007.

A 28-5 record, a share of the Big East regular season championship, and an Elite Eight appearance should solidify 2006 as one of the best in Villanova history. The loss of the star backcourt of Randy Foye and Allen Ray was already a big loss and left Jay Wright with questions entering 2007.

When rising junior point guard Kyle Lowry decided to join them in the NBA, Wright was left with a gaping hole. Lowry became entangled in problems of having his own workouts. It has been speculated that if he had decided to return for his junior season, Lowry would have faced a suspension due to improper workouts. He decided to keep his name in the draft after it appeared he would be a first-round draft pick.

Allen and Foye received most of the publicity, but Lowry was the one that ran the offense. Incoming freshman Scottie Reynolds will be burdened with high expectations and big shoes to fill. Reynolds was originally committed to Oklahoma, but was released from his scholarship when Sampson left. The players remaining around Reynolds should help 'Nova to continue to have a national presence. Mike Nardi is the lone holdover from Wright's frequent four-guard lineup. If Reynolds is not the answer at the point, Nardi could slide over. A deadly three-point shooter and excellent defensive player, Nardi helps the Wildcats more at the off-guard than the point.

Wright will likely shift the focus of the team to the frontcourt in 2007. Dante Cunningham and Will Sheridan showed continued improvement during the season and especially during the deep tournament run. Curtis Sumpter returns after missing last season because of a torn ACL suffered during Villanova's trip to the 2005 sweet 16. Sumpter was an All-American in the making before suffering the knee injury last season and also in 2004.

LSU's unlikely Final Four trip and Texas, Memphis, UConn, and Villanova's run to the Elite Eight were accomplished with a core of players that have moved on to the NBA. How their coaches and programs adapt and are able to fill the spots of the departed players will go a long way towards determining the immediate futures of their teams. The most successful programs are able to reload instead of rebuild, and if these five programs are able to accomplish that, then they will have teams that remain in the national spotlight in 2007.

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