Playing under the radar ... for now
So, let's get this straight. Antoine Wright was the 2003 Big 12 freshman of the year. But heading into the 2003-04 season, he's not one of the top 10 players in the Big 12?
Well, if you believe in judging such things by preseason lists, apparently that's the case. Wright didn't make the cut for the preseason Wooden All-American list, while 10 other Big 12 players appeared on the list.
As a Wooden Award voter, he certainly made my list of the top 50 players in the country. In fact, Wright is a legit NBA first-round pick if he chooses to bolt Texas A&M after his sophomore season. But NBA value aside, Wright needs to be recognized as one of this coming season's top players because he is one of the top players in college.
But after averaging nearly 15 points a game for a .500 team last season, Wright will have to live with such oversights for now. Whether or not he's better, or simply as good as, Kevin Bookout of Oklahoma, David Harrison of Colorado, James Thomas of Texas, to name a few of the Big 12 players who made the Wooden list, (Lawrence Roberts made it as a member of Baylor and is still on the list after transferring to Mississippi State), Wright's among a long list of players who enter the season under the national radar.
Yes, preseason lists miss out on big-time talents every season. But Wright heads a list of players who could end up being not only a first-team all-league players, but their conference's player of the year if their respective teams contend for the top spots in conferences across the country.
"I have no explanation for (Wright) being off the list," said Texas A&M coach Melvin Watkins. "Here's the rookie of the year in our league. There's no excuse."
"It's frustrating," Wright said. "My mom asks me all of the time about it, but it's fuel to change all these polls at the end of the year."
Expecting Texas A&M to be a contender for the Big 12 title is unrealistic. But the Aggies do have a shot to make a run at a top-six finish in a league that should send another six teams to the NCAA Tournament. And if A&M can do that, it will be because Wright had a stellar sophomore season.
"I'm going to flat out tell you that he's a talented basketball player and a great kid and people will be shocked by his improvement this year," said Watkins. "His upside is unbelievable."
Wright took a pass on all the international summer basketball touring options. He spent the summer in school and working his "tail off" in the gym.
"I've got a legitimate lottery pick here," said Watkins, not afraid to have his school promote him as such. "He's a great kid and I'm going to stand up and shout for him. I'm not trying to push him out, but he can play at the next level. I've been in this biz a long time and I haven't had a lottery pick on my team. But I know one when I see one and he's a 6-7 kid who can handle the ball, shoot the ball and defend. He's got all of the intangibles that spell success to me."
Watkins has been gauging the interest among NBA teams throughout the offseason and the feedback is unanimous: Wright is a consensus first-round pick if he were to leave A&M and enter the NBA draft next spring. But Watkins also knows Wright wasn't ready to bolt after one season of college basketball, even though there were rumors that he could have after the Aggies' 14-14 season (6-10 in the Big 12).
"The main priority is for us to get wins, and if we don't get wins then nothing will happen for me," Wright said. "It will be better for my career if we win here. I have more stuff to do here. There are a lot of people that doubted this program and me. That's an insult. We've got good talent here."
Wright averaged 14.5 points and 6.6 rebounds a game last year, but shot under 40 percent (36.4) from the field and only 61 percent at the line. The numbers, however, that really impress scouts at the next level are 1-4 -- the positions on the floor he can play. While better suited to slash to the basket from the wing, Wright did spend time playing the point during the Aggies' trip to Italy in August.
"The attitude here is different this season," Wright said. "There was doubt last season, but this season there is excitement. We added a point guard (Bobby Leach) and that will really help. Our trip to Italy was great because it allowed our team to gel. We're working harder than last year and everyone knows there are no excuses. This is the year to get it done."
The Aggies lost their leading scorer of a year ago -- not to mention the Big 12's all-time leading scorer -- guard Bernard King (17 ppg in 2002-03). But the expectation is that Leach, Acie Law and LaKeith Blanks will come in and pick up some of King's production. Still, the majority of the offensive focus will be on Wright.
Watkins said Wright hit the weight room this summer, changing his body so he could finish more on drives to the hoop. He added bulk to take the pounding in the Big 12. He didn't finish his freshman season strong, scoring just four points in a loss to Oklahoma State. He was then just 4 of 14 in the Aggies' Big 12 tournament loss to Iowa State.
But, "over the summer, he has grown a lot and is making other players better," said senior Kevin Turner. "This is his team. He has to be a major force."
That's right, the sophomore guard who was the Big 12 freshman of the year -- but among the least heralded of a stellar freshman class of 2003 -- is now the leader of a potential NCAA Tournament team.
"Our basketball program is probably the least talked about in the Big 12," Wright said. "We know that and it's frustrating. This year they'll have to recognize us."
Don't worry, Antoine. If Wright does what is expect of him this season, he could have folks talking Aggie hoops well into March. Oh, and by then, he should have appeared on the Wooden Award list. Remember, players can be added as well as dropped from the Wooden's mid-season list of 30.
Oh, and he could be joined by a few other players:
But don't count out Lowe. He could be the difference between the Boilermakers returning to the NCAA Tournament or not. And if he does make Purdue a Big Ten factor, the senior guard will become a name to know outside the Big Ten.
Lowe averaged 11.6 points a game last season, but his numbers toward the end were skewed because he played in pain after dislocating his shoulder against Ohio State in late February. He missed the Boilermakers' final three regular season games, but played through the pain in the postseason -- scoring 14 points in an NCAA first-round win over LSU. He had surgery on the left shoulder in April and he's still not cleared to play competitively in fullcourt games.
"It hurt a lot to go through the rehab because I know I wasn't able to shoot or run for a while when the rest of the competition was out there working hard," Lowe said. "But once I did get healthier I went all out. I feel I'm catching up now. I'm not ready with the rest of the country, but I'm getting there."
Lowe's first priority was to improve his overall perimeter game, although his numbers weren't bad at 45 percent from the field and 41 percent on 3s.
"He's a top 15 player in the nation," Purdue coach Gene Keady said. "He's one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten. (When he was healthy) he worked on his shooting, his strength, footwork and dribbling -- all the things to make him a better player fundamentally."
Purdue leaned on departed senior Willie Deane last season (17.8 ppg), but the Boilermakers might have looked to him too often. Without him there is a feeling that the Boilermakers will have more balance offensively.
"I'm not going to say it's going to be better (without Deane), but we'll be better because we're more mature," Lowe said. "It's hard to say what kind of effect it will have, because playing with a guy like that meant in some games it was easier to score. There will be more scoring on my shoulders this year because I'll have to do it every game."
Marques Green, St. Bonaventure: If the Bonnies didn't quit on the final two games of the season, Green probably isn't in this discussion. His name would have resonated more with Wooden Award voters for his play, not for any signs of protest. But remember, Green was one of the players who wanted to play the final games of the season. He got lumped into the group by association.
But that issue is dead.
The 5-7 Green led the A-10 in scoring (21.3), assists (8.0), steals (2.6), free-throw percentage (88) and 3s (94). So, why shouldn't Green be recognized as one of the best players in the nation, let alone in the A-10?
"It's kind of frustrating," Green said. "But then again, you can use a lot of things for motivation and that's all I can do. We're over what happened. We were over it in May or June."
But Green knows the Bonnies will be the subject of taunts when they go on the road. That's where the senior guard will have to be more mentally tough this season and lead new coach Anthony Solomon through the difficulties of road games at stops like Saint Joseph's and Rhode Island.
"When that whole Wooden thing happened (being omitted), I used that as motivation and it makes you play harder," Green said. "We'll try to do the same on the road to make the crowds shut up. People don't know our team or our makeup. We've got a lot of talent."
Green doesn't plan to do it all like he did at times last season. He's fine with scoring fewer than 20 points a game as long as the Bonnies win. But if asked to do so, the little man is prepared to shoulder the load. He lifted more this offseason, added "four or five more moves," and is driven to make people forget about what the Bonnies did off the court at the end of last season.
"After watching him the last few weeks, you can see he'll be a leader for this team," said Solomon of his only senior. "He's very low to the ground, difficult to defend and has an extremely quick release. He's got good range and he'll help us get easy buckets and create shots for others, too."
Troutman may not be remembered for his 11 points and five rebounds a game. But just take a look at that field goal shooting: 71.8 percent. The 6-7 junior forward never seemed to miss, and with more shots coming his way this season, he could be the toughest matchup for opposing teams, considering he's always around the ball.
"He's just really good at everything he does -- defend, pass, rebound and handle the ball," said first-year coach Jamie Dixon, who replaced Ben Howland when he left for UCLA. "It's highly possible he could end up being our leader."
Troutman has a knack for finding the open spots. That should help him get accustomed to playing more exclusively with Carl Krauser as his point man instead of Brandin Knight. Troutman finished strong, scoring in double figures in three of his final four games, including wins over Connecticut in the Big East tournament and Indiana in the NCAA Tournament.
"He just has to stay out of foul trouble," Dixon said.
If he does that then the Panthers should be back in the NCAAs.
Rafael Araujo, BYU: Don't be surprised if Araujo not only ends up being a first-team all-Mountain West selection, but also competes for MWC player of the year honors. He's also likely to get a long look by the NBA in the spring. The reason? He's big and he's getting better every day.
Yes, the 6-11 Araujo is still learning the game. But, the Brazilian averaged 12 points a game last season in only 25 minutes a game. And, he gained even more experience over the summer when the Cougars went to Australia. There was also a trip to Pete Newell's Big Man Camp in Las Vegas.
"He just has to work on consistency issues," BYU coach Steve Cleveland said. "Teams will have a hard time guarding him in the post.''
Araujo is another dedicated worker, getting to the gym at 6 a.m. every morning to work on his shooting. Sometimes a manager will shag, a few times a friend will accompany him, and other times, his wife, will be chasing loose rebounds.
"His best basketball is ahead of him," Cleveland said. "He gained valuable experience going against older players in Australia and when he went to the Newell camp he really improved his footwork."
Araujo is considered a very good shooter from 15 feet into the basket. And he's grasping the game's nuances of when to shoot and when to pass more each day. Defensively, he's made strides and he continues to rebound out of his area, grabbing the weakside boards and long rebounds.
Oh, and did we mention, he's also an ox. How so? When the secretary of the basketball office needed things moved from her house this summer, Araujo took one side of a piano and four other Cougars grabbed the other side.
BYU has a shot to get back to the NCAAs, but it won't be easy. BYU lost Travis Hansen, a second-round pick of Atlanta in the NBA draft. They also won't get back Ricky Bower, a senior guard who is struggling to recover from a herniated disc that Cleveland said might shelve him for the season. But BYU does have Mark Bigelow (13.9 ppg) to give the Cougars an inside-out combination. And don't dismiss 6-8 forward Garner Meads. He's back after a two-year Mormon mission, and when he came out of Brighton H.S. in Salt Lake, he was considered a major get for the Cougars.
Beating Utah, UNLV and Wyoming out of an NCAA bid will be a chore. But BYU will be able to compete with each, as long as Araujo is a fixture in the middle.
"We don't have a lot of great players, but our eight or nine are good and I really like the toughness of this team," Cleveland said.
In fact, he's probably not the first, second, third or even fourth name that comes to mind out of the SEC. Yet, he could end up being a player of the year candidate in the league if he continues to improve his free-throw shooting (55.4 percent) and benefits from playing next to heralded incoming freshman forward Brandon Bass.
"He was as good as any post player in the league last season," LSU coach John Brady said. "We played poorly against Purdue, but he was the only one who answered the bell (21 points and 14 boards in the first-round loss). He's very, very, very good from eight feet in. He's got great hands, and can get a rebound down the stretch. He's got great instinct."
It's no secret that the Tigers will lean heavily on Lloreda and Bass to keep them in the NCAA hunt. They've got a rebuilt backcourt with freshman guard Tack Minor joining still developing point Xavier Whipple. Freshman forward Regis Koundjia is expected to be an impact player, too. But the team will look for Lloreda's leadership, especially early in the season and at the outset of the SEC.
"I'm in better shape than last year," said Lloreda, who spent the summer in Baton Rouge, save a brief trip home to Panama.
Meanwhile, Bass has been arriving at the gym at 6:30 a.m. for workouts and then watching tapes of what he did later in the day.
"He and Jaime, together, could be the best forwards we've had here," said Brady, knowing that he's possibly putting them ahead of Stromile Swift and Jabahri Brown. "These two guys are more physical. They may not be as athletic but they're more relentless and play harder."
Kirk Snyder, Nevada: Snyder has a shot to make a name for himself nationally if the Wolf Pack beat Vermont in the first round of the Preseason NIT. Do that and Nevada will head East to play No. 1 Connecticut (assuming the Huskies beat Yale in the opener). What the country will see on national TV is the best player in the WAC and the type of player who could carry Nevada to the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm candid about this, even though I don't like to put expectations on players, but he can play," Nevada coach Trent Johnson said. "He can play the one (point guard) through the four (power forward) because he can pass, rebound and drive into the lane. He's extremely versatile."
Snyder averaged 16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds last season. The 6-6 junior will get more backcourt help with the return of Garry Hill-Thomas (10.6 ppg) and Todd Okeson (10.2 ppg). But this perimeter-oriented team will go as far as Snyder takes it.
"Kirk likes to play," Johnson said. "He had a chance to go with the NIT team over the summer to the Bahamas, but chose to go to summer school and stay in the gym all of the time. He can go left and he can go right. It's going to be an interesting year for him because people are aware of him. Teams will try to neutralize him and take things away so it will challenge his mental toughness."
Errick Craven, USC: Desmon Farmer should be the leader of the Trojans. The senior guard averaged 18.7 points a game last season and has a legit chance to be a Pac-10 player of the year candidate, especially if USC makes a run at the conference title.
But Craven could be the glue that not only holds the Trojans together, but takes the Trojans back to the NCAA Tournament. If that turns out to be the case, he could end up being an all-league player.
Craven might be the team's best talent. Why? He can shoot (40 percent), score (13 ppg), dish (2.6 apg) and pick up steals (2.5). Craven always seems to be around the ball. And he's not afraid to challenge an opponent.
"He worked harder this past summer than any other summer," said former USC assistant Damon Archibald, now with Iowa State. "He didn't work out at all after his freshman year. But he spent a lot of time working on his jump shot. He had always been a great slasher, but he went to work on his jumper all summer."
Archibald said the Stewart twins -- Lodrick and Rodrick -- also ended up pushing Errick Craven. The Craven twins -- Errick and Derrick -- have a workout rivalry going with the Stewarts, according to Archibald. He said the Stewart twins have pushed the Cravens to be even tougher and stronger.
Craven should flourish this season because he can play off not only Farmer but also Nick Curtis and Fordham transfer Jeff McMillan, maybe the sleeper player in the Pac-10. McMillan had a positive redshirt season, gaining confidence, bulk and a better understanding of playing in the post. If the Trojans have that kind of balance and Craven continues to be the defensive pest that he has proven to be, then they'll be a contender in the Pac-10. If that occurs, Craven will likely be a more recognizable name.
Hamilton needed Pickett to score and he did, leading the team (17.1 ppg). He needed him to rebound and he did, supplying a team-high 5.7 boards a game despite being 6-4. He needed him to make free throws, because Pickett was going to have the ball in his hands a lot, and he did at an 86.5 percent clip. And Hamilton desperately needed Pickett to be a leader on defense. And he did, leading the ACC with 82 steals.
Pickett gets lost in the overhyped ACC with players at other schools like Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia usually grabbing the headlines. But Pickett could end up becoming a player of the year candidate if the Seminoles make a move up the standings -- which isn't out of the question with the addition of 6-5 freshman wing Vakeaton Wafer.
The bottom line: Pickett and Florida State could be the sleepers in the ACC.
"You'd be right on target there," Hamilton said of Pickett. And of the Seminoles? Well, Hamilton just kept laughing. "That remains to be seen."
But Pickett was the most conditioned athlete on the Seminoles last season and pushed his teammates to work harder in practice. His 3-point shooting (32.4 percent) still needs work but he won't have to take as many shots this season. Hamilton said Pickett was watching tape all summer, trying to understand the defensive principles. He grasped them last season to pick up the league-high in steals, now he needs to be able to teach the defense to the newcomers.
"He's got such a great competitive spirit," Hamilton said. "He's such a gym rat."
Adding Wafer, who Hamilton said is eager to learn, humble and focused, could mean the Seminoles will be a player in the ACC after winning just four games in the league a year ago.
Morris Finley, UAB: OK, quick, let's test your knowledge of Conference USA hoops. Have you heard of Finley? If you haven't, then don't be ashamed. He plays at one of the least talked about programs in the conference. But he's one of the best players in the league, and could be a player of the year candidate if the Blazers emerge as a top-five team in the conference.
"I wasn't a highly recruited guy so maybe that factors in," Finley said of why he has gone unnoticed. The 5-11 senior averaged 18.3 points a game, shot 41.5 percent and made 81 percent of his free throws in 2002-03. This is a player who scored in double figures 32 times, including 31 points against South Florida -- 25 coming in the second half.
Teams in Conference USA will certainly pay him more heed this season. But Finley is savvy, too.
"I studied more tape then I have the previous summers," Finley said. "We had a new coach last year (in Mike Anderson) and I had to get a feel for his philosophy. There's no reason why UAB can't be considered one of the better schools in the country."
The Blazers are going to be predicated more on defense, look for the quick shot and let Finley direct a lot of the offense with his quick thinking on the court.
"It was easy for him to be overshadowed in our league with Dwyane Wade (at Marquette) and Reece Gaines (at Louisville)," Anderson said. "But hopefully this will be his coming-out year. He is a perfectionist, working on his ballhandling and shooting all summer."
The open floor plan for the Blazers fits Finley's style. Anderson said he flourished in the system and mostly made the right decisions. The Blazers will need immediate help from Donell and Ronell Taylor, a pair of wing guards from the junior college ranks. But there's no reason why the Blazers can't duplicate their 21 wins from a year ago. Do that and Finley could be the surprise C-USA player of the year.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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