Questions that need answering
Who's going to win the national championship? What sleeperteam will work its way into the top 10? Is Butler the new Butler or is another upstart going to wiggle its way into the national conversation this season?
Great questions, every one, and questions that will be answered between today, the first official day of college basketball practice, and April 4, the night of the national championship game.
But right now there are more pressing issues at hand, issues that need addressing between today and when the first games are played in November.
Only the people behind the curtain at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis know for sure, and right now they aren't showing their hand.
Typically, the NCAA likes to clean up any eligibility issues before the season starts. Last season, Lance Stephenson was cleared Nov. 6, 10 days before Cincinnati started its season, and Kentucky's John Wall was handed a two-game suspension on Oct. 30, three days before an exhibition game.
Of course, that doesn't always happen. Renardo Sidney wasn't officially declared ineligible for his rookie season at Mississippi State until March 5. By then, the Bulldogs had one regular-season game left.
The tricky conundrum for this season is Kentucky head coach John Calipari and Kansas head coach Bill Self have a season to prepare for, a team to mesh and a month to do it. Should they prepare as if Kanter and Selby -- both arguably the most important pieces to each team's success -- are going to be available or as if they won't be?
Self is going glass half-full.
"We are practicing like we are going to have him because I believe in my heart, as do the people around me, that we will have him," Self said of Selby. "I know there is a process and it has to take its course and I respect that, but we're planning like he'll play. If, down the road, we have to do an about-face then we will. It would be like losing someone to an injury."
Self's situation is slightly different than Calipari's in that Selby, unlike Kanter, is practicing.
The difference is that the NCAA is looking into Selby's eligibility versus Kanter's amateur status. In Kanter's case, the NCAA is determining whether compensation he received while playing for a professional team in Turkey violates his amateur status.
Chuck Wynne, the NCAA's director of communication strategy, explained that initial eligibility certification -- a la Selby -- certifies an athlete for his first year and can only hold an athlete out of competition for one year. Consequently, there is a waiver process that, according to Wynne, "may provide relief and allow the individual to receive athletics aid, practice and/or compete in that first year."
"By contrast, the amateurism certification process has the potential to certify that an individual may not compete at all due to actions that jeopardize his or her amateur status," Wynne explained via e-mail. "As a result, there is not an amateurism-specific waiver process that allows you to practice while an amateurism decision is being reached beyond the 45-day temporary certification period."
Because Kentucky opted to allow Kanter to practice in early August, while the Wildcats prepared for a trip to Canada, his 45-day window has expired.
Kentucky would have to file an appeal to allow him time back on the court.
2. How will the legal troubles for LaceDarius Dunn affect Baylor?
Let's be clear on one thing from the get-go here: There's a lot more at stake than Dunn's basketball career and Baylor's season. Dunn faces serious charges after he was arrested and alleged to have assaulted his girlfriend.
The legal system and the university have conspired to put head coach Scott Drew in an untenable position. Despite protests from Dunn's girlfriend to drop the charges, prosecutors are still investigating a felony assault charge. In the meantime, the university, which placed Dunn on academic suspension a week ago, voted to lift that suspension on Thursday.
So, whether Dunn plays is up to Drew. Dunn has been cleared to practice but remains suspended indefinitely from games. Drew made no further comment beyond the university's statement that cleared Dunn to practice.
There's still a month before the Bears play their first game. But if the wheels of justice move at their typically glacial pace, Drew is going to find himself in a more difficult predicament.
The truth is, a season without Dunn dramatically shifts the landscape for Baylor.
Coming off their Elite Eight run, the Bears already are without Tweety Carter and Ekpe Udoh. If Dunn and his 19.6 points aren't available, the legitimate expectations of a Final Four run for Baylor plummet.
3. Who's practicing and who is not at Michigan State?
For Midnight Madness this year, Tom Izzo should have dressed up as Radar O'Reilly and asked his wife, Lupe, to go as Hot Lips Houlihan. The Michigan State coach is running a M*A*S*H unit.
"I've never had anything like this," Izzo said. "Never."
The roll call of the injured reads like this: Kalin Lucas, still recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon; Korie Lucious, a few weeks into rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery to repair a minor meniscus tear; Adreian Payne, still limited following a shoulder injury; Russell Byrd, perhaps staring at a redshirt season after a second surgery on his left foot; and Garrick Sherman, recovering from having screws removed from his foot.
Everyone but Lucious and Byrd has been cleared to practice. The question for Izzo: How much can they do?
"I'm tempted to say 'yes, we'll take it a little easier,' but that's what we've had to do all summer," Izzo said. "We need to get some reps in and get our conditioning done. I'm going to have to play it by ear and go by what I see and what they tell me."
Lucas is the one that concerns Izzo. In his lengthy career, Izzo has never had a player deal with a ruptured Achilles tendon before. Lucas is five months into his rehab, but the recovery can last as long as eight months. According to Izzo, in the short 40-minute workouts the Spartans have held in the preseason, Lucas has looked good at a step slower than his usual self, but Izzo is worried about the demands of a full-bore practice schedule.
"He's always been a worker," Izzo said. "He's not the kind of guy who is going to use his injury to take a day off. He looks good now, but I'm not sure what happens when he's going two or two-and-a-half hours a day or 30 minutes in a game with someone guarding him."
Injuries haven't been the only issue facing the Spartans. No doubt it's been a trying and troubling offseason in East Lansing. Izzo waffled over taking the Cleveland Cavaliers job, Chris Allen was dismissed from the team and transferred to Iowa State, Lucious was arrested for reckless driving and a there was a recent newspaper report that two unnamed players were involved in a sexual assault, although prosecutors decided not to file charges.
Izzo wouldn't and couldn't talk about the alleged sexual assault.
He's said publicly that he wishes Allen nothing but the best.
As for Lucious, it's unknown what disciplinary action he'll face, though some sort of game-suspension is likely.
"I think our team chemistry is fine," Izzo said. "The biggest distraction, honestly, was the Cleveland thing, just because it was ongoing. That was the biggest problem."
4. What about all of the NCAA investigations? How will those affect the teams involved?
Raise your hand if your school isn't currently under NCAA investigation.
Instead of preseason, this is more like open season, each week bringing news that yet another campus is being visited by NCAA staff. Visited being a euphemism, of course. No one is baking cookies and muffins for the enforcement staff.
As of present time, the rundown for basketball includes Connecticut, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Baylor and Oregon. At least it's equal-opportunity investigation, with four of the big six conferences represented (we'd congratulate the Big Ten and ACC for dodging the bullet, but the football teams at Michigan and North Carolina make that impossible).
Among the hoops versions of Hester Prynne, every school is at a different point in the process.
Connecticut leads the pack, further down the path than the rest. UConn will go before the Committee on Infractions on Friday -- a unique way to celebrate the start of practice, to be sure. Typically, the COI doesn't issue its report for a good six weeks following the initial hearing, and after it does UConn still would have the right to appeal.
Timeline for next news hit: a COI ruling perhaps sometime in December.
Potential for distraction: high. Even though the Huskies already are claiming otherwise, -- Alex Oriakhi said recently, "I just play basketball, work out and try to get myself better. Thinking about that isn't going to help, so I don't think about it," -- this isn't going away any time soon. On Wednesday, Jim Calhoun comes to New York next week for the Big East media day. Thanks to the media posse that follows the UConn program everywhere, there's always a crowd around Calhoun. I suspect it will be a few rows deeper this year. He isn't terribly fond of answering questions he doesn't like, but that doesn't mean he won't be peppered with the queries.
Tennessee has received a letter of inquiry but has yet to get an official notice of allegations.
Timeline for next news hit: perhaps December as well, although the formal notice of allegations could take longer if the NCAA combines alleged basketball, football and baseball infractions into one document.
Potential for distraction: high.
The Volunteers head to practice wondering if they're working with a dead coach walking. Rumors of Bruce Pearl's termination have swirled since news of the NCAA investigation first broke and will gain steam when the letter of allegations lands in the inbox. Because Tennessee has hit the trifecta -- three of its major sports in trouble at once -- the potential for serious allegations for the athletics department is real.
News recently broke that Baylor and Oregon are now officially under NCAA investigation. The NCAA is looking to alleged recruiting violations at Baylor and at Oregon. NCAA staff members are now leading an investigation involving former Ducks player Michael Dunigan.
Timeline for next news hit: hard to say. NCAA investigations can take time.
Potential for distraction: moderate at Oregon, higher at Baylor. The Ducks have plenty of other problems to deal with right now. The Ducks are down to eight scholarship players after several defections since Dana Altman took over, but NCAA investigations are thorough, tedious and laborious processes, filled with countless interviews and meetings that are a drain on everyone involved. There's never a good time to start an NCAA investigation, but I'd say this week is about as bad as it can get.
The situation is pretty much the same at Baylor, but couple this news with the unsettled situation of Dunn and the distraction meter jumps a few pegs.
Finally, at Oklahoma the Sooners are somewhere in NCAA purgatory. In May, they were released from their Kelvin Sampson-induced probation but fell right back under an NCAA probe when phone records revealed former assistant coach Oronde Taliaferro made repeated contact with financial representative Jeffrey Hausinger, who purportedly wired $3,000 to Tiny Gallon. Gallon declared for the NBA draft after spending one season at Oklahoma and has refused to cooperate with the NCAA.
Timeline for next news hit: Who knows? This thing has been dragging on for months.
Potential for distraction: low. Barring some unforeseen action, this likely will just percolate below the surface
Although you have to appreciate the beautiful irony that Gallon was recently released by the Milwaukee Bucks, where Sampson is an assistant coach.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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