Madness Week: Notes from the road

All around the country, college basketball practices will begin Friday night. Dana O'Neil is taking a tour through Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Here are a few items from her notebook:

Thursday, Oct. 15

Posted by Dana O'Neil

LOUISVILLE -- Samardo Samuels ate grilled chicken instead of McDonald's; Edgar Sosa ran the football stadium steps three times a week; Preston Knowles hit the gym in the traditional morning hours and again in the morning's wee hours.

Terrence Williams is gone. Ditto Earl Clark. That is the rejoinder for this Louisville basketball season, and no one knows it better than the players still wearing Cardinal red.

It is why Samuels spent a summer "eating food I really don't like." Why Sosa headed to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium at 7:45 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning before he went to summer class. Why Knowles used the private hand-scan access at the Yum! Center to work on his passing and dribbling skills at 9 a.m. and again at 1 a.m.

"Last year it was T-Will's and Earl's chance," said the night-owl Knowles. "Now it's our turn."

Like much of the Big East, Louisville is something of a mystery this season. No one quite knows what to do with the Cards. They lost two lottery picks but they boast a roster complete with two McDonald's All-Americans. They were the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, but took a shellacking at the hands of Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

Even their coach isn't quite sure what he has.

"We have a chance to be good; we have talent but we have no stars," Rick Pitino said. "We have guys who need to figure out how to creep out of their role-player positions this year. I think we can be very good, but we'll see."

Pitino said he figures this will be an early season where he tinkers with the lineup frequently. He could go with two bigs, Samuels and Terrence Jennings -- except it seems Jennings is inhabiting the dog house recently vacated by Edgar Sosa.

Pitino lamented the lack of production out of his sophomore over the summer, saying that Jennings spent time working on the wrong thing -- namely a jump shot instead of footwork and low-post work.

"He did not progress from last year like he needs to," Pitino said.

Jennings, though, isn't the only one who will need to work. Samuels got a Big East baptism in the low post last season and now, 18 pounds lighter, will need to use his fleet feet to grab position.

The mercurial Sosa finally earned a compliment from Pitino, who said his point guard has 'turned the corner.' But the senior admits he has to keep reminding himself to pass first and shoot later.

"He wants me to be a true point guard and I know what that means now -- at first I didn't understand," Sosa said. "I used to think, 'If I can get to the basket, why shouldn't I just go?' But he wants me to be a playmaker. Now when I go down the court, I think of myself as a passer. It's been hard. I'm not going to sit here and say it wasn't. But you have to play smart."

The players believe their under-the-radar status isn't anything to be offended about. Rather, they hope it will be to their advantage.

In 2007, the Cardinals never even cracked the top 25 until February as they limped to a 5-4 start. That team was one Sosa 3-pointer away from a spot in the Sweet 16.

Can this team be the same?

"I don't really care if anyone's ranking us or talking about us," Samuels said. "That just means we can go on the court and let that be the proof."

Tuesday, Oct. 13

Posted by Dana O'Neil

CINCINNATI -- The lengthy investigation into the amateur status of Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson could finally be nearing a conclusion, a source told ESPN.com.

Stephenson, the all-time leading prep scorer in New York City, was the subject of a documentary that eventually aired on MTV and also was featured in a music video, clouding his status with the NCAA.

But a source close to the situation said that the NCAA investigative phase -- which has included countless interviews with high school and AAU coaches, teammates and Stephenson's family -- likely will be concluded by the end of next week, allowing the NCAA to then go forward and consider whether any violations have been committed.

The source added that all indications are that any violations found likely would be minor -- that there is no indication that Stephenson or his family knowingly skirted the rules or profited from Stephenson's basketball experiences -- and that nothing should render Stephenson ineligible for the season. At worst, he may have to sit out a handful of games, the source said.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin expects the same thing.

"If I didn't think he could be cleared, I wouldn't have taken him," he said. "The NCAA has been very supportive and helpful in this whole process. This is a situation where we've worked together."

Stephenson's long road to a college career began in June, when the graduate of famed Lincoln High (alma mater of Sebastian Telfair) committed to Cincinnati amid loud criticism aimed at Cronin.

Labeled a troublemaker who was accused of groping a girl in high school and a bad teammate who already had a foot in the NBA, Stephenson was the last ESPNU 100 player signed by a mile. Scores of schools originally interested in the talented wing player backed off.

But Cronin said that after meeting Stephenson in person, he saw no reason not to take him -- and even questioned his colleagues who claimed to be so vehemently against the risk.

"I say, 'Why not take him?'" Cronin said. "Number one, assistant coaches perpetuate myths when they lose out on a recruit. They tell their head coaches, 'Oh, you don't want him, he's a bad kid,' or, 'His parents are trouble.' The fact is, if they could have gotten him, they would have taken him.

"When Lance was here on his visit, his phone did not stop ringing, and I know who was calling because he showed me. It was high-major programs, programs competing for national championships. Up until the day he committed to us, they all wanted him."

Since coming to the Cincinnati campus, Cronin and his returning players said Stephenson has easily fit in with the rest of the Bearcats.

"At first, we were all a little curious; we had heard the same things," said redshirt freshman Cashmere Wright. "But then he went out with us on his visit here and we knew he'd fit right in. He's a big kid who just wants to play basketball. He's like the rest of us."

Except for one thing: Stephenson has absolutely no wiggle room.

Cronin said he didn't even have to tell Stephenson the obvious -- that even so much as a jaywalking citation will create headlines for him.

"I don't even have to talk to him about being in a fishbowl," Cronin said. "Other guys, they don't understand that. He's lived it."

Monday, Oct. 12

Posted by Dana O'Neil

DAYTON, Ohio -- He wore a Virginia Tech T-shirt and a pair of Jordan sneakers.

"Hi, I'm God," he said.

God likes a good crossover? Who knew?

OK, so technically his name was Gad. But in his native Uganda, Gad Eteu's first name is pronounced like the man upstairs would say his name. Recognizing a good gag, Eteu went with it.

That he was in town as part of an international coaching clinic sponsored by Athletes in Action, the global sports ministry, only made the joke richer.

"He's gotten some laughs with that," said Morris Michalski, a basketball specialist with Athletes in Action.

But for Eteu and the other 25 coaches sitting in the stands at the University of Dayton Arena, this trip has been more business than jokes. Invited by AIA to its headquarters in nearby Xenia, Ohio, for its annual clinic, they watched the Flyers work out, gleaning ideas and inspiration to bring back home.

Coaches from six different countries -- Guatemala, Senegal, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Togo -- will spend between two and three weeks here, visiting with area college and professional teams and coaches.

"It gives you a different perspective on coaching," said Estuardo Arriola, who coaches kids ages 5 through 14 in Guatemala City. "There's just a difference in thinking and working. The determination of these players is something we'll try to do with our team."

It won't be easy. Most of these coaches are working in countries where the facilities and resources are less than even the lowest Division I program. As Robert Faye, who coaches a professional team in Senegal, watched Dayton work in stations at the various baskets around the gym, he said the hardest thing would be finding a way to incorporate what he's learned in his limited space.

"We only have the two hoops," he said.

But rather than be discouraged, the coaches were energized.

In Uganda, Eteu coaches a local professional team. The game is basic and the facilities lacking, but he said with opportunities like these, he expects things to change.

"Give us maybe two years," said Eteu, who was making his first trip to the United States. "The kids now are just starting to get into the game. As they get more interested and we have more chances like these, we will have the opportunity to take the game to the next level."

Presumably Gad didn't mean The Higher Level.