By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
The college basketball season starts up on Friday night with 23 games. The Veterans Classic, in Annapolis, Maryland hosts four teams for a double header on Friday night. The first game features the nation’s preseason #1 the University of North Carolina taking on the Temple Owls. Game two shows off the new look Florida under 1st year head coach Mike White against the host Navy Midshipmen. CBS Sports Network will have the coverage of the event and Steve Lappas, the former coach turned broadcaster will be on the call for the games. I caught up with Steve to get his thoughts on these four teams, and the big stories to watch this college basketball season.
The Tar Heels return a ton of talent and sit at #1 in the preseason poll, what’s the biggest key for them to live up to those expectations?
Steve Lappas: “I think the most important thing is for them is to stay first of all focused and locked in and they have to have their key guys healthy. Marcus Page is so important to that team because he may be the best point guard in the country, at the very least is one of the best. When they lost him last year, it was kind of curtains for the year with that plantar fasciitis. When he came back at the end of the year and seemed to be just about at full strength, then they had a chance to make a run and they did – to the Sweet 16. Staying healthy, the key guys, especially Marcus Paige and the last thing is shooting the ball. They have not been a real good three point shooting team. They’re big, huge actually, best offensive rebounding team in the country. But, they’ve got to be able to shoot the ball more consistently. That’s where a guy like Joel Berry comes in. He came in with a reputation as a big-time shooter but didn’t shoot well last year. Getting perimeter shooting will be critical as well.”
As a former coach, you mention it being important to stay focused, how do you do that with players that are still young?
SL: “I think the one thing that is in their favor is the fact that they are North Carolina. I think you expect to have these kind of teams when you decide to go there. I think that’s something that might hurt another program, but Carolina is Carolina. Now, the other thing you said there is they’re young guys. I think the key is Roy’s been around the block and back many times. He knows exactly how to handle this team to keep them focused. Since this is a national championship contender, you have to know when to pull back and when to go. It’s a long season. November 13th will be their first game and they want to be playing into the first week of April. Roy’s been there before, he knows how to do it.”
On the other side, Fran Dunphy’s squad is looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, how do they accomplish that goal?
SL: “They do have some experience back. They lost some guys from last year in Will Cummings and Jesse Morgan, two of their highest scorers, but it’s college basketball you miss guys all the time. Quenton DeCosey is going to be a huge guy for this team and he’s a really talented kid. Jaylen Bond, the transfer from Texas, is another guy who’s going to be important. They’re probably the two leaders. They have a lot of experience though, Josh Brown was the back-up point guard last year, he’s a junior, he’s ready to step in. They’ve got guys like Dingle that came off the bench last year. They’ve got the guys that they need and they just missed last year. It’s a great opportunity for them Friday night. Whenever you have the number one team in the country on a neutral floor, it’s a great opportunity. They’ve got nothing to lose.”
You mention Josh Brown backing up Will Cummings last year, now stepping into that starting point guard spot, is UNC a good barometer game for his play?
SL: “Marcus Paige is out with that broken hand, but for Josh Brown it’s still going to be a challenge for him playing against North Carolina. He’s different from Cummings, Cummings was a scorer and attacker. Josh Brown is more of a set-up guy. He’s improved his shooting, he can score some, but he’s not going to score like Cummings. It’s a big step for Josh Brown, he’s a guy who has to grow up this year.”
In the second game on Friday night, Florida enters the post-Billy Donovan era under new head coach Mike White, what do you expect in his first year at the helm?
SL: “His teams at Louisiana Tech were all among the national leaders in steals and making threes. This is a coach that wants to run, he wants to press, he wants to make the tempo fast. Ironically, that’s how Billy Donovan was when he first got to Florida. You look at the team last year though, they averaged 63 points per game and really struggled to score. I think Mike White is going to try to establish his identity, but I don’t know if this team is a perfect fit for what he is trying to do. They have a big kid in John Egbunu, a transfer from South Florida, who’s 6’11” 255. One of his strengths isn’t going to be getting up and down even though he’s a good player in the low post. He’s going to try and bring his system in, but it’s not a roster that fits his system really well. It will be interesting to see how he goes about this season. Especially in a very tough and quickly improving SEC.”
What do you see when you look at Florida’s opponent Navy? Can they finish in the top half of that Patriot League?
SL: “A league like the Patriot League is very well balanced. Yes, Lehigh and Bucknell are picked one and two in the preseason and Navy is picked last. They lost their top two scorers from last year. Right now, it’s a little bit of a rebuild for Navy, but in the Patriot League where there’s pretty good balance all around, all you have to do is steal three games in March.”
As we enter the 2015-16 season, what are the key story lines you’ll be watching as the year unfolds?
SL: “The rules changes. The 30 second clock. What’s that going to do? Are the games going to be faster now that they changed the timeout rule so you only have three in the second half? Are the referees going to call the game a little closer off the ball? This is a big year with all of these rule changes, I think that’s the biggest thing to watch for this year.”
Every year brings a new crop of highly touted freshmen, which one are you most looking forward to watching this season?
SL: “I want to see Ben Simmons. This is a kid at LSU who everyone is talking about is going to be the best player in the country, maybe the first player taken in the NBA Draft. He’s 6-8 to 6-9, handles it like a point guard, he can shoot it. I’m really excited—Johnny Jones is a really good recruiter at LSU and this guy is supposed to be all that.”
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.