This is the time of year that college basketball coaches dread. The glow of starting anew with first practices Oct. 15 is gone. The players have pounded on each other every day for four weeks and are getting sick and tired of looking at each other. What's more, coaches find themselves distracted: the start of the season is less than two weeks away but the early national signing period begins Wednesday.
"This time of the year," North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said last week, "it seems as if everyone wants something."
What coaches want from their teams is something resembling basketball. Offenses and defenses have been put in; there should be some strong clues as to who can play and who cannot, and some idea of how good you are going to be. For area schools, most of whom are beginning to play exhibitions (tonight, George Mason entertains the Marathon Oil team that visited George Washington Saturday night and Maryland plays Athletes in Action in Cole Field House), there are some definite directional signs.
At Georgetown, where the Hoyas are getting set to defend a national championship, the key names are -- all right, besides Patrick Ewing and Patrick Ewing -- Ronnie Highsmith and Horace Broadnax. Highsmith, a 6-foot-8 freshman who is another of Coach John Thompson's ex-military recruits, is the player most likely to be asked to inherit Michael Graham's spot at power forward.
Graham, the 6-foot-9 sophomore who isn't playing because of academic troubles, was the inside enforcer last season, the player who kept teams from doubling on Ewing, the player who got the rebounds Ewing couldn't. Senior Bill Martin, a 6-7 leaper, can do that to some degree but isn't as big or as strong. What's more, Thompson likes to divide time among players. If Highsmith is effective, he and Martin will split time at power forward -- and perhaps play together at times. Senior Ralph Dalton probably will start there but that's just because Thompson is superstitious and Dalton started during Georgetown's title run.
Broadnax, a 6-2 junior, will be asked to replace Gene Smith as the outside defensive stopper. Broadnax has come a long way defensively in two years, but Smith's instinct and zest for defense were almost unique. Thompson said last week that although he is pleased with the progress of his freshmen, he probably will use a rotation of about eight players, as opposed to the 10 or 11 used last season.
Maryland may use as few as six or seven players, mostly because Lefty Driesell's team isn't that deep. The lack of depth has been magnified by 6-7 freshman forward Derrick Lewis' blood pressure problem, which kept him out of practice until last week.
"We sent him to the doctor who worked with (the Bullets') Frank Johnson and he said it was fine for him to play," Driesell said. "He's only going half speed right now and he's lost a lot of time."
Driesell is counting on Lewis to do what he did for Carroll High School: rebound and block shots. Right now, Driesell has a starting lineup of Keith Gatlin and Jeff Adkins at the guards; Adrian Branch and Len Bias at forward and 6-8 sophomore Terry Long at center. How quickly Long progresses and how much help Lewis, 6-6 junior college transfer Speedy Jones and 6-4 freshman Wally Lancaster can provide off the bench will be a key.
George Mason Coach Joe Harrington already has lost a key player. Freshman Kenny Sanders, who came from McKinley Tech in the District, decided to transfer, feeling he can play at a "major" school after an excellent year of summer ball. Sanders was recruited by the likes of De Paul and Maryland until his questionable grades scared them off. But he made his 2.0 average and enrolled at George Mason. Now, he may end up at Oklahoma or another "major."
"It's a mistake," Harrington said. "I think he could do well in this environment in every respect." Without the 6-5 Sanders to score inside, Mason will again depend on defensive pressure and senior Carlos Yates (22.1 points per game last season) for scoring. Ricky Wilson, a major surprise a year ago, is back at guard but the Patriots must shore up inside if they are to match last season's 21-7 record.
George Washington has plenty of strength inside with 6-10 Mike Brown at center, but Coach Gerry Gimelstob was counting on 6-8 freshman Max Blank to provide help inside; Blank has been slowed by knee problems. Still, the Colonials are a year older than the team that finished 17-12 a season ago, closing with a rush.
The only rush American was in, on its way to a 6-22 record last season, was to get the nightmare over with. Things may not be any easier for Coach Ed Tapscott with a new, tougher league (ECAC South) and an almost new team. "With 10 sophomores and freshmen, we're still feeling things out," Tapscott said. "The next two weeks will be critical. We're so young, the first guy who gets razor stubble will start."
Navy Coach Paul Evans, who produced the academy's best record ever, 24-8, last season, needs a point guard to replace Rob Romaine but is set at most positions, especially with 6-11 junior David Robinson -- who may become the school's best player ever -- not only back but better. "We still have inexperience in the back court," Evans said. "That's our big question mark."
Virginia also has back court problems. Right now, freshman John Johnson and senior Tim Mullen, who played little last year, are the starters. Another freshman, Darrick Simms of Flint Hill Academy, will play a lot. The Cavaliers' ability to get the ball to front liners Olden Polynice, Jim Miller and Tom Sheehey will be crucial to the success of Coach Terry Holland's team, which surprised many observers by reaching last season's Final Four.
Polynice was a delight as a 6-11 freshman on last year's 21-12 club. Sheehey, 6-7, was a disappointment. His development and the progress of the guards will be vital.
Howard Coach A.B. Williamson says he has question marks everywhere and will use a grading system during the next two weeks to determine his starters. Michael Jones, last season's starting shooting guard, had offseason knee surgery and Williamson hopes he will be back by February.
At the University of the District of Columbia, Earl Jones is gone and so are three other starters. Only point guard Neal Robertson is back and Coach Wil Jones has been looking at 13 new players. The Firebirds' slow start -- with Jones hurt -- cost them a Division II playoff berth last year. This year, Jones won't be there to rescue them if they start slowly.