Sunday, October 12, 2003

New looks await as practices open

UC adds Whaley; XU turns to guards

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

More than six months have passed since Syracuse cut down the nets in New Orleans and brought to a close another season of college basketball.

Much has changed in that time for the four area teams, Cincinnati, Xavier, Kentucky and Miami, all of which enter this season with entirely different storylines than they left with in March. They each begin practice Saturday, be it after midnight or sometime later the next morning, with new needs to address, new players to work into the system and renewed goals of conference championships and NCAA Tournament runs.

At the University of Cincinnati, the Bearcats usher in a highly touted freshman/transfer class expected to make an immediate impact. Big man Robert Whaley, a 6-foot-10 junior-college transfer, headlines the group that includes former Purcell Marian/Brewster (N.H.) Academy prep star Mike Pilgrim. Their ability to mesh with current players will be critical early in the season for Cincinnati.

Xavier must deal with the void of last year's national player of the year David West, now with the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, and adjust its game plan accordingly with four returning starters.

That will place a greater emphasis on perimeter play, where the Musketeers return the most experience, including 6-foot-5 swingman Romain Sato, who could make a bid for All-American honors.

Kentucky is coming off a 16-0 Southeastern Conference season and appeared to be the best team in the nation entering the NCAA Tournament last season.

A regional final loss to Marquette ended the Wildcats' season surprisingly early with a 32-4 record, but it was enough to earn coach Tubby Smith an eight-year contract extension worth $2.5 million per year. Kentucky returns just 55 percent of the scoring from that team, but the Wildcats boast one of the top backcourts in the nation with Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins, as well as a deep bench, this season.

Miami University didn't reach the NCAA or NIT, but coach Charlie Coles has reason to be optimistic with preseason Mid-American Conference first-team selection Juby Johnson back for his senior season.

The RedHawks last reached the NCAA Tournament when Wally Szczerbiak took them to the Sweet 16 in 1999. This veteran team could be the group that gets back to the NCAAs.

Coming this week

The Enquirer takes a look at area college basketball teams, which officially begin practicing Saturday. The team-preview schedule:

TUESDAY: The University of Cincinnati



FRIDAY: Kentucky



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