A waaaay too early 2011-12 preseason Top 25

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Until teams know who’s off to the NBA and who’s staying in school, a preseason Top 25 is merely fodder for discussion.

With that, here’s the fodder.  

1. Kentucky

Record: 29-9 (Final Four)
Key returnees
: SF DeAndre Liggins, SG Doron Lamb, SF Darius Miller, C Eloy Vargas, SF Jon Hood.
Departing seniors: C Josh Harrellson
May lose: PG Brandon Knight, PF Terrence Jones
Incoming recruits: PG Marquis Teague, SF Michael Gilchrist, PF Anthony Davis, PF Kyle Wiltjer

Provided the John Calipari-NBA rumors don’t come true next season, the Wildcats enter 2011-12 as the team to beat. Even if Knight and Jones both enter the NBA draft, Kentucky has more than enough talent arriving to offset those losses. Davis, Teague and Gilchrist are the top-rated recruits at their respective positions and Wiltjer’s also a 5-star prospect. That makes this the best class Calipari’s reeled in while at Kentucky. They’ll be young, but we’ve seen Kentucky thrive with freshman-laden teams in the last two years. Plus, the Wildcats wil have solid seniors in Liggins and Miller. They won’t be overwhelming favorites, but there’s more than enough talent to make them No. 1.

2. North Carolina

Record: 29-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Kendall Marshall, SG Leslie McDonald, SG Dexter Strickland, SF Reggie Bullock
Departing seniors: PF Justin Knox
May lose: SF Harrison Barnes, PF John Henson, C Tyler Zeller
Incoming recruits: PF James McAdoo, SG P.J. Hairston

The skinny: This one comes with a caveat that at least two of the Heels’ likely early entrants – Barnes, Zeller and Henson – return to school. Call me crazy (there’s a comments section below), but it seems like a year when guys are more likely to stick it out another year because of the impending NBA lockout. That happens, UNC will be stocked at every position with five-star talent. (And if all three return? Heels could make an argument for No. 1) Still, there are concerns about frontcourt depth and if McAdoo and Hairston can contribute right away. This could be another UNC team that struggles at the start, but thrives at season’s end.

3. Duke

Record: 32-5 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PF Mason Plumlee, SG Seth Curry, PF Miles Plumlee, G Andre Dawkins, SF Ryan Kelly
Departing seniors: SG Nolan Smith, SF Kyle Singler
May lose: PG Kyrie Irving
Incoming recruits: SG Austin Rivers, PG Quinn Cook, C Mason Plumlee, SF Michael Gbinije

The skinny: Even if Irving – the likely No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft – bolts, the Devils are primed to replace him and Smith with Rivers and Cook, both of whom are 5-star talents. Rivers is the top scorer of the ’11 class, while Cook thrives as a creator and floor leader. The bigger questions might be if Duke can fill Singler’s role as a versatile scorer and defender. That means more time for the Plumlees and Kelly, and perhaps incoming Gbinije. Irving says he’ll make a draft decision soon, which would affect their ranking here. He returns, they’re right behind Kentucky as the team to beat.

4. Syracuse

Record: 27-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Scoop Jardine, SF Kris Joseph, SG Brandon Triche, SG Dion Waiters, SF C.J. Fair, C Fab Melo, PF Baye Moussa Keita
Departing seniors: PF Rick Jackson
Incoming recruits: C Rakeem Christmas, SG Trevor Cooney, SG Michael Carter-Williams

Jim Boeheim loses just one starter (Jackson) from a 27-win team that adds two impact recruits in Christmas and Carter-Williams, and another who can provide offense off the bench. The Orange will miss Jackson’s reliable rebounding and post defense, but he’s hardly irreplaceable. They’ll need Jardine to be more consistent and for Joseph and Melo to finally deliver on their tantalizing skills, but all the pieces are there for Syracuse to post yet another outstanding season. Maybe this is too high, but so be it. Given the other uncertainties surrounding other teams, ‘Cuse gets a bump for its known qualities.

5. Connecticut

Record: 32-9 (Won national championship)
Key returnees
: PF Alex Oriakhi, SG Jeremy Lamb, PG Shabazz Napier, SF Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, PF Roscoe Smith, C Tyler Olander
Departing seniors: SG Donnell Beverly, C Chuck Akwandu
May lose: PG Kemba Walker
Incoming recruits: PG Ryan Boatright

The skinny: UConn’s a tempting team. There’s no lack of talent in Storrs, and 5-star prospect Boatright only adds to that mix. More impressive was that the Huskies didn’t play like a young team in 2010-11. But … that was with Kemba running the show and making plays when needed. When he struggled, the Huskies struggled, thus their 9th place finish in the Big East. There’s enough here to make a Top 5 team, but there are going to be nights when they dearly miss Walker.

6. Arizona

Record: 30-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Momo Jones, SG Kyle Fogg, SF Solomon Hill, SF Kevin Parrom, SF Jesse Perry, PG Jordin Mayes
Departing senior: PF Jamelle Horne
May lose: PF Derrick Williams
Incoming recruits: PG Josiah Turner, SG Nick Johnson, PF Angelo Chol, PF Sidiki Johnson

The skinny: Williams is good as gone, but that’s no reason to write off the Wildcats, who return every other starter and bring in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. That’s more than enough to offset the loss of one player, no matter how good he may be (Read: Evan Turner/Ohio State). Arizona didn’t get much respect nationally until it handled Duke in the NCAA tournament, and that wasn’t all because of Williams. It was the mark of a team that finally started to play defense and live up to an enormous amount of talent on the roster. Don’t expect the team to make 40 percent of its 3-pointers again, but do expect Sean Miller’s club to win the Pac-10 and vie for a No. 1 seed out West.

7. Louisville

Record: 25-10 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Peyton Siva, PF Terrence Jennings, SG Chris Smith, PF Jared Swopshire, SF Kyle Kuric, SF Rakeem Buckles, PF Gorgui Dieng
Departing seniors: SG Preston Knowles
Incoming recruits: SG Wayne Blackshear, PF Chane Behanan, C Zach Price

The skinny: The Cards overachieved in 2010-11, winning 25 games and finishing tied for third in the Big East. Expect more next season. Siva’s primed for a breakout season, Kuric and Smith developed into key players and Buckles and Swopshire will both be healthy. Given that their only roster loss (Knowles) will be offset by Blackshear’s addition, Louisville’s ready to push Syracuse and UConn for the Big East title.

8. Texas

Record: 28-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG J’Covan Brown, PG Cory Joseph, PF Alexis Wangmere
Departing seniors: PF Gary Johnson, PG Jai Lucas, PG Dogus Balbay
May lose: SF Jordan Hamilton, C Tristan Thompson
Incoming recruits: PG Myck Kabongo, PF Jonathan Holmes, SG Julien Jones, SG Sheldon McClellan, PF Kevin Thomas

The skinny: It wouldn’t be Texas if Rick Barnes didn’t have to deal with serious roster attrition. He loses two reliable seniors, but not having Hamilton and Thompson would be far more crucial. After the ‘Horns’ NCAA tournament loss, both said they’d return to school, but UT seems likely to lose at least one, maybe both. The incoming talent will offset most of that, but the eternal Texas questions will remain – just how good will the Longhorns be and will they put it together when it matters? This ranking may ultimately be too optimistic.

9. Michigan

Record: 21-14 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Darius Morris, SG Tim Hardaway, C Jordan Morgan, SF Zack Novak, SG Stu Douglass, PF Evan Smotrycz, PF Jon Horford
Departing seniors: None
Incoming recruits: SG Carlton Brundidge, PG Trey Burke

The skinny: Best team in the Big Ten? I’ll make that leap. Every starter returns from a team that posted a negative efficiency margin during conference play, but has the talent to do more than make small improvements. Michigan’s good enough to be next year’s breakthrough team, much like UConn was in 2010-11. Morris, Hardaway and Morgan are a solid young trio who will be reason why. Morris and Hardaway can create their own shots, while Morgan’s a beats on the boards. The wild card? John Beilein’s offense relies on 3-pointers more than just about any other team. The Wolverines were about average (35.3 percent) this season; a slight uptick next year would be the difference between 20 wins and 27.

10. Ohio State

Record: 34-3 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PG Aaron Craft, SG William Buford, SF Deshaun Thomas, SG Jordan Sibert
Departing seniors: SG Jon Diebler, SF David Lighty, C Dallas Lauderdale
May lose: C Jared Sullinger
Incoming recruits: C Amir Williams, C Trey McDonald, SF Sam Thompson, SF LaQuinton Ross, PG Shannon Scott, transfer Evan Ravenel.

The skinny: Thad Matta has another solid class of recruits, but the Buckeyes’ status as an elite team depends on Sullinger’s NBA draft decision. He says he’ll be back, but until then, things are in flux in Columbus. Well, a little anyway.  Buford and Thomas should have more prominent roles, but with the addition of solid freshmen such as Williams and Ross, expect Ohio State to remain a balanced, inside-outside team that flirts with the Top 10 throughout the season. If Sullinger’s back, it’ll be a Top 10 mainstay.

11. UCLA

Record: 23-11 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Josh Smith, PF Reeves Nelson, PG Lazeric Jones, SG Jerime Anderson, PF Anthony Stover, PF Brendan Lane, SG Tyler Lamb
Departing seniors: None
May lose: SG Malcolm Lee, SF Tyler Honeycutt
Incoming recruits: SG Norman Powell, SG De’End Parker, PFs David and Travis Wear (transfers), PG Larry Drew II (transfer)

The skinny: Not sure why I have the Bruins this high. Maybe it felt like I should. They’ll only lose Honeycutt (Lee’s probably coming back) from a team that clicked at season’s end and added even more talent to the roster in Powell and the Wear twins. It should be a good team. My issue? I’m not sure it’s a Top 10 team. No one on the roster is an elite player, which could prove to be the Bruins’ undoing. Still, it wouldn’t be the first team to thrive without having a go-to guy.

12. Vanderbilt

Record: 23-11 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Festus Ezeli, PG Brad Tinsley, PF Lance Goulbourne, PF Steve Tchiengang
Departing seniors: None
May lose: SG John Jenkins, SF Jeff Taylor
Incoming recruits: SG Dai-Jon Parker, PG Kedren Johnson, PF Shelby Morris

The skinny: Jenkins and Taylor are the key. Feels like both will be back, which would give Vandy everyone from a team that’s due for a big year. The talent is there for big things. Question is if the Commodores can play enough defense to get it done.

13. Wisconsin

Record: 25-9 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PG Jordan Taylor, SG Josh Gasser, SF Mike Bruesewitz, SF Ryan Evans, PF Jared Berggren
Departing seniors: PF Jon Leuer, SF Keaton Nankivil, SF Tim Jarmusz
Incoming recruits: PF Jarrod Uthoff, SG Traevon Jackson, C Frank Kaminsky

The skinny: Write off the Badgers if you like. But with a solid core returning, a 4-star prospect in Uthoff coming in and Taylor – a national player of the year candidate – running the show, Wisconsin’s going to be what it always is under coach Bo Ryan: Fantastic at home, solid on the road and brutally efficient on offense. Question is, can Taylor turn them into a Top 10 team?

14. Cincinnati

Record: 26-9 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Yancy Gates, SG Sean Kilpatrick, SG Dion Dixon, PG Cashmere Wright, G Jaquon Parker, SF Justin Jackson
Departing seniors: SF Rashad Bishop, C Ibrahima Thomas
Incoming recruits: SF Shaquille Thomas, SF Jermaine Sanders, SG Jeremiah Davis, SG Ge-Lawn Guyn

The skinny: This might be too low given who the Bearcats return and with the addition of Thomas, but I’m rolling with it. When Cincinnati’s offense finally matches its defense – and when Gates plays consistently — it could be a Top 10 team.

15. Kansas

Record: 35-3 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Tyshawn Taylor, PF Thomas Robinson, PG Elijah Johnson
Departing seniors: SG Brady Morningstar, SG Tyrel Reed, SF Mario Little
May lose: SF Marcus Morris, PF Markieff Morris, SG Josh Selby
Incoming recruits: PG Nadir Thorpe, SG Ben McLemore

The skinny: The Jayhawks will be dealing with serious attrition yet again. The Morris twins are all but gone and could be joined by Selby. That’s yet another talent drain coach Bill Self has to address in recent years – this one might be a little rougher transition than in 2009. Kansas added one late recruit in McLemore, but brining in PF DeAndre Daniels would be a welcome addition. Still, if the Jayhawks are to stay atop the Big 12, they’ll need Robinson and Johnson to boost their games as starters.

16. Temple

Record: 26-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG Ramone Moore, PG Juan Fernandez, SG Khalif Wyatt, PF Michael Eric, SF Rahlier Jefferson, SF Scootie Randall
Departing seniors: PF Lavoy Allen
Incoming recruits: PG Will Cummings, SF Jimmy McDonnell

The skinny: The Owls will miss Allen inside, but he’s the only guy gone from a team that thrived at the end of the year. They won’t turn the ball over, they’ll hit 3-pointers and they’ll win games. That gets you in the Top 25.

17. Memphis

Record: 25-10 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Joe Jackson, PF Tarik Black, SF Drew Barnham, SG Antonio Barton, SG Charles Carmouche, SF Wesley Witherspoon.
Departing seniors: PF Will Coleman
May lose: SG Will Barton
Incoming recruits: SF Adonis Thomas

The skinny: Will Barton says he’ll return, but that could change. If he does stay, the Tigers will have as much talent as any team in the nation when you include Thomas, one of the elite 2011 recruits. The question isn’t talent, though. It’s whether Memphis’ awful offense improves and if they expand enough effort on defense.

18. Texas A&M

Record: 24-9 (Second round of NCAA tournament
Key returnees
: SF Khris Middleton, PF David Loubeau, PF Kourtney Roberson, SG Dash Harris, SF Naji Hibbert, SF Ray Turner
Departing seniors: PG B.J. Holmes, SF Nathan Walkup
Incoming recruits: PG Jamal Branch, SG Jordan Green, SF Elston Turner (transfer)

The skinny: The Aggies don’t win any beauty contests, but that’s by design. They’r here because of their defense. Simple as that. It also helps to return four of five starters and to plug in a recruit like Branch. If Middleton’s offense continues to develop, A&M will be more than defensive show.

19. Pitt

Key returnees: SF Nasir Robinson, PG Travon Woodall, PF Dante Taylor, SG J.J. Moore, SF Lamar Patterson, PF Talib Zanna
Departing seniors: SG Brad Wanamaker, SF Gilbert Brown, C Gary McGhee
May lose: SG Ashton Gibbs
Incoming recruits: PF Khem Birch, SG Durand Johnson, C Malcolm Gilbert, PF Jaylen Byrd, SG John Johnson.

The skinny: If Gibbs stays in the NBA draft, the Big East champs will be out four starters. That also happened in 2009 as Pitt set out rebuilding with a roster filled with good, not great players. Well, the Panthers won 25 games the next year. Given that Robinson, Woodall and Taylor were all significant parts of this year’s team and Moore seems poised for a breakout season, that win total seems doable. If Gibbs returns, even better.

20. Purdue

Key returnees: SF Robbie Hummel, PG Lewis Jackson, SF D.J. Byrd, SG Ryne Smith, SF John Hart, SG Terone Johnson, SF Kelsey Barlow, PF Patrick Bade, PF Travis Carroll
Departing seniors: SG E’Twaun Moore, C JaJaun JOhnson
Incoming recruits: PF Jacob Lawson, PF Donnie Hale

The skinny: Johnson and Moore are gone, but the Boilermakers have three key pieces returning: Hummel – who sat out the entire 2010-11 season – Jackson and coach Matt Painter. Painter, who spurned Missouri’s efforts to lure him away from West Lafayette, may be the most crucial piece, too. His teams are routinely boast one of the nation’s most efficient defenses (though last year’s offense was none too shabby), which will be key to competing for another Big Ten title.

21. Butler

Record: 28-10 (Lost in national championship)
Key returnees
: SG Shelvin Mack, PF Khyle Marshall, PG Ronald Nored, C Andrew Smith, SF Chase Stigall
Departing seniors: PF Matt Howard, PG Shawn Vanzant, SG Zach Hahn
Incoming recruits: PF Kameron Woods, SF Roosevelt Jones, SF Andrew Smeathers

The skinny: Howard, Vanzant and Hahn are gone, but nobody’s gonna write off Butler, right? Mack and Nored are still running the show and the Bulldogs welcome two recruits in Woods and Jones who can contribute right away. The Bulldogs will guard, they’ll score efficiently and they’ll win. But it might not always be pretty.

22. George Mason

Record: 27-7 (Third round of tournament)
Key returnees
: SF Ryan Pearson, SG Luke Hancock, PG Andre Cornelius, PF Mike Morrison, SG Vertrail Vaughns
Departing seniors: SG Cam Long, SF Isaiah Tate
Incoming recruits: SF Vaughn Gray, PG Corey Edwards

The skinny: Too high? Nah. The Patriots played well enough to be ranked this season and they return more than enough talent and experienced players to get some early props. Maybe Mason has less room for error than say, Kansas, and might not shoot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc again, but there’s enough here for a spot in the Top 25.

23. Marquette

Record: 22-15 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: SG Darius Johnson-Odum, PF Jae Crowder, PG Junior Cadougan, SG Vander Blue, C Davante Gardner
Departing seniors: SF Jimmy Butler, SG Dwight Buycks
Incoming recruits: SF Juan Anderson, SG Todd Mayo, PG Derrick Wilson, SF Jamil Wilson (Transfer)

The skinny: Coach Buzz Williams is back and he’s got his roster of solid, underrated players with him. That Sweet 16 berth wasn’t a fluke because the Golden Eagles were always a team that was far better than its record indicated. That’ll be true again in 2011-12 when Johnson-Odom, Crowder and Cadougan get a boost from Anderson.

24. Belmont

Record: 30-5 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG Ian Clark, PF Mick Hedgepeth, PG Kerron Johnson, PF Scott Saunders, PG Drew Hanlen, SF J.J. Mann
Departing seniors: SG Jordan Campbell, SF Jon House

The skinny: The A-Sun champs lose two starters, but that’s just a technicality. The Bruins used so many guys last season, everyone logged significant minutes during their 30-win season. Besides, their top players – Clark, Hedgepeth and Saunders – are all back, along with that full-court pressing defense.

25. Florida

Record: 29-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: SG Kenny Boynton, PG Erving Walker, PF Erick Murphy, PF Patric Young, SF Casey Prather, SG Scottie Wilbekin
Departing seniors: PF Vernon Macklin, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Alex Tyus
Incoming recruits: SG Brad Beal, SG Mike Rosario (transfer)

The skinny: The Gators are loaded – with shooters. Boynton and Walker can hoist their share of shots, but how will it work with the additions of Beal and Rosario? Someone’s gonna have to pass and defend. They’ll certainly miss the steady play of Macklin, Parsons and Tyus, though. So why are they ranked? There’s too much talent to ignore.

Best of the rest: Wichita State, Clemson, Michigan State, Alabama, New Mexico, Arkansas, Villanova, Xavier, Gonzaga, Florida State, West Virginia.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

From the Top of the World to the Edge of a Dream: Kamaka Hepa’s journey from Alaska to Division I hoops

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Kamaka Hepa’s pursuit of becoming the first Inupiaq (Eskimo) to play in the NBA took him to Nike’s Peach Invitational last week, where he stepped on the court as a top 50 prospect being pursued by Shaka Smart, Mark Few and a dozen other coaches 3,700 miles from his hometown of Barrow, Alaska.

A town located 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the northernmost community in the United States, made up primarily of Inupiat.

A town that Hepa didn’t leave until tragedy struck.


Barrow, Alaska, is as unique as it is isolated.

Only accessible by plane, Barrow is as far North as you can get while remaining within the boundaries of the United States. When the thermostat cracks 50 degrees during the summer, it’s a scorcher. The temperatures during the winter months hover around -20 degrees and can drop as low as -50. The sun never sets in June and early July and residents go more than a month, from Thanksgiving through early February, without seeing the sun rise above the horizon.

One of eight villages that make up the North Slope region of Alaska, Barrow is steeped in the traditions of the native population. “The Inupiat people lived there for thousands of years,” said Roland Hepa, Kamaka’s father who is of Hawaiian and Filipino descent. “It’s their land.”

And the Inupiat live off of it.

It’s not easy, or cheap, to ship the processed food found at every grocery store in the Lower 48 states up to Barrow, meaning much of the population relies on subsistence hunting. It’s a means to survival in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

“People attack our subsistence lifestyle because we kill animals,” Kamaka said. “It’s not something we do for game or just because. It’s how we survive.”

One of the animals that the Inupiat hunt is Bowhead Whales, a species that was nearly driven to extinction by intense commercial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whale hunts are local tradition, a cultural norm that is inextricably woven into the fabric of the community.

“It’s a really long process, like two or three weeks,” Kamaka explained. “There’s different crews, and a whole bunch of people that will go out onto the Arctic Ocean while it’s frozen and set up camp where the ice meets the water. They’ll set up camp there for however long they have to until they get a whale.”

“It can feed a whole community. Whenever there’s a whale caught, the crew that caught it will put a flag on top of their house and the whole community will come and get their share of the whale. Everybody can come and get some. It kind of goes quick, but because there are multiple crews, multiple whales are caught. It continues for a whole process. They’ll save some and have a big gathering, called Nalukataq. It’s basically where the whole community will gather in one area, and we’ll do different cultural things, like dancing and games, and different crews will serve on different days, the elders and their families. It will continue for a weekend. I miss it.”

Basketball in Barrow is unique as well. When the warmest summer temperatures still require jackets, kids aren’t exactly clamoring to play baseball or football. Basketball, however, is hugely popular, because, as Roland put it, “the kids would rather stay in the gym and play basketball.” Only about 225 kids attend Barrow High School, the only high school in the area, which makes traveling to games a logistical nightmare. The Whalers have to fly to every game in every sport, and they fly in opponents that play in Barrow, including the other three high schools in their conference — Nome, Bethel and Kotzebue.

To ease the burden of travel costs, whenever the Whalers would play games in their league, they would play on back-to-back nights, flying in on Thursday, playing on Friday and Saturday and returning to Barrow on Sunday. They also played in quite a few tournaments in bigger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks during the season in order to fill out their schedule. The relative scarcity of home games and the fervor with which the community supports basketball creates a raucous environment whenever a team did make the trip up to Barrow.

“The games are crazy,” Kamaka said. “The whole community is there, supporting. It makes it easy for us to feel passionate about the game.”

That community support is part of the reason it took Kamaka so long to make the decision to pursue the sport at a higher level.


Alaskan high school basketball is better than you realize, but even then, Kamaka had likely outgrown it by the time he reached his sophomore season in high school. A 6-foot-9 stretch-four that needs to develop toughness, strength and the ability to finish through contact and over length is only going to get so far playing at that level. Kamaka began attending exposure events as early as sixth grade, and according to his father, offers to play in the Lower 48 were rolling in before he had even reached high school.

Everyone — Kamaka, his family, his community — knew that, eventually, he would leave. The family often talked about when the right time to move south would be, but actually making the decision to move away from the only place you’ve ever called home is not easy for anyone, let alone a 15-year old.

“Our high school boys basketball team had never won a state championship, but when him and his classmates became freshmen, they had a couple of really good players,” Roland said. “Our community expected us to win a state championship. Our whole town was counting on us. So we weren’t going to make him move his freshman year.”

“Our community would have probably disowned us,” he added with a laugh.

So Kamaka stayed.

He won a state title as a freshman.

And the discussions began anew.

“There were options out there,” Roland said, but Kamaka wasn’t yet ready to leave.

Kamaka Hepa, Jon Lopez/Nike

Then came November 23rd, 2015, when Kawika Hepa, Kamaka’s oldest brother, died unexpectedly in Anchorage. He was just 29-years old. The family did not want to discuss Kawika’s death, but the tragedy shook Kamaka. He was a teenager, invincible on the court and a hero in his community. He never realized how fleeting life can be.

“Before he passed away, my brother wanted me to get out of Alaska,” Kamaka said. “The competition’s not terrible, but we thought there was more out there for me. He was always a big factor in that. He wanted me to play against the best players I could and get my game as good as I can. He thought that by moving, I would be able to do that.”

“When he passed away, I just had to do that for him.”

Kawika died a few days before the start of Kamaka’s sophomore season. In early December, he received a call from Reggie Walker, the director of Portland Basketball Club, a Nike-affiliated team that plays on the EYBL circuit. In February, Kamaka visited a few high schools in Portland, and a week after winning his second straight state title in Alaska, Kamaka was en route to Oregon with his family.

It’s been nearly 16 months since the Hepa family made the move, and Kamaka is thriving. From a personal standpoint, the adjustment that comes with moving to a city from a village of less than 5,000 people in the Arctic has been relatively easy for him. Basketball has allowed him to travel constantly throughout his younger days, and he would often visit his father’s family in Hawai’i. The family has, for the most part, remained together — Kamaka’s two older sisters are both living on their own, and his mother commutes between Portland and Barrow — knowing that the sacrifice they are making is what is best for their son.

“The only thing we miss is the family. When [my wife]’s home alone, you start missing each other,” Roland said. “We have a lot of family up there as well. Growing up in a family atmosphere, all of a sudden we move to a city where you make new friends, which is fine, we can make new friends, but that’s just not the same when you have family. That’s the only area where we feel the sacrifice.”

“My oldest son, he went to a private school and when [Kamaka] was ready to travel, we decided it’s probably best that we move with them.”

From a basketball perspective, things are going even better. Kamaka’s played on the most competitive circuit in high school basketball, the EYBL, in the spring and summer the past two years. He enrolled at Jefferson High School in Portland and won the 2017 state championship, his third ring in three years. He’s been working out two and three times a day since moving south and has slowly been climbing up the recruiting rankings; 247 Sports currently has him as the No. 50 player in the composite Class of 2018 rankings.

Best I can tell,* he is on track to become the first Inupiaq to play Division I basketball and the first Native Alaskan to play since former Oral Roberts forward Damen Bell-Holter graduated in 2013-14. Bell-Holter spent some time with the Celtics after he graduated, but was waived before the season began. Kamaka, who has the talent to one day do so, would be the first of his people to reach the NBA, and to my knowledge, Bell-Holter is the only Native Alaskan to spend time on an NBA roster.

*(I cannot find anyone else in my research. If you know of anyone I am missing, please email or tweet me.)

But Kamaka is not worried about that right now.

He’s mostly worried about the rain.

“Snow is better than rain,” Kamaka, chuckling, said of his new digs. “I’d take snow over rain any day. It just changes the whole mood.”

Forward leaving Kansas program

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Kansas’ already thin frontline took a hit Wednesday night when it came to light that Jack Whitman will not suit up for the Jayhawks.

Whitman, a transfer from William & Mary, will leave the Kansas program, according to multiple reports.

The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 10.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season for the Tribe before deciding to graduate transfer, committing to the Jayhawks in May.

“I know I can play with these guys, contribute and help us win games this year,” Whitman told the Kansas City Star last month.

Instead, the Jayhawks will have to make due with a frontcourt that will be lacking much depth. Udoka Azubuike is back after missing most of last year with an injury while Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot will also be expected to be contributors. Whitman wasn’t expected to put up huge numbers for the Jayhawks, but his departure does leave them vulnerable should injury or foul trouble find the Kansas big men at some point.

As the KC Star points out, though, Kansas is in contention to land top recruit Marvin Bagley, who is considering classifying to 2017, a class in which Kansas now has an open scholarship that could conceivably go to the 6-foot-10 five-star prospect.

 

Duke’s Grayson Allen underwent offseason ankle surgery

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Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went on a podcast with ESPN’s Seth Greenberg this week and casually mentioned that Grayson Allen, who was banged up for most of last season after entering the year as the Preseason National Player of the Year, underwent a procedure on his ankle.

“We had him away from basketball for about three months,” Krzyzewski said of Allen. “He had a minor operation on his ankle. He’s now fully recovered, so his athleticism is back. He’s happy, he’s in shape and he’s sharing that.”

Allen struggled with his confidence and his emotions last season, and that ankle issue never quite went away, bothering him from the start of the year throughout the season. Time away from basketball — and from the limelight, after a third tripping incident — was good for Allen, according to Krzyzewski.

“I’m really happy where Grayson is at emotionally, physically and he’s really excited about leading these guys.”

“Gary Trent, talking with him after a workout yesterday, I said, ‘What do you think?'” Coach K’s story continued. “He said, ‘Coach, I didn’t know G was that good.’ Well, he’s healthy. ‘You didn’t think he could shoot that well, did you?'”

Minnesota lands in-state 2018 forward

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Minnesota is building its frontcourt of the future in its 2018 class without even leaving the Twin Cities.

Jarvis Thomas, a four-star forward, committed to the Gophers on Tuesday evening, becoming the second in-state frontcourt player in Richard Pitino’s newest class.

The 6-foot-7 forward hails from the Minneapolis suburbs and joins another local product, four-star center Daniel Oturo, to forge a potentially formidable future frontcourt for Pitino and Co., who are coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons at Minnesota. Both Thomas and Oturo play for the Howard Pulley program.

I’m headed to Minnesota & I picked them because it’s home. I have a good relationship with the staff. I’m just comfortable,” Thomas said, according to Ryan James of Gopher Illustrated. “I made a decision for myself, but Daniel was a plus to it. Me & Daniel room every tournament we play.We are always together.”

Landing two high-profile in-state recruits is a major development for Pitino after the Gophers went 0-for in the 2017 class despite offering numerous Minnesota prospects. In fact, Thomas’ commitment, presumably, sent Pitino to Twitter to celebrate with a Gopher GIF from ‘Caddyshack.’

While this is a strong tweet from a sitting head coach, the response it generated from Xavier assistant Luke Murray, son of ‘Caddyshack’ star Bill Murray, might have been just as good.

Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun assists cast in play about recruiting

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WATERFORD, Conn. (AP) — Actor Sam Kebede went to rehearsal hoping to get some insights about what it’s like to be recruited by a big-time college basketball coach. Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun was happy to assist.

The coach who led UConn to three national championships before retiring in 2012 is serving as a technical adviser on the production of a new play, “Exposure,” which is being put on this weekend at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

Kebede portrays a player experiencing the world of AAU basketball and the dark side of recruiting.

Playwright Steve DiUbaldo played Division I basketball at Winthrop under Gregg Marshall, now the coach at Wichita State. Director Wendy Goldberg grew up in Michigan and watched her friend, retired NBA star Chris Webber, deal with choosing a college before he wound up at Michigan.

But both sat in rapt fascination with the cast and crew for well over an hour prior to rehearsal Tuesday as Calhoun answered their questions and regaled them with stories, drawing on more than a half-century of experience in basketball. He offered insights and opinions on the NCAA, the recruiting process, shoe companies, players, parents, other coaches and even fans (“They love you, win or win,” he joked).

“It made it all a lot more real,” said Kebede. “He just put me in those shoes. He gave me a fuller idea of what it means to be a recruit.”

Calhoun talked about forming personal relationships with recruits and their families, showing them the formula he used to help players like Ray Allen and Kemba Walker fulfill their dreams. But he also addressed the games flaws.

Calhoun talked about the struggles the NCAA has governing institutions as diverse as Harvard and Alabama. He told the ensemble about coaches who thought they were doing things the right way by only giving players “used cars” and teenagers who feel entitled to fame and riches because they’ve “worked hard all their lives for it.”

“All your life? You’re 18,” he said.

“Have I ever been offered, ‘You give us this, and we’ll give you that?’ Yeah,” Calhoun told them. “I always said, ‘I’m never going to own a kid, but a kid is never going to own me. It was never worth it, ethically, morally or otherwise to do those things.”

Calhoun said he tried to get across that basketball can’t be portrayed in black-and-white terms — good guys and bad guys. It’s about human beings, relationships, mistakes and trying to do what’s right for the players and doing it the right way, he said. And, he said, there is a lot of gray area.

The vast majority of college basketball, he said, is great, “but in the midst of millions and millions of dollars, things happen.”

“Something that I found enlightening was how much he loved his kids and how much the game is at the base of basketball,” said DiUbaldo. “And amidst all this stuff that will make us cynical with the recruiting process and other things, at the end of the day we love the game and we love the kids that play it.”

DiUbaldo said he hopes all of that comes across in his play.

Calhoun, who sits on the board at the O’Neill Theater, said being involved in the production is exciting for him as a long-time fan of the performing arts. He said he marvels at the athleticism of dancers and the discipline it takes for actors to learn how to portray a character.

He also sees a lot of parallels to basketball — the ensemble feeling, the work ethic and the joy that comes from pulling off a great performance.

“I’ll come Saturday and Sunday nights to see it,” he said. “I want to see how they handle it.”

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Follow Pat Eaton-Robb on Twitter @peatonrobb