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November 2, 2006
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NEW YORK ? The bounce in his step was gone. So was much of the agility and athleticism that had once made him one of the nation's top young post players.
It was all replaced by pain. Every game. Every practice.
That's how Juan Palacios spent what turned out to be a very difficult sophomore season at Louisville. The 6-foot-8 Columbian dislocated his ankle during a pick-up game the previous summer and was initially expected to be out until January.
Palacios wound up playing every game - and posted solid stats. His 10.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game were nearly identical to the numbers he produced as a freshman.
However, he made fewer big plays and he struggled to be consistent. A career-high 29-point game at Connecticut was followed by a two-point outing versus Pittsburgh. He failed to score more than five points in seven games.
It was all part of a nightmarish season for the injury-riddled Cardinals, who failed to get back to the NCAA Tournament after their run to the Final Four in 2005.
"It affected me big time. I was probably around 70 percent," Palacios told Rivals.com about his ankle. "Every game was painful, and I felt like I couldn't get the lift out of my legs or play good defense."
Palacios says that won't be the case this season. An offseason of rest appears to have cured his nagging ankle problems.
"I'm feeling great," Palacios said. "I feel closer to 100 percent than I have in a couple years."
Coaches from around the Big East haven't forgotten what a healthy Palacios is capable of doing on the floor. He was one of 10 players voted to the preseason all-conference team.
While Palacios appears poised for a breakout season, he won't have to carry the Cardinals - who lost leading scorer Taquan Dean. Thanks to the addition of four top 100 recruits, the roster includes more talent and some much-needed frontcourt depth.
Caracter has dropped 43 pounds since arriving on campus this summer, trimming down to 275 pounds. He used his slimmer figure to score 19 points and pull down 12 rebounds in a recent scrimmage.
"Derrick is a great talent," Palacios said. "Sometimes he doesn't know how hard to play, but once he gets the ball inside and isn't tired he is unstoppable."
One of the biggest enigmas of the upcoming Big East season has to be Connecticut sophomore point guard A.J. Price, who missed what was supposed to be his first two college seasons due to brain surgery and a suspension.
Nobody may know more about what to expect from Price than Huskies sophomore power forward Jeff Adrien, who has some lofty compliments for his teammate. Adrien played against Price during his senior year of high school when Price was ranked the No. 32 prospect in the class of 2004.
"A.J. is the best point guard in our conference, maybe the country," Adrien said. "He can shoot the ball very well and pass it just as well."
If that is the case than the Huskies, who lost five starters, could do much better than their predicted fifth-place finish in the preseason media poll. Adrien is projected to be one of the league's top big men, and UConn has added eight freshmen - including four who were ranked among the top 100 prospects.
Nobody in the league may experiment more with their startling lineup and rotation than West Virginia, whose roster has been completely overhauled after the loss of four starters and sixth man Patrick Beilein, coach John Beilein's son.
The Mountaineers signed seven freshmen and 7-footer Jamie Smalligan, a transfer from Butler, also becomes eligible. How each performs away from Morgantown, W.Va., in the early stages of the season will be pivotal towards earning playing time down the road.
"We will evaluate them after the exhibition games, after the tournament in Orlando (Old Spice Classic from Nov. 24-26) and once more before Big East play starts," Beilein said. "We'll see who is making mistakes. I think how you do on the road is more of a true test, but I don't think there is any one point where you will see us choose one rotation."
Getting used to not having veterans like Kevin Pittsnogle and his son around is a difficult adjustment for Beilein.
"The other day I had a play that was perfect for Patrick or Pittsnogle," Beilein said. "I showed it to Patrick and he said 'Why didn't you think of this last year?' "
Pittsburgh and Marquette are picked to finish first and fourth in the preseason media poll. If they are going to make good on those high projections, they must each answer similar questions.
For Pitt, it's how to replace emotional leader Carl Krauser. For Marquette, it's how to replace Steve Novak, the 6-10 big man with tremendous shooting range and touch.
Both programs believe they have an answer. At least an adequate one.
Panthers forward Doyle Hudson says guard Levance Fields has "that overall leadership, that natural ability to fire people up like Karl." Fields averaged 6.8 points while coming off the bench last season.
Eagles junior Dan Fitzgerald (6-9, 200) has a build similar to the 6-10, 215-pound Novak. Their games are similar, too. Novak made a league-high 46 percent of his 3-point attempts (121 for 259) last season. Fitzgerald averaged 5.3 points and hit 40 percent of his 3-pointers (30 for 74) as a reserve.
"Dan has the chance to be a very good scorer and shooter from the four spot for us," Marquette coach Tom Crean said.