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The Process Of Integration

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While someone as connected and respected in coaching circles as Ben Braun doesn't need anyone to fight his battles for him, he made a solid point regarding the NCAA rule prohibiting coaches from teaching or supervising their players during the summer. In theory the restriction has some merit because, truth be told, coaches habitually step over the line with regards to player interaction, and if allowed to coach players year-round they would do precisely that while making participation mandatory for student-athletes deserving of the occasional break.

However, observation, if properly regulated, could prove harmless to the student-athlete and beneficial to the coaching staff, especially one in the position of Braun and his assistants. Braun is attempting to blend six newcomers, including five true freshmen, into his roster this preseason, an arduous process for any coach, even a vet with Braun's sterling track record.

"It's going to take some time for our team to find that identity and maybe to settle into and accept roles," Braun said. "We're experimenting right now with a couple guys who are playing more than one position, and I think that's a plus for our team. We've got a number of guys on the team that can play what I call combo positions, either combo guard positions - guys that are playing both point guard and off-guard - and we've got some forwards that are playing both strong forward and big wings. And that's kind of a luxury for us now. The sooner we get to who's playing where and how well they're playing at those positions the better.

"You really have to take this preseason, whether it's intrasquad scrimmages, it's closed-door scrimmages, it's our exhibition game or early non-conference games, really to settle in to see how well our team adapts to that. It's something our team is going to need to settle into, and that will take some time. It's something you really don't know until you get into a game, but at least we've got those options, and I like the fact that we're able to at least look at those options. Last year we really didn't have those options."

As is his custom, Braun was purposely coy when discussing which players could fill his 'combo' roles, but in all likelihood freshman Tamir Jackson and sophomore Lucas Kuipers are the leading candidates. Jackson has flashed the floor generalship to handle the duties of a lead guard, even as a freshman, and while his shooting touch isn't exceptional, Jackson is accurate enough that he shouldn't be left unchecked on the perimeter. Jackson can score in a pinch, but he also appears to take pride in putting his teammates in an advantageous position.

Kuipers averaged 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds during his injury-shortened freshman campaign, and he is certainly capable of improving upon both averages. While he is best suited as a face-up shooter - Kuipers converted 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers last season - Kuipers can score with his back to the basket, and he is long enough at 6-8 to rebound with the authority of a part-time power forward so long as he is committed to the task. His potential to play both forward positions would appear contingent upon the opposition's personnel, but at this stage of development Kuipers is the most versatile of the Owls' varied frontcourt players.

Back to this past summer: The cohesion process was significantly advanced by the presence of the entire squad minus freshman forward Arsalan Kazemi, who was busy captaining Iran's Under-19 team at the FIBA World Championships in New Zealand. Not only were bonds developed during conditioning sessions, the Owls learned to play with one another in open gym, discovering strengths, weaknesses and tendencies that help teams jell. Kazemi filled out the roster in early August, and it didn't take long for Kazemi to be enveloped after he arrived.

The Owls devised and implemented an additional aid to facilitate camaraderie - team meetings.

"Something that we started doing is having meetings every week as a team, and we talk about the mental aspect (of the game) and dealing with egos, attitudes and having everyone come together and work toward the same goals so that we can work together as a true team," Owls senior swingman Cliff Ghoram said. "That's what it takes, and I think that is helping us."

The relationship between the old and the new has become symbiotic. The upperclassmen provide leadership and guidance; the freshmen youthful exuberance and a competitive spirit in practice sorely lacking last season. Those who suffered through the Owls' three-win season two years ago have been rejuvenated by the enthusiasm of the freshmen while the newbies have come to accept the advice dispensed by the veterans who have been around the block.

One elderstatesman has had the unenviable position of watching the jelling unfold from the sideline while he rehabilitates a dislocated kneecap. From his vantage point he has witnessed some early and expected struggles on the court, but overall he likes what he's seen thus far.

"Progress is being made in a positive way," Owls senior guard Cory Pflieger said. "When the freshmen come in they've got to adapt to a whole new team, but since they were here this whole summer that blending process is shortened. We can actually get there (to a legitimate team dynamic) before the first game of this season. We know our roles, we know what each person can bring (and) trust each other and what they can do, and since everybody bought in and stayed over the summer, that (cohesion) is going to be there before the first game."

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So any guesses as to the starting lineup? Frizzelle, Jackson, Kuipers, Kazemi and Stanton? Or does Beasley or Ghorum work their way into the mix? Maybe bring Kuipers off the bench in a 6th man role for instant offense?

Kitzbuhel: An uneducated guess? PG: Jackson; SG: Ghoram; SF: Kazemi; PF: Kuipers; C: Stanton. - MK

MK, your "uneducated" guess makes a lot of sense, at least until Pflieger returns. How do the other freshmen look?

Gothic R: Given Braun's closed-door policy I haven't seen much of the team, but I believe Holland will see plenty of time as the backup 1 and Eversley should be in the mix on the wing. Edomwonyi is raw but very strong, so he could have a role. - MK

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