Friday, September 30, 2011

30 In 30: Big 12

Texas A&M's Khris Middleton is one of many who can make a statement this year in a crapshoot Big 12. (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)

The Big 12 is the Big Ten! The Big Ten is the Big 12! Einhorn is Finkle! Finkle is Einhorn! Einhorn is a man!

Now that we have that assist from Ace Ventura, let's take a look at the Big 12, or Big Ten...

1) Texas A&M - The Aggies only return three starters and have a new coach coming in after Billy Kennedy takes over for new Maryland head man Mark Turgeon, but the man who is potentially the most dynamic wing in the conference comes back to College Station in the form of junior forward Khris Middleton. Only averaging fourteen points per game last season, Middleton does a little bit of everything; and with the increased opportunities to produce, his stats should get their expected increase. Senior power forward David Loubeau is also back to join Middleton up front while Dash Harris takes over the point guard duties full-time after serving as a combo guard alongside B.J. Holmes last season. Reserves Kourtney Roberson and Naji Hibbert comprised the top two off Turgeon's bench last year, and should move into Kennedy's starting five.

2) Missouri - Another Big 12 team with a new leader, as former Miami head coach Frank Haith leaves an uncertain future in South Florida to take over for Mike Anderson in Columbia after the "40 Minutes Of Hell" architect returned to Arkansas, where he was once an assistant. The Tigers return all five starters from last year's NCAA Tournament team that was eliminated by Cincinnati in the round of 64, and boast a potential Big 12 Player of the Year candidate and likely NBA lottery pick in senior guard Marcus Denmon. Mike Dixon and Kim English will be Denmon's primary backcourt partners, with brothers Matt and Phil Pressey also seeing their fair share of minutes. Up front, Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers will be just as imposing with the ball in their hands as they will be on the defensive glass as Mizzou looks to make a run this March.

3) Baylor - Eight years ago, Baylor basketball was at an all-time low after the shooting tragedy surrounding Patrick Dennehy. What head coach Scott Drew has done with the Bears since then has been simply nothing short of heroic. Leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn is gone, but Drew has a potential Top 10 team both this year and next year with the amount of talent staying in Waco. Big man Perry Jones and hybrid forward Quincy Acy return up front and are joined by highly touted prep star Quincy Miler, who could be the Big 12 version of North Carolina's John Henson. Miller's prep school teammate Deuce Bello also committed to Baylor, and will join incumbent point guard A.J. Walton in the backcourt while Anthony Jones also returns to the starting lineup for a team that could be running up and down the court with a nine-man rotation when conference play opens in December.

4) Kansas State - Do-it-all point guard Jacob Pullen has graduated, which allows Frank Martin to move Will Spradling to the point after the sophomore made a bigger impact than expected playing off the ball in his rookie season. Rodney McGruder comes back for his junior season to once again man the shooting guard position while Jamar Samuels anchors a rather inexperienced inside game for the Wildcats. Former St. John's transfer Omari Lawrence is eligible once again after sitting last season out, and returns to the hardwood with three years of eligibility remaining. Lawrence's arrival could move 6-6 swingman Shane Southwell to the frontline alongside Samuels, who is more of a power forward as it is.

5) Kansas - Bill Self had a potential national championship team on his bench in Lawrence last season, but VCU's miracle run came between the Jayhawks and their second national title in four years. Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have left for the NBA, and guards Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar are gone as well. Tyshawn Taylor is back to run the point for his senior season, and the former Bob Hurley product from St. Anthony's in Jersey City also has a new backcourt partner after Josh Selby left Kansas early. Travis Releford will more than likely move into the starting lineup until incoming 5-11 freshman Naadir Tharpe is ready to crack Self's starting five. Up front, Thomas Robinson will attempt to replace the versatility of the Morris twins alongside seven-foot junior center Jeff Withey.

6) Texas - Rick Barnes loses all of his starting five from last season, three of whom were underclassmen who each became a first-round NBA draft pick in Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton, and Cory Joseph. Seniors Gary Johnson and Dogus Balbay have graduated as well, leaving reserve guard J'Covan Brown as the Longhorns' top incumbent this season. Reserves Jai Lucas and Matt Hill are also gone, leaving 6-7 big man Alexis Wangmene to pick up the pieces up front. Freshmen Myck Kabongo and Sterling Gibbs are solid pieces from Barnes' recruiting class, but this year's incarnation of Texas basketball will need time to develop as a team before the Erwin Center plays host to a dominant program again.

7) Iowa State - Former Cyclones player and ex-Indiana Pacer Fred Hoiberg actually has a solid team in Ames this season, led by former Michigan State shooting guard Chris Allen, who regains his eligibility this season and will finish his collegiate career this year. Also coming from East Lansing is fellow Spartan expatriate Korie Lucious, but he will not be eligible until next year for his senior campaign. Senior sharpshooter Scott Christopherson gives the Cyclones the luxury of a second shooting guard who can play off the ball with Allen when he is not running the point, but Christopherson will likely be more of a facilitator this season with Diante Garrett no longer around. Sophomore forward Melvin Ejim anchors the paint for Iowa State with 6-11 center Jordan Railey moving into the starting lineup on a full-time basis.

8) Oklahoma - Lon Kruger arrives in Norman fresh off an NCAA Tournament appearance with UNLV, and he acquires four returning starters and six of the Sooners' top eight scorers from last season. Expect a lot of three-guard sets right away for OU, with sharpshooters Steven Pledger and Cameron Clark playing off the ball while Carl Blair runs the point. Junior forward Andrew Fitzgerald is the Sooners' top returning big man, and either Tyler Neal or C.J. Washington will be his supporting cast inside.

9) Oklahoma State - Senior guard Keiton Page returns to run the point in Stillwater one more time, and the 5-9 dynamo will pick up incoming swingman LeBryan Nash to help make things happen offensively after the Dallas native was the centerpiece of Travis Ford's recruiting class. Sophomore Markel Brown will join those two in the backcourt while Darrell Williams gets things going for the Cowboys up front.

10) Texas Tech - The Billy Gillispie show returns in its fourth location as the controversial head man has resurfaced following a disastrous two-year stint at Kentucky. Four starters are gone, but the one who remains is 6-10 big man Robert Lewandowski. Swingman Jaye Crockett and 5-11 sophomore Javarez Willis should get the chance to become key contributors right away for a young Red Raider squad.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

30 In 30: The SEC

Two-time national champion Billy Donovan has a deep and talented roster this season as he looks to deliver title No. 3 to Florida. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

BCS league number two gets its moment in the sun tonight, as next up is a closer look at the twelve-team Southeastern Conference. Last year, Kentucky rode a roster mixed with talented freshmen and experienced guards to a Final Four appearance; but the Wildcats will be hard pressed to replicate that result this year. Divisional picks will also be made at the end of this post after the overall predictions.

1) Florida - When the Gators advanced to a Final Four under Lon Kruger in 1994, it was somewhat of an aberration. Since Kruger left for Illinois, his replacement has advanced to three more national semifinals; and became the first coach to win consecutive national championships since Mike Krzyzewski did it fifteen years prior. This year, Billy Donovan has arguably his deepest group since the second national title triumph in 2007, despite losing three starters. Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus are no longer around in Gainesville; but Donovan's strength lies within his guard play this year. Point man Erving Walker may only stand 5-8, but can score with the best of them just as well as he can distribute to backcourt partner Kenny Boynton, who will enter his junior season playing off the ball. Burgeoning big men Patric Young and Erik Murphy will get the chance to move into the starting lineup as they replace Macklin and Tyus; and swingman Will Yeguete could have a breakout season with the right playing time, but that's not all. Donovan also retains defensive specialist Scottie Wilbekin to spell Walker and Boynton in the backcourt, and freshman Brad Beal arrives with equal loads of hype and potential. Oh, by the way, there is one more addition to the Gators this year; and he happens to be a former McDonald's All-American with two years of experience in the Big East. Former Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario has two more years of eligiblity left, and should see a majority of minutes off the ball alongside Walker immediately. Under Donovan's tutelage, Rosario could be a future NBA lottery pick, and could end up being the best player on this team.

2) Vanderbilt - If not for the abundance of talent on Florida's roster, the Commodores would be the pick to win the SEC going away with everything that Kevin Stallings has coming back to Nashville this season. Even with the Gators' depth, Vandy can still win this conference AND make a long run in the NCAA Tournament. Not many programs this good have the luxury of all five starters coming back, but guards John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor spearhead the effort from the backcourt while senior center Festus Ezeli could very well be the best big man in the country. On top of that, point guard Brad Tinsley returns for his senior campaign while Lance Goulbourne is the second option for Ezeli on the glass from the power forward position. Forwards Steve Tchiengang and Rod Odom come back to lead a solid Vandy bench as well.

3) Kentucky - To borrow a line I've heard in reference to the Big East, John Calipari doesn't rebuild. He simply reloads, and this year will be no exception in Lexington just six months removed from the Wildcats' latest Final Four appearance. Whether or not it will be vacated remains to be seen, but what will live on in the minds of Big Blue Nation is the play of guards Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins; as well as do-it-all big man Josh "Jorts" Harrellson. Power forward Terrence Jones flirted with the NBA draft last season before deciding to stay in school and reaffirm his status as one of the ten best players in the country. The sophomore now becomes the face of the team, and will join fellow second-year player Doron Lamb in the quest to bring Kentucky its first national championship since 1998. Lamb anchors the backcourt along with senior Darius Miller, while incoming NC State transfer Ryan Harrow should learn a lot while he sits out this season. Calipari once again has the nation's best recruiting class coming in, led by swingman Michael Gilchrist of St. Patrick's in New Jersey and guard Marquis Teague. However, the best piece of the group of incoming freshmen is 6-10 forward Anthony Davis, a Chicago native that many are comparing to Kevin Garnett, not to mention already considering as a potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick when he is ready to leave Kentucky.

4) Alabama - Anthony Grant may have missed out on a Final Four by leaving VCU to take over the Crimson Tide, but that doesn't mean he missed out on a successful career. Last year may have only been the beginning for Grant in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide rolled all the way to the NIT championship game. Three starters from the team that lost to Wichita State in Madison Square Garden return, led by versatile senior forward JaMychal Green, who could be in SEC Player of the Year consideration by the end of the season. Small forward Tony Mitchell is Grant's diamond in the rough, averaging fifteen points and seven rebounds per contest while also serving as one of the team leaders on the defensive side of the ball. Alabama's other returning starter is point guard Trevor Releford, who enters his sophomore campaign looking to improve his ball control after accumulating 96 turnovers in his rookie year. Combo guards Andrew Steele and Charles Hankerson could get the opportunity to start in the absence of guard Senario Hillman, who graduated following last season.

5) Mississippi State - After finishing 17-14 in a season where big man Renardo Sidney was suspended for part of the season, Sidney returns for the Bulldogs as Rick Stansbury's unit looks to climb into the top third of the SEC. Although limited to just seventeen games last season, point guard Dee Bost averaged over six assists per game; and enters his senior year looking to finish among the nation leaders in that category. Bost can score as well, and will share the backcourt with two reserves looking to make an impact as full-time starters this year in Jalen Steele and Brian Bryant. Mississippi State's X-factor will reside up front, though; as UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie is eligible after sitting last year out. A junior with two years of eligibility left, (including this season) both Moultrie and Sidney have the potential to be double-double per night players in the SEC this season.

6) Mississippi - In Andy Kennedy's fifth season in Oxford, the Rebels won twenty games and made a return trip to the NIT only to be eliminated by Cal in their first game. This season, both Zach Graham and point guard Chris Warren are gone; but Ole Miss brings back most of their role players from last season along with freshman Jelan Kendrick, the swingman who transferred from Memphis before even playing a game. Junior forward Reginald Buckner could be the most underrated on the Rebels' roster. At 6-9, Buckner may only have averaged nearly seven points per game last year; but backed it up with an average of over six rebounds and almost three blocked shots per contest.

7) Tennessee - The Bruce Pearl era is over in Knoxville following a landslide round of 64 loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, and Cuonzo Martin arrives from Missouri State intent on reversing the Vols' fortunes and returning them to the talent level they were at when they were an Elite Eight team in 2010. The loss of "Fresh Prince" lookalike Scotty Hopson and talented freshman Tobias Harris gives swingman Cameron Tatum the keys to the car as he enters his senior season. Center Brian Williams' departure leaves the Tennessee inside game weakened, with 6-9 forwards Kenny Hall and Renaldo Woolridge the sole returning big men. Trae Golden should get the start on an everyday basis at point guard, replacing Melvin Goins.

8) South Carolina - The loss of big man Sam Muldrow will not hurt the Gamecocks as much as you would think on the surface this year. If he can become a steadier hand on the dribble, 5-9 sophomore point guard Bruce Ellington will showcase a new facet to his already explosive offensive game, which was put on display last year when he led South Carolina in scoring. Sharpshooter Brian Richardson also enters his second season and returns to the starting lineup along with forwards Lakeem Jackson and Damontre Harris, the other three of the Gamecocks' four returning starters.

9) Arkansas - John Pelphrey was dismissed and ended up in Florida along with former St. John's head man Norm Roberts as the assistants to Billy Donovan after Richard Pitino moved to join his father at Louisville in the wake of Steve Masiello taking the head coaching job at Manhattan. Replacing Pelphrey in the program that won the national championship in 1994 is former Nolan Richardson assistant Mike Anderson, whose "40 Minutes Of Hell" philosophy will help the Razorbacks compete sooner rather than later in the top-heavy SEC. The Hogs lose the services of Rotnei Clarke after his transfer to Butler, but junior forward Marshawn Powell is back with the ability to play both small forward and power forward inside, a versatility that will give Arkansas an advantage against SEC teams with a defined swingman and a weak inside presence. Point guard Julysses Nobles is back for his junior season, and will anchor a backcourt featuring emerging players in Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott, who saw limited minutes on the bench a year ago.

10) Georgia - Mark Fox loses Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie from his frontcourt, yet returns point guard Gerald Robinson for his senior season to lead the Bulldogs' offense. Sherrard Brantley, Connor Nolte and sophomore forward Marcus Thornton are role players looking to step up and earn a spot in the starting lineup, but the most important piece of the Georgia puzzle this season could be sharpshooter Dustin Ware. A 5-11 combo guard who demonstrated a solid ability to run the point and maintain a steady hand with an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 3:1, Ware is better suited to play off the ball alongside Robinson; as his 44 percent shooting from three-point range led the Bulldogs and was good enough for a third-place tie in the SEC behind Doron Lamb and Darius Miller of Kentucky.

11) Auburn - Tony Barbee's rebuilding project enters its second season since the coach left UTEP following an NCAA Tournament appearance in which the Miners lost to Butler in the round of 64. Senior forward Kenny Gabriel is the top returning scorer on a deceptively talented team that will welcome former Texas transfer Varez Ward into the fold; and after sitting out a year and receiving a medical redshirt upon his arrival from Austin, Ward still has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning he will compete for the Tigers as a sophomore this season. Sophomore guard Josh Langford could be an assassin off the bench with increased playing time, as he shot 36 percent from long range while averaging a mere fifteen minutes of playing time per game. Junior guard Josh Wallace will join Ward and Langford among the many backcourt faces while anchoring the offense from the point guard position.

12) Louisiana State - Trent Johnson enters this season potentially on the hot seat in Baton Rouge after the Tigers finished 11-21 last season and only won three games in the SEC. The good news for Johnson's job security is that there is really nowhere to go but up for LSU with four returning starters taking the court this season, led by point guard Andre Stringer and shooting guard Ralston Turner. If used the right way, forwards Storm Warren and Malcolm White could be double-double per night players sharing the paint with seven-footer Justin Hamilton, who is eligible once again after transferring from Iowa State.

Southeastern Conference East Division Picks
1) Florida
2) Vanderbilt
3) Kentucky
4) Tennessee
5) Georgia
6) South Carolina

Southeastern Conference West Division Picks
1) Alabama
2) Mississippi State
3) Mississippi
4) Arkansas
5) Auburn
6) Louisiana State

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

30 In 30: Pac-12

Already with three Final Fours under his belt, Ben Howland could be leading UCLA to a fourth with all the right bounces. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

After twenty-five low and mid-majors had their moments in the sun, "30 In 30" tackles the Bowl Championship Series; and up first is the newly expanded Pac-12. Without any further ado...

1) UCLA - When you look at the Bruins' roster from top to bottom, a well-educated fan will come to the conclusion that this is, on paper, the best team that Ben Howland has ever coached either in Westwood or at Pittsburgh. Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt declared early and were selected in the NBA draft; but Reeves Nelson leads a team of underclassmen into a season where UCLA is the class of the conference. The junior Nelson will be joined up front by sophomore big man Joshua Smith and the Wear twins (David and Travis) now that they are eligible after transferring from North Carolina. Speaking of the Tar Heels, guard Larry Drew also jumped ship to Westwood; and will be eligible come conference season, where he will join seniors Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson in a multifaceted and multitalented backcourt.

2) Arizona - The Wildcats are the trendy pick both for their run in the NCAA Tournament last year, where they came within a basket of the Final Four; and also for the incoming recruiting class brought in by head coach Sean Miller, perhaps the most underrated at his position in the country. However, the fact remains that Arizona no longer has Derrick Williams after he was drafted second overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves; or Momo Jones after he transferred to Iona. Guard Jamelle Horne also graduated this past May. To make matters worse, guard Kevin Parrom was shot in the leg earlier this week, but is expected to make a full recovery. Parrom will be the leader of a young Wildcats squad as he enters his junior campaign, but most of the attention will be focused on nationally acclaimed prep stars Nick Johnson, Sidiki Johnson, (no relation) and Josiah Turner as they transition to the next level.

3) California - When it comes to West Coast basketball, not many are as underrated as Mike Montgomery. The Rick Pitino of the Pacific, Montgomery built a winner at Stanford before leaving for a cup of coffee with the Golden State Warriors; and is doing the same thing for Cal that he did with the Cardinal in the late '90s and early 2000s. In a weaker Pac-12 than years past, the Golden Bears have the most potential among the rest of the pack to separate themselves and add a third entry to the two-horse race at the top between UCLA and Arizona. Four starters return for Cal, led by guards Jorge Gutierrez and Brandon Smith, both of whom can score just as well as they can pass. Sharpshooter Allen Crabbe, who shot 40 percent from three-point range as a freshman, is back as well. Senior forward Harper Kamp will lead the charge up front with a group of reserves such as Richard Solomon who are looking to step it up with a starting spot on the line.

4) Washington - Lorenzo Romar has been in this situation before with the Huskies, and has always come back strong after losing key pieces of his team. This time around, Romar will look to stay relevant without do-it-all guard Isaiah Thomas and leading rebounders Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday. Leading the charge will be junior guard Abdul Gaddy, who returns after missing the second half of last season with a torn ACL. Darnell Gant and seven-footer Aziz N'Diaye will get the first shots to replace Bryan-Amaning and Holiday up front, while incoming freshman Tony Wroten will make an impact early and often. A 6-5 homegrown talent, the shooting guard from Seattle will have fans drawing comparisons to a similarly built guard who has carved out a solid NBA career: Portland Trail Blazers star Brandon Roy, who also played for Romar at Washington.
5) Oregon - In just one year after coming to Eugene from a long and successful tenure at Creighton, Dana Altman took a middle-of-the-road Ducks team and defeated his former Blue Jays squad to win the CBI. This year, the core of Altman's unit comes back to contend for bigger and better; and will be closer to the top given the dropoff in the Pac-12 this season. E.J. Singler, the younger brother of former Duke All-American Kyle, is a carbon copy of the elder Singler; and will enter his junior season as Oregon's team leader. Garrett Sim and big man Tyrone Nared comprise the top half of Singler's supporting cast, and highly regarded freshman guard Jabari Brown should make a name for himself in the green and gold very early on in his young career.

6) Stanford - Former Mike Krzyzewski assistant Johnny Dawkins is starting to make strides in northern California in his attempt to resurrect a Cardinal team that was among the nation's elite just a few years ago when Josh Childress and Chris Hernandez took the court. Leading scorer Jeremy Green is gone, but senior big man Josh Owens will be the focal point for Dawkins' offense despite his 6-8 stature; and will have 6-9 sophomore Dwight Powell to pick him up on the defensive glass. Point guard Jarrett Mann will need for his productivity to match up with his skills as a facilitator for Stanford to truly make a big jump in this conference.

7) Washington State - Ken Bone loses the services of superstar swingman Klay Thompson after he was selected eleventh overall by the Golden State Warriors, as well as top rebounder DeAngelo Casto; but the Cougars are still talented enough to remain among the upper echelon of the Pac-12. Junior guard Reggie Moore returns to run the point in Pullman, with Abe Lodwick and Faisal Aden around once again as well to back him up. Marcus Capers, a 6-4 senior guard, should once again be a better rebounder than his frame suggests.

8) Oregon State - The Beavers were last in the Pac-10 a year ago, but there is enough maturity and talent to go around in Corvallis this season to where head coach Craig Robinson will be known for something other than being the First Brother-in-Law. Regardless of the connection to the White House, Michelle Obama's brother brings back junior guard Jared Cunningham, the team's leading scorer, who also averaged almost three steals per game last year during Oregon State's 11-20 campaign. Roberto Nelson and 5-9 sophomore Ahmad Starks should get the opportunity to contribute more frequently alongside Cunningham in the backcourt while the trio of Joe Burton, Devon Collier and Australian import Angus Brandt form an imposing troika up front.

9) Southern California - The Trojans shocked most of the world by advancing to the NCAA Tournament, where they were subsequently the first victim of VCU's miracle Final Four run after the Rams defeated USC in their First Four game. The biggest part of the success for Kevin O'Neill and the Men of Troy decided to take his talents to the next level after a dominating season, however; and now O'Neill must go about the daunting task of replacing seven-footer Nikola Vucevic after he was drafted sixteenth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. On top of that, guard Jio Fontan was recently lost for the season with a torn ACL, leaving O'Neill and the Trojans without both of their leading scorers from the previous season. The onus now shifts to 5-7 point guard Maurice Jones to lead the offense during his sophomore campaign in Los Angeles, while an inexperienced group of big men will need to learn the ropes very fast to adequately replace both Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, who graduated this past May.

10) Colorado - The Buffaloes are one of the two newcomers to the league after their divorce from the Big 12, and coach Tad Boyle loses shooting guard Alec Burks from his bubble team that reached the NIT semifinals last season. Senior forward Austin Dufault and Australian point guard Nate Tomlinson are the lone incumbent starters for the Buffs, yet it is senior swingman Andre Roberson who is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder despite not starting a game last season. That will change this year; as Roberson will join Tomlinson in the backcourt, while Shannon Sharpe (no relation to the Hall of Fame tight end) will be more of a factor either as a starter or reserve.

11) Arizona State - Sophomore swingman Kyle Cain is the leading scorer and rebounder from a young team on which he is also the sole returning starter for coach Herb Sendek. Freshman guard Jahii Carson was a highly touted prep star, and the presence of youth on this ASU team will enable him to make an immediate impact right away.

12) Utah - The Utes are the other Pac-12 rookie this season after coming over from the Mountain West; and they will bring a new coach to their new conference as well, with former Montana head man Larry Krystkowiak taking over for the departed Jim Boylen. Senior guard Josh Watkins is the man who makes the motor run for the Utes, but he needs to work on his ball control after a junior season in which he only had five more assists than turnovers. The Utes do have a weapon that no other team in the conference has, and that is 7-3 center David Foster, who averaged over three blocked shots per game last season in the Mountain West.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

30 In 30: Missouri Valley

Wichita State point guard Joe Ragland is on his way to becoming latest Missouri Valley success story. (Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Conference)

I'll speak as a fan for a moment before reverting to business. While working on this conference preview series, there was one that I had looked forward to since first profiling the America East at the beginning of the month; and the league I have awaited takes center stage today. If you are a pure college basketball fan like I am; one who enjoys players whose throwback mentalities inspire them to leave nothing on the court and knock-down, drag-out battles that are not decided until the final buzzer in a region where college hoops has been king for generations, then there is no better brand to watch than that of the Missouri Valley Conference. Yes, the Big East and ACC have the glamour and marquee names of the world; but for the simple thrill of playing the game and old-school excitement, nothing compares to the Valley. If you have yet to experience a Valley game, I implore you to watch ESPNU on Sunday afternoons during the season; and also to pay attention to the nonconference matchups featuring the ten teams that will be looked at here. Take my word for it, you will not be disappointed.

1) Wichita State - The reigning NIT champions nearly won the Valley regular season title a year ago, finishing second to Missouri State after being defeated by the Bears in the last game of the year and then falling to Indiana State in the semifinals of "Arch Madness," as the Valley tournament is popularly dubbed. Three starters from the squad that cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden are back for the Shockers this year, led by senior guards David Kyles and Toure' Murry. Murry's versatility as a combo guard, (he was third in rebounds for the Shockers last year) coupled with Kyles' long-range proficiency (40 percent from beyond the arc last season) will ease the pressure on seven-footer Garrett Stutz and senior forward Ben Smith, (last year's Valley Sixth Man of the year) who will step into the paint and attempt to replace leading scorer J.T. Durley and the impact he made despite only standing 6-7. The Shockers also pick up 6-8 junior college transfer Carl Hall, who should make an immediate impact on the boards. Behind every good team is an even better point guard, and Joe Ragland will be a pleasant surprise to college basketball fans this season. Despite becoming the starter late in the season last year, Ragland averaged just seven points per game; but his ballhandling was among the best in the Valley, with a 2.42:1 assist to turnover ratio. The match between the underrated senior guard and his equally underrated coach is a perfect one. Head coach Gregg Marshall has liked what Ragland has become, saying his point man's "evolution has been tremendous." Marshall, who is no stranger to praise from this writer, turned down several high-profile openings to remain at Wichita State; and after being rewarded with a contract extension that will take him into 2018, Marshall had this to say: "I sleep well, love where I am, and have a great level of support." A similar season will have Marshall, who is just 24 wins away from reaching 300 for his career, on the radar of BCS-conference programs once again.

2) Creighton - The Blue Jays wrote a new chapter into their underrated history last year when Greg McDermott returned to the Valley, where he made a name for himself with Northern Iowa, after a brief tenure at Iowa State. Ironically, former Creighton head man Dana Altman beat his old team when Oregon defeated the Blue Jays to win the CBI last season; but McDermott returns with four starters on a team that will be a lock to once again give the Valley multiple NCAA Tournament participants, including his son Doug, who enters his sophomore campaign as one of the favorites for Valley Player of the Year. The 6-7 small forward had a rookie season to remember a year ago: Just under fifteen points and seven rebounds per game while shooting 53 percent from the field and 41 from three-point range, and recognition as both Newcomer of the Year and Freshman of the Year in the Valley. Greg Echenique, who Big East fans will remember from his brief stay at Rutgers, patrols the paint again for Creighton; and he is back at the level he was at with the Scarlet Knights two years ago, averaging over ten points, five rebounds, and just under two blocks per game. Senior point guard Antoine Young, who averaged five assists per game last season, anchors the backcourt along with Canadian Jahenns Manigat and Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs, who is eligible for the Blue Jays this season. If sophomore forward Ethan Wragge can return at 100 percent after a foot injury limited him to only nine games, Creighton could hold the key to the top seed at Arch Madness.

3) Indiana State - The Sycamores came from the No. 3 seed to upset Wichita State and top seed Missouri State in consecutive days to win Arch Madness, only to be defeated by Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Known first and foremost as the school that produced Larry Bird and one half of what many consider to be one of the greatest games in college basketball history, when Bird's Sycamores faced off against Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the 1979 national championship game, Indiana State established themselves last year as a team of a role players that came together down the stretch and became one of the more complete teams in the nation, albeit with just one player averaging more than ten points per game. Greg Lansing, who won the Valley title in his first year as a head coach, gets leading scorer Dwayne Lathan back for an encore this season; and the senior Lathan will have three other starters to join him. Sophomore point guard Jake Odum impressed a lot of people by consistently improving as his freshman campaign went along, averaging over four assists and nearly two steals per game to go with a 48 percent field goal percentage. Joining these two in the backcourt will be senior Jordan Printy, who becomes a full-time starter this season after providing a spark off the bench with his conference-leading 48 percent clip from three-point range. Printy's transition into the starting five will enable leading rebounder Carl Richard to become more of a forward as the swingman enters his senior season, which will alleviate the pressure on center Myles Walker.

4) Northern Iowa - Those who follow Valley basketball know of one thing before every season begins: Never count the Panthers out. Their contest against Saint Mary's in November as part of the 24 hours on ESPN should definitely be among the best nonconference games this season, and also one in which both teams' futures will be easier to read. Ben Jacobson loses do-it-all first team all-Valley point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, but has a roster with just one senior that will be even better in the 2012-13 season while still contending this year. Johnny Moran, the lone fourth-year Panther, could be the new point guard with junior Anthony James playing off the ball. Last season, James averaged 12.4 points per game and shot 50 percent from the field (41 from beyond the arc) en route to being named the Valley's Most Improved Player last season. UNI's inside game is weakened somewhat with the departure of Lucas O'Rear, but Jake Koch returns for his junior year to help mitigate the loss. Koch has shown a little bit of everything during his career in Cedar Falls, carving out his own niche in Northern Iowa basketball history after the memorable career enjoyed by his older brother Adam. Although still a young team at heart, Northern Iowa's back class and never-say-die spirit will keep them more competitive than most expect this season.

5) Evansville - The Purple Aces have an ace of their own in the hole, one who could be the next breakout star in the Valley. Junior Colt Ryan, a second team all-conference player last season, led the team with a 15.7 points per game average; and this year, Ryan will not have to be the only source of offense for Evansville to win games. Guards Kenny Harris and Denver Holmes enter their senior seasons looking for something more to prove after losing to Boise State in the CBI. Ned Cox could be the third guard for coach Marty Simmons after coming alive down the stretch last season. At 6-6, Harris could move up front much like the 6-5 Ryan, which gives Evansville a unique look during a strong nonconference schedule that includes home games against two-time defending national runner-up Butler and Tom Crean's rising Indiana team, along with a road trip to Chapel Hill to take on Roy Williams and national championship contender North Carolina.

6) Missouri State - The Bears are a completely different team from the unit that won the Valley regular season crown last year. Four starters have graduated and head coach Cuonzo Martin replaced disgraced Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl at the helm in Knoxville, leaving former Purdue assistant Paul Lusk to start over in Springfield with reigning Valley Player of the Year Kyle Weems as his primary building block. The 6-6 senior Weems will have two twin towers with him as Missouri State unveils its new inside presence in the form of 6-11 Caleb Patterson and 6-10 Isaiah Rhine, both of whom are seniors looking to move into the starting lineup after serving as reserves last year. Corey Copeland will more than likely be one of the starting guards this year; as Missouri State's previous backcourt of Nafis Ricks, Adam Leonard and Jermaine Mallett has departed, and former DePaul transfer Michael Bizoukas will play this season to run the point in the absence of Ricks. Nathan Scheer, a key contributor off the bench last year, is a sharpshooter who could be a valuable sixth man if he isn't a full-time starter. Keith Pickens also returns from an injury for the Bears, who also welcome 6-7 Christian Kirk, a forward who could challenge for the Valley Freshman of the Year award, into the fold.

7) Drake - The Bulldogs are a much better team than the one Big East fans saw in the Great Alaska Shootout, when Drake was obliterated by St. John's in an 82-39 runaway on Thanksgiving night. Guard Rayvonte Rice; who made the motor run for Drake in a rookie season that landed him a spot on the Valley's All-Freshman team, rejected a number of offers from higher-profile programs to transfer, and will remain in Des Moines as one of four returning starters. The Bulldogs will have more options besides Rice in the backcourt, and their inside game is actually one of the best in the Valley. Seth VanDeest, Drake's 6-11 junior center, joins forces with sharpshooting small forward Ben Simons and bruising power forward Jordan Clarke to form an evolving trio infused with a blend of youth and experience that some BCS programs would kill for. Senior guard Kurt Alexander should be the successor to Ryan Wedel at the point for a team that will make great strides toward returning to the form that landed them a No. 5 seed in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

8) Illinois State - The Redbirds bring back four returning starters from a team that finished ninth in the Valley last year and is on the rise under coach Tim Jankovich. Leading scorer Austin Hill is no longer around, but 6-9 forward Jackie Carmichael will get the opportunity to become more of a dominant big man now that he is the go-to guy inside with top rebounder Tony Lewis gone as well. French sharpshooter John Wilkins may stand 6-9, but he will be one of many options in a Redbird backcourt that also contains 5-11 junior point guard Anthony Cousin. Jon Ekey, who averaged over 1.5 blocks per game from the small forward position last year, is also back for his sophomore season on a team that will show a marked improvement from their 12-19 campaign of a season ago.

9) Bradley - The Braves get a new coach after Jim Les was fired and resurfaced at UC Davis, as Geno Ford comes to Illinois after leading Kent State to a regular season championship in the Mid-American Conference. Andrew Warren and Dodie Dunson have graduated after leading Bradley's offense last season, but junior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards comes back with more of an emphasis on his productivity now that Sam Maniscalco has transferred to the University of Illinois. Walt Lemon and Jake Eastman will most likely join Simms-Edwards as the starting guards while 6-9 big man Jordan Prosser anchors the post for the Braves. A question mark going into the start of the season will be senior forward Taylor Brown. After averaging 13.5 points per game two years ago as a sophomore, Brown was diagnosed with a heart condition prior to last season and did not play one game. However, Brown was medically cleared last week to resume basketball-related activities; and once he gets close to 100 percent, he becomes a game-changing X-factor that will be a nightmare matchup for opposing teams in the Valley.

10) Southern Illinois - What a difference a decade makes. The Salukis had consistently been the class of the Valley even after Chris Lowery replaced Bruce Weber and Matt Painter at the helm in Carbondale, and now Lowery enters the 2011-12 season at his alma mater on the hot seat. Carlton Fay has graduated and Gene Teague transferred to Seton Hall, so all that remains up front for SIU is 6-7 small forward Mamadou Seck. Fortunately for the Salukis, Seck should be a double-double per night player this season after averaging nearly eleven points and eight rebounds per contest during his junior campaign a year ago. Kendal Brown-Surles will be back as one of the starting guards in his junior season, as he started 19 games last year while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. If Justin Bocot can improve his ball control, he could be a viable point guard as the Salukis will attempt to close the gap on the teams in front of them while simultaneously giving Lowery greater job security.

Monday, September 26, 2011

30 In 30: Atlantic 10

It will be more of the same for Xavier fans this season, as senior guard Tu Holloway will keep Musketeers atop Atlantic 10. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

The next preview in our series is one of a league that actually made headlines earlier today. The Atlantic 10, already one of the best mid-major conferences in college basketball; and probably also among the most underrated, announced this afternoon that it would be moving its postseason tournament from its current location at the Boardwalk Hall arena in Atlantic City to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, effective in 2013. The arena in Brooklyn has yet to be completed, but it will host the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets and select Long Island University basketball games when it opens late next year. Back to the subject at hand, the A-10. The move into the Big Apple should only strengthen the recruiting ability of coaches in what is already, arguably, one of the top ten leagues in the country; with fourteen teams you'll learn a little more about in what lies ahead.

1) Xavier - With all the talk about the Big East potentially going to pieces, this is one school that should be scooped up if and when such a move ever does occur. After the success the Musketeers have had under just five coaches in the last 25 years, (talk about continuity under Pete Gillen, the late Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller, and current head man Chris Mack) Xavier deserves the title of best mid-major school in the East, with Gonzaga holding the title in the West. Chris Mack's squad is always capable of making a long run in the NCAA Tournament, and this year is no exception. Led by senior guard Tu (formerly known as Terrell) Holloway and the best big man you've never heard of in seven-foot center Kenny Frease, Xavier also returns junior shooting guard Mark Lyons to join Holloway off the ball in the backcourt. The Musketeers also benefit from Monmouth transfer Travis Taylor's arrival, as Taylor regains his two remaining years of eligibility to join Frease up front. Taylor's high scoring and rebounding potential should offset the loss of Jamel McLean rather easily, and McLean's ten points and eight rebounds per game is a huge loss for the reigning A-10 regular season champions.

2) Temple - Not to be outdone is the Philadelphia story created by former Penn coach Fran Dunphy, who stayed in his own backyard to take over a program built into a winner by the legendary John Chaney. Last year, Dunphy guided the Owls into the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out against San Diego State; but if Temple is to revisit that success this year, they will need to do it without versatile forward Lavoy Allen after he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. The good news for Dunphy, though, is that both of his other star players return for their senior seasons in the backcourt. A year ago, Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez combined for over 26 points and nearly seven assists per game while shooting a collective 36 percent from three point range. In fact, it was Fernandez who hit the game-winning triple to defeat Penn State in one of the more exciting first-round NCAA Tournament games last season. Senior swingman Scootie Randall is also back, and he should make his presence known on the wing as he looks to have a breakout campaign.

3) St. Bonaventure - The Bonnies flew under the radar through most of the year last season, and picked up a dramatic road win against eventual NCAA Tournament participant St. John's early in December. Over the years, it seemed like forward Andrew Nicholson, who led the A-10 in scoring last season with nearly 21 points per game, has been around forever; and the 6-9 Canadian big man will be back once again for his senior campaign. Michael Davenport and Demitrius Conger also return to anchor the backcourt for the Rochester program, and senior Da'Quan Cook will join Nicholson up front as the Bonnies' fourth returning starter. Matthew Wright, a Canadian sharpshooter who shot 43 percent from three-point range in conference play last year, should be the man who replaces Ogo Adegboye as the third guard in Mark Schmidt's starting lineup.

4) Richmond - Chris Mooney has built the Spiders into such a contender to the point where he has declined several offers from higher-profile jobs to remain at the helm of Richmond, who rewarded him with a contract extension this past offseason when the Spiders won the A-10 tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed. The three seniors that were instrumental in getting Richmond there have graduated since, and replacing the likes of Justin Harper, Kevin Anderson and Dan Geriot is no easy feat. Mooney will attempt to get it done with sharpshooting guard Darien Brothers, a junior who is now the Spiders' top offensive player with the three seniors having departed. Senior forward Francis Martel should be a full-time starter this season, along with Darrius Garrett, who came up big in the clutch for the Spiders during their first-round NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt.

5) Dayton - The Flyers are almost always around the top half of the A-10 and usually in NCAA Tournament consideration until the last possible moment, and this year the status quo will come under a new leader. Brian Gregory, who built Dayton into the underrated threat they have been in recent years, has left for Georgia Tech; and was replaced by Archie Miller, whose older brother Sean solidified Xavier as an A-10 power before leaving for Arizona. The younger Miller actually has several pieces left over from the Gregory regime to work with, including senior swingman Chris Johnson and fellow fourth-year player Paul Williams, the Flyers' top returning guard. After years on the bench, forwards Josh Benson and Luke Fabrizius will finally get the chance to become full-time starters; and both are on the precipice of breakout seasons for a team that could once again be right there on the bubble come Selection Sunday.

6) George Washington - The Colonials are another one of those teams that has historically been a force to be reckoned with in the A-10, be it under Tom Penders, Mike Jarvis or Karl Hobbs. This year, GW picks up the services of former Vermont coach Mike Lonergan, who gets each of the top three players under Hobbs a year ago for at least one more year together. Senior guard Tony Taylor is just as much of a threat to pass the ball as he is to take it himself; and the point man will have a variety of options that include a rapidly developing Dwayne Smith at power forward, with Serbian import Nemanja Mikic on the wing. David Pellom, Bryan Bynes and Aaron Ware were all key role players for the Colonials last year, and each will be a bigger part of Lonergan's rotation this time around, with Pellom and Ware the likely options to start while Bynes serves the role of sixth man.

7) Saint Louis - Sometimes it's easy to forget that SLU is in the A-10 given its Midwest location, but everything about this team screams major program. From head coach Rick Majerus to the roster he has recruited, Saint Louis has gone about their business in a quiet way that has kept the program in contention perennially. All five starters come back for Majerus this year as well, led by junior Kwamain Mitchell, who was lost for the year last season due to a medical redshirt. Mike McCall was SLU's leading scorer last year, and will join Mitchell and Kyle Cassity in the backcourt while Dwayne Evans and Brian Conklin patrol the paint.

8) Duquesne - The other college basketball team in Pittsburgh will need to replace both of its leading scorers from a team that won nineteen games last year, (ten in conference) but marksmen B.J. Monteiro and T.J. McConnell are more than ready to pick up the slack for the Dukes after participating in the CBI for a second consecutive season. McConnell, a homegrown talent that is only a sophomore, could be one of the best guards that no one knows about this season. The reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year, McConnell averaged nearly eleven points and just under three steals per game, the latter good enough for fourth in the country, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 from beyond the arc. If you look at McConnell up close, his game resembles one of the great players in Division I last season who happens to share a last name with the second-year talent: Former Saint Mary's point guard Mickey McConnell.

9) Rhode Island - After the 2009-10 season, coach Jim Baron's name was thrown into a number of coaching vacancies for various major programs, but nothing materialized as he returned to the Rams and took them to a 20-win season. This time around, Baron will attempt to complete the encore without top scorer Delroy James, who was part of URI's winningest senior class that graduated this past year. Serbian small forward Nikola Malesevic, a 6-7 junior, will take over the reins of an offense he helped propel by shooting 46 percent from three-point range last season. After only playing sparingly last season, senior guard Jamal Wilson is ready to have a breakout season in the Ocean State. Since being inserted into the starting lineup for the Rams' final eight games, Wilson averaged over eight points and five rebounds; and should be a double-figure scorer with a full season under his belt.

10) Saint Joseph's - The Hawks' miraculous 2003-04 season in which they finished the regular season undefeated and reached the Elite Eight under guards Jameer Nelson and Delonte West now seems like a distant memory for longtime head coach Phil Martelli. However, St. Joe's is on the rise again this season with a team that returns four starters on what was the youngest incarnation of the Hawks in program history. Martelli's backcourt is strong once again with the return of junior Carl Jones, the team's leading scorer last season, and sophomore Langston Galloway, who shot 39 percent from long distance a year ago. Up front, a pair of sophomores will spearhead the effort on the glass, as forwards C.J. Aiken and former St. John's commit Ron Roberts welcome seven-foot newcomer Todd O'Brien to the paint.

11) Massachusetts - When I was growing up, the Minutemen were the team to beat in not just the A-10, but the Northeast as well. Of course, that was back in the mid-1990s, when a thirtysomething coach named John Calipari built his reputation with the trio of Marcus Camby, Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, who guided UMass to the Final Four in a 1995-96 season where they nearly went undefeated. Derek Kellogg is at the helm in Amherst now, and will look to junior guards Javorn Farrell and Freddie Riley to ignite an offense that averaged 66 points per game last season. Senior big man Sean Carter returns as well, and the 6-9 Carter is UMass' top returning rebounder.

12) LaSalle - The Explorers lose Aaric Murray to West Virginia after he transferred in the offseason, leaving LaSalle with just one senior on their roster. Ironically, that one senior transferred from the Big East, as former Rutgers guard Earl Pettis opted to play in his hometown of Philadelphia after two years with the Scarlet Knights and former coach Fred Hill. Fellow guards Tyreek Duren and Sam Mills are among the lone bright spots on a young LaSalle team, and will need to raise their contributions given the inexperience of the Explorers' big men.

13) UNC-Charlotte - The 49ers suffered through a forgettable 10-20 campaign last season that had their fans longing for the days of Brendan Plavich and his seemingly endless stream of three-pointers back when UNC Charlotte was an up-and-coming mid-major in Conference USA. This year, second-year coach Alan Major welcomes back four starters from last year's unit, led by senior guards Derrio Green and Javaris Barnett, with junior Jamar Briscoe to serve as a combo guard that can run the point with Green out of the lineup, or play off the ball alongside Green and the 6-7 Barnett. Chris Braswell returns up front after a sophomore campaign in which he was Charlotte's leading rebounder, and should see his chances to contribute on the glass increased with the transition of reserve forward KJ Sherrill into the starting five.

14) Fordham - Aside from the dramatic comeback against St. John's that had fans of the Bronx program storming the court at Rose Hill Gym, there weren't many other highlights for the Rams a year ago, an absolute tragedy considering how likable head coach Tom Pecora is and how much of a great in-game leader he has become through his many years at Hofstra. However, Pecora is building this Fordham program the same way he and his mentor Jay Wright did at Hofstra, with young metropolitan area players that he will coach up to become underrated diamonds in the rough. Take junior forward Chris Gaston as a prime example. A double-double per night player in each of his first two years, Gaston will attempt to become more of a small forward befitting of his 6-7 frame this season, a move that will add another facet to his already well-rounded game. Senior guard Brenton Butler, the lone fourth-year player on Pecora's roster a year ago, is gone; but the Rams' backcourt is still a rising unit led by sophomore point guard Branden Frazier and senior marksman Alberto Estwick. The third starter could either be 6-4 sophomore incumbent Lamount Samuell; or the latest in a long line of city prospects recruited by Pecora, a 5-10 guard from Lincoln High School named Devon "Fatty" McMillan, who has garnered rave reviews from nearly everyone that has attended a Fordham practice this summer. Senior forward Kervin Bristol is also back, and will join Gaston up front.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

30 In 30: The CAA

Ryan Pearson and George Mason will be giving new coach Paul Hewitt reason to smile this season, as Patriots are CAA favorites. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Many well-regarded college basketball analysts have always considered the Colonial Athletic Association to be among the premier mid-major conferences in Division I, and it's hard to disagree when looking at the league's resume in recent years. Aside from the two Final Four appearances in the last six years, the CAA has managed to produce consistent success and quality basketball year in and year out; and the upcoming season should be no exception. Hopefully, this preview will attempt to make some sense of it all as the CAA gets its moment in the "30 In 30" sun.

1) George Mason - The team that redefined Cinderella with their miracle run through the 2006 NCAA Tournament, in which they reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed while disposing of three former national champions along the way, is a rarity in college hoops this season: A team that will be markedly better under a new head coach, just as St. John's was last season under Steve Lavin. Longtime Patriots head man Jim Larranaga left to take the job at Miami, and replacing him is former Georgia Tech boss Paul Hewitt, who returns to the mid-major ranks he made a name for himself in when coaching Siena. Hewitt loses Cam Long to graduation and Jake Hancock to Louisville, but returns CAA Player of the Year candidate and former Christ the King star Ryan Pearson at the power forward position for his senior season. Point guard Andre Cornelius is also back for his senior campaign; and all three of Larranaga's recruits upheld their commitment when Hewitt was brought in, including another former Royal in guard Corey Edwards, whose style of play fits the style exhibited by the CAA.

2) Drexel - Last year, former UMass coach James "Bruiser" Flint turned the Dragons into arguably the best team not to participate in a postseason tournament: A 21-11 squad that won eleven games in the Colonial and picked up an impressive road win against Louisville in its nonconference slate. If there is any team that poses the biggest threat to George Mason, it's this one in Philadelphia. Four starters return for Drexel this season, including senior forward Samme Givens, a double-double per night player on average who is reminiscent of former Syracuse star Paul Harris, except with stronger rebounding skills; but the biggest comeback for the Dragons this season will be that of star guard Chris Fouch, who is fully recovered this year after missing part of his sophomore campaign with a knee injury. Fouch should be a full-time starter this season as the Dragons will be a serious NCAA Tournament contender, and perhaps a threat to make the latest magical run out of the CAA.

3) Old Dominion - We go from the biggest sleeper in the conference to the school with the best jerseys in the league, especially the road jerseys. Google them if you don't believe me. Aesthetically pleasing uniforms aside, the Monarchs will go into the upcoming campaign with a lot to replace; as center Frank Hassell and forward Ben Finney are gone, but Blaine Taylor retains the services of do-it-all guard Kent Bazemore for the senior's final season in Norfolk. Fellow guard Trian Iliadis and senior forward Chris Cooper will have productive seasons filling in for Finney and Hassell, and ODU won't experience much of a dropoff this season.

4) Virginia Commonwealth - VCU's improbable run to the national semifinals started with an appearance in a "First Four" play-in game, and its encore will commence without the services of both of the Rams' two best players that have since graduated. Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez will not be replaced easily, but Shaka Smart still has swingman Bradford Burgess, who is now a senior. Burgess will need to carry this team, as he is the only senior on the roster; but the good news for the future is that the rest of the team comes back next year in an attempt to recapture the magic.

5) Hofstra - Aside from Tim Cluess at Iona, no rookie coach at a mid-major had a better first season than Mo Cassara did at the helm of the Pride. Now, Nassau County's college team must prepare for life without all-time leading scorer Charles Jenkins, the heart and soul of the program for the last four years. Former Fordham transfer Mike Moore will lead the way as he embarks on his senior season, and 6-5 senior Nathaniel Lester could have a breakout year playing alongside him. However, Hofstra's inexperience and lack of size inside could come back to hurt them down the stretch in what should be a more physical CAA than in years past.

6) James Madison - With four returning starters, including junior guard Devon Moore, the Dukes could join Drexel in the sleeper category this season. Coming off a 21-win season as well, senior forward Rayshawn Goins could be a double-double per night player this season. Former Marist coach Matt Brady surprised a lot of people when he left what had been an up-and-coming Red Foxes program to take this job; but has gone 55-47 in three seasons at JMU, and the best could very well be yet to come.

7) UNC-Wilmington - Buzz Peterson heads into his second year with the Seahawks intent on building a winner after going 13-18 in his maiden voyage at the helm. Top scorer and rebounder Keith Rendleman is back at the power forward position for his junior year, while senior guard Trevor Deloach is UNCW's candidate for a breakout season. The Seahawks also have size that not many CAA programs possess in the form of seven-foot junior center Matt Wilson.

8) Delaware - Once upon a time, the Blue Hens, like Hofstra after them, were the class of the America East Conference before moving to the CAA. Another thing Delaware and Hofstra have in common: Their coaches in the America East (Mike Brey at Delaware, Jay Wright at Hofstra) jumped to Big East programs when hired at Notre Dame and Villanova, respectively. However, that was then; and this is now. Delaware will need breakout seasons from junior forward Jamelle Hagins and senior guard Devon Saddler if this year will be the one in which the Blue Hens return to their past glory.

9) Northeastern - The Huskies, perhaps best known for being the alma mater of NBA champion J.J. Barea, lose do-it-all guard Chaisson Allen this season; but manage to bring back the other four starters from last year's 11-20 squad. Junior guards Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee will undoubtedly be the team leaders on both sides of the ball, but Northeastern needs sophomore big man Ryan Pierson (not to be confused with Ryan Pearson at George Mason) to improve off a freshman campaign that landed him a spot on the CAA All-Rookie team.

10) William & Mary - The Tribe will also be graced by the returning presence of four starters this season as they look to rebound from the 10-22 effort that followed their 22-win 2009-10 campaign. Sophomore guard Brandon Britt averaged nearly eleven points per game during his freshman season, good enough to earn him CAA All-Rookie honors, but no player on the roster stands over 6-9. Fortunately, I will get to see this team up close and personal on November 7th, as they open the regular season against St. John's in a game that will provide a "Quinn vs. Quinn" matchup: William & Mary senior forward Quinn McDowell, perhaps the team's best returning player, versus St. John's aficionado and Daly Dose superfan Quinn Rochford, now a senior writer for the latest Red Storm basketball media affiliate, Sweet, Sweet Lavin.

11) Georgia State - The Panthers are one of the three CAA programs under new leadership, as Ron Turner comes down from IUPUI to take over a team that returns four starters; but does not have a player who averaged more than ten points per game a year ago. Senior forwards Eric Buckner and Brandon McGee will be the keys to the offense for Georgia State, while senior Jihad Ali anchors the backcourt.

12) Towson - The Tigers pick up one of the up-and-coming coaches in the nation, as former Pitt assistant Pat Skerry will take over a team that won just four games a year ago and went 0-18 in CAA play. A strong recruiter with connections that helped Jamie Dixon maintain his strong reach along the Eastern seaboard after Barry Rohrssen was hired by Manhattan, Skerry will get the chance to show his mettle as an in-game strategist this season. Senior guard RaShawn Polk will be the top returning offensive contributor, while 6-9 center Robert Nwankwo returns after a medical redshirt forced him to miss the entire season last year. When healthy, Nwankwo could be a double-double per night player.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

30 In 30: Conference USA

After coming from behind to win Conference USA tournament last year, Josh Pastner and Memphis are now favorites to win league. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Once among the best mid-majors in Division I college basketball before five of its programs defected to the Big East, Conference USA still rolls on as one of the more regarded leagues despite usually being a group where only two or three teams have a shot to win. It may be a little deeper this year, as the following preview will profile each of the twelve C-USA institutions.

1) Memphis - The class of the league since the beginning of the John Calipari era is still among the teams to beat year in and year out under Josh Pastner, now in his third year replacing Coach Cal after he left for Kentucky. Pastner brings back the core of last year's conference tournament championship team that lost to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, including C-USA Player of the Year candidate Will Barton and point guard Joe Jackson. The Tiger frontline gets help with the returns of Tarik Black and swingman Wesley Witherspoon, not to mention Ferrakohn Hall. Although the Seton Hall transfer will not be eligible until December, the 6-8 Hall should make an immediate impact at the power forward position.

2) Marshall - Don't be surprised to see the Thundering Herd and second-year coach Tom Herrion make a serious run at Memphis for the conference championship. Point guard Damier Pitts joins Pittsburgh native and sophomore DeAndre Kane in the backcourt, while Kane's rebounding prowess will be a boon to 6-10 center Nigel Spikes as he dominates the glass for Marshall. Incoming freshman Jamir Hanner, a former Seton Hall commit, could also be among the top rookies in the league for an up-and-coming program.

3) Central Florida - The casual fan will recognize two names on the Golden Knights' roster right away, and both will be major factors for second-year head coach Donnie Jones. Leading scorer Marcus Jordan returns for his junior season, and the combo guard will have former Illinois transfer and older brother Jeff sharing the backcourt with him this time around. These two just happen to be the sons of one Michael Jordan, only the greatest professional basketball player of the last three decades. Leading rebounder Keith Clanton also returns for his junior campaign after averaging nearly two blocked shots per game last season.

4) Tulsa - Three of the top four scorers from last season return for the Golden Hurricane, led by 6-11 senior Steven Idlet, also the team's leading rebounder. Sophomore guard Jordan Clarkson joins former UConn transfer Scottie Haralson in the backcourt while D.J. Magley and Joe Richard will get full-time opportunities to join Idlet as inside presences in the Tulsa lineup.

5) Rice - The Owls could be the surprise team that every conference possesses on a yearly basis, one that comes up from the second half of the conference to establish themselves among the league's elite. Former Cal coach Ben Braun enters his fourth year in Houston with most of his team coming back. Iranian forward Arsalan Kazemi was a double-double per night player last year, and will have more chances to contribute with junior point guard Tamir Jackson returning to anchor the backcourt and facilitate the Owl offense.

6) Alabama-Birmingham - Former Indiana coach Mike Davis enters his sixth season at UAB with only two starters returning, but enough weapons for yet another winning season. Leading scorer and rebounder Cameron Moore is back for his senior season, which should feature a double-double per night average for the 6-10 big man. Ovie Soko could become the X-factor inside with opposing teams focused on Moore, but the loss of the almost eight assists per game generated by outgoing point guard Aaron Johnson may be too much for the Blazers to overcome.

7) East Carolina - Last year, the Pirates were the team no one expected to make a run, nearly stealing the C-USA tournament in the process. This year, head coach Jeff Lebo may be preparing another quiet success story while the program's administrators consider a move to the Big East. Leading rebounder Darrius Morrow returns to the frontline for his senior season, while 6-5 combo guard Corvonn Gaines will be a steady hand in the backcourt following a season with an assist to turnover ratio of greater than 2:1.

8) Southern Mississippi - The return of senior point guard and former Southern Cal transfer Angelo Johnson to the Golden Eagle backcourt is good news for coach Larry Eustachy and the Southern Miss fan base. One of the better ballhandlers in the nation with a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio, Johnson's productivity should go up now that 6-10 Maurice Bolden will likely become a full-time starter.

9) Tulane - The Green Wave started last year 12-3 and with aspirations of being a force to be reckoned with in C-USA. Unfortunately, things changed when Ed Conroy's team lost thirteen of their last fourteen to finish with a 13-17 record. This year, Tulane returns with the intent of avoiding the "tale of two seasons" description. Combo guards Kendall Timmons and Jordan Callahan are back for their junior seasons in New Orleans after leading the team in scoring a year ago; and they will be rejoined by Ben Cherry, who returns for his junior season after suffering a torn ACL last year.

10) Texas-El Paso - Tim Floyd's Miners lose leading scorer Randy Culpepper and Julyan Stone, the team's "Mr. Everything" among their four departed starters, leaving senior swingman Gabriel McCulley as the top returning player. McCulley and John Bohannon will be immediate starters inside for UTEP as Michael Perez will look to establish himself as a combo guard in an inexperienced backcourt.

11) Southern Methodist - Matt Doherty is building for the future in Dallas after his stint at North Carolina in the early 2000s turned out to be a bust, and the Mustangs will prove that with only four returning players on the roster this season. Senior forward Robert Nyakundi could actually be one of the more underrated players in Conference USA. Last year, the 6-8 swingman shot 90 percent from the free throw line and a scorching 50 percent from three-point range.

12) Houston - Much like SMU, the Cougars have less than half the team coming back from a season ago, as only five players on this year's roster saw action in the 2010-11 campaign. Senior guard Darian Thibodeaux shot 44 percent from beyond the arc a year ago, which should keep him off the ball despite being Houston's incumbent assist leader.

Friday, September 23, 2011

30 In 30: The MAAC

Michael Glover gets all the attention, but it's Scott Machado that will be most instrumental to Iona's impending success. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

As college basketball season continues to draw closer, it's time to profile the mid-major in Daly Dose headquarters' backyard, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. A competitive league every year, the MAAC will be solidifying itself in 2011-12 as one of the top mid-major groups in the country.

1) Iona - My mother's alma mater comes back stronger than ever under second-year head man Tim Cluess, who has come from out of nowhere to build a winner in New Rochelle. Alejo Rodriguez may have left, but Cluess has two conference player of the year candidates left over. Senior forward Michael Glover will no doubt be the favorite after setting the MAAC on fire with his double-double per night averages a year ago, but my pick goes to the man who makes the motor run at the point guard position for the Gaels. A former Danny Hurley product at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey, Scott Machado comes into his senior season on the heels of an electrifying campaign where he finished tied for second in the nation in assists. Machado also managed to score thirteen points per game on average, and have an assist to turnover ratio of better than 2:1. Making it even better for Scott is the return of backcourt partners Kyle Smyth and Jermel Jenkins, both of whom are proven outside shooting threats.

2) Fairfield - The Stags have a new sheriff in town in former Princeton head man Sydney Johnson, who inherits a talented roster in his maiden voyage at the helm following the departure of Ed Cooley to Providence. Both of Fairfield's leading scorers return for year one of the Johnson era, led by junior point guard Derek Needham. While Needham runs the show from the backcourt, leading rebounder and seven-foot senior Ryan Olander (the older brother of UConn forward Tyler) gets things going inside. Sharpshooter guard Jamel Fields could be an X-factor off the bench as he enters his sophomore season.

3) Siena - There are still remnants of the Fran McCaffery regime for second-year coach Mitch Buonaguro, who set the bar high for himself when he took Fairfield to the NCAA Tournament in his first go-round as a MAAC coach back in the 1980s. Do-it-all forward Ryan Rossiter and shooter extraordinaire Clarence Jackson have graduated, but swingman Owen Wignot and senior guard Kyle Downey remain from the Saints teams that made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 2009 and 2010 with Alex Franklin, Edwin Ubiles and Ronald Moore leading the way. Point guard Rakeem Brookins will look to improve off a promising rookie campaign while forward O.D. Anosike, the only other player remaining from McCaffery's tenure, will attempt to pick up the slack for the departed Rossiter.

4) Manhattan - This is not a misprint. The much-chronicled Riverdale program (at least by this site and our Twitter page @DalyDoseOfHoops during the #mcmbbcoachingsummit) is going to surprise a lot of people this year. Yes, the Jaspers only won six games last year; but there's always a surprise team in every conference, and Manhattan is my candidate here. Barry Rohrssen is no longer in charge, but incoming coach Steve Masiello gets four returning starters from the artist formerly known as "Slice." At just 34, Masiello infuses a young team with a youthful sideline presence that was put on display at his introductory press conference. Leading scorer George Beamon is now the Jaspers' top returning rebounder after Demetrius Jemison's eligibility reached its maximum, and sophomore point guard Mike Alvarado returns as the top offensive producer in the backcourt. The player to watch, however, will be fellow guard Kidani Brutus. Brutus enters his senior season having lost 27 pounds, and comes back after a year in which he shot 40 percent from three-point range.

5) Loyola (Maryland) - Jimmy Patsos gets his two biggest contributors back for the Greyhounds in the form of forwards Shane Walker and Erik Etherly, the team's leading scorers and rebounders from a season ago. Robert Olson will likely be the first to get a look at the point guard position now that Brian Rudolph has left, and senior guard J'hared Hall returns with a 41 percent clip from long range a year ago.

6) Rider - Maybe I'm sleeping on Tommy Dempsey and the Broncs this year, but the anticipated resurgence of Manhattan is what pushes Rider back a little in my rankings. Virginia transfer Jeff Jones is now eligible after sitting last season out, and will enter a backcourt looking to replace do-it-all point man Justin Robinson. Senior swingman Novar Gadson is the Broncs' top returning scorer, and he will be aided up front with the return of big men Brandon Penn and Daniel Stewart, completing an all-Philadelphia front line for Rider.

7) St. Peter's - The unlikely MAAC tournament champion loses the core of its team this year. Not just Wesley Jenkins, but each of John Dunne's three other leading scorers as well. In the absence of the top four contributors, junior guard Steven Samuels now steps into the team leader role. However, Samuels is not the only returning starter on what will be a young Peacocks team this season, as junior forward Darius Conley is back as well.

8) Niagara - Before Siena went on their run, it was Joe Mihalich and the Purple Eagles that were the class of the MAAC under one-time leading national scorer Charron Fisher. Since Fisher graduated, things haven't been the same up on Monteagle Ridge. The outlook could be a little more positive this season, as the core of Mihalich's young team last season is back for an encore. After being limited to just three games before redshirting last year, freshman guard Antoine Mason is primed for a big season alongside backcourt partners Marvin Jordan and Malcolm Lemmons. However, the Niagara frontline is suspect, as no player on the roster is taller than 6-8.

9) Marist - The Red Foxes haven't figured out how to right the ship under Chuck Martin in his three years on the bench in Poughkeepsie after he was hired to replace Matt Brady. Four returning starters could help him turn the corner at Marist, led by senior combo guard R.J. Hall. Sophomore sharpshooter Jay Bowie had a solid rookie campaign in which he was the only player on the roster to start every game, and should be better off with another year of experience.

10) Canisius - The Golden Griffins will be better next year when 6-10 big man Freddy Asprilla is eligible after transferring from Kansas State, but Canisius will attempt to make do without him this season. Junior point guard Gaby Belardo, a former South Florida transfer, is the lone returning starter in Buffalo this year, and will attempt to lead a team comprised mainly of freshmen and sophomores.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

30 In 30: Horizon League

Brad Stevens and Butler are still class of Horizon League, but Bulldogs are starting to come back to reality. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Next up in the conference preview series: A league that has inexplicably yielded consecutive national championship game appearances. Ladies and gentlemen, your look at the Horizon League; or to my fellow old-timers out there, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.

1) Wisconsin-Milwaukee - Bruce Pearl, we hardly knew ye. That's what fans of the Panthers could be saying if coach Rob Jeter's team lives up to expectations this season, as virtually everyone from last year's incarnation of UWM basketball comes back for an encore. All five starters will get one more year together, led by leading scorer and rebounder Anthony Hill. Senior forward Tony Meier is the Panthers' top distance threat after last year's 44 percent clip from beyond the arc, and 6-3 point guard Kaylon Williams looks to improve on a season in which he averaged over five assists and just as many rebounds per game.

2) Detroit - The Titans will be showcased early in the year on ESPN when they host St. John's on the December night in which their court will be named after Dick Vitale, and head coach Ray McCallum's son is back for his sophomore season. If last year's rookie campaign was any indication, Ray Jr. will be one to expect great things from. He only averaged five rebounds and five assists every game while tying for the team lead in scoring. What makes Detroit even more dangerous is the post presence of 6-10 senior center Eli Holman. A threat offensively (11.8 points per game last year while also shooting 61 percent from the field) and defensively, (9.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots per game) Holman creates mismatches simply by taking the court. Canadian import Jason Calliste, the team's top three-point shooter last season at 40 percent, is also back for his junior season as the Titans' shooting guard.

3) Butler - Every time I mention Butler on Twitter, (@DalyDoseOfHoops for those interested) I am criticized to no end for my opinion(s) toward the alma mater of my friend and colleague John Minko. Let me clarify my stance on Butler: It's not the program that I dislike, but rather the aura of invincibility that has been bestowed upon head coach Brad Stevens for leading the Bulldogs to the national championship game in consecutive years, where they lost to Duke on Gordon Hayward's last-second miss in 2010 and to Connecticut last year when the team shot a robust 19 percent from the field. About to turn 35 next month, Stevens has become the media's golden boy simply for this aforementioned occasion, when in fact any coach of any program could do this given the right circumstances. Anyway, I digress. Saint Stevens will not have it easy this season, as Butler will finally have to replace three of their most gifted players in warrior Shelvin Mack, dominating post presence Matt Howard, and unsung hero Shawn Vanzant. Center Andrew Smith, who broke out when moved into the starting lineup last year, is now a junior; and will have the daunting task of picking up where Howard left off while simultaneously looking to create nightmares for opposing matchups inside. In the backcourt, senior Ronald Nored remains as the only starter from both national championship games; and will have junior Chase Stigall sharing the backcourt with him while sophomore swingman Khyle Marshall should become a full-time starter this year.

4) Cleveland State - Former Rutgers head man Gary Waters won 27 games with the Vikings last year, but did not get an NCAA Tournament bid after Butler won the Horizon League tournament. It will only get harder for Waters to coach this year's team to the same result after do-everything guard Norris Cole was selected in June's NBA draft, but Trevon Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery return to the Viking backcourt to pick up the pieces. An undersized Cleveland State frontline will need 6-7 junior forward Tim Kamczyc to step up on both sides of the ball to remain within the top half of the conference.

5) Valparaiso - Had Brandon Wood not transferred to Michigan State, the Crusaders would be higher on this list. That's how good the point guard who will now have the task of replacing the great Kalin Lucas was for Valpo. Australian import Ryan Broekhoff is the top returning scorer and leading rebounder from last year's team as well as the top three-point shooter, with a 45 percent clip from long range a season ago.

6) Wisconsin-Green Bay - The Phoenix lose both of their leading scorers, but 7-1 center Alec Brown will embark on his second season after a rookie campaign in which he averaged ten points, two blocks, and just over five rebounds per game. Sharpshooter Steve Baker is a senior this year, and will most likely be the top returning guard on a team that also brings back forwards Jarvis Williams (no relation to the former Miami Dolphins safety) and Daniel Turner.

7) Loyola (Illinois) - The Ramblers will forever be known as the team that participated in the most insignificant broadcast of my career; a November 25th, 2008 Preseason NIT affair at Carnesecca Arena that Frank Qasim shared the call with me for on WSJU, and a grand total of 959 were on hand for the Johnnies' 73-54 victory in which Norm Roberts' team let Loyola pull to within one early in the second half before driving away. New head coach Porter Moser has four players that were active for that aforementioned contest: Guard Courtney Stanley, forwards Walt Gibler and Jordan Hicks, and reserve center John Benkoske. Of the current Rambler unit, it's 6-8 junior forward Ben Averkamp who makes the motor run; but Hicks will be back after having his season cut short due to a broken foot just nine games in last year.

8) Wright State - The Raiders have only one senior on their team this year, Cameroon native Johann Mpondo; who was a full-time starter last year, but only averaged three points and just as many rebounds per game last season. Sharpshooter Cole Darling, whose average productivity was only one point greater, is the top returning scorer for second-year head coach Billy Donlon.

9) Youngstown State - The Penguins bring back leading rebounder Damian Eargle to a team that only won two Horizon League games a year ago, and sophomore Kendrick Perry also returns to run the show at point guard after averaging four assists per game as a freshman. Shooting guard Blake Allen, the most proficient three-point shooter for Youngstown State last season, is back for his junior campaign.

10) Illinois-Chicago - Winners of just seven games overall last season, the Flames' biggest triumph was their victory against the University of Illinois on a neutral court in December. Senior center Darrin Williams is the top returning scorer, but must improve on an average of 4.9 points per game to avoid the Flames' chances being extinguished before the season even starts.