Houston’s Season Already in Serious Trouble Even Without L.J. Rose

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 22nd, 2014

In a perfect world, Houston would be contending for the AAC title in new coach Kelvin Sampson‘s first season. Danuel House would be throwing down vicious dunks, TaShawn Thomas would be owning the glass, and L.J. Rose would be feeding shooters like Jherrod Stiggers and Torian Graham for open triples. Alas, the college basketball world is rarely perfect, especially during a coaching change. CBSSports.com reported earlier today that junior L.J. Rose, the team’s starting point guard and arguably its best player, has broken his foot and will be out until at least Christmas. That information completes the trifecta of bad news that will have Houston struggling to stay relevant this season instead of competing for a league title. Say what you want about the coaching deficiencies of previous head coach James Dickey — and there were plenty — but it would be difficult to criticize his recruiting abilities. House, Thomas and yes Rose (by way of Baylor) were all highly coveted recruits who ended up at Houston. Last year’s team wasn’t very good, but it didn’t lack for talent either, and it’s not a coincidence that Sampson chose to make his triumphant return to the head coaching ranks with the Cougars. Sampson was probably drooling over the thought of inheriting a veteran and talented roster.

Sampson's Rebuild Took a Hit With the Loss of LJ Rose to Injury

Sampson’s Rebuild Took a Hit With the Loss of LJ Rose to Injury

That dream started to fall apart when the team’s two best players and leading returning scorers, Thomas and House, both announced their intentions to transfer. Both players were all-league talents who would have been among the best at their positions in the AAC. If Houston was going to make a surprise run at the conference title, it would have been in large part because Thomas and House were doing a lot of the heavy lifting on both ends of the floor. Once it was clear they weren’t coming back to campus, expectations for Houston dropped precipitously. Those two transfers were definitely not a part of Sampson’s master plan. Sure, he kept things positive at the team’s media day and I’m sure if someone asked him about the offseason exodus he would say all the right things about coaching the guys who “want to be here.” But any lingering doubt that Sampson wouldn’t be happier with Thomas and House still in the fold should be erased after reading how hard Houston fought to keep their two stars from transferring.

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ACC Preview: Virginia Tech’s One Burning Question

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 22nd, 2014

Can Buzz Williams make Virginia Tech competitive quickly enough to fill the seats in Cassell Coliseum?

It’s no secret that Virginia Tech’s college basketball program is a distant second to its football program in Blacksburg. With that hurdle an annual one in terms of fan engagement, putting a subpar product on the floor has only further alienated whatever fan base the Hokies’ basketball team already had. While the team was modestly successful at times under Seth Greenberg, James Johnson’s two-year tenure was a complete disaster that kept fans away from the arena in droves. Last March new Athletic Director Whit Babcock made a splashy hire in hopes of changing the school and fans’ attitudes when he plucked rising star Buzz Williams away from Marquette. Williams took his Marquette teams to the NCAA Tournament five times in his six-year tenure, including three trips to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. Williams has come into Blacksburg preaching toughness and attitude, putting together a “Boot Camp” aimed at toughening up his charges for the ACC gauntlet. While he reminded the nation that Virginia Tech actually has a basketball team while making a public relations tour during March Madness coverage, proving successful on the court in a competitive league will be a major challenge.

Buzz Williams hopes his enthusiasm helps reinvigorate a dormant Hokies fan base (credit: dailypress.com)

Buzz Williams hopes his enthusiasm helps reinvigorate a dormant Hokies fan base (credit: dailypress.com)

The Hokies return only four regulars from last year’s rotation, as a mass exodus of transfers and graduations greeted Williams at his new gig. The backcourt should be the team’s strength this year, with ACC all-freshman first team selection Devin Wilson returning to man the point. Adam Smith will likely man the other guard spot, and he will need to live up to his reputation as a lights-out long-distance shooter on a consistent basis. Malik Mueller is coming off of a redshirt campaign so there’s uncertainty there, but Williams did add to his backcourt depth by bringing signee Ahmed Hill along with him from Marquette. The immediate question mark for the Hokies will be in the frontcourt. Joey Van Zegeren will likely man the post after averaging career highs with 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game a year ago. After that, newcomers will be asked to play heavy minutes. Shane Henry, a junior college recruit from Georgia Perimeter College, needs to contribute immediately. Freshman Satchel Pierce, another Williams recruit at Marquette who followed his coach southeast, will also be counted on to help stabilize an uncertain frontcourt. Clearly there is far more unknown than known about the Hokies’ crop of big men, meaning this team will lean heavily on its backcourt early and often.

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Big 12 Season Preview: Texas Tech Red Raiders

Posted by Nate Kotisso on October 22nd, 2014

The Big 12 microsite will preview each of its teams over the next few weeks, starting today with Texas Tech. 

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Building a tournament contender — heck, a semi-competitive one — is hard to do when a scandal and mass exodus of players occur anywhere, but especially at Texas Tech. Tubby Smith was hired a season ago to bring stability to this teetering program, and he did just that. The undermanned Red Raiders showed some signs of life in conference play, scoring wins against Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas and were two seconds away from picking off Kansas. But then the season came to a close and most of the important pieces either graduated or transferred elsewhere. In all, Tech lost four of their top five scorers (Jaye Crockett/Jordan Tolbert/Dusty Hannahs/Dejan Kravic), and Crockett, Tolbert and Kravic also accounted for the team’s top three rebounders in 2013-14. What they have returning are guys who don’t have much Division I playing experience and will be forced to pick up the slack.

Who is the man that would risk his neck to be a winna man? Tubby. (BlackSportsOnline)

Who is the man that would risk his neck to be a winna man? Tubby! (BlackSportsOnline)

Strengths: Thank goodness for Tubby Smith. His experience alone is going to able to win the Red Raiders a handful of games in which they wouldn’t be favored. If you’re a Red Raiders fan, you’re happy that this year’s team is chock full of guards with legitimate potential. Senior Robert Turner and junior Toddrick Gotcher are the anchors, but the recruiting class Smith has brought in is nothing if not intriguing for both this season and hopefully the future. Let’s start with top JuCo transfer Devaugntah Williams, who dazzled in his final year at Missouri State-West Plains, averaging 17.8 points per game and shooting a sweet 38.6 percent from the three-point line. With freshmen Justin Gray and Keenan Evans making the most noise in the preseason (Gray moreso) and returning reserve Randy Onwuasor on board as well, one of the bigger questions for Smith becomes how to divvy up playing time between six capable guards. I bet it’s a problem that he’d prefer to have.

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Notes From Duke’s Closed Practice: Freshmen Shine, Veterans Lethargic

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 22nd, 2014

Duke opened it’s 11th practice of the year to media and guests from the Duke Children’s Hospital yesterday, and based on their performance during the semi-closed practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium, its highly regarded freshmen class may just live up to the hype. While far from finished products, each of Mike Krzyzewski‘s four newcomers showed enough positive play to suggest that they might make up the core of this year’s Blue Devils squad. ACC referees officiated the scrimmage portion of practice, which was broken into four 10-minute segments with limited rest between each session. Some players switched teams after the first two quarters but the last two sessions featured the same lineups. We will use this space to analyze the play of each of the new Blue Devils and make some other general observations about the team, knowing that this represents only a one-day snapshot and the start of the regular season is still three weeks away.

Freshman Jahlil Okafor has Great (Big) Hands (rushthecourt.net)

Freshman Jahlil Okafor has Great (Big) Hands
(rushthecourt.net)

FRESHMEN

  • Jahlil Okafor – Reports of Okafor’s improved body and conditioning appear to be true. His feet were quick; he ran the court well; and he did not noticeably tire during the entire 40 minutes of scrimmage play. The most impressive thing with him, though, is his hands, which he uses in a similar manner to the great Tim Duncan. Passes and rebounds stick to Okafor’s mitts like glue. While at the free throw line, it was especially noticeable that the ball looks like a grapefruit in his hands. He mostly had his way inside, but there were times when he struggled to finish at the rim with Marshall Plumlee bodied up against him.
  • Tyus Jones – The touted young point guard played almost exactly as his reputation indicated — he wasn’t flashy with the ball but he was very efficient in running the team. He will have to adjust to playing hard defense over extended periods of time, and like most youngsters, Jones will need to become more vocal on both ends of the floor. But the greatest measure of a point guard is always the scoreboard, and in that respect Jones was outstanding, with his team winning each 10 minute session by around 10 points.

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Top of the O26 Class: Ivy, MAAC, America East, NEC & Patriot

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 22nd, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Northeastern U.S: the America East, Ivy League, Metro Atlantic, Northeast Conference and Patriot League.

Top Units

Harvard is the Ivy League favorite again in 2014-2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Harvard is the Ivy League favorite again in 2014-15. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Ivy League

  • Harvard – 2013-14 record: 27-5 (13-1). After failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for 66 straight years, Harvard suddenly finds itself in position to reach a fourth straight Big Dance. But just as times have changed, so have expectations — not only is Tommy Amaker’s club tabbed to win another Ivy League title, many expect it to do more damage in the postseason. Those lofty expectations can be largely attributed to the return of Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, one of the top backcourt duos in the nation. Chambers is a precocious third-year point guard who has proven himself to be a gifted distributor and quality outside shooter (40.2% 3FG on his career), while Saunders is the team’s top scorer, best perimeter defender and reigning conference Player of the Year. And yet, despite those two, Harvard’s biggest strength might actually be in its frontcourt, which features a deep stable of athletic forwards who should wear down Ivy opponents in the paint. Best among them is Steve Moundou-Missi, a 6’7″ Cameroonian who logged a double-double against Michigan State in the Round of 32 last March. Jonah Travis, Evan Cummins, Kenyatta Smith, Zena Edosomwan — the list of expected contributors seems endless, and if the Crimson can avoid injury to its guards, a sustained presence in the Top 25 is a legitimate possibility.
  • Yale2013-14 record: 19-14 (9-5). Yale was the only Ivy League unit to knock off the Crimson last season, so with the majority of its starting five back, the Bulldogs should present the most serious threat to Harvard’s crown. Most crucial among the returnees is Justin Sears, a 6’8″ junior who was something of a statistical machine last season: The forward averaged nearly 17 points and seven rebounds per game, ranked in the top 100 nationally in block rate and drew over seven fouls per 40 minutes. With Javier Duren (13.6 PPG) pacing things in the backcourt and veteran guys like Armani Cotton and Matt Townsend shoring things up down low, Yale fans can expect another top-three Ivy League finish.

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Bookmark This: ACC Microsite Preview Page

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 22nd, 2014

We are now just 23 days away from tipping off a new college basketball season so it’s time to start looking ahead to what the 2014-15 campaign will look like for the ACC. Over the next three weeks, we will be previewing all 15 league teams. We will do so by asking “One Burning Question” about each squad, and then try to predict how each team will address that query, and how successful they might be. The teams will be examined in reverse order of last year’s conference standings, using ACC Tournament seed as the tie-breaker and placing newcomer Louisville in Maryland’s vacated position (right in the middle) for the time being. Below are the teams in order of their appearance on the microsite, and as the previews are released, links for those posts will be placed here to build a Preseason home page for all our features and predictions. We’ll start a little later today with Virginia Tech.

ACC-NewLogo_WebGraphics_1002x584_Generic

  • Virginia TechWednesday, October 22
  • Boston College – Thursday, October 23
  • Notre Dame – Friday, October 24
  • Wake Forest – Monday, October 27
  • Georgia Tech – Tuesday, October 28
  • Miami – Wednesday, October 29
  • Florida State – Thursday, October 30
  • Louisville – Friday, October 31
  • N.C. State – Monday, November 3
  • Clemson – Tuesday, November 4
  • Pittsburgh - Wednesday, November 5
  • North Carolina – Thursday, November 6
  • Duke – Friday, November 7
  • Syracuse – Monday, November 10
  • Virginia – Tuesday, November 11

 

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Relaunching the Other 26 Microsite…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 22nd, 2014

As important as the blue-bloods are to college basketball — Tobacco Road, Big Blue Nation, Rock Chalk, etc. — it’s the little guys, the mid-majors, that so often give the sport its vibrancy and leave lasting impressions in March. In fact, the Other 26 leagues constitute a majority in college hoops, helping create a vast landscape of players and programs that make each season unique and full of seemingly endless possibility (as of right now, any one of 343 teams can win the National Championship). This microsite aims to provide a panoramic of that landscape through thoughtful, timely and engaging analysis over the course of the season. We will shed light on the unknown superstars, the underappreciated performers and the soon-to-be-Cinderellas that make the Other 26 great. And we hope to have some fun doing it, because after all, this is mid-major basketball and, well, just look at Kyle O’Quinn’s face…

Gear up for an exciting season at the Other 26 microsite. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gear up for an exciting season at the Other 26 microsite. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Be sure to check out our preview materials over the (less than four!) weeks leading up to opening tip-off, which will touch on every league in the O26 world and keep you updated as the season approaches. Some must-reads include:

  • Top of the Class – Regional Previews: in which we examine the best O26 teams, players and coaches in each geographic section of the country.
  • Poll Critiques: in which we break down the noteworthy, the intriguing and the downright peculiar among O26 teams in preseason conference rankings.
  • O26 Preseason Awards: our O26 All-Americans, Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Team of the Year.

Bookmark us, follow us on Twitter (@other26hoops) and enjoy all that the Other 26 have to offer. Now watch Mercer bust some moves.

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Big 12 M5: 10.22.14 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 22nd, 2014

morning5_big12

  1. Remember yesterday when we said that Kansas State‘s depth down low should be just fine? Well, it may not be so fine after all. It turns out that a broken foot sustained earlier this fall by Wildcats big man D.J. Johnson will keep the junior out for the entire season. Head coach Bruce Weber mentioned at Big 12 Media Day last week that the injury would likely lead Johnson to redshirt the year, but it seems like an even clearer possibility now. Fair or not, Johnson’s absence puts more pressure on Thomas Gipson, Wesley Iwundu and Georgetown transfer Brandon Bolden to stay healthy and productive.
  2. If you lean more towards the statistical and analytical side of things, Jeff Haley has a treat for you with his in-depth breakdown of the 2014-15 Iowa State Cyclones. We’ll have our own preview of Fred Hoiberg’s squad within the next few weeks, but until then, if you’ve ever wanted to know how many two-point jumpers Bryce Dejean-Jones put up for UNLV last season, what Marquette transfer Jameel McKay will bring to the table once he’s eligible, or how Iowa State will be able to maintain its trademark spacing on offense, Jeff’s your guy.
  3. Recently, Rick Barnes took an opportunity to get close to a few fans during Texas‘ open practice. Among other things, we were reminded that big man Myles Turner announced his commitment to the Longhorns while wearing a bucket hat. We’ll leave it to the fashionistas to determine if bucket hats — last considered popular in 1998, or Barnes’ first year at the helm in Austin — are back in style (unlikely), but we will say that if they take off at Longhorns games, you were warned.
  4. NBC Sports’ College Basketball Talk has slotted Oklahoma in as the 15th-ranked team in the country. The Sooners have an interesting look because they have nearly everyone of importance back, but just one senior (D.J. Bennett) figures to be a rotation mainstay, although that will change if transfer TaShawn Thomas is deemed eligible. Either way, Oklahoma is experienced, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that they’re young, either, which is an odd combination. All in all we agree with Rob Dauster’s assertion that there’s a wide range of possibilities for Oklahoma when it comes to their place in the crowded top half of the Big 12, but at this stage, a win or two in the NCAA Tournament is a very reasonable expectation.
  5. Another former Kansas coach went on record about his experience coaching in Allen Fieldhouse: current UNC head coach Roy Williams. Despite the hard feelings some Kansas fans had towards Williams when he left (many of which have been soothed by a national championship and three postseason head-to-head victories), it is clear that the longtime coach still has a special place in his heart for the school and its fans. Williams hasn’t set foot in The Phog since he surprised the college basketball world by leaving Kansas for his alma mater in 2003, but all things considered, the move has worked out well for all parties involved.
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Big Ten M5: 10.22.14 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on October 22nd, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. Wisconsin has been justifiably more in the spotlight than any other Big Ten team this preseason, and that’s mostly because the Badgers return four starters from a team that made the Final Four. Despite heightened expectations in Madison, Bo Ryan is just happy to get another chance at his first Division I National Championship. The Badgers’ head coach is “the same coach, he’s always as hard on us if we’re winning games, and if we’re losing games,” according to senior Frank Kaminsky. Wisconsin scaled back its preseason work slightly this year, but the consistency of Ryan combined with his veteran cast makes it hard to bet against Wisconsin playing deep into March once again this season.
  2. Caris LeVert had a breakout season last year, and with all that Michigan lost from its Elite Eight team last year, he will need to take another couple of steps forward for the Wolverines to be back in the mix for a B1G title. LeVert will now be the primary option for John Beilein’s offense, as Michigan will continue to play outside-in running his system. It will be up to LeVert, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin to step into bigger roles because of the team’s inexperience down low, but the freshmen big men will have an easier transition playing in a system that won’t feature them in much of a scoring role.
  3. Rutgers is now a part of the Big Ten, but it’s not because of anything the school has done that’s noteworthy on the basketball court. The Scarlet Knights are still shaking off the stink of the Mike Rice scandal, but there is a bigger problem than that, according to Dave White of SBNation. The facilities are in grave need of an upgrade, and recruits will only take Rutgers seriously once significant improvements are made. The Rutgers football program has been respectable in recent years, and much of that is due to a complete renovation of their facilities. They need to look no further than the basketball program at Lincoln, Nebraska, to see what a new coach and upgrades to the arena and locker rooms can do. Eddie Jordan might be the right coach for the Scarlet Knights with his NBA pedigree, but they will need more than just him to compete in the Big Ten.
  4. Tim Miles is starting to make a great deal of headway in recruiting the state of Illinois. He has already secured verbal commitments from Class of 2015 members Glynn Watson from St Joseph’s in Westchester, and Edward Morrow from Chicago powerhouse Simeon. Now he has 2016 forward Isaiah Roby also in the fold. Roby hails from Dixon, Illinois, and is a 6’8″ forward with a versatile skill set. He joins Keanu Pinder in the 2016 Nebraska class so far.
  5. There’s a great deal of pressure on Maryland and Mark Turgeon this season as he looks to guide the Terrapins to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his tenure at the school. Even with the recent injury to probable starter Evan Smotrycz, Turgeon is still upbeat and excited about his team. The injury to the veteran will give him an opportunity to provide more minutes to the freshman class he’s assembled. If he chooses to go small, freshman guards Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens are in line to see more minutes, and Turgeon also mentioned that freshman guard Melo Trimble will more than likely be his starting point guard.
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SEC M5: 10.22.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on October 22nd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Everyone knows that John Calipari’s biggest problem this season with Kentucky will be making sure his bevy of high school All-Americans gets adequate playing time. Calipari usually does not have this concern, as he often relies upon short benches, but because of the return of so many players that he assumed would be headed to the NBA, he no longer has that “luxury.” As SportingNews.com’s Mike DeCourcy points out, there are specific challenges Calipari must deal with for the Wildcats to reach their ultimate goal of a national championship. And while it is unlikely any coach in the country will feel sorry for Calipari’s accidental embarrassment of riches, DeCourcy’s raises good points about how difficult it may be to keep everyone happy, and to keep everything in balance.
  2. Billy Kennedy’s remarkable recruiting run continued on Tuesday, when the Texas A&M coach picked up a commitment from top-30 forward Elijah Thomas, becoming the fourth top 100 player to commit to the Aggies over the offseason. Kennedy’s tenure in College Station has been mostly nondescript, but this haul changes the game for the Aggies. Thomas joins post Tyler Davis, forward D.J. Hogg and point guard Admon Gilder to form what 247sports.com rates as its second-best class in the country thus far. This season could be a rough ride for Texas A&M, but the future looks very bright.
  3. Like Kennedy’s tenure at Texas A&M, Mark Fox’s run at Georgia has been anything but overwhelming. However, after the Bulldogs finished tied for second in the SEC last season, big things are expected this year. In fact, many observers believe that Georgia should be disappointed in anything short of an NCAA Tournament run. Fox is entering his sixth season in Athens, but he has been to the Big Dance at Georgia only once. With a veteran club returning and the success last year brought, it is realistic to think the Bulldogs could get to the Tournament for the second time under his tenure. Getting off to a good start will be key, as last year saw several bad early season losses that crippled the team’s chance to compete for a bid. This year, for Georgia to play meaningful basketball in March, it will need to avoid such a slow start, and the Bulldogs should be able to do so with the experience it has returning.
  4. The SEC Network announced its schedule for the upcoming season, and there is no question that the league — which for years suffered from very poor TV contracts that left many games not televised — will gain plenty of exposure from the new outlet. In total, 118 games will be shown, starting with Kentucky’s exhibition against Pikeville on November 2. While top-tier games will continue to be released on bigger outlets, the fact that the network is part of most cable packages nationally can only help increase the league’s visibility. The network also announced its commentators, which will include many of the old SEC standbys like Barry Booker and Joe Dean, Jr., but two new names include former Kentucky standout Tony Delk and Tennessee’s Dane Bradshaw.
  5. When Auburn hired Bruce Pearl, a program with no identity and very little success over the past decade-plus instantly became one that people would talk about. Pearl’s team likely will struggle this season (although no one predicted the success he had during his first year at Tennessee in 2005 either), but the buzz he has brought to The Plains is palpable. Season ticket sales have more than doubled and the players have started to feel as popular as the school’s football team. Not since the days of Charles Barkley and Chuck Person, and, to a lesser extent, the late ’90s run of the Chris Porter team, has anyone spent much time talking about Auburn basketball. The administration knew that hiring someone like Pearl, whose promotional skills are as good as his coaching chops, would bring an identity to the program that had long been missing. Thus far, everything has gone according to plan.
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AAC M5: Welcome Back Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 22nd, 2014

  1. AAC_morning5_headerWe are admittedly off to a slower start than some of the other microsites this season. In our defense, though, we were waiting for big AAC news to mark our triumphant return and we got that news on Monday when it was reported that SMU forward Markus Kennedy is still working to get academically eligible this season. The Mustangs are considered one of the league favorites, and Kennedy, a junior, is arguably the team’s best and most important player. The big man averaged more than 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game and was a unanimous preseason all-AAC selection last season, so it goes without saying that if SMU wants to win the league, it will need Kennedy’s services. Admittedly, coach Larry Brown was the source of the news and he didn’t sound totally pessimistic, so Kennedy likely isn’t doomed just yet. But this isn’t the kind of news that preseason league favorites usually welcome.
  2. This is not exactly the peak season for recruiting news, but apparently rapper Rick Ross has some pull because just two days after he performed at Memphis Madness, Maryland native and three-star Class of 2016 point guard Randall Broddie committed to Memphis. It’s too early to put the “Broddie to the Tigers” headline in permanent marker but the 6’3″ guard is considered one of the top 150 players in the country, according to Rivals, and would help the program replenish some of the backcourt depth it lost due to graduation.
  3. It’s hard not to laugh when you read the first of the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s five questions facing the Cincinnati Bearcats entering this season. Bill Koch, who will without question make regular appearances in the the Morning Five this season, actually dares to ask if the Bearcats will be a better offensive team without Sean Kilpatrick in the lineup. The reason the question seems ludicrous is because Cincinnati didn’t just lose Kilpatrick, who was undoubtedly the team’s best offensive player, the Bearcats lost their three best and most efficient offensive players (with the notable exception of returning guard Jermaine Sanders). Promising talents like Shaquille Thomas and Troy Caupain may very well step up and shoulder some of the offensive burden this year, but it is still tough to imagine the Beacats actually improving on that end of the floor this season.
  4. We will start our own AAC preview this week and next, but one of our favorite league sources, the UConn Blog, kick-started its own league preview by profiling the teams they expect to be at the bottom of the league. It seems almost embarrassing to bother picking nits with these sort of customary season previews, but the blog’s decision to pick Houston to finish seventh proves once and for all that we like the Cougars better than most pundits do. There is no doubt that the losses of TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House hurt a lot, but the middle of the league looks soft and from a talent and coaching standpoint, the program is well-positioned to surprise some folks this season. New coach Kelvin Sampson is a proven winner, but the team’s success will depend more on the contributions of ballyhooed newcomers Torian Graham and Devonta Pollard than the coaching ability of Sampson.
  5. File this name as yet another player flying under the radar: Sam Cassell Jr. The Maryland transfer may very well establish himself as a key member of UConn coach Kevin Ollie’s rotation despite most of the preseason attention being heaped on backcourt mates Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton. Another big guard who can handle the ball and create his own shot, Cassell Jr. has plenty of offensive ability and wasn’t exactly a no-name coming out of high school. It must be nice to be Ollie. Sure, the Huskies are replacing one of the best players in program history in Shabazz Napier, but Ollie has an embarrassment of riches to choose from when it comes to his backcourt and there are plenty of teams across the league and the country that would love to have to make the decisions he will be making.
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Arizona State’s Most Important Player: Willie Atwood

Posted by Tracy McDannald on October 21st, 2014

The most important label is a lot like defining a most valuable player — a player’s talent may not necessarily translate into the team’s best, but his presence is discernible. So while Tra Holder and Shaquielle McKissic will shoulder a good chunk of the load as Arizona State looks to replace an all-conference backcourt, the void in the middle this season may be more glaring. The Sun Devils lost Jordan Bachynski, the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year. Look around the league this season and there is plenty of size left to battle, from freshmen Kevon Looney and Reid Travis to juniors Kaleb Tarczewski and Josh Scott. It’s a long way from a 7’2″ safety net and rim protector in Tempe nowadays.

Jordan Bachynski, The Pac-12's All-Time Leading Shotblocker, Will Be A Tough Guy To Replace

Arizona State has a 7’2″ void in the middle to replace with Jordan Bachynski (left) no longer in uniform.

Looking strictly at height, Eric Jacobsen and Cameron Gilbert are the biggest bodies on the roster at 6’10” each. While Gilbert is just a freshman, Jacobsen made 32 appearances (15 starts) and averaged 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. But neither is the answer here. Rather, head coach Herb Sendek brought in 6’8″ junior college transfer Willie Atwood, who averaged 20.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game at Connors State in Warner, Oklahoma, for this very reason. But, like many JuCo big men, there is not much else big about his frame. Atwood is listed at 210 spindly pounds and is more likely to steal a few boards from the offensive glass and score off putbacks. Protecting the rim is not a core strength of his, but that’s not where the projected reserve needs to make his mark against the Pac-12’s other bigs. The Sun Devils are looking at Atwood as a stretch four and possible center in spurts, someone to provide much-needed depth in the frontcourt. With more of a face-up than post-up game, he will be asked to use his quickness to take his opponents off the dribble. Execute those moves properly and that could translate into foul trouble for the opposition, and that’s where an effective offense may be just as good as a lockdown defense.

A favorable non-conference schedule awaits to help Atwood transition to the Division I level, and there will be plenty of work to do before the team’s January 4 league opener at Arizona. But early production will be welcome as the Sun Devils await the availability of UNLV transfer Savon Goodman, who will be eligible in mid-December. With a full season under his belt, the most important title would be Goodman’s to carry — and it probably will be come Pac-12 play — but this is Atwood’s chance to emerge immediately.

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