Best bets to be this season's version of Butler


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Anyone looking for this season’s Butler – a non-BCS school capable of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament – doesn’t have to look far.

It’s still the Bulldogs.

Sure, Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley are gone, but there’s plenty to like about Brad Stevens’ team that came this close to stunning Duke in the 2010 NCAA title game. You know, like Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored, among others. But you should already know about the Bulldogs. They’re 18th in our preseason Top 25.

Other non-BCS schools in the Top 25? Memphis, Gonzaga, San Diego State, Temple, UNLV, Xavier and Wichita State. So consider them good bets as well.

So who’s that leave? Plenty. Bookmark this page. When March rolls around, you’ll see these six schools in your bracket. Ignore them at your own risk.

East Tennessee State
The Bucs’ finest NCAA tourney moment came in 1992 when they stunned 3-seed Arizona. They’ve been back four times since and have been routed just once, last season against Kentucky. There’s reason to think they could finally break through again. Still, among the teams listed here, ETSU is the biggest underdog.

Four starters return form a 20-15 team that played forced a ton of turnovers, hit the offensive boards and gets a boost thanks to a healthy Mike Smith, who was an all-conference selection until a knee injury derailed his 2009-10 season. He’ll be their best offensive player.

Old Dominion
The Monarchs are a known commodity – they popped Notre Dame last season as an 11 seed – who bring back four starters from a 27-9 team that swept the conference crowns. Despite losing center Gerald Lee, ODU isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it could be better.

Senior Frank Hassell was the difference against Notre Dame (15 points, 9 boards) and junior Kent Bazemore is poised for bigger things after nabbing a spot on the All-CAA Tournament team. Guards Ben Finney (111.2 ORtg) and Darius James (22.1 ARate) are underrated and a huge reason ODU only allows foes to hit 30.1 percent beyond the arc.

Bottom line, ODU is nasty on defense (no easy shots, lots of forced turnovers and teams don’t get second-chance points) and hits the offensive boards relentlessly. In fact, no team did it better in 2010. That continues, good luck to the BCS school that plays the Monarchs in March. 

Santa Barbara
Butler had a weapon most non-BCS school don’t have: An NBA-caliber talent. Same goes for the Gauchos, who have a dynamic player in All-American candidate Orlando Johnson. The 6-5 junior averaged 18 points and 5.4 rebounds game last season, his first with the program.

But … Santa Barbara needs a big jump in performance to match Butler. The Gauchos keep opponents off the glass and are good along the perimeter, but the offense is incredibly inefficient (a little too much Johnson?) and makes too many turnovers. Solve those issues, and they’ll elevate their game in March.

Utah State
The Aggies are a March mainstay, having made seven NCAA tournaments since 2000. Yet they’ve won just once, a 12-5 upset against Ohio State in 2001. That’s the main reason one of the winningest teams of the decade isn’t better known. That changes this season and makes them a great opportunity to be the newest media darling.

Despite losing do-it-all guard Jared Quayle, Utah State returns every other player from a 27-8 squad that just missed pulling off a Big Dance upset against Marquette. That means shooters (Tyler Newbold, Brian Green), reliable post players (Tai Wesley, Nate Bendall), a savvy wing (Pooh Williams) and a deep bench.

Not that coach Stew Morrill uses the bench to outrun opponents. The Aggies play slower than almost every D-I team, yet few teams can hang with their incredibly efficient offense. March is made for teams who can make shots. That’s the Aggies.

Virginia Commonwealth
Two CAA teams? Absolutely. While CAA foe ODU thrives on defense, the Rams do it with offense. Only 25 teams sported a more efficient offense in 2009-10. They hit 36.6 percent of their 3-pointers, 50.9 of their 2s, take care of the ball and get to the offensive glass.

It all starts with senior guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozell, who can hit from outside and occasionally play some nice defense, too. VCU will miss center Larry Sanders, who cleaned up defensive miscues with his blocks, but this isn’t a team who overly relies on one player. That makes them a tough out in March.

The Terriers made the NCAA tournament for the first time last season. A return appearance could result in the school’s first Big Dance win. (They just missed it after four-point loss to Wisconsin.)

Wofford plays deliberately, prizes possessions and forces opponents to work for each shot, which usually results in a Wofford rebound. But it’s not all about defense. Senior forward Noah Dahlman averaged 16.6 points a game last season, but few players score more efficiently because the 6-6 Dahlman hits the boards for second-chance points and gets to the free-throw line frequently.

However, an NCAA tourney win will require a little something more. Guards Jamar Diggs, Brad Loesing and stout forward Tim Johnson must become more reliable scoring options.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

Skal Labissiere has not been cleared by the NCAA

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While the timeline surrounding Cheick Diallo’s eligibility has made headlines for months now, another elite recruit at a blue blood program is still awaiting word on whether or not he will be allowed to play college basketball this season.

Kentucky center Skal Labissiere, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2015 and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, has not yet been cleared to play this season. His guard, Gerald Hamilton, confirmed as much to ESPN earlier today.

“Not yet,” Hamilton said. “We’re just trying to get everything squared away. They are asking a few questions.

“They haven’t cleared him, but we’re sticking with our faith. There’s no real concern about anything from the Kentucky compliance people.”

Labissiere has more red flags than you can count, almost all of them pertaining to Hamilton. It was the worst kept secret in high school basketball that Hamilton more or less had Labissiere for sale. It’s why he played three different AAU programs and two different high schools in four years. Hamilton runs a non-profit called Reach Your Dream and, after a transfer rendered him ineligible for his senior high school season, Labissiere played for a team called ‘Reach Your Dream Prep’, which Hamilton founded simply to ensure Labissiere had a place to play.

Here’s how summarized things back in November:

Multiple coaches who have recruited Labissiere told Hamilton either directly indicated or strongly suggested pursuing Labissiere would mostly be a waste of time if they couldn’t offer assistance in helping fund his foundation. One coach from a prominent staff said: “We couldn’t even get in the door.” Another added: “We recognized what it was about early on and decided not to get involved.”

In other words, no one is surprised that the NCAA is looking into Labissiere’s situation, and it’s not hard to look at Kentucky bringing in Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard as a sign that they’re not completely certain that Labissiere will make it through this. The surprise is in how quiet that investigation has been over the course of the last few months.

The shame in all of this is that Labissiere is a sweet kid with an incredible back-story. He survived the devastating earthquake in Haiti despite having a house collapse on him. If he can get through this investigation, he’ll easily be one of the biggest and most likeable stars in the sport this season.

Xavier commit to enroll early, redshirt

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Xavier landed a commitment on Wednesday from four-star big man Eddie Ekiyor, a source confirmed to

Ekiyor, who picked the Musketeers over Miami and Florida, is a borderline top 100 recruit. He’s an athletic, 6-foot-8 post that shouldn’t have an issue adjusting to the pace and physicality of the game, although he needs to continue to develop offensively to be more than a catch-and-dunk big man down the road.

In other words, on paper, Ekiyor isn’t much different from the majority of high major big men. But what’s different about this situation is that Ekiyor will be enrolling at Xavier for the start of the spring semester, technically making him a member of the Class of 2015. Xavier won’t be rushing him through the process — he’ll redshirt the second half of the 2015-16 season — but getting him on campus early will allow him an extra six months of learning the Xavier system, developing in collegiate practices and working out with the Xavier strength coaches.

That should help him limit the adjustment phase as he transitions from high school. That’s important for the Musketeers, because there’s a chance that they could lose their starting front line — James Farr (graduation) and Jalen Reynolds (early entry) — after this season.