Elias Harris, Cole Dickerson

Don’t forget about Gonzaga when discussing the best teams out west

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The off-season has been a good one for west coast college basketball, a much-needed change given the struggles of the region’s most prestigious basketball league.

Many have rushed to declare the Pac-12 as being “back” thanks to the recruiting hauls brought in by Arizona and UCLA, not to mention the wealth of experience due back at Stanford.

In the Mountain West it’s been UNLV, a team that’s loaded with talent when looking at both returnees and newcomers, and San Diego State hasn’t been far behind in the chatter either.

But for all the excitement being drummed up by those programs, it’s important that people don’t ignore the region’s most consistent program over the last decade.

That would be Gonzaga, who in spite of the graduation of guard Marquise Carter and big man Robert Sacre will have enough talent back to improve upon their 26-7 mark of a season ago.

“Maybe a little bit. A lot of those big-time schools have accomplished a lot in the past,” said senior forward Elias Harris, who took part in the LeBron James Skills Academy last weekend, when asked if the Bulldogs are being overlooked.

Harris averaged 13.1 points and a team-best 8.5 rebounds per game last season, shooting 50.2% from the field and 41.4% from beyond the arc.

While losing Sacre takes away some valuable size for the Bulldogs, it may open things up for Harris from a responsibility standpoint.

“I need to be that type of player that can out-hustle guys,” said Harris. “That’s what I was trying to do: out-hustle guys, get rebounds, try to stop people on the defensive end and that helps you get better on the offensive end.”

In addition to Harris up front the Bulldogs welcome back Sam Dower and Guy Landry Edi, and the return of 7-footer Kelly Olynyk from a redshirt season will help account for the loss of Sacre.

And given how well point guard Kevin Pangos played as a freshman it’s going to be interesting to see how he progresses with a year of experience under his belt (the same goes for Gary Bell, Jr.).

Defensively the Bulldogs won’t wow people with the steals and blocks, but they didn’t last season and ranked 34th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy’s website).

But while the debate of who the best team in the western United States is one that will be on the radar of many college basketball fans, the first thing for Gonzaga will be to reclaim the top spot in the WCC.

Saint Mary’s, who loses Rob Jones but returns a number of key contributors led by point guard Matthew Dellavedova, won the regular season and postseason tournament crowns last season.

BYU should also be formidable despite losing Noah Hartsock thanks to the return of Matt Carlino and Brandon Davies, and Loyola Marymount has one of the nation’s best guards in Anthony Ireland.

The climb back to the top certainly won’t come without its challenges for Mark Few’s program, but they’ve got the pieces in place to get it done.

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Report: Virginia Tech forward Blackshear still recovering from offseason foot surgery

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Kerry Blackshear Jr. #24 of the Virginia Tech Hokies and Kamari Murphy #21 of the Miami Hurricanes go for a rebound in the second half during the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC Basketball Tournament Verizon Center on March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Virginia Tech sophomore forward Kerry Blackshear will miss the start of training camp as he continues to recover from offseason foot surgery, according to a report from Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The 6-foot-10 Blackshear played in all 35 games for the Hokies last season as he battled through the foot injury to average 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. According to Barber’s report, Blackshear had surgery on his right foot five days after the 2015-16 season ended, but he’s still wearing a walking boot to help recover. There has been no timetable given for Blackshear’s return.

Blackshear will be a key piece for a Virginia Tech team that is a bit thin up front this season. Freshman Khadim Sy can provide some minutes up front, but he’s inexperienced and center Nick Fullard has to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Getting a healthy Blackshear will be a key storyline for a Virginia Tech team that many will have in the preseason top 25.

Indiana roster dealing with handful of injuries as practice begins

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 20:  A general view of  the SMU Mustangs game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Assembly Hall on November 20, 2014 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Indiana has been hit with the injury buy a bit during the start of practice and it doesn’t only involved the recent announcement of knee surgery for senior Collin Hartman.

According to a report from the Indiana Daily Student the Hoosiers are also dealing with a knee injury for junior college transfer forward Freddie McSwain and sophomore Juwan Morgan hasn’t been cleared for practice yet after offseason shoulder surgery.

The 6-foot-6 McSwain had a knee injury flare up when he came to Indiana and had surgery to clean it up. Crean told the Indiana Daily Student that McSwain was still a few weeks from returning.

That means Indiana has to find early practice minutes to replace Hartman, Morgan and McSwain up front which gives more reps to players like O.G. Anunoby and freshman big man De’Ron Davis.

Since Anunoby and Davis both dealt with some offseason injuries and guard Robert Johnson was recently cleared to return, Hoosiers head coach Tom Crean is remaining cautious during the early part of practice this season. Crean also has to monitor the return of starting guard James Blackmon Jr. after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL.

“We would have already practiced this morning and they would be ready to go tonight, if this were a year ago,” Crean said in the report. “We have to tailor make this thing. We can’t be in too much of a rush with these guys.”

Obviously, the frontcourt injuries are something to keep an eye on for Indiana during the early part of the season. None of the three injuries seem severe, but Hartman’s timetable to return hasn’t been listed and McSwain and Morgan are missing valuable early time in practice.

It’ll be interesting to see if this helps younger players like Anunoby and Davis get more acquainted with the first team early on since both could have an impact this season.

Texas lands four-star Class of 2017 guard Jase Febres

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Texas and head coach Shaka Smart continue to recruit at a high level, especially in the state of Texas, as the Longhorns landed a commitment from Class of 2017 four-star guard Jase Febres on Friday night.

The 6-foot-5 Febres is considered the No. 63 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2017 rankings as he burst on the national radar this summer with some strong shooting performances. Febres shot over 40 percent from three-point range during the month of July after battling through injury during the spring. Besides owning good size for a wing shooter, Febres also takes pride in defending and he can rebound a bit from the wing as well.

Febres is going to have to improve his overall offensive package if a defense plays him off the three-point line, but he has upside as a three-and-D guy with the Longhorns.

The Class of 2017 is starting to round into shape for Texas as Febres joins four-star power forward Jericho Sims and four-star forward Royce Hamm. Since taking over the Texas job, Smart has done a great job of keeping local talent home as he now has five four- and five-star prospects from the state in the last two classes.

 

VIDEO: Kentucky fans get married in the ticket line for Big Blue Madness

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Kentucky fans have unique ways of making their annual Big Blue Madness event the most chaotic tip-off event of the season. While Big Blue Nation is waiting in line for tickets to this year’s festivities in Tent City, one couple decided to go the extra mile.

After securing the first spot in line for tickets, Ray Branham and Vicki Harvey opted to get married. According to a post from Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio, the couple had already been talking about tying the knot, but decided to make the move once they had the top spot in line. As you can see by the wedding video, it was a very Kentucky-themed ceremony as the duo got married in front of friends and other Kentucky fans.

I can’t say I’m surprised two Kentucky fans decided to get married in line for something like Big Blue Madness and this (unplanned) wedding gives this year’s event something unique that we will always remember.

Penn State loses freshman on day practice starts

Patrick Chambers
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On the day that college basketball practice is to start, Penn State head coach Pat Chambers announced that his roster would be changing.

Joe Hampton, a 6-foot-8, 290 pound power forward from Maryland, will be leaving the program.

“Joe has made the decision to leave the program based on personal reasons,” Chambers said. “We wish him the best of luck with his future endeavors.”

Hampton was a three-star prospect that missed his senior season at Oak Hill Academy with torn ACL, but he reportedly enrolled at Penn State in May, before the rest of the Nittany Lion recruit class.