Top 25 Countdown: No. 22 St. Louis Billikens

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-8, 12-4 Atlantic 10 (2nd); Lost to Michigan State in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament

Head Coach: Jim Crews (interim)

Key Losses: Brian Conklin, Rick Majerus (coach), Kyle Cassity

Newcomers: Jared Drew, Keith Carter

Projected Lineup:

G: Kwamain Mitchell, Sr.
G: Mike McCall, Jr.
F: Cody Ellis, Sr.
F: Dwayne Evans, Jr.
F: Rob Loe, Jr.
Bench: Jordair Jett, Jr.; Cory Remekun, Sr.; Jake Barnett, Jr.; Keith Carter, Fr.

Outlook: I don’t think that it’s crazy to say that St. Louis had their best season in the history of their program in 2011-2012. They finished the year with 26 wins, one off of a school-record. That team that won 27 games didn’t make the NCAA tournament, however; they racked up the record with a run to the NIT finals. These Billikens did make the dance and, for just the fourth time in school history, they won a game while there, beating a hot Memphis team in the opening round before losing to Michigan State by four. That matched the furthest the program has ever advanced in the tournament; St. Louis has never made it to the Sweet 16.

So when you consider the fact that the Billikens return seven of the eight players that saw more than one minute of action in that loss to the Spartans, there should be a great deal of optimism surrounding the program, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, it’s difficult to know how much of the St. Louis success from a year ago was the result of the raw amount of talent in the program and how much of it can be credited to the coaching ability of Rick Majerus. There aren’t many who can stack up with Majerus from an x’s-and-o’s standpoint. The man has won 517 career games without so much as coaching as a power conference program.* He’s as good as anyone at identifying under-the-radar talent and figuring out a way to get the most out of his roster.

*(He was at Marquette before they were in the Big East and Utah before they were in the Pac-12.)

And he won’t be coaching this season. Majerus had to step aside due to health concerns back in August, and it’s unclear if he will ever coach again.

In his stead is Jim Crews, who has head coaching experience. And he also has a roster that is good enough to win a very strong Atlantic 10. The leader of this year’s team will likely be Kwamain Mitchell, who returned from a season-long suspension to average 12.4 points and 3.7 assists a season ago. Mitchell, who stands about 5-foot-10 in sneakers on his tip-toes, was one of the best players in the conference before his suspension. With leading scorer — and team leader — Brian Conklin graduating, it will be interesting to see the role that Mitchell takes over this year. The good news for St. Louis, given the coaching situation, is that this is a veteran group, but that doesn’t change the fact that someone will need to step up and embrace a leadership role.

He’ll likely be joined in the back court by Mike McCall Jr., who took over the starting role form Kyle Cassity by the end of the year. McCall was second on the team in assists last year and is also a guy that can spread the floor with his ability to shoot, but he may be relegated to bench duty this season by Jordair Jett. Jett, who came off the bench last season, is the best perimeter defender on the roster, being named to the Atlantic 10 all-defensive team despite being a reserve. He’s always been a bit of an after-thought offensively, although he’s averaged about seven points in his first two seasons and scored 40 points in the Billiken’s four A-10 and NCAA tournament games.

Also keep an eye on Keith Carter in the back court. Carter is a freshman out of Chicago’s Proviso East High School, and Majerus had been raving about him.

The St. Louis front court has a bit of an odd make-up. 6-foot-5 Dwayne Evans is the bruiser and team’s leading rebounder, while 6-foot-8 Cody Ellis — who shot 38.1% from three while leading the team in attempts coming off the bench — and 6-foot-11 Rob Loe tend to float around the perimeter. Cory Remekun is the guy likely to see a bump in his minutes this season with Conklin gone, as he’s more physical in the paint.

Predictions?: Overcoming the loss of Majerus is going to be tough for this group, but at the end of the day, their strength is on the defensive end of the floor. The willingness to give effort and a desire to get stops on that end of the floor isn’t necessarily going to change with a change in who is calling the plays from the sideline. Losing Conklin’s front court presence will hurt as much as losing his leadership did, and I can foresee the Billikens having far more offensive possessions turning into the Kwamain Mitchell show. Like the rest of the A-10, St. Louis is a tough team to peg because of some of their off-season changes and the strength of the conference. On paper, they are probably one of the league’s top two teams, but that doesn’t mean much. Anything less than a top four finish in the conference and a win in the NCAA tournament should be considered a disappointment.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.