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.

Marquette lands Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny

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Marquette pulled in a quality graduate transfer commitment on Friday as Fordham guard Joseph Chartouny pledged to the Golden Eagles.

The 6-foot-3 Chartouny was a three-year starter for the Rams as he should help offset the loss of guard Andrew Rowsey to graduation. While Chartouny isn’t nearly the perimeter threat that Rowsey was, he should be able to help significantly on the defensive end for Marquette. Chartouny put up 12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals per game last season as he was one of the more productive all-around players in the Atlantic 10.

One of the nation’s leaders in steals the past three seasons, Chartouny has much better size to play alongside Markus Howard in the Marquette backcourt than Rowsey (5-foot-11) had. Since Howard is also 5-foot-11, Chartouny can now guard the bigger and more athletic perimeter matchup as Marquette tries to improve its porous defense from last season.

Marquette still has an open scholarship for next season as they’ve been investigating other transfer options to bolster the roster. Returning most of last season’s roster, the expectation will be for the Golden Eagles to make it back to the NCAA tournament next season.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.