Conference USA preview: Can anyone dethrone Memphis?

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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 Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

It will be an interesting season in Conference USA as four members are headed to the Big East at the end of the academic year. But even with those changes there’s one thing that remains the same: the Memphis Tigers are the preseason favorite to win the title.

Josh Pastner enters his third season at Memphis and while the Tigers have reached the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons they’ve failed to pick up a win (Arizona in 2011 and Saint Louis last season). That has to change, and with the Tigers being a more experienced group there’s no reason why fans shouldn’t expect multiple NCAA tournament victories this March.

The question within Conference USA  entering this season is a simple one: which team (or teams) is best capable of challenging Memphis for conference supremacy? Could that be Marshall, or is it someone else? Here’s an early look at Conference USA.

Five Things to Know

1. Memphis loses wing Will Barton but returns five players who started at least 19 games last season. Three of those players are preseason All-Conference USA selections, with forward Tarik Black making the first team and guards Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson making the second team. Also on the second team is sophomore wing Adonis Thomas, who played in just 19 games last season due to a broken foot.

2. UCF is ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions but Donnie Jones’ program received a much-needed boost when senior forward Keith Clanton decided to stick with the program. Clanton, who averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season, was voted Preseason Conference USA Player of the Year by the coaches.

3. Tom Herrion may have to replace two starters from last year’s squad at Marshall, but he’ll have the services of two of Conference USA’s best players in junior guard DeAndre Kane (16.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and senior forward Dennis Tinnon (10.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg). The Thundering Herd haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1987, and that’s a dry spell they’re capable of ending this season.

4. Larry Brown makes his debut at SMU this season, and this is likely to be a tough campaign in the season before the Mustangs join the Big East. SMU has three transfers sitting out this season, and their leading returnee is senior guard London Giles (10.0 ppg). That means freshmen such as Blaise Mbargoba and Jordan Dickerson will have to show themselves capable of contributing if SMU is to accomplish anything in 2012-13.

5. The Conference USA tournament was originally slated to be played in Memphis, but once the Tigers accepted an invitation to join the Big East the powers that be in C-USA voted to move the tournament to Tulsa. However, Danny Manning’s young squad likely doesn’t have the talent needed to take advantage of the event being held in their city.

Impact Newcomers

F Shaq Goodwin (Memphis)
Goodwin was one of the nation’s best power forward prospects in the 2012 class (and one of the best tight ends in the country as well), and he’ll factor into the rotation at Memphis. Adding a player of Goodwin’s size and athleticism (6-9, 250 and runs the floor very well) will bolster the Tigers’ front court production this season.

F Danuel House (Houston)
Unfortunately Danrad “Chicken” Knowles wasn’t cleared academically, but James Dickey still has the talented House to call on this season. The 6-7 House is extremely athletic and can score from anywhere on the floor. He averaged 26.0 points per game as a senior at Hightower HS in Sugar Land, Texas.

F/G Twymond Howard (UTEP)
Howard was a Parade All-America selection last season as he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds per game at Pearl (MS) High School. Howard’s a good athlete who can get to the rim and finish, and combined with sophomore McKenzie Moore gives Tim Floyd a couple solid newcomers to add to the rotation (if Anthony January enrolls in January as planned the Miners will have another talented piece to call on).

G Daiquan Walker (UCF)
The Knights need help at the point with Isaiah Sykes (94 assists in 2011-12) being their leading assist man from last season and the freshman Walker is one option for Donnie Jones. The Philadelphia native played alongside UNLV freshman Savon Goodman last season, averaging 18.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game in helping to lead Constitution High to a Pennsylvania Class A state title.

G/F Michael Craig (Southern Miss)
The South Mountain CC transfer will have plenty of opportunities to make an impact in Donnie Tyndall’s first season at Southern Miss. Craig averaged 22.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game last season, earning NJCAA First Team All-America honors.

Other newcomers of note: G Kareem Canty (Marshall), G Geron Johnson (Memphis/Garden City CC transfer), C Blaise Mbargorba (SMU), G Pat Swilling Jr. (Tulsa/College of Southern Idaho transfer), F Chris Washburn (UTEP) 

Breakout Players

F Adonis Thomas (Memphis)
Thomas was expected to be one of the best freshmen in America last season but his broken foot robbed the Memphis native of valuable playing time and explosive athletic ability. Thomas is 100% now, and with Barton and Wesley Witherspoon gone there’s more room for him to go to work.

F Tristan Spurlock (UCF)
Spurlock, a transfer from Virginia, averaged 7.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 22 contests (six starts) in 2011-12. Spurlock’s a very good athlete who should see an increase in scoring opportunities with guard Marcus Jordan (354 field goal attempts) moving on. Keith Clanton and Isaiah Sykes are going to need help, and Spurlock is capable of being that third offensive option.

F Shawn Williams (SMU)
This one’s just as much about necessity as it is talent. Williams, who began his college career at Texas, averaged 5.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 2011-12. And given the Mustangs’ lack of experience he’ll have to improve on that production if SMU is to “tread water” this season.

G Rashard McGill (Southern Miss)
McGill started 27 of the 31 games in which he played last season, but the Tallahassee CC transfer wasn’t all that productive with averages of 2.5 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. McGill averaged 14.6 minutes per contest in 2011-12, a number that’s likely to increase with the Golden Eagles having to replace five of their top six scorers.

G Tim Peete (Tulsa)
Peete started ten of the 31 games in which he played last season, averaging 5.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per contest. His 67 assists were tied for second on the team, but with Jordan Clarkson and Eric McClellan both gone Peete is Tulsa’s leading returnee in that department. Danny Manning has a lot of new pieces (and some returnees who were seldom used in 2011-12) in his first run as a head coach, likely meaning that Peete will have a larger role on the floor.

Player of the Year: G DeAndre Kane (Marshall)
According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers Kane (16.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg) finished last season with a possession percentage of 29.5% (tops on the team) and his responsibilities are unlikely to diminish this season. If Kane can raise his shooting percentages (38.8% FG and 58.6% FT last season) he’ll be even tougher for opponents to deal with.

Coach under pressure: Ben Braun (Rice) 
Not sure there’s another team in America that saw more players transfer out this offseason without the benefit of a coaching change. Big men Arsalan Kazemi (Oregon) and Omar Oraby (USC) both call the Pac-12 home now, while Jarelle Reischel (Rhode Island) and Dylan Ennis (Villanova) made moves to the northeast.

In total six players transferred this offseason (the departure of assistant Marco Morcos could have had an impact), leaving senior guard Tamir Jackson and a very inexperienced roster. Is there enough talent for the Owls to renew optimism in a program that posted its first winning season since 2005?

All-Conference Team

G DeAndre Kane (Marshall)*
G Joe Jackson (Memphis)
G Ricky Tarrant (Tulane)
F Keith Clanton (UCF)
F Tarik Black (Memphis) 

Predicted Finish

1. Memphis (To be expected; Tigers need to show they can be successful in the NCAA tournament)
2. Marshall (Kane and Tinnon are one of the better tandems around, and are capable of getting the Herd into the Big Dance)
3. Houston (no Knowles but adding Danuel House to the combo of Joseph Young and TaShawn Thomas should make them formidable)
4. UTEP (John Bohannon was one of C-USA’s most improved players last season, and they welcome some talented newcomers as well)
5. UCF (Keith Clanton and Isaiah Sykes are back, but what they do at the point will determine UCF’s level of success)
6. Southern Miss (a new era in Hattiesburg, and Donnie Tyndall should keep the Golden Eagles in the top half of the standings)
7. Tulane (Joseph Bruha and Kendall Timmons are healthy, and Ricky Tarrant is a star in the making)
8. East Carolina (senior point guard Miguel Paul is one of Conference USA’s best)
9. UAB (wings Jordan Swing and Preston Purifoy will have to lead the way for Jerod Haase’s squad)
10. Tulsa (heavy personnel losses leave Danny Manning looking for his newcomers to help out senior Scottie Haralson on offense)
11. SMU (Larry Brown’s debut will be made with an eye toward the Big East in 2013)
12. Rice (Tamir Jackson returns, and that’s good because most everyone else left)

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

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.