Atlantic 10 Preview: New additions + returning talent = Luh-Oh-Ded

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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.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a conference race that will be more entertaining to follow than the Atlantic 10.

For starters, there are now 16 teams in this conference, which, with a 16 game league schedule, means that each team will only be playing one conference opponent in a home-and-home. You need to make up a game or two in the standings? Don’t count on winning head-to-head. You’ll have to hope someone slips up on the road. That, in all likelihood, will happen quite often, however, because of the 16 A-10 teams, six — six!!! — received a first-place vote in the preseason poll. Those six teams didn’t include Xavier, Dayton or Richmond, who are three of the best programs in the league.

I hope they already have clearly defined end-of-the-year tie-breakers.

Perhaps the most interesting story line involving the conference during the 2012-2013 season will be just how many teams they can get into the NCAA tournament, and that’s going to depend heavily on how well the teams in the league perform in non-conference play. If the top of the league can land some upsets over high-major (read: high-RPI) opponents and the bottom-feeders can avoid getting picked off by some low-major (read: low-RPI) foes …

I’ll put it like this: given some of the question marks in the middle of the bigger conferences, there are (at least) six teams in the A-10 that are, on paper, of NCAA tournament quality.

Five Things to Know

1. Rick Majerus won’t be coaching the Billikens this season: And he may never coach again due to a serious, potentially life-threatening health issue. As a team, this shouldn’t have a huge impact on the competitiveness of this group. (At least not as much as the broken foot suffered by Kwamain Mitchell.) This is a veteran group that spent a couple of years playing together. But, as the saying goes, games that are won by five points or less are won by coaching, and there are few in-game tacticians as well-regarded as Majerus. In a league as balanced as the A-10, a couple of possessions could end up being the difference between a first-place and a fourth-place finish.

2. UMass is back: The Minutemen’s entire history as a basketball program can, more or less, be tied to John Calipari and Marcus Camby. Beyond that, well, there isn’t much to talk about. This season, however, there will be. Chaz Williams, one of the nation’s most underrated point guards, returns to lead the way along with all but one member of last year’s rotation. Throw in Sampson Carter and Cady Lalanne, who were injured last year, and Derek Kellogg should have enough to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

3. What happened to Xavier?: The 2011-2012 season was saved when Xavier was able to make a run to the Sweet 16, thanks in part to Lehigh’s upset of Duke. The following offseason wasn’t. Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease graduated. Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona. Two recruits in this class were ruled ineligible. Talented 2013 recruit Chris Thomas decommited. Incoming transfer Isaiah Philmore was suspended for three games. Dez Wells was (wrongfully?) expelled. Not only will this be a tough year for the Muskies, but with the bad press of the brawl getting followed up with this kind of roster turnover, how long will the downswing last?

4. Temple and Charlotte will play their final season of A-10 ball: Next year, the Owls will be headed for the Big East, where their football program already began competing this season. Charlotte will be making the move to Conference USA, which, again, is a move driven by football.

5. Khalif Wyatt will be playing in Temple’s A-10 swan song: It was in doubt for a while for Temple’s leading returning scorer after the senior got busted for solicitation in Atlantic City, on his 21st birthday, no less. But the charges were reduced and head coach Fran Dunphy doled out what he felt was a proper punishment, so Wyatt and his 17.1 ppg will be on the floor for the Owls this year.

Impact Newcomers

1. Butler and VCU: We knew the conference was going to be tough after the 2011-2012 season ended, but when the departures of Temple and Charlotte created a need for the league, they courted two of the country’s most charming mid-majors. That courtship was not only successful, it happened quickly, as the Rams and the Bulldogs, both borderline top 25 teams this season, accepted the offer for immediate entry.

2. Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham, Butler: Butler was a tough defensive team last season in the way that Butler always seems to be a tough defensive team. They’ll be next season as well, because, despite losing Ronald Nored to graduation, the Bulldogs return the majority of their young talent. Clarke, a senior transfer from Arkansas, and Dunham, a top 100 freshman, both address Butler’s biggest weakness from a year ago: perimeter shooting. Their role — particularly Clarke, who is making a transition to the point — became all the more important when Chrishawn Hopkins was dismissed from school.

3. Semaj Christon, Xavier: As much as Xavier lost, there are still some pieces on the roster — Justin Martin, Travis Taylor, Brad Redford, Jeff Robinson. Someone is going to have to get them the ball, and Christon — a four-star prospect that spent last season at a prep school — will have to be that guy. If the Musketeers are going to be competitive, he needs to live up to the hype.

4. Jake O’Brien, Temple: Temple has a couple of impact newcomers this year — Dalton Pepper, Daniel Dingle — but O’Brien may be the most important. A 1,000 point scorer at BU, O’Brien is a 6-foot-9 graduate transfer that may end up being the biggest player in Dunphy’s rotation.

5. Jordan Hare, Rhode Island: We knew that the Hurleys would make this program relevant. This season will be a bit of a holdover year, as the Rams are starting over with the new regime, but Hare, who was a top 100 recruit at one point in his career, headlines a solid recruiting class this season. With reinforcements coming next year — transfers getting eligible, more top 100 recruits coming in — the Rams are on the way up.

Breakout Players

1. Treveon Graham, So., VCU: Graham was very productive in limited minutes as a freshman, but what makes him such a trendy pick is that he plays the same role — big guard, can rebound at the four spot, hits threes — that made Brad Burgess so effective last season for the Rams.

2. CJ Aiken, Jr., St. Joseph’s: The Hawks bring back everyone from last season, which is part of the reason they were picked to win the conference, so there may not be an enormous increase in the numbers that Aiken produces. But I think Aiken will end up becoming a first round prospect, ‘breaking out’ in the sense that he becomes a more recognizable name nationally. He’s long and athletic, a terrific shot blocker and a 6-foot-9 combo-forward with three-point range.

3. Jerrell Wright, So., La Salle: The Explorers are the sleeper in the A-10, and Wright is a big reason why. After averaging 9.8 points and 5.6 boards in less than 20 minutes as a freshman, the 6-foot-8, 240 pounder returns as one of the only big men ready to play major minutes.

4. Cody Ellis, Sr., St. Louis: Usually, seniors aren’t the kind of players that will breakout. But with minutes opening up at the four thanks to the graduation of Brian Conklin and Kwamain Mitchell laid up with a broken foot, Ellis will be taking over the load as the Billiken’s primary scorer.

5. Khyle Marshall, Jr., Butler: I predicted Marshall would breakout last year, and I’m sticking with it. He’s talented, he’s athletic, and he’ll have more space inside with the floor spread by Clarke and Dunham.

Player of the Year: Chaz Williams, Jr., UMass

Williams averaged 16.9 points, 6.2 assists, 4.4 boards and 2.2 steals while shooting 41.9% from three a season ago. Only a junior, he clearly has learned how to thrive in Derek Kellogg’s system. UMass returns enough pieces this season that they could finish in the top four in the conference and have a shot at earning a trip to the NCAA tournament. If UMass does that and Williams repeats his performance from last season, he’ll deserve the Player of the Year award.

All-Conference Team

G: Chaz Williams, Jr., UMass*
G: Kevin Dillard, Sr., Dayton
F: Khalif Wyatt, Sr., Temple
F: Chris Gaston, Sr., Fordham
C: CJ Aiken, Jr., St. Joseph’s

Coach under pressure: Chris Mack, Xavier

This has less to do with basketball than it does everything else that’s gone on in his program. Between the brawl, the recruits that couldn’t get eligible, the expulsion of Dez Wells (again, unwarranted expulsion?), and the transfer of Mark Lyons, there aren’t a lot of bright spots in the Xavier program. This season has the potential to be one where Mack can showcase his coaching acumen, working with the bad hand he’s been dealt and getting this group to play above their talent level. But it also has the potential to turn into a dumpster fire, and if disaster strikes, I can’t imagine many folks in and around Xavier will be happy with a bottom-four finish in the league.

Predicted Finish

1. VCU: I believe in ‘Havoc’. VCU is really good at running their system, forcing turnovers and getting their opponents to play out of control. And the talent on the roster is good enough to succeed at this level.
2. St. Josephs’s: This is their year. They’ve had the talent, now they have the experience. Carl Jones, Langston Galloway and Halil Kanicevic deserved more of a mention in this preview.
3. Butler: With Hopkins on the roster, I think Butler would be up there with VCU as the best team in the league. But I’m not sold on Clarke being able to run the point. Losing Nored will hurt more than people believe as well.
4. St. Louis: They’d be No. 1 if Majerus was healthy. They’d be second if Kwamain Mitchell was. Tough breaks.
5. UMass: Williams is one of the most entertaining guards in the country, and this year he’ll have more help.
6. Temple: Temple as a lot of good wings and combo-forwards on their roster. I’m worried about the point guard spot as well as the post.
7. Dayton: Kevin Dillard is one of the most talented players in the league, but is there enough around him to push into the top six?
8. La Salle: The sleepers! The Atlantic 10 is so deep at the point guard spot that Tyreek Duren is criminally slept on.
9. Richmond: Chris Mooney is still in the rebuilding phase after losing Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper. He’ll get them there, but it won’t be this year.
10. Xavier: A talented freshman point guard leading unproven veterans? I’ll believe it when I see it.
11. Charlotte: Alan Major actually has a sneakily good roster at his disposal, headlined by an all-league caliber big man in Chris Braswell.
12. Rhode Island: Maybe my faith in the Hurleys is too strong, but I just don’t see a way they field a team that isn’t competitive.
13. George Washington: I think that Mike Lonergan will eventually turn GW into a competitive program in this league. But right now, he just doesn’t have the horses to stay in the race.
14. St. Bonaventure: Andrew Nicholson ain’t walkin’ through that door!
15. Fordham: Chris Gaston is a special player. It’s a shame that he’ll never have a chance to play on a relevant team in college.
16. Duquesne: With everything they lost — their star in TJ McConnell, their coaching staff — I can’t see how a school with no basketball history does anything different.

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

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.