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.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.

South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, still ineligible, to declare for draft

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Former Louisville forward and current South Carolina Gamecock Brian Bowen will declare for the NBA draft without signing with an agent as a safety measure in case the NCAA does not clear him to play in the 2018-19 season.

Bowen is the former top 25 prospect that was forced to leave the Louisville program after the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college hoops turned up evidence that his family had accepted the first payment of what was supposed to be a $100,000 fee to get him to be a Cardinal.

That investigation was ultimately what got Rick Pitino fired.

“I just felt that it was the right decision,” Bowen told ESPN. “My goal is still to play college basketball, but I felt as though it makes sense to cover my bases.”

Bowen is in a tough spot right now.

On the one hand, he has already missed an entire season of college basketball and there is no guarantee that he will be cleared to play next season, if at all.

On the other hand, the fact that he has not played in a year and that he has not played against any collegiate level competition is one of the reasons that NBA front offices are going to be hesitant to draft him, and that’s not a good thing for a player that was considered a second round pick before he spent a year on the sidelines.

North Carolina’s Cam Johnson undergoes hip surgery

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For the second time in the last six months, North Carolina wing Cam Johnson has undergone the knife.

On Wednesday, North Carolina announced that Johnson underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his hip on Monday, and that he is expected to make a full recovery and return to school in time for the start of the 2018-19 season.

The 6-foot-9 Johnson was UNC’s third-leading scorer a season ago, averaging 12.4 points while shooting 34.1 percent from three. He only played 26 games, however, after missing time due to a surgery to fix a torn meniscus.