Top 25 Countdown: No. 11 San Diego State Aztecs

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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, 10-4 Mountain West (t-1st); Lost to NC State in the Opening Round of the NCAA tournament

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Key Losses: Garrett Green, Tim Shelton

Newcomers: Winston Shepard, Dwayne Polee II, JJ O’Brien, James Johnson, Matt Shrigley, Skylar Spencer

Projected Lineup:

G: Xavier Thames, Jr.
G: Chase Tapley, Jr.
F: Jamaal Franklin, Jr.
F: Winston Shepard, Fr.
C: DeShawn Stephens, Sr.
Bench: James Rahon, Sr.; Dwayne Polee II, So.; JJ O’Brien, So.; James Johnson, Jr.; Matt Shrigley, Fr.

Outlook: To get a feel for where the Aztec program is right now, think about this: after losing their top four players from the 2010-2011 season — including Kawhi Leonard — SDSU was in full-on, rebuilding year mode heading last season. But the Aztecs won 26 games and took home a share of the Mountain West title, watching as Jamaal Franklin went from a seldom-used bench piece to a starter early in the season to the MWC Player of the Year by the end of the year, racking up averages of 19.5 points and 9.9 boards in league play.

The Aztecs, who prior to 2011 had never won an NCAA tournament game, were knocked off in the opening round of the tournament by No. 11 seed NC State, and instead of enjoying their third straight — and fifth-ever — trip to the Big Dance, the Aztec faithful were upset about getting upset. That should tell you something about the expectations this team has heading into this season, as an influx of talented transfers and a crop of quality freshmen has the Aztecs sitting pretty as arguably the best team on the west coast.

For Fisher’s club, everything starts out on the perimeter, and Franklin’s name is the one to know. It took him a while to break into the starting lineup a year ago, but over the last couple of months of the season, he looked like an all-american. If Franklin had scored seven more points and grabbed just one more rebound in the 13 conference games he played, the 6-foot-5 wing would have averaged 20 and 10. There are two areas that Franklin needs to improve upon: he turns the ball over far too often, and he settles for too many three-pointers. But when he’s putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim, he’s one of the best players in the country.

And he’s far from alone in SDSU’s back court, a junior Xavier Thames and seniors James Rahon and Chase Tapley make-up SDSU’s four-guard attack. Tapley is the leader in this group. He’s SDSU’s best shooter and the guy that often has the ball in his hands in crunch-time. He can do a little bit of everything on the floor and has been through the battles — barring a disaster this year, he’ll be the first player in program history to play in four NCAA tournaments. Thames is SDSU’s play-maker, and his ability to get out and run the floor is one of the reasons SDSU will be looking to push the pace this season. Rahon is a sharp-shooter, but he struggled with his consistency last year, making just 32% from distance.

The front court is where things get interesting for SDSU. Garrett Green graduates, but Deshawn Stephens returns for his senior season to provide Fisher with some bulk inside. He’ll be joined by James Johnson, a former top 100 recruit and a transfer from Virginia, in December. Neither Stephens nor Johnson are particularly promising, but at some point size becomes a necessity.

The three other newcomers along the front line are the ones that have increased the level of hype surrounding this group. We’ll start with Winston Shepard, who is an athletic, 6-foot-8 small forward known for his versatility and playmaking ability. He’s a consensus top 50 recruit that has been labeled s five-star prospect by some outlets, and he should have an immediate and significant impact this year.

He’ll be joined by two sophomore transfers in Dwayne Polee II and JJ O’Brien. Polee is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-7 string bean that had a promising freshman season on the St. John’s team that made the tournament with a roster full of seniors. O’Brien, like Polee, is more of a wing forward than he is an interior presence, but he’s quality player that came on strong late in his one season at Utah.

Predictions?: The Mountain West is loaded this season, and given the strength that a number of the programs have historically had in their home venues, it’s easy to picture a scenario where the league’s champ ends up with four or five conference losses again. I peg SDSU as the favorite. They have the best player in the league in Franklin and the perfect roster makeup to become a team that plays a faster, more-uptempo pace.

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

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.