Conference Previews: The Sun Belt is Tony Mitchell’s playground

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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.

North Texas.

Tony Mitchell

Those are the names you really need to know in the Sun Belt this season, because North Texas has enough talent that they could push their way into the top 25 this season and are led by Mitchell, who is all-but a lock to be the league’s Player of the Year and should play his way onto all-american teams and into the lottery. It’s not all that often that a player of Mitchell’s talent ends up on a team like North Texas, but it’s also not all that often that a top 20 recruit like Mitchell isn’t able to find a way to get eligible at a school like Missouri. Mitchell was in the Class of 2010, but he didn’t start his collegiate career until last December. And in that one semester of college ball, Mitchell managed to average 14.7 points, 10.0 boards and 3.0 blocks. He could end up making those numbers look paltry this year.

The scary thing is that he’s far from all that UNT has on their roster. Chris Jones is a talented sophomore point guard who will be joined on the perimeter by Alzee Williams and Jordan Williams. Justin Patton, a transfer from Grambling, is eligible this season, and Oklahoma State transfer Roger Franklin is back for another season as well. With Denver out of the picture (they bounced, off to the new WAC), the Mean Green are a lock to win the west and the overwhelming favorite to win the Sun Belt.

But don’t expect Middle Tennessee State to roll over and play dead. Laron Dendy is gone, but the Blue Raiders return a very good perimeter attack led by Raymond Cintron, Marcos Knight and Bruce Massey. MTSU was arguably the best mid-major in the country for much of last season before back-to-back losses in the regular season finale and the first round of the conference tournament derailed their hopes of making the dance. Hunger and redemption are powerful motivators.

Looking deeper, Arkansas State returns four of the five starters from a team that was picked to win the west prior to last season, Western Kentucky is coming off of a trip to the NCAA tournament and Florida International has added Richard Pitino as their head coach. But the sleeper in the conference could end up being South Alabama, but only if they find enough perimeter threats to take the pressure off of Augustine Rubit inside.

All-Conference Team (*denotes Player of the Year)

G: Chris Jones, North Texas
G: Marcos Knight, Middle Tennessee State
G: Greg Gantt, Florida Atlantic
F: Augustine Rubit, South Alabama
F: Tony Mitchell, North Texas*

Predicted Standings

West:

1. North Texas
2. Arkansas State
3. Arkansas-Little Rock
4. Louisiana-Monroe
5. Louisiana-Lafayette

East:

1. Middle Tennessee State
2. Western Kentucky
3. South Alabama
4. Florida Atlantic
5. Troy
6. Florida International

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.