Oregon State Beavers v Alabama Crimson Tide

Trevor Releford helps teammates learn by coming off the bench

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NEW YORK – Last season, Alabama had plenty of preseason expectation.

There weren’t exactly picked to run through the SEC — that won’t happen for anyone as long as Coach Cal is stockpiling first round picks up in Lexington — but the Crimson Tide were a trendy pick to finish second in the conference in 2011-2012. That didn’t happen, however, as Alabama watched their star upperclassmen manage to get themselves suspended in the middle of conference play. Tony Mitchell went so far as to get himself kicked ou of the program.

As a result, the Tide floundered, limping into and out of the NCAA tournament with an opening round loss to Creighton. With a very young team returning for this season — the core of Anthony Grant’s team are freshmen and sophomores, with the exception of junior point guard Trevor Releford — the tidal wave of hype hitting the gridiron this season did not find its way into Coleman Coliseum.

But after starting the season 3-0, including last-second wins over South Dakota State and Oregon State, all of a sudden the Crimson Tide look like a group that might be able to make a run at an at-large bid. And their doing it while bringing arguably their most important player off of the bench.

“I just felt like it’s the right thing for our team right now,” Grant said of bring Releford off the bench. “He understands what we’re trying to do and I think he’s been really, really good for us, if you look at the numbers he’s putting up, the leadership he provides, the spark that he gives us. I think it’s good for our team.”

Releford certainly is putting up numbers. In the two games against Division I competition, Releford is averaging 16.0 points while shooting 12-23 (52.2%) from the floor and handing out seven assists to just a single turnover. More importantly, however, when Releford is on the floor, Alabama’s offense simply runs more smoothly. He’s a point guard. He’s a facilitator. He gets the Tide into their offensive sets and he breaks down the defense if that doesn’t work.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Alabama’s sixth-man has been their MVP through the first week of the season.

“He’s a good kid and I think he understands what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Grant said. “He understands the bottom line is that he’s going to be out there and have an opportunity to make plays. If you look the games we’ve played, he’s out there. I think too much is made sometimes of whether or not a kid’s starting or not.”

Grant’s thinking is that early in the season, he needs to start developing his younger and more inexperienced players. He needs to build a rotation and develop a bench. He needs to get the guys that are going to be counted on in March into games early and allow them to get a sense of what it means to play basketball at this level.

“For us to be where we want to be, we have to build confidence in our young guys. We have an extremely young team,” Grant said, and Thursday’s 65-62 win over Oregon State was the perfect example in his eyes. After extending the lead to as much as 15 points on the Beavers, Alabama allowed them to claw their way back into the game. This is how close the Beavers were to coming all the way back — Ahmad Starks hit a three that would have tied the game with just a couple ticks left on the clock if his head coach hadn’t called a timeout a second before he released the shot.

“The mark of a young team, we thought “clock run out” as opposed to going and finishing the game,” Grant said. “The thing I told our guys is we gotta learn from this game how to stay aggressive and compete and do the things that allows us to build the lead from an offensive and a defensive standpoint, and we kind of got away from that.”

Alabama has some pieces this year. In addition to Releford, sophomores Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper join freshman Devonta Pollard to give Grant a talented perimeter rotation loaded with potential. Throw in a trio of big bodies in the paint and senior swingman Andrew Steele, and this is a group that can ruffle some feathers in a top-heavy SEC if they can manage continuing to learn how.

“I think it’s an opportunity to learn, and I think the best way to do that is to win,” Grant said. “I’d rather learn through winning than learn through losing and have to take some heartbreaking losses to clear things out.”

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

2016-17 Season Preview: Programs on the Rise, Decline

Rick Stansbury, left, speaks at a news conference where he was announced as the new men's NCAA college basketball coach at Western Kentucky on Monday, March 28, 2016, in Bowling Green, Ky. (AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr.)
AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr.
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Beginning in September and running up until November 11th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Almost every program in the country begins the season with optimism and an idea of how the season might break their way, but the reality is that only some schools are destined to meet or exceed expectations and others are fated to fail to reach their goals.

Here’s a look at where we see 10 programs headed in the future, five that are on the rise and five that may never reach their peak again.

MORE: All-Americans | Expert Picks | A Different Grayson Allen?

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates in the final moments of the Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech NCAA basketball game in Blacksburg, Va., Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. Virginia Tech won 65-63.  (AP Photo / The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)    LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; SALEM TIMES REGISTER OUT; FINCASTLE HERALD OUT;  CHRISTIANBURG NEWS MESSENGER OUT; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL OUT; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL OUT
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)

PROGRAMS ON THE RISE

Virginia Tech: It hasn’t been the smoothest transition for Buzz Williams in Blacksburg, but it looks as though the Hokies are now ready to take the next step forward. They’re returning the bulk of last year’s team — namely Seth Allen and Zach LeDay — that went 10-8 in the ACC, won its last five regular-season games and knocked off Florida State in the conference tournament. They also picked off a pair of top ten teams during the year in Miami and North Carolina. No one can motivate a group of players that feel disrespected for being overlooked the way that Buzz can, and that’s what he has this year.

Memphis: I don’t think anyone is expecting Tubby Smith to add to his national championship count with the Tigers, but Smith proved at Texas Tech that he’s still capable of winning more than 40 years into his career. He got the Red Raiders into the NCAA tournament, and the job in Lubbock is significantly more difficult than it is in Memphis, albeit with lower expectations. Still, expect Smith to consistently get the Tigers into the Dance and out of the malaise of the last few years of the Josh Pastner era. His public reputation is negative — part of the fallout from his split with Kentucky a decade ago — but Smith has outperformed expectations at every job that he has had throughout his career.

TCU: The Horned Frogs are dumping money into hoops to climb out of the Big 12 cellar, and early returns suggest its working. They upgraded their facilities in a big way with a $72-million arena renovation and, more importantly, went and got alum Jamie Dixon to leave a stagnant – yet successful – situation at Pitt. Dixon is a proven winner and already is pulling in four-star recruits. The dividends may not be paid in full this season, but the Frogs are on the come up in a big way.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers have had plenty of success in their history, but it appears that first-year coach Rick Stansbury is setting things up for a major upgrade. First, he brought one-time Texas A&M Class of 2017 five-star commit Mitchell Robinson over with him and then added top-60, four-star guard Josh Anderson. There’s not a program in C-USA that can even come close to matching that kind of talent. And while the future is incredibly bright, he’s also added a number of transfers — including Providence’s Junior Lomomba and Washington State’s Que Johnson, both of whom are eligible this season — to bolster the roster this season.

Rhode Island: Last year was supposed to be a breakthrough for the Rams, but the torn ACL of E.C. Matthews derailed those dreams and stuck Rhode Island in mediocrity. Given Matthews’ talent and an almost bonus year of experience from the rest of the roster, things seem to be coalescing for Rhode Island to have a memorable – if not better – season under Dan Hurley. Their back court (Matthews, Jarvis Garrett, Jared Terrell, Stanford Robinson) is one of the best in the country.

PROGRAMS ON THE DECLINE

UNLV: It’s not like the Runnin’ Rebels were exactly killing it under Dave Rice, but they were recruiting at a level new coach Marvin Menzies isn’t likely to match. Also, the process for replacing Rice shined a light on how coaches see the UNLV job and the situation at the school. The Rick Pitino rumors never materialized and then they couldn’t pry Mick Cronin from Cincinnati before agreeing to terms with first-year Arkansas-Little Rock coach Chris Beard, whose contract wasn’t approved until two weeks later after a contentious Board of Regents vote. Then Beard bounced for Texas Tech just a couple weeks later, leaving the Rebs with Menzies and a roster that had just two scholarship players on it. The rebuild won’t be impossible, but it will take some time.

Georgetown: After four-straight seasons of being at least a top-six seed in the NCAA tournament, the Hoyas have missed the dance in two of the last three years, finishing below .500 last season for the first time since a 13-15 mark got Craig Esherick fired in 2004. The Hoyas aren’t developing their talent like we’ve seen in the past, and they’re likely to finish in the middle of the Big East pack this season, a couple of red flags that the program isn’t exactly trending upward.

Missouri: This may not even be an accurate spot for the Tigers given they’ve had just 19 wins overall and six in the SEC during Kim Anderson’s first two years in Columbia, but considering Anderson’s 2016 recruiting class didn’t feature a player ranked in the top-200 of 247Sports’ composite rankings and only one returner averaged double-digit scoring last year, rock bottom may still be looming for Missouri.

Stephen F. Austin: This one is almost just by default given the success the Lumberjacks have enjoyed in recent years. Brad Underwood is at Oklahoma State and Thomas Walkup is in the pros, and Stephen F. Austin really can’t improve one what those two accomplished together. One league loss in three years and two Southland Player of the Year awards is basically impossible to match, let alone top. New coach Kyle Keller has a great resume and tons of experience recruiting Texas, but some sort of step back seems inevitable given the heights Underwood brought to the program.

Nebraska: Tim Miles arrived with a lot of enthusiasm four years ago and Nebraska opened a $180-million arena in 2013, but the Huskers have just one NCAA tournament appearance and three losing seasons to show for it. The late grad transfer of Andrew White is a major blow, and Nebraska simply doesn’t have a ton of talent or experience on the roster, nor do they appear to be making any major gains on the recruiting trail. Simply put, Miles is finding out what all his predecessors have – it’s very hard to win in Lincoln.

Georgetown coach John Thompson III speaks before practice for an NCAA college basketball second round game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Georgetown plays Eastern Washington on Thursday. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Georgetown coach John Thompson III (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

VIDEO: Asheville player hits trick shot

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18:  Kevin Vannatta #10 of the UNC Asheville Bulldogs drives against Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 18, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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UNC-Asheville has gotten into the trick shot game.

The basketball program’s official Twitter account posted this video of guard Kevin Vannatta nailing a shot from the balcony of Kimmel Arena.

Nice shot, huh?

Vannatta, a junior from Upper Arlington, Ohio, started all 34 games for the Bulldogs last year, averaging 11.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from 3-point range. It looks, though , like he might be working on extending his range.

Northwestern finds new home for 2017-18

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Northwestern has found a temporary home while its arena undergoes a nine-figure renovation.

The Wildcats will play the 2017-18 season at Allstate Arena, about 15 miles west of Evanston, Ill. in Rosemont, the school announced Tuesday.

“We are excited to partner with Allstate Arena to host Northwestern men’s basketball games during the 2017-18 season while Welsh-Ryan Arena is undergoing its renovation,” Northwestern vice president for athletics and recreation Jim Phillips said in a statement. “The venue has a rich college basketball tradition in the Chicagoland area. I know that our fans will enjoy cheering on our team at Allstate Arena during what will be an exciting season.”

Allstate Arena previously had been home to DePaul, which is moving into its own new building this year. Capacity is around 18,000 for basketball.

Northwestern had its best season under coach Chris Collins last year, going 20-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten.

The renovation to Welsh-Ryan Arena will bring the building – which opened in 1952 and last renovated in 1983 – into the 21st century by replacing wood bleachers, widening concourses, adding concessions, improving arena technology and adding new locker rooms at the cost of at least $110 million.

Construction is slated to begin in spring of 2017 and be completed in the fall of 2018.

George Washington tabs Maurice Joseph interim head coach

GW Athletics
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George Washington announced on Tuesday that Maurice Joseph has been named interim head coach for the 2016-17 season.

“I am eager and well prepared to begin this journey with the 13 student-athletes in our locker room and the tight-knit group of coaches that I will rely upon heavily,” said Joseph. “It is a distinct honor to have the opportunity to be a mentor to our team in this new role. I have the utmost confidence that I will validate the trust that Provost Maltzman and Patrick Nero have placed in me, and that we will deliver a product that makes our students, alumni and fans across the globe proud of GW Basketball and the university.”

Joseph has been a part of the GW coaching staff for the last five years, a full-time assistant for the last three.

He takes over for Mike Lonergan, who coached Joseph for three years at Vermont. Lonergan was fired two weeks ago stemming from an investigation into allegations of abuse.

Lonergan’s other two assistants, Hajj Turner and Carmen Marciariello, both were interviewed for the position as well, according to sources. Turner had been Lonergan’s associate head coach for the past five years, since Lonergan took over at GW.

“In his five years at GW, Maurice has shown himself to be selflessly dedicated to the success of our student-athletes and fully committed to our department and university,” said Nero, GW’s athletic director. “His leadership ability and basketball acumen will bring focus and stability to the talented team we have this year. Our team, basketball staff and athletic department are looking forward to working together for a successful season.”

2016-17 CBT Expert Picks

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10:  Head coach Mike Krzyzewski hugs Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils after he fouled out against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their 84-79 overtime loss during the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC Basketball Tournament Verizon Center on March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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We are now less than six weeks away from the start of the college basketball season, which means that it is time for us to officially get our picks on the record.

Here, our four writers pick who we think will win each league, the national title and the major awards:

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