2013-2014 Season Preview: Atlantic 10: VCU’s Havoc to top the new-look league

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Atlantic 10 was not immune to conference realignment, as five teams have moved either in or out of the conference this season with a sixth team (Davidson) joining the A-10 for 2014-2015. The conference lost Butler after its one-year stint, as well as Charlotte, Temple and Xavier. For all the losses the conference still fields VCU — a top-25 team to start the season — and several teams that have expectations of going to the NCAA tournament, including La Salle, Saint Louis and UMass. The conference has a lot of momentum following a year that saw all five bids advance, and despite the losses of four programs, the Atlantic 10 has another promising season on the horizon.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

IN: George Mason
OUT: Butler, Charlotte, Temple, Xavier

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW:

1. Despite the losses, the league is still strong: The conference is down, but not out after losing two of the five teams that secured NCAA tournament bids last season. If you take the four departing schools out the equation, the Atlantic 10 still had five teams that finished in the RPI top 100 last season, and that’s before you take into account the expected improvement of Rhode Island, Dayton and George Washington.

2. The league’s best coaches stayed home: Shaka Smart and VCU came to terms on a new contract that keeps him on the Rams’ sideline through 2028. La Salle and Dr. John Giannini reaching an extension as well, and Saint Louis removed Jim Crews’ interim tag. Those are three of the best coaches in the league, which is a good sign for the future of the conference.

3. UMass got their star back: UMass point guard Chaz Williams had a chance to skip his senior year and play in Turkey, though decided to return because of unfinished business both in the classroom and on the court. That’s enormous news for Derek Kellogg, as Williams is one of the best point guards in the country and a huge part of the Minutemen’s attack.

4. Guards. Lots and lots of guards: The back courts in this conference will be great to watch, especially the teams at the top of the league. We know about VCU’s guards and La Salle’s back court is no longer a secret thanks to their Sweet 16 run, and Williams is joined by Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon at UMass this year. Rhode Island, St. Joe’s, Dayton, St. Louis. There’s plenty of back court talent here.

5. The Atlantic 10 has its games on the NBC Sports Network this year: 25 regular season games can be seen on the NBC Sports Network. The full schedule of games can been seen here.

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PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chaz Williams, UMass

Coming off another productive year, the senior point guard has one more shot at an NCAA tournament. He averaged 15.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game last season as a junior, and this year will have familiar pieces and new weapons to utilize. Cady Lalanne and Raphiael Putney return in the UMass front court and Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon is eligible after sitting out last season. Williams can not only grab player of the year honors, he can also advance UMass to the Big Dance for the first time since 1998.

THE REST OF THE ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM

  • Tyreek Duren, La Salle: Leading the La Salle perimeter attack this season after a junior campaign averaging 14.2 points a game
  • Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis: The senior forward helped the Billikens capture the A10 title with 14.0 points per game and 7.7 rebounds.
  • Juvonte Reddic, VCU: Shaka Smart will look to Reddic to man the VCU frontline. The senior forward shot 57 percent from the field a season ago, grabbing 8.1 rebounds per game.
  • Xavier Munford, Rhode Island: The Rams are looking to make the next step in the rebuilding process and Munford can help in his last season at URI. With Munford is the top scorer returning to the conference this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Isaiah Armwood, George Washington
  • Derrick Gordon, UMass
  • Treveon Graham, VCU
  • E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
  • Tyrone Garland, La Salle

BREAKOUT STAR: Tyrone Garland, La Salle

Garland, who transferred into the program from Virginia Tech, was a lightening bolt for John Giannini’s team last season. His “Southwest Philly Floater” is the reason they made it to the second weekend of the Big Dance. But with Ramon Galloway gone and graduated, Garland’s role for the Explorers will have to expand. If they are going to make a push for the A-10 title, Garland will need to have a big season. We expect just that.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Derek Kellogg, UMass

Kellogg is under pressure this season, but he isn’t necessarily on the “hot seat”. Kellogg is now in his sixth season and is still looking to take his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament. UMass was on the wrong side of the bubble this year, but with the returners he has the Minutemen have realistic chances to be one of the 68 teams come March.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … The league lost Butler, Temple and Xavier and still got five teams into the tournament.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: The guard play in the league. Seems like everyone has an all-conference caliber player in their back court.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 12th: LSU at UMass
  • November 12th: VCU atVirginia
  • November 26th: Saint Louis at Wisconsin
  • December 1st: Wichita State at Saint Louis
  • December 15th: La Salle at Villanova

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW:  @CDiSano44

PREDICTED FINISH:

1. VCU: Shaka Smart returns Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic, two all-conference caliber players. The Rams a couple pieces in their back court, but there is still plenty of depth on the roster. Point guard play, and the new hand-checking rules, will be the keys to their season.
2. UMass: Five A-10 teams received bids to the tournament last March, but the Minutemen were on the outside looking in. This season UMass has a favorable conference schedule — home games against La Salle, Saint Louis and VCU — which could help them finishing higher in the conference standings.
3. Saint Louis: The Billikens return leading scorer Dwayne Evans, as well as Mike McCall, Jordair Jett and Rob Loe, who were key components to Saint Louis’ top scoring defense in the A-10 a season ago.
4. La Salle: The Explorers made the deepest run in the tournament of any conference team last spring, but lost Ramon Galloway, the team’s leading scorer. Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland return to lead La Salle’s perimeter attack.
5. Richmond: Darien Brothers is gone, but the Spiders have the next three top scorers from a season ago back in the mix this year.
6. Rhode Island: Dan Hurley is still building up that URI program, and this is the season they can make the jump. The Rams add Gilvydas Biruta from Rutgers and have a freshman tandem of Hassan Martin and E.C. Matthews in the lineup this year to go along with Xavier Munford, who poured in 17. 4 a game in 2012-2013.
7. Dayton: Archie Miller’s team should improve even without Kevin Dillard. Matt Kavanaugh returns from suspension and Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford and Dyshawn Pierre all return as starters.
8. St. Joseph’s: Phil Martelli’s team finished 10th in the conference a season ago after being pegged as the preseason favorite. This year, three seniors — Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic — will lead the Hawks.
9. George Mason: The newcomers to the the conference returns a lot of talent from last year’s 22-win team, including Sherrod Wright.
10. George Washington: Eight freshmen or sophomores are on the roster. Isaiah Armwood provides a nice player inside, and Mo Creek joins the team from Indiana.
11. St. Bonaventure: Roster features a lot of newcomers to go along with seniors Charlon Kloof, Matthew Wright and Marquise Simmons and junior Youssou Ndoye, though none of them averaged double figures last year.
12. Fordham: Jon Severe, a three-star recruit and Rivals150 in the Class of 2013, should be fun to watch for Fordham.
13. Duquesne: Jim Ferry is still putting the pieces in to place, but does have Derrick Colter coming back after a strong freshman season in the Dukes’ back court.

With hoops under federal probe, fans say business as usual

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Arenas were packed, fans were cheering and schools were competing.

In most places, it was a typical Saturday of college basketball. There was little visible hangover from the latest developments in the federal investigation of corruption in college basketball.

Coaches were taking the same tact they have been, some saying they’ve found no evidence of wrongdoing and appear to be waiting for the next shoe to drop. Several players still played despite being named in a Yahoo Sports report saying documents showed they had taken impermissible benefits.

Fans, for the most part, were not surprised — with some saying the circumstances have been reality in college hoops for a long time.

Others had fun with it.

At SMU, where the Mustangs were taking on No. 13 Wichita State, some students chanted “FBI! FBI!” and held balloons spelling out the name of the federal agency leading a corruption investigation that has led to 10 arrests of coaches and others alleged to have worked in the seamy underbelly of the sport. One of more than two dozen names mentioned as receiving impermissible benefits in documents in a Yahoo Sports report Friday was former Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet, now with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

In sentiments echoed by many coaches, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said he didn’t know about the alleged payments but that his program overall has “nothing to hide.”

Utah’s student section mocked Southern California forward Chimezie Metu, who was mentioned in Yahoo’s report but played and scored 14 points to lead the Trojans in a win. The Utah fans displayed signs like “Need Money? Metu! (Me too)” and chanted, “Payroll! Payroll!” whenever he had the ball or returned to the bench.

“When I’m on the court, nothing else matters. I was just out there playing. I wasn’t paying attention to anything anybody else was saying,” Metu said. “I’m not going to lose any focus at all. I didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody in my family did anything wrong. … For me, there was never a doubt I’d play.”

One school where officials were not enjoying themselves Saturday was Arizona.

Wildcats recruit Shareef O’Neal, son of former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, withdrew his commitment after ESPN reported coach Sean Miller was heard on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to freshman Deandre Ayton to get him to sign with the school.

Arizona announced that Miller would not coach Saturday night in the 14th-ranked Wildcats’ game at Oregon. Associate head coach Lorenzo Romar stood in for Miller, and the Wildcats lost 98-93 in overtime to the Ducks.

It was unclear what the coaching situation at Arizona would be going forward.

“As basketball players, we have a job. And we’re not going to let outsiders, outside noise, let it mistreat us, in a way. We’re just going to keep pushing, keep grinding,” senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “We have games to play. We have practices to practice. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

While Miller was absent, Ayton played and finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds. Oregon fans taunted him with a sign in the image of a check for $100,000.

In Omaha, where Creighton played No. 3 Villanova, the Bluejays were also linked to possible violations.

The Yahoo report said Christian Dawkins, who worked for former agent Andy Miller, may have bought dinner for former Creighton center Justin Patton or his family. Patton signed with Miller’s agency but fired him once Miller was implicated in the probe in September. Creighton coach Greg McDermott has said he didn’t know if Dawkins had a meal with Patton, but knew Dawkins met with Patton because McDermott also attended the meeting.

“So they took him to dinner. Big deal,” said 54-year-old Creighton fan Jim Belgrade, who has been attending games since he was 6. Belgrade said there needs to be a crackdown if money is exchanging hands and that some fans are more concerned than others.

“They will be if it’s a big-time school involved,” Belgrade said. “And there are people who say it’s the rules, and the rules are the rules, so we have to cap it some way. But will fans at Missouri Valley schools be worried about it? Probably not.”

Several players singled out in the report played on Saturday.

Kentucky fans cheered Kevin Knox as usual before he started against Missouri, and the freshman forward did his best to keep things normal. An internal review found no issues and he said afterward, “I was sure I would be able to play all week. I let Kentucky and compliance handle all that.”

Texas held out Eric Davis against Oklahoma while the Longhorns conduct their own investigation, while Alabama’s Collin Sexton started against Arkansas.

At Duke, Wendell Carter Jr. was in the starting lineup after the school said there were no issues with his eligibility. Afterward, Carter said he refused to let it become a distraction “because I know I didn’t do anything. I know my family didn’t do anything.”

The only obvious indication that anything was different was found on the dry-erase board near the Cameron Crazies’ entrance: A Twitter hashtag , #FreeWendell.

“Obviously I was disappointed that a former player was acknowledged in this report,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the Terrapins were beaten 85-61 by No. 17 Michigan . Former Maryland player Diamond Stone, who played one season for the Terrapins, was also mentioned as receiving an improper loan from an agent.

“I have absolutely zero relationship with that agent or that agency. Wouldn’t know him if he walked into the room today,” Turgeon said.

Michigan guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman said he is aware of the scandal, but that’s about as far as it goes.

“We still have to go out there and play the game. People didn’t pay us. I mean, there’s here and there,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I don’t really think about it. I can’t speak for anyone else.”

Ken Tighe, a Terrapins season-ticket holder since 2002, said college basketball has an issue that needs to be addressed.

“I think the problem is widespread,” Tighe said. “Diamond Stone is part of an attempt by agents to influence the game.”

Michigan coach John Beilein offered a simple solution.

“Educate your players, educate the parents the best that you can,” Beilein said. “When somebody’s offering them something, they’ve got to say no to a Coca-Cola if an agent is talking to them, and they’ve also obviously got to say no to money.”

In Dallas, Jim Randolph — who attended SMU in the late 1960s and was a fan during the 1980s when the football program received the so-called death penalty from the NCAA — said fans expect their teams to do whatever they can to win.

“The entire infrastructure of amateur athletics, especially basketball, is just as dirty as can be,” Randolph said. “So many people have looked the other way for so long. It’s about time it surfaced.”

Dustan Foster of San Angelo, Texas, grew up in Missouri and is a lifelong Kansas fan. The 36-year-old oil field worker attended the eighth-ranked Jayhawks’ game at Texas Tech on Saturday and said he doesn’t know what is going to happen next.

“I don’t even think (NCAA President) Mark Emmert knows at this point,” Foster said. “I don’t think anybody knows. Flip a coin.”

Villanova coach Jay Wright said the scandal has cast a cloud over basketball that everyone in the sport has to work together to remove.

“It’s certainly not a good day for us,” Wright said. “But I do think we have a lot of good people in college basketball, a lot of good things in college basketball that we’re all going to try to work together to get it right again.”

When asked about a line item on an expense report by Dawkins cited by Yahoo that said Dawkins had a meal with “Villanova coaches,” Wright said: “My athletic director has advised me not to respond to it. He will. The athletic department is on top of it and will respond to it.”

AP Sports Writers Eric Olson in Omaha, Nebraska; Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina; Schuyler Dixon in Lubbock, Texas; Anne M. Peterson in Oregon and Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky; and Associated Press writers Jeff Miller in Dallas and Matthew Coles in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

No. 2 Michigan State beats Wisconsin, wraps up Big Ten

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Cassius Winston scored 20 points and went 6 for 6 from the 3-point line, and No. 2 Michigan State held off Wisconsin 68-63 on Sunday to earn the outright regular-season Big Ten title.

Winston hit two 3s during an 11-2 run in the second half — the second with a defender in his face from well beyond the arc — to lead the Spartans (28-3, 16-2).

Brad Davison finished with 30 points for Wisconsin (14-17, 7-11), including a 3 with 4.7 seconds left that had hometown fans holding out hope for an upset.

Miles Bridges wrapped up the Spartans’ 12th straight win with two foul shots.

It was a milestone victory in what has been a challenging season off the court for Michigan State basketball.

One issue involved Bridges. The star forward had 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting in his first game since getting cleared by the NCAA following a Yahoo! Sports article on Friday that identified him as one of many players who may have received improper benefits.

Winston and Nick Ward, who had 14 points, picked up the scoring slack. Winston’s 3 with 4:45 left gave the Spartans a 58-51 lead, a huge cushion in what had been a tight game.

Davison nearly single-handedly brought Wisconsin back, giving the Badgers a huge boost even after aggravating a left shoulder injury. The freshman sprinted to the locker room with a trainer with about 14 minutes left before returning a couple minutes later and checking right back into the game to rousing applause.

He scored Wisconsin’s next six points, popping perimeter jumpers to electrify an already vocal home crowd in the regular season finale.

The teams dueled the rest of the way until Bridges’ late foul shots.

Michigan State muscled its way to a 34-27 halftime lead by taking control of the paint early before softening up the perimeter for Winston. The sophomore sharpshooter made 3 of 4 from beyond the arc in the first half, with a couple buckets coming quickly in transition.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: Documents in the Yahoo! story showed that the star forward may have improperly accepted benefits from an agency implicated in a federal investigation into bribery and other misdeeds in college basketball. The team said Saturday that the school’s compliance office conducted a “thorough internal review” and presented findings to the NCAA, which then cleared Bridges. … The Spartans had too much bulk up front for Wisconsin, building an early edge on points in the paint and finishing with a 40-28 edge on the boards.

Wisconsin: The team honored three reserve seniors in its final regular-season game, including fifth-year forward Aaron Moesch. He is the last link to the Badgers’ back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and ’15, a little-used backup on each of those squads. The Badgers’ reliance on freshmen to play key roles in the rotation, especially in the backcourt, led to growing pains this season. They’ve shown signs of maturity of late, winning three straight games before Sunday.

UP NEXT

Michigan State: Opens play in the conference tournament in New York on Friday after earning a double bye as the top seed.

Wisconsin: Locked into the Big Ten tourney as the No. 9 seed, where it will play Maryland on Thursday.

No. 11 Cincinnati rallies for 82-74 win over Tulsa

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Gary Clark led a 24-4 run that put Cincinnati ahead to stay early in the second half, and the 11th-ranked Bearcats held on for an 82-74 victory over Tulsa on Sunday that preserved their one-game lead in the American Athletic Conference heading into the final week.

Cincinnati (25-4, 14-2) stayed ahead of No. 13 Wichita State (23-5, 13-3) in the race for the regular-season title. The Shockers won on Cincinnati’s home court 76-72 a week ago.

Wichita State plays at UCF on Thursday and hosts Cincinnati next Sunday in a potential showdown game. The Bearcats play at Tulane on Thursday before heading to Wichita State.

The Bearcats struggled defensively, giving up a season-high 14 3-pointers, but made a season-high 15 from beyond the arc. Clark and Jarron Cumberland had 17 points apiece.

Tulsa (17-11, 10-7) led by eight points early in the second before Clark scored during the decisive run. Junior Etou scored 21 for Tulsa, which had its six-game winning streak snapped.

Cincinnati completed its season playing at Northern Kentucky University while its on-campus arena is renovated, going 14-1 at BB&T Arena.

BIG PICTURE

Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane is wrapping up a regular season that marks a step up for the program. Tulsa went 15-17 last season and 8-10 in the AAC, finishing seventh. It’s fourth in the league with two games to go.

Cincinnati: Even though the Bearcats rank second nationally in defense, they’d given up a lot of open shots in the previous two games, a concern to coach Mick Cronin. The Golden Hurricane got plenty of those, too, while shooting 59 percent in the first half. The Golden Hurricane led 47-44 at the break, the most points Cincinnati has allowed in a half this season.

UP NEXT

Tulsa: Golden Hurricane plays at East Carolina on Thursday. Tulsa opened AAC play by beating ECU 79-53 on Dec. 28.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have won four straight and 14 of 15 against Tulane, including a 78-61 victory last season.

Bubble Banter: Sunday Funday on the bubble

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Sunday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

YET TO PLAY

UCLA
PENN STATE
NEBRASKA
N.C. STATE

Georgia’s Mark Fox ‘disgusted’ by investigation into college basketball

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Georgia head coach Mark Fox did not hold back when asked about the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, calling is “disgusting” and pleading with coaches and the institutions that employ them to do right.

“It starts with our coaches, and then you ask how the NCAA has handled it,” Fox said. “The NCAA is made up of member institutions. How are the institutions handling it? That’d be my first question. How are they handling it? Putting their head in the sand and looking the other way? I’m past anger, sadness. It’s just disgusting, and we’re really hurting the game, and the game has been so good to everybody.”

Fox is in a difficult position. He’s regarded as one of the nicer coaches in the business and is considered to be ‘clean’. He team also appears headed for another NIT, which could end up costing him his job.

“We’ve had some situations where we didn’t get players because of that reason, and other teams have, too,” Fox said.

“I’m disgusted,” he added. “I’m disgusted with how people have treated our game. It’s absolutely disgusting.”