Derek Kellogg

Atlantic 10 can remain strong conference without Butler, Xavier, Temple and Charlotte

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

The Atlantic 10 Conference saw a record five teams play in the NCAA tournament in 2013, with every single team advancing to at least the Round of 32. That was before conference realignment struck again, as the Catholic 7 claimed Butler and Xavier, the AAC brought on Temple, and Charlotte headed back to Conference USA.

Butler and Temple accounted for two of those five bids last spring, and all four of the departing teams were ranked in the RPI top 100. The A-10 took a blow, but the league has been resilient, especially in the ever changing college landscape.

“The A-10 has kind of sustained the test of time,” UMass head coach Derek Kellogg told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “There has been a lot of changing and transformation within the league the last 15-20 years, dating back to when Rutgers, West Virginia and schools like that were in the A-10.”

The conference had 16 teams last year, and by the start of the 2014-2015 season, that number will be back up to 14, thanks to the addition of two programs with strong basketball histories. George Mason joins the A-10 this season, replacing one Final Four team (Butler) for another, as Kellogg said. The following season Davidson joins the conference as the 14th member.

“The A-10 historically been a very strong conference and we are a basketball-centric conference,” Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said last Tuesday at the league’s media day. “We know who we are and we want to stay focused on that and we want to be successful.”

George Mason fields a club football team and Davidson’s football program is in the FCS, which gives the A-10 two new members that a focused and locked in its basketball programs.

“I think realignment is inevitable,” Kellogg said, “but the A-10 is one of those leagues, where its priorities are that of a basketball league. We’ll be able to compete on a national level because the schools are committed to their coaches, their programs and their basketball teams.”

“I think we’ve done a good job of bringing in schools as this transformation has gone on. That softens the blow of losing traditional A-10 schools.”

UMass ended up on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday, but in hindsight, after seeing what the five teams in the tournament did, you can make a good case that the Minutemen deserved a bid. Kellogg, now in his sixth season at his alma mater, is looking to take his program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.

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Shaka Smart and VCU are ranked heading into the season, and are the favorites in the Atlantic 10. Havoc in all likelihood will return to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season, but who will be joining the Rams from the conference will be the big question this season. Despite all losses of Butler, Charlotte, Temple and Xavier, it’s not inconceivable to see the A-10 get as many as four bids this season.

“We have three returning tournament teams, and those teams are all rated highly,” Kellogg said of his conference. “Then I think you have three or four teams in that next group that are all vying to chip away. A lot of it will do with how we play out of conference. A lot of teams have upgrade their schedules. Would five be a stretch? … We’d have to play really well [as a conference] to get that. But there will be four, five, as many as six teams in the conversation.”

La Salle comes back after a Sweet Sixteen run in March, returning the back court of Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland. Saint Louis, not Butler or VCU, finished atop the conference standings and won the A-10 tournament. The Billikens return a conference Player of the Year candidate, Dwayne Evans, along with three other starters. Then there is UMass, who could pick up quality non-conference wins against LSU, Boston College, BYU and Providence this season and get to play La Salle, Saint Louis and VCU all at home during conference play.

In the preseason the A-10 has four teams with realistic shots at bids, as the league attempts to build off the momentum of last March. But for the A-10, it isn’t just this year that looks promising. The conference has devoted new memberships to schools with a focus on their basketball teams, but the it’s the universities themselves are providing their programs with the resources to be stable fixtures in college basketball for the future.

This offseason, Saint Louis removed the interim label and made Jim Crews the head coach. Shaka Smart, Dr. John Giannini, and Danny Hurley were all awarded extensions by their respective schools. Crews, Smart, and Giannini all took their programs to the NCAA tournament, while Hurley is building towards that goal in his third season at URI.

St. Bonventure’s Andrew Nicholson was the last player drafted from the A-10 back in 2012. Although, the league didn’t have an NBA draftee this season, it still managed to produce five tournament teams. As Matt Norlander writes, that’s a product of Atlantic 10 programs building teams with three and four year guys; quality players that tend to have playing careers overseas.

“It’s underrated. It’s been underrated since I’ve been [at Dayton],” Flyers head coach Archie Miller told reporters. “There’s a lot of guys on a lot of teams that can play heavy roles anywhere win the country. There’s really legitimate, high-level players who come into the league. The last couple of seasons, with success in the NCAA, in some cases guys are a little older.”

It’s also the image the Atlantic 10 gives, such as hosting its conference tournament in the brand-new, luxurious Barclay’s Center.

“We are portraying an image of being big-time basketball, playing in what I consider the nicest arena in the world at this particular moment,” Kellogg said. “We are in one of the top media markets in the world, and that has helped solidify the message that we were trying to send, that we are on the same stage.”

The Atlantic 10 solidified that message last season, and will look to reinforce the notion that its a power conference again this season.

N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. fully recovered, ready to go

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Dennis Smith Jr. sure looks ready.

North Carolina State’s prized freshman point guard is pushing through a workout in the practice gym on a hot July afternoon, and there’s no sign of the knee injury that defined his past year.

He’s sprinting along the baseline to bury a catch-and-shoot corner 3-pointer. He’s dribbling between chairs and stutter-stepping his way to a pull-up jumper. He’s launching himself at the rim for a dunk off the dribble.

“I don’t expect to be rusty at all,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was feeling kind of nervous at one point, but I went in and did a workout and then I was thinking, `I’m putting in all this work so all the nervousness should be out of my mind.’ I had no reason to be timid.

“I just have to go out there and perform, no excuses.”

A lot has happened for Smith in 12 months. The Fayetteville native suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in a game during the Adidas Nations event featuring top prospects. He had surgery, picked N.C. State, graduated from high school early and enrolled in college in January to rehab and learn the Wolfpack’s system before his debut later this year.

Tuesday marks one year since the injury for the 6-foot-3 Smith, ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 1 point guard when he signed last fall.

“We’ve tried to be real conservative with him as far as not letting him do too much too fast,” coach Mark Gottfried said. “At his age, he can’t wait. He’s dying to play every day.”

Smith started earning his leadership role as soon as he arrived in Raleigh, pointing out instructions to teammates or calling them to the gym for extra work even though he couldn’t play. He figures that time observing from the sideline has prepared him to replace high-scoring floor leader Anthony “Cat” Barber.

“I feel like I’ve gotten smarter, definitely,” Smith said. “I see the game totally different now. I read pick-and-roll easier. I feel like I’ve gotten more sound on defense because I understand angles better.”

The physical work to get back has been tougher.

Roughly a year ago, Smith was lying in a bed after surgery trying to stay positive. He asked trainer Ja-Rell Bailey to bring him some free weights for upper-body exercises even if he couldn’t do much else, an example of why Bailey described Smith as “a man determined.”

Smith’s father said the rehab emphasized building leg strength to protect and stabilize the injured knee, something his son said he will keep doing in both legs for years to come. Smith’s work has helped him go from 180 pounds to a college-ready 192-pound frame.

“He’s got his bounce back, so he can dunk and everything,” Dennis Smith Sr. said. “But what Junior has got, God gave it to him. . A lot of times you run into kids who are built off of hype because they do a fancy move or have a good game. Junior ain’t hype. He’s the real deal.”

Regardless, Gottfried expects Smith to have “a learning curve.”

“For me,” he said, “I think what you see in November is going to be much different than what you see in January.”

The Wolfpack will look much different, too, after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons. N.C. State welcomes Scout.com’s No. 6-ranked recruiting class that includes five-star Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven. Senior guard Terry Henderson returns from an ankle injury that sidelined him 7 minutes into last season. Charlotte transfer and former Conference USA freshman of the year Torin Dorn Jr. will play after sitting out last year.

Still, Smith is the guy stirring the most buzz for Wolfpack fans – something he has no trouble embracing.

“I really don’t feel that pressure though,” Smith said. “I feel like if you come in and you expect to play well, then you should have those expectations of people talking. It’s just playing basketball to me. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Washington lands commitment from Mamoudou Diarra

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For the second time this summer, Washington has landed a commitment from a forward in the Class of 2017.

On Friday, it was Mamoudou Diarra that pledged his future to Lorenzo Romar. Diarra is a 6-foot-8 combo-forward that is currently unranked by Rivals but was targeted by a number high major program.

Washington landed a commitment from Michael Porter Jr. earlier this summer, and given Porter’s standing as the potential No. 1 player in the class, the Huskies will be in the mix for the best crop of freshmen in the country in 2017-18. Romar has also landed commitments from four-star guard Jaylen Nowell and three-star guard Blake Harris.

RELATED: How the Michael Porter Package Deal came to fruition

Diarra played his high school basketball in St. Louis.

Xavier lands second top 100 commitment in 2017

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Xavier landed a key commitment on Friday morning in Naji Marshall, one of the Musketeers’ top targets in the Class of 2017.

Marshall is a la 6-foot-5 wing from Washington D.C. that is currently ranked 62nd in the 2017 class by Rivals. He’s a scorer that has shown off a versatile offensive game, averaging better than three assists on the Under Armour Association circuit.

This is the third commitment from head coach Chris Mack in the class and the second top 100 player to pledge to the Musketeers. Marshall picked Xavier over Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech, among other.

Four-star 2018 guard Coby White commits to North Carolina

North Carolina coach Roy Williams, center, reacts with his team behind him after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Washington. North Carolina won 88-71. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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With guards Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek having committed in their 2017 recruiting class, North Carolina received a commitment from one of the better guards in the Class of 2018 Thursday night. Four-star guard Coby White, who’s ranked 61st in his class by Rivals.com, made his pledge to Roy Williams’ program. News of White’s commitment was first reported by Scout.com.

The 6-foot-4 White is a native of Wilson, North Carolina, where he attends Greenfield HS, and he played his grassroots basketball for the CP3 16U basketball program this summer. His commitment to UNC comes just a couple days after the ACC school offered him a scholarship.

White took an unofficial visit to UNC in June, and his play in July ultimately led to the program making the aforementioned scholarship offer. By the time White enrolls in Chapel Hill, current veterans such as Joel Berry II and Nate Britt will be out of eligibility. Among the perimeter would could potentially be on campus in 2018 are freshmen Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson, and sophomore Kenny Williams.

White is the second commit in the 2018 class for the Tar Heels, with 6-foot-7 guard Rechon Black being the first.

Point guard Small to transfer from Oregon

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18:  Kendall Small #21 of the Oregon Ducks shoots over Derek Mountain #40 of the Holy Cross Crusaders in the second half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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After navigating a lack of depth at the point to win the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earn the program’s first-ever one seed in the NCAA tournament, Oregon will have no such issues in 2016-17. Dylan Ennis, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, is back for another season as is returning starter Casey Benson. Add in freshman Payton Pritchard, whose shooting ability can help a team that struggled from three a season ago, and Dana Altman has multiple players to call upon at that spot.

That left Kendall Small, who played just under eight minutes per game as a freshman, in a spot where it would have been tough to earn more playing time as a sophomore. As a result he’s decided to transfer, with the news first being reported by Scout.com.

In addition to the three guards mentioned above, sophomore Tyler Dorsey also has the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. Small will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at whichever school he chooses to transfer to, and he’ll have to sit out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules.

A 6-foot guard from Anaheim, Small’s best outing came in Oregon’s 77-59 win over Savannah State on November 23. In that game Small accounted for nine points, four assists and three rebounds in 23 minutes of action. But he played double-digit minutes in just four games after the Ducks began Pac-12 play in early January, the last of which being Oregon’s win over Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA tournament.