College Basketball Talk’s Top 20 Most Improved Players

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Prior to the season, every pundit for every outlet across the country will put together his or her list of players with the potential to have a breakout season.

Which freshmen will have big sophomore seasons? Which seniors will finally get the chance to step into a starring role? What transfers spent their redshirt year transforming their body and perfecting their weaknesses? 

Sometimes, we’re spot on. Other times, we completely whiff. One month into the season, here is a look at this year’s Breakout Stars:

TOP 20 MOST IMPROVED PLAYERS

J.J. Avila, Colorado State: Avila, a transfer from Navy, has been the biggest reason that the Rams haven’t dropped off much this season. He’s averaging 19.5 points and 6.3 boards. Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano also could be listed here.

Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: A solid role player for three years, Bairstow has turned into one of the nation’s best big men. He’s averaging 19.8 points, 7.1 boards and 2.8 assists.

Ron Baker, Wichita State: Ron Baker was a key role player for the Shockers last season. He’s turned into arguably their best player this year, a 6-foot-4 combo-guard averaging 15.3 points, 4.6 boards and 3.6 assists. Scouts that go to watch Cleanthony Early leave raving about Baker.

Cameron Clark and Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Many predicted Buddy Hield to develop into a star this season. He has, but the bigger surprise has been Clark. A top 30 recruit coming out of high school, Clark has turned into an all-Big 12 caliber wing.

Trevor Cooney, Syracuse: Amazing what a bit of confidence will do. Cooney’s averaging 15.3 points, shooting 48.4% from three and averaging 2.8 steals this season after playing last year as a liability.

Kellen Dunham, Butler: Dunham is doing his best to make Butler fans forget about Rotnei Clarke (and Ro Jones and Brad Stevens), averaging 19.1 points and shooting 46.4% from three while taking more than seven-per-game.

Perry Ellis, Kansas: Ellis has been the most consistent offensive option for Kansas this season, leading the team at 14.5 points while grabbing 6.8 boards per game.

source:  Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Ferrell has become the leader that he needs to be for the Hoosiers to be competitive this season, averaging 17.0 points and 4.0 assists. His numbers take a bit of a hit because of the lack of scorers that Indiana has.

Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: On a team with a stable of perimeter weapons, Goodwin’s emergence has a presence on the block is key for the Tigers. He’s averaging 13.1 points and 6.1 boards as a sophomore this season.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: It happens every year. Bo Ryan somehow manages to turn a guy that’s spent a couple years as a big stiff into an all-Big Ten caliber post with three-point range. Kaminsky is averaging 14.6 points, 5.9 boards, 2.1 blocks and shooting 41.1% from three. He went for 43 points in a game earlier this year.

Cady Lalanne, UMass: Lalanne is finally living up to his talent this season, averaging 15.0 points and 10.4 boards as the Minutemen’s best interior presence. His emergence is a major reason why UMass will compete for the Atlantic 10 title.

Jake Layman, Maryland: Layman’s improvement will get lost in the shuffle in Maryland keeps sputtering, but he’s a 6-foot-8 wing that’s averaging 14.4 points and shooting 44.4% from three.

Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas, Michigan: LeVert will get a lot of attention, going from a guy that saw limited minutes to a wing that averages 13.9 points. But Stauskas has made the real jump. He was a spot-up shooter last year. He’s one of the 20 best all-around offensive weapons in college basketball this season.

Codi Miller-McIntyre, Wake Forest: Miller-McIntyre still isn’t as consistent as he’d like to be from the perimeter, but it’s hard to nitpick a kid averaging 17.9 points, 4.4 assists and just 1.5 turnovers.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina: As good as North Carolina’s big men have been in wins over Louisville and Michigan State, it’s been Paige’s emergence as a star — 18.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, 39.2% 3PT — that has kept the Tar Heels afloat without P.J. Hairston.

Lamar Patterson, Pitt: Pitt will compete for the ACC title this year, and Patterson’s improvement in the biggest reason why. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 5.o boards, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals this year.

Casey Prather, Florida: After three seasons of being a defensive stopper and a glue guy, Prather has turned into a big-time scorer this season, averaging 19.1 points. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State: No Jamaal Franklin? No Chase Tapley? No problem. Thames has taken over the role of SDSU’s big-shot maker this year.

Other names considered: Devon Collier, Maurice Creek, Justin Jackson, Naz Long, Cameron Wright

UCF’s Tacko Fall to miss the rest of the season with shoulder injury

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UCF junior big man Tacko Fall will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, it was announced on Saturday.

College basketball’s tallest athlete at 7-foot-6, Fall is UCF’s leading scorer and shot blocker while being second in the nation in field goal percentage at 76 percent. Putting up 11.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in only 21.3 minutes per contest, Fall is the most unique weapon on both ends of the floor in the college basketball.

Fall is expected to have surgery on his ailing shoulder later this week as he suffered an injury over the summer that never fully recovered. Fall has also dealt with a hip injury that forced him to miss time during the season.

The Knights have been crushed with injuries this season. Aubrey Dawkins suffered a season-ending shoulder injury before the season started and promising point guard B.J. Taylor missed over two months with a foot injury suffered during the season opener against Mercer.

UCF is still having a solid season at 12-6 and 3-3 in the American but they’ll need to forge on without its big man. They’ve also lost two consecutive games and need to figure things out in a hurry to earn a spot in the postseason.

WATCH LIVE: Atlantic 10 basketball tripleheader Saturday on NBCSN

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The Atlantic 10 comes to NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Saturday with three games that will air as part of a tripleheader.

It starts with George Washington at VCU at 12:30 p.m., continues with La Salle playing at Richmond at 2:30 p.m. and concludes with George Mason traveling to Duquesne at 4:30 p.m.

CLICK HERE to watch the Atlantic 10 on NBCSN

Sexual assault investigation involving Saint Louis basketball players becoming public

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A messy situation could be unfolding at Saint Louis University as a sexual assault investigation involving the men’s basketball team is coming more into public focus.

Saint Louis is a private school who is going through a Title IX investigation and there hasn’t been a lot of publicity surrounding the case. Back in September, three women told police they were sexually assaulted by four members of the Saint Louis men’s basketball team at an on-campus apartment.

A lawyer for three of the four accused players is claiming that his clients committed no crime. Lawyer Scott Rosenblum spoke to Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, giving the players’ account of what happened that night in graphic detail. Rosenblum said his clients have received suspensions ranging from 18 months to two years and a fourth player was expelled.

According to Rosenblum, his clients don’t intend to stay silent as they are considering an appeal. Legal action against Saint Louis University has also been discussed.

“At the end of the day, on every college campus, unfortunately, both genders make decisions that after they walk away from that decision, they regret,” Rosenblum said to Frederickson. “They think, this maybe wasn’t the best decision. But it wasn’t a crime. And it wasn’t actionable.”

Rosenblum also claimed that Saint Louis has, “overly prosecuted with an agenda from the beginning,” as he posed several questions about the case.

One of the accused players had been allowed to play at Saint Louis while three others were held out, according to Rosenblum. The three players held out of games were also allowed to practice and travel with the team. Players were also told to move off campus, eventually welcomed back, then forced to move off campus once again. Suspensions were also handed out weeks into the new semester instead of the break between semesters.

Rosenblum’s remarks about the investigation are the most public details to come out about this investigation as Saint Louis University officials have remained silent throughout the process.

Government shutdown forces Air Force to cancel all athletic events

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The Air Force Academy has been forced to cancel all home and away games due to the government shutdown, the school announced on Saturday.

Announcing on the official Air Force Academy Twitter page, the school will attempt to reschedule as many missed events as possible.

Canceled games include a home men’s basketball game against Fresno State on Saturday and a home hockey game against Sacred Heart. According to a report from the Colorado Springs Gazette, the women’s basketball team is in Fresno, Calif., for a road game against Fresno State, but that game will also not be played.

This is an unprecedented measure for the Air Force Academy as they’ve been able to play through government shutdowns before. In 2013, the USAA gave a $230,000 check to help Air Force football travel to Navy for its game. Government shutdowns in the 1990s also never forced the cancellation of any major Air Force games in the past.

A source told NBC Sports that Army’s athletic department has not been affected as it is privately funded. Navy’s athletic department should also be able to operate and continue under the government shutdown since they are privately funded.

Without private sponsors helping, it looks like Air Force won’t be playing until the government shutdown is over. The Gazette also reported on Saturday that Air Force athletic officials knew that this could be a possibility and said it would be an “11th hour decision.”

Air Force men’s basketball is 8-10 with a 2-4 record in the Mountain West this season. While the Falcons haven’t been a major contender, they had the momentum of a small two-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s home game against Fresno State.

The Falcons are also scheduled to play on the road at Utah State on Wednesday and host Boise State next Saturday.

Bosnian professional team announces they have signed Billy Preston

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Billy Preston has signed with BC Igokea, a Bosnian professional team, according to a release put out by the club on Saturday.

“We are thrilled to welcome Billy Preston to our club,” the statement read. “We were watching his situation closely and reached out to his family to show interest and ultimately reached an agreement with the family attorney in California on a contract for the rest of the season. We know Billy is an NBA prospect so we will do our best to continue his development to help him excel for our club and fulfill his goal which is to be an NBA star in the near future.”

“Billy Preston is foregoing his eligibility to play at Kansas and has signed with a professional team in Bosnia,” head coach Bill Self said in a statement provided to NBC Sports. “Billy’s family has been very upfront telling us that his first choice was to stay at Kansas, but with the uncertainty of the situation they needed to look at other potential options. This opportunity in Bosnia came with a deadline for a decision, and the family reached that decision Friday afternoon.”

“We are all disappointed that Billy never had the opportunity to experience college basketball competition but we certainly support him and wish him the best. Although he has been frustrated with the situation, Billy’s attitude has been tremendous and he has developed as a person and as a player. I’m sure that will continue as he prepares for his professional career.”

Igokea’s roster also includes former UCLA guard Malcolm Lee, former Oregon and UTEP guard Dominic Artis and Katin Reinhardt, who played at UNLV, USC and Marquette.

Preston had enrolled at Kansas as a freshman this season, but he was involved in a car accident prior to the start of the season. He was held out from competition as the school attempted to find out who was paying for the vehicle.