Air Force v UNLV

Air Force’s 2-0 start in the Mountain West, and why you need to know Tre Coggins

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Air Force was not expected to be the worst team in the Mountain West this season. That honor was bestowed upon San Jose State, a team making their debut in the conference while coming off of a 9-20 season as a member of the WAC.

But the Falcons were still picked 10th in a league of 11 teams, and rightfully so. They went 8-8 in league play last year and returned around 20% of their scoring. Most notably, starting point guard Todd Flethcer and all-MWC scoring guard Michael Lyons both graduated. What was left for head coach Dave Pilipovich was a group of last season’s role players, with holes in the lineup getting filled with freshmen.

To make matters worse, three key members of the Air Force rotation missed time early in the season. Starting forward Justin Hammonds took a leave of absence from the team to work on his academics and sat out two games already this year while leading rebounder Kamryn Williams and DeLovell Earls both missed extended periods of time to start the season.

And, ironically enough, that may be the biggest reason that the Falcons have started the MWC season 2-0 with wins over Utah State and at UNLV.

That sounds convoluted, but it’s quite simple, really.

“Because [our veterans] didn’t play early, we had other players that we hard to play,” head coach Dave Pilipovich told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “That meant more minutes for Tre Coggins, Max Yon, Marik Olesinski. Some guys off the bench. That’s given them some experience heading into conference play.”

“Now those guys have come back and have given us more leadership on the floor. But you can’t substitute for experience.”

Coggins has made the most of his opportunity, turning himself into arguably the most improved player in the league. As a freshman playing behind Fletcher, the 6-foot-2 Coggins averaged just 2.4 points in a little more than 10 minutes per game. This season, he’s playing nearly 35 minutes a night and scoring 16.7 points while shooting 43.2% from beyond the arc.

Not even the coaching staff saw that coming.

“We knew he had a chance to be a lead guard for us and have some success, but to the point he’s having it? No. His scoring ability has surprised us,” Pilipovich said, crediting the experience of learning from Fletcher as a freshman and witnessing Lyons’ work habits first-hand. “In the preseason, we threw the ball to him in the first practice and said, ‘this is your team now.'”

And while Coggins has taken advantage of the opportunity, he hasn’t been alone.

Both Yon and Olesinski have seen their scoring jump by more than 10 points-per-game while combining to hit 40 threes on the season, shooting better than 38% from beyond the arc. With those three playing well, the return of Hammonds, Williams and Earls could not have come at a more perfect time.

That’s a huge part of the reason for this 2-0 in league play, but there’s more at play.

You see, Air Force runs a Princeton-style offense. That makes them one of the toughest teams in the conference to prepare. You can watch it on film and you can practice against your second team running through the sets, but until you’ve seen it in person, it’s difficult to truly understand just how hard it is to guard a team running the Princeton.

The game against Utah State was the first for the Aggie’s as a member of the MWC. UNLV, as talented as they are, has a roster full of new additions. That, according to Pilipovich, played as much of a role in the wins as AFA’s effort and execution did.

“We can catch people off guard,” he said.

And not just opposing teams. Air Force picked off a couple of the MWC’s big boys last season, but a 1-7 performance in league games on the road cost them dearly. The Falcons are already 1-0 on the year away from Clune Arena, picking up that win at the Thomas & Mack Center, only the second time AFA has done that is 22 years.

Said Pilipovich with a laugh, “they’re young enough that they don’t know better.”

Whitehead to stay in NBA Draft

Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) shoots past Xavier forward Sean O'Mara (54) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Seton Hall sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has signed with an agent and will remain in the NBA Draft, according to multiple reports.

Whitehead averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game last season for Seton Hall, which went 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament. He likely projects as a second-round pick with a bit of a shaky shot, but a high usage and assist rates. His strong finish to the season likely lifted him on some draft boards, but his inefficiency will cap his ceiling in June’s draft.

The loss is significant for the Pirates as Whitehead was so much of their offense, but they’ll bring back Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo. It’s a group that will miss Whitehead’s playmaking, but is still a solid enough foundation that Seton Hall will still likely be competitive in the Big East and vying for another NCAA tournament berth.

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.

Gonzaga’s Karnowski returning for fifth year

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The man in the middle is returning to Gonzaga.

Przemek Karnowski will return to the Bulldogs for his final year after a medical redshirt waiver was granted allowing him a fifth season in Spokane, the school announced Tuesday.

“I’m excited to be coming back,” Karnowski said in a statement. “After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I’m staying positive about the upcoming season.”

The 7-foot-1 Karnowski, a Poland native, would have, at minimum, had professional opportunities overseas, but instead will return to play for the Bulldogs once more after a back injury limited him to five games last season. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.

With Karnowski returning along with  Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, Gonzaga coach Mark Few will be having newcomers Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams II and Zach Collins joining an experienced and talented group.

Gonzaga (shocker) will be the West Coast Conference favorite once more, but the Bulldogs will also be fielding a team that should open the season in most everyone’s top-15.

Michigan St. at Duke highlights ACC/Big Ten Challenge

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A matchup in Durham of likely top-10 teams is the headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, whose schedule was released Tuesday.

Michigan State, expected to open the season in the top-10, and Duke, the presumptive preseason No. 1, will meet Tuesday, Nov. 29, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the most intriguing contest of the 14-game event.

The Spartans are losing Denzel Valentin, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, but the recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward is one of coach Tom Izzo’s best and has Michigan State positioned as one of the Big Ten’s favorites.

Izzo’s recruiting class, though, pales in comparison to what coach Mike Krzyzewski is bringing to the Blue Devils, with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Frank Jackson and Javin DeLaurier in their 2016 class, which is why, when paired with the likes of Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard, make Duke nearly everyone’s No. 1 heading into next season.

Krzyzewski is 9-1 all-time against Izzo’s Spartans.

Among the other highlights of the conference competition is Syracuse at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) Pittsburgh at Maryland (Nov. 29), Purdue at Louisville (Nov. 30) and Ohio State at Virginia (Nov. 30).  

Monday, Nov. 28

Minnesota at Florida State

Wake Forest at Northwestern

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Syracuse at Wisconsin

Michigan State at Duke

Pittsburgh at Maryland

Iowa at Notre Dame

Georgia Tech at Penn State

N.C. State at Illinois

 

Wednesday, Nov. 30

Purdue at Louisville

North Carolina at Indiana

Ohio State at Virginia

Virginia Tech at Michigan

Rutgers at Miami (Fla.)

Nebraska at Clemson