Shaka Smart, Derek Kellogg speak to the strength of the Atlantic 10

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source: Getty Images
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AMHERST, Mass. – Following Friday night’s loss to UMass, VCU head coach Shaka Smart entered the room for his postgame press conference, firing off a question before even taking his seat at the table.

“Is this the same room where John Chaney said, ‘I’ll kill you’?,” he asked, referring to the former Temple coach’s confrontation with then-UMass head coach John Calipari which happened just over 20 years ago.

“You won’t hear that from me,” he then assured the room.

In his two-year tenure in the Atlantic 10, Smart has immersed himself in the history of the conference … both good and bad, apparently.

The Chaney-Calipari incident ranks high among the conference’s list of infamous moments, but Friday night’s showdown between VCU’s Havoc and UMass’ P.A.I.N. — Pressure, Agitate, Interrupt, Neutralize — is another reminder of how impressive the talent in the Atlantic 10 is. Friday night’s slate of games was particularly low, but a fast-paced 40-minute thriller between the Rams and Minutemen directed the national audience to the sold out Mullins Center for the evening.

“Our conference is still undervalued,” Smart said. “I don’t think people realized the gauntlet that you have to go through in this league. I guess Saint Louis, on paper the win-loss record, they are making it look easy, but if you look closer at some of their games, some of them have been very close. And then for the rest of us, we’ve been battling it out.”

The Billikens are winners of 19 in a row, with their last loss to the nation’s only remaining unbeaten, Wichita State. Last March, Saint Louis was one of five Atlantic 10 teams that won at least one game in the NCAA tournament. The win over VCU almost assures UMass its first NCAA tourney bid since 1998. The Minutemen could be one of four, potentially five bids in this year’s field from the A10.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is a lack of sophistication out there right now as it relates to the Atlantic 10,” Smart added. “There are fill-in-the-blank high-major programs and they carry a weight because of their name, first and foremost. But the reality is if you look closer and you compare them to some of the teams in our league, I think our league shapes out pretty well. Again I’m not calling out anyone individually.”

In the RPI Top 100, nine teams — Saint Louis, St. Joseph’s, UMass, VCU, Richmond, George Washington, Dayton and St. Bonaventure — all crack the list.

“I think it just continues with the A10, I think it’s stood the test of time for one reason or another,” Kellogg said, who played in the A10 from 1991-1995 under Calipari. “The proof is really right there in the numbers. That’s what it says.”

Selection Sunday is less than a month away. Two of the Atlantic 10’s bids from a season ago — Butler and Temple — are gone. St. Joseph’s doesn’t have the best out of conference resume while Richmond is without Cedrick Lindsay and Derrick Williams for the remainder of the season. The A10 has its share of bubble teams while at-large bids should be extended to multiple teams within the conference.

Teams like Saint Louis, ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, may not be in the discussion among the nation’s contenders, and the league doesn’t have the national attention it may deserve, but Friday night was a reminder of what sort of Havoc, or P.A.I.N. A10 teams like VCU and UMass can inflict on the NCAA tournament field.

The conference did account for seven wins in the 2013 NCAA Tournament after all.

“It was a pretty exciting game, a well-played game, a phenomenal crowd,” Smart said. “We just have to continue pushing forward with that and gaining respect as a league.”

Creighton’s Khyri Thomas posterizes defender

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Creighton rising junior wing Khyri Thomas, like several of his teammates, are taking part in the Omaha Summer League this offseason.

On Thursday night, the 6-foot-3, 205-lb. Thomas eviscerated a defender with a one-handed posterization.

Thomas is coming off a breakout sophomore campaign for the Bluejays. He started all 35 games, averaging 12.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Aside from the increase in offensive production, Thomas served as one of the top defenders in the Big East. He shared the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award with Villanova’s Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges.

Zion Williamson throws down 360 windmill dunk

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Zion Williamson added another jaw-dropping dunk in the layup lines on the first night of the second live evaluation period.

Williamson and his SC Supreme team took on Each 1 Teach 1 at the Hoopseen Best of the South at the LakePoint Sporting Community in greater Atlanta.

The 6-foot-7 power forward threw down a 360 windmill dunk during his pregame routines.

Each 1 Teach 1 would pick up a 70-67 victory over SC Supreme. Williamson would end with a monster stat line of 37 points and seven rebounds.

Appalachian State freshman shooter to transfer

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A 3-point threat became a late addition to the transfer market earlier this week.

Appalachian State rising sophomore Patrick Good informed head coach Jim Fox on his intentions to leave the program. He was granted his release on Wednesday, according to Bret Strelow of the Winston-Salem Journal.

“I was pretty shocked when he came in to tell me he was leaving,” Fox told the Winston Salem-Journal. “He was a guy who had a very good freshman season, and we’re surprised to see him go.”

“I enjoyed being around the team and the experience that I got from the first year,” Good added. “I don’t think I would change that for anything. I just felt like moving forward, there is just so much more that I was capable of.”

Good appeared in 29 of 30 games, all of the bench, for the Mountaineers. The 6-foot guard averaged 7.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. His biggest asset to his newest team will  be in his ability to shoot from deep, connecting on 41 percent of his attempts during the 2016-17 season.

If Good plans to remain in at the Division I level, avoiding a year spent at a junior college, he will need to sit out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer regulations. He will have three years of eligibility remaining.

Iowa State adds graduate transfer Zoran Talley

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Iowa State added a scoring option on Thursday night, one who is eligible immediately.

Zoran Talley, who spent his first three seasons at Old Dominion, will join the Cyclones as a graduate transfer this season.

“We are excited to add Zoran to our program,” Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm said in a statement issued by the athletic department. “He has had great success, both personally and as a team, at ODU and will be an asset for our team. Zoran brings versatility on both ends of the floor and his ability to play and guard several positions will benefit us. He can score and make plays and with him being immediately eligible, that is great for us.”

Talley, a 6-foot-7 wing, averaged 11.3 points for the Monarchs last season as a sophomore. However, he was dismissed from the team in April for a violation of team rules. This was preceded by two separate suspensions during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, according to Ed Miller of the Virginia Pilot.

He redshirted the 2014-15 season, leaving him two years of eligibility remaining at Iowa State. He is set to graduate in August.

Talley and fellow graduate transfer Hans Brase (Princeton) provides a boost in scoring, as well as in experience, in a frontline that returns Solomon Young, the rising sophomore big man.

Ex-NCAA scoring leader Daniel ready to return for new team

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee guard James Daniel III finally has the chance to deliver a follow-up performance to his 2015-16 NCAA scoring title, an opportunity that essentially eluded him last season.

After an ankle injury caused Daniel to play just two games last season at Howard, the 6-foot graduate transfer brings experience and offense to Tennessee’s backcourt.

“I wanted to go on the biggest stage for my last year and try to pursue my hopes and dreams since I’ve been a little kid, which was to get to the NBA,” Daniel said.

Daniel likely won’t be shooting or scoring as much as he did at Howard, where he averaged 27.1 points per game to lead all Division I players in 2015-16. He’s more interested in getting to the NCAA Tournament, something he hasn’t done and Tennessee hasn’t accomplished since 2014.

“At this point in my career I’m ready to win,” Daniel said. “That’s pretty much what I have to do. I feel like if we win, my personal goals will be met.”

Daniel believed that NCAA berth would come last season as Howard was favored to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Those plans quickly went awry.

Daniel was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss the first 14 games of the season. After returning and playing just two games, Daniel learned he had a chipped bone in his ankle. With Daniel out for the rest of the season, Howard finished 10-24.

That injury allowed Daniel to redshirt the 2016-17 season, giving him one more year of eligibility. He decided to spend that season in a bigger conference and considered Michigan, Ohio State and DePaul before selecting Tennessee.

Daniel remembered watching Tennessee games when he was younger and appreciating prolific guard Chris Lofton, who starred for the Volunteers from 2004-08. When Daniel visited Tennessee, he bonded with the team and sensed a family atmosphere.

“They’re competitive,” Daniel said. “They all want to win. That was the most intriguing part.”

Although Daniel’s ankle leaves his status uncertain for Tennessee’s three exhibition games next month in France and Spain, he’s expected to be ready in plenty of time for the start of the season.

Tennessee is counting on the additions of Daniel and Vincennes University transfer Chris Darrington to solidify a backcourt that struggled with inexperience last year.

“With Chris Darrington and James Daniel, we felt like we could get guys who liked to score and were not afraid to go make plays,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I think that’s going to help these younger guys because they were put in situations they’d never been put in before.”

Barnes cited the maturity Daniel brings as Tennessee’s lone senior. Daniel will turn 24 on Jan. 29, about a month after Tennessee begins Southeastern Conference play. Nobody else on Tennessee’s roster is older than 20, though juniors Kyle Alexander and Brad Woodson will have their 21st birthdays before the season starts.

“He’s older than all of us, so I think I can learn some things from him,” Darrington said.

Daniel’s teammates will learn plenty about his knack for drawing fouls. Not only did Daniel lead all Division I players in scoring during that 2015-16 season, he also topped the nation in free-throw attempts with 331.

They’ll also learn about his work ethic. Daniel’s father, James Daniel Jr., remembers how his son used to take about 200 jump shots every morning before his classes started at Phoebus High School in Hampton, Virginia.

“He’s just been a workaholic,” James Daniel Jr. said. “Well, we’d call it a workaholic, but he’d probably say it was something that he loved doing.”

All that practice helped Daniel overcome his lack of height at Howard to become an NCAA scoring leader. Now he’s ready to compete at a higher level.

He got an idea of what to expect from Quinton Chievous, who made the move in reverse by leading MEAC program Hampton to the NCAA Tournament after starting out at Tennessee. Daniel said Chievous told him he “should do really well here.”

Daniel agrees.

“I don’t think they would have brought me here if they didn’t think I could compete at this level,” Daniel said.