American Athletic Conference Catchup: More membership changes on the way

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The inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference turned out to be a good one for the conference, with a UConn squad that finished tied for third going on to win the national title. But the March run of Kevin Ollie’s team wasn’t the only success for Mike Aresco’s conference, as Cincinnati won 27 games and a share of the regular season title and both Louisville (31 wins) and Memphis (24) reached the NCAA tournament as well. Add in an SMU program that took a major step forward in Larry Brown’s second season, and the American put forth a solid debut.

However the quest for national respect is something that didn’t come easily, with the Mustangs being left out of the NCAA tournament field and both Louisville and UConn receiving seeds that many deemed to be low. Improving the league’s standing from a national perspective is the next step for the American, and thanks to conference realignment the Cardinals won’t be around to help out as they’re joining the ACC on July 1. Rutgers (Big Ten) is also moving on, with East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa entering to move the total number of members to 11.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Losing Louisville hurts from a pedigree standpoint, but for a conference that’s new on the scene there’s also the chance for others to step forward. SMU’s turned into a program some consider to be a threat to reach the Top 10 in the national polls in 2014-15, with McDonald’s All-American Emmanuel Mudiay joining a roster that already boasts the likes of Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy. While the American has some programs that have been among the nation’s best for quite some time, the development of an SMU (and Houston as Kelvin Sampson begins his tenure) will be important when considering the long-term viability of the league.

UConn will be a factor as well, although they will need to account for the losses of Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and DeAndre Daniels. Cincinnati and Memphis also lost multiple key players from last season, but given their recent runs of success both teams should find a way to contend. Of the three newcomers Tulsa, which reached the NCAA tournament last season, looks best equipped to contend even with the change from Danny Manning to Frank Haith. But don’t overlook a Tulane squad that returns its top three scorers, led by shooting guard Jay Hook.

Three programs have new head coaches (Houston, Tulsa and USF), and given the roster and program turnover the 2014-15 season should be an interesting one in the American. It will be an important one as well, with the conference needing its members to make a few statements in non-conference play before beating up on each other.

THREE UP

  • SMU: The Mustangs’ non-conference strength of schedule (295th per rpiforecast.com) played a major role in their landing in the NIT as opposed to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, but thanks to the schedule Larry Brown’s put together to this point that shouldn’t be a concern in 2014-15. And with the talent both on the roster and arriving on campus, SMU will likely be the preseason pick to win the American come October. Emmanuel Mudiay’s arrival gives SMU a second McDonald’s All-American (Keith Frazier’s the other), and veterans Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy are back. The biggest question for SMU: how will they handle the bull’s eye that will come with the preseason expectations?
  • UConn: In two seasons at his alma mater Kevin Ollie’s successfully led the program through APR sanctions and won a national title. So what will he do for an encore? Losing the trio mentioned above hurts, but the return of Boatright is certainly a positive for the Huskies as they’ve got themselves a clear leader. And the newcomers on the perimeter (Daniel Hamilton, Sam Cassell Jr. and NC State transfer Rodney Purvis) do not lack for talent. However Amida Brimah having to undergo shoulder surgery doesn’t help matters, as the sophomore center will have to use the summer primarily for rehabilitation purposes. Brimah and Philip Nolan will need to take a step forward from a consistency standpoint, but given that perimeter rotation (Terrence Samuel and Omar Calhoun return as well) UConn will definitely be a contender.
  • Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane will be one of three debutants in the American, and even with the change in head coaches they’re well-positioned to be a factor. Tulsa’s biggest personnel losses from last season’s NCAA tournament team were Tim Peete and Patrick Swilling Jr., and they combined to average 13.9 points per game. With James Woodard, Rashad Smith and Shaquille Harrison all back for another season, Frank Haith has the pieces needed to hit the ground running. Also of note: all three of the players mentioned in the previous sentence are juniors, so they’ll (likely) be solid pieces for Haith and his staff to build around.

THREE DOWN

  • Memphis: To lose four senior guards is a tough proposition for any program, regardless of the ability of Josh Pastner and his coaching staff to land talent. The Tigers are going to be good, especially with Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols in the paint. But they’re going to be inexperienced on the perimeter, with Avery Woodson being a junior college transfer and both Pookie Powell and Dominic Magee yet to play a game at the Division I level. Within the conference the Tigers should contend, but the question is whether or not they have enough to be a Top 25 team.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats are in a position similar to Memphis, and in the trio of Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles head coach Mick Cronin has to account for the loss of guys who were productive with regards to both numbers and leadership. Players such as Troy Caupain and Shaquille Thomas will be key on the perimeter, and the same goes for Gary Clark, Quadri Moore and Octavius Ellis in the front court. Given the work Cronin and his staff have done in recent years Cincinnati will once again contend within the American, but given the key personnel losses they’re in a position similar to that of Memphis.
  • UCF: The Knights had one of the most versatile players in the American in Isaiah Sykes last season, and they won just four conference games (13-18 overall). With Sykes, Tristan Spurlock and Calvin Newell Jr. all out of eligibility UCF will have to replace its top three scorers. Kasey Wilson, who averaged 9.6 points per game in 2013-14, is the team’s leading returning scorer and that means the newcomers (keep an eye on Adonys Henriquez) will need to be ready to go from the start. This could be a tough season for Donnie Jones and his staff down in Orlando.

FIVE NEW FACES

  • Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU: Mudiay arrives on campus as the nation’s number two prospect according to Rivals, and he’s got the talent needed to have a major impact for the Mustangs. Mudiay’s a point guard, but with Nic Moore back he should see time off the ball as well. The expectation is that not only is Mudiay good enough to get SMU to the tournament for the first time in more than two decades, he’s good enough to lead the Mustangs deep into the 68-team event.
  • Daniel Hamilton, UConn: Like Mudiay, Hamilton was a McDonald’s All-American this year and the Californian will be a skilled scorer on the wing for Kevin Ollie. He doesn’t lack for confidence on the offensive end of the floor, and considering the many ways in which Hamilton can score that’s certainly understandable. His ability to knock down jumpers and beat teams off the dribble will be key for the Huskies given the loss of Shabazz Napier.
  • Kelvin Sampson, Houston: After serving as an assistant for two different NBA franchises following his unceremonious departure from Indiana, Sampson’s back in the college game as the Cougars look to improve their standing within the American. Sampson’s won nearly 65% of his games as a college head coach, so the success has clearly been there. The Cougars did lose Danuel House and TaShawn Thomas, but given Sampson’s track record the program won’t be down for long.
  • Gary Clark, Cincinnati: Clark played on the same grassroots team as North Carolina signee Theo Pinson, and he’s a very good addition for the Bearcats. Ranked 87th by Rivals, the 6-foot-7 Clark runs the floor very well and is a tough customer in the front court. With Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles out of eligibility there’s the opportunity to earn significant playing time as a freshman, and Clark’s more than capable of doing just that.
  • James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard isn’t a newcomer to the Tulsa program, having played two years there already, but he is a newcomer to the American and a talented one at that. Woodard was Tulsa’s leading scorer last season, as he averaged 15.5 points per game while earning second team All-Conference USA honors. And in a league that will have to account for the loss of some very talented guards, Woodard is capable of stepping into that void.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. SMU
2. UConn
3. Cincinnati
4. Memphis
5. Tulsa
6. Temple
7. Tulane
8. East Carolina
9. UCF
10. Houston
11. USF

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett: ‘We believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent’

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Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally spoke out on last weekend’s clash between white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and counter-protesters that resulted in the deaths of a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer and two police officers involved in a helicopter crash:

Bennett does not exactly take a hard-line stance — the message is more about healing within the community and how much he loves his current hometown than it is about condemning what happened — but he does say “we believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent.”

Kyle Guy, a sophomore on the Virginia roster, had this to say on Sunday:

UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It has taken more than two years for North Carolina to appear before an NCAA infractions committee panel since initially being charged with five top-level violations amid its long-running academic scandal.

The two-day hearing begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee. The panel will ultimately determine whether the school faces penalties that could include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships, making this a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

“The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it’s a big deal to any university,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “I’ve been a part of what you’d consider small cases, I’ve been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

“But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion.”

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

The panel, which would typically issue a ruling weeks to months later, is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

UNC’s representatives were seen arriving for the closed-door hearing at a Nashville hotel Wednesday morning. The contingent included athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, were also seen with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn’t working at UNC during the time in question.

“There’s nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here,” Fedora said last week. “But I’m there for support. I think me being there is important — not only for the NCAA but the university — that it shows compliance is important to me and our program.”

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Keorneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it “fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature” and don’t involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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