Conference USA Conference Catch-up: Can anyone stop Louisiana Tech?

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source: AP

With more realignment shake-ups in 2014-15, Conference USA is once again a shifting landscape.

Conference USA has had so many members at this point in their history that the USA part of the name seems rather appropriate.

Gone from the league in 2014-15 are East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa — as those three schools move on to the American Athletic Conference — and joining the league from the Sun Belt is Western Kentucky.

So C-USA now stands at 14 members and the top teams look similar to last season.

NCAA Tournament representative Tulsa is out of the picture but Louisiana Tech, UTEP, and Southern Miss — with new head coach Doc Sadler — are looking like the top three teams in the league.

UAB has some talent in place and Middle Tennessee loses a lot from last season’s strong effort. The middle of the pack of Old Dominion, new face Western Kentucky, Charlotte, North Texas and FIU could go a number of different ways while Rice, Marshall, UTSA and Florida Atlantic round out the league.

THREE UP

  • Louisiana Tech: Head coach Mike White opted to stay with the Bulldogs after flirting with the Tennessee job and he gets back two of his top three scorers (Alex Hamilton and Raheem Appleby) and one of the nation’s top assist men in point guard Kenneth Smith. White’s teams at Louisiana Tech have been very deep and balanced and this group should be similar.
  • UTEP: Tim Floyd did a fantastic job of keeping the Miners together in the wake of the FBI scandal last season and with Julian Washburn and Vince Hunter returning — and two new Rivals top 150 recruits — this UTEP team should have plenty of firepower to compete for the top spot in the league.
  • Charlotte: The 49ers were young last season and went through some growing pains in February. But now that many talented pieces return, Charlotte could be poised for a run up the standings. As long as head coach Alan Major returns from his leave this season, the 49ers should be in good shape.

THREE DOWN

  • Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders lost an all-league player in senior forward Sean Jones and there were plenty of other losses to a senior-laden team as well. It will be tough for them to stay with the league’s elite teams this season.
  • Southern Miss: The loss of Donnie Tyndall certainly hurts but Michael Craig, Neil Watson, Daveon Boardingham and Jerrold Brooks were four of the Golden Eagles top five players and they were seniors. That leaves new coach Doc Sadler with a lot of questions entering his first season on the job, but he’s won in the league before at UTEP.
  • Marshall: After back-to-back losing seasons, head coach Tom Herrion was bought out of his contract and the program brought in former player Dan D’Antoni. The 66-year-old D’Antoni is a former NBA assistant under his younger brother Mike but he’s never coached at the Division I level and hasn’t been a head coach above the varsity level in high school. With the team also losing Kareem Canty, the Herd could be in trouble.

FIVE NEW FACES

  • Doc Sadler, Southern Miss:The former head coach at Nebraska, Sadler gives Southern Miss good name recognition and an experienced head coach after the Golden Eagles lost Donnie Tyndall to Tennessee. Sadler is 149-107 in a head coaching career that includes two years at UTEP and Nebraska for six seasons. Sadler has also coached in Conference USA before as the Miners’ head coach in 2005-06.
  • Chris Sandifer and Omega Harris, UTEP: Sandifer is the No. 102 prospect in the country according to Rivals.com and the 6-foot-6 wing could give an immediate scoring punch to UTEP next season thanks to his deep range and athleticism. Harris checks in at No. 149 in the Rivals rankings and the 6-foot-2 guard from Oklahoma was a highly productive guard throughout his high school career.
  • William Lee, UAB:Lee is a big-time athlete at 6-foot-8 and UAB did a nice job to keep this in-state three-star prospect home. Lee threw down a number of highlight-reel dunks in the EYBL with the Alabama Challenge and also rebounded at rim level thanks to his explosive burst off the floor.
  • Derrick Clayton, Western Kentucky: A native of California, Clayton was one of the breakout performers of the high school season in the National Prep Showcase and he could give the Hilltoppers some immediate scoring punch.
  • Dan D’Antoni, Marshall: The 66-year-old Marshall alum is a first-time head coach at the college level after working under his younger brother Mike in the NBA for the better part of the last decade. D’Antoni has only been a head coach at the high school level, but it will be intriguing to see if he incorporates some of his brother’s “seven seconds or less” offensive approach to the college game.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

  1. Louisiana Tech
  2. UTEP
  3. Southern Miss
  4. UAB
  5. Middle Tennessee
  6. Old Dominion
  7. Western Kentucky
  8. Charlotte
  9. North Texas
  10. FIU
  11. Florida Atlantic
  12. UTSA
  13. Rice
  14. Marshall

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?