2014-2015 Season Preview: Ranking the biggest X-Factors

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Here is our list of this season’s biggest x-factors.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Kentucky’s buy-in: No team in the country has as much talent on their roster as Kentucky does, but the Wildcats may actually be too deep this season. They’re so deep, in fact, that John Calipari is considering using a platoon system — with five-man shifts — like he is coaching hockey. Eventually, someone’s minutes are going to get cut. Someone is going to have to accept the fact they’re a role player, nothing more than a screener or rebounder or defensive presence. If every Wildcat, from the Harrisons twins to Sam Malone, buys into this idea, Kentucky is going to be very, very tough to beat.

Gonzaga’s defense: Kevin Pangos, now that he’s healthy, is going to have a huge season. Kyle Wiltjer has had a year to develop his body and his game, making him the perfect stretch-four to create space in the paint for Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. Gary Bell, Byron Wesley, Eric McClellan, Josh Perkins, Kyle Draginis. There’s plenty of talent on the Zags, but the issue will be on defense. When Pangos, Wiltjer and Karnowski are on the floor together, Mark Few will have three defensive question marks. Gonzaga is a Final Four caliber team if they get enough stops.

D’angelo Russell, Ohio State: Aaron Craft is Ohio State’s biggest loss, but right up there, oddly enough, is the loss of LaQuinton Ross. The Buckeyes struggled to score last season, and Ross was their most consistent offensive weapon. Russell heads to Columbus with the reputation of being a big time scorer, and while the Buckeyes should, once again, be stout defensively, they’ll need Russell’s pop on the offensive end.

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: How long have we been asking questions about the Kansas point guard play? That won’t change this season, as Graham, a freshman, and sophomores Frank Mason and Connor Frankamp will try to take the reins. Graham is the most talented of the three, however, and is expected to take over the role.

MORE: Top 25 Potential Breakout Stars | Top 25 Non-Conference Games | Coaches on the Hot Seat

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Dwayne Polee (Getty Images)

Dwayne Polee, San Diego State: Someone is going to have to replace the offensive production that San Diego State loses with the graduation of Xavier Thames. Polee is not the most talented offensive player on the roster, but he showed quite a bit of promise at the end of last season. SDSU reaches a new level if he becomes a threat as a scorer.

Mark Donnal, Michigan: Michigan’s perimeter is loaded this season, but with Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford all departing, Donnal, a redshirt freshman, is now the veteran presence in the paint for John Beilein. Should I mention that he’s also known as being a shooter, and that he redshirted strictly to add strength?

Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford had promising moments as a freshman with the Bruins, but there were also times where he looked best-suited to being an offensive sparkplug off the bench. This year, the sophomore son of head coach Steve Alford will be handed the reins.

UConn’s big men: UConn has a number of x-factors this season — Can Ryan Boatright be Shabazz or Kemba? How good will Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton be? Is this Omar Calhoun’s bounceback year? But more than anything, UConn’s front line is where the questions lie. Amida Brimah is a terrific shotblocker with the strength of a stalk of bamboo, and Philip Nolan added 25 pounds of muscle but was ‘just a guy’ last season. Losing Deandre Daniels’ inside-outside ability will hurt quite a bit, and while UConn’s guard situation will work itself out, the Huskies need big minutes out of their big men to win the American this year.

Kansas State’s transfers: Marcus Foster has a shot to be a first-team all-american this season, but there are still some questions with his supporting cast. Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas are all expected to take a step forward, and Malek Harris is a four-star addition, but it is a trio of transfers that could make the difference. Justin Edwards could end up being a double-figure scorer on the wing, while Stephen Hurt and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Bolden give Bruce Weber some much-needed height in the paint.

Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State: There’s no questioning Dejean-Jones’ ability to score. He can fill it up when he gets on a roll. His problem is shot selection, and while Iowa State likes to get up and down the floor, Dejean-Jones is going to be the second or third option offensively for the Cyclones. Can he accept that role?

Here are 10 more x-factors

  • Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse: For the third straight season, Syracuse will have just one point guard on their roster, and a freshman to boot. If he Tyler Ennis 2.0?
  • Chris Walker, Florida: A supreme talent at 6-foot-10, for sure, but does he have a clue about how to play basketball?
  • Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, Duke: Cook is the senior starter. Tyus Jones is the hot-shot freshman. Both are talented point guards. Can they play together? What if one has their minutes cut?
  • Kedren Johnson, Memphis: Johnson, who averaged 13.5 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 boards at Vanderbilt in 2012-2013, is the only guard for Memphis that has ever played Division I basketball.
  • Wayne Blackshear and Shaqquan Aaron, Louisville: Montrezl Harrell is an all-american, and Terry Rozier might join him this season. Can Blackshear and/or Aaron provide production from the wing?
  • Yannick Moreira and Keith Frazier, SMU: With no Emmanuel Mudiay, Larry Brown needs these two to improve. Moreira looked great at the FIBA World Cup, while Frazier was a McDonald’s all-american but couldn’t earn a starting spot as a freshman.
  • Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn was the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2012, but he’s yet to be healthy at Providence.
  • Cullen Neal, New Mexico: Neal was impressive at times as a freshman despite playing on a team with three pros while still recovering from an emergency appendectomy.
  • Robert Hubbs, Tennessee: The most talented player on a depleted Tennessee roster struggled with injuries as a freshman.
  • Texas using a 2-3 zone: How effective can Texas be defensively when they have Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley on the floor together?

Four-star forward commits to Wake Forest

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Danny Manning added another four-star recruit to his 2018 recruiting class.

Isaiah Mucius, a 6-foot-7 forward, committed to Wake Forest on Monday evening, giving the Demon Deacons another top-rated prospect alongside top-25 prospect Jaylen Hoard in 2018.

“I’d like to thank my family and my friends for having my back throughout all the tough times and good times,” Mucius said in a social media post. “I’d like to thank all the college coaches that recruited me through this process and believed in me and my talents.

“I’ll be attending Wake Forest University.”

Mucius, a consensus top-100 recruit, visited Wake Forest, which he visited this past weekend, over Xavier, which he visited earlier this month. The Brewster Academy product also had offers from the likes of Connecticut, Minnesota and LSU, among others.

Manning’s 2018 class now includes Mucius, three-star guard Sharone White and Hoard, a 6-foot-8 four-star forward who committed to the Demon Deacons last month.

“I am trying to win an NCAA Championship,” Mucius told Scout.com, “and I think having Jaylen (Hoard) on the wing with me, and we are trying to help get a point guard, and I think we can win a championship.”

Rhode Island staffer arrested at team facility

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A Rhode Island staffer has been placed on administrative after an arrest last week stemming from an incident at the team’s facility, according to reports.

Tyron Boswell, who joined Rhode Island last season as the director of operations, was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, both misdemeanors, following a verbal altercation with police, according to WPRI-TV in Providence.

From the police report, according to WPRI:

“Officers working a concert detail at the Ryan Center Thursday night responded to a reported fight in a men’s bathroom involving members of the basketball team. While trying to break up the disturbance, officers said Boswell started yelling and swearing at them. The officers told Boswell to leave, but said he kept yelling as he walked out of the bathroom.

Officers said Boswell’s outbursts agitated the crowd that had gathered outside the bathroom. Seeing that he was not going to leave peacefully, officers said they decided to place Boswell under arrest. However, police said Boswell kept yelling and struggled with officers as they put him in handcuffs and led him out of the building.”

Boswell was placed on administrative leave by the university.

“The University cannot comment further on the circumstances of the arrest, other individuals named in the arrest report or the details included in the arrest report until the investigation of the situation is complete,” a spokesperson for Rhode Island said in a statement. “The University is cooperating with the South Kingstown Police Department for the investigation.”

Boswell joined Rhode Island last year after previously being the director of operations for the grassroots program Expressions Elite. He reportedly was promoted to assistant coach at Rhode Island this year, according to Jon Rothstein of FanRag Sports. He remains listed as the director of operations on Rhode Island’s roster.

At Harvard, education through athletics (and vice-versa)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — When Harvard sophomore Seth Towns awoke in his riverside dorm room Wednesday morning, he had options.

He could work out at the gym to prepare for the upcoming Ivy League basketball season. He could slog downstairs for another dining hall breakfast with his roommates. Or he could head over to Harvard Square to eat instead with civil rights activist Harry Edwards, sportscaster James Brown, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and philosopher Cornel West.

Towns chose to stretch his mind instead of his muscles.

“It’s the kind of thing you come to Harvard for,” the 6-foot-7 forward for the Crimson basketball team said. “Growing up, I would have never thought that I’d have these people to look up to and talk to. I’m just acting as a sponge, and taking it all in.”

At a monthly event dubbed the “Breakfast Club,” tucked away in the private dining room of a Harvard Square hotel restaurant, Towns and senior Chris Egi joined coach Tommy Amaker this week to mingle with a few dozen leaders in the city’s financial, political and intellectual communities.

Later that afternoon, Edwards spoke to the whole basketball team about a life at the intersection of sports and activism, from John Carlos and Tommie Smith — not to mention Malcolm X — to Colin Kaepernick.

Amaker arranged the talk for a simple but somewhat quaint reason: As long as his paycheck comes from Harvard, he plans to take his role as an educator seriously.

“We’re teaching, we’re engaging, we’re exposing. We’re hopefully enlightening,” Amaker said. “I’m not sure how much they know about Dr. Harry Edwards. But we’re going to give them an education about that. I promise you that.”

The oldest and most prestigious university in the United States, Harvard has produced more than its share of U.S. presidents and Nobel laureates, along with national champions in sports like hockey and crew. But the highlight of the athletic year has always been the football team’s century-old rivalry with Yale known as The Game.

The Crimson basketball team had never won an Ivy League title, beaten a ranked team or cracked The Associated Press Top 25 before Amaker arrived in 2007. But the former Duke point guard, who previously coached at Seton Hall and Michigan, knew he had something else going for him.

“How amazingly powerful the brand and the calling card of Harvard is,” he said. “It’s a powerful pull.”

While other schools built barbershops or miniature golf courses for their athletes, Amaker name-dropped Harvard’s academic credentials to attract top talent, landing a 2016 recruiting class that was ranked in the top 10 nationally — unheard-of for an Ivy school. He has also used it to lure politicians, Hall of Fame basketball players and coaches, and business and thought leaders to speak to his players on issues more important than bounce passes or boxing out.

“I tell them, ‘You’ll forever be able to say you lectured at Harvard,'” he said, half-joking. “They all like that.”

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke to the team last year, two weeks before the presidential election — not about his basketball records or titles, but about the rising tide of racism that concerned him. Edwards’ talk on Wednesday put Kaepernick’s national anthem protest in the context of athlete activism over the decades.

Amaker also shuttles his team to local plays with social justice themes. At an annual “Faculty, Food and Fellowship” dinner, they might hear from a cabinet secretary, a presidential candidate or a dean. And the Breakfast Club allows them to connect with prominent Bostonians and others with Harvard ties, many of them African-American.

“Their motivation is the full-rounded commitment to the people who play ball for them,” said Clifford Alexander, who played freshman basketball at Harvard and went on to serve as the first black Secretary of the Army.

“(Amaker) does not think that just because you can shoot and pass, that’s the end of his responsibility,” he said. “If you can find three other places in the country where the football or basketball team gets that kind of talk, I’ll buy you dinner.”

At last week’s breakfast, Towns sat down to eggs and French toast served family style a few seats away from orthopedic surgeon Gus White, the first black graduate of Stanford’s medical school, who this June gave the commencement address there 56 years after he spoke at his own graduation.

To Brown, the arrangement was a formula for success: “The teams I’ve seen that are successful are a mix of veterans and younger players,” he said.

Along with Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, Amaker started the Breakfast Club as a sort of “kitchen cabinet” of advisers when he first arrived on campus as the only black head coach among Harvard’s 32 varsity teams.

But Amaker has also turned the mostly — but not entirely — African-American gathering into a network for his players, inviting them to meet potential mentors in law and business and medicine and politics, as well as authors and occasionally an athlete with something interesting to say.

“It’s one thing to read about riding a bicycle or swimming. It’s another thing to get in the pool,” Edwards told the group last week. Towns watched the luminaries file out after breakfast and said: “I’m in the pool right now.”

Then-Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas spoke last year, and two Massachusetts governors have dropped by the gathering. Egi said he met a professor at the Breakfast Club that led to an independent study and a research project that is now in its second year.

“Just being exposed to people who’ve done important things, and getting to hear about their life stories — it’s an inspiration,” the senior forward from Canada said.

And that, Amaker said, pays off on the court.

Too often, he said, colleges are forced into a false choice between education and athletics, between grades and winning games. But creating well-rounded, thinking citizens also makes them better players, he said.

“This isn’t something that’s happened because we’ve won a few games,” Amaker said. “I’m saying to you: This is how we won those games.”

And the wins have come.

In Amaker’s tenure, the school earned the first five Ivy League titles in its history, making four trips to the NCAA tournament and twice advancing as a double-digit seed. Harvard grad Jeremy Lin became an NBA star (though somewhat meteorically).

Amaker himself now occupies an endowed coaching position and is a special assistant to Harvard President Drew Faust. The school’s basketball arena, first built in 1926, is being renovated at a cost of $12 million, according to the architectural firm.

More importantly, there are off-the-court success stories, too.

Corbin Miller, who came to Harvard from Utah, said a faculty talk with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen led him to a tech startup where he’s worked since graduating last spring.

Like Towns, he had options.

“You could kind of look around and see that each person in there had been affected in there in a pretty deep way,” Miller said. “Apart from the athletics and apart from the academics, it was a life lesson. It’s really a setup for the rest of your life, whether it’s basketball immediately after or not.”

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Mitchell Robinson is not a trailblazer; poor decisions forced him into the worst one-and-done option

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Mitchell Robinson is a picturesque example of everything that is wrong with the NBA’s 19-year old age limit, the rule that has created the one-and-done era of college basketball.

He’s an athletic marvel at 7-foot, a prototype for what NBA teams are going to look for in a front court defender in the small-ball era. He’s long enough to protect the rim, strong enough to avoid being bullied on the block and athletic and mobile enough that he can function defending on the perimeter, be it switching on ball-screens or manning up against perimeter-oriented bigs. Robinson is good enough defensively that he’s currently thought of as a potential lottery pick despite the fact that his offensive repertoire essentially consists of ‘catch, dunk, repeat’.

He doesn’t need a year of college to turn him into an NBA player. He plays a position where strengthening his brand has almost no monetary value. And, frankly, he doesn’t want to be in college.

Robinson lasted two weeks at Western Kentucky over the summer before leaving school. He took a look at taking a redshirt year at LSU, Kansas and New Orleans before ultimately opting to return to Western Kentucky for the start of the fall semester. He lasted another couple of weeks before leaving again, officially deciding that he will spend this season training and working out for the 2018 NBA Draft, the first that he will be eligible to enter.

The argument is simple, really. College isn’t for everyone. If you’re an elite prospect with no desire for a year’s worth of higher learning and with no real benefit to spending a season playing in college, you shouldn’t be forced to spend a season playing there.

RELATED: Changing the NBA’s age limit will have repercussions, but to evaluate we must stop calling one-and-dones ‘students’

Mitchell Robinson is also an example of a player that really could have used a year away from home.

If he has proven anything during his short stint as a college basketball player, it’s that he is either not the best decision-maker or taking advice from all the wrong people. Shall we list the mistakes that he’s made?:

  1. He is a top ten recruit in the Class of 2017 and a potential lottery pick, yet he made the decision to commit to Western Kentucky in large part because of the presence of his godfather, Shammond Williams, being on Rick Stansbury’s staff. Elite recruits should never pick a school for one year based solely on the presence of someone they know on the staff.
  2. Robinson also signed a letter of intent with WKU. Elite recruits should never sign an LOI period, let alone with a program they have no business playing at. LOI’s give all the power to the school. They can force a player to redshirt a season if they don’t want to release him from the LOI, but they can rescind the scholarship anytime they want. Elite recruits like Robinson. have all the power. Never. Sign. An. LOI.
  3. Robinson never should have enrolled in summer school, either. It was a poorly-kept secret that Robinson was having doubts about going to WKU, particularly after Williams resigned in early July. Whoever told him that it was a good idea to go to summer school with those doubts in mind cost him this year. The second Robinson enrolled in a summer school class, he became a WKU student, meaning that his attempts to enroll elsewhere — LSU, Kansas, New Orleans — were complicated by the fact that he was a one-and-done player that needed an exceedingly unlikely waiver in order to avoid having to redshirt the 2017-18 season as a transfer.

He played his entire recruitment wrong, and it begs the question: Who involved in that process actually had Robinson’s best interests in mind?

Spending a year in college at a power program wouldn’t have necessarily solved that problem — let’s just say that the future success of one-and-dones isn’t always the primary motivation for their college coaches — but a change of scenery could have helped.

And now here we are.

Robinson has left WKU for the second time in the span of two months, and this time it appears to be for good. He will not be playing college basketball. He also won’t be playing professional basketball. He’s reportedly going to spend the next nine months working out in Dallas — which, admittedly, is better than remaining at home during this process — before entering the NBA Draft.

Robinson now becomes a test-case, a player that will be seen as something of a trailblazer should this become a realistic avenue for players of his ilk to take.

But frankly, that does not seem like something that is likely to happen.

Sitting out for a year is the worst option for elite high school basketball players. Every other option has some significant positives.

If the player goes to college, he’ll be playing on national television every night, building a brand and developing a name for himself while playing at a very high level and living a pretty good life. The dorms that basketball players live in are insane. The facilities that they play and work out in are state of the art. They fly first-class everywhere. They play in some of the most raucous and packed arenas anywhere in the world. They live life as a celebrity on their campus. That, plus the going rate for elite recruits, is a pretty good life to lead.

Playing overseas has benefits as well. Their life might not be as enjoyable — living in a foreign country is not easy — and the American public will have no connection to the player, but they’ll be making good money from the team and through sponsorships while spending a year as a professional. Competing against grown men that are grinding out paychecks and would love to plant an elbow in the ribs of some young hotshot American prospect is good way to learn just what it means to make basketball your 9-to-5.

Spending a one-and-done year in the G League has some of those same benefits. The salary won’t be as much, but you’ll be living in a place where English is spoken, the food is normal, and that sponsorship money — or a loan from an agent — will be more than enough to live it up in places like Reno, Canton, Grand Rapids, Sioux Falls and Fort Wayne.

But sitting out a year?

Robinson will be working out by himself — everyone else is going to be in season, whether at the high school, college or professional level. Someone is going to have to pay for that trainer. Someone is going to have to pay for him to live in Dallas. Shoe companies may be willing to float him some money, but the number likely won’t be that high; I don’t see kids camping outside stores for days to buy the newest Air Hassan Whitesides. Maybe he takes out a loan, maybe he pays out of his own pocket — most likely, it will be funded by an agent — but either way, he’s burning through money without an income coming in.

And all of that ignores that Robinson was essentially forced into this move because of his previous decisions.

After he left WKU, he visited Kansas and LSU. He clearly wanted to be at a bigger school. That wasn’t a realistic option, not unless he wanted to be a redshirt.

Robinson painted himself into this corner.

Maybe it will be enough to convince the NBA to change their age limit. Who knows.

But this saga has a much greater chance of leading one-and-done prospects away from mid-major programs that hired their godfather and straight into the arms of the blue-bloods, where they belong.

Mitchell Robinson to leave Western Kentucky, workout for NBA Draft

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The saga of Mitchell Robinson’s college career is finally, mercifully over.

I think.

And yes, that’s about the fifth time that I’ve written both of those sentences.

On Sunday night, Robinson, a top ten prospect in the Class of 2017 and a potential lottery pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, told Scout.com that he will be skipping college to workout and prepare for the NBA Draft. This comes just three weeks after Robinson re-enrolled at Western Kentucky. He had to re-enroll at Western Kentucky because, after attending a couple of weeks of summer school classes, he left school and asked for a release to transfer from the program.

He visited Kansas. He visited LSU. He visited New Orleans. He considered just sitting out the season before entering the NBA Draft, those summer school classes meant that he was a transfer that needed to redshirt, but eventually made his way back to Western Kentucky.

And, as of now, it appears that his career as an amateur basketball player is over.

We’ll see how long that lasts.