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Conference USA Preview: Is Middle Tennessee State still the team to beat?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing Conference USA.

Conference USA has been a one-bid league the past few seasons but the league has also been vastly underrated in the national landscape. Case in point: C-USA has three consecutive seasons with a NCAA tournament win, even though all three teams were high double-digit seeds.

Middle Tennessee remains the darling of the league following two straight appearances in the Round of 32. Talented forwards JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw have moved on but C-USA Player of the Year candidate Giddy Potts is back on the perimeter along with promising sophomore point guard Tyrik Dixon. Transfers have been an important part of roster-building for the Blue Raiders and former Alabama wing Nick King will be a valuable wing scorer for this team as well. If Brandon Walters can become a productive piece in the middle then Middle Tennessee should once again be a huge threat in league and postseason play.

With a ferocious perimeter back in the fold, hopes are high that Louisiana Tech can make a leap after last season’s second-place finish. The sophomore backcourt tandem of DaQuan Bracey and Jalen Harris are both back after strong freshman seasons while senior wing Jacobi Boykins is a big-time shooter and Player of the Year threat in the league. If the Bulldogs get a solid contribution from its frontcourt, led by center Joniah White, they could be a major contender.

Old Dominion defended at an elite level last season but they had a tough time with consistent offense. The good news is the Monarchs return some serious talent in point guard Ahmad Caver and brothers Brandon and B.J. Stith. Wake Forest transfer Greg McClinton is an intriguing addition and the freshman class, including redshirt Xavier Green and shooter Micheal Hueitt Jr. could help put up points.

With one of the league’s best frontcourts, UAB will once again be a dangerous team in C-USA. Two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year William Lee returns for his senior season along with double-figure scorer Chris Cokley. If point guard Nick Norton returns to form from a torn ACL, the Blazers should be a threat at the top of the standings. UTEP was the only C-USA to beat Middle Tennessee last season as they went 13-4 to close out the season. Senior guard Omega Harris is a big-time scorer while senior big man Matt Willms returns after leading the conference in field goal percentage.

Things looked really good for Western Kentucky when they had five-star center Mitchell Robinson, but he’s gone and the team lost its most talented player. Rick Stansbury still brings in a ton of transfers as Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo), Darius Thompson (Virginia) and Dwight Coleby (Kansas) are all joining the roster. Conference Player of the Year threat Jon Davis returns at guard for Charlotte but the 49ers need to get more out of an unproven frontcourt. Guard Andrien White and wing Austin Ajukwa also return to form a veteran core.

Marshall is another solid team in an emerging league as they’re coming off of a 20-win season. Player of the Year candidate Jon Elmore is back at guard while athletic guard C.J. Burks is another player to watch. The rest of the scoring on from the Thundering Herd will come from mostly new pieces. Rice was gutted by transfers when former head coach Mike Rhoades left for VCU but junior Connor Cashaw has a chance to emerge as a go-to threat. Senior transfer A.J. Lapray brings perimeter shooting while the freshman class has some talented additions.

UTSA took a gigantic step forward in head coach Steven Henson’s first season and he adds more reinforcements to try to make an additional leap in the second season. The backcourt of sophomores Byron Frohnen and Giovanni De Nicolao could put up a lot of points. Scholarship reductions are starting to get lifted at Southern Miss, meaning the Golden Eagles should have more depth in the coming seasons. Jack-of-all-trades guard Cortez Edwards returns and sophomore big man Tim Rowe should help if he can stay healthy. 

Florida Atlantic lost seven players to transfer as they need to find more consistent help around senior guard Gerdarius Troutman. College of Charleston transfer Payton Hulsey is an intriguing addition who could help. New head coach Grant McCasland leads the charge at North Texas as the Mean Green are hoping the promising backcourt of Ryan Woolridge and A.J. Lawson continues to grow. FIU is hoping to improve on last season’s disappointing campaign but head coach Anthony Evans, who could be coaching for his job, saw most of last year’s roster leave.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee

A senior shooting guard who can create his own shot against most defenses, Potts is a 42 percent career three-point shooter capable of knocking them down from all over the floor. A key piece in the Blue Raiders making it to the Round of 32 the past two seasons, Potts is experienced veteran and a reliable scorer.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA TEAM

  • Jon Elmore, Marshall: Putting up big numbers in D’Antoni’s high-octane offense, Elmore averaged 19.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest as a sophomore.
  • Jon Davis, Charlotte: An ironman junior who played 35 minutes a game last season, the 6-foot-3 Davis put up 19.6 points, 4.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.
  • Jacobi Boykins, Louisiana Tech: Making C-USA’s all-defense team while improving his all-around offense, the 6-foot-6 senior averaged 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season.
  • William Lee, UAB: Perhaps the league’s best long-term talent, the 6-foot-9 senior is springy enough to block shots and skilled enough to knock down perimeter shots.

PREDICTED FINISH

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

No. 17 Michigan beats Maryland 85-61 for 5th straight win

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored 22 of his career-high 28 points in the decisive first half, and No. 17 Michigan easily defeated Maryland 85-61 Saturday for its fifth straight victory.

Using runs of 9-0 and 16-3, the Wolverines built a 54-24 halftime lead and cruised to the finish. Michigan went 17 for 28 from the floor in the first half, including 11 for 19 from 3-point range.

The Wolverines (24-7, 13-5 Big Ten) have clinched the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, but can earn a No. 4 seed and a double bye if Nebraska loses to Penn State on Sunday.

Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 17 for Maryland, which suffered its most lopsided home loss since a 104-72 defeat against Duke on Jan 3, 1998.

The Terrapins (19-12, 8-10) were 15-2 at home and lost to Michigan on the road by just one point on Jan. 15, which made the blowout that much more surprising.

Abdur-Rahkman made six 3-pointers in the first half and also led the Wolverines with five rebounds and four assists. The senior guard cooled off in the second half, but nevertheless surpassed his previous career best of 26 points.

After Michigan rattled off 10 straight points to take a 20-12 lead, Kevin Huerter hit a 3 for Maryland before Jaaron Simmons launched the pivotal 16-3 run with a long-range jumper. Jordan Poole chipped in with a pair of 3-pointers and another by Abdur-Rahkman made it 34-18.

The Wolverines had three turnovers in their opening four possessions, but added only one more before halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: The Wolverines have plenty of momentum to bring into the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan won it all last year, and again appears ready to take on the big boys in the conference.

Maryland: A flat performance at home means the Terrapins have to win the Big Ten Tournament to extend their run of appearances in the NCAA Tournament to four.

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS

Former Maryland WR Torrey Smith, who earned his second career Super Bowl ring this season, returned to his alma mater to promote a charity basketball tournament next month in Baltimore. Also, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, the brother of Michigan football Jim Harbaugh, sat courtside.

UP NEXT

Michigan: Big Ten Tournament in New York.

Maryland: Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

Mark Emmert hints at changes coming to rules regulating agents in college basketball

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Whatever changes Mark Emmert has planned, they’re going to happen quickly.

In an interview with CBS Sports prior to the start of Saturday’s college hoops action, Emmert said that the “systemic changes” that he is hoping to implement will, ideally, be in place for the start of the 2018-2019 season.

“They’re going to be putting forth their recommendations and bringing them forward during the month of April, and then the boards are going to act on them and act on them quickly,” Emmert said. “We need to act and have changes in place before tipoff of next season. Failure to do that will really erode everyone’s confidence in what this wonderful game is truly all about.”

What are the changes going to be?

Emmert didn’t spill the beans there, but it does seems like the NCAA will consider changing the rules involving agents and college basketball players. When asked why there’s a difference between the way the NCAA views hockey/baseball players and basketball players with regards to agents, Emmert said, “It makes perfect sense to me that it ought to be very different than it is now.”

This would be the smart move to make. Of Friday, I wrote a long column about how the only way to clean up college basketball is to allow players to have agents and to eliminate amateurism. This would not entirely solve the problem, but it would be a major step in the right direction.

Emmert also said that he hopes that the eligibility concerns involving the players that are mentioned in these reports will be figured out by the start of the NCAA tournament. The process for determining this is simple: Right now, the onus falls on the school. They essentially have three options:

  1. They can provisionally suspend the player, keeping them out of competition until they can determine whether or not a violation took place. This is why Collin Sexton and Jeffery Carroll missed time earlier this season.
  2. They can self-report a violation, announce that the player is ineligible and immediately apply for reinstatement with the NCAA. The player would have to make restitution for the impermissible benefits and, depending on the value of those benefits, they’d face some kind of suspension. This is like what happened with the Georgia Tech players earlier this season.
  3. They can announce that they do not believe any violations occurred, play out the rest of the season and hope that no evidence pops up that proves the guys that played were ineligible at the time.

At this time, we are still waiting to hear from Alabama on Collin Sexton, Michigan State on Miles Bridges and Arizona on Deandre Ayton and Sean Miller.

Chimezie Metu cleared to play by USC

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USC has cleared junior forward Chimezie Metu as he’ll be allowed to play on Saturday against Utah, the school announced.

The 6-foot-11 Metu is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Trojans this season as he was one of the players named in the Friday reports that linked him to NBA agent Andy Miller and Christian Dawkins.

The Trojans are the latest school to allow their player to play after the reports as they follow schools like Duke and Kentucky, as they also did the same with allowing Wendell Carter Jr. and Kevin Knox Jr. to play.

It’s also noted in the release that USC is reviewing Bennie Boatwright’s eligibility as well even though he’s out for the season with a knee injury.

On Friday, Yahoo Sports reported a wide-scale payment operation from Miller and Dawkins in order to recruit players for Miller’s agency. The records allege that Bennie Boatwright Sr. received about $2,000. The records also allege that Metu or his advisor, Johnnie Parker, also got $2,000.

Although the allegations look serious, Dawkins has also proven to be untrustworthy in many instances and it’s hard to tell what might be real and what might be a cover for another expense. It’s hard to prove a lot of these things presented in a business expenses spreadsheet. USC is backing Metu by saying he never received anything that would harm his eligibility as they try to make a final push at Arizona before the postseason.

Bubble Banter: There will be some NCAA tournament bids determined today

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

PROVIDENCE (RPI: 43, KenPom: 71, NBC seed: 10): The Friars avoided what could have been a disastrous loss by handing on to beat Georgetown in Washington D.C. on Saturday. The Friars had lost two in a row — at Butler and Seton Hall at home — and play at Xavier on Wednesday, meaning that they would be staring a four-game losing streak in the face had they lost at Georgetown. As it stands, Providence is 3-7 against Quadrant 1, which includes home wins over Xavier and Villanova, but they’ve also lost two Quadrant 3 and one Quadrant 4 games.

SETON HALL (RPI: 21, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 8): Seton Hall stumbled their way onto the bubble by losing four straight to start February, but they’re rebounded with three straight wins. Surviving a postponed game at Providence might have been what put the Pirates in the Dance. I think they are a lock with one more win.

TCU (RPI: 20, KenPom: 21, NBC seed: 9): The Horned Frogs have just about punched their ticket. A win over Baylor today was yet another good win. They now have four Quadrant 1 and four Quadrant 2 wins without a single loss outside the top two Quadrants. If they lose out it will be interesting, so I would say they need one more win to lock up a bid.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 58, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Bears lost their second straight game on Saturday, falling to 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12. They are in a tough spot now. They have four Quadrant 1 wins but they are just 4-10 in those Quadrant 1 games. All 12 of their losses, however, are “good” losses, and they still play Oklahoma at home and Kansas State on the road before the Big 12 tournament. I don’t think they can get a big with 14 losses, so I think they need to win two more during the regular season and maybe another one in the Big 12 tournament.

MARQUETTE (RPI: 64, KenPom: 52, NBC seed: First four out): Marquette took their worst loss of the season on Saturday afternoon, going into Chicago and losing at DePaul, the first Quadrant 3 loss for the Golden Eagles. They are now 16-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big East with just four Quadrant 1 wins. I don’t think the dream is dead yet, but the biggest issue Marquette currently faces is that they cannot help themselves without winning a game or two in the Big East tournament.

YET TO PLAY

LOUISVILLE
VIRGINIA TECH
SMU
MIAMI
LSU
TEXAS
USC
UTAH
MISSISSIPPI STATE
TEXAS A&M
WASHINGTON
ALABAMA
KANSAS STATE
OKLAHOMA
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
ST. BONAVENTURE
FLORIDA

Marvin Bagley III returning to Duke lineup against Syracuse after knee injury

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Duke star freshman Marvin Bagley III will be available for the Blue Devils on Saturday when they play Syracuse in an ACC home game.

Bagley missed the past four games due to a knee strain that he suffered in the Feb. 8 game against North Carolina. During Bagley’s absence, the Blue Devils went 4-0 as their defense looked very good and senior Grayson Allen became an aggressive scorer.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of changes Duke makes with Bagley’s return. Watching Bagley’s health and seeing how many minutes he plays will be another subplot to watch against the Orange.