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Big East Conference Preview: Villanova looks to hold off challengers

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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 the Big East Conference.

Since the Big East’s reconfiguration in 2013, Villanova has served as the standard bearer with four straight regular season titles, two Big East tournament titles and a national title in 2016.

Jay Wright’s team has enough talent and experience to extend the streak to five, but the 2017-18 campaign sets up as one in which there are multiple teams poised to challenge the Wildcats.

Seton Hall, Xavier and maybe even Providence have the goods to push the Wildcats this season.

With the middle of the pack getting stronger and two head coaching changes, one of which being a Big East legend returning to his alma mater, this should be a fun year in the Big East.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Villanova looks to replace three starters and remain atop the conference: With the end of the 2016-17 season came the end of three collegiate careers, with Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds all out of eligibility. All three provided key intangibles for Villanova, with Hart and Jenkins also being two of the team’s top three scorers from a season ago. The question: how will the Wildcats account for those losses, with regards to both production and leadership?

There will be some adjustments to make, but simply put the pieces are there for Villanova to remain atop the Big East. Jalen Brunson, one of the nation’s best point guards, is back for his junior season as are wing Mikal Bridges and forward Eric Paschall. Sophomore guard Donte DiVencenzo, who earned a spot on the Big East’s All-Freshman team and was also the Big 5 Newcomer of the Year, is back for his sophomore season, and Phil Booth is healthy after sitting out most of last season with a knee injury.

Add in freshmen Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree inside, and Jermaine Samuels Jr. on the wing, and Villanova will not lack for talent. And in Spellman, who sat out last season, they have a big who can get them points on the block on a consistent basis. For that reason this team will be different from last year’s group, which may make the Wildcats even tougher to defend.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview | SEC Preview
Khadeen Carrington (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

2. Seton Hall, Xavier and Providence are all worthy challengers: Due to its track record and combination of returnees and newcomers, Villanova has earned the right to be preseason favorites. But this season may provide the best group of challengers to the throne since the reconfiguration of the Big East.

Xavier brings back an experienced group led by an All-America candidate in senior forward Trevon Bluiett, and the experience gained by Quentin Goodin as a result of Edmond Sumner’s injury could pay off for the sophomore in 2017-18. Add in a talented freshman class led by wing Paul Scruggs, and grad transfer Kerem Kanter, and it would not be a surprise if Chris Mack’s Musketeers won the Big East.

A similar argument could be made for Seton Hall, as Kevin Willard has a squad led by four tough, talented seniors. Angel Delgado is the nation’s best rebounder, a big man who was near automatic when it came to racking up double-doubles last season. Wing Desi Rodriguez can get hot offensively on a moment’s notice, and forward Ismael Sanogo deserves more respect nationally for his abilities as a defender. The key for the Pirates: how Khadeen Carrington, a talented guard who can make plays off the bounce as well as hit perimeter shots, adjusts to the shift to the point. If he handles it well, Seton Hall can be a major factor.

As for Providence, Ed Cooley has a senior point guard in Kyron Cartwright to trust with the offense. Cartwright averaged nearly seven assists per game last season, and that number could be even higher given the improvements made by the other options on the roster. Rodney Bullock has the potential to be an all-conference player if he becomes more efficient offensively, and forward Alpha Diallo appears poised to take a significant step forward. Makai Ashton-Langford is one of the key pieces in a good recruiting class, but the key may be the health of senior big man Emmitt Holt.

Holt’s been dealing with an abdominal issue during the preseason, and if he’s limited even more will be asked of freshmen Nate Watson and Dajour Dickens.

Top 100 Players | Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts 
Khyri Thomas (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

3. The conference’s “midsection” should be improved: Given the fact that seven teams reached the NCAA tournament last season, this may feel like a weird thing to read. But with the combination of newcomers and returnees at many of the Big East schools that populated the middle portion of the standings last season, those matchups are going to be even tougher this season.

Creighton welcomes back guards Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, and they’ll add a transfer at the point in former Syracuse guard Kaleb Joseph. The key for Joseph will be to regain the confidence that he seemingly lost during his two seasons at Syracuse, but the combination of sitting out a year and being in a system that gives guys the freedom to make plays should help.

Marquette, which won 19 games and reached the NCAA tournament last season, has a very good perimeter tandem in Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard, with the latter being one of the best shooters in the country as a freshman. The question mark for the Golden Eagles is how productive their big men will be, with SMU transfer Harry Froling set to join the likes of junior Matt Heldt and freshman Theo John in December.

Butler will be led by senior forward Kelan Martin, sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin and a new head coach in LaVall Jordan (more on the Bulldogs below), and St. John’s may be the ultimate “wild card.” Guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett Jr. return, and the additions of transfers Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon will help immensely. If the pieces mesh, Chris Mullin has a roster that could turn heads in the Big East.

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Kamar Baldwin (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. LaVall Jordan looks to build upon the “Butler Way”: While the Brad Stevens era was critical with regards to the growth of the Butler basketball program, which reached the national title game two consecutive years and moved from the Horizon League to the Big East, the “Butler Way” began well before that point. Among those who played a role in the success is LaVall Jordan, who played on three NCAA tournament teams between 1998 and 2001 for Barry Collier and Thad Matta.

After brief stay at Milwaukee that was preceded by a six-year stint on John Beilein’s staff at Michigan, Jordan has returned to his alma mater to fill the vacancy left by Chris Holtmann’s move to Ohio State. Jordan won’t be operating with an empty cupboard either, as Kelan Martin (16.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Kamar Baldwin (10.1, 3.7) return from a team that won 25 games a season ago. Butler did lose three starters from that team, most notably forward Andrew Chrabascz, but do not expect this program to simply fall off of a cliff.

5. Patrick Ewing, arguably the most important player in Big East history, makes his return to Georgetown: To say that Ewing was “arguably” the most important player in league history may be an understatement; as the crown jewel of a 1981 class that included the likes of Chris Mullin (St. John’s) and Villanova’s “Expansion Crew,” Ewing helped usher in an era of dominance for the Big East in the 1980’s. The Georgetown teams he led were both feared and respected, and with his return to The Hilltop as head coach the goal is the bring back those glory years.

Ewing, in his first head coaching job after spending well over a decade as an assistant in the NBA, has some talent to work with inside as Marcus Derrickson (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Jesse Govan (10.1, 5.0) both return. But there are a lot of holes to fill on this roster, especially on the perimeter with the losses of Rodney Pryor and L.J. Peak. Look for freshman wing JaMarko Pickett to get plenty of opportunities in his debut season, one that could be difficult for the Hoyas once they begin conference play.

Angel Delgado (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Angel Delgado, Seton Hall

Only one player in college basketball (Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan) had more double-doubles than Delgado last season. The senior big man averaged 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season, shooting 54.3 percent from the field. On a team expected to contend in the Big East, Delgado will once again be a focal point for the Pirates. And if he can improve on the turnover count (3.0 tpg last season) Delgado will be even tougher to slow down.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova: One of the best point guards in college basketball, Brunson will have more leadership responsibilities on his plate in 2017-18.
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton: Foster’s first season in a Creighton uniform was a productive one, as he averaged 18.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.
  • Trevon Blueitt, Xavier: Bluiett should be heard from with regards to both Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors. Last season he averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.
  • Rodney Bullock, Providence: Butler’s Kelan Martin would be a solid choice here as well, but if he can be a more efficient player offensively Bullock will have a good shot at a first team spot as well.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
  • Omari Spellman and Mikal Bridges, Villanova
  • Marcus LoVett Jr. and Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
  • Khyri Thomas, Creighton

BREAKOUT STAR: Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova

DiVincenzo is the biggest reason that I’m not that worried about Villanova trying to replace Josh Hart this season. I don’t know that he turns into the player Hart was this year, but he’s already proven that he had the ability to be an explosive scorer – he reached double-figures 14 times and scored at least 19 points four times coming off the bench – and he has the kind of toughness and defensive intelligence that he fit in with Villanova seamlessly on that end of the floor as well.

The only real concern about having DiVincenzo on this list is how good Villanova will be. They’re quite deep on the perimeter and return Phil Booth from injury. He could end up being a much-improved player with a markedly better season and end up with numbers that don’t look all that dissimilar from this season’s.

Donte DiVincenzo (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Chris Mullin, St. John’s

With John Thompson III being replaced at Georgetown during the spring, there really isn’t a coach in the Big East that’s truly on the proverbial hot seat. The pick here is Mullin, whose teams have improved in the win column in each of the last two seasons. So why Mullin? Because with the talent on this season’s roster, expecting the Red Storm to at the very least challenge for an NCAA tournament berth would be reasonable.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Four teams have credible hopes of reaching the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the impact that Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II can have for St. John’s. The Red Storm can be an NCAA tournament team this year.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 13, Minnesota at Providence
  • November 22-24, Villanova at Paradise Jam
  • November 28, Baylor at Xavier
  • December 3, Seton Hall at Louisville
  • December 5, Gonzaga vs. Villanova (in New York City)

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigEastTourney

POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova: The Wildcats are once again favored to win the Big East, thanks to the combination of newcomers and returnees. The return of Phil Booth, and the additions of Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, will certainly help matters for Jay Wright’s team.
2. Seton Hall: With four senior starters, the Pirates are one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. And if new point guard Khadeen Carrington can balance scoring with getting other guys the ball in good spots, look out.
3. Xavier: Trevon Bluiett will once again lead the way, with J.P. Macura being another senior capable of making an impact on a game. If the talented recruiting class, led by Paul Scruggs, is ready and Quentin Goodin takes another step forward the Musketeers can win the league.
4. Providence: In Kyron Cartwright the Friars have a special point guard. He’s surrounded with talented offensive option, including Rodney Bullock, and the arrival of Makai Ashton-Langford should give Cartwright the occasional respite. The Friars will certainly be head from this season as they look to make a 5th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
5. Creighton: In Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas the Bluejays have one of the top perimeter tandems in the country, much less the Big East. If Kaleb Joseph is ready to run the show at the point, Creighton is capable of contending.
6. Marquette: With Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard among the returnees, it’s known that Steve Wojciechowski’s team can put points on the board. But can they be more effective defensively? If so, the Golden Eagles should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
7. St. John’s: The Red Storm are the “wild card” in this race. With the additions of Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II, St. John’s has the talent needed to make waves in the Big East race. But will this be a cohesive unit when the games truly matter?
8. Butler: LaVall Jordan has some talent to work with in his first season leading his alma mater, including guard Kamar Baldwin and forward Kelan Martin. What may make things more difficult for Butler are the loss of three starters and the improvements made by other teams in the league.
9. DePaul: Will the Blue Demons escape the Big East cellar for the second time in the last three seasons? Yes, thanks to the return of Eli Cain and the additions of Austin Grandstaff and Max Strus.
10. Georgetown: Patrick Ewing’s return as head coach will be a difficult one, given the strength of the Big East and his team’s lack of perimeter shooters. That being said, having Jesse Govan and Marcus Derrickson back in the front court should help matters.

Sun Belt Conference Preview: Are you on UT Arlington or Georgia Southern?

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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 the Sun Belt.

UT-Arlington has managed to scrape together some of the best teams the program will ever see, but they’ve yet to see that talent pay dividends. In 2015-16, their star big man Kevin Hervey tore his ACL in the middle of January, an injury that more or less derailed the season for a team that could have pushed Chris Beard’s Arkansas-Little Rock team for the Sun Belt title. Last year, after Hervey made it back to full health by the end of the season, the Mavericks won the league regular season title only to lose by 21 in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals.

This season is going to be the last for UTA with Hervey, but they still look to be the favorite to win the league despite losing three of their top six players. Hervey, of course, is back, as is Erick Neal, who might just be the best point guard in the league. There are going to be a number of players in new roles this season, but giving a terrific coach like Scott Cross the best point guard and best big man in a conference is a good start.

If it’s not UTA, the favorite in the league is probably Georgia Southern. I know I just praised UTA’s top two, but I think that it is fair to say that GSU returning Ike Smith and Tookie Brown, the top two scorers in the league a season ago, probably means they have the best 1-2 punch in the conference. Combine that with the fact that the program returns essentially everyone from a team that finished 3rd in the league last season, and Mark Byington has a real shot at getting this group to the NCAA tournament.

Coming off of a trip to the big dance a year ago, Troy will again be a team to watch. Jordan Varnado is back for his junior season, and the Trojans also get back Wesley Person Jr. and Kevin Baker. Replacing two starters will not be easy, but it’s doable. Along those same lines, Georgia State will also take a hit with Jeremy Hollowell graduating, but sophomore D’Marcus Simonds looks to be the next superstar for Ron Hunter.

Texas State lost three seniors, including a first-team all-league player in Kavin Gilder-tilbury, but Nijal Pearson should have a very good sophomore season. The Coastal Carolina program is always worth keeping an eye on, while Louisiana returns the majority of the key pieces in their rotation.

 

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

PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kevin Hervey, UT-Arlington

Anyone that pays any attention to mid-major basketball has long known about Hervey. A 6-foot-9 forward that can block shots and make threes, he’s been on the NBA’s radar since his breakout sophomore season. That also means that NBA scouts were well aware of the torn ACL he suffered late that year. It took him a while to get fully healthy last season, but he eventually got there. He’s a senior now, and almost two years removed from the injury.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM

  • Tookie Brown, Georgia Southern: Tookie not only has the best nickname in the conference, but he’s also the best point guard and a major reason the Eagles can compete to a league title.
  • D’Marcus Simonds, Georgia State: Just a freshman last season, Simonds will take over as the star for a good Panther team this year.
  • Ike Smith, Georgia Southern: The leading scorer last year in the Sun Belt, Smith is back to anchor a team that could very well end up winning the conference.
  • Jordan Varnado, Troy: The junior big man’s presence on the front line is one of the reasons the Trojans were in the mix at the top of the conference and reached the NCAA tournament last season.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UT Arlington
2. Georgia Southern
3. Troy
4. Georgia State
5. Louisiana
6. Coastal Carolina
7. Louisiana Monroe
8. Texas State
9. Arkansas State
10. Appalachian State
11. South Alabama
12. Little Rock

Western Athletic Conference Preview: Grand Canyon leads the way

AP Photo/Juan Antonio Labreche
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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 the WAC.

Life as a provisional Division I member can be difficult. While it’s known that a program will eventually become a full-on member, that four-year period can tend to drag on especially when considering the fact that there’s no chance of playing in the NCAA tournament. That was life for Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon program, but he and his staff did a good job of preparing the Antelopes for their first season as a full Division I member. That debut season is now here, and GCU has a team capable of making its first NCAA tournament appearance.

The Antelopes will have to account for the loss of leading scorer Dewayne Russell, but there’s more than enough talent left in the cupboard to make a run at the WAC crown. Guard Joshua Braun and forward Keonta Vernon both return, with the former being pegged by many as the preseason favorite for WAC Player of the Year.

Braun averaged 17.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from beyond the arc. As for Vernon, the 6-foot-6 senior added 9.3 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds per contest during his junior season. Other returnees of note include sophomore guard Oscar Frayer, senior guard Shaq Carr and redshirt junior guard Gerard Martin. Add in a talented floor general in Oregon transfer Casey Benson, who’s eligible immediately after being a part of Oregon’s Final Four run last season, and GCU will not lack for options on the perimeter.

The key for Grand Canyon will be who steps forward alongside Vernon in the front court, with redshirt juniors Matt Jackson and Kerwin Smith, and freshmen Roberts Blumberg and Alessandro Lever among the available options.

While GCU is viewed as the favorite, and it’s important to note that the program finished second in the WAC standings each of the last three seasons, the program making its full Division I debut won’t lack for challengers. CSU Bakesrfield, which won the WAC regular season title for the first time in program history last season, and NCAA tournament participant New Mexico State will be heard from as well.

Rod Barnes welcomes back two of the WAC’s top guards in seniors Damiyne Durham and Brent Wrapp, which should help the Roadrunners account for the loss of three of their top four scorers from a season ago. Durham was very productive in the sixth man roles for CSU Bakersfield, averaging 12.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game while averaging 21.2 minutes per game. With Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile and Matt Smith moving on more will be asked of Durham, who will need to be a more efficient offensive player as well. Last season, Durham shot just 38.5 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from three with an offensive rating of just 96.5.

As for Wrapp, there really isn’t a way to quantify the leadership he provides by simply using numbers. The senior averaged just 4.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season, but his performance in other areas was a big reason why CSU Bakersfield was able to not only win the WAC regular season title but reach the Postseason NIT Final Four. Shon Briggs, Moataz Aly, Fallou Ndoye and James Suber are among the returnees in the front court. The best defensive team in the WAC last season from an efficiency standpoint, the Roadrunners should once again hold their own on that end of the floor. The key when it comes to repeating as WAC champs and making the program’s second NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons will be what improvements the team can make offensively.

As for the aforementioned Aggies, they’ve got a new head coach as Chris Jans was hired to fill the vacancy left by Paul Weir (who’s now at in-state rival New Mexico). The good news for Jans is that he takes over a team that boasts two of the WAC’s best players in redshirt juniors Sidy N’Dir and Eli Chuha. While Chuha started 31 of the 34 games in which he played, averaging 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, N’Dir returns to the court after appearing in just nine games due to a foot injury. N’Dir averaged 13.7 points per contest in the nine games he played, and his return is important given the loss of the team’s top two scorers in Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins.

The front court could be the best in the WAC, with Jemerrio Jones averaging 9.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game off the bench and starter Johnathon Wilkins returning as well. To help account for the losses of Baker and Huggins, transfers AJ Harris and Zach Lofton join the fray. While Harris sat out last season after spending one year at Ohio State, Lofton won SWAC Player of the Year after averaging 16.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game at Texas Southern. While GCU’s Casey Benson may be viewed by some as the WAC’s top newcomer, do not sleep on Lofton.

Utah Valley, which finished the 2016-17 season with a 17-17 record and was the second-best team in the WAC from a defensive efficiency standpoint, will be a factor as well. Mark Pope welcomes back five of the six players who started at least 16 games last season, with guard Jordan Poydras being the lone exception. Junior guard Conner Toolson averaged a team-best 11.9 points per game, with the Wolverines using a balanced offensive attack that featured five players who averaged at least 9.6 points per game. With guards Kenneth Ogbe and Brandon Randolph among the other returnees, don’t be surprised if Utah Valley makes a run at the WAC title.

At this stage, there appears to be a clear line between the top four teams and the bottom half of the WAC. But that doesn’t mean these teams are incapable of turning heads in 2017-18. Seattle, under new head coach Jim Hayford, will look to turn things around after winning just 13 games last season. Center Aaron Menzies, who averaged 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, is the lone returnee among the top four scorers from last season.

But the Redhawks have added a host of transfers, with Jordan Hill (Wisconsin), Richaud Gittens (Weber State) and Josh Hearhily (Vermont) all eligible immediately as grad students. Four other transfers, most notably the 2016 Patriot League Rookie of the Year in former American guard Delante Jones, will have to sit out this season.

Kansas City, which won 18 games last season, will have to replace all five starters including guard LaVell Boyd. Sophomore guard Isaiah Ross, who averaged 8.0 points per game as a freshman, is the team’s leading returning scorer. Ross and fellow guards Xavier Bishop and Broderick Robinson are the most likely options to lead the way for the Kangaroos, who will need some front court players to step forward with leading rebounders Darnell Tillman (5.7 rpg) and Kyle Steward (5.3 rpg) having moved on.

UT Rio Grande Valley and Chicago State boast two of the WAC’s top talents. While Lew Hill’s second team at UTRGV will be led by senior Nick Dixon, who averaged 18.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in earning second team All-WAC honors as a junior, Chicago State will rely upon junior guard Fred Sims Jr. Sims averaged 18.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game a season ago, and like Dixon he was a second-team All-WAC selection.

The key for Kansas City, UTRGV and Chicago State if any are to exceed preseason expectations: improve on defense. All three struggled in that area last season, with Kansas City and UTRGV preferring to play a faster tempo while Chicago State ranked 231st in the country in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

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

PRESEASON WAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Joshua Braun, Grand Canyon

A two-time first team All-WAC selection, the 6-foot-4 senior guard averaged 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game last season. While a quality scorer, Braun is also efficient offensively as he finished his junior campaign with an offensive rating of 119.2.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-WAC TEAM

  • Fred Sims Jr., Chicago State: Sims put up two games of 30 points or more last season, including a 31-point outburst in a loss to Kansas City in the regular season finale.
  • Damiyne Durham, CSU Bakersfield: There weren’t many reserves in college basketball who were more productive than Durham, who has the potential to be a more efficient scorer than he showed as a junior.
  • Nick Dixon, UT Rio Grande Valley: Dixon factored into 31.6 percent of UTRGV’s possession in WAC play last season per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, and he’s capable of dropping big numbers on just about anyone (41 points against Utah Valley in late January).
  • Eli Chuha, New Mexico State: Chuha averaged 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season, and he’ll have the opportunity to do more offensively with Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins having moved on.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WAC_Basketball

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Grand Canyon
2. CSU Bakersfield
3. New Mexico State
4. Utah Valley
5. Seattle
6. UT Rio Grande Valley
7. Kansas City
8. Chicago State

Pac-12 Conference Preview: Will the FBI investigation overshadow a promising season?

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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 the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 won’t have nearly as much star power this season.

Losing the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks after one season would hurt any league but the Pac-12 is also hurting after only four teams made the 2017 NCAA tournament.

While Arizona remains a national title contender and USC is a darkhorse candidate to do a lot of damage nationally, UCLA and Oregon are building on the fly with a lot of new pieces.

Outside of the four NCAA tournament teams, the league still faces a lot of postseason uncertainty as unproven players and new head coaches are featured throughout the league.

There might not be a superstar like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball but there are still plenty of reasons to stay up late for Pac-12 hoops this season.

Allonzo Trier (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Arizona is in position to make a Final Four (if they can stay focused)

Arizona is going to be one of the most fascinating teams to follow in recent memory this season thanks to a very talented roster and some intriguing off-the-court storylines.

To start with the product on the hardwood, this team is good enough to be in the running for preseason No. 1. Allonzo Trier is back, as the preseason All-American will be counted on to be one of the nation’s premier scorers. The junior guard is good enough to put the Wildcats on his back with dominant scoring stretches against great teams, but he’s also prone to playing hero ball and freezing out his teammates. If Trier can find a healthy balance between the two then he’s a darkhorse Player of the Year candidate.

Trusting teammates shouldn’t be difficult for Trier this season since he has so much talent around him. After a solid freshman campaign that saw him average double-figures, Rawle Alkins is back on the perimeter. Senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright doesn’t put up big numbers but he’s a steady veteran ball-handling presence who can knock down perimeter jumpers.

The interior sees the return of stable senior center Dusan Ristic, an efficient double-figure scorer who doesn’t get enough credit nationally for his post-scoring skill. Energy senior big man Keanu Pinder is back to give a lift off the bench with his high-motor play.

And then there is the incoming freshman class has some ridiculous talent and depth.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

Once considered the No. 1 player in the country, 7-foot center Deandre Ayton is a freak athlete who has surprising touch for a player his size. Think about Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, Greg Oden and DeAndre Jordan. All of those guys can dominate athletically on the interior at 7-feet-tall but none of them have shooting touch outside of the paint. They’re all awful from the free-throw line. Ayton is different in that regard. He has the touch to extend his range to at times knock down three-pointers while also shooting around 80 percent from the charity stripe over a 20-game span in the Nike EYBL.

The huge question with Ayton is his motor. Sometimes Ayton is motivated enough to run through all of the nation’s elite big men (including Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter) at Peach Jam in succession. Other times, he barely shows up and it doesn’t look like he wants to play basketball. Whichever Ayton that Arizona gets could dictate this team’s true ceiling.

Besides Ayton, Miller did a great job of stockpiling the roster with additional depth at multiple spots. Five-star wing Emmanuel Akot is an intriguing athlete at wing forward who could be a boost defensively and on the glass. Brandon Randolph is a 6-foot-6 perimeter threat with a beautiful-looking jumper who might provide much-needed floor spacing. Ira Lee is a consensus top-100 prospect who can give energy minutes.

But how will this team fit together? Does Ayton get enough touches to stay consistently hungry to be great? Will any of the other freshmen be good enough to be more than role players?

The on-court questions are riveting enough. Now also factor in that Arizona is also one of four programs who had an assistant coach — Emmanuel “Book” Richardson — arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into bribery in college recruiting practices. The Wildcats just lost a five-star point guard for next year, Jahvon Quinerly, in recruiting. Clearly, this isn’t an issue that is going away anytime soon and the Wildcats will have to get used to hearing about it for the foreseeable future. How they handle all of the off-the-court drama – especially with five freshmen – could determine their season.

We went deep on Arizona’s prospects this season here.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview
Chimezie Metu (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

2. USC is absolutely loaded

One of the teams to watch out west this season will be USC as the Trojans return a ton of talent from a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament. Six players return who made at least 18 starts last season, including the senior backcourt of point guard Jordan McLaughlin and shooting guard Elijah Stewart.

The duo can both shoot, they’re comfortable with head coach Andy Enfield’s system and they’re a major part of a very balanced roster. Up front the Trojans get even scarier. Junior forward Chimezie Metu was one of the nation’s prominent breakout players last season as he’s a great athlete on both ends of the floor. After missing half the year, junior Bennie Boatwright provides floor spacing and rebounding at 6-foot-10.

Sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton is a valuable defender and glue guy and junior wing Shaqquan Aaron started 20 games last season. USC’s wealth of backcourt riches continues with sophomore Jonah Mathews.

The newcomers USC adds also gives them that extra boost to be a national player this season. It didn’t work out at Duke for point guard Derryck Thornton, but after sitting out a transfer season, he is a valuable guard to have in the rotation as he provides steady ball handling and perimeter defense.

McDonald’s All-American wing Charles O’Bannon Jr. also joins the Trojans, going across town from where his father starred in Westwood. The younger O’Bannon gives USC another potential wing scorer and perimeter shooter as they’ll be deep on the wing and on the perimeter.

Frontcourt depth could be a concern for USC. The Trojans can go to a lot of small-ball lineups if needed but there isn’t a lot of dependable size outside of Metu and Boatwright. Sophomore Nick Rakocevic played some solid minutes but he can also be inconsistent. Freshmen like Jordan Usher and 6-foot-11 Victor Uyaelunmo are also unproven.

If this group can stay healthy and get a lift from the new guys then the Trojans should have all the pieces in place to make a run at the second weekend.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Jordan McLaughlin (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

3. UCLA has a lot of new faces (and a new Ball brother) on a talented team

There are reasons to pay attention to UCLA this season but the Bruins won’t be nearly as engrossing as the Lonzo Ball-led group of last season.

For one, Lonzo is with the Lakers now. The Bruins still have a Ball brother — freshman LiAngelo, the middle of the three brothers — but he’s a shooting guard who hasn’t displayed nearly as much promise as his older brother. More on him in a minute.

UCLA loses a lot but there is also a lot to like. Senior big man Thomas Welsh is back manning the middle as he’s a consistent double-double threat who can provide spurts of really good offense. Junior guard Aaron Holiday is back after being arguably the nation’s best player off the bench last season. A tenacious defender who can play on or off the ball, Holiday could have a huge year now that he’ll be the team’s most experience perimeter player.

And, once again, head coach Steve Alford has a top-flight recruiting class coming into Westwood. LiAngelo, a three-star prospect, might actually be the lowest-rated member of the six-man group. Point guard Jaylen Hands and 6-foot-8 wing Kris Wilkes are both very athletic McDonald’s All-Americans who should be counted on to produce right away.

Hands doesn’t play with the unselfishness of Lonzo by pushing the ball ahead with the pass, but he’s a very aggressive downhill guard. If Hands can show a workable perimeter jumper then he should still be a major boost to a UCLA offense that wants to continue to play fast. Wilkes can be electric on the wing in the open floor and he has the type of scoring prowess to be a double-figure guy from day one. If frontcourt freshmen like Cody Riley and Jalen Hill can give Welsh some help then UCLA should remain stable in the frontcourt as well.

But the big question for this team (besides the obvious one of replacing Lonzo at point) might actually be perimeter shooting. The Bruins should be adequate. They were elite last season.

Lonzo, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton all made at least 74 triples last season — with the first two on that list both being at least 41 percent. T.J. Leaf was a stretch option who nailed 46 percent of his three-pointers. This year’s UCLA team brings back a solid 41 percent three-point shooter in Holiday but they’re actually going to need LiAngelo to come through and be a floor spacer to have an offense nearly as capable as last season.

And that doesn’t even factor in how many easy looks UCLA got last year by having unselfish floor leaders who loved to move the ball. Lonzo’s unselfishness could be contagious. Hands can be a scoring guard who will sometimes set up others but he hasn’t necessarily shown an ability to get others easy looks on a regular basis.

UCLA still has a high ceiling and a bevy of young talent. They’ll put up a lot of points on some nights, and this year’s team might actually be more athletic on the perimeter. But it’ll be nearly impossible to replace the nightly magic last year’s Bruins seemed to produce on the way to a Sweet 16.

This team should be fascinating.

RELATEDACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series
Steve Alford (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

4. Oregon needs its newcomers to be productive

Coming off of last season’s Final Four appearance things will be dramatically different at Oregon this year. Five double-figure scorers have departed, along with dependable rotation guard Casey Benson. It’ll be hard to replace the energy of Jordan Bell (arguably the best player in the 2016 NCAA tournament), the versatility of Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks and the scoring ability of Tyler Dorsey.

Payton Pritchard will be a huge key for the Ducks. After a freshman season that saw him play more minutes and with more production than many had probably envisioned, now Pritchard is Oregon’s best returning player from last season’s roster. Likely responsible for running point, Pritchard needs to improve his shooting efficiency and consistency but he’s also capable of getting hot from deep and he’s coming off a strong summer after making the USA U19 World Cup team. Senior forward Roman Sorkin and sophomore Keith Smith are the only two returning players besides Pritchard from last season’s team. The rest of the roster will be based off the play of newcomers.

Transfers will be a huge part of Oregon’s season. New Mexico transfer Elijah Brown enters the backcourt picture and he’s provided production everywhere he’s gone. The major question with Brown is his ability to play intelligent and winning basketball. McKyle McIntosh was a solid grab from Illinois State as he is a versatile two-way forward who plays with a solid motor. After sitting out most of the last two seasons, Paul White is hoping to remain healthy and help on the interior as he brings a high skill level to Oregon from Georgetown.

Credit head coach Dana Altman for also bringing in a solid group of newcomers as this freshman class should also help. Las Vegas native Troy Brown is a five-star perimeter threat who is versatile enough to play multiple positions with a good degree of skill. The frontcourt should also get some help from 6-foot-7 Abu Kigab, who averaged a double-double for the Canadians during the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer.

Obviously a lot of things need to fall into place for the Ducks but they at least have a known point guard in Pritchard and athleticism and versatility at multiple positions like Altman craves out of his rotation. Oregon needs to find some rim-protecting big men who can eat up minutes on the interior but they should be talented and experienced enough to make it back to the tournament.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Dana Altman (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

5. Will another team step up and make the NCAA tournament? 

For as good as the top teams were in the Pac-12 last season, the rest of the league was pretty dreadful by power conference standards.

Three teams played in the NIT last season, Cal, Colorado and Utah, and all three got hit hard with players leaving the roster. Five teams from the league missed the postseason completely as many of the teams in the conference are still in rebuilding mode.

Perhaps the teams with the best chance at a breakthrough in the Pac-12 this season is Stanford. We know that junior forward Reid Travis is one of the best frontcourt players in the nation while senior Dorian Pickens is a double-figure scorer. But the Cardinal need to be more consistent. Senior big man Michael Humphrey is hit or miss and point guard Robert Cartwright will be pushed if he doesn’t improve his mediocre shooting.

Stanford also has intriguing young talents like four-star prospects Daejon Davis and Kezie Okpala entering the picture. Davis should push for backcourt minutes early as his athleticism is a huge boost while Okpala is an intriguing long-term prospect on the wing at 6-foot-8. Redshirt freshman Kodye Pugh is also one to keep an eye on.

But even with all of that talent, Stanford has been woefully inconsistent when it comes to scoring and perimeter shooting. They need a lot of work in that department to make a run.

Other teams have intriguing parts about them but the giant question marks are just as glaring. Utah has been a consistent presence in the top half of the Pac-12 and David Collette is back but there are holes in other spots. Arizona State and Oregon State both have talent but many of their players are either unproven or coming off of poor showings last season.

It’s hard to say if the Pac-12 can improve and get more than four teams in the 2018 NCAA tournament but nobody outside the top four really stands out at the moment.

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

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Allonzo Trier, Arizona

It was a strange junior year for Trier, as he had to sit out the first 19 games of the season. He had to wait until late January to play and still put up numbers against only Pac-12 and NCAA tournament competition. With a full season of being in a rhythm and knowing his teammates, Trier could be in for a huge junior season as the guard has the ability to take over a game with his scoring.

THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Chimezie Metu, USC: The league’s most improved player last season, Metu is a bouncy double-double threat who is capable of impacting the game above the rim on both ends.
  • Deandre Ayton, Arizona: Ayton could be a dominant one-and-done freshman this season as he’ll be one of the most athletic 7-footers the college game has seen in years.
  • Reid Travis, Stanford: Healthy and thriving, the junior forward was the only Pac-12 player to be in the top five in scoring and rebounding last season.
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC: Overshadowed in a league that featured the top two picks in this year’s draft, McLaughlin has a chance to break the USC career assist record this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Rawle Alkins, Arizona
  • Aaron Holiday, UCLA
  • Bennie Boatwright, USC
  • Thomas Welsh, UCLA
  • Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Aaron Holiday (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Aaron Holiday, UCLA

Overshadowed by Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton a season ago, Holiday could have a huge year during his junior campaign. Even though Holiday saw his minutes decrease as a sophomore, he became a far more efficient shooter as he finished at 48 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three-point range. The interesting thing with Holiday this season could be which role he plays. If he plays more on the ball, then Holiday needs to decrease his turnovers. Off-the-ball, Holiday would need to become one of UCLA’s go-to scorers after the team lost so much firepower.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Sean Miller, Arizona

The Pac-12 doesn’t have a lot of traditional “hot seat” pressure from coaches who need to win to keep their jobs. A different kind of pressure is what Miller is dealing with in Tucson. Since Arizona still has yet to advance to the Final Four under Miller, he will continue to deal with scrutiny if he falls short of the final weekend in March. With a roster talented enough to be considered preseason No. 1 in the country by some, Miller has all of the pieces to make it to San Antonio. But he’ll have to deal with keeping a lot of players who want shots and minutes happy while also handling the black cloud of the FBI investigation looming over his program.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Top teams like Arizona, USC and UCLA show promise but the Pac-12 had another disappointing year for NCAA tournament teams.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the Pac-12 Tournament. Since it moved to Las Vegas it has become one of the must-see college hoops events of the season thanks to an unbelievable atmosphere. And as a bonus, the Pac-12 can’t screw up the schedule like they did with the regular season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/23, Connecticut vs. Oregon (start of PK 80 in Portland)
  • 11/26, Texas A&M at USC
  • 12/5, Arizona vs. Texas A&M (at Phoenix)
  • 12/9, Arizona vs. Alabama
  • 12/16, Cincinnati at UCLA

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Pac12Network

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

POWER RANKINGS

1. Arizona: This team has almost everything they could want to make a run. A senior point guard, a dominant All-American scorer, potentially unstoppable post scoring and depth at multiple spots. The sky is the limit for Arizona this season as they face the immense pressure to win a national title.
2. USC: Backcourts as experienced and deep as USC’s tend to do well in the postseason and not many in the nation will be better than Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart. Coupled with some scary upside in the frontcourt and this is a sleeper pick to make a really deep tournament run.
3. UCLA: UCLA continues to recruit at an elite level and it means they have the potential to have a big season once again. But this group needs to share the ball and continue to shoot at a high level if they want to reach the second weekend like they did last season.
4. Oregon: Interior production could be a key for the Ducks as they’re hopeful some young players can step up and provide minutes. Four-star freshman Victor Bailey is another big-time athlete who should compete for rotation minutes for a team that is still athletic and skilled.
5. Stanford: The Cardinal faltered down the stretch last season but five of the team’s top six scorers are back. Reid Travis is a Player of the Year candidate in the league while Dorian Pickens doesn’t get enough national love. Finding reliable (and healthy) role players around them is key.
6. Utah: The Utes were hit with some offseason departures but senior big man David Collette is back along with some other solid options. Point guard Sedrick Barefield gets a full season to lead and Collette has a lot of depth around him in the frontcourt.
7. Arizona State: Expect the Sun Devils to have one of the better backcourts in the league with three seniors in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. The frontcourt has major question marks as redshirt freshman Romello White and juco rim protector De’Quon Lake should help.
8. Oregon State: The Beavers bottomed out at 1-17 in league play last year as Tres Tinkle was hurt and a young team struggled. The good news is that Tinkle and nearly the entire roster is back. Top-75 recruit Ethan Thompson, a noted perimeter shooter, will be added to the rotation at guard.
9. Colorado: Four starters are gone from a 19-win team as the Buffaloes get a lot of fresh faces. Solid senior George King is back and the freshman class, potentially Tad Boyle’s best during his tenure, could dictate whether Colorado builds for the future or fights for the postseason now.
10. Washington: The Huskies don’t have the lottery pick talent of the past few seasons as Mike Hopkins takes over the beginnings of a rebuild. Junior wing Matisse Thybulle is back after a solid season while junior guard David Crisp can also produce. It’ll be fascinating to see how Hopkins coaches his own team and how much he takes from his time under Jim Boeheim.
11. California: New head coach Wyking Jones has a veteran frontcourt in senior center Kingsley Okoroh and Kentucky transfer forward Marcus Lee (a Perry Ellis All-Star) but the backcourt has giant question marks after nearly everyone left. Seeing if Jones tries to go uptempo while utilizing a full-court press is something to monitor for how Cal wants to play in the future.
12. Washington State: Underrated forward Josh Hawkinson is gone and the Cougars need a lot of new pieces to step up. Sophomore point guard Malachi Flynn showed promise last season as he has a chance to be a breakout player.

Northeast Conference Preview: Who survived after transfers gutted the league?

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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 the NEC.

The NEC was absolutely brutalized by outgoing transfers this offseason. Of the 11 non-seniors that were on one of the three all-NEC teams, just four of them return to school. That includes three first-team all-NEC sophomores, but I’m not sure anyone in all of college basketball got hit quite as hard this offseason as Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian did.

Coming off of an NEC regular season title and his second trip to the NCAA tournament in the last five years, Christian saw three key pieces opt to leave. Elijah Long, a sophomore guard that was a first-team all-league player and the Mount’s leading scorer a season ago, transferred to Texas. Miles Wilson, the team’s third-leading scorer and one of the best freshmen in the conference last year, transferred to Miami. Mawdo Sallah transferred to Kansas State.

The Mountaineers do return Junior Robinson, a 5-foot-5 dynamo that will be one of the most entertaining players in the mid-major ranks, as well as Greg Alexander, but Christian is going to have his work cut out for him.

With Mount St. Mary’s – and Robert Morris, another perennial power in the league that is dealing with the loss of a star player (Isaiah Still) transferring – the favorite is probably St. Francis (PA). The Red Flash, despite losing Josh Nebo to Texas A&M, return Isiah Blackmon and reigning Freshman of the Year Keith Braxton. They return the most talent of anyone that finished in the top half of the league.

Fairleigh Dickinson is a team to keep an eye on as well, although it will be tough for them to overcome a pair of their own transfers, as Stephen Jiggetts is now at South Florida and Earl Potts left school. But Darian Anderson returns, as does Mike Holloway and Darnell Edge.

Despite losing their top two scorers from last season, LIU Brooklyn should also be back in the mix. Jashaun Agosto returns for his sophomore season after a promising freshman year while Joel Hernandez, who averaged double-figures as a junior, is back after missing last season through injury. Bryant could find their way into the mix as well, although Nisre Zouzoua’s transfer was a massive blow.

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

 PRESEASON NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson

Anderson is the leading returning scorer in the NEC this season, and he’ll be playing on a team that will be competing for the league title. With the Knights losing their second- and third-leading scorers from last year, Anderson is going to have more of the offensive load to carry.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-NEC TEAM

  • Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s: Robinson is the second-leading returning scorer in the conference, and with the Mount losing so much, the 5-foot-5 point guard will be asked to do a lot.
  • Keith Braxton, St. Francis (PA): Braxton was the best freshman in the conference a year ago.
  • Isiah Blackmon, St. Francis (PA): Blackmon was a third-team all-NEC performer as a sophomore.
  • Joseph Lopez, Sacred Heart: Lopez is back to anchor a front line for the most veteran team in the league.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. St. Francis (PA)
2. Fairleigh Dickinson
3. LIU Brooklyn
4. Robert Morris
5. Mount St. Mary’s
6. Bryant
7. Sacred Heart
8. Wagner
9. Central Connecticut State
10. St. Francis-Brooklyn

Ohio Valley Conference Preview: A trio of teams lead the way

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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 the Ohio Valley Conference.

Two-time OVC player of the year Evan Bradds has graduated, but Belmont remains one of the favorites to claim another conference title.

The first task for the Bruins will be figuring out how to replace or replicate Bradds’ bucket-getting that powered the offense to a 23-win season. Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Winder would both seem to be the natural heirs after posting effective field goal percentages over 60 last year. Like Bradds, both are terrors on the inside, shooting better than 65 percent on 2-pointers, but also have a dimension that Bradds didn’t – 3-point shooting, with Egekeze converting 38.7 percent and Winder 40.2 percent from distance. Without the high-usage Bradds on the roster, both will likely see huge increases in roles, with guard Austin Luke setting them up.

Murray State suffered its first losing season in over 30 years when they went 16-17 last year in Matt McMahon’s second season since succeeding Steve Prohm, but the Racers appear to be on track for an immediate bounce back. Some of the struggle last year can be attributable to plain old bad luck as Murray State went 0-4 in the regular season in overtime games and went 1-8 in games decided by five points or less. The Racers, though, will have to clean things up on the defensive end if they want to challenge for a league title. They were below-average in just about every single facet of the game on that end, and adding five freshmen into the mix may make real strides there difficult. Murray State does have, though, Jonathan Stark, who averaged nearly 22 points per game last season, and he’s a game-changer. They also added junior college standout Anthony Smith, which makes them a threat to capture the conference.

Jacksonville State didn’t look much like a spoiler heading into March last year when they finished with a 9-7 OVC record, but the Gamecocks reeled off three wins, including over league champ Belmont, in the conference tournament to snag an NCAA tournament bid. Second-team all-OVC guard Malcolm Drumwright returns for his senior season and to give coach Ray Harper another dangerous team. Seven-footer Norbertas Giga is also back after putting 30 on Louisville in the NCAA tournament. It will be critical for the Gamecocks to defend the 3-point line better this season. Between Giga and junior Christian Cunningham, Jacksonville State has solid rim protection, but allowed opponents to shoot nearly 38 percent from distance. Some of that is sure to just be variable, but bringing that number down will be a huge determinant of success.

Beyond that, the OVC is tough to project this season, as a number of last season’s contenders lost some key pieces. One group to keep an eye on: Eastern Kentucky. With Asante Gist and Nick Mayo returning, Dan McHale has one of the best 1-2 punches in the league.

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

PRESEASON OVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jonathan Stark, Murray State

The 6-foot guard returns after averaging 21.9 points in his first season with the Racers after transferring from Tulane. He got up nearly eight 3-point attempts per game, converting at a 42.5 percent clip. He’s the rare high-volume shooter that also plays efficiently.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON OVC TEAM

  • Malcolm Drumwright, Jacksonville State: All-conference guard will lead the charge for the Gamecocks to get back to the NCAA tournament.
  • Nick Mayo, Eastern Kentucky: A 39 percent 3-point shooter, Mayo scored 18.5 points per game last year.
  • Denzel Mahoney, Southeast Missouri: Mahoney was a breakout star last year as a freshman, putting up nearly 15 points per game and shooting 37.7 percent from 3.
  • Terrell Miller, Murray State: A double-double threat every night, Miller averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Belmont
2. Murray State
3. Jacksonville State
4. Tennessee State
5. Eastern Illinois
6. Eastern Kentucky
7. SIU-Edwardsville
8. Tennessee Tech
9. Southeast Missouri
10. Morehead State
11. UT Martin
12. Austin Peay