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2014-2015 Season Preview: Louisiana Tech the favorite in the ever-changing Conference USA

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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.

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

Conference realignment has been rampant the last few seasons, and Conference USA is still feeling the effects of it heading into the 2014-2015 season. Gone are East Carolina, Tulane and the league’s lone NCAA tournament team from last year, Tulsa. The conference welcomes in Western Kentucky as its newest member. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine new programs and seven former members since 2013.

At least one thing looks to remain certain in 2014-2015, Louisiana Tech should finish atop the conference standings. The Bulldogs were one of four teams — Tulsa, Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss — to share the regular season title with a 13-3 record. Like previously mentioned, Tulsa left C-USA, Middle Tennessee lost four starters and Souther Miss is starting the Doc Sadler era after Donnie Tyndall accepted the Tennessee position.

Louisiana Tech returns plenty of key contributors, but none more important than head coach Michael White, who was in the conversation for several coaching vacancies this offseason.

The Bulldogs boast the league’s top back court with Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith running the show, Alex Hamilton back as the team’s top scorer and Raheem Appleby, who was sidelined for several weeks last season with an ankle injury. Michale Kyser mans the frontline with his 3.0 blocks per game, and he’ll be an important piece this season, as the Bulldogs’ biggest threat, UTEP, has two talented forwards.

The Miners may have finished fifth last season, but was only a game out of first in the top-heavy C-USA. Tim Floyd’s team is headlined by sophomore Vince Hunter and (12.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Julian Washburn (13.1 ppg). Another team looking to make a run at the Bulldogs is newcomer, Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers join the league from the Sun Belt, and have been to two of the last three NCAA tournaments. Ray Harper’s team is aided by senior guards T.J. Price and George Fant — the team’s top two scorers at 15.5 points and 13.3 points, respectively –who will help with the transition against better competition.

Along with Harper, C-USA has three new coaches. Mike Rhoades came over from VCU to take over at Rice while Michael Curry (Florida Atlantic) and Dan D’Antoni (Marshall) join the conference from the NBA sidelines, despite neither of them having college basketball coaching experience.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Western Kentucky
Out: East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa

PRESEASON CONFERENCE-USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith, Louisiana Tech

The 6-foot-3 guard averaged single-digits (7.8 ppg) last year, but he effected the game in so many other ways. He was second in the nation in assists (7.7 apg), was 10th in the nation with a 3.23 assist-to-turnover ratio, and he was also top 10 in the nation in steals at 2.5 per game. The senior guard was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and is the only returning member of the league’s first-team from a season ago.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE-USA TEAM:

  • Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech: Another member of Louisiana Tech’s heralded back court. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged a team-high 14.5 points per game last season.
  • Pierria Henry, Charlotte: The 49ers top scorer from a season ago averaged 12.3 points, grabbed 5.1 boards and dished 5.8 assists per game.
  • Vince Hunter, UTEP: Hunter is coming off a great freshman campaign, averaging 12.5 points and 6.4 boards per game. Part of a talented front court duo with Julian Washburn.
  • T.J. Price, Western Kentucky: One of the top newcomers to the league averaged better than 15 points per game over the past two years in the Sun Belt.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Conference_USA

PREDICTED FINISH

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

Report: Rakeem Buckles to be a scholarship player at FIU

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It may have taken four years to get here, but there is finally a bit of good news for Rakeem Buckles’ college basketball career.

His head coach at Florida International told Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com that the fifth-year senior will, in fact, be on scholarship heading into the 2013-2014 season.

When Buckles’ waiver for a transfer to Minnesota was denied by the NCAA last week, there was initially concern that a return to FIU would force him to play as a walk-on this season. Alas, Buckles will avoid have to take out student loans, which, for anyone currently paying them down, is a blessing.

It’s about time that Buckles got a bit of good news, however. The kid has been through enough. Not only did his waiver to transfer and play at Minnesota get denied (there’s a strong argument to say it was wrongfully denied), but Buckles will now be forced to play out his final season without the possibility of making the NCAA tournament. This comes after a career that saw his twice have a season ended by a torn ACL and once miss the beginning of the year with a spiral fracture in his finger.

Report: Rakeem Buckles’ appeal for a waiver at Minnesota denied

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Last week, Rakeem Buckles was denied a waiver by the NCAA that would have allowed the Florida International transfer to play immediately at Minnesota this season.

On Tuesday, Buckles’ appeal was also denied, meaning that the former Louisville forward will be forced to return to Florida International to use his final season of eligibility, which will give critics of the decision-makers at NCAA offices even more ammo in the seemingly-endless assault on the organization’s credibility recently.

Consistency and compassion are two things that the NCAA seems to completely lack.

Buckles has had been plagued by the bad luck of the injury bug throughout his career, as he dealt with a torn ACL in each knee, a concussion, and a spiral fracture of a finger during his three seasons with the Cardinals. He transferred to FIU after the 2011-2012 season, following Richard Pitino when he was named head coach, and sat out last year to rehab from his second torn ACL.

When Pitino was named head coach at Minnesota, Buckles made the decision to once again follow his coach, and given the circumstances, it seemed a formality that Buckles would get a waiver to play immediately.

FIU is banned from postseason play in 2013-2014 due to APR issues stemming back to the Isiah Thomas era. Another FIU player, JuCo transfer Malik Smith, was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play immediately at Minnesota since he only had one year of eligibility remaining; the NCAA will generally grant a waiver is a player’s remaining eligibility would be played under a postseason ban at his current school.

But Buckles’ bad luck continued, as he will not be able to go to Minnesota and continue his basketball career. He had already signed a Big Ten tender and been admitted to Minnesota, but since Buckles five-year clock expires after the 2013-2014 season, sitting out a year would mean that he’s unable to use his fourth year of eligibility.

“I’m just blown away by it,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino told ESPN.com after Buckles’ waiver was denied. “It makes no sense. It’s amazing the NCAA can do this. He’s a model student-athlete who had a 3.2 GPA when he left Louisville. He just wants a chance to play in another NCAA tournament.

“[Buckles] had no idea that the program wouldn’t be able to play in the NCAA tournament when he transferred to FIU. This is a good kid who has dealt with plenty of adversity over his career. It’s completely unfair.”

Report: Rakeem Buckles denied waiver at Minnesota; will appeal

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Rakeem Buckles may not be able to play for Richard Pitino at Minnesota after all.

On Wednesday, the NCAA denied Buckles a waiver to be eligible to play for the Gophers immediately. Buckles played for Louisville for three seasons, suffering through a myriad of injuries — two major knee surgeries, a broken finger, a concussion — before transferring to Florida International. He sat out the 2012-2013 season, and he has one year of eligibility left. He transferred to Minnesota to follow Pitino, his head coach at FIU.

The news was first reported by Amelia Rayno of the Star-Tribune.

The complicating factor here is that Buckles’ five-year window to use his four seasons of eligibility will come to an end in 2013-2014, meaning that he can’t sit out the year as a redshirt because he’s ineligible to play in 2014-2015.

FIU faces a postseason ban this season due to APR issues from the Isiah Thomas era. The NCAA allows athletes to apply for a waiver for immediate eligibility if the rest of their career at an institution will be played under a postseason ban; that’s how Alex Oriakhi gained immediate eligibility at Missouri after transferring out of UConn. Buckles’ teammate at FIU, Malik Smith, has already been given a waiver by the NCAA to be eligible immediately at Minnesota.

Minnesota will appeal the decision. If that appeal is denied, Buckles may be forced to walk-on back at FIU as new head coach Anthony Evans has already filled his scholarship.

Buckles averaged 6.8 points and 6.1 boards in 18 minutes as a sophomore at Louisville before tearing his right ACL in February of 2011. He tore the ACL in his left knee in January of 2012.