Season Preview

Creighton Bluejays Doug McDermott drives on the Cincinnati Bearcats Justin Jackson during the second half of their second round NCAA tournament game in Philadelphia

2013-2014 Big East Preview: Marquette’s favored, but the Big East could send seven to tourney

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Technically, the Big East conference that you will watch this season is a brand new league. When the Catholic 7 split away from the football schools, they brought the name and the rights to Madison Square Garden for the league tournament with them, but technically speaking, this is the new conference, not the American. And while it’s disappointing to know that Syracuse will never play Georgetown for the Big East title again and that UConn and Pitt will never have another overtime thriller in the Garden, there is still a lot to like about this league and its future. For once, we have a conference — and a very good one at that — whose main focus is hoops.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Creighton, Xavier, Butler
Out: Louisville, UConn, South Florida, Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Rutgers

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. This is the most difficult conference to predict this season: Heading into the start of the 2013-2014 season, Marquette has been the pick to win the Big East by just about everyone, including myself. But you shouldn’t take that to me that the Golden Eagles will have a cakewalk to the regular season title. There’s an argument to be made that as many as eight of the ten teams could earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. The consensus is that Butler, Seton Hall and DePaul make up the bottom three, but there’s really no way to differentiate between team No. 2 and team No. 7. Expect a wild race for the league title.

2. St. John’s will be better than you think: There really hasn’t been all that much hype about the Johnnies this offseason, but when you look up and down there lineup, there is quite a bit of talent. D’angelo Harrison is back from his suspension and God’sgift Achiuwa is back from his redshirt year. Freshman Rysheed Jordan only bolsters a back court that already includes Phil Greene and Jamal Branch, and with JaKarr Sampson, Sir’Dominic Pointer and Chris Obekpa up front, Lavin has the athleticism and versatility to matchup with any front line. If the pieces all come together, look out.

3. And so will Providence: This may be the year for Providence to break through. Former top 20 recruit Kris Dunn is finally healthy and will join a dynamic back court that includes the league’s reigning leading scorer, Bryce Cotton, and thrilling, 6-foot-7 lead guard Brandon Austin. Up front, transfers Tyler Harris and Carson Derosiers are eligible and will join Kadeem Batts and LeDontae Henton. The Friars will put up a lot of points.

4. Georgetown is dangerous with Josh Smith eligible: The Hoyas got a gift in October when massive center Josh Smith was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. Smith is an all-american caliber talent — and a perfect fit as a five in Georgetown’s system — when he’s in shape. But will he be able to play 25 minutes a night? Will he avoid foul trouble? It’s up to Smith how good he wants to be, but if he finally flips the switch, Georgetown has the pieces around him — notably Markel Starks — to be a title contender.

source:
Reuters

5. Keep an eye on Ryan Arcidiacono: As a freshman at Villanova, Arch was coming off of a back surgery that kept him off the court in his final season of high school hoops. He was never quite in rhythm or in shape last season, but after an offseason of work, particularly on his strength, don’t be surprised to see him become one of the better point guards in the country.

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Doug McDermott (Creighton)

McDermott will be a three-time all-american by the time his senior season is over, a fact that is unheard of in this day and age of early entry. McDermott is one of the purest scorers in the country, a 6-foot-7 forward with an array of post moves and a lethal three-point stroke. It will be interesting to see how he handles playing in a conference that features big men with much more size and athleticism that he saw in the Missouri Valley, but when a guy has a chance to score 3,000 points in his career, you stop worrying about whether or not certain matchups will slow him down.

THE REST OF THE ALL-BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:

  • Semaj Christon, Xavier: Christon is a big point guard that averaged 15.2 points and 4.6 assists as a freshman. The biggest reason Xavier has a chance to contend in this league.
  • Bryce Cotton, Providence: Coming off of a season where he averaged 19.4 points, expect Cotton to be a major factor is the Friar’s resurgence.
  • Davante Gardner, Marquette: Gardner is similar to Josh Smith in that he’s an immense low-post talent that’s battled some weight issues through his career.
  • Fuquan Edwin, Seton Hall: It’s a shame that Edwin has been hidden at Seton Hall throughout his career. A terrific defender that averaged 16.5 points and shot 41.2% from three.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
  • Markel Starks, Georgetown
  • D’angelo Harrison, St. John’s
  • JaKarr Sampson, St. John’s
  • Kris Dunn, Providence

BREAKOUT STAR: Kris Dunn (Providence)

Dunn was one of the most highly-sought after players in the country in the Class of 2012, but he spent much of last season battling a shoulder injury. Now that he’s healthy, and with an offseason of improvement under his belt, don’t be surprised to see Dunn take over Vincent Council’s role as the Friar point guard and post big numbers while helping the Providence turnaround.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brandon Miller (Butler)

It would be easy to say Kevin Willard in this situation, because most people will have Willard listed on the hot seat entering the season. But I’m going with Miller. This single most difficult thing to do in coaching is to be the guy after The Guy, and Miller is replacing Brad Stevens, The Guy that led Butler to back-to-back national title games and orchestrated a jump from the Horizon to the Big East in the span of 15 months. That ain’t easy.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Big East got more bids than the American.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Watching Davante Gardner battle for position against Josh Smith.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 16, Ohio State at Marquette
  • Dec. 7, Marquette at Wisconsin
  • Dec. 15, Syracuse at St. John’s (at MSG)
  • Nov. 8, Georgetown vs. Oregon (In South Korea)
  • Dec. 21, Georgetown at Kansas

PREDICTED FINISH

source: Getty Images
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1. Marquette: The Golden Eagles will have a different look than we’re used too as their strength will be the front court, but there are few coaches better at maximizing talent, regardless of roster makeup, than Buzz Williams.
2. Georgetown: It’s difficult to overstate just how important it is for the Hoyas to get Josh Smith eligible at the start of the season. With the underrated Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera holding down the back court, the Hoyas could win the league if everything breaks right.
3. Creighton: The Bluejays caught a couple of breaks this offseason, as Doug McDermott returned to school and Grant Gibbs got a sixth year of eligibility. Losing big man Gregory Echenique is really going to hurt, especially against teams with big low-post scorers.
4. St. John’s: The Johnnies have loads of talent and athleticism on their roster this season, and the presence of shot-blocker Chris Obekpa around the rim should allow Steve Lavin’s to apply a lot of pressure defensively. Can Lavin find a way to turn the talent into wins?
5. Providence: Much of this depends on the health of Kris Dunn’s shoulder, but if he’s at 100%, the Friars have quite a bit of talent on their roster, especially on the perimeter. Expect a lot of points when Providence plays.
6. Villanova: Ryan Arcidiacono should be in line for a big sophomore season, and the Wildcats return six of their top seven scorers, including Jayvaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard. The key will be the play of Daniel Ochefu inside, as Mouphtaou Yarou has graduated.
7. Xavier: Semaj Christon has the potential to turn into an all-american this season, and with Dee Davis and Justin Martin back, Chris Mack’s club should hold their own on the perimeter. Three-point shooting and the effectiveness of Matt Stainbrook and Isaiah Philmore inside will be key.
8. Seton Hall: I love Fuquan Edwin, and the addition of Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina will help solidify the perimeter attack, but there are just so many unknowns with this group.
9. Butler: A new head coach leading a team that loses Rotnei Clarke, Andrew Smith (graduation) and Roosevelt Jones (wrist) into a new, tougher conference is not the ideal recipe success.
10. DePaul: The Blue Demons should be more competitive than what we’ve become accustomed to, but until this group proves they can get themselves out of the cellar, that’s where we’ll assume they end up.

2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 3 Louisville Cardinals

Kenny Klein/Louisville Athletics
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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 35-5, 14-4 Big East (t-1st); Won the National Title

Head Coach: Rick Pitino (13th season at Louisville: 310-111 overall, 137-67 CUSA/Big East)

Key Losses: Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva

Newcomers: Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Akoy Agau, Anton Gill

Projected Lineup

G: Chris Jones, Jr.
G: Russ Smith, Sr.
F: Luke Hancock, Sr.
F: Stephen Van Treese, Sr.
C: Montrezl Harrell, So.
Bench: Terry Rozier, Fr.; Wayne Blackshear, Jr.; Akoy Agau, Fr.; Mangok Mathiang, So.; Kevin Ware, Jr. Chane Behanan, Jr.*

They’ll be good because …: Well, they’re really, really good. Russ Smith is back for a senior season in which he should once again shine. For all the criticism that Smith gets for being Russdiculous, the fact of the matter is that he posted an offensive rating 108.9 despite posting a usage rate of 32.0%. For those that aren’t well-versed in advanced analytics, that means that Smith was quite efficient on the offensive end of the floor despite being one of the most high-volume shooters in the country.

He’s not alone, either. Final Four MOP Luke Hancock is back for his senior season while Montrezl Harrell returns for what many expect to be a huge sophomore year. Chris Jones is a former top 50 recruit that spent the past two seasons winning titles and earning individual accolades as a JuCo point guard at Northwest Florida State. Terry Rozier did a prep year at Hargrave Military Academy last season and is expected to have an immediate impact off the bench. Wayne Blackshear should finally be healthy and in shape this season. Even Kevin Ware is expected to be back in the lineup by the time Louisville starts playing games that matter.

source:
AP photo

But they might disappoint because …: Losing Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng is going to hurt more than people realize. Siva was this team’s leader a season ago. He was the coach on the floor, the guy with the ball in his hands in crunch. He was also a terrific on-ball defender and, along with Smith, made this team so tough to score against. Most importantly, Siva was a calming influence alongside Russdiciulous, which is a factor that cannot be underrated. Jones may be talented, but he’d be hard-pressed to provide the same presence and leadership on the floor that Siva provided.

Harrell should be able to replace the scoring and the rebounding that Dieng provided last season. Where Dieng’s graduation will hurt is as a shot-blocker. Part of the reason that Louisville could put so much pressure on the ball is that they knew they had an eraser at the rim if they hadn’t to get beat on the perimeter. Harrell’s a junkyard dog and a potential first-team all-AAC player, but he’s not the same kind of defensive presence. Dieng also proved to be a good passer, which helped Louisville, who lack some perimeter shooting, against zone defenses they went up against.

There’s no replacement for talent, which Louisville has plenty of, but Siva and Dieng were indispensable pieces that made Louisville’s lineup fit together.

Outlook: Obviously, the x-factor for this Louisville team will be the presence of Chane Behanan. If you’ve forgotten, Louisville’s starting power forward — who averaged 9.8 points and 6.5 boards a season ago — was suspended indefinitely from the team earlier this month for issues he has off the court. when Pitino initially announced the suspension, he made the situation seem dire; that Behanan may not actually be able to work his way back onto the team. More recent comments have made it seem like the big fella can be back in the lineup before the Cardinals play Kentucky (on 12/28), perhaps before the end of November.

Louisville is a national title contender with or without Behanan. But without him, the Cardinal’s just don’t have all that much front court depth. Harrell will be a beast this season, I think every prognosticator will agree. But after that? Stephen Van Treese? Akoy Agau? Mangok Mathiang? Kentucky’s sixth-best big man, Derek Willis, is better than those three.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I expect Behanan to be back in the lineup sooner rather than later, which means that the Cardinals will be a serious contender come March.

2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 5 Duke Blue Devils

Mike Krzyzewski
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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 30-6, 14-4 ACC (2nd); Lost to Louisville in the Elite 8

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (34th season at Duke: 884-238 overall, 350-153 ACC)

Key Losses: Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly

Newcomers: Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Matt Jones, Semi Ojeleye

Projected Lineup

G: Quinn Cook, Jr.
G: Rasheed Sulaimon, So.
F: Rodney Hood, So.
F: Jabari Parker, Fr.
C: Amile Jefferson, So.
Bench: Marshall Plumlee, So.; Josh Hairston, Sr.; Matt Jones, Fr.; Semi Ojeleye, Fr.; Andre Dawkins, Sr.; Alex Murphy, So.; Tyler Thornton, So.

They’ll be good because …: The Blue Devils just have so many talented perimeter weapons on their roster this year, including three guys that could eventually be lottery picks in the NBA Draft. We’ll start with the obvious: a consensus top three recruit in Jabari Parker, a 6-foot-8 do-it-all wing that will team up with Rodney Hood, a Mississippi State transfer and another 6-foot-8 do-it-all wing, to give Coach K arguably the best pair of forwards in the country. Throw in sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon, the underrated Quinn Cook at the point and Matt Jones, Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton off the bench, and it is going to be tough to earn minutes in the Blue Devil’s back court.

What makes this team the most dangerous is that Parker and Hood are big enough that they can essentially play with five perimeter players this season, creating all kinds of different mismatches. Can you imagine opposing centers trying to stay with Parker or Hood 20 feet from the basket? It’s a terrifying thought, really. With the amount of perimeter shooting and offensive firepower that the Blue Devils have, don’t be surprised to see them spread the floor, get up and down the court, and score a lot of point this season.

source:
Jabari Parker (AP) and Rodney Hood (GoDuke.com)

But they might disappoint because …: Duke really doesn’t have any size at all this season. Amile Jefferson got the start in the middle in the Blue Devil’s first exhibition game of the season over the weekend, and he is naturally a wing that’s slender and stands all of 6-foot-7. Marshall Plumlee is a seven-footer with a ton of athleticism, but does he have the strength to hold his own in the paint in the toughest league in the country? Josh Hairston has been a solid role player for three years for Duke, but he’s really not much more than that. Semi Ojeleye can soar, but he’s still undersized as a front court player.

The reason that Duke is dangerous this season is that they can create mismatches on the offensive end of the floor, but what happens when they play talented teams that have forwards that can defend on the perimeter? What happens when they have to try and stop a Julius Randle or a Mitch McGary in the paint? Will Duke be able to keep teams off of the offensive glass? Will those mismatches be worth the risk of getting Parker or Hood in foul trouble?

Outlook: Duke is in a weird spot this season, as they might end up being better than they were a season ago despite losing their top three scorers from that team. The influx of talent they get this season with Parker and Hood will help keep them afloat, but the fact that Coach K didn’t bring in a big body from the recruiting trail is a bit concerning.

That said, Duke will be quite a bit of fun to watch this season if everything goes according to plan. Their smaller lineups will be a nightmare for teams with a more traditional roster makeup to try and matchup with, and the fact that they’ll be playing an open, uptempo style that should include plenty of three balls won’t hurt, either. Throw in the new physicality rules, and Duke is going to be a team that will score a lot of points this year. They should enter the season as the ACC favorites.

2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click heret.

Last Season: 31-6, 14-4 Big 12 (t-1st); Lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16

Head Coach: Bill Self (11th year at Kansas: 300-59 overall, 137-27 Big 12)

Key Losses: Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson, Kevin Young

Newcomers: Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid, Tarik Black, Connor Frankamp, Brannen Greene, Frank Mason

Projected Lineup

G: Naadir Tharpe, Jr.
G: Wayne Selden, Fr.
F: Andrew Wiggins, Fr.
F: Perry Ellis, So.
C: Joel Embiid, Fr.
Bench: Tarik Black, Sr.; Andrew White, So.; Justin Wesley, Sr.; Connor Frankamp, Fr.; Brannen Greene, Fr.; Jamari Traylor, So.

They’ll be good because …: Have you seen the amount of talent Kansas has on their roster? Let’s start with the obvious: Andrew Wiggins. This is the kid that has been talked about and written about for years as the best prospect in basketball, a guy that could, one day, find himself on the same level as the Lebrons and the Kevin Durants and the Derrick Roses. There’s a reason he’s gotten all that hype, so don’t be surprised when he ends up having an all-american caliber season.

But Wiggins is far from alone. Let’s start with Wayne Selden, a 6-foot-4 bulldog of a off-guard that certainly won’t have an issue attacking the basket. Then there’s Perry Ellis, a talented scorer at the power forward spot that should be expected to come closer to reaching his potential this season. Joel Embiid may not too much of an offensive option at this point, but he should anchor what will once again be one of the best defensive teams in the country. There’s a lot of uncertainty given the youth and turnover on this roster, but if everything works out, the ceiling for this team is as high as anyone.

source:
Andrew Wiggins (AP) and Joel Embiid (KUAthletics)

But they might disappoint because …: All the talent that Kansas has amassed is young. Wiggins, Embiid and Selden are freshmen. Ellis is a sophomore. Naadir Tharpe and Tarik Black are the only upperclassmen that figure to be in the rotation, and that’s a concern because it’s tough to peg the impact that freshmen will have. Embiid is raw. His value as a prospect is rooted in the long-term. The same can be said for Wiggins, who is still trying to develop the aggressiveness he needs to maximize his talent.

The other issue for Kansas is the point guard spot. Early reviews for Naadir Tharpe are that he’s made a jump since his sophomore season, when he was so inconsistent that he was forced to split time with Elijah Johnson as the team’s primary ball-handler. If so, that’s a big deal, because not having that point guard presence was one of the Jayhawk’s biggest issues a season ago. Tharpe doesn’t need to do all that much: get the offense into their sets, protect the ball, hit a jumper when he’s open and beat his man off the dribble enough to keep defenses honest. The question is, will he be up to the task?

Outlook: You all know the stat by now: in each of the last nine seasons, Kansas has won at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title. It’s a phenomenal run, and despite the talent up in Stillwater, Kansas will once again head into the season as the Big 12 favorite. That’s just the way it goes when you’re the nine-time champs; you’re picked to win it until you don’t.

But that’s anything but a guarantee. As mentioned early, Kansas still has plenty of question marks heading into the season, not the least of which is Wiggins himself. As talented and gifted as he is physically, there are still some question marks about how much his offensive repertoire is developed. There are concerns about his aggressiveness, about whether or not he has the killer instinct required to be able to take over game after game after game. His ceiling is nonexistent, but it’s also five years down the road. Will he be Kevin Durant or Harrison Barnes? That’s the difference between Kansas being really good, and Kansas potentially being a title contender.

2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 9 Michigan Wolverines

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 31-8, 12-6 Big Ten (t-4th); Lost to Louisville in the title game

Head Coach: John Beilein (7th season at Michigan: 122-85 overall, 55-53 Big Ten)

Key Losses: Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr.

Newcomers: Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, Mark Donnal

Projected Lineup

G: Derrick Walton, Fr.
G: Nik Stauskas, So.
F: Caris LeVert, So.
F: Glenn Robinson !!!, So.
C: Mitch McGary, So.
Bench: Spike Albrecht, So.; Jordan Morgan, Sr.; Zak Irvin, Fr.; Mark Donnal, Fr.; Jon Horford, Jr.

They’ll be good because …: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. may be gone, but John Beilein still has a roster with a ton of talent on it, particularly in the sophomore class. We’ll start with the front line, where Mitch McGary made the decision to return to school after a dominating NCAA tournament performance. Glenn Robinson III followed suit, giving Beilein a pair of potential lottery picks on his front line. It will be interesting to see what kind of jump those two will make as sophomores, as both have plenty of room to grow. Robinson is an excellent athlete that too often settled into a role as a jump-shooter last season, while McGary is massive and plays hard but can still improve his back-to-the-basket game.

Nik Stauskas is another sophomore that returns with a chance to prove that he’s a more complete player than the role he played last season. Arguably the best shooter in the country, Stauskas is a better athlete than he gets credit for and can create off the bounce when he has the chance. Caris LeVert was impressive in his limited minutes a season ago and will join five-star recruit Zak Irvin round out Michigan’s perimeter attack.

source:
AP photos

But they might disappoint because …: The Wolverines lost Trey Burke, and while everyone will remember that Burke won the National Player of the Year award, they may not remember just how important he was to this team. His numbers speak for themselves — 18.8 points, 6.6 assists, and just 2.1 turnovers while posting a 121.2 usage rate while using 29.0% of Michigan’s possessions in the 35.3 minutes he played. Those are monstrous numbers, and it reflects the fact that John Beilein’s offense last season was structured around Burke’s ability to create off the dribble and in pick-and-roll actions. He got McGary his dunks. He created the open looks for Stauskas and Robinson. He broke down defenders one-on-one. His importance cannot be overstated.

And this season, Michigan more-or-less returns the same team, with LeVert and Irvin playing the role of Hardaway, without Burke. In his stead resides Spike Albrecht, the darling of the title game after scoring 17 first half points, and freshman Derrick Walton. So here’s the question: Can those two fill the void left by Burke? Can the rest of the roster increase their production enough that the loss of Burke can be mitigated?

Outlook: Michigan has plenty of talented hoopers on their roster, and at the end of the day, betting on talent is going to earn you more wins than it will losses. But just how good Michigan ends up being this season will depend entirely on two things: the development of their awesome sophomore class — McGary, Robinson, Stauskas, LeVert — and the play of point guard duo Albrecht and Walton.

Frankly, I think that just how much the sophomores are capable of doing on a basketball court was overshadowed by the fact that it was in Michigan’s best interest to have the ball in Burke’s hands. I think Robinson is more than just a stand-still shooter even though that was more-or-less the end of his role a year ago. The same can be said for Stauskas. I think LeVert is going to have a big year now that he is in line to see a bump in minutes, and McGary already thrives in his role as a rebounder and physical presence in the paint. Michigan should compete for a Big Ten title; anything less than a top four finish in the conference and a top four seed in the NCAA tournament will be a disappointment.

2013-2014 Sun Belt Preview: Star-studded league should provide plenty of drama

Elfrid Payton, Keith Appling
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source:
Elfrid Payton (AP photo)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Sun Belt was one of the conferences that had the most reshuffling during conference realignment, as four schools are headed out of the league while three new programs — Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington — come aboard.

Ironically enough, while the league loses powerhouse Middle Tennessee State, North Texas forward Tony Mitchell and Florida International head coach Rick Pitino, the Sun Belt will likely end up having more star power on their rosters than any mid-major league in the country.

It starts with one of the new additions, as Ron Hunter’s Georgia State squad seems primed for a huge year. Hunter’s back court will be loaded, as his son R.J., a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, returns after averaging more than 17 points as a freshman. He’s got a chance to be an NBA Draft pick down the road. He’s joined by Devonta White and Manny Atkins, who both averaged about 15 points, but the most notable name will be Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow. If Harrow lives up to his potential and Hunter can find some production on the interior, the Panthers have the chance to be really, really good.

(MORE: Ron Hunter channels his inner ‘Coach Dad’)

As talented as Hunter and Harrow are, however, neither will enter the season as the Sun Belt’s Preseason Player of the Year. That title falls to Augustine Rubit, a 6-foot-7 forward that averaged 19.4 points and 10.2 boards as a junior. In layman’s terms, he’s a beast, but if the Jaguars are going to improve on their 14-6 record in Matthew Graves’ first season as head coach, Rubit will need a supporting cast that loses two starters to step up.

No mid-major player had a bigger summer than Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton. The 6-foot-3, do-it-all guard — he averaged 15.6 points, 5.9 boards, 5.6 assists and 2.4 steals — not only managed to make the U19 national team, but he started for them over more highly-regarded players. Throw in the return of Shawn Long, and Bob Marlin’s club will also contend for the league title.

Then there’s Western Kentucky. They return four starters from a team that finished just 10-10 in league play, but they are also coming off of their second straight run to the NCAA tournament. T.J. Price is the Hilltopper to make note of.

And finally, Arkansas State. The Red Wolves lose three of their top five scorers from last season, but leading scorer Ed Townsel is back, as is sophomore Cameron Golden. The key will be transfers. Brandon Reed averaged 15.1 points as a freshman back in 2009-2010 before transferring to Georgia Tech while Melvin Johnson III averaged 13.0 points as a junior at UT-San Antonio in 2011-2012.

Arkansas-Little Rock and UT-Arlington both have enough talent to make a push as well.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Georgia State, Texas State, Texas-Arlington,
Out: Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, Florida International, Florida Atlantic

source:
AP photo

PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Augustine Rubit, South Alabama

Rubit came within 18 points of averaging 20 and 10 a season ago, and he’s returning to school to play for a team with a real shot of winning the league title. I know how much talent there is in this conference; this decision was still pretty easy.

FOUR MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • R.J. Hunter, Georgia State: Hunter averaged 17.5 points as a freshman and will be playing this season with Ryan Harrow.
  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette: If he can refine his jump shot, Payton has a shot to follow the footsteps of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
  • Brandon Reed, Arkansas State: Reed averaged 15.1 points as a freshman with the Red Wolves, but tried transferring to Georgia Tech. That resulted in two uneventful season, so Reed came back under the graduate transfer rule.
  • Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette: The best big man in the league not named Augustine Rubit.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Georgia State
2. Louisiana-Lafayette
3. South Alabama
4. Western Kentucky
5. Arkansas State
6. Arkansas-Little Rock
7. UT-Arlington
8. Troy
9. Texas State
10. Louisiana-Monroe