2011-12 Conference USA Preview: Memphis and the rest

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Player of the Year: Arsalan Kazemi, Jr., Rice

There is quite a bit of talent in Conference USA this year, but the most productive player — and probably the best NBA prospect — is tucked away at the other school in Houston. Arsalan Kazemi, the first Iranian-born player to play Division I basketball, is quite possibly the most underrated player in the country. Standing just 6’7″, Kazemi was the only player in Conference USA to average double figures in rebounds last season. In fact, he was seventh nationally at 11.0 rpg, ranking 15th in offensive rebounding percentage and second in defensive rebounding percentage. Kazemi also managed to average 15.2 ppg despite being the focal point of every defensive attack in league play; he didn’t even lead his team in scoring during conference play last season. That said, after going from one win in 2009-2010 to five wins last season, the Owls should continue to improve this year. With their top four scorers returning — including fellow junior Tamir Jackson in the back court — there will be less attention on Kazemi. And while Kazemi isn’t the kind of offensive talent that can be isolated in the post, he plays such an active and energetic brand of basketball that he almost requires a double team when he is cutting to the rim or hitting the offensive glass. Think Kenneth Faried, only without the dreads.

And a close second goes to…: Joe Jackson, So., Memphis

This pick may be a bit out of the box, but I’m expecting a big season out of Jackson. I’m not saying I think he’ll be the leading scorer for this team — although I do think he will have some big games — but I do think he’ll be the engine that drives the Memphis Tigers. Jackson had a very inconsistent freshman season, which isn’t unusual, but it hit Jackson harder than a typical freshman. Jackson is a Memphis native and really felt the pressure of playing in front of a hometown crowd with his entourage in his ear every day. Jackson persevered, however, and was responsible for sparking the comeback in what amounted to a road game in the C-USA title game, making the game-winning play — drawing a foul and hitting the two free throws — with 7.5 seconds. You don’t always have to be your team’s leading scorer to win a conference’s Player of the Year award or make first-team all-conference. Last year’s winner was Aaron Jackson, who led the country in assists and was that team’s leader but was the Blazer’s third-leading scorer. I don’t expect Jackson to lead the country in assists, but I do expect him to be the guy Josh Pastner calls upon when he needs a big bucket this year.

Breakout Star: Jordan Clarkson, So., Tulsa

Tulsa always seems to have a guy on the perimeter that is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Last year it was Justin Hurtt. Before that it was Ben Uzoh. With Hurtt graduating, is Clarkson the next in line? An athletic, 6’4″ slasher, Clarkson averaged 11.5 ppg despite battling a couple of injuries during the season. He also came on strong late in the season, averaging 15.9 ppg on 50.7% shooting from the field and getting to the line 41 times. Clarkson will have a chance to become the No. 1 option offensively this season. If he can cut down on some of his turnovers and become a more consistent jump shooter, Clarkson has a chance to be a big-time scorer this year.

All-Conference First-Team:

POY: Arsalan Kazemi, Jr., Rice
G: Joe Jackson, So., Memphis
G: Jordan Clarkson, So., Tulsa
G: Deandre Kane, So., Marshall
F: Keith Clanton, Jr., UCF
C: Cameron Moore, Sr., UAB

All-Conference Second-Team:

G: Damier Pitts, Sr., Marshall
G: Marcus Jordan, Jr., UCF
G: Will Barton, So., Memphis
F: Kendall Timmons, Jr., Tulane
C: Darius Morrow, Sr., East Carolina

Four summer storylines

– Everything Central Florida: The Golden Knights were an episode of Jerry Springer this summer. It started with praise for Donnie Jones ability to recruit, as he added center Michael Chandler and point guard Kevin Ware to an incoming class that already included three high-major transfers and three highly-regarded recruits. But that commitment from Ware lasted all of 10 days, as the former Tennessee-signee backed out a day before Pat Forde and Pete Thamel dropped a bombshell that Jones had recruits steered towards his programs by a convicted felon with strong ties to an agent; in other words, a runner. That runner, named Ken Caldwell, has a twitter account and decided to tee-off on the media in response. As a capper, both Chandler and Ware, who ended up at Louisville, were ruled ineligible for this season.

The irony here? None of the conversation about UCF this offseason had to do with the fact that they are one of the most intriguing teams in the country heading into this season. It wasn’t all bad news for the Golden Knights. Tristan Spurlock, who was one of three ineligible transfers that formed a practice squad called “Team Buckets“, is starting a non-profit with the same name to help local youths.

– Will Barton guarantees another title: Prior to Will Barton ever suiting up for the Tigers, he made the decision to guarantee that Memphis would win the national title. It was all in good fun, but it made headlines and it was, well, way off. Memphis finished fourth in Conference USA and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This offseason, Barton did it again, telling the crowd at the annual High Tops party that “we’re going to win it all.” I’ll agree with Pastner here. If he’s saying it, he better back it up.

– Arsalan Kazemi in the Asia Games: Not only is Arsalan Kazemi the first Iranian-born player in the Division I ranks, he also happens to be one of the stars for his country’s national team. It originally appeared as if Kazemi wasn’t going to be able to try and help his country qualify for the Olympics this September, as classes at Rice and NCAA regulations got in the way. Eventually, however, the ruling was overturned — why its a bad thing for an athlete to represent his country, I’ll never know. Iran did not qualify for the Olympics, getting upset and eliminated by Jordan, but Kazemi played well, averaging 12.0 ppg and 8.9 rpg.

– DJ Newbill transfers to Penn State: DJ Newbill made some headlines when he decided to transfer out of Southern Miss and head to play for Pat Chambers at Penn State. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, however. Newbill ended up in Hattiesburg when his scholarship to Marquette disappeared, an event that just so happened to coincide with a talented Wisconsin native trying to transfer back home. But the question some people wound up asking is whether or not what Newbill did to Larry Eustachy was fair? It was July 2nd of last summer when Newbill’s scholarship offer was taken away. Newbill was lucky that Eustachy gave him a place to land safely.

But after an excellent freshman season, Newbill headed for the door at the first opportunity to play high-major basketball. On the one hand, it seems a bit unfair for Newbill to, essentially, take advantage of the opportunity given to him by Eustachy. On the other hand — which I happen to agree with — Newbill never wanted to be at Southern Miss in the first place. He was the victim of a coach looking out for himself. What’s wrong with Newbill doing the same?

Four storylines to watch this season

– Will Memphis regain control over the conference?: The Tigers owned Conference USA at the end of John Calipari’s tenure with the school. When I say owned, I mean owned, as in they didn’t lose a league game the last three years he was in Memphis. The Pastner era has been no where near as successful. That’s not meant to be a shot at Pastner, either, but finished second and fourth in his first two years is not exactly what Tiger fans are expecting. This may be the year that the Tigers regain their strangle hold on the league. Memphis is loaded. They bring back everyone except Will Coleman, they add Adonis Thomas and Stan Simpson, and the freshmen that struggled early and started to gel late are all now sophomores. Based on talent alone, Memphis is by far the best team in the conference and will likely find themselves sitting somewhere in the top 15 of every preseason poll. Will Pastner be able to fit all the pieces together?

– Who wins the battle for second place?: There’s not much of an argument over who is the best team in Conference USA heading into the year. There will be quite a few arguments over who is the second best team, however, as three clubs have a legitimate argument to be slotted there. Marshall has been the trendy pick heading into October. The Thundering Herd not only return arguably the best back court in the league with Deandre Kane and Damier Pitts, they only lose one player from their rotation while adding a number of talented recruits and transfers. Tulsa should be good as well. The Golden Hurricanes do lose their leading scorer in Justin Hurtt, but they bring back a big front line, two talented kids on the perimeter in Jordan Clarkson and Scottie Haralson, and should finally have a healthy point guard in Donte Medder. The most interesting team? Central Florida. They are coming off of a roller coaster season in which they started out the year 14-0 but finished just 6-10 in league play, including an eight game losing streak. But with both Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton returning and a talented crop of recruits and transfers joining the program, there is reason to be hopeful. It begs the question …

– Will there be more than one team worthy of an at-large bid?: I’d say there is a good chance there will be. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Memphis wins the regular season and tournament titles, meaning that Tulsa, Marshall and UCF — and any other team that puts together a strong enough resume to warrant consideration — will have to earn an at-large bid if they want to go dancing. My guess is that Marshall has the best chance. They get Memphis and UCF twice in league play, and while they have to travel to Tulsa, they get West Virginia, Iona and Belmont at home in non-conference games. Marshall will also travel to Cincinnati, Syracuse and Belmont (they play the Bruins twice).

Tulsa will travel to South Carolina for the Charleston Classic — whose field is not as strong as it was last year — before playing non-conference roadies against Missouri State and Oklahoma State while hosting Arizona State, Creighton and Wichita State. Its worth noting that Tulsa only gets Marshall, UCF and Memphis once each in league play, hosting each game. UCF better hope they beat the College of Charleston in their opener in the Battle 4 Atlantis and get a shot a UConn, because if they don’t, their only quality non-conference game may end up being at Florida State.

– What will Conference USA look like in the future?: That is a really good question and one that cannot be answered by a single person. The rumors involving Conference USA teams as plug-ins for the major conferences as been non-stop. Its not secret that East Carolina and UCF both want in the Big East. Memphis wants in a BCS league, and while the Big East would make sense, the school doesn’t particularly care what league it is. All four of the Texas schools — Houston, Rice, UTEP, and SMU — have, at one point, been a rumored target of both the Big 12 and the Big East. And who can forget the massive, country-wide merger of Conference USA and the Mountain West that was discussed last month?

Power Rankings

1. Memphis: There were good things and there were bad things to take out of the 2010-2011 season for the Memphis Tigers. The good news is that, despite having a roster overloaded with freshmen, they were still able to win the Conference USA Tournament, locking up a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The bad news is that thanks to a season full of underwhelming and inconsistent performances, the Tigers almost assuredly needed that automatic bid to go dancing.

One thing is clear heading into this season for the Tigers — there is not shortage of talent on their roster, as Josh Pastner has really been able to flex his muscles as a recruiter. The back court should be one of the best in the country next season. Joe Jackson had an up-and-down season as a freshman as he struggled to deal with the expectations that come with being a star high school player from Memphis, but he came around by the end of the year and was the guy Pastner called upon with the C-USA championship on the line. There’s no reason that Will Barton can’t improve, either. He was the Tiger’s leading scorer as a freshman, but he needs to learn to be more efficient with his shot selection and turnovers. Sophomores Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford and senior Charles Carmouche are all quality defenders that excel in their roles offensively. In the front court, sophomore Tarik Black eventually played his way into the starting lineup and should be able to provide an anchor in the paint. With Seton Hall transfer Ferrakhon Hall, JuCo transfer Stan Simpson, and redshirt freshman Hippolyte Tsafack also on the roster, the Tiger’s should have plenty of bodies to rotate through up front. The x-factors could end up being Wesley Witherspoon and Adonis Thomas. Witherspoon is a versatile forward that struggled in a leadership role and has never really lived up to his potential. Will he lose minutes to Thomas, a Memphis native and 6’6″ forward that some believe is the best prospect in this class? If he does, will that throw off the team’s chemistry? Memphis is the overwhelming favorite in the league, and has the talent to make the Final Four.

2. Marshall: Marshall had a bit of a surprising season in 2010-2011. After seeing their head coach bolt for Conference USA rival Central Florida, the Herd still managed to win 22 games — including victories over West Virginia and Memphis — while finishing 9-7 in the league. Even more promising is the fact that Marshall loses just two players from last season’s team. The future looks bright in Huntington, WV.

This season, it starts with the back court. Senior Damier Pitts is one of the best point guards in the conference. Assuming he stays academically eligible (he missed the first semester last season and still led the team in scoring and assists), he’s nightmare to try and defend. DeAndre Kane, Pitts’ back court mate and only a sophomore, is a very well-rounded player (15.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.4 apg) and has a chance to be Player of the Year in Conference USA by the time he graduates. He’s that good. Shaquille Johnson will also return in the back court and will provide experience. Replacing Tirrell Baines inside won’t be easy, but Nigel Spikes will provide size in the paint while Dago Pena gives Marshall a forward that can really shoot the ball from the perimeter. Tom Herrion has an impressive influx of talent, as well. Yaos Mbao, a 7’2″ Marquette transfer, should provide depth up front. Justin Coleman, who was ruled academically ineligible at Louisville, also joins the program. Freshmen DeVince Boykins and Jamir Hanner and JuCo transfers Chris Martin and Robert Goff should also see some minutes. The Thundering Herd have enough talent to be Memphis’ strongest contender in Conference USA.*

(*Ed. Note: While I think Marshall is the second best team in the league and the second most likely to earn an at-large bid, I think Tulsa will end up in second place at the end of the season. Marshall, UCF and Memphis are all in the eastern division of the league on the football side, meaning they will play each other twice. Tulsa, who plays in the much weaker western division, has a schedule that is unbelievably favorable, as they host Marshall, UCF and Memphis in their only meetings.)

3. Tulsa: Tulsa is as consistent as any program in the country. Keep in mind, this was a program heading into the 2010-2011 having lost two potential NBA players in Jerome Jordan and Ben Uzoh, and after a rough non-conference slate, the Golden Hurricane managed to play their way into the No. 2 seed in the Conference USA Tournament. That’s impressive. And while Tulsa lost leading scorer Justin Hurtt to graduation, the pieces are in place to make a similar run next season.

Hurtt averaged 20.0 ppg as a senior and was the guy that had the ball in his hands the majority of the time on the offensive end of the floor. There is no doubt that his graduation is going to result in a tweaking offensively, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Tulsa is going to suffer as a result. UConn transfer Scottie Haralson averaged 10.9 ppg, shooting a better percentage from beyond the arc than Hurtt, while being named Newcomer of the Year. Jordan Clarkson averaged 11.5 ppg and was named to the C-USA all-freshman team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both of those guys average 15 ppg next season. Junior Donte Medder will, hopefully, be healthy after tearing the acl in his right knee in back-to-back years. Sophomore Tim Smith and freshman Eric McClellan will push for minutes. Point guard play will be huge for Tulsa, as they were last in the conference in assists, assists-to-turnover ratio (0.8:1) and turnover margin. If healthy, Medder can be that answer. Up front, 6’11” senior Steven Idlet returns, giving Tulsa a back-to-the-basket scorer. He’ll be joined by a deep group of front-line players in seniors DJ Magley and Joe Richard and sophomore Kodi Maduka. If Medder is healthy and can provide steady point guard play, I’d say Tulsa will have a very good chance of finishing second in the league next season and may even be able to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

4. Central Florida: UCF had one of the stranger seasons I’ve ever seen in 2010-2011. After winning the first 14 games of the season and climbing to their first ever national ranking, the Knights lost eight straight games in league play before finishing the regular season with five wins in their last seven games to solidify a trip to the CBI. Despite the eight game losing streak, UCF still managed to put together a 21 win season, which included wins over Florida and Miami.

As we mentioned, what makes UCF’s season all the more impressive is that they weren’t supposed to be good until this year. And that is what makes them scary — and unpredictable — heading into the season. In terms of talent, UCF has as much as anyone in the conference, save Memphis. It starts with who they bring back, namely juniors Marcus Jordan (Michael’s son) and Keith Clanton. Jordan is a 6’3″ slasher on the wing that can score and create, but he needs to work on improving shot selection and avoiding settling for jumpers. Clanton is a 6’8″, 240 lb power forward that can do a bit of everything — score inside, rebound the ball, block a shot, hit a three. Senior AJ Rompza didn’t have a bad season running the point as a junior, but he may see his playing time cut due to the arrival of some talented transfers. Jeff Jordan (Michael’s other son) will be eligible after transferring in from Illinois and is a tough, defensive-minded lead guard. Tristan Spurlock, a sophomore small forward that was once a top 100 recruit at Virginia, and Josh Crittle, a big-bodied center that transferred in from Oregon, will also become eligible this season. Throw in a well-regarded recruiting class of Rod Days, Wayne Martin and Casey Wilson — all of whom are 6’7″ forwards — as well as returners PJ Gaynor, a senior front court player, and Isaiah Sykes, a sophomore wing, and Donnie Jones has plenty of able bodies. Assuming Donnie Jones can iron out the consistency issues from a year ago, there are two issues here for the Golden Knights. The first will be managing minutes, particularly in the front court, where UCF has a number of options. The other will be finding a perimeter shooting threat. With Isaac Sosa being run off, Jones lost his best three point shooter. Who fills that role? The talent is there, on paper, to finish as high as third, but will all the pieces come together? Will Spurlock and Crittle finally live up to their expectations coming out of high school?

5. UAB: For what is one of the most consistent programs in the country, UAB had their best season to date under head coach Mike Davis. They won the Conference USA regular season title and earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Davis was named Coach of the Year in the league. Point guard Aaron Johnson was named Player of the Year while Jamarr Sanders earned first-team all-league honors. Even when they lost, they did it in a competitive manner, with just three losses coming by more than five points.

It will be difficult for Davis to sustain that level of success, however. For starters, both Johnson and Sanders — who were as good as just about any back court in the country — both graduated, leaving a gaping hole in the Blazer’s back court. This year’s team will likely be built around the interior. Cameron Moore, who was well on his way to averaging a double-double last season before breaking his hand, is back. Ovie Soko is back as well and will likely start along side Moore. With Moore’s ability to knock down shots from the perimeter and Soko’s aggressiveness on the offensive glass, Davis will have a solid tandem up front. Todd O’Brien, who started at St. Joe’s, and Beas Hamga, an athletic seven-footer that was once a top 25 recruit in the country, are also on the front line. In the back court, Preston Purifoy is a 6’5″ sophomore on the best shooter on the roster. With more playing time, he could be primed for a big season. Sophomore Robert Williams and Quincy Taylor were in and out of the starting lineup as freshmen, and don’t be surprised to see newcomers KC Whitaker or Isiah Jones make a push for minutes. With that much youth in their back court, expect the Blazers to remain competitive but don’t expect them to make a push to finish in the top three or four of the league.
6. Rice: Its a real sign of your program if a 14 win season that ends with a 5-11 record in conference play is considered a good year, but that’s exactly the situation that the Rice Owls currently find themselves in. Its also what happens when that team is coming off an eight win campaign that saw just a single league victory. Throw in the fact that the Owls swept cross-town rival Houston and knocked off Memphis — both C-USA firsts — and now returns their top four scorers from a year ago, and you may understand why there is actually a bit of excitement surrounding this team.

Ben Braun has two all-league caliber players at his disposal. The first is Arsalan Kazemi, an Iranian-born power forward and arguably the best big man in the conference. He averaged 15.2 ppg and 11.0 rpg as a sophomore despite being the sole focus of some defenses during league play. Combo-guard Tamir Jackson was actually the team’s leading scorer in C-USA, as the junior was to take advantage of the attention that was being shown to Kazemi. Connor Frizzelle will provide some leadership and experience in the back court while Lucas Kalpers will help spread the floor for Kazemi with his ability to shoot as a forward. That’s a solid core in Conference USA, but the issue Rice is going to face has to do with their depth. They don’t have much of it, and the guys they do have are freshmen. Will youngsters like Dylan Ennis and Julian DeBose be able to contribute immediately? Can Braun find some athleticism in his back court and a burly big man to play along side Kazemi? Finishing .500 in league play is not a stretch for this team, but I’m not sure they have the depth for much beyond that this season.

7. East Carolina: The Pirates 2010-2011 campaign was, without a doubt, an overwhelming success. With new head coach Jeff Lebo took over a team that managed just 10 wins the year before and playing much of the season with their star guard Brock Young battling a knee injury, ECU won 18 games — this first time they finished above .500 in 14 years — while going 8-8 in league play. They also knocked off Memphis for the first time ever and their two wins in the Conference USA Tournament earned them a trip to the CIT.

The issue that Lebo is going to run into this season is how he can build on that success. Two starters — including leading scorer Jontae Sherrod — and Conference USA’s sixth man of the year (Young) all graduate, leaving a team that only went eight deep without half of their rotation. Expect senior Darius Morrow to be the star of this year’s Pirate squad. Last season’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, Morrow averaged 21.7 ppg and 13.7 rpg in the Conference USA Tournament. Also back is junior Corvonn Gaines, a 6’4″ playmaker (3.1 apg) that led the team in minutes and steals. Erin Straughn, a 6’6″ guard who started 33 games as a sophomore, also returns, as does 6’8″ sophomore Robert Sampson, who has some range on his jumper and should provide a solid inside-outside attack with Morrow. Beyond that, however, there are plenty of minutes available. South Carolina transfer Austin Steed, JuCo transfer Miguel Paul, sophomore Darius Morales and freshman Yasin Kolo will provide front court depth. JuCo transfer Shamarr Bowden and freshman Paris Roberts-Campbell will likely be the guys that provide the back court depth. If Lebo can coach this team up to another .500 season, it should probably be considered a success.

8. Southern Miss: There is no question that the 2010-2011 season was a major disappointment for the Golden Eagles, who were as talented as they have been in the Larry Eustachy era. Led by seniors Gary Flowers and RL Horton, Southern Miss jumped out to a 14-3 record, but road struggles, a late-season swoon that dropped them out of the hunt for the C-USA regular season title and a second-round exit in the conference tournament meant that USM was left without as much as an invite to the NIT. When you head into the season with expectations of dancing, settling for the CBI just doesn’t cut it.

This year will be a rebuilding one for Southern Miss. Not only do they lose Flowers — who led the team in points, rebounds, blocks and steals — and Horton — their second leading scorer, freshman DJ Newbill decided to transfer out of the program and closer to his Philly to play for Penn State. With the graduation of a couple role players as well, Eustachy returns just four players that cracked last season’s rotation. Senior point guard Angelo Johnson, a transfer from USC, will be counted on to lead this team next season. He was terrific as a distributor and a facilitator as a junior, but USM will need him to be more of a scorer and a playmaker this year. Seniors Torye Pelham and Maurice Bolden will likely move into the starting lineup in the front court with Ahyaro Phillips coming off the bench while junior scoring guard LaShay Page will start along side Johnson. JuCo transfers Keith DeWitt and Jonathon Mills and freshman Christian Robbins may also provide some minutes up front. Eustachy has pieces in the front court, but the back court will be interesting to keep an eye on. Behind Johnson and Page, Eustachy will only have a pair of seldom used freshmen and a pair of transfers (Neil Watson from Toledo and Rashard McGill from Iona). Watson redshirted at Toledo, but McGill had a promising freshman season, starting a handful of games.

9. SMU: SMU had their best season in the five-year tenure of Matt Doherty in 2010-2011, winning 20 games and earning a bid to the CIT. And while Doherty touts the season as proof that the Mustangs program is officially turned around, the true mark of a basketball program is sustainability. What happens the year after you are successful? Doherty’s team loses quite a bit from last year’s squad. Five players from their eight-man rotation have moved on, including Papa Dia, a monster in the paint that opened everything up for the rest of the SMU team.

Perhaps the best news for Doherty is that Jeremiah Samarrippas turned to be better than he expected as a freshman. The 5’10” Florida native stepped in and ran the point from day one. Samarrippas can do a little bit of everything, and as he continues to develop, there is no reason he can’t become one of the best point guards in the conference by the time he graduates. Doherty will also have some veteran leadership on the roster in the form of Robert Nyakundi and Robert Clinkscales. Nyakundi is a sharpshooting 6’8″ small forward (49.7% from three, 97 threes made) that thrived complimenting Dia’s post presence. Clinkscales will be counted on to be more of a scoring threat last year. There will be quite a few newcomers here. Shawne Williams, a former top 100 small forward that couldn’t get off the bench at Texas, joins the program, as does London GIles, who was a seldom-used point guard at Nevada. Leslee Smith and Ricmonds Vilde are both redshirt freshmen forwards. Those four have all had a year to practice with the team and should be able to contribute right away. Doherty also has brought in a solid recruiting class — big men Cannen Cunningham and Eric Norman and wings Jalen Jones and Ryan Manuel. There will be a lot of youth and inexperience on this roster, but if Clickscales and Samarrippas improve, a low-post threat emerges and a couple of these newcomers outperform expectations, the Mustangs will be competitive.

10. Houston: When the Cougars fired Tom Penders and hired James Dickey, they knew that the program would be undergoing a massive overhaul. Penders coached a run-and-gun style that didn’t exactly ignore defense, but made it look that way on the final box score. Dickey’s always been a defensive-minded head coach, and while the transition seemed to go fairly well early in the season — as Houston won 11 of their first 17 games and three of their first four in C-USA — it wore on the team as the season progressed. As Houston continued to lose close games (they lost five in a row by less than five points, including two in OT), the infighting only got worse. Trumaine Johnson left the team mid-season, Kendrick Washington transferred to Arkansas State when the year ended, and when it was all said and done, Houston had lost 12 of their last 13 games and had been swept by Rice.

Dickey will almost be given a clean slate heading into this season. In addition to the early departures, Houston will also be losing their three leading scorers to graduation. But the cupboard is far from bare. Don’t be surprised if sophomore Alandise Harris becomes the go-to guy for Dickey this season on the offensive end of the floor. The 6’6″ power forward really came on strong late in his freshman season. If Harris is the go-to guy, count on Darian Thibodeaux to be the team’s leader. He led the team in minutes played last season, starting every games and providing playmaking and three-point marksmanship from the wing. The only other returners of consequence are sophomore Mikhail McLean and junior Kirk van Slyke, two big men that were in and out of the starting lineup. After that, Dickey’s roster will be chock full of question marks and newcomers. The name you’ve probably heard before is Joseph Young, a talented guard out of Houston that was forced to take a year off when Keno Davis wouldn’t allow him out of this letter of intent at Providence. Young isn’t the only well-regarded newcomer, however. TaShawn Thomas is a four-star big man. Jherrod Stiggers and JJ Thompson are guards that had some high-major interest. JuCo transfers Jonathon Simmons and Leon Gibson, as well as freshman LeRon Barnes, will also have ample opportunity to earn playing time. Houston will be young and is still probably a year or two away from finishing in the top half of the league.

11. Tulane: Tulane looked like they were ready to shock the world in Ed Conroy’s first season as head coach. After a 10-4 non-conference season — which surprised just about everyone — the Green Wave won their first two Conference USA games. But that was, more or less, the end of the good news for Tulane, as they proceeded to lose 12 consecutive games and 14 or their last 15, finishing the year 3-13 in the league. And while they bring back their two best players, including second-team all-conference performer Kendall Timmons, they lose five seniors that combined for 84 starts this past season.

The good news for Tulane is that Timmons and Jordan Callahan, who solidified the point guard spot, are back for their junior years. Timmons averaged 17.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, and 3.4 apg despite being forced to play out of position. A strong and physical kid, Timmons stands just 6’5″ and is a natural two-guard, but he played the four due to a lack of size. Despite the Green Wave struggling against conference competition, Callahan proved that he will be able to compete against some of the best in the league. It will be interesting to see what Conroy does to surround those two. Sophomore Kevin Thomas should get a chance to start in the middle, and if a couple of the front court newcomers — freshmen Grant Fiorentinos, Trevante Drye, and Lotanna Nwogbo; JuCo transfer Tomas Bruha; or NC State transfer Josh Davis — can prove themselves worthy of consistent playing time, Timmons can slide over and play the wing. In the back court, Ben Cherry — who started four games before injuring his knee — should be healthy, as should Penn transfer Don Monckton. Throw in a quartet of freshmen on the perimeter, and its pretty obvious that there will be some serious competition for those available minutes. I’d say there is an outside chance Tulane finishes .500 in the league this year.

12. UTEP: I think it would be unfair to say that Tim Floyd had an unsuccessful season in his first year with UTEP, but it wasn’t exactly a storybook year, either. He led a senior-dominated team to 25 wins, a second-place finish in a top 10 conference, to within a pair of Joe Jackson free of the C-USA Tournament title and a to the NIT. It could have been much worse. But given the amount of talent on the roster — and the number of players that UTEP lost to graduation — the season felt like a disappointment heading into the summer.

Floyd is going to have his work cut out for him rebuilding the Miners. He loses eight seniors, including his five leading scorers. Only three players from the Miner rotation return. Senior forward Gabriel McCulley and sophomore center John Bohannon both were in and out of the starting lineup last season. They should anchor the front line next season. Sophomore guard Michael Perez played limited minutes as a freshman, but the back court will be held down by Jacques Streeter, a transfer that started as a freshman and a sophomore at Cal State-Fullerton. Floyd does bring in a massive recruiting class — eight freshmen and one Juco transfer. Wing forward Julian Washburn, the son of Chris Washburn, is the most highly-touted of the group and he should crack the starting lineup immediately. But beyond that, most of the newcomers are solid recruits that will take a year or two to develop into impact players in the conference. A .500 season in league play should probably be considered a success.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.