One sleeper (in each conference) to rule them all

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Yeah, that’s a loaded title. But think about it. Every year there is a team in each conference who performs better than expected. Every year there is a team that catches us off guard and makes us feel like morons for not expecting better of them.  Every year, there is a “darkhorse” or a “sexy pick” or a “sleeper” team in each conference. Call it what you will, but there isn’t reason to believe that this will be any different in 2011-2012.

The teams listed below are poised to better than people think. Maybe it’s because they are in a conference with a lot of question marks. Maybe it’s because they can’t possibly get any worse than they were last season, and maybe it’s because it’s just time for the program to have a breakout season.

Atlantic Coast: Virginia Tech

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
With this team’s crippling addiction to “the bubble”, the Hokies could be picked dead last in the ACC, and we should still expect to talk about them on Selection Sunday. Sure Malcolm Delaney is gone, and sure this team continues to be plagued by injuries, but other than North Carolina and Duke, the conference is wide open. VaTech returns more experienced talent than any of the non-Tobacco Road ACC teams. With guys like Dorenzo Hudson, Victor Davilla and Cadarian Raines, the Hokies definitely have a shot at finishing in the top half of the ACC. The only teams that should be able to finish above the Hokies are Virginia, Miami and North Carolina State, and each of those teams have just as many, if not more, question marks than Tech.

Atlantic 10: George Washington

Preseason Ranking: 8th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Like the ACC, the Atlantic-10 features a huge drop between the top two teams and the “also-rans”. Xaiver and Temple are by far the top teams in the A10, but the jury is still out on the remaining 12 teams. George Washington has an experienced back-court in Tony Taylor and Lasan Kromah, and new head coach Mike Lonergan should be able to infuse some new life into a struggling Colonials program. To be honest, I think it’s kinda-shocking to see the Colonials picked so low in the preseason polls. The rest of the conference could be in for a rude awakening this season. Look for George Washington to contend with Saint Louis for the top “also-ran” position in the A-10.

Big East: Georgetown

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 10th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 9th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
There are a handful of questions that the Hoyas need to answer this season. Can Markel Starks have a breakout sophomore season as the starting point guard? Can Jason Clark be more than just a spot-up 3-point shooter? Can the Hoyas rely on a inexperienced, freshman-heavy front-court? I’m not sure of any of these answers, but the Hoyas have been known to exceed expectations early in the season. If they can get accelerated play from at least two of their freshman forwards, this team could creep up in the standings. Plus, the Big East has a gaping hole in the middle. On top of that, Georgetown’s Big East home-and-home draw is very weak. They play Marquette twice, Providence twice and St. John’s twice, and their only two difficult road games will be at Syracuse and at Pittsburgh.

Big Ten: Minnesota

source:

Preseason Ranking: Big-Ten does not have a preseason poll
Where We Ranked Them: 8th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Despite losing Royce White, Devoe Joseph and Colton Iverson to other schools, the Gophers still return a lot of front-court production in Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III. Along with athletic junior Rodney Williams, the Gophers feature one of the better front-courts in the conference. The Big-10 features one really good team (Ohio State), two good teams (Wisconsin and Michigan State), and a bunch of teams trying to figure themselves out. I mean, is this REALLY the year Northwestern finally makes it to the tournament? Probably not. Illinois lost just about everybody, we still aren’t certain about what Michigan brings to the table and Purdue has to rely solely on Robbie Hummel and we know what to expect from Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. Sure, the Gophers won’t finish ahead of Michigan State, Wisconsin or Ohio State, but is a fourth or fifth place finish really that unrealistic?

Big 12: Iowa State

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 8th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 6th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Why will they be better than expected? Have you seen how many all-conference-caliber transfers they got this off-season? Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg did wonderful things in his first year at his Alma Mater, and with guys like Royce White, Chris Babb, Chris Allen, and Will Clyburn in his lineup, the Cyclones could be headed towards big things. ISU returns Scott Christopherson, one of the best pure shooters in the conference, and sophomore forward Melvin Ejim. I mean, the fact that I can rifle-off the name of 4-7 Cyclone players should be proof enough that big things could be on the horizon. If ISU can get freshman Naz Long cleared, don’t be surprised if this team is competing for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Colonial Athletic: Delaware

Preseason Ranking: 7th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
The Blue Hens had a promising season in 2010-2011 season, and they bring in a solid crop of young talent. The CAA is always competitive, and there doesn’t seem to be one team that is far-and-away better than everybody else. Look for Devon Saddler to take command of this team. The reigning CAA Freshman of the Year is poised for a sensational sophomore season. The teams in the CAA will beat each to a pulp, and because of this, expect to see a few teams finish out of place in the final standings, including Delaware about the No. 7 spot.

Conference USA: Alabama-Birmingham

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: C-USA does not have a preseason poll
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
This team is coached by Mike Davis, right? This team has C-USA preseason PoY Cameron Moore right? No chance the blazers finish in fifth place. In Mike Davis’ five season at UAB, only once has his team not won at least 20 games. Sure, they won’t be as good as Memphis but they aren’t that far behind Marshall, Tulsa or Central Florida. We never know what we are going to get from this conference, so it’s very possible that UAB finishes higher in the standings than we expect.

Horizon League: Green Bay

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 6th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Why? Because after Butler, this conference is up for grabs. Detroit is not going to be as good as people think, Cleveland State is without Norris Cole, and Milwaukee is still searching for conference stability. Alec Brown, the Phoenix’s 7-foot sophomore center will face little competition on the interior during Horizon League play. Green Bay might not finish in the top-three, but don’t be too surprised if they do.

Missouri Valley: Evansville

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Evansville has seemed to improve in each of the past three seasons. Last season the Aces beat a ranked-Butler team and knocked off Missouri State and Northern Iowa when both teams were fighting for conference supremacy. I’m not sure what is it about this team, but they always seem to beat good teams. Now if they can only learn to not lose to the bad teams. Like the CAA, Missouri Valley Conference teams love to beat each other up. This means that the Aces may be able to finish above teams that are better than them.

Mountain West: Wyoming

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
Why? because this conference is pretty dreadful with the exception of New Mexico. The Cowboys three best players, Afam Muojeke, JayDee Luster and USC-transfer Leonard Washington should be able to match-up with any non-New Mexico trio in the conference. This team won just four conference games last season and fired their coach in the middle of the year. Look for Larry Shyatt to keep his job the entire season and look for the Cowboys to win more than four conference games.

Pac-12: Oregon

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Like Iowa State, this team is chalk-full of transfers. The Ducks showed a lot of promise late in the season, which included a championship in the CBI. The Pac-12 is going to be much better than in recent years, but so will Oregon. The Ducks will have a solid starting-five, and if they can get production from their bench, we could see this team hover somewhere on the outskirts of the top-25. E.J. Singler is going to have a huge year, Olu Ashaolu, Devoe Joseph and Tony Woods are all going to be instant impact transfers. Oregon starts the year off against Vanderbilt, a team with a ton of pressure to succeed this season and a big hole up front due to the suspension/injury to Festus Ezeli. The Ducks can open a lot of eyes with a season-opening victory over the Commodores.

Southeastern: Mississippi State

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
We have to assume that Vanderbilt won’t be handle all the pressure that comes with such lofty expectations. We know Kentucky is going to be really good, but, like, Florida has literally no front-court and Alabama has literally no back-court. That all sets up nicely for Mississippi State to have a solid SEC season. Of course, all of this hinges on the performance of Renardo Sidney, and he’s anything but a sure thing right now. But if Sidney, Dee Bost and Arnett Moultrie can put it all together, Mississippi State will be much better than the 5th best team in the SEC.

Western Athletic: Hawaii

Preseason Ranking: 4th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
When Hawaii wins the WAC this season, remember that you read it here first. The Warriors feature two preseason All-WAC first-teamers, Arizona-transfer Zane Johnson and center Vander Joaquim. They also bring in the conference’s best freshman, Harlem-native Shaquille Stokes. Plus, head coach Gib Arnold is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. Did I mention that the WAC is rather weak this season? Utah State doesn’t have the horses they did last year, and while Nevada does have the best trio in the conference (Dario Hunt, Deonte Burton and Malik Story), no team has the size that Hawaii does. this is the best team Hawaii has fielded in a while and this is the weakest the WAC has been in a while as well.

West Coast Conference: Portland

Preseason Ranking: 7th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
The top-three spots in the WCC are a near-lock. So look for Portland to improve and finish atop the other WCC “also-rans”. The Pilots have shown improvement in each of the past three seasons, and have stolen a big non-con game every now and then. This season, Portland will be forced to deal with the graduation of quite a bit of talent. Nemanja Mitrovic, Eric Waterford and Luke van der Mars are going to have to do most of the heavy-lifting, but this team capable of finishing above at least two teams this season.

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You can read more of Troy’s writing at Ballinisahabit.net and follow him on Twitter at @BIAHTroyMachir.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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Erica Denhoff/Getty Images
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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.