Top 25 Countdown: No. 22 St. Louis Billikens

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-8, 12-4 Atlantic 10 (2nd); Lost to Michigan State in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament

Head Coach: Jim Crews (interim)

Key Losses: Brian Conklin, Rick Majerus (coach), Kyle Cassity

Newcomers: Jared Drew, Keith Carter

Projected Lineup:

G: Kwamain Mitchell, Sr.
G: Mike McCall, Jr.
F: Cody Ellis, Sr.
F: Dwayne Evans, Jr.
F: Rob Loe, Jr.
Bench: Jordair Jett, Jr.; Cory Remekun, Sr.; Jake Barnett, Jr.; Keith Carter, Fr.

Outlook: I don’t think that it’s crazy to say that St. Louis had their best season in the history of their program in 2011-2012. They finished the year with 26 wins, one off of a school-record. That team that won 27 games didn’t make the NCAA tournament, however; they racked up the record with a run to the NIT finals. These Billikens did make the dance and, for just the fourth time in school history, they won a game while there, beating a hot Memphis team in the opening round before losing to Michigan State by four. That matched the furthest the program has ever advanced in the tournament; St. Louis has never made it to the Sweet 16.

So when you consider the fact that the Billikens return seven of the eight players that saw more than one minute of action in that loss to the Spartans, there should be a great deal of optimism surrounding the program, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, it’s difficult to know how much of the St. Louis success from a year ago was the result of the raw amount of talent in the program and how much of it can be credited to the coaching ability of Rick Majerus. There aren’t many who can stack up with Majerus from an x’s-and-o’s standpoint. The man has won 517 career games without so much as coaching as a power conference program.* He’s as good as anyone at identifying under-the-radar talent and figuring out a way to get the most out of his roster.

*(He was at Marquette before they were in the Big East and Utah before they were in the Pac-12.)

And he won’t be coaching this season. Majerus had to step aside due to health concerns back in August, and it’s unclear if he will ever coach again.

In his stead is Jim Crews, who has head coaching experience. And he also has a roster that is good enough to win a very strong Atlantic 10. The leader of this year’s team will likely be Kwamain Mitchell, who returned from a season-long suspension to average 12.4 points and 3.7 assists a season ago. Mitchell, who stands about 5-foot-10 in sneakers on his tip-toes, was one of the best players in the conference before his suspension. With leading scorer — and team leader — Brian Conklin graduating, it will be interesting to see the role that Mitchell takes over this year. The good news for St. Louis, given the coaching situation, is that this is a veteran group, but that doesn’t change the fact that someone will need to step up and embrace a leadership role.

He’ll likely be joined in the back court by Mike McCall Jr., who took over the starting role form Kyle Cassity by the end of the year. McCall was second on the team in assists last year and is also a guy that can spread the floor with his ability to shoot, but he may be relegated to bench duty this season by Jordair Jett. Jett, who came off the bench last season, is the best perimeter defender on the roster, being named to the Atlantic 10 all-defensive team despite being a reserve. He’s always been a bit of an after-thought offensively, although he’s averaged about seven points in his first two seasons and scored 40 points in the Billiken’s four A-10 and NCAA tournament games.

Also keep an eye on Keith Carter in the back court. Carter is a freshman out of Chicago’s Proviso East High School, and Majerus had been raving about him.

The St. Louis front court has a bit of an odd make-up. 6-foot-5 Dwayne Evans is the bruiser and team’s leading rebounder, while 6-foot-8 Cody Ellis — who shot 38.1% from three while leading the team in attempts coming off the bench — and 6-foot-11 Rob Loe tend to float around the perimeter. Cory Remekun is the guy likely to see a bump in his minutes this season with Conklin gone, as he’s more physical in the paint.

Predictions?: Overcoming the loss of Majerus is going to be tough for this group, but at the end of the day, their strength is on the defensive end of the floor. The willingness to give effort and a desire to get stops on that end of the floor isn’t necessarily going to change with a change in who is calling the plays from the sideline. Losing Conklin’s front court presence will hurt as much as losing his leadership did, and I can foresee the Billikens having far more offensive possessions turning into the Kwamain Mitchell show. Like the rest of the A-10, St. Louis is a tough team to peg because of some of their off-season changes and the strength of the conference. On paper, they are probably one of the league’s top two teams, but that doesn’t mean much. Anything less than a top four finish in the conference and a win in the NCAA tournament should be considered a disappointment.

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

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.

Four-star wing Romeo Weems commits to DePaul

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DePaul landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2019 Tuesday afternoon, as four-star small forward Romeo Weems announced that he will be a Blue Demon. Weems, who attends New Haven HS in New Haven, Michigan, picked DePaul over Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon and is considered by most major scouting services to be a Top 50 prospect in the 2019 graduating class.

The 6-foot-6 Weems plays his grassroots basketball for The Family on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this spring. Weems also has experience playing for USA Basketball, as he was part of the Under-16 team that won the FIBA Americas U16 title last year. Weems will also be part of the training camp from which the Under-17 team will be selected next month in preparation for this summer’s FIBA Under-17 World Championships.

DePaul managing to land a commitment from a prospect of Weems’ caliber, a versatile wing who can defend multiple positions while also being productive offensively, could be the shot in the arm that Dave Leitao’s program so desperately needs if they’re to improve their standing within the Big East.

Since making the move from Conference USA in 2005, DePaul has finished above .500 in a season just once (20-14 in 2006-07) with that also being the only time in which the Blue Demons finished above .500 in Big East play (9-7). Since Leitao, who led DePaul to its most recent NCAA tournament in 2005, returned for his second stint at the school the Blue Demons have gone 29-65.

Getting out of Allstate Arena and moving to the new Wintrust Arena ahead of last season was an important move for the DePaul program, but it’s been clear that the rebuild won’t be a “quick fix.” Bringing in a talent of Weems’ caliber should help DePaul moving forward, with the key now being to recruit well enough to ensure that the talented wing has ample help when he arrives on campus next year.

Among the players currently on the roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019 are guards Devin Gage and Justin Roberts and wing Darious Hall, who will sit out the 2018-19 season after transferring to DePaul from Arkansas. Hall appeared in 35 games for the Razorbacks this past season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game.