In a wide-open MAAC an unexpected challenger emerged this weekend

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The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is expected to have a wide-open race for its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Teams such as defending tournament champion Loyola (MD), Manhattan and Fairfield return key players from last season and there’s also the question of whether or not Iona’s talented newcomers can mesh in time to impact the league race.

But it a conference many felt had as many as six teams capable of winning the conference, a team few discussed in the offseason sits atop the standings with a 2-0 conference record after this weekend.

Canisius, bolstered by the arrival of head coach Jim Baron and son Billy, is now 6-1 on the season after their 94-82 win over Marist on Sunday afternoon. Harold Washington led the way with 25 points (6-of-11 3PT) and Baron added 16 points and 11 assists for the Golden Griffins, who pushed their win streak to three ahead of a game at No. 4 Syracuse next Saturday.

Canisius made 17 of their 36 three-pointers, assisted on 23 of their 30 field goals and out-rebounded Marist 47-29 (19 offensive rebounds).

With the win the Golden Griffins surpassed their win total from last season (five), when they won just five games before Tom Parrotta was relieved of his duties. Some of the names, such as Washington, Alshawn Hymes and Chris Manhertz (18 rebounds today), remain the same but Canisius is yielding far better results in 2012-13.

Offensively Jim Baron’s team was shooting 45.3% from the field entering Sunday’s tilt, an improvement of some five percentage points from last season, and they’re getting to the foul line at a much better clip than in 2011-12.

Adding Billy Baron, who averaged 13.0 points and 2.6 assists per game at Rhode Island last season, to the fold certainly helped Canisius in regards to turning things around. Baron’s currently averaging 18.0 points and 5.6 assists, leading the team in both categories.

And outside of allowing 82 points to the Red Foxes Canisius has improved on the defensive end as well, as they’re forcing more than 16 turnovers per game. As a result of the strides taken on both ends of the floor Canisius picked up road wins this weekend over Fairfield and Marist after going winless on the road in MAAC play last year.

The question now is whether or not the Golden Griffins can pick up where they left off when conference play resumes next month. Canisius has finished seventh or worse in the MAAC in four of the last five seasons, and given the number of teams capable of winning the conference the race will likely go down to the wire.

Nothing of consequence is won in December, but given recent history it’s safe to say that Canisius fans will relish this 2-0 start.

Photo credit: Canisius College

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Old Dominion lands former four-star center

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Elbert Robinson came out of high school in 2014 as a borderline top-50 recruit with offers from the likes of Florida, Kansas and Louisville before he ultimately chose to attend LSU.

The 7-foot-1 center, though, never even averaged 10 minutes a game in Baton Rouge and now will be finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Old Dominion, according to multiple reports.

“Old Dominion was perfect for him,” Lawrence Johns, Robinson’s grassroots coach, told the Virginian-Pilot. “I know for a fact that nobody in (Conference USA) is over 7 feet.

“I told him to go there and show people why he was the No. 1 center the year he came out.”

Robinson, who sat out last year for medical reasons, could step right into a major role with the Monarchs, who lost their starting frontcourt this offseason. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game last year for the Tigers.

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.