2014 Ohio Valley Tournament Preview: Belmont looking to repeat

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source: AP
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Last season, Kerron Johnson propelled Belmont, in its first season as a conference member, to the Ohio Valley tournament title with a last-second bucket over Murray State. If all goes according to plan, the Bruins and the Racers will meet up again in the OVC championship game as they head into the field this season as the Nos. 1 and 2 teams, respectively. Although those two have byes into the semifinals, they will be hard-pressed to get back into the finals.

Eastern Kentucky, one of the league’s more well-balanced teams, can spoil that rematch as the three-seed. Morehead State has dropped three straight entering the tournament, but the Eagles played Belmont — a potential semifinal opponent — tight this season, losing by a combined seven points in two games. All the way toward the bottom of the bracket sits teams like No. 6 Southeast Missouri State, a team with enough offensive weapons to make a run.

Belmont may be playing in its hometown, but as the top seed, and eyeing the program’s fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament, Rick Byrd’s club with have a target on its back once again.

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

When: March 5-8

Where: Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

Final: Saturday, March 8 at 6 p.m. (ESPN2)

Favorite: Belmont

It’s tough to pick against the Bruins. Rick Byrd has built a well-respected program, and despite losing Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, he’s got his team back in the hunt for another conference tournament title led by senior J.J. Mann, who has shined in his expanded role this season. Belmont once again challenged itself in non-league play with a 3-4 record against the RPI Top 100 and enters the conference tournament with six straight wins.

And if they lose?: Murray State

The Racers have been the royalty of the Ohio Valley Conference, last winning the title in 2012. Despite losing Isaiah Canaan, Ed Daniel and Stacy Wilson — and sophomore Zay Jackson — the Racers remain near the top of the standings, led by talented freshman guard Cameron Payne, who is top 10 in the conference in points and assists per game. Murray State begins postseason play on the heels of a double-overtime loss to Southeast Missouri State, which snapped a five-game winning streak.

Sleepers:

  • Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels are one of the OVC’s most efficient teams on both sides of the ball. Though the glass is where they are most vulnerable.
  • Southeast Missouri State: Remember, this team was voted to ahead of Murray State in the preseason poll. We know the Redhawks have the scoring power, and if they get by Eastern Illinois in the first round, they’ll have an advantage on the boards against Eastern Kentucky in the quarterfinals. Riding a four-game winning streak, maybe SEMO is ready to make a postseason run.

Studs:

  • J.J. Mann, Belmont: He’s had a tremendous season (i.e. game-winner in Chapel Hill), scoring 18.5 points and grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game. Well deserving of his OVC Player of the Year honor.
  • Cameron Payne, Murray State: Went for a season-high 29 against Belmont this season. Averaged 15.9 points and 5.6 assists per game as a freshman.
  • Glenn Cosey, Eastern Kentucky: A bump up in points and assists for the senior guard. He’s gone for 20 or more points 13 times this season.
  • Jarekious Bradley and Tyler Stone, Southeast Missouri State: The duo both average more than 19 points per game, leading the high-power offensive attack.

CBT Prediction: Belmont over Southeast Missouri State

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.