Conference USA Preview: Look out for UAB this year

UAB's William Lee (AP Photo)
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Conference USA.

This version of Conference USA is not as strong as the Conference USA of old, the one that featured the likes of Marquette, Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville, but while much of the league falls under the ‘mid-major’ label these days, there’s still enough talent at the top of the conference to throw a scare into some of the big boys.

Take, for example, UAB. The Blazers last season finished just a game above .500, but after a dreadful start to non-conference play, Jerod Haase’s group turned it on in the league. They went 12-6 in CUSA, won the league’s tournament title and knocked off Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Oh, and they return everyone from last year’s group, including leading scorer Robert Brown and William Lee, who will be one of this season’s break out stars.

A major reason for UAB’s late-season surge was Lee, who did not truly get healthy until late-January. A 6-foot-9 combo-forward, Lee can block shots, score around the rim and make plays on the perimeter. He’s got a chance to be a star this season, and he makes UAB a really dangerous mid-major.

But he may not even be the best player in the conference, as Old Dominion returns reigning CUSA Player of the Year Trey Freeman. Freeman was a major reason that the Monarchs were able to beat LSU, VCU, Richmond and Georgia State last year in addition to reaching the semifinals of the NIT. The Monarchs also return Aaron Bacote, and while they lose their starting front line, there will be some promising big bodies available. East Carolina transfer Brandon Stith could post double-double numbers while Denzell Taylor was sixth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage last season.

The consensus from those around the league is that UAB and ODU, in some order, will be the team to beat this season. But there are a number of teams that will have a shot at finishing in that No. 3 spot.

Middle Tennessee State returns the majority of their roster from a season ago. The team’s leading returning scorer is power forward Reggie Upshaw, but the name to watch out for is Perrin Buford. Buford, a JuCo transfer, scored in double-figures in 10 of his last 12 games and averaged 14.1 points over his final eight.

UTEP returns just one healthy player from their top six from last season — Earvin Morris — but it’s who they add that keeps Tim Floyd’s club in the mix for the top five. Oregon transfer Dominic Artis will likely take over point guard while top 100 freshman Brodericks Jones and JuCo addition Lee Moore will be counted on for big years.

If Aaron Cosby can return to being the player he was as a sophomore at Seton Hall, Western Kentucky should have a chance to finish in the top six. But that was three years and two teams ago. Louisiana Tech not only lost ‘Speedy’ Smith and Raheem Appleby, but head coach Mike White left for Florida as well. New head coach Eric Konkol will be relying heavily on Alex Hamilton this year.

The two x-factors will be Marshall and Rice. The Owls returns a veteran back court and adds a key transfer in Egor Koulechov as they will look to build on the momentum from a strong close to the season. Head coach Mike Rhoades is a Shaka Smart disciple.

The same can be said for the Thundering Herd, who started the year 2-15 against Division I opponents but, in league play, won seven out of ten at one point. Dan D’antoni, Mike’s brother, plays an uptempo, gun-slinging style, adds a number of shooters and brings back Ryan Taylor.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Most will say UAB because they’re coming off of that tournament win, but I like Old Dominion, too. They have best guard group in the conference. Defensively, they’re really hard to score on and physically tough. Trey Freeman is the best point guard and leader in the league. It will come down to whether [Brandon Stith] can replace what they lost up front.”
  • Sleeper: “Rice. I think they have a chance to finish in the top couple spots. Marcus Jackson and Max Guercy are a veteran back court, and with the addition of Egor Koulechov from Arizona State, if he’s really good they’ve got a chance to be really good. Mike Rhoades has done a really good job, and last year they got better as the year went on. If they continue that momentum, look out.”
  • Star to watch: “UAB’s William Lee. He’s the best NBA prospect. The last month of the year, he was as good as anyone in the league. He’s a 6-foot-9 combo-forward that’s athletic and has three-point range. Given his versatility and his talent level, he could have a breakout year.”

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Trey Freeman, Old Dominion

Freeman was the best player in the conference last season, and after a full offseason of improvement, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be anything other than the same this year. Freeman is a scoring point guard that can breakdown a defense, but he’s also capable of making plays for his teammates. He’s the reason ODU has a real shot at unseating UAB at the top of the league.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON (insert league) TEAM:

  • William Lee, UAB: Lee, a 6-foot-9 combo-forward, averaged 11.9 points, 8.1 boards and 2.3 blocks while shooting 44.4 percent from three over the last 12 games. He wasn’t healthy until February, either.
  • Robert Brown, UAB: Brown was UAB’s star in March, averaging 18.2 points in five postseason games. The fifth-year senior is the engine that makes their offense run.
  • Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech: The lone returnee from last season’s dynamic back court, Hamilton should see an uptick in his total numbers this year.
  • Ryan Taylor, Marshall: Taylor averaged 14.1 points, 8.6 boards and 2.8 assists for the Thundering Herd last season playing the Draymond Green role in their uptempo offense.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @(link)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UAB
2. Old Dominion
3. Middle Tennessee State
4. UTEP
5. Western Kentucky
6. Louisiana Tech
7. Rice
8. Marshall
9. Florida Atlantic
10. Florida International
11. Charlotte
12. North Texas
13. UTSA
14. Southern Miss

Preseason No. 1 North Carolina drops out of AP Top 25

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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Houston and Texas remain firmly entrenched atop The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll, while preseason No. 1 North Carolina has dropped out entirely after a fourth straight loss.

The Cougars earned 37 of 62 first-place votes in the poll, extending the program’s first stay at No. 1 since the “Phi Slama Jama” days in the 1980s for another week. Houston (8-0) beat Norfolk State and Saint Mary’s in its first week at the top.

“I don’t dwell on it,” coach Kelvin Sampson said last week about the No. 1 ranking. “We’re not running around here pushing our chest out, thinking we’re something we’re not.”

The Longhorns received 14 first-place votes. No. 3 Virginia got three votes and No. 4 Purdue got the remaining eight.

Connecticut (9-0) climbed to No. 5, the program’s highest ranking since early in the 2011-12 season. Other than the top five, there are three other teams in the AP Top 25 that are undefeated (No. 11 Auburn, No. 13 Maryland and No. 23 Mississippi State).

SWIFT FALL

North Carolina is only the sixth team to go from preseason No. 1 to unranked since at least the 1961-62 season, most recently with Michigan State during the 2019-20 season.

Of that group, the Tar Heels had the swiftest exit from the poll to start the season (four weeks) excet for UCLA in 1965-66. The Bruins fell out of the poll after just three weeks back when only 10 teams were ranked.

Ranked No. 18 last week, the Tar Heels (5-4) l ost their fourth straight game over the weekend at Virginia Tech while playing without banged-up big man Armando Bacot. They appeared on a single ballot this week from the 62-member panel that votes on the AP Top 25.

“I told them also that I’m not panicked, I’m not any of that,” coach Hubert Davis said afterward. “I’m convinced we’re going to be a great basketball team by the end of the season.”

Last year’s Tar Heels were on the bubble to even make the NCAA Tournament well into February in Davis’ debut season. They went on a final-month tear all the way to the NCAA championship game before falling to Kansas.

THE TOP TIER

Kansas climbed to No. 6, followed by three Southeastern Conference teams in Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. For the Volunteers and Crimson Tide, it marked their first appearances inside the top 10 this year. Arizona rounded out the top 10, falling six spots after a loss at Utah.

RISING

No. 13 Maryland had the biggest jump of the week, vaulting nine spots after wins against Louisville and Illinois last week in the Terrapins’ first year under Kevin Willard. That marks the program’s highest ranking since pushing into the top 10 during the 2019-20 season.

Tennessee was next up with a six-spot climb, while No. 11 Auburn rose four spots.

In all, 13 teams climbed from last week.

SLIDING

Creighton had the week’s biggest fall, tumbling 14 spots to No. 21 after losing at Texas and at home to Nebraska last week.

No. 12 Baylor fell six spots after a loss to Marquette, though the Bears responded by beating Gonzaga on Friday in a rematch of the 2021 NCAA championship game won by Baylor.

The Zags, now No. 18, fell four spots to their lowest ranking since checking in at No. 20 on Christmas Day in 2017.

In all, four teams slid from last week.

STATUS QUO

Beyond the top three, No. 25 Ohio State remained in place after a tough loss at No. 15 Duke last week.

WELCOME

No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 24 TCU were the new additions to the poll, with the Bulldogs (8-0) earning their first AP Top 25 ranking under first-year coach Chris Jans since January 2019.

The Horned Frogs were ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in the first two polls before falling out for two weeks.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

In addition to UNC, Michigan State (No. 20) fell out after losses to Notre Dame and Northwestern.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The SEC led the way with six ranked teams, including No. 16 Kentucky. The Big Ten and Big 12 each had five ranked teams, followed by two each for the Atlantic Coast, Pac-12 and Big East conferences.

The American Athletic, West Coast and Mountain West conferences each had one.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer tops women’s AP Top 25 appearances

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer stands atop The Associated Press women’s basketball poll with the most appearances all time, breaking a tie with the late Pat Summitt.

VanDerveer’s Cardinal remained No. 2 behind top-ranked South Carolina, giving her 619 weeks with one of her teams in the AP Top 25: 592 weeks with Stanford and 27 with Ohio State when she was in charge of that program. Summitt’s 618 weeks in the poll all came with Tennessee.

The Hall of Fame coach downplayed the achievement.

“Fortunate to be here for 36 years. We have great players and have been successful,” VanDerveer said. “I don’t pay attention to (records). People bring it up and I’m like `OK, great.”‘

Louisville fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2016, a span of 127 weeks. That was the fifth longest active streak. The Cardinals (5-4) started the season ranked seventh and have struggled to find consistency this year, dropping their last two games to Ohio State and Middle Tennessee.

They are the third preseason top 10 team to fall out of the poll, joining Texas (this week) and Tennessee (last week). Before this year, only 10 preseason top 10 teams had fallen out of the rankings at some point during the year since the AP Top 25 became a writers’ poll in 1994-95.

Even more rare has been a preseason top five school dropping out. Only five teams had done that prior to this year and none before January. Tennessee was the last to do it, starting the 2015-16 season at No. 4 before falling out of the rankings Feb. 22.

Now Texas and Tennessee are both out before the New Year.

“Two factors are at play here. One of them is more parity with more good teams,” said Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn star, ESPN analyst and Top 25 voter. “The other factor at play is the transfer portal. I think those three teams all have multiple players who start who weren’t in their program a year ago. It’s a reflection that you can’t just assemble teams and right away expect them to be good. I think all those teams will in the poll by the end of the season.”

Ohio State moved up to No. 3 after, the Buckeyes’ best ranking since Nov. 30, 2009, when they also were third. Indiana and Notre Dame round out the top five.

UConn fell three spots to sixth with Virginia Tech seventh, the best ranking ever for the school. North Carolina and N.C. State were tied in eighth and Iowa State is 10th.

RANKED RAZORBACKS

Arkansas (10-0) vaulted into the poll at No. 21. The Razorbacks have a difficult month ahead with games against No. 18 Creighton and a tournament in San Diego that has Oregon, South Florida and Ohio State.

“I do think we know a lot about our team,” Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said.

He was also happy his team made the poll as every sports team on campus that has played this year has been ranked, including football, men’s basketball, soccer and cross country.

“We didn’t want to be the team that stops that streak,” he said..

FALLING LOUISVILLE

The Cardinals had been ranked ever week since Jan. 11, 2016. That was the same season they started the year at No. 8 before falling out on Nov. 30, the earliest a top 10 team had fallen out of the poll until last week. Things got better for Louisville as the Cardinals finished that regular season 24-6 and went 15-1 in the ACC.

HISTORIC WEEK

With Louisville, Texas and Tennessee all out of the Top 25, it marks only the second time in the poll’s history that none of those three teams were ranked. The only other time was the first-ever poll in 1976.

COMING AND GOING

Oklahoma and Kansas State also returned to the Top 25 this week, coming in at No. 23 and No. 24. Marquette dropped out after losing to Seton Hall.

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Boo Buie scored 20 points and Northwestern beat No. 20 Michigan State 70-63 on Sunday night in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

Chase Audige added 15 points and Ty Berry had 13 for Northwestern (6-2), which ended a two-game losing streak.

“Needless to say, this was a huge win for us,” coach Chris Collins said. “Coming off our performance in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, where we lost badly on our home floor (to Pittsburgh), I was really pleased with our resolve the past couple days.”

Mady Sossoko and A.J. Hoggard each had 12 points for Michigan State (5-4) and Joey Hauser added 10. The Spartans have lost two in a row, falling to Notre Dame earlier in the week.

Hoggard cut Northwestern’s lead to 64-63 with 46 seconds left. After a timeout, Buie scored on a layup with 23 seconds left.

“We got out-toughed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Northwestern took the lead late in the first half on a layup by Buie and never relinquished it, leading by as many as nine points.

“We put (the loss to Pittsburgh) under the rug,” Buie said. “We turned the page, just like we do with any win or loss. The season is so long you can’t get caught up on one single game. Just like tonight. We’re super happy with the win, but after tonight it’s over. You can’t dwell on things.”

The Wildcats went 21 of 24 on free throws, while the Spartans were 9 of 12.

“I was concerned about a knockout punch early,” Collins said. ‘I knew they would be revved up after the Notre Dame loss. They hit us early and got a seven-point lead, and then we settled down.”

UP NEXT

Northwestern: Hosts Prairie View A&M on Dec. 11

Michigan State: At Penn State on Wednesday night.

Miles, No. 7 Notre Dame women beat No. 3 UConn; Fudd hurt

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Olivia Miles had 21 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 Notre Dame, and UConn star Azzi Fudd suffered a knee injury in a collision with a teammate, as the Fighting Irish handed the third-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season, 74-60 on Sunday.

“I think she’ll be all right,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards of Fudd, who went into the day averaging 24.0 points, but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes.

Fudd exited in the final minute of the first quarter after teammate Aaliyah Edwards fell on her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way as a precaution, according to Auriemma.

Maddy Westbeld had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame (7-1), which bounced back from a 74-72 loss to No. 20 Maryland three days earlier.

“I think Thursday’s loss really fueled us today,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We learned a lot from that game. We have incredible scorers on our team, a lot of balance offensively, but it’s our defense that’s gonna win games, so that was our focus the last 48 hours. (The players) took the challenge and came out and played with heart and defensive intensity. I feel like if we can play that way, we can beat anyone in the country.”

Notre Dame shot 56% from the field while limiting the Huskies to 37%.

“We played very badly (Thursday), but we were still two points away,” Miles said, “so it’s kind of scary what we can do when we play really well.”

Led by Miles, the Irish roared to a 41-24 lead by intermission, outscoring the Huskies 30-11 over the final 11 minutes of the first half.

Miles scored 13 of Notre Dame’s 18 first-quarter points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Westbeld provided her scoring punch after averaging 5.2 points over her previous five outings.

Lou Lopez Senechal led UConn (6-1) with 21 points. Edwards added 14.

“We didn’t win the rebound battle and that hurt us,” said Auriemma, whose club was outboarded 39-26 and outscored in the paint. 46-16. “We just didn’t have enough scoring on the court and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them.”

The Huskies got as close at 49-44 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but the Irish stretched their lead back to as high as 70-53 at the midway mark of the fourth period.

Notre Dame ended a seven-game head-to-head losing streak against UConn in regular-season play, prevailing for the first time since a triple-overtime decision in March 2013.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies faced a top-10 opponent for the fourth time this season, but this one was their first true road game. If Fudd’s injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, UConn ought to still have a chance to do what it’s done for decades: craft a resume that will make them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame: The Irish, coming back from that loss at the buzzer to Maryland, showed that Thursday’s outcome may just be a blip on their promising season. Notre Dame matched last season’s win over No. 3 North Carolina State for the highest-ranked team it has beaten in its third year under Ivey.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies host Princeton on Thursday before visiting Maryland next Sunday.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a couple apparent mismatches coming up as they visit Lafayette (2-7) on Thursday and host Merrimack (1-6) on Saturday.

Brink leads No. 2 Stanford women over No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
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STANFORD, Calif. – Gonzaga may be rolling out an injury-depleted roster, but the Bulldogs nevertheless left a lasting impression on their West Coast rival in Stanford.

And that leads the Cardinal to wonder if the two power programs might meet again on college basketball’s biggest stage come March.

“This is a team that is a Top-25 team,” Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I think if we can do it, they’re going to be in Seattle (for the NCAA Tournament).”

Cameron Brink had 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds and Brooke Demetre made a career-high five 3s and scored 17 points, leading second-ranked Stanford past No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63 on Sunday.

The Cardinal (10-1) have now won five straight games after falling to top-ranked South Carolina in overtime on Nov. 20.

“I kind of call Brooke my secret weapon,” VanDerveer said. “She is a really special young lady, and when you have both Cam out there and Brooke, it’s a two-headed monster.”

“She has one of the highest releases I’ve ever seen, one of the quickest releases,” Brink said of Demetre. “She can shoot it, and we’ve always had confidence in her.”

Hannah Jump hit four 3s and scored 14 points, and Haley Jones had 12 points for Stanford.

Short-handed Gonzaga (7-2), limited to seven players because of illness and injuries, had won three in a row.

The Zags kept the pressure on Stanford early in the game, thanks to a 20-point first half from Kaylynne Truong.

Truong shot 4 of 9 from deep and finished with a career-high 22 points.

Brynna Maxwell contributed 19 points. Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, was held to two points in the first three quarters but added six points in the fourth.

“We try to focus on a leading scorer and try to limit them,” VanDerveer said. “But you can’t just focus on (Ejim) because they’ve got Truong, they’ve got Maxwell. . I think we did a much better job (on defense) in the second half.”

STAT OF THE GAME

The Cardinal were able to pull away due to a strong game from beyond the arc, making 15 3-pointers on 15 of 28 (53.6%) shooting. A season-high eight different Stanford players made a 3, led by Demetre’s five and Jump’s four.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Lost its fourth straight in the series with Stanford and dropped to 1-7 on the Cardinal’s home floor. The Zags haven’t won any matchups since a 79-73 victory at home on Dec. 2, 2018. … Despite playing short-handed, Gonzaga did not yield an easy win to its higher-ranked opponent, trailing by just one point after the first quarter before fading in the second half.

Stanford: Held a 37-23 rebounding advantage. … This win marked the beginning of a crucial stretch in the Cardinal’s season. Stanford’s next two games come against Tennessee – receiving votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll – and No. 13 Creighton, followed by the start of Pac-12 Conference play against rival California on Dec. 23.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to McCarthey Athletic Center to start a five-game homestand, starting with a Tuesday matchup vs. Queens University of Charlotte.

Stanford: After a two-week break for final exams, the Cardinal will continue their seven-game homestand vs. Tennessee on Dec. 18.