Iona's Kelvin Amayo, Manhattan's RaShawn Stores (AP Photo)

MAAC Preview: Resurgent programs look to join familiar contenders

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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 MAAC.

The 2014-15 season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference produced two repeat performances: Iona won its second straight MAAC regular season title, but once again they fell to rival Manhattan in the MAAC tournament title game. The two programs, separated by about ten miles, have been the class of the MAAC recently and, given the returnees in New Rochelle and Riverdale, it would surprise no one if the Gaels and Jaspers once again fought it out for the title.

Iona returns four starters from last season’s team, led by senior guard A.J. English, who averaged 20.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. English should once again be one of the nation’s best scorers, and with sophomore guard Shadrac Casimir coming off of a season in which he was named the MAAC’s best rookie Iona can make a claim of having the conference’s most explosive scoring tandem. Add in Isaiah Williams and Kelvin Amayo, and head coach Tim Cluess has the combination of skill and experience that coaches desire.

Iona’s one key loss was an important one, as forward David Laury IV, 2015 MAAC Player of the Year, was an incredibly versatile player who ranked second on the team in scoring (19.8 ppg) and first in rebounding (9.7 rpg) and blocked shots (45 blocks). How players such as James Madison transfer Taylor Bessick, Wake Forest transfer Aaron Rountree and Indian Hills CC transfer Jordan Washington perform in the paint will have a significant impact on the Gaels’ fortunes throughout the season.

As for Manhattan, Steve Masiello received great news in July when the NCAA granted the team’s heart and soul, point guard Rashawn Stores, a fifth year of eligibility. Stores’ return may not jump out to some who focus solely on stats, but there’s no denying the impact that he has on the Jaspers as a leader. With experienced players such as senior Shane Richards and junior Rich Williams also back, not to mention a forward in junior Jermaine Lawrence who they’ll need to be more productive in his second season in the Manhattan program, the Jaspers have enough to contend if not win the MAAC.

All that said, entering the 2015-16 season it’s clear that there are other programs capable of challenging those two and winning the MAAC themselves.

When discussing other possible contenders, three immediately jump out: Monmouth, Rider and Siena. King Rice’s Hawks took a needed step forward defensively last season, and with Oklahoma transfer Je’lon Hornbeak and fellow guard Micah Seaborn — a non-qualifier last year — eligible, Monmouth adds two talented options capable of having an immediate impact. They’ll join a group anchored by leading scorers Justin Robinson and Deon Jones, and if Monmouth can find enough production in the paint, the Hawks will be a team to watch.

Just over an hour away in Lawrenceville, N.J., sits a Rider program that won 21 games and finished second in the MAAC last season under head coach Kevin Baggett. The Broncs welcome back three starters from that team led by guards Teddy Okereafor and Jimmie Taylor, but the key for this team will be the progression of forwards Xavier Lundy and Khalil Thomas. One of Rider’s personnel losses was center Matt Lopez, a first team All-MAAC performer who led the team in both scoring and rebounding a season ago.

While other contenders have a key personnel loss to focus on entering 2015-16, Siena’s key boils down to two words: stay healthy. Brett Bisping played in just six games due to injury and center Imoh Silas being lost before the season even began due to a torn ACL. Of Siena’s top nine scorers only three — Marquis Wright, Javion Ogunyemi and Ryan Oliver — managed to play in all 31 games. With most of that rotation back, head coach Jimmy Patsos has a group that’s capable of contending. The x-factor for the Saints is Ogunyemi, who is waiting to see if he will be available to play. He initially transferred to Boston University this offseason before returning to Siena.

While Canisius will have to account for the loss of three of its top four scorers, led by guard Zach Lewis, Jim Baron has some players who can help the Golden Griffins emerge as a sleeper of sorts in the MAAC. Central Connecticut State transfer Malcolm McMillan, who averaged 10.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game as a junior in 2013-14, joins the ranks with forwards Phil Valenti and Jermaine Crumpton among the returnees.

Teams such as Marist (guard Khalid Hart) and Fairfield (forward Marcus Gilbert) have individual talents whose names will be on the end of season all-conference team lists come March, which should make for an entertaining (and challenging) 20-game slate for each MAAC team. In each of the last three seasons the same two rivals have faced off with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line. And while Iona and Manhattan will be expected to extend that streak to four, there’s no doubt that others are capable of claiming the MAAC title as their own.

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

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “There are four or five teams looking to accomplish what Iona and Manhattan have [in recent years]. But from a recognition standpoint you can’t talk about the MAAC without talking about Manhattan and Iona, because they’re the teams that have [been successful].”
  • Sleeper: “I think Canisius is always a dangerous team. One thing about Jim Baron is that he always gets his guys to play above the level that they’re supposed to, and I think that’s a gift. He’s done a great job of that throughout his career, and when he has the talent that’s supposed to win he wins. And when he’s had talent that made you say ‘I don’t know how good they’re going to be,’ he wins then too.
  • Star to watch: “I think there are a number of guys. Obviously A.J. (English) has a great résumé in terms of what he’s accomplished; from a numbers standpoint he’s accomplished a lot of great things. I think a guy who could have a monster year is (Marist PG) Khalid Hart. I just think he’s a special young man who can really go.”

PRESEASON MAAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: A.J. English, Iona

As one of the nation’s best scorers English averaged 20.1 points per contest as a junior. But he isn’t simply a shooter/scorer either, as English also accounted for 5.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. The ability to be productive in multiple areas is one reason why English has been on the receiving end of attention from NBA scouts.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-MAAC TEAM:

  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Monmouth’s best team since joining the MAAC will be led by Robinson, who averaged 13.4 points and 3.6 assists per game in a first team All-MAAC 2014-15 campaign.
  • Shadrac Casimir, Iona: One of the best perimeter shooters in the MAAC, Casimir shot 42.3 percent from three and averaged 14.5 ppg as a freshman.
  • Shane Richards, Manhattan: Richards averaged 13.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game last season, and his role gets even larger with the departures of Emmy Andujar and Ashton Pankey.
  • Marcus Gilbert, Fairfield: A third team All-MAAC selection last season, Gilbert averaged 16.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ryanarestivo

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Iona
2. Manhattan
3. Monmouth
4. Rider
5. Siena
6. Canisius
7. Marist
8. Fairfield
9. Quinnipiac
10. Niagara
11. Saint Peter’s

Duke lands Steward, third commitment in the Class of 2020

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Duke landed their third commitment in the Class of 2020 on Wednesday, as Chicago shooting guard D.J. Steward pledged to play his college ball for Coach K.

A high-volume scorer and potent shot-maker, the 6-foot-2 Steward visited Duke over the weekend before committing.

“Me and my family were amazed on our official visit, we loved the principals of Duke, and how united Duke is as a basketball program,” Steward told Rivals.com. “At Duke I will be able to get the best of both worlds; education wise and on the court playing on the biggest stage possible night in and night out.

“I will get to chase my goals and be one step closer to achieving my dream of playing in the NBA. Also I will be able to develop as a person off the court and as a ball player while playing under the most winningest coach in history, Coach K.”

Steward joins five-star forward Jalen Johnson and five-star point guard Jeremy Roach in Duke’s 2020 recruiting class. Johnson is the quintessential small-ball four that we have seen arrive in Durham in recent classes, while Roach appears to be the heir apparent to Tre Jones at the point guard spot. Steward should fit in nicely playing off the ball for the Blue Devils, who can always use some excess shot-making.

Duke is far from done here, as they are in the mix for the likes of Walker Kessler, Ziaire Williams and Henry Coleman.

New York senator the latest to propose bill to abolish amateurism

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A second state now has legislation in the works that would make it legal for college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.

Kevin Parker, a New York state senator from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill similar to California’s Fair Pay To Play act, not only giving college athletes the ability to sell their NIL rights but also requiring athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of their annual revenue to the student-athletes. California’s bill, which will go into effect in 2023 if it is signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make removing a student-athlete from their scholarship for accepting endorsement money illegal.

“It’s about equity,” Parker told ESPN. “These young people are adding their skill, talent and labor to these universities.

“You don’t need the shortcuts and the end-arounds because now we’re providing some real support for these student-athletes.”

New York joins the growing list of organizations that are pushing back against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism. South Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and Washington have had legislators discuss whether or not to make similar changes to the law, while Congressmen from North Carolina and Connecticut have made pushes at the federal level. Democratic Presidential candidate Anrew Yang has blasted the NCAA over their amateurism rules, while just last week, NBA agents made public the fact that they will be refusing to register for the NCAA’s proposed certification process.

Rick Pitino, Louisville settle lawsuit

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals looks on in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The University of Louisville and former head coach Rick Pitino have reached a joint agreement to drop their lawsuits against each other.

The two sides “have mutually agreed to dismiss their legal claims against each other, designate his departure as a resignation and move forward,” according to a joint statement that was released by the University and Pitino. Pitino will not be paid any money as a result of this settlement, but he departure will now be classified as a resignation, effective Oct. 3rd, 2017.

Pitino had sued Louisville for somewhere around $40 million.

“For 17 years, Coach Pitino ran a program that combined excellence on the court with a commitment to the program’s student-athletes, their academic achievement, and their futures in and out of basketball,” the state said. “Nevertheless, there were NCAA infractions during his term which led to serious consequences for the university. Although these infractions may not have occurred at Pitino’s direction or with his knowledge, the problems leading to NCAA infractions happened under his leadership. We thank Coach Pitino for his years of service to the University of Louisville basketball program and wish him well.”

“Today I move on to a new chapter in my life,” a statement from Pitino reads. “Against my lawyer’s advice, I’m dropping my lawsuit with ULAA. I am very proud of the many accomplishments my teams achieved at Louisville. I’m so thankful and honored to coach such dedicated athletes. I’m also disappointed in how it ended. But as head coach I am held responsible for the actions of all team members. I still have so much passion for the game and so many goals I want to achieve. From this day forward I start my climb.”

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

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John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

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Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.