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

Oklahoma lands commitment from four-star prospect Jalen Hill

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Lon Kruger continues to assemble a monster 2019 recruiting class.

The Sooners received a commitment Thursday from Jalen Hill, a four-star wing from Las Vegas, to bolster a group that already is among the best in the country.

Hill chose the Sooners after visiting earlier this month. He had also visited TCU and had trips scheduled to DePaul and St. John’s. He also sported offers from Oregon, Arizona and Illinois. The 6-foot-7 small forward announced his decision at his school Thursday.

“I thought that it was just the best fit for me,” Hill told Rivals. “The the players over there are great and I just loved the coaching staff, really. They let you rock over there and let you be you.”In terms of everything else, they didn’t have a lot of wings coming back at that position. They compared me to Buddy Hield a little and said they might use me as a shooting guard and as a small forward.”

Hill averaged 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists in the EYBL with the Las Vegas Prospects. He’s the latest edition to Oklahoma’s 2019 class that already includes two top-100 prospects. De’Vion Harmon, a top-50 point guard from Texas, committed to Kruger and Co. last November while Victor Iwuaker, a top-100 forward also from Texas, pledged earlier this month. It’s a consensus top-10 class.

It’s hard to call Kruger underrated given the success he’s had in the college ranks and his stint in the NBA, but even with that recent Final Four run and the Trae Young Experience last year, the Oklahoma coach rarely seems to get his due as one of the top coaches in the country. He keeps winning – both on the floor and the recruiting trail.

Gonzaga lands commitment from top Lithuanian prospect

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Gonzaga has landed their third commitment in the Class of 2019, as Martynas Arlauskas, a 6-foot-6 Lithuanian wing, announced that he will be heading to Spokane for college instead of signing a professional contract.

Arlauskas ranks 42nd in the Class of 2019, according to 247 Sports, although he does not show up in their composite rankings; not even recruiting outlet ranks foreign prospects in their top 100. He spent last season played with the second division team from BC Zalgiris, one of the biggest clubs in Lithuania. He averaged 5.2 points as an 18-year old.

The last player Gonzaga recruited from Lithuania was Domantas Sabonis.

A skilled perimeter that is at his best playing on the wing, Arlauskas is the third member of Gonzaga’s 2019 recruiting class, joining Anton Watson, a top 50 prospect from Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, and three-star guard Brock Ravet.

Oklahoma lands four-star 2019 forward Victor Iwuakor

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Oklahoma landed its second four-star prospect in the Class of 2019 on Wednesday as forward Victor Iwuakor pledged to the Sooners.

The 6-foot-7 Iwuakor is a long-armed, undersized forward who has the strength and motor to still compete against other players on the interior. Rivals rates Iwuakor as the No. 116 overall prospect in the Class of 2019, as he joins top-40 point guard De’Vion Harmon in Oklahoma’s group.

Iwuakor is a great start to rebuilding Oklahoma’s frontcourt as they have a lot of scholarships to work with in this class. Now with two four-star prospects in the fold, head coach Lon Kruger is continuing to recruit at a high level — which is also a good sign that they’re capitalizing on Trae Young’s successful season becoming a top-five pick. Oklahoma was in a recruiting battle with Baylor and Texas Tech for Iwuakor, as all three schools received official visits, but the Sooners were able to pull the promising forward out of Texas.

Report: Oklahoma State’s Michael Weathers, arrested and suspended

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Oklahoma State has suspended potential go-to player Michael Weathers indefinitely after he was arrested and charged with felony grand larceny and knowingly concealing stolen property.

According to a police report obtained by CBSSports.com, Weathers is accused of stealing a wallet with a debit card and credit card, among other things, from a local bar called J.R. Murphy’s on Sept. 9. The estimated stolen value is $85, according to the incident report. Weathers was released on recognizance bond on Sept. 10 and arraigned Sept. 11 as a preliminary hearing for the case set for Oct. 1.

A transfer guard from Miami of Ohio, the 6-foot-2 Weathers was the MAC Freshman of the Year following his season with the RedHawks in 2016-17. He put up 16.7 points, 4.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game as the stat-sheet stuffing guard was expected to be a major contributor for the Cowboys this season. Weathers often had his practice performances praised by Oklahoma State coaches last season while he sat out a transfer year.

If Weathers misses any sort of significant time from this, then it will undoubtedly hurt the Cowboys’ perimeter rotation as he could be facing a suspension. We’ll have to see how everything with this plays out in court, but Weathers being suspended indefinitely so close to the start of the season doesn’t help Oklahoma State.

Tennessee beats Duke to commitment for five-star prospect

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Tennessee’s Rick Barnes is up to his old recruiting tricks.

The man that brought the likes of Kevin Durant and T.J. Ford to Texas, the coach that is currently the reigning SEC regular season championship, has gotten things going in the Class of 2019 as five-star guard Josiah James committed to Tennessee on Wednesday.

James picked the Vols over Clemson and Duke. He visited Tennessee the first weekend of September and took a trip to Clemson last weekend before cancelling his visit to Duke and announcing his commitment.

A top 15 prospect in the Class of 2019, James is a 6-foot-6 left-handed combo-guard. He’s more of a smooth athlete than he is super-explosive, but he has a strong frame that can absorb contact, the vision to create for teammates and the tools to be a switchable and versatile defensive piece. He needs to get more skilled — he’s not a great shooter, and while he is a good passer and creator, his handle could stand to get better if he truly wants to be a lead guard — but the potential is there for James to blossom into a first round pick one day.

James is the third commitment for Tennessee in the Class of 2019, joining a pair of three-star forwards in Drew Pember and Davonte Gaines.

This has been an incredible 12-month stretch for Barnes.

In his third season as the head coach of Tennessee, he took the Vols to a share of the SEC regular season title with a team that didn’t have a single player on the roster that was a top 100 prospect in high school. Everyone of significance from that team returned to the program, meaning that Barnes now has a preseason top 10 team heading into the 2018-19 season.

And now he’s beating out the likes of Duke and Michigan State for a five-star, potential one-and-done player?

Impressive.