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SoCon Preview: Can Chattanooga knock Wofford off their perch?

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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 Southern Conference.

Wofford has reigned supreme in the SoCon the past two seasons, as Mike Young has led the Terriers to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. They currently rein supreme as the regular season champs as well, but it’s going to be tough for this group to repeat as the dual-SoCon champs with star guard Karl Cochran and veteran big man Lee Skinner graduation. That’s a lot to replace, but the good news is that Wofford has a strong enough program established to be able to handle that kind of turnover. Seven of their top ten players return from last season, including second-leading scorer Spencer Collins and starting point guard Eric Garcia. Big men Justin Gordon, a senior, and Cameron Jackson, a sophomore who lost 20 pounds this offseason, will be counted on for front court production.

The Terriers will certainly be in the mix once again this season, but they’re not going to be entering the season as a favorite. That title belongs to Chattanooga despite the fact that they lost their head coach, Will Wade, back to VCU. He’ll be replaced by Matt McCall, as assistant from Florida, which means that the players on the Mocs roster shouldn’t have to adjust to too much this year. Wade is part of Shaka Smart’s coaching tree, and Shaka got his start as an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida.

The Mocs will be led by Casey Jones, a 6-foot-5 senior wing that is our Preseason SoCon Player of the Year pick. Jones averaged 14.5 points and 7.0 boards last season, and while he’s not the greatest athlete in the world or the best shooter, he’s a smooth, strong player with a knack for getting into the lane and finishing. McCall will also get back Justin Tuoyo, the league’s best shot blocker, and veteran guard Greg Pryor back.

East Tennessee State is going to look nothing like the team they were last season. Head coach Murray Bartow was fired and the Buccaneers lost their top two scorers from last season. New head coach Steve Forbes, a former assistant at Wichita State and Tennessee, took over and immediately added nine new players this season. With Indiana transfer Peter Jurkin, Cincinnati transfer Ge’Lawn Guyn and Missouri transfer Deuce Bello joining a roster that includes Lester Wilson and A.J. Merriweather, the Bucs will make some noise.

After those top three, things get wide open. Mercer is led by arguably the best coach in the conference in Bob Hoffman, but the Bears lose their top three players from last season and didn’t have all that much depth on their roster in the first place. He’ll win games on his coaching acumen alone, but this could end up being a rebuilding year.

UNC-Greensboro is routinely one of the most talented teams in the conference, but they’ve always had trouble turning that talent into wins. Led by Tevon Saddler, Kayel Locke and R.J. White — all of whom could end up being first-team all-SoCon this season — the Spartans have one of the best starting fives in the league. But can they finally start winning close games?

There are two x-factors in the league race this year. The first is Furman, who came within a couple of possessions of going from dead last in the SoCon standings to the NCAA tournament. The good news is Niko Medved returns everyone from last year’s team. The bad news is that their run to the SoCon title game doesn’t mask that the Palladins finished with just four regular season league wins. Samford, like Furman, had a late season run — they won five straight at one point after losing their first eight in the league — and they return a handful of key pieces as well.

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

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Chattanooga. I think their experience, with Casey Jones leading the charge, and depth. At every position. They’ve got size, shooting, they’re athletic. They’ve got the total package. They’re poised for a very good year.”
  • Sleeper: “Samford. They went on a streak late in the year, winning five in a row, and finished really well. They played with more confidence and belief and swagger. They started seeing it all come together last year. They return some guys, add some good recruits. I could see them being a team that makes a jump. Their senior, Darius Jones-Gibson, is a stud.”
  • Star to watch: “Casey Jones. He’s a matchup nightmare with his versatility. He’s a hybrid position guy: four and the three. He lets them play small or play big. He’s hard for bigs to guard, hard for guards to guard. He has a uncanny touch in the paint. If he gets the ball in the lane, he doesn’t miss, just a natural touch in the mid-range. Gets going down hill, spins, rises up and it’s in.”

PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Casey Jones, Chattanooga

The coach we quoted above basically said it all. Jones, a 6-foot-5 wing, causes all sorts of problems for opponents. Bigs can’t guard him because he takes them out onto the perimeter. Guards can’t guard him because he takes them down to the block. And he can guard threes or fours, meaning that he fills that Draymond Green-esque role for the Mocs; he lets them play really big or really small. That versatility is what makes Chattanooga so tough.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOCON TEAM:

  • Justin Tuoyo, Chattanooga: A Player of the Year candidate, Tuoyo is the league’s best defender (3.3 blocks) and a nightly double-double threat.
  • Spencer Collins, Wofford: With Cochran gone, Collins will take over the lead-dog role for the Terriers this season.
  • Darius Jones-Gibson, Samford: A bit out there, but if Jones-Gibson makes the leap so many junior college transfers make in their second year, he could be the difference between Samford struggling and finishing in the top half of the league.
  • Tevon Saddler, UNCG: Saddler is arguably the most talented play maker in the conference.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SoConSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Chattanooga
2. Wofford
3. East Tennessee State
4. Mercer
5. UNC Greensboro
6. Furman
7. Samford
8. Western Carolina
9. VMI
10. The Citadel

Duke lands commitment from five-star forward Matthew Hurt

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For the fourth time in the last five years, Duke is tapping into that Minnesota pipeline to mine talent.

Following in the footsteps of Tyus Jones, Gary Trent Jr. and Tre Jones, Matthew Hurt, a 6-foot-9 forward and a top ten prospect in the Class of 2019, announced on Friday that he will be playing his college ball for the Blue Devils.

Hurt ultimately picked Duke over Kansas, but he was also pursued by the likes of Kentucky, North Carolina and Minnesota. He joins Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore and Boogie Ellis in Duke’s 2019 recruiting class.

Hurt is the perfect compliment to Carey, a powerhouse low-post force, and Moore, who is a talented wing. He has size and is extremely skilled, with the ability to stretch the floor out to 25 feet and the potential to be a dangerous face-up scorer, both in the mid-post and on the perimeter. He needs to get stronger and tougher, but that will come with time. As it stands, he’s the piece to the puzzle that Duke needed to add.

UNC women’s coach Hatchell resigns after findings from program review

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell had built a Hall of Fame career over more than three decades with the Tar Heels, including a national championship and becoming the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time winningest coach.

That tenure ended with her resignation after a program review found concerns over “racially insensitive” comments and pressuring players to compete through medical issues.

The school announced the 67-year-old Hatchell’s resignation late Thursday, along with findings from that external review conducted this month by a Charlotte-based law firm. Among the issues: a “breakdown of connectivity” between Hatchell and the players after 28 interviews of current players and program personnel.

The was enough to end Hatchell’s time in Chapel Hill, which began in 1986.

“The university commissioned a review of our women’s basketball program, which found issues that led us to conclude that the program needed to be taken in a new direction,” athletics director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement. “It is in the best interests of our university and student-athletes for us to do so. Coach Hatchell agrees, and she offered her resignation today. I accepted it.”

Hatchell — who has 1,023 victories, with 751 coming in 33 seasons at UNC along with the 1994 NCAA title — and her coaching staff had been on paid administrative leave since April 1. At the time, UNC announced the review amid player concerns to “assess the culture” of the program.

“The university will always hold a special place in my heart,” Hatchell said in a statement. “The game of basketball has given me so much, but now it is time for me to step away.”

In its release, UNC said the review found “widespread support” among three areas of concern, including the Hatchell-players connection.

The first centered on the racially insensitive comments, compounded by her failure to respond “in a timely or appropriate manner” when confronted by players or staff.

“The review concluded that Hatchell is not viewed as a racist,” the school said, “but her comments and subsequent response caused many in the program to believe she lacked awareness and appreciation for the effect her remarks had on those who heard them.”

Regarding injury concerns, the review reported frustration from players and medical staff with Hatchell’s “perceived and undue influence,” though medical staffers “did not surrender to pressure to clear players” before they were ready.

Wade Smith, Hatchell’s attorney, had defended her earlier this month by saying players had misconstrued comments she made as racist and that she wouldn’t try to force someone to play without medical clearance. That came after The Washington Post, citing unnamed parents of players, said complaints had been made about inappropriate racial comments and players being pushed to play while injured.

In a statement to The Associated Press at the time, Smith said Hatchell “does not have a racist bone in her body” and “cares deeply about (players’) health and well-being.”

Hatchell, who reached 1,000 wins in 2017, trailed only Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma in women’s Division I career victories. But there had been difficulties in recent years.

She missed the 2013-14 season while battling leukemia and undergoing chemotherapy. The program also spent several seasons under the shadow of the school’s multi-year NCAA academic case dealing with irregular courses featuring significant athlete enrollments across numerous sports, a case that reached a no-penalty conclusion in October 2017.

UNC returned to the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time since 2015 after upsets of top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 7 North Carolina State on the road, though her contract was set to expire after next season.

Hatchell said she will still support the school, including raising money for UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and advocating for gender equity issues.

“While this is a bittersweet day, my faith remains strong,” Hatchell said. “After the fight of my life with leukemia, I count every day as a blessing.”

St. John’s expected to hire Mike Anderson

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The coaching search St. John’s started earlier this month is coming to an end, and its finality looks to be as bizarre as the process.

The Red Storm are expected to hire former Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, a source confirmed to NBC Sports. Roger Rubin of Newsday was first to report the development.

Anderson has a perfectly respectable resume after eight years with the Razorbacks and five at Missouri over the last decade-plus, but his history doesn’t suggest why he’s a great fit at St. John’s, a smaller private school in New York City rather than two large public institutions in college towns. New York City is also considerably more northeast than both Fayetteville and Columbia.

St. John’s swung big in a way that made sense when it hired Chris Mullin four years ago. There were question marks given his lack of college experience, but given his status as a Red Storm legend and NBA pedigree – both as a player and executive – you could connect the dots to success, even if Mullin ultimately couldn’t do it himself.

This hire, however, doesn’t make much sense. Anderson just got fired for not progressing enough with Arkansas, a place he spent 17 years at under Nolan Richardson prior to becoming a head coach himself. He had serious legacy there, but it wasn’t enough to overcome just three NCAA tournament appearances and no Sweet 16s in eight years.

That’s the guy that is now, with no clear ties to either the Big East or St. John’s, going to reinvigorate the Red Storm program? Anderson might do it, I guess, but his selection only highlights what a botched search this has been. Bobby Hurley, Porter Moser, Ryan Odom and Tim Cluess all reportedly spurned interest, and it’s about as inarguable as inarguable gets that St. John’s should be a slam-dunk better job than Loyola Chicago, UMBC and Iona, while Hurley is the type of guy an athletic department goes out and gets done if it wants to show it really means business.

Instead, St. John’s search falls to Anderson, who probably won’t win the press conference and didn’t win enough at Arkansas.

Ayo Dosunmu returning to Illinois for sophomore season

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Wins have been few and far between in two seasons for Brad Underwood at Illinois, which makes Thursday’s victory all the more important.

The Illini got a major April boost with Ayo Dosunmu announcing he would return to Champaign for his senior season rather than heading to the professional ranks.

“I stayed home to help coach Underwood turn the Illinois program around,” Dosunmu said in a video released on social media. “We tasted some success, but we didn’t dance. And Illinois has to dance.

“We are building. We will be better. I will be better, and that starts now.”

Dosunmu averaged 13.8 points, 4 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his freshman campaign, which led to speculation he might be off to the pros, leaving Illinois without its most dynamic scorer and playmaker heading into a critical third season for Underwood, who is 26-39 overall and 11-27 in the Big Ten the last two years. Instead, he’ll be returning giving Illinois a second season with an intriguing young core that will likely be a trendy pick to make a significant jump up the B1G standings next winter.

Oklahoma State lands commitment from top-150 guard Chris Harris Jr.

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Oklahoma State is adding another top-150 piece to its 2019 recruiting class as Chris Harris Jr., a guard from Texas, pledged to the Cowboys on Thursday

“I will be committing to Oklahoma State University,” Harris announced via a video on social media.

The consensus three-star recruit picks Mike Boynton’s program over offers from the likes of Texas A&M, Baylor, Kansas State and Georgia Tech. The 6-foot-3 guard visited Stillwater officially late last month. He previously was headed to the Aggies, but was released from his National Letter of Intent after Billy Kennedy was fired in College Station.

His commitment gives Oklahoma State what is increasingly looking like a major recruiting class for Boynton, who has largely exceeded expectations during his short tenure with the Cowboys. Boynton has already secured commitments from top-75 wing Marcus Watson of Georgia and top-125 guard Avery Anderson III as well as three-stars Kalib Boone and Keylan Boone.