SWAC Preview: Can Texas Southern return to the dance?

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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 Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Last season, Texas Southern reached the NCAA tournament for the second-straight season under head coach Mike Davis. The Tigers will be in position to three-peat, but Southern, which last reached the tournament in 2013, and Alabama State look to end the trend.

Texas Southern will begin a quest for a third straight conference title without 2014 SWAC Player of the Year Madarious Gibbs. But the Tigers return two all-SWAC caliber seniors in Chris Thomas and Malcolm Riley. Both finished the season strong, with Thomas averaging 14.8 points in postseason play and Riley posting 18 points and 10 boards in a 62-58 win over Southern in the SWAC Tournament championship game. David Blanks and Tonnie Collier are two key holdovers for the Tigers, but don’t forget about Jose Rodriguez, the 6-foot-7 forward who missed last season due to injury. He averaged 11.4 points and 5.7 rebounds in 2013-14.

Southern brings back one of conference’s best perimeters with Adrian Rodgers, the team’s leading scorer, and junior Trelun Banks and Christopher Hyder, who averaged 3.9 assists per game. The other returning starter for the Jaguars is 6-foot-9 sophomore Jarred Sam. Sam will have to hold down the inside for the Jaguars as the only returning big man who played significant minutes. Southern had one of the better defensive teams in the SWAC last season, and that could remain the same this year. But Southern will have to put an emphasis on rebounding with a thin frontline.

Wedged in the middle of Southern and Texas Southern the past two seasons has been Alabama State. In both campaigns, the Hornets have failed to make it past the SWAC semifinals. Jamel Waters is set to change that in 2015-16. Alabama State graduated two double-digit scorers, but look for Bobby Brown and Steve Rogers, two players capable of knocking down threes, should see benefit from playing alongside Waters.

Jackson State and Alabama A&M should round out the top-5 in the conference. Alabama A&M returns all five starters Ladarius Tabb, the first team snub from a season ago, and Nick West, the SWAC’s top rebounder. Jackson State also has its starting five back, including Raeford Worsham, who was limited last year after transferring in. Arkansas Pine Bluff, no longer facing an APR ban, can’t be overlooked either with three returning starters.

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

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “I’d say Southern because they turn five of their top six guys. And they finished third in the league.”
  • Sleeper: “I think the team that’s the sleeper is Jackson State with eight of their top guys back.”
  • Star to watch: “It would probably be Adrian Rodgers from Southern or Chris Thomas from Texas Southern. They are natural perimeter guys. They can both put the ball on the floor. They both can get a basket.”

PRESEASON SWAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ladarius Tabb, Alabama A&M

A season after being named SWAC Newcomer of the Year, the 6-foot-5 guard should be the favorite for SWAC Player of the Year honors. Tabb led the conference in scoring and was second in rebounding (behind teammate Nick West), averaging 20 points in 19 games against SWAC opponents and recording 11 double-doubles during the course of the 2014-15 season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SWAC TEAM:

  • Adrian Rodgers, Southern: The 6-foot-4 senior averaged 13.1 points and 4.2 boards per game; one of four starters back for the Tigers.
  • Jamel Waters, Alabama State: With the loss of three starters, expect the 5-foot-9 guard to see a bump in scoring. Led the team last year at 14.0 points per game, dished out 5.2 assists, second-best in the league.
  • Nick West, Alabama A&M: The 6-foot-10 big man recorded seven double-doubles as a junior, finishing first in the league in rebounding at 7.9 boards per game.
  • Raeford Worsham, Jackson State: The Arkansas State transfer scored in double figures in 15 out of 20 games he appeared in, recording four double-doubles in conference play.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @theSWAC

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Southern
2. Texas Southern
3. Alabama State
4. Jackson State
5. Alabama A&M
6. Arkansas Pine Bluff
7. Alcorn State
8. Prairie View A&M
9. Mississippi Valley State
10. Grambling State

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.