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Big East Preview: Can Villanova repeat as national champs?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.

The Big East Conference, in its third season of a relaunch, finally achieved nationwide validation it had been seeking when Kris Jenkins sunk a buzzer-beating three to lift Villanova over North Carolina, 77-74, in one of the greatest national championship games of all time.

In 2016-17, the 10-team league has a chance to build on that momentum, and once again it starts with Jay Wright’s Wildcats.

Xavier, coming off a historic season that saw the Musketeers climb to their highest ranking ever, stands as Villanova’s top threat again, while Creighton is poised to make a jump into the contender conversation.

The Big East, on average, has sent half the league to the NCAA Tournament over the past three years. Expect that to be the same in 2017.

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | | SECMid-Majors

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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Villanova won the national championship: In an instant classic, Villanova won the program’s second national championship, ending the criticism surrounding Jay Wright in March (despite him having a Final Four appearance on his résumé).

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

Even with the graduation Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, and those are big losses for Villanova, the Wildcats have the best chance to repeat as national champions since the Florida Gators during 2006-07 season. Josh Hart, a national player of the year candidate, and Kris Jenkins are back, while Jalen Brunson could be in for a big sophomore season as the primary ball handler. Mikal Bridges figures to be the next Villanova player to come through the system and become a breakout star. Eric Paschall, a Fordham transfer, adds another versatile wing. The Wildcats won’t have Omari Spellman, their top incoming recruit who was ruled a partial-qualifier, but Darryl Reynolds, who has played sparingly over his first three seasons, showed glimpses when he started last year while Ochefu was out with a concussion.

NBC Sports has Villanova ranked as the No. 2 in the nation this preseason.

2. Some stars left for the pros: Kris Dunn, the Big East Player of the Year, and Henry Ellenson, the Big East Freshman of the Year, left for the NBA as expected and became top-20 picks. Some players, like Ben Bentil and Isaiah Whitehead, weren’t guaranteed to bolt after their sophomore seasons, but both wound up being selected in the second round.

3. … and some stars returned: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Trevon Bluiett and Maurice Watson Jr., three of whom are listed below as Big East first teamers, all took advantage of the new NBA Draft rules and declared. All four elected to return to their respective schools. This made Villanova a favorite to return to the Final Four, meant Xavier is a top-10 caliber team and gave Creighton the backcourt that can guide the program back to the NCAA Tournament.

4. Creighton’s new era: Speaking of Creighton, many people are bullish on the Bluejays, as Marcus Foster looks to replicate the success Watson had in his first season after sitting out a transfer year. Greg McDermott had four 20-win seasons to begin his tenure at Creighton, which had a lot to do with having one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history, his son, Doug. After plummeting to ninth in the conference following Doug’s graduation, Creighton rebounded with a 20-15 record last season. This Creighton team has the potential to do what Dougie McBuckets’ led teams never did: make a deep NCAA Tournament run.

5. NCAA Tournament: One of the interesting aspects of the Big East reboot is that, on average, half the league gets into the NCAA Tournament. That’s one of the benefits of an 18-game, round-robin conference schedule. But in only three seasons, five different teams have appeared in the Big East Conference championship game, resulting in three different winners. Only two of the 10 teams — DePaul and Marquette — have failed to qualify for the Big Dance since its rebirth in 2013. That’s all a long-winded way of saying that this league has depth and balance.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Villanova’s Josh Hart (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Josh Hart, Villanova

Josh Hart’s rise has been a continuous one during his time at Villanova. He was a role player as a freshman and the Big East Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore before cracking the starting lineup as a junior, which resulted in first-team all-league honors. The preseason All-American really does it all for the Wildcats. He’s the top returning scorer at 15.5 points per game, while shooting 36 percent from three. At 6-foot-6, he’s the best rebounding guard in the nation, corralling 6.8 boards a contest. And he’s a versatile defender, a key reason why Villanova ranked among the best defenses in the country last year.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:

  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: A returning first-team all-Big East selection, Bluiett tested the NBA waters before returning to Cincinnati. The 6-foot-5 junior, who averaged 15.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, is obviously an important piece for the Musketeers. His versatility allows them to space the floor on offense given his 3-point touch, and his strength helps him defend opposing fours.
  • Kris Jenkins, Villanova: The hero of the 2016 national championship game, averaged 15.5 points per game, shooting 49 percent from three during the NCAA Tournament. While he’ll be known for that shot, Jenkins is a quality rebounder and defender, something he put an emphasis on during the course of last season.
  • Kelan Martin, Butler: Despite starting in only 14 of 33 games last season, Martin is the conference’s top returning scorer at 15.7 points per game. With Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones gone after impressive careers, Martin will be the focal point of a talented, yet thin roster. One would imagine that he’d have to assume some of the responsibilities left behind by Jones (i.e. ball-handling, defense, and most importantly, leadership) and not just replace the scoring production of Dunham.
  • Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton: Many questioned Watson’s move from Boston University to Creighton, but those naysayers were silenced when he finished his debut season in the Big East, averaging 14.1 points, 6.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game. With plenty of shooters surrounding him, Watson should be a nightmare for defenses when he gets involved in pick-and-rolls situations and gets into the lane.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Isaac Copeland, Georgetown
  • Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton
  • Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
  • Edmond Sumner, Xavier

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03: Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball during the game against the St. John's Red Storm at Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Xavier’s Edmond Sumner (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall

You could go a bunch of different ways with this pick: Marcus Derrickson at Georgetown, Xavier’s J.P. Macura, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, or Marquette’s Haanif Cheatham, but I’m going with the Seton Hall lead guard.

For starters, Khadeen Carrington averaged an extremely quiet 14.1 points per game. That’s understandable when the majority of the attention was focused on Isaiah Whitehead. With Whitehead now in the NBA, Carrington has a chance to improve on those numbers. Carrington showed promising strides from his freshman to sophomore year, becoming one of the best two-way guards in the league. The big test for him is how quickly he can adjust to running the team.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: John Thompson III, Georgetown

In no way am I saying John Thompson III is in jeopardy of losing his job. He’s been to eight NCAA Tournaments in 12 years, reaching a Final Four in 2007. On top of that 264–133 record, his father, who built the program into a national powerhouse, is still very much part of the university. The school recently opened a brand-new, state of the art athletic center, named after him.

But Georgetown is coming off a disappointing year. Pegged to finish second in the league, the Hoyas staggered to a 15-18 (7-11 Big East) record, missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons. Georgetown is 3-6 — with three first-round exits — in the NCAA Tournament since the Final Four run in 2007.

Despite graduating D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, JT3 has a team that looks good on paper: Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak, Marcus Derrickson, Jessie Govan and Rodney Pryor. Hoyas certainly have the talent of top-25 caliber team, and they’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove so against a non-conference slate that includes Maryland, Oregon (and the rest of the Maui Invitational field), Syracuse and UConn.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : At least half the league is in the field of 68 once again

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Villanova’s title defense

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 15, Creighton vs. Wisconsin
  • November 15, Georgetown vs. Maryland
  • December 10, Villanova vs. Notre Dame (Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey)
  • December 17, Butler vs. Indiana (BankersLife Arena, Indianapolis, Indiana)
  • January 26, Xavier vs. Cincinnati

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigEastMBB

POSITION RANKS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wings | Big Men

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 31: Head coach Jay Wright of the Villanova Wildcats shakes hands with head coach Chris Mack of the Xavier Musketeers after a game at the Pavilion on the campus of Villanova University on December 31, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Villanova’s Jay Wright and Xavier’s Chris Mack (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Villanova: The Wildcats are the unanimous favorite to win the Big East for a fourth straight season. While they won’t have freshman big man Omari Spellman, they have the defensive versatility, length and knockdown shooting to throw out this lineup at times: Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Eric Paschall, Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges. Do you wanna guard that five?
2. Xavier: Rebounding and depth may not be as good as last year’s team, but Xavier will push Villanova once again. Trevon Bluiett is back. Edmond Sumner could skyrocket as a player this year. J.P. Macura is a breakout candidate. But RaShid Gaston is undoubtedly the x-factor the Xavier. He nearly averaged a double-double in his final season at Norfolk State. But there’s a slight difference in competition between the MEAC and Big East. The new-look frontline is key for the Musketeers. The reason why the 1-3-1 zone defense (aside from its length) was so effective was because James Farr controlled the glass. Myles Davis’ status is still uncertain, but Xavier has the weapons and personnel to match with Villanova (and its hypothetical “Death Lineup” listed above).
3. Creighton: Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster make up one of the best backcourts in the country. A lot needs to go right for the Bluejays: Isaiah Zierden staying healthy, Khyri Thomas emerging as a third option, Justin Patton, Cole Huff and Toby Hegner stabilizing the frontcourt following the graduation of Geoffrey Groselle, 3-point shooting, etc. If this all comes together, I wouldn’t want to see this team come March.
4. Seton Hall: We’d be talking much differently about the Pirates had Isaiah Whitehead returned. Still, Kevin Willard, now off the hot seat, could lead Seton Hall to another NCAA Tournament run. Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado: take your pick. Any of those guys could emerge as the team’s best player. Defense will be their calling card, especially with a group of guys who love to get out and run.
5. Georgetown: A rebound year is in order at The Hilltop. Like mentioned above, the Hoyas bring back talent. They should be good. Tre Campbell, the presumptive starting point guard, showed flashes (i.e. 21 points of five 3-pointers against Xavier last season), but can he do it all year long? JT3 doesn’t shy away from non-conference opponents, and Georgetown will be tested early (vs. Maryland on Nov. 15; vs. Oregon on Nov. 21 in the Maui Invitational).
6. Butler: The return of Kelan Martin and arrival of Kethan Savage help offset the departures of Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones. Tyler Lewis need to take command of the point guard role with no Jones to play off of like last year. Butler’s depth is a concern again this season, but it’s realistic to view this as an NCAA Tournament team.
7. Marquette: Henry Ellenson, as expected, bolted for the NBA after one season. Luke Fischer is back on the frontline, but it surely isn’t a deep one. The Golden Eagles have a deep perimeter with Duane Wilson, Jujuan Johnson, Traci Carter, Sandy Cohen III and Haanif Cheatham being joined by Andrew Rowsey, Katin Reinhardt and Markus Howard. Ellenson leaving leaves a void in the rebounding department, and I’m not sure the new additions fix the turnover problems.
8. Providence: It’s tough to lose both Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. But Ed Cooley is a good coach, and I think Kyron Cartwright is capable of being a quality point guard in the Big East. My real concern is whether both Rodney Bullock and Jalen Lindsey can become consistent scorers for the Friars. Newcomers also need to make instant contributions.
9. St. John’s: Chris Mullin’s second year at his alma mater should see slight strides. The Johnnies have one of the best frontlines in the league with two shot-blockers in Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe, as well as highly-touted JUCO forward Bashir Ahmed. Marcus LoVett Jr., who sat out last season, assumes the point guard role, while Shamorie Ponds, the Brooklyn native, will provide offensive firepower alongside shooter Federico Mussini.
10. DePaul: Billy Garrett Jr. will win the Blue Demons a few games in conference play, but I expect DePaul to continue this rebuild in Dave Leitao’s second season back. The new arena, opening in 2017, offers the program and its fans optimism.

Auburn lands 2019 commitment from three-star wing

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Auburn landed a late commitment for the 2019-20 season on Wednesday night as three-star athletic wing Devan Cambridge pledged to the Tigers.

A 6-foot-6, 215-pound wing, Cambridge had a very strong showing at the Nike Peach Jam last week as he averaged 16.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game during pool play at the event. A big-time athlete who easily gets off the floor, Cambridge fits Auburn’s athletic, up-and-down style as he’s accustomed to playing fast and making plays with his game-changing athleticism.

Cambridge joins a seven-man mega class for the Tigers as he’s a versatile athlete who should play a number of different spots. Cambridge is still working to become more of a consistent perimeter shooting presence, but Auburn has landed a solid late commitment because there aren’t many better pure athletes in the class. If the Tigers can develop Cambridge and take their time with his development then he could turn into a very useful player.

Person avoids prison in college bribery sentencing

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NEW YORK — Former Auburn assistant basketball coach Chuck Person has avoided prison in a bribery scandal that has touched some of the biggest schools in college basketball.

Person was sentenced on Wednesday to 200 hours of community service during the two years the Probation Department will supervise him. Judge Loretta A. Preska said “no purpose would be served by incarceration.”

Sentencing guidelines called for two years in prison, though three other coaches who pleaded guilty to the same charge also received lenient sentences.

Person, who was in financial trouble at the time, accepted $91,500 in bribes to parlay his relationships with top players to steer them to a financial adviser, federal prosecutors said. The adviser, however, was working as a government cooperator.

Preska defended her decision by saying she disagreed “vehemently” with the prosecution’s claim that Person was motivated by “insatiable greed.”

“He is charitable literally to a fault,” the judge said.

She noted that after signing his first NBA contract, he sent most of the money to family members and bought his mother a house. She described how he bought homes and cars for family and friends and made continuous donations. Then, he turned down lucrative jobs in the NBA to make less money as a college coach.

Person wiped tears from his face several times during the sentencing.

Of his crime, he said: “I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway.”

Person’s guilty plea in March to a bribery conspiracy charge came nearly two decades after he was a regular presence on NBA courts, where he played for five NBA teams over 13 seasons after being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 1986. In 2010, he earned a championship ring as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Lawyers wrote that Person’s previous financial troubles intensified almost as soon as his NBA career ended, when he was paying $30,000 monthly to his ex-wife while he was earning $18,000 annually in his first non-playing role with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Chuck’s singular focus on basketball, his failure to plan for his financial future, and his unbounded generosity ultimately had catastrophic consequences,” they wrote.

The lawyers said he knew he was violating NCAA rules and was betraying his players and their families and Auburn University.

By 2016, when he was an assistant coach at Auburn, where he had set a record as the school’s all-time leading scorer in the 1980s, he was deeply in debt with bank loans, including one to finance a community center in his hometown, and several private loans, the lawyers wrote. One financial institution had obtained a default judgment that garnished 25% of his wages at Auburn, they added.

“Creditors were growing impatient, and Chuck was becoming desperate. Chuck could have turned to his many friends for help, but he was embarrassed and ashamed,” they wrote.

Instead, the man who overcame racism and extreme poverty growing up in rural Alabama got swept up in the college basketball scandal when his search for a new loan earned him an introduction to the government cooperator, the lawyers said.

His lawyers’ submission included letters from Charles Sonny Smith, who coached at Auburn for 11 seasons through the 1980s, and Sam Perkins, another former NBA player who met Person when both competed to be on the U.S. Olympic team in 1984.

Smith called Person “my favorite player ever.” Perkins said Person was “still a good friend.”

Kansas lands 2019 guard Dajuan Harris

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Kansas landed another piece for the upcoming season on Tuesday night as guard Dajuan Harris pledged to the Jayhawks on Twitter.

Previously a member of the Class of 2020, Harris will reclassify and join Kansas for next season. The 6-foot-1 point guard is coming off of a strong Nike Peach Jam in which he helped MoKan Elite to the event’s title with a big week. A recent Kansas offer right before the July Live Evaluation Period, Harris averaged 7.1 assists per game while playing great defense throughout the event.

The Jayhawks adding Harris to the Class of 2019 means they have five members in the group — headlined by four-star prospects Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna while three-star recruits Christian Braun and Isaac McBride are also involved. While Kansas struggled to land its usual five-star talents in this recruiting class, they’ve rebounded nicely with three commitments this spring to help fill out a veteran roster that is hoping to recapture Big 12 glory.

Kansas has plenty young players to build with the next few seasons as it’ll be interesting to see how this new five-man class shapes up. Wilson and Enaruna are expected to contribute, but the rest of the group, including Harris, is a bit of a wild card in terms of producing right away.

Atlantic 10 Offseason Reset: VCU, Davidson, Dayton headline much improved conference

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The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.

That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.

Today, we are talking Atlantic 10

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

THE LEAGUE WILL BE MUCH, MUCH BETTER THIS SEASON: The Atlantic 10 got lucky last season. There was one team in the league worthy of an at-large bid – VCU – and that team lost in the conference tournament. That’s the only reason they ended up as a two-bid league instead of a one-bid league.

This year should be different. VCU and Davidson are both sitting in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. Dayton isn’t all that far behind them. Rhode Island and Richmond both bring back essentially all of the pieces that mattered last season. The top of the league is as strong as it has been in a while, and I think there’s a real chance that we’re talking about the conference getting three or four bids to the NCAA tournament this season.

That, of course, all depends on what happens during non-conference play. Last year it was hideous for the league, and that left them in a position where the computer numbers were ugly and there was no way to add quality wins for the teams that needed quality wins. The bottom of the conference should be just as bad this season, but with three teams at the top worthy of top 25 consideration combined with a much stronger middle, there’s reason to be hopeful.

VCU AND DAVIDSON FIGHTING FOR FIRST PLACE: I think you can go either way when it comes to who is the favorite to win the league, but I don’t think you can pick anyone other than VCU or Davidson. They finished 1-2 in the Atlantic 10 last season and, combined, they lost three players from their rotations. VCU graduated a third-string center and lost a guy who lost his spot in the rotation to a freshman while, hopefully, getting Marcus Evans back to the peak of his powers; more on him later. Davidson brings back their top six, including one of the best backcourts in all of college basketball in Kellan Grady and Jon-Axel Gudmundsson. It will be a fun race between the two programs that couldn’t play more contrasting styles.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

WILL DAYTON’S TALENT COME TOGETHER?: On paper, Dayton is right there with Davidson and VCU. They lose Josh Cunningham, but with the rest of their rotation – including a bonafide pro in Obi Toppin – returning and four sit-out transfers entering the fold, there is more than enough talent, depth and experience on the roster. The reason I have them a notch below the favorites is because I want to see how all the pieces come together. They can certainly win the league, but managing minutes and egos is going to be the toughest part of Anthony Grant’s job this season.

THE BATTLE FOR FOURTH: Best I can tell, there are going to be at least three – if not more – teams fighting for that spot. Rhode Island seems to make the most sense, given just how much they bring back, while Richmond is the sleeper that all the coaches in the conference are talking about. I also think it is worth noting that St. Bonaventure will be better than some believe given that they managed to find a way to keep Mark Schmidt in Olean for another season.

But I also think that it’s possible that a team like La Salle, or George Mason, or Saint Louis can pop up and surprise some people. There’s depth in the conference that wasn’t necessarily there a year ago.

CAN CHRIS MOONEY GO FROM ALMOST-FIRED TO NCAA TOURNAMENT?: Richmond is going to be the most interesting team in the league. There are big-money boosters that have spent the last year or two trying to get Chris Mooney fired. Someone even put up a #FireMooney billboard on I-95 in the city. The irony here is that Mooney may have his best team since the 2011 team that reached the Sweet 16. Grant Golden is arguably the best big man in the league while Jacob Gilyard was a second-team all-Atlantic 10 player last year. Nathan Cayo is back and, perhaps most importantly, Richmond’s best wing scorer Nick Sherod should be healthy again. Throw in Wagner transfer Blake Francis, and there are a lot of pieces on this roster.

We’ll see if Mooney can make it all fit together, but this team is certainly good enough, on paper, to win 12 conference games.

WHO’S GONE

  • PHIL MARTELLI, St. Joseph’s: An Atlantic 10 and Philadelphia institution is gone. After 34 years at the school and 24 seasons as the head coach of the Hawks, Phil Martelli was fired this spring. He landed on his feet – as an assistant coach on Juwan Howard’s staff at Michigan – but St. Joe’s is going to have to completely rebuild. As of right now, there are seven scholarship players on the roster.
  • JAVON BESS, Saint Louis: Bess was the best defender in the Atlantic 10 last season, the anchor for what was the best defense in the league. He also doubled as the best scorer and shooter on the roster of a Billiken team that struggled to score. This is a big, big loss for a team coming off an NCAA tournament trip.
  • JOSH CUNNINGHAM, Dayton: The Flyers will have more than enough talent to replace Cunningham, but losing an all-league senior that was capable of going for 20-10 on any given night is never ideal.
  • COURTNEY STOCKARD, St. Bonaventure: Stockard took a step forward as a senior, helping the Bonnies to remain top four in the league despite losing Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. He was a deserving first-team all-league player last season.
  • OTIS LIVINGSTON, George Mason: The Patriots are going to have to change the way they play this season with Livingston gone. He was one of the best lead guards in the league for the last four years and the guy that allowed Dave Paulsen to run offense without worrying about what happens at the end of a shot clock.
  • ERIC WILLIAMS, Duquesne: The Dukes bring everyone else back, and Keith Dambrot has the respect of every coach in the league, but Williams was their best player. Losing him is a hard way to make up ground in a league where the top five teams all bring everyone back.
Obi Toppin (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK

  • EVERYONE, VCU: Well, that’s technically not true. Michael Gilmore, a backup center, graduated and Sean Mobley, who started to lose minutes by the end of the year, transferred. So there are some changes. But all of the truly important pieces – star guard Marcus Evans, De’Riante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Issac Vann, Vince Williams, etc. – are back, and they’re joined by a really good recruiting class. They’re old, they’re experienced, they’re deep, they’re talented and they were a No. 8 seed last season. This is a preseason top 25 team.
  • EVERYONE, Davidson: Last season, Kellan Grady was the guy we all thought would be the best player in the Atlantic 10 after a sterling freshman season got him on the radar of the NBA. Despite being banged up, Grady averaged 17.3 points as a sophomore … and his teammate, Jon-Axel Gudmundsson, won Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Both of them are back, along with the rest of Bob McKillop’s top six from a team that went 24-10 last season.
  • EVERYONE, Rhode Island: The Rams bring back their top four scorers, including Fatts Russell, Cyril Langevine and Jeff Dowtin, and the only player they lose from their rotation averaged just 5.7 points. There is a lot of reason to like this group.
  • OBI TOPPIN, Dayton: One coach told me that Toppin is not only clearly the most talented player in the league, he is the only guy in the conference that is a surefire pro. A late-bloomer, he hasn’t stopped improving throughout his career and should be in line for a major breakout season.
  • NICK SHEROD, Richmond: Grant Golden, Jacob Gilyard and Nathan Cayo are the bigger names and they all return, but Sherod is the guy that coaches in the league believe is the difference-maker. He’s a big-time shooter and scorer on the wing that they were missing after he went down with a knee injury.
  • KYLE LOFTON and OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure: Losing Stockard is going to hurt, but sophomores Lofton and Osunniyi are going to be very, very good for a long time in this league. One coach told me he thought Lofton was “the best freshman I’ve seen in the Atlantic 1 in a while, you would never have guessed he was a freshman” based on the way he played and his poised.
  • JORDAN GOODWIN and HASAHN FRENCH, Saint Louis: Goodwin is a do-it-all wing and French might be the best, and certainly is the most powerful, big man in the conference.

WHO’S COMING

  • DAYTON’S TRANSFERS: The Flyers had four players sitting out as transfers last season — Ibi Watson (Michigan), Jordy Tshimanga (Nebraska), Rodney Chatman (Chattanooga) and Chase Johnson (Florida). With Jalen Crutcher and Toppin both returning, the Flyers have as much talent on paper as anyone.
  • SCOTT SPENCER, La Salle: A transfer from Clemson, Spencer should fit perfectly in Ashley Howard’s system and give the Explorers a bit of a scoring pop to help offset the loss of Pookie Powell.
  • BLAKE FRANCIS, Richmond: The transfer from Wagner averaged 17 points before sitting out this past season.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-ATLANTIC 10 TEAM

MARCUS EVANS, VCU (Preseason Player of the Year)
KELLAN GRADY, Davidson
JON-AXEL GUDMUNDSSON, Davidson
OBI TOPPIN, Dayton
GRANT GOLDEN, Richmond

(Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. VCU: We’ve talked plenty about the Rams at this point, but I think their ceiling is still going to be determined by what they get out of Marcus Evans. Their star point guard has suffered an injury to each of his achilles since transferring to VCU from Rice. He rehabbed his entire sit-out season, and then spent last summer rehabbing the second injury. Somehow, he hasn’t lost any of his explosiveness and still managed to average 13.6 points and 3.2 assists last year. I spoke with him back in February, and Evans told me he was excited about this offseason because it was the first time he would have a chance to spend the summer getting better instead of getting healthy. He’s my pick to be the 2020 Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10.

2. DAVIDSON: This Davidson team has a chance to be the best group Bob McKillop has coached since the Stephen Curry days. A healthy Kellan Grady combined with Jon Axel Gudmundsson will give the Wildcats one of the best backcourts in the country. They’re going to be experienced, and Luka Brajkovic and Luke Frampton should both take a significant step forward as sophomores. Brajkovic was one of the best bigs in the league as a freshman. As always, their ceiling will be determined by just how good their defense will be, but on paper this group looks like a tournament team.

3. DAYTON: It’s easier to bet on VCU and Davidson as league champs because we know what they are, but keep in mind that the Flyers return the majority of their rotation from a team that went 21-12 overall and 13-5 in the league last season, and that among the players they return is future draft pick Obi Toppin. Oh, and they also add four sit-out transfers, three of whom came from high-major schools. It’s going to be a fun three-team race.

4. RHODE ISLAND: The Rams certainly have the talent to be relevant in the Atlantic 10 race, but with essentially the same team, they went .500 in the league last season and finished four games behind third-place Dayton. How are they making up all that ground when the teams above them return everyone?

5. RICHMOND: Every coach I’ve spoken to believes that the Spiders are the x-factor in the league race this year. For starters, bringing back Grant Golden and Jacob Gilyard gives them one of the best 1-2 combinations in the league. Bringing back Nick Sherod’s size and scoring on the wing will be important, and Nathan Cayo was underrated league-wide. Throw in Wagner transfer Blake Francis, and this should be the most improved team in the conference.

6. ST. BONAVENTURE: Mark Schmidt lost Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley before last season and still managed to churn out an 18-win season and a fourth-place finish in the A-10, so we shouldn’t be all that worried about them after losing four of their top six, including Courtney Stockard. They have one of the best homecourt advantages in the league, Schmidt will find a way to get the best out of his roster and sophomores Kyle Lofton and Osun Osunniyi are ready for bigger roles.

7. LA SALLE: I love this La Salle group. They should have more talent and depth this year, and you know they are always going to play hard. They’ve had a year under Ashley Howard, and what we saw as the season progressed was that this team played together much better than La Salle did under John Giannini. Keep an eye on sophomore Jack Clark.

8. GEORGE MASON: They’re going to have to play differently without Otis Livingston running the show, but Justin Kier is a going to have a chance to become a star in the league. Throw in sophomore Jordan Miller and a healthy Goanar Mar, and there are some pieces for Dave Paulsen here.

9. SAINT LOUIS: The Billikens were built on their defense last season and couldn’t score. They lost their best defender and best scorer in Javon Bess. I like Jordan Goodwin, I love Hasahn French and I think Fred Thatch is in line for a big sophomore season, but I need to see it from this group.

10. DUQUESNE: Coaches in the league have faith that Keith Dambrot will be able to find a way to make it work this year, and there are some pieces returning – notably Sincere Carey – but losing Eric Williams is big. He was their best player.

11. UMASS: The Minutemen have some talent and they bring in a good recruiting class, but I am going to need to see Matt McCall win there before I buy in. Keep an eye on freshman Tre Mitchell.

12. GEORGE WASHINGTON: Jamion Christian should be able to get the most out of this roster, and they’ll play a fun style that will see them bombing away from three, but it will take him a few years to get the kind of talent in the program he needs to make a run at the top of the league.

13. FORDHAM: Fordham won three Atlantic 10 games last season and lose their best player, Nick Honor.

14. ST. JOSEPH’S: Best I can tell, St. Joe’s currently has seven scholarship players on the roster, one of whom is a former walk-on. The post-Martelli era is going to have a rough start.

Penn State gets commit from three-star guard

AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato
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Penn State has its first 2020 commitment.

Dallion Johnson, a 6-foot-2 guard out of Maryland, has pledged to coach Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions, he announced Monday.

“Excited to announce my commitment to Penn State University!!” Johnson wrote on social media. “Thanks to God, my family, friends, teammates & coaches for believing in me. Thrilled to join the Penn State family under the coaching of Pat Chambers and staff.”

Johnson committed to Penn State over the likes of Davidson, Richmond and UMass, among others which had offered. He is rated as a three-star prospect.

The Nittany Lions, which had the 12th-ranked recruiting class in 2019 according to 247Sports, went 14-18 overall and 7-13 in conference play, missing the NCAA tournament for the eighth-straight time under Chambers.