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College Basketball Conference Reset: The Big East’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big East.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Josh Hart, Villanova

Josh Hart, who began the season as the Big East preseason Player of the Year, has established himself as arguably the favorite for national player of the year honors. The 6-foot-5 senior wing, one of the best two-way players in the nation, is averaging 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He recorded a triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) against St. Joseph’s, scored a career-best 37 points against then-No. 23 Notre Dame, and helped neutralize the size of then-No. 15 Purdue en route to 24 points in a notable road win earlier in the season.

ALL BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Josh Hart, Villanova
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big East | Pac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Big East non-conference was impressive again: It seems to be this time every year, we talk about how well the Big East as a whole performed during the non-conference slate. This year is no different. The Big East will enter conference play with 40 percent of the league ranked in the top-20. Villanova, Creighton, Butler and Creighton have combined for a 45-3 record. The Musketeers own two of those losses — back-to-back L’s to Baylor and Colorado. The worst of those defeats was Butler’s true road loss to Indiana State. In addition to the win-loss records, Villanova, Creighton, Butler and Xavier all captured early-season tournaments.
  2. Villanova has a chance to repeat: No team in college basketball has repeated a national champions since Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators in 2006-07. You could make the case that this Villanova team, despite the graduation of Ryan Archidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, has the best chance to go back-to-back since the Gators. Josh Hart has emerged as a national player of the year candidate, the star in an offense that is ranked the most efficient in the nation this season, according to kenpom. The Wildcats were top-5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency a season ago. They are currently top-15 in both heading into the holiday weekend. The Wildcats also showed the versatility to defeat Purdue’s massive frontline, as well as the defensive prowess to hold Notre Dame to 25 points in a come-from-behind win. Both those marquee wins came away from the Pavilion.
  3. Creighton is appointment viewing: Many were bullish on Creighton entering the season, and so far, the Bluejays are proving them right. This is the most talented team Greg McDermott has had in Omaha, led by the backcourt of Maurice Watson Jr. and Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster. Khyri Thomas has made the jump as a sophomore, while redshirt big man Justin Patton has exceeded expectations. The Bluejays have scored 80 or more points in nine of their 12 games and is the best 3-point shooting team in the land at 45 percent. This team is fun to watch to put it simply.
OMAHA, NE - NOVEMBER 15: Maurice Watson Jr. #10 of the Creighton Bluejays drives to the hoop past Jordan Hill #11 of the Wisconsin Badgers during their game at the CenturyLink Center on November 15, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Maurice Watson Jr. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Will anyone dethrone Villanova?: Since the relaunch of the Big East, Villanova, the nation’s current top-ranked team, has been sitting on the throne. In three seasons, the Wildcats are 48-6, winning regular season titles in each of those years. Creighton, like in 2013-14, will attempt to sit atop the conference standings. The Bluejays’ high-octane offense will make for two must-see matchups with Villanova. Xavier should also be a contender again, especially when Myles Davis returns from indefinite suspension. Butler, with an improved defense, also won’t be overlooked.
  2. Will another team take advantage of the home-and-home conference schedule?: The Big East has benefited from a home-and-home series since its relaunch. It allows for teams needing to boost its tournament resume with another contest with a ranked opponent. In 2015, St. John’s was able to overcome a 1-4 Big East start with three wins against ranked teams in February. Albeit not a great example since Seton Hall won the Big East Conference tournament title, but the Pirates bolstered its tournament profile with a late-season win over No. 5 Xavier. The Big East enters league play with four teams ranked. For teams like Georgetown and Providence, that could be eight games against top-25 teams. That could mean the difference between an at-large bid and a spot in the NIT.
  3. Xavier’s 3-point shooting: The Musketeers have struggled shooting the ball during the non-conference, primarily J.P. Macura and Edmond Sumner. Following back-to-back road losses to Baylor and Colorado, Xavier won three straight, connecting on 47 percent from three in a win over Utah and knocking down 11-of-25 from distance in a rout against Eastern Washington in the non-conference finale. The real hope for the perimeter shooting woes depends upon the return of Myles Davis, the senior guard who has been serving an indefinite suspension since September. Davis, who would also provide another ball handler for Xavier, has shot 38 percent over the past two seasons.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: As mentioned above, I think Myles Davis is Xavier’s X-factor. He’s a fifth-year senior who can provide shooting and ball handling, helping alleviate the load carried by Edmond Sumner and J.P. Macura. Moreover, RaShid Gaston, the transfer who needed to fill the production of both Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, is averaging 9.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, with a pair of double-doubles, in December. Kaiser Gates, a 6-foot-8 forward pegged to make the jump as a sophomore, missed the first five games of the season due to injury but finished the non-conference on a high-note: 12 points, off 4-of-7 from three, in a win over Eastern Washington. Expect Xavier to make this a three-team race with Villanova and Creighton.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Providence is better than their projected ninth-place finish. Providence has a win over Rhode Island, a team that was ranked No. 21 in the nation at the time. However, that win doesn’t look quite as good as the Rams are 3-3 in their final six non-conference games. The Friars are 10-2, and their rivalry win over URI serves as their only top-50 win, per kenpom.com. Providence also enter Big East play on the heels of what Ed Cooley called, “probably the worst loss since I’ve been at Providence College.” While you could make the case it was a trap game — a road game at the end of the non-conference slate and the fall semester — Boston College dominated offensively en route to a 79-67 win. The Eagles had previously lost to Nicholls State, Hartford and Fairfield, just two days prior, on the same floor.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Georgetown lost home games to Radford, Monmouth and UNC Asheville last season en route to a 15-18 (7-11 Big East) finish. Fans must have felt a sense of deja vu when Arkansas State dominated the Hoyas in a wire-to-wire 78-72 win on Nov. 17. The Hoyas have bounced back, defeating rival Syracuse — which has struggled as well — during a six-game win streak heading into Big East play. But still, John Thompson III and Co. have an uphill battle to avoid missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, and for the third time in four years.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17: Kelan Martin #30 of the Butler Bulldogs dribbles the ball during the 83-78 win over the Indiana Hoosiers during the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Kelan Martin (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Villanova: There isn’t really much to say here. The Big East is a top heavy conference overall, but there really isn’t any way to pick against the Wildcats winning the league. They’ve won three straight regular season titles. They’ve lost two league games in each of the last three years. They’re the reigning national champs and they have the league’s best player on the roster in Josh Hart. Villanova is as sure of a bet to win the Big East as Kentucky is to win the SEC.
  • 2. Creighton: The Bluejays are a thrilling team. They play fast, they spread the floor, they shoot the leather off the ball and they have as good of a back court as anyone in college basketball. Throw in the fact that Justin Patton is morphing into a first round draft pick before our eyes, and Creighton may be better than the team that featured Doug McDermott.
  • 3. Xavier: It’s tough to truly have a feel of who Xavier is at this point, but the bottom line is this: They are one of the most talented teams in the conference and they can defend as well as anyone in the league. Their issue is perimeter shooting and a stagnating offense.
  • 4. Butler: The Bulldogs are the surprise of the league. I think we all figured they could get back to the NCAA tournament, but Butler looks like a legitimate top 15 team at this point. Who had that back in November?
  • 5. Seton Hall: The Pirates are one of those teams that just seem like a nightmare to play against. They have tough, athletic veterans that play as hard as anyone in the country. Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez are both underrated, and Angel Delgado is one of the best rebounders in college basketball.

NIT teams

  • 6. Providence: The Friars are interesting. They are 10-2 heading into conference play but their only really notable win came against a Rhode Island team that isn’t as good as we thought they would be. Rodney Bullock and Kyron Cartwright look like the new Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn.
  • 7. Marquette: Steve Wojciechowski has already had two players transfer out of the program during the middle of the season. The Golden Eagles have a lot of good pieces, but we’re still waiting to find out if those pieces fit.
  • 8. Georgetown: The Hoyas have, once again, lost a couple of games they probably shouldn’t have lost, but they also own a win at Syracuse, which, at the least, will give them bragging rights in that rivalry for some time.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. DePaul: The Blue Demons seem to battle a constant uphill battle towards relevancy.
  • 10. St. John’s: The Johnnies were the easy pick for last place in the Big East … until they went into the Carrier Dome and pasted Syracuse by 33 points. Now we at least have to think about whether or not they’re the worst team in the league.

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

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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.