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Conference USA Preview: Is Middle Tennessee State still the team to beat?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing Conference USA.

Conference USA has been a one-bid league the past few seasons but the league has also been vastly underrated in the national landscape. Case in point: C-USA has three consecutive seasons with a NCAA tournament win, even though all three teams were high double-digit seeds.

Middle Tennessee remains the darling of the league following two straight appearances in the Round of 32. Talented forwards JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw have moved on but C-USA Player of the Year candidate Giddy Potts is back on the perimeter along with promising sophomore point guard Tyrik Dixon. Transfers have been an important part of roster-building for the Blue Raiders and former Alabama wing Nick King will be a valuable wing scorer for this team as well. If Brandon Walters can become a productive piece in the middle then Middle Tennessee should once again be a huge threat in league and postseason play.

With a ferocious perimeter back in the fold, hopes are high that Louisiana Tech can make a leap after last season’s second-place finish. The sophomore backcourt tandem of DaQuan Bracey and Jalen Harris are both back after strong freshman seasons while senior wing Jacobi Boykins is a big-time shooter and Player of the Year threat in the league. If the Bulldogs get a solid contribution from its frontcourt, led by center Joniah White, they could be a major contender.

Old Dominion defended at an elite level last season but they had a tough time with consistent offense. The good news is the Monarchs return some serious talent in point guard Ahmad Caver and brothers Brandon and B.J. Stith. Wake Forest transfer Greg McClinton is an intriguing addition and the freshman class, including redshirt Xavier Green and shooter Micheal Hueitt Jr. could help put up points.

With one of the league’s best frontcourts, UAB will once again be a dangerous team in C-USA. Two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year William Lee returns for his senior season along with double-figure scorer Chris Cokley. If point guard Nick Norton returns to form from a torn ACL, the Blazers should be a threat at the top of the standings. UTEP was the only C-USA to beat Middle Tennessee last season as they went 13-4 to close out the season. Senior guard Omega Harris is a big-time scorer while senior big man Matt Willms returns after leading the conference in field goal percentage.

Things looked really good for Western Kentucky when they had five-star center Mitchell Robinson, but he’s gone and the team lost its most talented player. Rick Stansbury still brings in a ton of transfers as Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo), Darius Thompson (Virginia) and Dwight Coleby (Kansas) are all joining the roster. Conference Player of the Year threat Jon Davis returns at guard for Charlotte but the 49ers need to get more out of an unproven frontcourt. Guard Andrien White and wing Austin Ajukwa also return to form a veteran core.

Marshall is another solid team in an emerging league as they’re coming off of a 20-win season. Player of the Year candidate Jon Elmore is back at guard while athletic guard C.J. Burks is another player to watch. The rest of the scoring on from the Thundering Herd will come from mostly new pieces. Rice was gutted by transfers when former head coach Mike Rhoades left for VCU but junior Connor Cashaw has a chance to emerge as a go-to threat. Senior transfer A.J. Lapray brings perimeter shooting while the freshman class has some talented additions.

UTSA took a gigantic step forward in head coach Steven Henson’s first season and he adds more reinforcements to try to make an additional leap in the second season. The backcourt of sophomores Byron Frohnen and Giovanni De Nicolao could put up a lot of points. Scholarship reductions are starting to get lifted at Southern Miss, meaning the Golden Eagles should have more depth in the coming seasons. Jack-of-all-trades guard Cortez Edwards returns and sophomore big man Tim Rowe should help if he can stay healthy. 

Florida Atlantic lost seven players to transfer as they need to find more consistent help around senior guard Gerdarius Troutman. College of Charleston transfer Payton Hulsey is an intriguing addition who could help. New head coach Grant McCasland leads the charge at North Texas as the Mean Green are hoping the promising backcourt of Ryan Woolridge and A.J. Lawson continues to grow. FIU is hoping to improve on last season’s disappointing campaign but head coach Anthony Evans, who could be coaching for his job, saw most of last year’s roster leave.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee

A senior shooting guard who can create his own shot against most defenses, Potts is a 42 percent career three-point shooter capable of knocking them down from all over the floor. A key piece in the Blue Raiders making it to the Round of 32 the past two seasons, Potts is experienced veteran and a reliable scorer.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA TEAM

  • Jon Elmore, Marshall: Putting up big numbers in D’Antoni’s high-octane offense, Elmore averaged 19.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest as a sophomore.
  • Jon Davis, Charlotte: An ironman junior who played 35 minutes a game last season, the 6-foot-3 Davis put up 19.6 points, 4.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.
  • Jacobi Boykins, Louisiana Tech: Making C-USA’s all-defense team while improving his all-around offense, the 6-foot-6 senior averaged 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season.
  • William Lee, UAB: Perhaps the league’s best long-term talent, the 6-foot-9 senior is springy enough to block shots and skilled enough to knock down perimeter shots.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Middle Tennessee
2. Louisiana Tech
3. Old Dominion
4. UAB
5. UTEP
6. Western Kentucky
7. Charlotte
8. Marshall
9. Rice
10. UTSA
11. Southern Miss
12. Florida Atlantic
13. North Texas
14. FIU

North Carolina gets commitment from four-star 2020 forward

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North Carolina has its first piece in its 2020 recruiting class.

Day’Ron Sharpe, a 6-foot-9 forward, committed to the Tar Heels on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Winterville, N.C. native picked Roy Williams’ in-state program over offers from Florida, Georgetown and Virginia, among others, after a second visit to Chapel Hill recently.

“We weren’t expecting it, and it kind of came out of the blue,” his father, Derrick Sharpe, told 247 Sports about the commitment. “He told coach Williams and coach was just really excited about it.”

Sharpe averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during his sophomore season.

“He’s a very multi-talented player,” Dwayne West, executive director of the Garner Road Bulldogs told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He does several things very well at a high rate. He can obviously score the ball around the basket, has a solid shot and is actually a very good playmaker. Handles the ball very well.”

Sharpe is a four-star, consensus top-75 player in the 2020 class. Williams also has one commit in the 2019 class, top-50 point guard Jeremiah Francis, who, like Sharpe, committed to the Tar Heels the summer before his junior season.

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

Kansas, Missouri to play alumni game for charity

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Kansas and Missouri are putting their differences aside for charity.

Kareem Rush, a former Missouri Tiger and the brother of Brandon Rush, a former Kansas Jayhawk, is organizing a game called “Rivarly Renewed“, which will pit alumni from Missouri against alumni from KU.

On July 28th, the two teams will face-off in a game where the proceeds will go towards benefitting the Boys and Girls Club as well as Kareem Rush’s “Rush Forward Foundation”.

It’s also a chance for the Tigers and the Jayhawks to reignite a rivalry that has been dormant since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, although they did play a scrimmage prior to the start of last season. There is no lack of hatred between those two fan bases and any chance they get to square off is a good thing.

There should also be some big names involved. According to the Kansas City Star, Mario Chalmers, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden, Kim English, Ricky Paulding and Marcus Denmon are among the players that will be participating.

I love it.

Can we make sure that Bill Self is invited so that he can get convinced to play the Tigers in a non-conference game?

Doppelgangers Grayson Allen, Ted Cruz finally meet

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Ever since Grayson Allen burst onto the national scene during the 2015 Final Four, the former Duke star has been called a Ted Cruz lookalike.

That, frankly, is not exactly a compliment, and it is a comparison that Allen initially bristled at, but now that his college career, Allen seems to be embracing the long-running joke.

We know that because Allen met Cruz this weekend as he helped the senator from Texas beat Jimmy Kimmel in a game of one-on-one:

The actually game won’t be broadcast until Monday night so we won’t know exactly how Cruz won or what Allen did to help, but Cruz did beat Kimmel 11-9.

We will get getting our answers this evening.

2018 NBA Draft: What top ten picks are the most likely to be busts?

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The 2018 NBA Draft is loaded with top-end talent and potential future all-stars.

The fascinating thing about this group in the top ten is that you can make a solid case that most of these guys could become stars.

On the flipside, all of them also have some kind of glaring weakness.

Deandre Ayton is likely going No. 1 overall and there is a healthy contingent of draft analysts and skeptics who point to his lack of defensive presence as a 7-footer.

Some of these same detractors also believe the NBA is continually going smaller — meaning giants like Ayton will get played off the floor by certain small-ball lineups like the Golden State Warriors just did to some teams during another title run.

That’s just one example.

Going down the list of top-ten prospects and you can point to a lot of potential flaws that could lead to downfalls. But here are two top-ten prospects who could wind up being busts.

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

Before his freshman season at Missouri, I thought Michael Porter Jr. was going to put up monster numbers and be a Player of the Year candidate. His top-five status in the 2018 NBA Draft appeared to be safe. After a decorated high school career in which he destroyed most challengers and played well on the international stage with USA Basketball, Porter looked like he could be a jumbo scoring wing at the game’s highest level.

Then the back and hip issues began.

Porter only played in three games during his lone season with the Tigers — including two uninspiring postseason efforts in which he couldn’t get his shot to fall while trying to prove that he was healthy. And now it feels like there are a million questions about MPJ and his health.

During the NBA Draft process, Porter has cancelled and rescheduled pro days, kept medical records private for long lengths of time and given plenty of teams pause as to whether or not he is truly healthy. If Porter’s back and hip stay as a lingering issue then it changes who he is as a basketball player. Already a bit rigid, with hips that aren’t particularly fluid, Porter could have trouble moving laterally in an increasingly quick and nimble league that is only getting smaller.

Porter’s jumper also uses his whole body to elevate. It didn’t look nearly the same during those March games where he tried to gut it out. And Porter has been such a gifted scorer during his high school career that he’s never had to worry about passing or making others around him better.

Some have also questioned Porter’s ego and his ability to be a willing teammate — which are legitimate questions in a league that often sees its stars feud with others and move on to new teams.

Again, if Porter is fully healthy and ready to go, he could be a double-double threat on the wing and a 20-point per game scorer. But if Porter isn’t healthy? Some team is taking a big risk on not only taking an injured player but passing on a talented healthy player who could morph into an all-star.

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TRAE YOUNG

Perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the draft because of his insane range and overall offensive ability, Young is going to be one of the names to watch on draft night.

Some mock drafts feel he’s a top-three talent, or even the best prospect overall because of his new-age ability to pull-up and hit threes from 30 feet away. Others feel like he’s a potential defensive liability who doesn’t necessarily play winning basketball all the time because of his shot selection and high number of turnovers.

While Young could be a monster steal for some team hoping to get the next Steph Curry, those comparisons are also going to be dangerous, while likely following Young the rest of this career.

For Young, it could be all about fit and who winds up taking him.

When Young was in high school, he was at his best when he had elite talent around him. Michael Porter Jr. was the go-to scorer on a MoKan team that won the Nike Peach Jam. Young also looked solid during stretches with USA Basketball when he had tons of weapons around him.

Once teams in the Big 12 figured out his individual offensive tendencies after a hot start last season, they forced him into being a playmaker and the Sooners struggled to win games. Of course, the lack of talent around him doesn’t fall on Young, who didn’t recruit his teammates at Oklahoma. But what happens if Young falls to a dysfunctional franchise like the Orlando Magic? He’ll be expected to be a savior right away with minimal help — while also having to overcome glaring deficiencies like perimeter defense and a high number of turnovers.

And how do you think NBA players are going to react to the task of guarding Young? There’s an old Dream Team story about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen practically fighting so they could defend future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc one-on-one during the ’92 Olympics. They had heard about the hype surrounding Kukoc, even though he had never played in an NBA game.

After being a national media darling much of last season, Young is going to get a lot of strong one-on-one defenders who are hungry to slow him down. Game plans will revolve around limiting Young’s touches and ability to launch shots. Teams and veteran players are going to do everything they can to frustrate Young and make life tough.

Young is talented and skilled enough to make all of these questions go away. He’s a unique talent who could very well end up being worthy of all of the hype. But he’s going to need some help reaching his full potential, and some of those things are out of his control.