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Horizon League Preview: Can Oakland rebound from a first round tourney exit?

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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 the Horizon League.

The major conference arms race in college basketball claimed another Horizon League staple this offseason as Valparaiso is leaving the league for the Missouri Valley Conference. While losing the Crusaders is a big blow to a proud mid-major league, there is still reason to be optimistic about the conference for this season and beyond. There are a few strong teams at the top of the league with intriguing starpower, while four head coaches will be in the Horizon for the first time.

One of the most scary mid-major teams in the country this season will be Oakland. Head coach Greg Kampe always has a fair share of talented offensive players and high-major transfers and the collection of talent he has in place this year could be great. Returning senior forward Jalen Hayes is a leading conference Player of the Year candidate while senior guard Martez Walker put up 17.8 points per game last season.

This team also adds a huge transfer in former Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn. A 1,000-point career scorer in the Big Ten, Nunn helps offset the loss of Sherron Dorsey-Walker. The Golden Grizzlies had a shocking first-round exit from the Horizon League tourney last season and they’ll be hungry to make the NCAA tournament. If Oakland gets there, nobody will want to play them in the first round.

Behind Oakland in the Horizon League pack comes an emerging threat in Northern Kentucky. Making the NCAA tournament in their first full year as a Division I member last season, the Norse return Player of the Year candidate Drew McDonald in the frontcourt and Horizon League tournament MVP Lavone Holland in the backcourt. With four returning starters of their own off of a 24-win team, Northern Kentucky should not be taken lightly this season.

UIC has been accumulating talent over the past few seasons as the Flames are hoping to stay fully healthy. Former league Freshman of the Year Dikembe Dixon tore his ACL 10 games into the season and missed most of his sophomore campaign as he was putting up huge numbers. The Flames still finished a respectable 7-11 in the league and return four starters besides Dixson, including the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year in rim protector Tai Odiase. Point guard Tarkus Ferguson led the Horizon in assists while Dominique Matthews and Godwin Boahen are both solid scorers on the wing.

Reigning league Freshman of the Year Corey Allen will be the go-to guy for a Detroit team that returns three starters of their own. Scoring guard Josh McFolley and forward Gerald Blackshear are two more returning starters while touted freshman point guard Jermaine Jackson Jr. chose to play for his dad, an assistant coach with the Titans. Transfers Kameron Chatman (Michigan) and Roschon Prince (Long Beach State) add additional depth for an intriguing team.

Wright State was hit hard when Mark Alstork opted to transfer to Illinois but the senior backcourt group of Justin Mitchell and Grant Benzinger will be among the league’s best. The Raiders are hoping that some transfers and redshirts are able to step up. Leading scorer Cameron Morse is back for Youngstown State after back-to-back seasons of over 20 points per game. Senior guard Francisco Santiago is another returning double-figure scorer for the Penguins. Other than that, it will be a lot of new faces for the program as new head coach Jerrod Calhoun, a former Bob Huggins assistant with DII success, brought in six new players.

Green Bay has almost an entirely new roster as all-league defensive guard Khalil Small is the only returning starter. Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen should help with his addition at semester break but this team has a lot of question marks. New head coach Dennis Felton inherits three returning starters at Cleveland State but the trio collectively averaged around 21 points per game so there isn’t much notable production. Senior guard Bobby Word is the team’s biggest threat.

Another new head coach in the Horizon is Pat Baldwin at Milwaukee as the former Northwestern assistant gets back junior Brock Stull, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season. The Panthers return three starters around Stull but they only won 11 games last season. Horizon League newcomer IUPUI was added this summer to be a 10th member and the Jaguars are going to have an adjustment period coming off of six consecutive losing seasons in the Summit League.

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

REALIGNMENT MOVES 

In: IUPUI
Out: Valparaiso

PRESEASON HORIZON LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jalen Hayes, Oakland

With nine double-doubles during conference play, the 6-foot-7 redshirt senior is one of the most talented and productive players in the league. The versatile forward put up 15.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per game but he also has the skill to potentially space the floor a bit more this season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON HORIZON LEAGUE TEAM

  • Kendrick Nunn, Oakland: The redshirt senior put up 15.5 points per game at Illinois when he last played in 2015-16 and could put up big scoring numbers.
  • Dikembe Dixson, UIC: Although he only played 10 games before an ACL injury, the 6-foot-7 forward was putting up 20.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game to start his sophomore year.
  • Cameron Morse, Youngstown State: A big-time scorer with four career 40-point games, the 6-foot-3 Morse should be one of the nation’s leading scorers this season.
  • Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky: An impressive sophomore season made McDonald one of the league’s best as he put up 16.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @HorizonLeague

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Oakland
  2. Northern Kentucky
  3. UIC
  4. Detroit
  5. Wright State
  6. Youngstown State
  7. Green Bay
  8. Cleveland State
  9. Milwaukee
  10. IUPUI

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.