MAAC Preview: Can Monmouth finally break through into NCAAs?

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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 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

There’s plenty of change in the MAAC this season, but the one that will be most visible could very well be the schedule. The league took steps in the offseason that they hope will help boost its members’ RPI. They’ve trimmed the conference schedule from 20 to 18 games, eliminating the true home-and-home round-robin in favor of pitting the top teams against each other and opening up non-conference opportunities (the top teams in the league are required to schedule top-250 RPI squads).

After seeing Monmouth put together back-to-back monster seasons without an NCAA tournament berth, it’s probably a good move for the MAAC to try to do what they can to improve an already strong league.

King Rice’s Hawks will face a tall task in trying to repeat their success of the last two seasons – and finally secure that NCAA tournament bid – after the graduation of MAAC player of the year Justin Robinson and second leading scorer Je’lon Hornbeak. Junior Micah Seaborn will be asked to step into the void, which means he’ll have to seriously improve his efficiency to keep Monmouth’s offense humming, especially with the Hawks having lost a good chunk of their shooting from last season.

After taking the league’s automatic NCAA tournament spot the last two years, Iona is in much the same spot as Monmouth – trying to replace program stalwarts. Jordan Washington, who had one of the highest usage rates in the country last year, is gone to graduation, as are guards Sam Cassell and Jon Severe. TK Edogi, a 6-foot-8 forward, moves from a small role at Tulsa to a potentially huge one with the Gaels, as does Massachusetts transfer Zach Lewis. The key for Tim Cluess’ squad is probably shoring up the defense. With Washington getting buckets inside, the Gaels were able to out-offense teams while their defense lagged well behind. The offense is likely to take a hit this season, so if the defense can make up some of the difference, Iona could be in the picture at the top of the league again.

Fairfield hasn’t finished in the top-three of the MAAC since 2012, but with Tyler Nelson back for his senior season, the Stags have a chance to push for a top spot in the league. Transfer losses of Curtis Cobb (UMass) and Jerry Johnson (Chattanooga) certainly hurt, but Nelson is the type of player that can help cover up a lot of issues. Plus, point guard Jerome Segura is adept at getting others involved, which may be the key as Nelson is sure to shoulder a heavy load, but won’t be able to do it all alone. Finding additional shooting will be critical for the Stags.

Niagara hasn’t made much noise in the MAAC in recent seasons, but the Purple Eagles have one of the top one-two combinations in the league in Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes. Both need to improve their efficiency inside the arc, but it’s their 3-point shooting that helps move the needle. If the two of them are special, Niagara has a chance to do some damage.

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

PRESEASON MAAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Nelson, Fairfield

The 6-foot-3 guard returns for his senior season as the MAAC’s top scorer after averaging nearly 20 points per game last season. He’s a near-40 percent 3-point shooter as well as an important distributor for the Stags. Expect a huge minutes and usage load for Nelson – and the big stats to match.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON MAAC TEAM:

  • Matt Scott, Niagara: Put up 17 points per game, but his 7 rebounds per game may be more impressive from a 6-foot-4 guard.
  • Jermaine Crumpton, Canisius: Crumpton is a 6-foot-6, 245-pound tank, but a skilled one who shot nearly four 3-pointers per game, hitting 42,9 percent of them, last season
  • Micah Seaborn, Monmouth: Will be tasked with a big scoring role after the departures of Justin Robinson and Je’Lon Hornbeak.
  • Kahlil Dukes, Niagara: The former USC Trojan shot 41.4 percent from the 3-point line and 92.1 percent from the free-throw line while averaging better than 15 points per game.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Iona
2. Monmouth
3. Niagara
4. Fairfield
5. Manhattan
6. St. Peter’s
7. Siena
8. Rider
9. Canisius
10. Marist
11. Quinnipiac

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POLL IMPLICATIONS

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

BIG PICTURE

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

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

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIG PICTURE

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

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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

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

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

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