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2018-19 Big East Preview: Can Villanova withstand losing NBA draft picks?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.


What do we make of the Big East this season?

Villanova is the headliner after winning its second national title in three seasons, but Jay Wright’s program is also emblematic of what’s going on across much of the league – turnover.

The Wildcats lost four of their top players.

Xavier turned over its roster and lost its head coach.

Creighton said goodbye to its backcourt.

Seton Hall bid farewell to Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington.

Does all that change clear a path for new challengers like Marquette or St. John’s, or does it simply mean more of the same with reloading over rebuilding?

Let’s dive into the Big East.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Are the ‘Cats back?

Jay Wright might not be in the one-and-done business, but he’s about to be tasked with something his colleagues who are, like John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski, go through each and every year — rebuilding a winner from near-scratch. Villanova lost its top four scorers (to the first 33 picks of the 2018 NBA Draft) off a team that won a second national title in three years, and while a step back is probably inevitable, the size of the stride might be negligible.

Sure, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVencenzo and Omari Spellman are collecting NBA paychecks, but Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are still Villanova students, as are five-star freshman point guard Jahvon Quinerly and the rest of rest of Wright’s top-10 2018 recruiting class. Things ain’t exactly dire for Villanova. How far the ‘Cats slide — or how high they fly, depending on your perspective — may very well hinge on how Paschall steps into a starring role. He was an exactingly efficient offensive player a year ago, but he was also playing with four soon-to-be draft picks. If he’s able to join those ranks in a few months, Villanova probably isn’t going to be far off from the top of the Big East standings.

Or national rankings.

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

2. Xavier bets on itself

It’s always struck me as a little wild that you can draw a straight line from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. The first taught the second, who taught the third. That’s some serious historical firepower, all one after the other. Now, I’m not saying Xavier’s coaching lineage is comparable to the development of the philosophy that has served as one of the primary influences of western civilization, but maybe I am?

Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack. That’s incredibly impressive longevity* with home run hire after home run hire. Xavier really is a model of consistent excellence on the bench. So, um, no pressure, Travis Steele.

*And, not that we’re keeping score or drawing out this dumb comparison, but that’s four (4) super successful college basketball coaches to three (3) revolutionary philosophers. Draw your own conclusions, is what I’m saying.

With Mack moving on to Louisville to replace a Hall of Famer, X turned to Steele, a Musketeer assistant for 10 years. Spending a decade at Xavier and working for both Miller and Mack seems to be resume enough to take over the program, given its history. Steele, though, will have to do more than rely on Xavier’s legacy of winning as Mack’s departure coincides with those of Trevon Bluiett, Kerem Kanter and J.P. Macura, a trio that won a lot of games in Cincinnati. Quentin Goodin, thankfully for Steele, is still with Xavier as are a host of grad-transfers that will help hold the fort until Steele’s top-15 2019 recruiting class gets to campus.

If, as my man Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” then Xavier certainly has developed a habit over the last 20 years. Can Steele maintain the routine?

3. Mullin’s make-or-break

Whatever designs St. John’s had on a quick rebuild when it hired legendary alum and Dream Teamer Chris Mullin have not materialized. Mullin has three successive losing seasons to his credit in Queens (though the Red Storm have increased their win total each year) and seven conference wins has been the high-water mark. St. John’s dreamed of the instant-turnaround that Fred Hoiberg, who also had NBA front office experience but no coaching resume, produced at his alma mater, Iowa State, but all they’ve done is exacerbate the slide that started under Steve Lavin.

If that’s going to change, it’s probably going to have to happen this season.

Mullin has without a doubt his most talented roster, and it’s one that has the look of being capable not only of breaking that .500 barrier, but competing, truly competing, in the Big East. Shamorie Ponds flirted with an NBA future, but instead returned for his junior season and will be a conference player of the year candidate. The Red Storm also were given a gift when the NCAA declared Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron immediately eligible, giving them one of the country’s most dynamic backcourts. St. John’s also has Justin Simon and Marvin Clark back plus some other intriguing transfer options.

With talent in tow, consistency and identity will likely be what determines St. John’s level of success this season. They’ve never really had either under Mullin, but they haven’t had this kind of roster, either.

Patrick Ewing (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

4. Ewing’s Year 2

Mullin isn’t the only Dream Teamer in the Big East, and he’s not the only one looking to build his alma mater back to former glory. Patrick Ewing’s first season at the helm at the Hilltop was something of a mixed bag in that the Hoyas didn’t win a ton of games, but the expectation wasn’t really that they would. Georgetown was pretty middling at everything (84th in offense and 119 on defense, according to KenPom) and the only two wins of note came back-to-back in February when the Hoyas beat Seton Hall and Butler.

So what’s the expectation for Ewing’s second season? Well, they’re not exactly raised exponentially. They are, however, raised, especially with Jessie Govan’s decision to return for another season. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 17.9 points and 10 rebounds per game as a junior, flashing elite skill on the boards and production on offense. Freshmen James Akinjo and Mac McClung inject some talent and excitement into the program as well. None of that likely adds up to a ton of wins, but there’s enough there to believe that Ewing has the Hoyas on a positive trajectory.

5. Marquette’s offense leads the way

Steve Wojciechowski may have lost Andrew Rowsey, who made 41.5 percent of his 301 3-point attempts, from last year’s team, but there remains plenty of offensive firepower in Milwaukee, starting with Markus Howard. The 5-foot-11 junior is among the country’s best shooters after going 46.4/40.4/93.8 last season, and will be a frontrunner for conference player of the year honors. Pair him with Sam Hauser, who shot 48.7 percent from 3 last year, and you’ve got yourself some long-range threats. Hauser’s younger brother, Joey, will also join the ranks this season, and the top-55 recruit should only bolster Marquette’s march toward being one of the best offenses in the country.

Shamorie Ponds (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s

There are plenty of contenders here in what will be a wide-open race, but the nod goes to Ponds, who will need to put up huge numbers if the Red Storm, even with Mustapha Heron in the fold, are going to find some success and get back to the NCAA tournament. He averaged 21.6 points per game last season, but also had one of the better assists rates in the country. Ponds also was productive defensively with 2.3 steals per game.

Ponds’ raw numbers might not duplicate what he did last year, but Heron’s presence should ease some of the burden that Ponds had offensively last year as he carried St. John’s offense with a huge usage rate. That should come down and allow his efficiency numbers to tick up – though his 3-point shooting will have to revert from his sophomore season (25.1) to his junior numbers (37.5) – and keep the Red Storm offense humming.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: One of the country’s best shooters, Howard will be the engine of Marquette’s offense.
  • ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova: With much of last year’s national championship roster in the NBA, Paschall will move into a major role – with major responsibilities.
  • KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler: Baldwin took an expanded role and ran with it last year, and he’s on pace to be one of the best scorers in Butler history.
  • PHIL BOOTH, Villanova: Booth had a strong 2017-18 dispute injury and he’ll be called upon to keep the Wildcats’ elite status.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • SAM HAUSER, Marquette
  • ALPHA DIALLO, Providence
  • MUSTAPHA HERON, St. John’s
  • MAX STRUS, DePaul
  • MARTIN KRAMPELJ, Creighton
Sam Hauser (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Markus Howard is going to generate the headlines and most of the attention for Marquette heading into the season, but Sam Hauser deserves some notice as well. The 6-foot-8 Wisconsin native shot an eye-popping 48.7 percent from 3-point range, and it wasn’t a product of a small sample size as he hoisted 195 shots from distance. He needs to defend better to transform into something special, but his shooting alone makes him likely to have a couple monster nights in the Big East.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Dave Leitao took DePaul to the NIT and back-to-back NCAA tournaments in his first stint with DePaul back in the early 2000s. His first three years back with the Blue Demons have gone…not as well. DePaul has gone 29-65 overall and 9-45 in Big East play during his second tenure. Safe to say, a program like Virginia ain’t about to come calling like the last time. It’s a very different world for the Blue Demons since Leitao led them to success, starting with the fact competing in the Big East is vastly different than doing it in C-USA. Given Leitao’s track record with the Cavaliers and now a three-year sample at DePaul, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason for hope that things will turn around for the Blue Demons.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Big East doesn’t have any national-title favorites, but the strength of the league could put a few teams into the second weekend.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The conference’s guard play, from St. John’s Ponds-Heron duo to Marquette’s 3-point specialists to Villanova’s quest to replace Jalen Brunson to Kamar Baldwin running the show in Indianapolis, there’s a lot to like about the Big East’s backcourts.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Villanova vs. Kansas
  • Dec., Georgetown vs. Syracuse
  • Dec. 29, Butler vs. Florida
  • Dec. 1, Creighton vs. Gonzaga
  • Dec. 1, Seton Hall vs. Louisville
Eric Paschall (Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. VILLANOVA: Yeah, there are plenty of questions about how Villanova will reload given the heavy losses it sustained, but with how Jay Wright has navigated the program in recent years, is there really any doubting him? The Wildcats have put themselves among the premier programs in the country, and they’ve done it by replacing stars with stars. There are candidates on this roster, and here’s guessing they reach their potential.

2. XAVIER: Xavier decided to do what it does when it promoted Travis Steele, and given the history of hires at X, there are two ways to look at it. Either, one, this is a school that simply does not miss on coaches, or, two, they’re due for a dud.

Here’s guessing Xavier knows what it’s doing.

The Musketeers will have their work cut out for them this season with losses like Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura (plus Sean O’Mara, Kerem Kanter and Kaiser Gates), but the infrastructure and culture remain and there is still talent on the roster. They’ll need more from Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall and the graduate transfers like Zach Hankins, Ryan Welage and Kyle Castlin will have to contribute, but Xavier has been through this before. It’s worked out.

3. PROVIDENCE: The Friars have been to five-straight NCAA tournaments and coach Ed Cooley has some major holes to fill after the departures of Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock, but the presence of Alpha Diallo and a healthy Emmitt Holt could be enough to catapult them to toward the top of the league. The 6-foot-7 Diallo will be asked to shoulder a significant burden on both ends of the floor, but his versatility and ability to score around the bucket make him a strong candidate for that role. An abdominal injury robbed Holt of last season, but if his health holds up this season, he and Diallo make for a formidable one-two punch.

4. ST. JOHN’S: The Red Storm already looked poised to make a move up the standings when Shamorie Ponds decided to return for his junior season, but the NCAA’s decision to grant Mustapha Heron immediate-eligibility after his transfer from Auburn solidifies the expectation that this is the year Chris Mullin breaks through to an NCAA tournament. That’s what happens when you’re projected to have one of the best backcourts in the country.

The Red Storm actually put up strong defensive numbers last season after being pretty mediocre on that end in Mullin’s first two years, but the offense sagged with Ponds simply carrying too much of the load. If they can build on what they did defensively last year and use the Ponds-Heron backcourt to power the offense, the hopes the program placed in Mullin might prove justified.

Markus Howard #(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

5. MARQUETTE: The Golden Eagles are going to score. A lot, probably. Markus Howard is going to get buckets. So is Sam Hauser. Joey Hauser, probably too. Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny is a nice addition as well. Marquette is going to put the ball in the basket.

Can they keep their opponent from doing the same with any sort of consistency? That’ll determine their season’s fate. Marquette’s defensive ranking at KenPom has slipped in every season under Steve Wojciechowski, from 69th in his first season to 182nd last year. That’s kept the last two teams, both having awesome offenses, from thriving. If it doesn’t improve this year, it’ll likely make it three in a row.

6. BUTLER: This feels too low for a Bulldogs team that weathered the loss of Chris Holtmann a year ago to go to a fourth-straight NCAA tournament and returns three starters, including Kamar Baldwin, but they’ll have to do some serious retooling after the graduation of 2,000-point scorer Kelan Martin, around whom everything revolved offensively.

Baldwin will be the key here as he steps into a bigger role and will be the focal point of defensive strategies. He was good last year, but also was short of great and that was with an All-American candidate by his side. If he grows along with his role, the Bulldogs will be just fine in their second year under LaVall Jordan.

7. SETON HALL: It’s a new chapter of hoops for Seton Hall and coach Kevin Willard with the losses of program stalwarts Desi Rodriguez, Khadeen Carrington and Angel Delgado, who helped lead the Pirates to three-straight NCAA tournaments and arguably keep Willard in place at Seton Hall after five-straight NCAA tournament-less seasons previously. That’s the type of chapter Seton Hall would just assume not re-read.

Myles Powell’s ability to assume a huge role will likely determine how the Pirates’ season unfolds. He was a supporting character a year ago, but was effective in his limited workload, converting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep and 43.3 percent overall. He’ll need to improve as a distributor and trim the turnover rate, but he’ll be given the opportunity to flourish.

8. GEORGETOWN: Most believe that Patrick Ewing is doing good things with his alma mater. That the program is poised to make progress and that, eventually, he’ll get the Hoyas back in the NCAA tournament. There’s maybe just not all that much to get excited about this season.

Jessie Govan is undoubtedly one of the Big East’s top players, but it’s hard to look at the rest of the roster and forecast a major improvement from last season’s team that won just five conference games. If some of the youngsters pan out immediately, maybe, but the upside just doesn’t appear to be all that significant for Ewing’s Hoyas in Year 2.

9. CREIGHTON: If history is a guide, Greg McDermott will get Creighton back to the NCAA tournament. It just might take a little bit. The Blue Jays will have to rebuild after losing their do-everything backcourt of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas but there are pieces in place to make that happen. Maybe just not this year.

It’s not unlike McDermott’s job after his son, Doug, wrapped up a historic career. The Blue Jays went to three-straight tournaments before a two-year hiatus gave way to the last two seasons’ success. Creighton may hit pause this year, but the Mitchell Ballock has the look of a potential future star and Creighton has raised its profile enough to believe it’ll be able to find a third era of success under McDermott.

10. DEPAUL: The Blue Demons have steadily upped their talent level as Dave Leitao makes another go at it in Chicago, but it has been significant enough through three seasons to really matter as they’ve finished last in the Big East in back-to-back years after finishing ninth in Leitao’s first season back at DePaul.

Max Strus proved he was a Big East-caliber player after starting his career in Division II, and Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands is a 3-point threat. The rest of the roter, though, remains largely unproven.

Report: Michigan to ‘host’ Rutgers at Madison Square Garden

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The Big Ten has long coveted New York and Madison Square Garden. The league brought in Rutgers in expansion largely to access the New York market, and it rearranged its entire schedule to get its conference tournament at MSG in 2018.

Now Michigan is apparently willing to give up a home date to play that “New York” school in order to return to one of the crown jewels of the sport.

The Wolverines are expected to be the home team this winter at Madison Square Garden when they play Rutgers, according to a report from NJ Advance Media, which cited four unnamed sources with knowledge of the situation.

The game will be part of a doubleheader with a Michigan-Rutgers wrestling dual, according to the report.

Aside from however this effects the bottom line for Michigan – which certainly isn’t hurting in the revenue department – this would appear to be a great move for both schools and the Big Ten at large. Normally, I’m against moving games off-campus to sterile and identity-less NBA arenas, but obviously Madison Square Garden is a unique venue and opportunity for all parties.

If you can get a conference game at MSG, you do it, even if you’ve got to give up a date at Crisler Center. It’s weird that it’s not just a Rutgers home date, but with the B1G’s wonky scheduling with 20-league games in a 14-team league, weird stuff is going to happen, especially when outside-the-box opportunities like this arise.

American Athletic Conference Offseason Reset: What does all the turnover mean for the league?

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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 the American.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

SO UCONN IS LEAVING. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THE CONFERENCE?: This is not only the biggest storyline in the American, it is one of the biggest and most intriguing storylines in all of college basketball. UConn is a storied program. It has won four of the last 20 national titles. It is a national brand that has churned out as many pros as any school in the country. It has fallen on hard times as Kevin Ollie drove the program straight into the ground. They are leaving the American and returning to the Big East, the conference that they helped launch 40 years ago.

This is a great thing for UConn, but this isn’t really about UConn. It’s about the American and what it means for a league that has been trying to prove they belong in the same conversation as the rest of the high-majors since it split from the Big East six years ago. And the truth is that they’ll be just fine. The Huskies have finished under .500 the last three years. They’ve missed four of the last five NCAA tournaments. The year they did go dancing, it was as the American’s automatic bid, a run that required a four-OT win over Cincinnati – which included this miracle 60-footer – in the quarters of the AAC tournament to avoid spending Selection Sunday on the bubble.

UConn is thought to be a borderline NCAA tournament team this season, which means that the Huskies will leave the league next summer having been more or less irrelevant for the better part of a decade. The American has still sent at least two teams to the Big Dance in each of their six seasons, with four teams earning a bid in three of those six years. Penny Hardaway has Memphis rolling. Kelvin Sampson has Houston rolling. Mick Cronin left Cincinnati, but John Brannen is a good coach and the Bearcats have talent. Wichita State will, eventually, be back in the thick of the NCAA tournament race.

Losing UConn is a blow for what the American’s ceiling can be. But with UCF, Temple, Tulsa and SMU all having proven capable of playing their way into an at-large bid, the conference will effectively be what it was with UConn there – a safe-bet to get three bids with four programs at the top that are annually in the at-large mix.

It’s not the ACC and it will never be, but it’s not the Mountain West, either.

(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

CAN PENNY WIN WITH ALL THE TALENT HE HAS IN MEMPHIS?: When it comes to the conversation on the court, just how good Memphis will be is the most interesting question that we are going to have answered this year. There is no question that they are talented. James Wiseman is the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019 and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. Precious Achiuwa is top ten and top ten. The Memphis recruiting class is ranked as the No. 1 recruiting class in college basketball, higher than Duke and Kentucky and Kansas and everyone else.

But there is also plenty of reason to be skeptical of them. For starters, we’ve seen Penny coach one season of college basketball. They probably exceeded expectations during that one season, but one year is not exactly a large sample size. I actually think Penny is going to be a good college coach. My biggest concern with this group is that they are going to be very young. Seven of their top ten players are going to be freshmen, and only two of those seven freshmen are five-star, instant impact, potential first round picks. And two of their returnees are tiny lead guards that are going to be playing behind one of those freshman – Boogie Ellis – at the point.

I understand why Memphis fans are going to go nuts and why Memphis will be a preseason top ten team. Personally, I have them ranked at No. 20 entering the season.

WHAT WILL CINCINNATI BE POST-CRONIN?: Mick Cronin spent 13 seasons as the head coach fo the Bearcats, and in each of the last nine seasons that he was in Cincinnati, he led the program to the NCAA tournament. There are only five other schools that can make that claim – Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and North Carolina – and only three other programs that can say they’ve been to six straight NCAA tournaments – Villanova, Kentucky and Virginia.

Think about that for a second.

Those are massive shoes for John Brannen to be stepping in. He’s had success at Northern Kentucky, he’s a local guy with local ties and the return of Jarron Cumberland should make his life just that much easier. But don’t gloss over what Cronin did at Cincinnati. The level of consistency that he reached at that school was remarkable.

CAN HOUSTON FIND A WAY TO GET QUENTIN GRIMES ELIGIBLE?: Houston got hit with a dagger on the last day that underclassmen could return to school without losing eligibility – Armoni Brooks opted to stay in the draft instead of coming back for his senior year. The Cougars were already losing Galen Robinson and Corey Davis. They needed Brooks back to offset that loss, particularly once Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes committed to the program. Now, Houston has to try to find a way to get Grimes, a Houston native, eligible for this season. The former five-star prospect would likely be the most talented guard in the American – and the difference between being a borderline top 25 team and a borderline tournament team – if he’s eligible to play.

HOW LONG WILL IT BE BEFORE WICHITA STATE IS BACK?: Gregg Marshall is one of the best coaches in all of college basketball, and the fact that he took last year’s roster and got them to 10-8 in the AAC and into the NIT should be proof of that. But the Shockers are losing Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones, their two leading scorers from last season, and dismissed Teddy Allen, who was supposed to be the leading scorer this year, last month.

Wichita State went 14-4 in the final two months of the 2018-19 season, including a stretch where they won 11 of 13 games against AAC opponents. They’ll win because Marshall is really good at his job. But as more time passes, it gets harder and harder to ignore the fact that in his last five years in the Missouri Valley, Marshall coached four NBA players – Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Landry Shamet.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE

  • MICK CRONIN, Cincinnati: This is a massive blow to the Cincinnati program, as Cronin had become one of the most consistently successful coaches in college basketball.
  • COREY DAVIS, ARMONI BROOKS and GALEN ROBINSON, Houston: The Cougars are going to have to totally rebuild their perimeter attack, and while there are some pieces there – DeJon Jarreau, Nate Hinton, Quentin Grimes – it is not going to be easy to replicate what they lost.
  • TEDDY ALLEN, Wichita State: For my money, Allen getting dismissed is a bigger loss either McDuffie or Haynes-Jones. Marshall planned to lose his seniors, and part of that plan was having Allen’s scoring pop to replace them.
  • EVERYONE, UCF: The Knights came within one bucket of beating Duke to get to the Sweet 16 last season, but they are going to have their work cut out for them this season with Tacko Fall, B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins all gone.
  • SHIZZ ALSTON, Temple: Alston was one of the best guards in the conference, and he will be following Fran Dunphy out the door.

WHO’S BACK

  • JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati: James Wiseman is the best prospect in the conference, but for my money, Cumberland is going to be the best player in the AAC this season. There is a new coaching regime, and Cumberland’s presence should help ease the transition period.
  • EVERYONE, South Florida: South Florida is South Florida, so I’m hardly the only one that is going to need to see it to fully believe it, but the Bulls bring back everyone from a team that won 24 games last year. They have a really, really good backcourt. We’ll see.
  • KELVIN SAMPSON, Houston: Keeping Sampson despite overtures coming from a handful of schools, namely Arkansas, was the most important thing Houston could do this offseason. I fully believe that he is one of the 10-15 best pure basketball coaches in college hoops right now.
  • ALTERIQUE GILBERT, UConn: UConn loses Jalen Adams, but it shouldn’t matter if Gilbert can find a way to be healthy for four months this winter. That, however, is never a guarantee.

WHO’S COMING

  • JAMES WISEMAN and PRECIOUS ACHIUWA, Memphis: These two are the reason that the Tigers are going to enter the season in the top ten of both polls. We more or less know what they are going to be. The big question with Memphis, the key to the Tigers reaching their ceiling, centers on the rest of their newcomers.
  • QUENTIN GRIMES, Houston?: If Grimes, a former top ten recruit and Kansas transfer, can find a way to get eligible for this season the Cougars won’t have to worry all that much about losing Armoni Brooks.
  • AKOK AKOK, UConn: Everyone knows about the guards that UConn is bringing in, but the key to the Huskies getting to the NCAA tournament this season is going to be Akok’s impact in his first season as a Husky. Once considered a five-star prospect, Akok enrolled at UConn at the semester break and will play the 2019-20 season as a redshirt freshman.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-AAC TEAM

JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati (Preseason Player of the Year)
DEJON JARREAU, Houston
QUINTON ROSE, Temple
PRECIOUS ACHIUWA, Memphis
JAMES WISEMAN, Memphis

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. MEMPHIS: We talked more in-depth about the Tigers earlier, but I will say this: They are far and away the most talented team in the league, and they are also far and away the youngest relevant team in the league. How that translates into wins in a conference where the rest of their title competition have more experience and/or are built on toughness and physicality is going to be interesting to watch.

2. HOUSTON: I trust Kelvin Sampson as much as I trust any coach in college basketball to be able to find a way to make his pieces work. Losing Armoni Brooks hurts, but with Nate Hinton and DeJon Jarreau in the backcourt, there is some talent. There’s a possibility Quentin Grimes may find his way into playing this season, too. Throw in some size and depth in the frontcourt, and the Cougars look like they are going to be heading back to the tournament.

3. CINCINNATI: The Bearcats have the guy that very well could end up being the best player in the league on their roster in Jarron Cumberland. He looks like a linebacker, but he managed to put up 18.8 points, 4.4 boards and 3.6 assists while shooting 39 percent from three last season. He can hoop. Cincinnati also returns Keith Williams and Tre Scott while adding Jaevin Cumberland, Jarron’s cousin, a grad transfer from Oakland. The big question with this group is going to be how the adjust to new head coach John Brannen. With Mick Cronin back, I would probably slot Cincinnati second.

4. WICHITA STATE: For my money, the Shockers are the most interesting team in this conference. Yes, they lost their top two scorers from last season – not to mention the guy they thought was going to be their top scorer this season – but this was a deep team last season that really came on strong down the stretch. They won 11 out of 13 down the stretch of the AAC season, and then proceeded to beat Furman, Clemson and Indiana on the road in the NIT to get to that tournament’s Final Four. Jaime Echenique is one of the best bigs in the league while Dexter Dennis and Erik Stevenson look ready for big sophomore seasons. They’re tough, they’re battle-tested and they have arguably the best coach in the league. We’ll see.

5. TEMPLE: The Aaron McKie era at Temple will begin with a team capable of getting back to the NCAA tournament if things break right. Shizz Alston is gone, and that hurts, but the Owls will bring back both Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis. That will be enough to keep them in the top half of the league.

6. UCONN: Losing Jalen Adams is going to hurt, but beyond that, the Huskies bring back a lot of important pieces from last season. They should have plenty of perimeter depth even if Alterique Gilbert’s health struggles continue, as they add James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney to a rotation that already includes Christian Vital. Josh Carlton and Tyler Polley will provide some continuity in the frontcourt, but I think Danny Hurley’s second season in Storrs is going to come down to how well Sidney Wilson and Akok Akok perform in their second year on campus.

7. UCF: The Knights are a tough team to project this season. On the one hand, they lost all of their dudes – B.J. Taylor and Tacko Fall graduated while Aubrey Dawkins turned pro. On the other hand, they have a number of really good transfers getting eligible this year (Dazon Ingram, Matt Milon, Yuat Alok, Ibrahim Doumbia) while Collin Smith looks like he’ll be ready for a big year. They’ve got a chance to sneak up on some people.

8. SOUTH FLORIDA: The Bulls are the sleeper in the American, and they have a chance to be really, really good. David Collins and LaQuincy Rideau give them one of the best backcourts in the league, and they return basically everyone from last season, when they finished 24-14 overall and 8-10 in the league. I’m not sure they have the ceiling to crack the top three in the league, but if you were to tell me that they can finish above Wichita State, Temple, UConn and UCF, I wouldn’t call you crazy.

9. TULSA: Losing DaQuan Jeffries, Sterling Taplin and Curran Scott will hurt, but Frank Haith will have some bodies coming back. Martins Igabnu and Jeriah Horne. The young Tulsa guards are going to need to step up.

10. SMU: The Larry Brown era seems so long ago. The Mustangs are now losing their two best guards off of a team that went just 3-15 in the AAC last season.

11. EAST CAROLINA: The good news is that ECU brings back Jayden Gardner, who averaged 16.3 points and 8.5 boards as a freshman. The bad news is that he is the only one of their top seven scorers to return.

12. TULANE: Tulane won four games last season and lost their top three players. new head coach Ron Hunter has some talent and transfers coming into the program, but they have a long way to go.

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.