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2018-19 American Preview: Year of the AAC rebuild

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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 American Athletic Conference.


The AAC wasn’t as deep last year as the league would have hoped, but it was strong at the top with Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State all proving themselves among the country’s best – even if all three had disappointing ends to their seasons in the NCAA tournament.

This season will be one of transition for the conference as those three tournament teams from last year all having major roster turnover while two of the league’s traditional power programs – Memphis and UConn – made splashy head coaching moves after both had fallen into mediocrity in recent years.

That means the league is there for the taking this season.

Cincy, Houston and Wichita State could all be back at the top while talented UCF could shrug off last season’s injury woes to take the crown or one of the league’s middle tier could jump up and surprise.

The AAC probably won’t have those high-end, national contenders this season, but it figures to be an intriguing year, especially with the changes in Memphis and Storrs.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Penny’s back

There is just something overwhelmingly cool about Penny Hardaway. His game – full of both power and grace – as a 6-foot-7 point guard just screamed style. As did the jersey he wore while he came to prominence. Those 1990s Magic uniforms – especially the black pinstripes – was the thing of Starter jacket dreams. And those teams. Oh, those teams. Penny and Shaq in Orlando was more entertaining than anything their Disney neighbors could have dreamed up. I haven’t even mentioned the Chris Rock-voiced Lil’ Penny. Even the name ‘Penny’ is great.

My goodness, was Penny Hardaway cool. Now he’s trying to bring cool – and winning – back to his alma mater, Memphis.

An alum and city native, the former NBA All Star brings his starpower and puts his legacy on the line in trying to get the Tigers back in line after a slump in production and a slide into apathy under Tubby Smith. Hardaway brings instant credibility thanks to his NBA career and his work winning state titles at Memphis East and navigating the EYBL with Team Penny. Whether he can coach at an elite collegiate level remains to be seen, but he’s already attracting talent – including the ever-important homegrown Memphis talent – to the Tigers program.

His return to helm Memphis is also one of college basketball’s top storylines. Memphis basketball is cool again, simply by association. Whether it’ll be a winner remains to be seen.

Dan Hurley, AP

2. UConn rebuild begins under Hurley

Given his last name and success at Wagner and, more recently, Rhode Island, Dan Hurley had multiple chances to move on to a bigger program. It took a shot at rebuilding one of college basketball’s biggest brands to get him to move. Hurley, the son of legendary high school coach Bob and brother Arizona State coach and Duke legend Bobby, is tasked with taking a program that went from national championship to downtrodden in the span of just four years back to the heights it so long enjoyed for years under Jim Calhoun and then briefly under Kevin Ollie.

Bringing UConn back to national prominence is an interesting challenge for Hurley as while the Huskies were in the AAC when they won the 2014 national title, they were just a year removed from playing in the Big East. The challenges of recruiting to the AAC are certainly different, even with a brand as strong as UConn. Still, it’s a brand that carries weight, just like the Hurley name. And both are extremely strong in the northeast. After back-to-back losing seasons under Ollie, UConn should be better in Hurley’s first year due largely to the return of Jalen Adams and Christian Vital, but getting back to the NCAA tournament – and winning a few games there – is a more likely outcome later in Hurley’s Storrs tenure. That fate, however, would seem to be a foregone conclusion.

3. Wichita State, Houston and Cincy suffer heavy losses…but remain contenders

Even with Memphis and UConn down and UCF hit hard by injuries, it was a strong season for the AAC in 2017-18 thanks to the strength of Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, the league’s three NCAA tournament teams that were all seeded sixth or higher. The trio of teams carried the AAC banner admirably, even if the tournament results – Cincy’s blown lead against Nevada and Houston’s last-second loss to Michigan costing them Sweet 16 berths, and Wichita’s first-round loss to Marshall – left something to be desired. There was no doubting those three teams’ strengths, and that they play some real ball in the AAC.

This year, though, all three are slated to take steps back, though the degree to which remains to be seen.

The Bearcats arguably have the most to replace, but are the best equipped to do it after the losses of Jacob Evans (first-round pick), Gary Clark (AAC player of the year) and Kyle Washington (two-year starter) from last year’s team but the return of potential AAC player of the year Jarron Cumberland. Mick Cronin also remains on the bench, and Cincy continues to be a safe bet for the NCAA tournament, even with the roster turnover.

Houston’s losses were fewer, but no less significant as the Cougars will be without the AAC’s leading scorer Rob Gray, Jr. and their top rebounder, Devin Davis. Things look to remain on track with the Cougars, who will open a new $60 million home this season, with Kelvin Sampson staying put after the Orlando Magic made some inquiries this offseason. Corey Davis, Jr. will also be a big reason why after shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range and averaging 13.1 points last year. He’ll be tasked with keeping the ever-potent Cougar offense (which has ranked in the top-40 in efficiency the last three years) humming.

If you believe in Wichita State this year, it’s because you believe in Gregg Marshall. The Shockers lost all five starters from last year’s team, which was successful but had at times difficulty navigating the new waters of the AAC after dominating the Missouri Valley Conference for so long. Marshall also already suffered his first loss to Penny Hardaway and Memphis when four-star commit Alex Lomax flipped to the Tigers after Hardaway, his high school coach, was hired at Memphis. If the Shockers are going to compete at the top of the AAC and get back to the NCAA tournament, it’ll likely have to be on the strength of a bounceback season from Markis McDuffie. The former MVC freshman of the year and first-team all-conference performer never seemed to find a rhythm last season after a stress fracture in his foot cost him the year’s first weeks. The Shockers will need him to return to star status this year.

Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

4. UCF’s talented – but unlucky – trio

The Knights are hoping they didn’t miss their window. Or, rather, they’re hoping beyond hope injuries didn’t slam that window shut. There were high expectations for UCF in Johnny Dawkins’ second year with not just talent, but unique talent, across the roster. Instead of fielding one of the AAC’s most talented groups, however, the Knights had one of its most frustrating.

Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son and a transfer from Michigan, was lost before the season started with a torn labrum, B.J Taylor missed the first two months with a broken foot and Tacko Fall, he of 7-foot-6 fame, shut things down due to a shoulder injury. Instead of a fearsome threesome, the Knights had a rag-tag group that still scratched its way to a 19-13 record. With its trio back – and presumably healthy – the Knights could be the most talented team in a league that saw much of its top talent depart. If those three can stay on the court, UCF might be the last team standing in the AAC.

5. Dunphy’s last dance

Fran Dunphy began his Philadelphia Big 5 career in 1967 as a player at La Salle then had assistant gigs at his alma mater and Penn before taking the first chair for the Quakers in 1989 and then moving across town to replace John Chaney at Temple in 2006. And now after more than 50 years, his career will come to a close. The winningest coach in Big 5 history will step down after one final ride with the Owls, handing over the reins to former Temple star, NBA veteran and current Owls associate head coach Aaron McKie.

Dunphy is one of just five coaches to win at least 200 hundred games while going to at least six NCAA tournaments at two schools with Lou Henson, Rick Pitino, Eddie Sutton and Roy Williams the others to accomplish the feat. Following Chaney was no easy task, but Dunphy has taken the Owls to seven NCAA tournaments. He’s not largely mentioned as one of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball, but as he enters his 30th and final season, he certainly is exactly that.

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati

Cumberland has spent his first two seasons in the Queen City in a supporting role for a team that won a combined 61 games while setting the standard in the AAC. This year, he’ll step into a starring role for a team looking to maintain that caliber of excellence. The 6-foot-5 guard studied under Jacob Evans and Troy Caupain and looks more than capable of taking the mantle of a Mick Cronin team.

Cumberland embodies the toughness and grit that has come to define Cronin’s Bearcat teams, but he’s plenty skilled as well. The Wilmington, Ohio native posted offensive efficiency ratings of 118.6 and 109.7 in his first two seasons as the team’s third or fourth offensive option. This year he’ll doubtless be the go-to guy, something he looked ready to assume with big NCAA tournament performances. The key to taking the step from role to star player, however, will be consistency. Cumberland’s production too often ebbed and flowed last season. This year’s team will need him to be good every night out. With the team unquestionably his, Cumberland will get his shot to be the next great Bearcat.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM

  • B.J. TAYLOR, UCF: Injuries cost Taylor his sophomore season and half of his junior campaign, but the 6-foot-2 guard is a prolific scorer who will help the Knights compete for an AAC championship.
  • JALEN ADAMS, UConn: After averaging 18 points and seeing his coach get fired, Adams nearly went pro this summer, but instead returns to Storrs to give Dan Hurley a talented guard in his first season at the helm.
  • JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis: The 6-foot-3 guard has steadily and impressively improved his numbers every season and now he’ll get the chance to do so under Penny Hardaway.
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU: Foster was on track for a big junior campaign before a torn ACL cut his season short, but his return will give him the chance to be the Mustangs’ featured player with Shake Milton gone to the pros.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • TACKO FALL, UCF
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, Wichita State
  • QUINTON ROSE, Temple
  • COREY DAVIS JR, Houston
  • AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF
Jarron Cumberland (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Maybe it’s been done before, but UConn’s Alterique Gilbert being named the AAC preseason rookie of the year twice is certainly a unique accomplishment. The possibility he may win it a third time is a little bit heartbreaking. The former top-50 recruit has played just nine games in two years for the Huskies after shoulder injuries twice ended what should have been his debut seasons before they could really get underway. Two lost seasons and three shoulder surgeries later, the point guard hopes to be healthy enough to play this season. If he’s able to play this season and can return to the form that made him a McDonald’s All-American in 2016, both he and the Huskies could be the surprise of the season in the AAC.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

There really isn’t a coach that enters this season in risk of losing his job as each program either has a new head man, stability or an expected rebuild ahead of it. That means this distinction belongs not to a man coaching for his job, but one coaching for his legacy.

Penny Hardaway’s return to Memphis has been heralded as one of the biggest stories in college basketball – and rightfully so. He’s got the star power and cache that really only a few people can bring to the job, and probably no one else could have duplicated at Memphis, his alma mater and hometown. But the hype and hope come with a dark side. If Hardaway can’t pull this off, it’ll be a blow to his to his rock-solid reputation in Memphis. Fred Hoiberg pulled off this feat with his alma mater at Iowa State, but Chris Mullen is finding it difficult to replicate at St. John’s. Memphis has one of the most interesting situations in the sport, but feel-good stories eventually have to translate to wins to keep the good vibes.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

That the AAC isn’t as strong this season as last, but that it remained respectable with at least three bids.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Did I mention FREAKING PENNY HARDAWAY IS THE COACH AT MEMPHIS?

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Memphis vs. Tennessee
  • Nov. 7, Cincinnati vs. Ohio State
  • Dec. 1, Houston vs. Oregon
  • Dec. 2, UCF vs. Missouri
  • Dec. 5, SMU vs. TCU
Kelvin Sampson, AP

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UCF: Winning the league will require quite a few things to go right for Johnny Dawkins’ team, but the Knights have the talent to do it, especially with the conference’s traditional powers not looking as powerful. It’ll largely come down to health. Can B.J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall all stay healthy all year long? If they share the floor all winter long, it’s not hard to see UCF atop the standings.

2. CINCINNATI: Despite heavy losses from last year’s 31-win team, Cincinnati should be strong enough once again to compete for a conference title. Jarron Cumberland will fill the offensive void, but it’s hard to envision a world where Mick Cronin’s team doesn’t defend well enough to win a ton of games in the AAC.

3. HOUSTON: Kelvin Sampson probably hasn’t been given the credit he deserves for the turnaround he’s engineered at Houston thanks in no small part to his scandal-forced exit at Indiana that kept him out of a head coaching chair for six years. The Cougars have developed into an AAC power, however, and look to stay there with an athletic department flush with cash in a new arena in one of the country’s booming cities. Houston is back on the basketball map, and even significant losses from last year won’t keep them off it.

4. SMU: The Mustangs are still under the purview of scholarship reductions from the Larry Brown era, but with a healthy Jarrey Foster and Mahmal McMurray, they should be competitive after injuries contributed to a second-half slide last season. Shake Milton is gone to the NBA and there are questions regarding the roster, but the Foster-McMurray one-two punch could be enough to elevate the Mustangs.

5. WICHITA STATE: This is a bet on the continuity of excellence. The Shockers will have to regroup after losing all five starters, including first-round pick Landry Shamet, but Gregg Marshall has been good enough long enough to warrant faith in a quick reload. Markis McDuffie is a talented piece to build around, especially if you give him the benefit of the doubt that last year’s struggles were the result of injury and not regression. All Marshall has done in Wichita has win, so it’s hard to believe we’ll see anything different this season, even if the faces on the floor are changed.

6. UCONN: While UConn engages in an ugly battle off the court with former coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies should be in line to play, if not beautiful, at least passing ball under first-year coach Dan Hurley. Jalen Adams could be the best player in the league, and Christian Vital is a proven commodity. If Alterique Gilbert is healthy and productive and Mamadou Diarra can return from injury, the Huskies could be frisky in the AAC race.

Fran Dunphy, AP

7. TEMPLE: Fran Dunphy’s swan song to Big 5 basketball isn’t likely going to be a sweet one. The Owls have struggled to find footing in the AAC as they’ve made the NCAA tournament just once in their five seasons in the league after six-straight appearances to end their stint in the Atlantic 10. There’s talent on the roster, especially in Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston, but it may not be enough for an upper-half finish in the conference.

8. MEMPHIS: The Tigers are the most talked about team in the league thanks to Penny Hardaway’s homecoming, but this season could be a struggle. Jeremiah Martin is one of the league’s best players and Kyvon Davenport is a proven contributor, but the rest of the roster is less impressive. Hardaway has already brought in a strong first recruiting class, but it’s not a group that will be able to be counted on to help win a lot of games right off the jump. Expectations are up and hope has returned to Memphis, but a Hardaway’s work is far from over.

9. TULSA: This is probably too low for the Golden Hurricane. Not because they’re wildly talented, but because Frank Haith consistently has gotten his teams to beat expectations in Tulsa. Sterling Taplin is as experienced as they get and is a potential all-conference guard while Martins Igbanu is also a solid contributor. If the Golden Hurricane can rebound and get to the line like they did last year, they could replicate that level of success in the standings.

10. TULANE: Mike Dunleavy’s hiring in New Orleans felt like a strange in 2016, but he’s took the Green Wave to six wins his first year to 14 last season while turning Melvin Frazier into an NBA draft pick. It’s hard, though, to see Tulane sustain that growth this season with Frazier with the Orlando Magic and Cameron Reynolds graduated. Dunleavy has shown he can get the Green Wave moving in the right direction, but it might not be a straight-line trajectory.

11. EAST CAROLINA: Joe Dooley is back in Greenville, y’all. Nearly 20 years after his first stint with the Pirates, Dooley returns to take the helm of the program he led from 1995-99 after winning big in Dunk City the last five years. He took Florida Gulf Coast over from Andy Enfield and won five-straight conference titles and got to two NCAA tournaments. Dooley will have his work cut out for him at his new job in his old home as the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 2013.

12. SOUTH FLORIDA: A return to a head coaching spot wasn’t a rampant success for Brian Gregory as his Bulls went just 10-22 overall and 3-15 in AAC play last season. There isn’t a lot of hope that the turnaround will begin in earnest this season with just five upperclassmen on the roster

Four-star guard commits to Texas Tech

Photo by John Weast/Getty Images
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Chris Beard is bringing another major talent to Lubbock.

Kevin McCullar, a four-star guard from San Antonio, committed to Texas Tech on Thursday, he announced via social media.

“It’s been a long journey but the time has finally come,” MCCullar said in his commitment video. “This has been an amazing process and I thank every coach and university that has recruited me and believed in me.”

McCullar, a 6-foot-6 wing, was originally in the Class of 2019, but announced earlier this spring that he would be reclassifying to join a college program in 2018. He chose the Red Raiders over four other finalists in Houston, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Kansas State.

“I think they just made him feel comfortable and confident in what they will offer him and what they can do to get him ready for college basketball and beyond,” San Antonio Wagner High School coach Rodney Clark told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “They made it feel like home and that he’ll be taken care of.

“He’s put in a lot of work on and off the court to prepare for this moment. He and his family figured it was a the best decision. And he feels he’s ready to go up there, work at it, learn the system and find his place or role. At the same time, Texas Tech is getting a darn good guard.”

McCullar, whose father linebacker at Texas Tech in the 1990s, joins a high-powered recruiting class for Beard. Khavon Moore is another four-star 6-foot-6 wing that has already signed with the Red Raiders and headlines a group that features another trio of three-star prospects.

Texas Tech made the Sweet 16 last season in Beard’s second year at the helm of the program. The Red Raiders have major ground to pick up after the graduation of Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith’s decision to leave school early for the NBA, but Beard is proving he can get enough talent to west Texas to keep things moving in the right direction.

College Basketball Preseason Top 25

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1. KANSAS JAYHAWKS

  • Who’s gone: Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman
  • Who do they add: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore, Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson, David McCormack
  • Projected starting lineup: Devon Dotson, Marcus Garrett, Quentin Grimes, Dedric Lawson, Udoka Azubuike

Losing Graham is a major, major blow for this program, but they had as much talent sitting out this season as any program in college basketball. Cal transfer Moore should be able to step in and handle the point guard duties – if that role isn’t taken over by Dotson – while Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson will give Bill Self actual power forwards, something he has been yearning for the last two years. This team is talented, they are old, they are well coached and they have a functional point guard on their roster. There is a lot to like about the Jayhawks heading into the year.

2. KENTUCKY WILDCATS

  • Who’s gone: Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Jarred Vanderbilt, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones
  • Who do they add: Reid Travis, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans
  • Projected starting lineup: Immanuel Quickly, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington, Reid Travis

As always, there is quite a bit of turnover on the Kentucky roster. Six key pieces from last year are gone, while the Wildcats bring in yet another loaded recruiting class. I think the combination of incoming backcourt talent and the remaining front court veterans is going to be a fun combination for Kentucky fans to watch, especially when Stanford grad transfer Travis is factored into the mix. The big question for Kentucky is going to be how they can put a team on the floor that can both shoot and play the kind of elite-level defense we all are expecting. Cal has plenty of weapons, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to deploy them.

3. GONZAGA BULLDOGS

  • Who’s gone: Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams III
  • Who do they add: Geno Crandall, Brandon Clarke, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrušev, Greg Foster Jr.
  • Projected starting lineup: Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Corey Kispert, Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie

I’m not fully convinced that I love Perkins as a point guard, but with Norvell and Kispert a year older and Hachimura and Tillie on the front line, the Zags have a chance to be really, really good once again. Throw in the transfer additions of Clarke and Crandall as well as a couple more talented foreigners — Ayayi and Petrušev — and this is just about what you would expect for Gonzaga.

4. DUKE BLUE DEVILS

  • Who’s gone: Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr.
  • Who do they add: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Joey Baker
  • Projected starting lineup: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier

The Blue Devils are a team that has a lot left to figure out. Bagley, Trent, Duval and Carter are all following Allen out the door to make way for another loaded recruiting class. I’m still torn on how this Duke team — which will likely end up starting four freshmen — will play. That has not always been the path to success, but the talent here is impossible to ignore. There’s a non-zero chance that Barrett, Williamson and Reddish could end up going 1-2-3 in the 2019 NBA Draft. The big question with this group is going to be how well the pieces gel together and whether or not there is enough shooting (and willing defenders) to allow this group to play the way teams like Villanova, Golden State and Boston play. I explain that line of thinking more here.

(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

5. VILLANOVA WILDCATS

  • Who’s gone: Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman
  • Who do they add: Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Joe Cremo
  • Projected starting lineup: Jahvon Quinerly, Phil Booth, Jermaine Samuels, Eric Paschall, Cole Swider

Villanova did not fair well at the NBA early entry deadline, losing four of the top 33 picks in the draft. I’m still willing to ride with the Wildcats, as I think they are more experienced than they will get credit for — Paschall and Booth are fifth-year seniors after all — and because Jay Wright’s teams always have people ready to step in and contribute immediately. Expect a breakout year from Jermaine Samuels, and don’t be surprised when Paschall is an All-American and a first round pick come the end of the season.

6. NEVADA WOLF PACK

  • Who’s gone: Kendell Stephens, Hallice Cooke, Josh Hall
  • Who do they add: Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Kwame Hymes, Vince Lee, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
  • Projected starting lineup: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown

Getting the Martin twins back is massive. Drew’s recovery from a torn achilles is also something that could be a problem, but this was a wildly talented team that came a point away from the Elite Eight despite losing their starting point guard and having their best player (Caleb Martin) deal with a foot injury the last two months of the season, and they basically bring everyone back. This is the best Mountain West team since Kawhi and Jimmer were running roughshod over the league.

7. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

  • Who’s gone: James Daniel III
  • Who do they add: No one
  • Projected starting lineup: Lamonte’ Turner, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams

Tennessee won the SEC last season and returns literally everyone from that team outside of Daniel, who came off the bench. Williams was the SEC Player of the Year last year, and Rick Barnes has plenty of perimeter talent and switchable players at his disposal. There are also some young, talented pieces on this roster — Bone, Bowden, Yves Pons, Kyle Alexander — that still have room to develop. I don’t think it’s crazy to think Tennessee could end up making a run at a No. 1 seed.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

8. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS

  • Who’s gone: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson
  • Who do they add: Kody Stattmann, Kihei Clark, Francisco Caffaro
  • Projected starting lineup: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Deandre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt

I’ll never doubt Virginia again (unless they are a No. 1 seed … kidding!), even when they are losing their best guard and their best defender. Hunter is ready to step up and be the star for this team, and I think Mamadi Diakite will have a chance to be an elite defensive presence. If there is a real concern here, it’s depth, but I trust Tony Bennett will be able to figure something out. Always trust in Tony.

9. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

  • Who’s gone: Joel Berry III, Theo Pinson, Jalek Felton
  • Who do they add: Coby White, Nassir Little, Rechon Black
  • Projected starting lineup: Coby White, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye

Where you rank UNC in the preseason is going to depend entirely on two things: How good you think their freshmen — White and Little — are going to be, and what kind of development you expect out of Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks. Will there be a returning player in college basketball this season that is better than Maye?

10. AUBURN TIGERS

  • Who’s gone: Davion Mitchell, Mustapha Heron, DeSean Murray
  • Who do they add: Samir Doughty
  • Projected starting lineup: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley

Auburn will lose Heron, who might have been their best player last season, but return everyone else from a team that won the SEC. Their guards are just so talented, and that was without Purifoy and Doughty. The health of McLemore, who suffered a dreadful ankle injury in February, will be critical, as well as the development of Chuma Okeke. But we saw what Pearl could do with these pieces last season, and that was with the FBI investigation hanging over their head.

11. KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

  • Who’s gone: No one
  • Who do they add: Shaun Williams
  • Projected starting lineup: Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Carter Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Dean Wade

This will probably be the highest that you see the Wildcats ranked heading into the season, but I really like this group. They have a crop of tough-minded, playmaking guards that can really get out and defend, and their best player might actually be a guy that the public at-large hasn’t really seen play in Wade. Bruce Weber is going to silence the haters!

Dean Wade (David Becker/Getty Images)

12. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES

  • Who’s gone: Devin Wilson, Justin Bibbs
  • Who do they add: Jon Kabongo, Landers Nolley II, Jarren McAllister
  • Projected starting lineup: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear

The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players, but the key for this team is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.

13. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

  • Who’s gone: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling, Tum Tum Nairn
  • Who do they add: Foster Loyer, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier
  • Projected starting lineup: Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford, Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman

I can’t help but look at this roster and see all the same issues that they had this past season, only without their two most talented players. Turnovers. Lack of star power. Some defensive issues. Winston has a chance to be a first-team all-Big Ten player, but Langford and Ward are going to have to live up to their potential. It feels like this group has nice pieces, but that those pieces doesn’t necessarily fit together. That said, who is better? What team is without warts?

14. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES

  • Who’s gone: Braian Angola, C.J. Walker, Brandon Allen
  • Who do they add: Devin Vassell
  • Projected starting lineup: Trent Forrest, M.J. Walker, Terance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele, Phil Cofer

I really like this group in theory. They have a whole bunch of athletic, switchable wings that can score. Mann, Walker and Kabengele returning was key, as is finding a way to get point guard depth now that C.J. Walker left the program. Getting Cofer back for a fifth-year is enormous.

15. TCU HORNED FROGS

  • Who’s gone: Kenrich Williams, Vlad Brodziansky, Ahmed Hamdy
  • Who do they add: Kendric Davis, Kaden Archie, Angus McWilliam, Yuat Alok, Russel Barlow Jr.
  • Projected starting lineup: Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher, Desmond Bane, Kouat Noi, Kevin Samuel

Losing Williams and Brodziansky is going to be a blow, but there are still plenty of pieces. Bane and Noi should be in line for breakout seasons, and Jamie Dixon going small-ball with a two-point guard look should be fun to watch. Will Fisher ever be healthy?

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

16. UCLA BRUINS

  • Who’s gone: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, G.G. Goloman, LiAngelo Ball
  • Who do they add: Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal, Moses Brown, Kenny Nwuba, David Singleton III, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill
  • Projected starting lineup: Jaylen Hands, Prince Ali, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Moses Brown

This is a make or break year for Steve Alford. With every underclassmen except Aaron Holiday back, meaning that back-to-back top five-ish recruiting classes are on campus. It’s time for the Bruins to put up or shut up, and I think they’ll be right there as a favorite to win the Pac-12 … if they decide they want to play defense.

17. WEST VIRGINIA

  • Who’s gone: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, D’Angelo Hunter
  • Who do they add: Jordan McCabe, Derek Culver, Trey Doomes, Andrew Gordon
  • Projected starting lineup: Beetle Bolden, Brandon Knapper, Lamont West, Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate

West Virginia has survived losing program guys in past seasons, but Carter and Miles were responsible for turning West Virginia into Press Virginia. Calling them program guys is a disservice. So we’ll see how this plays out. At this point, we have to trust that Bob Huggins will figure out a way to make it work.

18. OREGON DUCKS

  • Who’s gone: Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh, Troy Brown
  • Who do they add: Bol Bol, Louis King, Miles Norris, Will Richardson
  • Projected starting lineup: Payton Pritchard, Louis King, Paul White, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol

For my money, Oregon’s season hung on whether or not Brown returned to school, and he’s gone. Bol and King are both potential one-and-done players, and Wooten is an elite defensive prospect, but I’m in a wait and see mode with them. Personally, I’m not on the Bol Bol bandwagon, but I understand why he is, in theory, a high-level prospect. They’re here because of the talent and Dana Altman, and we bought into that.

19. SYRACUSE ORANGE

  • Who’s gone: Matthew Moyer
  • Who do they add: Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, Eli Hughes, Robert Braswell
  • Projected starting lineup: Tyus Battle, Franklin Howard, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu

The Orange had no depth and very little perimeter shooting last season, but it looks like that was addressed in the offseason. With Battle and Brissett back in the fold, this Syracuse team has a chance to match watchable offense with one of college basketball’s very best defenses.

20. LSU Tigers

  • Who’s gone: Duop Reath, Randy Onwuasor, Aaron Epps, Jeremy Combs, Mayan Kiir, Galen Alexander
  • Who do they add: Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Kavell Bigby-Williams
  • Projected starting lineup: Tremont Waters, Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams

LSU is really young. They are also really talented. Waters is so entertaining, and the incoming trio of Smart, Reid and Williams is very good. Effort will be a key, as will their ability to play together, but they have a chance to be really good.

Tyus Battle (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

21. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS

  • Who’s gone: No one
  • Who do they add: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Jethro Tshisumpa Mbiya, D.J. Stewart
  • Projected starting lineup: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado

I am not totally sold on Ben Howland getting this thing going at Mississippi State, but this will be his most talented team. The Weatherspoon brothers are both going to be good players, Peters still intrigues some NBA teams and Holman should fill a role. Reggie Perry should be a nice addition and an impact player as well.

22. CLEMSON TIGERS

  • Who’s gone: Gabe DeVoe, Donte Grantham, Mark Donnal
  • Who do they add: John Newman III, Hunter Tyson, Trey Jamison, Javan White
  • Projected starting lineup: Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed, David Skara, Aamir Simms, Elijah Thomas

With Mitchell and Reed back in the fold, plus Elijah Thomas in the paint, this has the makings of another team that will push for a top five seed.

23. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

  • Who’s gone: Moe Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Jaaron Simmons
  • Who do they add: Ignas Brazdeikis, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns, Adrian Nunez, Colin Castleton
  • Projected starting lineup: Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske

Losing Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman, the program’s two best offensive weapons, are major blows for a team that struggled to score a season ago. Matthews’ decision to return is key and they will really be able to guard again, but one of their three big wings is going to need to take a major step forward for them offensively.

24. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK

  • Who’s gone: Omer Yurtseven, Al Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, Lennard Freeman, Sam Hunt
  • Who do they add: C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels, Blake Harris, Saddiq Bey, Jericole Hellems, Derek Funderburk, Ian Steere, Immanuel Bates
  • Projected starting lineup: Braxton Beverly, Markell Johnson, Torin Dorn, C.J. Bryce, Derek Funderburk

Kevin Keatts is going to miss Yurtseven, because he doesn’t have any size on his roster anymore. He does, however, have half-a-million guards on his roster, and all of them can play. That’s enough for me to bet on Keatts getting it done.

25. MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES

  • Who’s gone: Andrew Rowsey, Haanif Cheatam, Harry Froling
  • Who do they add: Ed Morrow, Joseph Chartouny, Joey Hauser, Brendan Bailey
  • Projected starting lineup: Markus Howard, Joseph Chartouny, Sacar Anim, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt

Marquette will be the second-best team in the Big East if they figure out how to defense. Howard is an all-american, while the Hauser brothers will provide plenty of offensive firepower. Chartouny’s addition is key, as is Morrow’s. Both are tough, veteran defensive presences.

THE SEVEN THAT JUST MISSED:

26. Loyola-Chicago
27. Louisville
28. Indiana
29. Washington
30. Purdue
31. Florida
32. Providence

2018 NBA Draft Early Entry List: Who declared? Who is returning? Who are we waiting on?

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Here is a full list of the players that have signed with an agent, declared and are testing the waters and those that have decided to return to school.

Underclassmen have until April 22nd to declare for the NBA draft this season and until 11:59 p.m. on May 30th to remove their name from consideration.

The NBA Combine will be held May 16-20 this year. 

The full list of early entrants, from both the collegiate and international ranks, can be found here.

DECLARED, SIGNING WITH AGENT

RETURNING TO SCHOOL

  • JALEN ADAMS, UConn
  • ESA AHMAD, West Virginia
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • SEDRICK BAREFIELD, Utah
  • TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse
  • LAMONTE BEARDEN, Western Kentucky
  • BENNIE BOATWRIGHT, USC
  • PHIL BOOTH, Villanova
  • KY BOWMAN, Boston College
  • OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse
  • BARRY BROWN, Kansas State
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn
  • TOOKIE BROWN, Georgia Southern
  • C.J. BURKS, Marshall
  • JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada
  • HAANIF CHEATHAM, FGCU
  • YOELI CHILDS, BYU
  • CHRIS CLEMONS, Campbell
  • TYLER COOK, Iowa
  • ISAAC COPELAND JR., Nebraska
  • JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech
  • MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State
  • JON DAVIS, Charlotte
  • JORDAN DAVIS, Northern Colorado
  • SHAWNTREZ DAVIS, Bethune Cookman
  • TERENCE DAVIS, Ole Miss
  • NOAH DICKERSON, Washington
  • TORIN DORN, N.C. State
  • NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue
  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue
  • JON ELMORE, Marshall
  • TACKO FALL, UCF
  • BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU
  • DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas
  • EUGENE GERMAN, Northern Illinois
  • ADMON GILDER, Texas A&M
  • MICHAEL GILMORE, FGCU
  • JESSIE GOVAN, Georgetown
  • RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga
  • JAYLEN HANDS, UCLA
  • ZACH HANKINS, Xavier
  • ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
  • JARED HARPER, Auburn
  • MUSTAPHA HERON, Auburn
  • MALIK HINES, UMass
  • ARIC HOLMAN, Mississippi State
  • JALEN HUDSON, Florida
  • DEWAN HUELL, Miami
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia
  • TRAMAINE ISABELL, Drexel
  • JUSTIN JAMES, Wyoming
  • ZACH JOHNSON, Miami
  • CHRISTIAN KEELING, Charleston Southern
  • SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia
  • KALOB LEDOUX, McNeese State
  • ABDUL LEWIS, NJIT
  • DOMINIC MAGEE, Southern Miss
  • FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford
  • CALEB MARTIN, Nevada
  • CODY MARTIN, Nevada
  • MALIK MARTIN, Tennessee Tech
  • ZANE MARTIN, Towson
  • CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina
  • JALEN MCDANIELS, San Diego State
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, Wichita State
  • CHRISTIAN MEKOWULU, Tennessee State
  • AARON MENZIES, Seattle
  • ELIJAH MINNIE, Eastern Michigan
  • SHELTON MITCHELL, Clemson
  • TAKAL MOLSON, Canisius
  • JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana
  • MATT MORGAN, Cornell
  • ISAIAH MOSS, Iowa
  • TRAVIS MUNNINGS, Louisiana-Monroe
  • RENATHAN ONA EMBO, Tulane
  • JAMES PALMER JR., Nebraska
  • ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova
  • LAMAR PETERS, Mississippi State
  • JALON PIPKINS, CSUN
  • SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s
  • JONTAY PORTER, Missouri
  • MARCQUISE REED, Clemson
  • ISAIAH REESE, Canisius
  • NICK RICHARDS, Kentucky
  • CODY RILEY, UCLA
  • KERWIN ROACH II, Texas
  • AHMAAD RORIE, Montana
  • QUINTON ROSE, Temple
  • ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD, Tennessee
  • RONSHAD SHABAZZ, Appalachian State
  • CHRIS SILVA, South Carolina
  • FRED SIMS, Chicago State
  • D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State
  • MAX STRUS, DePaul
  • DESHON TAYLOR, Fresno State
  • KILLIAN TILLIE, Gonzaga
  • REID TRAVIS, transferring
  • CHRISTIAN VITAL, Connecticut
  • JAYLIN WALKER, Kent State
  • NICK WARD, Michigan State
  • PJ WASHINGTON, Kentucky
  • TREMONT WATERS, LSU
  • NICK WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
  • QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
  • ANDRIEN WHITE, Charlotte
  • DEMAJEO WIGGINS, Bowling Green
  • LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State
  • AUSTIN WILEY, Auburn
  • KRIS WILKES, UCLA
  • KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon
  • JUSTIN WRIGHT-FOREMAN, Hofstra
  • OMER YURTSEVEN, Georgetown

Testing The Waters: Donte DiVincenzo, Kevin Huerter star at NBA Draft Combine

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The fact of the matter is that for all the pomp and circumstance, the NBA Combine is, essentially, about getting face-to-face interviews with these prospects while also landing definitive results for height, length, athletic testing and medicals.

Those results, when they pop, can help — or hurt — a player’s standing.

That said, there is still plenty that can be taken away from the 5-on-5 games that are played.

For players from smaller schools, it’s a chance to prove themselves against a higher level of competition. Think Larry Nance Jr., who wound up as a first round pick out of Wyoming.

For players that are stuck in a rigid system in college, the combine is a chance to show what they can do when they are no longer reined in. Kyle Kuzma is the perfect example of this.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the players that are still testing the waters and how they performed in Chicago this week.

WINNERS

DONTE DIVINCENZO, So., Villanova: The star of the national title game did not disappoint at the combine, in either the 5-on-5 play or in the athletic testing. Let’s start with the latter, where DiVincenzo registered a 42″ max vertical — tops at this year’s combine — and a 34.5″ standstill vertical to go along with a top five time in the lane agility drill. His size and length (6-foot-4.5 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan) is a bit of a concern, but DiVincenzo’s effort stood out during the games. The competitiveness and toughness is there, as is the shot-making ability. Already trending towards being a late first round pick, DiVincenzo probably solidified his standing at the combine. At this point I would be very surprised if he opted to return to school for his junior year.

KEVIN HUERTER, So., Maryland: We’ve been talking about Huerter as an under-the-radar prospect this spring, and he showcased why at the combine. Posting solid athletic testing numbers (he was top ten is all of the sprint drills and measured out at a 38″ max vert), Huerter proved himself to be a 6-foot-7 shot-making wing with an impressive feel; the 3.4 assists his averaged this season wasn’t a fluke. There’s a real chance that Huerter would be a late-first round pick should be stay in the draft, but there is a growing sentiment in NBA circles that he may want to return to school to try and play his way into the lottery of the weaker 2019 draft. If he adds strengths and proves himself to be an above-average Big Ten defender, that’s not an impossibility.

JOSH OKOGIE, So., Georgia Tech: We didn’t even mention Okogie when discussing which players had the most on the line heading into the combine, and that was clearly a mistake. Okogie may have proven himself worthy of an early-second round pick, if not late-first. The 6-foot-4.5 wing measured out at a 7-foot wingspan and finished with the fastest sprint time and the second-fastest shuttle run. A member of John Calipari’s Team USA U-19 team last summer, Okogie showcased his impressive defensive versatility during the combine games which, when combined with the 38 percent shooting from deep (173 attempts) in his two seasons in Atlanta, makes him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect in a league where defensively versatile wings that can space the floor are in high demand.

*(UPDATE: Okogie signed with an agent on Monday.)

It’s probably worth noting here that Huerter won’t turn 20 until August 27th and Okogie won’t turn 20 until September 1st. DiVincenzo is 19 months older than him. Hell, both of them are younger than Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr. That’s a massive amount of time on the development curve.

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

LOSERS

CODY and CALEB MARTIN, Nevada: For both Martin twins, the combine made it looks like their incredible season with the Wolf Pack had more to do with the Mountain West than their future as NBA players. Caleb — the scorer — could not find a rhythm on that end while Cody — the jack-of-all-trades — didn’t exactly appear to be great at anything. The twins turn 23 in September, just received their degrees and Nevada would have 15 scholarship players if they return. They seem to be out the door, although that does not mean they’re headed for the NBA.

TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Physically, Battle tested out well, measuring nearly 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and solid athletic testing numbers. But that was never the worry with Battle. His issue is that he was an inefficient, high-volume scorer that played predominantly with the ball in his hands at Syracuse. He needed to prove that he could a) play off the ball and b) shoot better than what his numbers were with the Orange. He did neither, and while I’m not sure he necessarily hurt himself, he did not play his way into the first round. If he remains in the draft, he’ll likely end up a second round pick.

BRIAN BOWEN, South Carolina: Bowen did not appear to be a draftable player during the games at the combine, which is more or less what we thought of him prior to sitting out the 2017-18 season after he was caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. This is a nightmare scenario for him. He has until May 30th to decide if he should just get started on a pro career, whatever level that ends up being at, or returning to school and hoping the NCAA will clear him.

JARRED VANDERBILT, Kentucky: Vanderbilt pulled out of the combine prior to the start, which might have more to do with his health and controlling the flow of information over his medical testing than anything else. For a player that has had a myriad of lower left leg injuries over the years — he missed the first 17 games and the final six games of his freshman season, as well as much of the summer prior to his senior season in high school — he’s going to have a difficult decision to make in regards to turning pro. He’s not a first rounder, but just how long is his athletic career going to be given these health issues?

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

THEY ARE WHAT WE THOUGHT THEY WERE

CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards was a late addition to the combine as other players dropped out. He’s more of a scorer than he is a point guard at this stage, and some of his struggles offensively at the combine showed that. He could use another year where he’ll be asked to do it all for Purdue offensively.

OMARI SPELLMAN, Villanova: We know what Spellman is. He’s a 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a lethal three-point shooting stroke. We also know that he’s lost nearly 50 pounds since he was in high school. At the combine, Spellman checked in at 253 pounds with 13.75 percent body fat, still managing to post a 35.5″ max vertical at that weight. Put another way, there is still improvement that can be made on his body and, in theory, his athleticism. That keeps teams interested, but he certainly didn’t play his way into being a first rounder.

BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland: Fernando proved himself a very large human (6-foot-9.75, 7-foot-4.25) but beyond that, his instincts as a basketball players were not quite there. In an NBA era where paint-locked big men are becoming useless, Fernando seems to fall into that category. If anything, what may keep him in the draft is his guardian’s connection to Kansas big Silvio De Sousa and the FBI investigation into college basketball.

UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: His 7-foot-7 wingspan is enough to make NBA GMs salivate, but that may be the only NBA-ready skill that the big fella has. He’s a non-shooter — career 40.6 percent from the free throw line — and his inability to defend on the perimeter was exposed by Villanova in the Final Four. He’s a late-second round pick at best.

SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The passion and the energy that Konate played with all season long was on full display at the combine as well. He’s a big, burly 6-foot-7.25 shot-blocker with a 7-foot wingspan and a better-than-you-think shooting stroke, but he didn’t do much to prove himself as more than a second round pick.

P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Physically, Washington doesn’t profile all that different that Spellman, who is slightly taller with a slightly longer wingspan and 30 extra pounds of weight he can stand to lose. The difference? Spellman is a very good shooter. The was time we saw Washington, who shot 5-for-21 from three as a freshman, he was missing 12 of his 20 free throws in a 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16. He’s already said he wants a first round guarantee to remain in the draft, and if teams didn’t rate him as a first rounder prior to the combine, I’m not sure anything happened that would change their minds.

JAYLEN HANDS and KRIS WILKES, UCLA: The most notable thing that happed with these two at the combine was that Hands, ironically enough, finished with the smallest hands at the event. He did, however, show some point guard instinct and fight defensively. There’s no guarantee he gets drafted, and the same can be same for Wilkes, who at least fits the profile of a versatile wing. Their decision essentially comes down to whether or not they think playing another year for Steve Alford will actually help their chances of getting into the first round in 2019.

ACC coaches want to expand NCAA tournament to 72 teams

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At the ACC spring meetings this week, the conference’s basketball coaches made some recommendations for rule changes that would have a pretty big impact on the way that the game is played at the college level.

Among other things, they suggested moving the three-point line back (yes!), widening the lane (yes!), resetting the shot clock to 20 seconds on an offensive rebound (yes!) and sticking with halves instead of changing to four quarters (booooo).

The recommendation that is going to get the most headlines, however, is the suggestion that the NCAA tournament should expand from 68 to 72 teams, with a pair of regional First Fours because, apparently, a far greater percentage of football teams go to bowl games than basketball teams go to the NCAA tournament.

This is dumb for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the NIT, the CBI and the CIT exist, or that only four college football teams actually go to the tournament that determines a national champion. Ask UCF about that. The rest of bowl season is simply a series of glorified scrimmages that creates revenue for the people that wear suits and that degenerates love to gamble on.

But that idea is also ridiculous because it’s simply coaches riding for coaches. The truth is that these high major guys know that simply getting an invite to the NCAA tournament is the kind of thing that can earn them a contract extension or keep their bosses from firing them a year earlier than they would otherwise, and creating four more at-large bids means that there is the opportunity for four more coaches to get — or keep — themselves paid.

Personally, I am not married to the idea that the NCAA tournament has to remain at 68 teams — but that comes with one, simple caveat: The additions to the tournament field come in the form of regular season champions at the mid-major level, not middling high-major programs that couldn’t quite crack .500 in their league.

Here’s an idea that I’ve been chewing on for a while, one that I think would be great for all levels of the game and put more of an emphasis on the regular season:

  • Expand the field to 76 teams, give automatic bids to both the regular season and tournament champs for every conference.
  • Guarantee that teams that win both the regular season and the tournament title for their respective conference is able to avoid having to play in one of the 12 play-in games.
  • Those 12 play-in games would be played for the right to be a 14, 15 or 16 seed, and they would be held between the 24 teams that weren’t dual-league champs rated the lowest in the Selection Committee’s seed list, whether that means they only won a regular season title, a tournament title or were an at-large bid.
  • The number of at-large teams in the field would be fluid. With Wichita State out of the Missouri Valley, there are now essentially 22 leagues where the regular season champ isn’t all-but guaranteed to be an at-large bid. In the last four season, an average of 11 of those conference tournaments were won by someone other than the league’s regular season champ, which means that, on average, there would have been 33 mid-major automatic bids to the Big Dance under these rules and 43 bids available to the top ten conferences and, essentially, 33 at-large bids available. That would be down three from what it currently is, meaning that three of the thoroughly mediocre bubble teams that get in every year would miss out, on average.

This would do a couple of things that I think would make the tournament a better product.

For starter’s, it would give us two more days of wall-to-wall tournament games, meaning that the Tuesday and the Wednesday of the first weekend of the tournament feature an endless amount of play-in games on TV. As gambling on sports becomes more popular, this just means that there is more inventory to be able to cash in on.

It would also ensure that the best mid-major teams in the country — the most likely cinderellas — would be in the tournament after steam-rolling their league. As it stands, we miss out on so many great mid-major teams getting their shine in March because someone they beat twice during the regular season gets hot during one four-day stretch. We all lamented how screwed Middle Tennessee State was this year when they didn’t get a bid to the Big Dance. This model gives them that bid.

Then there is the added bonus that Championship Week becomes that much more insane. If your favorite team is on the bubble, you’ll be locked into all of those mid-major tournament games, because every top seed that loses is a bubble that bursts. That would be amazing, like taking the insanity of March and forcing it to shotgun an old Four Loko.

Now, this idea isn’t exactly perfect. Unbalanced scheduling means that the “best” team in a given conference might not end up being the regular season champ. It also creates a clear and obvious incentive for a conference to rig their conference tournament against the league champ; getting two teams into the tournament increases the odds of getting a win-share for the league, as does having those two teams play a play-in game opponent as opposed to, say, a No. 4 or a No. 5 seed.

It also moves us further and further away from the bracket being able to fit on a single, 8 X 11.5 piece of paper. But honestly, when was the last time you filled out a bracket that wasn’t online?

I know that this idea will never gain any real traction because the people in power — the people at the high major level — are the ones that would be hurt the most by this, but I do think this is the best way to make the tournament as interesting and as fair as possible.