College Basketball Nation: Conference USA

The reality that was for Conference USA this past season remains the reality the league must change for the upcoming season.

The conference, done in by realignment, has the reputation of being a way station or purgatory instead of a landing place.

All of those chronically shifting sands certainly don’t help create stability. But even more, it creates the image of a league in constant flux and, consequently, a talent pool that also is hard to judge.

[+] EnlargeShaquille Harrison
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConference champion Tulsa rode a hot streak into the NCAA tournament but lost its coach following the season.
Fifty bucks to the casual fan that can accurately name all 14 members for 2014-15*.

Memphis is no longer around to carry the league’s water. The teams in its stead, while good, just don’t have that name cache. The NCAA tournament selection committee says it judges each team on its annual merit, not past performance, but the committee is made up of human beings, too, and human nature does what it does.

While the Atlantic 10 pushed six teams into the NCAA tournament, C-USA managed just one -- the second year in a row it has been shut out of an at-large bid. Southern Miss, with an RPI of 33 and 27 wins, probably deserved a bid. Louisiana Tech, another 27-game winner with a bubblier RPI of 59, deserved consideration.

It didn’t happen.

Coaches are already on record about boosting their nonconference schedules next season to guard against such disappointment, and with an 11-33 record against teams in the top 50 RPI, that’s a good idea. But until Conference USA can settle on its members and then work to build up its stock, the perception will dog its teams as much as the records.

*Answer: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB, UTEP, UTSA and Western Kentucky.

What we saw this season: What it might have lacked in predictability, C-USA made up for in competition. Four teams finished in a tie for first place, with UTEP a mere game behind.

Trouble was, with such a gargantuan league (16 members) it was impossible to play anything near a round-robin schedule.

Worse still, the league settled on a schedule that included just one repeat opponent per team, creating a wildly unbalanced schedule that was nearly impossible to judge. Was Southern Miss’ 13-3, with Tulane as a repeat, better or worse than 13-3 Louisiana Tech, which played Rice twice? Or better or worse than 13-3 Middle Tennessee, which played Rice two times? Or better or worse than 13-3 Tulsa, two-time opponent of North Texas?

Ultimately the Golden Hurricane won the conference tourney and, with it, the golden ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech were relegated to the NIT.

On numbers alone, the Golden Eagles probably deserved a bid, but a deeper scrub of their schedule unveils a team that lacked real quality wins to bolster an at-large bid. Southern Miss beat DePaul, Georgia State and North Dakota State and got its doors blown off by Louisville. An 18-point loss to Louisiana Tech in the C-USA tourney, wasn’t the lasting impression to help its cause, either.

Tulsa, meanwhile, got hot and stayed that way, winning 11 in a row before its second-round loss to UCLA in the tourney.

Two weeks later, it lost its coach, Danny Manning, to Wake Forest.

What we expect to see next season: TBD … Tulsa, the reigning champ, now departs for the American Athletic Conference along with East Carolina and Tulane, creating yet more turnover for Conference USA.

[+] EnlargeMichael White
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiLouisiana Tech, one of C-USA's steadiest programs, will stay that way after Mike White turned down Tennessee.
Western Kentucky, a program with a rich history in the Sun Belt, comes in as a replacement and is a good addition. The Hilltoppers have a strong basketball following and a decent tradition to add some credibility to the league.

More needed new blood comes in the way of former VCU associate head coach Mike Rhoades, hired at woebegone Rice, and ex-Pistons coach Michael Curry, who takes over for Mike Jarvis at Florida Atlantic. The league’s bottom-feeders need an energy injection and these two could provide it.

Presumably, Marshall eventually will get around to replacing Tom Herrion, too. Rumor has it now Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is on the wish list. Point guard Kareem Canty, however, is already out. He plans to transfer.

Of course, coaching changes have been part of the league’s problem too. One day after breathing a sigh of relief when Louisiana Tech coach Mike White opted to stay with the Bulldogs instead of bolt for Tennessee, the league still lost a coach to the Volunteers.

Donnie Tyndall takes over for Cuonzo Martin, putting Southern Miss back on the coaching market. Tyndall, who won 56 games in two seasons, spent just two years in Hattiesburg after taking over for Larry Eustachy.

Southern Miss has been one of the more reliable Conference USA programs and the hire now will be critical to maintain that consistency.

But Tyndall’s replacement also will be the ninth new coach in the past two years in the conference. That’s significant turnover in a league in desperate need of more stable waters.

 

A conversation with Alan Major

November, 27, 2013
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Charlotte head coach Alan Major recently returned from Puerto Rico, where the 49ers team (5-1) won the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title with a 63-61 win over Michigan on Sunday. Major recently spoke with ESPN.com about the tournament and the preparation that led to that victory.

[+] EnlargeAlan Major
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesAlan Major's Charlotte team got some early-season confidence by winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
ESPN: How did you prepare your team to face the challenges in Puerto Rico?

Major: Well, I think just the experience in Alaska had a lot to do with that. We were fortunate enough to have some guys back that played a lot [in last season's Great Alaska Shootout]. Freshman guys who are sophomores now played a lot in those games. A couple of guys that are older … they played a ton of minutes in Alaska. I think just going through that experience, I’m not going to say it entitled us to win in Puerto Rico at all. But I think just the fact that we had some guys go through how difficult it is to [win a tournament] and to come out fortunate enough to win the Alaska Shootout last year, I think they were able to just kind of parlay that experience [to this season's success].

ESPN: How important was that experience as your team maintained its poise in the title game against Michigan?

Major: Well, you hope that our guys just continue to draw confidence from two things: No. 1, draw confidence from each other and know that whatever circumstances they find themselves in, they can be in a position to win, and you hope they draw confidence from the experience itself, being in a tight situation obviously against an experienced team. That’s what you want to do every night on the court is put yourself in a position to win it at the end.

ESPN: How much did that opening-round win against Kansas State help your program the rest of the way in Puerto Rico?

Major: We weren’t so dominant down the stretch. They made an 11-0 run. … Whenever you can win the first one, I think guys get confidence and maybe it eliminates a little pressure of having to win the next day if you don’t win the first one. The best thing about those tournaments is you’ve got to have a short memory. And even after winning Kansas State, we were fortunate enough to win the game, you’ve still got to have a short memory because you have to turn the page and move to the next day.

ESPN: How much time did you have to explore Puerto Rico? What did you all do?

Major: Very little. It was pretty much a business trip. I gotta give a lot of credit to my kids. When you first get down there and you pull up to the hotel and all you see is big blue water, it’s very easy to forget what you’re there for. … We told the guys that we scheduled this not to just come down and be a participant, but you schedule them with the goal of trying to win them. … Between the second and third games, they had a lot of chances [to get out]. Some guys went to Old San Juan. Some guys just hung at the beach. They got a chance to soak up a lot. I really gotta give our kids credit for staying focused in that regard. For me, myself, I’m going to just wait probably until the month of May and come back and soak up Puerto Rico without having to deal with basketball.

ESPN: How do you protect your team from becoming overconfident with so much time left in the season?

Major: It’s the last thing we told them when we got off the bus [in Charlotte]. We have values in our locker room and one of our values is humility. Humility is just looking at yourself for who you are and not being prideful and always knowing that you can get better. That’s the message we told our guys. We can still get better. …. We got a difficult road to follow. We’ve gotta continue to stay humble.

Perfection is possible in 2013-14

November, 1, 2013
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John Calipari has assembled one of the most talented recruiting classes in college basketball history. Perhaps the best ever.

[+] EnlargeAlex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAlex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein will be joined by what might be the best recruiting class ever.
That's no exaggeration. With six McDonald's All-Americans and returning vets/NBA prospects Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky should be the favorite to win the national title.

There's even talk of a possible undefeated season.

And that's not a crazy thought. Multiple teams have come close to perfection in recent years. But they've all stumbled at some point.

We haven't had an undefeated college basketball squad since Indiana pulled off the feat in 1975-76. Will Kentucky or another title contender repeat the feat in 2013-14? We'll see.

But here's a list of the squads that nearly achieved perfection in recent years:

Kentucky (2011-2012), 38-2: Anthony Davis and Co. were clearly the nation's top team throughout the 2011-12 season. The Wildcats won the national championship with a team that featured six picks in that summer's NBA draft.

And they nearly finished that season without a loss. They won their first eight games before Indiana knocked them off their No. 1 perch with a 73-72 loss on Christian Watford's buzzer-beating 3-pointer in their ninth game of the year. Later that year, the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament. By then, however, they'd earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. But their rally in 2011-12 proved that an undefeated season is not a pipedream.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Canaan
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsIsaiah Canaan and the Racers opened the 2011-12 season 23-0 before falling to Tennessee State.
Murray State (2011-12), 31-2: The Wildcats weren't the only team in Kentucky pushing for an undefeated campaign that year. Isaiah Canaan and Murray State nearly achieved that feat the same year that Kentucky won the national title.

The Racers won their first 23 games. And then, Tennessee State ended their streak with a 72-68 victory on Feb. 9, 2012. Canaan had 31 points that night, but it wasn't enough to help Murray State maintain its streak. Steve Prohm's squad won its next eight games but ultimately lost to Marquette in the third round of the NCAA tournament. It was a great ride, though.

Memphis (2007-08), 38-2: For Memphis, the 2007-08 season ended on the wrong side of "Mario's Miracle," after former Kansas star Mario Chalmers hit a crucial 3-pointer in the Jayhawks' national championship game victory over the Tigers. But it's easy to forget how good Calipari's team was that season.

Memphis was 26-0 before suffering a four-point loss to rival Tennessee on Feb. 23, 2008, that ended its 47-game home winning streak. Derrick Rose had 31 points in that game, and Tennessee star Chris Lofton struggled in a 2-for-11 effort, but the Vols still earned the win and ruined Memphis' bid for perfection. The Tigers won their next 12 games before their national title overtime loss against Kansas.

Illinois (2004-05), 37-2: What a heartbreaking season for Illinois. Bruce Weber's squad had everything any coach would want in a national title contender. Dee Brown and Deron Williams formed one of the nation's top backcourts. On March 6, 2005, Illinois possessed a 29-0 record. And then Matt Sylvester happened. The Ohio State reserve hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the Buckeyes' upset of Weber's squad that day.

Illinois won its next eight matchups and reached the national championship game, where it faced a stacked North Carolina squad. Sean May scored 26 points, and the Tar Heels shot 52 percent from the field in a win. Illinois wasn't perfect. But it was close.

Saint Joseph's (2003-04), 30-2: Phil Martelli's squad landed on the national radar when a pair of NBA prospects (Jameer Nelson, Delonte West) led Saint Joseph's on one of the most captivating runs of the last 10 years. Saint Joseph's won its first 27 games of the 2003-04 season.

But on March 11, 2004, the same Xavier squad the Hawks had defeated earlier that season shocked the program with an 87-67 victory in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals. Critics suggested that the loss proved Saint Joseph's wasn't worthy of a top seed in the Big Dance. In the NCAA tournament, however, the Hawks defeated Liberty, Texas Tech and Wake Forest before suffering a two-point loss to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. The Hawks were good, just not perfect.

Conference USA team previews

October, 11, 2013
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From Sept. 30 through Oct. 25, Insider will be rolling out its college basketball preview, including breakdowns on every Division I team, projected order of finish for every conference and essays from Insider's hoops experts.

Here are previews for each team in Conference USA:

Charlotte 49ers Insider
East Carolina Pirates Insider
Florida Atlantic Owls Insider
Florida International Panthers Insider
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs Insider
Marshall Thundering Herd Insider
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders Insider
North Texas Mean Green Insider
Old Dominion Monarchs Insider
Rice Owls Insider
Southern Miss Golden Eagles Insider
Tulane Green Wave (free)
Tulsa Golden Hurricane Insider
UAB Blazers Insider
UTEP Miners Insider
UTSA Roadrunners Insider

You Gotta See This: Conference USA

October, 11, 2013
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Adonis ThomasNelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsMemphis beat Southern Miss for the C-USA title last March, then bid farewell to the conference.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Realignment hates Conference USA.

Eighteen years. It's hard to believe it has been that long, but it really has: In 1995, before the American Athletic Conference was even a glint in Mike Aresco's eye, the Metro Conference and Great Midwest Conference got together. They had one thing in common: No Division I football sponsorship. They named their baby Conference USA.

The generic, all-inclusive nomenclature might make C-USA seem like a spiritual forefather to the American, but it was really closer to the Big East in intent. There was good basketball happening in the Great Midwest and the Metro, but there would be better basketball, plus football, in numbers.

For a decade, things went swimmingly: Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis worked on their regional rivalries, DePaul and Marquette had a home that made sense for their unique situations (non-East Coast, Division I, non-football schools), and C-USA settled into a rather comfortable space just outside the power six and just above true "mid-major" leagues.

It looks nothing like that today.

The 2005-06 realignment was the first serious shift. In one fell swoop, Conference USA lost Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida to the Big East. Saint Louis and Charlotte dove at the Atlantic-10. With just five original members remaining (we'll count Houston, which joined in 1996 when C-USA began sponsoring football), the league had to add inventory, and quickly. So it snapped up UCF, SMU, Tulsa, Marshall, Rice and UTEP. While regionally consistent, these were hardly one-for-one trades; C-USA was never the same basketball league again.

Now, after two years of wide-ranging realignment at nearly every level of the sport, the C-USA looks nothing like its charter configuration. It has been decimated. Just two original members, Southern Miss and UAB, remain, while six teams -- Memphis, Tulane, Houston, East Carolina, Central Florida, SMU and Tulsa -- are joining the newly formed American either this year or next. In response to the exodus, the league again has had to replenish its ranks, only with slimmer pickings. Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, UTSA, Western Kentucky.

These are good schools, to be sure; there are some interesting additions in there. But let's keep it 100 here: Conference USA is unrecognizable. It's a shell. Even in recent years, when many devotees argued the league was overlooked during Bubble Watch season, it still had Memphis as a draw. But John Calipari's success grew the Tigers out of Conference USA years ago; there simply wasn't enough yearly competition. Now, the thought of Memphis playing a 16- or 18-game schedule in the C-USA looks laughable.

You can scan high and low throughout the sport: Over the past 15 years, no conference has been more adversely affected by conference realignment than C-USA. Maybe, like Tony Soprano, it was just born too late. Maybe the middle ground between mid-major and power-six (or whatever) is unsustainable. There are probably lot of different reasons, and we could debate them for a while, but it doesn't change what Conference USA is today, in 2013. Where does it go from here? That's the question.

Nonconference analysis: Best of the rest

September, 11, 2013
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This week, ESPN.com has been breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Now let's take a look at the slates of a dozen of the top teams outside of those conferences.

BYU

Toughest: Iowa State (Nov. 20), CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 11), vs. UMass (Dec. 7 in Springfield, Mass.), at Oregon (Dec. 21)
The rest: Weber State (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 15), vs. Utah State (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City), North Texas (Dec. 3), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 11), Utah (Dec. 14)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- With Tyler Haws back, BYU could steal the WCC crown from Gonzaga. The Cougars certainly will be prepared for the task. A home game against the Cyclones will be an early test for the program. The pot of gold in the Hall of Fame Classic could be a matchup against Final Four participant Wichita State (if BYU gets past Texas). Games against UMass and Oregon in December could be the kind of matchups that pull Dave Rose's team off the bubble on Selection Sunday, if they're successful.

FLORIDA GULF COAST

Toughest: at North Carolina State (Nov. 26)
Next toughest: at Nebraska (Nov. 8), Iona (Dec. 1)
The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), at Furman (Nov. 15), Eckerd (Nov. 18), Ave Maria (Nov. 23), at FIU (Dec. 7), Samford (Dec. 14), at South Florida (Dec. 17), at Mississippi State (Dec. 19), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Florida Gulf Coast's athleticism and acrobatics enhanced the NCAA tournament experience for everyone, as "Dunk City" became a national slogan. Well, FGCU's nonconference slate belies its playmaking ability. The Eagles' toughest matchups should be road games against a Nebraska team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season and an NC State squad that lost most of its impact players. The trip to Vegas yields games against Florida A&M and either Radford or Sacred Heart. And it gets worse. You'll have to Google "Eckerd" and "Ave Maria." The dunks can't make up for this disappointing schedule.

GONZAGA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), at West Virginia (Dec. 10), at Memphis (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: vs. Kansas State (Dec. 21 in Wichita, Kan.)
The rest: Bryant (Nov. 9), Colorado State (Nov. 11), Oakland (Nov. 17), Washington State (Nov. 21), Coppin State (Dec. 1), New Mexico State (Dec. 7), vs. South Alabama (Dec. 14 in Seattle)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zags must recover from the loss of talented frontcourt duo Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. But they're still talented enough to maintain their reign in the WCC. There will be little doubt if they succeed in the Maui Invitational. Matchups against Baylor and Syracuse could follow Gonzaga's opening round game against Dayton. A loaded Memphis squad could be a problem for the Bulldogs in February. Kansas State is less interesting because Angel Rodriguez and others transferred this offseason. The potential at the Maui Invite boosts this slate, however, especially because there's a strong chance we'll see those matchups.

HARVARD

Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 24), at UConn (Jan. 8)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 28-30), Boston College (Jan. 1)
The rest: vs. Holy Cross (Nov. 10 in Boston), MIT (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Bryant (Nov. 20), at Northeastern (Dec. 4), at Boston University (Dec. 7), Vermont (Dec. 21), at Fordham (Dec. 28), at Rice (Jan. 4), at Florida Atlantic (Jan. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Tommy Amaker has one of the best rosters in Harvard history. He has the key players from last season's NCAA tourney squad. Plus, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are returning from last season's suspensions. We'll know more about the program's ceiling after it travels to Boulder to face Tad Boyle's talented Colorado squad. Harvard will encounter one of America's best backcourts when it goes to UConn in January. Not much beyond that. The Great Alaska Shootout features one of the weakest holiday tournament fields in the country. Nothing else in this lineup that would really interest the selection committee.

INDIANA STATE

Toughest: at Notre Dame (Nov. 17), at Saint Louis (Dec. 18)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27-30)
The rest: Ball State (Nov. 9), at Belmont (Nov. 14), Truman State (Nov. 22), at Eastern Illinois (Dec. 7), at Missouri-Kansas City (Dec. 14), IUPUI (Dec. 21), Belmont (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Sycamores are Wichita State's biggest challenger in the Missouri Valley Conference now that Creighton has moved on to the new Big East. Jake Odum and three other starters return. They'll have to get comfortable off campus. Road matchups against Notre Dame and Saint Louis will be their toughest nonconference games. The Sycamores play five true road games before MVC play begins, and that does not include the Great Alaska Shootout. The latter features a subpar field, but Indiana State could get Harvard in the title game at least. The program might regret two nonconference meetings with Belmont once Selection Sunday arrives.

IONA

Toughest: at Kansas (Nov. 19)
Next toughest: at Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 1), at Dayton (Dec. 19)
The rest: at Cleveland State (Nov. 9), Wofford (Nov. 16), George Mason (Nov. 23), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 14), at Nevada (Dec. 22), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Tim Cluess' program has reached the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. And despite losing Momo Jones, the Gaels could return. Most of their starters from last season are back. Their nonconference slate, however, features few opportunities to boost their at-large resume. They'll play Andrew Wiggins and Kansas in Lawrence in November. George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast and Northern Iowa are all matchups they could lose. But even if they win all three, they'll probably need more quality wins to get some help on Selection Sunday.

LONG BEACH STATE

Toughest: at Arizona (Nov. 11), Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), Creighton (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Kansas State (Nov. 17), at Washington (Nov. 30), at NC State (Dec. 7), at Missouri (Jan. 4)
The rest: Hawaii-Pacific (Nov. 9), Loyola Marymount (Nov. 14), USC (Dec. 19), Montana State-Billings (Dec. 21), at Nevada (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Dan Monson's program dismissed standouts Kaela King and Tony Freeland in the offseason. But the 49ers still can win the Big West, especially with former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb becoming eligible after the first semester. They'll need everyone to step up to deal with this strenuous nonconference schedule. The program will face national title contender Arizona on the road in early November. The 49ers open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a matchup against Michigan, another national title contender. The tourney also includes VCU and Georgetown. Big East title favorite Creighton travels to the West Coast for a matchup in early December. The slate ends with a matchup against Missouri in Columbia. Now that is a nonconference schedule.

LOUISIANA TECH

Toughest: vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 14 in Oklahoma City)
Next toughest: at Saint Mary's (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 30)
The rest: Centenary (Nov. 13), Central Arkansas (Nov. 20), Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla. (Nov. 25-27), at Jackson State (Dec. 1), UL-Lafayette (Dec. 4), Southern (Dec. 7), Northwestern State (Dec. 11), McNeese State (Dec. 17), at UL-Monroe (Dec. 22), Longwood (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Last season, Louisiana Tech won 27 games and cracked the AP's top 25 poll. The Bulldogs didn't reach the tournament, but they're still a potential favorite to win Conference USA in their inaugural season in the league. But they'll probably enter conference play with an inflated record. Their mid-December game against national title contender Oklahoma State is the only one that stands out. Road games against Saint Mary's and Oklahoma could be factors if Louisiana Tech is on the bubble at the end of the season. The Bulldogs' lack of quality nonconference wins hurt them last season. They at least have a shot at a few decent ones this season.

MERCER

Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: at Texas (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 2)
The rest: Reinhardt (Nov. 13), Seton Hall (Nov. 16), at Evansville (Nov. 18), Johnson & Wales (North Carolina) (Nov. 20), Yale (Nov. 23), at Ohio (Nov. 26), at Valparaiso (Nov. 29), Denver (Dec. 7), Alcorn St. (Dec. 16), St. Andrews (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Mercer brings back four starters from a team that won the Atlantic Sun's regular-season crown in 2012-13. That's the good news. But it's usually a bad sign when you have to Google some of the names featured on a team's nonconference slate. Yes, Johnson & Wales is a real school. Yes, Mercer is playing a bunch of high majors, too. But they're only high majors in name as 2013-14 approaches. Ole Miss should be its toughest game and the Bears have had success against the SEC in recent years. Texas has lost everyone, and Oklahoma has to replenish, too. Those three teams are not expected to contend for the title in their respective conferences. And then, there's Johnson & Wales.

SAINT MARY'S

Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next toughest: Louisiana Tech (Nov. 8)
The rest: Akron (Nov. 12), North Dakota State (Nov. 14), Drake (Nov. 16), Alcorn State (Nov. 24), Murray State (Nov. 30), Eastern Washington (Dec. 8), American University (Dec. 19)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This is actually better than some recent Saint Mary's nonconference lineups. But it's still so-so, even for a Gaels program that must reboot after losing star Matthew Dellavedova. A road game against Mountain West title contender Boise State is probably Saint Mary's toughest game. The Gaels could see the Broncos again if they beat South Carolina in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. Iowa State might be waiting in the championship game. Louisiana Tech could win the Conference USA crown in its first season, so that November matchup should be meaningful. But the Gaels have just one true road game.

SOUTHERN

Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 18), at Arizona (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 8), at Baylor (Dec. 22)
The rest:, at Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 10), Tulane (Nov. 13), at North Florida (Nov. 16), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 22), Blue Mountain College (Nov. 25), at Denver (Dec. 3), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 7), Dillard (Dec. 14), Champion Baptist College (Dec. 30)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- The squad that nearly upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last season is ready to play the role of David again. Southern, a team that returns star Malcolm Miller, could ruin a few nonconference seasons for some of the country's best teams. The Jaguars kick off the year at Marquette. They'll face Florida in Gainesville a few weeks later. Then, they have back-to-back road matchups against Arizona and Baylor in December. That November game against Blue Mountain College is actually an anomaly on this challenging nonconference schedule. You taking notes, SEC?

WICHITA STATE

Toughest: at Saint Louis (Dec. 1), vs. Tennessee (Dec. 14 at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.)
Next toughest: CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26), at Alabama (Dec. 17)
The rest: Emporia State (Nov. 9), Western Kentucky (Nov. 12), at Tulsa (Nov. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 7), North Carolina Central (Dec. 22), Davidson (Dec. 29)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The Shockers have elevated expectations after last season's Final Four run. With so much talent returning, a trip to Arlington in April seems feasible. Wichita State will get an early test against reigning Atlantic 10 champ Saint Louis, and then it will host SEC sleeper Tennessee a few weeks later. The Vols beat the Shockers in Knoxville last season. They could face BYU if they beat DePaul in the first round of the Hall of Fame Classic. Games against Bama and Davidson shouldn't be overlooked, either. But this slate lacks the power players you'd like to see a Final Four team encounter prior to conference play.

Take Two: Rick Pitino's top 10 players

September, 4, 2013
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Editor's Note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy. Here is Tuesday's tribute to Pitino.

During his career, Rick Pitino has earned two national championships, led three schools to the Final Four (only coach in Division I history to achieve that) and won 664 games.

The soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach has also molded some of the most talented athletes in recent college basketball history. Here is my take on the top 10 college players Pitino has coached, while my colleague Eamonn Brennan counters with his own list:

  1. [+] EnlargeDelk/McCarty
    AP Photo/Morry GashRick Pitino's 1996 title team churned out 11 players who eventually got drafted.
    Tony Delk, Kentucky: If we’re just talking collegiate production, then Delk deserves this slot. He averaged 17.8 points per game during the 1995-96 season and 14.2 ppg throughout his four-year career at Kentucky. Pitino had multiple (future) pros on that 1996 national title team, but Delk was that squad’s best player, especially in the postseason. He was a consensus All-American, SEC Player of the Year, and the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
  2. Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky: He didn’t win a title, but he anchored one of Pitino’s most important Kentucky squads. The 1992-93 Wildcats reached the Final Four, where they lost by three points to Michigan and the Fab Five in overtime. Mashburn, a consensus All-American that year, scored 26 points (10-for-18) in the game. That achievement provided more evidence that Kentucky would be a player on the national scene again following a crippling scandal under former coach Eddie Sutton.
  3. Antoine Walker, Kentucky: In recent years, he has been plagued by highly publicized financial problems. But Walker was a star in his prime. He was the MVP of the SEC tournament as a freshman in 1995. And he averaged 15.2 ppg for the Kentucky squad that secured Pitino’s first national championship in 1996. Walker was a member of the all-SEC first team that year, too. He stayed only two seasons but they were some the most fruitful individual of Pitino’s career.
  4. Reece Gaines, Louisville: Last season, Dwyane Wade called Gaines the best player he faced in college. That’s how good the Wisconsin native was throughout his four years at Louisville. Gaines didn’t fulfill his potential after he was picked 15th in the 2003 NBA draft. But he was a beast in Pitino’s first two seasons with the Cardinals. He averaged 21.0 ppg in 2001-02 and 17.9 ppg in 2002-03. He was a third-team All-American as a senior.
  5. Ron Mercer, Kentucky: He scored 20 points in Kentucky’s national title game victory in 1996. But he was a true star in the 1996-97 campaign, Pitino’s last at the school. Mercer was the SEC Player of the Year and a consensus All-American that season. With the sophomore on the floor, Kentucky nearly retained its crown but ultimately lost to Arizona in the national championship game. Mercer scored 13 points in that matchup, his last game as a collegiate player.
  6. Billy Donovan, Providence: Sure, he has won two national titles as head coach of the Florida Gators. But in the 1980s, “Billy the Kid” was a star for a Providence program that improved once Pitino arrived in 1985. Donovan averaged 15.1 ppg during the 1985-86 campaign. He averaged 20.6 ppg in 1986-87, the year the Friars reached the Final Four. He’s recognized as one of the greatest players in Providence history, and he’s certainly one of the best players Pitino has ever coached at this level.
  7. Peyton Siva, Louisville: Siva represented the character of the 2013 national championship squad that won the crown in Atlanta last season. He was a gritty, quick, smart point guard who anchored Pitino’s second national championship squad a year after guiding the program to the Final Four. He also ended his career by earning back-to-back Big East tournament MVPs. And he’s the program’s all-time leader in steals.
  8. Derek Anderson, Kentucky: He started at Ohio State but eventually transferred to Kentucky in time to help the Wildcats win a national championship in 1996. Anderson recorded 11 points, four rebounds and one assist in 16 minutes of action in Kentucky’s win over Syracuse in the national title game. His senior season was affected by a serious knee injury. But he still managed to average 17.7 ppg in 19 games that season. He was also named to the all-SEC second team.
  9. Francisco Garcia, Louisville: The Bronx native was critical as Pitino coached Louisville to the Final Four in 2005, the program’s first trip in nearly two decades. Pitino was the first coach to claim three Final Fours with three different programs. Without Garcia, it probably wouldn’t have happened. He averaged 15.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game that season. He’s one of the most versatile players that Pitino has coached at the collegiate level.
  10. Walter McCarty, Kentucky: He was one of Pitino’s most consistent players and probably his best singer, too. McCarty averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game the season that Pitino secured his first national championship. He also hit 46.7 percent of his 3-pointers during the 1995-96 season. His time under Pitino also fueled his coaching endeavors. He recently joined Brad Stevens’ staff as an assistant with the Boston Celtics.

3-point shot: Tough blow for Texas

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
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1. The easy thing to do is pile on Texas and coach Rick Barnes for Ioannis Papapetrou's decision to sign with Olympiacos BC, a professional team in his native Greece. This departure is completely different than the decisions made by Jaylen Bond, Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan. Papapetrou got a multi-year, multi-million-dollar deal. He was already in Greece, ripe to be convinced to stay. From all accounts, Papapetrou was happy with his situation in Austin -- and the Longhorns loved having him. This was not a planned departure, nor one that was pushed by the Texas staff. And that's why it stings more than the traditional transfers or Myck Kabongo's decision to leave early for the NBA draft. Texas needed a player who could produce, was experienced and wanted to be there. Losing someone like Papapetrou -- the top returning scorer once those players above bolted -- in late August is a crushing blow because he cannot be replaced. This puts even more pressure on returnees Javan Felix, Jonathan Holmes and Demarcus Holland to not only lead, but also to score and defend at a higher clip to avoid a second consecutive losing season.

2. Baylor senior guard Brady Heslip made the 14-man Canadian national team that will compete in the Continental Cup in Puerto Rico as a precursor to the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela. Heslip was the only collegian who made the team. Contacted late Tuesday, Heslip was obviously thrilled. So, too, was Baylor coach Scott Drew. If Heslip returns from these tournaments as a stronger shooter, defender and all-around player, the Bears will benefit greatly. Baylor is/should be a top-three team in the Big 12, behind Kansas and Oklahoma State. The Bears have the bigs with Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson but are green at the point. If Heslip can produce and create an inside-outside threat again, Baylor will be a real contender.

3. The NCAA can't have it both ways on preseason scrimmages. If the NCAA wants these scrimmages to be played, but not seen or heard from by the media or the public, then they can't be deemed some sort of official competition. Yet Old Dominion's Donte Hill has been ruled ineligible for what would have been his final season because he played in a scrimmage before transferring from Clemson to ODU. He played as a freshman at Clemson and then the past two years at ODU, redshirting the season in between. Hill's appeal was denied. He should try again and again. And if he's rejected, then these scrimmages -- especially the ones between two schools that travel to a neutral site to play -- need to be viewed as real exhibition games with countable stats, media and an opportunity for fans to watch.
With college basketball defined more and more each season by parity, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by anything these days.

Especially in the NCAA tournament.

In three of the past four seasons, a team from a non-power conference has advanced to the Final Four and more than held its own upon arrival.

The most recent example is Wichita State, which defeated the likes of Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to a showdown with Louisville in the national semifinals. The Shockers lost to the eventual NCAA champs 72-68, but Gregg Marshall’s team certainly made its presence felt in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minute. Along with earning a ton of national respect (if it hadn't done so already), Wichita State’s postseason march was surely inspiring to teams from similar leagues hoping to accomplish the same feat this season.

I’m not predicting that any of these programs will pull a Wichita State and make the Final Four, but here are some schools from non-power conferences that could make some noise in March.

10. Southern -- Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 last season, but Southern nearly accomplished something even more impressive when it almost upset Gonzaga before falling 64-58. A victory would’ve made the Jaguars the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1. Southern should be a scary team again in 2013-14. Four of its top five scorers return including 6-foot-6 wing Malcolm Miller, who averaged 15.8 points and a team-high six rebounds. Javan Mitchell (9.5 points) and Jameel Grace (9.2) posted impressive numbers, as well. The Jaguars, who defeated Texas A&M in a nonconference game last season, will likely be challenged in the SWAC by Mike Davis’ Texas Southern squad. Texas Southern won last season’s SWAC title with a 16-2 record (compared to 15-3 for Southern) but was ineligible for the postseason.

9. Towson -- The Tigers pulled off the biggest turnaround in NCAA history by going 18-13 one season after finishing 1-31. Pat Skerry’s squad could be in for even better things, thanks to the return of four starters. The best of the bunch is former Georgetown forward Jerrelle Benimon, who ranked third in the nation in rebounding last season with 11.2 a game. Benimon, who also averaged a team-high 17.1 points, may be even tougher this season thanks to the arrival of 3-point standout Four McGlynn, a Vermont transfer who will be a welcome addition to a team that ranked 258th in the country in 3-point shooting. Small forward Marcus Damas should be the team’s top defender for the second straight season, while Timajh Parker-Rivera has the edge on replacing departed senior Bilal Dixon at power forward. Towson will be playing in a new arena, and the CAA tournament is in Baltimore. It couldn’t be happening at a better time for the Tigers, whose last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1991.

8. Florida Gulf Coast -- It wasn’t long after last season’s surprising march to the Sweet 16 that Eagles coach Andy Enfield was poached by USC. The interest in Enfield hardly came as a surprise, as FGCU was one of the most fascinating stories of the NCAA tournament. Even though Enfield and his “Dunk City” style are gone, the Eagles likely won't take a huge step back. Longtime Kansas assistant Joe Dooley was hired as a replacement and with his pedigree, FGCU may not miss a beat. It’d be a mistake to assume the Eagles will play a completely different style under Dooley, who retained two of Enfield’s top assistants (Marty Richter and Michael Fly). FGCU returns four of its top five scorers: Bernard Thompson, Chase Fieler, Brett Comer and Eric McKnight. And the Eagles add a pair of transfers in Jamail Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech).

7. Louisiana Tech -- A lot of people forgot about the Bulldogs because they didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Still, finishing 27-7 overall and 16-2 in any conference (yes, even the WAC) is no small feat. Neither is making an appearance, albeit brief, in the Top 25 poll for the first time since 1985. It will be interesting to see if Louisiana Tech can experience similar success during its first season as a member of Conference USA. The Bulldogs certainly have enough pieces for a great season. Leading scorer Raheem Appleby (14.9 points) returns along with Cordarius Johnson (7.9) and Alex Hamilton (7.8), who ranked second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Leading rebounder Michale Kyser (5.3) is also back. Louisiana Tech lost its final two regular-season games last spring, then fell to UT-San Antonio in the first round of the WAC tournament, which meant it had to settle for an appearance in the NIT, where it beat Florida State and then lost to Southern Miss. It has the potential to make the NCAA tournament in 2013-14. That hasn’t happened since 1991.

6. Boise State -- The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and made the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 1994. Even though they lost to La Salle in the “First Four,” the season was still deemed a huge success, especially considering Boise State played in the Mountain West, easily one of the nation’s toughest conferences. The Broncos have to feel good about their chances for another good season in 2013-14. Four of their top six players return, including leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Derrick Marks (16.3 PPG). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and also averaged nearly four assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is back, as is leading rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.

5. La Salle -- Last season’s run to the Sweet 16 (which included victories over Boise State, Kansas State and Ole Miss) earned Dr. John Giannini a contract extension, and rightfully so. Before last season the Explorers had won just one NCAA tournament game in 30 years and hadn’t even made the field since 1992. The Explorers are confident their success will continue in 2013-14. Leading scorer Ramon Galloway is gone, but La Salle returns three other double-digit scorers in Tyreek Duren (14.3 points), Tyrone Garland (13) and Jerrell Wright (10.8), who also led the team in rebounds with 6.8 per game. Starting guard Sam Mills, who averaged 33 minutes per game, is also back. Replacing Galloway certainly won’t be easy. He led the team in points, assists and steals. And his on-court swagger set the tone for a team that relied on toughness. Still, with confidence soaring following last season’s 24-10 finish, the Explorers have an excellent chance of returning to the NCAA tournament.

4. Harvard -- Tommy Amaker’s squad pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the NCAA tournament last season by upending No. 3 seed New Mexico. And let’s not forget, it was somewhat surprising that Harvard was even in the field. Harvard played the entire season without its two best players but still managed to win the Ivy League. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return, as expected, the Crimson likely will have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey likely will average similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a postseason run this season, it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a Top 25-caliber team.

3. Saint Louis -- Some publications tabbed Jim Crews as the national coach of the year after he led the Billikens to the Atlantic 10 title last season. Crews had stepped in for Rick Majerus, who left the team in the fall for health reasons and passed away in December. SLU named Crews the full-time coach after the season, and it’s not unreasonable to think SLU could be just as salty in 2013-14. Guard Kwamain Mitchell is gone, along with A-10 sixth man of the year Cody Ellis. But the Billikens return every other starter from a squad that also won the league tournament title while setting a school record for wins (28). Leading the way will be forward Dwayne Evans, who led last season's team in points (14) and rebounds (7.7). Jordair Jett is back after being named to the A-10’s all-defensive squad. So is Mike McCall Jr., whose 47 3-pointers ranked second on the team. The battle between SLU, La Salle and VCU for the A-10 title should be a good one.

2. VCU -- There were times last season when VCU looked like a top-10 team. Even when VCU went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing to Duke and Missouri, the Rams showed glimpses of becoming a team that could make the Final Four. No one would be surprised if Shaka Smart’s squad accomplished that feat this season, especially if VCU establishes a little more consistency. The Rams will likely open the season ranked in the top 15. All but two key players (Troy Daniels and Darius Theus) return from last season's squad. Included in that group are double-digit scorers Treveon Graham (15.1 points), Juvonte Reddic (14.6) and Rob Brandenberg (10.1), along with defensive standout Briante Weber, who ranked fifth in the country in steals with 2.7 per game. VCU will continue to play its relentless full-court defense, which is hard to prepare for in a tournament setting because of the quick turnaround. On offense the Rams will score a ton of points in transition. This, once again, will be a fun team to watch -- and a difficult one to play.

1. Wichita State -- Can the Shockers make it to the Final Four two years in a row? Heck, why not? There’s a strong chance that this year’s team could be even better than the unit that lost to Louisville. Losing bruising forward Carl Hall and court leader Malcolm Armstead will hurt, but Marshall’s team returns all of its other key parts. Cleanthony Early, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds against Louisville, is an NBA-caliber small forward. Ron Baker ignited the Shockers’ NCAA tournament run with his prowess from beyond the arc, and point guard Fred VanVleet logged valuable minutes as a freshman backing up Armstead. Tekele Cotton is a returning starter who helps set the tone defensively, and standout shooter Evan Wessel is back after redshirting last season. Look for 6-foot-9 Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Colby to replace Hall in the paint. Colby spent the past season working out with the Shockers and Marshall couldn’t be more impressed. Chipola (Fla.) College transfer Earl Watson also will be in the mix down low. It should be another great season in Wichita.

Bonus team: Butler -- I goofed up in an earlier version of this blog by including the Bulldogs on this list. The things that Butler accomplished as a mid-major -- advancing to the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011 -- made Brad Stevens’ players the poster boys for non-power conferences. But things are different now. Butler is in the Big East -- and it made the move without Stevens, who was hired earlier this month as head coach of the Boston Celtics. His replacement, Brandon Miller, faces the tough task of carrying on the tradition established by Stevens and his predecessors. Miller left coaching altogether a few seasons ago when he resigned after six years as an assistant at Ohio State. He got back in the game last year as a special assistant to Illinois coach John Groce before Stevens brought him back to Butler as an assistant a few months before his departure. Miller inherits a team that lost its top two scorers in Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith.

But standouts Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones (the hero of last season’s dramatic win over Gonzaga) return along with Kellen Dunham, one of the country’s top shooters. The biggest issue will be at point guard, where there is no clear front-runner for the starting spot. Jackson Aldridge has yet to establish himself after two seasons, and Devontae Morgan hardly saw the court last year as a freshman. Walk-on Alex Barlow is also a candidate. The Bulldogs certainly don’t have the look of a Final Four team, but if Miller does half as good of a job as Stevens, it would be foolish to count the Bulldogs out.

Bracket reveal: Charleston Classic

July, 17, 2013
7/17/13
10:00
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Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Charleston Classic

When and where: Nov. 21-22 and 24, Charleston, S.C.

Initial thoughts: New Mexico is clearly the favorite. No tournament title is a given, but the Lobos really have no excuse if they don't win this event. Every other team, save UMass, is rebuilding in some form. The Minutemen have a legitimate chance to pull off a title, but it still would be deemed a surprise.

[+] EnlargeCraig Neal
Steve Conner/Icon SMICraig Neal's Lobos are the clear-cut favorite to win the Charleston Classic.
The Lobos have a new coach, but not an unfamiliar face. Craig Neal was as much of a fixture around the program as Alford the past six years. Neal deserves a lot of the credit that has been heaped on Alford for their success in the Mountain West. The Lobos lost Tony Snell, but the core of the squad returns, led by Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood on the wings and Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow inside.

This is an important year for the Minutemen under Derek Kellogg. Massachusetts no longer has to deal with Xavier, Butler or Temple in the A-10 (although the Owls are in this event on the other side of the bracket). The league should be led by VCU and possibly Saint Louis this season, but the Minutemen have every right to believe they could challenge for the conference title -- something they've longed to do for years now. Pulling off an upset over the Lobos, or at the very least leaving Charleston 2-1, would get this team moving in the right direction.

Getting a read on Nebraska, UAB, Georgia, Davidson, Temple or Clemson in November would be tough to do, considering they all face a host of questions.

Matchup I can't wait to see: The first-round matchups are a bit lean, but I'll go with Temple-Clemson. The Owls are never really down under Fran Dunphy. They may be retooling more than rebuilding, and a summer trip to France will provide a head start to the season. Anthony Lee gives Temple a reliable player inside. He should be able to produce a double-double on occasion.

Clemson faces an important transition year. The Tigers now have to deal with three more teams in the ACC at a time when they also must try to move up in the conference. Clemson lost Devon Booker and Milton Jennings, but this should be a breakout season for K.J. McDaniels. The Tigers could use a quality win or two in Charleston, where they'll be somewhat of a home team and will look to get some much-needed momentum going into the ACC.

Potential matchup I want to see: UMass versus New Mexico in the semifinals. The Minutemen have a potential A-10 player of the year candidate in Chaz Williams, who has the ability to break the Lobos down off the dribble. He'll push Greenwood or Kendall Williams, depending on who has to guard him. Of course, UMass has to ensure it takes care of Nebraska to lock in the date with the Lobos. And New Mexico cannot -- repeat, cannot -- have a Harvard-like meltdown and lose to UAB in the first game.

Five players to watch

Kendall Williams, New Mexico: Williams won last season's Mountain West Conference player of the year award, beating San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin and NBA No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett. Williams can shine on a stat sheet, scoring 46 points in a win over Colorado State. He doesn't have Snell to play off this coming season, but can create and take his own shot at a high percentage.

Chaz Williams, UMass: The Minutemen were the benefactors of the Hofstra instability when Williams transferred to Amherst. He has been one of the top guards in the A-10 and has a chance this season to be one of the best guards nationally. Williams had 7.3 assists a game and kept his turnovers low at 3.5 last season. If he can manage a game consistently, the Minutemen should challenge for the A-10 title and an NCAA bid.

De'Mon Brooks, Davidson: Bob McKillop has always done an exceptional job of ensuring his star player has the right amount of touches and is in a position to succeed. Brooks should be the featured player this season. The Wildcats have one lame-duck year in the Southern before moving to the A-10. To count the Wildcats out of the SoCon title despite losing some quality players such as Jake Cohen would be a major mistake.

Ray Gallegos, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers will continue to take on the personality of Tim Miles. What does that mean? Well, expect this squad to play loose but with purpose. Gallegos has his work cut out for him in a matchup against Chaz Williams in the first round. But you can expect Miles to put Gallegos at ease. Get by the Minutemen and the Huskers would have the win they need to build off of heading toward the Big Ten.

Charles Mann, Georgia: The Bulldogs lost their go-to scorer in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was a lock for the lottery and went early in the NBA draft. Mann had his moments last season for Mark Fox, scoring in double figures in two of the final four games. With KCP gone, Mann must be the man at times for UGA to avoid being scoring-challenged. This tournament should be a good barometer on what to expect.

Title-game prediction: New Mexico over Temple.

The pressure is on New Mexico to deliver a title. The Lobos should be able to pull it off, even though the opponent is wide open. But I'll go with Temple because it's difficult to ever dismiss the Owls.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: New Mexico over Temple
Jeff Goodman: New Mexico over Clemson
Jason King: New Mexico over Temple
Myron Medcalf: New Mexico over Davidson
Dana O'Neil: Georgia over New Mexico
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, we'll unveil the final six: Charleston, 2K Sports, Diamond Head, CBE, Wooden and Maui. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Editor's Note: An earlier version of this bracket had a pair of incorrect matchups. We apologize for the mix-up.)

When and where: Nov. 21-22, 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Initial thoughts: The bracket seems to grant Georgetown an easy path to the title game. Northeastern lost its top two scorers -- Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee -- from last season (29.9 PPG combined). And Kansas State is recovering from a tumultuous offseason that included the loss of Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder. Georgetown’s opening-round opponent, Charlotte, had offensive issues last year (187th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) and now top scorer Chris Braswell is gone.

A title, however, is not a guarantee. The Hoyas will probably travel to San Juan without Greg Whittington, who recently tore his ACL. And the other side of the bracket is much tougher, even though Long Beach State is depleted after multiple offseason dismissals. Florida State struggled last season but the Seminoles were young so most of their roster returns, although they’ll miss Michael Snaer. Michigan is the obvious favorite. The Wolverines will be led by Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, a pair of players who would have been first-round draft picks last month had they decided to leave school after their team’s national title game loss to Louisville in April. Freshman Derrick Walton will probably follow Trey Burke as the team’s new point guard. He’ll be surrounded by a strong crew. VCU will be tough, too. The HAVOC defense helped VCU acquire the nation’s highest turnover rate last season. The Rams, however, lost point guard Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. Still, they haven’t lost much steam with a solid recruiting class and Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon in the mix now.

Things could get interesting on Friday in this tournament.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: Florida State has a lot to prove. Last season was a mess for Leonard Hamilton, who recently received a contract extension. His program has a chance, however, to make an early statement in the 2013-14 season with a win over a VCU squad that will be a Top 25 program entering the season. But Shaka Smart has some new faces, and his squad must identify a new leader now that Theus is gone.

[+] EnlargeMcGary/Robinson
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III could have been first-round NBA draft picks following Michigan's run to the national title game.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Can you say rematch? The last time Michigan and VCU met, the Wolverines pummeled the Rams in the third round of the NCAA tournament. That 25-point victory was an embarrassment for a VCU squad that was completely out of rhythm from tipoff. But the Rams are deep again. And the Wolverines have a couple of potential lottery picks running the operation again. I’d love to see these two squads face off again in the semis.

Five players to watch:

Treveon Graham, VCU: The Rams are often praised for their defensive strengths. Last season, however, VCU proved its worth on offense, too -- averaging 78.0 points (11th in the nation). Graham, the team’s top scorer, was a catalyst. He averaged 15.1 PPG and 5.8 RPG. He also hit 36.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Graham doesn’t waste minutes, either. He had the Atlantic 10’s top offensive rating (118.1 per KenPom.com, among players who used at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions). Last season was a breakout campaign for this guy. If VCU reaches its ceiling, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward could earn All-American consideration.

Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, Michigan: After the Wolverines rumbled to the national championship game in Atlanta, many expected McGary and Robinson to take their talents to the NBA. The two youngsters had a chance to turn pro and make millions. But their decision to return means that the Wolverines will enter the season as Big Ten contenders again. There’s a huge gap at PG, a spot that was occupied by Wooden Award winner Trey Burke last season. With McGary and Robinson back, John Beilein has one of America’s top centers and one of the nation’s most versatile wings. This tournament will be an early opportunity for the duo to prove that Michigan is still potent without Burke.

Okaro White, Florida State: There’s a lot of pressure on White right now. Florida State will enter 2013-14 without top scorer and veteran Michael Snaer. Terrance Shannon transferred. And Leonard Hamilton will be forced to rely on some young players again in a league (ACC) that could be the nation’s best conference with the arrival of Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse. But White made major strides in his junior campaign. The 6-8 forward averaged 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks. He hit 81.5 percent of his free throws, and he was 10th in the ACC with a 4.13 block percentage (KenPom.com). But can he lead this group? We’ll find out in Puerto Rico.

Markel Starks, Georgetown: Greg Whittington’s torn ACL jeopardizes his entire season and it also jeopardizes the Hoyas’ season. Three other starters from last season return. But it was much easier to view Georgetown as a threat to win the inaugural title in the new Big East when Whittington was healthy. To maintain that hope -- if Whittington can’t return -- Starks has to guide a team that still has some talented pieces from last season and will add UCLA transfer Josh Smith after the first semester. Starks did it all for Georgetown last year (12.8 points, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 41.7 percent from the 3-point line). But the Hoyas might need him to do even more in 2013-14.

Title-game prediction: VCU over Georgetown.

The Hoyas should reach the title game, but I think they’ll face a VCU squad that’s equipped with a multitude of talent and depth. Smart has a rotation that could be 10-11 players deep. And even though he has lost a few veterans, he will gain the services of former top recruits Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess, two players who were academically ineligible for competition last season. And Shannon, the Florida State transfer, will be available, too. Smart’s HAVOC attack demands talent and depth, and he has both. This is the most skilled squad that he has had at VCU. That’s just too much for Georgetown to overcome, especially with VCU’s interior advantage (see Shannon and 6-9 forward Juvonte Reddic). These Rams will be dangerous. They’ll prove it in San Juan.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: VCU over Georgetown
Jeff Goodman: VCU over Northeastern
Seth Greenberg: Michigan over Georgetown
Andy Katz: Michigan over Georgetown
Jason King: VCU over Kansas State
Dana O'Neil: VCU over Kansas State
1. New Butler coach Brandon Miller couldn't have had the summer lay out better for him with the decision by assistants Michael Lewis and Terry Johnson to stay on the Bulldogs staff. It's unclear if either had a shot to go with former coach Brad Stevens to the Boston Celtics, but the point is moot now. A much bigger coup is that the team's scheduled trip to Australia is still on for August. Miller didn't know the Butler players -- he came back to the school in April after spending a year at Illinois as a special assistant and the year before that doing pharmaceutical sales. The trip gives him 10 practices and four games Down Under. "I couldn't ask for a better time to be here,'' Miller said during our ESPNU college basketball podcast Tuesday. "We've got our Hinkle campaign (to update the famed arena), the Big East, and the new locker room, scoreboard and chair-back seating. The Australia trip is a huge advantage. It gives us a chance to bond."

2. The 2013-14 season will be crucial for the Atlantic 10's efforts to continue the momentum it built last season with La Salle's run to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 from the First Four. The top three teams return in Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis and La Salle, though the league loses Xavier and Butler. The A-10 will need that top three to stay on top, with a deeper second tier in Richmond, Saint Joseph's and Massachusetts. George Mason is the wild card in its first year in the league (Davidson joins in 2014-15). Dayton, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure are all more than capable of cracking the aforementioned crew. The A-10 gets overshadowed by the Big East and might at times by the American. That's why this is an important year for the A-10 to re-establish its foothold in the East.

3. USC made it official with the transfer of UNLV's Katin Reinhardt. As with Darion Clark, transferring from Charlotte, Reinhardt will have to sit out next season. The Trojans, meanwhile, are trying to get Maryland transfer Pe'Shon Howard eligible immediately. Don't be surprised to see this kind of roster-building under Andy Enfield. He'll have to balance transfers, those who can play immediately and players he can stash for a year in his effort to create balanced classes. Oregon has made this an art in the Pac-12. Arizona State has gotten into the mix in attempting to climb up faster. Enfield is well-versed in compiling a roster in a variety of ways. To ensure USC is a viable player over the next two seasons, the Trojans will have to take some gambles.
It’s not my job to second-guess the decisions the following players made when they entered the NBA draft without exhausting their collective collegiate eligibility. There are often personal situations tied to these calls.

But the reality is that these athletes were not selected during Thursday night’s draft. So perhaps another year in school would have been beneficial. It’s also important to note that many undrafted players will earn a slot on an NBA summer league squad or sign a free-agent contract soon, so this doesn’t mean that their NBA dreams are finished.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Leslie
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDespite having another stellar season at NC State, C.J. Leslie got passed over in Thursday's draft.
C.J. Leslie (NC State) -- After leading his team to the Sweet 16 in 2012, Leslie appeared to be a lock for the first round of that summer’s NBA draft. He decided to return for his junior season, and his numbers were similar to his stats from 2011-12 (15.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.0 SPG). He scored 20 points (8-for-12) in NC State’s round-of-64 loss to Temple in the NCAA tournament in March. Maybe another year would have allowed Leslie to add some muscle to his 6-foot-9, 200-pound frame, squash concerns about his leadership ability and prove that he can be a high-energy guy every night. Still, many players who were drafted lack his upside. This is stunning.

Phil Pressey (Missouri) -- Pressey was both brilliant and frustrating in three years at Missouri. On his best days, he was a 6-foot dynamic playmaker who could get to the rim and create offense for the Tigers. On his worst days, he was a turnover machine who made poor choices. His decision to turn pro was certainly surprising. He averaged 3.5 turnovers per game and only made 32 percent of his 3-pointers last season. Both were declines from the season prior. For an undersized point guard with turnover issues and limited shooting ability, one more year in Columbia could have enhanced his pro future.

Adonis Thomas (Memphis) -- Everyone wants a LeBron James clone. In recent years, the value of the 6-7 wing has skyrocketed. If you’re big and you can play on the perimeter a little bit, then the general assumption now is that you have “pro potential.” Thomas has pro potential, but his sophomore season was not an affirmation of that. He shot just 40.5 percent from the field and made 29.2 percent of his 3-pointers. It was his first full season after an ankle injury interrupted his freshman campaign, and even though he has all of the physical tools to compete in the NBA, he apparently didn’t wow execs in Year 2.

Vander Blue (Marquette) -- This was a classic case of “instant draft buzz,” I think. Blue had a stellar postseason and led Marquette to the Elite Eight. That effort included a 29-point barrage against Butler in the round of 32, but also included a 3-for-15 performance in a 55-39 loss to Syracuse in the regional final. But the perception about his NBA future had shifted dramatically during Marquette's run in the Big Dance. Blue could have entered 2013-14 as a preseason All-American. I wasn’t surprised when he entered the draft. I was surprised when he stayed in the draft. The 6-4 wing will have to find another way into the league.

Myck Kabongo (Texas) -- Well, this wasn’t the plan. Kabongo, a former McDonald’s All American, turned pro following a tumultuous season with the Longhorns. He was suspended for 23 games as a result of an NCAA investigation, but was a standout in the limited time he was available. He averaged 14.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 5.5 APG and 2.0 SPG in 2012-13. Pro execs, however, might have had concerns about his character; Kabongo was suspended after he lied to investigators about receiving impermissible benefits. His brief appearances last season did not help his cause. Looking at the current mess in Texas, however, returning might not have been the best move, either.

Dewayne Dedmon (USC) -- Dedmon had an unconventional journey to Division I basketball. He was a gray shirt and redshirt at Antelope Valley College before joining USC’s program. And he redshirted in 2010-11 with the Trojans. The 7-footer is a project. And that’s probably why he went undrafted. He hasn’t played a lot of organized basketball, so he’s still raw. He averaged 6.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.1 BPG and 1.1 SPG in 2012-13. Solid numbers, but not enough to convince NBA teams to draft him. His size and upside, however, suggest that he’ll get a shot somewhere.

B.J. Young (Arkansas) -- During the 2012-13 season, Young scored 29 points against Arizona State, 25 against Syracuse, 25 against Tennessee and 27 against Missouri. The 6-3 combo guard was an offensive catalyst for the Razorbacks. But shooting concerns only magnified questions about the position he’d play at the next level. He was a 23 percent shooter from beyond the arc last season, and he made just 67 percent of his free throws. Those numbers were probably more significant for NBA execs than his 15.2 PPG average and offensive explosions.

C.J. Aiken (Saint Joseph’s) -- Aiken is an explosive athlete who tortured Atlantic 10 squads with his ability to alter and block shots. But can a 6-9, 201-pound post presence duplicate that in the NBA? And if he can’t, can he defend NBA wings? Those were the immediate questions after he decided to enter the draft. Plus, his offense is raw and limited; he shot 25.3 percent from the 3-point line last season, but also averaged 10.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 2.6 BPG. He’s the kind of young man some NBA team will sign this offseason. He’ll get a chance to prove that he’s equipped to be an effective defender and offensive contributor at the next level.

Tahj Tate (Delaware State) -- This might be a case of a player who went undrafted because of the competition he faced and where he played. Or maybe it’s a talent thing. Tate earned second-team All-MEAC honors in 2012-13 after averaging 12.8 points a game. Now, the YouTube clips suggest that the 6-4 guard is a great athlete. But he wasn’t a great shooter (29 percent from 3-point range), and he actually was a better scorer in 2011-12. Still a head-scratcher on the surface. Again, we don’t know his thought process prior to this decision. But he seems like a long shot to crack a pro roster in the near future.

John Taylor (Fresno Pacific) -- Taylor would not have been the first player drafted from the Division II ranks. But it certainly would have been a surprise, even though Taylor had a phenomenal junior season at Fresno Pacific. The guard led Division II with an average of 27.5 points a game and his team to a 21-9 record. He also earned a national title in junior college. This would not be a shock if Taylor had put up similar numbers at a Division I school, but it’s difficult to project a player’s ability when he hasn’t faced the top competition at the collegiate level. Still, he probably did as much as he could within Division II basketball.

Editor's Note: For Dana O'Neil's piece on the search for Renardo Sidney and the perils of basketball talent gone awry, click here.
1. Conference USA will take 15 of its 16 teams to El Paso now that Florida International has been banned for the 2014 postseason because of a poor APR score. New FIU coach Anthony Evans knew this could occur. CUSA coaches and athletic directors had just recently voted at the league meetings to send all 16 teams to the conference tournament. Teams will now slide up in the tournament seeding based on where FIU finishes. The league will likely only play three games on the first day of the tournament on Tuesday for seeds 10-15. The top four seeds will get a double bye.

2. Providence College coach Ed Cooley said he called as many schools as possible and could not schedule a home-and-home game out of the region. Providence has consistently had issues trying to get games, regardless of who their head coach is. There have been a few series with schools like Alabama and Texas, due to the connection of former coach Rick Barnes. PC also had one with Wichita State. That's why Cooley had to think out of the box with the new 18-game, round-robin Big East schedule. The Friars play Boston College at home, go to UMass (because Cooley said he was convinced the Minutemen would be a high RPI game), play Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and have the annual series with Rhode Island (this time in Kingston). They will also play in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, against Vanderbilt and with La Salle as a possibility in the second round (Explorers play Morgan State). Maryland is on the other side of the bracket (with Northern Iowa as another player on that side). The Friars reached the NIT quarterfinals before losing to Baylor. Kris Dunn and Bryce Cotton give the Friars a shot to get back to the postseason and Cooley did a solid job of building a legitimate schedule to make the Friars potentially matter in March.

3. Memphis coach Josh Pastner knew when he took over for John Calipari he had to manage his staff as effectively as he did the team. He hired veteran head coach Willis Wilson. He later added former teammate Luke Walton during the lockout and also hired Damon Stoudamire. Stoudamire left and Pastner went back to his alma mater and hired former teammate Jason Gardner, who had been an assistant at Loyola. Gardner was on the 2001 national runnerup Wildcats and was one of the most competent four-year point guards in the last 14 years. He should immediately help the youthful backcourt for the Tigers. He's a winner and was a tough, rugged point guard. Meanwhile, Missouri coach Frank Haith added former Drake coach Mark Phelps on his staff. That gives Haith another former head coach on his veteran staff to go along with former DePaul and Virginia coach Dave Leitao.
If Marshall basketball fans are smarting, it's easy to understand why. After a very solid 2011-12 season, and the return of most of the Herd's key contributors, coach Tom Herrion's team looked set to compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament in 2012-13 and possibly even challenge Memphis for Conference USA supremacy. Instead, Marshall fell off the face of the Earth. The Thundering Herd went 13-19, ending with a first-round C-USA loss to Tulane; they finished the season ranked 217th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, all the way down from 79th a season before.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
Spruce Derden/US PresswireDeAndre Kane displayed class to Marshall supporters after transferring from the program.
If that wasn't bad enough, this spring DeAndre Kane, the team's star guard, left the program after meeting with Herrion. Herrion's statement at the time -- "After meeting with DeAndre, I have decided it is in our program's and his best interest that he seek opportunities elsewhere," it began -- clearly hinted at a turmoil that couldn't be solved. You don't decide to send your best player away after a 13-19 season unless something is really wrong.

Whether the departure was the fault of Herrion or Kane (or both) has been a subject of much discussion among Marshall fans, which is part of the reason why Kane's farewell letter to Huntington, W.Va., published this weekend in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, is so interesting. Opinion on Kane has always been split, and some blamed him for the poor performance last season; Herrion has always drawn his fair share of critics for failing to bring a talented but frustrating player under his wing.

The other reason why this is interesting is because Kane -- who is transferring to Iowa State for his final year of eligibility this summer -- wrote a genuinely impressive, even moving statement about his time in Huntington and his gratitude for everything he learned there. It is worth a read based entirely on its own merits:
Coming from where I come from sometimes the end of the road is high school if you're lucky enough to make it that far and your path could be chosen for you after that. It took a while for me to see that and with the support the city has given me through the ups and downs I appreciate my education experience and struggles that I've learned from here that much more.

I know that things didn't end here the way I wanted them too and I apologize for not leading the team to the NCAA Tournament because this city deserves it. What I do promise though is to bring something back to this community better than a basketball championship -- hope and fun for the kids. Whether I play pro basketball or just become a business man, I'll continue to contribute to the youth in this area once I get my career.

It's really good -- the kind of stuff you hope to hear from someone who has grown from four years at an institution of higher learning. At least from the outside, there have been few indications Kane saw that bigger picture, but he's clearly learned something, and that may make his departure even more difficult for Marshall fans to swallow.

In the meantime, it should be noted that this is now the second time in the past month that the citizens of Huntington have been the addressees of glowing, classy open letters from departing players. The first came in late May, when No. 1-ranked recruit Andrew Wiggins penned a farewell thank you note for the support he was shown during his years at Huntington Prep. There may be some measure of public relations at work here, sure, but I'd prefer to think Huntington is basically the Pawnee, Ind., of West Virginia. Chris Traeger would love this stuff.

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