Friday, September 30, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: Nos. 30-26

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

30. Creighton Bluejays:

Last Season: 23-16, 10-8 (Missouri Valley)

Head Coach: Greg McDermott

Key Losses: Kenny Lawson Jr, Kaleb Korver, Darryl Ashford, Wayne Runnels,

New Additions: Grant Gibbs, Geoffery Groselle, Avery Dingman, Nevin Johnson, Austin Chatman, Mogboluwaga Oginni, Alex Olson

Projected Lineup:

- G: Antoine Young, Sr.
- G: Jahenns Maginat, So.
- F: Grant Gibbs, Jr.
- F: Doug McDermott, So.
- C: Gregory Echinique, Jr.
- Bench: Ethan Wragge, So.; Josh Jones, Jr.; Will Artino, Fr.

Outlook: The Bluejays are, without question, the most talented team in the Missouri Valley. There's an argument to be made that they have the best player in the conference at three positions. Antoine Young is a playmaking point guard that also happens to be a lock down defender; Greg Echinique, a transfer from Rutgers, is a massive presence in the middle; and Doug McDermott is a potential all-american and will likely be the pick for MVC Player of the Year by many, if not all, publications. That core alone makes this team one to keep an eye on, but what makes them scarier is that they are deep. Junior Josh Jones and sophomore Jahenns Manigat both showed flashes of being quality scorers in the MVC as well. Throw in redshirt freshman center Will Artino, Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs in the back court and a quartet of incoming freshmen, and McDermott has as deep of a roster as anyone in the conference. He'll be looking to increase Creighton's aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, so don't be surprised to see the Bluejays in and around the top 25 all year.

29. UCLA Bruins:

Last Season: 23-11, 11-5 (Pac-10)

Head Coach: Ben Howland

Key Losses: Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee

New Additions: David Wear, Travis Wear, Larry Drew II, Norman Powell, De'End Parker, Khalid McCaskill, David Brown, Nick Kazemi

Projected Lineup:

- G: Laz Jones, Sr.
- G: Larry Drew II, Sr.
- G: Tyler Lamb, So.
- F: Reeves Nelson, Jr.
- C: Josh Smith, So.
- Bench: Travis Wear, So.; David Wear, So.; Jerime Anderson, Sr.; De'End Parker, Jr.; Brendan Lane, Jr.; Anthony Stover, So.; Norman Powell, Fr.

Outlook: Ben Howland has an interesting team this season. Their strength is going to be in the front court, where they will be as deep as anyone in the country. Reeves Nelson is an aggressive and athletic four that sets a tone for this club. He's aggressive around the rim and a monster on the glass. If he can add a consistent perimeter jumper, he's got a chance to be a first-team all-league player. And he's not even their best big man. Josh Smith is. But Smith's issue is that he can't stay in shape. He ended the year weighing over 300 lbs and reportedly put on weight this summer, which isn't a good thing. Even with the weight, he's a best on the block. The question is whether or not he'll be able to stay on the court for an extended period of time. Throw in the Wear twins -- sophomore transfers from UNC -- and returners Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover, and minutes in UCLA's front court will be quite valuable and hard to come by. The perimeter is the question mark for this team. There are three point guards on the roster, and none of them blow you away. Laz Jones will most likely be the primary option, but he can be inconsistent at times. Larry Drew and Jerime Anderson were hyped recruits that fizzled in their three years in college. Will Tyler Lamb develop as a sophomore? Can De'End Parker and Norman Powell -- who got a concussion late in September and is reportedly unhappy already -- fill the void left by the departures of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt? Finding consistency on the perimeter will be the difference between UCLA being a tournament team and a legitimate threat in the Pac-10.

28. New Mexico Lobos:

Last Season: 22-13, 8-8 (MWC)

Head Coach: Steve Alford

Key Losses: Dairese Gary

New Additions: Demetrius Walker, Dominique Dunning, Hugh Greenwood, Kory Alford

Projected Lineup:

- G: Jamal Fenton, Jr.
- G: Kendall Williams, So.
- F: Philip McDonald, Sr.
- F: AJ Hardeman, Sr.
- C: Drew Gordon, Sr.
- Bench: Cameron Bairstow, So.; Demetrius Walker, So.; Tony Snell, So.; Hugh Greenwood, Fr.; Dominique Dunning, Fr.; Alex Kirk, So.

Outlook: New Mexico has a chance to be very good this season. They return all but one player from last year, although that one player is a big one -- Dairese Gary, their star point guard. That will hurt, but there are pieces in place to help weather the blow. Sophomore Kendall Williams has a chance to be a big time player for Steve Alford's club. He averaged 11.5 ppg and 4.0 apg and won the MWC Freshman of the Year award while playing as the third and fourth option offensively. Gary missed the final two games after hurting his knee, and Williams stepped up and scored 18 points in both games. Throw in junior Jamal Fenton, who had 12 assists and just four turnovers in those two games, and the Lobos should be fine in terms of playmaking. They should also have one of the best big men in the conference in Drew Gordon, a double-double machine that should become a monster playing a full season. New Mexico will also be quite deep this year. Seniors AJ Hardeman (at the four) and Philip McDonald (at the three) should fill out the starting lineup. Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk -- if he comes back from back surgery in August -- are talented sophomores in the front court, while classmates Demetrius Walker -- a transfer from Arizona State -- and Tony Snell will provide depth on the perimeter. Don't be surprised in a couple of freshmen see minutes as well. The Lobos will compete for the MWC title and should be in and out of the top 25 all year.

27. Temple Owls:

Last Season: 26-8, 14-2 (A-10)

Head Coach: Fran Dunphy

Key Losses: Lavoy Allen, Craig Williams

New Additions: Will Cummings

Projected Lineup:

- G: Juan Fernandez, Sr.
- G: Scootie Randall, Sr.
- F: Ramone Moore, Sr.
- F: Rahlir Jefferson, Jr.
- C: Michael Eric, Sr.
- Bench: TJ DiLeo, Jr.; Khalif Wyatt, Jr.; Aaron Brown, So.; Will Cummings, Fr.

Outlook: Once again, Fran Dunphy has his Temple team in a position to make a lot of noise in the Atlantic 10. On the perimeter, the 2011-2012 version of the Owls is loaded. Point guard Juan Fernandez, who feels like he has been in college for a decade, returns for his senior season. His numbers dipped a bit as a junior, but don't be surprised when he has a big senior year as this team's leader. Ramone Moore turned into the Owl's go-to scorer as a junior, and should once again fill that role as a senior. Throw in a healthy Scootie Randall, talented junior Khalif Wyatt and a couple of hungry and capable youngsters in sophomore Aaron Brown (who performed well when moved into the starting lineup to replace the injured Randall late in the season) and freshman Will Cummings, and Dunphy will have plenty of options at his disposal. I would go as far as to say Temple has one of the best perimeter rotations in the country. Up front is a bigger issue, as Temple will have to replace Lavoy Allen, who was so important to this team's defensive attack. Michael Eric should be healthy and will be counted on for a big season defending the rim and cleaning the glass. Rahlir Jefferson should also see a bump in production as a junior and will be a factor rebounding the ball. Depth is the biggest issue on the front line. Behind Jefferson and Eric, Dunphy only has two big men in Anthony Lee and Jimmy McDonnell, both redshirt freshmen that still need to add weight and strength. Even with the front court question marks, Temple should give Xavier a run for their money at the conference title.

26. Michigan Wolverines:

Last Season: 21-14, 9-9 (Big Ten)

Head Coach: John Beilein

Key Losses: Darius Morris

New Additions: Carlton Brundidge, Trey Burke, Max Bielfeldt

Projected Lineup:

- G: Zak Novak, Sr.
- G: Stu Douglass, Sr.
- F: Tim Hardaway, So.
- F: Evan Smotrycz, So.
- C: Jordan Morgan, So.
- Bench: Matt Vogrich, Jr.; Jon Horford, So.; Carlton Brundidge, Fr.; Trey Burke, Fr.

Outlook: Had Darius Morris decided to return to school instead of enter the NBA Draft, the Wolverines would have been a borderline top 10 team instead of a borderline top 25 team. Morris was that perfect point guard for the system that John Beilein runs. But the great thing about a John Beilein offense is that the sum is greater than the parts, and while having a playmaking point guard like Morris -- a kid that can pass and score -- makes the offense that much more dangerous, its not essential. Zack Novak and Stu Douglass will be the elder statesmen, the seniors tasked with leading a team made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores. Both are quality players that do a lot of things well, but they are going to have to up their production next season to help make up for the loss of Morris. Junior Matt Vogrich will provide some shooting off the bench, while Carlton Brundidge and Trey Burke -- who may end up taking over the point guard spot -- should have an impact playing a role. The x-factor of this team will be Tim Hardaway Jr, a 6'6" sophomore wing that became a dangerous scorer at the end of his freshman season. He reminds me a bit of Mike Gansey, who played for Beilein at West Virginia. The front court could end up being an issue. Jordan Morgan had a couple big games as a freshman, but he got overwhelmed at times against bigger front lines. Fellow sophomore Evan Smotrycz should see more minutes as a stretch four-man, but he will be counted on for more contributions on the glass. Keep an eye on Jon Horford. He's put on some strength this off-season as he's now listed at 250 lb. And breakout sophomore years run in his blood -- his brother, Al, went from a seldom used freshman to a potential lottery pick as a sophomore.
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The Only Conference Preview You Need To Read: Colonial

Over the next month and a half, we will be rolling out all of our 2011-2012 Season Preview posts. You can find a full schedule of all the preview posts here. If you want to browse through the rest of the conference previews, click here.


Player of the Year: Bradford Burgess, Sr., VCU

Playing a role as the second -- and, at times, the third or fourth -- offensive option for VCU a season ago, Burgess still managed to average 14.3 ppg and 5.1 rpg. He also happened to be a guy that seemingly made every big play for the Rams. Whether it was a momentum-changing three, getting a late-game stop, slipping a screen for a game-winning bucket (hello Florida State) or calming his team down -- Shaka Smart credited Burgess for bringing the team together after Smart was given a technical foul in the second half of VCU's Elite 8 win over Kansas -- Burgess has all the makings of a go-to player and a leader. And with so much talent leaving the Rams, Burgess will undoubtedly be the first option for VCU offensively. Now think about this stat: Burgess took 14 or more shots in five games last season. In those five games, he averaged 24.6 ppg and hit 17-26 from beyond the arc.

And a close second goes to...: Samme Givens, Sr., Drexel

This was tough, as the CAA has a number of very good upperclassmen this year. I'll go with Givens simply because I think he is as valuable to the Dragons as any player in the country is to their team. I also love undersized players that aren't afraid to mix it up in the paint, and there certainly isn't a front court player that is, inch-for-inch, more effective than Givens. Standing just 6'5", Givens averaged more than 10 rpg last season and was the biggest reason why Drexel led the country in defensive rebounding percentage. You see, Drexel's ability to clean the glass is the reason they win games. Bruiser Flint's teams don't force turnovers. They play fundamental, physical and positional defense, forcing you into tough shots -- they were seventh in the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage. By cleaning the defensive glass and limiting opponents to one shot per possession, the Dragons make it incredibly difficult to score against them. Givens is one of the major reasons why Drexel will be successful playing that style of basketball. Oh, and he's probably going to average around 13 ppg.

Breakout Star: Devon Saddler, So., Delaware

In his first game as a Blue Hen, Saddler went for 19 points on 8-13 shooting while adding seven assists and six rebounds on the road against a team in Ohio that was coming off of a first-round upset of Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. Not a bad way to introduce yourself to a fan base. And while he was a bit inconsistent throughout non-conference play, Saddler only got better during CAA play, something you don't often see out of freshmen. He averaged 18.7 ppg over the last 12 regular season games, winning CAA Rookie of the Year. If his hot shooting continues -- he was 20-40 from three over the last eight games of the season -- and he can learn to protect the basketball -- he averaged most turnovers than assists -- Saddler has a chance to become a national name by the time he's done at Delaware.

All-Conference First-Team:

- POY: Bradford Burgess, Sr., VCU
- G: Quinn McDowell, Sr., William & Mary
- G: Devon Saddler, So., Delaware
- G: Kent Bazemore, Sr., Old Dominion
- F: Ryan Pearson, Sr., George Mason
- F: Samme Givens, Sr., Drexel

All-Conference Second-Team:

- G: Devon Moore, Jr., James Madison
- G: Chris Fouch, Jr., Drexel
- G: Mike Moore, Sr., Hofstra
- F: Juvonte Reddic, So., VCU
- F: Keith Rendlemen, Jr., UNC-Wilmington

Four summer storylines

- VCU's training with Navy SEALs: I mean, its pretty self-explanatory. We wrote about it more here if you are interested, but I would recommend watching the video.

- Turnover at George Mason: Simply put, Jim Larranaga was not happy at George Mason. He wasn't happy with his salary, he wasn't happy with the salary his assistants received, he wasn't happy with his athletic director, and he wasn't happy when he saw Shaka Smart sign an extension worth more than double what he was making annually for accomplishing the same thing he did five years prior. So he left for a job that paid better, had a boss he got along with, and was located in South Florida. Not that tough of a decision. As a replacement, Mason brought in Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt, and while Hewitt could not hold keep Luke Hancock in the program, he was able to sign Roland Houston as an assistant and get him to bring along his nephew, top 100 center Eric Copes.

Larranaga was an icon at George Mason, a school he had built into a powerhouse in arguably the nation's top mid-major conference with a better-than-you-think-it-is fan base. The program has momentum. Will Paul Hewitt -- who was unable to capitalize on a run by his Georgia Tech team to the national title game -- build on it?

- Blaine Taylor's 'stache: Its gone.

- Towson's overhaul: When you go 4-26 on the season and 0-18 in conference play, changes have to be made. For Towson, those changes came in the form of a complete overhaul of the program. Out is head coach Pat Kennedy. Out were star forwards Isaiah Philmore and Braxton DuPree. Troy Franklin was out before the end of the first semester. With Pat Skerry, the Tigers bring in a completely new culture to their program. Even with Kelvin Amayo ineligible for this year, Skerry did a solid job recruiting, landing Georgetown transfer Jerelle Benimon. If he can tap into the fertile recruiting grounds of the Baltimore-DC corridor, Towson has the potential to be one of the best programs in the CAA.

Four storylines to follow this season

- Kent Bazemore's foot: Bazemore, Old Dominion's lone returning starter and a potential CAA Player of the Year in 2012, broke a bone in his left foot playing in a Hampton, VA, summer league. He underwent surgery in the beginning of August and initially expected to be healthy by the time the season finally rolls around. Now it appears as if the reigning defensive player of the year in the conference may be out until early December. If he is not at 100%, ODU is in trouble this season. Bazemore is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, a guy that head coach Blaine Taylor can build a defense around. He's also an athletic scorer that developed into a well-rounded offensive threat. It would be a shame to see him go out like this.

- George Mason's back court: The biggest concern for the Patriots heading into the season has nothing to do with who their head coach is and everything to do with their back court. Cam Long and Luke Hancock were GMU's two best playmakers, accounting for nearly 50% (240 out of 483) or their team's assists a season ago, but both are now out of the program. Then in September, Andre Cornelius, a senior guard and returning starter, was arrested for credit card fraud, meaning that Vertrail Vaughns, who averaged a whopping 9.5 mpg, is the most experienced returnee in the back court that doesn't have legal trouble hanging over their head.

The strength of this year's George Mason team is going to be their front court, but there are some major question marks in the back court. Assuming Cornelius is able to play this season, he's less of a playmaker than he is a spot-up shooter. Vaughns was efficient and productive in his limited minutes as a freshman, but how will he handle a larger role where he is going to be counted on as a playmaker? Can sophomore Byron Allen or freshman Corey Edwards take over the point guard duties? Whether or not Paul Hewitt can find a playmaker on his perimeter will likely determine just how good George Mason ends up being this season.

- Devon Moore's status: As a sophomore, the 6'4" Moore developed into one of the more exciting young guards in the conference to watch. He averaged 11.4 ppg and 4.2 apg on a team whose focal point was a slow-footed center. With Denzel Bowles gone, the Dukes had planned on becoming a more uptempo team. With talents like Julius Wells and Wyoming transfer AJ Davis -- who could be a difference-maker for JMU this year -- around Moore, there was reason fans to be excited heading into the season. But Moore has been ruled academically ineligible for the first semester. Its never easy to incorporate your point guard in at mid-season, especially when that point guard is the most important piece to a new offensive system. How will the Dukes respond to the change?

- Youngsters at Old Dominion and VCU: Old Dominion and VCU were two of the best teams in the conference last season, but combined, they graduated eight of their top ten players. The two guys that return -- Kent Bazemore and Brad Burgess -- are both near-locks to be first-team all-conference if they stay healthy, but how good those two teams end up being will be dependent on how well the youngsters on the roster develop. Are Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenburg primed for big sophomore years with the Rams? Is Darius Theus ready to be Joey Rodriguez's replacement? Can ODU's Trian Iliadis maintain his efficiency while playing an expanded role? Will Chris Cooper be able to control the paint the same way Frank Hassell did?

Power Rankings

1. Drexel: The Dragon's 2010-2011 campaign could be considered a success based on the fact that they won 21 games (only the second time that he has crossed the 20-win plateau as the head man of the Dragons), knocked off Louisville in Louisville and finished fifth in the conference, behind three teams that made the NCAA Tournament and a fourth team that sent a player to the NBA. Doing all that despite losing two players, including their leading scorer, after an offseason armed robbery just makes it all the more impressive. But the season was also a disappointment in that the Dragons didn't play in any postseason tournaments.

This season's version of the Dragons is quite intriguing. They bring back six of the seven players in their rotation from a year ago and add a solid recruiting class to the mix. The crux of this team comes on the defensive end of the floor. I think it is safe to say that the Dragons play an ugly style of basketball. They defend and they rebound -- they were seventh in the country in defensive effective field goal percentage and led the nation in defensive rebounding percentage -- limiting their opponents to one shot per possession as well as anyone. That won't change next season. Back is Sammie Givens -- who led the CAA in rebounding at 10.3 rpg despite standing just 6'5" -- who will once again be joined up front by 6'9" junior Darryl McCoy (7.8 rpg in 22.5 mpg) and 6'8" sophomore Dartaye Ruffin (7.4 rpg in 23.3 mpg), who made the all-freshmen team a season ago. Returning in the back court is sophomore point guard Frantz Masserat, another all-freshmen team member, and 6'4" senior Derrick Thomas. The key, however, will end up being leading scorer Chris Fouch. Fouch is a big-time shooter that can get as hot as anyone in the country, and while he finished the season with a 14.9 ppg average, the bulk of that damage was done early in the season. His shooting number dipped all the way to 33.3% from long range and 37.9% from the field by the end of the year as he battled injuries. (Ed. Note: Drexel announced that Fouch will miss the start of the season recovering from surgery.) He averaged just 12.7 ppg in league play. If Fouch, a junior, can get more consistent throughout the season and one or two of Flint's five freshmen are able to provide solid rotational minutes, Drexel has a shot of winning the Colonial this season.

2. George Mason: As we mentioned, George Mason had as much turmoil and turnover this offseason as anyone in the country. It started with the change in leadership, as Paul Hewitt took over for Miami-bound Jim Larranaga. Then it was the transfer of Luke Hancock to Louisville, which -- in addition to the loss of Cam Long -- will hurt the Patriots more than people think. Finally, the addition of Roland Houston as an assistant coach brought in Top 100 freshman Eric Copes, one of the best centers in the 2011 recruiting class.

For the 2011-2012 season, the biggest key for George Mason will be finding a playmaker. With Cam Long graduating and Hancock heading to the Big East, the Patriots not only lose two of their three leading scorers, they lose their two best playmakers; those two combined for 50% of GMU's assists a year ago. 5'10" senior Andre Cornelius was, technically, the Patriot's point guard last season, but he's more of a spot-up shooter than he is a creator, although its unclear when he'll return from suspension for credit card fraud. There are minutes to be earned on the perimeter. Redshirt sophomore Vertrail Vaughns could be in line for a breakout season. He was the most efficient player on the George Mason roster last season and used a significant number of possessions (20.9%) despite playing a limited role (just 9.5 mpg). Sophomore Byron Allen was rated as one of the top 50 point guards coming out of high school while incoming freshman Corey Edwards is a playmaking point guard that had interest from a number of high-major programs, including Villanova and St. John's. Also joining the mix on the perimeter will be freshman Vaughn Gray and redshirt sophomore Sherrod Wright, who average 5.5 ppg as a freshman before missing last season with a shoulder injury. Mason's strength next season is going to be on the interior, however. 6'7" face-up power forward Ryan Pearson, who was GMU's second-leading scorer as a junior, is back for his senior year and will become the Patriot's go-to scorer. He'll be joined on the front-line by Mike Morrison, a long and athletic center, and the freshman Eric Copes, a burly and relentless post presence that will have an immediate impact on Mason's rebounding totals. Copes has the potential to develop into a difference maker in the paint. There are a lot of question marks with this team, but the talent is there to compete for another CAA title. Will all the pieces come together?

3. VCU: I don't think I need to tell you what kind of success the Rams had last season. Despite going just 12-6 in conference play, a run to the finals of the CAA Tournament was enough to get VCU an at-large invite to the Big Dance and, well, the rest is history. The Rams rolled through USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas en route to the Final Four, the second time in five years that a team from the CAA made it that far as an 11 seed. But with four of their top five players graduating -- and key reserve Toby Veal opting not to return to Richmond -- the Rams will be in a bit of a rebuilding year this season.

That said, there is still quite a bit of talent on the VCU roster. It starts with Brad Burgess, who is a legitimate candidate to win the CAA Player of the Year award. Burgess is sharpshooting small forward that can score and rebound and always seems to hit a big shot when VCU needs it. But most importantly he's going to be the veteran leader of this year's team. After Burgess, the Rams are going to be relying on quite a bit of youth, but those youngsters are promising. Junior Darius Theus will likely takeover at the point for Joey Rodriguez while sophomore Rob Brandenburg will slide in alongside him. Brandenburg had a couple of big scoring outputs last year -- 23 against William & Mary and 22 versus Georgia State -- and is a prime candidate for a breakout season. Theus wasn't as much of a scorer, but he's a capable penetrator that notched four or more assists nine times as a sophomore. In the front court, the guy that will be looked at to replace Jamie Skeen's production is Juvonte Reddic. A highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school, Reddic has a nice blend of length, athleticism, and touch and wil hopefully develop into a more productive player as a sophomore. DJ Haley, a seven-foot sophomore, will also be counted on for a boost. After that, VCU has a lot of minutes available off the bench and six freshmen -- two of which redshirted -- that will fight for those minutes. Redshirt freshman Reco McCarter, an athletic, 6'7" lefty small forward, is probably the best out of that group.

4. James Madison: Matt Brady hasn't done a bad job in making over the Dukes' program since taking over in Harrisonburg, VA, three years ago. He's won 20 games twice and reached a postseason tournament twice, both of which happened last season. But the real gauge for where this program is headed will be this season, as one of the biggest reasons for JMU's success a year ago -- their biggest player, Texas A&M transfer Denzel Bowles -- graduates. How good was Bowles? After becoming eligible in December of the 2009-2010 season, Bowles still managed to score 1,000 points and grab 500 rebounds in his year and a half with the Dukes.

That kind of production is difficult to replace at any level of college hoops -- let alone in the CAA -- but the good news for James Madison is that they bring back a good amount of talent on the rest of their roster. Forward Julius Well, a 6'5" senior, averaged 16.6 ppg as a sophomore when he and Bowles where the entire JMU offensive attack. While his number dipped this past season, it had quite a bit to do with the development of Devon Moore as a potential star in the back court. Moore averaged 11.7 ppg and 4.2 apg as a 6'4" playmaker, coming on strong late in the season. Unfortunately, he'll have to miss the first semester, which may end up being significant as Moore's ability in transition is a reason Brady wants to play an uptempo styles next season. Rayshawn Goins is a 6'6", 275 lb workhorse that will need to up his production with Bowles gone. The same can be said for Andrey Semenov, a face-up four man with a dangerous perimeter stroke that will see a bump in minutes this year. With Humpty Hitchens, a diminutive scorer with a terrific name, and AJ Davis, a Wyoming transfer (and Moore's cousin) that averaged double figures as a 6'6" wing at Wyoming who could end up being a difference maker, give the Dukes a very capable core. The question will be size. Their tallest returning player, Semenov, likes to float on the perimeter. Can junior Trevon Flores, Virginia Tech transfer Greg Swindle (who hasn't played in three years thanks to a knee injury thought to be career ending), or freshmen Kenyan Pittman or Enoch Hood fill that role? If yes, JMU is a sleeper to win this conference.

5. William & Mary: The Tribe were the surprise of the 2009-2010 season, as Tony Shaver's club used a tricky offense -- think of it as a combination of the Princeton offense and something that John Beilein would run -- and a number of experienced sharp-shooters to launch their way to 12 league wins and a near-upset of North Carolina in the NIT. Last season was tough, as the Tribe were forced to rebuild. Their record was not pretty -- 10 wins and a 4-14 mark in league play -- but they lost 10 games by five points or less and bring back just about everyone from a team that got heavy minutes from freshmen and sophomores.

The Tribe will be built around senior and potential CAA Player of the Year Quinn McDowell, a 15.5 ppg scorer that shoots the three at 45.5% and is the unquestioned leader of this team. He's played in this system for four years and has been through the ups and downs. I'm not the only one that expects a terrific year out of McDowell. McDowell is joined on the perimeter by two sophomores that should be expected to have big seasons as well. both Brandon Britt (10.9 ppg as a frosh) and Julian Boatner (6.8 ppg) really came on strong late in CAA play as they earned more of Shaver's trust. There's an argument to be made that that three-man group will end up being the best perimeter in the conference. Veterans Matt Rum and Kendrix Brown and freshman Marcus Thornton will also see time in the perimeter rotation. Up front, senior JohnMark Ludwick and junior Kyle Gaillard give Shaver a couple of big men that can handle themselves on the perimeter and knock down a three, something that is key for his quirky offense. But the most important player on the front line may end up being Tim Rusthoven, a 6'9", 230 lb sophomore. With Marcus Kitts graduating, the Tribe will need someone in the middle to do the dirty work -- grab some rebounds, set some picks, block some shots. Rusthoven could end up being that guy.

6. Old Dominion: Last season was the year that the Monarchs were supposed to have their run. With an experienced and talented roster chock full of size and athleticism, Blaine Taylor had his ideal team. They played like it in the regular season, too, beating Clemson, Xavier and Richmond before finishing second in a strong CAA to George Mason. But after running through the CAA Tournament, Old Dominion lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Butler on a buzzer beater.

Next year, ODU is going to look different as they lose four players that have been starters/key rotational pieces for three and four years. The guy that they do return is Kent Bazemore, the CAA's reigning defensive player of the year who will hopefully be healthy after getting surgery on his foot this summer.. At 6'5", the senior Bazemore is a terrific athlete, a tremendously improved threat offensively, and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. After Bazemore, however, only three players that were able to crack Taylor's rotation return. Chris Cooper, who will be asked to replace Frank Hassell, is a 6'9" senior that proved to be a monster on the glass in his limited minutes last season. Trian Iliadis is shooter that was efficient and effective off the bench a season ago. The development of those two this season will be critical to ODU's success. Marquel De Lancey, a 6'0" senior, will likely see minutes at the point. Beyond that, however, there are minutes to earn for the Monarchs and a number of young players at each position that are hungry to get playing time. There are few coaches in the country better than Taylor at ably moving around parts to better the whole. With a healthy Bazemore, ODU will be competitive, but there is no question they will also be rebuilding.

7. Delaware: The Blue Hens had a promising season in 2010-2011, one that has some folks believing that Monte Ross has finally turned a corner with the program. After knocking off Old Dominion in their opener, Delaware went on to finish with an 8-10 record in conference play, their best finish since 2008. And while the bad news is that the Fightin' Blue Hens (which remains one of the best mascot nicknames in the country) will lose the majority of their back court to graduation -- including Jawan Carter, their leading scorer and a third-team all-CAA performer -- there is enough young talent returning that UD fans shouldn't be concerned about too much of a dip this season.

It starts with sophomore Devon Saddler, last season's Freshman of the Year in the CAA. Saddler will need to improve his shot selection and his ability to protect the ball (he had more turnovers than assists last season), but there is valid reason to believe that the 6'2" combo-guard can develop into a star this season. Saddler came on strong late in the year, winning the rookie of the week award the last four weeks of the season and hitting for 20 points four of the last seven games. Also returning is 6'8" junior Jamelle Hagins. Hagins was the conference's leading shot-blocker as a sophomore and also averaged 7.3 rpg. Like Saddler, Hagins will be counted on for a bump in offensive production to make-up for the loss of Carter. Hagins isn't the only returnee on the front line. Josh Brinkley, a 6'6" junior, was having a solid sophomore campaign when he went down with a stress fracture in January. Hakim McCullar and Kelvin McNeil also return up front and will be joined by promising freshman Marvin King-Davis. The x-factor for this team will be how the new faces develop in the back court. Can sophomore Kaleb Clyburn take advantage of the available minutes? Will freshmen Jarvis Threat, Khalid Lewis, Larry Savage and Kyle Anderson be ready when they get thrown into the fire of CAA conference play in January? Those five players will likely determine whether Delaware again finishes below .500 in the league or moves up into the top half of the conference.

8. Hofstra: Its nice to be a first year coach at a mid-major program with an NBA player on your roster. Just ask Mo Cassarra, because that is the exact situation that he walked into with the Pride. As a senior, Charles Jenkins would go on to have one of the best seasons in recent, winning his second consecutive conference Player of the Year award and eventually getting picked in the second round of the NBA Draft. The question now becomes how do you rebuild from that? How does a team that relied so much on one player move on when that player leaves?

Its quite obvious that the Pride will have a different feel next season, as Jenkins was not only their leader on the court but off it as well. The role of go-to scorer will most likely be filled by Fordham transfer Mike Moore, who averaged 14.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 2.2 apg as Jenkins sidekick a year ago. The role of the playmaker will likely be filled by either Dwan McMillan, a senior that averaged 6.8 ppg and 3.3 apg playing alongside Jenkins last season, or Stephen Mejia, a junior transfer from Rhode Island. Its not out of the question that those three will be on the court at the same time. Sophomore Shemiye McLendon may be primed for a breakout year as well. Jenkins wasn't the Pride's only loss, center Greg Washington also graduated, leaving a weak Hofstra without a shotblocking presence. Junior David Imes, a the team's leading rebounder a season ago, will be counted on to produce more, but beyond Imes there isn't much in the way of proven players for Cassarra to choose from. Sophomore Stephen Nwaukoni was solid in limited minutes and Hofstra will have three newcomers on their front line, but unless they Cassarra found a diamond in the rough, the Pride will be overmatched in the paint in just about every game. Moore may end up being an all-CAA talent, but Hofstra will probably consider it a successful season if they finish in the top half of the league.

9. UNC-Wilmington: The 2010-2011 season was an introductory one for Buzz Peterson. He got to know the school, he got a chance to get a feel for his players, and he spent a season learning the CAA. And he did all that with one of the best player in UNCW history, Chad Tomko, leading his team. With Tomko's graduation, the Peterson's club is now in full-on rebuilding mode.

Its going to be a tough year for Peterson. That's the way that it works when you have a roster with eight freshmen, four sophomores, and just three upper-classmen. But there is reason to be hopeful. For starters, the recruiting class that Peterson brought in is strong. Led by Chicago-native Luke Hager, a 6'7" combo-forward, and Georgia-bred two-guard Adam Smith, Peterson brought in a group that should develop into solid players in the CAA, if not stars. The issue? The whole "over time" aspect of the class. Its tough to ask a group of freshmen to play important roles at any level. I do expect UNCW to be competitive and to win some game, however. Keith Rendlemen, an active and athletic 6'7" power forward, had a solid sophomore season and should be ready to become more of a go-to option as a junior. Senior Trevor Deloach will be back to anchor the back court along with sophomore Tanner Milson and Dante Morales. Seven-footer Matt Wilson will be counted on to have a productive season as well. Expect a similar year to what William & Mary did in 2010-2011 -- a record that doesn't quite reflect how competitive the team was.

10. Georgia State: The Panthers are in a tough position. Located in the heart of SEC country, in a city that houses four professional sports teams and a state with two other major universities, Georgia State is a tough place to earn recognition. From fans, from recruits, from anyone. Eventually it did in Rod Barnes, who was fired as the head coach prior to the team's trip to the CAA Tournament. Georgia State did make a solid hire, however, luring Ron Hunter from IUPUI to continue the rebuilding job. He inherits a team that was stout defensively but, simply put, could not score the basketball.

Hunter will be in a tough position in his first year in Atlanta. While he returns a team that will have quite a bit of experience -- seven of the 11 players that averaged double-figures in minutes last season return and Florida State transfer Jordan DeMercy will be eligible -- that team's only experience at the collegiate level is the struggle to finish tied for ninth in the CAA last season. The biggest issue Hunter will have is on the offensive end of the floor. The Panthers didn't have a single player average more than 9.4 ppg last season and finished 294th in offensive efficiency as a team. Throw in the fact that they lost their two best shooters to transfers, and what you get is a team that is going to have to win games 50-48. Seniors Eric Buckner, Brandon McGee and Josh Micheaux will anchor the front line with 6'10" junior James Vincent playing a role off the bench. Jihad Ali is the leading returning scorer on the perimeter, with James Fields and Devonta White likely joining him in the rotation. DeMercy, an athletic 6'7" small forward, should have an impact as a defensive playmaker, but he's never been known as a big time scorer. Freshmen guards Kevin Shaw and Tony Kimbro, Jr, should also get a chance to play. It will be difficult for Hunter to get his team out of the bottom half of the conference.

11. Northeastern: After taking over the Husky program in 2006, Coen almost immediately built Northeastern into a team that could compete at the top of the CAA. In his first four seasons, the Huskies never finished below .500 in the league, earning a third-place finish in 2009 and second-lace in 2010. Unfortunately, much of that success was built on Northeastern's 2006 recruiting class, one headlined by Matt Janning. The Huskies struggled last season, starting out the year 4-15, before finally finding a rhythm midway through the season. They reeled off four straight wins -- including an upset of VCU -- before ending the year at 11-20, 6-12 in conference play.

It will be tough for Northeastern to avoid taking another step back this season with the graduation of their point guard and star player Chaisson Allen, but its certainly doable as the Huskies have a couple of solid pieces coming back. Junior guards Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith both developed into deadly shooters and capable all-around players by the end of their sophomore seasons and will be expected to provide increased production and leadership this season. Alwayne Bigby, who missed all but seven games a season ago with injury, is back. 6'8" freshman Quincy Ford should combine with Bigby to give Northeastern some versatility on the wing. 6'10" center Ryan Pierson made the all-rookie team last season, but he'll need to improve a great deal on his strength in the paint and ability on the glass. Juniors Kauri Black and Dinka Marshavelski are also back in the front court and should get a boost from freshman Reggie Spencer. But is going to be replacing Allen. And with Alex Harris transferring out, that means Northeastern is either going to have to rely on a freshman to run the point or hope Lee or Smith can take over the ball-handling duties. Neither are ideal. Expect another finish in the bottom half of the league.

12. Towson: The Tigers, frankly, were horrible last season. They won just four games, losing their last 19, including all 18 in the CAA. It was enough to cost head coach Pat Kennedy his job. New head coach Pat Skerry won't have it easy his first season, either. Towson's talented forward duo of Isaiah Philmore and Braxton Dupree both left school -- Philmore transferred to Xavier, Dupree went pro -- after the season while Troy Franklin transferred midway through the year. Josh Brown graduated at the end of last season while talented recruit Kelvin Amayo was found ineligible by the NCAA. That's a lot to lose for a new head coach.

Essentially, the Tigers are going to be a brand new team next season, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Kennedy's club didn't lack talent last year, but there was something missing that did not allow that talent to come together on the court. Skerry's club will be a defensive-minded group that is anchored by former walk-on Robert Nwankwo, a 6'8" senior that redshirted last year after averaging 9.2 rpg and 3.2 bpg, both of which led the CAA, as a junior. RaShawn Polk is also back. He averaged 11.6 ppg as a junior last season. After that? Its a whole bunch of new faces. After losing their two best players from a four-win team, its difficult to picture Towson anywhere but the bottom of the CAA next season. But with the culture change of a new head coach, the ship at least looks to be pointed in the right direction.
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Friday Morning Dump

- Michigan State forward Delvon Roe is retiring due to chronic knee issues

- Rush The Court put together a monumental Q&A session with Taylor Branch (This is must-read stuff)

- The Octonian is back! (Also must-read stuff)

- What will be harder for Blaine Taylor to overcome -- shaving the stache, or the fact that Kent Bazemore is out for the first month of the season after breaking his foot in August?

- During basketball season, Eamonn Brennan's "Hoops Mailbag" is a weekly must-read

- What if I, or well, Jeff Goodman, told you that William Buford could become the all-time leading scorer in tOSU history? Would you believe me, I mean, him?

- We are getting closer and closer to seeing an increase in the "cost of attendance"

- Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart thinks the SEC will continue to expand

- Jeff Eisenberg provides a solid conference preview for the CAA

- Diamond Leung details how some of the CAA's best players are rehabbing from injury

- The TV schedule for Cal basketball has been released

- Check out the guest list for Big Blue Madness. That's a lot of recruits

- So this guy is running marathons now because he lost a bet on whether or not VCU would make the Final Four.

- Matt Norlander says that college hoops will be just that much more awesome without the NBA

- SDSU fans are expecting big things from Jamaal Franklin ... when he gets back from a likely-suspension from his DUI arrest.
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Thursday, September 29, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: Nos. 35-31

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

35. Illinois Fighting Illini:

Last Season: 20-14, 9-9 (Big Ten)

Head Coach: Bruce Weber

Key Losses: Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, Jereme Richmond, Bill Cole

New Additions: Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw, Mychael Henry, Devin Langford, Ibrahima Djimde, Sam Maniscalco, Jereme Richmond?

Projected Lineup:

- G: Sam Maniscalco, Sr.
- G: Brandon Paul, Jr.
- G: DJ Richardson, Jr.
- F: Tyler Griffey, Jr.
- C: Meyers Leonard, So.
- Bench: Crandall Head, So.; Tracy Abrams, Fr.; Mike Shaw, Fr.; Myke Henry, Fr.; Devin Langford, Fr.

Outlook: Illinois is in an interesting position this season. On the one hand, they are losing four starters and a key reserve. On the other hand, they are losing Demetri McCamey and Jereme Richmond, two talented head cases that may end up being an addition by subtraction. So while Bruce Weber's team is losing 56.5 percent of their minutes and 59.2 pecent of their scoring, the team chemistry -- which is so valuable and so underrated -- stands to increase without the fights Richmond may or may not have been involved in and the professional career McCamey may or may not have been preparing for. So what's left? Its going to start on the perimeter for the Illini. Juniors DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul should become the first and second options with the ball-dominating McCamey gone. Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco -- who is legit -- should slide into the point guard role for a year while freshman Tracy Abrams gets used to the Big Ten. Sophomore Meyers Leonard should be able to provide some solid interior defense and rebounding if he can keep his fouls down while Tyler Griffey gives Weber a face-up four with a dangerous jump shot. Throw in a couple youngsters off the bench -- Crandall Head, Joseph Bertrand, Mike Shaw, Myke Henry, Devin Langford, Nnanna Egwu -- and Illinois has a bright future.

34. Washington Huskies:

Last Season: 24-11, 11-7 (Pac-10)

Head Coach: Lorenzo Romar

Key Losses: Isaiah Thomas, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday, Venoy Overton

New Additions: Tony Wroten Jr, Shawn Kemp Jr, Hikeem Stewart, Jernard Jarreau, Martin Breunig, Andrew Andrews

Projected Lineup:

- G: Abdul Gaddy, Jr.
- G: Tony Wroten Jr, Fr.
- F: Terrence Ross, So.
- F: Darnell Gant, Sr.
- C: Aziz N'Diaye, Jr.
- Bench: CJ Wilcox, So.; Scott Suggs, Sr.; Shawn Kemp Jr, Fr.; Hikeem Stewart, Fr.; Jernard Jarreau, Fr.

Outlook: Washington is going to have a lot of important pieces to replace next season. Its starts with the most obvious -- Isaiah Thomas -- but with Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton also graduating, Lorenzo Romar is going to have quite a few minutes to replace. He certainly will have talent at his disposal, however, especially on the perimeter. It starts with Abdul Gaddy, who should be healthy after tearing his acl a third of the way through last season, and stud point guard recruit Tony Wroten Jr, who is the kind of playmaker that can fill the role Thomas vacated. CJ Wilcox and Scott Suggs should be able to provide an offensive pop off the bench. The x-factor, however, will be Terrence Ross. The sophomore wing has had quite a bit of hype throughout the off-season and could end up being a first-team all-conference performer if he lives up to those expectations. The front court will be a bit of a question mark. Aziz N'Diaye is seven-foot shotblocker, but he doesn't provide much offensive pop. Darnell Gant can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot, but he's not much of a banger. Four freshmen -- Shawn Kemp Jr, Desmond Simmons, Martin Breunig and Jernard Jarreau -- will be competing for front court bench minutes, and Washington is going to need one or two of that group to become impact contributors.

33. Michigan State Spartans:

Last Season: 19-15, 9-9 (Big Ten)

Head Coach: Tom Izzo

Key Losses: Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Garrick Sherman, Korie Lucious, Mike Kebler

New Additions: Branden Dawson, Brandon Kearney, Travis Trice, Brandon Wood

Projected Lineup:

- G: Keith Appling, So.
- G: Brandon Wood, Sr.
- F: Branden Dawson, Fr.
- F: Draymond Green, Sr.
- C: Delvon Roe, Sr.
- Bench: Adreian Payne, So.; Derrick Nix, Jr.; Austin Thornton, Sr.; Brandon Kearney, Fr.; Russell Byrd, Fr.

Outlook: Last season was, frankly, a disaster for the Spartans. After being picked as a consensus top five team heading into the season, Michigan State never found that rhythm. There were chemistry issues, Kalin Lucas couldn't get healthy, Durrell Summers couldn't get a shot to fall and Michigan State found themselves knocked out in the first round of the tournament after failing to crack the 20 win barrier. Next season will be an interesting mix. The strength of this group will be the front court. Draymond Green and Delvon Roe (Ed. Note: Only hours after we posted this, news of Roe announced his retirement) are senior leaders that have been through quite a few battles in their careers. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix both have some question marks -- Payne needs Nix to donate him about 30 pounds, among other things -- but if they can put it together, both have the potential to be impact players in the Big Ten this year. Freshman small forward Branden Dawson has drawn comparisons to Raymar Morgan and should fit well with this team. The back court is a bigger question. Sophomore Keith Appling is going to be asked to take over a much more prominent role while senior Valpo transfer -- who, like Maniscalco at Illinois, is legit -- will be counted on to provide some back court experience. Austin Thornton will see minutes, as will Brandon Kearney and Russell Byrd (if he can get healthy), but the only natural point guard on the roster is freshman Travis Trice. Tom Izzo is going to need to turn this group into an old-school, beat-em-up Spartan team.

32. Wichita State Shockers:

Last Season: 29-8, 14-4 (MVC)

Head Coach: Gregg Marshall

Key Losses: JT Durley, Graham Hatch, Gabe Blair, Aaron Ellis

New Additions: Jake White, Evan Wessel, Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker, Carl Hall, Ede Egharevba

Projected Lineup:

- G: Joe Ragland, Sr.
- G: David Kyles, Sr.
- F: Toure' Murry, Sr.
- F: Ben Smith, Sr.
- C: Garrett Stutz, Sr.
- Bench: Carl Hall, Jr.; Demetric Williams, Jr.; Jake White, Fr.

Outlook: The Shockers had some rough luck during the regular season, taking a couple of tough losses that cost them the MVC regular season title and a trip to the tournament. That said, they did make a run to the NIT championship. Wichita State should be able to compete for an MVC title this season based on their back court alone. Its headlined by a trio of talented and unselfish seniors that buy into what Gregg Marshall is selling. Joe Ragland is the point guard, David Kyles is the shooter, and Toure' Murry is the play-maker and the slasher. All three are capable of producing big games, but they also all understand their role within the team. Junior Demetric Williams showed flashes of promise last season, but he will be battling for bench minutes with freshmen Evan Wessel and Tekele Cotton. Where the Shockers have question marks is along their front line. Garrett Stutz, their seven-foot senior center, returns. He is going to need to increase his productivity to make up for JT Durley's scoring and Gabe Blair's rebounding and physicality inside. The undersized Ben Smith will be back, although he tends to spend more on his time on the perimeter. Beyond that, Marshall is going to have a lot of fresh faces manning the paint, but the most interesting are two newcomers. Jake White is a face-up four that had some legitimate high-major interest and Carl Hall is a JuCo transfer that has some hype coming into the program.

31. UNLV Runnin' Rebels:

Last Season: 24-9, 11-5 (MWC)

Head Coach: Dave Rice

Key Losses: Tre'Von Willis, Derrick Jasper, Lon Kruger

New Additions: Mike Moser, Dave Rice

Projected Lineup:

- G: Oscar Bellfield, Sr.
- G: Anthony Marshall, Jr.
- G: Justin Hawkins, Jr.
- F: Chace Stanback, Sr.
- C: Quintrel Thomas, Jr.
- Bench: Mike Moser, So.; Carlos Lopez, So.; Kendall Wallace, Sr., Brice Massamba, Sr.; Reggie Smith, So.

Outlook: UNLV is going to be going through a regime change as the Mountain West goes through a membership change, but there is plenty of talent on this roster to compete with New Mexico in the two-horse race to win the MWC. Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall are going to share ball-handling and playmaking duties. Bellfield is a better shooter and creator than Marshall, but Marshall is the kind of player coaches love. He does seemingly everything well and can be a lock-down defensive presence. Defensive stopper Justin Hawkins and three-point sniper Kendall Wallace, who is coming off of an acl tear, will both be back as well. Don't be surprised is Marquette transfer Reggie Smith works his way into the lineup when he gets eligible in December. Up front, Rice figures to continue the three-man rotation that Kruger had last season. Quintrel Thomas, Brice Massamba and Carlos Lopez are all big and strong and do enough well to get on the court but don't do enough to earn a permanent starting spot. UCLA transfer Mike Moser will also see time in the front court, which would allow Chace Stanback to slide over and play some three. The x-factor is going to be Stanback. With much of the MWC's star power gone from last season, he has a real shot at being the Player of the Year in the conference. A 6'8" wing, he can do a lot of different things on the floor -- shoot from deep, score, rebound, defend multiple positions -- but is he ready to become "the man"? Will he take that next step towards being a star? If he does, UNLV has a very good chance of winning the MWC.

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Preseason Q-and-A Series: Jason King of Yahoo Sports

Over the next month, we will be unloading a plethora of preseason college basketball content. From top-25 rankings, to conference previews, All-American teams, player profiles, and even the vaunted "B.I.A.H All-Name Team" selections. We will also be providing a handful of Q-and-A sessions with some of the biggest names in college hoops.

We start off our series of preseason interviews with Jason King of Yahoo Sports. He is one of the premier writers in the college basketball community and is a daily must-read and must-follow.

Aside from writing for Yahoo Sports, Jason authored a highly-anticipated book on the past decade of Kansas basketball. Beyond the Phog: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Most Dominant Decade is available for pre-order and will be available for purchase on October 1st. We had a chance to get to know the author and pick his mind about the book, Kansas hoops, the state of college basketball, and of course, barbecue.

Your new book, Beyond the Phog: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Most Dominant Decade is set to be released soon. What inspired you to write the book and when did you start working on this project?

One of the most frustrating things about being a beat writer is that you can’t always print everything you know. You’ll hear rumors about things that happen during practice or in the locker room or at the nightclubs. You know the stories are probably all true, but no one will confirm them for you on the record because they’re too scared of being yelled at or disciplined by the coach. I knew that would change once guys left the program.

I made a list of 40 players I wanted to interview along with Roy Williams and Bill Self. I’d kept in touch with a lot of them over the years via e-mail and telephone, and the others weren’t hard to contact. My first three interviews were with Luke Axtell, Jeff Graves and Drew Gooden. Each interview lasted more than an hour, and the latter two were conducted in person. Let’s just say that, after those interviews, I was a big believer in the clichĂ©, “Time loosens lips.” I couldn’t believe how candid and honest they had been with me. Frankly, it was pretty refreshing. At that point I knew I had to press forward with the book.

I recruited Lawrence Journal World sportswriter Jesse Newell – who I’ve long considered one of the field’s hidden gems – and combined we interviewed 38 players and both coaches from June to mid-August. I conducted 28 of the interviews and Jesse did 12. The only two guys we didn’t get were Marcus and Markieff Morris, but it certainly wasn’t from a lack of effort. Still, literally every other big name is in the book with his own chapter: Hinrich, Collison, Simien, Rush, Hawkins, Reed, Morningstar, Henry, Chalmers, Wright, Selby, Giddens, Giles, Arthur, Collins, Aldrich, Langford, Boschee, Chenowith, Miles … no one is missing.

We started the book in early June and had it to the printer by August 26. So much for a relaxing summer. In all seriousness, it was a lot of fun. The players couldn’t have been any more friendly and cooperative.

Is this your first foray into the book world? Have you thought about following this book up with something else?

I actually did a book on Kansas’ 2008 national championship season entitled “Kansas Jayhawks: A Year to Remember – Inside the Greatest Season in Kansas Basketball History”. I’m still mad I didn’t come up with a better title. “A Year to Remember” … riveting, I know. I definitely think this is the end of the road for me when it comes to Kansas basketball books. But if I find a topic I’m passionate about down the road, I’d be open to writing another one.

Right now, though, my plan is to spend the next few weeks marketing this book and doing some signings. Then I’m going to focus 100 percent of my attention on the college basketball season. It’s going to be a fun year in college hoops.

Some excerpts from your book were released last week and seemed to gain a lot of attention, especially the story of Kris Humphries' recruiting visit and the Kansas/Villanova tournament game. Are they any good stories that didn't make the cut for the book?

Honestly, no. I really didn’t chop anything. My goal was to hold the book to 400 pages and, after we turned in all the chapters, it came in at 390. Jesse and I just let guys talk and talk and talk until their heart was content. Believe it or not, there’s some really good stuff in there from some of Kansas’ walk-ons. Matt Kleinmann’s chapter is about 5,000 words. (Sherron Collin’s chapter is the longest at 8,000-plus words/20 pages).

I know you’re probably thinking, “Why would I want to read 5,000 words about Matt Kleinmann? Well, the chapter isn’t all about him. It’s Kleinmann telling funny stories about his teammates or about things that happened at practice. Nick Bahe and Stephen Vinson have good stories, too.

Take us through how you ended up writing for the Dallas Morning News at 15 years-old? Were you covering games then?

I was very lucky. I attended Hillcrest High School in Dallas, and the newspaper there (The Hillcrest Hurricane) was routinely named one of the best high school publications in the country. The paper’s advisor at the time has been named national teacher of the year and speaks at conventions throughout the country. I signed up for his Journalism I class as a high school freshman and was immediately hooked.

Mr. Tate pushed his students like a football coach would a player. He was very demanding but was also a great motivator. After completing Journalism I, I was allowed to join The Hurricane staff as a sophomore. Sensing my growing passion, Mr. Tate suggested I contact the Dallas Morning News about covering high school football games. I asked him if he thought they’d hire a 15-year-old. “Don’t tell them you’re 15,” he said. Sure enough, I called them and they hired me to cover a game each Friday for $45.

The stories were only three paragraphs, and I was responsible for providing complete stats and a full boxscore. Still, at the time, it felt like a big deal. The Dallas Morning News had about 50 other stringers doing what I was doing every Friday night. Who knows, maybe I wasn’t even the only 15-year-old. But ever since then I’ve loved hanging out in press boxes, keeping stats and just being around the action.

The thing I’ll remember the most, though, is Mr. Tate going to that very first game with me and teaching me how to keep stats and then sitting next to me in an assistant coaches’ offices as I dictated my story to a Dallas Morning News employee around 11 p.m. – and then high-fiving me after I hung up the phone. More than 20 years later, Mr. Tate is still my No. 1 mentor. And he’s still going strong as a teacher. He’s got students at some of the top journalism schools in the country and has produced multiple National High School Journalists of the Year.

What’s funny is that he moved to the Kansas City area a few years after I did to take a job at Shawnee Mission East High School. I joke that he’s just following me around to be my own, personal writing coach. In all seriousness, sometimes I wonder what I would’ve done with my life if I wouldn’t have walked into his class as a 14-year-old high school freshman.

Now, you graduated from Baylor. What has it been like as an alumni to see the basketball program go through such highs and lows in the past decade?

Nobody believes me when I say this, but I’m not a diehard Baylor fan. Because of my job, I’m not a fan of any school. I want my coverage of Baylor to be balanced and fair, and I think it has been. I’ve been extremely critical of Baylor in the past.

The only thing that used to upset me was when people said Baylor didn’t belong in the Big 12 or that Baylor would never compete in the Big 12. To me, that was always an asinine statement. I always knew Baylor would do just fine in the Big 12 as long as it made the right coaching hires. Unfortunately, they had some whiffs that caused them to take a few massive steps back. Harry Miller and Dave Bliss in basketball; Dave Roberts and Kevin Steele in football … awful, awful hires.

But look at Baylor now with Art Briles, Scott Drew and Kim Mulkey. Not a bad trio. When the preseason basketball polls are released in November, Baylor will likely be the only school in the country with a top 25 ranking in football and men’s and women’s basketball. And this is the school that can’t compete in the Big 12? Um, OK.

Say what you want about Waco, Texas – I can name four Big 12 towns that are much worse, by the way – but it sits smack dab in the middle of one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas. Houston is three hours away, San Antonio is two hours away and Austin and Dallas are just 90 minutes away. Considering that, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that Baylor’s athletics program is faring so well across the board.

Is this finally the year that the Baylor hoops team breaks through and dethrones Kansas from atop the Big-12?

They definitely have a good chance. I honestly think that, other than North Carolina and Kentucky, Baylor matches up with any team in America in terms of pure talent. Again, I’m not saying they’re the third best team in the country overall. I’m not sure I’d put them in the top 10.

But in terms of talent … wow. They’ve got two players (Perry Jones and Quincy Miller) who are projected to go in the top 10. Quincy Acy had 10 dunks in a single game a few years ago. Anthony Jones is a 6-11 three-man who can bring the ball up the court. Pierre Jackson was last year’s National Junior College Player of the Year. One publication listed Deuce Bello as one of the top 20 dunkers in the entire world. And we haven’t even mentioned guys like Brady Heslip, a combo guard who will likely start, and Gary Franklin, another combo guard who started at Cal as a freshman before transferring in December.

Still, even with all of that talent, I’m still picking the Bears to finish second in the league behind Kansas. Chemistry is just as important as talent, and I’ll be interested to see how well this team plays together. Are the Bears going to play streetball and take terrible shots like they have in the past? Or are they going to resemble the selfless team that advanced to the Elite Eight in 2010.

That’s why Kansas does so well each and every year. The Jayhawks take pride in sharing the ball and playing solid defense. They don’t care about scoring stats or about the NBA scouts sitting on press row. They know that, if they win, all that other stuff will take care of itself.

The only problem is that I’m just not convinced this Jayhawks team has enough pieces to win an eighth straight conference title. There is no depth in the post. They’re unproven at the three-spot – although I won’t be surprised if Travis Releford steps up there – and their first guard off the bench will be a true freshman. In other words, I’m picking the Jayhawks because they’ve won seven straight, and I’ll always stick with a winner until they lose. But I don’t feel as good about this one. Luckily, the rest of the league will be mediocre this season, so if Kansas was ever going to have a down year, it picked a good time.

What happens to Kansas if they are left out of the expansionocalypse free-for-all? Five years down the road, what conference are they playing in? How long does the Big 12 last?

I think Kansas will always have a home in one of the Big Six conferences. The Jayhawks basketball program is just too strong. Who wouldn’t want to add a national brand, a national team to its conference? I kind of think the Big 12 will stay together for awhile now. Even if Missouri leaves for the SEC, the Big 12 could add four more teams and be fine. Kansas doesn’t want to move unless it absolutely has to.

There was a bit of an uproar on twitter surrounding Perry Ellis and his decision to go to Kansas when Seth Davis of broke the news just five minutes before Ellis was set to announce. I know Seth was doing his job, but do you think it’s fair to take away a kid's moment like that? Would you have done the same if you had the information?

I don’t blame Seth one bit. I would’ve done the exact same thing, and I can’t imagine there’s a credible beat writer out there who would disagree. He didn’t do anything wrong. Perry Ellis and the University of Kansas don’t sign Seth’s paychecks. Sports Illustrated does, and one of Seth’s job responsibilities is to break news.

I guess the only difference is that I probably wouldn’t have been pursuing that story very hard in the first place. I mean, is it really that big of a deal to tweet where a kid is going five minutes before he announces it? At that point, who cares? That’s certainly not a scoop to celebrate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d tweet the information if I had it, which is exactly what Seth did. But with five minutes to go, I wouldn’t be knocking myself out to obtain it just so the small percentage of my twitter followers who were online could see it a few minutes before the kid announced the decision. And the thing is, I think Seth would agree with me. Those aren’t the kinds of stories he chases. He probably just happened upon the information while he was working on something else and put it out there like anyone would. Seth is an excellent journalist. He has a good grasp of what’s important. I’ve learned a lot from him.

One of the most controversial story lines of the offseason involved UConn and how they were able to manipulate the scholarship numbers to circumvent the punishment they received from the NCAA and get Andre Drummond into uniform. Who do you blame? Is this the NCAA's fault, another example of just how toothless the organization is? Or do we blame Calhoun, the coach that actually took a kid that grew up in a group home off scholarship?

The obvious reaction is to blame Calhoun, but it’s hard for me to do that, because I think just about any coach in the country would’ve done the same thing if they had a chance to add Andre Drummond to their team.

I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s the way it is. As long as the NCAA allows this stuff to happen, it’s going to occur. Man … I’ve gotta think someone promised something to the kid who gave up his scholarship. A job after graduation, perhaps? Maybe a cut of Drummond’s first NBA paycheck. Someone needs to take care of that guy.

This is broad, but if you could make one change to college sports, what would it be?

I think kids should be able to jump straight to the NBA out of high school – but only if an evaluation committee determined that the kid would likely be drafted. In other words, they would have to be approved to enter the draft. Anyone not approved would have to spend at least two years in college.

That would help bring stability to some of the programs (i.e. UCLA) that have been hurt by early departures. And letting the John Walls, Kevin Durants and Michael Beasleys of the world skip college altogether would eliminate some of the corruption we see in recruiting circles. Granted, there would still be corruption, just not quite as much.

We know you're a bit of an expert when it comes to food, so if you only had one meal left, what would it be?

Toughest question so far.

I’d probably pick Babe’s Chicken Dinner House. There are several locations in North Texas. Babe’s is tied with Gus’s in Memphis for the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. Babe’s gets the nod, though, because of the family-style helpings. For $11.99 you get five pieces of chicken and all of the salad, mashed potatoes and green beans you can eat. Not a fried chicken fan? No problem. Babe’s also has fried catfish, chicken fried steak, pot roast, smoked chicken and ribs. Just like the fried chicken, the portions are huge. I’m getting excited just thinking about it. (

Honorable mention goes to Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue in Kansas City, Ted’s CafĂ© Escondido in Oklahoma City and George’s Bar & Grill in Waco.

Quick hitters:

Favorite arena to cover a game in?

I honestly think Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse is the best. And I don’t think I’m biased here, because most of the writers who cover – or have covered – the national scene seem to agree with me. I’ve never seen a pregame video as impressive and jarring as the one that plays before KU games, and I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that gets as loud as it does at Kansas. It’s truly a special place.

Best fan base in hoops?

Kentucky’s fans are about as passionate as I’ve seen anywhere. I’ll never forget DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe telling me about a girl, a student, who started shaking uncontrollably as they were posing with her for a picture at a campus restaurant.

Best student section?

I think the whole game day experience at Purdue is underrated, and a lot of that is because of the students. They make Mackey Arena a tough place to play.

Best tradition in college hoops?

The pregame video at Kansas, but I already mentioned that. Another thing I always enjoy is Crazy Towel Guy at Duke. I’m sure there are hundreds of better traditions out there, but I always get a kick out of watching him revel in his 20 seconds fame, when the whole crowd is chanting his name as he twirls that towel above his head. Sometimes I’ll look at him near the end of a close game, once he’s finished with his routine for the night, just to see how animated he gets when he’s not waving that towel on center stage. He’s actually pretty mellow.

What is #1 on your college hoops bucket list?

I’ve still got a handful of arenas I’ve never experienced. I’ve been to Wisconsin’s Kohl Center – but never for a Badgers game. That needs to change. I also want to go to games at Gonzaga and New Mexico. I hear those places are pretty fun.

Most quotable player and most quotable coach you've covered?

My favorite coach to interview is Kevin O’Neill at USC. Funny, candid, and not nearly as full of himself as some people may think. He’s done a nice job at USC under difficult circumstances. Former Kansas player Keith Langford is my all-time favorite player when it comes to interviews. Read my book. You’ll see why.

Better barbecue? Texas or Kansas City?

Just depends on what you’re after. I like both places. The pulled pork and pork ribs in Kansas City will embarrass anything Texas has to offer. But Texas will do the same thing to Kansas City with its brisket. I’m not a barbecue snob, though. I like it all. Actually, the only thing I don’t like very much is the diced-up, vinegary pork in North Carolina. I don’t really mind the taste, but when I looked at it I feel like I’m looking at dogfood. Barbecue wasn’t meant to be served in an ice cream scooper.

Don't forget to pick up a copy of Jason's new book, Beyond the Phog: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Most Dominant Decade, available now

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Andre Drummond probably won't be in trouble over video

If Andre Drummond ends up being ruled ineligible this season, it more than likely won't be a result of the video that was posted on

Yesterday, news leaked that Drummond was among a handful of kids that filmed videos touting and promoting a new shoe from Adidas. But, as UConn said in their statement yesterday, the videos were taken down -- and apparently scrubbed from the internet -- at the request of the Huskies. So while UConn will have to report this to the NCAA and deal with some paperwork, the fact that the video was filmed and posted prior to Drummond enrolling at the Storrs campus and the fact that the Huskies acted immediately to get it taken down, Drummond's probably in the clear.

In other words, nothing to see here folks.
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Thursday Morning Dump

- Maybe, just maybe, the Big-XII is done with this expansionocalypse nonsense. Kansas State coach Frank Martin is happy that the conference is finished playing musical chairs

- Part-II of a fantastic Big East blogger round table discussion: which player needs to step up the most

- Rick Pitino has been putting expansionocalypse on blast all week. Check out his best quotes and the 5 stages of Rick Pitino grief (This is kinda-awesome)

- The SEC wants 14 teams so it can get it's own network deal

- Andy Katz provides a great "where are they know" on former-Wake Forest head coach Dave Odom

- Southern Mississippi head coach Larry Eustachy received a three-year extension with the school

- Speaking of Southern Miss, Former-Kentucky guard Darnell Dodson may get another chance to play for Southern Mississippi. Dodson transferred out of Kentucky after the 2009-2010 season, but was kicked off the Southern Mississippi team in January 2011

- NCAA President Mark Emmert wants the big universities to see beyond just the money (Yeah, that's going to happen...Seriously, where can I get an application for his job?)

- Andy Bottoms previews the Harvard Crimson. Yes, this is the same Andy Bottoms who hosts the Bottoms Line college basketball podcast, featuring @Ballinisahabit and @BIAHtroymachir (Click the link for this week's episode)

- Just in case you needed more evidence as to why Kentucky has the most passionate fan-base in the country, here you go

- Jay Bilas relays some pertinent information to us: The end is near for the Big East (Insiders Only)

- NC State head coach Mark Gottfried hasn't coached a single ACC game yet, and he's already calling out Jim Boeheim, who, umm, hasn't coached a single ACC game either. Speaking of Boeheim, he's made it apparent that ACC opponents will only play Syracuse at the Carrier Dome

- Speaking of NC-State, the school is close to finalizing an agreement to have a series with Kansas

- Big Apple Buckets provides preseason power rankings for the NYC-area. I know Iona is going to be good, It's just surprising to see them at the top of this list

- Jason Groves does a terrific job breaking down the schedule of the New Mexico State Aggies

- Doug Haller had himself a nice conversation with Arizona State junior Carrick Felix

- Is it really "now or never" for John Calipari? I certainly don't think so, but this guy does.

- Rhode Island head coach Jim baron is a native of Brooklyn. You can imagine his reaction to the announcement of the A-10 moving it's tournament to Brooklyn

- Who wants to be Texas A&M's new cross-division-rivals?!?

- Former-St. John's commit Jevon Thomas has popped for Dayton and new head coach Archie Miller

- Former-UAB redshirt freshman Tony Criswell has committed to play at Missouri (I'm displaying great self-control by not making fun of him for his first quote)

- Creighton got a commitment from 6-foot-1 guard Andre Yates

- Duquesne got their first commitment in the class of 2012 in the form of 6-foot-9 power forward Donovan Jack

- Highly-touted recruit Rodney Purvis will make his college decision later this week

- After initially setting a date for his college decision (November 15th), Chris Walker will take his time making a choice

- Louisville's Jared Swopshire will be granted an extra-year of eligibility because of his season-ending injury that took place last year

- Former-St. John's commit JaKarr Sampson is going to visit Baylor

- Former-Jayhawk J.R. Giddens didn't have nice things to say about Kansas head coach Bill Self. Is Kansas the opposite of a "players-first program"

- Virginia Commonwealth is getting new uniforms

- Antonio Bigelow, the 2011 Southern California JuCo Player of the Year, will not start the season at Montana State, as previously indicated

- Former-West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla has become an assistant coach at D-II Glenville State

- In case you didn't read this article yesterday, you should probably get to it today. It's Gary Parrish after all

- I might have to get me one of these: Kenneth Faried "Manimal" T-shirt

Solid preseason pump-up video

Kentucky-freshman Anthony Davis makes a Kentucky fan's dream come true

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