10 names you should know
Keith Benson, Oakland: This 6-foot-11 string bean could slip through a wet straw and emerge dry. But what Benson lacks in bulk, he makes up for with great timing and an ability to get off his feet quickly. Last season's Summit League Player of the Year dropped 28 points and nine rebounds on Pitt in the NCAA tournament. Luckily for Grizzlies coach Greg Kampe, a postseason thumb injury kept Benson from working out for NBA teams, thus a return for his senior season.
Randy Culpepper, UTEP: The diminutive Culpepper is a scoring machine who averaged 18 points a game as a junior. Although his incredible jumping ability for a guy his size makes him a candidate for the nightly highlight shows, his deep range and ability to get a good shot at will are more concerning to C-USA coaches. New Miners coach Tim Floyd should be able to use Culpepper's offensive skills nicely and turn him into a defensive pest.
Elias Harris, Gonzaga: Although Harris just finished up his duties with Germany in the FIBA World Championship, it was his outstanding freshman season that has Zags fans excited. At 6-7 and 216 pounds, Harris is the classic undersized power forward who can dominate with his strength and athleticism around the basket, as he did a season ago. The tough decision for coach Mark Few is whether to continue to use Harris' strengths, which will put him on numerous All-America lists, or to develop his perimeter game to get him ready for the NBA. Harris helps Gonzaga win more games if he stays around the hoop.
Charles Jenkins, Hofstra: Think New York Jets linebacker in a basketball uniform and you can visualize the 6-3, 220-pound Jenkins. He is a unique blend of basketball skills, power, strength and quickness, making his 20-point, five-rebound games a nightmare for CAA opponents to defend. He went over 20 points 20 times last season. And remember, not many linebackers can shoot 41 percent from behind the arc, either.
Damian Lillard, Weber State: The 6-2 junior is one of the nation's most electric players whom nobody has heard of. But if things go well for the Wildcats this season, Lillard is good enough to spark an NCAA tournament first-round upset. The scoring point guard has the ultimate green light from his coach but doesn't abuse that privilege. In addition to averaging 20 points a game last season, he also averaged four rebounds and nearly four assists.
Shelvin Mack, Butler: OK, so many of you have already heard this name. I'm going to assume you watched the national title game, right? After nearly leading his Butler Bulldogs to what would have been one of the greatest stories in the history of college basketball, Mack went on display again for NBA scouts this summer at the LeBron James Skills Academy and as a member of the USA Basketball Select Team. That team competed against the NBA stars on Mike Krzyzewski's senior men's national team. His physical strength, NBA range and ability to handle pressure defense were quite apparent.
Ray McCallum, Detroit: McCallum may be the best Titan recruit since Dickie V. recruited future NBA players John Long, Earl Cureton, Terry Tyler and Terry Duerod to UD's campus. McCallum is the ultimate coach's son, who, not surprisingly, understands the game and is a great floor general. In fact, the McDonald's All-American should prove to be a popular teammate because he is capable of leading the Titans to a postseason appearance. Don't rule out two NCAA tourney bids from the Horizon League this season.
Derek Needham, Fairfield: How did a Chicago kid get so overlooked that he ended up in Fairfield, Conn.? I don't know. I do know that the Stags may be ready to pick up where Siena left off the past four seasons in the MAAC. Coach Ed Cooley has done a terrific job of recruiting since coming from Boston College, and in Needham he has a point guard who can play anywhere in the country. The 6-2 sophomore won the conference's rookie of the week award a record 10 times while averaging 16 points and five assists a game. He will keep opposing coaches awake a lot of nights the next three seasons.
Ryan Rossiter, Siena: The Fran McCaffery era may be over in Albany, but left behind for new coach Mitch Buonaguro is one of the country's most improved players of the past four seasons. At 6-9, Rossiter is a pure low-post scorer who isn't blessed with great athleticism but has the skill package, the hands and the basketball acumen to make him successful in any league in the country.
Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis: After exploding in the second half of last season, there's not a more versatile player in Conference USA this year than the 6-9 Witherspoon. He can play and defend four positions from shooting guard to center, something NBA scouts are salivating over. (He even played point guard for a while as a freshman.) Most importantly, Witherspoon's maturity as a junior that will be needed to get a very talented but young Memphis team through early-season ups and downs.
10 freshmen we can't wait to see
Yannick Atanga, PF, Santa Clara: Kerry Keating and his staff have done a tremendous job of luring talent to Santa Clara. With this addition, the Broncos should bolster one of the best frontcourts (Marc Trasolini and Niyi Harrison) in the West Coast Conference. Atanga is a phenomenal athlete with outstanding length, and he plays with a blue-collar mentality. His offensive skills have a ways to go, but defensively he should make an immediate impact.
Will Barton, SG, Memphis: An extremely long and very athletic scorer who can put the ball in the basket in every way imaginable, Barton may be the best pure scorer in the class of 2011 -- with an underrated passing game to match. An instinctive playmaker, the Maryland native has that indescribable star quality that allows him to do things on the floor that others can't.
Tim Douglas, PG, Portland: The Pilots were decimated by graduation, but they may have found their answer at point guard. Douglas scared away many coaches because of his lack of size (5-8), however, he makes up for it with blazing speed and quickness. He is a menace to stop in the open court, and his vision is impeccable. Douglas will keep defenders honest as long as his jump shot continues to get better.
Joe Jackson, PG, Memphis: The hometown kid is a McDonald's All-American who will have Memphis fans in a frenzy, especially on the break, where he is a highlight waiting to happen. Jackson also is a great shot creator with his superior speed and quickness. He gets in the lane at will, and from there he can drop off passes for easy baskets. But make no mistake about it -- he can flat-out score in bunches.
Nick Kellogg, PG, Ohio: The youngest son of former Ohio State great Clark Kellogg brings a tough and physical presence to the Bobcats' perimeter. He can get to the rim, run the team and defend both guard positions. He will fit in coach John Groce's spread, multiple-ball-screen offense without any problem and should be an immediate-impact player because he will be mentally and physically ready to compete on the college level.
Khyle Marshall, SF, Butler: Marshall brings the Bulldogs an elite athlete who excels on the break, where he finishes with flare. He works the glass on both ends and can slash and score in traffic in the lane. He is big and strong enough to defend both forward positions as well. Butler coach Brad Stevens hit a home run, pulling Marshall out of the talent-rich state of Florida.
Ray McCallum, PG, Detroit: The McDonald's All-American turned down many elite programs to stay home and run the show for his dad at Detroit. Our 17th-ranked player in the Class of 2010, McCallum becomes an instant Horizon League Player of the Year candidate. He is a true point guard with good size to go with off-the-charts basketball IQ. He has the ability to run the team, finish above the rim on the break and score with range to the arc, including a smooth midrange game.
Juvonte Reddic, C, VCU: In Reddic, coach Shaka Smart landed arguably the best available true center during the late signing period. He has great size and length and runs the floor like a deer. He rebounds at rim level and blocks shots on and away from the ball. Plenty of ACC and Big 12 schools made a run at Reddic.
Ben Vozzola, PG, San Diego: By corralling Vozzola, the Toreros landed one of the best-kept secrets out West. He is wiry combo guard with exceptional quickness and an impressive skill set. His shot is streaky out to the stripe, but he has a nifty handle and his passing prowess is high-level.
Trey Zeigler, SG, Central Michigan: Zeigler is another big-time talent who said no to the high-majors to play for his dad. He's No. 33 in the ESPNU 100 rankings and will be a tough matchup in the MAC. He can score in transition by getting to the rim, has a smooth midrange game and can slash with the best of them in the Class of 2010. Plus, he can play and defend all three perimeter positions.
Five coaches who don't get enough love
Stew Morrill, Utah State: There is reason for concern, as conference realignment left USU stuck in what is now a six-team WAC for 2012. But as long as Morrill is coaching the Aggies, there is hope. He is a lock for 20-plus wins and a postseason berth every season, and he's made seven NCAA tourney appearances since 2000. This towering presence runs a myriad of sets and constantly keeps opposing coaches up late. Morrill won at Montana and Colorado State and continues to cruise in Logan.Wayne Tinkle, Montana: Let's stay out West. Tinkle took over for Mr. Grizzly Larry Krystkowiak after the other Coach K went to the NCAA tournament in his only two seasons. Since then, Tinkle has steadily improved and coached the Griz to 22 wins a season ago and a narrow loss to New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Montana lost Anthony Johnson but still has a real shot to compete for the Big Sky title again. Tinkle, like Morrill, commands attention with his size, height and overall coaching acumen.
Five league races we can't wait to see
Missouri Valley: Last season's best team, Northern Iowa, delivered so many thrills in the 2010 NCAA tourney that asking for more almost feels like greed. It's hard to follow an act like Ali Farokhmanesh's. (It's also, this many months removed from March Madness, hard to remember how to spell Ali Farokhmanesh.) But it's possible the 2010-11 version of the Missouri Valley will be just as interesting.
It also will be more competitive. UNI lost five seniors from its Kansas-killing Sweet 16 team (Farokhmanesh, Jordan Eglseder, Adam Koch, Brian Haak and Adam Rodenberg), three of whom (Eglseder, Koch and Farokhmanesh) were among UNI's top four scorers. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson is looking to follow the mid-major molds of Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga by building a team that can win its conference and make a deep NCAA tournament run each year. To do that in 2011, he'll need guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe to take a leap into leading-scorer territory while getting bigger contributions from seniors Johnny Moran and Lucas O'Rear. O'Rear, purveyor of entertaining sideburns, decided to come back to school after being drafted higher than expected by the Cincinnati Reds.
If it will be hard for UNI to maintain its high level with all those losses, it will be just as difficult to hold off what was already a very tough Wichita State team. The Shockers, who finished 25-10 and 12-6 in the MVC in 2010, lost leading scorer Clevin Hannah to graduation, but nearly every other player from last year's team -- which for much of the season looked as though it would push UNI's conference title hopes to the brink -- returns. Those returnees include seniors Toure' Murry, J.T. Durley and Graham Hatch and junior center Garrett Stutz.
The race between those two teams will be buttressed by Greg McDermott's first year at Creighton, where leading scorer Kenny Lawson Jr. returned after a brief dalliance with the NBA draft. Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique will give McDermott some immediate talent come conference season, and if UNI and Wichita State don't break away from the pack early, Creighton could nab the conference title as early as McDermott's first season.
In other words, a nondominant UNI team means a wide-open race for the MVC's top spot. The conference won't be as deep as its mid-aughts heyday, but it ought to be just as much fun to watch.For the rest of the most compelling mid-major conference races, click here for the Nation blog.
Teams to watch
Butler: No surprise here. The national runner-up Bulldogs play a national schedule and won't lose their buzz, especially because they return one of the best guards in the country in Shelvin Mack. Ronald Nored and Matt Howard also return to Indy. The Butler Way will produce plenty of reason to make the Bulldogs a must-see once again.
Fairfield: The Stags have one of the best guards at the mid-major level in Derek Needham. Fairfield coach Ed Cooley is confident that his team can go on at least a two-year run with Boston College transfer guard Rakim Sanders ready to go by next year. The Stags lost an overtime game to Siena in the MAAC final last season but get the conference tournament at home this time. Siena isn't going away and Iona will contend, but Fairfield just might snare its first NCAA tournament bid in 14 years.
Gonzaga: The Zags play the toughest nonconference schedule in the country, have one of the top small forwards in Elias Harris and will continue to be a top 15-20 team throughout the season. Gonzaga has grown up before our eyes during the past decade and now will be on full display with high-profile games, not just on neutral courts or on the road but also at home.
George Mason: The Patriots aren't ready to make another run to the Final Four but should be poised for a return to the NCAA tournament. The team went on a summer trip to Italy and is well-prepped for a solid surge in the CAA. Mason is in the Charleston Classic in November and could pose a problem for headliners NC State and Georgetown.
Loyola Marymount: The Max Good-led Lions, with a roster helped by the original recruiting of Bill Bayno, should be a sleeper to emerge in the WCC. There were no seniors last season and LMU finished tied for fourth in the league, in addition to picking up road wins at USC and Notre Dame. Drew Viney, Vernon Teel and Jarred DuBois should be a formidable crew that allows the Lions to be one of the better teams in California this season.
Northern Iowa: UNI still has shelf life off its dramatic second-round win over Kansas. Gone from that squad is the shooter in Ali Farokhmanesh as well as seniors Adam Koch and Jordan Eglseder. But Kwadzo Ahelegbe returns to anchor the team, and Lucas O'Rear (after a summer of baseball) and Johnny Moran are back as well, giving the Panthers another shot at making an NCAA tourney run.
Memphis: The Tigers have a top-four recruiting class led by Will Barton and Joe Jackson, the return of Wesley Witherspoon, a solid nonconference slate that includes Kansas, Georgetown, Tennessee and Gonzaga and a favorite's role to take back Conference USA after a brief one-year hiatus. The Tigers haven't lost their relevance after the departure of John Calipari. Josh Pastner has made sure of that.
Murray State: Coach Billy Kennedy won 31 games last season as Murray State beat Vanderbilt in the first round and nearly took down Butler. The top eight return from that team. The Racers may not be seen nationally much this season but will be a worthy watch whenever they're on TV, including November's 76 Classic. Murray State should have another gaudy record and will trend well as a pick for another first-round victory.
Princeton: Under Sydney Johnson, the Tigers are poised to take back the Ivy League title after a surprising second-place finish behind Sweet 16 team Cornell last season. They have their two best scorers returning in Doug Davis and Dan Mavraides and have warmed to Johnson's style. Princeton likely will have to fend off Harvard, Cornell and upstart Penn for the league title, but the Tigers should be a tough out in March.
Saint Mary's: The Gaels are fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance and have established themselves as a perennial factor in the WCC race. The quotable and highly productive Omar Samhan is gone, but SMC returns plenty of options around the perimeter with Mickey McConnell, Matthew Dellavedova and Clint Steindl all capable of stretching the D with the long 3.
Southern Miss: If there is one team Memphis must keep a close eye on this season in Conference USA, it's this one. The Golden Eagles have their best shot at being in the NCAA tournament since Larry Eustachy arrived as head coach in 2004. Gary Flowers, Angelo Johnson and Maurice Bolden lead a USM team that won 20 games last season and is primed for more this time.
UAB: Mike Davis had an entertaining crew last season, one that finished 25-9 and was constantly flirting with the NCAA tournament. Gone is Elijah Millsap, but Jamarr Sanders could blossom into a similar double-double player. The Blazers were supposed to be down last season but weren't. No reason to believe they won't again be a factor in the top third of C-USA.
Utah State: The Aggies are the class of the WAC once again and are led by a senior crew that is looking for its fourth straight regular-season title. Utah State will get plenty attention early with games against Utah, BYU and Georgetown. Once conference season begins, look for Tai Wesley and the Ags to fend off New Mexico State for the WAC title.
UTEP: Tim Floyd is back where his coaching career started as an assistant under Don Haskins. The Miners lost the frontcourt of Arnett Moultrie and Derrick Caracter from their C-USA title team, but the guard play could be the best in the league with Randy Culpepper and Julyan Stone. Neither has the hype the Memphis guards have, but they do own the experience tag.
Wichita State: Coach Gregg Marshall has his best squad since taking over for Mark Turgeon in Wichita. The balanced Shockers have steadily become a tough out in the Missouri Valley Conference, and for the first time in three years the new favorite will not be named Northern Iowa. How Wichita State handles those expectations is tough to know, but we'll find out soon enough with that Thanksgiving week trip to Maui.-- Andy Katz
Nonconference games to watch
Northern Iowa at Syracuse, Nov. 12: If there was ever a time to play the Orange this season, it's in Game 1, when Syracuse will be integrating a talented but young roster. Northern Iowa lost plenty off last season's dramatic team that beat Kansas in the second round. But the Panthers are still fully capable of being a major pest, led by senior guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe.
Kentucky at Portland, Nov. 19: On the way to Maui, Michigan State has played at Hawaii, North Carolina stopped over (and lost) at Santa Clara, Vanderbilt squeaked by Saint Mary's. There are many more examples. These games are tremendous gets for the home team but always dicey for the big boys. Kentucky did make sure this game wasn't at the more intimate Chiles Center and instead will play at the Rose Garden, home of the Trail Blazers. But the Pilots should be a top-three team again in the WCC.
Gonzaga vs. Kansas State (CBE Classic), Nov. 22: The Zags will be coming off a difficult home tussle with San Diego State on Nov. 16 before this semifinal in Kansas City. If the Zags can win this unofficial road game, they'll likely face No. 1 Duke in the title game. Even if they don't win and have to face Marquette in a consolation game, that won't be an easy go. The Golden Eagles will push Gonzaga as well as any of the other teams in the field because of their demanding style. This will be a brutal three-game stretch for the Zags.
Wichita State vs. Connecticut (Maui Invitational), Nov. 22: The Shockers are the pick in the Missouri Valley. UConn will need to ride Kemba Walker this season. If Wichita wants to make its name early, taking down Connecticut in the first round is a must. WSU would then continue on against Michigan State. If we assume the Shockers lose that game, they still would face the Kentucky-Washington loser. See the value of winning the first game? If the Shockers lose that one, the Shockers would play Chaminade and then either Virginia or Oklahoma. The all-important RPI would not be helped in that scenario.
Murray State vs. Stanford (76 Classic),
Nov. 25: The Racers are not just the pick to win the OVC but also a real threat to be a top-30-to-40 team throughout the season and a real noisemaker in the NCAA tournament. They will already have played at Ole Miss on Nov. 17. Getting two wins will be a must in Anaheim, but the Racers have a real shot to win the event with a likely game against UNLV if they can get past Stanford. If Murray can reach the championship game, Virginia Tech most likely will be waiting.
Butler vs. Duke (East Rutherford, N.J.),
Dec. 4: The rematch from the national championship game sounds great, but perhaps in name only. Duke returns much more and adds arguably the best freshman in the country in Kyrie Irving. Still, the Bulldogs will have one of the top players in the country in guard Shelvin Mack. Butler plays this game after earlier road games at Louisville and Siena and before going to Hawaii Dec. 22-25 for the Diamond Head Classic, where the Bulldogs open with Utah and could play Florida State and then possibly Baylor (or Washington State or Mississippi State) in the title game.
Utah State at Georgetown, Dec. 4: USU coach Stew Morrill had been stubbornly against going on the road without a return against a power-six conference team. He finally took the plunge and should benefit -- win or lose -- from this venture to D.C. This will be as much of a test for the Hoyas as it will be for the Aggies, who must show well on the East Coast to create some believers come March. This game won't affect Utah State's winning the WAC but certainly could help with seeding or at-large selection (if needed).
Gonzaga vs. Illinois (Seattle), Dec. 4: Gonzaga's schedule may be the toughest in the country. We already went over its November slate. After playing one of the Big Ten favorites in a rematch of last season's thrilling win at Chicago's United Center, the Zags play at Washington State, at Notre Dame, face Baylor in Dallas, host Xavier and Oklahoma State and play at Wake Forest all before the WCC opens against Portland on Jan. 8. The Zags will have one of the best power ratings in the country. Forget the record. What matters is how well the Zags can hold up and perform during this stretch.
Memphis vs. Kansas (Jimmy V Classic),
Dec. 7: The Tigers are the pick in Conference USA with a heralded recruiting class and a core group of returning guards returning that will cause plenty of problems for opponents. The rugged slate starts with ACC upstart Miami on Nov. 15 and a dangerous game against LSU in Tupelo, Miss. After the KU showdown in New York is a slate of games that will test this squad more than any challenge in C-USA: Georgetown at home on Dec. 23 and road games at Tennessee (Jan. 5) and Gonzaga (Feb. 5) during the conference season.
Florida State at Loyola Marymount, Dec. 18: LMU is a sleeper team in the West Coast Conference, and getting a likely top-half ACC squad on its home court in Los Angeles is a coup. The Seminoles will be playing in a bandbox gym, and if the crowd turns out as it does against Gonzaga, it will be a decided advantage for Loyola Marymount. Beating Florida State at home would do wonders for the perception of the WCC.-- Andy Katz