Articles By Athlon Sports

All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News, Magazines
Path: /magazines/oklahoma-sooners-2015-16-basketball-team-preview-and-prediction
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Buddy Hield recognized that there was work to be done before jumping to the NBA. Work for himself, and the Sooners.

 

Hield, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, passed on an early payday for a return to Oklahoma for his senior season. With Hield leading four returning starters from a 24-win team that advanced to the Sweet 16, the Sooners’ sights and expectations are soaring.

 

“I’m on a great team, and we have a lot of unfinished business,” says Hield, who will be among the National Player of the Year favorites. “I just can’t wait to see what’s in store. I want to go to the Final Four.”

 

All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Senior forward Ryan Spangler willingly surrendered some of the interior scoring load a year ago to accommodate transfer TaShawn Thomas. The two worked well together, but with Thomas gone, more scoring from Spangler likely becomes a necessity, at least until Khadeem Lattin or Akolda Manyang proves capable on the offensive end.

 

Lattin provided meaningful minutes as a freshman a year ago, but mostly as a defender and an energy guy. Ideally, he remains a key piece off the bench while he continues to work on building size and strength and an offensive game.

 

That’s likely if Manyang, a junior college transfer, proves that his versatile skills translate to the Big 12. A 7-footer who is expected to be a rim protector, Manyang could alleviate a heavy reliance on Spangler to produce points in the paint if, as expected, he quickly adapts and becomes a solid scorer.

 

Dante Buford figured to be an immediate contributor last season, before NCAA issues with his Florida high school forced him to redshirt. Buford, a 6'7" forward, again projects as an impact player and one who can help inside and out, with an offensive game capable of extending to the perimeter.

 


No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners Facts & Figures

Last season: 24–11, 12–6 Big 12

Postseason: Elite Eight

Consecutive NCAAs: 3

Big 12 Projection: 3

Postseason Projection: Sweet 16

 


Backcourt

 

Hield is the headliner, a game-changing talent who averaged a Big 12-best 17.4 points a year ago, along with 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He scored in double figures in 32 of 35 games, led the league’s guards in rebounding average and produced the program’s fourth-most made 3-pointers with 93 treys.

 

“He’s meant so much to the program,” says Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, “and obviously he wants to finish some business.”

 

Hield is flanked by quality veteran help in Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins in the Sooners’ three-guard lineup. Woodard is a gritty and clutch performer at the point, while Cousins is the team’s best perimeter defender. Both need to work on becoming more consistent with their scoring.

 

Dinjiyl Walker struggled to handle the backup point guard role last season, forcing Cousins to cover when Woodard was off the floor. Walker’s playing time may be linked to his improvement, with incoming freshmen Rashard Odomes and Christian James expected to push for major reserve roles.

 

Odomes, at 6'7" and accomplished on both ends of the floor, gives the Sooners an element they didn’t have off the bench a year ago. James is a bit behind after suffering a broken leg and missing the regular season of his senior year in high school, although he did return for the playoffs.

 


Key Losses: G Frank Booker, F TaShawn Thomas

Top Players: G Jordan Woodard, G Buddy Hield, G Isaiah Cousins, F Ryan Spangler, F Khadeem Lattin

 


Newcomers

 

Akolda Manyang, a former four-star prospect, will be given every opportunity to start at center. Rashard Odomes, a wing from Copperas Cove, Texas, may be the most polished of the prep recruits and projects as a key reserve. Christian James should also contribute at guard. After an NCAA-forced season on the sideline, forward Dante Buford figures to command a major reserve role.

 

Final Analysis

 

The Sooners managed a breakthrough of sorts last March, winning in the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Kruger, after a pair of one-and-done displays the previous two years. They played well, too, eventually falling to surging Michigan State in the Sweet 16.

 

Now there’s momentum for more. And there’s reason for optimism, with Hield and the other veterans in place and the appearance of improved depth— boosting one of the few problem areas with last year’s squad.

 

“It’s great that we have an experienced group and a new group that will challenge those guys to continue to get better,” Kruger says.

 

The Sooners face an aggressive schedule that includes Villanova (in Hawaii), visits to LSU and Memphis and home games against Wisconsin and Creighton before getting into the Big 12. But this should be a team built for the challenge, with four returning regulars who have started every game the past two seasons to lead the way.

 

Oklahoma should be ready to challenge for the Big 12 title — and more.

Teaser:
Oklahoma Sooners 2015-16 Basketball Team Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, October 29, 2015 - 11:10
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News, Magazines
Path: /magazines/iowa-state-cyclones-2015-16-basketball-team-preview-and-prediction
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Fred Hoiberg’s tenure at Iowa State produced the most successful five-year run in program history. In addition to leading the Cyclones to four straight NCAA Tournaments and two consecutive Big 12 Tournament titles, Hoiberg was immensely popular with the fan base. 

 

Steve Prohm, who led Murray State to a 104–29 record over the last four years, has a tough act to follow.

 

The good news for Prohm is that “The Mayor” left a talent-laden roster behind when he bolted for the Chicago Bulls over the summer. Four of Iowa State’s five leading scorers return to make up a roster that includes one of America’s most unique players in Georges Niang, along with Monté Morris, who is one of the nation’s top point guards. 

 

The basketball program in Ames isn’t broken, and Prohm doesn’t intend on trying to fix it.

 

“I’m going to try to keep a lot of things in place that they are familiar with,” Prohm says. “I want to keep their comfort level at a good place, especially with an experienced group.”

 

All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Niang is one of the most fascinating players in college basketball. The 6'8" “point forward” is so intriguing that Prohm spent a solid chunk of time in the offseason studying tape — specifically how Hoiberg used Niang the last couple of years.  

 

“He has that ability to pass and shoot from anywhere on the floor,” Prohm says. “He’s such a great personality and ambassador for this university.”

 

Niang led Iowa State with 15.3 points per game last season while knocking down 40 percent (46-of-115) of his 3-point shots. Expect Niang to be a strong contender for the Big 12’s Player of the Year award this season.

 

Halfway through last year was when Iowa State’s true rim protector became eligible. Marquette transfer Jameel McKay was quite the difference maker for the Cyclones. The big man averaged 2.4 blocks per game in addition to his 11.0 points and 7.6 rebounds en route to being named the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year. McKay should be even better this season.

 

With the departure of ace rebounder Dustin Hogue, the development of senior Abdel Nader will be critical for the Cyclones. The former Northern Illinois transfer showed flashes of brilliance last year but never consistently strung quality games together. Nader is a versatile 6'6" forward who can hurt the opposition from beyond the arc.

 


No. 7 Iowa State Facts & Figures

Last season: 25–9, 12–6 Big 12

Postseason: First round

Consecutive NCAAs: 4

Big 12 Projection: 2

Postseason Projection: Elite Eight

 


Backcourt

 

Prohm is itching to work with Morris. The Flint, Mich., native was second in scoring for the Cyclones at 11.9 points per game last season, but he truly shines when it comes to distributing and taking care of the basketball. In 1,153 minutes last year, Morris committed only 38 turnovers. He’s led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio two seasons in a row. “He had five assists to one turnover last year, and that’s phenomenal,” Prohm says of Morris. “I’m going to try to continue to expand and grow his game. As a coach, you always want a really good point guard, and we are fortunate enough to have one.”

 

Joining Morris in the backcourt will be veterans Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas. Mitrou-Long, a charismatic senior, converted on 39.1 percent of his 3-point attempts last year. Thomas, a junior, limped to an average of 4.9 points per game and has yet to reach his full potential.

 

Oregon State transfer Hallice Cooke will attempt to bounce back from offseason hip surgery, but if healthy he will provide another combo guard for Prohm’s rotation.

 

Another impact transfer, Deonte Burton from Marquette, will be eligible in December. At 6'4", Burton is an explosive player who lacks a true position but is talented enough to crack the starting lineup. Freshman point guard Nick Noskowiak will be assigned to shadow Morris, while junior college walk-on Jordan Ashton is good enough to provide depth.

 


Key Losses: G Bryce DeJean-Jones, F Dustin Hogue

Top Players: G Monte Morris, G Naz Matrou-Long, F Abdel Nader, F Georges Niang, F Jameel McKay

 


Newcomers

 

Deonte Burton and Hallice Cooke could both be difference makers. Cooke made 46 percent of his 3-point attempts as a freshman at Oregon State, while Burton has a chance to be one of the most explosive players in the Big 12. Nick Noskowiak is believed to be the point guard of the future. Brady Ernst, a late in-state signee, is coming off of an ACL tear and was brought on to provide depth.

 

Final Analysis

 

As it did during the Hoiberg era, Iowa State will continue to score at a high rate under Prohm. It’s what this roster was created to do. But defensively is where the Cyclones can take a large step in the right direction. The Cyclones finished 2014-15 ranked 108th nationally in defensive efficiency. “We have to have a mindset that we want to put consecutive stops together,” Prohm says. “That’s something we have always tried to do and emphasize.”

 

Iowa State will boast a Final Four-caliber starting five, but this team does lack proven depth, especially in the frontcourt.

Teaser:
Iowa State Cyclones 2015-16 Basketball Team Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, October 29, 2015 - 11:05
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News, Magazines
Path: /magazines/kansas-jayhawks-2015-16-basketball-team-preview-and-prediction
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One of the most impressive streaks in college basketball history is alive and well in the Big 12, where the Kansas Jayhawks are the favorites to capture a 12th straight conference title. “Winning the league is always our top goal,” point guard Frank Mason says. “But this year we’ve got our sights set on bigger things, too.”

 

Understandably so. After losing in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 the past two seasons, Kansas boasts a roster that appears built to give the school its first Final Four berth since 2012. Along with eye-popping size, length and depth, the Jayhawks will also be one of the nation’s most experienced teams. Kansas returns eight players who averaged double-digit minutes a year ago, and that doesn’t include incoming freshmen Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg, two McDonald’s All-Americans.

 

“We’ve definitely got the pieces,” coach Bill Self says. “We’ve just got to find a way to make them all fit.”

 

All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

With leading scorer Perry Ellis returning for his senior year, the Jayhawks will be as deep as any team in the country down low. Ellis averaged just under 14 points in each of the last two seasons, and his ability to score in the paint, from mid-range and beyond the arc makes him a difficult matchup. Self has long expressed his displeasure with Ellis’ lackluster play on defense, an aspect of his game that Ellis has vowed to improve.

 

As successful as Ellis has been, he may end up playing second fiddle to Diallo, a 6'9", 218-pounder who is known for his motor, toughness and physicality — something the Jayhawks have lacked in recent years. The MVP of both the McDonald’s All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic, Diallo is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

 

Diallo and Ellis are far from Kansas’ only weapons. Forward Jamari Traylor, a fifth-year senior, is a favorite of Self because of his work ethic and grit. He averaged 20 minutes last season and will be in the rotation again. Senior Hunter Mickelson finally appears ready to make significant contributions after transferring from Arkansas, and 240-pound bruiser Landen Lucas showed flashes of brilliance toward the end of the 2014-15 campaign. Mickelson and Lucas are both 6'10". The wild card of the bunch is Bragg, a versatile forward who can score in multiple ways.

 


No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks Facts & Figures

Last season: 27–9, 13–5 Big 12

Postseason: Second round

Consecutive NCAAs: 26

Big 12 Projection: 1

Postseason Projection: Elite Eight

 


Backcourt

 

Impressive as it is down low, the depth in Kansas’ backcourt may be even more eye-popping. Mason, who averaged 12.6 points and 3.9 assists as a sophomore, should be one of the most improved players in the Big 12 after leading the U.S. to the gold medal in the World University Games. Self has always been a fan of Mason’s bulldog mentality, often comparing him to former KU All-American Sherron Collins. But only recently has Mason displayed the type of leadership skills that helped Collins lead the Jayhawks to the national title.

 

Mason will likely be part of a three-guard lineup that will also include junior Wayne Selden and sophomore Devonte’ Graham. A McDonald’s All-American in high school, Selden has been a mild disappointment thus far. He averaged just 9.4 points a year ago and failed to show up in big games, going scoreless in Kansas’ NCAA Tournament loss to Wichita State. Self, though, says that Selden was the team’s best player in the World University Games. If he and Graham (who averaged 23.4 minutes in Kansas’ final seven games last season) continue to make strides, Kansas’ backcourt could be lethal, especially considering what the Jayhawks have on the bench.

 

Brannen Greene is a 6'7" sharpshooter who went 17-of-24 from 3-point range during one stretch last season. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is a 6'8" combo guard from Ukraine who saw limited action as a freshman. Don’t be surprised if Mykhailiuk is Kansas’ first guard off the bench in 2015-16. His ability to play all three guard spots and his high basketball IQ are the main reasons he’s projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

 


Key Losses: F Cliff Alexander, G Kelly Oubre

Top Players: G Frank Mason, G Wayne Selden, F Jamari Traylor, F Cheick Diallo, F Perry Ellis

 


Newcomers

 

Cheick Diallo gives Kansas the physical, intimidating presence it has lacked in the paint since the graduation of Jeff Withey in 2013. But the likely one-and-done is skilled, too. Carlton Bragg’s athleticism and offensive versatility would earn him a starting spot at most schools, but he may have trouble earning significant minutes as a freshman in KU’s crowded frontcourt.

 

Final Analysis

 

Other than Iowa State, which has a new head coach, there doesn’t appear to be a team in the Big 12 with enough talent or manpower to challenge the Jayhawks for the league title. The bigger issue will be whether Kansas can return to the Final Four for the first time in four years — and perhaps claim its first NCAA championship since 2008. With this roster, nothing is out of the question.

Teaser:
Kansas Jayhawks 2015-16 Basketball Team Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, October 29, 2015 - 10:59
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News, Magazines
Path: /magazines/big-12-basketball-2015-16-preview-predictions-and-all-conference-team
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Change has been a constant in the Big 12 — except for Kansas being on top.

 

When the run of Kansas’ Big 12 championships began in 2005-05, the league still had 12 teams, and the roster of coaches included Eddie Sutton and Bob Knight. With Rick Barnes gone to Tennessee, Baylor’s Scott Drew is the only coach remaining from the start of the Jayhawks’ run.

 

Even with two new coaches in the league at Iowa State and Texas, the Jayhawks may face their toughest challenge in the conference in a while. The Cyclones and Oklahoma both have top-10 caliber teams, but — as usual — we’re picking Kansas until Bill Self’s team gives us reason to pick someone else.

 

All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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2015-16 Big 12 Predictions
1.With a nice blend of veterans and rookies, the Jayhawks appear poised for a 12th straight league title. Postseason: NCAA Elite Eight
2.New coach Steve Prohm, who averaged 26 wins per year at Murray State, inherits a Final Four contender. Postseason: NCAA Elite Eight
3.

Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins form one of the nation’s top backcourt tandems. The Sooners are ready to contend. Postseason: NCAA Sweet 16

4.Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince are stars, but the Bears need a floor leader to replace point guard Kenny Chery. Postseason: NCAA second round
5.Shaka Smart is bringing Havoc to Austin, but how quickly will the Longhorns adapt? Postseason: NCAA First Round
6.

Losing Juwan Staten hurts, but the Mountaineers still will be one of the Big 12’s toughest teams. Postseason: NCAA First Round

7.Freshman Jawun Evans will try to provide a spark to a team that lost three starters. Postseason: NIT 
8.Tubby Smith’s squad competes hard and returns a ton of experience — but the talent level is still low. 
9.Offseason transfers and dismissals have put Bruce Weber’s Wildcats in an unenviable position. 
10.The Horned Frogs are no longer pushovers, but they lost three of their top four scorers. 

Big 12 Superlatives

 

Player of the Year: Georges Niang, Iowa State

Best Defensive Player: Jameel McKay, Iowa State

Most Underrated Player: Isaiah Cousins, Baylor

Newcomer of the Year: Cheick Diallo, Kansas

Top Coach: Bill Self, Kansas ()

Coach on the Hot Seat: Bruce Weber, Kansas State ()

Teams in the No. 6 Kansas, No. 7 Iowa State, No. 9 Oklahoma

 

All-Big 12 First Team

G Frank Mason, Kansas

G Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

F Georges Niang, Iowa State

F Perry Ellis, Kansas

F Rico Gathers, Baylor

 

All-Big 12 Second Team

G Monte Morris, Iowa State

G Isaiah Taylor, Texas

G Wayne Selden, Kansas

F Taurean Prince, Baylor

F Jameel McKay, Iowa State

 

All-Big 12 Third Team

G Phil Forte, Oklahoma State

F Devin Williams, West Virginia

F Cheick Diallo, Kansas

F Ryan Spangler, Oklahoma

C Cameron Ridley, Texas

 

Recruiting Roundup

 

1. Kansas: This top-five national class is headlined by five-star big men Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg.

 

2. Texas: A trio of four-star perimeter players are custom-built for Shaka Smart’s system.

 

3. Oklahoma State: McDonald’s All-American Jawun Evans is expected to make a big impact at point guard.

 

4. West Virginia: Four-star wings Esa Ahmad and Treyvon Myers headline a four-man recruiting class.

 

5. Baylor: Four-star guard King McClure leads a four-man class that ranks in the top 40.

 

6. Oklahoma: Junior college 7-footer Akolda Manyang is the top recruit in the Sooners’ three-man class.

 

7. TCU: Two highly ranked three-star junior college prospects top the Horned Frogs’ class.

 

8. Texas Tech: Tubby Smith hopes he has a couple of sleepers in his recruiting class.

 

9. Kansas State: Promising forward Dean Wade leads a six-man recruiting class to Manhattan.

 

10. Iowa State: Former Marquette recruit Nick Noskowiak is the top recruit in the two-man Cyclones class.

Teaser:
Big 12 Basketball 2015-16 Preview, Predictions and All-Conference Team
Post date: Thursday, October 29, 2015 - 10:51
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News, Magazines
Path: /magazines/gonzaga-bulldogs-2015-16-basketball-team-preview-and-prediction
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Gonzaga this season could look very much like the 2015 and ’13 versions of the Bulldogs. Those two squads went a combined 67–6 and are considered at or near the top of the list of all-time GU teams, meaning that this year’s Zags remain clear favorites in the WCC and a fixture on the national landscape.

 

The similarities to last year’s 35–3 squad, which reached the Elite Eight for the second time in program history, are obvious. The Zags relied on one of the nation’s best frontcourts in center Przemek Karnowski and forwards Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Those three return to anchor the current squad.

 

The Kelly Olynyk-led 2013 team, which finished 32–3 after being upset by Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32, enjoyed a relatively injury-free year, other than Gary Bell Jr.’s late-season foot/ankle issues. The Zags could use another healthy campaign with just nine scholarship players on their roster.

 

Gonzaga may be short on depth but not on talent.

 

All West Coast Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

The trio of Karnowski, Sabonis and Wiltjer combined to shoot 59.4 percent from the field last season. They averaged 37.4 points and 19.0 rebounds per game. Those numbers should improve following an offseason of skill development and conditioning. Karnowski and Wiltjer considered leaving early for the NBA Draft before electing to return for their senior seasons. Sabonis, projected by some as a first-round pick, decided early to come back for his sophomore season.

 

The three bring different specialties, adding to their collective effectiveness. Wiltjer, who dropped 45 points on Pacific, can score from the rim out to 25 feet. He continues to make strides physically, which has helped his post-up game. His ability to stretch the floor makes it tough for foes to double Karnowski or Sabonis.

 

Karnowski is a low-post force who burned paint-conscious opponents with his passing ability. He’s a quality rim protector on defense. Sabonis is a relentless rebounder and an emotional spark, often shouting to punctuate dunks in traffic. He is working to expand his offensive game with a mid-range jumper and the ability to create via the dribble.

 

The three will probably see some court time together, depending on the matchups at both ends of the floor.

 

Ryan Edwards, who has the size (7'1") to compete with Karnowski in practice, figures to play in the 8-12 minute range.

 


No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs Facts & Figures

Last season: 35–3, 17–1 WCC

Postseason: Elite Eight

Consecutive NCAAs: 17

West Coast Projection: 1

Postseason Projection: Sweet 16

 


Backcourt

 

The biggest questions concern the backcourt. The exit of rock-solid four-year starters Bell Jr., Kevin Pangos and Byron Wesley (first three years with USC) leaves three starting jobs open. Pangos and Bell were deadeye shooters and remarkably consistent. Wesley was a perfect fit slashing from the wing.

 

Five players are essentially competing for the three spots, but all will be counted on to contribute. Point guard Josh Perkins was off to a promising start before suffering a season-ending broken jaw against Georgia in the fifth game. He’s a gifted passer and appears to have the tools to be a capable scorer.

 

Silas Melson, pressed into duty after Perkins’ injury, could step into Bell’s role. With opponents concentrating on GU’s interior, the athletic Melson and the other guards should have spot-up shooting opportunities.

 

The 3, manned by Wesley last year, is up for grabs, though senior Kyle Dranginis has seen extended time at the position. Bryan Alberts, who redshirted last season, is another option.

 

Eric McClellan, a quality defender, can play any of the guard positions. Mark Few has never been shy about using three-guard lineups in the past, and that could be a possibility at times this season.

 


Key Losses: G Kevin Pangos, G Gary Bell Jr., G Byron Wesley

Top Players: G Josh Perkins, G Kyle Dranginis, F Kyle Wiltjer, F Domantas Sabonis, C Przemek Karnowski

 


Newcomers

 

Wing Bryan Alberts should crack the rotation after redshirting last season. He has the size and shooting ability to help at the 3. Under NCAA rules, transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri) can practice with the team but must sit out this season.

 

Final Analysis

 

For the last four years, Few rarely had to worry about his starting backcourt. Pangos, the 2015 WCC Player of the Year, and Bell, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, were unselfish, knock-down shooters who made few mental mistakes. Gonzaga’s new backcourt will probably be bigger and more athletic, no matter what combination Few puts on the floor; but they have huge shoes to fill.

 

Gonzaga’s talented frontline will draw most of the attention, which should allow for an easier transition for the guards. If they show that they can share the ball, hit open shots and defend, and primary players stay healthy, the Zags have the makings of another 30-win team capable of an extended run in the NCAA Tournament.

Teaser:
Gonzaga Bulldogs 2015-16 Basketball Team Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: News, Magazines
Path: /magazines/san-diego-state-aztecs-2015-16-basketball-team-preview-and-prediction
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San Diego State is always itching to be taken seriously on the national stage, and an opportunity was missed that might have solved that issue once and for all.

 

The Aztecs were exposed by eventual national champion Duke in the Round of the 32 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, as a season-long inability to score finally caught up with a team that went 27–9. And that is what must change this season for San Diego State to shed that perception of being scrappy and tenacious but not ready for big-time status.

 

The Aztecs need to figure out how to score after averaging just 61.8 points in 2014-15. Improving on shooting percentages of 41.8 overall, 32.0 percent from 3-point range and 63.0 percent from the free throw line is a must if San Diego State wants to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in school history.

 

The defense should be as unyielding as ever, and the program has a solid chance at winning 25 games for the seventh time in eight seasons. Shot-blocking center Skylar Spencer and forward Winston Shepard are returning starters, but Matt Shrigley, the team’s top 3-point threat and a 17-game starter in 2014-15, was sidelined with a torn ACL during the summer.

 

The Aztecs remain the most talented team in the MW, but the squad once again enters the season without a go-to scorer and will be counting on forward Malik Pope to improve on an inconsistent first season and incoming freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley to be a difference-maker.

 

All Mountain West Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Shepard has been an enigma over the past three seasons, as his production often falls short of his talent. He led the Aztecs in scoring last season at a modest 11.1 per game. He fancied himself as a one-and-done player when he arrived at San Diego State and never intended to be around for his senior season. Shepard checked out his NBA Draft options in the spring, but a 9.6-point career scoring average and other deficiencies didn’t impress evaluators, so he’s back with one more chance to evolve into one of the better players in the Mountain West.

 

Another player who surprisingly considered applying for the NBA Draft was the 6'10" Pope, who didn’t start a game while averaging 5.1 points and 2.7 rebounds as a freshman. Despite his lack of productivity, Pope’s length and projections about his shooting ability led to scuttlebutt that he would be a first-round selection. The Aztecs would like to see his skills flourish while he’s still in college, and the opportunity is there for Pope to become that needed go-to player. However, he scored in double digits only four times last season.

 

Spencer is already the top shot blocker (231) in San Diego State history, and the 6'10" senior will be asked to improve his rebounding average of 5.1. He’s an offensive liability, but the Aztecs are willing to live with that due to his ability to dominate on defense.

Senior Angelo Chol, a former top recruit who began his career at Arizona, figures to be the top inside reserve unless highly regarded redshirt freshman Zylan Cheatham emerges. Cheatham, a former top-100 national recruit, missed last season due to a foot injury but is fully recovered.

 

Shrigley, who averaged 5.1 points and made 41 3-pointers as a junior is hoping to return to the lineup during February.

 


San Diego State Aztecs Facts & Figures

Last season: 27–9, 14–4 Mountain West

Postseason: Second Round

Consecutive NCAAs: 6

Mountain West Projection: 1

Postseason Projection: Second Round

 


Backcourt

 

San Diego State is thin in the backcourt and will once again use an abundance of three-forward alignments to make up for the shortages.

 

Sophomore shooting guard Trey Kell started the first 15 games a year ago before getting demoted to reserve status. He shot just 33.3 percent from the field, including a woeful 22.1 percent from 3. The Aztecs are hoping the experience he gained last season will lead to an improved all-around game.

 

Hemsley will open the season at the point unless he proves to be overwhelmed or overmatched in the weeks leading up to the first game. The much-ballyhooed prospect seems primed to make an immediate impact.

 

Junior Dakarai Allen is a stellar defender and will again be a key player off the bench. Junior D’Erryl Williams provides added depth.

 


Key Losses: F JJ O’Brien, F Dwayne Polee, G Aqeel Quinn

Top Players: G Jeremy Hemsley, G Trey Kell, F Winston Shepard, F Malik Pope, F/C Skylar Spencer

 


Newcomers

 

Jeremy Hemsley was a consensus top-100 recruit who shouldn’t need much time to get comfortable at the collegiate level. Zylan Cheatham received valuable practice time last season after his foot injury healed, and that should reduce the learning curve. Nolan Norain, originally part of the class of 2016, reclassified over the summer. He was a great late addition for the Azetcs.

 

Final Analysis

 

Coach Steve Fisher is 70 years old and wants to take the Aztecs to the Final Four before he retires. But that doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility with the current squad, which is too similar to last season’s offensively challenged group.

 

A seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament is a near certainty, and so is an 11th straight 20-win campaign, but reaching the Sweet 16 appears to be the ceiling for this team.

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San Diego State Aztecs 2015-16 Basketball Team Preview and Prediction
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Wichita State handled Indiana and knocked off Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. After a loss to Notre Dame, its winning streak resumed.

 

Alabama came hard after coach Gregg Marshall, waving big dollars and the lure of the SEC. The university and community rallied to push Marshall’s salary to $3 million and keep him in Wichita. Junior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet looked at their professional options before deciding to spend one more season thrilling fans.

 

Disaster loomed for a few days in the spring. Then things took a dramatic turn in favor of the Shockers. With those three architects of WSU’s run to national prominence on board, the status quo looks great at Koch Arena.

 

Baker and VanVleet form one of the nation’s top backcourts. The rest of the Shockers will work with them to form an efficient offense and a fearsome defense. With a Final Four and a Sweet 16 on their résumés, Baker and VanVleet get one more shot at something bigger.

 

“It’s hard to fathom it’s my last year,” Baker says. “Every year I’ve been here and been to the NCAA Tournament, good things have happened. That’s the motto we have — improve on the year before.”

 

All Missouri Valley Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Senior center Anton Grady filled the team’s biggest need when he announced in May that he would play his final season at Wichita State. Grady averaged 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds as a junior at Cleveland State, earning All-Horizon League honors and a spot on the All-Defensive Team. Grady played three seasons without coming close to the NCAA Tournament. He chose WSU to end his career with a big winner. He made an immediate impression by coming to the gym early to work on his shooting and taking a lead in the weight room during the summer. “He’s been wonderful to coach,” Marshall says. “He’s very strong. He’s a grown man.”

 

Senior Evan Wessel returns as an undersized power forward. He made 36 percent of his threes, and coaches love his hustle and ability to set screens. He plays tough defense, putting that skill on display against former high school teammate Perry Ellis in WSU’s win over Kansas.

 

With Grady a proven commodity and Wessel a smart and solid player, Marshall can see which of his returners grow into larger roles. Sophomore Shaq Morris earned MVC All-Freshman honors. Rashard Kelly is rebounder, and Rauno Nurger can score. Senior Bush Wamukota earned more minutes in March because of his defense.

 

On the wing, sophomore Zach Brown made his case in March to replace Tekele Cotton as WSU’s stopper. He made 11-of-26 3-pointers and could begin the season in the starting lineup.

 


No. 14 Wichita State Shockers Facts & Figures

Last season: 30–5, 17–1 Missouri Valley

Postseason: Sweet 16

Consecutive NCAAs: 4

Missouri Valley Projection: 1

Postseason Projection: Sweet 16

 


Backcourt

 

VanVleet is eager to run an offense with Baker, Wessel and sophomore transfer Conner Frankamp spreading the defense with their shooting ability. Those threats will give VanVleet and the big men room to operate in the lane and around the basket.

 

Baker improved his scoring from 13.1 points per game as a sophomore to 14.7 as a junior, but his shooting dipped from .456 to .433. Look for his efficiency to improve in ’15-16. Frankamp, from Wichita, played little at Kansas before transferring just prior to the ’14-15 season. He practiced with the Shockers last season and is eligible on Dec. 12, the day they play Utah. “He is unbelievably skilled,” Marshall says. “He shoots it as well as anyone I’ve coached. He’ll make us very difficult to guard.”

 

Freshman guard Landry Shamet should give WSU the depth in the backcourt it lacked last season.

 


Key Losses: F Darius Carter, G Tekele Cotton

Top Players: G Fred VanVleet, G Ron Baker, G Conner Frankamp, G Evan Wessel, C Anton Grady

 


Newcomers

 

Senior forward Anton Grady is eligible immediately. Sophomore guard Conner Frankamp is a Wichitan with considerable offensive skills. He transferred from Kansas and is eligible on Dec. 12. Guard Landry Shamet and forward Markis McDuffie are ranked in the top 150 from the class of 2015 by national recruiting analysts. A year at a prep school helped Eric Hamilton improve physically and with his work ethic.

 

Final Analysis

 

WSU’s unprecedented run of success will continue with Baker and VanVleet back. The Shockers should win the MVC for a third straight season and cruise into the NCAA Tournament with a favorable seed.

 

Grady’s presence alone won’t make WSU a Final Four contender. It needs Morris to continue his development and give the Shockers a powerful two-man punch in the lane. If Kelly can improve his offensive game and Nurger his rebounding, WSU’s rotation of bigs will be satisfactory.

 

WSU should be deeper and more physically imposing than last season. If Frankamp fits in smoothly, the Shockers should be considered a legitimate threat to reach the Final Four.

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Wichita State Shockers 2015-16 Basketball Team Preview and Prediction
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Because of a high volume of players serving two-year church missions, BYU is continually a program in transition. But even by the Cougars’ standards, 2015-16 is a season of change. A combination of graduation, missions and transfers took away 10 letterwinners from last year’s team, undoubtedly one of the biggest numbers in Division I basketball.

 

BYU coach Dave Rose is intrigued by the players who are scheduled to join or rejoin the Cougars at various points, with some of them currently on missions. “If you look at our depth chart for the next two or three years, I think we’ve got good, young talent,” Rose says.

 

Rose’s immediate challenge is maximizing the skills of senior guard Kyle Collinsworth, one of the country’s most versatile players, while trying to replace guard Tyler Haws, the school’s all-time leading scorer.

 

All West Coast Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Rose has found success with small lineups recently, partly out of necessity and partly because the WCC is a perimeter-oriented league. The Cougars adjusted well last season when center Nate Austin was sidelined by a hamstring injury after 10 games and UNLV transfer Jamal Aytes was unable to play following ankle surgery.

 

Austin received a medical waiver from the NCAA, so he’ll return as a senior. If he can get healthy, Aytes will increase BYU’s athleticism. Corbin Kaufusi, originally recruited to BYU as a lineman in football, continues to develop as a basketball player. He’s not much of a scorer, but he gives BYU an inside presence that many WCC teams lack.

 

Kyle Davis, a transfer from Utah State, is eligible this season and should provide scoring and rebounding after starting 27 games for the Aggies in 2013-14. Davis posted 16 points and nine rebounds in USU’s loss to BYU at a neutral site in Salt Lake City that season.

 

Jakob Hartsock could fit into the rotation as a freshman.

 


BYU Cougars Facts & Figures

Last season: 25–10, 15–5 West Coast

Postseason: First Four

Consecutive NCAAs: 2

West Coast Projection: 2

Postseason Projection: NIT

 


Backcourt

 

The 6'6" Collinsworth is a multidimensional player. He made a remarkable recovery from the knee injury that ended his 2013-14 season, averaging 13.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals last year and posting six triple-doubles.

 

Wake Forest transfer Chase Fischer functioned well in BYU’s three-guard offense amid the defensive attention given to Collinsworth and Haws. With Haws having graduated after scoring 2,720 career points to break Jimmer Fredette’s school record, opponents will focus more on Fischer. He averaged 13.2 points and shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range, hitting 10 3s vs. Chaminade.

 

Several candidates will compete for the role of third guard in Rose’s scheme. Jale Toolson is among the Cougars’ few holdovers from last season, while Cory Calvert has returned from a mission. Nick Emery, Jordan Chatman and Zac Seljaas are freshmen.

 

“We’ve got not only really talented players, but talented players that fit together,” Rose says. “The core of the group is really diverse.”

 


Key Losses: G Tyler Haws, G Anson Winder, G Skyler Halford

Top Players: G Kyle Collinsworth, G Chase Fischer, G Jake Toolson, F Jamal Aytes, C Corbin Kaufusi

 


Newcomers

 

BYU’s list of newly arrived players is usually long and complicated because so many players serve two-year church missions before or during their college careers. That’s the case again in 2015-16, with the added element of transfer Kyle Davis (Utah State). A group of freshmen and returned missionaries (some fit both categories) figure to be in the mix at guard, including Zac Seljaas, Nick Emery, Jordan Chatman and Cooper Ainge.

 

Final Analysis

 

BYU has played in the NCAA Tournament in eight of Rose’s 10 seasons, but the Cougars have advanced to the Sweet 16 only once. They’re scarred by a First Four loss to Ole Miss last March, which Rose hopes will motivate the returning players.

 

Even with the loss of Haws, who averaged 22.2 points, BYU will find ways to score after averaging 81.1 points in conference games last season. The biggest issue is defensive improvement. The Cougars weren’t bad on that end of the floor, but they will need to be better — they ranked fifth in the 10-team WCC in defensive efficiency in league games — to contend for a conference title.

 

Like every school in the WCC, the Cougars are chasing Gonzaga. BYU has not won a tournament title in the WCC, with its most recent postseason championship coming in 2001 in the Mountain West.

 

The program remains popular, with its average attendance of 16,125 ranking No. 9 nationally. Construction of a new practice facility, renovation of the Marriott Center and a five-year contract extension for Rose have BYU well positioned for the future.

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The subject line of a May email to LSU students and supporters was two words: “He’s coming.”

 

Now, he’s here.

 

The email’s message featured two hands holding a basketball. Below was a graphic advertising ticket prices — six months before the games would be played — with a promise that “No. 25 is coming.”

 

The arrival of Ben Simmons, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, has ignited an excitement around LSU basketball not seen since current coach Johnny Jones was an assistant in the days of Chris Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal.

 

Simmons’ close friend Antonio Blakeney and Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball Brandon Sampson — who’ve adopted the moniker “The Killer B’s” — round out Jones’ consensus top-five class that had fans drooling before the 2014 season ended.

 

Simmons and crew are projected, if not expected, to improve upon last season’s showing — which ended with an agonizing loss to NC State in Round of 64 — and take LSU back to prominence.

 

All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

LSU lost two All-SEC big men who patrolled the Tigers’ frontline with little help. Jordan Mickey, the No. 33 overall pick in the NBA Draft, played 34.9 minutes per game last season, while Jarell Martin (No. 25 pick) logged 35.1. Mickey’s 3.6 blocks per game led the SEC by a full block, and his 9.8 rebounds also topped the conference.

 

Now who’s to replace this production? Newcomers, of course.

 

Simmons is labeled “positionless” by analysts and coaches, but if they had to slot his 6'10" frame somewhere, it’d be on the block. Jones, however, maintains that he won’t handcuff Simmons and will allow him to bring the ball up the floor and handle the point.

 

Craig Victor, a New Orleans native who transferred to LSU after only one semester at Arizona, appears destined for a more permanent role inside when he becomes eligible in December. Victor’s 235-pound frame will be vital to keeping opponents off the glass.

 

While Victor sits out, LSU will need to rely on the improvement of two rising sophomores. Elbert Robinson III arrived with high acclaim and found himself starting the first four games, though he finished with more fouls (13) than defensive rebounds (11) and more turnovers (nine) than offensive boards (six). His playing time diminished late in the season.

 

Picking up Robinson’s time was Aaron Epps, who battled through an injury-filled freshman season to become a serviceable post man off the bench. Jones believes a clean bill of health and the freshman-to-sophomore transition will help Epps earn more playing time.

 


LSU Tigers Facts & Figures

Last season: 22-11 (11-7 SEC)

Postseason: NCAA first round

Consecutive NCAAs: 1

SEC projection: 4

Postseason projection: NCAA second round

 


Backcourt

 

What experience LSU lacks on the frontline, it compensates for in the backcourt, returning four guards who played more than 24 minutes per game, including the team’s only two seniors — Keith Hornsby and Josh Gray.

 

Hornsby showed himself as a natural leader on the floor last season and will reprise that role. Gray, a high-volume scorer in junior college, tended to force the action too much early in the season — which led to a reduction in his playing time — but he adjusted to a new role later in the year and found his niche as a distributor and occasional shooter. Hornsby should be firmly entrenched in the starting lineup with Blakeney, a smooth shooter on the wing who can score in bunches. Blakeney’s challenge will be to adjust to the collegiate game on the defensive end.

 

It could once again be point guard by committee, with Tim Quarterman leading the charge. Quarterman was the Tigers’ most improved player last season, transitioning from sixth man to starting point guard by the end of the season and leading the team with 3.8 assists per game.

 

When Quarterman isn’t on the floor, the Tigers can go with a conventional point guard, sophomore Jalyn Patterson, or allow Simmons to bring the ball up the court. Simmons possesses superior court vision and can create scoring opportunities from any spot on the floor.

 


Key Losses: F Jarell Martin, F Jordan Mickey

Top Players: G Tim Quarterman, G Keith Hornsby, G Antonio Blakeney, F Ben Simmons, F Craig Victor

 


Newcomers

 

Ben Simmons spearheads perhaps the most heralded group of newcomers in LSU basketball history, and all four are primed to see premium playing time. When he’s eligible, Craig Victor could be crucial inside, a place where LSU lacks the depth it has in the backcourt. He’ll team with Simmons at times down low, while Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson will see significant time on the wing.

 

Final Analysis

 

Blakeney told reporters over the summer that he believed LSU would win the national championship this season. While his prediction seems lofty, the Tigers have a once-in-a-generation player in Simmons and a seasoned backcourt that now has NCAA Tournament experience. This team has the talent to make a deep run in March.

 

Now the Tigers must prove they can live up to the lofty expectations.

 

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Why not climb out on a limb if you’re already on a hot seat? That’s what Texas A&M basketball coach Billy Kennedy did. He’s guaranteed the Aggies will be in the NCAA Tournament field this season.

 

Had Rick Pitino, John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski made that promise there would be no doubters. But that’s a bold statement considering A&M hasn’t made the NCAA in any of Kennedy’s four seasons at the school. Last year, the Aggies looked like a safe bet to make the field in mid-February but lost four of their last five games and had to settle for a spot in the NIT.

 

Kennedy has some very good reasons to be so brazenly optimistic. The Aggies return two players with All-SEC credentials — one who led the league in assists — and have an influx of talent from a consensus top-10 recruiting class that will provide desperately needed size and depth.

 

The combination of proven veterans and heralded newcomers will give Kennedy more options than he’s had before. Perhaps that will give him more success, too.

 

All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Jalen Jones, who began his career at SMU, averaged 13.7 points and 6.6 rebounds to earn second-team All-SEC honors from the conference coaches last season. Jones, however, desperately needs help inside. That aid may come from several sources.

 

Fingers are crossed that freshman Tyler Davis, a 6'10", 270-pound center from Plano, Texas, will make an immediate impact. Rated among the nation’s top 30 prospects by all recruiting services, Davis averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds in leading his high school team to a state championship. Davis and 6'9", 240-pound Elijah Thomas, another highly rated freshman prospect, could potentially form an intimidating inside presence.

 

If the freshmen struggle to transition to the collegiate game, the Aggies can give more minutes to 6'7" junior Tavario Miller, who injected a measure of toughness as a sophomore. Miller averaged 3.0 rebounds in only 11.3 minutes last season. He’s limited offensively, though, and converted just 40.7 percent of his free throws.

 

There are also high hopes 6'10" Colombian Tonny Trocha-Morelos will blossom in his second season. Trocha-Morelos did not make a significant contribution as a freshman, but Kennedy likes his athleticism, jump shot and work ethic.

 


No. 25 Texas A&M Aggies Facts & Figures

Last season: 21-12 (11-7 SEC)

Postseason: NIT

Last NCAA Tournament: 2011

SEC projection: 3

Postseason projection: NCAA second round

 


Backcourt

 

Guard play has been the Aggies’ greatest asset, and that should be the case again if senior Danuel House stays healthy and Alex Caruso gets some help. A transfer from Houston, House led the team in scoring with a 14.8-point average and increased his production in league play (16.2 ppg). He shot nearly as well from 3-point range (.400) as he did overall (.417). House broke his foot late in the season, and the Aggies dropped back-to-back games (vs. Alabama at home and vs. Auburn in the SEC Tournament) that knocked them out of NCAA Tournament consideration.

 

Touted freshmen D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder could provide needed depth behind House. The 6'7" Hogg averaged 17.6 points as a high school senior and hit a buzzer-beating jumper for a victory in the state championship game. Gilder averaged 30.7 points as a senior at Madison High School in Dallas.

 

Meanwhile, the versatile Caruso, who led the SEC in assists and shared the lead in steals, faded at the end of the season. He shot just 22.2 percent and committed 19 turnovers in the Aggies’ final four games. He figures to get more help this season. Sophomore Alex Robinson was inconsistent in his debut season but showed flashes of his immense potential. At the very least, Robinson should ease some of the point guard demands on Caruso. If Robinson doesn’t progress, Kennedy can turn to Anthony Collins, a senior transfer from South Florida who will be eligible immediately. Collins isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he averaged 5.2 assists in his final season with the Bulls.

 


Key Losses: G Jordan Green, F Kourtney Roberson

Top Players: G Alex Caruso, G Alex Robinson, G Danuel House, G/F Jalen Jones, C Tyler Davis

 


Newcomers

 

Tyler Davis figures to start immediately and will team with Elijah Thomas to provide a physical inside presence A&M hasn’t had in years. Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg are sharpshooters who can ease the reliance on Danuel House. Raquan Mitchell was a late addition after reclassifying. Anthony Collins was a three-year starter at South Florida and is the only player on A&M’s roster with NCAA Tournament experience.

 

Final Analysis

 

There is great optimism that Texas A&M will return to the NCAA Tournament after a four-year drought. A nice mix of returning starters — House, Jones, Caruso — and a heralded recruiting class suggest the Aggies will be better than last season’s team that finished 21–12 and tied for third in the SEC with an 11–7 record. When March rolls around, A&M either will be playing in the NCAA Tournament or searching for Kennedy’s successor.

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Texas A&M Aggies 2015-16 Basketball Team Preview and Prediction
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Billy Donovan is gone to the NBA, and with him the face of Florida basketball. Many wonder whether the Gators’ winning tradition will follow.

 

New coach Mike White steps into Donovan’s shadow after four seasons at Louisiana Tech. White also walks into a rare rebuilding situation in Gainesville. A year after reaching their fourth Final Four under Donovan, the Gators finished 16–17 — the program’s first losing season since 1998.

 

“There’s probably a lot of doubters out there like, ‘Oh, Florida is not the same. They are not going to be the same program. They are not going to compete like they used to because they don’t have Coach D,’” sophomore forward Devin Robinson says. “We don’t listen to that. We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder. We have a lot to prove.”

 

White, 38, has more to prove than anyone. His teams were 101–40 at Louisiana Tech, playing an exciting, up-tempo style on both ends. He also never coached his team to the NCAA Tournament, something Donovan did 14 times during 19 seasons in Gainesville.

 

All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith led the Gators in scoring (13.1 ppg), rebounding (6.2 rpg) and 3-point shooting (.426) last season. But he needs help.

 

The Gators hope center John Egbunu, a transfer from South Florida, will provide the physical inside presence Florida lacked last season. Listed at 6'11", 266 pounds, Egbunu averaged 7.4 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman at USF in 2013-14. He also shot just 54.5 percent from the foul line and looks to become a more efficient low-post scorer.

 

Robinson is dynamic off the wing, but he is rail thin and prone to poor shot selection. He had more airballs (nine) than field goals (eight) nine games into his freshman season. Small forward Alex Murphy, a Duke transfer who sat out the first semester, was increasingly effective in the open court, but his 3-point shooting (6-of-33) was abysmal.

 


Florida Gators Facts & Figures

Last season: 16-17 (8-10 SEC)

Postseason: None

Last NCAA Tournament: 2014

SEC projection: 5

Postseason projection: NCAA First Round

 


Backcourt

 

White was a point guard, two of his assistant coaches (Jordan Mincy and Darris Nichols) were point guards, and his best player at Louisiana Tech (Speedy White) was a point guard. Good thing, because shaky point guard play was a big reason for the 2014-15 Gators’ struggles. White, a four-year starter at Ole Miss, will push junior Kasey Hill and sophomore Chris Chiozza to improve.

 

“I’m a little harder on point guards than the other four spots on the floor, little bit more demanding,” White says.

 

Hill’s ability to respond could be the key to the season. A 2013 McDonald’s All-American, Hill has mixed flashes of brilliance with poor decision-making and shooting. He enjoyed a three-game stretch early last season with 25 assists and four turnovers. He then had four turnovers or more in six SEC games. During a stunning loss at Missouri, Hill hit 2-of-7 from the field and 1-of-8 from the foul line. For the season, he shot 52.6 from the line and 27.6 percent (8 of 29) from 3-point range.

 

Chiozza similarly struggled with his shot, finishing at 32.3 percent from 3-point range and 47.7 percent from the foul line. But as a first-year player, he showed the court sense Hill too often lacks.

 

Redshirt freshman Brandone Francis and first-year player KeVaughn Allen should provide scoring punch. Junior DeVon Walker, who returns from an ACL tear, also can shoot but is more valuable as a perimeter defender.

 


Key Losses: G Eli Carter, G Michael Frazier II, C Jon Horford, F Jacob Kurtz

Top Players: G Kasey Hill, G Chris Chiozza, F Devin Robinson, F Dorian Finney-Smith, C John Egbunu

 


Newcomers

 

John Egbunu should step into a starting role, while KeVaughn Allen should be an immediate factor, too. He averaged 25.2 points to lead North Little Rock (Ark.) High School to its third straight state title. Kevarrius Hayes is a long, athletic shot blocker and rebounder, while Keith Stone is a combo-forward who can score anywhere inside the arc. Schuyler Rimmer provides another big body.

 

Final Analysis

 

White turned down previous job offers at Missouri and Tennessee but believed Florida was too good an opportunity to pass up. He was born near Tampa and has strong recruiting ties in the Sunshine State.

 

White embraces the challenge of following a legend and has quickly won over his players with his high-energy personality and aggressive playing style. Louisiana Tech averaged 21 3-point attempts last season and forced 8.4 steals per game.

 

Yet outside of Finney-Smith, the Gators have a roster of unproven players. The schedule features trips to Michigan State and Miami, visits from Florida State and West Virginia, and two games with Kentucky. White could be hard-pressed to get the Gators to the NCAA Tournament in Year 1.

Teaser:
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Bend your knees. Spread your arms. Move your feet. Guard your man.

 

There are fancier ways to analyze what matters for the Indiana Hoosiers this season, but nothing is more relevant than this simple truth: Tom Crean’s experienced Hoosiers must defend better than they defended last season if they intend to grow into more than a team that wobbles into one of the final NCAA Tournament spots.

 

The Hoosiers played top-10 offense, averaging 1.15 points per possession last season. They made 319 3-point attempts, shooting nearly 41 percent as a team. The Hoosiers played bottom-100 defense, allowing 1.07 points per possession as opponents shot a Big Ten-best 45.3 percent.

 

If the Hoosiers keep scoring as efficiently as they did last season and discover the value of defensive resolve, Indiana can be a top-15 team. If not? More grumbling at Assembly Hall.

 

All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Thomas Bryant, a 6'10" center, is Indiana’s most important recruit since Cody Zeller four seasons ago. He’s a solid shot blocker with the bulk and mindset to control the rim. He also turned down Kentucky, Syracuse and Missouri because he recognized the void in the middle at IU, which used the departed Hanner Mosquera-Perea (no low-post game) and Collin Hartman (only 6'7") inside last season.

 

Troy Williams is determined to follow the Victor Oladipo growth chart at one forward position — from inconsistent freshman to dynamic sophomore to first-round draft pick as a junior. Williams led the Hoosiers in rebounding (7.4 rpg) while scoring 13.0 points per game. Improving those two numbers would be a plus, but not as much of a plus as cutting back on his turnovers and upgrading his defense. Spectacular in transition, Williams worked with John Lucas last summer on becoming a complete player.

 

Hartman can play anywhere from center to guard. Crean will employ him according to matchups and foul trouble. He protects the ball, makes threes (47.5 percent) and hits the floor.

 

Word is that sophomore Emmitt Holt is primed for a breakout year. He trailed on the learning curve after signing one week before classes started. But he showed the ability to block shots and finish. Holt has worked to develop his range to 10 feet and will be Bryant’s primary backup — along with Max Bielfeldt, a fifth-year transfer who averaged 5.1 points and 3.6 rebounds for Michigan last season.

 


No. 17 Indiana Hoosiers Facts & Figures

Last season: 20-14 (9-9 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA first round

Consecutive NCAAs: 1

Big Ten projection: 4

Postseason projection: NCAA second round

 


Backcourt

 

This is one of the five best backcourts in America if (you guessed it) they improve their commitment to defending, especially against dribble penetration.

 

Point guard Yogi Ferrell (16.3 ppg) and James Blackmon Jr. (15.7 ppg) both considered declaring for the 2015 NBA Draft but wisely realized they needed work.

 

Ferrell ranked in the league’s top 10 in scoring (sixth), assists (fourth), free throw percentage (second), 3-point percentage (sixth) and minutes (sixth). He is a legitimate Big Ten Player of the Year candidate because he can score from anywhere.

 

Blackmon is recovering from minor offseason knee surgery. He made 77 3-point shots and was Indiana’s second-leading rebounder. Improvement on his ball handling and defense will determine how quickly he’s NBA-bound.

 

Robert Johnson, a sophomore, had a difficult assignment playing between two guys who love to score, but he handled it well, contributing 8.9 points and finishing second on IU in assists. Nick Zeisloft, a fifth-year senior, can shoot with anybody, making 45 percent of his attempts from distance.

 


Key Losses: F Hanner Mosquera-Perea

Top Players: G Yogi Ferrell, G Robert Johnson, G James Blackmon, F Troy Williams, F/C Thomas Bryant

 


Newcomers

 

The Hoosiers had to find a center. Thomas Bryant’s late commitment gave the class the piece it needed. Bryant has a solid, mature body and was described as an outstanding teammate during summer drills. Bryant’s transition should be aided by Max Bielfeldt, who battled injuries at Michigan but became a solid contributor last season. Freshmen Juwan Morgan and Og Anunoby are athletic but will need time.

 

Final Analysis

 

The Hoosiers allowed 88 points against Eastern Washington, 94 against Louisville, 91 against Georgetown and 92 against Wisconsin — all in defeats. Crean understands that the commitment to defense is non-negotiable. He hired a new strength and conditioning coach whose first request was to build a sand pit outside Assembly Hall, where the players worked on their lateral quickness and toughness.

 

Bryant and Holt can alter the defensive tone with their physical presence and willingness to challenge shots. Indiana must also improve on the boards.

 

But the heart of this team remains Ferrell, Williams and Blackmon. They have to score as efficiently as they did last season but prove that the other end of the court is where championships are won.

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One year after proving yet again that a Tom Izzo team should never be counted out in March, Michigan State will be back in the hunt to cut down more nets this season.

 

The Spartans will not be the favorites to win the Big Ten but should be watched closely for clues that they might be on the march for a potential eighth trip to the Final Four under Izzo.

 

“I think we have a chance to be better than last year, talent-wise,” Izzo says, “I don’t know about team-wise. That’ll be my job to get them there.”

 

Despite the losses of Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, the Spartans will be deeper, more athletic and a better shooting team than last year’s squad, which advanced to the Final Four before losing to Duke.

 

Izzo will seek continued excellence in team chemistry and renewed defensive toughness. These are difficult areas to gauge, but Izzo swears by them — and the Spartans will eventually be strong in those categories again.

 

All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling formed a functional tag team at the center position a year ago and are back as an improving asset. Costello has good strength and skill on the block at both ends, and he can nail the open face-up jumper. He has taken his leadership skills up a level and is bent on helping Izzo notch his second national title. The toughness and determination Costello showed on defense and the glass in a must-win situation against Purdue last year — while Dawson was out with an injury — revealed what kind of performer Costello can be on a regular basis.

 

Schilling is the most athletic big man Izzo has ever had, and he needs to put it to better use as a finisher around the rim. Schilling must improve his dependability, especially on the glass.

 

“I need to get more out of Costello and Schilling in order for this team to take a big jump,” Izzo says.

 

Javon Bess is quietly developing behind the scenes as an impact player. He would have been a part-time starter for last year’s team were it not for a maddening foot injury. Now healthy, he’s strong, skilled and crafty, with ability to help at either forward position.

 

Incoming McDonald’s All-American Deyonta Davis is a big, bouncy athlete with length and pure scoring ability. He adapted quickly to program expectations during his first summer in East Lansing.

 

Marvin Clark is the strongest guy on the team and a sweet shooter from deep. He is a quality offensive rebounder but needs to prove himself on defense. 

 


No. 12 Michigan State Spartans Facts & Figures

Last season: 27-12 (12-6 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA Final Four

Consecutive NCAAs: 18

Big Ten projection: 2

Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16

 


Backcourt

 

Denzel Valentine is an Izzo-molded senior, shooter, rebounder, leader, passer and triple-double threat. He performed well for the Pan-Am Games team in July. The All-America candidate’s only weakness might be that he isn’t harsh enough on his teammates, but his will to lead them back to the Final Four is immense.

 

West Virginia transfer Eron Harris can create his own shot, drill it from long range and finish at the rim with sky-walking hops. He is an instant All-Big Ten candidate.

 

Bryn Forbes, perhaps the best shooter of the Izzo era, packed on a much-needed layer of muscle. Izzo called him the team’s MVP of the summer.

 

Fast and strong, Lourawls “TumTum” Nairn has added a dependable jumper to his quality repertoire at point guard. His ability to move the ball to open teammates on-time and on-target will enhance the team’s offensive productivity. Nairn is Izzo’s next great leader.

 

Alvin Ellis has occasionally provided a surprising scoring lift, including last year’s 16-point binge at Indiana. His wavering level of commitment has bothered Izzo.

 


Key Losses: F Branden Dawson, G Travis Trice

Top Players: G Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, G Eron Harris, G Denzel Valentine, F Matt Costello, F Gavin Schilling

 


Newcomers

 

Eron Harris will provide go-to scoring ability as one of the more talented guards in the Big Ten. Deyonta Davis compares favorably to former first-round pick Adreian Payne. Matt McQuaid impressed Tom Izzo in the offseason with athleticism, long-range shooting and IQ. Kyle Ahrens is tough and skilled but must overcome nagging injuries. Springy walk-on Kenny Goins could be a contributor someday.

 

Final Analysis

 

Locker room chemistry will remain a strength for the Spartans, but it may take awhile to establish on-court cohesion with a talent like Harris looking to find his niche within an established group of skilled veterans. Overall, that’s not a bad problem to have, especially with the agreeable personalities of Valentine, Costello and Nairn embracing him.

 

MSU will be able to run, score and deliver highlight-reel moments, but Izzo is more concerned about harnessing a championship level of defense and rebounding. Once he gets it, this team will be a threat to win conference tournament and NCAA Regional championships — again.

 

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The quality of the food wasn’t the main reason for Purdue coach Matt Painter’s tweet on the afternoon of May 19: “Had one of the best lunches I’ve ever had today on campus.”

 

That was the day Painter learned that the Boilermakers had landed Fort Wayne Homestead High School forward Caleb Swanigan, a consensus top-25 national recruit. With that, they went from good team to Big Ten title contender. The trio of the 6'9" Swanigan, 7'0" A.J. Hammons and 6'7" Vince Edwards should form one of the nation’s best frontlines.

 

“Very few teams in the country can play big,” Painter says. “Most of the time, your better players are guards. That’s what the game has evolved into. I think we’re going to be that traditional big team with Caleb playing the 4.”

 

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Frontcourt

 

Swanigan led Homestead to the Indiana Class 4A state title, the state’s largest class. He made an oral commitment to Michigan State before changing his mind and signing with Purdue. Painter says Swanigan’s skill set is such that he would be able to start if he were just 6-feet tall.

 

“His ability to pass and rebound will really help us,” Painter says. “We like the matchup with teams having to guard him with their second-best guy on the floor. We like that matchup every single night.”

 

But as highly touted as Swanigan is, Purdue’s best player figures to be Hammons, who broke through during his junior season and became the dominant post player most expected after an uneven first two years with the Boilermakers.

 

“I thought he was really consistent during those last two months, and hopefully he can build off that,” Painter says. “He’s always been big offensively, but I really liked what he showed between games. He developed some good habits. He showed some leadership ability.”

 

Swanigan’s arrival means that Edwards moves from power to small forward. He led Purdue in assists last season with 90, and the Boilermakers were 6–0 in games in which he was the leading scorer.

 

Purdue is so deep that 7'2" center Isaac Haas comes off the bench, even though he was one of 21 finalists for the Kyle Macy National Freshman of the Year Award last season. Basil Smotherman also had a good season coming off the bench but will have to battle for playing time in a loaded frontcourt.

 


No. 16 Purdue Boilermakers Facts & Figures

Last season: 21-13 (12-6 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA first round

Consecutive NCAAs: 1

Big Ten projection: 3

Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16

 


Backcourt

 

Here’s the good news: Rapheal Davis returns after being named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year. At 6'5" and 217 pounds, he’s got the size to guard most of the top players in the league. Davis also stepped up offensively, averaging 12.2 points and 5.3 rebounds in conference games.

 

But there are question marks after that. Purdue struggled from the outside last season, finishing 12th in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at 32.7 percent. Dakota Mathias and Kendall Stephens are the best returning shooters, and Painter expects them both to improve after being slowed by injuries last season. Freshman Ryan Cline will push for playing time.

 

Purdue might start a transfer with just one year of eligibility remaining at point guard for the second consecutive season. Jon Octeus gave the Boilermakers a huge boost after transferring from Colorado State during the 2014-15 season, and Johnny Hill will get a long look during preseason practice after moving in from Texas-Arlington. “If he could be as productive as Octeus,” Painter says, “that would be a real blessing.”

 

P.J. Thompson showed promise as a freshman and also is in the mix. Few Big Ten players will match his quickness.

 


Key Losses: G Jon Octeus

Top Players: G Rapheal Davis, G Kendall Stephens, F Vince Edwards, F Caleb Swanigan, C A.J. Hammons

 


Newcomers

Caleb Swanigan was the No. 4 center in the nation by the 247Sports Composite. Ryan Cline is an excellent shooter. Johnny Hill started 15 games at point guard for Texas-Arlington last season. Grant Weatherford was a two-way star in football for Hamilton Heights High School last fall. Grady Eifert is the brother of Cincinnati Bengals tight end and former Notre Dame standout Tyler Eifert.

 

Final Analysis

 

This clearly looks to be Purdue’s best team since the JaJuan Johnson-E’Twaun Moore-Robbie Hummel era ended when Johnson and Moore finished their careers in 2011.

 

The combination of size and athletic ability on the frontline is impressive. Expect the Boilermakers to see a lot of zone from opposing teams because of that. If they develop into a good outside shooting team, watch out. They’ll be a Big Ten title contender and in line for a deep NCAA Tournament run. 

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The theme of this season in the Big Ten could be the Year of the Comeback team.

 

Maryland, our pick to win the conference and contend for a spot in the Final Four, is the most obvious pick to be a comeback team. The Terrapins will enjoy their highest preseason rankings since the 2002 national championship. Yet the Terrapins won 27 games last season. This is more of an ascent than a true comeback.

 

The comeback teams in the Big Ten include Purdue and Indiana. Both snuck into the NCAA Tournament as bubble teams and bowed out early. Now, the Boilermakers and Hoosiers expect to spend most of this season in the top 25.

 

The home for the biggest comeback may be in Ann Arbor. Michigan’s season fell apart after injuries to Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton. With those two healthy, the Wolverines expect to make a push for the league title.

 

All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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2015-16 Big Ten Predictions
1.Add the league’s best freshman (Diamond Stone) and best transfer (Rasheed Sulaimon) to its best player (Melo Trimble) and you have the league’s best team. Postseason: Final Four
2.Tom Izzo has Final Four momentum, three starters, West Virginia transfer Eron Harris and McDonald’s All-American Deyonta Davis. Postseason: Sweet 16
3.The Boilermakers went 9–3 down the stretch in the league — and return four starters plus McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan. Postseason: Sweet 16
4.

The Hoosiers led the league in scoring and were last in points allowed. Guess which number must improve? Postseason: Second round

5.

Bo Ryan has never finished outside the top four in the Big Ten, but he has never lost two first-round picks and three more seniors in one season before. Postseason: Second round

6.

Injuries toppled the Wolverines last season, but Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton are healthy again Postseason: Second round

7.

You win with seniors. The Hawkeyes have three good ones – Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury. Postseason: First round

8.

Thad Matta welcomes a top-10 recruiting class, and he’ll need it after losing D’Angelo Russell, two senior starters and all of his interior size. Postseason: NIT

 
9.

Keep an eye on the Wildcats. Chris Collins keeps adding talent — and Tre Demps can shoot them to a victory any night. Postseason: NIT

 
10.Tracy Abrams’ Achilles injury was a big setback, but the Illini still have a solid collection of perimeter players led by Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Postseason: NIT 
11.

The Nittany Lions built momentum by winning two Big Ten Tournament games, but D.J. Newbill is a huge loss.

 
12.

The Gophers add a sub-par recruiting class to a team that lost a dozen Big Ten games and its top two players.

 
13.

The Cornhuskers underachieved last winter and lost their star power when Terran Petteway went pro.

 
14.The story never changes in Piscataway: The Scarlet Knights do not have enough talent or experience. 

Big Ten Superlatives

 

Player of the Year: Melo Trimble, Maryland

Best Defensive Player: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

Most Underrated: Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa

Newcomer of the Year: Diamond Stone, Maryland

Top Coach: Tom Izzo, Michigan State ()

Coach on the Hot Seat: John Groce, Illinois ()

Teams in the : No. 4 Maryland, No. 12 Michigan State, No. 15 Purdue, No. 17 Indiana, No. 19 Wisconsin, No. 22 Michigan

 

All-Big Ten First Team

G Yogi Ferrell, Indiana

G Melo Trimble, Maryland

G Caris LeVert, Michigan

F Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

C A.J. Hammons, Purdue

 

All-Big Ten Second Team

G Bronson Koenig

G Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

F Jake Layman, Maryland

F Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa

C Diamond Stone, Maryland

 

All-Big Ten Third Team

G Derrick Walton, Michigan

G Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern

G Eron Harris, Michigan State

F Troy Williams, Indiana

F Caleb Swanigan, Michigan State

 

Recruiting Roundup

 

1. Ohio State: Five four-star prospects provide Thad Matta with a top-10 class.

 

2. Illinois: A trio of four-star perimeter players highlight this top-20 class.

 

3. Michigan State: McDonald’s All-American Deyonta Davis and sharpshooter Matthew McQuaid lead a top-20 class.

 

4. Indiana: IU’s class has one of the top post players in the 2015 class in Thomas Bryant.

 

5. Nebraska: The Huskers have big expectations for Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow.

 

6. Purdue: Matt Painter salvaged a top-40 recruiting class with the late pickup of McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan.

 

7. Maryland: Mark Turgeon won an enormous recruiting battle to secure the services of top-10 big man Diamond Stone.

 

8. Penn State: Four-star prospects Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins are expected to contribute immediately for the Nittany Lions.


9. Rutgers: Athletic four-star point guard Corey Sanders headlines Rutgers’ class, which is ranked in the top 50 nationally.

 

10. Wisconsin: The Badgers’ class is led by dynamic scoring guard Brevin Pritzl.

 

11. Minnesota: The Gophers’ class is a deep, perimeter-oriented group that is led by four-star Kevin Dorsey.

 

12. Northwestern: Four-star forward Aaron Falzon is one of the top shooters in the class.

 

13. Iowa: Wing Brandon Hutton is the top recruit out of six future Hawkeyes.

 

14. Michigan: John Beilein’s only recruit is highly regarded Moritz Wagner of Germany.

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A Band-Aid version of Michigan basketball slumped to a 16–16 finish in 2014-15, snapping the program’s streak of four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The Wolverines, having already seen every starter from the 2013 national title game declare early for the draft in 2013 and 2014, lost Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. to injury last season. A depleted roster was left learning on the fly. There were some benefits, though. John Beilein’s youth-laden team grew up a year sooner than expected. Multiple freshmen, notably Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle, played unexpected minutes.

 

Now, Michigan will be led by upperclassmen. LeVert spurned the NBA Draft and will be back for a senior year, joined by fellow senior Spike Albrecht and junior guards Walton and Zak Irvin.

 

A new NCAA Tournament streak is expected to begin. 

 

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Frontcourt

 

Beilein plays only one true post player in his patented perimeter-oriented offense. It will be a battle to determine who gets the nod.

 

Doyle leapfrogged Mark Donnal to earn the starting job 10 games into last season. While Beilein says the 6'10", 245-pound forward is “as good as any young man I’ve ever coached,” there’s much room for improvement — especially in defensive rebounding (1.7 per game). Doyle averaged 6.1 points on 61.2 percent shooting, playing 18.2 minutes per game. Michigan hopes improved endurance will expand those minutes.

 

The frontcourt is rounded out by Donnal, a sophomore, along with redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson. Donnal will look to fulfill his role as a stretch big man with range. Wilson, coming off a knee injury, will return to add some much-needed length and athleticism on the frontline.

 


No. 22 Michigan Wolverines Facts & Figures

Last season: 16-16 (8-10 Big Ten)

Postseason: None

Last NCAA Tournament: 2014

Big Ten projection: 6

Postseason projection: NCAA second round

 


Backcourt

 

LeVert’s return for his senior year comes with expectations of production and leadership. Beilein’s guard-heavy rotation will revolve around the 6'7" swingman who led the Wolverines in every statistical category before fracturing his foot last January. LeVert is a triple threat to shoot, drive or dish, and much of the offense will operate through him in ball-screen situations.

 

Walton is also bouncing back from injury. The junior point guard hopes to recapture the strong start he had to last season before seeing his year derailed by a toe injury. Walton played 14 games with the injury before missing the final 12. Now he has the potential to be among the best point guards in the Big Ten.

 

Irvin will slide into a more natural role playing off Walton and LeVert. The 6'6" guard struggled in an expanded role last season before finishing strong, averaging 17.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists over the final seven games. The junior will look to keep that going.

 

Minutes will be at a premium beyond Albrecht, a senior captain and reliable backup guard. Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman are capable on both ends — Dawkins as a 3-point shooter (43.8 percent), Abdur-Rahkman as a lead guard and defender — but will fight for their roles.

 

Dawkins will compete with forward Kameron Chatman, 6'8" wing Duncan Robinson and 6'10" forward Moritz Wagner for minutes at the 4 spot — a perimeter position in Michigan’s offense. Chatman underwhelmed as a freshman, while Robinson, a transfer from Division III Williams College, is billed as an elite 3-point shooter. Wagner, a German import, is a newcomer.

 


Key Losses: F Max Bielfeldt

Top Players: G Derrick Walton, G Caris LeVert, G/F Zak Irvin, G/F Aubrey Dawkins, F Ricky Doyle

 


Newcomers

 

Moritz Wagner, a Berlin native, is the first German player in Michigan basketball history. The 18-year-old averaged 16.8 points and 5.3 rebounds for ALBA Berlin’s Euroleague junior team in 2014-15. A skilled, inside-outside forward, he chose Michigan over reported interest from Arizona, California, Connecticut, Duke and Virginia. Duncan Robinsion averaged 17.1 points at D-III Williams College two years ago.

 

Final Analysis 

 

Beilein, 62, is entering his ninth season as Michigan coach. The goal in this campaign will be to prove that last year was a mirage in his building process, not a downturn in momentum. LeVert is the catalyst, but he has plenty of assistance. “We have a lot of potential coming back, but potential is a dangerous word,” LeVert says. “Going after those goals and going after those expectations will be a challenge, but I think we’re all ready for that.”

 

After two offseasons that wiped Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. off the roster, U-M is now only replacing Max Bielfeldt, a graduate transfer who will play his final season at Indiana. While the Wolverines might not be as talented as some of Beilein’s previous top-10 teams, they’re probably the deepest team the coach has fielded.

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Bo Ryan’s 15th season at Wisconsin already figured to be an interesting one because of all the key parts he had to replace from a team that fell one victory short of winning a national title last season.

 

But the Badgers’ storyline became even juicier over the summer when Ryan announced that he’d retire following the 2015-16 season, a surprising decision that caught even athletic director Barry Alvarez off guard. Since then, Ryan has backtracked somewhat, saying he wouldn't rule out coaching in 2016-17.

 

Wisconsin has never finished below fourth place in the Big Ten under Ryan, but it won’t be easy to extend that remarkable streak. Ryan, for his part, has never been concerned with outside expectations. “This will be one of the youngest teams we’ve ever had,” he says. “But we’ll still use our same approach.”

 

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Frontcourt

 

Not only do the Badgers lose National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, but they also have to replace fellow NBA first-round pick Sam Dekker. Throw in departed reserve Duje Dukan — who signed a contract with the Sacramento Kings after a strong performance in the NBA Summer League — and the three tallest players in UW’s rotation last season are gone.

 

Ryan will be forced to go with a smaller lineup that will have Nigel Hayes as its centerpiece. Hayes has served in a complementary role during his first two seasons with the Badgers, but now the offense will run through him. After not attempting a single 3-pointer as a freshman, Hayes worked on his perimeter game the following offseason and shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc last season. His top priority heading into his junior season is to become better off the dribble so he can be a more dangerous and versatile offensive threat.

 

The rest of the frontcourt is filled with question marks. Vitto Brown has averaged 1.4 points, 1.1 rebounds and 5.4 minutes per game through his first two seasons while struggling with confidence issues. Breakout junior seasons are a regular occurrence under Ryan — Kaminsky is the poster child for that development arc — and the staff is hoping that Brown will seize his opportunity.

 

Ethan Happ chose to redshirt last season as a true freshman because he knew his minutes would be limited. Teammates and coaches raved about Happ’s work on the scout team, and he should provide energy and rebounding at the very least. Wisconsin will need a true freshman or two to add depth. Charlie Thomas is the most physically ready, while Andy van Vliet, a 20-year-old from Belgium, is skilled with a good perimeter game but needs to add strength.

 


No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers Facts & Figures

Last season: 36-4, (16-2 Big Ten)

Postseason: NCAA runner-up

Consecutive NCAAs: 17

Big Ten projection: 5

Postseason projection: NCAA second round

 


Backcourt

 

Bronson Koenig took over as the starting point guard midway through last season when Traevon Jackson sustained a foot injury. Koenig’s decision-making is impressive — he committed only 33 turnovers in 1,152 minutes played — and he shot 40.5 percent from 3-point range. He’ll need to look to score more this season with several of Wisconsin’s top offensive weapons gone. Koenig, who’s been surrounded by veterans during his first two seasons, is now the third-oldest player on the team and knows he’ll be counted on to be more vocal on and off the court. “It’s definitely going to be a bit of a transition for me coming into that leadership role,” he says. “But I think last year kind of got me prepared for that.”

 

Even though Josh Gasser wasn’t counted on to score, he’ll be difficult to replace. The battle to fill the spot opposite Koenig features some interesting candidates. Zak Showalter is the most experienced and physically ready but needs to become a more consistent shooter. Jordan Hill, who redshirted last season, is a fiery player who expanded his offensive game while leading the scout team a year ago. Freshman Brevin Pritzl could provide much-needed scoring punch but has work to do on defense to gain Ryan’s trust.

 


Key Losses: F Sam Dekker, F Duje Dukan, G Josh Gasser, G Traevon Jackson, F/C Frank Kaminsky

Top Players: G Bronson Koenig, G Zak Showalter, G Jordan Hill, F Nigel Hayes, F Vitto Brown

 


Newcomers

 

Ethan Happ, who redshirted last season, is expected to play a major role in an inexperienced frontcourt. The Badgers may need one player from a group of Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Andy van Vliet to help provide depth. Van Vliet is 20 and arrives with experience against quality overseas competition. Brevin Pritzl’s ability to score in a variety of ways could help him get on the court early.

 

Final Analysis

 

At the heart of Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Fours was an efficient offense that featured quality shooters at every position. This team may have to grind it out and rely more on its defense.

 

Rather than dwell on losing so much talent, Ryan chooses a glass-is-half-full approach. “I would think you have players who are extremely hungry,” he says. The Badgers had better be, because a hungry coach in his final season will be waiting for them.

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So this is the new normal for the Syracuse Orange.

 

The cloud of an NCAA investigation, and the uncertainty that came with it, has been lifted. Syracuse will be docked three scholarships per year for the next four years. Among the NCAA’s other penalties, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will be suspended for the Orange’s first nine ACC games this season. In March, Boeheim announced that he would coach for three more seasons, at which point longtime assistant Mike Hopkins will take over.

 

After all that turmoil, things do seem fairly normal at Syracuse. 

 

The Orange will miss center Rakeem Christmas, who made a huge jump in production as senior, and power forward Chris McCullough, who bolted for the NBA despite playing just 16 games as a freshman after a tearing the ACL in his right knee. However, a strong perimeter game, led by a pair of fifth-year seniors in Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, should have the Orange competing for an NCAA Tournament berth once again.

 

All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

More than anything else, Syracuse’s success will depend on the health of DaJuan Coleman. The 6'9", 255-pound big man hasn’t played since January 2014 after suffering the second knee injury of his career. Coleman, who will be a fourth-year junior, hasn’t played an injury-free season since his senior year of high school. Now, Syracuse is looking to him as its starting center.

 

“I think it would be impossible for most of us to work out for two years every day, day in, day out with no reward,” Boeheim says of Coleman’s long road to recovery. “I’m so hopeful that that reward will come for this guy next year.”

 

Behind Coleman will be sophomore Chinonso Obokoh, who averaged just 6.8 minutes per game a year ago, and Moustapha Diagne, a 6'8" freshman who is probably more suited to the power forward position.

 

Much is expected of junior Tyler Roberson, who started 19 games after McCullough went down in January. He can be a force on the offensive boards. “I think he’s shown just glimpses of what he can do,” Boeheim says.

 

Tyler Lydon is a lanky freshman with a soft touch from the 3-point line. Big guards Gbinije and Malachi Richardson could spend time in the frontcourt at small forward.

 


Syracuse Facts & Figures

Last season: 18-13, 9-9 ACC

Postseason: None

Last NCAA Tournament: 2014

ACC Projection: Eighth

Postseason projection: First Round

 


Backcourt

 

In Gbinije, Cooney and Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse returns all three perimeter starters. Cooney can be inconsistent, but he still averaged 13.4 points per game and led the Orange in 3-pointers for the second straight season. Boeheim says he could be in for a big senior year. Gbinije split time between the point and small forward last year. He made 39.2 percent of his 3-point attempts, and his 107 assists were just 12 shy of Joseph’s total.

 

“If Rakeem Christmas wasn’t here, Michael Gbinije would’ve been the most improved player on our team,” Boeheim says. “He’s certainly among the top five most improved players in the ACC.”

 

Don’t be surprised if Boeheim gives Gbinije even more time at the point this season. That’s because Joseph struggled as a freshman. He made just 37.6 percent of his shots and dipped to 20 percent from 3-point range. His defense wasn’t great, either.

 

If Gbinije is at the point, Boeheim could give more time to Richardson, a freshman who can drill the 3 and whose height gives him the ability the play big at the top of SU’s zone or slide to the backline. Frank Howard, a 6'5" freshman, can play either guard position.

 


Key Losses: C Rakeem Christmas, F Chris McCullough

Top Players: G Kaleb Joseph, G Trevor Cooney, G/F Michael Gbinije, F Tyler Roberson, C DaJuan Coleman

 


Newcomers

 

Freshman guard Malachi Richardson could play a key role as a 3-point threat on the wing opposite veteran Trevor Cooney. Tyler Lydon, another outside shooting threat, has the ability to play either forward position. Moustapha Diagne is a natural power forward who might see time at center as well. Frank Howard, a combo guard, will provide backcourt depth as a freshman.

 

Final Analysis

 

Is any program coming off a more difficult year than Syracuse? The season started with a hearing in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions and ended with the release of the NCAA’s report the day before the season finale. In between, Coleman missed the entire year due to injury, and McCullough went down for the season in mid-January. On top of that, Syracuse issued a self-imposed ban on postseason play. The program’s 18 wins last year marked the fewest for the Orange since the 1981-82 team went 16–13.

 

This is a new year, and even though Syracuse will have to deal with the NCAA’s penalties over the next four years, the SU coaches and players at least know what they’re facing. Armed with that knowledge, a core of underrated veterans and the promise of a strong recruiting class, Syracuse figures to surpass the 20-win mark and return to the NCAA Tournament.

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Depending on which side of the debate you were on, Virginia was either bad for college basketball last season, or, like Wisconsin, an example of old-school cool.

 

With their deliberate style of play and stifling defense, the Cavaliers aren’t for everyone. But they make no apologies for their pace, and it’s hard to argue with the results — consecutive 30-win seasons and ACC regular-season titles, and 15 games last season in which an opponent was held under 50 points.

 

In a one-and-done era, Virginia is a throwback, with players often sticking around four and even five years. Such maturity has been a key to the program’s success, coach Tony Bennett believes.

 

If so, the Cavaliers are positioned to be a pain to play once again this year. Even with swingman Justin Anderson becoming the rare Virginia player to leave early for the NBA, the Cavaliers are as experienced a team as you’re likely to find these days.

 

So critics take heed: Virginia is not going away anytime soon, and the Cavs could be even better this year.

 

All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

In the continuation of a recent trend, forward Darion Atkins was the latest Virginia big man to have a breakthrough senior season last year. With Atkins gone, it is center Mike Tobey’s turn to make the most of his last go-round. A gifted offensive player, the 6'11" senior has lacked consistency. “Mike has given us flashes,” Bennett says. “There’s nothing like knowing this is your last year.”

 

There’s nothing like having a fifth-year senior, either, and Virginia has such a player in forward Anthony Gill, a third-team All-ACC selection who stepped up his offensive production when Anderson was hurt last year. Gill has also become a hard-nosed defender. He and Tobey give the Cavaliers a major presence around the rim at both ends.

 

Potentially providing spark on the perimeter is senior Evan Nolte, who has had a hot-and-cold career but is being encouraged by teammates to let shots fly. Jack Salt, who redshirted last season, and sophomore Isaiah Wilkins are waiting their turn in the Virginia way but can provide depth.

 


No. 3 Virginia Facts & Figures

Last season: 30-4, 16-2 ACC

Postseason: Second round

Consecutive NCAAs: 2

ACC Projection: Third

Postseason projection: Elite Eight

 


 

Backcourt

 

A complete package on and off the court, senior Malcolm Brogdon passed on the NBA to finish a master’s degree in public policy and play on the U.S. Pan Am Games team in the summer. He’s one of the top returning players in the country, an All-ACC pick and second-team All-American last year.

 

“We’re looking for him to make little improvements, and be even more efficient,” Bennett says.

 

Point guard London Perrantes has played with poise beyond his years for two seasons. As Perrantes transitions to being an upperclassman, Bennett is looking for more from his junior point guard, whose shooting percentage dipped last season.       

 

“He’s got such a good feel for the game,” Bennett says. “It’s a matter of knowing what the team needs; being a little more assertive in his role and more assertive offensively if that’s required.”

 

Depth won’t be an issue. Point guard Devon Hall got his feet wet last year after a redshirt season. So did wing Marial Shayok, who was the only freshman to play in all 34 games last year.

 

Then there’s Tennessee transfer Darius Thompson, who sat out last season. The bottom line is that Virginia has no shortage of options both on and off the ball.

 


Key Losses: G Justin Anderson, F Darion Atkins

Top Players: G London Perrantes, G Malcolm Brogdon, F Evan Nolte, F Anthony Gill, C Mike Tobey

 


Newcomers

 

Not many programs redshirt these days. The latest to take a developmental year at Virginia is Jack Salt, a 6'11", 235-pound New Zealander who made big strides, Tony Bennett says. He and freshman Jarred Reuter could immediately be Virginia’s most physical players. Combo guard Darius Thompson, a transfer from Tennessee, started 10 games for the Volunteers in 2013-14.

 

Final Analysis

 

After going unbeaten until the final day of January and rising to No. 2 in the polls, Virginia was left with a bad taste last year following a Round of 32 NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan State.

 

A veteran team enters the season with a palpable sense of unfinished business and Bennett pointing to one of the five pillars of his program — Thankfulness — as a key. It relates to the wisdom gained from failure, and how it’s applied. “If we’re really thankful for what that taught us, we’ll use that to grow, get better and be as good as we can be,” Bennett says.

 

That could be very good indeed. With a firm identity and style of play, Virginia has been building toward a breakthrough season.

 

“We obviously haven’t won a national championship or been to the Final Four yet,” Bennett says. “But we’re knocking on the door. We’re improved.”

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The inroads made by Notre Dame during its ACC championship run and trip to the Elite Eight — where the Irish fell by just two points to then-undefeated Kentucky — planted seeds of production and confidence that should continue to sprout in 2015-16.

 

“The whole season was a statement,” says Irish head coach Mike Brey of the 32–6 campaign. “It was just so pure. I hope we can bottle it and keep it going.”

 

Gone are first-round draft choice Jerian Grant and second-rounder Pat Connaughton, the driving forces behind reaching the program’s highest victory total since 1908-09.

 

But budding leadership from senior big man Zach Auguste and junior guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia should sustain the winning atmosphere that permeated the program during its March run. The supporting cast appears capable of filling in the gaps.

 

“The expectations of the group coming back will be very high,” Brey says. “It’s a championship group. It’s certainly something to build on. We want to use that momentum.”

 

All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Measuring the contributions of Connaughton based upon his 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, as well as his 93 3-pointers, does minor justice to the value the undersized but tenacious rebounder with long-range shooting prowess provided. “My concerns are not the basketball stuff we’re losing, and we know we’ve lost a lot,” Brey says. “It’s the leadership stuff.”

 

Emerging as a go-to guy in the postseason was Auguste, the 6’10” rangy athlete who spearheaded the charge in the victory over North Carolina in the ACC Tournament finals and again in the near-upset of Kentucky when he scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds against the Wildcats’ gargantuan frontline.

 

“(Auguste) really matured and came into his own,” Brey says. “We have footage to show him from March if he gets off the rails. We have footage of him keeping it simple and being amazingly productive.”

 

Filling Connaughton’s role will be bruising 6’5” sophomore Bonzie Colson, who played winning basketball in spurts during the ACC regular season. “Bonzie Colson with more minutes — which he will get — is a natural rebounder,” Brey says. “Not that he’s going to play like Pat, but he’s very good with the ball and can shoot some threes.”

 

Role players up front in Notre Dame’s three-to-four-guard offense include senior Austin Burgett, sophomores Martinas Geben and Austin Torres and freshman Matt Ryan.

 


Notre Dame Facts & Figures

Last season: 32-6, 14-4

Postseason: Elite Eight

Consecutive NCAAs: One

ACC Projection: Fifth

Postseason projection: Second Round

 


Backcourt

 

The do-everything Grant has no replacement when it comes to the complete game he offered offensively. But the Irish have a budding star in Jackson, who has NBA-level athleticism at the point. “He’s the guy I need to talk through,” Brey says. “We’ve already started to nurture that relationship. He was a strong voice for us in the postseason.”

 

Joining Jackson in the backcourt is Vasturia, who raised his game to another level in the postseason as well. “We’re going to ball screen for Steve now because he can come off, make a drive, and make a decision,” Brey says.

 

The most likely candidate to replace Grant in the starting lineup is junior V.J. Beachem, a willowy 6’8” shooting guard who may have the best long-range stroke on the team with Connaughton’s departure.

 

Offering minutes off the bench for Jackson at the point is sophomore Matt Farrell. Another candidate to get into the mix in the backcourt is freshman Rex Pflueger, whom Brey calls “a bouncy, more athletic Vasturia.”

 


Key Losses: G Jerian Grant, F Pat Connaughton

Top Players: G Demetrius Jackson, G Steve Vasturia, G/F V.J. Beachem, F Bonzie Colson, F Zach Auguste

 


Newcomers

 

Matt Ryan, a 6’8” shooter, and Rex Pflueger, an athletic 6'6" 2-guard, could provide an instant offensive spark for the Irish. “There’s no question Ryan and Pflueger will challenge for playing time,” coach Mike Brey says. “They believe they’re ready. They’re very confident guys. They have an edge about them. They love to compete.” Elijah Burns will have trouble cracking the rotation as a freshman.

 

Final Analysis

 

The leadership and production lost with the departure of Grant and Connaughton won’t be known until the Irish get into the heat of conference play. But the coming of age of Auguste, Jackson and Vasturia during the stretch run was apparent, and having quality players/athletes to supplement the Big 3 has been addressed on the recruiting front.

 

After failing to make it as far as the Sweet 16 for 12 seasons, the Fighting Irish look to be a legitimate postseason threat for the second year in a row.

 

“This program has been built where we’ve lost really good, even great players and we’ve been able to figure it out the next year and be pretty successful,” says Brey, now entering his 16th season at Notre Dame. “The leadership and setting the tone lost with the departure of those two men is my biggest concern.”

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Few teams in the country return more production or experience than Florida State — the Seminoles’ top six scorers are back, and eight returning players have been starters at some point. But it’s what’s being added to the roster that has the Noles poised to end a three-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament.

 

A five-man recruiting class that ranks among the top 10 nationally — and arguably is the best of Leonard Hamilton’s 14-year tenure in Tallahassee — will substantially boost the team’s talent level. Perhaps even more important, it will improve the Seminoles’ depth on the perimeter, their biggest weakness last season.

 

“When you have guys playing 36-37 minutes a game, it’s only natural they will wear down, and we had a lot of our guards doing that last year,” Hamilton says. “Now we can go big. We can go small. We have the interchangeable parts to do things differently. That’s going to help us improve in all areas.”  

 

All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Finding a steady presence in the post has been a big issue for the Seminoles the last two years — and it remains a glaring question. 

 

The good news: Four players who received steady minutes last season are back. Senior 7-footers Boris Bojanovsky (7'3") and Michael Ojo (7'1") have always been solid shot blockers but have struggled to score. Hamilton says both have spent more time in the gym this summer than ever before. “There’s a transition from the European style of ball to ours in America,” Hamilton says. “Those guys have grown up and worked hard. I expect them to progress.”

 

The same goes for versatile forwards Jarquez Smith and Phil Cofer, both of whom can step outside and knock down jumpers. Still, it’s improved rebounding and interior defense that the Noles need most from their big men.

 


Florida State Facts & Figures

Last season: 17-16, 8-10 ACC

Postseason: None

Last NCAA Tournament: 2012

ACC Projection: Sixth

Postseason projection: Second Round

 


Backcourt

 

The return of sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes gives Hamilton a potential star to build around. The slender 6'4" Canadian is best known for a mind-boggling offensive tear — scoring 30 points (including six straight 3-pointers) in the last 4:38 of a loss to Miami. But he’s capable of being a solid distributor as well.

 

“I didn’t want to leave on a season like that,” says Rathan-Mayes, who briefly considered entering the NBA Draft. “We definitely feel like we have something to prove. With the guys we have returning, and coming in, we have a chance to do something special.”

 

If prize recruit Dwayne Bacon lives up to his potential, Rathan-Mayes may be right. An athletic 6'7" wing from the famed Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, Bacon excels at attacking the basket. He has all the physical tools to be one of the nation’s top freshmen.

 

Montay Brandon and Devon Bookert are proven seniors who will continue to play major roles but will likely benefit from having more rest — both averaged around 35 minutes per game in 2014-15. Bookert, who shot just under 40 percent from 3-point range, will move between the point and the wing. Brandon led the team in rebounding last season with 5.5 per game and also averaged 11.8 points while shooting an impressive 54.1 percent from the floor.

 

Freshmen Malik Beasley and Terance Mann, both four-star prospects, are expected to earn significant playing time, along with junior college transfer Benji Bell. That trio’s size and athleticism will immediately bolster the defense. “We always take the approach that (newcomers) have to earn their rightful place, but to say that I’m impressed with their athleticism and skills would be an understatement,” Hamilton says. “They should be able to make contributions, and combined with some savvy veterans, we can be more efficient.”

 


Key Losses: F Kiel Turpin

Top Players: G Xavier Rathan-Mayes, G Devon Bookert, G Brandon Montay, G/F Dwayne Bacon, C Michael Ojo

 


Final Analysis

 

The roster has a nice blend of youth and experience, reminiscent of the well-rounded FSU teams Hamilton guided to four straight NCAA Tournaments from 2009-12. The Noles still lack an inside scoring threat, but the perimeter will be good enough to make up for it. Look for Hamilton to go with smaller lineups and play four guards at times. With a deeper and more talented rotation, the Noles are a virtual lock to improve. Just how much will hinge on a return to playing great defense — something that has been missing in recent years — and quick development of the freshmen. If that happens, Hamilton’s club won’t have much trouble securing an NCAA Tournament bid.

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Few coaches have shown an ability to adapt quite like Rick Pitino Nobody embraced the 3-point shot more quickly than Pitino. The man pressed the tempo when other coaches slowed it down. And he won.

 

Pitino’s latest adaptation? Proving he can win big with graduate transfers.

 

Concerned that four starters and two transfers were leaving, Pitino and his assistants spread the word that the Cardinals were willing to rebuild with graduate transfers, players who earned degrees at other schools but were eligible to play elsewhere for one season. Message received. Pitino landed two of the best 10 available — forward Damion Lee of Drexel and guard Trey Lewis of Cleveland State. The success of Louisville’s season will depend on the ability of Lee and Lewis to deliver in the ACC as consistently as they did at the mid-major level.

 

The season, though, will have a cloud over it after salacious accusations surfaced weeks before practice began. Will the NCAA step in? Will more details arise in the coming weeks? Either could impact a team full of unproven players in the ACC.

 

All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Lee will inherit the minutes Wayne Blackshear played at small forward last season. Lee scored 30 or more five times at Drexel last season while averaging 21.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. He’s not a great shooter, but his attacking style put him at the free throw line more than seven times per game. Deng Adel, a four-star recruit from Australia, will earn minutes if he can clean up his ball handling. He’s a dynamic athlete but a bit raw.

 

Louisville’s other forward position will be more difficult to fill because Montrezl Harrell gave the Cardinals muscle and resolve as well as points and rebounds. Pitino loves the way that sophomore Jaylen Johnson improved late last season and believes he has the athleticism to develop into a force. But he’s raw and averaged less than five minutes per game last season.

 

The center position is muddled — sophomores Chinanu Onuaku, Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman as well as hometown freshman Raymond Spalding will all get looks, and it’s now or never for junior Mangok Mathiang. Look for Onuaku to win the job. After nearly leaving at the end of the season, he huddled with Pitino and dedicated himself to becoming a leader and worker. Onuaku showed he was more than merely talk. He started for the U.S. team that won the gold medal in the World University Games, contributing 12 blocked shots while averaging 4.6 points and 5.0 rebounds. Onuaku also improved his free throw stroke by adopting Rick Barry’s under-hand method.

 


No. 23 Louisville Facts & Figures

Last season: 27-9,12-6 ACC

Postseason: Elite Eight

Consecutive NCAAs: 9

ACC Projection: Fourth

Postseason projection: Second Round

 


Backcourt

 

Two double-figure scorers have also departed the backcourt — Terry Rozier, who was taken 16th overall by the Boston Celtics, and Chris Jones, who failed to finish the season with the Cards after Pitino dismissed him in February. Fourth guard Anton Gill also bolted (to Nebraska) after the season.

 

Quentin Snider benefited from Jones’ dismissal, moving into the starting lineup and scoring in double figures in five of Louisville’s final eight games. Snider is a poised and intelligent player who needs to improve his assertiveness on offense.

 

Lewis is a lock to fill the 2-guard spot. Pitino raved about his leadership early in the summer. The coach actually fell in love with his game when Lewis scored 24 of Cleveland State’s 33 points when the Cards defeated CSU last November. Lewis made 96-of-227 3-pointers last season. Nobody on Pitino’s 2015 team made more than 60 shots from distance.

 

Backcourt depth is not a strength. Freshman Donovan Mitchell will be the top reserve. He’s a powerful, mature player who loves to attack the rim, but he has not developed the ball-handling skills to play point guard. Ryan McMahon, another freshman, is an undersized shooter whom Pitino recruited on a recommendation from Dick Vitale.

 


Key Losses: G Terry Rozier, F Montrezl Harrell, G Chris Jones, G/F Wayne Blackshear

Top Players: G Quentin Snider, G Trey Lewis, F Damion Lee, F Jaylen Johnson, F/C Chinanu Onuaku

 


Newcomers

 

This is the critical area for Rick Pitino’s team. The Cardinals need Damion Lee to score the way he did at Drexel (21.4 ppg) and Trey Lewis to shoot from distance as he did at Cleveland State (42.3 percent). Donovan Mitchell enters as the most talented freshman, an acrobatic scorer who will have to improve his ball skills. Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding will need more time to fit in. Ryan McMahon is a project.

 

Final Analysis

 

This is Pitino’s most difficult team to judge because it’s risky predicting how easily guys like Lee and Lewis will transition to a new coaching system and a more athletic league in only one season. They must deliver, because no returnees averaged five points or five rebounds, and Louisville failed to score more than 60 points a dozen times last season, losing six of those games.

 

If the transfers hold their own, and Onuaku, Johnson and Snider make solid freshman-to-sophomore improvement, Louisville should finish right behind the top tier in the ACC.

 

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At this time last year, coach Jim Larranaga had a team of unknowns. He had three returning players, one of whom was injured, and nine newcomers who had never worn the Hurricanes uniform. He had little idea what to expect.

 

He does now. Almost everyone returns from a group that reached as high as No. 15 in the polls and reached the NIT final. Not only that, but the Hurricanes also added a talented transfer at forward, a position of need. A midseason slide cost Miami an NCAA Tournament berth last year, but anything less than a trip to the NCAAs this March will be a major disappointment.

 

All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

After shouldering a heavy load last year, Tonye Jekiri has a little help. The 7-footer from Nigeria landed on the ACC All-Defensive Team after leading the conference in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and finishing fifth with 1.4 blocks per game. He also chipped in 8.6 points while playing 30.3 minutes per game. That workload was possible because he learned how to defend without fouling. Not bad for a player entering his sixth season of basketball. He’s not in the category of Jahlil Okafor, Montrezl Harrell or Rakeem Christmas, but with those players gone, Jekiri could be on of the ACC’s best all-around big man and become an NBA Draft pick if he continues to round out his game.

 

Who will start next to him is another matter. UM has high hopes for Kamari Murphy, a 6'8", 216-pound forward who excels at defense and dunking. The high flyer sat out last year after transferring from Oklahoma State, where he averaged slightly more than six points, six boards and one block two seasons ago. Now a fourth-year junior, Murphy should be an immediate contributor on defense and in the transition game. If he proves he can score, he’ll see most of the work.

 

Senior Ivan Cruz Uceda has considerable offensive potential but was limited last year because of poor conditioning. It was especially tough for Uceda; after the Madrid native transferred from junior college, he was ineligible for 16 games and was then thrown into the fire of January conference play. Uceda brings a crafty touch inside and is unafraid to shoot from the perimeter (62 of his 99 attempts were 3s). The senior needs work defensively.

 


Miami Facts & Figures

Last season: 25-13, 10-8

Postseason: NIT runner-up

Last NCAA Tournament: 2013

ACC Projection: Seventh

Postseason projection: First Round

 


Backcourt

 

This group includes one of the ACC’s most gifted scorers, a strong point guard, a versatile defender and two sophomores with lots of offensive ability.

 

Leading scorer Sheldon McClellan, who averaged 14.5 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field, could play himself into an NBA Draft spot with night-in, night-out consistency. The 6'5" senior from Houston can score in a variety of ways, though he’s best slashing to the hoop or throwing down alley-oops.

 

UM hopes McClellan’s running mate, point guard Angel Rodriguez, won’t repeat his roller-coaster season. The 5'11" senior shot down Florida and Duke early in the year but suffered a catastrophic slump that left him with a pedestrian 11.9 points-per-game average (to go with 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals).

 

At 6'6", junior Davon Reed guards four positions and is one of the league’s most efficient shooters (1.51 points per attempt, 8.2 points per game). UM will start him in a three-guard lineup.

 

The Hurricanes lost two guards to transfer but should handle those losses well. Manu Lecomte (Baylor), a strong perimeter shooter, and Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss) were in and out of the lineup. Sophomore combo guard Ja’Quan Newton and sophomore wing James Palmer are ready for larger roles. Newton, a slasher, needs to improve his outside shooting, while Larranaga wants more defense and rebounding from Palmer.

 


Key Losses: G Deandre Burnett, G Manu Lecomte

Top Players: G Angel Rodriguez, G Sheldon McClellan, G Davon Reed, F Kamari Murphy, C Tonye Jekiri

 


Newcomers

 

Kamari Murphy’s D-and-dunk game could have helped Miami last year, but he sat out after transferring from Oklahoma State. The 6'8" junior needs to improve his shot but will be an immediate contributor on defense and in transition. With a veteran-heavy rotation, the Canes can afford to take it slow with their two freshmen: 6'10" Nigerian Ebuka Izundu, who is a skinny project in the mold of Tonye Jekiri, and 6'7" wing Anthony Lawrence Jr.

 

Final Analysis

 

Miami has a chance to muscle its way into the top 25 and stay there. The Canes are on the outside of the league’s elite but should battle Notre Dame, Louisville, Florida State and NC State for next-tier supremacy. In a league this strong, that’s not a consolation prize; that means you’re headed to the NCAA Tournament. That’s where Miami should be going, given its strength in the middle and in the backcourt. Comparisons will be drawn between this team and the 2012-13 squad that surprised the bluebloods by winning the ACC title. This group doesn’t appear to be quite that strong, but it should be a fun season in Coral Gables nonetheless.

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Mark Gottfried feels good about the progress the NC State program has made under his watch. The Wolfpack have been to the NCAA Tournament four years in a row and twice have reached the Sweet 16, including last year’s run highlighted by an upset of Villanova, a No. 1 seed.

 

And Gottfried feels good about his team’s potential this season. “I like where we can get to,” he says.

 

But Gottfried would have felt better about his team’s chances — in both the ACC race and the postseason — if guard Trevor Lacey had returned for his senior season. Lacey, the team’s top scorer (15.7 ppg) and emotional leader, caught Gottfried by surprise when he opted to turn pro. There’s still talent in place to contend without Lacey; it will just be a learning process.

 

“Trevor was such a big part of what we did last year,” Gottfried says. “We’ve got to figure out how to win without him.”

 

All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, and on newsstands everywhere.

 

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Frontcourt

 

NC State got to the NCAA Tournament on the strength of its guard play last season. Then in the biggest win of the season — a 71–68 upset of Villanova in the Round of 32 — forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman both delivered double-doubles. The Wolfpack are counting on more from their forwards this season, especially Abu, who averaged 6.4 points per game as a freshman. With strong hands and a soft touch, Abu has the potential to double his scoring average with a little more consistency. He’ll have plenty of minutes. Kyle Washington transferred to Cincinnati, leaving only three scholarship forwards on the roster.

 

Freeman, the team’s top rebounder, was instrumental in the Wolfpack’s late-season run. Gottfried has compared him to Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson for all the little things he does to help the team win. But a leg injury will keep the junior off the court until mid-September at the earliest. It might take him the first month of the season to catch up physically.

 

Junior BeeJay Anya led the ACC in blocked shots (87 in only 19.4 minutes per game), but he has struggled with his weight. With only three options at forward, Gottfried says that the Wolfpack need Anya to get down to about 280 pounds (he’s listed at 295) to be effective this season. If Anya can get in better shape, he also could be more of a factor on offense. NC State’s best regular-season wins (vs. Duke, at UNC, at Louisville) coincided with Anya’s best games.

 


NC State Facts & Figures

Last season: 22-14, 10-8 ACC

Postseason: Sweet 16

Consecutive NCAAs: Four

ACC Projection: Ninth

Postseason projection: First Four

 


Backcourt

 

NC State has had a clear go-to player in each of the past two seasons in Lacey and T.J. Warren, the ACC Player of the Year in 2014, and Gottfried expects junior point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber to follow in their footsteps. “Our team starts with him,” Gottfried says of Barber, who averaged 12.1 points and 3.7 assists per game last season. “I think that Cat is in a position to have an unbelievable year.”

 

Barber really came on in the last three months of the season, improving his 3-point shooting and his decision making. Without Lacey, Barber’s role will expand, but he will have plenty of help on the perimeter from junior guard Terry Henderson, sophomore twins Caleb and Cody Martin and freshmen Maverick Rowan and Shaun Kirk.

 

Henderson, who’s from Raleigh, sat out last season after transferring from West Virginia. He averaged 11.7 points and made 37.6 percent of his 3-pointers for the Mountaineers as a sophomore in 2013-14.

 

Rowan, who reclassified and committed in August, should help offset the loss of top 3-point shooter Ralston Turner. The Martins and Kirk give Gottfried some flexibility to go “small,” with a four-guard lineup, and really get after teams defensively.

 

Gottfried says he could potentially use Cody Martin at every position, including as Barber’s primary backup at point guard. “He might be the most unique guy in the country,” Gottfried says.

 


Key Losses: G Travor Lacey, G Ralston Turner, F Kyle Washington

Top Players: G Cat Barber, G Terry Henderson, F Lennard Freeman, F Abdul-Malik Abu, F BeeJay Anya

 


Newcomers

 

Terry Henderson, a transfer from West Virginia, will step into the starting lineup and be counted on to supply 3-point shooting. He will probably also have to help at backup point guard. Shaun Kirk was ticketed for a low-major program before his stock took off at an AAU event in Indianapolis in April. Maverick Rowan, a skilled swingman, was a late addition after reclassifying to the 2015 class.

 

Final Analysis

 

With Lacey, NC State would have been one of the favorites to win the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1989. Without him, the Wolfpack still have an experienced group with potential stars in Barber and Abu. But there are only eight scholarship players on the roster, so the Wolfpack will have to stay healthy.

 

NC State isn’t likely to contend in the ACC, but it should be back in the NCAA Tournament for a fifth straight year under Gottfried.

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The formula never changes. John Calipari loses most of his roster to the NBA. He does not flinch for a second. He merely collects another top-three recruiting class, plugs in extremely capable and eager replacements, and the University of Kentucky becomes a wise bet for the Final Four.

 

Five fresh starters will crackle into the Wildcats’ lineup this season after UK lost seven players to the NBA (six drafted, four in the first round). That followed a 38–1 season that ended with a jarring 71–64 loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

 

Don’t expect 40–0 talk this winter, but this team looks just as capable of doing what the 2010 (Elite Eight) and 2011 (Final Four) teams achieved.

 

UK has more than its usual number of veterans (five), the best freshman center prospect in the nation (Skal Labissiere), the breakout Canadian star of the Pan Am Games (Jamal Murray) and a fearless guard with New York City DNA (Isaiah Briscoe).

 

Calipari has done more with less, but this team will not have the overpowering inside strength and depth of the 2014-15 squad.

 

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Frontcourt

 

Labissiere, a native of Haiti, will remind more people of Anthony Davis (best case) or Nerlens Noel (worst case) than Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s an elite athlete and a creative scorer, but not the low-post beast that Towns became, in part because he’s only 215 pounds. Labissiere told one interviewer that he tries to model his game after Davis, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony. Labissiere brings question marks, however, has he has not yet been cleared to play by the NCAA.

 

The time is now for Kentucky’s three returning frontcourt players. They have all been spectators while teammates starred and moved into the NBA. Alex Poythress, in his fourth season, missed most of last year with a torn knee ligament. Poythress showed flashes of pro potential as a freshman and sophomore and has the physique to play with anybody. He’ll make a jump when he becomes more aggressive and plays through contact.

 

Opposing coaches have watched Marcus Lee dominate in short stretches and wondered why he didn’t play more. Lee can block shots with anybody, but his offensive game disappears away from the rim. He must prove he can score on more than dunks and rebounds.

 

Derek Willis is the true mystery man. Calipari has compared his physical skills to former NBA All-Star Bobby Jones, but in two seasons Willis has made 10 field goals while playing 114 minutes. Willis has shown the ability to make 3-point shots. He’s one of only four guys 6'8" or taller, so Calipari will need him to rebound.

 


No. 1 Kentucky Facts & Figures

Last season: 38-1, 18-0 SEC

Postseason: Final Four

Consecutive NCAAs: 2

SEC Projection: First

Postseason projection: National champion

 


Backcourt

 

Kentucky’s backcourt could be improved and tempt Calipari to employ a three-guard set. Some argued that Kentucky was a more fluid and dynamic team when Tyler Ulis played point guard last winter. This season the team belongs to Ulis. He’s a relentless on-the-ball defender who transforms turnovers into layups and dunks. Few defenders can stay in front of him. He also makes shots — 81 percent from the foul line and 43 percent from the 3-point line. His only negative is his size at 5'9".

 

Calipari could easily play two or three point guards. Murray was Canada’s best player in the Pan-American Games, scoring 22 points to lead the Canadians past the U.S. before they lost to Brazil in the gold medal game.

 

Briscoe, another freshman, arrives from Newark with the New York City toughness in his game. He’s a conditioning freak who enjoys boxing, cycling and yoga.

 

Calipari filled out his recruiting class with shooters Mychal Mulder, who excelled at Vincennes (Ind.) University, and Charles Matthews of Chicago.

 

Don’t overlook junior Dominique Hawkins, who has been used to increase the defensive pressure and change the tempo the last two seasons.

 

Newcomers

 

Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe should follow the John Calipari-Kentucky tradition of moving to the NBA after one college season. Labissiere is a motivated kid who survived the 2010 Haitian earthquake and is determined to provide a better life for his family. Murray was UK’s final commitment but plays like a guy who could average 15 per game. Briscoe is a dynamic athlete. Charles Matthews and Mychal Mulder must earn their minutes by making 3s.

 


Key Losses: G Devin Booker, C Willie Cauley-Stein, G Aaron Harrison, G Andrew Harrison, C Dakari Johnson, F Trey Lyles, F Karl-Anthony Towns

Top Players: G Tyler Ulis, G Isaiah Briscoe, G Jamal Murray, F Alex Poythress, F Skal Labissiere

 


Final Analysis

 

After last season, anything was going to be a retreat for the Wildcats, who were overpowering around the rim, intimidating on defense and unbeaten in the SEC.

 

The primary question for this team: How formidable will the low-post game be in half-court sets?

 

Calipari has already said he will junk the platoon system he used last winter. That means he’ll pick his top eight guys and let his stars average more than 30 minutes.

 

Expect this team to play faster than the 38–1 team and push the tempo because of the playmaking skills of Ulis, Murray and Briscoe.

 

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