A.J. Hoffman, college basketball expert and host of the Blitz on ESPN 97.5, previews the teams of interest in Houston:
Texas coach Shaka Smart got consistently solid effort defensively last season, but his incredibly poor shooting Longhorns finished at the bottom of the Big 12 (11-22, 4-14). Gone from last year are big man Jarrett Allen, taken in the first round by Brooklyn, and Tevin Mack, who was dismissed last year for disciplinary reasons despite being the team’s leading scorer. A young team that will see significant floor time from at least four freshmen, Smart sees this as a fresh start. Expect the 6’11 Mo Bamba to be one of the most impactful defenders in the country, with an offensive game that could round into shape as the season goes on. Watch him while you can, because he is likely to be a top 5 pick in next year’s NBA draft. Tulane transfer Dylan Osetkowski will also be counted on to stretch the floor as a forward, as well as boost the team’s rebounding. Andrew Jones, Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis all return in the backcourt, with Jones expected to break out on both ends and become a leader of this young squad. All of them will have to hold off top-100 incoming freshmen Matt Coleman, Jase Febres, Royce Hamm and Jericho Sims for playing time. To avoid last year's disastrous shooting, expect Smart to go with whoever finds their stroke early. Texas opens its season with Northwestern State, New Hampshire and Lipscomb before getting into the PK80 Invitational and an opening round matchup against Butler. Stanford, Ohio State, Gonzaga, Florida and preseason No. 1 Duke will also take part in the tournament, meaning the Longhorns will have an early opportunity to see how they stack up against quality opponents. Home games with Michigan and Ole Miss break up the road trips to VCU and Alabama before getting into conference play. As always, Kansas is the team to beat in the Big XII, and Texas opens conference play with the Jayhawks coming to Austin. Texas should be one of the most improved teams in the country, paced by their defense and an assumed shooting improvement, but if they aren’t expect Shaka Smart’s seat to start feeling pretty warm.
TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Texas A&M opens the season ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2011, despite the fact that they didn’t make a postseason tournament last year (16-15, 8-10 SEC). Billy Kennedy returns almost his entire core from last season’s squad. Most of the struggles last year came from a glaring hole at point guard. J.J. Caldwell, ineligible last season, is expected to fill that role and lead the otherwise experienced Aggies, although Caldwell will have to serve a 5-game suspension to open the season. Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg both return in the backcourt, and both could see improvement without the pressure of creating on the offensive side. Both of them will serve a 2-game suspension to start the year. The frontcourt features two incredibly intriguing players in Robert Williams and Tyler Davis. Williams is a physical freak who, if he can improve his jump shot, can be a lottery pick next season. Alas, he too faces an early season suspension, albeit for only 2 games. Davis is a fantastic interior scorer, and the leading scorer from last year’s Aggie squad. He is also the locker room leader, and one of the few Aggies held over from 2016’s Sweet 16 team. Both should see improvements on last season’s efforts if Caldwell is everything he is advertised as. As far as depth, TJ Starks will fill in early for Caldwell, and expect key minutes from freshman wing Savion Flagg, senior big man Tonny Trocha-Morelos and defensive specialist Duane Wilson, who transferred in from Marquette. The Aggies have intriguing non-conference tilts with West Virginia, Oklahoma State, USC, Arizona, and a late January matchup at Kansas. Of their first 4 conference games, two of them are against the cream of the SEC crop in Kentucky and Florida. It may take some time for this Aggie squad to gel, but expect to see them back in the tournament this season, looking to dance into the second weekend.
Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars will look to improve on last season’s (21-11, 12-6 AAC) first-round NIT exit. He will have to do it without Damyean Dotson, who was drafted by the Knicks this offseason. He does have the benefit of returning Rob Gray, the leading scorer in the AAC last season (20.6 PPG), Devin Davis, who was effective when healthy last season, and last year’s team assist leader Galen Robinson. Danrad Knowles, Kyle Meyer and Bertrand Nkali all graduated, and Sampson decided to build with transfers. Nura Zanna is a grad transfer from LIU-Brooklyn, who should slot into the starting lineup from day 1. Chris Harris, Gabe Grant and Breaon Brady leads a group of JUCO transfers, with Harris expected to be the starting center. Fabian White leads the 3-man group of incoming true freshmen, and he will likely see early court time at the 4. If Davis struggles to stay healthy, he could find himself in a key role this season. Home games against Arkansas and Providence, along with a trip to LSU, highlight the non-conference schedule. Expect Wichita State, Cincinnati and SMU to be the teams to beat in the AAC, and expect Sampson’s Coogs to gel late in the season, albeit too late to make it to their first NCAA tournament since 2010.
Let’s start with the good news. First year head coach Scott Pera technically inherits a Rice team that won 20 games (23-12, 11-7 C-USA) for just the 2nd time in the last 50+ years. The bad news is, this season’s team looks nothing like last year’s. Coach Mike Rhoades left for VCU, and star guard Marcus Evans (19.0 PPG) followed him. Five other players transferred out after that, leaving the cupboards pretty bare. Rice added a couple of graduate transfers in forward Dylan Jones (Penn) and guard A.J. Lapray (Pedpperdine), and Najja Hunter, a 6’5” guard from New Jersey heads the recruiting class. Junior guard Connor Cashaw is the leading scorer amongst returning players. The three-point specialist averaged 8.0 PPG last year, but will be relied upon more heavily with the significant departures. Key non-conference games include trips to UNLV, Stephen F. Austin, Texas Tech and New Mexico. The conference is once again led by Middle Tennessee State and the tough defending Old Dominion. It will take time for Pera to get the program headed back in the right direction, and this season will likely see the Owls finish in the bottom half of Conference USA.
Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears (27-8, 12-6 Big 12) reached No. 1 in the AP poll last season, but finished the year being blown out by 20 points against a surprising South Carolina team in the Sweet 16. The Bears have become a mainstay in the tournament the last few years, and feel they will be back again this year. They will have to overcome the loss of second-team All American Johnathan Motley (17.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG), who wound up with the Dallas Mavericks after a knee-injury cost him a shot to be drafted after declaring early for the draft. Senior guard Manu Lacombe (12.2 PPG), who was third team All-Big 12, will take over as the team’s leader. Jo Lual-Acai is a dominant force down low on the defensive end (2.5 blocks per game), and should add to his offensive output this season. Mark Vital was a top-100 recruit in last year’s class, and should contribute after sitting out a redshirt season. 2017’s recruiting class featured just 1 true freshman, Tristan Clark, a 4-star forward who will also have a role this season. Baylor will see Wisconsin and either UCLA or Creighton in the Hall of Fame Classic, and will follow that up with a trip to Xavier and a homer tilt against preseason #7 Wichita State. Baylor will have to find a way to replace a true star, but should do enough to be back for their 5th consecutive NCAA tournament.
TCU HORNED FROGS
Jamie Dixon’s first year brought TCU (24-15, 6-12 Big 12) their best season since 1998, and capped it off by winning an NIT title. The Frogs return their six leading scorers from that squad, and have their sights set on a bigger and better tournament in 2018. Vladimir Brodziansky (14.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG) was second team All-Conference and first team All-Defense last year. Alex Robinson made the All-Newcomer team and should improve this season. Maybe the unsung hero of TCU is the incredibly versatile Kenrich Williams, who was one of only six D1 players with 400 points, 300 rebounds and 100 assists. VCU transfer Ahmed Handy and 4-star freshmen RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel should both provide valuable bench depth. The Horned Frogs don’t play a road game in non-conference, but will welcome in New Mexico, Belmont, Yale and SMU in late November/ early December. The Big 12 is tough, as usual, but with traditional tournament teams Oklahoma State and Iowa State projected to be down this season, TCU is primed to make the tourney for the first time in 20 years.
TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS
Chris Beard’s Red Raiders (18-14, 6-12 Big 12) missed out on postseason play last year, but appear primed to compete for a dance ticket in his second season. Tech loses 6 contributors from last year’s squad, including 2 of the top 4 scorers, but will still field one of the most experienced lineups in the nation. Senior guard Keenan Evans (15.4 PPG) should lead the way along with Zach Smith (12.1 PPG), who has the physical tools needed to play at the next level. Junior center Norense Odiase returns from a medical redshirt last season, and should add toughness in the paint. DePaul transfer Tommy Hamilton has one year of eligibility at Tech, and should contribute early. Florida transfer Brandon Francis is young, but talented, and should play a major role late in the season. The Red Raiders only leave Lubbock twice in the early non-conference season, a trip to Connecticut to take on Boston College in the Naismith Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament and a trip to New York to take on Seton Hall in the Under Armor Reunion. They will also play at South Carolina in late January. As always, Kansas is the cream of the Big 12 crop, but if Tech can gel early, they should be playing in the NIT, with an outside shot at the NCAA tourney.
Tim Jankovic’s Mustangs (30-5, 17-1 AAC) were fantastic last season, but their season ended with heartbreak in a first round loss to USC. The Ponies lose three of their top four scorers, and will only have three forwards on the roster this season. This team will have to shoot well to win, and that starts with Shake Milton (13.0 PPG), who shot over 42% from 3 last season. Jared Foster also shot over 40% from deep last year, and will be relied on heavily again. Ben Emelgou was AAC 6th Man of the Year, and is arguably the best defender on the floor. Transfers Jimmy Whitt (Arkansas) and Jamal McMurray (South Florida) will fill major roles, although McMurray is ineligible to play until December. Graduate transfer Akoy Agau (Georgetown) will be counted on to fill the paint, but this team will have to play small more often than not. Northern Iowa, TCU and USC, who beat the Mustangs twice are on the non-conference schedule. SMU is unlikely to repeat as AAC champs, but will probably be dancing once again in March.
Will Wade takes over as head coach for Johnny Jones, who seemed to be much more capable of winning on the recruiting trail than on the court. Last season was rock bottom for the Tigers (10-21, 2-16 SEC) who were respectable on offense, but a complete train wreck on defense. Wade should improve that end of the floor immediately, and was arguably the best hire LSU could have hoped for after two strong seasons at VCU. LSU returns four starters, but lost their leading scorer in Antonio Blakeney (17.2 PPG). Brandon Sampson appears set to take over the role of lead dog, though his outside shooting needs improvement. Four-star guard Tremont Waters is expected to be the starting point guard, but it is to be seen if Wade will entrust the offense to a true freshman. Seniors Aaron Epps and Duop Reath return in the front court, and have upside as rebounders, but will have to improve defensively for it to matter. LSU only leaves Baton Rouge twice in the non-conference. They will open the Maui Invitational against Michigan in late November and play at Memphis in late December. LSU should be able to win a few games early on, but the SEC schedule won’t be friendly to them. Despite the optimism surrounding the head coach hire, the Tigers are at least a year away from respectability.