A.J. HOFFMAN

Regional college basketball preview for the 2018-19 season

Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars lose Rob Gray, but they should be good again. UHCougars.com

Texas Longhorns 

After a disastrous 2016-17 season, Shaka Smart looked to have Texas back on track last season. Mo Bamba was a force on the defensive end, and shooting across the board improved, but the loss of Andrew Jones for the season while he battled Leukemia was a crippling blow, both on and off the court for last year’s Horns. Texas still managed a decent season (19-15, 8-10 Big XII) but went to the tournament as a 10-seed and lost a hard-fought overtime game to Nevada. Bamba is in the NBA now, and his loss will be felt, but Texas still returns a decent core. Dylan Osetkowski is the top returning scorer (13.4 PPG), but will need to become more efficient from distance if he is going to continue to shoot as much as he did last season. Kerwin Roach II and Matt Coleman will get the bulk of the backcourt minutes, and both will be counted on heavily to produce. Roach shot 36% from distance last year, but Coleman will need to improve as a shooter. Jericho Sims will be asked to rebound and defend, and though he is capable of doing those things, it is tough to imagine him coming close to filling the shoes of of Bamba. The key to Texas’ success could inevitably hinge on the health of Jones. He has the potential to be a game-changer if he can play a full season and produce at the rate he was on pace for before his diagnosis. Texas has a non-conference schedule that features games against Arkansas, VCU, North Carolina, Purdue and Providence. The Big XII is stacked once again, and if things go well for Texas, they have the talent to finish in the top half of the league. 

Texas A&M Aggies

Aggie basketball had a solid season last year (22-13, 9-9 SEC), capped by a Sweet 16 run. Billy Kennedy will have to make serious adjustments, though, as a good portion of his talent (and almost all of his size) has moved on from the program. Robert Williams is with the Celtics. Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg are both playing in the G-League. That leaves defensive ace Admon Gilder as the man to shoulder the load, along with T.J. Starks and Savion Flagg. What this means is they will have to completely change the pace and style that they play with, obviously transitioning from the bruising style they played with last year to a uptempo perimeter team. Gilder will need to stay healthy, which he was unable to do last year, and knock down outside shots, which he did at a 40% clip last year. Flagg is probably the highest upside player in College Station, and likely the most versatile. He can play 2-4 and can defend 1-4. An X-factor for the Aggies could be graduate transfer Christian Mekowulu, a 6’8” forward who won the OVC Defensive Player of the Year last season at Tennessee State. He is a prolific shot blocker and will be counted on to fill the middle for the Aggies. An under the radar addition is sophomore JUCO-transfer Brandon Mahan. The 6’5” Chiopla College (FL) wing shot better than 50% from the field AND from 3-point range last season. He may end up being a defensive liability, but his ability to knock down shots will surely earn him minutes with this squad. The SEC media picked the Aggies to finish 12th out of 14 in conference, and they have key non-conference games against Gonzaga, Washington and Kansas State. 

Houston Cougars

The Cougars had a wildly successful season last year (27-8, 14-4 AAC) that broke an almost decade-long tournament drought, and nearly found themselves upsetting Michigan to get to the Sweet 16. The glaring shoes to fill are left by Rob Gray, who took his 19.3 PPG and 4.5 APG to the G-League. He was unguardable at times last year, and really became the identity of Kelvin Sampson’s team. Devin Davis, who averaged 11 PPG and 6 RPG, has also moved on. As far as the guys who are playing this year, 6’7” forward Fabian White returns after making the AAC All-Rookie team. He is an accomplished shot blocker and will be counted on to be more effective around the rim. Corey Davis, Jr. is the top returning scorer (13.1 PPG). He doesn’t have the makeup to be a Gray-type team-carrying player, but can still play a major role for the Coogs. Armoni Brooks, last year’s AAC 6th Man of the Year, will be pushed into a bigger role this season. Cedrick Alley, an extremely versatile wing who missed his freshman season with a hip injury, could be a major impact player this season. Two UMass transfers, G DeJon Jarreau and C/PF Brison Gresham are both eligible after sitting out a year and will be expected to contribute. 6’5” shooting guard Nate Hinton is the real player to watch for me. Plucking him out of Gastonia, NC could be the biggest recruiting win of the Sampson era, and it comes at a time where the Cougars are hoping someone steps up to be a major impact player. The Cougars should contend in the AAC and likely to be in back-to-back NCAA tourneys for the first time since Phi Slamma Jamma. They have key matchups against Oregon, LSU and Oklahoma State on the schedule. 

Rice Owls 

Year 2 under Scott Pera has the look of being (close to) as rough as year 1 (7-24, 4-14 CUSA). Rice’s only bright spot last season was Connor Cashaw, who led the team in points, rebounds and steals. He also was second on the team in assists. He ALSO will be playing for Greg McDermott at Creighton this season. His loss essentially hits reset on the Owls for the second straight season. The Owls best hope for respectability is TCU-transfer Josh Parrish. He should come close to Cashaw’s contributions, but as good as Cashaw was last year, it wasn’t enough to get the Owls even qualified for their conference tourney. Ako Adams was a nice secondary scorer for the Owls last year, and will likely be counted on in that role again. Jack Williams, a 6’8” forward who transfers in from Pacific should give them some decent post play. True freshman Drew Peterson could also be an impactful scorer. The Owls will be hard pressed to compete in Conference USA, and have key non-conference battles with Houston, BYU, Wichita State and UC-Santa Barbara. 

Baylor Bears

Scott Drew, who has worked wonders for Baylor basketball over his 16-year tenure, will be presented with his toughest test in quite some time this year. Only three players return from last season’s team (19-15, 8-10 Big XII) that made it to the second round of the NIT. Senior guard King McClure will be counted on for leadership, but will need to improve offensively. Mark Vital may be the team’s best player, and he and fellow sophomore Tristan Clark will see huge upticks in minutes this season. The Bears lose their top four scorers from last year, and finding an offensive identity early on will be key. Yale graduate-transfer Makai Mason will see the lion’s share of point guard minutes, assuming the former All-Ivy leaguer can remain healthy (he wasn’t last season.) Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler is a versatile wing player who averaged 9.7 PPG and 5.5 RPG in the SEC 2 years ago. 6’9” freshman Matthew Mayer is a 4-star from Westlake High School and will be looked to for a spark on both ends. The Bears are a middle of the road Big XII team at best, and have non-conference matchups with Oregon, Arizona, Wichita State and Ole Miss. 

TCU Horned Frogs

Jamie Dixon set the bar pretty high with TCU’s 2017-18 season (21-12, 9-9 Big XII), which culminated in the first trip to the NCAA tournament in 20 years. Dixon thinks this team can be even better, and has hinted that he thinks they are capable of winning the Big XII. TCU lost a lot from last season’s squad, including the versatile Kenrich Williams and their leading scorer in Vlad Brodziansky. That said, they have a lot coming back from a very balanced team. The Frogs will return four players who averaged double digit scoring last year, including Desmond Bane, who is a two-way player and will shoulder a lot of the offensive load. Also returning is Jaylen Fisher, a combo guard who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury (he has had two surgeries since January). Kouat Not was a nice addition to last season’s squad, and will give them a stretch element in their front court. Yuat Alok will likely fill the middle, the New Zealand native was the top JUCO recruit in the country this year, and has some real offensive upside around the rim. The youth influx should make up at least partially for what the Frogs lost, and they have a roster capable of another NCAA run, hopefully longer than just one game this time. SMU, USC and Florida highlight the non-conference schedule. 

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Last year was one of, if not the best, in the history of Texas Tech hoops. The Red Raiders (27-10, 11-7 Big XII) turned an amazing regular season into an Elite 8 run in the tournament that ended at the hands of Villanova. Keenan Evans and one-and-done breakout Zhaire Smith are gone, and those losses will hurt, but Chris Beard believes he has enough coming back to make them highly competitive once again. Jarrett Culver is the standout amongst returners, after a freshman campaign where he averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds per game. Tariq Owens, a graduate transfer from St. John’s, will likely be thrust into a starting role, and brings a top level defensive presence. Matt Mooney, a grad transfer from South Dakota may also be a starter this year. The Raiders also bring in a highly regarded freshman in Khavon Moore and will get another in Kevin McCullar in January. This is a team that will be competitive once again, but will definitely feel the losses they incurred this offseason. An upper half finish in the conference is expected, but not assured. USC, Memphis, Duke and Arkansas are all on the non-conference slate.

SMU Mustangs 

After starting last season winning 12 of their first 15 games, SMU fell apart in the second half, finishing with a 17-16 record and a paltry 6-12 record in the AAC. They played portions of last season with only 5 or 6 scholarship players available to them. Jarrey Foster and Everett Ray were both big contributors who went down with injuries last season. Foster in particular is vital, as he was a versatile player who averaged over 16 points and 6 boards before his injury. Jimmy Whitt and Jahmal McMurray will bring back last season’s backcourt, which will have to be the strength of Tim Jankovich’s team if they plan to return to 20-30 win form that he has set the standard at. This is a better than typical SMU front court, featuring Ethan Chargois, who impressed as a freshman, and Isiaha Mike, a Duquesne transfer who can score at will around the rim. If they remain healthy, the Mustangs have the talent to make another strong run at winning a couple of tournament games. Southern Miss, Georgetown and TCU are key non-league games for the Ponies.

LSU Tigers

The Tigers went into last season as an assumed bottom feeder in the SEC, but Will Wade has quickly turned things around in Baton Rouge. The Tigers went 18-15 (8-10 SEC) en route to a 2nd round NIT run. This year they have eyes on bigger prizes, and it may be hard to keep them from it. They lose two big men in Duop Reath and Aaron Epps, both excellent players for the Tigers last year. But they had a haul of big talent this offseason. Naz Reid, a 6’10” monster who will almost surely be off to the NBA after this season, should be an instant impact player in the post. Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams will also help down low. Of course, though, the Tigers will run through Tremont Waters. After a breakout season last year, Wade thinks he can be even better this season. Skylar Mays will contribute again, but possibly in a bench role. Wade brought in Ja’vonte Smart and Emmitt Williams, both top tier recruits to help in the backcourt and on the wings, respectively. The Tigers have the kind of talent to make a real splash in the SEC this year, and I fully expect them to be in the dance this year, possibly even on the 2nd weekend. Memphis, Houston and Saint Mary’s are their key non-SEC games. 

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