Around Conference USA
When UCF signed 6-11 center Stanley Billings in April, he appeared to be a good fit for a team in need of more size, strength and experience in the low post.
Then the Golden Knights unexpectedly lost 6-9 senior center Will Bakanowsky in late June, making Billings' addition an absolute must for a team that already lost two of its most capable inside defenders and rebounders when forwards Anthony Williams and Marcus Johnson completed their eligibility in March.
Bakanowsky started 26 games at center as a junior during the 2004-05 season and averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds. In the final game of the 04-05 season, he scored 15 points and added seven rebounds against Connecticut in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
However, Bakanowsky was forced to redshirt the 2005-06 season for precautionary reasons due to concussions and then graduated in June. Bakanowsky, a two-time conference all-academic selection, decided not to use his final season of eligibility in late June.
"We are disappointed for Will that he will not be able to compete and finish his career this season," UCF coach Kirk Speraw said. "Will was a valuable member of our program and was a key contributor on our two NCAA Tournament teams. Off the court, he was a great student and we wish him the very best."
Now the Golden Knights need Billings to make a quick adjustment to the Division I game after averaged 13.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game last season for Independence (Kan.) Community College. Billings, 27, has spent a good portion of his life making the necessary adjustments during eight years in the Marines.
"They kept saying I could be one of the missing pieces," Billings said. "Hopefully I can be one of the people to help get UCF back in that drivers' seat."
UCF didn't reach the 2006 NCAA Tournament after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference the two previous seasons and playing in the 2004 and 2005 NCAA Tournaments. On the other hand, the Golden Knights made a relatively seamless transition to Conference USA, finishing with a 14-15 record and a 7-7 conference record, good for fifth place in the standings.
The Golden Knights hope to improve in 2005-06 with the return of seven lettermen and the addition of four signees: Chip Cartwright, a 6-foot juco guard from Angelina (Texas) College; freshmen forwards Andre Thornton of Memphis and Tony Davis of Sarasota Riverview; and Billings.
—Central Florida is scheduled to compete in the San Juan Shootout beginning Dec. 19. In addition to the Golden Knights, Utah, Virginia and Northwestern are among the participating teams.
THE GOOD NEWS: The Golden Knights return a core of experienced players who learned a lot of valuable lessons in their first season in Conference USA. They now know they can compete in the conference and what they need to do to improve.
THE BAD NEWS: The Golden Knights already knew they were losing some solid players in G Justin Rose, G Troy Lindbeck, F Anthony Williams and F Marcus Johnson. Then they lost center Will Bakanowsky in June when he graduated and decided not to use his final season of eligibility.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I really liked the school and the team. I like that UCF plays in Conference USA. I'm from Houston and they play some teams around here. After visiting the schools I had a feeling it would be UCF." — New UCF signee Chip Cartwright, a 6-foot guard from Angelina College in Texas.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: The only path to the NBA for any departing UCF players will have to go through undrafted free agency or international or developmental leagues.
KEY RETURNEES: G-F Josh Peppers leads a group of returning letterwinners that includes guards Mike O'Donnell, Jermaine Taylor and Dave Noel, forward Lavell Payne and center Adam Gill.
THE COACH: Kirk Speraw isn't a big-name coach in national circles, but he's done a commendable job in 13 seasons at UCF, going 209-178, leading the Golden Knights to four NCAA Tournament appearances and establishing a foundation for the program. UCF took another positive step last season by finishing 14-15 overall, 7-7 in conference games, in its first season after making the leap from the Atlantic Sun to Conference USA.
ROSTER REPORT: The Golden Knights did lose senior center Will Bakanowsky unexpectedly when he graduated in June and decided not to return for his final season of eligibility, but they're still counting on the return of junior sharpshooter Mike Battle. Both Bakanowsky and Battled redshirted due to injuries in 2005-06.
Josh Peppers returns after leading the Golden Knights with 13.7 points per game, but he'll also be the team's leading returning rebounder after grabbing 4.0 rebounds per game.
Jermaine Taylor is generally regarded as UCF's most important signee ever and the first recruit signed specifically to lead UCF into the C-USA. He finished his freshman season with only 4.6 points per game but showed progress down the stretch and averaged 5.1 points per game in conference games.
After signing Taylor last spring, the Golden Knights added two more prospects they believe to be C-USA-caliber players in the fall by signing Andre Thornton of Memphis and Tony Davis of Sarasota Riverview. Davis completed his prep career as Florida's Class 6A player of the year.
After his first season at East Carolina, a season that ended with an 8-20 record and a 2-12 mark in Conference USA, coach Ricky Stokes took a quick look around and didn't like what he saw.
He promised changes, starting with individual meetings with every player eligible to return. By the time he was done, eight players were gone from the roster, allowing Stokes to start over.
"We evaluated the entire program, and we had a chance to visit with each player and looked at their goals and objectives and tried to help them find the best place possible," Stokes said. "It was a mutual thing."
Mutual isn't exactly accurate for all of the players, since several players told various media outlets they had been let go regardless of their desire to return to the ECU program.
Nonetheless, eight players are gone, including point guard Japhet McNeil, guards Tom Hammonds IV, Josh King, Nick Mattone and Jeff Robinson and forwards Tyronne Beale, Jonathan Hart and Quinton Goods.
Three of those players — McNeil, Hammonds and Hart — left the program on their own in search of new opportunities.
"I just think I wanted to explore new chances somewhere else and have a new start," McNeil said. "I just want to win and try to be a part of something special."
That's not likely to happen anytime soon for East Carolina, especially with only four returning letterwinners, seven new signees and the loss of the program's most accomplished player, leading scorer and rebounder Corey Rouse.
"We're excited about the kids we have," Stokes said. "Naturally, we're looking forward to competing and getting better as a program."
"We competed most nights last season but still it did not result in wins. We have to work harder, get stronger and get bigger. We have to improve shooting the basketball. We have to shoot free throws better. Hopefully, we'll be able to address some of those needs."
The Pirates attempted to address their size and rebounding needs in the fall by signing four incoming freshmen, 6-11 Chad Wynn, 6-9 John Fields, 6-8 Gabe Blair and 6-6 Hillary Haley.
"We are definitely bigger and wider, which I'm really excited about," Stokes said. "It's going to be very difficult to replace a guy like Corey, who had a tremendous year last season, with just one guy. All of our guys on the front line are young. We don't have an experience guy in the frontcourt, but I do like them as individuals and I also like them collectively."
THE GOOD NEWS: The Pirates are bringing in seven new players who give Coach Ricky Stokes a chance to start over in his second season on the job. Stokes also got rid of several players who either didn't want to be at ECU or didn't measure up.
THE BAD NEWS: By losing leading scorer and rebounder Corey Rouse, losing three players to transfers and sending five other players packing after revoking their scholarships, Stokes returns only four letterwinners from an 8-20 team and faces a major rebuilding job.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm sure they're all eager to get started. It's a large class and there's going to be a lot of teaching, a lot of terminology and getting adjusted to the level of play. We're starting to get more depth, but we'll be inexperienced. Young guys don't know as much as they think they know. We have to take it at the appropriate speed." — ECU coach Ricky Stokes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: No one realistically expected overachieving 6-8 forward Corey Rouse to be drafted by an NBA team, but his work ethic might lead to an opportunity overseas or in a developmental league.
KEY RETURNEES: With the loss of Rouse and the departure of eight players — some voluntary, some forced — the Pirates return only four letterwinners from an 8-20 season. Guard Courtney Captain is the only returning senior, and will be joined by junior guard Jeremy Ingram, junior forward Taylor Gagnon and sophomore guard Sam Hinnant.
THE COACH: Second-year ECU coach Ricky Stokes has earned a strong reputation as an assistant coach for his work at Virginia, Texas and South Carolina, but he's also lost his only previous head coaching job when Virginia Tech fired him in 2003 with a 46-69 record in four seasons. He has the support of his former college coach, ECU athletic director Terry Holland, but he could still be well on his way to losing another head coaching job if his roster gamble doesn't pay off.
ROSTER REPORT: Senior guard Courtney Captain will have to carry a bigger load for the Pirates in 2006-07. He can start by cutting down on his turnovers after committing 71 turnovers to go with 57 assists in 18 starts.
Jeremy Ingram, who came to ECU after transferring from Wake Forest, had more surgery on his right knee during spring break. His fourth knee surgery repaired a torn meniscus. Ingram started 18 of the 21 games in which he played and averaged 10.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in his first season at ECU.
"Jeremy is back and running. He is coming back off his fourth knee operation, so knock on wood — he's running and lifting," said head coach Ricky Stokes. "He's wearing a knee brace and playing with the guys, but we're monitoring him closely and not allowing him to do too much. We expect him to be ready to go when the season begins."
Sam Hinnant earned a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team, becoming the fourth Pirate in East Carolina's five seasons in C-USA to earn All-Freshman honors. Hinnant finished third on the team in scoring with 10.2 points per game.
The fourth returning letterwinner, junior forward Taylor Gagnon, started four games in 2005-06 and played in 27 games, but averaged only 1.5 points and 1.9 rebounds per game.
Justin Ramsey, a 6-10 non-qualifier who did not play last season, is also expected to be eligible to play this season.
The coach known as "Turnaround Tom" has made excellent progress in his two seasons at Houston, but Tom Penders and the Cougars still have a long way to go.
Penders, who has earned a reputation for his ability to quickly turn losing programs into winners, inherited a team that won 17 games in two seasons and went 18-14 in 2004-05, his first season on the job. His second Houston team went 21-10, the first time the Cougars have won 20 games since 1992-93.
What Penders has not done, yet, is take his team to the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars lost in the first round of the 2005 NIT and the second round of the 2006 NIT and still have a lot to prove, both in Conference USA and around the nation.
Still, Penders did enough to earn a new five-year contract in the eyes of Houston athletic director Dave Maggard.
"This past year was outstanding," Maggard added. "To get 21 wins is not an easy thing to do, and it is another building block to the foundation that is being established.
"We all felt that we were close to being a NCAA Tournament team after having beaten some good teams that are in the tournament, including one Final Four team this year."
"Tom and his staff are re-laying the foundation of a program that already was once a national power. This year's team had included new and young people who learned to play an exciting brand of basketball. Now, I look for us to become even more of a national power as we move ahead."
For that to happen, the Cougars will have to increase their talent, improve their depth and do a better job of scoring, rebounding and defending in the low post.
The Cougars do lose some solid and productive players, including forward Roman Dyer and guards Brian Lathan and Chris Lawson, but they return four key players in guards Lanny Smith, Oliver Lafayette and Corey Bloom and forwards Jahmar Thorpe, Sam Anderson and Lamar Roberson.
Help in the low post is on the way in the form of 6-11 center Marcus Cousin, but he has to sit out this season after transferring from Seton Hall.
In the meantime, the Cougars will attempt to improve with the addition of Division I transfers and juco transfers.
Dion Dowell, a 6-8 Texas transfer, is eligible to play after sitting out the 2005-06 season. He will be joined by 6-8 juco forward Tafari Toney, 6-6 juco forward Anthony Jones, 6-9 freshman forward Nic Mosley, as well as juco guards Robert Lee, Robert McKiver, Marcus Malone and Charlie Jones.
THE GOOD NEWS: The Cougars return four players who did most of the starting and playing down the stretch, as well as six members of the regular playing rotation. Three of those players will be seniors and Coach Tom Penders brought in immediate help in the form Texas transfer Dion Dowell and six juco transfers.
THE BAD NEWS: The Cougars lose some solid and productive players, including forward Roman Dyer and guards Brian Lathan and Chris Lawson, and continue to lack an inside scoring presence to take some of the pressure off the perimeter game. The constant addition of juco players hasn't paid off nearly as well as Penders hoped it would and another influx appears to be another quick-fix gamble. Only time will tell if it works.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think I fit in real well. I think I bring more offense and intensity on defense." — Robert Lee, a junior college All-America guard who averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game as a sophomore at Seminole (Okla.) State College. Lee chose Houston over Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Pittsburgh, Dayton and TCU.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: Of the three departing Houston players, forward Roman Dyer appears to have the best chance of finding a job somewhere overseas or in a developmental league.
KEY RETURNEES: Guards Lanny Smith, Oliver Lafayette and Corey Bloom, forwards Jahmar Thorpe, Sam Anderson and Lamar Roberson give the Cougars a solid core from which to build, but that nucleus still lacks a proven big man who can rebound and defend and add a little scoring help in the low post.
THE COACH: Tom Penders has a reputation for turning losing programs into winners in a short time, and he's gone 39-25 with two NIT appearances in two seasons at Houston. That led to a new 5-year contract in the spring, but the Cougars still have a lot of work to do to reach the NCAA Tournament. Penders has made Division I transfers and juco transfers a high recruiting priority, with mixed results, and will once again turn to help from seven new transfers this season.
ROSTER REPORT: Point guard Lanny Smith suffered a displaced fracture of the big toe and underwent surgery Aug. 2. He will be in a cast or a walking boot for 12 weeks as the injury heels. "We won't know until the first week of November if he can play or not," said head coach Tom Penders.
When junior guard Oliver Lafayette was in his first season at Houston, he could get as hot as any shooter in C-USA. Lafayette, who led the conference with 3.39 steals per game, finished third in the conference with 15.7 points per game. He also shot only .364 from the field and only .319 from 3-point range. In the second-round NIT loss to Missouri State he missed 12 of 14 shots and all 10 of his 3-point attempts.
Houston will be looking for bigger and better things from junior forward Jahmar Thorpe, a juco transfer who started 25 games in 2005-06 and finished with 9.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
Dion Dowell, a 6-8 transfer from Texas, is eligible to play this season after sitting out most of the 2005-06 season. Dowell averaged 10.4 minutes and 2.1 points per game in 2004-05 and played in three games last season before leaving the program and transferring to Houston.
Marshall learned its share of painful lessons on the way to a 12-16 finish in 2005-06, its first season in Conference USA.
"We had played UAB, we'd been in a series with UAB, and we knew that Conference USA was a tremendous league," coach Ron Jirsa said. "But it afforded us so many avenues, being in a tougher league with multiple (NCAA Tournament) bids. Our game with Memphis sold out. It was a chance for our community, and our state, to see a great team come in."
"Our student section has really come back and I attribute that to enthusiasm around Conference USA. Our recruiting is enhanced and our exposure has been better."
Marshall's exposure could improve a little more with a positive performance in the Great Alaska Shootout and Jirsa is hoping his team will be better in 2006-07 with the return of six experienced core players, led by sophomore forward Markel Humphrey.
The program's most notable new addition, Kentucky transfer Adam Williams, must sit out the season, but Jirsa is counting on immediate help from some of his five signees.
Three of those newcomers, 7-1 center Jeral Davis, point guard Marcus Moses and 6-2 shooting guard Chris Williams, played together last season at St. Catharine (Ky.) College, while 7-0 center Robbie Jackson played at Prince Avenue Prep in Pickens, S.C. A fifth signee, 6-8 forward Tyler Wilkerson, is from Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky.
The addition of Davis and Jackson will be particularly vital following the loss of Mark Patton, Marshall's starting center and the team's leading rebounder and scorer the past two seasons.
—Larry Blakeney has been named as an assistant coach at Marshall. Blakeney was most recently an assistant at Delaware.
THE GOOD NEWS: The Herd returns a core of six players who played at least 19.9 minutes per game and should have a much better understanding of what it takes to compete in C-USA. That should be especially true for sophomore forward Markel Humphrey.
THE BAD NEWS: The Herd loses its top scorer and rebounder and its only significant big man in 6-9 center Mark Patton and desperately need more consistent shooting help from the perimeter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we are competitive but not at the level we want to be. We were two games out of fifth and ended up ninth. To make that move, it's going to be a product of our recruiting, the guys we've recruited since being in Conference USA." — Marshall Coach Ron Jirsa.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: Mark Patton never found his way onto any significant NBA draft lists, but at 6-9 with a decent shooting touch, he might be able to work his way into a pro job overseas or in a developmental league.
KEY RETURNEES: Sophomore forward Markel Humphrey is Marshall's best hope for the future and returns along with senior point guard Chris Ross, junior guards Joe Miles and Mark Dorris and senior wings Tre Whitted and Travis Aikens.
THE COACH: This is Ron Jirsa's second shot at a head coaching job, having been fired after just two seasons at Georgia in 1999. Now he's 30-55 in three seasons at Marshall and the heat is on to show tangible progress, even with the program's move from the MAC to Conference USA.
ROSTER REPORT: Of all the returning players on Marshall's roster, none appears to bring more potential than sophomore forward Markel Humphrey, who earned a spot on C-USA's all freshman team after averaging 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds and starting 20 of 27 games.
"Markel is a cornerstone type player," Jirsa said. "If you can have a player like that in every recruiting class then pretty soon you've got a solid base. He thrives under pressure, he has good work ethic and he handles adversity well."
After averaging 9.6 points per game and shooting .386 from the field as a freshman, shooting guard Joe Miles scored 10.7 points per game but shot just .349 as a sophomore.
The Herd has a lot of work to do to replace center Mark Patton and his 14.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, but help is on the way in the form of two signees, 7-footers Jeral Davis and Robbie Jackson. Jirsa also sees some potential in Jean Francois BroGrebe, a raw 6-9 sophomore who saw limited playing time last season.
Juco guard Chris Williams, who originally signed with Marshall in the spring of 2005 and then enrolled at Marshall that spring, redshirted during the 2005-06 seasons. Williams did, however, join the team as a practice player following the fall semester and still has two years of eligibility remaining.
Darryl Merthie, a 6-2 guard who was academically ineligible last season at Marshall, is now eligible to play for the Thundering Herd this season. Merthie averaged 30.5 points as a Lake Mary (Fla.) High School senior and earned Florida Class 6A all-state first team honors.
Adam Williams, a 6-4 guard from St. Albans, W.Va., transferred from Kentucky over the summer and will sit out the 2006-07 season. Williams played in only eight games for Kentucky in 2005-06 and averaged 0.5 points and 0.4 rebounds per game as a true freshman. He will have three years of eligibility remaining.
No Conference USA team took a bigger hit in the offseason than Memphis, but the Tigers still likely remain the most talented team in the conference.
That's not the concern for Coach John Calipari, who has always considered Memphis a "national" program, along the lines of former C-USA teams Louisville and Cincinnati.
Calipari isn't interested in winning C-USA year-in, year-out. He's more interested in competing on a national scale, just as the Tigers did in 2005-06 when they finished 31-5, won the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles, earned one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and won three NCAA Tournament games before reaching the Elite Eight and losing to UCLA in the finals of the Oakland Regional.
The Tigers set a school-record for wins and its first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a team relying on five freshmen and a first-year sophomore playing prominent roles in the playing rotation. Maintaining that level of success won't be nearly as easy this season due to the loss of three key players.
Calipari knew he was losing forward Rodney Carney to the NBA Draft, simply because Carney was a senior. Carney went on to go 16th in the first round of the draft, selected by the Chicago Bulls and then traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, along with a second-round choice in 2007 and cash considerations, in exchange for the rights to Swiss forward Thabo Sefolosha, who was chosen 13th overall.
Calipari also knew he would likely lose forward Shawne Williams after an impressive freshman season in 2005-06, and that suspicion became reality when Williams opted for the draft. He was then selected one pick behind Carney, going to the Indiana Pacers with the 17th pick in the first round.
Memphis turned out to be one of just five schools to have at least two players chosen in the first round. The others were Connecticut, Duke, Michigan State and Villanova.
"It was great. For the two of them to go 16-17, I don't know if it's ever happened before in Memphis history," Calipari told The Commercial Appeal. "But it's great stuff." It wasn't so great for sophomore point guard Darius Washington, Jr., who followed the advice of his father, Darius Washington Sr., by not only entering the draft but also signing with an agent three days before the draft. Signing with an agent precluded Washington from returning to Memphis if he went undrafted, which is exactly what happened in the draft.
Instead of returning for his junior season at Memphis and improving his draft stock, Washington must try to catch on with an NBA team as an undrafted free agent.
Losing Carney and Williams will hurt the Tigers in the short run, but will probably help the team's national identity and recruiting in the long run. Losing Washington isn't as bad as it might seem on paper, simply because he was a 6-foot-2 point guard who played more like a shooting guard and often struggled with assists, turnovers and running the offense.
Without Washington, Memphis will turn to junior Andre Allen and incoming freshman Willie Kemp at the point. Calipari has high hopes for Kemp as Memphis' point guard of the future and it's possible Washington would have been forced to spend more time at shooting guard instead of the point.
Memphis will also count on the continued improvement of players such as sophomores Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson in the backcourt and junior Joey Dorsey and sophomores Robert Dozier and Kareem Cooper in the frontcourt.
Those players will be joined by a recruiting class that includes Kemp as well as shooting guard Tre'Von Willis, center Hashim Bailey and forward Pierre Niles. The Tigers also added forward Shawn Taggart, a transfer from Iowa State who will sit out the 2006-07 season due to NCAA transfer rules. He should be eligible to play in 2007-08 and will have three years of eligibility remaining.
And then there's Calipari himself, who turned down the possibility to become the head coach at both Missouri and North Carolina State and signed a contract extension that, according to The Commercial Appeal, could increase Calipari's base salary from less than $1.1 million to about $1.3 million. That amount does not include additional revenue from a shoe contract or other built-in incentives.
—Assistant coach Tony Barbee has left the program to become UTEP's head coach. Barbee has spent much of his career with Memphis coach John Calipari. In addition to working for him, he also played for Calipari at UMass from 1989-93.
THE GOOD NEWS: While the Tigers lost senior forward Rodney Carney, freshman forward Shawne Williams and sophomore point guard Darius Washington Jr., the first two to the NBA draft, they still return a strong nucleus of players that includes guards junior Andre Allen, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson and big men Joey Dorsey, Robert Dozier and Kareem Cooper. They also add another strong recruiting class that includes one possible starter, point guard Willie Kemp.
The Tigers also have senior guard Jeremy Hunt back in the mix. He was reinstated after a season-long suspension a year ago. Hunt's experience puts him in the mix for playing time and has Memphis considering going to a superquick four-guard rotation. The blueprint is there in the form of Villanova's 2004 and 2005 clubs.
THE BAD NEWS: The dynamic combination of Carney, Williams and Washington will be almost impossible to replace, especially when it comes to scoring. The Tigers return several quality players, but they were role players who fit around Carney, Williams and Washington last season. None of them are proven scorers and playmakers, so somebody(s) has to step up and become a dependable scorer.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Sometimes you're almost happy (not to be chosen in the second round) because now you can pick the team you want to play for. You get to pick the team you want to try to make." — Memphis coach John Calipari on former point guard Darius Washington, Jr., who entered the 2006 NBA Draft following his sophomore season and went undrafted. Washington signed with an agent three days before the draft, so he cannot return to Memphis and will attempt to make an NBA team as a free agent.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: With two first-round picks, Memphis became one of five schools with at least two players selected in the draft. Forward Rodney Carney, who completed his eligibility at Memphis, was 16th pick of the first round. The Chicago Bulls drafted Carney and then traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers. One pick later, the Indiana Pacers selected forward Shawne Williams, who left Memphis after his freshman season. Point guard Darius Washington Jr., who left Memphis after his sophomore season and then signed with an agent, went undrafted and cannot return to Memphis. He will, instead, attempt to make an NBA team as a free agent.
KEY RETURNEES: The Tigers were deep and talented in 2005-06 and they could be again in 2006-07, even without Carney, Williams and Washington. They'll build on a nucleus of junior Andre Allen and sophomores Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson in the backcourt and junior Joey Dorsey and sophomores Robert Dozier and Kareem Cooper in the frontcourt.
THE COACH: John Calipari finally produced the kind of team Memphis fans had hoped for ever since he arrived. He originally made a national name for himself at Massachusetts and followed it with an unsuccessful stint as the head coach of the NBA's New Jersey Nets. He got his career back on track as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant and became a head coach again at Memphis in 2000. After five up-and-down seasons that included two NCAA Tournament appearances and two trips to the NIT, the Tigers won 31 games in 2005-06, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the tournament's Elite Eight. It will be difficult to reach those same heights this season but Calipari has built what he considers to be a "national" program at Memphis with some strong recruiting.
ROSTER REPORT: The Tigers have signed high-scoring guard Doneal Mack to their incoming class. Mack averaged 31.1 points and 7.2 rpg for Statesville (N.C.) Christian School last season. Mack was ranked as the 47th-best prospect by Rivals.com.
The Tigers also added guards Willie Kemp and guard Tre'Von Willis, center Hashim Bailey and forward Pierre Niles.
Of those four players, the one expected to make the most immediate impact is Kemp, a 6-2 point guard from Bolivar (Tenn.) who was Tennessee's Mr. Basketball last season. With the departure of Washington, Kemp will be expected to compete with Allen for a starting role or at least significant playing time this season.
The Tigers also added forward Shawn Taggart, a transfer from Iowa State who will sit out the 2006-07 season. If he is eligible to play in 2007-08, he will have three years of eligibility remaining.
"We're excited to have Shawn join the Tiger basketball program," said Calipari. "Shawn has great size, and he is a solid addition that will complement the talented players we have returning."
Taggart, a 6-10 forward, played in all 30 games for the Cyclones last season and started the final 14 games of the season, averaging 5.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game and shooting 45.1 percent from the field.
—Calipari has reinstated senior guard Jeremy Hunt, who could give the team unexpected experience in the backcourt. Hunt was suspended indefinitely after an incident on Beale Street last September. Calipari chose to reinstate Hunt, who scored 24 points in a 2005 NIT game vs. Northeastern and has 26 career starts, because he displayed remorse and maturity while staying around the team and taking care of his academic work. Hunt graduated on time in May but has one year of athletic eligibility remaining.
Rice coach Willis Wilson added three new signees to his roster over the past season, but there's no doubt his biggest and best recruit came when his star guard decided to withdraw from the 2006 NBA Draft.
Morris Almond, who led Conference USA with 21.9 points per game and set a C-USA record by averaging 25.1 points per game in 14 conference games, initially entered the draft in April.
However, Almond did not sign with an agent and after going through the tryout process, decided, on June 16th, to return to school and play his senior season for the Owls.
"A phenomenal opportunity awaits me and the team next year and that is primed to have one of the best seasons in school history," Almond said. "Plus the fact that I am on pace to graduate as well as to enhance my status for next year's draft, this was the best decision for me."
It certainly has to be the best decision for Wilson and his program after the Owls finished 12-16 in their first season of C-USA competition. In three previous seasons in the WAC, the Owls went 19-10, 22-11 and 19-12 and reached the NIT in 2004 and 2005.
"It's the biggest recruit of the year for our program and maybe the biggest recruit of the decade for our program," Wilson said. "Morris is knocking on the door of achieving a great dream to play in the NBA. He's also on the verge of receiving his degree from one the great institutions in the country."
Now, with Almond back in the fold, the Owls return three of their five top scorers. They also add three new players with the signing of 6-5 combo guard Lawrence "Cliff" Ghoram, 6-8 forward Marius Craciun of Romania and 5-9 point guard Chris Hagan.
THE GOOD NEWS: After losing their three best players following the 2004-05 season, the Owls return three of their five top scorers, led by leading scorer Morris Almond. Rice should also have a better idea of what it takes to compete in C-USA.
THE BAD NEWS: The Owls lose two of their best scorers and rebounders in J.R. Harrison and Jamaal Moore and could find it tough to replace them immediately, even with the addition of juco transfer Marius Craciun.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The credit has to go to Morris and his dad (Willie) for everything that they've done through the process to gather all of the feedback. Every NBA person that I've spoken with, coaches included, said that they thought that the Almonds did a great job and that they are probably the model on how to handle this situation. I had the opportunity to see Morris play in Orlando at the pre-draft camp and there's no question he helped himself and I think he opened some eyes. There were some top-line people in the NBA that didn't think he could improve himself for next year and after Orlando that tune changed significantly." — Rice coach Willis Wilson on senior guard Morris Almond's decision to withdraw from the NBA draft and return to Rice.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: The Owls came dangerously close to losing leading scorer Morris Almond to the NBA draft, but Almond withdrew from the draft in June and decided to return for his senior season. With Almond, the Owls have a chance to be more competitive in 2006-07. Without him, it could have been a long season.
KEY RETURNEES: It all starts with Almond, C-USA's leading scorer in 2005-06, and continues with junior point guard Lorenzo Williams, sophomore forwards Patrick Britton and Paulius Packevicius, freshman guards Cory Pflieger and Rodney Foster.
THE COACH: Willis Wilson has seen the Rice program through some highs and lows on the way to a 200-203 record and three NIT trips over 14 seasons. That might not sound impressive, but given Rice's lack of tradition, its stringent academic standards and the respect Wilson holds among his coaching peers, he's done a solid job. In the past the program would have to shown signs of serious slippage for Wilson to be in danger of losing his job, but with a new athletic director (Chris Del Conte) on the job, anything's possible.
ROSTER REPORT: After scoring 7.2 points off the bench as a sophomore, Morris Almond stepped into the gap left by the departure of the team's three leading scorer and emerged as C-USA's top scorer, with 21.9 points per game. He also set a conference record with 25.1 points per game in C-USA games. Almond also averaged 6.8 rebounds per game, shot 82.3 percent from the free-throw line and 38.6 percent from 3-point range and enters the 2006-07 season as a legitimate All-American candidate.
After averaging 4.25 assists per game as a part-time starter in 2004-05, senior point guard Lorenzo Williams emerged as one of C-USA's more solid and consistent point guards in 2005-06, finishing second in conference games with 6.36 assists per game.
Junior college transfers are few and far between at Rice, mainly because of the school's high academic standards, but coach Willis Wilson was still able to add some much-needed size and experience when he signed Marius Craciun, a 6-8 native of Romania who played at Weatherford (Texas) College. He is only the third junior college transfer signed by Wilson in the past 14 seasons.
"Marius brings all of the things that we're going to need next year," Wilson said. "He can score from the low-post and he has a nice touch from the outside."
It's been six seasons since SMU last earned an NIT bid and 14 seasons since the Mustangs appeared in the NCAA Tournament, but new coach Matt Doherty is convinced the program has the potential to be one of the nation's better programs.
"Why can't we do special things here? Why can't we be in the top 25?" Doherty said. "Why can't we be one of the elite programs in the country? You've got the city of Dallas, and maybe the prettiest campus I've ever been on. I asked the players that: 'Why can't we? Why not us?'
"Another thing we've got going for us is recognition. When you walk into a gym in California with 'SMU' on your shirt, people know SMU. When you walk into a gym in New York with 'SMU' on your shirt, people know SMU.
"And when I went to the (Texas) state basketball tournament in Austin ... there's as much talent in Texas as there is anywhere. Like it or not, Texas is a basketball state."
That status hasn't done much for SMU, especially in the past three years. Following a 12-18 finish and the firing of Mike Dement in 2003, SMU hired Jimmy Tubbs, who went 27-30 in two seasons before allegations of NCAA rules violations led to his dismissal in April.
Now Doherty, who resurrected his career at Florida Atlantic after being fired at North Carolina in 2003, inherits a young team with more questions than answers. The best player on last season's team, guard Bryan Hopkins, has completed his eligibility. The two best returning players, center Bamba Fall and forward Brian Morris, are talented-but-raw sophomores.
Doherty, hired in late April, only had time to sign one prospect, 6-9 forward Cameron Spencer from Orange, Texas, and released 6-5 guard Menghe Nyam from the letter of intent he signed with SMU during the early signing period.
Doherty also has a lot of work to do to build relationships with Dallas-area coaches, especially those in the Dallas Independent School District.
"I want to be here and recruit here in my back yard," Doherty told the Dallas Morning News. "I want to build a program. There's a difference between a team and a program. A team is a one-year deal — a program is built for the long run. I want to put systems in place to have a program here everybody will be excited about."
—Head coach Matt Doherty has hired Lance Irvin as an assistant coach. Irvin has 13 years of Division 1 experience after having coached at Texas A&M, Iowa State and Missouri.
THE GOOD NEWS: The hiring of Doherty gives SMU a chance to start over after a disappointing and controversial 2005-06 season and the Mustangs lose only one player who played a significant role in 2005-06. Bamba Fall and Brian Morris should be much better in 2006-07 and the entire program should have a better idea of what it takes to compete in C-USA.
THE BAD NEWS: The Mustangs must replace their only consistent scorer, Bryan Hopkins, and their best players, Fall and Morris, are sophomores. They also need better play at the point than they got last season from Dez Willingham.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a very well-respected coach. He's going to work us hard, but he knows what he's teaching. We're ready to play for him." — SMU senior forward Devon Pearson on new coach Matt Doherty.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: One year after flirting with the idea of making himself eligible for the 2005 NBA Draft, guard Bryan Hopkins went undrafted in the 2006 NBA Draft and must now attempt to make an NBA team as a free agent. Hopkins was considered a major addition for SMU when he signed with the Mustangs in 2002 out of Lincoln High in Dallas. He originally committed to Texas but Texas wouldn't give his brother Ryan a scholarship and SMU would so Hopkins chose the Mustangs. Hopkins went on to average 15.8 points per game in four seasons at SMU and finished in SMU's top 10 in several categories. Hopkins also completed his career as one of just 15 players in NCAA history to record 1,500 points, 350 rebounds, 350 assists and 200 steals.
KEY RETURNEES: Two sophomores, center Bamba Fall and forward Brian Morris, give the Mustangs a chance to compete in the frontcourt, along with senior forwards Devon Pearson, Ike Ofoegbu and Donatas Rackauskas. The Mustangs also return sophomores Dez Willingham, Derrick Roberts and Jon Killen and junior wing Brian Epps in the backcourt.
THE COACH: Matt Doherty brought an impressive pedigree as a player, assistant and head coach when he returned to his alma mater, North Carolina, as a head coach in 2000. He earned national coach of the year honors in his first season with the Tar Heels before things turned sour. After losing his job at North Carolina in 2003 he spent the 2005-06 season starting over at Florida Atlantic, and applying the many painful lessons he learned in recent years. Doherty insists he is a different coach now, one better able to relate and communicate with his players, and he's already spent considerable time and effort in his first months on the job building relationships with boosters and local high school coaches. Only time will tell how all that relates to what SMU actually does on the court.
ROSTER REPORT: The Mustangs finished the season without Bamba Fall, their talented-but-raw 7-1 freshman center, who missed the C-USA Tournament because of a back injury. Fall missed 11 games with injuries, while freshman forward Brian Morris missed seven games with a knee injury before returning late in the season. Fall still finished with 5.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and 53 blocks in only 18 games, while Morris finished with 7.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
—Sophomore Dez Willingham, a transfer from Kansas State, was expected to make an impact at point guard but he often struggled to run the team effectively and finished with nearly as many turnovers (64) as assists (76) and produced only four games with five or more assists.
—Doherty added his first signee in May when he signed Cameron Spencer, a 6-9 forward from Orange, Texas. Spencer averaged 14.0 points and 8.9 rebounds as a senior.
—Doherty also released, Menghe Nyam, a 6-5 guard from New Hampton Prep in New Hampshire, from the letter of intent he signed with SMU during the early signing period.
With eight returning players and nine new signees on the way, Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy and some of his players had some big decisions to make.
With 17 players and only 13 available scholarships, someone had to go.
"It'll all work out, as it always does," Eustachy said. "We'll have a collection of players that I can count on, on and off the court."
Eustachy continued to overhaul the program by convincing projected seniors Jarekus Singleton, Mildon Ambres and David Cornwell to transfer. Another senior, Travis Hall, is taking stock of his options and considering a transfer.
The only players assured of returning the program at this point are sophomores Courtney Beasley, Craig Craft and Donatas Visockis.
On one hand, that means Southern Miss has finally removed every player who began play in the James Green era, which ended in 2004. On the other hand, Southern Miss will be considerably younger than before. Eustachy did sign three junior college players in the fall, but in the spring signing period he signed five prep players and only one juco transfer.
That means it could be another long season for Southern Miss after going 21-38 the past two seasons under Eustachy.
"With new guys, it's going to take awhile," Eustachy said. "I wish I could wave a wand and have this team in November how it's going to be in March. You just can't do that.
"But I know we've got a nucleus of guys that I can really count on, and that's where we're trying to get to."
—Head coach Larry Eustachy has hired Billy Reid as the team's new director of basketball operations. Reid had been the head coach at Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute, where he had led his team to a 24-1 record and a No. 5 ranking in the national high school polls.
THE GOOD NEWS: Sophomores Courtney Beasley, Craig Craft and Donatas Visockis should be better after seeing significant playing time as freshmen and Coach Larry Eustachy was able to get rid of some of the dead weight from a program that hasn't had a winning season since 2001.
THE BAD NEWS: With nine new recruits, including five freshmen and four juco transfers, continuity and experience continue to be problems for the Golden Eagles. That lack of continuity has become a constant problem for Eustachy in his first two seasons on the job. None of the players from his first signing class returned for the 2005-06 season, including five junior college transfers. Then two junior college players from his second signing class, Shaun Simpson and Kendaris Pelton, left the team early in the 2005-06 season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My goal is not just to be an upper tier program in Conference USA behind Memphis. My goal is to be a conference champion like Memphis. We want to win. That's a must. We have to do that." — Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: The odds of any recent Southern Miss players reaching the NBA are lower than slim and closer to none.
KEY RETURNEES: With the welcome transfer of would-be seniors Jarekus Singleton, Mildon Ambres and David Cornwell, the only players guaranteed of a spot on the 2006-07 team at this point are sophomores Courtney Beasley, Craig Craft and Donatas Visockis.
THE COACH: Larry Eustachy is still trying to rebuild his career since losing his head coaching job at Iowa State in 2003. It hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been tougher than Eustachy expected to change the talent level, work ethic, attitude and expectations of a moribund program. After winning only 21 games the past two seasons, Eustachy faces the possibility of another long season with nine new scholarship players.
ROSTER REPORT: Guard Courtney Beasley emerged as Southern Miss' best offensive player as a true freshman, scoring 10.5 points per game and earning C-USA All-Freshman honors.
Despite the lack of success Southern Miss has had with juco players the past two seasons, Eustachy signed four more this time around. In the fall, Southern Miss signed center Gjio Bain of Northeast (Neb.) Community College and point guard DeWayne Green of Mt. San Jacinto (Calif.) College. In the spring Southern Miss added forward/center Demar Dotson from Southeastern Illinois College.
Eustachy also signed five prep prospects over the past season, adding forward David Howard and guards Saiquon Stone, Maros Zuffa, Jeremy Wise and Jarvis Hill.
The departure of Doc Sadler for Nebraska left the UTEP program in a reconnaissance mode.
The Miners wasted no time in hiring Memphis assistant coach Tony Barbee as the program's new front man.
Barbee, 35, is thought to be one of the up-and-comers in the coaching business. However, he has no plans to work a couple of years in El Paso and then move on.
"I just got the job, so I'm not looking to leave tomorrow, but you can't put a timetable on something like that," Barbee said. "What I'm looking to do is build a winning program. Am I going to be looking for other opportunities? No. I'm looking forward to working here at UTEP, and that's where my total focus and vision is."
UTEP added four new players in the fall signing period and brought in three more players during the spring, but it's possible the best recruits of all have no more playing eligibility.
In mid-June, UTEP officials secured a pledge of $6 million from Jeff and Sharon Stevens and Paul L. Foster to build a $10.5 million basketball practice facility.
The facility is expected to house three practice courts for men's and women's basketball, men's and women's basketball offices, locker rooms, a weight room and a training center.
UTEP returns only three players who scored points last season, led by senior guard Kevin Henderson, who started all 31 games and averaged 7.9 points, 3.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game. The other two will be sophomores, guard Stefon Jackson (8.0 points per game and 14 starts) and forward Maurice Thomas (10.6 minutes per game in a reserve role).
To fill those holes UTEP signed four players during the early signing period, with three juco transfers (forwards Victor Ramalho and forward Tavaris Watts and center Jeremy Sampson) and one high school player (guard Malik Alvin).
The Miners brought in three more signees in the spring, including two more juco transfers (guards Corey Speight and Marvin Kilgore) and one prep player (7-foot, 290-pound center Franklin Jones.
THE GOOD NEWS: The Miners return some talented core players on the perimeter and should have a better idea of what it takes to succeed in C-USA. They also brought in two new centers, juco transfer Jeremy Sampson and 7-foot, 290-pound freshman Franklin Jones, that should help ease the losses from last season's team.
THE BAD NEWS: The Miners lost some quality players who will be difficult to replace, especially forwards John Tofi and Jason Williams and guards Miguel Ayala and Edgar Moreno.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm here to win in March, and my philosophy starts with defense. We want to limit our opponents to tough field goal attempts. Offensively, my style is a different type of style, dribble drive kick similar to what the Phoenix Suns do. It will be high-paced and high-energy. It will be exciting for the players and fans." — New UTEP coach Tony Barbee on the style he plans to employ
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: The 2006 NBA Draft came and went for all four of UTEP's four departed starters, forwards John Tofi and Jason Williams and guards Miguel Ayala and Edgar Moreno. Tofi still has a lot of work to do to get his surgically repaired knee healthy while Williams and Ayala likely have enough talent and skills to contend for a pro job overseas or in a developmental league.
KEY RETURNEES: The Miners must build around the return of only three players who scored points last season, led by senior guard Kevin Henderson. He will be joined by two sophomores, guard Stefon Jackson and forward Maurice Thomas.
THE COACH: After Doc Sadler left the program to fill the opening in Nebraska, the Miners turned to 35-year-old Tony Barbee to fill the opening. Barbee had been an assistant at Memphis under John Calipari. He intends to play a fast-paced, crowd-pleasing style.
ROSTER REPORT: With so many big holes to fill, UTEP signed Victor Ramalho, Tavaris Watts and Jeremy Sampson in the earning signing period and added guards Corey Speight and Marvin Kilgore in the late signing period. Of all those players, Speight faces the biggest challenge as the likely starter at point guard on a young team.
UTEP also added two prep players, signing guard Malik Alvin in the fall and 7-foot, 290-pound center Franklin Jones in the spring.
Early injuries last season limited guard Vernon Carr to two games and prevented guard Kelvin Davis from ever playing. Both players saw playing time in 2004-05 and will return as redshirt sophomores in 2006-07.
No college basketball coach faced a more difficult challenge than Dave Dickerson, who spent his first season at Tulane trying to lead his team through all the obstacles presented by Hurricane Katrina.
That's why Dickerson was so eager to move beyond all the negatives of a 12-17 season and focus on recruiting.
When he took over as Tulane's coach on April 1, 2005, Tulane had already filled its two scholarship vacancies with early signees. This time around, Dickerson was able to sign three of his own players.
"It's important to me personally that we're able to recruit the type of players that we're involved with," Dickerson told The Times-Picayune. "It's important that we sign a recruiting class that's going to help us be a better team next year and that these kids weren't afraid to entertain us."
The Green Wave loses only two members of its roster and only one starter from the team that completed the 2005-06 season, but also lost two would-be projected starters midway through the season when guards Taylor Rochestie and Vincent Camper quit the team.
Those openings will be filled by three high school players, 6-7 forward Asim McQueen, 6-5 guard Johnny Mayhane and 5-10 point guard Kevin Sims.
"As a staff, we went into recruiting looking to improve two key areas — our ball-handling and our outside shooting," Dickerson said.
THE GOOD NEWS: The Green Wave loses only two members of its roster and only one starter and should have a better understanding of what Coach Dave Dickerson wants. More important, it's hard to imagine the 2006-07 season being any more challenging for Dickerson and his second Green Wave team after everything Tulane endured in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If anything, the Green Wave should be tougher, wiser, more mature and more prepared to take a take a few significant steps in the right direction.
THE BAD NEWS: The Green Wave will have to take those steps without starting center Quincy Davis and backup Vytas Tatarunas and must rebuild its inside game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've been fortunate that the parents have come with the recruits and have seen everything firsthand. My philosophy in recruiting is you do a great job of selling yourself and you sell the school and the program and you don't concentrate on other programs. We've done a good job of doing that and not trying to sugar-coat anything. When they come and see that we're living just like everybody else, the negative recruiting helps us. We get a chance to tell people that the things they heard and saw was then, and here's where we are now." — Tulane coach Dave Dickerson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: Quincy Davis, a 6-9, 232-pound post player, improved his draft stock with decent play in the draft camps but didn't do enough to earn a spot in the 2006 NBA Draft. He will likely receive an opportunity to make a team as a free agent.
KEY RETURNEES: Sophomore forward David Gomez returns as Tulane's best interior player, but he's only 6-8. The perimeter returns point guards Ryan Williams and Andrew Garcia, but both have a lot to learn about running the offense and taking care of the ball. Junior wing Chris Moore, sophomore forward Donnie Stith, sophomore guard Matt Wheaton and freshman forward Daniel Puckett all saw significant playing time in 2005-06.
THE COACH: Dave Dickerson earned a positive reputation for his work as a Maryland assistant from 1996-2005 and spent his first season as a head coach dealing with hurricanes and the mid-season defection of two starters. Tulane finished only 12-17 but Dickerson remained positive and the Green Wave somehow remained competitive. Now Dickerson can move on and focus his energies on building a moribund program into a winner.
ROSTER REPORT: The Green Wave lost two would-be starters midway through the 2005-06 season. First, starting point guard Taylor Rochestie missed the fall semester with a preseason knee injury and then decided to transfer before the Green Wave returned to New Orleans. Soon after, junior guard Vincent Camper decided not to join the team back on campus. That forced sophomore-to-be Ryan Williams and senior-to-be Andrew Garcia, a walk-on playing his first season at Tulane, to run the point. They combined for 6.1 assists and 5.0 turnovers per game.
Junior forward David Gomez followed up his 21-point, 10- rebound performance in the first round of the C-USA Tournament against Marshall by missing nine of 11 shots, scoring four points and committing a team-high six turnovers against Memphis. Still, with the loss of center Quincy Davis, Gomez enters the 2006-07 season as Tulane's leading returning scorer and second-leading rebounder, with 11.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and will be called upon to play an even bigger role for the Green Wave.
Tulane could really use some immediate help from experienced junior college players, but that's a rarity for a university with such high academic standards. Instead, Dickerson's first recruiting class included three prep players, 6-7 forward Asim McQueen, 6-5 guard Johnny Mayhane and 5-10 point guard Kevin Sims.
When Doug Wojcik took over at Tulsa on March 15, 2005, he inherited a program with a rich tradition of success and some open wounds following two consecutive 9-20 seasons.
Despite an 11-17 finish, Wojcik is convinced the entire program is on better footing one year later.
"What a difference a year makes," Wojcik said. "It was much easier because we had a chance to evaluate the kids."
That includes the recruits. Between new signees and departures, only two players — senior forward Charles Ramsdell and junior guard Brett McDade — are on the roster that Wojcik didn't sign.
"We are now through the onslaught of the pressure of getting enough people in here who can play," Wojcik told the Tulsa World. "Players who can help build this program."
Many of those players will be young, with five sophomores returning from last season's team and the addition of four incoming freshmen and one juco transfer. Even one player expected to contribute in a significant role last season, point guard Roderick Earls, missed the 2005-06 season with a foot injury and will start over this fall.
If the early assessments from recruiting analysts means anything, Wojcik brought in a class of players capable of helping the program immediately. The class is led by Ben Uzoh, a 6-3 combo guard from San Antonio who chose Tulsa over Oklahoma, Virginia, Wichita State and Creighton. The class also includes Calvin Walls, a 6-7 forward from Iowa Western Community College who chose Tulsa over Utah State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, two 2006 NCAA Tournament teams.
"You've got to find the positives, and we've got a great product to sell," Wojcik told the Tulsa World. "I'm pretty darned excited right now, and look forward to putting all the pieces together."
"I expect these kids to make an immediate impact. But I've got to be realistic and let them grow a little bit."
THE GOOD NEWS: The Golden Hurricane returns all but two members of a team that improved over the course of coach Doug Wojcik's first season at Tulsa and should have a better idea of what Wojcik wants and what it takes to compete in C-USA. Plus, the Golden Hurricane is counting on help from PG Roderick Earl, who missed the 2005-06 season with a foot injury.
THE BAD NEWS: The Golden Hurricane wasn't that big, tough or good in the low post with center Anthony Price in 2005-06 and it won't be any better without him if some of the younger players, particularly sophomore center Sam Mitchell, don't step up in a hurry.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think there is a (recruiting) ceiling at TU. Yeah, I'm going to shoot for the moon. But I've got be realistic about it, and that's OK. There are a lot of good players out there." — Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: Neither guard Chris Wallace nor post player Anthony Price carried much NBA draft potential and no players left early, so the draft had no real impact on Tulsa.
KEY RETURNEES: Junior guard Brett McDade and senior forward Darold Crow lead a group that includes guards Deion James, Antonio Hudson and Ray Reese and frontcourt players Sam Mitchell, Charles Ramsdell and Bishop Wheatley. Of those players, sophomores Mitchell and Reese appear to be the best barometer of Tulsa's future.
THE COACH: Doug Wojcik earned a strong reputation for his work as an assistant at Notre Dame, North Carolina and Michigan State before becoming a head coach for the first time in 2005. The record didn't indicate it, but Tulsa appeared to take some positive steps in the right direction last season and then took more steps in the right direction with its spring signing class.
ROSTER REPORT: Wojcik signed juco transfer Roderick Earl in his first recruiting class to make an immediate contribution at point guard but Earl suffered a broken foot the day before the season opener and never played a minute before the Golden Hurricane. His loss played a big role in Tulsa's turnover problems and his presence would probably allow Brett McDade to move from the point to shooting guard. McDade was limited by an Achilles tendon injury late in the 2005-06 season and played only 10 minutes in Tulsa's first-round C-USA Tournament upset loss to Southern Miss.
Wojcik has big expectations for two sophomores, guard Ray Reese and center Sam Mitchell. Neither player was particularly consistent as a true freshman in 2005-06, but both showed positive signs of improvement that should pay off in 2006-07.
When Tulsa signee Ben Uzoh played for the Texas All-Stars in a summer basketball event in Shawnee, Okla., he looked up in the stands and saw future Tulsa teammates Charles Ramsdell, Darold Crow, Rod Earls and Sean Coleman watching the game. Uzoh's team lost 87-85 to an Oklahoma all-star team but Uzoh did his part with 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Still, he was more impressed by the show of support from the Tulsa players. "They gave up their Saturday to come see me," Uzoh said. "That says a lot about the character of them and the program. It really meant a lot."
He still hasn't won any games or taken the program to the NCAA Tournament, but Mike Davis has spent his initial months at UAB making a positive impression.
After resigning at Indiana and replacing Mike Anderson at UAB, Davis went right to work.
If his first few months on the job are any indication, the Blazers should continue to be an NCAA Tournament contender after three consecutive trips to the tournament under Anderson.
First, Davis signed Andre White, one of the nation's top-rated junior college point guards from Highland (Ill.) Community College. That's particularly important for a team that lost starting point guard Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson, one of the nation's leaders in assists, steals and assist-turnover ratio over the past three seasons.
Next, Davis added Robert Vaden, a 6-5 junior who followed Davis from Indiana. Vaden scored 13.5 points per game for the Hoosiers in 2005-06 and will have two years of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2006-07 season.
Then, Davis signed Jeremy Mayfield, a 6-10, 240-pound center ranked among the nation's best prep post players. Mayfield originally signed with Oklahoma in November but was released from his letter of intent after coach Kelvin Sampson left Oklahoma for Indiana.
Finally, Davis added another transfer in June when former Mississippi State forward Walter Sharpe enrolled in summer school at UAB. Sharpe spent an enigmatic and controversial two seasons at Mississippi State, where he was suspended for missing team flights and academic shortcomings before finally being dismissed from the team in January. He will have to sit out the 2006-07 season.
Sharpe, however, is a Birmingham native who originally chose Mississippi State over Alabama and UAB in the spring of 2004, and he indicated a return to Birmingham should help him start over.
"It's nice to be back, you know," Sharpe told the Birmingham News. "It's nice to be at home where you have a lot of people come support you. It's a good feeling."
Davis also secured a trip to the Bahamas that will give his team an early start. A preseason trip to Nassau over Labor Day weekend will give the Blazers an additional 10 days of practice in late August. Because classes start on Aug. 22, the first day of practice for the trip to the Bahamas, the freshmen will be allowed to participate in the practices and games.
"For a staff, it gives us the chance to see where we are (as a team)," Davis said. "It gives the kids a chance to get used to us and gives us a chance to get tapes of games in our system."
THE GOOD NEWS: The Blazers have developed an identity in practice and games in four seasons under former coach Mike Anderson and have established themselves as one of C-USA's best overall programs. They return six experienced players from a team that has reached three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. The addition of four quality players (even though two won't be eligible until 2007-08) adds more talent and size to the roster.
THE BAD NEWS: The Blazers lose four seniors (Demario Eddins, Derrick Broom, Brandon Tobias and Richard Jones) who signed on when Anderson took over in 2003. Two other seniors, starting guards Squeaky Johnson and Marvett McDonald, joined the program as juco transfers. Now the program must start over to some extent because new coach Mike Davis will play a more deliberate style that could be difficult for some of the returning players, who are accustomed to defending and running the floor at a frenetic pace.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I wanted the job on the spot. You didn't have to interview me. You didn't have to try to sell me on anything. There was still a process you have to go through but I didn't want to go through the process. I want to give Mike (Anderson) all the credit he deserves for what he did here. If you do well where I was, I couldn't have done anything that hadn't been done before. Here I can do some things that have never been done. That's my vision. First thing I want to do here is I want to sell out. I want to play for a national championship. I want to bring in top-five classes. We need to make this the hottest ticket in the state." — New UAB Coach Mike Davis, who came from Indiana and replaced Mike Anderson when he left UAB for Missouri.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NBA BOUND: The NBA didn't come calling for either Demario Eddins or Squeaky Johnson, but both have the potential to play in the pros, whether overseas or in a developmental league.
KEY RETURNEES: Forwards Frank Holmes and Lawrence Kinnard, guards Paul Delaney and Maurice Gibbs and wings Wen Mukubu and Roderick Ollie.
THE COACH: Mike Davis did a lot of positive things during his six seasons at Indiana, but he was never going to fill Bob Knight's shoes, despite a 115-79 record, four NCAA Tournament appearances and one trip to the Final Four. When he resigned late in the 2005-06 season, it brought a certain relief and closure for the Indiana program and Davis, and allowed Davis to start over. Davis' new opportunity comes in his home state. He was born and raised in Fayette, Davis played at Alabama and later served as a Crimson Tide assistant coach, so he knows a lot about the state's basketball talent and its high school coaches. He initially kept assistant Chris Giles on the staff at UAB but eventually decided to release Giles and hire his own assistants, adding Tracy Dildy from Ole Miss, Kerry Rupp and Donnie Marsh from his staff at Indiana. Even though Davis is finally out from under Knight's immense shadow and the pressure that comes with coaching at Indiana, he still has a lot to prove as a coach, leader and recruiter.
ROSTER REPORT: Davis has said all along that he expects to retain all six scholarship players eligible to return, including senior wing Wen Mukubu. Mukubu originally considered playing professionally overseas but returned to the team and led the team and led the way through the Blazers' spring workouts. Davis was particularly complimentary of both Mukubu and senior guard Mo Gibbs.
Of the four new players who joined the Blazers in the offseason, none is more impressive than Indiana transfer Robert Vaden, a 6-5 guard who averaged 13.5 points per game and led the Hoosiers in 3-pointers last season. Vaden must sit out the 2006-07 season but he still has two years of eligibility remaining and brings quality talent and experience to the roster. He should also be valuable as a practice player this season.
"He'll be able to show the guys what I like both on and off the court," Davis said.
Davis' primary recruiting priorities were signing a juco point guard to replace three-year starter Squeaky Johnson and adding some much-needed size to a lineup that took a beating on the boards the past two seasons. He appeared to accomplish both goals in May by signing Andre White, one of the nation's top-rated junior college point guards, and Jeremy Mayfield, a 6-10, 240-pound center who originally signed with Oklahoma last fall. Mayfield was released from his letter of intent at Oklahoma when coach Kelvin Sampson left Oklahoma for Indiana.