College Basketball 2012: VCU, Memphis and the Preseason Non-Big Six Top 25

Todd HawkinsCorrespondent IJune 5, 2011

College Basketball 2012: VCU, Memphis and the Preseason Non-Big Six Top 25

0 of 25

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    With parity reaching an all-time high in college basketball, we're seeing more schools outside of the power six conferences making deep tournament runs in March each year.

    Schools such as Gonzaga and Butler have become the faces of mid-major basketball over the last decade, and have helped create publicity and opportunities for not only teams within their conferences, but other small conferences around the country.

    There has been debate over what the true definition of "mid-major" is as it relates to college basketball and which conferences are considered to be mid-major. Some basketball analysts consider the Mountain West, Atlantic-10, Conference-USA and Western Athletic Conference to be non-mid-major conferences. Others consider any conference outside of the Big Six to be a mid-major conference. 

    To keep it simple, I go with the latter.

    Here's a look into my preseason top 25 from the non-Big Six conferences.

25. George Mason Patriots

1 of 25

    GMU forward Ryan PearsonAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    After 14 seasons as head coach for the Patriots, 60-year-old Jim Larranaga left town to take over the vacant Miami job in late April.

    Replacing Larranaga is former Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt, who went 190-162 over 11 years at the school.  Hewitt didn't waste any time upon arrival, recently landing four-star center Erik Copes and former Seton Hall forward Anali Okoloji, who will sit out 2011-2012 per NCAA rules.

    The Patriots lose senior All-Colonial Athletic combo guard Cam Long to graduation. Long led George Mason in scoring last season at 15.1 points per game.

    The program recently suffered another blow when versatile forward Luke Hancock transferred to Louisville, giving reason to why GMU just barely cracked my poll.  Hancock was the third-leading scorer (10.9 PPG), leading assist man (4.3 APG) and overall glue guy at the three-spot from last season's NCAA tournament team.

    The Patriots will be led this upcoming season by All-CAA forward Ryan Pearson. The 6'6", 225-pounder is the leading returning scorer at 14.2 points per game and is primed to have his best season yet in a GMU uniform as he steps into the role of go-to guy.

    Senior-to-be Andre Cornelius will return at the point, and forwards Mike Morrison and Johnny Williams will return to the frontcourt. 

    Incoming freshman center Copes, ranked No. 55 overall in the 2011 class according to Rivals, chose the Patriots after being released from his letter of intent with George Washington when Karl Hobbs was fired. The 6'8", 220-pound big man has a tenacious motor and is said to be a high level rebounder with impressive shot-blocking ability and hands.

    The Patriots will have a very strong defensive frontcourt with Morrison, Williams, Pearson and Copes.

    The question is, who will pick up the scoring slack other than Pearson now that Long and Hancock are gone? 

    George Mason’s success will depend on whether or not last year’s role-players can fill bigger roles, especially in the backcourt. Looking at you, Vertrail Vaughns. 

    Keep an eye out on 6'4" guard Sherrod Wright, who sat out last season and could step into a scoring role in the backcourt.

24. Ohio University Bobcats

2 of 25

    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    The Bobcats have one of the most exciting playmaking point guards in the country in junior-to-be D.J. Cooper, who stands at only 5'11" and 165 pounds.

    Many will remember Cooper pairing up with Armon Bassett to help knock off the No. 3-seeded Georgetown Hoyas in the 2009 NCAA tournament.

    Last season Cooper was named First-Team All-Mid American and Mid-Major All-American after leading the conference in assists per game (7.5) and OU in scoring per game (15.8).  

    Returning for the Bobcats are 6'8" forwards Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely, along with sharpshooting sophomore-to-be Nick Kellogg, son of CBS college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg. Baltic made major strides last season for the Bobcats and could emerge as one of the best players in the Mid-American Conference.

    Head coach John Groce definitely has this program on the up-and-up after replacing Tim O'Shea in the summer of 2008. Groce, former associate head coach to Thad Matta at Ohio State, continues to burn up the recruiting trail and is bringing in another small-in-stature point guard in 5'9", 150-pound "Little Stevie" Taylor. 

    Taylor is a lightning-quick scoring point guard, who like Cooper, is a human fast break. It’ll be interesting to see if Groce will be able to utilize both point guards. 

    Two other recruits on the way for the Bobcats are shooting guard Joe Mitchell and small forward TyQuane Goard. Mitchell led his Hutchinson (KS) Community College team in scoring at 18.2 points per game and was also the team leader in steals and assists.

    Keep an eye out for 6'7" forward Jon Smith (St. Louis) and 6'3" guard Walter Offut (Ohio State).  Both transfers will be eligible after sitting out last season per NCAA rules and will help fill the void of the departing Tommy Freeman and DeVaughn Washington.

23. Marshall Thundering Herd

3 of 25

    DeAndre KaneAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    Head coach Tom Herrion has been burning up the recruiting trails to help put this program on the map and in return could have the Herd come in at No. 3 behind Memphis and UCF in the Conference USA preseason rankings.

    Marshall's frontcourt took a couple hits with the graduation of forward Tirrell Baines and forward Johnny Thomas announcing in May he would forego his senior season to play overseas. 

    Herrion responded by landing 6'8" power forward Robert Goff, the 18th-ranked JUCO player in the nation, according to JucoJunction.com. Goff had recently been released from his letter of intent by Kruger at Oklahoma.

    Prior to Goff, Herrion also signed another instant contributor to the frontcourt in 6'7" JUCO forward Dennis Tinnon. Tinnon, who arrives from Kansas City Kansas Community College, was the 20th-ranked JUCO prospect after averaging 23.1 points and 13.4 rebounds for KCKCC. 

    Rumor has it 6'8" incoming freshman power forward Jamir Hanner may not qualify academically.  Hanner was graded an 88 by ESPN and was a nice get for the Herd.

    The Marshall backcourt will be absolutely loaded with last season's top two leading scorers returning in 6'5" DeAndre Kane and 5'11" Damier Pitts, along with a few talented guards on the way. Kane proved himself to be one of the most talented freshmen in the C-USA after averaging 15.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists at two-guard. Pitts led the Herd in both scoring (16.2 PPG) and assists (4.7 APG) from the point.

    Senior-to-be reserve guard Shaquille Johnson also returns, but will have to fight for his minutes with 6'3" guard Devince Boykins and 6'5" guard Justin Coleman ready to hit the floor.

    Coleman failed to qualify at Louisville and landed at Marshall, where he sat out last season. He was part of the 2010 class and ranked 50th overall with a 95 grade by ESPN. Boykins, graded an 86 by ESPN, is a physical guard who loves to penetrate and score in the paint; he chose Marshall over Miami (Fla.), Marquette and South Carolina.

    6'6" senior-to-be Dago Pena will return and more than likely start at small forward for the Herd.

22. Virginia Commonwealth Rams

4 of 25

    VCU head coach Shaka SmartRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    It appears as though Shaka Smart is in no rush to go anywhere anytime soon. 

    The university plans to increase student fees so it can give $733,000 more to the basketball program, including coaches’ raises. This should help keep Smart around for a couple more seasons before he moves on to greener pastures.

    The Rams will greatly miss Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell. Their remarkable March run will go down as one of the most memorable in NCAA tournament history.

    The year of Bradford Burgess is quickly approaching though. NBA prospects rave over the 6'6" guard's tools. Burgess will be highly depended on to handle a bulk of the scoring and should make a strong case for Conference Player of the Year in the Colonial. 

    Seven-foot sophomore center D.J. Haley and 6'9" sophomore forward Juvonte Reddic will give the Rams two athletic big men on the frontline who can run the floor in transition. 

    Darius Theus will likely take over at point, and sophomore guards Rob Brandenberg and Troy Daniels will share time at two-guard.

    Smart just signed British point guard Teddy Okereafor in April, who rounds out a new wave of recruits that include shooting guard Briante Weber, power forward Jarred Guest and small forward Treveon Graham.

21. Nevada Wolfpack

5 of 25

    Nevada head coach David CarterEthan Miller/Getty Images

    With Utah St. expected to endure a rebuilding year, and Troy Gillenwater opting to forego his senior season at New Mexico State, the Wolfpack may find themselves as preseason favorites to win the Western Athletic Conference. 

    Nevada returns all five starters, four of whom averaged double figures in scoring. 

    Head coach David Carter brings back all six freshmen from last season, including Deonte Burton, an athletic, explosive scoring point guard who turned a lot of heads during his freshman year. 

    Shooting guard Malik Story and center Devonte Elliot just finished up their trip to China playing for Reach USA, finishing with a record of 6-2-1. 

    Duke transfer Olek Czyz, who started 21 of 23 games last year after becoming eligible, gives Nevada a versatile scoring forward playing alongside senior forward Dario Hunt. 

    The Pack should greatly improve on last season’s 13-19 record.

20. Iona Gaels

6 of 25

    Iona forward Michael GloverChris Chambers/Getty Images

    Iona returns four of its five starters from last year and has done a solid job addressing their needs this offseason.

    The Gaels possess one of the best inside-out duos in all of mid-major basketball with 6'6" forward Mike Glover and 6'1" point guard Scott Machado. Glover, a Mid-Major All-American, averaged 18.4 points and 10.1 rebounds for the Gaels last season. Machado, also a Mid-Major All-American, dished out 7.6 assists, along with 13.2 points per game. 

    Joining Machado in the backcourt will be sharpshooting guards Jermel Jenkins and Kyle Smith, who both averaged right around 10 points per game.

    The Gaels have signed Nyandigisi Moikubo, a 6'7" transfer from Cochise College (Ariz.); Bronx native Taaj Ridley, a 6'7" wing originally out of John F. Kennedy; Ra'Shad James, a 6'1" transfer from St. Thomas Aquinas out of White Plains; 6'7" James Anacreon, a former Francis Lewis standout out of Lake Land junior college (Ill.); 6'9" forward Joshua Gomez, a late bloomer out of Rice High School in New York; and 6'9" power forward George McGrew out of Antelope Valley College.

    The frontcourt took a hit when power forward Alejo Rodriguez played his final season for the Gaels in 2010-2011, but head coach Tim Cluess did a commendable job during the recruiting period in bulking up the front line. 

    Iona should be hungry to get back on the floor after last season’s disappointing loss to underdog St. Peter’s in the MAAC finals. On paper, this may be one of the deepest and most talented Iona teams in more than a decade.

19. Long Beach State 49ers

7 of 25

    LBSU point guard Casper WareVictor Decolongon/Getty Images

    The 49ers return four starters from the regular season Big West Conference championship team: Casper Ware (17.2 PPG, 4.4 APG), Larry Anderson (14.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG), Eugene Phelps (9.7 PPG, 6.8 RPG) and T.J. Robinson (13.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG). 

    Guard Larry Anderson and point guard Casper Ware were named First-Team All-Big West Conference; Forward T.J. Robinson was named Second-Team All-Big West and forward Eugene Phelps was named Honorable Mention All-Big West.

    Long Beach plays an up-tempo style, street brand of basketball and simply tries to outscore opponents. 

    Head Coach Dan Monson did a great job at addressing his 49ers’ needs in the recruiting period by landing point guard Michael Caffey, shooting guard Shaquille Hunter, guard/forward James Ennis and guard/forward Kris Gulley. 

    Caffey, who was graded a 91 by ESPN, was a huge steal by Monson and is said to be a Pac-10-caliber guard who will thrive in this up-tempo system. Hunter, who was graded an 89 by ESPN, is a pure scorer who can knock down the three or take his man off the dribble. The Beach really needed a pure shooter, and he seems to fit the bill. 

    The 49ers were the favorites to win the Big West Conference tourney last season, but were knocked off by UCSB in the finals. Cal State Fullerton and the two-man crew of Johnson and Nunnelly from UCSB will challenge LBSU in the Big West.

18. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

8 of 25

    ORU head coach Scott Sutton with father Eddie SuttonDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

    All five starters return from last season's squad that features two dynamic forwards.

    Senior-to-be forward Dominique Morrison will arguably be the best player in conference now that Oakland’s Keith Benson has moved on to the NBA. The versatile Mid-Major All-American forward averaged 19.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and shot at a 40 percent clip from beyond the arc last season.   

    Scott Sutton’s squad will thrive on the play of their frontcourt through forward Steven Roundtree and center Damen Bell-Holter, both starters from last season who averaged 12.1 and 13.3 points per game, respectively. The 6'7", 190-pound Roundtree was named Mid-Major Freshman of the Year and could really develop into something special when he fills out more physically.

    Sutton landed Korey Billbury, a 6'2" shooting guard out of Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School.  Billbury led his school to a 16-0 record and second consecutive Class 5A State Championship by averaging 16.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game.  He shot 46 percent from three-point range and should contribute for Sutton immediately, giving ORU a needed perimeter threat.

    Another freshman who will fight for playing time is Kansas City point guard D.J. Jackson. ORU struggled at the point guard position at times last year, so that was a point of emphasis for Sutton this offseason.

    The Golden Eagles lost in the Summit League Tournament finals to a talented Oakland squad last season. It appears ORU will be the preseason favorites to come out of the Summit League, and the combo of Morrison and Roundtree could send a few teams packing come March.

17. Kent State Golden Flashes

9 of 25

    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Former head coach Geno Ford surprisingly up and left for Bradley and is currently being sued by the university for $1 million over a contract dispute. 

    Ford leaves behind a solid nucleus of four returning starters to work with, beginning with Mid-Major All-American power forward Justin Greene. Greene led the Golden Flashes in scoring (15.4 PPG) and rebounding (8.3 RPG), often carrying the troops on his back last season through his relentless motor in the paint. 

    Double-figure scorers Carlton Guyton, Michael Porrini and Randal Holt are all set to return to the Kent backcourt.

    New head coach Brad Senderoff didn’t wait long to make his presence felt, signing three-star Memphis shooting guard Kris Brewer and JUCO small forward Chris Evans. 

    Brewer is an excellent athlete and scorer who should contribute immediately on both ends. Evans, a highly-rated JUCO prospect, averaged 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds at Wabash Community College and should also be an asset for the Golden Flashes at the three.

    Kent State suffered a heart-wrenching defeat to Akron in the Mid-American Tournament finals last season. No love has been lost between the two schools in what might be one of the best mid-major rivalries in college basketball.

16. Indiana State Sycamores

10 of 25

    Indiana State point guard Jake OdumGregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The 2011 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament champions look to repeat last season’s success with a solid group returning.

    The Sycamores will be led by hometown product Jake Odum, who might be the best player to come out of Terre Haute, Ind. since a man named Larry Bird. The 6'4", 170-pound point guard is a flat-out playmaker.  He has incredible court vision and sets up his teammates better than anyone in the Valley. If he puts the work into the weight room and gets stronger, the sky is the limit. 

    The Sycamores also return guard Dwayne Lathan and slasher Carl Richard to the backcourt, along with 6'8", 250-pound physical specimen Myles Walker to the frontcourt. 

    With Jake Kelly and Aaron Carter departing, promising returning guards Jordan Printy and Steve McWhorter will see bigger roles in the backcourt.

    Head coach Greg Lansing landed a huge recruit in hometown product Justin Gant. The 6'8", 210-pound power forward has a versatile offensive skill set and will surely make an immediate impact when he joins fellow Terre Haute native Odum on the court.

    Also, keep an eye out on incoming freshman shooting guard Khristian Smith, an Indianapolis native who is coming off a beneficial year of prep school. Smith was graded an 88 by ESPN on his recruiting page.

    Last season's conference tournament run was no fluke, and with the talent returning to Terre Haute, keep the Sycamores on your radar.

15. Butler Bulldogs

11 of 25

    Butler forward Khyle MarshallAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    The loss of Shelvin Mack to the NBA Draft certainly crushed next year’s chances of making a third consecutive Final Four appearance—but that's what all the hoops analysts said when Gordon Hayward declared before last season.

    The Bulldogs still return Ronald Nored and Chase Stigall to the backcourt, along with Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall to the frontcourt. 

    Keep an eye out on sophomore guard Chrishawn Hopkins, a combo guard who could step into a prominent role after seeing very little action last season. He could give the Bulldogs a much-needed offensive spark in the backcourt.

    Coach Brad Stevens will bring in point guard Jackson Aldridge from the prestigious Australian Institute of Sport and should make an immediate impact with Mack moving on to greener pastures. Aldridge was graded a 90 on his ESPN recruiting page and is said to have a scorer's mentality. He could very well be the next Butler standout.

    Also coming in is 6'4" small forward Roosevelt Jones, a hard-nosed, throwback-type player who does a little bit of everything on both ends.  Jones was graded a 91 by ESPN and fits the Butler prototype.

    Rounding out Steven's class are power forward Kameron Woods (88) and small forward Andy Smeathers (87).

    If there’s anything we’ve learned about Brad Steven and his troops, it’s to never count them out. 

14. Detroit Titans

12 of 25

    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Detroit is my pick to win the Horizon after underachieving last season. 

    The Titans return all five starters, including NBA prospects Ray McCallum and Eli Holman, along with leading scorer Chase Simon. 

    McCallum, a highly-rated 6'1" point guard in the 2010 class, chose to play for his father at Detroit instead of taking his talents to a power conference. 

    The 6'10" senior center Holman, an Indiana transfer from a few years back, averaged a double-double this past season for the Titans. 

    Keep an eye on sophomore  forward Nick Minnerath. The 6'6" former JUCO All-American transfer turned quite a few heads around the Horizon with his versatile offensive game. 

    Senior-to-be 6'11" center LaMarcus Lowe averaged 2.4 blocked shots in only 16.4 minutes per game last season. Lowe is more of a defensive presence, but has been steadily improving on the offensive end since transferring in from Western Michigan.

    The Titans enter the 2011-2012 season as the most talented team in the Horizon, on paper.

13. Creighton Blue Jays

13 of 25

    Former Creighton star Kyle KorverJeff Gross/Getty Images

    The Jays return forward Doug McDermott, one of the best freshmen in the country last season. 

    McDermott was named MVC Freshman of the Year and MVC Newcomer of the Year after his outstanding freshman season debut. He became the first freshman since 1952 to be named First-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference, led Creighton in scoring (14.9) and rebounding (7.2), and tied for the team lead with 47 three-pointers made.  His nine double-doubles led the MVC, and he joined Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony as the only freshmen nationally since 2003 with at least 525 points, 270 rebounds and 40 three-pointers in a season. 

    The 6'7" swingman will be joined by point guard Antoine Young and frontcourt anchor Gregory Enchenique in what will be the most talented and balanced trio in the Missouri Valley Conference. 

    Young was named Second-Team All-MVC after his best season yet at Creighton, and Enchenique was selected to the MVC All-Defensive and All-Newcomer teams after transferring in from Rutgers.

    Ethan Wragge, who missed most of last season to injury, will provide help at the three. Incoming freshman shooting guard Avery Dingman, rated an 85 by ESPN, will compete for time with Jahenns Manigat and Josh Jones at the two. Manigat and Jones both put togther solid numbers from beyond the arc last season.

    The Jays landed three-star 6'11" center Geoffrey Groselle, rated an 89 by ESPN. Groselle will play behind Enchenique at the five, providing Creighton with valuable frontcourt depth.

     

12. Belmont Bruins

14 of 25

    Rick Byrd and his team look on during the first round game vs WisconsinChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Bruins finished last season at 30-5 overall, 19-1 in Atlantic Sun Conference play and return four starters looking to shoot for a fifth NCAA appearance in seven seasons. 

    Offensively, Belmont led the nation in scoring margin, was No. 3 in three-point field goals per game and No. 11 in scoring offense. 

    Head coach Rick Byrd made more substitutions than any coach in the nation, as he ran out 11 players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game; Belmont is the definition of "team" basketball. Of those 11 players, nine are set to return for the upcoming season and will partake in a trip to Italy this summer, which should help build team chemistry.

    The Bruins, formerly an NAIA school in the 1990's, have had winning seasons in eight of the past 10 years, including six straight. Unfortunately, the program has yet to win a tournament game in four tries; they came close in 2008 by taking Duke down to the very last second.

    Belmont will eventually move to the Ohio Valley Conference for the 2012-2013 season.

11. New Mexico Lobos

15 of 25

    New Mexico forward Drew GordonEthan Miller/Getty Images

    The loss of point guard Dairese Gary will sting a bit, but the Lobos return talented forward Drew Gordon, and the backcourt duo of Kendall Williams and Phillip McDonald.

    Gordon, the 6'9" former UCLA transfer, averaged a double-double (13.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG) in 26 games played last season. Sophomore-to-be Williams looks to be a star in the making for Alford and should be just fine inheriting the team from Gary. Williams averaged 11.6 points and 4.0 assists per game last season.

    Senior-to-be forward A.J. Hardeman and sophomore-to-be center Alex Kirk return to the frontcourt for the Lobos, and hometown product Chase Adams is expected to make progress from his freshman season at the three.

    Coach Alford’s team finished 22-13 and 8-8 in Mountain West play this past season with only one senior on roster. The talent coming back to Albuquerque, coupled with the home-court advantage of the Pit should help propel the Lobos toward a Mountain West title. 

    Alford recently landed one of the best players left in the 2011 class in 6'7" forward Jarion Henry. Henry, graded a 90 by ESPN, chose the Lobos over the likes of Marquette, UTEP, Miami (Fla.), USC and Oregon.

    West Coast shooting guard Dominique Dunning is another likely immediate contributor for Alford. Dunning was also graded a 90 by ESPN and is said to be deadly in the open court.

10. Wichita State Shockers

16 of 25

    Wichita guard David KylesJim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The 2011 NIT champions will no longer be one of the deepest teams in the country after the losses of J.T. Durley, Gabe Blair, Aaron Ellis and Graham Hatch. 

    But Wichita does return talented players, starting with the backcourt of Toure’ Murry, David Kyles and Joe Ragland; the backcourt trio will be the best in the MVC.

    This could also be the year for seven-foot center Garret Stutz, who should see his minutes and scoring production nearly double. Stutz showed flashes of dominance throughout last season, and a break-out campaign could be in the cards for his senior year. 

    The loyal fanbase received great news when the school and Marshall agreed to a contract through 2018. Coach Marshall did a great job at addressing his team's frontcourt needs on the recruiting trail.

    He landed a huge get back in October 2010 in 6'8", 215-pound power forward Jake White. White is an inside-out scoring threat and should make an immediate impact for the Shockers after adding 15 pounds of weight to his frame over the last two years of high school. 

    JUCO transfer Carl Hall will also be an impact player for the Shockers. The 6'8" power forward is one of the highest rated JUCO players in the country.

    Keep an eye out on highly-touted JUCO prospect Keith DeWitt, a 6'10", 220-pound power forward.  Rumor has it DeWitt is seeking his release from Southern Miss so he can follow the man who recruited him, Wichita State assistant Greg Heiar, who was recently hired by the Shockers.

    The team will take an offseason trip to Brazil from Aug. 7-18.

9. UNLV Runnin' Rebels

17 of 25

    UNLV guard Anthony MarshallTom Pennington/Getty Images

    It won't be the same without Lon Kruger on the sidelines at UNLV, but life goes on. 

    The school hired Dave Rice, a former UNLV player who won a championship at the school in 1990 and promised he would get back to their well-known up-tempo style. The 42-year-old served as an assistant under Jerry Tarkanian and three other coaches before Kruger arrived in 2004. 

    The Runnin’ Rebels will miss guards Tre’Von Willis and Derrick Jasper, but the cupboard is far from bare. Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Quintrell Thomas—all starters from last season—will lead the way for UNLV. 

    If centers Carlos Lopez and Brice Massamba can further develop their games to help balance out the frontcourt, Rice's squad will challenge New Mexico for the Mountain West. 

    Watch out for UCLA transfer Mike Moser, a 6'8" forward ranked 92nd overall in the 2009 class by Rivals.  Moser sat out last season per NCAA rules and will be eligible for 2011-2012. 

    Marquette transfer guard Reggie Smith will also be eligible for the Runnin’ Rebels after the fall semester; Smith chose UNLV over Arkansas, N.C. State, Nebraska and Florida State back in January. He will fit in nicely in Rice's up-tempo style of play.

8. Central Florida Knights

18 of 25

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    After cracking the top 25 in hoops for the first time in school history with a 14-0 start last season, the youthful Knights immediately unraveled, losing the next eight consecutive Conference USA games.

    Expectations are still high around the program as UCF returns several key players from last year’s rotation, including leading scorers Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton. Clanton, who averaged 14.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in the post, just finished up playing for Reach USA in China this summer. Jordan led UCF in scoring last season at 15.2 points per game. He played through ankle and back injuries though, which may have hampered his production a bit.

    Head coach Donnie Jones brings in arguably his best class yet, a list of wings/small forwards who should immediately resurrect the program. Fowards Rod Days (90), Wayne Martin (89) and Kasey Wilson (89) are all highly rated by ESPN and should help put the Knights back on the map.

    Headlining the class will be four-star 6'10" center Michael Chandler, ranked 55th overall by Rivals and graded a 95 by ESPN. Chandler will help balance out the Knights’ frontcourt and will play alongside Clanton. 

    Virginia transfer Tristan Spurlock will be eligible for the upcoming season. Spurlock, a small forward, will thrive in Jones’ up-tempo attack. Illinois transfer Jeff Jordan will share time with A.J. Rompza at the point after sitting out last season per NCAA rules. Former Oregon forward Josh Crittle will also be eligible after sitting out last season.

7. BYU Cougars

19 of 25

    BYU guard Charles AbouoEthan Miller/Getty Images

    The Cougars will join the likes of Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference in 2011-2012. 

    Just because Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery are gone, don’t go counting out Dave Rose and his troops. 

    Rose will bring in UCLA transfer combo guard Matt Carlino, along with freshman combo guard DeMarcus Harrison and point guard Anson Winder. Carlino won’t be eligible until after the fall semester, so Harrison and Winder will be counted on to contribute immediately in the backcourt. Scouts rave over Harrison's athleticism and scoring ability; the Cougars snagged him away from schools such as Clemson, Florida State, Wisconsin and Marquette. 

    With 6'9" power forward Brandon Davies more than likely to return to action and 6'9" forward Chris Collingsworth back from injury, the Cougars will have a formidable frontcourt. 

    Look for sharpshooting forward Noah Hartsock and slasher Charles Abouo to help pick up the scoring for BYU. 

    Guard Kyle Collingsworth, brother of Chris, left after last season to serve his Mormon mission in Russia.

6. St. Mary's Gaels

20 of 25

    St. Mary's guard Matthew DellavedovaEthan Miller/Getty Images

    It may take some time for the Gaels to adjust to life without West Coast Conference Player of the Year Mickey McConnell, who led them to a 25-9 overall record and a regular season co-championship. McConnell was named to the Mid-Major All-American team and led the Gaels in scoring (16.4 PPG), assists (6.1 APG) and three-point percentage (45.6 percent). 

    On a positive note, the Gaels return eight players who logged significant minutes last year, including four starters.

    The inside-out duo of Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones will help lead the way. 

    Jones averaged 13.8 points and 7.7 rebounds during his redshirt junior season. He also attempted nearly five 3's per game, hitting at a 33.1 percent clip, which have a few critics saying he spends more time out on the wing than he should. He'll be joined in the frontcourt by fellow forwards Mitchell Young, Clint Steindl, Kenton Walker ll and Tim Williams. 

    Dellavedova averaged 13.4 points and 5.3 assists per game last season. With McConnell gone, don't be surprised if 'Dova increases his scoring production to around 20 points per contest. SMU transfer Paul McCoy will be eligible after sitting out last season and could help fill McConnell’s void at point guard, allowing Dellavedova to see some minutes at two-guard.

    Sharpshooting guard Jorden Page will also be back in action after missing all but the first seven games of last season due to a knee injury.

5. Harvard Crimson

21 of 25

    Harvard head coach Tommy AmakerJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Crimson are set to return all five starters from the 23-7 squad that fell just short to Princeton in last season’s league tie-breaker game for a shot at an NCAA tournament bid. Princeton went on to give Kentucky everything they could handle in the first round of the NCAA tournament, eventually falling to Brandon Knight's game-winning layup in the final seconds. 

    Harvard will be led by Mid-Major All-American 6'8" forward Keith Wright, who led the Crimson in scoring (14.8 PPG), field-goal percentage (58.4 percentage), rebounding (8.3 RPG) and blocked shots (1.8 BPG). 

    Four guards who averaged double-figure scoring are set to return to the backcourt: Christian Webster (13.0 PPG), Laurent Rivard (11.0 PPG), Oliver McNally (10.1 PPG) and point guard Brandyn Curry (9.3 PPG, 5.9 APG).

    Harvard didn't possess a whole lot of depth—especially in the frontcourt—and virtually went six deep last season. But with a highly-praised recruiting class on the way, that could quickly change.

    Head coach Tommy Amaker will bring in star-star forward Wesley Saunders out of Los Angeles; he is ranked 88th overall by Rivals in the 2011 class. The 6'6" versatile forward is expected to be one of the best players to ever come through the Ivy when it's all said and done.

    Also on the way is 6'7", 260-pound center Kenyatta Smith, rated a 90 by ESPN. He's a big-bodied, yet undersized five with nimble feet, a knack for rebounding, great passing abilities and can finish with authority. Instead of signing with a Pac-10 school and sitting, he chose Harvard where he can immediately contribute.

    The additions of Saunders and Smith make this one of the most talented teams the Ivy has seen in a long time.

4. Xavier Musketeers

22 of 25

    Xavier guard Tu HollowayAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    Two words: Tu Holloway. 

    The six-foot senior-to-be guard has plenty of motivation this offseason after passing on the NBA Draft.  I’d be willing to bet Holloway still has a sour taste left in his mouth from the poor 1-for-8 shooting performance he put on against Marquette in last season’s first round of the NCAA tournament. 

    Including Holloway, the Musketeers return their top three scorers in center Kenny Frease and guard Mark Lyons. Three-point specialist Brad Redford will also return to action after sitting out all of last season with a knee injury. 

    Head coach Chris Mack has three freshmen from Rivals’ 2011 top 150 class rankings on the way to help fill the void of Jerel McLean and Dante Jackson: four-star 6'4", 220-pound forward Dezmine Wells (No. 76); three-star 6'9", 210-pound forward Jalen Reynolds (No. 111); and four-star 5'9", 160-pound guard Darwin Davis (No. 123). 

    Out of the three, Wells should make the quickest impact, known as a physically-imposing body and shut-down defender. 

    Monmouth transfer forward Travis Taylor and redshirt freshman slasher Justin Martin will also be immediate impact players for Mack after sitting out last season. The 6'8", 200-pound Taylor averaged 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds during his sophomore season at Monmouth, and the 6'7", 215-pound Martin has one of the smoothest strokes in the nation.

    If Taylor and Martin play to their abilities and the freshmen to their ratings, Xavier could eventually head this list.

3. Gonzaga Bulldogs

23 of 25

    Gonzaga center Robert SacreEthan Miller/Getty Images

    Despite the departures of Demetri Goodson and Steven Gray, Mark Few brings in a guard-heavy 2011 class to help shoot for their 12th consecutive regular-season West Coast Conference title.

    The Bulldogs return two full-time starters and three part-time starters—each of whom started at least eight games last season.

    Leading the way for the Zags will be center Robert Sacre and forward Elias Harris. 

    The seven-foot Sacre should be the most dominant post presence in the WCC and will help shoulder more of the offensive load this season. Harris suffered shoulder and Achilles injuries, which hindered his production and athleticism at the beginning of last season. He should be able to raise his NBA stock back to where it was after his freshman season if he puts in the work this summer.

    The return of seven-foot power forward Kelly Olynyk and 6'9" center Sam Dower will once again give the Zags an array of giant frontcourt options. Small forwards Mangisto Arop and Mathis Monninghoff will back Harris up at the three.

    With Goodson transferring to play football for Baylor, guards Marquise Carter, David Stockton and Mathis Keita will see more minutes in the backcourt. Carter didn't quite live up to his expectations coming in from Three Rivers Community College, but freshman walk-on Stockton exceeded expectations, in return earning himself a scholarship.

    The departure of Goodson will also open the door for incoming freshman point guard Kevin Pangos.  The 6'1" Pangos, rated a 92 by ESPN, is one of the top players to come out of Canada. 

    Incoming freshman Gary Bell will help fill the void of Steven Gray at shooting guard. Bell, a 6'2", 175-pound sharpshooter, was named Washington’s Mr. Basketball at the end of the 2011 season and was also the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. He should thrive in the Zags' up-tempo style and is destined to knock down plenty of three's in transition throughout his career.  

2. Temple Owls

24 of 25

    Temple point guard Juan FernandezChris Chambers/Getty Images

    After a first-round win over Penn State and one shot away from advancing to the Sweet 16, the NCAA tournament monkey has finally been lifted off coach Stan Dunphy’s back. 

    The Owls return four starters from last year’s team, including the backcourt scoring tandem of point guard Juan Fernandez and shooting guard Ramone Moore. 

    Moore was named Second-Team All-Atlantic-10 after leading the Owls in scoring at 15.2 points per game. The 6'4" Philly guard more than doubled his scoring average from his sophomore season. Fernandez was named Third-Team All-A-10 after averaging 11.2 points per game and leading the team in assists with 3.9 per game.

    The Owls will certainly miss Lavoy Allen, but forwards Scootie Randall, Rahlir Jefferson and center Michael Eric will provide the Owls with a formidable frontcourt in the Atlantic 10. Eric missed the final 10 games of last season including the NCAA tournament after suffering a season-ending knee injury. The 6'10" center will help balance out the Temple frontcourt.

    The 6'6" Randall, who was named Honorable Mention All-A-10, suffered a foot injury toward the end of the regular season. He tried to make a comeback in the NCAA tournament, but was limited to six shaky minutes against Penn State in the first round and 74 seconds against San Diego State in the second. Randall also received the Chris Daniels Award as the A-10's most improved player.

    Junior-to-be 6'4" guard Khalif Wyatt was named the A-10's newcomer of the year and will likely retain the same role this upcoming season.

    Jacksonville point guard Will Cummings, rated a 91 by ESPN, could make an immediate impact as a freshman if he continues to improve upon his perimeter shooting. Cummings is a ball-hawking defender and will fit in perfectly with the Owls.

1. Memphis Tigers

25 of 25

    Memphis forward Will BartonRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Head coach Josh Pastner couldn’t have done a better job of addressing his team’s needs during the recruiting period. 

    The arrival of five-star power forward Adonis Thomas and JUCO power forward Stan Simpson has the city of Memphis buzzing once again. 

    The 6'6" Thomas, ranked 17th overall in his class by Rivals, is a multifaceted forward and matchup nightmare for defenders on the offensive end. Simpson was rated the No. 7 overall junior college prospect by JucoJunction.com. The 6'10" forward averaged 12.6 points, 8.3 boards and 1.9 blocked shots per game for John Logan College in 2010-2011.

    Despite losing lone senior forward Will Coleman, the Tigers return last season’s heralded freshmen class in Tarik Black, Joe Jackson, Antonio Barton, Will Barton and Chris Crawford. With one year of experience under their belts, look for Memphis to improve upon last season’s heartbreaking first-round tournament loss to Arizona. 

    If 6'9" forward Wesley Witherspoon can stay out of the doghouse and healthy, the sky is the limit for the Memphis Tigers.