By Jon Rothstein
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1. XAVIER’S DEPTH
Unlike last season when Musketeers coach Chris Mack was limited to a seven man rotation, Xavier will have a plethora of bodies to use on a nightly basis. Naismith Award candidate Tu Holloway returns in the back court with Mark Lyons and big man Kenny Frease also returns in the pivot for his senior season in the Queen City. The biggest X-Factor for this team might be Monmouth transfer Travis Taylor — who according to Mack “has the best second jump he’s ever been coached”. Look for Taylor to start for Xavier at power forward while freshman wing Dez Wells will add energy and toughness. Small forward Justin Martin should provide enhanced three-point shooting for the Musketeers, who might have their best unit since the 2008 outfit that lost to UCLA in the elite eight.
2. TEMPLE’S PERIMETER
Known the past four seasons for Lavoy Allen’s bruising nature on the baseline, the Owls are now synonymous with a stable of guards that may be the deepest bunch in all of college basketball. Senior floor general Juan Fernandez is back to anchor things for Fran Dunphy while Ramone Moore and Scootie Randall are two veteran wings that should both average in double figures. Also back is Khalif Wyatt who enjoyed a breakout season last year for Temple along with Aaron Brown, who started in stretches for the Owls towards the latter portion of last season. Dunphy is also very high on freshman guard Will Cummings, who figures to see spot minutes before assuming a bigger role after Fernandez graduates.
3. RICK MAJERUS’ POTENTIAL REVIVAL
Talk to any coach around the country and they all say they same thing — this is the year Saint Louis reaches the field of 68. The Billikens will get back starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell who sat out all of last season and return a multitude of sophomores and juniors that all played major minutes last season. Keep an eye on Toledo transfer Jake Barnett, who should help Saint Louis with his shooting ability.
4. T.J. MCCONNELL’S DEFENSIVE PROWESS
He may not be regarded as one of the top defensive players in the country on a national level — but the feisty McConnell should be. After setting a school record as a freshman with 91 steals, the 6-foot-1 sophomore leads a talented Dukes perimeter along with Sean Johnson and B.J. Monteiro. The million dollar question for Ron Everhart’s team will be whether or not they can find an inside presence to replace the productive Damian Saunders.
5. 30 MORE GAMES OF ANDREW NICHOLSON
Like an artist working on a portrait, Nicholson is as meticulous as they come on the offensive side of the floor. A lethal scorer who can dominate either inside or out, many have compared the 6-foot-9 senior forward to a poor man’s Tim Duncan. If Nicholson and wing Michael Davenport can get JUCO transfer Eric Mosley to give the Bonnies quality minutes at the point, Mark Schmidt’s team has a legitimate chance to finish in the conference’s top four.
6. ST. JOE’S POWER
Always known for his ability to develop guards, Phil Martelli might now own his best front court ever. Hofstra transfer Halil Kanacevic will make a major impact immediately for the Hawks who might have the best shot blocker in the country in lanky big man C.J. Aiken, who eerily resembles former NBA star Loren Woods. Look for former St. Peter’s Prep (Jersey City) star Ron Roberts to make a major step as a sophomore. If the back court holds up its end of the bargain, Martelli could have City Ave rocking by early February.
7. FORDHAM’S UPGRADES
From the coaches offices to the locker rooms, Tom Pecora has seen the facilities at Rose Hill take a major turn in the right direction — but the Rams biggest changes should be on the hardwood. Thanks to a stellar recruiting class headlined by guards Devon “Fatty” McMillan and NYC combo guard Jeff Short, Fordham’s days in the basement of the A-10 may be numbered. Keep an eye on burly freshman big man Ryan Canty, who should take some of the pressure off junior power forward Chris Gaston, who was fourth in the nation last year in rebounding.
8. CHARLOTTE’S ADDITIONS
Don’t sleep on the 49ers. Alan Major will have the ability to vastly upgrade his guard play in his second season thanks to Georgia transfer DeMario Mayfield and Luka Voncina, who did not qualify last year. Those two should pair nicely with veteran perimeter players Derrio Green, and Jamar Briscoe as well as big man Chris Braswell, who could very well average a double-double this season.
9. CHAZ WILLIAMS’ SPEED
Like a rocket shot out of a cannon, Williams might be the fastest player in college basketball from circle to circle with the ball in his hands. The former Hofstra guard should add an instant burst to Umass and blend nicely on the perimeter with Javorn Farrell, Freddie Riley, and Jesse Morgan. Look for Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg to have his best squad yet in Amherst — one that can peak late in the season if they get a productive year out of big man Raphiael Putney.
10. ARCHIE MILLER HITS OHIO
Many people believe Dayton is one of the sleeper jobs in college basketball and perhaps that’s what made it so attractive for Archie Miller. After spending two seasons under his brother Sean at Arizona, Archie takes over the Flyers and will lean heavily on 6-foot-6 senior forward Chris Johnson. Also look for a big season out of Southern Illinois transfer Kevin Dillard, who will take over the point guard reins from Juwan Staten, who left the Flyers program after one year to transfer to West Virginia.