By Jon Rothstein
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– VCU coach Shaka Smart said this week that he plans to regularly use 10 or 11 players next season. The Rams — who will be picked to win the Atlantic 10 — will also have the luxury of playing both big or small — something they didn’t necessarily have a year ago when they regularly used 6-5 wing Treveon Graham at power forward. “I think in order to be really good, you have to be able to play both ways,” Smart said. “When we went to the Final Four a few years ago, we could do that. We had the option of being big or small.” The addition of Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon will immediately bolster VCU’s size, but another name to watch is red shirt freshman Mo Alie-Cox. The 6-6, 260 pound Alie-Cox didn’t play last season, but is a bruiser in the paint that could have an impact thanks to his overall physicality.
– No list of breakout players for next season can omit Colorado’s Xavier Johnson. The 6-6 lefty had moments of brilliance last year when he played extended minutes and should see plenty of time as an undersized power forward after Andre Roberson’s decision to leave the Buffaloes for the NBA. Johnson started in place of Roberson when Colorado played Oregon late in the year, and torched the Ducks as a four man. In 22 minutes, Johnson scored 22 points and was a perfect 7-7 from the field. His potential emergence is a major reason why Colorado is expected to be one of the better teams in the PAC-12.
– Don’t be surprised to see Pitt freshman Mike Young start at power forward for the Panthers. The 6-8 Young is highly skilled and really developed his face up game during his senior year of high school. Pitt returns several quality pieces on the perimeter, but Young has an opportunity to have an immediate impact up front for the Panthers next to veteran big man Talib Zanna.
– Iowa’s foreign trip to Europe is beyond pivotal for the Hawkeyes. After just missing the NCAA Tournament last season, anything less than the field of 68 will be a major disappointment for the Hawkeyes. Fran McCaffery returns the bulk of last year’s team that reached the finals of the Postseason NIT, and has four quality starters cemented in Mike Gesell, Devyn Marble, Aaron White, and Adam Woodbury. The real wild card for Iowa? Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff. The 6-8 forward was a Top 100 recruit a few years ago and has all the makings of an impact addition for the Hawkeyes. With Uthoff in the fold, and some improved outside shooting, Iowa could be a team that has a chance to finish in the top four of the Big Ten.
– NC State coach Mark Gottfried told me that he’s thinking of playing Tyler Lewis and freshman Anthony “Cat” Barber together in the back court next season. We’ve seen more and more coaches used a dual point guard attack and the combination of Lewis and Barber has the potential to be exceptionally potent. Lewis only played 12.4 minutes per game last season as a freshman, but seems primed for a breakout year as a sophomore. Barber is one piece of a talented recruiting class for the Wolfpack that also includes high-level prospects such as big men Lennard Freeman, BeeJay Anya, and Kyle Washington along with JUCO transfer Desmond Lee.
– The addition of Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall gives Arizona State a legitimate chance of being an NCAA Tournament team in 2014. The Sun Devils had three quality pieces in Jahii Carson, Jonathan Gilling, and Jordan Bachysnki, but lacked a proven scorer on the wing. Marshall will give this team a shot maker from deep, and someone who can extend the floor to open up driving lanes for Carson. Last year at Penn State, Marshall averaged 15.3 PPG and made 59 three-point shots.
– The George Mason staff quietly believes that senior guard Bryon Allen will emerge as one of the better perimeter players in the Atlantic 10 during the Patriots’ first year in the conference. The 6-3 Allen finished last season on a tear, reaching double-figures in eight of his last 11 games and has completely changed his body this off-season due to an increased commitment to conditioning. George Mason may have played in the CAA last season, but their roster is capable of having an immediate impact in the Atlantic 10 with players like Allen, Erik Copes, and fifth-year senior Sherrod Wright.
– South Florida and Alabama have agreed to a home and home series starting this winter in Tampa. The Bulls will return the game during the 2014-15 season in Tuscaloosa.
– It’s tough not to like what Joe Mihalich is doing at Hofstra. The Pride will take their lumps next season, but they’re positioned to be a major player in the CAA in 2014-15. Since Mihalich was named Hofstra’s head coach, he’s landed three high-level transfers — Juan’ya Green (Niagara), Ameen Tanksley (Niagara), and most recently Brian Bernardi (SMU). Tanksley and Green both played for Mihalich at Niagara, and followed their coach to his new post while Bernardi is a New York native who opted to come home. Keep an eye on this team down the road.
– Looking for an under-the-radar PAC-12 player for next season? Try Washington State’s Que Johnson. The 6-5 Johnson was academically ineligible last year and should be an instant impact guy for the Cougars as a red shirt freshman. “He’s a Klay Thompson type player,” Washington State coach Ken Bone told me this week. “He may not look like Klay right away but that’s what we’re hoping he becomes. Que is a 6-5 wing that can really stroke it and extend defenses”. Don’t sleep on this team. The Cougars may not be in the PAC-12’s top six or seven, but still could be a nuisance to play in Pullman thanks to their perimeter of Johnson, DaVonte Lacy, and Royce Woolridge.
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