By Jon Rothstein
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– Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon told reporters this week that he’ll be 100 percent by the time games start in November. The 6-7 Maymon — who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game two years ago — didn’t play last season due to a knee injury, but should instantly become one of the better big men in the SEC. With Maymon, Jarnell Stokes, wing Jordan McRae, and talented freshman Robert Hubbs, Tennessee will have a core that should compete with both Kentucky and Florida at the top of the SEC standings.
– One key observation from St. John’s trip to Europe? Red Storm coach Steve Lavin opted to start Dom Pointer, Jakarr Sampson, and Orlando Sanchez up front and bring shot blocking big man Chris Obekpa off the bench. That type of model is the same thing Lavin did in 2010-11 — the last time St. John’s went to the NCAA Tournament — when he used 6-9 big man Justin Burrell as a sixth man. Obekpa averaged 4.0 blocks per game last season and should be one of the better rim protectors in college basketball, but starting a baseline of Pointer, Sampson, and Sanchez gives this team incredible length across the back line of their match-up zone. There’s no shortage of talent on the Red Storm roster, and the time is now for St. John’s to win. This team is just 30-35 in the last two seasons and can accept nothing less than a berth in the field of 68.
– San Diego State coach Steve Fisher told me earlier this week that Xavier Thames’ sore back is “as good as it’s been since it’s been injured.” “You wouldn’t know he had a back injury,” Fisher said of Thames, who averaged 9.5 PPG last season. “He wasn’t the same last year after he got injured and we weren’t the same either.” If Thames is healthy, the Aztecs should have an excellent chance to reach their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament under Fisher’s watch. San Diego State returns several key pieces from last year in JJ O’Brien, Winston Shepard, and Skylar Spencer while adding an impact transfer who can play immediately in former Tulane star Josh Davis. “He’s a known commodity,” Fisher said of Davis, who averaged 17.6 PPG and 10.7 RPG for the Green Wave last season. “We’re also hopeful that Winston (Shepard) will bust out. He showed flashes of that last year.” The 6-8 Shepard averaged 5.7 PPG and 3.5 RPG last season as a freshman while playing 20.3 minutes per contest.
– Remember the name E.C. Matthews. Rhode Island’s talented freshman scored 23 points on 10 shots during a game on the Rams’ recent trip to Italy. The 6-4 lefty will have the same type of impact in the Atlantic 10 during the upcoming season that Semaj Christon had for Xavier last year — he’s that good.
– Oregon picked up a key piece this week when they landed Detroit transfer Jason Calliste. The 6-2 guard is eligible to play immediately, and averaged 14.4 PPG last season for the Titans while shooting 36.5% from three-point range. Calliste gives Dana Altman’s team insurance if the NCAA does not grant Houston transfer Joseph Young a waiver to play immediately without sitting out a year. His shot making and savvy should give the Ducks another quality perimeter piece along with Dominic Artis, Johnathan Loyd, and Damyean Dotson.
– The Providence staff is quietly confident that freshman forward Rodney Bullock will be a factor in the Friars’ rotation. The 6-7 Bullock wasn’t highly rated coming out of high school, but he fits the mold of the type of under-the-radar recruit Ed Cooley used to land when he was an assistant under Al Skinner at Boston College. A solid shooter with a nose for the ball, Bullock should turn out to be a quality reserve for Providence, who has the personnel to compete for an NCAA bid this season.
– I’m hearing Mick Cronin believes this Cincinnati team may be the best defensive squad he’s had since he’s become a head coach. The Bearcats won’t play with a true post player during the upcoming season and will instead use three forwards in the front court. Expect a breakout season from red shirt sophomore Shaquille Thomas, who really started to emerge towards the end of last year and tallied 12 points and four rebounds in the NCAA Tournament against Creighton. Veterans Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson along with freshman Jermaine Lawrence are the other forwards that will primarily comprise the Bearcats’ baseline. It’s yet to be determined if Cincinnati will be a better offensive team this season, but if they’re as good as Cronin thinks they are defensively, the Bearcats should be able generate more easy baskets off turnovers.
– Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw will visit Washington this weekend and Oregon next weekend, per a source. The 7-footer averaged 4.1 PPG and 3.8 RPG last season for the Bulldogs.
– Expect Temple to regularly use Will Cummings and freshman Josh Brown together in the back court this season. Cummings should be much improved as a junior after having a full year as a starter under his belt, and Brown is the type of guard you hate to play against. A pit bull in every sense of the word, Brown will disrupt the opponent each time he steps on the floor. The Owls have the potential to be really good defensively on the perimeter, but they’re still going to have to identify another scorer to go with Quenton DeCosey if they hope to be competitive in the AAC.
– Indiana State looks like a legitimate challenger to Wichita State in the MVC. Greg Lansing returns three of his top four scorers from last year’s team that lost at Iowa in the NIT and has a special mid-major point guard in Jake Odum. If versatile forward Manny Arop can take another step forward, and 6-8 big man Justin Grant can become slightly better on the boards, the Sycamores should be in the mix for an NCAA bid.
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