CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bruce Pearl is ready for his return to college basketball with Auburn. And he's ready for his return to the SEC, a league that he believes doesn't get enough praise.

That will change this season because the SEC will send multiple programs to the NCAA tournament, he said.

The former Tennessee coach guaranteed that five or more SEC squads will be dancing in March.

Three teams -- Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee -- represented the conference in last year's NCAA tourney.

"We're going to have five, at least five teams in the tournament this year," Pearl told Wednesday. "At least five. ... So I'm just telling you. Jump on the bandwagon now."

His colleagues in the league supported that notion.

Asked to respond to Pearl's guarantee, Kentucky's John Calipari said, "It should be [a five-bid league]. It should be."

Florida coach Billy Donovan said that the SEC should send five teams or more to the NCAA tournament each season.

"I think the same thing could have been said last year," Donovan said. "I think if you look at the fact that Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky are in, but you know what? Arkansas is right there on the bubble. Missouri is right there on the bubble. Georgia is hovering. They close well. That would have made it five or six teams right there. I don't think there's any reason why this league can't be anywhere from five to seven teams year in and year out."

Four other observations from SEC Media Day:
  • Calipari's platoon substitution system will allow him to use his unrivaled depth and talent this season. However, he told that he's not afraid to switch from the five-in, five-out concept when necessary. He's confident that the strategy will work because Tyler Ulis will lead the second unit. "If you don't have that confident guy running that other group ... problems," Calipari said. "It'll be interesting. I'm committed to it."

  • Chris Walker didn't play much last season after dealing with academic issues and an NCAA reprimand stemming from impermissible benefits he received in high school. But he'll play a larger role this season for Florida now that Patric Young has graduated. But Donovan cautioned that Walker is still raw. "He was crawling when he got there," Donovan said. "Now he's up, walking. He's walking around now. We need him running and moving. ... I don't want to add added expectations on a kid that's not prepared to handle that." Donovan said two areas that need work are Walker's all-around offensive game and his pick-and-roll defense.

  • Arkansas' Bobby Portis, a potential lottery pick in next summer's NBA draft who grew nearly two inches this summer, said he doesn't feel any pressure over his future. And coach Mike Anderson said Portis hasn't allowed the buzz to bother him. He said he's still leading with his work ethic and commitment. He appears to be a humble young man who's not putting his goals above his team's.

  • Kentucky has Drake. Memphis has Rick Ross. LSU coach Johnny Jones can turn to Shaq, the legendary center who also dropped a few rap albums, whenever he wants to promote his program. Then again, MC Johnny Jones doesn't really need the help, he said. "Well, unfortunately those guys have to call people but I can do a little [rapping] myself," Jones joked. "Any time Shaq and those guys can come around, I think it's always a positive. We feel like we have a lot to sell but that's good for those other programs."


NEW YORK -- Here are five observations from Big East basketball media day:

1. Big East commissioner Val Ackerman began media day here making her position on the shifts in college athletics -- and that of her league presidents -- abundantly clear.

"I think it's important from a national level to acknowledge that college sports programs are just that -- college programs," said the former WNBA and USA Basketball president. "The difference between the professional level and the college level is night and day. … College athletes are not employees."

That said, Ackerman and the Big East know that in order to survive, they have to keep up with the big boys. Absent football money and some of the traditional programs that have made the league's brand in the past, conference members recognize that playing ostrich to the changes will only hurt their teams.

As the Power 5 wins autonomy and heads toward cost of attendance, the Big East schools have no intention of falling behind. The presidents have all agreed that, going forward, their response will be simple.

As Providence coach Ed Cooley said simply, "Whatever the football five do, the Big East will be right there with them."

2. A year after the Big East counted arguably the best college basketball player in the country among its players, the league is lacking star power.

Now to be fair, Doug McDermott doesn't come along every year and no one was gong to match the Creighton's star appeal.

Still it's interesting that there is no real face of this league -- not a player's anyway -- at least not yet.

[+] EnlargeD'Vauntes Smith-Rivera
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesGeorgetown's D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was tabbed as the preseason Big East player of the year.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was chosen as the preseason player of the year but he is hardly an obvious pick. The Georgetown guard, a second-team selection last year, averaged 17.6 points per game for a team that finished a pedestrian 18-15 last season.

Truth be told, any of the first-team selections -- Butler's Kellen Dunham, St. John's D'Angelo Harrison, Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston, and Xavier's Matt Stainbrook -- could have been tabbed the favorite.

Is that a problem for the Big East? Maybe, maybe not.

"If you look at last year, were we a better conference just because we had Doug McDermott in the league?” Georgetown's John Thompson III said. "Having good players is important, but having good teams is more important."

3. Looney Tunes might be a little before his time, but Kris Dunn knows who the Tasmanian Devil is.

He is the Tasmanian Devil.

That's what his coach calls him.

And that's how he's playing.

"Yeah, I probably get going a little too fast sometimes because I just want to go," the Providence sophomore said.

Hard to blame him. Only a sophomore, Dunn has been snakebit by injury, missing the better part of his freshman season with a torn labrum and then all but three games last year with a recurrence of the same injury.

Heralded as the recruit that would guide the Friars back to the tourney, he instead sat on the sidelines as Providence earned its way to March without him.

Dunn was finally cleared last month and now is just biding his time, waiting for a game.

[+] EnlargeSteve Wojciechowski
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsSteve Wojciechowski said the appeal of coaching at Marquette and in the Big East is that basketball is No. 1, just as it was at Duke.
"One thing you won't hear from me -- I won't complain," Dunn said. "Not once. I'm so happy to be playing again, you won't hear me complain once."

4. Growing up in Baltimore, Steve Wojciechowski was caught on the bubble between Maryland-loving ACC fans and D.C.-favoring Big East aficionados.

His allegiances were always clear.

"My favorite player growing up was Len Bias," he said. "I had a poster of him on my wall, so I was always more of an ACC guy."

Now after spending both his playing and coaching lifetime in that league, Wojciechowski makes the jump to the Big East, as the new head coach at Marquette.

No doubt there are differences between the two leagues -- especially as the ACC expands by swallowing up Big East members Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse -- but Wojciechowski said that his new league is a lot like his former employer, if not his former conference.

The appeal of Marquette -- along with the obvious history of success -- was to work at a place and in a league where basketball was at the top of the pecking order, just as it is at Duke.

"We are in the driver's seat," he said. "We're a priority. Even the really good programs that have football are still riding shotgun."

5. Some dribbles: Villanova was one vote shy of the unanimous selection to win the Big East. Georgetown received the lone outlier vote. … Chris Mack's daughter, Lainee, made her second Big East media day appearance, sitting next to her dad at the Xavier table. Of his 9-year-old daughter, Mack quipped, ‘This is old hat to her. She's been to more media days than Matt here,' motioning to senior center Matt Stainbrook, sitting to Mack's left. ... DePaul was picked last in the league, continuing a trend of ignominy. In the last six years, the Blue Demons have only been picked higher than last just once. In 2012, DePaul started the preseason picked to finish 13th. The Blue Demons ended up finishing last. DePaul has had one winning league record since joining the league in 2005 and has won just 30 Big East games in that time. ... St. John's coach Steve Lavin turned media day into casual Wednesday, sporting a warm-up suit to the festivities. Perhaps he jogged over from his Manthattan home?
Bruce Pearl is not a shy man. Whether it was painting his bare chest orange, singing "Rocky Top" in the cafeteria or firing up players, students and fans in any way possible, the former Boston College mascot never shied away from the spotlight at Tennessee and never missed a chance to promote and market his program.

Well, he's now at Auburn and is picking up right where he left off.

Take what happened recently during a marketing class on campus. In front of dozens of unsuspecting students, the Tiger cheerleaders, mascot and marching band -- along with top player KT Harrell and Pearl himself -- marched right into the classroom and formed their own little pep rally.

And amidst it all, the one-and-only Bruce Pearl is yelling, waving his arms and just doing assorted Bruce Pearl things. Take a look...

Kentucky coach John Calipari assembled a can't-miss roster with enough can't-miss talent to hold his own practice for NBA scouts on campus. Some early mock drafts have as many as seven Wildcats being taken in the 2015 NBA draft, including at least three potential first-rounders.

With that roster, surely Kentucky can't miss raising its ninth national title banner come April, right?

Not exactly.

Stacking talent doesn't guarantee stacking titles. Over the past 20 seasons, only 12 teams have had rosters that included at least three first-round picks in the same draft class. Only five (Kentucky 1996 and 2012; North Carolina 2005 and 2009; Florida 2007) got a title to match their considerable talent.

If Kentucky is to become the sixth, it has to navigate potential pitfalls that doomed these can't-miss teams:

1998-99 Duke
The first-rounders: Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette, William Avery
The downfall: The Blue Devils were the epitome of a can't-miss team. They lost only once in the regular season and were a 9.5-point favorite in the title game against Connecticut. If Duke went into the game a bit overconfident, it had good reason to be based on the regular season. The Huskies were quite confident, too, riding Richard Hamilton's 27 points to the upset in the championship game.

2005-06 UConn
The first-rounders: Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone
The downfall: The Huskies were ranked in the top four all season, but fell apart in the postseason. UConn's loss to No. 9 seed Syracuse in the Big East tournament should have been a premonition. The Orange, at the time, became the lowest seed to win the league tournament. The Huskies were on the wrong side of Cinderella again, falling to No. 11 seed George Mason in the Elite Eight.

2006-07 Ohio State
The first-rounders: Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook
The downfall: Before all the injuries, Greg Oden was being billed as a once-in-a-generation-type center. He lifted the Buckeyes to the Final Four, but they had the misfortune of running up against another can't-miss team in the Final Four. Florida beat the Buckeyes en route to capturing its second of back-to-back titles.

2009-10 Kentucky
The first-rounders: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton
The downfall: John Calipari's first year ushered in the class that re-established Kentucky on the national scene. The Wildcats got hit with a perfect storm of surprises against West Virginia, starting with backup point guard Joe Mazzulla, he of a 2.2 point average, scoring a career-high 17 points. The Wildcats also didn't expect to be stumped by the Mountaineers' 1-3-1 zone and they were eliminated in the Elite Eight.

2011-12 UNC
The first-rounders: Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall
The downfall: The Tar Heels, the preseason No. 1 ranked team, seemed destined for a showdown with Kentucky -- the other can't-miss team of 2012 -- who edged the Heels in a 73-72 classic in Rupp Arena. The rematch never materialized. Point guard was the one position that Carolina couldn't afford an injury and Marshall suffered a wrist injury the second game of the tournament.

3-point shot: Continuing the Big East tour

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22

Andy Katz continues his Big East look and discusses Xavier, Creighton, and Providence.

3-point shot: Georgetown, John Thompson III confident

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
Andy Katz talks about John Thompson III and Georgetown's prospects this season.

3-point shot: Villanova coach Jay Wright

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
Andy Katz talks to Villanova coach Jay Wright about early impressions at practice.
Green Bay point guard Keifer Sykes has no respect for gravity or feelings. And he can fly.

That’s not a good thing for 6-foot-9 forward Kerem Kanter, the younger brother of Utah Jazz standout Enes Kanter. In Tuesday’s practice, Sykes – 6 feet tall on a great day – dunked on Kanter via an alley-oop on the in-bounds pass from teammate Jordan Fouse.

You can see Sykes yelling after the dunk and his teammates walking away from the scene to collect their thoughts.

Warn your friends.


3-point shot: Wisconsin's conference play

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Andy Katz discusses Wisconsin, Florida and UConn.
When you've got 13 players per team in a 351-team sport, it isn't easy to establish superlatives. Who has the most style? Whose jump shot is prettiest? With so many players out there, how can we be sure we aren't overlooking some hidden aesthetic gem?

Utah State forwards Sean Harris and Jalen Moore are determined to prevent that outcome. This week, they staged a minor social media campaign to ensure their mutual love of hair received the proper amount of attention.

So: Best hair in hoops? That's a strong contender, but we need to process a few other prospective applicants before we go handing out any awards. (In other words, submit via Twitter.)

Five Takeaways: Big Ten media day

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Big Ten coaches and players gathered again for the league’s annual media day on Thursday.

Here are my five takeaways from the event:

  1. [+] EnlargeBo Ryan
    AP Photo/Morry GashBo Ryan has four starters returning from last year's team that made a Final Four run.
    Same ol' Wisconsin. The Badgers, who were picked to win the league for the first time under Bo Ryan, didn’t arrive by chariot. Sam Dekker wasn’t wearing sunglasses and a gold chain, either. If all the hype and buzz that followed last year’s Final Four run has changed Wisconsin, the program is doing a great job of hiding it. “Well, it really doesn't affect when we're doing; our transition defensive drills, I don't think my guys are thinking about that,” Ryan said. “Our guys live in the moment, or at least we're trying to -- it appears that way. They're trying to get better. They know there's weaknesses to shore up, and we're trying to accentuate our strengths." One strength that Ryan pointed to was the team’s overall depth. He says he has seven starters with Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan all potentially working their way into the starting rotation. Four starters return, including Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year. They’re obviously facing more scrutiny and the expectations are higher, but the Badgers seem as humble and reserved as they were when they became accustomed to being the perennial underdogs in the league.
  2. Where are the stars? In recent years, the Big Ten has been carried by some big names who shaped the league’s identity. Jared Sullinger, Greg Oden, Draymond Green, Robbie Hummel, Cody Zeller, Adreian Payne and others were marquee names that resonated on the national scale. But outside Wisconsin’s roster, it’s difficult to find those stars in the Big Ten. There are certainly some candidates who could emerge in the coming months. A.J. Hammons could have a big year for Purdue. Branden Dawson is finally “The Man” at Michigan State. Caris LeVert could be Michigan’s next lottery pick. Rayvonte Rice is a talented player who could make some noise. Aaron White at Iowa could, too. But it’s odd to survey the room and not see the kind of recognizable talent that the Big Ten often enjoys. But the good news for the league is that it has produced a multitude of breakout stars, including Victor Oladipo and Nik Stauskas, in recent years. That could happen again this season. Right now, however, there aren’t many surefire gems in the Big Ten who don’t live in Madison.
  3. Big Ten not worried about Big National Title Drought. The Big Ten has taken the “best league in the country” championship in recent seasons. It’s a force that regularly sends six or more teams to the Big Dance every year. But the conference hasn’t won a national title since Michigan State seized the crown in 2000. Big Ten football has experienced a similar drought (Ohio State’s 2002 championship was the league’s last national title in that sport). But commissioner Jim Delany said he doesn’t think that mark is a fair measurement of the league’s achievements. “When I was at North Carolina, we lost in three Final Fours three years in a row,” Delany said. “We couldn't win the big one. But the reality is there are a lot of ways to measure success. This is college basketball, so check us first on who we recruit, the kind of people we have, how they move through the system. Check out our winning, check out our attendance for 38 years in a row. We've had five years of consecutive attendance growth -- that's pretty remarkable.”
  4. Nebraska ready for the next step. Tim Miles, the coach who live tweets during games, kicked off the event with his typical brand of humor. “You know, an old coaching friend told me one time, never trust the media unless it helps you with recruiting, so I kind of stick by that.” How old a coach was that? “Well, that was Jim Molinari, my assistant. He told me yesterday.” But he’s more than a comedian. Miles can coach and he’s ready for the expectations that Nebraska faces after last year’s run to the NCAA tourney. “Expectations are what they are, but nobody should have higher expectations for us than ourselves,” he said.
  5. Poll Recount? Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State (the latter two lost major contributors from last year) were picked to finish first, second and third in the league by a media panel. I think Nebraska deserves a slot in that top three with all that Miles is bringing back. Kaminsky, Dekker, LeVert, Terran Petteway and Yogi Ferrell comprise the preseason all-Big Ten squad. Strong crew, but no room for Dawson, Rice or Big Ten newcomer and former all-ACC performer Dez Wells?

3-point shot: Remembering Wayne McClain

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
Andy Katz reflects on the death of former Illinois assistant Wayne McClain.
KANSAS CITY -- Here are five quick observations from Wednesday's Big 12 media day at the Sprint Center:

1. Media days can be sleepy affairs. Coaches step to the podium for early-morning interviews, answer a couple of rote questions ("Could you talk about the importance of experience for your team?") with mostly vague platitudes ("I really like our team") and then shuffle off to the next scheduled requirement. Everyone goes through the undercaffeinated motions. With rare exceptions, very little is learned.

Curtis Shaw is not a coach. He's the Big 12's coordinator of officials. On Wednesday morning, he staged a brief, scheduled interruption midway through the coaches' news conferences. Shaw's incursion wasn't just a break from the typical media day protocol; it was a genuine burst of self-criticism and new information on the NCAA's ongoing efforts to create a better, more fluid brand of basketball.

Shaw was on hand to talk about rules. More specifically, he was at the Sprint Center to discuss the so-called "freedom of motion" changes the NCAA rules committee made last season, why those changes were made, and how they'll be implemented anew in the season to come.

"The rules committee is made up of coaches," Shaw said. "They're the ones who decided the game didn't look well. The UConn-Butler game in the Final Four a couple years ago -- everyone said, 'This is enough. We're not playing basketball like this anymore.'"

As the numbers demonstrate, the changes made before the 2013-14 season really did have a positive effect. The game was more free-flowing. Scoring was up, even as the pace of the game -- maybe something only a shot-clock reduction could substantively affect -- stayed steady. But all was not well, as Shaw saw it. Even the one area where reviews for the changes were mostly positive -- the block-charge -- Shaw saw serious room to improve.

"We butchered it," Shaw said. "By January 1st, I could watch film and couldn't tell you if it was right or wrong."

The problem was not that officials didn't take the NCAA's changes to heart. It's that the interpretation lacked uniformity and created confusion. Now, the new emphasis will remove any distinction between primary defenders and secondary defenders, to streamline the block-charge call into one simple calculation: When the offensive player leaves the floor, any defensive movement is a blocking foul. That simple.

But it's not all about defense; offensive strategies also have a role to play in freedom of motion. Shaw brought a raft of clips with him to this effect, comprising a number of situations the officials will police even more closely this season: holding and tugging cutters away from the ball, illegal jostling for position on the block, illegal screens on the perimeter.

To demonstrate, Shaw showed a clip of Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes displacing a defender with his shoulder. The defender was in legal, established position as Stokes gained an advantage with his sizable torso. A made basket (and no call) were the result. Others showed tugging away from the play, the kind of thing officials might hesitate to call in the past. But after coaches insisted these kinds of plays were as crucial as any on-ball contact, Shaw is determined to hold the whole court to the same standard.

The ultimate goal? A better, more balanced understanding of legal play on both sides of the ball, no matter the position of the player or the play. In other words, a better game -- at least as far as the officials can create it.

"A rules official said three years ago, "Our time in the weight room became more important than our time in practice,'" Shaw said. "That's not the intent of basketball."

[+] EnlargeJuwan Staten
AP Photo/Andrew FergusonJuwan Staten averaged 18.1 points in his junior season at West Virginia.
2. West Virginia might be the most intriguing team in the Big 12, in that the Juwan Staten-led Mountaineers have a seemingly equal chance of being really good or really mediocre. So what will the Mountaineers do differently this season? To guide us on our quest for knowledge, a bowtie-clad Bob Huggins offered some classically Huggins-esque guruship:

"I think we're finally maybe going to try to guard somebody, which would be something new," Huggins said. "Actually, maybe [we'll] try to run to the rim and shoot a layup. We've been kind of like your dog, you know, with the electric fence. We run right to that 3 and kind of stop right there. So we're going to actually try to run in past the 3point line this year and see if that works."

No further analysis required.

3. Kansas, reigning Big 12 champs 10 years in a row, were the coaches totally predictable preseason title pick. But they weren't unanimous: Bill Self admitted he chose Texas and said the Longhorns' five returning starters, plus super-talented incoming freshmen, made them the selection.

"I think if you're looking at it in terms of their roster, they should be the favorite," Self said.

If that's the case, it might hinge on whether Jonathan Holmes, an aggressive, slashing power forward, can slide away from the rim far enough to give Myles Turner and Cameron Ridley room to work.

"We're working on it right now, figuring out each other's tendencies -- when to cut, when not to cut," Holmes said. "I've played some 3. I know the plays. It's just about finding what I can do against defenders, where I can make things work."

4. Self is being polite, of course. He's also pretty optimistic about his roster, even if he and his players don't quite know what the rotation will look like when the Jayhawks begin the season in November.

[+] EnlargeCliff Alexander
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty ImagesKansas' Cliff Alexander is one of the headliners in a group of talented freshmen entering the Big 12.
It's hard to overstate just how new different the 2014-15 Jayhawks will look from the freshman-dominated version that Self rolled out last season. There are talented freshmen here -- Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre chief among them -- but there are also a host of returners and veterans (and a transfer or two) all vying for time in the starting lineup. That competition is ongoing, meaning neither Self nor his players could say what the rotation will look like just yet.

"We've got a LOT of guys," Perry Ellis said. "And everybody's going against each other every day, trying to earn minutes. It's a different look for sure, but it's making us better as a team."

5. Any short list of 2014-15 Big 12 contenders must include Iowa State, even an Iowa State team that lost its two best players (DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim) to graduation. One reason? Transfers, of course: As he's done every season of his tenure, Fred Hoiberg has lured a crop of immediately ready transfers to Ames, the most notable of which, Bryce Dejean-Jones, should be a major contributor right away. The other reason? The emergence of Dustin Hogue, a great rebounder and role player who looks likely to push Georges Niang for post touches in the season to come.

So, how does Hoiberg do it? How do you get so many new players to integrate so quickly, each and every season?

"It's all about freedom," Hogue said. "Playing his offense is about learning how to express yourself on the court. You have to unlearn how you played before, like, 'Oh, I'm a 3, I have to play here.' You play everywhere. You can't be robotic. But once you figure that out, everything feels much freer."

Big 12

3-point shot: Butler's coaching situation

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
Andy Katz gives an update on the coaching situation at Butler.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Here are five quick observations from Tuesday's Atlantic 10 media day at the Barclays Center.

1. Virginia Commonwealth is the unanimous pick to win the Atlantic 10 this season.

That doesn’t hold a lot of sway with the Rams’ coach, who, when congratulated on the honor, quickly pointed out that his team was picked to win it last season.

[+] EnlargeShaka Smart
Mike Lawrie/Getty ImagesVCU coach Shaka Smart knows it's not where you're picked in October but where you finish in March that matters.
It finished second.

And then Shaka Smart recalled a scene from the end of last season. His team was watching Saint Louis play UMass. If UMass wins, the Rams get a share of the Atlantic 10 regular-season crown. If the Bilikens win, they win the league outright.

“As one of our guys said, ‘And then Jordair Jett happened,'" Smart said. “I think we learned a valuable lesson from that, and it’s that you don’t want to depend on someone else to determine your fate."

That, more than the fuel from the NCAA tournament loss to Stephen F. Austin, is what will drive the Rams this season.

The Rams deserve to be picked to win the league. They deserve their Top 25 preseason ranking. But they also know that how you start in October really doesn’t matter much. It’s how you finish in March.

“I remember when I coached with Keith Dambrot at Akron, he’d always find a way to be mad," Smart said. “If you picked him first, it’s because the other teams wanted to put pressure on him. If you picked him too low, it’s because you disrespected them. I know everyone has to do all of these preseason prognostications, but really, no one remembers any of it."

2. It’s only been three years since Mike Lonergan arrived at George Washington, and in that short time, he’s elevated the Colonials from a 10-win team to an NCAA tournament game-winner.

From the outside, that’s a pretty quick turnaround. From the inside? Not so much.

“I think that first year, I gained 20 pounds," Lonergan said. “As a coach you get used to winning, and then you only win 10 games and it’s hard. I thought I could come right in and change the culture here, and I couldn’t. Now you look back and people say it’s only been three years, but I have to tell you, there are times it feels closer to five."

But Lonergan, whose team is picked to finish second, has found a smart and familiar recipe for quick success. He’s pounded the recruiting trail hard, butting up against his D.C. neighbors in Maryland and Virginia, but he’s also extended second chances to transfers.

He, like most coaches, is hardly a fan of the transfer rage plaguing college basketball, but -- there’s always a but -- in this case, transfers at times are the quickest means to an end, as Lonergan has learned. Last season, Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood and Indiana’s Maurice Creek helped elevate the Colonials. This season, Tyler Cavanaugh, who comes to GW by way of Wake Forest, could be that guy.

“I don’t like the transfer thing, but you have to be able to take advantage of it when you can," Lonergan admitted. “Sometimes it’s a perfect fit, something that we need and they need and it can add up to an immediate impact."

3. When asked how good sophomore E.C. Matthews can be, Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley started out by saying, "Without putting too much pressure on a 19-year-old kid ..."

And then he continued.

“He has a chance to be one of the premier guards in college basketball before he finishes his career."

So much for no pressure.

But the truth is, Matthews is that good. He didn’t make the Atlantic 10 preseason first team (he was second team) and isn’t even a regional -- let alone a household -- name. But that’s more a byproduct of Rhode Island’s growing pains than Matthews’ abilities. As a freshman, the league’s rookie of the year averaged 14.3 points per game overall and 16.6 in league play, but the Rams won just 14 games.

All of that could very well change this season. With Matthews -- the top returning scorer in the league -- back, much more is expected of Rhode Island.

Ditto Matthews.

Hurley already has counseled his sophomore on what he expects will be an impending media glare and even on the agents he fully expects to come sniffing around.

That could swell plenty of people’s egos.

“If there’s a kid you can keep all of that away from, this is the kid," Hurley said. “When we sat down on his home visit, we told him everything we thought he could accomplish, and it’s coming to fruition. He knows there’s no need to change."

4. One look at DeAndre Bembry and you automatically think this must be a guy with a huge, oversized personality.

But the player who sports perhaps the best afro in college basketball is nothing like what you might think. In fact, he’s the opposite.

“If you hooked him up to a heart machine, it would be like this," said Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, motioning a flat line.

Martelli is counting on that even keel as he steers a young Hawks team this season. The team that won the A-10 tournament last season, down three of their top four scorers, will rely heavily on Bembry, a first-team preseason pick who averaged 12.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last season.

And Martelli thinks Bembry is more than up for the challenge.

“He’s unusual. He’s an old head with an old spirit," Martelli said. “And he’s actually grown since last year."

5. Some dribbles ... Smart considers himself a pancake expert. With time to kill (thanks to an early flight arranged by his punctual sports information director, Scott Day), the VCU coach stopped in a nearby diner for a bite to eat. He deemed the pancakes only a 4. When it was suggested that pancakes are too simplistic to be rated and that, in fact, all pancakes are mostly created equal, Smart scoffed. “They can be thin, thick," he said. “There’s definitely a difference." For the record, he prefers his flapjacks thin. ... Martelli made like Tiny Tim, hobbling around on a single crutch. The Saint Joe’s coach tore the meniscus in his knee and had surgery last week. ... Line of the day went to Richmond’s Chris Mooney. Mooney, the chair of the league’s coaches’ committee, was selected to give remarks at the luncheon, deadpanning that the practice where lunch was held was "not where they take coaches who have been kicked out of games at the Barclay Center." Mooney was ejected two years ago during an A-10 tournament game against Charlotte. He and his team were hit with three technicals (and eight Charlotte free throws) in 4.7 seconds.