He is Rice’s all-time leading scorer. He is Rice’s all-time leading rebounder. Now, he Rice’s most accomplished former player. And that’s unfortunate for the Owls.
Goodbye, Michael Harris. Hello, uncertainty.
If Rice is going to earn its third consecutive trip to postseason play, it will have to do so without Harris, a 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound performer who has exhausted his eligibility. Also gone are fellow starters Jason McKrieth and Brock Gillespie. That alone is more than 44 points per game. So this is not the ideal way for Willis Wilson, now in his 14th year at the helm, to make the transition into Conference USA.
Regardless, he has no choice. Thus Wilson will be coaching six newcomers in a new league. They’ll be joined by veterans Paulius Packevicius, Lorenzo Williams, Morris Almond, Patrick Britton, Jamaal Moore and J.R. Harrison.
Harrison, a 6-foot-6 forward who averaged 9.4 points per game a year ago, may be the key. He’s had a solid three-year career and has developed into an above-average defender. Still, his offensive productivity will have to reach an all-time high for the Owls to make another postseason appearance. The same goes for Williams, who started 15 games last season. In high school, the 6-1 point guard averaged 21 points per game. Half of that -- plus a repeat of the 4.3 assists he averaged as a sophomore -- is the goal for which to shoot.
7. UCF (24–9, 13–7 A-Sun)
Kirk Speraw has a profile on the UCF Web site. It gets right to the point.
The first line? Kirk Speraw has never been the type of coach to back away from a challenge.
No kidding. The proof is in the schedule.
Typically, schools like UCF play a weak non-league slate, knowing they need to stockpile wins in case things don’t go well once conference play begins. For the Golden Knights, that would make sense, especially considering they’re trading in Mercer and Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun for the likes of Memphis and UAB in Conference USA.
But again, Speraw has never been the type of coach to back away from a challenge. So despite the fact that his Golden Knights are heading into a tougher league without their starting backcourt from last season -- Kingsley Edwards and Gary Johnson -- the 13th-year coach loaded December with games at Florida and Arizona. Then, in January, UCF plays at Kentucky.
“The tough non-conference schedule will help us understand where we are as a team heading into Conference USA,” Speraw says. “Our kids enjoy stepping up to those challenges to play opponents like Florida and Kentucky.”
In addition to Edwards and Kingsley, UCF also lost forward Marcus Avant. That means three of the top five scorers are gone, and Josh Peppers, a junior wing, will be counted on heavily, even more than last season when he averaged 13.1 points per outing. Anthony Williams, a 6-foot-8 shot-blocker, will give the Golden Knights a presence in the paint. But the question mark in the backcourt and tough schedule might be enough to snap UCF’s streak of two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
8. SMU (14–14, 9–9 WAC)
Note to Bryan Hopkins: Smart move.
Note to SMU: Congratulations.
That’s the best way to summarize the postseason developments in Dallas. Hopkins originally announced he would make himself eligible for the NBA Draft following a junior season in which he averaged 17.9 points, 3.9 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game. But without ever hiring an agent, the 6-0 point guard reconsidered and opted for one more year of college.
Now, the Mustangs just need parts to put around their star.
Even with Hopkins back, SMU lost three of its best players from what was essentially a six-man rotation. Eric Castro, Patrick Simpson and Justin Isham are all gone. That’s 35.4 points per game, not to mention both starting frontcourt players from a three-guard offense.
To fill that gap, SMU needs either Donatas Rackauskas, a 6-11 center who missed last season with an injury, or Bamba Fall, a 7-1 incoming freshman, to contribute significant minutes. Both doing so would be ideal because SMU has no returning big man on its roster who played even nine minutes per contest last season. Add that to the fact that the Mustangs aren’t great from the perimeter either; they shot just 33.6 percent from 3-point range a year ago.
Finishing in the top of half of the league in their first year in C-USA will be a difficult task for the Ponies.
9. Southern Miss (11–17, 2–14)
Frustrated with mounting losses, Larry Eustachy walked to every press conference last season and pretty much addressed the same issue each time: toughness.
His team wasn’t tough enough. His players weren’t tough enough.
Consequently, the first-year Southern Miss coach vowed to get it straight, implying all the while it would likely take a roster overhaul. Out with the old. In with the new.
Now, the new has arrived, literally. Most of USM’s seven newcomers moved to Hattiesburg for summer school -- an unheard-of development in the James Green era -- meaning Eustachy has had months to imprint his stamp upon them, with toughness, of course, being the top priority.
Will any of this help this year?
Perhaps not, considering none of the incoming players are labeled stars by any recruiting service. Still, Eustachy at least has a foundation on which to build.
David Cornwell, a junior college forward, is one of the newcomers. Notice how Eustachy describes him.
“David,” he says, “is a very tough kid.”
So clearly, that’s an upgrade in the coach’s mind.
After averaging 16.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game at Los Angeles City College last year, Cornwell is probably good enough to start from day one.
Rashaad Carruth, a former junior college teammate who was the Golden Eagles’ leading returning scorer left the team in October for personal reasons and stuck Southern Miss with a major rebuilding project.
10. East Carolina (9–19, 4–12)
East Carolina has managed some huge wins since joining Conference USA. Louisville. Charlotte. Marquette, with Dwyane Wade. The Pirates have beaten all of them, which produced some memorable moments at Minges Coliseum, one of the tougher home venues in the league.
Still, there hasn't been a winning season at ECU since 1996-97 and no NCAA tournament since 1993. That’s a long stretch, and ultimately what cost Bill Herrion his job.
In to halt the streak is Ricky Stokes, who played for ECU athletic director Terry Holland at Virginia in the 1980s. This is Stokes’ second stint as a head coach, the first coming at Virginia Tech from 1999-2003. There, he left some talent that Seth Greenberg turned into a respectable bunch last season. Conversely, Stokes won’t really benefit from his predecessor’s work at ECU because he’s taking over a program with little in the way of proven players.
Unheraleded Moussa Badiane is gone, having exhausted his eligibility. That leaves a hole in the middle. But Stokes knew it would be there. What he didn’t know, however, is that he’d also lose ECU’s leading scorer from a year ago, Mike Cook, who decided to transfer.
What’s left? The best is Corey Rouse, a 6'-8 forward. The senior averaged 10.6 points per game last season and is the Pirates’ lone returning double-digit scorer. He’ll be joined by sophomore Tom Hammonds, some role players and a host of newcomers. Among them is David Bell, a transfer from La Salle who should help the Pirates benefit from a depleted C-USA, though snapping the postseason drought is probably too steep a challenge this year.
11. Tulsa (9–20, 5–13 WAC)
Question: What happens when a program nicknamed the Golden Hurricane ends up looking like it was hit by one?
Answer: It hires an assistant who has spent time at two premier basketball schools, and begins the rebuilding process.
There’s probably nobody breaking into the head coaching ranks in a more dilapidated situation than Tulsa’s Doug Wojcik. Once a proud program, the Golden Hurricane fell to unusual depths last season, losing 20 games, eight players and two coaches -- the one who started the year (John Phillips) and the one who finished it on an interim basis (Pooh Williamson).
Tough times in Tulsa. Enter Wojcik to fix them.
The 41-year-old got off to a nice start, signing eight newcomers to replace the players who either exhausted their eligibility (Jarius Glenn, Kyle Blankenship, Guilherme Teichmann and Oswaldo Gonzalez), quit (Seneca Collins and Brian Cardwell) or were dismissed (Yusuf Baker and Vernell Davis). Headlining the group is Roderick Earls, a point guard from Little Rock, Ark. He spent the past two seasons at Paris (Texas) Junior College and led the Dragons to a 28–9 record and NJCAA National Championship last season while averaging 13.5 points in the four-game tournament.
“Rod is a winner,” Wojcik says. “He’s the type of young man that we want representing Tulsa basketball.”
Anthony Price, a 6-8 forward, was Tulsa’s second-leading scorer last season. He averaged 13.3 points and 4.7 rebounds and can probably get similar, if not better, numbers as a senior.
Still, it’s unlikely Price will ever enjoy another winning season. In other words, Wojcik’s job of returning Tulsa to the postseason will likely take longer than this one year.
12. Marshall (6–22, 3–15, MAC)
Six wins. Twenty-two losses. Three starters gone. If anything, this might be a good time for Marshall to take a step back, perhaps re-evaluate its situation and plan for the future. Instead, the Thundering Herd are being thrust into a new league, a tougher conference than the MAC, which is going to be a challenge for third-year coach Ron Jirsa.
The good news? Jirsa has coached in the SEC, so he won’t be intimidated by the move to Conference USA.
The bad news? Compared to many programs in the league, Marshall is severely outmanned, especially considering leading scorer A.W. Hamilton is finished with his college career.
The only returnees who averaged even 20 minutes per contest last season are Mark Patton, Tre Whitted and Joe Miles. Patton could be one of the better post players in the league, evidence being his 11.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game as a junior. But the real thing to watch with this team is Miles, and whether he can regain some of the success he had last November and December.
A 5-11 guard, Miles was the only freshman in the nation last season to score double-figures in his first 12 games, going for a career-high 21 against Central Michigan. But after that, he mostly struggled, and reached the 10-point plateau only once in his final 16 outings.
So which Miles will show up this year? The guy who scored at will, or the one who didn’t make more than three shots in any of the last 11 games?
Figure out the answer to that question, and it’ll be easier to determine whether Marshall can avoid another record-setting season for losses.