Our 2013-14 season preview continues with the Dagger's look at the programs who are on the rise entering the season. Check back every morning for the next six weeks for more college hoops preview content.
Georgia State (15-16, 10-8 last year): The Panthers should be among the favorites in this season's loaded Sun Belt Conference thanks to the presence of two guards with high-major talent. One is wing R.J. Hunter, a coveted recruit who spurned the likes of Iowa, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to play for his dad at Georgia State and then averaged 17 points per game as a freshman. The other is former Kentucky and NC State point guard Ryan Harrow, an ex-top 50 recruit who is immediately eligible at Georgia State after transferring in part to be closer to his ailing father. With Harrow in a less high-pressure spot and Hunter and Devonta White providing scoring help from the wings, Georgia State has one of the nation's most potent mid-major backcourts. Throw in a good 3-point shooter and rebounder in forward Manny Atkins and 6-foot-9 USC transfer Curtis Washington in the paint, and Georgia State has an explosive offense. The only question is whether the Panthers can shore up a defense that was one of the CAA's worst last season. If Washington protects the rim and the guards contest a few more shots, the pieces are there to outduel formidable Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama for a Sun Belt crown.
Harvard (20-10, 11-3 last year ): Can Harvard possibly rise any further than last season when it captured the Ivy League crown and upset third-seeded New Mexico in the NCAA tournament? Believe it or not, the answer is yes. The Crimson are a legit threat to advance to the second weekend of the tournament because most of last year's young core is returning and all-conference seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are also back. With Curry and Casey sidelined last season after being implicated in an academic scandal that caused over 100 students to withdraw, Harvard rallied around freshman point guard Siyani Chambers and sophomore wing Wesley Saunders. Chambers was so impressive that Curry will likely slide to off guard this season and sweet-shooting senior Laurent Rivard will probably come off the bench as a fourth guard. Casey, the 2011-12 Ivy League player of the year, will anchor a frontcourt that also includes juniors Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi and freshman Zena Edosomwan, a 6-foot-8 power forward from California who turned down the likes of UCLA, Texas and Washington to play for the Crimson. It's safe to say this is Tommy Amaker's most talented team. An Ivy League title is the minimum expectation, and a whole lot more is possible if the newcomers and returners mesh.
Iowa (25-13, 9-9 last year): The Hawkeyes possess every ingredient required for a breakout season. Nine of Iowa's 10 leading scorers return from a team that lost seven games by four or fewer points yet still finished .500 in the rugged Big Ten and reached the NIT title game. What's more, the Hawkeyes add sweet-shooting freshman Peter Jok to bolster their anemic 3-point shooting and Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff to strengthen an already deep frontcourt. With the duo of wing Roy Devyn Marble and forward Aaron White spearheading the scoring and an experienced supporting cast that goes nine or 10 deep, Iowa should finish in the upper half of the Big Ten and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. An even bigger leap is possible too if Jok or Josh Oglesby can provide consistent outside shooting and if combo guard Mike Gessell or promising center Adam Woodbury make big strides as sophomores.
LSU (19-12, 9-9 last year): For a guy who inherited a program that has made only one NCAA tournament since 2006, second-year coach Johnny Jones has done a remarkable job of engineering a speedy turnaround. Between the return of five of last year's top six scorers, the arrival of some promising newcomers and the success Jones has had assembling future recruiting classes, LSU may be poised to return to national relevancy and stay there for years to come. The biggest reason this year's Tigers can challenge for a top-four finish in the SEC is a frontcourt headlined by all-conference forward Johnny O'Bryant and promising freshmen Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey. O'Bryant averaged 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds and posted 15 double-doubles last season, while the 6-foot-9 Martin is a McDonald's All-American with a smooth inside-outside game and the 6-foot-8 Mickey is a raw but athletic power forward. The backcourt isn't bare either with ball-hawking Anthony Hickey and knockdown 3-point shooter Andre Stringer returning and 6-foot-6 freshman Tim Quarterman adding much-needed size.
SMU (15-17, 5-11 last year): All five starters return for SMU, but it's safe to say not all of them will be in the starting five again this season. A crop of promising newcomers will provide a much-needed talent upgrade and will ensure Larry Brown has the depth in year two that he lacked in year one. Nic Moore, a 5-foot-9 point guard who started at Illinois State as a freshman, will likely start at point guard, relegating returning starter Ryan Manuel to the bench and enabling Nick Russell to play off ball. Six-foot-5 McDonald's All American Keith Frazier will also surely start right away at the other wing spot as he is the type of gifted score SMU couldn't even sniff prior to Brown's arrival. The frontcourt is also deep and versatile with top-rated junior college big man Yanick Moreira and Villanova transfer Markus Kennedy pushing returning starters Jalen Jones and Cannen Cunningham. SMU will still have to wait one more year before elite point guard Emmanuel Mudiay arrives, but the Mustangs have the talent to challenge for an NCAA bid this season. It will be up to Brown to get the newcomers and returners to mesh, a challenge no question but one he has proven capable of achieving in past rebuilding efforts.
Tennessee (20-13, 11-7 last year): In Cuonzo Martin's first two seasons since replacing Bruce Pearl, Tennessee has twice exceeded expectations but fallen a win or two shy of the NCAA tournament. That likely changes this season with promising freshman Robert Hubbs providing wing scoring, transfer Antonio Barton solidifying the point guard position and a healthy Jeronne Maymon back to bolster the frontcourt. Maymon averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds as a junior during the 2011-12 season, but missed all of last season with a knee injury. He'll team with double-double threat Jarnell Stokes to perhaps the SEC's best interior duo. Hubbs and high-scoring Jordan McRae are slashing wings capable of finishing at the rim, but the question mark is one-year transfer Antonio Barton at point guard. If he can bolster Tennessee's anemic outside shooting and set up his teammates for easy buckets despite playing off ball the past couple seasons at Memphis, the Vols have the look of a top three SEC team that is NCAA tournament-bound.
Towson (18-13, 13-5 last year): When Towson went 395 days between wins from Dec. 2010 to Jan. 2012, the Tigers became such a punchline that players were afraid to check their voicemail or text messages after losses out of fear of what they might receive. Nobody's laughing at Towson anymore, however, because the Tigers appear to be poised to continue one of the more incredible turnaround stories in recent college hoops history. Last season, Towson upset Oregon State in December, won 13 games in CAA play and finished at 18-13, a remarkable 17-game improvement over the previous season. The Tigers have every chance to improve on that this season with CAA player of the year Jerrelle Benimon and three other starters back and impact transfer Four McGlynn set to arrive. Benimon is a double-double machine and one of the best mid-major players in the nation, while McGlynn is a former America East rookie of the year whose outside shooting prowess makes him a big weapon. Those two are the biggest reason Towson is regarded as the favorite in the CAA and a legitimate NCAA tournament threat.
Virginia (23-12, 11-7 last year): Projected to tumble into the ACC's second division last season after a slew of offseason departures, Virginia instead maintained the program's gradual momentum by exceeding expectations. The Cavaliers should continue that slow but steady climb this season since last year's five leading scorers return, guard Malcolm Brogdon is healthy again and South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill arrives to bolster the frontcourt. The one-two duo that will spearhead Virginia's NCAA tournament push is senior guard Joe Harris and senior forward Akil Mitchell, who combined to average 29.4 points and 12.9 rebounds last season. Harris wore down late in the season after averaging 32 minutes per game, but he'll have more help this season than last. Brogdon will get a crack at the point guard job, ultra-athletic sophomore Justin Anderson should improve his sometimes wayward shot selection and emerge as a lockdown defender and center Mike Tobey should provide more back-to-the-basket offense as a sophomore after spending part of the summer playing for the U.S. at the U-19 World Championships.
Also on the rise: Arizona State, Boise State, Boston College, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, Nebraska, North Dakota State, Providence, UC Irvine, Wright State
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