Observations: Cincy adds skilled frontcourt to hard-nosed program

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

Billy Kennedy's Texas A&M team might do some damage in 2014-15.  (USATSI)
Billy Kennedy's Texas A&M team might do some damage in 2014-15. (USATSI)

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1. Cincinnati's freshmen big men will have major role this year

There's a bit of a stigma on the college basketball circuit that the Bearcats don't have talented players in their program and their success is merely a product of simply playing harder than their opponent. That's not entirely true.

After watching Cincinnati practice last week before it departs for a trip to the Bahamas, the intensity level that the Bearcats' program exudes on a daily basis is beyond palpable, but that doesn't mean it's the only reason why Mick Cronin's squad has advanced to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Cincinnati has found its niche by recruiting hard-nosed kids who win 50-50 plays with regularity, but it also has improved the overall skill level of its front court with two incoming freshmen in Gary Clark and Quadri Moore.

Both Clark and Moore were ranked in the Top 100 of most recruiting services out of high school and both will get a major opportunity to play in their first season of college basketball. The 6-foot-7 Clark is a long, pogo-stick type power forward that will be an all-league caliber player by the time he's a junior. The 6-8 Moore, meanwhile, is cut from a completely different cloth than any of his frontcourt predecessors that have played for Cronin at Cincinnati.

Broad shouldered and skilled, Moore has a lethal face-up game that extends all the way to the three-point line. While he still has a ways to go defensively, the New Jersey native will pose a problem for opposing five men because of his ability to step away from the basket on offense and open up seams in the defense.

With the departures of both Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles from last year's squad that won 27 games, the Bearcats will need to get mileage out of both Clark and Moore if they're to return to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive season.

2. St. John's needs strong 2015 recruiting class

The Red Storm may not have to sign nine players like they did when Steve Lavin first took over the reigns of the program in 2010, but it's pretty clear that St. John's 2015 recruiting class will shape its future. The Red Storm will lose D'Angelo Harrison, Jamal Branch, Phil Greene and Dom Pointer after this season to graduation, and likely both Rysheed Jordan and Chris Obekpa to the NBA.

What does that mean for Lavin? In addition to the pressures of attempting to take this program back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since his first season, he's also going to have to sign a heck of a class to maintain the talent level that's he's had since arriving in Jamaica. St. John's will return role players like Christian Jones, Felix Balamou, Keith Thomas and Adonis DeLaRosa in '15-16, but it's clear that this program needs to add a slew of impactful newcomers in its upcoming recruiting class.

St. John's remains on the short list for Top 100 prospects such as Isaiah Briscoe (Roselle Catholic, 6-3 PG), Cheick Diallo (Our Savior New American, 6-9 PF), Brandon Sampson (Madison Prep Academy, 6-4 SG), and Malik Beasley (Saint Francis High School, 6-4 SG). The key to the entire class may be Briscoe, a talented, scoring lead guard who recently said he's not going to sign until next spring. As of now, the Red Storm don't have a starting-caliber perimeter player on the roster for the '15-16 campaign as long as Jordan departs after next season as expected.

3. Villanova-VCU as close as we'll get to Big East-A/10 Challenge

And that's a good thing for everyone who will be in attendance at the Legends Classic. The annual event at the Barclays Center should provide a terrific forum for the two flagship programs in both the Big East and Atlantic 10, respectively. The Wildcats have all the requisites to be a top-six or top-seven team nationally at the start of the season, while the Rams may have more versatility than they've had in recent years thanks to freshman forward Terry Larrier -- a 6-7 gem who could play just about anywhere in the country.

The Big East took Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 a few years ago during conference realignment but ironically enough, the Atlantic 10 still wound up with six teams in last year's NCAA Tournament while the Big East only had four. These two leagues, along with the American, are annually competing for bids to the field of 68 and it should be fascinating to watch the elite programs in both the Big East and Atlantic 10 duke it out on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

4. Texas A&M has a major opportunity at the Puerto Rico Shootout

The SEC needs teams other than Kentucky and Florida to perform well on the national level if it hopes to elevate the perception of the conference from a basketball perspective, and Texas A&M has a major chance to do just that early in the season. The Aggies open the Puerto Rico Shootout in November with a first-round game against Dayton, and if they win they'll likely play defending national champion UConn as long as the Huskies get by Charleston in their opening-round tilt.

I've said all summer that Billy Kennedy's squad has the look of an SEC sleeper heading into next season, and this is the perfect forum to validate that sentiment. Texas A&M has yet to make the postseason under Kennedy but he's yet to have as complete a team as the one he's about to coach this coming season. The Aggies return three of their top four scorers from last year's 18-16 squad in Alex Caruso (9.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists 2.0 steals in '13-14), Kourtney Roberson (9.8 points, 6.8 rebounds) and Devante Fitzgerald (7.3 points), while adding three key newcomers in SMU transfer Jalen Jones, 6-11 big man Tony Trocha, and lightning-quick freshman point guard Alex Robinson.

5. A.J. English will be the next great player at Iona

The Gaels have won 90 games in the past four years under Tim Cluess' watch and advanced to two NCAA Tournaments thanks to elite lead guards like Scott Machado and Momo Jones. It appears that the 6-4 English is next in line to grab the baton. The long-armed floor general averaged 17.2 points, 4.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds last year as a sophomore, up from 7.0 points, 1.3 assists and 2.5 rebounds as a freshman.

Cool, calm and always under control, English was a breakout performer at the Adidas Nations Showcase last week in California according to several people in attendance and already has caught the eye of several NBA scouts. Another thing about English? He's incredibly accurate from long distance. The Delaware native is shooting 38.1 percent from three-point range through his two seasons of college basketball.

This and That

Another school to keep a close eye on during the fall recruiting period? Boston College. The Eagles are looking to sign up to six players in their 2015 class and have made the short list of consensus Top 100 prospects such as Josh Sharma (Northfield Mount-Hermon) and Terrance Mann (Tilton School). This is a pivotal stretch for newly minted coach Jim Christian.

I've never been one to put stock in stats that were put up during foreign tours, but it's got to be encouraging for Pitt fans to see what Joseph Uchebo did this past week in the Bahamas. The 6-10 big man was limited to 23 minutes during all of last season due to a knee injury, but averaged 7.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in 18.5 minutes during the Panthers' four-game slate at the Atlantis.

There's a legitimate chance that five Big 12 teams -- Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas State -- could be ranked in the Top 25 at the beginning of the season. Is it the best conference in college basketball? Maybe not from top to bottom, but the top of the league is just as good as the ACC and the Big Ten.

During a six-day stretch early in the season, La Salle will have multiple opportunities to boost its potential NCAA resume. The Explorers face Virginia on Nov. 28 in the first round of the Barclays Center Classic, then host Villanova the following Wednesday on Dec. 3 in north Philadelphia.

The SMU Basketball Coaching Clinic will be Sept. 7 at Moody Coliseum. Clinicians include Mustangs coach Larry Brown, Kansas' Bill Self, VCU's Shaka Smart and UNC Greensboro's Wes Miller. For more information, call 214-768-4629.

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