2011-2012 WCC Preview: Strongest mid-major conference this year?

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Player of the Year: Elias Harris, Jr., Gonzaga

Picking the WCC Preseason Player of the Year was not a simple task, as the conference brings back a ton of talent, including seven of the ten players named to the all-conference team. Harris wasn’t one of those seven, as the 6’8″ combo-forward struggled through his sophomore campaign, seeing his numbers dip across the board. There were a number of reasons for this — Harris was battling a shoulder injury during the offseason and an achilles injury all year, Gonzaga struggled to find consistent ball-handling and play-making, and Robert Sacre continued to develop as a front court presence. I picked Harris simply because there isn’t a more talented player in the league. He has the potential to be a first round pick whenever he decides to go pro. He’s too strong and explosive in the post to be defended by WCC small forwards, but he’s a bad matchup for power forwards because of his perimeter ability and the fact that he is a dangerous three-point shooter. If he is healthy, he should regain the explosiveness and conditioning that made him such a matchup problem as a freshman. Harris is the most talented player in the conference, and I’m not sure its even close. The question is whether or not he returns to and improves on his freshman year form.

And a close second goes to…: Matthew Dellavedova, Jr., St. Mary’s

Like picking the Player of the Year, this was not an easy decision based on the amount of talent in this conference. I went with Dellavedova here because A) I think that if St. Mary’s is going to compete for the WCC title, Dellavedova is going to have absorb the play-making and leadership roles left open by Mickey McConnell’s graduation and B) I think that St. Mary’s is, in fact, going to compete for the WCC title. I love Dellavedova’s game. He’s a relatively unathletic, play-making combo-guard with an awkward looking jump shot and an even more awkward haircut, but he still manages to post impressive numbers. He was second in the conference in assists last season despite playing on the same team as the conference’s leader in assists. And while its tough to give him the edge over teammate Rob Jones, who will be the heart and soul of this season’s Gael team, I think Dellavedova will be the more important piece.

Breakout Star: Anthony Ireland, So., Loyola Marymount

I really wanted to go with Gonzaga’s Sam Dower or Stephen Holt of St. Mary’s here, but in an effort to try and spread around some of the love, I’ll take LMU’s Anthony Ireland as the breakout star of the WCC. Ireland had a terrific and promising freshman campaign, playing his way into the starting lineup and averaging an impressive 10.6 ppg and 3.0 apg. He really came on at the end of the season as well, hitting for more than 20 points in two of the Lion’s last four games. As a sophomore, this is going to be Ireland’s team to take control of. Drew Viney will be the star, but with Vernon Teel out of the picture, Ireland will take the reins in the back court. And while that record is ghastly — 11 wins, 2-12 in the WCC — LMU was not nearly that bad. They lost seven of the nine games that were one possession differences or went to overtime. They still have the majority of the talent that made them a trendy pick for second in the league. I fully expect them to be better next season, and Ireland will be a major reason why.

All-Conference First-Team:

POY: Elias Harris, Jr., Gonzaga
G: Matthew Dellavedova, Jr., St. Mary’s
G: Kevin Foster, Jr., Santa Clara
F: Rob Jones, Sr., St. Mary’s
F: Drew Viney, Sr., Loyola Marymount
C: Robert Sacre, Sr., Gonzaga

All-Conference Second-Team:

G: Mike Williams, Jr., San Francisco
G: Nemanja Mitrovic, Sr., Portland
G: Rashad Green, Sr., San Francisco
G: Evan Roquemore, So. Santa Clara
C: Brandon Davies, Sr., BYU

Four summer storylines

– Marc Trasolini tears his acl: This was less of a story line as it was an isolated event, but regardless, Santa Clara losing Trasolini for the season is a big deal. The Broncos lost a number of important pieces this offseason — to transfer, graduation, and Europe — but with their big three of Kevin Foster, Evan Roquemore and Trasolini returning, this was a team that many had pegged as a sleeper to make a run at a top three finish in the league. Without Trasolini — who injured his knee playing an exhibition on a team trip to his hometown of Vancouver — SCU will head into the season without a proven front court player.

– Why does Gonzaga have so much roster turnover?: Anyone that has been paying attention to the Gonzaga hoops program will have noticed that over the past two years, there have been a multitude of players leaving the program. In fact, thanks Bud Withers of the Seattle Times, we know the precise numbers — of the 13 players that Mark Few has signed in the three classes that are currently sophomores, juniors, and seniors, seven have left the program. That includes this offseason, as Demetri Goodson transferred to Baylor to play football, Manny Arop transferred to Indiana State and Keegan Hyland left and eventually ended up at Fairfield.

The question this left folks asking is why? Why does Gonzaga have such turnover? Why is this happening at a program whose head coach is as firmly entrenched as any in the country? Is this a sign that there is something wrong with the program, or that it has fully reached the status of high-major, with kids opting to transfer out instead of waiting their turn to play and/or being recruited over? The one thing that is certain is that this hasn’t exactly had a negative effect on the program. Last year was a “down year” for Gonzaga, and they still managed to win a share of the WCC regular season title (something they have done every season since 2000), with the WCC Tournament title, and win a game in the NCAA Tournament.

– San Diego’s point-shaving scandal: Back in April, the college basketball world was rocked when news leaked that two former Toreros — including Brandon Johnson, the program’s all-time leader in points and assists — and a former assistant coach were arrested for their alleged involvement in a scheme to fix the outcome of games. Apparently, Johnson influenced the outcome of a game in February of 2010 and conspired to get another player to influence a game in January of this past season. Johnson plead not guilty to the charges

– Brandon Davies gets reinstated: Back in late August, BYU finally ended almost six months of speculation by announcing that Brandon Davies would be allowed back into school and onto the basketball team. If you’ve forgotten, Davies was suspended last March for violation BYU’s honor code by, reportedly, having premarital sex with his girlfriend. The importance of Davies to the Cougars cannot be understated. With so much leaving in the form of the graduation of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery, losing Davies may have left the Cougars in the bottom half of the WCC this season.

Four storylines to follow this season

– How long is BYU going to be in the WCC?: Conference expansion in college sports is all about football, but its effect on hoops is far from negligible. The WCC is a perfect example of that. Due to BYU’s interest in becoming an independent on the gridiron, the WCC was able to add a program that is probably one of the nation’s 50 best over the last decade. That’s never a bad thing, especially for a school like St. Mary’s. Sure, it may be more difficult to finally win a conference regular season title, but that poor strength of schedule that cost the Gael’s two NCAA Tournament trips in the past three seasons is going to be helped immensely.

But conference expansion is far from over, and one of the rumors that has persisted throughout the past couple of months is that the Big 12 has a heavy interest in adding BYU. If BYU does, in fact, head to the Big 12, it means that their stopover in the WCC may end up being as short as a single season. Whether or not that actually happens is far from clear — does anyone actually have any rock-solid info when it comes to realignment? — but it will be a story to keep an eye on.

– Which Elias Harris will we get?: After his freshman season, Harris shocked folks when he announced that he would be returning to Gonzaga. He had a legitimate shot at being picked in the lottery. But as a sophomore, Harris was no where near the same player. Between an offseason shoulder injury and an early-season achilles injury, Harris was put on some weight, got himself out of condition, and lost some of his explosiveness — three things that made him highly-regarded by NBA folks. So which Harris shows up this year? Will he be back in shape, dominating the paint and creating mismatches with front lines around the country? If he is, than Gonzaga has to be considered the favorite to win the conference.

– Will there be more tournament teams this season than in 2008?: Back in 2008, the WCC peaked. Not only did they send three teams to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to San Diego’s epic run through St. Mary’s and Gonzaga to the WCC Tournament title, but that same Torero team knocked off UConn in the first round of the tournament. At the time, the league wasn’t a stranger to getting at-large bids — the was well into Gonzaga’s reign atop the conference — but for the team that came in second to also earn an at-large bid made a statement. Now, with the addition of BYU, the WCC has three programs — Gonzaga and St. Mary’s the other — that head into the season with the expectation, not the hope, of making the NCAA Tournament. But could there be more?

Its a possibility, but it would require a couple of things to happen. For starters, the WCC will have to clean up in non-conference play. Raising the league’s RPI makes everyone look better. The other thing that will likely have to happen is that someone from outside of the big three will need to earn the league’s automatic bid. There are some quality teams in this conference – San Francisco, Santa Clara, Loyola Marymount — but the likelihood of those schools earning an at-large bid is quite small. The odds of them getting hot for three games and making a run through the conference tournament is much higher.

– So is Loyola Marymount for real?: This team is tough to peg. There’s no question that they have talent on the roster, but talent isn’t going to guarantee wins when your team lacks chemistry, is ravaged by injuries and cannot win a close game. At least one of those issues will be solved heading into this season. Vernon Teel, who was diametrically opposed to getting along with the coaching staff, is gone. His talent will be missed, but sophomore Anthony Ireland should be enough to fill the void. Better chemistry and a better leader at the point should solve some of the problems in close games, as well. If this team stays healthy, the pieces are there for a run to the top half of the conference.

Power Rankings

1. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs had a weird year in 2010-2011. It began about as poorly as one can imagine. After being ranked in the top 15 in the preseason, they got off to a 4-5 start before finding themselves at 13-8 and 3-3 in the WCC, three games out of first place with just eight to play. Included in those losses? A 22 point whooping at the hands of Washington State and a 14 point loss at Santa Clara followed by an overtime loss at the hands of San Francisco. But once Mark Few solidified Marquise Carter as the fifth starter and David Stockton and Sam Dower as his first two players off the bench, Gonzaga took off, winning 10 in a row to take home a share of the regular season title and win the WCC tournament championship. But then after beating St. John’s, the Zags were stomped by a Brandon Davies-less BYU team in the second round of the Big Dance.

Gonzaga will, once again, have the look of a top 25 team in 2011-2012 despite some significant roster turnover. Steven Gray graduated while both Demetri Goodson and Manny Arop transferred out of the program. The good news, however, is that Mark Few does return a loaded front line, led by Elias Harris and Robert Sacre. Harris struggled as a sophomore after a promising freshman campaign that had his name being mentioned as a potential lottery pick. Some of that was an achilles injury that limited his explosiveness. If he can return to freshman year form — or improve on it — he’s a potential Player of the Year in the WCC. Sacre has slowly developed into one of the best big men on the west coast. He does a little bit of everything — scoring in the paint, rebounding, blocking shots — and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him continue to develop as a senior. The Zags are deep up front as well. Sam Dower is a potential game-changer off the bench, an active and athletic power forward that really came on strong late in the year. Kelly Olynyk can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot and can hold his own on the glass. The perimeter is more of a question mark. Sophomore point guard David Stockton — yes, that’s John’s son — was a steadying force late in the season, and while he plays smart basketball and can run the team, he’s not an overwhelming playmaker. Senior Marquise Carter, however, has the potential to be. Gonzaga’s late-season surge came when he was moved into the starting lineup, and he had a couple big games down the stretch. Carter can do a lot of things — shoot, drive, find assists — but he will need to become more consistent in his production. The third perimeter spot will be up for grabs. Sharpshooting Mathis Monninghoff started eight games but couldn’t get off the bench at the end of the season. Mathis Keita earned some starts as well, but he, too, couldn’t keep his minutes. Will freshman Gary Bell, the jewel of a six-man recruiting class, start immediately? There’s a chance. Also, keep an eye on freshman Kevin Pangos, who should push David Stockton for minutes at the point.

2. St. Mary’s: It may be hard to believe, but for St. Mary’s, a season in which they won their first share of the WCC conference title in 14 years was a major disappointment. The magnitude their collapse down the stretch — an unacceptable loss to San Diego, losses to Gonzaga and Utah State that would have sealed an tournament trip, and another loss to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament finals — should tell you how good of a season the Gaels had for three months just to manage a share of the WCC title. In mid-February, they were 22-4 and 10-1 in the WCC, holding a two game lead with three games left while playing sensational basketball. Their season ended fittingly, with WCC Player of the Year Mickey McConnell missing a game-winning layup at the buzzer in the first-round of the NIT against Kent State.

While McConnell has moved on to the professional level, Randy Bennett’s club returns the rest of their roster from 2010-2011. Matthew Dellavedova will take the reins of this team as a junior and he should be primed for a big season as the feature guard in Randy Bennett’s offense. He will likely be joined in the back court by sophomore Stephen Holt, a highly-regarded recruit when he entered the program that had a couple of impressive performances late in the season. Jorden Page missed most of last season with a knee injury. He had a couple of big games in the WCC Tournament two seasons ago and should provide a spark off the bench. Same with Paul McCoy, a transfer that averaged 13.4 ppg as a freshman in 2008-2009. In the front court, Clint Steindl and Rob Jones will start at the forward spots. Steindl is a lanky, 6’7″ sharpshooter at the small forward spot while Jones, despite standing just 6’6″, is the team’s second-leading scorer and best rebounder. He’s more of a combo-forward than a pure power forward, but Jones plays with a mean streak. Kenton Walker got 26 starts last season, but only played 15 mpg. Mitchell Young actually played more minutes that Walker and averaged double figures off the bench. Tim Williams and Northwestern transfer Kyle Rowley will also be in the front court rotation. If Dellavedova and Jones embrace the role of the leader, youngsters like Page and Holt develop into big-time players and the Gael’s front court plays well, this is a team that has the potential to make a lot of noise; not just in the WCC, but on a national level.

3. BYU: While BYU’s storybook season was dulled by the suspension of starting center Brandon Davies in March, it shouldn’t put a damper on what was one of the most memorable years in college basketball in the last decade. Much of that credit is due to the play of Jimmer Fredette, the superstar with unlimited range, a vicious crossover, and a goodie-two-shoes image that made Tim Tebow look like Marlo Stanfield. But with the graduation of Fredette and a couple of other very important pieces and BYU’s move to the WCC for hoops, Dave Rose will, essentially, have a brand new program to work with in 2011-2012.

Not only does BYU lose The Jimmer next season, they well also be playing with out Jackson Emery and Kyle Collinsworth, who will be on his Mormon mission. What that means is that Rose is going to have to build his club around Davies, who recently was officially reinstated to the BYU program. Davies is a quality post presence, able to score on the block with a variety of effective-but-awkward post moves. Davies will be joined on the front line by Noah Hartsock, a senior with the ability to stretch the floor thanks to his jumper, and Chris Collinsworth, who will hopefully be back to 100% after battling through a knee injury and eventually having surgery in January. Throw in Stephen Rogers, a junior reserve, and the crop of freshmen bigs Rose signed, and BYU will have a solid front line, although it would be nice to see that group develop a bit of a mean streak. The perimeter is where the question marks lie. Jimmer and Emery rarely left the court, and when either one did, Kyle Collinsworth was usually the player that slid down to the two. Senior Charles Abouo is back, but he is a small forward that isn’t known for his ability to handle the ball. That leaves a trio of freshmen. Anson Winder, who redshirted last season, and Damarcus Harrison, a true freshman, will initially be relied upon to handle back court duties until UCLA transfer Matt Carlino is able to get himself eligible. How good Carlino ends up being will likely be the determining factor in whether or not BYU wins the WCC.

4. San Francisco: The Dons are in a very good position heading into the 2011-2012 season. Not only is this a team that finished 10-4 in the league last season — just a game behind both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s — they also bring back essentially their entire team, losing only Moustapha Diarra and Marko Petrovic. It didn’t take long for Rex Walters to turn around this program, as he now has USF in a position to legitimately be considered a threat to win the conference title.

The Don’s strength will be in their back court this season. It starts with Mike Williams and Rashad Green, their two leading scorers from a season ago and all-WCC members. Green has about four inches on Williams (who is listed at 6’0″), but is the better playmaker. Williams is a better scorer and more of a consistent three point threat. The back court will be held together by Cody Doolin, a freshman point guard who was forced into a starting role due to another season-ending knee injury to Dominique O’Conner in the second game of the season. Doolin proved to be a very capable WCC point guard with the potential to develop into an all-league caliber playmaker. With a healthy O’Conner and sophomores Charles Standifer and Avery Johnson joining that group, the Dons may have the second best perimeter attack in the league. Inside, losing Moustapha Diarra will hurt their depth. He was big and he produced — 7.8 ppg in just over 17 mpg. But with Perris Blackwell and Angelo Caloiaro back, the Dons will have a solid inside-outside duo. Blackwell is better around the rim while Caloiaro is more of a face-up four, although he does get to the glass at a solid rate. It will be nice if he shoots better than 32.7% from three or takes fewer than five per game, however. 6’9″ German sophomore Justin Raffington will be one of the guys counted on to provide depth in the front court. The WCC will be tough up top, and its always interesting to see how a team handles expectations (see Loyola Marymount last season), but San Francisco should be in the mix atop the WCC all year long.

5. Santa Clara: The Broncos had a terrific year in 2010-2011. They won 23 games, they finished fourth in the WCC and they were able to win a postseason title, beating Iona on the road for the CIT championship. And while Kerry Keating’s club lost two starters and a couple of bench players, the fact that they were returning their big three of Kevin Foster, Marc Trasolini and Evan Roquemore had them being picked as a potential sleeper in the WCC. That was until Trasolini blew out his knee in August.

We already talked about the loss of Trasolini above, so let’s focus on what Santa Clara does have. It starts with their back court, as Foster, a senior, and Roquemore, a sophomore, form a terrific tandem. Foster is one of the most potent scorers in the country, averaging over 20 ppg as a sophomore. Foster can be streaky. He shoots a ton of threes — exactly 10 per game last year — and when he gets hot, watch out. He went for 25 or more points 12 times, including a 36 point outburst in a win against Gonzaga in January. Roquemore is more of an all-around player and a much better creator, but he has the ability to explode as well, going for 30 points in SCU’s win over USF in the CIT. Robert Cowels looks to be in line to start the the three, but the Bronco’s back court depth will more than likely be entirely freshmen. The front court is going to have a ton of question marks without Trasolini. Junior Niyi Harrison and sophomore Jon McArthur are really the only returners, but redshirt freshman Yannick Atanga and true freshman Robert Garrett, a seven-footer, were both highly-rated recruits in high school. At least two players out of that group are going to have to develop into solid contributors this season for the Broncos to have a real shot at finishing in the top four of the league.

6. Loyola Marymount: Last season was disastrous for the Lions. They had a roster stocked with talent and a buzz heading into the season, which is why they were picked by quite a few people to contend with St. Mary’s for the second spot in the conference. But the year ended up being a disaster. The Lions were plagued by injuries, their star guard Vernon Teel couldn’t find a way to get along with the coaching staff, and LMU ended the season with just 11 wins, finishing in last place in the conference at 2-12. One thing that I am positive of is that Loyola was not as bad as their record indicated last season. As a team, its hard to argue with the results, but there was — and still is — plenty of individual talent on that roster.

The issue this season is going to be A) keeping that talent on the court and out of the training room; B) developing team chemistry, which is just as important as talent; and C) winning close games — they were just 2-7 in one possession and overtime games last year. Nine of the 11 players Max Good started in more than one game last season return, including the five guys that were starting by the end of the season. The centerpiece of this team will be forward and 17.2 ppg scorer Drew Viney. (Ed. Note: Of course, the day after we originally posted this preview, Viney had to go and get surgery on his foot.) He’ll be joined up front by sophomore Godwin Okojoni, who was starting by the end of the year in place of Edgar Garibay, another sophomore. Garibay is a big-bodied, 6’10” center that will hopefully be healthy this season. The athletic Ashley Hamilton will also play a big role, while LaRon Armstead and Tom Diedrichs should see minutes up front as well. Anthony Ireland really came on down the stretch of his freshman campaign and should develop into a quality starting point guard. He’ll be joined in the back court by sophomore Ayodeji Egbeyemi, who was able to start by the end of his freshman season because Jarrod DuBois had his year cut short by injuries. With both Teel and Larry Davis gone this year, LMU’s back court may have some depth issues. The Lions have the talent to make a push for a top four finish in the conference, but will all the pieces come together?

7. Portland: The success that Eric Reveno has had in Portland is a perfect example of why the WCC looks primed to be one of the best mid-major conferences in the country for a long time coming. Despite playing in a league that includes three perennial tournament teams in Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and now BYU, Portland has steadily been competitive, not only in the league but nationally as well, despite losing important pieces that past two offseasons. This year will be the test. After losing four starters from the 2009-2010 season, Portland appeared to be a challenger for the league title early in the season before road struggles during conference play derailed that bid. They finished .500 in league play, ending up fifth, right where everyone expected them to be. But their 20 wins and invitation to the CIT should tell you that their season was more successful than it appears on paper.

This season, Portland will once again be forced to deal with the graduation of quite a bit of talent. Leading scorer Jared Stohl graduates, as does the league’s leading rebounder in Luke Sikma and a four-year starter for the Pilots in center Kramer Knutson. The Pilots should be able to handle the loss of Stohl in stride as they have plenty of perimeter talent. Nemanja Mitrovic proved to be just as dangerous of a three-point marksmen, hitting 46.3% of his triples while shooting more than Stohl on the season. Senior Eric Waterford started 23 games at the point, while junior Derrick Rodgers, sophomore Tanner Riley and freshman Kevin Bailey — who was a highly regarded recruit — should all contribute this year. But the x-factor may end up being sophomore Tim Douglas, who earned a spot in the starting lineup late in his freshman campaign. He played well in the nine games he started, leading Portland to a 6-3 record which includes a 26 point, five rebound, four assist performance in a 15 point win over St. Mary’s. Portland lost both games prior to his insertion in the lineup as well as the last three games of the season, which Douglas missed with a foot injury. The front court is a much, much bigger question mark. Only two players that saw any action return — sophomores Ryan Nicholas and Riley Barker, who played a combined 17.1 mpg last year. A couple of freshman will be thrown in the mix as well — John Bailey, Thomas van der Mars, and Dorian Cason. Will any of those five players be able to step up and replace the production and leadership lost with Sikma and Knutson?

8. Pepperdine: Tom Asbury’s second tenure didn’t go quite as well as his first, when he built the Waves into the premiere program in the WCC in the early 90’s. To get a feel for how poorly Pepperdine performed, think about this — the Waves were 12-21 overall and 5-9 in league play while have two of their players, including star Keion Bell, suspended midway through the season, and this was the most successful year in Asbury’s three year reign. Asbury is now gone — along with Bell and second leading scorer Mychel Thompson — but all hope is not lost for Pepperdine.

Clearly, losing a player of Bell’s caliber is less than ideal, but having a player of Bell’s caliber that does not buy into to the concept is just as bad. Case in point — Pepperdine was 6-14 with Bell on the roster last season; they were 6-7 without him. The bigger loss may actually be Mychel Thompson, Klay’s younger brother, who was the team’s leading scorer after Bell left. This season, new head coach Marty Wilson will center his offensive attack around Lorne Jackson, a senior guard that turned into a legitimate go-to scoring threat late in the year, averaging 20.8 ppg in the last five games. Junior Joshua Lowery looks like he might be the answer at the point after solidifying the position as a sophomore. Throw in senior Dane Suttle, junior Caleb Willis, and a couple of newcomers, including touted freshman Jordan Baker and Norweigan JuCo transfer Nikolas Skouen, and Pepperdine has a decent blend of talent and experience on their perimeter. The starters in the front court will most likely be the senior duo of Taylor Darby and Corbin Moore, who both have some size and plenty of experience but lack upside in terms of potential. Those two will combine with sophomore Jan Maehlen and freshman Ramon Eaton, who are going to have to provide minutes even if they aren’t quite ready. The front court will be an issue, but if Pepperdine can get some solid perimeter play out of Jackson and Lowery, than I don’t think a .500 WCC season is out of the realm of possibility.

9. San Diego: Bill Grier had such an incredible start to his tenure at San Diego. He went 11-3 in the league, he knocked off both St. Mary’s and Gonzaga en route to the WCC Tournament title and then he went on to beat UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t get much better than that. And it also doesn’t get much worse than where the program has ended up since then. They won 16 games — and just six in the conference — the following season, seeing those numbers drop all the way to six wins and just two leagues wins last year.

San Diego’s prospects don’t look all that much better for this season. They have a young roster — eight freshmen and two sophomores — and lost two of their top four scorers from last season. There are a couple of bright spots, however. Darian Norris, a JuCo transfer playing his first season as a Division I point guard, proved that he is capable of playing at this level of basketball. He’ll be the only senior of the USD roster next year. The Toreros also have a solid front line. Chris Manresa, a junior, averaged a respectable 7.3 ppg and 5.4 rpg while Chris Gabriel went for 7.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg. Gabriel has the potential to be a real force in the WCC, but he needs to get control of his weight. He’s currently listed at 285 — which is down from the 310 he was listed at as a sophomore — but weight isn’t the only factor when it comes to conditioning. Gabriel only managed to stay on the court for 15 mpg last year. There are some decent freshmen coming in — including redshirt frosh Ben Vozzolla and point guard Chris Anderson — but they will take some time to develop. Expect another year at the bottom of the league.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Talented Kentucky begins another year with high expectations

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 21:  The mascot of the Kentucky Wildcats in action against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 21, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky coach John Calipari once again must figure out how to use his latest talented freshman class, which this year is big and fills voids at many positions.

All of which means another season of high expectations at a school where a national championship is always the standard.

After finishing 27-9 and losing in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 last spring, Kentucky appears capable of contending for a ninth NCAA title. This despite losing six players including several regulars such as Associated Press All-American guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, who combined to average 37 points per game last season, and 6-foot-11 Skal Labissiere.

Kentucky landed guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, both 6-foot-3 high school All-Americans who join sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (9.9 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) in the backcourt. All can handle the ball and shoot, giving Calipari some options, compared with last year’s squad run by Ulis.

“This team will probably have three guys having the ball, and we’ll play off them,” Calipari said. “One may have it more, but the other two are going to have it a significant amount of time. So that makes it different.”

But this recruiting class is all about the bigs with the additions of Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Sacha Killeya-Jones – a pair of 6’10” All-Americans – and 6’9″ Wenyen Gabriel.

Adebayo has an NBA body and is fierce around the basket on both ends of the floor. Killeya-Jones and Gabriel are long and guard the rim as well.

The Wildcats also return size with 7-footer Isaac Humphries and 6’10” redshirt freshman Tai Wynyard, giving Kentucky its tallest frontcourt since the 38-1 team that reached the Final Four two years ago. Nobody’s making that grand comparison yet as the team works to form chemistry.

“We all want the same dream, so we just try to accomplish it together,” Monk said. “It’s easy to sacrifice if you have great players around you.”

Other things to watch in Kentucky this season:

MATURE BRISCOE: Isaiah Briscoe worked out with NBA teams last spring to gauge his pro prospects before returning for his sophomore season . He’s more seasoned by the experience, and more muscular. The biggest benefits might be his improved shooting – which Kentucky needs from him after an inconsistent freshman season – and his eagerness to lead. “It forced me to grow up,” Briscoe said of the process. “Being one of the few guys to come back (under Calipari), I’ll be able to lead these guys.”

BLUEGRASS GRAYBEARDS: Kentucky has seniors for the second straight season, both of whom could play bigger roles. Forward Derek Willis is working to add defense to his game after averaging career bests of 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds last season and becoming part of the rotation. Guard Dominique Hawkins just aims to stay healthy after his junior year was limited by injuries. He’s a physical defensive specialist being encouraged to shoot more this season.

COACH’S KID: If things get loud in Rupp near the end of a Kentucky rout, it might be fans clamoring for Calipari to put his son, Brad, on the floor. The 6-foot freshman is a walk-on with an eye toward coaching one day but figures to become a fan favorite for obvious reasons.

RENOVATED RUPP: The Wildcats’ home begins its 40th anniversary season with a new floor and center-hung scoreboard and video screen that has replaced the “Big Bertha” bank of loudspeakers, which resembled an oversized pine cone. The arena has already added high-definition video boards in the corners and other electronic features to enhance the game experience.

KEY GAMES: Kentucky’s always-tough nonconference schedule includes matchups against Michigan State on Nov. 15 in the Champions Classic; a home game against UCLA (Dec. 3); consecutive contests against North Carolina (Dec. 17) and at archrival Louisville (Dec. 21); and a Jan. 28 home game against Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.



See what NC State freshman did to Abdul-Malik Abu’s arm

SYRACUSE, NY - FEBRUARY 27:  Abdul-Malik Abu #0 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives to the basket as DaJuan Coleman #32 of the Syracuse Orange defends during the first half on February 27, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Rebounding can be a war at times. Even when it involves teammates.

NC State junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu, one of the best rebounders in the nation, showed up to ACC Media Day in Washington, D.C. earlier this week with battle scars from a recent drill with freshman forward Ted Kapita.

“When you’re battling for rebounds, there’s a lot of hand movements,” Abu said, according to Aaron Beard of the Associated Press. “And he has nails, so he’s just kind of like slicing through.”

Abu told reporters he had the first-year forward cut his nails shortly after the incident.

The 6-foot-8 Abu, the ACC’s top returning rebounder, averaged 12.9 points, 8.8 boards and 1.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. Kapita is ranked as four-star recruit by Rivals.

The Wolfpack were picked to finish sixth in the loaded ACC.

Dana Altman: “No idea” if Dillon Brooks will be ready for season opener

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24:  Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks dunks the ball in the first half while taking on the Duke Blue Devils in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Oregon enters the 2016-17 season as a projected top-5 team. A lot of those lofty expectations are dependent on the health of Dillon Brooks, an All-American caliber forward heading his junior year.

Brooks had surgery on his foot this offseason and is still not back at practice yet for the Ducks. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports spoke to Oregon head coach Dana Altman on Thursday. Altman is uncertain if he’ll have his star forward on the floor when the season tips in a few weeks.

“I have no idea,” Altman told FanRag Sports on Thursday when he was asked if Brooks would be ready for the season opener. “He’s out of the boot and he’s doing some non-contact stuff, but we still don’t know. He has another meeting scheduled with the doctor next week and we’ll go from there.”

The Ducks graduated Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin, but retained four starters, including rim protectors Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell, as well as Tyler Dorsey, who was third on the team in scoring as a freshman. They also add another ball handler in Dylan Ennis, who missed all but two games last season with a foot injury of his own.

But with a healthy Brooks, a nightmare matchup at a physical 6-foot-7, Oregon is a legitimate national championship contender.

Oregon begins the season on Nov. 11 against Army. Then after that, a meeting with arguably the best mid-major, Valparaiso, is sandwiched in between a pair of games with two potentially dangerous high-major teams in Baylor and Georgetown. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Pac-12 favorite, minus its star forward, could be slow out of the gates in 2016-17.

Mark Turgeon receives an extension from Maryland

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18: Head coach Mark Turgeon of the Maryland Terrapins looks on against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The University of Maryland announced on Thursday that Mark Turgeon’s contract would be extended through the 2022-23 season.

This adds four years to his previous deal. Turgeon is entering his sixth season at Maryland.

“I want to thank President [Wallace] Loh and [Director of Athletics] Kevin Anderson for their continued commitment and support of our program,” Turgeon said in a statement. “I am in this position because of the talented coaches and student-athletes that I have had the opportunity to work with over the past five years. Their commitment to our program is why Maryland Basketball continues to have an exciting and bright future.”

Once on the hot seat, Turgeon has gotten the Terrapins to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, the latter resulting in a spot in the Sweet 16. It was the first time in a decade he had reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, previously leading Wichita State to the Sweet 16 in 2006.

Maryland, a preseason top-25 team, lost four starters — Robert Carter Jr., Jake Layman, Diamond Stone and Rasheed Suliamon — from a season ago. But the Terps do retain Melo Trimble, one of the top lead guards in the nation, for his junior year.  Trimble will be surrounded by Damonte Dodd, Dion Wiley, Jaren Nickens, Duquesne grad transfer L.G. Gill and a quartet of four-star freshmen.

NBC Sports projected Maryland to finish sixth in the Big 10 this season.

RIP Vine: The best college basketball vines

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Today, Twitter announced that they are sending Vine – the six-second, looping videos that made so many people famous and so many things viral – into hospice care.

The social media service that helped usher in an era of Instagram videos, SnapChat and FaceBook live will not be a thing for much longer.

And that’s a shame.

Because there really was nothing better than a well-executed vine.

In remembrance, we are offering up the most memorable college basketball vines for your viewing pleasure (if we’ve missed any, leave a link in the comments or share it with us @CBTonNBC):

Kris Jenkins winning a title

Tony Parker kicking game at Allie LaForce

A quadruple ball-screen

Marshall Henderson is confused

That time Derrick Marks’ legs didn’t work like they used to before


The Wall of Distraction getting it done

Bill Self breaking his own watch

Dyshawn Pierre getting pantsed

How is this possible?

You may never see a better dunk than this

Tom Crean doing Tom Crean things

Thad Matta being thrilled to see Tom Crean

Speaking of Coach Matta, what’s he been on, Amir?

Sterling Brown knew this shot was good

I still have no idea what Stephen Zimmerman is doing here

He mad

That time Jamal Murray murdered his teammate

That time Willie Cauley-Stein murdered a defender

That other time Willie Cauley-Stein murdered a defender

Georges Niang blowing a kiss to the Iowa student section

And not everyone likes him for it

That time Jarmal Reid tripped a ref

A world class flop from Armani Moore


Motor-Boatright Me

Florida walk-on Jacob Kurtz tipping in a buzzer-beater for … Florida State?