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2011-2012 ACC Preview: UNC, Duke and everyone else

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AWARDS

Player of the Year: Harrison Barnes, So., North Carolina

To say nothing of the talent level in the ACC, I’m not sure how anyone can possibly pick someone other than Barnes to be the Preseason Player of the Year in the ACC. We’re talking about a kid that could have been the No. 1 player in the NBA Draft had he decided to enter the 2011 NBA Draft. Barnes started off his freshman season slowly, struggling to gain confidence and find a rhythm playing along side Larry Drew. But once Kendall Marshall was moved into the starting lineup — and after Barnes hit a game-winning jumper to beat Miami in mid-January — he found his confidence and he turned into the player that made some preseason first-team all-america ballots. In his last 18 games, Barnes averaged 19.7 ppg and 6.5 rpg while shooting 45.5% from the floor and 37.8% from three. He’s a prototype for a small forward — he’s 6’8″ with advanced skills and an understanding of how to play the game. There may not be a better player in the country.

And a close second goes to…: Mike Scott, Sr., Virginia

Frankly, this spot probably belongs to another player on UNC or Duke’s Austin Rivers (see below), but since this is more than just a Tobacco Road preview, I decided to write about Scott here. Thanks to Virginia’s struggles as a program and the fact that Scott missed the majority of last season with an ankle injury, its easy to forget just how good he was before he went down, averaging a double-double at 15.2 ppg and 10.1 rpg. Scott is a difficult matchup on the block at this level. He’s capable of stepping out onto the perimeter and knocking down a jump shot, but he also has a variety of moves on the block. Perhaps the most difficult thing about guarding him is his strength. He’s not overly explosive, but got a mature build and can finish through contact given how hard he goes to the basket. The Cavs are a sleeper in the league this season, and if Virginia does make a run towards that third-place finish, don’t be surprised to see Scott’s name pop-up on Player of the Year ballots.

Breakout Star: Erick Green, Jr., Virginia Tech

As much as hype as Ryan Kelly has gotten this offseason, I’m going with Green to be the breakout star of the ACC this year largely due to the fact that he performed well in the ACC last year. Not much was expected of Green last season, but after Dorenzo Hudson went down with a season-ending injury, Green was called upon to fill the back court role alongside Malcolm Delaney, and he did so admirably. Green finished the year averaging 11.7 ppg, but he played his best basketball late in the year, even notching a trio of 20 points games. Green is a more natural point guard, and without Delaney dominating the ball, expect this junior and his 2.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio to have a very good year running the Hokies.

All-Conference First-Team:

POY: Harrison Barnes, So., UNC
G: Kendall Marshall, So., UNC
G: Austin Rivers, Fr., Duke
G: Malcolm Grant, Sr., Miami
F: Mike Scott, Sr., Virginia
C: Tyler Zeller, Sr., UNC

All-Conference Second-Team:

G: Seth Curry, Jr., Duke
G: Terrell Stoglin, So., Maryland
G: Durand Scott, Sr., Miami
F: Dorenzo Hudson, Sr., Virginia Tech
F: John Henson, Jr., UNC

Newcomer of the Year: Austin Rivers, Duke

This pick was almost as easy as choosing Barnes to be the league’s Player of the Year. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Rivers, if he lives up to the hype he has coming this season, will be Barnes’ biggest competition for the honor. Rivers can flat out score the basketball. He’s a bit of a streaky shooter, but his hot streaks are the stuff of legend, as he’s capable of putting on a show once he gets into a rhythm. Rivers has terrific range and a wide-variety of moves with the ball in his hands. He’s not limited to being a jump-shooter, although he does need to improve his handle as a driver, especially going left. Rivers needs to make sure he focuses on limiting his turnovers and poor shots, but this kid has the kind of ability that will remind some Duke fans of Jay Williams.

All-Freshmen Team:

G: Austin Rivers, Duke
G: Nick Faust, Maryland
F: Dorian Finney-Smith, Virginia Tech
F: Julian Royal, Georgia Tech
F: Ryan Anderson, Boston College

Five Summer storylines

– ACC expansion: The biggest news in all of college sports this summer was conference expansion, and for the ACC it was no different. With Texas and Oklahoma appearing to be on the verge of joining the Pac-12 and the Big 12 looking like it was on its death bed, most people believed that conference armageddon was upon us, and both the ACC and the Big East would be unable to survive the fire and brimstone that rained down. So the ACC made a preemptive strike, shocking the nation late on a Friday night in September with the news that they were adding both Pitt and Syracuse.

Conference armageddon didn’t happen — I guess Bruce Willis was able to set off the nuke in time, keeping Texas and Oklahoma from heading to the Pac-12 — and the Big 12 actually managed to solidify itself as a league by stealing TCU away from the Big East. With the nation’s premiere basketball league on the verge of collapsing, UConn made it abundantly clear to the ACC that they wanted in. As it turns out, the likelihood of that happening is fairly small. The ACC wanted the Huskies initially, but Boston College — who is still holding a grudge from comments UConn made eight years ago when BC left the Big East for the ACC — vetoed that move.

– Jim Larranaga dealt a bad hand: The Hurricanes certainly didn’t have a boring offseason. After losing Frank Haith to Missouri and ignoring to overtures from Frank Martin, Miami made an impressive hire by luring Jim Larranaga away from George Mason. After what happened this summer, I wonder if Larranaga ended up regretting that decision. First, his star center Reggie Johnson went down with a torn meniscus, which is a huge blow to the Hurricanes. Johnson was arguably the best big man in the conference that plays outside of Tobacco Road. A double-double machine, he game The U a post option to balance out their guard play. He is scheduled to be back in January, but given the weight issues he has, can Miami really count on him for a stretch run?

That was just the start of it. In August, Yahoo published their massive report on Miami’s booster Nevin Shapiro, and while the shrapnel hit all over the football program, the basketball team didn’t get away scot-free. Shapiro alleged that he paid DeQuan Jones, who is currently on the Miami roster, $10,000 to ensure that Jones joins the Hurricanes. Eight days after that came out, Julian Gamble — who likely would have started in Johnson’s place — tore his acl. That’s not an ideal way to start your new job.

– Wake Forest’s embarrassing summer: In the past 18 months, Wake Forest has lost five players from what was once a promising young core. Tony Woods was forced to transfer after assaulting his girlfriend. Ari Stewart transferred after their abomination of a 2010-2011 season. Melvin Tabb was kicked out of school because of an arrest involving breaking and entering and fraud. JT Terrell had to leave because he has a drinking problem. And Ty Walker is suspended for the first semester. Throw in the alleged rape during the 2009 NCAA Tournament that was announced on the Today Show back in May, and its safe to say Jeff Bzdelik probably hasn’t had a worse summer in his career.

– Allan Chaney’s career is over: The heart issues that kept the Florida transfer sitting out the past two years at Virginia Tech have ended the big man’s career. He was diagnosed with viral myocarditis, which is an infection in the heart that can cause scarring and inflammation of the heart.

– Maryland, NC State and Georgia Tech coaching changes: Three relevant ACC programs will be heading into the 2011-2012 season with new leadership. Georgia Tech replaced Paul Hewitt with Brian Gregory, a solid hire given the $7.2 million the school still owes Paul Hewitt as a buyout. NC State missed on a number of big names, but they were able to sign former Alabama head coach and ESPN announcer Mark Gottfried. Maryland lost Gary Williams to retirement, but hiring Mark Turgeon away from Texas A&M is as good of a hire as there was this offseason. Turgeon promptly locked in assistant coaches with very strong ties to the AAU programs in Baltimore (Bino Ranson) and DC (Dalonte Hill), all but ensuring himself success recruiting the I-95 corridor.

Five storylines to follow this season

– Will the Plumlees ever become quality post players?: With Marshall Plumlee joining his two elder brothers at Duke this season, we are entering year four of the seven year Plumlee experiment at Duke, and to date, none of the three has been able to manage any kind of consistency inside. Mason has the most potential — he’s the strongest, he is the broadest, and he probably has the most talent — but for every 25 points, 12 rebound, 5 block performance (win over Marquette) he has a 2 point, 4 rebound game (loss to St. John’s). Miles has had people talking about him at the start of practices, but we’ve heard that before. Marshall? If he’s anything like his brothers, he’ll be a non-factor early in his career.

All accounts have Ryan Kelly coming in much-improved this season. He was an offensive weapon last year, and with his versatility and ability to score on the perimeter, he’ll create some matchup problems. But if one of those three Plumlees can become a low-post scoring threat, Duke will have a dangerous high-low tandem.

– North Carolina best team in the country?: The last time that the Tar Heels had this much talent on their roster, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and company cut down the nets in Detroit. In terms of raw talent, this group may actually be better than that 2009 UNC team — and the 2005 team as well — but they are not the hands down favorites to win the title this year. Kentucky is loaded, as they brought in one of the best recruiting classes in recent memory and actually returned a couple of players from last season. UConn added Andre Drummond, who may actually be the best freshman in the country, to a group that was already a top ten team. Ohio State and Syracuse — and even Duke — all bring back teams with enough talent to legitimately have a shot at winning it all.

But Carolina, on paper, is the best team in the country. Will that shine through come March?

– Will Florida State’s perimeter develop?: The Seminoles have one of the biggest and best front lines in the country. Bernard James anchors a group that legitimately goes five deep. The fifth guy on that depth chart? Seven-footer Jon Kreft, who was a five-star recruit back in 2006 before he got into some trouble with the law. They’ll block shot, they’ll rebound and they’ll generally make life miserable for their opponents, providing the foundation for what should once again be one of the best defenses in the country. The question for Florida State is going to be how their perimeter develops. Who is going to score? Who is going to be the zone-buster? Can anyone in that group create their own shot? Michael Snaer is the guy that will be facing the most pressure. He will be a junior this season and he will need to finally realize the potential that got him rated in the top 10 coming out of high school.

– Reggie Johnson’s knee: With Johnson anchoring the middle, Jim Larranaga’s Miami team is one of the most dangerous in the ACC. Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant form one of the most dangerous back courts in the country. With guys like Garrius Adams and DeQuan Jones to play defense and grab some rebounds, the ‘Canes do have some glue guys. But without Johnson, they are missing a low-post scoring threat to take pressure off of their perimeter guys. Johnson is scheduled to be out until the turn of the calendar. How healthy will he be for the ACC stretch run? Will he be in good enough condition to contribute immediately? Grant is a senior, so this is the year for Miami.

– Can Virginia or Virginia Tech make the jump this year?: Neither of the ACC’s two Virginia schools has made the NCAA Tournament since 2007, but both programs have enough talent on their roster to earn a bid this season. UVa caught a break when Mike Scott was cleared by the NCAA for a fifth-year after suffering an ankle injury last season. But Tony Bennett’s club is more than just one player. The Cavs have a young and talented back court that goes six deep while Assane Sene and James Johnson will join Mike Scott up front.

Tech, on the other hand, loses star guard Malcolm Delaney, but they do return Dorenzo Hudson, who averaged 15.2 ppg as a junior. Erick Green was impressive filling in for Hudson last season and should be able to slide in as Seth Greenburg’s point guard. With veterans like Victor Davila and JT Thompson being joined by newcomers like Dorian Finney-Smith and CJ Barksdale, the Hokies have the potential to be a sleeper this year.

Power Rankings

1. North Carolina: The Tar Heels looked like they were heading for a disappointing season early on in 2010-2011. They lost a number of close games early in the season, they were struggling to find consistent point guard play and their superstar freshman, Harrison Barnes, was anything but a superstar. But after an embarrassing 20 point loss at Georgia Tech in the third game of ACC play, things started to turn around for the Heels. It started with Larry Drew’s surprising decision to leave the team midway through the year. This allowed Kendall Marshall to slide into the starting point guard spot, a move that probably should have been made earlier in the year based on the results. And then Barnes hit a game-winner against Miami, which finally gave the freshman some much-needed confidence, and he all of a sudden transformed into the player that some had pegged as a first-team all-american in the preseason. The Heels found their groove and eventually went on a run that led to an ACC regular season title and a trip to the Elite 8.

This season, with essentially their entire roster intact and a loaded freshman class coming in, the Heels are arguably the most talented team in the country. Its starts with a front line that features as many as four potential first round picks. The name that is going to pop up on every all-american team is Barnes. A smooth, 6’8″ small forward, Barnes could have been the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft had he decided to go pro. Barnes proved down the stretch of last season that he has the ability to go for 25 on a given night and could end up being an 18 ppg scorer this season. The post spots will be manned by John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Zeller is the better offensive option, a talented seven-footer with a variety of moves on the low-block. Henson is less of an offensive weapon, but he might be the best shot-blocker in the country this year. Both Zeller and Henson are a night mare to keep off the offensive glass. James McAdoo is a supremely talented freshman that could start at any other school in the conference, while Desmond Hubert will provide some depth.

The back court is just as talented even with Leslie McDonald sidelined with a torn acl. Marshall is the engine that makes this UNC team go. He’s not all that fast or all that athletic, but he is a perfect fit for Roy Williams’ uptempo system thanks to his ability to pass the ball. He’s got the kind of court vision that will get his teammates the ball in a position to score before they even know they are open. Dexter Strickland will likely start along side Marshall. Strickland, a junior, is probably UNC’s best perimeter defender. It will be interesting to see how Williams divvies up the minutes in the back court, as both Reggie Bullock — who should finally be healthy as a sophomore — and freshman PJ Hairston are big time shooters and scorers on the wing that will be able to spread the floor for UNC’s big men inside. Senior Justin Watts will provide depth on the wing for the Heels. North Carolina is scary good this season, and will be a favorite to win the national title this year.

2. Duke: The Blue Devils went into the 2010-2011 season as the overwhelming favorite to win a second consecutive national title, and while they looked like they were going to fulfill that destiny early in the year, a freak toe injury to Kyrie Irving changed that. Without Irving, Nolan Smith flourished, but the Blue Devils didn’t live up to their lofty expectations. Kyle Singler struggled, the Plumlees were overwhelmed inside and Duke ended up losing the ACC regular season title on the last day of the year. The Blue Devils rebounded, beating UNC in the finals of the ACC Tournament before bowing out in the Sweet 16 when Irving returned for the NCAA Tournament.

Duke is going to have quite a bit of production to replace. Both Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith exhausted their eligibility while Kyrie Irving headed to the NBA after all of 11 games in a Blue Devil uniform. But Duke reloaded with yet another talented freshman class. The star of the group is Austin Rivers, a high-scoring combo-guard that can put on some incredible scoring displays when he gets into a rhythm. He’s a bit of a streaky shooter, but he has deep range and is also aggressive getting to the rim. Shot selection, turnovers and over-confidence — yes, its a thing — will be an issue, but expect Rivers to remind a lot of folks in Durham of one Jay Williams. Joining Rivers in the back court will be Seth Curry, Steph’s younger brother who will finally have a chance to step into the spotlight. Curry will need to embrace the role of point guard as opposed to a scoring guard playing alongside Rivers, but he was successful late in the year doing the same playing with Smith last season. The sharp-shooting Andre Dawkins will see a lot of time this year, likely battling with another touted freshman — Michael Gbinje, a fundamentally sounds, 6’7″ wing — for the third starting spot on the perimeter. Sophomore Ty Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook will be the two true point guards on Coach K’s bench.

Duke’s front line will be a question mark heading into the season not because of a lack of size or a dearth of talent, but because of disappointing performances in the past. Duke currently has three Plumlees on their roster — senior Miles, junior Mason and freshman Marshall. Mason is probably the best out of the group, as he led the Blue Devils in rebounding and blocks last season. He needs to become more of an offensive threat, however. Miles has been inconsistent throughout his career, but reports from practice have said that he’s impressed as much as anyone. Marshall is probably the tallest and the most athletic of the trio, but he’ll need some muscle and weight before he’s really effective in the ACC. The x-factor along the front line is going to be Ryan Kelly. Kelly was terrific when the Blue Devils went to China and has apparently become a more physical and aggressive presence. If he can become a threat as a face-up, he’ll be a weapon spreading the floor for the Blue Devils. Alex Murphy and Josh Hairston will also see minutes up front. UNC is the favorite in the ACC this season, but Duke was the favorite a year ago and ended up finishing second in the regular season. If the front line plays big, the Blue Devils will have a chance.

3. Florida State: The Seminoles had, by far, their most successful season under Leonard Hamilton last year. After finishing third in the ACC, Florida State came within two dumb decisions by Derwin Kitchen of making the Elite 8 and playing Kansas for the right to go to the Final Four. FSU is not a team that comes up in the conversation all that often when we’re talking college hoops, so last year’s success may seem like a surprise, but the Seminoles have slowly been building this program; the only other team in the ACC to win 20 games overall and 10 leagues games the past three years in Duke. This season will be the real test for Florida State, as they head into the year without their top two scorers from last season in Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen.

Singleton will be the most difficult piece to replace. Florida State built their team around their defense, and Singleton was the single best defender in the country last season. A versatile forward that could defend three or four different positions. As a result, Florida State is going to have to rely even more on their massive front line. Bernard James is the best of the group. A former staff sergeant in the Air Force, James took a while to really acclimate to playing this level of basketball, but he became a capable scoring option and a quality shot-blocking and rebounding presence by the end of the season. In March, he averaged 11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 3.0 bpg while shooting 70.3% (26-of-37) from the floor. Okaro White, Xavier Gibson, Terrence Shannon and Jon Kreft will all see minutes in the front court as well. White, a sophomore, is probably the best offensive option out of the group while Gibson will be Hamilton’s first option when he is looking for more rebounding and shot blocking.

Florida State’s back court will have a few question marks — namely, they need a player that can create shots on the perimeter and a couple of players that will hit open threes and prevent defenses from collapsing on the interior. At the point, sophomore Ian Miller — who was disappointing as a highly-touted freshman — and senior Jeff Peterson — a transfer from Arkansas — will split time. Junior Michael Snaer will be the most talented player on the wing, but the former five-star recruit has yet to find offensive consistency. He settles for too many tough jumpers for someone with his ability to slash to the bucket. Snaer and Deividas Dulkys are probably the Seminole’s best perimeter defenders that return. Offensively, Dulkys does some things well, but he needs to become more of a consistent spot-up shooter. The same can be said for Luke Loucks. Both of Hamilton’s perimeter recruits — Antwan Space and Terry Whisnant — have a reputation as good shooters, which will definitely help. The Seminoles will, once again, be an elite defensive team with their size around the rim and their ability to pressure the ball defensively. It will enough to make the Seminoles the favorite to finish third in the ACC. How far they go into the postseason, however, will be determined by how good they can become offensively.

4. Virginia: Tony Bennett as done a solid job of turning this Virginia program into a successful one early in his tenure as the Cavalier’s head coach. The Cavs, who were picked to finish 11th in the ACC last season, managed to string together some wins and climb all the way to seventh in the league standings by the time the season was done. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that they were able to do so with Mike Scott sidelined with an injury. In his absence, Mustapha Farrakhan became UVa’s star, and while his career in Charlottesville has come to an end, the NCAA cleared Scott to return for one more year, putting Virginia into a very good position heading into the 2011-2012 season.

The anchor for this team — and perhaps the determining factor as to whether or not the ‘Hoos will earn themselves an NcAA Tournament — will be Mike Scott. When he’s healthy, Scott is a double-double machine. He was averaging 15.2 ppg and 10.1 rpg when he went down last season, an improvement that was likely the result of his increased ability to draw fouls early in the season. Joining Scott on the front line will be fellow senior Assane Sene. Sene is a legitimate seven-footer that developed into a legitimate presence in the lane, rebounding the ball well and blocking shots as well as anyone on the Virginia team. There isn’t much experience behind those two, but sophomore Akil Mitchell and redshirt freshman — and former top 100 recruit — James Johnson also in the fray, UVa will have a front line that can, at the very least, hold their own against most competition.

The back court will be an interesting one to keep an eye on, as there is quite a bit of talent on the roster, but a lot of youth as well. Senior Sammy Zeglinski and junior Jontel Evans will likely share the point guard duties. The two compliment each other well, as Zeglinski is a more dangerous shooter and a better scorer while Evans is the team’s most talented creator. One of the biggest boosts the Cavs should get will come from their wings. Both KT Harrell and Joe Harris played very well as freshmen, and with a year under their belts playing an expanded role, both should be expected to be better as sophomores. But their spots in the starting lineup are far from guaranteed, as Bennett brings in a couple of talented wings in Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson. With Miami’s Reggie Johnson out with a knee injury to start the season, Virginia will be the trendy sleeper pick in the ACC.

5. Virginia Tech: With a talented and experienced roster returning and thanks to a pumped-up non-conference schedule put together by head coach Seth Greenburg, 2010-2011 was supposed to be the year that Malcolm Delaney finally got a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as the Hokies suffered through some terrible luck on the injury front. Big man Allan Chaney was never cleared to play due to a heart condition. JT Thompson blew out his acl in July. Dorenzo Hudson and Cadarian Raines both had their season shut down in December and took a medical redshirt. Throw in Jarell Eddie’s suspension and Victor Davila’s bum shoulder, and by the time the NIT rolled around, Greenburg was using a 6’3″ walk-on to provide him with post minutes.

If there is a silver-lining to that awful string of luck, its that those injuries mean that the cupboard won’t be completely bare for Tech heading into this season. Not only will Thompson and Hudson return for another season, but the open minutes freed up playing time for some of the youngsters. One of the guys that benefitted was sophomore point guard Erick Green, who averaged 11.7 ppg and 2.7 apg despite Delaney dominating the ball on the offensive end of the floor. Green will need to shore up his perimeter jumper, but one of the most promising signs for his future is the 2.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio he posted. The key for Tech this season may be the health of Hudson. As a junior, he averaged over 15 ppg and posted a couple of big games, including dropping 41 on Seton Hall when Delaney was injured. If Hudson is back to his old form and Green continues to improve, Greenburg has a solid back court to work with. There are a couple of talented youngsters as well — sophomores Tyrone Garland and Jarell Eddie and freshman Robert Brown and Marquis Rankin will provide some minutes off the bench.

The front court will be anchored by the senior Davila, a bruising, 6’8″ power forward that will provide Greenburg with some toughness in the paint. Thompson will be back as well and should be healthy. He’s only 6’6″, but he’s a tough defender and will get to the glass on both ends of the floor. Freshman CJ Barksdale will likely see minutes as well, but the x-factor may end up being Dorian Finney-Smith, a versatile, 6’8″ combo-forward that is the highest-rated recruit Greenburg has landed in quite a while. A trip to the NCAA Tournament would not necessarily be a surprise for this group, but it shouldn’t be an expectation. There is potential here, but there are also quite a few question marks and unproven youngsters penciled in for big minutes.

6. Miami: The Hurricanes finished last season at 19-14 and just 6-10 in the ACC, but that final league record is a bit misleading. Miami was not a bad basketball team. Of those 10 ACC losses, only two came by double digits — both to Duke, and by a combined 21 points. They were within a Harrison Barnes three of knocking off North Carolina early in the season before losing the the Heels by two in the ACC Tournament. With only one player from last season’s rotation gone, there was plenty of reason to be excited about the ‘Canes prior to their disastrous offseason (see the summer storylines).

With all the drama surrounding Miami, the biggest blow to the program came in the form of a knee injury suffered by center Reggie Johnson in July. Johnson tore his meniscus and had surgery which will keep him out until conference play starts. Even if he is able to return for the season, there is no way to tell how long it will take him to get into game shape — the 300 lb Johnson isn’t known for being in the best shape as is — and whether or not he will be effective when he returns. The gaping hole in the middle of the Miami lineup is made even bigger when consider that Julian Gamble went down with a torn acl. It will put a ton of pressure on Florida transfer Kenny Kadji to become an effective post player, and also throws undersized Erik Swoope and seldon-used sophomore Raphael Akpejiori into much more influential roles.

Without Johnson, the Hurricanes are going to have to rely heavily upon their talented back court duo of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. Both Scott and Grant are above-average guards in the ACC. Grant, who is 6’1″ and the better shooter of the two, is more of a ball-handler while Scott, who checks in at 6’5″, is the better slasher. As a duo, they combined for 28.4 ppg and 6. apg last season, numbers that are going to have to go up next season. Small forward Garrius Adams came on strong late in the season, winning the starting small forward job away from Adrian Thomas. DeQuan Jones is a ridiculously athletic wing, although he has yet to live up to the hype he had coming out of high school. UMKC transfer Trey McKinney Jones will also see quite a few minutes in the back court, while freshmen Shane Larkin and Bishop Daniels will provide depth. If Johnson can return from his injury and be effective in ACC play, the Hurricanes will be a sleeper this season. If not, there is enough firepower in the back court for this team to compete on a nightly basis and, in all likelihood, pull off a couple of upsets along the way.

7. Clemson: The Tigers were expected to be rebuilding in 2010-2011. Not only were they losing their star big man in first round pick Trevor Booker, but head coach Oliver Purnell made the decision to take the DePaul head coaching job. With a new coach running a new system, it only made sense that the Tigers would take time to rebuild. But Brownell, who had led both UNC-Greensboro and Wright State to the NCAA Tournament, didn’t miss a beat, leading Clemson to their fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance through stout defense, offensive execution and a team that continued to compete and get better throughout the season. After consecutive losses to Michigan, South Carolina and Florida State put the Tigers are 5-4 on the season, Clemson responded with an eight game winning streak and eventually finished tied for fourth in the ACC.

Perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishment Clemson had last season is that they were never blown out. Their 70-59 loss to Duke at the end of the regular season was the only time the Tigers lost by double figures. And while Clemson does lose Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant, there is still more than enough talent on this team to expect another push for a tournament bid. Clemson will be anchored by their senior back court of Tanner Smith and Andre Young. Both are terrific on-ball defenders, which makes them ideal for Brownell’s system. Young, who played off-the-ball last season, will be forced to take on more of a point guard role this year. It will be interesting to see how that works out, as he is more of a natural scorer. The change should be made easier by the fact that Smith is a capable creator as well. The rest of the Clemson perimeter attack will be made up of freshmen. KJ McDaniels is an active and athletic small forward that will have a shot of starting at the three, while a trio of guards — Daniel Sapp, Devin Coleman, and Rod Hall — will provide depth.

Clemson’s front court is intriguing. Milton Jennings was a big-time recruit coming out of high school, a McDonald’s all-american that was recruited by just about everyone. But he has yet to come close to living up to those expectations. As a sophomore, Jennings averaged 8.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg while playing 20 mpg coming off the bench. With the graduation of Jerai Grant, Jennings is going to be a guy counted on for a big season. The same can be said for Devin Booker, the younger brother of Trevor. Devin didn’t have quite as much hype coming out of high school, but he did start over Jennings last season and put up similar numbers. If those two can put it all together, they will give Brownell an athletic and versatile (they both have three-point range) front court. The uber-athletic Bryan Narcisse and freshman big man Bernard Sullivan will program front court depth. Clemson will, once again, be a tough out everytime they step on the court.

8. NC State: The Wolfpack headed into the 2010-2011 season with lofty expectations. They returned a number of key pieces and brought in the best recruiting class of former head coach Sidney Lowe’s tenure. But thanks to a myriad of injuries and a couple of ill-timed suspensions, NC State once again struggled, falling into a 10th place tie with Georgia Tech in the ACC standings. The disappointing season was enough to get Lowe fired. After a coaching search that missed on a number of big name targets, the Wolfpack settled on Mark Gottfried, the former Alabama head coach that had taken a job as an analyst for ESPN broadcasts.

Gottfried will have a decent young core to build on in Raleigh. It starts with CJ Leslie a maddeningly inconsistent but supremely talented sophomore big man. Leslie, who averaged 11.0 ppg and 7.2 rpg as a freshman, struggled at times but also showed the kind of promise that make some pundits believe he’ll be an all-ACC performer before his is done at NC State, possibly as early as this season. Leslie will be joined on the front line by Richard Howell. Howell is a 6’9″ junior that is the best offensive rebounder on the team. He started when Tracy Smith was out with a knee injury and was quite productive when he was on the court. Juniors Deshawn Painter and Jordan Vandenburg will both be counted on to improve this season with more minutes, while they will be pushed for playing time off the bench by Terrel Harris, the younger brother of first round pick Tobias.

In the back court, Lorenzo Brown will be the guy that is called upon to run this team. With Ryan Harrow transferring out of the program and into Kentucky, Brown is left as the one point guard on the roster. Joining Brown in the back court will be junior sharp-shooter Scott Wood, who is capable of getting hot and carrying the team for stretches. After that, however, there are a lot of question marks in the back court. CJ Williams has been a starter before and has had his moments for the Wolfpack, while freshman Jaqawn Raymond will also be counted on to provide some minutes. After that, however, there isn’t much on NC State’s roster. There are some pieces for Gottfried to work with in his first season running this program, but the depth isn’t there for this team to make a serious run in the ACC.

9. Maryland: Things are going to look quite different at Maryland than they did last season. Jordan Williams made the decision to enter the NBA Draft, which, when combined with three key players — two starters — graduating, leaves the Terps without four of their top five scorers and their only real inside presence. Without Williams on the roster, head coach Gary Williams decided that he no longer wanted to coach the Terps, surprising just about everyone with his decision to retire in early May. Maryland did make a homerun hire, however, pulling Mark Turgeon away from Texas A&M. But the coaching change wasn’t without collateral damage, as two-thirds of Maryland’s solid recruiting class decommitted and ended up elsewhere.

Turgeon was able to keep the jewel of the class in Baltimore native Nick Faust, an off-guard with a dangerous offensive repertoire. At 6’6″, Faust brings some much needed size to the Maryland perimeter, because the rest of the back court is small. It starts with Terrell Stoglin, a (generously listed) 6’1″ point guard. Stoglin really came on strong late in his freshman season, eventually become the best ball-handler on the Maryland roster. He needs to develop into more of a point guard role, but some of that pressure will be taken off with Pe’Shon Howard sharing the back court with him. Howard look like he was going to be the young star of this Maryland team early in the season, and while he struggled a bit through the middle of the year, Howard also played well late in the year. Throw in Sean Mosley, who has been consistently solid for three years now, and the Terps have a talented back court.

The front court is a different story, however, as losing Jordan Williams left them with bare bones. James Padgett, a 6’8″ junior that has never been able to earn more than a handful of minutes a game, is going to be heavily counted on by Turgeon to provide some kind of production in the paint. As will senior Berend Weijs, a 6’10” native of the Netherlands that also struggled to get consistent minutes last year. Mychal Parker, a 6’5″ athlete and former four-star recruit, should be able to help in the front court with his athleticism, but the key may end up being getting Alex Len eligible. Len is still waiting to hear from the NCAA if he has to miss any games this season, but the 7’1″ Ukranian should help provide some depth inside. Losing Williams was a killer for this team. Their back court is good enough to compete with teams that don’t have much size, but without Williams, the Terps are going to get dominated in the paint.

10. Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech may have been the worst team in the country on the road last season. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Their losing streak started with an 17 point beatdown at the hands of Kennesaw State in the second game of the season and didn’t end until their very last road game, which just so happened to come against a Wake Forest team that had long since given up on the season. When it was all said and done, the Yellow Jackets were 13-18 on the season and 5-11 in the ACC, which was enough to finally get the Georgia Tech athletics department to terminate Paul Hewitt. To get an idea of how fed up the higher-ups at Tech were with Hewitt, think about this — it cost them a $7.2 million buyout to get rid of him.

The Yellow Jackets brought in Brian Gregory from Dayton, which wasn’t exactly a homerun hire but was far from a worst case scenario given how hamstrung the school was by Hewitt’s buyout. Gregory’s first task was to re-recruit both Iman Shumpert and Brian Oliver, but it didn’t work. Shumpert went pro and Oliver transferred to Seton Hall, leaving the Yellow Jackets short-handed heading into this season. There still is some talent on the roster, however. When junior shooting guard Glen Rice Jr gets into a rhythm, he’s a dangerous scorer that is capable of putting up some pretty impressive numbers. He’s a bit streaky, however, and can get into situations where he has to force some tough threes off the dribble. With Moe Miller’s graduation, expect Mfon Udofia to get another shot at running the team. Udofia was a highly-regarded recruit in high school but has not developed into a playmaker at this level. If Udofia can’t perform this season, don’t be surprised to see Brandon Reed take over the reins. Reed was a high-scoring combo-guard at Arkansas State — he averaged 16.8 ppg in Sun Belt play as a freshman — before transferring to the Yellow Jackets. Sophomore Jason Morris, a wing player that shot 40% from three and came on strong late in the year, will also see a lot of minutes.

Up front, Gregory is going to need someone to develop into some kind of scoring threat. Daniel Miller proved to be a capable rebounder and an excellent shot blocker, but he averaged 4.4 ppg and managed to get to the line just 46 times all season (he only made 17 of those). Kammeon Hosley is a terrific athlete when he’s healthy, but he looked like he was still shaking off the effects of a torn acl during the season. Sophomore Nate Hicks showed some potential as a defensive presence as a freshman. Freshman Julian Royal may end up being the best option, as he has a reputation for being able to put the ball in the bucket. Gregory’s team is fairly young, but there are some talented scorers, especially in the back court, that could spark an upset similar to the one Tech pulled off against North Carolina last season.

11. Boston College: All in all, 2010-2011 should probably be considered a successful season for Boston College. After being predicted to finish in the cellar of the ACC, the Eagles managed to scrap their way up to a tie for fourth place in the conference. And while they won a game in the ACC Tournament and earned themselves a bid to the NIT, there could have been so much more. What if the Eagles hadn’t lost to two Ivy Leagues opponents early in the season? What if the last-second three in a 48-46 loss to North Carolina hadn’t rimmed out? What if BC hadn’t lost at home to Miami late in the season, or had been more competitive in their ACC Tournament loss? Could this group have earned an NCAA Tournament bid?

That question will loom large this season as the Eagles are in full-on rebuilding mode. Seriously. Their leading returning scorer is walk-on Danny Rubin at 4.1 ppg; he averaged 1.9 ppg in ACC play. Only three other players that were in the program last year are back — Matt Humphrey, who sat the season out as a transfer from Oregon; Gabe Moton, who averaged a whopping 2.5 ppg; and Peter Rehnquist, another walk-on. Steve Donahue did manage to bring in a nine-member recruiting class. Ryan Anderson, a 6’8″ power forward out of California, is probably the most-highly regarded prospect of the group. KC Caudill, a 6’10” center that also hails from Cali, joins the group as well. Patrick Heckeman is a versatile, 6’5″ guard out of Germany. 6’10” Dennis Clifford is a fairly skillled big man from the area. There is some potential for down the road, but don’t expect too much out of BC this season.

12. Wake Forest: The good news for Wake Forest is that, front this point forward, there is no where for them to go but up. The bad news? It may take quite a while for the Demon Deacons to get up. Wake struggled through a non-conference schedule that featured embarrassing losses to the likes of Stetson, Presbyterian, Winthrop and UNC-Wilmington. There was no rebound, either. After halting a four game losing streak by knocking off High Point right before ACC play started, Jeff Bzdelik’s club went on to lose 16 of the 17 games their played against ACC competition. Throw in the flurry of defections from the program — both voluntary and mandated — and Wake is in big trouble heading into the season.

The good news is that the Demon Deacons do return their best player from last season in Travis McKie. McKie developed into one of the better freshman in the conference last season, averaging 13.0 ppg and 7.7 rpg as one of the lone bright spots on the Wake Forest roster. Carson Desrosiers, a seven-foot sophomore, and Nikita Mescheriakov, a Georgetown transfer, also are back. Throw in 6’10” freshman Daniel Green, and Wake has a decent front line to work with. The back court will return Tony Chennault and CJ Harris, two important pieces from last season’s team that will be counted on to provide some scoring and offensive creativity. Was last season’s debacle the result of a lack of talent in the program, or was it simply what happens when a team completely lacks chemistry? I’ll go with all of the above. Don’t expect too much improvement this season, although I do think Wake will get more than a single ACC win.

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

PHOTO: UMKC drops one of the best special uniforms college hoops will see this year

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 23:  Nelson Kirksey #1 of the Missouri-Kansas City Roos retrieves a loose ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half on November 23, 2012 at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated UMKC 91-45.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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UMKC isn’t generally a known commodity in the college basketball world, but if you’re a fan of high-level alternate uniforms, you might want to become aware of the ‘Roos.

During the UMKC basketball doubleheader on Dec. 10 at Municipal Auditorium, both the men’s and women’s teams will wear special uniforms to honor “Kansas City Day” and the jerseys look sick.

The skyline on both the jersey and the shorts is a great touch and fans can snag these uniforms exclusively by going to the UMKC game on Dec. 10.

If you’re a fan of UMKC, or the city of Kansas City in general, this is some gear that you need to have on your radar as these are some of the best college basketball alternate uniforms that I’ve ever seen.

(H/t: Kansas City Star)

No. 13 Indiana rolls over SIU-Edwardsville 83-60

BLOOMINGTON, IN - DECEMBER 02:  Thomas Bryant #31 (left) and Juwan Morgan #13 of the Indiana Hoosiers defend Carlos Anderson #0 of the SIU Edwardsville Cougars at Assembly Hall on December 2, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) Indiana coach Tom Crean doesn’t have a timetable for OG Anunoby’s return from a sprained ankle.

For now, the 13th-ranked Hoosiers are going to have to step up and even overcompensate on some nights to make up for the absence of one of their biggest playmakers. On Friday night, it was Juwan Morgan who answered the call.

“Juwan rebounded for two tonight,” Crean said. “He came out and brought it. When you take OG (Anunoby) out of the lineup, you take so much athleticism, versatility, you take shooting, take the rebounding, the defense out. I thought our guys tried to do a really good job of making up for that. And Juwan did even more there.”

Morgan scored a career-high 18 points on 8-for-8 shooting and finished with 10 rebounds, De’Ron Davis scored 14 points and Indiana rolled to an 83-60 victory over SIU-Edwardsville.

The Hoosiers didn’t start the game firing on all cylinders. Indiana (6-1) didn’t make its first basket until 16:12 remaining in the first half, missing its first eight attempts. Trailing 4-0, the Hoosiers shook off the slow start when Zach McRoberts hit a 3-pointer from the corner that ignited Indiana. The Hoosiers would finish the final 15 minutes of the half outscoring SIU-Edwardsville 40-17.

Led by Morgan, the Hoosiers’ efforts on the glass eliminated opportunities for SIU-Edwardsville (4-4) to score second chance points. Indiana grabbed 30 defensive rebounds. Indiana’s 15 offensive rebounds led to the Hoosiers outscoring the Cougars 17-5 in second-chance points. But the Hoosiers’ second chance points opportunities were non-existent if Morgan was shooting the ball. The sophomore didn’t miss all night, making each of his eight shot attempts and the only 3-pointer he attempted.

“I feel like I’m scratching the surface,” Morgan said. “I think just mentally I’ve been thinking too much about shooting, things like that. My teammates look to give me the ball. And I look to have big games. But it was just a good night for us as a team.”

Indiana molded the rest of the basketball game around an aggressive rebounding effort, ball movement and its depth. The Hoosiers dominated the glass, outrebounding the Cougars 45-31. Indiana’s offense revolved around ball movement, as 15 of Indiana’s 28 field goals came by way of an assist with nine Hoosiers recording at least one assist.

And the Hoosiers bench outscored SIU-Edwardsville’s 34-12.

Burak Eslik finished with 18 points for SIU-Edwardsville. SIU-Edwardsville coach Jon Harris was familiar with Crean having played for and coached with Crean while he was at Marquette. Harris called Friday night’s loss, where the Hoosiers led by as many as 33 points, disappointing.

“There’s a reason why they are ranked No. 13 in America,” Harris said. “(Indiana is) a great team. I really think they’re a high level offensive team. We let them get going and that was the difference and the separation early (in the game).”

BIG PICTURE: Anunoby watched the Hoosiers’ victory from the bench, where he sat in a walking boot. He used crutches when he entered and exited the court from the locker room. He sprained his right ankle during the Hoosiers’ 76-67 win over No. 3 North Carolina on Wednesday. On Friday night, Crean told reporters he does not believe the ankle sprain is a long-term injury that could keep Anunoby out well into Indiana’s conference schedule, despite not having a definitive timetable on Anunoby’s return.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: After a thrilling victory over No. 3 North Carolina on Wednesday night, Indiana will have two weeks before it plays a ranked opponent, when Indiana takes on No. 18 Butler at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

UP NEXT:

SIU-Edwardsville hosts Stetson on Wednesday.

Indiana hosts Southeast Missouri State on Sunday.

 

No. 1 Kentucky succeeding with many willing to assist

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 23:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 23, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) For a team that annually turns over its roster of talented individuals, top-ranked Kentucky is playing like a group that has worked together for a while.

The Wildcats’ unselfish play is reflected in a No. 3 ranking in assists (21.3 per game), helped by a season-best 33 on 44 baskets in Monday night’s 115-69 pasting of Arizona State in the Bahamas. That was Kentucky’s highest total under coach John Calipari, who has emphasized sharing the ball to every crop of heralded freshmen.

While that’s better than he might have expected this soon, Calipari doesn’t seem too surprised.

“There’s a couple reasons,” Calipari said Friday. “They’re really skilled, so you can share. When you’re not skilled, you put your head down and you bounce it and you run people over.

“Second thing is, their minds think quick. So, they can see stuff and recognize quickly. . And it’s hard to figure that out until you coach a guy, so there are guys that I’ve had that you have to know that that’s who they are. OK, they’re going to play a little different. But when you put five guys with nimble minds and are skilled, that’s what you get.”

Selflessness could be in play often when Kentucky (7-0) hosts No. 11 UCLA on Saturday in a matchup of college basketball’s marquee programs featuring similar strengths.

The Bruins (8-0) lead the nation in assists (24.8 per game) and field goal percentage (55.3) and are third in scoring average (97 points), just ahead of Kentucky (95.6). UCLA also features the country’s top distributor in freshman guard Lonzo Ball, who averages 9.6 assists including a school freshman-record 13 on Wednesday against UC Riverside.

Kentucky features several facilitators with freshman guard De’Aaron Fox drawing raves after posting Kentucky’s second triple-double (14 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) and first since 1988. Fox ranks fourth nationally with 7.6 assists per game and appears to have inherited the floor general role handled last season by Tyler Ulis.

But other Wildcats have willingly fed their teammates, with the freshmen in particular arriving in Lexington with some playing history together.

“We know how we played a little bit, so we were comfortable with each other,” said guard Malik Monk, Kentucky’s scoring leader (19.3 points). “We just came here and put the work in. .

“We share the ball naturally. I don’t think he (Calipari) knows that we’re going to share the ball the whole game. When I said we just play basketball and we have fun together, that comes with sharing the ball.”

Monk has two highlight-reel examples of how much the Wildcats enjoy giving.

His off-balance effort to keep a ball inbounds against Arizona State culminated in a one-handed pass to forward Wenyen Gabriel for a two-handed reverse dunk, one of several signature moments besides Fox’s milestone. Last week against Cleveland State, Monk followed up his steal by bouncing the ball off the glass to a trailing Fox for a dunk that brought the house down.

Monk ranks third in assists behind Fox and senior guard Dominique Hawkins (22 assists, two turnovers), a reserve who’s known more for defense. Calipari noted that as proof of the Wildcats’ willingness to share, a trait that could be demonstrated by both teams on Saturday.

Said Monk, “It’s working for us good, so we’re going to keep it rolling.”

More AP College Basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Previewing Kentucky vs. UCLA: The season’s most anticipated matchup to date

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The most impressive team in college basketball through the first three weeks of the season has been the Kentucky Wildcats.

They’re ranked No. 1 in the country for good reason. They’ve won by at least 21 points in every game they’ve played, they’ve scored at least 87 points in every games except one, they’ve cracked triple-digits in each of their last three games and they just so happen to have one of the best defenses in the sport.

What else do you need?

Critics will say they need to do this against a team with comparable talent, and it’s not unfair. Kentucky’s beaten up on five mid-major teams, Arizona State and a Michigan State team that is currently 4-4.

On Saturday, we get that matchup. The Wildcats will host No. 11 UCLA, who has an electric freshman guard of their own leading an offense that is lighting up scoreboards out west.

It will be the most-anticipated matchup on a day filled with terrific games, not only because it’s between two blue-blood programs playing elite-level basketball, but because the way these two teams play should turn this into a fast-paced, highlight-laden shootout.

Let’s break the matchup down.

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If you looked solely at the box scores of Kentucky’s games, you’d probably assume that the Wildcats are the second-coming of the Golden State Warriors, an offensive juggernaut with a roster full of players that are unguardable.

That’s not necessarily the case.

What makes this Kentucky team so special happens on the defensive side of the ball. Simply put, they are a nightmare to play against. De’Aaron Fox is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Isaiah Briscoe isn’t all that far behind, and Malik Monk has assuaged fears about whether or not he was a guy that cared about that side of the ball.

And I haven’t even mentioned the size and versatility along their front line yet.

Cal isn’t doing anything all that fancy with them on the defensive end, either. He isn’t reinventing the wheel. He’s not playing gimmick defenses or using any kind of full-court pressure. All he’s doing is asking his guys to play aggressive, pressuring man-to-man defense, often-times picking up the primary ball-handler for 94-feet, and his team has bought in.

Their best defensive lineup, the one that Cal has used to start three of the last four games, features Wenyen Gabriel at the four and Bam Adebayo at the five. Both Gabriel and Adebayo are athletic enough to cover point guards, so Cal will switch every exchange 1-through-5.

Kentucky plays with an unbelievable amount of effort and energy on defense. Everyone on the roster plays like they’re the walk-ons, like the only way they can get minutes is if they lead the team in floor-burns. But they’re not. They’re lottery picks, and in the case of Fox and Monk, more athletic than anyone they’re going to face this season. They make running offense a nightmare, and once they get the ball back – whether it’s off a missed shot, a turnover and, oftentimes, even a made shot – it’s off to the races.

And it’s that transition game that kills you.

Briscoe, Fox and Monk are all interchangeable. They can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break coast-to-coast. (Part of the reason that Fox is averaging such a high number of rebounds is that he doesn’t have to worry about point guards crashing the glass, so while the other four guys on the floor go find a body, Fox heads to the rim and grabs the board, the quickest way to ignite their break.) If that doesn’t work, all three of them can throw outlet passes 94 feet and drop them in the bucket like Aaron Rodgers throwing a fade route. They can be the guys running the lanes, catching those passes and finishing acrobatic layups with two guys draped all over them. They can throw the alleys and finish the oops.

But the key to their transition game?

They read each other so well. If Fox sees Briscoe is in a spot to get an outlet pass, he’s gone. If Monk is corralling a rebound, he knows Fox and Briscoe will be running the floor already. That’s why you see “possessions” for Kentucky that so often look like this:

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On the year, 28.7 percent of Kentucky’s offensive possessions come in transition, according to Synergy’s logs, which is second nationally only to a Savannah State team that has yet to record a win over a Division I opponent.

One of the criticisms of Coach Cal is that he’s only a recruiter. He doesn’t coach, he just rolls the ball out and lets the talent on his team takeover. Frankly, that’s what he’s doing this year, and it’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to micro-manage this group. All he had to do as devise a system that would play to their strengths and let their instincts takeover.

He did, and it’s working pretty well to date.


The key to beating Kentucky this season is to force them to play offense in the half-court. The closest anyone has come to doing that this season was Michigan State, and they held the Wildcats to a manageable 69 points. Kentucky has a perimeter shooting issue. Fox and Briscoe combined have made just five threes on the season and are shooting 20.8 percent from beyond the arc even after combining to go 3-for-3 against Arizona State on Monday night. Their best defensive lineup doesn’t really have a front court scoring threat while guys like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis, upgrades offensively, limit how effective that Kentucky defense is.

The easiest way to slow down a team’s transition game is by scoring. Make them take the ball out of the net.

And the good news for Bruins fans is that UCLA not only has one of the nation’s most potent offenses themselves, but they just so happen to be able to do the things that you need to be able to do to operate against that Kentucky defense.

The biggest thing is that the Bruins, like the Wildcats, are terrific in transition. Believe it or not, UCLA actually plays at a faster tempo and has a shorter average length of possession than the Wildcats, according to KenPom.com. The best way to score on a great defense like Kentucky’s? Beat them down the floor and score before they’re set. Get uncontested layups. Get open threes before the defense can locate all of the shooters, of which UCLA has plenty.

Kentucky’s transition game is designed around getting those layups, using their speed to beat teams to the rim. UCLA’s is slightly different, geared towards getting the myriad of shooters on the roster open, rhythm threes. No one in the country is better at making that happen than Lonzo Ball, and I say that for three reasons: (1.) UCLA leads the nation in effective field goal percentage because (2.) they’re second in the nation in three-point percentage and (3.) they’re in the 88th percentile in transition points-per-possession just a year after finishing in the 21st percentile, according to Synergy, while (4.) Ball averages 9.6 assists, leading the nation.

In this case, the effect is two-fold: Not only will UCLA avoid having to run offense in the half court, it will keep Kentucky from getting out in transition at the same time.

It’s not crazy to think that UCLA’s best defense on Saturday will be fast break buckets.

But even if the Bruins are unable to get out and run, this is still a team with weapons that can break down Kentucky’s switching man-to-man defense.

Think back to the NBA Finals. The way the Cavaliers attacked Golden State’s switches was to create the mismatches that they wanted; in other words, they’d have whoever Stephen Curry was guarding set a ball-screen for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, then sit back and let talent takeover.

You beat a switching defense by identifying the mismatch you want to take advantage of and force that switch.

Part of the reason that Kentucky’s switching has been so effective is that they haven’t run into a team who has guards that are capable of fully taking advantage of those mismatches. Is anyone really that worried about Tum Tum Nairn or Tra Holder? UCLA, however, does. Everyone should know how good Ball is at this point, but the other three pieces the Bruins have on the perimeter – Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday – are talented as well. Combined, those three are averaging 46.4 points, 10.6 assists and shooting 44.8 percent from three on nearly 17 threes attempted per game.

They spread the floor with shooters, their perimeter is littered with playmakers and their bigs are skilled enough to be able to slip screens and take advantage of having a smaller guard on them.

The one thing UCLA does not do well is crash the glass, but that has a hidden benefit: keeping two or three guys behind the ball is a really good way to limit how many run-outs Kentucky can get.


Neither Kentucky nor UCLA has truly played a team that appears to be on their level this season, which is what makes this game so intriguing.

Lonzo Ball has played like the potential No. 1 pick in the draft and UCLA has looked like the hands-down favorite to win the Pac-12.

And Kentucky?

Playing them has been about as much fun as getting your hand caught in a meat grinder.

On Saturday, for really the first time this year, we’ll get a sense for whether or not their early-season hype has been justified. But more than that, we’ll see a game between two of the most entertaining teams in the country, two teams loaded with offensive firepower and future NBA players in a game where the winner will be the team that can run the floor better.

What more can you ask more?

Weekend Preview: Kentucky-UCLA, Baylor-Xavier and the rest of Saturday’s Showdowns

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks with Malik Monk #5, De'Aaron Fox #0, and Wenyen Gabriel #32 in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 Kentucky, Sat. 12:30 p.m.: Outside of the Champions Classic, this matchup between a pair of blue-bloods in one of the nation’s most famous arenas is likely the most anticipated game of the season to date. Why? For starters, the amount of talent that’s going to be on the floor is ridiculous, but more importantly, that talent allows Kentucky and UCLA to both play styles that are quite aesthetically pleasing. Our full preview for this game can be found here.

  • Prediction: The official lines are not out yet, but according to KenPom.com, which is usually a fairly good approximate for Vegas, Kentucky looks to be around a 10-point favorite. At (+10), I’ll be on UCLA.

No. 7 Xavier at No. 9 Baylor, Sat. 3:30 p.m.: UCLA-Kentucky may be the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, but Baylor-Xavier is the game that will pit two top ten teams against each other. Xavier we all expected to be in this spot this season, but Baylor’s emergence as a potential Big 12 contender caught a lot of people by surprise.

There are going to be two key matchups here. The Bears are going to have a huge advantage on the interior. Johnathan Motley will be the best big man on the floor by a wide margin – if he keeps playing the way that he’s been playing, he’ll be in the discussion for all-american teams – while Jo Lual-Acuil has been a revelation this season. That duo can really protect the rim, and the Bears have been good about making sure they run offense through them on the other end of the floor. I’m not sure who Xavier has to slow them down.

On the other side, we have the Musketeers, who are going to have to figure out how to deal with Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone, which looks like a junk defense on the surface but is tough to figure out the first time you see it. Chris Mack’s club has some perimeter talent – Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner are the big names, but J.P. Macura has been terrific this season – but Myles Davis, the guy that makes their offense run smoothly, still is not cleared to play.

  • Prediction: We’ll update this when an official line comes out. KenPom has Baylor winning by four, and if that’s the case, Baylor (-4) is a good bet.

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SEVEN MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 25 West Virginia at No. 6 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Styles don’t get any more contrasting than that of Press Virginia and the Pack-Line. The Mountaineers want to play full court, frenetic basketball while the Wahoos like to control every detail of a game. What wins out?
  • Saint Joseph’s at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Holy War! An always-intense rivalry, I don’t think that the Hawks have the horses to take a run at Villanova this season, especially not when the game is being played in the Pavillion.
  • No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Arizona, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: This game looked a lot more interesting when we thought Arizona would have Parker Jackson-Cartwright, not to mention Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith and Terrence Ferguson.
  • Oklahoma at No. 17 Wisconsin, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Sooners are sitting at 6-1 on the season despite learning to play without Buddy Hield and company. This will be their biggest test of the season to date.
  • No. 21 Rhode Island at Providence, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: A battle for supremacy in the state of Rhode Island. It may not make waves nationally, but this rivalry matters in the state.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky and UCLA are both playing elite teams for the first time: That is the No. 1 story line that needs to be taken out of this game.

Kentucky has been absolutely massacring opponents this season. They’ve only scored fewer than 87 points once and cracked triple-digits in their last three games. UCLA has reached triple-digits quite often themselves this season, putting together a transition attack that is less ruthless but more aesthetic than Kentucky’s. Both of them look like the runaway favorites to win their respective leagues as of today, but neither of them have played anyone all that good. Kentucky has wins over Michigan State and Arizona State. UCLA has picked off Nebraska and Texas A&M.

Those wins are nothing like the wins that Indiana now has, which is the beauty of this game. UK and UCLA matchup really, really well, so this should not only be an incredibly entertaining game to view, it is going to be our first chance to really see how they do going up against a significant test.

2. The same can be said for West Virginia and Virginia: The Mountaineers are doing crazy things with their press this season – like, for example, forcing 40 turnovers in a 40 minute game – but they aren’t exactly doing it against the best competition. They have beaten Illinois (who lost to Winthrop) and lost to Temple (who lost to New Hampshire and UMass). So who knows just how good they actually are.

The same can be said for Virginia, who gave up an average of just 41.3 points in their first six games but who also found themselves down 32-16 with five minutes left in the first half at home against Ohio State. The Wahoos eventually won that game, but seeing as the Buckeyes, who are a borderline tournament team, are the best team that Virginia has played this season, I don’t think we really have a feel for just how good this team is or how much they miss Austin Nichols.

We’ll learn a lot in Charlottesville on Saturday.

Virginia guard London Perrantes (32) reacts to a three pointer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Virginia won the game 63-61. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia guard London Perrantes (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

3. About Nigel Hayes … : Hayes played easily his best game of the season in Tuesday’s win over No. 22 Syracuse, coming within a point of a triple-double as he almost single-handedly sliced apart the Orange zone. It wasn’t a coincidence that Wisconsin looked as good as they have all year when Hayes, who hasn’t shot a three in two games, operated as a playmaker in the paint and played inside-out. But that was also against a zone, where it only makes sense to play Hayes at the high-post.

So what happens this weekend? What happens against Oklahoma? Will Hayes continue to embrace what he does best at this level, or will be continue to try to prove what he can be to the next level?

4. Melo Trimble vs. Jawun Evans: Evans might be the best point guard in the country that you haven’t heard of yet. Trimble, on the other hand, is a guy that everyone knows, a guy that has developed a reputation for saving his team in crunch time. Both Evans’ Oklahoma State team and Trimble’s Maryland Terrapins really could a win on Saturday night when they play at the XFinity Center.

5. So who’s hurt the most by injuries?: Duke’s problems aren’t exactly a secret anymore. Neither are Michigan State’s, although news came down on Thursday evening that star freshman Miles Bridges is dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out for a few weeks. USC learned on Thursday that Bennie Boatwright, a starting forward, will be out for six weeks after spraining his MCL while Arizona is going to be without starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright for some time with a high-ankle sprain. And Indiana? They have two games this weekend and neither of them will be played with O.G. Anunoby on the floor.

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 30: O G Anunoby #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers grabs his ankle after being injured during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Assembly Hall on November 30, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
O.G. Anunoby (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)