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College Hoops Week in Review: Drew Gordon and Vanderbilt over anything Kentucky

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Player of the Week: Drew Gordon, New Mexico

The Lobos have made a push back into relevancy after struggling through the early part of the season. After starting out the year 2-2, New Mexico has now won 10 in a row, including victories against St. Louis, Oklahoma State and Missouri State. This past week, Steve Alford’s club went 2-0, but it was the play of big man Drew Gordon that stood out.

On Wednesday, the UCLA transfer helped the Lobos get revenge against New Mexico State. UNM lost to the Aggies back in November at home, but those memories were quickly erased in an 89-69 win in Las Cruces that probably wasn’t even as close as the final score would indicate. Gordon has arguably his most impressive performance of the season, going for 23 points and 19 boards against NMSU’s Wendell McKines. On Saturday, New Mexico had an even more noteworthy win, knocking off Atlantic 10 contender St. Louis 64-60. Gordon was terrific in that game as well, finishing with 18 points and nine boards.

Gordon is such an important piece for the Lobos because he is the best post player in the conference. His issue has been on the offense end of the floor, but it looks like he may be snapping out of that funk. In addition to the 20.5 ppg that he averaged this week, Gordon shot 14-22 (63.6%) from the floor and got to the foul line 18 times. He was shooting under 50% on the season and averaging fewer than five FTA’s per game before the week started.

The All-They-Were-Good-Too Team:

G: Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling looks like he is starting to grasp what it takes to be a lead guard for a Tom Izzo team. He had his best game as a Spartan in Michigan State’s fluky win over Indiana, going for 25 points, seven assists and six boards. He followed that up with 14 points and four assists in a win over Nebraska.

G: Eli Carter, Rutgers: In a 1-1 week for the Scarlet Knights, Carter averaged 27.0 ppg, 4.5 apg and 3.0 spg while shooting 6-14 from beyond the arc. But the reason he made this list was the result of his performance in Rutgers’ double-overtime win over Florida. He had 31 points, seven assists and seven boards, hitting a number of big shots late in the game.

F: Kyle Weems, Missouri State: Weems looks like he is finally snapping out of the offensive funk that plagued him all season long. He averaged 26.5 ppg and 8.0 rpg as the Bears started off MVC play with back-to-back wins, but it was the 31 points (25 of which came in the second half) as the Bears knocked off Creighton in Omaha that got him noticed.

F: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis, Kentucky: MKG averaged 21.0 ppg and 12.5 rpg on the week, but his most noteworthy performance came as the Wildcats knocked off Louisville in Rupp. He had 24 points and 19 boards. But Davis was just as impressive. He averaged 14.0 ppg, 11.5 rpg and 6.0 bpg, but what was most impressive was the way that he dominated the defensive end of the floor in the second half of UK’s win over Louisville.

C: Brandon Davies, BYU: Davies was terrific in three games for the Cougars this week, averaged 21.0 ppg and 14.0 rpg while adding six blocks and four steals. While the 28 points he scored against St. Mary’s will get wiped away by the loss to the Gaels, the 21 points and 22 boards he posted in a win over San Diego was flat out dominant.

Bench: Trey Burke, Michigan (27 pts, 8-11 FGs in W vs. Minnesota); Kyle Casey, Harvard (26 pts, 10 rbs in W vs. St. Joe’s); Demetrius Conger, St. Bonaventure (27 pts, 11 rbs in W vs. Niagara); Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s (18 pts, 12 asts, 6 rbs in W vs. BYU); Sam Dower, Gonzaga (17.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 12-18 FGs, 2-0 week); Kenny Gabriel, Auburn (24 pts, 13 rbs, 10 blks, 4 stls, 3 asts in W vs. Georgia Southern); Chris Gaston, Fordham (23 pts, 17 rbs vs. Georgia Tech); Richard Howell, NC State (14.5 ppg, 15.5 rpg, 2-0 week); Rob Jones, St. Mary’s (24 pts, 15 rbs, 4 asts in W vs. BYU); Kenny Kadji, Miami FL (30 pts, 12 rbs in W vs. UNC-Greensboro); Greg Mangano, Yale (23.0 ppg, 13.5 rpg); Cameron Moore, UAB (17.5 ppg, 16.5 rpg); Dominique Morrison, Oral Roberts (27.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2-0 week); Ryan Pearson, George Mason (35 pts, 14 rbs in W at Charleston); Thomas Robinson, Kansas (30 pts, 21 rbs, 4 asts vs. North Dakota); Colt Ryan, Evansville (27.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.5 spg, 2-0 week); Trevis Simpson, UNC Greensboro (36 pts vs. Miami)

Team of the Week: Vanderbilt Commodores

There may not be a team in the country that had been dogged harder than Vanderbilt early in the season. The Commodores had suffered tough loss after tough loss, giving credence to the critics that had said this group was overrated heading into the season.

But the performance of this group against Marquette of Wednesday was enough to make the doubters reconsider their stance. Playing in Milwaukee, the ‘Dores absolutely dominated Marquette. They jumped out to a 35-8 lead and never allowed the Golden Eagles to make things interesting. More impressive, however, was the fact that the blowout win wasn’t a result of John Jenkins or Jeff Taylor taking the game over, it was their play on the defensive end, keeping Marquette from getting good looks from the floor for the majority of the first half as they built their lead.

Teams deserving a shoutout:

Baylor: The Bears put together a couple of solid wins this week, knocking off Mississippi State in Dallas and hanging on to beat an overmatched Texas A&M team in Waco. Baylor’s success right now is mostly the result of their defense, as teams are having a tough time figuring out how to deal with the Bear’s length. If Scott Drew can figure out how to get this team’s offense to play at the highest level, than eventually we are going to have to start putting Baylor in the same sentence as the likes of Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State and North Carolina.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats obviously didn’t miss the presence of Yancy Gates all that much. Cincy went 6-0 while he and Cheikh Mbodj were suspended, thriving as they played a more uptempo style and used a four-guard alignment. Included during that stretch was a pair of close wins, over the surprising Oklahoma Sooners and the stumbling Pitt Panthers.

Georgia State: Perhaps the most under-the-radar team in the country right now is Georgia State, a team I feel confident saying had almost no expectations coming into the year. After dropping their first three games, Georgia State has now won 10 in a row, including a 2-0 start to CAA play. This week, they dropped league favorite Drexel by 14 points. Devonta White led the way in that win with 15 points.

Gonzaga: Xavier may be reeling, but for the first time in four games, the Musketeers were back to full strength. Throw in the fact that the Muskies were playing at home, and its understandable why most of the New Years Eve hype heading into their game against Gonzaga centered around the hosts. But the Zags showed they could play as well. Gonzaga got 20 points and 10 boards out of Sam Dower. They also started out WCC play with a win over Portland.

Indiana: I talked about this on the CBS Podcast today, but I wanted to touch on it again here: Indiana has to be ranked in the top ten right now. They’ve beaten both Kentucky and Ohio State. Their one loss came at Michigan State in a performance where they were able to use a 25-2 run to erase a 17 point deficit before running out of gas down the stretch. No team in the country has a resume better than that. But are they a top ten team? That is a different question, and one that is difficult to answer until we see more out of this group.

Iowa: The term ‘upset’ can upset some folks when used in the wrong situation in sports, but I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I were to say that Iowa’s win at Wisconsin was an upset. The Hawkeyes, who were coming off of a close loss to Purdue, got an impressive performances from Aaron White and Bryce Cartwright — as well as a number of late buckets from Roy Devyn Marble — as they knocked off the Badgers.

Memphis: The Tigers bounced back from a rough showing against Georgetown in DC with a pair of wins this past week. They knocked off both Robert Morris and Charlotte as Josh Pastner switched up the lineup a bit. Ferrakhon Hall was moved into the starting lineup and Joe Jackson came off the bench against RMU and didn’t play against Charlotte. Wesley Witherspoon, who has scored just 41 points since he had 22 in the season-opener, didn’t play in either game. He managed just eight minutes in two games last week. The best news of the week, however, had nothing to do with the play on the court: Joe Jackson opted not to transfer out of the program.

Michigan State: Can we officially say that the Spartans are back? After beating Indiana by 15 despite giving up a 25-2 run, Michigan State went into Lincoln and knocked off a resilient Nebraska team. Its very, very difficult not to like a Michigan State team that embraces what Tom Izzo is asking them to do.

Princeton: Look at the Tigers making a name for the Ivy League! Princeton went into Tallahassee and knocked off the Seminoles in triple-overtime, following that up with a win on the road against Florida A&M. Most assume that Harvard is going to be able to earn the Ivy’s automatic bid with relative ease. Princeton doesn’t like that line of thinking, apparently.

Washington: The Huskies had a nice start to Pac-12 play, knocking off both Oregon teams with some impressive play out of Tony Wroten, whose shot selection and ball protection is starting to come around. With scorers like CJ Wilcox and Terrence Ross surrounding him, Washington has the potential to be a very, very dangerous team. It finally looks like Washington is starting to play that way.

Teams deserving a scolding:

Drexel: So much for the Dragons being a CAA favorite. Drexel, who lost four of their first six games on the year, had seemingly bounced back into form with six straight wins. That was before they took on Georgia State and turned the ball over 25 times. With a loss to Delaware earlier in the year, Drexel has fallen to 0-2 in CAA play.

Louisville: Louisville isn’t actually the group that needs the scolding. Its the sportswriters that voted the Cardinals into the top five. This is not a top five team, especially when there are six or seven teams this season that probably should be considered a level above the rest of the playing field. Rick Pitino’s got a hard-working group that is going to win a lot of games, but they aren’t a Final Four contender. Their losses to Georgetown and Kentucky this week don’t help to change that line of thinking.

Marquette: It is too early to say that they Golden Eagles are sliding, especially after a win over Villanova, but it is fair to say that you are concerned about this group. Not only did they lost at LSU two weeks ago, Marquette was embarrassed on their home floor by Vanderbilt. Given the relative struggles that Marquette’s two best wins — Washington and Wisconsin — have had, when can we start questioning whether we overvalued this group.

Northern Iowa: This was supposed to be the team that snuck up on everyone in the MVC. After losing to Ohio on Dec. 20th, the Panthers dropped their first two in league play, to Southern Illinois and Evansville.

Oregon State: I think the Beavers were going to be the team that won the Pac-12 regular season title. Boy, do I feel dumb. Oregon State went out and got beaten by both Washington and Washington State on the road to kick off league play. OSU isn’t done yet, not with how balanced and weak the league is Pac-12 is. But they need to start winning games, and winning games soon.

Pitt: Ay yi yi. There’s not much else to say about the Panthers right now. Pitt has now lost three in a row — Wagner, at Notre Dame and Cincinnati — and simply does not bear any resemblance to the Pitt teams that Big East fans have become accustomed too.

Five Thoughts:

– How long is it going to be before Quinn Cook gets a real shot to play meaningful minutes for the Blue Devils? Because right now, he appears to be the team’s best point guard. Granted, Cook generally only plays against subpar competition and in blow out situations, but he has by far the team’s best assist rate and has a very low turnover rate for a guy that handles the ball as much as he does. Taking it one step further, over the las two games, Cook has tallied 17 assists in 45 minutes without turning the ball over. He also managed to score 22 points on just 12 FGA in that stretch. Seth Curry and Austin Rivers have been far from bad this season, but if Cook keeps performing he will get his shot.

– The Big Ten is going to be such a fun league to follow this year. Five of the top twenty teams reside in the conference, and if you look through the league’s schedule, it seems like two of those teams are playing each other every single night. There are also four more teams that will be in the mix for an at-large bid come March — Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota. Iowa knocked off Wisconsin in Wisconsin. Nebraska gave Michigan State everything they could handle. Is Penn State really the only pushover in this league?

Here’s a better question for you: what happens if Bruce Weber gets fired this year? If the Illini are sharing a league with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue and the rejuvenated Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan programs, who is going to want to take that job? All of a sudden, Illinois sits in the bottom half of the Big Ten programs.

– Andre Drummond just continues to get better. The gifts that he was given are almost unfair — he’s 6’11”, weighs over 250 lb and has the athleticism and explosiveness of a guy that weighs 50 pounds less and stands six inches shorter. The scary part is that he is only learning how good he can be and beginning to tap into his immense wealth of talent. If this rise continues, imagine where Drummond will be in a few years … hell, in a few months. The biggest question surrounding Drummond: What happens with Alex Oriakhi? Can he accept the fact that he is the second best big man on this team?

– What is going on in the Atlantic 10? Xavier has completely collapsed. Temple has been a different team with Michael Eric injured. Dayton has put together a season that makes about as much sense as starting to watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 45 minutes in. Even St. Louis, the conference darlings, have fallen back to earth a bit, with their latest setback coming at the hands of New Mexico at The Pit. I’m not ready to say that Xavier is not the favorite in the conference. They are. But with the way that things are starting to play out in this league, I don’t think that it is outrageous to say that St. Joseph’s has a shot at winning this league. They have athletes on their front line, they have talented scorers in their back court and, most importantly, this group believes they can win games.

They youth is going to shine through eventually, and this is likely to happen at some inopportune moments. But the talent on this team is undeniable. If the Hawks fall to fifth place finish below all four of the teams that I listed above, than we might be able to declare this season a disappointment. In October, I would have said a fifth place finish in this conference was a pipe dream.

– One of the most pressing questions we have heading into the New Year centers around Cincinnati: What is Mick Cronin going to do about Yancy Gates? Since the big fella has been suspended, the Bearcats season completely turned around. Cronin is playing small ball, using a four-guard lineup to spread the floor and push the ball. Its worked, as Cincinnati has now won six games in a row.

But here’s the thing with Gates — he has the ability to be the best big man in the conference. I know he’s a senior and he’s had his issues, but if Cronin didn’t kick him off the team for the sucker punch he landed on Kenny Frease’s face, than that means that Gates isn’t going anywhere. And if that kind of talent is going to be on your roster, he might as well be in the game. The catch? When Gates was suspended for the Pitt game last season, he returned as a different player. What happens after Gates loses six games.

Games of the Week:

Rutgers 85, Florida 83 2OT:

Indiana 74, Ohio State 70:

VCU 76, Akron 75 OT: VCU overcame a 12 point deficit early in the second half to force overtime against Akron. The Zips took a one point lead on two Zeke Marshall free throws with 20 seconds left, but the Rams had an answer (jump to the six minute mark):

Matchups of the Week:

– 1/3 7:00 pm: No. 11 Michigan State @ No. 19 Wisconsin
– 1/4 7:00 pm: No. 3 Duke @ Temple
– 1/4 7:00 pm: No. 20 Marquette @ No. 9 Georgetown
– 1/4 8:00 pm: No. 22 Kansas State @ No. 15 Kansas
– 1/4 8:00 pm: Tennessee @ Memphis
– 1/4 8:00 pm: St. Louis @ Dayton
– 1/5 9:00 pm: No. 13 Michigan @ No. 12 Indiana
– 1/5 11:00 pm: Arizona @ UCLA
– 1/6 7:00 pm: Belmont @ Lipscomb
– 1/7 12:00 pm: No. 9 Georgetown @ West Virginia
– 1/7 1:30 pm: No. 6 Missouri @ No. 22 Kansas State
– 1/7 4:00 pm: No. 20 Marquette @ No. 1 Syracuse
– 1/7 8:00 pm: Oral Roberts @ South Dakota State
– 1/8 1:30 pm: No. 19 Wisconsin @ No. 13 Michigan

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

Maryland lands commitment from four-star forward

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon instructs his team during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game against Hawaii in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
(AP Photo/Young Kwak)
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No coach in the country has had a better 24 hours than Mark Turgeon of Maryland.

The morning after Melo Trimble announced that he will be returning to College Park for his junior season, Turgeon landed a commitment from Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward from Las Vegas by way of Canada. Jackson is a top 50 player in the class of 2016.

Jackson should immediately help the Terps replenish a front court that was decimated by early entry. A versatile athlete with a ridiculous wingspan and a still-developing perimeter game, Jackson will likely spend his freshman season playing a power forward role, maybe even as a small-ball five.

This fits perfectly with the roster that Maryland has for next season. Not only will Trimble be flanked by freshman Anthony Cowan, a now-healthy Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens, the Terps add freshman wings Kevin Heurter and Micah Thomas as well as Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill. They needed depth up front, particularly at the four.

And remember, when Maryland had their most success with Trimble — his freshman year — they went small and spread the floor with Jake Layman at the four. Jackson may not have quite the impact that Layman did that season, but he can play that role for the Terps.

Alec Peters withdraws from NBA Draft, will he transfer?

Alec Peters, Valparaiso (Getty Images)
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Valparaiso forward Alec Peters became the final player to announce that he has withdrawn from the NBA Draft on Thursday, waiting until the day after the deadline to make it official.

The 6-foot-9 Peters was one of the best mid-major players in the country this past season, averaging 18.5 points and 8.0 boards while shooting 44.0 percent from three for the Horizon League champs, a team many considered to be the best mid-major team in the sport.

Here’s why Peters’ decision is interesting: He’s a junior that will be eligible as a graduate transfer, meaning that if he leaves Valpo — like Bryce Drew, the coach that recruited him, who left for Vanderbilt — he will be able to play elsewhere in 2016-17.

How many top 25 programs could use a 6-foot-9 forward that can score in the post and posted shooting splits of 50.5/44.0/85.0? Hint: The answer is all of them.

Will he leave school?

Looking Forward: Here’s what the Pac-12 has in store for 2016-17

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 20:  Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks drives against Dillon Brooks #24 and Tyler Dorsey #5 of the Oregon Ducks in the second half during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 20, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Pac-12 over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. The returns of Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey make Oregon the early favorites: Losing two quality contributors in Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin will have an impact on Dana Altman’s Ducks, but by no means will Oregon fall off after winning the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earning the program’s first-ever one seed last season. With Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey withdrawing from the NBA Draft, the Ducks have the depth and talent needed to repeat (or even exceed) last year’s achievements. Brooks will be an early favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year, and options such as Dorsey, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell and Casey Benson will be heard from as well. Add in a recruiting class that includes Kavell Bigby-Williams, Payton Pritchard and M.J. Cage, and Oregon has enough to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1939.

2. Arizona reloads…and is absolutely loaded on the perimeter: There were some who wondered just how good of a class Arizona would be able to put together, as they landed just one commitment during the early signing period. But Sean Miller never panicked, and we all saw why in the spring. The Wildcats reeled in three high-level guards in Kobi Simmons, Terrance Ferguson and Rawle Alkins, and they also grabbed juco transfer Keanu Pinder and four-year transfers Talbott Denny (Lipscomb; eligible immediately) and Dylan Smith (UNC Asheville; will sit out next season). That early signee (Lauri Markannen) is a highly regarded prospect in his own right, and the return of Allonzo Trier provides a boost as well. With the amount of talent on this roster, Arizona can win a third Pac-12 regular season title in the last four seasons.

3. Needing to bounce back, UCLA welcomes a highly regarded freshman class: UCLA also cleaned up on the recruiting trail, but unlike Arizona the Bruins are looking to bounce back from a year in which they finished below .500. That won’t fly in Westwood, where the only banners that hang are those of the national title variety (and they have 11 of those), so the pressure’s on Steve Alford and company to make things right. What helps is that point guard Lonzo Ball and stretch forward T.J. Leaf can both be immediate impact players, and Ike Anigbogu can help them defensively in the post. UCLA’s returnees, most notably Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh, should benefit from these additions.

4. Oregon State, USC look to build on last season’s success: Of the seven Pac-12 team to reach the NCAA tournament, the Beavers (since 1990) and Trojans (since 2011) had gone the longest without an NCAA appearance. Neither stayed long, but getting to the Big Dance represented an important step forward for the two programs. The question facing both Wayne Tinkle and Andy Enfield: how do they ensure that their programs continue to make positive strides? Oregon State has to account for the loss of do-everything guard Gary Payton II, but their personnel losses pale in comparison to a USC team that bids farewell to both Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic. There’s still talent for Enfield to work with, but the task became a little tougher thanks to those two NBA decisions.

NOTABLE NEWCOMERS

  • Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, UCLA: Not to overlook Ike Anigbogu and Kobe Paras, but Ball and Leaf are the marquee names in UCLA’s 2016 recruiting class. Ball is one of the nation’s best point guards (and players, period), and his arrival should make things easier for the Bruins offensively. As for Leaf, he’s a skilled forward who can score from just about anywhere on the court.
  • Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz’s recruiting story is one that’s been told many times over, as through hard work the DeMatha Catholic guard went from a member of the JV team to a McDonald’s All-American in two years. With the Huskies losing Andrew Andrews and Dejounte Murray from their perimeter rotation, Fultz will have to have an immediate impact if the Huskies are to move up the Pac-12 standings.
  • Arizona’s loaded freshman class: Of Arizona’s seven newcomers four are freshmen, with three (Rawle Alkins, Terrance Ferguson and Kobi Simmons) being five-star perimeter prospects. And power forward Lauri Markannen is also a highly regarded prospect. The additions should make for an interesting (and talented) mix, and how Sean Miller allocates minutes on the perimeter will be fun to observe as well.
  • Kavell Bigby-Williams, Oregon: Last year it was Chris Boucher who arrived in Eugene as a highly regarded junior college transfer, and he had a major impact on a team that won the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles. This time around it’s Bigby-Williams who arrives via junior college, giving Oregon additional front court depth alongside Boucher, Jordan Bell and freshman M.J. Cage. And after blocking nearly six shots per game last season, Bigby-Williams can make scoring around the basket on the Ducks even tougher than it was a season ago.
  • JaQuori McLaughlin, Oregon State: McLaughlin is expected to be an impact addition for Oregon State this season, as the Beavers look to account for the loss of Gary Payton II. What changes things is the transfer of Derrick Bruce, who appeared to be in line for a noticeable increase in minutes after serving as the sixth man as a freshman. His departure puts even more on the shoulders of McLaughlin, who along with senior Malcolm Duvivier appear to be the answers at the point for Oregon State.
  • Shannon Evans and Sam Cunliffe, Arizona State: Landing Romello White gave Arizona State a nice late recruiting boost, as he joins a class that was already good thanks to the presence of Cunliffe. A top 40 recruit according to Rivals.com, the Washington native has the skills needed to make an immediate impact in Tempe. Add in Evans, who was a standout on head coach Bobby Hurley’s NCAA tournament team at Buffalo in 2014-15, and the Sun Devils have two perimeter newcomers who can make some waves in the Pac-12 next year.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, USC: Had these two decided to return for their senior seasons, the Trojans had the skill and experience needed to possibly contend in the Pac-12. But with both leaving for the professional ranks, Andy Enfield and his staff have two noticeable holes in the starting lineup to fill. The cupboard certainly isn’t bare, thanks to the combination of remaining pieces and newcomers, but these losses definitely hurt.
  • Derrick Bruce, Oregon State: As noted above Bruce was in line to earn a greater role in 2016-17 due to Gary Payton II’s departure, so his decision to transfer caught some by surprise. The loss of Bruce means that the aforementioned tandem of JaQuori McLaughlin and Malcolm Duvivier will likely be the guys Wayne Tinkle looks to at the point.
  • Brekkott Chapman, Utah: With the departures of Jordan Loveridge and Jakob Poeltl, Chapman was expected to play a key role for the Runnin’ Utes in 2016-17. Well, he decided that a change of scenery was needed, leaving Larry Krystkowiak with another hole in his front court rotation to fill. Utah did pick up a couple late front court commitments, and rising junior Kyle Kuzma is back as well, so this is a decision they should be able to manage.
  • Dejounte Murray, Washington: Murray was one of two Washington freshmen to make the move to the NBA, with forward Marquese Chriss being the other. But while Chriss’ draft prospects have improved throughout the spring, Murray’s possibilities haven’t been as easy to pinpoint. His departure leaves Lorenzo Romar with another backcourt contributor to replace, joining the graduated Andrew Andrews, but Markelle Fultz will help mitigate the impact of Murray’s departure.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Jerod Haase, Stanford: There was only one head coaching change in the Pac-12 this offseason, with Jerod Haase replacing Johnny Dawkins on The Farm. Haase racked up 80 wins in four seasons at UAB, with his third season including a win over Iowa State in the NCAA tournament, before deciding to return to the state he grew up in. The cupboard isn’t bare in Palo Alto either, with Marcus Allen, Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis among the players returning. The key for the Cardinal: stay healthy. Stanford was hit hard by injuries last season, including expected starting point guard Robert Cartwright being lost to a broken arm before the season began, which did them no favors in the Pac-12. This was a good hire for Stanford, and the resources are there for Haase to get the Cardinal back to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

F Dillon Brooks, Oregon (Player of the Year)
G Lonzo Ball, UCLA
G Terrance Ferguson, Arizona
G Allonzo Trier, Arizona
F Ivan Rabb, California

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS, IN TWEETS

1. Oregon: The Ducks lost Cook and Benjamin, but with Brooks and Boucher leading a deeper roster they can be even better in ’16 – ’17.
2. Arizona: Sean Miller won’t lack for talented options on the perimeter, so expect the Wildcats to bounce back.
3. UCLA: The Bruins will be good, but how good they are will ultimately depend on their commitment on defense.
4. California: Rabb’s return helps, and with their perimeter options Cal could be more fluid offensively next year.
5. USC: The Trojans return some key pieces, led by Jordan McLaughlin, but losing Jacobs and Jovanovic hurts.
6. Colorado: The Josh Scott era comes to an end, but George King and Xavier Johnson will help with the adjustment.
7. Utah: The loss of Poeltl and some key seniors hurts, but Kuzma, Bonam and Jayce Johnson are all on board.
8. Oregon State: OSU can make a 2nd straight tourney trip, but the point guard spot is an early concern.
9. Washington: With the arrival of Markelle Fultz and last year’s group a year older, this spot could prove low.
10. Arizona State: The Sun Devils brought in some talented newcomers, but they may be a year away in the Pac-12.
11. Stanford: Back to full strength after an injury-riddled ’15 -’16, but no Rosco Allen hurts offensively.
12. Washington State: They’ll have an all-conference caliber player in Josh Hawkinson, but it’ll be a struggle.

Looking Forward: Kentucky’s success and the victims it’s made them

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Kentucky and why “expectations” can be a fickle beast.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jeff Borzello of ESPN.com turned himself into persona non grata in the Bluegrass State as he penned a column that ranked Kentucky as college basketball’s biggest underachiever over the course of the last four seasons.

Full disclosure: He has text messages from me telling him to rank Kentucky first on that list. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing Borzello’s mentions get bombarded with hate from Big Blue Nation. There’s nothing I love more than being able to quote poet laureate DJ Khaled when talking with him: “Congratulations! You played yourself.”

But … I also kind of think that he’s got a point. At the very least, I can put together a pretty convincing argument saying as much.

Look at it from a year-by-year perspective:

  • In 2013, the Wildcats were the reigning national champions having landed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class headlined by the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Nerlens Noel. There are a myriad of reasons why the season went the way it did — Ryan Harrow was a headcase, Noel tore his ACL, the pieces were never going to fit together — but the Wildcats ended up in the NIT. There’s no way around it: that season was an utter disappointment.
  • The following year was the first time that the “Kentucky 40-0” train kicked into motion. The Wildcats landed five five-stars recruits — Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, etc. — and proceeded to flop their way all the way to 10 regular season losses and an eight-seed in the NCAA tournament. They got hot in the tournament and played their way to the national title game, but I’d we have to consider that season “underachieving”. The regular season still matters, doesn’t it?
  • In 2015, they won their first 38 games. They were the best team I’ve seen since I’ve been in this business. But they lost in the Final Four to Wisconsin. If you’re one of the people that says 2014’s postseason run wipes away their regular season struggles, shouldn’t you consider 2015 a failure because an undefeated team didn’t, you know, stay undefeated? For the sake of this argument, you can’t have it both ways. Either the regular season matters or NCAA tournament results are the be-all and end-all.
  • This past season, the Wildcats were a preseason top five team and ended the year as a No. 4 seed that couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the tournament. Again, there are reasons for it — Skal Labissiere’s struggles being the main culprit — but based on all of our preseason expectations, Kentucky underachieved.
  • In total, they’ve won one SEC regular season title outright, a share of another SEC regular season title, two SEC tournament titles and reached two Final Fours while missing one tournament outright.

Now, reasonable minds can disagree here, and trust me, I understand the absurdity in labeling a team that’s put together that résumé as an underachiever, but I just cannot see how anyone makes the argument that they have lived up to expectations since winning the 2012 national title.

Because the key word there is “expectations”.

Success in sports — hell, success in life in general — is all relative. Chris Beard got two different high major jobs this spring because he made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in his first year at Arkansas-Little Rock. There are people that think Bill Self is overrated as a head coach because he’s only been able to get to two Final Fours and win one national title while spending the last dozen years as the reigning Big 12 regular season champion.

And what John Calipari did with that 2012 title is turn his program into college basketball’s ultimate pressure cooker.

That title changed the way that college basketball works at the highest level. Once Coach Cal proved that it was possible to win a ring by starting over with a new crop of freshmen every year, the idea that he needed time to work through the kinks of building a team around a bunch of 19-year-olds became obsolete. If he could do it with that group, what’s stopping him from doing it this year?

The fact that the title came in the middle of a five-year run where the Wildcats reached four Final Fours set a baseline standard for what is expected out of his Kentucky teams. Anything short of playing during the season’s final weekend is a disappointment in the eyes of the media and anything short of inching closer to UCLA’s record 11 national titles means that the season was a wash in the eyes of many Kentucky fans.

When greatness is the baseline, anything short of that feels like an underachievement, even if “underachieving” is now making it to the Final Four as an eight-seed or winning a share of the SEC title while exiting in the first weekend of the tournament.

And that, 750 words later, brings me to my larger point: Might we be setting ourselves up for something similar with this iteration of the Wildcats?

Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox (Jon Lopez/Nike)

To be clear, we have Kentucky sitting at No. 2 in our Preseason Top 25, in front of Kansas, reigning champions Villanova and an Oregon team who essentially brings back everyone from a top-five, Pac-12 champ. And keep in mind that the SEC should be — how can I say this diplomatically? — rebuilding next year. Even if Kentucky is overrated, their record come March is going to look good.

But it’s still pretty easy to look at this roster and see where the flaws lie.

For starters, their back court, while talented, essentially features three guys who want the ball in their hands in De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe. Furthermore, Briscoe’s perimeter shooting was a major liability during his freshman season, and Fox likely won’t be all that much better. Monk, the only one of these three that can really be considered an off-guard, is a wildly entertaining player whose strength is slashing to the rim and playing in transition. As a shooter, he’s quite inconsistent. He might hit six threes in a row. He might then make four of his next 30. That’s not an exaggeration.

The problem, then, is that those are the only three guards on the roster that should see any playing time. Mychal Mulder has the reputation of being a shooter, but if he’s playing 20 minutes a game for the Wildcats next season that’s a red flag.

The key to last year’s Kentucky team ended up being the emergence of Derek Willis, who came out of nowhere midway through SEC play to shooting 44.2 percent from three. But he did that playing primarily at the four, which worked because Kentucky’s front court was not as talented last season as it will be this season and because Jamal Murray was in the lineup. That gave Kentucky two shooters to spread the floor for Tyler Ulis — and, at times, Briscoe — to penetrate.

What happens next season? Will Willis see minutes at the four over the likes of Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones? Is he quick enough to play major minutes at the three?

And that leads me to my next point: Just how good is Kentucky’s front court? They have a lot of bodies — they have six scholarship big men even with Marcus Lee transferring — but how many of them are impact players? Bam Adebayo certainly is, but if he’s on the floor, can Kentucky play Tai Wynyard or Isaac Humphries, two Land Warriors whose usefulness disappears when they’re more than eight feet from the rim? Gabriel and Killeya-Jones are both promising prospects, but at this point, are they more prospect than player? Killeya-Jones is. Gabriel will likely have a bigger impact as a freshman, but he’s also a 210 pound power forward that is capable of making threes as opposed to being a shooter with three point range; there’s a big difference.

Kentucky is loaded with talent and has a roster full of kids with tremendous long-term potential, but that doesn’t guarantee that all of those pieces are going to fit together perfectly in their one year in Lexington.

That’s something that Kentucky’s 2012 team and Duke’s 2015 team have made us forget.

Sometimes, stockpiling freshmen creates super-teams that can dominate all year long and win a national title. Sometimes, even with Hall of Fame head coaches leading the way, the team as a whole isn’t a good as the sum of the parts.

Whether or not those teams are successful depends totally on context and expectations, and when the expectation is for a team to be the best in the country, league titles and Sweet 16 trips are disappointing. It’s a natural by-product of preseason prognostication, and it’s something that the Wildcats could end up falling victim to again this season.

Just keep this in mind: The fact that Kentucky’s most recent four-year run can be called an underachievement tells you more about the state of that program than anything else will.

Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)

Looking Forward: The new names to know for the 2016-17 season

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
(AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the new names you need to know entering college basketball in 2016-17. This is one of the strongest and deepest recruiting classes of the last decade, so this should be a fun group to track.

Harry Giles, Frank Jackson, Marques Bolden and Jayson Tatum, Duke – Just like we’ve seen so many times over the past few years, Duke and Kentucky own the top two recruiting classes entering the 2016-17 season. The Blue Devils’ latest haul is led by four, five-star prospects, headlined by the 6-foot-10 Giles, who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft if he’s fully healthy and shows the explosiveness he had as a double-double machine in high school. But he is coming off of an ACL injury that cost him his senior season and Giles never got through two consecutive seasons of high school basketball. Health is his key.

The 6-foot-8 Tatum is a smooth wing who is immensely skilled in the mid-range and polished in many facets of the game. He’s the next in a long line of recent Duke wings who left for the NBA after a year in Durham. The 6-foot-3 Jackson will be asked to handle point guard responsibilities after the departure of Derryck Thornton Jr., so he might be the most important player in this class for next season. The Lone Peak High School product is an athletic two-way guard who can also space the floor and should be ready from the get-go. The late addition of the 6-foot-10 Bolden gives the Blue Devils another rim protector and a classic back-to-the-basket scorer who can operate on both blocks with both hands. This class is ridiculous — potentially the best Coach K has ever had — and given the return of veterans like Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and Luke Kennard, Duke is the easy choice for preseason No. 1.

De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel, Kentucky

Duke’s group only slightly outclasses John Calipari’s latest group and the Wildcats boast arguably the best backcourt in the country in a pair of freshmen. The 6-foot-3 Fox is the best two-way guard in the class as he’s a menace on defense and an athletic freak who is impossible to stop in transition. The lefty is a consistent perimeter jumper away from being a major force. SEC football fans might remember former Arkansas wide receiver Marcus Monk and his little brother, Malik Monk, will slide in as a starting guard in Lexington next season. The 6-foot-4 Malik is an explosive scorer who can play well above the rim or extend the floor with deep range on his jumper. He’s a streaky player at times, but he’s capable of huge scoring nights.

The 6-foot-9 Adebayo is a powerful presence around the basket who looks to tear down the rim on dunks and gobbles up rebounds on the glass. His raw power and physical presence should be a big help for Kentucky on the interior. The 6-foot-9 Gabriel might be the key for next season’s success for this team. Gabriel told NBCSports.com at the Nike Hoop Summit that Calipari wants him to play on the wing next season, which is an interesting development since Gabriel was a post player throughout high school. Gabriel’s transition to the wing is possible — he’s a quick defender who can also extend his range — but he’s still never played the position before.

Josh Jackson, Kansas: The Jayhawks might not have the depth that Duke and Kentucky have, but the might have landed the ultimate prize in the 6-foot-7 Jackson. An ultra-athletic and competitive wing, Jackson is a well-rounded player who can score, defend, rebound, handle and pass. Like Giles and Tatum, Jackson has already won multiple gold medals with USA Basketball in international competitions and he’s a seasoned vet compared to your typical college freshmen. Throwing him into a Kansas lineup that returns a lot of talent and experience puts the Jayhawks firmly back in the driver’s seat in the Big 12 race.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Do yourself a favor and stay up late to watch this 6-foot-5 point guard play as much as you can this season because Ball has a special basketball IQ and court presence. Possessing outrageous vision and a great all-around feel for the game, Ball can find teammates for easy buckets and is perhaps the best outlet passer that’s joined college hoops in the last few seasons. Also a good rebounder at guard, Ball has a funky-looking release on his jumper, but it’s been going down during his whole career to this point. The big thing to watch is how Ball co-exists with Bryce Alford and UCLA’s other returning backcourt pieces.

Markelle Fultz, Washington: It’s crazy to think that the 6-foot-5 Fultz might be better than all of the players already mentioned on this list. After a monster spring on the high school all-star circuit, Fultz is the No. 2 prospect in the Draft Express 2017 mock draft — and for good reason. A wizard handling the ball, Fultz has shown killer instincts as a scorer and he’s also started to show some D’Angelo Russell-like vision when it comes to making passes that thread the needle. The Huskies are going to need Fultz to come in and be very productive after losing Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss, but he’s capable of having a huge year.

Dennis Smith and Omer Yurtseven, N.C. State: This could be the best inside-outside duo of freshmen in the country as the explosive 6-foot-3 Smith will run a lot of high ball screens with the Turkish 7-footer. Although he’s coming off of a torn ACL that prevented him from playing last season, Smith has already spent the spring semester at school rehabbing and getting to know the team. A great athlete who is good in ball screen situations, Smith will be a very tough cover for ACC point guards. Yurtseven hasn’t played the American game yet, but he’s a skilled center who projects as a potential one-and-done first-round pick. A skilled scorer who can also rebound, Yurtseven would have been a top-15 prospect in this loaded Class of 2016 had he played his high school ball in America.

Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: The latest jumbo wing to keep an eye on is the 6-foot-10 Isaac. Because of his size on the perimeter, Isaac can shoot over the top of smaller defenders with his smooth jumper or attack the basket with his improving handle. Isaac can also rebound in traffic at rim level and is a capable defender of multiple spots on the floor thanks to his length and athleticism. Florida State had a lot of perimeter talent that didn’t fit well together last season, but Isaac doesn’t need the ball in his hands at all times to impact a game.  He could be a better fit for the Seminoles than Malik Beasley was. The question becomes whether Florida State puts Isaac at the three with a huge lineup, or opts to put more speed and skill on the floor with Isaac as a four.

Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Tom Izzo has one of his best recruiting classes ever at Michigan State and it’s headlined by the 6-foot-6 Bridges. Already at 225 pounds, Bridges is a big and strong wing who can play multiple spots on the floor. Because he can rebound, play on the perimeter or also score inside, Bridges could play a number of different positions in East Lansing next season as he could be a matchup nightmare in the Big Ten.

Terrance Ferguson, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

This will be the most fascinating freshman class to watch play together because of the perimeter talent displayed by this group. The 6-foot-6 Ferguson is a smooth perimeter shooter who is also one of the best dunkers to enter college hoops in the last few years. The 6-foot-4 Alkins brings his rugged New York toughness to the Pac-12 as he’s tough to check attacking the basket and is also getting better as a distributor. A blur in the open floor, the 6-foot-5 Simmons is one of the fastest players in the country, but he’s also very wild at times. Markkanen, the Finnish 6-foot-10 big man, might be the most talented player in this group, but he hasn’t played against American competition very much and it remains to be seen how he’ll translate. The big key for this group will be sharing the ball. Alkins and Simmons can both get tunnel vision when it comes to attacking the basket and there isn’t a natural distributor among this group.

Omari Spellman, Villanova: The defending champs lost Daniel Ochefu in the middle, but they return most of the rest of the team (minus Ryan Arcidiacono) and gain this skilled five-star big man. The 6-foot-9 Spellman is a ton to handle on the inside around 280 pounds and he’s skilled as a scorer and rebounder. If Spellman can step in and produce, Villanova will be a major contender again next season.

Mustapha Heron, Auburn: Bruce Pearl has landed some solid recruits during his Auburn tenure, but the 6-foot-5 Heron is his signature signee. A powerful wing who is very tough to stop on the drive, Heron is the type of scorer who can come in and produce right away.

Andrew Jones, Texas: Texas landed itself a late-blooming guard in Jones, as he’s a talented scorer who can also play a little bit on the ball. With the Longhorns losing so many players to graduation this offseason, Jones is going to be asked to come in and play right away and he’ll be fun to watch with returning players like Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis.

Zach Collins, Gonzaga: The Zags might have one of the best rotation of big men in the country next season with the addition of this McDonald’s All-American. The 6-foot-11 Collins is a tough interior presence who should be able to immediately make an impact in the WCC next season.

Jarrett Allen, ???: We’re not sure where he’ll end up yet, but keep an eye out for the decision of 6-foot-10 big man Jarrett Allen. The native of Texas is still considering Houston, Kansas and Texas and many believe the Longhorns are the favorite. Regardless of where he ends up, Allen is an impact big man and potential one-and-done prospect who can defend the rim or score inside.