Conference Catchup: Arizona at the head of the class in Pac-12

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Pac-12 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Arizona 

This one is pretty simple, as Sean Miller’s Wildcats have the conference’s best resume to date and are ranked 3rd in the country. The debate as to whether or not Mark Lyons is a “true” point guard rages on, but the fact of the matter is that the senior is exactly what the Wildcats need from the position this season. Nick Johnson has been Arizona’s most consistent player this season and wings Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom have been factors as well. None of those three are “take charge” figures when it comes to scoring, meaning that the Wildcats need an attack-minded player like Lyons to run the show.

But there are two big questions for Arizona as they enter conference play: can they cut down on the turnovers, and will those three talented freshmen inside mature to the point where they can be consistent factors on both ends of the floor? Before tallying just eight turnovers in their win over San Diego State on Christmas night Arizona racked up at least 16 turnovers in three straight games, and there’s also that 27-turnover outing in their win over Southern Miss. If the turnovers are cut down and Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski continue to develop, Arizona can get to Atlanta.

Contenders: Colorado, Oregon and UCLA

The Wildcats are the clear favorites but that doesn’t mean there aren’t capable challengers. UCLA has the highly regarded freshmen, with Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad leading the way offensively. Senior Larry Drew II has been good at the point, but the Bruins are going to need to improve a great deal of the defensive end if they’re to win the Pac-12. Colorado has the league’s best rebounder in Andre Roberson and sophomores Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie are very good guards. The key for the Buffaloes: the progression of freshman Josh Scott inside. And Oregon has an experienced front court (Arsalan Kazemi, Tony Woods) and talented freshmen Dominic Artis, Ben Carter and Damyean Dotson.

Biggest surprise: Washington State 

Arizona State is an improved team thanks in large part to the addition of point guard Jahii Carson, but the Cougars being 9-4 heading into conference play is the biggest surprise. Why? Their lone point guard, Reggie Moore, was kicked off the team before the season began and left Ken Bone searching for answers. Mike Ladd and Royce Woolridge are combining to average 5.4 assists per game, and sophomore DaVonte Lacy is talented enough to play both on and off the basketball. Brock Motum leads the way for the Cougars, and with the middle of the Pac-12 being what it is maybe Washington State can win enough games to return to postseason play (reached the CBI finals last season).

Biggest disappointment: USC 

The talented transfers and returnees have yet to mesh, leaving the Trojans as the Pac-12’s only team below .500 (5-8). One issue for Kevin O’Neil’s team has been their play on the defensive end, as USC ranks 11th in the conference in field goal percentage defense and 12th in three-point percentage defense. And while their crosstown rivals have gotten away with their defensive issues USC hasn’t been as fortunate, due to the fact that they’re also having a hard time offensively (11th in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage and 9th in three-point percentage). Eric Wise is leading the way with an average of 11.4 points per game, but he’s the lone Trojan in double figures. There is talent but is USC capable of turning things around? Not too sure right now.

Player of the Year: F Brock Motum (Washington State) 

This one’s tough because the league’s best team (Arizona) has done it with balance as opposed to having one or two stars commanding games. That could open the door for a consistent veteran like Motum (or even a freshman like Muhammad) grabbing Player of the Year honors come season’s end. Averaging 19.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, Motum’s scored 14 points or more in each of Washington State’s games despite being the first line in every opponent’s scouting report. The Australian had a stretch of five straight games of 23 points or more beginning in late November, and given the Cougars’ scoring issues (DaVonte Lacy the only other player averaging double figures) Motum will need to continue to put up points.

Best freshman: Jahii Carson (Arizona State)  

Jordan Adams has been outstanding for UCLA and there are other freshmen who have played well during the non-conference portion of the schedule (Shabazz Muhammad’s been on a roll of late), but Carson is the pick here. Why? Herb Sendek tossing the freshman point guard the keys to the car has turned Arizona State into a team that enters Pac-12 play with an 11-2 record. Carson’s averaging 17.7 points, 5.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game, and with him running the show the Sun Devils have played at a tempo not seen at any point during the Sendek era in Tempe. His presence has led to improved play from the likes of Carrick Felix and Jordan Bachynski, which makes ASU a team more dangerous than anticipated during the preseason.

Three Predictions

– Four teams will reach the NCAA tournament. To say the least the Pac-12 has been a disappointment over the last three seasons in this regard, as the conference has received a grand total of eight bids. With Arizona leading the way, look for the Pac-12 to have four teams in the field of 68. Could the conference earn five bids? Stanford’s “worst” loss was a home defeat at the hands of Belmont, so they may be better positioned than either Cal or Oregon State when it comes to the non-conference resume.

– Arizona at UCLA on March 2 will determine the regular season champion. When the Bruins had their issues early in the season (and no one knew when Shabazz Muhammad would be cleared) there were many, myself included, who predicted doom for Ben Howland’s team. Obviously their work on the defensive end has to improve, but UCLA will play well enough in conference play to ensure that this Saturday night affair means a great deal to both teams.

– Shabazz Muhammad will win Pac-12 Rookie of the Year. That Carson pick is made to reflect what happened throughout the non-conference slate. But come March it will be the Bishop Gorman product who wins the hardware. Over his last four games Muhammad is averaging 25.0 points per game and shooting 54.5% from the field. The rust is gone, and given UCLA’s need for more scoring given their issues on the defensive end of the floor, Muhammad’s going to have plenty of chances to put up points.

Power Rankings (* – NCAA tournament team) 

1. Arizona *
2. Colorado *
3. Oregon *
4. UCLA*
5. Stanford
6. California
7. Arizona State
8. Oregon State
9. Washington
10. Washington State
11. Utah
12. USC

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Top 50 SG Tyler Herro de-commits from Wisconsin

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Last September, Wisconsin landed a pledge from a highly regarded 2018 prospect as shooting guard Tyler Herro announced that he would remain in state and play for Greg Gard. Tuesday evening Herro, considered to be a Top 50 prospect by many of the major recruiting services, announced that he has decided to reopen his recruitment.

“After a lot of conversations with my family and prayer I have decided to reopen my recruitment and explore all of my options,” Herro said in a statement released via Twitter. “The past year since I committed I have grown not only as a basketball player, but as a person. My drive to become the best on all levels has been the fuel that drove this decision.”

With Herro’s change of heart, Wisconsin is now without a verbal commitment in the Class of 2018. The 6-foot-4 Milwaukee native picked Wisconsin over Arizona, Florida, Indiana, DePaul and Marquette, and given his talent Herro’s recruitment should not take long to pick up following his decision to open things back up.

The Badgers added three scholarship freshmen to the program this summer, with two being perimeter players in Brad Davison and Kobe King. Wisconsin currently does not have a senior in its perimeter rotation, which helps from a numbers standpoint when it comes to 2018. But to lose a recruit of Herro’s caliber, and an in-state prospect at that, is a major hit for the Wisconsin program to absorb.

Bob Knight requests to not be included in Assembly Hall sculptures

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On Tuesday it was announced by Indiana University that five sculptures will be placed throughout Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall to pay tribute to the teams that have won national championships. With former head coach Bob Knight, who has not been on good terms with the school since his dismissal in 2000, being the head coach of three of those teams it’s fair to wonder if he would be a part of any of those sculptures.

Unfortunately Knight will not be in the sculptures for the 1976, 1981 or 1987 national championship teams, as it was noted in the release that the former coach requested to not be included. According to the Indianapolis Star, Indiana athletics director Fred Glass said that it is school policy to request permission to depict someone on this kind of project. The school reached out to Knight, who declined the request.

The sculpture honoring the 1976 team was the reason for the school reaching out to Knight, as it honors the team that is the most Division I team to go through an entire season without a loss. That teams was led by the likes of Kent Benson, Scott May and Bobby Wilkerson, and won the first of Knight’s three national titles at Indiana.

After being fired prior to the start of the 2000-01 season, Knight spent a year away from coaching before accepting the head coaching job at Texas Tech. Despite Indiana having honored former players and teams of Knight’s in recent years, the relationship between the former coach and the school he led to three national titles remains strained to this day.

As for the sculptures, fans will be able to see them for the first time at Hoosier Hysteria on October 21.

Rick Pitino files federal lawsuit against adidas

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Former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino’s quest to prove that he had nothing to do with the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball produced another development on Tuesday. As first reported by ESPN’s Jay Bilas, Pitino has filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Louisville with adidas being the lone defendant.

Per media reports, Pitino is suing the company for its “outrageous conduct in conspiring to funnel money to the family of a college basketball recruit.”

Adidas’ connection to the ongoing criminal investigation is that two of its employees within the basketball department, Jim Gatto and Merl Code, were among the ten people arrested. While no one directly tied to Louisville has been charged, FBI documents revealed connections between members of the basketball program and the accused parties.

As a result of the investigation Louisville freshman small forward Brian Bowen is being withheld from all basketball activities by the school. Bowen and his family have since hired an attorney in an attempt to get the freshman reinstated.

Among the instances of wrongdoing documented by the FBI was a transaction in which $100,000 was paid in exchange for a recruit committing to attend Louisville. The timeline of the events were close to Bowen’s commitment timeline, with the five-star prospect announcing that he would attend Louisville in early June.

As a result of the investigation Pitino was placed on unpaid by Louisville, with the school’s Board of Regents voting unanimously to fire the head coach with cause on Monday.

Northeast Conference Preview: Who survived after transfers gutted the league?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the NEC.

The NEC was absolutely brutalized by outgoing transfers this offseason. Of the 11 non-seniors that were on one of the three all-NEC teams, just four of them return to school. That includes three first-team all-NEC sophomores, but I’m not sure anyone in all of college basketball got hit quite as hard this offseason as Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian did.

Coming off of an NEC regular season title and his second trip to the NCAA tournament in the last five years, Christian saw three key pieces opt to leave. Elijah Long, a sophomore guard that was a first-team all-league player and the Mount’s leading scorer a season ago, transferred to Texas. Miles Wilson, the team’s third-leading scorer and one of the best freshmen in the conference last year, transferred to Miami. Mawdo Sallah transferred to Kansas State.

The Mountaineers do return Junior Robinson, a 5-foot-5 dynamo that will be one of the most entertaining players in the mid-major ranks, as well as Greg Alexander, but Christian is going to have his work cut out for him.

With Mount St. Mary’s – and Robert Morris, another perennial power in the league that is dealing with the loss of a star player (Isaiah Still) transferring – the favorite is probably St. Francis (PA). The Red Flash, despite losing Josh Nebo to Texas A&M, return Isiah Blackmon and reigning Freshman of the Year Keith Braxton. They return the most talent of anyone that finished in the top half of the league.

Fairleigh Dickinson is a team to keep an eye on as well, although it will be tough for them to overcome a pair of their own transfers, as Stephen Jiggetts is now at South Florida and Earl Potts left school. But Darian Anderson returns, as does Mike Holloway and Darnell Edge.

Despite losing their top two scorers from last season, LIU Brooklyn should also be back in the mix. Jashaun Agosto returns for his sophomore season after a promising freshman year while Joel Hernandez, who averaged double-figures as a junior, is back after missing last season through injury. Bryant could find their way into the mix as well, although Nisre Zouzoua’s transfer was a massive blow.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

 PRESEASON NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson

Anderson is the leading returning scorer in the NEC this season, and he’ll be playing on a team that will be competing for the league title. With the Knights losing their second- and third-leading scorers from last year, Anderson is going to have more of the offensive load to carry.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-NEC TEAM

  • Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s: Robinson is the second-leading returning scorer in the conference, and with the Mount losing so much, the 5-foot-5 point guard will be asked to do a lot.
  • Keith Braxton, St. Francis (PA): Braxton was the best freshman in the conference a year ago.
  • Isiah Blackmon, St. Francis (PA): Blackmon was a third-team all-NEC performer as a sophomore.
  • Joseph Lopez, Sacred Heart: Lopez is back to anchor a front line for the most veteran team in the league.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. St. Francis (PA)
2. Fairleigh Dickinson
3. LIU Brooklyn
4. Robert Morris
5. Mount St. Mary’s
6. Bryant
7. Sacred Heart
8. Wagner
9. Central Connecticut State
10. St. Francis-Brooklyn

Ohio Valley Conference Preview: A trio of teams lead the way

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Ohio Valley Conference.

Two-time OVC player of the year Evan Bradds has graduated, but Belmont remains one of the favorites to claim another conference title.

The first task for the Bruins will be figuring out how to replace or replicate Bradds’ bucket-getting that powered the offense to a 23-win season. Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Winder would both seem to be the natural heirs after posting effective field goal percentages over 60 last year. Like Bradds, both are terrors on the inside, shooting better than 65 percent on 2-pointers, but also have a dimension that Bradds didn’t – 3-point shooting, with Egekeze converting 38.7 percent and Winder 40.2 percent from distance. Without the high-usage Bradds on the roster, both will likely see huge increases in roles, with guard Austin Luke setting them up.

Murray State suffered its first losing season in over 30 years when they went 16-17 last year in Matt McMahon’s second season since succeeding Steve Prohm, but the Racers appear to be on track for an immediate bounce back. Some of the struggle last year can be attributable to plain old bad luck as Murray State went 0-4 in the regular season in overtime games and went 1-8 in games decided by five points or less. The Racers, though, will have to clean things up on the defensive end if they want to challenge for a league title. They were below-average in just about every single facet of the game on that end, and adding five freshmen into the mix may make real strides there difficult. Murray State does have, though, Jonathan Stark, who averaged nearly 22 points per game last season, and he’s a game-changer. They also added junior college standout Anthony Smith, which makes them a threat to capture the conference.

Jacksonville State didn’t look much like a spoiler heading into March last year when they finished with a 9-7 OVC record, but the Gamecocks reeled off three wins, including over league champ Belmont, in the conference tournament to snag an NCAA tournament bid. Second-team all-OVC guard Malcolm Drumwright returns for his senior season and to give coach Ray Harper another dangerous team. Seven-footer Norbertas Giga is also back after putting 30 on Louisville in the NCAA tournament. It will be critical for the Gamecocks to defend the 3-point line better this season. Between Giga and junior Christian Cunningham, Jacksonville State has solid rim protection, but allowed opponents to shoot nearly 38 percent from distance. Some of that is sure to just be variable, but bringing that number down will be a huge determinant of success.

Beyond that, the OVC is tough to project this season, as a number of last season’s contenders lost some key pieces. One group to keep an eye on: Eastern Kentucky. With Asante Gist and Nick Mayo returning, Dan McHale has one of the best 1-2 punches in the league.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON OVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jonathan Stark, Murray State

The 6-foot guard returns after averaging 21.9 points in his first season with the Racers after transferring from Tulane. He got up nearly eight 3-point attempts per game, converting at a 42.5 percent clip. He’s the rare high-volume shooter that also plays efficiently.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON OVC TEAM

  • Malcolm Drumwright, Jacksonville State: All-conference guard will lead the charge for the Gamecocks to get back to the NCAA tournament.
  • Nick Mayo, Eastern Kentucky: A 39 percent 3-point shooter, Mayo scored 18.5 points per game last year.
  • Denzel Mahoney, Southeast Missouri: Mahoney was a breakout star last year as a freshman, putting up nearly 15 points per game and shooting 37.7 percent from 3.
  • Terrell Miller, Murray State: A double-double threat every night, Miller averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Belmont
2. Murray State
3. Jacksonville State
4. Tennessee State
5. Eastern Illinois
6. Eastern Kentucky
7. SIU-Edwardsville
8. Tennessee Tech
9. Southeast Missouri
10. Morehead State
11. UT Martin
12. Austin Peay