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.

College programs in Barcelona safe after terror attack

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August is the time that college basketball programs take their overseas trips, and one of the most popular destinations for that travel is Barcelona.

On Thursday evening, tragedy struck in one of the city’s most popular tourist locations, as a van driven down Las Ramblas struck pedestrians. Local authorities have confirmed there are fatalities and are terming the incident a “terror attack”.

RELATED: NBC News has the latest on the incident

At least five programs are currently in Barcelona: Clemson, Arizona, Oregon State, Grand Canyon and Tulane. Clemson, Oregon State, Grand Canyon and Tulane have released statements confirming that all members of the traveling party are safe and accounted for. ESPN is reporting that everyone on Arizona’s trip is safe.

The attack occurred right outside Clemson’s hotel. The team is currently on lockdown.

VIDEO: Arizona’s Allonzo Trier obliterates an opponent’s soul

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If you can believe it, the picture that you see above is not the most disrespectful thing that Arizona guard Allonzo Trier did to an opponent during the Wildcats’ second exhibition game out in Spain.

Wait until the end of the video:

Trier is one of the biggest reasons that Arizona is going to enter the season as a candidate for preseason No. 1 and one of the nation’s national title favorites. Hopefully this will not be the last time we see him do this to an opponent.

Former Memphis star Joe Jackson arrested on felony charges

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Former Memphis point guard Joe Jackson was arrested on felony drug and gun charges on Wednesday night.

The Memphis native and former McDonald’s All-American was charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to manufacture, distribute or sell as well as possession of a firearm while committing a felony, according to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

Jackson was pulled over for an improper turn on Wednesday, and when officers searched the car, they found a back-pack that smelled like marijuana. From the paper:

When officers opened the backpack they found a pill bottle filled with 100 various colored pills that had symbols of a naked lady, a four-leaf clover, a Superman symbol and a dolphin printed on them. Police believed the pills to be ecstasy, according to the affidavit.

Officers also found a .40-caliber pistol under the driver’s seat and a .loaded .22 Keltec pistol in the backpack with the drugs, police said.

Police also found $4,500 all in $100 bills in the backpack.

Jackson was a five-star prospect that played for Memphis from 2010-2014. He was named Conference USA Player of the Year in 2013 but nearly transferred out of the program at one point due to the scrutiny he received and the amount of pressure that came with being a native son touted as the savior of the program.

He played in the Las Vegas Summer League last month.

It has been a bad year for former basketball players from Memphis. To say nothing of what happened with the Lawsons, Zach Randolph was arrested for possession in Los Angeles, former Tiger and Tennessee Volunteer Scooter McFagdon was caught up in a drug bust as was former walk-on Clyde Wade III, and Memphis-native and former Louisville point guard Chris Jones was shot after a fight at a pickup game.

South Carolina coach suspends G Rakym Felder indefinitely

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard Rakym Felder has been suspended indefinitely and won’t attend classes this fall, another blow to a thinning Gamecock backcourt that reached the Final Four this past April.

Felder’s status was announced by coach Frank Martin on Wednesday.

Felder had been suspended since June 30 for his involvement in a fight outside a bar. He was arrested July 13 and charged with assault and battery.

“Due to some unfortunate decisions by Rakym, he has been suspended indefinitely from our program,” Martin said in a statement.

Felder’s loss further weakens a South Carolina team that was already short in the backcourt after last season’s NCAA Tournament run. Three starting guards from last year, including leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell, along with rising sophomore P.J. Dozier, are no longer with the team. Dozier entered the NBA draft and, after not getting selected, signed this month with the Dallas Mavericks.

Thornwell signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, who picked him in the second round.

Felder, from Brooklyn, New York, was supposed to slide into one of the openings created by the departing guards. He played in 36 games last season, averaging 14.6 minutes off the bench.

Like the rest of the team, Felder stepped things up in the NCAAs. He scored 15 points, including going 7-of-8 at the foul line in the final five minutes to hold off No. 2 seed Duke, 88-81, in the second round.

Felder had nine points and three assists in South Carolina’s Sweet 16 win, a 70-50 victory over No. 3 seed Baylor.

Minus Felder, the Gamecocks only guard from South Carolina’s regular rotation with experience at South Carolina is junior Hassani Gravett.

Felder took full responsibility for his actions and apologized to the school, the team and Gamecock fans in a statement through his attorney, Neal Lourie.

“I know I have let you down and I will have to work hard to regain your trust,” Felder said.

Lourie said Felder has personal issues that “he cannot fix alone and requires professional help.” Lourie did not elaborate on those problems.

This is the second time Felder has been arrested since enrolling. Last October, he was tasered by police stemming from a bar fight and charged with six counts, including assault and battery and resisting arrest.

Felder entered a pre-trial intervention program and played after missing only one game. “‘He’s a beautiful kid, not a good kid, a beautiful kid,” Martin said on Nov. 13 in defense of playing Felder against Holy Cross.

Lourie requested a jury trial on Felder’s latest charge. A trial date has not been set.

Martin said he’ll stand by Felder this time, too, and continue to “help Rakym grown as a young man even though basketball is not part of our relationship right now.”

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Follow @PeteIacobelli on Twitter 

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”