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.

Washington lands four-star forward Hameir Wright

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Washington and new head coach Mike Hopkins snagged another talented piece on Saturday as four-star forward Hameir Wright committed to the Huskies.

The reigning New York State Gatorade Player of the Year, Wright had was originally supposed to be a member of the Class of 2018, but he will skip his scheduled season at Brewster Academy to join Washington for the 2017-18 season.

The 6-foot-7 Wright was being pursued by a solid list of high-major programs this summer as Washington was able to land another talented player from upstate New York for next season. Wright joins wing Naz Carter, the nephew of Jay Z, as recent commits who can come in and play next season for the Huskies.

Hopkins has used his former connections as a Syracuse assistant to get his roster two immediate pieces that could be four-year players. It’s a really positive start for the first-year head coach as he has a lot of holes to fill on the Washington roster.

VIDEO: Luke Maye continues hitting big shots this summer for North Carolina

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Luke Maye became a local hero during North Carolina’s 2017 NCAA tournament run after making the game-winning jumper to get past Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Maye has received standing ovations in class, he’s been recognized at baseball games and he’s become a celebrity since returning to Chapel Hill.

The legend of Maye will continue to grow after the junior forward knocked down another game-winning jumper against former North Carolina players during the summer Roy Williams Basketball Camp.

With a sizable camp crowd watching, Maye knocked down a top-of-the-key three last week to get the win. Theo Pinson knows the shot is good right after it leaves Maye’s hands and watching his reaction might be my favorite part of this.

North Carolina is hoping that Maye’s confidence and shooting carries into next season since they’ll need him to play a much larger part with the departures of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley.

(H/t: Jeremy Harson)

Clemson lands three-star Class of 2018 guard John Newman

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Clemson was able to land a commitment from three-star Class of 2018 shooting guard John Newman on Friday night.

The 6-foot-4 Newman selected the Tigers over his other finalists that included Providence, Virginia and Wake Forest. Newman is coming off of a solid spring with Team CP3 in the Nike EYBL and he also had a good showing at the NBPA Top 100 Camp last week at the University of Virginia.

An aggressive perimeter threat who can score or distribute, Newman can not only put up points in bunches but he’s also pretty efficient in terms of his shooting splits.

Newman put up 11.5 points per game at Top 100 Camp on 55 percent shooting and 53 percent three-point shooting as he looked like one of the more confident scorers in the camp.

The first commitment for Clemson in the Class of 2018, Newman is an important start for what could be a very big recruiting class for the Tigers.

Notre Dame gets commitment from four-star guard

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Mike Brey’s 2018 recruiting class just got stronger Thursday.

Notre Dame added its second four-star prospect, Robby Carmody, a 6-foot-4 guard from Pennsylvania.

“The recruiting process has been a humbling and exciting experience!” Carmody wrote on social media. “My sincerest appreciation goes out to all the coaches and schools that invested time getting to know me throughout the process.

“Today I am blessed and excited to announce that I am committing to the University of Notre Dame!”

Carmody, who just recently visited the Fighting Irish and Purdue,  joins Prentiss Hubb as the first two pieces of Brey’s 2018 class. Hubb is a 6-foot-2 guard from Washington, DC and a top-75 ranked player nationally.

The Irish will need some major pieces in 2018 after losing the likes of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell to graduation after this upcoming season. Notre Dame has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the last three seasons, making two Elite Eights during that time.

2018 NBA Mock Draft: It’s never too early …

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With the 2017 NBA Draft coming to a close, it’s time to take a look at the 2018 NBA Draft and some of the best, most influential potential pros in the sport next season. 

Here is a first round mock draft for 2018. In a year, we can look back on this and realize just how naive we all were.

Scott Phillips contributed to this story.

1. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri, Fr.: The 6-foot-9 former Washington signee is a lethal scorer that plays on the perimeter and has a chance to be a National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall pick. He’s got the size and athleticism to overwhelm smaller defenders and the quicks to light up college fours, Porter is also a strong rebounder who is tougher than some give him credit for.

The big question for Porter next season isn’t about him, it will be how good that Tigers team is around him. New head coach Cuonzo Martin inherited a mediocre-at-best roster, but he’s added some talented — but very young — pieces. If Porter Jr.’s younger brother, Jontay, also reclassifies to this year, Missouri might even be a sleeper NCAA tournament team.

     RELATED: It’s All In The Family for the Porters

But even if Porter and Missouri misses the Big Dance, as expected, it shouldn’t have any kind of major bearing on his draft stock as long as he is productive. Both Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz went No. 1 in the draft after missing the NCAA tournament.

Michael Porter, Jr. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
2. Deandre Ayton, Arizona, Fr.: Not many 7-footers move as well as Ayton, and it was part of the reason he was once considered the No. 1 prospect in this class. As a sophomore in high school, Ayton once gave future Final Four team North Carolina a double-double in an exhibition game in his native Bahamas.

With an ability to run the floor like a guard while being quick enough to switch onto some perimeter players, Ayton is a rare athlete at center who also has some intriguing offensive capabilities: He has a good touch from the free-throw line and mid-range and some fluidity on the perimeter.

But the big question is his motor. There are times when Ayton disappears for stretches of games, and then there are the stretches where he absolutely dominates everyone. It’ll be fascinating to see which Ayton we see every game at Arizona. If he’s engaged all year he has a chance to be a No. 1 pick.

3. Miles Bridges, Michigan State, So.: Bridges will test whether or not returning to school when you are a projected lottery pick is the dumbest thing that an athlete can do. Anyone that watched Michigan State play last season knows how good this guy is. He’s a 6-foot-7 combo-forward that jumps through the roof and can be a multi-positional defender. In a league that prioritizes positionless basketball and values the ability to defend the rim and space the floor, Bridges shot 39 percent from three and averaged 1.5 blocks.

The big question for him next season is going to be his transition to being a full-time perimeter player. Bridges spent much of his freshman campaign playing a small-ball four role for the Spartans. But with Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward on the floor at the same time, he’s going to be a small forward through and through. Is he skilled enough for that role, or will he be “exposed”?

4. Luka Doncic, Real Madrid: The random Euro dude you’ve never heard of. He’s 6-foot-8. He’s a shooting guard that knocked down 37 percent of his threes. He’s from Slovenia. His dad’s named Sasa. When my son was born I used my one name veto on ‘Luka’. Draft Express thinks he’s going No. 1 overall. I’ll slot him in at No. 4 because his neckbeard hasn’t fully grown in yet.

5. Robert Williams, Texas A&M, So.: Here’s to hoping that Williams made the right decision. A 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and freakish athleticism that averaged 11.9 points, 8.2 boards and 2.6 blocks as a freshman, Williams made the decision to return to College Station for his sophomore season when he had the chance to be a first round pick — potentially a lottery pick — in the 2017 NBA Draft. That’s a serious risk, one that Cal center Ivan Rabb learned was not the best decision when he went from being a projected lottery pick to the No. 35 pick by returning for his sophomore campaign. The Aggies should be really good next season, and that will help, as will the fact that there is actually a point guard on the roster. But striking while the iron is hot is the key for potential lottery picks when it comes to cashing in on those guaranteed contracts.

6. Mohamed Bamba, Texas, Fr.: Gifted with an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan, the 7-foot-1 Bamba has the chance to be one of the best defensive players in the nation this season. Not only can Bamba wall up at the rim and defend with his ridiculous standing reach, but he’s also quick enough to switch and defend wings on the perimeter and stick with them. Rebounding also comes naturally to Bamba because his length enables him to snare rebounds well above rim level.

Offense is going to be the major question mark with Bamba. While Bamba has been able to finish over smaller defenders near the basket, he’s a very skinny 210 pounds and he doesn’t possess a lot of polish. Even if Bamba’s offensive game doesn’t show a lot this season, he has the kind of rare athleticism and tools that could make him a top three pick.

7. Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State, Fr.: Late-blooming big man Jaren Jackson Jr. has a chance to be a rare Big Ten one-and-done player. The 6-foot-10 Jackson just helped La Lumiere to a national championship at the high school level last season as he’ll be a major piece for the Spartans this season.

Not only can Jackson produce at a potential double-double level but he’s also a gifted three-point shooter who is effective in the pick-and-pop game. Young for his class, Jackson’s body and skill level are still developing, but he showed signs of being a dominant sidekick for Miles Bridges.

Wendell Carter, Jon Lopez/Nike
8. Wendell Carter, Duke, Fr.: The 6-foot-10 Carter should be much more of an impact than Harry Giles III or Marques Bolden this season as he’s a developed scorer who can play with his back to the basket or facing up. With a surprising amount of touch and perimeter skill for a 260-pound big man, Carter is the type of force who could attract double teams while opening things up for guys like Grayson Allen.

And Carter is no slouch athletically, either. Although he’s not a freak like Ayton or Bamba, Carter is a very good athlete who can rebound in traffic and protect the rim as well. It would come as no surprise if Carter was actually the most effective big man of this list at the college level this season as he should have a very balanced roster around him.

9. Bruce Brown, Miami, So.: I’m all-in on Miami as a national title contender this season, and one of the biggest reasons why is Bruce Brown. He’s a 6-foot-5 combo-guard with long arms and a physical frame, he shoots it well from three and can operate in pick-and-rolls and has a competitive fire about him that cannot be taught. I think there’s a chance that he ends up being the ACC Player of the Year this year, and if Jim Larrañaga can work his point guard magic with him, he’ll be a top ten pick in June.

10. Troy Brown, Oregon, Fr.: Brown is something of a swiss army knife in the sense that he can do a little bit of everything. He scores, he passes, he hits the glass and he does all this as a 6-foot-6 wing with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He’ll also be playing for a team that will showcase his versatility in Oregon. On paper, he looks like a guy that should fit the positionless mold of the modern NBA quite well. Having said that, he’s not a great athlete and he’s not a great shooter, which takes some of the luster off of the idea that he can guard multipositions and spread the floor.

11. Chimezie Metu, USC, Jr.: Metu is an interesting, still-developing prospect. He’s got the physical tools to project as an NBA front court player as well as an improving offensive repertoire. The key for him is going to be seeing where he takes a step forward this offseason. He has a decent base of perimeter skills — he makes midrange jumpers and shoots 75 percent from the foul line — but ultimately he needs to extend that range and showcase more toughness in the paint, on the glass and protecting the rim.

Collin Sexton, Jon Lopez/Nike
12. Collin Sexton, Alabama, Fr.: One of the best scorers at 6-foot-1 in recent memory, Sexton led the EYBL, Nike’s AAU circuit, in scoring last spring by a full eight points, nearly 30 points per game. Sexton is undersized and incredibly intense bordering on insane, which means that he’ll a fun player to watch and one that could become very popular with fans this season. The MVP of USA Basketball’s gold-medal winning U17 World Championship team last summer, Sexton has a big-game mentality as he’s one of the most competitive players in the class.

     RELATED: How Collin Sexton made himself a five-star

Perimeter shooting was is the shaky part of Sexton’s scoring game. He has improved it steadily over time, but that’s something he’s going to need to develop if he’s going to be a lottery pick as many project him to be.

13. Lonnie Walker, Miami, Fr.: Another one of the reasons I think that Miami is going to be awesome this season. Walker is a big, long and strong shooting guard than can play with the ball in his hands. He made 40 percent of his threes on the Nike EYBL circuit and he has the tools to be a big time defensive menace. He’s one of my favorite guards in the Class of 2017.

14. Trevon Duval, Duke, Fr.: A freakish athlete at point guard who can play well above the rim, the 6-foot-2 Duval will help stabilize the point guard position for Duke this season. Working in a reliable jump shot is going to be the big thing to watch for Duval this season. The way the point guard spot is trending, he’ll need to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers — something that hasn’t always been reliable. There are also times that Duval can play too fast as he can be reckless with turnovers and taking tough shots. But if Duval corrects those workable mistakes, then he has a chance to get Duke to another Final Four because they have plenty of offensive weapons.

  • 15. De’Anthony Melton, USC, So.
  • 16. Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky, Fr.
  • 17. Mitchell Robinson, Western Kentucky, Fr.
  • 18. Justin Jackson, Maryland, So.
  • 19. Grayson Allen, Duke, Sr.
  • 20. Devonte’ Graham, Kansas, Sr.
  • 21. Kevin Knox, Kentucky, Fr.
  • 22. Shake Milton, SMU, Jr.
  • 23. V.J. King, Louisville, So.
  • 24. Killian Tillie, Gonzaga, So.
  • 25. Quenton Rose, Temple, So.
  • 26. Vince Edwards, Purdue, Sr.
  • 27. Allonzo Trier, Arizona, Jr.
  • 28. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin, Jr.
  • 29. Marques Bolden, Duke, So.
  • 30. Aaron Holiday, UCLA, Jr.