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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.

Alec Peters to return for senior year at Valparaiso

Alec Peters, Valparaiso (Getty Images)
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Of all the early entrants to enter the NBA Draft earlier this spring, Valparaiso forward Alec Peters likely had the most interesting set of choices. Of course there was the matter of whether or not to remain in the draft. But in the case of Peters, as a player graduating with a season of eligibility remaining, there was also the question of whether or not he’d use that year at Valpo or another school had he decided to return to college.

Monday afternoon it was reported that Peters, who just before last week’s deadline withdrew his name from the NBA Draft, will in fact return to Valparaiso for his senior season. News of Peters’ decision was first reported by CBSSports.com. That means he won’t reunite with Bryce Drew, who coached Peters the last three years before taking the Vanderbilt job earlier this spring.

As a result of Peters’ decision a player who would have been in high demand as a graduate student (he graduated in three years) will be the focal point of new head coach Matt Lottich’s first team at Valpo. With Horizon League POY Kahlil Felder leaving Oakland, Peters will be the clear favorite for league player of the year honors next fall.

As a junior the 6-foot-9 Peters averaged 18.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for the Crusaders, who won 30 games, the Horizon League regular season title and reached the championship game of the Postseason NIT. Peters’ ability to score in an efficient manner from anywhere on the court makes him not only the top returnee in the Horizon League but also one of the top seniors in college basketball heading into next season.

In spite of some key personnel losses, most notably defensive stalwart Vashil Fernandez, the Crusaders will return three of their top four scorers (Peters, Shane Hammink and Tevonn Walker). That will help Lottich as he looks to pick up where his boss left off.

Guard Malik Newman to leave Mississippi State

Mississippi State guard Malik Newman (14) dribbles past a Northern Colorado player during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
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In the aftermath of Malik Newman’s decision to withdraw his name from the 2016 NBA Draft, there were rumblings that he would not be returning to the Mississippi State program. Monday afternoon it was learned that Newman would transfer, with the news first being reported by CBSSports.com.

A top ten prospect in the Class of 2015, Newman was viewed as the crown jewel in Ben Howland’s first recruiting class at Mississippi State. Things didn’t work out as anticipated however, with Newman being hampered some by injuries throughout the course of the season. The Mississippi native averaged 11.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season, but he did so shooting just 39.1 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from three.

There’s also the question of what Newman’s role would be in 2016-17 to consider with regards to this decision. After not having a great amount of depth on the perimeter last season, that won’t be the case for the Bulldogs next season. I.J. Ready and Quinndary Weatherspoon are among the returnees, and Mississippi State adds a talented crop of newcomers that includes four-star guards Tyson Carter, Lamar Peters and Eli Wright.

Mississippi State also adds highly regarded wing Mario Kegler, and Louisiana Tech transfer Xavian Stapleton will be available after sitting out last season.With all of those additions, a feature role for Newman likely would have been tough to come by in 2016-17.

In an interview with the Clarion-Ledger, Newman’s father Horatio Webster (who played at Mississippi State) cited trust issues between Newman and Howland as the biggest reason behind the decision to transfer.

Newman, a player who many thought wouldn’t be in college for more than a season, will look for someplace else to call home.

Former UConn commit Brown arrested on robbery charges

Brown, Zach
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As one of the top prospects in the Class of 2017, 7-foot-1 center Zach Brown was a player on the receiving end of interest and offers from many of the top programs in the country. But now his future is in doubt, as the Miami, Florida native has run into serious legal trouble.

As first reported by CBS Miami, Brown was arrested Saturday night on charges of robbery and fraudulent use of a credit card, with the charges resulting in a bail of $25,000. In total there were two counts of robbery by sudden snatching, one count of armed robbery and one count of fraudulent use of a credit card totaling more than $100.

Brown originally committed to UConn in mid-January, and then transferred from Miami Beach HS to Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut shortly after making that decision. However his time at PSA was brief, as Brown left the school after getting into an altercation with a player following a game in mid-February. Less than three months later Brown’s pledge to UConn was no more, as the two parties went their separate ways.

J.T. Wilcox of CBS Miami touched on Brown’s childhood in his story on the center’s recent arrest:

Brown, who’s said to have converted to Judaism – the religion of his legal guardian, has had a tumultuous past. The youngest of five, Brown grew up with his biological mother in Liberty City and spent time bouncing around in various foster care programs before he began living with (legal guardian Michael) Lipman.

In what has been a tough upbringing, Saturday’s news is a sad turn in the life of Zach Brown.

VIDEO: Kentucky fan makes a hype video

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 11:  Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates in the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Memorial Day weekend is typically a slow time for sports news, so over the weekend, the CBT crew has been discussing fan videos and songs.

If you’re not familiar, a lot of programs have fans that are so passionate, that they create something as tribute for their programs. This stuff tends to happen in the offseason.

Take this 12-minute video a Kentucky fan made that was posted by Kentucky Sports Radio’s Drew Franklin yesterday as an example:

Twelve minutes is a staggering amount for a video like this, but it captures multiple seasons and even goes into the future.

Not bad.

But it definitely doesn’t beat this Villanova song released by MRG after the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament run.

So now that we’ve seen the baseline for videos and songs, do any other fanbases have anything better in them this summer? There’s still a lot of time until college hoops begins next season and there are plenty of fans who can jump in with a submission.

Throughout the summer, we’ll post the best fan submissions on CBT (as long as they’re clean and original) and see which group of fans has the best at the end of it all.

Canisius finds a new head coach following Jim Baron’s retirement

Canisius head coach Jim Baron talks with players during college basketball practice in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, March 5, 2013. One year after Baron was fired at Rhode Island, the coach and his point guard son, Billy, have teamed up at Canisius to breath new life into a struggling program. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
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Canisius has found a new head coach following the retirement of Jim Baron, as the Griffins have hired former Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon, according to a report from Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News.

The 55-year-old Witherspoon was formerly the head coach at Buffalo from December 1999 until after the 2012-13 season and was recently an assistant coach at Alabama and Chattanooga the past two seasons.

During his time at Buffalo, Witherspoon went 197-225 while making four postseason appearances. He takes over a Canisius program that went 14-19 and 8-12 in the MAAC last season.

As a Buffalo native who has coached in the area as a high school, junior college and Division I head coach, Witherspoon should be familiar with the landscape of being a basketball coach in that city. It’s hard to say if Witherspoon can lead Canisius to prominence at this stage in his career, but he’ll certainly know the area enough to hit the ground running.