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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.

Eastern Kentucky basketball player charged with rape

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RICHMOND, Ky. (AP) Authorities say an Eastern Kentucky basketball player has been arrested on a rape charge.

Records at Kentucky’s Madison County Detention Center show 23-year-old Jaylen Babb-Harrison was arrested Sunday in Richmond and charged with first-degree rape.

A statement from Eastern Kentucky says Babb-Harrison, a redshirt senior guard, has been suspended from the team. It says the school is cooperating with police.

Local media organizations cited an arrest citation in reporting that police were called to a Richmond hospital when a female reported she was at Babb-Harrison’s home and that he had sex with her against her will.

WKYT-TV reports Babb-Harrison declined to be interviewed at a jail. His first court appearance is set for Wednesday.

Online jail records didn’t list an attorney for the player.

Judge dismisses sex charges against ex-Michigan State star

3 Apr 2000: Mateen Cleaves #12 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates on the floor as he holds up the trophy after winning the NCAA Men''s Finals Four Game against the Florida Gators at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Spartans defeated the Gators 89-76.
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FLINT, Mich. (AP) A judge has dismissed all charges against former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves, who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman after a charity golf event.

Judge Cathy Dowd in Flint, Michigan, said Monday there wasn’t enough evidence to send Cleaves to trial. Prosecutors can appeal.

A woman said she twice tried to get away from Cleaves but was pulled back into a motel room and sexually assaulted in September 2015. A witness confirmed that she saw the woman try to escape a room at the Knights Inn near Flint.

But a police officer said the woman never indicated that she was assaulted. Cleaves pleaded not guilty.

The Associated Press generally doesn’t name people who say they were sexually assaulted. Cleaves led Michigan State to the 2000 national championship.

Coaches Poll: Villanova takes the top spot

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats yells to his team in the first half against the Saint Joseph's Hawks at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova has overtaken Kentucky as the new No. 1 in the Coaches Poll on Monday.

The defending champions also took No. 1 in the new AP poll thanks to an 8-0 start while UCLA beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena this weekend. The Bruins finished at No. 2 while Kansas and Duke are right behind them.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | NBC Sports Top 25

  1. Villanova (28)
  2. UCLA (1)
  3. Kansas (1)
  4. Duke (2)
  5. North Carolina
  6. Baylor
  7. Kentucky
  8. Gonzaga
  9. Indiana
  10. Creighton
  11. Saint Mary’s
  12. Virginia
  13. Louisville
  14. Xavier
  15. Butler
  16. West Virginia
  17. Wisconsin
  18. South Carolina
  19. Purdue
  20. Arizona
  21. Florida
  22. Notre Dame
  23. Cincinnati
  24. Oregon
  25. Iowa State

AP Poll: Defending champion Villanova is the new No. 1

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Josh Hart
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The defending national champs are back at No. 1.

Villanova is atop the latest Associated Press top 25 poll this week as the 8-0 Wildcats are off to a hot start. With Kentucky’s loss to UCLA and North Carolina’s loss at Indiana there were some major shakeups in the polls this week.

  1. Villanova (57 first-place votes)
  2. UCLA (2)
  3. Kansas
  4. Baylor
  5. Duke
  6. Kentucky
  7. North Carolina
  8. Gonzaga
  9. Indiana
  10. Creighton
  11. Louisville
  12. Saint Mary’s
  13. Xavier
  14. Virginia
  15. West Virginia
  16. Butler
  17. Purdue
  18. Wisconsin
  19. South Carolina
  20. Arizona
  21. Florida
  22. Cincinnati
  23. Notre Dame
  24. Oregon
  25. Iowa State

 

Five things we learned last week: UCLA, Kentucky, the Big 12 and Lagerald Vick

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Isaac Hamilton #10 of the UCLA Bruins drives to the basket against Bam Adebayo #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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1. There’s a lot more to this UCLA team than just Lonzo Ball: Entering this weekend, that’s the name that everyone knew on UCLA. Ball is the team’s superstar freshman point guard, a player that has been compared favorably to Jason Kidd and whose ability to spray passes all over the floor is the biggest reason that the Bruins offense is a juggernaut.

But that offense isn’t going to be the difference-maker for the Bruins this season, because the Bruins were able to score last year, too.

No, the reason that UCLA has a chance to win a national title this season is that they can actually defend. They’re not Virginia. They’re not going to hold good teams to 50 points. They’re not going to be forcing 20 turnovers a night. They don’t have to. All they need to do is to be ‘good enough’ on that end of the floor. Limit penetration, protect the rim, clean the defensive glass.

If we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that the Bruins are going to be able to do the latter two things on that list. T.J. Leaf injected a shot of athleticism into the front court while Ike Anigbogu provides a physicality and a toughness they haven’t had in the paint under Alford. Throw in Thomas Welsh, who more than held his own against the Wildcats, and this is a pretty good front line that UCLA is working with.

And given what we already know about this team’s guards, that’s a scary proposition.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: De'Aaron Fox #0 and Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate in the first half of the game against the UCLA Bruins at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

2. Kentucky is going to be just fine: Saturday’s loss was a humbling one for the Wildcats. After steam-rolling through literally everyone they’ve played this season – Kentucky entered the game having won by at least 21 points in every game – the Wildcats got outplayed by UCLA pretty thoroughly. That’s going to happen with young teams, regardless of how well they play against inferior competition, and it may happen again before SEC play starts; Kentucky still have to play North Carolina and Louisville before Christmas.

The Wildcats are an elite defensive team, and they are even better at scoring in transition. Where they struggle, however, is with half court offense. They simply don’t have enough shooters to be able to consistently create high-percentage looks against a set defense, and the way to force them into half court offense is, simply, to score on them. UCLA is one of just a handful of teams that has the guard play and the offensive weapons to be able to do that consistently for 40 minutes, and even then, it took the Bruins a while to grow into the game.

In other words, there aren’t very many teams that can do what UCLA did to Kentucky’s defense.

Thus, there aren’t very many teams that can actually beat Kentucky.

So don’t be worried about the ‘Cats.

They’ll be just fine.

3. Turns out, the Big 12 is really good: The narrative on the Big 12 entering the season was that the league was down outside of Kansas. The Jayhawks were the favorite to win the league just like they always are, but once you got past Bill Self’s club, there really wasn’t much of substance in the league.

That looks to be a dumb narrative.

It starts with Baylor, who has been awesome this season. The Bears picked up yet another excellent non-conference win on Saturday, coming from behind at halftime to beat No. 7 Xavier by 15 points in Waco. It turns out that Baylor actually has the supporting cast around Johnathan Motley to be relevant, and if the tournament was to start today, Baylor would very likely be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Then there’s West Virginia, who went into Charlottesville and picked up a road win over No. 6 Virginia the same week that they forced 40 turnovers in a 40 minute game. Iowa State is probably still top 25 good, even with that home loss to Cincinnati last week, and we’d be remiss not to mention the play of both Texas Tech and TCU, the latter of whom is one of just two teams in the league and 11 teams in the country that are still undefeated.

Here’s the kicker: As of today, the No. 1 conference in college basketball, according to KenPom.com, is … the Big 12.

LAWRENCE, KS - NOVEMBER 29: Lagerald Vick #2 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks on a fast break as Javonntie Jackson #35 of the Long Beach State 49ers looks on during the game at Allen Fieldhouse on November 29, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Lagerald Vick (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

4. Is LaGerald Vick the most surprising player in the league?: Baylor’s Manu Lecomte has been better than expected, as has his teammate, Jo Lual-Acuil. Jawun Evans has been a star for Oklahoma State, but we all knew that he was going to be good. Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson is leading TCU in points, assists and steals, but he was a good player for the Aggies before he left. We knew he would do good things in Fort Worth.

But Vick?

I’m not sure anyone expected Vick to develop into a starter for Kansas just weeks into the season, but here we are. He’s averaging double-figures on the season. He’s made 9-of-11 threes in the last three games, a stretch where he’s averaging 15.3 points. He’s been terrific defensively, and his presence has allowed Kansas to put plus-defenders on the floor at every position while playing small-ball lineups.

Who saw that coming?

5. So maybe the North Carolina hype train got a bit out of control: Yes, North Carolina played well early on this season. Yes, they were impressive in their wins against Chattanooga and in the Maui Invitational. Yes, Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson have both gotten better.

But the fact that the narrative last week somehow turned into North Carolina being the most impressive team in college basketball seemed a little bit weird, a fact that was confirmed by UNC’s loss at Assembly Hall on Wednesday night.

Now let me be clear: There’s no shame in losing in Assembly Hall, not when IU was playing the way they were playing. But UNC dug themselves a 26-9 hole early in the first half that they were never really able to dig out of. They were rattled by the atmosphere. They did not play well at all, and I just don’t think that if this was truly the best team in college basketball, that doesn’t happen that way.

UNC is good, and probably better than many thought entering the season, but before we go anointing them the champs can we take a second to remember these are basically the same dudes we’ve been unimpressed by for a couple of years now?