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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.

No. 6 Kentucky bounces back with blowout win against Valparaiso

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Bam Adebayo finished with 16 points and Malik Monk chipped in with 15 as No. 6 Kentucky blew out Valparaiso in Rupp Arena, 87-63.

The outcome was really never in doubt in this one, as Kentucky jumped out to leads of 24-4 and 35-9 against a good Crusaders team. The Wildcats were coming off of a loss to UCLA where they gave up 97 points in their home arena, getting humbled in a game that was supposed to solidify their standing as the best team in college basketball.

Kentucky’s defense on Wednesday was just suffocating. Valpo finished with 19 turnovers while shooting 34.3 percent from the floor, numbers that were somewhat inflated by the fact that Kentucky had this game won in the first 10 minutes.

Valpo is a good basketball team. They’ve beaten Alabama, BYU and Rhode Island this season, and their only two losses on the year have come on the road to Oregon and Kentucky.

But this?

This was a buzzsaw they ran into. Winning at Kentucky was never going to be easy. Winning there 72 hours after UCLA beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena was always going to be near-impossible.

Valpo will be fine. Come Selection Sunday, this is going to look like a really good win for the Wildcats.

PHOTO: Pres. Bush, P.M. Cameron sit courtside at SMU

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 17:  Former U.S. President George W. Bush attends a game between the Illinois-Chicago Flames and the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Moody Coliseum on December 17, 2014 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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President George W. Bush is no stranger to sports in the Dallas area, most notably as the former owner of the Texas Rangers.

On Wednesday, he sat courtside at Moody Coliseum for a game between TCU and SMU. He was joined by his wife, First Lady Laura Bush, and former British prime minister David Cameron.

They’re no Jack Nicholson or Penny Marshall, but not bad star power for a non-conference game in December.

No. 16 Butler suffers first loss at the hands of Indiana State

ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 5: Brenton Scott #4 of the Indiana State Sycamores shoots the ball against the Evansville Aces during MVC Basketball Tournament  Semifinals at the Scottrade center on March 5, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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There are now just 10 undefeated teams left in college basketball after No. 16 Butler fell to Indiana State on Wednesday night, 72-71.

It was the second time this season that a top 25 team from the state of Indiana lost a road game to an in-state foe, and it was the second this season that in-state foe had a Scott twin on the roster.

Brenton Scott plays for the Syramores. The senior guard had 24 points, nine boards, three assists and a pair of steals to lead the way for Indiana State on Wednesday night. His twin brother, Bryson, had 18 points, 12 boards three assists and three steals for Fort Wayne when they picked up a win over then-No. 3 Indiana earlier this season.

Brenton wasn’t the star on Wednesday. That title belongs to Matt Van Scyoc. He had 23 points and hit six threes on the night, with three of them being daggers that came in the final three minutes of the game.

This loss is going to hurt for the Bulldogs come March. Where Fort Wayne has a chance to be the Summit League champions this season, Indiana State is a team that already has a loss to a bad Quinnipiac team and looks destined to finish in the bottom half of the Missouri Valley.

If you needed another example for why high-major head coaches don’t schedule road games against mid-major competition, this is it. Chris Holtmann’s Bulldogs were on the wrong side of a court-storming with more than three months left until the start of Big East play and in the process took a loss that could end up having a significant impact on their NCAA tournament seeding.

That’s not exactly ideal for the Bulldogs.

Andrew Chrabascz led the way with 18 points for Butler. Their leading scorer on the season, Kelan Martin, had just 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting.

VIDEO: Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene hits ridiculous three

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You should know the name Marcus Keene by now.

He’s the nation’s leading scorer, the only guy in the country averaging better than 30 points this season; at just 5-foot-9, he’s averaging 31.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.6 boards. On Tuesday night, Keene went for 40 points. He was in such a zone, he felt the need to make this little pirouette before banging home a three.

I mean, just check this out:

Here’s what makes that shot so crazy: this game wasn’t close to over!

Central Michigan was up by six points with more than two minutes left, and Keene not only buried that shot, he actually shot it.

Former Kentucky coach Gillispie announces retirement

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 18:  Head coach Billy Gillispie of the Kentucky Wildcats looks on during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Dean E. Smith Center on November 18, 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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One of the most mercurial college coaching careers of recent years is coming to a close.

Billy Gillispie, who rose in the profession to helming Kentucky and then fell to the junior college ranks, is retiring amid health concerns, he told the Dallas Morning News.

“No one’s ever enjoyed coaching more than I have, I promise, and no one’s ever been luckier in the coaching profession than I have,” Gillispie told the newspaper in a text message. “What a wonderful career!

“I’ve been very sick with blood pressure issues since the summer, but I’ve tried to fight it out. I got a report Monday that told me if I didn’t address this blood pressure situation immediately, irreversible, bad things were very likely to happen here relatively soon and my long-term health could be compromised.

“Timing isn’t great, but I’ve decided to do what I was told and try to return to healthy ASAP.

“I’ve had a wonderful career and in the last two years some of the best days I’ve ever experienced as a coach. I hate leaving this team because they are really coming around, but they understood me being sick. That’s the worst part of it, not coaching.”

After lengthy stints as an assistant, Gillispie got his first head coaching job at UTEP in 2002 and turned the Miners into an NCAA tournament team by his second season, which paved the way for his exit to Texas A&M and the Big 12. He won 20-plus games in all three of his seasons with the Aggies and brought them to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, spending much of the 2006-07 season ranked in the top-10.

Gillispie then took over for one of the most storied programs in the history of the sport when Tubby Smith bolted for Minnesota, but he would last just two seasons in Lexington before being fired after missing the 2009 NCAA tournament.

Two years later he resurfaced at Texas Tech, but didn’t make it to a second season in Lubbock after allegations of player mistreatment.

He’s spent the last year-and-half at Ranger College in Texas.