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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.

Butler lands commitment from second top 100 prospect

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Butler landed the commitment of top 100 small forward Christian David over the weekend.

“I am excited and proud to announce my commitment to Butler University,” David posted on twitter on Saturday night.

David is a well-rounded perimeter player. At 6-foot-6, he has the size and athleticism to finish and the rim and overpower smaller defenders, but he can also knock down a three and make plays with the ball in his hands.

A four-star recruit, Butler beat out Pitt and Creighton for the services of the native Canadian.

Pac-12 Commissioner Scott has no issue with pregame protests

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has no issue with players protesting during the national anthem long as it’s done in a respectful way.

Athletes across the country have staged a variety of pregame protests after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem in protest of police violence against African-Americans and minorities.

“Very much believe in the idea of freedom of speech and individuals’ right to express themselves,” Scott said. “I’ve also always seen sport as a great platform for positive social change. To the extent that they’re individuals that want to use their celebrity or use the platform to try to send a positive message and make a positive impact on society. I think that’s great.

“I’ve seen plenty of examples in my career of tennis players and others doing that. As long as it’s done in a respectful way, in a way that’s not demeaning to other people and not disruptive, I think it’s absolutely fine.”

The entire Indiana Fever team recently knelt during the anthem before a playoff game. Several other NFL players, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe and scores of high school and college players also have participated in some form.

Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade gave an anti-violence speech at the ESPYS and expressed their support of the values behind the Black Lives Matter movement in July.

University of California-Berkeley professor emeritus Dr. Harry Edwards told the Associated Press in July that today’s athletes have a level of power that Muhammed Ali and others didn’t have in the 1960s, and they have begun using it to speak out against violence both by and against police. The newfound power of today’s athlete comes from monetary wealth, celebrity status and having the vehicle of social media to communicate directly with the masses.

CBT’s 2016-17 College Basketball Season Preview Schedule

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Believe it or not, but college basketball season technically begins this week, as programs around the country are allowed to start practicing as early as September 30th, this Friday.

With that in mind, it’s time for us to kick off the process of previewing the 2016-17 season, getting you ready for everything that will happen in our beloved sport for the next five months with a series of predictions that, hopefully, won’t prove to be totally and completely wrong by the end of the year.

Here is a complete schedule of everything you can expect to see from us over the next six weeks.

And be sure to bookmark this page, as we will be updating the schedule with links as each story gets posted. That way, if you miss anything — which is unlikely if you follow @CBTonNBC on twitter and like the College Basketball Talk page on FaceBook — you can go back and find it quite easily.

AWARDS

Sep. 27: NBCSports.com All-American Team
Sep. 27: Expert Picks and Predictions
Oct. 31-Nov. 4: Preseason Top 25 Countdown
Oct. 31: Mid-Major All-Americans
Oct. 31: Mid-Major Power Rankings

RANKINGS

Oct. 24-28: Top 100 Players Countdown
Oct. 25: Top Back Courts
Oct. 25: Top Front courts
Oct. 26: Top Lead Guards
Oct. 26: Top Off-Guards
Oct. 27: Top Wings
Oct. 27: Top Big Men

CONTENDERS SERIES

Oct. 3: Final Four Sleepers
Oct. 10: Final Four Favorites, part 1
Oct. 14: Final Four Favorites, part 2
Oct. 17-21: Title Contenders

CONFERENCE PREVIEWS

Sep. 29: WCC
Oct. 4: ACC
Oct. 5: Mountain West
Oct. 6: Atlantic 10
Oct. 7: American
Oct. 11: Big Ten
Oct. 18: Big 12
Oct. 25: Pac-12
Nov. 1: SEC
Nov. 8: Big East

Sep. 29: America East
Sep. 30: Atlantic Sun
Oct. 3: Big Sky
Oct. 4: Big South
Oct. 5: Big West
Oct. 6: CAA
Oct. 7: Conference USA
Oct. 10: Horizon
Oct. 11: Ivy
Oct. 12: MAAC
Oct. 12: MAC
Oct. 13: MEAC
Oct. 14: Missouri Valley
Oct. 17: NEC
Oct. 18: Ohio Valley
Oct. 19: Patriot
Oct. 20: SoCon
Oct. 21: Southland
Oct. 24: SWAC
Oct. 26: Summit
Oct. 27: Sun Belt
Oct. 28: WAC

LISTS

Sep. 26: Best Non-Conference Games
Sep. 28: Programs on the Rise and Decline
Sep. 28: Impact Transfers
Sep. 30: All-‘Yup, He’s Still In School’ Team
Nov. 1: Top Dunkers
Nov. 2: Coaches on the Hot Seat
Nov. 2: Key Assistant Coaching Hires
Nov. 2: Best, Worst Head Coaching Changes
Nov. 3: Impact Freshmen
Nov. 3: Breakout Stars
Nov. 7: Under-the-Radar Stars
Nov. 8: X-Factors
Nov. 9: Potential Cinderellas
Nov. 9: Most Important Players
Nov. 10: 68 Things To Watch For

Illinois PG expected to be ready for practice

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Illinois point guards and injuries have been an unfortunate trend over the past two seasons with Tracy Abrams, who missed the past two seasons with a torn ACL followed by a torn Achilles the next year.

On Sunday, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports reported some good news for an incoming Fighting Illini floor general. Te’Jon Lucas, a three-star prospect from the Class of 2016, will be fully cleared for the start of practice, according to Rothstein. In February, Lucas had broke his fibula in his right leg in two places during a game.

Lucas had committed to Illinois the previous September.

Abrams received a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA in June, and he decided to remain in Champaign for his final season. If healthy, he’ll be the starter. Jaylon Tate is also back for another season. But they are both seniors, which makes Sunday’s report important for John Groce’s program. Lucas will be on the floor Day 1 of practice, being molded for the future by two experienced guards.

The 5-foot-11 Lucas is the only true freshman on the roster.

Illinois begins the 2016-17 season on November 11, hosting Southeast Missouri State.

Xavier adds to class with three-star center

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Xavier added a fourth piece to its 2017 recruiting class on Sunday morning.

Kentravious Jones, a 6-foot-11, three-star recruit, committed to the Musketeers. He announced the decision via Twitter.

Chris Mack’s current recruiting class is headlined by four-star swingman Naji Marshall. The incoming quartet also includes guard Elias Harden and forward Jared Ridder. But Jones’ commitment fits an area that needs to be addressed for the Musketeers moving forward. Xavier isn’t particularly deep when it comes to big men. That frontcourt only gets thinner once RaShid Gaston, a graduate transfer from Norfolk State, exhausts his eligibility after this season.

Jones, along with current freshman forward Tyrique Jones, gives Xavier a young foundation for the future. Jones is an old-school, big-bodied center. He’s got a nice back-to-the-basket game, and had his best stretch of the summer during the UAA Finals. In three games with the Atlanta Xpress, he averaged 15.3 points, shot 59 percent from the field, and grabbed nine boards per game.

Conditioning will be the emphasis for him over the course of the next year. However, we have seen Xavier work well with a big, skilled centers in the past (see: Stainbrook, Matt). According to Shannon Russell of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Jones has dropped 30 pounds.

Sunday morning’s news may not even be Xavier’s last score on the recruiting trail. The Musketeers have one scholarship remaining (two, or three if Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett enter the NBA Draft this spring), and are in play for several coveted prospects like point guards Paul Scruggs, Quade Green and Matt Coleman, as well as forward Kris Wilkes.