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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.

Fox leads No. 5 Kentucky over Mississippi State 88-81

Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) gets into a scuffle with Kentucky'sp Isaiah Briscoe (13) and De'Aaron Fox (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Weatherspoon and Fox were both charged with offsetting technical fouls. Kentucky won 88-81. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)
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STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Malik Monk, Kentucky’s leading scorer, was struggling and so was star guard Isaiah Briscoe. So when the Wildcats needed some clutch baskets late, coach John Calipari turned to freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox and gave him some simple instructions.

“We just said, `Here you go De’Aaron, go and do your thing,”‘ Calipari said.

Fox responded with two clutch baskets on drives to the basket in the final minutes to thwart a final Mississippi State rally and lead the fifth-ranked Wildcats over the Bulldogs 88-81 on Tuesday night.

Fox finished with 21 points while Monk had 14. Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis both scored 13 points and Briscoe added 12.

“A lot of teams have a go-to person, but we don’t have that right now,” Fox said. “So whoever has the hot hand that game is the one that does it.”

Kentucky (16-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) looked like it would cruise to the win after building a 66-49 lead midway through the second half, but Mississippi State responded with 13 straight points to make things interesting down the stretch.

Calipari said he was frustrated with his team’s inattention to detail. He was especially irritated when Monk got a technical foul for hanging on the rim after a dunk on an alley-oop pass.

“We go into the AAU mode when we’re playing all freshmen and sophomores,” Calipari said. “There’s a point in the game where they just think `OK, watch this.’

“You’re never going to be that team if that’s what your mindset is.”

In the end, the Wildcats were too potent offensively. The 6-foot-3 Fox was especially impressive, shooting 8 of 15 from the field and adding five rebounds and five assists.

Kentucky also got plenty of production from its forwards. Willis scored all 13 of his points in the first half, stepping out to make three 3-pointers. Gabriel was 5 of 5 from the field, including 3 of 3 from 3-point range.

Mississippi State (12-5, 3-2) was led by freshman Lamar Peters, who scored a career-high 25 points. Quinndary Weatherspoon scored 15 points and Mario Kegler added 13 points and eight rebounds.

Mississippi State shot 32 of 59 (54.2 percent) from the field. The Bulldogs were hurt by 19 turnovers.

“You can’t knock Kentucky – they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Peters said. “But when you look at the talent on our team, I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country, too. We can hang with anybody. And it’s frustrating because we knew we could have won that game.”

It was an emotional game that featured four technical fouls – two on each team.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats continue to put up big numbers on offense, scoring at least 87 points for the sixth straight game. Monk, who leads the team at nearly 22 points per game, wasn’t at his best on Tuesday, but his teammates were more than capable of picking up the slack.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were able to hang with one of the nation’s best teams for most of the game, but an inability to stop Kentucky on the defensive end proved costly.

QUITE AN ATMOSPHERE

Mississippi State announced a crowd of 9,768, which was its largest of the season. The traffic was so bad before the game outside Humphrey Coliseum that the Bulldogs’ pep band barely made it to their seats on time because its bus was stuck on the road.

UP NEXT

Kentucky: The Wildcats return home to face No. 24 South Carolina on Saturday.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs travel to face Tennessee on Saturday.

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More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 .

Motley powers No. 6 Baylor past Texas

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP
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WACO, Texas (AP) — Johnathan Motley really couldn’t explain that feeling he had when he kept scoring points and grabbing rebounds. Baylor’s big forward just knew he wanted to play better than his last couple of games.

“You don’t really remember what you do, you’re just kind of out there going through it,” Motley said after career highs of 32 points and 20 rebounds in No. 6 Baylor’s 74-64 victory over Texas on Tuesday night. “I can’t really tell you the moves I made. I just forgot. It just goes away.”

Coach Scott Drew then smiled and said he liked that attitude of focusing on the next play.

“It’s just a crazy rhythm you get as a basketball player,” Motley added. “You can’t really explain it.”

Nuni Omot, the junior college transfer playing in only his eighth game for Baylor (17-1, 5-1 Big 12), had a season-high 14 points. He scored seven in the half-ending 16-4 run that put the Bears ahead to stay.

Texas (7-11, 1-5) led by as many as eight points early, and was still up by five before Omot’s dunk with just over 5 minutes left in the first half. Al Freeman , who finished with 10 points, and Jake Lindsey followed with consecutive 3-pointers to put Baylor ahead for the first time.

Jarrett Allen had 17 points for the Longhorns, while Andrew Jones had 15. Shaquille Cleare scored 14 before his fifth foul.

About halfway through the second half, the 6-foot-10 Motley had a one-handed putback dunk , though he got a technical foul after an elbow into a defender following the play.

With about 5 minutes left, Motley rebounded his own miss and made a tough jumper over the defender.

“The thing that he keeps getting better with is his motor, and that’s how he got a lot of those rebounds,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said.

In Baylor’s two road games last week, Motley was 6-of-18 shooting for 15 points and 14 rebounds combined. He fouled out after playing only 19 minutes Saturday at Kansas State.

“I wasn’t too happy with myself,” Motley said. “And I tried to do everything I could to be better than I was.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas: Without a true point guard, the Longhorns just can’t seem to get into any flow on offense. They do have impressive stretches during games that give them hope, but Smart’s team seems stuck in a down year that starts to look worse when playing in Big 12 games.

Baylor: The Bears have matched their best start at 17-1, which they also did in 2011-12 when they had a school-record 30 wins and an Elite Eight appearance. The 6-9 Omot could give Baylor a big boost. He sat out last season after transferring from a Minnesota junior college, then was academically ineligible to play in the fall semester.

30-20 RARIETY

Motley joined Jerry Mallett (1957), Darrell Hardy (1966) and Rico Gathers (2015) as the only Baylor players with 30-20 games. The last 30-20 game in a Big 12 game had been by Blake Griffin in 2009 with Oklahoma.

AND THEN IT WAS OVER

Smart liked the mentality his players had to start the game. “The way they were connected, the way they tried to guard was very, very good,” he said. “And then there was a point with about 6-8 minutes left (in the first half) where you could just kind of feel our defensive energy was not as good.” And they never got it back.

IMMORTAL TEN

Baylor players honored the 90th anniversary of the Immortal Ten team. The Bears were headed to Austin, Texas, for a game on Jan. 22, 1927, when 10 players, coaches and fans in the travel party were killed when the bus was hit by a train. There were 10 vacant chairs near the Baylor bench, and players had the names of the Immortal Ten on the back of their game jerseys.

UP NEXT

Texas will play its third consecutive Top 10 opponent, and second straight on the road when the Longhorns play at No. 2 Kansas on Saturday.

Baylor plays three of its next four games away from home, though the Bears only have to go about 100 miles Saturday to play at much-improved TCU.

No. 21 Purdue dominates Illinois

Illinois forward Michael Finke and Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan (50) vie for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — When Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas are in sync, it’s difficult trying to name a better power forward-center combination in college basketball.

No. 21 Purdue’s two interior players certainly were in sync on Tuesday night against outmanned Illinois.

Haas had 24 points and six rebounds, and power forward Swanigan added 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Boilermakers’ dominating 91-68 victory.

Haas scored 13 points in the second half when the Boilermakers (15-4, 4-2 Big Ten) led by as many as 27. Swanigan had a four-point first half but was almost unstoppable during the second half, accounting for 18 points and five rebounds.

“It was Illinois’ game plan not to double us,” Swanigan said. “You could hear their coaches yelling to them to pressure the ball. That was their game plan, and we had success with it.”

Purdue placed five players in double figures, also getting 14 from freshman guard Carsen Edwards, 11 from forward Vince Edwards — no relation — and 10 from point guard P.J. Thompson.

“We have to have balance, and we did that tonight,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “When Isaac got the ball deep like he did tonight, that’s hard to stop. When Isaac is good and efficient, it really puts the other team in a bind.”

Illinois (12-7, 2-4) got 15 points from Maverick Morgan and 12 from Malcolm Hill but had no answer for the Boilermakers’ two post players, each of whom had his way around the basket.

With this victory, Purdue leads the all-time series with Illinois, 100-87.

Purdue made 9 of its first 14 field goal attempts, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range, built a 19-5 lead with 13:01 to play in the first half and led 44-30 through 20 minutes, shooting 60 percent from the field (15 of 25).

“With that team, you kind of have to pick your poison,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “They have two great post players, and then they surround them with good shooters. We let them get loose from 3 early, and the 3-point line got them out front and eventually into a double-digit lead.”

Haas was grateful for the 3-point help.

“I don’t think the 3-point success made the game easy, but it gave us confidence and definitely let us get our heads up,” Haas said. “It wasn’t like we were taking contested 1-on-1 shots. We were moving the ball and getting open looks.”

Carsen Edwards had 12 first-half points for Purdue, and Haas had 11. The two were a combined 9 of 10 from the field before halftime. The Boilermakers outrebounded Illinois 20-13 during the opening 20 minutes, although they did not get a single offensive rebound.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini never recovered from the early 19-5 deficit and fell to 0-4 in games against Top 25 competition. Illinois had trouble coping with Purdue’s size and watched as the Boilermakers made five 3-pointers during the first 7 minutes. If Illinois loses Saturday at Michigan, it will be 2-5 in the Big Ten.

Purdue: As the Boilermakers have done every time after a regular-season loss in the past two seasons, they won the next game, getting a nice balance of perimeter play from Carsen Edwards and Haas.

DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE

With 22 points and 10 rebounds, Swanigan has nine double-doubles in the past 10 games, missing only this past Thursday with 17 and eight in an 83-78 loss at Iowa.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

If the 21st-ranked Boilermakers beat Penn State on Saturday in Mackey Arena and improve to 16-4, 5-2, chances are solid that they will move up a bit in the AP Top 25.

ROAD WOES

Including Tuesday’s loss, Illinois is 0-3 in Big Ten road games, losing by 25 at Maryland, by 16 at Indiana and by 23 at Purdue.

“It’s a lot about being inconsistent,” Groce said.

UP NEXT

Illinois: The Illini travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday to play Michigan.

Purdue: The Boilermakers are at home again Saturday for a game with Penn State.

Ole Miss’ Brooks taken to hospital after seizure

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Ole Miss senior Rasheed Brooks has been taken to an Oxford area hospital during the Rebels’ game against Tennessee on Tuesday evening after suffering a seizure, the school said in a statement. He is in stable condition and undergoing further testing.

Brooks reportedly was taken by stretcher out of the arena after he collapsed during a timeout.

The game did commence following the incident, and Ole Miss eventually landed a come-from-behind win.

VIDEO: Patsos shakes imaginary hands after Rider storms off court

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13:  Head coach Jimmy Patsos of the Siena Saints watches on during their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
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Apparently unhappy with how the game unfolded late, Rider decided against the traditional handshake line Tuesday in its 78-68 loss to Siena.

That didn’t stop Saints coach Jimmy Patsos from going through with it anyway.

The animosity apparently extends from the ejections of Siena’s Marquis Wright and Rider’s Anthony Durham following an altercation between the two, according to the Times-Union. Both Patsos and Rider coach Kevin Baggett were also hit with technicals. Baggett, who had to be held back by assistants, apparently had words with Wright.

Theatrics aside, the win was the fourth-straight for Patsos’ Saints after a 1-3 start to MAAC play. Lavon Long had 29 points to lead the way. Rider has now dropped three in a row and is 4-4 in the league.

Update:

Baggett told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman he elected to immediately remove his team from the court “because I didn’t want anything to escalate again between the teams. That’s my prerogative to protect my team whether anyone else thinks it’s good sportsmanship or not.”