Pac-12 conference tournament preview

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The Pac-12 race this season had some similarities to the Mountain West race, in that there were two teams entering the season that many pegged to be the class of the conference. Arizona and UCLA, due in large part to the newcomers joining both programs, were thought by many to be far ahead of the other ten programs but the race didn’t exactly play out that way.

Ben Howland’s Bruins won the regular season title thanks not only to their talented freshmen but also due to the play of veterans who proved to be more useful than many anticipated. The Pac-12 race was tight all season, with Arizona, Oregon and even California having a shot at the Pac-12 crown. With that in mind look for the conference’s first weekend in Las Vegas to be just as unpredictable as most trips to Sin City. The only difference: someone goes home with the trophy and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Bracket

Where: Las Vegas (MGM Grand Arena)

When: March 13th – March 16th

Final: March 16th, 11 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: UCLA

This is a group that’s had bouts with inconsistency, with a loss at Washington State last week being the most recent example of that. Drew led the Pac-12 in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, quite the turnaround given how things ended at North Carolina. Jordan Adams led the way for the freshmen to start the season, with Kyle Anderson and Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year Shabazz Muhammad hitting their stride as the season wore on. Those players, as well as Travis Wear, are the ones who will lead the way but UCLA will also need contributions from David Wear and Tony Parker inside.

And if they lose?: Arizona

The Wildcats were the best offensive team in the conference from an efficiency standpoint, which may come as a surprise to those who lament their lack of a “true” point guard. Sean Miller’s team has senior leadership in Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons, with Lyons being the one running the show, and sophomore Nick Johnson can be a factor on both ends of the floor.

A few keys for the Wildcats in Las Vegas: Lyons playing under control, the freshmen bigs holding their own inside and doing a better job of defending the three. Arizona was the worst team in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage defense, an interesting development when considering how good they’d been under Miller in the two season prior.

Other contenders: Oregon, California and Colorado are all capable of winning the tournament, with the Buffaloes needing to win four games in order to do so. Tad Boyle’s young team did just that last March, and in Spencer Dinwiddie and Andre Roberson he’s got two all-conference selections. (UPDATE: Roberson has been cleared to play.) Dominic Artis’ return makes Oregon a far better team when it comes to taking care of the basketball but they limp into the weekend after losing at both Colorado and Utah last week. As for the Golden Bears, Crabbe and Justin Cobbs form one of the league’s best perimeter tandems but they need consistent production from David Kravish and Richard Solomon inside if they’re to win.

Sleeper: Stanford 

Guards Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle are solid on the perimeter, and in Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell head coach Johnny Dawkins has two of the league’s better front court players as well. But will Stanford score as they did in wins over Utah and Cal to end the regular season? If so, the Cardinal may have a run left in them.

Deeper sleeper: Arizona State

With USC without the services of two big men this week it’s either the Sun Devils or Washington here. Despite their struggles of late (2-6 in their last eight games) take Arizona State, which is led by Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year Jahii Carson. Carson’s been a culture-changer of sorts for Herb Sendek’s program, and in senior Carrick Felix ASU has one of the best front court defenders around as well. The one concern: depth. Just six players average double-digit minutes, meaning that foul trouble will prove problematic as it did in their regular season finale at Arizona.

Studs:

– G/F Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA): Third in the conference in scoring (18.3 ppg), Muhammad is the one Pac-12 player destined to end up in the 2013 NBA Draft lottery.

– G Allen Crabbe (California): Crabbe led the conference in scoring (18.6 ppg) but he’s doing more than that, grabbing five board or more in each of Cal’s last nine games.

– F Solomon Hill (Arizona): Don’t be fooled by the numbers (13.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Hill is one of the league’s most versatile players.

– F Brock Motum (Washington State): This is the swan song for Motum, and while the Cougars haven’t performed well he’s been one of the best players in the league.

Prediction: The third time is the charm for Arizona, who gets past a UCLA team that swept the season series on the way to its first Pac-12 tournament title since 2002.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)

Vance Jackson transfers to New Mexico

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With more than a handful of departures this offseason, New Mexico is set to have a new-look roster for the 2017-18 season. On Monday, Paul Weir, now at the helm of the program, landed a player who should make an impact in the three remaining seasons of eligibility he has left.

Vance Jackson, who spent this past season at UConn, decided to make the move from Storrs to Albuquerque, picking the Lobos over Rutgers, San Diego State, TCU, and Washington.

The 6-foot-8 rising sophomore will have to sit out next year due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming his collegiate career in the fall of 2018.

“The coaches — they trust in me,” Jackson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal last month during his official campus visit. “We’re on the same page. They see a vision.”

Weir, who led New Mexico State this past season to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his one and only season as head coach, succeeded Craig Neal in April.

This offseason has been headlined by transfers, though, those mostly were about players leaving the program. Jackson is the second transfer to land at UNM with Akron’s Antino Jackson electing to use his final season of eligibility with the Lobos. Antino Jackson is a graduate transfer, allowing him to play immediately next season.

Vance Jackson, who was rated as the No. 80 overall player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, averaged 8.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three for the Huskies as a freshman.