2013-2014 Pac-12 Conference Preview: League’s on the way back after rough three-year stretch

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

After placing six teams in the 2009 NCAA tournament the Pac-12 hit a rough patch. A really rough patch, receiving a total of eight bids to the Big Dance from 2010-12. Prior to the start of the 2012-13 campaign many expected more futility, but while the league still wasn’t at the level fans expect the fact of the matter is that the Pac-12 displayed signs of improvement. Look for more of the same in 2013-14, with there being eight programs who enter the season with realistic hopes of contending for the league crown. After going through a rough stretch on the court, look for the Pac-12 to reassert itself as a power conference in 2013-14.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. New additions will make Arizona a much better perimeter defensive team: Losing Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill shouldn’t be overlooked but the arrival of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and transfer T.J. McConnell now being eligible will make Sean Miller’s team a better defensive squad. After ranking among the nation’s best in defending the three for two consecutive seasons the Wildcats struggled in that department last season. Adding McConnell, an Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team selection at Duquesne, will help in this regard.

2. Colorado and Washington both have rebounding issues to address: Both the Buffaloes and Huskies need to account for the loss of their leading rebounders from a season ago, with CU’s Andre Roberson in the NBA and Washington’s Aziz N’Diaye out of eligibility. Who steps up? For Colorado, redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon and sophomores Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott will be key. As for the Huskies, who led the conference in rebounding margin, San Francisco transfer Perris Blackwell, Shawn Kemp Jr. and Desmond Simmons are some of the options.

3. Larry Drew II was more valuable to UCLA than many wanted to admit: The butt of many people’s jokes due to the way in which he left North Carolina, Drew ended up leading the Pac-12 in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio last season. With him gone, who will run the show for Steve Alford? Two of the three possibilities are freshmen (Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine), but the best option may be 6-8 sophomore Kyle Anderson. The right answer to this question will make the Bruins a threat to repeat as Pac-12 regular season champions.

4. Andy Enfield takes over at USC: After leading FGCU to the Sweet 16 Enfield took over at USC, and he’ll have his work cut out for him given the Trojans’ personnel losses from a season ago. Two transfers (guard Pe’Shon Howard and center D.J. Haley) will be asked to contribute immediately, and the same can be said for freshmen Julian Jacobs and Roschon Prince. But teams better get their shots in early, because with the strides the Trojans have made on the recruiting trail they likely won’t be down for long.

5. Oregon looks to continue its recent run of success with transfers: Dana Altman’s Ducks will once again be a factor in the Pac-12 thanks in large part to the return of guards Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Johnathan Loyd. Add in transfers Joseph Young (Houston) and Jason Calliste (Detroit), and Oregon is loaded on the perimeter. But if they’re to truly contend for a Pac-12 title a big season will be needed from Mike Moser, who’s immediately eligible after transferring in from UNLV. Injuries played a major role in Moser’s struggles at UNLV last season, and a less cluttered interior rotation should give him the room needed to return to the form he displayed in 2011-12 (14.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg).

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jahii Carson (Arizona State)

Arizona State insisted that they’d play at a higher tempo last season due in large part to the addition of Carson, and the point guard certainly didn’t disappoint as he led the nation’s freshmen in scoring (18.5 ppg) while also dishing out 5.1 assists per game. Now that the Sun Devils want to play even faster, Carson should be even more dangerous in his sophomore campaign. The question: can he lead Arizona State to its first NCAA tournament appearance than 2009?

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THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM:

  • G Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado): Dinwiddie’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and his size (6-foot-6) makes the Los Angeles native a tough matchup at the point.
  • G C.J. Wilcox (Washington): Wilcox averaged 16.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game for the Huskies last season. With Abdul Gaddy and Scott Suggs gone, he may have to score even more as a senior.
  • F Aaron Gordon (Arizona): Incredibly athletic, the McDonald’s All-American will likely be a factor at both forward spots for the Wildcats. How much time he spends at the three will likely depend on how well he defends the position.
  • F Dwight Powell (Stanford): After averaging 14.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game Powell earned first-team All-Pac 12 honors and the league’s Most Improved Player award. He’s a serious threat to win Pac-12 Player of the Year this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • G T.J. McConnell (Arizona)
  • F Xavier Johnson (Colorado)
  • G/F Damyean Dotson (Oregon)
  • G Justin Cobbs (California)
  • C Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State)

BREAKOUT STAR: F Xavier Johnson (Colorado)

As the 2012-13 season wore on the Mater Dei product became even more of a factor for the Buffaloes, who made their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. With Andre Roberson off to the next level, Johnson (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) will be needed to step up alongside guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker if the Buffs are to contend for the Pac-12 crown.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Johnny Dawkins (Stanford)

The conference has a few options for this selection, including Ken Bone (Washington State), Craig Robinson (Oregon State) and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). But the choice here is Dawkins, whose team is the best equipped of the four to reach the NCAA tournament. Anthony Brown’s back after missing all of last season, forward Dwight Powell is a league Player of the Year candidate and guards Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle should be productive as well. One can’t forget about Josh Huestis either, as he’s one of the Pac-12’s best defenders.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Pac-12 is back to where it should be.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: The amount of young talent in the Pac-12, with multiple players being pieces their respective programs can build around.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • December 14: Arizona at Michigan
  • November 8: Colorado vs. Baylor (in Dallas)
  • November 8: Oregon vs. Georgetown (Camp Humphries, South Korea)
  • December 19: UCLA vs. Duke (in New York)
  • December 18: Stanford at UConn (in Hartford)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Arizona: The Wildcats will be better defensively thanks to the presence of McConnell, Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But who makes jump shots on a consistent basis? Find a suitable answer (or answers) and this group can get to Jerry World.
2. Oregon: With four of their top five scorers gone the Ducks are sure glad they added transfers Jason Calliste, Mike Moser and Joseph Young. And that sophomore tandem of Dominic Artis & Damyean Dotson has the potential to be special.
3. Colorado: Andre Roberson’s a big loss, especially as a defender and rebounder, but Tad Boyle’s built himself a program that can be a consistent Pac-12 contender.
4. UCLA: Steve Alford won’t lack for talent in his first season in Westwood, but who takes over at the point for Larry Drew II? If freshmen Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine are ready, the Bruins will be fine.
5. California: Losing Allen Crabbe hurts but there’s still plenty of talent in Berkeley. If Richard Solomon is fully engaged in the action night in and night out, the Golden Bears will contend for the league title.
6. Stanford: Look for Dwight Powell to become a household name nationally, and if Rosco Allen’s European experience (Hungary’s U-20 team) put some “dog” in him he could break out as a sophomore.
7. Arizona State: Adding Jermaine Marshall and Shaquielle McKissic to the equation certainly helps matters, and ASU will be deeper than they were last season. But who has the intangibles that the departed Carrick Felix provided?
8. Washington: The Huskies have some questions to answer in the paint, but there should be no doubting the long-term impact that Nigel Williams-Goss will have on the program. One word: winner.
9. Utah: Things are beginning to look up in Salt Lake City, and Jordan Loveridge should be even better as a sophomore. But there’s still much work to do be done before the Utes are a factor in the Pac-12.
10. Oregon State: Angus Brandt returns after suffering a torn ACL in November, which will help Devon Collier and Eric Moreland inside. With Roberton Nelson providing scoring punch on the perimeter OSU can move up if they commit defensively. Which has been said in each of the two seasons prior to this one.
11. USC: Given the roster turnover from last season USC’s newcomers will have plenty of opportunities as Andy Enfield looks to build an uptempo system like the one he had at FGCU.
12. Washington State: With the addition of Ike Ireogbu the Cougars have an option at the point they sorely lacked last season. But losing Brock Motum and Mike Ladd is kind of a big deal.

No. 13 Kansas rallies from double-digit deficit to beat No. 20 West Virginia

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For the second time this season, Kansas overcame a double-digit deficit to knock off Big 12 rival West Virginia. This time, the No. 13 Jayhawks might have saved their chances of winning another Big 12 regular-season title with a critical 77-69 home win over the No. 20 Mountaineers on Saturday evening.

After trailing by as many as 12 points during the second half, the Jayhawks finished the game on a 19-3 run to close things out as West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins was ejected towards the end of the contest.

Struggling to a slow start once again against West Virginia, the Jayhawks finally figured things out down the stretch despite playing with a thin rotation that looked exhausted by the end of the game. Big man Udoka Azubuike had a strong second half for the Jayhawks, as he took advantage of additional touches on the interior to finish with a team-high 21 points and five rebounds. Dominant whenever he was able to get a post touch within five feet, Azubuike was 7-for-8 from the floor as he’s now 20-for-22 from the floor over his last three games. Also coming up with a few key blocks down the stretch, Azubuike made momentum-shifting plays on both ends of the floor.

Although Kansas had a monster performance from its monster in the middle, this was another win in which they needed to claw back from a big deficit to win at home. Not quite the same threat at The Phog this season as they’ve been in year’s past, the Jayhawks have looked beatable at home during many nights this season.

But even though Kansas hasn’t looked immortal, they’ll certainly take an important win like this over a tough opponent like West Virginia.  The win means the Jayhawks are still within striking distance of Texas Tech as the Red Raiders are on the road against Baylor on Saturday.

Minnesota’s Amir Coffey out for the season with shoulder injury

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Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey will miss the rest of his sophomore season with a season-ending shoulder injury, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-8 Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s most productive freshman last season but he wasn’t able to stay consistently healthy during the 2017-18 campaign. Coffey put up solid numbers when he was able to play, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, but he missed 10 total games with the injury.

Coffey has been out for the last five games, and with Minnesota’s postseason hopes plummeting during an eight-game losing streak, the decision to hold him out was probably best for his long-term health.

Barford leads dominant Arkansas past No. 21 Texas A&M, 94-75

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford capped off the most difficult stretch of his young Southeastern Conference career with a disappointing and foul-plagued performance the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M.

The standout Razorbacks forward remembered that game all too well, and it showed as he added yet another dominating effort to his remarkable freshman season on Saturday.

Gafford scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting to lead Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) to its fourth straight win, 94-75 over the No. 21 Aggies. It was the fifth straight game in double figures for Gafford, who is shooting 70.7 percent (29 of 41) since the 80-66 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 30.

The 6-foot-11 freshman was on a mission to atone for that loss, and it showed as he hit his first five shots and punctuated the dominating win with a late dunk.

“Playing them here, in my mind I had to play smarter and more physical,” Gafford said. “Because in my mind, I was ready for them. I was ready for Tyler Davis, I was ready for pretty much all the big men because pretty much I got punked when we went up to Texas A&M, and I didn’t want that to happen tonight.”

Gafford had plenty of help from his teammates, with Jaylen Barford scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and adding five rebounds and five assists for the surging Razorbacks.

Also, Daryl Macon finished with 20 points for an Arkansas team that’s won seven of its last nine. It was the eighth time in the last nine games Macon has scored 20 or more. C.J. Jones had 13 points off the bench.

Robert Williams had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8), which lost its second straight after entering the rankings this week. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had three blocks and finished 10 of 13 from the field.

Admon Gilder also scored 20 points for the Aggies, while Davis added 15 points and T.J. Starks had 12. However, Texas A&M was unable to slow down an Arkansas team that shot 49.3 percent (35 of 71) from the field and hit 10 of 23 3-pointers.

“There’s not many teams going to come in here and beat Arkansas when they shoot the ball like they did today,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well and made some tough shots.”

REBOUNDING RAZORBACKS

Texas A&M entered the game 3rd nationally and tops in the SEC in rebounding with an average of 41.9 per game. The Aggies also outrebounded Arkansas 45-30 in their win last month, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on Saturday — finishing with a 45-33 edge on the glass.

Freshman Darious Hall followed up his career-best 11-rebound effort in a win over Mississippi earlier in the week with seven rebounds in only 17 minutes on Saturday, and Gafford and senior Trey Thompson had six rebounds apiece.

“This is a team that beat us by 15 at their place, and they’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country with all that size,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Somehow we found the energy. We found the players that were really engaged and going to get those rebounds.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The last time the Aggies won in Fayetteville was March 1, 1986, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference and Arkansas still played in Barnhill Arena. They led only once on Saturday, a 4-2 advantage that disappeared quickly after the Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run. Texas A&M was 0 of 7 on 3-pointers while trailing 43-32 at halftime, and it just avoided matching its season low for 3-pointers — finishing 4 of 17 as a team.

Arkansas: The win starts a difficult five-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas, which entered Saturday 32nd in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Beginning with the 18th-rated Aggies, the Razorbacks face teams all 31st or higher in the ratings during the five games — including Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. They started the stretch in dominating fashion on Saturday, a key victory for a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons this year.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M returns home to face Mississippi State on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks host Kentucky on Tuesday.

Kentucky beats Alabama 81-71 behind Washington’s 16 points

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Four straight losses were enough for Kentucky.

PJ Washington scored 16 points, Kevin Knox added 13, and Kentucky beat Alabama 81-71 on Saturday to end a four-game slide.

“They played desperately,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We gave away some games this year and we have to start taking games away from people, which means desperation.”

The Wildcats (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) displayed a sense of urgency against the Crimson Tide, especially in the rebounding department. The Wildcats held a commanding 44-27 edge on the glass and grabbed 20 offensive boards, resulting in 20 second-chance points for the hosts.

“They were desperate and they had a lot of energy,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.

Quade Green scored 12 points, Jarred Vanderbilt scored a career-high 11 off the bench with nine rebounds, and Nick Richards added 10 points for the Wildcats.

Vanderbilt played a key role down the stretch for the Wildcats and finished with nine rebounds.

“We came together the last five minutes,” Vanderbilt said. “We made some key plays down the stretch, took care of the ball and we just executed.”

For Kentucky, which hadn’t won since an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 30, fending off the Crimson Tide (17-10, 8-6) wasn’t an easy task. The Wildcats have won six straight over Alabama, including 11 of the past 12 games.

“It felt like we were back to normal and back to where we needed to be,” Washington said. “We just need to keep building from here.”

Alabama, the top defensive team in the conference, forced eight ties and 15 lead changes until the Wildcats gained control midway through the second half to avoid a fifth straight loss. Kentucky led for the final eight minutes.

Knox, Kentucky’s leading scorer, sat out 14 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble, but picked up the scoring load with all of his 13 points in the second half. Knox connected on first field-goal 7/8- a 3-pointer with 13:22 remaining — to ignite the Wildcats’ stagnant offense and spark the team’s impressive finish.

Kentucky led 39-34 at the break amid four ties and 11 lead changes. The Wildcats got most of their scoring off the bench in the opening half with Green and Washington combining for 15 points. Green paved the way with nine and made four of five field goals.

“They just outworked us,” Alabama forward Donata Hall said. “They were a hungry team.”

Hall led Alabama with 16 points, John Petty had 13, Colin Sexton 12 and Alex Reese 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats, who have lost three straight road games (Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn), will attempt to end the slide Tuesday at Arkansas, which lost just one of its first 14 games at home this season. Kentucky, five games behind conference leader Auburn, is out of contention for a fourth consecutive regular-season title, although a top-four finish isn’t out of question.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide, 5-1 against ranked teams this season, including a 76-71 win over No. 10 Auburn on Jan. 17 in Tuscaloosa, will attempt a sweep of the Tigers Wednesday. Alabama will attempt to lock up one of four top spots and a bye during the final two weeks of the regular season. Alabama coach Avery Johnson fell to 0-6 in games against Kentucky.

PELPHREY RETURNS

Former Kentucky forward John Pelphrey, an assistant coach at Alabama, made his return to Rupp Arena. Pelphrey, a former Mr. Basketball at Paintsville High School in 1987, played for the Wildcats from 1988-92 and was a member of the “Unforgettables” squad that lost to Duke in the 1992 East Region finals.

UP NEXT

Kentucky is at Arkansas Tuesday.

Alabama visits No. 10 Auburn Wednesday.

No. 3 Villanova continues reign of dominance over No. 4 Xavier, winning 95-79

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Villanova is not a perfect basketball team.

They have their flaws. Their depth in an issue. Their defense is a bigger issue. Their health seems to be working itself out, but with a rotation that has been as shallow as six guys at time, they are never more than one sprained ankle away from being put in a spot where their starters play too many minutes.

And despite all of that, one thing remains true about this group: They are always capable of putting together a shooting performance that leaves you wondering how in the world they ever lost a game to begin with.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday in Cincinnati, as the No. 3 Wildcats — having lost two of their last three games to fall a game out of first place in the Big East — went into the Cintas Center and truck-sticked No. 4 Xavier, 95-79. It’s a result we all probably should have seen coming. Villanova has, after all, won four straight Big East regular season titles, and they weren’t about to lay down and let the Musketeers take control of their league. Especially since it’s Xavier. In the 11 games since Xavier and Villanova became conference foes, the Wildcats are now 10-1 with an average winning margin of 17.6 points.

Mikal Bridges led the way, scoring 16 of his 25 points in a first half where he buried four of Villanova’s 11 threes. Their lead ballooned as high as 21 points, and they took a 51-37 lead into halftime. Xavier made their run in the second half, getting as close as 62-59 before Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and nine boards, helped to spark a surge that put the game away.

The difference-maker here was Villanova’s shooting. They were 11-for-19 from three in the first half. They shot 16-for-34 for the game. In losses to St. John’s and Providence in the last two weeks, the Wildcats struggled from beyond the arc. They were 8-for-33 against St. John’s, just 2-for-17 in the second half, and they shot 3-for-19 from distance at Providence during the week.

And it is also worth noting that they got some terrific play from two of their young, unproven freshman who combined to score 11 straight points during a five-minute second half stretch. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree had two critical buckets as Villanova pulled away late midway through the second half, when he was on the floor for Eric Paschall, who had picked up four fouls. And Collin Gillispie followed that up by banging home a three and scoring on a tough finger-roll over Sean O’Mara that helped hold Xavier at bay. All told, Cosby-Rountree finished with four points, three boards and a block while Gillispie chipped in with 10 points of his own.

Perhaps most impressive in all of this was that Villanova put together this kind of a performance on an afternoon where Jalen Brunson struggled to get into his normal rhythm. He finished with 11 points and eight assists, but shot just 5-for-12 from the floor and 1-for-6 from three. For a player that is having a historically-great season from an efficiency perspective, those are surprising numbers.

What it all adds up to is this: The Wildcats are not yet ready to relinquish control over the Big East regular season title. Xavier is still technically in first place by a half-game — they’re 12-3 while Villanova is 11-3 — but for all intents and purposes, they’re tied. Xavier’s schedule down the stretch is much easier than what Villanova has remaining. Xavier has road trips to Georgetown and DePaul left while Villanova still has to go to Creighton and Seton Hall.

That story is still left to be told.

But the simple fact of the matter is that Xavier had a chance to take a two-game lead on Villanova with two weeks left in the regular season and they couldn’t get the job done.

And if they slip up again in their final three games, they may be left wondering ‘what if?’ all over again.