From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.
BROOKLYN — The talk of the ACC heading into the season was the league’s trio of powerhouses.
Duke was going to be a national title contender with Jabari Parker joining Rodney Hood in their front court. North Carolina would be as well, if only they could figure out a way to get P.J. Hairston eligible to play again. Syracuse might take a while to grow into their potential, but once Tyler Ennis develops as a point guard, they would be challenging for a conference title again, just a bit further south this time.
And then there was Notre Dame and their guards.
And Virginia and their defense.
And Maryland and Boston College and Georgia Tech and … have you noticed who’s missing from this list?
It would be wrong to say that the Pittsburgh Panthers entered the season without expectations. You know, because they’re Pitt. They’ve become a perennial NCAA tournament team, one that regularly competed for Big East titles. Anything less than the big dance is unacceptable, and that inherently means that the Panthers have expectations each and every year. They’ll tell you that.
But the Panthers didn’t have any hype this season. There was no talk amongst the media prognosticators of Pitt being a group that could finished in the top four of the ACC let alone a potential title contender.
Might it be time to reevaluate that?
It’s early, I know, but after a dominating, 76-53 win over Texas Tech in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, the Panthers are now sitting at 5-0 with five convincing wins. They still haven’t beaten anyone of note, and we should have a much better feel for how good this team is after tomorrow night’s final. But here’s the thing to remember: Pitt may be the only ACC team that’s trending in the right direction right now.
Duke’s winning games and scoring a ton of points, but this is easily the worst defensive team that Coach K has ever had in Durham. North Carolina’s got a nice win over then-No. 3 Louisville on their resume, but they still don’t have Hairston and McDonald back. Syracuse is undefeated, but they certainly haven’t been impressive in a number of those wins. Virginia loss to VCU at home looks worst with the Rams’ performance in Puerto Rico. Notre Dame got drubbed by Indiana State at home. Boston College is 2-4.
That leaves Pitt, a team chock full of grizzled veterans that win with their typical grit and grime, defending and executing offense.
“We’re an unselfish team,” senior Lamar Patterson said after going for 23 points, four assists and five steals. “We’re not one of those schools that goes out and gets highly-touted people that come in and leave early. We have people that have chemistry from being around each other so long.”
That’s not going to change.
That’s how Pitt wins games, and they’re going to continue to win games. They don’t have the same level of talent as some of the ACC favorites, and thus they don’t have the same ceiling.
But think about this: the No. 1 ACC team in KenPom’s rankings is Pitt.
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah will play rival BYU in basketball again in 2017 in a game that will end a “cooling off period” Utah demanded due to events at recent games.
Utah said in a news release Thursday that the two schools have agreed to play in 2017 at BYU. The school’s athletic directors are talking about scheduling future games.
The decision to cancel the rivalry upset BYU and ignited a controversy that lit up sports talk radio and triggered legislators to order a state audit of Utah athletics. The game had been played every year since 1909 except for during World War II.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said in January that the rivalry had become a “venomous and toxic environment.” BYU guard Nick Emery was ejected from December’s game for punching Utah’s Brandon Taylor.
Looking Forward: Defense will help Arizona sort out loaded rotation
The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs.
After going on a two-year run in which they went 67-9, won two Pac-12 regular season titles and made two Elite Eight appearances, Arizona took a step back in 2015-16. Sean Miller’s Wildcats saw their grip on the Pac-12 loosen, with Oregon taking advantage, and their NCAA tournament stay was a short one thanks to a tough Wichita State team. Many programs would sign up for a season that included 25 wins despite injuries to freshmen Ray Smith (torn ACL) and Allonzo Trier (broken hand).
But Arizona isn’t your “run of the mill” program, which is a testament not only to what the retired Lute Olson accomplished during his time in Tucson but to what Sean Miller’s managed to do as well. Since his arrival Miller’s pumped new life into the program, with Arizona racking up highly regarded recruiting classes and the wins to match.
All that’s missing from his time at Arizona is a trip to the Final Four, an accomplishment Arizona hasn’t been able to boast since 2001. And after last year’s disappointing finish, Arizona’s work on the recruiting trail in the spring has them in a position where they can get that done. There’s talent, depth and versatility on the roster heading into the 2016-17 season, with some key returnees being joined by one of the nation’s best recruiting classes.
And with that will come an important question for the Wildcats: how will they sort everything out from a rotation standpoint?
Competition within the ranks is hardly a bad thing; “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The same can be said for versatility, which will be another positive trait for Arizona in 2016-17. At first glance the roster has just two players seemingly locked into one specific position: Parker Jackson-Cartwright at point guard and Dusan Ristic at center. Outside of that, Arizona boasts a host of players capable of filling multiple spots based upon the desires of their head coach and the flow of the game.
The front court includes a mobile 7-footer in sophomore Chance Comanche, who managed to earn more consistent appearances down the stretch thanks to his activity on the defensive end of the floor. Newcomers in Lauri Markkanen and Keanu Pinder who can fill multiple roles in the front court, with Markannen’s ability to step out and hit perimeter shots being especially key, and the same can be said of the talented Smith provided there are no lingering effects from his second ACL tear in as many years.
With the injury and the time away from live action Smith will likely have some rust to shake off, but this is something Arizona can work through given their depth. There’s role versatility and this sets up to be a more mobile group defensively as well, which can only help the Wildcats moving forward.
The bigger area for Arizona from an options standpoint is on the perimeter, as they’re loaded with established returnees and high-caliber newcomers. And with the players available, how everything shakes out with regards to roles and minutes that come with them will be very interesting to watch. Trier’s back after a successful freshman season in which he averaged 14.6 points per game and shot 46.6 percent from the field, and with his ability to attack defenses off the dribble he’ll figure prominently in the Arizona rotation again in 2016-17.
Also returning are Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who shared the point guard duties with Allen getting the starting nod thanks in large part to his ability on the defensive end of the floor. Losing Gabe York, who was second on the team in scoring and Arizona’s best three-point shooter a season ago, can’t be overlooked. But with the additions to the program, Arizona can more than account for the production lost there.
Last year Trier was the Wildcat best capable of attacking defenses off the bounce, but even with the relative “lack” of such options Arizona still managed to average 80 points per game and shoot 48 percent from the field. Things will be a bit different in 2016-17, thanks to factors such as the loss of York and Ryan Anderson and the fact that they’ll have more players capable of breaking down opponents off the dribble. Freshmen Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Terrance Ferguson can all create shots via dribble penetration, with Ferguson also being one of the top shooters in the class of 2016.
But could this turn out to be a case of having too much of a good thing? While considered a point guard, Simmons proved to be better at getting himself looks than doing so for others, and Alkins was also considered to be a “ball dominant” guard at the high school level. How will that change at the college level, and how will the pieces fit together within Arizona’s rotation?
These are important questions to address, and how Arizona can do that is on the defensive end of the floor.
After two straight seasons of producing defenses that ranked in the top three in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers (first in 2014, third in 2015), Arizona was ranked 41st in that category last season. After two consecutive seasons of limiting teams to less than 40 percent shooting from the field, Arizona allowed teams to shoot 41.3 percent in 2015-16. Also of concern was the turnover department, with teams committing an average of just 11.4 per game against the Wildcats last season.
By comparison, those two Elite Eight teams managed to force an average of 13.8 turnovers per game in 2013-14 and 12.4 per contest in 2014-15. The pack line defense isn’t one that people would necessarily categorize as a “pressure” system, but one of the strengths for Arizona during those two Elite Eight runs was having athletic options on the wings who can make life difficult for passers and the players looking to receive those passes. That wasn’t the case last season, but it may not be a problem in 2016-17 thanks to the roster additions.
Ferguson’s athleticism is noted above, and he’s also a long-armed player who more than holds his own defensively. Alkins also has the physical tools needed to cause trouble on the wing, which will give Arizona a good shot at playing defense at the level we grew accustomed to seeing them reach.
Physical tools aside, there’s always the “carrot” of playing time to dangle in front of the players. When discussing the adjustment process for freshmen many rush to the offensive end, and that’s understandable to a certain extent. But the biggest adjustment comes on the other end of the floor, and being able to prove that you can defend your position and carry out the team’s defensive game plan.
Arizona will certainly have offensive talent across the board next season. But the reason why they can rebound from last season and possibly reach the Final Four is the fact that some of that talent will make a difference defensively as well.
Looking Forward: The Way-Too-Early 2016-17 Preseason All-American Team
Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: If the Cyclones have any chance of making it back to the NCAA tournament, it’ll be on the shoulders of Morris. The point guard crop this year is loaded. Half-a-dozen guys could be in this spot, but Morris is our pick to be the best of the bunch.
Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen’s role may reduced a bit with Duke’s talented roster, but we’re betting that he’ll still end up being the No. 1 option on the offensive end of the floor.
Josh Hart, Villanova: The best player and leading scorer for the reigning national champ returned to school. The least we could do was show him some love.
Josh Jackson, Kansas: Jackson should match and may better Andrew Wiggins’ numbers (17.1 points) on a Kansas team that is preseason top three, and he’ll do it without the same kind of expectations.
Ivan Rabb, Cal: Rabb was the best NBA prospect to return to school. With Jaylen Brown and Ty Wallace gone, the offense will run through him. Expect a huge season.
SECOND TEAM ALL-AMERICANS
Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble’s sophomore season was derailed by a case of the yips and a team that didn’t fit together all that well. We’re betting on him turning that around.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA: UCLA could be a top five team this year. They could also miss the tournament. Who knows. But if they end up being the former, it will be because Ball had a ridiculous freshman season.
Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Brooks is the best player and the leading returning scorer on a preseason top five team. He may not be the best NBA prospect in the country, but he’s a damn good college player.
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Picking an all-american from Kentucky this season is tough. We’re going to go with Bam, who is the safe pick and could end up averaging a double-double for the Wildcats.
Thomas Bryant, Indiana: Bryant is in essentially the same spot as Rabb. Potential first round pick returns to school, becomes a bigger part of the offense, shines. If he takes a step forward defensively as well he’ll be a first-teamer come March.
THIRD TEAM ALL-AMERICANS
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss averaged 15.6 points and 5.9 assists as a sophomore with Washington and spent a year sitting out at a school that turned Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer into all-americans during a redshirt year.
Mo Watson, Creighton: Watson was criminally underrated last season and now he’ll be paired in a back court with Marcus Foster. The ‘Jays are sneaky-good.
Jayson Tatum, Duke: We took Tatum over Giles because we think Duke will have two all-americans and because we are concerned about the status of Giles’ knees.
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: Bluiett was the leading scorer for Xavier last season and will be back in school after testing the draft waters.
Austin Nichols, Virginia: Nichols is a perfect fit for Virginia’s front court. He’ll be better than Anthony Gill was last season, and Gill was really, really good.
NEW PODCAST: NBA Draft deadline winners and losers
With the change to the NCAA deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA Draft moving from mid-April to May 25, college programs and fan bases across the country anxiously awaited Wednesday night’s deadline for news on players still going through the decision-making process.
With the dust having settled Thursday morning, the NBC Sports College Basketball Talk crew (Rob Dauster, Raphielle Johnson and Scott Phillips) got together to discuss the winners and losers. Among those discussed are Oregon, four Big Ten teams (Indiana, Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin), and USC. It should be noted that Maryland was discussed before news of Justin Jackson’s commitment broke, so their front court looks a little different due to that.
We also touched on our updates to the Top 25, with the Boilermakers making a move up in the rankings, and Marcus Lee’s decision to transfer from Kentucky. As always, you can either click “play” in the Soundcloud player below or listen via iTunes or the Stitcher app. Thanks for listening!
The series between BYU and Utah has been an intense one, with the two programs meeting a total of 257 times with the Cougars holding a slim 129-128 advantage. But after last season’s meeting, a comfortable Utah win mired by the ejection of BYU’s Nick Emery for striking guard Brandon Taylor late in the second half, threatened the future of the series.
Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak wanted to call a halt to things, and sure enough it was announced in January that the Cougars and Runnin’ Utes wouldn’t play each other during the 2016-17 season. But the “break” will only last one season, as Utah announced Thursday that the two teams will meet in Provo during the 2017-18 season.
Athletic director Chris Hill stated in a release that also announced non-conference series with Butler and Xavier set to begin this season that the game will be played in either November or December 2017.
Hopefully the one-year hiatus will be the only hiccup in this series, one that began way back in 1909 and managed to endure changes such as the run of conference realignment that landed Utah in the Pac-12 and BYU in the WCC. As for those games against Butler (November 28) and Xavier (December 10), Utah will host the Bulldogs and visit the Musketeers this season with the return games for both series to be played during the 2017-18 season.
News of the resumption of the BYU/Utah series was first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.