No. 4 Arizona overcomes 19 point deficit, proves defense is how they’ll win games

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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.

NEW YORK — No. 4 Arizona came out like they were more concerned with where they were going to eat Thanksgiving dinner than the Drexel Dragons on Wednesday night.

Thanks to the hot hands of Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat, the Wildcats found themselves in a 27-8 hole 13 minutes into the game. They were 2-for-17 from the floor with six turnovers at that point, finishing without a single assist in the first half. That’s about as ugly as it gets.

“It’s easy to say Arizona was overlooking Drexel but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after the game. The Wildcats knew what they were getting into, and while it took some time, the Wildcats would eventually wake up, cranking up their defense and holding Drexel to just four points over the next 12 minutes of game time. Arizona finally took a 33-31 lead — a 25-4 run — with 15 minutes left in the game. The Dragons fought for as long as they could, but Kaleb Tarczewski was too much in the post and Nick Johnson made a number of big plays down the stretch en route to a well-earned, 66-62 win.

Johnson would finished with 20 points, five boards and four assists while Tarczewski chipped in with 15 points, 13 coming in the second half, and 10 boards. Aaron Gordon added 10 points and 13 boards.

Drexel may not have earned the win, but they sure did provide future opponents with a blueprint as to how to beat Arizona.

The Wildcats are a talented group, but much of that talent manifests itself in length and athleticism. In other words, Arizona’s potential is off the charts, but this is not the most skilled offensive team that we’ve ever seen.

Think about it. Who scares you in a half court set on this roster? Who do the Wildcats give the ball to at the end of a clock? T.J. McConnell is a terrific facilitator and defender, but he’s not a break-down-the-defense kind of point guard. Gordon will be a star one day, but he still has a ways to go to realize that potential. Gabe York is a jump-shooter. Do you run your offense through postmen Brandon Ashely and Tarczewski? As good as Nick Johnson as played this season, he’s more of a secondary option, a complimentary piece, than he is a primary scorer.

And Drexel is one of the toughest, most physical defenses teams that you’ll come across. They control the pace, they control possession in the half court and they make trying to run offense miserable against them. In the first half, Arizona’s offensive rhythm was non-existent, as they finished the half shooting just 6-for-23 from the field. In the second half, the Wildcats started pounding the ball into Tarczewski, who Drexel was guarding 1-on-1, and that began to loosen things up. It also helped that Drexel’s big three — Fouch, Massenat and Damion Lee — cooled off after a sizzling start.

When the Wildcats get themselves into trouble is when they get away from moving the ball and running their offense.

“For the first time I think it was our offense,” Johnson said of Arizona’s struggles in the first half. “We just had to calm down. We know we could play with anyone in the country, just don’t get fancy on offense.”

“We were much more willing too share the ball and pass it [after halftime],” Miller said. “No team is going to function at the highest level when individuals try to force plays.”

As Johnson noted, Arizona had to “stick to their identity”. And for all the hype and attention that Arizona will get this year, their bread and butter will be on the defensive end of the floor. That’s where they will win games. “We have to defend,” Miller said. “We have to be an elite rebounding team.” They just don’t have the offensive weapons that a team like Duke does.

And after getting punched in the mouth for 13 minutes, that’s precisely who Arizona was. All that length and athleticism will look good on the fast break and in Sportscenter highlight packages, but where it will really have an effect on the game is defensively. Nick Johnson is a sensational on-ball defender, and T.J. McConnell isn’t bad himself. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon are both playmakers on that end, while Kaleb Tarczewski is the physical rim-protector and low block presence that can anchor a defense.

Perhaps more impressive is that Arizona has as much lineup versatility as anyone in the country. If they play a team that goes small against them — like, oh I don’t know, Duke? — the Wildcats can go with three guards and put Gordon at the four, or even the five if needed. But against a bigger team? It’s not ideal, but Arizona has used a lineup that featured the 6-foot-9 Gordon and the 6-foot-6 Hollis-Jefferson on the wing with Ashley and Tarczewski up front.

College basketball is all about style of play, matchups and taking advantage of mismatches, and there aren’t many teams that will have a mismatch against the Wildcats.

What’s that mean?

You may be able to stifle Arizona on the offensive end of the floor, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to score on them.

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.

Wichita State set to return Markis McDuffie, Shaq Morris

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Markis McDuffie is returning to Wichita State, according to a report from the Wichita Eagle, meaning that Gregg Marshall’s Shockers will be returning their leading scorer from last season as they make their first foray into the AAC.

McDuffie is a versatile, 6-foot-8 wing that can defend multiple positions and finished the season averaging 11.5 points while shooting 35.5 percent from three.

That isn’t the only good news that Wichita State got this week. Shaquille Morris, a 6-foot-8, 265 pound workhorse on the block, decided that he will be returning to school for his senior season. Throw in the return of Landry Shamet — and, frankly, Marshall’s decision to remain at Wichita State — and the Shockers are going to be the favorite to win the AAC in their first year as a member.

Wichita State returns everyone of relevance from a team that finished 31-5 last season and ended up ranked as the No. 8 team in KenPom, the most respected ranking in college basketball’s analytics business. The Shockers are currently sitting at No. 11 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

2017-18 College Basketball Preseason Top 25

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It’s about that time to release the 2017-18 preseason top 25.

A couple of notes here:

  • Final decisions on NBA Draft decisions won’t be made for more than a month. We’re making educated (some more than others) guesses on who will be doing what.
  • We also make some educated guesses on where some of the remaining uncommitted kids will end up going to school.
  • If there is a * next to a player’s name, it means we’re still waiting for official word on what his status will be next season.

Next season’s top 25 is awful uninspiring. There also isn’t anything close to a clear-cut No. 1 team, not with how much is still left to be determined through NBA Draft decisions, transfers and elite recruits picking a school.

Drop us a line here or @CBTonNBC if you see any names missing.

Here is the top 25:

1. Michigan State

  • Who’s gone: Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis III
  • Who do they add: Jaren Jackson, Xavier Tillman
  • Projected starting lineup: Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward
  • I like this Michigan State team a lot. Nick Ward was a beast last year and Jaren Jackson is the perfect sidekick. Cassius Winston and Josh Langford will both take a step forward. The key, however, is that a potential Player of the Year in Miles Bridges opted to return to school.

2. Arizona

  • Who’s gone: Lauri Markkanen, Kadeem Allen, Kobi Simmons, Chance Comanche
  • Who do they add: Deandre Ayton, Emmanuel Akot*, Brandon Randolph, Ira Lee, Alex Barcello, Dylan Smith
  • Projected starting lineup: Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Deandre Ayton, Dusan Ristic
  • The Wildcats add the most talented big man in the class in Deandre Ayton, as well as Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph. The reason they’re a top five team, however is the return of Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins.

3. North Carolina

  • Who’s gone: Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt
  • Who do they add: Jaleek Felton, Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman, Andrew Platek
  • Projected starting lineup: Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, Luke Maye, Tony Bradley*
  • The Tar Heels are coming off of back-to-back national title game appearances, and while they will lose three key seniors from that team, and probably Justin Jackson as well, there are some important pieces that will likely return. Berry will be a National Player of the Year contender, Tony Bradley will be a breakout star and Luke Maye will move into the starting lineup.

4. Kansas

  • Who’s gone: Frank Mason II, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas
  • Who do they add: Malik Newman, Billy Preston, Marcus Garrett, Sam Cunliffe
  • Projected starting lineup: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk*, Billy Preston, Udoka Azuibuike
  • The Jayhawks are going to have a lot to replace, but they do have some players coming in. If Devonte’ Graham does come back, I think he’ll be a star and all-Big 12 player at the point, and he’ll be joined by a former top 10 prospect in Malik Newman and a current top ten prospect in Billy Preston.

5. Kentucky

  • Who’s gone: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder, Dominique Hawkins
  • Who do they add: Hamidou Diallo*, Quade Green, Kevin Knox,Nick Richards, P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jemarl Baker
  • Projected starting lineup: Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo*, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, Nick Richards
  • Kentucky is a tough team to peg for next season. They should be really good defensively — Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt are elite defenders — and insanely athletic, but it’s going to be another year where we don’t know who shoots it for Kentucky. Adding Knox is big, and if they bring in Mo Bamba as well they’ll have an incredibly young but incredibly talented team.

6. Duke

  • Who’s gone: Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson
  • Who do they add: Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter, Alex O’Connell, Trevon Duval, Jordan Tucker*
  • Projected starting lineup: Trevon Duval, Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter, Marques Bolden
  • Getting Grayson Allen back for his senior year is huge because Duke lost a lot of talent early to the draft, and that doesn’t include missing out on five-star forward Kevin Knox, but landing Trevon Duval is the difference-maker for them. They finally have a point guard to replace Tyus Jones.

7. Miami

  • Who’s gone: Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy
  • Who do they add: Lonnie Walker, Chris Lykes, Deng Gak, Sam Waardenburg
  • Projected starting lineup: Ja’Quan Newton, Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker, Anthony Lawrence, Dewan Huell
  • Losing Reed and Murphy will hurt, but Bruce Brown was one of the best-kept secrets last year, Lonnie Walker is a big-time scorer and Dewan Huell is a former top 30 prospect in line for a big bump in minutes this year. Jim Larrañaga is exactly the coach to take advantage of this guard-heavy lineup, too.

8. Florida

  • Who’s gone: Kasey Hill, Canyon Barry, Justin Leon, Devin Robinson
  • Who do they add: Isaiah Stokes, Egor Koulechov, Chase Johnson, DeAundre Ballard, Michael Okauru, Jalen Hudson, Dontay Bassett
  • Projected starting lineup: Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, Egor Koulechov, Kevarrius Hayes, John Egbunu
  • Coming off of a trip to the Elite 8, the Gators bring back most of their key pieces while adding a talented recruiting class and two players that redshirted last season. Two keys to this team’s ceiling: The health of John Egbunu, who missed the second half of last season, and the development of KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza.

9. Louisville

  • Who’s gone: Mangok Mathiang, David Levitch, Tony Hicks, Jaylen Johnson, Donovan Mitchell
  • Who do they add: Malik Williams, Darius Perry, Jordan Nwora, Lance Thomas
  • Projected starting lineup: Quentin Snider, VJ King, Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud
  • Louisville has a chance to be very, very good next season, particularly now that Deng Adel is back in the mix. If guys like VJ King, Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud take a step forward, the Cardinals might compete for an ACC title. That says a lot this year.

10. Villanova

  • Who’s gone: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds
  • Who do they add: Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillispie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Omari Spellman
  • Projected starting lineup: Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman
  • The Wildcats are going to take a major hit with Josh Hart finally graduating, but the good news is that Jay Wright is still around, as is Jalen Brunson. Omari Spellman getting eligible will help, and I know I’m not the only one that thinks Donte DiVincenzo has a chance to develop into an all-Big East player.

11. Wichita State

  • Who’s gone: No one
  • Who do they add: Samajae Haynes-jones, Asbjorn Midtgaard
  • Projected starting lineup: Landry Shamet, Connor Frankamp, Zach Brown, Markis McDuffie, Shaq Morris
  • The Shockers finished the season ranked in the top ten at KenPom, but ended up with a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament because they struggled to get used to each other early on in the season. With everyone returning from last year’s team, don’t be surprised to see Gregg Marshall’s team as a Final Four contender.

12. West Virginia

  • Who’s gone: Tarik Phillip, Nathan Adrian, Teyvon Myers, Brandon Watkins
  • Who do they add: Derek Culver, Brandon Knapper, D’Angelo Hunter, Teddy Allen, Wesley Harris
  • Projected starting lineup: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., Esa Ahmad, Lamont West, Elijah Macon
  • At this point, I’m just going to assume that Bobby Huggins is going to put a good team on the floor regardless of the situation. The names don’t even matter, although Jevon Carter is back for what feels like his 17th season in college hoops while Esa Ahmad seems primed for a monster year.

13. USC

  • Who’s gone: Charles Buggs
  • Who do they add: Derryck Thornton, Charles O’Bannon, Jordan Usher
  • Projected starting lineup: Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Elijah Stewart, Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu
  • There is a lot of talent on the USC roster for now, especially now that Metu is returning, but the key to this team is going to be whether or not they get Boatwright and Stewart back.

14. Minnesota

  • Who’s gone: Akeem Springs
  • Who do they add: Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris, Davonte Fitzgerald
  • Projected starting lineup: Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Reggie Lynch
  • The Golden Gophers bring everyone back from last season, a year where they were one of the most surprising teams in the country. Minnesota could win the Big Ten.

15. UCLA

  • Who’s gone: Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton
  • Who do they add: LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, Chris Smith
  • Projected starting lineup: Jaylen Hands, Aaron Holiday*, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Thomas Welsh*
  • It’s going to be interesting to see how the Bruins move on from the Lonzo Ball era. It will also be interesting to see how LaVar Ball handles the fact that LiAngelo Ball isn’t Lonzo.

16. Cincinnati

  • Who’s gone: Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson
  • Who do they add: Keith Williams, Trevor Moore, Eliel Nsoseme, Cane Broome
  • Projected starting lineup: Cane Broome, Jarron Cumberland, Jacob Evans, Gary Clark, Kyle Washington
  • The Bearcats return a lot of important pieces from a team that won 30 games last season. Broome averaged 23 points for Sacred Heart as a sophomore.

17. Seton Hall

  • Who’s gone: Madison Jones
  • Who do they add: Myles Cale, Darnell Brodie
  • Projected starting lineup: Khadeen Carrington, Myles Powell, Desi Rodriguez, Ishmael Sanogo, Angel Delgado
  • This is the team that I’m going to probably overhype all offseason. I love this group.

18. Gonzaga

  • Who’s gone: Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Mathews, Zach Collins
  • Who do they add: Jacob Larsen, Zach Norvell, Corey Kispert, Jesse Wade
  • Projected starting lineup: Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams III*, Killian Tillie
  • With Nigel Williams-Goss gone, the key to Gonzaga’s season will be the development of Josh Perkins. Can he play the point full-time and do it successfully?

19. Northwestern

  • Who’s gone: Sanjay Lumpkin, Nathan Taphorn
  • Who do they add: Anthony Gaines, Aaron Falzon, Rapolas Ivanauskas
  • Projected starting lineup: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, Aaron Falzon, Dererk Pardon
  • The Wildcats, a year removed from their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, bring back essentially everyone from last season and get Aaron Falzon healthy. Bryant McIntosh will contend for Big Ten Player of the Year.

20. Alabama

  • Who’s gone: Nick King, Jimmie Taylor, Shannon Hale, Corban Collins
  • Who do they add: Collin Sexton, John Petty, Daniel Giddens
  • Projected starting lineup: Collin Sexton, John Petty, Dazon Ingram, Braxton Key*, Daniel Giddens
  • The Crimson Tide bring back a talented young core and add two five-star guards, including Collin Sexton, who could lead the conference in scoring.

21. Notre Dame

  • Who’s gone: Steve Vasturia, VJ Beachem
  • Who do they add: DJ Harvey, Nikola Djogo
  • Projected starting lineup: Matt Farrell, Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Bonzie Colson, Martinas Geben
  • At this point, I’m fine betting on Brey to have Notre Dame in the mix every year. They’re going to need Rex Pfleuger and Temple Gibbs to take a step forward, but Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell can carry the Irish.

22. Virginia Tech

  • Who’s gone: Seth Allen, Zach LeDay
  • Who do they add: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede
  • Projected starting lineup: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, Chris Clarke, Khadim Sy
  • The Hokies return all five starters from last season despite the fact that the team graduates their top two scorers. A healthy Chris Clarke and Kerry Blackshear will help.

23. Saint Mary’s

  • Who’s gone: Joe Rahon, Dane Pineau
  • Who do they add: Angus Glover, Cullen Neal
  • Projected starting lineup: Jordan Ford, Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner, Jock Landale
  • Losing Rahon will hurt, but with Naar and Landale coming back, the Gaels are going to push Gonzaga in the WCC race once again.

24. Baylor

  • Who’s gone: Ishmail Wainright, Johnathan Motley
  • Who do they add: Mark Vital, Tyson Jolly, Tristan Clark
  • Projected starting lineup: Manu Lecomte, Jake Lindsey, King McClure, Terry Maston, Jo Lual-Acuil
  • Losing Johnathan Motley is a massive blow for the Bears, but there should be enough experience on the roster to keep them in the top 25.

25. Nevada

  • Who’s gone: Cameron Oliver, Marcus Marshall
  • Who do they add: Hallice Cooke, Cody and Caleb Martin, Kendall Stephens
  • Projected starting lineup: Lindsey Drew, Cody Martin, Caleb Martin, Kendall Stephens, Jordan Caroline
  • Even without Oliver, the Wolf Pack look like a team that can make another run in the Mountain West. Jordan Caroline should be MWC Player of the Year.

Deng Adel to return to Louisville

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Deng Adel is withdrawing his name from the NBA Draft and returning to school for his junior season.

A 6-foot-7 wing, Adel was projected as a second round pick at best coming off of a season where he averaged 12.1 points and 4.5 rebounds while starting 30 games.

But Adel did play his best basketball down the stretch, averaging better than 16 points in Louisville’s final six games.

His return was critical for the Cardinals, who lost Donovan Mitchell to the NBA Draft. For a team that struggled to score at times this past season, losing their top two scorers would have been a brutal blow. With Adel back in the fold, Louisville looks like a top ten team that could push for an ACC title.

The Adel news was first reported by FanRag Sports.

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.