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Conference Catchups: Three-team race in the SEC?

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Jordan Clarkson, Missouri

Much was expected of the Tulsa transfer and thus far Clarkson has delivered, as he leads the SEC in scoring (19.9 ppg) and ranks second in the conference in assists (4.3 apg). And from an efficiency standpoint Clarkson ranks third in the amongst players with a possession percentage of at least 24% when it comes to offensive rating, according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Clarkson’s one of the big reasons why the Tigers are 10-1 heading into their game at N.C. State on Saturday.

All-SEC First Team:

  • Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
  • Jordan McRae, Tennessee
  • Jabari Brown, Missouri
  • Casey Prather, Florida
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky

Midseason Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan, Florida

Despite a roster in flux due to injuries and disciplinary issues the Gators are 9-2 and ranked 13th nationally. That says quite a bit about the coaching job that Donovan’s done to this point in the season, and Florida looks to be rounding into form just ahead of the start of SEC play. And the addition of McDonald’s All American forward Chris Walker will help Florida when it comes to their front court depth.

Favorite: Florida Gators

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Kentucky was the prohibitive favorite entering the season, and given the amount of talent at John Calipari’s disposal it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Wildcats ended up being that team come March. But the pick here is Florida, a team that’s getting all of its parts in order and is the lone SEC team that ranks in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Point guards Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin are healthy, as is forward Will Yeguete, and in Casey Prather the Gators have one of the most improved players in the country. The addition of Chris Walker will only help matters, and they have enough talent to take things slowly with the freshman.

And three more contenders: 

  • It wouldn’t be wise to rule out Kentucky, with their stable of talented freshmen being supplemented by sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. Two keys for the Wildcats moving forward: the emergence of a team leader (or leaders), and the aggression of Alex Poythress. Poythress clearly has skill, but he has to bring the intensity on a consistent basis in order to help this team.
  • The perimeter tandem of Clarkson and Jabari Brown has led the way for Missouri, and for that reason the Tigers should be considered when discussing the top teams in the SEC. They can use another bench contributor or two, especially in the paint, but this is a group that will be a factor.
  • LSU may be the dark horse, with Johnny O’Bryant III leading four players scoring in double figures. Freshman Jordan Mickey has been very productive for the Bayou Bengals, and classmate Jarell Martin has the skill needed to have a greater impact when conference play begins.

Most Surprising Team: Arkansas

Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks have been more balanced and efficient offensively this season, with four players averaging at least 10.4 points per game and two others averaging at least 7.6 ppg. Alandise Harris and Bobby Portis have been good additions inside, and leading scorer Michael Qualls has raised his scoring average by almost ten points per game (14.1 ppg after averaging 4.6 ppg in 2012-13).

Most Disappointing Team: Kentucky

This one’s tough, because young teams need time to mesh and understand roles both on the court and in the locker room. But when you entertain preseason chatter about the possibility of going 40-0, the bar gets raised. The Wildcats have played a difficult schedule to date, so a couple losses were to be expected. The most disappointing thing at this stage in the season is that leaders have yet to emerge. That has to happen if Kentucky is to reach its full potential this season.

Most Important Player (in league play): Andrew Harrison, Kentucky

Kentucky’s lack of a definitive leader at this point means that the starting point guard, Harrison, will be their most important player in conference play. Harrison does rank fifth in the SEC in assists (3.5 apg), but that’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to being a team leader. If he can grab the reins and ensure that everyone’s headed in the same (and proper) direction, Kentucky can win the national title.

Who will slide?: Tennessee

The Volunteers’ best attribute thus far has their ability to hit the offensive glass, as they rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (43.0%). That has masked their shooting issues, as Tennessee is shooting just 31.4% from beyond the arc on the season. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes can be a load inside, but how will they fare against the more athletic front courts of the SEC? That, along with perimeter shooting, could be a concern come January.

Who is the sleeper?: LSU

Johnny Jones has a team more than capable of getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, and given the status of the SEC why can’t they make a run? LSU has plenty of talent, and their guards (especially Anthony Hickey) can get after teams on the defensive end of the floor. They’ve been tested in non-conference play as well, with their two losses coming to UMass and Memphis. If there’s any team outside of the Florida/Kentucky/Missouri triumvirate capable of surprising people it’s LSU.

New Power Rankings

1. Florida
2. Kentucky
3. Missouri
4. LSU
5. Tennessee
6. Arkansas
7. Ole Miss
8. Alabama
9. Vanderbilt
10. Texas A&M
11. Mississippi State
12. South Carolina
13. Georgia
14. Auburn

UNC’s Roy Williams recovering from knee replacement surgery

JACKSONVILLE, FL - MARCH 19:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts on the bench against the Harvard Crimson during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Roy Williams is recovering from knee replacement surgery.

In an email Friday, athletics spokesman Steve Kirschner says Williams is “resting comfortably” after the procedure on his right knee performed by Dr. Walt Beaver in Charlotte. Kirschner says there’s no exact recovery timetable but Williams is expected to be on the road for July recruiting “as usual.”

The 65-year-old Williams had procedures on both knees last year but experienced discomfort during the season as the Tar Heels won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles before losing in the NCAA title game on a last-second shot to Villanova.

A week later, Williams said he was considering surgery options for a “bone-on-bone” condition and noted: “I’ve got to be able to move around.”

Utah to play rival BYU in basketball again in 2017

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 2: Nate Austin #33 of the Brigham Young Cougars and Jakob Poeltl #42 of the Utah Utes try for the ball in the second half of the Utes 83-75 win at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on December 2, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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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

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats reacts in the first half against the Wichita State Shockers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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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. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind let’s take a look at Arizona, an elite program that reloads with designs on erasing the bad memories of last year’s first round NCAA tournament exit. 

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.

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 30: Terrance Ferguson #6 of the East  team goes up for a dunk against the West team during the 2016 McDonalds's All American Game on March 30, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Terrance Ferguson (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

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

Duke’s Grayson Allen, center, handles the ball as Long Beach State’s Nick Faust, left, and Long Beach State’s Noah Blackwell (3) defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. Duke won 103-81. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
(AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
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With the NBA Draft’s Early Entry process coming to a close on Wednesday evening, we finally have a concrete idea of what college basketball is going to look like in 2016-17.

That’s why we were able to give you an early Preseason Top 25.

And that’s why we were able to go through and breakdown each of the seven major conferences for you.

     RELATED: Big Ten | AAC | SEC | Pac 12

Now?

Here’s an early look at what a Preseason All-American team will look like:

     RELATED: Big 12 | ACC | A-10 | Big East

FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • 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.
Oregon forward Elgin Cook, from left, forward Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey react after a play against Washington during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 men's tournament Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Las Vegas. Oregon won 83-77. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Oregon forward Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey (AP Photo/John Locher)

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.
East forward Jayson Tatum, from Chaminade in St. Louis dunks against the West team during the McDonald's All-American boys basketball game, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in Chicago. The West won 114-107. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Jayson Tatum (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

NEW PODCAST: NBA Draft deadline winners and losers

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
AP Photo/Matt Hazlett
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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!