Conference Catchups: Arizona, Oregon lead way in much-improved Pac-12

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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: Kyle Anderson (UCLA)

This was a tough pick, with a number of players in the Pac-12 off to fantastic starts. Jahii Carson (Arizona State) and Roberto Nelson (Oregon State) are two of the players with credible arguments, and there are a few guys who didn’t even make the all-conference list below who also have claims. But the pick here is Anderson, because he’s proven to be the clear answer to that “who will run the point for UCLA” question that many of us asked during the summer. Anderson’s averaging 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game, leading the Bruins in both rebounding and assists (he also leads the conference in assists). Just like the teams themselves, the Player of the Year race is going to be fun to watch unfold in league play.

First Team All-Pac-12:

  • Jahii Carson, Arizona State
  • Nick Johnson, Arizona
  • Roberto Nelson, Oregon State
  • Kyle Anderson, UCLA
  • Jordan Loveridge, Utah

Midseason Coach of the Year: Sean Miller, Arizona

One of the big reasons for the Pac-12’s national resurgence has been the performance of Miller’s Wildcats, who currently sit atop both major national polls. T.J. McConnell’s been as solid as advertised at the point, Brandon Ashley is one of the nation’s most improved players and freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have been key contributors as well. Add in Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski and you’ve got a rotation capable of beating anyone.

Favorite: Arizona Wildcats

Arizona’s still the favorite due to what they’ve accomplished (wins over San Diego State and Duke, and that win at Michigan shouldn’t be discounted either) and what they’re capable of doing down the line. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns, most notably the need for a bench player other than Hollis-Jefferson to emerge and earn consistent playing time. Gabe York’s the most likely option, and his progression could be the difference between simply earning a high NCAA tournament seed and winding up in the Final Four.

And three more contenders:

  • Oregon head coach Dana Altman has once again worked his magic touch when it comes to transfers, with guards Jason Calliste and Joseph Young and forwards Elgin Cook and Mike Moser all off to good starts. Dominic Artis is back, and in senior guard Johnathan Loyd this group has the stable leader needed to win a Pac-12 title.
  • Tad Boyle’s Colorado squad will also be heard from in league play, with guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker being the primary offensive options. Add in a post player in Josh Scott who’s shown marked improvement from a season ago (even if some may not realize it) and the Buffs will a team to be reckoned with.
  • Steve Alford’s first run at UCLA is off to a pretty good start, with sophomores Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams being the best players. And freshman Zach LaVine…he’s good. But keep an eye on the big men when it comes to their hopes of repeating as Pac-12 champs. Tony Parker’s better and the Wear twins have experience, and that will be key when it comes to rebounding.

Most Surprising Team: Utah

Say what you want about the Utes’ strength of schedule (349th per realtimerpi.com), but watch this team play and it’s obvious that Larry Krystkowiak’s team has made strides. Jordan Loveridge is playing in a more comfortable role (and playing weight), and junior college transfer Delon Wright has been outstanding. How well the Utes perform in conference play could come down the painted area, with Dallin Bachynski and Renan Lenz needing to build on the progress made in non-conference play.

Most Disappointing Team: California

Injuries. Only way to put it for the Golden Bears, with Jabari Bird (ankle), Ricky Kreklow (hand) and Richard Solomon (eye) all missing time at various points this season. Solomon’s back on the floor but Bird and Kreklow aren’t resulting in the team still working to find the chemistry needed to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. But with point guard Justin Cobbs leading the way, the Golden Bears will be able to find their way.

Most Important Player (in league play): Jahii Carson, Arizona State

Can Arizona State make a return to the NCAA tournament? They’re certainly headed in the right direction, with the electric Carson being a key reason why. But why can’t Herb Sendek’s team look to achieve more than simply hearing their name called on Selection Sunday? Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall gives them another perimeter scoring option and center Jordan Bachynski is the anchor in the middle. Ultimately how far this team goes depends on Carson, and they could be a Pac-12 dark horse as a result.

Who will slide?: Utah

The Utes open Pac-12 play against Oregon on Thursday night with an 11-1 record, and despite their improved play it’s difficult to see them maintaining that pace. Why? The conference is far better than it has been in recent years, and that center spot is still a question mark of sorts.

Who is the sleeper?: California

Eventually this team will get healthy, with the McDonald’s All-American Bird giving the Golden Bears another perimeter scoring option. And with Cobbs, Solomon, David Kravish and Tyrone Wallace all being double-digit scorers, Mike Montgomery’s team has enough skill to factor into the league title race when healthy. Arizona State and Stanford, which won at UConn earlier this season, are also possible sleepers.

New Power Rankings 

1. Arizona
2. Oregon
3. Colorado
4. UCLA
5. Arizona State
6. Stanford
7. California
8. Utah
9. Oregon State
10. Washington
11. USC
12. Washington State

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jerred Shayok will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Porter, Jr. will ask for Washington release

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There may be an overwhelming assumption on where Michael Porter, Jr. – and his father – will ultimately end up, but the five-star recruit is said publicly that he see his re-recruitment process through.

Porter, Jr. said in a teleconference Wednesday that he will ask for his release from Washington, and his father, a former Huskies assistant, has been offered a job at Missouri by new Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin.

“Right now I’m just trying to take it slow with my family and weigh my options,” Porter Jr. said, according to the Kansas City Star. “I plan to get my (national letter of intent) from Washington back and just go from there, not saying that I’m not going to Washington anymore, but I just want to get it back and weigh my options.”

The prevailing thought has been that the Porters will ultimately land in Columbia, where they have significant history.

Still, it would appear at least publicly that Porter, Jr., a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, will weigh his options in at least the short-term.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.