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Pac-12 contenders look very different now than six weeks ago

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Cinco de Mayo was not kind to basketball programs in the state of Oregon.

It started with Craig Robinson, Oregon State’s now-former head coach and President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law. He was let go in mid-May — which almost never happens — after an offseason that saw the Beavers lose their entire starting lineup to graduation, transfer or the professional ranks. Oregon State will be in full-blown rebuilding mode next season, and that’s not a good sign for a program that just finished a 16-16 campaign and that went 39-69 in the Pac-12 during Robinson’s tenure.

How bad is it in Corvallis?

The situation may be too dire for Ben Howland to want to deal with, and he has made a push for just about every high-major job that has come open this offseason.

And that wasn’t as shocking as what Oregon announced a couple of hours later. Sophomore Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson and freshman Brandon Austin have all been suspended from the Oregon program. They’ll follow Ben Carter and A.J. Lapray out the door, meaning that of the 10 players on Oregon’s roster that were a part of their rotation a season ago, eight are now gone. Only Joseph Young and Elgin Cook are scheduled to return.

The Ducks do bring in a solid class of recruits — headlined by five-star prospect JaQuan Lyle and former top 50 recruit and JuCo center Michael Chandler — but Dana Altman cleaning house will turn what could have been a top 15 team into one that will likely be on the bubble until late in the 2014-2015 season.

Things only get worse when you look at the Pac-12 as a whole:

  • UCLA had a shot to be Arizona’s biggest challenger in the league, but they went 0-for-3 when it came to stars leaving for the NBA Draft. Kyle Anderson was a given — he made no secret about the fact that he was leaving school this year — but losing a Zach LaVine and Jordan Adams is going to hurt. Adams would have been an all-american while LaVine had the potential to be a star at this level.
  • Early entry wasn’t kind to Colorado, either, as Spencer Dinwiddie announced that his career in Boulder is over. The Buffaloes still have a chance to make the tournament in 2015, but they went from being a potential top 15 team to one that is probably closer to the top 40 when they lost their best player.
  • Arizona State was ready for Jahii Carson to go pro, but his departure combined with the graduation of Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall puts the Sun Devils in a hole.
  • Cal saw Mike Montgomery retire, and while new head coach Cuonzo Martin might end up being a perfect fit in Berkeley — especially with his hire of ace recruiter Yanni Hufnagel — a coaching change is never easy when it coincides with the loss of a team’s two best players (Richard Solomon and Justin Cobbs).
  • USC and Washington State both lost their leading scorers, and Wazzu will be replacing head coach Ken Bone.

Arizona is our No. 2 team in the country and the clear favorite in the Pac-12, but after that, things get really murky. Utah looks like they will be good next season as they essentially return their entire team, but this is also a group that couldn’t close out a big win in last season and is just two years removed from winning all of six games in a season.

Stanford returns Chasson Randle, Stefan Nastic and Anthony Brown and has the size to handle the loss of Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis, but we’ve been waiting for the Cardinal to live up to the amount of talent that the program has for a couple of years now.

I say all that to say this: the Pac-12, at the end of the 2014 NCAA tournament, looked like it would end up being one of the stronger conferences in the country.

And while it still could every well produce the 2015 national champion, the last six weeks have yielded quite a talent drain at the top of the conference.

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.