Pac-12 Conference Catchup: Will the league earn six NCAA bids again?

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After some lean years the Pac-12 took some positive steps forward in 2013-14, with regular season champion Arizona leading the charge. Sean Miller’s Wildcats reached the Elite Eight despite losing starting forward Brandon Ashley in early February to a broken bone in his foot, with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky essentially being the difference between a painful conclusion to the season and a trip to the Final Four.

And while the Wildcats will have to account for the early departures of Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson and forward Aaron Gordon, with the latter being a likely lottery selection in next month’s NBA Draft, the program has reached the point where it simply reloads on the recruiting trail.

RELATED: Read through all of our Conference Catchups here

Arizona returns the rest of their rotation, including point guard T.J. McConnell and Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski in the front court, and they add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes. Stanley Johnson is the obvious headliner, but keep an eye on junior college transfer Kadeem Allen as well. With the combination of returnees, newcomers and coaching staff Arizona will once again be the favorite to win the Pac-12. As for the rest of the conference, the view isn’t as clear thanks to a combination of departures and an off-court scandal at Oregon that led to the dismissal of three players.

UCLA, winners of the conference tournament, lost three perimeter players from last season’s Sweet 16 team (Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine) and with the Wear twins gone as well the Bruins will be young in the front court. But they will be talented, with Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh being McDonald’s All-Americans, and Isaac Hamilton will help Norman Powell on the perimeter. Joining UCLA in the race to challenge Arizona are programs such as Stanford, Utah and Colorado with the Cardinal coming off of a Sweet 16 appearance.

As for Oregon the return of Joseph Young and the arrival of JaQuan Lyle will help Dana Altman, but you have to wonder how much of an impact this tumultuous spring will have on the program moving forward. Six Pac-12 teams reached the NCAA tournament last season, and the Pac-12 may very well match that number in 2014-15 with Arizona leading the way.

THREE UP

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Utah: When the Utes first joined the Pac-12 they didn’t have the look of a program capable of competing with the league’s best programs. That isn’t the case now thanks to the hard work Larry Krystkowiak had his staff have put in. Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright are expected to once again lead the way for Utah, which also adds a solid recruiting class that includes forwards Kyle Kuzma (he practiced during the spring semester) and Brekott Chapman. The question for the Utes is how they’ll deal with the expectations, given the fact that they haven’t been in this position as a member of the Pac-12.

Stanford: Last fall the general consensus was that Johnny Dawkins needed to lead the Cardinal to the NCAA tournament in order to remain in Palo Alto. That happened, and after wins over New Mexico and Kansas the question for 2014-15 is what can Stanford do for an encore. Losing Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell in the front court is a big deal, but with Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown leading the way the Cardinal should be an NCAA tournament team again. Stanford brings in one of the conference’s best recruiting classes, led by Reid Travis, and Rosco Allen’s healthy after playing in just one game due to injury. Contender? That’s likely.

USC: Andy Enfield’s first season at USC didn’t go smoothly, with the Trojans winning just two conference games and finishing last in the Pac-12. But what the Trojans have done on the recruiting trail can’t be ignored, with guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart being two of the talented newcomers. USC also adds two transfers in guard Katin Reinhardt (UNLV) and Darion Clark (Charlotte), and the return of rising sophomores Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic will help as well. The Trojans are unlikely to be an NCAA tournament team given their youth, but the talent level has improved. Conference foes better get their licks in now, because it won’t be so easy in the years to come.

THREE DOWN

Oregon: The Ducks incurred some important personnel losses at the end of the 2013-14 season, with Mike Moser and Jason Calliste both out of eligibility. But there was also the dismissal of Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Brandon Austin, and while there may be some debate with regards to the impact on the court this was a bad way to go into the offseason. The Ducks return high-scoring guard Joseph Young and forward Elgin Cook, but a lot will be asked of their newcomers. JaQuan Lyle and Casey Benson will help on the perimeter, but the interior depth could be a concern. Ray Kasongo will be a key figure in this area. Oregon will still have a shot at reaching the NCAA tournament, but there look to be more questions than answers at this time.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils took the step forward they were expected to in 2013-14, reaching the NCAA tournament with Jahii Carson, Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall leading the way. Now Herb Sendek’s program will look to build on that, but with one big problem: all three of those players are gone. Contributors Jonathan Gilling and Shaquielle McKissic return, but a lot will be asked of a seven-member recruiting class that boasts four junior college transfers. The most important of those transfers may be point guard Gerry Blakes given the fact that Carson played 35.4 minutes per game in 2013-14.

UCLA: This has more to do with the production UCLA lost than the players they still have, because the Bruins will be good once again. Four of UCLA’s five newcomers (counting Isaac Hamilton) are front court players, and they’ll add depth to an area that at present time has just Tony Parker and Wanaah Bail. Parker’s shown flashes of the skill that made him one of the best players in the 2012 class; the key heading into his junior season is consistency. Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Norman Powell will have to lead the way on the perimeter, and their productivity will be key. UCLA will be in the mix of contenders, but will they be Arizona’s biggest threat? That isn’t as clear-cut as it was in 2013-14.

FIVE NEW FACES

Stanley Johnson, Arizona: Of the five players Arizona’s added to the program (not counting Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson) it’s Johnson who’s expected to have the biggest impact. He’s a physical wing who can score from anywhere on the floor, and the Mater Dei product will likely slide into the hole left by the departure of Nick Johnson. Stanley’s a tenacious competitor as well, so he’ll be a valuable asset to Sean Miller’s program. If Johnson produces at the level he’s capable of, he can help Arizona at the very least reach the Final Four.

Kevon Looney, UCLA: UCLA’s adding some very good front court players (Thomas Welsh and Jonah Bolden both being four-star prospects) but Looney’s the best of the bunch. The Milwaukee native averaged 27.9 points, 12.7 rebounds and 8.0 blocks per game at Hamilton HS, and he’ll have every opportunity to earn a starring role in the paint for UCLA. The good news for Steve Alford and his staff: Looney’s talented enough to do so, and better yet he brings the consistent effort that’s expected of an elite prospect.

JaQuan Lyle, Oregon: Lyle’s recruitment was an interesting one, with his at one point in time being a verbal commitment to attend Louisville. His final choice of Oregon is a big deal for the Ducks, who lost both Johnathan Loyd and Jason Calliste from their backcourt, not to mention Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis. Joseph Young’s going to need help, and the talented Lyle is capable of providing that assistance. Lyle played at Huntington Prep last year, and his size (6-foot-5) makes for a tough matchup for many opponents.

Cuonzo Martin, California: Martin’s one of three new head coaches in the Pac-12, with Ernie Kent (Washington State) and Wayne Tinkle (Oregon State) being the others. And of the three Martin’s the one with the roster best equipped to make a run at finishing in the top half of the Pac-12 in 2014-15. Jabari Bird, David Kravish, Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace all return for Cal, who will have to account for the losses of point guard Justin Cobbs and center Richard Solomon. And Martin made a big addition to his coaching staff, hiring Yanni Hufnagel as one of his assistants and that will help with the program’s recruiting efforts.

Jernard Jarreau, Washington: Jarreau’s obviously played in the Pac-12, as he saw action in 31 games in 2012-13. But thanks to a torn ACL the New Orleans native played in just one game last season, and his absence was a big deal for a team that lacked front court depth. Jarreau’s return will be big for the Huskies, especially when taking into consideration the graduation of both guard C.J. Wilcox and forward Perris Blackwell. Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw will be key as well, but Jarreau was a player expected to be a quality member of the rotation before getting hurt.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

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

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.