Associated Press

PAC-12 CONFERENCE RESET: League balance should make for fun race

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Pac-12.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jakob Poeltl, Utah

Poeltl made the decision to return to Salt Lake City for his sophomore season, and the strides he’s made in his skill set have been highly impressive. Poeltl’s currently averaging 17.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per contest for the Runnin’ Utes, shooting 71.2 percent from the field. His post moves have more polish, and he’s raised his foul shooting some 20 percentage points from a season ago (64.6 from 44.4 last season).

ALL PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah
  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • Bryce Alford, UCLA
  • Ryan Anderson, Arizona
  • Josh Scott, Colorado

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. There may not be a dominant team, but the Pac-12 doesn’t lack for depth either: In each of the last two seasons Arizona has been the clear class of the conference, winning the regular season title by three games both years. Sean Miller’s team remains the favorite heading into conference play this week, but the gap is much smaller with multiple teams harboring hopes of grabbing the top spot. Oregon is finally approaching full strength health-wise, Utah has the conference’s best player to this point in Poeltl, and neither UCLA nor California lacks for talent. Add in solid starts from teams such as Colorado, Arizona State and Oregon State, and an early surprise in USC, and there’s a lot to choose from in the Pac-12.
  2. California needed time to figure out its rotation: With the return of Tyrone Wallace and the additions of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, it was assumed by many that the Golden Bears would simply hit the ground running and take the Pac-12 by storm. But there was the need for a change in the rotation, as Jabari Bird moved into the sixth man role as Kameron Rooks shook off the rust that came from missing all of last season with a torn ACL. While this may not be the “best five” lineup many envisioned for Cal, with Brown playing the four, the pieces seem to fit better with this setup. Heading into conference play on the heels of their most impressive win of the season, Cal is a team to keep an eye on in the Pac-12 race.
  3. UCLA is at its best when their improved big men see consistent touches: With five players averaging double figures, Steve Alford doesn’t lack for scoring options in Westwood. But at times his guards can get a bit shot happy, thus neglecting to get the ball inside, where UCLA has an advantage over most teams. That hasn’t occurred as often this season, and senior Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh have taken advantage. Parker’s (13.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg) raised his scoring average by two points from a season ago but his rebounding average is up by more than three boards per game. Welsh (12.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has built upon a summer spent winning gold with the United States U19 team at the FIBA World Championships. When the ball goes inside things tend to open up offensively for the Bruins, who have also received improved play from Isaac Hamilton.

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Can Utah get consistent play from the point guard position: The loss of Delon Wright was expected to be a big one; you don’t lose a player of his caliber and not feel some sort of impact. That being said, the guard play for the Runnin’ Utes has been inconsistent thus far. Junior college transfer Lorenzo Bonam is getting a little more comfortable in Larry Krystkowiak’s system, but there are still some strides to be made if he’s to lead this group to the top of the Pac-12. What’s of even greater importance is that they get Brandon Taylor, who has struggled from a consistency standpoint and is shooting just 35.9 percent from the field, back on track.
  2. Will the Kadeem Allen/Parker Jackson-Cartwright PG tandem hold up for Arizona: To this point in the season the two-headed attack has worked, with the notable exception of their loss to Providence at the DirecTV Wooden Legacy (Kris Dunn’s pretty doggone good). Allen’s been the more productive of the two scoring-wise and as a defender, but Jackson-Cartwright has done a better job of taking care of the basketball. Neither will fully replace T.J. McConnell because of what he gave the Wildcats from a leadership standpoint, but that’s OK given some of Arizona’s veterans at other positions. How well this two-man rotation works will have a major impact on Arizona’s Pac-12 title hopes.
  3. How long with it take Oregon to mesh its pieces together once healthy: The Ducks have been navigating injury issues since the season began, with Jordan Bell and Dylan Ennis missing the most time. Now that Ennis is back in the fold Oregon can begin to evaluate certain lineups in hopes of finding the best possible lineups to put on the floor. Casey Benson’s taken care of the ball at the point in Ennis’ absence, but the former Villanova guard gives the Ducks a point guard capable of either scoring or distributing the basketball.

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: UCLA has a 9-4 record, due in part to their lack of consistency. But the Bruins do have a win over Kentucky to their credit, and they’re no shame in losing to the likes of Kansas and North Carolina either. And the losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest aren’t crippling defeats either. Steve Alford’s team gets three of its first five Pac-12 games at home, and the two on the road (the Washington schools this week) are manageable.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: California entered this season with expectations of winning the Pac-12, and that goal remains on the table. But a look at their résumé reveals a lack of marquee wins when it comes to the NCAA tournament selection process. The Golden Bears do have home wins over Saint Mary’s and Davidson to their credit, but losing to San Diego State and missing out on a shot at West Virginia hurt, as did blown leads in the second half and overtime that led to their loss at Virginia. They’ll be fine, but their résumé means that Cal’s margin for error is smaller when it comes to getting an at-large bid.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: This is tough given the head coaching changes made by Pac-12 programs last spring. With that being the case the coach under pressure to get thing done in Pac-12 play may be Lorenzo Romar at Washington, even with the amount of success he’s enjoyed in Seattle. The Huskies haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2011, and with a roster loaded with newcomers ending that streak may prove difficult. What helps is the aforementioned roster, and the landing of an elite guard for next season in Markelle Fultz.

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Arizona: No Kaleb Tarczewski in recent weeks due to an ankle injury, but Dusan Ristic has raised his production with more playing time. Ryan Anderson’s been excellent, and Allonzo Trier’s been a key addition for Sean Miller.
  • 2. Oregon: The Ducks’ issues boil down to one word: injuries. Dylan Ennis is back, giving Dana Altman the full rotation he expected before the season began. Dylan Brooks has improved, and the addition of Chris Boucher has been key for a team that was without Jordan Bell for a significant portion of non-conference play.
  • 3. UCLA: Isaac Hamilton enters conference play on the best stretch of his college career, which is an important development for Steve Alford’s team. The key for the Bruins will be to continue to get Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh paint touches, which in turn opens things up for Hamilton and Bryce Alford.
  • 4. Utah: Poeltl’s been outstanding to this point in the season, but the Runnin’ Utes have to solidify their perimeter rotation. Brandon Taylor’s struggled for much of the season, and Lorenzo Bonam is still working to get fully comfortable in Larry Krystkowiak’s system. Get the guards going, and Utah can be a major player in the league race.
  • 5. California: The Golden Bears may have lost three of the biggest games on their schedule to date (San Diego State, Richmond and Virginia), but that isn’t a reason to give up on Cuonzo Martin’s team. Cal put forth its best performance of the season Monday night in a win over Davidson, and they’ve got a talented roster led by senior guard Tyrone Wallace.

NIT teams

  • 6. Colorado: Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes are off to a good start despite not having the injured Xavier Johnson. Josh Scott’s healthy and playing well in the post, and redshirt sophomore George King’s been the impact player many expected him to be. The combination of talent and Boyle’s coaching chops could push CU even higher up the pecking order.
  • 7. Arizona State: Bobby Hurley was successful in his first season at Buffalo in 2013-14, and he has a group capable of duplicating that. The keys for the Sun Devils: Tra Holder’s continued development, and when leading scorer and rebounder Savon Goodman can return to the floor.
  • 8. Oregon State: The Beavers may be a year away from having expectations of ending their tournament drought, but that does senior guard Gary Payton II no good. And Payton’s good enough to lead Wayne Tinkle’s team, which has some quality freshmen, to the brink.
  • 9. USC: Andy Enfield’s Trojans appeared to be “one year away,” but their performance in non-conference play has raised the team’s confidence. Freshman Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright have been solid contributors, but the biggest key has been a healthy Jordan McLaughlin.

Autobid or bust

  • 10. Stanford: Injuries have been the story for the Cardinal, who lost expected starting point guard Robert Cartwright for the season and Reid Travis being out for the time being as well. Balanced offensively, Johnny Dawkins will need Rosco Allen and Dorian Pickens to be even better than they have been of late.
  • 11. Washington: Young players such as Marquese Chriss have shown promise in non-conference play, but as expected of teams with many newcomers the consistency hasn’t been there. That’s likely to be an issue throughout conference play as well.
  • 12. Washington State: The Cougars have some talented players, most notably one of the Pac-12’s best front court players in junior Josh Hawkinson. But they’re the lone Pac-12 team outside of the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency, which could be an issue in conference play.

No. 19 Wichita State upends No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — Dave Stallworth was running the show the last time Wichita State beat a Top 5 team on the road. Landry Shamet took the lead as the Shockers did it again 54 years later.

This one, too, will be a reference point, given all that was at stake.

Shamet scored 19 points, and No. 19 Wichita State ended the nation’s longest home-court winning streak, beating No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72 on Sunday to leave the American Athletic Conference race wide open.

The Shockers (21-5, 11-3) beat a Top 5 team on the road for the first time since 1964. They led most of the way, building an 11-point lead midway through the second half and holding on. Shaquille Morris’ dunk with 5 seconds left finished it off.

The Shockers ran onto the floor for congratulatory chest bumps. Coach Gregg Marshall got a celebratory dunking in the locker room, leaving his light-colored shirt clinging to him.

“It’s tremendous,” Marshall said. “Look at my shirt. College basketball has such tremendous parity. The games are decided by great players making great plays. Landry is a tremendous player.”

The Bearcats (23-4, 12-2) had won their last 39 home games. In their first real home challenge of the season, they wound up playing catch-up and coming up short. Cincinnati hasn’t beaten a ranked team all season, falling to 0-3 with losses to Xavier and Florida.

Cincinnati and Wichita State were expected to contend for the title in the Shockers’ first season in the AAC. Wichita State gave itself a chance with a solid all-around game led by its point guard. Shamet had 16 points in the first half, when the Shockers shredded the nation’s second-ranked defense to take control.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was bothered by his team’s “gross, mind-boggling defensive breakdowns,” including allowing the Shockers to get open for those two late layups. Wichita State shot 53 percent from the field, getting open 3-pointers in the first half and layups in the second half.

“We’re just not in a good place right now,” Cronin said. “I hadn’t slept much. We’re not in a good place for a lot of reasons.”

Wichita State closes the regular season by hosting Cincinnati on March 4. Houston (21-5, 11-3) also is in the running for the league title after beating Temple on Sunday.

The Shockers hit seven of eight shots during a 17-3 run that gave them a 34-23 lead. Cincinnati responded by turning up its full-court defense, forcing three quick turnovers, and going on a run that cut the deficit to 42-40 at halftime.

The Shockers showed a little defense of their own, forcing five turnovers while rebuilding their lead to 59-48 with 11 minutes left, matching its biggest of the game. Cincinnati closed to 72-70 on Trevon Scott’s dunk with 13 seconds left, but the Shockers scored on a pair of inbound passes by Landry, the last a full-court heave to Morris for a dunk that provided the final margin.

“This is what we do,” said Austin Reaves, who made the first of the two decisive layups. “We stick together on the road.”

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers needed a win to maintain their chances of a regular season title, and they got it with another good showing on the road. The Shockers are the most successful road team in the nation over the past five years at 47-8, including 7-2 this season.

“This is like our 50th red-out or white-out or black-out,” Marshall said. “We feel comfortable when that happens.”

Cincinnati: The Bearcats moved into the Top 5 even though they hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season. Losses at Houston and at home to Wichita State left them prepared for a plummet.

“As it gets later in the season, every team is better,” said Jacob Evans III, who had 16 points. “It’s not the beginning of conference or the season. Every team knows us well. We’ve got to be able to go to second options when they take away the first ones.”

NO LONGER A SWEET HOME

The Bearcats hadn’t lost at home since a 77-70 defeat against Temple on Dec. 29, 2015. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season and were 13-0 at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena, where they’re playing this season while their on-campus arena is renovated.

LONG TIME NO SEE

The Shockers and Bearcats played regularly as members of the Missouri Valley Conference from 1958-70, but it was their first game since 1981.

TOP 5 HISTORY

It was only the fourth time the Shockers have beaten a Top 5 team on the road. They beat No. 5 Oklahoma A&M in 1954 and topped No. 3 Loyola in 1963 and again in 1964 behind Stallworth.

TOUGH WEEKEND IN CINCY

Cincinnati had two teams in the Top 5, and both of them lost at home over the weekend. No. 4 Xavier lost to No. 3 Villanova 95-79 on Saturday at Cintas Center.cincinnati

Andy Kennedy resigns from Ole Miss effective immediately

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Andy Kennedy announced that, effective immediately, he will be stepping down as the head coach at Ole Miss. Tony Madlock will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

The reason is simple: Kennedy wanted to “relieve any external pressure being felt by our current players” and he did not believe that last week’s announcement that this would be his final season in Oxford accomplished that.

“It has become readily apparent to me that my continued presence as the head coach is proving detrimental to these players finishing the season in a fashion that is representative of The Standard for this program that has been clearly established and maintained for over a decade,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Yherefore, I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest that I exit my role as head coach effective immediately. We all know that “clean breaks” are always best, and I should have realized this last Monday. My apologies.”

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost by 17 points at Mississippi State. That came two days after Kennedy went viral for a brutally honest criticism of what his team was going through.

“I can’t get to them,” he said. “I can’t reach them.”

It’s sad that this is the way that it had to end for the best basketball coach that Ole Miss has ever had. But it had to be done.

No. 12 Duke beats No. 11 Clemson as defensive resurgence continues

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Grayson Allen finished with 19 points, four assists and four steals, scoring 17 of his points in the first half, and Wendell Carter added 15 points, 10 boards and three blocks as No. 12 Duke won their fourth straight game without Marvin Bagley III, 66-57.

No. 11 Clemson was short-handed as well, and that’s something that needs to be noted. Not only are they playing without Donte Grantham, who tore his ACL earlier this year, but Shelton Mitchell was not in the lineup after suffering a nasty concussion at Florida State on Wednesday.

The Tigers were a No. 3 seed when the bracket reveal occurred last Sunday, but like Ohio State and Oklahoma, they have now lost back-to-back games; 11 of the top 16 teams have lost a game in the last week.

But the story here more than anything is Duke.

Yes, Allen finished with 19 points and continues to play well without Bagley on the floor. Getting him into a rhythm is critically important for this team. He was averaging 14.7 points in 24 games with Bagley. He is averaging 22.3 points in the last three games that Bagley has missed, and that does not include the 37-point outburst he had when Bagley went down with an injury against Michigan State.

Coach K also has had a chance to develop some confidence in his bench. Javin DeLaurier had 10 boards on Sunday. Marques Bolden didn’t play a done of minutes, but he still finished with five points, three boards and a pair of blocks. He was, generally speaking, a positive influence on the game.

But here is the most important and perplexing nugget: Duke, for the third straight game, was excellent defensively. They’ve now allowed fewer than 1.0 points-per-possession in each of the last three games. They are clearly not the same time offensively without Bagley’s presence on the floor, but it is impossible to ignore what they have been defensively in the last 10 days without him.

To put it into context: For all the talk about how much of a problem Duke’s defense has been, the Blue Devils are now ranked 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They were 79th after they lost to North Carolina, the last game that Bagley played. Villanova, who many believe is the best team in the country when healthy, is 42nd.

The question we need to ask is whether or not that will continue once Bagley makes his return.

Because the only thing standing between Duke and a Final Four is their inability to defend.

No. 8 Ohio State falls at No. 22 Michigan, Michigan State moves into first in Big Ten

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After all of the drama and the speculation about whether or not Ohio State or Purdue was the best team in the Big Ten, water has seemingly found its level.

On Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, No. 8 Ohio State lost their second straight game, falling 74-62 at No. 22 Michigan and allowing No. 2 Michigan State — who had one of college basketball’s greatest comebacks on Saturday at Northwestern — to slide into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with just one week left of the regular season.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 17 points while Jordan Poole added 15 off the bench in the win.

The Wolverines did a good job of slowing down Ohio State’s all-american forward, Keita Bates-Diop. KBD finished with 17 points and seven boards, but he shot just 5-for-17 from the floor. Jae-Sean Tate led the way with 20 points and 15 boards for the Buckeyes.

There was a special moment before this game even started as Austin Hatch, a two-time survivor of plane crashes that killed his entire immediate family, took part in the team’s Senior Day.

VIDEO: Michigan celebrates plane crash survivor Austin Hatch’s Senior Day

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If you don’t know the story of Michigan senior Austin Hatch, you should.

He’s survived two plane crashes in his life. The first, in 2003, robbed him of his mother, 11-year old sister and five-year old brother. In 2011, to celebrate his commitment to the Wolverines, Hatch’s father flew them up to the family’s vacation home, but the plane crashed into a garage killing Hatch’s dad and his stepmom and leaving Austin critically injured.

He had a severe brain trauma, a punctured lung, broken ribs and a broken collarbone, and in order to manage the swelling in his brain, he was put into a medically-induced coma for eight months.

He managed to return and even played for the Wolverines during the 2014-15 season, but he eventually made the decision to retire from basketball at the end of the year. He did, however, remain a part of the program and on Sunday, during Michigan’s Senior Day, he warmed up with the team and was introduced to the crowd as a starter and no, I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying: