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Pac-12 Conference Preview: Will the FBI investigation overshadow a promising season?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 won’t have nearly as much star power this season.

Losing the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks after one season would hurt any league but the Pac-12 is also hurting after only four teams made the 2017 NCAA tournament.

While Arizona remains a national title contender and USC is a darkhorse candidate to do a lot of damage nationally, UCLA and Oregon are building on the fly with a lot of new pieces.

Outside of the four NCAA tournament teams, the league still faces a lot of postseason uncertainty as unproven players and new head coaches are featured throughout the league.

There might not be a superstar like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball but there are still plenty of reasons to stay up late for Pac-12 hoops this season.

Allonzo Trier (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Arizona is in position to make a Final Four (if they can stay focused)

Arizona is going to be one of the most fascinating teams to follow in recent memory this season thanks to a very talented roster and some intriguing off-the-court storylines.

To start with the product on the hardwood, this team is good enough to be in the running for preseason No. 1. Allonzo Trier is back, as the preseason All-American will be counted on to be one of the nation’s premier scorers. The junior guard is good enough to put the Wildcats on his back with dominant scoring stretches against great teams, but he’s also prone to playing hero ball and freezing out his teammates. If Trier can find a healthy balance between the two then he’s a darkhorse Player of the Year candidate.

Trusting teammates shouldn’t be difficult for Trier this season since he has so much talent around him. After a solid freshman campaign that saw him average double-figures, Rawle Alkins is back on the perimeter. Senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright doesn’t put up big numbers but he’s a steady veteran ball-handling presence who can knock down perimeter jumpers.

The interior sees the return of stable senior center Dusan Ristic, an efficient double-figure scorer who doesn’t get enough credit nationally for his post-scoring skill. Energy senior big man Keanu Pinder is back to give a lift off the bench with his high-motor play.

And then there is the incoming freshman class has some ridiculous talent and depth.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

Once considered the No. 1 player in the country, 7-foot center Deandre Ayton is a freak athlete who has surprising touch for a player his size. Think about Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, Greg Oden and DeAndre Jordan. All of those guys can dominate athletically on the interior at 7-feet-tall but none of them have shooting touch outside of the paint. They’re all awful from the free-throw line. Ayton is different in that regard. He has the touch to extend his range to at times knock down three-pointers while also shooting around 80 percent from the charity stripe over a 20-game span in the Nike EYBL.

The huge question with Ayton is his motor. Sometimes Ayton is motivated enough to run through all of the nation’s elite big men (including Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter) at Peach Jam in succession. Other times, he barely shows up and it doesn’t look like he wants to play basketball. Whichever Ayton that Arizona gets could dictate this team’s true ceiling.

Besides Ayton, Miller did a great job of stockpiling the roster with additional depth at multiple spots. Five-star wing Emmanuel Akot is an intriguing athlete at wing forward who could be a boost defensively and on the glass. Brandon Randolph is a 6-foot-6 perimeter threat with a beautiful-looking jumper who might provide much-needed floor spacing. Ira Lee is a consensus top-100 prospect who can give energy minutes.

But how will this team fit together? Does Ayton get enough touches to stay consistently hungry to be great? Will any of the other freshmen be good enough to be more than role players?

The on-court questions are riveting enough. Now also factor in that Arizona is also one of four programs who had an assistant coach — Emmanuel “Book” Richardson — arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into bribery in college recruiting practices. The Wildcats just lost a five-star point guard for next year, Jahvon Quinerly, in recruiting. Clearly, this isn’t an issue that is going away anytime soon and the Wildcats will have to get used to hearing about it for the foreseeable future. How they handle all of the off-the-court drama – especially with five freshmen – could determine their season.

We went deep on Arizona’s prospects this season here.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview
Chimezie Metu (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

2. USC is absolutely loaded

One of the teams to watch out west this season will be USC as the Trojans return a ton of talent from a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament. Six players return who made at least 18 starts last season, including the senior backcourt of point guard Jordan McLaughlin and shooting guard Elijah Stewart.

The duo can both shoot, they’re comfortable with head coach Andy Enfield’s system and they’re a major part of a very balanced roster. Up front the Trojans get even scarier. Junior forward Chimezie Metu was one of the nation’s prominent breakout players last season as he’s a great athlete on both ends of the floor. After missing half the year, junior Bennie Boatwright provides floor spacing and rebounding at 6-foot-10.

Sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton is a valuable defender and glue guy and junior wing Shaqquan Aaron started 20 games last season. USC’s wealth of backcourt riches continues with sophomore Jonah Mathews.

The newcomers USC adds also gives them that extra boost to be a national player this season. It didn’t work out at Duke for point guard Derryck Thornton, but after sitting out a transfer season, he is a valuable guard to have in the rotation as he provides steady ball handling and perimeter defense.

McDonald’s All-American wing Charles O’Bannon Jr. also joins the Trojans, going across town from where his father starred in Westwood. The younger O’Bannon gives USC another potential wing scorer and perimeter shooter as they’ll be deep on the wing and on the perimeter.

Frontcourt depth could be a concern for USC. The Trojans can go to a lot of small-ball lineups if needed but there isn’t a lot of dependable size outside of Metu and Boatwright. Sophomore Nick Rakocevic played some solid minutes but he can also be inconsistent. Freshmen like Jordan Usher and 6-foot-11 Victor Uyaelunmo are also unproven.

If this group can stay healthy and get a lift from the new guys then the Trojans should have all the pieces in place to make a run at the second weekend.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Jordan McLaughlin (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

3. UCLA has a lot of new faces (and a new Ball brother) on a talented team

There are reasons to pay attention to UCLA this season but the Bruins won’t be nearly as engrossing as the Lonzo Ball-led group of last season.

For one, Lonzo is with the Lakers now. The Bruins still have a Ball brother — freshman LiAngelo, the middle of the three brothers — but he’s a shooting guard who hasn’t displayed nearly as much promise as his older brother. More on him in a minute.

UCLA loses a lot but there is also a lot to like. Senior big man Thomas Welsh is back manning the middle as he’s a consistent double-double threat who can provide spurts of really good offense. Junior guard Aaron Holiday is back after being arguably the nation’s best player off the bench last season. A tenacious defender who can play on or off the ball, Holiday could have a huge year now that he’ll be the team’s most experience perimeter player.

And, once again, head coach Steve Alford has a top-flight recruiting class coming into Westwood. LiAngelo, a three-star prospect, might actually be the lowest-rated member of the six-man group. Point guard Jaylen Hands and 6-foot-8 wing Kris Wilkes are both very athletic McDonald’s All-Americans who should be counted on to produce right away.

Hands doesn’t play with the unselfishness of Lonzo by pushing the ball ahead with the pass, but he’s a very aggressive downhill guard. If Hands can show a workable perimeter jumper then he should still be a major boost to a UCLA offense that wants to continue to play fast. Wilkes can be electric on the wing in the open floor and he has the type of scoring prowess to be a double-figure guy from day one. If frontcourt freshmen like Cody Riley and Jalen Hill can give Welsh some help then UCLA should remain stable in the frontcourt as well.

But the big question for this team (besides the obvious one of replacing Lonzo at point) might actually be perimeter shooting. The Bruins should be adequate. They were elite last season.

Lonzo, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton all made at least 74 triples last season — with the first two on that list both being at least 41 percent. T.J. Leaf was a stretch option who nailed 46 percent of his three-pointers. This year’s UCLA team brings back a solid 41 percent three-point shooter in Holiday but they’re actually going to need LiAngelo to come through and be a floor spacer to have an offense nearly as capable as last season.

And that doesn’t even factor in how many easy looks UCLA got last year by having unselfish floor leaders who loved to move the ball. Lonzo’s unselfishness could be contagious. Hands can be a scoring guard who will sometimes set up others but he hasn’t necessarily shown an ability to get others easy looks on a regular basis.

UCLA still has a high ceiling and a bevy of young talent. They’ll put up a lot of points on some nights, and this year’s team might actually be more athletic on the perimeter. But it’ll be nearly impossible to replace the nightly magic last year’s Bruins seemed to produce on the way to a Sweet 16.

This team should be fascinating.

RELATEDACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series
Steve Alford (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

4. Oregon needs its newcomers to be productive

Coming off of last season’s Final Four appearance things will be dramatically different at Oregon this year. Five double-figure scorers have departed, along with dependable rotation guard Casey Benson. It’ll be hard to replace the energy of Jordan Bell (arguably the best player in the 2016 NCAA tournament), the versatility of Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks and the scoring ability of Tyler Dorsey.

Payton Pritchard will be a huge key for the Ducks. After a freshman season that saw him play more minutes and with more production than many had probably envisioned, now Pritchard is Oregon’s best returning player from last season’s roster. Likely responsible for running point, Pritchard needs to improve his shooting efficiency and consistency but he’s also capable of getting hot from deep and he’s coming off a strong summer after making the USA U19 World Cup team. Senior forward Roman Sorkin and sophomore Keith Smith are the only two returning players besides Pritchard from last season’s team. The rest of the roster will be based off the play of newcomers.

Transfers will be a huge part of Oregon’s season. New Mexico transfer Elijah Brown enters the backcourt picture and he’s provided production everywhere he’s gone. The major question with Brown is his ability to play intelligent and winning basketball. McKyle McIntosh was a solid grab from Illinois State as he is a versatile two-way forward who plays with a solid motor. After sitting out most of the last two seasons, Paul White is hoping to remain healthy and help on the interior as he brings a high skill level to Oregon from Georgetown.

Credit head coach Dana Altman for also bringing in a solid group of newcomers as this freshman class should also help. Las Vegas native Troy Brown is a five-star perimeter threat who is versatile enough to play multiple positions with a good degree of skill. The frontcourt should also get some help from 6-foot-7 Abu Kigab, who averaged a double-double for the Canadians during the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer.

Obviously a lot of things need to fall into place for the Ducks but they at least have a known point guard in Pritchard and athleticism and versatility at multiple positions like Altman craves out of his rotation. Oregon needs to find some rim-protecting big men who can eat up minutes on the interior but they should be talented and experienced enough to make it back to the tournament.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Dana Altman (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

5. Will another team step up and make the NCAA tournament? 

For as good as the top teams were in the Pac-12 last season, the rest of the league was pretty dreadful by power conference standards.

Three teams played in the NIT last season, Cal, Colorado and Utah, and all three got hit hard with players leaving the roster. Five teams from the league missed the postseason completely as many of the teams in the conference are still in rebuilding mode.

Perhaps the teams with the best chance at a breakthrough in the Pac-12 this season is Stanford. We know that junior forward Reid Travis is one of the best frontcourt players in the nation while senior Dorian Pickens is a double-figure scorer. But the Cardinal need to be more consistent. Senior big man Michael Humphrey is hit or miss and point guard Robert Cartwright will be pushed if he doesn’t improve his mediocre shooting.

Stanford also has intriguing young talents like four-star prospects Daejon Davis and Kezie Okpala entering the picture. Davis should push for backcourt minutes early as his athleticism is a huge boost while Okpala is an intriguing long-term prospect on the wing at 6-foot-8. Redshirt freshman Kodye Pugh is also one to keep an eye on.

But even with all of that talent, Stanford has been woefully inconsistent when it comes to scoring and perimeter shooting. They need a lot of work in that department to make a run.

Other teams have intriguing parts about them but the giant question marks are just as glaring. Utah has been a consistent presence in the top half of the Pac-12 and David Collette is back but there are holes in other spots. Arizona State and Oregon State both have talent but many of their players are either unproven or coming off of poor showings last season.

It’s hard to say if the Pac-12 can improve and get more than four teams in the 2018 NCAA tournament but nobody outside the top four really stands out at the moment.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Allonzo Trier, Arizona

It was a strange junior year for Trier, as he had to sit out the first 19 games of the season. He had to wait until late January to play and still put up numbers against only Pac-12 and NCAA tournament competition. With a full season of being in a rhythm and knowing his teammates, Trier could be in for a huge junior season as the guard has the ability to take over a game with his scoring.

THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Chimezie Metu, USC: The league’s most improved player last season, Metu is a bouncy double-double threat who is capable of impacting the game above the rim on both ends.
  • Deandre Ayton, Arizona: Ayton could be a dominant one-and-done freshman this season as he’ll be one of the most athletic 7-footers the college game has seen in years.
  • Reid Travis, Stanford: Healthy and thriving, the junior forward was the only Pac-12 player to be in the top five in scoring and rebounding last season.
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC: Overshadowed in a league that featured the top two picks in this year’s draft, McLaughlin has a chance to break the USC career assist record this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Rawle Alkins, Arizona
  • Aaron Holiday, UCLA
  • Bennie Boatwright, USC
  • Thomas Welsh, UCLA
  • Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Aaron Holiday (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Aaron Holiday, UCLA

Overshadowed by Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton a season ago, Holiday could have a huge year during his junior campaign. Even though Holiday saw his minutes decrease as a sophomore, he became a far more efficient shooter as he finished at 48 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three-point range. The interesting thing with Holiday this season could be which role he plays. If he plays more on the ball, then Holiday needs to decrease his turnovers. Off-the-ball, Holiday would need to become one of UCLA’s go-to scorers after the team lost so much firepower.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Sean Miller, Arizona

The Pac-12 doesn’t have a lot of traditional “hot seat” pressure from coaches who need to win to keep their jobs. A different kind of pressure is what Miller is dealing with in Tucson. Since Arizona still has yet to advance to the Final Four under Miller, he will continue to deal with scrutiny if he falls short of the final weekend in March. With a roster talented enough to be considered preseason No. 1 in the country by some, Miller has all of the pieces to make it to San Antonio. But he’ll have to deal with keeping a lot of players who want shots and minutes happy while also handling the black cloud of the FBI investigation looming over his program.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Top teams like Arizona, USC and UCLA show promise but the Pac-12 had another disappointing year for NCAA tournament teams.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the Pac-12 Tournament. Since it moved to Las Vegas it has become one of the must-see college hoops events of the season thanks to an unbelievable atmosphere. And as a bonus, the Pac-12 can’t screw up the schedule like they did with the regular season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/23, Connecticut vs. Oregon (start of PK 80 in Portland)
  • 11/26, Texas A&M at USC
  • 12/5, Arizona vs. Texas A&M (at Phoenix)
  • 12/9, Arizona vs. Alabama
  • 12/16, Cincinnati at UCLA

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Pac12Network

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

POWER RANKINGS

1. Arizona: This team has almost everything they could want to make a run. A senior point guard, a dominant All-American scorer, potentially unstoppable post scoring and depth at multiple spots. The sky is the limit for Arizona this season as they face the immense pressure to win a national title.
2. USC: Backcourts as experienced and deep as USC’s tend to do well in the postseason and not many in the nation will be better than Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart. Coupled with some scary upside in the frontcourt and this is a sleeper pick to make a really deep tournament run.
3. UCLA: UCLA continues to recruit at an elite level and it means they have the potential to have a big season once again. But this group needs to share the ball and continue to shoot at a high level if they want to reach the second weekend like they did last season.
4. Oregon: Interior production could be a key for the Ducks as they’re hopeful some young players can step up and provide minutes. Four-star freshman Victor Bailey is another big-time athlete who should compete for rotation minutes for a team that is still athletic and skilled.
5. Stanford: The Cardinal faltered down the stretch last season but five of the team’s top six scorers are back. Reid Travis is a Player of the Year candidate in the league while Dorian Pickens doesn’t get enough national love. Finding reliable (and healthy) role players around them is key.
6. Utah: The Utes were hit with some offseason departures but senior big man David Collette is back along with some other solid options. Point guard Sedrick Barefield gets a full season to lead and Collette has a lot of depth around him in the frontcourt.
7. Arizona State: Expect the Sun Devils to have one of the better backcourts in the league with three seniors in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. The frontcourt has major question marks as redshirt freshman Romello White and juco rim protector De’Quon Lake should help.
8. Oregon State: The Beavers bottomed out at 1-17 in league play last year as Tres Tinkle was hurt and a young team struggled. The good news is that Tinkle and nearly the entire roster is back. Top-75 recruit Ethan Thompson, a noted perimeter shooter, will be added to the rotation at guard.
9. Colorado: Four starters are gone from a 19-win team as the Buffaloes get a lot of fresh faces. Solid senior George King is back and the freshman class, potentially Tad Boyle’s best during his tenure, could dictate whether Colorado builds for the future or fights for the postseason now.
10. Washington: The Huskies don’t have the lottery pick talent of the past few seasons as Mike Hopkins takes over the beginnings of a rebuild. Junior wing Matisse Thybulle is back after a solid season while junior guard David Crisp can also produce. It’ll be fascinating to see how Hopkins coaches his own team and how much he takes from his time under Jim Boeheim.
11. California: New head coach Wyking Jones has a veteran frontcourt in senior center Kingsley Okoroh and Kentucky transfer forward Marcus Lee (a Perry Ellis All-Star) but the backcourt has giant question marks after nearly everyone left. Seeing if Jones tries to go uptempo while utilizing a full-court press is something to monitor for how Cal wants to play in the future.
12. Washington State: Underrated forward Josh Hawkinson is gone and the Cougars need a lot of new pieces to step up. Sophomore point guard Malachi Flynn showed promise last season as he has a chance to be a breakout player.

Self says he’s “optimistic” about Preston playing for Jayhawks

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There hasn’t been much new good around Lawrence lately with Kansas dropping its last two games, but the Jayhawks apparently have reason for hope.

Kansas coach Bill Self said he is “optimistic” that freshman Billy Preston, who has been held out of competition while the school investigates the financial background of a car he has been driving, will play for the Jayhawks this season, according to the Kansas City Star.

“I think our school has done a great job in creating, getting, all the information that could possibly be pertinent to his situation,” Self said, according to the Star. “The other thing you don’t know … they (NCAA officials) could come back and say, ‘We need more information.’ They could come back and say, ‘OK good to go.’ They could come back and say, ‘No it’s not good to go.’.

“Who knows what the response will be because it will be determined by somebody else. The reality of it is us putting a total package together from every scenario … we’ve done a good job. Hopefully, whatever information that is given to the deciding parties, it’ll be a quick turnaround … but we don’t know that yet either.”

Preston, a top-20 recruit in 2017, has yet to play for the Jayhawks after being suspended for the team’s season opener and then because questions were raised about a car he was driving when he was involved in a single-car accident. The Jayhawks could use the 6-foot-9 Preston in the lineup to help right the ship after these back-to-back losses that have, in part, shown just how thin up front the Jayhawks are.

There is also the possibility that Silvio De Sousa, a 6-foot-9 2018 commit, could enroll this semester.

“There are questions, but the answers will probably take place I would say in the next week to 10 days.”

Former NBA star Mark Price fired by Charlotte

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The college basketball coaching carousel now has three openings just over a month into the season, as Charlotte announced that head coach Mark Price has been “released from his contract.”

“We appreciate all that coach Price has done for our program,” said athletic director Judy Rose. “His background and knowledge were assets to our young players and we appreciate him sharing his talents with our team. This was a difficult decision, especially as we make plans to open conference play, but we do feel it is in the best interest of our basketball program.”

Assistant coach Houston Fancher has been tabbed as the interim coach.

Charlotte is 3-6 this season. Through two and a half years, Price had a record of 30-42 with the 49ers and was 16-20 in Conference USA play.

East Carolina’s Jeff Lebo and UTEP’s Tim Floyd both resigned earlier this season.

College Basketball Futures Watch Part II: Maryland through Seton Hall

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Maryland to Seton Hall.

Let’s get into it.

MARYLAND: Check

The Terrapins don’t lack for young talent, with the sophomore class of Anthony Cowan Jr., Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson being joined by talented freshmen Darry Morsell and Bruno Fernando. But the turnover issues of last season are still present, with Maryland turning the ball over on more than 23 percent of its possessions. Given how tight the Big Ten stands to be in the middle of the conference standings, giving away possessions could be the difference between earning a double-bye in the conference tournament and being in a spot where a team needs to go on a run to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid. Maryland’s been better with the turnovers of late, but I’d like to see this be the case against high-level competition before raising my bet. Also, while none of Maryland’s losses have been particularly “bad,” the losses to St. Bonaventure and Syracuse mean that this team has just one noteworthy non-conference win on its resume (Butler). (Raphielle Johnson)

MIAMI: Bet The Mortgage

I’ve been all-in on Miami since the preseason. I thought they were going to win the ACC before the season started, before they went into Minnesota and sent the Gophers on this mini-spiral, before Duke lost and it became trendy to think that someone other than Duke was the best team in that conference. That was also before I knew that Dewan Huell was going to be as good as he’s been. We saw on Saturday what happens when Duke has to deal with ball-screens, and Jim Larrañaga loves ball-screens and has a roster full of talented, athletic guards that thrive in them. (Rob Dauster)

MICHIGAN: Fold

The Wolverines have not exactly been all that impressive this season. They blew a 20-point lead to Ohio State and lost to LSU in the Maui Invitational opener. The overtime win over UCLA on Saturday and a win at Texas on Tuesday do make me second-guess myself here, but I just have a difficult time projecting much out of a John Beilein-coached team with this many point guard question marks a month into the season. (RD)

MICHIGAN STATE: Bet The Mortgage

The Spartans have only lost to another national contender in Duke the first week of the season. Looking as deep and balanced as any team in the country, Michigan State has five double-figure scorers and a bench full of upperclass veterans. They might break the Big Ten’s title drought. (Scott Phillips)

Jordan Murphy (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

MINNESOTA: Fold

Since nearly blowing a lead while playing three Alabama players, the Golden Gophers have lost three of five games, including bad double-digit losses at Nebraska and Arkansas. For a team that hopes to make a run in March, Minnesota hasn’t shown enough recent consistency against good teams to look like a major threat. Jordan Murphy looks like one of this season’s biggest new stars but Minnesota is in a recent tailspin and the heart of the conference schedule has yet to begin. (SP)

NEVADA: Raise

The Wolf Pack missed out on two quality wins as they dropped close ones to Texas Tech and TCU last week, but this is still the team to beat in the Mountain West. The Martin twins have hit the ground running during their first season on the court after transferring in from NC State, and in Jordan Caroline they’ve got a versatile forward who’s averaging 17.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Purdue transfer Kendall Stephens has shot the ball well from the perimeter, and players such as Josh Hall, Lindsey Drew and Hallice Cooke are all solid contributors as well. UNLV, Boise State and Wyoming are also worth keeping tabs on in the Mountain West, but Eric Musselman’s ability to blend together talented transfers with players who have already been part of the program is what makes Nevada such a threat. (RJ)

NORTH CAROLINA: Check

I had North Carolina down as a raise until I realized that they were ranked No. 7 in both polls. If that’s where they are in the national consciousness, that’s probably fair. I’d argue that’s their ceiling. Remember, we’re talking about a team that is currently getting all-american performances out of Luke Maye on a nightly basis, a team where Maye is the only big man on the roster that isn’t a freshman. If being a top ten team is the baseline we’re working with here, then North Carolina is a check. (RD)

NORTHWESTERN: Fold

Not showing nearly the same focus and intensity as last season’s NCAA tournament team, Northwestern has been sluggish defensively against strong competition. Only owning an overtime home win over Illinois, the Wildcats have fallen to Creighton, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech and Purdue. The next stretch of three non-conference games against DePaul, Valparaiso and Oklahoma are key. (SP)

NOTRE DAME: Raise

Although the Fighting Irish suffered a puzzling home loss to Ball State, there is still reason to be optimistic. Bonzie Colson hasn’t found his touch from the outside and could get hot at any point. Younger role players like Rex Pflueger and D.J. Harvey have room to grow. Notre Dame has a favorable ACC schedule. Notre Dame’s offense is still potent and they have plenty of weapons. (SP)

OKLAHOMA: Raise

The Sooners have Trae Young.

He’s really good.

Bet on the Sooners. (Travis Hines)

OREGON: Check

When it comes to the on-court product, the impulse when it comes to Oregon is to trust that Dana Altman will have it all figured out for conference play and the Ducks will be a Pac-12 contender. Maybe that happens again this season, but thus far the Ducks have largely been a jump-shooting team that struggles when it comes to getting to the foul line (254th in free throw rate). And when you’re shooting just 36.1 percent from three, that could be an issue. Despite the additions of talented offensive options such as Elijah Brown and Troy Brown, Oregon hasn’t been as efficient offensively as past Altman-coached teams have been. And I’d argue that this team doesn’t have as many versatile players who can fill a variety of roles on both ends of the court as past Oregon teams have possessed, either. Don’t give up on Oregon, but don’t be in a hurry to add money to the pot either. (RJ)

Trae Young (Harry How/Getty Images)

PURDUE: Raise

Minus a poor stretch at Battle 4 Atlantis, Purdue has looked like a veteran team with a number of options. Owning quality wins over Arizona, Louisville, Marquette, Maryland and Northwestern, the Boilermakers look like a potentially strong team in a weak Big Ten. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards has blossomed as a scorer and he has weapons like Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas around him. (SP)

RHODE ISLAND: Raise

That win over Seton Hall, which came without the injured E.C. Matthews, will do wonders for URI’s profile as it looks to earn a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The perimeter is deep and talented, even without Matthews, with Jared Terrell, Jeff Dowtin Jr., Jarvis Garrett and an emerging freshman in Darron “Fatts” Russell among the contributors. The front court is the question mark; if Nikola Akele, Cyril Langevine and Andre Berry can provide consistent production the Rams should be able to take care of business in the Atlantic 10 and get back to the NCAA tournament. I’d raise on Dan Hurley’s team, but maybe exercise some caution with the dollar amount until Matthews returns to the court. (RJ)

SAINT MARY’S: Check

This is a good team and the biggest threat to Gonzaga in the race for the WCC title. But here’s the question that arose from those losses to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy: can this group slow down dynamic guards? Malachi Flynn did his thing for Washington State, and in the third-place game Georgia’s Juwan Parker, William Jackson and Tyree Crump all performed well. The Gaels haven’t lost since, taking care of Cal, Sacramento State and Seattle, but that’s to be expected. Emmett Naar and Jock Landale are capable, talented players who will lead the way, and Randy Bennett’s team will once again produce a gaudy win total. But due to the lack of a marquee non-conference win, those games against Gonzaga are of even greater importance to Saint Mary’s. Talent-wise this is an NCAA tournament team, but will the profile be good enough to get Saint Mary’s a good seed as well come March? That’s my concern. (RJ)

SETON HALL: Raise

So here’s the thing about Seton Hall: To date, they’ve been about what I expected them to be entering the season. They look like they may be the best team in the Big East not named Villanova. They are tough. They defend. They are nestled somewhere in the top 15 nationally. But I’m still bullish on the Pirates because their two best players haven’t been their two best players. What does that mean? Well, Angel Delgado was a preseason all-american. Khadeen Carrington was a member of the preseason all-Big East team. Through the first month and change of the season, Desi Rodriguez has been Seton Hall’s all-american and Myles Powell has been an all-Big East player. That’s explainable – Delgado is dealing with double-teams, Carrington is still figuring out the point guard role – but it also means the Pirates haven’t yet reached their ceiling. That’s a good thing. (RD)

Desi Rodriguez (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

VIDEO: Wisconsin beats Western Kentucky on controversial blocking call 90 feet from the hoop

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Wisconsin freshman Brad Davison helped the Badgers sneak past Western Kentucky for an 81-80 win on Wednesday night by drawing a blocking call 90 feet from the basket on an inbounds play with two seconds left.

With the game tied at 80 and the Badgers in the double bonus, the blocking foul on Western Kentucky’s Marek Nelson sent Davison to the free throw line to clinch the game. Davison made the first free throw and purposely missed the second to give Wisconsin the one-point win.

Obviously, some smart coaching from Gard (if he called it) and a good play from Davison to elicit the call from the official. But for Western Kentucky to lose like this? On a call like this? That’s a really poor look from the officials, who could have just as easily called this a charge. Or even better, let the play go and settle for a likely overtime between two tied teams.

That referee’s call, on what’s very close to a non-basketball play, decided Wisconsin’s win over the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury was furious over the call and was hoping the officials could check to see if Davison was out of bounds.

Brunson leads No. 1 Villanova in rout of Temple

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jalen Brunson had 22 of his career-high 31 points in No. 1 Villanova’s dominating first half and Omari Spellman scored 27 to help lead the Wildcats to an 87-67 rout of Temple on Wednesday night.

Donte DiVincenzo added 12 points for Villanova (11-0), which won its unprecedented 22nd straight Big 5 game. The Wildcats last lost a contest in the Philadelphia round-robin series to Temple on Dec. 5, 2012. The Big 5 also consists of La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Penn.

The Wildcats, who moved into the top spot in the rankings for the third straight season this week, looked like the best team in the country in a dominating opening 20 minutes.

With his dad Rick – a former Temple standout and current assistant coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves who played nine seasons in the NBA – sitting two rows behind the Villanova bench, Brunson led the way.

The 6-foot-2 junior point guard made 8 of 10 shots, including 5 of 7 3-pointers, and added four assists while controlling the opening 20 minutes.

The performance surely impressed Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who were among the sellout crowd of 10,206 at Temple.

Quinton Rose scored 27 points for the Owls (6-3), who began the week No. 11 in the RPI rankings. It was the third straight season Temple played Villanova as a No. 1, and the Owls fell to 2-18 all-time against No. 1-ranked opponents.

The Temple student section was fired up in the pregame, hoping to help the Owls end Villanova’s Philadelphia dominance, but the Wildcats gave them little for which to cheer.

The Wildcats scored the first seven points as Temple came out cold, missing its first five shots and committing three turnovers.

And Villanova went from there.

The Wildcats took their biggest lead of the half on DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer that made it 25-5 with 11 minutes left before the break. And the lead reached 20 again on Brunson’s 3-pointer that made it 28-8 44 seconds later.

Temple rallied by scoring the next 13 points over 3 1/2 minutes to pull within 28-21 on Josh Brown’s jumper with 6:45 left before the break.

But Villanova continued making shots and Brunson, appropriately, finished the first-half scoring with a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left that gave the Wildcats a 46-29 lead.

Villanova shot 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from the arc in the opening 20 minutes.

The second half was a mere formality.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats likely will hold the top spot in the rankings for at least another week, as they will take nine days off for exams before returning to the court. They will next play a nonconference game against Hofstra, the program Wildcats coach Jay Wright led before coming to Villanova, on Dec. 22 before beginning Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Temple: The Owls host another Philadelphia school, Drexel, on Saturday and then play at Georgia on Dec. 22 before starting American Conference play on Dec. 28 against Tulane. The Owls will be looking for their 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance and will need a high finish in the conference to get there.

UP NEXT

Villanova: After a break for exams, the Wildcats play Hofstra on Dec. 22 in Uniondale, New York.

Temple: Hosts Drexel on Saturday night.

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