Conference Catchups

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Conference Catchups: Pac-12 takes three ranked teams, led by No. 8 Arizona, into league play

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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.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

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

MIDSEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyrone Wallace, California

Wallace has been outstanding at the point for the Golden Bears, averaging 19.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. One of the most improved players in America Wallace has been asked to do a lot for Cuonzo Martin’s team, especially with Jabari Bird out of the lineup to to injury. And the junior from Bakersfield has delivered, resulting in the Golden Bears entering conference play with a 10-3 record.

THE ALL-PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Wallace
  • Delon Wright, Utah: Wright’s averaging 15.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game for the tenth-ranked Utes.
  • Chasson Randle, Stanford: The senior guard is averaging 18.5 points and 2.6 assists per game for the Cardinal.
  • Joseph Young, Oregon: The Pac-12’s leading scorer, Young is ranked in the top ten in the conference in scoring (19.6 ppg) and assists (4.3 apg; 7th in the conference).
  • Stanley Johnson, Arizona: We’ll give this last spot to the most productive player (14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg; leads team in both) on the league’s best team. But keep an eye on Washington State’s Josh Hawkinson (15.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg), as the conference names ten players to its season-ending team.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. There’s still plenty of room for growth in Tucson. No. 8 Arizona was seen as the class of the Pac-12 entering the season, and they retain that status as conference play begins. However with that being said, there are strides that need to be made both offensively and defensively if they’re to reach the Final Four for the first time under Sean Miller. The Wildcats could stand to become a more consistent perimeter shooting team, with Gabe York, Stanley Johnson and Elliott Pitts factoring into the equation for a team that ranks fourth in the conference in three-point shooting (37.4%).

Also, while good this group isn’t as stout defensively as they were last season with Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon in the fold. In their lone defeat Arizona was attacked relentlessly by UNLV in isolation sets that got Rashad Vaughn and Christian Wood opportunities in one-on-one situations, and the Runnin’ Rebels were successful. That area needs to be tightened up moving forward.

2. Washington’s Robert Upshaw is one of the most impactful transfers in the country. What a difference a change of scenery has made for Upshaw, who has been the interior presence the 21st-ranked Huskies lacked a season ago. The former Fresno State big man is averaging 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and a Pac-12 best 4.6 blocks per game, and his presence allows Lorenzo Romar’s guards apply more pressure on the perimeter. Of course, Washington’s improved depth in the paint has been a factor in their 11-1 start, with Shawn Kemp Jr. playing better basketball and Jernard Jarreau back from a torn ACL. But the addition of Upshaw has had the greatest impact on Washington thus far.

3. Utah is every bit the contender they were expected to be entering the season. Larry Krystkowiak’s tenth-ranked Utes are off to an 10-2 start, and that’s with Jordan Loveridge playing in just five of those games due to a knee injury. Senior point guard Delon Wright has impacted games in a variety of ways this season, and a crop of newcomers led by freshman 7-footer Jakob Poeltl has contributed as well. Now that Loveridge is healthy Utah is at full strength heading into Pac-12 play, and they’re the greatest threat to Arizona when it comes to winning the conference title.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. UCLA’s attempt to overcome a serious lack of depth. Losing Jonah Bolden before the season began really hurt the Bruins, who don’t have a great amount of depth as a result. Seldom-used Wanaah Bail is academically ineligible for the remainder of the season, but the fact that freshmen Thomas Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman need a lot of time to develop puts even more on the shoulders of Kevon Looney and Tony Parker inside. UCLA has more options on the perimeter, but they have to figure out a way in which Bryce Alford, Norman Powell and Isaac Hamilton enjoy a more even distribution of the shot attempts.

2. Whether or not anyone join Arizona/Utah/Washington in the Pac-12 race. There’s certainly room for another team or two to join the mix, but the question is which team(s) is best equipped to do so. Stanford relies on the experienced perimeter tandem of Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown, and Stefan Nastic has been improved in the middle. But how will they account for the loss of freshman Reid Travis? Like UCLA, California has depth issues especially as long as Jabari Bird remains sidelined. And Oregon’s been the best offensive team in the Pac-12 thus far, but the development of 6-foot-10 forward Michael Chandler is something to keep track of due to their lack of interior depth.

3. Colorado looking to rebound from what’s been a disappointing start. The Buffaloes were expected to be one of those teams in the “who can best challenge Arizona” discussion, but things haven’t worked out that way thus far. The main players in the rotation, led by guard Askia Booker and forwards Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott, have plenty of experience playing but for some reason things haven’t clicked in Boulder. Can Colorado find the level of consistency needed to make another trip to the NCAA tournament?

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Five Pac-12 teams get into the NCAA tournament. Right now four teams (Arizona, Utah, Washington and Stanford) would be considered locks for the 68-team field, but who joins them? UCLA, Oregon, California and even Colorado have the talent needed to make a run in conference play and earn a bid. According to RPI Forecast, Cal currently has three Top 50 wins, with the other three teams having two apiece.

2. The Freshman of the Year race is more entertaining than many expected it to be. We’ve already seen some of this in non-conference play, with Utah’s Jakob Poeltl emerging as one of the league’s top freshmen. He’ll be part of a race that many conceded to Stanley Johnson before the season began, with Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, UCLA’s Kevon Looney and USC’s Jordan McLaughlin all players who should find themselves on the league’s all-freshman team come March.

3. Arizona wins the Pac-12, with Utah coming in second and Stanford third. Not making any waves with that prediction, as the Wildcats were picked to win the league back in late October. And while Washington’s off to an excellent start, look for the Cardinal to slip past them by the end of the season.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Arizona, Utah, Stanford, Washington, Oregon
  • NIT: UCLA, California, Colorado, Arizona State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Oregon State, USC, Washington State

Conference USA Conference Catch-up: Can anyone stop Louisiana Tech?

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With more realignment shake-ups in 2014-15, Conference USA is once again a shifting landscape.

Conference USA has had so many members at this point in their history that the USA part of the name seems rather appropriate.

Gone from the league in 2014-15 are East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa — as those three schools move on to the American Athletic Conference — and joining the league from the Sun Belt is Western Kentucky.

So C-USA now stands at 14 members and the top teams look similar to last season.

NCAA Tournament representative Tulsa is out of the picture but Louisiana Tech, UTEP, and Southern Miss — with new head coach Doc Sadler — are looking like the top three teams in the league.

UAB has some talent in place and Middle Tennessee loses a lot from last season’s strong effort. The middle of the pack of Old Dominion, new face Western Kentucky, Charlotte, North Texas and FIU could go a number of different ways while Rice, Marshall, UTSA and Florida Atlantic round out the league.

THREE UP

  • Louisiana Tech: Head coach Mike White opted to stay with the Bulldogs after flirting with the Tennessee job and he gets back two of his top three scorers (Alex Hamilton and Raheem Appleby) and one of the nation’s top assist men in point guard Kenneth Smith. White’s teams at Louisiana Tech have been very deep and balanced and this group should be similar.
  • UTEP: Tim Floyd did a fantastic job of keeping the Miners together in the wake of the FBI scandal last season and with Julian Washburn and Vince Hunter returning — and two new Rivals top 150 recruits — this UTEP team should have plenty of firepower to compete for the top spot in the league.
  • Charlotte: The 49ers were young last season and went through some growing pains in February. But now that many talented pieces return, Charlotte could be poised for a run up the standings. As long as head coach Alan Major returns from his leave this season, the 49ers should be in good shape.

THREE DOWN

  • Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders lost an all-league player in senior forward Sean Jones and there were plenty of other losses to a senior-laden team as well. It will be tough for them to stay with the league’s elite teams this season.
  • Southern Miss: The loss of Donnie Tyndall certainly hurts but Michael Craig, Neil Watson, Daveon Boardingham and Jerrold Brooks were four of the Golden Eagles top five players and they were seniors. That leaves new coach Doc Sadler with a lot of questions entering his first season on the job, but he’s won in the league before at UTEP.
  • Marshall: After back-to-back losing seasons, head coach Tom Herrion was bought out of his contract and the program brought in former player Dan D’Antoni. The 66-year-old D’Antoni is a former NBA assistant under his younger brother Mike but he’s never coached at the Division I level and hasn’t been a head coach above the varsity level in high school. With the team also losing Kareem Canty, the Herd could be in trouble.

FIVE NEW FACES

  • Doc Sadler, Southern Miss:The former head coach at Nebraska, Sadler gives Southern Miss good name recognition and an experienced head coach after the Golden Eagles lost Donnie Tyndall to Tennessee. Sadler is 149-107 in a head coaching career that includes two years at UTEP and Nebraska for six seasons. Sadler has also coached in Conference USA before as the Miners’ head coach in 2005-06.
  • Chris Sandifer and Omega Harris, UTEP: Sandifer is the No. 102 prospect in the country according to Rivals.com and the 6-foot-6 wing could give an immediate scoring punch to UTEP next season thanks to his deep range and athleticism. Harris checks in at No. 149 in the Rivals rankings and the 6-foot-2 guard from Oklahoma was a highly productive guard throughout his high school career.
  • William Lee, UAB:Lee is a big-time athlete at 6-foot-8 and UAB did a nice job to keep this in-state three-star prospect home. Lee threw down a number of highlight-reel dunks in the EYBL with the Alabama Challenge and also rebounded at rim level thanks to his explosive burst off the floor.
  • Derrick Clayton, Western Kentucky: A native of California, Clayton was one of the breakout performers of the high school season in the National Prep Showcase and he could give the Hilltoppers some immediate scoring punch.
  • Dan D’Antoni, Marshall: The 66-year-old Marshall alum is a first-time head coach at the college level after working under his younger brother Mike in the NBA for the better part of the last decade. D’Antoni has only been a head coach at the high school level, but it will be intriguing to see if he incorporates some of his brother’s “seven seconds or less” offensive approach to the college game.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

  1. Louisiana Tech
  2. UTEP
  3. Southern Miss
  4. UAB
  5. Middle Tennessee
  6. Old Dominion
  7. Western Kentucky
  8. Charlotte
  9. North Texas
  10. FIU
  11. Florida Atlantic
  12. UTSA
  13. Rice
  14. Marshall

Mid-Major Catchup: Who are the best teams from outside the top conferences?

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THE ‘ARE THEY STILL MID-MAJORS?’

Gonzaga: The Zags are going to have one of their best teams in recent memory next season, at least on paper. Kevin Pangos is back and healthy, teaming up in the back court with Gary Bell and USC transfer Byron Wesley. The front court will feature Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, seven-foot mountain Przemek Karnowski, Lithuanian star Domantas Sabonis and former Louisville forward Angel Nunez. This group is as talented and as versatile as anyone on the west coast not named Arizona. They will be a borderline top ten team entering the season and should be a contender to reach the Final Four if they can find a way to once again be a consistently good defensive team.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Wichita State: The Shockers may lose Cleanthony Early, but don’t expect this group to suffer too much of a drop next season. Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton will once again be one of the nation’s best back courts, and while Early absence will cost the Shockers an elite level athlete and a matchup nightmare at the four, they should still have enough depth in their front court to be the best team in the Missouri Valley and a top 15 team nationally. Don’t expect another undefeated run from Gregg Marshall’s club, but don’t be surprised if they advance further in the tournament next season than they did last season.

BEST OF THE BEST

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Harvard: If the Crimson are ever going to be a team that makes a run in the NCAA tournament, the 2014-2015 season may be their final chance. Wesley Saunders, Kenyatta Smith, Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis will all be seniors. Siyani Chambers will be a junior. That’s quite a bit of talent and experience for a team in the Ivy League, especially when you consider that the Crimson won a game in the 2013 tournament and led Michigan State late in the second half of the 2014 tournament.

Georgia State: Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter are back for another run, forming one of the nation’s most talented back courts regardless of level. There are going to be some holes to fill along the front line, but if Louisville transfer Kevin Ware gets a waiver to be eligible immediately, the Panthers are looking at winning a second straight Sun Belt conference title.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels lose Stephen Holt, but they should be able to replace him with Stanford transfer Aaron Bright, who will be eligible to play in 2014-2015. Throw in Washington transfer Desmond Simmons and the return of the underrated Brad Waldow, and St. Mary’s will have quite a bit of experienced, high-major talent.

Toledo: The Rockets are coming off of a season where they won the MAC regular season title, but after losing in the conference tournament, they were bounced out in the first round of the NIT. Even with those postseason struggles, they finished the season with a 27-7 record and will return five of their top six players, including star point guard Juice Brown. Toledo will be the favorite to win the always-competitive MAC.

UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos are coming off of a 21-9 season where they will return Alan Williams, one of the nation’s most underrated players. Williams averaged 21.4 points, 11.5 boards and 2.4 blocks a season ago. UCSB also returns the majority of their rotation players, and while the Big West looks like it will be pretty tough at the top next season, the Gauchos should be in the mix for the title.

TEN MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON:

  • Green Bay: The Phoenix lose Alec Brown to graduation, but they return the majority of their rotation players, including star point guard Kiefer Sykes, who is back for his senior season
  • Hofstra: This pick may seem weird on paper, but the Pride have a shot at being the best team in the CAA next year. Juan’ya Green, Brian Bernardi and Ameen Tanksley will all be eligible after transferring in and Joe Mihalich adds a solid recruiting class.
  • Louisiana Tech: Mike White will once again have a team capable of winning Conference USA, as he will bring back most of his rotation, including Alex Hamilton and a healthy Raheem Appleby.
  • Murray State: The Racers won 23 games last season and finished 13-3 in the Ohio Valley despite having a freshman (Cam Payne) lead them in scoring. The better news? Five of their top six players will be back for the 2014-2015 season.
  • Northern Iowa: The Panthers bring back their top six players from last season while adding Wyatt Haus and Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson to the mix.
  • Stephen F. Austin: At this point, you bet on Stephen F. Austin to win, regardless of the situation. They lose three of their top six, but they return their best players — Thomas Walkup — and, most importantly, head coach Brad Underwood.
  • UC Irvine: The Anteaters won 23 games last season and were the Big West champions. The league returns quite a bit of talent next year, but UCI will have four of their top five scorers back, including Mamadou N’Diaye and Luke Nelson, who will both be sophomores.
  • Wofford: The Terriers are coming off of a trip to the NCAA tournament and return their top eight players. Throw in the fact that Davidson is not in the SoCon anymore, and Wofford should enter the season as the favorites to win the league.
  • Yale: The Elis may have lost a part-time starter to an a cappella group, but they will bring back the majority of their rotation, including star forward Justin Sears. Yale has the size and athleticism to allow them to compete with Harvard.

West Coast Conference Catchup: Gonzaga has top 10 talent

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Half of the West Coast Conference qualified for a postseason play this past season with Gonzaga and BYU returning to the NCAA tournament field. Heading into next year, the focus will once again be on Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were one-victory shy of a 30-win season, though, a blowout loss in the Round of 32 and a lack of marquee wins gave critics more than enough ammunition to label the 2013-2014 season as a disappointment.

However, the Zags could find themselves in the top 10 when the preseason is poll is released. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. anchor a back court joined by USC graduate transfer Byron Wesley. Przemek Karnowski had a breakout sophomore season with newcomers such as Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and Arvydas Sabonis’ son, Domantas, filling out the frontline.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Gonzaga has also beefed up its non-conference schedule with matchups on the road against Arizona and UCLA to go along with a highly-anticipated non-conference tilt with SMU, as part of the 24-hour marathon.

While Gonzaga is the clear-cut favorite, the rest of the conference is far less certain. BYU has questions to address, as the Cougars look to make a fourth tournament appearance in five seasons. San Francisco has plenty of returners, but will the loss of several top scorers keep the Dons from surpassing BYU in the standings? Saint Mary’s adds new pieces around its all-conference forward, Pepperdine has some talent and Portland could be the darkhorse with a long list of players coming back.

THREE UP

Gonzaga: The conference’s powerhouse is in for a big 2014-2015 season. Gonzaga has returning talent, adds two impact transfers and welcomes in a recruiting class that includes a pair of four-star commits. Even before Mark Few landed Wesley late last week, his team was projected as a top 20 team.

Portland: The Pilots lost five straight games to end this past season, but did pick up a huge conference win over Gonzaga a month prior to the losing skid. Portland is bringing back most of its rotation, including leading scorer Kevin Bailey and 6-foot-11 big man Thomas van der Mars.

San Francisco: Cole Dickerson, the team’s top scorer, exhausted his eligibility, and last month lost second leading scorer Avry Holmes to transfer. On paper that looks bad, but Rex Walters can combat those losses with core pieces left at his disposal. Kruize Pinkins, Mark Tollefson, Tim Derksen and Matt Glover all logged an average of more than 25 minutes per game last season. In the case of Derksen and Glover, they’ll have the opportunity to step up and fill a void as Holmes did when Cody Doolin left the program after four games.

THREE DOWN

BYU: Tyler Haws is back on campus, giving the Cougars one of the nation’s top scorers. However, guard Matt Carlino transferred to Marquette for his final season, center Eric Mika has left for his LDS mission and Kyle Collingsworth is recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in March. BYU brings in several transfers and adds Jordan Chatman, who has returned from his mission.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels could very well take a step back this upcoming season. Stephen Holt is gone, leaving the back court in the hands of Kerry Carter and two eligible transfers. Brad Waldow does return on the frontline for the Saint Mary’s.

Loyola Marymount: The Lions are coming off a last place finish, and despite the return of Evan Payne it likely won’t get much better in the first year under Mike Dunlap. Anthony Ireland has graduated, and Gabe Levin, who along with Payne made was named to All-WCC freshmen team, transferred out after the season. Also, four-star commit Elijah Stewart was released from his National Letter of Intent. Long-term, LMU is on the upswing, you just might not see it this season.

FIVE NEW FACES

Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley, Gonzaga: The former Kentucky Wildcat joins Przemek Karnowski in the front court while the ex-USC Trojan gives the Zags a scoring option on the wing. Wiltjer is a former McDonald’s All American and a member of Kentucky’s National Title team. Wesley averaged 17.8 points per game as a junior.

Mike Dunlap, Loyola Marymount: Not a new face to LMU, as the alum is returning to the school he played at and served as assistant for five years. He last coached the Charlotte Bobcats during the 2012-2013 season, and was let go after one year . His previous stops as an assistant include Arizona, Oregon, Iowa and St. John’s.

Chase Fischer, BYU: During his sophomore season with Wake Forest in 2012-2013, he shot 42 percent from behind the arc. The transfer guard resumes his career this season in the back court with Tyler Haws. Jamal Aytes can be another impact transfer when he becomes eligible after the fall semester.

Aaron Bright, Saint Mary’s: The graduate transfer rule will allow the former Stanford guard to finish his career without interruption at Saint Mary’s. Bright was the 2012 postseason NIT MVP. He and former Golden Gopher Joe Coleman will be additions to the Gaels back court.

Domantas Sabonis and Josh Perkins, Gonzaga: The two four-star recruits headline a strong recruiting class to add to the returning talent Gonzaga has next season. Sabonis, son of the Hall of Famer Arvydas, is 6-foot-10 power forward who should make an impact on the offensive end. Perkins will add depth to a senior-laden perimeter.

Way-Too-Early Power Rankings

1. Gonzaga
2. San Francisco
3. BYU
4. Portland
5. Saint Mary’s
6. Pepperdine
7. Santa Clara
8. San Diego
9. Loyola Marymount
10. Pacific

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

Missouri Valley Conference Catchup: Who challenges Wichita State?

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The 2013-14 season was one of transition for the Missouri Valley Conference, with the league moving forward following the move of Creighton to the Big East. And while much was expected of current standard-bearer Wichita State in the aftermath of their trip to the Final Four, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected Gregg Marshall’s Shockers to run through their regular season schedule in the manner that they did.

Wichita State ran the table, winning all 34 of their games before the NCAA tournament. And while there were critics who questioned Wichita State’s credentials for much of the season, their 78-76 loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the Round of 32 resulted in many giving the Shockers the respect they felt they deserved all season long. With Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton all returning, the Shockers will once again be the clear favorites to win the Valley despite the loss of Cleanthony Early.

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But who will step forward to challenge Wichita State? That’s an important question for the conference to address, with regards to not just the 2014-15 season but also the campaigns that follow. As a whole the conference’s computer numbers weren’t at the level Valley fans had grown accustomed to, with non-conference play being a big reason why, and that will have to change. And there are some personnel losses that need to be addressed, most notably the aforementioned Early and Jake Odum at Indiana State. But the Valley welcomes some solid newcomers from both the high school and junior college ranks.

The one program that didn’t stock up on the recruiting trail is Northern Iowa, with head coach Ben Jacobson adding just one freshman in point guard Wyatt Lohaus. But that isn’t a major issue for the Panthers due to the fact that their top five scorers, led by forward Seth Tuttle, are back. Does that experience make UNI the biggest threat to Wichita State? That remains to be seen, and Missouri State, Illinois State and even Indiana State will factor into the equation as well.

The discussion of who makes a run at Wichita State is the “obvious” question with regards to the Valley, but it isn’t the most important one. Can the league use Wichita State’s run as the boost needed to take a step forward collectively in 2014-15? That needs to be the case.

THREE UP

Illinois State: Dan Muller’s Redbirds were one of three Valley teams to finish conference play with a 9-9 record, with their regular season ending with a loss to Missouri State in the quarterfinals of Arch Madness. But Illinois State did win two games in the CBI, and the return of leading scorers Daishon Knight (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.2 apg) and Bobby Hunter (10.5, 3.7, 2.4) will help as the Redbirds look to use that as a boost into 2014-15. In total Illinois State returns four of its top six scorers, and the addition of junior college transfer guard Devaughn Akoon-Purcell will help as well.

Evansville: A lot was placed upon the shoulders of prolific scoring guard D.J. Balentine last season and with good reason, as he averaged 22.8 points per game. But for Marty Simmons’ Purple Aces to make a move up the Valley pecking order they needed to find players capable of consistently helping Balentine with the scoring load, and the addition of junior college transfers Taylor Stafford (Eastern Arizona) and Willie Wiley (Vincennes) may be just what the doctor ordered. The 6-foot-1 Stafford averaged 25.0 points per game, and Wiley was a quality front court presence on a team that finished third in the NJCAA tournament. Add in center Egidijus Mockevicius (10.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg), and Evansville could take a step forward in 2014-15.

Northern Iowa: The Panthers have been a formidable program throughout Ben Jacobson’s tenure as head coach, and their 10-8 conference record was good enough for a third-place finish in 2013-14. But UNI finished 16-15 overall, meaning that the Panthers didn’t perform as well as they would have hoped for in non-conference play. With their top five scorers back, led by forward Seth Tuttle (15.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and guard Deon Mitchell (12.1, 2.3, 3.4 apg), UNI has experience on its side and could turn out to be the biggest threat to Wichita State. But the Panthers have to perform better in non-conference play than they did a season ago if they’re to play in a postseason event.

THREE DOWN

Indiana State: In addition to Odum the Sycamores also lost wing Manny Arop (10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and guard Dawon Cummings (9.9, 2.7, 2.3 apg), meaning that head coach Greg Lansing has to account for the loss of three of his top five scorers. Forward Justin Gant and guard Khristian Smith are both double-digit scorers, but the most important player could turn out to be junior college transfer Charles Bennett III. A point guard who’s also capable of scoring (20.8 ppg), Bennett will have every opportunity to grab the reins. Point guard play is the biggest question for Indiana State at this time. But it should be noted that the program has finished in the bottom half of the Valley just once during Lansing’s tenure, so while the Sycamores may fall from its second-place finish of a season ago they may not fall too far down the standings.

Drake: With leading scorers Richard Carter (guard) and Aaron Hawley (guard/forward) out of eligibility, Ray Giacoletti will need to account for the 26.9 points per game those two combined to average in 2013-14. The good news for Drake is that guard Jordan Daniels (10.2 ppg) will be back, and the same can be said for redshirt senior guard Gary Ricks Jr. Ricks played in just eight games before breaking a bone in his foot, and he was averaging 12.2 ppg at the time of the injury. The concern for Drake is their inexperience/lack of depth in the front court, meaning that of their five incoming freshmen power forwards Casey Schlatter and Kory Kuenstling will be important additions. That may lead to lowered expectations from the outside, but Drake finished in a tie for eighth after being picked to finish last in the Valley in the preseason poll.

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson’s Salukis may have finished the season with an overall record of 14-19, but they managed to finish 9-9 in conference play with wing Desmar Jackson (18.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.1 apg) leading the way. Now that Jackson’s gone even more will be asked of guard Anthony Beane Jr., who averaged 14.7 points per game last season. But with Beane being SIU’s lone returning double-digit scorer, who steps forward? The Salukis add a five-member freshman class led by high-scoring guard Deion Lavender, and Illinois transfer Ibby Djimde gives them some size inside. But SIU doesn’t have much depth in the post, and the question regarding scoring options could be a big one if they struggle to address it.

FIVE NEW FACES

Josh Cunningham, Bradley: There were some raised eyebrows when the Morgan Park HS (Chicago, Ill.) product announced his decision to join Geno Ford’s program in late-April, picking Bradley while holding offers from programs such as Creighton, Indiana and St. John’s. A very athletic four-star prospect, Cunningham was also a member of the Mac Irvin Fire grassroots program, playing with the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander. And with leading rebounder Tyshon Pickett having departed, the opportunity to earn significant playing time will be there for Cunningham.

Tevin Glass, Wichita State: Wichita State’s success with junior college prospects is well-documented, with front court players such as Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early enjoying success during Gregg Marshall’s tenure. And with Early having moved on, the arrival of Tevin Glass is an important one for the Shockers. At Northwest Florida State the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 2013-14, shooting 55.1% from the field.

Marcus Marshall, Missouri State*: No Marshall isn’t a new face, as he played in 12 games (11 starts) last season. But the 2013 MVC Freshman of the Year was lost in January to a torn meniscus in his right knee, and Marshall’s return is big for Missouri State given the fact that leading scorer Jamar Gulley is out of eligibility. In those 12 games Marshall averaged 14.3 points per game, shooting 42.6% from the field and 39.6% from three. He’ll likely be asked to lead the way for a team that finished the 2013-14 with a 20-13 record (9-9 MVC).

Charles Bennett III, Indiana State: The now-departed Jake Odum was a first-team All-MVC selection in each of his final two seasons at Indiana State, and he left the school ranked in the top five all-time in scoring (fifth), assists (second), steals (fourth), made free throws (first) and free throw attempts (first). So how will the Sycamores go about accounting for the loss of their outstanding point guard? Enter Bennett, who was an NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American at Lamar State College-Port Arthur last season. Bennett averaged 20.8 points and 2.6 assists per game, and with the Sycamores losing three of their top five scores he’ll need to display that scoring ability as well.

Devaughn Akoon-Purcell, Illinois State: Bennett isn’t the only NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American joining the Valley, with Akoon-Purcell making the trek from Eastern Oklahoma State CC to Illinois State. Last season the 6-foot-4 Akoon-Purcell posted averages of 20.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, shooting 55.5% from the field and 40.6% from three. The Redbirds return two of their top three scorers in guards Daishon Knight and Bobby Hunter, and the arrival of Akoon-Purcell gives Muller another offensive option to work with on the perimeter.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. Wichita State
2. Northern Iowa
3. Illinois State
4. Missouri State
5. Indiana State
6. Evansville
7. Bradley
8. Southern Illinois
9. Loyola
10. Drake