Looking Forward

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Looking Forward: Defense will help Arizona sort out loaded rotation

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind let’s take a look at Arizona, an elite program that reloads with designs on erasing the bad memories of last year’s first round NCAA tournament exit. 

After going on a two-year run in which they went 67-9, won two Pac-12 regular season titles and made two Elite Eight appearances, Arizona took a step back in 2015-16. Sean Miller’s Wildcats saw their grip on the Pac-12 loosen, with Oregon taking advantage, and their NCAA tournament stay was a short one thanks to a tough Wichita State team. Many programs would sign up for a season that included 25 wins despite injuries to freshmen Ray Smith (torn ACL) and Allonzo Trier (broken hand).

But Arizona isn’t your “run of the mill” program, which is a testament not only to what the retired Lute Olson accomplished during his time in Tucson but to what Sean Miller’s managed to do as well. Since his arrival Miller’s pumped new life into the program, with Arizona racking up highly regarded recruiting classes and the wins to match.

All that’s missing from his time at Arizona is a trip to the Final Four, an accomplishment Arizona hasn’t been able to boast since 2001. And after last year’s disappointing finish, Arizona’s work on the recruiting trail in the spring has them in a position where they can get that done. There’s talent, depth and versatility on the roster heading into the 2016-17 season, with some key returnees being joined by one of the nation’s best recruiting classes.

And with that will come an important question for the Wildcats: how will they sort everything out from a rotation standpoint?

Competition within the ranks is hardly a bad thing; “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The same can be said for versatility, which will be another positive trait for Arizona in 2016-17. At first glance the roster has just two players seemingly locked into one specific position: Parker Jackson-Cartwright at point guard and Dusan Ristic at center. Outside of that, Arizona boasts a host of players capable of filling multiple spots based upon the desires of their head coach and the flow of the game.

The front court includes a mobile 7-footer in sophomore Chance Comanche, who managed to earn more consistent appearances down the stretch thanks to his activity on the defensive end of the floor. Newcomers in Lauri Markkanen and Keanu Pinder who can fill multiple roles in the front court, with Markannen’s ability to step out and hit perimeter shots being especially key, and the same can be said of the talented Smith provided there are no lingering effects from his second ACL tear in as many years.

With the injury and the time away from live action Smith will likely have some rust to shake off, but this is something Arizona can work through given their depth. There’s role versatility and this sets up to be a more mobile group defensively as well, which can only help the Wildcats moving forward.

The bigger area for Arizona from an options standpoint is on the perimeter, as they’re loaded with established returnees and high-caliber newcomers. And with the players available, how everything shakes out with regards to roles and minutes that come with them will be very interesting to watch. Trier’s back after a successful freshman season in which he averaged 14.6 points per game and shot 46.6 percent from the field, and with his ability to attack defenses off the dribble he’ll figure prominently in the Arizona rotation again in 2016-17.

Also returning are Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who shared the point guard duties with Allen getting the starting nod thanks in large part to his ability on the defensive end of the floor. Losing Gabe York, who was second on the team in scoring and Arizona’s best three-point shooter a season ago, can’t be overlooked. But with the additions to the program, Arizona can more than account for the production lost there.

Last year Trier was the Wildcat best capable of attacking defenses off the bounce, but even with the relative “lack” of such options Arizona still managed to average 80 points per game and shoot 48 percent from the field. Things will be a bit different in 2016-17, thanks to factors such as the loss of York and Ryan Anderson and the fact that they’ll have more players capable of breaking down opponents off the dribble. Freshmen Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Terrance Ferguson can all create shots via dribble penetration, with Ferguson also being one of the top shooters in the class of 2016.

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 30: Terrance Ferguson #6 of the East  team goes up for a dunk against the West team during the 2016 McDonalds's All American Game on March 30, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Terrance Ferguson (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

But could this turn out to be a case of having too much of a good thing? While considered a point guard, Simmons proved to be better at getting himself looks than doing so for others, and Alkins was also considered to be a “ball dominant” guard at the high school level. How will that change at the college level, and how will the pieces fit together within Arizona’s rotation?

These are important questions to address, and how Arizona can do that is on the defensive end of the floor.

After two straight seasons of producing defenses that ranked in the top three in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers (first in 2014, third in 2015), Arizona was ranked 41st in that category last season. After two consecutive seasons of limiting teams to less than 40 percent shooting from the field, Arizona allowed teams to shoot 41.3 percent in 2015-16. Also of concern was the turnover department, with teams committing an average of just 11.4 per game against the Wildcats last season.

By comparison, those two Elite Eight teams managed to force an average of 13.8 turnovers per game in 2013-14 and 12.4 per contest in 2014-15. The pack line defense isn’t one that people would necessarily categorize as a “pressure” system, but one of the strengths for Arizona during those two Elite Eight runs was having athletic options on the wings who can make life difficult for passers and the players looking to receive those passes. That wasn’t the case last season, but it may not be a problem in 2016-17 thanks to the roster additions.

Ferguson’s athleticism is noted above, and he’s also a long-armed player who more than holds his own defensively. Alkins also has the physical tools needed to cause trouble on the wing, which will give Arizona a good shot at playing defense at the level we grew accustomed to seeing them reach.

Physical tools aside, there’s always the “carrot” of playing time to dangle in front of the players. When discussing the adjustment process for freshmen many rush to the offensive end, and that’s understandable to a certain extent. But the biggest adjustment comes on the other end of the floor, and being able to prove that you can defend your position and carry out the team’s defensive game plan.

Arizona will certainly have offensive talent across the board next season. But the reason why they can rebound from last season and possibly reach the Final Four is the fact that some of that talent will make a difference defensively as well.

Looking Forward: The Way-Too-Early 2016-17 Preseason All-American Team

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With the NBA Draft’s Early Entry process coming to a close on Wednesday evening, we finally have a concrete idea of what college basketball is going to look like in 2016-17.

That’s why we were able to give you an early Preseason Top 25.

And that’s why we were able to go through and breakdown each of the seven major conferences for you.

     RELATED: Big Ten | AAC | SEC | Pac 12

Now?

Here’s an early look at what a Preseason All-American team will look like:

     RELATED: Big 12 | ACC | A-10 | Big East

FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: If the Cyclones have any chance of making it back to the NCAA tournament, it’ll be on the shoulders of Morris. The point guard crop this year is loaded. Half-a-dozen guys could be in this spot, but Morris is our pick to be the best of the bunch.
  • Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen’s role may reduced a bit with Duke’s talented roster, but we’re betting that he’ll still end up being the No. 1 option on the offensive end of the floor.
  • Josh Hart, Villanova: The best player and leading scorer for the reigning national champ returned to school. The least we could do was show him some love.
  • Josh Jackson, Kansas: Jackson should match and may better Andrew Wiggins’ numbers (17.1 points) on a Kansas team that is preseason top three, and he’ll do it without the same kind of expectations.
  • Ivan Rabb, Cal: Rabb was the best NBA prospect to return to school. With Jaylen Brown and Ty Wallace gone, the offense will run through him. Expect a huge season.

SECOND TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble’s sophomore season was derailed by a case of the yips and a team that didn’t fit together all that well. We’re betting on him turning that around.
  • Lonzo Ball, UCLA: UCLA could be a top five team this year. They could also miss the tournament. Who knows. But if they end up being the former, it will be because Ball had a ridiculous freshman season.
  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Brooks is the best player and the leading returning scorer on a preseason top five team. He may not be the best NBA prospect in the country, but he’s a damn good college player.
  • Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Picking an all-american from Kentucky this season is tough. We’re going to go with Bam, who is the safe pick and could end up averaging a double-double for the Wildcats.
  • Thomas Bryant, Indiana: Bryant is in essentially the same spot as Rabb. Potential first round pick returns to school, becomes a bigger part of the offense, shines. If he takes a step forward defensively as well he’ll be a first-teamer come March.
Oregon forward Elgin Cook, from left, forward Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey react after a play against Washington during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 men's tournament Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Las Vegas. Oregon won 83-77. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Oregon forward Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey (AP Photo/John Locher)

THIRD TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss averaged 15.6 points and 5.9 assists as a sophomore with Washington and spent a year sitting out at a school that turned Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer into all-americans during a redshirt year.
  • Mo Watson, Creighton: Watson was criminally underrated last season and now he’ll be paired in a back court with Marcus Foster. The ‘Jays are sneaky-good.
  • Jayson Tatum, Duke: We took Tatum over Giles because we think Duke will have two all-americans and because we are concerned about the status of Giles’ knees.
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: Bluiett was the leading scorer for Xavier last season and will be back in school after testing the draft waters.
  • Austin Nichols, Virginia: Nichols is a perfect fit for Virginia’s front court. He’ll be better than Anthony Gill was last season, and Gill was really, really good.
East forward Jayson Tatum, from Chaminade in St. Louis dunks against the West team during the McDonald's All-American boys basketball game, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in Chicago. The West won 114-107. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Jayson Tatum (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Looking Forward: Here’s what the Pac-12 has in store for 2016-17

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Pac-12 over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. The returns of Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey make Oregon the early favorites: Losing two quality contributors in Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin will have an impact on Dana Altman’s Ducks, but by no means will Oregon fall off after winning the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earning the program’s first-ever one seed last season. With Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey withdrawing from the NBA Draft, the Ducks have the depth and talent needed to repeat (or even exceed) last year’s achievements. Brooks will be an early favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year, and options such as Dorsey, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell and Casey Benson will be heard from as well. Add in a recruiting class that includes Kavell Bigby-Williams, Payton Pritchard and M.J. Cage, and Oregon has enough to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1939.

2. Arizona reloads…and is absolutely loaded on the perimeter: There were some who wondered just how good of a class Arizona would be able to put together, as they landed just one commitment during the early signing period. But Sean Miller never panicked, and we all saw why in the spring. The Wildcats reeled in three high-level guards in Kobi Simmons, Terrance Ferguson and Rawle Alkins, and they also grabbed juco transfer Keanu Pinder and four-year transfers Talbott Denny (Lipscomb; eligible immediately) and Dylan Smith (UNC Asheville; will sit out next season). That early signee (Lauri Markannen) is a highly regarded prospect in his own right, and the return of Allonzo Trier provides a boost as well. With the amount of talent on this roster, Arizona can win a third Pac-12 regular season title in the last four seasons.

3. Needing to bounce back, UCLA welcomes a highly regarded freshman class: UCLA also cleaned up on the recruiting trail, but unlike Arizona the Bruins are looking to bounce back from a year in which they finished below .500. That won’t fly in Westwood, where the only banners that hang are those of the national title variety (and they have 11 of those), so the pressure’s on Steve Alford and company to make things right. What helps is that point guard Lonzo Ball and stretch forward T.J. Leaf can both be immediate impact players, and Ike Anigbogu can help them defensively in the post. UCLA’s returnees, most notably Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh, should benefit from these additions.

4. Oregon State, USC look to build on last season’s success: Of the seven Pac-12 team to reach the NCAA tournament, the Beavers (since 1990) and Trojans (since 2011) had gone the longest without an NCAA appearance. Neither stayed long, but getting to the Big Dance represented an important step forward for the two programs. The question facing both Wayne Tinkle and Andy Enfield: how do they ensure that their programs continue to make positive strides? Oregon State has to account for the loss of do-everything guard Gary Payton II, but their personnel losses pale in comparison to a USC team that bids farewell to both Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic. There’s still talent for Enfield to work with, but the task became a little tougher thanks to those two NBA decisions.

NOTABLE NEWCOMERS

  • Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, UCLA: Not to overlook Ike Anigbogu and Kobe Paras, but Ball and Leaf are the marquee names in UCLA’s 2016 recruiting class. Ball is one of the nation’s best point guards (and players, period), and his arrival should make things easier for the Bruins offensively. As for Leaf, he’s a skilled forward who can score from just about anywhere on the court.
  • Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz’s recruiting story is one that’s been told many times over, as through hard work the DeMatha Catholic guard went from a member of the JV team to a McDonald’s All-American in two years. With the Huskies losing Andrew Andrews and Dejounte Murray from their perimeter rotation, Fultz will have to have an immediate impact if the Huskies are to move up the Pac-12 standings.
  • Arizona’s loaded freshman class: Of Arizona’s seven newcomers four are freshmen, with three (Rawle Alkins, Terrance Ferguson and Kobi Simmons) being five-star perimeter prospects. And power forward Lauri Markannen is also a highly regarded prospect. The additions should make for an interesting (and talented) mix, and how Sean Miller allocates minutes on the perimeter will be fun to observe as well.
  • Kavell Bigby-Williams, Oregon: Last year it was Chris Boucher who arrived in Eugene as a highly regarded junior college transfer, and he had a major impact on a team that won the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles. This time around it’s Bigby-Williams who arrives via junior college, giving Oregon additional front court depth alongside Boucher, Jordan Bell and freshman M.J. Cage. And after blocking nearly six shots per game last season, Bigby-Williams can make scoring around the basket on the Ducks even tougher than it was a season ago.
  • JaQuori McLaughlin, Oregon State: McLaughlin is expected to be an impact addition for Oregon State this season, as the Beavers look to account for the loss of Gary Payton II. What changes things is the transfer of Derrick Bruce, who appeared to be in line for a noticeable increase in minutes after serving as the sixth man as a freshman. His departure puts even more on the shoulders of McLaughlin, who along with senior Malcolm Duvivier appear to be the answers at the point for Oregon State.
  • Shannon Evans and Sam Cunliffe, Arizona State: Landing Romello White gave Arizona State a nice late recruiting boost, as he joins a class that was already good thanks to the presence of Cunliffe. A top 40 recruit according to Rivals.com, the Washington native has the skills needed to make an immediate impact in Tempe. Add in Evans, who was a standout on head coach Bobby Hurley’s NCAA tournament team at Buffalo in 2014-15, and the Sun Devils have two perimeter newcomers who can make some waves in the Pac-12 next year.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, USC: Had these two decided to return for their senior seasons, the Trojans had the skill and experience needed to possibly contend in the Pac-12. But with both leaving for the professional ranks, Andy Enfield and his staff have two noticeable holes in the starting lineup to fill. The cupboard certainly isn’t bare, thanks to the combination of remaining pieces and newcomers, but these losses definitely hurt.
  • Derrick Bruce, Oregon State: As noted above Bruce was in line to earn a greater role in 2016-17 due to Gary Payton II’s departure, so his decision to transfer caught some by surprise. The loss of Bruce means that the aforementioned tandem of JaQuori McLaughlin and Malcolm Duvivier will likely be the guys Wayne Tinkle looks to at the point.
  • Brekkott Chapman, Utah: With the departures of Jordan Loveridge and Jakob Poeltl, Chapman was expected to play a key role for the Runnin’ Utes in 2016-17. Well, he decided that a change of scenery was needed, leaving Larry Krystkowiak with another hole in his front court rotation to fill. Utah did pick up a couple late front court commitments, and rising junior Kyle Kuzma is back as well, so this is a decision they should be able to manage.
  • Dejounte Murray, Washington: Murray was one of two Washington freshmen to make the move to the NBA, with forward Marquese Chriss being the other. But while Chriss’ draft prospects have improved throughout the spring, Murray’s possibilities haven’t been as easy to pinpoint. His departure leaves Lorenzo Romar with another backcourt contributor to replace, joining the graduated Andrew Andrews, but Markelle Fultz will help mitigate the impact of Murray’s departure.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Jerod Haase, Stanford: There was only one head coaching change in the Pac-12 this offseason, with Jerod Haase replacing Johnny Dawkins on The Farm. Haase racked up 80 wins in four seasons at UAB, with his third season including a win over Iowa State in the NCAA tournament, before deciding to return to the state he grew up in. The cupboard isn’t bare in Palo Alto either, with Marcus Allen, Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis among the players returning. The key for the Cardinal: stay healthy. Stanford was hit hard by injuries last season, including expected starting point guard Robert Cartwright being lost to a broken arm before the season began, which did them no favors in the Pac-12. This was a good hire for Stanford, and the resources are there for Haase to get the Cardinal back to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

F Dillon Brooks, Oregon (Player of the Year)
G Lonzo Ball, UCLA
G Terrance Ferguson, Arizona
G Allonzo Trier, Arizona
F Ivan Rabb, California

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS, IN TWEETS

1. Oregon: The Ducks lost Cook and Benjamin, but with Brooks and Boucher leading a deeper roster they can be even better in ’16 – ’17.
2. Arizona: Sean Miller won’t lack for talented options on the perimeter, so expect the Wildcats to bounce back.
3. UCLA: The Bruins will be good, but how good they are will ultimately depend on their commitment on defense.
4. California: Rabb’s return helps, and with their perimeter options Cal could be more fluid offensively next year.
5. USC: The Trojans return some key pieces, led by Jordan McLaughlin, but losing Jacobs and Jovanovic hurts.
6. Colorado: The Josh Scott era comes to an end, but George King and Xavier Johnson will help with the adjustment.
7. Utah: The loss of Poeltl and some key seniors hurts, but Kuzma, Bonam and Jayce Johnson are all on board.
8. Oregon State: OSU can make a 2nd straight tourney trip, but the point guard spot is an early concern.
9. Washington: With the arrival of Markelle Fultz and last year’s group a year older, this spot could prove low.
10. Arizona State: The Sun Devils brought in some talented newcomers, but they may be a year away in the Pac-12.
11. Stanford: Back to full strength after an injury-riddled ’15 -’16, but no Rosco Allen hurts offensively.
12. Washington State: They’ll have an all-conference caliber player in Josh Hawkinson, but it’ll be a struggle.

Looking Forward: Kentucky’s success and the victims it’s made them

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Kentucky and why “expectations” can be a fickle beast.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jeff Borzello of ESPN.com turned himself into persona non grata in the Bluegrass State as he penned a column that ranked Kentucky as college basketball’s biggest underachiever over the course of the last four seasons.

Full disclosure: He has text messages from me telling him to rank Kentucky first on that list. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing Borzello’s mentions get bombarded with hate from Big Blue Nation. There’s nothing I love more than being able to quote poet laureate DJ Khaled when talking with him: “Congratulations! You played yourself.”

But … I also kind of think that he’s got a point. At the very least, I can put together a pretty convincing argument saying as much.

Look at it from a year-by-year perspective:

  • In 2013, the Wildcats were the reigning national champions having landed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class headlined by the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Nerlens Noel. There are a myriad of reasons why the season went the way it did — Ryan Harrow was a headcase, Noel tore his ACL, the pieces were never going to fit together — but the Wildcats ended up in the NIT. There’s no way around it: that season was an utter disappointment.
  • The following year was the first time that the “Kentucky 40-0” train kicked into motion. The Wildcats landed five five-stars recruits — Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, etc. — and proceeded to flop their way all the way to 10 regular season losses and an eight-seed in the NCAA tournament. They got hot in the tournament and played their way to the national title game, but I’d we have to consider that season “underachieving”. The regular season still matters, doesn’t it?
  • In 2015, they won their first 38 games. They were the best team I’ve seen since I’ve been in this business. But they lost in the Final Four to Wisconsin. If you’re one of the people that says 2014’s postseason run wipes away their regular season struggles, shouldn’t you consider 2015 a failure because an undefeated team didn’t, you know, stay undefeated? For the sake of this argument, you can’t have it both ways. Either the regular season matters or NCAA tournament results are the be-all and end-all.
  • This past season, the Wildcats were a preseason top five team and ended the year as a No. 4 seed that couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the tournament. Again, there are reasons for it — Skal Labissiere’s struggles being the main culprit — but based on all of our preseason expectations, Kentucky underachieved.
  • In total, they’ve won one SEC regular season title outright, a share of another SEC regular season title, two SEC tournament titles and reached two Final Fours while missing one tournament outright.

Now, reasonable minds can disagree here, and trust me, I understand the absurdity in labeling a team that’s put together that résumé as an underachiever, but I just cannot see how anyone makes the argument that they have lived up to expectations since winning the 2012 national title.

Because the key word there is “expectations”.

Success in sports — hell, success in life in general — is all relative. Chris Beard got two different high major jobs this spring because he made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in his first year at Arkansas-Little Rock. There are people that think Bill Self is overrated as a head coach because he’s only been able to get to two Final Fours and win one national title while spending the last dozen years as the reigning Big 12 regular season champion.

And what John Calipari did with that 2012 title is turn his program into college basketball’s ultimate pressure cooker.

That title changed the way that college basketball works at the highest level. Once Coach Cal proved that it was possible to win a ring by starting over with a new crop of freshmen every year, the idea that he needed time to work through the kinks of building a team around a bunch of 19-year-olds became obsolete. If he could do it with that group, what’s stopping him from doing it this year?

The fact that the title came in the middle of a five-year run where the Wildcats reached four Final Fours set a baseline standard for what is expected out of his Kentucky teams. Anything short of playing during the season’s final weekend is a disappointment in the eyes of the media and anything short of inching closer to UCLA’s record 11 national titles means that the season was a wash in the eyes of many Kentucky fans.

When greatness is the baseline, anything short of that feels like an underachievement, even if “underachieving” is now making it to the Final Four as an eight-seed or winning a share of the SEC title while exiting in the first weekend of the tournament.

And that, 750 words later, brings me to my larger point: Might we be setting ourselves up for something similar with this iteration of the Wildcats?

Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox (Jon Lopez/Nike)

To be clear, we have Kentucky sitting at No. 2 in our Preseason Top 25, in front of Kansas, reigning champions Villanova and an Oregon team who essentially brings back everyone from a top-five, Pac-12 champ. And keep in mind that the SEC should be — how can I say this diplomatically? — rebuilding next year. Even if Kentucky is overrated, their record come March is going to look good.

But it’s still pretty easy to look at this roster and see where the flaws lie.

For starters, their back court, while talented, essentially features three guys who want the ball in their hands in De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe. Furthermore, Briscoe’s perimeter shooting was a major liability during his freshman season, and Fox likely won’t be all that much better. Monk, the only one of these three that can really be considered an off-guard, is a wildly entertaining player whose strength is slashing to the rim and playing in transition. As a shooter, he’s quite inconsistent. He might hit six threes in a row. He might then make four of his next 30. That’s not an exaggeration.

The problem, then, is that those are the only three guards on the roster that should see any playing time. Mychal Mulder has the reputation of being a shooter, but if he’s playing 20 minutes a game for the Wildcats next season that’s a red flag.

The key to last year’s Kentucky team ended up being the emergence of Derek Willis, who came out of nowhere midway through SEC play to shooting 44.2 percent from three. But he did that playing primarily at the four, which worked because Kentucky’s front court was not as talented last season as it will be this season and because Jamal Murray was in the lineup. That gave Kentucky two shooters to spread the floor for Tyler Ulis — and, at times, Briscoe — to penetrate.

What happens next season? Will Willis see minutes at the four over the likes of Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones? Is he quick enough to play major minutes at the three?

And that leads me to my next point: Just how good is Kentucky’s front court? They have a lot of bodies — they have six scholarship big men even with Marcus Lee transferring — but how many of them are impact players? Bam Adebayo certainly is, but if he’s on the floor, can Kentucky play Tai Wynyard or Isaac Humphries, two Land Warriors whose usefulness disappears when they’re more than eight feet from the rim? Gabriel and Killeya-Jones are both promising prospects, but at this point, are they more prospect than player? Killeya-Jones is. Gabriel will likely have a bigger impact as a freshman, but he’s also a 210 pound power forward that is capable of making threes as opposed to being a shooter with three point range; there’s a big difference.

Kentucky is loaded with talent and has a roster full of kids with tremendous long-term potential, but that doesn’t guarantee that all of those pieces are going to fit together perfectly in their one year in Lexington.

That’s something that Kentucky’s 2012 team and Duke’s 2015 team have made us forget.

Sometimes, stockpiling freshmen creates super-teams that can dominate all year long and win a national title. Sometimes, even with Hall of Fame head coaches leading the way, the team as a whole isn’t a good as the sum of the parts.

Whether or not those teams are successful depends totally on context and expectations, and when the expectation is for a team to be the best in the country, league titles and Sweet 16 trips are disappointing. It’s a natural by-product of preseason prognostication, and it’s something that the Wildcats could end up falling victim to again this season.

Just keep this in mind: The fact that Kentucky’s most recent four-year run can be called an underachievement tells you more about the state of that program than anything else will.

Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)

Looking Forward: The new names to know for the 2016-17 season

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the new names you need to know entering college basketball in 2016-17. This is one of the strongest and deepest recruiting classes of the last decade, so this should be a fun group to track.

Harry Giles, Frank Jackson, Marques Bolden and Jayson Tatum, Duke – Just like we’ve seen so many times over the past few years, Duke and Kentucky own the top two recruiting classes entering the 2016-17 season. The Blue Devils’ latest haul is led by four, five-star prospects, headlined by the 6-foot-10 Giles, who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft if he’s fully healthy and shows the explosiveness he had as a double-double machine in high school. But he is coming off of an ACL injury that cost him his senior season and Giles never got through two consecutive seasons of high school basketball. Health is his key.

The 6-foot-8 Tatum is a smooth wing who is immensely skilled in the mid-range and polished in many facets of the game. He’s the next in a long line of recent Duke wings who left for the NBA after a year in Durham. The 6-foot-3 Jackson will be asked to handle point guard responsibilities after the departure of Derryck Thornton Jr., so he might be the most important player in this class for next season. The Lone Peak High School product is an athletic two-way guard who can also space the floor and should be ready from the get-go. The late addition of the 6-foot-10 Bolden gives the Blue Devils another rim protector and a classic back-to-the-basket scorer who can operate on both blocks with both hands. This class is ridiculous — potentially the best Coach K has ever had — and given the return of veterans like Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and Luke Kennard, Duke is the easy choice for preseason No. 1.

De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel, Kentucky

Duke’s group only slightly outclasses John Calipari’s latest group and the Wildcats boast arguably the best backcourt in the country in a pair of freshmen. The 6-foot-3 Fox is the best two-way guard in the class as he’s a menace on defense and an athletic freak who is impossible to stop in transition. The lefty is a consistent perimeter jumper away from being a major force. SEC football fans might remember former Arkansas wide receiver Marcus Monk and his little brother, Malik Monk, will slide in as a starting guard in Lexington next season. The 6-foot-4 Malik is an explosive scorer who can play well above the rim or extend the floor with deep range on his jumper. He’s a streaky player at times, but he’s capable of huge scoring nights.

The 6-foot-9 Adebayo is a powerful presence around the basket who looks to tear down the rim on dunks and gobbles up rebounds on the glass. His raw power and physical presence should be a big help for Kentucky on the interior. The 6-foot-9 Gabriel might be the key for next season’s success for this team. Gabriel told NBCSports.com at the Nike Hoop Summit that Calipari wants him to play on the wing next season, which is an interesting development since Gabriel was a post player throughout high school. Gabriel’s transition to the wing is possible — he’s a quick defender who can also extend his range — but he’s still never played the position before.

Josh Jackson, Kansas: The Jayhawks might not have the depth that Duke and Kentucky have, but they might have landed the ultimate prize in the 6-foot-7 Jackson. An ultra-athletic and competitive wing, Jackson is a well-rounded player who can score, defend, rebound, handle and pass. Like Giles and Tatum, Jackson has already won multiple gold medals with USA Basketball in international competitions and he’s a seasoned vet compared to your typical college freshmen. Throwing him into a Kansas lineup that returns a lot of talent and experience puts the Jayhawks firmly back in the driver’s seat in the Big 12 race.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Do yourself a favor and stay up late to watch this 6-foot-5 point guard play as much as you can this season because Ball has a special basketball IQ and court presence. Possessing outrageous vision and a great all-around feel for the game, Ball can find teammates for easy buckets and is perhaps the best outlet passer that’s joined college hoops in the last few seasons. Also a good rebounder at guard, Ball has a funky-looking release on his jumper, but it’s been going down during his whole career to this point. The big thing to watch is how Ball co-exists with Bryce Alford and UCLA’s other returning backcourt pieces.

Markelle Fultz, Washington: It’s crazy to think that the 6-foot-5 Fultz might be better than all of the players already mentioned on this list. After a monster spring on the high school all-star circuit, Fultz is the No. 2 prospect in the Draft Express 2017 mock draft — and for good reason. A wizard handling the ball, Fultz has shown killer instincts as a scorer and he’s also started to show some D’Angelo Russell-like vision when it comes to making passes that thread the needle. The Huskies are going to need Fultz to come in and be very productive after losing Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss, but he’s capable of having a huge year.

Dennis Smith and Omer Yurtseven, N.C. State: This could be the best inside-outside duo of freshmen in the country as the explosive 6-foot-3 Smith will run a lot of high ball screens with the Turkish 7-footer. Although he’s coming off of a torn ACL that prevented him from playing last season, Smith has already spent the spring semester at school rehabbing and getting to know the team. A great athlete who is good in ball screen situations, Smith will be a very tough cover for ACC point guards. Yurtseven hasn’t played the American game yet, but he’s a skilled center who projects as a potential one-and-done first-round pick. A skilled scorer who can also rebound, Yurtseven would have been a top-15 prospect in this loaded Class of 2016 had he played his high school ball in America.

Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: The latest jumbo wing to keep an eye on is the 6-foot-10 Isaac. Because of his size on the perimeter, Isaac can shoot over the top of smaller defenders with his smooth jumper or attack the basket with his improving handle. Isaac can also rebound in traffic at rim level and is a capable defender of multiple spots on the floor thanks to his length and athleticism. Florida State had a lot of perimeter talent that didn’t fit well together last season, but Isaac doesn’t need the ball in his hands at all times to impact a game.  He could be a better fit for the Seminoles than Malik Beasley was. The question becomes whether Florida State puts Isaac at the three with a huge lineup, or opts to put more speed and skill on the floor with Isaac as a four.

Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Tom Izzo has one of his best recruiting classes ever at Michigan State and it’s headlined by the 6-foot-6 Bridges. Already at 225 pounds, Bridges is a big and strong wing who can play multiple spots on the floor. Because he can rebound, play on the perimeter or also score inside, Bridges could play a number of different positions in East Lansing next season as he could be a matchup nightmare in the Big Ten.

Terrance Ferguson, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

This will be the most fascinating freshman class to watch play together because of the perimeter talent displayed by this group. The 6-foot-6 Ferguson is a smooth perimeter shooter who is also one of the best dunkers to enter college hoops in the last few years. The 6-foot-4 Alkins brings his rugged New York toughness to the Pac-12 as he’s tough to check attacking the basket and is also getting better as a distributor. A blur in the open floor, the 6-foot-5 Simmons is one of the fastest players in the country, but he’s also very wild at times. Markkanen, the Finnish 6-foot-10 big man, might be the most talented player in this group, but he hasn’t played against American competition very much and it remains to be seen how he’ll translate. The big key for this group will be sharing the ball. Alkins and Simmons can both get tunnel vision when it comes to attacking the basket and there isn’t a natural distributor among this group.

Omari Spellman, Villanova: The defending champs lost Daniel Ochefu in the middle, but they return most of the rest of the team (minus Ryan Arcidiacono) and gain this skilled five-star big man. The 6-foot-9 Spellman is a ton to handle on the inside around 280 pounds and he’s skilled as a scorer and rebounder. If Spellman can step in and produce, Villanova will be a major contender again next season.

Mustapha Heron, Auburn: Bruce Pearl has landed some solid recruits during his Auburn tenure, but the 6-foot-5 Heron is his signature signee. A powerful wing who is very tough to stop on the drive, Heron is the type of scorer who can come in and produce right away.

Andrew Jones, Texas: Texas landed itself a late-blooming guard in Jones, as he’s a talented scorer who can also play a little bit on the ball. With the Longhorns losing so many players to graduation this offseason, Jones is going to be asked to come in and play right away and he’ll be fun to watch with returning players like Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis.

Zach Collins, Gonzaga: The Zags might have one of the best rotation of big men in the country next season with the addition of this McDonald’s All-American. The 6-foot-11 Collins is a tough interior presence who should be able to immediately make an impact in the WCC next season.

Jarrett Allen, ???: We’re not sure where he’ll end up yet, but keep an eye out for the decision of 6-foot-10 big man Jarrett Allen. The native of Texas is still considering Houston, Kansas and Texas and many believe the Longhorns are the favorite. Regardless of where he ends up, Allen is an impact big man and potential one-and-done prospect who can defend the rim or score inside.

The NBC Sports way-too-early Preseason Top 25

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The deadline has come and gone, meaning outside of a few highly-regarded freshmen, we now know what the rosters for just about every team in the country is going to look like this season.

So without further ado, here is the official — and, hopefully, final — NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25:

1. Duke

  • Returning: Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson, Chase Jeter
  • Newcomers: Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden
  • Why they’re here: With Grayson Allen returning to school, Duke should be the consensus No. 1 team in the country. Allen and Kennard will fit perfectly on the perimeter with Jackson and Tatum while Jefferson will slide in nicely alongside Giles, giving Coach K what may be the most explosive offensive team that he’s ever coached. The x-factor here is, obviously, the health of Giles’ knees. He’s now had both knees surgically repaired and will have not played basketball for a year by the time Duke’s season kicks off.

2. Kentucky

  • Returning: Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, Isaac Humphries, Isaiah Briscoe
  • Newcomers: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Tai Wynyard
  • Why they’re here: Kentucky is No. 2 — more like No. 1b — because we were concerned about where they would get perimeter shooting from to space the floor. Fox, Monk and Adebayo will let Coach Cal return to his dribble-drive motion past, but the question is just how good of a shooter Gabriel and Killeya-Jones will be at the four and whether or not Willis can slide in and play small forward for a team at this level.

3. Kansas

  • Returning: Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Carlton Bragg, Landen Lucas, Lagerald Vick
  • Newcomers: Josh Jackson, Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot
  • Why they’re here: That back court of Mason and Graham will be bolstered by Jackson, a supremely talented recruit that has the dog in him to fit in well with that group. If Svi and Bragg can take a step forward, Lucas, Azubuike and Lightfoot should be able to handle the pivot for a team that will be the favorite to win the Big 12.

4. Villanova

  • Returning: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges. Newcomers: Eric Paschall, Dylan Painter, Omari Spellman
  • Why they’re here: Losing Ryan Arcidiacono’s leadership is really going to hurt these Wildcats, but Brunson should be able to step into those shoes and have a major impact as the primary ball-handler immediately. Getting Hart back for his senior season is the difference-maker here, as the trio of Hart, Jenkins and Bridges will be a nightmare for anyone to deal with.

5. Oregon

  • Returning: Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell, Casey Benson
  • Newcomers: Dylan Ennis*, M.J. Cage, Keith Smith, Payton Pritchard, Kavell Bigby Williams
  • Why they’re here: The Ducks were one of the best teams in this country this past season and not only will they return the majority of their key pieces, but they add Villanova transfer Ennis and a solid three-man recruiting class. The key is going to be whether or not Brooks opts to return to school for his junior season.

6. Michigan State

  • Returning: Eron Harris, Gavin Schilling, Matt McQuaid, Tum Tum Nairn
  • Newcomers: Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Ben Carter
  • Why they’re here: The Spartans lose a ton — Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello — but they also add a ton, bringing in a class headlined by Miles Bridges that is as talented as any that Tom Izzo has brought in in recent years. Their ceiling is high, but the question that needs to be answered is just how well they fit together and just how effective Winston and Nairn will be running the point.

7. Virginia

  • Returning: London Perrantes, Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall, Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson, Jarred Rueter
  • Newcomers: Austin Nichols, Kyle Guy, Jay Huff, Mamade Diakite, DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome
  • Why they’re here: Losing Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon is a tough blow to overcome, but the Cavaliers now have a program that can survive personnel losses like that. Nichols will shine in that system, and we’re expecting one of Perrrantes, Hall, Shayok or Thompson to take a step forward offensively.

8. North Carolina

  • Returning: Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams
  • Newcomers: Tony Bradley, Brandon Robinson, Seventh Woods
  • Why they’re here: Assuming that the Tar Heels get the guys back that they’re supposed to get back, they should actually have a better team next season than some may realize. Might they actually be able to repeat as ACC regular season champions?

9. Arizona

  • Returning: Allonzo Trier, Kadeem Allen, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright
  • Newcomers: Ray Smith, Rawle Alkins, Terrence Ferguson, Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons
  • Why they’re here: There are some very valid questions about how Arizona’s roster is going to fit together next season. With Trier, Alkins, Ferguson and Simmons all on the roster, will there be enough shots to go around? I’ll trust Sean Miller to get the most out of these guys, but there’s a chance that this No. 9 ranking could end up looking silly next March.

10. Louisville

  • Returning: Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell, Mangok Mathiang, Ray Spalding, Deng Adel, Anas Mahmoud
  • Newcomers: Tony Hicks, V.J. King
  • Why they’re here: The Cardinals are another team that are going to be better than I realized next season. They lose Damion Lee, but expect Mitchell, Adel, Spalding and Mahmoud to all take significant steps forward.

11. Wisconsin

  • Returning: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter, Jordan Hill, Khalil Iverson, Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen
  • Newcomers: Andy Van Vliet, Brevin Pritzl
  • Why they’re here: The Badgers return literally everyone from this season, barring a surprise transfer or a player jumping to the NBA. We know about Hayes and Koenig, but don’t be surprised to see Ethan Happ turn into the best player on the roster by next season.

12. Gonzaga

  • Returning: Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Przemek Karnowski
  • Newcomers: Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams III, Zach Collins, Zach Norvell, Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura
  • Why they’re here: The Zags may end up being better next season than they were last season, as Williams-Goss, Williams III and Collins may all end up being all-WCC players. They need Karnowski to decide to return for a fifth-year to anchor their defense.

13. Xavier

  • Returning: Trevon Bluiett, Edmond Sumner, Myles Davis, J.P. Macura, Kaiser Gates
  • Newcomers: Quentin Goodin, Tyrique Jones, RaShid Gaston
  • Why they’re here: We all saw how good Xavier can be this season, and they return the majority of their pieces. The big question with them next season will be in the front court, which is why we have them sitting at 13th.

14. Indiana

  • Returning: Thomas Bryant, James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson, O.G. Anunoby, Juwan Morgan
  • Newcomers: Josh Newkirk, De’Ron Davis, Grant Gelon, Devonte Green, Curtis Jones
  • Why they’re here: The Hoosiers are another team that is very up in the air at this point, even with Thomas Bryant back in the fold. Blackmon and Anunoby should be key, but Williams’ loss hurts and Yogi’s graduation is a massive void.

15. UCLA

  • Returning: Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, Thomas Welsh, Aaron Holiday, Jonah Bolden
  • Newcomers: Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Kobe Paras, Ike Anigbogu
  • Why they’re here: UCLA is the ultimate wildcard. If Ball has the impact that he’s expected to have, they’ll be a top five team. I could also see them being a .500 team. Your guess is as good as mine.

16. Florida State

  • Returning: Dwayne Bacon, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Terance Mann
  • Newcomers: Jonathan Isaac, Trent Forrest, Mfiondu Kabevgele, C.J. Walker
  • Why they’re here: There are talented pieces on this roster, and they should fit together better than the pieces on last year’s roster. Isaac is the wildcard here.

17. Purdue

  • Returning: Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline, P.J. Thompson, Basil Smotherman
  • Newcomers: Carsen Edwards, Spike Albrecht
  • Why they’re here: In one of the more surprising NBA Draft decisions, Caleb Swanigan opted to return to school for his sophomore season, meaning that the Boilermakers will once again have one of the biggest front lines.

18. Dayton

  • Returning: Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard, Kyle Davis, Darrell Davis, Sam Miller
  • Newcomers: Josh Cunningham, Trey Landers
  • Why they’re here: They return basically everyone from last year’s team, including head coach Archie Miller, and add a former top 100 recruit in Josh Cunningham.

19. Rhode Island

  • Returning: E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell, Hassan Martin, Kuran Iverson, Jarvis Garrett, Danny Hurley
  • Newcomers: Stanford Robinson, Mike Layssard, Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine, Michael Tertsea
  • Why they’re here: The Rams are as talented as any team in the Atlantic 10 in recent memory. Can Danny Hurley put the pieces together?

20. Virginia Tech

  • Returning: Zach LeDay, Seth Allen, Justin Bibbs, Chris Clarke, Justin Robinson, Kerry Blackshear Jr., Devin Wilson, Ahmed Hill, Ty Outlaw
  • Newcomers: Khadeem Sy
  • Why they’re here: Because this.

21. Cincinnati

  • Returning: Troy Caupain, Gary Clark, Jacob Evans, Kevin Johnson, Justin Jenifer
  • Newcomers: Jaron Cumberland, Kyle Washington, Nysier Brooks
  • Why they’re here: We know how good their guards are. The key for them is going to be how much of an impact Washington has in the front court.

22. Maryland

  • Returning: Melo Trimble, Jared Nickens, Dion Wiley, Michal Cekovsky
  • Newcomers: Anthony Cowan, Kevin Hurter, Micah Thomas
  • Why they’re here: Because we’re assuming that Trimble is coming back to school. Cowan is going to be good, but if Trimble isn’t there, this team is going to be in full rebuilding mode, and even if he is, this ranking may still be somewhat high.

23. Creighton

  • Returning: Mo Watson, Cole Huff, Isaiah Zierden, Khyri Thomas
  • Newcomers: Justin Patton, Marcus Foster
  • Why they’re here: Watson and Foster will headline the Bluejays one of the nation’s best back courts. Their ceiling will be determined by just how good Cole Huff and Justin Patton end up being on their front line.

24. Saint Mary’s

  • Returning: Emmett Naar, Dane Pineau, Calvin Hermanson, Joe Rahon, Evan Fitzneg, Jock Landale
  • Newcomers: Jordan Ford, Elijah Thomas
  • Why they’re here: The Gaels were a year away last season, when they won 29 games and a share of the WCC regular season title. They return everyone from that team, which was top 25 in offensive efficiency.

25. Wichita State

  • Returning: Landry Shamet, Markis McDuffie, Conner Frankamp, Rashard Kelly, Zach Brown, Shaquille Morris
  • Newcomers: Peyton Allen, C.J. Keyser
  • Why they’re here: Losing VanVleet and Baker hurts, but McDuffie is primed for a big year while Shamet, Allen and Frankamp are all former top 100 recruits.

ALSO CONSIDERED

  • Syracuse (Returning: Tyler Lydon, Tyler Roberson, Franklin Howard; Newcomers: Paschal Chukwu, Tyus Battle, Matthew Moyer, John Gillion)
  • USC (Returning: Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright, Elijah Stewart, Chimezie Metu; Newcomers: Shaqquan Aaron, Harrison Henderson, Jonah Mathews, De’Anthony Melton)
  • Texas (Returning: Kerwin Roach Jr., Eric Davis Jr., Tevin Mack, Shaquille Cleare; Newcomers: Andrew Jones, Jacob Young, James Banks)
  • Texas A&M (Returning: Tyler Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg, Kobie Eubanks; Newcomers: J.J. Caldwell, Robert Williams)
  • Miami (Returning: Davon Reed, Ja’Quan Newton, Anthony Lawrence Jr.; Newcomers: Bruce Brown, Dewan Huell, Rodney Miller, Dejan Vasilijevic, Rashad Muhammad)
  • UConn (Returning: Rodney Purvis, Jalen Adams, Amida Brimah, Steve Enoch; Newcomers: Terry Larrier, Juwan Durham, Alterique Gilbert, Vance Jackson, Mamadou Diarra)
  • West Virginia (Returning: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., Tarik Phillip, Esa Ahmad, Nathan Adrian, Elijan Macon; Newcomers: Maciej Bender, Chase Harler, Brandon Knapper, Sagaba Konate)