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

Five-star guard Anthony Edwards reclassifying to 2019

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Five-star shooting guard Anthony Edwards announced his intention to reclassify from the Class of 2020 into the Class of 2019 on Tuesday.

The Atlanta native was one of the major breakout players of last summer, as Edwards earned rave reviews nationally with his strong play. Edwards is such a major talent, that upon moving up to 2019, 247Sports immediately put him as its new No. 1 prospect in the class.

The move is also good for college basketball fans. Because Edwards has the kind of scoring package and athleticism that will make him one of the must-watch freshmen of next season. Edwards joins a Class of 2019 group that doesn’t have a lot of star power and must-see talents. After averaging over 20 points per game in the Under Armour Association this summer, Edwards became one of the hottest recruits in the country.

Edwards told Evan Daniels of 247Sports that Florida State, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina are the five schools currently prioritizing him — as he hasn’t set any official visits yet. With his ability to easily play above the rim, or knock down deep perimeter shots, Edwards is going to be one of the major recruiting attractions of this spring.

Since he’s jumping into the recruiting process so late, we probably won’t have a decision for quite some time. But once Edwards joins the college ranks next season, he’ll likely be generating headlines from the moment he starts playing.

Kentucky’s John Calipari calls himself an ‘overrated recruiter’ hours after losing James Wiseman

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Kentucky head coach John Calipari made headlines even after losing top recruit James Wiseman to Memphis on Tuesday afternoon.

After Wiseman decided to stay home and play for high school former coach Penny Hardaway and the Tigers on Tuesday, Calipari spoke with reporters before his Wildcats are scheduled to host Winthrop. According to a report from USA Today Network Tennessee’s Nicole Saavedra, Calipari spoke for over five minutes on the subject of recruiting, while providing the typical Calipari spin. Although Calipari can’t directly mention Wiseman’s name due to recruiting restrictions, he nonetheless made some pointed remarks about Wildcat recruiting.

“I’ve said it all along, I think I’m overrated as a recruiter,” Calipari said Tuesday. “We’ve had kids that made the decision to come here and it’s played out well for almost all of them. But my thing is, I want to be able to sleep at night. I want to make sure I’m telling the truth. I want to make sure I’m sticking with guys.

“I’m not saying that about anyone else,” Calipari continued. “Everyone recruits the way they recruit, but you’ve got good programs and good coaches and that’s why we don’t get everybody we recruit. We’re not the only ones out there trying to get good players and trying to help kids.”

While Calipari has the right to speak about the state of his program and the program’s recruiting at any point in time, these comments only hours after losing Wiseman definitely raise some eyebrows. Mostly because Calipari has an unbelievable ability to force attention back onto himself and his program in spite of a major recruiting loss.

Nobody actually believes Calipari is an overrated recruiter. He’s had the No. 1 or No. 2 ranked recruiting class for 10 consecutive seasons. He has two five-star prospects and one high-end four-star prospect in the fold for 2019. But he knows how to spin things into attention for him and his program, and it’s part of the reason he’s so good at what he does.

Clemson advances to title game in Cayman Islands

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GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands — Marcquise Reed scored 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds, Elijah Thomas had his second straight double-double and No. 16 Clemson beat Georgia 64-49 on Tuesday to advance to the championship game of the Cayman Islands Classic.

Thomas finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds for Clemson (5-0), which is off to its best start since the 2013-14 season. Shelton Mitchell, who scored a season-high 22 on Monday, chipped in with 13 points and David Skara had three of the Tigers’ nine steals.

Coach Brad Brownell won his 154th game at Clemson, three away from passing Bill Foster for second in program history.

Derek Ogbeide led Georgia (3-2) with 11 points. Nicolas Claxton, who scored 22 points in an 80-68 win on Monday, was held to three points on 1-of-9 shooting — but he had nine rebounds and five blocks.

James Wiseman picks Memphis over Kentucky

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In a move that was both shocking and not at all surprising, James Wiseman announced on Tuesday afternoon, live on Sportscenter, that he will be playing his college basketball for Penny Hardaway at Memphis, spurning John Calipari and Kentucky in the process.

“The whole city of Memphis knows my decision,” Wiseman said moments before unveiling a unicorn with a Memphis logo on it.

Wiseman, who has drawn some comparisons to Chris Bosh in the past, will join top 50 prospect D.J. Jefferies and four-star recruit Malcolm Dandridge in Penny’s second recruiting class.

The decision is surprising because of the obvious: Wiseman is a consensus top four player in the class. Many had him as the top prospect in the Class of 2019 before Tuesday’s news that Anthony Edwards would be reclassifying. And he just picked Memphis, who hasn’t been truly relevant in nearly a decade, over Calipari and Kentucky, the man that was responsible for making Memphis a powerhouse?

In a vacuum, that is baffling.

Except we’re not in a vacuum.

Wiseman, a Nashville native, moved to Memphis to play his high school basketball for Penny when Penny was still the head coach of East High School. He played his AAU ball for Penny’s AAU program, which was rebranded after Penny took the Memphis job. When that team did not make the trip to Las Vegas for the final July Live Period over the summer, Wiseman played for Hoop City Basketball Club, a program that was previously known as M33M and owned and operated by Mike Miller, who is now a Memphis assistant coach.

To be frank, it probably would have been more surprising if Wiseman had picked Kentucky over the Tigers.

As a player, Wiseman has a chance to be pretty good. He’s a 6-foot-11 lefty with a projectable 3-point stroke and enough size and athleticism to be effective in the paint in college. There are some concerns about how that game will translate at the NBA level — he’s not really a switchable big, his shooting isn’t  yet good enough to make him a true stretch-five, he’s not yet an elite shot-blocker — but this isn’t about the NBA. This is about Memphis, and Wiseman will be terrific for Memphis.

It is also a validation of the decision for Memphis to hire Penny.

Well, to be frank, the validation came when local products Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris committed to the program as a flood of season-ticket holders made their return to the FedEx Forum. The Memphis basketball program is back in the black, and after two years where Tubby Smith torpedoed the goodwill they had in the community, that matters.

But that excitement for a new head coach is only going to last so long if there isn’t a product on the court worth watching, and landing a player like this — someone that played for Penny growing up, that has a relationship with the coach, that played his high school ball in the city, that can be a potential all-american and lead Memphis towards the top of the American — is exactly what he needed.

And I’m sure Penny would tell you, his commitment was never in doubt.

Best Bets: Where do you want your money for the second day of the Maui Invitational?

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The second day of the Maui Invitational will tip-off tonight, the headlining game being No. 1 Duke’s date with No. 8 Auburn.

As always, here is a look at the slate of games from a gambling perspective:

No. 1 DUKE vs. No. 8 AUBURN, 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Line: Duke (-11)
  • O/U: 167.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Duke 89.25, Auburn 78.25
  • KenPom Projection: Duke 82, Auburn 76

On paper, this game looks like it will be one of the most entertaining of the season.

Duke is already must-see TV every time that they take the court. That’s what happens when you have Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on the court at the same time. Magic happens. Auburn, on the other hand, is really, really good themselves. If you haven’t seen them play yet, they are somewhat undersized — they like to play a pair of athletic, 6-foot-8 forwards that can space the floor and protect the rim up front — but they love to press and play in transition as much as anyone.

And it’s Auburn’s style of play that I think will play into Duke’s hands here. The Tigers want to play fast. Last year they finished the season ranked 18th in pace. This year, they are just 67th, but they have already played a couple of teams that tried their damnedest to take the air out of the ballin Xavier and Washington. They currently rank fifth-nationally in defensive turnover percentage, gambling for steals in that full court pressure to try and create opportunities for easy buckets at the other end of the floor. They attack the glass (fifth in offensive rebounding percentage), shoot a ton of threes (and make them at a 39.4 percent clip) and struggle to clear the defensive boards.

Duke?

Well, they want to play fast. That is the entire basis of what Mike Krzyzewski has built this season. He has three guys on the floor that were primary ball-handlers in the high school ranks, and that doesn’t include Zion Williamson, who is the nation’s best grab-and-go forward. They are built to play in transition, and they are already top 40 nationally in pace. Like Auburn, they pound the offensive glass (they get nearly 40 percent of their misses) and have some issues boxing out. They haven’t proven to be turnover prone yet, either.

There is something of an unknown here, as Duke has yet to face a team that is going to be able to pressure the way Auburn can, but I just can’t see that fazing them.

PICKS: To get an idea of how fact the line is moving here, when I started writing this, the over-under was 162.5. As I get ready to hit publish, it has already jumped to 167.5. The line for Duke has moved from (-10) to (-11). I got my bets in before the lines moved. I still love Duke and I still think the over hits, but if you are going to bet it, get it in quickly.

ARIZONA vs. No. 3 GONZAGA, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Line: Gonzaga (-10)
  • O/U: 154.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Gonzaga 82.25, Arizona 72.25
  • KenPom Projection: Gonzaga 81, Arizona 72

Early on this season, Gonzaga is playing faster than they have in the past, which makes sense. With the talent and athleticism they have on their roster, they are going to be able to beat a lot of teams down the floor. Prior to Monday night’s win over Illinois, the Zags had scored at least 94 points in all three of their games this season and won all three by at least 23 points. That included a game against Texas Southern (who won at Baylor) and a win over Texas A&M, who was without two starters.

The game against Illinois was a different story. The Zags looked like they were ready to pull away when Trent Frazier went bonkers and made it a game. I do not think that Arizona — who is not your typical Arizona team — has the horses to run with the Zags this year. If it wasn’t for a takeover performance from Justin Coleman down the stretch on Monday night, the Wildcats would have lost to an Iowa State team missing four players, including two starters.

Yes, the Zags are without Killian Tillie, but Filip Pertrusev and Jeremy Jones have been somewhere between fine and good in his absence.

PICKS: Gonzaga (-10) is the bet that I would make here. I would lean toward the over as well.

XAVIER vs. SAN DIEGO STATE, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Line: San Diego State (-1)
  • O/U: 153.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: San Diego State 77.25, Xavier 76.25
  • KenPom Projection: San Diego State 76, Xavier 75

This one is pretty simple: I think that Xavier is the better basketball team here, and after dropping one in overtime on Monday afternoon, I think the Musketeers will bounceback with a win here.

PICKS: If you can get Xavier (+1), then I would take that. I also lead towards the under here, as the total is pretty high for two teams that play good halfcourt defense. The under went 3-1 in Maui yesterday.

IOWA STATE vs. ILLINOIS, 5:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Line: Iowa State (-2)
  • O/U: 154.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Iowa State 78.25, Illinois 76.25
  • KenPom Projection: Iowa State 80, Illinois 74

The KenPom projection here would usually lead me towards taking the Cyclones, but keep in mind that Iowa State is playing without four rotation pieces, including their three best big men and their best guard. So it makes sense that the line would lean closer to Illinois.

PICKS: I think the bet here is Illinois. Brad Underwood is a smart coach, and he knows that Iowa State and their shortened bench will have tired legs. I honestly think the better bet is the over. Illinois really wants to run and neither team plays much, if any, defense. In fact, all Illinois wants to do is to try and force turnovers. They gamble and give up a lot of layups. Give me Illinois (+2) and the over.