2014-15 Season Preview: Kentucky’s loaded rotation leads nation’s best front courts

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Karl-Anthony Towns is just one piece of a loaded Kentucky front court. (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

High-level big men aren’t a dime a dozen, and with that being the case the programs that have the benefit of multiple interior options tend to do well in college basketball’s most important month. Below are our ranking of the top front courts in the country heading into the 2014-15 season, with factors such as skill level, production and depth being considered. And just like last year, a certain SEC plower claims the top spot.

1. Kentucky: Similar to last season, juniors Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are the most experienced pieces in John Calipari’s interior attack. However unlike last year they’ve got company, with a slimmer Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis back in Lexington as well. Add in two projected lottery picks in freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns and the end result is the most talented and deepest interior rotation in college basketball. And Willis, who would see playing time for a lot of other programs, is expected by many to be on the outside looking in with regards to Kentucky’s expected “platoon” despite playing well during the team’s summer trip to the Bahamas.

2. Texas: Rick Barnes was assured of having one of the best front courts in the country when everyone, including Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley, decided to return after helping lead the Longhorns back to the NCAA tournament. And then he received a verbal commitment from one of the best big men in the Class of 2014 in Myles Turner. The Longhorns have both depth and talent inside, and they’re experienced as well. Among the other returnees are center Prince Ibeh and forward Connor Lammert, and freshman Jordan Barnett’s no slouch either.

3. Arizona: The Wildcats will have to account for the departure of Aaron Gordon, but Gordon spending just one year in Tucson was expected to be the case from the moment he committed to join Sean Miller’s program. The Wildcats have a nice balance of depth, experience and talent, with starters Brandon Ashley being juniors and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson entering his sophomore season. Add in freshmen Stanley Johnson (he’s listed as a forward but is likely to see time at the two) and Craig Victor, and the end result is a group that is one reason why Arizona is expected to be a national title contender.

4. Kansas: No Joel Embiid for the Jayhawks, but while Bill Self and his staff will have to account for that loss they don’t lack for options. Junior Perry Ellis is one of the best players in the Big 12, and he’ll lead the way in a rotation that doesn’t lack for talent despit not have as many options as the teams above. Jamari Traylor has been in Lawrence for a couple years now, as has Landen Lucas, and Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson gives them another options with Division I experence. And then there’s freshman Cliff Alexander, who arrives on campus as one of the most dominant players in the Class of 2014.

5. Wisconsin: The tandem of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky was outstanding last season, with the latter’s virtuoso performance in the Elite Eight getting the Badgers to their first Final Four since 2000. Dekker’s in line to put together a breakout junior season, and senior Duje Dukan and Nigel Hayes will fill out the rotation for the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten.

MORE: The nation’s top perimeter attacks

6. Duke: There’s no denying the fact that the Blue Devils add the best big man in the Class of 2014 in the form of freshman Jahlil Okafor, who did just about whatever he wanted at the prep level. But he isn’t the only freshman who arrives in Durham amidst much acclaim, with Justise Winslow expected to factor into the rotation as well. Amile Jefferson provides intangibles for Duke, who needs one of either Marshall Plumlee or Semi Ojeleye to take a step forward in what will be a competitive ACC.

7. LSU: The Tigers lost Johnny O’Bryant III from last year’s team, but it can be argued that pieces currently at Johnny Jones’ disposal fit together better despite not having their leading scorer and rebounder. Jordan Mickey was one of the SEC’s best freshmen in 2013-14, and classmate Jarell Martin may be the one who benefits most from O’Bryant’s early departure. LSU also adds 7-footer Elbert Robinson III, slender Aaron Epps and burly 6-foot-6 banger Brian Bridgewater to their front court rotation.

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AP

8. Louisville: The Cardinals will play their first season in the ACC with one of the most explosive athletes in college basketball in junior power forward Montrezl Harrell. The question: who will step up alongside the All-America candidate? Rick Pitino has some young talented options at his disposal, including sophomore Mangok Mathiang and freshman Chinanu Onuaku.

9. Gonzaga: Mark Few lost Sam Dower from last year’s WCC champion squad, but he gets to slide Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer into the rotation. And Wiltjer isn’t the only talented new addition, with Domatas Sabonis also expected to compete for minutes. They join junior 7-footer Przemek Karnowski, who averaged 10.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game last season.

10. SMU: The Mustangs return one all-conference selection in Markus Kennedy, and after being less than 100 percent for much of last season senior Yanick Moreira is coming off of an impressive summer with Angola’s senior national team. SMU also adds Xavier transfer Justin Martin, who adds versatility to the front court ranks, and senior Cannen Cunningham gives them additional depth and experience.

THE NEXT TEN 

  • 11. Colorado: Josh Scott may be the best center in the Pac-12, and Xavier Johnson’s no slouch either.
  • 12. UCLA: The Bruins won’t have Jonah Bolden, but they will have fellow freshman Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh, and junior Tony Parker is back as well.
  • 13. North Carolina: If Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson take a step forward, this ranking will turn out to be too low.
  • 14. Memphis: Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols lead the way for a group that should see a major increase in post touches.
  • 15. Virginia: No more Akil Mitchell, but Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey return for the reigning ACC champions.
  • 16. Iowa State: Georges Niang leads the way with Dustin Hogue and Daniel Edozie being experienced options as well. Freshman Giorgios Tsalmpouris could help, and the mid-year addition of Jameel McKay will be big.
  • 17. Syracuse: Losing C.J. Fair hurts but Rakeem Christmas returns, Tyler Roberson could be a breakout candidate, and freshman Chris McCullough is a newcomer to keep an eye on.
  • 18. Iowa: Starters Aaron White and Adam Woodbury, and reserves Jarrod Uthoff and Gabe Olaseni all return to Iowa City.
  • 19. Florida: Chris Walker’s an enticing talent who had the benefit of a full offseason with the program. Dorian Finney-Smith is their best bet from a consistency standpoint, and transfers Alex Murphy and Jon Horford will help as well.
  • 20. NC State: Like UNC, this ranking could turn out to be too low by the end of the season. BeeJay Anya’s in far better shape than he was last season, and players such as Jordan Washington, Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu will be factors as well.

College basketball broadcaster Billy Packer dies at 82

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Billy Packer, an Emmy award-winning college basketball broadcaster who covered 34 Final Fours for NBC and CBS, died Thursday. He was 82.

Packer’s son, Mark, told The Associated Press that his father had been hospitalized in Charlotte for the past three weeks and had several medical issues, and ultimately succumbed to kidney failure.

Packer’s broadcasting career coincided with the growth of college basketball. He worked as analyst or color commentator on every Final Four from 1975 to 2008. He received a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio and Sports Analyst in 1993.

“He really enjoyed doing the Final Fours,” Mark Packer said. “He timed it right. Everything in life is about timing. The ability to get involved in something that, frankly, he was going to watch anyway, was a joy to him. And then college basketball just sort of took off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and that became, I think, the catalyst for college basketball fans to just go crazy with March Madness.”

Packer played three seasons at Wake Forest, and helped lead the Demon Deacons to the Final Four in 1962, but it was his work as an analyst that brought him the most acclaim.

He joined NBC in 1974 and called his first Final Four in 1975. UCLA beat Kentucky in the title game that year in what was John Wooden’s final game as coach.

Packer was also part of the broadcast in 1979 with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the title game. That remains highest-rated game in basketball history with a 24.1 Nielsen rating, which is an estimated 35.1 million viewers.

Packer went to CBS in the fall of 1981, when the network acquired the rights to the NCAA Tournament. He remained the network’s main analyst until the 2008 Final Four.

In 1996 at CBS, Packer was involved in controversy when he used the term “tough monkey? to describe then-Georgetown star Allen Iverson during a game. Packer later said he “was not apologizing for what I said, because what I said has no implications in my mind whatsoever to do with Allen Iverson’s race.?

Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Packer was “synonymous with college basketball for more than three decades and set the standard of excellence as the voice of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.”

“He had a tremendous impact on the growth and popularity of the sport.” McManus said. “In true Billy fashion, he analyzed the game with his own unique style, perspective and opinions, yet always kept the focus on the game. As passionate as he was about basketball, at his heart Billy was a family man. He leaves part of his legacy at CBS Sports, across college basketball and, most importantly, as a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He will be deeply missed by all.”

Packer was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale took to Twitter as word of Packer’s death spread. “So sad to learn of the passing of Billy Packer who had such a passion for college basketball,” Vitale tweeted. “My (prayers) go out to Billy’s son Mark & the entire Packer family. Always had great RESPECT for Billy & his partners Dick Enberg & Al McGuire-they were super. May Billy RIP.”

College basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted: “We fell in love (with) college basketball because of you. Your voice will remain in my head forever.”

Packer was viewed as a controversial figure during his broadcasting days, often drawing the ire of college basketball fans, particularly on North Carolina’s “Tobacco Road.”

“As a kid, I was a big NC State fan growing up, and I would watch a game and the next day I’d be like, `Boy you sure have it out for NC State, don’t you?’ And he would just laugh,” Mark Packer said.

The younger Packer, who is the host of ACC PM on the ACC Network, said it didn’t matter what school – most fans felt the same way about his father.

“He would cover North Carolina game and Tar Heels fans would be like, `you hate North Carolina,”‘ Mark Packer said. “Wake (Forest) fans would be like, `you hate us.’ And Billy just sort of got a kick out of that.”

Mark Packer said that while most fans will remember his father as a broadcaster, he’ll remember him even more for his business acumen. He said his father was a big real estate investor, and also owned a vape company, among other ventures.

“Billy was always a bit of a hustler – he was always looking for that next business deal,” Packer said.

Clemson starter Galloway will miss time after surgery

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CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson starter Brevin Galloway is expected to miss games for the 24th-ranked Tigers after having surgery on his groin area Thursday.

The 6-foot-3 Galloway has started 20 of 21 games after transferring from Boston College this past offseason.

Galloway posted on social media that he’d had the surgery. Clemson coach Brad Brownell confirmed in a text to The Associated Press that Galloway had the operation.

Galloway said in his post he will be in uniform soon. He is not expected to play at Florida State on Saturday.

A fifth-year player, Galloway has averaged 10.6 points a game this season. He’s second on the Tigers with 55 assists and 18 steals.

The Tigers (17-4) lead the Atlantic Coast Conference at 9-1 in league play.

Clemson is already down two experienced players due to injury.

Point guard Chase Hunter, who started the team’s first 18 games, has missed the past three with a foot injury.

Guard Alex Hemenway, in his fourth season, has missed the past nine games with a foot injury. Hemenway was the team’s leading 3-point shooter (27 of 54) before getting hurt.

Zach Edey has 19 points, No. 1 Purdue beats Michigan 75-70

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Zach Edey had 15 of his 19 points in the first half and Fletcher Loyer finished with 17 points to help No. 1 Purdue hold off Michigan 75-70 on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers (20-1, 9-1 Big Ten) had a 15-0 run to go ahead 41-28 lead in the first half after there were 10 lead changes and four ties, but they couldn’t pull away.

The Wolverines (11-9, 5-4) were without standout freshman Jett Howard, who missed the game with an ankle injury, and still hung around until the final seconds.

Joey Baker made a 3-pointer – off the glass – with 5.9 seconds left to pull Michigan within three points, but Purdue’s Brandon Newman sealed the victory with two free throws.

Purdue coach Matt Painter said Michigan slowed down Edey in the second half by pushing him away from the basket.

“They got him out a little more, and got him bottled up,” Painter said.

The 7-foot-4 Edey, though, was too tough to stop early in the game.

“He’s one of the best in the country for a reason,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s very effective, especially if he’s 8 feet and in.”

With size and skills such as a hook shot, the junior center from Toronto scored Purdue’s first seven points and finished the first half 7 of 12 from the field and 1 of 2 at the line.

“He did a great job in the first half, going to his right shoulder and using his left hand,” Painter said. “He made four baskets with his left hand which is huge.”

Freshman Braden Smith had 10 points for the Boilermakers.

Purdue’s defense ultimately denied Michigan’s comeback hopes, holding a 22nd straight opponent to 70 or fewer points.

Hunter Dickinson scored 21, Kobe Bufkin had 16 points and Baker added 11 points for the Wolverines, who have lost four of their last six games.

Dickinson, a 7-1 center, matched up with Edey defensively and pulled him out of the lane offensively by making 3 of 7 3-pointers.

“Half his shots were from the 3, and that’s a little different,” Painter said. “His meat and potatoes are on that block. He’s the real deal.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Boilermakers got the top spot in the AP Top 25 this week after winning six games, a stretch that followed a loss to Rutgers on Jan. 3 that dropped them from No. 1 in the poll. Purdue improved to 7-2 as the top-ranked team.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: Edey can’t beat teams by himself and he’s surrounded by a lot of role players and a potential standout in Loyer. The 6-4 guard was the Big Ten player of the week earlier this month, become the first Boilermaker freshman to win the award since Robbie Hummel in 2008.

“Fletcher is somebody who has played better in the second half, and on the road,” Painter said.

Michigan: Jett Howard’s health is a critical factor for the Wolverines, who will have some work to do over the second half of the Big Ten season to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Howard averages 14.6 points and is the most dynamic player on his father’s team.

ROAD WARRIORS

The Boilermakers were away from home for 12 of 23 days, winning all five of their road games. They won at Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan for the first time since the 1997-98 season and beat the Spartans and Wolverines on their home court in the same season for the first time in 12 years.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Hosts Michigan State on Sunday, nearly two weeks after the Boilermakers beat the Spartans by a point on Edey’s shot with 2.2 seconds left.

Michigan: Plays at Penn State on Sunday.

Miller scores 23, No. 10 Maryland tops No. 13 Michigan 72-64

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Diamond Miller scored 23 points, and No. 10 Maryland closed the first quarter with a 13-2 run and led the rest of the way in a 72-64 victory over No. 13 Michigan on Thursday night.

Abby Meyers contributed 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Terrapins (17-4, 8-2), who won for the 10th time in 11 games. Lavender Briggs scored 14 points and Shyanne Sellers added 13.

Maryland gained a measure of revenge after losing twice to Michigan last season – including a 20-point rout in College Park.

Leigha Brown led the Wolverines with 16 points.

Michigan (16-5, 6-4) led 13-9 in the first quarter before a three-point play by Miller started Maryland’s big run. Briggs and Faith Masonius made 3-pointers during that stretch.

The Terps pushed the lead to 16 in the third quarter before the Wolverines were able to chip away. Miller sat for a bit with four fouls, and Michigan cut the lead to seven in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines still wasted too many possessions with turnovers to mount much of a comeback.

Michigan ended up with 24 turnovers, and Maryland had a 25-5 advantage in points off turnovers.

Miller fouled out with 2:19 remaining, but even after those two free throws, the Terps led 65-57 and had little trouble holding on.

Michigan lost for the second time in four days against a top-10 opponent. No. 6 Indiana beat the Wolverines 92-83 on Monday.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Whether it was against Maryland’s press or in their half-court offense, the Wolverines turned the ball over too much to score consistently. This was a lower-scoring game than the loss to Indiana, but the margin ended up being similar.

Maryland: While Miller clearly led the way, the Terps had plenty of offensive contributors. They also held Michigan to 13 points below its season average entering the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wolverines have appeared in 48 straight AP polls, and although a two-loss week could certainly drop them, the quality of their opponents could save them from a substantial plunge.

Maryland is tied for 10th with an Iowa team that beat No. 2 Ohio State on Monday night. Now the Terps can boast an impressive victory of their own.

UP NEXT

Michigan: The Wolverines play their third game of the week when they visit Minnesota on Sunday.

Maryland: The Terps host Penn State on Monday night.

 

Boum, Jones lead No. 13 Xavier over No. 19 UConn, 82-79

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STORRS, Conn. – Souley Boum scored 21 points, Colby Jones added 20 and No. 13 Xavier went on the road and held off No. 19 Connecticut 82-79 Wednesday night.

The win was the 13th in 14 games for the Musketeers (17-4, 9-1 Big East) and it gave them a season sweep over the struggling Huskies (16-6, 5-6).

Jack Nunge had 12 points and Jerome Hunter added 11 for Xavier, which led by 17 in the first half and 39-24 at halftime.

Jordan Hawkins scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half for UConn, leading a comeback that fell just short.

Tristen Newton added 23 points for the Huskies, who won their first 14 games this season but have dropped six of eight since.

The Musketeers never trailed but had to withstand UConn runs that cut the lead to a single point four times in the second half.

A three-point play from Hawkins made it 78-77 with 2:40 left. But a second-chance layup from Nunge put the lead at 80-77 just over a minute later.

Newton was fouled with two seconds left by Desmond Claude, but his apparent attempt to miss his second free throw went into the basket.

Boum then hit two free throws at the other end, and Newton’s final attempt from just beyond halfcourt was well short.

Xavier jumped out to a 9-0 lead as UConn missed its first nine shots.

A 3-pointer from Zach Freemantle gave the Musketeers their first double-digit lead at 20-9, and another from Jones pushed it to 35-18.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers lead the Big East, and the win over UConn was their ninth conference victory this season, eclipsing their total from last season.

UConn: The Huskies came in with a 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion dating to February 2021. They fell to 1-4 against the four teams in front of them in the Big East standings. The lone win came at Gampel against Creighton.

UP NEXT

Xavier: The Musketeers continue their road trip with a visit to Creighton on Saturday.

UConn: Doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, when the Huskies visit DePaul.