2014-15 Season Preview: Arizona leads the way in the Pac-12

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Arizona looks to win a second consecutive Pac-12 title (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.

Today we take a look at the Pac-12, which has a clear favorite to win the title.

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

After going through a rough three-year period the Pac-12 took steps in the right direction last season. Six teams reached the NCAA tournament with four winning at least one game, and three (Arizona, Stanford and UCLA) managed to reach the second weekend. Heading into the 2014-15 season there’s a clear favorite in Arizona, a team with the talent, depth and coaching needed to win a national title, but beyond Sean Miller’s Wildcats there is a lot of uncertainty in the Pac-12. Spots two through five look to be wide-open, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that any of the teams pegged to finish sixth through ninth can make a jump themselves. This uncertainty should make for an intriguing season in the Pac-12.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Arizona lost two starters, but they’re at a point where they simply reload: Both Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon left for the NBA, with the former being the bigger loss. Johnson was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and his leadership was incredibly valuable for last season’s team. Arizona has a lot of talent, in regards to both their returners and a recruiting class that rates among the best in the country. PG T.J. McConnell is back to run the show, and among the players he’ll have at his disposal are Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. But who takes over from a leadership standpoint? That’s the biggest question facing Arizona.

2. UCLA will have to replace four starters from last year’s team: In his first season at the helm Steve Alford led the Bruins to a Pac-12 tournament title and a Sweet 16 appearance. His next act will be a bit more difficult, with five contributors from that team (four starters and reserve Zach LaVine) gone. Senior Norman Powell returns, and while the Bruins are younger they don’t lack for talent with guard Isaac Hamilton and forward Kevon Looney being the headliners amongst the newcomers.

3. Utah and Colorado return more production than any team in the conference: Tad Boyle welcomes back four starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team, including guard Askia Booker and forward Josh Scott, with the Buffaloes’ returnees responsible for 88.4% of the team’s points and 94.1% of the team’s rebounds a season ago. As for Utah Pac-12 POY candidate Delon Wright returns as does Jordan Loveridge, who will move back to his natural small forward position. The experience certainly helps, but their talent is another reason why many expect the Buffs and Utes to contend this season.

4. Three Pac-12 programs have new head coaches: Two firings and a retirement resulted in three head coaching positions needing to be filled in the Pac-12. In the end Washington State brought in a coach Pac-12 fans certainly remember, hiring former Oregon head coach Ernie Kent to replace Ken Bone. Oregon State called it quits on the Craig Robinson era, reeling in Wayne Tinkle from Montana where he enjoyed a successful run at his alma mater. And with Mike Montgomery deciding to retire California managed to land Cuonzo Martin, who led Tennessee to the Sweet 16.

5. Seven first team all-conference selections have moved on: The Pac-12 selects ten players to its first team all-conference squad, and at the end of last season seven of those players were either out of eligibility or decided to turn pro early. The three returnees: Scott, Wright and Stanford PG Chasson Randle. And of the five players on the league’s second team all-conference squad, just two return: Arizona PG T.J. McConnell and Oregon SG Joseph Young.

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chasson Randle, Stanford

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Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins and Chasson Randle (Getty Images)

Randle’s first season running the point for Johnny Dawkins ultimately resulted in the Cardinal making their first NCAA tournament (and Sweet 16) appearance since 2008. Randle averaged 18.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in 2013-14, and with leading assist man Dwight Powell gone the last number should increase this season.

THE REST OF THE ALL PAC-12 FIRST TEAM:

  • Delon Wright, Utah: One of the most versatile players in America, Wright led Utah in points (15.5 ppg), assists (5.3 apg), steals (2.5 spg) and blocks (1.3 bpg) in 2013-14.
  • Joseph Young, Oregon: Young averaged 18.9 points per game as a junior, and he could score even more given the Ducks’ lack of depth.
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: Hollis-Jefferson was Arizona’s sixth man last season, and with Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon moving on he’s capable of doing even more as a sophomore.
  • Stanley Johnson, Arizona: The Pac-12’s best newcomer is also one of the most talented players in America.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • DaVonte Lacy, Washington State
  • Josh Scott, Colorado
  • Norman Powell, UCLA
  • Brandon Ashley, Arizona
  • Jordan Loveridge, Utah

BREAKOUT STAR: Jabari Bird, California

Bird showed flashes of the skill that made him a McDonald’s All-American as a freshman, but he’s certainly capable of more and the experiences of last season will help him moving forward. With Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, Bird, Tyrone Wallace and David Kravish will be the leaders for Cuonzo Martin’s first team in Berkeley. Look for Bird to take a noticeable step forward for the Golden Bears in 2014-15.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Dana Altman, Oregon

How can a coach who’s won 67 percent of his games in four seasons at a school be under pressure? Well, the offseason in Eugene provides the answer to that question. Three players (Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin) were dismissed in the spring after being investigated on charges of sexual assualt (they weren’t charged), and two talented freshmen (JaQuan Lyle and Ray Kasongo) weren’t admitted to the school in the fall. Now Oregon enters the 2014-15 season short on depth. Wins and losses won’t be an issue, but the players need to avoid any missteps off the court.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: Will Arizona make its first Final Four appearance since 2001?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT :  The battle to see who Arizona’s biggest threat will be.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • December 6, Gonzaga at Arizona
  • November 18, Utah at San Diego State
  • January 17, UConn at Stanford
  • December 13, Gonzaga at UCLA
  • December 7, Colorado at Georgia

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @AMurawa

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Arizona: There’s no question that this team has the talent to play into early April. But who steps forward as the leaders? That’s the key.
2. Stanford: The Chasson Randle/Anthony Brown duo is one of the best perimeter tandems in the conference, but their young big men will need to step up.
3. Colorado: The Buffs learned a lot playing without Spencer Dinwiddie for most of conference play, and they’ve got a big man in Josh Scott who’s underrated nationally.
4. Utah: The Utes have depth and talent, giving Larry Krystkowiak his best team since taking over in 2011. The next step: reversing their fortunes in close games.
5. UCLA: The talent isn’t to be questioned, but depth can be especially with Jonah Bolden being declared a partial qualifier by the NCAA.
6. California: The Golden Bears can climb into the mix for second if Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews make strides in their games, but the front court depth is a concern with Kameron Woods out with a torn ACL.
7. Washington: Robert Upshaw and Jernard Jarreau will give the Huskies needed depth in the front court, with Andrew Andrews and Nigel Williams-Goss the headliners in the backcourt.
8. Arizona State: The Pac-12’s mystery team is chock full of newcomers from the high school and junior college ranks. Remember the name Willie Atwood.
9. Oregon: Oregon’s lack of depth is a concern, but with Young being the feature offensive option this team will score points.
10. USC: Andy Enfield’s Trojans will be improved, with Jordan McLaughlin and UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt on the perimeter. But they’re a year away from a serious charge up the standings.
11. Washington State: Luckily for Wazzu, DaVonte Lacy’s back for his senior season.
12. Oregon State: This could be a rough first season for Tinkle in Corvallis, but he and his staff are off to a good start with their 2015 recruiting haul.

BYU guard Nick Emery announces retirement from basketball

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PROVO, Utah (AP) — BYU guard Nick Emery said Tuesday he is retiring from basketball following a college career that began with high expectations but that ended with him at the center of an NCAA investigation.

Emery used social media to announce he is stepping away with a year of eligibility still remaining.

“My time here has been rocky at times, but the good times definitely outweighed the bad,” Emery wrote in an Instagram post also shared to his Twitter account. “I’ve learned so many life lessons and this journey has been so rewarding. I am at a point in life where I am happy with what I’ve accomplished with basketball and I’m ready to start the next chapter of my life with my wife and son.”

The school confirmed the retirement.

“We are excited for Nick as he begins this next stage of his life,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said in a news release. “He has great things ahead.”

Emery made a splash right away at BYU, averaging a career-best 16.3 points per game during his first season and setting a BYU freshman record with 97 3-pointers. He helped the Cougars reach the semifinals of the 2016 NIT.

After playing for two years, he withdrew from school for the 2017-18 season, citing personal reasons. The 6-foot-2 guard returned to the program in 2018 and he began his third and final season serving a nine-game suspension following the NCAA investigation.

The NCAA last year placed the men’s basketball program on probation for two years and said it must vacate 47 wins from Emery’s freshman and sophomore seasons.

The NCAA said Emery received more than $12,000 in benefits from four boosters, including travel to concerts and an amusement park and the use of a new car. The NCAA also accepted the university’s self-imposed penalties of reducing one scholarship, disassociation of one of its boosters and a $5,000 fine. The NCAA didn’t identify Emery by name but the university said the case involved him.

Emery averaged 12.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game over his three seasons with the Cougars.

With grad transfer Jake Toolson joining BYU from Utah Valley for the upcoming season, Emery’s role with the Cougars would likely have been greatly reduced this fall. Toolson earned WAC Player of the Year honors as a junior after averaging 15.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists for Utah Valley.

NCAA punishes DePaul for basketball recruiting violation

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CHICAGO (AP) — The NCAA suspended DePaul men’s basketball coach Dave Leitao for the first three games of the regular season Tuesday, saying he should have done more to prevent recruiting violations by his staff.

The NCAA also put the Big East program on three years of probation, issued a $5,000 fine and said an undetermined number of games will be vacated because DePaul put an ineligible player on the floor. An unidentified former associate head coach is also facing a three-year show cause order for his role in the violations.

According to an NCAA infractions committee decision, in the Spring of 2016, the associate head coach arranged for the assistant director of basketball operations to live with a prospect to help ensure the player did the work necessary to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. That arrangement violated recruiting rules. At the time, Rick Carter was DePaul’s associate head coach and Baba Diallo was the program’s assistant director of basketball operations.

“The head coach did not promote an atmosphere of compliance because three men’s basketball staff members knew about the arrangement but did not report the violation or question whether it was allowable,” the NCAA said. “Even more troubling to the committee was the director of basketball operations stated he knew the contact was a violation but did not report it because he did not want to be disloyal, cause tension, get in the way of the associate head coach or otherwise hurt his career. … According to the committee, a culture of silence pervaded the program.”

Leitao was hired in 2015 and has pushed to return the Blue Demons to respectability in his second stint as head coach at DePaul. After a pair of nine-win seasons under Leitao, DePaul went 11-20 two years ago before going 19-17 and reaching the College Basketball Invitational championship last season, falling to South Florida in three games.

Leitao is also a former head coach at Virginia and his assistant stops include Connecticut, Missouri and Tulsa.

“The head coach did not monitor his staff when he did not actively look for red flags or ask questions about the assistant director of basketball operations’ two-week absence,” the NCAA said. “The committee recognized the head coach’s efforts to require staff attendance at compliance meetings and communicate with compliance officials, but it said he needed to do more.”

DePaul said it would not challenge the decision, but called it “disappointing.”

“This infraction was an isolated incident directed and then concealed by a former staff member that resulted in, at most, a limited recruiting advantage relative to one former student-athlete,” the university said. “Since our self-report in January 2018, DePaul has cooperated with the NCAA enforcement staff to proactively pursue the resolution of this matter and has reviewed and further strengthened related protocol and practice. … Coach Leitao is a man of character and integrity, who has the support of the administration in leading our men’s basketball program.”

DePaul was among several schools mentioned at a recent federal trial involving corruption in college basketball.

Brian Bowen Sr., father of a top recruit, testified in October that DePaul assistant coach Shane Heirman paid him $2,000 a month to send his son to an Indiana high school where Heirman coached at the time. The school responded by saying it had done its due diligence on the matter and had previously investigated the allegations.

Zion Williamson signs with Jordan Brand

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Zion Williamson may not be the next Michael Jordan, but he will be the next NBA player to don the Jumpman logo.

On Tuesday afternoon, Zion announced that he has signed with Jordan Brand, ending speculation about where the Duke product and biggest brand to enter the NBA in years, if not ever, will sign his endorsement deal.

Where Zion ended up signing was never the most interesting part of this process – although the fact that he ended up under the Swoosh’s umbrella after a Nike shoe blew out on him and nearly cost him his left knee. What we all want to know, and what is yet to be reported, are the terms of this deal.

Outside of LeBron and Jordan, I’m not sure there is a more marketable player in the NBA right now. Think about it like this: When I say Zion, even non-basketball know exactly who I’m talking about. There are only a handful of basketball players that is true for, and the only active ones are LeBron and Steph with KD and Kyrie potentially thrown in that mix.

That’s elite company, and none of those guys have the social media following or ability to go viral with the next generation of basketball fans like Zion does. He already has a global following, one which is only going to grow as he becomes more mainstream.

And while we’re on the subject, it’s worth mentioning this piece on how going to college made Zion a literal fortune. We’ll see if Nike’s investment in the 18-year old pays off.

Utah State star injures knee playing in FIBA U-20 event, reportedly not an ACL tear

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Update (11:58 ET) According to a report from SPORT TV Portugal, Neemias Queta sprained and dislocated his knee, but it doesn’t appear to be an ACL tear.

The star center for Utah State suffered a knee injury while playing for Portugal’s U-20 team in the FIBA European Championships over the weekend.

Queta landed awkwardly while trying to grab a rebound and immediately reached for his left knee. He had to be carried off the floor without putting any weight on the leg, although he was eventually able to walk through handshake lines – with an icepack on his knee – after the game.

Queta did not return for Sunday’s final, and he had his knee wrapped while using a cane while watching from the bench. Portugal won the B Division championship despite his absence.

This would be a massive loss for the Aggies, who are a top 15 team in the NBC Sports preseason rankings and the clear-cut favorite to win the Mountain West. The 6-foot-11 Queta averaged 11.8 points, 8.9 boards and 2.4 blocks while shooting 40 percent from three as a freshman.

According to reports out of Portugal, Queta is due to undergo an MRI Tuesday.

 

Ex-Tar Heel Woods comfortable back home in South Carolina

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard Seventh Woods can’t take a few steps around town these days without someone telling him it is good he came home. The former North Carolina player is happy with his latest choice, too.

“It’s been great,” Woods said Friday. “Family’s here, friends here. I’ve been getting along well with the players and the coaches.”

The 6-foot-2 Woods expected to be a collegiate force when he finished Hammond School in Columbia and picked the Tar Heels over Georgetown and South Carolina in 2016.

Instead, Woods was a backup during his time with the Tar Heels. He was part of North Carolina’s NCAA Tournament title team in 2017 but never averaged more than 11 minutes or three points a game during his three seasons in Chapel Hill . Woods missed 17 games with a broken foot during his sophomore season and averaged 2.5 points and 2.1 assists last season as backup to freshman Coby White.

In April, Woods posted on social media that it was time for a change. Woods will sit out next season per NCAA transfer rules and return to the court in 2020-21.

“I can focus on me getting into a groove,” Woods said. “Learning a new system and we didn’t want to rush anything.”

Woods, who turns 21 next month, gained attention during his middle school years for his ability to dunk and dominate opponents off the dribble at Hammond. He was a YouTube, basketball mixtape regular in the early 2010s, when ability like his was largely experienced in person watching youth games.

The buzz about Woods intensified the pressure for him to stay put and revive South Carolina. Woods felt differently.

“I just wanted to do what was best for me,” Woods said. “Going away was best for me at the time.”

Woods felt comfortable with the Tar Heels and believed it would be the best place for him to grow as a player and person.

“Only positives, all positive,” Woods said of his three years at North Carolina.

When Woods met with Martin to discuss is basketball future, the coach emphasized him taking some time away from games.

“Every time he dribbled, the crowd was sold out and every critic was out there criticizing everything he did wrong,” Martin said. “I have no idea how that young man has been able to keep the class he lives with under those circumstances.”

Woods looked at Gonzaga and Michigan before picking the Gamecocks this time. The relationship he built with Martin was rekindled the past few months and Woods was grateful to his new coach for this latest chance.

“I felt it was perfect timing just being able to come back home,” Woods said. “To come back to a coach who allowed me to come back home. That was big for me.”

Woods says he’ll spend his time improving his strength, consistency and outside shooting. He’ll be part of practices and knows that will help him develop chemistry with his future teammates.

His aspirations, as they were during middle school, are to play basketball professionally after college. He’s looking forward to a productive time off the court to recharge and improve.

“I feel like sitting out a year will be great for me and I’m going to try and use it to my advantage to make the most out of my senior year,” he said.