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.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot to be ‘out a while’

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North Carolina’s freshman center Armando Bacot suffered a left ankle injury in the first half of Wednesday night’s game against Ohio State and did not return.

Bacot, who came down on a defender’s foot and had to be helped off of the floor, immediately when back to the locker.

“It was swollen by the time he got to the locker room,” coach Roy Williams said. “My guess is he’ll be out a while.”

The 6-foot-10 Bacot was averaging 11.7 points and 9.6 boards and was coming off of his best game of the season, when he posted 23 points, 12 boards and six blocks while playing a season-high 30 minutes against Oregon.

Michigan, Kentucky schedule basketball game in London

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan and Kentucky have agreed to play a basketball game in London next season as part of a three-year deal that also includes a home-and-home series between the two programs.

Michigan announced the deal Thursday. The teams will play at O2 Arena in London in December 2020. The teams will meet at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor in 2021 and at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in 2022.

“When the idea of playing Kentucky came up, we knew it would be an exciting opportunity, not only for ourselves, but for our fans as well,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “What a unique three-game series. First, we get to showcase collegiate basketball overseas in London before playing that traditional home-and-home series in front of two of the nation’s best basketball environments.”

The teams have met seven times previously, with Kentucky holding a 5-2 edge. The Wildcats beat Michigan in a 2014 Elite Eight game in their most recent contest. When Howard was a player at Michigan, his Wolverines beat Kentucky in a 1993 national semifinal.

Film Room: How Ohio State handed North Carolina their worst loss in nearly two decades

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At this point, no one should be surprised when Chris Holtmann does something smart as a head coach, and I certainly was not surprised to see him find a way to smother North Carolina on the defensive side of the ball on Wednesday night.

In a 74-49 win in the Dean Dome, the worst home loss the Tar Heels have taken since 2002, when Matt Doherty was in charge, the Buckeyes held North Carolina to just 27.8 percent shooting from the floor. They shot 25.6 percent on two-point field goal attempts, the lowest number of the Roy Williams era. And I think so much of it had to do with what Holtmann did defensively on Cole Anthony.

The game-plan was, frankly, pretty simple. When Anthony had the ball, Ohio State climbed up in him, they hedged hard on all ball-screens and they sent bodies at him whenever he put the ball on the floor to drive. They made a conscious decision to force Anthony into either playing 1-on-2 and 1-on-3 or giving the ball up to a teammate. As soon as he gave the ball up, they face-guarded him. Full denial, even if it meant playing 4-on-4 for the rest of that possession.

And it worked.

Starting point guard C.J. Walker did the heavy lifting on Anthony, but he was hardly the only one. Luther Muhammad started out on Anthony before getting into four trouble and playing just nine minutes. D.J. Carton, Andre Wesson and Duane Washington all took a shot at UNC’s freshman stud as well. That’s a lot of bodies, all of whom have some size, some length and some athleticism and happen to be good individual defenders. Anthony got tired before they did.

This method was effective mainly due to the fact that because is one of the nation’s elite defenses. Combining all those athletic wings with a center in Kaleb Wesson that dropped the baby fat this summer is a luxury for Holtmann.

But it wasn’t all Ohio State.

Because what became painfully obvious for those that had not yet recognized it is that North Carolina has a startling lack of offensive weaponry. It’s almost like losing five NBA players to the draft is tough to deal with.

No matter who is on the floor with him, defenses are going to dedicate the majority of their attention to Anthony. He’s a game-changing talent. We saw him blow the game wide open against Notre Dame in the opener. He’s going to be the most dangerous player on the floor in just about every game he plays this season. But with a limited supporting cast to rely on, this is the decision Ohio State forced Roy Williams into:

1. Allow Anthony to go full iso-ball and try to win this game on his own taking deep, contested threes off the dribble or driving into two or three defenders; or

2. Run offense for the other guys on the roster even if the shots they are getting are tough shots for them. To put this into context, watch the clip below:

North Carolina ran that first play for Cam Johnson, the No. 11 pick in the draft, last season. This year it’s Brandon Robinson. In past seasons, the guy getting the post touch in the second clip was Kennedy Meeks, or Luke Maye, or Brice Johnson. Last night, it was Brandon Huffman. When they’re running pick-and-pop action like the third clip, it’s Garrison Brooks, not Maye, that is taking those jumpers.

If you’re coaching against North Carolina, I think you’re just five with Brooks shooting 17-footers. That’s the shot you live with.

Now, to be clear, Robinson is not a bad player. In fact, he’s significantly better than I realized coming into the season. And the x-factor here is that Armando Bacot played just seven minutes before spraining his ankle. He may “be our for a while,” as Roy Williams put it after the game, and even then, he’s been much better was a guy that cleans up misses than as a go-to scorer in the post. According to Synergy, he’s scored just .769 points-per-possession on post-ups, which is in the 42nd percentile nationally. You just saw all four of the post-up buckets he’s scored against high-major foes this season.

Bacot is a monster on the offensive glass, and his return will help keep defenses honest because of that. Sell out on a Cole Anthony drive like this, and Bacot is putting that miss back with a tip-dunk.

But that only mitigates the issue North Carolina has this season.

They don’t have enough talent around Cole Anthony.

Three Things to Know: Big Ten dominates, DePaul stays perfect, Georgetown wins

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It turned out to be a pretty wild night of basketball Wednesday. Purdue absolutely stomped Virginia. Villanova had trouble with Penn. Ohio State thumped North Carolina.

There is more where that came from, though, so here’s what else you need to know from a busy night of hoops around the country.

1. The Big Ten dominated the ACC in the challenge’s final night

As noted above, the Big Ten not only took care of business in the two highest-profile games of the third and final night of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but absolutely walloped their opponents. Truly, Purdue and Ohio State embarrassed Virginia and North Carolina.

That wasn’t the limits of the Big Ten’s success, however.

Third-ranked Maryland decimated Notre Dame (72-51) and Penn State smacked Wake Forest (76-54). Georgia Tech did beat Nebraska (73-56), and NC State outlasted Wisconsin (69-54), in the lower-tier games.

What we learned Wednesday was that the Big Ten’s strength at the top of the conference is legit, which may have been somewhat in question – at least in the immediate, attention-span deficient times we live in – after Michigan and Michigan State took losses to Louisville and Duke, respectively, last night.

The headliners, though, are what count Wednesday. What Purdue and Ohio State did sends the message that the Big Ten looks to have a real claim on being the country’s toughest conference.

2. DePaul trending up, Texas Tech not so much

Given just how bad DePaul has been in recent years – they avoided finishing out of the Big East cellar just twice in 10 years – it’s been fair to wonder how real this undefeated start to the season has been.

By beating Texas Tech, 65-60 in overtime, the Blue Demons made some progress in quieting doubts about the potential of this being a tournament team.

Dave Leitao’s team now has three wins against top-75 KenPom teams, with two (Minnesota and Iowa) coming on the road. They also knocked off Boston College on the road. Hey, the Eagles are still an ACC team.

Their statistical profile still isn’t great – they don’t shoot it all that well, they don’t take a lot of 3s and they aren’t strong on the boards – but they’re winning. All they’re doing is winning, actually.

It’s certainly a team with a lot of improved talent, and at some point, talent and track record have to take over from a history of losing.

That time appears to be quickly approaching.

As for Texas Tech, Chris Beard’s preseason top-10 team has now lost three straight to a trio of teams – Iowa, Creighton and DePaul – that aren’t expected to compete for conference titles, even if they ultimately prove themselves solid, tournament-level teams.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising to see the Red Raiders struggle given the amount of turnover from last year’s national runners-up, but unless they figure out a way to beat top-ranked Louisville on a neutral floor Tuesday, they’re going to enter conference play with the best win on their resume being Eastern Illinois (KenPom: 245). That’s not a great place to be.

3. Georgetown wins at Oklahoma State

This is a hard one to get a handle on.

On one hand, the Hoyas got a nice road win against a solid Oklahoma State team after losing two major contributors earlier this week.

On the other hand, Georgetown had two players on the floor against the Cowboys who are facing serious accusations of wrongdoing. Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing released a statement saying no player gets “special treatment,” but it still seems strange to see the Hoyas allow players under an unsettled cloud of accusations to take the floor.

A road win against a Big 12 opponent, even if the Cowboys were down a starter, is going to help the Hoyas build a resume that’s going to be much harder to compile without James Akinjo – whose departure is separate from any legal issues his former teammates are having – and Josh LeBlanc, but the way this is being handled makes that seem beside the point.

No. 6 Ohio State hands No. 7 UNC worst home loss in 17 years

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Duane Washington scored 14 points, E.J. Liddell added 12 points off the bench and Ohio State held Cole Anthony to 4-for-15 shooting as the No. 6 Buckeyes went into the Dean Dome and treated No. 7 North Carolina like they were the Michigan football team.

The final score was 74-49. It’s North Carolina’s worst loss since losing by 26 points at Miami in 2013. It’s their worst home loss since the Matt Doherty era, when then-No. 1 Duke won by 29 points in the Dean Dome in 2002.

That isn’t pretty.

Here are the three things to take away from this performance:

1. NORTH CAROLINA DOES NOT HAVE ENOUGH HELP FOR COLE ANTHONY

Cole Anthony is a stud. He’s one of the most entertaining scorers in all of college basketball, and he is going to spend the majority of this season putting up absolutely monstrous numbers.

The problem is that he is going to have to put up those numbers if the Tar Heels are going to have a chance to win at anywhere near the level they expect, because there is a real dearth of scoring firepower on the roster around him.

You want proof?

The Tar Heels have yet to break 80 points in a single game this season. That’s not the norm for Roy Williams’ teams.

Now, to be clear, North Carolina played the majority of this game without Armando Bacot – we’ll get to that – and he is the second-best scoring option on this roster. So that certainly played a role in UNC’s struggles, as did the fact that Ohio State is the second-best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom.

But there are going to be plenty of games this season where the Tar Heels have to square off with teams that are really good defensively. And this game was played in the Dean Dome. UNC cannot blame a 27.4 percent shooting performance entirely on their opponent.

The truth is this simple: The Tar Heels have a bunch of pieces on their roster that should thrive in a role. Brandon Robinson is a good defender, a good passer and a guy that can make open jumpers. Garrison Brooks can get to the offensive glass and bang in the paint defensively. Leaky Black has the kind of length and versatility everyone is looking for.

But none of them have played well enough to be the third-option offensively for a team with ACC title and Final Four aspirations. The grad transfers, Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce, are nothing more than bench options, and rightfully so.

That means the Tar Heels are in a tough spot.

2. ARMANDO BACOT’S ANKLE INJURY SOUNDS BAD

I just spent 400 words explaining to you why North Carolina needs secondary scoring options alongside Cole Anthony.

Their best secondary scorer is Armando Bacot. He sprained his left ankle in the first five minutes of Wednesday night’s game. Roy Williams told reporters after the game that “he may be out awhile.”

North Carolina plays at Virginia on Sunday. They play at Gonzaga Dec. 18th. Uh oh.

3. THIS WAS AN OHIO STATE-MENT

First and foremost, yes.

I said that.

It wasn’t an editor.

It was me.

And it was good.

Second of all, this isn’t exactly breaking news, but this Ohio State team is awesome. As of this very moment, they rank second overall on KenPom, behind only Louisville. They are the nation’s second-best defense, and they are allowing just 0.781 points-per-possession on the season. (That’s really good.)

We all thought we knew this already. The Buckeyes beat Cincinnati at home. They blew out Villanova at home. But Cincinnati has been terrible since then, Villanova was playing their first road game of the season with a really young team and we had yet to see the Buckeyes play away from home. Like Louisville on Tuesday night, this was a chance for Ohio State to make themselves known on a national stage with everyone watching.

They did.

But here’s why this win was so impressive to me: It’s the second-worst loss that North Carolina has experienced at home in the last 56 years, and it came on a night where Luther Muhammad played just nine minutes and Kaleb Wesson finished with just 10 points, nine boards and six turnovers.

The Buckeyes can win when their best players don’t play well, because A) They’re deep and balanced, B) They are a team built on their defense and C) They are as well-coached as anyone in the country.

The Big Ten is absolutely loaded at the top this year.

And Ohio State may be the best of the bunch.

Which means they may be the best team in the country.

Who saw that coming?