Pac-12 Preview: Expect a tight race at the top

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Pac-12.

Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats were expected to win the Pac-12 in 2014-15 and that’s exactly how things played out, with Arizona winning the league’s regular season and tournament titles while leading the way in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But with four starters from that 34-4 team having moved on, the Wildcats will have a much different look this season even with the amount of talent added by Miller and his staff. That opens the door for other contenders, with multiple teams having the combination of returnees and newcomers needed to make a run at the Pac-12 crown.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Two decisions within a four-week span changed California’s expectations in a big way: With Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird back and Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo eligible to play, California was in a position to rebound from a tough 2014-15 season. But things changed when five-star prospects Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown committed within a four-week period to play for Cuonzo Martin. Now the Golden Bears are a team many have pegged as capable of not only winning the Pac-12 but making waves nationally as well.

2. Arizona reloads with a combination of transfers and highly touted freshmen: With T.J. McConnell being a senior and Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley expected to be headed to the pro ranks, Arizona prepared for the likelihood that they’d have a lot of holes to fill in their roster. So Arizona added a quartet of quality freshmen led by guard Allonzo Trier, a grad student in former San Francisco combo forward Mark Tollefsen, and two transfers who sat out last season in Kadeem Allen (redshirted after arriving from Hutchinson CC) and Ryan Anderson (Boston College). This group will join returnees led by senior center Kaleb Tarczewski in hopes of keeping the Wildcats on top of the Pac-12.

3. Bobby Hurley takes over at Arizona State: There was just one coaching change in the Pac-12, with Arizona State moving on from Herb Sendek and bringing in one of the greatest point guards in college basketball history. Hurley may have only two years of college head coaching experience under his belt but they were a productive two years, as he led Buffalo to 19 wins in 2013-14 and an NCAA tournament appearance last season. A tough non-conference schedule will test the Sun Devils before Pac-12 play begins, but Hurley can call upon players such as guards Tra Holder and Gerry Blakes and forward Savon Goodman in his debut in Tempe.

4. Just two first team All Pac-12 selections from last season return: Only the aforementioned Wallace, who’s an early frontrunner for Pac-12 Player of the Year, and Oregon State senior guard Gary Payton II (who, amidst some controversy, won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year) return to campus this season. And of the five players who earned second team all-conference honors only two (Oregon forward Elgin Cook and Utah guard Brandon Taylor) are back. That opens up a lot of slots for those two teams, especially with the conference placing ten players on its first team.

5. Oregon State added one of the best recruiting classes in program history: Much of the focus on this group will be on Tres Tinkle and Stephen Thompson Jr., due not only to their talent but also the fact that their fathers are on staff at OSU. Head coach Wayne Tinkle landed a six-member freshman class expected to give the program the additional depth and talent they missed a season ago. Oregon State won 17 games in Tinkle’s debut, and with all five starters back (led by Payton) they could make a run at the program’s first NCAA bid since 1990.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Nine of the 12 teams are returning at least three starters, so most of the teams are returning a lot of experience and a lot of those teams had good seasons on top of that. I think the league’s going to be deeper than it was last year, and I thought it was good last year. I expect Arizona, Cal, UCLA, Utah and Oregon that either return a lot or are bringing in a lot of heralded players. So I think those are the teams people are expecting to have really strong seasons.”
  • Best player: “I think Tyrone Wallace is poised to have a really good year. He’s a senior, and all the experience he’s gained I expect him to have a big year. Jakob Poeltl’s poised to have a really good sophomore season as he’s really talented, and I think Josh Scott too. The injuries really slowed his (junior) year down, and you could tell he just wasn’t right. If he’s healthy he’s formidable as well.”
  • Most underrated player: “A player who to me doesn’t get the respect he really deserves is Bryce Alford. I think the expectations on him are so high, and having competed against him and watching his game I think he’s an underrated player.”

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyrone Wallace, California

Wallace returns to Berkeley as one of the top point guards (and players, period) in the country. As a junior the Bakersfield native averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, and he was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award as a result. With the amount of talent around him, Wallace will be able to continue to be a playmaker while not having as much pressure on him to score.

THE REST OF THE ALL PAC-12 FIRST TEAM:

  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State: Payton ranked first on his team in scoring, rebounding and steals and second in assists and blocks last season.
  • Jaylen Brown, California: In a conference that won’t lack for talented freshmen, this Georgia native may be the best of the bunch. He’ll play multiple positions for the Golden Bears.
  • Elgin Cook, Oregon: One could argue that teammate Dillon Brooks would be a good choice here. But don’t overlook Cook, who averaged 13.0 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last season.
  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah: Poeltl (9.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg) didn’t land on either all-conference team last season, but he’s added some weight and has the tools needed to make sure that doesn’t happen this time around.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Ryan Anderson and Ray Smith, Arizona
  • Bryce Alford and Jonah Bolden, UCLA
  • Brandon Taylor, Utah
  • Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
  • Ivan Rabb, California

BREAKOUT STAR: Dillon Brooks, Oregon

Brooks was one of the top freshmen in the Pac-12 last season, averaging 11.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per contest. He, like teammate Tyler Dorsey (Greece), made a positive impression at the FIBA U19 World Championships (18.8 ppg) this summer and earned a spot on Canada’s silver medal squad at the Pan-American games as well. With Joseph Young in the NBA the Ducks will need Brooks to step forward as a scorer, and he’s capable of doing so.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Lorenzo Romar, Washington

The Huskies haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2011 and they missed out on postseason play in each of the last two years. What works in Romar’s favor is the fact that they’ve recruited well in the 2015 class, and they’ve got a five-star prospect in Markelle Fultz coming in next season. The Huskies will be very young this year, which may provide a buffer of sorts for the coaching staff.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : can any of these team’s end the Pac-12’s Final Four dry spell?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : the race for the Pac-12 title, which should be tight throughout.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • December 3, Kentucky at UCLA
  • December 4, Oregon vs. UNLV (at MGM Grand, Las Vegas)
  • December 5, Arizona at Gonzaga
  • December 19, Utah vs. Duke (in New York)
  • December 22, California at Virginia

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW@pachoopsab

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Arizona: The newcomers may be the focus, but mainstays such as Tarczewski, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Gabe York will be just as important for this group.
2. Oregon: Losing Joseph Young hurts, but their returnees don’t lack for talent and the additions have given them needed depth on the perimeter (Dorsey, Dylan Ennis) and in the paint (Chris Boucher).
3. California: The talent is most certainly there for a Pac-12 title run. But do the Golden Bears have the interior depth (Kameron Rooks missed last season with a torn ACL) they need to get it done?
4. Utah: The one starter who didn’t return (Delon Wright) was a huge factor, but the Runnin’ Utes have enough back to make this prediction look conservative come March.
5. UCLA: The additions of Aaron Holiday and Jonah Bolden certainly help as the Bruins look to account for the loss of NBA draft pick Norman Parker.
6. Oregon State: Is this the year that Oregon State’s NCAA tournament drought ends? It could be, depending upon how the newcomers and returnees mesh.
7. Arizona State: Four of the team’s top five scorers from last season return, and South Plains JC transfer gives them another perimeter scoring option.
8. Colorado: Josh Scott’s one of the top post players in the Pac-12. But the Buffaloes will need breakthrough seasons from Dominique Collier and George King in light of Xavier Johnson’s Achilles injury.
9. USC: The Trojans are young but they won’t lack for talent, especially with freshman forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu in the fold. They need Jordan McLaughlin to stay healthy though.
10. Stanford: The triumvirate of Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic have moved on, leaving Johnny Dawkins with a young team that includes sophomores Robert Cartwright, Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey.
11. Washington: Senior guard Andrew Andrews will lead an incredibly young team, with freshmen such as Dejounte Murray, Marquese Chriss and Noah Dickerson among those who will compete for minutes.
12. Washington State: Josh Hawkinson, the league’s most improved player last season, is back as are two other starters. But the loss of DaVonte’ Lacy leaves a big void for Ernie Kent to account for.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.