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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

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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.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.