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Big Ten Conference Preview: This is Michigan State’s league to lose

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.

The Big Ten is going to be a fascinating league to watch this season as they have a national title contender in Michigan State and a few teams near the top of the standings who aren’t usually this strong.

Still hoping for a first national championship since 2000, the Big Ten has some unfamiliar faces near the top of the preseason standings.

Minnesota and Northwestern are both among the league’s elite teams after returning nearly full rosters from NCAA tournament teams from last season.

Most of the rest of the league, however, remains a mystery as new head coaches and rosters of new players are a common theme for the league.


MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Miles Bridges (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Michigan State returns almost everyone (including Miles Bridges) and is poised for a title run

Last year saw an up-and-down season from a young-and-depleted Michigan State team that still overachieved and managed to make the NCAA tournament despite starting an abundance of freshmen. This year, with nearly everyone back besides for Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III, the Spartans are poised for a potential national championship run.

The return of Miles Bridges for his sophomore season was the key to Michigan State being in this current position. The 6-foot-7 Bridges is the consensus Preseason National Player of the Year after a monster freshman season. A lottery pick had he gone into the 2017 NBA Draft, Bridges will likely have dozens of ridiculous plays this season as he remains one of the most exciting players college basketball has seen over the last five seasons.

While Bridges returning was a big key for Sparty’s potential title hopes, Michigan State also returns plenty of solid talent around him. Fellow sophomores Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward are all back as each of them could take a leap after promising freshman seasons. Langford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout year on the wing now that he is fully healthy. Ward has a chance to be one of the Big Ten’s better bigs and Winston should be more equipped to handling a full time point guard role.

Besides the promising sophomore core, the Spartans are loaded with experienced veteran role players who will play a big part. Senior point guard Tum Tum Nairn should command a healthy amount of minutes in the backcourt as he is one of the more battle-tested lead guards in the nation. Matt McQuaid, a junior shooter, is also back and fully healthy after a down sophomore season.

Michigan State also received a huge lift on the interior as senior Gavin Schilling, a former starter, returns from a season-ending injury while former UNLV transfer Ben Carter was granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA. McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson Jr. is another huge boost to the Spartans’ frontcourt rotation as he is a potential lottery pick who can space the floor at 6-foot-11.

The Spartans have depth, experience, talent and star power but they’ll have to get more consistent point-guard play to truly reach their ceiling. If Nairn can become a more reliable perimeter shooter and Winston steps up his play then expect Michigan State to be among the nation’s elite this season.

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Nate Mason  (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

2. Minnesota, Northwestern remain near the top after returning most of their rosters 

Michigan State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten but a solid second tier of teams sits right behind them in the Big Ten pecking order this season.

After a breakout season that saw 24 wins and an NCAA tournament appearance, Minnesota has a chance to take another step forward since they only lose senior Akeem Springs off of last year’s team. All-league point guard Nate Mason is back for his senior season to lead the charge for the Gophers as he is flanked by solid contributors at multiple spots on the floor. Juniors Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer are both returning double-figure scorers while sophomore Amir Coffey could have a huge season if he takes an additional step from a positive freshman season. Shot-blocking menace Reggie Lynch is also back in the middle after setting a school record for blocks and earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Northwestern is also hoping to take a step forward as most of the core from last season’s Round of 32 squad is back. After finally making the Big Dance for the first time in 2017, expectations are sky-high for the Wildcats. Senior Bryant McIntosh is back handling the point for the Wildcats as the four-year starter is one of the most experienced players in the nation. If McIntosh can regain his perimeter shooting touch then he could finish out a storied career in memorable fashion. Senior shooting guard Scottie Lindsey is also back as he’s one of the Big Ten’s better scorers while junior forward Vic Law is a strong two-way player who provides good athleticism in the frontcourt. Dererk Pardon, a junior big man, could also factor more into the offense this season as his skill level continues to grow.

The major question for both of these teams is how they will deal with being the hunted? Just one year ago, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino was essentially coaching for his job and Northwestern was still the only power conference school to never make the NCAA Tournament. But after last season’s success, these two teams aren’t sneaking up on anybody anymore.

Both Minnesota and Northwestern have the depth and talent to be consistent top-25 teams all season, but how will they handle this new pressure?

Vince Edwards (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

3. Purdue remains a contender despite the loss of Caleb Swanigan

“Biggie” Swanigan is the most irreplaceable player in the Big Ten. A double-double machine during his sophomore season, the All-American big man has moved on to the NBA after being a dominant force in college basketball last season. Purdue just won’t be the same without him.

But even with Swanigan leaving early for the NBA, Purdue is still in a very strong position to be one of the Big Ten’s best teams. Most of the rest of the roster returns. The frontcourt of seniors Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards are both very productive and efficient and they are surrounded by plenty of high-caliber shooters. P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias are both seniors who have plenty of experience in big-game situations. Junior Ryan Cline is another perimeter threat that the Boilermakers can bring off the bench,

The key for Purdue is going to be the play of sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. A talented shotmaker who can be reckless at times, Edwards has the ability to make a huge impact if he can be more efficient. If Edwards becomes a guard who can create shots for himself and others on a consistent basis then Purdue should still be in strong position to win a few games in the NCAA tournament.

4. Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin have question marks after valuable losses

Gutted with losses to the NBA Draft, some of the Big Ten’s familiar faces have to replace go-to players with new faces this season. And, unlike Purdue replacing Caleb Swanigan, these teams have plenty of holes to fix.

The past three seasons, Maryland relied heavily on point guard Melo Trimble’s clutch play and ability to create offense. Without Trimble, who left for the the NBA, head coach Mark Turgeon will count on a trio of sophomores this season. Point guard Anthony Cowan assumes the lead-guard responsibilities from Trimble for the Terps after playing plenty off the ball last season. Shooting guard Kevin Huerter is a noted perimeter scorer who is coming off of an appearance this summer for the USA Basketball U19 team. Forward Justin Jackson could be the difference in Maryland being a contender or a normal team. The 6-foot-7 Jackson showed that he could be one of the Big Ten’s best players last season during certain games but he also faltered down the stretch and has to complete a full season of being a productive player. If Maryland gets strong production from the sophomores, they have enough depth at other positions to still be among the league’s best teams.

After peaking at the right time last season, Michigan has to replace point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and big man D.J. Wilson. Walton is going to be tough to replace but Michigan is hoping that a combination of graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons and sophomore Zavier Simpson can do the trick. Simmons has been one of the MAC’s best players the past few seasons and Simpson is a former top-100 recruit, so there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the Wolverines will still get solid guard play. Replacing Wilson might be harder. While junior forward Mo Wagner is back as one of the league’s more unique offensive threats, Wilson’s defensive presence will surely be missed by the Wolverines.

And what do we make of Wisconsin? Head coach Greg Gard inherited an experienced and talented roster from predecessor Bo Ryan. Unfortunately, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown all exhausted their eligibilities as Ethan Happ is the team’s only returning double-figure scorer. This is a huge test for the Badgers and Gard. It was always a minimum expectation of Bo Ryan and Wisconsin to at least make the NCAA tournament, regardless of who was on the roster. The Badgers are the only team in the country to make the Sweet 16 six of the last seven seasons. If Gard can make it work and bring Wisconsin back to the NCAAs then he’s definitely the heir apparent to his former boss. But Wisconsin will have to clear up an uncertain backcourt situation while playing a lot of unproven big men along with Happ.

5. There are new coaches to watch at Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State

Some of the classic Big Ten programs are going to have new coaches at the helm this season.

Taking over at Illinois, former Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood has had a tremendous amount of success at Stephen F. Austin and with the Cowboys as he led both programs to NCAA tournament appearances in his first year on the job. That is unlikely to happen at Illinois this season but Underwood’s track record gives them a puncher’s chance. Replacing senior scorer Malcolm Hill will be next to impossible but the Illini have some strong young pieces like freshman guards Mark Smith and Trent Frazier.

Indiana finally made a move to replace Tom Crean as former Dayton head coach Archie Miller is the new architect. The Hoosiers don’t have a lot of proven returning players but Miller is also a coach who is used to doing more with less. Remember, Miller once took Dayton to the NCAA Tournament with six scholarship players at the start of a conference season, so he’s done some ridiculous coaching in the past. Senior guard Robert Johnson will be expected to score at a high level and Miller has already made a positive impression on the recruiting trail with his first two groups.

Things get slightly tougher at Ohio State as Chris Holtmann replaced Thad Matta in the middle of June. The Buckeyes have some solid veterans in Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Keita Bates-Diop but most of the rest of the roster has been gutted following Matta’s departure. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, Holtmann has already landed plenty of positive recruits for next season, and it wouldn’t surprise many people if Ohio State exceeded expectations with its current roster.


Brad Underwood (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Just enjoy this while it lasts. Bypassing a potential spot in the NBA Draft lottery, the explosive 6-foot-7 Bridges gets a chance to play more on the wing this season now that Michigan State is healthy on the interior. If Bridges can prove that he’s just as talented playing on the wing, then he could elevate into a top three pick.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: The redshirt junior big man is hoping to expand his range after being strictly an interior scorer his first two seasons. Happ remains one of the league’s best defenders and rebounders.
  • Nate Mason, Minnesota: Outstanding during his junior season (15.2 pts, 5.0 ast, 3.6 reb) if Mason can improve his 37 percent shooting then he’ll be one of the nation’s best floor generals.
  • Vincent Edwards, Purdue: Overshadowed by Caleb Swanigan the past two years, this senior forward could have a breakout year after quietly putting up 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game last season.
  • Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern: Poised to shatter the Northwestern career assists record, the senior point guard could have a huge year if his perimeter jumper returns to form.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Moritz Wagner, Michigan
  • Justin Jackson, Maryland
  • Tyler Cook, Iowa
  • Vic Law, Northwestern
  • Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State

BREAKOUT STARJustin Jackson, Maryland

Maryland needs to find a new go-to player now that Melo Trimble has moved on to the pros and this 6-foot-7 sophomore could be in line for a lot more production. Capable of playing on the wing or as a stretch-4, Jackson put up some monster double-doubles as a freshman in the middle of Big Ten play last season, but his play faltered down the stretch. If Jackson can become more consistent on the offensive end, he also should be a menace on the defensive end while contributing on the glass. A big year for Jackson could mean a huge leap up NBA Draft boards.

Justin Jackson (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tim Miles, Nebraska

At one point a few seasons ago, Nebraska looked like it was on the verge of becoming a perennial postseason contender. Nebraska made the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, Miles was the Big Ten Coach of the Year and the Huskers had the tremendous home-court advantage at the sold-out Pinnacle Bank Arena. While the Nebraska fanbase is still one of best in the nation, the Huskers have struggled to three consecutive losing seasons as they have finished 11th or 12th in the Big Ten the past three seasons. With many predicting Nebraska to once again be among the Big Ten’s worst teams this preseason, can Miles win enough to keep his job safe?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Michigan State has a great chance to be the Big Ten’s first national champion since 2000.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

I’m most excited to get another year of Miles Bridges. This wasn’t supposed to happen. And now that the lottery pick is back for his sophomore season, I’m expecting some ridiculous dunks for a fun-to-watch national title contender.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/13, Minnesota at Providence
  • 11/14, Michigan State vs. Duke, Champions Classic (Chicago)
  • 11/28, Louisville at Purdue, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/29, Miami at Minnesota, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/30, Notre Dame at Michigan State, ACC-Big Ten Challenge

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigTenNetwork

POWER RANKINGS

1. Michigan State: The Spartans have it all as they are clearly the class of the Big Ten. Having a Player of the Year favorite, a lot of depth and talent is a major plus for Michigan State but they also have the pressure of trying to win the national title this season.
2. Purdue: Losing Caleb Swanigan will hurt but this Boilermaker team is still capable of winning a lot of games. The key could be the play of sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. If Edwards can improve his shot selection and run a more efficient offense then he brings a new offensive dimension for Purdue.
3. Minnesota: Returning nearly everyone from last season’s surprise NCAA Tournament team, the Gophers have strong guard play (Nate Mason), capable wing scorers (Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer) and an experienced rim protector (Reggie Lynch). If this team can add some quality depth at guard then they don’t have many holes and could be in line for a Sweet 16 run.
4. Northwestern: Now that Northwestern has finally made the Big Dance, they can focus on returning and advancing even further. The core of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are all back while the Wildcat bench should be improved over last season.
5. Michigan: Head coach John Beilein has plenty of weapons, but he also returns only two players who started more than three games for the Wolverines last season. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews could be a big difference as he’s the type of two-way wing that Michigan needs right away.
6. Maryland: Melo Trimble is finally gone. But Mark Turgeon has a strong sophomore class and an intriguing group of upperclass vets. If big man Michal Cekovsky and guard Dion Wiley can stay healthy and productive then Maryland can finish much higher than this.
7. Wisconsin: This season’s Badgers will be a major test to see if Greg Gard can make Wisconsin a perennial NCAA Tournament contender like Bo Ryan did. Having Ethan Happ back helps, but Gard is going to have questions at almost every other position. Point guard play could be critical for Wisconsin.
8. Iowa: Replacing Peter Jok is going to be difficult but the Hawkeyes still return nine players who averaged at lease 12 minutes per game last season. Somebody has to step up and replace Jok’s scoring, but Iowa has the depth and experience to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Illinois: The frontcourt features loads of questions and the backcourt is young but Illinois is not going to be an easy out this season. The key will be junior forwards Leron Black and Michael Finke. If both can be productive then the Illini have a chance to surprise.
10. Indiana: Robert Johnson is the team’s only known threat but there are plenty of former top-100 recruits on the roster. Junior forward Juwan Morgan has shown some positive flashes while senior point guard Josh Newkirk has seen plenty of minutes during his college career.
11. Penn State: There is plenty of young talent to get excited about at Penn State but they need to make a leap up the league standings this season. Guards Tony Carr and Shep Garner can both score while forward Lamar Stevens had a very productive freshman season. If Penn State can improve in tight games, they could be a surprise.
12. Ohio State: The Chris Holtmann era begins with a depleted roster and the hope that upperclass leaders can still be effective. Although the Buckeyes are down a few scholarship players, senior guards Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams and junior forward Keita Bates-Diop are all capable Big Ten players.
13. Nebraska: The Huskers have hovered near the bottom of the Big Ten standings the past three years and this year looks no different. Junior point guard Glynn Watson Jr. is a promising returner but most of the rest of Nebraska’s roster features inconsistent veterans and unproven young players.
14. Rutgers: Steve Pikiell did a great job of improving the Rutgers defense in year one but a massive talent overhaul is still necessary. The backcourt tandem of Corey Sanders and Mike Williams is solid while senior forward Deshawn Freeman is a double-double threat. The rest of the roster has major questions marks.

Jay Wright on double-duty with Villanova, USA Basketball

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Jay Wright immediately accepted a chance to be an assistant coach with USA Basketball for this year’s World Cup.

And then he checked his calendar.

Villanova students are headed back to school this week — while the Villanova men’s basketball coach will be halfway around the world for the next month or so. It has been, and will continue being, a major schedule challenge for Wright as he’s tasked with both helping USA Basketball win a gold medal while his players are on campus getting ready to start their seasons.

“It was a snap ‘yes.’ That’s the problem,” Wright said. “And then after you think about it, you’re like, ‘wow.’ Only then do you realize what you’re missing at home.”

To be clear, Wright said this is a problem only half-seriously.

Logistical matters weren’t going to keep him from being part of the staff of assistants that include Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce — all working under USA Basketball head men’s coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

“This is basketball heaven,” Wright said.

It’s not uncommon for college coaches like Wright to be part of the USA Basketball mix, which can collide with college calendars. At the most recent World Cup in 2014, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim was one of the assistants — and that tournament ended in mid-September.

But at this tournament, which starts Aug. 31 in China with the Americans playing their first game against the Czech Republic a day later, Wright is the only college coach on the U.S. roster. Popovich, Kerr and Pierce all have some time before their ‘real’ teams start practice. Wright doesn’t have that luxury.

“He’s kind of doing double-duty right now,” Popovich said. “He’s keeping touch with his kids, and obviously doing a great job with the USA team. But he hasn’t forgotten about his Villanova guys.”

To make this work, Wright rearranged Villanova’s summer schedule, everything from player workouts to coaching meetings. He was able to do his usual gamut of recruiting, but his usual start-of-semester matters like meeting with parents and having newcomers get acclimated now will fall on his staff of assistants until he returns.

“You don’t say no to this,” Wright said.

The Americans needed a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles before arriving in Melbourne, Australia, where they resumed practice on Monday. They’ll play three games in Australia, the first of those coming on Thursday, before heading to China next week.

“Longest flight I’ve been on, but I’m happy to be here,” Boston’s Jayson Tatum said.

Popovich believes in a style of coaching where everyone gets a chance to argue all parts of the game — a participatory approach, like he uses in San Antonio. Wright is primarily helping with the U.S. defensive schemes, but he also gets his opportunity to offer suggestions for the offensive plans. And he’s usually one of the last coaches still working on the floor after practice, running groups through shooting drills.

“We’re meeting in the morning, watching film, meeting with the team, practicing, going back, watching film, then watching film with the team,” Wright said. “And then we all go to dinner, but all we talk about at dinner is basketball.”

Wright guided Villanova to national championships in 2016 and 2018. Over the last four seasons, only Gonzaga has won more games than the Villanova — the Bulldogs have 130 wins, the Wildcats 129. And he has plenty of USA Basketball experience, like a gold medal as coach at the 2005 World University Games and a select team coach before the 2010 World Cup and 2016 Olympic runs by the senior national team.

Despite his experience, Wright notes that being around coaches like Popovich, Kerr and Pierce for umpteen hours a day has been a basketball education.

“It’s such an incredible opportunity,” Wright said. “We’re only a couple weeks in and I’ve already learned so much that I can bring back to our team. It’s incredible. Honestly, I feel like I’ve grown in two weeks as a coach, as a leader, more than I have in the last 10 years.”

Pounding Nails: Mick Cronin’s plan to recast UCLA from blue-blood to blue collar

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Four months into his tenure, the players that he inherited as the new UCLA head coach have yet to experience a vintage Mick Cronin blowup.

They’ve seen them, mind you.

They pull up the YouTube videos on their phones. It’s something that the staff and the players laugh about it. But watching Mt. Cronin erupt on Ted Valentine, J.P. Macura or whoever Rob is is very different than experiencing first-hand the wrath of a man who once missed a season because he, quite literally, blew a gasket.

“I can tell it’s there,” Chris Smith, a junior wing and one of the elder statesmen on this UCLA roster. “We’ve seen snippets of it in practice.”

“He will get fiery,” added freshman Jaime Jaquez, “but he’s being patient.”

And there’s a reason for that.

(Which I’ll get to.)

Jesus Ramirez/UCLA

After 13 seasons as the head coach at Cincinnati, after rebuilding the Bearcats from the ground up, Cronin left the city where he was born to become the tenth man in the last 44 years tasked with getting UCLA basketball back to where it was under John Wooden. The hire did not come with a ton of fanfare; in fact, Cronin was, at best, UCLA’s fourth choice. They wanted Jamie Dixon, but they couldn’t negotiate their way around his buyout. The same can be said for Rick Barnes, who publicly stated that he would be the head coach of the Bruins right now if the program had ponied up enough. UCLA chased John Calipari, and while it’s obvious that Coach Cal was using them to get a raise out of Kentucky, the Bruins believed there was a real chance they could get a deal done.

The fact that Cronin was not UCLA’s first choice had nothing to do with the level of success he achieved with the Bearcats. There are six programs in college basketball that have been to the NCAA tournament the past nine seasons. Cincinnati is one of them. Michigan State, Gonzaga, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are the other five. Cronin is the only coach on that list that isn’t either in the Hall of Fame today or a lead pipe lock to be inducted in the very near future.

“A program like UCLA, winning is expected,” redshirt senior Prince Ali said. “He’s bringing that pedigree.”

Out of context, that level of consistency is remarkable.

In context, it’s even more impressive.

(I promise, I’m getting to the point.)

Remember, when Cronin took the Cincinnati job, it was at the height of the Big East’s powers in hoops. When he was hired, he had just two players on the roster, one of which was Connor Barwin, a walk-on recruited from the football team and a future NFL player. In his third season, the Big East had three No. 1 seeds in the tournament and a Final Four appearance. The first year Cincinnati reached the Big Dance, they were one of 11 schools from the conference to get a bid.

Making Cincinnati matter in a conference that was that strong was no easy task.

And that success was borne out of the one thing that, as it stands, is nowhere to be found in Westwood.

(We’ve arrived.)

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Cronin developed a specific brand for his Cincinnati program. They were tough. They were physical. They were going to grind you down defensively. They were going to win the battle of the boards. They were going to play that open stance defense.

More importantly, the players on the roster knew what to expect. They had been recruited by the Cincinnati staff. Those relationships would often last six years, from the time Cronin could start recruiting them as juniors in high school through their senior season in college. They went to Cincinnati because they wanted to be coached the way Cronin coaches, because they thought they could thrive playing the way Cronin’s teams play. They picked Cincinnati for a reason.

More importantly, they knew everything that was expected of them. There was a familiarity built off of roster continuity that allowed the program, in a sense, to run itself.

Now? In LA?

“Everyone is new,” Cronin told me last week. “New to me and me to them.”

Cronin knows there is going to be a learning curve with this group. The players have to figure out what they are being asked to do. They have to learn an entirely new terminology. They have to learn Cronin’s teaching style while he has to figure out the best way to get through to them. As he put it, “listening is overrated. It’s listen, learn and apply. The way [my players] learn and apply is going to determine our rate of improvement,” and it’s his job to figure out the best way for them to learn, and the easiest way for them to apply.

And then there is the elephant in the room. The players have to be reprogrammed to play a style that hasn’t been prevalent in Pauley Pavilion for at least a decade.

Cronin wouldn’t comment on what UCLA was before he arrived – “I cannot speak to anything that’s happened here prior because I wasn’t here.” – but I certainly can.

During his nine year NCAA tournament run, the Bearcats were, on average, ranked 15th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The only season in which they ranked outside the top 22 in defensive efficiency was last year, when they “only” ranked 28th. UCLA, on the other hand, has ranked outside the top 100 in KenPom’s defensive ratings for three of the last four years. They haven’t finished in the top 30 since 2008, when Ben Howland was still getting the Bruins to Final Fours.

Put another way, Cronin is not only the new coach walking in the door, he’s the guy asking a roster full of players to play a way they’ve never been asked to play before.

That takes time.

And if he comes at them screaming like a madman every time they make a mistake, he’ll lose them.

He knows that.

“Being a college basketball coach is like being a starting pitcher,” Cronin said. “You have to change pitches. You’re pitching the whole game. You can’t throw fastballs every day.”

“You can’t get after people if they don’t believe or trust what you’re doing is real,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who has been with Cronin for a decade, and that as much as anything else has been the focus of the first four months of the Cronin Era.

Cronin has taken a fairly unusual approach. There haven’t been team trips to the bowling alley. He hasn’t taken UCLA on any wilderness retreats or hired any Navy SEALS to come in and grind his players to a pulp with 5:30 a.m. workouts.

“I believe guys need to have a life and when it’s time to work, you work,” Cronin said. “I’m not into the corny stuff.”

I asked him to elaborate on that.

Prince Ali (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

“Showing up to your kid’s game is not being a parent. Taking your guys bowling is not being a coach or developing bonds,” he said. “After practice, the guys all go around saying ‘good work today,’ but during practice they make faces when a guy makes a mistake or doesn’t throw them the ball. Anyone can walk around saying good job, but what about when we’re competing?

“College basketball is 80 percent culture and how hard you compete. Do you care for each other? How do you interact? As a coach, you have to make it mandatory to play unselfish, play for each other and treat each other right.

“I can get after you as a coach. You don’t need to get on his ass because I will do that. You need to lift him up. My line is simple: ‘Your job is to worry about the team and helping each other. My job is to worry about you.'”

“I’ve felt the switch in culture. Everyone knows the whole idea is intensity and passion,” Smith said. “I’ve felt his presence in the gym, in practice. We’re going 100 percent in every drill. I can already see what the difference is going to be.”

“It’s great so far because there’s no stat sheet yet,” Cronin added with a chuckle.

UCLA lost their three leading scorers from last season in Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Moses Brown, but there is more than enough talent on this roster for Cronin to get to the 10th straight NCAA tournament. Ali was a top 30 prospect nationally coming out of high school. There are three four-star recruits returning on the wing – Smith, Jules Bernard and David Singleton – and two coming back to school in the frontcourt. Jaquez is a local kid and a freshman that made his debut playing for the Mexican national team this summer, and both Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal will be able to play this year after missing their freshman seasons.

Put another way, the problem with the UCLA program the last few years hasn’t been talent. In fact, the Bruins are deep enough that Cronin is actually concerned about making sure he finds enough minutes for everyone that deserves minutes.

The problem last season was simple, really. There was a lack of desire to play defense, there were too many guys playing for their draft stock instead of their teammates and there was a coaching staff that didn’t – or couldn’t – hold players accountable; Steve Alford was fired on Dec. 31st, and interim head coach Murry Bartow was nothing more than a substitute teacher.

Changing that mindset, slowly but surely, has been Cronin’s mission, and he knows that the process is far from complete.

“When you start to build a house, it’s a bunch of boards and nail,” he said. “You have to start pounding nails. You can’t look at it as a bunch of wood and a bunch of nails. You have to get up every day and start pounding nails, and eventually, you have a house.”

College Basketball 2019-2020 Preseason Top 25

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There is so much that is going to happen between now and the time that next season starts that it almost seems foolish to publish a preseason top 25 today.

But we’re doing it anyway!

A couple of notes: Who is going to head to the NBA is very much in the air right now. There are still a number of freshmen that have yet to announce where they are playing their college ball. The transfer market has barely heated up. For decisions that are up in the air, you’ll see an asterisk next to their name. We’re making predictions on what certain players will do and ranking based off of them. 

So with all that said, here is the preseason top 25.

1. MICHIGAN STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Nick Ward
  • WHO’S BACK: Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Kyle Ahrens, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman

2. KENTUCKY

  • WHO’S GONE: P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Reid Travis
  • WHO’S BACK: E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickly, Nick Richards
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kahlil Whitney, Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang, Dontaie Allen, Nate Sestina
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks, E.J. Montgomery

3. DUKE

  • WHO’S GONE: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Marques Bolden
  • WHO’S BACK: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey

4. KANSAS

  • WHO’S GONE: Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson, Quintin Grimes, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett, Silvio De Sousa, Mitch Lightfoot, David McCormack
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Moss, Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna, Isaac McBride, Christian Braun
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Devon Dotson, Isaiah Moss, Ochai Agbaji, Silvio De Sousa, Udoka Azubuike

5. VILLANOVA

  • WHO’S GONE: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Jahvon Quinerly
  • WHO’S BACK: Jermaine Samuels, Cole Swider, Saddiq Bey, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Rountree, Brandon Slater
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Bryan Antoine, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore, Eric Dixon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Collin Gillespie, Bryan Antoine, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

6. LOUISVILLE

  • WHO’S GONE: Christen Cunningham, Khwan Fore, Akoy Agau
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon, Steve Enoch, Malik Williams, Darius Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Samuell Williamson, Jaelyn Withers, Josh Nickelberry, Fresh Kimble, David Johnson, Aidan Igiehom, Quinn Slazinski
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Fresh Kimble, Samuell Williamson, Dwayne Sutton, Jordan Nwora, Malik Williams

7. MARYLAND

  • WHO’S GONE: Bruno Fernando
  • WHO’S BACK: Anthony Cowan, Jalen Smith, Serrel Smith Jr., Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Darryl Morsell
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Chol Marial, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Donta Scott
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Jalen Smith

8. VIRGINIA

  • WHO’S GONE: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Jack Salt
  • WHO’S BACK: Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae, Kadin Shedrick, Justin McKoy
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell, Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff

9. TEXAS TECH

  • WHO’S GONE: Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Brandone Francis, Norense Odiase, Khavon Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Chris Beard, Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, Deshawn Corprew, Andrei Savrasov
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jahmius Ramsey, Chris Clarke, T.J. Holyfield, Kevin McCullar, Russel Tchewa, Terrence Shannon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jahmius Ramsey, Davide Moretti, Deshawn Corprew, T.J. Holyfield, Chris Clarke

10. FLORIDA

  • WHO’S GONE: KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, DeAundre Ballard
  • WHO’S BACK: Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson, Dontay Bassett, Isaiah Stokes
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kerry Blackshear Jr., Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Kerry Blackshear Jr.

11. GONZAGA

  • WHO’S GONE: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall, Jeremy Jones
  • WHO’S BACK: Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Admon Gilder, Drew Timme, Oumar Ballo, Ryan Woolridge, Brock Ravet, Anton Watson, Martynas Arlauskas, Pavel Zahkarov
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder, Corey Kispert, Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev

12. SETON HALL

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Nzei
  • WHO’S BACK: Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Tyrese Samuel
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quincy McKnight, Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu

13. NORTH CAROLINA

  • WHO’S GONE: Coby White, Nassir Little, Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Jeremiah Francis, Anthony Harris, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cole Anthony, Leaky Black, Brandon Robinson, Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks

14. UTAH STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Quinn Taylor
  • WHO’S BACK: Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller, Abel Porter
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Alphonso Anderson, Liam McChesney, Sean Bairstow
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Diogo Brito, Abel Porter, Sam Merrill, Brock Miller, Neemias Queta

15. OREGON

  • WHO’S GONE: Paul White, Louis King, Ehab Amin, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol, Victor Bailey
  • WHO’S BACK: Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson, Francis Okoro
  • WHO’S COMING IN: N’Faly Dante, C.J. Walker, Anthony Mathis, Shakur Juiston, Addison Patterson, Chris Duarte, Lok Wur, Chandler Lawson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Payton Pritchard, Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis, C.J. Walker, Shakur Juiston

16. ARIZONA

  • WHO’S GONE: Justin Coleman, Ryan Luther, Brandon Randolph
  • WHO’S BACK: Dylan Smith, Chase Jeter, Brandon Williams, Alex Barcello, Ira Lee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Max Hazzard, Terry Armstrong, Christian Koloko, Zeke Nnaji, Stone Gettings
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Max Hazzard, Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Ira Lee, Chase Jeter

17. SAINT MARY’S

  • WHO’S GONE: Jordan Hunter
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Dan Fotu, Jock Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jordan Ford, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Malik Fitts, Jock Perry

18. XAVIER

  • WHO’S GONE: Ryan Welage, Zach Hankins, Kyle Castlin, Elias Harden
  • WHO’S BACK: Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kyky Tandy, Dahmir Bishop, Zach Freemantle, Jason Carter, Daniel Ramsey, Dieonte Miles
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Jason Carter, Tyrique Jones

19. LSU

  • WHO’S GONE: Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Kavell-Bigby Williams
  • WHO’S BACK: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor, Darius Days
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Trendon Watford, James Bishop
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor, Trendon Watford, Emmitt Williams

20. BAYLOR

  • WHO’S GONE: King McClure, Makai Mason, Jake Lindsey
  • WHO’S BACK: Tristan Clark, Mario Kegler, Jared Butler, Devonte Bandoo, Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie, Matthew Mayer
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jordan Turner, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, Mark Vital, Mario Kegler, Tristan Clark

21. MEMPHIS

  • WHO’S GONE: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks Jr., Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton, Antwann Jones Jr.
  • WHO’S BACK: Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Isaiah Maurice
  • WHO’S COMING IN: James Wiseman, D.J. Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge, Damian Baugh, Lance Thomas, Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyler Harris, Boogie Ellis, D.J. Jeffries, Precious Achiuwa, James Wiseman

22. AUBURN

  • WHO’S GONE: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer, Chuma Okeke
  • WHO’S BACK: Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaac Okoro, Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, Babatunde Akingbola, Allen Flanigan, Jamal Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: J’Von McCormick, Samir Doughty, Danjel Purifoy, Isaac Okoro, Anfernee McLemore

23. TENNESSEE

  • WHO’S GONE: Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, Grant Williams, Derrick Walker Jr, D.J. Burns
  • WHO’S BACK: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Yves Pons., John Fulkerson, Jalen Johnson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Josiah James, Drew Pember, Olivier Nkamoua, Davonte Gaines
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Josiah James, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson

24. VCU

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Gilmore
  • WHO’S BACK: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Vince Williams, Mike’L Simms, P.J. Byrd, Malik Crawford
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jarren McAlister
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Vince Williams, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva

25. OHIO STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington, Kyle Young, Justin Aherns, Musa Jallow, Jaedon LeDee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: D.J. Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, EJ Liddel, Ibrahima Diallo, CJ Walker
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: C.J. Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson

JUST MISSED

DAVIDSON

  • WHO’S GONE: Nathan Ekwu, Dusan Kovacevic
  • WHO’S BACK: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luka Brajkovic, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Carter Collins, David Czerapowicz, Bates Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Hyunjung Lee, David Kristensen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Luka Brajkovic

CREIGHTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Froling, Kaleb Joseph, Connor Cashaw
  • WHO’S BACK: Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson, Damien Jefferson, Marcus Zegarowski
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Shereef Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mintz, Marcus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson

WASHINGTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, Dominic Green
  • WHO’S BACK: Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Sam Timmins, Jamal Bey
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Stewart, Jaden McDaniels, Quade Green, Marcus Tsohonis, RaeQuan Battle
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quade Green, Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart

COLORADO

  • WHO’S GONE: Namon Wright
  • WHO’S BACK: McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, D’shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert, Evan Battey, Shane Gatling, Daylen Kountz
  • WHO’S COMING IN: No one
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: McKinley Wright IV, Shane Gatling, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert

MARQUETTE

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Hauser, Joey Hauser, Joseph Chartouny
  • WHO’S BACK: Markus Howard, Theo John, Sacar Anim, Ed Morrow, Jamal Cain
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Koby McEwen, Symir Torrence, Jayce Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Markus Howard, Koby McEwen, Sacar Anim, Brendan Bailey, Theo John

Ex-Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves acquitted in sex assault case

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FLINT, Mich. — A jury acquitted former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves Tuesday on charges alleging he sexually assaulted a woman in a motel room four years ago.

The verdict announced in a Genesee County courtroom in Cleaves’ hometown of Flint came after a nearly-two week trial that included the testimony of the Mount Morris woman, who told jurors that she had wanted to leave the motel room but Cleaves continued to force himself on her.

Evidence against Cleaves included a video that prosecutors contended showed the woman pulling away from Cleaves. Prosecutors argued she tried twice to escape from the motel room.

Cleaves did not testify. One of his attorneys, Frank Manley, said Cleaves had consensual sex with the woman who was in the motel room “of her own free will” after a charity golf tournament and visit to a bar. Cleaves’ attorneys told jurors that the woman lied about what happened because she felt guilty about cheating on her boyfriend.

The 41-year-old Cleaves was acquitted on all charges, including unlawful imprisonment and assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison had he been convicted.

Cleaves has long denied the allegations, saying in a March 2016 tweet that he was “innocent and the allegations are without merit.”

The trial itself came after a long legal battle that started in late 2016 when a district judge dismissed the charges, saying that there were a number of factors that suggested “something else was going on” between Cleaves and the woman.

But in 2017, the charges were reinstated after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal that contended the judge had abused her “discretion of power” in dismissing the charges. Then last year, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to review that decision, clearing the way for the trial.

Cleaves is a revered figure in Michigan, an integral part of a Michigan State team that won the national championship in 2000 before his six-year NBA career.

And on Tuesday, sitting in a courtroom was another reminder of that team: Coach Tom Izzo. Izzo told The Detroit News that he did not know the details about the allegations against his former star player but wanted to be in the courtroom to support Cleaves as he would “any of my guys.”

Mick Cronin lands first five-star recruit at UCLA

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Less than 24 hours after cutting his list to five schools, five-star point guard Daishen Nix committed to UCLA.

Nix is a 6-foot-5 point guard from Alaska that’s currently playing his high school ball in Las Vegas. He’s known for his court vision and elite basketball IQ with a developing jumper and a feel for the game that cannot be taught. He ranks as a top 15 prospect, according to 247 Sports.

He was Mick Cronin’s top target at the point guard spot, and Cronin landed him. That’s notable, because one of the concerns that people had about UCLA’s decision to hire Cronin was whether or not a coach known for his toughness, his intensity and his team’s propensity for being defense first would adjust to playing at California’s flagship program, where tempo is a must and defense has been, for the last half-decade, optional.

And while it remains to be seen how the team and program will adjust to his coaching style – I will have a story coming on that later this week – at the very least, Cronin has proven that he can dip his toe in the west coast recruiting waters and get a player that he prioritized.