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Pac-12 Conference Preview: Will the FBI investigation overshadow a promising season?

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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 Pac-12.

The Pac-12 won’t have nearly as much star power this season.

Losing the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks after one season would hurt any league but the Pac-12 is also hurting after only four teams made the 2017 NCAA tournament.

While Arizona remains a national title contender and USC is a darkhorse candidate to do a lot of damage nationally, UCLA and Oregon are building on the fly with a lot of new pieces.

Outside of the four NCAA tournament teams, the league still faces a lot of postseason uncertainty as unproven players and new head coaches are featured throughout the league.

There might not be a superstar like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball but there are still plenty of reasons to stay up late for Pac-12 hoops this season.

Allonzo Trier (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Arizona is in position to make a Final Four (if they can stay focused)

Arizona is going to be one of the most fascinating teams to follow in recent memory this season thanks to a very talented roster and some intriguing off-the-court storylines.

To start with the product on the hardwood, this team is good enough to be in the running for preseason No. 1. Allonzo Trier is back, as the preseason All-American will be counted on to be one of the nation’s premier scorers. The junior guard is good enough to put the Wildcats on his back with dominant scoring stretches against great teams, but he’s also prone to playing hero ball and freezing out his teammates. If Trier can find a healthy balance between the two then he’s a darkhorse Player of the Year candidate.

Trusting teammates shouldn’t be difficult for Trier this season since he has so much talent around him. After a solid freshman campaign that saw him average double-figures, Rawle Alkins is back on the perimeter. Senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright doesn’t put up big numbers but he’s a steady veteran ball-handling presence who can knock down perimeter jumpers.

The interior sees the return of stable senior center Dusan Ristic, an efficient double-figure scorer who doesn’t get enough credit nationally for his post-scoring skill. Energy senior big man Keanu Pinder is back to give a lift off the bench with his high-motor play.

And then there is the incoming freshman class has some ridiculous talent and depth.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

Once considered the No. 1 player in the country, 7-foot center Deandre Ayton is a freak athlete who has surprising touch for a player his size. Think about Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, Greg Oden and DeAndre Jordan. All of those guys can dominate athletically on the interior at 7-feet-tall but none of them have shooting touch outside of the paint. They’re all awful from the free-throw line. Ayton is different in that regard. He has the touch to extend his range to at times knock down three-pointers while also shooting around 80 percent from the charity stripe over a 20-game span in the Nike EYBL.

The huge question with Ayton is his motor. Sometimes Ayton is motivated enough to run through all of the nation’s elite big men (including Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter) at Peach Jam in succession. Other times, he barely shows up and it doesn’t look like he wants to play basketball. Whichever Ayton that Arizona gets could dictate this team’s true ceiling.

Besides Ayton, Miller did a great job of stockpiling the roster with additional depth at multiple spots. Five-star wing Emmanuel Akot is an intriguing athlete at wing forward who could be a boost defensively and on the glass. Brandon Randolph is a 6-foot-6 perimeter threat with a beautiful-looking jumper who might provide much-needed floor spacing. Ira Lee is a consensus top-100 prospect who can give energy minutes.

But how will this team fit together? Does Ayton get enough touches to stay consistently hungry to be great? Will any of the other freshmen be good enough to be more than role players?

The on-court questions are riveting enough. Now also factor in that Arizona is also one of four programs who had an assistant coach — Emmanuel “Book” Richardson — arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into bribery in college recruiting practices. The Wildcats just lost a five-star point guard for next year, Jahvon Quinerly, in recruiting. Clearly, this isn’t an issue that is going away anytime soon and the Wildcats will have to get used to hearing about it for the foreseeable future. How they handle all of the off-the-court drama – especially with five freshmen – could determine their season.

We went deep on Arizona’s prospects this season here.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview
Chimezie Metu (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

2. USC is absolutely loaded

One of the teams to watch out west this season will be USC as the Trojans return a ton of talent from a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament. Six players return who made at least 18 starts last season, including the senior backcourt of point guard Jordan McLaughlin and shooting guard Elijah Stewart.

The duo can both shoot, they’re comfortable with head coach Andy Enfield’s system and they’re a major part of a very balanced roster. Up front the Trojans get even scarier. Junior forward Chimezie Metu was one of the nation’s prominent breakout players last season as he’s a great athlete on both ends of the floor. After missing half the year, junior Bennie Boatwright provides floor spacing and rebounding at 6-foot-10.

Sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton is a valuable defender and glue guy and junior wing Shaqquan Aaron started 20 games last season. USC’s wealth of backcourt riches continues with sophomore Jonah Mathews.

The newcomers USC adds also gives them that extra boost to be a national player this season. It didn’t work out at Duke for point guard Derryck Thornton, but after sitting out a transfer season, he is a valuable guard to have in the rotation as he provides steady ball handling and perimeter defense.

McDonald’s All-American wing Charles O’Bannon Jr. also joins the Trojans, going across town from where his father starred in Westwood. The younger O’Bannon gives USC another potential wing scorer and perimeter shooter as they’ll be deep on the wing and on the perimeter.

Frontcourt depth could be a concern for USC. The Trojans can go to a lot of small-ball lineups if needed but there isn’t a lot of dependable size outside of Metu and Boatwright. Sophomore Nick Rakocevic played some solid minutes but he can also be inconsistent. Freshmen like Jordan Usher and 6-foot-11 Victor Uyaelunmo are also unproven.

If this group can stay healthy and get a lift from the new guys then the Trojans should have all the pieces in place to make a run at the second weekend.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Jordan McLaughlin (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

3. UCLA has a lot of new faces (and a new Ball brother) on a talented team

There are reasons to pay attention to UCLA this season but the Bruins won’t be nearly as engrossing as the Lonzo Ball-led group of last season.

For one, Lonzo is with the Lakers now. The Bruins still have a Ball brother — freshman LiAngelo, the middle of the three brothers — but he’s a shooting guard who hasn’t displayed nearly as much promise as his older brother. More on him in a minute.

UCLA loses a lot but there is also a lot to like. Senior big man Thomas Welsh is back manning the middle as he’s a consistent double-double threat who can provide spurts of really good offense. Junior guard Aaron Holiday is back after being arguably the nation’s best player off the bench last season. A tenacious defender who can play on or off the ball, Holiday could have a huge year now that he’ll be the team’s most experience perimeter player.

And, once again, head coach Steve Alford has a top-flight recruiting class coming into Westwood. LiAngelo, a three-star prospect, might actually be the lowest-rated member of the six-man group. Point guard Jaylen Hands and 6-foot-8 wing Kris Wilkes are both very athletic McDonald’s All-Americans who should be counted on to produce right away.

Hands doesn’t play with the unselfishness of Lonzo by pushing the ball ahead with the pass, but he’s a very aggressive downhill guard. If Hands can show a workable perimeter jumper then he should still be a major boost to a UCLA offense that wants to continue to play fast. Wilkes can be electric on the wing in the open floor and he has the type of scoring prowess to be a double-figure guy from day one. If frontcourt freshmen like Cody Riley and Jalen Hill can give Welsh some help then UCLA should remain stable in the frontcourt as well.

But the big question for this team (besides the obvious one of replacing Lonzo at point) might actually be perimeter shooting. The Bruins should be adequate. They were elite last season.

Lonzo, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton all made at least 74 triples last season — with the first two on that list both being at least 41 percent. T.J. Leaf was a stretch option who nailed 46 percent of his three-pointers. This year’s UCLA team brings back a solid 41 percent three-point shooter in Holiday but they’re actually going to need LiAngelo to come through and be a floor spacer to have an offense nearly as capable as last season.

And that doesn’t even factor in how many easy looks UCLA got last year by having unselfish floor leaders who loved to move the ball. Lonzo’s unselfishness could be contagious. Hands can be a scoring guard who will sometimes set up others but he hasn’t necessarily shown an ability to get others easy looks on a regular basis.

UCLA still has a high ceiling and a bevy of young talent. They’ll put up a lot of points on some nights, and this year’s team might actually be more athletic on the perimeter. But it’ll be nearly impossible to replace the nightly magic last year’s Bruins seemed to produce on the way to a Sweet 16.

This team should be fascinating.

RELATEDACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series
Steve Alford (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

4. Oregon needs its newcomers to be productive

Coming off of last season’s Final Four appearance things will be dramatically different at Oregon this year. Five double-figure scorers have departed, along with dependable rotation guard Casey Benson. It’ll be hard to replace the energy of Jordan Bell (arguably the best player in the 2016 NCAA tournament), the versatility of Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks and the scoring ability of Tyler Dorsey.

Payton Pritchard will be a huge key for the Ducks. After a freshman season that saw him play more minutes and with more production than many had probably envisioned, now Pritchard is Oregon’s best returning player from last season’s roster. Likely responsible for running point, Pritchard needs to improve his shooting efficiency and consistency but he’s also capable of getting hot from deep and he’s coming off a strong summer after making the USA U19 World Cup team. Senior forward Roman Sorkin and sophomore Keith Smith are the only two returning players besides Pritchard from last season’s team. The rest of the roster will be based off the play of newcomers.

Transfers will be a huge part of Oregon’s season. New Mexico transfer Elijah Brown enters the backcourt picture and he’s provided production everywhere he’s gone. The major question with Brown is his ability to play intelligent and winning basketball. McKyle McIntosh was a solid grab from Illinois State as he is a versatile two-way forward who plays with a solid motor. After sitting out most of the last two seasons, Paul White is hoping to remain healthy and help on the interior as he brings a high skill level to Oregon from Georgetown.

Credit head coach Dana Altman for also bringing in a solid group of newcomers as this freshman class should also help. Las Vegas native Troy Brown is a five-star perimeter threat who is versatile enough to play multiple positions with a good degree of skill. The frontcourt should also get some help from 6-foot-7 Abu Kigab, who averaged a double-double for the Canadians during the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer.

Obviously a lot of things need to fall into place for the Ducks but they at least have a known point guard in Pritchard and athleticism and versatility at multiple positions like Altman craves out of his rotation. Oregon needs to find some rim-protecting big men who can eat up minutes on the interior but they should be talented and experienced enough to make it back to the tournament.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Dana Altman (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

5. Will another team step up and make the NCAA tournament? 

For as good as the top teams were in the Pac-12 last season, the rest of the league was pretty dreadful by power conference standards.

Three teams played in the NIT last season, Cal, Colorado and Utah, and all three got hit hard with players leaving the roster. Five teams from the league missed the postseason completely as many of the teams in the conference are still in rebuilding mode.

Perhaps the teams with the best chance at a breakthrough in the Pac-12 this season is Stanford. We know that junior forward Reid Travis is one of the best frontcourt players in the nation while senior Dorian Pickens is a double-figure scorer. But the Cardinal need to be more consistent. Senior big man Michael Humphrey is hit or miss and point guard Robert Cartwright will be pushed if he doesn’t improve his mediocre shooting.

Stanford also has intriguing young talents like four-star prospects Daejon Davis and Kezie Okpala entering the picture. Davis should push for backcourt minutes early as his athleticism is a huge boost while Okpala is an intriguing long-term prospect on the wing at 6-foot-8. Redshirt freshman Kodye Pugh is also one to keep an eye on.

But even with all of that talent, Stanford has been woefully inconsistent when it comes to scoring and perimeter shooting. They need a lot of work in that department to make a run.

Other teams have intriguing parts about them but the giant question marks are just as glaring. Utah has been a consistent presence in the top half of the Pac-12 and David Collette is back but there are holes in other spots. Arizona State and Oregon State both have talent but many of their players are either unproven or coming off of poor showings last season.

It’s hard to say if the Pac-12 can improve and get more than four teams in the 2018 NCAA tournament but nobody outside the top four really stands out at the moment.

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

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Allonzo Trier, Arizona

It was a strange junior year for Trier, as he had to sit out the first 19 games of the season. He had to wait until late January to play and still put up numbers against only Pac-12 and NCAA tournament competition. With a full season of being in a rhythm and knowing his teammates, Trier could be in for a huge junior season as the guard has the ability to take over a game with his scoring.

THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Chimezie Metu, USC: The league’s most improved player last season, Metu is a bouncy double-double threat who is capable of impacting the game above the rim on both ends.
  • Deandre Ayton, Arizona: Ayton could be a dominant one-and-done freshman this season as he’ll be one of the most athletic 7-footers the college game has seen in years.
  • Reid Travis, Stanford: Healthy and thriving, the junior forward was the only Pac-12 player to be in the top five in scoring and rebounding last season.
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC: Overshadowed in a league that featured the top two picks in this year’s draft, McLaughlin has a chance to break the USC career assist record this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Rawle Alkins, Arizona
  • Aaron Holiday, UCLA
  • Bennie Boatwright, USC
  • Thomas Welsh, UCLA
  • Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Aaron Holiday (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Aaron Holiday, UCLA

Overshadowed by Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton a season ago, Holiday could have a huge year during his junior campaign. Even though Holiday saw his minutes decrease as a sophomore, he became a far more efficient shooter as he finished at 48 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three-point range. The interesting thing with Holiday this season could be which role he plays. If he plays more on the ball, then Holiday needs to decrease his turnovers. Off-the-ball, Holiday would need to become one of UCLA’s go-to scorers after the team lost so much firepower.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Sean Miller, Arizona

The Pac-12 doesn’t have a lot of traditional “hot seat” pressure from coaches who need to win to keep their jobs. A different kind of pressure is what Miller is dealing with in Tucson. Since Arizona still has yet to advance to the Final Four under Miller, he will continue to deal with scrutiny if he falls short of the final weekend in March. With a roster talented enough to be considered preseason No. 1 in the country by some, Miller has all of the pieces to make it to San Antonio. But he’ll have to deal with keeping a lot of players who want shots and minutes happy while also handling the black cloud of the FBI investigation looming over his program.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Top teams like Arizona, USC and UCLA show promise but the Pac-12 had another disappointing year for NCAA tournament teams.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the Pac-12 Tournament. Since it moved to Las Vegas it has become one of the must-see college hoops events of the season thanks to an unbelievable atmosphere. And as a bonus, the Pac-12 can’t screw up the schedule like they did with the regular season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/23, Connecticut vs. Oregon (start of PK 80 in Portland)
  • 11/26, Texas A&M at USC
  • 12/5, Arizona vs. Texas A&M (at Phoenix)
  • 12/9, Arizona vs. Alabama
  • 12/16, Cincinnati at UCLA

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Pac12Network

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

POWER RANKINGS

1. Arizona: This team has almost everything they could want to make a run. A senior point guard, a dominant All-American scorer, potentially unstoppable post scoring and depth at multiple spots. The sky is the limit for Arizona this season as they face the immense pressure to win a national title.
2. USC: Backcourts as experienced and deep as USC’s tend to do well in the postseason and not many in the nation will be better than Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart. Coupled with some scary upside in the frontcourt and this is a sleeper pick to make a really deep tournament run.
3. UCLA: UCLA continues to recruit at an elite level and it means they have the potential to have a big season once again. But this group needs to share the ball and continue to shoot at a high level if they want to reach the second weekend like they did last season.
4. Oregon: Interior production could be a key for the Ducks as they’re hopeful some young players can step up and provide minutes. Four-star freshman Victor Bailey is another big-time athlete who should compete for rotation minutes for a team that is still athletic and skilled.
5. Stanford: The Cardinal faltered down the stretch last season but five of the team’s top six scorers are back. Reid Travis is a Player of the Year candidate in the league while Dorian Pickens doesn’t get enough national love. Finding reliable (and healthy) role players around them is key.
6. Utah: The Utes were hit with some offseason departures but senior big man David Collette is back along with some other solid options. Point guard Sedrick Barefield gets a full season to lead and Collette has a lot of depth around him in the frontcourt.
7. Arizona State: Expect the Sun Devils to have one of the better backcourts in the league with three seniors in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. The frontcourt has major question marks as redshirt freshman Romello White and juco rim protector De’Quon Lake should help.
8. Oregon State: The Beavers bottomed out at 1-17 in league play last year as Tres Tinkle was hurt and a young team struggled. The good news is that Tinkle and nearly the entire roster is back. Top-75 recruit Ethan Thompson, a noted perimeter shooter, will be added to the rotation at guard.
9. Colorado: Four starters are gone from a 19-win team as the Buffaloes get a lot of fresh faces. Solid senior George King is back and the freshman class, potentially Tad Boyle’s best during his tenure, could dictate whether Colorado builds for the future or fights for the postseason now.
10. Washington: The Huskies don’t have the lottery pick talent of the past few seasons as Mike Hopkins takes over the beginnings of a rebuild. Junior wing Matisse Thybulle is back after a solid season while junior guard David Crisp can also produce. It’ll be fascinating to see how Hopkins coaches his own team and how much he takes from his time under Jim Boeheim.
11. California: New head coach Wyking Jones has a veteran frontcourt in senior center Kingsley Okoroh and Kentucky transfer forward Marcus Lee (a Perry Ellis All-Star) but the backcourt has giant question marks after nearly everyone left. Seeing if Jones tries to go uptempo while utilizing a full-court press is something to monitor for how Cal wants to play in the future.
12. Washington State: Underrated forward Josh Hawkinson is gone and the Cougars need a lot of new pieces to step up. Sophomore point guard Malachi Flynn showed promise last season as he has a chance to be a breakout player.

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.