Eric Francis/Getty Images

College Basketball’s Best Backcourts

5 Comments

The most difficult thing to do when putting together a list of the nation’s best back courts if figuring out who, exactly, belongs listed as a member of the back court. 

Take Miles Bridges, for example. Last season, he played the four for Michigan State, typically lining up alongside Nick Ward on the Michigan State front line.

But given his skill-set and his physical tools, he natural position is probably as a three. Then if you actually go back and watch the film, the role he played was essentially as a scoring guard, a walking mismatch that took bigger defenders out to the perimeter. 

Positionless basketball, by definition, makes identifying positions a nightmare. 

So we worked through a lot of these. Bridges is listed as a member of the front court. Louisville’s Deng Adel is in our back court rankings because, like Arizona’s Rawle Alkins, he’s a natural wing. Kevin Knox is a forward even if he’s going to end up playing some on the wing this season.

So with that in mind, let’s get to our list of the top back courts in the country.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke
Allonzo Trier (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

1. ARIZONA: Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Brandon Randolph, Dylan Smith

Let’s start with the good, because there is plenty of it.

Allonzo Trier is going to be in the mix for National Player of the Year. He could end up averaging 20 points for a team that could end up being the best in the country. I’m not sure there is a better pure scorer in college basketball this season. He’s joined on the perimeter by Rawle Alkins, a former five-star recruit and a potential first round pick that should be in line for an uptick in shots once he returns from a foot injury.

Brandon Randolph is an impressive freshman that will give some good minutes early in his career, and UNC-Asheville transfer Dylan Smith is, at worst, a serviceable backup at the point.

And that is going to be where the big question with this group lies. The one constant with Arizona over the course of the last four years as been terrific leadership and a defensive menace at the point guard spot. First, it was T.J. McConnell. Then it was Kadeem Allen. Now, it looks like that job is going to be Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s to lose. And he’s not bad. In fact, when you consider the number of people that are going to be needing shots in that offense, it’s not a bad thing to have a point guard on the floor that wants to be a facilitator.

But the question I have is whether or not he can be the defender they need at that point guard spot, and if he is built to be the leader that can get a guy like Trier or Alkins to give up shots when it behooves the team.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

2. MIAMI: Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker, Ja’Quan Newton, Dejan Vasilijevic, Chris Lykes

Miami might have my favorite back court in college basketball this season.

Jim Larrañaga’s best teams have come when he has talented and aggressive guards that thrive in ball-screens, and that’s what he has at his disposal this season. Most ACC fans probably know the name Ja’Quan Newton by now. He’s a senior and a former top 50 prospect that has had a couple really good years for the Canes.

But he’s not the guys here to get excited about. Lonnie Walker, a top 15 prospect in the Class of 2017 and a potential lottery pick, is. He’s arguably the best off-guard in this class, and so long as his knee is healthy, he should have a big year. He’s also the second-best prospect on this team. Bruce Brown is the star. A former football player and a dynamic athlete at the combo-guard spot, Brown is projected by many to develop into an all-american player this season.

And if he does, he’ll be the anchor that Larrañaga can build an ACC title contender around.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Bruce Brown (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

3. VILLANOVA: Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, Collin Gillispie

The Josh Hart era is now over, and it may have ended midway through last season, when Jalen Brunson went from being his sidekick to the best player on Villanova’s roster.

There is nothing flashy about Brunson’s game. He’s not going to break ankles and he’s not going to dunk on anyone. What makes him so good is that he understands the game on a level that very few people do, and that he is hyper-efficient with the possessions that he does use. At the end of a day, the most important stat when it comes to a point guard is wins, and there are very few guards that have won more over the course of the last two years than Brunson.

The rest of Villanova’s back court rotation is impressive as well. Phil Booth is healthy again after missing most of last season through injury, and Collin Gillispie is likely going to be the next star Villanova point guard. The name to know here, however, is Donte DiVincenzo, a redshirt sophomore that was very impressive in limited minutes last season. He may not be Hart, but he has a real shot to be an all-Big East player this season.

This group isn’t going to awe you or make NBA scouts swoon, but don’t be surprised when they once again win more than 30 games and a Big East regular season title.

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

4. KANSAS: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Svi Mykhailiuk, LaGerald Vick, Sam Cunliffe, Marcus Garrett

At this point, we know what this back court is, or at least what they’re going to be this year, right?

Malik Newman is a former five-star recruit that will probably lead the team in scoring. Devonte’ Graham is the point guard that is finally going to be able to play full-time point guard and looks to be in line for an all-american season. Svi Mykhailiuk is a 20-year old senior that may, finally, live up to his hype this season while LaGerald Vick and Sam Cunliffe are the athletic wings that will space the floor and make plays defensively. The only real unknown is probably Marcus Garrett, and there has been some talk that the 6-foot-5 freshman could end up being better than most realize.

The far more interesting discussion will be with how this group has to play. Specifically, will they be asked to play small-ball again? Kansas, as we discussed in detail here, has a weird roster this year, one that isn’t really built to play with two big men but that lacks the kind of small-ball four that Josh Jackson was last year.

There are questions with this group, but it certainly isn’t talent.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview

5. DUKE: Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval, Alex O’Connell, Jordan Tucker

If we’re talking raw talent, I’m not sure that anyone’s back court truly stacks up to Duke’s. We’ve been over this before: Trevon Duval is the No. 1 point guard and a top five prospect in the Class of 2017. Gary Trent Jr. is a top two shooting guard in the class. Alex O’Connell and Jordan Tucker are four-star freshmen.

And then there is Grayson Allen, a much-maligned senior that struggled through last season as he dealt with the fallout of his inability to control his feet and nagging ankle injury. But he’s healthy now, meaning that, in theory, he is back to being the guy that he was as a sophomore, when he averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists while shooting 41 percent from three.

So why is Duke at fifth on this list?

Part of it is their questionable perimeter shooting. Part of it is that there may not be enough shots to go around. But the biggest issue is at the point guard spot, where Trevon Duval is slated to be the guy that finally replaces Tyus Jones. The question is whether or not he is the kind of point guard that can actually do that. Duval has more Derrick Rose in him than Jones. He’s big, he’s athletic and he’s terrific getting downhill, but he’s not a shooter and he has never proven to be the kind of facilitator that Duke will need. Duval may actually be the fifth-best scorer in Duke’s starting lineup. Does he know that?

It’s the same issue that has plagued Duke each of the last two seasons, and I’m just not yet convinced that Duval is the player that is going to solve that equation. If he is, if he lives up to the hype, then I think it is safe to say that this Duke team will be the favorite to win the national title.

And if he is, having then sixth will look almost as silly as having Kentucky’s back court ranked sixth heading into last season.

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

6. USC: Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, De’Anthony Melton, Jonah Mathews, Chuck O’Bannon Jr., Shaqquan Aaron, Derryck Thornton Jr.

I love USC this season, and much of it has to do with the depth of talent in their back court.

Jordan McLaughlin is one of the most underrated point guards in the country. Elijah Stewart and De’Anthony Melton are two of the better athletes you’ll find on the wing who skillsets – Stewart is a scorer where Melton is a swiss-army knife – compliment each other. Chuck O’Bannon Jr. is a top 40 recruit that will provide quality depth alongside Shaqquan Aaron and Jonah Mathews, while Derryck Thornton Jr. is the ultimate wildcard: A former five-star recruit and a transfer from Duke that didn’t find the fit that he needed at the point.

The Trojans don’t have the star power of some of these other groups, but they have a number of really good, veteran players that understand and excel in their role. That matters.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

7. XAVIER: Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Elias Harden, Naji Marshall

J.P. Macura is a perennially underrated talent. Quentin Goodin had some promising moments as a freshman at the point. Paul Scruggs, Elias Harden and Naji Marshall are all four-star recruits that will have a varying, but likely significant, impact on the Musketeers.

But the reason that Xavier is ranked this high on this list is the presence of Trevon Bluiett. Bluiett was arguably the best player in the NCAA tournament through the first three rounds last season. Hell, if he didn’t sprain his ankle midway through Big East play last season, he might have been able to play his way into the conversation for the league’s Player of the Year.

Expect more of the same from Bluiett this year.

8. SETON HALL: Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Myles Powell, Myles Cale

Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard has quietly put together one of the best rosters in the country that no one seems to be talking about, and this list doesn’t even include the Hall’s all-american big man Angel Delgado.

As good as this group has a chance to be, it all is really going to come down to the play of Khadeen Carrington. A 6-foot-2 combo-guard, Carrington is going to be tasked with playing the point full-time this season, a change from his role as a go-to scorer over the course of the last two years. Desi Rodriguez has quietly put together a fantastic career, while the Myles’ – Cale and Powell – are promising youngsters that will carry the program when the old guys finally graduate, but none of it will matter if Carrington’s adjustment to a new position doesn’t go well.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview
Aaron Holiday (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

9. UCLA: Aaron Holiday, Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes, LiAngelo Ball, Prince Ali, Chris Smith

It’s hard to believe that a team could lose a talent like Lonzo Ball and remain among the best back courts in the country, but that’s exactly what happens when you have a guard as good as Aaron Holiday on the roster.

Holiday and Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham have a lot in common in the sense that they are point guards that are going to be allowed to play the point this season. Holiday will be joined by a pair of five-star prospects in Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, while Prince Ali, a redshirt sophomore, should be ready to chip in this year, but the key may end up being how LiAngelo Ball fits in with this group. Lonzo’s younger brother, Gelo is not on the level of his older brother. How will LaVar react to that?

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

10. NORTH CAROLINA: Joel Berry II, Jalek Felton, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, Seventh Woods

This is going to sound weird, but bear with me: It’s not actually a bad thing that Joel Berry II broke his hand. I’m not even calling it a silver lining. I’m flat-out saying North Carolina will be better in the long-term because of it.

Berry is a senior. He was an all-league player the last two years. He was part of the most heart-breaking national title game loss of all-time and followed that up the next season by winning a national title and Final Four MOP. He’s a winner. He can miss a month and he won’t miss a beat.

But the rest of the guys on this list? Jalek Felton is a freshman. Seventh Woods is a sophomore that barely played. Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson are going to be asked to play bigger roles this season than they have in years passed, while Cam Johnson is a transfer from Pitt trying to learn a new system.

Berry will be out a month. He’ll miss two weeks of games. Those two weeks will allow some of these younger guys to get thrown into the fire in games that, frankly, don’t mean all that much.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke
Khyri Thomas (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
  • 11. CREIGHTON: Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas, Davion Mintz, Kaleb Joseph, Tyler Clement, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock: Marcus Foster will put up all-american numbers this season and Khyri Thomas may actually be the single-most under-appreciated player in college basketball, but until we know the answer at the point, Creighton will have serious question marks
  • 12. ALABAMA: Collin Sexton, John Petty, Avery Johnson Jr., Dazon Ingram, Ar’mond Davis, Riley Norris: Alabama was top ten nationally in defensive efficiency last season but missed the NCAA tournament because they couldn’t score. So what did Avery Johnson do? Oh, he went and signed Collin Sexton, the best scorer in this high school class.
  • 13. KENTUCKY: Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jemarl Baker: Like Alabama, this Kentucky team should end up being one of the nation’s best defensive back courts. Unlike Alabama, they don’t have a scorer of the ilk of Collin Sexton. The other issue: Who is going to make jump shots?
  • 14. LOUISVILLE: Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, Dwayne Sutton, V.J. King, Darius Perry: Deng Adel is going to have a chance to prove he can carry a team and Quentin Snider is back for what feels like his 17th season, but the key to this Louisville group is V.J. King. Can he take the ‘Donovan Mitchell leap’ if Rick Pitino is not coaching?
  • 15. NOTRE DAME: Matt Farrell, Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, D.J. Harvey: Matt Farrell was one of the most improved players in the country last season. I fully expect both Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger to take a similar leap, while D.J. Harvey is talented enough to have an immediate impact.
MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Matt Farrell (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
  • 16. MICHIGAN STATE: Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, Matt McQuaid, Tum Tum Nairn, Kyle Aherns: The Spartans team is the toughest to rank on this list. Based on last year, they don’t deserve to be on this list. But the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Right, Cassius Winston and Josh Langford?
  • 17. MINNESOTA: Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Isaiah Washington, Amir Coffey: Nate Mason is a criminally underrated point guard. Dupree McBrayer and Isaiah Washington are both talented, but the x-factor is Amir Coffey. He’s a versatile wing that lets Richard Pitino play with different looks.
  • 18. ST. JOHN’S: Shamorie Ponds, Marcus Lovett Jr., Justin Simon: I was torn on where to rank this group, but the bottom-line is this: Ponds and Lovett are going to be a nightmare for opponents to defend on a nightly basis.
  • 19. NORTHWESTERN: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, Isiah Brown, Jordan Ash, Anthony Gaines: After getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the history of the program, the Wildcats bring back basically everyone, including stars Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.
  • 20. YALE: Makai Mason, Miye Oni, Trey Phills, Alex Copeland: Laugh if you want, but Makai Mason has already committed to Baylor for his grad transfer season and Miye Oni, just a sophomore, has attracted NBA scouts to New Haven. Should I mention Alex Copeland actually led the team in scoring last season?

Jay Wright on double-duty with Villanova, USA Basketball

Porter Binks/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Jesus Ramirez/UCLA Athletics
Leave a comment

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

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
15 Comments

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

AP Photo
2 Comments

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

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
1 Comment

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.