College Basketball’s Impact Freshmen

Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB
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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

This year’s freshman class is, frankly, not all that great.

There are a couple of big time talents at the top, there handful of players with all-star potential at the next level and, of course, there is the biggest social media star in the history of high school sports coming through with this class.

Where this particular recruiting class is loaded is at the wing spot, the combo-forwards that can guards twos, threes and fours and are skilled enough offensively to fit in an offensive system that spaces the court.

Those are the guys who have the long-term potential to intrigue NBA teams.

The question we probably have to ask right now is whether or not those players will impact the college game this season the way we think they could impact the NBA in three or four years.

Anyway, here are all the freshmen you should become familiar with heading into this college basketball season.

TEN NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW

R.J. BARRETT, Duke: The Canadian wunderkind has already made himself the future of his country’s senior national team as the 6-foot-7 Barrett spent this summer training and playing against older professional players. Now, Duke is hoping that Barrett is the go-to player who can help lead them to another national title. Although Barrett is surrounded by one of the most talented, and well-known, recruiting classes in history, there is a reason he’s viewed as the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. It’s because Barrett has been a winner at all levels while showing a killer instinct for scoring and making plays. A dynamic two-way wing, who also shows a strong competitive nature, Barrett is going to have plenty of monster highlights this season. Barrett doesn’t need to be Duke’s go-to player every night for them to win. But the Blue Devils need Barrett to be elite if they want to be in Minneapolis at the end of the season.

ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke: Barrett might be the better overall player and NBA prospect, but Williamson is undoubtedly the bigger star. The brightest star at the high school level since LeBron, the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson became an international sensation during the past few years. Built like an NFL defensive lineman with graceful and powerful leaping ability, Williamson is a double-double machine who has generated hundreds of millions of views thanks to his electric above-the-rim play. It’s unclear how Williamson’s role might look at Duke — will he be a small-ball big man or a wing who can push in transition? — but he looked dominant at times during the team’s summer exhibition tour to Canada. If Williamson’s inconsistent perimeter jumper improves, he could be a lethal college scorer.

ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana: There might not be a freshman in college hoops facing more pressure than the 6-foot-4 Langford. Already a legend in Indiana since his sophomore season of high school, the shooting guard staying home gives the Hoosiers a top-five prospect and a potential go-to scorer to build around. The first Indiana Mr. Basketball to pledge to Indiana since Cody Zeller in 2011, Langford is a talented three-level scorer who is capable of getting hot and having a monster night. On the other end of the spectrum, Langford has also had questions about his intensity, as he has run hot-and-cold at times during his prep career. But when Langford’s on, there isn’t a more naturally talented freshman scorer in this class outside of Barrett.

Romeo Langford (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina: The highest-rated North Carolina recruit in years, the 6-foot-7 Little enters Chapel Hill with tons of hype this season. A late-blooming forward who morphed more into a wing during his senior season in high school, Little is a high-motor double-double threat with a developing perimeter skill level. While North Carolina doesn’t need Little to be a go-to player this season, the Tar Heels still need Little to come through with some big-time production, as they’ll likely count on him to produce right away. If Little shows consistency with his jumper, then he’ll be a menace to defend thanks to his quick leaping and ability to score at the rim.

QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas: Reigning MVP of the 2018 FIBA Americas, the 6-foot-4 Grimes helped USA Basketball capture a gold medal at the event. With his future head coach, Bill Self, already coaching him with Team USA this summer, Kansas will have plenty of ideas on how to unleash the talented guard during the season. Grimes is an explosive scorer who is also skilled enough to have the ball in his hands to run some point. If Grimes can shoot a consistent deep ball, then he will be one of the toughest covers in the country this season.

CAM REDDISH, Duke: The 6-foot-7 Reddish is the least-famous member of Duke’s star-studded recruiting class. He’s not a YouTube sensation, or the younger brother of an NBA player, or the face of a country’s youth basketball program. But it would be really foolish to count out Reddish’s ability and act like he’s some second-fiddle player. Because this dude is a cold-blooded scorer when he gets rolling. With a developed perimeter game, and the ability to go on extended scoring runs from all over the floor, Reddish can take over a game whenever he sees fit. Reddish’s biggest problem has been maintaining consistent intensity while practicing good shot selection. The game comes easy to Reddish, so he takes plays off and challenges himself by taking difficult shots. But once (if?) Reddish figures out how to make things simple, good luck stopping him.

DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt: A monster local five-star grab who should immediately have the ball in his hands, the 6-foot-2 Garland is one of the premier freshman point guards in this class. Silky with the ball in his hands, Garland has a feathery touch on his jumper to go along with a penchant for making others around him better. Garland has already made a huge difference for the Commodores as he helped convince five-star forward Simi Shittu to also sign with Vanderbilt for the 2018-19 season. If Shittu returns to health after a torn ACL suffered last season, then this Commodore freshmen duo could have Vanderbilt back in the Big Dance by the end of their first year on campus.

Bol Bol (Jon Lopez, Nike)

BOL BOL, Oregon: The son of former 7-foot-7 NBA center Manute Bol, the younger Bol has a chance to be the most unique player in college hoops this season. Standing *only* 7-foot-3 with a close-to 9-foot-7 standing reach, Bol has a chance to be one of the nation’s elite shot blockers this season — in an Oregon frontcourt that also includes another notable rim protector in sophomore Kenny Wooten. But the thing that makes Bol fascinating is his shooting touch for his size. Making nearly 50 percent of his three-pointers in the Nike EYBL during his final spring and summer on the AAU circuit, Bol is a gifted offensive weapon who can stretch the floor on offense and protect the rim on defense. Motor and lateral quickness will be the things to watch with Bol this season. He doesn’t move particularly well from side-to-side and there are times when he doesn’t play his hardest.

TRE JONES, Duke: The younger brother of former Duke point guard Tyus Jones comes in with plenty of his own accolades as the five-star point guard also won multiple gold medals during his high school career. Although Tre isn’t quite the floor leader that Tyus was as a freshman (but, really, who was?) he brings plenty of other useful intangibles to the table. Tre is a slightly better athlete and better defender than his older brother was at the same stage. But will Tre inherit the “Stones” family nickname that his brother carried? Because Tyus made some monster clutch plays during his single season at Duke and the Blue Devils are hoping for the same from Tre.

CHARLES BASSEY, Western Kentucky: Rick Stansbury finally has his five-star big man with the Hilltoppers as Bassey reclassified this summer from the Class of 2019. The 6-foot-10 Nigerian has been a known national prospect since his freshman season of high school thanks to elite hands, an ability to protect the rim and a developing post game. Expected to be perhaps the best big man in Conference USA as only a freshman, Bassey is going to carry big expectations this season for a Western Kentucky team that has NCAA tournament aspirations. If Bassey is as good as advertised, and he puts up close to double-double numbers, then the Hilltoppers could even win a game or two in March as one of the nation’s most dangerous mid-major teams.

Tyler Herro (Chet White/UK Athletics)

FIVE POTENTIAL TRAE YOUNGS

JAHVON QUINERLY, Villanova: Losing Jalen Brunson won’t be easy for the Wildcats. The addition of the 6-foot-1 Quinerly should help ease the pain. The five-star prospect is a natural floor leader who is at his best setting up others while running an offense. The Wildcats are going to have plenty of other talented guards who can play this season. But none of the others possess the natural ability to get others easy shots like Quinerly can. He’s potentially a perfect uptempo floor general to maintain Villanova’s high-octane offense.

TYLER HERRO, Kentucky: Watching Herro is going to be one of the most fascinating subplots of Kentucky’s season. The team’s leading scorer during a Bahamas exhibition trip this summer, despite coming off of the bench, the 6-foot-5 Herro should be a better three-point shooter than anyone Kentucky had on the roster last season. Perimeter shooters with size have been able to make waves in a John Calipari offense before, and with Herro’s microwave scoring ability, it might be tough to keep him off the floor — or at the very least out of the starting lineup.

KEVIN PORTER JR., USC: One of the most fascinating freshmen to watch this season will be this 6-foot-5 Seattle native. Initially an afterthought at the prestigious Nike Hoop Summit this spring, Porter was the last player invited to workout with his elite peers before putting on a show-stopping performance in front of NBA front-office personnel. Oh, and Porter wasn’t even a selected member of the actual Hoop Summit roster… He was a practice body who took the train down from Tacoma during spring break and quickly ran through the best players in his class like a hot knife through butter. Keep an eye on Porter this season at USC. When naturally talented players have a natural chip on their shoulder it makes for an enticing combination.

COBY WHITE, North Carolina: Much like Villanova with Brunson, replacing Joel Berry II is next to impossible. But North Carolina should be in good hands, again, this season as long as the 6-foot-3 White is able to step in and play right away. More of a natural scorer than floor leader, White might have to adjust how he plays a little bit at the college level. There also aren’t many players in the country who are as naturally talented at scoring the ball as he is. As long as White can control the ball and limit turnovers, he’s a major weapon who should help the North Carolina offense put pressure on opposing defenses.

NAZ REID, LSU: An intriguing LSU team is going to need the 6-foot-10 Reid to be a major factor this season if they want to live up to the preseason hype. Expected to come in and start right away, Reid has an opportunity to be one of the premier big men in the SEC. The question will be if he wants to dominate. During times in his high school career, Reid didn’t play with the highest motor, as some questioned his passion for being great. But with shooting touch, athleticism and an NBA-ready body, Reid could be a force if he’s fully engaged.

Keldon Johnson (Chet White, UK Athletics)

FIVE NAMES THAT WILL HAVE AN IMPACT IN MARCH

DEVON DOTSON, Kansas: Although Kansas has a lot of talented guards in the fold, the aggressive, downhill nature of Dotson could come in handy for the Jayhawks this season. The 6-foot-1 Dotson is an attack-minded floor general who should benefit greatly from all of the talent that he has around him in Lawrence this season. Dotson is capable of getting his own buckets, or getting others involved, as his style of play should fit in well at Kansas. If Dotson shows that he’s capable of making a perimeter jumper then Kansas might need to explore the use of more three-guard lineups.

ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida: Mike White’s first five-star recruit as head coach of the Gators could be a vitally important piece for this season. With point guard Chris Chiozza exhausting his eligibility, Florida has question marks at point guard. Experienced pieces like Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen are both back, but neither of them are natural floor leaders. If the 6-foot-4 Nembhard shows he can run an offense right away, then the Gators might be using a lot of three-guard lineups. Perhaps the best passer in this freshman class, Nembhard is a winner who has already seen time with the Canadian senior national team this summer.

KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky: An insanely deep Kentucky recruiting class could see a number of unique players step up in March. But none of them possess the natural toughness or ability to attack the rim like the 6-foot-6 Johnson. While Kentucky is likely going to have a plethora of options, particularly on the perimeter, Johnson could force Calipari’s hand with his intensity on both ends of the floor. And since Johnson is a bit bigger and stronger than many of his Kentucky perimeter teammates, he could also be a key matchup problem for opposing teams with three- and four-guard lineups.

JALEN SMITH, Maryland: The big man known as “Stix” is one of the best recruits Mark Turgeon has landed during his time at Maryland. At 6-foot-10, Smith runs the floor very well while also showing an ability to make plays near the rim on both ends of the floor. While the Terps won’t need Smith to be a monster right away with sophomore big man Bruno Fernando returning to the lineup, they would be a very tough out if Smith showed an ability to contribute right away.

JORDAN BROWN, Nevada: Parlaying its Sweet 16 run into a McDonald’s All-American big man, the Wolf Pack will have much more size and stability on the interior this season. An expected top-10 team in the preseason with Final Four aspirations, Nevada can turn to the 6-foot-10 Brown for some post touches while also expecting him to help defend the interior and rebound. The Wolf Pack don’t need Brown to be an immediate star. But if he gives them consistent production they’ll be a very dangerous team.

Flagler, No. 6 Baylor rally late, top No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63

Baylor vs. Gonzaga
USA Today
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In a rematch of the 2021 national championship game, Adam Flagler hit a pair of 3s as No. 6 Baylor scored the final eight points to rally past No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63 Friday night.

Gonzaga’s Rasir Bolton missed a wild, driving layup try at the buzzer.

Two seasons ago, Baylor beat the then-undefeated Zags 86-70 to win its first title. This time, the Bears didn’t take the lead for good until Jalen Bridges made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

“Adam is a great leader, but no one knew he wasn’t feeling well today,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “To be honest, some players wouldn’t have played. He played through the pain and left it all out on the court. As a coach, I appreciate that.”

The Bears (6-2) trailed 63-56 before Flagler hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left. Flagler’s 3 with just over a minute to play cut Baylor’s deficit to 63-62.

After a Gonzaga shot clock violation, Flagler’s 3-point attempt for the lead was off the mark, but Bridges was fouled by Drew Timme on the rebound attempt. Bridges hit two foul shots to put Baylor ahead.

The Zags (5-3) had a final chance when Bolton caught an inbounds pass near his own foul line with 4.6 seconds remaining. He drove the lane, but his off-balance shot went high off the glass and missed as the buzzer sounded.

“We took two balls down hill and tried to make plays at the rim. At that point in the game, those are tough,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “It’s very disappointing. They made plays, man.”

Freshman Keyonte George had 18 points and seven rebounds for Baylor. Flagler had 11 points and Langston Love added 10.

“I trust my work. I was able to knock them down,” George said. “My teammates believe in me each and every day. They give me that confidence in a big game to make big shots like that.”

Malchi Smith scored 16 points for Gonzaga. Anton Watson added a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Timme had nine points.

Baylor led by as many as 12 in the first half before Gonzaga closed to five at the break.

Watson’s basket put Gonzaga ahead 41-40. From there, the teams swapped leads over the next 13 minutes as the second half featured two ties and 14 lead changes.

A thunderous dunk from Smith gave Gonzaga its seven-point lead with under two minutes to go.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The win was a big rebound for Baylor after its 26-point loss to Marquette earlier in the week. The loss was the Bears’ most lopsided since they fell to Kansas 82-56 in 2007

Gonzaga: After opening the season ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll, the Zags have now lost two of three.

STAR WATCH

Timme began the night leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 20 points per game. He was hampered by foul trouble against Baylor and got his first field goal with six minutes remaining. He fouled out with 16 seconds to play.

REMATCH PLAYERS

Four players on the floor Friday night had significant minutes in the championship game two years ago including Flagler, Timme and Watson, along with Baylor’s Flo Thamba.

UP NEXT

Baylor: The Bears return home to host Tarleton on Tuesday before playing Washington State on Sunday in Dallas for the Pac 12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to Spokane for three straight beginning Monday when they face Kent State for the first time in school history.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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David Cruz/USA TODAY Sports
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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.