2018-2019 Big Ten Conference Preview: Is this Michigan State’s league again?

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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.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.


Nothing about this season’s Big Ten is certain. With only two preseason NBC Sports top 25 teams, and a number of last season’s tournament teams losing significant pieces, the Big Ten will have a lot of question marks for this season.

When you also factor in the conference’s intriguing recruiting classes, and a new 20-game conference schedule, and the league could see so many different varieties of outcomes this season.

Of course, the Big Ten is still seeking its first national title since 2000 as the league came close with Michigan in last season’s title game. Will any of this season’s teams make a surprise run in March? Or will the league beat itself up without a clear title favorite heading into March?

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Michigan State lost two first-rounders but they have talent and experience to be preseason favorite.

It’s pretty much impossible for Michigan State to match the talent level of last season’s team. Forward Miles Bridges and big man Jaren Jackson Jr. were both first-round picks. This year’s Spartans don’t have many NBA draft prospects currently getting mock draft buzz. But Michigan State does return a solid core of experience.

The junior class of guards Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and big man Nick Ward can all put up points and make plays. Seniors like Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins can fill rotation roles. And Tom Izzo recruited a very solid five-man recruiting class that is composed of all four-star prospects. That group, led by some intriguing athletes in Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, and a potential backup lead guard in Foster Loyer, might need to step up in order for Michigan State to maximize its potential. It feels weird to say that Michigan State is the league’s favorite when they have so many glaring issues.

Who is the team’s go-to player? Can the juniors turn into all-league players? Does the freshmen class step up? This team isn’t the most talented Izzo has produced, but they have enough experience and intriguing weapons to be win another league title.

(Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

2. Michigan (also) lost plenty from its title-game team. They’re (also) still a major factor.

Coming off of a national title game loss to Villanova, the Wolverine have to replace the shooting and scoring prowess of Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. At least Charles Matthews is back. The two-way guard has never thrived as a go-to scorer. But Matthews scored a strong ability to get buckets during a very good NCAA tournament run.

A defensive-minded Michigan team needs more help on offense from there. Point guard Zavier Simpson is known more for locking up opponents than his scoring while sophomores like Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole didn’t play extended minutes very often last season. Big man Jon Teske is a solid junior with size, but he’s more known for being a big body in the paint who can rebound and defend. Michigan might need to rely on the talent of an enticing freshman class that includes multiple potential contributors.

Forwards Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns Jr. are both skilled offensive threats while big man Colin Castleton should provide interior depth as a backup center. Like some other Michigan teams of the past few years, this might be a team that starts more slowly and plays its best ball in March.

3. Indiana vs. Purdue is a rivalry to watch once again (between two likely tournament teams)

Now that Indiana has reeled in a top-ten recruiting class and Purdue is coming off of back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, this is looking like the year their rivalry ramps up again. And, thankfully, the Big Ten’s new 20-game conference schedule means protected in-state matchups with home-and-home series. Because both of these teams could be fun NCAA tournament groups.

The Hoosiers have plenty of depth in Archie Miller’s second season as forward Juwan Morgan is back and freshman shooting guard Romeo Langford is the state’s most heralded recruit in years. We know Indiana will likely be able to defend. Getting consistent point guard play and consistent scoring help for Morgan and Langford could be key. But Miller’s already flipped most of the roster with long and versatile athletes. This Indiana team could be really good.

Purdue loses a lot of proven seniors. The great news is the return of high-scoring guard Carsen Edwards. The 6-foot-1 Edwards is a walking bucket getter. He can shoot from all over the floor. Edwards might lead college basketball in scoring this season. The Boilermakers’ season will ultimately hinge on how they replace the four other senior starters from last season. Sophomore big man Matt Haarms and guard Nojel Eastern should command larger roles while senior Ryan Cline has to be more than a shooting specialist. And the addition of junior grad transfer Evan Boudreaux was a huge coup on the transfer market.

This should be the first time in a few years that this rivalry felt so fun. Indiana should be right back in the thick of the Big Ten mix while Purdue remains one of the conference’s steadiest programs.

Carsen Edwards (Elsa/Getty Images)

4. Nebraska is talented enough to make the NCAA tournament after just falling short last season.

Last season Nebraska won 22 games and finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten as they still missed the NCAA tournament. The good news is that four of those main pieces all return to form an experienced upperclass core that should be really talented. Seniors James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland and Glynn Watson have a ton of experience between them as they are all proven players. Junior Isaiah Roby might be a sleeper breakout player as he showed flashes of bigger things last season.

It’s the rest of the Huskers that have to prove themselves. Atrocious on the defensive glass last season, Nebraska doesn’t have returning size with much game experience and the bench is also pretty unproven. Sophomore Thomas Allen has a chance to be a solid contributor. Overall, Nebraska returns over 75 percent of last season’s scoring and rebounding. But how will this team will in the other parts? That will ultimately dictate if Nebraska is a Big Ten contender, or a team on the outside of the NCAA tournament yet again.

5. The Big Ten moves to a 20-game conference schedule.

The Big Ten gets an interesting wrinkle this season with the addition of two more conference games. The first league to go to 20 conference games in a season, the move could give the Big Ten more chances at quality wins along with a better overall profile of scheduled games. It could also mean the conference becomes a brutal gauntlet where it becomes increasingly difficult to stay atop the college basketball food chain.

With each team in the league adding at least one additional conference road game, it makes for seven head-to-head matchups and six individual matchups. In-state matchups are also protected with home-and-home guarantees, so we won’t see any more seasons where Michigan and Michigan State only play once. Already a difficult league to win, the Big Ten is going to be brutal to win this season, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the 20-game conference schedule plays out before the conference tournament even begins.

Ethan Happ (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Already an All-American on some lists last season, Edwards could be a sleeper Player of the Year candidate now that he lost four senior starters around him. One of the most fun-to-watch players in the country, the 6-foot-1 Edwards is fearless with the ball in his hands. Capable of taking over a game offensively, Edwards has also improved his efficiency and his ability to get others involved. He’ll need to make teammates better this season if Purdue is to attempt to make a third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin: A three-year starter and All-American candidate who quietly put up 17.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game last year, Happ is one of the most productive and experienced returning players in the country.
  • CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan: Outstanding during the tournament, the junior wing is a dynamic two-way wing. Can he be turned to as more of a go-to scorer? If Matthews is more consistent on offense he could be an All-American.
  • NICK WARD, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s leader in field goal percentage last season (64.8 percent), Ward put up big numbers despite only playing 18.9 minutes per game. With increased conditioning, Ward could put up huge numbers.
  • JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota: The national leader in double-doubles last season with 24, Murphy was the bright spot of a bad Minnesota season. If Murphy improves his 31 percent three-point shooting then he could be a lethal scorer.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana
  • JAMES PALMER JR, Nebraska
  • CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State
  • ANTHONY COWAN JR., Maryland
  • JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana

BREAKOUT STAR

Penn State junior forward Lamar Stevens has taken a backseat to Tony Carr since the two were teammates in high school. With Carr leaving the Nittany Lions for the pros, the 6-foot-8 Stevens could be in line for a huge season. As a sophomore, Stevens already put up solid numbers of 15.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from the field. Stevens has never been the go-to guy with Carr playing alongside him.

But Stevens also showed flashes of bigger things at the end of last season. Winning Most Outstanding Player honors during Penn State’s NIT title run, Stevens had games of 30 points against Marquette and 28 points in the title game against Utah during the tournament. If he can handle the season-long pressure of being the featured player, Stevens could have a huge year.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

It has been an up-and-down few seasons for Minnesota and head coach Richard Pitino. The Golden Gophers made a surprising NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, which was followed by last season’s dud of a 4-14 record in Big Ten play. Despite producing an underrated amount of in-state talent, Minnesota only has five NCAA tournament appearance during Pitino’s five seasons as he’s only 31-59 in Big Ten play.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Big Ten has a deep profile of teams who are in the Field of 68, but it’s tough to tell if any of them are major contenders. The league’s expanded schedule made for a tougher season, and more losses. But Big Ten teams that get hot in the conference tournament have also exceeded expectations in recent years. Don’t sleep on a team from the Big Ten getting hot.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing what happens during Archie Miller’s second season at Indiana. The addition of Romeo Langford adds a ton of excitement to the Hoosiers since he’s the type of talent who can take over a game while making it look easy. Miller usually gets the most out of his teams, and this year, Indiana has the talent and depth to be a team that is really fun to watch.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 6, Michigan State vs. Kansas (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
  • Nov. 14, Michigan at Villanova (Gavitt Games)
  • Nov. 22, Michigan State vs. UCLA (in Las Vegas)
  • Nov. 28, Purdue at Florida State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • Nov. 28, North Carolina at Michigan (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Tim Miles (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. MICHIGAN STATE: With a stable of three solid core juniors, senior role players, and an athletic and talented five-man freshman class, the Spartans have all of the necessary pieces to win another Big Ten title. Point guard Cassius Winston and shooting guard Joshua Langford are much better than many of the league’s backcourts while big man Nick Ward could put up huge numbers with an increase in minutes. Depth on this team shouldn’t be too much of a concern as long as the freshmen can help. The Spartans don’t have the look of a national title contender, but they’re also dangerous enough where it would be dumb to count them out of making a run in March. It all depends on who steps up and is ready to take big shots this season after two seasons of exits in the Round of 32.

2. MICHIGAN: Michigan has transformed into a defensive team these past two seasons as they’ll need to get stops and manufacture points at times this season. While many of John Beilein’s teams have been very good with perimeter shooting, this Wolverines team might struggle. Many of the returning players were sub-35 percent and inconsistent. Others, like freshmen Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns are unproven at the college level. If Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole can all even shoot a little bit better than Michigan’s offense should have enough to carry their potentially dangerous defense.

3. INDIANA: Archie Miller’s second season should have a ton of intrigue as the Hoosiers have huge expectations. Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford might be the league’s best one-two punch. Indiana also has the benefit of a top-ten recruiting class filled with length, versatility and athleticism. As long as the point guard play of Devonte Green, Al Durham and Robert Phinisee can be consistent, then the Hoosiers should be fine. Interior play could be another thing to watch as that group has to remain healthy. The biggest takeaway is that Indiana’s defense has the potential to be very good, as Miller has many different weapons at his disposal to throw at opponents. All of the pieces are in place for Indiana to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons.

4. PURDUE: Better athleticism could make for an interesting subplot for this season. Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern both have the chance to be plus defenders, while Evan Boudreaux is at least skilled enough and quick enough to run in the open floor. Consistent shooting around Carsen Edwards will be the key for Purdue’s offense. Ryan Cline needs to make shots while Eastern has to improve his inconsistent form. Some of the freshmen like Eric Hunter, and Boudreaux at forward, should also help a bit but they have to prove themselves as being consistent. Making a third straight Sweet 16 might prove to be a bit too tough. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Purdue have another run to the NCAA tournament.

5. NEBRASKA: The Huskers might be forced to play a lot of small-ball this season and hope that they can rebound better while defending the rim. Isaiah Roby has shown an ability to block shots while Isaac Copeland and James Palmer also have good size. Freshmen like center Brady Heiman and guard Amir Harris could also be asked to play early in the season. But as long as the team’s core four players performs then there is no reason Nebraska shouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament. Palmer is one of the nation’s more underrated scorers while Copeland is experienced and capable. Senior point guard Glynn Watson is a polished floor leader. This team has big aspirations for this season.

6. MARYLAND: Hit hard by players leaving early for the pros, most notably Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, the Terps are facing tons of questions. But junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. is back and the sophomore group of big man Bruno Fernando and guard Darryl Morsell is very solid. The freshmen class has a five-star forward in Jalen “Stix” Smith and guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala. If Maryland gets steady production from a few of its freshmen, then they should have the talent to stay with anyone in the league.

7. OHIO STATE: Chris Holtmann worked wonders during his first season with the Buckeyes, taking an undermanned roster and guiding them into the Round of 32. Losing Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate will be tough. The Buckeyes do regroup a bit thanks to some solid freshmen. Senior guard C.J. Jackson and sophomore big man Kaleb Wesson are proven double-figure guys. Grad transfer Keyshawn Woods has gotten ACC buckets. And a freshmen group with Jaedon LeDee, Luther Muhammad and Justin Ahrens provides depth and athleticism. As long as consistent rotation players step up, Ohio State will be an intriguing team.

Romeo Langford (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

8. WISCONSIN: Question marks linger for a Wisconsin team that doesn’t lose anyone from last season. Senior Ethan Happ is one of the nation’s most complete and productive players, while sophomore guard Brad Davison closed the season strong with some eye-opening scoring performances. If the rest of this team can stay healthy then the Badgers could get more pop. D’Mitrik Trice, Kobe King and Brevin Pritzl are all candidates to make a leap while transfer Trevor Anderson adds another rotation guard. If the Badgers can score, they could be competitive for the NCAA tournament.

9. IOWA: The Hawkeyes look like a solid team on paper with four returning double-figure scorers. They also featured the worst defense in the Big Ten and one of the worst in high-major college basketball last season. Big men Tyler Cook and Luka Garza can both put up numbers, but they have to improve as defenders. Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss are capable scorers on the perimeter while top-50 in-state recruit Joe Wieskamp, and Fran McCaffery’s son, Connor McCaffery, should help on the perimeter.

10. MINNESOTA: After freefalling to a 4-14 mark in the Big Ten last season, head coach Richard Pitino could be on the hot seat. Senior forward Jordan Murphy is a double-double machine and a proven player and the Golden Gophers should be healthier this season. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington’s ability to replace Nate Mason could be the key to Minnesota’s season. A healthy Amir Coffey could also do wonders for Minnesota’s offense.

11. PENN STATE: Just as the Nittany Lions looked like they were on the verge of a big run, Tony Carr opted to turn pro. Junior forward Lamar Stevens and junior center Mike Watkins return to form one of the more capable and experienced frontcourts in the league. Replacing the backcourt of Carr and senior Shep Garner will be a different story. Senior Josh Reaves is a returning double-figure guy on the perimeter. Outside of him, the defending NIT champs don’t have many proven options.

12. NORTHWESTERN: After a disappointing campaign last season, the Wildcats need to find a new identity following the loss of four-year point guard Bryant McIntosh and shooting guard Scottie Lindsey. Frontcourt experience and length and versatility on the perimeter could be the key for Northwestern’s success. Seniors Derek Pardon and Vic Law return as the duo could be among the conference’s best frontcourt groups. Grad transfer guard Ryan Taylor was a big-time scorer at Evansville last season and Boston College transfer A.J. Turner is an intriguing 6-foot-7 wing. Point guard stability will be key, as reclassified freshmen Ryan Greer might have a lot on his shoulders.

13. ILLINOIS: Only making the tournament in three of the last 11 years, the Fighting Illini figure to be in for another long season. Very young across the board, head coach Brad Underwood has hope. Sophomore Trent Frazier and freshman Ayo Dosunmu form one of the league’s most talented backcourts, but they aren’t battle-tested. The frontcourt is also unproven with 6-foot-6 Kipper Nichols being the most consistent returner there. Developing freshmen and hoping for some unexpected gems are the keys for Illinois this season.

14. RUTGERS: Since joining the Big Ten four seasons ago, Rutgers has never won more than three league games in a season — finishing last in all four years. After losing three of their four top scorers from last season, this season will again be tough. But the sophomore backcourt of Geo Baker and Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss has a chance to shine while the Scarlet Knights have an intriguing amount of size and depth in the frontcourt. The talent level is up, but Rutgers is still trying to find its way.

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

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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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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

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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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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.

Gardner, No. 3 Virginia rally for 70-68 win at Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tony Bennett’s team passed all its tests in the opening month of the season.

Jayden Gardner made a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and blocked Jett Howard’s 3-point shot just before the buzzer, allowing No. 3 Virginia to stay undefeated with a 70-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (6-0) won their first true road game against a team that was ranked in the first two polls this season, a little more than a week after beating then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois in Las Vegas.

“It got pretty intense in here,” Bennett said.

Virginia trailed by 11 points at halftime, rallied to go ahead with 7:25 left and built a five-point lead that didn’t last.

The Wolverines (5-2) went ahead 66-65 at the 1:42 mark when Hunter Dickinson made one of two free throws.

Michigan missed chances to stay or go ahead when Dickinson missed a hook shot with 1:01 to go and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn turned the ball over with 16 seconds left.

“Hunter has made that running hook before,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.

“We could’ve easily put our heads down when they came out in the second half and made a run.”

Reece Beekman, who finished with 18 points, stepped in front of Llewellyn’s pass in the final minute and made one of two free throws.

Virginia’s Armaan Franklin missed two free throws with 5.7 seconds left, giving Michigan a chance to extend or win the game. Howard took a contested shot beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing – near his father, Michigan’s coach – and Gardner came up with the block against the freshman guard while Wolverines coaches and players screamed for a foul call.

It appeared that Gardner got all ball on the block.

Kihei Clark scored 16 points, Gardner had 12, Kadin Shedrick fouled out with 12 points and Ben Vander Plas added 10 for the balanced Cavaliers.

“You need different guys, and that’s what it takes, to make plays offensively and defensively,” Bennett said.

Dickinson scored 23 points, Jett Howard had 11 of his 15 in the first half and Kobe Bufkin added 11 points for Michigan.

“Jett is a gamer, he’s going to compete no matter what,” Juwan Howard said. “He’s loved basketball since he was a little baby boy.

“He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

The Wolverines started slowly, trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, before Howard scored eight points to lead a 13-2 run. Michigan led 45-34 at halftime when Bufkin made a layup after a steal.

“We can’t be sloppy like that on the defensive end, but we did battle hard in the second half,” Bennett said.

Vander Plas scored nine points during an 11-2 run that put Virginia ahead 65-60. The Cavaliers then went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket before Gardner’s big shot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Virginia: The Cavaliers have their highest ranking since the 2018-19 season – which ended with a national title – and are off to their best start since being 7-0 three years ago. The team continues to honor the memory of three football players who were fatally shot on campus earlier this month, wearing warmup jerseys with their names.

Michigan: Juwan Howard’s team matched up well in its first game against a ranked opponent this season.

“When we come out with the effort like we did today for 40 minutes, I love our chances against any college team in the country,” he said.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts Florida State (1-7) on Saturday.

Michigan: Plays No. 19 Kentucky (5-2) on Sunday in London.