Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Pac-12 Conference Preview: Can league rebound from disappointing season?

1 Comment

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 Pac-12 Conference.


After a 2015-16 season in which seven teams made the NCAA tournament, the Pac-12 has seen its count drop in each of the last two years.

After earning four bids in 2017 that number dropped to three last season, and two of those bids went to teams (Arizona State and UCLA) that played in the First Four.

All three league representatives were done by the end of the first round, a brutal conclusion to a season that began with controversy thanks to the FBI.

While there may not be a clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12 as the start of the 2018-19 season approaches, the hope is that there are enough quality teams and players to turn things around when it comes to the conference’s national reputation.



FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Stability is paying dividends at Arizona and USC

Arizona and USC were the two Pac-12 programs that were impacted the most by the FBI’s investigation, as each had a now-former assistant coach be indicted. But after some uncertainty — and predictions of doom — both programs have seemed to get back on solid ground. USC managed to hold onto Kevin Porter Jr., who committed before the FBI case began, and both Elijah Weaver and J’Raan Brooks (who originally committed to USC in the spring before reopening his recruitment in the fall) were brought on board afterwards.

As for Arizona, its recruiting wins with regards to the 2018 class would come in the spring as Devonaire Doutrive and Brandon Williams made their pledges (Omar Thielemans did as well, only to transfer in the fall). Add in two grad transfers in Ryan Luther (Pittsburgh) and Justin Coleman (Samford), and the Wildcats managed to fill many of the holes within their rotation. Also, both Arizona and USC have experienced early success in the 2019 recruiting window, with both currently boasting Top 5 classes.

2. UCLA has already been hit hard by the injury bug

UCLA had what many considered to be one of the top recruiting classes in the Pac-12 heading into this season, with Oregon’s talented crop being the only one held in higher regard. But health issues have ruled out two of Steve Alford’s prized recruits for the 2018-19 season, with power forward Shareef O’Neal being sidelined by a heart condition and point guard Tyger Campbell suffering a torn ACL.

While these are both tough losses for the Bruins, one could argue that the loss of Campbell is the bigger of the two due to UCLA’s lack of depth at the point. Sophomore Jaylen Hands will get the keys to the offense, which was the case before Campbell’s injury, but should he run into any issues (foul trouble, injuries, etc.) where can UCLA turn? 6-foot-4 freshman David Singleton III and redshirt junior Prince Ali are certainly comparable to Hands from a size standpoint, but both are more scorers than distributors. UCLA’s young inside but at least there’s an ample amount of depth and talent at those spots to help account for the loss of O’Neal. But while there’s little margin for error at the point, the expectations remain high in Westwood.

Jaylen Hands (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Oregon welcomes the conference’s best recruiting class

Oregon lost three of its four double-digit scorers from last season, as Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh were both out of eligibility and Troy Brown Jr. entered the NBA Draft after one year on campus. But leading scorer and starting point guard Payton Pritchard is back, as are forward Paul White and one of the conference’s best defenders in Kenny Wooten Jr., and head coach Dana Altman has added one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. All five of Oregon’s freshmen were Top 100 recruits, led by 7-foot-2 big man Bol Bol and 6-foot-8 wing Louis King. And one must not overlook grad transfer Ehab Amin, who as a junior at Texas A&M Corpus Christi led the nation in steals.

As a result of the influx of talent, and Altman’s ability to put his players in spots where they can be most successful, the Ducks are one of the early favorites in the Pac-12. What may be most interesting about this team is how Bol and Wooten could potentially work together, with some flashing back to the Chris Boucher/Jordan Bell combo that figured so prominently in Oregon’s run to the 2017 Final Four.

4. Washington has the look of a contender in Mike Hopkins’ second season

With a win over Kansas to its credit, Washington appeared poised to reach the NCAA tournament last season in Mike Hopkins’ first season at the helm. But the Huskies faltered down the stretch, landing in the Postseason NIT, meaning that the program had to wait another season to end its NCAA tournament drought. There’s a very good chance that Washington will do that this season, with its top seven scorers from 2017-18 back on campus led by sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell and senior center Noah Dickerson. Also in the rotation are senior guards David Crisp and Mathysse Thybulle, the latter being the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and a four-member recruiting class headlined by 6-foot-10 freshman Bryan Penn-Johnson.

With the number of players that Hopkins can call upon, including many who contributed to last season’s 21-win campaign, it’s well within reason to expect Washington to be a conference title contender. To make good on that promise the Huskies need to be better on the defensive glass (338th in defensive rebounding percentage) and shooting the basketball, as they ranked in the 200’s nationally in two-point (229th), three-point (246th) and effective field goal percentage (249th).

5. The race for Pac-12 Player of the Year appears to be wide-open

When the offseason began it appeared as if Stanford’s Reid Travis would be the early favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. But after withdrawing from the NBA draft Travis decided to make the move to Kentucky as a graduate transfer, and with that the race for Pac-12 Player of the Year got a lot more interesting. The Pac-12 welcomes back two players who earned first team all-conference honors last season in Washington’s Noah Dickerson and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle, and Oregon’s Payton Pritchard is the only second team all-conference selection back on campus.

Dickerson and Pritchard seem like good places to start when looking for a Pac-12 Player of the Year favorite given what’s expected of their respective teams, but players such as Tinkle, UCLA’s Kris Wilkes and Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV shouldn’t be overlooked either. That will make for an interesting winter in a conference that should not lack for intrigue from a team standpoint, either.

Mike Hopkins (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Wilkes, UCLA

Others will likely lean in the direction of a Pritchard or Dickerson, but the choice here is Wilkes as he should be UCLA’s top scoring option in the aftermath of Aaron Holiday’s departure to the NBA. As a freshman Wilkes, a member of the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, averaged 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. UCLA did add some solid perimeter options to the rotation in David Singleton and Jules Bernard, improving their depth alongside (and behind) Wilkes.

But with two of last year’s top three scorers having departed (Thomas Welsh being the other) and Jaylen Hands also having the responsibility of being the team’s starting point guard, that should open things up for the 6-foot-7 sophomore wing from a scoring standpoint. Wilkes will need to improve his shooting percentages, as he was just a 35.2 percent shooter from beyond the arc (4.8 three-point attempts per game) and 65.5 percent from the foul line, but he has the talent to lead the way for the Bruins.

THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Payton Pritchard, Oregon: A second team all-conference selection as a sophomore, Pritchard led the Ducks in both scoring (14.5 ppg) and assists (4.8 apg)
  • McKinley Wright IV, Colorado: Wright was a revelation as a freshman, leading the Buffaloes in scoring and assists (14.2 ppg, 5.5 apg) while also averaging 4.7 rebounds per game
  • Tres Tinkle, Oregon State: Tinkle, a first team all-conference selection last season, is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer (17.6 ppg)
  • Noah Dickerson, Washington: The conference’s leading returning rebounder (8.4 rpg), Dickerson also averaged 15.5 points per game on 56.9 percent shooting

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Mathysse Thybulle, Washington
  • Daejon Davis, Stanford
  • Sedrick Barefield, Utah
  • Bol Bol, Oregon
  • Moses Brown, UCLA
Sean Miller (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Washington’s Jaylen Nowell was one of the Pac-12’s best freshmen in 2017-18, averaging 16.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. While those were certainly good numbers for the 6-foot-4 guard, who earned a spot on the conference’s all-freshman team, there’s still room for growth. A 45.1 percent shooter from the field and 80.0 percent from the foul line, Nowell shot just over 35 percent from three on 3.3 attempts per game.

He’s got the physical tools needed to be effective within Washington’s offensive system, and an improved perimeter shot can make him an even tougher matchup for opponents. If Nowell, who finished last season with an offensive rating of 104.2 and posted an effective field goal percentage of 49.4, can improve those numbers look out.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

In Ernie Kent’s first four seasons at Washington State, the Cougars really haven’t made much progress with regards to either their overall record or their standing within the Pac-12. Washington State won no more than 13 games in any of those seasons, and they’ve finished no higher than tenth in the conference standings since his arrival. That makes Kent’s fifth season on the Palouse an important one, but the good news is that three starters are back including the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player in Robert Franks.

Carter Skaggs and Viont’e Daniels also return, and Washington State’s added seven newcomers with five being junior college transfers. Among those newcomers who will be expected to make an immediate impact are Eastern Florida State College transfer Ahmed Ali and Barton CC transfer Marvin Cannon, with the former being a second team NJCAA All-American last season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Pac-12’s got some talent, but can any of these teams play into the second weekend?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The seemingly unpredictable nature of the middle of the Pac-12. There’s a group of about six teams that appear capable of landing just about anywhere in the standings.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 9, Washington at Auburn
  • November 15-16, Oregon in the 2K Empire Classic (vs. Iowa 11/15; Syracuse or UConn 11/16)
  • November 19-21, Arizona in the Maui Invitational (vs. Iowa State 11/19)
  • November 22-23, UCLA in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational (vs. Michigan State 11/22; North Carolina or Texas 11/23)
  • December 5, Washington at Gonzaga
Bol Bol (Jon Lopez, Nike)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. WASHINGTON: The Huskies may not have been ranked in our Top 25, but they’ve got a legitimate chance of winning the Pac-12 this season. The top seven scorers from last season return, led by Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson, and Mike Hopkins’ squad has a good combination of both talent and experience. The key: getting more consistent production from their younger options, including the likes of Nowell and Nazhiah Carter, and becoming a more efficient team on the offensive end of the floor.

2. OREGON: The newcomers will receive a lot of praise and attention, and rightfully so. Dana Altman’s brought in a very talented recruiting class. That being said the returnees aren’t to be overlooked, with Payton Pritchard, Kenny Wooten Jr. and Paul White due to be key factors with regards to both production and leadership. If all of the pieces fit together, Oregon is more than capable of winning the Pac-12.

3. UCLA: The Bruins have already lost two members of their Top 10 recruiting class due to injury, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Prince Ali are among the returnees, and newcomers such as Jules Bernard, David Singleton III and Moses Brown should all have an impact. UCLA’s a bit young inside, with Alex Olesinski being their most experienced player, but there isn’t a depth issue with Brown and Kenny Nwuba joining the ranks along with Cody Riley and Jalen Hill (who were both suspended for the entire 2017-18 season). The concern is the lack of depth at the point, as Tyger Campbell went down with a torn ACL.

4. ARIZONA: The Wildcats are one of two teams to have lost their entire starting lineup from a season ago, with the other being Duke. For many programs that would lead to expectations of doom. Not so much for Arizona, as this program has not finished lower than fourth in the Pac-12 since the 2008-09 season. There are a lot of holes to fill with DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins all in the NBA and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic having graduated, but a late rally on the recruiting trail helped matters.

Brandon Williams and Devonair Doutrive join the ranks as freshmen, with Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman doing so as graduate transfers. Add in Duke transfer Chase Jeter, who sat out last season, and Arizona will have five players who have yet to appear in a game as Wildcats in the rotation. The sophomore class, which includes Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee, will need to take a step forward as will redshirt junior guard Dylan Smith. Arizona may have a lot of unknowns, but it wouldn’t be wise to expect a major fall this season.

Bennie Boatwright (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

5. USC: USC bid farewell to three extremely important contributors at the end of last season, as Jordan McLaughlin, Chimezie Metu and Elijah Stewart all graduated (Metu had a season of eligibility remaining). The good news for Andy Enfield is that Bennie Boatwright, who missed 13 games last season due to injury, is back for his senior season. When healthy “Bennie Buckets” can score from anywhere on the floor, making him a tough matchup at the four.

Also back from a team that won 24 games and finished second in the Pac-12 are players such as guards Derryck Thornton Jr., Jonah Mathews and Shaqquan Aaron and forward Nick Rakocevic. What should also help matters is the arrival of a talented recruiting class that includes Elijah Weaver, Kevin Porter Jr. and J’Raan Brooks, with Porter a household name of sorts thanks to the work he put in at the Drew League this summer. If Boatwright can remain healthy, USC can make a run at an NCAA tournament bid after missing out last season.

6. UTAH: Picking Utah to finish worse than fourth is a risky thing to do, as Larry Krystkowiak’s program has finished fourth or better in each of the last four seasons. That being said the Runnin’ Utes did lose three of their top four scorers in Justin Bibbins, David Collette and Tyler Rawson. Sedrick Barefield, who averaged 12.0 points and 2.5 assists per game last season, returns as does a sophomore wing in Donnie Tillman who may be one of the conference’s best athletes. Jayce Johnson and Parker Van Dyke, who were both part of last year’s rotation, also return.

Utah welcomes eight newcomers to the program, including four-star freshmen Timmy Allen and Riley Battin and junior college transfers Charles Jones Jr. and Brandon Morley, and grad transfer Novak Topalovic (Idaho State). Keep an eye on Jones, an NJCAA All-American at the College of Southern Idaho. If he and Barefield mesh well together Utah stands to be a handful. And given what Krystkowiak has managed to do with this program since his arrival in Salt Lake City, Utah may once again defy expectations.

7. ARIZONA STATE: “Guard U” was all the rage during non-conference play as Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils won their first 12 games of the season. That run included wins over Xavier and Kansas, teams that would go on to receive 1-seeds in the NCAA tournament. And those quality wins ultimately saved Arizona State, as its lackluster showing in conference play put the team in danger of missing out on the Big Dance. ASU made the field, but with guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice all having moved on there are some significant holes to fill. Remy Martin, who was an absolute pest and shared Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year honors with Colorado’s Dominique Collier, is back for his sophomore season and he’ll be asked to run the show.

Four-star freshmen Luguentz Dort and Elias Valtonen and Cleveland State transfer Rob Edwards, who averaged 14.4 points per game in two seasons at CSU, are among the player who will join Martin in the perimeter rotation. But after its guards received so much attention last season, Arizona State is considerably bigger in 2018-19. Dort is 6-foot-4, three inches shorter than Valtonen, and the Sun Devils are deep in the front court as well. De’Quon Lake, Romello White, Mickey Mitchell, Vitaly Shibel and Kimani Lawrence all return, and San Diego State transfer Zylan Cheatham is eligible after sitting out last season. And 6-foot-9 four-star forward Taeshon Cherry will also be competing for minutes. Size won’t be an issue for Arizona State this season, and if that leads to improvements on the defensive end of the floor Hurley’s guys could make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

8. COLORADO: Four starters are back from a team that won 17 games and finished Pac-12 play with an 8-10 record, with the most noteworthy returnee being sophomore point guard McKinley Wright IV. Wright, who led Colorado in points, assists and steals, was an All-Freshman Team selection as well as an honorable mention all-conference and all-defensive team honoree. He and senior Namon Wright will lead the way in the backcourt, with forward Tyler Bey and center Dallas Walton looking to make progress in their development as sophomores.

Juniors De’Leon Brown and Lucas Siewert also return, with the former having missed eight games due to a hand injury and the latter looking to build on a solid finish to the 2017-18 season. Add in sophomore wing D’Shawn Schwartz and Tad Boyle has a good rotation to work with as he accounts for the losses of George King and Dominique Collier. Colorado also welcomes eight newcomers into the program, one being a redshirt freshman in Evan Battey who missed all of last season as he recovered from a stroke. Another key addition is NJCAA All-American guard Shane Gatling, who averaged 16.6 points and 2.9 assists per game at Indian Hills CC last season.

McKinley Wright IV (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

9. STANFORD: The loss of Reid Travis is obviously a big deal for the Cardinal, given the fact that he led the Cardinal in both scoring and rebounding last season and was also their most experienced player. Add in the graduation of Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey, and Jerod Haase has to account for the loss of three of his top four scorers from a season ago. The good news is that sophomore point guard Daejon Davis is back, as are classmates KZ Okpala, Oscar Da Silva, Isaac White and Kodye Pugh (redshirt sophomore).

Davis was one of the conference’s top freshmen last season, and both Okpala and Da Silva showed flashes of what they could potentially be for the Cardinal. Add in senior Josh Sharma and redshirt junior Marcus Sheffield, and while Stanford lost a lot of production at the end of last season they’ve got some guys who have experience. But if the Cardinal are to outperform this expectation they’re going to need a very good freshman class, which includes guards Cormac Ryan and Bryce Willis and forward Jaiden Delaire, to be ready to produce from the start.

10. OREGON STATE: While there didn’t seem to be much concern following the abrupt departure of JaQuori McLaughlin before the start of the 2017-18 season, the lack of a “true” point guard hurt Oregon State last season. That’s one of two key areas for Wayne Tinkle’s team to address heading into the 2018-19 season, with the other being to figure out who in the front court can step forward and help fill the hole left by the departure of Drew Eubanks. Stephen Thompson Jr., Ethan Thompson and Tres Tinkle were Oregon State’s best assist men while also being three of the team’s top four scorers, but will that approach be sustainable?

Freshmen Antoine Vernon and Jordan Campbell will compete for the point guard job, and finding a viable option there will be key. As for the post, Oregon State doesn’t have a lot of production back as Gligorije Rakocevic wasn’t a major contributor last season. Junior college transfer Kylor Kelley gives Oregon State some size at 7-feet, and he’ll need to hit the ground running. The Thompson brothers and Tinkle won’t be an easy matchup for most opponents, but they’re going to need help if Oregon State is to take a step forward.

11. WASHINGTON STATE: With Malachi Flynn having decided to transfer to San Diego State, the Cougars will return just one of its two double-digits scorers from a season ago. Robert Franks, who was the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player last season, decided to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return for his senior year and that was an important development for Wazzu. Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs are also back, giving Ernie Kent three returning starters to work with.

But there was a lot of turnover on this roster, with Washington State adding eight newcomers to the program including junior college All-American Ahmed Ali. The Cougars have enough talent, led by Franks, to give some teams a hard time in Pullman. But to make a move in a conference that has gotten stronger in its “middle,” simply being a pesky foe may not be enough for Washington State to make an upward move.

12. CALIFORNIA: Wyking Jones’ first season at the helm was a difficult one, as the young Golden Bears took their lumps and won just two conference games. While Cal will have to account for the loss of two of its top three scorers in Don Coleman and Marcus Lee, promising sophomore forward Justice Sueing is back as are sophomore guards Darius McNeill and Juhwan Harris-Dyson. What may help this trio, as much as the work they put in during the offseason, is the presence of point guard Paris Austin.

Austin, who began his collegiate career at Boise State, is eligible after sitting out last season and he’ll be needed to kick start an offense that ranked 296th nationally in adjusted efficiency. In addition to Austin the Golden Bears have four scholarship freshmen to incorporate, including four-star prospects Matt Bradley and Jacobi Gordon. Cal has some young talent, but that youth may be what keeps them in the back of the pack for another season.

Ex-Tar Heel Woods comfortable back home in South Carolina

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Leave a comment

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard Seventh Woods can’t take a few steps around town these days without someone telling him it is good he came home. The former North Carolina player is happy with his latest choice, too.

“It’s been great,” Woods said Friday. “Family’s here, friends here. I’ve been getting along well with the players and the coaches.”

The 6-foot-2 Woods expected to be a collegiate force when he finished Hammond School in Columbia and picked the Tar Heels over Georgetown and South Carolina in 2016.

Instead, Woods was a backup during his time with the Tar Heels. He was part of North Carolina’s NCAA Tournament title team in 2017 but never averaged more than 11 minutes or three points a game during his three seasons in Chapel Hill . Woods missed 17 games with a broken foot during his sophomore season and averaged 2.5 points and 2.1 assists last season as backup to freshman Coby White.

In April, Woods posted on social media that it was time for a change. Woods will sit out next season per NCAA transfer rules and return to the court in 2020-21.

“I can focus on me getting into a groove,” Woods said. “Learning a new system and we didn’t want to rush anything.”

Woods, who turns 21 next month, gained attention during his middle school years for his ability to dunk and dominate opponents off the dribble at Hammond. He was a YouTube, basketball mixtape regular in the early 2010s, when ability like his was largely experienced in person watching youth games.

The buzz about Woods intensified the pressure for him to stay put and revive South Carolina. Woods felt differently.

“I just wanted to do what was best for me,” Woods said. “Going away was best for me at the time.”

Woods felt comfortable with the Tar Heels and believed it would be the best place for him to grow as a player and person.

“Only positives, all positive,” Woods said of his three years at North Carolina.

When Woods met with Martin to discuss is basketball future, the coach emphasized him taking some time away from games.

“Every time he dribbled, the crowd was sold out and every critic was out there criticizing everything he did wrong,” Martin said. “I have no idea how that young man has been able to keep the class he lives with under those circumstances.”

Woods looked at Gonzaga and Michigan before picking the Gamecocks this time. The relationship he built with Martin was rekindled the past few months and Woods was grateful to his new coach for this latest chance.

“I felt it was perfect timing just being able to come back home,” Woods said. “To come back to a coach who allowed me to come back home. That was big for me.”

Woods says he’ll spend his time improving his strength, consistency and outside shooting. He’ll be part of practices and knows that will help him develop chemistry with his future teammates.

His aspirations, as they were during middle school, are to play basketball professionally after college. He’s looking forward to a productive time off the court to recharge and improve.

“I feel like sitting out a year will be great for me and I’m going to try and use it to my advantage to make the most out of my senior year,” he said.

Report: Michigan to ‘host’ Rutgers at Madison Square Garden

Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Big Ten has long coveted New York and Madison Square Garden. The league brought in Rutgers in expansion largely to access the New York market, and it rearranged its entire schedule to get its conference tournament at MSG in 2018.

Now Michigan is apparently willing to give up a home date to play that “New York” school in order to return to one of the crown jewels of the sport.

The Wolverines are expected to be the home team this winter at Madison Square Garden when they play Rutgers, according to a report from NJ Advance Media, which cited four unnamed sources with knowledge of the situation.

The game will be part of a doubleheader with a Michigan-Rutgers wrestling dual, according to the report.

Aside from however this effects the bottom line for Michigan – which certainly isn’t hurting in the revenue department – this would appear to be a great move for both schools and the Big Ten at large. Normally, I’m against moving games off-campus to sterile and identity-less NBA arenas, but obviously Madison Square Garden is a unique venue and opportunity for all parties.

If you can get a conference game at MSG, you do it, even if you’ve got to give up a date at Crisler Center. It’s weird that it’s not just a Rutgers home date, but with the B1G’s wonky scheduling with 20-league games in a 14-team league, weird stuff is going to happen, especially when outside-the-box opportunities like this arise.

American Athletic Conference Offseason Reset: What does all the turnover mean for the league?

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.

That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.

Today, we are talking the American.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

SO UCONN IS LEAVING. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THE CONFERENCE?: This is not only the biggest storyline in the American, it is one of the biggest and most intriguing storylines in all of college basketball. UConn is a storied program. It has won four of the last 20 national titles. It is a national brand that has churned out as many pros as any school in the country. It has fallen on hard times as Kevin Ollie drove the program straight into the ground. They are leaving the American and returning to the Big East, the conference that they helped launch 40 years ago.

This is a great thing for UConn, but this isn’t really about UConn. It’s about the American and what it means for a league that has been trying to prove they belong in the same conversation as the rest of the high-majors since it split from the Big East six years ago. And the truth is that they’ll be just fine. The Huskies have finished under .500 the last three years. They’ve missed four of the last five NCAA tournaments. The year they did go dancing, it was as the American’s automatic bid, a run that required a four-OT win over Cincinnati – which included this miracle 60-footer – in the quarters of the AAC tournament to avoid spending Selection Sunday on the bubble.

UConn is thought to be a borderline NCAA tournament team this season, which means that the Huskies will leave the league next summer having been more or less irrelevant for the better part of a decade. The American has still sent at least two teams to the Big Dance in each of their six seasons, with four teams earning a bid in three of those six years. Penny Hardaway has Memphis rolling. Kelvin Sampson has Houston rolling. Mick Cronin left Cincinnati, but John Brannen is a good coach and the Bearcats have talent. Wichita State will, eventually, be back in the thick of the NCAA tournament race.

Losing UConn is a blow for what the American’s ceiling can be. But with UCF, Temple, Tulsa and SMU all having proven capable of playing their way into an at-large bid, the conference will effectively be what it was with UConn there – a safe-bet to get three bids with four programs at the top that are annually in the at-large mix.

It’s not the ACC and it will never be, but it’s not the Mountain West, either.

(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

CAN PENNY WIN WITH ALL THE TALENT HE HAS IN MEMPHIS?: When it comes to the conversation on the court, just how good Memphis will be is the most interesting question that we are going to have answered this year. There is no question that they are talented. James Wiseman is the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019 and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. Precious Achiuwa is top ten and top ten. The Memphis recruiting class is ranked as the No. 1 recruiting class in college basketball, higher than Duke and Kentucky and Kansas and everyone else.

But there is also plenty of reason to be skeptical of them. For starters, we’ve seen Penny coach one season of college basketball. They probably exceeded expectations during that one season, but one year is not exactly a large sample size. I actually think Penny is going to be a good college coach. My biggest concern with this group is that they are going to be very young. Seven of their top ten players are going to be freshmen, and only two of those seven freshmen are five-star, instant impact, potential first round picks. And two of their returnees are tiny lead guards that are going to be playing behind one of those freshman – Boogie Ellis – at the point.

I understand why Memphis fans are going to go nuts and why Memphis will be a preseason top ten team. Personally, I have them ranked at No. 20 entering the season.

WHAT WILL CINCINNATI BE POST-CRONIN?: Mick Cronin spent 13 seasons as the head coach fo the Bearcats, and in each of the last nine seasons that he was in Cincinnati, he led the program to the NCAA tournament. There are only five other schools that can make that claim – Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and North Carolina – and only three other programs that can say they’ve been to six straight NCAA tournaments – Villanova, Kentucky and Virginia.

Think about that for a second.

Those are massive shoes for John Brannen to be stepping in. He’s had success at Northern Kentucky, he’s a local guy with local ties and the return of Jarron Cumberland should make his life just that much easier. But don’t gloss over what Cronin did at Cincinnati. The level of consistency that he reached at that school was remarkable.

CAN HOUSTON FIND A WAY TO GET QUENTIN GRIMES ELIGIBLE?: Houston got hit with a dagger on the last day that underclassmen could return to school without losing eligibility – Armoni Brooks opted to stay in the draft instead of coming back for his senior year. The Cougars were already losing Galen Robinson and Corey Davis. They needed Brooks back to offset that loss, particularly once Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes committed to the program. Now, Houston has to try to find a way to get Grimes, a Houston native, eligible for this season. The former five-star prospect would likely be the most talented guard in the American – and the difference between being a borderline top 25 team and a borderline tournament team – if he’s eligible to play.

HOW LONG WILL IT BE BEFORE WICHITA STATE IS BACK?: Gregg Marshall is one of the best coaches in all of college basketball, and the fact that he took last year’s roster and got them to 10-8 in the AAC and into the NIT should be proof of that. But the Shockers are losing Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones, their two leading scorers from last season, and dismissed Teddy Allen, who was supposed to be the leading scorer this year, last month.

Wichita State went 14-4 in the final two months of the 2018-19 season, including a stretch where they won 11 of 13 games against AAC opponents. They’ll win because Marshall is really good at his job. But as more time passes, it gets harder and harder to ignore the fact that in his last five years in the Missouri Valley, Marshall coached four NBA players – Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Landry Shamet.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE

  • MICK CRONIN, Cincinnati: This is a massive blow to the Cincinnati program, as Cronin had become one of the most consistently successful coaches in college basketball.
  • COREY DAVIS, ARMONI BROOKS and GALEN ROBINSON, Houston: The Cougars are going to have to totally rebuild their perimeter attack, and while there are some pieces there – DeJon Jarreau, Nate Hinton, Quentin Grimes – it is not going to be easy to replicate what they lost.
  • TEDDY ALLEN, Wichita State: For my money, Allen getting dismissed is a bigger loss either McDuffie or Haynes-Jones. Marshall planned to lose his seniors, and part of that plan was having Allen’s scoring pop to replace them.
  • EVERYONE, UCF: The Knights came within one bucket of beating Duke to get to the Sweet 16 last season, but they are going to have their work cut out for them this season with Tacko Fall, B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins all gone.
  • SHIZZ ALSTON, Temple: Alston was one of the best guards in the conference, and he will be following Fran Dunphy out the door.

WHO’S BACK

  • JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati: James Wiseman is the best prospect in the conference, but for my money, Cumberland is going to be the best player in the AAC this season. There is a new coaching regime, and Cumberland’s presence should help ease the transition period.
  • EVERYONE, South Florida: South Florida is South Florida, so I’m hardly the only one that is going to need to see it to fully believe it, but the Bulls bring back everyone from a team that won 24 games last year. They have a really, really good backcourt. We’ll see.
  • KELVIN SAMPSON, Houston: Keeping Sampson despite overtures coming from a handful of schools, namely Arkansas, was the most important thing Houston could do this offseason. I fully believe that he is one of the 10-15 best pure basketball coaches in college hoops right now.
  • ALTERIQUE GILBERT, UConn: UConn loses Jalen Adams, but it shouldn’t matter if Gilbert can find a way to be healthy for four months this winter. That, however, is never a guarantee.

WHO’S COMING

  • JAMES WISEMAN and PRECIOUS ACHIUWA, Memphis: These two are the reason that the Tigers are going to enter the season in the top ten of both polls. We more or less know what they are going to be. The big question with Memphis, the key to the Tigers reaching their ceiling, centers on the rest of their newcomers.
  • QUENTIN GRIMES, Houston?: If Grimes, a former top ten recruit and Kansas transfer, can find a way to get eligible for this season the Cougars won’t have to worry all that much about losing Armoni Brooks.
  • AKOK AKOK, UConn: Everyone knows about the guards that UConn is bringing in, but the key to the Huskies getting to the NCAA tournament this season is going to be Akok’s impact in his first season as a Husky. Once considered a five-star prospect, Akok enrolled at UConn at the semester break and will play the 2019-20 season as a redshirt freshman.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-AAC TEAM

JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati (Preseason Player of the Year)
DEJON JARREAU, Houston
QUINTON ROSE, Temple
PRECIOUS ACHIUWA, Memphis
JAMES WISEMAN, Memphis

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. MEMPHIS: We talked more in-depth about the Tigers earlier, but I will say this: They are far and away the most talented team in the league, and they are also far and away the youngest relevant team in the league. How that translates into wins in a conference where the rest of their title competition have more experience and/or are built on toughness and physicality is going to be interesting to watch.

2. HOUSTON: I trust Kelvin Sampson as much as I trust any coach in college basketball to be able to find a way to make his pieces work. Losing Armoni Brooks hurts, but with Nate Hinton and DeJon Jarreau in the backcourt, there is some talent. There’s a possibility Quentin Grimes may find his way into playing this season, too. Throw in some size and depth in the frontcourt, and the Cougars look like they are going to be heading back to the tournament.

3. CINCINNATI: The Bearcats have the guy that very well could end up being the best player in the league on their roster in Jarron Cumberland. He looks like a linebacker, but he managed to put up 18.8 points, 4.4 boards and 3.6 assists while shooting 39 percent from three last season. He can hoop. Cincinnati also returns Keith Williams and Tre Scott while adding Jaevin Cumberland, Jarron’s cousin, a grad transfer from Oakland. The big question with this group is going to be how the adjust to new head coach John Brannen. With Mick Cronin back, I would probably slot Cincinnati second.

4. WICHITA STATE: For my money, the Shockers are the most interesting team in this conference. Yes, they lost their top two scorers from last season – not to mention the guy they thought was going to be their top scorer this season – but this was a deep team last season that really came on strong down the stretch. They won 11 out of 13 down the stretch of the AAC season, and then proceeded to beat Furman, Clemson and Indiana on the road in the NIT to get to that tournament’s Final Four. Jaime Echenique is one of the best bigs in the league while Dexter Dennis and Erik Stevenson look ready for big sophomore seasons. They’re tough, they’re battle-tested and they have arguably the best coach in the league. We’ll see.

5. TEMPLE: The Aaron McKie era at Temple will begin with a team capable of getting back to the NCAA tournament if things break right. Shizz Alston is gone, and that hurts, but the Owls will bring back both Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis. That will be enough to keep them in the top half of the league.

6. UCONN: Losing Jalen Adams is going to hurt, but beyond that, the Huskies bring back a lot of important pieces from last season. They should have plenty of perimeter depth even if Alterique Gilbert’s health struggles continue, as they add James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney to a rotation that already includes Christian Vital. Josh Carlton and Tyler Polley will provide some continuity in the frontcourt, but I think Danny Hurley’s second season in Storrs is going to come down to how well Sidney Wilson and Akok Akok perform in their second year on campus.

7. UCF: The Knights are a tough team to project this season. On the one hand, they lost all of their dudes – B.J. Taylor and Tacko Fall graduated while Aubrey Dawkins turned pro. On the other hand, they have a number of really good transfers getting eligible this year (Dazon Ingram, Matt Milon, Yuat Alok, Ibrahim Doumbia) while Collin Smith looks like he’ll be ready for a big year. They’ve got a chance to sneak up on some people.

8. SOUTH FLORIDA: The Bulls are the sleeper in the American, and they have a chance to be really, really good. David Collins and LaQuincy Rideau give them one of the best backcourts in the league, and they return basically everyone from last season, when they finished 24-14 overall and 8-10 in the league. I’m not sure they have the ceiling to crack the top three in the league, but if you were to tell me that they can finish above Wichita State, Temple, UConn and UCF, I wouldn’t call you crazy.

9. TULSA: Losing DaQuan Jeffries, Sterling Taplin and Curran Scott will hurt, but Frank Haith will have some bodies coming back. Martins Igabnu and Jeriah Horne. The young Tulsa guards are going to need to step up.

10. SMU: The Larry Brown era seems so long ago. The Mustangs are now losing their two best guards off of a team that went just 3-15 in the AAC last season.

11. EAST CAROLINA: The good news is that ECU brings back Jayden Gardner, who averaged 16.3 points and 8.5 boards as a freshman. The bad news is that he is the only one of their top seven scorers to return.

12. TULANE: Tulane won four games last season and lost their top three players. new head coach Ron Hunter has some talent and transfers coming into the program, but they have a long way to go.

Auburn lands 2019 commitment from three-star wing

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Auburn landed a late commitment for the 2019-20 season on Wednesday night as three-star athletic wing Devan Cambridge pledged to the Tigers.

A 6-foot-6, 215-pound wing, Cambridge had a very strong showing at the Nike Peach Jam last week as he averaged 16.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game during pool play at the event. A big-time athlete who easily gets off the floor, Cambridge fits Auburn’s athletic, up-and-down style as he’s accustomed to playing fast and making plays with his game-changing athleticism.

Cambridge joins a seven-man mega class for the Tigers as he’s a versatile athlete who should play a number of different spots. Cambridge is still working to become more of a consistent perimeter shooting presence, but Auburn has landed a solid late commitment because there aren’t many better pure athletes in the class. If the Tigers can develop Cambridge and take their time with his development then he could turn into a very useful player.

Person avoids prison in college bribery sentencing

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK — Former Auburn assistant basketball coach Chuck Person has avoided prison in a bribery scandal that has touched some of the biggest schools in college basketball.

Person was sentenced on Wednesday to 200 hours of community service during the two years the Probation Department will supervise him. Judge Loretta A. Preska said “no purpose would be served by incarceration.”

Sentencing guidelines called for two years in prison, though three other coaches who pleaded guilty to the same charge also received lenient sentences.

Person, who was in financial trouble at the time, accepted $91,500 in bribes to parlay his relationships with top players to steer them to a financial adviser, federal prosecutors said. The adviser, however, was working as a government cooperator.

Preska defended her decision by saying she disagreed “vehemently” with the prosecution’s claim that Person was motivated by “insatiable greed.”

“He is charitable literally to a fault,” the judge said.

She noted that after signing his first NBA contract, he sent most of the money to family members and bought his mother a house. She described how he bought homes and cars for family and friends and made continuous donations. Then, he turned down lucrative jobs in the NBA to make less money as a college coach.

Person wiped tears from his face several times during the sentencing.

Of his crime, he said: “I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway.”

Person’s guilty plea in March to a bribery conspiracy charge came nearly two decades after he was a regular presence on NBA courts, where he played for five NBA teams over 13 seasons after being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 1986. In 2010, he earned a championship ring as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Lawyers wrote that Person’s previous financial troubles intensified almost as soon as his NBA career ended, when he was paying $30,000 monthly to his ex-wife while he was earning $18,000 annually in his first non-playing role with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Chuck’s singular focus on basketball, his failure to plan for his financial future, and his unbounded generosity ultimately had catastrophic consequences,” they wrote.

The lawyers said he knew he was violating NCAA rules and was betraying his players and their families and Auburn University.

By 2016, when he was an assistant coach at Auburn, where he had set a record as the school’s all-time leading scorer in the 1980s, he was deeply in debt with bank loans, including one to finance a community center in his hometown, and several private loans, the lawyers wrote. One financial institution had obtained a default judgment that garnished 25% of his wages at Auburn, they added.

“Creditors were growing impatient, and Chuck was becoming desperate. Chuck could have turned to his many friends for help, but he was embarrassed and ashamed,” they wrote.

Instead, the man who overcame racism and extreme poverty growing up in rural Alabama got swept up in the college basketball scandal when his search for a new loan earned him an introduction to the government cooperator, the lawyers said.

His lawyers’ submission included letters from Charles Sonny Smith, who coached at Auburn for 11 seasons through the 1980s, and Sam Perkins, another former NBA player who met Person when both competed to be on the U.S. Olympic team in 1984.

Smith called Person “my favorite player ever.” Perkins said Person was “still a good friend.”