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

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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 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.

Zion Williamson was helped by one-and-done year at Duke, regardless of current injury status

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The biggest story in American sports, the argument that every daytime sports talk show that embraces debate will have on Thursday morning, will center around Zion Williamson and the right knee injury that he suffered when the Nike PG 2.5 on his left foot blew out on Wednesday night.

Zion’s injury is going to be a tipping point, but not the one we want. This isn’t going to change the rules of amateurism or put an end to the one-and-done rule, but that rumbling you hear in the distance is a slew television producers foaming at the mouth as they brainstorm ways they can frame the discussion about whether or not Zion made the correct decision to keep playing once his status as the No. 1 pick and the biggest brand to ever enter the NBA was already cemented.

It’s going to be everywhere.

And 99 percent of the opinions that you hear are going to end up missing the point.

Because it’s simple, really: Zion Williamson not the example you want to use when discussing the ills of the NCAA and amateurism, and the only person with a right to an opinion on whether or not he made the correct decision is Zion Williamson himself.

Let’s start with the latter: The reasoning behind Zion shutting his season down now is sound. The kid is the biggest sensation college basketball has seen in years. He’s not even 19 years old and he has already reached a point where you mention his first name and everyone knows who you are talking about. He could leave college today and sign endorsement deals worth more than a winning Powerball ticket. He’s a lock to join the pantheon of players that get their biggest paychecks from someone other than the team they play for.

Like LeBron, like Kevin Durant, like Stephen Curry, basketball is going to be Zion’s side gig at the next level.

Duke is calling the injury Zion suffered a mild knee sprain. He’s lucky. It could have been worse, and for a kid whose career hinges on being more explosive than just about any other human being on the planet, all it takes is for one unlucky slip or one popped achilles to see some of those dollars signs start to dry up.

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

“Why would he risk all that when he’s not getting paid anything to play?”

It’s a good question, one with a really, really simple answer: Because playing for Duke, playing with these teammates, makes the kid happy.

“I can’t just stop playing,” Zion said last month when he was asked about comments Scottie Pippen made saying he should shut it down. “I’d be letting my teammates down, I’d be letting Coach K down, I’d be letting a lot of people down. If I wanted to sit out, I wouldn’t have went to college. I came to Duke to play.”

Anyone that has seen the schoolboy enthusiasm and unbridled emotion that Zion plays with every second he is on the floor for Duke would know that isn’t just lip service.

He meant it.

He may not be getting paid, but he is having a blast.

Which brings me to the next point: I am as anti-amateurism as anyone on the planet this side of Jay Bilas, but Zion is not the kid to use as an example of all that is wrong with the NCAA and their arcane rules.

Because he did not enter college as the surefire No. 1 pick in the draft. R.J. Barrett did. There was talk that Cam Reddish could end up being the No. 1 pick if things played out a certain way this year. Zion was looked at as a potential top five pick. He was the No. 5 player in his recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. No one really knew how his athleticism was going to translate to the college level. No one knew if he actually had the skill set to be more than a big-bodied dunker.

Turns out he does.

Turns out that he is probably the best prospect that we have seen come through college basketball since Anthony Davis was cutting down the nets for Kentucky in 2012.

Turns out that Zion is must-see TV and the most in-demand ticket this side of LeBron and Steph Curry. When the Lakers come to your city, you get tickets to go see LeBron. When the Warriors come through, fans pour out to see Steph and to see KD. When Duke hits the road, fans are clamoring for tickets on the secondary market to see Zion.

It wasn’t this way before he got to college, not on this level. He had the Instagram followers and he was a YouTube sensation, but so was Mac McClung. How many of you know who he is, or would be willing to shell out a mortgage payment to see him play for Georgetown?

Put another way, we wouldn’t be talking about Zion becoming a billion-dollar athlete if he had gone straight to the G League or spent a year tucked away in some smoky gym in Europe, or China, or Australia.

Do I think that is borders on criminal that Zion is not allowed to tap into the revenue streams that he has helped create right now?

Of course.

He might be the only person that is not finding a way to capitalize on his name. Think about the ticket prices. Think about the money made at the bars and restaurants around every venue he plays in. DraftKings Sports Book ran a special tonight on Zion Williamson prop bets, and they won every single one of them when he went out in the first minute. Hell, I can’t even claim innocence. This will be the third thing that I publish on Zion tonight and the sixth thing in the last two days centered around his role in this rivalry game.

He should be allowed to get his cut right now.

He shouldn’t have to wait until he’s done with his collegiate eligibility to go get that money.

But he will get it eventually, and in the long run, the brand notoriety and status that he has earned as a household name having spent just one season playing in college will end up meaning his makes millions and millions and millions more in his career.

All of that will happen after he goes No. 1 in the 2019 draft.

And as long as Zion walks up to that podium and shakes Adam Silver’s hand content with the decisions that he made, then none of the noise matters.

San Diego State upsets No. 6 Nevada

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San Diego State used a sound defensive effort and balanced scoring to pull off Wednesday night’s biggest upset with a 65-57 Mountain West home win over No. 6 Nevada.

The Aztecs (17-9, 9-4) have now won seven of their last eight games, as the league’s hottest team earned their best win of the season. Devin Watson and Jeremy Hemsley each scored 15 points for San Diego State while Jalen McDaniels chipped in 10 points. Defense also came through in a huge way for the Aztecs as they held the star Nevada trio of Jordan Caroline, Caleb and Cody Martin to only 33 combined points on 9-for-33 shooting.

While this is a monster win for the Aztecs, they’re not particularly close to the NCAA tournament bubble right now thanks to a mediocre profile that includes some bad missteps. San Diego State is going to be an intriguing team to follow down the stretch. They got hot late last season to play their way into the tournament with the Mountain West autobid. We’re also still weeks away from the postseason getting started and seeing if this San Diego State team is truly one to watch like they were last season.

For as good as this win is for San Diego State, the real intrigue from this outcome is what happens next with Nevada?

The Wolf Pack (24-2, 11-2) cruised to an easy start this season thanks to an unintentionally light non-conference schedule and a weak Mountain West. That’s resulted in the No. 6 ranking in the AP poll along with some strong rankings in other metric areas. But the 24-1 start and positive national acclaim hasn’t necessarily translated to positive seedings from respected bracketologists.

Many NCAA tournament projections had the Wolf Pack sitting around a No. 4 seed entering Wednesday night’s game. Now, after suffering a second Quadrant 3 loss this season, Nevada will likely be falling even further. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wolf Pack on the No. 5 or the No. 6 seed line after losing on the road to the Aztecs.

To make matters worse, Nevada still hasn’t even played a Quadrant 1 team yet. So while the Wolf Pack’s computer numbers are already suffering from the weak schedule, they’re also a complete mystery against the best competition.

The Mountain West race just got a whole lot more interesting thanks to Wednesday night’s outcomes. With Utah State’s win over New Mexico, they only rest a game behind Nevada in the league standings. The two conference leaders still have one more head-to-head clash to be played as well, with Utah State fighting hard for an at-large bid if they fall short of winning the conference tournament.

It’s doubtful we’ll see the trio of Caroline and the Martin twins all play so poorly during the same game again this season. But having that happen — even once — on Wednesday night might have just cost Nevada some valuable seeding that could really hurt them come March.

Wednesday’s Things to Know: North Carolina rolls Duke as Zion exits with injury; Four ranked teams upset

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Duke vs. North Carolina had the nation’s attention on Wednesday night but there were still plenty of other happenings to track in the world of college basketball. Four ranked teams suffered upsets to unranked opponents while the Big East had a shakeup at the top.

No. 8 North Carolina dismantles No. 1 Duke as Zion Williamson exits with injury

It only took 33 seconds, but the entire trajectory of Wednesday night’s storied ACC rivalry between Duke and North Carolina changed once Blue Devil star freshman Zion Williamson literally exploded out of his shoe and left with a knee injury.

Once Williamson exited the contest (preliminarily being called a mild knee sprain), the Tar Heels pounced as they jumped all over Duke for an easy double-digit win.

CBT’s Rob Dauster has plenty more on this one as he breaks down Zion’s impact on the game while talking about Duke’s underperforming supporting cast.

Marquette takes the lead in the Big East following Villanova’s loss to Georgetown

Among the conference races to watch on Wednesday included an intriguing two-horse race in the Big East. The conference began the night with No. 17 Villanova losing back-to-back league games for the first time ever in the reformatted “new” Big East as Georgetown had a convincing upset win.

Following the slip-up by the Wildcats, No. 11 Marquette took advantage as they rallied after a halftime deficit to knock off Butler at home. The win gives the Golden Eagles (11-2 in league play) a current half-game lead in the loss column over Villanova (11-3 in league play) as the season heads into the final stretch. A week from now (Feb. 27) these two teams play in Philly as it could serve as a sort of Big East regular-season title game.

Florida, Syracuse among the night’s bubble winners after upset wins

Besides for Georgetown’s aforementioned win over No. 17 Villanova, two more ranked teams suffered upsets to unranked bubble teams on Wednesday night.

In the ACC, Syracuse earned its best win since the road upset at Duke in early January with a blowout home win over struggling No. 18 Louisville. Given the tumultuous state of the bubble, this could be the win that really helps the Orange get into the field as an at-large as this was an important win before the remaining schedule becomes daunting.

Over in the SEC, Florida continued a recent surge with an impressive overtime road win at No. 13 LSU. Banged up and depleted in this one, the Gators rode the hot hand of senior guard KeVaughn Allen (21 points) in the second half and overtime for their biggest win of the season. With one of the most bizarre bubble profiles in the country, Florida desperately needed this one to avoid the bubble bursting. Now, with a winnable three-game stretch following Wednesday’s win, the Gators could build some momentum before some tough games to end the regular season.

No. 6 Nevada falls to San Diego State

To close out an action-packed night, San Diego State earned the biggest upset of Wednesday with a home win over No. 6 Nevada.

Suffering only their second loss of the season after a 24-1 start, this could wind up being a killer loss for the Wolf Pack. Not only does Nevada have to contend with Utah State being one game behind in the Mountain West standings, but this loss could have potentially big NCAA tournament seeding ramifications.

Although nationally-ranked in the top ten of the AP poll, Nevada doesn’t have nearly the same credibility when it comes to bracketology numbers. The Wolf Pack, remarkably, still haven’t played a single Q1 opponent this season as their non-conference schedule and a weak Mountain West has hurt their strength of schedule. Already slotted as a No. 4 seed by many, this is the type of loss that could drop Nevada to the No. 5 or No. 6 line — even though they’re currently the No. 6 team in the country.

Howard and John lead Marquette to 79-69 win over Butler

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MILWAUKEE — Theo John made Butler pay the price for focusing on Markus Howard.

Howard scored 28 points and John added 15 points and matched his career-high with 11 rebounds as No. 11 Marquette pulled away in the second half for a 79-69 victory over Butler on Wednesday night.

“Teams have to dedicate a lot to our shooting, and teams have to dedicate a lot to Markus Howard, in particular,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “A lot of times, the second defender on Markus is the opposing team’s center. So, when we got the ball out of the trap, Theo was open. To his credit, he was able to finish.”

Marquette (22-4, 11-2 Big East) erased a eight-point deficit early in the second half with a 25-7 run.

Sean McDermott had 27 points and Kamar Baldwin 12 for Butler (15-12, 6-8).

With No. 17 Villanova’s 85-73 loss at Georgetown on Wednesday, the Golden Eagles moved into the Big East lead a half-game ahead of the Wildcats.

Howard, the Big East’s leading scorer, made 9 of 20 shots, including 6 of 13 from beyond the arc.

“They have a lot of guys who can make them, and you’ve got a lot of attention on Howard, which is tough,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “We executed well in the first half and then not as well in the second.”

John, a 6-9 sophomore forward known for his defense, made 6 of 7 shots and 3 of 4 free throws. John, the Big East’s leading shot blocker, also had three blocks to go along with his fourth double-double of the season.

“Most of the time when we have elite scorers on our team, so I don’t have to bring it up,” John said of his offense. “But, if the game brings it to me, I’m going to try and contribute at much as I can.”

Baldwin hit two free throws to put Butler in front 44-43 with 12:45 remaining, but the Golden Eagles ran off 11 consecutive points, pushing the lead to 54-44 on John’s rebound dunk.

Jordan Tucker ended Butler’s scoring drought of almost 5 1/2 minutes with a 3-pointer. On the ensuing possession, Howard was fouled on a 3 and converted the four-point play to make it 58-47 with 6:48 remaining.

Marquette was playing for the first time in eight days, but John said the layoff was not a factor in the slow start.

“I’d say it was just concentration, a lack of focus,” he said. “We came out kind of slow, and Butler came ready to play. They punched in this mouth and we just came back and kind of gathered ourself, and we responded.”

Marquette made 16 of 27 shots in the second for 59.3 percent, including 7 of 11 from three-point range. The Golden Eagles, outrebounded 20-14 in the first half, had a 21-11 advantage on the boards after the break.

Butler scored the first seven points of the second half to go up 37-29, but Marquette answered with eight consecutive points, pulling even at 37 on John’s layin.

Marquette trailed 26-18, but closed the half with an 11-4 run.

“The second half, they made an adjustment or two, and countered,” Jordan said. “Give them credit. And, then we had to adjust, but they got a rhythm going in that second half that we didn’t allow them to get in the first.”

BIG PICTURE

Butler: The Bulldogs entered Wednesday in a six-team logjam in the middle of the conference, one game behind St. John’s and Seton Hall in the win column, and a game ahead of Georgetown, DePaul and Xavier.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles have five regular-season games against teams they already have beaten. But, except for a 79-68 home victory over Providence, each of the other four games were decided by four points or less.

HOWARD MOVES UP

Howard pushed his career scoring total to 1,772 points, moving past Dominic James (1,749) into fourth on the Marquette all-time scoring list. Howard, a 5-11 junior guard, now is just one point behind George Thompson, who played from 1966-69. Jerel McNeal is Marquette’s career scoring leader with 1,985 points.

UP NEXT

Butler hosts Providence on Tuesday.

Marquette is at Providence on Saturday

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 8 North Carolina steamrolls No. 1 Duke after injury to Zion Williamson

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Luke Make finished with 30 points and 15 boards and Cam Johnson chipped in with 26 points of his own as No. 8 North Carolina strolled into Cameron Indoor Stadium and dropped a hammer on the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils, winning 88-72 and moving into a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with No. 3 Virginia at 11-2.

The Tar Heels were dominant from the jump, and credit to them for pouncing on Duke when they had the chance, but that is hardly the story of the game.

Zion Williamson, the surefire No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the overwhelming favorite to sweep the 2019 National Player of the Year awards, went down with an injury to his right knee just 30 seconds into the game.

And now we wait.

Because as of this very moment, the single biggest story line of this college basketball season has become the status of Zion’s right knee. Coach K said after the game that the injury is a mild knee sprain, but that his status will not be known until tomorrow.

Until then, here are the three things that we can take away from this game:

1. THIS RESULT SHOULD UNDERLINE HOW MUCH ZION IMPACTS A GAME

What we saw on Wednesday night in Durham was the terrifying reality of what Duke is without their star attraction: Not all that good.

We can start on the defensive end of the floor, where Duke’s ability to defend the interior — which is quietly the best part of Zion’s game — was exposed. North Carolina scored 62 of their 88 points in the paint, as they were able to take advantage of the total lack of fear of anyone in Duke’s frontcourt. Maye has not had a great senior season, but he did whatever he wanted against the Blue Devils once we reached a point where he did not have to worry about being guarded by an absolute freak of nature.

Zion averages roughly two steals and two blocks per game, so it’s not exactly shocking to anyone that’s been paying attention that he is an impact defender, but it’s hard to truly quantify the impact his presence has on a game until he’s not there.

One thing that does need to be noted here is that North Carolina did score seven layups in transition, which were killers and went in the book as points in the paint, but part of that a result of Zion’s absence as well. The Big Fella averaging 22.4 points per game. He’s 68.3 percent from the floor. He can handle the rock, he’ll catch just about anything that his thrown his way and — this is the most important part — he is so good that defenses have to change the way that they play to account for him.

He creates space and driving lanes for his teammates simply by being on the floor, which is to say nothing of his ability to score in the mid-post and off of offensive boards.

And without him, Duke will only have two players on the floor that are any kind of a threat offensively.

2. DUKE’S SUPPORTING CAST IS A COMPLETE DISASTER RIGHT NOW

On Wednesday night, Duke shot 25-for-72 (34.7%) from the floor and 8-for-39 (20.5%) from three, which are dreadful numbers. But it is worth pointing out that Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett both played about as well as you can ask them to play. Combined, they scored 60 points on 21-for-45 shooting (46.7%) and 7-for-23 (30.4%) shooting from three.

That second number is the concerning one, but it’s also a situation where they had no choice but to fire away.

Because at no point on Wednesday night did North Carolina have to guard any of the other three players on the floor for Duke.

The rest of the team finished with 12 points. They shot 4-for-27 from the floor, which includes a 3-for-3 night from Javin DeLaurier. Duke’s four other perimeter players — Tre Jones, Jack White, Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire — were 1-for-23 from the floor. They shot 1-for-16 from three. White has now missed 25 consecutive threes, dating all the way back to January 12th. Defenses have stopped guarding Jones on the perimeter, and the result has been the paint being as muddled as a mojito.

Zion is not going to be the guy that creates space on the wings, but the value he brings to this offense is obvious. For starters, he’ll typically end up as an initiator while Reddish is the guy buried in the corner as a spot-up shooter. He also creates space when he’s in the lane because defenses have to protect against a lob that would be thrown when he is in the dunk spot, and his ability to hold position in the lane can help clear out shot-blockers when the wings drive into the lane.

And if all else fails, Zion might just be the best offensive rebounder in college basketball.

But we know all that.

The problem isn’t simply that Zion isn’t on the floor.

It’s that the defenses trying to stop Duke would be more worried about defending Barack Obama if Duke suited him up than they are defending whoever it is that Coach K is currently running out on the perimeter.

The first three clips below should give you a sense of what Barrett and Reddish are going to be looking at when they try to drive with Zion out of the lineup. Thanks to Coby White making a mistake defensively, in the last clip you get a glimpse of what happens when the “shooter” that Duke puts in the corner actually has gravity:

3. NORTH CAROLINA SURVIVED DESPITE COBY WHITE PLAYING TERRIBLY

Tre Jones was a liability on the offensive end of the floor, but one of the biggest reasons that Duke was in this game until the end was because he ate up Coby White defensively. White finished 3-for-14 from the field with six turnovers, which is not great but at the same time it’s the risk you take playing a point guard that can be as streaky as White has been.

It’s part of the job description, if you will.

What North Carolina needs is for this to be the game that gets Luke Maye going. He entered the season as an all-american and has seen his numbers — from his scoring to his shooting percentages to his assists and rebounds — go down across the board. Part of that is because Coby White and Cam Johnson are shouldering a bigger load of the offense, but a bigger reason is because the Tar Heels don’t have a natural playmaker the way that they did last season with Theo Pinson on the floor with Joel Berry II.

Maye has had to do more on his own, and that’s not necessarily his strength.

Will this be the game that gets him headed in the right direction?