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No. 16 UCLA Bruins: The talent is there, but can Steve Alford turn that into wins?

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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.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 16 UCLA.


Steve Alford’s tenure with the Bruins has been a weird one, to say the least.

The former Indiana Hoosier is heading into his sixth season as the head coach of the most storied college basketball program in the history of the sport. He’s been to four NCAA tournament in five years, he reached the Sweet 16 in three of those four trips to the tournament, he spent a good three or four years dominating the southern California recruiting scene and he spent one year — the season with Lonzo Ball on his roster — as the most entertaining team in the country to watch.

And yet, the UCLA fanbase has seemed perennially disgruntled. We’re two-and-a-half years removed from someone flying a plane over the UCLA campus with a banner that read “Fire Alford”. That season led to Alford giving back a contract extension, and the reasons why all of that happened are complicated.

Alford was derided for four years for playing what fans believed was “Daddy Ball”, giving his son, Bryce, free reign over his offense while his more talented teammates were asked to accept lesser roles. Then there was the whole ordeal with the Ball family, from LaVar completing overshadowing Lonzo’s memorable freshman season to LiAngelo’s arrest in China and subsequent separation from the program.

And that’s really just scratching the surface. Those three trips to the Sweet 16 gloss over the fact that just about every year Alford has had in Westwood, the Bruins have failed to live up to expectations. Even the year Lonzo was on campus, UCLA finished the regular season third in the Pac-12. That’s before you get to the simple fact that Alford has not been able to find a way to get his UCLA teams to defend, or that he’s lost his grip on LA’s fertile recruiting grounds.

Put it all together, and we are at what feels like something of a crossroads for the Alford era in UCLA.

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UCLA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

There is no questioning the amount of talent that the Bruins have on their roster.

Alford will have four five-star recruits at his disposal this season as well as a half-dozen four-star prospects. He’s had back-to-back top six recruiting classes, according to 247 Sports, and while I’m not sure there is a lottery pick in the mix, there will be plenty of NBA scouts that will make sure that UCLA is among the teams they get a glimpse of during the regular season.

It starts with Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, UCLA’s top two returning scorers. Wilkes is a 6-foot-8 wing, a smooth scorer with a wiry build that has a chance to end up the leading scorer in the Pac-12 if things break his way. A former five-star prospect from Indiana, Wilkes has some potential as an NBA player given his height and scoring ability.

The same can be said about Hands, who is a toolsy, athletic lead guard that was forced to play second fiddle to Aaron Holiday during his first season on campus. The starting point guard role will likely be his to lose, although the early returns on freshman Tyger Campbell have been promising; there’s a steadying influence he has that UCLA desperately needs.

Prince Ali will likely see plenty of minutes as the lone veteran presence in Alford’s backcourt. A former five-star recruit from Georgia, Ali averaged 9.1 points last year after missing the 2016-17 season an offseason knee surgery. Sophomore Chris Smith — a 6-foot-9 wing — as well as freshman Jules Bernard and David Singleton will also push for minutes.

The frontcourt may actually be more intriguing, as Moses Brown, a 7-foot-1 freshman and a top 15 prospect nationally, has all the tools to be a terrific college player before heading off to the NBA. While he might think he’s better than he actually is, the talent is there for Alford to work with.

Believe it or not, while Brown may be the most talented member of UCLA’s front court, he is already the most well-known. The other freshman big is UCLA’s recruiting class is Shareef O’Neal — Shaq’s son — will miss the season after undergoing heart surgery, but UCLA has depth to spare: redshirt freshmen in Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, both of whom missed last season after shoplifting alongside Gelo Ball, are eligible this season.

There are more than enough pieces on Alford’s roster to win the Pac-12 and enter the NCAA tournament as a top four seed.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games
Jaylen Hands (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

BUT UCLA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The Bruins have to prove they want to get stops before they come anywhere near living up to expectation.

In five seasons as the head coach at UCLA, Alford has yet to finish better than 37th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. That came in his first season, when half of his roster were guys that Ben Howland had brought into the program. Since then, he has not finished better than 66th in defensive efficiency. The year that Lonzo Ball was on campus, the year that the Bruins were lethal offensively, UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 and got bounced out of the Sweet 16 by Kentucky in large part due to the fact that they could not — or would not — defend.

And that is a key distinction.

Alford knows how to coach defense. He played for Bobby Knight. He once finished a season as the nation’s top defense, way back in 2006 when he was the coach of Iowa. In his final two years at New Mexico, he entered the NCAA tournament as a top five seed out of the Mountain West after finishing 15th and 16th, respectively, in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

The problem now, as I see it, is three-fold:

  1. Alford has prioritized building a team that plays a certain way. They want to play fast. They want to fire up threes. They’ve won by playing a first-to-90 style since he arrived, and one of the risks of being an “outscore you” team is that a lack of emphasis gets put on defense. Giving up a bucket isn’t the end of the world because the reaction immediately becomes “we’ll get that back.”
  2. Compounding that issue is that Alford has recruited players that fit that philosophy and style of play, and those players aren’t always great — or even good — defensively. There are some exceptions (I’ll go to my grave saying Aaron Holiday was criminally underrated) but for the most part, Alford just doesn’t have good individual defenders on his rosters. Zach LaVine, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh, T.J. Leaf, Wilkes, Hands, Brown. The one thing they all have in common is an aversion to defense. It’s hard to be good defensively when you don’t actually have good defenders.
  3. The result is that has created a culture where a lack of defense is considered acceptable. If a coach isn’t going to hold players accountable for making mistakes defensively, where is the incentive to stop, you know, making them?

Put all of those things together, and what you get is a team that fails to reach expectations because they can’t find a way to get stops.

Kris Wilkes (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

The truth is that UCLA’s ceiling is going to be determined by whether or not the Bruins find a way to defend. No one is going to be winning regular season titles in any power conference — even a watered down Pac-12 — with a team that cannot get stops.

But UCLA couldn’t guard last year and they still managed to find a way to get to the NCAA tournament. They couldn’t guard when Lonzo was on campus, and they won 31 games. That’s because the Bruins were somewhere between very good and elite offensively those years.

They have been — and will once gain be — an “outscore you” team.

The question I have is whether or not they are going to be good enough on the offensive end of the floor to be able to make that work. Like I said, Holiday was criminally-underrated last season. He’s gone, which means that Alford will spend the next six months mediating a battle between Hands and Wilkes for the title of “UCLA’s go-to guy”.

Both are former five-star prospects. Both declared for the NBA draft this past spring. Both opted to withdraw from school when it became clear they were going to end up being second round picks at best, and now both are heading back to campus on a mission to prove to NBA scouts that they deserve to get that guaranteed contract next June.

In theory, it would be Wilkes. He’s the better scorer, he’s more polished at this point in his development and he’s proven to be more trustworthy early in his UCLA career, but Steve Alford has typically centered the way he plays around his lead guard, whether that was Bryce Alford, Lonzo or Holiday. That would lead one to believe that Hands will be the focal point next season, even if his selfishness has been something that has frustrated the Bruins in the past.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

No coach in college basketball has proven to be better at getting guys on his roster to buy into playing their role than John Calipari.

Whatever the reason, he has a knack for being able to get soon-to-be NBA superstars to accept being something other than a star at the college level. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist famously took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on Kentucky’s 2012 national title team. Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 10.3 points and 21 minutes for Kentucky’s 2015 team that won their first 38 games. Even Demarcus Cousins averaged just 23 minutes during his one season in Lexington.

Alford’s ability to get his guys to buy into a similar concept is going to be what determines whether or not UCLA can win a Pac-12 title — as the talent on the roster might indicate — and finishing the season outside the top 25.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Report: UCLA big man Alex Olesinski out after stress fracture in foot

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UCLA will be without redshirt junior forward Alex Olesinki for the start of the season, as he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot.

According to a report from Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, the 6-foot-10 Olesinski is expected to miss two-to-three months with the injury as the Bruins lose a veteran frontcourt rotation player. Appearing in every game for UCLA as a sophomore last season, Olesinski averaged 17.6 minutes per contest as he averaged 4.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

A floor-spacing big man, Olesinski’s 36 percent three-point shooting makes him a solid rotation member since he can step out and provide additional spacing in the frontcourt. UCLA has a lot of talented freshmen big men on its roster this season, but Olesinski was a veteran who had a known skill the team could use.

The injury is also concerning because it is the second time Olesinski has suffered a stress fracture in his foot during his time at UCLA. Olesinski’s true sophomore season in 2016-17 was wiped out after he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.

Olesinski should return to play this season, but he could miss a lot of action early in the season.

Scandal Proof: A year after the arrests, is college basketball immune to change or consequence?

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As hard as it may be to believe, it was only one year ago today that college basketball as we know it was, seemingly, flipped on its head.

Four high major assistant coaches, two shoe company executives, the head of a high-profile AAU program, a former runner for an NBA agent, a Princeton-based financial advisor and a former NBA-referee-turned-suit-maker were caught up in the FBI raids that would eventually end the career of one prominent NBA agent and implicate ten high-major programs — Louisville, Arizona, USC, Auburn, Oklahoma State, Miami, South Carolina, Kansas, Maryland and Alabama — while leaving dozens more twisting in the winds of rumor and hearsay.

This was supposed to be the moment of reckoning for a sport that had, many believe, spun out of control, a chance for the federal government to do what the NCAA had proven incapable of for so many decades: Clean up college hoops.

The FBI had exposed, as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon Kim referred to it, “the dark underbelly of college athletics.”

“Today’s arrests serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics,” Kim added, “We have your playbook.”

A year on, and eight of the 10 people arrested will be heading to trial in the next six months  while one Hall of Fame head coach has lost his job as a result of the investigation.

But the reality, no matter what the NCAA or the FBI has tried to tout over the course of the last 12 months, is that not much has truly changed, and that the one measure the NCAA could have taken to find an answer was hardly even discussed.



In the weeks and months after armed FBI agents raided the homes of the 10 men who were arrested, the entire college basketball world felt like it came to a halt.

Everyone — media members, coaches, players, agents — was, and to a point still is, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

If the FBI had managed to clandestinely investigate college basketball for more than two years, if they had wiretaps on the phones of powerful shoe company executives like Jim Gatto and Merl Code Jr., then there had to be more famous names than Book Richardson and Tony Bland just waiting to get arrested. All of those man-hours, the grandiose press conference touting the end of corruption in college basketball, it wasn’t just so the Southern District of New York could parade out four assistant coaches and a couple guys that helped distribute Adidas’ slush fund and say they fixed the sport.

There had to be more.

Right?

But as the weeks and months passed, it became more and more evident that this case had as much to do with Mischa Barton as it did a targeted strike on the biggest players in the world of amateur basketball.

Marty Blazer, a Pittsburgh-based financial advisor for professional athletes, was caught by the SEC committing securities fraud, illegally using his clients’ money to fund Hollywood movies — like this flop, which starred Barton, Devon Sawa and Michael Clarke-Duncan — at the same time that his name and firm was tied to the agent scandal that was developing on the campus of North Carolina. He flipped, and he offered the government the sport of college basketball.

Blazer started handing out bribes to assistant coaches, trading wads of cash for handshake agreements of influence over where soon-to-be professional athletes would invest their money. That eventually led him, and the FBI agents listening to his phone calls and conversations, to Christian Dawkins, a former runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller.

Dawkins was the perfect mark, a young go-getter that was connected enough to attract big names and high-profile programs while being green enough that he didn’t recognize the con. Blazer had put Auburn assistant Chuck Person and Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans on the radar. Dawkins was the one that brought Louisville, USC, and a number of other programs into that Las Vegas hotel suite, the one wired for video and sound by the undercover FBI agents posing as Dawkins’ money men. He helped get Gatto and Code on the FBI’s radar, which in turn ensnared the likes of Miami, Arizona, Kansas and Maryland.

But the bottom never fell out. The blue-bloods — Duke, Kentucky, UNC, Indiana, UCLA — more-or-less remained unscathed. The biggest name to get fired was Rick Pitino and his athletic director, Tom Jurich, but that had as much to do with the fact that this was Pitino’s third embarrassing scandal as it did the Louisville coaching staff getting caught (allegedly) helping to funnel $100,000 to a prospect.

In fact, one could argue that most of the programs that were caught up in the raid are doing better than ever.

Take, for example, Auburn.

Bruce Pearl (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Person, then an assistant with the Tigers, allegedly accepted at least $91,500 in bribes from Blazer in exchange for steering players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy to Blazer for financial services, going as far as to lie to the players and their families about how well he knew Blazer and their past professional relationship. Getting kickbacks — or, as Person’s lawyer refers to it, “referral fees” — to send players that trust you to shady financial advisors is much different than finding a way to funnel $100,000 to the family of a player to get him on your roster.

Person will go to trial to face six federal charges in February of 2019.

Auburn?

They are coming off of their best season in decades. They won their first SEC regular season title since 1999 and just their third league title in program history last year. They reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. They enter this season as the No. 10 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, and Bruce Pearl — their head coach who has already served a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators about violating NCAA rules — received a five-year contract extension in June.

Louisville is the program that had to deal with the most direct evidence of cheating, as it became quite evident that Adidas helped the coaching staff funnel $100,000 to five-star recruit Brian Bowen in exchange for his commitment. This cost Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino his job — and possibly his career.

But it’s not like the Cardinals are suffering. They went out and hired the best young coach in the sport in Chris Mack, and he has proceeded to put together a recruiting class that would have made his predecessor envious. Four four-star recruits have committed since May, including three players in the month of September, one of whom was previously committed to the program under Pitino.

USC and Arizona both had an assistant coaches get arrested for accepting bribes. The Trojans currently have the nation’s top-ranked 2019 recruiting class — including a pair of five-star recruits — and are the favorite to land a commitment from the top player in the Class of 2020. They also managed to land a top 20 recruiting class this year.

Arizona dealt with as much fallout from the FBI investigation as anyone, losing a five-star prospect in Jahvon Quinerly, an assistant coach and nearly a head coach after a questionable report about head coach Sean Miller getting caught on a wiretap surfaced. Despite all of that, Arizona is still a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail. Five-star guard Nico Mannion picked the Wildcats over Duke and Kansas, among many others.

Sean Miller (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Kansas themselves were officially linked to the investigation after a superseding indictment in April, and while that might cost them Silvio De Sousa this season the way it cost them Billy Preston last season, the Jayhawks are still sitting as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. They are still coming off of a run to the 2018 Final Four. Quentin Grimes, a five-star prospect from Texas and a potential top five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, didn’t seem too worried about the investigation when he enrolled for this season.

Alabama is coming off of a trip to the NCAA tournament and looks like a team that can get back there again next season. Maryland may not have returned to the heights that they were at prior to leaving the ACC, but that has as much to do with Mark Turgeon as it does any links to this investigation. Miami looks to be headed to a down year, but that probably has more to do with the natural swings that come with being a mid-level program in the ACC as anything.

Scandal does not impact a program as much as you might think. North Carolina reached a title game and won the title the following season with the recruiting classes that were built during the throes of the investigation into academic fraud. Impropriety is not going to affect recruiting. Instability does.

Once it became clear Sean Miller wasn’t losing his job, Arizona was back to landing five-stars. Once Louisville landed another elite head coach, the Cardinals were back to getting the players the program is used to. That’s why Bruce Pearl got his extension.

As much as Condoleezza Rice and the NCAA would like you to believe, not much has actually changed in the day-to-day realities of running a high-major college basketball program.


Condoleezza Rice (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

At this point, we know how ridiculous it is that the FBI is stepping in to try and turn the NCAA’s amateurism bylaws into federal law. We know that the legs that this case stands on are flimsy, that the men going to trial are facing decades in prison for something that no one truly believes is a crime. We know that the victims in this case — the universities — are not actually victims, that they are willingly complicit in the deals that get done. If they weren’t, would Kansas have signed a 12-year, $191 million extension on their apparel deal with Adidas after Adidas victimized the university by allegedly funneling $90,000 to the family of Preston and $20,000 to the guardian of De Sousa?

No.

They would not have.

Because they are not victims.

But we’ve been over all of that before.

The question that is left here is what comes next, and that likely depends on what happens over the course of the three trials. Dawkins, Gatto and Code will be in court beginning on October 1st. The trial for Person and Michel is scheduled to begin on Feb. 4th, 2019, while the trial for Richardson, Evans and Bland is set to begin on April 22nd, 2019.

And that’s where things are going to get dicey for the programs that have had their names tied up in this scandal. Once those trials begin, the evidence that the FBI gathered over the course of their two-year investigation — which included wiretaps, undercover sting operations and the seizure of cell phones and laptops — becomes public. We’ve gotten a taste of what might be included in that evidence already. In February, Yahoo Sports got their hands on a couple of pages of evidence, and that was enough to get programs like Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas linked to this investigation.

What happens when all of that evidence comes out?

Perhaps more importantly, what happens when the NCAA if finally allowed to get their hands on all of this evidence?

The Commission on College Basketball was, more or less, a total failure in my mind. They didn’t even pretend to address the issue of amateurism, and without addressing the issue of amateurism the hope of cleaning up the black market that has developed in the world of basketball recruiting is non-existent.

But what the Commission did manage to get through this rule change: “People charged with investigating and resolving NCAA cases can accept information established by another administrative body, including a court of law [or] government agency.” In other words, the NCAA can use any and all evidence that the FBI dug up to hammer schools, coaches and players that found themselves caught in this mess.

They won’t actually start their investigatory procedures until the legal process has fully played out, but they absolutely will have a chance to come down hard on the offenders that get exposed by the FBI.

That stability currently being enjoyed by Louisville, USC, Arizona and the like?

We’ll see how long it lasts.

CBT Podcast: Breaking down our top 25, preseason All-Americans

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As the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast returns, Rob Dauster was joined by Raphielle Johnson to breakdown the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and the preseason All-American teams that were released this week.

Here is a full rundown of today’s podcast:

OPEN: Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Gonzaga are the clear-cut preseason top four.

19:30: Which top ten team is the most likely to be a bust?

22:30: What should we do with Loyola-Chicago heading into 2018-19?

25:15: Washington vs. Oregon as the Pac-12’s best.

30:00: Which team outside the top 25 will get to the Final Four?

32:05: R.J. Barrett vs. Carsen Edwards for Preseason Player of the Year and Zion Williamson vs. Tyus Battle for 1st team All-America.

39:40: Kentucky is No. 2 but doesn’t have a player on our 1st, 2nd or 3rd team All-America.

43:30: Who are the National Player of the Year sleepers?

College Basketball Preseason Top 25

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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 unveiling the NBC Sports preseason top 25. Over the course of the next five weeks, we will be taking long, in-depth dives into each of these 25 teams. You can follow along with that right here.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25. You can find them here:

No. 1 Kansas
No. 2 Kentucky
No. 3 Gonzaga
No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette


1. KANSAS JAYHAWKS

  • Who’s gone: Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman
  • Who do they add: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore, Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson, David McCormack
  • Projected starting lineup: Devon Dotson, Marcus Garrett, Quentin Grimes, Dedric Lawson, Udoka Azubuike

Losing Graham is a major, major blow for this program, but they had as much talent sitting out this season as any program in college basketball. Cal transfer Moore should be able to step in and handle the point guard duties – if that role isn’t taken over by Dotson – while Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson will give Bill Self actual power forwards, something he has been yearning for the last two years. This team is talented, they are old, they are well coached and they have a functional point guard on their roster. There is a lot to like about the Jayhawks heading into the year.

2. KENTUCKY WILDCATS

  • Who’s gone: Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Jarred Vanderbilt, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones
  • Who do they add: Reid Travis, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans
  • Projected starting lineup: Immanuel Quickly, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington, Reid Travis

As always, there is quite a bit of turnover on the Kentucky roster. Six key pieces from last year are gone, while the Wildcats bring in yet another loaded recruiting class. I think the combination of incoming backcourt talent and the remaining front court veterans is going to be a fun combination for Kentucky fans to watch, especially when Stanford grad transfer Travis is factored into the mix. The big question for Kentucky is going to be how they can put a team on the floor that can both shoot and play the kind of elite-level defense we all are expecting. Cal has plenty of weapons, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to deploy them.

3. GONZAGA BULLDOGS

  • Who’s gone: Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams III
  • Who do they add: Geno Crandall, Brandon Clarke, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrušev, Greg Foster Jr.
  • Projected starting lineup: Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Corey Kispert, Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie

I’m not fully convinced that I love Perkins as a point guard, but with Norvell and Kispert a year older and Hachimura and Tillie on the front line, the Zags have a chance to be really, really good once again. Throw in the transfer additions of Clarke and Crandall as well as a couple more talented foreigners — Ayayi and Petrušev — and this is just about what you would expect for Gonzaga.

4. DUKE BLUE DEVILS

  • Who’s gone: Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr.
  • Who do they add: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Joey Baker
  • Projected starting lineup: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier

The Blue Devils are a team that has a lot left to figure out. Bagley, Trent, Duval and Carter are all following Allen out the door to make way for another loaded recruiting class. I’m still torn on how this Duke team — which will likely end up starting four freshmen — will play. That has not always been the path to success, but the talent here is impossible to ignore. There’s a non-zero chance that Barrett, Williamson and Reddish could end up going 1-2-3 in the 2019 NBA Draft. The big question with this group is going to be how well the pieces gel together and whether or not there is enough shooting (and willing defenders) to allow this group to play the way teams like Villanova, Golden State and Boston play. I explain that line of thinking more here.

(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

5. VILLANOVA WILDCATS

  • Who’s gone: Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman
  • Who do they add: Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Joe Cremo, Saddiq Bey
  • Projected starting lineup: Jahvon Quinerly, Phil Booth, Jermaine Samuels, Eric Paschall, Cole Swider

Villanova did not fair well at the NBA early entry deadline, losing four of the top 33 picks in the draft. I’m still willing to ride with the Wildcats, as I think they are more experienced than they will get credit for — Paschall and Booth are fifth-year seniors after all — and because Jay Wright’s teams always have people ready to step in and contribute immediately. Expect a breakout year from Jermaine Samuels, and don’t be surprised when Paschall is an All-American and a first round pick come the end of the season.

6. NEVADA WOLF PACK

  • Who’s gone: Kendell Stephens, Hallice Cooke, Josh Hall
  • Who do they add: Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Kwame Hymes, Vince Lee, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
  • Projected starting lineup: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown

Getting the Martin twins back is massive. Drew’s recovery from a torn achilles is also something that could be a problem, but this was a wildly talented team that came a point away from the Elite Eight despite losing their starting point guard and having their best player (Caleb Martin) deal with a foot injury the last two months of the season, and they basically bring everyone back. This is the best Mountain West team since Kawhi and Jimmer were running roughshod over the league.

7. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

  • Who’s gone: James Daniel III
  • Who do they add: No one
  • Projected starting lineup: Lamonte’ Turner, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams

Tennessee won the SEC last season and returns literally everyone from that team outside of Daniel, who came off the bench. Williams was the SEC Player of the Year last year, and Rick Barnes has plenty of perimeter talent and switchable players at his disposal. There are also some young, talented pieces on this roster — Bone, Bowden, Yves Pons, Kyle Alexander — that still have room to develop. I don’t think it’s crazy to think Tennessee could end up making a run at a No. 1 seed.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

8. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS

  • Who’s gone: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson
  • Who do they add: Kody Stattmann, Kihei Clark, Francisco Caffaro
  • Projected starting lineup: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Deandre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt

I’ll never doubt Virginia again (unless they are a No. 1 seed … kidding!), even when they are losing their best guard and their best defender. Hunter is ready to step up and be the star for this team, and I think Mamadi Diakite will have a chance to be an elite defensive presence. If there is a real concern here, it’s depth, but I trust Tony Bennett will be able to figure something out. Always trust in Tony.

9. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

  • Who’s gone: Joel Berry III, Theo Pinson, Jalek Felton
  • Who do they add: Coby White, Nassir Little, Rechon Black
  • Projected starting lineup: Coby White, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye

Where you rank UNC in the preseason is going to depend entirely on two things: How good you think their freshmen — White and Little — are going to be, and what kind of development you expect out of Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks. Will there be a returning player in college basketball this season that is better than Maye?

10. AUBURN TIGERS

  • Who’s gone: Davion Mitchell, Mustapha Heron, DeSean Murray
  • Who do they add: Samir Doughty
  • Projected starting lineup: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley

Auburn will lose Heron, who might have been their best player last season, but return everyone else from a team that won the SEC. Their guards are just so talented, and that was without Purifoy and Doughty. The health of McLemore, who suffered a dreadful ankle injury in February, will be critical, as well as the development of Chuma Okeke. But we saw what Pearl could do with these pieces last season, and that was with the FBI investigation hanging over their head.

11. KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

  • Who’s gone: No one
  • Who do they add: Shaun Williams
  • Projected starting lineup: Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Carter Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Dean Wade

This will probably be the highest that you see the Wildcats ranked heading into the season, but I really like this group. They have a crop of tough-minded, playmaking guards that can really get out and defend, and their best player might actually be a guy that the public at-large hasn’t really seen play in Wade. Bruce Weber is going to silence the haters!

Dean Wade (David Becker/Getty Images)

12. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES

  • Who’s gone: Devin Wilson, Justin Bibbs
  • Who do they add: Jon Kabongo, Landers Nolley II, Jarren McAllister
  • Projected starting lineup: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear

The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players, but the key for this team is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.

13. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

  • Who’s gone: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling, Tum Tum Nairn
  • Who do they add: Foster Loyer, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier
  • Projected starting lineup: Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford, Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman

I can’t help but look at this roster and see all the same issues that they had this past season, only without their two most talented players. Turnovers. Lack of star power. Some defensive issues. Winston has a chance to be a first-team all-Big Ten player, but Langford and Ward are going to have to live up to their potential. It feels like this group has nice pieces, but that those pieces doesn’t necessarily fit together. That said, who is better? What team is without warts?

14. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES

  • Who’s gone: Braian Angola, C.J. Walker, Brandon Allen
  • Who do they add: Devin Vassell, David Nichols
  • Projected starting lineup: Trent Forrest, M.J. Walker, Terance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele, Phil Cofer

I really like this group in theory. They have a whole bunch of athletic, switchable wings that can score. Mann, Walker and Kabengele returning was key, as is finding some point guard depth now that C.J. Walker left the program. Getting Cofer back for a fifth-year is enormous.

15. TCU HORNED FROGS

  • Who’s gone: Kenrich Williams, Vlad Brodziansky, Ahmed Hamdy
  • Who do they add: Kendric Davis, Kaden Archie, Angus McWilliam, Yuat Alok, Russel Barlow Jr.
  • Projected starting lineup: Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher, Desmond Bane, Kouat Noi, Kevin Samuel

Losing Williams and Brodziansky is going to be a blow, but there are still plenty of pieces. Bane and Noi should be in line for breakout seasons, and Jamie Dixon going small-ball with a two-point guard look should be fun to watch. Will Fisher ever be healthy?

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

16. UCLA BRUINS

  • Who’s gone: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, G.G. Goloman, LiAngelo Ball
  • Who do they add: Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal, Moses Brown, Kenny Nwuba, David Singleton III, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill
  • Projected starting lineup: Jaylen Hands, Prince Ali, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Moses Brown

This is a make or break year for Steve Alford. With every underclassmen except Aaron Holiday back, meaning that back-to-back top five-ish recruiting classes are on campus. It’s time for the Bruins to put up or shut up, and I think they’ll be right there as a favorite to win the Pac-12 … if they decide they want to play defense.

17. WEST VIRGINIA

  • Who’s gone: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, D’Angelo Hunter
  • Who do they add: Jordan McCabe, Derek Culver, Trey Doomes, Andrew Gordon
  • Projected starting lineup: Beetle Bolden, Brandon Knapper, Lamont West, Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate

West Virginia has survived losing program guys in past seasons, but Carter and Miles were responsible for turning West Virginia into Press Virginia. Calling them program guys is a disservice. So we’ll see how this plays out. At this point, we have to trust that Bob Huggins will figure out a way to make it work.

18. OREGON DUCKS

  • Who’s gone: Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh, Troy Brown
  • Who do they add: Bol Bol, Louis King, Miles Norris, Will Richardson
  • Projected starting lineup: Payton Pritchard, Louis King, Paul White, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol

For my money, Oregon’s season hung on whether or not Brown returned to school, and he’s gone. Bol and King are both potential one-and-done players, and Wooten is an elite defensive prospect, but I’m in a wait and see mode with them. Personally, I’m not on the Bol Bol bandwagon, but I understand why he is, in theory, a high-level prospect. They’re here because of the talent and Dana Altman, and we bought into that.

19. SYRACUSE ORANGE

  • Who’s gone: Matthew Moyer
  • Who do they add: Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, Eli Hughes, Robert Braswell
  • Projected starting lineup: Tyus Battle, Franklin Howard, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu

The Orange had no depth and very little perimeter shooting last season, but it looks like that was addressed in the offseason. With Battle and Brissett back in the fold, this Syracuse team has a chance to match watchable offense with one of college basketball’s very best defenses.

20. LSU Tigers

  • Who’s gone: Duop Reath, Randy Onwuasor, Aaron Epps, Jeremy Combs, Mayan Kiir, Galen Alexander
  • Who do they add: Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Kavell Bigby-Williams
  • Projected starting lineup: Tremont Waters, Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams

LSU is really young. They are also really talented. Waters is so entertaining, and the incoming trio of Smart, Reid and Williams is very good. Effort will be a key, as will their ability to play together, but they have a chance to be really good.

Tyus Battle (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

21. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS

  • Who’s gone: No one
  • Who do they add: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Jethro Tshisumpa Mbiya, D.J. Stewart
  • Projected starting lineup: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado

I am not totally sold on Ben Howland getting this thing going at Mississippi State, but this will be his most talented team. The Weatherspoon brothers are both going to be good players, Peters still intrigues some NBA teams and Holman should fill a role. Reggie Perry should be a nice addition and an impact player as well.

22. CLEMSON TIGERS

  • Who’s gone: Gabe DeVoe, Donte Grantham, Mark Donnal
  • Who do they add: John Newman III, Hunter Tyson, Trey Jamison, Javan White
  • Projected starting lineup: Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed, David Skara, Aamir Simms, Elijah Thomas

With Mitchell and Reed back in the fold, plus Elijah Thomas in the paint, this has the makings of another team that will push for a top five seed.

23. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

  • Who’s gone: Moe Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Jaaron Simmons
  • Who do they add: Ignas Brazdeikis, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns, Adrian Nunez, Colin Castleton
  • Projected starting lineup: Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske

Losing Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman, the program’s two best offensive weapons, are major blows for a team that struggled to score a season ago. Matthews’ decision to return is key and they will really be able to guard again, but one of their three big wings is going to need to take a major step forward for them offensively.

24. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK

  • Who’s gone: Omer Yurtseven, Al Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, Lennard Freeman, Sam Hunt
  • Who do they add: C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels, Blake Harris, Jericole Hellems, Derek Funderburk, Ian Steere, Immanuel Bates
  • Projected starting lineup: Braxton Beverly, Markell Johnson, Torin Dorn, C.J. Bryce, Derek Funderburk

Kevin Keatts is going to miss Yurtseven, because he doesn’t have any size on his roster anymore. He does, however, have half-a-million guards on his roster, and all of them can play. That’s enough for me to bet on Keatts getting it done.

25. MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES

  • Who’s gone: Andrew Rowsey, Haanif Cheatam, Harry Froling
  • Who do they add: Ed Morrow, Joseph Chartouny, Joey Hauser, Brendan Bailey
  • Projected starting lineup: Markus Howard, Joseph Chartouny, Sacar Anim, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt

Marquette will be the second-best team in the Big East if they figure out how to defense. Howard is an all-american, while the Hauser brothers will provide plenty of offensive firepower. Chartouny’s addition is key, as is Morrow’s. Both are tough, veteran defensive presences.

THE SEVEN THAT JUST MISSED:

26. Loyola-Chicago
27. Louisville
28. Indiana
29. Washington
30. Purdue
31. Florida
32. Providence

Shaq’s son, Shareef O’Neal, officially signs with UCLA

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Another O’Neal is set to patrol the paint in Los Angeles.

Shareef O’Neal, son of NBA great Shaquille, signed with UCLA on Monday, the school announced.

The younger O’Neal originally committed to the Bruins in February.

“Shareef has made great strides throughout his high school career,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said in a statement released by the school. “He’s an outstanding addition to our incoming class and brings a terrific combination of size, skill and athleticism. We love the length and height of this year’s team, and Shareef is really going to add to that dynamic.

“He has a terrific frame, one that will allow him to continue improving on both sides of the floor. With Shareef, you’re talking about a hard-working young man with tremendous upside, and his presence in our team’s frontcourt is a significant addition.”

There was some speculation that O’Neal may have difficulty being academically eligible this past spring, but his signing should put those concerns to rest.

The Bruins are getting, in addition to one of the sport’s great names, a top-50 recruit who originally committed to Arizona before the Wildcats became embroiled in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball. O’Neal is 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, and he averaged 27 points per game during his senior high school.

And here are some highlights from Shaq’s LSU days because A) Any excuse is a good excuse to watch Shaq highlights and B) We don’t talk about what a menace we was as a college player enough.