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WCC Conference Preview: Can anyone threaten Gonzaga?

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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 West Coast Conference.


While the West Coast Conference can boast a national title contender in Gonzaga, the goal for the league is to see more than just one team make waves nationally.

After a run of four straight season in which at least two teams reached the NCAA tournament, the 2017-18 season was the second in the last three in which the WCC has been a one-bid league.

Turning things around in that regard will largely be the responsibility of BYU and Saint Mary’s, which comes as no surprise even with the latter having lost four starters from last season.

Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s enter the 2018-19 season as the headliners in the WCC, with San Diego and San Francisco appearing to be the teams closest to the conference’s “big three.”

And with there being a host of talented players in this league who don’t play for Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary’s, that should make for some fun winter nights along the west coast.

Mark Few (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Gonzaga’s flirtation with the Mountain West prompts changes

While the conference realignment wave at the beginning of this decade was largely influenced by football, college basketball has seen some of its power programs (that don’t sponsor football) make moves as well. At the very least Gonzaga considered a move itself, with there being “exploratory” conversations in February between athletic director Mike Roth, basketball coach Mark Few and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. Ultimately no move was made, with Gonzaga remaining in the WCC and the conference making some changes to its schedule.

The conference schedule has gone from 18 to 16 games, so the true round-robin format is gone. For the programs expected to be at the top of the league that should mean at least one less game against a projected conference bottom-feeder, which could have a positive impact on the strength of schedule and NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) numbers that are used to by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

The conference tournament has also changed, with the top two seeds receiving a bye to the semifinals. There are also other changes that will go into effect in the future with regards to non-conference scheduling, and the moves (plus the likely loss of earned NCAA tournament revenue had the school left the conference) were enough to satisfy Gonzaga. The WCC dodged a bullet this past spring.

2. Mark Few’s Bulldogs looks like a national title contender

Focusing on the action on the court, Gonzaga is a Top 5 team nationally in the eyes of many. Three starters are back from a team that won 32 games, the WCC regular season and tournament titles, and reached the Sweet 16 in 2017-18. And the returning starters don’t include junior forward Rui Hachimura, who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and was one of college basketball’s best reserves.

Guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. are also back, as are junior forward/center Killian Tillie and sophomore forward Corey Kispert. Add to this a talented crop of newcomers, which includes transfer Geno Crandall (North Dakota) and Brandon Clarke (San Jose State) and freshmen Filip Petrusev and Greg Foster Jr., and Gonzaga has enough talent and experience to be a national title contender.

That being said, the Bulldogs will be without Tillie for much of non-conference play as he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle. That puts more pressure on players such as Kispert, Clarke and Petrusev in the front court, as they’ll be tested by a schedule that includes games against Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.

3. BYU sets its sights on top spot

With regards to its performance within the conference, the 2017-18 season was BYU’s worst as a member of the WCC since joining in 2011. Dave Rose’s Cougars posted an 11-7 mark in conference play, finishing five games behind second-place Saint Mary’s, and after a loss to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament final BYU finished its season in the Postseason NIT. BYU’s looking to take a step forward in 2018-19, and with five starters back the Cougars have the pieces needed to do just that.

Leading the way is junior forward Yoeli Childs, a first team All-WCC selection who averaged 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season. The 6-foot-7 Childs, who also blocked 1.8 shots per game, shot better than 54 percent from the field and will once again be one of the conference’s best players. Also back in Provo are guards TJ Haws, Jashire Hardnett and Nick Emery, who averaged 13.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in 2016-17, and senior forward Luke Worthington. Reserves such as Dalton Nixon and Zach Seljaas will provide the depth for a talented group that could be the team best equipped to challenge Gonzaga.

Yoeli Childs (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

4. Saint Mary’s looks to replace three key starters

Saint Mary’s had a successful 2017-18 season, winning 30 games and finishing conference play with a 16-2 record. But that overall win total wasn’t enough to get the Gaels into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. Now Randy Bennett will have to account for the loss of three starters from that team, most notably one of the best big men in college basketball in Jock Landale. Sophomore guards Jordan Ford, who averaged 11.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last season, and Tanner Krebs (7.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are back to lead the way.

But after those two Saint Mary’s will be looking for contributions from newcomers and players who played sparingly in 2017-18. Redshirt junior forward Kyle Clark appeared in just three games before undergoing knee surgery, and senior center Jordan Hunter averaged just over seven minutes per game in 32 appearances. Graduate transfer Aaron Menzies, who averaged 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game at Seattle last season, will be a key newcomer for the Gaels as will redshirt sophomore forward Malik Fitts (7.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 2016-17 at South Florida). Saint Mary’s has a lot of new faces but the expectations remain high for a program that hasn’t failed to win at least 20 games in a season since 2006-07.

5. Pepperdine and San Diego have new head coaches

There were two head coaching changes in the WCC this past spring, and both hires are familiar faces to those who follow the league. Pepperdine, which let Marty Wilson go after seven seasons, hired Lorenzo Romar to lead its program. Prior to head coaching stops at Saint Louis and Washington, Romar, who last season served as associate head coach at Arizona, spent three seasons at Pepperdine. After his 1996-97 team won just six games, Romar led the Waves to 17 and 19-win seasons before moving on to SLU.

As for San Diego, its circumstances differ from those that prompted the change at Pepperdine. Lamont Smith resigned in early March after being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, but he was never charged. Stepping into the head coaching role is Sam Scholl, another USD alum who served as acting head coach for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. Of the two new head coaches Scholl is better positioned to win immediately, with San Diego returning its top four scorers from last year’s 20-win squad including first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga

One of college basketball’s best reserves last season, Hachimura moves into a starring role for the Bulldogs in 2018-19. In 2017-18 the 6-foot-8 Hachimura shot 56.8 percent from the field and 79.5 percent from the foul line with an effective field goal percentage of 57.7. With Gonzaga needing to account for the departure of Johnathan Williams III, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding as a senior, Hachimura will even more opportunities to put up quality numbers offensively. And with Killian Tillie out of the lineup for the time being, Gonzaga will need Hachimura to take the next step in his growth as a player and NBA prospect.

THE REST OF THE ALL-WCC FIRST TEAM

  • Frankie Ferrari, San Francisco: As a junior the 5-foot-11 Ferrari averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 assists per game, ranking tied for fifth in the conference in the latter statistical category.
  • Zach Norvell, Gonzaga: As a freshman Norvell, who redshirted in 2016-17, averaged 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. And if Gonzaga needs a big shot late in a game, there’s a decent chance that the fearless Norvell will be the one letting fly.
  • Yoeli Childs, BYU: In averaging 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, Childs increased his scoring average by 8.3 points per game from his freshman to sophomore season. While a similar increase may not occur in 2018-19, there’s no denying the junior’s status as one of the WCC’s best players.
  • Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: Due to the aforementioned stress fracture in his ankle, the 6-foot-10 Tillie (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg in 2017-18) will be out for approximately eight weeks. But when on the floor the versatile junior is a key cog in the Gonzaga attack, due to his ability to play either in the paint or away from the basket offensively (58.0 percent from the field, 47.9 percent from three).

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
  • KJ Feagin, Santa Clara
  • TJ Haws, BYU
  • James Batemon, Loyola Marymount
  • Isaiah Pineiro, San Diego

BREAKOUT STAR

The pick here is Saint Mary’s sophomore guard Jordan Ford (11.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.6 apg in 2017-18), due in large part to the fact that the Gaels will need him to break out given the team’s personnel losses. As a freshman Ford shot 50.8 percent from the field, 44.3 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line, doing so on just over eight field goal attempts per game. Look for Ford to be safety into double figures in shot attempts, and he’s skilled enough to not take a step back from an efficiency standpoint.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

No names this time around. With Pepperdine making its move in the spring, replacing Marty Wilson with Lorenzo Romar, there isn’t a coach that enters the 2018-19 season under a considerable amount of pressure to produce a big year.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The WCC has managed to be a multi-bid conference, with BYU joining Gonzaga.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing if Gonzaga can reach the Final Four for the second time in the last three seasons.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 6, BYU at Nevada
  • November 19-21, Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational (vs. Illinois, 11/19)
  • November 24, Harvard at Saint Mary’s
  • December 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
  • December 15, Gonzaga at North Carolina
Randy Bennett (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. GONZAGA: Gonzaga’s the clear favorite to win the WCC, even with the loss of Tillie for the next eight weeks. His absence will be felt during non-conference play, as the Bulldogs have matchups with Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina in addition to their appearance in the Maui Invitational to navigate. That being said, Mark Few’s team is loaded with talent from guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. on down to an All-America candidate in Rui Hachimura. And newcomers such as transfer Brandon Clarke and Geno Crandall, who averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 3.6 apg at North Dakota last season, and freshman big man Filip Petrusev should be impact additions.

2. BYU: Of course the returns of Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws will give the Cougars a shot at getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. What will also help is the return of guard Nick Emery, who withdrew from school last November amid an investigation into his possibly receiving impermissible benefits from a booster. Emery, who averaged 14.7 points per game in his first two seasons at BYU, will have to miss BYU’s first nine games this season. When on the floor he gives BYU another quality perimeter scorer, which is needed due to the loss of leading scorer Elijah Bryant.

3. SAINT MARY’S: Three of the top four scorers from last season’s team have moved on in Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar, with sophomore Jordan Ford being the lone returnee. Ford could be in line for a big 2018-19 season given the combination of those personnel losses and his skill set. Fellow sophomore guard Tanner Krebs, who made 29 starts last season, should also be a factor and the same can be said of transfers Aaron Menzies and Malik Fitts. While the Gaels have some questions to answer, they should once again be a top three team in the WCC.

4. SAN FRANCISCO: After winning 20 games in Kyle Smith’s first season at the helm, San Francisco won 22 games and reached the championship series of the CBI in 2017-18. All five starters, including first team All-WCC point guard Frankie Ferrari, return from a team that despite the strides made last season still has room for growth. San Francisco was the last team to crack the BYU/Gonzaga/Saint Mary’s hold on the top three spots in the WCC standings, finishing tied for second in 2013-14, and the Dons could very well pull off this feat again.

5. SAN DIEGO: The Toreros reached the 20-win mark for just the fourth time in the program’s Division I history last season, and there’s a decent chance that the count increases to five in 2018-19. San Diego’s top four scorers, led by redshirt senior forward and first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro, return to play for first-year head coach Sam Scholl.

6. PACIFIC: The Tigers have made strides in Damon Stoudamire’s first two seasons as head coach, with the overall win total improving by three games (11 in 2016-17 to 14 last season) and the conference win total improving by five (from four to nine). While there are eight newcomers to work into the program, Pacific welcomes back three of its top five scorers in guards Roberto Gallinat and Kendall Small and forward Jahlil Tripp.

7. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: The Lions boast one of the WCC’s best individual talents in senior guard James Batemon, who averaged 17.8 points and 4.6 assists per game in his debut season at LMU. He’s one of four starters back for head coach Mike Dunlap, and given the talent and experience on this roster it’s likely that the Lions take a step forward after last year’s 11-20 finish.

8. SANTA CLARA: Senior guard KJ Feagin lead the Broncos in both points and assists last season, earning first team All-WCC honors as a result. He’ll once again lead the way for Herb Sendek’s group, with sophomore forward Josip Vrankic looking to take a step forward after averaging 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a freshman.

9. PEPPERDINE: Lorenzo Romar begins his second stint at Pepperdine with anything but an empty cupboard, as the top three scorers from last season’s team (Kameron Edwards, Colbey Ross and Eric Cooper Jr.) all back. While that is a positive, both Edwards (nine games) and Cooper (13) missed time due to injury so it goes without saying that they’ll need to remain healthy if Pepperdine is to take a step forward.

10. PORTLAND: Turning things around at Portland hasn’t been easy for Terry Porter, whose teams have won 11 and 10 games in his first two seasons at the helm. Four of Portland’s top five scorers from a season ago, led by sophomore guard Marcus Shaver and redshirt junior wing Josh McSwiggan, are back and Pitt transfer Crisshawn Clark is eligible after sitting out last season.

College Basketball’s Best Big Men

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While plenty of our best-of lists are heavily populated by freshmen, this one, highlighting the top frontcourt players in the country, has a decidedly veteran bent.

From four-year stars to seasoned upperclassmen to super sophs and successful transfers, the best players big men in the country this season will be no strangers to college basketball fans.

Here are the 10 best big men heading into the 2018-19 season.



1. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina

By this point, Maye’s story is well known as he went from over-qualified walk-on to a potential National Player of the Year. Still, his rise is remarkable. He went from averaging 5.5 points in 14.4 minutes per game as a sophomore to 16.9 points in 32.2 minutes per game as a junior to establish himself as one of college basketball’s best bigs – and players.

Maye, a 6-foot-8 power forward, has gotten there largely on the strength of his ability to stretch defenses. He shot 43.1 percent from 3-point range last season, including a mark of 46.6 percent in ACC play, which was tops in the league. A rather remarkable feat for a frontcourt player who launched over 100 3s for the season. In a sport often dominated by freshmen, Maye gives North Carolina the valuable weapon of the combination of experience and talent.

2. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

The 6-foot-8 Japanese standout has been a favorite in basketball circles for awhile, though he’s yet to truly breakthrough in a major way to the broader hoops public. That could very much change this season.

Hachimura averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a sophomore for the Bulldogs last year while shooting 60.6 percent inside the arc. It’s been on the international scene, though, where he’s really flashed the potential that has him being looked at as a lottery pick. He averaged 20.6 points and 11 rebounds in the 2017 U19 World Cup and he’s averaging 21.5 points and six rebounds per game in Japan’s World Cup qualifiers this year. WIth Johnathan Williams graduated and Killian Tillie out for two months with injury, Hachimura will take over the Gonzaga frontcourt in a big way.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

3. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

The Kansas roster is loaded with returners off last year’s Final Four squad, a top-flight recruiting class and transfers like K.J Lawson and Charlie Moore, but it’s Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, that really puts the Jayhawks over the top as the preseason national title favorite.

As a sophomore at Memphis, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s an elite defensive rebounder, an underappreciated shot blocker and a willing passer. He can replicate something close to the numbers he put up in the AAC in the Big 12, Lawson will have a spot on the All-American first team.

4. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Wisconsin was bad last year. The Badgers finished under .500 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades. That famed top-four-in-the-Big-Ten run came to a close, too, obviously. Things were not sweet in Madison. Ethan Happ, though, he was good.

The Badger big man averaged 17.9 points, eight rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game while converting at a 52.8 percent clip from the floor. As an under-the-rim player who doesn’t stretch the floor, Happ doesn’t project particularly well at the next level, but he is unquestionably one of the top players – let alone big men – in the country. Wisconsin should be improved this season, and Happ will once again get his due after sliding off the radar some during the Baders’ dip last season.

5. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Grant Williams has a chance to do something that no one has done since Corliss Williamson and Shaquille O’Neal did in the early 1990s: Repeat as SEC Player of the Year, as Williamson did in ‘94 and ‘95 and the Shaq Diesel did in ‘91 and ‘92.

The 6-foot-7 junior averaged 15.2 points, six rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season en route to those honors as the Volunteers surprised just about everyone with their move to the top of the SEC standings. Williams, picked as the league’s preseason player of the year this fall, isn’t a high-level finisher, but he draws fouls, gets to the line and frustrates opponents at a rate few others can match.

6. REID TRAVIS, Kentucky

It’ll be interesting to see how Travis fits in at Kentucky after spending four NCAA tournament-less seasons out west at Stanford. Given the monster numbers he put up the last two seasons with the Cardinal, it’s not hard to see the 6-foot-8, 238-pound forward as the linchpin on an otherwise young roster.

Travis put up 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor. As a graduate transfer who flirted with the idea of going pro before making his way to Lexington, the bet is here that Travis embraces his role around a group of talented-yet-inexperienced teammates to help make the Wildcats one of the preeminent national title contenders.

7. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

Gafford could have easily called it a collegiate career last year after averaging 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 60.5 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-11 Arkansas native made the decision quickly that he’d return to the Razorbacks after his rookie campaign, and enters this season as one of the premier shot blockers in the country.

8. DEAN WADE, Kansas State

There’s not much flashy about Wade’s game. He’s not overly athletic and he’s not going to be throwing down rim-rattling dunks, but he leads the charge for a Kansas State team that brings back everyone from last year’s surprise Elite Eight team.

He averaged 16.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals (more than he averaged on blocks) as a junior, but it was his 44 percent mark from 3-point range that truly made him an offensive threat and a potential All-American for his senior season.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

9. MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State

All Mike Daum has done for three seasons in Brookings is put up huge numbers. He averaged 15 points as a freshman before 25 as a sophomore and 23.9 – while shooting 42.5 percent from deep – last season as a junior. The 6-foot-9 Nebraska native could have been a graduate transfer or gone pro after last season, but instead returned to what will be the overwhelming favorite in the Summit and almost certainly a Cinderella darling come March.

10. P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

The strangest part of this list is that it has two Kentucky Wildcats and neither are freshmen. How about that?

Washington averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists last season as a rookie for John Calipari. He’s back for his sophomore campaign, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s deployed by Calipari, who will have decisions to make about weighing 3-point shooting, experience and defense with his lineup construction, especially up front.

Stress fracture to sideline Gonzaga C Killian Tillie eight weeks

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Gonzaga’s front court rotation took a significant hit Tuesday, as it was announced that junior center Killian Tillie will miss approximately eight weeks due to a stress fracture in his ankle. Per the announcement Tillie re-aggravated the injury in a fall taken during practice, with an MRI revealing the stress fracture that needed to be repaired surgically.

Tillie’s coming off of a sophomore season in which he averaged 12.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, shooting 58.0 percent from the field and 47.9 percent from three. Tillie was named to the preseason watch list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top center.

Without the 6-foot-11 junior, Gonzaga will have one less option in the front court to call upon for most of the non-conference portion of its schedule. Gonzaga enters the 2018-19 season having to account for the departure of Johnathan Williams III, who led the Bulldogs in both points and rebounds as a senior.

Preseason All-American Rui Hachimura will lead the way for the Bulldogs, with San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke and freshman Filip Petrusev also expected to have an impact in the front court. With Killie due to miss eight weeks, Gonzaga will be without the junior for the Maui Invitational (November 19-21) and key non-conference games against Washington (December 5), Tennessee (December 9) and North Carolina (December 15).

Gonzaga opens WCC play January 5 against Santa Clara.

College Basketball’s Top Frontcourts

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What defines a big man in college basketball these days?

In the NBA, there are clearly defined types of bigs.

There are stretch-fours, stretch-fives, switchable rim-runners, rim-protecters, skilled fives.

And these days, those bigs come in all shapes and sizes, from Draymond Green to Clint Capela, from Joel Embiid to Giannis Antetokuonmpo.

In college, it’s a little bit different.

Since the Golden State Warriors haven’t broken the sport like they have at the highest level, teams can play different styles and have success. Villanova won the 2018 national title by going all in on spacing, shooting and skill while the 2017 national title was played between North Carolina and Gonzaga, two teams that played with massive frontcourts.

Styles can still make fights at this level, which makes the different frontcourts all that much more interesting this season.

So let’s take a look at them.

Here are the best sets of bigs in college basketball.


Chet White | UK Athletics

1. KENTUCKY

Players: Reid Travis, P.J. Washington, Nick Richard, E.J. Montgomery

The Wildcats may not match the numbers that some of the other teams on this list have from a depth standpoint, but they certainly hold their own from a talent standpoint. P.J. Washington and Nick Richards are the lone returnees in this quartet, with the former coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. The transition to college basketball was a bit more difficult for Richards, who despite starting all 37 games struggled some from a consistency standpoint and averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.

That season of experience should serve both Washington and Richards well, and they’ve got two very talented newcomers to work with in Reid Travis and E.J. Montgomery. Travis is the best grad transfer in college basketball this season, as he’s coming off of a 2017-18 season at Stanford in which he averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on 52.5 percent shooting. Had Travis, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft in the spring, returned to Stanford he very well could have been the preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 five-star recruit earned McDonald’s All-America honors and was Florida’s Player of the Year after averaging 25.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a high school senior.

2. GONZAGA

Players: Jeremy Jones, Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev

The front court at Mark Few’s disposal this season is a big reason why Gonzaga has the appearance of a national title contender. In junior Rui Hachimura the Bulldogs have an All-America candidate who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, shooting 56.8 percent from the field. He isn’t the only returnee in the Gonzaga front court either, as second team All-WCC big man Killian Tillie returns after averaging 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. This duo will lead the way in a rotation that will have to account for the departure of leading scorer and rebounder Johnathan Williams, and they’re joined by two talented newcomers in Brandon Clarke and Filip Petrusev.

Clarke, who sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State, averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2016-17. At Gonzaga the 6-foot-8 redshirt junior may not score as much due to the talent he’s playing with, but he’ll certainly be an impact addition. As for Petrusev, the 6-foot-11 freshman from Serbia finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida and was a key contributor on teams that won gold at both the 2017 and 2018 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championships. Sophomore Corey Kispert made seven starts last season, averaging 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 19 minutes per game, and former walk-on Jeremy Jones will round out this talented rotation.

3. KANSAS

Players: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot, Silvio De Sousa*, David McCormack

While Kansas does have some uncertainty to work through at present time due to the status of sophomore power forward Silvo De Sousa, this is still one of college basketball’s most talented front court rotations. A big reason for that is the addition of Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, a 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore in 2016-17. Also making the move from Memphis was Dedric’s brother K.J., who averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game during that same season. The third newcomer is 6-foot-10 forward David McCormack, who earned McDonald’s All-America honors and helped lead Oak Hill Academy to a 30-4 record as a senior.

That trio joins three returnees led by junior center Udoka Azubuike, who in 2017-18 averaged 13.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 23.6 minutes per game. Azubuike led the country in field goal percentage, making 77.0 percent of his attempts, and when he gets the ball with two feet in the paint he’s incredibly difficult to stop. Mitch Lightfoot gives Kansas additional depth inside, but the question mark for the Jayhawks is De Sousa.

Joining the program in December, De Sousa averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in 20 appearances as a freshman. He’s in line to take a significant step forward as a sophomore, provided he be cleared to play as the school is currently looking into his eligibility status in the aftermath of the first round of trials in the FBI’s investigation into bribes paid to influence recruits. The Kansas front court will be good regardless of that outcome, but there’s no denying that De Sousa’s presence would only make this group better.

Sagaba Konate (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

4. NORTH CAROLINA

Players: Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley, Nassir Little

The Tar Heel front court is led by a player in Maye who ranks among the nation’s best. The 6-foot-8 senior is coming off of a season in which he averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, earning first team All-ACC honors and the conference’s Most Improved Player award. In addition to the conference honors, Maye was also named a third-team All-American by multiple outlets at season’s end. At minimum he can be a first-team All-American this season, if not a major factor in the national Player of the Year race.

Another reason why the front court is considered to rate among the nation’s best is the arrival of Nassir Little, a 6-foot-6 McDonald’s All-American who can be used at either the three or the four. Given North Carolina’s numbers on the wings, it’s likely that the talented freshman will see more time at the latter spot. And given his athleticism, look for Little to be one of college basketball’s best freshmen. Sophomores Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley will all factor into Roy Williams’ plans as well, with Brooks (4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) having made 16 starts as a freshman and Manley averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game off the bench.

5. WEST VIRGINIA

Players: Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad, Andrew Gordon, Lamont West, Wesley Harris, Logan Routt, Derek Culver

While “Press Virginia” will have a different look this season due to the departures of guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., Bob Huggins has a front court that lacks neither depth nor experience. West Virginia’s top three returning scorers are all front court players, led by the nation’s best rim protector in 6-foot-8 junior Sagaba Konate. Last season Konate, who entered the NBA draft before deciding to withdraw his name, averaged 10.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game, ranking second in the country in block percentage (15.6; Texas’ Mo Bamba led in that category). Also back from last year’s Sweet 16 team are senior Esa Ahmad, and juniors Wesley Harris and Lamont West.

Ahmad, who missed West Virginia’s first 16 games of the season, made 16 starts and averaged 10.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as a junior. West, who Ahmad eventually replaced in the starting lineup, made 20 starts and averaged 9.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Harris was one of two Mountaineers, Carter being the other, to start all 37 games in 2017-18 and he chipped in with 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game. 6-foot-9 sophomore Andrew Gordon, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and 6-foot-11 junior Logan Routt give West Virginia additional size inside, and the same can be said of talented 6-foot-10 freshman Derek Culver. Culver was a standout at Brewster Academy last season, earning first team All-NEPSAC Class AAA honors.

6. TENNESSEE

Players: Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, Yves Pons, Derrick Walker Jr., John Fulkerson, D.J. Burns, Zach Kent, Brock Jancek

The Tennessee front court, a big reason why the Volunteers managed to earn a share of the SEC regular season title, is anchored by reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. As a sophomore Williams averaged 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, shooting nearly 48 percent from the field. Also in the rotation is senior Admiral Schofield, who after entering his name into the NBA draft pool decided to return to Knoxville for one last run. The 6-foot-6 Schofield led Tennessee with an average of 6.4 rebounds per game last season while also scoring 13.9 points per game (he shot 39.5 percent from three on 4.6 attempts per game).

Adding depth and experience inside are senior Kyle Alexander and sophomores Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker Jr., with Alexander (34 starts) having averaged 5.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. Freshmen D.J. Burns, Brock Jancek and Zach Kent, who played in Tennessee’s first two games before being redshirted last season, will look to crack this experienced rotation. That will be difficult to do, but at the very least competing with the likes of Williams and Schofield should help those three freshmen down the line.

7. DUKE

Players: Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden, Jack White, Justin Robinson, Antonio Vrankovic

Williamson, one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2018 class, is the headliner for this group. The freshman has a combination of athleticism, raw power and size (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) that has not been seen at this level. Given Williamson’s ability to impact a game, he’s going to be an incredibly difficult matchup for opponents to account for. The remainder of the front court rotation will be asked to provide depth, defense and rebounding in a lineup that projects to be led by four freshmen (Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on the perimeter with Williamson at the four).

Javin DeLaurier, who averaged 3.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game as a sophomore, appears to be first in line for that fifth spot in the starting lineup with fellow junior Marques Bolden competing for that designation as well. Junior Jack White appeared in 28 games (5.6 mpg) last season, and Justin Robinson and Antonio Vrankovic will also look to earn increases in playing time in 2018-19.

8. VIRGINIA

Players: Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, De’Andre Hunter, Jay Huff, Francisco Caffaro

Redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter is healthy after his first season on the court came to a premature end due to a thumb injury, and he’s considered by many to be Virginia’s best NBA prospect heading into the 2018-19 campaign. As a redshirt freshman the 6-foot-7 Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors. Senior Jack Salt started all 34 games for the Cavaliers, averaging 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and Mamadi Diakite was a valuable reserve with averages of 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per contest.

Redshirt sophomore Jay Huff and freshman Francisco Caffaro, a 7-footer who helped lead Argentina to a bronze medal in this summer’s FIBA U18 Americas Championship, will also compete for playing time. Note: We’ve grouped Braxton Key with Virginia’s perimeter players, but he could certainly factor into Tony Bennett’s plans in the front court as well given his size (6-foot-8, 225).

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

9. KANSAS STATE

Players: Dean Wade, Makol Mawien, Austin Trice, James Love III, Levi Stockard III, Nigel Shadd, Patrick Muldoon

Kansas State managed to reach the Elite Eight last season without Dean Wade, and with the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year healthy the feeling it that the Wildcats can do even more in 2018-19. As a junior Wade led the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding with averages of 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while also dishing out 2.7 assists per contest. He’s joined in Kansas State’s interior rotation by fellow senior Makol Mawien, who started all 37 games last season and averaged 6.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per night. If Mawien were to become more consistent in his production, Kansas State could really take off.

Levi Stockard and James Love III will both look to earn increased minutes after being on the periphery of the Kansas State rotation last season, and the same goes for redshirt freshman Nigel Shadd who played in just eight games due to a knee injury. Kansas State has added two transfers to the mix, with junior Austin Trice being a third team NJCAA All-American and Wabash Valley CC last season and Patrick Muldoon walking onto the team after averaging 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Eastern Illinois in 2016-17.

10. AUBURN

Players: Horace Spencer, Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Danjel Purifoy, Chuma Okeke, Myles Parker

While Auburn’s numbers in the front court will be down a bit to start the season as Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy serve the remainder of their NCAA suspensions, the fact that both returned after being sidelined for all of last season is very good news for Bruce Pearl. As a freshman, the 6-foot-11 Wiley averaged 8.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 18 minutes per game. As for Purifoy, he made 25 starts in 2016-17 and accounted for 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest. Once those two, who will miss Auburn’s first nine games, are back in the fold Auburn will have a deep rotation that won’t lack for talent.

Returnees Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore and Chuma Okeke will also be factors in 2018-19. Okeke was Auburn’s most productive front court reserve, as he averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game. Spencer accounted for 4.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a key reserve, moving into the starting lineup when Anfernee McLemore went down with a broken leg. McLemore (7.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.7 bpg) was one of the nation’s best shot blockers before the injury, which he suffered in a loss at South Carolina. Getting the 6-foot-7 junior back gives Auburn the rim protector it lacked during last season’s stretch run. Prior to last season Auburn had gone 15 years without an NCAA tournament appearance. This front court is a key reason why the Tigers don’t have to worry about starting a new tournament drought in 2019.

Honorable Mention: Arizona State, Florida State, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon, Providence, Texas, UCLA, Villanova, Wisconsin

Bracket revealed for loaded Maui Invitational

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The Maui Invitational is a monster.

While the field for the 2018 edition of the event has been known for months, it’s strength and depth was on full display Tuesday when the brackets were revealed, pitting NBC Sports Way Too Early top-five teams Duke and Gonzaga on a championship collision course,

Duke will square off against San Diego State in its opening game while Gonzaga takes on Illinois in its opener on the opposite side of the bracket.

Other first round matchups include Auburn (12th in our preseason poll) vs. Xavier (26th) and a game of unknown-but-talented teams in Arizona and Iowa State.

“Each of the eight teams that step on the hardwood at the Lahaina Civic Center is capable of winning the 2018 Maui Jim Maui Invitational,” tournament chairman David Odom said in a statement. “All 12 games in Maui will help shape the course of the 2018-19 college basketball season, and the team that leaves the island with the Wayne Duke Championship Trophy will have incredible momentum to begin the year. The atmosphere is going to be electric, and we’re looking forward to hosting the teams and their fans in November.”

Simply, this tournament is stacked.

Gonzaga and Duke are going to draw the big headlines, but the rest of the tournament is going to be just as intriguing.

Can Auburn back up its SEC title? What does Xavier look like under Travis Steele? Can Brian Dutcher keep momentum with the Aztecs? What kind of team is Sean Miller going to have? Can Iowa State return to relevance after a last-place Big 12 season? Can Brad Underwood rally the Illini?

So while Chaminade isn’t in the field for the first time since the event’s inception in 1984 (the Silver Swords return on a rotating basis in 2019) and there won’t be any chance of a blockbuster upset, Maui is making up for it with an all-time field.

2018 Mauit Invitational

 

Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura has strong showing for Japan in FIBA upset over Australia

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Gonzaga junior forward Rui Hachimura started to show signs of his vast potential during Japan’s recent appearance in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers.

The 6-foot-8 Hachimura dropped 24 points and seven rebounds in an impressive win for Japan over Australia as he showed a full scoring package and an improved perimeter jumper. After only shooting 19 percent from three-point range as a sophomore last season, Hachimura was 2-for-3 from distance (10-for-18 field goals) in the upset over Australia.

Beginning to display his talents in 20.7 minutes per game last season for the Bulldogs, Hachimura is expected to make a significant jump his junior season as he’ll be counted on to be more of a go-to player for Gonzaga. Hachimura finding his offense at multiple levels and going against NBA players like Matthew Dellavedova and Thon Maker is a positive sign in his development for next season.

Gonzaga is currently the No. 2 team in the NBCSports.com preseason poll as Hachimura’s development will be a big part of this team living up to the preseason hype. With a full lineup of experienced players returning, including point guard Josh Perkins, wings Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert, and a frontcourt of Hachimura and Killian Tillie, the Bulldogs have the talent to make major moves in college hoops next season.