College Basketball Nation: Brandon Ashley
"Yes, there's going to be some competition," Randle said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. "But Coach [John Calipari] will figure it out."
Randle wasn't going to return next season. He was a one-and-done player from the moment he arrived, looking like a chiseled NBA veteran. He was the one big man who didn't need seasoning. But the rest did. Toss in newcomer Karl Towns Jr., and the Wildcats have as many bigs as any team assembled recently.
Randle's favorite to replace his low-post ability? He's leaning toward sophomore to-be Dakari Johnson.
"He's very good in the low post," Randle said. "He's got a nice touch. It's hard to move him down there."
Randle should know. He had to tussle with Johnson in the low block in practice every day. Now, Johnson will take Randle's role as the player whom the others try to knock off in the post -- for position and, possibly, playing time.
ESPN.com is examining position battles this week. Here are some center battles to keep an eye on:
Kentucky: Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee versus Karl Towns Jr.: Yes, there are veterans -- three of them -- returning against the young pup. Calipari could figure out how to play all four of them at some point during a game. Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Lee all had their moments in which they shined. Johnson has the best chance to be in the low post, Cauley-Stein can be the top shot-blocker and Lee is a bit of an X factor among the group. Now, enter the newcomer. Towns can do a bit of everything, but he doesn't need to be the primary option. That's key for him and rare for a high-profile Kentucky player. This isn't even mentioning Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress, who are more positioned to play smaller forward positions next to the bigs. This team is loaded.
North Carolina: Kennedy Meeks versus Brice Johnson. Meeks is much more of a physical specimen. He can be immovable at times in the low post. Johnson has more finesse to his game. The two of them can play together, but they could take turns sharing the focal point in the middle, depending on the opponent or the flow of the game. They have a chance to both average double figures and nearly seven or eight rebounds per game. If that happens, the Tar Heels could be a force in the ACC and beyond.
Texas: Cameron Ridley versus Myles Turner. Ridley made himself into a real threat last season. He was nearly a double-double player (he averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game). Ridley could progress even more next season. The Longhorns nabbed a late-recruiting season coup in Turner. Turner is too good, too effective to not be on the court. The key for coach Rick Barnes will be whether he can play the two as a tandem. If he can't, then who is on the court when the game matters most is more of a competition than the overall minutes. Regardless, both players can help Texas take a huge leap next season.
Gonzaga: Przemek Karnowski versus Kyle Wiltjer. Karnowski is the traditional post player. He can be difficult to move around, and his offensive game continues to develop. Wiltjer can certainly play with Karnowski because he's slender and is much more of a face-up player. The two can be an effective high-low tandem, but if there is a need to see who is on the floor late, then that is also, like with Texas, where the real competition begins. Wiltjer had a year to get stronger, but he won't turn out like Kelly Olynyk. Wiltjer is still going to be skill first, strength last. Karnowski needs to be the opposite for the Zags to find the right balance.
LSU : Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey versus Elbert Robinson. The Tigers have a chance to make the NCAA tournament because of the decisions of Martin and Mickey. The two were effective double-figure scorers last season playing with Johnny O'Bryant III. Now, toss in the newcomer Robinson. He'll need to find minutes as well. Coach Johnny Jones can't play all three together, but the minutes will need to be divided up. These are good problems to have, and with 15 fouls to expend among the three, the Tigers are one of the few teams in the SEC with the numbers to hang with Kentucky's frontcourt.
Arizona: Kaleb Tarczewski versus Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country last season. Give him another summer and he should really be a regular to score in the post. But he has to command the ball even more next season without the presence of Aaron Gordon. Ashley is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of the Pac-12 season. He will play with Tarczewski, but if there is any question who would demand more minutes, then that can be a highly competitive battle in practice. It might be moot for coach Sean Miller since the two can coexist, but dividing up the frontcourt minutes will still be an interesting decision for the staff.
Syracuse is No. 1 in the AP Poll, but that is based on the subjective votes of media members.
Arizona is No. 1 in BPI and Kansas is No. 1 in RPI. But those metrics are based on formulas that factor in a team’s performance through the entire season.
The more insightful question is: Which team is the best with the roster we think each team will have in the NCAA Tournament?
For most teams, that's their current roster, but there are a few exceptions.
To evaluate that, we'll use each team's BPI with all of its key players. Those key players are defined as the five players who average the most minutes per game among players who have played at least half of the team's games. Games in which a key player played less than 10 minutes due to injury or foul trouble or any other reason are not included.
Florida reigns supreme
Based on this metric, the Florida Gators are the best team in college basketball.
With their current roster -- with Scott Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Michael Frazier II, Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith in the lineup together -- they are 17-1, with their only loss coming by one point to UConn on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.
Undefeated Syracuse comes in at No. 2, followed by Kansas at No. 3.
A healthy Michigan State is dangerous
Michigan State is expected to have Branden Dawson back for the NCAA Tournament. Based on Dawson’s returning, the Spartans would rank fourth with their full squad.
That's a significant jump from their overall No. 15 BPI rank. They've lost four of seven games since Dawson went out.
In their two games with all of their key players except Dawson, the Spartans have a 61.1 BPI (win against New Orleans, loss to Nebraska), which would rank well below any team expected to get an at-large bid. That’s how important a healthy Dawson could be to their chances of going deep in the NCAA Tournament.
Is Iowa a top-5 team?
Based on this metric, the Iowa Hawkeyes are No. 5. They're 18-4 with their full squad.
Jarrod Uthoff has played at least 10 minutes in all but two games (at Michigan and against Ohio State). Iowa lost both.
Arizona isn't top 10 without Brandon Ashley
The Arizona Wildcats have been a much different team without Brandon Ashley, who is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Based on this metric, the Wildcats are No. 13. They're 2-2 without Ashley. That includes losses at California and at Arizona State and a two-point home win against Oregon.
Arizona has the No. 1 BPI with Ashley in the lineup, but it's a different story without him. Ashley could be the difference between Arizona being the National Championship favorite and not even contending for a Final Four berth.
What about Oklahoma State and North Carolina?
Although Michael Cobbins isn't among the top-five Oklahoma State players in minutes per game, the Cowboys are a much different team without him. Their BPI without Cobbins but with Marcus Smart ranks 33rd in this metric among teams currently in the BPI top 40.
Oklahoma State is 4-6 without Cobbins and with Smart, with two wins against West Virginia and home wins against Texas and TCU.
North Carolina's current roster includes Leslie McDonald, who was ruled eligible Dec. 18 after he missed the first nine games of the season. Since then, the Tar Heels' current roster has the worst BPI of any team currently in the BPI top 40.
The Tar Heels are ranked No. 32 overall in BPI, but their three best wins of the season -- against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky -- came without McDonald.
Since McDonald returned, they have losses to Wake Forest and Miami (FL) and didn't have a BPI top-50 win before Saturday's victory against Pittsburgh.
After Arizona’s narrow win over Oregon on Thursday night, Sean Miller stepped to his customary place in front of the postgame television cameras to answer questions posed by ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman. The second question was the universal one, the same thing everyone has been asking since Arizona lost its first game of the season and its starting power forward Brandon Ashley on the same night Saturday: How would the Wildcats -- and new starter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, more specifically -- respond? Was Miller ever worried?
“Not at all,” he said. “He’s a stud.”
As postgame analyses go, that was an easy one. But no less accurate for it.
Indeed, Hollis-Jefferson’s impressive starting debut in the Wildcats’ 67-65 win over the Ducks hardly qualifies as a surprise. The less-touted of Arizona’s two insanely athletic freshmen forwards (Aaron Gordon being the other, perhaps you’ve heard of him), Hollis-Jefferson had nonetheless already put together an excellent year as Miller’s sixth man before he was elevated to the focal point in Ashley’s wake. But he was great Thursday -- all attacking, angular energy -- and his four buckets late in the second half were crucial to Arizona’s mini-comeback effort.
So, hey, there’s one item crossed off the list. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is indeed good at basketball. Check and check.
The rest of the picture is slightly less clear.
The Wildcats’ conundrum in replacing Ashley was never a simple matter of plug-and-play. Miller’s team, for all its immense strengths, hasn’t gone much deeper than seventh man Gabe York all season. So the task for Miller was to get the stuff out of Hollis-Jefferson (the rim-runs, the transition baskets, the motor) that makes him special over a longer stretch, while maintaining that significant size advantage that Arizona so ruthlessly wields.
The Wildcats’ unique size is written all over their per-possession numbers: They’ve shot it really well inside the arc, and OK outside it. They don't shoot 3s often, though -- just 25.9 percent of their field goal attempts are 3s, which ranks 323rd in the country -- and they play at a slow-ish pace, which has helped accentuate the strengths of Ashley, Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski around the rim. It also helped minimize that lack of depth in the backcourt. The Wildcats rarely had their shots blocked. And when they missed, they got their own rebound 39 percent of the time.
Ashley was key in all of this, and he did something no other Arizona big man could: He made jumpers, and thus spaced the floor, without losing any of the interior productivity in the exchange.
On Thursday night, Miller unveiled a decidedly smaller team. York, a good standstill shooter who has attempted 81 3s and just 41 2-pointers all season, took on the sixth-man responsibilities and played 24 minutes. Guard Elliott Pitts, who had played in just nine games all season (and averaged about a point in less than five minutes) was called up for 12 minutes of spot duty. He attempted three 3s, made one and grabbed three rebounds. He acquitted himself well. But Pitts’ presence is the long tail of Ashley’s injury, and the clearest sign that Arizona will end up smaller in the future out of sheer necessity.
And then there is Gordon. If you squint, Gordon’s night -- five shots, six points, eight rebounds -- was fine. If you even casually glance, you should notice the 2-for-11 performance from the free throw line. This is another weakness Ashley’s loss exacerbates: Gordon is a 42 percent shooter from the free throw line, and he has the second-highest free throw rate on the team.
Translation: He’s leaving a ton of points on the board. Ashley was a 76 percent free throw shooter. Hollis-Jefferson shoots 62.8 percent. The Wildcats’ ability to absorb fouls from desperate, overmatched defenses took a major hit with Ashley’s loss, one without a clear fix at the ready.
In the end, Thursday night’s 67-65 win doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Arizona Version 2.0 will really look like. The Ducks don’t have much of an interior themselves -- their closest thing to a reliable “center” is probably 6-foot-8 tweener wingman Mike Moser -- and, oh yeah, they arrived in Tucson on Thursday losers of six of their past eight. A litmus test this was not. Miller will need more time to tinker, to tweak, to find new ways of maximizing the still-considerable talent on the floor. All precincts have not reported.
“Clearly, [Hollis-Jefferson’s] role changes a little bit,” Miller said. “But he’ll grow, he’ll get better. And we’ll just stay with it.”
At the very least, though, Thursday served notice that Hollis-Jefferson will take on his new role with gusto. Where Arizona goes from here is still an open question.
Yes, Arizona State fans hate Arizona. And yeah, Arizona fans probably derive minor joy from lording their historic basketball superiority over their in-state brethren, even if they’d never admit it. Still: Since 1979-80, Arizona is 49-22 against the Sun Devils with an average margin of victory of 8.5 points. In 2013-14, Arizona has been ranked No. 1 for six weeks and, after Sunday night’s 73-53 victory over USC, is 17-0 — the best start in the program’s storied history. The Sun Devils have never had much luck against Arizona. Why would this season, of all seasons, be any different?
All of this illustrates exactly why it feels so insane to say this: Arizona State has a real chance to win at Arizona on Thursday night. Not an “anything can happen in college basketball" chance. A real, actual chance. No, seriously.
Through 17 games, including Sunday’s 15-point loss at UCLA, Arizona State opponents have the 13th-worst effective field goal percentage in the country: just 43.1 percent. Against the Sun Devils, opposing offenses shoot just 28.9 percent from 3-point range and 43.0 percent from 2-point range, and have 15.5 percent of their shots blocked. That last part is especially key. ASU center Jordan Bachynski blocks 4.8 shots per game and 13.9 percent of available attempts. He also clears 21.9 percent of his team’s available defensive rebounds. It isn’t easy to constantly play help and challenge shots and then recover to clear the glass; few players manage it. Bachynski is one of them, and his presence makes everything ASU opponents do on the interior a grind.
If you want an even minuscule chance of knocking off Arizona, this is an awfully good place to start. Having Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley in the same lineup makes for lots of easy interior buckets, it turns out. According to hoop-math.com, Arizona attempts 35.7 percent of its field goals at the rim, where it shoots an eye-popping 77.8 percent. But if you can nudge the Wildcats out into mid-range territory, their percentage plummets to 29.9 percent.
The Wildcats’ frontcourt is similarly effective in the inverse: Arizona allows opponents to shoot just 16.6 percent of their attempts at the rim. But ASU point guard Jahii Carson might be one of the few players both quick enough to break down the Wildcats’ pack-line membrane and crafty enough to create points afterward.
If Bachynski can protect the rim and Carson can get into the lane on the other end, the Sun Devils could very well find themselves hanging tough in a tight, defensive contest — in striking distance, as they say.
These are monstrous ifs. Arizona will almost certainly win in Tucson on Thursday; an Arizona team this good hasn’t come around in, well, maybe ever. Still, that the Sun Devils have even a striking-distance-level shot against their would-be rivals says just as much about the 7-foot-2 center in Tempe.
The entertaining, explosive and skilled forward might be the addition that helps the Wildcats win the Pac-12 and make a run in the NCAA tournament. But his presence enhances a frontcourt that boasted two promising pieces before his arrival.
Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski will matter Friday night when Arizona faces Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden in New York City (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The most appealing component in that matchup is the Gordon-Jabari Parker pairing, especially since there's a chance the two will defend one another. An appearance by two of the top freshmen in America who star on nationally ranked teams makes this must-see TV.
But Ashley (10.7 PPG and 7.2 RPG) and Tarczewski (9.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 2.0 BPG) could be the difference for Arizona. The 7-foot Tarczewski and 6-foot-8 power forward Ashley could dominate an unproven Duke frontcourt. Amile Jefferson is the only player over 6-9 who has become a regular part of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's rotation.
That's a gap that Arizona must exploit to secure a win against one of America's best teams. The Wildcats need Tarczewksi and Ashley to be aggressive and consistent on offense and defense. With Parker on his roster, I don't think Coach K is focused on Gordon as much as he's worried about Tarczewski and Ashley, who are 42nd and 43rd respectively in Ken Pomeroy's offensive ratings of Pac-12 players.
Per KenPom.com, Arizona is ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage and Duke's defense is ranked 173rd in offensive rebounding percentage allowed. Arizona needs Tarczewski and Ashley to be relentless on the glass and earn extra possessions and opportunities for their squad.
But the duo also will be vital as the Wildcats attempt to stay in front of Parker and Duke's other talented wings. The new hand-checking rules have made it more challenging for perimeter defenders to contain elite players such as Parker.
So shot-blocking, shot-altering big men have become more important as teams attempt to limit penetration. Both Tarczewski and Ashley have to make Parker & Co. think twice about attacking the rim.
If those two struggle, Arizona will lose. It's that simple.
All of the buildup for Friday night's top game centers on Gordon and Parker.
But Tarczewski and Ashley might be the most significant players on the floor.
NEW YORK -- Five quick thoughts from Arizona’s 66-62 win over Drexel on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off:
Got nerves? Drexel jumped out to a 27-8 lead with 6:59 left in the first half, stunning the Garden crowd. No. 4-ranked Arizona, not Drexel, looked like the nervous, tentative squad -- perhaps due to its youth? The Wildcats do start a freshman and two sophomores.
Arizona got its act together after that. The Wildcats closed to within nine at halftime, and took the lead less than four minutes into the second half. Drexel didn’t fold, but Arizona eventually put the Dragons away. You can expect a better start from the Wildcats in Friday’s championship game.
Diaper dandy: Arizona’s highly touted freshman forward, Aaron Gordon, did not disappoint, with 10 points and 13 rebounds against Drexel.
Gordon didn’t blow anyone away Wednesday night -- he took only six shots from the field, scoring most of his points from the foul line. But he was active, particularly on the glass. It’s his fourth double-double in his first six collegiate games.
Size matters: The biggest difference in this game? Arizona’s front line. Drexel ultimately could not handle the starting group of 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, the 6-9 Gordon and 6-8 Brandon Ashley. The Dragons’ undersized post players were in foul trouble seemingly all game long.
That’s no disgrace. Most teams in America will have difficulty against a front line that big.
Real deal: Drexel is definitely a dangerous mid-major squad. The Dragons almost slayed No. 19 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion earlier this month as well.
Coach Bruiser Flint has an experienced starting backcourt in seniors Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat, two guards who can really fill it up. The Dragons were picked to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association behind Towson, but can certainly win that conference.
Up and down: You have to feel good for Fouch, a Bronx, N.Y., native who starred at Rice High School. A sixth-year senior who sat out last season with a broken ankle, Fouch scored a game-high 29 points in his New York City homecoming.
On the flip side, Drexel’s second-leading scorer, Damion Lee, suffered a right leg injury midway through the second half and did not return. Lee couldn’t put any weight on the leg -- it could be a serious injury, and a crippling blow to Drexel’s season.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Can Arizona put it all together?
Is Arizona the most fascinating story in the 2013-14 Pac-12? Probably not! Indeed, the travails of the UCLA Bruins and new coach Steve Alford surely offer more pure intrigue. Alford will step into a breach occupied by the insane subconscious expectations of UCLA fans, who were already in somewhat of an open revolt against their entire athletics program before they were miffed by the hire. Alford has a gigantic, inexplicable contract buyout, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon, and how he handles his first season -- when he will have as talented a roster as he's ever coached -- will set the tone for the next five.
It's interesting stuff, and yet I can't help but feel that UCLA -- like brilliant Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson, like Dana Altman's steadily improving Oregon Ducks, like Mike Montgomery's quiet solidity at Cal -- are mere bit players in this production. In the 2013-14 Pac-12, Arizona's name is the one in lights.
In four seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller's teams have had one defining characteristic: talent. No one on the West Coast has recruited elite prospects as well as Miller. But this season feels different. This season doesn't include a productive but ultimately makeshift option (Mark Lyons) at point guard. It isn't staking its season on a freshman such as Josiah Turner. (Remember him?) It isn't mixing in maybe one too many young forwards with seniors (Solomon Hill) who have to play. This season Arizona doesn't feel like a collection of really good pieces; it feels like a really good team.
Rest assured: There will still be talent. Even without forward Grant Jerrett, who made a surprise move to the NBA this past spring, the Wildcats have one of the deepest and most talented frontcourts in the country. Sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are star-level talents willing to bang on the low block, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the fifth-ranked small forward in the class of 2013. And then there's Aaron Gordon. Go ahead and type his name into the YouTube search field now. The Blake Griffin comparisons are non-stop at this point; Gordon isn't talked about as much as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker, but he has a chance to be better than all three.
But what really separates this year's Arizona team from slightly underachieving groups of the recent past is the backcourt. Last season, Miller turned to Lyons, his former recruit at Xavier, after Lyons' relationship with Chris Mack broke down; that meant putting all that frontcourt talent (along with Hill) on the floor with a point guard whose game would never be described as "pass-first." And don't get me wrong: Lyons had a good season, as did the Arizona offense. But one couldn't watch the Wildcats' fourth-place Pac-12 finish and not feel like much had been left on the table, like everything didn't quite fit.
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, who will take over at the point this fall, should snap into place immediately. And his backcourt mate, junior Nick Johnson, is probably the most polished player on the team -- an ideal outside-in college two.
That's why Arizona is (or should be) a top-five team in just about every poll despite losing Lyons, Hill, Jerrett and Kevin Parrom: Because the product of Miller's years of recruiting success are finally taking shape in more ways than mere acquisition. This could be the best team in the country. At the very worst, there will be lots and lots of lobs. Either prospect is worth the price of admission.
LOS ANGELES -- Quick reaction to No. 2 Ohio State’s 73-70 victory over No. 6 Arizona in the Sweet 16 at Staples Center on Thursday.
Overview: The crowd at Staples Center seemed to favor Arizona from the tipoff. The Wildcats' fans erupted when their squad hit the floor, and the team fed off that energy.
The Wildcats were more active and energetic than the Buckeyes in the first half. Mark Lyons was an offensive catalyst, scoring 10 points in the first half.
An Ohio State team that is usually poised suddenly looked uncomfortable. The Buckeyes, 11th in turnover rate per Ken Pomeroy entering the game, committed five turnovers in the first half.
Aaron Craft committed two fouls that limited his time. And Sean Miller went with a long, athletic lineup (Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Solomon Hill on the floor at the same time) that perplexed the Buckeyes. Kevin Parrom’s free throws gave Arizona a 33-22 lead with 6 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the first half.
Turning point: Once Craft re-entered the game in the final minutes of the first half, however, the Buckeyes began to roll. They finished the half on a 12-4 run. They were down by four points at halftime, but they clearly had the momentum.
Then, the Buckeyes started the second half on a 10-0 run. The Wildcats didn’t record their first points in the second half until the 14:40 mark, and by then, the Buckeyes had a 44-40 lead.
Ohio State maintained its edge throughout the second half. But the Wildcats kept pushing.
Arizona was down 67-61 with 3:16 to go, but the Wildcats' comeback was stifled by Lyons’ struggles after the break. He started the second half just 1-for-4 from the field.
LaQuinton Ross’ drive in the final two minutes gave Ohio State a six-point edge. But the Wildcats were down just three points with 53 seconds to go after Lyons’ late layup.
And then, Craft missed a layup. And Lyons went to the basket, scored and drew a foul. He hit the free throw. Tied game at 70-all with seconds on the game clock. But Ross hit a huge 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds to play to ice the win.
Wow. What a game.
Stars of the game: Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 20 points, but he scored 16 in the first half. Ross scored 17 points and hit the game-winning 3-pointer.
Stat of the game: Ohio State went 7-for-13 from the 3-point line.
Next: Ohio State will face Wichita State in the Elite Eight on Saturday.
Mark Lyons told reporters that his matchup with Aaron Craft is significant, but not as important as his team’s on-court unity on game day. Solomon Hill believes he’s the proper neutralizer for a player with Deshaun Thomas' versatility.
LaQuinton Ross? That’s a different matter.
“I think LaQuinton Ross is a different guy that we have to have guys keyed in on,” Hill said Wednesday of the Buckeyes' forward. “I think he's the big spark off the bench. He's a starter on any other team, and our young guys have to be prepared for him to really put it on the floor and shoot the outside shot.”
Shannon Scott is averaging 1.8 steals per game. Sam Thompson scored 20 points in OSU’s victory over Iona in the second round. Lenzelle Smith Jr. (9.4 points per game) is the team’s No. 3 scorer behind Thomas and Craft. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta might need the length of both Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel when his team encounters an Arizona frontcourt that features four players who are 6-foot-8 or taller.
The Buckeyes didn’t start this impressive rally -- one that includes a Big Ten tournament title -- with two players. And they won’t reach Atlanta with two players, either.
“They’ve been the difference,” Matta said. “The thing that I’ve enjoyed watching come to fruition is just those guys accepting their roles, but then taking great pride in doing their job.”
Ross said the team came together after the Buckeyes suffered a demoralizing 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17. The players gathered to discuss their differences following the defeat. They recognized that they were a fractured unit. Ross said every player, stars and reserves, accepted blame.
“[Wisconsin] was able to pick us apart because we weren’t together,” Ross said.
Since that time, however, the Buckeyes haven’t lost -- rolling off 10 consecutive wins. Why? Because they’re jelling with one of the NCAA tournament field’s best eight-man rotations. Ohio State’s players seem certain of the responsibilities they’re expected to handle each night. This is certainly not a two-man show.
“It’s really important for us to step up and be X factors,” Scott said. “We can’t be out there watching.”
WHOM TO WATCH
Ohio State’s Craft: The point guard's defensive wizardry has been on full display in the tournament. Iona’s Lamont Jones committed four turnovers with Craft on him. Iowa State’s Korie Lucious recorded five turnovers against Craft’s pressure.
“Aaron Craft is exceptional at what he does,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Arizona’s Lyons: The Xavier transfer scored a combined 50 points in his team’s two NCAA tournament victories over Belmont and Harvard. He’s also shooting 85.3 percent at the free throw line. But his leadership is a critical intangible for this program. His team feeds off him, whether he’s playing well or struggling.
WHAT TO WATCH
The paint: Arizona’s frontcourt athleticism could be a problem for the Buckeyes. But Thomas, Ravenel and Williams said they’ll play the physical Big Ten style that’s fueled their current winning streak. Ravenel said his team can also take advantage of Arizona’s youth; Grant Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are all freshmen.
“Intimidation is one of the things that can win games in basketball,” Ravenel said.
LAS VEGAS -- Solomon Hill is the first-team all-league selection, Mark Lyons leads the team in scoring and Kaleb Tarczewski headlined Arizona’s latest nationally ranked recruiting class.
Still, ask anyone who follows the Wildcats to name the most important player on Arizona’s roster, and the answer is always the same: Nick Johnson.
“No question,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “He has the ability to make them an elite level team.”
Boyle realized that more than ever Thursday during Arizona’s 79-69 victory over the Buffaloes in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament. Johnson, a shooting guard, scored a team-high 18 points. But it was his pesky defense on Colorado leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie that made the biggest impact.
“Nick locked him up,” Boyle said.
As a result, Colorado is headed home to await Selection Sunday while Arizona prepares for Friday’s semifinal against Pac-12 regular-season champion UCLA. The Wildcats are 0-2 against the Bruins this season.
Arizona's last loss came on March 2 -- just two days after a setback against USC that knocked the Wildcats out of the conference title picture.
“That whole trip to LA, it was kind of like a curse and a gift at once,” Miller said. “Sometimes when you go through what we did, you have to self-reflect and make sure that both individually and collectively we’re moving in the right direction.”
That certainly seemed to be the case Thursday, and a lot of it was because of Johnson. The sophomore went through a month-long slump in February in which he scored in double figures just once in eight games. Johnson, though, has been back to his old self in the last week. He’s averaging 15 points in his last three contests and, more importantly to him, his defensive effort has improved.
“If you look at all of our losses, it’s when I didn’t bring it on the defensive end,” Johnson said. “I know that and I’m taking it personally. I’m going to do my best to bring that high level of intensity every game.”
When that happens, No. 18 Arizona looks more like the team that was ranked as high as No. 2 earlier this season instead of the one that dropped four of seven contests in the second half of league play.
“When Nick is playing like he did [tonight], that’s when we’re at our best, for sure,” Miller said. “He does so many things for our team. There are times when he’s almost like a point guard out there on offense. He’s a defender that has immense talent and he’s a capable scorer and shooter, too.
“Like any young player, he went through a stretch where he lost some confidence, but he’s got it back now.”
Arizona is void of a true star -- but the Wildcats have a ton of nice pieces that make them a threat for a deep NCAA tournament run.
Boyle said he thought Hill would’ve been named Pac-12 Most Valuable Player if the the Wildcats had won the league title. Lyons, the Xavier transfer, has done a nice job of manning the backcourt even though he’s not a true point guard. And freshmen forwards such as Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley are getting more and more comfortable as their minutes increase.
“When you look at their lineup, they’ve got the most quality depth of anyone in our league,” Boyle said. “They have good players on the floor and they bring good players off the bench. They were dialed in tonight.”
None more so than Johnson.
*In unrelated news, Boyle said he’s confident Colorado will receive an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, but he doesn’t want to get his hopes up. The Buffaloes appeared to be a virtual lock to make the field two years ago but were inexplicably omitted from the field.
“I told our guys we’re going to play in the postseason,” he said. “I just don’t know which tournament.”
In Eugene, Ore., the future arrived early on Thursday night.
The Oregon Ducks were expected to rise in the coming years as Dana Altman’s young, talented roster matured. But the team’s 70-66 victory over No. 4 Arizona, a squad that entered the game with an unblemished record, changed the discussion surrounding the Pac-12 title race.
And next (potentially) became now.
A surging Oregon squad turned Matthew Knight Arena into the stage for an unlikely upset. The Ducks fell into an 11-0 hole in the first half and then, changed their fortunes -- changed the early Pac-12 championship picture -- with a 41-19 rally. They led by 11 (41-30) at halftime.
The Wildcats had toyed with defeat multiple times in previous outings against Colorado, San Diego State, Utah and Florida. And as they launched another comeback with minutes remaining in the game, it appeared as though Oregon would fall, too.
But the Ducks’ resilience -- a stubbornness that forced 14 Wildcats turnovers and held the three big men (Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley) in Sean Miller’s highly touted recruiting class to a combined 3-for-13 mark -- helped them resist that push.
Oregon led by 13 with 5 minutes to play. The Wildcats, however, pressured the Ducks and cut that deficit. Nick Johnson's 3-pointer with 53 seconds on the game clock squeezed that gap to 3. Dominic Artis missed a rushed 3-pointer on the other end of the floor and Johnson raced the other way.
Cue the déjà vu, right?
But Oregon’s Johnathan Loyd chased, forced a turnover and drew a foul. He made 1 of 2 free throws to give Oregon a four-point lead.
No Arizona magic in Eugene. Not on Thursday night.
Oregon connected on 7 of 11 3-pointers and shot 48.1 percent from the field, accuracy that Mark Lyons' game-high 21 points couldn’t overcome.
But Oregon freshmen Artis (3-for-4 from the 3-point line, 10 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals) and Damyean Dotson (9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block) were crucial participants in Thursday’s win. E.J. Singler (14 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals) led four Oregon scorers in double figures.
And now, the Pac-12’s list of contenders demands another look.
After the Wildcats knocked off Florida, they were touted as eventual league champs. With each win, they seemed to expand the chasm between them and the rest of the conference.
But Arizona’s victories masked some of its struggles, such as its challenges defending the 3-point line (289th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings).
As they rumbled through multiple tight finishes, the Wildcats’ success also overshadowed the recent growth around the league.
It took Shabazz Muhammad about a month to get back into shape after missing early games due to an NCAA investigation, but the freshman has been one of the best players in America in recent weeks. He’s averaging 19.6 points per game for a UCLA team that’s won eight in a row.
Colorado is 1-2 in Pac-12 play but last week’s effort at Arizona -- a game that should have ended in regulation on Sabatino Chen's 3-pointer -- proved that the Buffaloes can compete with the best in the Pac-12.
But no team had previously announced its place in the title conversation the way Oregon did Thursday night in its only regular-season matchup against the Wildcats.
The Ducks, who will also face UCLA once (Jan. 19 in Los Angeles) during the regular season, were dominant most of the evening. They play fast, they defend well (19th in Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings) and they tussle for 40 minutes. They proved as much when they upset No. 24 UNLV in the Global Sports Classic in Las Vegas. But the excitement spawned by that win did not last long because the Ducks lost to No. 21 Cincinnati the next night.
They also endured a wacky 91-84 triple overtime loss to UTEP on Dec. 19.
The squad that showed up Thursday night, however, can clearly play with any team in the league.
It’s “the” league now. Not just Arizona’s.
Without further ado, here are the choices (followed by a notable player from the past who put up similar numbers as a freshman):
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2005-06)
As the most consistent and most prolific freshman in the nation, Bennett has distanced himself from the pack. He’s the top freshman scorer (19.4) and ranks fifth in rebounds (8.6). His 19-8 averages were achieved by only four freshmen over the previous 10 seasons: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Kris Humphries and Carmelo Anthony. Pretty good company. Forget freshman honors, Bennett’s in the conversation for national player of the year.
2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State -- 12.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.6 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jason Kidd, California (1992-93)
Statistically, the last freshmen to fill up the score sheet like Smart were Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway. On top of lockdown defense, he’s averaging 12.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals. Arguably the top freshman in November, Smart’s production has waned a bit this month. His turnovers are high and he’s shooting only 35 percent from the field on the season. With those caveats aside, there’s really no one like him.
3. Jahii Carson, Arizona State -- 17.9 PPG, 5.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jerryd Bayless, Arizona (2007-08)
Three of the top 20 recruits in the nation enrolled at Arizona this year, but there’s little question that the most impressive freshman in the state plays in Tempe. Carson (17.9 ppg) trails only Bennett is scoring, while also ranking in the top five in assists (5.3). It has been 16 years since a freshman averaged 17 and 5 (Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway in 1996-97). On a team picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12, it’s no surprise that the Sun Devils are leaning heavily on Carson. If he turns ASU into a conference contender, he might lock up this award. But keep in mind that the last USBWA Freshman of the Year to miss the NCAA tournament was Eddie Griffin in 2000-01.
4. Ben McLemore, Kansas -- 15.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky (2004-05)
Kansas is the only team in the top 20 with a freshman leading the team in scoring. McLemore (15.9 PPG) is on track to break Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record, while joining Brandon Rush as the only freshmen to lead the Jayhawks in scoring over the past 30 years. An interesting side note: Both McLemore and Carson are redshirt freshmen, who were ineligible last season. They were ranked back-to-back (at 49th and 50th, respectively) in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2011.
5. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky -- 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.4 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyreke Evans, Memphis (2008-09)
Goodwin is putting up numbers eerily similar to another John Calipari freshman sensation, albeit from his pre-Kentucky days. Like Goodwin, Tyreke Evans was pressed into point guard duty for Memphis in 2009, finishing the season at 17.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 3.9 APG. Through 10 games, Goodwin is averaging 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.4 APG. Just like John Wall and Brandon Knight did as freshmen, he leads the Wildcats in points and assists.
6. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – 10.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.9 BPG, 2.8 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyrus Thomas, LSU (2005-06)
In the span of a month, Noel went from overrated to overlooked. That’s what expectations will do for you. Maybe he won’t be the next Anthony Davis, but his numbers on the defensive end are worthy of praise. Noel leads all freshmen in steals (2.8), ranks second in blocks (3.9) and fourth in rebounds (9.0). He’s the only player, regardless of class, ranked in the top 50 in steals and blocks. Even if his offense doesn’t come around, Noel will remain among the most impactful freshmen.
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Rashad McCants, UNC (2002-03)
While Muhammad missed the first three games of the season, Jordan Adams exploded out of the gate. But Muhammad has been the Bruins' most consistent player since becoming eligible. He’s up to 17.8 ppg, the fifth-highest scoring average among freshmen. A week ago, he wouldn’t have been on this list. But after totaling 46 points over the past two games, Muhammad is coming on strong. Apart from Kevin Love, no one has been a bigger threat to Don MacLean’s school freshman scoring record (18.6 ppg).
8. Semaj Christon, Xavier -- 14.7 PPG, 5.2 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Dominic James, Marquette (2005-06)
Cramps limited Christon to 23 minutes against Cincinnati, blocking him from a potential statement game. On a team that lost its top six scorers, he has thrown the Musketeers on his back with the fifth-highest usage percentage of any freshman. He’s on track to be Xavier’s second-leading freshman scorer of all time behind Byron Larkin (17.0 in 1984-85). All that’s missing is the deep threat. Christon is 2-for-11 from 3-point range.
9. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke -- 12.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.6 RPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: E’Twaun Moore, Purdue (2007-08)
While most of his brethren dominate lesser competition, Sulaimon is getting it done against the nation’s elite. With 17 points against Ohio State and 14 against Louisville, he’s a big reason that the Blue Devils are unbeaten and No. 1 in the nation. He doesn’t have the flashiest numbers, but Sulaimon is third on Duke in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
10. Nik Stauskas, Michigan -- 13.2 PPG, 54.7 3-pt FG pct
Freshman Statistical Comparison: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt (2009-10)
The least heralded recruit on this list, Stauskas was ranked 76th in the ESPN 100 coming out of St. Mark’s in Southborough, Mass. But the Canadian has been just the deep threat that John Beilein needed at Michigan, shooting 54.7 percent from 3-point range. That puts him on pace to break Jay Edwards’ 25-year-old record for 3-point percentage by a freshman (53.6).
Just Missed: T.J. Warren (NC State), Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Jordan Adams (UCLA)
Rising: James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Jakarr Sampson (St. John’s), John Brown (High Point)
Falling: Brandon Ashley (Arizona), James Woodard (Tulsa), Dewayne Russell (Northern Arizona)