Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Champions Classic -The Best Night Of The Non-Conference Season

The best single night of the non-conference season is the Champions Classic tonight in Chicago. (nationofblue.com)

In the first week of the college basketball season, when ranked programs are supposed to hone their skills against weaker opponents, the big boys are coming out to do battle tonight in Chicago. Four of the most storied programs in college basketball will be under the same roof for a double header that will be the center of the college basketball world.

This is the final leg of the three-year, round-robin-style Champions Classic. No. 1 vs. No. 2 and No. 4 vs. No. 5. Kentucky vs. Michigan State and Duke vs. Kansas. These are matchups perfect for March but four months early. Freshmen phenoms will battle. Hall of Fame coaches will try to outwit their counterpart. Passionate fan bases will get into heated Twitter fights about how the other team is a bunch of cheaters.

These coaches and programs need to be commended for agreeing to this tournament. It seems like an easy sell; go play in the United Center or Madison Square Garden in prime time against one of the best teams in the country. But doing so the second week of the season when even John Calipari thinks his team of McDonalds All-Americans isn't very good yet is a lot to ask.

Yet no one will look in March at a Kentucky or Michigan State loss tonight as a reason either should fall in the bracket seeding. A win for either side doesn't guarantee anything, but it's a marker to evaluate and boost a team's confidence. And after playing this level of competition, Miami of Ohio is going to seem like a walk in the park. You want your team to get better? Play the best.

One of the best decisions of the college basketball season thus far was to extend the classic for another three years, traveling to Indianapolis in 2014, Chicago in 2015 and New York City in 2016. The Maui Invitational and Preseason NIT are great early-season tournaments, but there is no greater one night of hoops in November than the Champions Classic. You know what you will get every year. Great players, great coaches and a ton of hype.

In the first year of the event, Kansas faced Kentucky. Those two teams later met up in the national championship game. Enjoy the games tonight and hope and we may be lucky enough to see part two of these matchups in March.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Friday Roundtable: The 2013-14 Final Four

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among a group of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

Poorly fitting polos and too-short ties are what the Big 12 is all about until March. (Danny Medly/USA Today Sports)

This week's question:The college basketball season kicks off today. Who will make it to the Final Four in March?

Andrew Wiggins already set his goals of winning a national championship and going No. 1 in the NBA draft directly afterward. The truly imposing thing is, although the freshman forward is getting the lion's share of Kansas' attention, he has the supporting cast to accomplish the former. Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid are getting some secondary shine after offseason and exhibition workouts, but this Jayhawks team is still stacked with players the like of Perry Ellis and freshman Conner Frankamp, a combo guard with deep range and a reliable shooting form who is lost in the media hype surrounding a KU team that should make the Final Four.

Kentucky? As stacked as ever. The Wildcats are young, of course, and after a year off, head coach John Calipari has what is arguably his best recruiting class in recent years. Expect a deep NCAA Tournament run capped with - if nothing else - a Final Four appearance.

This next name isn't as much of a shoo-in as Kansas or Kentucky, and isn't exactly an underdog, but it still feels like a bit of an out-on-a-limb guess: Louisville. The defending national champions lost Peyton Siva (whom I championed during the draft) and interior presence Gorgui Dieng to the NBA, but head coach Rick Pitino's squad still sports lightning bolt Russ Smith as a lead guard with backcourt mates Chris Jones and Kevin Ware balancing his occasionally out-of-control play, which shouldn't be completely erased even with an expected step forward in maturity. At 6'10", freshman Mangok Mathiang is the tallest body on the Cardinals' roster, which will allow Pitino to utilize the same sets in which the 6'11" Dieng stood out last season. There's some ground to make up without Siva's ability to pick pockets, but Louisville's pressure defense will still create turnovers and quick points for the Cardinals in the newly branded American Athletic Conference and on the way to a follow-up trip to the Final Four.

The last spot is a toss-up, for me, and even though strong cases can be made for multiple teams, I'll call it for Oklahoma State. I don't believe the Cowboys can win it all in the Big 12, much less the nation, with Travis Ford coaching. The return of Marcus Smart, one of the nation's premier point guards, for a sophomore season in which he'll be surrounded by supreme athleticism from the likes of Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown is just enticing enough for me to be sold on the Pokes willing their way into a rather unexpected run through the NCAA Tournament and topping out just short of the title game.

I actually don't think it would be out of the question for the four participants in Tuesday's Champions' Classic to all be in the Final Four. That would be Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas, who are all in the top five in the preseason poll. We would be lucky if that was the case because there are countless great matchups there from four prestigious programs. Seeing as it is called March Madness and all four of these teams could be No. 1 seeds, rarely does it work out like this. However, this year feels top-heavy and I don't know how many Cinderellas, or even 3-4 seeds, will be able to crack the Final Four. A team like VCU or Marquette has a chance, but it's too early to make a pick on them now.

That's why my Final Four, which at this point we are basically basing on potential, is going to be Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona. A Tom Izzo player always gets to a Final Four and this is the year that happens again. Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are experienced and lead an extremely talented team. For the other three teams, it's so hard to tell how freshmen will react (see Kentucky last year) but there is so much talent that can't be overlooked. Kentucky is overflowing with McDonalds All-Americans, led by No. 2 recruit Julius Randle. Arizona has the freakishly athletic Aaron Gordon and junior guard Nick Johnson could be huge for the Wildcats this season. Finally, my Kansas pick is more than just Andrew Wiggins. Wayne Selden is a probable one-and-done, the 7-footer Joel Embiid could have the highest ceiling of them all, and quiet forward Perry Ellis could still lead this team in scoring.

It's so hard to predict this early in the year, as so much could change, but just by looking at potential, these four seem to have as good a shot as anyone.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

ACC Preview: The New-Look ACC Is Stacked

The long wait will soon be over when the first full slate of NCAA basketball games of the 2013-14 season will tip-off on Nov. 8. Some of our favorite players have moved on the ranks of professional athletes, new recruits have been polishing their games in gyms with recognizable logos on the court, and schools have switched conference allegiances. Through a series of conference previews, the BDD crew will do its best to prepare you for the next 4.5 months of collegiate hoops.

Duke freshman Jabari Parker is a big reason why the Blue Devils are a favorite to win the ACC. (bigstory.ap.com)

Favorite: Duke
Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt are entering their first season in the ACC, but it is still Duke who is projected to be at the top of the standings. The Blue Devils received 50 first-place votes from ACC media in the preseason poll in large part thanks to freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood. Duke lost Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, but Quinn Cook will take over at point guard and the Blue Devils have the talent to find themselves in first in the ACC at the end of the season. Go ahead and circle the regular-season finale between UNC and Duke in Durham to possibly decide the conference.

Dark Horse: Virginia
Virginia is ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP poll, yet with the star power of the teams mentioned above, it is quite possible Virginia gets overlooked. Still, the ACC writers have the Cavaliers finishing fourth in the conference, and with four returning starters (most notably the top to scorers from last season, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell), Virginia could improve on a 23-12 record from a year ago. Virginia gets two key games at home at the end of the season against Notre Dame and Syracuse before ending the year at Maryland. This team seems poised to pull and upset or two at the expense of the conference elite.

Player of the Year: Jabari Parker, Duke
The ACC media picked Syracuse's C.J. Fair, who last year led a very talented team in scoring with 14.5 points per game and added seven rebounds per game. Fair very well may be the best player in the ACC this year, but it's tough to pick against another freshman phenom in Jabari Parker. Remember, Parker was on the cover of Sports Illustrated being called the next LeBron before Andrew Wiggins. Obviously any comparison between LeBron James and a player who has yet to record a minute in college is absurd. Still, it would be no surprise if the 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward burst onto the scene and dominated the ACC this year.  

Coach of the Year: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
The natural instinct, after looking at who our favorite, player and newcomer of the years are, would be to select Mike Krzyzewski as coach of the year. Then we came across an interesting stat. Coach K has not won ACC Coach of the Year since 2000. That's not a knock on Krzyzewski. He's one of the greatest coaches of all time. Instead, it seems like the media like picking coaches such as Jim Larranaga of Miami and Leonard Hamilton of Florida State who have brought up surprising teams to the top of the conference. That's why if Boeheim can have Syracuse in competition for the ACC crown in the Cuse's first year in the conference, he seems like a strong pick for coach of the year. Also keep an eye on Tony Bennett from Virginia if the Cavaliers make one of those Florida State-like runs in conference play.

Newcomer of the Year:Jabari Parker, Duke
It seems like with many of our previews, the picks for conference player of the year are also newcomers. That's a credit to how strong this freshman class is, and tells you a bit about the culture of college basketball in the one-and-done era. Parker will be dangerous from all over the court and finds a way to score. His teammate, and Mississippi State transfer, Rodney Hood should also make a big impact on the Blue Devils this season and could be in the hunt for this award at the end of the year.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

SEC Preview: Can Kentucky Live Up To The Hype?

The long wait will soon be over when the first full slate of NCAA basketball games of the 2013-14 season will tip-off on Nov. 8. Some of our favorite players have moved on the ranks of professional athletes, new recruits have been polishing their games in gyms with recognizable logos on the court, and schools have switched conference allegiances. Through a series of conference previews, the BDD crew will do its best to prepare you for the next 4.5 months of collegiate hoops.

It could be all smiles for Julius Randle (30) and Kentucky as the Wildcats enter the season as the No. 1 team in the country. (kentucky.com)

Favorite: Kentucky
Before playing a game that matters, Kentucky is not only the favorite to win the SEC, but is also the No. 1 team in the country. The Wildcats will have something to prove after last year's experiment ended in a hugely disappointing loss in the NIT to Robert Morris. Like any Kentucky team under John Calipari, the Wildcats will be young, but very talented. This might be the most talented class Cal has assembled. Kentucky brought in five players ranked in the top 11 in Rivals 150 (Julius Randle, No. 2, Andrew Harrison, No. 5, Aaron Harrison, No. 7, Dakari Johnson, No. 9, and James Young, No. 11). Add in returners Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress and this UK team is stacked. The question will be if these young players can mesh together and mature quickly, and if there are enough shots to go around. Still, inexperienced or not, this Kentucky team should be skilled enough to avoid a scenario like last season.

Dark Horse Team To Watch: Alabama
Alabama is coming off a 23-13 season in which it found itself in a three-way tie for second place in the SEC with Ole Miss and Kentucky. Alabama was picked sixth by the media, but Anthony Grant's squad could make a run similar to last season. The big loss for the Crimson Tide is Trevor Lacy, who transferred to North Carolina State after finishing second on the team in scoring (11.7 ppg) last season. Still, Alabama returns another Trevor in senior Trevor Releford, the point guard who led the team with 15.4 ppg last season and was voted Preseason First-Team All-SEC by the media this year. Add in Rodney Cooper and freshman big man Jimmie Taylor, who was No. 69 on the Rivals 150, and the Crimson Tide could compete in the top half of the conference.

Player of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle was the No.2 player in the 2013 recruiting class, only behind Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. The left-handed, 6-9 forward is dangerous from every part of the floor and figures to be a very high pick in next year's draft. There will be a lot of bright spots on this Kentucky team, but Randle should shine the brightest. He will have some big stages to practice on before conference play as Kentucky plays No. 2 Michigan State, No. 25 Baylor, No. 12 North Carolina and No. 3 Louisville all before the new year.

Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky
It's difficult to pick anyone else when the leader of Big Blue Nation has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. The pressure will be on Cal because of Kentucky's disappointment from a year ago, but that might actually help his chances of winning this award this season. If Cal can get his team to play like the national champion from two years ago and not the NIT team from last year, and win the league, the award will probably be his.

Newcomer of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle clearly has the biggest upside of any player in the SEC this year. Randle is a tough matchup with his ability to drive to the basket and post up. The only reason Randle is not either SEC Newcomer of the Year or SEC Player of the Year is because of all the talent around him getting their shots as well. Florida also has a pair of freshmen, Chris Walker (6-10" center, No. 6 Rivals recruit) and Kasey Hill (6-1" guard, No. 10 Rivals recruit), that could make a run at this award.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Friday Roundtable: Biggest NBA Jumps and Falls

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among a group of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving abuses Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd. (via NBA Offseason)

This week's question: Which NBA team will make the biggest rise or fall in 2013-14?

Chris S.:
Here's a wild prediction for you: the Cavs will make the 2nd round of the playoffs...by beating the Nets in the first round.

Cleveland has an MVP candidate in Kyrie Irving, but it's the improvement from Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters that will help them get to the next step. Jarrett Jack is an excellent fit as a crunch-time combo guard, and there are a lot of talented bigs (Andrew Bynum, Andy Varejao, Anthony Bennett, Thompson and Tyler Zeller) to give Mike Brown more flexibility through the long regular season.

The Nets may be the best team money of curious origins can buy, but I don't think they'll be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. There are the very highest of expectations for this group, which will need to gel a talented, yet uninspiring core of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson with...the Celtics' old core of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Jason Terry was thrown in as a parting gift, because headbands are the new black. I'm not optimistic for this team's chances of finding an identity and learning how to play together under head coach Lawrence Frank - sorry, I meant Jason Kidd. Unless Deron Williams transforms from coach killer into a leader who can win over both cliques AND find enough shots to keep everyone happy, this could be a very emo season in Brooklyn. Too many cantankerous cooks in the kitchen.

The Detroit Pistons don't come with a reputation this season, not that anyone remembers away -- the team had maintenance work-done over the summer.

Though Jose Calderon's ability to play, composed, at the point and shooting guard positions will be missed, however; Chauncey Billups returns Detroit with the same aura that earned him Finals MVP after leading the Pistons to an NBA Championship in 2004. His lack of ability is compensated by leadership, his production beyond mentoring will come from behind the arc, he's a 39 percent lifetime shooter from three-point range. Billups was 4 of 5 from 'distance' in the season opener against the Wizards, he had 16 points in 31 minutes. 

The Pistons added a turbo with Brandon Jennings, reputation aside -- he's talented. Essentially swapping a third-year player for the man responsible for giving Earth the phrase "Bucks in Six" isn't a raw deal. Knight averaged one turnover more per 48 minutes last season, while Jennings ranked 16th in assists per game at the end of the year. Buckle up because he's the guy behind the wheel. Josh Smith who may attempt to navigate without control all season, but his game works at high speeds much like the rest of the Pistons. Playing aside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the addition of "J-Smoove" completes a frontcourt that will look to score in transition -- a lot. 

With a new coach (Maurice Cheeks), new faces and newly-found optimistic expectations --the Pistons in the postseason would be the biggest jump, I believe, a team may make this season.

Numerically, the Cleveland Cavaliers will make the biggest jump of any team in the NBA. Point guard and dribbling savant Kyrie Irving was sporadically injured and the front court production was largely ravaged by the loss of Anderson Varejao after the veteran big man began the season on a tear, leading to the Cavs finishing last season with a lowly 24-58 record — third worst in the league. That won't be the case in 2013-14, particularly if some of the health issues ebb. A revamped roster has Varejao backed up by Andrew Bynum, who was considered by some to be the NBA's best center just two years; one of Golden State's bench spark plugs from last season, Jarrett Jack, and Matthew Dellavedova, an undrafted rookie playmaker out of St. Mary's, offer depth behind Irving; and Earl Clark is starting at small forward after showing flashes of previously unquantified talent with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012. First-rounder Anthony Bennett should be able to provide bench scoring and, with Irving set to officially ascend to superstar status as back court sidekick Dion Waiters and power forward Tristan Thompson continue to develop, the Cavs can legitimately be projected into the playoffs as high up as the sixth seed. Need proof? Cleveland's already beaten a team considered to be a top-five talent in the Eastern Conference in the Brooklyn Nets squad that made one of the splashiest roster rearrangements over the summer.

The "biggest fall" team is tougher to predict, but the Denver Nuggets seem ripe to drop down the standings. A No. 3 seed in the Western Conference in the previous playoffs, there are numerous departures that stand starkly in contrast to an "addition by subtraction" argument. George Karl may not have a championship on his head coaching resume, but his frenetic offensive system was the perfect fit for speedy point guard Ty Lawson, with his upside being perpetually realized. The abilities of young, athletic players such as JaVale McGee and Kennth Faried could also be maximized in such a system. New head coach Brian Shaw worked in an historically rich culture with the Lakers, but the transition will be abrupt. Factor in the loss of one of the league's premier defenders and a top 10 or 15 overall asset in Andre Iguodala, then the rehabbing of small forward Danilo Gallinari ruling the Italian out until at least December, and the Nuggets could be in store for a long season.

I'm also of the mindset that Cleveland will make a huge jump this season, but seeing as we've covered the Cavs well in this piece, I like the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. I know, this is a risky pick seeing as some accident will happen throughout the course of the season to injure at least three players. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will break a rib giving a chest bump. That's just the way it's been. I think, and hope for their sake, this year will be different. If Love's 31-point, 17-rebound performance in the season opener is any indication, a massive season is in store for him. Rubio will continue to make plays and keep the offense moving, Corey Brewer can knock down shots and J.J. Barea and Alex Shved are more than capable of preventing a letup with Rubio is on the bench. The addition of Kevin Martin is also looking like a offseason move that will pay off. Martin didn't have a great shooting night against the Magic (23 points on 6-19 shooting), but found a way to get to the line (9-9) and is another weapon on the wing to give Love more space inside.

It's been a building process in Minnesota. It was just four and three years ago that Minnesota won 15 and 17 games respectively. The Timberwolves were 20 games under .500 last season, but the 31 wins shows improvement. This could be the season all the pieces come together and Minnesota finds itself closer to that .500 record.

After toying with mediocrity for years (and at times being downright dreadful) I’ve got the Milwaukee Bucks taking a big step forward. Yes, the Bucks made the playoffs last season, but this was not a team ready to make a postseason run. However, I think Milwaukee is primed and ready to do just that. I love what they’ve done, shaking up the personnel. I’ve been a huge O.J. Mayo fan since he entered the league, and I think the Bucks are the perfect team for him. Mayo’s best years have come as a starter, averaging 18.5, 17.5, and 15.3 points per game in his seasons as a starter. Coming off the bench, Mayo has only averaged 11.3 and 12.6 points per game. Mayo is still only 25 years old, and has his best years in front of him. Going back to a team where he is not only a starter, but one of, if not the, primary scoring option will only help both Mayo and the Bucks reach greatness. 

The addition of Caron Butler is another I think the Bucks did well to make. While Butler’s production has been on a gradual decline the past couple of seasons, what he will bring to Milwaukee is some much needed leadership. The Bucks are a young squad (only three players on the roster are over 30) and having a quality, veteran presence the younger players can look up to is an invaluable piece to have. If the Bucks young front court of Ekpe Udoh, John Henson, and Larry Sanders can continue to develop and take strides forward, and point guard Brandon Knight can begin to realize his potential, Milwaukee is going to be a handful for the rest of the league.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Roundtable: Expectations for Derrick Rose

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among a group of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

Can Derrick Rose rise to expectations in 2013-14? (Peter G. Aiken/USA Today Sports)

This week's question: Derrick Rose has finally returned to the court for the Chicago Bulls. What will the expectations be of him this season?

This is the rare occasion in which what expectations will be and what expectations should be are identical. Derrick Rose sat on the Chicago Bulls' bench in dress clothes for more than one season, including playoff games, and now the expectations are high as he's decided he's ready to return to the court. Rose has been under a magnifying glass since injuring his knee in the 2012 playoffs, with the media cycle focusing on when he would be ready for action and the heat intensifying after he was declared ready to play by team doctors and chose to continue riding pine under the banner of not being mentally ready.

Rose's 26-point performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday raised expectations even more. Even if it was just a preseason game, Rose managed to eclipse his career scoring average while notching six assists and four rebounds in 35 minutes. While he also committed five turnovers, those will be forgiven because the play-making and scoring are what grab attention. The extra time Rose took to rehab his injury and get his mind right allowed him to foster confidence in his ability to make the moves required of a point guard who utilizes cuts and explosiveness to do nearly everything. That's what allowed him to put up a Rose-routine stat line, as he made his way to the free throw line five times and sunk 10-of-10 gimmes. The more eye-popping statistic -- and what should be a precursor of things to come, according to Jeremy Bauman of Sheridan Hoops -- is Rose's 50 percent shooting from three. For a player hitting 31 percent of long range attempts on his career, going for 4-8 would typically be considered an anomaly, but Bauman notes that players returning from severe knee injuries tend to come back as better shooters. If this holds true and Rose is as healthy as he looks, Chicago's latest savior enters 2013-14 with an expanded arsenal that could not only meet expectations, but demolish them.

The expectations are always going to be high when the player is seen as the face of a franchise as Derrick Rose is with the Chicago Bulls. If Rose would have come back at some point last year, he would have been cut some slack. Maybe it was too soon? At least he's out there competing. Now it's been over a year and a pile of criticism has rained on Rose for not playing in last-season's playoffs when many thought he was ready. The expectations are even higher now that Rose put up 26 points in the Bulls' preseason game Wednesday against the Thunder.

I expect Rose to be back to the form that made him an elite player by the end of the year. These first games will be telling of what point that elite player returns. Ask any player who has suffered a major knee or leg injury and if they say they weren't cautious or terrified of contact or the normal cuts and jumping when they first return, they are liars. Rose's performance all depends on how quickly he can overcome the fear of re-injuring the knee and get back to confidently cutting and taking the ball into traffic. Wednesday was a good start and if that performance was any indication, expectations should be high for Rose this season. 

Typically with players coming off an ACL surgery, I’m hesitant to have too many expectations for the following season. However, Derrick Rose isn’t a typical player. Last season, Rose was physically cleared in time to finish the season and play in the playoffs. For some reason, though, Rose elected not to suit up and take the court. Many analysts and fans (myself included) speculated Rose was not mentally ready to push himself to 100 percent. While this may have had some truth to it, ultra-competitive superstars (such as Rose) don’t appreciate hearing their motivation and toughness questioned by spectators. The Chicago Bulls made a heck of a showing in the playoffs, knocking off the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, before falling to the eventual champions in the Miami Heat in the second round. Even though the Bulls fell in five games to Miami, they gave the Heat all they could handle physically. The one thing they lacked was a player who could take over a game and get the tough baskets. 

Rose is primed and ready, after having had the time to heal physically, and is motivated to prove the nation wrong about his mental toughness. I expect Rose to be the same player we were used to seeing before he was injured: a game changer who puts up 25 points and eight to 10 assists per game. With Rose back in full force, I think the Bulls are legitimate contenders to unseat the Heat as champions of the East and the NBA.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pac 12 Preview: Aaron Gordon, Arizona Clear Favorites

The long wait will soon be over when the first full slate of NCAA basketball games of the 2013-14 season will tip-off on Nov. 8. Some of our favorite players have moved on the ranks of professional athletes, new recruits have been polishing their games in gyms with recognizable logos on the court, and schools have switched conference allegiances. Through a series of conference previews, the BDD crew will do its best to prepare you for the next 4.5 months of collegiate hoops.

Arizona freshmen Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (left) and Aaron Gordon (right) look to make a splash in the Pac-12 this season. (bleacherreport.com)

Favorite: Arizona
Sean Miller's club is the clear favorite, receiving 21 of 23 first-place votes from the Pac-12 media. The Wildcats lost their top two scores from last season in Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill, but part of Arizona's perceived success lies in the arrival of hyped freshman Aaron Gordon, the No. 4-ranked player in the ESPN 100 rankings. Arizona also has another McDonald's All-American in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to compliment Gordon, as well as guard Nick Johnson, who averaged 11.5 points per game last season, and 7-foot sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski. This Wildcats team will be fairly young but loaded with talent that should be clicking by conference play.

Dark Horse Team to Watch: California
The loss of Allen Crabbe is significant, but if the Golden Bears can patch the scoring hole left by Crabbe, this could be a dangerous team. Seniors Justin Cobbs (15.1 ppg, 4.8 apg) and Richard Solomon (8.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) will look to make the most out of their senior campaign and will have the help of freshman Jabari Bird, a McDonald's All-American shooting guard and No. 23 player in the ESPN 100. Cal was picked fifth by the Pac-12 media, but the Golden Bears' potential is greater. 

Player of the Year: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
It's tough not to pick the player that has had this much hype surrounding him. He will be the most talked about player in the conference, and has the luxury of playing on what many feel is the conference's best team. Remember this dunk? Gordon has a ton of raw talent and with Lyons and Hill gone, he will have an opening to make his presence known early on.

Coach of the Year: Tad Boyle, Colorado
This was a difficult selection, as Arizona's Sean Miller is always going to be a high candidate and if Steve Alford can turn UCLA around in his first season, it would be tough not to give him the honor. But Alford also has a ton of pressure on him and changing the culture in LA may take a bit more time. That's why I like Colorado's Tad Boyle. The Buffaloes lost Andre Robinson but are returning juniors Spencer Dinwiddle and Askia Booker, who were first and second on the team in scoring with 15.3 and 12.4 ppg respectively. Boyle will have to find someone to crash the boards as well as Robinson, but overall has a talented team that has played together before. Boyle is testing his team early with non-conference games against Baylor, Kansas and Oklahoma State from the Big 12, and the Buffs could be seasoned and balanced enough by January to make a run at the Pac-12. 

Newcomer of the Year: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
I know, I know, this isn't a very original pick, but sometimes the obvious choice is the correct answer. It's difficult to find flaws in his game, and Gordon will get tested early in the season against games versus UNLV and Michigan to get some of the freshman jitters and kinks worked out. It's obviously tough to judge a player who has yet to play a game of college basketball, but Gordon's potential is that he could be a star.