College basketball's interminable seven-month offseason is finally almost over.
The new season tips off Friday with a handful of intriguing games to whet our appetites in advance of next week's 24-hour marathon and the holiday tournaments to come. Here's a look at the four biggest games of opening night involving teams from the West Coast:
BEST IN THE WEST RANKINGS (PRESEASON EDITION):
1. Gonzaga: The nation's premier frontcourt and more perimeter talent than people realize.
3. Cal: This is the most talented roster Cal has fielded since the days of Jason Kidd.
4. Oregon: Dylan Ennis' foot injury hurts. Can Casey Benson or Tyler Dorsey step up?
5. Utah: No more Delon Wright, but nine of last year's 11 top scorers are back.
6. San Diego State: Familiar formula: An elite defense and just enough offense.
7. UCLA: Other scorers must emerge to keep Bryce Alford from trying to do too much.
8. BYU: With Tyler Haws gone, maybe triple-double machine Kyle Collinsworth gets his due.
9. Boise State: The one-two punch of Drmic and Webb is the Mountain West's best.
10. Oregon State: A program that overachieved last year gets an influx of talented freshmen.
1. PITTSBURGH vs. GONZAGA, 7 P.M. EST (OKINAWA, JAPAN)
Last year: Pittsburgh 19-15, 8-10 ACC (Lost to George Washington in the opening round of the NIT); Gonzaga 35-3, 17-1 WCC (Lost to Duke in the NCAA tournament Elite Eight)
Key players: Jamel Artis, Pittsburgh (13.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga (16.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
One big question: Will Gonzaga's supersized lineup thrive or fail?
Assuming Domantis Sabonis' sore back has healed enough for him to play on Friday, then the first test of the defensive viability of Gonzaga's supersized starting lineup will arrive right away. Pittsburgh combo forward Jamel Artis will be a difficult assignment for either Kyle Wiltjer or Sabonis because of the 6-foot-7 junior's quickness, perimeter shooting and ability to create for himself and others off the dribble.
Artis emerged as Pittsburgh's top scorer a couple weeks into league play last season, averaging 17.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists during his team's final 18 games. He did most of his damage abusing bigger, slower power forwards last season, but may spend more time at his natural small forward position this season with 6-foot-9 Michael Young returning and a several transfer big men now on the roster.
While Artis' quickness advantage might force Gonzaga to play zone or to go long stretches with only two of its three elite big men on the floor, the Zags have the size and skill on offense to make up for any easy buckets they surrender. Wiltjer, Sabonis and 7-footer Przemek Karnowski may overmatch a Pittsburgh team that missed the NCAA tournament last season mostly because it allowed the second most points per possession of any ACC team.
Predicted winner: Gonzaga
2. TEXAS vs. WASHINGTON, 10 P.M. EST (SHANGHAI, CHINA)
Last year: Texas 20-14, 8-10 Big 12 (lost to Butler in the opening round of the NCAA tournament); Washington 16-15, 5-13 Pac-12 (No postseason)
Key players: Isaiah Taylor, Texas (13.1 ppg, 4.6 apg); Andrew Andrews, Washington (15.0 ppg, 2.2 apg)
One big question: How quickly can Washington's freshmen turn the program's fortunes around?
For a program that last made the NCAA tournament in 2011 and returns only two scholarship players, Washington enters the new season with reason for optimism. A top 10 recruiting class featuring eight highly touted newcomers should breathe new life into the program and begin to turn its fortunes around.
Freshmen Dejounte Murray, Matisse Thybulle, Marquese Chriss and Noah Dickerson are expected to start against Texas along with senior point guard Andrew Andrews, Washington's team leader and top returning scorer. Rebounding and turnovers almost certainly will be issues with such a young, undersized roster, but the Huskies once again have the depth and athleticism to get back to the up-tempo offense and turnover-inducing defense that were their staples at the height of Lorenzo Romar's tenure.
The season opener against Texas should be a good early barometer for how long Washington's turnaround will take. While the Longhorns are still learning how to play for new coach Shaka Smart, they return high-scoring guard Isaiah Taylor and several other key players from a team that reached the NCAA tournament last season.
Predicted winner: Texas
3. COLORADO vs. IOWA STATE, 5 P.M. EST (SIOUX FALLS, S.D.)
Last year: Colorado 16-18, 7-11 Pac-12 (No postseason); Iowa State 25-9, 12-6 Pac-12 (Lost to UAB in the opening round of the NCAA tournament)
Key players: Josh Scott, Colorado (14.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg); Georges Niang, Iowa State (15.3 ppg, 3.4 apg)
One big question: Can Colorado find enough scorers to support Josh Scott?
While the graduation of volume-shooting Askia Booker should help Colorado's chemistry and efficiency, it does leave the Buffaloes in search of new ways to generate offense. Senior big man Josh Scott could be the Pac-12's premier low-post scoring threat, however, Colorado needs perimeter scorers to emerge in support of him.
One option is Josh Fortune, the deep-shooting former Providence wing who averaged 8.5 points per game his final season with the Friars. Another is Dominique Collier, the former top 100 recruit who struggled in his debut season but has obvious breakout potential. There's also a chance returners Wesley Gordon or Tre'Shaun Fletcher take a step forward.
Several of those guys will have to make major contributions for Colorado to stay competitive with Iowa State in Steve Prohm's debut as Cyclones coach. Iowa State returns a handful of key players from a high-scoring, free-flowing 25-win team including preseason All-American Georges Niang and speedy point guard Monte Morris.
Predicted winner: Iowa State
4. ILLINOIS STATE at SAN DIEGO STATE, 10 P.M. EST
Last year's records: Illinois state 22-13, 11-7 Missouri Valley (NIT second round); San Diego State 27-9, 14-4 Mountain West (Lost to Duke in the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament)
Key players: DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Illinois State (12.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg); Winston Shepard, San Diego State (11.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
One big question: Will San Diego State's offense show improvement?
An elite defense that surrendered the fourth fewest points per possession in the nation couldn't even mask how mediocre San Diego State was on offense last season. The Aztecs played too slow to generate many transition baskets and they lacked either the point guard play or the outside shooting to score consistently against a set defense.
Outside shooting remains a big concern for San Diego State this season, but Steve Fisher has addressed the other two issues. Highly touted freshman Jeremy Hemsley is expected to start right away at point guard and the Aztecs are aiming to play at a much faster pace. Throw in the return of leading scorer Winston Shepard, shooting guard Trey Kell's move off the ball and the breakout potential of skilled 6-foot-10 forward Malik Pope, and there's certainly reason for optimism on Montezuma Mesa.
The first litmus test for San Diego State's new-look attack arrives Friday against an Illinois State team that is expected to challenge Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference this season. The Redbirds return six players who were significant contributors to a 22-13 team reached the title game of Arch Madness and played in the NIT last season.
Predicted winner: San Diego State
OPPOSING COACHES ASSESS SOME OF THE WEST'S TOP TEAMS
In last week's West Coast Bias, opposing coaches assessed Oregon, New Mexico, San Diego State, UCLA and BYU. This week, Arizona, Cal, Utah, Gonzaga and UNLV are getting the same treatment.
Yahoo Sports spoke with coaches who faced those four teams in exhibition play and asked them to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent. Their scouting reports are below:
Arizona's 90-54 exhibition victory over Chico State on Sunday confirmed what Sean Miller has been saying since practice began.
Ryan Anderson is the Wildcats' best all-around player.
The Boston College transfer had 19 points and 10 rebounds against Chico State before exiting once Arizona built a comfortable second-half lead. Chico State coach Greg Clink shared his thoughts on Anderson, fellow transfer Mark Tollefsen and the two point guards battling for the Wildcats' starting job.
Chico State coach Greg Clink on Arizona: "Ryan Anderson, to me, was a phenomenal player. He's a go-to guy for them. When you need a basket, you can give it to him in multiple spots on the floor and he can score. I was really impressed with how he played. ... I think both [Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright] were equally effective against us, but they're different in how they do it. Allen looked more for his shot. He's definitely more of a scoring point guard. With Cartwright, getting the ball up the floor and creating shots for others, that's what I thought his strengths were. ... [Kaleb] Tarczewski is such a good defender. We have a 6-11 transfer from Fresno State who's an all-league player for us. He told me it was hard for him to even get a shot off against Tarczewski. Our guy had a tough time getting around him in the post because he's so big and long and moves so well laterally. ... When they put [Mark] Tollefsen at the three, he poses matchup problems with his length and size. I think his ability to defend on the perimeter may be an area of concern, but it was hard to tell against us. We don't have the type of high-major wings who can exploit that. ... Depth is a strength for them. They have multiple options at every position and they're bringing guys off the bench who are just as good as their starters."
With McDonald's All-Americans Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown joining a Cal team that also returns an impressive backcourt, the Bears have a chance to make a big leap this season.
They handled their first opponent with predictable ease on Monday night, storming to a 93-58 victory over a Carroll College team that competes in the NAIA and does not start a single player taller than 6-foot-6.
Rabb needed just five shots to finish with 11 points and 11 rebounds and Brown overpowered smaller defenders on his way to a team-high 17 points. Carroll College coach Carson Cunningham offered his impressions of both freshmen and his thoughts on the Bears' potential.
Carroll College coach Carson Cunningham on Cal: "Rabb is very patient. He'd look for double teams in the post, and if he didn't see one coming, he'd make a quick assertive move to the rim. At that age to be playing with that poise, it was definitely impressive. ... Jaylen Brown is a physical force. He was crashing the glass with abandon, attacking the rim and really asserting himself physically. Defensively he has a ton of versatility. Unless their opponent has a dominant college big man or a super quick little point guard, he can really guard every position and switch every ball screen. It makes it really difficult to get an edge. ... It's a really good situation for those young guys to have a backcourt that is so polished and experienced. It takes a lot of the pressure off them. ... Our team isn't very big, so one thing we tried to do is make their 7 footers play off a lot of pick and rolls and guard a lot of stuff off the bounce. We might not be the best team for them to try out their really big lineup against, but there are probably going to be some matchups when their ability to go really big will help them. ... I definitely think Cal's preseason ranking is warranted. Bringing ballyhooed freshmen into a veteran-laden lineup and trying to meld it together is a tough job, but I think coach Martin will be able to do it. They'll be a tough, tough team to deal with once they mesh. I can see them making a run."
Utah left quite an impression on Cal State Monterey Bay coach Rob Bishop after its 120-74 demolition of the Otters last Thursday night.
"I saw Arizona on film this weekend," Bishop said, "and right now I'd take Utah."
What surprised Bishop most about the Utes was how long and athletic they are and how many ways they can score even with last year's engine Delon Wright now in the NBA. Between guards Brandon Taylor (20 points) and Lorenzo Bonam (14), combo forward Jordan Loveridge (17) and rapidly improving center Jakob Poeltl (9 points, 10 rebounds), Bishop believes Utah has lots of options for how to generate offense.
Cal State Monterey Bay coach Rob Bishop on Utah: "Poeltl has gotten much stronger. He's really physical. He moves really well. He has improved his free throw shooting. He's a rebounding machine. Fortunately, we only saw him for 20 minutes because we couldn't do anything with him. ... I think they'll play through Poeltl more this season, but I don't think they have to play through him exclusively. With Loveridge, Taylor and then the JC kid [Bonam], they have other guys who can create offense. ... I know they're really high on [Bonam]. I didn't look at him like he's the next Delon Wright, but he played well against us. He was very good at creating for them. I don't know if he turns into the guy they go to down the stretch in close games or not, but he's certainly going to be an option. ... Loveridge shot it with confidence. He was very aggressive. With his ability to go inside and outside, he might be the guy who can create mismatches. ... Brandon Taylor is so fast in person. He's lightning quick getting the ball up the floor. He's going to be huge for them if they do play at a faster tempo. ... I know they were good defensively last year, but I think they'll even be better this year with all the guys they have back. They did what they're supposed to do against a D-II team like us. They took us out of everything we wanted to run."
Gonzaga didn't get to experiment with its giant lineup for long in a 90-58 rout of NAIA Eastern Oregon on Saturday.
The three big men did start together as Mark Few promised, however, Domantas Sabonis fell hard early in the first half and played only six minutes.
Of the Zags who did play the most minutes, the guy who impressed Eastern Oregon coach Jared Barrett the most was Kyle Wiltjer. The 6-foot-10 All-American candidate scored an efficient 33 points in 27 minutes, sometimes via the 3-point shot and other times via mismatches in the post.
Eastern Oregon coach Jared Barrett on Gonzaga: "Wiltjer is so smart with positioning and timing with his post-up game. In 15 years of coaching including 12 years in Division I, he's the best I've seen at spotting a mismatch and taking advantage. His IQ with that is off the charts and if you get caught behind him, it's a basket. ... I worry about their big lineup defensively. They started Sabonis on our two guard. I know he's agile and moves well for a big man, but against better teams that's going to be a really hard matchup. If they're not going to go zone starting those three, some teams are going to cause problems. ... I liked [Josh Perkins] the best out of all their guards. He gets their bigs the ball whenever he can. [Kevin] Pangos last year was more of a score-first guy, but Perkins makes it really easy for their bigs to score. ... Teams are going to pack in their defenses against Gonzaga and dare those wings to shoot. [Eric] McClellan, Silas Melson and Kyle Dranginis went a combined 1-for-14 against us on threes. I know they're probably better shooters than that, but they're streaky. If you can help more on their posts and risk closing out late on their shooters, I think that's preferable. ... They put McClellan on my point guard, who's our leading scorer, and our point guard said he was just OK. Coach Few knows better since he sees him every day in practice, but in the one game we played against him, we didn't see [him as a defensive stopper]. He's going to have to be better."
Two UNLV freshmen impressed Whittier College coach Rock Carter the most Friday night during his team's 94-57 exhibition loss to the Rebels.
One was McDonald's All-American center Stephen Zimmerman, who scored 13 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked four shots in 28 productive minutes. The other was high-flying reserve guard Derrick Jones Jr., who needed only 21 minutes off the bench to light up the scoreboard for 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
Carter spoke about their potential impact and why he thinks UNLV's full-court pressure will eventually be effective this season even if it wasn't all that fearsome against Whittier.
Whittier College coach Rock Carter on UNLV: They have the depth and athleticism to press, but the way they played against us wasn't as physical and aggressive as I thought it was going to be. They might not have been as motivated to play it as hard against us, but I do think they have the players to play it. ... The thing I was really impressed with about Zimmerman was how smart he is. He positions himself well and he passes exceptionally well. We'd double team him from different angles, and he was so good at picking and choosing who to pass to that we actually had to stop double teaming and let him shoot it over us. ... Patrick McCaw was the guy we were most concerned with coming into the game, but he didn't shoot too well against us. I think he'll have better nights to come ... Out of all their guards, I was most impressed with Derrick Jones. He's the real deal. He put the ball on the deck, he had a nice stroke, he was good on defense. He needs to add some weight to compete night in, night out, but he's going to be really good for them. ... I know [Dave] Rice is catching some heat, but I think they have a nice team this year. I think they have the physical tools to compete in the Mountain West and nationally.
THE COUNTDOWN: 2016 RECRUITING CLASSES
With the fall signing period beginning Wednesday, a look at the West Coast teams with the best crop of early commitments thus far. This list will undoubtedly change dramatically by next spring with 26 Rivals 150 prospects still uncommitted and numerous transfers yet to hit the market.
5. UNLV: Jaylen Fisher, G, Memphis (No. 55); Justin Jackson, F, Ontario (NR); Christian Vital, G, Oakdale, Conn. (NR); Carlos Johnson, F, Contra Costa, Calif. (NR)
Even though Dave Rice's future at UNLV could depend on how successful his team is this season, the uncertainty didn't prevent the Rebels coach from cleaning up on the recruiting trail yet again this year. Rice once again showed the ability to get talent from all over the continent when he went into Memphis and nabbed Fisher, a point guard with good size and defensive instincts. His other big coup was landing Jackson, a four-star forward who can score a variety of ways.
4. Washington: Markelle Fultz, G, Hyattsville, Md. (No. 13); Sam Timmins, C, New Zealand (NR)
On the heels of landing a highly touted eight-man 2015 recruiting class, Lorenzo Romar struck again this summer. Fultz, a five-star combo guard who's a perfect fit for Washington's up-tempo system, chose the Huskies over higher-profile teams like Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and Louisville. Romar also nabbed Timmins, a skilled center considered one of this year's top prospects hailing from Australia or New Zealand.
3. Gonzaga: Zach Collins, C, Las Vegas (No. 32); Zach Norvell, G, Chicago (No. 93); Killian Tillie, F, France (NR)
With Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski graduating and Domantis Sabonis a candidate to enter the NBA draft, Gonzaga needed to replenish its frontcourt. Collins is a skilled 6-foot-11 center and Tillie is a traditional stretch four. Both will compete for frontcourt minutes as freshmen alongside Missouri transfer Jonathan Williams, 7-footer Ryan Edwards and perhaps Sabonis. Norvell could also carve out playing time at wing with Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis both set to graduate.
2. Oregon: Payton Pritchard, G, West Lynn, Ore. (No. 51); M.J. Cage, F, Santa Ana, Calif. (No. 54); Keith Smith, G, Seattle (NR)
Whether via impact transfers or promising freshmen, Oregon continues to stockpile the talent necessary to contend in the Pac-12 year after year. Pritchard is a former Oklahoma commit with deep range and a knack for creating for others off the dribble, Cage is a big man who defends, rebounds and runs the floor well and Smith is a high-scoring 6-foot-7 wing who was once committed to San Diego State.
1. UCLA: Lonzo Ball, G, Chino Hills, Calif. (No. 8); Ike Inigbogu, C, Corona, Calif (No. 37); Kobe Paras, G, Los Angeles (No. 128)
This is the recruiting class that could elevate UCLA from upper-echelon Pac-12 team back to Final Four contention. In addition to this trio of impact prospects, the Bruins are also the favorite to land highly touted T.J. Leaf when he announces his college destination on Thursday. Leaf, a versatile 6-foot-10 forward rated Rivals.com's No. 15 prospect, is also considering Oregon and San Diego State.
With the air cool and crisp across most of the country and the temperature finally dropping below 90 here in Southern California, it's finally stout weather again. Good thing that the seasonal Russian Imperial Stout from Oscar Blues is finally hitting store shelves. Dark as night and thick as motor oil with 10.5 percent alcohol by volume, Oscar Blues "Ten Fidy" is a beer hearty enough to be a meal. The dark chocolate, coffee aroma gives way to a bold flavor that's boozy yet balanced, neither too bitter nor coyingly sweet. This beer may be a slow sipper, but it's still hard to resist having more than one. (GRADE: 8/10)
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