Exhibition play began in college basketball last weekend with Oregon, New Mexico, San Diego State, UCLA and BYU among the top West Coast teams who have played so far.
To get a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of that quintet, Yahoo Sports spoke with the coaches of each of their exhibition opponents:
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.
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.
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.
Northwest Christian coach Luke Jackson on Oregon:
A key injury kept Oregon from gleaning much joy from its 92-44 exhibition victory over NAIA Northwest Christian on Tuesday night.
The Ducks found out earlier in the day that starting point guard Dylan Ennis will miss "an extended period of time" due to a foot injury he previously suffered. The Villanova transfer is expected to return at some point this season, but sophomore Casey Benson and highly touted freshman combo guard Tyler Dorsey will have to pick up the slack for at least the next month or two.
Northwest Christian is coached by Luke Jackson, a star small forward for Oregon from 2000-2004. Jackson weighed in on how much the loss of Ennis will hurt Oregon, who will replace reigning Pac-12 player of the year Joe Young's scoring ability and whether Chris Boucher's 11 points and 7 blocks on Tuesday night are a sign of things to come.
Jackson: "The loss of Ennis is a big hit because they don't have a guy with that type of experience and leadership, but until he gets back, they'll have to substitute Casey Benson and Tyler Dorsey. I don't think it's out of the question that Benson can carry the load or that Dorsey can step in and fill those shoes. ... Benson is a pass-first point guard. He's really heady and he always makes the right play. He probably needs to improve his shooting a little bit, but there's not a guy who thinks the game better than he does. ... Tyler is a special talent with his ability to shoot the ball. I think he's going to be a deadly weapon as he gets experience. It would have been preferable to ease Tyler in rather than throwing him to the wolves, but I think he'll be able to handle it. ... I don't think they'll have a problem replacing Joe Young's production, but what they'll have to search for is who's going to step up and make the big plays in crunch time. Last year, Joe Young saved about six or seven games for Oregon. It could be Dillon Brooks, it could be Duane Benjamin, it could be Elgin Cook. Between those three guys, they need a leader to emerge. ... For a guy who hasn't been playing very long, Chris [Boucher] has great timing and great instincts for blocking shots. With the way they want to get up and down, I think he's going to be a huge part of their success this season."
Colorado State Pueblo coach Ralph Turner on New Mexico:
Preparing for New Mexico was a difficult task for Colorado State Pueblo coach Ralph Turner.
The Lobos have so many players who weren't part of last year's frustrating 15-16 season that Turner hardly bothered to watch film of how that team played.
What Turner learned from his team's 96-84 exhibition loss to New Mexico on Tuesday night is that the Lobos should be very grateful to have guard Cullen Neal back after he missed all but three games last season due to injury. Neal impressed Turner by scoring 33 points, dishing out seven assists, but the Colorado State Pueblo coach came away unsure where else New Mexico can turn to for scoring over the course of the season.
Turner: "[Neal] was a very proficient scorer. He has unlimited range, so you've got to get into him, chase him and make him bounce the ball. He's much less effective off the bounce than he is catching and shooting or coming off a ball screen for a pull-up jumper. You want to make him finish at the basket as much as possible. ... He is their major scoring threat. They're going to have to have guys step up and make plays other than Cullen, and he has to stay healthy. If he gets hurt, there's not another guy on their team where you put the ball in his hands and he's dangerous. They have other solid players, good players, but Cullen is clearly the most dynamic player on the team ... I don't know who the next best player on their team is after Cullen. [Tim] Williams was 6-for-7 from the field but a lot of that was point-blank layups against us because of our size. [Obij Aget] looks like a young deer just learning how to walk or run. Maybe a year down the road he'll be a force but right now he's having to learn to do everything. And of course he needs about 25-to-30 pounds of weight to compete at that level. ... Defensively, they played some zone against us in the first half and almost all man in the second half. They're long and big, so going to the basket can be hard. They've got kids who are waiting for you to block shots."
Cal State San Marcos coach Jim Saia on San Diego State:
San Diego State was one of the 50 slowest-paced teams in the nation the past two seasons, so imagine Cal State San Marcos coach Jim Saia’s surprise on Monday night when the Aztecs unveiled a blistering transition attack.
They pressed baseline-to-baseline most of the game. They pushed the ball off long rebounds and turnovers. They also tallied 20 fast-break points and exceeded their scoring total from any non-overtime game last season en route to an 86-48 rout of a Division II program that has given them fits in previous exhibition games.
The impetus behind San Diego State's renewed commitment to running is coach Steve Fisher's desire to compensate for his team's sometimes stagnant half-court offense by generating more easy fast-break baskets. Saia weighed in on whether the change will prove effective and also offered some other thoughts on the Aztecs after Monday night's game.
Saia: “The biggest change I saw is that they are committed to being a transition team. They’re really getting out and pushing like they’ve never pushed before. They’re not the best half-court execution team, but they’re combating that by trying to get easy fast-break baskets. ... I’m not sure their guards are as good as when they had [Chase] Tapley, [Xavier] Thames and those guys, but their length, depth and size is just unbelievable. We had maybe eight layups that we just couldn’t finish or got blocked because they protect the rim so well. There’s not a longer, more athletic team on the West Coast. That I do know. You want to keep it a half-court game so they can’t get out and run, but then again how can you score on them when they are set? ... [Zylan] Cheatham is a high, high energy guy. He’s a monster athletically. He’s going to create a lot of problems. ... I don’t see anyone in the Mountain West really challenging them. They’re going to win all their games at home and they’ll win their fair share on the road. Great defensive teams usually win. When you protect the rim as well as they do, you’re going to be hard to beat."
Cal State Los Angeles coach Dieter Horton on UCLA:
Of the many lineup combinations UCLA used in its 95-57 rout of Division II Cal State Los Angeles last Friday night, there was one that Golden Eagles coach Dieter Horton found especially dangerous.
Horton thought the Bruins were at their best in a three-guard look with freshman Aaron Holiday applying defensive pressure and taking some of the ball handling burden off Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. Horton also found UCLA harder to defend when Jonah Bolden was at power forward because he's a pick-and-pop threat on ball screens whereas Tony Parker can only roll to the basket.
Those were two of Horton's observations from a game in which Hamilton scored a game-high 20 points and Holiday, Parker and Alford added 16, 14 and 13. The former USC assistant also shared some improvements he liked from both Alford and Hamilton.
Horton: "People are critical of Bryce Alford, but there are 11 other teams in that league that would kill to have him on their roster even taking some of the shots that he takes. You have to guard him the second he crosses mid court. ... The most interesting thing to me in our game was Bryce was very under control. Watching film from last year, there were times when he pulled it from all over the floor, but against us, he didn't take a single bad shot. He passed on a couple of shots he might normally of taken, and they ended up getting a post touch and something really good out of it. So his maturity and decision making was really impressive. ... [Aaron Holiday] is kind of like a little Tasmanian devil on defense. He's just so disruptive. That's who he was in high school too. He wreaks havoc. ... I prefer the three-guard lineup with Aaron on the floor instead of the big lineup. It takes the burden off of Bryce to always have to have the basketball in his hands. ... The one question about Isaac [Hamilton] was the consistency to which he shot the ball. From all indications, he has really improved in that area. His stroke looked fantastic against us. ... In the Pac-12, my experience was that teams that didn't have stretch fours were easy to guard. When you put Tony or Thomas in a ball screen, they're somewhat limited in what they can do and it allows the defense to really focus on Bryce. But Jonah can can pick and pop and be a threat from the 3-point line — so it really does make it difficult on the defense."
Arizona Christian coach Jeff Rutter on BYU:
Tyler Haws was halfway across the world playing pro ball in Spain. Kyle Collinsworth didn't play as a precaution because of tendinitis in his knee. Chase Fischer sat on the bench beside him with a thigh contusion.
In a game in which BYU did not have its three biggest weapons from last season's formidable offense, the Cougars showed they still had plenty of other scorers. Sophomore guard Jake Toolson scored 23 points and freshman guard Nick Emery added 20 as BYU stormed to a 103-75 exhibition win over NAIA Arizona Christian last Friday night.
Arizona Christian coach Jeff Rutter knows the impact Collinsworth and Fischer will make for BYU this season, so he came away impressed how the Cougars functioned without them. Rutter weighed in why BYU is hard to guard and why a defensive change the Cougars have made this season could prove effective.
Rutter: "They should be as good as they've been offensively the last couple years. The ball moves, they push the pace, they play unselfishly and they have so many guys who can stretch the floor. Then if you add in a Collinsworth and a Fischer, they probably have more guys who can make plays off the dribble. ... [Jake] Toolson is a knock-down shooter, which should serve him well next to Collinsworth and Fischer. If people lose sight him, he'll make them pay. ... [Nick] Emery made some tough shots over really good defense. Of the guys they played Friday, he's the one who could create his own shot. ... The downside to the size advantage they had against us is they had 6-10 guarding a 6-4, 6-5 wing. We're probably smaller than any other team they'll play, but their big guys were a step slow at times. ... They're playing the pack-line defense more this year, so they're not out denying the ball as much. They're protecting the paint a little more. I think strategically that's a good fit for them. ... They've got size, they've got depth, they've got a couple playmakers and they've got a lot of shooting. Those are pretty good qualities. Athleticism would be my question, but I think they should be pretty good."
PEPPERDINE POISED FOR A BREAKTHROUGH SEASON
Like presidential voting, horror movie plots or the weather in San Diego, the power structure in the West Coast Conference seldom varies much.
Gonzaga has captured every regular season championship but one the past 15 years, Saint Mary’s has finished worse than third only once since 2004 and BYU has yet to finish outside the top three in any of its four seasons in the league.
Change could arrive this season, however, thanks to an interloper with the talent, experience and motivation to crack the WCC’s top three. Pepperdine returns every key player from a team that last year swept BYU, snapped a 17-game losing streak against Saint Mary’s and even played Gonzaga tough en route to a fourth-place finish in the league standings.
"I think we’ve closed the gap,” Pepperdine coach Marty Wilson told Yahoo Sports. “I know our guys hear a lot about the big three, the big three, the big three, but for us it’s not really about finishing in the top three. Ultimately we want to be at the top, and hopefully this year we take another step up the ladder."
Dethroning Gonzaga remains a near-impossible challenge for Pepperdine this year, but maintaining the program’s upward trajectory certainly is an attainable goal. The Waves have increased their win total from 10, to 12, to 15, to 18 during Wilson’s tenure as head coach, raising hopes that this will be the year they finally surpass either Saint Mary’s or BYU in the standings and secure the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2002.
"We can go to the NCAA tournament, we can compete to win the conference, we can do whatever we set our minds to," senior Stacy Davis told Yahoo Sports. "We've come from being the very last team in the preseason poll to being picked third this year. It doesn't mean much because we haven't played a game yet, but it shows the level of respect coaches are starting to give Pepperdine.”
Davis’ emergence as one of the WCC’s premier players has been one of the catalysts for Pepperdine’s ascent.
The 6-foot-6 power forward averaged a team-best 15.7 points and 7.8 rebounds last season, making up for modest height and athleticism with impeccable footwork in the low post and an ability to score in a multitude of ways. The combination of Davis and 6-foot-7 forward Jett Raines at times was a tough matchup for opponents with bigger, slower frontcourt players who struggled to defend outside the paint and were prone to picking up fouls.
The inability of any of Pepperdine’s guards to consistently generate offense last season inhibited the program’s growth, but the Waves insist they’ll have a more multifaceted attack this year. In particular, they rave about the development of point guard Jeremy Major, previously a defensive-minded player who shot below 40 percent from the field last season.
“Jeremy has made a huge jump,” Wilson said. “I've been on him for the last two years to show his speed at both ends of the floor, and he's been amazing. I don't have to tell him now. He knows what I expect. And now when he does it, I just stand there and applaud him. When he's using his speed, now the defense has to react or he's scoring. It makes us a little harder to guard.”
Even modest improvement on offense would be significant for Pepperdine because the Waves excelled defensively last season. Despite their lack of size in the frontcourt, they were top 50 nationally in points per possession allowed and held opponents to the third-lowest 3-point percentage of any team in the country.
All Pepperdine’s returning talent did not make it easy for its coaching staff to find high-profile programs willing to schedule the Waves this season.
Aside from a Nov. 19 trip to UCLA, Pepperdine doesn’t have any opportunities for non-league statement victories, but the Waves do open at improving Fresno State and face mid-major powers Louisiana-Lafayette and Montana. Continuity from last season should help Pepperdine in those games since Wilson has not had to waste time in practice going over terminology or installing basic defensive principles.
“When you have a group of guys that already knows that stuff, it's easier,” Davis said. “You kind of get into midseason form a lot faster.”
Nonetheless, it’s conference play that will determine whether Pepperdine’s season is a success or failure.
With Davis, Raines and key reserve Atif Russell all in their final collegiate season, this is the Waves’ best chance to finish among the WCC’s top three, shake up the league’s long-established hierarchy and compete for an NCAA bid. They are determined not to let that opportunity slip away.
CAN BYU FIX ITS DISMAL DEFENSE?
Even though it must replace a dominant wing who finished among the nation’s 10 leading scorers each of the past three seasons, BYU still has more than enough perimeter firepower to ensure its offense remains potent.
Of far greater concern is fixing the persistent flaw that has rendered the Cougars a fringe NCAA tournament team the past two years instead of one capable of earning a favorable seed and making a deep run.
BYU finished a dismal 160th nationally in points per possession surrendered last season, ninth worst among NCAA tournament teams. The Cougars were especially ineffective in their two most important games of the season, giving up 91 points to Gonzaga in the WCC title game and 94 to Ole Miss in the NCAA tournament’s opening round.
There was nothing BYU did especially well on defense last season, however, the 49.5 percent shooting it yielded on shots inside the arc was probably the Cougars’ most glaring weakness. Opposing perimeter players blew by BYU’s guards off the dribble and exploited the lack of a rim protector to alter shots in the paint, an issue further exacerbated by Nate Austin’s season-ending injury in December and Corbin Kafusi’s inability to stay out of foul trouble.
"We didn’t have much frontcourt depth at times last season, and the few big guys we did have always seemed to be in foul trouble," BYU coach Dave Rose told Yahoo Sports. "A lot of that was because of the penetration we gave up. Too often we were putting our big guys in tough spots."
With Austin healthy again, Kafusi gradually learning to play more under control and Utah State transfer Kyle Davis providing shot blocking that last year’s team lacked, Rose feels better about the defensive potential of his frontcourt. He also has implemented a schematic change this offseason.
No longer will BYU’s guards extend their defense in an attempt to force turnovers and fuel their lethal fast break. Instead the Cougars will adopt the pack-line defense that has become popular in college basketball as teams try to wall off the paint and force opponents to settle for contested jump shots.
"I think it fits our personnel a little better because we’re not extremely athletic where we can pick up full court and pressure the ball,” senior Kyle Collinsworth told Yahoo Sports. "Nothing will change for us offensively. We’ll just try to get stops more consistently."
BYU’s defense demonstrated sporadic improvement during its 4-0 exhibition tour of Spain this past August as the Cougars held two of their opponents to sub-40 percent shooting. Progress was more difficult to spot during BYU’s exhibition opener on Friday night as NAIA Arizona Christian shot a respectable 45 percent, albeit with the Cougars playing without Kafusi and perimeter stars Collinsworth and Chase Fischer.
The importance of a defensive uptick is not lost on the BYU players who spent the past two Selection Sundays praying to hear their name called. The Cougars were the third-to-last at-large team selected to the NCAA tournament last season and narrowly avoided the First Four the previous year, neither time advancing beyond their opening game.
"I really believe my players expect to compete for conference championships, make the NCAA tournament and advance in that tournament,” Rose said. "I’d never have expected that in the NCAA tournament last year we’d be starting four guards and a center who began the year expecting to play football, but that’s what happened. The guys figured it out last year, and this year I expect us to do the same."
THE COUNTDOWN: POTENTIAL BREAKOUT PLAYERS
5. Josh Perkins, G, Gonzaga: Until a fractured jaw ended his freshman season early last November, Perkins was showing promise as Kevin Pangos’ protégé. The former top 50 recruit scored 13 points against St. Joseph’s and dished out six assists against Sacramento State, showcasing a quick first step to the rim, impressive court vision and a flair for jaw-dropping passes. With Pangos having graduated last spring, it’s time for the understudy to find out if he’s ready for a leading role. Perkins should start at point guard and play heavy minutes if he can take care of the ball, avoid foul trouble and feed Gonzaga’s trio of talented big men in positions where they like to score. Someday this may be Perkins’ team, however, this season Mark Few only needs him to be steady rather than spectacular.
4. Dominique Collier, G, Colorado: With volume-shooting Askia Booker having exhausted his eligibility and standout wing Xavier Johnson sidelined by a torn Achilles, Colorado enters the season in search of perimeter production. Collier could be part of the solution if the Denver native can rebound from a frustrating freshman season and showcase the explosive scoring and playmaking ability that made him Rival’s No. 93 prospect in the class of 2014. Injuries and off-court issues hampered Collier early in his freshman season, and he pressed when he got healthy in a misguided attempt to fulfill the supersized expectations fans in his home state had for him. Now healthier and more comfortable, Collier has a chance to more than double the 4.7 points and 1.5 assists he averaged last season while also drastically improving his anemic 34.5 percent shooting from the field.
3. Reid Travis, F, Stanford: When all-conference guard Chasson Randle and fellow seniors Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic graduated last spring, nearly two-thirds of Stanford’s scoring output last season left along with them. None of the Cardinal’s returners averaged more than 7.3 points per game last season, however, Travis may be the player most capable of a big jump. A McDonald’s All-American who chose Stanford over national power Duke and in-state Minnesota, Travis averaged 7.9 points and 7.6 rebounds last November and December before a scary upper leg stress fracture waylaid his season. The bruising yet skilled 6-foot-8 power forward was never the same multifaceted scorer or ferocious rebounder after he returned a month later. That should change this season with Travis fully healthy again. He led Stanford in scoring and rebounding during its trip to Italy this summer and tallied a game-high 15 points and 10 rebounds in an intrasquad scrimmage last week.
2. Patrick McCaw, G, UNLV: Whereas many of UNLV’s top players arrived with great fanfare, McCaw is the rare exception. The 6-foot-6 guard was the afterthought in a heralded five-man 2014 recruiting class, an unranked prospect expected to contribute sparingly his first year in the program. That line of thinking vanished in a hurry last season as McCaw gradually gained the trust of the UNLV coaching staff with his knock-down outside shooting, deft passing and ability to guard multiple positions. In UNLV’s first 16 games of the season, McCaw averaged 7.2 points and 1.9 assists. He essentially doubled that the next 13 games, averaging 13.5 points and 4.0 assists and emerging as the Rebels’ top perimeter threat after fellow freshman Rashad Vaughn went down with a season-ending injury. Expect McCaw to match or even exceed those totals this season with Vaughn in the NBA. On a UNLV team again loaded with heralded high school prospects, McCaw may end up making the greatest impact.
1. Malik Pope, F, San Diego State: Still recovering from the broken leg he suffered as a high school junior and reinjured the following year, Malik Pope played a minor role as a freshman. The most highly ranked recruit in San Diego State basketball history didn’t play in five of the Aztecs’ first 10 games and came off the bench the rest of the year, showing occasional glimpses of immense potential while averaging a modest 5.1 points and 2.7 rebounds. The shackles will be off Pope this season with his health a non-issue and San Diego State in search of scoring. The Aztecs won 27 games last season by surrendering the fourth fewest points per possession in the nation, but they struggled offensively because of inadequate point guard play and a lack of outside shooting. The skilled 6-foot-10 Pope can help because of his ability to do thing other players his size can’t, from sinking catch-and-shoot threes and pull-up jumpers to creating for himself and teammates off the dribble. The only question with Pope is whether he can do it consistently.
While exploring the new-release aisle at a nearby beer emporium last fall, I stumbled across a fresh hop ale from Lagunitas Brewing Company. Intrigued, I bought a bottle with the intent of returning for more if I liked it. The good news: Born Yesterday was a hoppy masterpiece, as fresh as its name implied with a crisp bite and a dry, clean finish. The bad news: It turned out to be a one-time-only limited release … and every liquor store in the area had already run out by the time I went looking for more. I feared I might not get a second chance to sample Born Yesterday, but thankfully other beer lovers raved about it as much as I did and besieged Lagunitas to make more. As a result, Lagunitas released another larger batch nationwide last week. Last Friday, I returned to my nearby beer emporium and discovered they had just gotten their new shipment. I walked out with two six packs and a smile on my face. (GRADE: 9/10)
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