D.J. Gay, the steady point guard who piloted San Diego State to a 34-3 record and a Sweet 16 appearance as a senior, shot just 36.1 percent from the field as a freshman and had nearly as many turnovers as assists. Xavier Thames, Gay’s exceptional heir apparent, was only a fringe rotation player his freshman year at Washington State and played mostly off ball when he did see the court.
“It’s amazing how young some of our players’ faces look and how their bodies look so different,” Enfield said. “I give our players credit for how hard they worked because they all look much stronger now.”
BEST IN THE WEST RANKINGS (PRESEASON EDITION):
1. Gonzaga: The nation’s premier frontcourt and more perimeter talent than people realize.
2. Arizona: Four new starters, yet plenty of talent, depth and experience once again.
3. Oregon: Can Tyler Dorsey help replace Joseph Young? If so, the Ducks will soar.
4. 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.
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.
Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!
When pressed, Rice offers a handful of theories for why UNLV has been able to cast a wider net recruiting than many of its West Coast peers.
“You have to put up with growing pains in sports the same way as any company does,” Enfield said. “You don’t take a start-up company and become Microsoft or Google at the snap of the fingers. We feel very confident that we’ve weathered the storm and we’re heading in the right direction.”
This season’s biggest key could be the health of dynamic sophomore point guard Jordan McLaughlin, a former four-star recruit who this offseason underwent stabilizing surgery on both shoulders in hopes of curtailing the injuries that have plagued him. Before being cleared to play at full speed again a few weeks ago, McLaughlin spent his downtime preparing mentally to be the maestro of Enfield’s fast-paced offense and watching film to correct his bad habits of over-penetrating and trying to do too much.
THE COUNTDOWN: BEST FRONTCOURTS
“His efficiency should make a nice jump this year â both his shooting percentage and how he distributes the basketball,” Enfield said. “He has natural gifts. His court vision is terrific. Even though some of the parts of his game are a little rusty, some of the things he has done in practice, you’d never know he’d been out for eight months.”
“We all but told him don’t pass the ball,” said Matt Dunn, then the head coach at Damien High in La Verne, Calif. “We wanted to keep things as simple as possible for him. We wanted him to be strictly a scorer for us that year.”
He noted UNLV is located in an internationally renowned city familiar to most basketball prospects as a result of AAU tournaments held in Las Vegas every April and July. The program also still resonates with parents and coaches old enough to remember the glory days of the Runnin’ Rebels under hall of fame coach Jerry Tarkanian.
One mile from Orange County’s glitziest, most overcrowded mall sits an excellent new brewery that opened just last year. Barley Forge Brewing’s beers are the ideal stress reliever for shoppers worn-out after an afternoon of high prices, endless checkout lines and pompous sales clerks. While Barley Forge’s amber ale was solid and its double IPA was excellent, the can’t-miss beer on tap was the coconut rye stout, The Patsy. The coconut is fresh and pungent, hints of dark chocolate and coffee pair well with it and the rye cuts the sweetness to give it a dry finish. It’s a good enough stout to almost make the shopping trip that preceded it bearable. Almost. (GRADE: 8/10)
“Ultimately, his desire to compete and his desire to improve will give him a good chance to be a piece of the puzzle this year. I just talked to him the other day, and he said, ‘Coach, you’d be so excited to see me. I’ve gotten a lot better.'”
Some of his players have grown up so much since last season that they hardly resemble their photos on the poster.
What also contributes is the presence of a pair of assistant coaches comfortable seeking talent other regions.
The numbers become even more staggering when transfers are taken into account. Among the transfers hailing from the east who have signed with UNLV include Ike Nwamu (Greensboro, N.C.), Jerome Seagers (Silver Spring, Md.), Jelan Kendrick (College Park, Ga.), Roscoe Smith (Baltimore) and Khem Birch (Montreal).
5. UCLA: With Norman Powell and Kevon Looney both having departed, UCLA’s best chance of not becoming overly dependent on Bryce Alford is to play through its frontcourt. Tony Parker is a capable low-post scorer who has improved each year at UCLA but needs one more jump to reach an all-conference level. Former McDonald’s All-American Thomas Welsh is a skilled 7 footer who made the U.S. U-19 World Championship team this past summer. Top backup Gyorgy Goloman made strides late last season as he grew comfortable with the college game, while 6-foot-10 wing Jonah Bolden can also play some power forward if needed.
If McLaughlin stays healthy, he’ll have plenty of weapons who can turn his passes into assists.
“We’ve been fortunate, I suppose,” Rice said. “We’ve been able to get kid from all over the country. We don’t really know why it has worked for us, but as recruiters, you keep going back to where you’ve had success. You don’t question it.”
When Haden hired Enfield in 2013, he believed the architect of Florida Gulf Coast’s swashbuckling “Dunk City” team would be an ideal choice to reinvigorate interest in the basketball program at a school that historically has cared about football and little else. USC’s average attendance was still the second worst among the 65 teams in the power five conferences last season, but Enfield is optimistic he can put fans in the seats this season as he begins putting more victories in the win-loss column.
“He never once lost the burning desire to improve,” Dunn said. “He had the ball in his hands for us every possession from his sophomore year on, and he just grew and grew and grew. By the time he was a senior, I wouldn’t have traded him for any point guard on the West Coast.”
While the opportunity is there for Hemsley to seize San Diego State’s starting point guard job sometime this season, there’s no guarantee he’ll make the transition to college basketball fast enough to grab it.
Can Hemsley make a bigger impact for a San Diego State team that struggled to generate offense in late-clock situations last year while searching in vain to find a credible replacement for Thames? Dunn admits the size and speed of the college game will be an adjustment, yet he is optimistic his former point guard is well-equipped for what lies ahead.
Before Jeremy Hemsley made his varsity debut as a freshman four years ago, his high school coach approached him with some advice point guard prospects seldom receive.
When highly touted Class of 2016 guard Jaylen Fisher chose UNLV over hometown Memphis last week, he became the sixth Rivals 150 prospect since 2013 to choose to leave the eastern or central time zone and play for the Rebels. No other program from the West has landed more than three such prospects during that time period, and only Arizona even has that many.
1. Gonzaga: Not only is this the West’s best frontcourt, it may be the nation’s best as well. Mammoth 7-footer Przemek Karnowski is a physical back-to-the-basket center who thrives around the rim. Six-foot-10 Kyle Wiltjer is the ideal complement, a classic inside-outside threat who’s comfortable shooting from the perimeter but can also back down smaller defenders in the paint. And 6-foot-10 Domantas Sabonis is a skilled power forward with the mobility and strength to rebound effectively and defend in the paint or out to the perimeter.
For all Rice’s recruiting victories, he’s still on shaky ground entering his fifth season at UNLV because he hasn’t managed to mold that talent into a winning team. The Rebels have missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, but Rice is hopeful that drought will end next March thanks to the superior cohesiveness and depth of this year’s team.
The addition of defensive-minded 6-foot-11 Chimezie Metu and 6-foot-10 stretch forward Bennie Boatwright also should help shore up USC’s biggest weakness from last season too, an inability to control the defensive glass and limit teams to one shot. The Trojans were an appalling 309th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, which limited their ability to get out and run off missed baskets.
The maturation apparent from those photos must also be unmistakable on the court if USC is going to ascend in the Pac-12 pecking order in what is a critical year for its coach. This season will serve as the first true barometer of Enfield’s rebuilding efforts after two dismal years spent cleaning up the mess he inherited and restocking the program with local talent.
The chasm between last place in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournament contention is probably too big for USC to bridge in one year, but the Trojans have enough young talent for a middle-of-the-pack league finish. Enfield and ace recruiters Tony Bland and Jason Hart have reestablished USC as a destination for top Los Angeles-area prospects, nabbing five Rivals 150 prospects in their last two recruiting classes with two more already slated to arrive in 2016.
“There’s something that resonates with players we’ve recruited about Las Vegas,” Rice said. “They come through here at least twice a year for AAU events during high school. They know that the NBA summer pro league is here and that Team USA trains here. Those things are all major factors in our success.”
This season alone, only two of UNLV’s 12 North American-born scholarship players are from Western states, Las Vegas natives Stephen Zimmerman and Ben Carter. None of the other 10 are from any closer than St. Louis.
“I think he defensively he’ll succeed from the very beginning,” Dunn said. “The learning will come on the offensive end in making the right decisions because he’s going to have to make them so much faster.
All Hemsley’s hard work gradually helped him develop into a tough, energetic point guard capable of handling the ball, attacking the rim and either finishing in traffic himself or setting up a teammate. By Hemsley’s senior year at Damien, he averaged 21 points and 7 assists, leading his team to a state championship and earning Southern California player of the year honors from the Los Angeles Times.
That’s UNLV, which has reestablished itself as a destination for elite talent under Dave Rice by wooing coveted prospects from the East, South, Midwest and Canada’s eastern provinces.
With every key player returning from last season and two strong recruiting classes in place, Enfield’s grace period is over now. Either USC basketball begins trending upward this season, or the Trojans will provide fuel for those who have prematurely lumped Enfield with fired football coach Steve Sarkisian as examples of blown hires by embattled athletic director Pat Haden.
LOS ANGELES â Each time he glances at the stack of freshly printed team posters on the coffee table outside his office, USC coach Andy Enfield can’t help but chuckle.
“We need to show improvement this year and show that we are getting better as a program,” Enfield said. “When we got here, we understood there would be growing pains. We knew that to build a program, we had to go out and get talented freshmen, play them early, develop them, be patient and let them play through mistakes. Our goal has always been to build a program that could sustain success. We feel very confident our young players are talented enough and hard enough workers to do that.”
It’s a testament to Hemsley’s work ethic that in four years he managed to go from a kid instructed only to look for his own shot to the heir apparent at point guard for a borderline Top 25 college team. Dunn describes Hemsley as self starter with the dedication to arrive at school at 6:15 a.m. to get shots up before first period, the commitment to drill by himself whenever his teammates goofed off and the competitive drive to treat a meaningless summer scrimmage like the seventh game of the NBA finals.
Don’t expect San Diego State coach Steve Fisher to give the same instructions before Hemsley’s first college game. Fisher is hopeful the 6-foot-4 freshman will eventually seize the Aztecs’ starting point guard job and emerge as the catalyst’s San Diego State’s sputtering offense lacked a year ago.
“Rebounding was a team weakness last year,” Enfield said. “If you want to be a great transition team on offense, you have to get stops and you have to rebound the ball. If you have to take the ball out of bounds every time, it hurts your transition game.”
4. Cal: How good Cal’s frontcourt will be will depend on how rapidly its two elite freshmen develop. Oakland product Ivan Rabb, an athletic 6-foot-11 McDonald’s All-American, will undoubtedly start from day one thanks to his ability to block shots, rebound and score over either shoulder in the post. Sometimes he’ll be joined in the frontcourt by 6-foot-7 bulldozing combo forward Jaylen Brown, another of the nation’s most heralded freshmen. Other times Brown will slide to small forward and Cal will go big with either 7-foot-1 Kingsley Okoroh or 7-foot Kameron Rooks at center.
Only one program in the West has enjoyed consistent success recruiting eastward the past few years.
CAN A FRESHMAN EMERGE AS SAN DIEGO STATE’S MISSING PIECE?
A threadbare roster and rampant disciplinary issues doomed USC to last place in the league in Enfield’s debut season. Last year, the Trojans played hard consistently yet finished last once again while grooming a young rotation consisting of four freshmen and four sophomores.
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THE RARE PROGRAM THAT RECRUITS FROM EAST TO WEST
3. Utah: Having passed up NBA riches to return to Utah for his sophomore season, Jakob Poeltl has the chance to become more than just a prospect with tantalizing potential this year. The 7 footer will be the focal point of Utah’s offense after adding muscle, gaining confidence and improving his post moves and shooting touch this offseason. The Utes don’t have the luxury of three 7 footers the way they did last season, but there are still some intriguing players surrounding Poeltl in the frontcourt. Skilled forward Brekkott Chapman is a potential breakout candidate this year and forward Kyle Kuzma and Chris Reyes are also bigger and stronger.
2. Arizona: The lone returning member of last year’s starting five will anchor Arizona’s frontcourt. Kaleb Tarczewski, the 7 footer with an NBA body and a slowly improving skill set, will start at center once again for the Wildcats and provide low-post scoring, solid defense and leadership. Joining Tarczewski in the starting five will probably be versatile 6-foot-8 forward Ryan Anderson, a three-year starter for Boston College who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds as a junior. San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefson and skilled 7 footer Dusan Ristic give the Wildcats solid depth at both spots.
Third-year assistant Todd Simon recruited prospects from all over the country during seven years on staff at Las Vegas-based prep powerhouse Findlay Prep. Second-year assistant Ryan Miller also has relationships coast-to-coast stemming from his time on staff at Auburn, New Mexico and Memphis.
Streaky wing Katin Reinhardt led USC in scoring at 12.5 points per game and was especially effective in stretches when he curtailed his volume-shooting ways. Big guard Elijah Stewart averaged 13 points per game during USC’s final eight games last season, including a 27-point outburst against Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament. Skilled 6-foot-11 big man Nikola Jovanovic is consistent double-double threat who can score inside and out.