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Pick 6: College hoops' early season surprises

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Pick 6: College hoops' early season surprises

A decade ago, Butler beating North Carolina would have been huge news, an upset that sent shockwaves throughout college basketball.

When the Bulldogs knocked off the Tar Heels at the Maui Invitational last week, it barely registered a blip.

An upset? Sure, but Butler did play in consecutive NCAA championship games a couple years ago, so it wasn't totally surprising.

In fact, it wasn't even the most remarkable thing that happened in Maui.

Here's a look at the unexpected twist at Maui and some of the other early-season surprises in college basketball so far:

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Illinois wins in Maui: The Maui Invitational typically has one of the most talented fields of any tournament all season, with a list of recent champions that includes Duke, North Carolina, UCLA and Connecticut. Add the Illini to that list. A team that missed the NCAA tournament for third time in five seasons after an ugly collapse last year, Illinois was expected to be in rebuilding mode under new coach John Groce. After beating Hawaii on a buzzer-beater, the Illini turned the Maui Invitational into a walkover, beating Southern California, Chaminade and Butler by double digits to cruise to a title few expected them to win.

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UCLA: The Bruins had a disappointing start to last season and lost one of their key players when Reeves Nelson was dismissed from the team. It's starting to feel like 2011 all over again in Westwood. UCLA opened the season No. 13 in the AP preseason poll and got good news when the NCAA cleared prized recruit Shabazz Muhammad to play by the fourth game. The past couple of weeks haven't gone so well. The Bruins needed overtime to beat UC Irvine by one at Pauley Pavilion on Nov. 13, then lost Cal Poly - yes, Cal Poly - at home by two. Worse yet, junior guard Tyler Lamb said last weekend that he's transferring to another school to get more playing time and center Joshua Smith announced on Wednesday that he's quitting the team. UCLA needs to get it straightened out soon or coach Ben Howland could be out of job.

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Memphis in the Bahamas: Another year of preseason hype for the Tigers and another year of struggling to live up to them. Memphis was ranked in the Top 25 preseason poll for the third straight season and was considered the favorite to win Conference USA in their final year in the league. Coach Josh Pastner has been criticized for not being able to lead the Tigers to a win in the NCAA tournament and has taken more heat for their nearly winless run through the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. Memphis opened with predictable wins over North Florida and Samford, but suffered a 13-point loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Tigers followed with a loss to Minnesota and needed a tight win over Northern Iowa to keep from coming home without a win in the Bahamas. Chances are Memphis will turn it around and get back to the NCAA tournament, but 3-2 is not how the Tigers envisioned starting the season.

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Jahii Carson. We know, the Arizona State redshirt freshman was touted as one of the nation's best newcomers. Still, it would have been hard to predict the impact he's had on the Sun Devils. A 5-foot-10 point guard who's not exactly bulging in the biceps, Carson has been dominant at times, blowing past defenders with his quick first step and exploding to the rim with his bouncy legs. Playing with a confidence that belies his age, Carson looks like he's been at Arizona State for six years, not six games. He leads the Sun Devils with 19 points and 5.5 points per game, and became the fourth freshman in school history to score 30 in a game when he hit that mark against Creighton in the Las Vegas Invitational last weekend. The national spotlight is starting to shine in his direction and it's likely to get brighter.

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Boise State beats Creighton: The Broncos are known more for their football program and were coming off a 13-17 season in 2011-12. Boise State opened this season 4-1 - its only loss was by four to Michigan State - but still wasn't expected to beat Creighton and its All-American, Greg McDermott. The Bluejays opened the season in the Top 25 and went into Wednesday's game ranked 11th after a pair of impressive wins over Wisconsin and Arizona State at the Las Vegas Invitational. Boise State went right at the Bluejays in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday night, beating them 83-70 after Derrick Marks scored a career-high 35 points, including 18 straight in the second half. It was arguably the Broncos' biggest upset as a program and their first road win over a ranked opponent since 2005. It also was Creighton's first regular-season November home loss since 1989.

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Jack Taylor's 138 points. Grinnell has been known to use its gimmicky offense to help players score in bunches, including Griffin Lentsch's 89 points a year ago against Principia. But what Taylor did was stunning, no matter how he did it. A 5-foot-10 sophomore guard, he hoisted shots like he was playing pop-a-shot, obliterating the NCAA single-game scoring record - one that had stood since 1954 - by 25 points. Taylor put up a ridiculous 108 - one every 20 seconds - including an are-you-kidding me 71 from 3-point range, making 27. His record night drew attention across basketball and beyond, earning him praise from NBA players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, along with appearances on national morning shows. It's doubtful anyone saw that one coming.

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.

MORE 2018 NBA DRAFT COVERAGE:

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

The first round of the NBA Draft played out expectedly for what the Wizards had planned for the night. In Troy Brown, they clearly got the guy they wanted all along, seeing as there were many interesting prospects they passed on to choose him.

The second round was a bit more chaotic. Team president Ernie Grunfeld said there were a few players picked just ahead of them at No. 44 that they had their eyes on. They contemplated trading up, but no perfect deals were presented.

So, they decided to think long-term, like really long-term. In choosing Ukrainian point guard Issuf Sanon, the Wizards understand it may be years before he plays in the NBA.

"We hope to have him developed in a few years," Grunfeld said.

Sanon, just 18, plays for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia. He may stay in Europe into his 20s before he comes to the United States.

The Wizards have utilized the draft-and-stash model with other players. Their 2015 second round pick, Aaron White, has been playing in Europe for the past three seasons.

Sometimes those players never convey and contribute for the Wizards. But sometimes they do and Grunfeld pointed to a player already on their roster as a model to consider.

"We drafted Tomas [Satoransky] at an earlier age, he went overseas [and] he played at the highest level and it got him ready for the NBA," Grunfeld said.

The difference between now and then is that the Wizards have a G-League franchise starting this fall, the Capital City Go-Go. Because of that, it seemed more likely going into the draft that the Wizards would use the second round pick on a guy who can play there right away. 

Grunfeld, however, opted for roster flexibility. By keeping Sanon in Europe, the Wizards can have another open roster spot. They could either fill that spot, or leave spots on the end of their roster open as they did for much of last season.

"We want to preserve a roster spot, so just because you draft someone in your second round, if you sign him, he still has a roster spot even if you let him play for the GoGo," Grunfeld said.

Sanon may have a bright future. He is a 6-foot-4 point guard with impressive athleticism who doesn't turn 19 until October. He said he models his game after Russell Westbrook, as a guard who can score the ball. More will be known about him once he plays for their summer league team in July.

The Wizards passed on several interesting prospects to pick Sanon. Still on the board were Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Hamidou Diallo of Kentucky and Svi Mykhailiuk of Kansas, three players they brought in for pre-draft workouts. But instead, they went with a long-term investment, hoping they found the next Satoransky.

MORE 2018 NBA DRAFT COVERAGE:

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