Marching to Vegas: And Down the Stretch They Come…Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoops) on February 21st, 2014
Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops again will be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference, as we begin the March to Las Vegas.
I think we’re on the home stretch. I don’t really know when it begins, it’s pretty loosely defined. It’s a term derived from horse racing when the horses enter the final straightaway en route to the finish line. When did the Pac-12 make it’s final turn into the home stretch? I’m not sure. It’s certainly up for debate. But what’s certain in this situation is that Vegas is just three weeks away. We play an 18-game schedule and less than a third remains. And with so few games remaining (the home stretch?), I feel pretty strongly that this is shaping into a two-team race. There are a few teams that have a fighter’s chance (boxing) at making a play for the top spot, but right now it’s just UCLA and Arizona, a two-horse race. So let’s look at them! Or, more specifically, their respective current state of affairs and their forthcoming competition on the schedule.
We’ll begin in Westwood where Steve Alford has his team peaking at the right time. Which is an interesting fact because Alford has never coached a team like this before. He’s only once had a team rank in the top-100 in adjusted tempo (his 2004 Iowa team ranked 66th at 70.3) and is at the helm of a squad taking more than 27 percent of their offense in transition. Hoop-math only goes back to 2011-12 but seeing as how the two New Mexico teams accounted for never grabbed more than 20 percent of their offense in transition, I’m comfortable assuming Alford has rarely, if ever, had a team run this much. And they do it well. They’re running up the list of best offensive teams in the country and the Alford mark is beginning to make an imprint, too. He’s lauded most regularly as a defensive guy and the Bruins hovered above average for parts of the season. Today they’re creeping into the top-25 by way of defense and it’s no coincidence that their flirtation with that list has them in the AP’s list. This week they returned to the AP Poll at #23 and should continue to move up. Of course, they still have to play the games. Looking at what the Bruins have left on their schedule, when compared to the Wildcats, UCLA has a cakewalk. They face Stanford on Saturday, which poses their greatest threat the rest of the way. Next week they’ll host the Oregons and then finish the year in Washington. Washington is the worst basketball state in the conference. Across their final five, the average KenPom rating of a UCLA opponent is 92.6 and gets progressively easier as we get closer and deeper into March.
Transitioning to the desert, for a long time this didn’t even seem like a conversation. The entire season was a prolonged homestretch to see who would place. But then Ashley came up lame, the Wildcats stopped making points, and we find ourselves in exactly what we called it: a two-horse race. And whereas the Bruins are streaking the Wildcats are… learning? Brand new roles are being identified and rotations built. Ashley had a greater than 20 percent usage rate so replacing or recreating that offense was going to be a chore. The latest iteration was moving Gabe York into the starting lineup. This is the move that I like. It gets Rondae Hollis-Jefferson back to coming off the bench where I think he’s best suited. It takes a special skill set and mentality to come off the bench and Hollis-Jefferson has demonstrated he has as much. Meanwhile, York’s role is to become a vital piece of the offense – if not the offense itself. Wednesday night he scored 15 points and carried the Wildcats through much of the first half. Now let’s try this on for size. At the 14:52 mark, Gabe York scored his 15th point. Seconds later Hollis-Jefferson would connect on a layup and Arizona took an 11-point lead. Neither scored again until overtime, but the point here is that overtime was forced. In that period, Hollis-Jefferson scored six of Arizona’s eleven. These two will be critical down the stretch as they continue to grow into their new roles.
And if we’re going to discuss Alford, we must discuss Miller, right? Probably not but we’re going to. These Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country. They yield nearly two fewer points per 100 possessions than the next best defensive team in the country (Saint Louis). The difference between second and third? A third that differential between first and second. OK, I’m getting carried away noting the strength of Arizona’s defense. But it is worth noting that Miller has only once prior coached a top-40 defense. This is his baby, his masterpiece, and it very well may start to be taken for granted if his offense can’t outscore it. But the Wildcats outscored the Utes. And they’ll do their best to repeat that effort for the rest of their schedule that is a shade more difficult than the Bruins. And by shade I mean lots more difficult. The average KenPom rating remaining to be played is 53.2, the majority of which (three of five) will be on the road. It begins on Saturday in Boulder, returns to Tucson against the Bay, and then travels to Oregon before Vegas. It’s a harder stretch for the Wildcats, but they are a team that continues to demonstrate its toughness.
Which I suppose leads me to my final point, a brief one. As this is a two-horse race with just one game differentiating themselves in the standings, why would we ever not have a double Arizona-UCLA season?