Breaking Down the Seven Pac-12 Teams with Tournament HopesPosted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on February 24th, 2014
Way back before the start of the season, I made the bold prediction that seven Pac-12 teams would wind up in the NCAA Tournament. Some three months later, we’re looking at six teams that can be confident in packing their bags for the Big Dance, while that lucky number seven is still a strong possibility. After a busy week in the conference, below we’ll go through the teams that still have NCAA at-large aspirations, checking in on where they stand both on the court and in terms of their NCAA hopes.
Arizona – On Wednesday night, as UCLA was putting the hammer down at California and Arizona was getting fortunate bounces in order to pull out a win at Utah, the sentiment that “UCLA is the best team in this conference” was not an insane statement to make. The Bruins’ impressive collection of talent is congealing nicely in time for the sport’s money month, but remember that Arizona is continuing to rack up wins, starting to adjust to playing without Brandon Ashley, and is still one of the best and most versatile defensive teams in recent history. That isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Sean Miller’s club will continue to make things very difficult for its opponents’ attempts to put the ball in the bucket (only four times in 27 games have they given up more than one point per possession), while their offense will readjust to life without Ashley. This team doesn’t have the offensive upside that it had with their 6’9” big man in the lineup, but things are beginning to get recalibrated, as their 88-point explosion against Colorado on Saturday evening showed. Sure, the Buffaloes are a bad defensive team right now, but that was still the best any team has performed against them all season. The Wildcats just took them apart, getting buckets in transition, getting easy looks at the rim in the halfcourt, and even knocking in eight threes (at a 47% clip) to dominate the Buffs. Oh, and you want one more statistic that sums up just how thoroughly the Wildcats broke Colorado’s spirit? There were about 20 times in the game when, following a Buffaloes’ made basket, the Wildcats took at least 10 seconds off the shot clock. The Wildcats’ eFG% in those 20 possessions? 84.4%, per the great website hoop-math.com. So, basically, Colorado scored, Arizona brought the ball upcourt, worked its offense, and regularly negated the Buffaloes’ previous score. Demoralizing.
NCAA Seeding Outlook: Arizona is still very much in the conversation for a #1 seed, and its remaining schedule is favorable (Cal/Stanford, at Oregon/Oregon State), with every remaining game winnable. Questions about depth may make Arizona something other than the favorite to win the Pac-12 Tournament, so let’s chalk them up for a loss at some point in Las Vegas. And let’s say they go 3-1 in their remaining regular season games. That puts them at something like 28 or 29 wins against four losses, but with all four coming without Ashley. One could see an argument for dropping them to a #2 because of it, but odds remain strong that these Wildcats are a #1 seed come Selection Sunday.
UCLA – The loss at Stanford on Saturday, replete with Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams turning in their worst offensive performances in weeks, puts something of a damper on the excitement about the Bruins, but road conference losses aren’t unheard of. And offensively, this was still a team that put up 1.11 points per possession in Palo Alto. What was concerning in that game, though, was the Bruins’ defense. UCLA, a team that has surged to the #12 ranking at KenPom.com in part because of regularly holding quality offensive teams to around or less than a point per possession, gave up 1.24 points per trip to the Cardinal. Some of that was due to Chasson Randle getting good looks from deep and burying seven of his 10 attempts from outside the arc, but more concerning was the fact that Josh Huestis, Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell had their way with the Bruins’ front line. Time and again, no matter how impressive the UCLA wings and guards are, it keeps coming back to UCLA’s frontcourt production. Travis Wear and Tony Parker were actually very good offensively, combining for 23 points on just 13 field goal attempts, and the trio of frontcourt guys (throw in David Wear) combined for six offensive rebounds. But they were unable to challenge shots effectively, could not keep their more athletic counterparts out of the paint, and utterly inept in transition. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: UCLA doesn’t need that trio of frontcourt guys to be world-beaters, buy they do need a standard level of competence.
NCAA Seeding Outlook: Their RPI is #11. They’ve got three wins over top 30 RPI teams and another six victories against teams #31-#70 in the RPI. In other words, they’re solidly in and they’ll likely get a good seed. But with tournament sites including San Diego on the opening weekend and Anaheim in the regionals, the goal for UCLA is more focused on getting a good geographical landing spot, rather than worrying about whether they get a #4, #5 or #6. They’ve got four very winnable games (Oregon/Oregon State, at Washington/Washington State) left, and they’re capable of making serious noise in the Pac-12 Tournament. Seven straight wins to head into Selection Sunday would give them a strong argument for a protected seed, but then again, this team hasn’t won more than four straight since back when they were playing the dregs of their non-conference slate.
Stanford – Could it be that Johnny Dawkins has his team playing its best ball of the year at precisely the right time? In five of their six games since Groundhog Day, the Cardinal have scored at least 1.07 points per possession. For that matter, in five of those six, they’ve allowed less than 1.01 points per possession. Chasson Randle has had an individual offensive rating over 100 in every one of those games and is playing the best ball of his career. Anthony Brown is one fire. Josh Huestis is doing very Josh Huestis-like things (i.e., a little bit of everything, from perimeter defense, blocked shots at the rim, rebounding on both ends of the court, throwing down dunks, and even knocking in threes). And Dwight Powell has been rock solid. But here’s the thing that should make Cardinal fans the most excited: Powell can still take another step forward with his aggressiveness and turn into one of the most difficult guys to guard in the conference. We’ve all been burned before when buying into this team, but the upside here is undeniable.
NCAA Seeding Outlook: The RPI is still #44, there are only three top 30 RPI wins and just three more against teams #31-#70. And a road trip to the Arizona schools this week followed by visits from Colorado and Utah in the final week, do not make for the easiest remaining schedule. But right now the Cardinal are pretty solidly in the NCAA Tournament, and barring a collapse between now and Selection Sunday, this squad is finally going to get that NCAA monkey off of its collective back.
Arizona State – Following their win over Arizona a little more than a week ago, you got the feeling that things were starting to come around a little for the Sun Devils. Even at the time, we had serious concerns about how that team was operating. A road trip to the Rockies later, and all those worst fears about the Sun Devils were confirmed. Jahii Carson continues to play like a shell of himself, dominating the dribble, launching too many bad jumpers and looking very little like the guy who was arguably the best player in the Pac-12 last season. To make matters worse, the Sun Devils’ offense is so reliant on him that when he’s playing poorly, the whole team suffers. Against Arizona, Jermaine Marshall rode to the rescue late, but this week, nobody on the squad played particularly well. The parts are here for this team to be maybe the best Arizona State team since the James Harden-led squad of 2009, if not much, much longer. But as the days keep slipping by on the calendar, the chances for that to happen are receding. Maybe a performance like Sunday night’s debacle at Utah will be the alarm clock needed for changes to be made, but this team seems to be on the verge of letting a golden opportunity slip away.
NCAA Seeding Outlook: None of the above is to infer that the Sun Devils are in serious danger of missing the Tournament; at this point their inclusion is pretty safe, what with an RPI of #28 (before the Utah loss at least) and two top 25 RPI wins. Barring a complete collapse down the stretch (and really, home games against Cal and Stanford followed by visits to the Oregon schools are not easy), Herb Sendek and company should be dancing for the first time since 2009.
California – After a 5-0 start to conference play, the consensus seemed to be that the Golden Bears were the second-best team in the conference. A lost weekend in Los Angeles nixed that idea, and quality wins on the Golden Bears’ resume are sparse. But, there is talent here. Senior point guard Justin Cobbs seems destined for first-team all-conference (and the five-man type of first team, not the official first-team announced by the conference that features like 32 different guys), there’s a good veteran frontcourt of Richard Solomon and David Kravish, and there are a whole host of options at the wing. But for the Golden Bears to really live up to their potential, they need freshman guard Jabari Bird to regain the confidence that he had in the non-conference schedule when he scored in double figures six times in 11 games before an ankle injury laid him low. Since he returned from that break, he’s only hit double figures three times. But the good news is that two of those three came this past week against the Los Angeles schools. If he returns to form as a big-time scoring threat on the wing, this team can be dangerous.
NCAA Seeding Outlook: Regardless of whether Bird regains his form, the Golden Bears are going dancing barring a complete collapse (and, like Stanford, they’ll be tested down the stretch with trips to the Arizona schools and visits from Utah and Colorado). But with an RPI at #46 and really only that home win over Arizona to hang its hat on, favorable seeding is likely out of the question.
Colorado – A good home win over Arizona State on Wednesday night got fans excited, and it certainly was a very important win. But here’s the god-awful truth. Since Spencer Dinwiddie went down for the season on that fateful day in Seattle, the Buffaloes are 6-5 with five of those six wins coming against teams that aren’t going to make the NCAA Tournament this season. In those five losses (two against UCLA, two against Arizona, one at Arizona State), they’ve been outscored by an average of 18.2 points per game. They’re allowing 1.16 points per possession and they’re only scoring 0.89 points per possession. And to make matters worse, their three remaining regular season games are all on the road (where they are 1-4 in conference play so far, 2-4 if you count what turned out to be an empty neutral-site overtime win over Washington State in Spokane) and two of those are against future NCAA Tournament teams in Stanford and Cal. We’re not even talking about their NCAA Tournament prospects here; we’re talking about the chance that these team can get it together enough to be even remotely competitive the rest of the way. Early indications are not good.
NCAA Seeding Outlook: So, what about their NCAA Tournament chances? That RPI is still sitting pretty at #23. They’ve got a win over Kansas, and that win over Arizona State is golden as well, and then seven more wins over top 100 RPI teams. Even if they lose the remainder of their conference games (dropping the Buffs to 9-9), they’re still probably going to get into the Dance. But unless they can prove that they can win without Dinwiddie, the Selection Committee is under no obligation to do them any favors seeding-wise.
Oregon – After non-conference play, these guys were undefeated and a top-10 team. Then conference play started, chemistry problems and issues with the team chemistry arose, and five straight losses turned into eight losses in the first 11. Now they’ve won three straight (albeit it against mediocre competition) and there’s some hope. Look, we know these guys can score with the best of them. Joseph Young is one of the best pure offensive players in the conference, Mike Moser is a freak – aw, let’s skip the laundry list and just note that there are six guys on this team with KenPom offensive ratings above 111.0. The issue is one of defense: not rebounding, not challenging shots, not putting in the necessary effort. These types of things are not resolved overnight, but there are enough talented defensive players deeper on this roster (Waverly Austin, Elgin Cook, Richard Amardi, Dominic Artis) who can provide improved defense over some of the more high-offense, defensively-challenged guys (Young, Moser, Jason Calliste, Jonathan Loyd) currently getting big minutes. It hasn’t been a fun conference season in Eugene, but Dana Altman has earned a certain level of trust. The Ducks can still get this thing done.
NCAA Seeding Outlook: Conference records don’t matter when it comes to the NCAA Selection Committee; what matters is the team’s overall body of work. They’re committed to this line and I have no reason to doubt them. Still, if the Ducks, who currently sit at 6-8 in league play, finish the season at 9-9 in the Pac-12, they’ll dance. So, what does getting to 9-9 entail? Let’s start with the must-have games: at USC this Saturday and home against Arizona State on the following Tuesday. Assuming they win those, they’ve got to win one of the other two games: at UCLA this Thursday or at home against Arizona on the final day of the regular season. Let’s say they split with the Los Angeles schools this week, then win at home against Arizona State: How exciting is that Arizona/Oregon game going to be on the last day of conference play?
Utah – Quick note on Utah’s chances: slim and none. RPI up above #110, best win on the schedule is a home win over UCLA. Nice win over Arizona State on Sunday night. Beyond that, just three other wins against the RPI top 100. A productive season that will likely end up in the NIT as the rebuild continues.