Thoughts From the First Day of the Pac-12 Tournament

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) & Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) on March 13th, 2014

The opener of the Pac-12 conference tournament was a battle between the eight and nine seeds – Utah and Washington – for the right to keep their faint NCAA Tournament hopes alive and the right to face one-seed Arizona on Thursday. Utah controlled the first half, but then let up and allowed the Huskies back into it, before putting together a 7-1 run in the final minute to provide the final margin of victory. For the Utes, this outcome leaves us with two important questions: 1) can they hang with Arizona on Thursday and 2) what will it take for them to earn an NCAA Tournament bid?

Delon Wright And The Utes Kept Their NCAA Tournament Hopes Alive, But Bigger Tests Loom (Kelley L. Cox, USA Today Sports)

Delon Wright And The Utes Kept Their NCAA Tournament Hopes Alive, But Bigger Tests Loom (Kelley L. Cox, USA Today Sports)

For the first question, let’s give an unabashed “yes.” The last time these two teams met – in Salt Lake City on February 19 – the Utes took the Wildcats to overtime before succumbing by four points. Back in January at the McKale Center, it was a tie game with less than ten minutes to play before the Wildcats turned up the defensive juice and force the Utes to miss eight of their final ten field goal attempts en route to a nine-point win. But on both of those occasions, Utah looked like a team that very much deserved to be on the floor with Arizona. In fact, even last year when the Utes struggled to just five regular season conference wins, they played the Wildcats tight (two losses by a total of seven points). For Utah, the key may be rebounding. In their overtime loss to the Wildcats, the Utes actually got the better end of the deal on the glass, but earlier in the year it was a disaster as the ‘Cats (who still had Brandon Ashley at the time) grabbed 20 offensive rebounds – the difference in an otherwise tight game. Jordan Loveridge, along with the three-headed center of Jeremy Olsen, Dallin Bachynski and Renan Lenz will need to be strong up front against the likes of Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski, quite a different challenge than the one they faced on Wednesday against an undersized Washington squad.

As for the second question, the Utes still really need to win this tournament if they want to feel secure on Selection Sunday. Yes, a win over Arizona in the quarters would be a nice scalp, and even a win over Colorado or Cal in the semifinals would be nice. But given the overall weakness of their non-conference schedule, the Utes still have a lot of work to do, resume-wise.

Finally, a note on Washington: where does this program go from here? C.J. Wilcox is off to the NBA after this year and Perris Blackwell’s college career is also done. There are some nice pieces remaining: freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss turned it on at the end of the year and was particularly good on Wednesday; freshman Darin Johnson equaled a career high on Wednesday with 16 points and looks like a potential bright spot; and guys like Andrew Andrews, Mike Anderson, Desmond Simmons and Shawn Kemp Jr. will return. But there are no impact recruits in the pipeline and the excitement that existed around this program back in the days of Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson has all but evaporated. They’re now going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year and, barring some big news in the transfer market, they won’t be expected to make it next year either.

Lorenzo Romar's Reign In Seattle Has Hit A Rough Patch (credit: Geoffrey McAllister)

Lorenzo Romar’s Reign In Seattle Has Hit A Rough Patch (credit: Geoffrey McAllister)

So, as Lorenzo Romar concludes another disappointing season in Seattle, it got us to thinking that his tenure at UW reminds us a bit of the career arc of a former Pac-12 coach up in the Pacific Northwest – former Oregon head man Ernie Kent. Romar is about to conclude his 12th year at Washington, during which time he has won 251 games, made six NCAA Tournaments, and advanced to three Sweet 16’s. Kent’s total from his first 12 years in Eugene are more modest – 219 wins, five NCAA Tournament’s, two Sweet 16’s (but both turned into Elite 8’s) – but like Romar, years 11 and 12 were when things began screeching to a halt. Romar has won 35 games over the course of the last two seasons, while Kent’s teams posted just 26 wins in his 11th and 12th seasons –  just one season after the Ducks won 29 games in 2006-07. Next season, Romar should embark on year number 13 with at least a warm seat beneath him. What happened to Kent and Oregon in year number 13? Oregon went just 16-16 and Kent was fired. No pressure Lorenzo…

The last time Colorado took the floor in the MGM Arena, they were 10-1, a week removed from a victory over Kansas, and seeking to send a national statement in a matchup with Oklahoma State, then the 7th ranked team in the country. It would have been easy for Tad Boyle’s team to take to the floor yesterday with an anxious longing for those halcyon days, to crave a return to a time when Spencer Dinwiddie was still on the floor and a deep Tournament run felt ever-possible. But like they have ever since their star point guard went down for the season with a torn ACL, Colorado buckled down and just churned out another win. This one came against a hapless USC team, but it likely sealed Colorado’s inclusion in the Tournament field – no small accomplishment given Dinwiddie’s prolonged absence.

Colorado won’t be cutting down the nets in Dallas this April, and are probably a long-shot to even make the second weekend. They’ve held it together since Dinwiddie went down (now 8-7 in the rough-and-tumble Pac-12 without him), but have looked severely outclassed in their opportunities to snatch marquee wins, most notably getting blasted by Arizona by 27 in Boulder. Losing Dinwiddie’s offensive savvy turned a limited offensive team into a severely limited one (despite Askia Booker’s unlikely transformation into an efficiency machine –for him), which at least in my eyes, has removed any real threat of an NCAA Tournament winning streak for the Buffaloes.

Askia Booker, Colorado

Askia Booker And The Buffs Appear to Be Ready To Dance After Taking Care of USC (Patrick Ghidossi, BuffaloSportsNews)

But none of that should really matter. Sure, it would be nice if Colorado could somehow cash in on those early-season expectations even without Dinwiddie, but a “successful season” is allowed to be redefined as you move through it. Boyle deserves immense credit for finding a way to keep his team safely projected within the field of 68. The Colorado head man has been brilliant in developing a new role for Booker (one that has allowed the mercurial junior to flourish), in nourishing a more demonstrative Josh Scott (who has scored in double figures in all but one game since Dinwiddie went down), and by maintaining the Buff’s team-wide commitment to defense. Like their 59-56 first round victory over USC yesterday, the ultimate demise of the Buffaloes may not be pretty (I don’t struggle to imagine a #6 seed cruising to a 15-point victory over CU), but this season should count as a success. You have to disregard where it began to appreciate the endpoint, but for surviving a ride that was rarely smooth, kudos to Tournament-bound Colorado.

In the day’s third game, Oregon State’s chances at playing meaningful games going forward ended with a 14-point loss to Oregon. We’ll skip over the fact that Oregon is playing very well and is a serious threat to win this tournament, because we’re going to get more chances to talk about the Ducks. But for Beaver head coach Craig Robinson, it is possible his run in Corvallis is nearing an end. Now, I’ve poked fun at Craig Robinson and certainly the lack of success this season with a pretty talented roster is damning, but let’s get real about the Oregon State program for a minute. In Robinson’s six seasons as Oregon State head coach, the team is 39-69 in conference play (winning percentage 36.1%, average of 6.5 wins per year). Yes, those numbers are terrible. But, in the previous 15 years (to completely cherry pick a set of data to make my point), the Beavers were 66-204 in conference (winning percentage of 24.4%, average of 4.4 wins per year). In the year prior to Robinson arriving on campus, the team went 0-18 in conference; the next season they went 7-11 and won the CBI. If nothing else, there was a feeling of excitement around the program. So now the question has to be, has that excitement stagnated? Is Robinson’s continued involvement as the Beaver head coach a positive for the program? With guys like Roberto Nelson, Angus Brandt and Devon Collier wrapping up their eligibility this season, there is going to be something of a fresh start in Corvallis next season one way or the other. The best guess here is that the Oregon State program will continue with a fresh face as the head man next season. If there was going to be a year for the Beavers to break through, it would have been this year and that didn’t happen. And Robinson’s decisions are at least partially to blame for that.

Craig Robinson's Beavers Haven't Had A Lot of Success, But Then Again, Neither Has Anyone Else in Corvallis (credit: AP)

Craig Robinson’s Beavers Haven’t Had A Lot of Success, But Then Again, Neither Has Anyone Else in Corvallis (credit: AP)

The nightcap also featured a team in Washington State who’s head coach is in serious danger of losing his job. The Cougars gave good effort for Ken Bone and battled the favored Stanford for the better part of 40 minutes, only to fade late in a barrage of bad offensive basketball. Bone was in a similar situation last season and was left to twist in the wind for a couple weeks following the end of the team’s season before eventually being given a reprieve. But after a season with no improvement odds are good this is the end of the line for Bone in Pullman. Whoever is next has his work cut out for him. The Washington State basketball program dates back to 1901 and in all that time, they have a grand total of six NCAA Tournament appearances.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal are the happy story of a team saving – at least temporarily – their coach’s job. Somewhat famously, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir indicated last offseason that Johnny Dawkins‘ future as the head coach depended on his ability to make the NCAA Tournament this season. With the Cardinal’s win, they’re probably on the good side of the bubble, just on the basis of avoiding the bad loss to Washington State. If they really want to seal things up tight, they’ll go out and beat Arizona State today, but either way it appears they’ve done enough.

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