Pac-12 Media Day Roundup: Part TwoPosted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on October 24th, 2014
Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops.com is back for another go-round on his March to Vegas. He covered the Pac-12 Media Day on Thursday. Part I of this two-part series, which covered USC, Washington State, Oregon State, California, Washington and Utah, is located here.
If nothing else, you have to love Herb Sendek’s enthusiasm. He’s a very positive dude and, at Media Day, has so many great things to say about everything. This year in particular he came out, positivity guns-a-blazing, about his senior wing, Jonathan Gilling. “He basically has been a four-year starter except for the fact last year he discovered he loves to come off the bench. He’s our best sixth man… I think he’s had the best offseason and preseason since he’s been at Arizona State.” Jon Gilling, as it were, seems to be killing it, perhaps even Gilling it, if you’ll allow me. But with the level of turnover and the new faces in Tempe, it’s going to take a lot more than a sixth man’s effort for the Devils to be successful. Fear not, positive Herb would have you know! Newcomers like Willie Atwood, Gerry Blakes, and Roosevelt Scott will be providing wing skills and combo-guard talents that will greatly help Arizona State. Tra Holder, their freshman point guard, will be distributing to these wings and the three-raining Gilling. The Devils can maintain their year-over-year emphasis on tempo with this personnel. This isn’t your Jahii Carson or James Harden Sun Devils, but it just might be a collective effort that leads this group beyond expectations. Particularly considering Sendek’s thoughts on how the conference’s final standings could – literally – shake out: “You could probably put everybody in a hat, shake it up, have just as good a chance at predicting the order of finish as we are able to do sitting here today… So how anybody short of Nostradamus could sit here today and predict like there really is a difference between ninth and tenth or eighth and ninth just is unreasonable.” Here’s a hat, Herb, shake it up.
For the first time in his six seasons at Stanford, Johnny Dawkins took the podium as an NCAA Tournament coach. That’s huge. Had that not been the case it’s very likely that he wouldn’t have been joining us at Media Day. Nevertheless, that wasn’t the case and he wasn’t going to miss his opportunity. JD gave the longest and most insightful opening remarks of any of the coaches. He touched on last season and the experience they had as well as whom they lost. Dawkins transitioned into his excitement for this season and the schedule they’ve pieced together, its challenges. He praised his stage-mate, Chasson Randle, and noted that the Cardinal’s game in Chicago is an opportunity for Chasson to return home. Johnny Dawkins was excited to be here just as I imagine he was excited to have made last year’s Sweet Sixteen. I asked him about it and loved what he had to say: “It’s about standards, you know. Last year we were able to set the bar… You have to have standards to meet or exceed what you’ve accomplished.” These were some of my favorite quotes of the day and certainly the most encouraging I’ve heard from Dawkins before. Last year he told me his 9-9 conference team, returning almost completely intact, was going to “Think about things differently.” I wasn’t sold and they managed 10-8. But now that bar has been set. The hurdle has been jumped and the program knows that it can make the Tournament. And be loud there. The experience of Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic is not just games played but actual NCAA Tournament wins. That speaks volumes to the newcomers filling the gaps left by Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell, and John Gage. Collectively, this group doesn’t just believe, they don’t think about doing it anymore. They now know.
This is the most fascinating team in the conference. Tad Boyle and Askia Booker took to the stage receiving questions that bordered on both high expectations and can-you-guys-do-it. Both of which seem to be fair. Maybe I’m not being clear enough, allow me this tweet:
We're nearing the "over" on 10 Dinwiddie questions in this press conference.
— William Whelan (@William_Whelan) October 23, 2014
Make a little more sense now? You see, losing Dinwiddie last year gave us a sneak peek into this year’s Buffs. They return 91 percent of the minutes played last season. And how did they do in Dinwiddie’s absence, you might ask? Not well. They were 9-10 to close the year and managed an Offensive Rating of just 96.0. It was a struggle. But I appreciated what Tad Boyle had to say about it: “I think the strengths of our team, and we did get a jump‑start on this season, it’s nice to have everybody coming back that played late in the season for you.” Like we discussed with Stanford, maybe it’s just about the experience. This group now knows who they can be. It’s Boyle’s job to make sure they’re in positions to be successful and he said as much. I believe he understands that there are innate issues in losing your best player. But he also knows that this season, the forthcoming one, was likely never to include Dinwiddie. That he was preparing for this and now he’s ready. His team will be ready. He’s got three known commodities that are as tough as perhaps any three in the conference: Booker, Josh Scott, and Xavier Johnson. With them and the “jump-start” Boyle noted, the Colorado dialogue becomes more about personnel and the development/progress of the 91 percent returning. There are question marks in Boulder, but I think Boyle and staff are handling them well. And I always appreciate any team relying on a senior guard (Hello, Askia).
There was a palpable tension during this stage time. Maybe it’s because Dana Altman is a quiet talker and a seemingly cerebral speaker. Perhaps it was his low-key, Midwestern personality that was minimizing the moment. But something about the Ducks’ time on stage had an air of awkward. The elephant in the room loomed large. And that might be foreboding. Altman was asked about the incidents that occurred towards the end of last season. He answered and then another question was asked. The elephant remained. I call this perhaps foreboding because the task at hand this year seems to be tall. It’s another season with a brand new roster and a lot of unknown parts. When asked about it and its effect on preparation, Altman said, “I don’t anticipate us changing the way we play too much. I think we have a good talent level on our team. The inexperience is a concern, especially with the schedule that we face. But I don’t anticipate us changing our style too much.” Which I find funny. In 2013, Altman’s Ducks were had the 10th best defense in the country and the 94th best offense. In 2014 the Ducks had the 11th best offense and 88th best defense. Year-over-year, they completely flip-flopped. Maybe he meant to say that the turnover hasn’t affected their preparation. But it seems the turnover has previously changed their style. That elephant I mentioned? He might not be going away.
I think that there is something metaphoric to the flooding and replacing of the court in Pauley Pavilion. And while that event was unfortunate – not only from a resources standpoint as California is in a drought and because that’s costly and annoying – to me it signifies a brand new start for Steve Alford. This is his UCLA, now. Gone are the relics of Howland past who wound up becoming first round draft picks. Sure there are remnants on this roster but, for the most part, this is the beginning of what Alford is creating inside Pauley. With regards to that, I was curious about tempo. His previous ventures (New Mexico and Iowa) yielded teams that were a little more deliberate with the basketball. They played at a tempo slower than even Howland and at a defensive level that was generally better than last year’s UCLA output. A season ago, with all that NBA-bound talent, Alford turned up the dial and created an offensive juggernaut of slashing and running. They were one of the best transition teams in the country and that was different for Steve. So I asked, “Last year stylistically, that was one of the fastest teams you ever coached. Is that something you’re going to continue to do, different to what you’ve previously done?” And Steve answered, “To sustain that, our guys have to understand what level they can play at where they’re not turning the ball over at a high rate. I’m hoping we can do that. We have a lot of athletes. Obviously we’re led by Norman [Powell]. Bryce [Alford] wants to play fast. Isaac [Hamilton] wants to play fast.” I liked this response and it sparked for me another question I wasn’t able to ask, “How will these athletes help you defensively.” Last year the Bruins notably didn’t have the athletes to play a ton of man-to-man. They settled into a zone and that worked for them. But now, with more dynamic athletes, perhaps they can play more man. Whatever the case, this is definitively now Steve’s program. Here we go.
Last and, according to media and coaches alike, certainly not least, Sean Miller and Brandon Ashley took the stage. At this point, we’re all pretty familiar with what this Arizona team, if not program, is going to do. Miller teams are going to be terrific defensively and they’re going to be massive. The head Wildcat talked about Ashley’s length around the basket and how he and Kaleb Tarczewski help to protect the rim (Arizona allowed the 11th lowest percentage of shots at the rim last year). They’re going to be led by strong guard play, namely out of second year starter, TJ McConnell. Miller had high praise for the first point guard to start two straight years for Miller at Arizona: “He’s been an all‑conference player in all three years that he’s been a part of the game [including his two seasons at Duquesne]. To have that experience at that position is something that I think any coach would love to have.” Miller approaches coaching, and seemingly everything else, with a formulaic, business-like intensity. It trickles into his team’s demeanor (aside from perhaps Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) and Ashley shares that intensity. He sat stoically beside his coach giving poignant and brief responses to every question. He said only what he needed to share. Both Wildcats were thoughtful and articulate. Until the final question. It should be noted that Ashley gave a sincere and straight answer to this final question. He in fact is taking his vitamins and is ready for this season. But the question had the young man smiling ear-to-ear, a light shade of red creeping into his cheeks. He was blushing, embarassed. The question: “I’m Brandon Ashley’s mom, and my question is, are you taking your vitamins? The second question is, are you ready to go for this season?” The 2015 season’s first shining moment.