Pac-12 Roars Out of the Gates: Opening Weekend Thoughts

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 took a lot of heat as a conference during the Big Dance last year as a number of high-seeds (forgiving Oregon) didn’t amount to deep runs in March. The beauty of college basketball is that a new year brings new chances to make a mark, and as a whole, the conference’s opening weekend was outstanding to tip off the year. Here is a rundown of some of the opening weekend action:

  • UCLA and its talented freshmen burst out of the gate and ran Pacific right out of Pauley on Friday night. The Bruins’ 119-80 victory came with very auspicious debuts for T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball. They combined to shoot 15-of-21 for 41 points, and Ball stuffed his first stat sheet with a very impressive 19 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds (and just one turnover) in 34 minutes. That minutes total brings us to one of the big takeaways from the game, as head coach Steve Alford used a very tight rotation, something rare for an opener that was clearly over at halftime. Leaf played 37 minutes and every starter played at least 26, with Aaron Holiday rounding out the half-dozen man rotation with 24 minutes off the bench. Nobody else logged more than six minutes off the bench.
It Was That Kind of Day For Steve Alford's UCLA Team (USA Today Images)

With a great freshman class in action, Steve Alford has a great chance to lead his Bruins back to the top of the conference. (USA TODAY Images)

  • UCLA came back Sunday night in a defense “optional” performance to beat Cal-State Northridge. The Bruins blitzed the Matadors’ matador defense to the tune of 62 points in the second half to overcome what was actually a small halftime deficit. Again, Alford utilized a short bench, with Holiday getting 29 minutes off the pine and Gyorgy Golomon seeing 15. With Alford depending on such a young and inexperienced core, it’s understandable why he might be willing to give his youngsters heavier doses of minutes. Bruins’ possessions lasted 12.5 seconds on average in the opener, and they didn’t take the foot off the gas against Northridge. Something’s gotta give here. Either Alford lengthens the bench or the Bruins slow down, lest they collectively collapse from exhaustion come January.

  • USC had a much tougher fight with Montana, but the Trojans were able to leave Galen Center with a 75-61 win. Junior guard Jordan McLaughlin struggled but fellow third-year starter Elijah Stewart took a phenomenally efficient path to scoring his team-leading 30 points. Stewart took only 12 shots in the game, but converted 14-of-16 from the charity stripe. If anything stands out from USC’s opening win, it’s the Trojans’ work on the offensive glass. USC grabbed 39.4 percent of the available offensive rebounds and, thanks mainly to Stewart’s work, generated foul line points at a 53 percent rate while holding Montana to 12 percent. USC came back on Sunday night and erased a three-point second half deficit to eventually pull away from Omaha. Again, the Trojans dominated the offensive boards, grabbing 41 percent of the available boards.
Jordan McLaughlin and USC Got After It This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Jordan McLaughlin and USC Got After It This Weekend (USA Today Images)

  • Arizona State pulled away from Portland State in the game’s middle 20 minutes in getting Year 2 of the Bobby Hurley Era in Tempe off to a winning start. Tra Holder and Torian Graham contributed 23 points each, but in diametrically opposite ways. Holder missed all four his three-point attempts, but made 7-of-10 two-pointers and 9-of-11 free throws. Graham, meanwhile, hit 5-of-6 from behind the arc. The Sun Devils played at a pace of just over 80 possessions, which is much faster than Arizona State played last season. It’s often hard to tell against overmatched foes when pace numbers come in at high rates, but it’s worth tracking as an overall trend for this team in particular if it signals a philosophy change from Hurley.  
  • Arizona, as the standard bearer of the conference, got the weekend’s biggest win by toppling Michigan State in a Honolulu thriller. Wins over Tom Izzo tend to appreciate as the season goes on, so the Wildcats did themselves and the Pac-12 a solid by grinding out a win over the Spartans. Arizona did so while debuting Lauri Markannen, Rawle Atkins and Kobi Simmons. Ironically, it was Simmons, the freshman not to start, who made the biggest impact. He put up 18 points on only seven shots thanks to an 8-of-10 performance from the line. If there’s an immediate area of concern for Miller, it’s that the Wildcats struggled to keep the Spartans off the offensive backboards. Fifteen of Michigan State’s 63 points came on second chances, and 30 of their points came in the paint. Few teams are as physical as the Spartans, but Arizona’s inside mettle is worth watching as it progresses through the year. 
  • Cal spotted South Dakota State’s Ivan Rabb in its season opener and it hardly mattered as the Golden Bears crushed the Jackrabbits 82-53. There’s not a ton to be gleaned from this effort other than solidly efficient performances from Jabari Bird and Sam Singer (14 points each). Cal will need to establish who is going to replace the departed Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, and Jordan Mathews as scoring threats on the perimeter. One big number that sticks out: 50 percent of Cal’s shots on Friday night were three-pointers. Cuonzo Martin has said he is okay with the ratio being that high as long as the shots were good looks, but the other side of that statistic is that Cal only shot 13 free throws. Rabb’s return should restore balance to Cal’s attack, and the Bears’ dominance of the boards (+11 offensive rebounds) in his absence suggests that physicality is not an issue with this group.
  • Stanford started the Jerod Haase Era in Shanghai by beating Harvard Friday night, 80-70. Reid Travis, whose career has been ravaged by injuries, overwhelmed the pesky Crimson by scoring 24 points and hauling down 17 rebounds. He and Michael Humphrey brought the Cardinal out of a first half offensive malaise with a strong second half in which the Cardinal scored 50 points and produced a robust Offensive Rating of 122 for the half. One thing that really stood out in Stanford’s win was a significantly increased assist rate. The Cardinal assisted on the fewest number of buckets in the Pac-12 last year, but Haase is known for coaching teams that share the ball — against Harvard, Stanford assisted on 64 percent of its field goals. The next question is whether the Cardinal can get over their jet lag in time for another game on Tuesday night.

Even with Washington’s loss to Yale late Sunday evening, the opening weekend was a good one for the Pac-12. You can’t secure anything in November, but you can definitely undermine your postseason chances by not cleaning up the games you schedule against teams from mid and sub-majors. Sitting at 15-1 and with the headlining Arizona win over Michigan State, the opening act of 2016-17 went about as well as it could have for the Pac-12.

Richard Abeytia (41 Posts)

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