Pac-12 Conversation: Did the Pac-12 Get Hosed?

Posted by Adam Butler & RJ Abeytia on March 14th, 2018

With the Pac-12 already off to an inauspicious start given UCLA‘s First Four loss to St. Bonaventure, Pac-12 microsite writers Adam Butler (@pachoopsAB) and RJ Abeytia (@rj_abeytia) break down the burning questions facing ArizonaArizona State and the rest of the conference.

It’s Been That Kind of Year in the Pac-12 (USA Today Images)

Adam Butler: OK – let me start with the obvious – as Pac-12 bloggers, did the Pac get hosed by the NCAA?

R.J.:  I say we start with USC. Screwed or not screwed?

Adam Butler: Screwed! Whenever you’re “the somethingest to not something,” you’ve been screwed.

R.J.: USC was but most people are framing the argument incorrectly. It’s the whole body of work and the committee once again proved that there is no line of demarcation in their view between conference and non-conference play and, if anything, non-conference > conference. Andy Enfield has historically scheduled gutlessly in the non-conference realm but a #34 RPI is still a #34 RPI.

Adam Butler: Well… and this is where it gets weird with the 36 at-larges. Are they the 36 best teams remaining or the 36 most deserving?

R.J.: It has to be the 36 most deserving. I hate when an undeserving team gets in and then people retroactively declare them worthy of inclusion.

Adam Butler: Further – are you buying the FBI conspiracies? That the toothless NCAA is taking passive-aggressive jabs at schools explicitly under investigation?

R.J.:  This is not the first time USC has been made an example, only to have other schools get lesser penalties for greater infractions.

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Arizona State’s Stars and the Infrequence of its Bench

Posted by Adam Butler on March 7th, 2018

Earlier this season, as many were asking if Arizona State was the best team in the country, it was hard to disagree. The Sun Devils were 12-0 and had logged wins over Xavier and Kansas, now-and-then teams projected to be fantastic. On the eve of Pac-12 play, they were ranked among the nation’s top five in the national polls and rated 20th by KenPom. Bobby Hurley was America’s coaching darling and Tra Holder was outpacing Deandre Ayton for the Pac-12 Player of the Year (although I did call Holder a dark horse favorite for the award). But now, at season’s end, the Devils are 8-10 in a mediocre-at-best Pac-12 and no longer our national sweethearts (to the extent a Devil ever could be). It wasn’t the level of competition (exclusively) that caused this collapse. A win at Kansas is rarely a mistake. Even Washington went 10-8 in the same conference! What happened to Arizona State?

Arizona State Was Flying High Earlier This Season (USA Today Images)

I chose to call it a “Curtain of Exhaustion.” Back when the Sun Devils were streaking, we noted that Hurley was very rarely leveraging his bench. Now, to be clear, leveraging a bench is a complex topic. In the college game specifically, a bench isn’t always a required or an available asset. Arizona State started the season without Mickey Mitchell or Kimani Lawrence, both of whom wound up playing significant-if-not-impactful roles throughout the conference season. Regardless of their availability, the Sun Devils still finished the season with just one-quarter of their available minutes (305th nationally) going to the bench. Again, this isn’t always a death sentence for teams, but in closely examining Arizona State’s tumble, it seems clear. Holder and Shannon Evans — who have played 87 percent and 86 percent, respectively, of their team’s available minutes — are exhausted. Their totals represent the fourth and fifth most minutes in the Pac-12 this season. To further visualize this thesis, here are their rolling field goal percentages this season:

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On Arizona’s Uncertain (Immediate?) Future…

Posted by Adam Butler on February 23rd, 2018

Allonzo Trier’s suspension yesterday came with great emotion, at least from the perspective of an Arizona fan. Immediately, it’s upsetting. Trier is in his third season in Tucson but it’s been closer to one-and-a-half. It was a broken hand during his freshman year that led to missing seven critical mid-conference games. The Wildcats went 5-2 in his absence during that stretch. They’d finish 6-4 upon his return. His sophomore campaign started in January because of a 19-game suspension. The Wildcats went 17-2 without him and 15-3 after his return. So while his absence hasn’t always led to Arizona’s demise, his absence isn’t welcomed either. The presumed irresponsibility of accepting unknown substances isn’t quickly forgiven.

Will Allonzo Trier Ever Play at Arizona Again (USA Today Images)

And now Arizona finds itself without Trier again as the same reason for last season’s suspension has re-emerged. According to the school, trace amounts of his last failed test were found after a late January drug test. As we said, it’s immediately upsetting. But consider the case of Kolton Houston. The Georgia football player tested positive, was approved by the NCAA to return, but only upon clearing the drug completely from his system. Turns out that clearing certain drugs is hard to do and Houston spent all his eligibility and a lot of money trying to play again. Houston is a case by which we might sympathize with Trier. Further, the NCAA just isn’t a group we generally laud for its jurisprudence. Typically, the opposite.

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Observations on Pac-12 Rim Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on February 7th, 2018

As much of the basketball community discusses the value of a DeAndre Jordan with the NBA’s trade deadline approaching on Thursday afternoon, I thought it would be interesting to examine a few measures of Pac-12 rim defense. To be clear, the Jordan reference is an allusion to the value of rim-protection and not necessarily which teams in the Pac have a traditional center. That can be left to more subjective measures, especially as you consider that Arizona hasn’t exactly looked unstoppable despite Dusan Ristic catching fire.

Dusan Ristic Has Caught Fire But Isn’t Known as a Rim-Protector (USA Today Images)

Rim protection can be quantified in many ways. For example, another Deandre (Ayton) has drawn criticism (or at least prose) regarding his block rate. As a measure of individual rim-protection, this is probably the most telling metric among readily available stats. In noting such, Kenny Wooten (the Oregon freshman) has the third best rate in the nation, blocking a remarkable 16 percent of the shots taken while he’s on the floor. That is insane. Ayton, by comparison, owns a six percent block rate, good for eighth in the conference. It’s an improvement since The Ringer compared him to other elite college bigs, but still lacking. If nothing else, it’s not remotely close to Wooten.

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Is Arizona State Really the Best Team in the Pac-12?

Posted by Adam Butler on January 31st, 2018

With a microphone in his face, Arizona State guard Shannon Evans told anyone listening that his team is the best in the conference and that the Pac-12 would be nothing without the Sun Devils’ non-conference efforts. Before diving into his bold statement further, let’s give credit where it is due — a win at Kansas is a win at Kansas. Xavier is a meaningful win too. It’s also worth noting that St. John’s is currently sitting at a cool 0-11 in the Big East standings. It is true, however, that the Sun Devils had the only non-conference season of note and it was very impressive. They even flirted with the #1 ranking in the country.

Shannon Evans is a Believer (USA Today Images)

Yet since Arizona State sat in the driver’s seat of that #1 ranking on the afternoon of December 30 (losing to Arizona), the Sun Devils have played to the tune of a negative efficiency margin (107 offensive efficiency – 108 defensive efficiency = -1 efficiency margin). Their defense, which was never celebrated, ranks eighth in the conference, even yielding more than one point per possession to Cal! Their offense, however, driven by great speed and long-range shooting, has seemingly disappeared. For the season, Arizona State’s offense has operated at a KenPom adjusted 119.4 points per 100 possessions, which is fantastic (eighth nationally) and carried, as noted, by outstanding three-point shooting. The Sun Devils are the nation’s 52nd-best three point shooting team (38.3%) for the season, but in conference play, they have not been nearly that good. Rather, Arizona State’s offense is hovering at a 107.6 efficiency (sixth in the Pac) while making 36.2 percent of their threes (seventh).

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Arizona Against the Zone and Colorado’s Strategy

Posted by Adam Butler on January 25th, 2018

With modest success this season, teams have been throwing zone defenses at Arizona. The Wildcats have played nearly 25 percent of their offense against the zone, the 35th-highest percentage in college basketball. Overall, Arizona has been an excellent offensive team. Sean Miller’s group ranks among the top 15 teams nationally in offensive efficiency, touts a 57 percent effective field goal rate and – especially as it pertains to zone=busting – is making a healthy 38.2 percent of its threes (53rd nationally). On paper at least, Arizona would seem perfectly adept at breaking the zone. But in truth, when looking at the Wildcats’ offense versus man-to-man defense, Arizona ranks as the ninth-most efficient team in the country (per Synergy Sports). Against zone, however, and this may be where opponents are focusing, the Wildcats dip to 115th nationally at 0.97 points per possession.

Colorado’s Tad Boyle is Looking for the Arizona Sweep Tonight (USA Today Images)

Staring across the court at a roster featuring DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, I too would be seeking any advantage. It’s perhaps why Colorado head coach Tad Boyle, a staunch man-to-man advocate, exacted a zone defense last month against Arizona in Boulder and is likely to do so again in tonight’s rematch. Considering Arizona is about five points per 100 possessions less effective against a zone, Boyle’s plan is seemingly vindicated. Furthermore, the Buffaloes won that Saturday afternoon in The Keg; the ultimate vindication of strategic success. But also remember that Arizona is, indeed, a quality three-point shooting and offensive rebounding team, and that they’re fantastic at getting into transition (a zone-busting strategy). Theoretically, the Wildcats are well-equipped to beat a zone (and has done so in every attempt since). But the strategy goes well beyond nuance in numbers. Boyle used a similar zone against Arizona State just two days before he beat the Wildcats — on that night, at least, Colorado also beat the Sun Devils, which, over the course of this season, play more efficiently against zone than man (they are, after all, a great three-point shooting team). What gives?

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Forecasting Washington’s Zone Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on January 18th, 2018

No team in college basketball has played more zone defense this season than Mike HopkinsWashington club. As a Pac-12 aficionado, you know that the Huskies’ new head coach was a long-time assistant (21 years) of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. As a college basketball aficionado, you know all about Boeheim’s famous zone defense. Hopkins has brought the defensive scheme across the country, and as a result, the Huskies have been a pleasant surprise through the first half of the season. Considering its uniqueness and Washington’s early success in employing it, a forecasting evaluation of the zone for the rest of this season is worthwhile. Its basic tenet is engineered to dare opponents to shoot from long distance. At Syracuse, 44.8 percent of shot attempts against its zone come from beyond the arc, which is very high (11th nationally). Washington’s opponents, by way of comparison, are allowing 36.7 percent of the shots against them from distance, roughly equal to the national average. This gap is in part related to the Huskies’ faster offense, clocking in with the 71st-swiftest offensive possession average in the game (compared with Syracuse’s 325th-slowest). This increase in allowing long-range shooting comes as a big change from the former regime in Washington. Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies never allowed more than 30 percent of opponents’ shots to come from beyond the arc.

Mike Hopkins Has Instituted a New Regime in Seattle (USA Today Images)

Since Washington has seemingly announced its defensive strategy for the foreseeable future, how might the zone project on its new coast? To date, the gamble has paid off, as the Huskies through five conference games have “held” Pac-12 opponents to a league-best 27.9 percent from three-point range. Pac-12 teams are making 35.8 percent of their three pointers this year, 12th-best nationally as a conference. To try to understand what this might mean for Hopkins’ team, assuming he plans to continue to dare teams to shoot threes, the league has historically been average from distance. A peek:

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Peaking at the Margins: Washington’s Luck and Other Pac-12 Points

Posted by Adam Butler on January 10th, 2018

According to KenPom’s luck rating, Washington is the most Irish team in the country. Let’s now dissociate ourselves from preconceived notions of luck and consider both what the rating means (you can read about it here) and more relatable measures of success and expectations. To synopsize the luck statistic, this is a measure of a team’s success relative to expectations (as established by their efficiency ratings). At 12-4 overall, with an adjusted efficiency differential of just +5.44, the Huskies sit ahead of similarly efficient teams in terms of wins and losses (although most have between one to three more losses). Consequently, they rate 108th by KenPom, or slightly above average. What do other margins say about the rest of the Pac-12? As we’ve established, the Huskies are the luckiest team, but what else can 17 or so games tell us about the remaining and critical two-and-a-half months of Pac-12 Hoop?

To start the conversation, I examined scoring differential (total points for minus points against), the Synergy Sports points per possession margins and the aforementioned KenPom adjusted efficiency margins. The Pac-12 results:

Team W L Scoring difference PPP difference KP difference
Arizona 12 4 171 0.127 20.17
Arizona State 13 2 252 0.185 20.08
UCLA 12 4 130 0.100 13.91
USC 11 6 142 0.078 13.87
Utah 10 5 121 0.122 11.88
Oregon 11 5 179 0.125 10.66
Washington 12 4 55 0.050 5.34
Colorado 10 6 28 0.016 4.89
Oregon State 10 5 95 0.077 4.6
Stanford 8 8 -6 0.002 4.34
Washington State 8 7 1 0.043 0.51
California 7 9 -84 -0.088 -2.59

 

Some quick notes followed by a few takeaways: 1) scoring differential is a predictor of success and usually an indicator that you’re a really good team regardless of record, 2) The PPP difference column is based on Synergy data, which accounts raw points per possession information into its metric (i.e., it’s neither a prediction of possessions nor adjusted for strength of schedule, home/away or otherwise), 3) a reminder that the KenPom difference includes the aforementioned adjustments.

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Arizona’s Defense Isn’t Very Good and It Might Not Matter

Posted by Adam Butler on December 21st, 2017

Following a week that included wins against Texas A&M and Alabama — quality wins no matter the program — college basketball’s own Jon Rothstein noted the “fact” that Arizona would be a one-loss team had it not been for Rawle Alkins’ absence (broken foot) in those games. Read the tweet. Alkins’ presence would have meant that the sky would not seemingly be falling and all would be well in the desert. First of all, to find that tweet, one has to dig through a lot of tweets — Rothstein tweets a lot and he tweets redundantly. Secondly, we do like to be rooted in fact and the Wildcats are – in fact – a three loss team re-incorporating a starter among an underperforming freshman class (aside from the magnificent Deandre Ayton). Furthermore, through 12 games, this is easily the worst defense that Sean Miller has coached (or at least since advanced defensive statistics have been available on basketball-reference.com). The Wildcats are sitting at an unadjusted defensive efficiency of 1.02 points per possession and the next worse mark for a Miller team through 12 games was during his second season in Tucson (2011-12) — 0.96 PPP. That team was 8-4 at the same point in the season and of course represents the last time Arizona missed the NCAA Tournament.

DeAndre Ayton Has Been a Lone Bright Spot for Arizona This Season (USA Today Images)

At 9-3, the fact is that this could be the worst Miller defense since perhaps his first year in Tucson (2009-10 – 0.995 PPP). That team went 16-15 and had zero players (immediately) drafted from it. This team, however, has three projected NBA Draft picks, a beleaguered point. And beyond the facts there are questions like “can this defense get better?” The short answer has to be “yes,” right? Miller has coached only four worse defenses (by adjusted defensive efficiency) and the assumption is that this year’s team will naturally improve with more experience. A logical conclusion. Defensive trends, however, typically suggest a team’s efficiency worsens as the season progresses. This would make sense as, in the case of an Arizona, their defensive numbers should be more impressive against a lesser, pre-Pac schedule. It would also make sense, however, to expect to see less of a floundering Ayton or a scrambling Parker Jackson-Cartwright as we get into games 20, 21 and beyond.

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Tra Holder Getting More Than a Little Help From His Friends

Posted by Adam Butler on December 14th, 2017

Clarity is preferred. A clear head, a clear path, a clear lens. When we’re devoid of obstruction we tend to be more comfortable and successful. So while it will remain unclear just how good Arizona State is this season (ESPN hot takes), one thing seems clear: senior guard Tra Holder is getting clear looks. For the majority of his time in Tempe, he’s worked alone to get those looks. Coming into this season, just 37 percent of his attempts from distance were assisted. What does this mean? Or, perhaps more aptly, what can we assume (we don’t have player tracking devices in Pac-12 gyms despite “innovative” leadership)? My assumption is that, if nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made threes were not assisted, then Holder is working hard – off the dribble, for example – to make those buckets go down. That’s a lot. Further, attempts off the bounce are often more difficult or at less clear than assisted attempts. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer postures that Victor Oladipo’s improvement in off-the-dribble scoring is the reason behind his breakout season for the Indiana Pacers. Of course Holder seemingly already has this down. He already connects at a 36.4 percent career clip, punctuated by 46.3 percent this season. Further, his Free Throw rate (i.e., ability to get to the line) has consistently ranked among the conference’s top 10. In summary, Holder has been a nightmare with the basketball.

Tra Holder Has Been a Nightmare with the Basketball (USA Today Images)

This season is no different except that he’s also getting some help. His looks are becoming a less obstructed and it is correspondingly no surprise that he’s shooting a career-high eFG% (56.4%) along with that sterling three-point percentage. Focusing on the latter, his script has been flipped as nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made three pointers have been assisted this season. Having already laid out that Holder is a nightmare with the ball in his hands, his teammates are making him better in turn. Interestingly enough, Arizona State ranks 324th nationally in the percentage of its threes that have gone assisted. Does this bode poorly for the Sun Devils’ future? Playing the seventh-fewest bench minutes of any team in the country, tiring legs might be expected as the season rolls on. Perhaps that lends itself to less energy to run off screens, play off the ball and receive an unobstructed (generously describing an assisted three-pointer) three?

If the Devils’ numbers are any indication, it might just be that they don’t need the open look. They’re sufficient at making them without assistance. The fact that Holder has been the beneficiary of any passing (we’re looking at you, Shannon Evans, and your 51 percent of assists yielding a three) may indicate he’s saving his bullets for the long haul. Those off-the-dribble daggers of senior guard lore.

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