Marching To Vegas: On UCLA and Lighting Someone Else’s Candle

Posted by Adam Butler on January 9th, 2015

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

It can’t not be discussed. I never went to journalism school – I studied Human Biology – but I have to think you should never start an article with a double negative. The conversation, however, has got to be had surrounding UCLA. It’s going on in many places, most notably Twitter, where panic is settling in and leaps are being made. It’s a bad look. The question, of course, is the job security of Steve Alford. Let’s first address the obvious: He’s under contract with a crazy buyout at a time in which UC schools are haggling every which way for money. Public relations aside, that’s a lofty price tag to rid yourself of a rushed hire in the wake of a less-than-adored coach. Of course, shelling out exorbitant amounts of money to salvage your athletic brand is not unprecedented. As recently as MICHIGAN it’s happened. The lure of I-don’t-know-exactly-what-but-equal-money-I-guess-kinda-talks drew Jim Harbaugh to his alma mater. The arguable issue, of course, is that there isn’t a lingering mega-alum waiting in UCLA wings.

I promise, that on the souls of my grandchildren, I will not be the one to break the peace we've made here today.

I promise, that on the souls of my grandchildren, I will not be the one to break the peace we’ve made here today.

And then, obvioulsly, the Bruins eke out a win against Stanford. Does that salvage their season? UCLA doesn’t have seasons. They have title runs or naught. This, if you weren’t aware, is not a year of the former. But did you expect it to be? If you did, you perhaps aren’t paying attention. In addressing his first season in Westwood, we were impressed with Alford’s adjustment to what he did with fantastic roster. They were fascinating, terrifying and unique. Alford got a lot out of them. Everything, really. Which climaxed with (just) a Sweet Sixteen. That isn’t bad; it’s in fact good; but it perhaps wasn’t indicative of things to come. The thing to come was not necessarily avoiding six-game losing streaks with double-overtime thrillers; but that’s where we find ourselves and that’s the conversations we can’t not avoid.

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Separating Fact From Fiction in UCLA’s Five-Game Slide

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 8th, 2015

I touched on the disaster that is UCLA basketball this season in Tuesday’s quick spin around the conference. And, the thing is, so did just about every writer either interested in UCLA, the Pac-12 or — given that UCLA is one of our sports’ blue-blood programs — college basketball on a national level. Having listened to everyone else’s takes, there’s plenty to agree with and plenty to disagree with. Below we’ll take a look at some of these takes and try to determine their relative truthiness, ranking each statement on a scale of 1 – completely false – to 10 – right on the money.

With UCLA On A Five-Game Slide, The Alford Family Is Firmly In The Sights of UCLA Loyalists (AP Photo)

With UCLA On A Five-Game Slide, The Alford Family Is Firmly In The Sights of UCLA Loyalists (AP Photo)

Bryce Alford is the Problem

Last week’s Bryce Alford numbers we’re off-the-charts bad: 2-of-26 from the field and 0-of-13 from three, if you need a reminder. Some see the more damning part of this the fact that he continued to shoot the ball as the misses piled up. Shots continue to go up; other players stand around and watch; Alford doesn’t do a whole lot to make his teammates better. And, frankly, as the point guard, he’s got to take the bulk of the blame when the offense he is running is sputtering so badly. Since the Kentucky game, UCLA is scoring 0.7 points per possession, and on the year, the Bruins rank 134th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating.

Truthiness score: 5. Right in the middle. The younger Alford deserves some of the criticism, but, as we’ll get to in the next point, probably not the bulk of it.

Bryce Alford is UCLA’s Best Player, and That’s the Problem

This was Gary Parrish’s take in Monday’s CBS College Basketball podcast, and to paraphrase: “Alford didn’t play well this week, but you know what? He’s still the team’s best player and that’s a scary proposition for a program the quality of UCLA.” Let’s start with the first part of that point. Is Alford UCLA’s best player? Not just yes, but hell yes, of course, clearly to anyone with eyes, and probably to most people without. He is the only player on this team that can reliably go and get his own shot on a regular basis. He’s the team’s best shooter from range. He’s the best player on the team at creating shots for his teammates. Look at the KenPom numbers for starters. His 111.3 offensive rating is by far the best on the team; he’s been over 100.0 in that metric in 11 of UCLA’s 15 games (although clearly under it in the last three); he’s assisting on better than a third of all of his teammates’ hoops when he’s on the floor (good for 45th in the nation); and he’s drilling 32 percent of his shots from deep (even with that oh-fer last week) and 91 percent from the line. Make no mistake, Bryce Alford is a very good basketball player. But should he – a guy with no realistic NBA prospects – be the best player at UCLA? Probably not.

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Pac-12 Notebook: Josh Hawkinson, UCLA Offensive Woes, Utah…

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2015

Here are some news and notes from the Pac-12’s opening conference weekend.

  • We’re, what, two months into the college basketball season, and I’m not sure I’ve written the name Josh Hawkinson yet this year. Consider this blurb my official apology for such an egregious oversight. Last year, he played in all but three of Washington State’s games, but never more than 13 minutes, never scoring more than six points, never grabbing more than six boards. This year, he’s averaging 31 minutes per game and has only once had an outing where he failed to score at least six points or grab at least six boards. Over the weekend against the Bay Area schools, he was the best big man on the floor, and that came against frontcourts featuring senior bigs like Stefan Nastic and David Kravish. (By the way, the fact that Jordan Railey had his best pair of games in his career does not bode well for Cal and Stanford’s frontcourt defenses). Hawkinson is not going to amaze you with his athleticism. He’s not what you would call a visionary passer. He’s a decent face-up shooter, but by no means the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki either. He just gets it done. He’s got a great motor; he understands the game; he’s tough on the boards; and he has completely bought in to Ernie Kent’s philosophy. He’s on the short list of players in this conference who have made the biggest jump in production from last year to this one.
Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12's Most Improved Player

Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12’s Most Improved Player

  • To say that it was not a good weekend for UCLA basketball is to engage in annoyingly obvious understatement. The Bruins went to Colorado on Friday night to face a struggling Buffaloes team without its best player, and despite Colorado’s best efforts to fluff up UCLA’s offensive confidence early in the game via a series of turnovers leading to breakaway layups, the Bruins offensive woes continued. Against Utah on Sunday, it was even worse. The gold standard for UCLA offensive ineptitude was their 44 points against Kentucky on national TV. In that game, the Bruins scored those points on 68 possessions, good for 0.647 points per possession. Their 39 points on 60 possessions in Boulder works out to 0.65 points per possession. So, um, progress? In all seriousness, UCLA just has absolutely no offensive confidence right now. Norman Powell is a mess. Kevon Looney can only get so far on effort alone. And Tony Parker can’t seem to get out of his own way, earning only 20 minutes per game this weekend in part due to his continuing problems with dumb fouls. And then there is Bryce Alford. Yikes. For the weekend he was 2-of-26 from the field, 0-of-13 from deep, with five turnovers against nine assists. And let me tell you, those Rocky Mountain scorekeepers were generous in only giving him five turnovers. Now, that’s only one bad weekend, and we’re not going to write off all the other good things he’s done to this point — but with UCLA’s offensive struggles, you’ve got to start with the quarterback, right? The shooting thing? That’s mostly an aberration. Still, Alford is definitely earning a reputation as a guy willing to take bad shots. And on a team with a fragile personality right now, launching wild early-shot-clock bombs while the rest of the team stands around and watches is not going to build much cohesion. Alford is plenty capable of shooting his team into games, but as the point guard, he’s also in part responsible for how the guys around him perform. There were numerous times this weekend where he delivered a beautiful dime on the run that bounced off the hands of a guy like Thomas Welsh, Noah Allen or Tony Parker. But you know what? Alford’s got to know that those guys aren’t really capable of making those kinds of catches and play to his personnel accordingly. This 0-of-13 shooting from deep is not going to continue, but for the Bruins to regain their confidence, Alford’s got to find ways to get Powell, Looney, Parker and Isaac Hamilton good looks on a regular basis, especially early in games. He’s got to be the facilitator, first and foremost.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2015

As conference play begins around the nation, the Mountain West appears as wide open at the top of the standings as it has been in some time. Let’s dig into this week’s awards and power rankings.

Team of the Week

New Mexico – It wasn’t a very fun non-conference slate around Albuquerque, with injuries and inexperience compounding en route to a loss at Grand Canyon as the topper for a rough early season. But things started to look up in the Lobos’ first week of conference play, with not just two wins, but a win over Top 25 Colorado State on Saturday evening. After taking their lumps early in the season, newcomers Sam Logwood, Jordan Goodman and Tim Jacobs, in particular, had their share of impressive performances this week, while just about everybody on the team had something to feel good about. Well, everybody, that is, except sophomore guard Cullen Neal, who will miss the rest of the season due to his ankle injury that has kept him sidelined since the third game of the season.

Sam Logwood Had A Break-Out Game In The Lobos Win Over Colorado State (Roberto Rosales, Albuquerque Journal)

Sam Logwood Had A Break-Out Game In The Lobos Win Over Colorado State (Roberto Rosales, Albuquerque Journal)

Player of the Week

Larry Nance, Sr, Wyoming – Nance all but willed his team to a 2-0 start in conference play, averaging 23.5 points, 9.0 boards, 2.0 blocks, 1.5 steals and 1.5 assists per game while playing all but two of the Cowboys’ 80 minutes of action this week. Oh, and throw in a 64.8% eFG while less than year removed from a torn ACL. Stud.

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Seven

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 5th, 2015

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Washington State

Ernie Kent's First Conference Win At Washington State Earns The Cougs Our Choice as Team of the Week (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Ernie Kent’s First Conference Win At Washington State Earns The Cougs Our Choice as Team of the Week (Rick Bowmer, AP)

We had four voters each pick a different team this week, but you know what? I’m the one tallying the votes, so tie goes to the writer. And in this case, Washington State. Why does Ernie Kent’s squad get the nod over other candidates like Utah, Stanford and Colorado – all of which will likely finish further up the rankings than the Cougars? Why pick a team that opened conference play with a 15-point loss? Here’s a couple of reasons. First, to steal a phrase, in conference play, all wins are created equally, but road wins are a little more equal than others. And in the opening week of Pac-12 play, the Cougars were the only team to go on the road and come back with a W – a surprising win over Cal on Sunday afternoon. Secondly, given that Kent’s team has been consistently polling as the worst team in our conference this season; and further given that the Cougs got off on such a bad foot against Stanford; it is fun to recognize an underdog that is still playing hard and beginning to put some things together. We don’t expect Washington State to be in the mix atop the conference standings this season, but at least for the time being they are alone among the competition in one positive accomplishment.

(Also receiving votes: Colorado; Stanford; Utah)

Player of the Week: Jordan Mathews, California

Much like our Team of the Week section, this award could have gone any number of ways, but we’ll give the nod to Mathews for his highly-efficient scoring outburst in a home split against the Washington schools. With Jabari Bird still out with an injury and with Tyrone Wallace earning a second glance from every opponent, Mathews stepped up this week and kept his team alive, shooting a 68.3% eFG on his way to a 27.5 per night scoring average, leading all scorers in conference play.

(Also receiving votes: Josh Hawkinson, Washington State; Chasson Randle, Stanford; Joseph Young, Oregon)

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Pac-12 Midyear Awards

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 2nd, 2015

With conference play beginning in earnest on Friday night in the Pac-12, it’s time to give out some superlatives for the non-conference portion of the season.

Non-Conference Player of the Year: Delon Wright, Sr, Utah

If Anything, Delon Wright Is Even More Versatile And Efficient This Season (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

If Anything, Delon Wright Is Even More Versatile And Efficient This Season (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

Prior to the season, the Utes’ point guard earned RTC Co-Preseason Player of the Year honors, shared with Stanford senior Chasson Randle. Now, seven weeks later, Wright stands alone as our panelists’ unanimous choice as the best player in the Pac-12 thus far. Last season, Wright drew amazement with his level of versatility and efficiency. This season, he’s upped the ante in both categories. Didn’t think his 57.2 eFG% was sustainable? That’s up to 60.9% this season. He turned the ball over on nearly 19% of possessions and handed out assists on 29% of teammates’ buckets last year. The turnovers are down to ever 14% of possessions and the assists are up to 34% of teammates’ hoop. Think his perimeter shooting was a weakness last year? Well, he’s hitting a third of his still limited attempts from deep, up from 22% last year. Now sure, with conference play rolling around, those numbers will dip some with increased competition and opponents familiar with his game. But not much, as the Utes have played a tough enough non-conference slate to have seen Wright tested on a variety of occasions.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Improvement, Surprises and Disappointments

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 2nd, 2015

With conference play tipping off tonight, it’s time for our half-way edition of Burning Questions, where we’ve asked our panelists five different questions looking back and looking ahead. Adam Butler, Kevin Danna and Andrew Murawa offer up their opinions below on which teams and players are waxing and waning in the Pac-12.

Which team can improve the most between now and March?

  • Adam Butler: Maybe this is silly but I maintain it can still be Arizona. There have only been a handful of games in which everything has clicked for this team. I think the Wildcats are still figuring things out offensively and a part of that is in still trying to figure out their rotation. The urgency and impact of conference play will tighten that up and ensure that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is playing maximum minutes. I believe this will behoove Sean Miller’s team immensely.
While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Arizona Are Ranked In The Top Ten, There May Be Improvement Still On The Way (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Arizona Are Ranked In The Top 10, There May Be Improvement Still On The Way (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

  • Kevin Danna: It’s gotta be UCLA. They have so many talented freshmen (granted, not all of them are playing) that things are bound to eventually click for this group. The 39-point loss to Kentucky looked ugly, but hey, I’d rather lose by 39 to Kentucky than lose by three to Cal State Bakersfield.
  • Andrew Murawa: On the basis of new players improving alone, I’ll give the edge to Oregon. First, the Ducks’ only legitimate big man – 6’10” JuCo transfer Michael Chandler – is finally on the court for the first time this season. Meanwhile, freshmen Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks, Ahmaad Rorie and Casey Benson are getting more comfortable by the game and as they improve and pick up their weight, senior star Joseph Young won’t feel quite the same pressure to do everything. The Ducks have all the hallmarks of an NCAA Tournament-caliber squad.

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Pac-12 One-on-One: Chasson Randle vs. Joseph Young

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 2nd, 2015

With data heavily reliant on KenPom.com and Hoop-math.com, along with contributions from Adam Butler, Kevin Danna, Connor Pelton and Tracy McDannald.

Regularly here at the RTC microsite, I’ll send out questions or polls to my group of trusted Pac-12 experts: Adam Butler, Connor Pelton, Kevin Danna and Tracy McDannald. We’ll gather votes to come up with consensus all-conference teams. We’ll ask who is the best defender, best dunker, best shooter in the Pac. And every now and then, we have some disagreements. This year, Oregon’s Joseph Young is perhaps our biggest source of regular disagreement. For instance, at the start of the season, I voted Young as the second-best player in the conference, behind only Delon Wright. None of my other trusted advisors ranked him any higher than sixth. We voted for best shooter in the league and I dialed up Young (and his 88.1% FT, 52.8% 2FG, and 41.5% 3FG) as the best in the conference; nobody else ranked him higher than third. And then, when we picked our mid-season all-conference team this week, I put Young in my top five, while only one other voter – Pelton – ranked him among his first five.

On the Curious Case of Oregon's Joseph Young (USA Today Images)

On the Curious Case of Oregon’s Joseph Young (USA Today Images)

Now, all of this preamble of is not to lead into a 2,000-word post on why I’m right and everyone else is wrong, but it did allow me to dig into the numbers and compare Young to some of the other guards in the league. I looked at Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss, I looked at Utah’s Delon Wright. And then I looked at Stanford’s Chasson Randle. And what I found was awesome. Below are screenshots from KenPom.com, detailing Young and Randle’s numbers as of New Year’s Eve.

Young_Randle_KP

The basketball nerd in me loved taking screenshots of those two stat lines and comparing them. Look at how similar they are, almost right across the board, starting with height, weight, class and continuing on. Their minutes, offensive ratings and usage numbers are almost all exactly the same. I shared these screenshots with the group, and the idea for a new post comparing similar players to each other was born. I remember some baseball magazine I used to read when I was a kid, back when I still thought baseball was interesting. One of their regular features was to compare and contrast players with some similarity: Alan Trammell vs. Ozzie Smith; Tony Gwynn vs. Wade Boggs; George Brett vs. Mike Schmidt. I loved those things, even if for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the magazine or the name of the feature. (Oh, by the way, the fact that guys like Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris are not in the baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous, says this guy, who hasn’t watched more than nine innings of baseball in a season since before the MLB cancelled the 1994 World Series). I figured we’d try a similar thing here. Sure, baseball is more of an individual sport made up of clearer one-on-one match-ups – pitcher vs. hitter and whatnot. And just looking at the numbers for any individual basketball player without taking into account team composition and even the variability of a schedule is a fool’s errand, but I’ve never been scared of looking foolish. I’m not always going to try to establish exactly which player is better, but I’m going to try to lay out all the facts you’ll need to come up with your own opinion. Here is the first edition of RTC Pac-12 One-on-One.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 31st, 2014

It’s been awhile since we checked in on the Mountain West. But with conference play set to begin on New Year’s Eve, it is time we get all caught up with the state of the league. We can break the league into three broad tiers: the conference favorites (San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming, in some order); an intriguing group of talented teams with recent success in the middle (New Mexico, Boise State and UNLV); and everybody else.

San Diego State's Offense Has Been Awful, But They're Still A Force To Be Reckoned With In The Mountain West (Stephen Dunn)

San Diego State’s Offense Has Been Awful, But They’re Still A Force To Be Reckoned With In The Mountain West. (Stephen Dunn/AP)

The Championship Tier: San Diego State came into the season as the clear-cut favorite in the conference. Somewhere in the middle of an egregious display of offense in a 36-point outing at Washington, that prognosis changed somewhat. With Colorado State out to a 13-0 start, the Rams are making their case as a challenger to the returning champions, while Wyoming is trying to claim the name Dunk City on their way to a big role in the conference championship chase. But really, go back and look at who either of those last two teams have beaten. Both have wins over Colorado and New Mexico State as among their best wins. The Rams can throw in wins over Georgia State, UTEP and UC Santa Barbara for flavor, but the biggest accomplishment for both teams is really the absence of bad losses. Meanwhile, the Aztecs, despite those three losses and offensive issues, has wins over Utah and BYU, both of which are better than anything on Colorado State or Wyoming’s ledger. And, just realistically, we’ve seen Steve Fisher succeed with atrocious offense backed up by excellent defense; it has been their M.O. for the past two years at least. While this level of offensive ineptitude is concerning, and the Aztecs are no longer the prohibitive favorite in the league, smart money still puts San Diego State a notch above the competition. Read the rest of this entry »

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Arizona State’s Lineup Change Makes Complete Sense

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 30th, 2014

In any conference, there are hierarchies with the storylines, and, the Pac-12 is no different. Arizona is a perennial national contender. Utah is living up to its offseason promise as a challenger to the throne. Washington is the surprise team. Colorado is the disappointment. UCLA is struggling through a major roster change, sometimes with spectacular failures. USC is, well, yuck. Oregon State is fending off its preseason narrative as one of the worst major conference teams in America. Tyrone Wallace is blowing up for California. Stanford is completely indecipherable. I could go on.

In Two Games With Gerry Blakes As Their Point Guard, Arizona State Looks Like A Different Team (Jamie Squire, Getty Images)

In Two Games With Gerry Blakes As Their Point Guard, Arizona State Looks Like A Different Team (Jamie Squire, Getty Images)

My point is, wow; you can go a long way in discussing this conference before you get down the line to talk about Arizona State, but this is a pretty fascinating team. Let’s throw out the Sun Devils’ two performances in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, where they played 38 strong minutes in each game with Maryland and Alabama only to implode in the waning minutes. Let’s also throw out a 22-point win over UNLV and the ensuing one-point loss at Texas A&M — both featuring late-game struggles — and let’s just look at their last four games: an ugly performance in a seven-point loss at Marquette; a triple-overtime home loss to Lehigh; and a pair of home wins over Detroit, by 39 points, and Harvard, by 10 points. Why do we want to look at just these games? Well, in that recent span, we’ve seen head coach Herb Sendek start to figure out exactly what his rotation will be, beginning with sliding junior Gerry Blakes from the shooting guard to the point guard spot.

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Six

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 29th, 2014

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Stanford

Behind Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown, Stanford Earned Themselves A Big-Time Non-Conference Win

Behind Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown, Stanford Earned Themselves A Big-Time Non-Conference Win. (Getty)

In a week with so much inexplicable carnage – Arizona, Washington, California, UCLA and Colorado all would like to have do-overs – the Cardinal are the conference’s saviors, earning the league’s best non-conference win of the season with a true road win at Texas in overtime last Tuesday. Coming on the heels of a tight loss at BYU, and with that ugly DePaul loss still lingering in the air, this game proved that this Cardinal team is capable of doing the kinds of things that last year’s Sweet Sixteen team did. Led by seniors Anthony Brown and Chasson Randle, Stanford battled the Longhorns and their crowd, fought back time and again from (at times self-inflicted) bad breaks and gave themselves and the conference an early Christmas present that should pay dividends the rest of the year.

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Marching to Vegas: On Arizona and the Road

Posted by Adam Butler on December 23rd, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

One of the major factors of future success is margin of victory. It plays significantly into the predictive work of Dan Hanner as he algorithmically computes future outcomes and it also helps us lay people. Kentucky demolishes Kansas by 32 and we conclude, “Yup, those ‘Cats are good.” Pure science. So you can perhaps understand that it was becoming cause for concern as my beloved Wildcats (the Tucson genus, not Lexington) were beating the Manhattan genus of Wildcats by just four. And San Diego State by only a pair. Or what about at deficit to UC Irvine with as little as seven minutes remaining? Perhaps this is spoiled complaint, but as the Dukes and Kentuckys were demolishing the opposition – and elite competition at that – Arizona was being left behind in the conversation.

Arizona Appears To Be Starting To Click, But The Road Can Be Unkind

Arizona Appears To Be Starting To Click, But The Road Can Be Unkind. (Getty)

Now, we’re still in that glorious time of year where narrative and hype drives the conversation. Our sample sets are minimal at best by which to forecast the next three months. Teams are just now learning about themselves, freshmen have barely broken out their winter coats from under their bunks. But even Arizona’s best win evoked toughness from the Zags. The vaunted Arizona defense wasn’t what it was a season ago and Stanley Johnson was neither Aaron Gordon nor Nick Johnson. Perhaps this Arizona team wasn’t quite the dominant force we thought they’d be?

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