Marching to Vegas: In Defense of the Pac

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on January 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 is exactly what we want it to be, at least in a season like this. In a conference whose most tenured coach has a 0.456 winning percentage over his last four seasons and the second most tenured is Johnny Dawkins, we’ve got what we want. The Pac isn’t producing basketball we’ll soon tell our grandchildren about or write new defensive schematics to contain something transcendent. Only Bill Walton could contextualize the Pac-12 as historically brilliant right now. He’s wrong. He knows he’s wrong but he’ll say it anyway because he’s Bill Walton and he’s forgotten more basketball than we’ll ever know. What if he’s right, though (he’s not)?

Don't Worry Pac-12, We've Got Your Back.

Don’t Worry Pac-12, We’ve Got Your Back.

Because right now the Pac-12 is competitive. We can quantify that, for starters. Noting that 45 percent of its games – according to KenPom – have been close; that there hasn’t been a “blowout” of 19-points or more through 29 conference games. Remember 2012, when we lamented what a poor Pac-12 we had? Just 19 percent of those games were close and 18 percent were blowouts. That’s nearly 40 percent of conference basketball with seemingly no balance. Think about that. In easily the worst Pac play we’ve ever seen, the games weren’t even close. Competition breeds success. The Pac-12 in 2016 isn’t the greatest basketball we’ve ever seen. In 2009 it collectively led the nation in efficiency. This year it’s 15th. But when I sit down to watch Pac-12 basketball, I’m watching an entertaining product. We’re watching a game worth celebrating and not lamenting because there aren’t necessarily rosters littered with disciplined executioners (2015 Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Arizona, Virginia) or uber-talented transcendents (2015 Kentucky, Duke). This isn’t last season. If you want that, here’s a link to CSN Bay Area and all of the Warriors highlights you can handle. And yes, it is unfair to compare anything to those Warriors. It’s also unfair to compare any of these 2016 teams against what was a historically fantastic 2015. Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking In On… The Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 12th, 2016

It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve done one of these because of holidays and real life, but it is time to jump back in as plenty has gone down in the Mountain West since Christmas. We’ll get to all the goings-on around individual teams below, but if you need a one-sentence summary of the season so far, here you go: Barring completely unforeseen circumstances, the winner of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas will be the conference’s sole representative in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, the league’s second year of existence. And to show just how wacky this league is this year, I’d probably bunch four teams ahead of the pack as favorites to win that tournament. Of those four, three are undefeated in league play. The fourth – UNLV, hasn’t won a conference game and just fired its head coach, Dave Rice. We will get the first two matchups of the year among those four teams this week, so let’s jump into the mess that is the Mountain West.

UNLV's Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West (Getty Images/E. Miller)

UNLV’s Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West. (Getty Images/E. Miller)

Power Rankings

1. Boise State (12-4, 3-0)The Broncos are a bright spot. Riding a nine-game winning streak (the seventh-longest streak in the nation), they’re the team that ratings systems like the most. In KenPom, they’re just a notch above the rest of the conference at #79, but their RPI of #49 makes them seem like they have a chance to earn an at-large bid. But, in terms of quality wins, a home win over Oregon is about all there is. And additional quality wins just aren’t coming on the league schedule. Maybe if that nine-game winning streak turns into 16 or something. And maybe if the Broncos run away with the conference at something like 16-2, they could sustain a loss in the conference tourney and still dance, but that’s a whole lot of maybes for a program that won the regular season Mountain West title last year and was “rewarded” by the selection committee with a road game in the First Four. As far as on the court happenings, by now you probably know all about James Webb and Anthony Drmic. Nick Duncan has become a cult figure and if you read this here spot, Mikey Thompson has been a regular feature for four years. But the biggest reason for optimism may be the recent play of sophomore Chandler Hutchison. Coming into Boise last season as the most highly touted recruit in program history, he bumped around and never looked fully comfortable in his 12.3 MPG. Early in the non-conference season, his level of comfort didn’t look all that different and it wasn’t insane to question why he was so highly regarded of a recruit. Well, in three conference games, he’s put on a show. It’s definitely a small sample size, but he’s got the highest offensive rating in conference play thus far after averting 9.3 PPG and 4 RPG while shooting a 67.7% eFG in 23.6 MPG. More important than those numbers, he’s looked comfortable, he’s attacked the rim and flashed his athleticism and is beginning to get it on the defensive end of the court. Read the rest of this entry »

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Making Sense of the Wild Pac-12 Standings

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 11th, 2016

We’re now through two weeks of Pac-12 play and Washington sits alone atop the conference with a 3-0 record. USC, Oregon State and Oregon are the next three teams, with only one loss. Teams among the conference favorites – for example, Arizona and Utah – sit with sub-.500 records. And Arizona State, a team expected to be in the mix somewhere in the middle of the conference race, is sitting alone in last place with an 0-3 record. Sure, given that teams have only played a fraction of the conference schedule, most of this is meaningless. But here are some more relevant facts. At halfway through the college basketball regular season, 11 of the 12 conference teams are ranked among the KenPom top 100 — only Washington State sits out at #122. If RPI is more your thing (for some reason), those 11 teams rank among the top 75 of that metric. If you want to throw out Stanford and Washington, the top nine teams in the conference rank among the top 66 in KenPom and the top 48 in RPI. The conference is listed as the #2 strongest collection of teams in the land by RPI, while KenPom puts the league third. Oregon is rated highest in RPI (#11), while Arizona tops KenPom at #16.

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It's Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It’s Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Enough numbers for now; the important question is what do they all mean? To begin with, this is a conference that runs deep with good teams. In a season seeming to lack great teams on a national level, the Pac-12 will again be expected to extend its streak of seasons without a Final Four entrant to eight. However, because of that lack of dominant team on the national landscape, if this NCAA Tournament tends towards wild upsets (as sometimes happens), the Pac-12 has some teams in that next tier of strength that could either be the upsetter or take advantage of brackets thinned out by upsets.

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UCLA: Predictably Unpredictable?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 8th, 2016

Conventional wisdom on UCLA, after taking down KenPom #16 Arizona on Thursday night to pair with earlier wins over then-#2 Kentucky and then-#19 Gonzaga, is that the Bruins are inconsistent and unpredictable. And conventional wisdom, as is often the case, may only be partially right. The more complete argument may be that the Bruins are consistent in their inconsistency and predictable in their unpredictability. This isn’t one of those riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma bits of nonsense. There’s a method to UCLA’s madness. Let’s dig in.

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

First, let’s take a look at the current landscape of college basketball. Again, using those KenPom rankings, Virginia is ranked sixth in the nation and has lost road games to George Washington (#72) and Virginia Tech (#119). Miami is ranked 10th and the Hurricanes took a home loss to Northeastern (#81). North Carolina was the AP preseason #1 team and currently ranks 11th in KenPom; the Tar Heels have suffered road losses to Northern Iowa and Texas. Dig a bit further down the rankings and there are many other examples of big-time teams losing to small-time teams. It’s been said that there aren’t any great teams this year, and that may well be true (although reserving that judgment until all of the classwork is in might be in order), but more to the point, there just may be less of a difference this season between the top team and the 50th-best team in the country than ever before. And perhaps more to the point, there is almost assuredly less difference between a team like the 10th-best team and the 90th-best team. In other words, big time teams are susceptible to taking losses against lesser ones, especially when they go on the road.

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Repercussions of Dylan Ennis’ Short-Lived Career at Oregon

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 7th, 2016

Wednesday was a day of mixed emotions around the Oregon basketball program. Early in the day it was announced that graduate senior point guard Dylan Ennis would miss the rest of the season with the same foot injury that had kept him out of the Ducks’ first 12 games of the season. This announcement effectively ends Ennis’ career in Eugene before it ever began, relegating him to a role as a cheerleader and mentor on the bench for the remainder of his time there. The good news is that the Ducks bounced back from a loss to Oregon State in its Pac-12 opener to score a solid home win over a California team that is beginning to look very much like the team we expected. While the injury to Ennis is a downright bummer, can the Ducks still be considered among the Pac-12 favorites despite his absence?

A Foot Injury Ended Dylan Ennis' Oregon Career Before It Ever Really Got Started (Oregon Athletics)

A Foot Injury Ended Dylan Ennis’ Oregon Career Before It Ever Really Got Started. (Oregon Athletics)

First, on Ennis. After starting his career as a promising if erratic point guard at Rice, he made the jump to the big leagues in two tremendously effective years at Villanova (averaging 9.9 points and 3.5 assists per game in a 33-win junior year, sharing point guard duties with Ryan Arcidiacono). At 6’2”, he knew that his best chance to maximize his professional potential lay in playing the point full-time. And with a potential logjam looming in the Villanova backcourt, the notion of sharing minutes again with Arcidiacono as well as freshman Jalen Brunson pushed Ennis to make the jump to Dana Altman’s transfer-friendly program. From there, it was a simple twist of fate that led to a foot injury in preseason practice. Altman tried to play him in late December in 10 largely ineffective minutes against Western Oregon; and he got 11 more minutes of action against Oregon State where he was clearly not comfortable with weight on his bad foot. With a redshirt year already lost to his first transfer, Ennis’ collegiate eligibility is likely finished barring a Hail Mary on a sixth-year.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Who’s the Best Point Guard?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2016

While watching guys like Jordan McLaughlin, Andrew Andrews, Tra Holder, Kadeem Allen and more shine from the lead guard spot over the weekend, we got the brilliant idea to ask our contributors: Who’s the best point guard in the Pac? Truthfully, there’s only one right answer — a certain Player of the Year candidate in Corvallis who tore up the league last season and has only gotten better as a senior. So, the real question we put forth to our writers is, aside from Gary Payton II, who’s the best point guard in the league? Our answers below.

Gary Payton II Is Not Only The Best Point In The Pac, He's One Of It's Best Players (Oregon State Athletics)

Gary Payton II Is Not Only The Best Point In The Pac, He’s One Of It’s Best Players, Period. (Oregon State Athletics)

Mike Lemaire: This honor is for Gary Payton II to claim, but if the phrasing instead became “most valuable point guard,” then a strong case could be made for Washington senior Andrew Andrews. It can often feel like Andrews is babysitting four wild teenagers when the Huskies play, and considering he is the only upperclassman on the roster, that simile isn’t far from the truth. While his teammates have struggled with fouls, defensive positioning, effort and shot selection, Andrews is quietly scoring more than 20 points per game, leading his team in rebounding (6.3 RPG) and drawing more fouls than anyone else in the Pac. Despite a meaningful uptick in his responsibilities, Andrews is still shooting better than 40 percent from downtown, better than 80 percent from the free throw line and has nearly doubled his assist rate without any corresponding increase in his turnover rate. What makes this even more impressive is that he isn’t even a true point guard; rather, he has just been forced into the role. Still, the pick for best point guard in the league is Gary Payton II, with a notable hat tip to Andrews. Read the rest of this entry »

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On the Quiet Rise of the California Golden Bears

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 6th, 2016

About three weeks ago, after California struggled to put much of any space between itself and Incarnate Word, we here at the Pac-12 microsite staged an intervention. Without actually intervening, of course. But we did call out the Golden Bears’ loaded roster for poor defensive effort, a general lack of energy, non-existent half-court offense and questionable chemistry. Given that it only a month into the season, we still gave Cuonzo Martin‘s team a pass with upcoming dates against St. Mary’s, Virginia, Davidson and the entirety of the Pac-12 on the horizon. Since that December 9 game, the Golden Bears have gone 5-1, with the sole loss coming in an overtime affair at Virginia, KenPom‘s fourth-best team in America. That loss, if anything, gave Cal its first taste of credibility. So are the the boys from Berkeley now out of the woods and headed to the Final Four? Hmmmmm.

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can't Seem To Miss (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can’t Seem To Miss. (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

There is a lot to be excited about in the East Bay right now. Jordan Mathews can’t miss (52.3 percent from three-point range). Jabari Bird is finally showing the two-way consistency that was missing in his first two campaigns. Kameron Rooks and Kinglsey Okoroh are making wholly unanticipated leaps into relevance as capable big men on both ends. Ivan Rabb  is impressing with his ability to both pull bigs away from the hoop but also bang with them down low. Sam Singer has been a legitimately good reserve off the pine. Jaylen Brown, while still struggling to put it all together, has started hitting more jumpers while improving his defensive effort and terrorizing opponents in transition. All of this is happening while senior point guard Tyrone Wallace is in the midst of a serious drought (13.3 percent from three-point range; three turnovers per game). In past years, such a malaise from Wallace would have surely coincided with a significant losing streak (see: last year’s devastating 1-8 stretch in late December and January).

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Washington’s Big Comeback Win Says More About USC

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 4th, 2016

For something like 25 minutes on Sunday afternoon, this post was going to be about moving USC from contending for an NCAA Tournament invitation to a potential sleeper among the top of the Pac-12 race. The Trojans were up 61-42 at Washington and appeared to be headed for an opening weekend road sweep. They had scored on seven of their first eight second half possessions, mixing dunks in transition with threes, sharing the ball and locking in defensively. But when junior guard Julian Jacobs came out of the game with an ankle injury at the 16:18 mark, things quickly went off the rails.

Minus Julian Jacobs, The Trojans Lost Their Composure, And Their Lead (Ted S. Warren, AP)

Minus Julian Jacobs, The Trojans Lost Their Composure, And Their Lead. (Ted S. Warren, AP)

From that point forward, the Huskies outscored Andy Enfield’s bunch by a score of 45-24. Until he called his team’s final timeout with 6:58 remaining (20 possessions later), the Trojans managed a grand total of 10 measly points, a stretch that featured eight turnovers and five missed layups on the offensive end, along with six layups and five defensive rebounds allowed on the defensive end. Worse yet, after appearing to have regained their poise and settled into a workable seven-point lead with two minutes left, the Trojans melted down again. Washington finished the game on a 9-0 run as sophomore point guard Jordan McLaughlin turned it over twice more and the Huskies grabbed three crucial offensive boards, including one from senior guard Andrew Andrews that became the game-winning bucket. All told, it was a thrilling comeback 87-85 win for the Huskies and a demoralizing failure for the Trojans.

That said, it’s still just one game in a long season. Aside from all the gruesome details about USC’s blown lead, what can we take away from the game? At first blush, the storyline in Seattle seemed to be more about the losers than the victors. This is program that has won a total of six Pac-12 games in 40 tries under Enfield. Only two of those wins have come on the road, and both of those came against Washington State (once at the end of the 2013-14 season; the other on Friday night). In other words, this is not a team with a lot of experience at winning, much less winning in tough environments. Throw in the injury to Jacobs that left USC without arguably its most important player and when things started to go south, they did so in a hurry. Jacobs — aside from being an athletic scoring threat, the team’s most secure ball-handler, and a solid perimeter defender — is also the team’s most veteran presence, capable of acting as a calming influence. When McLaughlin got flustered during the Huskies’ big 26-10 run, he typically would have had Jacobs there to settle things down. No such luck on Sunday, and there were times down the stretch when the Trojans looked to freshman Bennie Boatwright, of all people, to handle the ball and create offense in the half-court. Needless to say, that decision did not end well.

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Happy New Conference Year: A Pac-12 Reset

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 31st, 2015

Happy New Year’s everyone! May you all celebrate the arbitrary tick of the clock on an arbitrary day on the arbitrarily human-invented calendar in whichever arbitrary fashion pleases you the most! Here in this space we’re turning our attention to something far less arbitrary, a tradition older than the hills, a ritual that goes back to before the first organism crawled out of the ocean and onto dry land however many million years ago: the transition from non-conference college basketball to Pac-12 conference play. At least seven unnamed sources indicate that such a sacrament is timeless. And so, to celebrate, let’s take a spin around the Pac-12 and do a quick reset, preparing you for what will seem, as it always does, like a sprint from New Year’s to March Madness.

All-Conference Team (No Surprises Edition)

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors (Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors. (Godofredo Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

  • G Gary Payton II, Sr, Oregon State
  • G Tyrone Wallace, Sr, California
  • F Josh Scott, Sr, Colorado
  • F Ryan Anderson, Sr, Arizona
  • C Jakob Poeltl, So, Utah

When we put together our preseason all-conference picks back in November, Poeltl and Payton were unanimous choices as first-teamers, and here they are at the turn of the calendar as the heavy Player of the Year favorites in the conference. Wallace was also on our preseason first-team and he’s been fine, if not spectacular. Scott and Anderson were second-team guys and have both been rock-solid as seniors. Scott has struggled some in his team’s two losses, but if he can lead the Buffaloes to an upper division finish, he might yet have a say in the Player of the Year race as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 22nd, 2015

There’s plenty of on-court news that we’ll get to below, but the big news from the last week was from the conference office. As the Mountain West announced that the conference tournament will remain at the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas through at least 2019, not so hidden in that announcement was the corresponding news that only the top eight teams in the final league standings will be making the trip. First, the venue. While nearly everyone in the conference is supportive of playing the conference tournament in Vegas because of the clear entertainment draw and centralized location, the particulars of playing on UNLV’s home court remain controversial. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is a vocal opponent of that location, but subsidies for rent on the Thomas & Mack as well as hotel rooms make the decision a virtual economic necessity.

Las Vegas

The Mountain West Tournament will remain in Las Vegas, but fewer teams will be invited.

However, the paring down of invitees is more of a head-scratcher. Sure, commissioner Craig Thompson points to an invitation to the conference tourney as a reward for a strong regular season, but with an eye toward the fan experience, part of the fun of the conference tournament is having everybody at the same venue. Further, just in terms of planning a Vegas vacation in mid-March with weekdays in play, less notice for teams near the cut line does not bode well for maximum attendance. For example, the conference has had 11 members for the past two seasons. In 2013-14, there was a tie for eighth place, with just a one-game drop to ninth. Last season, there were three games separating spots #7 through #10. This year, KenPom currently projects sixth place in the conference at 9-9 with three more teams projected to go 8-10. In all of those scenarios, teams wouldn’t really be clinching a spot for an invitation to the conference tournament until the final week of the regular season, making it more difficult for fans to get time off work to head to Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

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Considering Utah’s Foundational Win Over Duke

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 21st, 2015

A year ago, Utah hosted Wichita State in early December. After a 2013-14 season in which the Utes had made great strides but gone 3-8 in two possession games, it was a mammoth game for a program with March aspirations. It took 45 minutes to decide a winner, but a Delon Wright game-winner with 14 seconds left gave the program a foundational win against a proven opponent. They showed that they could not only hang with a top-10 team, but also come away with a win. Early this season, the big story for Larry Krystkowiak  is that life after all-Pac-12 performer Wright is hard. Prior to Saturday, they had played two games against quality competition this year and were blown out in both. So when the team traveled to Madison Square Garden to play Duke on Saturday, the opportunity felt similar to that offered by the Shockers last season. These Utes had plenty to prove.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah

Larry Krystkowiak And Utah Earned A Win To Build On At MSG Saturday (Photo: AP)

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Dear Santa: Here’s Our Pac-12 Holiday Wish List

Posted by Mike Lemaire (@Mike_Lemaire) & Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 18th, 2015

Here at the Pac-12 microsite we are hardly immune to the allure of a cheesy holiday-themed post, and so in the spirit of the season, we created a wish list for each team in the conference. Although none of the teams are even close to a finished product and it may be too early in the season to thoughtfully examine strengths and weaknesses, everyone has played enough games that we can start to draw worthwhile conclusions from what we’ve seen. As with any holiday wish list, there are some wants and needs that are easier to satisfy than others but hey, you have to dream big when gifts are involved.

Arizona: Another Shooter

Arizona Could Stand To See Mark Tollefsen Dial In His Perimeter Shot (USA Today Sports)

Arizona Could Stand To See Mark Tollefsen Dial In His Perimeter Shot. (USA Today Sports)

Even without post anchor Kaleb Tarczewski, the Wildcats have been and will continue to be the conference’s best defensive team. But the offense has been a work in progress primarily because the outside shooting has been ugly. The team is shooting just 31 percent from downtown, down from 38 percent last season and Gabe York is pretty much the only one making shots behind the three-point line with any regularity. York has been much better of late and is one of the most dangerous shooters in the country when he gets hot, but he is pretty much the only one on the roster who can shoot. The big reason why the Wildcats rank near the bottom of the country in 3PA/FGA is because Sean Miller knows his team can’t really shoot it from there. The best hope is that Mark Tollefson rebounds from a slow start and becomes the 36 percent three-pointer shooter he was coming into the season.

Arizona State: a Personal Offensive Coach for Savon Goodman

Goodman is almost as bad at shooting and passing as he is good at everything else he does on the court. He is a vicious dunker, a suffocating defender, one of the better rebounding wing players in the entire country and a good finisher at the rim. But, like many freak athletes on the basketball court, as he moves farther away from the basket, his effectiveness disappears. Goodman has missed all seven of the three-pointers he has attempted in his collegiate career and he is a career 57 percent free throw shooter. Also, his assist rate is below 5.0, which means once he gets the ball, he isn’t looking to get rid of it again. Goodman’s offensive issues are a good microcosm for Arizona State’s offensive issues. The team is athletic and defends hard, but they don’t have any truly skilled offensive players. Goodman will likely never become a consistent three-point threat but imagine how good he and the Sun Devils could be if he develops some feel for his shot.

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