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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How Does UCLA Respond After the Kentucky Fiasco?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 23rd, 2014

I’m not sure when it started, but at some point Saturday afternoon, UCLA became a national laughingstock. Maybe it was in the middle somewhere of Kentucky’s 24-0 run to start their made-for-national-TV game in Chicago. Maybe it was when UCLA finally scored a bucket to make it 24-2 almost eight minutes into the game and got the sarcastic “oh, isn’t that nice for them” round of applause. Maybe it was at halftime when Doug Gottlieb and Seth Davis got to laugh at the Bruins and their 41-7 deficit. But certainly from halftime on, as the score floated around and into the casual sports fans’ consciousness, the Bruins became a punch line, a sick joke that lasted until that sports cycle ended and Sunday and the NFL took over.

Odds Are Good, This Shot Attempt By Norman Powell Wound Up Getting Rejected (USA Today)

Odds Are Good That This Shot Attempt By Norman Powell Wound Up Getting Rejected. (USA Today)

A lot of times when a team gets killed like UCLA did on Saturday in Chicago, you’ll hear someone say something like: “Just burn the tape, there is nothing you can learn from that game.” Well, screw that. There is plenty UCLA can learn from their disaster in Chicago. In terms of X’s and O’s: throw those out the window. What UCLA can – and needs to – learn from this game is more primal. Toughness, togetherness, competitiveness. Pride. Kansas got knocked down and kicked and left for dead by Kentucky a month ago, but since then, the Jayhawks have toughened up and started to come together and proven themselves a top ten team. The Bruins – fresh off a 39-point loss to Kentucky in which the final score was completely merciful – find themselves at a crossroads. Do they turn this into the rock bottom upon which they bounce back to the surface? Or is this a team ready to go the way of Michigan – a team whose confidence is broken?

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Five

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 23rd, 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: Washington

Nigel Williams-Goss and The Huskies Are Beginning To Make Believers Out of Pac-12 Fans (USA Today)

Nigel Williams-Goss and The Huskies Are Beginning To Make Believers Out of Pac-12 Fans (USA Today)

Given the way the past three seasons have gone in Seattle, it has been perfectly reasonable to remain skeptical of the Huskies thus far. Yeah, they won the Wooden Legacy tournament over Thanksgiving weekend, but San Jose State, Long Beach State and UTEP were not exactly a murderer’s row there. Now, three weeks later, we look back on that and instead see a tough neutral-court win over those Miners (who just gave Arizona all it wanted) a little bit more impressive. Then, two weeks ago, there was an ugly, ugly, ugly Sunday night win over San Diego State, which was easily written off as little more than a horrific shooting night by the Aztecs, followed up by a come-from-behind victory against a middling Eastern Washington team. Any of those things in a vacuum elicits more yawns; but taken as a whole, we’re starting to get somewhere. Then on Saturday evening in Last Vegas, the Huskies turned in their first masterpiece of the season in a win over Oklahoma, delivering a superb offensive first half before getting to the finish line on the strength of strong defense and timely buckets. We’ll get to some of the Huskies’ specific performances shortly, but a neutral-site win over a quality Sooners’ team gets the Huskies recognition as our first unanimous Pac-12 Team of the Week.

Player of the Week: Nigel Williams-Goss, Utah

You’re not often going to see the Huskies’ floor general put up massive numbers, but he does a little bit of everything for this team. Always calm and under control, Williams-Goss is a master at getting his players the ball in the places where they can make the most positive plays for the team on the offensive end, and sticking his nose into trouble wherever he can on the defensive end. In three games this week (including Monday night’s win over Tulane), Williams-Goss averaged 10.3 points, 8.7 assists and 5.7 boards per game, numbers that only begin to hint at the impact he has had for his team.

(Also receiving votes: Brandon Taylor, Utah)

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An Under the Radar Pac-12 Newcomer Team

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 18th, 2014

More than a month into the season, we’ve had a chance to see each of the Pac-12 teams multiple times, with every school getting a crack or two (or more) at good competition. As for the returnees, we’ve already got a good idea of what to think of their games; but it’s been the newcomers who have made their impressions on us through five weeks. In the spirit of getting to know them, we’re going to put together a team – an honest-to-goodness team with a point guard and bigs and defenders and shooters – made from among our favorite newcomers in the league. Easy enough, you might say. Start with Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl and UCLA’s Kevon Looney and go from there, right? Nah, child’s play. Future NBA lottery picks are ineligible for this team. We’re going to dig a little deeper.

Arizona State Freshman Kodi Justice Running The Point: Bold Choice

Arizona State Freshman Kodi Justice Running The Point: Bold Choice

  • PG: Kodi Justice, Arizona State – He’s not your typical point guard. He’s not the small, quick athlete; he’s more of a long, lanky glider. But he’s got savvy and awareness; he’s capable of dropping a dime on his teammates’ hands given only the slimmest of openings. Back off of him and he’ll drill a three in your face. Get up on him and, even though he doesn’t exactly have the quickest first step, he’s got a good enough handle to slide by you and open things up on the move. This Arizona State team will have to make up for Justice’s average athleticism and defensive shortcomings for his position, but we’ll make up for it with great athletes everywhere else in this lineup.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Favorite Newcomer?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 17th, 2014

It’s been a while since we last did this, so it is now time for another round of Pac-12 Burning Questions, where we ask our panelists all to take a crack at one key question. This time, right to the point:

Of all the new players around the conference, who is your favorite?

Kevin Danna: For me it’s gotta be Utah’s Jakob Poeltl. Maybe it’s from spending too much time around Brian Scalabrine when he was demoted to Santa Cruz last year, but all I want out of a big man is someone who defends the paint, rebounds, and finishes well at the rim. The Amazing Austrian does all three of those things wonderfully, averaging 10.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game while shooting 69 percent from the floor, mostly on shots in the paint. Sure, there’s plenty of other stuff he can work on – starting with his free-throw shooting (44.9%) – but he patrols the paint on defense and doesn’t mess around with the rock when he gets it inside. Dunk, defend and rebound… just like God intended from his big men.

Jakob Poeltl Does What You Want A Big Man To Do (Utah Basketball)

Jakob Poeltl Does What You Want A Big Man To Do (Utah Basketball)

Adam Butler: Gary Payton II. Let me know if it seems I exhaust this narrative, but Oregon State was projected to be the worst major conference team. I’m not talking about pundits, either. We’re talking 10K simulations run by Winn and Hanner. So the fact that Oregon State isn’t in the cellar, is playing impressive ball, and is being led by the spawn of Gary Payton – I’m paying attention. GP2 put up a triple-double this week, which puts him in rare Pac-12 air. His numbers speak for themselves but the important part is that he’s leading a team that was desperate for leadership.

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Best of the West: Ranking the Top 20 Teams West of the Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 17th, 2014

We’re a little more than a quarter of the way through the season now, so it is time to roll out our first edition of Best in the West. We’re going to take all the schools west of the Rockies (and we’re going to be a bit generous with our geography here – basically we’re looking at schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and Big West, and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and WAC) and give you the top 20 teams as of today. But rather than just ranking schools #1 though #20, we’re going to divide them up into tiers, mostly because I don’t think putting Gonzaga at #2 when they played Arizona into overtime in Tucson feels right to anybody.

Here are our Top 20 teams in the West (their overall ranking is in parentheses), with descriptions of what the teams in each tier have in common as well as brief comments on each school.

The Best of the Best  – In a league of their own.

  • Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – There have been some growing pains for the Wildcats, but with an unblemished record and wins over Kansas State, San Diego State, Gonzaga and Michigan, they’ve still got a ways to go before they tap out on their potential.
Arizona and Gonzaga Played A Fun One A Week Back, Proving Themselves Nearly Equal

Arizona and Gonzaga Played A Fun One A Week Back, Proving Themselves Nearly Equal. (AP)

  • Gonzaga (#2 overall, WCC #1) – Really, the Zags are more of a #1A in this tier. An overtime loss at Arizona in which they didn’t play all that well and let some good chances slip away bodes well for their upside. Read the rest of this entry »
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Is Anything Really Different With Gonzaga This Year?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 15th, 2014

At the end of last season — after Gonzaga was run out of the NCAA Tournament by Arizona, and amid all the hubbub and wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth that tends to accompany the Bulldogs’ exit from March Madness — I wrote a little bit about the Zags. Go back and read it. I’m biased, but I think it is a pretty good summation of the Bulldogs basketball program. Sixteen straight NCAA Tournament appearances! Fifteen in a row since Mark Few has taken over the program! Sure, there have been some disappointing exits, but you find some interesting things if you look back over the years. Namely, in all of those years, only six Gonzaga players have been taken in the NBA Draft. Or that 14 of the 16 teams that have knocked Gonzaga out of the Tournament have had future NBA players on their teams. Or that they’ve run into some extremely bad luck in some of their March exits.

Fifteen Straight NCAA Tournament Appearances For Mark Few Speaks For Itself (David Becker, Getty Images)

Fifteen Straight NCAA Tournament Appearances For Mark Few Speaks For Itself (David Becker, Getty Images)

So, with that history fresh in our minds, let’s turn to this year’s vintage of the Zags, a team that just finished a three-game mini-tour of Pac-12 basketball with a road win over UCLA, a home win against Washington State and a heart-breaking overtime loss at Arizona. If you read college basketball scribes from around the nation, you’ve already seen plenty of love for Gonzaga. ESPN‘s Jeff Goodman went out on a limb and picked Gonzaga to win the NCAA Championship, while John Gasaway, Seth Greenberg, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi all punched Mark Few’s team into the Final Four. Several other national writers from around the country are on the bandwagon too. So, the obvious question is whether Gonzaga is again being set up to be called, erroneously, March failures.

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Four

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 15th, 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: Utah

There were quite a few deserving teams this week. Arizona whooped the god-knows-what out of a reeling Michigan team. Oregon went on the “road” and beat a good Illinois team in a hardly neutral United Center. But you know what’s even better than a good “road” win? A real road win against a quality intrastate rival, followed up by a trip to the middle of the country to face a blue-blood program in their own backyard on national television and showing for all the college basketball world that you are a legitimate top-20 team. Now, that’s not to say this week wasn’t without some warts for the Utes. Their win at BYU, while a quality road win in a tough environment, was more annoying than anything else. And their battle with Kansas in Kansas City, while eventually a good showing against a quality opponent, was also frustrating in part due to a lackluster showing late in the first half and missed opportunities late in the game. Any doubts as to Utah’s standing on a national stage should be completely gone by now.

(Also receiving votes: Arizona, Oregon)

The RTC Pac-12 Team of the Week Is Certainly Something Worth Celebrating (AP)

The RTC Pac-12 Team of the Week Is Certainly Something Worth Celebrating (AP)

Player of the Week: Delon Wright, Utah

Well, there was this. And then, there was this. And then just the opening of the Kansas game, where he threw in an amazing running bank before stealing the inbounds pass and drilling a 15-footer. The wows don’t stop with the Utah star. For the week, we’re talking 20.5 points, 8.0 boards, 3.5 assists, 3 steals, 1.5 blocks per game and a 65.2% eFG. Those numbers don’t even do him justice.

(Also receiving votes: Tyrone Wallace, Cal)

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Utah vs. Kansas: Three Keys on Each Side

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 12th, 2014

One of the bigger games of the weekend takes place in Kansas City on Saturday, with Utah riding its recent success to take a shot at the Jayhawks. Below, Pac-12 microsite writer Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) and Big 12 microsite writer Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) break down the keys for the Utes and Jayhawks, respectively.

Three Keys for Utah

The Glass. Given recent history and if you didn’t know anything about these teams’ current rosters, you’d figure that the Kansas roster is filled with glass-eating big men while the Utes were made up of undersized, scrappy kids along the front line. Instead it is Utah that has the seven-footer in the middle, long and athletic wings littering the roster, and a 6’5” future pro running the point. Freshman center Jakob Poeltl is the best offensive rebounder in the nation (grabbing more than 20 percent of his team’s misses when he’s on the floor), while the rest of the Utah bigs go equally hard to the boards on offense, and their guards even chip in a bit too. Priority one, as Utah faces a Kansas team with its own future lottery pick in the middle (Cliff Alexander), is to continue to outrebound its foe, especially on the offensive end. Guys like Poeltl and Chris Reyes and Brekkot Chapman (to name just a few) may not be all that polished on the offensive end, so getting easy hoops in the paint will be a prerequisite to any hopes of a Utah win in Kansas City.

A big day from Delon Wright is paramount to Utah's chances of beating Kansas tomorrow (USA TODAY Sports)

A big day from Delon Wright is paramount to Utah’s chances of beating Kansas. (USA TODAY Sports)

The Star. Delon Wright is undeniably very good. He does almost everything on the court: He scores in the paint and in transition, sets up teammates with easy hoops, rebounds the ball on both ends of the floor, grabs steals, blocks shots, provides on-court leadership, and even gets to the line and knocks in his freebies. But in Utah’s one loss this season, he was, well, not good. Against San Diego State, he made just two of his 13 field goal attempts (both in the waning moments of a comeback attempt), turned it over three times, and was generally ineffective in helping his team put points on the scoreboard. That can’t happen against Kansas tomorrow. He needs to play within himself, set up his teammates and, when the opportunity presents itself, get his own. If Wright has a subpar game, Utah cannot win. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marching to Vegas: Colorado’s Jump-Start Hasn’t Quite Started

Posted by Adam Butler on December 12th, 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.

The Colorado Buffaloes seem to be developing into a very curious case. Their season hasn’t quite developed the way we thought it would. Thus far the “jump-start” Tad Boyle called last year’s Spencer Dinwiddie-less time appears to have been a preview. When he went down with his season-ending injury, the Buffs had an offensive rating that was – well – offensive. From the injury onward, Colorado’s offensive rating was just 96 points per 100 possessions. This year the Buffs are putting up an improvement on that number, but not by much. They’re scoring 102.1 points per 100 possessions, which would be the second worst mark of the Boyle era. Their defense is stacking up, however, if you look at the numbers. It’s about on par with previous years, ranking just slightly lower than previous campaigns (NOTE: This is a uniquely defensive season).

Tad Boyle's Buffs Are Playing Very Un-Boyle-Like Defense

Tad Boyle’s Buffs Are Playing Very Un-Boyle-Like Defense

But there is something different there, too. Colorado is yielding the highest percentage of shots at the rim and from distance. Ever. If we examine the unexamined stat – percentage of shots from two-point distance – we find that teams take just 16% of their shots against them as two-point jumpers. To break this down, Colorado is allowing teams to primarily take the easiest shot (at the rim 40% of the time) or the most rewarding shot (behind the arc 44% of the time). In my estimation, that’s not a recipe for success. It’s also a deviation from how they’ve previously played and – heading into conference play – it’s worth noting that the Pac-12 has two teams in the top 25 in field goal percentage at the rim (Arizona and Utah) as well as two teams in the top 25 in three-point field goal percentage (ASU and Utah). If we’re projecting this out, those seem to be teams that are built to take it right at Colorado’s defense. Read the rest of this entry »

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Dear Utah: Seriously, Can You Learn How to Close the Door?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 11th, 2014

Against Wichita State, it was sort of heartwarming; Utah getting that close-game monkey off their back (they had been 3-9 in games decided by two possesions or less since Delon Wright put on a Utah uniform at the start of last season). The fact that they had to blow a comfortable lead in the waning moments to make the game close to begin with was forgivable givne the final result. Against BYU on Wednesday night, heartwarming turned into heartburn.

Winning Easily Seems To Fit As Awkwardly On The Utes As A Suit Jacket Does On Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak

Winning Easily Seems To Fit As Awkwardly On The Utes As A Suit Jacket Does On Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak

Really, by the time this game reached the first TV timeout early in the first half, there was no doubt as to who was the better team, who had more talent. Sure, BYU’s Tyler Haws is an elite scorer capable of keeping his team in a lot of games it has no business being in. And Kyle Collinsworth? Goodness. I have neither the time nor the imminent desire to list all the things I love about that dude’s game. But beyond that, the rest of that BYU roster is more or less indistinguishable from any other random team that will likely be on the periphery of NCAA Tournament discussion in a few months. They’ve got some decent parts (Anson Winder is nice, Chase Fischer is flammable, some passable bigs), but on a whole, there ain’t a whole lot to write home about beyond those two.

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Washington: Why Don’t We Trust the Huskies?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 9th, 2014

With it’s big 49-36 win over San Diego State on Sunday night, Washington jumped in to the AP Top 25, appearing as the last team on the list. For a proud program under Lorenzo Romar that was once a regular fixture in those rankings, this is the first time the Huskies have been there in nearly four years (February 2011). But interestingly enough, the Huskies are not in the RTC Top 25 this week, so clearly they still have something to prove to some in the college basketball community. What gives? Why the lack of trust in a Washington team that not only has a convincing win over the nationally regarded Aztecs, but also a Wooden Legacy title under its belt? The Huskies are holding opponents to a 37.2% eFG this season, good for fourth in the nation, and they’re 38th in adjusted defensive efficiency, a mark they haven’t seen over the course of an entire season since Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon were wearing purple and gold. These guys must be for real, right?

Robert Upshaw's Presence In The Middle Has Helped The Huskies Out To A Dominating Defensive Start (Dean Rutz, Seattle Times)

Robert Upshaw’s Presence In The Middle Has Helped The Huskies Out To A Dominating Defensive Start (Dean Rutz, Seattle Times)

Don’t worry Huskies’ fans. This is not the point where you get the comedown of a “not so fast.” Fact is, there is a lot to like here. And room to get better. Those defensive numbers are probably a bit overblown, in part due to San Diego State’s inability to hit anything en route to a 22.2% eFG on Sunday night. But, with shotblocker extraordinaire Robert Upshaw manning the middle for about 20 minutes per game (his 21.4% block rate – the percent of opponent’s two-point field goal attempts he blocks while he’s on the floor – is the best in the nation), and with fellow intimidating interior presences in Jernard Jarreau and Shawn Kemp, Jr., the Huskies are going to be seriously tough to score on inside all year long. That frees up perimeter defenders to really pressure perimeter players, running them off the three-point line and forcing them into tougher and less rewarding field goal attempts. The 24.4 percent rate they are allowing from behind the three-point line thus far this season is in no way sustainable, but the strategy is. Read the rest of this entry »

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