Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Regional Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 23rd, 2017

And then there were three. USC did the Pac-12 no shame in winning two games during the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, but the Trojans were felled by the neon shine of Baylor on Sunday, leaving the Conference of Champions with three teams in the Sweet Sixteen (as most had predicted). Oregon, Arizona and UCLA begin their second weekend of NCAA Tournament work this evening, so it’s time to check in with each and focus on a  key issue to resolve if they are to rendezvous in Glendale.

Oregon Advanced to the Sweet Sixteen On a Tyler Dorsey Three (USA Today Images)

  • #3 Oregon:  #TeamTyler or #TeamDillon? Postseason play has brought this particular debate to the fore in ways many may have not anticipated. After Oregon’s semifinal win over Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament, Dana Altman pulled no punches in critiquing what had been an uneven performance from Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, going so far as to suggest that Brooks had taken the Ducks out of their offense. The senior is a fantastic player, but Oregon’s offense has at times sputtered on Brooks possessions, allowing for Tyler Dorsey to emerge as an effective alternative for the Ducks in crunch time. Consider: In postseason play, Brooks is shooting 42.0 percent whereas Dorsey is converting a red-hot 67.0 percent. Brooks has outshot his teammate at the foul line, but not by nearly enough to eclipse Dorsey’s phenomenal streak of productivity. It’s always good to have multiple closers on the same team, and this isn’t necessarily about a fatal choice for Altman in the endgame. The big issue is that Dorsey is playing within the flow of the offense and outproducing Brooks at the same time. To win two more games this weekend, Oregon may have to either re-incorporate Brooks into the natural ebb and flow of its offense or elevate Dorsey to a more featured status.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Arizona 69, #7 Saint Mary’s 60

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 18th, 2017

Arizona endured Saint Mary’s deliberate pace as well as their incredible discipline to advance to the West Region semifinals next weekend in San Jose.  Ultimately, a strong second half on both ends of the floor sent the Wildcats to Sweet Sixteen.

Arizona Was All Smiles After a Tough R32 Win Over St. Mary’s (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Arizona can win in many different ways. After scoring 100 points in their opening round game, Arizona conceded the pace to Saint Mary’s and beat the Gaels at their own half-court game. The Wildcats pounded the ball inside relentlessly, relied on their superior athleticism on the wing, and then finally rode Lauri Markkanen to the winner’s circle.
  2. Saint Mary’s fell out of character just enough to be vulnerable. The Gaels had stretches, especially in the first half, when they looked to be in vintage form. They used their usual array of ball screens, precise spacing and exquisite ball movement to produce some gorgeous baskets. But their 5-of-21 performance from beyond the arc and inability to stop Arizona in the second half (the Wildcats shot 59 percent with an Offensive Rating of 114.3) was too much to overcome.
  3. The Dusan Ristic Experience Returns. Ristic was an important contributor for the Wildcats during the first half of Pac-12 play, but he took a step back as Chance Comanche and Keanu Pinder emerged. Tonight he again played a starring role as part of the clear Wildcat game plan to pound the post all game long. Ristic scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting and really helped Arizona fully exploit the size and depth they had. Long NCAA Tournament runs always feature contributions from unexpected sources, and Ristic’s performance was an example of what it’s going to take to get Arizona through the next weekend of NCAA Tournament play.

Star of the Game. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona. After taking some lessons from Saint Mary’s senior standout Jock Landale, Markkanen carried the Wildcats on both ends of the floor down the stretch. He stood tall in defending Landale, and he scored from all over the court like no other college basketball player quite can. He scored 16 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and had huge blocks on both Landale as well as a game-sealer on Joe Rahon. It’s not like his draft stock was low headed into this week, but Markkanen is skyrocketing up draft boards after two very strong outings under pressure in Salt Lake City.  

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 79, #8 Northwestern 73

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 18th, 2017

Ultimately, Gonzaga did just enough today in Salt Lake City to survive and advance.  A dominant first half bought enough equity for the Zags to withstand a furious and relentless Northwestern comeback attempt that ended with some officiating controversy.

No Matter Your Opinion of the Call, Gonzaga is Moving On (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Playing less than a 40-minute game is playing with fire. Gonzaga was in total control of this game at halftime, but then came out and had very little second half answer for a Northwestern team that went all-in on trapping its posts and cheating into the passing lanes. In the second 20 minutes, the Bulldogs committed a staggering 11 turnovers and allowed 17 points off those miscues. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and posted an offensive efficiency of 129.3. As the competition level increases in coming games, Gonzaga is going to need to bring a lot more if it’s going to be as happy at the end of the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend as it is right now.
  2. Gonzaga’s frontcourt isn’t just big, it’s deep. Everyone knows about Przemek Karnowski inside but freshman center Zach Collins carried the Bulldogs in the second half, scoring 12 points on 3-of-3 shooting and 6-of-8 from the line. He regularly absorbed triple-teams and still scored, showing a great touch and an ability to finish off screen-roll dives. He wasn’t alone, however. Fellow freshman Killian Tillie also had a solid eight points, combining for 10 rebounds and five blocks on the afternoon.
  3. Officiating needs to improve significantly in the second weekend. In a game that had 150 possessions, it’s a tough case to convincingly make that a single call or play was the difference between winning and losing the game. That said, the blown goaltending combined with the subsequent technical foul on Chris Collins really diminished what was shaping up to be a legendary finish. The officiating from the notorious Pac-12 crew left much to be desired, and blowing that call — if it didn’t decide the game — at least, significantly impacted the game. Northwestern was deprived of an opportunity, and that should never happen simply because of an egregious mistake by the officials.

Star of the Game. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga. The WCC Player of the Year was the best player on the court today, blitzing Northwestern to the tune of 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists in addition to hitting a cold-blooded three to silence Wildcat fans during one of their second half runs. He can score from every spot on the floor; he is an active participant in the rebounding effort; and he’s got plenty of moxie.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Arizona 100, #15 North Dakota 82

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 17th, 2017

Arizona overcame its own second half boredom and a number of mental breakdowns by posting an Offensive Rating of 133.3 in blowing out North Dakota, 100-82.

Arizona’s Allonzo Trier (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen prove the Wildcats still need some upperclassman leadership. After a sluggish start to the game, Arizona head coach Sean Miller inserted Jackson-Cartwright, who sparked an immediate 15-3 Wildcats run. It happened again after he was out for a brief 30-second stretch, whereupon Miller inserted him and he created an and-1 opportunity for Lauri Markannen.  Allen, as a senior the “graybeard” of the Wildcats, watched a comfortable lead drop to only seven points at the 13:30 mark of the second half. The Wildcats went on an order-restoring 12-4 run over the next four minutes, with Allen scoring seven points to lead the surge.
  2. Lauri Markannen is evolving, and that’s scary. The freshman big man took eight shots in the first half, only one of which was a three-pointer. The rest of the half involved Markannen doing his work in the paint, absorbing contact and finishing. He finished the game with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting with zero three-pointers as part of the mixture. That’s considerable restraint from a player who is shooting 43 percent from long distance on the season.
  3.  Arizona needs to play a full game on defense. The Wildcats allowed a 50-point half to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game followed by a 45-point half to North Dakota tonight. That’s not the kind of sustained defensive effort that carries a team into the third (or even the second) weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Sean Miller zeroed in on transition as an issue for the Wildcats, and although early offense is not a hallmark of Arizona’s next opponent, shooting the three-pointer certainly is. Playing only one good half of defense is not likely to work for Arizona moving forward. 

Star of the Game. Rawle Alkins is quietly reliable. This may seem like an innocuous statement, but it is important to Arizona given that he is a freshman who literally moves his teammates around on the court and virtually never suffers a freshman lapse. All he did on Thursday was score 18 points, grab five rebounds and dish out four assists without missing a shot or committing a turnover.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Saint Mary’s 85, #10 VCU 77

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 16th, 2017

St. Mary’s is like a magic trick unfolding before your eyes that you can’t solve no matter how many times you see it (except for Gonzaga). The Gaels play with such stunning synchronicity and precision that it never looks like they have to strain to find good shots. Such was the case in Salt Lake City Thursday night when Randy Bennett’s Gaels blitzed VCU to the tune of 46 first half points on 64 percent (!!) shooting and an offensive efficiency of 124.3. In the second half, VCU extended its defense to get back in the game, but at a price of fouls. St. Mary’s was in the bonus for the bulk of the half, making them even tougher to defend. VCU mucked the game up and never conceded, but the Gaels ultimately prevailed, 85-77.

St. Mary’s Handled Business Against VCU Tonight (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The center position is evolving. From Vanderbilt’s Luke Kornet to Arizona’s Lauri Markannen to St. Mary’s Jock Landale, stretch centers who have guard skills are becoming increasingly prevalent in basketball. While essentially playing the entire game, Landale put up 16 points on a phenomenally efficient 6-of-8 shooting night along with 13 rebounds.
  2. St. Mary’s is better than you think defensively. The Gaels came in ranked as the 26th-best defense in the country, and next to their wondrous offense, it shouldn’t be lost in translation how tough this team is on both ends. They held VCU to an Offensive Ratintg of 101.3, limiting the Rams to 2-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc.
  3. Joe Rahon drives the Gaels.  Rahon picked up his third and fourth fouls with 15 minutes left in the game, allowing VCU to immediately go on a 15-2 run to close the lead to four. He then came back in and hit a huge three with 8:17 to go, and VCU never got any closer.

Star of the Game: Joe Rahon stabilized Saint Mary’s when it needed it most — hitting the aforementioned three as well as a big pair of free throws — but this was Jock Landale’s night. VCU coach Will Wade summed it up afterward: “Their bigs were just bigger and better than our bigs. I hate to put it so simply but that’s really the way it is and what it came down to tonight.” Landale was first and foremost among Gael bigs, as he usually is.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Northwestern 68, #9 Vanderbilt 66

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 16th, 2017

Northwestern rode in to Salt Lake City on a wave of euphoria following its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. They rode out victorious thanks in large part to their defense and a stunning brain freeze at the worst possible moment by Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis, a player who had spent the previous hour brilliantly willing his team back into the game. Fisher-Davis’ backcourt foul to sink his team will live in Nashville infamy for a very long time. 

Northwestern Will Not Soon Forget Thursday Afternoon’s Game (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Guard Play wins in March. Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey were brilliant in accounting for 39 of the Wildcats’ 68 points on 53 percent shooting from the field. The two also combined for only four turnovers in 70 minutes of floor time.
  2. Defense is the call. Northwestern held Vanderbilt to only 18 points on three-point shots, forcing the Commodores to find their scoring opportunities elsewhere. The Wildcats also held Vanderbilt to only 5-of-16 shooting from beyond the arc in the second half. Vanderbilt put up an offensive efficiency for the game of 98.5 after averaging 112.3 on the season.
  3. Luke Kornet can play in the NBA. The 7’1” Commodore center plays the game of today for big men — an agile, heady and capable three-point shooter who is not afraid of contact. Don’t underestimate his impact despite just a 4-of-12 shooting performance. Kornet was +5 for the game, and had he played a few more than his 34 minutes of action, Northwestern’s fairy tale may have ended this afternoon.

Star of the Game. Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis had this game all but locked up until he committed that foul. The Commodores’ guard posted 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting, with many of those attempts incredibly difficult. Ultimately, Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh gets the deserving nod here. He hit the game-winning free throws, poured in 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting and controlled Northwestern’s offense and the game throughout.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 66, #16 South Dakota State 46

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 16th, 2017

Gonzaga was just too much physically and athletically for a South Dakota State team whose fans were very happy just to see their Jackrabbits in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs never got into what one would consider a strong offensive flow, but their defense carried them today and they bracketed the half with spurts that ultimately made the difference.

It Wasn’t Pretty but It Counts All the Same (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Gonzaga’s defense may be what saves them. The Bulldogs’ defense simply overwhelmed South Dakota State, holding the Jackrabbits to 31 percent shooting and an Offensive Rating of 65.7. It has to be some comfort to head coach Mark Few that on a day when his offense was largely missing in action, Gonzaga can still dominate the other end of the court well enough to win.
  2. The Bulldogs’ versatility is a big part of who they are.  As much as Nigel Williams-Goss handles the ball, the versatility of Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson is crucial on both ends because the Zags can switch virtually everything that doesn’t involve Przemek Karnowski. Four different guys can bring the ball upcourt and initiate the offense.
  3. A slow start is not a habit you want to form. Gonzaga had only 19 points through the game’s first 16 minutes and an offensive efficiency at the half of 81.3, well below its season average. It was just one game, but slow starts like that are the stuff upon which upsets are built.

Star of the Game. Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga. The transfer guard didn’t exactly tear it up today in 32 minutes, but he led the Zags in scoring through the meaningful portion of the game, grabbed five rebounds and didn’t turn the ball over. This was an ugly grind-it-out game, and ‘star’ may be a stretch, but Mathews was solid if not spectacular for Gonzaga.

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Pac-12 Tournament Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 15th, 2017

The Pac-12 ended up with fewer seeds in the NCAA Tournament than the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Big 10.  Of course, it was always quality (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and not quantity for the Conference of Champions this season. Outside of the ACC, no conference has three teams being hailed as legitimate Final Four threats.  The questions this time of year focus on where you’re trending and your presumptive path. By the time you get to a National Semifinal you are certainly going to be playing a great team, or at the very least a team playing like one. Those games match up as coin tosses in most cases, so let’s focus on which of the four Pac-12 teams who qualified has the best shot of reaching Glendale.

Do Allonzo Trier and Arizona own the Pac-12’s best chances of reaching the National Semifinals? (Photo: USA Today Sports)

USC

  • Trending Up:  Jordan McLaughlin is averaging nearly 17 points a game over his last four and has a stellar A/TO rate of 31/6 over those four games. Guard play takes center stage in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Trojans are to make more than a cameo in the round of 68, they’ll need McLaughlin to keep playing at a high level this week.
  • Trending Down:  Since posting a stellar 156 ORtg against Washington State in March 1, Bennie Boatwright has slumped to games with offensive efficiency ratings of 88, 102, and 83 amidst an 8-28 field goal shooting stretch.  USC is not a great offensive team and they struggle in the halfcourt; without Boatwright at max efficiency working to stretch defenses and convert in the paint, USC isn’t long for this week.
  • Final Four:  The Trojans were on a three-game winning streak before UCLA dispatched them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. USC didn’t make it easy for the Bruins, however, and in the last four games found an offensive groove, posting efficiency ratings well over national average in its three wins. The loss to UCLA showed they could hang with an elite team despite subpar performances from Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, and De’Anthony Melton. Coming off a loss, it’d be wrong to say the Trojans are streaking, but they are playing good ball.

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 83, Oregon 80

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 12th, 2017

Arizona left no doubt that it is the most complete Pac-12 team this season. The Wildcats beat UCLA and Oregon on back-to-back nights, and they did it with star big man Lauri Markannen taking only four shots and scoring only 11 points. Oregon may have the most experience and UCLA may have the biggest upside, but Arizona can win at multiple paces and in multiple ways.

Arizona Ran Through Oregon to Claim the Pac-12 Tournament Title (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The game has changed. Arizona came into tonight’s game with a firm commitment to drive Oregon off the three-point line, even if that meant giving up layups as a result. The Ducks were credited with 30 layup attempts, converting only half of them. However, Oregon — a team that gets nearly 40 percent of its points from the three-point line — only notched 19 percent of their points from distance tonight. Oregon adjusted in the second half by driving to the bucket relentlessly and getting fouls. Foul trouble was the monkey wrench that hurt Arizona in the second half, but Sean Miller confirmed that taking away the three was the priority. It’s counterintuitive relative to the long-established philosophy of defending from the inside out, and it reflects just how much the style of the game and the three-point line have revolutionized not just the way teams attack but also the way they defend.
  2. Track Dillon Brooks’ usage in the NCAA Tournament. Dana Altman and Tyler Dorsey were not excited last night about the stagnation that resulted largely because of Brooks’ ball dominance. Tonight Brooks scored 17 of Oregon’s 29 points in the first half and took 12 of their 29 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency that half was 85.3. In the second half, foul trouble opened the door for Tyler Dorsey, who took over the lead role and logged a very efficient 21 points on only 10 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency in the second half was 141.7. The Ducks are at their most dangerous when they have everybody engaged (most teams are), but with a player as exceptional as Brooks it can be difficult to find that balance. There is not clear evidence of any kind of a rift between Brooks and his team, but the Ducks’ last two games illustrated that making Oregon one-dimensional is a big step towards beating them, even if that one dimension is a player as good as Brooks.
  3. Chris Boucher was missed.  Altman admitted that it was tough to account for the absence of the Ducks’ senior shot-blocker and three-point threat extraordinaire. Make no mistake: Boucher was missed on both ends of the court tonight. His reputation is built on rim protection but his ability to stretch defenses and create mismatches is something Altman must resolve by the time Oregon starts NCAA Tournament play.

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 86, UCLA 75

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 11th, 2017

Arizona took all the suspense out of the most anticipated game of the Pac-12 Tournament by dominating UCLA as well as any team has this year. This is the Wildcats’ team that can absolutely play in the Final Four (and with all the talk of UCLA playing in Sacramento followed by San Jose, why has nobody talked about Arizona playing for a National Championship just up the road in Glendale? Such dreams are no longer as far-fetched as they may have seemed before the Pac-12 Tournament started.

Key Takeaways.

Arizona Torched the Bruins (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona’s defense. There are poor shooting nights and there are nights when a team forces poor shots all night. Friday night’s game was the latter. Yes, the Bruins shot miserably from the floor. UCLA’s 4-of-25 performance from three-point range was every bit as ugly as it seemed, but the vast majority of those misses were contested threes. Arizona was willing to allow penetration off the bounce occasionally, but they closed out on shooters, contested passes and fought through screens all night long. They were also willing to put the Bruins on the line in exchange for banging and shoving them all over the court. UCLA made 23-of-26 from the foul line, but they shot only 41 percent from the field with an offensive efficiency rating of 96.2. No Pac-12 opponent had to date held the Bruins below 101.0 in that category this season.
  2. Lauri Markannen has smashed through the freshman wall. Arizona was forced to send Markannen into the post on its Washington road trip, and that move has really triggered the growth of the rest of his game. Despite a prolonged shooting slump from beyond the arc, Markannen found a physicality that has only made him more lethal now that his shot has returned. Against UCLA, Markannen was the best player on the floor for much of the game. He had 29 points on 10-of-22 shooting to go along with six rebounds in 32 turnover-free minutes. He can hurt teams all over the floor, and he’s becoming a physical and effective defender all as well. It’s somewhat scary to think that we may not have seen his best game yet.
  3. UCLA is Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.  The Bruins as a team have undoubtedly improved from the last year’s group that went 15-17, but they have no answer when both of their talented freshmen struggle against elite competition. Leaf still looked a step slow in dealing with his injured left ankle, shooting 3-of-9 from the field and struggling to find his range in the post. Ball didn’t look like himself for much of the night either, in large part because of the ferocious defense of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Kadeem Allen. The superstar freshman logged eight points, six assists and four turnovers, but he did not at any point have control of this game in the same way that he’s controlled so many others. The bottom line is that UCLA is only going as far as its two freshmen take them, and that could be an unsettling thought for Bruins’ fans worried about the NCAA Tournament draw.

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