Washington on the Come Up?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 8th, 2017

Washington, a team left for dead by the pundit class before the season even started, showed plenty of bark and bite earlier this week in snagging the Pac-12’s best non-conference win of the season versus #2 Kansas in Kansas City — functionally speaking, the Jayhawks’ alternate home court. The question now becomes whether such a monumental win gives any indication that the Huskies’ level of play is sustainable? Three things stand out about Washington’s win: First, Mike Hopkins‘ club won the three-point battle. Second, the Huskies kept Kansas off the free throw line by defending cleanly and effectively. Finally, they got a 19-point, five three-pointer masterpiece of an offensive performance from Matisse Thybulle. So to what extent were these three pillars of victory outliers?

Mike Hopkins Leads a New-Look Washington Program (USA Today Images)

Per KenPom, Washington on the year is shooting 33.5 percent from behind the arc and its opponents are shooting 37.1 percent. The Huskies get 25.2 percent of their points from the three-point line, which rates 294th in the country, but logged 36.4 percent (27) of their points from distance on Wednesday night while holding Kansas to only 25 percent shooting beyond the arc. On the year, the Huskies send opponents to the line at a 34.2 percent FTA/FGA rate, but they allowed the Jayhawks just eight free throws against 62 field goal attempts in Kansas City. That’s converts to a stellar 13 percent FTA rate that would make Washington one of the cleanest defending teams in the country if they were to maintain that identity on a nightly basis. Thybulle’s 19 points were built on a great shooting night resulting in a 177.0 Offensive Rating for the game. Last year Thybulle carried a respectable 106.7 ORtg and is currently at 104.5 this season. Was his sharpshooting (five threes) against the Jayhawks an ascent back to his normal mean? Washington should probably hope so, as his body of work last year (41 percent on 131 attempts) suggests that’s the case.  

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On an Amazing Weekend of Basketball in Portland…

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 27th, 2017

Nike’s goal was to get the best in college basketball together for Phil Knight’s 80th birthday, and a sport that has badly needed an on-court distraction from its off-court shambles absolutely put its best foot forward in Portland over the holiday weekend. The quality of the performances by many of the 16 teams in the double-bracket event has led me to a number of conclusions about the state of the game and this season. First of all, nobody who watched or attended Duke vs. Texas or Gonzaga vs. Florida OR Duke vs. Florida should have any time for arguments against the quality of the college basketball product being undermined in comparison with college football’s regular season. Both the electric atmosphere of the games in the Moda Center and the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the quality thereof easily passed for elite March-caliber. Everything was great, and it’s still over three months before the first rounds ofthe NCAA Tournament.

Duke Used Consecutive Comebacks to Take Its Bracket of the PK80 (USA Today Images)

This of course begs a question about one-and-dones. Duke‘s Marvin Bagley III — who averaged 27.3 PPG and 10.0 RPG over the weekend — was every bit as good as advertised. After the championship game on Sunday night, Mike Kryzyzewski called the versatile freshman the “most unique player I’ve ever coached at Duke.” I don’t want this piece to digress into a debate on the merits of one-and-dones in college basketball, but suffice it to say that having talents like Bagley, Michael Porter, Jr. (injury notwithstanding) and DeAndre Ayton (Arizona’s Bahaman Nightmare notwithstanding) is great for college basketball. The Duke head coach went on to say in his postgame presser to support the larger point here: There are amazing things happening on the court these days, and the PK80 event played a far more vital role in spotlighting what’s good about the game than anyone could have anticipated. In the other bracket, sophomore “old man” Miles Bridges led Michigan State into a classic lockdown of defending national champion North Carolina, a team with which Coach K has some familiarity.

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Three Lessons From PK80 Day One

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 24th, 2017

My first day at the PK80 Tournament in Portland took place exclusively in the venerable Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where Bill Walton’s Blazers used to run roughshod, where the Showtime Lakers endured many a battle, and where Michael Jordan’s Bulls crushed the hopes of Clyde Drexler’s Blazers. It was amazing to watch a game in what was once considered a state-of-the-art NBA arena but now stands as a relic, but make no mistake: There were lessons to be learned with many future implications when it comes to the here and now in college basketball in The Rose City’s basketball nexus.

Duke is Led by Grayson Allen But Its Most Impressive Attributes are in the Frontcourt (USA Today Images)

  1. Duke’s Frontcourt is Massive. The physical realities of Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter are by far the most impressive part of watching the Blue Devils play live. Yes, that size was accentuated by the lack thereof on the part of Portland State, but the two combined for 34 points on 13-of-20 shooting and 25 rebounds. Both are very athletic and graceful. Bagley even brought the ball up to help alleviate pressure in the backcourt several times. On the other hand, Bagley’s 6-of-12 from the free throw line certainly warrants monitoring and Grayson Allen’s emotional stability continues to be a coin flip from play to play, but if you are looking for reasons Duke can win the NCAA Tournament before December begins, look no further than the 6’11” 234-lb. Bagley and the 6’10” 259-lb. Carter. Duke isn’t going to face many teams (elite or Portland State-level) that can handle the inside talent the Blue Devils bring to the table.
  2. Shaka Smart is Building at Texas.  After a year two cratering that Smart warned Texas was part of the plan, the Longhorns notched a hard-earned win over mentally-taxing Butler on Thanksgiving. Texas is likely a year away from really competing on the national level, but the Longhorns showcased impressive perimeter talent like Andrew Jones and size from the likes of Mohamed Bamba. Jones had 16 points on efficient 7-of-13 shooting and Bamba logged 12 rebounds and six blocks. The Bulldogs were able to impose its standard low-possession game on Texas, but the Longhorns maximized their transition opportunities to the tune of a 14-2 fast break point advantage that provided the winning margin. Texas has the kind of balance and depth in the frontcourt that make for a very tough draw in Big 12 play and beyond. Assistant coaches scouting from the stands noted some of the finer points as well, like the Longhorns’ help discipline on defense. Texas is a team to watch moving forward, and their brawl with Duke today is a great early litmus test for both teams.
  3. Florida MOVES.  The #7 Gators demolished Stanford with a staggering barrage of 68 percent three-point shooting that featured a scorching 13-of-17 first-half start that included a perfect 5-of-5 from distance by Egor Koulechov. But again, the live impression may actually be more auspicious than the insane shooting performance. Florida rushes the ball upcourt like its hair is on fire. There was one possession where off a made basket, point guard Chris Chiozza already had the Gators in their offense with the shot clock at 29 seconds and an open three look at 26 seconds. Florida’s average possession time was 14 seconds (which KenPom rates as the 12th-fastest in the country) and its blistering 135.0 ORtg over its 80 possessions made for a painful clinic for Stanford. Identity matters in college basketball, and Michael White’s team has already clearly embraced theirs this season.
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How Long Can UCLA Last Without More Depth?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 21st, 2017

So UCLA is already four games into its season and its 3-1 start has been reduced to a footnote while Lavar Ball and President Trump usurp air, airtime and attention better spent on literally any other aspect of human life by any other humans on the planet. Bringing the focus back on to the court, however, the real questions begin for a team that is now down three scholarship athletes. What we know through those four games, though, is that the Bruins’ rotation is not so much a rotation as essentially a half-dozen players head coach Steve Alford either trusts or is forced to trust. Players in the former category include returnees Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday. Both were given relative siestas in playing 26 and 32 minutes, respectively, in the Bruins’ rout of South Carolina State, but Holiday played at least 35 minutes in UCLA’s three more competitive games against Georgia Tech, Central Arkansas and Creighton, while Welsh logged major minutes as well when he wasn’t in foul trouble (Creighton).

UCLA  (USA Today Images)

This grinding down of two players who will have to perform all season is clearly not sustainable, and it is the strongest indication yet that LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will likely not be held out for the entire season. The Bruins’ loaded freshman class fortunately includes two standouts — Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands — who refrained from jacking sunglasses in China, and both are already establishing themselves as indispensable cogs in the UCLA “rotation.” Even in a loss, not much changed against Creighton on Monday night. Holiday was superb, scoring 25 points on 11 shots and dishing out seven assists against one turnover. Although UCLA exhibited a fairly balanced eight-man rotation, five of those players were underclassmen and three of those five are freshmen. The Bluejays took full advantage of that defensive inexperience, putting up an Offensive Rating of 119.0 on the evening that included 11 three-pointers.

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2017-18 Pac-12 Big “Ifs”

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 10th, 2017

The Pac-12 has had a starring role in the extracurricular tomfoolery brought to life by the FBI this offseason. Certainly this story has no expiration date on the horizon, but the games are coming and there will be no shortage of intrigue this year in the Conference of Champions. Here are 12 Big Ifs separating each team from its best-case scenario this season.

Is This Finally the Year For Arizona (USA Today Images)?

  1. Arizona: There is just nowhere else to look when sizing up the Pac-12 favorites. Once Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins’ returns were secure, the combination of those two plus the arrival of heralded freshman DeAndre Ayton is just too much top shelf talent, buttressed by an outstanding roster that also includes returning glue guys Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright along with Ayton’s freshman co-stars Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot and Alex Borcello.  If this roster remains intact come March and the FBI distractions don’t do just that, Miller has his best shot at breaking through that Final Four barrier that has stonewalled him to this point in Tucson.
  2. USC: The Trojans are bringing back 98 percent of their scoring and 96 percent of their rebounding to a team that won two NCAA Tournament games last season. Bennie Boatwright, De’Anthony Melton, Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin and Alijah Stewart form the only returning starting quintet in the league. Can they improve upon a defense that finished a middling seventh in the Pac-12 in efficiency last season?
  3. Oregon:  The Ducks return the least amount of points, rebounds and blocks of any team in the conference and yet they return the most important piece of their success: head coach Dana Altman. Oregon has top recruits Troy Brown and Victor Bailey, Jr., joining three transfers this season: Paul White (Georgetown), Elijah Brown (New Mexico), and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State). If Altman works not just well but quickly then Oregon could be ready in time for Pac-12 contention.
  4. Stanford: The Cardinal owned the 10th-rated offense in Pac-12 play last year, largely from scoring only 23.5 percent of their points from three-point range last year, a number that makes consistent offense virtually impossible. If Stanford can ascend to just the national average on three-point production this time around, it should be an NCAA Tournament team. Read the rest of this entry »
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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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