Pac-12 Needs the Two Cs to Recover

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 1st, 2018

The Pac-12 is struggling. About that there can be no doubt. The conference has no teams in the top 10 in the RPI and only two among the top 40 (#16 Arizona, #37 USC). Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of bracketology holds those two teams plus Arizona State in his field of 68, with only Washington landing among the first four out. Jeff Sagarin ranks the conference sixth overall with only (again) the Wildcats and Trojans cracking his top 40. Nothing amazing is going to happen in February to salvage the league this year. The question is whether there are any signs of daylight cracking through the wall of despair the league has built between it and the upcoming NCAA Tournament. First, let’s look to youth. A quick scan of the PER leaders among freshmen shows a pretty impressive group of players.

Player School
DeAndre Ayton Arizona
Kenny Wooten Washington
Romello White Arizona State
Jalen Nowell Washington
McKinley Wright IV Colorado
Donnie Tillman Utah
Justice Sueing California
Kris Wilkes UCLA
Remy Martin Arizona State
Troy Brown Oregon

 

Now, this list does not encapsulate the entirety of elite freshman talent in the Pac. Stanford alone has Daejon Davis, who has already won a Pac-12 Player of the Week award, and KZ Okpala, who despite not playing until the final non-conference game is already garnering calls to the Cardinal offices from NBA scouts. Speaking of Players of the Week, Arizona’s Dusan Ristic and Utah’s Justin Bibbins just ended a three-week stretch from the new year onward when a freshman was the conference player of the week. The most intriguing part of this list is that, aside from Ayton, there isn’t a surefire NBA lottery pick in the group. That’s not to say there isn’t NBA talent on that list or elsewhere across the league. It’s to say instead that, aside from Ayton, most of this group should be back for at least one more season. That certainly matters, because Ayton’s ongoing brilliance isn’t going to single-handedly bring the conference back to glory.

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Pac-12’s Week 2 Cannibal Routine May Prove Costly

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 11th, 2018

The Pac-12’s Cannibalization hit full swing this week as once again the road proved significantly difficult for even the best teams in the conference. The first week of Pac-12 play saw six of the 10 games finish with margins of 10 points or more. In the second week, only four of 10 games ended with such margins, and two of those included California, which is really only an approximation of a Pac-12 team on most nights this year. Arizona State and Arizona, the conference’s clear upper tier at this point, dropped from sixth and 19th in the RPI, respectively, to 14th and 24th. They weren’t the biggest losers this past week, however, as Utah, in getting swept by those two schools in Salt Lake City, went from 35th to 63rd. That’s going from fringe NCAA Tournament status to deep in the heart of NIT City.

One of the more problematic teams over the course of the Pac-12 season could be Stanford. The Cardinal enjoyed a miraculous home sweep of the Bruins and Trojans last weekend, and vaulted from 214th to 154th in the RPI as a result. The Bruins and Trojans correspondingly dropped from 40 and 44th to 46th and 56th, respectively, after their Maples heartbreaks. The Stanford problem is that with the Cardinal now playing with its healthiest possible roster (Kezie Okpala and Dorian Pickens have returned while Marcus Sheffield will take a medical redshirt), they are a much tougher team. But because their cumulative performance to date (8-8 overall, the aforementioned +200 RPI) has been so underwhelming, beating Stanford isn’t going to do much for teams’ resumes. Conversely, losses — even if they’re more understandable now — are still going to sting.

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Most Improved Offensive and Defensive Pac-12 Teams

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 9th, 2018

I swear we aren’t trying to become an Arizona State subsite. When I got the idea for this post, it never occurred to me that I was walking right back in the direction of Tempe.  I was actually hoping to be pleasantly surprised to see which Pac-12 team has to date made the biggest leaps on offense and defense. Instead, the Sun Devils took all the fun out of my balloon. Arizona State has moved up a whopping five places in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating, which is one of those facts that only feels inevitable after you hear about it. As a matter of fact, the Sun Devils are the most efficient offensive team in the Pac-12 this season, up from sixth last year to first today. They also rank sixth in defensive efficiency one season after finishing last in the league overall. It’s been an uprising on both ends of the court for Bobby Hurley.

Arizona State Has Made Big Improvements From Last Year to This Year (USA Today Images)

Arizona State’s three-point shooting is by far the biggest contributor to its offensive success, but what else are the Sun Devils doing right? They are obviously shooting the ball very well, with an effective field goal rate of 56.2 percent, 26th nationally. They are also snaring 32.2 percent of the available offensive rebounds (84th) and they are getting to the line at an exceptional rate of 47.4 percent, second-highest in the country. When watching them play, it is easy to see how their strengths all feed off one another. Driving lanes are open because opponents can’t cheat off shooters. That creates clean post opportunities for freshman Romello White, who in a DeAndre Ayton-less world would be getting serious Freshman of the Year shine for bringing a desperately needed inside presence to this team. Arizona State also has multiple perimeter guys playing with great poise, so teams cannot focus on just one piece there to short-circuits the whole show. Defensively, the Sun Devils have been built with inside-out priorities. Over 43 percent of their opponents’ shots are threes, resulting in 35.9 percent of their points coming from distance. But what Arizona State really does well is play clean defense. Opponents have scored only 17.3 percent of their points on free throws, which puts the Sun Devils among the top third nationally in least charitable teams.

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Pac-12 Non-Conference Reset (non-Arizona State Edition)

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 28th, 2017

It may seem out of sync with the Holiday Spirit to practice exclusion, but we’ve spent SO much time on Arizona State already and quite honestly, their unblemished 12-0 record should be more than enough to keep Sun Devil fans happy. They have played great ball to date and, entering conference play, are sitting prettier than they have in quite some time. We’ve heard enough about the story of the year in the Pac-12, so let’s take some stock from the rest of the Conference of Champions with Pac-12 play ready to begin this week.

UCLA is the Surprise Team of the Pac So Far (USA Today Images)

Team of the Non-Conference: UCLA snatched this award away just moments before Santa and his reindeer took flight on the strength of a huge neutral court win over Kentucky on December 23. The Bruins have three wins over Power 6 teams right now (Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Kentucky) which is second-most in the league behind… well, you already know. The Bruins are doing all this despite the suspensions/departures of three freshmen expected to contribute this year in LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have been providing the on-court stability the Bruins were expecting, with both playing heavy minutes and logging true shooting percentages of about 57 percent. UCLA, a team with a relatively short roster, has damned the torpedoes and pushed the ball up at a pace of 74.5 possessions per game, 27th-fastest nationally. Lunardi currently lists UCLA as one of the first four out of the NCAA Tournament, but those three solid wins along with no bad losses (KenPom #29 Creighton, #33 Michigan, and #10 Cincinnati) gives it a good shot to work Pac-12 play to a decent seed in March. Credit head coach Steve Alford for moving past all the distractions and keeping things together in Westwood.

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A Hater’s Guide to Arizona State Basketball

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 27th, 2017

All right, Arizona State. You’ve got our attention. 12-0 is no joke, not with a road win at Allen Fieldhouse on your resume. A lofty #3 AP and RPI ranking means the Sun Devils can no longer be ignored or dismissed. A date with Arizona in Tucson where Arizona State will be ranked significantly above its rival Wildcats tells you that Netflix is not the only place where you can witness the Upside Down. Of course, in these times of instant gratification, that means every part of the Hero’s journey is accelerated, and since there’s nothing America likes to do as much as put a new face on a pedestal only to knock it down, it’s time for the backlash. Let’s talk about the most dubious aspects of Arizona State’s success and see if its profile suggests sustainability. Let’s bring the hate.

Arizona State Has Had a Dream Season to Date (USA Today Images)

First of all, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder are playing way too many minutes. Holder’s minutes in the last four games were 40, 37, 32 and 28. Trending correctly, right? Sure, as long as Longwood and Pacific are the opponents. Evans is right there with his teammate, playing just a shade under 88 percent of his possible minutes. Senior Kodi Justice is also playing 82 percent of his available minutes. Our colleague Adam Butler is right in saying that benches and depth tend to be overrated in college basketball, but at 6’1” and under 181 pounds each, Evans and Holder cannot expected to play a full season at the blistering pace the Sun Devils have set for themselves. I’ll add a corollary.  Depth quantity may not matter, but depth production does. You don’t need a 10-man rotation to win in college basketball. However, you do need to develop enough trust such that your best players aren’t pushing past 35 minutes on a nightly basis. That’s also an issue with Romello White, the 6’8” freshman forward who has provided a sorely needed inside presence for Bobby Hurley.

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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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