Pac-12 Conversation: Did the Pac-12 Get Hosed?

Posted by Adam Butler & RJ Abeytia on March 14th, 2018

With the Pac-12 already off to an inauspicious start given UCLA‘s First Four loss to St. Bonaventure, Pac-12 microsite writers Adam Butler (@pachoopsAB) and RJ Abeytia (@rj_abeytia) break down the burning questions facing ArizonaArizona State and the rest of the conference.

It’s Been That Kind of Year in the Pac-12 (USA Today Images)

Adam Butler: OK – let me start with the obvious – as Pac-12 bloggers, did the Pac get hosed by the NCAA?

R.J.:  I say we start with USC. Screwed or not screwed?

Adam Butler: Screwed! Whenever you’re “the somethingest to not something,” you’ve been screwed.

R.J.: USC was but most people are framing the argument incorrectly. It’s the whole body of work and the committee once again proved that there is no line of demarcation in their view between conference and non-conference play and, if anything, non-conference > conference. Andy Enfield has historically scheduled gutlessly in the non-conference realm but a #34 RPI is still a #34 RPI.

Adam Butler: Well… and this is where it gets weird with the 36 at-larges. Are they the 36 best teams remaining or the 36 most deserving?

R.J.: It has to be the 36 most deserving. I hate when an undeserving team gets in and then people retroactively declare them worthy of inclusion.

Adam Butler: Further – are you buying the FBI conspiracies? That the toothless NCAA is taking passive-aggressive jabs at schools explicitly under investigation?

R.J.:  This is not the first time USC has been made an example, only to have other schools get lesser penalties for greater infractions.

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Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Prospects Looking Slim

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 13th, 2018

And then there were three. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee took its Excalibur Sharpies and scrawled in the names of Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State onto its 68-team bracket and left an entire conference reeling in its wake. I’ll touch upon USC at another time, but the upshot should not really be that much of a revelation: Conference affiliation is ultimately arbitrary in the case of making the Big Dance. But enough digression. Let’s take a quick look at the three teams who did make it and assess their prospects for this weekend and beyond.

DeAndre Ayton is a Problem for Any Team in His Path (USA Today Images)

Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton gave everybody in Las Vegas a tantalizing glimpse of the dominance he’s capable of inflicting. He became the first player in Pac-10/12 history to ever win Freshman of the Year, Player of the Year, and Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament. Sean Miller said months ago that “we go as DeAndre goes,” and truer words have never been spoken. Unfortunately, there are two things conspiring to thwart Miller’s Quixotic journey to the Final Four. The first is the Wildcats’ lack of consistent defensive play, a very conspicuous attribute in the Miller Era. This year the Wildcats finished 70th in Defensive Rating, per KenPom, and in the previous three seasons that number was 29th, 29th and third. The strange thing is that with Ayton, Rawle Alkins, Keanu Pinder and Dusan Ristic, you’d think the Wildcats would be a good defensive team.

However, college basketball is a guard’s game, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier have slid significantly on defense from last year. Jackson-Cartwright has gone from an exceptional defender (99.0 DRtg in 2016-17) to essentially average at 105.0. Trier has gone from acceptable (101.0) to a turnstile (107.5) With a 131.0 Offensive Rating in tow, Trier is too good to keep off the court, but by far the biggest basketball question mark for Arizona is the ability of its backcourt to get stops. The other issue is the draw. Arizona by chalk would be looking at #5 Kentucky (gulp) in the Second Round and #1 Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen. By chalk, Arizona would then play #2 Cincinnati in the Elite Eight. That’s a tall order and likely even too tall for the seven-foot Ayton. Best case: Ayton continues to be a Basketball Godzilla and simply carries the Wildcats to San Antonio. Worst case: Kentucky gets revenge for its 1997 championship game loss and maybe Miller’s most talented team fails to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

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Arizona State’s Stars and the Infrequence of its Bench

Posted by Adam Butler on March 7th, 2018

Earlier this season, as many were asking if Arizona State was the best team in the country, it was hard to disagree. The Sun Devils were 12-0 and had logged wins over Xavier and Kansas, now-and-then teams projected to be fantastic. On the eve of Pac-12 play, they were ranked among the nation’s top five in the national polls and rated 20th by KenPom. Bobby Hurley was America’s coaching darling and Tra Holder was outpacing Deandre Ayton for the Pac-12 Player of the Year (although I did call Holder a dark horse favorite for the award). But now, at season’s end, the Devils are 8-10 in a mediocre-at-best Pac-12 and no longer our national sweethearts (to the extent a Devil ever could be). It wasn’t the level of competition (exclusively) that caused this collapse. A win at Kansas is rarely a mistake. Even Washington went 10-8 in the same conference! What happened to Arizona State?

Arizona State Was Flying High Earlier This Season (USA Today Images)

I chose to call it a “Curtain of Exhaustion.” Back when the Sun Devils were streaking, we noted that Hurley was very rarely leveraging his bench. Now, to be clear, leveraging a bench is a complex topic. In the college game specifically, a bench isn’t always a required or an available asset. Arizona State started the season without Mickey Mitchell or Kimani Lawrence, both of whom wound up playing significant-if-not-impactful roles throughout the conference season. Regardless of their availability, the Sun Devils still finished the season with just one-quarter of their available minutes (305th nationally) going to the bench. Again, this isn’t always a death sentence for teams, but in closely examining Arizona State’s tumble, it seems clear. Holder and Shannon Evans — who have played 87 percent and 86 percent, respectively, of their team’s available minutes — are exhausted. Their totals represent the fourth and fifth most minutes in the Pac-12 this season. To further visualize this thesis, here are their rolling field goal percentages this season:

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On Arizona’s Uncertain (Immediate?) Future…

Posted by Adam Butler on February 23rd, 2018

Allonzo Trier’s suspension yesterday came with great emotion, at least from the perspective of an Arizona fan. Immediately, it’s upsetting. Trier is in his third season in Tucson but it’s been closer to one-and-a-half. It was a broken hand during his freshman year that led to missing seven critical mid-conference games. The Wildcats went 5-2 in his absence during that stretch. They’d finish 6-4 upon his return. His sophomore campaign started in January because of a 19-game suspension. The Wildcats went 17-2 without him and 15-3 after his return. So while his absence hasn’t always led to Arizona’s demise, his absence isn’t welcomed either. The presumed irresponsibility of accepting unknown substances isn’t quickly forgiven.

Will Allonzo Trier Ever Play at Arizona Again (USA Today Images)

And now Arizona finds itself without Trier again as the same reason for last season’s suspension has re-emerged. According to the school, trace amounts of his last failed test were found after a late January drug test. As we said, it’s immediately upsetting. But consider the case of Kolton Houston. The Georgia football player tested positive, was approved by the NCAA to return, but only upon clearing the drug completely from his system. Turns out that clearing certain drugs is hard to do and Houston spent all his eligibility and a lot of money trying to play again. Houston is a case by which we might sympathize with Trier. Further, the NCAA just isn’t a group we generally laud for its jurisprudence. Typically, the opposite.

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Observations on Pac-12 Rim Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on February 7th, 2018

As much of the basketball community discusses the value of a DeAndre Jordan with the NBA’s trade deadline approaching on Thursday afternoon, I thought it would be interesting to examine a few measures of Pac-12 rim defense. To be clear, the Jordan reference is an allusion to the value of rim-protection and not necessarily which teams in the Pac have a traditional center. That can be left to more subjective measures, especially as you consider that Arizona hasn’t exactly looked unstoppable despite Dusan Ristic catching fire.

Dusan Ristic Has Caught Fire But Isn’t Known as a Rim-Protector (USA Today Images)

Rim protection can be quantified in many ways. For example, another Deandre (Ayton) has drawn criticism (or at least prose) regarding his block rate. As a measure of individual rim-protection, this is probably the most telling metric among readily available stats. In noting such, Kenny Wooten (the Oregon freshman) has the third best rate in the nation, blocking a remarkable 16 percent of the shots taken while he’s on the floor. That is insane. Ayton, by comparison, owns a six percent block rate, good for eighth in the conference. It’s an improvement since The Ringer compared him to other elite college bigs, but still lacking. If nothing else, it’s not remotely close to Wooten.

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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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Is Arizona State Really the Best Team in the Pac-12?

Posted by Adam Butler on January 31st, 2018

With a microphone in his face, Arizona State guard Shannon Evans told anyone listening that his team is the best in the conference and that the Pac-12 would be nothing without the Sun Devils’ non-conference efforts. Before diving into his bold statement further, let’s give credit where it is due — a win at Kansas is a win at Kansas. Xavier is a meaningful win too. It’s also worth noting that St. John’s is currently sitting at a cool 0-11 in the Big East standings. It is true, however, that the Sun Devils had the only non-conference season of note and it was very impressive. They even flirted with the #1 ranking in the country.

Shannon Evans is a Believer (USA Today Images)

Yet since Arizona State sat in the driver’s seat of that #1 ranking on the afternoon of December 30 (losing to Arizona), the Sun Devils have played to the tune of a negative efficiency margin (107 offensive efficiency – 108 defensive efficiency = -1 efficiency margin). Their defense, which was never celebrated, ranks eighth in the conference, even yielding more than one point per possession to Cal! Their offense, however, driven by great speed and long-range shooting, has seemingly disappeared. For the season, Arizona State’s offense has operated at a KenPom adjusted 119.4 points per 100 possessions, which is fantastic (eighth nationally) and carried, as noted, by outstanding three-point shooting. The Sun Devils are the nation’s 52nd-best three point shooting team (38.3%) for the season, but in conference play, they have not been nearly that good. Rather, Arizona State’s offense is hovering at a 107.6 efficiency (sixth in the Pac) while making 36.2 percent of their threes (seventh).

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Arizona Against the Zone and Colorado’s Strategy

Posted by Adam Butler on January 25th, 2018

With modest success this season, teams have been throwing zone defenses at Arizona. The Wildcats have played nearly 25 percent of their offense against the zone, the 35th-highest percentage in college basketball. Overall, Arizona has been an excellent offensive team. Sean Miller’s group ranks among the top 15 teams nationally in offensive efficiency, touts a 57 percent effective field goal rate and – especially as it pertains to zone=busting – is making a healthy 38.2 percent of its threes (53rd nationally). On paper at least, Arizona would seem perfectly adept at breaking the zone. But in truth, when looking at the Wildcats’ offense versus man-to-man defense, Arizona ranks as the ninth-most efficient team in the country (per Synergy Sports). Against zone, however, and this may be where opponents are focusing, the Wildcats dip to 115th nationally at 0.97 points per possession.

Colorado’s Tad Boyle is Looking for the Arizona Sweep Tonight (USA Today Images)

Staring across the court at a roster featuring DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, I too would be seeking any advantage. It’s perhaps why Colorado head coach Tad Boyle, a staunch man-to-man advocate, exacted a zone defense last month against Arizona in Boulder and is likely to do so again in tonight’s rematch. Considering Arizona is about five points per 100 possessions less effective against a zone, Boyle’s plan is seemingly vindicated. Furthermore, the Buffaloes won that Saturday afternoon in The Keg; the ultimate vindication of strategic success. But also remember that Arizona is, indeed, a quality three-point shooting and offensive rebounding team, and that they’re fantastic at getting into transition (a zone-busting strategy). Theoretically, the Wildcats are well-equipped to beat a zone (and has done so in every attempt since). But the strategy goes well beyond nuance in numbers. Boyle used a similar zone against Arizona State just two days before he beat the Wildcats — on that night, at least, Colorado also beat the Sun Devils, which, over the course of this season, play more efficiently against zone than man (they are, after all, a great three-point shooting team). What gives?

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Forecasting Washington’s Zone Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on January 18th, 2018

No team in college basketball has played more zone defense this season than Mike HopkinsWashington club. As a Pac-12 aficionado, you know that the Huskies’ new head coach was a long-time assistant (21 years) of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. As a college basketball aficionado, you know all about Boeheim’s famous zone defense. Hopkins has brought the defensive scheme across the country, and as a result, the Huskies have been a pleasant surprise through the first half of the season. Considering its uniqueness and Washington’s early success in employing it, a forecasting evaluation of the zone for the rest of this season is worthwhile. Its basic tenet is engineered to dare opponents to shoot from long distance. At Syracuse, 44.8 percent of shot attempts against its zone come from beyond the arc, which is very high (11th nationally). Washington’s opponents, by way of comparison, are allowing 36.7 percent of the shots against them from distance, roughly equal to the national average. This gap is in part related to the Huskies’ faster offense, clocking in with the 71st-swiftest offensive possession average in the game (compared with Syracuse’s 325th-slowest). This increase in allowing long-range shooting comes as a big change from the former regime in Washington. Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies never allowed more than 30 percent of opponents’ shots to come from beyond the arc.

Mike Hopkins Has Instituted a New Regime in Seattle (USA Today Images)

Since Washington has seemingly announced its defensive strategy for the foreseeable future, how might the zone project on its new coast? To date, the gamble has paid off, as the Huskies through five conference games have “held” Pac-12 opponents to a league-best 27.9 percent from three-point range. Pac-12 teams are making 35.8 percent of their three pointers this year, 12th-best nationally as a conference. To try to understand what this might mean for Hopkins’ team, assuming he plans to continue to dare teams to shoot threes, the league has historically been average from distance. A peek:

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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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