Grading the Pac-12 Non-Conference Performances: Part I

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 27th, 2016

The non-conference portion of the schedule is now over for the entire group of Pac-12 teams and, aside from UCLA running roughshod over every team it faced, it was a relatively uneventful non-conference season. Some teams scored important wins and other teams showed their weaknesses, but none of the 12 at-large resumes really stand out at this point in the season. To prove it to ourselves, let’s run through where each team stands heading into the 18-game Pac-12 schedule.

Arizona – B+

Arizona (USA Today Images)

It’s Unclear Where Arizona is Headed But a B+ Non-Conference Grade is Acceptable(USA Today Images)

  • Quality wins: Texas A&M, Michigan State
  • Bad losses: None
  • Synopsis: The Wildcats would have received an A- except that their best win over Michigan State doesn’t look as good as it would have in most years. That said, the Wildcats posted an impressive 11-2 non-conference record and have done so without the services of arguably their best player (Allonzo Trier) and inarguably their best point guard (Parker Jackson-Cartwright). It would have been nice to steal a win against Gonzaga or Butler, but Arizona has to this point helped its NCAA Tournament chances more than it has hurt them.

Arizona State – C-

  • Quality wins: None
  • Bad losses: New Mexico State, Northern Iowa
  • Synopsis: Bobby Hurley hasn’t been subtle about his desire for more national exposure for his program but the strategy somewhat backfired this year as the head coach has opened more eyes with his press conferences than with his team’s play. The Sun Devils are shorthanded and weren’t expected to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid this season, but the way in which they have been blown out by quality opponents is at least mildly embarrassing. Arizona State’s non-conference performance deserves the low side of the gentleman’s C.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Breaking Down Ivan Rabb vs. Virginia’s Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on December 26th, 2016

Virginia basketball doubles the post. This is less opinion than fact. Tony Bennett’s teams double the post and they double it effectively. In using Internet search devices you’ll discover a fifty-two-second video compilation of Virginia post-doubles when searching the terms, “VIRGINIA BASKETBALL DOUBLES POST.” And then another video with three minutes of post-doubles. Core to the pack-line defense is denying the paint, to ensure help is always available. In sending the immediate double-team, these tenets are fulfilled: help arrives immediately, and the post – and player – is denied.

Ivan Rabb Was Often Swarmed by Cavaliers (USA Today Images)

Ivan Rabb Was Often Swarmed by Cavaliers (USA Today Images)

The ultimate point I’m beleaguering here is that California center Ivan Rabb didn’t touch the ball for the final four minutes in last week’s 56-52 loss to Virginia. Rabb, the second-highest vote-getter in Preseason All-America voting, took only four shots on the evening and did not touch the ball for the final four minutes of a crucial non-conference home game. OK, to be fair, he did get a touch with 18 seconds remaining. It was with his back turned 24 feet away from the basket and resulted in an immediate handoff to teammate Jabari Bird (and zero threat to score). Ignoring that touch fits this final four-minute narrative but also demonstrates two key points: 1) Bennett is indeed the best defensive coach in America; 2) Cal is ineffectively using its greatest asset.

Let’s expand on the latter because to this point we’ve effused on the former. Bennett’s teams have never finished outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency and have been among the top 25 in nine of his 11 head coaching seasons. That point is clear. So, back to Rabb. If Virginia denies the post and Rabb is one of the nation’s best post players, what’s a Berkeley to do? First of all, one of the things that makes Rabb special is his pronounced versatility. He can score from all over the floor, create on his own and draw fouls. To quantify: he shoots 84 percent at the rim and 41 percent in the mid-range; only half of his shots are assisted; and he owns the 45th best free throw rate in America. Furthermore, his 12 percent assist rate suggests that, while he won’t soon rival Lonzo Ball in his passing capabilities, Rabb will find the open man (for context, that’s roughly the fifth-highest assist rate among Pac-12 bigs). So what was Cuonzo Martin‘s team trying to do at the end of a winnable game against a top 10 team? Well here’s a detailed look at Rabb’s 34 touches on the evening (including the last second, back-to-the basket, moment):

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Weekly Pac-5: Mid-Range Shooters

Posted by Adam Butler on December 16th, 2016

The game is evolving away from the basket and toward the three-point line. That’s what Daryl Morey and James Harden would have you believe. The Golden State Warriors would have you think the same. We don’t need advanced metrics to understand that 3>2. Especially if you can make it, the three-pointer is the most valuable in the sport. This distance trend isn’t reserved for just the pros. The collegiate three-ball is being shot at a higher clip than ever before. A 36 percent share of all shots are from distance. Like we explored last week, teams make an effort to help their best shooters make that shot. But what if that’s not your strongest suit?

Regardless of how they did it, Thomas Welch and UCLA are one step away from the Sweet 16. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Considering his skill set, it’s not a huge surprise Thomas Welsh tops this list. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What if you’re better off the bounce or closer to the basket? What if, philosophically, your team isn’t a three-point shooting team? This week we want to consider the Pac-12’s best mid-range players. It isn’t a lost art! It’s just a less appreciated and certainly a less sexy shot. It’s neither three points nor a dunk. Like middle management, the mid-range jumper isn’t glamorous, but it is effective. So who’s the most effective at it in the Pac this season? Here are the Pac-12’s five leading mid-range shooters (quantified by total number of makes):

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Should We Be Taking USC More Seriously?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 14th, 2016

When USC rallied to beat Texas A&M, it was good luck. When the Trojans squeaked past SMU a week later, it was thanks to Bennie Boatright. When they beat BYU a week after that, it was because the Cougars really aren’t that good and the game was in Los Angeles. These are all logical ways to rationalize dismissing USC’s hot start, but the fact remains that the Trojans are just one of six unbeaten teams remaining in Division I basketball and a group that was picked to finish seventh in the preseason Pac-12 standings is rebuilding faster than anyone imagined. Of those six teams sporting flawless records, most smart basketball minds will tell you that Andy Enfield‘s team is easily the worst of the group. KenPom agrees. ESPN agrees. The Trojans are off to their best start in more than 40 years and CBSSports.com barely included them in this week’s Top 25. The conventional wisdom is that, while USC’s early success deserves some attention, the Trojans still aren’t worth taking all that seriously yet.

USC Basketball is Soaring -- Has Anyone Noticed? (USA Today Images)

USC Basketball is Soaring — Has Anyone Noticed? (USA Today Images)

USC feels like a prime candidate for regression to the mean once the rigors of conference play begin. The Trojans own three resume-building wins by slim margins, but a non-conference slate that will include just one game outside California doesn’t impress anyone. Enfield’s roster is one of the 20 least experienced nationally and his best player is expected to be out of the lineup for at least another month. Still, there’s a lot to like in Troy. USC has used more than good fortune to remain unblemished for the first five weeks of the season. The steward of “Dunk City” has created a well-rounded, disciplined and deep group that is producing top 50 efficiency metrics on both ends of the floor, placing a particular importance on taking care of the basketball (top 15 nationally).

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Expectations Bring Growing Pains at Oregon State

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 9th, 2016

When Gary Payton II graduated from Oregon State last spring, it was well understood that the Beavers were losing one of their best players of all-time and would face an uphill battle back to the NCAA Tournament. With one month of this season now in the books, dancing again in March seems all but forgotten. Oregon State lost a close road game to a marginal Charlotte team last weekend, dropping its overall record to 3-6 and reflecting the team’s sixth straight loss to a Division I opponent. While head coach Wayne Tinkle‘s two-year extension and raise in light of the team’s first NCAA appearance since 1990 was well-deserving, Oregon State knew the program would spend this season rebuilding. Still, even though they were clearly confident in the direction of the program, this is not the kind of disastrous backslide that anyone in Corvallis envisioned.

Things In Corvallis Have Not Gone According to Wayne Tinkle's Plan This Season. (Getty)

Things In Corvallis Have Not Gone According to Wayne Tinkle’s Plan This Season. (Getty)

Building basketball prestige in a place where there isn’t much requires a lot of things to go right. Wins on the court or on the recruiting trail help build buzz around the brand, which can often be the start of something more sustainable. Tinkle looked to doing just that, but the team’s brutal start this year has undone a lot of that momentum. The importance of Payton’s loss cannot be overstated, but it appeared as if the program was in good hands with rising sophomores Stephen Thompson, Jr., Tres Tinkle and Drew Eubanks. Thompson, however, missed six of the team’s first seven games with a foot injury, and Tinkle, who was the team’s leading scorer, broke a bone in his wrist. Mix in an ACL rehab that is keeping freshman Ben Kone on the bench as well as a pair of suspensions for promising wing Keondre Dew, and it is somewhat surprising the elder Tinkle has managed to keep his sanity in place. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Weekly Pac-5: Spot Up Shooters

Posted by Adam Butler on December 9th, 2016

An open three-pointer is a simpler three-pointer. There are a few ways someone can get open for basketball’s highest value shot: dribbling by yourself; letting someone else attract the defense; or running off of screens set by teammates. These options (and I’ve indubitably missed some) are listed in order of increasing participation. Which is to say, scenario one takes just one player; scenario two requires a pair; and scenario three needs — at a minimum — three. As we learned in kindergarten, sharing is caring and there is no “I” in team. Greater involvement often lends itself to greater success. These elementary insights may not be the core reason you visit RTC’s Pac-12 microsite, but if the objective of the sport is to optimize shot-making or shot-stopping, then perhaps it’s a worthwhile exploration. Because we’d like to know who is best suited to make this team-built open shot? In this week’s segment of the Weekly Pac-5, we’ll discover and list the best spot-up shooters in the Pac-12.

Isaac Hamilton is the best long-range shooter in the Pac-12. (photo by Don Liebig)

Isaac Hamilton is the best long-range shooter in the Pac-12. (photo by Don Liebig)

These are the players, loosely defined, whose teams are going to make an effort to get them open. Through planning and screening, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to get these dudes open from distance. We’ll quantify it by the number of assisted threes made, as this suggests an open, quality shot in which one player has recognized the other’s advantageous, shot-making position. If assisted, the assumption is that our shooter has set his feet and evaded the defense with some assistance of his teammates. He is not running amok, wildly crossing over, stepping back or doing all of the moves you loathe as a fan (and cherish as a fan of Steph Curry). Consider that Klay Thompson scored 60 points on 20 assisted baskets (he made 21 field goals in total) earlier this week. For your further consideration and long-term focus, Pac-12 point guards have been outstanding thus far. Lonzo Ball’s success is well-documented, as is Markelle Fultz’s, but there are five other players averaging more than four assists per game. Nice distribution! Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

A Closer Look at Washington’s Markelle Fultz

Posted by Luke Byrnes on December 8th, 2016

The game of basketball has changed dramatically over the last few decades. The three-point shot has become a significant offensive piece rather than an afterthought, “small-ball” lineups have become en vogue at every level of basketball, and youth has taken over. With these changes have come a different type of NBA prospect — someone like Washington freshman guard Markelle Fultz. Considered the likely overall No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by many, Fultz has great length (6’4″ with a 6’9” wingspan), silky smooth athleticism, and is extremely skilled — all characteristics that coincide with the evolution of the game toward players that transcend position. And Fultz does just that. The point guard is shooting 50.8 percent from the field, including a scorching 48.5 percent from three-point range, while averaging 23.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 blocks and 2.0 steals per game. On Wednesday night, Fultz’s Huskies renewed their cross-state rivalry — which had fallen dormant for nearly a decade — with #8 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs quickly ran away from his team and, for the better part of the game, the only drama in the McCarthey Center swirled around whether Fultz would put on display the skill set that has propelled him to the top of nearly every mock draft.

Markelle Fultz (USA Today Images)

If You Didn’t Watch Last Night, You Missed One of Your Few Opportunities to See Markelle Fultz on National Television (USA Today Images)

Well… Yes and no. 

Fultz, like the rest of the Dawgs, got off to a slow start. The superstar freshman made just two of his first eight shots and finished the first half with six points (3-of-14 FG) as Washington trailed 47-22 at the break. Despite his shooting struggles, Fultz showed that he is equally capable of affecting a game without scoring. He grabbed seven first half rebounds, including four offensive, and also logged one blocked shot and a steal. The point guard who is the presumptive #1 pick couldn’t buy a bucket and played a half without a single assist?  Well, yes, but… as poorly as Fultz shot in the first half, his teammates didn’t exactly pick up the slack or capitalize on the scoring opportunities created by their floor general’s playmaking and rebounding. The rest of the Huskies combined to shoot 21.4 percent from the field before halftime, repeatedly missing layups and open jumpers. Fultz still put his well-rounded skill set on display by consistently getting into the lane, mostly going to his right, using a deceptively quick first step and finishing with 10 rebounds. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Pac-12 Freshman Ladder: Early December Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 7th, 2016

I don’t know how long Scott Howard-Cooper has been writing his Rookie Ladder column for NBA.com but it has long been one of the more underrated features in basketball writing. There is nothing complex about its structure as a traditional weekly power ranking of NBA rookies. Yet basketball fans are always drawn to the new, which is why the Rookie Ladder column exists. The appeal of rookie coverage is true in college basketball as well. You don’t see the Pac-12 handing out a “Second-Year Player of the Year” award, do you? The season is now old enough that sample sizes are starting to become meaningful. Also, I am nothing if not a ruthless (but self-aware) copycat. So here is our best imitation of Cooper’s excellent feature – the inaugural Pac-12 Freshman Ladder.

Lonzo Ball (USA Today Images)

Lonzo Ball Leads the Pac-12 Freshman Ladder (USA Today Images)

  1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA. In our top-secret algorithm that determines these rankings, winning matters, if only a little. UCLA is undefeated and that is why Ball edges past Markelle Fultz on this list for now. Bolstered by a surprising ability to knock down threes (43.5% 3FG), Ball has been one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball (67.5% eFG) while also affecting every possession without having to score. He has turned the ball over 12 times in the last three games, but the Bruins are so lethal offensively with the freshman running the show that UCLA will live with those mistakes.
  2. Markelle Fultz, Washington. Fultz is playing a different role at Washington than Ball is at UCLA but his playmaking skills are just as advanced. Fultz’s assist rate (37.0%) and turnover rate (17.6%) compare favorably with Ball and his shot-making responsibilities and usage rate mean that he is scoring more as well. His defensive numbers (4.1% block rate and 3.4% steal rate) are also superior to his southern California counterpart. One could reasonably argue that if Fultz were running point in Westwood and the Bruins were still undefeated, he would be the clear alpha dog on this list. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

Stanford Basketball Yearning For Its Glory Days (Or Is It?)…

Posted by Adam Butler on December 3rd, 2016

You look around Maples Pavilion and you see empty rows of seats. If you look hard enough, I’m sure you could even find columns of seats right up to the not-all-that-high Maples ceiling. There’s empty booster level seating and you can hear conversations, noises perhaps unfamiliar to a more traditional college basketball environment. Just Wednesday night, following a loss inside Indiana’s Assembly Hall, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams lamented, “I’d like to play in front of a crowd like that in the Smith Center every night other than the frickin’ Duke game.” Indeed, what sets college basketball apart – and I suppose all college sports for that matter – is its atmosphere (not the frickin’ Duke game). The skill of professionals cannot be matched. Their stars are brighter and shots more true. Their arenas, however? Bigger but not always better. Or at least not louder. It is not the same. Stanford athletics, however, are a little different. It is not always an event. Sure there are scheduled contests with officials and media, hype men and even knockout at halftime. The requisite production remains. But it’s not destination sport. Their top-tier football program does not demand overflow attendance. And while the basketball program was once there and the floors would shake, they’ve also only been to one NCAA Tournament in the past eight seasons. It’s amazing what an NCAA Tournament appearance can do to an arena.

Stanford's Glory Days Seem Like a Bygone Era (USA Today Images)

Stanford’s Glory Days Seem Like a Bygone Era (USA Today Images)

Following in the steps of a Hall of Famer is never easy. Trent Johnson escaped the shadow by progressively chasing lesser jobs (Stanford > LSU > TCU), while Johnny Dawkins sternly and rarely budged off of 18-wins. In either case, one of two critical components used in standard assessments of a program were missing: winning or charm. While the former speaks for itself and often excuses or masks a lack of the latter, wins are hard to come by. On charm, and particularly early in a coaching tenure, this can be used to excuse winning, a smile and a pep rally to lament the outgoing regime’s recruiting. Consider Ernie Kent walking door-to-door in Pullman or anything Bruce Pearl ever does. In either case (winning or charming), a coach and program are trying to set itself up for success on the recruiting trail and in the pocketbook. The recipe being some nonlinear combination of good players + wins + excitement + attendance. That’s how we generally evaluate a program.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Heading to Kentucky — How Good is UCLA?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 2nd, 2016

Few teams in the country have done more to burnish its reputation in the first three weeks of the season than UCLA. Armed with two of the most impressive freshmen and arguably the deepest backcourt in the country, UCLA cruised past the competition to win the Wooden Legacy Tournament and, through eight games, has yet to encounter an opponent capable of handling its offensive firepower. The Bruins lead the country in effective field goal percentage (63.8%), are second in the country in three-point shooting (45.6%), are third in the country in two-point shooting (61.1%) and are 22nd in the country in turnover percentage (15.6%). Put simply, the Bruins are playing faster than their opponents (roughly a quarter of their field-goal attempts come in transition), can create whatever scoring opportunities they want and are taking excellent care of the ball. All of that is likely to change on Saturday when UCLA travels to Lexington for the marquee college basketball matchup of the weekend. But then, and only then, will it be time to truly evaluate just how good this team can be.

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Still, there is a lot to love about how UCLA has played in those eight games this season. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf have been even better than expected; five different Bruins are shooting 40 percent or better from downtown; and the big men – Leaf and Thomas Welsh – have proven to be the perfect complement to the team’s loaded backcourt. There is nothing presumptive in stating that UCLA is now the favorite to win the Pac-12.  Before we lock it into stone, however, it is worth wondering how much of UCLA’s early start is sustainable. The schedule hasn’t been downright embarrassing, but it hasn’t been all that good either. The team has yet to leave the Golden State, and while games against Nebraska and Texas A&M were technically held at neutral sites, a quick Google Maps search shows that Westwood is just a bit closer to Anaheim than either Lincoln or College Station. The Cornhuskers and Aggies were worthy opponents, but Rupp Arena on a December afternoon is going to be a completely different atmosphere and it will be interesting to see how Steve Alford‘s team handles the pressure.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story