Disappointing Endings For Arizona, UCLA, and Stanford, But The Future Is Bright

Posted by AMurawa on March 31st, 2014

Six NCAA Tournament teams, three Sweet Sixteen seasons, one Elite Eight appearance and yet when the final quartet of teams still standing show up at the Final Four next weekend in North Texas, there will not be a Pac-12 team among them. This will now mark the sixth consecutive season (dating back to the last of UCLA’s three straight last decade) where college basketball’s premier weekend will dance away without a Pac-12 partner. So, yeah, Pac-12 fans, in a year where the hope was that the Pac was back, you’re right to feel some disappointment.

Worse yet, along with outgoing seniors like Roberto Nelson and Justin Cobbs and Mike Moser and C.J. Wilcox, the conference has also seen the last of guys like Kyle Anderson and Aaron Gordon and Jahii Carson and Zach LaVine with guys like Nick Johnson, Jordan Adams, Joseph Young, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson still weighing their options. But you know what? These are good things. It hurts to see guys like these go, but such is the nature of the beast. And in the long run, a program like Arizona providing an appealing and welcoming temporary landing spot for a player the caliber of Gordon will make it more likely that future Aaron Gordons will wind up playing for Sean Miller as well. And, in the great circle of life that is college athletics, out goes Gordon, in comes Stanley Johnson; rinse and repeat.

While Aaron Gordon's Time In Tucson Is Short, His Success Will Pay Dividends For the Arizona Program

While Aaron Gordon’s Time In Tucson Is Short, His Success Will Pay Dividends For the Arizona Program

Below, three quick thoughts on the status of the three Pac-12 schools whose seasons ended this past weekend in the NCAA Tournament.

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Zach LaVine: One-And-Done at UCLA

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 28th, 2014

Not only did UCLA fall to Florida on Thursday night, but Friday morning the news broke that freshman guard Zach LaVine would be joining sophomore point guard Kyle Anderson in leaving school early. Anderson was a lock to leave all along, as he had a spectacular season and is in the discussion for a lottery pick in this June’s NBA Draft. LaVine, however, was more of a borderline case. He’s clearly not ready to make an immediate impact in the NBA, but his length, athleticism and deep shooting range have intrigued scouts since November when he made a big splash early in the season. He’ll need to get stronger, develop a game off the bounce, and improve his defense, and these things will likely require time in the NBA’s Developmental League. But you can bet that LaVine’s upside will earn the attention of somebody at some point in the first round of this year’s draft, meaning a guaranteed contract and time to develop. Sure, selfishly, we would have liked to see LaVine’s high-flying game take the next step at the collegiate level, but that became a pipe dream over the course of the year.

Zach LaVine's Athleticism And Shooting Accuracy Have NBA Scouts Intrigued

Zach LaVine’s Athleticism And Shooting Accuracy Have NBA Scouts Intrigued

LaVine’s departure leaves some big questions for UCLA. First, with Anderson and LaVine both gone and with Jordan Adams potentially mulling a similar jump to the NBA, a deep and impactful Bruins backcourt could turn into a weakness next season. Norman Powell will be back for his senior season, and he’s definitely developed into a fine asset for UCLA. Bryce Alford appears to be the point guard in waiting, and he’s a fine player with plenty of upside even if he appears further and further from winning over the UCLA fan base with every game. And four-star combo guard Isaac Hamilton will be eligible next season and figures to have the ball in his hands a lot. Even if Adams doesn’t return, that group of three is solid, even if the Bruins will likely need to go sign another guard for depth. But clearly, the strength of the team will need to shift to the frontcourt, where Tony Parker will return for his junior season and be joined by four incoming freshmen, highlighted by five-star power forward Kevon Looney and a pair of four-star bigs (Thomas Welsh and Jonah Bolden).

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Three Keys for Arizona and San Diego State in Tonight’s Game

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) & Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on March 27th, 2014

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Arizona and San Diego State will play in the nightcap at Anaheim tonight, with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. To break down this match-up, we asked Arizona expert Adam Butler of Pachoops.com to give us his three keys for Arizona in this game, while RTC correspondent Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) will offer up San Diego State’s biggest priorities. Make sure to also follow @RTCWestRegion for news and analysis from Anaheim throughout the week.

Three Keys For Arizona

  1. T.J. McConnell and the turnover battle — Any discussion of offense in this preview is a disservice to the defense both of these teams play. That said, defense is also the only known commodity offered by both teams (though SDSU really leaves a lot to the offensive imagination). And so I turn our attention to T.J. McConnell. Arizona’s floor general — as you’ve heard all season long — is the quintessential pass-first point guard. That’s great. It’s perfect for Sean Miller‘s system and feeds the Arizona beast. But when he isn’t, Arizona struggles. When dimes turn to turnovers, San Diego State can turn those into easy buckets, and for a crummy offense, those are gifts. Great gifts. Like the kind of gifts you hunt for before Christmas day, great. If McConnell is playing heady and taking care of the basketball — taking shots when he has them and creating them for his friends when he can — Arizona should roll.

    T.J. McConnell Is A Catalyst For Sean Miller's Squad. (Icon SMI)

    T.J. McConnell Is A Catalyst For Sean Miller’s Squad. (Icon SMI)

  2. Continuing to rebound — The glass has been a place Arizona has dominated this season. They’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, which often salvages their less-than-elite shooting and puts greater pressure on their opponents. They offer a double-edged sword of not allowing you transition opportunities and grabbing offensive rebounds. Furthermore, they own the defensive glass  (#8 defensive rebounding rate in the nation). You’re not getting rebounds against this team. Unless you are. In which case, you have a chance to compete. San Diego State can board, ranking top 35 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates. They’re not Arizona, but I’m telling you there’s a chance. Read the rest of this entry »
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Johnny Dawkins’ Road Map Gets Stanford to the Sweet Sixteen

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on March 27th, 2014

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Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) is the NCAA Tournament’s West Region correspondent, which begins Thursday night at Honda Center in Anaheim with Baylor vs. Wisconsin followed by San Diego State vs. Arizona. Make sure to also follow @RTCWestRegion for news and analysis from Anaheim throughout the week.

Last March, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir had a telephone conversation with Jeff Faraudo of The Bay Area News Group in which he basically recounted laying down an ultimatum for head coach Johnny Dawkins: Make the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14, or it is time to move on. “We want to be playing for a [conference] championship. We think we have the caliber of kids who can do that,” Muir told Faraudo. “And we want to play in the NCAA [Tournament]. The goal has always been and will not change: We want to play well into March on the grand stage of March Madness. There’s a clear expectation that we can do that next year.” For a coach who had missed the NCAA Tournament in his previous five years in the position, and with roughly the same team expected to return, it seemed like quite a challenge at the time. And from there, the challenge grew even bigger.

Despite Four Players Lost To Season-Ending Injury, Johnny Dawkins Has Stanford Still Playing (credit: Danny Moloshok)

Despite Four Players Lost To Season-Ending Injury, Johnny Dawkins Has Stanford Still Playing. (Danny Moloshok/AP)

In July, a torn ACL for senior forward Andy Brown – his fourth such injury in a span of just over four years – ended his Stanford playing career. In October, it was announced that sophomore guard Christian Sanders would miss the season with a hip injury. At roughly the same time, sophomore forward Rosco Allen was said to be out six to eight weeks with a shin injury; those six to eight weeks turned into a lost season, as Allen played just seven minutes all year. Then, the coup de grace came in early December when a dislocated right shoulder would keep senior point guard Aaron Bright out for the remainder of the season. Before conference play even rolled around, four key players, each of whom would have had a role on this Stanford basketball team, were lost for the season.

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Assessing the Steve Alford Era at UCLA Almost One Year In

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 26th, 2014

It was a year ago this week that the change was made at UCLA. Ben Howland was dismissed after an opening round NCAA loss to Minnesota, and the following week, on Saturday morning of the Elite Eight to be precise, UCLA announced that it would hire New Mexico head coach Steve Alford – who had just recently agreed to a lengthy contract extension with that school after its own untimely exit from the NCAA Tournament – as the 13th head coach in the storied program’s history.

Steve Alford, UCLA

The Steve Alford Era Had A Bumpy Start, But Has Settled Into A Nice Groove (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Suffice it to say that the beginning of the Alford era in Westwood did not begin smoothly. The hire was greeted with anywhere from an outright disdain for the choice to a more wait-and-see approach, but few if any saw the hire as a home run. (Here, we called it a solid line-drive single, and our response was probably one of the more favorable ones you may have read). From those initial reactions, the temperature dipped dramatically over the next week after an unreceptive opening press conference delved into his handling of a sexual assault case at Iowa 11 years earlier and went downhill from there. A week later Alford finally apologized for his handling of that case and an uneasy truce with the local media began.

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The Pac-12 Season: It’s Been A Wild Ride So Far

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 25th, 2014

Well, at long last, after an up-and-down season, we can probably pretty safely say: The Pac is Back! Fully buying into the fact that NCAA Tournament performance alone does not equate to the quality of a conference, it is still fun to have three teams dancing in the second week of the tourney. The last time our fair conference had as many teams in the Sweet Sixteen was back in 2008, when it was still just the Pac-10 and also the last time a conference team made the Final Four (UCLA). Between 2009 and 2012, a total of just three teams made the Sweet Sixteen over that four-year span. Things finally ticked up last year with Oregon and Arizona representing us well, and now, we’re back to the promised land. So, how did we get here? Let’s take a quick look back and see.

Pac-12First, I want to admit that I’ve jumped on and off this bandwagon several times this season. Back in the preseason I made the call of seven Pac-12 teams getting invited to the NCAA Tournament and Stanford advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. The former prediction just missed, but the latter actually came true. Still, no use in me taking credit (or blame, for that matter) for either, because god knows I’ve tried to walk both of those back time and again. In early February, I was sitting through a UCLA blowout of Colorado in Pauley Pavilion and began a post (that I never got around to finishing) writing off the concept of seven Pac-12 NCAA Tournament teams entirely, and making the argument that the conference was closer to winding up with just three teams in the field. So there’s that.

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History Lesson: What 2014 UCLA Can Learn From 1994 UCLA’s Loss Against Tulsa

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 21st, 2014

When UCLA hosts Tulsa this evening in San Diego, the Bruins will be solid favorites over an upstart Golden Hurricane team, much as they were 20 years ago when they lost to a Tubby Smith-coached Tulsa team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before eventually losing to national champion Arkansas. Below, we’ll compare a few areas where that 1994 team failed with what this year’s UCLA team needs to do in order to advance to Sunday’s round of 32.

Shea Seals, Here Stealing The Ball From Charles O'Bannon, Helped Tulsa To A First-Round Win Over UCLA in 1994

Shea Seals, Here Stealing The Ball From Charles O’Bannon, Helped Tulsa To A First-Round Win Over UCLA in 1994

Show up ready to play. No offense to that talented Golden Hurricane team of 20 years ago, but it was clear from the start that UCLA did not show up ready to play. The Bruins didn’t take their opponent seriously prior to the game (I believe the quote was: “Tulsa – where’s that?”) and once the game did start, their defensive effort was lackluster at best in the halfcourt, while in transition it was even worse. Priority number one for Steve Alford is to avoid any repeats of games like the regular season finale at Washington State where the team basically confessed that it focused on the task at hand. Roll out tape of the Wazzu game; roll out tape of Tulsa 20 years ago; do what you gotta do, but make sure everybody is focused on this game and this game only. Coming off Saturday afternoon’s emotional Pac-12 Tournament win over Arizona, everybody needs to be able to duplicate that energy and take James Woodard, Rashard Smith, Shaquille Harrison and company as seriously as they took Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and T.J. McConnell.

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Two Keys to Stanford vs. New Mexico This Afternoon

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 21st, 2014

In anticipation of the New Mexico vs. Stanford game this afternoon, here are two keys to the game.

New Mexico wins if… its big men can dominate. All season long, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow were rugged offensive threats against Mountain West competition. The Lobo big men combined to batter normally undersized frontcourts in their conference to the tune of 33.9 points and 16.1 rebounds between them. Each of them took better than 40% of their shots right at the rim and each converted at least 68% of those shots at the rim. In short, the New Mexico bigs were dominant in and around the paint all year long. For Stanford, meanwhile, despite having plenty of size (New Mexico has slightly more size than the Cardinal, but Stanford is still in the top 15 nation-wide in terms of effective height), has long been regarded as soft in the middle. Stefan Nastic checks in at 6’11”, but is not a natural athlete and is more prone to committing a foul than effectively challenging shots at the rim. Dwight Powell, likewise, is more comfortable away from the hoop or in transition. Only 6’7” Josh Huestis is particularly good defending in the interior, and even that is sketchy. Still, Stanford has done a fairly good job all year limiting looks (just 32.6% of opponents shots come at the rim) – and more importantly, limiting successful attempts (of those shots, opponents make just 56.6%, a good defensive percentage for shots at the rim) – around the rim. If New Mexico is able to regularly convert buckets around the paint, the Lobos should be golden on Friday morning; if they’re harder than usual to come by, they could be in for a dog fight.

Dwight Powell Will Need To Be Physical Defensively And Explosive Offensively For the Cardinal To Advance (USA Today Sports)

Dwight Powell Will Need To Be Physical Defensively And Explosive Offensively For the Cardinal To Advance (USA Today Sports)

Stanford wins if… they’re able to isolate their offensive playmakers. In a lot of ways, these teams look very similar. Both are solid, if not spectacular on both ends of the floor. Neither team commits, not forces, a lot of turnovers; neither team pays a ton of attention to grabbing offensive boards, while both clean the defensive glass pretty well, and neither team is particularly adept at shooting a ton of threes. But one area where the Cardinal have a decided advantage is in athleticism and the ability for their offensive players to get their own shots. Across the board, things are almost even between these teams, but guys like Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Powell are particularly good at getting their own shots. For instance, Randle takes more than a third of his shots at the rim, makes 60% of those shots and under a quarter of those shots come off assists. What do those particular set of numbers indicate? A guy who beats his man off the bounce and gets to the rim on his own. His two-point jumper numbers are even more extreme; he takes 27% of his shots in such a fashion, makes 46.9% of them and is assisted on less than 2% of those shots. In other words: dribble, dribble, dribble, pull-up jumper. Powell’s and Brown’s numbers are less extreme, but both of those guys have long shown the ability to beat their defender in man-to-man defense and find their own shot. While New Mexico puts together good team defense, if the Cardinal are able to spread the court with effective three-point shooting (they’re knocking in 37% from three when they do get three-point looks this year), it could clear up the middle of the court for Stanford’s superior offensive creators to do their thing.

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Four Keys For Oregon Against BYU Today

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 20th, 2014

Oregon certainly has no shortage of guys that can put the ball in the hoop, with Joseph Young and Jason Calliste among the nation’s most efficient scoring threats. But looking beyond Oregon’s ability to knock in shots from all over the court, below we offer three other keys to Oregon’s chances to advance to the round of 32 by knocking off BYU today.

Mike Moser – For much of Mike Moser’s sophomore season at UNLV, the transfer from UCLA was not only on the very short list of the best players in the Mountain West, but he was in the conversation for All-American consideration. However, his junior year in Vegas was never quite right, with injuries and chemistry problems plaguing him throughout the season. For much of his lone season in Eugene, he looked more like the Moser we saw in his junior season than the one we saw as a sophomore. But then, somewhere in the middle of the season, things began to click for Moser. And, unsurprisingly, it was about the same time things began to click for the Ducks as a whole. Over the course of Oregon’s eight-game winning streak (prior to their Pac-12 quarterfinal loss), Moser averaged 16.6 points and 10.1 boards. And as his offensive game locked in, his focus and effectiveness on the defensive end also improved. In that quarterfinal loss, the passive and ineffective Moser was the rule as he floated around the perimeter offensively and was inattentive and soft defensively. The Ducks will most definitely need the good Moser to show up from here on out in order to survive and advance.

Mike Moser's Play Is A Key For Oregon's Tournament Chances (credit: Michael Shaw)

Mike Moser’s Play Is A Key For Oregon’s Tournament Chances (credit: Michael Shaw)

Defense – It is no secret that Oregon’s defense isn’t the college basketball equivalent of the ’84 Bears. They allow better than a point per possession on the season and ranked 93rd in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency numbers. But the difference between good Oregon and bad Oregon is pretty startling. In their nine losses, the Ducks have allowed 1.14 points per possession. But even those losses shouldn’t all be taken as equal; Dana Altman has clearly had this team work on their defense throughout the year, so they’re better now than they were at the start of January when they began their mid-season swoon. In those first five consecutive losses, the Ducks allowed 1.19 PPP, a number that would put them squarely in the conversation for worst defensive team in the nation. In the Ducks’ 23 wins, they’ve allowed an average of 0.99 points per possession: certainly not great, but the type of number that can allow the Ducks to win. Now, against a potent offense like BYU’s, odds are good that the Ducks won’t meet that kind of number, but the point is this: Oregon’s defense doesn’t have to be great against the Cougars, but it can’t be awful.

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Previewing #8 Colorado vs. #9 Pittsburgh

Posted by Matt Patton & Andrew Murawa on March 20th, 2014

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Pittsburgh will take on Colorado in Orlando at 1:40 PM ET Thursday afternoon on TBS. RTC correspondents Matt Patton and Andrew Murawa sat down and conducted a quick Q&A about the game featuring ACC vs. Pac-12 squads.

Without Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado seems vulnerable especially on offense. (credit: David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Without Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado seems vulnerable, especially on offense. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Matt: Obviously Colorado took a step backwards when it lost Spencer Dinwiddie in January. How have the Buffaloes replaced his offensive production, and is their seed inflated because of what they did with Dinwiddie earlier in the season?

Andrew: The biggest adjustment that Colorado has made to adjust following the Dinwiddie injury was to slide junior Askia Booker – previously known as an inveterate gunner – over to the point guard slot. Since that time, the number of shots per game out of Booker hasn’t changed much (only twice in the 17 games since the Dinwiddie injury has Booker hoisted fewer than 10 field goal attempts), but the quality of those shots has improved and it has been balanced by an obvious interest in getting his teammates involved. Other guys like Xavier Talton and Jaron Hopkins have seen their minutes and production increase as well, but both have been fairly inconsistent. All of this leads to the fact that while it has been admirable how the Buffaloes have held it together after the loss of their floor general, this team isn’t much of a threat to surprise in the NCAA Tournament, and the #8 seed is a generous appraisal of the team that will take the floor on Thursday. Read the rest of this entry »

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Answering Six Questions About Texas vs. Arizona State

Posted by Brian Goodman (@bsgoodman) & Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 19th, 2014

In prepping for Thursday’s #7/#10 matchup between Texas and Arizona State, Big 12 microsite writer Brian Goodman (@bsgoodman) and Pac-12 correspondent Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) had a little Q&A session about both of these teams.

Andrew Murawa: Arizona State’s offense is dictated by the play of speedy point guard Jahii Carson. What can Texas do to slow him down?

Texas Has Struggled With Speedy Guards Like Jahii Carson This Season (Joe Nicholson, USA Today Sports)

Texas Has Struggled With Speedy Guards Like Jahii Carson This Season (Joe Nicholson, USA Today Sports)

Brian Goodman:  This season to date, Texas has faced its fair share of dynamic scoring point guards in Juwan Staten, Marcus Foster, Marcus Smart and Marcus Paige, and more often than not, their defense struggled to contain these players. Based on that track record, I’m not confident Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix will be able to check Carson. The bigger question to me is how many of Carson’s shots will come at the basket and how many will come as the result of creating space farther away from the hoop. Joel Embiid and Isaiah Austin have been the Big 12’s best rim protectors, but Ridley is right there behind them. If he can alter Carson’s angles when he attacks, there’s a chance Texas comes out ahead; but if he can’t, it’s going to be a long day for the Longhorns.

BG: We know all about Carson. After the Sun Devils missed last year’s Tournament, it’s a decent bet that he’s going to look to put on a show, but Jermaine Marshall enters Thursday’s game in a funk over his last three outings. Specifically, what’s been different for him lately and how important is it for him to return to form in Milwaukee?

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NIT and CBI Reaction: Pac-12 Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) & Connor Pelton (@ConnorPelton28) on March 18th, 2014

Three Pac-12 teams that were not invited to the NCAA Tournament ended up receiving NIT or CBI bids. Let’s break them down in this instareaction format.

California – NIT, #2 seed in SMU Quadrant, vs. Utah Valley, 3/19, 7:30 PM PT - The Golden Bears had something of an argument for the NCAA field of 68, but nobody winds up all that shocked that they’re on the outside looking in. So, now, rather than playing for a national championship (at least in theory), Mike Montgomery and company have to shift gears and find something else to play for over their remaining games. For seniors like Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, such a shift will be difficult, as the NIT is clearly not where those guys hoped to be ending their careers. But, for youngsters like Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird, and Sam Singer, and even junior Ricky Kreklow, whose career has been limited some by injury problems, maybe they can use the NIT as a springboard towards the inevitably larger roles that they’ll have to take on next season. As for match-ups, they will get a Utah Valley team in the opener that they should be able to outclass on talent alone, but beyond that, they will need to begin bringing their A-games, as either Arkansas or Indiana State could give them a serious push in the second-round game.

California Highlights The Pac-12's Representation In The NIT

California Highlights The Pac-12’s Representation In The NIT

Utah – NIT, #5 seed in Minnesota’s Quadrant, at Saint Mary’s, 3/18, 8:00 PM PT, ESPN2 – The Utes got jobbed. Plain and simple. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Going by the eye test, this team should have been one of the first four or five left out of the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the NIT selection committee relied far too much on strength of schedule and relegated Utah to a first round road game. Saint Mary’s, who most projected to barely sneak into the NIT, receives a better seed and will host the Utes. The Gaels finished fourth in the WCC and fell to Gonzaga in the semifinals of their conference tournament. They opened the year at 9-0, then went to Honolulu, got distracted by the beach, and fell hard from the ranks of the unbeaten. First came a loss against South Carolina. Then Hawaii nipped them, and then George Mason did the same on Christmas morning. And after sneaking past Pacific a few days later, they went up to Spokane and got hammered for a 22-point loss against the Zags. Things have been up and down since, with a little more good than bad, and the Gaels enter the NIT at a 22-11 clip.

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