Best of the West: Ranking the Top 20 Teams West of the Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 17th, 2014

We’re a little more than a quarter of the way through the season now, so it is time to roll out our first edition of Best in the West. We’re going to take all the schools west of the Rockies (and we’re going to be a bit generous with our geography here – basically we’re looking at schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and Big West, and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and WAC) and give you the top 20 teams as of today. But rather than just ranking schools #1 though #20, we’re going to divide them up into tiers, mostly because I don’t think putting Gonzaga at #2 when they played Arizona into overtime in Tucson feels right to anybody.

Here are our Top 20 teams in the West (their overall ranking is in parentheses), with descriptions of what the teams in each tier have in common as well as brief comments on each school.

The Best of the Best  – In a league of their own.

  • Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – There have been some growing pains for the Wildcats, but with an unblemished record and wins over Kansas State, San Diego State, Gonzaga and Michigan, they’ve still got a ways to go before they tap out on their potential.
Arizona and Gonzaga Played A Fun One A Week Back, Proving Themselves Nearly Equal

Arizona and Gonzaga Played A Fun One A Week Back, Proving Themselves Nearly Equal. (AP)

  • Gonzaga (#2 overall, WCC #1) – Really, the Zags are more of a #1A in this tier. An overtime loss at Arizona in which they didn’t play all that well and let some good chances slip away bodes well for their upside. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Four

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 15th, 2014

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Utah

There were quite a few deserving teams this week. Arizona whooped the god-knows-what out of a reeling Michigan team. Oregon went on the “road” and beat a good Illinois team in a hardly neutral United Center. But you know what’s even better than a good “road” win? A real road win against a quality intrastate rival, followed up by a trip to the middle of the country to face a blue-blood program in their own backyard on national television and showing for all the college basketball world that you are a legitimate top-20 team. Now, that’s not to say this week wasn’t without some warts for the Utes. Their win at BYU, while a quality road win in a tough environment, was more annoying than anything else. And their battle with Kansas in Kansas City, while eventually a good showing against a quality opponent, was also frustrating in part due to a lackluster showing late in the first half and missed opportunities late in the game. Any doubts as to Utah’s standing on a national stage should be completely gone by now.

(Also receiving votes: Arizona, Oregon)

The RTC Pac-12 Team of the Week Is Certainly Something Worth Celebrating (AP)

The RTC Pac-12 Team of the Week Is Certainly Something Worth Celebrating (AP)

Player of the Week: Delon Wright, Utah

Well, there was this. And then, there was this. And then just the opening of the Kansas game, where he threw in an amazing running bank before stealing the inbounds pass and drilling a 15-footer. The wows don’t stop with the Utah star. For the week, we’re talking 20.5 points, 8.0 boards, 3.5 assists, 3 steals, 1.5 blocks per game and a 65.2% eFG. Those numbers don’t even do him justice.

(Also receiving votes: Tyrone Wallace, Cal)

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Utah vs. Kansas: Three Keys on Each Side

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 12th, 2014

One of the bigger games of the weekend takes place in Kansas City on Saturday, with Utah riding its recent success to take a shot at the Jayhawks. Below, Pac-12 microsite writer Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) and Big 12 microsite writer Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) break down the keys for the Utes and Jayhawks, respectively.

Three Keys for Utah

The Glass. Given recent history and if you didn’t know anything about these teams’ current rosters, you’d figure that the Kansas roster is filled with glass-eating big men while the Utes were made up of undersized, scrappy kids along the front line. Instead it is Utah that has the seven-footer in the middle, long and athletic wings littering the roster, and a 6’5” future pro running the point. Freshman center Jakob Poeltl is the best offensive rebounder in the nation (grabbing more than 20 percent of his team’s misses when he’s on the floor), while the rest of the Utah bigs go equally hard to the boards on offense, and their guards even chip in a bit too. Priority one, as Utah faces a Kansas team with its own future lottery pick in the middle (Cliff Alexander), is to continue to outrebound its foe, especially on the offensive end. Guys like Poeltl and Chris Reyes and Brekkot Chapman (to name just a few) may not be all that polished on the offensive end, so getting easy hoops in the paint will be a prerequisite to any hopes of a Utah win in Kansas City.

A big day from Delon Wright is paramount to Utah's chances of beating Kansas tomorrow (USA TODAY Sports)

A big day from Delon Wright is paramount to Utah’s chances of beating Kansas. (USA TODAY Sports)

The Star. Delon Wright is undeniably very good. He does almost everything on the court: He scores in the paint and in transition, sets up teammates with easy hoops, rebounds the ball on both ends of the floor, grabs steals, blocks shots, provides on-court leadership, and even gets to the line and knocks in his freebies. But in Utah’s one loss this season, he was, well, not good. Against San Diego State, he made just two of his 13 field goal attempts (both in the waning moments of a comeback attempt), turned it over three times, and was generally ineffective in helping his team put points on the scoreboard. That can’t happen against Kansas tomorrow. He needs to play within himself, set up his teammates and, when the opportunity presents itself, get his own. If Wright has a subpar game, Utah cannot win. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marching to Vegas: Colorado’s Jump-Start Hasn’t Quite Started

Posted by Adam Butler on December 12th, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

The Colorado Buffaloes seem to be developing into a very curious case. Their season hasn’t quite developed the way we thought it would. Thus far the “jump-start” Tad Boyle called last year’s Spencer Dinwiddie-less time appears to have been a preview. When he went down with his season-ending injury, the Buffs had an offensive rating that was – well – offensive. From the injury onward, Colorado’s offensive rating was just 96 points per 100 possessions. This year the Buffs are putting up an improvement on that number, but not by much. They’re scoring 102.1 points per 100 possessions, which would be the second worst mark of the Boyle era. Their defense is stacking up, however, if you look at the numbers. It’s about on par with previous years, ranking just slightly lower than previous campaigns (NOTE: This is a uniquely defensive season).

Tad Boyle's Buffs Are Playing Very Un-Boyle-Like Defense

Tad Boyle’s Buffs Are Playing Very Un-Boyle-Like Defense

But there is something different there, too. Colorado is yielding the highest percentage of shots at the rim and from distance. Ever. If we examine the unexamined stat – percentage of shots from two-point distance – we find that teams take just 16% of their shots against them as two-point jumpers. To break this down, Colorado is allowing teams to primarily take the easiest shot (at the rim 40% of the time) or the most rewarding shot (behind the arc 44% of the time). In my estimation, that’s not a recipe for success. It’s also a deviation from how they’ve previously played and – heading into conference play – it’s worth noting that the Pac-12 has two teams in the top 25 in field goal percentage at the rim (Arizona and Utah) as well as two teams in the top 25 in three-point field goal percentage (ASU and Utah). If we’re projecting this out, those seem to be teams that are built to take it right at Colorado’s defense. Read the rest of this entry »

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Dear Utah: Seriously, Can You Learn How to Close the Door?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 11th, 2014

Against Wichita State, it was sort of heartwarming; Utah getting that close-game monkey off their back (they had been 3-9 in games decided by two possesions or less since Delon Wright put on a Utah uniform at the start of last season). The fact that they had to blow a comfortable lead in the waning moments to make the game close to begin with was forgivable givne the final result. Against BYU on Wednesday night, heartwarming turned into heartburn.

Winning Easily Seems To Fit As Awkwardly On The Utes As A Suit Jacket Does On Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak

Winning Easily Seems To Fit As Awkwardly On The Utes As A Suit Jacket Does On Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak

Really, by the time this game reached the first TV timeout early in the first half, there was no doubt as to who was the better team, who had more talent. Sure, BYU’s Tyler Haws is an elite scorer capable of keeping his team in a lot of games it has no business being in. And Kyle Collinsworth? Goodness. I have neither the time nor the imminent desire to list all the things I love about that dude’s game. But beyond that, the rest of that BYU roster is more or less indistinguishable from any other random team that will likely be on the periphery of NCAA Tournament discussion in a few months. They’ve got some decent parts (Anson Winder is nice, Chase Fischer is flammable, some passable bigs), but on a whole, there ain’t a whole lot to write home about beyond those two.

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Washington: Why Don’t We Trust the Huskies?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 9th, 2014

With it’s big 49-36 win over San Diego State on Sunday night, Washington jumped in to the AP Top 25, appearing as the last team on the list. For a proud program under Lorenzo Romar that was once a regular fixture in those rankings, this is the first time the Huskies have been there in nearly four years (February 2011). But interestingly enough, the Huskies are not in the RTC Top 25 this week, so clearly they still have something to prove to some in the college basketball community. What gives? Why the lack of trust in a Washington team that not only has a convincing win over the nationally regarded Aztecs, but also a Wooden Legacy title under its belt? The Huskies are holding opponents to a 37.2% eFG this season, good for fourth in the nation, and they’re 38th in adjusted defensive efficiency, a mark they haven’t seen over the course of an entire season since Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon were wearing purple and gold. These guys must be for real, right?

Robert Upshaw's Presence In The Middle Has Helped The Huskies Out To A Dominating Defensive Start (Dean Rutz, Seattle Times)

Robert Upshaw’s Presence In The Middle Has Helped The Huskies Out To A Dominating Defensive Start (Dean Rutz, Seattle Times)

Don’t worry Huskies’ fans. This is not the point where you get the comedown of a “not so fast.” Fact is, there is a lot to like here. And room to get better. Those defensive numbers are probably a bit overblown, in part due to San Diego State’s inability to hit anything en route to a 22.2% eFG on Sunday night. But, with shotblocker extraordinaire Robert Upshaw manning the middle for about 20 minutes per game (his 21.4% block rate – the percent of opponent’s two-point field goal attempts he blocks while he’s on the floor – is the best in the nation), and with fellow intimidating interior presences in Jernard Jarreau and Shawn Kemp, Jr., the Huskies are going to be seriously tough to score on inside all year long. That frees up perimeter defenders to really pressure perimeter players, running them off the three-point line and forcing them into tougher and less rewarding field goal attempts. The 24.4 percent rate they are allowing from behind the three-point line thus far this season is in no way sustainable, but the strategy is. Read the rest of this entry »

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Colorado’s Dilemma and Bad Offensive Basketball

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 9th, 2014

With Colorado’s 64-57 loss at Georgia on Sunday morning, Tad Boyle’s club has now played two games against teams ranked in KenPom’s top 100. Both of those games were on the road, so take that into account, but the Buffaloes have looked absolutely terrible, especially on the offensive end, and are now 0-2 in those games. In 114 offensive possessions, Colorado has scored 90 points, good for 0.79 points per possession. In easy terms: not good. One bad performance early in the season can be written off (Stanford and Michigan, take note), but two of those hints a trend. And we’re deep enough into the season now to start taking some long-term lessons from what we’ve seen. And my first lesson about the state of Colorado basketball is that this offense needs some serious medicine.

A Month Into The Season, Tad Boyle Has Plenty To Be Upset About On The Offensive End (Jeremy Papasso, AP Photo)

A Month Into The Season, Tad Boyle Has Plenty To Be Upset About On The Offensive End. (Jeremy Papasso, AP Photo)

You can look at the box score from the Georgia game and jump right to one statistic: 2-0f-17 on three-point attempts. Hey, maybe if the Buffs had a bit better luck from three, they’re right in the game with the Bulldogs, right? Well, not so fast. This offense is not built around three-point shooting. As it is, those 17 three-point attempts show up as just 28.8 percent of the team’s field goal attempts, lower than their percentage of three-point field goal attempts on the season, already a low number by national standards. Furthermore, seven of those three-point attempts came in the games’ final four minutes as the Buffaloes were in scramble mode trying to get back into the game. Sure, this isn’t a particularly great three-point shooting team, and that is an issue. But it is not the issue.

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Three

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 9th, 2014

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Utah

Utah's Win Wednesday Night Over Wichita State Was A Rare Recent Success, But Bodes Well For the Future (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Utah’s Win Wednesday Night Over Wichita State Was A Rare Recent Success, But Bodes Well For the Future (Rick Bowmer, AP)

In a week when there were several strong candidates around the conference thanks to big wins against nationally-regarded programs (hey to Arizona and Washington), the Utes get the nod in part because of the rarity of such wins recently around the program and in part due to the manner in which they won the game. First, as to the rarity, in their three previous seasons in the Pac-12, Utah has exactly one win per year over teams that finished the season ranked in the KenPom top 40, with the best win coming against UCLA last season. But for this program, the win over Wichita State (currently ranked #7 by KenPom) looks to be just the first of several quality victories this year rather than an isolated incident. As to the second point, the manner in which the Utes won, let’s put it this way: It was thrilling. Not only does this program not have a recent history of winning against quality programs, but they also have dealt with the back-monkey of dropping close games in heartbreaking fashion. Toward the end of Wednesday night’s win, it looked for a few moments like the Utes were going to reprise that same old song. Instead, they recovered to nail down their big win and earn some much-needed confidence.

(Also receiving votes: Washington)

Player of the Week: Tyrone Wallace, California

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Marching to Vegas: On Washington State and Patience

Posted by Adam Butler on December 5th, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops again will be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference, as we begin the March to Las Vegas.

This is a column about Washington State. It’s an odd premise and one we don’t usually delve in to. The Cougar program has won thirteen of their previous thirty eight contests, just 34% of their games. It’s a great batting average; a terrible win percentage. They’ve been outscored by 202 points. A great bowling score; a terrible scoring differential. By almost all basketball metrics, the Cougars have been trending downward since 2011: fewer points, lesser efficiencies, fewer fans, and fewer wins. It’s not looking good for a team – a program – just a handful of seasons removed from a top-10 ranking. Alas, their heyday came amidst UCLAs and that program is on to another coach as well.

Ernie Kent Took On Quite A Challenge When He Accepted The Washington State Job (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Ernie Kent Took On Quite A Challenge When He Accepted The Washington State Job (Rick Bowmer, AP)

So when Ernie Kent was hired, it seemed to be a shot in the arm. Albeit a surprising and interesting one, Kent won’t soon be accused of being “low energy.” He might be exactly what Washington State needed. He knocked on doors pretending to be lost, engaging with the Palouse, embracing his new home and reminding people that basketball, Cougar basketball, could be fun. That the downward trends of yesteryear could soon be over. He took the stage at media day and dropped names like Roy Williams and John Calipari. As soon as he was Mr. Cougar (or is that Butch?), he got on stage and told us about all his famous friends. He’d consulted the brightest minds about being a great coach. Tom Izzo was noted at Pac-12 media day. Marketing sometimes isn’t about product recognition as much as market expansion. Maybe you won’t be a WSU fan, but you sure could be a basketball fan. The room swooned at Ernie’s words.

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Huge Win For Utah in a Non-Conference Classic

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 4th, 2014

If you’ve been paying attention here, you knew the stats: last year Utah was 3-8 in games decided by two possessions or less. This season they extended that number to 3-9 with a four-point loss at San Diego State. Throw in the extra little point that only one of those three close wins last year came against an NCAA Tournament team, and you had to feel unsure about the Utes’ chances in the middle of the second half when they appeared to be locked into a duel with everybody’s favorite, the Wichita State Shockers. Even as the Utes appeared to be the more dynamic team on the floor in this game once they settled down about mid-way through the first half, the Shockers kept sticking around and making championship-level plays. That is, right up until their water got turned off by excellent Utah defense for possession after possession in the middle of the second half. A consistently tight game turned into an 11-point lead for the Utes with five minutes left, a lead that remained at seven with 80 seconds left. And it appeared the game was in hand. And then: oh Utah. Wichita: three. Then a five-second call and a unshocking three. Then a turnover on the inbounds pass and then another Wichita three. And then… “Sure, okay, this is how 3-10 is going to happen.”

Freshman Seven-Footer Jakob Poeltl Helped Lead The Utes To An Exciting Win (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Freshman Seven-Footer Jakob Poeltl Helped Lead The Utes To An Exciting Win (Rick Bowmer, AP)

But then, this team with all this talent… They… Well, is “grew a pair” too much? This matchup was a game with actual consequences for both teams. Wichita is getting exactly two cracks at the Big Five conference teams this season, and this was one of them. Utah, while still having chances at quality wins later in December, was on the verge of adding on another layer of lacquer to that reputation of a team that can’t win in the clutch. Both of these teams had very strong reasons to take this game extremely seriously. And in the middle of all this, Utah takes Wichita’s best shot (albeit in the friendly confines of the Huntsman Center) and shows a serious toughness down the stretch of regulation to force overtime and eventually eke out a tough win. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac Previews: Utah vs. Wichita State & Arizona State vs. UNLV

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 3rd, 2014

With Feast Week behind us and finals on the horizon, things are about to slow down just a little bit in college basketball. Come this weekend, we’ll have all sorts of interesting games on the slate — Arizona State vs. Texas A&M, Gonzaga vs. Arizona, Mississippi vs. Oregon, Colorado vs. Georgia and Washington vs. San Diego State — and not necessarily in that order, that have me intrigued. But between now and then, there are just two match-ups that we can recommend in good conscience, both taking place on Pac-12 home courts tonight. Below, we’ll preview the headliner – Wichita State at Utah – as well as an interesting undercard as UNLV visits Arizona State.

Wichita State at Utah, 8:00 PM PST, ESPN2

Unless you’re a big-time Utes fan or an inveterate college hoops junkie, the last time you saw Utah play it was falling short in a late mid-afternoon run at a comeback against San Diego State. Since then, the Utes have performed mop-up duty against a quartet of teams all ranked in the bottom 20 percent of Division I, winning those four games by an average of 36.3 points per game. The Shockers, meanwhile, have played three teams ranked between #50 and #75 by KenPom and won those games by an average of 17.3 points per game. While they are known for their perimeter players – guards Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker earned preseason All-America consideration, and senior Tekele Cotton is one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders — Wichita State is a team that plays inside out, getting dribble penetration into the lane and creating opportunities from there. As such, priority number one is stopping that penetration, something Utah is well-suited for with elite defenders Delon Wright and Brandon Taylor leading the way. Perhaps more significant to the Utes’ chances would be the presence of shot-blocking freshman phenom Jakob Poeltl protecting the rim should Van Vleet get into the paint. Likewise, on the other end, Poeltl’s skills in the post and the Utes’ offensive rebounding strength (they’re 18th in the nation with a 40.8% offensive rebounding rate – but remind yourself of that level of competition) could be a pain in the neck to a team without an established player taller than 6’7”.

Delon Wright And Utah Need To Prove They're Ready For The National Stage

Delon Wright And Utah Need To Prove They’re Ready For The National Stage. (Getty)

But really, match-ups and Xs-and-Os are in some ways missing the point of this game for Utah. The Utes have already shown that they can play with the big boys. They battled San Diego State to a four-point road loss (keeping in mind that the final score was a touch closer than reality); they played Arizona to a nine-point margin at the McKale Center last season, then took the ‘Cats to overtime in Salt Lake City later on. Last year they also split with Colorado (including a road loss in overtime) and took Oregon to overtime as well before losing. We know that this team is talented enough to play with some of the best teams in the country — what they have yet to show us is that it can beat those teams, can perform in clutch situations and make good decisions when the pressure is on. Against the Aztecs two weeks ago, the stage was a little too bright for them. They’ve had a chance since then to workshop their script in what amounts to little more than dress rehearsals. If the nation can stay awake on Wednesday night after the Duke/Wisconsin game, they’ll get a chance to see if this Utah team is ready for the spotlight. Read the rest of this entry »

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Surveying Feast Week Carnage Around the Pac-12

Posted by AMurawa on December 1st, 2014

Feast Week around the Pac-12 didn’t bring a whole lot of comfort to the conference. Seven teams around the league played in tournament-style events and only two even made it out of their first game and into the championship side of the bracket, with four of the remaining five teams taking two losses on the week. There was good news, however, as Arizona won the Maui Invitational with a workmanlike win over San Diego State and Washington earned the Wooden Legacy title with solid wins over an underwhelming field. And the teams that did not participate in tournaments this week (including Utah, who hosted a round robin event against overmatched opponents) combined to post a 10-1 record. Of course, that “1” on the right side of the record was an inexplicable Stanford loss to DePaul. Below, we’ll take a quick spin around the conference and get you caught up.

Stanley Johnson Is Turning Into A Disruptive Defensive Force (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Stanley Johnson Is Turning Into A Disruptive Defensive Force (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Arizona – The Wildcats have not yet looked spectacular this season, in racing out to a 6-0 start. But as they showed against the Aztecs on Wednesday, this is a team with chemistry and toughness, traits that should help them weather the storm as they work towards living up to their incredible upside. Things are coming along slowly but surely, Stanley Johnson is getting comfortable offensively and turning showing his ability to disrupt things defensively and everybody is feeling each other out. It will come all in due time; they’ve still got three months to dial things in before March rolls around. But in the meantime, even as we can pick apart little faults, the ‘Cats have confirmed what we already thought: Sean Miller’s team is the class of the conference. Read the rest of this entry »

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