Best in the West: The 20 Best Teams West Of The Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 26th, 2016

Here’s something we occasionally do: group all of the teams west of the Rockies (you know, the only part of the country, save Austin, New Orleans, Memphis and maybe New York City worth a damn) together, mix them up and see what order they shake out in. This means we’ve got all of the teams in the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and Big West Conferences, plus some of the schools in the WAC and Big Sky. And normally, instead of just ranking teams the traditional way, we divide them up into tiers. The idea is that there may be two great teams that have serious Final Four dreams and then a significant fall off when talking about team number three. This year in the West? Not so much. Apropos of the rest of the nation, there are no elite teams. And on any given Saturday (or Thursday, or Wednesday), there’s a good chance whoever checks in a half-page down this list can play with the first team we mention. But still, here’s a best effort at placing the best in the West into tiers.

The Best of the Best: Legitmate Top 25 teams

  • Oregon (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Since back in the middle of the summer, I’ve had the Ducks at the top of the Pac-12. With Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis added to the mix, the Ducks have long had the prospect of being, a deep, veteran, long, balanced squad. Some of those strengths (depth and experience, mainly) have been diminished with the season that wasn’t for Ennis (out for season with broken foot), but Dana Altman’s presence at the helm of a talented group should mean that this team’s best days are ahead of it. With the shot-blocking combination of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher along the backline and the perimeter defenders like Casey Benson, Dwayne Benjamin and Tyler Dorsey, this team still has a ways to go before it reaches it’s defensive potential, as it is just 69th in the nation in defensive efficiency. The defense has to improve, but if it does, the Ducks’ offense is diverse and explosive enough to drag them a long ways into March.
Hey, Did You Know That Bell Boucher Is A Type Of Banjo? And A Great Shotblocking Combo?

Bell-Boucher: Both A Banjo And A Great Shot-blocking Combo!

  • Arizona (#2 overall, Pac-12 #2) – A one-point loss at California qualifies as a good result in a West that mimics the national landscape by not having any one dominant team. Every one of the Wildcats’ losses has been a tightly fought contest, with a four-point neutral-court loss against Providence to join three conference road losses that came by an average of two points (and four total overtimes). In short, Arizona is, on January 23rd, six possessions away from a perfect 20-0 record, despite the absence of senior Kaleb Tarczewski for eight games, freshman Allonzo Trier for the last four games and junior Elliott Pitts for the last 13 games. While this is by no mean a vintage Arizona team, Sean Miller is the best coach in the West and you can count on him getting the absolute most out of a flawed roster.

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Marching to Vegas: The Year Of The Bigs

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on January 22nd, 2016

The following is far from scientific but interesting nonetheless. It became an exercise in qualification as opposed to quantification, visualizing the results of the experiment rather than discovering specific measures of validity. The question at hand wasn’t so much a question as it was a feeling, a healthy topic of conversation: sure seems there’s a lot of really good Pac-12 bigs this year. Feels a lot like that exhaustive list of great guards we had in 2014. Do you remember two years ago? That was the year Nick Johnson won the conference’s player of the year award while Joe Young and Jason Calliste lit things up from Eugene, Jahii Carson single-handedly changed how Herb Sendek coached, UCLA featured Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson and neither was the highest drafted Bruin guard, CJ Wilcox became a first rounder, and we were introduced to a young man named Delon Wright. Guard play, in the 2014 Pac-12 season, was phenomenal. And this year it seems, in a league long and spread on talent, that skill has centralized in the front court. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great guards, but that 2014 list (wildly incomplete above) seems to have given way to a big heavy (not redundant) 2016. Here’s that unscientific list:

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 12.07.30 AM

I told you it wasn’t scientific. And I’m not going to measure the number of primary guards (greens) versus bigs (red) in this list of top offensive efficiencies in the Pac-12. There are also so many different ways to qualify “good.” But isn’t this kinda interesting, right? The conference is front court top heavy right now. We aren’t cementing anything, because this is but one “available” measure. Jakob Poeltl might be the best Pac big since Kevin Love.

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Burning Questions: Pac-12’s Best Wing

Posted by Mike Lemaire (@Mike_Lemaire), Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) and Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 22nd, 2016

We started out by assessing the Pac-12 point guards. Last week we moved onto the big men. This week we’re looking at the slashers and shooters (sounds dangerous) manning the wing in the conference. We asked three of our guys: who’s the best wing in the Pac, and unlike those first two questions (where Payton and Poeltl were heavy favorites), this one is wide open. Answers below.

Adam Butler: I always struggle with whether or not to call the college basketball season a sprint or a marathon. It’s easy to equate it to both, knowing that November losses can be meaningless with a strong sprint to the finish. Conversely, sprinting out of the gate (i.e. Washington last season) doesn’t alway suggest super success. This, of course, is a lead to consider that so long as you can endure the marathon and garner an invitation to the sprint (March Madness) your team is best suited by having the best players. I don’t care about your efficiencies, team chemistry, peaking, drowning, front court, back court, history — if you have the best players in the NCAA tournament you have a chance. Jaylen Brown might be the best player. His shooting stroke leaves something to be desired (28% isn’t good from three), but as the game trends towards the rim, so too does Brown’s. The 6’7″ power wing is connecting on 72% of his attempts at the rim. Furthermore, 45% of all his attempts are at the rim. Ipso facto, as math would suggest, Brown is getting lots of easy buckets. And if they’re not easy buckets, they’re free throws (10th highest FT rate in the conference). For some context surrounding his rim abilities, Stanley Johnson — a similarly sized power wing — took just 29% of his shots at the rim, connecting on only 53% of those attempts. I’d like to see him curb his turnovers and hit a few more jumpers if we’re considering his NBA prospects, but when it comes to bullying NCAA players, Brown might be my first pick.

Jaylen Brown's Ability To Bully Smaller Players Gets Him One Vote (USA Today)

Jaylen Brown’s Ability To Bully Smaller Players Gets Him One Vote. (USA Today)

Mike Lemaire: In terms of potential and ability, California’s Jaylen Brown is probably the easy answer. But in terms of production and importance to his team’s success, it is a close race between UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Alford is fifth in the conference in scoring (16.9 PPG); he is tied for second in assists per game (5.2 APG); and he leads the conference in free-throw percentage. Brooks is ninth in the conference in scoring (15.5 PPG); he is 14th in the conference in rebounding (6.6 RPG); and he is right behind Alford at second in free-throw percentage. Also, both guys play more than 30 minutes per game and have similar usage rates. It comes down to Brooks’ vastly superior defense vs. Alford’s vastly superior shooting. In a pinch, the pick here is Brooks because he has a big impact on the game at both ends of the floor. Read the rest of this entry »

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Assessing Andy Enfield’s Accomplishments At USC

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 19th, 2016

Andy Enfield’s first two seasons at USC were…let’s just say underwhelming. An overall record of 23-41 actually looked good next to his conference record of 5-31. What little news Enfield was generating was by way of his mouth, rather than the effectiveness of his team’s play on the court. There was the intended-to-be-off-the-record shot at the cross-town rival (“if you want to play slow, go to UCLA”). Then there was the feud with former USC and current UTEP head coach Tim Floyd, which started over accusations that Enfield tampered with UTEP commit (and current UCLA junior) Isaac Hamilton. That spat continued with Enfield’s shots about Floyd wanting the USC job and suffering through life in El Paso. There were whispers around the Pac-12 grapevine about his inability to coach players up or make in-game adjustments. Despite a roster that was growing in talent, appropriate improvement in the standings hadn’t follow. Even in-house, there were doubts. As late as the Pac-12 Tournament last season, the Trojan program looked to be a complete mess.

The Andy Enfield Era At USC Took Some Time To Get Off The Ground (AP)

The Andy Enfield Era At USC Took Some Time To Get Off The Ground (AP)

Skip ahead through an offseason defined by roster stability and the addition of two highly regarded freshmen bigs. Jump forward to the open of the season where the Trojans won their first four games, all at home, showing off the open-court excitement that the Enfield administration initially promised. Now fast-forward through Thanksgiving weekend, where the excitement of a win over (Fred Van Vleet-less) Wichita State was tempered by ten-point losses to Xavier and Monmouth – teams that we now know are very good. The rest of non-conference play was made to be ignored (six wins over middling, at best, teams). So let’s jump right to what matters: conference play. With five games in the books, the Trojans are atop the conference standings and looking like a legitimate threat to win this thing. Yes, USC and Andy Enfield are Pac-12 title contenders. What the hell happened here?

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It’s Time Everyone Started Appreciating Gary Payton II

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 15th, 2016

Colorado blew out Oregon State on Wednesday night behind 25 points and 12 rebounds from Josh Scott to improve to 2-2 in the Pac-12 standings. But with apologies to the victors, that game may have been a better display for the skills of another league star: Gary Payton II. The senior guard, or, as the Colorado student section dubbed him, “Daddy’s Shadow”, exploded for a career-high 26 points and season-high 15 rebounds in the losing effort. He also did this. Which, if you have been staying up late to watch the Pac-12 in the last two weeks, is becoming a regular occurrence.

Gary Payton II Is Not Only The Best Point In The Pac, He's One Of It's Best Players (Oregon State Athletics)

Gary Payton II Is Making His Case To PAC-12 Opponents and NBA Scouts Alike This Season (Oregon State Athletics)

Even in defeat, Payton owned everyone’s attention. He was pretty much working on his own, but that didn’t seem to matter; the senior had posted nearly a double-double at halftime, then scored 18 points in the second half when he was clearly the only option. Payton was impossible to keep out of the lane (he went 9-of-10 from the charity stripe) and off the offensive glass (five of his 15 rebounds came there). His full line: 26 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three turnovers. These kinds of stat lines are also becoming a regular occurrence.

Four days earlier in a home win against California, Payton posted a 20-point, 11-rebound, eight-assist, four-steal performance (against just one turnover). Three days before that, he had 22 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and just two turnovers in the loss to Stanford. Before that, it was a modest 12/6/6 effort in the win over Oregon. It’s still early, but Payton leads the conference in steal percentage (4.2%) and assist rate (small sample size, but 40.7% is elite); he is also fourth in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage and 19th in offensive rebounding percentage (not bad for a wing). In short, Payton has been both the best and most entertaining player in the conference since New Year’s Day.

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Burning Questions: Pac-12’s Best Big Man?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 15th, 2016

Last week we offered up a discussion on the best point guard in the Pac-12. Today, we turn from the little men to the big ones, as we discuss the best players in the conference at the positions of power forward and center. Below, our writers weigh in on the subject.

Jakob Poeltl: The Pac's Best Big (Utah Basketball)

Jakob Poeltl: The PAC’s Best Big (Utah Basketball)

Mike Lemaire: Unlike the point guard question where a case can be made for multiple guys, this honor without question goes to Utah’s Jakob Poeltl. He has long been an obvious lottery pick thanks to his remarkable skill and size, but he refined his offensive game during the offseason and it is now paying big dividends. He is among the national leaders in effective field goal percentage (34th) and true shot percentage (39th) while doubling his assist rate (14.2%), cutting down on his turnover rate (15.6%) and significantly improving his free-throw shooting (from 43% to 68%). In fact, inconsistency at the charity stripe is one of Poeltl’s few offensive flaws and it is clear he is working to iron out that imperfection. Lest we forget, Poeltl is also still an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor (top 150 nationally in both) and is a game-changing shot-blocker (6.1%). One could argue that Cal’s Ivan Rabb has more long-term upside, but considering Poeltl has less help on the perimeter, his success is impressive to ignore. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marching to Vegas: In Defense of the Pac

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on January 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 is exactly what we want it to be, at least in a season like this. In a conference whose most tenured coach has a 0.456 winning percentage over his last four seasons and the second most tenured is Johnny Dawkins, we’ve got what we want. The Pac isn’t producing basketball we’ll soon tell our grandchildren about or write new defensive schematics to contain something transcendent. Only Bill Walton could contextualize the Pac-12 as historically brilliant right now. He’s wrong. He knows he’s wrong but he’ll say it anyway because he’s Bill Walton and he’s forgotten more basketball than we’ll ever know. What if he’s right, though (he’s not)?

Don't Worry Pac-12, We've Got Your Back.

Don’t Worry Pac-12, We’ve Got Your Back.

Because right now the Pac-12 is competitive. We can quantify that, for starters. Noting that 45 percent of its games – according to KenPom – have been close; that there hasn’t been a “blowout” of 19-points or more through 29 conference games. Remember 2012, when we lamented what a poor Pac-12 we had? Just 19 percent of those games were close and 18 percent were blowouts. That’s nearly 40 percent of conference basketball with seemingly no balance. Think about that. In easily the worst Pac play we’ve ever seen, the games weren’t even close. Competition breeds success. The Pac-12 in 2016 isn’t the greatest basketball we’ve ever seen. In 2009 it collectively led the nation in efficiency. This year it’s 15th. But when I sit down to watch Pac-12 basketball, I’m watching an entertaining product. We’re watching a game worth celebrating and not lamenting because there aren’t necessarily rosters littered with disciplined executioners (2015 Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Arizona, Virginia) or uber-talented transcendents (2015 Kentucky, Duke). This isn’t last season. If you want that, here’s a link to CSN Bay Area and all of the Warriors highlights you can handle. And yes, it is unfair to compare anything to those Warriors. It’s also unfair to compare any of these 2016 teams against what was a historically fantastic 2015. Read the rest of this entry »

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Replacing Allonzo Trier: Arizona’s Conference Title Chances?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 12th, 2016

When Arizona lost senior center Kaleb Tarczewski to a strained muscle in his foot more than a month ago, the Wildcats didn’t miss a beat. They won seven of the eight games that he missed and backup Dusan Ristic performed admirably in his stead. A little more than a month later, Arizona finds itself in a similar situation as freshman Allonzo Trier is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a broken hand. This time, however, the Wildcats are going to have a much tougher time plugging the hole.

Arizona Will Have A Tough Time Replacing Allonzo Trier

Arizona Will Have A Tough Time Replacing Allonzo Trier. (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

In a conference full of talented freshmen, Trier has quietly been one of the best. His immediate impact has been a big reason why the Wildcats have been able to weather their talent exodus from last season. Not only does the Seattle native lead Arizona in scoring (14.8 PPG), but he is also the team’s most efficient scorer (64.0% TS%) thanks to his success scoring from inside the three-point line and his ability to make free throws at a near-80 percent clip. He is still a work in progress defensively, but he is the team’s second-best three-point shooter (35.1% 3FG) and has been borderline irreplaceable in the lineup. And therein lies the biggest issue for Arizona moving forward – it doesn’t really have anyone on the roster who can suitably replace him. Ironically enough, when Tarczewski went down, Trier was the primary beneficiary. Before the big man got hurt, Trier hadn’t yet eclipsed 30 minutes in a game and was averaging 11.6 PPG. Since that time Trier played at least 30 minutes in all but three games and was averaging a more robust 16.1 PPG. The problem now is that the perimeter-starved Wildcats don’t have another five-star freshman to take his place in the rotation. Read the rest of this entry »

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Making Sense of the Wild Pac-12 Standings

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 11th, 2016

We’re now through two weeks of Pac-12 play and Washington sits alone atop the conference with a 3-0 record. USC, Oregon State and Oregon are the next three teams, with only one loss. Teams among the conference favorites – for example, Arizona and Utah – sit with sub-.500 records. And Arizona State, a team expected to be in the mix somewhere in the middle of the conference race, is sitting alone in last place with an 0-3 record. Sure, given that teams have only played a fraction of the conference schedule, most of this is meaningless. But here are some more relevant facts. At halfway through the college basketball regular season, 11 of the 12 conference teams are ranked among the KenPom top 100 — only Washington State sits out at #122. If RPI is more your thing (for some reason), those 11 teams rank among the top 75 of that metric. If you want to throw out Stanford and Washington, the top nine teams in the conference rank among the top 66 in KenPom and the top 48 in RPI. The conference is listed as the #2 strongest collection of teams in the land by RPI, while KenPom puts the league third. Oregon is rated highest in RPI (#11), while Arizona tops KenPom at #16.

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It's Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It’s Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Enough numbers for now; the important question is what do they all mean? To begin with, this is a conference that runs deep with good teams. In a season seeming to lack great teams on a national level, the Pac-12 will again be expected to extend its streak of seasons without a Final Four entrant to eight. However, because of that lack of dominant team on the national landscape, if this NCAA Tournament tends towards wild upsets (as sometimes happens), the Pac-12 has some teams in that next tier of strength that could either be the upsetter or take advantage of brackets thinned out by upsets.

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Pac-12 Bracketology: Non-Conference Season

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 9th, 2016

The heavy lifting for Pac-12 teams has just begun but the non-conference games each team is leaving behind won’t stay in the rear-view mirror very long. They make a dramatic reappearance in the next two months when some of those games played two and three months prior might be the difference between getting a coveted invitation to the Big Dance and being shut out. This means that the only consistent way to analyze how each team did in non-conference play is to evaluate each resume as if the teams were on the bubble. In general, Pac-12 teams did a lackluster job of scheduling legitimate competition (and beating it). Even with a seriously stretched definition of what counts as a “quality win,” it was still tough to get excited about the success of these teams. Let’s run through it.

Arizona – IN

Sean Miller's Team is Of Course Easily In, But How High? (USA Today Images)

Sean Miller’s Team is Of Course Easily In, But How High? (USA Today Images)

  • KenPom Non-Conference Strength of Schedule: #292
  • Quality Wins: at Gonzaga, UNLV, Boise State (2x)
  • Bad Losses: None

The Wildcats look like the class of the Pac so the team’s at-large candidacy likely won’t matter much because they’re in regardless. They didn’t exactly challenge themselves in the first half of their schedule, playing  what amounts to the easiest non-conference slate in the conference. But Arizona also didn’t lose to anyone unexpected and beat a few decent teams too. It is possible that the win in Spokane against Gonzaga will be the only one to stand up as a true quality win, but for now, wins over Boise State (twice) and UNLV build a solid foundation for an at-large resume.

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