Rushed Reactions: Arizona 86, UCLA 75

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 11th, 2017

Arizona took all the suspense out of the most anticipated game of the Pac-12 Tournament by dominating UCLA as well as any team has this year. This is the Wildcats’ team that can absolutely play in the Final Four (and with all the talk of UCLA playing in Sacramento followed by San Jose, why has nobody talked about Arizona playing for a National Championship just up the road in Glendale? Such dreams are no longer as far-fetched as they may have seemed before the Pac-12 Tournament started.

Key Takeaways.

Arizona Torched the Bruins (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona’s defense. There are poor shooting nights and there are nights when a team forces poor shots all night. Friday night’s game was the latter. Yes, the Bruins shot miserably from the floor. UCLA’s 4-of-25 performance from three-point range was every bit as ugly as it seemed, but the vast majority of those misses were contested threes. Arizona was willing to allow penetration off the bounce occasionally, but they closed out on shooters, contested passes and fought through screens all night long. They were also willing to put the Bruins on the line in exchange for banging and shoving them all over the court. UCLA made 23-of-26 from the foul line, but they shot only 41 percent from the field with an offensive efficiency rating of 96.2. No Pac-12 opponent had to date held the Bruins below 101.0 in that category this season.
  2. Lauri Markannen has smashed through the freshman wall. Arizona was forced to send Markannen into the post on its Washington road trip, and that move has really triggered the growth of the rest of his game. Despite a prolonged shooting slump from beyond the arc, Markannen found a physicality that has only made him more lethal now that his shot has returned. Against UCLA, Markannen was the best player on the floor for much of the game. He had 29 points on 10-of-22 shooting to go along with six rebounds in 32 turnover-free minutes. He can hurt teams all over the floor, and he’s becoming a physical and effective defender all as well. It’s somewhat scary to think that we may not have seen his best game yet.
  3. UCLA is Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.  The Bruins as a team have undoubtedly improved from the last year’s group that went 15-17, but they have no answer when both of their talented freshmen struggle against elite competition. Leaf still looked a step slow in dealing with his injured left ankle, shooting 3-of-9 from the field and struggling to find his range in the post. Ball didn’t look like himself for much of the night either, in large part because of the ferocious defense of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Kadeem Allen. The superstar freshman logged eight points, six assists and four turnovers, but he did not at any point have control of this game in the same way that he’s controlled so many others. The bottom line is that UCLA is only going as far as its two freshmen take them, and that could be an unsettling thought for Bruins’ fans worried about the NCAA Tournament draw.

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Rushed Reactions: Oregon 73, California 65

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 11th, 2017

Oregon and Cal came into the game as the two best defensive teams in the league, and after a fast start for the offenses, the defenses rose up and put a stranglehold on the game. In the end, Cal’s early loss of Jabari Bird proved to be a bridge too far as the NCAA Tournament-galvanizing win the Bears were looking for eluded them and the Ducks moved onto their fourth Pac-12 title game in five seasons.  

Oregon is in Position to Win Its Second Straight Pac-12 Title (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  • Oregon’s versatility is a big, big deal. The Ducks overcame a subpar (3-of-12 FG) and foul-plagued (he picked up his fourth foul with 18:02 left in the second half) game from Dillon Brooks. Tyler Dorsey picked up his slack with a 23-point performance, but Oregon was not dependent on Brooks to put on his cape at the end. Dylan Ennis posted the key bucket in the final few minutes, curling off a weave handoff and getting to the bucket for the game-sealing three-point play.
  • One of the biggest factors was Oregon’s ability to overcome a poor effort from its freshman point guard and Cal’s inability to do the same. Payton Pritchard was a virtual non-entity on offense (three points) and earned the ire of Dana Altman defensively as well. Cal’s Charlie Moore had a decent overall line with 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting but he also committed seven turnovers and could not get the Bears a good shot when they desperately needed one. With 2:10 to go and the Bears down three, he turned it over with a bad double-dribble possession. Moments later, Ennis hit the and-one that sealed the game for the Ducks. With Dorsey, Brooks and Ennis, Oregon didn’t need Pritchard to organize them and it made the difference.
  • Jordan Bell passes the eye test. Bell had a monster block on a Stephen Domingo drive late where he came from seemingly nowhere (the deep right wing, but you get the idea) to erase what appeared to be an easy layup. He has an endless motor, plays very physically, yet only had two fouls in a game that featured 41 violations. He also contributed 15 rebounds, five blocks and a steal. Oregon is the best defensive team in the conference and Bell is one of the best defenders in college basketball. People want to think Go-Go offense when they think Oregon, but the deeper they go into this season the clearer it is that it’s defense that forms the foundation of this team.

Star of the Game. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon. Bell was a close second, but Dorsey put up 23 points in 32 turnover-free minutes in a game that was effectively played without Dillon Brooks. Cal had nobody who could step up and replace Jabari Bird’s production in the same way that Dorsey did for the Ducks.

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All Pac-12 Team and Player of the Year

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 10th, 2017

We’ve been treating freshmen and non-freshmen in the Pac-12 like opposing sides of the bracket in breaking down our season-ending honors, but with the conference itself announcing its award winners and all-league honors, it’s time to let fly with our All-Pac team and picks for awards, with all players finally in the pool and up for honors.

All-PAC Team

Writer Player Player Player Player Player
Adam Butler Lonzo Ball, UCLA Dillon Brooks, Oregon Jordan Bell, Oregon Lauri Markannen, Arizona T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Gus Morris Lonzo Ball, UCLA Dillon Brooks, Oregon Markelle Fultz, Washington Lauri Markannen, Arizona T.J. Leaf, UCLA
R.J Abeytia Lonzo Ball, UCLA Dillon Brooks, Oregon Jordan Bell, Oregon Lauri Markannen, Arizona T.J. Leaf, UCLA

 

Lonzo Ball is RTC’s pick for Pac-12 POY (Photo: Getty Images)


What we lack in creativity, we make up in substance. It’s hard to argue with any of the choices here, although the point of contention is of course the inclusion of Washington’s Markelle Fultz. It’s hard to knock a guy who is a likely top-two pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, and it’s even harder to compare him with a player like Oregon’s Jordan Bell, who occupies such a contrasting space in terms of role, skill set, position and usage. For consistency’s sake, let’s look at the twin criteria of Net Efficiency Differential combined with Relative Defensive Efficiency.
Fultz finished with a negative differential (-4.7) in conference play, while Bell finished with a staggering +33.2 differential.  Of course, that’s tremendously impacted by the noted factors above, especially usage. Bell logged an 18.2 percent usage rate in conference play while Fultz carried a massive load for the Huskies at 33.2 percent.

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Notes From the Pac-12 Quarterfinals

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 10th, 2017

Day two of the Pac-12 Tournament closed with the league’s 24-game chalk streak finally broken (barely, though, with a #5 seed beating a #4 seed), and the conference’s heavyweights in position to line up for the big stage over the next two nights. After two rounds of action, here are the three big takeaways from the Conference of Champions’ time so far in the desert.

UCLA and USC Put on an Entertaining Show Last Night (USA Today Images)

  1. The heavyweights can win with their B Games: Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA were not at their best on Thursday, but they were all good enough. In Arizona’s 92-78 win over the Buffaloes, five Wildcats scored in double figures and Sean Miller’s offense was enough to overcome a defense that struggled to contain Colorado. UCLA went down to the wire against its crosstown rival, but they bookended the game with good defense (USC started the game 1-of-14 and missed their final five shots) and enough offense to advance. Oregon had the easiest time of it, but keep an eye on the Ducks’ depth: They had to roll with only six players because of Chris Boucher’s foul trouble. Perhaps the biggest takeaway on Thursday was that each team overcame its potential weaknesses:  Arizona’s freshmen (Rawle Alkins, Lauri Markannen and Kobi Simmons) shot 17-of-21 combined against Colorado and committed only two turnovers in 62 minutes of floor time. UCLA’s shaky defense did just enough to survive and advance, and Oregon, a team with no real post player, pounded Arizona State in the paint with a 42-18 advantage.
  2. The bubble teams helped their causes: USC is now likely in the field with a 1-1 Pac-12 Tournament showing, but debate still lingers over Cal’s status. A win over Oregon tonight would makes them a lock, but if they were to lose, have the Bears done enough?  Cal has 21 wins but only two of those were in the KenPom top 50 (Utah). Bill Walton thinks they’re in; Joe Lunardi thinks they’re not; but ultimately there’s only one thing we know for sure — the Bears still control their own fate, and that’s all they can ask for at this point.
  3. Derrick White is awesome:  White could make the all-tournament team despite playing only half the days. The senior Colorado guard posted 31 points, six rebounds and five assists against Arizona while shooting 17-of-34 for the tournament. He was also 16-0f-19 from the line. His 57 points are to date better than any player still standing, and only Cal’s Jabari Bird is very close with 46 points.

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Five Storylines for the Pac-12 Tournament

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 8th, 2017

The regular season is over, which means the real fun is about to begin. The Pac-12 Tournament tips off in Las Vegas today and there is plenty to look forward to. Although Oregon — the league’s prohibitive favorite at the start of the season — is still the best bet to take home the tournament title, there are several teams with plenty on the line this week and a few more hoping to play spoiler. Here are five things to watch for in Sin City this week.

Dana Altman Seeks Back-to-Back Pac-12 Tourney Titles (USA Today Images)

Who gets to stay on the West Coast? Now that Gonzaga has officially run roughshod over the rest of the WCC, the fourth No. 1 seed is likely North Carolina’s to lose. But even if Oregon, Arizona or UCLA can’t earn a No. 1 seed by winning the Pac-12 Tournament, there is still plenty of incentive beyond that. The winner will likely be in position to either get the fourth No. 1 seed if the Tar Heels stumble early, or they will earn the top No. 2 seed, presumably in the West Region. Location and comfortability will not be the determining factor for which Pac-12 teams make a run to the Final Four, but don’t discount the luxury of staying close to home. Even if the players don’t seem to mind the travel, the coaches know the benefits. This means that there is very little chance that any of the Big Three will rest on their laurels this week.

If California wins twice, will that be enough to get the Bears into the NCAA Tournament? The Golden Bears are the bubbliest of the Pac-12 bubble teams. They appeared in good shape a month ago but their ugly skid to end the season has put them in a precarious position approaching Selection Sunday. Beating an already defeated Oregon State club is an obvious must but isn’t enough by itself — they will probably also need to beat a Utah team that skunked the Golden Bears by 30 points just last week. Even then, the Utes are not an NCAA Tournament team and therefore the Selection Committee may not be swayed. Of course, Cuonzo Martin shouldn’t worry about anything beyond that just yet. He should be much more concerned with his team’s 8-of-46 (17.4%) three-point shooting slump over the last three games, and getting Jabari Bird (1-of-13 from deep over the same span) back on track.

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Pac-12 Final Regular Season Power Rankings

Posted by Pac-12 Team on March 8th, 2017

The Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas tips off at Noon PT today and fans are already salivating about the possible semifinals on Friday night. That said, the handful of teams in the second tier — such as Utah — are also serious threats to make some noise in Sin City. Let’s jump into the final Power Rankings of the season.

1. UCLA — Don’t look now, but UCLA is allowing 0.96 points per possession over its last eight games. Considering how much attention has been paid to the Bruins’ defensive issues this season, consider this an encouraging trend. If they can continue to defend at a reasonable level, Steve Alford‘s team will be ridiculously tough to beat in the NCAA Tournament.

Lonzo Ball’s UCLA team is one of the favorites heading into Las Vegas. (USA TODAY Sports)

2. Oregon — This team is stupid good on both ends. The 16-2 Ducks finished the conference season as the only team among the top two in both offensive and defensive efficiency. With the toughest portion of their schedule — five of their last seven games were on the road — now behind them, their focus shifts to being the #1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »

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Deep Diving into the Pac-12 All-Freshmen Team

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 7th, 2017

Earlier this season we arrived at a formula for evaluating the most efficient freshmen in the Pac-12. Essentially, we took net efficiency differential and factored in a player’s individual defense relative to his team. As of January 9 — the rough midpoint of the regular season — these were the five most efficient conference freshmen.

  1. T.J. Leaf, UCLA
  2. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
  3. Rawle Alkins, Arizona
  4. Markelle Fultz, Washington
  5. Lauri Markannen, Arizona

Arguably the most talented class of freshmen to ever enter the Pac-12, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball takes the cake. (AP)

Now that we’re at the end of the year, it is time to revisit this list and see how everyone grades out with a full body of work.  The key to this whole premise is the value put into player efficiency, as this list would look much different if you instead used statistical volumes or per game averages. KenPom, as a salient example, ranks Fultz as the best player in the Pac-12 based on a combination of ability and usage rate. However, I’m going to stray from the Great KP here and stick with the previous formula for a couple reasons. First, while usage rate is certainly something to consider, the other names on this list are similar enough in usage to merit a reasonable comparison. Second, KenPom uses the entire season to compile his numbers while we’re sticking solely with Pac-12 play (which is still a bit noisy thanks to unbalanced schedules). This serves to clean up the unwieldy variables of non-conference scheduling and make for a fairer analysis. Here is how our quintet now ranks using the key criteria cross-referenced with defensive efficiency relative to team defensive performance. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 All-Conference “Graybeards”

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 4th, 2017

As the Year of the Freshman winds down in the Pac-12, it’s time for age rather than youth to be served. In addition to the all-around brilliance of Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf,  Markelle Fultz and the Arizona Trio, this season has also provided a number of great performances by players actually old enough to gain admission to some of the many classic sports bars around the Conference of Champions. And while it says something about the conference that a separate post like this about the “graybeards” is even necessary, it’s time to recognize the best non-freshman performances in the Pac-12 this season.

Dillon Brooks (USA Today Images)

All Pac-12 Non-Freshman Team

  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon, G/F – The Oregon swingman has been as good as advertised this season, with an injury the only thing capable of slowing him down. His efficiency differential of +23 is the best among non-freshmen and only Washington’s Fultz carried a bigger usage load. Like his team, he’s defended at a high level without receiving much praise, but his 99.0 defensive rating in league play has been exceptional.
  • Derrick White, Colorado, G Colorado struck gold with the senior transfer who was once relegated to a Denver cooking school. White has posted a 125.0 offensive rating this season — the best of any player on this list — and has demonstrated a great ability to get to the line. His 41 percent FT Rate ranks 10th best in the Pac-12 this year.

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Pac-12 Power Rankings: The Big Three and Everyone Else Edition

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 1st, 2017

As we launch ourselves into March and the final weekend of Pac-12 play of the regular season, here are the final Power Rankings.

Thomas Welsh Wants Everyone to Recognize Where UCLA Stands (USA Today Images)

  1. UCLA– Nobody in the upper three did as much as the Bruins last weekend. Note that Arizona — which doesn’t really lose at the McKale Center, remember — was the first team in the past four games to post an offensive efficiency above the national average against UCLA’s improving defense.
  2. Oregon– The Ducks stood tough in the Bay Area last weekend thanks in large part to the second-best Pac-12 defense. Oregon plays aggressively (forcing a 20 percent turnover rate) yet cleanly with the second lowest FTA allowed rate in the conference.
  3. Arizona– Arizona, despite a tough home loss to the Bruins, continues to make its case as the most NCAA Tournament-ready team in the league. Why? First, the Wildcats play at the third-slowest pace in the Pac-12, and games always slow in postseason play. Secondly, Arizona does the best job in the conference in both getting to the foul line (37.4% FTA Rate) and making free throws when they get there (78%). Read the rest of this entry »
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Stance and Communication: UCLA Takes Baby Steps on Defense

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 23rd, 2017

There is no lack of self-awareness within UCLA’s basketball program. Head coach Steve Alford made that clear Saturday night after his Bruins throttled crosstown rival USC at Pauley Pavilion. Alford was candid about his team’s initial refusal to heed his cries of defense, and he really broke down his expectations in the clearest possible form. “It took the loss to Arizona and the loss to USC to really grab the guys’ attention… our focus, our stance, our activity… we’ve been talking to the guys about stance and talking since Australia [summer trip]. The stance is making progress, but the talking still has a lot of growth yet.”

But Can UCLA Defend is the Key Question (USA Today Images)

In the macro sense, UCLA has improved defensively over the past five games. Cumulatively, they have put together a Defensive Rating of 95.9, far better than their Pac-12 average of 105.1. In three of those five games, opponents finished with less than a point per possession. But what about the eye test? Against USC, the Bruins seized control in the final eight minutes of the first half. Holding the Trojans scoreless on four straight trips played a big role in that separation. How much credit do the Bruins deserve for USC’s drought? Let’s take a closer look:

8:18: Aaron Holiday misses a runner driving left, and the Trojans secure possession. The first thing UCLA does well is get back upcourt. At the moment that Jordan McLaughlin has the ball, three Bruins are 90 feet from the bucket. The Trojans’ Elijah Stewart bursts up the court, but Lonzo Ball sprints along with him, eliminating any long-distance passes. By the time McLaughlin crosses midcourt, the Bruins are fully back and set into their defense. McLaughlin then drives left and initiates a handoff to De’Anthony Melton. He probes the left elbow, and as he does, three Bruins track the ball and are poised to defend drive, pass or shot. On the weak side, Ball and Thomas Welsh watch the ball and their men. Melton backs away from the lane after getting cut off by Gyorgy Goloman, which gives Isaac Hamilton time to recover and cut him off from the left. Melton makes a bounce pass that gets deflected and ultimately stolen by a diving Holiday.

This was an excellent defensive sequence that featured good defensive stances, positioning, aggression and communication.

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