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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UCLA: Predictably Unpredictable?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 8th, 2016

Conventional wisdom on UCLA, after taking down KenPom #16 Arizona on Thursday night to pair with earlier wins over then-#2 Kentucky and then-#19 Gonzaga, is that the Bruins are inconsistent and unpredictable. And conventional wisdom, as is often the case, may only be partially right. The more complete argument may be that the Bruins are consistent in their inconsistency and predictable in their unpredictability. This isn’t one of those riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma bits of nonsense. There’s a method to UCLA’s madness. Let’s dig in.

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

First, let’s take a look at the current landscape of college basketball. Again, using those KenPom rankings, Virginia is ranked sixth in the nation and has lost road games to George Washington (#72) and Virginia Tech (#119). Miami is ranked 10th and the Hurricanes took a home loss to Northeastern (#81). North Carolina was the AP preseason #1 team and currently ranks 11th in KenPom; the Tar Heels have suffered road losses to Northern Iowa and Texas. Dig a bit further down the rankings and there are many other examples of big-time teams losing to small-time teams. It’s been said that there aren’t any great teams this year, and that may well be true (although reserving that judgment until all of the classwork is in might be in order), but more to the point, there just may be less of a difference this season between the top team and the 50th-best team in the country than ever before. And perhaps more to the point, there is almost assuredly less difference between a team like the 10th-best team and the 90th-best team. In other words, big time teams are susceptible to taking losses against lesser ones, especially when they go on the road.

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Repercussions of Dylan Ennis’ Short-Lived Career at Oregon

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 7th, 2016

Wednesday was a day of mixed emotions around the Oregon basketball program. Early in the day it was announced that graduate senior point guard Dylan Ennis would miss the rest of the season with the same foot injury that had kept him out of the Ducks’ first 12 games of the season. This announcement effectively ends Ennis’ career in Eugene before it ever began, relegating him to a role as a cheerleader and mentor on the bench for the remainder of his time there. The good news is that the Ducks bounced back from a loss to Oregon State in its Pac-12 opener to score a solid home win over a California team that is beginning to look very much like the team we expected. While the injury to Ennis is a downright bummer, can the Ducks still be considered among the Pac-12 favorites despite his absence?

A Foot Injury Ended Dylan Ennis' Oregon Career Before It Ever Really Got Started (Oregon Athletics)

A Foot Injury Ended Dylan Ennis’ Oregon Career Before It Ever Really Got Started. (Oregon Athletics)

First, on Ennis. After starting his career as a promising if erratic point guard at Rice, he made the jump to the big leagues in two tremendously effective years at Villanova (averaging 9.9 points and 3.5 assists per game in a 33-win junior year, sharing point guard duties with Ryan Arcidiacono). At 6’2”, he knew that his best chance to maximize his professional potential lay in playing the point full-time. And with a potential logjam looming in the Villanova backcourt, the notion of sharing minutes again with Arcidiacono as well as freshman Jalen Brunson pushed Ennis to make the jump to Dana Altman’s transfer-friendly program. From there, it was a simple twist of fate that led to a foot injury in preseason practice. Altman tried to play him in late December in 10 largely ineffective minutes against Western Oregon; and he got 11 more minutes of action against Oregon State where he was clearly not comfortable with weight on his bad foot. With a redshirt year already lost to his first transfer, Ennis’ collegiate eligibility is likely finished barring a Hail Mary on a sixth-year.

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Blame the System for Utah Bailing on the BYU Rivalry

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 7th, 2016

In a joint statement last night, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak and athletic director Dr. Chris Hill casually let it leak that the school will break its existing contract with BYU in backing out of next season’s meeting in Provo. That’s bad enough, but the pair made matters worse by claiming the decision was a result of escalating intensity in the rivalry that creates “the potential for serious injury.” The curious timing and Krystkowiak’s sudden concern for everyone’s safety made the excuse look especially flimsy — but thankfully, Twitter was quick to call out Utah’s shenanigans. Yet amid all the well-deserved scorn that was heaped the school’s administrators, there is one thing they deserve credit for. That is being brave enough to do what every other Power 5 coach and athletic director wishes they could do — find a defensible way to stop playing quality mid-major opponents on the road.

It's Inexcusable That Such a Great Basketball Rivalry is Ending (USAT Images)

It’s Inexcusable That Such a Great Basketball Rivalry is Ending (USAT Images)

Do not be deceived — that is what this decision boils down to. BYU has a long history of accusations levied against it for playing dirty in basketball and other sports. But despite the various incidents cited in Utah’s statements, this isn’t about player safety. It isn’t about animosity between the two programs (although it certainly exists). It isn’t because either program has done anything worth cancelling one of the country’s most entertaining hoops rivalries. It is because Utah, now headstrong and comfortable with its status in the much-richer Pac-12, has nothing to gain from playing a very good BYU team in Provo next season. The actual reasons for this maneuver are so transparent to be almost offensive, and the statements from both men were so patronizing in blaming BYU that it is easy to see why Cougars’ head coach Dave Rice was so fired up about the decision. In the end, the cost to Utah will only be $80,000 in a guarantee fee, a few bad days of publicity and some lingering bad blood with its rival down the road. All of which will seem like a small price to pay when next season’s game with BYU is replaced with a home game against an overmatched Big Sky team and Utah mops the floor with them.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Who’s the Best Point Guard?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2016

While watching guys like Jordan McLaughlin, Andrew Andrews, Tra Holder, Kadeem Allen and more shine from the lead guard spot over the weekend, we got the brilliant idea to ask our contributors: Who’s the best point guard in the Pac? Truthfully, there’s only one right answer — a certain Player of the Year candidate in Corvallis who tore up the league last season and has only gotten better as a senior. So, the real question we put forth to our writers is, aside from Gary Payton II, who’s the best point guard in the league? Our answers below.

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 Not Only The Best Point In The Pac, He’s One Of It’s Best Players, Period. (Oregon State Athletics)

Mike Lemaire: This honor is for Gary Payton II to claim, but if the phrasing instead became “most valuable point guard,” then a strong case could be made for Washington senior Andrew Andrews. It can often feel like Andrews is babysitting four wild teenagers when the Huskies play, and considering he is the only upperclassman on the roster, that simile isn’t far from the truth. While his teammates have struggled with fouls, defensive positioning, effort and shot selection, Andrews is quietly scoring more than 20 points per game, leading his team in rebounding (6.3 RPG) and drawing more fouls than anyone else in the Pac. Despite a meaningful uptick in his responsibilities, Andrews is still shooting better than 40 percent from downtown, better than 80 percent from the free throw line and has nearly doubled his assist rate without any corresponding increase in his turnover rate. What makes this even more impressive is that he isn’t even a true point guard; rather, he has just been forced into the role. Still, the pick for best point guard in the league is Gary Payton II, with a notable hat tip to Andrews. Read the rest of this entry »

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On the Quiet Rise of the California Golden Bears

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 6th, 2016

About three weeks ago, after California struggled to put much of any space between itself and Incarnate Word, we here at the Pac-12 microsite staged an intervention. Without actually intervening, of course. But we did call out the Golden Bears’ loaded roster for poor defensive effort, a general lack of energy, non-existent half-court offense and questionable chemistry. Given that it only a month into the season, we still gave Cuonzo Martin‘s team a pass with upcoming dates against St. Mary’s, Virginia, Davidson and the entirety of the Pac-12 on the horizon. Since that December 9 game, the Golden Bears have gone 5-1, with the sole loss coming in an overtime affair at Virginia, KenPom‘s fourth-best team in America. That loss, if anything, gave Cal its first taste of credibility. So are the the boys from Berkeley now out of the woods and headed to the Final Four? Hmmmmm.

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can't Seem To Miss (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can’t Seem To Miss. (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

There is a lot to be excited about in the East Bay right now. Jordan Mathews can’t miss (52.3 percent from three-point range). Jabari Bird is finally showing the two-way consistency that was missing in his first two campaigns. Kameron Rooks and Kinglsey Okoroh are making wholly unanticipated leaps into relevance as capable big men on both ends. Ivan Rabb  is impressing with his ability to both pull bigs away from the hoop but also bang with them down low. Sam Singer has been a legitimately good reserve off the pine. Jaylen Brown, while still struggling to put it all together, has started hitting more jumpers while improving his defensive effort and terrorizing opponents in transition. All of this is happening while senior point guard Tyrone Wallace is in the midst of a serious drought (13.3 percent from three-point range; three turnovers per game). In past years, such a malaise from Wallace would have surely coincided with a significant losing streak (see: last year’s devastating 1-8 stretch in late December and January).

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Washington’s Big Comeback Win Says More About USC

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 4th, 2016

For something like 25 minutes on Sunday afternoon, this post was going to be about moving USC from contending for an NCAA Tournament invitation to a potential sleeper among the top of the Pac-12 race. The Trojans were up 61-42 at Washington and appeared to be headed for an opening weekend road sweep. They had scored on seven of their first eight second half possessions, mixing dunks in transition with threes, sharing the ball and locking in defensively. But when junior guard Julian Jacobs came out of the game with an ankle injury at the 16:18 mark, things quickly went off the rails.

Minus Julian Jacobs, The Trojans Lost Their Composure, And Their Lead (Ted S. Warren, AP)

Minus Julian Jacobs, The Trojans Lost Their Composure, And Their Lead. (Ted S. Warren, AP)

From that point forward, the Huskies outscored Andy Enfield’s bunch by a score of 45-24. Until he called his team’s final timeout with 6:58 remaining (20 possessions later), the Trojans managed a grand total of 10 measly points, a stretch that featured eight turnovers and five missed layups on the offensive end, along with six layups and five defensive rebounds allowed on the defensive end. Worse yet, after appearing to have regained their poise and settled into a workable seven-point lead with two minutes left, the Trojans melted down again. Washington finished the game on a 9-0 run as sophomore point guard Jordan McLaughlin turned it over twice more and the Huskies grabbed three crucial offensive boards, including one from senior guard Andrew Andrews that became the game-winning bucket. All told, it was a thrilling comeback 87-85 win for the Huskies and a demoralizing failure for the Trojans.

That said, it’s still just one game in a long season. Aside from all the gruesome details about USC’s blown lead, what can we take away from the game? At first blush, the storyline in Seattle seemed to be more about the losers than the victors. This is program that has won a total of six Pac-12 games in 40 tries under Enfield. Only two of those wins have come on the road, and both of those came against Washington State (once at the end of the 2013-14 season; the other on Friday night). In other words, this is not a team with a lot of experience at winning, much less winning in tough environments. Throw in the injury to Jacobs that left USC without arguably its most important player and when things started to go south, they did so in a hurry. Jacobs — aside from being an athletic scoring threat, the team’s most secure ball-handler, and a solid perimeter defender — is also the team’s most veteran presence, capable of acting as a calming influence. When McLaughlin got flustered during the Huskies’ big 26-10 run, he typically would have had Jacobs there to settle things down. No such luck on Sunday, and there were times down the stretch when the Trojans looked to freshman Bennie Boatwright, of all people, to handle the ball and create offense in the half-court. Needless to say, that decision did not end well.

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Pac-12 Bests and Worsts of the Week: Opening Weekend Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 4th, 2016

As the rest of us file back for what promises to be a dreary work week, conference play in college basketball is well under way. In the opening weekend, Arizona re-established itself as the team to beat while California reclaimed some of its considerable preseason hype. Washington, a team no one picked to do anything this season, is unbeaten after two games. While Utah, a team several analysts picked to win the conference, is still searching for its first conference victory. The opening weekend of action didn’t reveal anything particularly enlightening about any one team, but it signaled to Pac-12 fans that they are in for a wild couple of months.

Worst Way to Finish Off a Game: There is no way that Utah should have lost to Stanford on Friday night, and especially not at the free throw line. But the conference’s best foul shooting team entering the game made just 11-of-24 freebies, including four key misses down the stretch in regulation and two more in overtime to gift wrap a comeback win for the Cardinal. This loss was an especially tough pill to swallow because the Utes subsequently lost to California on Sunday (despite shooting better than 80 percent from the line, incidentally). A loss in Berkeley is understandable on an at-large resume, but Stanford is expected to finish at the bottom of the conference. Utah is now forced to dig itself out of a self-made 0-2 hole — certainly not the way the team wanted to start the 2016.

Jakob Poetl and the Utes Are Not Off To The Start They Envisioned. (AP)

Jakob Poeltl and the Utes Did Not Start Pac-12 Play The Way  They Envisioned. (AP)

Worst Job of Keeping It Together: At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley looked a little foolish in his ejection from the tail end of the Sun Devils’ weekend loss to Arizona. Hurley’s passion and fire make an impact on his team and are a big reason why Arizona State is overachieving this season, but his team still had a chance to win until his antics erased that with two quick technical fouls. He shouldn’t have to apologize for his fiery personality, as it is a big part of his success as a coach, but it rings somewhat hollow when he simultaneously claims that he “always wants the spotlight on the guys in the game.” Some may argue that there is a fine line between toning it down and losing their edge, but that notion too rings hollow. Hurley should be able to keep the chip on his shoulder without making a spectacle that overshadows his team’s resilience.

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Happy New Conference Year: A Pac-12 Reset

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 31st, 2015

Happy New Year’s everyone! May you all celebrate the arbitrary tick of the clock on an arbitrary day on the arbitrarily human-invented calendar in whichever arbitrary fashion pleases you the most! Here in this space we’re turning our attention to something far less arbitrary, a tradition older than the hills, a ritual that goes back to before the first organism crawled out of the ocean and onto dry land however many million years ago: the transition from non-conference college basketball to Pac-12 conference play. At least seven unnamed sources indicate that such a sacrament is timeless. And so, to celebrate, let’s take a spin around the Pac-12 and do a quick reset, preparing you for what will seem, as it always does, like a sprint from New Year’s to March Madness.

All-Conference Team (No Surprises Edition)

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors (Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors. (Godofredo Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

  • G Gary Payton II, Sr, Oregon State
  • G Tyrone Wallace, Sr, California
  • F Josh Scott, Sr, Colorado
  • F Ryan Anderson, Sr, Arizona
  • C Jakob Poeltl, So, Utah

When we put together our preseason all-conference picks back in November, Poeltl and Payton were unanimous choices as first-teamers, and here they are at the turn of the calendar as the heavy Player of the Year favorites in the conference. Wallace was also on our preseason first-team and he’s been fine, if not spectacular. Scott and Anderson were second-team guys and have both been rock-solid as seniors. Scott has struggled some in his team’s two losses, but if he can lead the Buffaloes to an upper division finish, he might yet have a say in the Player of the Year race as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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