Heading to Kentucky — How Good is UCLA?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 2nd, 2016

Few teams in the country have done more to burnish its reputation in the first three weeks of the season than UCLA. Armed with two of the most impressive freshmen and arguably the deepest backcourt in the country, UCLA cruised past the competition to win the Wooden Legacy Tournament and, through eight games, has yet to encounter an opponent capable of handling its offensive firepower. The Bruins lead the country in effective field goal percentage (63.8%), are second in the country in three-point shooting (45.6%), are third in the country in two-point shooting (61.1%) and are 22nd in the country in turnover percentage (15.6%). Put simply, the Bruins are playing faster than their opponents (roughly a quarter of their field-goal attempts come in transition), can create whatever scoring opportunities they want and are taking excellent care of the ball. All of that is likely to change on Saturday when UCLA travels to Lexington for the marquee college basketball matchup of the weekend. But then, and only then, will it be time to truly evaluate just how good this team can be.

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Still, there is a lot to love about how UCLA has played in those eight games this season. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf have been even better than expected; five different Bruins are shooting 40 percent or better from downtown; and the big men – Leaf and Thomas Welsh – have proven to be the perfect complement to the team’s loaded backcourt. There is nothing presumptive in stating that UCLA is now the favorite to win the Pac-12.  Before we lock it into stone, however, it is worth wondering how much of UCLA’s early start is sustainable. The schedule hasn’t been downright embarrassing, but it hasn’t been all that good either. The team has yet to leave the Golden State, and while games against Nebraska and Texas A&M were technically held at neutral sites, a quick Google Maps search shows that Westwood is just a bit closer to Anaheim than either Lincoln or College Station. The Cornhuskers and Aggies were worthy opponents, but Rupp Arena on a December afternoon is going to be a completely different atmosphere and it will be interesting to see how Steve Alford‘s team handles the pressure.

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Big 12 Freshmen Update: The Names You Know & The Names You Should

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 2nd, 2016

Last season was like a dream for the Big 12, as junior and senior-laden teams produced some of the best basketball the conference has seen in its 20-year history. Seven teams made the NCAA Tournament, and unlike years past, multiple members other than Kansas made it to the second weekend and beyond. With much of that experience from those teams now gone, many Big 12 teams are looking to their freshmen to lead this season. There are a few schools with freshmen who did not make the cut for several reasons. Those particular teams either did not have compelling enough freshmen just yet (i.e., Baylor and West Virginia), have good contributors who haven’t played in every game (i.e., Iowa State’s Solomon Young) or don’t have any scholarship freshmen at all (Texas Tech). Let’s take a look at the top eight freshmen in the league to this point in the season.

I doubt a better picture of KU super freshman Josh Jackson in the known universe. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

I doubt a better photo of KU super freshman Josh Jackson exists in the known universe. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

  • Jarrett Allen, center, Texas (10.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG in 29.7 MPG): Allen being on this list is both a blessing and a curse. The Round Rock, Texas, native currently ranks first in rebounds and blocked shots on the team and is third in scoring. However, Allen has to this point logged better field goal shooting (52.2%) than he has at the charity stripe (51.7%). Still, the season is young and this freshman is a rising star for the Longhorns.
  • Udoka Azubuike, center, Kansas (5.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.3 BPG in 13.7 MPG): Azubuike is the latest in Bill Self’s successful recruit-17-year-old-basketball-prodigies program. His measurements — an energetic 6’11” big man with a 7’5″ wingspan — are what get NBA scouts excited, but it is clear that the freshman has some game. Self clearly is buying in, given that Azubuike has started each of Kansas’ last two games. Prepare for more impressive numbers from this precocious big man after we ring in the New Year.

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Texas’ Slow Start Could be Sign of Things to Come

Posted by Justin Fedich on December 2nd, 2016

From a close call to Incarnate Word on opening night to a not-so-close upset at home this week by UT-Arlington, the first three weeks of this season have not gone how Texas had hoped. The pain that comes with a three-game losing streak (Northwestern and Colorado did the trick last week) is only exacerbated by the fact that Texas hasn’t yet played a single team most would consider an NCAA Tournament lock. Only six games into the season, Shaka Smart‘s team is struggling to find answers, perhaps still feeling the hangover from Paul Jesperson’s halfcourt buzzer-beating shot in last season’s Big Dance. Texas was 3-3 after an overtime win against UT-Arlington exactly one year ago, but a five-game winning streak that included a victory over North Carolina ensued. Texas is not on track for such a streak, or even a winning record, this time around, and these are the key reasons why.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been all smiles for Shaka Smart and Texas lately. (Texas Athletics)

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been all smiles for Shaka Smart and Texas this season. (Texas Athletics)

  • Loss of top three scorers: Replacing 3,446 combined career points doesn’t happen overnight. The realization that the Longhorns have lost last season’s top three scorers — Isaiah Taylor, Cameron Ridley, and Javan Felix — has taken a bigger toll than expected. Looking back two seasons ago, a starting five that also included one-and-done Myles Turner and Jonathan Holmes is completely gone. Instead, the burden has fallen on returnees Tevin Mack, Kerwin Roach, Jr. and Kendal Yancy, along with freshmen Jarrett Allen and Andrew Jones, to pick up the pieces. The Longhorns should certainly get better as the season progresses, but lack of an experienced playmaker who can settle roles and responsibilities has taken its toll in the early going.

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Do-Everything Seniors Supporting Transition Year at Pittsburgh

Posted by Charlie Maikis on December 2nd, 2016

When Pittsburgh hired Kevin Stallings away from Vanderbilt last March, some were skeptical of how it would work out. Stepping into a new program in a much tougher conference, Stallings faces numerous long-term challenges. The one area where he found an immediate advantage is that he inherited the 22nd-most experienced roster in college basketball (per KenPom), led by two of the ACC’s best players: seniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis. On the backs of their leadership and talent, the Panthers have begun the Stallings era with a 6-1 record against a good schedule, including a decisive win at Maryland in this week’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young have lifted coach Kevin Stallings to a hot start to his Pittsburgh career. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young have lifted Kevin Stallings to a hot start to his Pittsburgh career. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Almost everything Stallings’ team does begins and ends with the senior duo. The pair uses a combined 58.3 percent of the team’s possessions while playing over 80 percent of the available minutes. At 6’9″, Young anchors the team down low while the 6’7″ Artis acts as a point forward. The two highest ACC scorers thus far, Artis and Young combine to average 43.3 points per game while converting at high rates from the field (51%), three-point line (37%) and foul line (83%). Stopping just one of these two scorers is difficult enough, but teams are finding that limiting both is a near impossibility. The pair have gone for 20+ points in five of Pitt’s seven games this season and have made or assisted an astonishing 77 percent of Pitt’s field goals this season. Young also ranks among the top 500 players nationally in offensive (8.0%) and defensive rebounding (18.6%) rates as well as block percentage (4.2%); whereas Artis ranks among the top 300 nationally in turnover rate (10.7%).
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How Monte’ Morris & Iowa State’s Other Returnees Are Replacing Georges Niang

Posted by Chris Stone on December 1st, 2016

Georges Niang was an Iowa State staple over the last four seasons. The 6’7″ all-purpose forward provided the Cyclones with a level of offensive versatility as a facilitator and scorer that few teams in the country possessed. As a senior, Niang used 28.7 percent of the team’s possessions and assisted on another 19.2 percent when he was on the floor. Now with the two-time all-Big 12 first teamer no longer on the roster, head coach Steve Prohm has needed to adjust his offensive attack to make up for the void. Conventional wisdom was that point guard Monte’ Morris would take on much of Niang’s role.

(Source: sports-reference.com)

(Source: sports-reference.com)

Although his numbers do not match those of former Prohm point guards such as Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne, Morris is certainly much more involved this season. As the table above shows, he is taking 5.8 more field goal attempts per 40 minutes this year and has raised his points per 40 minutes average from 14.5 to 21.9 on the back of a hot start from three-point range. Morris is now also the team’s only consistent distributor. He has increased his already impressive assists per 40 minutes rate from 7.2 to 8.9 and raised his assist rate to 34.9 percent, a full six percent higher than last season. All of this has occurred while Morris has simultaneously reduced his turnover rate by nearly four percent. Simply put, the preseason All-American has been one of the best offensive players in college basketball through the first few weeks of the season. Read the rest of this entry »

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Weekly Pac-Five: Players Who Need to Step Up

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 1st, 2016

As part of a new weekly feature here on the Pac-12 microsite, we will be creating many lists of five: five best players; five best coaches; five best and worst teams. The topics are never-ending and we intend to cover a lot of ground over the next few months. As we close out the first month of the season, we tackled five Pac-12 players who need to elevate their play, effective immediately.

  • Dylan Ennis, Senior, Oregon. Maybe his 18-point, six-rebound performance against Boise State was the start of an upward trend, but Ennis looked like someone who hadn’t played in a full year prior to Monday night’s performance. He is still just 4-of-25 from downtown on the season and so far hasn’t been the same defensive weapon he was at Villanova. There is still plenty of time for the senior to shake off the rust, but the Ducks need him to get right quickly because they the offense needs a shot in the arm that could be provided if he finally heats up.
Dylan Ennis (USA Today Images)

Dylan Ennis Could Stand to Revert to his Play at Villanova Soon (USA Today Images)

  • Keondre Dew, Junior, Oregon State. Now that Tres Tinkle is out for six weeks with a broken wrist, it is imperative that Oregon State starts getting production from its junior forward. For that to happen, Dew, who has already been suspended twice this season and has admitted that he was his own worst enemy at Tulsa, needs to wake up. The junior college transfer is a long and versatile offensive weapon — or, he could be if he could stay focused long enough to produce something. In 59 minutes of action so far this season, Dew is only 4-of-16 from the field, 2-of-6 at the free throw line and has more than twice as many turnovers (10) as assists (4). He has the talent to help Oregon State turn its season around and weather the injury storm if he ultimately decides he wants to.

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How Johnathan Motley’s Supporting Cast Has Elevated Baylor

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 1st, 2016

Three weeks into the new season, the best non-conference resume in college basketball belongs to Baylor. The Bears already have four wins against teams ranked among the KenPom top 50 thanks to a flawless run through the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, and they’ll have yet another chance to score a victory over a marquee opponent when they host Xavier on Saturday afternoon. November served as a national breakout party for Big 12 POY candidate Johnathan Motley, whose length, footwork and range have keyed Baylor’s hot start. But one player — even someone the caliber of the 6’10” junior — doesn’t result in a 7-0 start with wins over Oregon, VCU, Michigan State and Louisville. While there’s no doubt Motley is keeping opposing coaches up at night, the unheralded pieces around him have helped the team flourish as well.

Johnathan Motley Has Had a Lot to Celebrate This Season (USA Today Images)

Johnathan Motley Has Had a Lot to Celebrate This Season (USA Today Images)

Motley makes the whole thing go in the paint, but junior center Jo Lual-Acuil has also been a force. The JuCo transfer owns the nation’s third-best shot block rate (15.6%) and already has 29 rejections on the year. For most big men, there are two potential costs to chasing blocks: foul trouble and getting caught out of position for the rebound. But Lual-Acuil is the rare breed of player who has both avoided the whistle (2.3 fouls per 40 minutes) and remained a presence on the defensive glass (team-leading 25.1% defensive rebounding rate). Big 12 play may cause some regression when Lual-Acuil faces players willing to challenge him at the rim, but that doesn’t make him any less important. On the offensive end, the attention Motley commands opens a number of close looks that Lual-Acuil is converting at an incredibly high rate. Two-way threats at the five don’t come around very often, but Baylor has one of them.

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Has Notre Dame’s Mike Brey Done It Again?

Posted by Mick McDonald on December 1st, 2016

We are now just a few weeks into the season and only two ACC teams remain undefeated. Virginia has been as good as expected, with the Cavaliers handling the unexpected loss of Austin Nichols by using a committee-like approach we laid out when the news broke. The other unbeaten team, Notre Dame, may surprise many who haven’t paid attention to teams outside the Top 25. The Irish have played seven games to this point, four against low-major competition (Bryant, Seattle, Loyola (MD) and Chicago State) — which they have won by an average of 33.5 points per game — and three against middling high-majors. There are a pair of neutral court victories over KenPom top 60 teams Colorado and Northwestern, and an ACC/Big Ten Challenge home win over Iowa. All three of those wins figure to be solid top 100 wins for head coach Mike Brey‘s team come Selection Sunday.

The Notre Dame faithful is trusting that Mike Brey's system will prevail this season. (AP)

The Notre Dame faithful is trusting that Mike Brey’s system will prevail this season. (AP)

Most pundits figured that, after an outstanding two-year run punctuated by back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, Notre Dame was due for a fall thanks to the losses of star guard Demetrius Jackson and dependable forward Zach Auguste. It’s no easy task to replace a tandem that produced nearly 30 points, 14 rebounds and six assists per game, but it’s not like Brey’s teams haven’t done this before. Just last year, Notre Dame entered the season having lost stars Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. The lesson is to never underestimate Brey’s ability to develop the next man up, and it appears that many observers may have made that same mistake again this season. Junior Bonzie Colson has led the way for this year’s version, averaging 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He has become Brey’s go-to offensive player, using nearly 27 percent of the team’s possessions as he has blossomed into a terrific scorer.
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Freeze Frame: Just How Good Is South Carolina?

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 1st, 2016

South Carolina strung together 15 straight wins to begin the 2015-16 campaign, so forgive us all if we are still a bit skeptical over the Gamecocks’ latest hot start. Last November’s highlights included iffy neutral site wins over Hofstra and Tulsa, leaving some question about just how good Frank Martin’s team really was (it turns out that question was valid). This season, however, the Gamecocks enter December leaving little doubt as to their legitimacy after a pair of impressive KenPom top 25 (Michigan and Syracuse) victories already on their resume.

Coach Frank Martin and his Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.

Frank Martin’s Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.

The hallmark of Martin’s tenure in Columbia has always been his defense. The Gamecocks have boasted the 36th and 21st best defenses, respectively, over the last two seasons, but early indicators suggest that this may be his best defensive team yet. South Carolina held Michigan and Syracuse to just 19.2 percent and 31.8 percent shooting, respectively, from the field. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will analyze the Gamecocks’ defense to assess the ultimate ceiling for South Carolina this season.
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Tyler Lewis is Hitting His Stride in Running Butler’s Offense

Posted by Mike Knapp on December 1st, 2016

It is hard to tell from just looking at the 5’11”, 157-pound senior, but once upon a time Butler point guard Tyler Lewis was a McDonald’s All-American. Despite limited size, his creativity as a passer and fearlessness in attacking the basket caught the attention of multiple high-major schools, including his ultimate destination, North Carolina State. With playing time fluctuating over two seasons in Raleigh, Lewis decided to transfer to Butler, where a promising start to his junior season gave way to decreased importance after the new year. Lewis entered his final season in college basketball as the only significant holdover in Butler’s backcourt. He has not disappointed.

Butler's Tyler Lewis (USA Today Images)

Butler’s Tyler Lewis (USA Today Images)

The Bulldogs are off to an impressive 7-0 start this season and their senior facilitator is a major reason why. The veteran floor general is only averaging a pedestrian eight points per game, but he has been one of the more efficient guards in college basketball through the first couple weeks of the season. Lewis’ offensive rating of 133.3 is the second highest on the Butler roster and is good enough for 83rd nationally. He is also shooting a blistering 77.3 percent from two-point range (24th), and is 5-of-11 on three-point attempts so far this season. Furthermore, his effective field goal percentage of 74.2 percent ranks among the top 20 in the sport.

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