Pac-12 Freshman Ladder: Early December Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 7th, 2016

I don’t know how long Scott Howard-Cooper has been writing his Rookie Ladder column for NBA.com but it has long been one of the more underrated features in basketball writing. There is nothing complex about its structure as a traditional weekly power ranking of NBA rookies. Yet basketball fans are always drawn to the new, which is why the Rookie Ladder column exists. The appeal of rookie coverage is true in college basketball as well. You don’t see the Pac-12 handing out a “Second-Year Player of the Year” award, do you? The season is now old enough that sample sizes are starting to become meaningful. Also, I am nothing if not a ruthless (but self-aware) copycat. So here is our best imitation of Cooper’s excellent feature – the inaugural Pac-12 Freshman Ladder.

Lonzo Ball (USA Today Images)

Lonzo Ball Leads the Pac-12 Freshman Ladder (USA Today Images)

  1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA. In our top-secret algorithm that determines these rankings, winning matters, if only a little. UCLA is undefeated and that is why Ball edges past Markelle Fultz on this list for now. Bolstered by a surprising ability to knock down threes (43.5% 3FG), Ball has been one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball (67.5% eFG) while also affecting every possession without having to score. He has turned the ball over 12 times in the last three games, but the Bruins are so lethal offensively with the freshman running the show that UCLA will live with those mistakes.
  2. Markelle Fultz, Washington. Fultz is playing a different role at Washington than Ball is at UCLA but his playmaking skills are just as advanced. Fultz’s assist rate (37.0%) and turnover rate (17.6%) compare favorably with Ball and his shot-making responsibilities and usage rate mean that he is scoring more as well. His defensive numbers (4.1% block rate and 3.4% steal rate) are also superior to his southern California counterpart. One could reasonably argue that if Fultz were running point in Westwood and the Bruins were still undefeated, he would be the clear alpha dog on this list. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

Stanford Basketball Yearning For Its Glory Days (Or Is It?)…

Posted by Adam Butler on December 3rd, 2016

You look around Maples Pavilion and you see empty rows of seats. If you look hard enough, I’m sure you could even find columns of seats right up to the not-all-that-high Maples ceiling. There’s empty booster level seating and you can hear conversations, noises perhaps unfamiliar to a more traditional college basketball environment. Just Wednesday night, following a loss inside Indiana’s Assembly Hall, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams lamented, “I’d like to play in front of a crowd like that in the Smith Center every night other than the frickin’ Duke game.” Indeed, what sets college basketball apart – and I suppose all college sports for that matter – is its atmosphere (not the frickin’ Duke game). The skill of professionals cannot be matched. Their stars are brighter and shots more true. Their arenas, however? Bigger but not always better. Or at least not louder. It is not the same. Stanford athletics, however, are a little different. It is not always an event. Sure there are scheduled contests with officials and media, hype men and even knockout at halftime. The requisite production remains. But it’s not destination sport. Their top-tier football program does not demand overflow attendance. And while the basketball program was once there and the floors would shake, they’ve also only been to one NCAA Tournament in the past eight seasons. It’s amazing what an NCAA Tournament appearance can do to an arena.

Stanford's Glory Days Seem Like a Bygone Era (USA Today Images)

Stanford’s Glory Days Seem Like a Bygone Era (USA Today Images)

Following in the steps of a Hall of Famer is never easy. Trent Johnson escaped the shadow by progressively chasing lesser jobs (Stanford > LSU > TCU), while Johnny Dawkins sternly and rarely budged off of 18-wins. In either case, one of two critical components used in standard assessments of a program were missing: winning or charm. While the former speaks for itself and often excuses or masks a lack of the latter, wins are hard to come by. On charm, and particularly early in a coaching tenure, this can be used to excuse winning, a smile and a pep rally to lament the outgoing regime’s recruiting. Consider Ernie Kent walking door-to-door in Pullman or anything Bruce Pearl ever does. In either case (winning or charming), a coach and program are trying to set itself up for success on the recruiting trail and in the pocketbook. The recipe being some nonlinear combination of good players + wins + excitement + attendance. That’s how we generally evaluate a program.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

It’s a Make or Break Week for the Pac-12

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 30th, 2016

After a sizzling opening weekend followed by some Feast Week struggles, the Pac-12 finds itself facing a potential do or die week in terms of its national perception. Three teams will be front and center this week under the bright lights of ESPN and CBS, and after 71 games and even with all of December left, chances are it will be this week’s main events that set the tone for the Pac-12 come March. Part of the concentration on these games stems from factors out of the league’s control. Oregon’s injury issues have left it a shell of the team most expected it to be come March — the Ducks have already dropped games to Baylor and Georgetown without the services of Dillon Brooks (and have looked shaky even with him back). While the committee will factor Oregon’s injuries into its analysis, that doesn’t help the Pac-12’s overall profile. And that brings us to this week, starting this evening on the Peninsula.

St. Mary’s at Stanford: Wednesday 11/30 8:00 PM PT (Pac-12 Bay Area)

So far, so good for Jerod Haase and Stanford. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Jerod Haase and Stanford have a monster week ahead of them, including a trip to Haase’s alma mater where dreams tend to fade. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Not only is the Pac-12 counting on Stanford — the team picked to finish 10th in the league standings this season — but the Cardinal actually have two games with national ramifications this week. First, Randy Bennett’s St. Mary’s bunch (11th nationally, per KenPom) comes to Maples Pavilion tonight. The Gaels may not yet be a nationally-renowned name, but they drilled Stanford last season and will be a contender in a league (WCC) that has been quite the thorn in the side of the Pac-12 in recent years. This is one of two big Pac-12/WCC showdowns this week, and while it’s definitely the undercard, it’s still a big game for both teams and conferences.

UCLA at Kentucky: Saturday 12/3 9:30 AM PT (CBS)

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Why Isn’t California Basketball a Monster?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 25th, 2016

During the Glory Years of Cal basketball, Pete Newell had the Bears playing at an elite level year after year. How elite? Newell’s Golden Bears beat John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins eight straight times before Newell retired. He took the Bears to four NCAA Tournaments (1957-60), landed consecutive Final Four appearances (1959-60, and won the 1959 National Championship. Those were to be his final four years in Berkeley, and Cal hasn’t come anywhere near those highs since. In fact, Cal went nearly 30 seasons without a single NCAA Tournament appearance after Newell’s departure, and even considering a few lesser peaks through the Todd Bozeman, Ben Braun, and Mike Montgomery eras, at no point has Cal again been considered among the top programs in college basketball.

Pete Newell Was the Only Coach Who Dominated John Wooden

Pete Newell Was the Only Coach Who Dominated John Wooden

And that brings us to Cuonzo Martin.

There are many moving parts to putting together a successful basketball program, but time and again everything tends to come down to two questions: Do you have the right guy, and do you have enough money? The right guy, of course, plays a big role in answering the latter question. First, he needs to build an identity (that tends to focus on a specific side of the ball), some attribute, or sometimes just a pace of play. Think about Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams as physical, Mike Krzyzweski’s ruthlessly prolific motion offense at Duke, or Jim Boeheim’s zone defense at Syracuse. What can we say about Martin’s “brand” of basketball?  He’s only in his third season at Berkeley. In season one, the Bears ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  In season two, thanks to the arrivals of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, Cal qualified for the NCAA Tournament on the backs of the fourth-best offensive efficiency and best defensive efficiency in the league.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 1

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 22nd, 2016

The first full week of the season is finished so it is time for the first of what will be a recurring feature called Pac-12 Power Rankings. Each week we will take a look at where each team in the conference stands to date.

Finnish 7' Lauri Markkanen has been everything expected and more for the Wildcats. (Arizona Athletics)

Finnish center Lauri Markkanen has been everything and more for the Wildcats. (Arizona Athletics)

  1. Arizona: The Wildcats boast the best win of any team in the conference (Michigan State) and are still missing arguably their best player in Allonzo Trier. Lauri Markkanen has so far lived up to the hype and classmate Kobi Simmons has been surprisingly efficient offensively. Sean Miller’s club is posting the best defensive numbers in the conference and if Trier returns soon, Arizona could be poised for another excellent season.
  2. UCLA: The Bruins haven’t played anyone of note so we should reserve some judgment here but so far they have looked very good. Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf have been everything UCLA fans ever could have hoped for. Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford are two of the most complementary pieces in the conference, especially when they are shooting well, and Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh provide quality depth across the board. Steve Alford deserves some credit for the Bruins’ early potency in a key season for this program. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

It’s Time to Talk About Utah’s Non-Conference Schedule

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 22nd, 2016

Utah has not won a game by fewer than 43 points this season, and yet, thanks to some conservative scheduling practices by head coach Larry Krystkowiak, the Utes have already hurt their NCAA Tournament chances. At 3-0, Utah is officially tied atop the Pac-12 standings, a hilarious result given that its first two opponents, Division II members Northwest Nazarene and Concordia (Oregon), considered the games exhibitions. The Utes finally played their first Division I opponent Friday night, smoking 0-5 Coppin State in a game that KenPom gave Utah a 98.7 percent chance of winning. With the victory, Utah earned its initial placement at #289 in the RPI rankings.  There is no unbeaten team from a Power 5 conference with a worse RPI than Utah, and there isn’t a lot of helium left in the Utes’ non-conference schedule to carry it up.

Larry Krystkowiak Mimicking Utah Fans' Reaction to the 2016-17 Schedule. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Krystkowiak Mimicking Utah Fans’ Reaction to the 2016-17 Schedule (Deseret News)

Utah plays Butler at home on November 28 and travels to Xavier on December 10. Aside from those two games, each of the Utes’ remaining non-conference opponents is ranked 227th or lower by KenPom, not including a potential matchup with San Diego State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. Quality opponents from last season such as San Diego State, Wichita State, BYU and Duke have been replaced by UC Riverside, Montana State, Utah Valley and Prairie View A&M. A team that last year barnstormed across America from Puerto Rico to Wichita to New York City will only leave the Beehive State twice before the new year.

What’s worse is that this season’s pillow-soft schedule has been some time in the making. To his credit, Krystkowiak has been relatively open about the logic behind his intent, essentially telling ESPN Radio that a friendly schedule would be more beneficial for an inexperienced team. This is understandable. Confidence is important for young collegiate players, and if the current version of Utah had played last season’s schedule, there might not have been much confidence to go around. Similarly, Krystkowiak is hardly the first Power 5 coach to weigh the quality and depth of his roster when putting together a schedule. But there is a big difference between throttling back and throwing it in reverse.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Oregon Has Bigger Issues Than Dillon Brooks’ Health

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 17th, 2016

Dillon Brooks isn’t walking through that door, Oregon!

Well.. actually, he is. So if you came here looking for analysis full of hand-wringing and questions about what is wrong with Oregon after its beatdown by the hands of Baylor earlier this week, look elsewhere. There is no shame in losing a road game in Waco without your best player and against a team that should never have been considered “unranked” anyway.

That said, it felt like the storyline coming out Oregon’s loss was that the Ducks really miss Brooks, which sounds somewhat like a cop out even if it’s also undoubtedly true. To say that Oregon lost to Baylor because Brooks didn’t play would be glossing over just how inept the rest of Dana Altman’s team looked Tuesday night. As the head coach put it on Wednesday, telling reporters “that’s really easy to let the guys off the hook that way. This team is a lot better, even without him, than what it showed yesterday, and that’s what disappoints me.”

Dillon Brooks (USA Today Images)

The Return of Dillon Brooks Cannot Come Soon Enough for Oregon (USA Today Images)

There is no point in running through the numbers because it is just easier to say that Oregon played its worst offensive game since 2013 and 0.82 points per possession won’t even beat Dartmouth, much less Baylor. To his credit, Altman was the first to admit how poorly his team played Tuesday, but the outcome of the game isn’t the problem inasmuch as some of the holes that Baylor exposed in the process.

The most glaring issue is the team’s obvious lack of depth without Brooks in the lineup. Only seven players received more than 10 minutes of court time and it is obvious that potential rotation pieces Kavell Bigby-Williams and Keith Smith are not yet ready. Without Brooks, this leaves the Ducks undersized and inflexible defensively and forces Altman to heavily rely on freshman guard Payton Pritchard and seldom-used big man Roman Sorkin. Both are useful players but the Ducks are likely better off with them serving as complementary pieces rather than core rotation guys.

It is also somewhat disappointing that Chris Boucher hasn’t yet taken the leap, although It is also worth remembering that he has only been playing organized basketball since 2012. Through two games, Boucher has looked a lot like the same player he was last season, which isn’t a bad thing when you consider his offensive efficiency and shot-blocking ability. But he was also maddeningly inconsistent last season, a player who still disappears offensively at times, doesn’t pass, struggles with foul trouble and doesn’t rebound nearly as well as he should. Against teams like Army, he can go for 14 points and eight rebounds without breaking a sweat; but for Oregon to ultimately win a National Championship, Boucher needs to do better than two rebounds (zero offensive) against quality opponents.

The point guard job is less about whether a hole needs plugging and more about which plug fits that hole best. Pritchard and returning starter Casey Benson have split minutes as the primary ball-handler through two games and most teams in the Pac-12 would kill for a duo like that. But it will be interesting to see how that time-sharing arrangement progresses because each player brings a distinctly different skill set to the table. Benson hasn’t done anything this season to lose his starting spot, but Pritchard is the more talented (and turnover-prone) offensive player. Once Brooks returns, either Benson or Dylan Ennis will be headed to the bench, only making things more interesting as Ennis can play point guard as well. The sample size is admittedly small, but the most logical solution for Altman is to use Benson as the steady hand and let the better shooters, Ennis and Pritchard, provide scoring punch off the ball.

Oregon has no time to lick its wounds as undefeated Valparaiso comes to Eugene tonight. The Crusaders are better than your average mid-major but this is still a chance for the Ducks, even without the services of Brooks for another night, to flex their muscles and prove they are a capable team regardless.

Share this story

Markelle Fultz is Terrific: Will Washington Waste Him?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 17th, 2016

Last Sunday night in Seattle provided a huge helping of catharsis for the Lorenzo Romar detractors out there. Romar certainly didn’t help his case by bravely taking to Twitter after the game — a 98-90 loss to Yale — to thank the fans. Not so grateful Washington fans responded by asking why the longtime Huskies head coach still has a job. It is hard to blame those fans for their frustration after watching their team shoot almost 60 percent from the field against an Ivy League opponent and still lose by giving up nearly 100 points to a team without its best player. Perhaps the most disheartening part of the result is that it appears the college basketball world will struggle to fully appreciate a potential No. 1 overall pick because his team won’t play many meaningful basketball games. Markelle Fultz was everything people said he would be (and more) in his debut, scoring 30 points on just 17 shots while adding seven rebounds and six assists to boot.

Markelle Fultz has been everything pundits expected, but will it be enough? (Seattle Times)

Markelle Fultz has been everything pundits expected, but will it be enough? (Seattle Times)

Fultz was hardly perfect — he missed four free throws and contributed greatly to the team’s overall defensive malaise — but he dominated the Bulldogs on the offensive end in a smooth and effortless manner. At times it barely looked like he was trying — the freshman would just glide up the court, beat his defender off the dribble and make a shot. East Coast fans with insomnia could do worse than tuning in to watch Fultz work his offensive magic a couple times per week. The problem is that, much like Ben Simmons at LSU last season, Fultz appears condemned to basketball purgatory, sentenced to a season of video game numbers with plenty of losing. That is an unfortunate outcome for everyone who loves college basketball, because the sport as a whole benefits when the best players play meaningful games. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story