Pac-12 Player of the Year Debate: Dillon Brooks vs. Ivan Rabb

Posted by Mike Lemaire & Adam Butler on November 11th, 2016

It isn’t often that you see a reigning conference Player of the Year return to school and not be considered the favorite to win it again. But such is life when you play in the same conference as a talent like California’s Ivan Rabb. Oregon’s Dillon Brooks is still the likely favorite to win the award again, but Rabb is almost universally considered the better NBA prospect. To make matters even more complicated, Brooks is returning from a foot injury. While Oregon doesn’t seem overly concerned that its star junior will miss a significant amount of time, it remains unclear when he will be back so speculation will continue. I believe Brooks will be back sooner rather than later and he will quickly return to his spot atop the conference food chain. Adam likes Brooks too — he just likes Rabb better. Let’s make the case for both.

The Case for Dillon Brooks

What Does Dillon Brooks Have In Store For An Encore Performance? (USA Today Images)

What Does Dillon Brooks Have In Store For An Encore Performance? (USA TODAY Images)

It would be easy to just state plainly that Brooks is the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year and thus should be the front-runner until proven otherwise. But it would be equally foolish to underestimate the development of a player as talented as Rabb, so let’s make the case for Brooks more thoroughly. The Toronto native is not the most efficient scorer, especially from downtown; he isn’t the best passer; he isn’t the perfect defender; and, he can disappear on the glass. But there isn’t any other player in the conference, Rabb included, who can claim to be above-average at all of those categories. Assuming he is healthy (and for now, at least, that is a big assumption), Brooks has a chance to rank among the top 10 in the Pac in scoring, assists, rebounding and steals. He has NBA size and athleticism, and if he can cut down on his turnovers and improve his shot selection, he could become a ruthlessly efficient and unstoppable offensive player. Rabb is without question a future lottery pick and almost certainly has the brighter NBA future, but he will never be able to stuff a stat sheet as completely as Brooks. He is the best player on the best team in the conference and his ability to create his own shot and guard multiple positions is the engine that powers Oregon. He should be able to improve on his numbers from last season and lead the Ducks to the conference crown. If he in fact does both, there will be nothing Rabb can do to stop the Brooks’ coronation ceremony. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Can Stanford Return to Glory with Jerod Haase?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 11th, 2016

 

After eight seasons of slightly better than mediocre basketball, Stanford finally pulled the trigger after a 15-15 season and fired longtime coach Johnny Dawkins. Although the decision barely made a ripple on the national scene, there are many who believe that Stanford — thanks to its idyllic setting, academic reputation and commitment to athletics — is a sleeping giant in basketball and an attractive landing spot for a rising head coach. Enter Jerod Haase, a former player and coach under Roy Williams at Kansas and North Carolina and a native of Northern California. Haase’s local ties and a coaching resume that includes turning around a flagging UAB program made him a worthy candidate for the job, but that didn’t stop many Stanford fans from saying, “Who?” when he signed. Everyone agreed that it was time to move on from Dawkins, but dreams of luring Mark Few away from Gonzaga or Archie Miller away from Dayton did not come to fruition. Instead, Stanford got a coach who has just one NCAA Tournament win under his belt (although a #14 seed over a #3 seed is a very nice one).

Jerod Haase Has Won A Lot In C-USA But Can He Do It In The PAC-12 Too?

Can Jerod Haase Make Stanford Nationally Relevant Again? (Getty)

This is the challenge that Haase welcomed when he took the job on The Farm. Stanford’s basketball program has enough tradition behind it that its fans have NCAA Tournament expectations and semi-legitimate Final Four hopes. They watched the school’s football program go from Pac-12 also-ran to perennial contender in just a few seasons, and considering that the basketball facilities are equally as appealing, it makes sense to think that Stanford basketball can undergo a similar renaissance. It will have to start with better recruiting. Part of the criticism with Dawkins was that, even though he made a Sweet Sixteen and his teams were usually competitive, he never truly made a name for himself on the recruiting trail like league colleagues Sean Miller, Steve Alford and Lorenzo Romar. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for developing players like Dwight Powell, Josh Huestis, Chasson Randle and several others. He also deserves credit for uncovering quality basketball players like Anthony Brown and Aaron Bright. But Powell and Huestis are Dawkins’ only pupils currently playing in the NBA and the current roster looks a lot like the previous versions — good enough to be competitive, but not good enough to get anyone very excited about their potential. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Can Bobby Hurley Do More Than Recruit?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 10th, 2016

When Arizona State hired Bobby Hurley away from Buffalo as its new basketball coach a year ago, athletic director Ray Anderson made no bones about the incoming expectations for his new coach: “We are intent on becoming an elite men’s basketball program.” The hire gained nearly universal praise, in large part thanks to Hurley’s fantastic playing career at Duke and his work in leading Buffalo to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015. Once his first season in Tempe started, however, the Sun Devils looked anything but elite.

Bobby Hurley's Team Would Be In Based On Non-Conference Play Alone

Bobby Hurley’s Team Needs To Show More This Season. (Getty)

The team ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 on both ends of the floor, won just five league games and generally appeared unready to compete for a conference title. Very little of this was the new head coach’s fault, of course. Predecessor Herb Sendek left insufficient talent on hand for the formation of a competent rotation, and those few players remaining were ill-suited for Hurley’s attacking style of offense. Still, despite the team’s continuing struggles, Hurley managed to pile up the accolades for his work in both changing the program’s culture and luring big-time recruits to the desert. As such, despite finishing 11th in the Pac-12 standings, Hurley convinced Arizona State that he deserved a raise and contract extension. And although there is plenty of evidence that Hurley has pointed the Arizona State ship in the right direction, he now needs to reward that faith and enthusiasm with some accompanying on-court improvement. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Coach of the Year Debate: Dana Altman vs. Sean Miller

Posted by Mike Lemaire & Adam Butler on November 9th, 2016

There is no clear-cut favorite in this season’s race for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Most pundits are picking Oregon‘s Dana Altman but it feels like he is winning by default. Altman has something working against him, though, which is that expectations are already sky high in Eugene. If Oregon wins the conference it may be because they were expected to win the conference, and if the Ducks underachieve, Altman will quickly fall out of the race. I still think that Altman is the right pick and the correct pick. Adam and his eternal soft spot for Sean Miller respectfully disagrees. Here’s the case for each.

The Case for Sean Miller

Sean Miller Has His Work Cut Out For Him This Season (USA Today Images)

Sean Miller Has His Work Cut Out For Him This Season (USA Today Images)

As of today we must acknowledge that we don’t know that status of Allonzo Trier. He’s pretty good at basketball and critical to Arizona‘s success this season. That said, if he misses extended time and the Wildcats still finish among the top three teams in this conference, it should only further cement Miller’s claim on Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Beyond the fact that the conference set a precedent of rewarding overachievers (all of the 2015 awards), Miller is poised to navigate a Pac-12 season with a group of talented players all of whom are in brand new experiences. Considering Altman returns 68 percent of the minutes played by his rotation last season and UCLA’s Steve Alford is only moving players into more natural positions, Miller will almost certainly have a larger impact on his team’s success that some of his counterparts. And in making this candidacy, I don’t want to paint the Wildcats as underdogs. They’re not. They’re ranked 10th nationally and even in the absence of Trier (and now, Ray Smith) they still rate as a top-30 team according to Sports Illustrated‘s What-If scenarios. Even with just eight scholarship players, none of whom has significant experience in their role, expectations are always lofty in Tucson. But Arizona only plays Oregon once (in Eugene) and has a schedule that is favorable so that this inexperienced, albeit loosely veteran, roster can have time to develop. Miller teams trend well late in the season and this is a group that likely won’t buck that trend.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: How Good Can USC’s Chimezie Metu Be?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 9th, 2016

It’s perhaps strange to consider Chimezie Metu the hottest topic out of the Galen Center and perhaps I’m wrong on this one. Such is the case with preseason prognosticating. But consider that the Trojans – a team that attended the 2016 Dance – have many of the right pieces already in place and developed to cover for the departures of Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic. I find Metu perhaps the most intriguing prospect in the Pac-12. Jacobs was a first team conference performer last year in leading the conference in assists. And while I don’t love to play the game of “how to replace a singular talent,” Elijah Stewart has long felt poised to become an elite scorer while Louisville transfer Shaqquan Arron could very well have that guard productivity covered (after all, he was a top-30 recruit in 2014). The frontcourt is well-positioned to also see a sophomore bump out of Benny Boatright, a stretch four who shot a cool 37 percent from beyond the arc while posting competitive-but-not-great rebounding numbers (get in there big fella!). Losing Jovanovic to the Draft, therefore, left the Trojans with their biggest gap at the biggest position. Enter: Metu.

Chimezie Metu. (Shotgun Spratling/uscfootball.com)

Chimezie Metu Returns to Show What He Can Do at USC. (Shotgun Spratling/uscfootball.com)

He’s a fantastic athlete who has shown bursts of remarkable ability. As freshmen go, of course, they were indeed just bursts. He could play the role of big body this season, filling space and continuing those flashes or dominant presence, controlling the paint and altering anything in the lane. If it’s the former (body), I still like these Trojans as a top-of-the-league competitive and in the dogfight for an NCAA bid (two straight). If it’s the latter, however, with Metu as a nightly double-double threat and protecting the rim like he’s demonstrated (seriously, 8.2 percent block rate… but 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes), then the Trojans begin to feel like an NCAA lock with a shot at a top-three finish. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: What About Lorenzo Romar’s Hot Seat?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 8th, 2016

It was surprising to learn that The Ringer’s first-ever college basketball piece (or at least Mark Titus’ first college hoops piece) was about Lorenzo Romar and the Washington basketball program. It’s of course not totally strange to have Washington hoops in national news during off-cycle reporting (see: The Sixth Man), but when you consider Washington hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 2012, it’s a little different that a brand new media outlet would introduce itself by questioning the employment of a Pacific Northwestern basketball coach. And while I know that we’re Pac-12 homers, this one felt a little strange yet enjoyable. Alas, this isn’t a media critique column — it’s an exploration of the Huskies, a team that it says here is not playing for its coach’s job. No, the Huskies are instead playing for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years. With a fresh injection of energy and life into the Seattle-based program, fans joined the Dawg Pound as Washington exhibited a bump in attendance for the first time in three years. And while the numbers (attendance) are still rather paltry (an average jump of about 400 bodies), it trended up. We like upward trends and particularly ones that can be righted after 14 seasons.

Washington's Foul Trouble Is Not Fun For Lorenzo Romar. (The Seattle Times)

Once again, this might be the make-or-break year for Lorenzo Romar. Or is it? (The Seattle Times)

So if Washington isn’t playing explicitly for its coach’s job and we’re not asking the question if they are, what questions can we ask? Well…

  • Is freshman Markelle Fultz the best player in the Pac-12? Some have predicted he will be the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and still others have noted him as the first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. CBSSports.com, for what it’s worth, says he’s the second best college basketball player out there.
  • Will the Huskies average less time per possession this year? Last year Washington logged an outrageously swift possession time of 13.6 seconds, second in the nation, and the third quickest offensive possession length since KenPom began tracking the number in 2010.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: How Does Utah Replace Its Entire Roster?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 7th, 2016

Replacing Jakob Poeltl, of course, is the biggest challenge facing Utah, but such would be the case for any team that loses a conference Player of the Year. We can’t dwell on that. What we can turn our attention to is the team’s high roster turnover and that the Utes lost six scholarship players following a second place Pac-12 finish. That’s a lot even in today’s transfer-heavy climate. Of course, the roster turnover is mixed with the natural losses of Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge – two veterans who were with the program throughout its recent return to relevance. As a result, head coach Larry Krystkowiak finds himself with one of the more unique coaching challenges in the conference this season.

Larry Krystkowiak And The Utes Got To Celebrate On BYU's Home Floor Last Season (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

Larry Krystkowiak has built a big-time program in Utah. (Hugh Carey, Deseret News)

It’s important to note that he hasn’t left himself with absolutely nothing. The Utes have won more than 21 games in each of the last three years — to be clear, this is a program and not just a team. Lorenzo Bonam and Kyle Kuzma are two fine Pac-12 returnees, the latter of which CBSSports.com‘s Matt Norlander thinks could be an NBA Draft pick (scroll to the Utes at #73). Those veterans (the only ones left?) will be supplemented by a top-100 recruit in Jayce Johnson, who actually joined the Utes in the middle of last season. Considering that Johnson had half a year to compete in practice with Poeltl and Krystkowiak’s proven ability to develop bigs, it would be fair to place relatively high expectations on Johnson.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: What’s the Plan at Washington State?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 4th, 2016

There’s a building in downtown San Francisco that is sinking. It has about a 16-inch lean and there are already lawsuits upon lawsuits hunting for blame and accountability. Something must be done or this tower — in the heart of San Francisco’s SOMA district — is going down with everything else around it. The word is that this building was seemingly tossed together without much of a plan. To build something great, you’ve got to have a buttoned-up, dedicated plan. Is there a plan in place for basketball in Pullman? Because I really can’t figure the direction of Ernie Kent’s program. He’s sitting at what he calls the pivotal third year with just eight conference wins to his Washington State name (and only one of those came last year). The Cougars have what feels like a newer roster, introducing five freshmen and two transfers despite the presence of four experienced seniors. They’re definitely leaning but I won’t yet say sinking. This is 2016 college hoops, though, and roster turnover in the third year isn’t so much a barometer of program health as it is a reality. But as we saw significant third-year improvements from Andy Enfield at USC (NCAA Tournament), Tad Boyle at Colorado (NCAA Tournament), Larry Krystkowiak at Utah (23 wins), Dana Altman at Oregon (NCAA Tournament) and Wayne Tinkle at Oregon State (NCAA Tournament in year two), we’re left to wonder what the direction of Cougars basketball is right now?

Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12's Most Improved Player

Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12’s Most Improved Player. (AP)

There’s only UP to go from Washington State’s one conference win last year, and the Cougars should exceed that total this season. I want to be optimistic! I would love to see Josh Hawkinson have a romanticize-able senior year. He’s had a fantastic two-year run and is the most lovable senior big man to come out of Pullman since Brock Motum. Have there really been that many since, though? His sophomore and junior campaigns went somewhat overlooked. He’s had a top-five defensive rebounding percentage in each of the last two seasons and at times can be unstoppable around the rim. Could he make a nice senior leap into Pac-12 superstardom?

Channeling further optimism, Connor Clifford had flashes of being a more-than-capable seven-footer last year; and I’m intrigued by the final season potential of Ike Iroegbu and Charles Callison. Unfortunately, romantic senior years aren’t plans. They’re wishful and happy thoughts that do not a basketball program make. What usually does, rather, is player development and youthful influxes (see the aforementioned early success of the other Pac-12 programs), plans that build things to not sink or fall. Of course, Kent introduces five new freshmen, presumably the future of the program. It isn’t a highly-touted group but it’s also nothing to completely dismiss, if for no other reason than Kent is a very positive speaker. Milan Acquaah is the highest-rated newcomer, a three-star point guard from Los Angeles. In future planning, Kent has secured two 2017 commitments in Davontae Coooper (center) and his high school teammate, Kwinton Hinson (guard). Perhaps that’s a nice start, but when Ernie cites year three as a critical one, it’s not a good look to be picked last again.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Is UCLA Any Good?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 3rd, 2016

This is easily the most basic of any of our burning questions but it feels completely legitimate. UCLA finished 15-17 last season and we could stop right there to qualify the question. Steve Alford returns much of the roster that played selective defense last season and ultimately led the hand of its coach into a formal letter of apology. Sure, there might have been some injuries, but this is UCLA basketball – something fans have been squawking about since mid-to-late-Ben Howland – and as Steve Alford noted at Pac-12 Media Day, there are consequences in failing to uphold what it means to be a UCLA basketball player, coach or team. The nice thing about an offseason is that it allows you get healthy. The nicer thing about an offseason is it allows you to bring in new players. The nicest thing about an offseason is that your last season ends. The Bruins will welcome back their frontcourt depth with Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinski being veteran returnees who will start the season (and hopefully finish it) healthy. They’ll also introduce Ike Anigbogu (hulking center) and TJ Leaf (skilled power forward) as freshmen. Of course, Thomas Welsh also returns his well-developed skill set to the starting center role.

Regardless of how they did it, Thomas Welch and UCLA are one step away from the Sweet 16. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Thomas Welch is UCLA’s top returning standout. Is he enough? (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

But as this is UCLA basketball and there’s much to like about Welsh’s offensive game, the Bruins’ question marks center around the defensive end. Does a team improve its defense with freshmen? Not usually. Furthermore, UCLA has spent the last few seasons masking their defensive flaws with an opportunistic zone that has been headed by some unique talents (if not bodies) in Kyle Anderson, Kevon Looney and Jonah Bolden (trying early departure from last year’s team). Each of these players was a lengthy forward with ball skills. This roster lacks that player. What this roster doesn’t lack is guards. Alford returns a veteran lot but it is also the same lot that didn’t play defense last year and a reminder of why the Bruins played zone defense. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are both very talented scorers, but will their senior campaigns lend itself to a defensive renaissance? Adding Lonzo Ball to the mix is something any coach would want to do but another talented passer and shooter isn’t necessarily what this team needs. Of course adding talent is never a bad thing, and to that extent the Bruins should absolutely be expected to improve (which, granted, is not hard to do from two games under .500).

What I see on this roster are improvements at positions that didn’t necessarily need improving. And while I can agree that the previous sentence is oxymoronic (when you’re sub-.500, you absolutely need to improve), I would prefer that this group show me why they’re a top 20 team in the preseason national polls. The depth chart over UCLA’s final five games last year (per KenPom) was Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton, Jonah Bolden and Thomas Welsh. How much better can that group defend when you toss in some pups?

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Is Ivan Rabb an NPOY Contender?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 2nd, 2016

It’s been floated around the league that California‘s Ivan Rabb could contend for the National Player of the Year award (more on that and other Pac-12 prognostications later). From what we saw last season, however, the Bay Area big man is wildly efficient and offensively underutilized. To quantify: 120.0 offensive rating; 62 percent inside the arc; top-100 (nationally) eFG% and true shooting percentage. From a utilization standpoint, Rabb played 70 percent of the available minutes (a bit above average for most big men) with a very pedestrian 20 percent usage rate during his time on the floor. His lack of involvement with the offense last season was at times heartbreaking. Meanwhile, teammates Tyrone Wallace and Jaylen Brown hovered around the herculean usage mark. For context against Rabb’s 70/20 minutes/usage ratio, Wallace and Brown were 68/32 and 65/28, respectively. Seriously, the two Bears finished first and second in Pac-12 usage, respectively, one of just three pairs of teammates to lead a conference in such. Naturally this becomes a numbers game — Rabb will get more touches and a corresponding increase in usage, and his scoring efficiency suggests that he will thrive when he gets that opportunity. Consequently, the talk of a National Player of the Year effort.

Ivan Rabb for player of the year? Only if his teammates help him. (Pac-12 Networks)

Ivan Rabb for Player of the Year? Only if his teammates help him. (Pac-12 Networks)

And yet two thoughts immediately come to mind: 1) Cuonzo Martin knows how to milk his stars for all they’re worth and he isn’t afraid to give the ball to those individuals. In which case, Rabb could get all of the touches for seemingly every minute he’s on the floor (something akin to Brown’s one-and-done experience); or 2) Martin’s strength is on the defensive end and he won’t necessarily optimize the offensive end. This dichotomous thinking is the fodder to Cal’s burning hot fire question. If we look at Martin’s teams historically, they’ve generally followed the pattern of riding two horses to their best success. Last year it was Brown and Wallace (at not particularly high efficiency). During his 2014 Tennessee campaign (24-13, Sweet Sixteen appearance), it was Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes (28.9% and 25.9% usage rates, respectively) yet at very efficient numbers (each greater than 115.0 offensive ratings). At Missouri State in 2011 (26-9), it was Kyle Weems (25.2%) and Will Creekmore (25.7%) who logged greater than 110.0 offensive ratings. All of which leads us to a third (perhaps fourth) question: Can Jabari Bird be that second guy? He’s played his entire California career somewhat in the shadows after arriving to considerable hype. Gone are Wallace and Brown, but so too is sharpshooter Jordan Mathews, who chose to grad-bolt for Gonzaga. This ultimately feels like a Bears’ roster that is thin on high-major bodies and talent — two critical pieces not only to earning a teammate the highest individual hardware, but also for making another NCAA Tournament. Consider the last four NPOYs:

  • 2016 – Buddy Hield, Oklahoma – #2 seed
  • 2015 – Frank Kaminski, Wisconsin – #1 seed
  • 2014 – Doug McDermott, Creighton – #3 seed
  • 2013 – Trey Burke, Michigan – #2 seed

Does Rabb have the talent to be an NPOY? Absolutely. Does he have the teammates? It’s going to take more than just a strong senior year out of Jabari Bird. Which is a long-winded and politically correct way of saying: No.

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