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)

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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.

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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 »
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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.

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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.

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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 »

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Pac-12 Roars Out of the Gates: Opening Weekend Thoughts

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 took a lot of heat as a conference during the Big Dance last year as a number of high-seeds (forgiving Oregon) didn’t amount to deep runs in March. The beauty of college basketball is that a new year brings new chances to make a mark, and as a whole, the conference’s opening weekend was outstanding to tip off the year. Here is a rundown of some of the opening weekend action:

  • UCLA and its talented freshmen burst out of the gate and ran Pacific right out of Pauley on Friday night. The Bruins’ 119-80 victory came with very auspicious debuts for T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball. They combined to shoot 15-of-21 for 41 points, and Ball stuffed his first stat sheet with a very impressive 19 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds (and just one turnover) in 34 minutes. That minutes total brings us to one of the big takeaways from the game, as head coach Steve Alford used a very tight rotation, something rare for an opener that was clearly over at halftime. Leaf played 37 minutes and every starter played at least 26, with Aaron Holiday rounding out the half-dozen man rotation with 24 minutes off the bench. Nobody else logged more than six minutes off the bench.
It Was That Kind of Day For Steve Alford's UCLA Team (USA Today Images)

With a great freshman class in action, Steve Alford has a great chance to lead his Bruins back to the top of the conference. (USA TODAY Images)

  • UCLA came back Sunday night in a defense “optional” performance to beat Cal-State Northridge. The Bruins blitzed the Matadors’ matador defense to the tune of 62 points in the second half to overcome what was actually a small halftime deficit. Again, Alford utilized a short bench, with Holiday getting 29 minutes off the pine and Gyorgy Golomon seeing 15. With Alford depending on such a young and inexperienced core, it’s understandable why he might be willing to give his youngsters heavier doses of minutes. Bruins’ possessions lasted 12.5 seconds on average in the opener, and they didn’t take the foot off the gas against Northridge. Something’s gotta give here. Either Alford lengthens the bench or the Bruins slow down, lest they collectively collapse from exhaustion come January.

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Pac-12 Preseason All-Conference Teams

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

Nothing grinds our gears quite like the end of season Pac-12 All-Conference team selection. There is no reasonable explanation for going to the trouble of naming an official first team and an official second team and then casually picking 15 PLAYERS to fill those two teams. We are all for honoring the conference’s 15 best players, but the way to do that is by just making a third team. We are probably taking this way too seriously, but when the official All-Pac 12 team is 10 players deep, it cheapens the honor. Gary Payton II and Jakob Poetl deserved to be separated from guys like Elgin Cook and Rosco Allen last season. Instead it felt more like they were receiving participation trophies for being really good. We are not as inclusive. There are five players on our Pac-12 first team and there are five players on our Pac-12 second team. Picking these teams before the season begins is always a bit of a fruitless exercise. The order of things is bound to change once the season starts and actual play can be evaluated. Aside from the occasional Ivan Rabb or Dillon Brooks, there are usually as many as 25 players deserving of consideration. We started our list with roughly that number of candidates and trimmed it from there. There were very few consensus selections this year, as you will see when we share our thoughts behind the 10 selections below.

ALL-PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

Markelle Fultz Hasn't Played A Minute of College Basketball and He May Be the Best Player In the Conference (Adidas)

Washington’s Fultz Has Zero Collegiate Experience Yet May Be the Best Player In the Conference. (Adidas)

  • Dillon Brooks, Junior, Oregon
  • Ivan Rabb, Sophomore, California
  • Allonzo Trier, Sophomore, Arizona
  • Lonzo Ball, Freshman, UCLA
  • Markelle Fultz, Freshman, Washington

ML: This was one of the more difficult teams to peg in recent memory and the race to make it was almost entirely wide open. Rabb is the only real shoo-in. He will be stronger this season and is easily the conference’s best big man. Brooks needs to get healthy, but Oregon doesn’t seem overly concerned that he will miss extensive time. He is a no-brainer for this team assuming he returns to form on the court relatively soon. Trier could make us look foolish if his mysterious absence turns into a lengthy suspension, but if he plays, he is will score in bunches and should be a better playmaker this season. Fultz and Ball haven’t yet played a single minute of college basketball, but both would be lottery picks if the NBA Draft was held today and each is talented enough to contend for national honors as well as conference awards.

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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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