Five Pac-12 Observations From Opening Night

Posted by Adam Butler on November 7th, 2018

The Pac-12 opened the 2018-19 college basketball season with seven games last evening, winning all seven of those contests. Let’s take a few moments to run down some thoughts and observations from a relatively full slate.

Lugentz Dort Came Up Big in His Collegiate Debut Last Night (USA Today Images)

  1. The Pac swept opening night and that was nice! Arizona State tried its best to spoil it, however, with a double-overtime win at home against Cal State Fullerton. The focus of that game, however, may not be the result but rather Lugentz Dort’s performance. The prized recruit of Bobby Hurley’s class scored 28 points in the extended game. It wasn’t an efficient 28 but it was a collegiate debut 28 nonetheless. Something to keep an eye on: Dort is a big, physical guard who shot 13 free throws against the Titans. He only made seven of those attempts, though!
  2. Kris Wilkes had 18 at the half as UCLA rolled against Fort Wayne. He’d finish with 27 points and 10 rebounds along with three assists. Further, Jaylen Hands notched seven assists while Moses Brown logged SEVENTEEN rebounds (seven offensive). Context: Brown re-acquired 20 percent of UCLA’s missed shots last night!
  3. A season long storyline will be the performance of the Oregon State sons, Tres Tinkle, Stephen and Ethan Thompson. The triumvirate combined to score 75 percent of the Beavers’ points last night against UC Riverside.
  4. We shouldn’t belabor this one but Stanford drubbed Seattle, 96-74, while its starting power forward, KZ Okpala, scored 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Meanwhile, across the country, Stanford’s old starting power forward, Reid Travis, also had a nice night (22 points, seven rebounds) while being destructed by Duke.
  5. Another debut to note was Oregon’s Bol Bol. He’ll become a fascinating case of what the modern college big man can become – particularly against steeper competition – but on opening night, Bol was only modestly effective, taking no three-pointers and connecting on just 4-of-12 shooting. These kinds of games – big school with true bigs against smaller schools with generally smaller or unskilled bigs – can be challenging. The spacing is never normal and it’s not a huge surprise that Bol struggled. He did manage 12 rebounds, of course. Also of note: Kenny Wooten had three blocks.
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Pac-12 Conversation: Did the Pac-12 Get Hosed?

Posted by Adam Butler & RJ Abeytia on March 14th, 2018

With the Pac-12 already off to an inauspicious start given UCLA‘s First Four loss to St. Bonaventure, Pac-12 microsite writers Adam Butler (@pachoopsAB) and RJ Abeytia (@rj_abeytia) break down the burning questions facing ArizonaArizona State and the rest of the conference.

It’s Been That Kind of Year in the Pac-12 (USA Today Images)

Adam Butler: OK – let me start with the obvious – as Pac-12 bloggers, did the Pac get hosed by the NCAA?

R.J.:  I say we start with USC. Screwed or not screwed?

Adam Butler: Screwed! Whenever you’re “the somethingest to not something,” you’ve been screwed.

R.J.: USC was but most people are framing the argument incorrectly. It’s the whole body of work and the committee once again proved that there is no line of demarcation in their view between conference and non-conference play and, if anything, non-conference > conference. Andy Enfield has historically scheduled gutlessly in the non-conference realm but a #34 RPI is still a #34 RPI.

Adam Butler: Well… and this is where it gets weird with the 36 at-larges. Are they the 36 best teams remaining or the 36 most deserving?

R.J.: It has to be the 36 most deserving. I hate when an undeserving team gets in and then people retroactively declare them worthy of inclusion.

Adam Butler: Further – are you buying the FBI conspiracies? That the toothless NCAA is taking passive-aggressive jabs at schools explicitly under investigation?

R.J.:  This is not the first time USC has been made an example, only to have other schools get lesser penalties for greater infractions.

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Arizona State’s Stars and the Infrequence of its Bench

Posted by Adam Butler on March 7th, 2018

Earlier this season, as many were asking if Arizona State was the best team in the country, it was hard to disagree. The Sun Devils were 12-0 and had logged wins over Xavier and Kansas, now-and-then teams projected to be fantastic. On the eve of Pac-12 play, they were ranked among the nation’s top five in the national polls and rated 20th by KenPom. Bobby Hurley was America’s coaching darling and Tra Holder was outpacing Deandre Ayton for the Pac-12 Player of the Year (although I did call Holder a dark horse favorite for the award). But now, at season’s end, the Devils are 8-10 in a mediocre-at-best Pac-12 and no longer our national sweethearts (to the extent a Devil ever could be). It wasn’t the level of competition (exclusively) that caused this collapse. A win at Kansas is rarely a mistake. Even Washington went 10-8 in the same conference! What happened to Arizona State?

Arizona State Was Flying High Earlier This Season (USA Today Images)

I chose to call it a “Curtain of Exhaustion.” Back when the Sun Devils were streaking, we noted that Hurley was very rarely leveraging his bench. Now, to be clear, leveraging a bench is a complex topic. In the college game specifically, a bench isn’t always a required or an available asset. Arizona State started the season without Mickey Mitchell or Kimani Lawrence, both of whom wound up playing significant-if-not-impactful roles throughout the conference season. Regardless of their availability, the Sun Devils still finished the season with just one-quarter of their available minutes (305th nationally) going to the bench. Again, this isn’t always a death sentence for teams, but in closely examining Arizona State’s tumble, it seems clear. Holder and Shannon Evans — who have played 87 percent and 86 percent, respectively, of their team’s available minutes — are exhausted. Their totals represent the fourth and fifth most minutes in the Pac-12 this season. To further visualize this thesis, here are their rolling field goal percentages this season:

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Is Arizona State Really the Best Team in the Pac-12?

Posted by Adam Butler on January 31st, 2018

With a microphone in his face, Arizona State guard Shannon Evans told anyone listening that his team is the best in the conference and that the Pac-12 would be nothing without the Sun Devils’ non-conference efforts. Before diving into his bold statement further, let’s give credit where it is due — a win at Kansas is a win at Kansas. Xavier is a meaningful win too. It’s also worth noting that St. John’s is currently sitting at a cool 0-11 in the Big East standings. It is true, however, that the Sun Devils had the only non-conference season of note and it was very impressive. They even flirted with the #1 ranking in the country.

Shannon Evans is a Believer (USA Today Images)

Yet since Arizona State sat in the driver’s seat of that #1 ranking on the afternoon of December 30 (losing to Arizona), the Sun Devils have played to the tune of a negative efficiency margin (107 offensive efficiency – 108 defensive efficiency = -1 efficiency margin). Their defense, which was never celebrated, ranks eighth in the conference, even yielding more than one point per possession to Cal! Their offense, however, driven by great speed and long-range shooting, has seemingly disappeared. For the season, Arizona State’s offense has operated at a KenPom adjusted 119.4 points per 100 possessions, which is fantastic (eighth nationally) and carried, as noted, by outstanding three-point shooting. The Sun Devils are the nation’s 52nd-best three point shooting team (38.3%) for the season, but in conference play, they have not been nearly that good. Rather, Arizona State’s offense is hovering at a 107.6 efficiency (sixth in the Pac) while making 36.2 percent of their threes (seventh).

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Most Improved Offensive and Defensive Pac-12 Teams

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 9th, 2018

I swear we aren’t trying to become an Arizona State subsite. When I got the idea for this post, it never occurred to me that I was walking right back in the direction of Tempe.  I was actually hoping to be pleasantly surprised to see which Pac-12 team has to date made the biggest leaps on offense and defense. Instead, the Sun Devils took all the fun out of my balloon. Arizona State has moved up a whopping five places in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating, which is one of those facts that only feels inevitable after you hear about it. As a matter of fact, the Sun Devils are the most efficient offensive team in the Pac-12 this season, up from sixth last year to first today. They also rank sixth in defensive efficiency one season after finishing last in the league overall. It’s been an uprising on both ends of the court for Bobby Hurley.

Arizona State Has Made Big Improvements From Last Year to This Year (USA Today Images)

Arizona State’s three-point shooting is by far the biggest contributor to its offensive success, but what else are the Sun Devils doing right? They are obviously shooting the ball very well, with an effective field goal rate of 56.2 percent, 26th nationally. They are also snaring 32.2 percent of the available offensive rebounds (84th) and they are getting to the line at an exceptional rate of 47.4 percent, second-highest in the country. When watching them play, it is easy to see how their strengths all feed off one another. Driving lanes are open because opponents can’t cheat off shooters. That creates clean post opportunities for freshman Romello White, who in a DeAndre Ayton-less world would be getting serious Freshman of the Year shine for bringing a desperately needed inside presence to this team. Arizona State also has multiple perimeter guys playing with great poise, so teams cannot focus on just one piece there to short-circuits the whole show. Defensively, the Sun Devils have been built with inside-out priorities. Over 43 percent of their opponents’ shots are threes, resulting in 35.9 percent of their points coming from distance. But what Arizona State really does well is play clean defense. Opponents have scored only 17.3 percent of their points on free throws, which puts the Sun Devils among the top third nationally in least charitable teams.

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A Hater’s Guide to Arizona State Basketball

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 27th, 2017

All right, Arizona State. You’ve got our attention. 12-0 is no joke, not with a road win at Allen Fieldhouse on your resume. A lofty #3 AP and RPI ranking means the Sun Devils can no longer be ignored or dismissed. A date with Arizona in Tucson where Arizona State will be ranked significantly above its rival Wildcats tells you that Netflix is not the only place where you can witness the Upside Down. Of course, in these times of instant gratification, that means every part of the Hero’s journey is accelerated, and since there’s nothing America likes to do as much as put a new face on a pedestal only to knock it down, it’s time for the backlash. Let’s talk about the most dubious aspects of Arizona State’s success and see if its profile suggests sustainability. Let’s bring the hate.

Arizona State Has Had a Dream Season to Date (USA Today Images)

First of all, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder are playing way too many minutes. Holder’s minutes in the last four games were 40, 37, 32 and 28. Trending correctly, right? Sure, as long as Longwood and Pacific are the opponents. Evans is right there with his teammate, playing just a shade under 88 percent of his possible minutes. Senior Kodi Justice is also playing 82 percent of his available minutes. Our colleague Adam Butler is right in saying that benches and depth tend to be overrated in college basketball, but at 6’1” and under 181 pounds each, Evans and Holder cannot expected to play a full season at the blistering pace the Sun Devils have set for themselves. I’ll add a corollary.  Depth quantity may not matter, but depth production does. You don’t need a 10-man rotation to win in college basketball. However, you do need to develop enough trust such that your best players aren’t pushing past 35 minutes on a nightly basis. That’s also an issue with Romello White, the 6’8” freshman forward who has provided a sorely needed inside presence for Bobby Hurley.

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Tra Holder Getting More Than a Little Help From His Friends

Posted by Adam Butler on December 14th, 2017

Clarity is preferred. A clear head, a clear path, a clear lens. When we’re devoid of obstruction we tend to be more comfortable and successful. So while it will remain unclear just how good Arizona State is this season (ESPN hot takes), one thing seems clear: senior guard Tra Holder is getting clear looks. For the majority of his time in Tempe, he’s worked alone to get those looks. Coming into this season, just 37 percent of his attempts from distance were assisted. What does this mean? Or, perhaps more aptly, what can we assume (we don’t have player tracking devices in Pac-12 gyms despite “innovative” leadership)? My assumption is that, if nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made threes were not assisted, then Holder is working hard – off the dribble, for example – to make those buckets go down. That’s a lot. Further, attempts off the bounce are often more difficult or at less clear than assisted attempts. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer postures that Victor Oladipo’s improvement in off-the-dribble scoring is the reason behind his breakout season for the Indiana Pacers. Of course Holder seemingly already has this down. He already connects at a 36.4 percent career clip, punctuated by 46.3 percent this season. Further, his Free Throw rate (i.e., ability to get to the line) has consistently ranked among the conference’s top 10. In summary, Holder has been a nightmare with the basketball.

Tra Holder Has Been a Nightmare with the Basketball (USA Today Images)

This season is no different except that he’s also getting some help. His looks are becoming a less obstructed and it is correspondingly no surprise that he’s shooting a career-high eFG% (56.4%) along with that sterling three-point percentage. Focusing on the latter, his script has been flipped as nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made three pointers have been assisted this season. Having already laid out that Holder is a nightmare with the ball in his hands, his teammates are making him better in turn. Interestingly enough, Arizona State ranks 324th nationally in the percentage of its threes that have gone assisted. Does this bode poorly for the Sun Devils’ future? Playing the seventh-fewest bench minutes of any team in the country, tiring legs might be expected as the season rolls on. Perhaps that lends itself to less energy to run off screens, play off the ball and receive an unobstructed (generously describing an assisted three-pointer) three?

If the Devils’ numbers are any indication, it might just be that they don’t need the open look. They’re sufficient at making them without assistance. The fact that Holder has been the beneficiary of any passing (we’re looking at you, Shannon Evans, and your 51 percent of assists yielding a three) may indicate he’s saving his bullets for the long haul. Those off-the-dribble daggers of senior guard lore.

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Introducing Arizona State’s Frontcourt and the Nationally Ranked Sun Devils

Posted by Adam Butler on December 1st, 2017

It’s worth noting that Arizona State is ranked. In men’s basketball. It’s an infrequent Tempe phenomenon but something that’s perhaps not all that shocking. There were glimpses a season ago, however, and the Sun Devils returned a number of critical pieces while adding that which they were missing. And what were they missing? Size. Or at least anyone capable of grabbing a rebound. The Devils ranked 313th and 292nd in defensive and offensive rebounding, respectively, in 2016-17. Sitting on their bench due to NCAA red tape, though, was perhaps the answer. Romello White, a four-star prospect, is through three weeks of the current season presenting as the Sun Devils’ missing piece. Arizona State isn’t necessarily any bigger in the aggregate, but the data suggests that a strategy of doubling down on small ball is paying off, thanks to White.

Romello White Has Been a Missing Frontcourt Piece for the Sun Devils (USA Today Images)

They’re nationally ranked now, after all, and touting the nation’s 10th most efficient offense. The Sun Devils are making 43 percent of their threes (nuts) and 63 percent of their twos (even crazier). Beyond that, they tout the nation’s fourth highest free throw rate (54%) — an astronomical improvement from last season’s 31.9% (273rd nationally) — and both Tra Holder (36% career three-point shooter) and Shannon Evans (also 36% career) are shooting well above their career averages. In missing a low post presence, White has emerged as the dynamic talent capable of catapulting the Devils to new heights. At 6’8”, the freshman is already rebounding above his weight (59th in defensive rebounding percentage) while simultaneously drawing 8.3 fouls per 40 minutes. And it’s not just his weight. Operating at equal levels of big-man effectiveness is De’Quon Lake, a junior college transfer brought in to fortify what was an abysmal frontcourt. It’s working. Lake’s numbers are on par, if not better than, White’s.

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Pac-12 Listicles: Pick and Roll Offense

Posted by Adam Butler on November 15th, 2017

Offensively, the pick-and-roll is a common means to forcing a mismatch, a big vs. small scenario either on the post or the perimeter. Its ubiquity gave way to positionless basketball and a treasuring of the 6’8” athlete. Philosophically, if a defender is versatile enough to defend both off the bounce or on the block, the offense would be limited in its ability to create these mismatches. Of course this is more difficult to achieve at the collegiate level. Players are less refined, needing greater definition to their roles. Considering as much, I thought it’d be interesting to see which of the Pac-12’s offenses utilized the pick-and-roll more often and more effectively than others. Heading in to a Pac-12 season featuring some fantastic frontcourt and backcourt combinations (Trier/Ayton, Holder/White, McLaughlin/Metu, Holiday/Welsh, Cartwright/Travis, Pritchard/Brown), is the PnR a tactic more coaches will be inclined to use?

Arizona’s Allonzo Trier is Murder on the PnR (USA Today Images)

Here are last season’s Pac-12 PnR utilizers:

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2017-18 Pac-12 Big “Ifs”

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 10th, 2017

The Pac-12 has had a starring role in the extracurricular tomfoolery brought to life by the FBI this offseason. Certainly this story has no expiration date on the horizon, but the games are coming and there will be no shortage of intrigue this year in the Conference of Champions. Here are 12 Big Ifs separating each team from its best-case scenario this season.

Is This Finally the Year For Arizona (USA Today Images)?

  1. Arizona: There is just nowhere else to look when sizing up the Pac-12 favorites. Once Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins’ returns were secure, the combination of those two plus the arrival of heralded freshman DeAndre Ayton is just too much top shelf talent, buttressed by an outstanding roster that also includes returning glue guys Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright along with Ayton’s freshman co-stars Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot and Alex Borcello.  If this roster remains intact come March and the FBI distractions don’t do just that, Miller has his best shot at breaking through that Final Four barrier that has stonewalled him to this point in Tucson.
  2. USC: The Trojans are bringing back 98 percent of their scoring and 96 percent of their rebounding to a team that won two NCAA Tournament games last season. Bennie Boatwright, De’Anthony Melton, Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin and Alijah Stewart form the only returning starting quintet in the league. Can they improve upon a defense that finished a middling seventh in the Pac-12 in efficiency last season?
  3. Oregon:  The Ducks return the least amount of points, rebounds and blocks of any team in the conference and yet they return the most important piece of their success: head coach Dana Altman. Oregon has top recruits Troy Brown and Victor Bailey, Jr., joining three transfers this season: Paul White (Georgetown), Elijah Brown (New Mexico), and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State). If Altman works not just well but quickly then Oregon could be ready in time for Pac-12 contention.
  4. Stanford: The Cardinal owned the 10th-rated offense in Pac-12 play last year, largely from scoring only 23.5 percent of their points from three-point range last year, a number that makes consistent offense virtually impossible. If Stanford can ascend to just the national average on three-point production this time around, it should be an NCAA Tournament team. Read the rest of this entry »
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