Heading to Kentucky — How Good is UCLA?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 2nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Burning Questions: Pac-12’s Best Wing

Posted by Mike Lemaire (@Mike_Lemaire), Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) and Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 22nd, 2016

We started out by assessing the Pac-12 point guards. Last week we moved onto the big men. This week we’re looking at the slashers and shooters (sounds dangerous) manning the wing in the conference. We asked three of our guys: who’s the best wing in the Pac, and unlike those first two questions (where Payton and Poeltl were heavy favorites), this one is wide open. Answers below.

Adam Butler: I always struggle with whether or not to call the college basketball season a sprint or a marathon. It’s easy to equate it to both, knowing that November losses can be meaningless with a strong sprint to the finish. Conversely, sprinting out of the gate (i.e. Washington last season) doesn’t alway suggest super success. This, of course, is a lead to consider that so long as you can endure the marathon and garner an invitation to the sprint (March Madness) your team is best suited by having the best players. I don’t care about your efficiencies, team chemistry, peaking, drowning, front court, back court, history — if you have the best players in the NCAA tournament you have a chance. Jaylen Brown might be the best player. His shooting stroke leaves something to be desired (28% isn’t good from three), but as the game trends towards the rim, so too does Brown’s. The 6’7″ power wing is connecting on 72% of his attempts at the rim. Furthermore, 45% of all his attempts are at the rim. Ipso facto, as math would suggest, Brown is getting lots of easy buckets. And if they’re not easy buckets, they’re free throws (10th highest FT rate in the conference). For some context surrounding his rim abilities, Stanley Johnson — a similarly sized power wing — took just 29% of his shots at the rim, connecting on only 53% of those attempts. I’d like to see him curb his turnovers and hit a few more jumpers if we’re considering his NBA prospects, but when it comes to bullying NCAA players, Brown might be my first pick.

Jaylen Brown's Ability To Bully Smaller Players Gets Him One Vote (USA Today)

Jaylen Brown’s Ability To Bully Smaller Players Gets Him One Vote. (USA Today)

Mike Lemaire: In terms of potential and ability, California’s Jaylen Brown is probably the easy answer. But in terms of production and importance to his team’s success, it is a close race between UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Alford is fifth in the conference in scoring (16.9 PPG); he is tied for second in assists per game (5.2 APG); and he leads the conference in free-throw percentage. Brooks is ninth in the conference in scoring (15.5 PPG); he is 14th in the conference in rebounding (6.6 RPG); and he is right behind Alford at second in free-throw percentage. Also, both guys play more than 30 minutes per game and have similar usage rates. It comes down to Brooks’ vastly superior defense vs. Alford’s vastly superior shooting. In a pinch, the pick here is Brooks because he has a big impact on the game at both ends of the floor. Read the rest of this entry »

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UCLA: Predictably Unpredictable?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 8th, 2016

Conventional wisdom on UCLA, after taking down KenPom #16 Arizona on Thursday night to pair with earlier wins over then-#2 Kentucky and then-#19 Gonzaga, is that the Bruins are inconsistent and unpredictable. And conventional wisdom, as is often the case, may only be partially right. The more complete argument may be that the Bruins are consistent in their inconsistency and predictable in their unpredictability. This isn’t one of those riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma bits of nonsense. There’s a method to UCLA’s madness. Let’s dig in.

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

First, let’s take a look at the current landscape of college basketball. Again, using those KenPom rankings, Virginia is ranked sixth in the nation and has lost road games to George Washington (#72) and Virginia Tech (#119). Miami is ranked 10th and the Hurricanes took a home loss to Northeastern (#81). North Carolina was the AP preseason #1 team and currently ranks 11th in KenPom; the Tar Heels have suffered road losses to Northern Iowa and Texas. Dig a bit further down the rankings and there are many other examples of big-time teams losing to small-time teams. It’s been said that there aren’t any great teams this year, and that may well be true (although reserving that judgment until all of the classwork is in might be in order), but more to the point, there just may be less of a difference this season between the top team and the 50th-best team in the country than ever before. And perhaps more to the point, there is almost assuredly less difference between a team like the 10th-best team and the 90th-best team. In other words, big time teams are susceptible to taking losses against lesser ones, especially when they go on the road.

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What Went Right For UCLA That Has Gone Wrong So Far

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 4th, 2015

24-0. 41-7. 61-20. 83-44. No, this is not my high school locker combination. Rather, a handful of snapshots of scores during the Kentucky/UCLA game in Chicago about 50 weeks ago. Those scores and that domination will never go away. But on Thursday night, the Bruins began to earn back some of the capital they tossed away that Saturday afternoon nearly a year ago. Along the way, they also began to bounce back from their early-season underachieving ways, putting losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest behind them for the time being. Below, here are four, er, five things that went right for UCLA on Thursday night — things that haven’t been going right in recent days, weeks, months and years.

UCLA Fans: It's OK to Be A Fan (UCLA Athletics)

UCLA Fans: It’s OK to Be A Fan (UCLA Athletics)

  1. Fan Support. It’s a funny thing that fans can overreact to one way or the other. Great fan support and a raucous crowd in the arena and fans walk out thinking they may as well be part of the team. Empty arena as quiet as a library and fans walk out blaming the team for playing without passion and energy. Two sides of the same coin. For the better part of the past half-decade, Kentucky has been the exemplar of the first scenario. Sure, they’ve had great talent, but you’re can’t tell me that playing to a packed house at home every night hasn’t contributed to a win or two here and there that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. UCLA, on the other hand, has been exhibit A for option B. Talented players playing a fun brand of basketball in a great college arena in front of sparse crowds, leading to head scratching losses that an overly critical fan base blames on the coach, the administration and the players, rather than their collective self. Thursday night in Pauley Pavilion showed what a boost an actually supportive crowd can provide to a group of players in need of some confidence. Sure, no one is going to mistake Pauley last night for the great atmospheres in college basketball. Empty seats in the lower bowl were masked by yellow giveaway t-shirt deep into the first half. But, there was a visible and vocal crowd, something that has become the exception rather than the rule. Extra special mention is reserved for the Bruin student section. And, for that one night, the entirety of Bruin fans deserve at least some credit. The truth is, UCLA fans, UCLA students, you guys had some small part in this win tonight. Flip that coin the other way and recognize the other truth: you guys had some small part in that Monmouth loss as well. You can’t expect to be a great program on the level of Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, etc., when you’re not providing fan support on the level of those great programs. One little tip: it’s okay to get into your seats early prior to the game (traffic on the 405 is not a legit excuse) and return from halftime (Komodo food truck, also not a legit excuse) in time second-half action. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Preseason Poll, Superlatives & All-Conference Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 13th, 2015

Over the past three weeks, we’ve unveiled individual previews for each of the 12 conference teams (for a full list with links, scroll down to the very bottom of this post). Now it is time to put it all together and take a look at the Pac-12 as a whole. So we gathered our most knowledgeable Pac-12 aficionados and voted on things like projected conference standings, All-Conference Teams, and Player of the Year. Below we’ll unveil those results.

First, though, since this is a team sport, let’s get right to the heart of the matter and review our preseason Pac-12 poll. We asked each of our pollsters to rank each team from #1 through #12 and found some interesting results. Three of our four voters picked Arizona to three-peat as the regular season champion, while the fourth person picked Oregon. Utah and Cal are in the mix as well, while the biggest gap separates spots #6 (Oregon State) and #7 (Arizona State).

Screenshot 2015-11-11 12.56.49

Compared with last season’s standings, Cal is the team expected to take the biggest jump, which is no surprise given Cuonzo Martin’s stellar recruiting class. On the flip side, our voters are less bullish on Stanford across the Bay. Last year the Cardinal finished tied for fifth in the conference and won the NIT. This year? Two of our voters pick them as the absolute worst team in the Pac-12.

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UCLA Preview: Low Ceiling, High Floor?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 5th, 2015

In the next three weeks leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite will be evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Today’s stop: Westwood.

UCLA Bruins

Steve Alford has been in Westwood for two seasons now and he’s got consecutive Sweet Sixteens under his belt. For the first time in his tenure, he’s got a complete roster that is balanced between the frontcourt and the backcourt. And he’s got the makings of terrific recruiting classes started for the next two seasons. And yet, somehow, if you were to listen to certain segments of the notoriously tough UCLA fan base, you would think that the sky was falling. There are very high standards when you’re the head coach of a program with 11 national titles already in the rafters, but given the recent (and by recent, the last 40 years) history of the program, Alford is far ahead of the game. Still, barring a shocking development, this particular Bruins’ team is not likely to bring home banner #12. At UCLA, that all too often qualifies as a disappointment.

This Pair Of Alfords Has Have Had A Strong First Two Seasons In Westwood (AP Photo)

This Pair Of Alfords Has Have Had A Strong First Two Seasons In Westwood. (AP Photo)

Strengths. The Bruins’ biggest positives this season, especially compared with Alford’s previous two years, are two things: stability and depth. In Alford’s first year, there were the common questions associated with a new regime coupled with questions about frontcourt depth and the ability of freshmen to earn big minutes. Last season there was life without Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams and a short bench that forced players like Gyorgy Goloman, Thomas Welsh and Noah Allen into roles they weren’t ready for. This year? The Bruins have the same three returning starters — Bryce Alford, Tony Parker, Isaac Hamilton — that they planned to have all along, plus the guys who got bonus minutes last year. Throw in a pair of highly-regarded freshmen guards and combo forward Jonah Bolden making his debut after a year as a partial qualifier and you’ve got a deep UCLA team without many obvious holes in the lineup. Read the rest of this entry »

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Five Things That Scare Us About the Pac-12

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 30th, 2015

Nothing says Halloween like a hastily constructed list replete with a truly cringe-worthy title…or something. The kickoff to the college basketball season is rapidly approaching and one can never have enough preseason analysis. So without further ado and in honor of everyone’s favorite pseudo-holiday, here are the five scariest things happening in the PAC 12 as we head into the season.

With Lorenzo Romar starting from square one, things could get scary. (USA TODAY Sports)

With Lorenzo Romar starting from square one, things could get scary. (USA TODAY Sports)

Lorenzo Romar’s Job Security

The head coach of the Huskies since 2002, Romar is far and away the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 and with pretty good reason. The Huskies won 20 games just once under predecessor Bob Bender. Since Romar took over, the Huskies have won 20 games six times and Romar has been the conference Coach of the Year three times. Unfortunately for Romar, the good times have mostly rolled to a halt in Seattle. The Huskies have barely broken .500 in each of the last three seasons and the team’s best player, Nigel Williams-Goss, transferred in the off-season due to concerns about the direction of the program. To his credit, Romar continues to be an excellent recruiter and has brought in another new crop of talent ready to contribute immediately. Still, even with help from the newcomers, the Huskies figure to finish in the bottom third of the conference standings. If (when?) that happens, Romar’s goodwill may have finally run out.

Watching USC Try To Score

In fairness to the Trojans, almost everyone expects the team’s offense to make a major jump this season. But the flip side of that coin is that making the jump offensively shouldn’t be difficult because of how staggeringly bad the team was on that end last season. In the Pac 12, only Oregon State was less efficient offensively than the Trojans last season. USC also managed to rank near the bottom of the country in every meaningful shooting category (63.4 percent from the free-throw line!). The futility was understandable considering the team was almost exclusively underclassmen, but with a mostly unchanged roster returning, points are likely to still be at a premium. If Jordan McLaughlin is healthy, his shooting should improve, but his shot selection needs a lot of work too. The same can be said for Katin Reinhardt, the team’s most gifted offensive player but also its most trigger-happy. Coach Andy Enfield likes his teams to play with tempo. Last season that led to a lot of running and bricking. Everyone who plans to watch the Trojans this season has their fingers crossed that things will be different this time around.

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Things We Think We Know in the Pac-12

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on October 19th, 2015

It’s been a long and enjoyable summer, but, while staring out the window at a Los Angeles rainstorm, it’s clear that summertime has come and gone, my oh my. No need to worry, though; that just means college basketball season is on the horizon. We’re now less than a month away from the start of the regular season. Teams across the country already have their practice schedules in full swing. All of which means it is time to get the RTC Pac-12 microsite back up and running. We’ll be with you here from now until that first weekend in April when the Final Four visits Houston. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be rewarded with a Pac-12 representative in our sports’ final weekend for the first time since UCLA went back in 2008.

Bobby Hurley's First Season In The Pac-12 Will Be Worth Keeping An Eye On (Tom Tingle, Azcentral Sports)

Bobby Hurley’s First Season In The Pac-12 Will Be Worth Keeping An Eye On (Tom Tingle, Azcentral Sports)

But all of that is a long way off. Today we’ll just take the first few steps to gather our bearings for the journey ahead. At this stage, there’s a lot of guesswork and uncertainty about what is to come. And as we’re reminded on the regular in both arenas of sports and in life, surprises loom around every corner. So today, by way of getting reacquainted with the Pac-12 conference, let’s take a look at what we know and what we will have to learn over the next five months.

Things We Know

New Faces – As always in college sports, there is rampant year-to-year turnover. It’s baked into the pie. It’s something we expect and something we love: getting to spend a full season figuring out all the new talents and personalities. In this year’s edition of the Pac-12, there are some high impact new faces. First, there’s a new head man patrolling the sidelines in Tempe, as Bobby Hurley takes over the reins for Herb Sendek at Arizona State. In terms of new players, the conference boasts six of the nation’s top 25 recruiting classes (according to ESPN), including a couple landing in the top five. We’re used to Sean Miller regularly pulling in sterling classes at Arizona, but the big news this season is that Cuonzo Martin welcomes a loaded recruiting class highlighted by power wing Jaylen Brown and skilled big man Ivan Rabb. Continuing the theme, there’s plenty that we don’t know about the newcomers, but we certainly know that we’ll be keeping a close eye on Tempe, Tucson and Berkeley this season.

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