A Swing Around the Pac-12 After Five Games

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 21st, 2015

Just a collection of thoughts, compiled over the course of the past two weekends of Pac-12 play.

Arizona – This Utah game actually set up really nicely for the Wildcats. Utah was on a roll and feeling invincible despite the fact that it hadn’t beaten a good team since early December. Arizona, meanwhile, had plenty to prove amid accusations of selfishness and overratedness. The ‘Cats weathered the storm early, rode T.J. McConnell while settling in, and then turned on the juice in the second half. But, really, there are two big takeaways from this game. First, my impression all year long was that this vintage of the Wildcats does not have the high-end defensive ceiling that last year’s team had. And then, I look up on January 17 and they’ve got basically the same defensive efficiency numbers as they had last season and just finished a game where they completely shut down everything Utah wanted to do. This squad still needs to prove an ability to bring that intensity on a regular basis, but they absolutely have the ability to be just about as good defensively as last year’s team (although I still have a concern that they don’t have the type of individual stoppers that they had in Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon). Offensively, my eyes tell me this team has some problems in the half-court and that, while Stanley Johnson is clearly the team’s most talented player, Sean Miller has yet to figure out a good way to find shots for him. Then I look at the stats and I see that this team is pretty much the same offensively as last year’s group, getting similar percentages of shots from all three ranges on offense. And the best part? They’re still feeling their way around. Make no mistake, Arizona in mid-January is still a top 10 team — maybe top five — and the exciting part is that the Wildcats have enough upside that they could be significantly better by March.

With Stanley Johnson Just Beginning To Reach His Potential, Arizona's Upside Is Staggering (Rick Scuteri, AP Photo)

With Stanley Johnson Just Beginning To Reach His Potential, Arizona’s Upside Is Staggering. (Rick Scuteri, AP Photo)

Utah – The Utes lost. Bury ‘em, right? Not so fast, but we do need to have a talk about a couple of players in particular. First Jordan Loveridge, the team’s junior power small forward. What’s to complain about? In the five Pac-12 games since he returned from injury, he’s averaging better than 10 points per game and shooting at a 54.2% eFG rate, knocking in 11-of-24 shots from deep. In that same time frame, he’s taken twice as many shots from behind the arc as he has from inside; he’s attempting free throws at about a third of the rate of his field goal attempts; and he’s grabbing a rebound about every five minutes. In short, Loveridge has gone from being one of the more promising interior players in the conference to a three-point shooting specialist. That’s about all he does anymore. I understand that at 6’6” his upside at the four is limited, and if he is ever going to play in the NBA, it will be at the three. But this is college ball. And while his ability to hit the three and pull bigs away from the hoop is a useful skill, it’s only a fraction of what Loveridge could be doing for this team. For what it’s worth, I promise that this is the last time I will rip a guy with an offensive rating of 115.0 and a three-point percentage of 47.5 percent. The other guy I want to touch on briefly is Jakob Poeltl. We still like him as a player: like his skills; like his effort; like his upside. And sure, NBA scouts love him. But he really needs a lot of work, especially in the weight room. He got pushed around by the Wildcats all night long on Saturday. And if you go back and look at the results, anytime he has gone up against long interior players (San Diego State, Kansas, UNLV, Colorado, Arizona, even BYU), he has struggled. You can’t really throw the ball into him in the post because he doesn’t know what to do with it yet, so you have to rely on him to get his own miss off the glass if he’s going to have any offensive impact, and he’s not strong enough to do that on a regular basis. He’s still an important part of this Utah team, but his major leap forward probably won’t come until next year, at which time he should hopefully still be in college. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marching To Vegas: On UCLA and Lighting Someone Else’s Candle

Posted by Adam Butler on January 9th, 2015

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

It can’t not be discussed. I never went to journalism school – I studied Human Biology – but I have to think you should never start an article with a double negative. The conversation, however, has got to be had surrounding UCLA. It’s going on in many places, most notably Twitter, where panic is settling in and leaps are being made. It’s a bad look. The question, of course, is the job security of Steve Alford. Let’s first address the obvious: He’s under contract with a crazy buyout at a time in which UC schools are haggling every which way for money. Public relations aside, that’s a lofty price tag to rid yourself of a rushed hire in the wake of a less-than-adored coach. Of course, shelling out exorbitant amounts of money to salvage your athletic brand is not unprecedented. As recently as MICHIGAN it’s happened. The lure of I-don’t-know-exactly-what-but-equal-money-I-guess-kinda-talks drew Jim Harbaugh to his alma mater. The arguable issue, of course, is that there isn’t a lingering mega-alum waiting in UCLA wings.

I promise, that on the souls of my grandchildren, I will not be the one to break the peace we've made here today.

I promise, that on the souls of my grandchildren, I will not be the one to break the peace we’ve made here today.

And then, obvioulsly, the Bruins eke out a win against Stanford. Does that salvage their season? UCLA doesn’t have seasons. They have title runs or naught. This, if you weren’t aware, is not a year of the former. But did you expect it to be? If you did, you perhaps aren’t paying attention. In addressing his first season in Westwood, we were impressed with Alford’s adjustment to what he did with fantastic roster. They were fascinating, terrifying and unique. Alford got a lot out of them. Everything, really. Which climaxed with (just) a Sweet Sixteen. That isn’t bad; it’s in fact good; but it perhaps wasn’t indicative of things to come. The thing to come was not necessarily avoiding six-game losing streaks with double-overtime thrillers; but that’s where we find ourselves and that’s the conversations we can’t not avoid.

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Separating Fact From Fiction in UCLA’s Five-Game Slide

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 8th, 2015

I touched on the disaster that is UCLA basketball this season in Tuesday’s quick spin around the conference. And, the thing is, so did just about every writer either interested in UCLA, the Pac-12 or — given that UCLA is one of our sports’ blue-blood programs — college basketball on a national level. Having listened to everyone else’s takes, there’s plenty to agree with and plenty to disagree with. Below we’ll take a look at some of these takes and try to determine their relative truthiness, ranking each statement on a scale of 1 – completely false – to 10 – right on the money.

With UCLA On A Five-Game Slide, The Alford Family Is Firmly In The Sights of UCLA Loyalists (AP Photo)

With UCLA On A Five-Game Slide, The Alford Family Is Firmly In The Sights of UCLA Loyalists (AP Photo)

Bryce Alford is the Problem

Last week’s Bryce Alford numbers we’re off-the-charts bad: 2-of-26 from the field and 0-of-13 from three, if you need a reminder. Some see the more damning part of this the fact that he continued to shoot the ball as the misses piled up. Shots continue to go up; other players stand around and watch; Alford doesn’t do a whole lot to make his teammates better. And, frankly, as the point guard, he’s got to take the bulk of the blame when the offense he is running is sputtering so badly. Since the Kentucky game, UCLA is scoring 0.7 points per possession, and on the year, the Bruins rank 134th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating.

Truthiness score: 5. Right in the middle. The younger Alford deserves some of the criticism, but, as we’ll get to in the next point, probably not the bulk of it.

Bryce Alford is UCLA’s Best Player, and That’s the Problem

This was Gary Parrish’s take in Monday’s CBS College Basketball podcast, and to paraphrase: “Alford didn’t play well this week, but you know what? He’s still the team’s best player and that’s a scary proposition for a program the quality of UCLA.” Let’s start with the first part of that point. Is Alford UCLA’s best player? Not just yes, but hell yes, of course, clearly to anyone with eyes, and probably to most people without. He is the only player on this team that can reliably go and get his own shot on a regular basis. He’s the team’s best shooter from range. He’s the best player on the team at creating shots for his teammates. Look at the KenPom numbers for starters. His 111.3 offensive rating is by far the best on the team; he’s been over 100.0 in that metric in 11 of UCLA’s 15 games (although clearly under it in the last three); he’s assisting on better than a third of all of his teammates’ hoops when he’s on the floor (good for 45th in the nation); and he’s drilling 32 percent of his shots from deep (even with that oh-fer last week) and 91 percent from the line. Make no mistake, Bryce Alford is a very good basketball player. But should he – a guy with no realistic NBA prospects – be the best player at UCLA? Probably not.

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Pac-12 Notebook: Josh Hawkinson, UCLA Offensive Woes, Utah…

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2015

Here are some news and notes from the Pac-12’s opening conference weekend.

  • We’re, what, two months into the college basketball season, and I’m not sure I’ve written the name Josh Hawkinson yet this year. Consider this blurb my official apology for such an egregious oversight. Last year, he played in all but three of Washington State’s games, but never more than 13 minutes, never scoring more than six points, never grabbing more than six boards. This year, he’s averaging 31 minutes per game and has only once had an outing where he failed to score at least six points or grab at least six boards. Over the weekend against the Bay Area schools, he was the best big man on the floor, and that came against frontcourts featuring senior bigs like Stefan Nastic and David Kravish. (By the way, the fact that Jordan Railey had his best pair of games in his career does not bode well for Cal and Stanford’s frontcourt defenses). Hawkinson is not going to amaze you with his athleticism. He’s not what you would call a visionary passer. He’s a decent face-up shooter, but by no means the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki either. He just gets it done. He’s got a great motor; he understands the game; he’s tough on the boards; and he has completely bought in to Ernie Kent’s philosophy. He’s on the short list of players in this conference who have made the biggest jump in production from last year to this one.
Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12's Most Improved Player

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

  • To say that it was not a good weekend for UCLA basketball is to engage in annoyingly obvious understatement. The Bruins went to Colorado on Friday night to face a struggling Buffaloes team without its best player, and despite Colorado’s best efforts to fluff up UCLA’s offensive confidence early in the game via a series of turnovers leading to breakaway layups, the Bruins offensive woes continued. Against Utah on Sunday, it was even worse. The gold standard for UCLA offensive ineptitude was their 44 points against Kentucky on national TV. In that game, the Bruins scored those points on 68 possessions, good for 0.647 points per possession. Their 39 points on 60 possessions in Boulder works out to 0.65 points per possession. So, um, progress? In all seriousness, UCLA just has absolutely no offensive confidence right now. Norman Powell is a mess. Kevon Looney can only get so far on effort alone. And Tony Parker can’t seem to get out of his own way, earning only 20 minutes per game this weekend in part due to his continuing problems with dumb fouls. And then there is Bryce Alford. Yikes. For the weekend he was 2-of-26 from the field, 0-of-13 from deep, with five turnovers against nine assists. And let me tell you, those Rocky Mountain scorekeepers were generous in only giving him five turnovers. Now, that’s only one bad weekend, and we’re not going to write off all the other good things he’s done to this point — but with UCLA’s offensive struggles, you’ve got to start with the quarterback, right? The shooting thing? That’s mostly an aberration. Still, Alford is definitely earning a reputation as a guy willing to take bad shots. And on a team with a fragile personality right now, launching wild early-shot-clock bombs while the rest of the team stands around and watches is not going to build much cohesion. Alford is plenty capable of shooting his team into games, but as the point guard, he’s also in part responsible for how the guys around him perform. There were numerous times this weekend where he delivered a beautiful dime on the run that bounced off the hands of a guy like Thomas Welsh, Noah Allen or Tony Parker. But you know what? Alford’s got to know that those guys aren’t really capable of making those kinds of catches and play to his personnel accordingly. This 0-of-13 shooting from deep is not going to continue, but for the Bruins to regain their confidence, Alford’s got to find ways to get Powell, Looney, Parker and Isaac Hamilton good looks on a regular basis, especially early in games. He’s got to be the facilitator, first and foremost.

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Three Takeaways as Kentucky Annihilates UCLA

Posted by Walker Carey on December 20th, 2014

Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday afternoon’s game between Kentucky and UCLA at the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago. 

There has been plenty of talk so far this season about the potential of Kentucky completing an undefeated season. There has been good reason for this talk too, as the Wildcats have shown flashes of being an unstoppable force. This was never more evident than in Saturday afternoon’s 83-42 thrashing of UCLA. Kentucky started the game on a 24-0 run and led 41-7 at halftime. The Wildcats defense was so suffocating that the Bruins were held to 3-of-37 (8.1%) shooting in the first half and 19-of-71 (26.8%) shooting for the game. Probably the most incredible statistics of the first half were that Kentucky had more blocks (eight) and steals (five) than UCLA had made baskets (three). This was a thumping in every sense of the word. It was probably one of those games where UCLA coach Steve Alford would be better served to burn the footage than try to learn from it. The following are three takeaways from Saturday afternoon’s action.

Kentucky Experienced a Lot of This on Saturday Against UCLA (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Experienced a Lot of This on Saturday Against UCLA (USA Today Images)

  1. The first half could not have gone worse for UCLA. When Kentucky guard Devin Booker threw down a dunk at the 12:40 mark of the first half, all UCLA guards Bryce Alford and Norman Powell was stare at each other in amazement,as Booker’s dunk had put Kentucky ahead 24-0. Before swingman Kevon Looney finally converted a lay-in at the 12:17 mark, the Bruins missed their first 17 shots. When the half came to an end, UCLA’s futility was almost laughable. It was down 41-7. It had converted just 3-of-37 shot attempts, including 0-of-9 from behind the three-point line. It had turned the ball over eight times and let eight of its shots be swatted by Kentucky defenders. Adding insult to injury for the Bruins was the fact that it was not like Kentucky had set the world on fire offensively during the opening stanza either. The Wildcats shot just 45.7% from the field and missed several open looks from the perimeter. None of that mattered though, as Kentucky’s incredible defense, depth, and athleticism was the story once again in another lopsided victory. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Week 1 Honors

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 24th, 2014

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Oregon State

Gary Payton II And The Beavers Have Turned Out To Be A Likable Bunch (Oregon State Athletics)

Gary Payton II And The Beavers Have Turned Out To Be A Likable Bunch (Oregon State Athletics)

Yay! Wins over Rice, Corban and Oral Roberts since the start of the season may not amount to much for your average Division I team. But the Beavers are not your average DI team. We spent much of the preseason wondering if Oregon State might be the worst major conference team in America and trying to figure out if any of us still had collegiate eligibility left and any desire to move to Corvallis for a few months. But, here we are approaching Thanksgiving and the Beavers have yet to have a strike against them in the right-hand column in the standings. And better yet, this team is fun to watch and likable; well, at least now while they’re still playing teams at their level of competition. With many of the still-undefeated teams in the conference having yet to play any real stiff competition; and with the team with the best win under it’s belt (Cal, with its “neutral”-site win over Syracuse) having dropped a game as well; we figured, what the hell, let’s give the Beavers something fun.

(Also receiving votes: California: UCLA)

Player of the Week: Bryce Alford, UCLA

The Bruins still haven’t played anybody of note, but Alford has been putting on a show offensively and erasing any questions that anybody had about his ability to be a big time point guard. He’s averaging 20 points and just shy of 10 assists per game. His assist rate (percentage of teammates basket he assists on when he’s on the floor) is good for 13th in the nation, while he’s only turning it over on 11% of possessions, a sparkling number for a guy with the ball in his hands as often. He’s stroking it at a 58.8 eFG% and his true shooting percentage (which takes into account his 90.9 FT%) is 65.1%. All of those numbers are going to go down as the level of competition goes up, but he’s a terrifically exciting player who not only makes his teammates better, but is able to keep opposing defenses honest with his shotmaking ability.

(Also receiving votes: Joseph Young, Oregon; Stefan Nastic, Stanford; Norman Powell, UCLA)

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Pac-12 First Weekend Notebook

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 17th, 2014

After a single weekend of games against generally lesser competition, I feel like I could write a book about all the different things I saw this weekend around the Pac-12. But, we’ll let these teams get a few more games – preferably against better competition – before we make any grand proclamations. Still, you have to come away from this weekend pretty impressed with the level of play out of the gates. We saw a lot of teams look better than we had any reason to expect. And we also had USC. Below, we’ll take a look at a few of the bigger non-Arizona takeaways from the first weekend of play around the conference.

Utah

Let’s save a more in-depth look at the Utes until after they play San Diego State on Tuesday afternoon, but a couple new names to keep an eye on in that game: First, freshman Jakob Poeltl is going to be a huge factor for the Utes this year. He’s an active and skilled seven-footer who, frankly, is not long for the college game. Because he runs the floor well and is aggressive and confident, he is going to be a challenge for opposing defenses all year long. Then there’s his frontcourt starting partner, JuCo transfer Chris Reyes, a strong and active power forward who is a great combination of skill, athleticism and motor. A lot of the reason people were high on the Utes coming into this year were returnees and maybe freshman Brekkot Chapman, but Poeltl and Reyes are a couple of new elements that may push Utah over the top. And Jordan Loveridge? His body looks better than it ever has before; he’s quicker than he’s been in his first two seasons; and he looks far more comfortable in his role. Let’s put it this way: If I were filling in a Top 25 poll right now, I’d probably have the Utes in the top 15. I think a lot of people are going to have their eyes opened tomorrow afternoon.

Jakob Poeltl's Double-Double Debut Should Raise Eyebrows Across the Conference (Utah Basketball)

Jakob Poeltl’s Double-Double Debut Should Raise Eyebrows Across the Conference (Utah Basketball)

Colorado

Given the level of competition they were playing against (Drexel is a pretty solid mid-major), what the Buffaloes did to the Dragons was impressive. Josh Scott looks like he took another step forward in his development during the offseason, looking stronger and more aggressive on the glass and on defense while showing more comfort with the face-up jumper (he even hit a three). Pairing him alongside Wesley Gordon in the middle makes for an intimidating one-two punch. Head coach Tad Boyle went with a strange starting lineup due to some disciplinary measures, and Xavier Johnson and Askia Booker as a result never really got in the flow when they entered the game, with Booker in particular looking pretty bad with a 2-of-14 effort. As far as the big question about the point guard spot, one guy that we routinely overlooked in trying to come up with an answer there was junior Xavier Talton. For now, at least, he appears to be the leader for that job. He’s a facilitator who isn’t going to wow anybody with his athleticism or play-making ability, but he’s very good at making the easy play, keeping the offense moving, and playing solid defense. Whether he’ll lock down that spot for good remains to be seen, but he’ll be a big part of the Colorado rotation all year long. Freshman Tory Miller also deserves a mention. His body and athleticism are already Pac-12 ready and as the game slows down for him, he’s got a good chance to become a solid defender and rebounder off the pine this year, with upside for the rest of his career in Boulder as his offensive game develops.

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UCLA Guards Pass Early Eye Test

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 17th, 2014

The game of basketball has evolved so much in recent years that it has become outdated to pigeonhole a player into the traditional role of his position. Big men routinely step out to the three-point line, with few true centers left to anchor the paint. Point guards are certainly not made like they once were, with more of a desire to distribute than produce baskets — now, it’s the combo guard, an offensive-minded “tweener” who has become the trendy mold.

Steve Alford Was More Than Pleased With His UCLA Backcourt In Friday Night's Opener. (UCLA Athletics)

Steve Alford Was More Than Pleased With His UCLA Backcourt In Friday Night’s Opener. (UCLA Athletics)

At UCLA, head coach Steve Alford has three such combo guards on his roster, and the trio had some questions to answer on Friday night at Pauley Pavilion. Although a bit out of control to start, senior Norman Powell and sophomores Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton set the tone early with an attacking, uptempo bravado in the Bruins’ 113-78 win over Montana State. From the tip, all three took a head-down, get-to-the-rim mindset that didn’t look like it would offer up much ball movement. As a result, there were not too many moments in the half-court offense that stood out, and there weren’t any possessions that went deep into the shot clock. Two nights later, an 84-71 win over Coastal Carolina wasn’t quite as easy as the first game, but there was still a lot to like from the trio of guards. While the jury is still out and team depth remains a question mark, one thing is for certain: Don’t let these Bruins get out and run.

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First Impressions From UCLA’s Opening Night

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 15th, 2014

The start may have been sluggish Friday night, but UCLA’s season-opening 113-78 win over Montana State at Pauley Pavilion was simply a matter of when things would start to click. Boy, did the Bruins roll once they found that rhythm. UCLA senior guard Norman Powell led all scorers with 25 points and point guard Bryce Alford notched his first career double-double with 18 points and 12 assists. In all, six Bruins scored in double figures. Keeping in mind it was just one game against an opponent that came in as a 23.5-point underdog, here is what stood out:

Norman Powell's Athletic Play Has His Draft Stock Rising (Associated Press)

Norman Powell Led All Scorers With 25 Points in UCLA’s 113-78 Win Over Montana State. (Associated Press)

Guards of same feather flock together: Coming into the season, the question was how UCLA would perform at the point guard position with a backcourt that makes you think of its scoring first. Powell, Alford and now-eligible Isaac Hamilton combined for 26 of the contest’s first 35 points and finished with 58 while converting 19-of-31 shots — including 8-of-14 3-pointers. Look for more on the backcourt in a separate post, but there was plenty to like as the game went on with the trio’s ability to pick their spots and not make it look like they were just taking turns. Head coach Steve Alford “loved how the ball moved,” and it started with his son’s play.

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The Pac-12’s Biggest Questions: Askia Booker, UCLA Point Guards & Arizona Shooters

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 7th, 2014

Little story, probably not all that interesting. With the college basketball season due to tip off a week from today, we here around the RTC Pac-12 microsite are finalizing our preseason rankings and all-conference teams and whatnot. So, in compiling those things, I sent out a poll to our writers and friends of the microsite. Tucked away at the very end of the poll was something of an afterthought; it read, simply “Biggest Question Marks – use any criteria.” Now, when I wrote that and when I filled out my own poll, I was thinking of just individual players and I came up with a list that included Robert Upshaw, Sam Singer, Tra Holder, Bryce Alford and Jordan Loveridge. And then when I looked at everybody else’s ballots, I saw more big picture question marks: Oregon’s mental state, new coaches around the league, Utah playing with expectations. And I thought those were some damn good questions myself. Never one to pass up a good topic to write on that I can easily cherry-pick, I’m going to go through some of the biggest questions that my colleagues came up with and ponder their answers as much as I can.

Askia Booker, Colorado

Question Number One For The Buffaloes Is Whether Askia Booker and Company Can Follow Spencer Dinwiddie’s Example (Patrick Ghidossi, BuffaloSportsNews)

Askia Booker and Life After the Mayor

Adam Butler of Pachoops.com listed this as his biggest question mark and it is no surprise. First, Butler absolutely loves writing about Booker (seriously Adam, how many more columns do you think you can get out of ‘Ski in his remaining collegiate eligibility?). Second, if Tad Boyle can find a coherent answer at the point guard position post-Spencer Dinwiddie, the Buffs are maybe the team with the best chance to challenge conference-favorite Arizona. But after Dinwiddie fell from a torn ACL last year, Colorado went 9-10 down the stretch and got run out of the NCAA Tournament in embarrassing fashion. As Butler loves to point out, Booker began to shelve his freewheeling, bad-shot hoisting, basketball-purist infuriating ways and embrace his inner point guard. Still, for the Buffaloes to live up to their ceiling, he needs to play off the ball on a regular basis and become a high-octane scorer. This means guys like sophomore Jaron Hopkins and freshman Dominique Collier will have to prove themselves worthy of earning the majority of those on-ball minutes. The facts that Hopkins struggled in his first season and that Collier is battling ankle problems do not bode well for positive answers on those fronts. In other words, the Booker point guard experiment (a role the 6’2” guard will probably have to embrace if he hopes to earn a long professional career) may continue.

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One on One: A Pac-12 Preview With Jon Wilner

Posted by Walker Carey on November 7th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview with the Pac-12, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with a Pac-12 expert in San Jose Mercury News college basketball scribe, Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline).

Rush the Court: Even with losing Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon from last season’s squad, Arizona is once again loaded. What makes the Wildcats so well rounded, and do you see them as one of the favorites to take home the national title?

Wilner: They certainly have to be in the very top tier of contenders for the national title. I that that their depth again is their biggest strength. They have so many good players that they are not just reliant on one or two guys. I think they are going to have more options to score this year. They should be a little bit better on offense. There might be a slight drop-off on the defensive end of the court, but it will not be enough to really hurt them. They should be right in the mix nationally. Sean Miller does a great job of getting his guys to play hard all the time. They have a huge homecourt advantage and they have a lot of experience of being able to go win on the road. A lot of success comes from the ability to go win on the road and this group has done just that.

Arizona (Casey Sapio, USA Today Sports)

Arizona Brings Back Enough Talent to Win a National Title This Year (Casey Sapio, USA Today Sports)

RTC: Colorado brings back a lot of experience from last season’s NCAA Tournament squad. With key players Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson, and Askia Booker returning for the Buffaloes, can Tad Boyle make it three NCAA Tournaments in three years?

Wilner: I think so. I expect them to be an NCAA Tournament team. I think Colorado is the best bet to finish second behind Arizona in the conference standings. It might be three or four games behind Arizona, but second place is second place. Tad Boyle is a terrific coach. He is as good as there is in the league. I think the fact that they played so much of last season without Spencer Dinwiddie will help them now that he is officially gone. There is not going to be the transition that you would normally find with a team that loses its best player to the NBA because Colorado did not have Dinwiddie for the last couple months of last season.

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UCLA’s Most Important Player: Isaac Hamilton

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 5th, 2014

The offseason in Westwood could have gone better — much better. The Bruins knew they were going to be woefully thin in the backcourt, and head coach Steve Alford was never going to completely replace point-forward Kyle Anderson, the 6’9” match-up nightmare with elite point guard skills. But then UCLA received word that Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus had been denied admission, nixing the Bruins’ best-laid plans to make him the starting point guard. There’s just not much depth available here at all, and this clearly puts additional pressure on the Bruins’ starters (although senior Norman Powell should have little issue so long as he remains in good health). Off the bench, UCLA may struggle beyond Noah Allen to find any realistic contributors under the height of 6’9”.

Isaac Hamilton, the No. 25 overall prospect, cited his relationship with UTEP head coach Tim Floyd as deciding factor

Sophomore guard Isaac Hamilton, who was forced to miss all of the 2013-14 season, will be needed at both backcourt positions at UCLA.

The void creates a big opportunity for combo guard Isaac Hamilton, and there may not be a more valuable player on the roster. The 6’4” sophomore missed the entire 2013-14 season after backing out of his initial commitment with UTEP. While Hamilton lost a year in the transition, he was able to practice with his teammates and digest the system, and that is where his true value will be revealed. The year away from action did wonders for T.J. McConnell at Arizona, where the point guard ran the scout team before becoming a valuable piece last season. Hamilton’s case is different because he doesn’t have previous Division I experience under his belt, but there’s something to be said about developing team chemistry and learning the tendencies of teammates in a practice setting.

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