Arizona Against the Zone and Colorado’s Strategy

Posted by Adam Butler on January 25th, 2018

With modest success this season, teams have been throwing zone defenses at Arizona. The Wildcats have played nearly 25 percent of their offense against the zone, the 35th-highest percentage in college basketball. Overall, Arizona has been an excellent offensive team. Sean Miller’s group ranks among the top 15 teams nationally in offensive efficiency, touts a 57 percent effective field goal rate and – especially as it pertains to zone=busting – is making a healthy 38.2 percent of its threes (53rd nationally). On paper at least, Arizona would seem perfectly adept at breaking the zone. But in truth, when looking at the Wildcats’ offense versus man-to-man defense, Arizona ranks as the ninth-most efficient team in the country (per Synergy Sports). Against zone, however, and this may be where opponents are focusing, the Wildcats dip to 115th nationally at 0.97 points per possession.

Colorado’s Tad Boyle is Looking for the Arizona Sweep Tonight (USA Today Images)

Staring across the court at a roster featuring DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, I too would be seeking any advantage. It’s perhaps why Colorado head coach Tad Boyle, a staunch man-to-man advocate, exacted a zone defense last month against Arizona in Boulder and is likely to do so again in tonight’s rematch. Considering Arizona is about five points per 100 possessions less effective against a zone, Boyle’s plan is seemingly vindicated. Furthermore, the Buffaloes won that Saturday afternoon in The Keg; the ultimate vindication of strategic success. But also remember that Arizona is, indeed, a quality three-point shooting and offensive rebounding team, and that they’re fantastic at getting into transition (a zone-busting strategy). Theoretically, the Wildcats are well-equipped to beat a zone (and has done so in every attempt since). But the strategy goes well beyond nuance in numbers. Boyle used a similar zone against Arizona State just two days before he beat the Wildcats — on that night, at least, Colorado also beat the Sun Devils, which, over the course of this season, play more efficiently against zone than man (they are, after all, a great three-point shooting team). What gives?

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Pac-12’s Week 2 Cannibal Routine May Prove Costly

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 11th, 2018

The Pac-12’s Cannibalization hit full swing this week as once again the road proved significantly difficult for even the best teams in the conference. The first week of Pac-12 play saw six of the 10 games finish with margins of 10 points or more. In the second week, only four of 10 games ended with such margins, and two of those included California, which is really only an approximation of a Pac-12 team on most nights this year. Arizona State and Arizona, the conference’s clear upper tier at this point, dropped from sixth and 19th in the RPI, respectively, to 14th and 24th. They weren’t the biggest losers this past week, however, as Utah, in getting swept by those two schools in Salt Lake City, went from 35th to 63rd. That’s going from fringe NCAA Tournament status to deep in the heart of NIT City.

One of the more problematic teams over the course of the Pac-12 season could be Stanford. The Cardinal enjoyed a miraculous home sweep of the Bruins and Trojans last weekend, and vaulted from 214th to 154th in the RPI as a result. The Bruins and Trojans correspondingly dropped from 40 and 44th to 46th and 56th, respectively, after their Maples heartbreaks. The Stanford problem is that with the Cardinal now playing with its healthiest possible roster (Kezie Okpala and Dorian Pickens have returned while Marcus Sheffield will take a medical redshirt), they are a much tougher team. But because their cumulative performance to date (8-8 overall, the aforementioned +200 RPI) has been so underwhelming, beating Stanford isn’t going to do much for teams’ resumes. Conversely, losses — even if they’re more understandable now — are still going to sting.

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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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What’s Trending: November Non-Conference Games

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on November 21st, 2017

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

The Sviatoslav Myhailiuk question that everyone outside of Lawrence, Kansas is curious about…

Dunk(s) of the Week

St. John’s puts the old saying “defense leads to offense” with this against Nebraska…

Baylor, with authority…

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Notes From the Pac-12 Quarterfinals

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 10th, 2017

Day two of the Pac-12 Tournament closed with the league’s 24-game chalk streak finally broken (barely, though, with a #5 seed beating a #4 seed), and the conference’s heavyweights in position to line up for the big stage over the next two nights. After two rounds of action, here are the three big takeaways from the Conference of Champions’ time so far in the desert.

UCLA and USC Put on an Entertaining Show Last Night (USA Today Images)

  1. The heavyweights can win with their B Games: Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA were not at their best on Thursday, but they were all good enough. In Arizona’s 92-78 win over the Buffaloes, five Wildcats scored in double figures and Sean Miller’s offense was enough to overcome a defense that struggled to contain Colorado. UCLA went down to the wire against its crosstown rival, but they bookended the game with good defense (USC started the game 1-of-14 and missed their final five shots) and enough offense to advance. Oregon had the easiest time of it, but keep an eye on the Ducks’ depth: They had to roll with only six players because of Chris Boucher’s foul trouble. Perhaps the biggest takeaway on Thursday was that each team overcame its potential weaknesses:  Arizona’s freshmen (Rawle Alkins, Lauri Markannen and Kobi Simmons) shot 17-of-21 combined against Colorado and committed only two turnovers in 62 minutes of floor time. UCLA’s shaky defense did just enough to survive and advance, and Oregon, a team with no real post player, pounded Arizona State in the paint with a 42-18 advantage.
  2. The bubble teams helped their causes: USC is now likely in the field with a 1-1 Pac-12 Tournament showing, but debate still lingers over Cal’s status. A win over Oregon tonight would makes them a lock, but if they were to lose, have the Bears done enough?  Cal has 21 wins but only two of those were in the KenPom top 50 (Utah). Bill Walton thinks they’re in; Joe Lunardi thinks they’re not; but ultimately there’s only one thing we know for sure — the Bears still control their own fate, and that’s all they can ask for at this point.
  3. Derrick White is awesome:  White could make the all-tournament team despite playing only half the days. The senior Colorado guard posted 31 points, six rebounds and five assists against Arizona while shooting 17-of-34 for the tournament. He was also 16-0f-19 from the line. His 57 points are to date better than any player still standing, and only Cal’s Jabari Bird is very close with 46 points.

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Five Storylines for the Pac-12 Tournament

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 8th, 2017

The regular season is over, which means the real fun is about to begin. The Pac-12 Tournament tips off in Las Vegas today and there is plenty to look forward to. Although Oregon — the league’s prohibitive favorite at the start of the season — is still the best bet to take home the tournament title, there are several teams with plenty on the line this week and a few more hoping to play spoiler. Here are five things to watch for in Sin City this week.

Dana Altman Seeks Back-to-Back Pac-12 Tourney Titles (USA Today Images)

Who gets to stay on the West Coast? Now that Gonzaga has officially run roughshod over the rest of the WCC, the fourth No. 1 seed is likely North Carolina’s to lose. But even if Oregon, Arizona or UCLA can’t earn a No. 1 seed by winning the Pac-12 Tournament, there is still plenty of incentive beyond that. The winner will likely be in position to either get the fourth No. 1 seed if the Tar Heels stumble early, or they will earn the top No. 2 seed, presumably in the West Region. Location and comfortability will not be the determining factor for which Pac-12 teams make a run to the Final Four, but don’t discount the luxury of staying close to home. Even if the players don’t seem to mind the travel, the coaches know the benefits. This means that there is very little chance that any of the Big Three will rest on their laurels this week.

If California wins twice, will that be enough to get the Bears into the NCAA Tournament? The Golden Bears are the bubbliest of the Pac-12 bubble teams. They appeared in good shape a month ago but their ugly skid to end the season has put them in a precarious position approaching Selection Sunday. Beating an already defeated Oregon State club is an obvious must but isn’t enough by itself — they will probably also need to beat a Utah team that skunked the Golden Bears by 30 points just last week. Even then, the Utes are not an NCAA Tournament team and therefore the Selection Committee may not be swayed. Of course, Cuonzo Martin shouldn’t worry about anything beyond that just yet. He should be much more concerned with his team’s 8-of-46 (17.4%) three-point shooting slump over the last three games, and getting Jabari Bird (1-of-13 from deep over the same span) back on track.

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Pac-12 Final Regular Season Power Rankings

Posted by Pac-12 Team on March 8th, 2017

The Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas tips off at Noon PT today and fans are already salivating about the possible semifinals on Friday night. That said, the handful of teams in the second tier — such as Utah — are also serious threats to make some noise in Sin City. Let’s jump into the final Power Rankings of the season.

1. UCLA — Don’t look now, but UCLA is allowing 0.96 points per possession over its last eight games. Considering how much attention has been paid to the Bruins’ defensive issues this season, consider this an encouraging trend. If they can continue to defend at a reasonable level, Steve Alford‘s team will be ridiculously tough to beat in the NCAA Tournament.

Lonzo Ball’s UCLA team is one of the favorites heading into Las Vegas. (USA TODAY Sports)

2. Oregon — This team is stupid good on both ends. The 16-2 Ducks finished the conference season as the only team among the top two in both offensive and defensive efficiency. With the toughest portion of their schedule — five of their last seven games were on the road — now behind them, their focus shifts to being the #1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 All-Conference “Graybeards”

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 4th, 2017

As the Year of the Freshman winds down in the Pac-12, it’s time for age rather than youth to be served. In addition to the all-around brilliance of Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf,  Markelle Fultz and the Arizona Trio, this season has also provided a number of great performances by players actually old enough to gain admission to some of the many classic sports bars around the Conference of Champions. And while it says something about the conference that a separate post like this about the “graybeards” is even necessary, it’s time to recognize the best non-freshman performances in the Pac-12 this season.

Dillon Brooks (USA Today Images)

All Pac-12 Non-Freshman Team

  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon, G/F – The Oregon swingman has been as good as advertised this season, with an injury the only thing capable of slowing him down. His efficiency differential of +23 is the best among non-freshmen and only Washington’s Fultz carried a bigger usage load. Like his team, he’s defended at a high level without receiving much praise, but his 99.0 defensive rating in league play has been exceptional.
  • Derrick White, Colorado, G Colorado struck gold with the senior transfer who was once relegated to a Denver cooking school. White has posted a 125.0 offensive rating this season — the best of any player on this list — and has demonstrated a great ability to get to the line. His 41 percent FT Rate ranks 10th best in the Pac-12 this year.

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Pac-12 Power Rankings: The Big Three and Everyone Else Edition

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 1st, 2017

As we launch ourselves into March and the final weekend of Pac-12 play of the regular season, here are the final Power Rankings.

Thomas Welsh Wants Everyone to Recognize Where UCLA Stands (USA Today Images)

  1. UCLA– Nobody in the upper three did as much as the Bruins last weekend. Note that Arizona — which doesn’t really lose at the McKale Center, remember — was the first team in the past four games to post an offensive efficiency above the national average against UCLA’s improving defense.
  2. Oregon– The Ducks stood tough in the Bay Area last weekend thanks in large part to the second-best Pac-12 defense. Oregon plays aggressively (forcing a 20 percent turnover rate) yet cleanly with the second lowest FTA allowed rate in the conference.
  3. Arizona– Arizona, despite a tough home loss to the Bruins, continues to make its case as the most NCAA Tournament-ready team in the league. Why? First, the Wildcats play at the third-slowest pace in the Pac-12, and games always slow in postseason play. Secondly, Arizona does the best job in the conference in both getting to the foul line (37.4% FTA Rate) and making free throws when they get there (78%). Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Who Will Get the Fourth Bye?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 16th, 2017

With three weeks of league play left, both the the regular season title and the cherished final Pac-12 Tournament bye are still very much in play…

UCLA Basketball is Cool in LA Again (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona– The Wildcats are experiencing their three talented freshmen (Lauri Markannen, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins) running smack into the proverbial freshman wall. Despite that ongoing issue, they were still able to sweep the Bay Area schools without playing their best basketball. One of the biggest signs for optimism comes in the form of Chance Comanche, who has fortified Arizona’s post rotation by shooting 17-of-29 (59%) over the last two games.
  2. UCLA– How about a little love for Aaron Holiday? Upstaged by the arrival of superstar freshman Lonzo Ball, the sophomore guard has drastically improved upon what was a very good freshman campaign. He has already converted more three-pointers than all of last season (42) and has flipped his assist rate (24.4%) and turnover rates (21.5%) as well. He isn’t playing as much this season, but he is still a key cog in the Bruins’ devastating offensive machine.
  3. Oregon– The Ducks were about 15 minutes away from looking like the best team in the Pac-12. A furious comeback, however, orchestrated by UCLA’s Lonzo Ball proved that the conference is still up for grabs. As balanced as Oregon is across its rotation, the need for a closer is still an issue. Dillon Brooks has played that role very well for most of this season, but when he’s having an off game, the Ducks need another player to provide late-game production. Read the rest of this entry »
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