On the Quiet Rise of the California Golden Bears

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 6th, 2016

About three weeks ago, after California struggled to put much of any space between itself and Incarnate Word, we here at the Pac-12 microsite staged an intervention. Without actually intervening, of course. But we did call out the Golden Bears’ loaded roster for poor defensive effort, a general lack of energy, non-existent half-court offense and questionable chemistry. Given that it only a month into the season, we still gave Cuonzo Martin‘s team a pass with upcoming dates against St. Mary’s, Virginia, Davidson and the entirety of the Pac-12 on the horizon. Since that December 9 game, the Golden Bears have gone 5-1, with the sole loss coming in an overtime affair at Virginia, KenPom‘s fourth-best team in America. That loss, if anything, gave Cal its first taste of credibility. So are the the boys from Berkeley now out of the woods and headed to the Final Four? Hmmmmm.

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can't Seem To Miss (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can’t Seem To Miss. (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

There is a lot to be excited about in the East Bay right now. Jordan Mathews can’t miss (52.3 percent from three-point range). Jabari Bird is finally showing the two-way consistency that was missing in his first two campaigns. Kameron Rooks and Kinglsey Okoroh are making wholly unanticipated leaps into relevance as capable big men on both ends. Ivan Rabb  is impressing with his ability to both pull bigs away from the hoop but also bang with them down low. Sam Singer has been a legitimately good reserve off the pine. Jaylen Brown, while still struggling to put it all together, has started hitting more jumpers while improving his defensive effort and terrorizing opponents in transition. All of this is happening while senior point guard Tyrone Wallace is in the midst of a serious drought (13.3 percent from three-point range; three turnovers per game). In past years, such a malaise from Wallace would have surely coincided with a significant losing streak (see: last year’s devastating 1-8 stretch in late December and January).

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Dear Santa: Here’s Our Pac-12 Holiday Wish List

Posted by Mike Lemaire (@Mike_Lemaire) & Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 18th, 2015

Here at the Pac-12 microsite we are hardly immune to the allure of a cheesy holiday-themed post, and so in the spirit of the season, we created a wish list for each team in the conference. Although none of the teams are even close to a finished product and it may be too early in the season to thoughtfully examine strengths and weaknesses, everyone has played enough games that we can start to draw worthwhile conclusions from what we’ve seen. As with any holiday wish list, there are some wants and needs that are easier to satisfy than others but hey, you have to dream big when gifts are involved.

Arizona: Another Shooter

Arizona Could Stand To See Mark Tollefsen Dial In His Perimeter Shot (USA Today Sports)

Arizona Could Stand To See Mark Tollefsen Dial In His Perimeter Shot. (USA Today Sports)

Even without post anchor Kaleb Tarczewski, the Wildcats have been and will continue to be the conference’s best defensive team. But the offense has been a work in progress primarily because the outside shooting has been ugly. The team is shooting just 31 percent from downtown, down from 38 percent last season and Gabe York is pretty much the only one making shots behind the three-point line with any regularity. York has been much better of late and is one of the most dangerous shooters in the country when he gets hot, but he is pretty much the only one on the roster who can shoot. The big reason why the Wildcats rank near the bottom of the country in 3PA/FGA is because Sean Miller knows his team can’t really shoot it from there. The best hope is that Mark Tollefson rebounds from a slow start and becomes the 36 percent three-pointer shooter he was coming into the season.

Arizona State: a Personal Offensive Coach for Savon Goodman

Goodman is almost as bad at shooting and passing as he is good at everything else he does on the court. He is a vicious dunker, a suffocating defender, one of the better rebounding wing players in the entire country and a good finisher at the rim. But, like many freak athletes on the basketball court, as he moves farther away from the basket, his effectiveness disappears. Goodman has missed all seven of the three-pointers he has attempted in his collegiate career and he is a career 57 percent free throw shooter. Also, his assist rate is below 5.0, which means once he gets the ball, he isn’t looking to get rid of it again. Goodman’s offensive issues are a good microcosm for Arizona State’s offensive issues. The team is athletic and defends hard, but they don’t have any truly skilled offensive players. Goodman will likely never become a consistent three-point threat but imagine how good he and the Sun Devils could be if he develops some feel for his shot.

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Handing Out Grades For Finals Week

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on December 18th, 2015

It’s finals week across the country and we’re currently in the midst of the slowest week of the college basketball season. The basketball may not be great, but it is the perfect time to hand out a few grades of our own to teams, players, coaches and conferences. Hopefully the feedback will be easier to understand than your teacher’s scribbled critiques in those little blue books.

Purdue: A

Isaac Haas Has Been Dominant For The Undefeated Boilers (Photo: The Exponent)

Isaac Haas Has Been Dominant For The Undefeated Boilers (Photo: The Exponent)

Over the first month of the season, the two biggest “it” teams are Oklahoma and these Boilers. Purdue is 11-0 for the first time since 2009-10, when Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson led the Boilers to a share of the Big Ten crown. This Purdue outfit may be the best Matt Painter team since that group, and some are saying this could be the best team in West Lafayette since Glenn Robinson donned the black and gold in the early ’90s. That kind of talk may be getting a little ahead of things, but these Boilers have won all 11 games by double-figures. The major tests start coming in now, beginning with the Boilers’ next four games: Butler at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis; Vanderbilt at home; at Wisconsin (in the Badgers first Big Ten game without Bo Ryan in over a decade); Iowa in West Lafayette. Go 15-0 and this is a surefire A+.

Isaac Haas: A+

If you asked the average college basketball fan to name the best player on Purdue, the answer you’d likely get is AJ Hammons. It wouldn’t be a terrible response — last season, Hammons led the Big Ten in blocked shots for the third straight year (only JaJuan Johnson and Penn State’s Calvin Booth have ever done that before). If you asked a recruiting guru, you might hear the name of blue chip freshman Caleb Swanigan, who has met or even exceeded the lofty expectations attached to him since stepping on campus. But neither of those two has been the most important Boilermaker so far. That notation belongs to Haas, the 7’2″ sophomore who has made the leap as a sophomore. Last season Haas’ offensive rating, per KenPom, was 95.1. So far this year, it’s a whopping 129.8 as he draws almost 9.8 fouls per 40 minutes, the highest average in the country. He’s improved his free throw percentage by 20 points (54.7 percent to 74.2 percent) and he’s making 10 percent more of his two-point attempts (63.3 percent this season) He and Hammons are both dominant on the boards and as shot blockers (Haas’ 8.5 percent block rate falls just a bit short of Hammons’ 10.1 percent) but it’s Haas who is the #5 player in the (very early) KenPom Player of the Year race.

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We Need to Talk About California

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 11th, 2015

In recent days, I’ve heard knowledgeable college basketball folks refer to California as both “inconsistent” and “disappointing.” Let’s jump right in and say that they’re being far too kind. So far, this California team, compared with its talent level and their expectations, has been outright bad. They were ranked in nearly everyone’s Top 25 prior to the season, with more than a few supporters slotting the Bears as a top 10 team and mentioning them in the same breath as the words “Final Four.” And looking up and down their roster, it is easy to see why. Pop over to DraftExpress right now and you’ll find freshman forward Jaylen Brown sitting as the projected #6 pick in next year’s NBA Draft. Point guard Tyrone Wallace is projected as a second round pick. And freshman center Ivan Rabb is listed as the #15 pick in the 2017 draft. Throw in very good college guards Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews and the Golden Bears are loaded down with position-appropriate talent across the entire lineup.

So Far, Jaylen Brown And The Bears Have Been Bad (USA Today)

So Far, Jaylen Brown And The Bears Have Been Bad (USA Today)

Now, contrast that load of talent with what this team has actually done to this point. They’ve played two games all year against teams ranked in the top 100 by KenPom.com. Both of those game came over Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas. In the first, they Bears looked decent in the first half against San Diego State, before getting outscored 44-22 (1.26 PPP to 0.63) in the second half by an Aztec team who has really, really struggled to score against anybody all season long. The Bears followed that up by allowing a pretty dang good offensive team in Richmond to score 94 points against them, to the tune of a 1.31 PPP average. From there, the Bears haven’t taken a loss in the record books, but they sure haven’t been winning. They were taken to overtime by a Wyoming team still trying to find itself after replacing four of five starters from last year. In that game, Cowboys senior guard Josh Adams outplayed all of Cal’s future pros, and by a wide margin. California followed that game up by hosting Incarnate Word, a team without a win against a Division I team yet this season. At the half, those teams were tied. With eight minutes left, Incarnate Word was within five points.

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Pac-12 Bests and Worsts of The Week

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 8th, 2015

With notable results filtering in throughout the week, the complexion of the Pac-12 has undergone significant change in the last seven days. Here’s a look at some of the highlights — and lowlights — of recent action.

Best Audition for NBA Scouts: Most of the NBA’s attention has been on Tony Parker this season, but it has been sophomore seven-footer Thomas Welsh who has been UCLA’s best offensive player and rim protector. Welsh logged back-to-back double-doubles against Kentucky and Long Beach State and is shooting 62 percent from the field — some five percentage points better than Parker even though the senior attempts nearly twice as many shots at the rim. Furthermore, Welsh has been close to automatic on 15-foot jumpers this season, shooting better than 60 percent on such attempts. NBA teams will always find a place for a legitimate big man who can stretch the floor with a mid-range game. If Welsh can keep it up, he will get plenty of attention from scouts throughout the season.

Thomas Welsh Was Massive On Both Ends Of The Court Thursday

Thomas Welsh Has Been Arguably UCLA’s Best Player At This Point In The Season

Best Travel Experience: Arizona wasn’t supposed to beat Gonzaga in Spokane, not with Kaleb Tarczewski sidelined with foot issues and especially not when trailing by double-figures at halftime. But Gabe York and Allonzo Trier sparked the offense; Dusan Ristic held his own inside against Domantas Sabonis; and Sean Miller’s team played its trademark stingy defense down the stretch. The result was one of the most impressive road wins of the young season for any team and the rise of a notion that maybe Arizona won’t need to spend this year “rebuilding” after all. If its defense can remain as ruthlessly efficient as it has been and some of the underclassmen continue to develop, this team will be there again late in March.

Worst Travel Experience: Oregon left the friendly climes of Eugene for the first time this season, but a trip to Sin City didn’t quite go according to plan. Instead the Ducks were greeted rudely by UNLV, who buried the unsuspecting team under a barrage of three-pointers while harassing it into 15 turnovers. If there is one subtle flaw in Oregon’s roster, it’s a profound lack of of experience from top to bottom, especially as injuries continue to sideline key rotation players. The Ducks have shown a knack for gaining fuel from the atmosphere at Matthew Knight Arena, which will makes stealing road wins very difficult for visitors (just 10 losses in four seasons). But road games have been the more pressing recent issue. If the Ducks want to be considered legitimate conference title contenders, they will need to win on the road with some degree of regularity.

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Pac-12 Bests and Worsts of the Week

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 30th, 2015

With most of the in-season tournaments now over, there are some definite early Pac-12 observations that can be made. Here are a few:

  • Best Way to Give Yourself a Headache: Commit to being a Washington fan for the whole season. The Huskies may very well become a force to be reckoned with by the time the season is over, but the current iteration of the team is a bit of a mess. The Huskies have six freshmen and newcomer Malik Dime in their rotation, and all the youth shows. They foul seemingly every other time down the court; they turn the ball over regularly; but perhaps most maddeningly, they take plenty of shots that would make any discerning basketball fan roll his eyes. But they also have given themselves chances to win because they are athletic, relentless on the glass and consistently harass opposing shooters. The future may be bright for this program, but the present can be painful to watch.
So far Wayne Tinkle is doing everything right on and off the court in Corvallis. (Getty)

So far Wayne Tinkle is doing everything right on and off the court in Corvallis. (Getty)

  • Best Example of Holiday Spirit: Attendance remains an issue across the Pac-12, but perhaps not for much longer if Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle has anything to do with it. Tinkle handed out four free tickets for the Beavers’ game against Valparaiso last Tuesday because a fan on Twitter told the coach he would be cheering from home because money was tight. The fan, an Oregon native, subsequently brought his father, uncle and aunt with him to the game. Sadly for him and other Oregon State fans, though, the Beavers would end up falling short against an excellent Valparaiso team. The arena still wasn’t full, and drumming up much fan support for a program that has seen little recent success will be harder than Tinkle’s random acts of Twitter kindness. But give the second-year coach some credit. He didn’t have to do anything and the fan would have still supported the Beavers. Instead, he took the time to make someone’s day, and in the process likely winning his program a fan for life.

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Cal Handles Its Business, An Uneventful But Good Thing

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 17th, 2015

There was absolutely nothing noteworthy about Cal’s 85-67 thrashing of UC Santa Barbara last night in Berkeley, but if the Golden Bears are going to be the contender that they have been advertised as this preseason, that is without question a very good thing.

Cal Rolled to Its Second Win of the Season Last Night Versus UCSB

Cal Rolled to Its Second Win of the Season Versus UCSB Last Night

Cal didn’t play all that well against the Gauchos. Freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb battled foul trouble all night long, and head coach Cuonzo Martin mentioned afterward that his offense looked stagnant in settling for too many three-pointers (the Bears finished just 6-of-22 from downtown). But UC Santa Barbara is not your typical cupcake either, as the Gauchos were picked by some pundits to win the Big West this season — the type of opponent where a loss would hurt far more than a win helps. But instead of letting UCSB keep the score close and build confidence as the game wore on, Cal instead trampled them from the start with its vastly superior size and athleticism. This fact is easily illustrated in that the Bears’ margin of victory (18) was nearly identical to the difference in made free throws between the the two teams (17). The game was clearly over by midway through the second half, but the final score appeared closer than it actually was after Martin emptied his bench in the final minutes.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: What’s the Burning-est Question?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 12th, 2015

We’re about ready to have some actual game action to talk about, but before we do that, there are still a few more questions to sort through. As we head into opening weekend, we asked our Pac-12 experts to answer this simple burning question: What’s the burning-est question in the Pac-12? Below are their answers.

Adam Butler: The most burning question, the most incendiary inquiry, isn’t whether Bryce Alford is going to shave his chin stubble (the answer to that is that he needs to); rather, the season’s Pac-12 BQ is the California Golden Bears. I called it the Great Golden Hype. Specifically, the question is: Can Cuonzo Martin and two five-star recruits turn an 18-15 team into anything? The latter half of that equation has been proven — elite players can win you a couple basketball games. The former has also happened at least once or twice before. The reality is that Cal has remarkably high expectations with very little track record to merit (such are lofty expectations) and is, therefore, the burningest question.

Cuonzo Martin Has A Lot To Prove (AP)

Cuonzo Martin and the California Golden Bears Have a Lot to Prove. (AP)

Bennet Hayes: Questions abound in this year’s Pac-12. Can Arizona and Oregon seamlessly reload? Will Washington, Stanford and Colorado play well enough to bring their coaches some degree of job security? Is Bobby Hurley destined to transform Arizona State into a perennial power? Uncertainty is everywhere, which only makes Cuonzo Martin’s California team that much more intriguing. If the amount of talent that this Cal roster supports existed on a team coached by John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski, there’s a great chance that team would bear a preseason top-five ranking. Back here in reality, with Martin at the helm and the name of a program unaccustomed to major basketball success printed on the front of the jerseys, the corresponding preseason hype is relatively restrained. Given Martin’s uneven record as an X’s and O’s coach, it does makes sense — but only to a point. The freshman pairing of Jaylen Brown (a popular pick for preseason Pac-12 POY) and Ivan Rabb would be enough to turn heads, but factor in the heavy mass of talent returning to Berkeley and this team’s ceiling quickly elevates. Tyrone Wallace is the leading returning scorer in the league. Former McDonald’s All-American Jabari Bird, now a junior, is fully healthy and poised to build off a solid finish. Toss in Jordan Mathews, the team’s second leading scorer a season ago, and you have a pretty dangerous array of offensive weapons. If there was ever a team with the talent to ascend Cal into the highest echelon of West Coast basketball powers, it’s this one. Will Martin let them get there? Read the rest of this entry »

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Cal Preview: All Hail The Newcomers

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 4th, 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, we head to Berkeley.

California Golden Bears

Cuonzo Martin’s first season as the head coach at Cal was a rebuilding year for a team that had lost senior leaders Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, and also dealt with injuries to star sophomore Jabari Bird on its way to an 18-15 season (7-11 Pac-12). Things are looking way up for the Golden Bears this season, however, primarily because Martin managed to convince two of the very best high school players in the country to matriculate at Berkeley this season. These newcomers may not be around for more than a season, but for at least this season, Cal will be loaded with elite athletes and are a trendy sleeper pick to win a conference with no clear favorite. With an influx of talent the likes of which Cal basketball hasn’t seen in over two decades, anything less than an NCAA Tournament appearance this season will be considered a severe disappointment.

Cuonzo Martin Begins Year 2 at Cal With a Loaded Roster

Cuonzo Martin Begins Year 2 at Cal With a Loaded Roster

Strengths: Only Arizona and UCLA in this conference can compete with the athleticism that Cal will be able to put on the floor. Returning wings Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace are legitimate two-way players who can fill a box score in a variety of ways, and their attacks on the rim should open things up for sharpshooter Jordan Mathews (44.3 percent from three last season). Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo is a rangy forward who can shoot and defend multiple positions as well. But the real reason why the Bears will be a superior athletic team against nearly every team they play is because true freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb are one-of-a-kind type talents who have certain NBA futures. At 6’11” and 220 pounds, Rabb has plenty of shooting range, a variety of moves in the post and he runs the floor extremely well for a player his size. At 6’7″ and 225 pounds, Brown is the quintessential bull in a china shop and might very well be the Pac-12 Player of the Year before the season is over. His brute size and strength make him nearly impossible to keep away from the rim and he will be a human wrecking ball in transition. Finding the right combination of playing time for all of these talented athletes will be an interesting juggling act for Martin, but it is hard to view that as a problem. If all goes according to plan, the Bears’ offense will improve and the team become downright frightening defensively; but at the very least, the additions of Brown and Rabb will improve the team’s offensive rebounding and ability to get to the free throw line, two of the squad’s most glaring weaknesses last season. 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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