Pac-12 Needs the Two Cs to Recover

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 1st, 2018

The Pac-12 is struggling. About that there can be no doubt. The conference has no teams in the top 10 in the RPI and only two among the top 40 (#16 Arizona, #37 USC). Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of bracketology holds those two teams plus Arizona State in his field of 68, with only Washington landing among the first four out. Jeff Sagarin ranks the conference sixth overall with only (again) the Wildcats and Trojans cracking his top 40. Nothing amazing is going to happen in February to salvage the league this year. The question is whether there are any signs of daylight cracking through the wall of despair the league has built between it and the upcoming NCAA Tournament. First, let’s look to youth. A quick scan of the PER leaders among freshmen shows a pretty impressive group of players.

Player School
DeAndre Ayton Arizona
Kenny Wooten Washington
Romello White Arizona State
Jalen Nowell Washington
McKinley Wright IV Colorado
Donnie Tillman Utah
Justice Sueing California
Kris Wilkes UCLA
Remy Martin Arizona State
Troy Brown Oregon

 

Now, this list does not encapsulate the entirety of elite freshman talent in the Pac. Stanford alone has Daejon Davis, who has already won a Pac-12 Player of the Week award, and KZ Okpala, who despite not playing until the final non-conference game is already garnering calls to the Cardinal offices from NBA scouts. Speaking of Players of the Week, Arizona’s Dusan Ristic and Utah’s Justin Bibbins just ended a three-week stretch from the new year onward when a freshman was the conference player of the week. The most intriguing part of this list is that, aside from Ayton, there isn’t a surefire NBA lottery pick in the group. That’s not to say there isn’t NBA talent on that list or elsewhere across the league. It’s to say instead that, aside from Ayton, most of this group should be back for at least one more season. That certainly matters, because Ayton’s ongoing brilliance isn’t going to single-handedly bring the conference back to glory.

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Pac-12 Non-Conference Reset (non-Arizona State Edition)

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 28th, 2017

It may seem out of sync with the Holiday Spirit to practice exclusion, but we’ve spent SO much time on Arizona State already and quite honestly, their unblemished 12-0 record should be more than enough to keep Sun Devil fans happy. They have played great ball to date and, entering conference play, are sitting prettier than they have in quite some time. We’ve heard enough about the story of the year in the Pac-12, so let’s take some stock from the rest of the Conference of Champions with Pac-12 play ready to begin this week.

UCLA is the Surprise Team of the Pac So Far (USA Today Images)

Team of the Non-Conference: UCLA snatched this award away just moments before Santa and his reindeer took flight on the strength of a huge neutral court win over Kentucky on December 23. The Bruins have three wins over Power 6 teams right now (Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Kentucky) which is second-most in the league behind… well, you already know. The Bruins are doing all this despite the suspensions/departures of three freshmen expected to contribute this year in LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have been providing the on-court stability the Bruins were expecting, with both playing heavy minutes and logging true shooting percentages of about 57 percent. UCLA, a team with a relatively short roster, has damned the torpedoes and pushed the ball up at a pace of 74.5 possessions per game, 27th-fastest nationally. Lunardi currently lists UCLA as one of the first four out of the NCAA Tournament, but those three solid wins along with no bad losses (KenPom #29 Creighton, #33 Michigan, and #10 Cincinnati) gives it a good shot to work Pac-12 play to a decent seed in March. Credit head coach Steve Alford for moving past all the distractions and keeping things together in Westwood.

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2017-18 Pac-12 Big “Ifs”

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 10th, 2017

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

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

  1. Arizona: There is just nowhere else to look when sizing up the Pac-12 favorites. Once Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins’ returns were secure, the combination of those two plus the arrival of heralded freshman DeAndre Ayton is just too much top shelf talent, buttressed by an outstanding roster that also includes returning glue guys Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright along with Ayton’s freshman co-stars Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot and Alex Borcello.  If this roster remains intact come March and the FBI distractions don’t do just that, Miller has his best shot at breaking through that Final Four barrier that has stonewalled him to this point in Tucson.
  2. USC: The Trojans are bringing back 98 percent of their scoring and 96 percent of their rebounding to a team that won two NCAA Tournament games last season. Bennie Boatwright, De’Anthony Melton, Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin and Alijah Stewart form the only returning starting quintet in the league. Can they improve upon a defense that finished a middling seventh in the Pac-12 in efficiency last season?
  3. Oregon:  The Ducks return the least amount of points, rebounds and blocks of any team in the conference and yet they return the most important piece of their success: head coach Dana Altman. Oregon has top recruits Troy Brown and Victor Bailey, Jr., joining three transfers this season: Paul White (Georgetown), Elijah Brown (New Mexico), and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State). If Altman works not just well but quickly then Oregon could be ready in time for Pac-12 contention.
  4. Stanford: The Cardinal owned the 10th-rated offense in Pac-12 play last year, largely from scoring only 23.5 percent of their points from three-point range last year, a number that makes consistent offense virtually impossible. If Stanford can ascend to just the national average on three-point production this time around, it should be an NCAA Tournament team. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 77, #3 Oregon 76

Posted by rtmsf on April 1st, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament, including this weekend’s Final Four in Phoenix.

North Carolina Advances to Its Second Straight National Championship Game (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. North Carolina Survived, Part I. With a little more than four minutes remaining in the first half, Oregon hit a three-pointer to go up by eight points. North Carolina’s offense to that point was sputtering with a shooting percentage in the high 20-percent range, and nobody other than Kennedy Meeks seemed to be able to find the range. From that point over the next eight game minutes spanning the halftime break, North Carolina went on a 26-8 run to take the lead and never relinquished it. The feeling around the building was that the Tar Heels — which has more offensive options on its roster — had dodged a bullet. Oregon stars Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey were a combined 2-of-11 from the field for just 10 points, and although several other players (most notably, Dylan Ennis) had stepped up, it was clear that the Ducks had wasted a golden opportunity. Once the Tar Heels’ offensive machine got rolling on the back of Justin Jackson along with Meeks, Oregon was in big trouble.
  2. North Carolina Survived, Part II. Until it wasn’t in big trouble. After spending most of the second half nurturing a working lead in the 5- to 10-point range, the Ducks kept chipping away at it until the Tar Heels finally relented. A late Oregon run — punctuated by perplexingly awful decision-making on both ends — cut the North Carolina lead to a single point with seven seconds remaining, setting in motion a seemingly impossible finish. Two missed free throws by Kennedy Meeks led to an offensive tip-out and the Tar Heels retaining possession, followed by another foul and two more missed free throws from Joel Berry, an offensive rebound by Meeks, and the Tar Heels again retaining possession. With four seconds remaining, there was more than enough time for Oregon to make a push up the court and find a decent shot, but that idea was quashed by North Carolina’s relentlessness on the glass. After the Heels had gifted the Ducks two incredible opportunities to win, it seemed a fitting way to end a game that had gotten very ugly down the stretch. Survive and advance comes in many different forms, but four missed fouls shots followed by consecutive offensive rebounds was a first.
  3. Oregon Needed a Productive Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. The Ducks were only going to go as far as their two offensive stars took them in this NCAA Tournament, and both Brooks and Dorsey were clearly bothered by the North Carolina defense tonight. In a contest where few outside shots were falling, the Heels forced the pair into a 5-of-22 disaster (3-of-10 from three-point range) that caused the Ducks too many empty offensive possessions. Compare that with the 9-of-18 from three-point range the pair hit against Kansas, and it’s easy to see why Oregon spent most of tonight playing from behind. Excellent efforts by Ennis (18 points) and Bell (13 points) kept the Ducks within range, but North Carolina was simply too good to force the Oregon stars into a tough night and not take advantage. The Tar Heels are moving on because they were able to contain these guys.

Star of the Game. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina. Meeks went into Beast Mode tonight against an Oregon front line that basically consisted of Jordan Bell and the aura surrounding him. His 14 points and five rebounds in the first half kept the Tar Heels afloat while awaiting the arrival of Justin Jackson (who finished with 22 points), and it seemed as if he was in the right spot at the right time every time Oregon appeared to be making a push. Perhaps this was illustrated no better than in the final sequence when, after missing a pair of his own free throws, he secured the game-winning offensive rebound after Berry’s misses, unloading the ball quickly into the backcourt before Oregon could foul yet again. His 25 points and 14 rebounds were both team-high totals, and it’s an accurate statement to say that Oregon would have won tonight if not for Meeks’ contributions.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Oregon Ducks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: Oregon.

How Oregon Got Here

Oregon hopes to continue riding high in Phoenix (Getty Images).

Midwest Region Champions. After receiving a lower-than-expected #3 seed on Selection Sunday, Oregon rolled past #13 Iona 83-67 in its NCAA Tournament opener. Two nights later, it required a pair of clutch Tyler Dorsey three-pointers for the Ducks to survive #11 Rhode Island, which led by as many as 10 points in the second half. Oregon’s late-game execution continued against #7 Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, where it held the Wolverines scoreless over the game’s final two minutes en route to a 69-68 victory. Finally, despite facing #1 Kansas in Kansas City on Saturday—a road game by almost any standard—the Ducks drilled 11 three-pointers, held the Jayhawks to their worst offensive output of the season (0.94 points per possession), and advanced to their first Final Four since 1939.

The Coach

Dana Altman. The 58-year-old Nebraska native has quietly had one of the most successful careers among active Division I basketball coaches — a career now punctuated by his first Final Four appearance. Altman ranks 10th on the all-time wins list among working head men (597 wins), joining Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self and Tom Izzo as the only active coaches with 20+ consecutive winning seasons. After spending 16 years at Creighton (and becoming the Bluejays’ all-time winningest coach in the process), Altman has turned an inconsistent Oregon program into a perennial threat to win the Pac-12. Prior to his arrival, the Ducks had reached the Sweet Sixteen three times in program history, and won 30+ games only once; since Altman took the job in 2011, Oregon has doubled that number of Sweet Sixteen appearances and won 30+ games twice. He may well be a future Hall of Famer.

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Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Regional Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 23rd, 2017

And then there were three. USC did the Pac-12 no shame in winning two games during the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, but the Trojans were felled by the neon shine of Baylor on Sunday, leaving the Conference of Champions with three teams in the Sweet Sixteen (as most had predicted). Oregon, Arizona and UCLA begin their second weekend of NCAA Tournament work this evening, so it’s time to check in with each and focus on a  key issue to resolve if they are to rendezvous in Glendale.

Oregon Advanced to the Sweet Sixteen On a Tyler Dorsey Three (USA Today Images)

  • #3 Oregon:  #TeamTyler or #TeamDillon? Postseason play has brought this particular debate to the fore in ways many may have not anticipated. After Oregon’s semifinal win over Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament, Dana Altman pulled no punches in critiquing what had been an uneven performance from Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, going so far as to suggest that Brooks had taken the Ducks out of their offense. The senior is a fantastic player, but Oregon’s offense has at times sputtered on Brooks possessions, allowing for Tyler Dorsey to emerge as an effective alternative for the Ducks in crunch time. Consider: In postseason play, Brooks is shooting 42.0 percent whereas Dorsey is converting a red-hot 67.0 percent. Brooks has outshot his teammate at the foul line, but not by nearly enough to eclipse Dorsey’s phenomenal streak of productivity. It’s always good to have multiple closers on the same team, and this isn’t necessarily about a fatal choice for Altman in the endgame. The big issue is that Dorsey is playing within the flow of the offense and outproducing Brooks at the same time. To win two more games this weekend, Oregon may have to either re-incorporate Brooks into the natural ebb and flow of its offense or elevate Dorsey to a more featured status.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Oregon 93, #14 Iona 77

Posted by rtmsf on March 17th, 2017

Oregon entered today’s game with the big question on everyone’s mind — how will the Ducks fare without Chris Boucher? At least through the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, that question has been answered.

Oregon Used a Fast Start to Dominate Iona and Move to the Second Round (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Oregon Got Whatever Oregon Wanted. Iona and its defense rated in the mid-200s nationally wasn’t expected to cause much of a problem for an Oregon offense that has no problem scoring, and it was easy to see from the opening tip that the Ducks were going to get whatever they wanted. Oregon made an early point to get the ball inside to Jordan Bell and the junior center delivered, with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field. At the completion of the first half, the Ducks were hitting 75 percent of their two-point attempts, illustrating just how paper-thin the Gaels’ defense inside the arc was. Although the Ducks tend to feast on the inside-out game offensively, they will certainly see more pushback from their opponent in the next round.
  2. What About Boucher? With Boucher out of the lineup, has been able to settle into his natural position at the four. His first game last weekend in the full-time role resulted in a solid 33-minute, 25-point performance against Arizona. Today was another 30+ minute outing, but after a quick start, Brooks seemed more content letting his teammates contribute. He still ended the game with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. The more concerning area, of course, involves the loss of Boucher is on the defensive end. Brooks was often matched up with the bigger and bulkier Jordan Washington (along with Jordan Bell) inside, who easily overpowered the pair for a 22/11 double-double. The loss of the rim-protection that Boucher offered is definitely something to watch going forward.
  3. Iona Has Had Better Showings. This was Tim Cluess’ fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven years at the helm, but these Gaels probably represented his weakest group to go dancing. Aside from Washington inside and Sam Cassell, Jr. (16 points) on the perimeter, the Gaels were overmatched by the speed, talent and athleticism of Oregon. Other than a brief period in the mid-second half when it appeared that the Ducks became complacent, they were never really tested today. Cluess’ teams have never been great defensive squads, but with only two legitimate scoring options on the floor today, it ultimately meant the Gaels were always playing catch-up against the refined group of offensive talents that Dana Altman has at his disposal.

Star of the Game. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon. Speaking of getting whatever you want, Dorsey used his versatile offensive game to torch Iona for 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including a pair of threes and five rebounds. The sophomore’s fourth 20+ point game in a row, it’s clear that Altman believes that his time is now.

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Pac-12 Tournament Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 15th, 2017

The Pac-12 ended up with fewer seeds in the NCAA Tournament than the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Big 10.  Of course, it was always quality (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and not quantity for the Conference of Champions this season. Outside of the ACC, no conference has three teams being hailed as legitimate Final Four threats.  The questions this time of year focus on where you’re trending and your presumptive path. By the time you get to a National Semifinal you are certainly going to be playing a great team, or at the very least a team playing like one. Those games match up as coin tosses in most cases, so let’s focus on which of the four Pac-12 teams who qualified has the best shot of reaching Glendale.

Do Allonzo Trier and Arizona own the Pac-12’s best chances of reaching the National Semifinals? (Photo: USA Today Sports)

USC

  • Trending Up:  Jordan McLaughlin is averaging nearly 17 points a game over his last four and has a stellar A/TO rate of 31/6 over those four games. Guard play takes center stage in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Trojans are to make more than a cameo in the round of 68, they’ll need McLaughlin to keep playing at a high level this week.
  • Trending Down:  Since posting a stellar 156 ORtg against Washington State in March 1, Bennie Boatwright has slumped to games with offensive efficiency ratings of 88, 102, and 83 amidst an 8-28 field goal shooting stretch.  USC is not a great offensive team and they struggle in the halfcourt; without Boatwright at max efficiency working to stretch defenses and convert in the paint, USC isn’t long for this week.
  • Final Four:  The Trojans were on a three-game winning streak before UCLA dispatched them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. USC didn’t make it easy for the Bruins, however, and in the last four games found an offensive groove, posting efficiency ratings well over national average in its three wins. The loss to UCLA showed they could hang with an elite team despite subpar performances from Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, and De’Anthony Melton. Coming off a loss, it’d be wrong to say the Trojans are streaking, but they are playing good ball.

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 83, Oregon 80

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 12th, 2017

Arizona left no doubt that it is the most complete Pac-12 team this season. The Wildcats beat UCLA and Oregon on back-to-back nights, and they did it with star big man Lauri Markannen taking only four shots and scoring only 11 points. Oregon may have the most experience and UCLA may have the biggest upside, but Arizona can win at multiple paces and in multiple ways.

Arizona Ran Through Oregon to Claim the Pac-12 Tournament Title (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The game has changed. Arizona came into tonight’s game with a firm commitment to drive Oregon off the three-point line, even if that meant giving up layups as a result. The Ducks were credited with 30 layup attempts, converting only half of them. However, Oregon — a team that gets nearly 40 percent of its points from the three-point line — only notched 19 percent of their points from distance tonight. Oregon adjusted in the second half by driving to the bucket relentlessly and getting fouls. Foul trouble was the monkey wrench that hurt Arizona in the second half, but Sean Miller confirmed that taking away the three was the priority. It’s counterintuitive relative to the long-established philosophy of defending from the inside out, and it reflects just how much the style of the game and the three-point line have revolutionized not just the way teams attack but also the way they defend.
  2. Track Dillon Brooks’ usage in the NCAA Tournament. Dana Altman and Tyler Dorsey were not excited last night about the stagnation that resulted largely because of Brooks’ ball dominance. Tonight Brooks scored 17 of Oregon’s 29 points in the first half and took 12 of their 29 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency that half was 85.3. In the second half, foul trouble opened the door for Tyler Dorsey, who took over the lead role and logged a very efficient 21 points on only 10 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency in the second half was 141.7. The Ducks are at their most dangerous when they have everybody engaged (most teams are), but with a player as exceptional as Brooks it can be difficult to find that balance. There is not clear evidence of any kind of a rift between Brooks and his team, but the Ducks’ last two games illustrated that making Oregon one-dimensional is a big step towards beating them, even if that one dimension is a player as good as Brooks.
  3. Chris Boucher was missed.  Altman admitted that it was tough to account for the absence of the Ducks’ senior shot-blocker and three-point threat extraordinaire. Make no mistake: Boucher was missed on both ends of the court tonight. His reputation is built on rim protection but his ability to stretch defenses and create mismatches is something Altman must resolve by the time Oregon starts NCAA Tournament play.

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The Achilles’ Heels of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA

Posted by Richard Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

The Pac-12’s Big Three of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA (in no particular order) have spent most of the regular season displaying their numerous virtues, but for these three programs their ultimate referendum is going to be performance in the NCAA Tournament. The trio certainly won’t be the only Pac-12 schools to qualify for the Big Dance this season, but they will be expected to carry the banner for the Conference of Champions deep into March (last men’s basketball championship: Arizona, 1997). So what to make of the Wildcats, Ducks and Bruins as we approach three weeks until Selection Sunday? Their talent is unquestioned, but each team carries at least one potentially tragic flaw that must be reconciled if it has plans on booking a trip to the Final Four.

Arizona: Inexperience

Lauri Markkanen is a potentially game-changing talent, but will his inexperience catch up to him in the Big Dance? (Getty)

No team epitomizes the conference’s youthful resurgence like Arizona. In Pac-12 play, freshmen Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons represent nearly half of Arizona’s field goal attempts and scoring. That hasn’t mattered until recently, but a reckoning more commonly known as “The Freshman Wall” is imminent. Rare is the first-year collegian who can completely sidestep a prolonged dip in performance. Markannen recently went through a two-week stretch of poor performances, punctuated by four-point, three-rebound stinker at Oregon. Simmons has also struggled with inconsistency in league play. His masterpiece against UCLA was the precursor to an ineffective 2-of-7 game against Utah. Another inconsistent swing through Oregon cost Simmons his starting job, and his 19 minutes against Stanford represented a season low. He bounced back somewhat against California with 13 points and three assists, but he doesn’t seem quite as comfortable as he once did. Alkins also struggled against the Oregon schools, but he played well in recent games against Stanford and Washington State. Teams have certainly won NCAA titles led by talented youth, but it’s also not hard to imagine a team like Arizona cracking against a veteran-laden athletic group like Villanova. Arizona has plenty of time to find greater consistency among its freshman corps, but like the rest of us, Sean Miller is probably still wondering what are his young Wildcats made of?

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