The ABCs Of Why Oregon Is A Final Four Contender

Posted by Mike Lemaire on February 11th, 2016

We’ve been wanting to write about Oregon since the Ducks beat Arizona in Tucson two weeks ago, but coming up with new angles to discuss how good Dana Altman’s team has become is tricky. For the first time since Altman took over the program in 2010, the team is starting to garner real national attention. That of course means that most of the stories about the team’s patchwork roster and intriguing backstories have already been told. Still, the Ducks deserve all the publicity and attention they can get and we on the microsite have been severely lacking in that department, so we decided to make up for it. Rather than regurgitate observations that have already been analyzed to death, though, we instead used the entire alphabet to explain why the Ducks are legitimate Final Four contenders.

Note: This was not as easy as it might look, so we are asking for forgiveness on some of our more obvious reaches.

A is for Altman: It wasn’t very long ago that Oregon was in the middle of an ugly sexual assault scandal and some were calling for Altman’s job. Now he is coaching the best team in the conference and is in consideration for several national coaching awards as well. He gets plenty of criticism for his continued reliance on transfers, especially those from junior college, but players like Chris Boucher, Dwayne Benjamin and Elgin Cook are silencing those critics. He has also made a concerted effort to make his team adaptable and that shows in his willingness to switch up defensive schemes and tinker with lineups. It has all come together this season and now we are watching Altman’s vision come to life.

B is for Blocks: The Ducks do a lot of this, as they are tied with St. John’s for the second-highest block percentage in the country. That elite rim protection is a big reason why Oregon is way more efficient on the defensive end of the floor this season. Boucher leads the country in blocks per game (3.4) and it would be foolish to forget that sophomore Jordan Bell – who is finally rounding into form – was the conference’s best shot-blocker last season.

Chris Boucher, Casey Benson And The Ducks Are Halfway Home To A Pac-12 Title (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Chris Boucher Has Been a Game-Changing Rim Protector                                                     (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

C is for Canada: Altman and Oregon have been luring players from north of the border to Eugene for years now (remember Jason Calliste and Devoe Joseph?) but recently he has outdone himself. Ontario native Dillon Brooks is on the short list of PAC-12 Player of the Year candidates, while Montreal product Boucher may be the team’s best NBA prospect. The Ducks’ Canadian flavor would grow even stronger if Dylan Ennis, another Ontario product, were healthy.

D is for Dillon: Brooks has always been considered a good player but the sophomore has raised both his game and draft stock this season. Oregon has made a conscious effort to run its offense through the versatile Brooks, and he’s responded by averaging 16.9 points per game, shooting 48% from the floor, and grabbing 6.0 rebounds per game. He also averages 3.2 assists per game and shoots 80 percent from the free-throw line. He is still a limited shooter from three-point range and can be sloppy with the ball, but the Ducks wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are now if Brooks wasn’t in the midst of a breakout season.

E is for Ennis: The very definition of a college basketball journeyman, Ennis was supposed to use his last year of eligibility to run the Ducks’ offense this season. Instead, a lingering foot issue sidelined him for the rest of the season. He’s likely played his final minute of college basketball, as the NCAA is expected to reject his appeal for a medical redshirt. But rather than sulk or drop out of school, Ennis has been front and center as the team’s biggest cheerleader. That type of support and loyalty can make subtle, crucial differences in team morale.

F is for Frontcourt: The loss of Ennis has left a gaping hole in the depth of the team’s backcourt, but Oregon makes up for it with a frontcourt that may feature the best grouping of five forwards in the country. Boucher and Brooks need no further explanation, but Bell is a defensive monster who is still shaking off the rust from missing the first portion of the season. Senior Dwayne Benjamin isn’t a great rebounder but makes up for it with his floor-stretching shooting talents, while fellow senior Elgin Cook is the perfect swing forward, capable of filling in wherever necessary. Oh and don’t think Cook is just a role player; he is currently Oregon’s second leading scorer.

G is for Gimmes: The importance of succeeding at the free-throw line can never be understated. While the Ducks are shooting six percent worse from the charity stripe this season than they did last (76 percent has come down to 70 percent), the percentage of free-throw attempts in relation to field-goal attempts has risen sharply, from 28 percent to 40 percent. Oregon is getting to the free-throw line far more often, which is a big reason why the offense has been able to overcome its long-range shooting issues. If anything, it might be worth trying to get to the line even more often.

H is for Homecourt Advantage: Here’s the first letter that demanded a real stretch! Considering the Ducks play in a 12,000-seat arena and can barely muster an average of 8,000 fans for conference home games, the fans may not deserve too much praise. But the crowd is starting to come back (with an assist from the school athletic department) and the team is noticing and responding. The Ducks have yet to lose in Eugene and with just three manageable home dates remaining on the schedule (vs. Oregon State, Washington, and Washington State), it doesn’t seem likely they will this season.

I is for Idolization: The second stretch of the piece! But idolization is a pretty good word for Ducks’ guard Casey Benson‘s fascination with watching his brother play. The elder Benson (T.J.) played at Weber State and now coaches at Grand Canyon University, so the younger Benson had a pretty good mentor to learn from. The younger Benson is one of the best decision-makers in college basketball and has become an unexpected linchpin in one of the nation’s most efficient offenses.

J is for Jumpers: Oregon makes a fair amount of them (its 53.3 percent shooting on two-point field goal attempts is best in the conference) and last we checked, making shots is an important part of becoming a good basketball team.

K is for Knight: It is pretty near impossible to mention the success of Oregon athletics without pointing out that a big part of that success is Nike chairman Phil Knight’s deep pockets and profound love for the school’s sports teams. Matthew Knight Arena is a gleaming testament to both Phil’s son and his own generosity. It may also be the coolest court in college basketball.

Knight

Matthew Knight Arena’s Hardwood Is As Distinctive As Any In College Basketball

L is for Luck: According to hoop-math.com, opponents took 418 field goals in transition against Oregon last season and roughly 38 percent of those attempts came from downtown. Opponents made just 30.8 percent of those shots. This season, opponents have taken 255 field goals in transition (basically the same per game average as last season) and once again roughly 38 percent of those attempts have come from downtown. Opponents are now making 44.4 percent of those attempts, however. Oregon can definitely stand to tighten things up in that area, but that number screams regression. If and when that luck runs out, Oregon’s already solid defense might start looking even more efficient.

M is for Mennenga: As in assistant coach Mike Mennenga. Mennenga is in his second season as an assistant in Eugene but his strong ties to Toronto (he used to be a youth basketball coach there) are a big reason why Oregon is so popular with players from up north. We already explained how important Canada has been to Oregon’s success this season, so it is only fair we give Mennenga his due, as well. 

N is for Newcomers: Since Altman took over for Ernie Kent, the roster has seen an average of nearly eight new players each season. This season isn’t the best example of the constant turnover – in part because we never got to see Ennis play extended minutes – but at the risk of sounding redundant, Boucher and Dorsey have worked out pretty well. It takes a gifted coach and stable program to successfully integrate new players year after year. Oregon does it better than almost anyone else.

O is for Opportunity: At the risk of being a buzzkill, it is worth pointing out that there are no dominant teams in college basketball this season. This leaves a very large open window of opportunity for Oregon (and every other team out there) to climb through. If this were last season, Oregon might not even be the first or second best team in the conference, let alone the country. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t have a big impact on Oregon’s potential tournament success.

P is for Playing Time: Ducks’ freshman Tyler Dorsey was originally committed to conference rival Arizona. But when Arizona took a commitment from Justin Simon and offered other guards, Dorsey knew his potential playing time was in jeopardy and reopened his commitment before eventually landing at Oregon. Playing time was unlikely to be the only reason Dorsey made the switch, but the point is moot now. Dorsey is suiting up for Oregon and is the team’s third-leading scorer and best outside shooter, shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range.

Q is for Quack: You know, like a Duck?

R is for Reckless: One would think that a rotation primarily comprising first or second year players would be more reckless. But in fact the opposite is true, as Oregon takes better care of the ball than almost any team in the country. Casey Benson has turned the ball over just seven times in more than 300 minutes of conference play and Boucher has just nine turnovers in nearly as many minutes. The Ducks lead the conference in turnover margin (+2.88) and are 26th best in the country in the category (ninth best among Power 5 schools).

A Casey Benson Turnover is a Rare Sight These Days

A Casey Benson Turnover is a Rare Sight These Days (Photo: John Sperry, 247Sports)

S is for Stubblefield: As in longtime Altman sidekick and ace recruiter Tony Stubblefield. Hired away from Cincinnati, Stubblefield has been the program’s best recruiter and is at least partially responsible for the commitment of Dorsey last year. He was also the primary recruiter of Oak Hill Academy forward Trevor Manuel, and 247 Sports credits him with successfully enrolling Cook and Brooks in years past.

T is for Transition Defense: Oregon opponents’ effective field-goal percentage in transition is 58.5 percent. This is in part due to the aforementioned problems defending the three-point arc, but what might be news to some is that Oregon ranks among the top 40 teams in the country in percentage of total field goals attempted in transition (18.3%) and effective field-goal percentage defense in non-transition situations (44.4%). In summation, Oregon is good at preventing opponents’ transition opportunities and is really good at defending when the opponents aren’t getting transition opportunities. This is a reminder to Dana Altman to get that transition perimeter defense cleaned up STAT.

U is for Unicorns: Unicorn was the most apt description for the type of once-in-a-generation talent and athlete Kevin Durant was and still is. Now it is being used, albeit slightly more moderately, to describe the 6’10”, 190-pound athletic freak that is Chris Boucher. There aren’t too many players in college basketball with the versatility to block seven shots and make four three-pointers in the same game. Boucher did it against Arizona State on Jan. 31. He is 23 and is essentially a walking string bean, but his arrival has been an obvious boon on both ends of the floor for the Ducks.

V is for Versatility: And versatility is something Oregon has in spades. Take a look at Oregon’s most frequently used lineups over the last five games and you will see Altman experiments with different combinations liberally. Every player in the rotation also plays more than one position. This is not coincidental. Altman readily admits that versatility is an important part of his recruiting strategy and that position-less basketball is the aim. Almost all of the Ducks are matchup problems for the opposition (especially Brooks) and that ability to play different roles is a big reason why the offense is so efficient.

W is for Warriors: To continue that thought, we won’t pretend the Ducks’ attempts to mimic the Warriors’ position-less defense is perfect. Oregon still has issues on the glass and defending the perimeter. But it is interesting to see how many similar pieces Oregon is working with. This excellent analysis of the Warriors’ ground-breaking defense can be applied to Oregon as well (to a lesser degree, obviously). The Ducks have no defensive footprint and can play man-to-man or zone depending on what suits them. They can switch on defense without worrying about size mismatches with Boucher serving as the Bogut-esque anchor. Brooks also has the potential to be an Iguodala-lite disruptor on defense. These similarities may not be perfect, but their potential existence is a definite good thing.

X is for X: This is one of those skip questions on the test and we will take the “X”.

Y and Z: Uhhhh, seems like we ran out of gas. We got nothing. Dana Altman has to hope his team has a more successful finishing flourish in them this March than we did here. And if you read all the way from A through W, you know the Ducks just might.

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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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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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Washington State Preview: Battling Irrelevance

Posted by Michael Lemaire on November 12th, 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. Our last stop is Pullman.

Washington State Cougars

Thanks in large part to one of the most prolific scorers in the country (DaVonte Lacy) and the surprising breakout season from double-double machine Josh Hawkinson, the Cougars were actually pretty competitive in their first year under head coach Ernie Kent. They finished just 13-18 overall and 7-11 in the Pac-12, but managed to pull off a few upsets along the way. More generally, they almost always found a way to hang tough. Now, with Lacy, three-point specialist Dexter Kernich-Drew and seven-footer Jordan Railey all graduated, things get trickier for Kent in year two. He gets both Hawkinson and steady point guard Ike Iroegbu back, so if the Cougars can find contributions from a few other returnees and what may be a very underrated recruiting class, Washington State may be able to tread water in a deep Pac-12.

New Head Coach Ernie Kent Brings New Hope To The Paloose (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

Head Coach Ernie Kent Has A Lot Of Work Ahead Of Him. (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

Strengths: Kent took over a team ranked dead last in the conference in offensive efficiency and in just one year, had that mark among the upper half of the Pac-12. The former Oregon head man definitely deserves a lot of the credit for that turnaround, but the unexpected emergence of Hawkinson didn’t hurt. At 6’10”, 245 pounds, Hawkinson is fully capable of tussling in the paint yet also possesses a gentle touch around the rim. But there’s more to the skill set: He also proved to be a truly elite rebounder (third nationally in defensive rebounding percentage) while also making 85 percent of his free throws. He is undoubtedly his team’s biggest strength. There’s little doubt that Hawkinson will see a lot more double-teams with Lacy gone, but he is still a good bet to improve upon last season’s averages of 14.7 PPG and 10.8 RPG. Another Cougars’ strength: This is a team that also doesn’t turn the ball over very much. Hawkinson protected the ball better last season than every player in the Pac-12 other than Josh Scott, and Iroegbu may be able to cut down on his turnovers with increased comfort in his role. The offense will take a step back without Lacy and Kernich-Drew, but this should still be a capable offensive unit. Read the rest of this entry »

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West Coast Bias: Pac-12 Media Day Happenings

Posted by Adam Butler on October 16th, 2015

They say the media doesn’t pay attention to anything that happens out West, but no such claim could be made yesterday. Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2015 edition of Pac-12 Media Day, in order of their appearance.

USC Trojans

You only take the podium first if you’re the commissioner or the last place team in the conference. Andy Enfield isn’t Larry Scott. His squad is the latter. Andy Enfield is interesting to me in that Enfield “won the presser.” He was the flashy hire meant to breathe life into a stale program. And then he spouted off about UCLA! Of course those remarks were “off the record” and not meant to be disseminated anywhere beyond his practice. Two years ago we thought he was every bit the flashy hire Pat Haden promised. They’ve won six conference games since and Enfield really hasn’t had a ton to say. This year, however, he seemed to receive more questions and have more to say. It was a refreshing change from the previous platitudes. And while he didn’t say much – and distinctly promised nothing – there seems to be optimism inside this program. They’re older, wiser, stronger, and presumably better. Enfield has a talented roster: How will it translate?

Washington Huskies

Another program with the allusion of optimism, but I maintain it’s going to be a long one in Seattle. They’re bringing in a top recruiting class and return a senior point guard, but the Huskies feel another year away to me. Which of course is not the seat you want to sit in when you’ve had four progressively worse seasons. It’s the seat of a team predicted to finish 11th by the media. But let’s talk about the important stuff: #Globalization. The PAC is sending its Dawgs to China for the first ever regular season game – collegiate or professional – in China. LoRo’s squad will square off against Shaka Smart’s first Longhorn team in an overseas battle. The Huskies, in fact, are taking classes in prep for this trip. Fact: Andrew Andrews seamlessly spoke Mandarin during Pac-12 Media Day. Fact: Malik Dime is bilingual and the best Mandarin speaker on the team (according to Andrews). And while these are all admirable things, they might not be enough to create a particularly good basketball team.

Lorenzo Romar's Team Will Begin A Do-Or-Die Season For Their Coach In China Against Texas (Photo: Seattle Times)

Lorenzo Romar Will Begin A Do-Or-Die Season In China Against Texas (Photo: Seattle Times)

Colorado Buffaloes

Tad walked in all smiles and I loved it. At Media Day, while there isn’t anything particularly stressful, it isn’t everyone’s favorite day. There are logistics, entrances, platitudes, smiles for the camera, and a lot of ‘hey howya doings.’ Media Day is polite. But Tad Boyle waltzed onto the stage with his senior leader, Josh Scott, and a genuine grin on his face. He said, “I was just sitting down with Josh in the waiting room right there, and I’m not sure I have a lot to say. I’m just ready to play.” And doesn’t that make sense? Colorado closed last season in joyless fashion, watching a plethora of players transfer and a senior – Askia Booker – decline an invitation to play in the CBI. About five months ago, there was little to smile about surrounding Colorado basketball. “Looking at last year, I think me and my teammates kind of had to evaluate where we went wrong as a group, and in looking at it, we were afraid to call each other out,” Scott said. Now winning doesn’t necessarily demand a bunch of guys telling each other they’re out of position or screwing up, but it doesn’t hurt to have the kind of trust where teammates work together towards a common goal. The Buffs might not be great this year, but it seems they might be working towards cohesion. And that’s got Tad smiling.

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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 Washington State and Patience

Posted by Adam Butler on December 5th, 2014

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

This is a column about Washington State. It’s an odd premise and one we don’t usually delve in to. The Cougar program has won thirteen of their previous thirty eight contests, just 34% of their games. It’s a great batting average; a terrible win percentage. They’ve been outscored by 202 points. A great bowling score; a terrible scoring differential. By almost all basketball metrics, the Cougars have been trending downward since 2011: fewer points, lesser efficiencies, fewer fans, and fewer wins. It’s not looking good for a team – a program – just a handful of seasons removed from a top-10 ranking. Alas, their heyday came amidst UCLAs and that program is on to another coach as well.

Ernie Kent Took On Quite A Challenge When He Accepted The Washington State Job (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Ernie Kent Took On Quite A Challenge When He Accepted The Washington State Job (Rick Bowmer, AP)

So when Ernie Kent was hired, it seemed to be a shot in the arm. Albeit a surprising and interesting one, Kent won’t soon be accused of being “low energy.” He might be exactly what Washington State needed. He knocked on doors pretending to be lost, engaging with the Palouse, embracing his new home and reminding people that basketball, Cougar basketball, could be fun. That the downward trends of yesteryear could soon be over. He took the stage at media day and dropped names like Roy Williams and John Calipari. As soon as he was Mr. Cougar (or is that Butch?), he got on stage and told us about all his famous friends. He’d consulted the brightest minds about being a great coach. Tom Izzo was noted at Pac-12 media day. Marketing sometimes isn’t about product recognition as much as market expansion. Maybe you won’t be a WSU fan, but you sure could be a basketball fan. The room swooned at Ernie’s words.

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Pac-12 M5: 11.20.14 Edition

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 20th, 2014

pac12_morning5

  1. Arizona just keeps on rolling, and not just because the Wildcats knocked off Big West favorite UC Irvine in Tucson on Wednesday night, but because Sean Miller keeps dialing in elite recruiting classes. He’s already got four signees locked up and is working on adding more to next year’s class , and he’s already gotten a head start on a strong 2016 class with a verbal commitment from San Diego-area power forward T.J. Leaf. Leaf is a 6’9” combo forward with the size to play the four and the skill set to play the three. In fact, he cited Miller’s history of allowing his forwards to display a wide variety of skill sets as a big reason why he chose Arizona over other big-time schools like UCLA and Florida.
  2. Tad Boyle is getting to ready to welcome some young talent into his rotation, as freshman point guard Dominique Collier may see his first action in a Colorado uniform against Wyoming this weekend. Collier was suspended for the Buffaloes’ first two games of the season and has been dealing with a nagging ankle injury on top of that, but he’s finally practicing at full speed and ready to contribute. With Xavier Talton acquitting himself nicely in the early going, don’t expect Collier to jump into a huge role in the rotation right away. But the two-time Colorado Mr. Basketball is another talent who should make Boyle’s already deep bench even stronger.
  3. UCLA freshman Kevon Looney is another youngster that you’ll get to know a lot about this season. Through two games of his college career, the former McDonald’s All-American from Milwaukee is averaging 19.5 points and 11.5 boards per game for the Bruins, albeit against overmatched competition. Looney’s 7’5” wingspan certainly accounts for some of his naturally-gifted rebounding ability, and the fact that he’s so athletic factors in there too. According to his teammates, thought, what makes Looney so good on the glass are his simple instincts.
  4. Oregon State is off to its first 2-0 start since 2000-01, but with wins over the likes of Rice and Corban, it is not advisable to get too excited about this young team. Still, as Gary Horowitz of the Statesman Journal notes, this Beavers program is at least worth watching. With a bevy of athletic wings who can handle the ball, versatile legacy Gary Payton II and a few surprisingly skilled bigs, Wayne Tinkle has his team playing an entertaining brand of ball while laying the foundation for future success. Sure, there are plenty of losses on the team’s immediate horizon, but with a strong recruiting class due next season, this is at the very least a basketball program with a chance at a fairly bright future. One word of warning, however: It is going to get worse before it gets better.
  5. There’s another new head coach in the conference who is also in the midst of trying to turn a program around with very little talent. Ernie Kent has sweet-talked all the locals around the Washington State program, but an 0-2 start to the season with losses by an average of 20 points in a mini-tour of middle-of-the-road (at best) Texas schools quickly put a damper on any buzz around this year’s squad. Just watch how the tenor of tweets from the CougCenter contributors went downhill quickly as the Cougars’ 27-point loss to TCU progressed.
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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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Pac-12 Season Previews: Washington State Cougars

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 6th, 2014

The Pac-12 microsite will preview each of its league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with Washington State.

Washington State Cougars

Strengths. Washington State has two things in particular really going for it: (1) DaVonte Lacy, and (2) newness. Lacy himself isn’t new, but he is excellent, as we’ve already detailed this year. But what is new is the culture around the program. Ken Bone is both a fine man and basketball coach, but he had his chance in a place where it is ridiculously hard to succeed and he just couldn’t get it done. That’s no knock against him; many have tried there and failed before. But without a doubt, the excitement level around this program significantly waned to last year’s low point. Enter Ernie Kent. He’s had success in this conference before, and he brings with him a new energy to the program. Make no mistake, he’s got a lot of work ahead of him in convincing talent to come to Pullman, but at least the program gets a fresh start.

New Head Coach Ernie Kent Brings New Hope To The Paloose (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

New Head Coach Ernie Kent Brings New Hope To The Paloose (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

Weaknesses. Everything else. Really, aside from Lacy and sophomore wing Que Johnson, you could make a fair argument that no one else on this roster has any business playing significant minutes in the Pac-12. At the very least, nobody else has proven that worth. Everywhere else on the floor, Kent needs to find temporary solutions. Sophomore Ike Iroegbu figures to start at the point guard slot, but he’s still a work in progress and more comfortable off the ball. He has three freshmen with varying degrees of comfort ready to challenge him for that role. And then up front, wow, it is a mess. Only D.J. Shelton kept the Cougs from being completely overmatched in the paint last year, and he’s already used up his eligibility. At least one of Jordan Railey, Josh Hawkinson or JuCo transfer Aaron Cheatum is going to need to surprise.

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Pac-12 M5: 10.30.14 Edition

Posted by Tracy McDannald on October 30th, 2014

pac12_morning5

  1. The Pac-12 made headlines this week with news that the league will begin offering four-year scholarships and an uptick in medical coverage starting in the 2015-16 academic year. If you’re a prospective student-athlete looking at California by the time 2017-18 rolls around, there also better be a minimum 3.0 GPA on that transcript or the chances of your admission dwindle. Now, as for the actual on-court conversation around the program, new head coach Cuonzo Martin is simply looking to build upon the stable foundation he inherited with an emphasis on toughness on defense and rebounding.
  2. While Martin inherited several quality pieces, Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle was left without any seniors or returning starters on his team, and therefore had to go the walk-on tryout route to fill a roster picked to finish last in the Pac-12. But the new man in charge didn’t ask any of his holdovers about the previous year, and let the team know that it has a clean slate under his watch. It’s back to square one in Corvallis, from coming prepared to demonstrating discipline, but time will tell whether it’s just more of the same or a new era in Beavers athletics.
  3. Oregon head coach Dana Altman broke his silence last week at Pac-12 Media Day. In case you went Rip Van Winkle during the offseason, here’s all the drama in a nutshell: a sexual assault investigations involving three players – including point guard Dominic Artis and starter Damyean Dotson – led to expulsion; two others transferred; and prized recruit JaQuan Lyle was removed from the roster after failing to qualify (he will play at IMG Academy). And because those headaches were not big enough, junior Elgin Cook and senior Jalil Abdul-Bassit were busted for shoplifting in September. As a result, the roster has a mere 10 players listed on it right now. Without a public comment since May 9, media from across the league came ready with questions for Altman and he was more than prepared to address the past.
  4. Washington State head coach Ernie Kent may be 59 years old and four years removed from his last coaching job at Oregon, but the man does not lack energy or enthusiasm to pick up some new lingo. That should be a welcome sight for a program that has finished in the bottom half of the league in each of the last six seasons. Kent is just trying to give his players “the swag, or whatever you call it.” While serving as an analyst for Pac-12 Networks last season, Kent’s observation of the Cougars’ struggles was simple: Shooting needs to improve.
  5. One of the bigger questions in the Pac-12 this season will not receive an answer until March. If you’re heavy favorite Arizona, no news is the best kind of news, and boring should be the goal. That’s not a slight. But after knocking on the door so many times in recent years, with a number of top recruiting classes and an experienced group, CBS Sports’ Doug Gottlieb is wondering if this is the year the Wildcats under Sean Miller finally knock it down.
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Pac-12 Media Day Roundup: Part One

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on October 24th, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops.com is back for another go-round on his March to Vegas. He covered the Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco on Thursday. Check back later in the day for his notes on the conference’s other six teams.

In Case You Needed A Reminder, Pac-12 Media Day Means Actual Basketball Games Are Just Around the Corner

In Case You Needed A Reminder, Pac-12 Media Day Means Actual Basketball Games Are Just Around the Corner

USC

Coach Andy Enfield took the stage with his starting power forward (or center, Enfield noted both), Nikola Jovanovic, and provided opening remarks lasting about as long as a USC possession: 16 seconds. It was swift and brief. He was complimentary of his fellow, on-stage Trojan, and left the rest to us. Which is probably indicative of the program he’s building. It is just year two and arguably the least interesting season during a rebuild. It’s neither new and exciting nor developed enough to garner much attention. His team is picked to finish 10th, but he likes what he’s building, “We have more athleticism, better shooting. We have an elite freshman point guard (Jordan McLaughlin) we recruited,” said Enfield. These components, he notes, are and will become major parts of what we presume is the Enfield system, aka Dunk City, aka Galen Dunk Center. The addition of McLaughlin is huge, and, without directly saying it, Enfield knows how important he is to their future, “We’re expecting big things from him. I think he came to USC for that opportunity, to be relied upon as a freshman. He’ll have that opportunity. We’re excited for him.” Which is great because I am, too! I’ll be closely following McLaughlin’s progress as his commitment to USC, rather than UCLA when the Bruins were in dire need for a 2014 point guard, is a fascinating storyline to this season. USC might play in flashes and make swift opening remarks, but they just might be a program to stick around awhile.

Washington State

Easily the most charismatic of the coaches, Ernie Kent considered himself back from sabbatical: “Any coach that has coached 30-plus years needs a sabbatical. I’m just amazed at what it’s done for me in terms of your energy, your spirt.” Energy and spirit he provided. He was colorful and funny, even having a slight back-and-forth with his accompanying star, DaVonte Lacy. The two seemed to understand the challenges ahead considering the roster in Pullman and the depth of the conference. But Lacy believes they have the unique opportunity to come together, build on chemistry and do something special. It’s something he learned in his short stint with the Pac-12 All-Star team while in China and it’s something he expanded upon when I asked him about leadership, “Being someone that’s been through the fire already, preparing [newcomers] to go through it, that’s how I’m approaching leadership.” Lacy hopes to galvanize this group, building chemistry and subsequently surprising a few people with what the Cougars can do. And speaking of surprises, can you imagine a “lost” Ernie Kent knocking on your door looking for directions? “Hi, I’m lost. I’m also your new basketball coach.” It’s something Kent has been doing in trying to energize the Cougars fan base, “I’ve tried to make myself available as much as possible… it’s been fun getting out and meeting people in Pullman.” Like I said, the most charismatic of the 12 lead gentlemen.

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