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?

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

For UCLA, It’s Defend or Die…

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 25th, 2017

The second game of six between the three best teams in the Pac-12 was an undeniably entertaining epic that left Arizona reinvigorated as a Final Four contender and UCLA with a clear ultimatum: Defend or die. It’s not like the Bruins had convinced anyone that they were a solid defensive team to this point in the season — UCLA entered the game hovering around the middle of the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency. The Bruins’ marquee win in Lexington over Kentucky came on the strength of their offense (1.17 PPP) and their only other loss came to an Oregon team they ultimately couldn’t defend (1.24 PPP). The national spotlight tends to expose and crystallize the flaws of even the elite teams in college basketball, and Arizona on Saturday in Pauley Pavilion exposed UCLA’s middling defense as an Achilles’ Heel that may very well short-circuit a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Without a semblance of defense, UCLA’s tourney life might be cut short. (USA TODAY)

The Bruins’ major issue against the Wildcats was defending the paint via the drive. Kobi Simmons, Kadeem Allen and the newly-eligible Allonzo Trier pounded the paint relentlessly, often singularly focused on their easy target, UCLA guard Bryce Alford. Alford is having an exceptional season playing off the ball next to All-Universe Point Guard Lonzo Ball, but the senior was no match for the physicality and athleticism of Allen, who relentlessly attacked the basket when isolated against him. Arizona’s 34 points in the paint was also a result of mediocre post defense. Dusan Ristic contributed 11 points; Chance Comanche 10; and Lauri Markannen, he of the skyrocketing draft stock, repeatedly took TJ Leaf well outside his defensive comfort zone in nailing 3-of-4 from behind the three-point line as well as grabbing the offensive board and ensuing dunk that effectively ended the contest. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Weekly Pac-5: Freshman Efficiency

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 9th, 2017

It’s very much a Year of the Freshman in college basketball and the Pac-12 has followed suit. As we now find ourselves through two weeks of conference play, it’s a good time to check in on the headlining freshmen in the Conference of Champions. Washington’s Markelle Fultz is the Pac-12’s leading scorer and the front-runner as the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but there are a number of other high-scoring freshmen in the league. In fact, we could probably just list the top five scorers in the Pac, slap the top five freshmen label on them, and call it a day. Here’s what the list would look like if we did just that.

Markelle Fultz is the Presumptive #1 Pick in the 2017 NBA Draft (USA Today Images)

  1. Markelle Fultz, Washington – 22.1 PPG
  2. TJ Leaf, UCLA – 17.4 PPG
  3. Lauri Markannen, Arizona – 15.9 PPG
  4. Charlie Moore, California – 15.2 PPG
  5. Lonzo Ball, UCLA – 14.7 PPG

Pretty good, right?  Those are your top five freshmen by scoring average. They’ve all played enough minutes for us to trust in the validity of their averages, but what happens when you rank these five players based on offensive efficiency?  Here’s where things start to get interesting.

Player ORtg
TJ Leaf, UCLA 134.3
Lauri Markannen, Arizona 132.3
Lonzo Ball, UCLA 131.0
Markelle Fultz, Washington 119.4
Rawle Alkins, Arizona 107.7

 


Well then.  First, we see that Markannen, whose shooting splits are insane, vaults to the top of the group. California’s Moore gets voted off the island altogether; Arizona’s Rawle Alkins jumps into the picture; and Fultz slides down to fourth in our rankings. This is why efficiency is important to consider when judging players. Does Offensive Rating make Markannen a better player than the others? No, but it does clearly identify him as the most
efficient offensive player regardless of draft potential. That’s all well and good, but what about defense? For that we turn to defensive efficiency, an admittedly noisy statistic compared with individual Offensive Rating, but still a useful and informative metric. Limited strictly to defense, here’s how the top five freshmen scorers in the conference.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 1

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 22nd, 2016

The first full week of the season is finished so it is time for the first of what will be a recurring feature called Pac-12 Power Rankings. Each week we will take a look at where each team in the conference stands to date.

Finnish 7' Lauri Markkanen has been everything expected and more for the Wildcats. (Arizona Athletics)

Finnish center Lauri Markkanen has been everything and more for the Wildcats. (Arizona Athletics)

  1. Arizona: The Wildcats boast the best win of any team in the conference (Michigan State) and are still missing arguably their best player in Allonzo Trier. Lauri Markkanen has so far lived up to the hype and classmate Kobi Simmons has been surprisingly efficient offensively. Sean Miller’s club is posting the best defensive numbers in the conference and if Trier returns soon, Arizona could be poised for another excellent season.
  2. UCLA: The Bruins haven’t played anyone of note so we should reserve some judgment here but so far they have looked very good. Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf have been everything UCLA fans ever could have hoped for. Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford are two of the most complementary pieces in the conference, especially when they are shooting well, and Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh provide quality depth across the board. Steve Alford deserves some credit for the Bruins’ early potency in a key season for this program. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

Pac-12 Roars Out of the Gates: Opening Weekend Thoughts

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 took a lot of heat as a conference during the Big Dance last year as a number of high-seeds (forgiving Oregon) didn’t amount to deep runs in March. The beauty of college basketball is that a new year brings new chances to make a mark, and as a whole, the conference’s opening weekend was outstanding to tip off the year. Here is a rundown of some of the opening weekend action:

  • UCLA and its talented freshmen burst out of the gate and ran Pacific right out of Pauley on Friday night. The Bruins’ 119-80 victory came with very auspicious debuts for T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball. They combined to shoot 15-of-21 for 41 points, and Ball stuffed his first stat sheet with a very impressive 19 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds (and just one turnover) in 34 minutes. That minutes total brings us to one of the big takeaways from the game, as head coach Steve Alford used a very tight rotation, something rare for an opener that was clearly over at halftime. Leaf played 37 minutes and every starter played at least 26, with Aaron Holiday rounding out the half-dozen man rotation with 24 minutes off the bench. Nobody else logged more than six minutes off the bench.
It Was That Kind of Day For Steve Alford's UCLA Team (USA Today Images)

With a great freshman class in action, Steve Alford has a great chance to lead his Bruins back to the top of the conference. (USA TODAY Images)

  • UCLA came back Sunday night in a defense “optional” performance to beat Cal-State Northridge. The Bruins blitzed the Matadors’ matador defense to the tune of 62 points in the second half to overcome what was actually a small halftime deficit. Again, Alford utilized a short bench, with Holiday getting 29 minutes off the pine and Gyorgy Golomon seeing 15. With Alford depending on such a young and inexperienced core, it’s understandable why he might be willing to give his youngsters heavier doses of minutes. Bruins’ possessions lasted 12.5 seconds on average in the opener, and they didn’t take the foot off the gas against Northridge. Something’s gotta give here. Either Alford lengthens the bench or the Bruins slow down, lest they collectively collapse from exhaustion come January.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Pac-12 Burning Questions: Who Will Play Point Guard for Arizona?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 25th, 2016

Even after graduating the team’s two leading scorers, Arizona has everything it needs on paper to dethrone Oregon and reassert itself as the best team in the Pac-12. The Wildcats have a redshirt senior who is likely one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference. They have a reigning member of the Pac-12 All-Freshmen Team who averaged nearly 15 points per game last season. They have a freshman wing with enough athleticism to put his own coach on a poster. They have a freshman stretch forward from Finland who can bang three-pointers and take awkward photos with local political figures. They also have a cache of athletic big men, led by a Serbian with enough offensive game to make the program’s official Twitter account think it is okay to rip off the nickname of one of the NBA’s greatest players ever. However, there is one position that isn’t represented on this list and that is because there are still very serious concerns about it. That position is point guard.

Kobi Simmons Has a Tall Task Ahead of Him In His First Season at Arizona

Kobi Simmons Has a Tall Task Ahead of Him In His First Season at Arizona. (Rivals.com)

Sean Miller may be the best recruiter in the entire country outside of Lexington, but if one were to start picking at nits, one could easily make the argument that he has struggled to recruit and develop worthwhile point guards in Tucson. In fact, Josiah Turner and MoMo Jones are the only true point guards Miller has recruited in his tenure at Arizona and neither spent more than two seasons in the desert. The best point guards of the Miller era – T.J. McConnell and Mark Lyons – were transfers, and filling McConnell’s sizable shoes last season proved to be a more difficult task than anyone imagined. The Wildcats went from 40th in turnover percentage in 2014-15 to 191st in the category last year, as neither Kadeem Allen nor Parker Jackson-Cartwright were consistent enough to wrestle the job away from the other player. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the position appears to be just as unsettled heading into this season. Miller smartly moved Allen off the ball, which leaves Jackson-Cartwright to fend off five-star freshman Kobi Simmons for the keys to what should be an explosive offense. Pairing a proven player with one of the best freshmen point guard prospects in the country is a luxury most coaches would love to have, but that argument doesn’t work for Miller when his fan base expect to compete for a national championship. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

An Early Look at Next Season’s Pac-12

Posted by Mike Lemaire on April 13th, 2016

It is never too early to predict how the Pac-12 will look heading into next season. Let’s not waste words and just get into a look at each team by projected order of finish.

1. Oregon

Assuming Brooks Returns, Oregon Will Be The Class of the PAC-12 Again. (Craig Strobeck)

Assuming Brooks Returns, Oregon Will Be The Class of the Pac-12 Again. (Craig Strobeck)

  • Who’s back: Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Casey Benson, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell, Dylan Ennis
  • Who’s new: M.J. Cage, Keith Smith, Payton Pritchard
  • The skinny: Assuming Brooks returns to school and Ennis is eligible and healthy enough to play a full season, the Ducks will run almost two-deep at every position. Boucher’s extra year of eligibility is also huge because it again gives Oregon two of the best rim-protectors in the country while allowing Dana Altman to space the floor. Don’t sleep on the Ducks’ recruiting class, either; there aren’t any stars here, but Cage and Pritchard will both contribute early.

2. Arizona

  • Who’s back: Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic, Kadeem Allen, Chance Comanche
  • Who’s new: Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons, Lauri Markkanen
  • The skinny: Simmons is the key here. If the point guard is as good as everyone seems to think he is, the Wildcats have the athletes elsewhere to be above-average offensively and elite defensively. Trier could be a Pac-12 Player of the Year contender and some believe that Smith, now healthy after missing all of last season, is the better player in that recruiting class. Sean Miller has reportedly been sniffing around the graduate transfer market as well — if the Wildcats can land an extra big man, that would help shore up a frontcourt that right now consists of Ristic and maybe Comanche.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Who’s Got Next? 5-Star Wing Rawle Alkins Heads West

Posted by Sean Moran on March 9th, 2016

whosgotnext

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitment of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Note: Scout.com used for all player rankings.

The remaining uncommitted five-star players are now coming off the board, one by one. On Tuesday night it was New York’s finest, 6’4” wing Rawle Alkins, who made his decision to head out west and play for Sean Miller at Arizona. The Wildcats weren’t even in the running for the No. 20 prospect in the class of 2016 class just three months ago, but that all changed when Alkins put together an impressive performance against five-star forward Thon Maker in Detroit while Miller was in attendance. Shortly after that performance, Alkins took an unofficial visit to Tucson and the rest is history.

A major selling point for Alkins was a comparison of his game with that of former Arizona one-and-done star Stanley Johnson. Like the 2014 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Alkins is a powerful wing that plays with a junkyard mentality. Hailing from New York, Alkins is known as a talented scorer who can finish in the paint. He sports a powerful upper body which creates space off drives and allows scoring opportunities in the post. While a very good finisher at the rim, Alkins is a streaky outside shooter who, as Jonathan Givony from DraftExpress has noted. also has a propensity for weight fluctuations.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Who’s Got Next? HoopHall Preview, Kobi Simmons & Rechon Black Make Decisions

Posted by Sean Moran on January 18th, 2016

whosgotnext

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitment of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Note: Scout.com used for all player rankings.

The final day of the famed HoopHall Classic takes place today with ESPNU giving college basketball fans a chance to get a head start on watching some of the top freshmen in the 2016-17 season. Here is a primer on 5 players to watch:

Jayson Tatum (11am) – Tatum is a 6’7” wing headed to Duke and has been one of the top players in his class (#3 overall) from the time he entered high school at Chaminade (MO). The future Blue Devil has the most advanced offensive game in the class of 2016 and likes to show off his Kobe Bryant fade-away.

Markelle Fultz (11am) – As a sophomore, the 6’4” Fultz was playing junior varsity for DeMatha. Now, he is the #7 prospect in the country and will head across the country to play at Washington next season. Fultz is a combo guard that can score in unorthodox ways. He excels at getting to the basket off the pick and roll and is a strong 3-point shooter.

Lonzo Ball (5pm) – The oldest of the Ball brothers is the best passer in high school and is the quarterback of Chino Hills, the top team in the country. The future UCLA Bruin is a 6’5” point guard that can hit pin-point three-quarter court passes and also knock down a three from the NBA three point line. Chino Hills is one of the most entertaining teams to watch as well.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story