Overlooked Stars to Watch in Conference Play

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on December 30th, 2015

We already have a good idea about some of the star players that we will watch compete for league championships and carry their teams deep into this season’s NCAA Tournament. There are electrifying lottery-bound talents like Duke’s Brandon Ingram, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl and LSU’s Ben Simmons. There are seasoned veterans like Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine. But several very important players for excellent teams go unnoticed because they are overshadowed by brighter stars on their own teams or because their particular skills are difficult to appreciate. As we begin conference play this week, here are a few key under the radar players who will make a huge difference for their teams over the next three months.

Anthony Gill, F, Virginia

Anthony Gill might STILL be the most underrated player in the country. (Getty)

Anthony Gill might STILL be the most underrated player in the country. (Getty)

Is Gill one of the best players in the country? Of course not… right? Well, according to KenPom’s player rating system, he currently ranks fourth and, as a matter of fact, he came in seventh last year. Virginia may be Malcolm Brogdon’s team (incidentally, Brogdon sits at third on Pomeroy’s list), but the numbers support Gill’s value. His offensive rating is second nationally among players using at least 24 percent of his team’s possessions, and Gill achieves such great efficiency by staying within himself. He hasn’t attempted a three yet this season; he rarely turns the ball over; he shoots 57 percent from inside the arc; and he gets to the line frequently and shoots 80 percent when there. Combine this with a solid 6.5 rebounds per game and a prominent role in one of the nation’s most stifling defenses, and it’s easy to see why Gill is so valuable. For a Virginia team looking to make its first trip to the Final Four in three decades, he may be the Cavaliers’ X-factor. Read the rest of this entry »

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Considering Utah’s Foundational Win Over Duke

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 21st, 2015

A year ago, Utah hosted Wichita State in early December. After a 2013-14 season in which the Utes had made great strides but gone 3-8 in two possession games, it was a mammoth game for a program with March aspirations. It took 45 minutes to decide a winner, but a Delon Wright game-winner with 14 seconds left gave the program a foundational win against a proven opponent. They showed that they could not only hang with a top-10 team, but also come away with a win. Early this season, the big story for Larry Krystkowiak  is that life after all-Pac-12 performer Wright is hard. Prior to Saturday, they had played two games against quality competition this year and were blown out in both. So when the team traveled to Madison Square Garden to play Duke on Saturday, the opportunity felt similar to that offered by the Shockers last season. These Utes had plenty to prove.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah

Larry Krystkowiak And Utah Earned A Win To Build On At MSG Saturday (Photo: AP)

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Three Things Utah Learned in Puerto Rico

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 23rd, 2015

Three games in four days in an arena in a tropical location: In college basketball this is a surefire recipe for testing the mettle of your team early in the season. For Utah, which just wrapped up a weekend in Puerto Rico with a 2-1 record and a third-place finish, there was a major wake-up call in a 24-point blowout loss to Miami sandwiched in between two less-than-stellar performances. Still, this weekend will serve Larry Krystkowiak‘s team well as it can focus on several key areas that need to improve. Below, we look at three of those areas.

It was that type of struggle for Jakob Poeltl and Utah this past week. (The Salt Lake Tribune)

It was that type of struggle for Jakob Poeltl and Utah this past week. (The Salt Lake Tribune)

  1. Keep Jakob Poeltl Involved – In case you hadn’t heard, the sophomore seven-foot Austrian is a serious player. Long, athletic, mobile and skilled, with a variety of moves in his arsenal, there are very few players in the country who can handle him in the post one-on-one. And even when the Utes run into one (such as Miami center Tonye Jekiri), Poeltl is capable of affecting the game in so many ways that it is imperative that the Utes keep him involved. In that Miami game, Poeltl picked up two early fouls and never got consistently on track in 25 minutes of action. Keeping Poeltl away from foul trouble while still maintaining his aggressiveness on both ends of the floor is a priority. But the other thing the Utes need to work on is feeding the ball to Poeltl as often as possible. Against Temple on Sunday, the Owls had no one who could pose much of a threat to him inside, and he went for 32 points on 12 field goal attempts as a result. Still, there were stretches where the Utah offense would neglect to find its big man for several possessions in a row. And even when they did look to him, the post entry passes thrown were often difficult to receive, such as in this example here. But, to Poeltl’s credit, he was able to catch that pass (and many others) and convert. The Utah offense needs to work on post entry passes for the rest of the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac Goes 3-0 in Tip-Off Marathon: Thoughts

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 18th, 2015

Three Pac-12 teams participated in very competitive contests in ESPN‘s Tip-Off Marathon earlier this week, each coming away with very good wins for their programs. Below let’s take a quick look at the biggest takeaways from those three performances.

Utah – Before we dig into what Monday night’s win over San Diego State means for the Utes, let’s compare that game to last year’s and see what it might mean for the whole sport. You might remember that last year the Utes and Aztecs battled to a 53-49 final in a game that only a mother could love. This year, even though both teams are transitioning with brand new point guards, the two teams combined for 53 more points. Sure, there were 14 more free throws attempted in this game (a total of 57 were attempted), but we’re already seeing an uptick in possessions per game and, as players adjust to the new whistles, we should continue to see greater flow. The rules still aren’t perfect, but all things considered, it seems like we’ve taken an incremental step in the right direction.

As for the Utes, despite losing do-everything guard Delon Wright, this team is so loaded with talent and skill that this year’s edition may be even better than last year’s Sweet Sixteen team. You know about Jakob Poeltl already, and he’s continued to be spectacular (just see above), to the tune of 20.5 points, 11.5 boards and 2.5 blocks per game as well as 70 percent shooting from the field. Plus the seven-footer who shot 43 percent from the charity stripe last year has improved to a 62 percent marksman in the early going — this will be big. Then there’s senior Jordan Loveridge, who looks poised to have the type of year we’ve been waiting on from him since his promising freshman year, averaging 22.5 PPG and knocking in 10 threes already.

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Five Pac-12 All-Breakout Picks

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 11th, 2015

It’s become a common post to write this time of year – projecting which players are going to make the jump from little-known role player to big-time contributor. And it’s probably so commonly written because it is just a darn fun thing to take a guess at. It’s not like predicting which freshmen are going to succeed, which you are basing either on performance in games played at a different level or sometimes sketchy scouting reports. And it’s not like picking All-American teams from the cream of the crop. The only tricky part about the emergent player game is that it’s a little tricky determining who is eligible for such a title. So, for the purposes of this exercise, let’s only looking at returning players who earned less than 50 percent of their team’s minutes last season. That eliminates guys like Ike Iroegbu from Washington State, who should step into a greatly increased role post-Davonte Lacy. Also gone is Rosco Allen from Stanford, who is bound to score more than the 7.3 points per game he averaged last year, if only because somebody on that team HAS to score. Also, in the interest of playing fair, we’re going to eliminate Savon Goodman (47.2% of Arizona State’s minutes) and his 11.2 PPG and 7.6 RPG averages from last season, since he didn’t gain eligibility until the semester break. Still, we’ve got plenty of candidates remaining, so let’s look at five picks to take a big leap in the PAC.

With A Boost Of Confidence, Dominique Collier Could Take A Big Jump As A Soph (Jeremy Papasso, Daily Camera)

With A Boost Of Confidence, Dominique Collier Could Take A Big Jump As A Sophomore (Jeremy Papasso, Daily Camera)

Dominique Collier, Sophomore, Colorado – Collier had a frustrating freshman season. First, he got suspended for the first two games of the season for an offseason incident. Then, he struggled with a lingering ankle injury that bothered him throughout the preseason. When he finally got on the court, he occasionally showed flashes of potential before injuring his wrist and missing a couple more games. When he returned, he pressed and frittered away another month before finally turning it on down the stretch. Some of the numbers are still ugly: 9.8 points per 40 min, a nearly 1:1 assist-turnover ratio and 26.9 percent shooting from long range. But on a team lacking proven perimeter playmakers, Collier is a guy who has showed an ability to get to the rim and convert. There are definitely plenty of areas of his game to be cleaned up, but he’ll have the opportunity to earn a much bigger role this season. With a boosted confidence, he could be the missing piece that vaults the Buffaloes back into postseason contention.
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Utah Preview: Who’s Got the Wright Stuff?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on October 23rd, 2015

In the next three weeks leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite will be evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Today, we head to Salt Lake City.

Utah Utes

The second team up for our preseason previews is Larry Krystkowiak’s squad, fresh off a third-place conference finish and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Last season marked the third consecutive year in West Coast Coach K’s four-year tenure in Salt Lake City in which his team’s record has improved. Of the team’s 11 players who averaged better than eight minutes per game last season, nine return. However, the big one who doesn’t is point guard and All-American Delon Wright, who averaged 14.5 points, 5.1 assists, 4.9 boards, 2.1 assists and a block per game, numbers that only begin to sum up his overall importance to the squad.

With Jakob Poeltl Patrolling The Paint, The Utes Defense Is A Serious Strength (Godofredo Vasquez, USA Today)

With Jakob Poeltl Patrolling The Paint, The Utes’ Defense Is A Serious Strength (Godofredo Vasquez, USA Today)

Strengths. As alluded to above, that experience is going to be a huge asset for the Utes. But it is just one of many areas from which this team can draw confidence. Last year the Utes were sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency, largely on the strength of allowing the fifth-lowest effective field goal percentage in the nation. Dig deeper and you also see things like this (courtesy of Hoop-math.com): They were 35th in the nation in fewest three-point attempts allowed; they allowed the 25th-lowest field goal percentage on shots at the rim and were 20th in the nation at shots blocked at the rim; and, they forced their opponents to take the 25th-highest percentage of two-point jumpers. To sum it up, this was a team that closed out on shooters at the arc, forced opponents inside the three-point line, and then used their front line size (highlighted by freshman center Jakob Poeltl) to greatly inhibit shooters’ effectiveness around the rim. Utah loses one of the nation’s elite perimeter defenders with Wright now gone, but the guys expected to take over for him are athletic and long wings. If Krystkowiak’s perimeter defense can be roughly equivalent to last year, scoring against the Utes in the paint will likely be just as difficult. On the other end of the court, the team’s biggest strength last season was its three-point shooting. Three different players – Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge and Dakarai Tucker – shot at least 37 percent from three on at least 108 attempts. They all return, but again, Wright’s ability to penetrate and draw multiple defenders certainly opened up clean looks for them around the arc. If they can again find good looks, the Utes should be able to maintain one of their biggest strengths. Read the rest of this entry »

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On the Rise Of Utah Basketball

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 26th, 2015

On Saturday, Arizona will travel to Utah for a game with major implications to the Pac-12 regular season title picture. Any casual basketball fan knows the general story of Sean Miller and his refresh of the Wildcats program – a program with a proud history returned to elite status following the bumpy ending of the Lute Olson era. What many may not recognize is that the Utes are following a similar path. Following the stability and excellence of the 14 years of the Rick Majerus era (which featured no losing records, 10 seasons with at least 24 wins, a Final Four and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances), the Utes burned through two coaches in seven years and suffered four losing seasons over that volatile stretch. Compared with Arizona’s post-Olson struggles, Utah’s downturn was far more pronounced. But through the combination of the right hire, rampant roster revamping and, let’s face it, some good luck, the Utes have come out the other side of their dark period as a member of a power conference and back to national contention.

After A Rough Transition Post-Majerus, Utah Basketball Is Back In Its Rightful Place (Utah Athletics)

After A Rough Transition Post-Majerus, Utah Basketball Is Back In Its Rightful Place. (Utah Athletics)

The 2010-11 season was a great example of mixed emotions around the Utah basketball program. There was the excitement that the Utes were headed to a new conference – the newly named Pac-12 – in the following season. But at the same time, the current edition of the team was struggling to a tie for sixth place in the Mountain West as head coach Jim Boylen wrapped up his four-year stint with a third losing conference record. The program was coming off a season in which five players (including some guy named Marshall Henderson, and another one named Carlon Brown – who went on to be a Pac-12 Tournament MVP in leading Colorado to an NCAA bid in 2012) had transferred out of the program. Boylen was subsequently fired, and after a search that included St. Mary’s Randy Bennett and former Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried as candidates, Montana’s Larry Krystkowiak was named the new head coach on April 2, 2011.

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Pac-12 Season Previews: Utah Utes

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 11th, 2014

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

Utah Utes

Strengths. If you’re reading this microsite, there is a good chance you already know about the Utes’ stars such as Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge, but just about every team in this conference has a star it can point to. Rather, what makes this team a sexy choice as the second-best team in this conference is not merely those two stars, but the quality of depth throughout this roster. Veterans like Brandon Taylor, Dallin Bachynski, Dakarai Tucker and Jeremy Olsen are all accustomed to big roles on this team. Add in a talented batch of newcomers, including four-star power forward Brekkot Chapman, talented JuCo transfer Chris Reyes, international recruit Jakob Poetl, three-point specialist Kyle Kuzma and floor general Isaiah Wright, and Larry Krystkowiak is swimming in talented options up and down his roster.

Larry Krystkowiak and The Utes Will Have To Deal With The Pressure Of Expectations For The First Time (Utah Basketball)

Larry Krystkowiak and The Utes Will Have To Deal With The Pressure Of Expectations For The First Time. (Utah Athletics)

Weaknesses. We’re not even going to pick nits with the roster. There are some weaknesses here which will become apparent as the season wears on, but where this squad really has to prove itself is in its ability to win games. The Utes lost all seven of their games decided by a single possession last season and, given a serious uptick in the quality of their non-conference schedule, their mettle will be tested early and often this year. Utah has plenty of guys who have been through plenty of battles, but until they can prove their ability to pull out their best effort when the chips are down, there will remain questions about the ceiling of this team.

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Pac-12 Post-Mortems: Utah

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 15th, 2014

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll go through each Pac-12 team one by one and recount the season that has just completed and begin to turn the page to what we might see next season. Today, Utah.

What Went Right

For the first time since Larry Krystkowiak took over a shell of a program from Jim Boylen, Utah basketball fans had a team that they knew could be competitive night in and night out. Of the Utes’ 12 losses this season, seven were by a single possession. The talent level is clearly back to the point where the Utes can be competitive in the Pac-12, defense has become a priority, and the future appears bright.

In His Third Season In Salt Lake City, Larry Krystkowiak's Squad Began To Turn The Corner (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

In His Third Season In Salt Lake City, Larry Krystkowiak’s Squad Began To Turn The Corner (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

What Went Wrong

So, those seven losses by a single possession? Well, that’s not good, is it? Time and time again, the Utes had chances to win close games down the stretch, and time and time again they wound up with losses in those games. Their record in games decided by a single possession was 0-7. They lost all three of their overtime games. And only six times all season did they win games decided by fewer than 10 points. In other words, unless the Utes were blowing out their opponent, odds were good that they were losing. Chalk some of that up to bad luck, another portion to a young team still learning to win games, and more to some coaching breakdowns. But the good news is that if next year’s Utes can find some ways to win those close games, they should be looking at a very good record.

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Utah on the Slow Road Back to Basketball Relevance

Posted by AMurawa on October 10th, 2013

If you’re strictly a fan of Pac-12 basketball, you may not know it, but Utah basketball has a long and storied tradition. There are the 36 regular season conference championships, 27 NCAA Tournament appearances, 15 Sweet Sixteens, four Final Fours and even the 1944 national championship. Names like Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, Tom Chambers, Andrew Bogut and Mike Newlin have gone on to enjoy significant success in the NBA. The thing is, all of that occurred prior to the Utes accepting its membership in the Pac-12. Since they’ve been in our fair conference, the team has gone a combined 21-43 overall and 8-28 in conference play in two seasons. But, rest assured, Utah basketball will be back sooner rather than later.

You May Not Remember It, But Utah Has Quite A History Of Basketball Success (Getty Images)

You May Not Remember It, But Utah Has Quite A History Of Basketball Success (Getty Images)

The beginning of Larry Krystowiak’s reign as the head coach of the Utah basketball program coincides neatly with their inaugural season in the Pac-12, but unfortunately it also coincided with a need for a nearly complete roster overhaul. In the offseason before previous head coach Jim Boylen’s final season, four players (including names like Carlon Brown and Marshall Henderson) transferred out of the program. In the aftermath of the Boylen-to-Krystkowiak transition, seven more players left Salt Lake City. After Krystkowiak’s first season, six additional players transferred and still another headed off on an LDS mission. And this past offseason, continuing the trend, three more players alighted, all of whom had only played one year at Utah. What is left is a roster that has only one player who has been in the Utah program longer than a year. And that guy – 6’10″ redshirt sophomore Jeremy Olsen – has spent as many years away from the program on an LDS mission as he has in Salt Lake City.

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Welcome Back: Pac-12 Team-By-Team Offseason Wrap

Posted by AMurawa on October 7th, 2013

After a long offseason away from college basketball, we’re back. With practice underway across the country, with “Midnight Madness” events looming and with the start of the season on the not-too-distant horizon, it is time to end our hiatus and dig back into hoops. In a year where the Pac-12 seems to sport one legitimate national title contender and a healthy pack of NCAA Tournament contenders, we can finally say that the conference is back from the recent depths and ready to be a consistent contender on the national stage again. But, in taking an offseason sabbatical, we’ve missed some key storylines. So, in order to get you back in the swing of things, we’ll go team-by-team around the conference and quickly catch you up on some key offseason happenings. Later in the week we’ll break down some of these stories in a little more detail. Next week we’ll be back with our daily Morning Fives, and over the course of the next month, we’ll catch you up on everything you need to know going into the 2013-14 Pac-12 season. Without further ado, here’s what you need to know if you’ve been away from the conference for a few months.

Why Is This Man Smiling? Maybe Because He Has the Best Team in the League.

Why Is This Man Smiling? Maybe Because He Has the Best Team in the League.

Arizona – The conference’s clear preseason favorite got some good news over the offseason when 6’10″ sophomore forward Zach Peters was granted his waiver request by the NCAA for immediate eligibility after transferring from Kansas. A quality recruit in the 2012 class, Peters career never got off the ground in Lawrence largely due to injuries, including multiple concussions. If he can stay healthy, he’s a stretch-four who can provide another offensive threat for the Wildcats. Elsewhere, Sean Miller continued his hot streak on the recruiting trail, landing 2014 four-star power forward Craig Victor, while continuing his pursuit of additional heavy hitters in next year’s class.

Arizona State – It was an offseason roller coaster for the Sun Devils, with Evan Gordon opting to spend his senior season closer to home at Indiana, only to have Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall decide that he’d spend his final season of eligibility in Tempe. Marshall, who averaged 15.3 points per game for a depleted Penn State squad last season, will likely slide right into the spot vacated by Gordon’s departure. It’s not all sunshine and roses for Herb Sendek’s team, however, as Jahii Carson is dealing with a stress reaction in his right leg that will limit him in practice during the early going.

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