NCAA Regional Reset: West Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Gonzaga (34-1). If the Zags were the West region favorite before play started last Thursday, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to maintain that status. Sure, there were slow points in each of Gonzaga’s two victories over the weekend — namely, the first half against South Dakota State and the second half versus Northwestern – but Mark Few‘s team ultimately emerged from each unscathed. With West Virginia and possibly Arizona awaiting in San Jose, the road stiffens from here, but there’s no reason Gonzaga shouldn’t still feel like the front-runner.

Gonzaga is two wins away from the program’s first ever Final Four appearance (Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 West Virginia (28-8). The Mountaineers enter the Sweet Sixteen as a scary team. Depth and pressure — two West Virginia hallmarks — carried it through early round victories over #13 Bucknell (86-80) and #5 Notre Dame (83-71). Now those strengths will be relied upon to harass #1 Gonzaga into an uncharacteristically turnover-heavy game. The Zags rank 26th in the country in lowest turnover percentage, but Notre Dame also led the nation in that category before the Irish turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions against Press Virginia (seven percent higher than their season average). Gonzaga is also just an average offensive rebounding team, which limits its ability to take advantage of West Virginia’s biggest weaknesses — collecting defensive rebounds behind the press. The match-up is solid, the team is capable, and Bob Huggins is on the bench — in sum, the Mountaineers have a chance to surprise in San Jose.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Xavier (23-13). Less than three weeks ago, Xavier was a sub-.500 Big East team that had lost six straight games. Its star point guard was lost for the season and hopes of another NCAA Tournament appearance flickered with each outing. Now, on March 21, the Musketeers are fresh off a 25-point Second Round rout of Florida State and is back in the Sweet Sixteen. Xavier is a fantastic piece of proof that things can change quickly in March, but the verdict on this Musketeers’ season won’t be altered negatively from here on out: A remarkable turnaround last weekend saved a season.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Arizona 69, #7 Saint Mary’s 60

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 18th, 2017

Arizona endured Saint Mary’s deliberate pace as well as their incredible discipline to advance to the West Region semifinals next weekend in San Jose.  Ultimately, a strong second half on both ends of the floor sent the Wildcats to Sweet Sixteen.

Arizona Was All Smiles After a Tough R32 Win Over St. Mary’s (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Arizona can win in many different ways. After scoring 100 points in their opening round game, Arizona conceded the pace to Saint Mary’s and beat the Gaels at their own half-court game. The Wildcats pounded the ball inside relentlessly, relied on their superior athleticism on the wing, and then finally rode Lauri Markkanen to the winner’s circle.
  2. Saint Mary’s fell out of character just enough to be vulnerable. The Gaels had stretches, especially in the first half, when they looked to be in vintage form. They used their usual array of ball screens, precise spacing and exquisite ball movement to produce some gorgeous baskets. But their 5-of-21 performance from beyond the arc and inability to stop Arizona in the second half (the Wildcats shot 59 percent with an Offensive Rating of 114.3) was too much to overcome.
  3. The Dusan Ristic Experience Returns. Ristic was an important contributor for the Wildcats during the first half of Pac-12 play, but he took a step back as Chance Comanche and Keanu Pinder emerged. Tonight he again played a starring role as part of the clear Wildcat game plan to pound the post all game long. Ristic scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting and really helped Arizona fully exploit the size and depth they had. Long NCAA Tournament runs always feature contributions from unexpected sources, and Ristic’s performance was an example of what it’s going to take to get Arizona through the next weekend of NCAA Tournament play.

Star of the Game. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona. After taking some lessons from Saint Mary’s senior standout Jock Landale, Markkanen carried the Wildcats on both ends of the floor down the stretch. He stood tall in defending Landale, and he scored from all over the court like no other college basketball player quite can. He scored 16 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and had huge blocks on both Landale as well as a game-sealer on Joe Rahon. It’s not like his draft stock was low headed into this week, but Markkanen is skyrocketing up draft boards after two very strong outings under pressure in Salt Lake City.  

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Getting to Know the Pac-12: Arizona

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 16th, 2017

The footprint of the Arizona fan base is vast and the program’s history and prestige mean few teams on the West Coast get more media attention. But these Wildcats don’t have the same brand names and star power as some of their teams of the past. Casual college basketball fans in fact might have trouble naming more than two players in Arizona’s rotation. But Sean Miller‘s club is a fashionable Final Four pick right now, so there is plenty of time to get acquainted.

Who are the stars?

Allonzo Trier hasn’t missed a beat in his return from a steroid suspension. The sophomore is averaging better than 17 points per game and shoots more than 40 percent from downtown. He also chips in five rebounds per game and has more than doubled his assist rate (16.9%) this season. In short, Trier is becoming the all-around monster many expected him to become after a stellar freshman campaign in Tucson. He has scored at least 19 points in seven straight games and is clearly the team’s best all-around player.

Allonzo Trier is back and better than ever since his suspension. (James Snook/USA TODAY Sports)

Trier is not, however, the best future professional on the roster — that honor belongs to Finnish sensation Lauri Markkanen. After averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and shooting an eye-popping 43 percent from behind the three-point arc, Markkanen is one of the hottest NBA prospects in college basketball. A college basketball unicorn, Markkanen is a legitimate seven-footer who Arizona utilizes as a matchup-wrecking gunner.

Rawle Alkins probably doesn’t belong in the same “star” category as Trier or Markkanen, but he gets a pass here. The Brooklyn native is the offensive opposite of Markkanen — a bruiser who is at his best attacking the rim with his physicality. Alkins shoot  37 percent from three-point range, so his shot is far from broken, but his time is better spent bullying weaker opponents on the blocks. He is also an excellent defender and wing rebounder.

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Arizona’s Offense Has Saved Its Season

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 13th, 2017

When Parker Jackson-Cartwright sprained his ankle in a game against Texas Southern on November 30, Arizona head coach Sean Miller must have been worried. His team’s offense, already a concern because of the retirement of Ray Smith and the continued absence of Allonzo Trier, was about to lose its only true point guard. To that point, Jackson-Cartwright had amassed a healthy 37 assists to just 11 turnovers and it stood to reason that, with the Wildcats’ best playmaker hurt and the schedule only getting tougher, an inexperienced offense would struggle to score. Instead, Arizona lost just once in the six games Jackson-Cartwright missed (to unbeaten Gonzaga) and have yet to suffer a defeat since his return. A team that ranks 325th nationally in experience is now quietly 15-2 overall and keeping pace with Oregon and UCLA at the top of the Pac-12. Miller’s defense, of course, deserves a lot of credit. His pack line scheme is one of the stingiest in the country, but that’s true most every year — the man can teach defense. Rather, that Arizona’s offense ranks among the best 30 in the country is the story in Tucson.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s ankle injury spelled doom for Arizona, but the ‘Cats never really missed a beat. (Tucson.com)

Arizona’s rotation effectively has one above-average three-point shooter and one above-average passer. It ranks 278th in adjusted tempo and 330th in its share of three-pointers taken within the offense. Yet the Wildcats average roughly 1.14 points per possession to this point (1.11 PPP in conference play), and if Trier can return at nearly 100 percent, they look like the third horse in what appeared to be a two-way battle for conference supremacy. It should be noted that Arizona’s offense has been more mediocre against top 100 opponents, but there are three key reasons why the team has been able to stay afloat offensively. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Freshman Ladder: Early December Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 7th, 2016

I don’t know how long Scott Howard-Cooper has been writing his Rookie Ladder column for NBA.com but it has long been one of the more underrated features in basketball writing. There is nothing complex about its structure as a traditional weekly power ranking of NBA rookies. Yet basketball fans are always drawn to the new, which is why the Rookie Ladder column exists. The appeal of rookie coverage is true in college basketball as well. You don’t see the Pac-12 handing out a “Second-Year Player of the Year” award, do you? The season is now old enough that sample sizes are starting to become meaningful. Also, I am nothing if not a ruthless (but self-aware) copycat. So here is our best imitation of Cooper’s excellent feature – the inaugural Pac-12 Freshman Ladder.

Lonzo Ball (USA Today Images)

Lonzo Ball Leads the Pac-12 Freshman Ladder (USA Today Images)

  1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA. In our top-secret algorithm that determines these rankings, winning matters, if only a little. UCLA is undefeated and that is why Ball edges past Markelle Fultz on this list for now. Bolstered by a surprising ability to knock down threes (43.5% 3FG), Ball has been one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball (67.5% eFG) while also affecting every possession without having to score. He has turned the ball over 12 times in the last three games, but the Bruins are so lethal offensively with the freshman running the show that UCLA will live with those mistakes.
  2. Markelle Fultz, Washington. Fultz is playing a different role at Washington than Ball is at UCLA but his playmaking skills are just as advanced. Fultz’s assist rate (37.0%) and turnover rate (17.6%) compare favorably with Ball and his shot-making responsibilities and usage rate mean that he is scoring more as well. His defensive numbers (4.1% block rate and 3.4% steal rate) are also superior to his southern California counterpart. One could reasonably argue that if Fultz were running point in Westwood and the Bruins were still undefeated, he would be the clear alpha dog on this list. Read the rest of this entry »
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