UCLA Guards Pass Early Eye Test

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 17th, 2014

The game of basketball has evolved so much in recent years that it has become outdated to pigeonhole a player into the traditional role of his position. Big men routinely step out to the three-point line, with few true centers left to anchor the paint. Point guards are certainly not made like they once were, with more of a desire to distribute than produce baskets — now, it’s the combo guard, an offensive-minded “tweener” who has become the trendy mold.

Steve Alford Was More Than Pleased With His UCLA Backcourt In Friday Night's Opener. (UCLA Athletics)

Steve Alford Was More Than Pleased With His UCLA Backcourt In Friday Night’s Opener. (UCLA Athletics)

At UCLA, head coach Steve Alford has three such combo guards on his roster, and the trio had some questions to answer on Friday night at Pauley Pavilion. Although a bit out of control to start, senior Norman Powell and sophomores Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton set the tone early with an attacking, uptempo bravado in the Bruins’ 113-78 win over Montana State. From the tip, all three took a head-down, get-to-the-rim mindset that didn’t look like it would offer up much ball movement. As a result, there were not too many moments in the half-court offense that stood out, and there weren’t any possessions that went deep into the shot clock. Two nights later, an 84-71 win over Coastal Carolina wasn’t quite as easy as the first game, but there was still a lot to like from the trio of guards. While the jury is still out and team depth remains a question mark, one thing is for certain: Don’t let these Bruins get out and run.

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First Impressions From UCLA’s Opening Night

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 15th, 2014

The start may have been sluggish Friday night, but UCLA’s season-opening 113-78 win over Montana State at Pauley Pavilion was simply a matter of when things would start to click. Boy, did the Bruins roll once they found that rhythm. UCLA senior guard Norman Powell led all scorers with 25 points and point guard Bryce Alford notched his first career double-double with 18 points and 12 assists. In all, six Bruins scored in double figures. Keeping in mind it was just one game against an opponent that came in as a 23.5-point underdog, here is what stood out:

Norman Powell's Athletic Play Has His Draft Stock Rising (Associated Press)

Norman Powell Led All Scorers With 25 Points in UCLA’s 113-78 Win Over Montana State. (Associated Press)

Guards of same feather flock together: Coming into the season, the question was how UCLA would perform at the point guard position with a backcourt that makes you think of its scoring first. Powell, Alford and now-eligible Isaac Hamilton combined for 26 of the contest’s first 35 points and finished with 58 while converting 19-of-31 shots — including 8-of-14 3-pointers. Look for more on the backcourt in a separate post, but there was plenty to like as the game went on with the trio’s ability to pick their spots and not make it look like they were just taking turns. Head coach Steve Alford “loved how the ball moved,” and it started with his son’s play.

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RTC Pac-12 Preseason POY and All-Conference Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 14th, 2014

It is Opening Day around college basketball nation, and that means that it is time to unveil our picks for our Pac-12 All-Conference teams. We asked five voters (Tracy McDannald, Adam Butler, Kevin Danna, Connor Pelton and myself) to list their 15 best players in the conference, in order of #1 to #15. What follows is our collective best guess at the 15 players most worth watching in the Pac-12 this season.

Pac-12 Preseason Co-Conference Players of the Year

Delon Wright, Sr, Utah and Chasson Randle, Sr, Stanford. Wright and Randle tied atop our poll and each player received two first-place votes among our five voters, so they’ll share this preseason honor. This first bit to note is that, in an era of star freshmen and one-and-dones and very few elite upperclassmen to speak of, not only do two seniors share our Preseason POY honor, but more than half of the 15 players on our three teams are seniors, with just three underclassmen (one freshman and two sophomores) on our list.

Delon Wright's Versatile And Efficient Game Has The Utes Pac-12 Contenders (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

Delon Wright’s Versatile And Efficient Game Has The Utes Pac-12 Contenders (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

But, let’s focus on our POYs for a second. First, Wright. After earning plaudits in the Utes’ early season practices last year, he announced his presence to the college basketball world by racking up ridiculous lines against overmatched opponents — witness the 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 10 boards, seven assists, seven steals and three blocks in the Utes’ opener last season; or the 12 points, nine boards, six assists and two blocks he followed that up with. Sure, those games were against Evergreen State and UC Davis, but as the season advanced, the story they told about him remained the same: a highly efficient player capable of positively affecting the game for his team in a variety of ways. Look at his final traditional numbers on the year: 36.4 MPG, 15.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.5 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 56.1% FG, 79.3% FT. The only glaring weakness was his inability to regularly knock in three-point shots (22.2% on 54 attempts). Oh, and there was that little issue about his team struggling in close games and missing the NCAA Tournament. That last bit? That’s the area Wright needs to change the most this season. For Wright to be in consideration for Pac-12 Player of the Year at the end of the season, we can forgive a little bit of a backslide on last year’s spectacular individual numbers so long as the talented Utes live up to their potential, push Arizona a little bit in the conference standings, and wind up dancing come March. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 All-Defense & Specialty Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 12th, 2014

Yesterday we unveiled our RTC Pac-12 All-Freshmen and All-Transfer teams. Tomorrow, we’ll release our All-Conference teams. And on Friday, just before the first games tip off, we’ll have the results of our preseason conference poll. Today, we will have a little fun though and unveil our specialty teams, ranging from our Gary Payton All-Defensive team, to our Jorge Gutierrez All-Glue team to our Russell Westbrook All-Dunktastic Team. Enjoy. And feel free to let us know where we screwed up.

The Gary Payton Pac-12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. McConnell, Arizona

He won’t wow you with his athleticism or make opponents look silly with soul-crushing blocks or quick-handed steals, but McConnell is the consummate veteran who is always in the right place at the right time, funneling opponents toward long-armed and intimidating opponents. Sure, McConnell probably gets this award because he plays on a team with so many other terrific defenders (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson can destroy opponents with their athleticism, while Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are capable rim-protectors), but he’s a fundamentally-minded defender who always makes things difficult on opponents.

T.J. McConnell's Smarts And Grit Earned Him Our Preseason All-Defensive Player (Arizona Athletics)

T.J. McConnell’s Smarts And Grit Earned Him Our Preseason All-Defensive Player. (Arizona Athletics)

Joining McConnell on the All-Defensive Team are:

  • Delon Wright, Sr, Utah
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Soph, Arizona
  • Shaquielle McKissic, Sr, Arizona State
  • Norman Powell, Sr, UCLA

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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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UCLA’s Most Important Player: Isaac Hamilton

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 5th, 2014

The offseason in Westwood could have gone better — much better. The Bruins knew they were going to be woefully thin in the backcourt, and head coach Steve Alford was never going to completely replace point-forward Kyle Anderson, the 6’9” match-up nightmare with elite point guard skills. But then UCLA received word that Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus had been denied admission, nixing the Bruins’ best-laid plans to make him the starting point guard. There’s just not much depth available here at all, and this clearly puts additional pressure on the Bruins’ starters (although senior Norman Powell should have little issue so long as he remains in good health). Off the bench, UCLA may struggle beyond Noah Allen to find any realistic contributors under the height of 6’9”.

Isaac Hamilton, the No. 25 overall prospect, cited his relationship with UTEP head coach Tim Floyd as deciding factor

Sophomore guard Isaac Hamilton, who was forced to miss all of the 2013-14 season, will be needed at both backcourt positions at UCLA.

The void creates a big opportunity for combo guard Isaac Hamilton, and there may not be a more valuable player on the roster. The 6’4” sophomore missed the entire 2013-14 season after backing out of his initial commitment with UTEP. While Hamilton lost a year in the transition, he was able to practice with his teammates and digest the system, and that is where his true value will be revealed. The year away from action did wonders for T.J. McConnell at Arizona, where the point guard ran the scout team before becoming a valuable piece last season. Hamilton’s case is different because he doesn’t have previous Division I experience under his belt, but there’s something to be said about developing team chemistry and learning the tendencies of teammates in a practice setting.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Most Interesting Team & Player

Posted by AMurawa on November 4th, 2014

What’s that smell? Hey, is it getting a little warm in here? Call the fire department, because it is time for Pac-12 Burning Questions, where we ask our Pac-12 writers for their answers to what we’re dying to know. This week:

Burning Questions: Which team are you most excited to watch this season? And which player are you most interested to see?

Adam Butler: I won’t shy away from being a homer: I’m most excited to see the Arizona Wildcats. This is Sean Miller’s crown jewel, the team he aimed to build when he first came to Tucson. Which is maybe what last year’s team was, but at this point the expectations have aligned with the realities and it’s his year. The Wildcats have coupled Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson into the most dynamic wing/backcourt/hybrid/power force in the country. I want to see that operate. The question will be asked if they can play defense as well as they did last year, and while I don’t think they can, I think they’ll be that much more offensively effective that it will negate the lapse (I use the term relatively considering Arizona was leaps and bounds the best defensive team last year). I want to see that operate.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And The Wildcats Have Hoops Fans Intrigued (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And The Wildcats Have Hoops Fans Intrigued (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

As for players, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the guy I’m most excited to see. He’s had what seems to be a meteoric rise from sixth man to preseason All-American. Hype-be-damned, Jefferson already has demonstrated he can defend up and down a lineup. With any semblance of a jump shot, he has the skills (ones he’s already displayed) to absolutely fulfill those All-American accolades. There are a lot of pieces on that lineup, but what Jefferson will let the Wildcats do defensively, and his ability to create going at the rim, will make them the offensive threat they might have missed a season ago.

Kevin Danna: The team I’m most excited to watch this year is Utah. While I think we can all agree that this team looks primed to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years, there’s a reasonable chance that the Runnin’ Utes will be 7-5 heading into conference play. They were criticized for their non-league slate last year, something that won’t happen this time around with games against San Diego State, Wichita State, Kansas, BYU and UNLV on the docket. Obviously, though, that could come back to bite them – how many of those games can Utah pull out? What happens if the Utes lose all five – what will this team’s resolve be like heading into Pac-12 play? If Utah can win three of those contests (say Wichita State, BYU and UNLV), then 10-2 looks really good and a winning conference record should be enough to get them into March Madness (depending on how the rest of the Pac-12 stacks up in November and December).

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Pac-12 Season Preview: UCLA Bruins

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 3rd, 2014

Throughout the preseason, the Pac-12 microsite will preview each of the league’s 10 teams, from worst to first. Today: UCLA.

UCLA Bruins

Strengths. There’s plenty of talent here, no doubt. Norman Powell, Bryce Alford and Tony Parker return as players who earned at least 40 percent of the team’s minutes last year and were all highly efficient offensive players on a high-powered offensive squad. They’ll be joined by freshmen Kevon Looney and Isaac Hamilton, both of whom are highly-regarded recruits expected to slip seamlessly into the starting lineup. Throw in guys like Wannah Bail and Noah Allen, who played bit parts efficiently last year, and another highly regarded freshman in Thomas Welsh (who may be more of a project than his classmates) and there is plenty of reason for excitement in Westwood. The Bruins once again should be a high-flying, entertaining ballclub.

Norman Powell's Athleticism On The Wing Will Be A Big Part Of UCLA's Offense (Harry How/Getty Images)

Norman Powell’s Athleticism On The Wing Will Be A Big Part Of UCLA’s Offense. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Weaknesses. Two immediately jump off the page: a lack of depth and defensive uncertainty. First, the depth thing is pretty clear. Freshman Jonah Bolden and senior transfer Jonathan Octeus were both supposed to play significant roles off the bench for the Bruins, but they ran into academic problems that will keep them out of UCLA uniforms this year (Octeus wound up at Purdue as a transfer after being denied admission). That leaves Bail, Allen and Welsh as the top three players off the bench. The Bruins could survive one well-placed and well-timed injury, but any significant health problems beyond that could lead to raw freshmen or even walk-ons playing big roles. Throw in the fact that Looney has battled injuries in early workouts already and this coiuld get scary. The second issue is on the defensive end. Powell is a fantastic defender, but just about everybody else on the roster has question marks. Alford is a terrific offensive player but he can get outquicked or overpowered by better athletes. Parker has a history of foul trouble. Hamilton and Looney are talents more known for their offensive abilities who still need to prove their defensive merits. On down the line, questions loom.

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Pac-12 Early Entry Decisions: Winners and Losers

Posted by AMurawa on April 28th, 2014

With Sunday night’s early-entry deadline come and gone, programs have now gotten past one potential source of damage to their rosters. Kids can still announce their transfers or get in trouble or get hurt, so the names on these rosters can still remain in a state of flux, but below we’ll discuss the winners and losers in the conference after the going pro pothole has passed.

Winners

Arizona – It’s not often that you can call a team that lost two players to early entry a winner, but the fact is, the Wildcats lose Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, but guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley passed on the temptation of the NBA to return for another year in the desert. Of the two who left, there was little surprise, as Gordon is a sure-fire lottery pick while Johnson played well enough this season to probably maximize his attractiveness to NBA scouts (he’s projected as a second-rounder). Meanwhile, Hollis-Jefferson in particular was a serious threat to leave early, with a likely first-round selection awaiting. However, with his return to Tucson, he’ll have a chance to not only improve his draft stock, but also keep the Wildcats near the top of the national conversation.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's Decision to Return To School Keeps Arizona Among The National Favorites (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s Decision to Return To School Keeps Arizona Among The National Favorites (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Oregon – Joseph Young considered forgoing his final season of eligibility for a run at the NBA dream, but the 6’3” shooter likely got word back from scouts to return to school, work on his ballhandling and start playing some defense. As a result, Young will again be a part of what should be a high-flying Duck offense and have a chance to legitimately work himself into NBA Draft consideration next season.

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Pac-12 Post-Mortems: UCLA

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 23rd, 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, UCLA.

What Went Right

Although it took some time to get there, this Bruins team coalesced nicely as the season wore on. Kyle Anderson turned into an All-American talent while the pieces around him were, by and large, rock solid. Team chemistry was light years better than under the previous administration, and eventually Steve Alford’s first team in Westwood won over a wary fan base. While a Sweet Sixteen appearance is not going to earn accolades from the most jaded fans, the first year of the Alford era was definitely a step forward for the program.

Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams Were Vital To UCLA's Success (Don Liebig/ASUCLA Photography)

Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams Were Vital To UCLA’s Success (Don Liebig/ASUCLA Photography)

What Went Wrong

Honestly, for this program and with this team, a loss in the Sweet Sixteen to a #1 seed isn’t exactly an underachievement. Sure, maybe a better performance by the Bruins’ frontcourt against Florida could have extended their season, and maybe Alford made some substitution errors in dealing with some minor foul trouble in that game. Certainly there were some defensive breakdowns too (how does Michael Frazier get that wide open that often?). But all told, Alford got about what he should have gotten out of this season’s UCLA club.

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Your Way-Too-Early 2014-15 Pac-12 Power Rankings

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on April 9th, 2014

Another season in the books; another Pac-12 disappointment. We’ve got plenty of time to look back on the 2013-14 season, but it is onward and upward from here as we briefly look ahead to next year. We’re still not entirely sure exactly which of the players we watched this year will move on to greener pastures, and there are sure to be some surprise transfers (both incoming and outgoing) ahead of us, but in the days after the national championship, it is time to start dreaming about the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Below are our way-too-early Pac-12 power rankings.

Arizona's Back In The Familiar Spot of A 1-Seed And An NCAA Favorite (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

McConnell, Hollis-Jefferson, and Tarczewski, Among Others, Make Arizona The Pac-12 Favorite Again (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

  1. Arizona – Sure, Aaron Gordon’s stay in Tucson was brief. And yeah, Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson may join him in the NBA. But barring some surprises, five of the following six players are going to be comprising Sean Miller’s starting lineup next season: T.J. McConnell, Gabe York, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski. Goodness gracious sakes alive, that is a lot of talent. And, the West Regional will not be held in Anaheim next season, so let’s go ahead and pencil Miller and his Wildcats into his first-ever Final Four.
  2. Stanford – Johnny Dawkins and company broke through this year with their first NCAA Tournament appearance under the current regime. And while some important players move on, a returning nucleus of combo guard Chasson Randle, wing Anthony Brown and big man Stefan Nastic is solid. Throw in a recruiting class with four different four-star recruits (as ranked by ESPN) and a bevy of talented returning youngsters and we’ll make the Cardinal the best bet in the league to challenge the Wildcats. Read the rest of this entry »
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Assessing the Steve Alford Era at UCLA Almost One Year In

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 26th, 2014

It was a year ago this week that the change was made at UCLA. Ben Howland was dismissed after an opening round NCAA loss to Minnesota, and the following week, on Saturday morning of the Elite Eight to be precise, UCLA announced that it would hire New Mexico head coach Steve Alford – who had just recently agreed to a lengthy contract extension with that school after its own untimely exit from the NCAA Tournament – as the 13th head coach in the storied program’s history.

Steve Alford, UCLA

The Steve Alford Era Had A Bumpy Start, But Has Settled Into A Nice Groove (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Suffice it to say that the beginning of the Alford era in Westwood did not begin smoothly. The hire was greeted with anywhere from an outright disdain for the choice to a more wait-and-see approach, but few if any saw the hire as a home run. (Here, we called it a solid line-drive single, and our response was probably one of the more favorable ones you may have read). From those initial reactions, the temperature dipped dramatically over the next week after an unreceptive opening press conference delved into his handling of a sexual assault case at Iowa 11 years earlier and went downhill from there. A week later Alford finally apologized for his handling of that case and an uneasy truce with the local media began.

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