Five Takeaways from Championship Week Friday

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 14th, 2015

As we reach the pinnacle of Championship Week over the next few days, we’ll take a breath each morning to run down the top five storylines from the previous day’s action. There were 44 games spread across 18 conference tournaments on Friday — here’s the TL;DR version of what happened.

1. Which ACC Loss Was More Troubling: Duke or Virginia?

The story of Championship Week Friday is a complex one, but it has to open with what transpired in Greensboro last night. Top-seeded Virginia and second-seeded Duke were toppled in the ACC semifinals by North Carolina and Notre Dame, respectively; and both upsets, in their own ways, were startling. First, there’s Virginia, which in a 71-67 loss gave up more points than it had in any other contest in conference play. Despite a late Cavaliers’ charge, the Tar Heels led the game from wire to wire and made Tony Bennett’s team look frighteningly ordinary for about 35 minutes of action. In the nightcap, Notre Dame, a little over a month after being waxed by Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, got its revenge. The Fighting Irish held the high-powered Blue Devils to 0.97 points per possession in a 74-64 win.

Notre Dame All Smiles After Last Night's Big Win (USA Today Images)

Notre Dame All Smiles and Hugs After Last Night’s Big Win (USA Today Images)

So which loss is more worrying? I’d have to say Virginia’s. Duke was outplayed by the Irish but the primary reason the Blue Devils lost was a 3-of-17 shooting mark from beyond the arc. On the other hand, Virginia doesn’t look like the same team it was earlier this year. The Cavaliers have continued to dominate lesser teams on the defensive end, but when they are coming face to face with teams that can match up with them physically, they don’t look nearly as special. Furthermore, Justin Anderson’s return — zero points in 26 minutes over two games — is troubling. Virginia fans should be somewhat worried.

2. Can Iowa State and Oklahoma Play Every Week?

The Cyclones and Sooners played another barnburner in the second Big 12 semifinals Friday night. Both regular season clashes had been instant classics, and while Friday’s meeting was maybe a tad more sensible — as in there were no 20-point comebacks or 59-point halves — it was back and forth all game long. In the end, Iowa State who pulled out a 67-65 victory when Ryan Spangler missed a bunny at the rim that would have tied the game. The Cyclones get a rubber match with Kansas Saturday, which will be another episode of Big 12 must-watch television.

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Circle of March: Vol. XIII

Posted by rtmsf on March 14th, 2015

What a Friday of college basketball. Bookended by Davidson’s buzzer-beater in the Atlantic 10 to Oregon’s in the Pac-12, it was a wild and wooly day across 18 conference tournaments that resulted in another 27 removals from the Circle of March. With approximately 36 hours until the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68 is announced, we still have 96 eligible teams still bubbling along. Admittedly, there are a few names on the CoM that probably don’t stand much of a chance at an at-large bid, but the Selection Committee has surprised us all before so we’re erring on the side of caution for the next couple of days. Enjoy Championship Saturday — 15 more teams will join the 12 who are already automatically qualified in a college hoops extravaganza of action.

2015_CircleofMarch_V13

Eliminations (03.13.15)

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Five Storylines from Championship Week Thursday

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 13th, 2015

As we reach the pinnacle of Championship Week over the next few days, we’ll take a breath each morning to run down the top five storylines from the previous day’s action. There were 60 games spread across 18 conference tournaments on Thursday — here’s the TL;DR version of what happened.

1. Who Wants to Make the NCAA Tournament? Anybody?

Monte Morris Lifted His Team to a Thrilling Comeback Win Over Texas (USA Today Images)

Monte Morris Lifted Iowa State to a Thrilling Comeback Win Over Texas (USA Today Images)

It was a big day for bubble teams all around the country, as many were facing possible “win-and-in” situations but a shocking number of them played like teams under suffocating pressure. Illinois looked downright disinterested in a blowout loss to Michigan. Texas got out to a big lead over Iowa State and had all but locked up a spot when it was up 10 points with under four minutes remaining, but the Longhorns crumbled late. Miami and NC State lost to better teams, but both came out flat. And two much-discussed SEC bubblers, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, found ways — for the Rebels, that way was fouling a desperation three-point shooter with a second left — to lose to Auburn and South Carolina, respectively. Even Iowa, though not really a bubble team, was awful in a Big Ten Tournament loss to Penn State. That makes wins for Indiana and UCLA (and off days for Purdue, LSU, and others) all the more important.

2. The Stage is Set in the ACC…

Upsets are fun. But really good basketball is even more fun, and that’s exactly what we’ll get in the ACC Tournament this evening. All four favorites held serve yesterday in Greensboro, giving us a regional-worthy treat between four top 20 teams. First we’ll get Virginia, which labored through its game yesterday with Florida State, taking on a North Carolina team that appears to be improving. The Tar Heels started slowly but were impressive for the final 25 minutes against Louisville on Thursday. The other semifinal pits Duke against Notre Dame, another fabulous matchup. Thursday wasn’t a memorable day at the ACC Tournament, but because of that outcome, Friday could be.

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Key Individual Matchups in Pac-12 Quarterfinals

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 12th, 2015

It’s quarterfinal day in Las Vegas, with the Pac’s four top teams facing the upstarts who survived yesterday’s mayhem. Below, by way of previewing today’s games, we’ll look at one of the key matchups in each game that will help determine the eventual winner.

Arizona/California

Stanley Johnson vs. Jabari Bird. Now, I don’t know that this is necessarily going to be the matchup that the Golden Bears go with on Johnson, but I know that there is not really an obvious solution for them. They’re going to have to put some size on the floor in order to match up with the Arizona bigs, so somebody out of Jordan Mathews, Tyrone Wallace or Bird is going to have to try to check Johnson. And Bird is the Bear with the physical tools that give him the best chance to check the Wildcat’s physical specimen. Johnson’s ability to bully Bird in the post or off the bounce give him a big advantage, but Bird’s got some impressive ability of his own, even if it only has come in fits and starts so far. But the sophomore has started to emerge recently, averaging 13.9 points in the Bears’ last seven games. If he can keep Johnson busy when the Bears have the ball, it will serve a dual good. Because really, for a undermanned Cal team against the elite Wildcats, just about everything is going to have to go right.

Can Cal Find Anyone To Slow Stanley Johnson?

Can Cal Find Anyone To Slow Stanley Johnson?

UCLA/USC

Norman Powell vs. Elijah Stewart. After scoring in double figures just twice in the first three months of the season, Stewart has reached the mark in each of the last three games, including a career-high 27 in USC’s come-from-behind victory over Arizona State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. But it will be a whole different challenge should the Bruins sic their best individual defender in Powell on him. Powell may instead be charged with slowing the penetration of Trojan point guard Julian Jacobs, but regardless, if Powell can limit the effectiveness of either of those key offensive players for SC, the Trojans’ already difficult task will be enhanced. And on the defensive end, while Stewart does have 35 blocks on the season, he hasn’t yet shown the defensive consistency that will be required to slow Powell’s slashing style. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Tourney Best & Worst Cases for Pac-12 Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 10th, 2015

Believe it or not, another Pac-12 regular season is behind us. The final standings are in, the conference tournament bracket is set, and as I type this, we’re less than a week away from finding out which teams get sent where on Selection Sunday. We’ll have much more on this front throughout the week, but below we’ll review the Pac-12’s most likely NCAA Tournament suspects and figure out where they stand with only conference tournament play remaining before the field is set.

Arizona

As Long As Arizona Gets Good Geographical Placement, Either A One or A Two-Seed Will Do

As Long As Arizona Gets Good Geographical Placement, Either a #1 or #2 Seed Will Do. (Getty)

  • Outlook: The Wildcats were the class of the conference this season, running through the Pac-12 with a 16-2 record a full three games better than runners-up Utah and Oregon. What’s more, their 28-3 overall record and #7 RPI rating puts the Wildcats squarely in the conversation for a #1 seed. Kentucky’s got one of those four spots locked up. It’s hard to foresee Virginia and Duke failing to get two others, leaving Arizona in a battle with Villanova, Wisconsin and even Kansas for the final top seed. In the grand scheme of things, though, it doesn’t matter if the ‘Cats get a #1 or a #2 seed so long as they stay out west and away from Kentucky for as long as possible, preferably in the Los Angeles regional. Right now it appears that Wisconsin and Villanova are slightly ahead of Arizona in overall resume, so even if the Wildcats win the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas this week, Arizona may be locked into a #2 regardless. All of which paints the specter of a possible Arizona/Wisconsin regional final as an intriguing possibility.
  • Best case: #1 seed in the West.
  • Worst case: #2 seed anywhere but the West.

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Pac-12 Basketball Programs as Craft Breweries

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 2nd, 2015

I really like college hoops. I really like craft beer. I have no idea why I never had this idea before, but here’s a simple, fun game: go through each Pac-12 program and find the brewery most simpatico in style, substance, history and quality. Now, I’ve had my fair share of beers in fine establishments all over the West, but living in California with the sheer number of excellent breweries in this state, we’re going to wind up with plenty of choices from the Golden State on this list. It would be nice to pick more geographically-fitting breweries, but for instance, while there are plenty of fine Arizona breweries, none can match the quality and national importance of the home Wildcats, so we’ll have to go elsewhere for that comparison. And by no means have I got the finger on the pulse of every single craft brewery that has arisen. So, if you’ve got better comparisons in mind, I’m interested in hearing them, especially true toward the bottom of the list where I admittedly ran out of steam. Enough nonsense, let’s get to the list!

Much like the ubiquitious Lagunitas Brewing Company, Arizona fans are a national presence. (AP)

Much like the ubiquitous Lagunitas Brewing Company, Arizona fans are a national presence. (AP)

  • Arizona: Lagunitas Brewing. My first instinct was to go Russian River here, but comparatively speaking, Russian River is a niche brewer. It’s legendary and excellent, but it’s also pretty small. Lagunitas, by comparison, is a national power. It’s the fifth-largest craft brewer in the nation (and the 11th biggest brewery overall, even on a list with the big boys) and ubiquitous, yet it still manages to crank out superbly high quality beers without fail. And if you’ve ever done the brewery tour, you know that Lagunitas is definitely A Player’s Program. The only significant problem I find with this selection is that Lagunitas’ mascot is a dog.
  • UCLA: Sierra Nevada. If Arizona is Lagunitas, the Bruins have to be somebody equally as big, so we’ll go with the Chico mainstay. Sierra Nevada is an old school classic. This brewery has been around forever; it has great history; it’s still committed to quality. But let’s be honest, it’s also been bypassed by a handful of other institutions, and although they still shoot for the stars, sometimes it disappoints. Here’s one thing Sierra has over UCLA, though — unlike Pauley Pavilion, their tap room is never whisper quiet.
  • Utah: Epic Brewing. I have some reservations about comparing a basketball program with the history of the Utes to a Beehive State-based microbrewery given the lack of history that the state has with sensible alcohol laws. But I’ll rationalize this choice by saying that Epic, a brewery that formed after Utah slightly modernized its regulations over the last decade, is making history of its own. Plus, like the current Utes squad, the beers that Epic makes are big and bold.

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Marching to Vegas: On Dana Altman’s Young Ducks

Posted by Adam Butler on February 27th, 2015

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

On two separate occasions this year, Sean Miller has noted the work of Dana Altman. In December he said Altman was the Coach of the Year and this week he “marveled” at Altman’s work. The praise is warranted. Altman’s team projects to make its third consecutive NCAA Tournament despite 10 newcomers and a tumultuous offseason. One of my favorite Altman facts – which notably does not pertain to this season – is that in back-to-back years (2013 and 2014) he coached the 10th-best defense followed by the 11th-best offense. The fact alone is impressive enough on its own, and then you consider his coaching adjustments for the well-documented personnel turnover, and everything really begins to make sense. In 2015, his Oregon team was meant to fly under the radar. And perhaps they have. It’s not often we heap our focus on a volume shooter and a bunch of freshmen who were 5-4 at the turn of conference play. But it’s time we really start paying attention. The Ducks certainly got Utah’s attention and as they head to The Farm this weekend for what seems to be a Dance-or-die battle with the Cardinal, it’s probably worth understanding just what makes these Ducks tick.

Dana Altman's Ability To Get The Most Out of New Faces Is Nearly Unparalleled (credit: Alex Brandon)

Dana Altman’s Ability To Get The Most Out of New Faces Is Nearly Unparalleled. (Alex Brandon/AP)

If we’re to do so in a word, the most appropriate one would be: YOUNG. You guys, it’s a pun. Because this team runs four young freshmen as supplemental parts to the Joseph Young scoring machine. Double meaning. Let’s begin our conversation focusing on the former. Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell, Casey Benson and Ahmaad Rorie have been more than a pleasant surprise for Altman. But the interesting case is that – after four years of consistent turnover and seemingly brand new rosters – is this really a surprise? This was the 22nd-best class in America, according to Scout.com, and the fourth-best in the Pac-12. Impressive but not overwhelming. Florida had the 11th-best class and the Gators stink. So too does USC (12th-best class) and Michigan (16th), and Missouri (19th). Now look at how this group stacks up against qualifying freshmen in the Pac-12 with regards to Offensive Rating:

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week 14

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 25th, 2015

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Oregon

A Big Conference Win On Senior Day Had The Knight Arena Crowd Rushing The Court (Andy Nelson, AP Photo)

A Big Conference Win on Senior Day Had the Knight Arena Crowd Rushing the Court (Andy Nelson, AP Photo)

Road wins are great. In conference play, you go out on the road and you beat anybody in conference, even if it’s the worst team, that qualifies as an accomplishment. Home wins tend to get swept under the rug from time to time. But, if, like the Ducks, you make a habit of taking care of most of your business at home AND sneak in a home win over a national top 10 team, you are very much in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. Oregon checked both of those boxes this week, turning in a workmanlike win over Colorado on Wednesday night and then backing that up with a prime-time performance on Sunday in taking care of Utah at Matthew Knight Arena. Dana Altman got good back-to-back performances this week from all eight guys in his normal rotation, and with a home sweep, the Ducks are in good position to earn an NCAA Tournament bid – provided, that is, that they can got out on the road over the final two weeks of the year and at least dig out a win.

(Also receiving votes: Arizona)

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RTC Weekly Primer: Who Can Make a Run in March?

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 24th, 2015

It happens every year. Every single year. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but more often than not, there comes a time in a college basketball season when the entire hoops world witnesses the birth of something. It can begin with a bang; but it can also begin innocuously. It can occur in plain sight; but it can also be the tree in the middle of a deserted forest. This birth, of course, is the preliminary stage of a postseason run. And the run, of course, is the one that in a few weeks time will be the talk of college basketball. Back in 2011, it was Shelvin Mack, Brad Stevens and Butler. In 2012, it was Lorenzo Brown and NC State. In 2013, it was very nearly Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss. A season ago, it was Jordan McRae and the upstart Tennessee Volunteers. NCAA Tournament runs usually don’t just appear out of thin air. Typically, there’s a backstory. In 2015, the time has come for those backstories to develop. Next month’s headlines will start formulating themselves right now.

Most Every Team is Looking For Its Butler Moment (USA Today Images)

Most Every Team is Looking For Its Butler Moment (USA Today Images)

Who will those headlines be written about this year? Who will be the team that sees everything come together at the right time? Who will be that team? It’s time to start considering some possibilities:

  • Georgetown – The Hoyas aren’t exactly in the same category as the Butlers and Ole Misses of years past, but they seem to be flying somewhat under the radar. Georgetown has the pieces to make a run. The Hoyas are a top-20 defensive team, boast an occasionally dominant post presence in senior center Josh Smith, and have a guard in D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera who can take over a game. After getting smoked by Villanova a couple weeks ago, they’ve now won three straight and have the week off to prepare for St. John’s in Madison Square Garden on Saturday. That’s the kind of win that could propel the Hoyas to a #4 or #5 seed and their first Sweet Sixteen (or better) run since 2007.
  • Indiana – Another team that is solidly in the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers certainly will never be considered a Cinderella story. But most projections have them as a #8 or #9 seed right now, meaning they aren’t being discussed as a legitimate contender either. This team has notable flaws in its personnel and it has a coach who many have questioned in recent years. But it’s also arguably got the most lethal backcourt in the country — just the type of thing that can carry a team on a surprising journey through March. The Hoosiers, which have struggled on the road but have been dynamite at home, travel to Northwestern on Wednesday night before a two-game home swing featuring Iowa and Michigan State. It’s really the perfect slate to build some March momentum.

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Pac-12 Senior Days: Oregon’s Joseph Young

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 22nd, 2015

Over the years, college basketball seasons develop a rhythm of their own for me. There are the manic early days of the season when I’m scrambling around between many different channels and early season tournaments to get a feel for new teams and new players, all while trying to keep up with the stretch run in college football. December rolls around and the pace slows some with finals in time for the holidays and I watch fewer games more intently. The New Year brings a new flash of excitement as conference play starts. There’s a light schedule for Big Monday, then Tuesdays and Wednesdays bring an abundance of games before Thursday lightens up again and we all take Friday easy (usually) in preparation for the weekend. Saturday is always an overwhelming cavalcade of game after game from early morning to late night. Sunday is a light dessert. Then rinse and repeat. You get used to the schedule and begin to take the college basketball season for granted. It will always be like this, right?

Joseph Young's Senior Day Marks The Beginning Of The End Of Another College Basketball Season (Daily Emerald)

Joseph Young’s Senior Day Marks The Beginning Of The End Of Another College Basketball Season (Daily Emerald)

And then some day you look up and another page on the calendar is gone and that shortest of months is nearing its end and – holy crap! This season is almost over! If it was midnight and I had a couple drinks in me, maybe I’d draw a parallel between a college basketball season and a life well lived. But it’s not. It’s 9:00 AM. And I’m already getting off track. You see, one of my favorite parts of a college basketball season begins this weekend: Senior Days. It’s a chance for programs and fans to pause for a moment in that busy and all-t00-fleeting season to say thanks to those guys who have paid their dues and made their way to the finish line of their collegiate eligibility. Back in the old days, that usually meant the end of a four-year career at one spot. These days, those seniors are a rarity; sometimes guys transfer three times; sometimes they bounce to a new school just for their final season. But in all cases, seniors are a special breed in college basketball. There’s a whole lot of water under the bridge by the time you get to that year. Games have changed; life has imparted lessons. Guys who came into school as bright-eyed brash freshmen have turned into grizzled, weathered veterans with the experiences that will serve them well as they head out into life.

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Best of the West: Top 25 Teams in the West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 18th, 2015

We’re now less than four weeks from Selection Sunday, so it’s a good time to check back in with our Best in the West, with a special focus on these 25 teams’ NCAA Tournament prospects. If you haven’t seen this post before, we take all the schools west of the Rockies (basically the schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast, and Big West Conferences, and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and Western Athletic Conferences) and list the top 25 teams. Rather than just ranking schools #1 though #25, though, we divide them into tiers, because, for instance, while one team may be ranked third overall and another fourth, there may be a huge gap between teams three and four. Below are ourTop 25 teams in the West (their overall rank will be in parentheses) with descriptions of what we think the teams in each tier have in common, plus brief comments on each and their NCAA Tournament hopes

The Best of the Best – In a league of their own.

Gonzaga is #2 in The AP Poll And In The Mix For A #1 Seed in March

Gonzaga is #2 in The AP Poll And In The Mix For A #1 Seed 

  • Gonzaga (#1 overall, WCC #1) – The Bulldogs are 26-1 with the lone defeat an overtime loss at the McKale Center on the first weekend of December. For me, an overtime road loss equates to a win in the grand scheme of things, so I’ve got Gonzaga slightly ahead of that team that came out on the good side of the scoreboard in Tucson. Admittedly, the rest of the Gonzaga resume is a little light. Their best win is, what, a road win at St. John’s? Or is it the one at BYU? Or maybe the one at UCLA? All of those are good wins to be sure, but none of those are mindblowingly great entries on the Zags’ balance sheet compared with the teams with whom they will be competing for a #1 seed. For instance, the other two teams in this category both have better wins and tougher overall schedules than the Zags. But if they’re able to get from here to Selection Sunday with a “1” on the right-hand side of that record (which would mean additional wins at Saint Mary’s, over BYU and then another over one of those two teams in the WCC Championship game, they’ll probably nose out either Arizona or Utah. Now, teams like Virginia, Duke, Wisconsin and Villanova (not to mention Kentucky) may be a different story.

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Marching to Vegas: Keep Watching

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on February 11th, 2015

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

I suppose it’s not a comfort that’s befallen me so much as an acceptance. I first recognized the Pac-12’s general ineptitude as I found myself unaware of game schedules, player success (or otherwise) and disinterest in the whole thing. Let’s also be serious that I was still paying attention. Close attention. And I still want to. After all, we’re not at 2012 levels where just three players wound up drafted and Jorge Gutierrez was the conference Player of the Year. Washington was not invited to dance despite winning the regular season title. This is a story lead that could last forever. Alas, we’re not there but we have the excuse to excuse the rest of this season. It’s more than likely that your team is fighting for a three lettered tournament, at best. What’s there to support? What’s there to watch? The Pac-12 has hosted the highest percentage of in-conference blowouts. Where’s the intrigue? Let me tell you.

Pac-12 Basketball: It's Grrr-... Well, It's Okay.

Pac-12 Basketball: It’s Grrr-… Well, It’s Okay.

Now let’s preface this by saying that I don’t love the format of this column. I generally prefer to tell a story with words and numbers. But I also don’t like to watch middling college basketball teams in the Conference of Champions so I’m cool with it. A list it is. Six reasons to continue watching Pac-12 basketball in 2015:

1. Byes. Not Byes as in “saying goodbye to the 2015 season,” but rather, who among the muck will rise to finish in the third and fourth slots? The top-four seeds receive a Wednesday bye in Las Vegas. Have you ever tried to stay four nights in Vegas? Near impossible. You want the bye. So who’s in the running? The primary candidates are Oregon and Stanford (we’re ignoring Arizona and Utah, as they’re essentially locked in). The Ducks collected a big last-second win on Wednesday, improving to 6-4 in conference play. The rest of their schedule is road heavy but doesn’t include any more games against Arizona and they’ll host Utah. The team ahead of Oregon in the standings, Stanford, had seemed to be a lock to finish in the top three, but after a loss to Washington State I’m not so sure. Oh, then they lost at home to UCLA, a team which is now knocking on the bye door. This is usually the part where we note the wildcard teams, but then I’d be laying out a power rankings of unpowerful teams. Right now, there is a four-way tie for third. In all honesty, keep an eye on Arizona State and ignore USC.

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