You’re Not Mistaken: Conference Races Are Tighter This Season

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on February 19th, 2016

We are quickly approaching March and that means the regular season is almost over. Usually by this point in the season there are a few teams running away with the crowns in the power conferences, but it hasn’t quite gone that way this year. Analysts have described the level of parity this year in college basketball as unprecedented, but we decided to look into it ourselves. Exactly how close are the conference races this season as opposed to in previous years? Here’s a look at the last six years of the power conference races three weeks from the end of the regular season.

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A quick glance at each league reveals that the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and especially the SEC are having some of the most contested conference races in recent memory. Interestingly, for every conference other than the Big East, the current first place team (e.g., Kansas at 10-3 in the Big 12) has as many or more losses than any first place team the past five years has had on this date. That also means that second and third place teams across the board have a better chance of winning their leagues than they usually would.

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Pac-12 Bubble and Bracket Breakdown

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 17th, 2016

We’re now less than four weeks from Selection Sunday and there are three weeks remaining in Pac-12 play. With 11 lof our 12-pack of teams currently ranked in the RPI top 100, now’s as good a time as any to review where all the conference teams stand and what they need to do between now and March 13 to make sure they hear Jim Nantz call out their names that afternoon. Let’s jump in.

The Leaders

Even Following A Lost Weekend By The Bay, The Ducks Are In Good NCAA Position (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Even Following A Lost Weekend By The Bay, The Ducks Are In Good NCAA Position (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

  • Oregon (20-6, 9-4, RPI #4, KenPom #20) – What a difference a week makes. After backing up a road sweep of the Arizona schools with a confident home sweep of the mountain schools, the Ducks seemingly had command of the Pac-12 regular season race. But a trip to the Bay Area last weekend resulted in a pair of losses that have put the Ducks into a tie with Arizona atop the conference. With a collection of solid wins both in and out of conference play under its belt, Oregon is still the team that is best positioned for a happy outcome on Selection Sunday. The Bay Area meltdown probably removes any chance of a #1 seed, but the Ducks have a manageable schedule remaining (at home against Oregon State and the Washington schools before a tough final weekend trip to Los Angeles). Where things will really get tricky is when the conference tournament convenes in Las Vegas, because in a season full of parity, even the top seed is going to face a very capable and battle-tested team right out of the gates. Barring a disaster, the Ducks seem headed for Spokane in the opening weekend with a chance at a #2 or #3 seed out West.
  • Arizona (21-5, 9-4, RPI #23, Ken Pom #16) – It’s been a challenging season in Tucson. After losing tons of experienced and early-entry talent from last year’s team, the Wildcats have dealt with injuries and growing pains from day one this year. But here we are at the turn into the backstretch of February and the ‘Cats are as healthy as they’re going to get and appear to be dialing into March. They’re never going to have the top-end ceiling of the last couple teams, but you can bet that Sean Miller is going to get the most out of his group. The first goal is a third consecutive Pac-12 regular season title, and they’ve got a slightly more difficult path ahead than the Ducks, with home games against Arizona State and then Cal and Stanford sandwiched around a roadie to the altitude schools. Their non-conference schedule didn’t provide them with many chances for high-value scalps, so wins over Gonzaga and USC are about the best resume-enhancers they have. But if they can do something crazy like only lose once more between this spot and Selection Sunday, they could sneak into the conversation for a #2 seed if things go haywire elsewhere. A #3 or #4 seed is more realistically within range, with geographical favoritism (Denver followed by Anaheim) a goal. That said, considering Arizona’s recent history in Anaheim, maybe the Wildcats would be better off with a change of scenery this March.
Sean Miller Is Again Tourney-Bound, But Maybe Not So Much On The Anaheim Thing? (Christian Peterson, Getty Images)

Sean Miller Is Again Tourney-Bound, But Maybe Not So Much On The Anaheim Thing? (Christian Peterson, Getty Images)

Playing For Position

  • USC (18-7, 7-5, RPI #22, KenPom #27) – Losing at Arizona State is really not that terrible of a thing. Bobby Hurley has a good squad that has experienced some bad luck, and Wells Fargo Arena is on the upswing as a home venue. But the worst part of losing at Arizona State is then having to visit Arizona following that loss. The Trojans played better against the Wildcats (at least for stretches), but still came away with an 0-2 road trip, putting them a game and a half back of the leaders in the conference race. The bad news for Andy Enfield’s team is that its remaining schedule is brutal. They get four home games but each of those (Colorado, Utah, Oregon State, Oregon) are losable, while the road trip to the Bay Area will be very difficult too. Still, barring a complete collapse, the Trojans will be dancing. With quality non-conference wins over Monmouth, Yale and a short-handed Wichita State club, coupled with a home win over Arizona, USC has a nice resume and a chance to add to it down the stretch. An optimistic scenario is something like a 4-2 finish, a run to the title game in Las Vegas and a seed in the #4-#6 range. If the wheels completely fall off in the next few weeks, however, the Trojans could drop down the bracket and give a high-seed a nightmare game in the first and second round.
  • Utah (18-7, 8-5, RPI #16, KenPom #40) – The Utes sit just a game back of the conference leaders but their final two road games of the season at the Los Angeles schools this weekend will tell us a lot about how they are regarded on Selection Sunday. Three wins against the RPI top 25 and six against the RPI top 50 mean the Utes are already golden with chances against highly-ranked teams like USC, Arizona and Colorado still remaining, Utah (along with its traveling partner, Colorado) has a great opportunity to jump up the seed lines with a few more victories. Right now something in the #6 or #7 range seems most likely, but a strong finish could push them up to the #4 line with a potential opening weekend in Denver.
  • Colorado (18-7, 8-5, RPI #25, KenPom #63) – While the Buffaloes sport the same record as their conference-mandated rival, there’s definitely not the same quality of meat on their bones. Their best non-conference win is over a BYU team that will likely be on the outside looking in although wins over Oregon and Cal will pay dividends. Right now, the Buffs are somewhere in the #7-#9 seed range with a chance for a big finish. Of more importance to the team’s overall chances, however, is the concern over Josh Scott’s ankle injury. If Colorado is going to score quality wins down the stretch over teams like USC, Arizona and Utah, it will need the senior big man in action.
Colorado Will Need Josh Scott To Live Up To Their Potential (Kai Casey, CU Independent)

Colorado Will Need Josh Scott To Live Up To Their Potential (Kai Casey, CU Independent)

  • California (17-8, 7-5, RPI #24, KenPom #32) – Let’s start by breaking down that 7-5 conference record a bit. The Golden Bears’ seven wins have all come in Haas Pavilion, while their five losses have all come on the road. Their sole win this season outside of Berkeley came at Wyoming (#178 in KenPom) in overtime. Now, none of that is necessarily a seed killer, but the Bears have four road games remaining. If form holds and Cal can’t get its act together at the Washington schools or the Arizona schools, they will have issues in terms of placement. Still, this team is going to be dancing and if it can pick up even just the low-hanging fruit on the remaining road schedule, the Bears are primed for a good seed on the basis of four win against the RPI top 25 with cracks at USC and Arizona still ahead. Currently they’re somewhere in the neighborhood of a #6-#8 seed, a spot at which they can give some opposing high seeds serious problems.

Bubblicious

  • Washington (15-10, 7-6, RPI #61, KenPom #69) – The Huskies have lost three straight and five of their last seven games. Those numbers hurt. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a home loss in overtime to Utah, a road loss to USC, a five-point home loss to Arizona, an eight-point road loss to Utah and a one-point road loss to Colorado — five losses to top 25 RPI teams by an average of less than six points. Still, unless the young pups can string together several wins to close out the season, those justifications may never even get on the committee’s radar. If Washington just wins their three remaining home games (Cal, Stanford, Washington State), they will be at 10-8 in the conference. At that point, they’d probably need to avoid an opening round Pac-12 Tournament loss, but they’d probably still be on the right side of the bubble, even if it meant a trip to Dayton.
  • Oregon State (14-9, 6-7, RPI #38, KenPom #70) – The Beavers are a game under .500 in conference play and they’ve got one more road game than home game remaining. That’s fine, though, because any equation that earns this program its first NCAA invitation since 1990 involves getting a road win at either Oregon or USC while taking care of business in Gill Coliseum against the Washington schools. That would put the Beavs at .500 in conference play and would give them a chance to add another scalp to what is already five wins over top 25 RPI teams. Do that and Oregon State dances. Anything less and it gets hairier, but wins over Oregon, Cal, USC, Utah and Colorado (not to mention another good one against Tulsa) will give this team a chance.
  • UCLA (14-11, 5-7, RPI #68, KenPom #54) – Don’t bury the Bruins just yet. Wins over Kentucky and Arizona show that they can play with the best, but losses to teams like Wake Forest and Washington State may be their eventual undoing. For Steve Alford’s squad to have a prayer on Selection Sunday, they’ve got to get back to .500 in conference play. Not only does that number just look a lot better, but it would also mean that UCLA added some quality wins to its resume with home games against Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Oregon State to come coupled with a road trip to the Bay Area. The bad news is that the only times the Bruins have won four times in six games was when their opponents included teams like Pepperdine, Cal State-Northridge and McNeese State. Odds are good that UCLA is NIT bound, at best.

I Need A Miracle

  • Stanford (11-11, 5-7, RPI #75, KenPom #110)
  • Arizona State (14-12, 4-9, RPI #82, KenPom #77)
  • Washington State (8-16, 1-12, RPI #188, KenPom #164)
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Burning Questions: Pac-12’s Best Big Man?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 15th, 2016

Last week we offered up a discussion on the best point guard in the Pac-12. Today, we turn from the little men to the big ones, as we discuss the best players in the conference at the positions of power forward and center. Below, our writers weigh in on the subject.

Jakob Poeltl: The Pac's Best Big (Utah Basketball)

Jakob Poeltl: The PAC’s Best Big (Utah Basketball)

Mike Lemaire: Unlike the point guard question where a case can be made for multiple guys, this honor without question goes to Utah’s Jakob Poeltl. He has long been an obvious lottery pick thanks to his remarkable skill and size, but he refined his offensive game during the offseason and it is now paying big dividends. He is among the national leaders in effective field goal percentage (34th) and true shot percentage (39th) while doubling his assist rate (14.2%), cutting down on his turnover rate (15.6%) and significantly improving his free-throw shooting (from 43% to 68%). In fact, inconsistency at the charity stripe is one of Poeltl’s few offensive flaws and it is clear he is working to iron out that imperfection. Lest we forget, Poeltl is also still an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor (top 150 nationally in both) and is a game-changing shot-blocker (6.1%). One could argue that Cal’s Ivan Rabb has more long-term upside, but considering Poeltl has less help on the perimeter, his success is impressive to ignore. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marching to Vegas: In Defense of the Pac

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on January 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 is exactly what we want it to be, at least in a season like this. In a conference whose most tenured coach has a 0.456 winning percentage over his last four seasons and the second most tenured is Johnny Dawkins, we’ve got what we want. The Pac isn’t producing basketball we’ll soon tell our grandchildren about or write new defensive schematics to contain something transcendent. Only Bill Walton could contextualize the Pac-12 as historically brilliant right now. He’s wrong. He knows he’s wrong but he’ll say it anyway because he’s Bill Walton and he’s forgotten more basketball than we’ll ever know. What if he’s right, though (he’s not)?

Don't Worry Pac-12, We've Got Your Back.

Don’t Worry Pac-12, We’ve Got Your Back.

Because right now the Pac-12 is competitive. We can quantify that, for starters. Noting that 45 percent of its games – according to KenPom – have been close; that there hasn’t been a “blowout” of 19-points or more through 29 conference games. Remember 2012, when we lamented what a poor Pac-12 we had? Just 19 percent of those games were close and 18 percent were blowouts. That’s nearly 40 percent of conference basketball with seemingly no balance. Think about that. In easily the worst Pac play we’ve ever seen, the games weren’t even close. Competition breeds success. The Pac-12 in 2016 isn’t the greatest basketball we’ve ever seen. In 2009 it collectively led the nation in efficiency. This year it’s 15th. But when I sit down to watch Pac-12 basketball, I’m watching an entertaining product. We’re watching a game worth celebrating and not lamenting because there aren’t necessarily rosters littered with disciplined executioners (2015 Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Arizona, Virginia) or uber-talented transcendents (2015 Kentucky, Duke). This isn’t last season. If you want that, here’s a link to CSN Bay Area and all of the Warriors highlights you can handle. And yes, it is unfair to compare anything to those Warriors. It’s also unfair to compare any of these 2016 teams against what was a historically fantastic 2015. Read the rest of this entry »

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Making Sense of the Wild Pac-12 Standings

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 11th, 2016

We’re now through two weeks of Pac-12 play and Washington sits alone atop the conference with a 3-0 record. USC, Oregon State and Oregon are the next three teams, with only one loss. Teams among the conference favorites – for example, Arizona and Utah – sit with sub-.500 records. And Arizona State, a team expected to be in the mix somewhere in the middle of the conference race, is sitting alone in last place with an 0-3 record. Sure, given that teams have only played a fraction of the conference schedule, most of this is meaningless. But here are some more relevant facts. At halfway through the college basketball regular season, 11 of the 12 conference teams are ranked among the KenPom top 100 — only Washington State sits out at #122. If RPI is more your thing (for some reason), those 11 teams rank among the top 75 of that metric. If you want to throw out Stanford and Washington, the top nine teams in the conference rank among the top 66 in KenPom and the top 48 in RPI. The conference is listed as the #2 strongest collection of teams in the land by RPI, while KenPom puts the league third. Oregon is rated highest in RPI (#11), while Arizona tops KenPom at #16.

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It's Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It’s Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Enough numbers for now; the important question is what do they all mean? To begin with, this is a conference that runs deep with good teams. In a season seeming to lack great teams on a national level, the Pac-12 will again be expected to extend its streak of seasons without a Final Four entrant to eight. However, because of that lack of dominant team on the national landscape, if this NCAA Tournament tends towards wild upsets (as sometimes happens), the Pac-12 has some teams in that next tier of strength that could either be the upsetter or take advantage of brackets thinned out by upsets.

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Pac-12 Bracketology: Non-Conference Season

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 9th, 2016

The heavy lifting for Pac-12 teams has just begun but the non-conference games each team is leaving behind won’t stay in the rear-view mirror very long. They make a dramatic reappearance in the next two months when some of those games played two and three months prior might be the difference between getting a coveted invitation to the Big Dance and being shut out. This means that the only consistent way to analyze how each team did in non-conference play is to evaluate each resume as if the teams were on the bubble. In general, Pac-12 teams did a lackluster job of scheduling legitimate competition (and beating it). Even with a seriously stretched definition of what counts as a “quality win,” it was still tough to get excited about the success of these teams. Let’s run through it.

Arizona – IN

Sean Miller's Team is Of Course Easily In, But How High? (USA Today Images)

Sean Miller’s Team is Of Course Easily In, But How High? (USA Today Images)

  • KenPom Non-Conference Strength of Schedule: #292
  • Quality Wins: at Gonzaga, UNLV, Boise State (2x)
  • Bad Losses: None

The Wildcats look like the class of the Pac so the team’s at-large candidacy likely won’t matter much because they’re in regardless. They didn’t exactly challenge themselves in the first half of their schedule, playing  what amounts to the easiest non-conference slate in the conference. But Arizona also didn’t lose to anyone unexpected and beat a few decent teams too. It is possible that the win in Spokane against Gonzaga will be the only one to stand up as a true quality win, but for now, wins over Boise State (twice) and UNLV build a solid foundation for an at-large resume.

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On the Importance of Sam Singer at California

Posted by Matt Snyder on December 1st, 2015

After reeling off four straight wins to begin the 2015-16 season, California endured its first setbacks of the season in last week’s Las Vegas Classic. First came a 14-point loss to San Diego State, which had fallen at home to Arkansas-Little Rock the previous week. (To be fair, Little Rock is currently 5-0, and has also taken down Tulsa on the road.) The day after beating the Bears, the Aztecs were unceremoniously thumped by West Virginia. In its second game in Vegas, Cal lost by four points to Richmond, which already has a win at Wake Forest and returns four starters from last season: one of whom, senior forward Terry Allen, went off for 34 points and 13 rebounds against the Bears. All of which is to say, through a rather convoluted lede, that the non-conference portion of the season is in full swing. Crazy stuff happens as teams begin to take shape. There’s no need for Cal fans to panic after watching their team’s perfect 4-0 record dwindle to a more pedestrian 4-2 in the face of tougher competition.

Sam Singer might be one of the more hearalded players on the Cal squad, but he is one of the most important. (Cal Athletics)

Sam Singer (#2) might not be one of the more heralded players on Cal’s squad, but he is one of the most important. (Cal Athletics)

Take that game against Richmond. The Bears’ two standout freshmen, Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, led the team in points (27) and rebounds (seven), respectively, continuing their strong starts to the season. They are the two gemstones that head coach Cuonzo Martin has embedded into the program he’s building in Berkeley — one that seems poised to become a West Coast powerhouse for years to come. The new blood blends well with the core that Mike Montgomery, Martin’s predecessor, assembled before retiring at the close of the 2013-14 season. In addition to being one of the best minds in the game, ‘Monty’, as he’s commonly known, brought in the likes of Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews, all of whom start for Cal this season. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Where are the Fans?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 20th, 2015

Arizona head coach Sean Miller called out UCLA this week for its poor attendance at games in Pauley Pavilion. But with only a very few exceptions, lack of attendance at basketball games has been a concern at schools up and down the conference. What kind of impact does this have on the overall health of a basketball program? And what can be done to fix it?

Fan Support At McKale Center Is The Gold Standard In The Pac-12 (Daily Wildcat)

Fan Support At McKale Center Is The Gold Standard In The Pac-12 (Daily Wildcat)

Adam Butler: There’s a lot of layers to this onion. There’s the #HotTake and the presumed “shade” thrown by Sean Miller. Reading between the lines we can also see that Steve Alford had a retort. That’s the fun stuff. I called it feed for the news cycle monster. But Drew’s question here doesn’t really address that fun matter (and it shouldn’t because it’s really not worth it). What I want to explore is attendance as a matter of conference health. As the question notes, the Pac-12 has seen declining average attendance in each of the past three seasons, with the abysmal 2011-12 season having the worst average attendance of any Pac-12 season (7,054 per game). Yet here we are, one season removed from three Sweet Sixteen teams and touting four ranked teams for the first time since the week of January 21, 2008. That’s five seasons of three or fewer ranked teams. And sure it’s early — and no doubt attendance is growing — but in this chicken-or-egg conversation I’m drawn to ask what attendance really means? Literally, attendance is the number of people that go to a game. But over time, attendance has come to be synonymous with popularity. And that’s simply inaccurate. It’s 2015 and we have page views and clicks and impressions. They just played a damn Pac-12 game in China! Games can be streamed on phones, tablets and desktops. Blogs like pachoops.com (wink face emoji) and this microsite can cover the sport at more intimate levels than national publishers that maybe, perhaps chop unique sports voices (cough, Grantland, cough). Miller’s comments aren’t wrong; he even noted that a screaming McKale is what we think of when we imagine college basketball. He’s absolutely right. But let’s not be so quick to dismiss the conference’s popularity because there aren’t as many butts in the seats. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oregon State Preview: Can the Beavers Finally Break Out?

Posted by Michael Lemaire on November 6th, 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 Corvallis.

Oregon State Beavers

After years of sustained mediocrity under former head coach Craig Robinson, Oregon State took a (very) small step forward in its first season under new coach Wayne Tinkle. The Beavers may have won only 17 games and still finished below .500 in the Pac-12, but they did it with a roster returning just one meaningful contributor and quickly earned a reputation as one of the toughest defensive teams in the country. After surprising plenty of observers last season with their newfound competitiveness, Tinkle’s team isn’t going to sneak up on anyone this season. His squad not only returns almost every key player but also adds four of the top 150 recruits in the country. The result of those two things should be the addition of a little firepower to what was often a punchless offense. There are still a lot of moving parts that will be Tinkle’s responsibility to clean up and fit together, but all of a sudden the Beavers have become one of the deepest and most experienced teams in the Pac-12. If the freshmen can live up to even a portion of their hype and the trademark suffocating defense doesn’t disappear, the Beavers could find themselves in the NCAA Tournament by the end of the season.

Wayne Tinkle: Coach of the Year? (Godofredo Vasquez, USA Today)

Wayne Tinkle Has Oregon State Thinking About Dancing. (Godofredo Vasquez/USA Today)

Strengths: Tinkle has always been known for his hard-nosed approach on defense, but few could have predicted that last season’s roster full of question marks would quickly evolve into one of the 20 most efficient defenses in the entire country. Some of this is a byproduct of the super-slow pace that the Beavers play, but led by reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton II, the Beavers harassed opposing teams into poor shooting nights, forced turnovers and protected the rim. The team allowed opponents to score 70 points or more just seven times all season, hounding opponents into shooting just 30 percent from downtown along the way. This year’s team should be at least as good defensively as it was last season. If the Beavers can keep the opposition off the free throw line — something at which they failed miserably last season — they should be even better. Also, aside from losing troubled but talented forward Victor Robbins, who was dismissed in June, Oregon State returns literally everyone who played meaningful minutes, giving Tinkle heavy doses of both depth and experience. This should allow the head coach the luxury of fitting the newcomers into places where they can succeed.  Lineups can also be mixed and matched in a way that enables the Beavers to compete with both big and small teams. Bottom line: If Oregon State can maintain its defensive efficiency this season, the Beavers should be competitive in every game they play. Read the rest of this entry »

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The RTC Podcast: Conference Preview Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 6th, 2015

In this, the third preseason installment of the RTC Podcast, the guys welcome Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) to join the discussion about favorites, surprises and storylines for each of the six major basketball conferences (sorry, American fans!). In a wide-ranging pod, consensus was reached in only a couple of conferences this preseason — see if you can guess which ones? As always, Shane Connolly (@sconnolly114) hosts, and make sure to subscribe on iTunes so it will automatically download to your listening device each week. The full rundown is below!

  • 0:00-10:23 – ACC Preview
  • 10:23-17:51 – Big East Preview
  • 17:51-25:21 – Big Ten Preview
  • 25:51-32:54 – Big 12 Preview
  • 32:54-37:51 – Pac 12 Preview
  • 37:51-43:43 – SEC Preview
  • 43:43-45:41 – Which will be the best conference?
  • 45:41-49:13 – College Basketball Survivor Pool
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