Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Prospects Looking Slim

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 13th, 2018

And then there were three. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee took its Excalibur Sharpies and scrawled in the names of Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State onto its 68-team bracket and left an entire conference reeling in its wake. I’ll touch upon USC at another time, but the upshot should not really be that much of a revelation: Conference affiliation is ultimately arbitrary in the case of making the Big Dance. But enough digression. Let’s take a quick look at the three teams who did make it and assess their prospects for this weekend and beyond.

DeAndre Ayton is a Problem for Any Team in His Path (USA Today Images)

Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton gave everybody in Las Vegas a tantalizing glimpse of the dominance he’s capable of inflicting. He became the first player in Pac-10/12 history to ever win Freshman of the Year, Player of the Year, and Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament. Sean Miller said months ago that “we go as DeAndre goes,” and truer words have never been spoken. Unfortunately, there are two things conspiring to thwart Miller’s Quixotic journey to the Final Four. The first is the Wildcats’ lack of consistent defensive play, a very conspicuous attribute in the Miller Era. This year the Wildcats finished 70th in Defensive Rating, per KenPom, and in the previous three seasons that number was 29th, 29th and third. The strange thing is that with Ayton, Rawle Alkins, Keanu Pinder and Dusan Ristic, you’d think the Wildcats would be a good defensive team.

However, college basketball is a guard’s game, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier have slid significantly on defense from last year. Jackson-Cartwright has gone from an exceptional defender (99.0 DRtg in 2016-17) to essentially average at 105.0. Trier has gone from acceptable (101.0) to a turnstile (107.5) With a 131.0 Offensive Rating in tow, Trier is too good to keep off the court, but by far the biggest basketball question mark for Arizona is the ability of its backcourt to get stops. The other issue is the draw. Arizona by chalk would be looking at #5 Kentucky (gulp) in the Second Round and #1 Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen. By chalk, Arizona would then play #2 Cincinnati in the Elite Eight. That’s a tall order and likely even too tall for the seven-foot Ayton. Best case: Ayton continues to be a Basketball Godzilla and simply carries the Wildcats to San Antonio. Worst case: Kentucky gets revenge for its 1997 championship game loss and maybe Miller’s most talented team fails to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

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Arizona’s Defense Isn’t Very Good and It Might Not Matter

Posted by Adam Butler on December 21st, 2017

Following a week that included wins against Texas A&M and Alabama — quality wins no matter the program — college basketball’s own Jon Rothstein noted the “fact” that Arizona would be a one-loss team had it not been for Rawle Alkins’ absence (broken foot) in those games. Read the tweet. Alkins’ presence would have meant that the sky would not seemingly be falling and all would be well in the desert. First of all, to find that tweet, one has to dig through a lot of tweets — Rothstein tweets a lot and he tweets redundantly. Secondly, we do like to be rooted in fact and the Wildcats are – in fact – a three loss team re-incorporating a starter among an underperforming freshman class (aside from the magnificent Deandre Ayton). Furthermore, through 12 games, this is easily the worst defense that Sean Miller has coached (or at least since advanced defensive statistics have been available on The Wildcats are sitting at an unadjusted defensive efficiency of 1.02 points per possession and the next worse mark for a Miller team through 12 games was during his second season in Tucson (2011-12) — 0.96 PPP. That team was 8-4 at the same point in the season and of course represents the last time Arizona missed the NCAA Tournament.

DeAndre Ayton Has Been a Lone Bright Spot for Arizona This Season (USA Today Images)

At 9-3, the fact is that this could be the worst Miller defense since perhaps his first year in Tucson (2009-10 – 0.995 PPP). That team went 16-15 and had zero players (immediately) drafted from it. This team, however, has three projected NBA Draft picks, a beleaguered point. And beyond the facts there are questions like “can this defense get better?” The short answer has to be “yes,” right? Miller has coached only four worse defenses (by adjusted defensive efficiency) and the assumption is that this year’s team will naturally improve with more experience. A logical conclusion. Defensive trends, however, typically suggest a team’s efficiency worsens as the season progresses. This would make sense as, in the case of an Arizona, their defensive numbers should be more impressive against a lesser, pre-Pac schedule. It would also make sense, however, to expect to see less of a floundering Ayton or a scrambling Parker Jackson-Cartwright as we get into games 20, 21 and beyond.

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2017-18 Pac-12 Big “Ifs”

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 10th, 2017

The Pac-12 has had a starring role in the extracurricular tomfoolery brought to life by the FBI this offseason. Certainly this story has no expiration date on the horizon, but the games are coming and there will be no shortage of intrigue this year in the Conference of Champions. Here are 12 Big Ifs separating each team from its best-case scenario this season.

Is This Finally the Year For Arizona (USA Today Images)?

  1. Arizona: There is just nowhere else to look when sizing up the Pac-12 favorites. Once Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins’ returns were secure, the combination of those two plus the arrival of heralded freshman DeAndre Ayton is just too much top shelf talent, buttressed by an outstanding roster that also includes returning glue guys Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright along with Ayton’s freshman co-stars Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot and Alex Borcello.  If this roster remains intact come March and the FBI distractions don’t do just that, Miller has his best shot at breaking through that Final Four barrier that has stonewalled him to this point in Tucson.
  2. USC: The Trojans are bringing back 98 percent of their scoring and 96 percent of their rebounding to a team that won two NCAA Tournament games last season. Bennie Boatwright, De’Anthony Melton, Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin and Alijah Stewart form the only returning starting quintet in the league. Can they improve upon a defense that finished a middling seventh in the Pac-12 in efficiency last season?
  3. Oregon:  The Ducks return the least amount of points, rebounds and blocks of any team in the conference and yet they return the most important piece of their success: head coach Dana Altman. Oregon has top recruits Troy Brown and Victor Bailey, Jr., joining three transfers this season: Paul White (Georgetown), Elijah Brown (New Mexico), and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State). If Altman works not just well but quickly then Oregon could be ready in time for Pac-12 contention.
  4. Stanford: The Cardinal owned the 10th-rated offense in Pac-12 play last year, largely from scoring only 23.5 percent of their points from three-point range last year, a number that makes consistent offense virtually impossible. If Stanford can ascend to just the national average on three-point production this time around, it should be an NCAA Tournament team. Read the rest of this entry »
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Arizona is Standing by Its Statements

Posted by Adam Butler on October 17th, 2017

Arizona head coach Sean Miller will stick by his statement. He is, after all, a man of principle as we understand him. He’ll rarely deviate from his defensive schemes, controls his narrative, and would consider himself a teacher. “This is about the kids,” he noted when addressing questions last Thursday afternoon at Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco. As it pertained to the ongoing investigation into his and other programs, Miller noted that he’d be sticking to his statement. Twelve times in less-than 15 minutes he’d reference that document and its words. There is an investigation, of course, that Miller is supporting while his bosses (athletic director Dave Heeke and school president Robert C. Robbins) support him. That support, by the way, meant “the world” to Miller.

Sean Miller Takes Only Certain Questions (USA Today Images)

Naturally, this kept us away from the important stuff such as:

QUESTION: Do you think you have the best team in the country?

SEAN MILLER: I appreciate the question. I don’t think we are right now. You know, Rawle Alkins getting hurt, I haven’t had an opportunity, and we haven’t had our collection of players together. Part of what I think makes our team this year potentially good, special, we’re not there yet, obviously at the beginning stages.

He’d go on, as I saw in person but as quantified by transcript, for 254 more words about how he just might have the best team in the country. He’d revel in the athleticism of his prized recruit, Deandre Ayton. There were allusions to past Arizona greats such as Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, and referencing their athletic prowess. Ayton, however, has touched the top of the backboard. Miller had never seen that before. Neither have I. Have you?

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Arizona 100, #15 North Dakota 82

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 17th, 2017

Arizona overcame its own second half boredom and a number of mental breakdowns by posting an Offensive Rating of 133.3 in blowing out North Dakota, 100-82.

Arizona’s Allonzo Trier (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen prove the Wildcats still need some upperclassman leadership. After a sluggish start to the game, Arizona head coach Sean Miller inserted Jackson-Cartwright, who sparked an immediate 15-3 Wildcats run. It happened again after he was out for a brief 30-second stretch, whereupon Miller inserted him and he created an and-1 opportunity for Lauri Markannen.  Allen, as a senior the “graybeard” of the Wildcats, watched a comfortable lead drop to only seven points at the 13:30 mark of the second half. The Wildcats went on an order-restoring 12-4 run over the next four minutes, with Allen scoring seven points to lead the surge.
  2. Lauri Markannen is evolving, and that’s scary. The freshman big man took eight shots in the first half, only one of which was a three-pointer. The rest of the half involved Markannen doing his work in the paint, absorbing contact and finishing. He finished the game with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting with zero three-pointers as part of the mixture. That’s considerable restraint from a player who is shooting 43 percent from long distance on the season.
  3.  Arizona needs to play a full game on defense. The Wildcats allowed a 50-point half to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game followed by a 45-point half to North Dakota tonight. That’s not the kind of sustained defensive effort that carries a team into the third (or even the second) weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Sean Miller zeroed in on transition as an issue for the Wildcats, and although early offense is not a hallmark of Arizona’s next opponent, shooting the three-pointer certainly is. Playing only one good half of defense is not likely to work for Arizona moving forward. 

Star of the Game. Rawle Alkins is quietly reliable. This may seem like an innocuous statement, but it is important to Arizona given that he is a freshman who literally moves his teammates around on the court and virtually never suffers a freshman lapse. All he did on Thursday was score 18 points, grab five rebounds and dish out four assists without missing a shot or committing a turnover.

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Pac-12 Tournament Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 15th, 2017

The Pac-12 ended up with fewer seeds in the NCAA Tournament than the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Big 10.  Of course, it was always quality (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and not quantity for the Conference of Champions this season. Outside of the ACC, no conference has three teams being hailed as legitimate Final Four threats.  The questions this time of year focus on where you’re trending and your presumptive path. By the time you get to a National Semifinal you are certainly going to be playing a great team, or at the very least a team playing like one. Those games match up as coin tosses in most cases, so let’s focus on which of the four Pac-12 teams who qualified has the best shot of reaching Glendale.

Do Allonzo Trier and Arizona own the Pac-12’s best chances of reaching the National Semifinals? (Photo: USA Today Sports)


  • Trending Up:  Jordan McLaughlin is averaging nearly 17 points a game over his last four and has a stellar A/TO rate of 31/6 over those four games. Guard play takes center stage in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Trojans are to make more than a cameo in the round of 68, they’ll need McLaughlin to keep playing at a high level this week.
  • Trending Down:  Since posting a stellar 156 ORtg against Washington State in March 1, Bennie Boatwright has slumped to games with offensive efficiency ratings of 88, 102, and 83 amidst an 8-28 field goal shooting stretch.  USC is not a great offensive team and they struggle in the halfcourt; without Boatwright at max efficiency working to stretch defenses and convert in the paint, USC isn’t long for this week.
  • Final Four:  The Trojans were on a three-game winning streak before UCLA dispatched them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. USC didn’t make it easy for the Bruins, however, and in the last four games found an offensive groove, posting efficiency ratings well over national average in its three wins. The loss to UCLA showed they could hang with an elite team despite subpar performances from Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, and De’Anthony Melton. Coming off a loss, it’d be wrong to say the Trojans are streaking, but they are playing good ball.

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Notes From the Pac-12 Quarterfinals

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 10th, 2017

Day two of the Pac-12 Tournament closed with the league’s 24-game chalk streak finally broken (barely, though, with a #5 seed beating a #4 seed), and the conference’s heavyweights in position to line up for the big stage over the next two nights. After two rounds of action, here are the three big takeaways from the Conference of Champions’ time so far in the desert.

UCLA and USC Put on an Entertaining Show Last Night (USA Today Images)

  1. The heavyweights can win with their B Games: Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA were not at their best on Thursday, but they were all good enough. In Arizona’s 92-78 win over the Buffaloes, five Wildcats scored in double figures and Sean Miller’s offense was enough to overcome a defense that struggled to contain Colorado. UCLA went down to the wire against its crosstown rival, but they bookended the game with good defense (USC started the game 1-of-14 and missed their final five shots) and enough offense to advance. Oregon had the easiest time of it, but keep an eye on the Ducks’ depth: They had to roll with only six players because of Chris Boucher’s foul trouble. Perhaps the biggest takeaway on Thursday was that each team overcame its potential weaknesses:  Arizona’s freshmen (Rawle Alkins, Lauri Markannen and Kobi Simmons) shot 17-of-21 combined against Colorado and committed only two turnovers in 62 minutes of floor time. UCLA’s shaky defense did just enough to survive and advance, and Oregon, a team with no real post player, pounded Arizona State in the paint with a 42-18 advantage.
  2. The bubble teams helped their causes: USC is now likely in the field with a 1-1 Pac-12 Tournament showing, but debate still lingers over Cal’s status. A win over Oregon tonight would makes them a lock, but if they were to lose, have the Bears done enough?  Cal has 21 wins but only two of those were in the KenPom top 50 (Utah). Bill Walton thinks they’re in; Joe Lunardi thinks they’re not; but ultimately there’s only one thing we know for sure — the Bears still control their own fate, and that’s all they can ask for at this point.
  3. Derrick White is awesome:  White could make the all-tournament team despite playing only half the days. The senior Colorado guard posted 31 points, six rebounds and five assists against Arizona while shooting 17-of-34 for the tournament. He was also 16-0f-19 from the line. His 57 points are to date better than any player still standing, and only Cal’s Jabari Bird is very close with 46 points.

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Deep Diving into the Pac-12 All-Freshmen Team

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 7th, 2017

Earlier this season we arrived at a formula for evaluating the most efficient freshmen in the Pac-12. Essentially, we took net efficiency differential and factored in a player’s individual defense relative to his team. As of January 9 — the rough midpoint of the regular season — these were the five most efficient conference freshmen.

  1. T.J. Leaf, UCLA
  2. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
  3. Rawle Alkins, Arizona
  4. Markelle Fultz, Washington
  5. Lauri Markannen, Arizona

Arguably the most talented class of freshmen to ever enter the Pac-12, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball takes the cake. (AP)

Now that we’re at the end of the year, it is time to revisit this list and see how everyone grades out with a full body of work.  The key to this whole premise is the value put into player efficiency, as this list would look much different if you instead used statistical volumes or per game averages. KenPom, as a salient example, ranks Fultz as the best player in the Pac-12 based on a combination of ability and usage rate. However, I’m going to stray from the Great KP here and stick with the previous formula for a couple reasons. First, while usage rate is certainly something to consider, the other names on this list are similar enough in usage to merit a reasonable comparison. Second, KenPom uses the entire season to compile his numbers while we’re sticking solely with Pac-12 play (which is still a bit noisy thanks to unbalanced schedules). This serves to clean up the unwieldy variables of non-conference scheduling and make for a fairer analysis. Here is how our quintet now ranks using the key criteria cross-referenced with defensive efficiency relative to team defensive performance. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Achilles’ Heels of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA

Posted by Richard Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

The Pac-12’s Big Three of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA (in no particular order) have spent most of the regular season displaying their numerous virtues, but for these three programs their ultimate referendum is going to be performance in the NCAA Tournament. The trio certainly won’t be the only Pac-12 schools to qualify for the Big Dance this season, but they will be expected to carry the banner for the Conference of Champions deep into March (last men’s basketball championship: Arizona, 1997). So what to make of the Wildcats, Ducks and Bruins as we approach three weeks until Selection Sunday? Their talent is unquestioned, but each team carries at least one potentially tragic flaw that must be reconciled if it has plans on booking a trip to the Final Four.

Arizona: Inexperience

Lauri Markkanen is a potentially game-changing talent, but will his inexperience catch up to him in the Big Dance? (Getty)

No team epitomizes the conference’s youthful resurgence like Arizona. In Pac-12 play, freshmen Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons represent nearly half of Arizona’s field goal attempts and scoring. That hasn’t mattered until recently, but a reckoning more commonly known as “The Freshman Wall” is imminent. Rare is the first-year collegian who can completely sidestep a prolonged dip in performance. Markannen recently went through a two-week stretch of poor performances, punctuated by four-point, three-rebound stinker at Oregon. Simmons has also struggled with inconsistency in league play. His masterpiece against UCLA was the precursor to an ineffective 2-of-7 game against Utah. Another inconsistent swing through Oregon cost Simmons his starting job, and his 19 minutes against Stanford represented a season low. He bounced back somewhat against California with 13 points and three assists, but he doesn’t seem quite as comfortable as he once did. Alkins also struggled against the Oregon schools, but he played well in recent games against Stanford and Washington State. Teams have certainly won NCAA titles led by talented youth, but it’s also not hard to imagine a team like Arizona cracking against a veteran-laden athletic group like Villanova. Arizona has plenty of time to find greater consistency among its freshman corps, but like the rest of us, Sean Miller is probably still wondering what are his young Wildcats made of?

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Weekly Pac-5: Freshman Efficiency

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 9th, 2017

It’s very much a Year of the Freshman in college basketball and the Pac-12 has followed suit. As we now find ourselves through two weeks of conference play, it’s a good time to check in on the headlining freshmen in the Conference of Champions. Washington’s Markelle Fultz is the Pac-12’s leading scorer and the front-runner as the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but there are a number of other high-scoring freshmen in the league. In fact, we could probably just list the top five scorers in the Pac, slap the top five freshmen label on them, and call it a day. Here’s what the list would look like if we did just that.

Markelle Fultz is the Presumptive #1 Pick in the 2017 NBA Draft (USA Today Images)

  1. Markelle Fultz, Washington – 22.1 PPG
  2. TJ Leaf, UCLA – 17.4 PPG
  3. Lauri Markannen, Arizona – 15.9 PPG
  4. Charlie Moore, California – 15.2 PPG
  5. Lonzo Ball, UCLA – 14.7 PPG

Pretty good, right?  Those are your top five freshmen by scoring average. They’ve all played enough minutes for us to trust in the validity of their averages, but what happens when you rank these five players based on offensive efficiency?  Here’s where things start to get interesting.

Player ORtg
TJ Leaf, UCLA 134.3
Lauri Markannen, Arizona 132.3
Lonzo Ball, UCLA 131.0
Markelle Fultz, Washington 119.4
Rawle Alkins, Arizona 107.7


Well then.  First, we see that Markannen, whose shooting splits are insane, vaults to the top of the group. California’s Moore gets voted off the island altogether; Arizona’s Rawle Alkins jumps into the picture; and Fultz slides down to fourth in our rankings. This is why efficiency is important to consider when judging players. Does Offensive Rating make Markannen a better player than the others? No, but it does clearly identify him as the most
efficient offensive player regardless of draft potential. That’s all well and good, but what about defense? For that we turn to defensive efficiency, an admittedly noisy statistic compared with individual Offensive Rating, but still a useful and informative metric. Limited strictly to defense, here’s how the top five freshmen scorers in the conference.

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