Pac-12 Needs the Two Cs to Recover

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 1st, 2018

The Pac-12 is struggling. About that there can be no doubt. The conference has no teams in the top 10 in the RPI and only two among the top 40 (#16 Arizona, #37 USC). Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of bracketology holds those two teams plus Arizona State in his field of 68, with only Washington landing among the first four out. Jeff Sagarin ranks the conference sixth overall with only (again) the Wildcats and Trojans cracking his top 40. Nothing amazing is going to happen in February to salvage the league this year. The question is whether there are any signs of daylight cracking through the wall of despair the league has built between it and the upcoming NCAA Tournament. First, let’s look to youth. A quick scan of the PER leaders among freshmen shows a pretty impressive group of players.

Player School
DeAndre Ayton Arizona
Kenny Wooten Washington
Romello White Arizona State
Jalen Nowell Washington
McKinley Wright IV Colorado
Donnie Tillman Utah
Justice Sueing California
Kris Wilkes UCLA
Remy Martin Arizona State
Troy Brown Oregon

 

Now, this list does not encapsulate the entirety of elite freshman talent in the Pac. Stanford alone has Daejon Davis, who has already won a Pac-12 Player of the Week award, and KZ Okpala, who despite not playing until the final non-conference game is already garnering calls to the Cardinal offices from NBA scouts. Speaking of Players of the Week, Arizona’s Dusan Ristic and Utah’s Justin Bibbins just ended a three-week stretch from the new year onward when a freshman was the conference player of the week. The most intriguing part of this list is that, aside from Ayton, there isn’t a surefire NBA lottery pick in the group. That’s not to say there isn’t NBA talent on that list or elsewhere across the league. It’s to say instead that, aside from Ayton, most of this group should be back for at least one more season. That certainly matters, because Ayton’s ongoing brilliance isn’t going to single-handedly bring the conference back to glory.

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Arizona Against the Zone and Colorado’s Strategy

Posted by Adam Butler on January 25th, 2018

With modest success this season, teams have been throwing zone defenses at Arizona. The Wildcats have played nearly 25 percent of their offense against the zone, the 35th-highest percentage in college basketball. Overall, Arizona has been an excellent offensive team. Sean Miller’s group ranks among the top 15 teams nationally in offensive efficiency, touts a 57 percent effective field goal rate and – especially as it pertains to zone=busting – is making a healthy 38.2 percent of its threes (53rd nationally). On paper at least, Arizona would seem perfectly adept at breaking the zone. But in truth, when looking at the Wildcats’ offense versus man-to-man defense, Arizona ranks as the ninth-most efficient team in the country (per Synergy Sports). Against zone, however, and this may be where opponents are focusing, the Wildcats dip to 115th nationally at 0.97 points per possession.

Colorado’s Tad Boyle is Looking for the Arizona Sweep Tonight (USA Today Images)

Staring across the court at a roster featuring DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, I too would be seeking any advantage. It’s perhaps why Colorado head coach Tad Boyle, a staunch man-to-man advocate, exacted a zone defense last month against Arizona in Boulder and is likely to do so again in tonight’s rematch. Considering Arizona is about five points per 100 possessions less effective against a zone, Boyle’s plan is seemingly vindicated. Furthermore, the Buffaloes won that Saturday afternoon in The Keg; the ultimate vindication of strategic success. But also remember that Arizona is, indeed, a quality three-point shooting and offensive rebounding team, and that they’re fantastic at getting into transition (a zone-busting strategy). Theoretically, the Wildcats are well-equipped to beat a zone (and has done so in every attempt since). But the strategy goes well beyond nuance in numbers. Boyle used a similar zone against Arizona State just two days before he beat the Wildcats — on that night, at least, Colorado also beat the Sun Devils, which, over the course of this season, play more efficiently against zone than man (they are, after all, a great three-point shooting team). What gives?

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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 basketball-reference.com). 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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Analyzing Arizona’s Three Consecutive Losses

Posted by Adam Butler on November 29th, 2017

The approach to analyzing Arizona’s unprecedented fall from the Top 25 to unranked over the last week can take many approaches. There’s the physical — diving deep into lapses on the defensive end that yielded 90 points to NC State, the first 90-point effort by a Wildcats’ opponent since 2010. It was a point total Oregon didn’t achieve last year when the Ducks made 16 threes and shot 67 percent from the field. It’s a physical analysis that would also recognize offensive woes — everything from point guard play to offensive flow and scheme. There’s the emotional — dissecting an element of the game that’s difficult to view on tape or quantify, making note of the ongoing investigations or team dynamics. This would lead us down a path of deep hypothesizing and creating narratives about chemistry, priority and focus. We could also be self-reflective, recognizing the team’s performance but questioning our own ability to forecast or evaluate. Was the incoming freshman class just not that good? Have we undervalued Kadeem Allen? Is Allonzo Trier individually skilled but lacking in a team environment? Of course each of these analyses would be valid. Each would address legitimate concerns and each has been discussed, in depth, across the internets (read Rob Dauster’s breakdown). A dive into Arizona message boards or Arizona Twitter to find allusions to Sean Miller’s dismissal and misinformed rumors. Unprecedented events often yield ridiculous reactions (as does the internet, but you knew that).

Yep, it’s been that kind of start for Sean Miller’s Wildcats. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

I’d focus any analysis on the word TRUST. Arizona entered the season as a favorite with known limitations and hopeful improvements. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a skilled guard. He can hit an open shot, handle and pass the ball effectively and understands the complex pack-line defense. His size and athleticism, a known deficiency, can be a detriment to what Arizona is trying to accomplish on the defensive end (stopping dribble penetration) and the offensive end (threatening in transition). What’s worse, PJC can disappear, a significant issue for a senior point guard. For him, it’s a matter of consistently TRUSTING his ability. Conversely, Trier seems to have no issue in trusting his abilities. Touting a top 100 usage rate (29%), Trier is of the belief he’ll lead this team by carrying it on his back. Sometimes, that’s OK. More specifically, however,  when that’s not working, it’s not OK. For Trier there would seem to be an issue of TRUSTING his teammates, a skilled lot that will help him achieve his, and more critically the team’s, goals. And speaking of the collective, to borrow Miller’s terminology, they’ll need to TRUST the process, a tagline that has been central to this program. A tagline that has yielded 223 wins in Miller’s time in Tucson (averaging 28 wins per season). Three consecutive losses are a drop in the procedural bucket, an opportunity to teach, learn, coach, galvanize. Arizona’s team and program is far bigger than a Bahamian disaster. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Listicles: Pick and Roll Offense

Posted by Adam Butler on November 15th, 2017

Offensively, the pick-and-roll is a common means to forcing a mismatch, a big vs. small scenario either on the post or the perimeter. Its ubiquity gave way to positionless basketball and a treasuring of the 6’8” athlete. Philosophically, if a defender is versatile enough to defend both off the bounce or on the block, the offense would be limited in its ability to create these mismatches. Of course this is more difficult to achieve at the collegiate level. Players are less refined, needing greater definition to their roles. Considering as much, I thought it’d be interesting to see which of the Pac-12’s offenses utilized the pick-and-roll more often and more effectively than others. Heading in to a Pac-12 season featuring some fantastic frontcourt and backcourt combinations (Trier/Ayton, Holder/White, McLaughlin/Metu, Holiday/Welsh, Cartwright/Travis, Pritchard/Brown), is the PnR a tactic more coaches will be inclined to use?

Arizona’s Allonzo Trier is Murder on the PnR (USA Today Images)

Here are last season’s Pac-12 PnR utilizers:

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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: #11 Xavier 73, #2 Arizona 71

Posted by rtmsf on March 24th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Xavier’s Cinderella Dance Continues for a Couple More Days. (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Xavier Just Kept Coming. After starting the game down 7-0… after finding itself facing an eight-point deficit with 3:44 remaining… even after missing the front end of a one-and-one that could have salted the game away with 22 seconds remaining… Xavier kept coming. And it figures, given that this group of Musketeers — left virtually for dead after losing star guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending injury at the end of January — have stared adversity in the face and laughed. Arizona desperately tried to put Xavier away in the second half, but Chris Mack’s club would never quite allow enough separation. That relentless nature of continually applying pressure ultimately caused Arizona to crack, sending the Wildcats back to the desert without a trip to the Final Four in Glendale attached.
  2. Arizona’s Home Stretch OffenseSay what you want about how Xavier put itself into great position to win with its relentlessness and its clever offensive sets — all true — but Arizona did not help itself by completely forgetting about Lauri Markkanen inside (his last shot came at 11:12 remaining in the second half) and over-relying on the hot hand of Allonzo Trier to carry them home. For an eight-minute period from 13:28 to 5:26 remaining in the game, Trier was cooking with some gas. He nailed six of his seven shots, including three three-pointers, in contributing 15 straight points for the Wildcats. He missed his final three attempts, all of which were jumpers. The problem with the strategy of letting Trier do his thing is that it basically killed the Arizona offense. The Wildcats’ final stretch included several awful possessions, including a post-up by Dusan Ristic that started behind the basket and a handful of other drives that turned into bad misses. During a point in the game when Arizona should have been executing to get fouls to hold its lead, it reeked of desperation to hold on for dear life. It was as if they were trying to wish the clock away rather than continuing to play.
  3. Sean Miller’s Early Career Legacy. There will be a lot written about this topic in Arizona and beyond — some fair, some not — but the fact remains that Sean Miller’s early career at Arizona has been filled with great regular season success, multiple high NBA Draft picks, and a painful legacy in the regionals. Despite receiving some favorable draws in terms of location within the West Region geographic footprint — allowing for its formidable crowd to turn neutral-site arenas into Tucson West or North — it hasn’t seemed to help. Some will argue that Miller’s losses to the likes of Wisconsin in 2015 or Connecticut in 2011 were to outstanding teams that simply were not going to be denied. While a fair point, the fact remains that three of Miller’s four best teams (2011, 2014, 2017) have had the ball with the final possession yet still fell short. In all three of those games, late execution was a factor. At a certain point, a series of close devastating losses begin to weigh on a program as well as a head coach — it’s safe to say that we’re to that point in Tucson. The Wildcats played tight in the final four minutes today, and the fans all around the building could sense it.

Star of the Game. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier. Bluiett carried the Musketeers in the first half, scoring 18 of his game-high 25 points on 7-of-8 from the field including a pair of threes. He was quieter in the second half, but he hit the big three to keep Xavier alive after they had gone down by eight points with just under four minutes remaining. He’s been outstanding in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 25.0 PPG and knocking down 47.8 percent of his three-point shots.

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Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Regional Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 23rd, 2017

And then there were three. USC did the Pac-12 no shame in winning two games during the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, but the Trojans were felled by the neon shine of Baylor on Sunday, leaving the Conference of Champions with three teams in the Sweet Sixteen (as most had predicted). Oregon, Arizona and UCLA begin their second weekend of NCAA Tournament work this evening, so it’s time to check in with each and focus on a  key issue to resolve if they are to rendezvous in Glendale.

Oregon Advanced to the Sweet Sixteen On a Tyler Dorsey Three (USA Today Images)

  • #3 Oregon:  #TeamTyler or #TeamDillon? Postseason play has brought this particular debate to the fore in ways many may have not anticipated. After Oregon’s semifinal win over Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament, Dana Altman pulled no punches in critiquing what had been an uneven performance from Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, going so far as to suggest that Brooks had taken the Ducks out of their offense. The senior is a fantastic player, but Oregon’s offense has at times sputtered on Brooks possessions, allowing for Tyler Dorsey to emerge as an effective alternative for the Ducks in crunch time. Consider: In postseason play, Brooks is shooting 42.0 percent whereas Dorsey is converting a red-hot 67.0 percent. Brooks has outshot his teammate at the foul line, but not by nearly enough to eclipse Dorsey’s phenomenal streak of productivity. It’s always good to have multiple closers on the same team, and this isn’t necessarily about a fatal choice for Altman in the endgame. The big issue is that Dorsey is playing within the flow of the offense and outproducing Brooks at the same time. To win two more games this weekend, Oregon may have to either re-incorporate Brooks into the natural ebb and flow of its offense or elevate Dorsey to a more featured status.

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

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 18th, 2017

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

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

Three Key Takeaways.

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

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

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