Best in the West: The 20 Best Teams West Of The Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 26th, 2016

Here’s something we occasionally do: group all of the teams west of the Rockies (you know, the only part of the country, save Austin, New Orleans, Memphis and maybe New York City worth a damn) together, mix them up and see what order they shake out in. This means we’ve got all of the teams in the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and Big West Conferences, plus some of the schools in the WAC and Big Sky. And normally, instead of just ranking teams the traditional way, we divide them up into tiers. The idea is that there may be two great teams that have serious Final Four dreams and then a significant fall off when talking about team number three. This year in the West? Not so much. Apropos of the rest of the nation, there are no elite teams. And on any given Saturday (or Thursday, or Wednesday), there’s a good chance whoever checks in a half-page down this list can play with the first team we mention. But still, here’s a best effort at placing the best in the West into tiers.

The Best of the Best: Legitmate Top 25 teams

  • Oregon (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Since back in the middle of the summer, I’ve had the Ducks at the top of the Pac-12. With Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis added to the mix, the Ducks have long had the prospect of being, a deep, veteran, long, balanced squad. Some of those strengths (depth and experience, mainly) have been diminished with the season that wasn’t for Ennis (out for season with broken foot), but Dana Altman’s presence at the helm of a talented group should mean that this team’s best days are ahead of it. With the shot-blocking combination of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher along the backline and the perimeter defenders like Casey Benson, Dwayne Benjamin and Tyler Dorsey, this team still has a ways to go before it reaches it’s defensive potential, as it is just 69th in the nation in defensive efficiency. The defense has to improve, but if it does, the Ducks’ offense is diverse and explosive enough to drag them a long ways into March.
Hey, Did You Know That Bell Boucher Is A Type Of Banjo? And A Great Shotblocking Combo?

Bell-Boucher: Both A Banjo And A Great Shot-blocking Combo!

  • Arizona (#2 overall, Pac-12 #2) – A one-point loss at California qualifies as a good result in a West that mimics the national landscape by not having any one dominant team. Every one of the Wildcats’ losses has been a tightly fought contest, with a four-point neutral-court loss against Providence to join three conference road losses that came by an average of two points (and four total overtimes). In short, Arizona is, on January 23rd, six possessions away from a perfect 20-0 record, despite the absence of senior Kaleb Tarczewski for eight games, freshman Allonzo Trier for the last four games and junior Elliott Pitts for the last 13 games. While this is by no mean a vintage Arizona team, Sean Miller is the best coach in the West and you can count on him getting the absolute most out of a flawed roster.

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Replacing Allonzo Trier: Arizona’s Conference Title Chances?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 12th, 2016

When Arizona lost senior center Kaleb Tarczewski to a strained muscle in his foot more than a month ago, the Wildcats didn’t miss a beat. They won seven of the eight games that he missed and backup Dusan Ristic performed admirably in his stead. A little more than a month later, Arizona finds itself in a similar situation as freshman Allonzo Trier is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a broken hand. This time, however, the Wildcats are going to have a much tougher time plugging the hole.

Arizona Will Have A Tough Time Replacing Allonzo Trier

Arizona Will Have A Tough Time Replacing Allonzo Trier. (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

In a conference full of talented freshmen, Trier has quietly been one of the best. His immediate impact has been a big reason why the Wildcats have been able to weather their talent exodus from last season. Not only does the Seattle native lead Arizona in scoring (14.8 PPG), but he is also the team’s most efficient scorer (64.0% TS%) thanks to his success scoring from inside the three-point line and his ability to make free throws at a near-80 percent clip. He is still a work in progress defensively, but he is the team’s second-best three-point shooter (35.1% 3FG) and has been borderline irreplaceable in the lineup. And therein lies the biggest issue for Arizona moving forward – it doesn’t really have anyone on the roster who can suitably replace him. Ironically enough, when Tarczewski went down, Trier was the primary beneficiary. Before the big man got hurt, Trier hadn’t yet eclipsed 30 minutes in a game and was averaging 11.6 PPG. Since that time Trier played at least 30 minutes in all but three games and was averaging a more robust 16.1 PPG. The problem now is that the perimeter-starved Wildcats don’t have another five-star freshman to take his place in the rotation. Read the rest of this entry »

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Replacing Zeus: Arizona’s Options Moving Forward

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 4th, 2015

Now that there is official word that Arizona senior center Kaleb Tarczewski will miss at least a month with a stress reaction and strained muscle in his left foot, it is probably time to take a look at Sean Miller’s contingency plans. The Wildcats are better positioned than most teams to handle this sort of adversity and that is because not too many other teams can replace a legitimate seven-footer with NBA potential with another legitimate seven-footer with perhaps even more NBA potential. But simply plugging sophomore Dusan Ristic into Tarczewski’s spot in the starting lineup isn’t Miller’s only option and the coach has been generous enough to give us a glimpse at both options in the two games that the senior has already missed.

The Wildcats will miss Tarczewski's defensive presence most (Kai Casey, CU Independent)

The Wildcats will miss Tarczewski’s defensive presence most. (Kai Casey, CU Independent)

In the first game without Tarczewski’s services, Miller opted for a more traditional solution. Ristic started in the team’s loss to Providence, playing 18 minutes and finishing with six points and five rebounds while defending Friars’ forward Ben Bentil. On the next night against a smaller and more athletic Boise State team, Ristic barely moved from the bench as Mark Tollefson got the start and freshman Allonzo Trier received the extra minutes. Ristic managed to snag five rebounds in just nine minutes of action against the less physical Broncos, but he mostly looked out of place against an opponent that could stretch the floor at every position. With just two games of supporting evidence, it seems likely that Miller is smartly choosing to mix and match his lineups based on the opponent rather than make the common-sense lineup change and just add Ristic to the starting lineup. Read the rest of this entry »

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Arizona Adjusting to Life Without Lottery Picks

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 3rd, 2015

Arizona went to the Wooden Legacy tournament last weekend as one of two ranked teams, seemingly on a collision course with Michigan State for a meeting in the title game on Sunday. Instead, they looked only slightly less awake than your average relative post-Thanksgiving dinner in their opening round overtime win over then-winless Santa Clara, then looked exceedingly average in a loss to a Providence team that played almost half the game without star Kris Dunn due to foul trouble. A Sunday bounce-back against Boise State did little to mask the fact that this is not your typical Arizona team, as these Wildcats lack the star power, athleticism and overall upside we’ve come to expect in Tucson.

Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson and Kadeem Allen Form The Core Of An Atypical Arizona Team (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson and Kadeem Allen Form The Core Of An Atypical Arizona Team. (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

When we previewed Arizona in the preseason, we detailed that for once, this is an Arizona team that is without not only an NBA lottery prospect, but also a surefire NBA draft pick. Stanley Johnson, Aaron Gordon, Derrick Williams? Nope, not a guy like that to be found here. Still, this is Point Guard U, right? They’ll at least have a savvy floor general to calm everything down? Not yet. Instead, Sean Miller has been forced to choose between a 5’8” facilitator in Parker Jackson-Cartwright and a JuCo transfer off-guard making the transition to the point in Kadeem Allen. And the elite lock-down defense of the past three seasons in the desert? Miller will certainly get plenty out of this team on that end, but there are no obviously great individual defenders at this juncture, both on the perimeter and in the paint. This isn’t a team that can win by overpowering opponents in any singular way, and the Arizona coaching staff has already accepted it. “One of the things we’ve learned is that room for error and that margin, that gap we experienced the last couple of years isn’t there right now,” said Miller on Friday night after the loss to Providence.

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Plugging the Hole: Kadeem Allen Doing Best T.J. McConnell Impression

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 26th, 2015

Everyone talking about Arizona during the offsesaon (even Jay Bilas) seemed to agree that the biggest question facing head coach Sean Miller was how he would replace do-it-all point guard T.J. McConnell; but no one could have expected how quickly transfer junior Kadeem Allen would be able to answer that question.

Kadeem Allen Has Emerged As An Answer at Point Guard for Arizona

Kadeem Allen Has Emerged As An Answer at Point Guard for Arizona. (Arizona Athletics)

The statistical comparison between the two players comes with a rather large disclaimer that Arizona hasn’t played anyone of note this season in its four games; but so far, at least, Allen looks like a competent replacement for McConnell. Without trying to pretend this is an apples to apples review, it is worth noting that Allen has been the more efficient offensive player (125.3 to 118.3 in ORtg; 60.5%  to 53.8% eFG), a better passer (45.0% to 39.0% in ARate) and a more opportunistic defender (4.9% to 4.3% in Stl%). It’s certainly likely that his efficiency and assist rate will fall back to Earth as he faces better competition, but Arizona’s ability to reload instead of rebuild this season depended heavily on the team’s point guard play. Early indications show that Allen and sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright are absolutely ready to fill that role. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: What’s the Burning-est Question?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 12th, 2015

We’re about ready to have some actual game action to talk about, but before we do that, there are still a few more questions to sort through. As we head into opening weekend, we asked our Pac-12 experts to answer this simple burning question: What’s the burning-est question in the Pac-12? Below are their answers.

Adam Butler: The most burning question, the most incendiary inquiry, isn’t whether Bryce Alford is going to shave his chin stubble (the answer to that is that he needs to); rather, the season’s Pac-12 BQ is the California Golden Bears. I called it the Great Golden Hype. Specifically, the question is: Can Cuonzo Martin and two five-star recruits turn an 18-15 team into anything? The latter half of that equation has been proven — elite players can win you a couple basketball games. The former has also happened at least once or twice before. The reality is that Cal has remarkably high expectations with very little track record to merit (such are lofty expectations) and is, therefore, the burningest question.

Cuonzo Martin Has A Lot To Prove (AP)

Cuonzo Martin and the California Golden Bears Have a Lot to Prove. (AP)

Bennet Hayes: Questions abound in this year’s Pac-12. Can Arizona and Oregon seamlessly reload? Will Washington, Stanford and Colorado play well enough to bring their coaches some degree of job security? Is Bobby Hurley destined to transform Arizona State into a perennial power? Uncertainty is everywhere, which only makes Cuonzo Martin’s California team that much more intriguing. If the amount of talent that this Cal roster supports existed on a team coached by John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski, there’s a great chance that team would bear a preseason top-five ranking. Back here in reality, with Martin at the helm and the name of a program unaccustomed to major basketball success printed on the front of the jerseys, the corresponding preseason hype is relatively restrained. Given Martin’s uneven record as an X’s and O’s coach, it does makes sense — but only to a point. The freshman pairing of Jaylen Brown (a popular pick for preseason Pac-12 POY) and Ivan Rabb would be enough to turn heads, but factor in the heavy mass of talent returning to Berkeley and this team’s ceiling quickly elevates. Tyrone Wallace is the leading returning scorer in the league. Former McDonald’s All-American Jabari Bird, now a junior, is fully healthy and poised to build off a solid finish. Toss in Jordan Mathews, the team’s second leading scorer a season ago, and you have a pretty dangerous array of offensive weapons. If there was ever a team with the talent to ascend Cal into the highest echelon of West Coast basketball powers, it’s this one. Will Martin let them get there? Read the rest of this entry »

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Arizona Preview: Can These ‘Cats Be Elite?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 11th, 2015

Leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite has been evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Today, we take one step closer to wrapping up our trip around the league with a visit to Tucson, the home of the repeat champion Wildcats.

Arizona Wildcats

Over the past two season, Sean Miller’s club has dominated the Pac-12 on the way to consecutive regular season conference championships and a pair of Elite Eight appearances. (Damn you, Wisconsin!) But, the past two offseasons, this program has put the likes of Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nick Johnson, Stanley Johnson and T.J. McConnell into the NBA pipeline. Outside of another group of Wildcats out east a ways, there are very few programs in America that can sustain those kinds of losses and yet retain the ability to make deep runs into the NCAA Tournament. Sean Miller hopes to prove this season that they’re among those programs on that very short list.

Sean Miller Is Keeping His Program Stocked With Talent

Sean Miller Is Keeping His Program Stocked With Talent. (Getty)

Strengths. Let’s just get right to the point: talent. They return center Kaleb Tarczewski, the team’s sole returning starter, but bring back contributors from last year’s team like Gabe York, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic. They add in a couple of newly-eligible Division I transfers in Ryan Anderson (Boston College) and Mark Tollefsen (San Francisco), plus a former JuCo Player of the Year in Kadeem Allen, who redshirted last season in Tucson. Throw in another strong Miller recruiting class, highlighted by five-star guard Allonzo Trier, and there is plenty of talent up and down the Arizona roster. Read the rest of this entry »

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Things We Think We Know in the Pac-12

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on October 19th, 2015

It’s been a long and enjoyable summer, but, while staring out the window at a Los Angeles rainstorm, it’s clear that summertime has come and gone, my oh my. No need to worry, though; that just means college basketball season is on the horizon. We’re now less than a month away from the start of the regular season. Teams across the country already have their practice schedules in full swing. All of which means it is time to get the RTC Pac-12 microsite back up and running. We’ll be with you here from now until that first weekend in April when the Final Four visits Houston. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be rewarded with a Pac-12 representative in our sports’ final weekend for the first time since UCLA went back in 2008.

Bobby Hurley's First Season In The Pac-12 Will Be Worth Keeping An Eye On (Tom Tingle, Azcentral Sports)

Bobby Hurley’s First Season In The Pac-12 Will Be Worth Keeping An Eye On (Tom Tingle, Azcentral Sports)

But all of that is a long way off. Today we’ll just take the first few steps to gather our bearings for the journey ahead. At this stage, there’s a lot of guesswork and uncertainty about what is to come. And as we’re reminded on the regular in both arenas of sports and in life, surprises loom around every corner. So today, by way of getting reacquainted with the Pac-12 conference, let’s take a look at what we know and what we will have to learn over the next five months.

Things We Know

New Faces – As always in college sports, there is rampant year-to-year turnover. It’s baked into the pie. It’s something we expect and something we love: getting to spend a full season figuring out all the new talents and personalities. In this year’s edition of the Pac-12, there are some high impact new faces. First, there’s a new head man patrolling the sidelines in Tempe, as Bobby Hurley takes over the reins for Herb Sendek at Arizona State. In terms of new players, the conference boasts six of the nation’s top 25 recruiting classes (according to ESPN), including a couple landing in the top five. We’re used to Sean Miller regularly pulling in sterling classes at Arizona, but the big news this season is that Cuonzo Martin welcomes a loaded recruiting class highlighted by power wing Jaylen Brown and skilled big man Ivan Rabb. Continuing the theme, there’s plenty that we don’t know about the newcomers, but we certainly know that we’ll be keeping a close eye on Tempe, Tucson and Berkeley this season.

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West Coast Bias: Pac-12 Media Day Happenings

Posted by Adam Butler on October 16th, 2015

They say the media doesn’t pay attention to anything that happens out West, but no such claim could be made yesterday. Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2015 edition of Pac-12 Media Day, in order of their appearance.

USC Trojans

You only take the podium first if you’re the commissioner or the last place team in the conference. Andy Enfield isn’t Larry Scott. His squad is the latter. Andy Enfield is interesting to me in that Enfield “won the presser.” He was the flashy hire meant to breathe life into a stale program. And then he spouted off about UCLA! Of course those remarks were “off the record” and not meant to be disseminated anywhere beyond his practice. Two years ago we thought he was every bit the flashy hire Pat Haden promised. They’ve won six conference games since and Enfield really hasn’t had a ton to say. This year, however, he seemed to receive more questions and have more to say. It was a refreshing change from the previous platitudes. And while he didn’t say much – and distinctly promised nothing – there seems to be optimism inside this program. They’re older, wiser, stronger, and presumably better. Enfield has a talented roster: How will it translate?

Washington Huskies

Another program with the allusion of optimism, but I maintain it’s going to be a long one in Seattle. They’re bringing in a top recruiting class and return a senior point guard, but the Huskies feel another year away to me. Which of course is not the seat you want to sit in when you’ve had four progressively worse seasons. It’s the seat of a team predicted to finish 11th by the media. But let’s talk about the important stuff: #Globalization. The PAC is sending its Dawgs to China for the first ever regular season game – collegiate or professional – in China. LoRo’s squad will square off against Shaka Smart’s first Longhorn team in an overseas battle. The Huskies, in fact, are taking classes in prep for this trip. Fact: Andrew Andrews seamlessly spoke Mandarin during Pac-12 Media Day. Fact: Malik Dime is bilingual and the best Mandarin speaker on the team (according to Andrews). And while these are all admirable things, they might not be enough to create a particularly good basketball team.

Lorenzo Romar's Team Will Begin A Do-Or-Die Season For Their Coach In China Against Texas (Photo: Seattle Times)

Lorenzo Romar Will Begin A Do-Or-Die Season In China Against Texas (Photo: Seattle Times)

Colorado Buffaloes

Tad walked in all smiles and I loved it. At Media Day, while there isn’t anything particularly stressful, it isn’t everyone’s favorite day. There are logistics, entrances, platitudes, smiles for the camera, and a lot of ‘hey howya doings.’ Media Day is polite. But Tad Boyle waltzed onto the stage with his senior leader, Josh Scott, and a genuine grin on his face. He said, “I was just sitting down with Josh in the waiting room right there, and I’m not sure I have a lot to say. I’m just ready to play.” And doesn’t that make sense? Colorado closed last season in joyless fashion, watching a plethora of players transfer and a senior – Askia Booker – decline an invitation to play in the CBI. About five months ago, there was little to smile about surrounding Colorado basketball. “Looking at last year, I think me and my teammates kind of had to evaluate where we went wrong as a group, and in looking at it, we were afraid to call each other out,” Scott said. Now winning doesn’t necessarily demand a bunch of guys telling each other they’re out of position or screwing up, but it doesn’t hurt to have the kind of trust where teammates work together towards a common goal. The Buffs might not be great this year, but it seems they might be working towards cohesion. And that’s got Tad smiling.

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Wrapping Up the Pac-12 and Looking Ahead to 2015-16

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 16th, 2015

The National Championship game is now more than a week behind us and the Final Four is almost two weeks back. Stanford’s “magical” NIT run ended 14 days ago and Arizona’s loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, capping off the last meaningful Pac-12 action of the season, is nearly three weeks ago. With Arizona State’s coaching vacancy filled and early-entry and transfer season fully in swing, that means it is well past time to put a bow on the season and begin to think about what comes next. Below, we’ll review each Pac-12 team and offer up grades on each team’s season. We’ll also take a look at what could be around the bend the next time college basketball rolls around.

Sean Miller, Arizona

Despite Regular Season and Conference Tournament Titles, The 2014-15 Wildcats Came Up Shy Of Their Grandest Goals. (AP)

Arizona (A-)

The goal all year long was a Final Four. Wrapping up some unfinished business and all. Well, that goal was left incomplete. Business is still pending. Still, you’re not going to see me come down too hard on the Wildcats. While their three regular seasons losses were all suspicious in nature, their Elite Eight loss to national runner-up Wisconsin was just one of those things that happens between great teams. Sean Miller’s postgame press conference after the Badgers shot a 105.0 percent eFG in the second half was one long extended verbal shrug, a “what can you do?”, a “sh– happens.” Arizona ended its season playing its best basketball, some of the best basketball being played by any team in the nation. The Wildcats just happened to lose to one of maybe two or three other teams that were capable of playing better. We have to tack a “minus” onto that well-deserved “A” simply because I would guess Miller and T.J. McConnell and Stanley Johnson and all the rest would agree that the overall result of the season was tinged with some disappointment. Without a doubt, though, the Wildcats were the best team in the Pac-12. And were it not for Buzzsaw Badger, they might still be celebrating in Tucson.

What’s next: McConnell is out of eligibility. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley have said they’re forgoing their remaining eligibility to pursue NBA careers, a decision Johnson is likely to make as well. But this is Arizona. And this is Sean Miller. The ‘Cats will be fine. Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York will return and take on bigger roles. Sophomores Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic will be relied upon to take big steps forward. Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson and junior college transfer (and 2014-15 redshirt Kadeem Allen) will jump right in. And then there’s a recruiting class featuring Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, Justin Simon and Chance Comanche (ESPN top-100 recruits, all) that may not even be finished yet. Yeah, don’t cry for Miller and his Wildcats; they’ll be back. Read the rest of this entry »

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