Pac-12 Non-Conference Reset (non-Arizona State Edition)

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 28th, 2017

It may seem out of sync with the Holiday Spirit to practice exclusion, but we’ve spent SO much time on Arizona State already and quite honestly, their unblemished 12-0 record should be more than enough to keep Sun Devil fans happy. They have played great ball to date and, entering conference play, are sitting prettier than they have in quite some time. We’ve heard enough about the story of the year in the Pac-12, so let’s take some stock from the rest of the Conference of Champions with Pac-12 play ready to begin this week.

UCLA is the Surprise Team of the Pac So Far (USA Today Images)

Team of the Non-Conference: UCLA snatched this award away just moments before Santa and his reindeer took flight on the strength of a huge neutral court win over Kentucky on December 23. The Bruins have three wins over Power 6 teams right now (Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Kentucky) which is second-most in the league behind… well, you already know. The Bruins are doing all this despite the suspensions/departures of three freshmen expected to contribute this year in LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have been providing the on-court stability the Bruins were expecting, with both playing heavy minutes and logging true shooting percentages of about 57 percent. UCLA, a team with a relatively short roster, has damned the torpedoes and pushed the ball up at a pace of 74.5 possessions per game, 27th-fastest nationally. Lunardi currently lists UCLA as one of the first four out of the NCAA Tournament, but those three solid wins along with no bad losses (KenPom #29 Creighton, #33 Michigan, and #10 Cincinnati) gives it a good shot to work Pac-12 play to a decent seed in March. Credit head coach Steve Alford for moving past all the distractions and keeping things together in Westwood.

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How Long Can UCLA Last Without More Depth?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 21st, 2017

So UCLA is already four games into its season and its 3-1 start has been reduced to a footnote while Lavar Ball and President Trump usurp air, airtime and attention better spent on literally any other aspect of human life by any other humans on the planet. Bringing the focus back on to the court, however, the real questions begin for a team that is now down three scholarship athletes. What we know through those four games, though, is that the Bruins’ rotation is not so much a rotation as essentially a half-dozen players head coach Steve Alford either trusts or is forced to trust. Players in the former category include returnees Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday. Both were given relative siestas in playing 26 and 32 minutes, respectively, in the Bruins’ rout of South Carolina State, but Holiday played at least 35 minutes in UCLA’s three more competitive games against Georgia Tech, Central Arkansas and Creighton, while Welsh logged major minutes as well when he wasn’t in foul trouble (Creighton).

UCLA  (USA Today Images)

This grinding down of two players who will have to perform all season is clearly not sustainable, and it is the strongest indication yet that LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will likely not be held out for the entire season. The Bruins’ loaded freshman class fortunately includes two standouts — Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands — who refrained from jacking sunglasses in China, and both are already establishing themselves as indispensable cogs in the UCLA “rotation.” Even in a loss, not much changed against Creighton on Monday night. Holiday was superb, scoring 25 points on 11 shots and dishing out seven assists against one turnover. Although UCLA exhibited a fairly balanced eight-man rotation, five of those players were underclassmen and three of those five are freshmen. The Bluejays took full advantage of that defensive inexperience, putting up an Offensive Rating of 119.0 on the evening that included 11 three-pointers.

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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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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)

USC

  • 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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Did UCLA Get the Defensive Memo?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 10th, 2017

There was no mistaking the takeaway after Arizona came into Pauley Pavilion a few weekends ago and put on a 96-85 dismantling of UCLA‘s defense. Head coach Steve Alford said all the right things afterward, acknowledging and even extensively cataloging his team’s numerous deficiencies in defending their own bucket. With #5 Oregon coming to Westwood three games later, there was little evidence in the interim to suggest that much had changed. Immediately after the loss to the Wildcats, UCLA gave up 84 points to USC (the Pac-12’s seventh-best offense). Following that defeat, the conference’s ninth-rated offense, Washington State, dropped 79 points on the Bruins at an efficiency of 110.0. UCLA”s most recent game against Washington yielded just 66 points and an 80.0 efficiency, but the Huskies (the Pac-12’s 10th-best offense) are essentially a flaming clown car at this point.

UCLA Rode Its Defense to a Second Half Comeback Victory (USA Today Images)

Thursday night’s first half against the Ducks — which featured 50 percent shooting and a 133.3 efficiency rating — didn’t look much different. All the bad things that bad defensive teams consistently do (or fail to do) were on display. The Bruins were lax on the ball. Aaron Holiday entered the game, played hands-down defense, and watched two Oregon players bury jumpers right over him. UCLA wasn’t contesting on the ball and they weren’t doing much off the ball either. Alford tried a zone, but it was hard at times to discern whether his team was playing a slothful man or zone. The “switches” on the ball looked as much like each UCLA player being unwilling to pursue an Oregon player more than five feet in any direction than any particularly coordinated defensive effort.

Then Lonzo Ball started checking Dillon Brooks.

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For UCLA, It’s Defend or Die…

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 25th, 2017

The second game of six between the three best teams in the Pac-12 was an undeniably entertaining epic that left Arizona reinvigorated as a Final Four contender and UCLA with a clear ultimatum: Defend or die. It’s not like the Bruins had convinced anyone that they were a solid defensive team to this point in the season — UCLA entered the game hovering around the middle of the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency. The Bruins’ marquee win in Lexington over Kentucky came on the strength of their offense (1.17 PPP) and their only other loss came to an Oregon team they ultimately couldn’t defend (1.24 PPP). The national spotlight tends to expose and crystallize the flaws of even the elite teams in college basketball, and Arizona on Saturday in Pauley Pavilion exposed UCLA’s middling defense as an Achilles’ Heel that may very well short-circuit a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Without a semblance of defense, UCLA’s tourney life might be cut short. (USA TODAY)

The Bruins’ major issue against the Wildcats was defending the paint via the drive. Kobi Simmons, Kadeem Allen and the newly-eligible Allonzo Trier pounded the paint relentlessly, often singularly focused on their easy target, UCLA guard Bryce Alford. Alford is having an exceptional season playing off the ball next to All-Universe Point Guard Lonzo Ball, but the senior was no match for the physicality and athleticism of Allen, who relentlessly attacked the basket when isolated against him. Arizona’s 34 points in the paint was also a result of mediocre post defense. Dusan Ristic contributed 11 points; Chance Comanche 10; and Lauri Markannen, he of the skyrocketing draft stock, repeatedly took TJ Leaf well outside his defensive comfort zone in nailing 3-of-4 from behind the three-point line as well as grabbing the offensive board and ensuing dunk that effectively ended the contest. Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s a Make or Break Week for the Pac-12

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 30th, 2016

After a sizzling opening weekend followed by some Feast Week struggles, the Pac-12 finds itself facing a potential do or die week in terms of its national perception. Three teams will be front and center this week under the bright lights of ESPN and CBS, and after 71 games and even with all of December left, chances are it will be this week’s main events that set the tone for the Pac-12 come March. Part of the concentration on these games stems from factors out of the league’s control. Oregon’s injury issues have left it a shell of the team most expected it to be come March — the Ducks have already dropped games to Baylor and Georgetown without the services of Dillon Brooks (and have looked shaky even with him back). While the committee will factor Oregon’s injuries into its analysis, that doesn’t help the Pac-12’s overall profile. And that brings us to this week, starting this evening on the Peninsula.

St. Mary’s at Stanford: Wednesday 11/30 8:00 PM PT (Pac-12 Bay Area)

So far, so good for Jerod Haase and Stanford. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Jerod Haase and Stanford have a monster week ahead of them, including a trip to Haase’s alma mater where dreams tend to fade. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Not only is the Pac-12 counting on Stanford — the team picked to finish 10th in the league standings this season — but the Cardinal actually have two games with national ramifications this week. First, Randy Bennett’s St. Mary’s bunch (11th nationally, per KenPom) comes to Maples Pavilion tonight. The Gaels may not yet be a nationally-renowned name, but they drilled Stanford last season and will be a contender in a league (WCC) that has been quite the thorn in the side of the Pac-12 in recent years. This is one of two big Pac-12/WCC showdowns this week, and while it’s definitely the undercard, it’s still a big game for both teams and conferences.

UCLA at Kentucky: Saturday 12/3 9:30 AM PT (CBS)

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Pac-12 Roars Out of the Gates: Opening Weekend Thoughts

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 took a lot of heat as a conference during the Big Dance last year as a number of high-seeds (forgiving Oregon) didn’t amount to deep runs in March. The beauty of college basketball is that a new year brings new chances to make a mark, and as a whole, the conference’s opening weekend was outstanding to tip off the year. Here is a rundown of some of the opening weekend action:

  • UCLA and its talented freshmen burst out of the gate and ran Pacific right out of Pauley on Friday night. The Bruins’ 119-80 victory came with very auspicious debuts for T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball. They combined to shoot 15-of-21 for 41 points, and Ball stuffed his first stat sheet with a very impressive 19 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds (and just one turnover) in 34 minutes. That minutes total brings us to one of the big takeaways from the game, as head coach Steve Alford used a very tight rotation, something rare for an opener that was clearly over at halftime. Leaf played 37 minutes and every starter played at least 26, with Aaron Holiday rounding out the half-dozen man rotation with 24 minutes off the bench. Nobody else logged more than six minutes off the bench.
It Was That Kind of Day For Steve Alford's UCLA Team (USA Today Images)

With a great freshman class in action, Steve Alford has a great chance to lead his Bruins back to the top of the conference. (USA TODAY Images)

  • UCLA came back Sunday night in a defense “optional” performance to beat Cal-State Northridge. The Bruins blitzed the Matadors’ matador defense to the tune of 62 points in the second half to overcome what was actually a small halftime deficit. Again, Alford utilized a short bench, with Holiday getting 29 minutes off the pine and Gyorgy Golomon seeing 15. With Alford depending on such a young and inexperienced core, it’s understandable why he might be willing to give his youngsters heavier doses of minutes. Bruins’ possessions lasted 12.5 seconds on average in the opener, and they didn’t take the foot off the gas against Northridge. Something’s gotta give here. Either Alford lengthens the bench or the Bruins slow down, lest they collectively collapse from exhaustion come January.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Is UCLA Any Good?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 3rd, 2016

This is easily the most basic of any of our burning questions but it feels completely legitimate. UCLA finished 15-17 last season and we could stop right there to qualify the question. Steve Alford returns much of the roster that played selective defense last season and ultimately led the hand of its coach into a formal letter of apology. Sure, there might have been some injuries, but this is UCLA basketball – something fans have been squawking about since mid-to-late-Ben Howland – and as Steve Alford noted at Pac-12 Media Day, there are consequences in failing to uphold what it means to be a UCLA basketball player, coach or team. The nice thing about an offseason is that it allows you get healthy. The nicer thing about an offseason is it allows you to bring in new players. The nicest thing about an offseason is that your last season ends. The Bruins will welcome back their frontcourt depth with Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinski being veteran returnees who will start the season (and hopefully finish it) healthy. They’ll also introduce Ike Anigbogu (hulking center) and TJ Leaf (skilled power forward) as freshmen. Of course, Thomas Welsh also returns his well-developed skill set to the starting center role.

Regardless of how they did it, Thomas Welch and UCLA are one step away from the Sweet 16. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Thomas Welch is UCLA’s top returning standout. Is he enough? (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

But as this is UCLA basketball and there’s much to like about Welsh’s offensive game, the Bruins’ question marks center around the defensive end. Does a team improve its defense with freshmen? Not usually. Furthermore, UCLA has spent the last few seasons masking their defensive flaws with an opportunistic zone that has been headed by some unique talents (if not bodies) in Kyle Anderson, Kevon Looney and Jonah Bolden (trying early departure from last year’s team). Each of these players was a lengthy forward with ball skills. This roster lacks that player. What this roster doesn’t lack is guards. Alford returns a veteran lot but it is also the same lot that didn’t play defense last year and a reminder of why the Bruins played zone defense. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are both very talented scorers, but will their senior campaigns lend itself to a defensive renaissance? Adding Lonzo Ball to the mix is something any coach would want to do but another talented passer and shooter isn’t necessarily what this team needs. Of course adding talent is never a bad thing, and to that extent the Bruins should absolutely be expected to improve (which, granted, is not hard to do from two games under .500).

What I see on this roster are improvements at positions that didn’t necessarily need improving. And while I can agree that the previous sentence is oxymoronic (when you’re sub-.500, you absolutely need to improve), I would prefer that this group show me why they’re a top 20 team in the preseason national polls. The depth chart over UCLA’s final five games last year (per KenPom) was Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton, Jonah Bolden and Thomas Welsh. How much better can that group defend when you toss in some pups?

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