Making Sense Of The Tightly-Packed PAC at the Turn

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 3rd, 2016

Every Pac-12 team is now halfway through its conference schedule, and to say that this conference is tight is quite the understatement. There are currently five teams within a game of first place, and conference stalwarts Arizona and UCLA are not among that group. Let’s take a spin around the league and evaluate where the league stands as it makes the turn for the home stretch.

Legitimate Contenders For Regular Season Championship

Chris Boucher, Casey Benson And The Ducks Are Halfway Home To A Pac-12 Title (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Chris Boucher, Casey Benson And The Ducks Are Halfway Home To A Pac-12 Title (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Hey, this is easy, right? You just take those five teams sitting at 6-3 or better and boom, we’re done, right? No, that’s too easy. We’ve got to take a stand. So, let’s take a stand and name Oregon, Utah and USC as the biggest threats to take the title. The Ducks, conference leaders at 7-2, are the obvious one. I’m personally interested in bragging about the fact that I’ve had them as the conference favorite since I first looked at the league back in mid-summer, but Dana Altman’s got a combination of experience, upside, athleticism, intelligence, quickness and length that is the Platonic ideal of a college basketball team (little known fact: Plato was a huge hoop-head). As for Utah, it took some early lumps but has taken advantage of a lull in the schedule to reel off five straight wins. They’ve still got tough roadies ahead to the Oregon and Los Angeles schools, but Brandon Taylor is starting to knock in shots and there are few players in the conference who can handle Jakob Poeltl in the post. The final true contender is USC, and that isn’t a phrase that anybody expected to be written this February. But it’s for real. Andy Enfield’s squad is undeniably talented and beginning to figure out how to win. The Trojans’ schedule down the stretch is insane (vs. UCLA, at the Arizona schools, home against Utah and Colorado, at Cal and Stanford, finishing at home against the Oregon schools), but this team has already shown it can play with anybody in the league. Notably missing in this space is two-time defending champion Arizona. The Wildcats aren’t out of it at just two games back, but this year’s group just doesn’t measure up to the type of Wildcats we’ve grown accustomed to.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Who’s the Best Point Guard?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2016

While watching guys like Jordan McLaughlin, Andrew Andrews, Tra Holder, Kadeem Allen and more shine from the lead guard spot over the weekend, we got the brilliant idea to ask our contributors: Who’s the best point guard in the Pac? Truthfully, there’s only one right answer — a certain Player of the Year candidate in Corvallis who tore up the league last season and has only gotten better as a senior. So, the real question we put forth to our writers is, aside from Gary Payton II, who’s the best point guard in the league? Our answers below.

Gary Payton II Is Not Only The Best Point In The Pac, He's One Of It's Best Players (Oregon State Athletics)

Gary Payton II Is Not Only The Best Point In The Pac, He’s One Of It’s Best Players, Period. (Oregon State Athletics)

Mike Lemaire: This honor is for Gary Payton II to claim, but if the phrasing instead became “most valuable point guard,” then a strong case could be made for Washington senior Andrew Andrews. It can often feel like Andrews is babysitting four wild teenagers when the Huskies play, and considering he is the only upperclassman on the roster, that simile isn’t far from the truth. While his teammates have struggled with fouls, defensive positioning, effort and shot selection, Andrews is quietly scoring more than 20 points per game, leading his team in rebounding (6.3 RPG) and drawing more fouls than anyone else in the Pac. Despite a meaningful uptick in his responsibilities, Andrews is still shooting better than 40 percent from downtown, better than 80 percent from the free throw line and has nearly doubled his assist rate without any corresponding increase in his turnover rate. What makes this even more impressive is that he isn’t even a true point guard; rather, he has just been forced into the role. Still, the pick for best point guard in the league is Gary Payton II, with a notable hat tip to Andrews. Read the rest of this entry »

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Happy New Conference Year: A Pac-12 Reset

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 31st, 2015

Happy New Year’s everyone! May you all celebrate the arbitrary tick of the clock on an arbitrary day on the arbitrarily human-invented calendar in whichever arbitrary fashion pleases you the most! Here in this space we’re turning our attention to something far less arbitrary, a tradition older than the hills, a ritual that goes back to before the first organism crawled out of the ocean and onto dry land however many million years ago: the transition from non-conference college basketball to Pac-12 conference play. At least seven unnamed sources indicate that such a sacrament is timeless. And so, to celebrate, let’s take a spin around the Pac-12 and do a quick reset, preparing you for what will seem, as it always does, like a sprint from New Year’s to March Madness.

All-Conference Team (No Surprises Edition)

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors (Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors. (Godofredo Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

  • G Gary Payton II, Sr, Oregon State
  • G Tyrone Wallace, Sr, California
  • F Josh Scott, Sr, Colorado
  • F Ryan Anderson, Sr, Arizona
  • C Jakob Poeltl, So, Utah

When we put together our preseason all-conference picks back in November, Poeltl and Payton were unanimous choices as first-teamers, and here they are at the turn of the calendar as the heavy Player of the Year favorites in the conference. Wallace was also on our preseason first-team and he’s been fine, if not spectacular. Scott and Anderson were second-team guys and have both been rock-solid as seniors. Scott has struggled some in his team’s two losses, but if he can lead the Buffaloes to an upper division finish, he might yet have a say in the Player of the Year race as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Notebook: A Stroll Around the League

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 16th, 2015

Every week I check in with the Mountain West by writing a little blurb about each team. I like that format because it provides a chance to follow the development of all the league’s teams and focus in on little things that may not be worthy of a longer post. Some teams may get a few hundred words one week while other teams just get a sentence or two, but it highlights the important things. We’re going to bring that format to the Pac 12, beginning right now. We might as well throw in some power rankings while we’re at it, so let’s check in with the league in order of how these teams rate at this point. Let’s get to it.

Jordan Bell Is Back For The Ducks, But They're Still A Long Way From Healthy (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Jordan Bell Is Back For The Ducks, But They’re Still A Long Way From Healthy. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • Oregon – Yes, the Ducks are coming off two losses in their last four games. But I’ve had Dana Altman’s team as the best team in the conference since the middle of the summer and, even playing shorthanded, they’ve done nothing to dissuade me of that so far. Sophomore center Jordan Bell made his season debut Saturday night at Boise State and he looked healthy following surgery over the offseason to repair a broken foot. He ran the court hard, and played big in chasing rebounds and blocked shots. He didn’t appear to be favoring that foot at all. In 17 minutes, he blocked a couple shots, grabbed seven boards and even handed out four assists. Last night against UC Irvine, he was even better with 12 points and three steals. Encouraging debut aside, it is going to take him some time to get back into game shape and to get comfortable with his new teammates. He still also hasn’t played a minute with Tyler Dorsey (out following a knee sprain against UNLV) or Dylan Ennis (still sidelined with a foot injury). This Oregon team remains one that may not reach full strength until mid-February, something that isn’t a problem in a sport that so values March.

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Arizona State Putting Together a Quality Resume

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 7th, 2015

You may not have noticed it Saturday night, lost amid college football and everything else that is a late fall Saturday night, but Arizona State’s hoops team put the finishing touches on a very successful week by handing it to Texas A&M (#18 in the latest RTC Top 25) in a 67-54 home win. Coming on the heels of a mid-week win at Creighton, this is just the latest of a series of peaks in Bobby Hurley’s wild first season in the desert. An opening night loss to Sacramento State and a late-game collapse in Brooklyn against Marquette aside, Hurley’s club also has solid wins over Belmont, North Carolina State and UC Santa Barbara on its resume, with road tests at Kentucky and UNLV the next two games on the schedule. So, what exactly is Hurley up to in the desert? And does is this team more like the team that took care of a Top 25 team or the one that lost to a middle-of-the-pack Big Sky team?

Against A Tough Schedule, Bobby Hurley Is Getting Work Done In Tempe (Tom Tingle, Azcentral Sports)

Against A Tough Schedule, Bobby Hurley Is Getting Work Done In Tempe (Tom Tingle, Azcentral Sports)

When things are going well on offense for the Sun Devils, it all starts with sophomore point guard Tra Holder, who is, at times, seemingly impossible for opponents to keep out of the lane. Add in the fact that he’s dangerous when he gets there, with an array of floaters, pull-up jumpers and the ability to earn his way to the line, where he shoots 82.5 percent, and goal one for the opposition’s defense is to put a wrap on Holder’s penetration. That sometimes, such as on Wednesday night against Creighton, necessitates pulling secondary defenders away from their assignments to stop penetration, allowing Holder to do one of two things. First, there’s the old drive-and-dish, sucking in a secondary defender, kicking the ball out to an open teammate on a wing, maybe an additional pass and then a three. With guys like Gerry Blakes, Andre Spight, Kodi Justice and Willie Atwood all capable three-point shooters, that alone is the start for some good offense. The other option for Holder is that midrange game of his, unleashing a floater or a pull-up. If it goes, great; if it doesn’t, the Devils have four guys who are grabbing at least 10% of teammates’ missed shots when they’re on the floor – Savon Goodman, Obinna Oleka, Willie Atwood and Eric Jacobsen. Between those four, 29% of their two-point field goals have come off of putbacks on offensive boards.

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Arizona State Preview: Hurley’s First Stand

Posted by Andrew Murawa on October 21st, 2015

In the next three weeks leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite will be evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Today, we head to Phoenix.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Over the next few weeks, we’ll preview each Pac-12 team in random order, but today we’ll start with the Sun Devils and new head coach Bobby Hurley. Hurley, formerly of Buffalo and a member of college basketball royalty as a two-time national champion point guard at Duke, takes over as Arizona State’s head coach after Herb Sendek was fired following a fifth-place Pac-12 finish last season. Four of the team’s five leading scorers return, with three junior college transfers and a freshman rounding out the likely rotation.

Strengths. Six players return from last year and, as it turns out, they seem to fit perfectly together. Four starters return – sophomore point Tra Holder; senior off-guard Gerry Blakes; junior power forward Savon Goodman; and senior center Eric Jacobsen – leaving the fifth starting spot ready to be grabbed by senior wing Willie Atwood. Guard Kodi Justice – an intriguing prospect with plenty of versatility– figures to be the sixth man. And between those six, there’s a variety of talent here. Goodman and Jacobsen form an imposing frontcourt. There’s athleticism and upside in the backcourt. And for a team that plans to push tempo, there is plenty of high-flying play-making ability as well.

The Returning Trio Of Tra Holder, Savon Goodman And Eric Jacobsen Gives Bobby Hurley Hopes In His First Season In Tempe (Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today)

The Returning Trio Of Tra Holder, Savon Goodman And Eric Jacobsen Gives Bobby Hurley Hopes In His First Season In Tempe (Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today)

Weaknesses. Two things stand out here. First, beyond those top six players, there’s not much proven talent. Obinna Oleka stands out as the newcomer with the best chance of becoming an impact performer, but JuCo guards Andre Spight and Maurice O’Field will likely be called upon to contribute as well. It was hoped frosh forward Andre Adams could chip in right away too, but he tore his ACL (for the second time in his career) in September and will spend this year rehabilitating. Of the guys remaining, Spight in particular may be called upon for his ability to knock in the perimeter jumper because nobody else on this roster has a history of competent three-point shooting. Blakes is the leading returning long-range dialer, having knocked in 39 threes last season, but he did so at just a 30.2 percent clip. Justice shot 45.9 percent from deep, but on just 37 attempts. In an ideal world this season, Justice ups his attempts, Blakes ups his efficiency and Spight lends a hand as well. If the Devils can add some perimeter punch, that will make Goodman and Jacobsen that much more impressive in the paint.

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Marching to Vegas: Arizona State Emerging From Behind The Curtain

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on February 20th, 2015

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

When conference play began, Herb Sendek’s Sun Devils weren’t expected to do much. They were 8-5 with an unimpressive schedule that yielded a home loss to Lehigh. Sure, the rest of their losses were excusable instances against quality teams or on the road; but we still had little reason to imagine that Arizona State would amount to much. Then three of their first four conference games were on the road and – in slicing three of four another way – those games were against three top-10 defenses. Arizona State, on January 15, was sub-.500 and we could seemingly give up on them. The basketball was ugly enough that you might jarringly display it from behind a curtain during a free throw.

Arizona State Basketball: What The Hell Is Going On Here?

Arizona State Basketball: What The Hell Is Going On Here?

I suppose this is as good a time as any to talk a little bit about Herb Sendek’s program. Maybe it’s because I’m a defender of jobs and don’t enjoy the hot seat debate. The irresponsible wielding of the sword threat bugs me. Of course by noting my affinity for positive coach speak, I’m backhandedly noting that Herb could be on the hot seat. Whoops. What has Herb done in Tempe? Well he’s attended two NCAA tournaments which matches the program’s success of the previous twenty years. He’s won twenty games on five occasions (of eight seasons). Is success relative? I think so. For example: Two NCAA tournaments in eight seasons at UCLA? Should we even bother to answer this question? Or should I just pose it to Gene Bartow? Gary Cunningham? My Socratic methoding seems to suffice. But the perhaps curse of Sendek has been his swift success. He plucked James Harden out of the Los Angeles grips of Ben Howland and within three seasons in Tempe, Herb was finishing third in a six-bid league (read: tough Pac-10). Fairly or otherwise, it seems to me that expectations were set. And then they won just 20 games (ten per season) the next two years. Disappointment set in but expectations were not adjusted. After the Harden years, it would be five seasons before the Devils could have their dancing hearts ripped out again.

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Arizona State’s Lineup Change Makes Complete Sense

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 30th, 2014

In any conference, there are hierarchies with the storylines, and, the Pac-12 is no different. Arizona is a perennial national contender. Utah is living up to its offseason promise as a challenger to the throne. Washington is the surprise team. Colorado is the disappointment. UCLA is struggling through a major roster change, sometimes with spectacular failures. USC is, well, yuck. Oregon State is fending off its preseason narrative as one of the worst major conference teams in America. Tyrone Wallace is blowing up for California. Stanford is completely indecipherable. I could go on.

In Two Games With Gerry Blakes As Their Point Guard, Arizona State Looks Like A Different Team (Jamie Squire, Getty Images)

In Two Games With Gerry Blakes As Their Point Guard, Arizona State Looks Like A Different Team (Jamie Squire, Getty Images)

My point is, wow; you can go a long way in discussing this conference before you get down the line to talk about Arizona State, but this is a pretty fascinating team. Let’s throw out the Sun Devils’ two performances in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, where they played 38 strong minutes in each game with Maryland and Alabama only to implode in the waning minutes. Let’s also throw out a 22-point win over UNLV and the ensuing one-point loss at Texas A&M — both featuring late-game struggles — and let’s just look at their last four games: an ugly performance in a seven-point loss at Marquette; a triple-overtime home loss to Lehigh; and a pair of home wins over Detroit, by 39 points, and Harvard, by 10 points. Why do we want to look at just these games? Well, in that recent span, we’ve seen head coach Herb Sendek start to figure out exactly what his rotation will be, beginning with sliding junior Gerry Blakes from the shooting guard to the point guard spot.

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Pac Previews: Utah vs. Wichita State & Arizona State vs. UNLV

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 3rd, 2014

With Feast Week behind us and finals on the horizon, things are about to slow down just a little bit in college basketball. Come this weekend, we’ll have all sorts of interesting games on the slate — Arizona State vs. Texas A&M, Gonzaga vs. Arizona, Mississippi vs. Oregon, Colorado vs. Georgia and Washington vs. San Diego State — and not necessarily in that order, that have me intrigued. But between now and then, there are just two match-ups that we can recommend in good conscience, both taking place on Pac-12 home courts tonight. Below, we’ll preview the headliner – Wichita State at Utah – as well as an interesting undercard as UNLV visits Arizona State.

Wichita State at Utah, 8:00 PM PST, ESPN2

Unless you’re a big-time Utes fan or an inveterate college hoops junkie, the last time you saw Utah play it was falling short in a late mid-afternoon run at a comeback against San Diego State. Since then, the Utes have performed mop-up duty against a quartet of teams all ranked in the bottom 20 percent of Division I, winning those four games by an average of 36.3 points per game. The Shockers, meanwhile, have played three teams ranked between #50 and #75 by KenPom and won those games by an average of 17.3 points per game. While they are known for their perimeter players – guards Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker earned preseason All-America consideration, and senior Tekele Cotton is one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders — Wichita State is a team that plays inside out, getting dribble penetration into the lane and creating opportunities from there. As such, priority number one is stopping that penetration, something Utah is well-suited for with elite defenders Delon Wright and Brandon Taylor leading the way. Perhaps more significant to the Utes’ chances would be the presence of shot-blocking freshman phenom Jakob Poeltl protecting the rim should Van Vleet get into the paint. Likewise, on the other end, Poeltl’s skills in the post and the Utes’ offensive rebounding strength (they’re 18th in the nation with a 40.8% offensive rebounding rate – but remind yourself of that level of competition) could be a pain in the neck to a team without an established player taller than 6’7”.

Delon Wright And Utah Need To Prove They're Ready For The National Stage

Delon Wright And Utah Need To Prove They’re Ready For The National Stage. (Getty)

But really, match-ups and Xs-and-Os are in some ways missing the point of this game for Utah. The Utes have already shown that they can play with the big boys. They battled San Diego State to a four-point road loss (keeping in mind that the final score was a touch closer than reality); they played Arizona to a nine-point margin at the McKale Center last season, then took the ‘Cats to overtime in Salt Lake City later on. Last year they also split with Colorado (including a road loss in overtime) and took Oregon to overtime as well before losing. We know that this team is talented enough to play with some of the best teams in the country — what they have yet to show us is that it can beat those teams, can perform in clutch situations and make good decisions when the pressure is on. Against the Aztecs two weeks ago, the stage was a little too bright for them. They’ve had a chance since then to workshop their script in what amounts to little more than dress rehearsals. If the nation can stay awake on Wednesday night after the Duke/Wisconsin game, they’ll get a chance to see if this Utah team is ready for the spotlight. Read the rest of this entry »

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Arizona State’s Most Important Player: Willie Atwood

Posted by Tracy McDannald on October 21st, 2014

The most important label is a lot like defining a most valuable player — a player’s talent may not necessarily translate into the team’s best, but his presence is discernible. So while Tra Holder and Shaquielle McKissic will shoulder a good chunk of the load as Arizona State looks to replace an all-conference backcourt, the void in the middle this season may be more glaring. The Sun Devils lost Jordan Bachynski, the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year. Look around the league this season and there is plenty of size left to battle, from freshmen Kevon Looney and Reid Travis to juniors Kaleb Tarczewski and Josh Scott. It’s a long way from a 7’2″ safety net and rim protector in Tempe nowadays.

Jordan Bachynski, The Pac-12's All-Time Leading Shotblocker, Will Be A Tough Guy To Replace

Arizona State has a 7’2″ void in the middle to replace with Jordan Bachynski (left) no longer in uniform.

Looking strictly at height, Eric Jacobsen and Cameron Gilbert are the biggest bodies on the roster at 6’10” each. While Gilbert is just a freshman, Jacobsen made 32 appearances (15 starts) and averaged 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. But neither is the answer here. Rather, head coach Herb Sendek brought in 6’8″ junior college transfer Willie Atwood, who averaged 20.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game at Connors State in Warner, Oklahoma, for this very reason. But, like many JuCo big men, there is not much else big about his frame. Atwood is listed at 210 spindly pounds and is more likely to steal a few boards from the offensive glass and score off putbacks. Protecting the rim is not a core strength of his, but that’s not where the projected reserve needs to make his mark against the Pac-12’s other bigs. The Sun Devils are looking at Atwood as a stretch four and possible center in spurts, someone to provide much-needed depth in the frontcourt. With more of a face-up than post-up game, he will be asked to use his quickness to take his opponents off the dribble. Execute those moves properly and that could translate into foul trouble for the opposition, and that’s where an effective offense may be just as good as a lockdown defense.

A favorable non-conference schedule awaits to help Atwood transition to the Division I level, and there will be plenty of work to do before the team’s January 4 league opener at Arizona. But early production will be welcome as the Sun Devils await the availability of UNLV transfer Savon Goodman, who will be eligible in mid-December. With a full season under his belt, the most important title would be Goodman’s to carry — and it probably will be come Pac-12 play — but this is Atwood’s chance to emerge immediately.

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Pac-12 Season Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

Posted by Connor Pelton (@ConnorPelton28) on October 20th, 2014

The Pac-12 microsite will preview each of its league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with Arizona State. 

Arizona State Sun Devils

Strengths: Goodbye Jahii Carson, enter Tra Holder. For a team that lost the quickest point guard in the country after last season, Arizona State’s tempo on offense should still be faster than any other team in the Pac-12. Holder provides the speed and talent needed at the one spot for the Sun Devils’ offense to run like head coach Herb Sendek wants, but inexperience might plague the true freshman early in the season. Senior shooting guard Bo Barnes provides some maturity in the backcourt, but he will definitely need to average more than his 4.5 PPG from last season.

Herb Sendek is Coming Off an NCAA Tournament Appearance, Finally (Photo credit: US Presswire).

Herb Sendek is Coming Off His Second NCAA Tournament Appearance in Tempe (Photo credit: US Presswire).

Weaknesses: This team has an extremely thin bench. Combo guard Chance Murray will be forced into playing most of his minutes at point guard, backing up Holder, and while this will be his second year in the system, he is still a big question mark for Sendek. Down low, the second team is filled with new faces. There is plenty of raw talent, but it could be a while before they develop into a Pac-12 ready group. It doesn’t help that one of its biggest scrappers in the post, UNLV transfer Savon Goodman, will not be eligible until after the team faces Maryland, UNLV and Texas A&M.

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Pac-12 Post-Mortems: Arizona State

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 10th, 2014

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll go through each Pac-12 team one by one and recount the season that has just completed and begin to turn the page to what we might see next season. Up first, Arizona State.

What Went Right

Jermaine Marshall and Shaquielle McKissic were largely excellent in their only seasons in Tempe (McKissic will be petitioning the NCAA for an additional season of eligibility). Jordan Bachynski capped his stellar Sun Devils career with his best season and an all-time conference record for career blocked shots. And Herb Sendek and the Sun Devils earned their first NCAA Tournament appearance since James Harden was on campus.

Arizona State

Arizona State Went Dancing, But It Ended With a Heartbreaking Putback by Texas

What Went Wrong

Still, despite that major accomplishment, you’ve got to feel that this team left money on the table at the end of the year. First, just the way they lost their NCAA Tournament game, falling to Texas on a buzzer-beater when the Longhorns’ last two buckets came on offensive rebounds after airballs – ouch! And Jahii Carson, the team’s best player and arguably a more talented player than what he showed, struggled through a rough season, with questions about his game confirmed and others about his leadership raised anew. Sendek did a solid job with this team, a squad that had some obvious holes in it. But still, this feels like a team that had an NCAA Tournament win (or two) in them but failed to get the job done.

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