Is Arizona State Really the Best Team in the Pac-12?

Posted by Adam Butler on January 31st, 2018

With a microphone in his face, Arizona State guard Shannon Evans told anyone listening that his team is the best in the conference and that the Pac-12 would be nothing without the Sun Devils’ non-conference efforts. Before diving into his bold statement further, let’s give credit where it is due — a win at Kansas is a win at Kansas. Xavier is a meaningful win too. It’s also worth noting that St. John’s is currently sitting at a cool 0-11 in the Big East standings. It is true, however, that the Sun Devils had the only non-conference season of note and it was very impressive. They even flirted with the #1 ranking in the country.

Shannon Evans is a Believer (USA Today Images)

Yet since Arizona State sat in the driver’s seat of that #1 ranking on the afternoon of December 30 (losing to Arizona), the Sun Devils have played to the tune of a negative efficiency margin (107 offensive efficiency – 108 defensive efficiency = -1 efficiency margin). Their defense, which was never celebrated, ranks eighth in the conference, even yielding more than one point per possession to Cal! Their offense, however, driven by great speed and long-range shooting, has seemingly disappeared. For the season, Arizona State’s offense has operated at a KenPom adjusted 119.4 points per 100 possessions, which is fantastic (eighth nationally) and carried, as noted, by outstanding three-point shooting. The Sun Devils are the nation’s 52nd-best three point shooting team (38.3%) for the season, but in conference play, they have not been nearly that good. Rather, Arizona State’s offense is hovering at a 107.6 efficiency (sixth in the Pac) while making 36.2 percent of their threes (seventh).

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A Hater’s Guide to Arizona State Basketball

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 27th, 2017

All right, Arizona State. You’ve got our attention. 12-0 is no joke, not with a road win at Allen Fieldhouse on your resume. A lofty #3 AP and RPI ranking means the Sun Devils can no longer be ignored or dismissed. A date with Arizona in Tucson where Arizona State will be ranked significantly above its rival Wildcats tells you that Netflix is not the only place where you can witness the Upside Down. Of course, in these times of instant gratification, that means every part of the Hero’s journey is accelerated, and since there’s nothing America likes to do as much as put a new face on a pedestal only to knock it down, it’s time for the backlash. Let’s talk about the most dubious aspects of Arizona State’s success and see if its profile suggests sustainability. Let’s bring the hate.

Arizona State Has Had a Dream Season to Date (USA Today Images)

First of all, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder are playing way too many minutes. Holder’s minutes in the last four games were 40, 37, 32 and 28. Trending correctly, right? Sure, as long as Longwood and Pacific are the opponents. Evans is right there with his teammate, playing just a shade under 88 percent of his possible minutes. Senior Kodi Justice is also playing 82 percent of his available minutes. Our colleague Adam Butler is right in saying that benches and depth tend to be overrated in college basketball, but at 6’1” and under 181 pounds each, Evans and Holder cannot expected to play a full season at the blistering pace the Sun Devils have set for themselves. I’ll add a corollary.  Depth quantity may not matter, but depth production does. You don’t need a 10-man rotation to win in college basketball. However, you do need to develop enough trust such that your best players aren’t pushing past 35 minutes on a nightly basis. That’s also an issue with Romello White, the 6’8” freshman forward who has provided a sorely needed inside presence for Bobby Hurley.

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Tra Holder Getting More Than a Little Help From His Friends

Posted by Adam Butler on December 14th, 2017

Clarity is preferred. A clear head, a clear path, a clear lens. When we’re devoid of obstruction we tend to be more comfortable and successful. So while it will remain unclear just how good Arizona State is this season (ESPN hot takes), one thing seems clear: senior guard Tra Holder is getting clear looks. For the majority of his time in Tempe, he’s worked alone to get those looks. Coming into this season, just 37 percent of his attempts from distance were assisted. What does this mean? Or, perhaps more aptly, what can we assume (we don’t have player tracking devices in Pac-12 gyms despite “innovative” leadership)? My assumption is that, if nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made threes were not assisted, then Holder is working hard – off the dribble, for example – to make those buckets go down. That’s a lot. Further, attempts off the bounce are often more difficult or at less clear than assisted attempts. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer postures that Victor Oladipo’s improvement in off-the-dribble scoring is the reason behind his breakout season for the Indiana Pacers. Of course Holder seemingly already has this down. He already connects at a 36.4 percent career clip, punctuated by 46.3 percent this season. Further, his Free Throw rate (i.e., ability to get to the line) has consistently ranked among the conference’s top 10. In summary, Holder has been a nightmare with the basketball.

Tra Holder Has Been a Nightmare with the Basketball (USA Today Images)

This season is no different except that he’s also getting some help. His looks are becoming a less obstructed and it is correspondingly no surprise that he’s shooting a career-high eFG% (56.4%) along with that sterling three-point percentage. Focusing on the latter, his script has been flipped as nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made three pointers have been assisted this season. Having already laid out that Holder is a nightmare with the ball in his hands, his teammates are making him better in turn. Interestingly enough, Arizona State ranks 324th nationally in the percentage of its threes that have gone assisted. Does this bode poorly for the Sun Devils’ future? Playing the seventh-fewest bench minutes of any team in the country, tiring legs might be expected as the season rolls on. Perhaps that lends itself to less energy to run off screens, play off the ball and receive an unobstructed (generously describing an assisted three-pointer) three?

If the Devils’ numbers are any indication, it might just be that they don’t need the open look. They’re sufficient at making them without assistance. The fact that Holder has been the beneficiary of any passing (we’re looking at you, Shannon Evans, and your 51 percent of assists yielding a three) may indicate he’s saving his bullets for the long haul. Those off-the-dribble daggers of senior guard lore.

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Introducing Arizona State’s Frontcourt and the Nationally Ranked Sun Devils

Posted by Adam Butler on December 1st, 2017

It’s worth noting that Arizona State is ranked. In men’s basketball. It’s an infrequent Tempe phenomenon but something that’s perhaps not all that shocking. There were glimpses a season ago, however, and the Sun Devils returned a number of critical pieces while adding that which they were missing. And what were they missing? Size. Or at least anyone capable of grabbing a rebound. The Devils ranked 313th and 292nd in defensive and offensive rebounding, respectively, in 2016-17. Sitting on their bench due to NCAA red tape, though, was perhaps the answer. Romello White, a four-star prospect, is through three weeks of the current season presenting as the Sun Devils’ missing piece. Arizona State isn’t necessarily any bigger in the aggregate, but the data suggests that a strategy of doubling down on small ball is paying off, thanks to White.

Romello White Has Been a Missing Frontcourt Piece for the Sun Devils (USA Today Images)

They’re nationally ranked now, after all, and touting the nation’s 10th most efficient offense. The Sun Devils are making 43 percent of their threes (nuts) and 63 percent of their twos (even crazier). Beyond that, they tout the nation’s fourth highest free throw rate (54%) — an astronomical improvement from last season’s 31.9% (273rd nationally) — and both Tra Holder (36% career three-point shooter) and Shannon Evans (also 36% career) are shooting well above their career averages. In missing a low post presence, White has emerged as the dynamic talent capable of catapulting the Devils to new heights. At 6’8”, the freshman is already rebounding above his weight (59th in defensive rebounding percentage) while simultaneously drawing 8.3 fouls per 40 minutes. And it’s not just his weight. Operating at equal levels of big-man effectiveness is De’Quon Lake, a junior college transfer brought in to fortify what was an abysmal frontcourt. It’s working. Lake’s numbers are on par, if not better than, White’s.

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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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Six Bold Pac-12 Thoughts Heading Into the Season

Posted by Adam Butler on October 31st, 2017

Six — or half of a cheeky 12 aligning to the conference — predictions are bold and the headlines to each, authoritative. Ultimately, these are storylines to track, components of the season to make note of as we progress through the Pac-12.

Here’s Your Pac-12 Player of the Year (USA Today Images)

  1. The FBI Investigation will not be a distraction – Well that’s a loaded headline. We’ll stick to hoops. This may not be quantifiable but with the Pac-12’s two best teams getting named in the FBI’s September complaint and both quickly dismissing assistants, it’s been an evergreen consideration among league pundits. One beat writer thought so much of the investigation/arrests that he dropped Arizona to fourth in his poll (but kept USC atop the conference standings). Alas, Arizona once again sold out its Red-Blue game and USC managed to secure a commitment from a top 10 point guard in the class of 2018. The impending uncertainty will serve as a galvanizing force to the 2017-18 season.
  2. Tra Holder will win POY – The rosters in Tucson and Los Angeles (USC) are loaded, lending to several diluted cases for Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Arizona State’s Tra Holder has an improved roster around him, the confidence of his coach and three years of experience. He’s a senior guard in a senior guard loving sport. Is Pac-12 POY in his sights? It might be a stretch, but not out of the question. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Who Will Get the Fourth Bye?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 16th, 2017

With three weeks of league play left, both the the regular season title and the cherished final Pac-12 Tournament bye are still very much in play…

UCLA Basketball is Cool in LA Again (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona– The Wildcats are experiencing their three talented freshmen (Lauri Markannen, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins) running smack into the proverbial freshman wall. Despite that ongoing issue, they were still able to sweep the Bay Area schools without playing their best basketball. One of the biggest signs for optimism comes in the form of Chance Comanche, who has fortified Arizona’s post rotation by shooting 17-of-29 (59%) over the last two games.
  2. UCLA– How about a little love for Aaron Holiday? Upstaged by the arrival of superstar freshman Lonzo Ball, the sophomore guard has drastically improved upon what was a very good freshman campaign. He has already converted more three-pointers than all of last season (42) and has flipped his assist rate (24.4%) and turnover rates (21.5%) as well. He isn’t playing as much this season, but he is still a key cog in the Bruins’ devastating offensive machine.
  3. Oregon– The Ducks were about 15 minutes away from looking like the best team in the Pac-12. A furious comeback, however, orchestrated by UCLA’s Lonzo Ball proved that the conference is still up for grabs. As balanced as Oregon is across its rotation, the need for a closer is still an issue. Dillon Brooks has played that role very well for most of this season, but when he’s having an off game, the Ducks need another player to provide late-game production. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Can Bobby Hurley Do More Than Recruit?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 10th, 2016

When Arizona State hired Bobby Hurley away from Buffalo as its new basketball coach a year ago, athletic director Ray Anderson made no bones about the incoming expectations for his new coach: “We are intent on becoming an elite men’s basketball program.” The hire gained nearly universal praise, in large part thanks to Hurley’s fantastic playing career at Duke and his work in leading Buffalo to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015. Once his first season in Tempe started, however, the Sun Devils looked anything but elite.

Bobby Hurley's Team Would Be In Based On Non-Conference Play Alone

Bobby Hurley’s Team Needs To Show More This Season. (Getty)

The team ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 on both ends of the floor, won just five league games and generally appeared unready to compete for a conference title. Very little of this was the new head coach’s fault, of course. Predecessor Herb Sendek left insufficient talent on hand for the formation of a competent rotation, and those few players remaining were ill-suited for Hurley’s attacking style of offense. Still, despite the team’s continuing struggles, Hurley managed to pile up the accolades for his work in both changing the program’s culture and luring big-time recruits to the desert. As such, despite finishing 11th in the Pac-12 standings, Hurley convinced Arizona State that he deserved a raise and contract extension. And although there is plenty of evidence that Hurley has pointed the Arizona State ship in the right direction, he now needs to reward that faith and enthusiasm with some accompanying on-court improvement. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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