Assessing the Race for #1 Seeds Two Weeks Out

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 24th, 2017

With a little more than two weeks until Selection Sunday, the battle for #1 seeds in this season’s NCAA Tournament is coming into focus. The specific teams that will sit atop each region have yet to completely crystallize, but the available scenarios are starting to make sense. As regular season conference champions are crowned and the conference tournament brackets are set, the variables in each candidate’s resume fade away and the pathways to a top seed become more clear. Looking around the college basketball landscape leads us to 10 teams remaining with a legitimate chance at the top line. Let’s review.

Kansas and Villanova Appear Locked In as Top Seeds (USA Today Images)

Kansas and Villanova are almost certainly locked into #1 seeds in the Midwest and East regions, respectively. Both schools have already clinched at least a share of their conference championships and sport resumes worthy of a top seed, barring absolute disaster (i.e., multiple losses) down the stretch. Gonzaga, 29-0 against the 147th-ranked schedule in college basketball, is likely to earn the top seed in the West region. When the Selection Committee provided its sneak peek of the top 16 seeds a couple weeks ago, the Zags occupied the fourth overall #1 seed. Those rankings were released prior to Gonzaga’s decisive victory that evening at St. Mary’s as well as consecutive losses by Baylor, the third overall seed If Mark Few’s club loses its regular season finale against BYU or the WCC Tournament championship game to St. Mary’s, they’d still be in good position to earn a top seed. A loss to any other team in the conference tournament, however, would definitely knock Gonzaga to the #2 seed line.

The fourth available #1 seed is where things get tricky. The likely front-runner for that slot as of today is North Carolina, which is leading the ACC by two full games. An outright regular season title would likely include victories over Duke or Virginia, sealing up a regular season resume well-situated to earn a #1 seed. Assuming a decent performance at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, the Tar Heels would head to the South Region. If North Carolina slips down the stretch, ACC colleagues Louisville and Duke would be in best position to gain. Even though both teams lost on Wednesday night, a strong closing push that results in an ACC Tournament championship could elevate the Cardinals or Blue Devils to the top line. In the end, the ACC is so strong that any of these three teams can earn a #1 seed by making it clear to the committee that they own the league’s best resume.

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Stance and Communication: UCLA Takes Baby Steps on Defense

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 23rd, 2017

There is no lack of self-awareness within UCLA’s basketball program. Head coach Steve Alford made that clear Saturday night after his Bruins throttled crosstown rival USC at Pauley Pavilion. Alford was candid about his team’s initial refusal to heed his cries of defense, and he really broke down his expectations in the clearest possible form. “It took the loss to Arizona and the loss to USC to really grab the guys’ attention… our focus, our stance, our activity… we’ve been talking to the guys about stance and talking since Australia [summer trip]. The stance is making progress, but the talking still has a lot of growth yet.”

But Can UCLA Defend is the Key Question (USA Today Images)

In the macro sense, UCLA has improved defensively over the past five games. Cumulatively, they have put together a Defensive Rating of 95.9, far better than their Pac-12 average of 105.1. In three of those five games, opponents finished with less than a point per possession. But what about the eye test? Against USC, the Bruins seized control in the final eight minutes of the first half. Holding the Trojans scoreless on four straight trips played a big role in that separation. How much credit do the Bruins deserve for USC’s drought? Let’s take a closer look:

8:18: Aaron Holiday misses a runner driving left, and the Trojans secure possession. The first thing UCLA does well is get back upcourt. At the moment that Jordan McLaughlin has the ball, three Bruins are 90 feet from the bucket. The Trojans’ Elijah Stewart bursts up the court, but Lonzo Ball sprints along with him, eliminating any long-distance passes. By the time McLaughlin crosses midcourt, the Bruins are fully back and set into their defense. McLaughlin then drives left and initiates a handoff to De’Anthony Melton. He probes the left elbow, and as he does, three Bruins track the ball and are poised to defend drive, pass or shot. On the weak side, Ball and Thomas Welsh watch the ball and their men. Melton backs away from the lane after getting cut off by Gyorgy Goloman, which gives Isaac Hamilton time to recover and cut him off from the left. Melton makes a bounce pass that gets deflected and ultimately stolen by a diving Holiday.

This was an excellent defensive sequence that featured good defensive stances, positioning, aggression and communication.

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Is This Season the Dawn of an L.A. Hoops Renaissance?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 22nd, 2017

USC basketball, much like UCLA football, has a long tenure in the City of Angels as the “other” program at its respective university. UCLA Basketball, while not having won a National Championship since 1995 and not having appeared in a Final Four since 2008, remains the King in one of the country’s most fertile basketball talent grounds. Disregarding the clear hierarchy, there hasn’t been a compelling reason why the Trojans couldn’t carve out a reputation for its own place in the high-level college basketball landscape. Ultimately, such a thing comes down to the coach and the money. With the first decade of the Galen Center now in the rear view, USC has clearly established a financial foundation for success. Now with Andy Enfield guiding the Trojans to what should be a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, it seems as if USC basketball is finally re-establishing itself as a perpetually successful program.

USC’s faithful on the hardwood might be on to something. (USC Athletics)

The question of whether Los Angeles’ Pac-12 schools are in the midst of a basketball renaissance hinges primarily on whether there was a concurrent stretch of basketball glory in the first place. The 2010-11 season was the last time that both teams qualified for the same NCAA Tournament, but USC’s loss in the First Four and UCLA’s defeat in the Second Round didn’t move the needle much nationally. Both programs also danced at the same time for a three-year stretch from 2007-09, although Ben Howland’s run of three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 vastly outshone Tim Floyd’s 2007 trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Since their departures, however, it’s been a struggle for both programs — USC, primarily — to regain elite status. Read the rest of this entry »

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week 14

Posted by Walker Carey on February 20th, 2017

As we enter the home stretch of the college basketball season, the top two teams in the RTC25 have separated themselves from the pack as the best squads in the country. Top-ranked Gonzaga continued its undefeated run with dominant home victories over San Francisco and Pacific. The Bulldogs finish their regular season on Thursday at San Diego and Saturday in Spokane versus BYU, making the likelihood of a perfect 30-0 mark entering postseason play very likely. Second-ranked Villanova extended its winning streak to seven in a row with easy road wins last week over DePaul and Seton Hall — the Wildcats are now 26-2 overall and 13-2 in Big East play. They will have a chance to improve on those marks with looming home showdowns this week against #22 Butler on Wednesday and #23 Creighton on Saturday. Of course a lot can still happen between now and Selection Sunday, but it certainly looks like Gonzaga and Villanova will be pleased with where they end up on the evening of March 12. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump.

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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The Achilles’ Heels of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA

Posted by Richard Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

The Pac-12’s Big Three of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA (in no particular order) have spent most of the regular season displaying their numerous virtues, but for these three programs their ultimate referendum is going to be performance in the NCAA Tournament. The trio certainly won’t be the only Pac-12 schools to qualify for the Big Dance this season, but they will be expected to carry the banner for the Conference of Champions deep into March (last men’s basketball championship: Arizona, 1997). So what to make of the Wildcats, Ducks and Bruins as we approach three weeks until Selection Sunday? Their talent is unquestioned, but each team carries at least one potentially tragic flaw that must be reconciled if it has plans on booking a trip to the Final Four.

Arizona: Inexperience

Lauri Markkanen is a potentially game-changing talent, but will his inexperience catch up to him in the Big Dance? (Getty)

No team epitomizes the conference’s youthful resurgence like Arizona. In Pac-12 play, freshmen Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons represent nearly half of Arizona’s field goal attempts and scoring. That hasn’t mattered until recently, but a reckoning more commonly known as “The Freshman Wall” is imminent. Rare is the first-year collegian who can completely sidestep a prolonged dip in performance. Markannen recently went through a two-week stretch of poor performances, punctuated by four-point, three-rebound stinker at Oregon. Simmons has also struggled with inconsistency in league play. His masterpiece against UCLA was the precursor to an ineffective 2-of-7 game against Utah. Another inconsistent swing through Oregon cost Simmons his starting job, and his 19 minutes against Stanford represented a season low. He bounced back somewhat against California with 13 points and three assists, but he doesn’t seem quite as comfortable as he once did. Alkins also struggled against the Oregon schools, but he played well in recent games against Stanford and Washington State. Teams have certainly won NCAA titles led by talented youth, but it’s also not hard to imagine a team like Arizona cracking against a veteran-laden athletic group like Villanova. Arizona has plenty of time to find greater consistency among its freshman corps, but like the rest of us, Sean Miller is probably still wondering what are his young Wildcats made of?

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How Tournament-Proof Are the Nation’s Top Five Offenses?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

This year multiple coaches across the country have conceded publicly that a team’s offense is the biggest factor in its ability to maintain a defense. “Defense wins championships” may still be a treasured maxim, but the truth is that offense is the fuel in college basketball. The question then becomes one of how vulnerable the best offenses in college basketball are to a one-game slump? Since only a single bad night is all it takes to be sent home from the NCAA Tournament, it’s worth investigating the nation’s top five offenses to set some criteria for evaluating the rest of the field. Per KenPom, here are the top five offenses nationally based on adjusted offensive efficiency, along with their corresponding adjusted tempo.

Team Adj. ORtg Adj. Tempo
1. UCLA 124.5 14.1 (6)
2. Oklahoma State 123.9 16.5 (91)
3. North Carolina 122.2 15 (16)
4. Gonzaga 122.2 15.7 (33)
5. Villanova 121.7 18.8 (314)


As the tempo column shows, teams can play at both warp speed (UCLA, North Carolina, Gonzaga) or at a relative crawl (Villanova) and still be extremely effective. That said, to the extent that the game slows somewhat in the NCAA Tournament, it is reasonable to suggest that some of these teams may face more trouble than others. 
The Bruins, Tar Heels and Bulldogs all use a healthy dose of tempo when they play. This is not to say that any of those three teams cannot also win a low-possession game, but their opponents would certainly be better-suited to impose a slowdown game on them to the extent possible. Villanova has already proven its favored pace can win championships. The next question then becomes which of the faster teams are most poised to handle a grind-it-out half-court game?

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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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Kansas’ Kryptonite: Five Teams That Can Cause Problems for the Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 16th, 2017

Monday night’s memorable comeback win over West Virginia effectively sealed Kansas’ record-tying 13th straight Big 12 title — if not mathematically, then symbolically. Yes, Baylor could topple the Jayhawks on Saturday in Waco to pull within a single game in the standings with two weeks left, but the Bears also must face the same Mountaineers team that steamrolled them last month and travel to Hilton Coliseum. Even if Baylor were to beat the odds and win out, Kansas’ finale in Stillwater represents the only other remaining game it could foreseeably lose, as its other three match-ups are home tilts against TCU and Oklahoma and a road game against Texas. And even if the improbable occurs and Kansas drops its final game along with Baylor winning its last five, the Jayhawks would still be in possession of a share of the conference title. So while the confetti may not officially fly in Lawrence for a couple more weeks, the gameday crew can start stocking up on cannons and CO2 without much apprehension. As far as March is concerned, Kansas’ status as the champion of the nation’s toughest conference may cement its standing as a #1 seed no matter what happens at the Big 12 Tournament.

Devonte’ Graham and the Jayhawks are on the cusp of yet another Big 12 title. (AP Photo)

We know that Kansas has a National Championship ceiling because it boasts three-point shooters all over the floor, one of the game’s best coaches, a one-and-done wing who is becoming more impressive by the day, and a penchant for closing out tight games in preparation for single-elimination basketball. On the other hand, though, those close games have revealed some weaknesses that opponents can exploit to send the Jayhawks home early. With their fate as a top-two NCAA Tournament seed all but assured, it’s not too early to look around the rest of the field and identify a handful of teams that could give Kansas some serious headaches when the brackets are revealed 24 days from today.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week 13

Posted by Walker Carey on February 13th, 2017

Another week of the college basketball season has come and gone, and with it a little more clarity has been revealed regarding the group of college basketball’s top teams. Duke and UCLA both showed on Thursday night that they must be included in the discussion. The Blue Devils, whose dramatically volatile season has been thoroughly documented, stayed on the winning course by earning an 86-78 victory over arch-rival North Carolina. The Bruins earned some revenge from an early Pac-12 loss to Oregon by riding its home crowd and a rejuvenated defensive effort to an impressive 82-79 comeback win. February is normally the month where elite teams begin to separate themselves from the pack, so it will be interesting to observe whether UCLA and Duke, along with a handful of others above them in the rankings, are ready to make a push. There are many opportunities for teams to earn impressive wins and bolster their NCAA Tournament résumés. It just comes down to which teams will actually take advantage of those opportunities. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump.

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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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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