2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Seven

Posted by Walker Carey on January 3rd, 2017

The first full weekend of conference play was quite a doozy. From several head-scratching results (e.g., #22 Indiana falling in Bloomington to what was supposed to be an overmatched Nebraska team) to last second heroics (e.g., #11 Oregon beating #4 UCLA on a Dillon Brooks three-pointer), the start of conference play reminded us why college basketball is great theater. No conference that had a more dramatic opening weekend than the ACC, a fact that was driven home on New Year’s Eve when league stalwarts #6 Duke, #13 Virginia and #14 North Carolina were stunned by #21 Virginia Tech, #15 Florida State and Georgia Tech, respectively. While it is probably unreasonable to expect each subsequent week to provide as much drama, it is fair to assume that we will see flashes of this unexpectedness throughout the remainder of the season. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Grading the Pac-12 Non-Conference Performances, Part II

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 28th, 2016

The non-conference portion of the schedule is now over for the entire group of Pac-12 teams and, aside from UCLA running roughshod over every team it faced, it was a relatively uneventful non-conference season. Some teams scored important wins and other teams showed their weaknesses, but none of the 12 at-large resumes really stand out at this point in the season. To prove it to ourselves, let’s run through where each team stands heading into the 18-game Pac-12 schedule.

Ed. Note: the other half of the league’s report cards published yesterday.

UCLA – A+

Lonzo Ball (USA Today Images)

Lonzo Ball Has Turned UCLA into a National Title Contender (USA Today Images)

  • Good wins: Kentucky, Texas A&M, Michigan, Ohio State
  • Bad losses: None
  • Synopsis: When you breeze through the non-conference portion of your schedule with several quality wins (including a road victory at Kentucky), you probably deserve a perfect grade. UCLA has perhaps the most efficient offense in the country, multiple All-America candidates and enviable depth and size at every position. The Bruins’ defense is a non-negligible concern but head coach Steve Alford has his team firing on all cylinders and headed toward a No. 1 seed in March.

Stanford – C+

  • Good wins: Seton Hall
  • Bad losses: None
  • Synopsis: The Cardinal’s performance to this point won’t blow anyone away but they have quietly been a solid team under first-year head coach Jerod Haase. A win over Seton Hall in Florida was a nice starting point while losses to the likes of Kansas, St. Mary’s, Miami and SMU were to be expected. Plus, there is something to be said for taking care of business against lesser opponents. Stanford probably won’t force its way on to the right side of the bubble with this schedule, but Haase has at least served notice that the program is on solid footing.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Five

Posted by Walker Carey on December 19th, 2016

As we approach the end of the non-conference portion of the regular season, three RTC25 teams over the weekend earned noteworthy resume-enhancing wins over three other RTC25 teams. First, #14 Purdue used great interior play from sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan to overcome a 14-point halftime deficit in an 86-81 victory over #22 Notre Dame. In the follow-up game at the Crossroads Classic, #13 Butler used a dynamic performance from junior Kelan Martin to beat #14 Indiana by five points. In Saturday’s – and likely the season’s – best game, #6 Kentucky rode freshman guard Malik Monk’s insane 47-point game to a hard fought 103-100 triumph over #8 North Carolina. Conference play is just around the corner, but there is still a little time for some teams to notch a few more non-conference wins that will matter on Selection Sunday. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Can Kentucky Shoot Well Enough to Win It All?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 16th, 2016

What does it all mean?

Whether we want to admit it or not, that’s the question we ask all season long in college basketball, where meaning is defined by crystal clear implication. We watch these games because we want to know before the rest of the sports world puts college basketball up on the biggest and brightest stage. Which of these teams can really win six straight in the NCAA Tournament? We’re inclined to believe that a number of teams can win, and they usually comprise the usual suspects. Take a look at the KenPom top 10 and who do we see? Duke, Villanova, Kentucky, Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Baylor. UCLA is just on the fringe at #11. That’s a pretty comprehensive list of blue-bloods, and blue is the color of focus here. Kentucky sits at #3 despite a loss to UCLA in Lexington. Nobody questions the roster John Calipari has once again constructed. It’s another one-year baby full of basketball talent, as it has been annually since he took the throne in Lexington.

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing... (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing… But What About Shooting? (USA Today Images)

Four seasons have passed since Kentucky won the National Championship. Two years ago, the Wildcats won 38 straight games before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. In that game, the Wildcats went only 3-of-5 from behind the three-point line and ended up ceding a net of 12 points to Wisconsin from behind the arc. This ultimately provided the margin and then some in a game most pundits expected to be a Kentucky appetizer before a main course dinner two nights later against Duke, itself full of one-and-done talent. Last year Kentucky was stopped well short of the Final Four by Indiana in large part because the Wildcats’ 4-of-16 performance from three-point range. Against Wisconsin, Kentucky knew it couldn’t hit outside shots and therefore simply refused to take them. Last year, they accepted Indiana’s dare and couldn’t hit the shots. The net of six points that went the Hoosiers’ way ended up as the final margin.

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In Hoops We Trust: Blue-Blooded Season

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on December 15th, 2016

One of the biggest changes in college hoops over the last 10 years has been the rise of several consistently strong mid-major programs to the status of legitimate national title contenders. George Mason first crashed the Final Four party in 2006 with a gutsy, emotional Elite Eight win over #1 seed Connecticut. That paved the way for the rise of Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011), and Wichita State (2013), each of which were led by dynamic young coaches building winning programs. Throw in the likes of Gonzaga, San Diego State and Xavier, and the growing parity brought with it added competitiveness and a widening of the NCAA hoops pie. But this year is all about the blue-bloods. Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA are all in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1994. While some of those schools have maintained relevance over the intervening seasons, the simultaneous rise of the Hoosiers and Bruins augurs a shift back to the traditional power programs.

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

The “why” for this trend could very well be recruiting. Kentucky’s John Calipari was the first coach to truly embrace the one-and-done model of recruiting. The theory is basically that if you can gather the most talented players in the country — regardless whether all of them will be headed to the NBA after just one season — you should. Yes, there are challenges with youth, inexperience and with program continuity, but he proved with the 2012 National Championship and four Final Fours in five years that if you recruit the best players, challenge them in practice, and preach selflessness and defense, you can win. Mike Krzyzewski noticed and Duke jumped on board. Roy Williams also has a slew of McDonald’s All-Americans, and Bill Self has never shied away from recruiting one-year talents regardless of whether he plays them. UCLA this season joined the party with a pair of freshman All-Americans in Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. So far, Steve Alford‘s accumulation of talent has helped transform a formerly teetering program into the current #2 team in the country.

Conventional wisdom once held that experience trumps talent in the NCAA Tournament. This was the rationale for the VCUs, Butlers and Wichita States of the game. But as major programs blend experienced returnees with those talented NBA prospects, they often overwhelm their less athletic, overachieving rivals. So, does this early trend hold? That remains to be seen. Perhaps those talented freshmen will revert to traditional norms or hit the rookie wall as the long season works its way into spring. Or perhaps injuries will take a toll. Or maybe some of those power programs in smaller conferences will again crash the party. It wouldn’t be a shock. But so far this season, it’s been a feast for the rich. How fat they get we shall know in good time.

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Pac-12 Freshman Ladder: Early December Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 7th, 2016

I don’t know how long Scott Howard-Cooper has been writing his Rookie Ladder column for NBA.com but it has long been one of the more underrated features in basketball writing. There is nothing complex about its structure as a traditional weekly power ranking of NBA rookies. Yet basketball fans are always drawn to the new, which is why the Rookie Ladder column exists. The appeal of rookie coverage is true in college basketball as well. You don’t see the Pac-12 handing out a “Second-Year Player of the Year” award, do you? The season is now old enough that sample sizes are starting to become meaningful. Also, I am nothing if not a ruthless (but self-aware) copycat. So here is our best imitation of Cooper’s excellent feature – the inaugural Pac-12 Freshman Ladder.

Lonzo Ball (USA Today Images)

Lonzo Ball Leads the Pac-12 Freshman Ladder (USA Today Images)

  1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA. In our top-secret algorithm that determines these rankings, winning matters, if only a little. UCLA is undefeated and that is why Ball edges past Markelle Fultz on this list for now. Bolstered by a surprising ability to knock down threes (43.5% 3FG), Ball has been one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball (67.5% eFG) while also affecting every possession without having to score. He has turned the ball over 12 times in the last three games, but the Bruins are so lethal offensively with the freshman running the show that UCLA will live with those mistakes.
  2. Markelle Fultz, Washington. Fultz is playing a different role at Washington than Ball is at UCLA but his playmaking skills are just as advanced. Fultz’s assist rate (37.0%) and turnover rate (17.6%) compare favorably with Ball and his shot-making responsibilities and usage rate mean that he is scoring more as well. His defensive numbers (4.1% block rate and 3.4% steal rate) are also superior to his southern California counterpart. One could reasonably argue that if Fultz were running point in Westwood and the Bruins were still undefeated, he would be the clear alpha dog on this list. Read the rest of this entry »
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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Three

Posted by Walker Carey on December 5th, 2016

Another week of college hoops is in the books, and a few teams last week demonstrated they will be reckoned with during the rest of the season. #4 UCLA, behind a terrific offensive attack, earned the most impressive victory of the young season when it left Rupp Arena on Saturday with a 97-92 victory over #8 Kentucky. That defeat at the hands of the Bruins marked the first time the Wildcats have lost in Lexington since the 2013-14 season. #5 Baylor likewise continued its dream start to the season with a dominant 76-61 win over #12 Xavier. In only the first week of December, the Bears already have an excellent profile with victories over #10 Louisville, #20 Oregon and the formerly top-10 Musketeers. #7 Gonzaga also bolstered its flawless record last week, earning a 69-62 neutral site win over #23 Arizona. The Bulldogs are benefiting from the return of big man Przemek Karnowski, who missed all but five games last season with a back injury. The college basketball season is definitely a marathon where things can change on a nightly basis, but it sure seems like the Bruins, Bears and Bulldogs are in great position to succeed all season. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Heading to Kentucky — How Good is UCLA?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 2nd, 2016

Few teams in the country have done more to burnish its reputation in the first three weeks of the season than UCLA. Armed with two of the most impressive freshmen and arguably the deepest backcourt in the country, UCLA cruised past the competition to win the Wooden Legacy Tournament and, through eight games, has yet to encounter an opponent capable of handling its offensive firepower. The Bruins lead the country in effective field goal percentage (63.8%), are second in the country in three-point shooting (45.6%), are third in the country in two-point shooting (61.1%) and are 22nd in the country in turnover percentage (15.6%). Put simply, the Bruins are playing faster than their opponents (roughly a quarter of their field-goal attempts come in transition), can create whatever scoring opportunities they want and are taking excellent care of the ball. All of that is likely to change on Saturday when UCLA travels to Lexington for the marquee college basketball matchup of the weekend. But then, and only then, will it be time to truly evaluate just how good this team can be.

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Still, there is a lot to love about how UCLA has played in those eight games this season. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf have been even better than expected; five different Bruins are shooting 40 percent or better from downtown; and the big men – Leaf and Thomas Welsh – have proven to be the perfect complement to the team’s loaded backcourt. There is nothing presumptive in stating that UCLA is now the favorite to win the Pac-12.  Before we lock it into stone, however, it is worth wondering how much of UCLA’s early start is sustainable. The schedule hasn’t been downright embarrassing, but it hasn’t been all that good either. The team has yet to leave the Golden State, and while games against Nebraska and Texas A&M were technically held at neutral sites, a quick Google Maps search shows that Westwood is just a bit closer to Anaheim than either Lincoln or College Station. The Cornhuskers and Aggies were worthy opponents, but Rupp Arena on a December afternoon is going to be a completely different atmosphere and it will be interesting to see how Steve Alford‘s team handles the pressure.

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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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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Two

Posted by Walker Carey on November 29th, 2016

Feast Week always results in a couple teams really establishing themselves as legitimate teams to watch the rest of the season. This year the three teams that took the Feast Week Leap are #7 Baylor, #11 UCLA and #16 Butler. In a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field, Baylor emerged victorious by scoring wins over VCU, Michigan State and #10 Louisville. UCLA, behind its star backcourt of Lonzo Ball and Isaac Hamilton, took home the Wooden Legacy crown with wins over Portland, Nebraska and Texas A&M. Butler won the Las Vegas Invitational by topping Vanderbilt and earning a hard fought upset victory over #17 Arizona. In other Feast Week action, #3 North Carolina showed why it is one of the best teams in the country with a dominant performance at the Maui Invitational. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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