Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Regional Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 23rd, 2017

And then there were three. USC did the Pac-12 no shame in winning two games during the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, but the Trojans were felled by the neon shine of Baylor on Sunday, leaving the Conference of Champions with three teams in the Sweet Sixteen (as most had predicted). Oregon, Arizona and UCLA begin their second weekend of NCAA Tournament work this evening, so it’s time to check in with each and focus on a  key issue to resolve if they are to rendezvous in Glendale.

Oregon Advanced to the Sweet Sixteen On a Tyler Dorsey Three (USA Today Images)

  • #3 Oregon:  #TeamTyler or #TeamDillon? Postseason play has brought this particular debate to the fore in ways many may have not anticipated. After Oregon’s semifinal win over Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament, Dana Altman pulled no punches in critiquing what had been an uneven performance from Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, going so far as to suggest that Brooks had taken the Ducks out of their offense. The senior is a fantastic player, but Oregon’s offense has at times sputtered on Brooks possessions, allowing for Tyler Dorsey to emerge as an effective alternative for the Ducks in crunch time. Consider: In postseason play, Brooks is shooting 42.0 percent whereas Dorsey is converting a red-hot 67.0 percent. Brooks has outshot his teammate at the foul line, but not by nearly enough to eclipse Dorsey’s phenomenal streak of productivity. It’s always good to have multiple closers on the same team, and this isn’t necessarily about a fatal choice for Altman in the endgame. The big issue is that Dorsey is playing within the flow of the offense and outproducing Brooks at the same time. To win two more games this weekend, Oregon may have to either re-incorporate Brooks into the natural ebb and flow of its offense or elevate Dorsey to a more featured status.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #4 Florida (26-8). Florida’s 65-39 drubbing of #5 Virginia on Saturday should put the rest of the remaining field on notice— the Gators are really, really difficult to score against. Mike White’s aggressive group held to Cavaliers to a paltry 0.65 points per possession, limiting its ACC foe to just 1-of-15 shooting from behind the arc and preventing any Virginia player from reaching double figures. Wisconsin, which is somewhat similar to Virginia stylistically, could be in for a rude awakening on Friday night. 6’8” swingman Devin Robinson, a supremely gifted athlete, is playing some of his best basketball of the season (19.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament), and only West Virginia and North Carolina possess more depth than Florida of the teams remaining. Now ranked third nationally by KenPom, the Gators are as good a threat as any to win the National Championship.

Florida’ Defense Dominated Virginia This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #8 Wisconsin (27-9). Despite being underseeded, Wisconsin outlasted Virginia Tech in the First Round before knocking off the reigning National Champion in the Round of 32. Saturday’s unexpected, high-drama victory over Villanova highlighted the Badgers’ strengths — patience, veteran leadership, stingy defense — and firmly establishes them as a threat in the East Region. Greg Gard’s club, now in its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, will again enter Friday’s match-up with #4 Florida as an underdog. With a pair of seniors (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) and a First Team All-Big Ten forward (Ethan Happ) leading the way, bet against the dark horse Badgers at your own risk.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #7 South Carolina (24-10). #11 USC shocked #6 SMU and #8 Wisconsin upended the reigning National Champion — both huge surprises in their own right. But it was the other USC — #7 South Carolina — that pulled off the biggest stunner in the East, and perhaps the entire Big Dance. #2 Duke entered the Thursday as the betting favorite win the NCAA Tournament, a testament to both its supreme talent and undeniable momentum heading into the event (the Blue Devils had just won the ACC Tournament). The Gamecocks, meanwhile, entered Friday having lost six of its previous nine games, including an 11-point stinker against Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. And yet, Frank Martin’s defensive-minded group pounded Duke in the second half on Sunday night, scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes and knocking off the Blue Devils in front of a home-state crowd filled with South Carolina fans and North Carolina fans (otherwise known as Duke haters) alike. Few people saw this coming.

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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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Getting to Know the Pac-12: USC

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 15th, 2017

Chances are, if you live east of the Rocky Mountains, you didn’t catch a lot of Pac-12 basketball this season. And we totally get it! When a Pac-12 matchup kicks off at 7:00 pm PST, the time difference makes it nearly impossible to stay up and watch for anyone who isn’t living on the West Coast. This means that while you may have heard plenty about Oregon and Arizona and UCLA throughout the season, you might still be unfamiliar with individual players that aren’t named Dillon Brooks or Lonzo Ball. But don’t worry, we are here to give you a quick primer on each Pac-12 team in the NCAA Tournament field just in time for those last-minute tweaks to your bracket.

USC

Who are the stars?

USC has plenty of talent and a number of players with NBA futures, but they don’t have any true star talent on the roster. Junior point guard Jordan McLaughlin is probably the closest thing. He’s the team’s best player and very much the engine that makes the offense go. A gunner in his first two seasons with the Trojans’ (albeit an accurate one, as he shot better than 40% from beyond the arc), McLaughlin has evolved into an excellent playmaker and defender as well, finishing fourth in the conference in assist rate (31.4) and 12th in steal percentage (2.8). He is most fun to watch on the offensive end of the floor, where he has more than enough handles to attack the rim. He remains the team’s best chance to get a bucket out of an isolation set, so expect to see the ball in his hands a lot tonight.

Chimezie Metu is an NBA prospect because of his extreme athleticism. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Sophomore center Chimezie Metu isn’t a star yet, but he has brightest NBA future of anyone on the roster. Metu averaged more than 14 points and 7 rebounds per game while also providing tremendous rim protection on the defensive end. A legitimate 6’10”, Metu moves extremely well for a player his size, making him a high-upside defender who is versatile enough to step out and guard stretch forwards. He is still quite raw, but is making strides. Metu cut down on fouls over the course of the season and also made huge strides at the free-throw line, improving by 20 percentage points over last season. He still struggles to create his own offense, but his athleticism and ability to run the floor make him a highlight waiting to happen. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Pac-12 Teams

Posted by Adam Butler on March 12th, 2017

We thought that the Pac-12 Tournament champion would be rewarded with the West Region’s best available seed. The release of the committee’s bracket confirmed as much and here we are. With the Pac-12 represented by only four teams this season, let’s react to their seeding.

Arizona Rode the Wave to the Pac-12 Title (USA Today Images)

  • #2 Arizona, West – The Wildcats stormed through Las Vegas over the weekend and were rewarded for the effort. What will be interesting in the upcoming days, however, is how Arizona will be evaluated. The advanced metrics like KenPom rate Sean Miller‘s squad as the nation’s 20th best team, loosely correlating to a #4 or even #5 seed. Subsequently, the Internet has instareacted by noting that Saint Mary’s (Arizona’s potential Second Round opponent) in fact has fantastic odds of making the Elite Eight. Of course, Saint Mary’s (14th) rates ahead of the Wildcats, which means that it makes sense that the Gaels are a trendy sleeper pick. But ask yourself, is the team that just beat UCLA and Oregon on successive nights not capable of making the Final Four?

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Five Storylines for the Pac-12 Tournament

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 8th, 2017

The regular season is over, which means the real fun is about to begin. The Pac-12 Tournament tips off in Las Vegas today and there is plenty to look forward to. Although Oregon — the league’s prohibitive favorite at the start of the season — is still the best bet to take home the tournament title, there are several teams with plenty on the line this week and a few more hoping to play spoiler. Here are five things to watch for in Sin City this week.

Dana Altman Seeks Back-to-Back Pac-12 Tourney Titles (USA Today Images)

Who gets to stay on the West Coast? Now that Gonzaga has officially run roughshod over the rest of the WCC, the fourth No. 1 seed is likely North Carolina’s to lose. But even if Oregon, Arizona or UCLA can’t earn a No. 1 seed by winning the Pac-12 Tournament, there is still plenty of incentive beyond that. The winner will likely be in position to either get the fourth No. 1 seed if the Tar Heels stumble early, or they will earn the top No. 2 seed, presumably in the West Region. Location and comfortability will not be the determining factor for which Pac-12 teams make a run to the Final Four, but don’t discount the luxury of staying close to home. Even if the players don’t seem to mind the travel, the coaches know the benefits. This means that there is very little chance that any of the Big Three will rest on their laurels this week.

If California wins twice, will that be enough to get the Bears into the NCAA Tournament? The Golden Bears are the bubbliest of the Pac-12 bubble teams. They appeared in good shape a month ago but their ugly skid to end the season has put them in a precarious position approaching Selection Sunday. Beating an already defeated Oregon State club is an obvious must but isn’t enough by itself — they will probably also need to beat a Utah team that skunked the Golden Bears by 30 points just last week. Even then, the Utes are not an NCAA Tournament team and therefore the Selection Committee may not be swayed. Of course, Cuonzo Martin shouldn’t worry about anything beyond that just yet. He should be much more concerned with his team’s 8-of-46 (17.4%) three-point shooting slump over the last three games, and getting Jabari Bird (1-of-13 from deep over the same span) back on track.

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Pac-12 Final Regular Season Power Rankings

Posted by Pac-12 Team on March 8th, 2017

The Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas tips off at Noon PT today and fans are already salivating about the possible semifinals on Friday night. That said, the handful of teams in the second tier — such as Utah — are also serious threats to make some noise in Sin City. Let’s jump into the final Power Rankings of the season.

1. UCLA — Don’t look now, but UCLA is allowing 0.96 points per possession over its last eight games. Considering how much attention has been paid to the Bruins’ defensive issues this season, consider this an encouraging trend. If they can continue to defend at a reasonable level, Steve Alford‘s team will be ridiculously tough to beat in the NCAA Tournament.

Lonzo Ball’s UCLA team is one of the favorites heading into Las Vegas. (USA TODAY Sports)

2. Oregon — This team is stupid good on both ends. The 16-2 Ducks finished the conference season as the only team among the top two in both offensive and defensive efficiency. With the toughest portion of their schedule — five of their last seven games were on the road — now behind them, their focus shifts to being the #1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is the 2017 Bubble Really the Weakest in Years?

Posted by Shane McNichol on March 2nd, 2017

One of the prevailing narratives that has developed during the second half of this season is the existence of a historically weak crop of bubble teams. The bubble, by its very definition, is a fluid concept where a 68-team field consisting of 37 at-large teams necessarily limits the strength of the group. For whatever reason, though, this season’s bubble dwellers have earned a reputation as a particularly futile bunch. To explore the veracity of that claim, I reviewed the last seven NCAA Tournament bubbles (2011-17). This includes every NCAA Tournament since the 2011 implementation of the First Four, which added three additional teams to the at-large field. For this year’s bubble, I used ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s Last Four In and his first two out from the bracket released on Monday, February 27 — teams included were USC, Providence, Marquette, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

There are several clear takeaways here. First, the 2017 bubble does in fact feature the worst aggregate winning percentage and average RPI of the last seven years, along with the second-worst average KenPom ranking. In comparison with the last six years, this group of six bubble teams is statistically weaker than other years relative to the higher levels of automatic qualifiers. The most important finding, though, can be found in the far right column. This season’s bubble teams have all played very difficult schedules, nearly cutting the average bubble member’s strength of schedule rating in half. That’s notable because this season’s six bubble teams are from power conferences, while 19 of the 36 bubble teams from 2011-16 came from the mid-major world. That group included schools like Middle Tennessee, Tulsa, Colorado State, Iona, BYU (twice), Boise State (twice) and Oral Roberts.

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Pac-12 Power Rankings: The Big Three and Everyone Else Edition

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 1st, 2017

As we launch ourselves into March and the final weekend of Pac-12 play of the regular season, here are the final Power Rankings.

Thomas Welsh Wants Everyone to Recognize Where UCLA Stands (USA Today Images)

  1. UCLA– Nobody in the upper three did as much as the Bruins last weekend. Note that Arizona — which doesn’t really lose at the McKale Center, remember — was the first team in the past four games to post an offensive efficiency above the national average against UCLA’s improving defense.
  2. Oregon– The Ducks stood tough in the Bay Area last weekend thanks in large part to the second-best Pac-12 defense. Oregon plays aggressively (forcing a 20 percent turnover rate) yet cleanly with the second lowest FTA allowed rate in the conference.
  3. Arizona– Arizona, despite a tough home loss to the Bruins, continues to make its case as the most NCAA Tournament-ready team in the league. Why? First, the Wildcats play at the third-slowest pace in the Pac-12, and games always slow in postseason play. Secondly, Arizona does the best job in the conference in both getting to the foul line (37.4% FTA Rate) and making free throws when they get there (78%). Read the rest of this entry »
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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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