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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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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Finding a Parachute for Four Teams Fading Fast…

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 11th, 2017

In Sports Illustrated‘s recent profile of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, he asked two philosophical questions about the game of basketball: “Why do we watch basketball games front to back? Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?” Those questions are silly on their face, but they stuck in my head this week while evaluating the NCAA Tournament resumes of a few teams whose seasons have clearly stagnated. Is there something to be said for viewing a team’s record of wins and losses without the associated construct of time, completely freeing its resume from any particular front-to-back narrative? This idea, in many ways, ties into the cutesy “blind resumes” gimmick we see on television so much throughout late February and early March. When we remove the bias that everyone inherently brings to the analysis, how does that change our opinions?

Is Tom Crean Destined for the NIT? (USA Today Images)

In the end, the individuals comprising the selection committee will bring their own biases along with them regardless of how the narratives are constructed. So as we sit here in mid-February, we thought it would be a useful exercise to re-evaluate a handful of teams who have seemingly lost control of their seasons. Indiana, USC, Clemson and Minnesota looked well on their way to the NCAA Tournament as recently as a month ago, but conference play has taken a significant toll on each. The narratives attached to these teams will greatly affect how they are viewed by the selection committee over the last month of the season. Can any of this quartet recover?

  • Indiana: The obvious poster child for this phenomenon, the Hoosiers were among the nation’s top 10 and projected as a #2 seed by ESPN‘s Joe Lunardi as recently as December 12. Since that date, Indiana has suffered injuries to key players (OG Anunoby and James Blackmon) and compiled a 7-8 record as a result. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, their only loss to an opponent outside the RPI top 100 came in a true road game at Fort Wayne, but with four of the Hoosiers’ last five Big Ten games on the road, concerns about a bid remain if Indiana can’t right the ship.

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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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Pac-12 Weekly Power Rankings: Vol. 3

Posted by Pac-12 Team on January 18th, 2017

The Pac-12 last season boasted the toughest road game in college basketball. During conference play, the league’s home teams won at a higher rate (71%) than any other conference in America. This season, Pac-12 home teams are winning at just a 59 percent rate. They say that conference titles are won on the road. How has your team fared in hostile territory?

Plenty to smile about for Dillon Brooks and Oregon lately. (Cole Elsasser/Emerald)

  1. Oregon (1) – The Ducks’ conference dominance continues. Since their dramatic, two-point victory over UCLA in the Pac-12 opener, Oregon has simply decimated their opponents. Oregon’s average margin of victory over the last four games is 26.5 points, a full 15 points higher than UCLA. Granted, the four teams the Ducks have played also have a combined 6-15 conference record, but at least they are taking care of business.
  2. UCLA (2) – How do we convince Thomas Welsh to get to the free throw line more often? That is the question that head coach Steve Alford should be asking himself. After shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe last season, the junior has yet to miss in his 24 attempts this year (leading to a subtle breakout season for the junior). Now if he could just average more than one freebie attempt every two games… Read the rest of this entry »
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