Burning Questions: Pac’s Next Best Team

Posted by Mike Lemaire (@Mike_Lemaire), Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) and Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 4th, 2016

Oregon sits alone atop the conference with a one-game lead at the halfway mark over four second-place teams. Considering the Ducks already have a win at the McKale Center (one of their six wins over top 50 teams) and a conference-best KenPom rating of #15, we’ve got a consensus of contributors willing to call Dana Altman’s group the best team in the Pac. So that brings us to the obvious next question: If the Ducks go down, which will be the team to do it? Our answers are below.

Even Sitting A Couple Games Back, Sean Miller And The Wildcats Are In Striking Position

Even Sitting A Couple Games Back, Sean Miller And The Wildcats Are In Striking Position

Mike Lemaire: Depleted as they may be, Arizona is still the next best team in the conference. All three of its road losses were by three points or fewer (and one of those went into quadruple-overtime), and although Oregon exposed the Wildcats as a flawed team (especially without the services of Allonzo Trier), it is still the most well-rounded team in the league outside of Eugene. But this pick is as much about the uninspiring resumes of the other contenders as it is about Arizona. Utah’s best win is at Colorado; the Buffaloes beat Oregon at home but haven’t posted many other victories of note; USC needed four overtimes to beat the Wildcats in the Galen Center. Behind Oregon, the Pac-12 is a conference littered with “good but not great” teams. Arizona has the best coach, the most talent and the most upside. I’ll take the ‘Cats head-to-head on a neutral floor against any other team in the conference. 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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Best in the West: The 20 Best Teams West Of The Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 26th, 2016

Here’s something we occasionally do: group all of the teams west of the Rockies (you know, the only part of the country, save Austin, New Orleans, Memphis and maybe New York City worth a damn) together, mix them up and see what order they shake out in. This means we’ve got all of the teams in the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and Big West Conferences, plus some of the schools in the WAC and Big Sky. And normally, instead of just ranking teams the traditional way, we divide them up into tiers. The idea is that there may be two great teams that have serious Final Four dreams and then a significant fall off when talking about team number three. This year in the West? Not so much. Apropos of the rest of the nation, there are no elite teams. And on any given Saturday (or Thursday, or Wednesday), there’s a good chance whoever checks in a half-page down this list can play with the first team we mention. But still, here’s a best effort at placing the best in the West into tiers.

The Best of the Best: Legitmate Top 25 teams

  • Oregon (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Since back in the middle of the summer, I’ve had the Ducks at the top of the Pac-12. With Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis added to the mix, the Ducks have long had the prospect of being, a deep, veteran, long, balanced squad. Some of those strengths (depth and experience, mainly) have been diminished with the season that wasn’t for Ennis (out for season with broken foot), but Dana Altman’s presence at the helm of a talented group should mean that this team’s best days are ahead of it. With the shot-blocking combination of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher along the backline and the perimeter defenders like Casey Benson, Dwayne Benjamin and Tyler Dorsey, this team still has a ways to go before it reaches it’s defensive potential, as it is just 69th in the nation in defensive efficiency. The defense has to improve, but if it does, the Ducks’ offense is diverse and explosive enough to drag them a long ways into March.
Hey, Did You Know That Bell Boucher Is A Type Of Banjo? And A Great Shotblocking Combo?

Bell-Boucher: Both A Banjo And A Great Shot-blocking Combo!

  • Arizona (#2 overall, Pac-12 #2) – A one-point loss at California qualifies as a good result in a West that mimics the national landscape by not having any one dominant team. Every one of the Wildcats’ losses has been a tightly fought contest, with a four-point neutral-court loss against Providence to join three conference road losses that came by an average of two points (and four total overtimes). In short, Arizona is, on January 23rd, six possessions away from a perfect 20-0 record, despite the absence of senior Kaleb Tarczewski for eight games, freshman Allonzo Trier for the last four games and junior Elliott Pitts for the last 13 games. While this is by no mean a vintage Arizona team, Sean Miller is the best coach in the West and you can count on him getting the absolute most out of a flawed roster.

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Marching to Vegas: In Defense of the Pac

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on January 14th, 2016

The Pac-12 is exactly what we want it to be, at least in a season like this. In a conference whose most tenured coach has a 0.456 winning percentage over his last four seasons and the second most tenured is Johnny Dawkins, we’ve got what we want. The Pac isn’t producing basketball we’ll soon tell our grandchildren about or write new defensive schematics to contain something transcendent. Only Bill Walton could contextualize the Pac-12 as historically brilliant right now. He’s wrong. He knows he’s wrong but he’ll say it anyway because he’s Bill Walton and he’s forgotten more basketball than we’ll ever know. What if he’s right, though (he’s not)?

Don't Worry Pac-12, We've Got Your Back.

Don’t Worry Pac-12, We’ve Got Your Back.

Because right now the Pac-12 is competitive. We can quantify that, for starters. Noting that 45 percent of its games – according to KenPom – have been close; that there hasn’t been a “blowout” of 19-points or more through 29 conference games. Remember 2012, when we lamented what a poor Pac-12 we had? Just 19 percent of those games were close and 18 percent were blowouts. That’s nearly 40 percent of conference basketball with seemingly no balance. Think about that. In easily the worst Pac play we’ve ever seen, the games weren’t even close. Competition breeds success. The Pac-12 in 2016 isn’t the greatest basketball we’ve ever seen. In 2009 it collectively led the nation in efficiency. This year it’s 15th. But when I sit down to watch Pac-12 basketball, I’m watching an entertaining product. We’re watching a game worth celebrating and not lamenting because there aren’t necessarily rosters littered with disciplined executioners (2015 Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Arizona, Virginia) or uber-talented transcendents (2015 Kentucky, Duke). This isn’t last season. If you want that, here’s a link to CSN Bay Area and all of the Warriors highlights you can handle. And yes, it is unfair to compare anything to those Warriors. It’s also unfair to compare any of these 2016 teams against what was a historically fantastic 2015. Read the rest of this entry »

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Morning Five: 01.12.16 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on January 12th, 2016

morning5

  1. The big news over the weekend was UNLV‘s decision to fire Dave Rice resigning at UNLV. On one hand the news isn’t exactly showing as Rice had brought in good recruiting classes, but failed to produce the type of success you would hope to have at what should really be the premier program in the Mountain West. On the other hand, the decision to fire a coach (everybody knows this was forced) in early January without a major scandal is quite unusual. In the end, Rice’s 98-54 record simply was not good enough or more specifically his 38-28 record after starting his time with a 51-19 record. The big question is who will take over after Todd Simon‘s stint as interim coach. One name that we have seen floated out there is former NBA coach Mike Brown, which would certainly fit the criteria of being a (fairly) big name with experience coaching superstars that might appeal to recruits. He also might be as good as UNLV can get because despite what some in the fan base might think it probably isn’t any better than a top 30 or 40 coaching position.
  2. Last week couldn’t end soon enough for Arizona as they not only lost both of their games (UCLA and USC), but they also lost Allonzo Trier for 4-6 weeks after he broke a bone in his right hand in Saturday’s quadruple-overtime loss to USC. Trier, who led the team in scoring at 14.8 points per game, is the third significant player for the Wildcats to miss time this year as Kaleb Tarczewski recently returned from injury and Ray Smith is out for the season after tear in his ACL in October. Despite this latest injury, Arizona still has the potential to win the Pac-12, but their road just got much tougher. The bigger question will be whether Trier will be healthy and back to form when March rolls around.
  3. Much of the talk about the economics of college sports has focused in on the pay of coaches, but as The Washington Post points out the salaries of “Power 5” conference commissioners (or more specifically the increase in salaries) might be even more noteworthy. While the average pay of $2.58 million might not seem like that much compared to the money that some coaches make, the increase in their pay over the past 14 years by 258% is more notable as well as many of the nice perks they get with the job. We can understand the rationale that they have more on their plate now with conference realignment and their own cable networks, but it is still a pretty cush job. The one thing that we would love to see included in an analysis like this is what CEOs of organizations with similar revenue figures make.
  4. The announcement that Larry Krystkowiak was putting a temporary halt to the UtahBYU series because of concern that it was becoming too intense has been widely criticized as an overreaction to incidents that happened in two of the past three meetings. To be fair, both of the incidents were the result of actions by BYU players (Nick Emery this past year and Erik Mika two years earlier), but we are not sure that the potential risks of further incidents happening is high enough to put a hold on one of the best rivalries in college basketball. For now, Utah has canceled the 2016 game and there has been no public talk about restarting the rivalry after that. We are not sure why the schools couldn’t at least do something like what Cincinnati and Xavier did after their famous “Zip ‘Em Up” game where they played on a neutral court for two years. We’ll admit that even that seems a little ridiculous, but it’s better than suspending the rivalry.
  5. One of the major criticisms of the college coaching ranks is how underrepresented minorities are in comparison to what you see on the court/field. As a result, a group of minority coaches (National Association for Coaching Equity and Development) is pushing for an “Eddie Robinson Rule,” which would be similar to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule, that would require all universities to interview a minority candidate for any coaching or leadership opening. While this seems good in theory as we have seen in the NFL this can often be simply paid lip service and it’s unclear how much impact it would have without adequate enforcement.
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Making Sense of the Wild Pac-12 Standings

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 11th, 2016

We’re now through two weeks of Pac-12 play and Washington sits alone atop the conference with a 3-0 record. USC, Oregon State and Oregon are the next three teams, with only one loss. Teams among the conference favorites – for example, Arizona and Utah – sit with sub-.500 records. And Arizona State, a team expected to be in the mix somewhere in the middle of the conference race, is sitting alone in last place with an 0-3 record. Sure, given that teams have only played a fraction of the conference schedule, most of this is meaningless. But here are some more relevant facts. At halfway through the college basketball regular season, 11 of the 12 conference teams are ranked among the KenPom top 100 — only Washington State sits out at #122. If RPI is more your thing (for some reason), those 11 teams rank among the top 75 of that metric. If you want to throw out Stanford and Washington, the top nine teams in the conference rank among the top 66 in KenPom and the top 48 in RPI. The conference is listed as the #2 strongest collection of teams in the land by RPI, while KenPom puts the league third. Oregon is rated highest in RPI (#11), while Arizona tops KenPom at #16.

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It's Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Two Weeks Into Conference Play, One Thing Is Clear: It’s Going To Be A Wild One (Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today)

Enough numbers for now; the important question is what do they all mean? To begin with, this is a conference that runs deep with good teams. In a season seeming to lack great teams on a national level, the Pac-12 will again be expected to extend its streak of seasons without a Final Four entrant to eight. However, because of that lack of dominant team on the national landscape, if this NCAA Tournament tends towards wild upsets (as sometimes happens), the Pac-12 has some teams in that next tier of strength that could either be the upsetter or take advantage of brackets thinned out by upsets.

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Pac-12 Bracketology: Non-Conference Season

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 9th, 2016

The heavy lifting for Pac-12 teams has just begun but the non-conference games each team is leaving behind won’t stay in the rear-view mirror very long. They make a dramatic reappearance in the next two months when some of those games played two and three months prior might be the difference between getting a coveted invitation to the Big Dance and being shut out. This means that the only consistent way to analyze how each team did in non-conference play is to evaluate each resume as if the teams were on the bubble. In general, Pac-12 teams did a lackluster job of scheduling legitimate competition (and beating it). Even with a seriously stretched definition of what counts as a “quality win,” it was still tough to get excited about the success of these teams. Let’s run through it.

Arizona – IN

Sean Miller's Team is Of Course Easily In, But How High? (USA Today Images)

Sean Miller’s Team is Of Course Easily In, But How High? (USA Today Images)

  • KenPom Non-Conference Strength of Schedule: #292
  • Quality Wins: at Gonzaga, UNLV, Boise State (2x)
  • Bad Losses: None

The Wildcats look like the class of the Pac so the team’s at-large candidacy likely won’t matter much because they’re in regardless. They didn’t exactly challenge themselves in the first half of their schedule, playing  what amounts to the easiest non-conference slate in the conference. But Arizona also didn’t lose to anyone unexpected and beat a few decent teams too. It is possible that the win in Spokane against Gonzaga will be the only one to stand up as a true quality win, but for now, wins over Boise State (twice) and UNLV build a solid foundation for an at-large resume.

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Blame the System for Utah Bailing on the BYU Rivalry

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 7th, 2016

In a joint statement last night, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak and athletic director Dr. Chris Hill casually let it leak that the school will break its existing contract with BYU in backing out of next season’s meeting in Provo. That’s bad enough, but the pair made matters worse by claiming the decision was a result of escalating intensity in the rivalry that creates “the potential for serious injury.” The curious timing and Krystkowiak’s sudden concern for everyone’s safety made the excuse look especially flimsy — but thankfully, Twitter was quick to call out Utah’s shenanigans. Yet amid all the well-deserved scorn that was heaped the school’s administrators, there is one thing they deserve credit for. That is being brave enough to do what every other Power 5 coach and athletic director wishes they could do — find a defensible way to stop playing quality mid-major opponents on the road.

It's Inexcusable That Such a Great Basketball Rivalry is Ending (USAT Images)

It’s Inexcusable That Such a Great Basketball Rivalry is Ending (USAT Images)

Do not be deceived — that is what this decision boils down to. BYU has a long history of accusations levied against it for playing dirty in basketball and other sports. But despite the various incidents cited in Utah’s statements, this isn’t about player safety. It isn’t about animosity between the two programs (although it certainly exists). It isn’t because either program has done anything worth cancelling one of the country’s most entertaining hoops rivalries. It is because Utah, now headstrong and comfortable with its status in the much-richer Pac-12, has nothing to gain from playing a very good BYU team in Provo next season. The actual reasons for this maneuver are so transparent to be almost offensive, and the statements from both men were so patronizing in blaming BYU that it is easy to see why Cougars’ head coach Dave Rice was so fired up about the decision. In the end, the cost to Utah will only be $80,000 in a guarantee fee, a few bad days of publicity and some lingering bad blood with its rival down the road. All of which will seem like a small price to pay when next season’s game with BYU is replaced with a home game against an overmatched Big Sky team and Utah mops the floor with them.

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Pac-12 Bests and Worsts of the Week: Opening Weekend Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 4th, 2016

As the rest of us file back for what promises to be a dreary work week, conference play in college basketball is well under way. In the opening weekend, Arizona re-established itself as the team to beat while California reclaimed some of its considerable preseason hype. Washington, a team no one picked to do anything this season, is unbeaten after two games. While Utah, a team several analysts picked to win the conference, is still searching for its first conference victory. The opening weekend of action didn’t reveal anything particularly enlightening about any one team, but it signaled to Pac-12 fans that they are in for a wild couple of months.

Worst Way to Finish Off a Game: There is no way that Utah should have lost to Stanford on Friday night, and especially not at the free throw line. But the conference’s best foul shooting team entering the game made just 11-of-24 freebies, including four key misses down the stretch in regulation and two more in overtime to gift wrap a comeback win for the Cardinal. This loss was an especially tough pill to swallow because the Utes subsequently lost to California on Sunday (despite shooting better than 80 percent from the line, incidentally). A loss in Berkeley is understandable on an at-large resume, but Stanford is expected to finish at the bottom of the conference. Utah is now forced to dig itself out of a self-made 0-2 hole — certainly not the way the team wanted to start the 2016.

Jakob Poetl and the Utes Are Not Off To The Start They Envisioned. (AP)

Jakob Poeltl and the Utes Did Not Start Pac-12 Play The Way  They Envisioned. (AP)

Worst Job of Keeping It Together: At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley looked a little foolish in his ejection from the tail end of the Sun Devils’ weekend loss to Arizona. Hurley’s passion and fire make an impact on his team and are a big reason why Arizona State is overachieving this season, but his team still had a chance to win until his antics erased that with two quick technical fouls. He shouldn’t have to apologize for his fiery personality, as it is a big part of his success as a coach, but it rings somewhat hollow when he simultaneously claims that he “always wants the spotlight on the guys in the game.” Some may argue that there is a fine line between toning it down and losing their edge, but that notion too rings hollow. Hurley should be able to keep the chip on his shoulder without making a spectacle that overshadows his team’s resilience.

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Considering Utah’s Foundational Win Over Duke

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 21st, 2015

A year ago, Utah hosted Wichita State in early December. After a 2013-14 season in which the Utes had made great strides but gone 3-8 in two possession games, it was a mammoth game for a program with March aspirations. It took 45 minutes to decide a winner, but a Delon Wright game-winner with 14 seconds left gave the program a foundational win against a proven opponent. They showed that they could not only hang with a top-10 team, but also come away with a win. Early this season, the big story for Larry Krystkowiak  is that life after all-Pac-12 performer Wright is hard. Prior to Saturday, they had played two games against quality competition this year and were blown out in both. So when the team traveled to Madison Square Garden to play Duke on Saturday, the opportunity felt similar to that offered by the Shockers last season. These Utes had plenty to prove.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah

Larry Krystkowiak And Utah Earned A Win To Build On At MSG Saturday (Photo: AP)

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Dear Santa: Here’s Our Pac-12 Holiday Wish List

Posted by Mike Lemaire (@Mike_Lemaire) & Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 18th, 2015

Here at the Pac-12 microsite we are hardly immune to the allure of a cheesy holiday-themed post, and so in the spirit of the season, we created a wish list for each team in the conference. Although none of the teams are even close to a finished product and it may be too early in the season to thoughtfully examine strengths and weaknesses, everyone has played enough games that we can start to draw worthwhile conclusions from what we’ve seen. As with any holiday wish list, there are some wants and needs that are easier to satisfy than others but hey, you have to dream big when gifts are involved.

Arizona: Another Shooter

Arizona Could Stand To See Mark Tollefsen Dial In His Perimeter Shot (USA Today Sports)

Arizona Could Stand To See Mark Tollefsen Dial In His Perimeter Shot. (USA Today Sports)

Even without post anchor Kaleb Tarczewski, the Wildcats have been and will continue to be the conference’s best defensive team. But the offense has been a work in progress primarily because the outside shooting has been ugly. The team is shooting just 31 percent from downtown, down from 38 percent last season and Gabe York is pretty much the only one making shots behind the three-point line with any regularity. York has been much better of late and is one of the most dangerous shooters in the country when he gets hot, but he is pretty much the only one on the roster who can shoot. The big reason why the Wildcats rank near the bottom of the country in 3PA/FGA is because Sean Miller knows his team can’t really shoot it from there. The best hope is that Mark Tollefson rebounds from a slow start and becomes the 36 percent three-pointer shooter he was coming into the season.

Arizona State: a Personal Offensive Coach for Savon Goodman

Goodman is almost as bad at shooting and passing as he is good at everything else he does on the court. He is a vicious dunker, a suffocating defender, one of the better rebounding wing players in the entire country and a good finisher at the rim. But, like many freak athletes on the basketball court, as he moves farther away from the basket, his effectiveness disappears. Goodman has missed all seven of the three-pointers he has attempted in his collegiate career and he is a career 57 percent free throw shooter. Also, his assist rate is below 5.0, which means once he gets the ball, he isn’t looking to get rid of it again. Goodman’s offensive issues are a good microcosm for Arizona State’s offensive issues. The team is athletic and defends hard, but they don’t have any truly skilled offensive players. Goodman will likely never become a consistent three-point threat but imagine how good he and the Sun Devils could be if he develops some feel for his shot.

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Pac-12 Notebook: A Stroll Around the League

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 16th, 2015

Every week I check in with the Mountain West by writing a little blurb about each team. I like that format because it provides a chance to follow the development of all the league’s teams and focus in on little things that may not be worthy of a longer post. Some teams may get a few hundred words one week while other teams just get a sentence or two, but it highlights the important things. We’re going to bring that format to the Pac 12, beginning right now. We might as well throw in some power rankings while we’re at it, so let’s check in with the league in order of how these teams rate at this point. Let’s get to it.

Jordan Bell Is Back For The Ducks, But They're Still A Long Way From Healthy (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Jordan Bell Is Back For The Ducks, But They’re Still A Long Way From Healthy. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

  • Oregon – Yes, the Ducks are coming off two losses in their last four games. But I’ve had Dana Altman’s team as the best team in the conference since the middle of the summer and, even playing shorthanded, they’ve done nothing to dissuade me of that so far. Sophomore center Jordan Bell made his season debut Saturday night at Boise State and he looked healthy following surgery over the offseason to repair a broken foot. He ran the court hard, and played big in chasing rebounds and blocked shots. He didn’t appear to be favoring that foot at all. In 17 minutes, he blocked a couple shots, grabbed seven boards and even handed out four assists. Last night against UC Irvine, he was even better with 12 points and three steals. Encouraging debut aside, it is going to take him some time to get back into game shape and to get comfortable with his new teammates. He still also hasn’t played a minute with Tyler Dorsey (out following a knee sprain against UNLV) or Dylan Ennis (still sidelined with a foot injury). This Oregon team remains one that may not reach full strength until mid-February, something that isn’t a problem in a sport that so values March.

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