Ten Questions to Consider: Conference Races Heating Up

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 8th, 2019

Football season is now completely in the rear view mirror and the casual fan is welcomed to a weekend of college basketball highlighted by the #1 vs. #2 Duke/Virginia rematch along with numerous other heavyweight contests. Here are 10 questions I have for this weekend’s loaded slate of action.

It’s Part Two of Potentially Four Duke-Virginia Match-ups This Season (USA Today Images)
  1. Which elite team’s defense improves upon a lackluster performance in the first match-up? (Duke @ Virginia, Saturday 6 PM EST, ESPN) In Duke’s 72-70 win over Virginia last month, the two teams combined to shoot 67.1 percent from inside the arc. R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson, in particular, made 20 of their 28 two-point attempts that night. If interior defenses improve in round two, which team wins the three-point contest after the two teams combined for 5-of-31 shooting? This is without question the game of the weekend, and quite possibly the entire regular season.
  2. Can LSU protect its home court against a surging Auburn team? (Auburn @ LSU, Saturday 2 PM EST, ESPN2) Since losing three straight games in mid-January, Auburn has rallied back with three consecutive double-figure wins. In SEC play, no team has gotten to the free throw line at a better rate than LSU, while no team has put the opponent at the line at a worse rate than Auburn. Which matters more?
  3. Will Mississippi State’s offense show up against Kentucky? (Kentucky @ Mississippi State, Saturday 1 PM EST, CBS) The last match-up between these two teams was very one-sided as Kentucky held the Bulldogs to a season low 0.79 points per possession. Mississippi State could not buy much success either inside the arc (16-of-41) or outside it (3-of-20).
  4. Which Steven Enoch does Louisville get against Florida State? (Louisville @ Florida State, Saturday 4 PM, ESPN2) Since an early January decision to bring Steven Enoch off its bench, Louisville has gone 7-2. The big man transfer has scored 10 or more points in six of those games. On the season, Enoch averages 10.5 points per game in Cardinal wins and just 5.8 points per game in Louisville’s six defeats.
  5. Can Marquette make the Big East title race interesting? (Villanova @ Marquette, Saturday 2:30 PM EST, Fox) Marquette sits two games behind Villanova in the Big East standings heading into Saturday’s match-up. The Golden Eagles are undefeated (14-0) when holding opponents to an offensive efficiency of 100.0 or worse, but just 5-4 when opponents pass that threshold. Last season, Villanova torched the nets against Marquette, posting offensive efficiency totals of 122.2, 132.2, and 142.7 in three games.
  6. Will Ethan Happ be a dominant force against Michigan again? (Wisconsin @ Michigan, Saturday Noon, Fox) Ethan Happ scored 26 points on 12-of-22 shooting, dished out seven assists and grabbed 10 rebounds in Wisconsin’s first win over Michigan. Going back to his sophomore season, Happ is averaging 20.5 points per game on 45-of-87 shooting against the Wolverines.
  7. As bad as the Pac-12 might be, is it time to start taking Washington seriously? (Washington @ Arizona State, Saturday 10 PM EST, ESPN) After starting the season 7-4, Washington has now reeled off 11 straight victories, eight of which have been by 10 or more points. Three of the Huskies’ early season losses were at the hands of top-15 KenPom teams. If the Huskies can get through their desert trip unscathed, it might be time to consider them a dangerous, if not legitimate, Pac-12 team.
  8. What can be made of Nebraska moving forward? (Nebraska @ Purdue, 8:30 PM EST, Big Ten Network) Just a few weeks back Nebraska sat at 13-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play. Since then, the Huskers have dropped six straight games, four of which came at home. Tim Miles’ squad still sits in the top 40 in both NET and KenPom, so a win at Purdue would go a long way toward saving Nebraska’s free-falling NCAA Tournament chances.
  9. Can Houston take advantage of Cincinnati’s lackluster three-point defense? (Cincinnati @ Houston, Sunday 4 PM EST, ESPN) On the season, Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are ranked among the bottom 100 nationally in three-point defense. Their lack of success guarding the line has continued as American opponents are shooting 40.4 percent from distance against them. Houston’s Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks are both shooting better than 37 percent from downtown in conference play.
  10. Can Princeton stay in control of the Ivy League regular season race? (Princeton @ Yale, Friday 7 PM EST, ESPN+) While Yale has the Ivy League’s best NET Ranking, it is Princeton that is currently the only unbeaten team in conference play. Over its last six games, Princeton’s opponents have shot just 20.5 percent from beyond the three-point line.
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Washington is Dominating the Bad Pac

Posted by Adam Butler on February 1st, 2019

Washington is dominating the Pac-12. This statement is both true and irrelevant, so we’ll focus on the former and how the Dawgs might be slowed. To validate the statement, Washington is undefeated in Pac-12 play (8-0) with an efficiency margin of +19.6. For context, that kind of margin would rate as a top-25 KenPom team. Speaking of KenPom, the Huskies now rate as the 37th-best team in the country, having improved nearly 20 spots since the beginning of Pac-12 play.

Mike Hopkins is Quietly Putting Together a Squad (USA Today Images)

What’s setting the Huskies apart is their defense, improving in year two of Mike Hopkins’ Syracuse-imported zone defense. In conference play, the Dawgs are allowing just 92.7 points per 100 possessions. For context, that’s on pace to be the best Pac-12 defense since Arizona posted an 87.0 defensive efficiency in 2015. For added context (and the less-favorable-to-this-narrative version), the Pac-12 just doesn’t score particularly efficiently, suggesting Washington’s above-average defense is augmented by really poor opponents. In pointing out as much, we’re of course at risk of belaboring the “Pac-12 sucks” narrative. The reality is, however, that Washington is going to lose a game (or two, or more). Who, amongst these poor opponents, is likely to knock them off?

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How Bad is Bad? Evaluating the Pac-12

Posted by Adam Butler on December 21st, 2018

During Wednesday evening’s broadcast of the Arizona-Montana game, Bill Walton, while simultaneously running the math for plates on the bench press and waxing poetic about his morning in Utah and evening in Tucson, noted, “This will be a most competitive conference.” I paraphrase; however, the gist remains: Walton was celebrating many of the Pac-12’s teams. He’s a known, if not unapologetic, champion of the Conference of Champions, and was not soon to bash it as many of us have lamented. But regardless of the Big Redhead’s admonitions, this year is looking BAD.  

Is Oregon the Best Worst Team in High-Major Basketball? (USA Today Images)

This is a conference not all that far removed from one of the worst conference performances ever. In 2012, the inaugural Pac-12 season, Washington won the conference regular season, lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, and was summarily dismissed by the NCAA Tournament committee on Selection Sunday. The Pac that year owned nine top-100 KenPom teams (zero among the top 25) and two teams that were rated in the 300s. Just two of those teams danced, including a 23-11 Colorado team that entered the Pac-12 Tournament rated 96th by KenPom yet earned the Pac-12 auto-bid by defeating Arizona in an ugly 53-51 championship game.

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Pac-12 Five: Pre-Feast Week Observations

Posted by Adam Butler on November 16th, 2018

As we head into Feast Week, and the with the Pac-12 continuing to take its lumps, a few items to ensure you’re keeping an eye on.

Brandon Randolph Has Been a Pleasant Surprise For Arizona (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona has impressed – I recognize that the Wildcats have only played teams in the KenPom >250 but their defense is currently the ninth-best (by raw efficiency) in the nation, a far cry from last season’s 102.8. The Wildcats have the steepest test ahead with a loaded Maui field awaiting next week.
  2. Oregon being Oregon – The Ducks seemingly have an annual tendency to struggle early and improve late, and last night they stuck to that script. See Exhibit 2017 when they swiftly dropped games to Baylor and Georgetown before going on a casual 31-4 run and wound up in the Final Four. Is this team THAT good? Probably not. But come time for Pac-12 play, expect Oregon to be the dominant squad.
  3. USC’s Kevin Porter will be a difference-maker – Yes, Nick Rackocevic has been a handful at 17 PPG, 15 RPG and 3 BPG. But considering the significance and impact of guards, not to mention the confusion a lefty creates, Porter has already demonstrated he’s going to be an absolute threat. The Trojans head to the NABC Hall of Fame Classic this weekend, so it would be a treat to see this group at full strength (reminder: Bennie Boatright is back).
  4. Could Washington find its defense in Canada? The Huskies head to Vancouver for an inaugural tournament just north across the border. But the Dawgs to date have done little to impress, getting blown out in a true road game at Auburn (I suppose excusable) but then just squeaking by a game San Diego squad visiting Seattle.
  5. Tempo – It’s notably up in the NBA and has been steadily increasing in college basketball over the past few seasons as well. Right now, however, the median tempo in college basketball is 71.5 possessions per game. Last year, that number would’ve ranked among the top 50. Keep in mind that pace usually slows down as we get into the meat of the season, but it’s an intriguing storyline to keep an eye on as a burgeoning trend.
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The 2018-19 Pac-12 Elite: What’s Setting the Top Teams Apart

Posted by Adam Butler on November 1st, 2018

With Gonzaga in the top five nationally and some of the traditional western powers not-or-barely ranked, it’s unclear where the conference’s top team lies. Pac-12 media came to the conclusion last month that it will be Oregon, UCLA Washington and Arizona. As we approach season tip-off early next week, let’s explore each of those squads and what differentiates them as the conference elite.

Oregon

Dana Altman Welcomes an Elite Group of New Ducks to Eugene (USA Today Images)

  • Why they’re here: Introducing the best freshman class of Dana Altman’s Oregon tenure to a sound cast of returnees.
  • Summary: Altman has worked magic in Eugene with minimal continuity cemented by transfers, but this year is a little different. He has as much talent as he’s ever had but much of it is youthful, and last season was a little underwhelming with similar (albeit less heralded) youth. Of course many eyes will focus on Bol Bol – the fascinating 7’3” freshman talent — but don’t forget about Kenny Wooten, poised to be something like the next Jordan Bell. Wooten had the nation’s third-highest block rate (15.3%) a season ago and should be poised to progress. Meanwhile, senior Paul White is the kind of dynamic forward Altman has typically built around — 6’9” with a 14 percent defensive rebounding rate and a 35 percent three-point shooter. Further, Payton Pritchard (41% 3FG) might as well be a senior point guard (full disclosure: He is only a junior), and while the Ducks may appear to be light on guards – clearly critical to success at the college level – their on-paper talent suggests this may be a nationally underrated squad.
  • Conclusion: Considering the Ducks’ mix of talented players and a proven (excellent) coach, Oregon should be the best team in the Pac-12.

UCLA

  • Why they’re here: Projected lottery picks returning and incoming.
  • Summary: It’s a familiar tale in Westwood: The Bruins are as talented as any team in the league if not the nation. Kris Wilkes may be the front-runner for Pac-12 Player of the Year while Jaylen Hands – a terrifically skilled big guard – inherits the reins from the last of the Holiday family. The other familiarity, of course, has been some of the underwhelming results of the Steve Alford era. In a Pac-12 with a low ceiling and what I’d consider a relatively high floor, the Bruins have the talent to win this thing outright and the pedigree to finish fourth.
  • Conclusion: Despite the summary’s closing sentence, look for consistency from these Bruins as roles and responsibilities appear clearer than they perhaps have in the past. What does consistency yield? Well, for these Bruins it very well could be a conference title.

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Three Pac-12 Returnees Who Should Expand Their Games This Season

Posted by Adam Butler on October 26th, 2018

Former UCLA guard Jordan Adams had a fantastic freshman season. You may recall that as a pup in 2012-13 he recorded a 115.0 offensive rating, efficiently posting 15 points per game. A year later, he expanded on that scoring skill set, improving his efficiency five points (120.0 ORtg) and scoring output (17.0 PPG). He also moved his game closer to the rim, taking nearly twice as many shots there as he did during his freshman campaign. Following this change in his offensive philosophy, Adams became an NBA first round draft pick. I’ve long found this fascinating as the whole of basketball seems to be moving to the edges. Particularly as we consider the college game and its general propensity to force longer-range shots (zone defenses; lesser skilled talent; individually impactful bigs). Furthermore, Adams is an intriguing starting point as college players often make their most significant leaps from their freshman to sophomore years.

Jaylen Nowell is Poised to Break Out(USA Today Images)

So who in this year’s Pac might resemble a modern-day Jordan Adams? The answer may reside with players that took the lion’s share of their attempts (not specifically as a freshman) in the mid-range. Here are the Pac’s top-10 returning mid-range shooters (by % of their total shots coming neither at the rim or beyond the arc):

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What’s Trending: Bracket Preview

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 12th, 2018

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

With less than 30 days to go until Selection Sunday, we were given an early look at what the top 16 NCAA Tournament seeds would look like as of now…

While the bracket preview gives us a sneak-peek look inside the process, Jay Bilas was quick to express his views that the bracket preview only gives us an early look into an incredibly flawed system…

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Observations on Pac-12 Rim Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on February 7th, 2018

As much of the basketball community discusses the value of a DeAndre Jordan with the NBA’s trade deadline approaching on Thursday afternoon, I thought it would be interesting to examine a few measures of Pac-12 rim defense. To be clear, the Jordan reference is an allusion to the value of rim-protection and not necessarily which teams in the Pac have a traditional center. That can be left to more subjective measures, especially as you consider that Arizona hasn’t exactly looked unstoppable despite Dusan Ristic catching fire.

Dusan Ristic Has Caught Fire But Isn’t Known as a Rim-Protector (USA Today Images)

Rim protection can be quantified in many ways. For example, another Deandre (Ayton) has drawn criticism (or at least prose) regarding his block rate. As a measure of individual rim-protection, this is probably the most telling metric among readily available stats. In noting such, Kenny Wooten (the Oregon freshman) has the third best rate in the nation, blocking a remarkable 16 percent of the shots taken while he’s on the floor. That is insane. Ayton, by comparison, owns a six percent block rate, good for eighth in the conference. It’s an improvement since The Ringer compared him to other elite college bigs, but still lacking. If nothing else, it’s not remotely close to Wooten.

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Pac-12 Needs the Two Cs to Recover

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 1st, 2018

The Pac-12 is struggling. About that there can be no doubt. The conference has no teams in the top 10 in the RPI and only two among the top 40 (#16 Arizona, #37 USC). Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of bracketology holds those two teams plus Arizona State in his field of 68, with only Washington landing among the first four out. Jeff Sagarin ranks the conference sixth overall with only (again) the Wildcats and Trojans cracking his top 40. Nothing amazing is going to happen in February to salvage the league this year. The question is whether there are any signs of daylight cracking through the wall of despair the league has built between it and the upcoming NCAA Tournament. First, let’s look to youth. A quick scan of the PER leaders among freshmen shows a pretty impressive group of players.

Player School
DeAndre Ayton Arizona
Kenny Wooten Washington
Romello White Arizona State
Jalen Nowell Washington
McKinley Wright IV Colorado
Donnie Tillman Utah
Justice Sueing California
Kris Wilkes UCLA
Remy Martin Arizona State
Troy Brown Oregon

 

Now, this list does not encapsulate the entirety of elite freshman talent in the Pac. Stanford alone has Daejon Davis, who has already won a Pac-12 Player of the Week award, and KZ Okpala, who despite not playing until the final non-conference game is already garnering calls to the Cardinal offices from NBA scouts. Speaking of Players of the Week, Arizona’s Dusan Ristic and Utah’s Justin Bibbins just ended a three-week stretch from the new year onward when a freshman was the conference player of the week. The most intriguing part of this list is that, aside from Ayton, there isn’t a surefire NBA lottery pick in the group. That’s not to say there isn’t NBA talent on that list or elsewhere across the league. It’s to say instead that, aside from Ayton, most of this group should be back for at least one more season. That certainly matters, because Ayton’s ongoing brilliance isn’t going to single-handedly bring the conference back to glory.

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Forecasting Washington’s Zone Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on January 18th, 2018

No team in college basketball has played more zone defense this season than Mike HopkinsWashington club. As a Pac-12 aficionado, you know that the Huskies’ new head coach was a long-time assistant (21 years) of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. As a college basketball aficionado, you know all about Boeheim’s famous zone defense. Hopkins has brought the defensive scheme across the country, and as a result, the Huskies have been a pleasant surprise through the first half of the season. Considering its uniqueness and Washington’s early success in employing it, a forecasting evaluation of the zone for the rest of this season is worthwhile. Its basic tenet is engineered to dare opponents to shoot from long distance. At Syracuse, 44.8 percent of shot attempts against its zone come from beyond the arc, which is very high (11th nationally). Washington’s opponents, by way of comparison, are allowing 36.7 percent of the shots against them from distance, roughly equal to the national average. This gap is in part related to the Huskies’ faster offense, clocking in with the 71st-swiftest offensive possession average in the game (compared with Syracuse’s 325th-slowest). This increase in allowing long-range shooting comes as a big change from the former regime in Washington. Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies never allowed more than 30 percent of opponents’ shots to come from beyond the arc.

Mike Hopkins Has Instituted a New Regime in Seattle (USA Today Images)

Since Washington has seemingly announced its defensive strategy for the foreseeable future, how might the zone project on its new coast? To date, the gamble has paid off, as the Huskies through five conference games have “held” Pac-12 opponents to a league-best 27.9 percent from three-point range. Pac-12 teams are making 35.8 percent of their three pointers this year, 12th-best nationally as a conference. To try to understand what this might mean for Hopkins’ team, assuming he plans to continue to dare teams to shoot threes, the league has historically been average from distance. A peek:

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