Wrapping Up the Pac-12 and Looking Ahead to 2015-16

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 16th, 2015

The National Championship game is now more than a week behind us and the Final Four is almost two weeks back. Stanford’s “magical” NIT run ended 14 days ago and Arizona’s loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, capping off the last meaningful Pac-12 action of the season, is nearly three weeks ago. With Arizona State’s coaching vacancy filled and early-entry and transfer season fully in swing, that means it is well past time to put a bow on the season and begin to think about what comes next. Below, we’ll review each Pac-12 team and offer up grades on each team’s season. We’ll also take a look at what could be around the bend the next time college basketball rolls around.

Sean Miller, Arizona

Despite Regular Season and Conference Tournament Titles, The 2014-15 Wildcats Came Up Shy Of Their Grandest Goals. (AP)

Arizona (A-)

The goal all year long was a Final Four. Wrapping up some unfinished business and all. Well, that goal was left incomplete. Business is still pending. Still, you’re not going to see me come down too hard on the Wildcats. While their three regular seasons losses were all suspicious in nature, their Elite Eight loss to national runner-up Wisconsin was just one of those things that happens between great teams. Sean Miller’s postgame press conference after the Badgers shot a 105.0 percent eFG in the second half was one long extended verbal shrug, a “what can you do?”, a “sh– happens.” Arizona ended its season playing its best basketball, some of the best basketball being played by any team in the nation. The Wildcats just happened to lose to one of maybe two or three other teams that were capable of playing better. We have to tack a “minus” onto that well-deserved “A” simply because I would guess Miller and T.J. McConnell and Stanley Johnson and all the rest would agree that the overall result of the season was tinged with some disappointment. Without a doubt, though, the Wildcats were the best team in the Pac-12. And were it not for Buzzsaw Badger, they might still be celebrating in Tucson.

What’s next: McConnell is out of eligibility. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley have said they’re forgoing their remaining eligibility to pursue NBA careers, a decision Johnson is likely to make as well. But this is Arizona. And this is Sean Miller. The ‘Cats will be fine. Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York will return and take on bigger roles. Sophomores Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic will be relied upon to take big steps forward. Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson and junior college transfer (and 2014-15 redshirt Kadeem Allen) will jump right in. And then there’s a recruiting class featuring Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, Justin Simon and Chance Comanche (ESPN top-100 recruits, all) that may not even be finished yet. Yeah, don’t cry for Miller and his Wildcats; they’ll be back. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Pac: Way Back?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 2nd, 2015

Three Sweet Sixteen teams. One in the Elite Eight. And yet when the Final Four rolls around this weekend, it will commence without an entrant from the West Coast’s major conference, the Pac-12, for the seventh consecutive season. Arizona has nothing to be embarrassed about from its loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. Utah and UCLA both put up good fights before going down to clearly superior teams. But this is turning into something of an issue. Since the last time a Pac-12 team advanced to the Final Four (UCLA, 2008), four different Big Ten schools have earned a total of seven spots in the sport’s final weekend. The Big East has earned seven as well, although all of those but Villanova have scattered in the wind to different conferences (the new Big East does have Butler, however, which earned two Final Four appearances as part of the Horizon League). Even conferences like the Colonial (VCU, 2011), the Missouri Valley (Wichita State, 2013) and the newly formed American (Connecticut, 2014) have Final Four appearances since the last Pac-12 appearance.

Not Only Is Arizona A Player's Program, It Is The Pac-12's Best (AP)

Not Only Is Arizona A Player’s Program, It Is The Pac-12’s Best. (AP)

Furthermore, if you throw out UCLA’s three straight appearances from 2006-08, you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find another Pac-12 school (Arizona) with a Final Four appearance. In the history of the conference that starts with the word “Pacific” and ends with a number, only three schools (UCLA, Arizona and Stanford) have made the Final Four. Current member Utah got to the final weekend back in 1998 (and in 1966, for that matter) as a member of the WAC, and had previously earned spots as a member of the Mountain States conference in 1944 and 1961. Refer to the bottom of the page for the complete list of when teams in the conference last reached that level of success. So, really, I didn’t sit down expecting to write the above. I was just going to write a simple season wrap-up and wound up diving down a rabbit hole. Now I’m left with these burning questions: 1) Why does the Pac-12 find itself in such dire straits? And 2) is there any hope of significant change? Let’s dive right into the first one with the caveat that, even after thinking about this for 24 hours, I’m not sure I have a great answer. So, we’ll leave it open for further discussion. Feel free to shoot down any of my theories and propose your ideas along the way.

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A Three-Pac of Teams in the Sweet Sixteen Party

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 25th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Four of our friends were invited to this party last weekend along with a bunch of other people. It’s been a crazy, crazy time. If I told you about everything that went down, it would probably burn off both your ears. We’ve got some stories we’ll tell the next time this group gets together, but for now, three of our crowd are still going strong. And the way things are going, there’s a chance at least one of this cast of characters closes this party down. Before we get to those party animals, let’s pay tribute to the one we lost along the way.

Oregon Is The Only Pac-12 Team To Leave The Party Early (USA Today)

Oregon is the Only Pac-12 Team To Leave The Party Early. (USA Today)

Oregon came into the year a complete mess. The offseason was literally scandalous. There was a whole new group of players to meet. Expectations were low. The whole thing could have gone off the rails at any time. Instead, chalk up a Pac-12 Player of the Year award, a Pac-12 Coach of the Year award, a second-place conference finish, an NCAA Tournament win and another chance to throw one hell of a scare into Wisconsin before fading late. By any reasonable measure, this season in Eugene will go down as a resounding success. Joseph Young’s trailblazing two years came to an end, but a fine young group of talented players remain in his stead. And frankly, a changing of the guard could be the breath of fresh air the program needs. Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks will headline a group of talented sophomores, while Snoop Dogg Dwayne Benjamin will be the scrappy play-making veteran he established himself as this year. As long as Dana Altman returns along the sideline (which, given that previous scandal, is not exactly a 100 percent sure thing), there’s no reason to expect anything less than another strong upper-division finish next year from the Ducks. Read the rest of this entry »

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Putting Herb Sendek’s Firing Into Perspective

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 24th, 2015

With eight minutes left in Arizona State’s Pac-12 Tournament opening round game, they were up 14 on last place USC and headed for a quarterfinal rematch with UCLA, a team that they had just beaten in Tempe a few weeks before. The Sun Devils needed to win the Pac’s automatic bid in order to earn an NCAA Tournament appearance, but all things considered, the future looked reasonably bright. And then things drastically changed. Arizona State was outscored 21-4 over the final 8:29 of the game by the Trojans, and that seemingly bright future in the desert dimmed significantly. The blown lead a couple of Wednesday nights ago in Las Vegas did not simply mean the end to a season. It effectively meant the end to Herb Sendek’s career in Tempe. After increasing speculation about his position, Sendek was oficially fired on Tuesday. Doug Haller reports that the Sun Devils’ 42-point loss at Utah late in the season opened up the possibility of a change, and the USC debacle cemented it.

After Nine Seasons And Two NCAA Tournament Appearances, Herb Sendek Was Fired At Arizona State

After Nine Seasons And Two NCAA Tournament Appearances, Herb Sendek Was Fired At Arizona State

First, let’s wrap up Sendek’s career in Tempe. Nine seasons; two NCAA Tournament appearances; a record of 154-132; a conference record of 72-90. He landed the best recruiting class in the history of the school in 2007 when he pulled James Harden out of southern California, beating out schools like UCLA and Arizona for the future superstar’s services. He brought five ESPN top 100 recruits to Tempe and won just a single NCAA Tournament game, a win over Temple in 2009. In a vacuum, none of that is particularly impressive. Okay, so let’s remove that vacuum and give you some context about Arizona State basketball. In 1978, this program, along with Arizona, joined the Pac-8 to create the Pac-10. Thirty-seven college basketball seasons have gone into the books since then, and the Sun Devils have posted conference records of .500 or better 16 times. Sendek coached nine seasons in Tempe and recorded six of those. Bill Frieder is the other coach with any significant recent success at Arizona State – he tallied six .500-or-better seasons in eight years (before resigning in the wake of a point-shaving scandal and numerous other off-court issues). In those 37 seasons, Arizona State has made the NCAA Tournament seven times: twice under Sendek; twice under Frieder, once under Rob Evans; and twice, way back in the early 80s under Ned Wulk.**

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: About Those Tourney Teams?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 18th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Four Pac-12 teams are going dancing. And we’ve got four Burning Questions. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But, below, you’ll get takes from Adam Butler and Andrew Murawa about what to expect from the teams around the Conference of Champions this week and beyond.

Q: So, UCLA’s in the Tournament. On a scale of 1 to Holy Crap Really! how surprised are you. And can they do anything with their good fortune?

Adam Butler: I don’t know why but when the Bruins’ name was called on Sunday I wasn’t all that shocked. It makes no sense because they haven’t impressed by the numbers or the eyeball tests. But at the same time I like so many things about this team in a tournament setting. They’re the only Pac-12 team to keep things close on two occasions with Arizona and – while I don’t love moral victories – that’s something. Of course the committee doesn’t pay attention to any of the storylines so it’s not like Larry Brown ever coached UCLA or anything. I remain concerned about the Bruins’ cohesiveness but if all I need is to win one game, it’s hard not to at least be somewhat impressed with Kevon Looney and Norman Powell.

Yep, we had the same reaction, Bryce. (AP)

Yep, we had the same reaction, Bryce. (AP)

Andrew Murawa: I’m definitely all the way over on the Holy Crap Really! side of things. I just don’t get how the Bruins have done anything to deserve playing in this Tournament. They have home wins over Oregon and Utah which are, yeah, whatever, fine. Beyond that, the biggest smiley-face on their report card is only losing by an average of eight points in their two games against Arizona. Is that all you need to do these days? Play in a big conference and lose to good teams? All that said, when the Bruins have things clicking, they’re pretty fearsome. Tony Parker is coming along in the post, Kevon Looney makes “Wow!” plays on a regular basis, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton have proven themselves capable of big games. And Norman Powell is just playing lights out right now. This is a team that could beat SMU by 20. Or go 10 minutes without a bucket in the second half and fade into obscurity.

Q: Oregon gets an #8 seed and has to play Oklahoma State in Omaha. Did the Ducks get screwed?

AM: Given the lack of any truly notable wins on their non-conference slate, the Ducks’ relatively strong finish to the season in a weak Pac-12 shouldn’t really hold much sway. And it didn’t. But the fact that they’ve got to go to Big 12 country to play a Cowboys team that really didn’t do a whole lot to earn much good favor can’t sit well either.

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The Eight Best Championship Week Games in Las Vegas in the Last Five Years

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 16th, 2015

Over the past week in Las Vegas, I’ve taken in three conference tournaments at three different venues, seen as many as 10 different NCAA Tournament contenders (and that’s without even getting out to the WAC Tournament to see New Mexico State) and several wildly enjoyable college basketball games. It takes some time to pass before you can consider how an event will fit in with other events over the course of history, but all these great games got me thinking. You see, this was the sixth straight season I’ve been in Las Vegas for Championship Week. And over those years, I’ve seen some absolutely classic basketball games. So, I figured I’d put together my list of the best games I’ve seen in Las Vegas in the previous five seasons. Games like Wyoming/San Diego State in this year’s Mountain West title game, or the latest iteration of Arizona/UCLA, or several other games from this week (Gonzaga/BYU, USC/Arizona State, Stanford/Washington, among others) will doubtlessly be on this list in the future. But we need time to age and mellow the remembrances of this vintage of Vegas epics. So, for your consideration below, here are the eight best March masterpieces that Las Vegas has served up in the past five seasons.

  1. San Diego State 65, Boise State 62, March 8, 2012, Mountain West Quarterfinal. For 39 minutes and 59 seconds, the then 13-16 and eighth-place Broncos would play Mountain West Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin and his Aztecs to a draw. And then, on a three-pointer as time expired, Franklin showed everybody why he was the MW POY and why the Aztecs were the #1 seed. After getting a hand-off at the top of the key and with two guys in his face, Franklin drilled a 22-footer to send the Aztecs to the semifinals in dramatic fashion.

  1. New Mexico 72, UNLV 67, March 9, 2012, Mountain West Semifinal. The Runnin’ Rebels raced out to the first 12 points of this game. Playing on their homecourt, a place where they hadn’t lost since the previous year’s Mountain West tournament, the Rebels had to feel confident in knowing that they had never lost to the Lobos in their previous eight Mountain West tournament matchups. New Mexico took that early punch and then rode Drew Gordon and some great defense on the comeback trail, setting up a championship matchup against San Diego State.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: How Great Was That Pac-12 Tournament?

Posted by Andrew Murawa & Adam Butler on March 16th, 2015

Another March to Vegas has concluded and now the Pac-12 conference takes its talents to a national stage. But, before we dig deeper into what’s coming in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Adam Butler and Andrew Murawa discuss what went down at the MGM over the weekend with a series of important questions.

Q: Brandon Ashley was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. He shot 19-of-26 across three games and clearly deserved the award. After the junior, however, there were some other great performances. Who was your non-Ashley Most Outstanding Player?

At Precisely The Right Moment, Brandon Ashley Is Playing His Best Ball (Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports)

At Precisely The Right Moment, Brandon Ashley Is Playing His Best Ball. (Casey Sapio/USA TODAY Sports)

Adam Butler: I would like the record to show that I said Brandon Ashley was fantastic. After him, the guy I’d most like to call out is UCLA’s Norman Powell. He scored 35 points on 47 percent shooting. Solid numbers, yes, but I’d most like to highlight his effort against Arizona. As the nation questions UCLA’s qualifications as an NCAA-worthy team, the committee alluded to the Bruins passing the eyeball test. If you had eyeballs on the UCLA-Arizona game, specifically. For large portions of that game he got his and his effort was similar throughout the last month of the year.

Andrew Murawa: The funny thing is that, as well as Brandon Ashley played, I could easily make a case for at least three of his teammates. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a defensive dynamo and T.J. McConnell is above reproach. But Stanley Johnson remains an absolute freak (16.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG). And in the one game over the weekend where the ‘Cats actually had a chance to lose, it was Johnson who stepped into a three-pointer and effectively sealed the game. Sure, at times he gets caught somewhere between over-exuberance and offensive-foul-induced passivity. But when Johnson is making jumpers like he did at the MGM, the Wildcats are darn near impossible to beat. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Pac-12 Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 16th, 2015

Three Pac-12 teams turned on the Selection Show Sunday knowing they’d hear their names called. A fourth turned it on probably expecting to be disappointed. Below we’ll break down those four conference teams, from highest seed to lowest.

Arizona's Path To The Elite Eight Makes Them The NCAA's Unofficial Fifth #1 Seed (USA Today)

Arizona’s Path To The Elite Eight Makes the Wildcats the NCAA’s Unofficial Fifth #1 Seed (USA Today)

Arizona (#2 seed, West Region). The Wildcats certainly have the type of resume that would have landed them squarely on the #1 seed line in most seasons. But in a year with many qualified contenders for the top line, Arizona has no reason to be disappointed. The Wildcats got a #2 seed out West where they’ll play first weekend games in Portland before advancing to the regional in Los Angeles. Fan support in both places will be high, so it’s realistic to view Arizona as this year’s fifth #1 seed. Now that certainly doesn’t mean we can pencil them into the Final Four because, you see, that #1 seed in their region is none other than Wisconsin, a high-caliber team in their own right. Over the weekend in Las Vegas, Sean Miller‘s program exorcised the demon of not having won a Pac-12 Tournament since 2002. For Miller to kill off that other big demon – the tag of being the best head coach to have never made a Final Four – the Wildcats may get a chance to avenge last year’s overtime regional final loss to Wisconsin, again in the Elite Eight.

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Pac-12 Championship with All Eyes on Vegas

Posted by Adam Butler on March 14th, 2015

It’s a championship game. One for all the marbles and the last nationally relevant game of the day. All eyes, if they’re not asleep, will be on Vegas. Because at 8:00 PM the Arizona Wildcats will play the Oregon Ducks for the third time this season. We don’t necessarily need a preview. As I noted in yesterdays historical recap of UCLA and Arizona, the scouting reports are out the window. I mean, Isaac Hamilton scored 36 points in a game. How can you prepare for March basketball? Undoubtedly you saw this:

But that’s the best part. It is March basketball and that means – more than any of the months prior – these games mean things. In tonight’s case it could mean a #1 seed for the Wildcats. Duke and Virginia both fell in the ACC semifinals, opening the door for Arizona to earn one of the big dance’s top four billings. It would be the second consecutive #1 seed for the ‘Cats but the important part would be their status in the West. That part they seemed to have locked up already. But think about this: Arizona and Wisconsin could potentially both be 31-3 with outright conference regular season and tournament championships and still be #2 seeds. If you need evidence of this year’s Dance being top heavy, there it is. Furthermore it’s Arizona’s fourth attempt at winning this thing in the last five years. Sean Miller told us to not even bother asking about what that feels like.

For Oregon, the Ducks too are playing for seeding. Now locked into the Dance, could they elevate themselves onto the #5 line? With each win their resume swells but that’s probably not the focus, right? This is a championship game. In noting that Arizona hasn’t won this thing, Dana Altman conversely has. The Ducks will be playing for their second title in three years. Clearly there are things at stake for each of these programs independent of their opponent, but this matchup itself offers intrigue beyond just the exciting hyperbole of March basketball. It’s really got something for everyone.

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Joseph Young Makes a Statement at Pac-12 Tournament

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 14th, 2015

When it was announced on Monday that Joseph Young had earned the votes of the majority of the Pac-12 coaches and had been named the conference’s Player of the Year, the news was met with surprise around much of the conference. In Salt Lake City and Tucson, it was met with derision. Despite leading the conference in scoring, carrying his inexperienced Oregon club to a surprising second place conference finish, and revising his game to further the goals of the team, Utah and Arizona fans thought that their senior guards – namely, Delon Wright and T.J. McConnell – had stronger claims on that title. They viewed the conference tournament this weekend in Las Vegas as an opportunity to make such statements.

Young made his own statement to the assembled crowd at the MGM Grand Arena on Thursday, scoring 20 of his game-high 30 points in the second half as his Ducks soared past Colorado. Last night, he took that statement nationwide, drilling a 30-foot three-point game-winner as time expired to send the Ducks to the championship game against Arizona. It’s the kind of play that will be shown time and again in future years in Pac-12 Tournament clips, and it is the kind of play that will re-introduce Young to the casual college basketball fans. I’ve already seen it four times on ESPN in the 20 minutes since I’ve gotten back to my hotel room.

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 70, UCLA 64

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 13th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

When Arizona and UCLA Match Up, Especially In March, Great Things Are Bound To Happen (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

When Arizona and UCLA Match Up, Especially In March, Great Things Are Bound To Happen (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

  1. This Rivalry Never Disappoints. The six-point final margin doesn’t begin to hint at the sustained intensity in the MGM Grand Arena over the course of 40 minutes of another great college basketball game. Over the past three seasons, the Bruins and the Wildcats have met three times in this very arena in the Pac-12 Tournament, and each of those games has been an instant classic. While the Pac-12 Conference has yet to see fit to make sure that these guys are scheduled to play each other twice every season, the basketball gods have stepped in and seen fit to getting these two together in March. And the classics have had plenty of similarities. As Adam Butler pointed out, the game was tied at 68 with 43 seconds remaining last year when Jordan Adams hit a big three to propel UCLA to the win. Tonight, it was Stanley Johnson with a three with 39 seconds remaining to bump the Arizona lead up to 66-61 and effectively seal the game. The big takeaway is quite simply this: When these two teams play, especially in March, it is required viewing.
  2. One Big Run. Midway through the second half, a slashing Norman Powell layup in the middle of the Arizona defense put UCLA up 47-40, prompting a Sean Miller timeout. Over the next five minutes, Arizona reeled off 15 straight points to flip the script. They never trailed again. So, what goes into a run? How about three T.J. McConnell assists and a layup, five team offensive rebounds, a forced turnover and limiting UCLA’s other five possessions to five missed jumpers and an immediate defensive rebound?
  3. Rebounding. UCLA can probably come up with plenty of excuses: Kevon Looney’s facial injury and resultant mask; Tony Parker’s early foul trouble; having to play zone defense for much of the game. But Arizona’s ability to get on the glass and get putbacks was a key here. The Wildcats’ came away with 40 percent of their own missed shots, turning those into 12 points, a key in a close game. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who struggled offensively, had five of those offensive boards by himself. If UCLA had been as good cleaning the defensive glass today (against admittedly above-average competition) as they have been all year long, maybe they’d still be playing on Saturday.

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Arizona and UCLA Have History. Obviously.

Posted by Adam Butler on March 13th, 2015

We probably don’t need a history lesson. You know as well as I do that Arizona and UCLA have been pretty good basketball programs in the same conference for a long while now. But did you know that Arizona is just 1-5 against the Bruins in the conference tournament since it was re-conceived in 2002? If you’re searching for a word, it’s probably ‘owned’ or something of that ilk. And because recent history most immediately dictates our excitement, we need look no further than 2013 and 2014. The former was the infamous “He Touched the Ball” game. The aftermath of that game sent shock waves throughout the conference as officiating ‘scandals’ have a tendency to do. But then we were delighted to the rematch — the game we deserved — because these are the cornerstones of Pac-12 basketball. They’d both rolled into the game (together won the quarters and semis by a net 96 points) with heads of steam for March. The game was a wonderful. UCLA won – remember they own Arizona in this tournament – and it was fitting they played because the Pac-12’s imbalance doesn’t guarantee two of these games.

Two of the better coaches in the country go at in Las Vegas tonight. (AP)

Two of the better coaches in the country go at in Las Vegas tonight. (AP)

I’m not a big believer in the ways of the universe or reading too far into signs (let’s be serious, I probably am, I scour KenPom and hoop-math for nuanced data patterns like the fact that Bryce Alford shoots an insanely low percentage of assisted threes – 58.7 percent – which is like whaaaat?? But maybe, because we’re being treated to this matchup for the third time in nearly as many unbalanced seasons, we need to guarantee ourselves this matchup? Alas, that’s a gripe not suited for March. Because March is our game’s biggest stage and we want to see its biggest competitors. We want competition at its finest and deepest roots. We want Arizona-UCLA. So in 2015, what’s that look like? Read the rest of this entry »

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