Previewing the Pac-12 Game of the Year: Arizona at Utah

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 28th, 2015

It’s the game of the year in the Pac-12, a battle between the top two teams — Arizona and Utah — with only a game separating them in the standings and a week to play. It’s also on the short list of the biggest games ever played in the Huntsman Center, quite a statement for a building with its long and illustrious history. Both teams have legitimate Final Four aspirations. Both teams have every expectation of being top three seeds when the brackets are announced on Selection Sunday. As many as four players in this game could hear their name called in the first round of the NBA Draft in June, each of those players with lottery potential. In short, on the final day of February, we’ll be treated to full-on March basketball. Let’s break it down, with three keys to tonight’s game.

Odds Are Good That Little Will Come Easy In Tonight's Collision in Salt Lake City

Odds Are Good That Little Will Come Easy In Tonight’s Collision in Salt Lake City

  • Home court advantage. Playing at just under 5,000 feet in Salt Lake City, the Utes enjoy quite a home court advantage at the Huntsman Center. They’ve won all 17 of their games there this season by an average of 24 points per outing. They’re outscoring teams there by an average of 0.40 points per possession. Only one team (Wichita State) has managed to keep within 14 of the Utes. And the MUSS will be rabid tonight. Despite all those considerations, the Wildcats are no slouches on the road. All three of their losses this season have come  in games where maybe they overlooked their opponents. Understand that there is no chance that the ‘Cats will overlook the Utes today. Still, the Utes will come out riding a wave of momentum following Senior Day ceremonies for Delon Wright and Dallin Bachynski. Their home fans will be load and raucous. Whenever Utah needs a shot of adrenaline in the middle of the game, the Huntsman Center will have its back. And perhaps most importantly against an Arizona team that really only wants to play six players, maybe that elevation could be a deciding factor down the stretch. We’ve certainly seen short-benched Arizona teams struggle against the Rocky Mountain schools in the past.

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Picking a Pac-12 All-Star Game

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 13th, 2015

I was poking around some of the upcoming posts on Rush the Court last night, not entirely sure what I wanted to write about, when I stumbled across Brendan Brody’s piece over on the Big Ten microsite about picking a pair of All-Star Game rosters out of that conference. Well, that seemed like a perfectly brilliant idea to me, so I figured I’d steal borrow that notion and shift out west to the Conference of Champions. He’s got 12-man rosters in a 14 (or 16 or 18? God knows how many teams are in the Big-Can’t Count) team league, and we’ve only got 12, so I’m just going to fill out two 10-man rosters and split them based on the North/South divisions that the conference uses for football. One other caveat: We’re going to steal an idea from the MLB (probably the first time I’ve ever used that phrase) and require at least one player from each team. And, since we’re going to have an All-Star Game, we might as well make a full weekend out of it and host a dunk contest, a three-point contest and a skills competition, right? Let’s jump right in.

Seriously. How Cool Would An In-Season Conference All-Star Game Be?

Seriously. How Cool Would An In-Season Conference All-Star Game Be?

Pac-12 North All-Stars

Starters

  • G: Chasson Randle, Sr, Stanford
  • G: Joseph Young, Sr, Oregon
  • G: Gary Payton II, Jr, Oregon State
  • F: Anthony Brown, Sr, Stanford
  • F: Josh Hawkinson, So, Washington State

Bench

  • G: Davonte Lacy, Sr, Washington State
  • G: Nigel Williams-Goss, So, Washington
  • G: Tyrone Wallace, Jr, California
  • F: Jordan Bell, Fr, Oregon
  • C: Stefan Nastic, Sr, Stanford

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Pac-12 Halfway Home Awards

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 4th, 2015

The calendar has been flipped to February. The Super Bowl is in the rearview mirror. And all Pac-12 teams have nine conference games in the books. It’s a nice, tidy point to recap what we’ve seen so far and take a brief look ahead as the college basketball regular season takes the main stage (really, who actually watches regular season NBA games?) and we begin the downhill run to March Madness. We’ll be reconvening in Vegas before we know it.

Player of the Midyear

He May Not Be The "Best" Player In The Conference, But He's Arguably The Most Important (Arizona Athletics)

He May Not Be the “Best” Player in the Conference, But He’s Arguably the Most Important One (Arizona Athletics)

A couple weeks back, my friend and colleague Adam Butler drew a line in the sand and argued that Stanford’s Chasson Randle and Utah’s Delon Wright were the only two options for Pac-12 Player of the Year. I read that post. I enjoyed that post. I disagreed – and continue to disagree – with that post. Don’t get me wrong. Both of those guys are very much in the conversation for the award. Both of those guys are awesome. Both of those guys are part of the reason why I love college hoops so much. And both of those guys currently take a back seat to Arizona’s T.J. McConnell in my POY calculus. Look, I get it: McConnell is not actually the best player in the Pac-12. He’s not even the best player on his team (I’d give that honor to either Rondae Hollis-Johnson or Stanley Johnson – or maybe Rondley Jeffer-Hollisson). In considering a national All-American team, I’d certainly consider Wright and Randle, while leaving McConnell’s name on the cutting room floor. But “Player of the Year”? That title is so open to interpretation. Here’s what I know: Arizona is the best team in the conference. Take away one of Jefferson, or Johnson, or Brandon Ashley or Kaleb Tarczewski, and that sentiment still stands. Take away McConnell and the whole darn thing is bound to fall apart. He is the catalyst for everything that Arizona does well. He gets the ball in the hands of the right players. He sets the defensive tone. And when the rest of the team is sleep-walking through a first half against the biggest contender to Arizona’s throne, there’s McConnell putting his team on his back and serving as a human alarm clock. He’s not the best player in his conference. He’s not the best player on his team. But at this midway point, he’s my Player of the Year front-runner.

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week 11

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 3rd, 2015

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: California

Sam Singer's Three In The Closing Seconds In Seattle Gave The Golden Bears a Road Sweep (Cal Athletics)

Sam Singer’s Three In The Closing Seconds In Seattle Gave The Golden Bears a Road Sweep (Cal Athletics)

Hey, we said it last week when Arizona earned a road sweep — win a pair of games away from home and that team will be our team of the week. When you’re the Golden Bears and those wins break a six-game losing streak — the latter of which coming in a 90-88 barnburner won when a reserve sophomore guard hit an ill-advised last-second step-back three — you’re a lock for the award. And what’s more, with a home stand against the Los Angeles schools (which have combined to go 1-8 on the Pac-12 road, with that one win UCLA at USC) coming up, the Golden Bears have a chance to get something started. Don’t be surprised to look up when the calendar flips to March and see California, once left for dead in conference play, sitting squarely in the middle of the Pac.

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The Only Thing Standing in the Way of Arizona’s Pac-12 Coronation is Arizona

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 24th, 2015

For the first half of Thursday night’s battle for first place in the Pac-12 against Stanford, Arizona looked like the team that could only muster 56 points in a losing effort against Oregon State. But in the second half, the Wildcats showed why there is no other team in the conference that can hang with them when they are at full strength and minimizing their mistakes. The Wildcats actually jumped out to an early lead as the Cardinal’s thin frontcourt had absolutely no answer for Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson inside. But Ashley also picked up three cheap fouls in the first 12 minutes of the game and teammate Stanley Johnson picked up two of his own, and when they left the court, things started to fall apart. Without their two biggest offensive mismatches on the floor, Arizona struggled to take advantage of its distinct size advantage and instead settled for contested jumpers. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats’ stout defense made things difficult for Stanford, at least when they weren’t fouling Cardinal players. Stanford made 13 free throws in the first half and star guard Chasson Randle scored six of his 14 first half points from the charity stripe. As a result, a first half that any casual observer would think Arizona should have won ended with Stanford up two points.

Arizona Has the Look of a Team Figuring It Out (USA Today Images)

Arizona Has the Look of a Team Figuring It Out (USA Today Images)

Of course slow starts and early mistakes have become something of Arizona‘s modus operandi this season, and nobody expected the Wildcats to go away. Ashley and Johnson returned to the floor in the second half and immediately made an impact, combining for 10 points in the first six minutes as Arizona slowly but surely took the lead for good. Even more importantly, the Arizona defense decided to start moving its feet and quit picking up cheap fouls, and all of a sudden, their suffocating defense returned in earnest. Once Randle made a difficult layup to bring Stanford within three points with just under 10 minutes to play, the Wildcats’ put the clamps down and the Cardinal didn’t make another field goal for more than eight minutes. By that point, the game was well in hand and Arizona was on its way as the odds-on favorite to run away with the conference regular season title.

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Building a Football Team From Pac-12 Basketball Players

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 13th, 2015

Yesterday was the day that college basketball paused one last time to make way for its college football friends. From here on out, college hoops has the right of way on the amateur level. With Oregon representing our proud conference despite the loss, we figured today would be a good time to tie college football and basketball together in a fun way by piecing together an imaginary football team made up entirely of current Pac-12 basketball players. This team would probably be pretty good, so let’s get right to it.

Offense

  • QB: Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington – If there was such a thing as a pocket passer in basketball, Williams-Goss would be it. We’ll get him out on the edge every now and then to make some plays, but we want our quarterback to hang tight and deliver the ball to our play-makers.
Let's Trade In Nigel Williams-Goss As A QB on The Floor For Just A Plain, Old QB (Getty Images)

Let’s Trade in Nigel Williams-Goss As A QB on the Floor For Just a Plain Old QB (Getty Images)

  • RB: Chasson Randle, Stanford – He’s got speed, quickness and power. We can dump the ball to him out of the backfield or let him pound ahead into the line.
  • RB: Malcolm Duviver, Oregon State – The first time I saw this guy I thought he looked more like a tailback than a point guard. At 6’2”, 205, he can be our workhorse back.
  • WR: Stanley Johnson, Arizona – Man, there are so many places we could play Johnson but we’re envisioning him as our Megatron. He’s got speed and great hands, and once he makes the catch, good luck bringing him down.

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Marching to Vegas: On Arizona and the Road

Posted by Adam Butler on December 23rd, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

One of the major factors of future success is margin of victory. It plays significantly into the predictive work of Dan Hanner as he algorithmically computes future outcomes and it also helps us lay people. Kentucky demolishes Kansas by 32 and we conclude, “Yup, those ‘Cats are good.” Pure science. So you can perhaps understand that it was becoming cause for concern as my beloved Wildcats (the Tucson genus, not Lexington) were beating the Manhattan genus of Wildcats by just four. And San Diego State by only a pair. Or what about at deficit to UC Irvine with as little as seven minutes remaining? Perhaps this is spoiled complaint, but as the Dukes and Kentuckys were demolishing the opposition – and elite competition at that – Arizona was being left behind in the conversation.

Arizona Appears To Be Starting To Click, But The Road Can Be Unkind

Arizona Appears To Be Starting To Click, But The Road Can Be Unkind. (Getty)

Now, we’re still in that glorious time of year where narrative and hype drives the conversation. Our sample sets are minimal at best by which to forecast the next three months. Teams are just now learning about themselves, freshmen have barely broken out their winter coats from under their bunks. But even Arizona’s best win evoked toughness from the Zags. The vaunted Arizona defense wasn’t what it was a season ago and Stanley Johnson was neither Aaron Gordon nor Nick Johnson. Perhaps this Arizona team wasn’t quite the dominant force we thought they’d be?

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Three Opinions on Arizona’s Opening Weekend

Posted by Andrew Murawa, Tracy McDannald & Adam Butler on November 17th, 2014

With no single must-watch game in the conference this weekend, we tasked our guys with getting a good look at Arizona’s pair of games and coming away with some first impressions on the conference’s heavy favorite. In a pair of wins over lesser opponents, here’s what caught our eyes.

Adam Butler: I don’t doubt that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tweaked his shoulder. But I also don’t know how a tweaked shoulder would keep him out of the starting lineup and off the court for just the first few minutes. For both games the lengthy defender came off the bench just like he did last year. Is this the route Sean Miller is going to take for the whole season? There are a ton of weapons at Miller’s disposal and he seems to be using these lesser opponents as a testing ground for different lineups. Rondae certainly gets starter minutes and is/will play in all crunch situations, but his starting on the bench is an interesting twist following the benching of Stanley Johnson for Arizona’s exhibition game. RHJ certainly is comfortable coming off the bench, but I’m curious if this helps Gabe York feel more comfortable as a starter.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Started The Season as A Reserve Due To A "Tweaked" Shoulder (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Started The Season as A Reserve Due To A “Tweaked” Shoulder (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

One other thing that I noticed was the play of Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Much has been made of Miller’s point guards since becoming the coach at Arizona. Now it seems he has both a true point guard and a quality backup as well. PJC scored 15 points and dished five assists over the weekend and — perhaps most importantly — looked the part. He was cool and confident on the floor. I don’t imagine he’s going to play a ton this season, but these early successes will bode well in the limited role he’ll see as this season gets into more significant games.

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Pac-12 Opening Weekend: What To Watch For

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 14th, 2014

We waited all these many months for opening weekend of the college basketball season and we’re rewarded with… Mount St. Mary’s at Arizona, Montana State at UCLA, and South Dakota at Stanford? Well, no matter, I’m still excited. Below we’ll take a look at some things to keep an eye on as all of the Pac-12 teams tip off their seasons this weekend.

  • Arizona: vs. Mount Saint Mary’s on Friday, vs. Cal State Northridge on Sunday (both on Pac-12 Networks): The Wildcats shouldn’t be challenged in either contest (although CSUN at least has some interesting athletes, including Landon Drew, brother of former UCLA point guard Larry Drew II), but that’s no reason not to tune in to see just how Sean Miller intends to pour all of his talent on to the court at the same time. Plus, the over/under on thunderous dunks from the duo of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson is set at 10 for the weekend.

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Company Could Feel Some Rim Rash After This Weekend (Getty)

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Company Could Feel Some Rim Rash After This Weekend. (Getty)

  • Arizona State: vs. Chicago State on Friday (Pac-12 Networks): Do you have the scouting report on Tra Holder, Willie Atwood and Roosevelt Scott down pat? No? Me neither, which is why I’ll be making sure to get a peak at the Sun Devils this weekend to see how Herb Sendek folds in the new talent with veterans like Shaquielle McKissic and Jonathan Gilling.
  • California: vs. Alcorn State on Friday, vs. Kennesaw State on Sunday (both on Pac-12 Networks): The Golden Bears should get through this weekend just fine and be undefeated when they face Syracuse in the 2K Classic next Thursday. Tune in this weekend to check out Cal’s high-flying wings in Cuonzo Martin‘s system and learn how Sam Singer is coming along at the point.

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RTC Pac-12 Preseason POY and All-Conference Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 14th, 2014

It is Opening Day around college basketball nation, and that means that it is time to unveil our picks for our Pac-12 All-Conference teams. We asked five voters (Tracy McDannald, Adam Butler, Kevin Danna, Connor Pelton and myself) to list their 15 best players in the conference, in order of #1 to #15. What follows is our collective best guess at the 15 players most worth watching in the Pac-12 this season.

Pac-12 Preseason Co-Conference Players of the Year

Delon Wright, Sr, Utah and Chasson Randle, Sr, Stanford. Wright and Randle tied atop our poll and each player received two first-place votes among our five voters, so they’ll share this preseason honor. This first bit to note is that, in an era of star freshmen and one-and-dones and very few elite upperclassmen to speak of, not only do two seniors share our Preseason POY honor, but more than half of the 15 players on our three teams are seniors, with just three underclassmen (one freshman and two sophomores) on our list.

Delon Wright's Versatile And Efficient Game Has The Utes Pac-12 Contenders (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

Delon Wright’s Versatile And Efficient Game Has The Utes Pac-12 Contenders (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

But, let’s focus on our POYs for a second. First, Wright. After earning plaudits in the Utes’ early season practices last year, he announced his presence to the college basketball world by racking up ridiculous lines against overmatched opponents — witness the 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 10 boards, seven assists, seven steals and three blocks in the Utes’ opener last season; or the 12 points, nine boards, six assists and two blocks he followed that up with. Sure, those games were against Evergreen State and UC Davis, but as the season advanced, the story they told about him remained the same: a highly efficient player capable of positively affecting the game for his team in a variety of ways. Look at his final traditional numbers on the year: 36.4 MPG, 15.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.5 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 56.1% FG, 79.3% FT. The only glaring weakness was his inability to regularly knock in three-point shots (22.2% on 54 attempts). Oh, and there was that little issue about his team struggling in close games and missing the NCAA Tournament. That last bit? That’s the area Wright needs to change the most this season. For Wright to be in consideration for Pac-12 Player of the Year at the end of the season, we can forgive a little bit of a backslide on last year’s spectacular individual numbers so long as the talented Utes live up to their potential, push Arizona a little bit in the conference standings, and wind up dancing come March. Read the rest of this entry »

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Introducing the RTC Preseason All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on November 13th, 2014

With the season tipping off on Friday night, there’s no better time to roll out our preseason All-America Teams. More than anything, these three groups of outstanding players are here to foster and encourage discussion over the next four months. Our crack panel of seven national columnists provided ballots over the last week or so, and this is where we ended up.

First Team All-Americans

FirstTeam

  • Marcus Paige, North Carolina – Paige enters his junior season at North Carolina following a sophomore campaign when the guard take his game to new heights. After a fairly productive freshman season (8.2 PPG), the 6’1″ point guard took home the ACC’s Most Improved Player Award by upping that average to 17.5 PPG as he led the Tar Heels to the NCAA Tournament. Paige’s season was good enough for him to be the first North Carolina point guard to be named first-team All-ACC as a sophomore since Tar Heels’ legend Phil Ford in 1976. Expectations are high in Chapel Hill again this season, and with Paige running the show, it is easy to understand why. Factoid: In an informal poll of college coaches taken by CBSSports.com in August, Paige was named as one of the players the pollsters would most like to have on their team this season. Once coach said of the Tar Heel, “he really doesn’t get enough credit for what he did for North Carolina last season. Won’t surprise me if he’s National Player of the Year.”
  • Juwan Staten, West Virginia – Not many guards can fill up the stat sheet like Staten. The highly productive senior returns for the Mountaineers following a season when he become the first player in West Virginia history to score 500 points (598), grab 150 rebounds (186), and dish out 150 assists (193) in a season. With the offseason transfers of Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, Staten will almost definitely see those numbers rise during his final collegiate season in Morgantown. After a two-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, Staten appears primed to lead what one expert is calling an underrated Mountaineers squad back to the Big Dance. Factoid: Following Staten’s first season at West Virginia, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins gave his guard the assignment of watching tape from two of the great point guards Huggins coached at Cincinnati – Nick Van Exel and Steve Logan.
  • Montrezl Harrell, Louisville – It was a bit of a surprise in April when Harrell announced that he would return to Louisville for his junior season rather than enter the NBA Draft. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is undoubtedly pleased with his big man’s decision, as Louisville is set to begin its first season in the arduous ACC. With Russ Smith and Luke Hancock gone, Harrell seems to be the best bet to pick up the slack in Pitino’s up-tempo offense. The junior forward has reportedly added what he and his coach call a more consistent 14-to-16 foot jump shot to his offensive repertoire. While that development unquestionably has Louisville fans giddy, it should worry the Cards’ new conference foes. Factoid: Harrell originally committed to Virginia Tech out of high school, but he reopened his recruitment following Seth Greenberg’s abrupt dismissal. A few weeks later, Harrell signed with Louisville and the rest, as they say, is history.
  • Jahlil Okafor, Duke – The Chicago prep superstar-to-Duke pipeline continues as Okafor is set to begin his freshman season in Durham. The consensus number one high school player in the Class of 2014 enters his college career with a tremendous amount of hype. He has been described as “one of the most skilled and poised back to the basket centers to come along in some time.” Duke brought in a star-studded recruiting class to help offset the early departures of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, and there is no question that Okafor is the jewel of that class. If the big man turns in the type of season that many expect from him, there is no telling what the ceiling for the Blue Devils could be. Factoid: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has already acknowledged that he expects Okafor to be a one-and-done: “We won’t have him long. We’ll have him this year and then he’ll be one of the top NBA picks.”
  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin – Kaminsky entered the 2013-14 season as a relative unknown after averaging just 4.2 points in 10.3 minutes per game as a sophomore. He did not remain an unknown for long, though, as the junior emerged as one of the top big men in the Big Ten, taking home consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. While his regular season was outstanding, what really turned Kaminsky into a household name was his 28-point, 11 rebound effort against Arizona to send Wisconsin to the Final Four. The Badgers return four starters from that Final Four squad, but none are more important than the seven-foot senior. Factoid: Kaminsky was lightly-recruited coming out of Benet Academy in Lisle, Illinois. In fact, he was a Plan B for the Badgers after one of their top frontcourt targets, Nnanna Egwu, committed to Illinois.

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Pac-12 All-Defense & Specialty Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 12th, 2014

Yesterday we unveiled our RTC Pac-12 All-Freshmen and All-Transfer teams. Tomorrow, we’ll release our All-Conference teams. And on Friday, just before the first games tip off, we’ll have the results of our preseason conference poll. Today, we will have a little fun though and unveil our specialty teams, ranging from our Gary Payton All-Defensive team, to our Jorge Gutierrez All-Glue team to our Russell Westbrook All-Dunktastic Team. Enjoy. And feel free to let us know where we screwed up.

The Gary Payton Pac-12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. McConnell, Arizona

He won’t wow you with his athleticism or make opponents look silly with soul-crushing blocks or quick-handed steals, but McConnell is the consummate veteran who is always in the right place at the right time, funneling opponents toward long-armed and intimidating opponents. Sure, McConnell probably gets this award because he plays on a team with so many other terrific defenders (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson can destroy opponents with their athleticism, while Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are capable rim-protectors), but he’s a fundamentally-minded defender who always makes things difficult on opponents.

T.J. McConnell's Smarts And Grit Earned Him Our Preseason All-Defensive Player (Arizona Athletics)

T.J. McConnell’s Smarts And Grit Earned Him Our Preseason All-Defensive Player. (Arizona Athletics)

Joining McConnell on the All-Defensive Team are:

  • Delon Wright, Sr, Utah
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Soph, Arizona
  • Shaquielle McKissic, Sr, Arizona State
  • Norman Powell, Sr, UCLA

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