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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Key Individual Matchups in Pac-12 Quarterfinals

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 12th, 2015

It’s quarterfinal day in Las Vegas, with the Pac’s four top teams facing the upstarts who survived yesterday’s mayhem. Below, by way of previewing today’s games, we’ll look at one of the key matchups in each game that will help determine the eventual winner.

Arizona/California

Stanley Johnson vs. Jabari Bird. Now, I don’t know that this is necessarily going to be the matchup that the Golden Bears go with on Johnson, but I know that there is not really an obvious solution for them. They’re going to have to put some size on the floor in order to match up with the Arizona bigs, so somebody out of Jordan Mathews, Tyrone Wallace or Bird is going to have to try to check Johnson. And Bird is the Bear with the physical tools that give him the best chance to check the Wildcat’s physical specimen. Johnson’s ability to bully Bird in the post or off the bounce give him a big advantage, but Bird’s got some impressive ability of his own, even if it only has come in fits and starts so far. But the sophomore has started to emerge recently, averaging 13.9 points in the Bears’ last seven games. If he can keep Johnson busy when the Bears have the ball, it will serve a dual good. Because really, for a undermanned Cal team against the elite Wildcats, just about everything is going to have to go right.

Can Cal Find Anyone To Slow Stanley Johnson?

Can Cal Find Anyone To Slow Stanley Johnson?

UCLA/USC

Norman Powell vs. Elijah Stewart. After scoring in double figures just twice in the first three months of the season, Stewart has reached the mark in each of the last three games, including a career-high 27 in USC’s come-from-behind victory over Arizona State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. But it will be a whole different challenge should the Bruins sic their best individual defender in Powell on him. Powell may instead be charged with slowing the penetration of Trojan point guard Julian Jacobs, but regardless, if Powell can limit the effectiveness of either of those key offensive players for SC, the Trojans’ already difficult task will be enhanced. And on the defensive end, while Stewart does have 35 blocks on the season, he hasn’t yet shown the defensive consistency that will be required to slow Powell’s slashing style. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Tourney Best & Worst Cases for Pac-12 Teams

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 10th, 2015

Believe it or not, another Pac-12 regular season is behind us. The final standings are in, the conference tournament bracket is set, and as I type this, we’re less than a week away from finding out which teams get sent where on Selection Sunday. We’ll have much more on this front throughout the week, but below we’ll review the Pac-12’s most likely NCAA Tournament suspects and figure out where they stand with only conference tournament play remaining before the field is set.

Arizona

As Long As Arizona Gets Good Geographical Placement, Either A One or A Two-Seed Will Do

As Long As Arizona Gets Good Geographical Placement, Either a #1 or #2 Seed Will Do. (Getty)

  • Outlook: The Wildcats were the class of the conference this season, running through the Pac-12 with a 16-2 record a full three games better than runners-up Utah and Oregon. What’s more, their 28-3 overall record and #7 RPI rating puts the Wildcats squarely in the conversation for a #1 seed. Kentucky’s got one of those four spots locked up. It’s hard to foresee Virginia and Duke failing to get two others, leaving Arizona in a battle with Villanova, Wisconsin and even Kansas for the final top seed. In the grand scheme of things, though, it doesn’t matter if the ‘Cats get a #1 or a #2 seed so long as they stay out west and away from Kentucky for as long as possible, preferably in the Los Angeles regional. Right now it appears that Wisconsin and Villanova are slightly ahead of Arizona in overall resume, so even if the Wildcats win the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas this week, Arizona may be locked into a #2 regardless. All of which paints the specter of a possible Arizona/Wisconsin regional final as an intriguing possibility.
  • Best case: #1 seed in the West.
  • Worst case: #2 seed anywhere but the West.

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Pac-12 Senior Days: Stanford Says Goodbye to Accomplished Senior Class

Posted by Kevin Danna on March 1st, 2015

Today’s game against Oregon will be Stanford’s last at Maples Pavilion in the 2014-15 campaign (at least, Stanford hopes that it’s the last game at Maples this year), meaning it’s Senior Day for Stanford’s Big Three of Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic.

Obviously Johnny Dawkins and staff knew what they were doing when they recruited the Rock Island stud, but the first hint I got that Chasson Randle was going to be special was in the summer before his freshman season. On the first day of summer school, Randle was in the gym working out at 7:00 AM. This wasn’t for some scheduled workout, mind you; he just wanted to come in on his own and get shots up. And gotten shots up he has. 1,632 of ‘em, in fact, by far more than anybody in Stanford history. Sure, he isn’t the most efficient player, and yeah, you’d like to see your head man shoot better than 40 percent from the field. And most definitely, you’d like to see a guy at his size distribute the rock a little more.

Chasson Randle: Bulldog.

Chasson Randle: Bulldog.

But Randle is what so few Stanford basketball players over the years have been. He’s a dog, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. You want a bucket? Chasson’s your guy. He might not always make it, but he’s never scared of the moment. And that’s what I’ve always appreciated about him — he wants the basketball; he has never shied away from taking the big shot. It hasn’t always worked out, and he has certainly done things that have cost Stanford games in the past (fouling a half-court shooter as time expired in a tie game against Minnesota in the Bahamas is something I won’t soon forget) but not too many people have the gumption to challenge the nation’s leading shot-blocker with the game on the line (see: Stanford’s overtime win against Washington when Robert Upshaw was still lacing ‘em up). He made that one.

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Best of the West: Top 25 Teams in the West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 18th, 2015

We’re now less than four weeks from Selection Sunday, so it’s a good time to check back in with our Best in the West, with a special focus on these 25 teams’ NCAA Tournament prospects. If you haven’t seen this post before, we take all the schools west of the Rockies (basically the schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast, and Big West Conferences, and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and Western Athletic Conferences) and list the top 25 teams. Rather than just ranking schools #1 though #25, though, we divide them into tiers, because, for instance, while one team may be ranked third overall and another fourth, there may be a huge gap between teams three and four. Below are ourTop 25 teams in the West (their overall rank will be in parentheses) with descriptions of what we think the teams in each tier have in common, plus brief comments on each and their NCAA Tournament hopes

The Best of the Best – In a league of their own.

Gonzaga is #2 in The AP Poll And In The Mix For A #1 Seed in March

Gonzaga is #2 in The AP Poll And In The Mix For A #1 Seed 

  • Gonzaga (#1 overall, WCC #1) – The Bulldogs are 26-1 with the lone defeat an overtime loss at the McKale Center on the first weekend of December. For me, an overtime road loss equates to a win in the grand scheme of things, so I’ve got Gonzaga slightly ahead of that team that came out on the good side of the scoreboard in Tucson. Admittedly, the rest of the Gonzaga resume is a little light. Their best win is, what, a road win at St. John’s? Or is it the one at BYU? Or maybe the one at UCLA? All of those are good wins to be sure, but none of those are mindblowingly great entries on the Zags’ balance sheet compared with the teams with whom they will be competing for a #1 seed. For instance, the other two teams in this category both have better wins and tougher overall schedules than the Zags. But if they’re able to get from here to Selection Sunday with a “1” on the right-hand side of that record (which would mean additional wins at Saint Mary’s, over BYU and then another over one of those two teams in the WCC Championship game, they’ll probably nose out either Arizona or Utah. Now, teams like Virginia, Duke, Wisconsin and Villanova (not to mention Kentucky) may be a different story.

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Marching to Vegas: Keep Watching

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) on February 11th, 2015

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.

I suppose it’s not a comfort that’s befallen me so much as an acceptance. I first recognized the Pac-12’s general ineptitude as I found myself unaware of game schedules, player success (or otherwise) and disinterest in the whole thing. Let’s also be serious that I was still paying attention. Close attention. And I still want to. After all, we’re not at 2012 levels where just three players wound up drafted and Jorge Gutierrez was the conference Player of the Year. Washington was not invited to dance despite winning the regular season title. This is a story lead that could last forever. Alas, we’re not there but we have the excuse to excuse the rest of this season. It’s more than likely that your team is fighting for a three lettered tournament, at best. What’s there to support? What’s there to watch? The Pac-12 has hosted the highest percentage of in-conference blowouts. Where’s the intrigue? Let me tell you.

Pac-12 Basketball: It's Grrr-... Well, It's Okay.

Pac-12 Basketball: It’s Grrr-… Well, It’s Okay.

Now let’s preface this by saying that I don’t love the format of this column. I generally prefer to tell a story with words and numbers. But I also don’t like to watch middling college basketball teams in the Conference of Champions so I’m cool with it. A list it is. Six reasons to continue watching Pac-12 basketball in 2015:

1. Byes. Not Byes as in “saying goodbye to the 2015 season,” but rather, who among the muck will rise to finish in the third and fourth slots? The top-four seeds receive a Wednesday bye in Las Vegas. Have you ever tried to stay four nights in Vegas? Near impossible. You want the bye. So who’s in the running? The primary candidates are Oregon and Stanford (we’re ignoring Arizona and Utah, as they’re essentially locked in). The Ducks collected a big last-second win on Wednesday, improving to 6-4 in conference play. The rest of their schedule is road heavy but doesn’t include any more games against Arizona and they’ll host Utah. The team ahead of Oregon in the standings, Stanford, had seemed to be a lock to finish in the top three, but after a loss to Washington State I’m not so sure. Oh, then they lost at home to UCLA, a team which is now knocking on the bye door. This is usually the part where we note the wildcard teams, but then I’d be laying out a power rankings of unpowerful teams. Right now, there is a four-way tie for third. In all honesty, keep an eye on Arizona State and ignore USC.

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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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UConn’s Offensive Issues and How Rodney Purvis is the Only Cure

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 29th, 2015

UConn do-it-all guard Ryan Boatright looks like he might run away with AAC Player of the Year honors this season, but when it comes to determining whether the Huskies will make the NCAA Tournament, it will ultimately be the play of running mate Rodney Purvis who makes the biggest difference. Let there be no debate that Boatright is the best and most important player on the team, but the senior isn’t the offensive player Shabazz Napier was and he doesn’t have a running mate as good as he was as Napier’s complement last season. Rather, Boatright is a skilled but flawed offensive player who cannot shoulder the burden by himself, as evidenced by the team’s overall ugly offensive efficiency numbers. And after getting a chance to watch the Huskies play in a road loss to Stanford last week followed by a win over UCF and a man-handling of South Florida last weekend, it is clear that Purvis is the player most capable of lending Boatright a hand.

Rodney Purvis' Offense Is UConn's Key To Returning To The NCAA Tournament.

Rodney Purvis’ Offense Is UConn’s Key To Returning To The NCAA Tournament.

His performance this season has in many ways been a microcosm for what has plagued UConn all season long, though — consistency. The NC State transfer has only scored 10 or more points in back-to-back games once this season (against Columbia and Central Connecticut State), and even within the flow of games, Purvis can frustratingly flit in and out of focus. At times last week against the Cardinal, Purvis looked unstoppable. He bullied his way to the basket whenever he felt like it; he made a few contested jumpers over smaller defenders look easy; and despite making just one of his five free throws, his aggression helped teammates get open looks. When the final horn sounded, he had logged 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and the rest of the Huskies had managed just 45 more points in their second straight loss. The team’s offensive funk reached its low point during the second half, and Purvis was seemingly content to fade into the background as Boatright forced floaters in the lane and Amida Brimah tried his luck in the post. Purvis has UConn’s best combination of size and athleticism on the court, and Stanford had absolutely nobody who could effectively guard him. And yet he was a veritable ghost in the second half. He followed up the disappointing Stanford performance with an ugly eight points on 3-of-8 shooting in an equally ugly win over UCF after that, and then looked like a man reborn last Sunday against South Florida as he went for 17 points, including 8-of-12 from the charity stripe and abused whichever poor player drew the unlucky assignment of guarding him.

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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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A Swing Around the Pac-12 After Five Games

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 21st, 2015

Just a collection of thoughts, compiled over the course of the past two weekends of Pac-12 play.

Arizona – This Utah game actually set up really nicely for the Wildcats. Utah was on a roll and feeling invincible despite the fact that it hadn’t beaten a good team since early December. Arizona, meanwhile, had plenty to prove amid accusations of selfishness and overratedness. The ‘Cats weathered the storm early, rode T.J. McConnell while settling in, and then turned on the juice in the second half. But, really, there are two big takeaways from this game. First, my impression all year long was that this vintage of the Wildcats does not have the high-end defensive ceiling that last year’s team had. And then, I look up on January 17 and they’ve got basically the same defensive efficiency numbers as they had last season and just finished a game where they completely shut down everything Utah wanted to do. This squad still needs to prove an ability to bring that intensity on a regular basis, but they absolutely have the ability to be just about as good defensively as last year’s team (although I still have a concern that they don’t have the type of individual stoppers that they had in Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon). Offensively, my eyes tell me this team has some problems in the half-court and that, while Stanley Johnson is clearly the team’s most talented player, Sean Miller has yet to figure out a good way to find shots for him. Then I look at the stats and I see that this team is pretty much the same offensively as last year’s group, getting similar percentages of shots from all three ranges on offense. And the best part? They’re still feeling their way around. Make no mistake, Arizona in mid-January is still a top 10 team — maybe top five — and the exciting part is that the Wildcats have enough upside that they could be significantly better by March.

With Stanley Johnson Just Beginning To Reach His Potential, Arizona's Upside Is Staggering (Rick Scuteri, AP Photo)

With Stanley Johnson Just Beginning To Reach His Potential, Arizona’s Upside Is Staggering. (Rick Scuteri, AP Photo)

Utah – The Utes lost. Bury ‘em, right? Not so fast, but we do need to have a talk about a couple of players in particular. First Jordan Loveridge, the team’s junior power small forward. What’s to complain about? In the five Pac-12 games since he returned from injury, he’s averaging better than 10 points per game and shooting at a 54.2% eFG rate, knocking in 11-of-24 shots from deep. In that same time frame, he’s taken twice as many shots from behind the arc as he has from inside; he’s attempting free throws at about a third of the rate of his field goal attempts; and he’s grabbing a rebound about every five minutes. In short, Loveridge has gone from being one of the more promising interior players in the conference to a three-point shooting specialist. That’s about all he does anymore. I understand that at 6’6” his upside at the four is limited, and if he is ever going to play in the NBA, it will be at the three. But this is college ball. And while his ability to hit the three and pull bigs away from the hoop is a useful skill, it’s only a fraction of what Loveridge could be doing for this team. For what it’s worth, I promise that this is the last time I will rip a guy with an offensive rating of 115.0 and a three-point percentage of 47.5 percent. The other guy I want to touch on briefly is Jakob Poeltl. We still like him as a player: like his skills; like his effort; like his upside. And sure, NBA scouts love him. But he really needs a lot of work, especially in the weight room. He got pushed around by the Wildcats all night long on Saturday. And if you go back and look at the results, anytime he has gone up against long interior players (San Diego State, Kansas, UNLV, Colorado, Arizona, even BYU), he has struggled. You can’t really throw the ball into him in the post because he doesn’t know what to do with it yet, so you have to rely on him to get his own miss off the glass if he’s going to have any offensive impact, and he’s not strong enough to do that on a regular basis. He’s still an important part of this Utah team, but his major leap forward probably won’t come until next year, at which time he should hopefully still be in college. Read the rest of this entry »

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RTC Weekly Primer: SEC Squishy Middle, Love for Big 12, Coach 1K, More…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 20th, 2015

Okay, okay, we get it… the Big 12 is awesome. I’ve made that pretty clear in past columns, and you probably don’t need me to tell you something so obvious. Monday night offered up yet another prominent example, when a “Kansas is back to its dominant self” narrative in the first half against Oklahoma turned into one of the best games of conference play this season. But rather than raving about it, let’s think big picture: What do we make of the Big 12 race? A few teams will definitely be involved. One is Kansas, of course, which hasn’t missed out on at least a share of the regular season crown since Bill Self’s first year in Lawrence. Two more are Texas, which seems to have found its footing, and Iowa State, which finally cleared the Kansas hurdle over the weekend. Oklahoma should be in the running too, despite losing three of its last four. What other teams could have a say in the matter? How about Kansas State, which is tied for the conference lead at 4-1? What about West Virginia, currently 15-3 and a top-15 KenPom team? Or Baylor? Or Oklahoma State?

The Big 12 Will Remain a War Zone For Most of the Season (USA Today Images)

The Big 12 Will Remain a War Zone For Most of the Season (USA Today Images)

It’s probably safe to rule out those last two teams even though both are ranked among KenPom’s top 25, but neither is likely to beat the teams above them on a consistent basis. It’s also fair to exclude Kansas State from the discussion. The Wildcats are clearly much better than their non-conference performance suggested, but recent wins over Baylor and at Oklahoma don’t tell the full story either. They have some flaws. However, it’s probably a tad premature to rule out West Virginia. The Mountaineers play such a distinctly effective style this season, forcing turnovers on over 30 percent of opponents’ possessions, that will remain a problem to solve for all nine conference foes. They’re a possession away from a 4-1 Big 12 record and the upcoming schedule suggests that we shouldn’t be surprised if Bob Huggins has his team sitting at 6-2 when this column runs two weeks from now. It appears to be a five-team race. But whether you think the Big 12 has four, five, or even six or seven teams capable of winning the league crown, the takeaway here is that the race is wide open. And with Kansas’ astounding decade-long run in jeopardy, the next two months in Middle America are must-watch sports television.

Three for the Money

  • Iowa at Wisconsin | Tuesday, 9:00 PM EST, ESPN. Around this time last year, Iowa sat at 13-3 on the season and waltzed into Value City Arena to take on 15-1 Ohio State. The Buckeyes at the time were KenPom’s second-ranked team and their only loss had come earlier in the week at Michigan State. They also hadn’t given up more than 70 points in a game. The Hawkeyes delivered one of the more impressive Big Ten performances last season, winning by 10 points and vaulting themselves from seemingly out of nowhere into KenPom’s top five. They are presented with a similar opportunity tonight against Wisconsin. With the memory of last year’s collapse still fresh, many people remain unsure of what to make of Fran McCaffery’s team – the Hawkeyes have defeated a questionable Ohio State team twice and won at North Carolina, but the rest of their résumé is dubious. A win in Madison would force the nation to take notice. For Wisconsin, this is its first real test since the loss of senior point guard Traevon Jackson. It could provide a platform for replacement Bronson Koenig to step up his game, but it also could reveal a major midterm problem for Bo Ryan. Tonight’s game will tell us a lot about which it will be.

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