Pac-12 Whiparound

A look around at Pac-12 hoops as the first month of the season draws to an end

Pac-12 Whiparound 2
    As the first third of Pac-12 play reaches its conclusion, one thing we know is one thing we probably already knew:  Arizona is the best team in the Pac-12.  The Wildcats just beat the two teams closest to it in the standings, and both victories were impressive showcases of the depth and talent on that roster.  Barring injury or a Stanley Johnson alien abduction, this is a one seed.  Here's how the standings look as of now in the Conference of Champions:

Conference Record
Overall Record
KenPom Rating
Best Win (KenPom Rating)
Worst Loss (KenPom Rating)
Gonzaga (3) UNLV (119)
Wichita State (9)
SDSU (26)
Texas (17)
DePaul (129)
Oregon State 5-2
Arizona (4) Quinnipiac (174)
Oregon 4-3
Arizona State (56)
Washington State (191)
Washington 3-4
Oklahoma (12) Washington State (191)
Stanford (31)
Oregon (76)
UCLA (79)
Hawaii (156)
Washington State
Oregon (76)
Idaho (237)
Arizona State 2-5
Colorado (72)
Hawaii (156)
Syracuse (74)
Cal State Bakersfield (269)
USC 1-6
New Mexico (88)
Portland State (266)

So what did we learn this week in the Pac-12?  First, until further notice, Arizona is clearly the class of this conference.  The Wildcats put the slip-up vs. Oregon State behind them with a convincing sweep of the Bay Area schools, displaying the offense, defense, athleticism, and coaching that has them rightly slotted as a one-seed at the moment.  Not far behind them is Utah, who continues to bolster a very strong non-conference resume after recovering from its loss to the Wildcats.  Looking at the quality of the Utes' schedule, the quality of its best player, and at their numbers, they look like a strong two-seed contender, and if Arizona slips up, might have a chance to take the conference regular season.  The rematch looms in Salt Lake on Saturday, Feb. 28.
    After the Big Two come Oregon State and Stanford, two teams having solid seasons who don't appear at the moment to have quite enough to overtake Arizona and Utah.  Oregon State, led by Pac-12 Coach of the Year Wayne Tinkle, has a signature win over Arizona, a three-game winning streak, and 5-1 record in its last six games.  The Beavers' style is a dream come true for those who yearn for the days when there was a jump ball after every basket, but nobody can question its effectiveness at this point.  Stanford continues to hang tough with a 5-2 record in the absence of Reid Travis.  Both teams should be NCAA Tournament qualifiers should they reach 20 wins, with Stanford having a stronger overall resume' but the Beavers sporting that win over Arizona.
    Then we have the great Middle, great not so much in terms of accomplishment but in number.  Oregon swept the L.A. schools at home this week, but when you look at the next four teams after the top four, there is not a lot of separation between UW, UCLA, Colorado and Oregon.Washington's got the best win but, along with Oregon, the worst loss, to Ernie Kent's Cougars of Washington State.  Colorado does not have a very impressive overall resume, and as losers of four of their past five, appear to be sliding towards the Unmentionables of the conference.  Washington State's time in the upper half of the conference  has come to an end.  The Cougars have been rudely dismissed in their last three games, losing by 15, 22, and 32 points, in that order.  Would anybody really  mind if we just swapped them out for Gonzaga during basketball season?
    The less said about the bottom three, the better.  They continue to make strong arguments that the NCAA should have some sort of draft lottery for bottom feeders.  The Sun Devils should be singled out for their Ken Pomeroy rating, which is higher than a number of teams ahead of them in the conference.  After watching them this week, I'd have to say that I'd expect them to overtake the Cougars at some point this year, but they are going to be hard pressed to go much further than that.

Whiparound Focus:  The Ballers

    I wanted to look at these teams from the top and focus on efficiency.  What follows is a list of each team's possessions-used leaders, ranked in order of offensive efficiency.  These are the guys who use the most possessions when on the court, but the question is, should they be the guys using the most possessions?  We'll lay the table down and then whiparound in the final column with the answer to that question.

Offensive Efficiency
Should He Be The Alpha Dog?
Delon Wright
YES!!!!  He's  a National POY Candidate leading the best offense in the Conference.  Enough said.
Chasson Randle
You could argue that the other member of Stanford's Platinum Backcourt, Anthony Brown, should be taking the lion's share of shots due to a superior offensive rating of 119.1  The gap here is the difference between the three point shooting percentages of the two.  The truth is, you really can't go wrong with either.  Randle has a much better handle is a much better shot creator, which is why he ends up taking more shots than Brown.  Considering the Cardinal have the 3rd best offense in the country, it's safe to say they've correctly identified their Alpha Dog.
Bryce Alford
Despite taking some heavy criticism as the season progresses, Alford is still enjoying a very efficient season.  UCLA spreads its possessions virtually evenly among four players, so the leader in this category is probably going to change from week to week.  Freshman Kevon Looney is coming on, and he does have a higher efficiency rating.  However, Alford is the ballhandler, and so like Randle is going to be the guy the Bruins count on to create.  Despite the individual offensive talent, this is only the 8th most efficient offense in the Pac-12.  The reason?  The Bruins just don't shoot it well.  Hard to pin that on one player.
Joseph Young
The Ducks have the 4th best offense in the conference, and they do have efficient options in Dillon Brooks and Elgin Cook.  However, given Joe's status as a Senior, it seems the Ducks have the right man in the Alpha spot for the time being.  Oregon plays at the second fastest pace in the conference, prompting me to wonder if Duck Professors lecture and grade as fast as the football and basketball teams play?
Devontae Lacy
Washington State
This is the first case where I think one might argue that the Cougars could and should be shifting its emphasis.  They play at a very fast pace (3rd in the Pac-12), and it's hard to understand why.  They have only the 7th rated offense and the lowest-rated defense.  Coach Kent might better served by slowing things down and working the ball into Josh Hawkinson, who sports a 114.5 offensive efficiency rating.  Lacy should still get his, but overall, the Cougars need to slow their roll.
Stanley Johnson
  The best player on the 2nd-best offense in the conference.  Like Wright, Arizona should continue to feed the Stanimal.
Victor Robbins
Oregon State
The Beavs ground and pound might be better served with Gary Payton getting more time with the ball.  Son of Glove sports a 114.3 offensive rating, a pretty significant improvement over Robbins.  This is a bottom third offensive team, so a change here might not be so unwarranted.
Askia Booker
Booker uses a whopping 33% of the Buffs' possessions.  As a guard, he's going to dominate to a certain extent, but with Josh Scott a very effective post option (134)  and Xavier Johnson operating efficiently at the wing (108.1), Colorado's 6th best offense could probably use a bit more balance.   The problem is that both Scott and Johnson are injured.  Their return should bring that 33% number down, and in turn buffer the Buffs' offense.  By comparison, Delon Wright uses the most possessions for Utah, but he uses "only" 25% of the Utes' possessions. 
Nigel Williams-Goss
Here's another case where a team might be better served by feeding the post more often.  Andrew Andrews, Robert Upshaw, and the Rainman Jr. all sport higher efficiency ratings than Williams-Goss.  The Huskies are not a bad offense (5th-rated), but were NW-G skew a bit more towards a pass-first mentality, the Huskies could really be a threat to the top teams in the conference.
Jordan McLaughlin
The Trojans are awful.  Categorically awful.  One step towards improvement might be to say "Bye-Bye" to the McLaughlin Group, and focus more on Nikola Jovanovic, who has an offensive efficiency rating of 102.2.  Now, McLaughlin only uses .9% more of the Trojans' possessions than NJ, so maybe the real issue is just less McLaughlin, period.  Once you get below 100 offensive rating, you really are talking about guys who have the ball who probably shouldn't have it....
Tyrone Wallace
....and that leads us to Tyrone "Smoochie" Wallace, who is a big reason Cal has the worst offense in the Pac-12.  Despite the availability of a much more efficient player in Jordan Matthews, Cal continues to devote possession after possession to Wallace, whose numbers are suffering.  Cal, like USC, is awful, and no one thing is going to change that.  However, the Golden Bears could climb out of the offensive cellar by saying "Death to Smoochie-Centricity."
Gerry Blakes
Rounding out the Alphas is a player I'm not sure should even be a Beta.  The far more efficient Savon Goodman (105.8) is an option the Sun Devils might emphasize to improve their 10th-rated offense.  As noted, the Sun Devils are not great, but should be better than they are, and getting the ball out of Blakes' hands would be a good start.

    Now, the nature of the game makes it much more difficult to "just" switch possessions leaders.  Especially when considering a switch from a guard who starts every possession with the ball in his hand, to a big who is far more dependent on his teammates for touches.  Nevertheless, shot volume and shot allocation are two components of a team's offense that are to a large extent in the team's control.  Smaller discrepancies like the ones between Stanford's Randle and Brown, or between players who are both above 110 efficiency ratings, are not likely to change a team's fortunes.  However, when talking about players who are categorically inefficient (below 100), shuffling offensive focus and responsibility can be a step towards fixing the offense.  It was amazing to me how  many teams in the conference flat out have the wrong guys shooting the ball.

Looking Ahead

Game(s) of The Week:  Utah  at UCLA, Thurs 7 PM.  The Utes are on the road for the first time since Arizona dusted them.  The Bruins are wobbling from being swept out of the state of Oregon.  With 11 wins overall and only a victory over Stanford has its marquee accomplishment, this home date offers the Bruins their best chance to kickstart a drive towards the tournament. 

Stanford at Washington, Wed 8 PM:  Stanford's Seniors haven't won in Seattle.  The Huskies will be looking to avenge an overtime loss to the Cardinal it should have finished in regulation.  Washington still has the overall resume of a potential tournament team, but a legitimate drive March is going to have to start soon for Coach Romar's crew. Put another way:  the sixth place team in this conference is not going to the Tournament, and that's where the Huskies currently sit.

Oregon State at Arizona, Fri 7 PM.  The Beavers step into the Kitties' Lair hoping to sweep Arizona.  If Wayne Tinkle were to accomplish that, he may very well lock up National Coach of the Year Honors before February.  Don't bet on it happening.

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