Pac-12 Whiparound

A look around the Pac-12 conference as the calendar changes to February

Things got wacky in the Pac-12 this weekend, but as Coach John Wooden always said, "Don't confuse activity with achievement."  First timers learned some hard road lessons, old timers were forced to re-learn lessons from the past, and and as the calendar turns to February, the only thing really certain is that Arizona is the best, and USC is so, so not.

Conference Record
Overall Record
KenPom Rating
Best Win (KenPom Rating)
Worst Loss (KenPom Rating)
Gonzaga (4) UNLV (117)
Wichita State (14)
UCLA (55)
Texas (26)
Washington State (194)
Oregon State 5-4
Arizona (3) Quinnipiac (177)
Oregon 5-4
Arizona State (50)
Washington State (194)
UCLA 5-4
Utah (6) Colorado (84)
Colorado 4-5
UCLA (55)
Hawaii (155)
Washington State 4-5
Stanford (29) Idaho (232)
Oklahoma (9)
Stony Brook (146)
California 3-6
Syracuse (74) Cal State Bakersfield (257)
Arizona State
Harvard (70)
Lehigh (209)
USC 1-8
New Mexico (89)
Portland State (275)

    So what's going on?  Arizona continues to hold onto first based on its win over Utah, while the Utes' slip-up in Los Angeles was its worst loss of the season based on KenPom ratings.  Their win over the Shockers lost a bit of shine this week, but overall, they are still a very strong team with a strong case for a two seed.
    Stanford, like so many before, spent a Saturday night with Cougars and regretted it the next morning.  The Cardinal, like Oregon, did the iditarod of shame out of Pullman after collecting its worse loss of the season, one that cost it a spot in the paragraph above and a second place standing in the conference.  This is, at the moment, the third and final "lock" tournament team from the Pac-12, but Stanford still has much work to do to cement that reality.  The win over Texas continues to lose prestige, and the loss to WSU gives the Cardinal two "bad losses" (DePaul being the other).  Stanford faces a huge gut check Thursday night as they look to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time, and the worst time, this season.
    The Beavers learned about going on the road in the Pac-12, as they were sand-swept by the Arizona schools, and looked awful in the process.  They still sport that shiny home win over Arizona, but it appears that the Beavs are building an NIT resume' at this point.  The same might be said of the Ducks, who split in the desert and continue to lack a victory of significance.  UCLA can sweep Stanford and take a big step towards the Big Dance in doing so, if they are able to then beat Cal and sweep the Bay Area schools.  The Bruins have the talent to go on a run, but at 13 wins and tied for 4th, they need to ascend significantly.  All was presumed good for them after they swept the Bay Area schools the first time, and then they went to Oregon and no-showed for the entire weekend.  Now after getting some more home cooking and snaring an elite victory over Utah, will their game travel?
    Colorado is a team hardest hit by injury, and they continue to slog along without standout center Josh Scott.  They find themselves settling into spoiler mode at 11 overall wins, but if Scott returns, they could hurt the remaining teams on their schedule.  Washington State earned its best victory of they year by playing lights out offense.  Look for that to end as the Cougars next play Wayne Tinkle's grinding Beavers.  Washington's year was most likely detonated by the dismissal of Robert Upshaw.  Swept at home by the Bay Area schools and now headed on the road to the Oregons, the Huskies' three-game losing streak has a legit chance to swell with that road trip and then a game against Arizona awaiting them.
    Cal enjoyed a sweep of the Washingtons, crushing the Cougars and then outlasting the Huskies in Seattle.  The Cal offense rolled through the weekend, and with USC coming in next, the Golden Bears should be riding high when UCLA comes to Berkeley on Saturday.  Arizona State maintained overall mediocrity with a home split, as year nine of the Sendek Era moves along.  This year will be the sixth straight year the Sun Devils end the season never having been ranked, and the fifth in six years that they will miss the NCAA Tournament.  I wonder just how much time last year's NCAA Tournament qualification bought Coach Sendek...
    USC....remains in the Pac-12.

All About the D

    Let's check in with who's contending and who's contending by defending.  The following table looks at defensive efficiency, and breaks it down to two components:  defending the three point-line and the free throw rate (FT/FGA) of the opposition.  Just how much does impact does defense have as we hit the halfway point of the season, and just how crucial are the above factors to a team's defense?  Let's find out:

DRtg (Conf Rank)
3P% D (Conf Rank)
FT Rate (Conf Rank)

85.7 (1)
33.1 (4)
33.3 (4)

90.1 (2)
28.7 (2nd)
33.3 (4)

106.8 (7)
35.9 (7)
50.6 (12)

Oregon State
96.3 (3)
28.3 (1)
40.4 (11)

108.5 (10)
35 (5)
40.2 (10)

102.4 (6)
42.7 (12)
30.3 (1)

100.7 (4)
32.4 (3)
30.9 (2)

Washington State
116.8 (12)
39.2 (10)
33.3 (4)

108.2 (9)
38.7 (9)
31.4 (3)

108.9 (11)
37.1 (8)
38.9 (9)

Arizona State
100.7 (4)
40.4 (11)
38.5 (8)

107.9 (8)
35.7 (6)
33.6 (7)

    So what do we see?  Well, three of the top four defensive teams in the conference occupy three of the top spots in the standings.  The lone exceptions in the former category are Colorado and ASU.  The Buffs are clearly a solid defensive team all-around, and that's without Center Josh Scott.  The Buffs' offense is so bad that it's neutralizing tons of good work on defense.  Stanford, on the other hand, is the only team in the top third of the conference doing it without defense.  The Cardinal is in the bottom half of the league, and it certainly paid the price for it last Saturday in Pullman.  If both Colorado and Stanford retain their respective identities, it will be interesting to see if their seasons continue on the same trajectory.  Of course, with Reid Travis returning for Stanford, the Cardinal should get better on defense, and if Josh Scott returns, the Buffs should also improve offensively, so it's unlikely either is going to be so unbalanced as the teams make the turn in conference play.
    Bad teams play bad defense.  Three of the bottom four teams in the conference standings are buried deep in the defensive rankings.  Only Arizona State is putting in work defensively yet remaining in the conference dungeon.  Oregon and WSU are both living life in the fast lane, defending atrociously but so far managing to score enough to achieve beyond what their defense should allow.  Suffice it to say, only one of the six teams in the bottom half of the conference is a tournament team. 
    The two components of defense that we are examining clearly matter as well.  Why are Arizona and Utah such tough defenses?  They defend the three and they play clean games.  You have to rely on made two-pointers to beat them, and that's the toughest way to score proficiently.  Why is Stanford struggling on defense?  They don't defend the three, and they are fouling machines.  Colorado effectively does both as well. Cal, as the second worst defense in the conference, struggles in both categories.
    The teams in the middle can also understand their place by looking at these components.  UCLA sits right in the middle of the conference in overall defensive efficiency, is the worst in the conference at three point defense, but plays the cleanest D in the conference.  Washington's status as a ninth-rated defense is explained in exactly the same way.  Conversely, Oregon is decent on three point defense but like their brethren from Corvallis, can't keep its opponents off the foul line.
    The point should also be made that to a certain extent this analysis is deductive.  We look at a team's defense, and we assume that if it's low ranked, it's got to be from some combination of causes.  The correlation of the two above are not any galloping shock.  And ultimately, they are not necessarily indicative of the true root causes that produce the numbers above.  In other words, we can say to UCLA, "Guard the three point line better and you will be better defensively."  They know that already. 
    Defending the three point line is a function of a number of defensive requirements.  First, a team must be able to be close enough to its opponents on ball to contest three pointers.  To do that on ball means being quick enough to defend penetration without fouling, otherwise you fail in our second criteria and end up gifting points at the foul line.  Off the ball, it means completing rotations when somebody else gets beat, and recovering to your own man when the ball swings from the opposite side to your side of the court.  Finally, interior defense has a role as well.  Teams that don't have strong interior defenders are often forced to double team the post, which creates the need to recover.  Players also need to be able to negotiate screens off the ball to defend the three point shot.  Watch your favorite team.  Note which of these they do consistently and which they do not, and you'll understand how they get to the results in the table above.

Games of the Week:

UCLA at Stanford, Thurs 2/5 @ 6 PM ESPN2:  Both teams really need this game.  The double-overtime thriller in Pauley Pavilion revived the slumping Bruins team and exposed Stanford's now season-long problems with defense.  A Bruin win puts them in position to leap frog a few teams in the standings, especially if they are able to move on and beat Cal on Saturday.  A Stanford win would allow the Cardinal to avoid the first two-game losing streak of the year and get them to 16 wins, just four shy of the de facto automatic qualifying number of 20.

Utah at Colorado, Sat 2/7 @ 7PM Pac-12 Networks:  The Utes ride into their "rivalry" game to face a stout defense in Colorado.  Expect a low-scoring affair, and in games like that, upsets are always possible.  The Utes need a win to maintain second place and to keep the heat on Arizona.  They want the showdown in Salt Lake on Feb. 26 to be a tying-or-passing situation against the Wildcats.

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