It's been a strong start to postseason play for the Conference of Champions. Three of the four NCAA qualifiers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and the fourth acquitted itself very well in winning a game before falling to an outstanding number one seed. The Pac-12's remaining NIT team is headed to Madison Square Garden. Colorado? Well, yeah, let's try not to focus too much on the Buffs.
The Kitties indulged over-matched in Texas Southern in a track meet that saw them rack up an impressive ORtg of 141 on their way to 93 points but at the expense of their normally elite defense. TSU scored at an efficiency of 109, far above Arizona's season DRtg of 87, 3rd best in 'Murka. Arizona's offense, though effective, got a bit out of character, as they assisted on only 41% of their baskets, as opposed to the 53% assist rate they accumulated during the season. They returned to form against TOSU, grounding the Buckeyes and Freshman sensation De'Angelo Russell down to a 91 ORtg that was far more typical of an Arizona effort.
The Wildcats' offense, though not as explosive as in its first outing, still posted a solid 114 ORtg, boosted by the return of its ball movement, which led to an assist ratio of 61%. One constant throughout the postseason for Arizona has been an ability to crash the offensive boards. Coach Sean Miller's big boys secured 52% of available rebounds against Texas Southern and then 49% against the Buckeyes. Offensive rebounding and defense are the two best remedies for the inevitable off shooting night that happens in the NCAA Tournament. That the Wildcats excel in both these areas is what makes me so certain that they should be in Indianapolis a week from Saturday.
Next Up: Xavier Thurs. 3/26, 7:17 PM, Los Angeles, CA (Staples Center): The Tucson Tour hits the City of Angels this weekend, and it starts Thursday night with a very intriguing match-up against Xavier, Sean Miller's previous coaching stop. The Musketeers are an outstanding example of why conference stats are far more revealing than overall stats. Overall, they appear quite impressive, with an ORtg of 113.1 and a DRtg of 97, but when you put them in Big East play, their offense falls to 107, and their DRtg rises to 103.3, both of which were fourth best in the Big East. Contrast that with Arizona, who had the best offense and defense in the Pac-12, and you have what appears to be a mismatch.
However, one aspect of Xavier's game makes this a very intriguing match-up: size. The Musketeers feature a trio of 6'10" contributors in Matt Stainbrook, James Farr, and Travon Bluiett. Few teams can deal with Arizona's size, but on paper at least the Musketeers pose a legit challenge to Messrs. Tarczewski, Ashley, and Jefferson. Tactically, if that size can neutralize Arizona's relentless offensive rebounding and make the 'Cats try to win from the outside, Arizona could face a struggle. Arizona eschewed the three point shot more than any team in the Pac-12, and when you look at their percentages, only Gabe York stands out as a serious threat. In Xavier's last game, Jalen Reynolds took Georgia State apart, shooting 8-9 from two-point distance. Arizona may in fact go the opposite way, putting the 6'8" Ashley as its biggest player and rolling with Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson, McConnell, and York. Teams that go small usually get their opponents to drop down to match up, so we'll see how committed Xavier is to putting its Towers of Power on the court.
One individual matchup that isn't about size is at point guard, where Dee Davis squares off against T.J. McConnell. Barring foul trouble, both of these two should be on the floor for the entire game, if their previous efforts were any indicators. Davis scored 15 and had 5 assists in the win over Georgia State, while McConnell had 19 (on 65% eFG) and six assists to go with five steals. Both coaches rely heavily on their point guards, and while the most likely outcome is that they cancel each other out, should one significantly outplay the other this could be the matchup that decides the game. Certainly, if it's close at the end, the ball's gonna be in the hands of these two.
Prediction: Xavier has been on the court with Villanova, Georgetown, and Butler this year, so they shouldn't be intimidated by the Wildcats. They've got the size to compete, but Arizona's been playing at whole other level for quite some time. Xavier hangs tough, but Arizona's got the right stuff. Wildcats advance.
The go-go Ducks showed well in the tournament, dispatching the Cowboys and taking Wisconsin down to the final minutes before finally succumbing to Frank the Tank and the Badgers' superior size and strength. Wisconsin won this game at the foul line, where they enjoyed a +16 advantage that more than accounted for the margin of victory. Oregon actually outshot Wisconsin from long range, but ulitmately the undersized Ducks had no answer for the attacking Badgers and their finely tuned offense. A season that started with low estimations from experts ended up as a masterpiece both from Coach of the Year Dana Altman and the departing Mighty Joe Young. Despite Young and Abdul-Bassit's departure, Oregon retains the remainder of its core next season and should be a top team in the conference for the next couple years at least.
3. Utah (beat Stephen F. Austin, 57-50; beat Georgetown, 75-64)
The rugged Utes opened tournament play against Stephen F. Austin and used their tough defense to hold the Lumberjacks to a 83 DRtg. Against Georgetown, Utah's defense wasn't as strong, but its formidable offense bounced back to send the Hoyas back to D.C. and into the offseason. We've talked all year long about the Utes' three point shooting, and they shot a solid 13-27 over the weekend. That 48% was well above the 38% rate they accumulated during the year. 39 of the Utes' 132 points came from the three ball. That's a 30% clip that approaches their 32% season average. The place where Utah really moved the needle was the foul line, however. The Utes shot 53 free throws in two games, using it to a +5 against the Lumberjacks and a whopping +16 against the Hoyas. If Utah is to advance, they are going to need to maintain that kind of free throw advantage.
Next Up: Duke Fri. 3/27 6:45 PM, Houston, TX (NRG Stadium): Maintaining that advantage is going to be a challenge against the Powerful Duke Blue Devils in this battle of Coach K's. The Dukies played the second cleanest defense in the ACC this season, allowing a free throw rate of only 25%. Their three point defense may be even more challenging for Utah. Duke held opponents to the lowest three-point percentage in the ACC at 29%, so Utah's strength meets Duke's strength in a couple ways. There is the aforementioned clash against the stingy Duke D, but there's also the fact that the Blue Devils themselves shoot it at a 40% clip, best in the ACC. In terms of the free throw game, Duke gets to the foul line at a 38% clip and they grab 37% of available offensive rebounds, thanks largely to future lottery pick Jahlil Okafor. Utah has the personnel to make Okafor work, but neither Okafor's fellow frosh Poetl nor Senior Dallin Bachynski have played anybody at Jahlil's level.
You don't get this far in the tournament without being good, and this shapes up as one of the best games of the Sweet Sixteen, simply because both teams play both sides of the ball so well. There is a massive chasm in Tournament experience and success between the two coaches, but don't be fooled. Utah isn't going to get out-coached very often with Larry Krystkowiak in charge, and I don't expect them to be out-coached in this one either. The Utes' size and physicality should give Duke serious problems, and an upset wouldn't shock me.
Prediction: Ken Pomeroy has this as a one-point Duke victory, and I think he sees it correctly. Despite Okafor's presence, Duke can go small and agile much like Oregon did in defeating the Utes twice over the final month of the season. The Blue Devils are bringing just a bit too much to the table to fall this early in the Tournament.
The Bruins spent the better part of the week being disparaged for not being Tournament worthy, but they got in and they made the most of their chance. That they sit in the Sweet Sixteen is a combination of their own good play and some favorable results, namely the one that allowed them to play a 14-seed in the "third" round. Much like the other Pac-12 participants, UCLA played one low-scoring and one high-scoring affair. In their first game, a controversial Bryce Alford 3 that was called good by goal tending propelled UCLA into the next round. However, it should be noted that Alford's "three" was one of nine he hit on the day, accounting for nearly half the Bruin scoring output. Normally a tough offensive rebounding team, the Mustangs held UCLA to a 23% OReb rate, down from the 34% they secured all season long. UCLA had just enough to overcome a staggering 28% turnover rate.
The Bruin offense had no type of problems with UAB. The Blazers, on the other hand, had all types of problems with Tony Parker, who overwhelmed UAB to the tune of 28 points on 11-14 shooting (6-8 FT) and a 147 rating. Bryce Alford came back with a second consecutive great outing playing to an ORtg of 144 built on solid 58% eFG and five assists. Isaac Hamilton also shot 6-8 from the field and in March is now shooting 70% eFG (!!!!!!) for the month.
Next Up: vs. Gonzaga, Fri 3/27, 4:15 PM, Houston, TX (NRG Stadium): A rematch of arguably the hallmark game of UCLA's recent triple Final Four squads of 2006-2008, aka, the One Where Adam Morrison Cried. This time, the Zags will be the favorites, and this Bulldog team's usual gauntlet of non-conference opponents seems to have helped Coach Mark Few get past that second round speed bump which had been blocking their hopes for five seasons.
Gonzaga's got a top-5 offense, and the national rankings are probably more instructive than the conference performance because the WCC would struggle to compete with Gonzaga if allowed to put together a composite roster with the remaining teams. Now, the two hallmarks of UCLA's game that we've been tracking all year have been the Bruins' offensive rebounding and their ability to play defense without fouling. Gonzaga holds opponents to a OReb% of 28.1% while UCLA secures 34% of available offensive boards. The national average is 31% so this is a strength on strength advantage that UCLA may very well need to win to advance. Free throws account for only 19% of Gonzaga's points on the season, and neither team shoots it that well, with both finishing under 70% on the season.
Gonzaga was the best shooting team in America this year, shooting it overall at 58% eFG. Their 41% shooting from 3 was the third-best in 'Murka and their 57.4% shooting was second best in the country. On paper, this is where UCLA seems to be ultimately outgunned, but this is tournament play. Strangely enough, this will be the Bruins' second consecutive rematch of the year. Gonzaga went into Pauley in December and came away with an 87-74 victory mainly on the strength of superior two-point shooting. Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer shot 11-14 from inside the arc to offset Kevin Pangos' struggle from outside (1-6 3P). These were different Bruins than the team playing right now, epitomized by the emergence of Isaac Hamilton. In that game, Isaac shot 6-16 overall for an eFG of 38%, slightly more than half what he's shooting this March. Norman Powell also struggled in that game, going 3-11 from the field. UCLA can't win with that kind of output from its two wings.
Prediction: Gonzaga is the better team, and the deeper team, which may be the difference. UCLA essentially played UAB with five guys while nobody played more than 25 minutes in the Bulldogs' win over Iowa on Sunday. By contrast, UCLA played five guys 30 or more minutes in beating the Blazers. Despite this, I think the Bruins can pull the upset. Some may argue that UCLA is playing on borrowed time, but I think the Bruins advance. The Bruins as the talented underdog have always been dangerous, and the March version of their top five should give Gonzaga far more trouble than the December version did. In a series, I'd pick Gonzaga no question. For this one game, I'm going Conference Loyal and picking the Bruins.
Living That NIT-Life
We'd speculated about Coach Sendek's future on earlier Whiparounds, and it's likely that the Sun Devils NIT performance had little to do with the choice to hack Herb. More influential was one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past six seasons. ASU seems very committed to becoming the athletic powerhouse many have thought it could be in both football and basketball.
Next Up: apparently pursuing Jeff Capel to be the next head coach. I'm going to refrain from commenting on this. For now.
Why, Colorado, why the CBI?
Colorado (won at Gardner Webb, 87-78; lost at Seattle, 72-65)
Not sure what Coach Tad Boyle and his Buffaloes got out of playing two teams rated 196th and 237th respectively by Ken Pomeroy, but the Buff's turbulent and injury-plagued season is over. To reiterate, Coach Boyle has decreed that any player who doesn't stay on campus this summer will not be welcomed back in the fall. That's usually not a good sign. It sure puts the pressure on Boyle should all the players show up and Colorado end up back in one of the lesser postseason tournaments next year....
Overall, a great week for the Pac-12. Collectively, they went 11-3 and have three teams in the Sweet Sixteen. Over/Under for teams to make next weeks Whiparound: 2.5. Any takers?