College Basketball Nation: Pac-12

Saturday wrap: Time to face reality

January, 18, 2015
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It’s that time of the season where hope is slowly replaced in the lineup by reality. There have been enough games on the road, enough against tough competition. Enough with the cupcake schedules. Enough excuses.

It’s time for teams to accept exactly what they are.

That’s why No. 11 Iowa State’s 86-81 win over No. 9 Kansas should be viewed as a statement game. The Cyclones proved they are not some gimmicky offense that just tries to wilt an opponent with pressure to keep pace scoring.

Oh, they are still very much an offensive explosion waiting to happen. They outscored the Jayhawks 31-19 in transition, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Iowa State guard Naz Long had 20 points and all five starters scored in double figures.

[+] EnlargeNaz Long
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsNaz Long led the Cyclones with 20 points in their 86-81 win over Kansas on Saturday.
But they play defense now, too. The Cyclones have improved from being 133rd in adjusted defense in 2013 to 52nd this season, according to Kenpom.com. Iowa State held Kansas to 42.7 percent shooting from the field, which was slightly below its 46.5 average in conference play.

Georges Niang sealed the win by drawing a charge when the Jayhawks had a chance to tie the score with 14 seconds left.

The loss doesn’t bring an end to Kansas’ reign in the Big 12. It’s still too early for that kind of claim. But it does signal that Iowa State is going to have a say in determining who claims the league crown.

TURNAROUNDS

The biggest surprise from Saturday has to be that Kansas State, the same team that lost to Texas Southern, now has a half-game lead in the Big 12. There are seven ranked teams in the league, and the Wildcats aren’t one of them.

There’s no guarantee they’ll stay in first with the next four games all against ranked teams. But the Wildcats were trending downward when coach Bruce Weber benched Thomas Gipson, Marcus Foster and Jevon Thomas at different times recently in an attempt to get his team’s attention.

He’s got it now as the Wildcats rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat No. 22 Baylor 63-61. They’ve won four straight, which includes a win at No. 18 Oklahoma.

STILL STANDING

No. 1 Kentucky’s well-dissected struggles in its first two SEC games are long forgotten after its 70-48 win over Alabama. Along with Tuesday’s 86-37 win over Missouri, that makes back-to-back games of not allowing its opponent to reach 50 points. The Wildcats are once again the dominant team everyone expected to see in league play.

No. 2 Virginia, which joins Kentucky as the only unbeaten teams remaining, has arguably been the most consistent team all season. The Cavaliers showed they don’t get rattled after being down five early in the second half at Boston College. They used a 10-0 run to take control of the game and exit with a 66-51 victory.

No. 5 Villanova took a break from the Big East schedule to handle crosstown rival Penn 62-47. Nova is still positioned as the team to beat in the league with its only loss coming in overtime at Seton Hall.

Besides a road dud at Illinois, No. 14 Maryland is fitting in just fine its first season in the Big Ten. The Terps also hold a half-game lead over Wisconsin and Iowa for first place.

They dismantled Michigan State 75-59 as Melo Trimble and Jake Layman combined for 47 points.

CONFIDENCE BOOSTERS

No. 4 Duke, No. 18 Oklahoma and No. 20 Texas all entered Saturday having lost two straight games. Each stopped the losing streak against ranked teams, and in the process, regained some of that missing confidence.

Duke uncharacteristically played zone to neutralize what had been its weakness in both losses -- defending ball screens and dribble penetration.

Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield went 10-for-10 from the field for 27 points. When the Sooners get hot shooting, there will be many more wins like their 82-65 dismantling of No. 24 Oklahoma State

Texas guard Isaiah Taylor’s return from a wrist injury that sidelined him for a month was supposed to signal that the ‘Horns were getting stronger. Instead, they dropped two of three games while seemingly figuring out their chemistry again. They appeared to find it in stomping No. 16 West Virginia 77-50.

No. 10 Arizona had one of the most impressive wins of the day in stopping No. 8 Utah 69-51. The Wildcats may still be slow starters, but their win proved that they can finish.

LOSING TRACTION

Louisville got exposed at home in a way that no one expected. Losing to Duke is one thing, but shooting 30 percent from the field is another. The Cardinals have lost two of their past three games and will probably have to deal with more zones after failing to meet the Blue Devils’ challenge of daring them to shoot from outside.

They don’t have any bad losses -- all three have come to teams ranked in the top 15 -- and their best win was against Ohio State, a team that’s also losing its grip.

The Buckeyes have dropped two of their past three games with Saturday’s 76-67 loss at Iowa. Thought as a team that could possibly contend with Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, they moved to 3-3 and are in eighth place.

Oklahoma State has now dropped three out of four games with its loss to Oklahoma. Yes, the losses all came against ranked teams, and they were all on the road. But in the Big 12 this season, only three league members aren’t currently ranked. The Cowboys need to find a way to win away from Stillwater.

No. 19 Arkansas joined Baylor in losing to unranked teams on Saturday. The Razorbacks appear to be pretty one-dimensional with their frenetic full-court pressure and trapping. If their opponent doesn’t have the backcourt to handle the pace, they generally have a good shot at winning. When they face teams like Mississippi, who don’t mind playing that pace, it can be trouble. Aided by transition baskets, Ole Miss shot 56 percent in its 96-82 win over the Razorbacks.
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona coach Sean Miller sold his team this week as the underdog against Utah, no matter what Las Vegas said. After all, the Utes were ranked ahead of the Wildcats in both polls. It was the Utes -- not Miller's preseason Pac-12 favorites -- who owned a seven-game win streak and were beating conference foes by an average of 24.5 points per game.

You can call that a sincere estimation, or you can call it a purely motivational ploy, but you'd also have to acknowledge it worked after the No. 10 Wildcats whipped No. 8 Utah 69-51. That Arizona team that seemed to meander a bit since late December was not present in the McKale Center, where the Wildcats have now won 32 in a row, as well as 11 straight over the Utes.

"We knew this was a big game," Miller said of the Pac-12's first conference game between top-10 teams in seven years. "A team like that brought out the best in us."

That best didn't show up initially, as Utah jumped ahead 10-2 behind seven points from star guard Delon Wright. Thereafter, however, it was pretty much all Arizona. Wright, an All-American and dark horse national player of the year candidate who averages 15.3 points per game, scored just three more points as the Wildcats defense dominated and the offense owned the paint to an extraordinary degree.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Stanley Johnson
Colin Prenger/Getty ImagesAfter going scoreless in the first half against Utah, Stanley Johnson finished with a game-high 18 points and nine rebounds.
In a matchup of the Pac-12's top two rebounding teams, Arizona out-rebounded Utah 40-19 overall and 17-to-4 on the offensive glass. It outscored Utah 34-14 in the paint and had an 18-3 advantage with second-chance points. It would have been uglier if the Utes didn't hit nine of 19 3-pointers.

Winning conference games on the road is a Pac-12-wide struggle, but it has been a particular problem for the Utes, who are now 3-8 on the road the past two seasons and, through Sunday, had the nation's second-largest home-road win differential since the 2011-12 season, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Arizona's slow start was overcome by an inspired effort from senior point guard T.J. McConnell. He connected on six of his first seven shots and scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half.

"That could be an everyday thing for him," Arizona's standout freshman Stanley Johnson said. "When we need it, he does it."

Johnson needed the help in the first half, when he had two fouls, no points, one shot and no rebounds. In the second half, he almost single-handedly turned the game into a blowout by scoring a game-high 18 points and grabbing a game-high nine rebounds.

"There aren't too many guys who can do that to Utah," Miller said. "He was a monster in the second half."

Utah made one mini-run and cut the margin to 57-47 with just more than seven minutes remaining, but Arizona answered with a 11-0 run, and it was all over, with the crowed opting for a rather uncreative "Overrated!" chant.

Utah entered the game scoring 75.8 points per game, but it was suffocated by the Wildcats defense, with a variety of players putting the clamps on Wright, though that task primarily fell on Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts. Defensively, the Utes yielded a conference-best 55.3 points per game, but the Wildcats shot 49 percent from the field while dominating the paint.

Underdogs? Miller indicated after the game that he sensed his team might have been tired of being the favorites over the past few weeks. So he told them -- and reporters -- they weren't.

"We've been the hunted for two and a half years," Miller said. "Every loss we've had in two years on the road, the court has been stormed."

He added, "That can't be a burden. Recently, it started almost to feel that way."

There was no such burden against the Utes, just a clear declaration that the team everyone envisioned as the Pac-12's bell cow in the preseason isn't ready to yield the prime pasture land at the top the standings.
In recent years, college students have made an art out of free-throw distraction -- with celebrity Fatheads and spinning pinwheels and occasionally large men taking off their shirts.

But we might have our new favorite, thanks to Arizona State's "942 Crew" at Wells Fargo Arena. The creative types in that student section have invented a "Curtain of Distraction" to help mess with opposing free-throw shooters. Some of the crew's best antics from last season can be found here.

And here's a collection of crazy from Saturday's matchup against Colorado and a few other recent games.

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And don't think Arizona State coach Herb Sendek hasn't noticed. (How he could not?) After Saturday's win over the Buffaloes, during which CU shot just 59 percent from the line (10-of-17), Sendek showered praise upon the eccentric student distractions.
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The chorus of questions surrounding Wisconsin and Arizona began like a melancholy hymn, as both teams with national title aspirations fell victim to road conference losses.

After Thursday night wins at home, the Badgers and Wildcats are back to an upbeat tune. No. 7 Wisconsin topped Nebraska 70-55 and No. 10 Arizona stopped Colorado 68-54.

Part of the Badgers' problems was solved simply with the return of center and Wooden Award candidate Frank Kaminsky, who sat out Sunday's loss to Rutgers with concussion symptoms.

The Scarlet Knights, who had never beaten a top-five team, knocked off then-No. 4 Wisconsin 67-62. The Badgers were short Kaminsky before the game and then lost Traevon Jackson when the point guard broke his foot early in the second half.

Kaminsky's absence was an easy asterisk to the loss. But Jackson's loss raises legitimate questions at point guard. How would sophomore Bronson Koenig fare replacing Jackson, who won't be back until perhaps late February?

The short-term answer is just fine. Koenig ranked second nationally among players with at least 20 assists with a 4.5 assist to turnover ratio.

The major difference between the two is Jackson is a better defender, but Koenig adds another proficient shooter to the lineup. The Cornhuskers found out the hard way as Koenig went 3-of-4 from the 3-point line and finished with 11 points.

Kaminsky returned to the lineup and did what he does. He dropped a team-high 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting and showed no signs of missing a game. He helped the Badgers build a 10-point halftime lead and they never trailed again despite Nebraska's Terran Petteway single-handedly trying to keep his team close with a game-high 27 points.

Arizona didn't have a Kaminsky returning to the lineup to boost the entire team's play. In fact, it was missing a key part of its backcourt rotation as guard Gabe York sat out to nurse an ankle sprain.

But playing at home in the McKale Center -- where the Wildcats now hold the nation's second-longest home win streak at 31 games -- certainly helped. They didn't show any of the weaknesses that had been recurring while losing two of their past four games entering Thursday night.

In Sunday's 58-56 loss to Oregon State -- the Beavers' first win over a top-10 team in nearly 15 years -- the Wildcats lost focus defensively. They allowed the Beavers to shoot 64 percent in the second half.

They had no such lapses in the second half against Colorado. The Wildcats actually got tougher as the game progressed, holding the Buffaloes to 40 percent shooting from the floor. Arizona again looked like the team that is rated eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and has allowed only one opponent to reach 70 points.

Colorado played short-handed, too. Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson both missed the game with nagging injuries. That left Askia Booker as the primary scoring threat for the Buffaloes. Booker took advantage of his green light to shoot, finishing with a game-high 30 points, but no other Colorado player reached double figures.

It won't be so easy on Saturday when the Wildcats face No. 8 Utah at home.

But the area that may be a bigger concern is getting some easy shots on offense.

The Wildcats have started games rather lethargically. It happened in their loss to Oregon State when they scored only 21 points in the first half. It was happening again against Colorado when they were stuck at 25 points with three minutes to go in the half. Arizona managed to close out the first half on a 10-3 run, but scoring has been too hard to come by at times. Colorado sat back in a zone and challenged the Wildcats to make perimeter shots.

Elliott Pitts came off the bench to knock down four 3-pointers, which accounted for all 12 of his points, to loosen up the zone. It allowed Stanley Johnson, who scored a team-high 22 points, to get into the paint and into his comfort zone.

Being back in the McKale Center, it looked like the team was there as well.
Tags:

Big Ten, Pac-12

videoCORVALLIS, Ore. -- Hello, March. You came early.

These top-10 upsets and crazy road finishes, surprising victors and disappointed favorites weren’t supposed to be here for another two months.

And yet, on the second weekend of January, as the country awaited the biggest college football game of the season whose rumblings probably drowned out the basketball noise, five top-10 teams suffered losses at the hands of unranked or lower-ranked teams.

First, on Saturday, it was No. 5 Louisville then No. 10 Texas. On Sunday afternoon, it was No. 2 Duke falling to NC State and then No. 4 Wisconsin loses to Rutgers, and finally on Sunday night when most had already fallen asleep, No. 7 Arizona fell victim to the road woes of four of its top-10 brethren, losing to Oregon State 58-56.

And like those games it wasn’t stolen or cheated from them. The team that played better won. That message came clear from Arizona coach Sean Miller.

“I credit Oregon State,” Miller said. “They earned their victory.”

The road is tough with a target on your back and this weekend was made no easier on the Wildcats who spent the weekend in Eugene after beating the Ducks 80-62 on Friday evening. Perhaps the lack of normalcy played a role as the Wildcats looked far from normal on the court on Sunday, too.

Point guard T.J. McConnell followed up his 21-point performance against Oregon with a 13-point output against the Beavers. Kaleb Tarczewski didn’t get a single rebound and didn’t score until the second half. Stanley Johnson snagged only three boards even with the benefit of a serious height advantage.

The Wildcats -- like the Blue Devils and Badgers, Cardinals and Longhorns -- didn’t look like themselves. Or rather, the opponent turned them into a team that wasn’t really within their true DNA.

In the first half Miller said it was “amazing” that Arizona held a lead at the half after shooting 6-of-23 from the floor (including 1-of-10 from range), but was happy with how the Wildcats finished from the stripe (8-of-10) and took care of the ball (two turnovers).

But the second half was an entirely different story.

The Wildcats were 11-of-22 from the floor and 3-of-7 from range while still committing only three turnovers in the second stanza. But the problems came when the Wildcats where on defense when they couldn’t seem to come up with an answer on the road for the Beavers during that half.

Oregon State’s perimeter players stepped up and after failing to reach the free throw line in the first half, the Beavers made 17 trips in the second.

“If we would’ve been able to get any kinds of stops we would’ve been able to open up a four-, six-, eight-point lead,” Miller said. “Because on offense we really did settle in.”

Overall, the Wildcats shot 12 percent below their field goal percentage, 13.5 percent below their 3-point field goal percentage and were out rebounded 32-26.

It won't just be the Wildcats' unlikely play that drops Arizona in the rankings. This weekend will surely shake the top 25.

But just halfway through the year it seems like nothing to be too upset about. If anything, there’s a slight reason to be grateful. The losses are coming early enough that these teams can right themselves and go their merry ways through their conferences schedules.

And for fans? Fans got some March Madness in January.

“This is an 18-game conference season,” Miller said. “You don’t win or lose a conference championship even on a single game, especially on the road.”

Miller is right. And if he wants anyone to back him up he can give a call to Mike Krzyzewski. Or Bo Ryan. Or Rick Pitino. Or Rick Barnes.

They’ll know exactly what he’s talking about.
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EUGENE, Ore. -- T.J. McConnell's huge night in No. 7 Arizona’s 80-62 win over Oregon didn’t really stand out to him as anything more noteworthy than his most recent game.

“We’re not trying to go out and make statements,” McConnell said. “We’re just going out there to play basketball.”

But that’s the thing -- his game is a complete statement. If his season-high 21 points weren’t enough of a statement, then the way in which he completely controlled the game whenever the Ducks made a run certainly was one.

McConnell led a group of five double-digit scorers, but he was the only true “pick your poison”-type of player for Oregon, and maybe that’s the overriding message that Pac-12 teams got on Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McConnell
Godofredo Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsT.J. McConnell usually looks to pass, but he killed Oregon with precise shooting on Thursday.
Yes, teams know that No. 7 Arizona is good, very good. And they know they have weapons, many weapons. But if opponents thought there were any weakness in McConnell’s game, that debate ceased on Thursday evening shortly after McConnell hit two of the Wildcats’ first three shots.

Up until this point, opponents have defended his shot and done their best to get the ball out of his hands. The problem with doing that was it would often turn into an assist to one of his teammates.

Lately, McConnell has felt teams daring him to shoot more and more. But there’s a problem with that approach: His shots went in more often than not, which Oregon realized after he finished 9-of-14 from the floor.

So how do you defend a guy whose passes become assists and shots become buckets?

The best answer is to hope for containment. But Oregon didn't even do that.

“He’s a good player,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “He has been a really good player for Sean [Miller]. … He’s an experienced point guard. Our two freshmen could learn a lot from him.”

He added that he felt as though his Ducks gave McConnell too many early good looks and that they allowed him to go to his strength -- his right -- far too often.

But those early looks became late looks, too, and he looked just as dangerous going to his right as he did to his left. The Ducks kept fishing for solutions but never had an answer.

Altman remembered McConnell from the 2010-11 season when Duquesne -- where McConnell played his freshman season before transferring to Arizona -- traveled to Eugene to play the Ducks in the College Basketball Invitational. He tallied seven points, five assists and four rebounds in a 77-75 loss to Oregon.

It didn’t go as well for Altman this time around.

He dared McConnell, who had averaged 6.1 assists and 7.6 points per game coming into the Pac-12 opener, to revert to his second instinct: shooting.

“I saw open lanes tonight,” McConnell added. “I took advantage of them and I was making shots.”

McConnell, who has only scored in double digits four other times this season, said he’s not surprised when teams try to make him look at the basket more. To him, he sees it as a sign of good scouting because they know that looking for his teammates is his first instinct.

So in that regard, he gives credit to Oregon for good scouting.

It was the in-game adjustments that didn’t go as well, as the Ducks continued to not help out their players and give McConnell options when looking at the basket.

“It’s a pick-and-choose thing,” McConnell said. “If I see a lane usually I’ll pass it. If you want to pass, pass. If you want to shoot, shoot.

“And I shot most of them tonight.”

It’s just another wrinkle for any team tasked with defending Miller’s team.

McConnell has now proven himself as a passer and a scorer. In short, he has proven himself as even more of a headache for every opposing coach than most originally thought he was.

Utah eyeing a place among elites

December, 11, 2014
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Utah's first win at BYU since 2005 is one of many "first since" moments it is poised to have this season. And the way the Utes look now, that will include their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.

For seven straight times, the Utes left Provo with losses since their last win their on Jan. 31, 2005. But Wednesday's 65-61 victory quickly erased those bad memories and has them looking forward to what lies ahead.

No. 10 Kansas awaits the No. 13 Utes in a (not-so) neutral site game in Kansas City on Saturday. It will be Utah's second top-10 opponent in three games. Utah survived then-No. 8 Wichita State last week in overtime.

With a win over the Jayhawks, Utah could conceivably catapult from unranked in the preseason into the top 10 next week. Its current rank is already the highest since being No. 13 in the Associated Press poll on Feb. 21, 2005.

This team is starting to have the look and feel of the Utah teams during the Rick Majerus era: a superstar talent in Delon Wright, who posted a double-double 18 points and 11 rebounds against BYU; a workman-like big man in freshman Jakob Poeltl; and an understated toughness that they are going to keep battling.

[+] EnlargeUtah/BYU
Chris Nicoll/USA TODAY SportsDelon Wright scored 18 points and had 11 rebounds as Utah ended its losing streak at BYU.
So far, Utah is winning the pressure games it wilted under last season.The Utes lost eight games by four points or fewer last season -- including three in overtime -- which contributed to keeping them from receiving an at-large NCAA bid.

The other reason they missed the tournament was a soft nonconference schedule. So far they've solved both of those problems this season. The Utes played a true road game the third game of the season at No. 18 San Diego State, where they suffered their only loss, 53-49.

The tight wins still aren't coming as clean as Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak would probably want them.

Against BYU, the Utes turned the ball over up four with 65 seconds left, but fortunately for them Anson Winder couldn't control it and lost it out of bounds. With a chance to push their lead to six, Brandon Taylor missed a pair of free throw attempts with 43 seconds left. Taylor had entered the game 18-of-19 from the line this season.

Luckily for Utah, the nation's third leading scorer, Tyler Haws, missed a 3-point that could have tied it with 30 seconds left.

Utah can continue to clean up those things. What put the Utes in a position to win was their defense.

Haws, who averages 24.4 points, did manage to secure a game-high 23 points. But the Utes harassed him into just 9-of-22 shooting from the field, which was well below his season average of 51.1 percent.

The Cougars leading 3-point shooter, Chase Fischer, who averaged 43.2 percent from behind the arc, tied a season-low with three points on just 1-of-5 shooting. As a team, Utah held BYU to a season-low 36 percent shooting from the field.

Before the showdown with Kansas, the Utes will savor this one for a minute. It's as big as a December rivalry game can be. The schools didn't meet on the gridiron this season in a clash of the century-long "Holy War" rivalry, so the hardwood has to suffice.

Krystkowiak broke out his good red jacket. BYU dusted off its powder blue uniforms, a nod to its old-school look.

Krystkowiak riled up the Cougars fan base after the Utes upset Wichita State last week. He remarked Utah's schedule hit its stretch of "five elite teams I think. Well, four and a half if you count BYU, I guess."

It turns out Utah is making the bid to be considered an elite team. It's been a while since anyone has said that.

Five observations: Pac-12 media day

October, 23, 2014
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Sometimes a piece of information is so hard to believe that no matter how many times you go back to it, it never gets any more digestible. Greg Maddux's 1995 season, for example. No matter how many times you open Maddux's Baseball Reference Page, no matter how often you shove your iPhone into your friend's face and scream at them -- Ten complete games! A .811 WHIP! 181 strikeouts to 38 walks! *Look at this!* -- it never gets any less insane.

The Pac-12's 2011-12 season is like this. You remember: Arizona's young players struggled in Sean Miller's third season. UCLA was mired in its protracted Ben Howland purge. The rest of the conference was either mediocre (no Pac-12 team finished with fewer than 10 losses) or just plain awful (USC and Utah combined for four conference wins). In overall average efficiency, the league ranked below not only the rest of its power six brethren, but the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, too. The league was so devoid of nonconference wins and marquee teams that its regular-season champ, Washington, failed to earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid -- an unprecedented brush-off made all the more surreal by the realization that nobody outside the Pac-12 offices really disagreed with it.

Three years later, the Pac-12 has arrived at a vastly stronger place. Arizona is a perennial national title threat. UCLA got back to the Sweet 16 last season and is recruiting top West Coast talent again. Utah has gone from "abhorrent" to "conference title contender" in record time. Colorado, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State, and even Washington are all realistic tournament hopefuls with either intriguing talent, loads of experience, or both. USC, which finished 2-16 in league play last season, is rapidly trending upward.

The result is a league with one obvious national title contender and maybe seven or eight good outfits.

"I could see where Arizona would be the unanimous pick," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "I think that's clear cut. As for the rest of the league, you could probably put everybody in a hat, shake it up, and have just as good a chance at predicting the order of finish as we are able to do sitting here today."

The current setup might make the Pac-12 hard to predict, but it should also make it very interesting -- not only during conference play but in November and December, too. At the very least, 2011-12 now feels even more removed from the current reality. As the Pac-12 improves, that wild outlier becomes harder and harder to believe.

Four other observations from Pac-12 media day:

2. The arrival of a new season hasn't done anything to quell misgivings about Oregon's tumultuous offseason. In May, three players were dismissed following sexual assault allegations, and coach Dana Altman and the university were criticized for allowing players to play in the NCAA tournament despite an ongoing investigation into those allegations. One of those players, Brandon Austin, had been suspended by his previous school, Providence, for an alleged sexual assault.

[+] EnlargeOregon
AP PhotoDana Altman's Oregon program had a tough offseason.
Since then, two players (Ben Carter and A.J. Lapray) have transferred, top recruit JaQuan Lyle was unable to enroll at the school, and Elgin Cook was cited for shoplifting. Local media in Eugene soon discovered that Cook, as a teenager in Wisconsin, had been found guilty of assault and battery, disorderly conduct and vandalism.

Altman's summer hasn't just left his roster gutted. It's also left many wondering whether a coach whose squeaky-clean reputation that preceded his hiring deserved to be fired.

On Thursday, the questions continued. Altman reiterated that he did not know the extent of the charges against the three players in March. He stood by his and the university's decision, and pointed to his entire career as an indicator of his judgement.

"Six months have not been good, but the other 25 years have been pretty solid," Altman said.

The Ducks have made one noticeable change off the floor: Altman has now moved all of his players into the same apartment complex, where they live alongside graduate assistants.

"We have our graduate assistants living with them to try to help them with some of the day-to-day decisions they make," Altman said. "Other than that, we haven't made many changes."

3. These days, nothing sinks a bubble team's NCAA tournament hopes more than a weak nonconference schedule. You could hardly blame Utah for its RPI-crushing 2013-14 slate, though: Even coach Larry Krystkowiak didn't expect his team to be as good as it was. The Utes were ahead of schedule.

"Oftentimes a schedule is done a year or two in advance," Krystkowiak said. "We were probably ahead of the curve last year."

There will be no such surprises in 2014-15. The preseason poll slotted Utah at No. 2 in the league projections; star small forward Delon Wright is a returning All-Pac-12 performer. This time, Krystkowiak has scheduled accordingly. The Utes have road games against Kansas, San Diego State, UNLV and BYU. That slate will certainly help assuage the NCAA's road-obsessed concerns, but it also presents major challenges.

"On paper I don't know how intelligent I am to bite off some of that," Krystkowiak said. "I just felt like our team was ready for it."

4. Steve Alford's teams were never known for playing fast, but his arrival at UCLA last season was accompanied by a massive tempo boost relative to Alford's work at New Mexico and Iowa. With the strength of that attack -- an excellent backcourt -- almost entirely gone, will the Bruins maintain that pace? Alford hopes so.

"We want to be able to continue to do the things we've done, with the speed with which we want to play," Alford said. "We want to play fast. ... But there's a fine line. You can only run as hard as you can to where you're also valuing the ball."

5. New coaches are a minor subplot of the 2014-15 Pac-12. The conference has three new men in charge of programs this season: Cuonzo Martin at California, Wayne Tinkle at Oregon State and Ernie Kent at Washington State. Oregon State and Washington State are probably due for extended rebuilding periods. But Mike Montgomery's retirement didn't leave the Bears quite as bereft of personnel, which makes them slightly more intriguing. At the very least, forward David Kravish drew raves from Martin as the two sat at the podium together.

"The guy is just battle-tested," Martin said. "He understands what it means to win. He's probably one of the better leaders I've ever been around."

3-point shot: Will Doug Wojcik recruit?

July, 7, 2014
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Andy Katz discusses College of Charleston coach Doug Wojcik's status in recruiting, what UCLA coach Steve Alford needs from son Bryce, and Illinois' offseason training.

3-point shot: Return pays off for Napier

June, 27, 2014
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In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on how returning to school for another year could have boosted the draft stock of Jahii Carson and James Michael McAdoo the way it did for Shabazz Napier, who was taken in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft.

3-point shot: Pac-12 all-star team

May, 27, 2014
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Andy Katz on Larry Krystkowiak running the Pac-12 all-star team, Maryland and Mark Turgeon's interesting spring and basketball decisions at the SEC meetings.
Dana Altman endured a weird season. His Oregon Ducks were 13-0, but then they began to struggle. That unblemished mark preceded a mudslide that dropped Oregon to the bottom of the Pac-12 standings after a 3-8 start in league play.

The Ducks recovered and reached the NCAA tournament. And they looked like a top-25 team entering 2014-15 with Joseph Young, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis all returning -- a boost for a program that had already lost Mike Moser and Johnathan Loyd. But in the words of Dave Chappelle’s version of Rick James, that was weeks ago.

On Monday, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported that Dotson, Artis and Providence transfer Brandon Austin are not participating in team activities. And now, Altman might have to figure out who will run his offense next year. Austin and Dotson would be major losses, too.

This news broke only hours after Oregon State fired Craig Robinson weeks after the conclusion of the early recruiting period.

A coaching search in early May? OK. (Virginia Tech would like a word.)

[+] EnlargeCuonzo Martin
cGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesCuonzo Martin is just one of the new faces in the Pac-12 for 2014-15 in what has become an offseason of upheaval.
But if you zoom out and survey the Pac-12 from a broader perspective, you will notice that Monday’s developments followed a troubling trend in this league. The conference has been plagued by drama and abrupt change in recent weeks.

Cuonzo Martin and Ernie Kent replaced Mike Montgomery and Ken Bone, respectively.

Jordan Adams told the world that he was returning to a UCLA squad that had already lost Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine, but then Adams changed his mind and entered the NBA draft. The sophomore would have been the anchor on a Bruins squad that will rely on top recruit Kevon Looney next season.

Across town, USC standout Byron Wesley transferred. Andy Enfield has a top-25 recruiting class, though. But Wesley and Pe’Shon Howard, who graduated, were his top scorers last season.

Former Colorado star Spencer Dinwiddie turned pro just months after suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Many figured he would rehab, come back to Colorado for another season and regain his pre-injury draft stock. That didn’t happen. The Buffaloes are still strong, but they would be more forceful with Dinwiddie.

Arizona State’s departures weren’t unexpected. Jahii Carson, Jermaine Marshall and Jordan Bachynski are all gone. Herb Sendek has to hit the reset button again.

With all the recent movement, Utah and Washington are two of the most stable programs in the Pac-12. The Utes might be the sleeper in the conference.

Arizona, which signed McDonald’s All American Stanley Johnson and returned key members from last season's team, and Stanford, a Sweet 16 program that added Johnny Dawkins’ top recruiting class, are obviously strong programs too.

That’s not typical, though. There’s more chaos than certainty in the Pac-12 today. Monday’s news magnified the mess.

So this is a fluid moment for the conference.

Last season, the Pac-12 sent six teams to the NCAA tournament. Three reached the Sweet 16. Arizona lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

After the Big Dance, the league looked healthy, vibrant and deep again. Nine Pac-12 teams finished with .500 or better records in league play.

The conference might boast similar parity again next season, but it might not have the same overall quality due to personnel changes. Plus, the league’s new coaches joined programs that won’t contend for the conference crown unless they upgrade their respective talent pools. That usually takes two seasons for most coaches.

Every Pac-12 squad dealing with recent changes could benefit in the long run. Martin might be the right guy to elevate Cal. Altman's program could thrive if Artis, Austin and Dotson return. Enfield has a talented young group in L.A. Steve Alford still has an NBA-level prospect on his UCLA roster. Oregon State improved under Robinson, but average just isn’t good enough at this level. The next Beavers coach could be the one who transforms Oregon State into a contender. And Colorado returns key members of a program that reached the NCAA tournament without Dinwiddie.

So there’s hope, just no guarantee.

It’s too early to know exactly how this maneuvering will affect the Pac-12 in 2014-15. Right now, however, things look rocky.

The good news is it’s only May. The bad news is you can’t make trades at this level.
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Pac-12

3-point shot: Tough Pac-12 schedules

April, 25, 2014
4/25/14
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Andy Katz looks at the impressive schedules for Arizona and UCLA and transfers at Oregon.

Look back, look ahead: Pac-12

April, 25, 2014
4/25/14
10:00
AM ET
Sean Miller seemed to have every tool necessary for the Arizona Wildcats to make a push for the national title as the 2013-14 season approached. His talent pool was so rich that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a former McDonald’s All-American, was a reserve most of the season.

But Arizona, a team so well-rounded that it reached the Elite Eight without NBA prospect Brandon Ashley’s services in the final two months of the season, wasn’t the best measurement of the conference.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ashley
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBrandon Ashley's return from a foot injury should keep Arizona in contention in the Pac-12.
For that, go to Salt Lake City, where Larry Krystkowiak began the season as a campus crime-fighter and continued his heroics by enhancing Utah’s program. This past season, the Utes finished 9-9 in conference play a year after going 5-13 in the Pac-12. They also added six wins compared to last season.

The Utes were one of nine Pac-12 squads that finished .500 or better in league play. Oregon State, 10th in the league, finished 16-16 overall. Only two teams in the Pac-12 finished with sub-.500 overall records.

Arizona and UCLA were the only two squads that separated themselves from the rest of the league, and that can be viewed in two ways: The Pac-12 was packed with a bunch of solid programs, or it was plagued by mediocrity.

The league’s postseason finish -- six NCAA tourney teams, three in the Sweet 16 and one in the Elite Eight -- suggests the former.

What we saw this season: On Feb. 1, the national title race changed. That night, Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in a loss to Cal, Arizona’s first loss of the season. How important was Ashley?

Well, the Wildcats were still a powerhouse that maintained its position as the top-rated team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings. And they maintained enough mojo to win the Pac-12’s regular-season crown and reach the Elite Eight, but they really needed Ashley’s versatility and length in their loss to Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin in the NCAA tourney.

At UCLA, in Steve Alford’s first season, he found the best position for Kyle Anderson -- playmaker -- and shaped the Bruins into a top-50 defensive unit. After some early bumps, the Bruins finished 11-4 in the final weeks of the season after suffering a four-point loss at Oregon State on Feb. 2. That run included a Pac-12 tourney title and a Sweet 16 appearance.

Both Johnny Dawkins at Stanford and Herb Sendek at Arizona State were on the hot seat entering the season. That wasn’t a secret. Both Dawkins and Sendek bought more time with NCAA tourney appearances. Dawkins reached the Big Dance with the help of a few ambitious and hungry upperclassmen (Chasson Randle, Dwight Powell), and the Cardinal’s rally to the Sweet 16 was a stunning development in the NCAA tournament. It was a big win for Dawkins, whose athletic director had demanded improvement before the season. Sendek, meanwhile, signed Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall, a reputable Robin to Jahii Carson’s Batman, but the Sun Devils lost six of their final eight games.

Oregon’s 2-8 stretch midseason didn’t define its season. Transfers Joseph Young and Mike Moser led Dana Altman’s program to 24 wins. The Ducks were ahead by 12 at halftime against Wisconsin before losing in the third round of the tournament.

Colorado’s dreams were deferred when Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending injury in January. The Buffaloes were never the same without him, and a 29-point loss to Pitt in the opening round of the tourney was the final blow in a rough season for Tad Boyle’s crew. Washington finished 9-9 in league play, but that record features more highs and lows. The Huskies, much like the rest of the conference, couldn’t win on the road.

California failed to maintain the swagger it had in that upset win over Arizona in February and ended up in the NIT. Oregon State, Washington State and USC all finished at the bottom of the conference, which wasn’t surprising.

The story of the Pac-12 in 2013-14? The limited separation within the league.

What we expect to see next season: The future is uncertain for a league that could have had an unprecedented seven tournament bids in 2014-15.

Eleven ESPN 100 prospects will enter the league in 2014-15. And the rich will get richer, so the landscape shouldn’t change much.

[+] EnlargeAlford
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsSteve Alford will bring a top-10 recruiting class to UCLA.
Miller lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, but McDonald’s All-American forward Stanley Johnson is a versatile beast who leads the league’s top recruiting class. Plus, Ashley will return from his foot injury along with T.J. McConnell, Kaleb Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson. The Wildcats will contend for the national championship next season, although that would be an easier argument to make if Johnson had decided to return.

Anderson and Zach LaVine left Los Angeles, but Alford adds elite big man Kevon Looney (No. 12 recruit in 2014 class, per RecruitingNation) and 6-foot-11 Californian Thomas Welsh (36th). They’re more talented and athletic than the Wear twins, but Anderson’s departure and the fact that Alford doesn’t have a clear point guard right now makes it difficult to assess UCLA’s potential. A strong nucleus returns, however.

There are questions in Eugene, too. The Ducks return one of the most talented backcourt trios (Young, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis) in America. Without Mike Moser, what will they do inside, though?

Stanford is in a position to rise in the league after its Sweet 16 run. Reid Travis (27th overall prospect) leads Dawkins’ most fruitful recruiting class, and three of his top five scorers from last season, including Randle, will return. Utah could surge, too. Krystkowiak had only one senior on the Utes’ roster last season.

Things looked brighter for Colorado before Dinwiddie entered the NBA draft. But Boyle will still have a strong group returning, and point guard prospect Dominique Collier could evolve into the young floor leader his program needs.

Cuonzo Martin replaces Mike Montgomery at Cal. The good news? A strong group of players are back. The bad news? He won’t have Justin Cobbs and top rebounder Richard Solomon.

Andy Enfield signed a top-25 recruiting class, but his USC squad, which finished last in the Pac-12 last season, also lost its top two scorers (Byron Wesley will transfer and Pe’Shon Howard graduated). Former Oregon coach Ernie Kent will attempt to change the culture of a Washington State squad that finished 3-15 in Pac-12 play.

Nigel Williams-Goss made the right decision to return to Washington for his sophomore season, but that alone won’t be enough to make Washington a contender in the league. Arizona State could also struggle next season without Carson, Marshall and Jordan Bachynski.

There’s talent coming, but more is leaving.

Although the Pac-12 will boast a handful of teams that will warrant NCAA tourney consideration, it won’t be as deep as it was this past season.
Through five years of basketball under Johnny Dawkins, Stanford went unnoticed on the sport’s biggest stage, failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament after a Sweet 16 appearance in the season before the coach’s arrival.

You could argue it’s been more of the same for Stanford through the first weekend of this tournament, despite upset wins as a No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed New Mexico and No. 2 seed Kansas.

[+] EnlargeChasson Randle
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesGuard Chasson Randle, who has averaged 18.7 points per game this season, and the No. 10 seed Cardinal take on No. 11 seed Dayton on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.
Dramatic finishes at other sites overshadowed the round-of-64 victory. And headlines from Sunday focused more on the circumstances of the second-seeded Jayhawks’ early departure than on what the Cardinal did to force it.

Stanford held star KU freshman Andrew Wiggins to four points on 1-of-6 shooting.

Give Stanford some credit here, primarily senior forward Josh Huestis, a three-time member of the Pac-12 all-defensive team who handled Wiggins for most of the game.

“I challenged him,” Dawkins said of Huestis, “and I thought he really responded. He did a great job defending.”

Stanford, in its first tournament appearance since 2008, remains content to fly under the radar as it prepares for a South Regional semifinal meeting Thursday against No. 11 seed Dayton. The Flyers have grabbed attention already with wins over sixth-seeded Ohio State and No. 3 seed Syracuse. Florida, the top seed overall in the tourney, and UCLA fill out the field in Memphis, Tenn.

Stanford again might go overlooked -- unless, of course, it wins two more games and advances to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

Don’t count out the Cardinal. Their steady style of play figures to create problems, starting with a frontcourt of 6-foot-7 Huestis, 6-10 senior forward Dwight Powell and 6-11 junior center Stefan Nastic.

Stanford is long and versatile. It beat the Jayhawks without making a 3-point field goal (0-of-9).

Floor general Chasson Randle, who scored a team-high 36 total points in the second- and third-round games, adds an element of creativity. And 6-6 wing Anthony Brown provides another athletic option. He hit five free throws in the final 44 seconds against Kansas.

Powell and Huestis rank atop Stanford’s career chart in games played. Experience, although not in the NCAA tournament -- Stanford won the National Invitation Tournament in 2012 -- has helped carry the Cardinal.

“We’re still in the race,” Powell said, “We’re still playing in March, and it feels great.”

Stanford entered the tournament on something of a roller coaster. It lost 84-59 to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal round after three straight wins that had followed three straight losses dating to Feb. 26.

“Every season is like a lifetime,” Powell said. “Obviously, you will have your ups and downs. But from day one, before we even started preseason, we always had a goal to make the tournament and make a run. And we never lost sight of that and lost hope.”

Stanford did lose firepower. Forward Andy Brown, who started 20 games last season as a freshman, has missed the entire season with a knee injury; guard Christian Sanders has sat out with a hip injury.

Additionally, guard Aaron Bright, a 22-game starter in 2012-13, missed all but the first seven games, and forward Rosco Allen went down early in the season.

As a result, the starters accounted for more than 85 percent of Stanford’s scoring through the regular season. Against New Mexico and Kansas, they scored 107 of 118 points.

Count Kansas coach Bill Self among the admirers of Dawkins and the job he has done to rebuild Stanford over six years.

“He epitomizes class,” Self said before Kansas faced Stanford. “He conducts himself in that way, and he always has.

“He was a great hire that Stanford made, and he's going to continue to do well. And everybody in our business that knows Johnny is happy for him.”

Also before that game, Wiggins and Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. unintentionally provided extra motivation for Stanford as reporters asked them a series of questions about Randle at the practice-day news conference.

The KU freshmen had no answer, other than a few uncomfortable laughs. Clearly, they weren’t familiar with the name of the Cardinal’s top playmaker -- understandable because the Jayhawks had yet to receive scouting reports from their coaches, but apropos, nonetheless, considering the Cardinal’s somewhat unnoticed run to the Sweet 16.

Randle said after the landmark victory, in which he scored 13 points with six steals in 40 minutes, that he watched footage of the news conference.

“I took it as a challenge,” Randle said. “So did my teammates. It wasn’t just a stab at me. It was a stab at our team.”

Noticed or not, the Cardinal are marching forward.

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