College Basketball Nation: Arizona

Previewing the Pac-10 tournament

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
10:30
PM ET
The Pac-10 tournament this year features nine unranked teams, and for those not named Cal, it’s either win or go home.

A sense of desperation will be felt during every game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles because for many, their postseasons depend entirely on winning the title.

After failing to impress in November and December, and then beating each other during conference play, the Pac-10 is looking like a two-bid conference. With that amount of parity, there is plenty of hope for a surprise team to emerge and punch its NCAA tournament ticket.

“There’s definitely a number of teams that can,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

And that’s exciting, right?

Storylines

The Pac-10 couldn’t really be a one-bid conference, could it? Crazier things have happened, but if Arizona State and Washington lose their quarterfinal games, and regular-season champ Cal takes the title, there you have it. Can a power-six conference, that has struggled to replace players lost to the NBA, get two or three teams in the NCAA tournament?

Arizona, short of winning the tournament, will have its streak of 25 years of making the NCAA tournament snapped. Senior guard Nic Wise has proven his ability to make game-ending shots, and Miller’s talented freshmen could very well come of age during this event. Even if No. 4-seeded Arizona falters during its quarterfinal against No. 5 UCLA, the future is bright.

Cal might have captured its first regular-season title in 50 years, but the Bears can improve their seeding with another title, and quiet doubters who say they merely took advantage of a weak conference. The experienced seniors in the lineup will have something to say about that.

Players to watch

Jerome Randle, G, Cal, Sr. -- Randle, listed at 5-foot-10, was named the conference’s player of the year and is the heart and soul of the Bears. The point guard can hit the deep three, drive the lane and feed the ball to his teammates.

Quincy Pondexter, F, Washington, Sr. -- Second in scoring and third in rebounding in the Pac-10, Pondexter can do a little bit of everything. He’ll be looking to extend the Huskies’ season for as long as he can before heading to the NBA draft.

Derrick Williams, F, Arizona, Fr. -- A native of the Los Angeles area, Williams takes home with him the conference’s freshman of the year award and is the face of the team’s future. A big tournament would generate plenty of preseason hype.

Team to watch

Washington -- The Huskies haven’t exactly met their preseason expectations as defending conference champions, but now it’s the end of the season and they find themselves on a four-game winning streak and with 21 wins. Their last three wins have come on the road after struggling mightily away from Seattle in the early going. An impressive tournament could garner the No. 3-seeded team an at-large bid.

Game I’m looking forward to

A potential Arizona State-Washington semifinal could make all the difference in deciding which of the two teams would merit an at-large berth if they ended up not winning the tournament title. They split in the regular season, with 22-win ASU finishing a game ahead in the standings to take the No. 2 seed.

Saddle Up is our nightly preview of the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Thursday's rundown.

Tulsa at No. 5 Duke, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Hey, Dad, I can't see real good. Is that -- waves glasses up and down face -- is that a nonconference game I see over there? Why, yes, Matt Foley, it is: Those of you who thought we were done with any and all nonconference fun until the NCAA tournament were wrong. Instead, Tulsa will head to Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight to play Duke. Why does this game exist? Two reasons: 1) Because Coach K wanted a late-season nonconference game to help prepare his team for the NCAA tournament, and 2) because Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik wants his team to experience playing an elite team in a hostile road environment.

Both missions will be accomplished. The slightly disappointing Golden Hurricane will get their experience and a long-shot chance to do what no team has done this year (beat Duke at home) or in 77 tries (beat Duke at home in a nonconference game). Duke will put Tulsa through the meat grinder in the name of tournament preparation. Both parties will go home happy. The only way to change this status quo -- and maybe the only way for Tulsa to get in the tournament, with a big emphasis on the maybe (and barring the C-USA tournament, of course) -- is for it to pull off an shocker-of-the-season-level upset. But don't hold your breath.

South Carolina at No. 2 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The only reason Kentucky isn't, as of Feb. 25, sitting at 27-0 and dealing with writers like me trying to put into perspective how impressive that run is, and how likely the Cats are to finish a perfect season, and so on and so forth, is South Carolina. More specifically, Devan Downey. The diminutive guard and his cohorts dealt Kentucky its only loss of the season on Jan. 26. Of course, that game was in Columbia, where the Gamecocks are game. Away from home, South Carolina is an ugly 1-8, and tonight's match up requires Downey and company to play in front of 24,000 screaming Kentucky fans, a far cry from the last time these two faced off. That alone would lend to a blowout tonight; add in Kentucky's reborn focus in recent weeks and its likely desire to punish South Carolina for dealing John Wall and company that lone loss and, well, yeah. Things could get ugly.

Everywhere else: Mike Montgomery will hope Cal fans show up to tonight's game with Arizona, as the Bears can inch closer to their first conference title in 50 years. ... Santa Clara will go to Gonzaga for tonight's late West Coast showdown. ... Wisconsin travels to all-but-dead Indiana; for seeding purposes, the Badgers can't afford another letdown. ... Iowa-Northwestern is your early ESPN game, and don't try to hide your excitement, either. ... Georgia will look to climb back to .500 at Vanderbilt; good luck. ... and, this being Thursday night, there are a host of Pac-10 games that (other than Cal-Zona, I guess) don't mean a whole lot more than which team gets which seed in the Pac-10 tournament, when the real anarchic fun ought to begin.
  • That's the argument made by Mike Miller at NBC. Most fans are probably noticing that Duke-North Carolina doesn't have the same flair in 2010 as it usually does, and that's for obvious reasons: The Tar Heels aren't very good. At 13-10 overall and 2-6 in the ACC, UNC has squandered a wealth of a talent and a high preseason ranking, and most sane predictions would have Duke rolling over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill tonight. Then again, Duke isn't the best road team in the world, and it's not like North Carolina lacks talent. So hey, maybe Mike's right. Maybe this thing is a classic. We can hope, can't we?
  • Similarly, Stewart Mandel argues that despite a loss of luster, Duke-UNC's stakes "couldn't be higher."
  • Much has been made of Duke's "decline" this year. After the Georgetown loss, the buzz was that Duke wasn't dominant anymore, and thus wasn't fun to hate. (You would think it would be more fun to hate a team that's not playing well; you get to point and laugh far more frequently. But I guess not.) In any case, UNC fan blog Carolina March actually dug up a decade's worth of tempo-free numbers and examined this so-called decline. Disclaimer: This is a UNC blog discussing Duke, so don't expect an unbiased analysis. But the numbers do speak for themselves.
  • Want the inside scoop on Arizona's NCAA violations? Here's your must-read.
  • John Calipari posted a Twitpic (something the youngs do when they're sharing photos online, or something) depicting John Wall sitting down for a Slam photo shoot in a blatantly mispelled Kentucky jersey. Rather than the normal spelling, the state is spelled "K-e-n-t-c-u-k-y," which would be very difficult for a play-by-play announcer to pronounce. The reason? Calipari wanted to test Kentucky fans' powers of observation. They're apparently better than mine, because it took me like five minutes to figure out what letters were misspelled. I need a Red Bull.
  • Gonzaga fans are loving the re-emergence of the Zags' big men.
  • Kyle Whelliston writes a typically excellent essay on the importance of a coach's name on the floor, and how that importance weighs against the celebrity status of the average major-college coach in 2010.
  • Speaking of "typically excellent," Mr. Mark Titus has a new blog post today. Are you excited? I know you're excited. Prepare for passages like this: "For the past few years, I’ve been told by various people throughout the Ohio State basketball program that I 'don’t do anything', and by various people I obviously mean Evan “The Villain” Turner. This idea stems from the fact that I’m not called upon to stay after practice and shoot extra shots, I don’t have to do all the drills the scholarship guys are required to do, and I’m really not expected to contribute in any way. I see where The Villain is coming from, but still, I like to think that putting up 19 points in a 90 minute practice last year counts as me doing something, not to mention the various other instances over the past few years in which I’ve been virtually unguardable." And that's only the first paragraph.
  • The CAA is kicking into high gear, and CAA Hoops has devised what I consider to be a awesome aptitude for alliteration. They're calling it "the official CAA Season Shaper Stretch." It rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?
  • The Quad has a full rundown of crucial mid-major conference games you should be paying attention to Wednesday night.
  • Dan Hanner asks: Why did Wisconsin abandon the interior so quickly against Illinois? The Badgers are usually preternaturally patient, and when the shots aren't falling, they're well-coached enough to use that swing offense to get post looks from block-to-block screens. And yet, after being punched in the mouth early by Illinois, they didn't do that. Weird.
  • Sidney Lowe may or may not survive this season at NC State -- his ability to get some serious competition out of a team most picked to finish last in the ACC bears some consideration in that decision -- but if he does, his group of young players could be dancing again, writes Jeff Goodman.
  • South Carolina's Devan Downey was held out of Tuesday's practice, but it looks like he'll be ready to play Florida tonight. I'm sure the Gators are thrilled.
  • Oh, in case you were wondering, Connecticut interim coach George Blaney will be coaching at Syracuse this evening. Blaney has no idea when Calhoun will return.
  • Jarvis Varnado is steadily closing in on the NCAA's all-time blocks record; Joe Lemire details the march.
  • And from the ESPN section of the college hoops world, be sure to check out Pat Forde's latest Minutes, which includes a rather awesome list of the best and worst cities in college basketball. Also see: Andy Katz's quick hitters from a snow-logged travel session Monday, Dana O'Neil's live chat at 2 p.m. ET today.
As always, follow me on Twitter to send me links and tips. Try to avoid the midwestern earthquakes.

Arizona goes on probation

February, 5, 2010
2/05/10
3:39
PM ET
Arizona announced today self-imposed sanctions due to NCAA violations related to a letter being sent by former coach Lute Olson to the Rebounders booster club asking for donations to support a 2008 AAU tournament held on campus.

From the press release:
The UA announced it will place its basketball program on probation for the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 seasons, relinquish one scholarship for the 2011-12 academic year, reduce the number of days coaches are allowed to recruit for the next two seasons, reduce the number of official campus visits allowed by prospects and reduce the number of coaches allowed to recruit off campus at one time for summer 2010 recruiting. The NCAA may modify these self-imposed sanctions.

Additionally, the University has disbanded the Rebounders Board of Directors and undertaken a number of administrative and rules education changes.

The release details other allegations the NCAA is making, and final resolution to those charges is next expected until the middle of this year.

One allegation contends Olson misled an NCAA compliance officer during the investigation and that he "failed to...promote an atmosphere of compliance."

The school's release notes that Olson was going through health problems at the time and "had suffered a stroke that affected his decision-making abilities."

According to the release, The NCAA also questions whether or not the school failed to monitor the program since an associate athletic director was present during at least one Rebounders club meeting and did not immediately recognize or report the violation.

ESPN's Andy Katz spoke to Olson in October 2008.

"I think that was my fault," Olson said. "That wasn't anyone else's fault. It was my error and it was a big error. But I guess in 26 years you are allowed to make a mistake once in a while anyway and that's not to say I haven't made a lot of them but in terms of that, that was a big mistake on my part."

Saddle Up: Time to test Tech

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
3:59
PM ET
Saddle Up is our nightly preview of the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Oh, come on. You can always record the new "Parks and Recreation." Catch it after the games! Anyway, here's Thursday night's rundown.

No. 19 Georgia Tech at No. 9 Duke, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Purdue's rivalry showdown with Indiana will be on the main network tonight, but those of you unconcerned with Midwestern hoops provincialism will probably be more interested in this. It's a good one: Georgia Tech toppled Duke back before Duke's road woes were an apparent problem, back when Duke's record matched its gaudy efficiency numbers. Since then, Georgia Tech has become even more confusing: Is this the team that loses at Virginia? Or the team that wins at UNC? And what does a tight road loss at Florida State, followed by an all-cylinders-pumping home blowout of Wake Forest really mean? I have no idea. Georgia Tech is an enigma -- a dynamic squad with enough young talent (look no further than freshman Derrick Favors here) to compete for the ACC title, but who has put it all together once or twice thus far. Tonight's a legitimate chance for the Jackets to show us who they really are. Win at Duke, and the rest is gravy.

No. 7 Purdue at Indiana, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: You've already heard plenty about What It All Means, what the rivalry says about the state of Indiana, and why, despite the Hoosiers' post-Kelvin Sampson morass, this is still a hot ticket in the Midwest. You'll no doubt hear plenty more of it tonight. For now, let's focus on the hoops. Since dropping three in a row to start the Big Ten season, Purdue has rattled off four straight wins. Much has been made of Purdue's lack of a "true" point guard, but the Boilermakers' best quality is that they never turn the ball over; they're the No. 7 team in the country in that all-important tally.

Purdue is also more than capable at turning other teams over, and that just so happens to be Indiana's worst quality -- the Hoosiers give the ball away on 22.3 percent of their possessions. Indiana is not as incapable of upset wins as last year. If the Hoosiers keep turnovers low and make enough shots to keep Purdue within striking distance, they have a chance. And hey, the home crowd never hurts; Indiana is much better in Assembly Hall than it is away from it. Still no one would expect Indiana to win this game, and the numbers back that up. The Boilermakers are tough, physical, and experienced, all qualities IU is still figuring out. This is a great rivalry, to be sure. Whether this year's version will live up to that history is less certain.

Everywhere else: You would have been forgiven for thinking Tennessee's season was effectively over after the Tyler Smith fiasco; you, me, and everyone else would have been wrong. The Vols are still in the Top 25, still fighting for the SEC title and still a viable NCAA tourney team. They'll try to keep their surprising run going with a visit to LSU, which has a chance to prove its not actually the worst major conference team in the country. ... Portland is one of Gonzaga's few fellow contenders in the WCC; pity for the Pilots they're stuck playing Gonzaga just after the Zags dropped their first conference game of the year. ... Butler welcomes a surprisingly tough Detroit team to Indianapolis; the return of former Indiana characters Eli Holman (who famously threw a potted plant in Tom Crean's office) and coach Ray McCallum should be interesting. ... Maryland will try to get back to its early ACC form with a tough road visit to Florida State. ... How could it possibly get any worse for UNC? Losing to Virginia Tech and going to 2-5 in the ACC would be a start. ... Finally, in the Pac-10, Cal will travel to USC and attempt to get a game up on Arizona in the conference standings; meanwhile, Arizona will have a daunting task at Washington.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best basketball action. Try not to make it awkward.

No. 6 West Virginia 70, No. 21 Pittsburgh 51: Who wants to go play in Morgantown? Not me. Granted, I am not a college basketball team, so I don't have to worry about that. If I was an opposing team, though, I would officially see the angry fans -- the people who threw spare change onto the court (make it rain!) as Pitt rebounded and closed the deficit last night, prompting Bob Huggins to grab the microphone and tell fans "that's stupid" -- and I would get a little nervous. But the real cause for concern is the Mountaineers themselves. West Virginia is officially finding its stride. Huggins' group has won five straight over Big East foes in consistent and overpowering ways, especially on the offensive glass -- WVU grabbed 57.6 percent of its misses on offense last night, leading to a variety of second-chance buckets and putbacks, and that's the key right there. That's how West Virginia wins. They don't have to shoot the ball all that well. They just have to rebound. If you can stop them, you can win, but good luck: No one's figured it out yet.

Pittsburgh shouldn't be too discouraged by this result, which started OK and then got ugly after the half. (Speaking of ugly and true to its name, the Backyard Brawl included some mild brawl-like occurrences late in the game.) Why? Because the Panthers never really found their shot, and despite a high number of free throws and plenty of offensive rebounds of their own, the lack of shooting wasn't enough. It should correct itself in time. That might not make Jamie Dixon, whose team has now lost four of its last five, feel any better. But it's true.

No. 1 Kansas 72, Colorado 66: I barely previewed this game in Saddle Up, and that tiny mention was merely this: "New No. 1 Kansas will try to avoid the fate of last week's No. 1 when it hits the road for a meeting with a marginal conference opponent." Lesson learned: Don't sleep on marginal conference opponents at home. Of course I knew this already, but sometimes it takes a little reminder, and last night's thrilling back-and-forth in Boulder (my third favorite college town of all-time, and I've only been there for like three hours) was all that and more.

Part of me wants to say I knew Colorado had this in them -- the Buffs were pesky against Gonzaga and Arizona in Maui in November, after all. But I didn't. Rather, I expected Kansas to take control of the No. 1 seed and avoid the road pitfalls that have so frequently plagued other No. 1s this year. Oh well. The Jayhawks weren't at their finest, and Colorado deserves credit for finding a way to hang in despite not really beating Kansas in any particular phase of the game, but after Colorado missed its last-second opportunity in regulation, you had to figure Kansas would overpower the Buffaloes in overtime. So it did, and so it stays. But at least it was interesting on the way down.

South Florida 72, No. 8 Georgetown 64: "Y'all come watch Dominique Jones play!" That was the sentence screamed from Georgetown's court by -- who else? --Dominique Jones Wednesday night, just after Jones scored 22 of his 29 points in the second half to give South Florida its biggest win in program history. Um, you guys? Maybe we should listen to him. If you caught any glimpse of the game last night, or if you've seen Jones in the past, you know: Jones is an occasionally dominating college basketball player, a guy with skills to isolate the ball at the top of the key but the size outrebound and physically dominate smaller defenders. Check out the move he makes at the -0:15 mark in these highlights. Strength, size, speed and skill, all melded into one. Watch him play. He wasn't joking.

Everywhere else: Running out of words in a hurry, so let's go to the lightning round: UAB will have to wait to take full control of Conference USA, as Memphis topped the Blazers by 10 and pulled itself into a tie for the conference lead. ... Vanderbilt got a major late challenge from Mississippi State; Jarvis Varnado had another ho-hum nine-block effort. ... Northern Iowa hung on at home over Wichita State, avenging its earlier loss in Wichita and moving to 11-1 in the Missouri Valley. ... Evan Turner line watch: 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and three steals (!!). ... Baylor cruised over Iowa State at home. ... Georgia State handed George Mason its second conference loss, moving Jim Larranaga's squad to 10-2 in the CAA and making a conference tournament win a must.
You may have noticed Thursday night's Oregon State score. If not, prepare eyeballs for widening sequence, initiating in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... : Stanford 59, Oregon State 35.

35! By any measure, that's a low, low number. (Give me nine holes of golf and I'll easily double it.) When you consider that Oregon State and Stanford shared 60 possessions, it becomes even more baffling. Sixty possessions? To score 35 points? What on Earth happened in Palo Alto Thursday night?

A quick look at the Four Factors renders an explanation immediately evident: Oregon State didn't rebound. Like, at all. Sure, the Beavers did plenty of other things badly, too. Their effective field goal percentage was a paltry 39 percent. They never got to the free throw line, and they turned the ball over on 32.2 percent of their possessions. Any of these things is more than enough reason to lose a basketball game. But when you combine them with the rebounding on hand, it makes it even worse. Oregon State's offensive rebounding rate? 11.1 percent. Stanford's? 42.4.

That means that while Oregon State was failing to rebound any of its own misses -- which were plentiful, provided OSU hadn't turned the ball over already -- the Beavers were getting absolutely hammered on the defensive end, giving Stanford second chances over and over again. That, folks, is how you end up with 35 points in a 60 possession game: You do everything really badly, and one thing apocalyptically. In fact, that's probably the best word for OSU's rebounding effort last night. Apocalyptic.

Of course, this isn't the first time Oregon State has tossed up an absolute stinker; its blowout loss at the hands of Seattle earlier this season is still the high-water mark for how low this team can go. But here's the thing: Oregon State isn't that bad! They can beat Oregon at Oregon. They can beat Arizona. They can play decent, perfectly respectable basketball, and they do so with some measure of frequency.

And then they lose, and when they lose, oh man. They lose. Inconsistency is one thing. This is just weird.
The Pac-10 is horrendous this year, right? Like, it isn't just bad in a conventional sense, as it relates to the Big-12 and Big-10 and Big East and ACC. It's historically bad. Or at least that's the common consensus early in the 2009-10 season. With the exception of USC and Washington and maybe (maybe) Cal, you're not going to find much to love out West this year.

That's a fair assessment, sort of. But maybe the Pac-10 isn't as historically bad as most people think. That's the verdict from Basketball Prospectus' Ken Pomeroy (warning: slightly overlong blockquote ahead):

But I’ll submit that to find a worse Pac-10 season, one need not go back too far. I nominate 2004, a season when only four teams in the league finished with a winning record overall. Three teams got bids, putting together a total of one NCAA tournament victory, which came at the expense of a 16-seed. I expect the reason that the ‘04 season gets lost is because Stanford and Arizona were ranked in the top ten for most of the season. Stanford, as you may remember, won the regular-season title and earned a one-seed in the tourney. That was the year that the Cardinal made it to the final game of the regular season before incurring their first loss. Stanford had a great year, but there’s a little bit of the chicken-or-egg situation here. Their undefeated run was partly fueled by a weak conference and that their second-toughest conference game was also the last one on the schedule. [...] Even though there will be no unbeaten in the Pac-10 this season, Cal and Washington may well be as good as the Cardinal were in ’04, and USC seems to have firmed up a nice portfolio in recent days, no? Yes, this season’s Pac-10 is below average by power conference standards, but the odds are in its favor to equal the number of bids from ’04 and certainly to exceed the number of tournament wins from that season.

Why does the Pac-10 feel so much worse in 2009-10 than it has in years past? After all, Pomeroy's argument is pretty airtight; 2004 was a much worse year for the conference overall, but no one seems to talk about it, at least not anymore. I submit that it has to do with UCLA's recent dominance and the conference's overall improvement in recent years. But without Arizona and UCLA near the top of the conference -- and with USC supposedly in post-Tim Floyd hell (though that hasn't really worked out as such thus far) -- the whole conference just feels deflated. But not as deflated as in years past.

Somewhere in here, there's a Klosterman-esque argument to be made about reality, perception, and the incessant, inaccurate merging of the two. For now, let's just be thankful stats exist. They tend to make things a little easier, don't they?

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