Grab your flasks, Arizona fans, because this is about to get depressing. You’ve been warned.
And for everyone else: Have you realized how brutal the NCAA tournament has been to Arizona over the past 12 years?
I know — every team has its heart ripped out in the tournament. Villanova and Iowa State always end up playing the eventual national champion in the early rounds. Roy Williams can’t beat Kansas. Texas A&M had the Darrel Mitchell bomb, the Acie Law missed layup followed by a million Memphis offensive rebounds, the UCLA hack job on Donald Sloan, and CHRIS F’ING KRAMER all happen in a span of five years. In a four-year stretch, Gonzaga had that classic double-overtime loss to Arizona when Blake Stepp had shots to win at the end of regulation and in both OTs, a two-point loss to Texas Tech, and THE game that comes to mind when you think of Gonzaga’s tournament disappointments. Ohio State’s last six March Madness losses have come by a combined 14 points. You could probably do this for a ton of teams.
I’ll do it with Arizona. (Go ahead and take another swig, Zona fans.) Since losing the 2001 national championship game to Duke, Arizona has been to the Elite Eight four times. Each trip ended with a one-possession loss in which Arizona had the final possession. In 2003, the 1-seed Wildcats lost to Kansas by three when Jason Gardner’s desperation 3 hit the back of the rim. In 2005 … um … yeah. In 2011, Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne each missed decent looks at what would’ve been game-winning 3-pointers in the Cats’ loss to eventual national champion UConn. Finally, there was last season’s one-point loss to Wisconsin when Nick Johnson couldn’t get a shot off at the buzzer. Four trips to the Final Four on the line, four empty possessions to end the game, and four losses by a combined seven points, with two coming in overtime. Oof.
All signs point to this year being the one when Arizona bucks the trend and gets Sean Miller to his first Final Four. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, the Pac-12 projects as a stronger conference than we’ve seen in recent years. Arizona is the only obvious national title contender, and Utah is the only other team to crack the AP preseason Top 25, but the Pac-12 should be more competitive than East Coasters probably care to admit. UCLA, Colorado, and Stanford all look good enough to win at least one NCAA tournament game this season. Throw in wild-card teams like Cal (Cuonzo Martin has some talent to work with), Oregon (assuming it still has five eligible players come March), and Washington (Lorenzo Romar has a potential first-round pick in his backcourt, so there’s no way he’ll screw that up, right?) and it’s impossible to disregard the Pac-12 as just “Arizona and some other teams.”
The Top Three Teams
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Get ready to have this beaten into your ears for the next five months: “Kentucky has the deepest and most talented team in America, but Arizona has the best starting five.”
That’s completely true, by the way. Kentucky’s 10 best players are much better than any other team’s 10 best, but I’m pretty sure that basketball is played with only five guys from each team on the court at one time. And if we’re looking at just the top five players, no program can touch the experience and talent of T.J. McConnell, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, and Zeus “Zeus” Zeuszeuski. So, which matters more — having the most depth or having the best starting five?
If you read my SEC preview, you know I’m not a believer in the platoon substitution scheme John Calipari has said he’ll use at Kentucky. I think it’s just classic Cal marketing spin: It’s no secret that Kentucky is the place to be in college basketball. But now we have so much talent that I can’t keep everyone happy unless I use this platoon system. It’s crazy, but what else can I do?! IT’S SO HARD BEING SO GOOD, YOU GUYS! Chances are, the platoon plan will be dead by the end of January. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Cal shortened his rotation to eight or nine players by the time March Madness rolled around.
But let’s pretend that Kentucky’s platoon strategy will last until April, and that Calipari will have 10 players all logging about 20 minutes per game. Let’s also assume that Arizona’s starters all average about 30 minutes a game, with Gabe York and Elliott Pitts splitting the remaining minutes. Which team has an advantage?
Well, in the last 30 years, seven teams have won national titles by playing only five players 15 or more minutes in the championship game: 1985 Villanova, 1987 Indiana, 1990 UNLV, 1992 Duke, 1994 Arkansas, 2006 Florida, and 2010 Duke. Meanwhile, no team in the last 30 years has even attempted to play nine or more guys 15-plus minutes in the title game, let alone do that and win a national championship. And only one team in that span — 1997 Arizona — has won the title game by playing eight players 15 or more minutes. This means that lack of depth won’t be as big a problem for Arizona as it’s being made out to be and that Kentucky’s 10-deep roster won’t be a great advantage for the Wildcats.
Of course, Kentucky fans probably believe that just proves this year’s team is special — they could be the first modern-era national champions to go 10-deep. Maybe. For now, I’m siding with history: It’s better to have the best group of five players than to have the deepest team. Kentucky is insanely talented and deserves its no. 1 ranking, but don’t let all of the hype coming out of Lexington fool you — this year’s national title isn’t necessarily Kentucky’s to lose.
Elsewhere in the Pac-12, Utah should have its best team since Andrew Bogut’s 2005 Sweet 16 heyday. And these Utes may even be the best since the 1998 team with Michael Doleac, Andre Miller, and Hanno Mottola, who lost Keith Van Horn to the NBA the year before and were five minutes away from college basketball’s most notable Ewing Theory case since Cincinnati in 1961.1 The Utes return their top six scorers and their top four rebounders, and they lost only one player (Princeton Onwas) who averaged more than 15 minutes per game last season. Most importantly, the Utes return dark-horse national player of the year candidate Delon Wright. I know it’s hard to keep all the games in ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon straight, but please make sure you don’t miss Utah at San Diego State. I don’t want to bang my head against a wall all year as I recruit passengers for the Delon Wright bandwagon.
I remember falling asleep during the 1998 national title game (calm down — I was 10) when Utah was up seven with 10 minutes left because Kentucky just couldn’t get over the hump. I woke up an hour later to see Kentucky celebrating an easy win. I’m still not sure what happened, but I’ve heard rumors that, to this day, anytime there’s complete silence in the Alamodome, you can hear Utah’s buttholes tighten from when Kentucky turned up the defensive pressure. Also, speaking of Kentucky, Utah, and heartbreaking NCAA tournament streaks, here’s your reminder that Utah lost to Kentucky in the 1996 Sweet 16, 1997 Elite Eight, and 1998 national title game.
The race for third in the Pac-12 this season is a toss-up. Stanford returns three starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Colorado’s only loss is Spencer Dinwiddie, and the Buffaloes played the second half of last season without him anyway. (Then again, the Buffs were 9-9 without Dinwiddie, or 9-10 if you count the game in which Dinwiddie tore his ACL, since they were winning when he got injured but ended up losing by 17.) I like UCLA to finish third, though, because I believe in Norman Powell and Tony Parker, and because Kevon Looney is the best recruit in the country that nobody is talking about.
Best College Player: Delon Wright (Utah)
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Here’s the list of players who averaged 15-plus points, five-plus rebounds, five-plus assists, two-plus steals, and one-plus blocks per game in all of D-I basketball last season:
I’ll admit it’s not hard to come up with a set of parameters that makes any player seem way better than he actually is. But I don’t think that applies in this case, since these are major, straightforward statistics with logical cutoff points, and not just Wright’s stats. Those stats, by the way, were 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game.
The only four other players who were even close to these metrics last season were Marcus Smart, Elfrid Payton, Shabazz Napier, and Kyle Anderson. All four were first-round picks in the 2014 NBA draft, and Payton has emerged as an early rookie of the year contender. Go ahead and guess which of those players has a similar body type to Wright’s 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame. Here’s a hint: It’s not the bruiser (Smart), the short and quick guy (Napier), or the tall and lanky guy (Anderson).
What I’m getting at here is this: Last season, Delon Wright was arguably a better version of Payton, a player many NBA observers expect to contend for rookie of the year honors. If he can develop his outside shot — he shot just 22 percent from the 3-point line last year — he will be above average at every single positive thing a player can do on a basketball court. If you’re a fan of the corny “He does everything short of taking the tickets and selling the popcorn!” line that some commentators use, I suggest you DVR a lot of Utah games.
By the way, now seems like a good time to mention that Wright’s production last year came in a stacked year for Pac-12 backcourt talent. Anderson, Zach LaVine (lottery pick), Jordan Adams (first-round pick), Nick Johnson (Pac-12 POY), Justin Cobbs, C.J. Wilcox, Jahii Carson, and Roberto Nelson were all in Pac-12 backcourts last season and have all since moved on from college basketball.
The Delon Wright bandwagon is about to leave the station. This is your final warning.
Best Pro Prospect: Stanley Johnson (Arizona)
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Stanley Johnson is a freshman who was considered a lottery lock before playing a single game of college basketball. You know how I handle these cases by now — let’s see what the first mixtape we find on YouTube tells us about him:
Ummmm … Arizona is adding THAT to a team with a senior point guard and the best frontcourt in college basketball?!?!
I’m sure ESPN has a reason for ranking Johnson seventh in the class of 2014. But holy balls, did you see the explosion? Did you see the handle? Did you see the stroke? DID YOU SEE EVEN FIVE SECONDS OF THAT BECAUSE I DID AND I’M CONFUSED AS TO HOW THERE COULD HAVE BEEN SIX BETTER HIGH SCHOOL PLAYERS THAN JOHNSON.2 Unless every other play of Johnson’s career that didn’t make it onto his mixtape is him tripping over his own feet, I’m baffled as to why there isn’t more hype for him.
Props to Ballislife for that intro sequence, with the “overrated” chant followed by Johnson hitting a clutch, off-the-dribble 3 from like 30 feet away, and then turning to the crowd and nodding while a guy in the opposing student section reacts like he just found out his entire family was murdered. That deserves some sort of award.
You know what — don’t tell me why. I don’t want to know what Johnson’s flaws are. I don’t want to come down from the high that mixtape just put me on. I’d rather just dive headfirst into the Stanley Johnson experience than make an informed decision. So go ahead and drool over Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kelly Oubre, and Cliff Alexander. I’m taking out a second mortgage on my house so I can buy more shares of Stanley Johnson stock.
Most Underrated Player: Xavier Johnson (Colorado)
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I’m guessing that most anyone who’s not a religious follower of Pac-12 basketball doesn’t know much about Xavier Johnson (who, coincidentally, played high school ball with Stanley Johnson, although they aren’t related). I mean, Colorado wasn’t exactly a marquee team last season. Sure, the Buffaloes were good, but not good enough for casual fans to pay attention to their fourth-leading scorer. And Johnson was inconsistent before Spencer Dinwiddie’s injury in January. So during the first half of the season, even when a Colorado game piqued the general public’s interest, there was no telling what kind of performance they would see from Johnson.3
Colorado’s biggest games with Dinwiddie in the lineup last season were against Baylor, Harvard, Colorado State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Oregon. Johnson fouled out of the Baylor game, had 11 points and six boards in the Harvard game, went oh-fer in the Colorado State game, had 14 points and six boards in the Kansas game, went 1-of-5 against Oklahoma State, and went for 15 and seven (but fouled out) in the Oregon game.
But once Colorado lost Dinwiddie, Johnson became a different player. He picked up for Dinwiddie’s abandoned scoring load with an additional three points per game. But it wasn’t that he was just more aggressive — he also became much more consistent. In Colorado’s first game without Dinwiddie, Johnson scored just two points. After that, the only other time Johnson didn’t finish in double figures for the rest of the season was when he went 1-for-10 against Arizona. He might have brought that on himself by saying that the Cats “[weren’t] that good” after Colorado’s first meeting with them.
Once Colorado’s star went down, Johnson seemed to just relax and play basketball, and he had a confidence — and maybe even a cockiness — that wasn’t there previously. The Buffs should make the NCAA tournament this season with Josh Scott and Askia Booker leading the way, but if Xavier Johnson plays as well as he can, Colorado might even be the second-best team in the Pac-12.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career: T.J. McConnell (Arizona)
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Hang on. I need to pack my car real quick so I can jump in and hit the gas after I write this. I want to be out of Ohio by the time the mob forms outside my house.
All right, here we go: T.J. McConnell is a better version of Aaron Craft.
Aaaaaand now I can never go back to the house I just took out a second mortgage on so I could buy Stanley Johnson stock. Probably didn’t think that one all the way through.
As a former Ohio State walk-on, I promise I’m not trying to boost my credibility by voicing an opinion that will be unpopular in Columbus. I honestly thought McConnell was a more polished, more complete version of Craft last season. Maybe this is because McConnell’s teammates were multiple NBA players and Craft’s were Lenzelle Smith and LaQuinton Ross. We’ll never know. (I actually think both Craft and McConnell would’ve been better off individually if they’d switched teams.) But it’s fair to say that McConnell is only a marginally worse defender than Craft was, while McConnell’s offensive game is far more advanced than Craft’s was.
This is worth noting because Craft came much closer to making an NBA roster this year than every non–Ohio State fan expected. It means that in the right situation, McConnell could find his way into the league. He’s as good a perimeter defender as you’ll find anywhere in America, and he’s got great court vision. He still needs to improve his shooting, however. For Arizona to win a national title this season, McConnell has to shoot more and shoot better.
Don’t get me wrong — McConnell is capable of knocking down shots. Arizona didn’t really need his scoring last season; he could play the role of facilitator and shoot when he was left open. This season, though, he needs to be a scorer. Between Stanley Johnson and Brandon Ashley’s return from injury, the Wildcats can make up for the loss of Aaron Gordon, but Arizona will rely on McConnell, Gabe York, and Elliott Pitts to replace Nick Johnson’s scoring.
Even more importantly, McConnell is the Arizona perimeter player who’ll be called upon to provide the intangibles that Nick Johnson brought to last year’s Cats. McConnell has to be the veteran guard who takes over at the end of close games. When Arizona finds itself in a do-or-die situation with time running out, Sean Miller has to be able to put the ball in McConnell’s hands and know that McConnell is going to … well … fail to get a shot off before the buzzer, I guess? You know what I mean — Nick Johnson was the heart and soul of Arizona. McConnell has to be that guy for this year’s team, which means he can’t simply let the game come to him anymore. He needs to make his presence felt on both ends of the floor. He’s already a sure thing on defense. Arizona fans are hoping his offense isn’t far behind.
Most Frustrating Player: Joseph Young (Oregon)
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This is a prediction more than a reflection on last season. Sure, some Oregon fans believe Joseph Young shot too much last year and point to the Ducks going 1-4 in games in which Young scored 29 points or more as proof. I’ll agree it would be promising to see Young get his teammates going before looking for his own shots. But he’s a 6-foot-2 guard who shot 48 percent from the field, which is another way of saying he has a permanent green light. You can maybe fault him for coming up short in big spots,4 but at that point you’re just nitpicking. Young has earned the right to take big shots that would give most coaches aneurysms.
The most notable of which was his missed 3 against Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. With Oregon down 80-77, 15 seconds left on the game clock, and the shot clock off, Young shot a fadeaway step-back going to his right (it’s harder for right-handers to shoot this going right than it is going left) after zero passes, with 7-foot Frank Kaminsky in his face. Not exactly the best look.
So why do I think Young will be maddening to watch this season? Because Oregon has a depleted roster, with about three healthy, eligible players to start the season. Young averaged 12.6 shots per game with Mike Moser, Jason Calliste, Damyean Dotson, Johnathan Loyd, and Richard Amardi on his team. All of those guys are gone and have taken a combined 1,181 shot attempts with them. Shoot, when you factor in all of Oregon’s departures, there are 1,379 theoretical shot attempts up for grabs this year. This is Young waking up in the middle of the night upon realizing that he could justifiably shoot 20-plus times a game in 2014-15:
If Oregon has any hope of making the NCAA tournament, Young will need to enter full-blown Jimmer mode and jack shots anytime he’s remotely open. This should lead to a bunch of heroic moments, but it will also lead to even more moments like the end of the Wisconsin game.
Most Intriguing New Coach: Cuonzo Martin (Cal)
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Let’s get this straight: Frank Haith didn’t pull a Cuonzo Martin. Martin pulled a Haith. Haith’s move from Missouri to Tulsa was such a diabolically brilliant “eff you” to Missouri that he deserves to have the maneuver named after him. Haith pulled a long con on Missouri fans, giving them surprisingly great highs followed by gut-wrenching lows that left them calling for his head. And all along, Haith was just setting his trap by playing the powerless victim who didn’t deserve this because — BECAUSE HE WAS NATIONAL COACH OF THE YEAR IN 2012, DAMMIT! WHY DOES EVERYONE FORGET THIS? HE’S A GOOD COACH! THIS IS SO UNFAIR, YOU GUYS!
And then, in a stroke of genius, right as the Mizzou mob reached mass hysteria, Haith dropped the trap (and probably said, “Gotcha, bitch!”) as he gave Columbia the deuces in favor of Tulsa. I don’t even care that I’ve already written about Haith in my AAC preview. For the move he pulled on Mizzou, he deserves to be written about again and again. I shouldn’t write about anything else the rest of the season. Just one column after another on Haith’s diabolical okeydoke. Let’s take another look at Haith signing his Tulsa contract:
I will never get sick of that.
Anyway, Martin’s move to Cal doesn’t match what Haith pulled off, but it was smooth nonetheless. Many fans were surprised that Martin would bail on Tennessee after he led the Volunteers to the Sweet 16 last season, but it seems as if Martin’s departure had long been in the works. Tennessee fans were always a little annoyed with the hiring of Martin, what with him not being Bruce Pearl and everything. Then Martin didn’t do much to win fans over when the Vols missed the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons as head coach. Finishing with an 11-7 record in the SEC last year sealed his fate.
But before Martin got the boot, he had a little Haith magic up his sleeve. First, his team made a surprise Sweet 16 run that was one play away from being an Elite Eight run. Then, right as some Vols fans were beginning to think, OK, maybe he deserves anoth— Martin cut in with, “LOL NOPE!” and took off for Cal. But the genius of it was that he waited until Auburn had already hired Bruce Pearl, meaning that the Tennessee fans who started a petition to bring back Pearl couldn’t get their wish, and now they would have to cheer for Donnie Tyndall, a coach who is just as unproven as Martin and who, ohbytheway, is being investigated for NCAA violations.
It’s worth pointing out that Martin isn’t necessarily a good coach. Tennessee was lucky to make the tournament last season, and Vols fans remember the frequent bad losses and boneheaded decisions from Martin’s tenure. But I’m not quite ready to close the book on him and say he’s bad, either. Maybe a fresh start at Cal is what he needs. Or maybe he’ll struggle just as much in Berkeley as he did in Knoxville. Time will tell.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Lorenzo Romar (Washington)
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Lorenzo Romar is the best basketball coach the University of Washington has ever had. This is his biggest problem. Because Romar built the program up from virtually nothing, the college basketball world pays more attention to Washington than we otherwise would. And when we look closely at Washington, we see that the Huskies often seem like they’re underachieving.5 We notice that Romar has had seven first-round picks come through his program and that every team he has coached had at least one of those picks in the lineup. We notice that every team Romar has coached except this year’s squad has had multiple future NBA players on it. And we notice that Washington, under Romar, is just 8-6 in the NCAA tournament. He has never made it to the Elite Eight, and he’s never gone to four consecutive NCAA tournaments.
The same could probably be said about Rick Barnes, Scott Drew, Kevin Stallings, Jamie Dixon, Mark Few, and a number of other coaches.
We also notice that if Washington were to miss this year’s NCAA tournament, it would be the fourth consecutive season in which the Huskies haven’t gone dancing. That would be the longest tournament drought in Romar’s career. As of today, Washington seems unlikely to make the 2015 tournament field. So the pressure’s on Romar. I doubt his job is even kind of in jeopardy, and it shouldn’t be, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’d like to see a Washington team overachieve for a change. I’d like to see Romar stake his claim as Washington’s best coach ever because he’s a really good coach and not because Washington just hasn’t had great basketball success through the years. My guess is that Huskies fans wouldn’t mind this either.
Something to Keep an Eye On: Oregon’s Implosion
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Let’s just list everything that’s happened during Oregon’s offseason to examine how the Ducks went from an NCAA tournament team that started last season 13-0 to where they are now.
Here are the 12 scholarship, non-redshirt players on Oregon’s 2013-14 team: Jalil Abdul-Bassit, Richard Armandi, Dominic Artis, Waverly Austin, Jason Calliste, Ben Carter, Elgin Cook, Damyean Dotson, A.J. Lapray, Johnathan Loyd, Mike Moser, and Joseph Young.
Armandi, Austin, Calliste, Loyd, and Moser all graduated. In April, Carter transferred to UNLV and Lapray transferred to Pepperdine. In May, Artis, Dotson, and Brandon Austin (who had transferred to Oregon from Providence halfway through last season) were all kicked off the team in response to sexual-assault allegations. That leaves us with this roster: Jalil Abdul-Bassit, Elgin Cook, and Joseph Young.
Jordan Bell is eligible for the Ducks after redshirting last season. Dwayne Benjamin and Michael Chandler both transferred to Oregon from junior colleges. And Oregon’s recruiting class brought in Casey Benson, Ray Kasongo, JaQuan Lyle, Ahmaad Rorie, and Dillon Brooks, which leaves the roster looking like this: Jalil Abdul-Bassit, Jordan Bell, Dwayne Benjamin, Casey Benson, Dillon Brooks, Michael Chandler, Elgin Cook, Ray Kasongo, JaQuan Lyle, Ahmaad Rorie, and Joseph Young.
But wait, there’s more! Abdul-Bassit and Cook were arrested on shoplifting charges in September. Meanwhile, Kasongo was denied admission to Oregon and has since transferred to juco powerhouse Southern Idaho. Lyle was also denied admission, but he’s expected to try to enroll again in December. And as if all of that weren’t enough, Chandler — the only Oregon player left who weighs more than 225 pounds — is sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury. Abdul-Bassit and Cook won’t miss any games over the shoplifting incident because the matter has been “handled internally.” This, of course, is just another way of saying that Oregon would be royally screwed if Abdul-Bassit and Cook couldn’t play. Without them, the list of healthy and eligible scholarship players would look like this: Jordan Bell, Dwayne Benjamin, Casey Benson, Dillon Brooks, Ray Kasongo, Ahmaad Rorie (all of whom have never played a minute of D-I basketball), and Joseph Young.
So, yeah, Young is going to average a billion shots per game.
Five Pressing Questions
1. Will Steve Alford finally see his dream come true by fielding a starting lineup that’s entirely composed of his sons?
2. Will USC be good enough for Katin Reinhardt to claim the title of most hated player in the Pac-12?
4. Bill Walton: great commentator or greatest commentator?
5. Two months after the Pac-12 lost Ken Bone, Wayne Tinkle was hired at Oregon State. Is “everyone knows you have to lose your Bone before you can Tinkle” the best joke that can be made here?