Round 1 of the Pac-12 tournament in Vegas begins today with the 8th seed USC Trojans playing the 9th seed Arizona Wildcats. Both the Wildcats and the Trojans finished the Pac-12 season with an 8-10 record. These teams played only once this season–in Los Angeles in late January and the Trojans dominated the Cats for a 80-57 victory.
Key Players for USC:
#31 Nick Rakocevic 14.9 Pts, 9.3 Reb
#4 Kevin Porter, Jr. 9.2 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 40% 3-point
#25 Bennie Boatwright 18.1 Pts, 6.4 Reb, 43% 3-point
#2 Jonah Mathews 12.5 Pts, 3.0 Reb, 40% 3-point
Key Players for Arizona:
#5 Brandon Randolph 12.8 Pts, 3.4 Reb
#4 Chase Jeter 11.1 Pts, 6.6 Reb
#2 Brandon Williams 11.3 Pts, 2.6 Reb, 3.4 Ast
#11 Ira Lee 6.5 Pts, 4.2 Reb
It’s a bit of a mystery how USC finished the Pac-12 season with a losing record. They are one of the most talented teams in the conference. In league play they are 1st in assists and 1st (meaning lowest) in turnovers and are the 2nd best 3-point shooting team at 39%, but are last in the Pac-12 shooting 62% from the free throw line–which helps provide evidence for my theory that good 3-point shooting teams aren’t always good free throw shooting teams but good free throw shooting teams are always good 3-point shooting teams. They are 24th in the NCAA in total assists and 26th in the NCAA with a 38% 3-point percentage. They have decent depth as well with 8 players averaging at least 20 minutes per game.
The Wildcats have struggled offensively this season. They averaged 71.1 points per game for the year. We have to go back to the 85-86 season to find a year that they averaged less points per game than that. In conference play they finished 10th with an average of 69 points per game.
The Cats offense has been pretty well balanced all year as far as scoring goes. They have 7 players averaging between 8 and 12 points per game in conference. I had originally thought Brandon Randolph’s struggles started with Pac-12 play but there are some curiously striking numbers for him since Emmanuel Akot quit the team in mid-January. Akot played in all of the non-conference games and in the first 4 conference games (17 total games). With Akot on the team, Randolph averaged 16.3 points, shot 44% field goals, 49% 2-point field goals, 35% 3-point field goals, and 91% from the free throw line. Without Akot, Randolphs numbers drop significantly: 8.5 points, 32% field goals, 37% 2-point field goals, 20% 3-point field goals, and 46% from the free throw line. 46% from the free throw line! His free throw average dropped 45% after Akot left the team. I have no idea what to make of those numbers. It seems more than a coincidence. Akot’s departure seems to have effected Randolph for some reason.
Ira Lee has shown some major improvement recently and he’ll need to play well if the Cats hope to beat USC. Over his last 10 games Ira is averaging 21 minutes, 8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and is making 76% of his shots. His only downside over that span has been his 44% free throw shooting. He–and Randolph–might want to consider purchasing “The Price of a Free Throw” which is a short treatment or manual on the mindset of successful free throw shooting. Available on Amazon.
USC beat Arizona by 23 in their only matchup of the season. Chase Jeter did not play for the Cats and they sorely missed him. The 6’11” Rakocevic had 27 points and 12 rebounds on 13 of 17 shooting. A monster game in which Arizona just had no answer for him without Jeter on the floor. Kevin Porter Jr for the Trojans added 14 points in only 18 minutes and as a team they shot 50% from 3-point range. The Wildcats were only able to score 19 points in the 1st half and for the game only shot 20% from 3, making only 5 of 25 attempts. Ira Lee and Brandon Randolph each had 12 points to lead the Cats.
Ball movement and getting good looks will be important for the Cats offensively. They are 0-6 this year when they have single digit assists as a team. They have been praised for their lack of turnovers but are only 5-6 in games where they turned the ball over less than 10 times. That’s an interesting stat because the great Bill Walton has often stated that the team with the most turnovers usually wins. (Not necessarily true but the point is well taken that not all turnovers are committed equally–some are worse than others.) On the other side, the Cats are 10-1 when their opponent has under 10 assists for the game. Defensively they will be challenged to defend both the rim and the 3-point line as USC can do damage from all over the court.
USC has lost 4 in a row and are 2-7 in their last 9 games. In a recent game against UCLA the Trojans put up a mind-bending and life-altering 50(!) 3-point shot attempts. Five-Zero. That’s right. They also had a total of 86 field goal attempts in that overtime loss.
The Trojans have fire-power at every position and in a game in early January, the 6’10” Bennie Boatwright incinerated a net by making 10 3-pointers. He finished Pac-12 play shooting 46% from 3. Kevin Porter and Jonah Mathews weren’t far behind at 43% and 39% in league play.
For Arizona it has been a difficult year and the talk has recently surrounded Coach Sean Miller’s future in Tucson. It would be a huge loss for Arizona basketball if Coach Miller is not able to continue as Head Coach.
Here’s a few things to chew on regarding Coach Miller:
Sean Miller has been a head coach for 15 years. This is the first time he has had a losing conference record and has never finished a full season with a losing record. If we assume that the Cats will not make the NCAA tournament this year, Coach Miller will have gone to the tournament in 11 of his 15 years. He has 8 regular season conference titles and 4 conference tournament titles. He has taken his teams to 4 Elite 8’s and 7 Sweet Sixteens. His winning percentage is 74% for his career and 75% at Arizona. Even further–if we track his playing years in college–he never had a losing season overall or in conference and was 80-48 with a 63% win percentage in those 4 years as a player. Even further, Sean Miller did not play the season between his sophomore and junior year (the 89-90 season). That year, without Miller, Pitt had both a losing overall record and a losing conference record.
The moral of the story? Coach Miller Wins.