steve alford

Pac-12 Tournament: UCLA’s offense too much for No. 4 Arizona

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Arizona found itself in an unlikely, and unknown, scenario in the Pac-12 tournament final: its defense was completely ineffective. UCLA came out and, possibly invigorated by a combination of butterflies and the oxygen pumped into the MGM Grand, proceeded to thump the Wildcats, 75-71 and claim the title.

The first twenty minutes were among the most entertaining during this conference tournament week, and even though the Wildcats were able to keep up with UCLA’s torrid scoring, Sean Miller’s squad hadn’t faced a team yet this year that didn’t fold under Zona’s grinding pack-line defense.

When Jordan Adams hit a three-pointer off a simple flare screen with 43 seconds remaining in the game, a shot that broke a 68-all deadlock, it wasn’t luck: Arizona just couldn’t stop UCLA today. Other than Adams’ three, the final minute was anticlimatic and sloppy, the opposite of what had been 39 minutes of pure basketball.

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Before delving into the game’s particulars, it’s necessary to mention how ruthless — in a good way — this rivalry between UCLA and Arizona has become. The two teams battled for every single possession, rebound, and loose ball — Travis Wear diving and nearly sliding from half court to end line should make ‘One Shining Moment’ even though the tournament hasn’t begun — and the intensity displayed by the fifteen participants was truly special. The first half offensive efficiency rating reflects the higher plane both teams operated on: 1.34 PPP (Arizona, on just 32 possessions!) and 1.25 (UCLA).

Since Brandon Ashley was waylaid with a foot injury, the play of Aaron Gordon has drastically improved, and the forward showcased the uniqueness of his game versus the Bruins. Gordon has now shifted to a true frontcourt role, operating from the interior while in the halfcourt, and his ability to be a triple threat has helped evolve his game as well as Arizona’s offense. Whether dishing to Kaleb Tarczewski for dunks, or using his height to find the other Wildcats on the perimeter, or simply operating off the bounce and getting to the bucket, Gordon has transformed into a bigger mismatch.

Yes, Gordon, and the rest of Arizona, missed a bunch of free throws — two of eight (and the team missed six of sixteen), to be precise — but Gordon has been making them in past games, and this figures to be a one-game blip rather than a significant issue that could preclude Arizona going deep into NCAA play.

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With the win, UCLA pulled ahead of Arizona as the Pac-12 best team. This offense, when it is humming, is so difficult to stop: even when the Bruins came down to Earth in the second half, they were still scoring 1.12 PPP. When compared to the offensive efficiency rate of Arizona’s three Pac-12 losses — each of which were around .90 PPP — it is clearer that the consistency and efficiency of UCLA’s buckets was unparalleled.

UCLA presents difficult covers at each position. The Wear twins were heroes of the short corner against UA, hitting jumpers whenever their defender tried to help a Kyle Anderson drive, and Tony Parker, the much maligned big who has become a new player under Steve Alford, grabbed several key rebounds and is a bear in the paint.

Regardless of the seed UCLA receives on Sunday evening, the Bruins will be a problem. The speed at which they operate (the team has hovered around 69 possessions this season), the improved play of Jordan Adams and especially Norman Powell, the aforementioned mismatch capabilities of the other Bruins, and the ability of Kyle Anderson to be a match-up dilemma for any player not named Aaron Gordon means UCLA will be one of those teams a top seed wants no business facing either of first two weekends.

Struggles on both ends cost No. 1 Oklahoma at Kansas State

Kansa State forward Wesley Iwundu (25) pulls down a rebound against Mississippi during an NCAA college basketball game in Manhattan, Kansas, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. (Bo Rader /The Wichita Eagle via AP) LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; MAGS OUT; LOCAL RADIO OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Bo Rader /The Wichita Eagle via AP
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One of the big questions regarding No. 1 Oklahoma was how they’d handle an off shooting night. On multiple occasions this season the Sooners have managed to win in spite of a subpar effort from one of their guards, thanks in large part to national Player of the Year frontrunner Buddy Hield. But what would they do against a team that managed to limit Hield (by his standards)?

That’s what happened at Kansas State Saturday night, and the Sooners did not have the right answers for the Wildcats on either end of the floor. Wesley Iwundu scored 22 points, dished out seven assists and played excellent defense on Hield throughout the game to lead the way. And freshman forward Dean Wade chipped in with 17 points and seven rebounds off the bench as the Wildcats won by the final score of 80-69.

Hield scored 23 points but did so on 7-for-16 shooting, and a lot of that damage was done during the second half as he scored 17 points during the game’s final 20 minutes. But it wasn’t enough as the Sooners didn’t get much from anyone other than Ryan Spangler (nine points) as they looked to mount a comeback. Jordan Woodard, who’s been a consistent supplementary scoring option this season, went scoreless Saturday and that essentially left Oklahoma with three scorers (Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins).

It’s highly unlikely that anyone’s going to completely take away Hield; the key there is to make him work for everything he gets and the long, athletic Iwundu managed to do that. But if you can take away one (or more) of Oklahoma’s supplementary scorers you’ve got a shot at knocking them off.

Oklahoma also had issues defensively, as the Wildcats shot 52.9 percent from the field. Iwundu was very good at finding scoring opportunities not only for himself but for his teammates as well, and in the post players such as Wade and B.J. Johnson were effective against Spangler, Khadeem Lattin and Akolda Manyang. Kansas State outplayed Oklahoma in the post, and their execution offensively helped the Wildcats pull off the upset despite committing 15 turnovers.

If not for those turnovers the margin likely would have been worse for Oklahoma, which scored 26 points off of Kansas State turnovers and many of its 15 fast break points came via K-State mistakes. The Sooners are lethal in transition, something we’ve seen on many occasions this season. Kansas State, when they didn’t turn the ball over, kept Oklahoma from running out and finding the quality looks that have made them so successful.

As a result, Bruce Weber’s Wildcats made sure that Hield and his fellow Oklahoma seniors will graduate without a win in Manhattan.

Ryan Anderson, Gabe York pace No. 23 Arizona at Washington

Arizona's Ryan Anderson (12) dunks against Washington State's Conor Clifford (42) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Pullman, Wash. Arizona won 79-64. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
College basketball is better when the Arizona-Washington rivalry is relevant, and we got a perfect example of that on Saturday, as No. 23 Arizona landed an important, 77-72 win at Washington in a ugly-but-thrilling game. Washington has one of the nation's most high-octane, uptempo offenses, as Lorenzo Romar does what he can to maximize the pieces that he has on his roster. Andrew Andrews and DeJounte Murray make up one of the nation's most talented backcourts, and when combined with the myriad of athletes of populate the rest of the roster, what you get is a team that is top five in pace, according to KenPom.com. What they don't have is much strength in the paint, and Ryan Anderson took complete advantage of that. The fifth-year senior had arguably his best game as a Wildcats, finishing with 22 points and 15 boards -- eight offensive -- to pace Arizona. Gabe York added 18 points as well, which is a great sign for the Wildcats. The knock on this team has been that they don't have a star or a go-to guy, and two of them stepped up in a tough road game on Saturday. Perhaps more importantly, it was Kadeem Allen that his the biggest shot of the game, hitting a three to break a 70-all tie with a minute left in the game. And should we mention that Allonzo Trier, who was Arizona's leading scorer when he broke his hand a month ago, returned to the lineup? Yeah, we probably should, because Trier is the best one-on-one player that Sean Miller has on his roster. All-in-all, this was a promising road trip for Arizona, who got swept at home by the Oregon schools last weekend. I'm not sure that Arizona, who is still two games back of Oregon in the Pac-12 standings, has a real shot of winning the league's regular season title. But I am sure that, when they're at full-strength and playing well, the Wildcats are good enough to win the Pac-12 tournament and get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
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College basketball is better when the Arizona-Washington rivalry is relevant, and we got a perfect example of that on Saturday, as No. 23 Arizona landed an important, 77-72 win at Washington in a ugly-but-thrilling game.

Washington has one of the nation’s most high-octane, uptempo offenses, as Lorenzo Romar does what he can to maximize the pieces that he has on his roster. Andrew Andrews and DeJounte Murray make up one of the nation’s most talented backcourts, and when combined with the myriad of athletes of populate the rest of the roster, what you get is a team that is top five in pace, according to KenPom.com.

What they don’t have is much strength in the paint, and Ryan Anderson took complete advantage of that.

The fifth-year senior had arguably his best game as a Wildcats, finishing with 22 points and 15 boards — eight offensive — to pace Arizona. Gabe York added 18 points as well, which is a great sign for the Wildcats. The knock on this team has been that they don’t have a star or a go-to guy, and two of them stepped up in a tough road game on Saturday.

Perhaps more importantly, it was Kadeem Allen that his the biggest shot of the game, hitting a three to break a 70-all tie with a minute left in the game.

And should we mention that Allonzo Trier, who was Arizona’s leading scorer when he broke his hand a month ago, returned to the lineup? Yeah, we probably should, because Trier is the best one-on-one player that Sean Miller has on his roster.

All-in-all, this was a promising road trip for Arizona, who got swept at home by the Oregon schools last weekend.

I’m not sure that Arizona, who is still two games back of Oregon in the Pac-12 standings, has a real shot of winning the league’s regular season title.

But I am sure that, when they’re at full-strength and playing well, the Wildcats are good enough to win the Pac-12 tournament and get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.