Pac-12

Arizona forward Ryan Anderson (12) scores against UNLV during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. Arizona defeated UNLV 82-70. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Associated Press

Post play, turnovers will determine No. 13 Arizona’s Pac-12 fate

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TUCSON, Arizona — For all the questions surrounding the Pac-12 and its lack of a dominant team, the two-time defending regular season champions may very well be the best bet to take the crown in 2015-16.

No. 13 Arizona may not have the projected lottery picks that they’ve had in each of the last two seasons, but they’re still talented and do have both depth and versatility. Those attributes were on display Saturday night as they beat UNLV 82-70 for their 46th consecutive home victory, doing so despite turning the ball over 18 times with 14 coming in the second half.

Dusan Ristic, whose role has grown in importance due to both the loss of Brandon Ashley and the injury suffered by senior center Kaleb Tarczewski, scored a game-high 20 points and he was efficient in doing so. Not only did Ristic shoot 6-for-8 from the field, but he also shook off his struggles from the foul line by making seven of his eight attempts.

The sophomore may have had just two rebounds on the night, but his ability to score in the post (and even making a three-pointer) was something the Runnin’ Rebels struggled to deal with in the first half. And he’s played well enough to this point to open up some new possibilities for Arizona when Tarczewski returns to the court.

“He’s getting a chance to show what he does every day,” Arizona senior forward Ryan Anderson said of Ristic. “He’s one of our hardest workers, and his skill around the basket is something that can’t really teach and you saw it tonight. He stepped out and made a three and a couple jumpers, but his game around the basket is really unmatched by many people in the country.

“His thing is just getting a chance to play and getting comfortable in our system, and I think as our season continues this time without Kaleb is going to help [Dusan] and our team.”

In Arizona’s last three games Ristic has averaged 14.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and two blocks per game, shooting 68.4 percent from the field. Against UNLV 16 of his 20 points came in the first half, and as a team Arizona scored 26 of its 44 points in the paint. Whether it was post entry feeds or dribble penetration, Arizona was able to penetrate the UNLV defense on a consistent basis.

The Runnin’ Rebels did a better job of closing driving lanes in the second half, and their move to a smaller lineup made necessary by Stephen Zimmerman aggravating a thigh injury suffered in practice earlier in the week was a factor as well. But even with those improvements there was also the issue of defending without fouling for the visitors.

Arizona shot 29-for-39 from the foul line, and their 19-point advantage was one of the key differences between the two teams. In Ristic and Ryan Anderson (17 points, 13 rebounds) the Wildcats have two big men who can get points in the low post, and they also have a guard in Allonzo Trier capable of breaking teams down off the dribble. Each of Arizona’s starters attempted at least five free throws against UNLV, with Ristic and Anderson (11) responsible for 19 of those 39 attempts.

The Wildcats had an advantage in the front court and they took advantage, with Ristic and Anderson producing quality performances as a result.

“I think when you have Dusan and Ryan and they’re active and on the glass, and they’re getting the ball deep…I think we did a good job at times of getting them the ball,” Miller said. “I wish we could have got it to them more, and they could have been even more effective. That’s where our advantage against UNLV was.”

Five Wildcats scored in double figures Saturday night, with Trier and Kadeem Allen adding 15 apiece and Gabe York 11. The question for Arizona will be how they manage the turnovers, especially with their use of both Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright at the point. The Wildcats committed just four in the first half, but 14 in the second half allowed UNLV to pull to within three with just under eight minutes remaining.

This group doesn’t have the margin for error that they did the last two seasons, and they don’t have the security of knowing that they have a clear answer at the point in T.J. McConnell. How Arizona manages the basketball will be critical in a conference that doesn’t have much (if any) separation at the top. And their head coach is confident that the Wildcats have the ability to take better care of the basketball on a consistent basis.

“Fourteen turnovers in the second half is why you leave the game maybe not feeling the way you’d want to after a big home win,” Miller noted. “Our turnovers came in a number of different areas; Gabe and Kadeem combined for ten and that’s not good.”

“When you turn the ball over the way we did [in the second half] any team on our schedule can beat us,” Miller continued. “The good news is, if we can become that team, and I know we can, where we can play a whole 40 minutes with single digits (in turnovers) I believe we can beat anybody. And it’s no more complicated than ‘how much will we improve our turnovers from this point on.'”

No. 11 North Carolina runs past No. 22 UCLA

North Carolina's Brice Johnson (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Associated Press
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After a slow start that saw them down by 11 in the first half, No. 11 North Carolina rallied to run past No. 22 UCLA, 89-76, on Saturday at the Barclays Center.

Using another huge effort from senior big man Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels soundly outplayed UCLA on the interior, even without starting junior Kennedy Meeks. Johnson finished with 27 points and nine rebounds and Isaiah Hicks added 12 points off the bench as North Carolina had UCLA big man Thomas Welsh in foul trouble for much of the game.

Perimeter and transition defense was also problematic for UCLA as the Tar Heels were able to run at will in the second half. Joel Berry finished with 17 points on the afternoon while Marcus Paige added 10 points. North Carolina shot 52 percent from the field on the afternoon as they slowly wore down the UCLA defense.

The Bruins had 23 points from Isaac Hamilton, but the UCLA offense wasn’t strong enough to match the Tar Heels. Bryce Alford contributed 15 points, but he was only 4-for-14 from the field while Tony Parker had 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Johnson continued his strong week for North Carolina. After scoring an initial career high of 25 against Tulane earlier this week, Johnson had 27 points and made 11 straight field goals against a front line that featured two McDonald’s All-Americans. With Johnson playing like that, it takes North Carolina to another level, even if they struggle to 4-for-19 3-point shooting like they did on Saturday.

Alford scores 27, No. 22 UCLA tops Louisiana-Lafayette 89-80

Isaac Hamilton, Jay Hedgeman
Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) Bryce Alford scored a season-high 27 points for No. 22 UCLA as the short-handed Bruins posted their fifth consecutive victory, holding off Louisiana-Lafayette 89-80 Tuesday night.

UCLA (8-3) played minus starting center Thomas Welsh, out with a stomach virus, and reserve Prince Ali, who bruised his left knee against Gonzaga on Saturday night.

Tony Parker and Isaac Hamilton each added 19 points for the Bruins.

Shawn Long contributed 26 points and 16 rebounds for Louisiana-Lafayette (3-5), which fell to 0-5 on the road this season.

For Long, it was his fifth double-double of the season. The 6-foot-11 senior is the NCAA Division I active leader in double-doubles (57) and total rebounds (1,117).

Kasey Shepherd scored 15 points and Jay Wright added 14 for the Ragin’ Cajuns.

The Bruins shot a season-best 55.4 percent from the field. Their previous best was 52.8 percent in their upset victory over then-No. 1 Kentucky two weeks ago.

UCLA, which led by as many as 19 in the first half, saw Louisiana-Lafayette pull within 63-59 with 10:13 to play.

The Bruins responded with an 11-2 spurt to lead 74-61, only to see the Ragin’ Cajuns close to 79-73 on Long’s 3-pointer with 2:17 to play.

UCLA made 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute for the victory.

The second half was refereed by two officials, David Hall and Marques Pettigrew, after referee Eric Curry left at halftime with an undisclosed injury.

TIP-INS

Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin’ Cajuns, coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, entered the game ranked third among NCAA Division I programs in scoring, averaging 90.0 points per game, having already eclipsed the century mark twice this season.

UCLA: With Welsh out, coach Steve Alford was forced to change his starting lineup for the first time this season. He replaced Welsh with 6-10 sophomore Jonah Bolden. … The Bruins cracked the AP Top 25 poll for the first time this season, boosted by two victories in nine days over ranked opponents, Kentucky 87-77 on Dec. 3 and No. 20 Gonzaga 71-66 on Saturday night.

NEXT UP

Louisiana-Lafayette: At Pepperdine on Friday.

UCLA: Vs. North Carolina on Saturday in New York.

NEW PODCAST: Court storms, Iowa’s teams and why the Pac-12 is underrated

Steve Prohm and Monte Morris (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
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It’s Friday, which means that it’s time for another edition of the NBC Sports College Basketball Talk Podcast. Today we discuss No. 4 Iowa State’s comeback win over Iowa, the state of those two teams in the aftermath and also touch on court-storming and whether or not measures should be taken to curtail it.

Also discussed on the podcast are our thoughts on the Pac-12 ahead of a big weekend for the conference, and some games we’re looking forward to this weekend. As always, thanks for listening.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking on this link. And we’re now on Stitcher as well, so if that’s your app of choice you can subscribe here.

Or if you simply want to listen within this page, just click the play button below.

Strong second half propels No. 19 Arizona to win at No. 13 Gonzaga

Gabe York
Associated Press
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While neutral site games and in-season tournaments can help teams figure out who they are, there’s no test more valuable than having to do so in a hostile environment. No. 19 Arizona played its first road game Saturday afternoon, and despite trailing by as many as 14 points Sean Miller’s team found a way to beat No. 13 Gonzaga 68-63 in Spokane.

And while the Wildcats were much improved offensively in the second stanza, it was their defense and perimeter play that opened the door for a comeback.

Senior guard Gabe York led the way with 14 second-half points while also grabbing six rebounds and dishing out two assists, playing the entire 20 minutes as Arizona made its charge. York scored all 14 of those points during a stretch in which Arizona outscored Gonzaga 22-10, turning a 40-28 deficit into a 50-50 tie with 12:57 remaining. The Wildcats needed someone to step forward offensively to provide a much-needed spark, and he was the one to do so.

Ryan Anderson (11 second-half points) and Allonzo Trier, who was Arizona’s best offensive player in the first half, chipped in as well, with Arizona shooting 50 percent from the field and scoring 20 points in the paint. As opposed to seemingly looking to go “shot for shot” with Gonzaga, Arizona did a better job of getting the shots that worked for them as the second half progressed which resulted in their averaging nearly 1.1 points per possession.

And for those clamoring for the Wildcats to find a “go-t0 guy,” it was York and Anderson who combined for the game-sealing pick and roll with less than 20 seconds remaining. Contrast that with the end of their loss to Providence, which had Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic doing so in a sequence that resulted in a turnover. Saturday’s finish gets Arizona closer to figuring out that particular role, which will only help them down the line.

But the improved offense would not have meant anything Saturday without better play on the defensive end. Without Kaleb Tarczewski (Przemek Karnowski didn’t play for Gonzaga), who is out with a left foot injury, Arizona had to account for the absence of its best interior defender and that was an issue against Gonzaga’s tandem of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis.

Wiltjer, who finished with 33 points, and Sabonis (18 points, 16 rebounds), combined to score 32 of Gonzaga’s 38 first half points and to no one’s surprise they were going to be an issue throughout for Anderson, Dusan Ristic and Mark Tollefsen. As a team Gonzaga averaged 0.67 points per possession in the second half, and Wiltjer needed 15 shots to score his 13 second-half points.

So how did Arizona get Gonzaga out of its comfort zone? By making the big men make challenged shots and forcing the guards, most notably Josh Perkins who committed four of his five turnovers in the second half, to make plays. Contrast that with Arizona’s two-headed point guard of Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who combined to commit just one turnover.

The questions surrounding Gonzaga focused on their perimeter play, which is to be expected given just how much they lost from last year’s Elite Eight team. It isn’t easy to replace Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley, which frankly goes without saying. Young players such as Perkins and Silas Melson will continue to develop for head coach Mark Few as the season wears on.

But on this day Arizona’s guards, led by York, won the matchup and that was a major factor in the final result.

Unlike last season’s team, which returned a lot of experience and had clear role definition almost from the start, this current group of Wildcats is still figuring things out and Saturday’s win doesn’t change that. But it does serve as an important result for a team looking to grow into a group capable of winning a third consecutive Pac-12 title.

USC holds on to beat No. 20 Wichita State

Andy Enfield
Associated Press
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With guards Fred VanVleet and Landry Shamet both sidelined due to injury, No. 20 Wichita State arrived at the Advocare Invitational shorthanded. But even with that being the case the highly successful Shockers represented quite the opportunity for USC, and Thursday afternoon the Trojans took advantage.

Despite turning the ball over 23 times Andy Enfield’s team found a way to win, hanging on to beat the Shockers by the final score of 72-69. Freshman forward Bennie Boatwright, a tough matchup for most teams as a 6-foot-10 stretch forward who can score from the perimeter, shot 5-for-9 from three and scored a team-high (and career-high) 22 points.

The tandem of he and junior Nikola Jovanovic, who added 14 points and 11 rebounds, outplayed the Wichita State front court on a day in which the Shockers needed greater contributions from those players. Add in 15 points and four assists from Jordan McLaughlin, ten points off the bench from Katin Reinhardt and a 12-for-23 afternoon from three, and the Trojans were able to do enough to make up for their high turnover count and Wichita State’s 24 points off of turnovers.

Given the absence of VanVleet and Shamet there’s no reason to panic regarding Wichita State. Ron Baker, who was exhausted by the end of the game due to the heavy load he was asked to shoulder, scored a game-high 25 points and the play of freshman Markis McDuffie was a positive to build on.

McDuffie, who entered Thursday’s game without a made field goal in his first two appearances as a Shocker, shot 5-for-9 from the field and contributed 14 points and three rebounds off the bench. With their current perimeter rotation being what it is McDuffie will have opportunities to contribute, and the Shockers will need him to take advantage as they await the returns of VanVleet and Shamet (and the addition of Conner Frankamp).

Doing so will not only help Wichita State in the short term but in the long-term as well, thus giving Gregg Marshall another option to call upon on his bench.

Thursday’s outcome, even with the desire to see more from Anton Grady (eight points, seven rebounds), says more about USC at this point in time than Wichita State. Enfield’s first two seasons at the helm were about amassing the talent needed to compete in the Pac-12 while also gaining valuable (and at times painful) experience. In year three the Trojans hope to take a step forward within the conference, and wins like this one provide evidence of the program’s growth.