Ivan Rabb

AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

No. 18 Arizona uses late rally to beat No. 25 California

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While ranked within the top 20 of the national polls, No. 18 Arizona has a résumé that could use another quality victory when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding. Add in the fact that they were swept on the road last week, and Thursday’s home game against No. 25 California was a critical contest for a team in need of some positive momentum.

It was a struggle for the Wildcats, but thanks to a game-ending 11-0 run sparked by senior guard Gabe York Arizona managed to pull out the 64-61 victory.

York, who didn’t score in the first half, racked up 19 points in the second half and hit three three-pointers during the decisive run. As a team Arizona shot 50 percent from the field in the second half, with York’s improved scoring serving as the spark the team needed offensively. And against a team that even with its recent hot streak remains a bit of a question mark away from Berkeley, that proved to be enough in the end.

However, the rebounding effort (or lack thereof) put forth by Arizona nearly cost them the game.

Arizona’s first-shot defense was very good, as Cal shot just 36.5 percent from the field on the night. But where the Golden Bears, most notably freshman Ivan Rabb, were able to get their points was on the offensive glass. Cal rebounded 47.4 percent of its available missed shots, converting 18 offensive rebounds into 28 second-chance points.

Arizona’s been one of the nation’s best on the defensive glass this season, but that wasn’t the case against a team that entered the game ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding percentage. Add in stretches in both halves in which the ball seemed to stick and the player movement stalled offensively, and Arizona wasn’t at their best on this night.

Some nights it’s about finding a way to win even when things aren’t working as planned, and Arizona managed to do that Thursday night. But if Arizona is to have a shot at playing deep into the NCAA tournament, they’ll need to be more consistent than they’ve been in recent games.

California picks up much-needed win over No. 12 Arizona

AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Playing their first week of games without injured point guard Tyrone Wallace, California is in a position where they need to start putting together some quality wins for their NCAA tournament hopes. And with their best win coming at home against Saint Mary’s, Saturday’s game against No. 12 Arizona set up as a big one for Cuonzo Martin’s Golden Bears.

Cal managed to survive a Gabe York missed shot in the final seconds, beating Arizona 74-73 with Jordan Mathews scoring a game-high 28 points to lead the way. Mathews came off the bench Saturday night, with Cal tinkering with a rotation that took the hit of Wallace’s injury, and he gave them much-needed scoring in the sixth man role.

That was a spot in which Jabari Bird never seemed completely comfortable earlier in the season, and over the last three games Bird’s averaging nearly 13 points per game as a starter. Add in two gifted freshmen in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, and two big men in Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh who can play the five and thus keep Rabb at his more natural power forward position, and there’s no denying that the Golden Bears have talent than could potentially be dangerous in the NCAA tournament.

The issue was that Cal’s credentials, as noted above, were (and to a certain extent still are) lacking. Saturday’s win over Arizona, which has now lost four games by a total of ten points, helps in that regard as Cal looks to ensure that their name will be called Selection Sunday. Even with the loss of Wallace, who should be back before the end of the regular season, the Golden Bears have the personnel needed to account for that personnel loss.

Against Arizona Mathews came off the bench to serve as the team’s best scorer, with Brown showing that he can make plays for both himself and for others (15 points, seven assists) offensively.

The key now for Cal is to take the momentum gained from this home sweep of the Arizona schools on the road, beginning with their trip to Utah/Colorado next week. And for a team in need of quality wins away from Berkeley, that road trip sets up as a big one when it comes to California’s NCAA tournament hopes.

California puts forth another solid defensive effort, beats No. 21 Utah

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After dropping games to San Diego State and Richmond in Las Vegas during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, California was a team cited by some as a disappointment of sorts. Cuonzo Martin’s roster, a combination of some talented returnees led by senior Tyrone Wallace and high-level freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, had yet to mesh and the team wasn’t defending at the level their head coach demanded of them.

Since that trip to Vegas the Golden Bears have won eight of their last nine games with the lone defeat coming at No. 5 Virginia, and they’ve been much better defensively as well. Sunday night California took care of No. 21 Utah 71-58, moving to 2-0 in Pac-12 play.

Most importantly for the Golden Bears moving forward is the fact that this team has an identity defensively, something that wasn’t the case in those losses to the Aztecs and Spiders. Cal’s done a better job of keeping teams from getting out in the open floor, and in the half-court they’ve been incredibly stingy. Cal limited Utah to 38.5 percent shooting on the night, which includes 2-for-12 from beyond the arc, limiting the Runnin’ Utes’ quality shot opportunities and forcing them to make challenged looks.

And it was a collective effort for the Golden Bears, with Rabb stepping forward and fellow big men Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh coming off the bench to help defend Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl, the Pac-12’s best big man, scored 19 points but he needed 14 shots to do so (making six), with Cal’s big men making his touches difficult and challenging most of his field goal attempts.

Add in their ability to contain Utah’s supplementary scorers, and Cal was able to produce another solid defensive performance.

On the season Cal ranks in the top ten nationally in both effective field goal (41.9 percent; seventh) and two-point percentage (37.2 percent; first) defense, key areas to control given the fact that they don’t turn opponents over all that often. Utah committed nine turnovers Sunday night, with Cal converting those miscues into 14 points on the other end.

And even though Cal doesn’t play fast, they have enough to turn the few turnovers they force into scoring opportunities.

There’s no shortage of players who can put up points, with Rabb in the post, Brown (nine points, seven rebounds, four assists) on the wing and Wallace (ten points, six assists) and Jordan Mathews (14 points) being the team’s best perimeter options. But even with that being the case, California has to consistently defend at the level they have during this current 8-1 stretch if they’re to be the team many envisioned them being before the season began.

It took some time for that to get through to the Golden Bears. But with the improved focus on defense, California has looked like a team worthy of the “contender” label in the Pac-12.

Ranking the nation’s top big men

AP
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After ranking the top lead guards and off guards, we move to the wing position.

With more teams moving away from the rigid positions that defined the game of basketball for years, the wing has become a more important role. Nowadays versatility is a trait of many of the nation’s best wings, as they can be used to initiate the offense as either a scorer or distributor.

Without further ado, below are our ranking of the top big men in college basketball. Who’s too high on the last? Who isn’t high enough on the list? Who’d we leave out?

[MORE: Top backcourts | Top frontcourts]

1. Skal Labissiere (Kentucky)

Expectations will be high for the 6-foot-11 center, especially after 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks during Kentucky’s Blue-White scrimmage this week. The native of Haiti still has to prove that he’s consistent on a game-in, game-out basis against big men who are more physically developed, but Labissiere’s skill set makes him a matchup nightmare when he’s setting high ball screens.

2. Georges Niang (Iowa State)

It’s already been a tremendous career for the 6-foot-8 senior, who is hoping for a deep NCAA tournament run to cement his legacy in Ames. One of the most versatile big men in the country, Niang shoots with efficiency from everywhere on the floor (46% FG, 80% FT, 40% 3PT) and is also a very good passer. With another strong season, Niang should pass the 2,000 point mark for his college career by the end of the season.

3. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga)

One of the nation’s best shooters, the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer put up ridiculous shooting splits (54% FG, 78% FT. 46% 3PT) while averaging 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. While he’s a liability on the defensive end — and that’s probably putting it lightly — Wiltjer is one of the toughest matchups in the country on the offensive end because his range extends to 25 feet.

4. Damian Jones (Vanderbilt)

The 7-foot junior has already made it clear that he intends to enter the 2016 NBA Draft, so this season will be a huge showcase for Jones. The last two seasons, Jones has been one of college basketball’s most underrated big men and now it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with the spotlight on him. Jones averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season.

5. Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)

One of the stars of the NCAA tournament last season (on and off the floor), this is Hayes’ team now since the Badgers lost so many key pieces. As a sophomore, Hayes showed improved range on his jumper, as he shot 39 percent from distance, and he also showed some tremendous footwork when he went to the post. Hayes average 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2 assists per game last season and those numbers should go up as he’s now a go-to player.

MORE: Top 100 players | Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top 100 Wings

Utah's Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)
Utah’s Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)

6. Jakob Poeltl (Utah)

The freshman burst on the national scene last season after little was known about him coming from Austria. The 7-foot sophomore will now get a lot of NBA draft buzz this season after coming off the bench for much of last season. Poeltl averaged 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game last season in only 23 minutes per contest. If you’re still having trouble pronouncing his name, Poeltl was kind enough to help you out with a video.

7. Henry Ellenson (Marquette)

A new-breed big man who can stretch the floor with his jumper or handle the ball a bit in the open floor, Ellenson should give the Golden Eagles a tough-to-defend high-low post attack with junior Luke Fisher. A McDonald’s All-American last season, Ellenson stayed in his home state of Wisconsin in-part because his older brother Wally transferred into Marquette from Minnesota to continue his basketball career.

8. Rico Gathers (Baylor)

You could make the argument that Gathers should be playing for Baylor’s talented football team with the way he’s built, but he’s doing just fine on the basketball court. Gathers averaged a double-double of 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game as a junior and the 6-foot-8 big man is a load to handle on the interior. Along with Johnathan Motley and Taurean Waller-Prince, Gathers helps the Bears form one of the nation’s best frontcourt units.

9. Perry Ellis (Kansas)

Before a late-season ankle injury, Ellis was playing as well as any big man in the Big 12 and the senior is hoping for a big year to close out his career. One of the most consistent members of an inconsistent Kansas team, Ellis averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season.

10. Cheick Diallo (Kansas)

If he’s eligible to play, Diallo will be one of the best high-motor big men in the country. A terror in the open floor, Diallo was one of the stars of the high school senior all-star circuit this past spring and he’ll rebound and run the floor with the best of them right away.

  • 11. Brice Johnson (North Carolina) Perhaps the best pro prospect on North Carolina’s loaded team, Johnson averaged 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior.
  • 12. Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga) After a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds off the bench, Sabonis is once again apart of a deep Gonzaga frontcourt rotation.
  • 13. Diamond Stone (Maryland) The five-star big man from Wisconsin will be expected to give the Terps an immediate option in the post as Stone is one of the best post scorers to emerge from the Class of 2015.
  • 14. Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) A five-star McDonald’s All-American who decided to stay home, Zimmerman is a highly-versatile big man who is a very good passer. If Zimmerman hunts his own shots, he could have a big year.
  • 15. A.J. Hammons (Purdue) As part of a deep Purdue front line that features two 7-footers and McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan, Hammons should be a load to handle on the interior — if he remains consistent.
  • 16. Anthony Gill (Virginia) An unsung part of what Virginia does on both ends of the floor, Gill had a solid junior campaign, shooting 58 percent from the floor and averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest.
  • 17. Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina) The 6-foot-9 junior got himself into better shape and had a very productive sophomore year, going for 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in only 23 minutes per outing.
  • 18. Amida Brimah (UConn) One of the nation’s elite rim protectors, Brimah averaged 3.5 blocks per game last season. While defense is his calling card, Brimah also had some good offensive outings, including a 40-point game last season.
  • 19. Ivan Rabb (Cal) Cuonzo Martin convinced Rabb to stay in the Bay Area and the Golden Bears are thrilled to have this springy 6-foot-9 big man. Rabb should rebound and defend the rim right away and his offense is improving.
  • 20. Zach Auguste (Notre Dame) Notre Dame usually utilized Auguste as their only true big man last season and he shot a ridiculous 61 percent from the field while averaging 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Others Considered: Shawn Long (Lafayette), Markus Kennedy (SMU), Elgin Cook (Oregon), Daniel Ochefu (Villanova), Devin Williams (West Virginia)