Jakob Poeltl

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Offensive balance, rebounding push No. 3 Utah past No. 14 Fresno State

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Sophomore center Jakob Poeltl is the focal point of the offensive attack for Midwest No. 3 Utah, but the Runnin’ Utes are at their best when they receive contributions from multiple players. That was the case in their NCAA tournament opener Thursday night, as four players scored at least 16 points in Utah’s 80-69 win over No. 14 Fresno State in Denver.

Junior guard Lorenzo Bonam scored 17 points, making seven of his ten shots from the field, and three other Utah players scored 16 points apiece. Poeltl, who also grabbed 18 rebounds and dished out four assists, was one of those three with seniors Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge being the others.

Utah shot 54 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 27 made field goals, and the offensive execution helped them end a run that saw Fresno State take a one point lead halfway through the second half.

Fresno State took a 48-47 lead with 10:33 remaining, with Utah playing with less aggression offensively and the Bulldogs successfully forcing the issue on both ends of the floor. Instead of allowing Fresno State to hang around Utah regained control, with a Bonam jumper 33 seconds later sparking a 19-2 run that removed any doubt in regards to the final outcome.

Larry Krystkowiak’s team was dominant on the glass as well, posting rebounding percentages of 56.5 percent on the offensive end and 84.6 percent defensively. From a rebounding standpoint the Runnin’ Utes will have a tougher time against either No. 6 Seton Hall or No. 11 Gonzaga Saturday, but in that regard this was a nice start to the tournament for Utah. But they’ll need to avoid the lull that opened the door for a Fresno State rally if they’re to advance to the Sweet 16.

Pac-12 Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The expectation entering the season was that there were at least five teams capable of winning the Pac-12. Sure enough many of the expected contenders remained a factor for a significant portion of the season, with Oregon eventually rising as the class of the conference. Dana Altman’s Ducks went undefeated at home in Pac-12 play and finished above .500 on the road, which is generally a good formula to at the very least contend for a conference title. The play of Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook and company may make Oregon the favorites in Las Vegas, but they’ll have plenty of challengers as well.

Utah has the conference’s Player of the Year in sophomore center Jakob Poeltl, Arizona and California both have talented rotations and teams such as Colorado, Oregon State, USC and Washington are all capable of making a run as well. As of right now the Pac-12 could be a seven-bid league depending upon not only what happens in Las Vegas but also in other conference tournaments across the country. This much is certain: given how balanced and talented the league is, whoever cuts down the nets Saturday night will have been pushed to their limit.

The Bracket

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When: March 9-12

Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas

Final: March 12, 10:00 p.m. (FS1)

Favorite: Oregon

The Ducks may have just a seven-man rotation, but it’s the versatility within that group that makes them so difficult to deal with. Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin are three forwards who can play just about anywhere on the floor. Freshman Tyler Dorsey can play either guard spot, and big man Chris Boucher is a 6-foot-10 senior who can score in the paint and also on the perimeter.

Both Boucher and Jordan Bell run the floor like gazelles and are incredibly active defensively, and point guard Casey Benson’s improved throughout the course of the season. They’ll score points thanks to the talent and Dana Altman’s offensive schemes. But if Oregon can make things happen defensively and get out in transition, they’re an incredibly tough team to beat.

And if they lose?: Utah

Utah’s rise from team that appeared to be headed towards the NCAA tournament bubble to second place in the Pac-12 is due in large part to the development of their perimeter rotation. Brandon Taylor’s embraced the facilitator role down the stretch, and Lorenzo Bonam’s made strides as well. The Runnin’ Utes can surround elite big man Jakob Poeltl with shooters, thus keeping the spacing that ultimately produces quality shots on a regular basis. Utah ranked second in the conference in field goal percentage defense and fourth in three-point percentage defense, and even with the occasional offensive issues they’ve been solid defensively.

Other Contenders:

  • Arizona: The Wildcats are still formidable, even with the end of their streak of two straight Pac-12 regular season titles. Gabe York’s been on fire of late, and with Ryan Anderson and Allonzo Trier leading the way Sean Miller’s team doesn’t lack for talent either.
  • California: The Golden Bears were the team many were waiting for to get going, and down the stretch they did. The return of Tyrone Wallace helped, and they’ve got two of the nation’s top freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. But they’ve had their issues away from Berkeley, so we’ll see what they can do in Las Vegas.

Sleeper: USC

The Trojans have struggled a bit down the stretch, losing six of their final eight games of the regular season. That being said, USC’s offensive balance and tempo could lend itself to a run in Las Vegas. Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs make up a very good point guard duo, and the Trojans have capable scoring options both in the front court and on the perimeter (six players averaging double figures). They’ll need to keep the turnovers to a minimum, but Andy Enfield’s team is one to keep an eye on.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Colorado: The Buffs are in the field. But a loss to a bad Washington State team could make the wait more nerve-wracking than it should be.
  • Oregon State: The Beavers may have been overlooked by some when it comes to their NCAA tournament hopes. Beat Arizona State, and that should be enough.
  • USC: The Trojans arrive in Las Vegas in solid shape to land a bid. Avoiding a bad loss against UCLA in their tournament opener should be enough to make them feel comfortable.

Pac-12 Player of the Year: Jakob Poeltl, Utah

Poeltl was the preseason pick for the award, and despite Utah’s occasional issues on the perimeter he’s been very consistent for Larry Krystkowiak’s team. In conference play Poeltl averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, shooting a Pac-12 best 62.4 percent from the field.

Pac-12 Coach of the Year: Dana Altman, Oregon

Three times in the last four seasons Altman’s won this honor, with this most recent award being for leading the Ducks to a regular season Pac-12 title. Oregon navigated injuries early in the season, most notably the loss of the player expected to run the point in Dylan Ennis, and found their groove in conference play when all healthy pieces were back in the fold. And in a season in which road teams had an incredibly hard time picking up wins on a consistent basis, Oregon was one of two teams to sweep two Pac-12 road trips this season (Utah being the other).

First-Team All Pac-12:

  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah(POY)
  • Andrew Andrews, Washington: Andrews has been the unquestioned leader for a very young squad, and in conference games he averaged 22.3 points (first in Pac-12) and 5.1 assists (third) per game.
  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State: Payton’s was named the league’s best defender for a second straight year, and there’s also his versatility. The senior ranked in the top ten in the league in rebounding (ninth), assists (first), steals (first) and assist-to-turnover ratio (third), and 11th in scoring.
  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon: As good as Brooks was as a freshman, he was even better this season. Averaging 17.1 points per game in Pac-12 play, Brooks was a serious contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year.
  • Ryan Anderson, Arizona: In his lone season on the court for Arizona, the Boston College transfer averaged 16.0 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest. He was one of two Pac-12 players to average a double-double in conference play (Washington State’s Josh Hawkinson).

Second Team All Pac-12:

  • Jaylen Brown, California
  • Rosco Allen, Stanford
  • Dejounte Murray, Washington
  • Elgin Cook, Oregon
  • Josh Scott, Colorado

Defining moment of the season: Oregon ends Arizona’s 49-game home win streak

CBT Prediction: Oregon’s the pick here, but it would not be a surprise if any of the top four teams left Vegas with the crown.

SUNDAY’S SNACKS: No. 6 Maryland survives, bubble teams avoid bad losses

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GAME OF THE DAY: Colgate 93, Loyola (MD) 90 (OT)

An Austin Tillotson half-court shot as time expired gave the Raiders a three-point win on Senior Day. Tillotson, who finished with 20 points, hit the game-winner just seconds after Loyola’s Andre Walker tied the game at 90 with a three-pointer of his own. Walker finished with 22 points and Eric Laster 26 for the Greyhounds, with Colgate also receiving solid performances from Alex Ramon, Sean O’Brien (18 points apiece) and Tom Rivard (17 points).

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 6 Maryland 86, Michigan 82: The Terrapins had their struggles with turnovers and dealing with Michigan’s Mark Donnal in ball screen situations, but they were able to do enough to pull out the victory in College Park. Robert Carter Jr. scored 17 points and Jake Layman 16 to lead the way for the Terrapins, who ended a two-game losing streak in the process. Donnal scored 22 of his 25 in the second half for the Wolverines, who once again played without the injured Caris LeVert.

Utah 80, USC 69: The Runnin’ Utes handed USC its first home loss of the season, becoming the first Pac-12 team to pick up two road weekend sweeps in conference play this season (they also swept the Washington trip). Jakob Poeltl was too much for USC, as he accounted for 29 points on 11-for-13 shooting, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals. Jordan McLaughlin scored 20 points and Julian Jacobs and Bennie Boatwright 17 apiece for USC, but they were unable to mount a charge similar to their comeback from a 15-point deficit to beat Colorado Wednesday night.

Seton Hall 62, St. John’s 61: It certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Pirates managed to avoid a really bad loss as Isaiah Whitehead hit two free throws with 5.6 seconds remaining. Desi Rodriguez scored 24 points and Khadeen Carrington 12 as the Pirates navigated front court foul trouble (three big men fouled out) in the second half. Kassoum Yakwe led the Red Storm with 16 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots.

Wichita State 84, Indiana State 51: The Shockers wrapped up the outright Missouri Valley regular season title with a blowout win over the Sycamores. Ron Baker scored 14 points and three other Wichita State players added 11 apiece, and on the other end the Shockers limited Indiana State to just 31 percent shooting. Wichita State closes out the regular season with games against Loyola (Chicago) and Illinois State.

STARRED

Jakob Poeltl, Utah: 29 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals in Utah’s 80-69 win at USC.

Obi Enechionyia, Temple: 26 points on 10-for-20 shooting and seven rebounds in the Owls’ three-point win at Houston.

Alec Peters, Valparaiso: 32 points and 11 rebounds in the Crusaders’ 90-74 win over Detroit.

Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: 20 points, 12 rebounds and six steals in the Badgers’ 69-60 win over Illinois.

STRUGGLED

Boston College: The Eagles’ season may have hit its nadir Sunday night, as they lost 74-48 at Wake Forest. At one point Jim Christian’s team trailed 37-4.

Khristian Smith, Indiana State: Two points on 1-for-9 shooting in the Sycamores’ 84-51 loss to Wichita State.

James Ford, Quinnipiac: Four points on 1-for-7 shooting and three turnovers in the Bobcats’ 63-59 loss to Manhattan.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 21 SMU rebounded from its loss at UConn with a 74-63 win over East Carolina. Nic Moore led the Mustangs with 22 points and seven assists, Markus Kennedy added 19 points and nine boards and Jordan Tolbert posted a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • Bucknell (12-4) maintained their one-game lead atop the Patriot League with an 80-59 win over Boston University. Chris Hass scored 21 points and Stephen Brown accounted for ten assists and six rebounds in the win for the Bison.
  • George Washington avoided what would have been a bad loss, as they blew out La Salle 90-50 in the nation’s capital. The Colonials won big despite committing 19 turnovers, with Tyler Cavanaugh scoring 22 points and Patricio Garino 19.
  • Monmouth rebounded from its loss to Iona with an 82-75 overtime win at Saint Peter’s. Micah Seaborn scored 26 points and Justin Robinson 22 for the Hawks (15-3), who lead Iona (13-4) by a game in the loss column atop the MAAC standings.
  • Valparaiso won for the eighth time in the last nine games, beating Detroit 90-74 on Senior Day. Alec Peters led the way with 32 points and 11 rebounds.
  • Hofstra (12-4) held off Northeastern, 65-60 in Hempstead to remain a game behind first-place UNCW (13-3) in the CAA. The Pride visit UNCW Thursday night in the teams’ penultimate game of the regular season.
  • San Diego State wrapped up at least a share of the Mountain West title with a 78-56 win over San José State. Winston Shepard accounted for 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, and Malik Pope added 17 points and 11 rebounds.
  • UAB retained sole possession of first place in Conference USA with a ten-point win (77-67) at Middle Tennessee. Dirk Williams scored 19 points for the Blazers, who lead Marshall by a game.
  • Temple remains alone atop the American, as they won 69-66 at Houston. Obi Enechionyia scored 26 points and grabbed seven rebounds, helping the Owls account for a 2-for-12 night from Quenton DeCosey.
  • Wisconsin turned their game around with a 15-0 second half run, as they beat Illinois 69-60 in Madison. Ethan Happ led the way with 20 points, 12 rebounds and six steals.
  • California won its fifth straight game, beating Washington State 80-62 in Pullman. Six players scored at least eight points for Cal, with Tyrone Wallace scoring 17 and Ivan Rabb 15.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: It’s Buddy Hield and then everyone else

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There’s no denying it at this point: Buddy Hield is the favorite to win the Player of the Year award in college basketball this season.

Anyone that says otherwise is being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, and there are a couple of reasons for that. For starters, Hield is having the most efficient season of any high-usage player in the KenPom era. I explained this in detail yesterday (right here), but for simplicity’s sake, no one in the last 13 years has been as potent offensively as Buddy. Not J.J. Redick or Adam Morrison or Stephen Curry or Jimmer Fredette or Doug McDermott. No one.

He’s also the only player since the 1994-95 season to shoot at least eight threes per game and make more than 52.0 percent of those threes. The closest anyone came to that was Troy Hudson of Southern Illinois, who shot 51.1 percent on 8.7 3PAs per game.

So yes, Hield is having a historically great season.

But he’s not the only guy on this list that’s doing so.

Providence guard Kris Dunn is one of just two players since 1994-95 (that’s the reference point because it’s as far back as this database goes) to average at least 17 points, six boards and six assists in a season, and he’s the only one to do all of that while also notching three steals per night.

The other guy to do that?

Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, who is the only player to average 18 points, seven boards and six assists in the last 21 years. That would usually lock Valentine in as the hands-down favorite to win, at the very least, the Big Ten Player of the Year award, except Jarrod Uthoff is currently averaging 2.5 blocks and shooting 46.4 percent from three, something that no one has done (while averaging more than two 3PAs per game) since 1994.

Should I mention that Uthoff is also averaging 18.6 points for a top five team that is currently sitting in first place in the Big Ten standings?

And I haven’t even mentioned BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth, who is on pace to be the first player in that database to average at least 15 points, seven boards and seven assists.

In other words, that’s a really long way of saying that Hield is not the only player in college basketball having an unbelievable season. So saying that this is Hield’s award to lose at this point isn’t a shot at anyone else in the field, because he’s one shooting slump away from looking relatively mortal, and shooting slumps can happen to the best of them. (Ask Marcus Paige).

What it is, however, is a sign of just how good Hield — and Oklahoma — have been this year.

Anyway, here are the Power Rankings. You can follow along with the countdown on the CBT Facebook page right here.

College Basketball’s Most Improved Players

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On Wednesday, we released our Midseason Awards, which included the NBCSports.com All-American teams, the Player of the Year, the Coach of the Year and the Freshman of the Year.

We also named our Most Improved Player. That decision wasn’t quite as easy as it seemed, so here is a complete list of the nation’s most improved players:

THE BREAKOUT STARS

Ben Bentil, Providence: As we wrote yesterday, Bentil had some promising moments as a freshman and found his way onto a few Breakout Stars lists in the preseaosn, but I don’t anyone could have predicted that he would end up being a guy that averages 19 points and eight boards for a team ranked in the top ten. He’s got a legitimate case to be an all-american. Who saw that coming?

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was the Big 12 Player of the Year last season and, depending on where you looked, he found his way onto some all-american teams as well. But he did all that as a guy that was more-or-less a spot-up shooter that did much of his damage in transition. This season, he’s become Oklahoma’s late-clock option. He’s getting isolations. He’s the ball handler in pick-and-roll actions, and he’s far more effective doing it as well. Last season, he scored 21 points in 42 totals isolations, according to Synergy’s logs. This season, he’s already had 29 isolation possessions and scored 31 points. When you factor in possessions that end in a pass, he’s creating 1.083 PPP in ball screen actions as compared to 0.825 PPP last season.

Kelan Martin, Butler: This may be a situation where Martin simply needed to get the opportunity, but he’s become the most consistent offensive weapon for a Butler team that’s currently ranked in the top 20. Martin, who is averaging 14.1 points after scoring 7.7 per game last season, began the season as Butler’s sixth-man but played his way into the starting lineup with Kellen Dunham’s shooting slump.

Elijah Brown, New Mexico: Brown has usurped coach’s son Cullen Neal as the star of the Lobo back court. A redshirt sophomore, Butler transfer and the son of former NBA coach Mike Brown, Elijah is averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 boards and 3.1 assists.

Moses Kingsley, Arkansas: As a freshman, Kingsley played 10 minutes a game and averaged just 3.4 points and 2.5 boards. As a sophomore, he’s averaging 17.1 points, 9.9 boards and 2.5 blocks, turning into a guy that may actually be the best big man in the SEC. Chew on that for a second.

Michael Gbinije, Syracuse: The fifth-year senior has become one of the best guards in the ACC and is one of the only reason that Syracuse has a reason to believe they can play their way into an NCAA tournament bid. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 4.7 boards and 4.3 assists.

Yante Maten, Georgia: Maten, a sophomore, has become the anchor on the interior for a Georgia team that still has NCAA tournament hopes. The 6-foot-8 Michigan native is averaging 16.5 points and 7.2 boards.

Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall: When he’s not getting benched for yelling at his coach, Rodriguez is a pretty important piece for the Pirates, averaging 12.0 points and shooting 38.1 percent from three after going 1-for-12 as a freshmen.

Kendrick Nunn, Illinois: Nunn, along with Malcolm Hill, is the reason this season isn’t a total loss for the Illini. He’s averaging 18.5 points as a junior.

Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech: LeDay averaged 3.5 points for South Florida in 2013-14. He’s averaging 14.7 points and 9.5 boards for the Hokies this season and went for 22 points and seven boards in the win over No. 4 Virginia on Monday night.

George King, Colorado: King is a redshirt sophomore that didn’t play much as a freshman and then sat out last season as Tad Boyle knew that he wouldn’t get much playing time. It paid off, as King is Colorado’s second-leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points and shooting 43.1 percent from three.

Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has embraced the point guard role for the Tar Heels, averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 assists as he’s allowed Marcus Paige to spend more time playing off the ball.

Bradley Hayes, Georgetown: Hayes was a total non-factor in his first three seasons with the Hoyas but has emerged as the best low-post scorer for this Georgetown team, averaging 9.4 points and 6.6 boards.

THE ALL-AMERICANS: There is also a small subset of guys that belong on the most improved list that were already pretty damn good.

  • Grayson Allen, Duke: I really struggled with whether or not to include Allen on this list at all, because I’m not convinced that he’s all that much better than he was last season. He’s having a sensational season — we have him as a second team all-american right now — but how much of that is simply a result of Allen finally seeing the floor? A lot of it, I think.
  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah: Poeltl could have been a lottery pick had he bolted for the NBA after last season, which means that some folks may not realize just how much better he is right now than he was at this time last season. He’s got post moves, he can pass out of double teams and he’s still one of the best defensive centers in college basketball.
  • Brice Johnson, North Carolina: Johnson has played himself into All-American consideration in the last seven games, as Kennedy Meeks has been out with a knee issue. It came to a head on Monday: 39 points, 23 boards, three steals, three blocks. Talent isn’t the issue. It’s assertiveness and aggressiveness. Let’s see if it lasts.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine has always seemed like one of those dudes where we’re going to say, “He’s a great college players.” Now, after his start to the 2015-16 season, there’s a real shot he ends up getting picked in the first round.

 

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.