Pac-10 Debacle



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

We've been putting marquee games under the SPOTLIGHT for the past couple of weeks, helping you learn and understand what makes national contenders click as we get closer to the college postseason.

There's not really a marquee game Thursday Night involving teams we haven't already talked about. ESPN had been hoping Arizona/Cal was going to be based on preseason expectations. Instead:

*Arizona has fallen off the map, dropping so far in the power ratings this year that they don't even matter any more! It's amazing that BOTH Arizona and UCLA went from being perennial powerhouses to virtual doormats so quickly.

*California has failed to meet lofty preseason expectations, but has now settled the ship to a degree that they're seen as a sure thing for the Big Dance. Things have gotten so bad for the Pac 10 that Cal could be their ONLY entrant if the Bears win the postseason tournament.

To us, that's enough to garner some SPOTLIGHT coverage. Does Cal have a chance to do anything important in the Big Dance? What the heck happened to Arizona? We'll run through are standard categories in a moment. First, some preliminaries...

*Cal currently leads the Pac 10 with a 10-5 record. Arizona is tied for fifth place with a 7-7 mark. Cal only has a half game lead over Arizona State up at the top, and will be facing ASU on Saturday in their regular season home finale.

*Arizona won the first meeting between the two teams 76-72 at home, pulling a bit of an upset. We say 'a bit' because Cal has been fairly mediocre on the road, and has had worse road results than that. From Arizona's perspective, it was their biggest victory of the year in terms of the caliber of their opponent. Remember, this is an Arizona team that lost a home game to BYU by 30 points!

*Arizona is playing some of its worst basketball of the year right now. They're just 1-4 straight up since the home upset of Cal. And, that includes a very poor 8-point home loss to Oregon State. And, the Cats just dropped a rivalry rematch to Arizona State at home, after scoring an upset on the road earlier this season. They're not playing as well as a 7-7 league record would indicate at the moment.

*Cal has played four games this year against teams who will get respected seedings in the Big Dance...going 0-4 against Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico, and Kansas. Even if they end up impressing you in tonight's TV game...remember that Cal is WELL behind the true elite teams in the country this year.

Okay, let's run these two teams through our SPOTLIGHT gauntlet to get some insights about what they're doing right or wrong so far this season...

California is fairly fast, ranking in the top quarter of the nation in pace right now. They're about 3-4 possessions per game above the national average. Arizona is slightly higher than the national average. Quick, but not fast as the coaches like to say. The first meeting between these two landed on 71 possessions, which was Cal's pace even though the game was being played at Arizona. We should expect at least that many possessions here on Cal's home floor. If you're searching for positives, you can say that each team brings energy to the floor.

Both teams are abysmal defensively, allowing 48% on two-point baskets. And, that's while playing manageable schedules in a crappy conference! That probably tells the story in a nutshell more than anything. The Pac 10 is horrible this year because it's best team can't play defense, and one of its most storied programs from the past doesn't guard any more either.

That makes the outlook is really bleak for the postseason. So many quality teams are playing good defense. How is Cal going to carry the banner of the Pac 10 very far? They'll have to shoot lights out against those good defenses because they won't be playing good defense themselves.

Cal's offense inside isn't half bad to be fair. They rank in the top 50 nationally at 51.6% on two-point baskets. That's okay, but far from elite. If the 'highlight' of your inside game is a top 50 ranking heading into a tourney that's going to have most of the top 50 teams in it...well, that's not very good news.

Arizona is only shooting 48% this year inside the arc, registering almost exactly at the national average. When there are over 300 teams being measured...national average is pretty lousy!

Three-point shooting isn't a point of emphasis for either team. Cal is one of the many squads now who post a decent percentage (37%) by only taking the open looks when they get them. That's a smart way to do it obviously. But, you can't really say treys are a 'weapon' for the Bears. Just 25% of their offense comes from treys, well below the national average.

Arizona shoots more than Cal, but is slightly less successful. This just isn't a year where it's easy to find nice things to say about Arizona! If they played in the Big Ten or Big East, they might be looking at a 10-20 type season.

Cal has a relatively short rotation, and is below the national average in terms of bench minutes. This isn't a deep team, which is likely to be a problem against many teams they could match up against in March. Against a physical power, the poor inside game could lead to foul trouble. Against a fast and talented opponent, Cal could run out of gas in the last 10 minutes.

Arizona's in the same boat in terms of depth. Imagine how bad the bench players are if they're not getting many minutes on a struggling team!

You know, there's just not that big a difference between these teams! Cal is better at scoring inside the arc. They've figured out how to turn the jets on at home in a way that's escaped Arizona. You can see why Arizona won the first meeting (the teams are similar and Cal is mediocre on the road). You can see why Arizona may be in a lot more trouble this evening in Berkely, particularly given their recent form.

One of our goals today was to figure out what happened to Arizona. We compared them to the 2005 team that went 30-7, and noted the following:

*Arizona at its best was MUCH better offensively. That 2005 team shot a whopping 40% from three-point land (which is the equivalent of 60% on two-pointers), and was very strong in two-point shooting and offensive rebounding.

*Arizona was actually fairly soft defensively by national standards even in their prime. We remember talking about this back in the day. They didn't have the bangers of the Big East or Big Ten. They'd try to outshoot you, and often had so much scoring talent that they could pull it off.

*Arizona definitely had that 'go for the jugular' mentality in its home games. That helped them pad their record and inflate their stats in a way that often had them overseeded in the Dance. And, maybe Lute Olsen had a way with refs that his successors lack.

So, in short, Arizona hasn't been able to recruit offensive superstars lately, and isn't getting the respect at home they used to enjoy. That's really it in terms of the totality of the fade-out. It can be a fine line sometimes. Lute Olsen had them on the plus side of that fine line thanks to his ability to bring in star scoring talent.

We hope today's discussion has helped you understand college hoops a bit better. We may or may not have a big play in Arizona/Cal tonight. Other games of interest for us on the schedule include:

Cleveland/Boston in the NBA on TNT
Tulsa/Duke on ESPN2
South Carolina/Kentucky on ESPN
Oregon State/UCLA on FSN
Utah State at Hawaii late night in the WAC

Brace yourselves folks...we have mid major tournaments starting as early as TUESDAY! March starts Monday, which means MARCH MADNESS is almost here!

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Don't miss another day. The most exciting legal sports betting month of the entire year is upon us!

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