What Stanford did well: The things a big team does.
As a team that got more minutes from seven-footers than any other D-I team but Colorado State last season, you'd expect Stanford to look like a big team on the stat sheet. Indeed, the Cardinal was accomplished in areas that teams with size should be: They rebounded well on both ends of the floor, they blocked shots, they rarely had their own shots blocked and they held opponents to a low two-point FG%.
Stanford wasn't very good at taking care of the ball and was especially poor at forcing turnovers, with the third-worst defensive turnover rate in the country. The latter can be excused as a design of Trent Johnson's defensive system. After all, if it's difficult for opponents to score inside the arc, then you might as well concentrate on forcing them to take shots there. However, the giveaways on offense were costly, because this was a team needed to get off shots to be successful. Stanford didn't shoot well, but it rebounded so many of its misses that merely getting something to the rim often led to positive things. There was no better example of that than their first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Louisville. Stanford wilted under Rick Pitino's team's pressure en route to a 77-57 loss that became lopsided early. The 21-turnover performance was one of Stanford's worst offensive games. They scored just 58 points in 70 possessions despite rebounding about half of their missed shots.
What we learned in 2007: Mike Montgomery missed the college game.
It's not a new story. Successful college coach gets a job in the NBA, loses a bunch of games, gets fired, and finds himself back at the college level. In the case of former Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery, who won 393 games during a 19-year run in Palo Alto that ended in 2004, he returns to his old school, but as Assistant to the Athletic Director and not as head coach. Regardless, Montgomery will be a valuable asset to Trent Johnson. This won't be an uncomfortable situation, either. Johnson's job is secure; he worked under Montgomery on the Stanford staff in the late '90s. If Montgomery wants to get back to a college bench, it's going to be somewhere else. In the meantime, he'll be a valuable adviser to the Stanford program.
What's in store for 2008: Stanford returns its top nine players by minutes played last season. Coming off a season that ended with a surprising appearance in the NCAA Tournament, there's a high ceiling for this team. Sophomore seven-footer Brook Lopez decided to come back to Stanford this year (though he'll miss the first seven games due to an academic suspension), a decision that wasn't obvious at the end of the season.
While Lopez carried the biggest shooting load of any Pac-10 player, there's room for improvement in his game. He posted a 50.2 eFG%, which isn't the kind of thing you want to see from an imposing big man. Brook does get pushed to the power forward on occasion when his identical twin brother Robin is in the game, and Brook will shoot some jump shots (he actually tried 15 three-pointers) so that partially explains a lower than expected shooting accuracy. Given how often he shot, his shooting percentage certainly isn't horrible, but it could improve. The real problem areas are that he commits turnovers at a high rate, even considering how often he touches the ball, and he doesn't grab offensive rebounds well considering his size - his OR% of 8.1 is worse than the average 6'7" player. He also is merely an average shot blocker for his size, swatting about 6% of opposing two-point attempts.
With all that said, Trent Johnson is fortunate to have Brook Lopez back, even if he is a little soft. Lesser players have decided to develop their game in the NBA instead of college. Robin Lopez is definitely not the offensive force that his brother is, but he does block shots and rebound on the offensive end better.
Even with the twins around, it's not all rosy. Junior forward Lawrence Hill made amazing progress between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Had I written a preview last season, I probably would have given Hill about eight words describing his woeful shooting and moved on. But Hill went from being an awful shooter (42.0 eFG%) to a great one (58.0%). His true skill is likely closer to great, but he'll also likely take a step back towards normalcy this season.
The big weak spot is at point guard. Mitch Johnson shot poorly in 2007 and turned the ball over too frequently. The shooting may not be a glaring problem since Hill and Brook Lopez will own such a large share of the team's shot attempts. Stanford was one of the more turnover prone teams in the Pac-10, and if they want to rise above the middle of the league, they're going to need better point guard play. Also starting in the backcourt will be junior Anthony Goods, who stepped into the starting lineup last season after playing sparingly as a freshman. Goods performed well, though he set a high bar by scoring 30 in his starting debut against Siena in Stanford's opening game. Goods was the third option offensively, and should retain that role this season. Filling out the starting lineup will be fifth-year senior Fred Washington. Washington is not much of a factor offensively, and tends to be turnover-prone as well.
Stanford also has experience on its bench. Most notably, 6'5" sophomore Landry Fields and 6'8" senior Taj Finger averaged double-digit minutes last season. However, with every starter returning, it's unlikely either will see an increase in playing time.
In a conference with some high-profile big men, Brook Lopez may be the best of them this season. There's plenty of room for his game to grow, and grow it must if Stanford is to challenge for UCLA for conference supremacy.
What UCLA did well: Play lock-down defense.
I hope you weren't expecting something shocking here, because it's no surprise that a Ben Howland team would play excellent defense. UCLA had no weakness on defense. Their 3P% allowed was a below average 35.1% for the season, but that's deceiving because they allowed the 11th fewest three-point attempts in the nation.
The 2007 UCLA defense was the best of Howland's tenure in Westwood. While you can count on UCLA games being low-scoring, when the D is at its best, their games aren't boring. Their defense is aggressive, frequently double-teaming and jumping into passing lanes and forcing steals. It's not a clutch-and-grab defense, at least not by today's standards. It's a defense based on anticipation and quickness.
What we learned in 2007: Defense doesn't win championships.
Actually, this is more of a stand against traditional basketball platitudes than anything else. There isn't one single thing that wins championships; having a great defense is a good start towards winning one. In fact, had Arron Afflalo not picked up his second foul on a seemingly phantom call less than two minutes into the national semifinal against Florida, UCLA may well have gotten its championship. "May" being the key word. Florida was the better team even when Afflalo was on the floor, but nobody can doubt that having to play Michael Roll for about 12 more minutes than Howland would have liked significantly degraded UCLA's chances of an upset.
What's in store for 2008: UCLA loses only Afflalo from a team that was among the best in the nation at the end of the season, and they have what some have tabbed as the nation's best incoming freshman in center Kevin Love. It doesn't take fancy analysis to understand that this year's version of the Bruins should be thinking national championship from the get-go, and you couldn't hold it against someone for making UCLA the preseason #1.
The best news UCLA got in the offseason was that junior point guard Darren Collison would be coming back to the Bruins. Collison was projected to be a first-round pick after doing a stellar job replacing his predecessor, fellow first-round pick Jordan Farmar. Collison's offensive game is different than Farmar's, with the prime difference being that Collison doesn't shoot as much, but is much more accurate.
This change forced Afflalo and Josh Shipp to get more involved in the offense than in previous seasons. It also should allow Kevin Love to come in and have every opportunity to put up big offensive numbers, as much as that can be done on a slow-paced team. Love rose to the top of multiple recruiting rankings last season, and he enters with the reputation of being the rare freshman big man with a refined offensive game. He's actually comfortable with his back to the basket, something that can't be said about many college players, regardless of class.
More than likely, Love will need to live up to his billing for UCLA to fulfill the #1 prophecies. UCLA must improve its offense to have a shot at April glory, and outside of Collison and Shipp, does not return anyone who can be expected to produce consistently. Additionally, Afflalo was the Bruins' best individual defender, so there's no guarantee that UCLA's defense will be able to maintain its status as arguably the nation's best defense.
UCLA returns junior Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and senior Lorenzo Mata, who started every game last season, and top reserve Alfred Aboya, who averaged 18 minutes a game. The details on each player are slightly different, but all are excellent rebounders who contribute little else on the offensive end. Lorenzo Mata made 64.2% of his shots from the field last season, but primarily on putbacks and shots within five feet. Mata also is a late-game liability because of his poor free-throw shooting. At 37.23%, Mata missed being the worst free-throw shooter in the nation (among those with at least 60 FTA's) by 0.02%. He has New Mexico State center Martin Iti to thank.
Mbah a Moute is still regarded of having the most upside of the trio, but there's the issue of his major rate stats having regressed during his sophomore season.
ORtg %Poss OR% DR% eFG% FTRate
2006 113.3 18.1 13.5 21.5 54.8 45.0
2007 102.9 18.3 10.5 21.0 51.3 33.5
Mbah a Moute did suffer a sprained right knee in late January and actually missed a game against Arizona because of it. He actually shot better after the injury than before it, so any thoughts that his numbers were affected by his health can be ruled out. It's likely that commentators will be talking about Mbah a Moute's potential more than his output for another season.
Ben Howland has one of the stronger benches in the land at his disposal. The aforementioned Michael Roll will be one of the top reserves, filling in at shooting guard. Russell Westbrook can spell Collison at the point. Howland also has freshman Chase Stanback, who is expected to fill some minutes at the three. The Bruins were expecting sophomore forward and former high school All-American James Keefe to take on a bigger role, but a summer shoulder injury will keep him sidelined until conference play starts.
The UCLA offense is going to be heavily dependent on the trio of Love, Collison and Shipp. Love, and to a lesser extent Collison, have not been in that situation at the collegiate level, but Shipp proved last season that he could take a large offensive load (23.5 usage rate) and be successful. The only uncertainty with Shipp is his health. He had hip surgery for the second time in the last two years in April, This time surgery was on the left hip, and not the right one that cause him to miss nearly the entire 2006 season.
Howland's run of excellence should continue in 2008, but that doesn't mean the future is certain for the Bruins. Of all the teams getting #1 buzz, UCLA has the most unknowns. However, this team is the favorite to win the conference again. Like most teams that rely heavily on a freshman, they may get off to a slow start, but by the time March rolls around, a healthy UCLA team will be one of the best in the nation.
What USC did well: Improve their shot selection.
In Tim Floyd's second season at USC, the Trojans made great strides in the areas that hurt them most in Floyd's inaugural season: shooting offense and defense. On the offensive side, much of the Trojans' improvement can be chalked up to their judicious use of the three-point shot. In 2006, USC took 34.6% of their shots from three-point range, a figure that dropped to 26.3% (23rd-lowest in the nation) last season. Not surprisingly, USC's three-point accuracy increased as the team became more discriminatory in its approach, from 34.5% to 39.5% (23rd-best in the country). In fact, their 3-point percentage rose to 40.9% in conference play, fourth-best among power conference teams. You could make the case that USC actually went too far to the other extreme.
What we learned in 2007: USC's bench did not like to shoot.
One thing became apparent during USC's 2007 campaign: If somebody was on the floor who wasn't in Tim Floyd's six-man rotation, they weren't a threat to shoot the ball. It's rare for a player to only take about 10% of his team's shots while he's on the floor. Of the 3,368 players that clocked at least 10% of their team's minutes, only 103 took fewer than 11% of their team's shots. USC had three such players on their bench: RouSean Cromwell, Keith Wilkinson and Kevin Galloway (who quit the team mid-season). A fourth bench player, Abdoulaye N'Diaye, took about 14% of USC's shots. For the most part, when somebody took off their warm-ups, the opposition could eliminate them as a shooting option. In the season-ender against North Carolina, USC reserves took a total of two shots from the field and none from the free-throw line.
What's in store for 2008: While seven of the ten teams in the conference return at least 70% of their minutes from last season, USC falls into the minority that returns less than half of their playing time from 2006. Of course, the introduction of point guard O.J. Mayo should be an upgrade from last season, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a very young team in a league with a lot of experience.
That's not to say we should count out USC in the Pac-10 race. The situation isn't much different from last season, when three freshmen were among the Trojans' top seven in terms of playing time. However, they will have to replace Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt, who were taken with the 16th and 32nd picks, respectively, in the NBA Draft. There's a pretty good chance--but no guarantee--that Mayo can improve on what Young did during this junior season in 2007. While Mayo won't be replacing Young in terms of position on the floor (Young played both the two and the three last season), he will be needed to replace Young's contribution to the offense. There's a temptation to say that Young was the 16th pick, and Mayo will be a top-three pick in '08, so of course Mayo is going to be better than Young. But let's look at Young's season as compared to some of the better freshmen performers last season.
Player ORtg %Poss
Nick Young 110.6 25.0
Kevin Durant 116.5 31.6
Greg Oden 116.2 26.3
Ryan Anderson 114.3 23.8
When looking at all freshmen who played at least 70% of their team's minutes, only Durant and Oden were obviously more productive offensively than Nick Young was. I threw Cal's Ryan Anderson in the comparison because there were a bunch of players that could claim to be the third-most productive freshman in the country last season. Anderson was among that group, and being in the Pac-10, provides a direct comparison of what a very good freshman season looks like, and it was only marginally better than Young's season.
Mayo will almost certainly post numbers closer to Durant and Oden than Anderson, but it's far from a slam dunk that Mayo will be a significantly better go-to guy than Young was. In order for USC to match their 11 conference wins from '07, the Trojans will have to be more than the O.J. Show.
There will be a lot of competition as to who will join Mayo in the backcourt. A late development for the program was the eligibility of 5'10" freshman Angelo Johnson, who should get some minutes at the point and push Mayo to the shooting guard when he does. Two other sophomores figure to get regular minutes at the two and occasionally the wing. Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis are both 6'5" and differ in the respect that Hackett has a reputation of being a defensive specialist while Lewis is more involved on the offensive end.
The most notable of Mayo's teammates is sophomore C/PF Taj Gibson. Gibson started every game for Tim Floyd, and turned out to be very well-rounded. He's a proficient rebounder on both ends, he blocks shots and he is an effective offensive player. He'll have plenty of room to grow on this team, and it's not out of the question that he'll lead the team in scoring. Finding a big man to play alongside Gibson will be the challenge. Junior RouSean Cromwell averaged 13 minutes a game and actually started five of them, but hardly ever shoots (taking only 10% of his team's shots) and is a poor rebounder for his size. Among USC's large freshman class is seven-footer Mamadou Diarra. Even if Diarra is a project, there's enough playing time to go around up front for him to get minutes.
Floyd brought in three freshmen capable of playing the wing, with 6'8" Davon Jefferson the most likely to earn big minutes. Regardless of how much the freshmen play, this is a team where even the returning players lack experience. Any time you lose your three best players, a drop-off can be expected. But with the addition of Mayo and, to a lesser degree, Jefferson, that's not necessarily a guarantee.
What Washington did well: Grab offensive boards.
In the time I've been using advanced basketball statistics--which isn't that long, mind you--it always seems that offensive rebounding is undervalued by our counterparts who are not statistically savvy. Often, people simply refer qualitatively to a team's rebounding ability. We're advanced enough now to separate rebounding into its offensive and defensive components. And offensive rebounding can be a big reason why an offense is consistently successful.
Not that the Huskies' offense was great last season; it wasn't. In the other two major offensive factors they weren't very good. They turned the ball over too much and didn't get to the line very often, especially considering they hardly shot three-pointers. They also didn't shoot well, but since they rebounded so many of their misses (42.2%, second most in the country), their shooting percentage wasn't as big of a concern. A lot of their misses became putbacks. The rebounding prowess shouldn't diminish this season. Washington's only significant departure was 6'11" center Spencer Hawes, who went 10th in the NBA draft. His big weakness was that he wasn't a very good rebounder on the offensive end. Among the 67 NCAA players listed at 6'11" last season, Hawes ranked 52nd with his OR% of 8.2.
What we learned in 2007: NBA potential doesn't mean much on the college level.
It's an old truth in college basketball, and just about any other sport, that talent wins. In the college game, one arbiter of talent is the NBA. From the moment Spencer Hawes arrived in Seattle, it was thought that he would be an NBA lottery pick after his freshman season. It was partly based on these thoughts that Washington was tabbed as the AP pre-season #17 team despite losing arguably the best all-around player in the college game in Brandon Roy.
Hawes came and went and fulfilled the lottery-pick prophecies, but wasn't a terribly effective center by Pac-10 standards, and he probably wasn't the most valuable player on his own team. In terms of overall value, Jon Brockman was at least comparable to Hawes, but Brockman isn't on the NBA's radar at the moment. Hawes has more upside, but sometimes the gulf between upside and reality can be so big that it skews our perception of what a player is actually doing for his college team.
What's in store for 2008: Losing a lottery pick off a team that failed to meet expectations isn't a formula for success the following season. When the reason for the disappointment was partly because of that lottery pick, then there actually is reason for hope. That's the situation for the '08 Huskies. Don't misunderstand me, Hawes will not be easy to replace, and Washington doesn't have a true center on the roster who can step in and give head coach Lorenzo Romar serious minutes. Still, Hawes won't be as difficult to replace as his draft slot suggests.
Washington returns a nucleus that includes the 6'7" Brockman and 6'6" sophomore Quincy Pondexter, both of whom were reliable scorers, with Pondexter getting his points a little farther from the hoop. In addition, senior Ryan Appleby was one of the better three-point specialists in the nation last season, hitting 43.3% of his attempts. Running the point will be junior Justin Dentmon, who started all but six of UW's games in his first two seasons. Dentmon has a problem with turnovers and has not convinced opponents he can make shots, be they inside the arc or out. He's posted eFG% of 46.1 and 45.1 his first two seasons.
There will be no replacement for Hawes, but all that means is that Washington will revert to the Romar prototype of a smaller and faster team. This was the standard for NCAA Tournament trips in '04, '05, and '06. Consider the slip in the Huskies pace last season.
Adj. Poss/40 min National Rank
2007 70.0 37
2006 72.8 11
2005 72.9 14
2004 75.2 3
A drop of three possessions per game isn't huge, but the offense was tangibly more deliberate while trying to get Hawes involved. There should be a rebound in pace this season with a frontline that includes Brockman, Pondexter and some combination of 6'8" junior Artem Wallace, 6'9" freshman Matthew Bryan-Amaning and 6'8" freshman Darnell Gant.
Washington's offense should be good enough to get them to the tournament, especially if the point-guard play improves. Some questions linger on the defense, which finished with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of 82, third-worst in the conference. Once again, the loss of Hawes shouldn't be obsessed over. Hawes was a respectable defensive rebounder, but only a so-so shot blocker, and generally not thought of as a defensive presence considering his size.
Appleby brings the typical baggage of a one-dimensional player in that he is a poor defender. Whoever is on the floor at the point, be it the 5-11 Dentmon or 6-0 freshman Venoy Overton, will be on the short side. UW's Achilles' heel was forcing turnovers; they ranked 309th in forcing steals and 273rd in forcing turnovers. A slightly more athletic front line and a more aggressive defense in general should cause that figure to improve, but there's little to suggest it will recover to 2006 levels, when Washington was 30th in the nation in forcing turnovers.
Washington has enough talent to get back to the NCAA Tournament after a one year absence. Perhaps more importantly is that there are no one-and-dones on this roster. This season may be a rebound year, but it could also set the stage for a 2009 run at a Pac-10 title.
What Washington State did well: Take care of the basketball.
When a team isn't in the business of grabbing offensive rebounds, it better make the most of its possessions. That's what the Cougars did last season, giving the ball away on about one in every six possessions, the sixth-best rate in the country. Individually, one has to marvel at the transformation of combo guard Derrick Low. In 2006, Low committed 51 turnovers in 637 minutes played. In 2007, he played 533 more minutes and committed five fewer turnovers.
The improvement in ball security was vital to the success of Washington State's offense, because they rarely get second chances. If you don't get second chances, you better get a bunch of first chances. By not giving the ball away, Wazzu ensured that it got enough shots even without rebounding its own misses. It didn't hurt that they posted an eFG of 52.0% on the season, making their first shot a score more often than it was for most teams.
What we learned in 2007: Washington State was one of the biggest surprises in the nation.
The Cougars' head coach, Tony Bennett, pretty much swept national Coach of the Year awards last season. Coach of the Year in any sport is just another way to say "this team exceeded expectations more than anybody else." Indeed, by some objective methods, Wazzu did provide the biggest surprise in the country last season. These objective methods will be discussed after the season starts, but for now just know that a team that wins four games in conference, was significantly unlucky, and returned about 60% of its minutes, should expect an improvement to seven wins the following season. The Cougars won 13 conference games last season, exceeding their formulaic projection by six, more than any other power conference team did.
What's in store for 2008: Just like a four-win team can be blindly expected to improve in the absence of any other factors, a 13-win team can be expected to fall back to the pack without knowing anything else. Additional information tells us that Washington State's out-of-the-blue performance in 2007 is more likely to be the start of a prolonged period of good basketball than a total fluke. First of all, based on point differential, Washington State deserved those 13 wins. Second, the Cougars return about 80% of their minutes from 2007. Only UCLA and Stanford return more in the Pac-10, and even then, it's barely more.
This is a case where if we renamed Washington State "Arizona," it would be unthinkable to keep them out of a preseason top 10. Think about it; this team went 13-5 in conference and each of their losses was by eight points or less, including two overtime games. Statistically, there was nothing fluky about the Cougars' season. Most of their offense was generated inside the arc, and they also defended the paint very well. The name on the jersey shouldn't matter in an evaluation of this team. In the past five years we've seen teams like Texas A&M and Air Force shed decades of bad basketball history to become factors in their conference's races.
There is one legitimate argument in favor of a potential Washington State disappointment in 2008. The Cougars may not have a first-round draft choice on their roster. Their starting backcourt, featuring seniors Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low, will get some interest from NBA teams depending on their performance this season. But "some interest" means they could go in the first round or simply be undrafted free agents. It's an unusual situation considering how many other teams in the conference (UCLA, Arizona, USC and Stanford) have prospects that are lottery hopefuls.
No backcourt tandem averaged more minutes than Low and Weaver in 2007, and that doesn't figure to change this season. The two are somewhat interchangeable positionally, but Weaver played much more of the point in '07, and given Low's drastic reduction in turnovers playing the two, this combination delivers the most offense. The style of each player is almost exactly complementary. Low connected on 39.9% of his 188 three-point attempts last season and got to the free throw line just 76 times. Weaver was just 9-for-38 from three-point range and got to the line 139 times.
The Cougars have one other three-point threat in 6'7" junior Daven Harmeling. Harmeling is even more of a shooting specialist than Low is, taking about 60% of his shots from three-point range and making 43.0% of them. Amazingly, despite averaging 27 minutes in 33 games played, Harmeling grabbed a total of just eight offensive rebounds. Washington State's center will be 6'10" senior Robbie Cowgill, a three-year starter. Cowgill fits the WSU stereotype--he's an adequate defensive rebounder and especially stingy with turnovers. Cowgill has not had much impact on the offensive end during his career, and in '07 he shot just 48.0% from two-point range even though he was very selective on his shots.
With the loss of wing Ivory Clark, Tony Bennett should give numerous minutes to a three-guard lineup that will include 6'1" sophomore Taylor Rochestie. Bennett played a similar lineup over the last month of the '07 season, when Rochestie's playing time rose from 11.1 mpg before February 8 to 28.7 mpg after that date. The defense suffered under this lineup, which is not surprising considering that Clark, whose minutes were similarly cut, was the team's best shot blocker and defensive rebounder.
State's bench is thin, but considering the pace this team is comfortable with (last season they were the 14th-slowest team in the nation), this can be hidden. Junior Aron Baynes will get significant minutes at center, and it's not out of the question he could take over the starting spot from Cowgill at some point. Baynes actually played alongside Cowgill for significant stretches late in the season, possibly making Washington State the only team to employ a three-guard, two-center lineup.
A few things went right for the Cougars last season, but overall this team was convincingly the second-best team in the Pac-10. Assuming they avoid key injuries in 2008, Washington State will back in the Tournament with a high seed. However, given the competition at the top of the conference, a repeat second-place finish is far from a sure thing.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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