Pac-12 coaches teleconference: Men's basketball ramps up for conference play
Pac-12 men's basketball programs have spent the past two months darting throughout America and even to the Bahamas (lucky Bruins), but now it's time to get down to the nitty gritty. The conference schedule is slated to start on Friday when eight Pac-12 teams will take the floor in their respective league openers.
The Pac-12 coaches spoke to reporters via conference call on Tuesday about this year's talented group of freshmen and their expectations for the league heading into 2015.
Arizona's Sean Miller
The Wildcats (12-1) dropped from No. 3 to No. 8 in the latest Associated Press top 25 poll after last week's 71-67 loss to UNLV, but Arizona enters conference play as the Pac-12's highest-ranked team. While many expect Arizona to claim the regular season conference crown, Miller isn't chalking up anything yet.
"Last year we had a number of teams go to the NCAA tourmanent and the NIT. And I think the same thing is going to happen this year," Miller said. "You look at who's going to win the conference championship. I think there are four or five teams you could make the argument are in the mix to do it. I also think that there are a number of teams that are better than we thought."
Miller's team might have gone undefeated in its first dozen games to start the year, but the coach acknowledged that his team had some "slippage" throughout the non-conference schedule and UNLV was able to exploit it. Still, he also noted that UNLV has been the only team to top 70 points against Arizona thus far, while pointing to improvements that need to be made on the other side of the court.
"Whether it's our free throw shooting, our offensive rebounding -- or lack thereof -- or maybe that four or five extra turnovers," Miller said. "Recently, we've had more struggles on offense than defense."
Arizona State's Herb Sendek
Sendek's Sun Devils (8-5) have to be happy that forward Savon Goodman is eligible to play just in time for the Pac-12 Conference slate. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound sophomore had to sit out the fall semester as a mid-season transfer but has provided an instant impact for the Sun Devils. Goodman, who attended UNLV before spending a season at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, has averaged 15.8 points and eight rebounds per game, while shooting 63.2 percent from the floor in his first four games with ASU.
"He's really provided us with excellent play on both ends of the floor," Sendek said. "We're excited about his inclusion moving forward. We're working through adapting, and having to play with him on the floor. We had one team before he joined us. Now we're trying to include him in ways that make sense."
ASU will jump right into the fire with a matchup against rival Arizona on Sunday, in front of what's sure to be a racuous crowd at the McKale Center in Tucson. From his spot in Tempe, Sendek said the Wildcats are the team to beat heading into conference play.
"I think Arizona is the clear favorite," Sendek said. "But I think our league is exceptionally strong and has great balance."
Cal's Cuonzo Martin
It doesn't look like Martin has had much of a learning curve as he gets settled in Berkeley following a successful run with the Tennessee program. It also doesnt hurt to have one of the nation's best players in guard Tyrone Wallace, who averages 19.2 points, 8.8 points and 4.1 assists per game.
The Bears (10-3) already have double-digit wins, including a marquee victory at Madison Square Garden against No. 23 Syracuse on Nov. 20. As he surveys the rest of the league so far, Martin can't help but be impressed.
"It's a great league," Martin said. "I've always been a guy that enjoys basketball, is a fan of the game. It's a great league, great skill level, great talent, great coaching. You don't get six teams in the NCAA tournament by luck and you can see the caliber that comes with the level of the players and the coaching."
Martin's Pac-12 debut will be featured on Pac-12 Networks Friday night at 7 p.m PT.
Colorado's Tad Boyle
Inconsistency has plagued the Buffs (7-5), especially in the past two games. Colorado enters coneference play following losses to George Washington and Hawai'i, despite a talented roster with playmakers like guards Askia Booker and Xavier Johnson, as well as forward Josh Scott.
"We're three possesions away from being 10-2," Boyle said. "But we're 7-5. That's the reality. That's who we are. That's where we are right now. But those close games, we're going to be in a lot of them in these next 18 contests as we enter Pac-12 play. And we have to execute better down the stretch on both sides of the ball. That's really what it comes down to."
Oregon's Dana Altman
The Ducks (10-3) have become the Pac-12's first team to 1,000 points and lead the league with 79.4 points per game. Pacing the team, and the conference, is guard Joseph Young with his 19.6 points per game.
But the team also ranks 10th in defense (68.3 points allowed per game) and Altman is looking for more from his squad, which features four freshmen getting 20-plus minutes a game.
"Our biggest challenge has been our consistency," Altman said. "I like our effortt, guys are really trying. All the new faces, everything is new for them. There's a lot mistakes that we're making that I think we can clean up."
Oregon State's Wayne Tinkle
A few months into his tenure in Corvallis, Tinkle has already caught the attention of his fellow Pac-12 coaches. The Beavers (8-3) didn't play a top-notch non-conference schedule, but still enter league play with the Pac-12's best defense on paper, giving up just 55.8 points per game.
"We're very happy with our defensive numbers," Tinkle said. "Defense is always going to be the foundation of our program and our success if we're going to have any. We knew especially this year, to be competitive and to have chances to win games, that we have to defend. Our guys have really bought into that."
Undoubtedly, the star of the team thusfar has been Gary Payton II, whose Hall of Fame father used to rule the court at Gill Coliseum. The junior college transfer is listed at 6-foot-3, but leads the team in rebounding (8.6 per game) and scoring (12.4 per game). Not to mention he joined his dad as the only players in school history to record a triple-double on Dec. 15 against Grambling State.
"We were very familiar with Gary," Tinkle said. "Probably surprised that he's had the impact he's had as soon as has. Usually you hope your junior college players start to pay dividends around this time, Christmas. But he's just jumped out of the gate."
Stanford's Johnny Dawkins
The Cardinal (8-3) will kick-off Pac-12 Networks' coverage of conference action Friday against Washington State (12 p.m. PT) at Maples Pavilion. This marks Dawkins' seventh season on the bench for Stanford, and he envisions another gauntlet for his team over the next 18 games in the Pac-12 regular season.
"Every year I've been in this conference, it's been extremely competitive from top to bottom," Dawkins said. "I don't see no reason why that's going to change again this year."
Stanford was one of three Pac-12 teams to make the Sweet 16 last season, and have the benefit of strong upper class in a league that's full of youngsters.
"I think it gives the guys confidence," Dawkins said. "For your culture it's a very good thing. Our guys saw what it took to accomplish a goal they had in mind and they were able to achieve it. I think from that, having some of those young men return -- Stefan [Nastic], Chasson [Randle] and Anthony [Brown] -- it gives you a nucleus of guys who bring a lot of experience and have been in a lot of tough ballgames, which I think helps you grow."
UCLA's Steve Alford
The non-conference schedule ended with a thud for the Bruins (8-5), as UCLA has lost its past three contests. While losing to No. 9 Gonzaga by 13 points is no shame, the Bruins looked out of sorts in a lopsided loss to No. 1 Kentucky and a 56-50 defeat to unranked Alabama on Sunday. Alford said it will be paramount for his team to avoid more slow starts as league play begins.
"Our first halves have not been very good," Alford said. "We've got to correct that. That's been an issue moving forward from the Bahamas. We've had slow starts. And we had really good starts leading up to that trip, so that's a concern."
But the Bruins have to be encouraged with the development of true freshman Kevon Looney, despite recent struggles with foul trouble. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward averages 12.8 points and 10.4 points per game, making him one of two players in the league to average a double-double, along with Washington State's Josh Hawkinson.
"We've got to have him on the floor," Alford said. "When you talk about freshman -- not just in the Pac-12, but freshman across the country -- there can't be too many of them that are averaging 13 points and 10.5 rebounds. He's got a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. He's doing a lot of good things for our basketball team. He's going to have to continue to do that for us to have success in Pac-12 league play."
USC's Andy Enfield
In a common theme around the league, the Trojans (7-4) are a young bunch that have shown improvement throughout the season. Since dropping three of its first five games to begin the year, USC has gone 5-1, picking up wins at New Mexico and Boston College along the way.
This marks Enfield's second season as the Trojans coach, but the roster underwent major turnover without its top four scorers from a year ago.
"This group right now is really the foundation for the next few seasons," Enfield said.
Freshman Elijah Stewart is a prime example of the team's improvement during the season. In the 75-71 win against Boston College on Dec. 21, he went 10-for-10 from the floor en route to scoring 22 points.
"Some of the moves he made offensively, he could not do a month ago," Enfield said. "He's improved. That's just an example. All of our players have improved."
Utah's Larry Krystkowiak
For the first time in school history, the No. 10 Runnin' Utes (9-2) have cracked the top-10 barrier in the AP top 25 poll. All-American candidate Delon Wright leads this squad, whose non-conference schedule was highlighted by the 69-68 overtime win against No. 8 Wichita State on Dec. 3.
Considering that forward Jordan Loveridge (knee surgery) is set to return to the floor after sitting out a month, Krystowiak is confident that his team can challenge Arizona and anyone else for the Pac-12 crown.
"Heck yeah," Krystkowiak said. "I'll put our name in the hat, as I would a lot of teams in the league. Anybody can get on a run, take care of their home court and win enough games on the road to put yourself in that discussion. I think it's a far better chance maybe this year than it's been any time that I've been here before. It's not out of the question."
True freshman Jakob Poeltl has been quite the import for the Runnin' Utes out of Vienna, Austria. The 7-footer has averaged 10.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game while providing a defensive presence with 2.5 blocks per game as well.
"He's been one of those guys that's exceeded expectations for us," Krystkowiak said. "It's fun coaching him, he's a good student, and he's also a student of the game. Really ahead of the curve when it comes to teaching."
Washington's Lorenzo Romar
Now in his 13th year as Washington's coach, Romar is the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 Conference. His team will get its first taste of league action on Friday night (7 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks) against a talented Cal squad.
The No. 21 Huskies went 11-0 to start the year, with notable wins against No. 13 San Diego State and No. 15 Oklahoma, but suffered a head-scratching 62-57 loss to Stony Brook on Sunday.
"We stubbed our toe in the last game," Romar said.
Guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews may lead the tam in scoring, but there's no doubting the talent of Washington's frontcourt. The duo of center Robert Upshaw (10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.6 blocks per game) and Shawn Kemp Jr., (10.3 points, 4.2 rebounds per game) has Romar speaking some lofty praises.
"They play in the game together now," Romar said. "It's something that we haven't had. In the 13 years that we've been here, we've probably had a situation like this one or two years. Usually we're smaller and we don't have two guys who are able to contribute like that. This has been good to see."
Washington State's Ernie Kent
Coach Kent just couldn't stay away from the Pac-12. After a stint with the Pac-12 Networks following a 13-year run as Oregon's head coach, he's back in the action in Pullman.
The Cougars enter Friday's matchup with Stanford (12 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Networks) with the league's worst record at 6-6 but one of its best players in Josh Hawkinson. The sophomore averages 15.7 points on 53.1 percent shooting, and is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-10 with the ability to shoot from long range. Not to mention he leads the league in rebounding (10.5 per game) as one of two Pac-12 players to average a double-double along with UCLA's Looney.
"He does a very good job of finding space to create scoring opportunities for himself, via the (three-pointer), or 18-footer, or his jump hook," Kent said. "He's very smart that way. Very good feel for the game. I would say overall that his skillset fits our style of play and has given him an opportunity to really score. He's one of those rebounders that always looks to go pursue the basketball."