Pac-12 coaches’ big challenge: Put right pieces in place
2015-16 college basketball season preview
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for a dozen millionaires who get to coach a game for a living, but if you take a step back and realize what this pie-in-the-sky gig has become, it looks a whole lot less plum.
Dressed to the nines for the car wash that is Pac-12 media day, the conference’s coaches lamented what has become of their profession.
You don’t get into coaching basketball because you enjoy jet-setting across the country after every 18-year-old with a pulse and a fadeaway, because you just love having to convince a kid to forgo a potential lottery ticket for one more year, because you crave the attention that comes with a mediocre season, or worse, a mediocre recruiting class.
You get into coaching because you love the game, and you believe you can teach it.
But in today’s basketball, a college head coach is as much general manager as educator, as much roster manipulator as shot doctor, as much schmoozer and wooer as X’er and O’er.
To build a roster these days, something’s gotta give.
“I know we have to put in our efforts to keep things moving forward, but I don’t want to neglect the players we already have,” Oregon State’s Wayne Tinkle said. “If I have to leave my door open so that a current player can come in and talk about how he’s struggling in a math class or with something back home, or shut that door and make recruiting calls, I’m going to leave my door open for the player I have and then wait to make those calls. That’s where I’m going to err.”
He’d better watch out.
Other coaches are making those calls.
College basketball has changed.
What goes into building a team now is hours upon hours of research and more legwork than the world’s power squat record-holder.
Tinkle says there used to be three pools from which to recruit: high school players, prep school standouts and junior college prospects. If you whiffed on them, there was no recourse. It was a down year, or a down cycle, and then a kick out the door.
But look at Arizona’s frontcourt, cobbled together like a stained glass window and just as beautiful.
There’s a senior center in Kaleb Tarczewski, cultivated by multiple Elite Eight runs, a homegrown talent who will go down as Arizona’s career wins leader. There’s a senior forward in Ryan Anderson, who spent a year on the Wildcats bench after transferring from Boston College. And there’s graduate transfer Mark Tollefsen, who got his seasoning at the University of San Francisco and comes to Arizona primed and ready for one last go-round.
“Well, it’s a puzzle, and it used to be a puzzle that maybe you looked at through a four-or-five-year window of time,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “All of us have to look at it in a one-year window of time because a lot can change in six months.”
Yeah, but that’s Arizona, you say. Convincing a kid to come to Tucson for his college basketball is like convincing a grizzly bear to eat a fish dipped in honey.
You might say that makes Miller’s job the toughest, choosing from all those giant bears.
But for other conference coaches, roster management is no less of a chore.
Take Washington: Nigel Williams-Goss left — and not to the NBA, no, but to Gonzaga. Robert Upshaw’s gone, tossed last season for violations of team rules. What was once penciled in as the conference’s top returning point guard and nation’s top shot-blocker, erased in an instant.
Consider Cal, the darlings of the 2015 recruiting cycle, with two massive chips in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Exciting, right? Yeah, for about 10 months.
“We have one scholarship senior, Tyrone Wallace, but we could potentially have four spots available,” coach Cuonzo Martin said.
“That part you prepare for. You know who you recruit, and you’d like to have them in 2017, but there are still so many unknowns. We have a blueprint, a board with guys we project to have, we’d like to have, we’re locked in on, guys we could possibly lose, how many scholarships we could have available.
“It’s a full-time job, that part of it. I don’t know the percentages, but you probably spend just 40 percent of your time on the floor, and the rest is managing, making sure they go to class, filling out financial aid papers. I mean, it never stops!”
Sometimes it feels like a lifetime away.
When Andy Enfield arrived in Los Angeles by way of Florida Gulf Coast University, he knew the USC Trojans would be a reclamation project. The roster was barren, though the recruiting ground of Los Angeles was more than fertile.
So Enfield sought a point guard, and found one: Jordan McLaughlin. He would be one corner piece.
“He was the first recruit I went to see,” Enfield said. “He was a very talented young man from Southern California, and we gave them the vision of the future and an opportunity to come in and make a difference and to build a program and to be the reason why USC turns the corner and becomes an excellent basketball program, and we knew we were in for a challenge as a staff.”
McLaughlin bought in. Elijah Stewart came on board; so, too, did a pair of Maliks – Martin and Marquetti – and Enfield followed up the 2014 recruiting class with gems in 6-foot-10-inch forward Bennie Boatwright and 6-11 forward Chimezie Metu. All of a sudden, you can see the beginnings of Enfield’s puzzle, even if it’s a work in progress.
“It’s a big responsibility to do that, to play early in your career, and you get exposed at times because a lot of these players have played too many minutes or more minutes than they would have if they were on, say, a top 25 team when they walked in the door,” Enfield said. “But that’s what we gave them, that opportunity. And that was our vision for them. We knew as a staff we’d have to put up with a lot of freshman and sophomore mistakes, which we have, but they’re on the right path.”
That is all well and good, but what about when one of them blows up and hightails it to the NBA?
UCLA has learned it the hard way.
Kevon Looney, one season, 11.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, gone, first round.
Zach LaVine, one season, 9.4 points, 1.8 assists, gone, first round.
Tyler Honeycutt, two seasons, 12.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, gone, second round.
Jrue Holiday, one season, 8.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, gone, first round.
“Managing your roster does get tricky when, one, you do have guys leaving; two, you never really know at the start of the year who that might be,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “Some of them are clear-cut — Kyle Anderson told me when I got the job, ‘This is it, coach, I’m here one year.’ So I guess I’d rather have that than the guessing game.”
Funny, listening to these guys talk about what coaching these days, and it doesn’t sound much like a game.
“Ten years ago — this is my 25th year — you knew going into every recruiting class, you knew your scholarship count,” Alford said. “Now, we have staff meetings, and we laugh when someone says, ‘Do we have a scholarship this year?’
Arizona head coach Sean Miller and the Wildcats will have to deal with Utah just once in the regular season this year. Arizona won’t host the Utes but will play in Salt Lake City on Feb. 27.
Since the Pac-12 is expected to be a fiercely close race this season, it just might come down to the schedule.
Which means the Arizona Wildcats may yet capture a third straight conference championship.
By computing expected power ratings for each Pac-12 opponent into the number of times a team plays them — in other words, factoring in the conference’s unbalanced schedule — the Wildcats came up with by far the easiest schedule of the league’s 12 teams.
Much of that, of course, has to do with the fact that the Wildcats don’t have to play themselves. But Arizona will also only have to play four of the conference’s other expected top six teams just once each.
Most critically, the Wildcats won’t have to make the Oregon trip, where two potential losses might have been looming: The veteran Ducks are expected to challenge UA for the title, while Oregon State is even stronger than the team that upset Arizona in Corvallis last season.
Arizona will also have to face Utah only once — though that game is in Salt Lake City — and won’t have to deal with sometimes-pesky Colorado at McKale Center.
The only downside to the Wildcats schedule is they must start with five of their first seven Pac-12 games on the road, a potential confidence-buster for a team that will likely still be integrating in seven newcomers when New Year’s rolls around.
However, the Wildcats assembled a less competitive nonconference schedule than normal, so presumably will have the ability to iron things out before conference play starts.
The Wildcats also don’t have any games scheduled between Dec. 22 and their Pac-12 opener at ASU on Jan. 3, giving them a final chance to prepare for the conference grind.
“I think with each team there are certain challenges you want to give them, and I think the biggest challenge with this year’s team is going to be where we’ll be early,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “We’re going to have to grow and gain experience.”
HYPOTHETICAL PAC-12 2015-16 POWER RATINGS
Based on predicted order of finish in Pac-12 media poll, with individual power ratings reflecting expected team strength.
1. Arizona 91
2. California 89
3. Utah 87
4. Oregon 85
5. UCLA 83
6. Oregon State 81
7. Colorado 79
8. Arizona State 78
9. Stanford 77
10. USC 75
11. Washington 74
12. Washington State 73
PROJECTED STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE(BASED ON HYPOTHETICAL POWER RATINGS):
1. Stanford 82.5
2. Oregon State 81.44
3. Washington State 81.44
4. Washington 81.33
5. USC 81.22
6. California 81.17
7. Colorado 81.06
8. Oregon 81.00
9. Arizona State 80.89
10. UCLA 80.33
11. Utah 80.17
12. Arizona 79.44
THE PAC-12’S UNBALANCED SCHEDULE:
How it works: Since Colorado and Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12, the conference abandoned its traditional round-robin schedule in favor of keeping its schedule at 18 games via an unbalanced approach.
That means every team plays seven opponents at home and away — including its geographic rival — but skips a set of teams on the road and another set at home, with those skipped teams flipping the second season.
The “missed” teams are then completely rotated every other season, ensuring that each team but the geographic rival will be played 16 times over a 10-year cycle (the rival will always be played at home and away, a total of 20 times).
This season, the “misses” have been completely rotated for the third time since 2011-12. Arizona will not travel to face Oregon and Oregon State, and it will not host Utah or Colorado. In 2016-17, Arizona won’t host the Oregon schools and won’t make the Rocky Mountain swing.
How the scheduling draw played out this season:
The Wildcats could lose two or three of their first seven and still win the league, thanks to a relatively soft home stretch and a showdown with Cal at McKale on March 3.
Bobby Hurley gets a slight break in his introduction to the league, taking on the same schedule as the Wildcats and potentially benefiting from a hangover effect on opponents who will have just played or will just play Arizona.
The Bruins will have to play Cal only once, won’t need to make the Rocky Mountain swing, and often hold their own at McKale Center.
If injuries don’t beat up the Cardinal again this season, the schedule might: Stanford will have to play five of the league’s top six projected teams twice each, and its rival, Cal, boasts the league’s top starting five.
Would the Beavers have been able to duplicate their home upset of UA again this season? We’ll never know. But OSU will have to play four of the top five projected teams twice each.
The Ducks won’t get a crack at Arizona in the Matt, and they’ll have to play all the projected top seven teams twice except the Wildcats and themselves.