Monday Rewind: Tavion Thomas back, USC hoops rising, and Arizona's recruiting surge
Welcome back to the Monday Rewind. If you missed last week, a quick refresher on what this is (pretty standard stuff): a space dedicated to running through the week that was in Pac-12 athletics, with the occasional national story thrown in if warranted. Enjoy.
What has USC at 13-0?
There are two unbeaten teams in men’s college basketball: Baylor and USC.
The Trojans had been on an extended pause due to COVID-19, but returned last Thursday with a strong offensive showing against Cal and a return to form defensively, at least in the second half.
USC is 13-0 on the year. The profile is strong enough in areas that suggest they could make some noise in the tournament. The strength is on the defensive end, though the offense doesn’t lag behind. In KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metrics, USC has the 19th-best defense and the 23rd-best offense.
Coach Andy Enfield’s squad gives up 34% of its attempts faced at the rim, 29.6% on 2-point jumpers, and 36.4% from beyond the 3-point line (data from hoop-math.com). USC ranks 33rd nationally in 3-point percentage against. On what is the largest piece of the opponent’s offensive diet, there is the least meat; USC is allowing only 27.5% shooting from 3 so far this season.
They’re blocking nearly 13% of all looks at the rim and holding teams to 47.5%. On 2s, teams are shooting 31.8%. Those are all really strong defensive percentages.
Here’s the profile. USC is allowing…
- …the third-lowest frequency at the rim among Pac-12 teams
- …the lowest percentage at the rim
- …the fifth-highest frequency on 2-point jumpers
- …the second-lowest percentage on 2-point jumpers
- …the fourth-lowest frequency on 3s
- …the lowest percentage on 3s
USC probably has the best defensive shot profile in the Pac-12. So far, it has done better than anyone at forcing lower-percentage shots and making the higher-percentage looks tougher. This will likely get tested as the games get tougher, but the Arizonas and UCLAs of the conference are middle-of-the-pack in terms of 3-point rate offensively, so unless things fall apart on the interior it’s not far-fetched to think USC could prove to be the class of the conference.
Only three teams so far this season have scored more than 70 points on the Trojans. This is a tough, tough defense.
Add to that fact Isaiah Mobley and Chavez Goodwin are scoring a combined 41 points per 40, grabbing a combined 23 rebounds per 40, and both posting effective field goal percentages north of 55% and this becomes a very challenging team to gameplan for.
Utah getting back as key a piece as there is
After two years at Cincinnati and a year at Independence C.C. before arriving in Salt Lake City, running back Tavion Thomas could have jumped to the NFL after a superb season at Utah.
He broke the program’s single-season rushing touchdown record with 20 through 12 games. (He finished the year with 21 scores, the second-most in the country.) His 1,108 yards were the fourth-most in the Pac-12. His 36 explosive runs tied for the most among Pac-12 running backs. His 62 missed tackles forced were the second-most in the league, per PFF’s data.
Instead, he’s coming back with some “unfinished business” for 2022.
Thomas grades out not quite as one of the Pac-12’s best backs, but still a really good back. The piece of it worth pointing out here is that he and TJ Pledger ranked sixth and seventh in PFF’s grading system among Pac-12 backs with at least 50 carries. While Thomas is more of the bell-cow type, Pledger was really good this season as a breakaway, change-of-pace option.
And that duo combined for 1,802 rushing yards and 27 scores. Pledger averaged 6.7 yards per carry, the second-best mark by a qualified tailback in the league.
With Pledger heading to the NFL Draft, getting Thomas back for another year is a significant shot in the arm. It was going to be hard to replace both. To only need to find a replacement for Pledger gives the Utes some runway to continue developing Micah Bernard.
While Pledger ranked fourth among qualified backs in breakaway percentage (per PFF), Bernard ranked fifth. And he showed in the Rose Bowl he has some legitimate skills as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Bernard averaged 6.1 yards per carry on his 87 attempts in 2021.
For a Utah offense that ran it a little over 55% of the time, being able to keep on keeping on with what was an offense that shredded the rest of the Pac-12 South—37 points a game, 2,323 yards of offense, 6.8 yards per play—is a significant development. Another year of development from quarterback Cam Rising and tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid should help offset losses to a degree. Thomas’ return, given Utah’s plan of attack, will give everything an air of familiarity that’ll make contending for another Pac-12 title well within reach.
It’s time to talk about Jedd Fisch.
A coach should not be able to recruit the talent Arizona is recruiting to Tucson off the record Arizona posted this past season.
The Wildcats went 1-11. They missed a bowl game for the fourth straight season and the fifth time in the last six years. They’re on their fourth coach since 2010. They were outscored this season by a combined 171 points, posting one of college football’s least-effective offenses.
And that was the biggest issue: the offense. Arizona couldn’t score when it was in prime real estate to do so. Arizona posted a season-long success rate of 38% (111th out of 130 FBS teams). It generated only 36 plays of 20 yards or more in 12 games and 870 offensive snaps. By comparison, Oregon had nearly double the number of 20-plus-yard gains (67) on only 74 more offensive snaps of the football. Arizona couldn’t stay on schedule.
It needed playmakers. Simple as that.
And so Fisch has gone out and convinced a swath of blue-chip playmakers to link up with him in Tucson and try to turn things around.
They signed 4-star wideout Tetairoa McMillan—46th overall prospect in the 247 Composite—and 4-star tight end Keyan Burnett during December’s Early Signing Period, then saw 4-star running back and arguably the single fastest player in the 2022 class Rayshon Luke publicly announce his commitment to the Cats during the All-American Bowl this past Saturday. Luke went on to win the all-star game’s MVP award.
Arizona also landed Jacob Cowing this past week, UTEP’s leading receiver a season ago and a 4-star transfer.
Those four right there—Cowing, McMillan, Burnett, and Luke—should all be able to see the field right away. With Stanley Berryhill III moving on and no one really separating themselves in the backfield in 2021, there’s plenty of reason to think the newcomers could feature next season.
You’re just not supposed to be able to add those kinds of players to the fold all at once when your offense looked the way Arizona’s did this past season. That Fisch has been able to makes you wonder what he’ll be able to sell when the Cats have momentum to offer. The Arizona region is teeming with talent, and Arizona State isn’t exactly an elite program at the moment. Future is interesting for Arizona.