A Topsy-Turvy Pac-12 Basketball Race Hits Stretch Drive

The Pac-12 basketball race has seemed to have a new frontrunner almost every week. Arizona was the top-heavy favorite at the start of the year. Oregon blazed out to a 6-0 start in league play. UCLA has, at different times looked like they were ready to make a big run. Frontrunner status in the Pac-12 though, has been about as tenuous as the #1 ranking nationally and all three teams are currently tied at 8-3, with Arizona State lurking just a game back. The tri-leaders all have big games coming up the next two nights, so let’s take a snapshot look at the three teams who lead the way, plus the Sun Devils.

Arizona (20-3, 8-3): Defending their homecourt has been a surprising issue, with both UCLA and Cal coming into Tucson and getting wins. Sean Miller’s team still has the component pieces to not only win this conference, but to make a Final Four run in March. Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson comprise a backcourt that provides both playmaking and scoring, with Solomon Hill being a potential game-changer at small forward. I would like to see Lyons shoot the three-pointer more efficiently than his current 36 percent rate. That’s good enough to justify shooting the trey, but Lyons is capable of being closer to 40, the threshold for being a true threat.

The Wildcats also need someone to step up as a big-time rebounder. Miller’s done a nice job squeezing rebounds out of 7’2” Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman Brandon Ashley, with both getting around six boards a game. That’s enough to keep them in the hunt for the Pac-12 title, but if Arizona is really going to fulfill its potential as a national contender, one or the other needs to become a tough 8-9 rebounds a night kind of player.

Arizona will be at Colorado tonight, a rematch of a controversial January 3 finish, where the Wildcats won in overtime.

UCLA (18-6, 8-3): This is another team that does acceptable work rebounding the ball, but where I feel like they could be truly dominant. The Wear brothers, Travis and David, combine to get 11 rebounds a game. There’s no reason that number can’t be in the 16-20 range. The Bruins are carried offensively by freshman Shabazz Muhammad who gets 19 ppg and does it efficiently, shooting 46 percent from the floor and 43 percent behind the arc. I can’t imagine Muhammad will be in Westwood beyond next season, if he even makes it that far.

Larry Drew II has done a good job reviving his college career. The point guard originally started at North Carolina and things just didn’t work out, to the point that when he lost his job to Kendall Marshall a couple years ago it almost instantly transformed the Tar Heels into national title contenders. Whatever went wrong for Drew in Chapel Hill seems to be worked out and he now averages eight assists per game. He’s joined in the backcourt by freshman Jordan Adams, who leads the team in three-point attempts, but only shoots 30 percent. That number has to come up at least a few points or its wasted possessions.

UCLA got the aforementioned win at Arizona, but they did a complete no-show at Arizona State back on January 26 and then lost in overtime at home to USC. The Bruins now start a key run of three games that will be on national television. You can watch them at improving Cal tomorrow (9 PM ET, ESPN2), at Stanford on Saturday (4 PM ET, ESPN) and then next Sunday on their return visit to USC (3:30 PM ET, Fox Sports National). All three opponents are 6-5 in the conference, all are desperate and if UCLA wants a league championship they need to win at least two, and probably all three. I’m a big fan of Ben Howland and his three straight Final Four runs from 2006-08 should count for a lot. But this is UCLA, where the fans are even more out of touch with the modern world than are Notre Dame football fans. The Bruins probably need to do something more than scrape into the NCAAs as a #7 seed and lose on the first weekend, or Howland may be gone.

Oregon (19-5, 8-3): We broke down Oregon’s personnel in detail a couple weeks ago after their 6-0 start. The recent struggles have less to do with TheSportsNotebook’s jinx (which has also derailed Texas A&M and Ole Miss after I said nice things about them), and more with the fact that freshman guard Dominic Artis has been out with an injured foot and is still listed as doubtful for tonight’s game at Washington (11 PM ET, ESPN2).

Artis is one of two freshman guards, along with Damyean Dotson, who transformed the backcourt play here and joined with a tough rebounder in senior transfer Arsalan Kazemi to essentially give the Ducks a complete makeover. The on-court results pretty clearly show Artis’ playmaking abilities as a big part of this team’s success. He’s going to be back, but from the perspective of the Pac-12 title race, there’s no time to lose.

Arizona State (18-6, 7-4): The Sun Devils haven’t been relevant since James Harden was on campus, but a dynamic freshman guard in Jahii Carson has combined with senior forward Carrick Felix to completely turn this flailing program around. Carson averages 18 points and 5 assists a game, while Felix is getting 14 points/8 rebounds a night. Arizona State is getting quality help inside from sophomore Jonathan Gilling and junior Jordan Bachynski, who each average seven rebounds per game.

Arizona State has lost two of three, at Washington and a home game with Stanford. Both of those are against credible, albeit not great, opponents. The Sun Devils have the talent to make a run and catch all three teams who are a game ahead of them, but they’ve got some tough road games ahead of them—they close with road games at UCLA, USC and Arizona.

The most favorable schedule of any contender is Oregon. After tonight up in Seattle, the toughest road date for the Ducks will be at Colorado. The biggest game left on the board is easy to identify—on March 2, the ESPN Gameday crew will make their Saturday home at Pauley Pavilion for the Arizona-UCLA battle in prime-time. It’s been a fun year in Pac-12 basketball and there’s some big moments still to come.