Most college basketball fans don’t keep up with the Pac-12. The league doesn’t have a good TV contract with ESPN that lets you lock in certain nights of the week for a showcase game, and on the court, they just haven’t been that good, save for UCLA’s Final Four runs of 2006-08. But if you’re looking for a good conference championship race to tide you over in the coming sports dry spell otherwise known as “February”, the Pac-12 is a place to turn on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Cal and Oregon are tied for first at 6-2, with Colorado and Washington controlling their own destiny at 5-2. Even though we can’t count on Stanford and Arizona, each 5-3, we’ll keep today’s focus on the four two-loss teams and see how they match up. Here’s the rundown…
Cal (16-5, 6-2): The Golden Bears are the team to beat, with road wins at Washington and Oregon already under their belt, along with beating Colorado at home. Having beaten their three top rivals they should be ready to put this race away early, but inconsistency has done them in, with bad road losses at Oregon State and Washington State.
The backcourt is the reason for Cal’s success, with Allen Crabbe being the main man, Jorge Guiterrez coming in right behind and Justin Cobb running the show. All three score in double digits. Crabbe averages 16 ppg to lead the team, and he exceeded that average in the season’s two biggest games to date, at Washington and Oregon. Crabbe is a threat both inside and outside the arc and is one of the Pac-12’s best players. Cobb is the playmaker, and also shoots very well from three, making it necessary for defenses to extend, and giving him space to create. Guiterrez is a cross between his two teammates, being a solid scorer, assist man, and a surprisingly good rebounder, given his 6’3” frame. He isn’t a threat from downtown, but since the team has other options here, Guiterrez doesn’t need to hit the three-ball.
Cal’s guard trio is going to make them a tough out for anyone in the NCAA Tournament and it’s easy to see them causing problems for a #1 or #2 seed in a second-round matchup, presuming the Pac-12’s best will probably seeded in a 7 or 8 spot. What they need to take the next step is for Harper Kamp to step it up down low. The 6’8” power forward has the talent to be much more of a factor than he is, and a breakout from him would move Cal up from being a good Pac-12 team, to a good team anywhere.
Oregon (15-5, 6-2): Depth is the issue here in Eugene, where head coach Dana Altman is keeping pace with Cal, but needs help from the supporting cast. Oregon is built around Devoe Joseph in the backcourt and E.J. Singler at forward. Joseph shoots the ball well, provides senior leadership and it was with him absent for non-conference games that the Ducks lost to Vanderbilt and BYU. Singler is a consistent scorer at the forward slot and does a decent job rebounding, but at 6’6” he needs help rebounding.
The most promising part of the Oregon lineup has been 6’7” senior Olu Ashaolu, who shows flashes of the rebounding prowess this team needs. When conference play started just prior to the New Year, Ashaolu had monster games on the glass, but he hasn’t been able to sustain that consistently. Between him and fellow senior Tyrone Nared, they need to start controlling the paint, or not only is a Pac-12 title out of the question, it will be tough sledding to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Joseph gets help in the backcourt from sharpshooting Garrett Sim, but neither one of them is really a playmaker. Props to Oregon for what they’ve done so far, but without a really effective distributor and consistent rebounding, they’ll find their current pace impossible to sustain.
Colorado (13-6, 5-2): One of the Pac-12’s new members (along with Utah), the Buffaloes are another team with enough individual pieces to make some noise, but still not looking like a complete team. I love the board work of 6’7” sophomore Andre Roberson, who’s grabbed 11 a night and if you go game-by-game, you don’t see that coming primarily at the expense of patsies. He hit Maryland for 13, Washington for 12 and pulled down 14 against Cal. His mate in the frontcourt is senior Austin Duffault, a respectable player, but not one who will alter any game plans.
The backcourt is going to be a problem in Boulder. Carlon Brown’s production is very up-and-down, especially given that he’s a senior and while freshman Spencer Dinwiddie has got promise, this team lacks a playmaker. So far senior Nate Tomlinson has struggled to get anything going, so with the veterans at guard struggling, I have a hard time even seeing the Buffs making it to the Dance, much less staying on the heels of the conference leaders.
Washington (12-7, 5-2): With young players, Lorenzo Romar’s team started slow, but this is a program that’s been a consistent factor in the league race and has been able to win games in March. The backcourt features three starters who are either freshman or sophomores, but all three are already playing well, and their size creates matchup problems. Tony Wroten, C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross all go 6’5” or 6’6”, and they’re collectively averaging 48 ppg.
Wroten is the pure playmaker, and is also the top scorer. The one thing he doesn’t do well is hit three-pointers, so the stats suggest (I haven’t had the chance to see Washington play yet) a drive-and-kick guard and since Wilcox is a marksman from behind the arc, while Ross is the best rebounder, these three all complement each other perfectly. For the short-term keep an eye on Wilcox’s health, as he’s day-to-day with a hip problem, but when they’re all playing together, this is a team that can match up with Cal in the backcourt. And we haven’t even counted Abdul Gaddy, who isn’t a scorer, but distributes the ball very well.
Whether Romar finds consistency up front will decide if the Huskies can win another Pac-12 title and while they’re not there yet, Aziz N’Diaye offers hope. The 7’0” junior has had his moments, but averaging just 8 ppg he hasn’t broken out yet. N’Diaye is grabbing eight rebounds a nights, and if he could just move that up to 10, it would be precisely what Washington needs.
Cal & Washington look like the real contenders here and I look for them to separate from the pack in the coming weeks. Both will be in the NCAAs and have a chance to do some damage. I lean Washington to win the conference championship, given the greater potential for improvement.