There’s two things you can count on when it comes to Pac-12 basketball. They’ll always get short shrift in the NCAA Tournament selection process, sometimes justified, sometimes not. And they’ll always produce an exciting conference race. This year might not get the exciting championship race, but there’s a lot of fluidity and potential dark horses in the middle. Pac-12 games begin this coming Wednesday, January 2, so let’s get a handle on how the league is shaping up.
I want to devote most of the space here to the huge swath of muddle in the middle, so let’s dispense with the two extremes right away. Arizona is clearly the best team in the Pac-12. We touched on this at TheSportsNotebook in an early season look at the top of the conference and just last week where I said Arizona is one of the few teams I think of as a legitimate national title hopeful. You can read all about Sean Miller’s undefeated Wildcats at either link.
On the other end, USC is the worst them in the league—while most power conference teams, even ones that aren’t very good, strut into league play with nine or ten wins, the Trojans are 4-8. While quite a few of those came to good teams, there’s also a loss to Cal-Irvine mixed in. USC could rally and win the regular season title and still not make the NCAAs unless they won the conference tournament. And they have no noteworthy players. Enough said.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE OF TEN
Now let’s get on to the middle ten. I won’t go so far as to say you can put these ten teams in any order and have a chance at being right, the differences between them are marginal. Let’s start with the teams with the best chance to challenge Arizona.
UCLA: Since his three straight Final Fours of 2006-08, Ben Howland has had a tougher go of it in Westwood and a November 25 loss to Cal-Poly, following the dismissal of center Joshua Smith, made it look like little would change this year. Then UCLA knocked off Missouri in overtime yesterday and is showing real signs of life.
A pair of freshman, off-guard Justin Adams and small forward Shabazz Muhammad, are leading the way, with a combined 38 ppg. Even without Smith, the Bruins are very physical down low, with Travis & David Wear along with Kyle Anderson all quality rebounders. And Larry Drew has revived his career at the point since flaming out in North Carolina, and is averaging eight assists per game. Howland could use a consistent three-point shooter, but it’s hard not to like this team.
Colorado: The Buffs have beaten ranked Baylor, and one of their two losses is to Kansas. They have the best player in the Pac-12 in Andre Roberson, a forward who averages a double-double each night and did the same last year. Spencer Dinwiddie is 6’6”, scores 15 a night and is spot-on from three-point range. Colorado’s got a good point guard in Askia Booker, who can also keep defenses honest from three. The key is post play and right now the early returns are good, with freshman Josh Scott averaging 13/5 per night. I like UCLA a little bit better because of the depth up front, but this Colorado team is NCAA Tournament-caliber.
While I’d be surprised if anyone but Arizona wins the conference, I’d fall over shocked if the champion comes from outside the Arizona-Colorado-UCLA window. Now let’s move on to quality teams who can at least crack the top three and should have the NCAA Tournament as their expectation.
Cal: They’re only 8-4 right now, but three of the losses were to Wisconsin on the road, UNLV and Creighton. The loss today to Harvard at home was a little less explainable, but on balance there’s no reason to be alarmed at the relatively high loss total. Mike Montgomery has the conference’s best backcourt in Justin Cobbe and Allen Crabbe, a pair of juniors who can each light it up. The keys to success will be the post proficiency of David Kravish and Richard Solomon. Right now, they’re combining for 16 points/13 rebounds a night. Nudge that up just a little bit more and Cal can be dancing in March.
Oregon: A win over UNLV will look good to the Selection Committee in March and a balanced lineup led by inside-out forward E.J. Singler will look good in the floor for the next 2 ½ months. Singler gets help from point guard Dominic Artis and senior center Tony Woods. Oregon needs more physical rebounding from Woods and could use better shooting from downtown, but they have the component parts to slip into the NCAAs around the 11-12 seed area.
For the next level of teams, the NCAA Tournament is a possibility—and should be a goal—although to define it as an expectation would be pushing the boundaries of common sense.
Oregon State: The Beavers would be in the next group up if not for the season-ending injury of center Argus Brandt, a 6’11” senior who rebounded inside and knocked down the trey outside. Oregon State’s still got capable shooters in the backcourt, with Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson, and they‘ve got an aggressive-rebounding sophomore in Eric Moreland, but Brandt isn’t someone you can just plug in and replace. Tough break in Corvallis.
Washington State: WSU has one of the league’s top centers in Brock Motum, who scores 20 a night and gets seven rebounds. The challenge for this team is going to be creating edges in a league where a lot of teams have pretty good centers. Davonte Lacy can hit the three, but the Cougars need a lot more Mike Ladd and Royce Woolridge on the perimeter if they’re going to climb a level higher.
Arizona State: With an 11-2 record, one of the losses being to highly regarded Creighton, I should feel good about the Sun Devils. The little guard, 5’10” Jahil Carson is knocking down 18 a night, with senior small forward Carrick Felix getting 15 points and playing bigger than his 6’6” size, with eight rebounds and two blocks per game. The supporting pieces in 7’2” Jordan Bochy, and forward Jonathan Gilling, able to both rebound and hit the three, have been solid. So what’s my problem? My problem is that Arizona State lost by 17 points to DePaul, and have been terrible the last two years. The early returns are good, but let me see them get off to a good start in Pac-12 play.
Washington: This is the most interesting team in the Pac-12, because a poor start, which includes inexcusable losses to Albany and UC-Northridge, has really put them up against it. But the Huskies have a core four that I’d take my chances with. C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs are good-sized guards at 6’5 and 6’6”, and they score and hit the three with consistency. Abul Gaddy can knock it down from long range and kick in some scoring on the wing. Aziz N’Diaye is averaging a 12/10 at center and has been one of the league’s hardest-to-figure post man. And if you want support for this group, look at Desmond Simmons, with his eight rebounds a night. At 8-5, with those bad losses on the resume, it’s a long way up for Washington, but as I said—get me to a conference tournament with this group and I’d be happy to take my chances.
We wrap it up with Stanford and Utah, the hardest teams to see making a real push for the NCAA Tournament, but they have enough on hand you can’t rule it out.
Stanford: Start with Dwight Powell down low and his 15/7 per night, and add in Josh Huestis on the wing and Chasson Randle at the point, and there’s enough to compete. There’s just no depth and no three-point shooters.
Utah: The losses to Sacramento State and UC-Northridge are reason enough to be concerned. But the Utes can light it up from downtown, with Jared DuBoise and Glen Dean in the backcourt each hitting over 40 percent from trey range. The key will be whether freshman small forward Jordan Loveridge and 7’0” sophomore center Dallin Bachynski can give enough help. That’s a lot to ask. But though the Utes aren’t conference-title worthy, nor NCAA material, the shooting of DuBoise and Dean mean they’ll probably rip out the hearts of someone who is on a few nights in February and early March.