Pac-12 basketball is home to the top-ranked team in the nation as we head into conference play. Arizona joins the rest of the Pac-12 in opening league play on Thursday, and as good as the Wildcats look, they’re going to be tested. Pac-12 basketball has viable challengers at the top and quality in the middle. Here’s a look at what each team has done in the season’s first two months, and who they’re doing it with…
Arizona (ranked #1): The Wildcats have all the pieces to stay in the national elite all season long. Nick Johnson is the leading scorer in the backcourt at 16 ppg, while Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon provide secondary scoring help at the forwards. 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski completes the puzzle with 10 points and 7 rebounds a game in the low post. Then you fill out the lineup with a rebounder in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a good passer in T.J. McDonnell and a three-point specialist in Gabe York. Are we missing anything? Nope.
Oregon (ranked #10): Joseph Young Jr. knocks down 20 ppg and is a laser-sharp 47 percent from three-point range. Mike Moser, the transfer from UNLV, mans the front court, at 14 points/7 rebounds a night, while Jason Calliste and Damyean Dotson are double-digit scorers. The Ducks, like the Wildcats, have quality depth, with good passers in the backcourt and rebounders up front coming off the bench.
Colorado (ranked #20): The Buffs don’t’ have the depth of Oregon and Arizona, but they have the same kind of balance in the starting lineup. Spencer Dinwiddie knocks down points in the backcourt and loosens defenses from behind the arc. Josh Scott is a beast down low, while Askia Booker and Xavier Johnson are steady contributors. What Colorado needs the most is a true three-point shooter to step up.
Last season, five Pac-12 teams made the NCAA Tournament. In addition to the three above, the following two also joined March Madness…
UCLA (11-2): Steve Alford is the new coach in Westwood, and the only losses are to Missouri and Duke. None of the wins are notable, but the talent is there. Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson can both fill it up, and Zach LaVine can shoot it from behind the arc. Alford gets rebounding help from Tony Parker and a series of players off his bench who can go to the glass.
Cal (9-4): This is the program I tend to trust the most in this conference, at least since Mike Montgomery came to Berkeley five years ago. The Golden Bears have started slowly, included losses to Dayton and UC-Santa Barbara. They have all the pieces though. Justin Cobbs is a top guard, able to score and distribute. Jabari Bird is a 6’6” freshman with a good perimeter shot, while Richard Solomon and David Kravish make up one of the league’s toughest inside duos.
Four more teams are viable contenders to get to the NCAA Tournament and perhaps climb into the conference’s top three..
Arizona State (11-2): The Sun Devils have wins over UNLV and Marquette, and two explosive scorers in the backcourt in Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall, the latter a great three-point shooter. Jordan Bachynski, a 7’2” center from Canada averages 13/10 per game, while Shaquielle McKissic chips away on the glass. This is a well-balanced ASU team.
Stanford (9-3): A win over UConn raises the Cardinal’s profile, and Chasson Randle is their good backcourt scorer whose lights-out from behind the arc. Anthony Brown and Josh Huestis can each score and go hard to the glass, while 6’10” Dwight Powell is a terrific all-around center. Not only is Powell good for a 14/7 per-game average, he also hands out four assists a night, a figure even most point guards don’t’ reach. Stanford is lurking under the radar right now, but don’t be surprised to see a strong conference run.
USC (9-4): It’s been a slow start for new coach Andy Enfield, whose Florida Gulf Coast team electrified the NCAA Tournament last spring. The Trojans have early losses to Utah State and Long Beach State, but a win over Xavier flashes the potential. USC’s potential is led by Byron Wesley, the wingman who averages 17/7. There are some pretty good frontcourt players in Nikola Jovanovic and Omar Oraby, but the lack of three-point shooting will be an albatross.
Utah (11-1): Jordan Loveridge, the 6’6” sophomore wing player leads the scoring and rebounding, at 17/9, but he gets a lot of help from Delon Wright, at 15/7, to go with six assists. The Utes have their own Bachynski brother from Canada, the 7’0” junior Dallin, who gets five rebounds a game despite playing only 14 more minutes. Let’s get him some more playing time and use rebounding dominance to make up for a lack of accuracy behind the arc.
The final three teams appear to have the “also-ran” label written all over them…
Washington (8-5): C.J. Wilcox will be worth the price of admission and at 21 ppg might win the scoring title, but losses to UC-Irvine and ACC cellar-dwellar Boston College don’t leave reason for hope.
Washington State (7-5): Davonte Lacy is the star of the show, and the schedule has been tough, with the five losses coming Gonzaga, Butler, St. Joe’s, TCU and UTEP. But we’re being generous in putting those last two teams on the list and there are no victories to suggest they can compete with the Pac-12 contenders.
Oregon State (8-4): Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier make a fun outside-inside scoring combination, but one reason they score a lot is that there aren’t too many other players who can knock it down. Losses to Coppin State, Hawaii and Akron, to say nothing of DePaul, would make even 2-3 wins in conference play seem optimistic.
I’ll stay with the chalk in Arizona to win the conference because Sean Miller is too good of a coach. I do think the stiffest challenge will come not from Oregon, but from Arizona State.