With the non-conference season coming to a close, we will be previewing each of the power six conferences based on what we have learned so far this year and guide you through what to look out for as the season continues.
Here is your guide to the Pac 12.
Pre-Conference Play All-Pac 12 Team
- Lonzo Ball, UCLA
- Markelle Fultz, Washington
- TJ Leaf, UCLA
- Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
- Reid Travis, Stanford
Player Of The Year Pick: Lonzo Ball, UCLA
This one is too easy. UCLA is Ball’s team, and the Bruins’ lightning fast yet silky smooth offensive attack is a product of Ball’s game. His court vision and passing abilities are out of this world. He doesn’t make everyone around him better; he makes everyone around him ten times better. Under Ball’s watch, UCLA has the best offense in the country by a mile and a half. Great things are to come for Ball. Meet your favorite for the Wooden Award.
What We’ve Learned
- Washington isn’t fit to be a one-and-done machine. This year, 5-star recruit Markelle Fultz has been phenomenal, yet Washington has been decidedly average, similar to years past. What is to be made of this? Simply, the Huskies are not going to cut it as a one-and-done factory. The story was the same last year, when freshmen Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray had big seasons but Washington barely managed to achieve a .500 record. The girth of talent fails to extend beyond the big-name prospects and the defense is once again terrible. Granted, this is a young and inexperienced team and was last year as well, but all that really says is that a gradual build-up is clearly the proper game plan for turning this program into a contender.
- Not to jump the gun on Oregon. The Ducks’ Elite 8 run and four starters returning sounded like enough for everyone and their dog to put Oregon in their preseason Top 5. Unfortunately, those lofty expectations blew up in our faces after two weeks of play, when Oregon was 3-2 with embarrassing losses to Baylor and Georgetown and a near-loss to lowly Tennessee. All of the sudden, we went into a state of panic about the Ducks’ prospects for the rest of the season. Since then, it hasn’t been pretty, but Oregon and their star Dillon Brooks are gradually returning to form, showing flashes of the team we all thought they would be. Talent-wise, this team is loaded. Are they as good as we thought they were? Probably not, considering the hype. But the more they discover the kind of team they can be the more dangerous these Ducks will become. I have no doubt that they are better than they’re no. 21 ranking.
- LA hoops has never been this good. The journey has been very different, but nevertheless the two LA college basketball teams – UCLA and USC – find themselves with identical 13-0 records heading into conference play. USC isn’t as flashy, but they’ve gotten it done in close games: The average margin of victory in their four major wins (SMU, BYU, Texas A&M, and Wyoming) is 4. Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin form arguably the second-best guard tandem in the conference behind UCLA, and forward Chimezie Metu has been solid as well. Obviously, we know less about USC than we do about their rivals, but the Trojans’ performance so far has been enough to suggest that they have a chance to seriously contend in the Pac 12.
Storylines To Watch In Conference Play
- Can anyone challenge UCLA? Before the season, it appeared as if the Pac-12 would most likely come down to three teams: UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon. With non-conference play in the past, we can now see that UCLA is easily the most complete of the three. Without Allonzo Trier, Arizona isn’t a national title contender, and Oregon has been wobbly this year with Dillon Brooks battling injury. Not that UCLA will roll through conference play, of course; those two teams (especially Oregon) are very much capable of beating them, and potential upsets lurk around every corner of their conference play schedule. For now, however, it appears that the Bruins are the runaway favorites for the Pac 12. We’ll find out a lot about that prediction tonight when they take on Oregon.
- Is this league relevant in 2016? As of now, the Pac-12 is a four bid league, three worse than last year. Outside of Top-25 teams UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, and Southern Cal, we have Utah, Colorado, and Cal, who due to mediocre non-conference resumes appear destined to hover around the bubble all winter, and Stanford and Washington, who just flat-out don’t look capable of righting the ship and making the tournament. And the rest have virtually no shot at sneaking in. Beyond tournament implications, we have the undeniably discouraging number of 4-21, which is the conference’s record against ESPN RPI Top 50 opponents. Only the SEC has a worse record. There’s a good chance the champion hails from this conference, but overall it appears we are in the midst of a down year for Pac-12 hoops.
- Can the veterans catch up to the freshman? It’s been a heck of the year for the young talent in the Pac-12. Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Markelle Fultz, Lauri Markkanen, and Charlie Moore are some of the freshmen making major names for themselves in 2016-17. The veteran core of the conference have not replicated the success of their young counterparts, however. Dillon Brooks, Chris Boucher, Ivan Rabb, Dominique Collier, and Kyle Kuzma have all battled injuries this year, and obviously, Allonzo Trier hasn’t seen the court yet due to that curious suspension. Heading into conference play, there are a ton of names that need to get healthy and return to form for the Pac-12 to repeat last year’s success.
Sleeper Team To Watch
It’s tough to choose. As you read above, this league is quite thick around the middle. I’ll go with either Cal and Utah, and Cal if I can only pick one. I’m surprised at the Bears’ failure to pull off victories in key games. Yeah, they lost Jaylen Brown and Jordan Mathews, but there is still scoring and defensive talent on this team, namely in Charlie Moore, Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird. Grant Mullins is someone to add as well. Something hasn’t clicked offensively with these guys, as they have been plagued by inconsistency and a lack of options. Either way, the Bears are good enough defensively will give you a fight to the death every night. I still believe that this is a tournament team.
1. UCLA Bruins: No team in the country has been more impressive thus far than the UCLA Bruins. Every starter on this team is capable of putting up 20-25 every night. The defense isn’t so hot, but you need to outscore them to win due to their unstoppable offensive attack, and that’s not going to happen very often. Or ever. We’ll see. Be afraid, college basketball. Very afraid. As for the Pac-12? Panic.
2. Oregon Ducks: The one team that can match the Bruins in terms of talent. Dillon Brooks will fully return to form soon enough, and Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher don’t get enough credit for Oregon’s success. Solid core here only UCLA can match. Boy, can you wait for tonight’s battle or what?
3. Arizona Wildcats: With Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright out, Arizona’s rotation is reminiscent of 2015-16 Duke’s. Markkanen has been as good as advertised, but the Wildcats can’t win the Pac 12 without those two.
4. Southern California Trojans: Are they for real? Why not. I’m a big fan of Andy Enfield and how he’s turned this program around. They got three or four guys that can really score it, especially Jordan McLaughlin. They’ll make the tournament, but the memory foam pillow the Trojans call a non-conference schedule will prevent them from getting a high seed.
Work Left To Do
5. Cal Bears: Cal has played three NCAA Tourney-level teams, and lost to all of them. Offensively, they’re looking for answers offensively outside of Rabb and Bird. Charlie Moore has shown flashes of greatness. If he steps up more, I think Cal will be alright. This is the best defensive team in the conference, and they have the ceiling of a serious competitor for the Pac-12 title.
6. Utah Utes: Speaking of soft schedules, welcome the Utah Utes, who played every cupcake their side of the Mississippi River. They actually lost to one in San Francisco. Also, star Kyle Kuzma’s out with a sprained ankle. There’s good news, though: Newly eligible transfers Sedrick Barefield and David Collette looked really good in the four games they’ve played. Based on what I’ve seen so far, they check in below Cal, but I like the prospects of what this team looks like with Kuzma back. They’re my team to watch in this conference.
7. Colorado Buffaloes: Colorado has something that they can dangle over the heads of Pac-12 opponents: a non-conference win over a good team. (Envious gasp!) But despite the Xavier victory they’re really just another Pac-12 middle-dweller plagued by inconsistency that is capable of beating anybody if they put enough effort into it but has a long road ahead if they want to make the tournament.
Better Luck Next Year
8. Stanford Cardinal: Stanford’s ugly, hapless performances in their four losses says more about this team than they want it to. Reid Travis is the real deal, but it’s hard to love anyone else. Meh.
9. Arizona State Sun Devils: Arizona State is a whole lot of fun. Not only do they have a high-scoring offense, but the student section’s famous “Curtain Of Distraction” never fails to amuse. Unfortunately, Arizona State does not appear capable of more than an upset or two down the stretch.
10. Washington Huskies: They can’t defend. I mean, at all. It’s unbelievable how bad they are. But…. Markelle Fultz!
11. Oregon State Beavers: Oregon State has been a hot mess so far, as injuries have not been kind and they were in something of a transition year to start with. The embarrassing loss tally is six or seven too big for OSU to make anything out of this year, but things should get better when everyone gets healthy. They’ll finish somewhere from 9th to dead last in the Pac 12.
12. Washington State Cougars: It’s probably going to get ugly again, as this roster is essentially Josh Hawkinson and a bunch of warm bodies.
5 Games To Watch
- UCLA @ Oregon (Tonight, 9 PM ET, ESPN2)
- UCLA @ USC (Jan. 25, 11 PM ET, FS1)
- Arizona @ Oregon (Feb. 4, TBD)
- Oregon @ Cal (Feb. 22, 9 PM ET, ESPN2)
- UCLA @ Arizona (Feb. 25, TBD)