Checking In On… the Pac-12Posted by Brian Goodman on November 24th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
Problem Children – The overriding theme in the Pac-12 thus far this season has been problems: chemistry problems, behavioral problems, injury problems, and probably problems on top of those problems. (You know how when you repeat the same word a lot you realize how weird it sounds? Problem is a weird word.) The most high-profile of all these categories has been a handful of student-athletes around the conference creating problems for their teams out of thin air. The Reeves Nelson meltdown at UCLA has been the most high profile, with Jabari Brown’s premature defection from Oregon not far behind, but elsewhere around the conference there have been issues as well. At UCLA, senior point guard Jerime Anderson, a guy who should have been in a leadership position for this team, got busted for stealing a laptop this summer, pleading guilty to a couple misdemeanors and was suspended for two games (including one exhibition game) at the start of the year. On the same squad, ultra-talented big man Joshua Smith came back to the team this year ultra-big, looking as big or bigger than the 300+ pounds he showed he was unable to play at last year, then followed a loss to Loyola Marymount loss by making a fool of himself on Twitter. Over in Arizona, Sean Miller has had troubles of his own with freshmen Josiah Turner and Sidiki Johnson. Johnson is currently suspended, while Turner has displayed some chemistry problems of his own, causing him to be banished to the bench for a game by Miller. In short, aside from some bad basketball on the court, there have been a handful of players around the league making negative headlines off the court as well.
Problem Programs – Nobody really expected the Pac-12 to be a great conference this season, but the expectation was that it would be roughly as good as last year and primed for a big upswing next year with a batch of new highly regarded freshmen joining the talented youngsters currently littering conference rosters. Instead, through Tuesday night’s games, the conference had posted a combined 30-18 record, had just one remaining team (Stanford) still sporting an undefeated record and had a handful of teams in line for the title of worst BCS conference team. UCLA’s losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State have been well-documented, while USC’s 36-point disaster of a performance, in which enough bricks to build several wolf-proof houses were produced, is an excellent example of basketball at its ugliest. Nevertheless, as bad as UCLA and USC have been, one could easily envision both of those teams as middle-of-the-Pac contenders in the conference. That alone should tell you how bad the bottom of the conference is, but if further explanation is needed, look no further than Arizona State and Utah. The Sun Devils dropped a game at home to Pepperdine (a team that will challenge for the basement in the WCC) while Utah squeaked by NAIA also-ran San Diego Christian College (seriously, that’s a team that was 8-22 last year and lost 15 of its last 16 games) by three points before getting drilled by Boise State and losing to Montana State. As bad as the Pac-12 is, this Utah team is far and away the worst team in the conference.
Bright Spots: So much negativity. In this week of Thanksgiving, there have got to be happier things to talk about, right? For bright spots, look no further than Stanford and their sophomore point guard Aaron Bright. The Cardinal are the league’s last remaining undefeated team (although significant challenges await in the NIT Season Tip-Off), and Bright is a major reason why, taking over the point guard position and averages 13.8 points and 3.5 assists while putting up a 69.4 true shooting percentage. Teammate Josh Owens has been a stud up front for Johnny Dawkins as well, averaging 12.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in just 21 minutes a game. And the Cardinal are still waiting for sophomore Dwight Powell to get healthy after an ankle injury cost him the first two game, while freshman guard Chasson Randle is still adjusting to the game at the college level. Expect the Cardinal’s first loss to come sooner rather than later, but this still appears to be a quality team ready to take a big step forward.
Player of the Year Watch
It is early yet, but Jared Cunningham has established himself as the early frontrunner in the player of the year race. In the Legends Classic, Cunningham set a new career-high for himself not once, but twice, inched Oregon State over the finish line in overtime against Texas and led the Beavers to within a whisker of taking home the championship. He’s filling up the stat sheet (22.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.2 SPG, 2.0 APG) and getting to the line at an absurd rate (12.4 FTA per game), but still lacks the consistent perimeter jumper to be the complete package.
Settling back a bit early in the race are several other players. Both Terrence Ross (16.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and C.J. Wilcox (15.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 55% 3P%) at Washington are off to strong starts, while both Allen Crabbe (13.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG) and Jorge Gutierrez (13.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG. 3.6 APG) at Cal figure to be in the mix throughout the season. And then there’s Bright, a strong dark-horse candidate who has played well against limited competition in the early going. Further down the list are Colorado’s Andre Roberson (10.3 PPG, 11.0 RPG) and Arizona State’s Trent Lockett (17.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG), each of whom are hampered by teams expected to finish near the bottom of the pack.
Newcomer of the Year Watch
Carlon Brown has a bit of an unfair advantage here, as he has three years of experience under his belt after transferring in from Utah, but undeniably Brown has been the most effective new face around the conference, averaging 16.3 points per game and showing a vastly improved jumpshot (41.7% from three) since we last saw him in Utah in the 2009-10 season.
Elsewhere, the freshmen around the conference have been predictably up and down, but Nick Johnson at Arizona has stood out as not only a talented player, but a guy with the temperament to succeed right away. His numbers have been modest (9.6 PPG in 23.8 MPG, and just a 43.9 eFG%), but he’s shown a willingness to play within the confines of the offense and an ability to make big plays in crunch time.
At California, freshman David Kravish is probably no threat to seriously compete for FoTY in the conference, but he’s been a solid contributor for the Bears where they need the most help, along the frontline, averaging just over six points and rebounds per game.
Meanwhile, up in Washington, a couple of young guards have thrown their names in the hat. Tony Wroten Jr., is the more familiar name, and he’s been solid (12.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.5 APG) while he gets his feet underneath him, while DaVonte Lacy at Washington State is off to a strong start as sparkplug off the bench for the Cougars, with 12.3 points per game (to go with 3.3 APG, 2.7 RPG and 1.7 SPG) in just over 20 minutes of action nightly.
The term “power” rankings may be a misnomer for this conference this year, but there are certainly some teams better than others. We published our power rankings for the week on Monday, and, of course, our consensus #1 team lost by 39 points on Tuesday night. I have a feeling that may be the way it works this year in the Pac-12. Nevertheless, our current rankings represent just how jumbled the conference is, as UCLA, who was picked by the coaches as the preseason favorite just a few short weeks ago is now somehow ranked last in our power rankings (despite the fact that there’s not a chance that they are the worst team in the conference, is there?) while Stanford and Oregon State are tied for second. This stuff will sort itself out as the season goes on, but for now it is just really ugly.
Our weekly honors have a bit more zip to them (despite a depressing first paragraph for Pac-12 fans), if only because there is usually at least something to get excited about in the conference. But again, as the Reeves Nelson Sports Illustrated cover once and for all proved the SI Cover jinx, I’m beginning to think there might be a RTC Pac-12 jinx, as the night the Beavers were awarded the RTC Pac-12 Team of the Week, they dropped their first game of the season to Vanderbilt with RTC Pac-12 Player of the Week Jared Cunningham turning the ball over seven times and being held to just nine points. Nevertheless, as Rob Dauster pointed out, Cunningham did an excellent job defending one of the best shooters in the country, John Jenkins. Even if the offensive numbers didn’t look great for Cunningham, he still found a way to have a positive effect for his team.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, we’ll see four Pac-12 teams competing in tournament play across the country. Washington State takes part in the 76 Classic and could potentially meet a slate of teams like Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Villanova should everything break right giving them a very good chance to see where they stand. Arizona State and Utah, meanwhile, compete in the Old Spice Classic and the Battle 4 Atlantis, respectively, where both will be decided underdogs. Then there’s USC, competing in the Las Vegas Invitational Friday and Saturday nights. They open that tournament by facing UNLV in their home team, but despite the Trojans early struggles, there is little doubt that they’ll have a chance to ugly things up and hang with the Rebels, possibly even pulling the upset and earning a chance to get killed by North Carolina on Saturday. Oh joy.
The most interesting non-tournament game this coming week takes place on Tuesday when Arizona makes the trip to Las Cruces to meet an intriguing 3-0 New Mexico State team that has the size and aggressiveness to give the Wildcats trouble. The Aggies have already knocked off Mountain West favorite New Mexico, and are built around a frontline headlined by 6’5” power forward Wendell McKines, a versatile competitor who can give much bigger players trouble and will be sure to give the Wildcats a tough fight.