Pac-12 Burning Questions: Who Is The Favorite?Posted by AMurawa on December 29th, 2011
Each week through conference play, we’ll offer up a couple of different takes on the biggest question of the week in the Pac-12. This week’s topic: After non-conference play, who is the favorite to win the Pac-12 regular season title?
In a conference full of mediocre teams (at best), Oregon State is as good a pick as any to win the Pac-12. Led by the conference’s leading scorer in Jared Cunningham, the Beavers are off to a 10-2 start. Their only losses have come against Vanderbilt and Idaho, which is a major improvement from last season’s missteps against teams like Texas Southern, Utah Valley, and George Washington. But even though the Pac-12 is in a major down year, Oregon State will be competing against teams much more athletic than their past few opponents (Chicago State, Portland State, Howard, etc.). So the question is, can the Beavers match up physically with the Pac-12’s biggest and best teams?
Against the previous terrible opponents that we have already mentioned, the Beavers were able to use their three main big men (Joe Burton, Angus Brandt, and Devon Collier) as facilitators around the perimeter. Burton would play the role of “point-center”, dishing the ball around and occasionally driving down the lane when it was open. Brandt would hang out in the corner and drain threes until the defense realized he could shoot, and Collier would just roam around and rebound whenever a shot went up. Unfortunately for the trio, they are going to need to do a lot more work in the paint when they face big and strong Pac-12 teams.
That is why the Beaver bigs will be the key to a conference championship. Cunningham will knock down his jumpers and get the crowd going with a couple highlight-reel dunks while Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson will hit their shots and play solid defense. But the games are going to come down to rebounding and points in the paint. So far this season they have been terrible in those categories, but have gotten away with it because of the caliber of the opponent. If they improve, a possible NCAA bid and conference crown is in the picture. If they do not, the Beavers will be headed to another disappointing season in Corvallis.
I’ll be boring and pick the favorite, California. Despite the fact that the Golden Bears seem to be the popular pick to take home the regular season crown, they are a team not without faults. While they are stacked in the backcourt with returnees Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe, and Brandon Smith along with newcomer Justin Cobbs, a transfer from Minnesota who has been excellent in recent weeks, much like Oregon State, this team will need to have their relatively thin frontline withstand the rigors of conference play. The Bears expect to be without sophomore forward Richard Solomon, who is recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, for the first weekend of conference play and senior forward Harper Kamp has a history of knee problems. Freshman David Kravish has provided some strong depth up front early in his career, and should continue to improve as the season goes on. But if Cal can get Solomon healthy and pair him with Kamp for the bulk of conference play with Kravish providing depth, they make a formidable frontline, capable of hitting the glass with abandon and contributing some tough points in the paint.
The backcourt will be just fine. Gutierrez is one of the best defenders in the league and an effective offensive player, Crabbe is one of the purest three-point shooters in the conference (45% on 80 attempts in the first 13 games), and Smith is a solid distributor. Cobbs is the X-factor in the backcourt. He’s 15-23 from three on the season, a pace that nobody expects him to keep up, but he is also the Bears best creator in the backcourt, handing out assists on over 30% of his team’s baskets when he is on the floor. Throw in the fact that he is also nearly the equal of Gutierrez in defensive intensity and the Bears likely have the best backcourt in the conference.
Lastly, there’s head coach Mike Montgomery, who has won four Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards to go with five Pac-10 titles. All other things being equal, I’ll take Montgomery on the bench during a game over anybody else in the conference; he knows how to get the most out of his players, and he can gameplan an undermanned team into a game. In a tight conference race, Monty may be the tiebreaker.