Checking In On… The Pac-12

Posted by AMurawa on February 16th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

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We have heard it all before. The Pac-12 is down. The Pac-12 is terrible. The Pac-12 is a one-bid league. The Pac-12 sucks. There’s some relative truth in some of those and in others, not so much, but one thing is for sure as we sit here with three weeks remaining the regular season and five teams within a game of the regular season title. The Pac-12 is tight. Going into this week, California and Washington are tied for first (with the Golden Bears holding the tiebreaker between the two teams on the strength of their win in Seattle a couple of weeks back), while Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona are all lurking just one game back. We have got a race.

California, Harper Kamp, Jorge Gutierrez

Cal, Currently In First Place, May Have The Best Chance At An At-Large Bid To The NCAA Tournament (George Nikitin/AP)

Aside from a couple of games between top five teams last Thursday night, when Oregon throttled Washington and Arizona took care of Colorado, every other team in the top grouping took care of business against lesser opponents. In fact, looking at the standings right now, the top six teams in the conference are all riding winning streaks while the bottom six are all headed in the wrong direction. At least it now appears that the top of the conference is gaining some separation from the bottom. California, Washington, and Oregon all saw their RPIs improve this week, while Colorado and Arizona saw their number drop a bit, but at least now all five of those teams are at least in the at-large conversation. Our own Zach Hayes has California and Arizona in the tournament in his latest bracket, while Colorado, Washington and Oregon are all among the first eight out. Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket has the Bears and the ‘Cats in as well, with the Huskies and Ducks among the first eight out. Andy Glockner, however, is a bit more pessimistic about the conference’s chances, putting just California in the field with Arizona among the first four out and teams like Seton Hall, North Carolina State, Northwestern, and Xavier all currently higher in the pecking order than the Pac-12 schools.

What to Watch For

With all of the above in mind, every game is going to be critical from here on out for those five teams at the top of the standings. They all need to not only beat up on teams 6-12, but it is time for a couple or three of them to differentiate themselves from the others. We thought last week that Washington might be on the verge of doing that, and then they went out and got blown out by Oregon. Meanwhile, California, and Arizona are the hot teams this week with the Golden Bears on a three-game streak and the Wildcats on a four-game run. Both will find significant tests awaiting them this week, but Cal has the benefit of facing their tests in the comfort of Haas Pavilion, against Oregon Thursday night and then Oregon State on Saturday night. Arizona has to go on the road, and they head to Washington State tomorrow night before a Saturday afternoon marquee matchup with Washington.

Washington, meanwhile, will also have to take care of business against tenth-place Arizona State on Thursday while Oregon travels to Stanford on Sunday afternoon. The Palo Alto trip could be a problem for the Ducks, especially coming off of the big game Thursday night. The other game involving one of the top five schools comes Saturday afternoon, when Colorado travels to Utah. The Buffaloes have won just two conference games on the road thus far, and those came against the teams currently holding down two of the bottom three spots in the standings; if they can handle the Utes, it will become three wins against the three bottom teams in the standings.

Player of the Year Watch

According to Doug Haller, Jorge Gutierrez is the clearly front runner for the Player of the Year at this point. The numbers may not be overwhelming (13.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.2 SPG, 49.3 eFG%, 26.8% assist rate), but he’s a senior, he’s the undisputed leader on a first-place team, and he does plenty of little things that may not show up in the box score that help his team earn a win.

Oregon State’s Jared Cunningham may be next in line, but despite his big week (56 pts, 13 rebs, seven three-pointers, four assists, four steals and a couple of blocks), the biggest takeaway from his week was his team’s record: 0-2. Cunningham is certainly in the discussion for best individual talent in the Pac-12,  but the point of the game is to get Ws, not fill stat sheets.

Jared Cunningham, Oregon State

Jared Cunningham Is Stuffing The Stat Sheet, But His Team's Failures May Hinder His Player of the Year Chances (Dean Hare/AP)

Tony Wroten was announced on Wednesday as one of five finalists for the Wayman Tisdale Award, which goes to the best freshman in the nation, but his credentials for the conference POTY are definitely slipping – and they probably weren’t all that strong to begin with. Last week he averaged just 13 points per game with nine turnovers while going 0-for-3 from deep and shooting just 36.4% from the field. He is a potentially transcendent talent, but he has plenty of work left to do. His teammate Terrence Ross also had his problems this week, scoring just eight points in the Oregon embarrassment (just his second single-digit scoring night of the year) and hitting just 33.3% from the field.

Other players still in the conversation for All-Pac-12 team include Washington State’s Brock Motum, Colorado’s Andre Roberson, and Oregon’s Devoe Joseph, but it would take a Herculean effort down the stretch for any of those guys to earn serious POTY consideration.

Hot Seat Watch

It’s an unpleasant fact of the game, but when teams fail to live up to expectations, the coaches take the blame, This year, there have been many teams who have disappointed their fan bases, but chief among them is probably Ben Howland at UCLA. Two years ago, the Bruins struggled through a 14-18 season that tested the patience of their supporters, but most wrote it off as a blip. This year’s team is not quite as bad as that one was, but still, UCLA fans are not used to missing the NCAA Tournament, an eventuality that will come to pass, barring a four-game run through the Pac-12 Tournament. There are plenty of calls for Howland’s head, especially among the more unstable members of the UCLA online community, but with an elite recruiting class coming in and three Final Four appearances in the not too distant past, the guess is that Howland gets another chance.

Across town, Kevin O’Neill and USC have struggled through an awful season, one of the worst in school history. But athletic director Pat Haden has made it clear that O’Neill is getting a pass for this year. The Trojans have been plagued with an awful run of injuries (five players, including four starters, have been lost for the season), and with a trio of transfer coming in next year, USC could be poised for a major bounce back.

Arizona State has also struggled through a disaster of a year, but there were some similarly extenuating circumstances for Herb Sendek. First, highly touted freshman point guard Jahii Carson dealt with an ongoing investigation into his academic record before being declared ineligible for this season, then Sendek had to shuffle players around to take his spot, and eventually suspensions and dismissals added another level of drama to the Sun Devil season. Throw in leading scorer Trent Lockett missing three weeks in the middle of the year due to injury, and Sendek also gets something of a pass. More importantly, aside from the pass, he got a big new contract extension, meaning it is highly unlikely that Sendek will be searching for a new home this summer.

There are three other coaches who could feel a bit of warmth under their seats: Ken Bone at Washington State, Johnny Dawkins at Stanford, and Craig Robinson at Oregon State. In the case of Dawkins and Robinson, they both started somewhat surprisingly strong before fading in conference play. They both have the major portions of their respective teams returning next season, so it would seem both would get a chance to build on the improvement that they’ve shown this year. Robinson, in particular, has built his program up from the depths at the end of the Jay John era, so he certainly deserves at least another year, but Dawkins has seen his team collapse in conference play in each of his four seasons. Still, Dawkins, like Sendek, just received a contract extension, so it would appear he’s locked in, at least for next year. Lastly, there’s Bone. He’s been under the microscope in Pullman since he was hired to replace Tony Bennett, and despite two straight winning seasons (and a 51-40 career record in almost three years now), there is some restlessness on the Palouse. Under Bennett, there were two NCAA Tournament appearances in three years; under Bone, nada. It seems odd, but of all the 12 coaches in the conference, Bone might be the only one who has to seriously worry about his job this season.

Ken Bone, Washington State

Despite A 51-40 Record At Washington State, Ken Bone's Seat May Be Getting Warm (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Power Rankings

Cal is on top for the fourth consecutive week, while Oregon becomes the third different team in as many weeks to take over the #2 spot in our power rankings. This marks just the second time this year that Oregon has been this far up the board. Meanwhile, Washington, officially tied for first in the league, continues to fail to get the respect of our voters – they are back to fourth.

Weekly Honors

It’s been that kind of year for the Pac-12. Every week it seems somebody new steps up to earn some accolades. This week, we had three new winners in each of our weekly awards. Surprisingly enough, California took home Team of the Week honors for the first time this season, earning the recognition with a road sweep of the Los Angeles schools that gave the Golden Bears their first season sweep of USC and UCLA since 1958-59. Our Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week awards were decidedly Ducky this week, with E.J. Singler taking down the POTW and JuCo transfer Carlos Emory snagging the NOTW honors.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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