Pac-12 Report Card, Volume VIII: The Honor RollPosted by AMurawa on February 26th, 2013
This week, Professor Pac is a proud papa, as some of his most prized pupils have turned in a solid week of work. Of the four teams that earned As this week, three of them are within a game of the top of the conference and all four expect to be invited to the Big Dance.
California – A
At the end of the fourth week of conference play, the Golden Bears sat at 3-4 and four games off the pace set by then 7-0 Oregon Ducks. Since then, behind surprisingly balanced production, Cal has gone 7-1 and eked to within one game of the lead. This week they took a road trip to the Oregon schools and didn’t play particularly well, yet still managed to sneak out a pair of wins by a total of three points. And believe me, those two games were even closer than the tight scores could indicate. But, it’s two more wins to add onto the pile. And with a favorable schedule down the stretch, Mike Montgomery and crew are very much in the title hunt, no matter how improbable that may have seemed.
Focus on: Tyrone Wallace. Way back in November and December, if you had told me that the Golden Bears would wind up challenging for a Pac-12 title, I would have figured that the freshman out of Bakersfield had made a quantum leap somewhere around the turn of the calendar. But while Wallace has certainly had his moments this season, over the span of the current Cal five-game winning streak, his only game in double figures came on Saturday against Oregon State with 11. In fact, over the course of conference play, Wallace has shot just 33.8% from the field. While his jumper definitely lags behind other areas of his game, if that gets tightened up, he’s got a promising future.
Looking ahead: The closing stretch for the Bears is fairly manageable. This week they host Utah and Colorado at Haas Pavilion, with the latter of those games obviously being the more perilous, then they wrap up the season next Wednesday by hosting Stanford. We can totally see the Bears earning a sweep this week, then heading into their final game of the regular season looking for a win to keep up with a couple other Pac-12 teams, only to be tripped up by their Bay Area rival.
Arizona – A
The Wildcats hosted the Washington schools and came away with a pair of wins by an average of 17.5 points per game. Now that’s the type of week we’re looking for from a team that wants to be ranked in the top 10 and earn a spot on the one or two seed line next month. And still, there is work to be done, as head coach Sean Miller sees room for more consistent effort on the defensive end. The Wildcats certainly have the talent for a run deep into March, and maybe even April, but we want to continue to see them put away lesser opponents rather than flirt with disaster in the end game.
Focus on: Solomon Hill. We haven’t talked a whole lot about Hill here this season, if only because he’s done the types of things that we’ve come to expect from him – you know, everything. Put it this way – he’s second on his team in scoring, third in assists and rebounds, second in steals and three-pointers made and he leads the team in minutes played. And he’s steady, regularly ready to be penciled in for double-figure points, five boards, three assists and a couple threes over the course of minutes in the mid-30s. Which makes his five-point, two-rebound performance against Washington State confusing. His minutes were somewhat limited by foul trouble, but still in 29 minutes of action, Hill was often invisible.
Looking ahead: The Wildcats travel to USC tomorrow night, then on Saturday they’ll face UCLA in front of the ESPN GameDay crew in a match-up that’s been hyped since the schedules came out. With the ‘Cats and the Bruins deep in the race for the regular season title, expect the atmosphere in Pauley to be electric.
UCLA – A-
The Bruins had eight days off to prepare for USC. And for 20 minutes, wow, did it ever look like they prepared well. They took a 21-point lead to the halftime locker room, outshot the Trojans 71.4% to 35% eFG and had a hammer lock on the game. But, rather than coast to a lopsided 20-some point victory with five-plus minutes of garbage time, the Bruins let up in the second half, ran sloppy offense, and were loose with the ball, giving the Trojan fans reason to cheer for a short while before turning the juice back up and finishing them off. A 16-point road win is nothing to sneeze at, but this is a Bruins team that has gotten into trouble before easing off the gas with a big lead in the second half, so their failure to close strong gets a couple points deducted.
Focus on: Shabazz Muhammad. While the rest of his team ran up and down the court and played with great energy Sunday, Muhammad had maybe his worst game since at least the Oregon loss back in mid-January, scoring just 11 points, grabbing three boards and being largely invisible — although a case of pink-eye and some discomfort with his contacts played a role. The lack of scoring is one thing – we know he can and will continue to score – but we’d sure like to see Muhammad make some sort of impact elsewhere in the game, especially on a day when the team’s frontcourt is shorthanded. This guy should be grabbing more than three boards in a game just by accident.
Looking ahead: The Bruins wrap up their home schedule this week with their toughest pair of home games of the year, as Arizona State comes in tomorrow night and then Arizona on the weekend, all with Travis Wear highly questionable for play. While UCLA is right there just a half-game back of the conference leaders, you’ll excuse us if we wait to see this week’s results before we assess the Bruins’ chances. Home game or no, it is hard to see UCLA matching up well with Arizona’s frontline with just David Wear and Tony Parker up front.
Colorado – A-
In a short week with just one home game against one of the worst teams in the conference, you’d love to see a team that thinks of itself as a NCAA Tournament slam dunk turn in a strong sustained effort. Instead the Buffaloes led by just two at the half over Utah, turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of possessions and limped home to a 10-point win. Still, a win is a win is a win, and these Buffs, barring a total collapse, will be back in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.
Focus on: Xavier Talton. After a five-game stretch in the middle of January where the freshman guard played just five minutes, it looked like it would be another year until he played significant minutes. But in the past three weeks, Talton has seen his minutes take a bump, up to more than eight minutes a night. His production is still slim on a team where guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker dominate the offensive possessions, but he’s shown himself worthy of giving his more celebrated teammates a brief rest.
Looking ahead: It’s a challenging final four games for the Buffaloes, beginning with a road trip to the Bay Area this week. But given that they beat Stanford and Cal by an average of better than 15 points a game in Boulder, Colorado has plenty of confidence against these squads. And, for a team regarded as a poor road team, the Buffs actually have a two-game road winning streak going.