Two Pac-12 Teams Answering Questions and Two Others Raising ThemPosted by Andrew Murawa on January 8th, 2014
There were quite a few teams around the conference that, for whatever reason, we were unable to get a real peg on in non-conference play. Maybe the level of competition was low, or new guys were getting used to new roles, or injuries and suspensions changed the roster. But now that we’re into conference play, there is no longer anyplace to hide. After just a weekend of action, we’ve started to get a read on two teams that had previously proved inscrutable. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen a couple of teams that now have us more confused than ever. Below, we’ll take a look at all four of those squads with some of the explanations behind each.
Opening weekend of conference play was enlightening in these two cases.
- Utah – After the loss at Boise State in which the Utes looked good, you felt like you still didn’t really know this team. Soon afterward, there was their blowout win over BYU, which, to be honest, felt a little fluky, didn’t it? So we came into Pac-12 play maybe hoping that the Utes were going to be legitimate, but not really having anything to back that up. After an opening weekend home stand that finished with one in the good column and one in the bad, we’ve got to start getting used to the fact that the Utes are going to be a factor worth talking about (and worth watching) in the Pac-12. We knew about Jordan Loveridge, but it is becoming more and more apparent that Delon Wright is the “fill-in-your-hyperbole here” guy. Just last week, when national columnists were naming all-Pac-12 teams for the non-conference schedule, Wright was routinely overlooked. But this dude – for those of you who have still not made yourself acquainted with his game – is legit. He’s good enough that, when describing his game, it is easy to be torn between deciding whether to first mention his athleticism or his innate feel for the game. Throw in a full rotation that has nice bits and pieces most of the way down the bench – including in the coach’s seat – and, while we still want to see just how different the road Mr. Hyde is from the home Dr. Jekyll, it is about time to start taking these Utes seriously.
- California – Down Jabari Bird and Ricky Kreklow and heading across the Bay to face rival Stanford in their Pac-12 opener, the Golden Bears appeared to be walking into an ambush. But they’ve got a couple big weapons of their own that will keep this team competitive throughout the rest of the regular season. First, Mike Montgomery. You may have heard of him. He can coach a little. And against most of the coaches in this conference, he’ll provide his team with a mismatch in the coaching battle. The other is the ever-elusive rare breed in modern-day college basketball – the senior point guard, or Justin Cobbs, in this case. In his fifth year of college basketball and in his third season as a starter for Cal, he’s seen it all. So when he looks up at the under-four timeout and sees his team down in an unfriendly environment, he’s not going to be dissuaded. Late Thursday night, he took over the game by drilling step-back jumpers, getting to the line, and dropping dimes when needed. Monty’s genius will go a long way towards keeping Cal in a lot of games, but it may be up to Cobbs to put them over the top on the regular.
These teams, however, now have us more confused than ever.
- Washington – Just a week ago, as the Huskies were struggling to put away a bad Hartford team in their final non-conference game, we were ready to completely write off this team as a no-defense-playing, mildly entertaining, future double-digit seed in the conference tournament. Then they went off on what is arguably the toughest road trip in the conference this season – to the Arizona schools – and not only came away with a win over Arizona State, but they also gave the #1 team in the nation, Arizona, a good run as well. What was different? Well, for one thing, they played a little defense, limiting their opponents to 0.97 points per possession this week, down from the better than 1.06 they were allowing against generally weaker competition before. Part of that may be due to junior forward Desmond Simmons, the team’s best defensive player, rounding back into form after early season knee surgery. But there was just more life in general on the defensive end for this squad. We’ll see if this wears off as the excitement of the start of conference play ends, but for one weekend at least, the Huskies looked like something other than the worst team in the conference.
- Arizona State – For most of the schedule, the Sun Devils have done what they’re supposed to do. They’ve blown out teams like Idaho State and DePaul. They’ve handled home games like Marquette and Texas Tech. They even stole a nice road game against UNLV. But in their three losses – a neutral-site blowout to Creighton, a disaster against Miami, and their Pac-12 opening loss at home against Washington – they’ve looked like a completely different team. Certainly a lot of it is the fact that as Jahii Carson goes, so go the Sun Devils. Case in point, see the splits in three key stats for Carson below. So clearly, the goal for opposing defenses is to keep Carson off balance, pester him away from the hoop, make him shoot over long athletes, force him to give up the ball, and then deny the return pass. The problem is that, if this strategy continues to be effective, it remains to be seen how the Sun Devils can adapt. Running at least some of the offense through playmaker Jonathan Gilling is one possibility, but taking the ball out of the hands of your best player probably isn’t the best idea. Few teams will have success in getting Carson out of his groove, but when teams do, head coach Herb Sendek will need to find a way to mitigate the problems Carson will run into, especially as the level of competition begins to ascend.