Pac-12 Weekend Round-Up: Arizona, Justin Cobbs, Hallice Cooke and More…Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 3rd, 2014
What a great sports weekend, am I right? There were 10 Pac-12 basketball games since last Wednesday and eight of them were decided by two possessions or fewer. The #1 team in the nation went down. Outside of the Pac-12, the #2 team survived by the skin of its teeth in overtime. Wichita State and San Diego State continued highly successful (and improbable) seasons. I’m sure there were even some sporting events that didn’t involve basketball, too. Maybe. But before we let the weekend get behind us, let’s spend some time to look back at several of the important things we learned in this week of Pac-12 basketball. Because if you hold a blink a beat too long, the next time you open your eyes, we’re going to be in the middle of conference tournaments. Yes, this season is getting away from us. It’s now February, and every conference school has finished half of its conference slate. And despite all that, we’ve still got more questions than ever.
- First, Arizona. The Wildcats took their first loss on Saturday night to Cal (and in the process assured that the 1972-73 UCLA squad will remain the last team to go through conference play without a loss), then took an even worse loss on Sunday when it was confirmed that sophomore power forward Brandon Ashley is done for the season with a broken foot. That doesn’t make things any rosier for the Wildcats’ long-term outlook, but there were more than a handful of things from Saturday night’s game that should give Arizona fans plenty of hope. First, as much as junior point guard T.J. McConnell has earned props for his ability to run an offense, contribute defensively and just intangible his way into Arizona fans’ hearts, he hadn’t displayed much of an ability to help out by putting the ball through the hoop. But in a couple of close recent games, he averaged 12 points per night and showed a willingness to get his own when it was appropriate. Hopefully fans across the nation are starting to see just how good this guy is. He’s like Aaron Craft-lite with perhaps a bit more offense.
- You know, Ashley’s foot wasn’t the only injury to bother the Wildcats on Saturday night, as Nick Johnson played through an injury to his wrist and struggled to a 1-of-14 night from the field. Credit to Johnson, however, because despite an inability to get his shot going, he was still a serious defensive force and helped chip in for the missing Ashley with eight boards. Johnson’s wrist injury doesn’t appear to be a long-term problem, but these pair of injuries do exhibit just how fragile any successful season is.
- Then there are the two big guys for the Wildcats. First, Kaleb Tarczewski had what was clearly the best game of his career. He scored 18 points, got to the line repeatedly (making all 12 of his attempts from the charity stripe) and showed an ability to knock down shots on post moves a bit farther away from the hoop than normal. Expect him to take on – and succeed – in a bigger offensive role going forward. Meanwhile, Aaron Gordon also looks ready to take on the additional responsibilities that will be given to him. On Saturday night, he struggled putting the ball in the hoop (4-of-14 from the field – his sixth straight game with double-figure field goal attempts), but he showed a keen ability to handle the rock and find his open teammates. More than once he grabbed a board and immediately led a fast break that resulted in a basket, and likewise, he also broke down a defender in the halfcourt multiple times to find a teammate for a score. Ashley will not be replaced in this lineup, but there is enough talent here that the other Wildcats could better use their own strengths.
- All of that, and we haven’t even spent a word talking about the team that won that game. For shame. The Golden Bears were on a three-game losing streak as they welcomed the #1 team in the country into Haas Pavilion. Veteran bigs Richard Solomon and David Kravish had recently spent time making guys like the Wear twins, Nikola Jovanovic and Omar Oraby look like lethal frontcourts. Justin Cobbs’ trick shot against Arizona State on Wednesday night likely cost them a game. And key players on the team had suddenly seemed averse to even pretending to play defense. So, a win over the #1 team in the nation? Nothing makes sense anymore. Kravish and Solomon were terrific (a combined 26 points on 13-of-23 from the field, 18 rebounds, six assists, six blocks and four steals), with Kravish’s late great block on Tarczewski possibly winding up being the difference
- And Justin Cobbs? Goodness. You don’t know how depressing it was to see a guy who had been a rock for his team all year long — one of the best players in the conference — get national attention for bricking that layup. But Cobbs didn’t let that linger and instead showed his true stripes in the clutch Saturday night, scoring his teams’ final 12 points, repeatedly getting good looks, and then knocking down that insane game-winner. Casual basketball fans: That’s the real Justin Cobbs.
A quick run-through the other key stops in the conference:
- UCLA had a chance to seal up its reputation as the second-best team in the conference against Oregon State on Sunday. And. Well. The Bruins did not. With the unfortunate turns of events surrounding the Arizona program, UCLA would have been a game back of the Wildcats halfway through the schedule if it could have taken care of business in Corvallis. Instead, the Bruins snoozed through the game and are now closer to the pack of five teams tied for fourth than they are to the Wildcats. Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine combined to shoot 1-of-16 from the field, launching bad shots on the regular, turning it over six times between them, and proving that, despite their accolades, each is still very much a work in progress. If there is a bright side to the debacle, there is reason to believe that the Bruins’ defense is actually really good now — perhaps even better than the offense that was so praised back in non-conference play.
- As for Oregon State, the Beavers didn’t play particularly well, but they fought and scrapped their way to the home win. At one point late in the game, UCLA outscored them 10-2 in a 45-second span to cut was an 11-point lead to just three. But the Beavers held on to win. Freshman Hallice Cooke continued his emergence as the second-best offensive player on the team and a great running mate for Roberto Nelson; and with the frontcourt rounding into shape, this team looks to be a tough out down the stretch.
- Stanford and Arizona State each continues to be hit-or-miss, but the good news for both programs is that their best players seem to be waking up for crunch time. Jahii Carson had his best week of the season — not only getting whatever look he wanted but finding good ones for his teammates — averaging 26.5 points and five assists per game against Cal and Stanford. Meanwhile, Dwight Powell broke out for the Cardinal, scoring 28 crucial points (along with five boards and five assists) to get his team the home win over the Sun Devils. His 19 field goal attempts were his most of the season, and he responded to the enhanced role by playing with passion, throwing down some dunks, knocking in a couple threes, and re-establishing his credentials as one of the handful of best players in the conference. Please Johnny Dawkins, free Dwight!
- Oregon? The Ducks now sit at 3-6 in the conference. They’ve beaten Utah in overtime along with Washington State and USC. They’ve lost every game they’ve played against a good team, and they’ve got a road trip to the Arizona schools coming up this weekend. They’ve also still got a road trip to the Los Angeles schools coming up soon after that. Let’s say they beat USC and lose those other three games. That equals nine losses, meaning that they’ve got to win every other game at home in conference play (vs. Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Arizona State, and Arizona) in order to get to .500. And, really, if they’re below .500 in conference play, they’re not getting to the Big Dance.
- That leaves Colorado to talk about. The Buffaloes got back on track with a four-point overtime win against Utah and are starting to cobble together a plan in the post-Dinwiddie era. Xavier Talton and Eli Stalzer each played 22 effective minutes against the Utes and are getting comfortable. Stalzer is more of a game manager, while Talton has shown the ability to score a bit (he had four big threes on Saturday). But freshman Jaron Hopkins turned in a disappearing act, committing three turnovers out of the gate and getting pulled on his way to a five-minute appearance. Truthfully though, it is Askia Booker who has taken over the point guard role, and Saturday was the first game where he combined his tendency to hunt his own shot with an ability to set teammates up. He had the ball in his hands a lot and dished seven dimes, but still found the time — and more importantly the right time — to break down his man and look for his own shot. Josh Scott, Wesley Gordon and Xavier Johnson are the main advantages this team still has, and Booker is starting to do a better job looking to get those three going. Still, every now and then with the shot clock running down, the Buffaloes are going to need Booker to be the ‘Ski we’ve come to know and, um, tolerate.