Pac-12 Burning Questions: Improvement, Surprises and Disappointments

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 2nd, 2015

With conference play tipping off tonight, it’s time for our half-way edition of Burning Questions, where we’ve asked our panelists five different questions looking back and looking ahead. Adam Butler, Kevin Danna and Andrew Murawa offer up their opinions below on which teams and players are waxing and waning in the Pac-12.

Which team can improve the most between now and March?

  • Adam Butler: Maybe this is silly but I maintain it can still be Arizona. There have only been a handful of games in which everything has clicked for this team. I think the Wildcats are still figuring things out offensively and a part of that is in still trying to figure out their rotation. The urgency and impact of conference play will tighten that up and ensure that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is playing maximum minutes. I believe this will behoove Sean Miller’s team immensely.
While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Arizona Are Ranked In The Top Ten, There May Be Improvement Still On The Way (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Arizona Are Ranked In The Top 10, There May Be Improvement Still On The Way (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

  • Kevin Danna: It’s gotta be UCLA. They have so many talented freshmen (granted, not all of them are playing) that things are bound to eventually click for this group. The 39-point loss to Kentucky looked ugly, but hey, I’d rather lose by 39 to Kentucky than lose by three to Cal State Bakersfield.
  • Andrew Murawa: On the basis of new players improving alone, I’ll give the edge to Oregon. First, the Ducks’ only legitimate big man – 6’10” JuCo transfer Michael Chandler – is finally on the court for the first time this season. Meanwhile, freshmen Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks, Ahmaad Rorie and Casey Benson are getting more comfortable by the game and as they improve and pick up their weight, senior star Joseph Young won’t feel quite the same pressure to do everything. The Ducks have all the hallmarks of an NCAA Tournament-caliber squad.

Which player can improve the most between now and March?

  • AM: Similar to Butler’s answer in the first question, is it silly to think that Arizona’s Stanley Johnson – who is already averaging 14.5 PPG and 6.8 RPG – is barely scratching the surface of his talent, and yet it is true. As‘s Luke Winn points out, Johnson was hardly involved in the closing possessions of the Wildcats’ Christmas week loss to UNLV. No doubt Sean Miller will need to find a way to get his talented freshman (and for that matter Hollis-Jefferson) more involved in the half-court offense.
  • KD: Jordan McLaughlin of USC. Yeah, he already leads the team in scoring and distributing, but he’s doing so on just 40 percent from the field and 68 percent from the line (with respect to the shooting part). As a freshman, those percentages should only go north as he gets more comfortable at the collegiate level.
After Missing The Bulk Of Non-Conference With An Injury, Jordan Loveridge's Impact Upon His Return To The Utes Is A Big Question Mark

After Missing The Bulk Of Non-Conference With An Injury, Jordan Loveridge’s Impact Upon His Return To The Utes Is A Big Question Mark

  • AB: I’m going to take this question in a slightly different direction. Utah has played very well without all-Pac-12 performer Jordan Loveridge. Can his return mean a vast improvement on what’s already been a much-improved Utah team? I think his absence has allowed Utah to play more athletically on the wings, which is where Loveridge played before going down with a knee injury. I don’t think he’s a great fit at the three, but he’s no doubt a talented roster addition. Against some of the conference’s bigger teams (Arizona most notably), he’ll certainly be an asset. Ultimately, his return and presumed improvement now that he’s a season older will be critical for the Utes’ big picture success.

What is the biggest positive surprise (player or team) so far?

  • KD: Jakob Poeltl, by the sole fact that I had no idea who the hell he was before November and now I want him to marry my 22-year old cousin so I can get his big-man genes in my family.
  • AB: Jakob Poeltl is far and away the biggest surprise in the conference. Not only has he been the most impressive freshman (not to diminish the efforts of Stanley Johnson), but he’s impressed the nation with his running alley-oop in the first game of the season and then with a double-double in knocking off #8 Wichita State. Kid can play.
  • AM: I’m going with Washington and Robert Upshaw. Program-wise, Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies had become an afterthought in the Pac-12 for the past few years. They were fairly tough, but most seasons ended with them in the middle of the pack. This year, behind Upshaw’s dominant defense, the Huskies are in the mix at the top of the conference. And as for Upshaw himself? After getting run out of Fresno, he spent last season seemingly as a malcontent likely to leave Seattle before ever playing a possession. He’s instead become a positive force on the court and, by all accounts, a good teammate in the locker room.

What is the biggest disappointment (player or team) so far?

  • AB: Colorado and I can’t call out an individual. Sure, we had a sneak peak at this team in Dinwiddie’s absence last season and the Buffaloes weren’t very good. But where’s the improvement? Isn’t that what a summer of training and conditioning is for? The sophomores aren’t much better than they were last year and Askia Booker has essentially remained the same player. He ultimately needs a supporting cast beyond the terrific Josh Scott and no one has stepped up to help out the two veterans.
Tad Boyle And The Buffaloes Have Struggled Considerably This Season (Jeremy Papasso, AP Photo)

Tad Boyle And The Buffaloes Have Struggled Considerably This Season (Jeremy Papasso, AP Photo)

  • KD: Part of me wants to say Colorado, but this team was supremely mediocre after Dinwiddie’s injury last year, so this was at least somewhat expected. I’m going to go with UCLA. The Bruins can certainly improve over the course of the season but they have failed every major conference test they had this year and looked flat-out bad in a lot of those games.
  • AM: I’m gonna call out USC, and I’m going to call out myself for being a USC believer for some reason in the preseason. McLaughlin has been fine, but Katin Reinhardt is a disaster, seemingly intent on leaving another school’s fan base completely sick of him. And, here’s the dirty little secret that is going to continue to plague this program: Andy Enfield has done fine work on the recruiting trail but this guy couldn’t coach his way out of a paper bag at this point.

Come Selection Sunday, how many Pac-12 teams make the NCAA Tournament?

  • KD: I really only see 3 teams making it for sure — Arizona, Utah and Stanford. I’m not sold at all on Washington. I can see UCLA, Cal or Oregon sneaking in there, and I think one of those three will get in. So I will say four — Arizona, Utah, Stanford and… Cal.
  • AB: I always overestimate this question. Drew and I pushed for seven last year (and it was six). This year, however, I’m going with five and I think that might be too many. The locks are in Tucson, Seattle, and Salt Lake. From there, the remaining invites are in the balance. Colorado seems disinterested in acquiring one while I think Oregon, Stanford, Cal and UCLA have varying degrees of chances to dance.
  • AM: I’ll admit to being bad at this too, because I’m going six. Gimme Arizona, Utah, Washington, Stanford, Oregon and UCLA. I’m confident of the first two; I’m reluctantly trusting Washington; and barring a complete meltdown, the Cardinal’s win over Texas is going to pay big dividends, so those four are pretty solid. On the flip-side, Cal’s disaster against Cal State Bakersfield is going to be a weight on its NCAA Tourney chances all season long. As for UCLA and Oregon? Goodness, both of those teams have a lot of work to do (#110 and #120 in RPI, respectively), but neither team killed itself with bad non-conference losses, and both have talent that should mature in 2015.
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