Pac-12 Halfway Home Awards

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 4th, 2015

The calendar has been flipped to February. The Super Bowl is in the rearview mirror. And all Pac-12 teams have nine conference games in the books. It’s a nice, tidy point to recap what we’ve seen so far and take a brief look ahead as the college basketball regular season takes the main stage (really, who actually watches regular season NBA games?) and we begin the downhill run to March Madness. We’ll be reconvening in Vegas before we know it.

Player of the Midyear

He May Not Be The "Best" Player In The Conference, But He's Arguably The Most Important (Arizona Athletics)

He May Not Be the “Best” Player in the Conference, But He’s Arguably the Most Important One (Arizona Athletics)

A couple weeks back, my friend and colleague Adam Butler drew a line in the sand and argued that Stanford’s Chasson Randle and Utah’s Delon Wright were the only two options for Pac-12 Player of the Year. I read that post. I enjoyed that post. I disagreed – and continue to disagree – with that post. Don’t get me wrong. Both of those guys are very much in the conversation for the award. Both of those guys are awesome. Both of those guys are part of the reason why I love college hoops so much. And both of those guys currently take a back seat to Arizona’s T.J. McConnell in my POY calculus. Look, I get it: McConnell is not actually the best player in the Pac-12. He’s not even the best player on his team (I’d give that honor to either Rondae Hollis-Johnson or Stanley Johnson – or maybe Rondley Jeffer-Hollisson). In considering a national All-American team, I’d certainly consider Wright and Randle, while leaving McConnell’s name on the cutting room floor. But “Player of the Year”? That title is so open to interpretation. Here’s what I know: Arizona is the best team in the conference. Take away one of Jefferson, or Johnson, or Brandon Ashley or Kaleb Tarczewski, and that sentiment still stands. Take away McConnell and the whole darn thing is bound to fall apart. He is the catalyst for everything that Arizona does well. He gets the ball in the hands of the right players. He sets the defensive tone. And when the rest of the team is sleep-walking through a first half against the biggest contender to Arizona’s throne, there’s McConnell putting his team on his back and serving as a human alarm clock. He’s not the best player in his conference. He’s not the best player on his team. But at this midway point, he’s my Player of the Year front-runner.

Coach of the Midyear

Wayne Tinkle And Gary Payton II Have The Beavers Among The Nation's Most Pleasant Surprises (Greg Wahl-Stephens, AP)

Wayne Tinkle And Gary Payton II Have The Beavers Among The Nation’s Most Pleasant Surprises (Greg Wahl-Stephens, AP)

There are a lot of good candidates here. Ernie Kent has taken a sleepy little program at Washington State and breathed some life into it with exciting play and surprising wins. Dana Altman has dealt with controversy (some of it self-imposed) and a re-made roster and has his Ducks keeping their heads above water. Sean Miller is, as always, beyond reproach. And Larry Krystkowiak has reached the pinnacle of his complete overhaul of the Utah basketball program. And yet, none of those guys are even close my pick as the midyear coach. Back in the preseason, I pencil Sharpied Oregon State as the worst major conference team in college basketball this season. I viewed this team – scraping together a bench out of its intramural leagues – potentially challenging for the title of worst Pac-12 team ever. A five-win season? That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad outcome. And here the Beavers sit in early February tied for fourth place with five conference wins and a 14-7 overall record. Un-tinkling-believable. What Wayne Tinkle has done is among the most remarkable coaching jobs I’ve ever seen. He’s gotten improvement from every player across his roster. He’s got his team completely bought in and believing in itself. And he’s tailored his strategy to his team’s strengths both perfectly and improbably. I mean, can you believe that a team with Olaf Schaftenaar earning 77 percent of his team’s minutes while playing power forward is among the 18 best defensive teams in the country? Phenomenal.

Newcomer of the Midyear

The Mitten Has Been (USA Today Images)

The Mitten Has Been Great for Oregon State (USA Today Images)

Guys like Stanley Johnson, Kevon Looney and Jakob Poeltl are all not only contenders for this award but in the mix for NBA Draft Lottery contention. And, I’m not picking any of those guys here. Instead, we’re going with the only player in the conference who is among the top 15 in points, rebounds, assists, steal and blocked shots: Gary Payton II. Gimme a free agent draft and I would probably take any of those three big names over Oregon State’s “Mitten” (although he’s done enough to at least give me pause). But if you consider his importance to his team, his versatility and his emergence among the conference’s elite players, Payton is the choice. Just a reminder: This guy is a 6’3”, 175-pound guard. And while he checks off the expected numbers with his 5.3 percent steal rate (second in the nation), his 30 percent three-point shooting and his 20.5 percent assist rate, this is also a dude who is blocking 4.2 percent of his opponents two-point field goals while grabbing 7.8 percent of his team’s missed shots and 19.2 percent of his opponents’ missed shots. Translation for those who tune out when a bunch of numbers pop up: He’s a small dude by basketball standards, who is not only doing the types of things you expect small dudes to do, but is also doing the kinds of things that you hope your big men will do.

All-Conference First Team

  • G: Delon Wright, Utah
  • G: Chasson Randle, Stanford
  • G: Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • F: Stanley Johnson, Arizona
  • F: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

Yes, I get it. My midyear POY is not on this list. It makes perfect sense to me, even if I feel the need to explain it. To me, McConnell is the most important player in this league. This collection of five guys? They’re my all-star team. These are the guys I want to see take on the five best guys in every other conference in a single-elimination throwdown at Rucker Park in mid-June. And this list is still fluid. Joseph Young, DaVonte Lacy, Tyrone Wallace and Norman Powell want a piece of this action. It pains me to leave Josh Scott and his suspiciously spasmy back on the outside looking in as well, but as of right now, these are my guys.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G: T.J. McConnell, Arizona
  • G: Joseph Young, Oregon
  • G: Anthony Brown, Stanford
  • F: Josh Hawkinson, Washington State
  • C: Stefan Nastic, Stanford

 All-Defensive Team

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's Length, Athleticism And Tenacity Make Him The Pac-12's Most Feared Defender (John Miller, AP Photo)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s Length, Athleticism And Tenacity Make Him The Pac-12’s Most Feared Defender (John Miller, AP Photo)

  • G: Delon Wright, Utah
  • G: Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • G: Norman Powell, UCLA
  • F: Shaquielle McKissic, Arizona State
  • F: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

First, let me sit back and pour a little out for our dearly dismissed brother and former DPOY candidate Robert Upshaw, a guy whose presence and shot-swatting ability nearly single-handedly transformed Washington from a downright bad defensive team into an above-average one. Unfortunately, he’s also a guy whose off-court issues ultimately transformed those Huskies back into a bad defensive team. Still, these five guys are all versatile game-changing defensive players who can guard multiple positions from the perimeter to the low block with surprising ability. I mean, I’m leaving guys like McConnell and Oregon’s shot-blocking freshman phenom Jordan Bell on the outside looking in, but make no mistake: Hollis-Jefferson is a cut above the rest.

NCAA Tournament Invitees

We’ll get into this deeper in coming weeks, but right now it is not hard to envision a scenario in which only three conference teams are invited to the Big Dance. In fact, it is hard right now to piece together a way in which a team beyond Arizona, Utah and Stanford are chosen on Selection Sunday. One way it could happen is with a team getting hot in the Pac-12 Tournament and forcing its way in – teams like Oregon, UCLA, California and even Arizona State and Washington have enough offensive firepower to do so. But in terms of earning an at-large bid? Only UCLA and Oregon seem to have the desired combination of not-terrible RPI and talented upside to turn things around down the stretch. And quite frankly, both of those scenarios are the longest of long shots.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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