Making Sense Of The Tightly-Packed PAC at the Turn

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 3rd, 2016

Every Pac-12 team is now halfway through its conference schedule, and to say that this conference is tight is quite the understatement. There are currently five teams within a game of first place, and conference stalwarts Arizona and UCLA are not among that group. Let’s take a spin around the league and evaluate where the league stands as it makes the turn for the home stretch.

Legitimate Contenders For Regular Season Championship

Chris Boucher, Casey Benson And The Ducks Are Halfway Home To A Pac-12 Title (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Chris Boucher, Casey Benson And The Ducks Are Halfway Home To A Pac-12 Title (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Hey, this is easy, right? You just take those five teams sitting at 6-3 or better and boom, we’re done, right? No, that’s too easy. We’ve got to take a stand. So, let’s take a stand and name Oregon, Utah and USC as the biggest threats to take the title. The Ducks, conference leaders at 7-2, are the obvious one. I’m personally interested in bragging about the fact that I’ve had them as the conference favorite since I first looked at the league back in mid-summer, but Dana Altman’s got a combination of experience, upside, athleticism, intelligence, quickness and length that is the Platonic ideal of a college basketball team (little known fact: Plato was a huge hoop-head). As for Utah, it took some early lumps but has taken advantage of a lull in the schedule to reel off five straight wins. They’ve still got tough roadies ahead to the Oregon and Los Angeles schools, but Brandon Taylor is starting to knock in shots and there are few players in the conference who can handle Jakob Poeltl in the post. The final true contender is USC, and that isn’t a phrase that anybody expected to be written this February. But it’s for real. Andy Enfield’s squad is undeniably talented and beginning to figure out how to win. The Trojans’ schedule down the stretch is insane (vs. UCLA, at the Arizona schools, home against Utah and Colorado, at Cal and Stanford, finishing at home against the Oregon schools), but this team has already shown it can play with anybody in the league. Notably missing in this space is two-time defending champion Arizona. The Wildcats aren’t out of it at just two games back, but this year’s group just doesn’t measure up to the type of Wildcats we’ve grown accustomed to.

Player of the Year Standings

  1. Jakob Poeltl, SO, Utah – He’s the best player in the conference, even if his team from doesn’t ride him quite as hard as it should from time to time. He scores with ease in the paint, rebounds on both ends of the court, protects the rim, is great in defending the pick-and-roll, and delivers impressive screens. Best of all, his 43.3 perent free throw shooting of a year ago has jumped 27 percentage points.
  2. Gary Payton II, SR, Oregon State – Payton is both insane as well as a running, jumping human highlight film. But as long as the Beavers bump along below .500 in conference play on the way to the NIT, he probably can’t win Pac-12 POY.
  3. Josh Scott, SR, Colorado – The Buffaloes sit a game out of first and the senior center is a big reason why. On offense, he’s a post-game clinician. On the other end, he teams with Wesley Gordon to form an imposing front line.
  4. Dillon Brooks, SO, Oregon – If the Ducks can successfully finish their run at a conference title, somebody on the team is going to be a contender for this award. Brooks is the team’s top scorer and a clear leader, but on any given night, he might not be among the best three players on his own team.
  5. Andrew Andrews, SR, Washington – He’s the conference’s leading scorer on a team sitting within a game of first place. He’s been great in leading a group of youngsters to an overachieving season, but in a Pac-12 with lots of talent, nobody really thinks he’s the conference’s best player, do they?
Jakob Poeltl: The PAC's Best Big

Jakob Poeltl: The PAC’s Best Big (USA Today Sports)

Five More All-Conference Contenders

  1. Ryan Anderson, SR, Arizona
  2. Jaylen Brown, FR, California
  3. Jordan McLaughlin, SO, USC
  4. Tyler Dorsey, FR, Oregon
  5. Josh Hawkinson, JR, Washington State

Unofficial All-Man-Crush Team

  • Chris Boucher, SR, Oregon – Dunks, blocks, makes threes, boards. And then there’s the occasional holy-crap-where’d-that-come-from blow-by off the bounce. What’s not to love?
  • Katin Reinhardt, JR, USC – After what seemed like many years of hating his game, I now see Reinhardt as a guy who has become a good pupil, a good teammate and a great player. Also known as: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Katin Reinhardt.
  • Tra Holder, SO, Arizona State – Unstoppable off the bounce, becoming a better distributor by the game and dialing in his shot from long distance, Holder is in the conversation among the best point guards in the Pac.
Tra Holder Blowing By A Defender Is A Common Sight (Tony Avelar, AP)

Tra Holder Blowing By A Defender Is A Common Sight These Days. (Tony Avelar, AP)

  • Ivan Rabb, FR, California – Sure, he’s got a bit more finesse than power than you would like from a 6’11” guy, but he’s also got a polished offensive game and has shown the type of toughness in the paint that helps teams win.
  • Marquese Chriss, FR, Washington – Nobody knew what to expect from the Huskies before the season started, but Chriss’ athleticism, finishing ability and constant motor make him a nightmare to check on offense. Oh, and that Dejounte Murray character is pretty damn amazing too.

Coach of the Year Campaigns

  1. Andy Enfield, USC – After winning five Pac-12 games in his first two seasons, Enfield is putting it all together in his third. The track record shows consistent improvement across the roster and buy-in from the entire program. USC’s graph is pointing straight up.
  2. Dana Altman, Oregon – Anytime a team not named UCLA or Arizona is in the driver’s seat in conference play, that team’s coach has to be a candidate for Pac-12 COY honors. Altman is again doing a stellar job in Eugene, and the best is likely yet to come for the Ducks.
  3. Tad Boyle, Colorado – After suffering through a losing conference record last season for the first time in his Boulder career, Boyle has the Buffs back among the conference leaders this time around.
  4. Sean Miller, Arizona – He lost four starters from last year’s team, including three of those to the NBA. Kaleb Tarczewski missed eight games to an ankle injury. Allonzo Trier has been out with a broken hand for six games. And recruit Ray Smith has missed the entire season with a torn ACL. And yet the Wildcats have been a Top 25 fixture all season long, with their first four losses coming away from home by a combined 10 points (until Oregon beat them last week in Tucson). The Wildcats may not be having as much success as usual, but Miller is doing as good of a job on the sideline as ever.
  5. Johnny Dawkins, Stanford – The Cardinal are another team that has been decimated by graduation and injuries, and yet, somehow, Dawkins has kept them competitive all season long.

Game of the Year So Far

The Game of the First Half Came During the First Week of Conference Play (USA Today Images)

The Game of the First Half Came During the First Week of Conference Play (USA Today Images)

There are a bunch of candidates here, what with the quadruple-overtime special between USC and Arizona, a double-overtime barn-burner between UCLA and Washington, and yet another UCLA/Arizona classic that ended on a Bryce Alford game-winner in front of Russell Westbrook. But for my money, give me the massive Washington comeback against USC in an 85-possession-per-team game in Seattle. Without Julian Jacobs for the bulk of the second half and still in need of learning how to put away games on the road, the Trojans let the game slip away as much as the Huskies went out and took it. Either way, it made for classic early Sunday afternoon viewing. Plus, you look back on it now and you realize that the comeback is what kept the Huskies in the conference race, just as much as the collapse is what kept the Trojans from sitting at the top at the halfway mark.

Game to Look Forward To

Every night in this conference supplies compelling games, but I’m most interested in seeing Oregon take on a tough back half of the schedule to see what they can do. It starts this week with visits from mountain men Josh Scott and Jakob Poeltl, a pair of players who can do damage against Oregon’s smaller front line. A trip to the Bay Area the following week will give Jaylen Brown a crack at the Ducks in what should be a high-tempo affair. The Ducks’ revenge game against GPII and rival Oregon State follows, with a visit from the Washington schools turning it into a three-game home stand. But the trip to circle really comes during the final week of the regular season when the Ducks fly south to face the Los Angeles schools. The visit to UCLA is one thing, but on Saturday, March 5, the Ducks will head to the Galen Center on the final day of the regular season to face USC in a game that could decide the regular season title.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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