The Pac-12 announced its postseason awards on Monday, handing the Player of the Year award to California’s Jorge Gutierrez and the Coach of the Year to Washington’s Lorenzo Romar for the third time in his career. Gutierrez also claimed the Defensive Player of the Year, earning a spot on the All-Defensive team for the third consecutive season. Washington State’s Brock Motum is the no-brainer for Most Improved Player, while the Huskies’ Tony Wroten was the similarly obvious choice for Freshman of the Year. The All-Conference team was also announced, but at some point, somebody in the league office has got to come to some understanding that you put five players – not 10 – on your basketball All-Conference team. If you want to honor more than just five players, go ahead and name a second team, and even a third if you so choose.
Washington’s Terrence Ross was a strong contender for Player of the Year, and may or may not have been named the RTC Pac-12 POY (check back later today for our conference awards), but upon finding out that Gutierrez had won the award, he said he felt “snubbed.” Ross did congratulate the winner, but felt surprised that neither he nor teammate Wroten won the award. Wroten echoed Ross’ thoughts, saying that he expected his teammate to earn the honor, but said that the Huskies will use the perceived slight as motivation in the conference tournament.
Doug Haller, the Arizona State beat writer at The Arizona Republic, is on the very short list of the best beat writers in the conference, and on Monday he released a barrage of blog posts, giving his thoughts on the official Pac-12 awards, offering up his own picks for All-Pac-12 and some other honors, naming his All-Defensive team, and his All-Freshman team. Now, I certainly don’t agree with his pick of Tony Wroten as the POY and I’ve detailed my objections here in the past (refresher course: He’s not the best player on his team, he’s certainly not the go-to guy in the clutch on his team, his shot selection leaves much to be desired as does his actual shooting, and he turns the ball over too much), but while I would have had picked Tad Boyle as COY a week ago, I’ve shifted to the Dana Altman camp given Colorado’s season-ending slide. But other than that, everything else there looks pretty good; I particularly like the inclusion of USC’s Byron Wesley on his All-Freshman team because, as Haller notes, he’s probably improved more than any other conference freshman over the course of the season.
Reaction to last week’s Sports Illustrated story on the UCLA program continues to roll in. On Sunday, former USC coach Tim Floyd weighed in on Ben Howland’s side, saying that although he and Howland “weren’t close” and “didn’t exchange Christmas cards” (have to admit, I sorta miss Floyd – he’s sure got a way with words, don’t he?), he has great respect for his former adversary and that he is one of the three best coaches he’s ever coached against (with Eddie Sutton and former Colorado State and Fresno State coach Boyd Grant the other two). Check out the whole article though. The last line out of Floyd’s mouth is worth the effort. Elsewhere, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighed in on the state of the program as well, calling for the UCLA program to return to the “Wooden way,” something that is far easier said than done. Still, at the heart of his article, the call for Howland to show more interest in the development of his players off of the court should not fall on deaf ears.
Lastly, we talked about it yesterday in our Morning Five, but Arizona’s loss to Arizona State on Sunday is still reverberating throughout Wildcat world. Great line from Scott Terrell of the Tucson Citizen about how “It’s not so much that the Arizona Wildcats lost to Arizona State… Actually, that’s not true. It is that the Cats lost to ASU.” Given how bad the Sun Devils have been for the bulk of this season, he’s right. That result is perhaps the most shocking result of the entire conference schedule. We talked about some of the anomalies that occurred in that game yesterday (ASU’s 1.27 points per possession in that game was a serious outlier compared to their previous results), but Terrell adds a few more: ASU shoots 67% from the free throw line on the year, but shot 92% on Sunday; they hadn’t scored 87 points in a game in 26 months; and Arizona has held opponents to 40% field goal shooting this year, but allowed ASU to shoot 56% on Sunday. Worst of all for the Arizona faithful, the loss leaves the Wildcats needing to win the conference tournament in order to go dancing. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if the Sun Devils can use this win as a springboard for some success in the Pac-12 Tourney.
With conference play now over, we’ve got a couple of days here to look back on the regular season before we turn our sights on to postseason play. Today, we name our All-Pac-12 team, tomorrow we’ll hand out our postseason awards (Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, etc.), and then later tomorrow we’ll start looking forward to the Pac-12 Tournament.
G: Jared Cunningham, Jr, Oregon State (18.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.6 SPG): Cunningham goes in the book as the conference’s leading scorer this year, while also finishing as the runaway leader in steals. His numbers tailed off a bit as the season wore on, but Cunningham’s ability to get to the hoop and his ever-improving jump shot made him one of the toughest checks in the conference. Throw in the ability to make the spectacular play defensively, and Cunningham is one of the most well-rounded players in the conference.
Jared Cunningham Was A Potent Threat On Both Ends Of The Court (Dean Hare/AP)
G: Jorge Gutierrez, Sr, California (13.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.1 APG): Gutierrez may not be the most naturally gifted basketball player you’ll ever watch, but he certainly puts in plenty of extra work to try to make up the gap. Diving after loose balls, pestering his opponent on defense, and doing whatever is needed offensively may have earned Gutierrez plenty of jeers from opposing student sections, but it has also earned him the respect of basketball fans all up and down the West Coast.
Washingtonwrapped up at least a piece of the conference title on Thursday night, blowing out USC at the Galen Center by 22 points. The Trojans actually shot the ball pretty well, limited Washington’s field goal percentage and turned the ball over less than the Huskies, but Washington absolutely dominated on the glass on both ends of the floor, grabbing 51.4% of their misses and 90.6% of USC’s. Five different Huskies had seven rebounds or more while no Trojan had more than five. If Washington can take care of UCLA on Saturday, they will win the Pac-12 outright, and they can also back their way into the championship with a loss and a Stanford win over California on Sunday. Tony Wroten’s chances for the conference Player of the Year award took a hit with a two-for-13 shooting performance that also included four more turnovers, while Terrence Ross bounced back from a weak performance last weekend with 18 points and seven rebounds. USC’s Byron Wesley continued his strong play in defeat, setting a new career-high for the third straight game, with 23 points.
Meanwhile, in Eugene, Oregon went a long way towards clinching a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament by pouring on 54 second-half points in a come-from-behind victory over Colorado. The Ducks used a 35-18 run to open the second half to pull away from the Buffaloes, as seemingly everybody on the team got in on the act. E.J. Singler kick-started the run with six straight points, Carlos Emory chipped in a three-point play and a three-pointer later, Garrett Sim knocked down threes with abandon, and Devoe Joseph did a little of everything, including knocking down a key jumper after the final media timeout to staunch a Colorado run. With Utah coming up on Saturday, the Ducks are very much in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye, while the Buffaloes will need to win at Oregon State and get some help to avoid having to play on the opening day of the conference tourney.
In the wake of the controversy surrounding the UCLA program and Ben Howland, the current Bruin team weighed in pretty heavily last night, throttling Washington State early and often on the way to a 32-point victory. While the players downplayed the effect of Wednesday’s Sports Illustrated article (senior guard Lazeric Jones, for one, said he didn’t ever read it), their performance sure seemed like a statement. UCLA led by 19 at the half, then ran that lead out to 30 early in the second half. While nobody on the team thought the performance had anything to do with the article, David Wear said the team “stood together as a team and a family” and Joshua Smith said “We had to show we were the same guys who have worked hard, gone to class and done what Coach Howland told us.” The Bruins will get another chance to make a statement on Saturday, when they can play the spoiler in Washington’s bid for a conference title.
The final game on Thursday night was Oregon State’s ten-point win over Utah, the Beavers’ first win after five straight losses. Oregon State came out on fire in the first half, limiting the Utes to just 21.7% from the field on the way to a 36-15 lead at the break, but let off the gas a bit in the second half. Conference POY candidate Jared Cunningham had a fine, if understated, game, going for 17 points and six assists. If Oregon State can add another win on Saturday against Colorado, they could be on their way towards putting together some momentum for a possible conference tournament run.
Back to Westwood briefly, for another look at the aftermath of the George Dohrmann piece, as Thursday a couple very important Bruins came to the defense of Howland. Former National Player of the Year Marques Johnson, father of Josiah Johnson, who played under Howland, noted that while he had some frustrations with the way the coach handled his son, in the end he things he “did the right things”, while Johnson also brought a dose of perspective to the issue of college kids experimenting with drugs, noting that it is part of the “college atmosphere. Meanwhile, UCLA’s all-time leading scorer Don MacLean chipped in, noting that the head coach can’t always be around to police the players and that those guys need to show discipline and not let their social life get in the way of practice and performance in games.
The biggest on the court story this week was Colorado knocking off California on Sunday afternoon, leaving the Bears a game back in the loss column of conference leader Washington. The Huskies took care of their business last week, coming back from a 13-point deficit midway through the second half to knock off Washington State. As a result, a UW win tonight at USC (which seems almost a given – the Huskies will be a significant favorite) will earn them at least a share of the conference title. And if they back that up with a win at UCLA on Saturday, they’ll earn their second regular season conference title in four years. If they slip up in one of those games, the Golden Bears can force a tie by knocking off Stanford at Maples Pavilion Sunday in the final conference game of the regular season, and in that case, Cal would also earn the #1 seed in the conference tournament by virtue of their win at Washington in January.
Behind the leaders, there are three teams fighting for the two remaining first-round byes in the conference tournament; Arizona, Colorado and Oregon all sit with five conference losses. Arizona has an advantage over the others, however, in that they have only one remaining game – against lowly Arizona State on Sunday afternoon. Oregon and Colorado, meanwhile, will go a long way towards breaking their tie tonight, as the Ducks host the Buffaloes in Eugene.
While whichever of these three teams winds up as the #5 seed will have the opportunity to breeze through USC in the opening round game, the addition of an extra obstacle in the way prior to the Pac-12 quarterfinals will harm that team’s chances at running the table and coming away with the Pac-12’s automatic bid.
Arizona Took Care Of Business Against The Los Angeles Schools And Can Now Earn A First-Round Bye (Chris Morrison/US Presswire)
And that automatic bid will certainly be a very important thing for most teams in this conference. At this point, Cal looks like a pretty safe bet to earn an at-large bid, although they don’t want to press their luck with a loss at Stanford and a loss in the quarters of the conference tourney. They’ve got the best RPI in the conference (see all the numbers below) and they’ve got a couple of top 50 wins (both over Oregon, so take those with a grain of salt). While it looks like they’re safe, if they finish the season poorly, they’ll have no right to complain if they are left out of the eventual bracket.
Washington, meanwhile, seems to be in pretty good shape as well – right now at least. However, they’re towards the back of the bus right now and if a handful of teams come out of the woodwork to steal bids over the next couple of weeks, Washington’s margin for error could get mighty slim.
As for the rest of the bunch, there are some who continue to say that teams like Arizona and Colorado are right on the bubble, but looking at the numbers, they’d do well to just go ahead and win the Pac-12 Tournament if they have any real designs on an NCAA bid. Oregon’s got the best RPI numbers, but they’re 0-5 against top 50 teams. Colorado’s got a couple top 50 wins (over Oregon and Cal – unfortunately, if they beat Oregon this weekend, it will probably drop the Ducks out of the top 50 and take CU back to just 1-3 against the top 50), but they’ve also got four bad losses and an RPI that’s of no use either.
vs. RPI 1-25
vs. RPI 1-50
vs. RPI +100
So, really, the only chance I see for the Pac-12 to shoehorn three different teams into the bracket is this: (1) California and Washington win their final games of the regular season this weekend, (2) then they both take care of business in the quarterfinals, with one of them advancing to the Pac-12 final while the other loses in the semis, (3) whoever the opponent is in the Pac-12 final wins the championship, earning the automatic bid and (4) bid stealers are kept to a minimum and both Cal and Washington squeak into the field on Selection Sunday, along with the conference champion.
Lastly, one of the best college basketball reads every week is John Gasaway’s Tuesday Truths at Basketball Prospectus. Aside from giving some insights on the 14 best conferences in the nation, he lays out the margin between average points scored and average points allowed per possession, a good measure of a team’s overall strength, throwing out the luck factor.
While the eye test may tell you that Washington has been the best team in the conference, a look at the stats shows that they are only outscoring their opposition by 0.07 points per possession, while Cal is outscoring its opponents by double that, 0.14 points per possession (for comparison’s sake, Kentucky is outscoring its opponents by 0.25 points per possession – an absurdly good number). In fact, the Huskies are fifth in the conference using this metric, behind even UCLA. In fact, of Washington’s 13 conference wins, five came by four points or less, with another five where the margin was less than ten.
According to Ken Pomeroy, Washington has been the 29th luckiest team in the country (what a great time we live in, where luck can be accounted for by statistics). Long story short, the Huskies may go into the conference tournament as the regular season champion, but they need not necessarily be the favorite to win the automatic bid.
Tony Wroten Is Well On His Way To Earning Freshman Of The Year Honors, But Will He Take Down the POY As Well? (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)
Three picked Jared Cunningham, and then one each selected Terrence Ross, Devoe Joseph and Jorge Gutierrez. We’ve been down this road before, so I won’t beat a dead horse too much, but while Wroten’s traditional numbers look just fine (16.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.5 APG), just digging even a little bit deeper reveals some significant problems with his all around game: turnovers on 22% of his possessions, using far too many possessions in an inefficient manner, his insistence on continuing to shoot threes (poorly at that) and his poor field goal percentages.
Still, after last weekend, you can understand why some are still searching for somebody to throw their support behind. Going into last week, it looked like Gutierrez and Ross might be the favorites. So what did each player do in the second-to-last week of the year? Gutierrez went 0-for-7 from the field and failed to score in a loss at Colorado, while Ross fouled out in 21 minutes against Washington State and had as many turnovers (two) as points. Certainly the wrong time for both players to turn in their worst performances of the year, but their overall body of work still leave them as the top two choices for POY.
Coach of the Year Watch
I’ve long since conceded the fact that Tony Wroten will win Freshman of the Year, so we’ll skip that for the week and take a look at the COY race.
Looking at the same poll from ESPN, we see that five different coaches received at least one vote, with Tad Boyle leading the way with six votes, Mike Montgomery earning three, Sean Miller getting a couple and Lorenzo Romar and Dana Altman each earning a single vote.
First, before we get into the credentials for each coach, can we just recognize for a minute just how good a set of coaches the Pac-12 has? Any one of those coaches would be a seriously desirable candidate for just about any job in the country, which makes the struggles in this conference all the more puzzling. As for the award this year, it is hard to argue with Boyle. His team lost its four leading scorers from last season and was picked to finish around tenth in the league by most people. Instead, with two games remaining, they’re among the best teams in the conference.
It is somewhat surprising that Romar hasn’t received more consideration for this award, seeing as he had to replace four major senior contributors last season, lost senior leader Scott Suggs to an injury before the season, dealt with chemistry issues in the non-conference slate, and now has his team on the verge of a conference title. Any of the five deserve consideration for the award, but for my money, Boyle and Romar (at present in that order) are the leaders.
Lorenzo Romar Has His Huskies In First Place, But Is Getting No Love For Coach Of The Year (Getty Images)
There was only one change in our weekly power rankings this week, as USC finally (and rightfully) reclaimed the last spot in the conference from Utah after spending an inexplicable three weeks ranked 11th. The top of the conference is still California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado.
While we gave Washington our Team of the Week honors for the second straight week (and fourth time on the season), we continued our improbable streak of seemingly awarding a new Player of the Week every week. To this point, in 16 weeks, only one player (Jared Cunningham) has taken home our POTW honor more than once. This week, it was Kyle Fogg’s first chance earn our award. Similarly, in 16 weeks of handing out a Newcomer of the Week award, we’ve named 12 different players, with Tony Wroten earning it five times and Carlon Brown twice. This week, it was USC’s Byron Wesley.
Washington – In coming back from what was a 13-point deficit with just 11 minutes left, the Huskies not only managed to pull off a season sweep of Apple Cup rival Washington State, they also, combined with California’s loss on Sunday, vaulted themselves into sole ownership of first place in the Pac-12. While their win over WSU certainly wasn’t a thing of beauty, the Huskies managed to gut one out, overcoming Terrence Ross’ foul trouble and ineffectiveness to put it away down the stretch. Despite shooting just 62.2% from the line for the season, the Huskies shot made 78.9% of their 19 second-half free throws, including 58%-free-throw-shooter Tony Wroten knocking down seven of his nine attempts in the second half. With a road trip to the Los Angeles schools the last remaining hurdle on the Husky schedule, it looks like it comes down to this: beat UCLA at the Sports Arena on Saturday and claim the regular season conference title.
Kyle Fogg Is Wrapping Up His Arizona Career With His Best Basketball Yet (Chris Morrison/US Presswire)
Player of the Week
Kyle Fogg, Senior, Arizona – Fogg has been rock-steady in his four seasons in Tucson, but with his career rapidly coming to a close, he has begun showing a newly developing personality: glass-eating double-double machine. After going 130 games as a Wildcat without once grabbing 10 or more rebounds, in the past four games Fogg has recorded two double-doubles, two near-misses with nine rebounds and has averaged 15.8 points and ten rebounds per game over that stretch. This week it was 18 points and 10.5 rebounds per night in helping to orchestrate a home-sweep of the Los Angeles schools and keeping the Wildcats in line for a opening-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. He came to Tucson as a Lute Olson recruit, but never played a minute for the icon whose health forced him to retirement. But over the years, Fogg has become a fixture in Tucson. When the Wildcats eventually open up the Pac-12 Tournament, Fogg will tie Jason Gardner for most games played in Arizona basketball history and he ranks in the top ten in the school’s list for minutes played and three-pointers.
It doesn’t go down as a surprise of any kind, but Colorado’s win over California on Sunday afternoon certainly doesn’t lack in importance. The Buffaloes got off to a strong start and withstood some pushback from the Golden Bears to lead for the final 30 minutes of the game and knock Cal from their perch atop the conference standings. Colorado, meanwhile, kept themselves in the mix for one of the four first-round byes in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Buffaloes were led by Austin Dufault and Nate Tomlinson, who celebrated their Senior Day in style, as Dufault went for 15, while Tomlinson had 11, four assists, and four boards and had a major hand in throwing a wrench into the Cal backcourt. Jorge Gutierrez and Justin Cobbs were held to a combined three-of-18 from the floor Sunday night, and in both games against Colorado this season, that duo was just eight-of-44 (18.2%) from the field. Lost in all the lovey-dovey Senior Day celebrating was fellow Colorado senior Carlon Brown slumping on the bench and seemingly not all that pleased to watch freshmen Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker finish the game off. Maybe Tad Boyle is already sick of Brown’s act (it is his first year of eligibility in Boulder after transferring from Utah), but with important games still remaining for Colorado (not just their trip to Oregon next week, but the Pac-12 Tournament, which it seems like they will need to win in order to earn an NCAA Tournament invite), Boyle will have to find some way to get something out of Brown, who is just 22-of-76 from the field in the month of February.
The California loss leaves Washington all by its lonesome in first place in the conference. The Huskies needed a second-half comeback to knock off Apple Cup rivalWashington State on Saturday, and they earned that victory largely at the free throw line, not bad for a team in the bottom 10% of the nation in free throw percentage. The Huskies made ten of its final 12 free throw attempts while the Cougars hit just 17 of their 32 second half attempts from the charity stripe and U-Dub escaped with a four-point win. Tony Wroten led the way with 21 points (albeit on 6-18 from the field), while Terrence Ross, in his first game after being declared the Pac-12 POY favorite by yours truly, was limited to just 21 ineffective minutes by foul trouble – he was just one-of-five from the field with two points and three rebounds.
It’s been a long, rough season for Utah, with little talent and as a result, little to play for. But, give credit to head coach Larry Krystkowiakwho has kept the Utes scraping hard all season long, and give credit to his team, who the head man describes as “resilient.” It took until the middle of December for the Utes to win a game against Division I competition, and there have been two separate eight-game losing streaks, but Utah got back on the right side of the final score on Saturday, knocking off Stanford 58-57. Junior ChrisHines hit a game-winning three with 27 seconds left and Cardinal senior Josh Owens missed a potentially game-tying free throw with eight seconds, and the Utes escaped with just their sixth win of the year. Meanwhile, for a Stanford team that looked brilliant on Thursday in handing Colorado its first home loss in Pac-12 play, it is just the latest in a long line of uneven performances in conference play.
Normally, if there’s an Arizona/UCLA game being played on the last weekend in February, that’s the headliner in this conference. But, the fact is, as go the Bruins and the Wildcats, so goes the Pac-12. There have been more problems around the conference than just some ordinary teams in Westwood and Tucson, but you have to imagine that if these two stalwarts had lived up to their reputations, there would be a lot less jabbering about the weakness in the conference. As far as the game goes, the Wildcat seniors protected their Senior Day with Kyle Fogg leading the way. The senior guard has averaged at least 24 minutes per game every year of his career, but he is certainly wrapping up his eligibility in style. After going for his second double-double in three games against USC on Thurdsay (and the only two double-doubles of his career), Fogg came just one rebound shy of yet another double-double, but still wound up with 20 points and nine rebounds. The ‘Cats tried to give the game away down the stretch, missing four of six free throws in the final minute, but a Jerime Anderson jumper that could have sent the game to overtime was awry.
Elsewhere around the conference this weekend, the nightmare season for USC continued with a four-point loss at Arizona State, as the undersized and undermanned Trojans couldn’t deal with Sun Devil sophomore center Jordan Bachynski who had 19 points and nine boards. However, it was embattled point guard Chris Colvinwho iced the game, converting a three-point play with 19 seconds left to seal the win. Freshman guard Byron Wesley has come up big recently for USC, with new career-highs in each of his last two games, but there just isn’t enough help there for now. And, Sunday night, Oregon held off Oregon State in the 337th edition of the basketball version of the Civil War behind 25 points from Oregon senior guard Garrett Sim, whose parents are both Oregon State alumni.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
Last week at this time, we had five teams who were still serious contenders for the Pac-12 regular season title, all of them within a game of the conference lead. This week, the picture has cleared up considerably, but there is still plenty of intrigue out there. California and Washington both scored big wins over two of the other five contenders (Oregon and Arizona, respectively), in turn not only more or less knocking those teams out of the race for the title, but also cementing their status at the top of the heap. Colorado remains in the mix as well, a game and a half back of the co-leaders. The other component of the race at the top of the conference is the jostling for the #4 spot, which will earn the last first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. Oregon and Arizona are currently tied for the fourth spot, but the Ducks own the tiebreaker there on the basis of their earlier win at the McKale Center.
Washington's Win Over Arizona On Saturday Gave The Huskies Reason For Celebration (Elaine Thompson/AP)
What to Watch For
There is really only one big remaining matchup between teams at the top of the conference over the final two weeks of the season: California’s trip to Colorado on Sunday. Other than that, the Bears go on the road to Utah on Thursday before wrapping up their season with a trip to Stanford on the final day of the regular season.
Likewise, Washington will also be spending its last three games on the road, this week against Washington State and next week against USC and UCLA. Depsite the fact that all of those games are on the road, all of those are eminently winnable games for the co-leaders, with the Colorado/Cal game being the sole time when either Cal or Washington will likely not be favored. For the Buffaloes, however, it is going to be an uphill climb. Along with California, they also face Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State, with the latter two on the road – no pushovers anywhere among that group.
As it is, if the Pac-12 Tournament began with the current standings, this is what we’d be looking at. Certainly some pretty interesting semifinals, but my goodness is that Wednesday slate of games awful bad. The best game of the day is at noon and the Staples Center is virtually guaranteed to be whatever the opposite of “rocking” is that day.
Player of the Year Watch
There are a couple of questions here: 1) who is going to win the POTY award, and 2) who deserves to win the POTY award?
It’s the time of year when, more than anything else, you hear talk about the bubble. Who will be the last few teams in? Who will be left out? At present, Arizona is one of those teams who will likely be sweating it out come Selection Sunday, barring a run through the Pac-12 Tournament. But for Sean Miller and the Wildcats, they know that they can’t get caught up worrying about the bracketology, because their best bet to increase the attractiveness of their resume is to keep winning. For what it’s worth, Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket has the Wildcats in as a #12 seed, while our own Zach Hayes has them as the 69th team, just out of the field of 68.
Colorado is in much the same boat as the Wildcats, but they’ve got another goal in mind: just go ahead and win the Pac-12 regular season title. They’re a game behind Washington and California in the loss column, but they’ve got the Golden Bears coming into town this weekend, and they’ve yet to lose at home in the Pac-12. Last year at this time, the Buffaloes were in a similar spot, firmly on the bubble, but that team last year spent a lot of time trying to gauge where they were in relation to other bubble teams. This year they’re in striking distance of a conference title, and for now, that’s their goal.
Up in Washington, they’re in position for a possible Pac-12 championship as well, and for the time being, that is the only focus for guys like Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten. However, there is already speculation running rampant about the possibility that one or both of these players might be finishing up their college eligibility as we speak. In fact, during the Huskies’ win over Arizona on Saturday, Ross was treated to the “one more year!” chant from the student section, in reference to the thought that he could leave after his sophomore year. Both players would likely be first round draft picks should they enter the 2012 NBA Draft (Draft Express has Ross as the #16 pick, Wroten #27), but each could possibly inch into the lottery with another year of experience.
While the above teams have plenty to think about the rest of the season, at Arizona Statethere is already an eye toward next year. With guys like transfers Bo Barnes and Evan Gordon along with ineligible freshman point guard Jahii Carson practicing with the team, there is plenty of hope that the influx of talent will flip things for the Sun Devils next year. Those players, combined with bright spots amid the wreckage of this year, like freshman wing Jonathan Gilling, sophomore center Jordan Bachynski and junior team leader Trent Lockett, should give Sun Devil fans hope for next season. One thing is for sure, whatever happens next year for ASU, Herb Sendek will be the man on the sidelines.
At UCLA, it hasn’t been quite as bad as in Tempe, but it has certainly been a down year for the Bruins. They still hope to make some noise in the Pac-12 Tournament, but for guys like sophomore guard Tyler Lamb, there is also the quest to build consistency in preparation for the rest of his career. Lamb’s game against St. John’s on Saturday summed up just how well his talent is enmeshed with inconsistency. While he scored 18 points, grabbed six boards and handed out four assists, he also turned the ball over eight times, an absolute no-no. Whether the focus is on a run in the Pac-12 tourney or future success in Westwood, Lamb needs to become a more steady force for the Bruins.
With the schedule winding down, it’s a good time to start looking ahead to some of the postseason awards. For quite a while, there was a logjam in the race for Coach of the Year, but with the leaders of the conference now more clear, it looks like Colorado’s Tad Boyle and California’s Mike Montgomery have jumped out into the lead. The two teams meet Sunday in Boulder in a game that could go a long way toward determining the eventual winner, but both coaches have done a stellar job this year. For Boyle, his Colorado team was expected to finish near the bottom of the conference in its first year in the Pac-12; instead they’re just a game and a half back of the leaders. Meanwhile, Montgomery dealt with the aftermath of a successful procedure to treat bladder cancer prior to the start of the season and has since turned in another typically great job patching the holes in a Golden Bear team that now sits tied with Washington for first place.
Speaking of Washington, some Husky fans are still wondering whether head coach Lorenzo Romar has done a masterful job or a subpar job this year. There have been some bad losses for U-Dub this year (the blowout home loss to South Dakota State stands out, but big losses at Colorado and Oregon also fit the bill), but still the Huskies figure to finish the season with more than 20 wins for the fourth straight season and they could still possibly post a 15-3 record (if they win their final three conference games), potentially the best record in school history. And, given the fact that Romar has dealt with the loss of senior leader Scott Suggs prior to the season and has done a good job folding eight freshman into a roster, it appears from this angle that Romar has done just about as good of a job as he’s ever done to this point. However, reputations are earned in March, and the success of the Huskies in their remaining games may deliver the final verdict.
Washington’s players are still debating among themselves whether Aziz N’Diaye traveled on his phenomenal end-to-end blocked shot and dunk against Arizona on Saturday. See for yourself here. Sophomore guard C.J. Wilcox is in Sean Miller’s corner, thinking that the Husky big fella traveled on his way up court, but Romar and senior forward Darnell Gant think N’Diaye made a great, and legal, play. I tend to agree with Romar and Gant; it looks like N’Diaye threw the ball ahead before securing it, then controlled the ball and began his dribble. Regardless, just a terrific end-to-end play by the junior out of Senegal.
The Huskies next get on the court Thursday night at USC, and given that the Trojans have now lost 14 of their last 15, it is likely that Washington will skate through that game. However, despite the team’s struggles with injuries throughout the year, the team is still playing hard for head coach Kevin O’Neill. And, just as importantly, the players in the program are all in O’Neill’s court, supporting their coach despite calls from some SC fans for a new coach. Athletic director Pat Haden has made it pretty clear that O’Neill will be back next year, so it will be interesting to see how far the Trojans can bounce back up next year.
Bud Withers at the Seattle Timestakes a look ahead to next season’s Pac-12 possibilities, and sees better things on the horizon. For instance, while California will lose a couple important seniors, and Washington could see guys like Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross head to the NBA early, teams like Arizona, Colorado and Stanford are not only expected to return some quality pieces, but they have strong recruiting classes coming in. Likewise, UCLA sees reinforcements arrive next year, while teams like USC, Washington State and Oregon State could be ready to jump into the upper half of the conference.
The last time these two teams played in the regular season, the games were decided at the buzzer by great defensive plays. Last time out, it was Tony Wroten rejecting Josiah Turner at the buzzer (just to the 10:45 mark to check it out) and the time before it was Derrick Williams swatting Darnell Gant to save the game. So, can we expect more of the same this time out? Another hard-fought classic that comes right down to the wire? Don’t bet against it.
However, it is worth noting that in the previous matchup this season, Washington went into McKale Center and controlled the action for much of the game, jumping out to an early lead and later taking a ten-point lead into the final media timeout, before some sloppy play combined with some Solomon Hill heroics conspired to set up a wild final minute. The Wildcats had trouble keeping the Huskies off of the offensive glass in that first meeting (U-Dub grabbed over 41% of their offensive rebound opportunities), and they again struggled with turnovers, coughing it up 15 times, or an almost a quarter of all of their possessions. Sean Miller will no doubt want to see his team improve in both of those areas. But one spot where the Wildcats did excel in the previous game was in getting to the free throw line: they got to the line 29 times, made 21 of those attempts and outscored the Huskies by two touchdowns from the charity stripe. Getting to the line and earning easy points is almost assuredly another key to the ‘Cat gameplan.
Solomon Hill Almost Singlehandedly Kept Arizona In The Game In Their First Matchup With Washington (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
For the Huskies, they’ll need to find a better solution for Hill, who wound up with 28 points on a highly efficient 9-of-10 from the field and 8-of-9 from the line). They limited everybody else on the Arizona roster to just 12-of-40 shooting and a 32.5 eFG%, but Hill almost singlehandedly kept the ‘Cats around. Further, Hill went a long way towards putting the Huskies in foul trouble, drawing two fouls each on Terrence Ross and Darnell Gant. There’s no single great matchup on the Washington roster for Hill, but redshirt freshman Desmond Simmons could see a significant chunk of face-time with him.
With Oregon’s loss to California on Thursday night, we’re down to four teams sitting within one game in the loss column of first place in the conference. Depending on the outcome here on Saturday afternoon, we’ll either go a long way towards eliminating Arizona from the title hunt (in the event of a Washington win), or the race will tighten up even more, with California leading the way a game ahead of a pack of three other teams (if Arizona wins). Given all that is on the line for both teams, expect this one to be a knock-down, drag-out fight.