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Pac-12 Basketball Preview: A Three-Team Race to the Top

December 31, 2021

Conference play resumes this week for Pac-12 men’s basketball team even as the coronavirus plays havoc with the schedule. Numerous games have been postponed and some rescheduled as the pandemic rages on. 

With fingers figuratively crossed, we offer a preview of the conference season. As do most forecasters, we see the 12 teams divided into three distinct categories. Three teams, Arizona, UCLA and USC have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the group. That they will finish 1,2,3 is virtually unanimous. The only debate is the order. A case can be made for any of the trio finishing in first place.

Then there are the middle six, a muddle of mediocrity. Any of them could emerge as an NCAA Tournament candidate. And there is a ninth-place team in there somewhere,

Oregon State, Washington and, unfortunately Cal, seem destined to fill the bottom three niches. The Bears have shown signs of life recently, but a big factor in that could be the calibre of opposition.

What follows is BearInsider’s preview of the Pac-12.

UCLA (8-1, 1-0, KenPom Ranking 8)

Comment: The pandemic has had a bigger impact on the Bruins than any other conference team. They haven’t played since Dec.11 and with early conference games already postponed, aren’t scheduled to take the court again until Jan. 6 at Stanford. Given the covid issues in the Cardinal program, that is no cinch to be played. Inactivity could make the Bruins vulnerable despite their talent level.

Mark Hoffman-- USA Today
Johnny Juzang

With six players and coach Mick Cronin having tested positive, the Bruins halted all basketball activity more than two weeks ago and only began practicing again on Monday. Even that was limited, with only six scholarship players available. Everyone is expected to be back by Sunday.

“There’s going to be people that come back on Sunday that I haven’t seen since Dec. 15,” Cronin told the Los Angeles Times, “so imagine how out of shape they’ll be. Fifteen days of nothing.”

Guard Johnny Juzang, a 6-7 junior, leads the Bruins in scoring at 16.56 ppg, closely followed by Jaime Jaquez, Jr. at 14.78. Senior swing Cody Riley, who has been out with knee problems, should be ready when the Bruins take the floor again.

Arizona (11-1, 1-0, 7)

Comment: The Wildcats have finally shed themselves of the stigma and repercussions of the renegade Sean Miller era. Tommy Lloyd is restoring the good vibes and squeaky clean reputation of the Lute Olson days. He has a good chance to eventually match Olson’s success.

With freshman Mathurin Benedict averaging 18.25 ppg, second in the conference, Arizona’s offense is the most prolific in the league at 89.5 With twin towers Christian Koloko (7-1) and Azulas Tubelis (6-11) from Lithuania protcting the rim. Arizona is also a force on defense. Guard Kerr Krisla has 62 assists and averages 5.17 per game, both top numbers in the league.

The Wildcats only loss was a 77-73 defeat on the road against Tennessee.

USC (12-0, 2-0, 18)

Comment: The Trojans are one of only five unbeaten teams in the nation at this writing. Of course, one way to stay unbeaten is to not play. The Trojans have been idle since Dec. 18. When they do come back though, they will give opponents plenty to deal with.

Last year’s All-Everything forward Evan Mobley, who led the team to an Elite Eight appearance, has left for the NBA. But his older brother Isaiah is still around and is averaging an even 15.0 ppg, fifth in the league.

He has plenty of help as four Trojans average double figures in scoring. 

Transfer Boogie Ellis from Memphis has been an instant hit, averaging 10.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Not only do the Trojans score, they are fourth in the country in KenPom two-point percentage defense (39.8) and 15th in defensive efficiency (89.7)

SC’s weakness is three throw shooting, the Trojans convert just 58.4 per cent of their foul shots. 

4. Oregon (0-2, 7-6, 58)

Comment: Don’t let the poor start fool you. Head coach Dana Altman is a bit slower this year in integrating his usual flock of newcomers. But when he does, the Ducks could make some trouble.

They gave top-ranked Baylor all it wanted in a 78-70 loss on Dec. 18. Writer Billy Spotz of Fan Nation, an astute observer, wrote that “The team played with more energy than they had previously shown, fighting for rebounds, playing harder on the defensive end (although this is still a weak point for the team, as they post a 100.4 defensive rating currently) and showing that they are capable of matching the offensive production of the top-flight teams in the nation.”

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Dana Altman

Will Richardson, the leading scorer at 12.69 ppg, is only 18th in the conference. However newcomers  Quincy Guerrier and De’Vion Harmon, seem to be getting the idea and each had his best scoring output last week. 

When senior Eric Williams,a 6-6 forward, regains his health, the Ducks will be at full strength. He averaged more than 14 points over a five-game stretch early in the year before being hampered with a leg injury. 

5. Colorado (9-3, 1-1,80)

Comment The Buffs have one of the better players in the league in forward Jabari Walker and premier defender in Eli Parquet. They are joined by what is billed as one of the top freshman classes in the nation.

So far, none of the newcomers has started a game, although guard K.J, Simpson plays about 20 minutes a game. Walker is the leading scorer at 13.3 points per game, His shooting percentage is dragged down by his dreadful 24.3 percent (9-for-37) from 3-point range. Junior Evan Battey provides stability in the front court.

The Buffs had hoped to make a national mark with their game against Kansas, but it was canceled because of covid. Maybe that was a good thing. The two best teams Colorado has played, UCLA and Tennessee, beat the Buffs by double digits.

6, Utah (8-5, 1-2, 75).

Common: New coach Craig Smith has faced a variety of issues, covid and otherwise, and still has a respectable record, even with that Thursday night loss to Oregon State. 

Branden Carlson, went into that game ninth in the league in scoring at 13.9 ppg, and the 7-0 center is an effective rim protector. He pulls down 6.1 rebounds and has 22 blocked shots. He missed the previous two games because of “health and safety protocols.”

Senior guard Both Gach adds 12.2 points and senior guard David Jenkins Jr. 11.9 points. Jenkins is in his first year at Utah after spending two seasons at South Dakota State and two at UNLV.

7. Stanford (8-4, 1-1, 89)

Comment: The Cardinal has been as hard-hit as anyone by covid. Stanford could not play in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic and had to pull out of this weekend’s scheduled game vs Cal for the same reason. There is no word on where things stand now.

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Freshman Harrison Ingram has been an instant success. He is averaging 12.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He just won his third consecutive Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award and fourth of the year

Jaiden Delaire, last year’s Most Improved Player in the conference, actually leads the team in scoring at 12.3 ppg. His 3-point buzzer beater was the difference in a win against Oregon. How is this for an esoteric stat: He has drawn the 64th most fouls in the nation. 

Sophomore guard Michael O’Connell leads the team in assists (3.5) and steals (1.2) per game.

8. Arizona State (5-7, 1-1, 95)

Comment: Expected to be a contender,  the Sun Devils have been derailed by injuries, most notably to Marcus Bagley. The forward, a preseason All-Conference choice, has been limited to three games by injuries. Arizona State has won three of the last four contests and freshman D.J. Horne leads the team in scoring with 13.3 points per games.

ASU’s roster is made up of many players that had not previously played together. Five of the six top contributors for the team were not with the Sun Devils in 2020.

“The priority will be to get some guys playing well that I had high hopes for offensively,.’” head coach Bobby Hurley said. The head coach specifically mentioned transfer Marreon Jackson, who is averaging 7.8 points on 27.4% shooting in over 27 minutes per game. Last season with Toledo, the guard scored 18.1 points per game on 40.3% shooting.

9. Washington State (8-5, 1-1, 48)

Comment: The Cougars raced to a 5-0 start, but have stumbled a bit since. Their five losses have been by a combined total of 19 points, so the Cougs have been competitive. They were scheduled to play Washington on Wednesday, but covid issues in the Cougars program caused the game to be postponed.

Guard Noah Williams, who got some all-conference attention in the preseason, is averaging just 12.8 ppg. Over Williams’ last four games he is 13 for 52 from the field (25 percent) and 4 of 17 from deep (23.5 percent). Cougars observers say his decision making hasn’t been crisp either, averaging 2.5 turnovers a game in that span as well. 

“Isaac (Bonton) usually had the number-one defender on him last year and I think (Noah’s) drawn more of that attention and I sometimes explain to him that less is more,” head coach Kyle Smith said.

10. Cal (8-5, 1-1, 106)

Comment:The Bears have won four straight. Are they getting better or was the schedule favorable? We will find out more Sunday.

11. Oregon State (3-10, 1-2, 149)

Comment: Maybe the Beavers are coming alive and can live up to their preseason hype. They made the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament last year but took themselves out of the national conversation with a ten-game losing streak. Now they have won two straight, including their upset win over Utah on Thursday night. They have been scoring just 67.17 points per game, but hung 88 on the Utes. The Beavers, who had just nine players available,  hit 11 of their first 15 shots and 20 of 32 overall. 

Warith Alatishe, a 6-7 forward who knows his way around underneath the basket, has not been able to match last year’s rebounding numbers. Jarod Lucas is a sharpshooting guard teams have to watch out for. He scored 25 Thursday night.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Terrell Brown

12. Washington (5-5, 0-0, 160)

Comment: Their record looks good at first glance until, but a check of the schedule shows the likes of Northern Arizona, George Mason, South Dakota State. It seems head coach Mike Hopkins drew up the list of opponents not get his team ready but to pad his resume. In his fifth year at the helm, he is wearing out his welcome in Seattle. He even managed to lose home games to Northern Illinois and Utah Valley. 

Despite having the conference’s leading scorer in transfer Terrell Brown (21.49 ppg) the Huskies struggle offensively. They are shooting just 39 percent from the floor,  Brown is just one of several seemingly talented newcomers, including Daejon Davis from Stanford. Hopkins has yet to get them to function smoothly as a unit. 

The Huskies already have had to postpone games against Arizona and UCLA. Given the way they are playing, maybe it’s not a bad thing. 


The Basketball Talent Drain

Discussion from...

Pac-12 Basketball Preview: A Three-Team Race to the Top

1,754 Views | 3 Replies | Last: 6 mo ago by PtownBear1
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Nice write up. Thanks!

Looks like we were fortunate to play OSU early. A lot of Pac-12 teams have been playing below their potential. The question is how long that will continue?
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Don't bother reading this lazy review. How can you write up 1-2 paragraphs for other teams based on distant knowledge and hearsay, then provide 2 sentences based on personal bias against the current coaching staff? Next time, use real game info and think a bit. Or go write on the farm.
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BearoutEast67 said:

Don't bother reading this lazy review. How can you write up 1-2 paragraphs for other teams based on distant knowledge and hearsay, then provide 2 sentences based on personal bias against the current coaching staff? Next time, use real game info and think a bit. Or go write on the farm.

I'm assuming this piece was intended to provide background on the other teams in the conference. This entire forum is about Cal basketball, so I don't see why they would need to summarize Cal's performance to date in the article.
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