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Conference Catchup: Arizona at the head of the class in Pac-12

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Pac-12 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Arizona 

This one is pretty simple, as Sean Miller’s Wildcats have the conference’s best resume to date and are ranked 3rd in the country. The debate as to whether or not Mark Lyons is a “true” point guard rages on, but the fact of the matter is that the senior is exactly what the Wildcats need from the position this season. Nick Johnson has been Arizona’s most consistent player this season and wings Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom have been factors as well. None of those three are “take charge” figures when it comes to scoring, meaning that the Wildcats need an attack-minded player like Lyons to run the show.

But there are two big questions for Arizona as they enter conference play: can they cut down on the turnovers, and will those three talented freshmen inside mature to the point where they can be consistent factors on both ends of the floor? Before tallying just eight turnovers in their win over San Diego State on Christmas night Arizona racked up at least 16 turnovers in three straight games, and there’s also that 27-turnover outing in their win over Southern Miss. If the turnovers are cut down and Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski continue to develop, Arizona can get to Atlanta.

Contenders: Colorado, Oregon and UCLA

The Wildcats are the clear favorites but that doesn’t mean there aren’t capable challengers. UCLA has the highly regarded freshmen, with Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad leading the way offensively. Senior Larry Drew II has been good at the point, but the Bruins are going to need to improve a great deal of the defensive end if they’re to win the Pac-12. Colorado has the league’s best rebounder in Andre Roberson and sophomores Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie are very good guards. The key for the Buffaloes: the progression of freshman Josh Scott inside. And Oregon has an experienced front court (Arsalan Kazemi, Tony Woods) and talented freshmen Dominic Artis, Ben Carter and Damyean Dotson.

Biggest surprise: Washington State 

Arizona State is an improved team thanks in large part to the addition of point guard Jahii Carson, but the Cougars being 9-4 heading into conference play is the biggest surprise. Why? Their lone point guard, Reggie Moore, was kicked off the team before the season began and left Ken Bone searching for answers. Mike Ladd and Royce Woolridge are combining to average 5.4 assists per game, and sophomore DaVonte Lacy is talented enough to play both on and off the basketball. Brock Motum leads the way for the Cougars, and with the middle of the Pac-12 being what it is maybe Washington State can win enough games to return to postseason play (reached the CBI finals last season).

Biggest disappointment: USC 

The talented transfers and returnees have yet to mesh, leaving the Trojans as the Pac-12’s only team below .500 (5-8). One issue for Kevin O’Neil’s team has been their play on the defensive end, as USC ranks 11th in the conference in field goal percentage defense and 12th in three-point percentage defense. And while their crosstown rivals have gotten away with their defensive issues USC hasn’t been as fortunate, due to the fact that they’re also having a hard time offensively (11th in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage and 9th in three-point percentage). Eric Wise is leading the way with an average of 11.4 points per game, but he’s the lone Trojan in double figures. There is talent but is USC capable of turning things around? Not too sure right now.

Player of the Year: F Brock Motum (Washington State) 

This one’s tough because the league’s best team (Arizona) has done it with balance as opposed to having one or two stars commanding games. That could open the door for a consistent veteran like Motum (or even a freshman like Muhammad) grabbing Player of the Year honors come season’s end. Averaging 19.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, Motum’s scored 14 points or more in each of Washington State’s games despite being the first line in every opponent’s scouting report. The Australian had a stretch of five straight games of 23 points or more beginning in late November, and given the Cougars’ scoring issues (DaVonte Lacy the only other player averaging double figures) Motum will need to continue to put up points.

Best freshman: Jahii Carson (Arizona State)  

Jordan Adams has been outstanding for UCLA and there are other freshmen who have played well during the non-conference portion of the schedule (Shabazz Muhammad’s been on a roll of late), but Carson is the pick here. Why? Herb Sendek tossing the freshman point guard the keys to the car has turned Arizona State into a team that enters Pac-12 play with an 11-2 record. Carson’s averaging 17.7 points, 5.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game, and with him running the show the Sun Devils have played at a tempo not seen at any point during the Sendek era in Tempe. His presence has led to improved play from the likes of Carrick Felix and Jordan Bachynski, which makes ASU a team more dangerous than anticipated during the preseason.

Three Predictions

– Four teams will reach the NCAA tournament. To say the least the Pac-12 has been a disappointment over the last three seasons in this regard, as the conference has received a grand total of eight bids. With Arizona leading the way, look for the Pac-12 to have four teams in the field of 68. Could the conference earn five bids? Stanford’s “worst” loss was a home defeat at the hands of Belmont, so they may be better positioned than either Cal or Oregon State when it comes to the non-conference resume.

– Arizona at UCLA on March 2 will determine the regular season champion. When the Bruins had their issues early in the season (and no one knew when Shabazz Muhammad would be cleared) there were many, myself included, who predicted doom for Ben Howland’s team. Obviously their work on the defensive end has to improve, but UCLA will play well enough in conference play to ensure that this Saturday night affair means a great deal to both teams.

– Shabazz Muhammad will win Pac-12 Rookie of the Year. That Carson pick is made to reflect what happened throughout the non-conference slate. But come March it will be the Bishop Gorman product who wins the hardware. Over his last four games Muhammad is averaging 25.0 points per game and shooting 54.5% from the field. The rust is gone, and given UCLA’s need for more scoring given their issues on the defensive end of the floor, Muhammad’s going to have plenty of chances to put up points.

Power Rankings (* – NCAA tournament team) 

1. Arizona *
2. Colorado *
3. Oregon *
4. UCLA*
5. Stanford
6. California
7. Arizona State
8. Oregon State
9. Washington
10. Washington State
11. Utah
12. USC

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III goes #BIFM, takes control of race

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 28:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks dribbles the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats during the game against at Rupp Arena on January 28, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: For my money, Mason solidified his standing as the National Player of the Year front runner, the guy whose award it is to lose, this week. He was the spark of a comeback from 14 points down in the final three minutes against No. 12 West Virginia and led the Jayhawks back from 12 points down – six in the final three minutes – at No. 9 Baylor on Saturday, the win that solidified what will very shortly be the 13th straight Big 12 title for Bill Self.

Against West Virginia, he had 24 points, five assists and four boards. Against Baylor, Mason played arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 23 points and eight assists in a game where the Jayhawks struggled to find offense for long stretches.

But more to the point, what Mason provides this team is more than the numbers. There’s a competitiveness and a toughness that he brings. At the risk of being too cliché for my own good, he’s a winner and a leader that will drag his teammates along with him even when they aren’t playing well. He’s not the best player on Kansas — that would be Josh Jackson — and he’s probably not even the most valuable — hello, Landen Lucas — but there is no one that is more responsible for the fact that Kansas has won nine of their 12 Big 12 wins by seven or fewer points and seven of those nine by less than five points.

Mason’s numbers are sensational — 20.3 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.2 rpg, 50.4 percent 3PT — but his numbers simply do not tell the whole story here.

#BIFM indeed.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Last week, I tried to make the point that Josh Hart’s Player of the Year bid was going to die on the vine because his season was devoid of moments. That happened before Frank Mason led Kansas to wins in two thrilling comebacks, both of which were games between top ten teams that were the most important matchups of that day. Hart? Played at the same time as Kansas-Baylor on Saturday. He’ll play at the same time as Louisville-North Carolina on Wednesday. Saturday’s matchup with No. 23 Creighton would’ve drawn every eyeball in the sport … if Mo Watson Jr. hadn’t gotten hurt.

He’s a terrific player having a career-year for an awesome team. I don’t think he’s going to be the Player of the Year.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan had one of his best games of the season, going for 24 points, 15 boards and five assists as the Boilermakers beat Michigan State on Saturday. I’m not sure what else there is to say about Swanigan at this point in the season. He’s the best big man in the country, and I’m not quite sure it’s all that close.

4. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball has changed the culture of the UCLA program, at least for this year, and he’s done it with his unselfishness and his ability to create offense out of nothing. But more important than that, since the comeback against Oregon, the one where UCLA game up 0.65 points-per-possession in the final 14 minutes of the game, the Bruins have allowed 0.915 PPP in wins over Oregon State and USC. They become a real title contender again when they are consistently buying in defensively like that.

5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss averaged 24 points and seven assists in two wins last week, including a 30-burger against San Francisco. He’s the star and the go-to-scorer of the only undefeated team in the country.

6. Luke Kennard, Duke
7. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
8. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: I wrote about the ACC Player of the Year race in my weekly takeaways column on Monday, but I wanted to elaborate on it.

With all due respect to Bonzie Colson, John Collins and everyone else in that league, I think there is a pretty clear-cut top three for the ACC Player of the Year race. And if I had to pick ACC Player of the Year, it would probably be Justin Jackson over Donovan Mitchell by a whisker — depending on what happens Wednesday night — with Luke Kennard in third.

But if we’re ranking for National Player of the Year, I think that Kennard is first, Jackson is behind him and Mitchell is third out of that group. Hell, having Mitchell ranked eighth overall is somewhat debatable; that’s how poor he played, at least compared to his ACC counterparts, before the start of ACC play.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball against Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard and Justin Jackson (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

9. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ ranks fifth in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings. My only issue with that: It doesn’t factor in that his foul shooting is a real problem, one that has, at times, forced him off the floor in crunch-time. That’s a pretty big concern for a guy that, in all other facets of the game, is criminally-underrated.

10. Josh Jackson, Kansas: What can’t Jackson do on a basketball court? He’s a pro shooting guard that is playing the four for Kansas. He blocks shots at the rim and gets steals on the perimeter. He’s lethal in transition. He’s a spot-up three-point shooter, he can make plays off the dribble and he’s a talented, albeit at times careless, passer. He’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s not afraid of a big moment or a big game.

It’s hard to argue against the fact that he’s been the best player for Kansas over the course of the last month or two. That’s the same Kansas team that Frank Mason III plays for.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso

No. 12 West Virginia takes down Texas

MORGANTOWN, WV - FEBRUARY 20:  Tarik Phillip #12 of the West Virginia Mountaineers forces a turnover against Jarrett Allen #31 of the Texas Longhorns  at the WVU Coliseum on February 20, 2017 in Morgantown, West Virginia.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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West Virginia raced out to a big lead and rode out a late Texas rally as the No. 12 Mountaineers captured a 77-62 home Big 12 win on Monday night.

During a weird night that featured West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins going to his knees after his defibrillator activated during a first-half timeout, the Mountaineers shot the ball well and held on for the win. Huggins went to his knees late in the first half as his team approached him on the floor during a timeout. He returned to the sidelines to finish the first half and coached the second half with no further incident.

As for the action on the floor, the Mountaineers (22-6, 10-5) shot 42 percent from three-point range as junior guard Jevon Carter continues a solid stretch of play as he finished with 24 points. Reserve wing Lamont West also provided a great boost off the bench for the Mountaineers by dropping in six three-pointers and finishing with 23 points in 21 minutes. Elijah Macon added 10 points as well for West Virginia, continuing his strong play over the last three games.

Texas (10-18, 4-11) tried to make a late push to get back in this one but they ultimately didn’t have enough after getting down double digits. Freshman center Jarrett Allen finished with a team-high 17 points while also throwing down a huge poster dunk.

Eric Davis Jr. (14 points), Kerwin Roach Jr. (13 points) and Andrew Jones (11 points) also finished in double-figures for the Longhorns but they were only 3-for-13 from three-point range.

West Virginia has two out of three on the road for the rest of the Big 12 schedule as they have to play at TCU, at Baylor and at home against Iowa State.

If the Mountaineers can take two of three they’ll be in great position for a potential top-four seed as long as they don’t bow out early in the Big 12 tournament.

Bacon leads No. 19 Florida State to rout of Boston College

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Dwayne Bacon had 16 points and 13 Florida State players had at least four points, helping the 19th-ranked Seminoles bounce back from two straight losses with a 104-72 victory over Boston College on Monday night.

Bacon went over the 1,000-point mark for his career on a 3-pointer early in the second half after going scoreless in last Saturday’s loss at Pittsburgh.

PJ Savoy added 15 points and the Seminoles’ bench accounted for 59 points. Jonathan Isaac (14 points) and Jarquez Smith (10) also scored in double figures, and FSU (22-6, 10-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) never trailed and led by 34 (75-41) six minutes into the second half.

Kai Bowman had 24 points and Jerome Robinson 21 for Boston College (9-19, 2-13), which has lost 11 straight and 13 of its last 14.

BIG PICTURE

Boston College: The Eagles have lost 16 straight conference road games, including eight by 20 points or more. The game against Florida State started a stretch when BC plays three of its final four regular season games on the road.

Florida State: The Seminoles have reached double-digit wins in conference play for the first time since going 12-4 in 2011-12. FSU won the ACC Tournament that same season, and it was also the last time it made the NCAA Tournament.

CENTURY MARK

This was the fifth time this season the Seminoles have scored 100 or more points in a game, which is the first time that has happened since 1992-93.

It is the third time they have had two or more 100-point games in ACC play and the first since 1992-93.

UP NEXT

Boston College: The Eagles host Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Hokies won the first game on Jan. 25, 85-79.

Florida State: The Seminoles travel to Clemson on Saturday. They beat the Tigers by 48 points (109-61) on Feb. 5.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/joereedy

VIDEO: Bob Huggins drops to knees, needs medical assistance during timeout

West Virginia's Teyvon Myers (0) talks with head coach Bob Huggins during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Western Carolina, Wednesday Dec. 7, 2016 in Charleston, W.Va. West Virginia won 90-37. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
(AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
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West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins needed some medical assistance during Monday night’s Big 12 home game against Texas as he went to one knee during a timeout late in the first half.

The 63-year-old Huggins grabbed a bit at his chest as he was on the floor on both knees as he went to meet his team on the floor during a timeout. Huggins regained his composure and finished up the first half before going to the locker room with his team. In one closeup shot, the camera appeared to catch Huggins mouthing over to Texas head coach Shaka Smart that he was okay to continue.

Huggins has previously had heart issues before as he suffered a heart attack in Sept. 2002 that nearly killed him. The first hospital Huggins went to after the heart attack was not equipped to handle the seriousness of his condition and he had to travel 15 miles via ambulance for emergency surgery.

According to ESPN’s Holly Rowe, Huggins said his defibrillator went off and he was having issues with it. Huggins said that it has since been corrected and he returned to coach in the second half. Mike Casazza of the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that West Virginia said that Huggins was, “lightheaded.”

Hopefully this sort of thing doesn’t happen again and Huggins can continue to coach like normal.