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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.

No. 5 Xavier stumbles at Creighton, lose 70-54

Creighton's Cole Huff (13) and Toby Hegner, left, guard Xavier's Jalen Reynolds (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Mo Watson went for a career-high 32 points, seven boards and five assists as Creighton jumped out to an early 21-4 lead and never looked back, beating No. 5 Xavier, 70-54, in Omaha on Tuesday night.

 

It was a massive win for the Bluejays, who still have an outside shot at earning an at-large bid this season. (We wrote all about that here.)

As well as Creighton played, the bigger story here may actually be Xavier, who lost for just the third time this season; they had been the only top ten team with just two losses to their name.

The issue for the Musketeers tonight was two-fold, but they both are a symptom of what could be an issue down the road for this team: Xavier doesn’t really have a true point guard.

They certainly didn’t have anyone to stop Watson. By the second half, they had essentially asked Reynolds, who was playing the middle of their 1-3-1 zone to matchup with Watson. It was weird but was actually somewhat effective.

The Musketeers also started out ice cold from the floor, missing 11 of their first 13 shots, and those misses led to leak outs from Bluejays, who got layups and open threes in transition to build that 17 point lead. Once Xavier got behind, it turned into scramble mode for Xavier. They forced shots early in the clock and didn’t start pounding the ball into the paint until it was too late. What they needed was someone to be able to settle things, to ensure that offensive would get initiated and sets would get executed when they were able to get the lead down to single digits.

That 1-for-19 shooting performance from beyond the arc certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did the fact that they got just nine field goals all game from players not named James Farr or Jalen Reynolds. The most frustrating part for head coach Chris Mack? They had good shots. It wasn’t like Creighton took away everything that Xavier wanted to do.

The kids just had one of those nights where nothing went down.

Those happen.

And when you combine them with a total inability to contain the opposing team’s point guard, what you get is a 16 point loss on the road against a team that was desperate to get a good win.

Gill’s 16, ‘D’ lead No. 7 Virginia past Virginia Tech, 67-49

Lehigh Virginia Basketball
AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Anthony Gill scored 16 points and No. 7 Virginia turned the tables on state rival Virginia Tech with a 67-49 victory Tuesday night, the Cavaliers’ seventh straight.

Isaiah Wilkins added a career-best 14 points and Malcolm Brogdon had 12 for the Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Virginia avenged a 70-68 loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg on Jan. 4 in what rates as their worst performance of the season, and extended their winning streak at John Paul Jones Arena to 17 games.

Freshman Justin Robinson scored 16 points and classmate Chris Clarke had 11 in his first action for the Hokies (13-12, 5-7) since breaking his right foot in late December. Virginia Tech’s top two scorers, Zach LeDay (16.0 ppg) and Seth Allen (14.5), were limited to seven and six points, respectively, in part because of foul trouble.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team wasn’t ready to play when it lost to the Hokies earlier, but they have been surging of late and were focused from the outset. They were credited with assists and 14 of their first 15 baskets and forced 10 turnovers in the first half; they forced just eight in the last meeting of the teams.

For most of the game, the Hokies had more turnovers than field goals.

The Cavaliers led 32-20 at halftime and extended their advantage to 47-29 on a three-point play by Mike Tobey with 12:11 remaining. It capped an 11-4 run for Virginia, during which LeDay was whistled for his fourth foul. On Virginia’s next trip down court, it got the ball to Gill inside and LeDay basically backed off and let him score, quickly earning a spot on the bench.

The Cavaliers’ lead never dipped into single digits again.

The Hokies had just eight turnovers and outscored Virginia 26-6 off turnovers in their first meeting. This time, Virginia Tech had 10 turnovers by halftime and the Cavaliers had already turned them into 15 points. Virginia Tech finished with 16 field goals and 15 turnovers.

Already leading 9-6, Virginia got scoring from eight players in a 23-8 run that spanned about 8 1/2 minutes.

Gill started it with a dunk, Brogdon hit a 3-pointer, London Perrantes had a four-point play and Wilkins finished it with two free throws, giving the Cavaliers a 32-14 lead with 2:06 left in the half. They didn’t score again, and the Hokies closed within 32-20 by halftime.

TIP-INS

Virginia Tech: The Hokies shot 57.1 percent (15 of 26) from the field in the second half of their 70-68 victory against Virginia on Jan. 4. … Virginia Tech’s starting five totaled four points in the first half.

Virginia: The Cavaliers have held four consecutive opponents to 50 points or fewer.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech plays at No. 12 Miami next Wednesday.

Virginia plays at Duke on Saturday.

Follow Hank on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/hankkurzjr

The AP’s college basketball page: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org