With the Arizona-San Diego State matchup on Christmas night living up to its billing, it reopened an old conversation. Who is the best team in the West? Below NBCSports.com takes a look at some contenders
No. 3 Arizona
The two biggest questions being asked of Sean Miller’s Wildcats are as follows: Can Mark Lyons be a reliable true point guard for the entire season? And how will the young Arizona front line hold up in the thick of Pac-12 play and into March?
Firstly, Lyons may not be a true point guard, but he is the team’s leading scorer and assist man. He ran into foul trouble against San Diego State, but he is a high-major caliber guard who can score the ball. The Wildcats aren’t “settling” by running Lyons at the point, but he is by far their best option and they wouldn’t be where they are today had he not transferred from Xavier in the offseason.
As for the youth, they’ll have their ups and downs and Tuesday night was a down. The freshman frontcourt trio of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, and Grant Jerrett combined to go 3-of-9 for nine points. There are few front lines larger and more athletic than Arizona’s, but the key will be about maturity and experience.
That leads into the third major point: Kevin Parrom. Remember what Darius Miller did at Kentucky last season, how he was the senior leader in a group of young players? Parrom is taking on the same role at Arizona, as is evidence by his 17-point performance on 7-of-11 from the floor Tuesday night in a win over San Diego State.
No. 13 Gonzaga
Gonzaga was rolling through the early part of the season until it ran into a, Illinois team that was composed and hot from the floor on Dec. 8. Since that loss, the Bulldogs have won two straight, one a 16-point win over Kansas State (which later beat No. 8 Florida) and another double-digit win over Campbell.
Adding Kelly Olynyk into the mix after his suspension has been huge for Gonzaga, as he has averaged 14.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Add him to frontcourt mate Elias Harris and there’s no wonder why the Bulldogs are third in the country in field goal percentage and in the Top 15 nationally in scoring.
No. 17 San Diego State
The most impressive part of San Diego State’s near-victory over Arizona is that they did it with only nine points from Jamaal Franklin. Not only does that speak to Franklin’s ability to affect the game in different ways (eight rebounds, six assists, one turnover), but it also highlights how underrated Chase Tapley has been for the Aztecs. His 19 points carried SDSU on Franklin’s off-night and showed his ability to carry a team when needed.
No. 20 UNLV
UNLV has been questioned about its youth as well, but Anthony Bennett has been the biggest answer so far for the Rebels. Not only has he been Freshman of the Year material, but he has also found his way into the National Player of the Year conversation. Dave Rice’s team took a hit when Mike Moser went down, but Pitt transfer Khem Birch has been an important player to back-fill the position. They will be battling with San Diego State for the Mountain West throughout conference play.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_