PAC-12 CONFERENCE RESET: League balance should make for fun race

Associated Press
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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Pac-12.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jakob Poeltl, Utah

Poeltl made the decision to return to Salt Lake City for his sophomore season, and the strides he’s made in his skill set have been highly impressive. Poeltl’s currently averaging 17.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per contest for the Runnin’ Utes, shooting 71.2 percent from the field. His post moves have more polish, and he’s raised his foul shooting some 20 percentage points from a season ago (64.6 from 44.4 last season).

ALL PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah
  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State
  • Bryce Alford, UCLA
  • Ryan Anderson, Arizona
  • Josh Scott, Colorado

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. There may not be a dominant team, but the Pac-12 doesn’t lack for depth either: In each of the last two seasons Arizona has been the clear class of the conference, winning the regular season title by three games both years. Sean Miller’s team remains the favorite heading into conference play this week, but the gap is much smaller with multiple teams harboring hopes of grabbing the top spot. Oregon is finally approaching full strength health-wise, Utah has the conference’s best player to this point in Poeltl, and neither UCLA nor California lacks for talent. Add in solid starts from teams such as Colorado, Arizona State and Oregon State, and an early surprise in USC, and there’s a lot to choose from in the Pac-12.
  2. California needed time to figure out its rotation: With the return of Tyrone Wallace and the additions of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, it was assumed by many that the Golden Bears would simply hit the ground running and take the Pac-12 by storm. But there was the need for a change in the rotation, as Jabari Bird moved into the sixth man role as Kameron Rooks shook off the rust that came from missing all of last season with a torn ACL. While this may not be the “best five” lineup many envisioned for Cal, with Brown playing the four, the pieces seem to fit better with this setup. Heading into conference play on the heels of their most impressive win of the season, Cal is a team to keep an eye on in the Pac-12 race.
  3. UCLA is at its best when their improved big men see consistent touches: With five players averaging double figures, Steve Alford doesn’t lack for scoring options in Westwood. But at times his guards can get a bit shot happy, thus neglecting to get the ball inside, where UCLA has an advantage over most teams. That hasn’t occurred as often this season, and senior Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh have taken advantage. Parker’s (13.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg) raised his scoring average by two points from a season ago but his rebounding average is up by more than three boards per game. Welsh (12.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has built upon a summer spent winning gold with the United States U19 team at the FIBA World Championships. When the ball goes inside things tend to open up offensively for the Bruins, who have also received improved play from Isaac Hamilton.

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Can Utah get consistent play from the point guard position: The loss of Delon Wright was expected to be a big one; you don’t lose a player of his caliber and not feel some sort of impact. That being said, the guard play for the Runnin’ Utes has been inconsistent thus far. Junior college transfer Lorenzo Bonam is getting a little more comfortable in Larry Krystkowiak’s system, but there are still some strides to be made if he’s to lead this group to the top of the Pac-12. What’s of even greater importance is that they get Brandon Taylor, who has struggled from a consistency standpoint and is shooting just 35.9 percent from the field, back on track.
  2. Will the Kadeem Allen/Parker Jackson-Cartwright PG tandem hold up for Arizona: To this point in the season the two-headed attack has worked, with the notable exception of their loss to Providence at the DirecTV Wooden Legacy (Kris Dunn’s pretty doggone good). Allen’s been the more productive of the two scoring-wise and as a defender, but Jackson-Cartwright has done a better job of taking care of the basketball. Neither will fully replace T.J. McConnell because of what he gave the Wildcats from a leadership standpoint, but that’s OK given some of Arizona’s veterans at other positions. How well this two-man rotation works will have a major impact on Arizona’s Pac-12 title hopes.
  3. How long with it take Oregon to mesh its pieces together once healthy: The Ducks have been navigating injury issues since the season began, with Jordan Bell and Dylan Ennis missing the most time. Now that Ennis is back in the fold Oregon can begin to evaluate certain lineups in hopes of finding the best possible lineups to put on the floor. Casey Benson’s taken care of the ball at the point in Ennis’ absence, but the former Villanova guard gives the Ducks a point guard capable of either scoring or distributing the basketball.

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: UCLA has a 9-4 record, due in part to their lack of consistency. But the Bruins do have a win over Kentucky to their credit, and they’re no shame in losing to the likes of Kansas and North Carolina either. And the losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest aren’t crippling defeats either. Steve Alford’s team gets three of its first five Pac-12 games at home, and the two on the road (the Washington schools this week) are manageable.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: California entered this season with expectations of winning the Pac-12, and that goal remains on the table. But a look at their résumé reveals a lack of marquee wins when it comes to the NCAA tournament selection process. The Golden Bears do have home wins over Saint Mary’s and Davidson to their credit, but losing to San Diego State and missing out on a shot at West Virginia hurt, as did blown leads in the second half and overtime that led to their loss at Virginia. They’ll be fine, but their résumé means that Cal’s margin for error is smaller when it comes to getting an at-large bid.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: This is tough given the head coaching changes made by Pac-12 programs last spring. With that being the case the coach under pressure to get thing done in Pac-12 play may be Lorenzo Romar at Washington, even with the amount of success he’s enjoyed in Seattle. The Huskies haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2011, and with a roster loaded with newcomers ending that streak may prove difficult. What helps is the aforementioned roster, and the landing of an elite guard for next season in Markelle Fultz.

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Arizona: No Kaleb Tarczewski in recent weeks due to an ankle injury, but Dusan Ristic has raised his production with more playing time. Ryan Anderson’s been excellent, and Allonzo Trier’s been a key addition for Sean Miller.
  • 2. Oregon: The Ducks’ issues boil down to one word: injuries. Dylan Ennis is back, giving Dana Altman the full rotation he expected before the season began. Dylan Brooks has improved, and the addition of Chris Boucher has been key for a team that was without Jordan Bell for a significant portion of non-conference play.
  • 3. UCLA: Isaac Hamilton enters conference play on the best stretch of his college career, which is an important development for Steve Alford’s team. The key for the Bruins will be to continue to get Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh paint touches, which in turn opens things up for Hamilton and Bryce Alford.
  • 4. Utah: Poeltl’s been outstanding to this point in the season, but the Runnin’ Utes have to solidify their perimeter rotation. Brandon Taylor’s struggled for much of the season, and Lorenzo Bonam is still working to get fully comfortable in Larry Krystkowiak’s system. Get the guards going, and Utah can be a major player in the league race.
  • 5. California: The Golden Bears may have lost three of the biggest games on their schedule to date (San Diego State, Richmond and Virginia), but that isn’t a reason to give up on Cuonzo Martin’s team. Cal put forth its best performance of the season Monday night in a win over Davidson, and they’ve got a talented roster led by senior guard Tyrone Wallace.

NIT teams

  • 6. Colorado: Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes are off to a good start despite not having the injured Xavier Johnson. Josh Scott’s healthy and playing well in the post, and redshirt sophomore George King’s been the impact player many expected him to be. The combination of talent and Boyle’s coaching chops could push CU even higher up the pecking order.
  • 7. Arizona State: Bobby Hurley was successful in his first season at Buffalo in 2013-14, and he has a group capable of duplicating that. The keys for the Sun Devils: Tra Holder’s continued development, and when leading scorer and rebounder Savon Goodman can return to the floor.
  • 8. Oregon State: The Beavers may be a year away from having expectations of ending their tournament drought, but that does senior guard Gary Payton II no good. And Payton’s good enough to lead Wayne Tinkle’s team, which has some quality freshmen, to the brink.
  • 9. USC: Andy Enfield’s Trojans appeared to be “one year away,” but their performance in non-conference play has raised the team’s confidence. Freshman Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright have been solid contributors, but the biggest key has been a healthy Jordan McLaughlin.

Autobid or bust

  • 10. Stanford: Injuries have been the story for the Cardinal, who lost expected starting point guard Robert Cartwright for the season and Reid Travis being out for the time being as well. Balanced offensively, Johnny Dawkins will need Rosco Allen and Dorian Pickens to be even better than they have been of late.
  • 11. Washington: Young players such as Marquese Chriss have shown promise in non-conference play, but as expected of teams with many newcomers the consistency hasn’t been there. That’s likely to be an issue throughout conference play as well.
  • 12. Washington State: The Cougars have some talented players, most notably one of the Pac-12’s best front court players in junior Josh Hawkinson. But they’re the lone Pac-12 team outside of the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency, which could be an issue in conference play.