Pac-12 Conference Reset: How many teams go dancing?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

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

MIDSEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tra Holder, Arizona State

Having improved statistically in each of his first three seasons at Arizona State, Holder has made another major leap forward as a senior. Averaging 21.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, Holder is doing this while shooting 46.7 percent from the field, 45.8 percent from three and 83.1 percent from the foul line. It’s one thing to be given the green light to make plays, as is the case for Arizona State’s guards under head coach Bobby Hurley. It’s another to do so at a high level and help lead a team through non-conference play undefeated.

THE ALL PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • TRA HOLDER, ARIZONA STATE
  • ALLONZO TRIER, ARIZONA: For all the critiques of Trier following last season’s Sweet 16 exit, he’s been incredibly efficient as a junior. Trier’s averaging 21.2 points per game while shooting 56.2 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc.
  • AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA: This pick was a tough one, because Arizona State’s Shannon Evans II has a very good argument as well. However Holiday’s also performed well thus far, averaging 17.6 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.
  • DEANDRE AYTON, ARIZONA: To say that Ayton may be the toughest individual matchup in the Pac-12 would be a conservative statement. The 7-foot-1 freshman is averaging 19.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting 61.7 percent from the field.
  • REID TRAVIS, STANFORD: While the Cardinal have struggled thus far,
    going 6-7 in non-conference play, Travis has been one of the Pac-12’s most productive front court players. The redshirt junior is averaging 21.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and he’s shooting 52.7 percent from the field in doing so.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA:Arizona, Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Oregon
  • NIT: Utah, Washington
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON:Colorado, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington State, California
Tra Holder (David Becker/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. OFF-COURT ISSUES CHANGED THE EQUATION FOR MULTIPLE SCHOOLS: One had to have the feeling that this would be an interesting season in the Pac-12 dating back to late-September, as the still-ongoing FBI investigation saw two teams have assistant coaches arrested and later indicted (Arizona’s Emanuel Richardson and USC’s Tony Bland). Add in UCLA losing three freshmen due to their decision to shoplift while in China, and non-conference play has been an adventure to say the least.

While Arizona hasn’t lost a player due to the FBI investigation USC has, as versatile sophomore guard DeAnthony Melton continues to sit as the school looks into things. And UCLA’s rotation is three players lighter as Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will sit out the entire season and LiAngelo Ball will be playing professionally in Lithuania. For all this turmoil recent results suggest that each team should be OK, however. Arizona has won seven straight, USC won the Diamond Head Classic and UCLA picked up a win over Kentucky. But merely being “OK” may not equal making a deep run in March, which all three programs have the goal of doing.

2. CONSIDERED A TOURNAMENT TEAM BEFORE THE SEASON STARTED, ARIZONA STATE MAY BE EVEN MORE THAN THAT: There are only three undefeated teams in college basketball, and to the surprise of many the Sun Devils are in that class (Villanova and TCU being the others). Given the talent and experience back on the perimeter in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice, to see Bobby Hurley’s team as an NCAA tournament squad was not far-fetched. But thanks to the combination of holdovers and newcomers, the Sun Devils have the look of a team that can play deep into March.

Romello White has been an impact addition after sitting out last season, and the same can be said of fellow forward De’Quon Lake. Those two combined to average 24.2 points and 14.9 rebounds per game in non-conference play, and while his numbers may not jump off the page Vitaliy Shibel’s contributions should not be overlooked, either. Adding Mickey Mitchell — and eventually Kimani Lawrence — improves Arizona State’s front court depth. Lastly, we cannot forget to note the impact that freshman Remy Martin’s had on the perimeter. The energetic newcomer can be an absolute pest on the perimeter defensively, and he’s also averaging 9.9 points per game. If they can improve defensively and on the boards, Arizona State should (at minimum) contend in the Pac-12.

3. THERE’S CLEAR SEPARATION IN THE CONFERENCE PECKING ORDER: While there have been some surprising results produced by teams expected to finish in the bottom half of the conference, most notably Washington’s win over Kansas and Washington State winning the Wooden Legacy, there have also been a host of losses that would give one pause when considering whether or not to believe in those teams. As a result, entering conference play it appears as if there are five surefire NCAA tournament teams with the rest either being questionable or worse.

Washington State followed up the Wooden Legacy with losses to UC Davis, Idaho and UTEP, Oregon State has losses to Long Beach State and Kent State on its ledger, Colorado’s lost to Colorado State and San Diego, and both California and Stanford begin league play below .500. Washington may have the best shot of any of those teams of making a run at the NCAA tournament bubble, as none of its three losses (Providence, Virginia Tech and Gonzaga) would be considered “bad.” But the pickings are slim, which in addition to hurting the bottom of the Pac-12 could hurt bubble teams in search of quality wins in the months of February and March.

Deandre Ayton (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. ARIZONA STATE’S STAYING POWER: The Sun Devils’ 12-0 start to the season has certainly been impressive, with wins over Kansas and Xavier being the headliners. But for a program that last reached the NCAA tournament in 2014, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Arizona State will be able to sustain this run of form and at the very least contend in the Pac-12. As noted above there is some work to be done on the defensive end of the floor, as Arizona State is ranked 122nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per kenpom.com.

The biggest reason for those struggles: defensive rebounding, as Arizona State is rebounding just 68.6 percent of its opponents’ missed shots. That figure ranks 11th in the Pac-12, with Washington (67.4) being the only team that’s been worse. Mickey Mitchell, who has a personal defensive rebounding percentage of 23.1 in his limited time on the floor, should help in this regard. Addressing the rebounding issue could be the difference between going to the NCAA tournament and simply winning a game or playing deep into the month of March.

2. WILL DE’ANTHONY MELTON BE ALLOWED TO PLAY?: USC managed to rebound from its overtime loss to Princeton by winning the Diamond Head Classic, with tournament MVP Bennie Boatwright and sophomore guard Jonah Mathews both looking healthier after having been hampered by injuries prior to the Trojans’ trip to Hawaii. But this is a team that still misses the contributions of Melton, a versatile guard who can have an impact for this team on both ends of the court.

Defensively, Melton has both the size and athleticism to defend multiple positions on the perimeter. Offensively, he can operate with or without the basketball in his hands. Simply put, Melton can be a “mixing agent” for a team that really doesn’t have that kind of player at this point in time despite its wealth of talent. Will USC ultimately clear Melton to return to the court? And if that happens, how prepared will Melton be to have an impact once on the floor? USC has the tools to contend in the Pac-12 without Melton, but his return would certainly improve their chances of winning the league.

3. CAN OREGON INSERT ITSELF INTO THE CONFERENCE CONVERSATION?: Given the fact that Oregon lost six of its top seven scorers from last season’s Final Four team, it should come as no surprise that the current group of Ducks needed some time to adjust not only to Dana Altman’s system but to each other as well. Oregon’s field goal and three-point percentages are about where they were a season ago, with this year’s group shooting 47.9 percent from the field (48.0 last season) and 37.7 percent from three (38.0).

After going through a stretch in which it lost three of four games, Oregon has won five straight to wrap up non-conference play. While the win at Fresno State is the only result that will make an impression from an NCAA profile standpoint, it’s important to note that was a game the Ducks trailed by 12 early in the second half. Payton Pritchard has taken a step forward as a sophomore, and newcomers such as Elijah Brown and Troy Brown have looked more comfortable of late. There’s also Kenny Wooten, who’s elicited comparisons to Jordan Bell with his production defensively (3.2 bpg) while also being an effective finisher around the basket.

As part of the quintet of teams in the league most likely to go dancing, can Oregon be a Pac-12 title contender? If they continue to grow together, it’s certainly possible.

Aaron Holiday (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. ARIZONA WINS THE PAC-12 OUTRIGHT: The Wildcats did not play well at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but it’s important to remember that Rawle Alkins was out with a broken foot. Since the trip to the Bahamas the Wildcats have won seven straight, the last four with Alkins in the lineup. His return gives Arizona a power wing who can more than supplement what Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton bring to the table. And the supporting cast, most notably Dusan Ristic, has become more comfortable with their respective roles of late.

That being said, the offense isn’t the concern for Sean Miller which is a bit of a departure from seasons past. It’s the defense, partially a byproduct of have two players who are most effective at the center position (Ayton and Ristic) on the court at the same time for significant stretches of time. They’ve become more comfortable with each other defensively, which will be a key moving forward. If that continues to happen and Arizona gets better at defending the three, they’ve got the talent needed to win the Pac-12 title outright. And the prediction here is that this will happen.

2. WASHINGTON JUST MISSES OUT ON AN NCAA BID: There wasn’t much expected of the Huskies in the first season of Mike Hopkins’ tenure as head coach, but the Huskies have been a positive surprise in non-conference play. Of course there’s the win over Kansas in Kansas City, one of the league’s most impressive non-conference victories. And even though the Huskies had some close calls, none of their losses were particularly damaging. For that reason Washington enters conference play in better shape to potentially earn an NCAA bid than many anticipated back in October.

That all being said, even with the play of veterans such as Noah Dickerson, David Crisp and Mathysse Thybulle and freshman Jaylen Nowell, Washington’s struggles on the defensive end of the floor will be why this team lands in the NIT. Opponents are averaging nearly 76 points per game, and Washington is ranked in the two hundreds nationally in both effective field goal percentage defense (52.3; 223rd) and defensive rebounding percentage (67.4; 287th). Washington has the talent to be a middle of the pack team in the Pac-12, but if they’re to do what few expect and reach the NCAA tournament this team has to get better defensively.

3. SOMEONE FROM A TEAM IN THE BOTTOM HALF OF THE LEAGUE CONTENDS FOR PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: The pick for the Pac-12’s top played in non-conference play here is Arizona State’s Tra Holder, and one can find a host of worthy contenders from other top teams in the conference. Shannon Evans II, Allonzo Trier, DeAndre Ayton and Aaron Holiday are just some of the contenders from teams that at the very least should hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

While those are the teams that tend to produce Player of the Year winners, with voters generally preferring to reward team success, there are some options on teams that may not finish in the top half of the conference worth considering as well. Stanford’s Reid Travis and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle (18.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.2 apg) are two possibilities, and with the conference going with a 10-member first team at season’s end at bare minimum both should land on that list.